Blow ‘Em Down

Issue #131, Fifth Anniversary Double-Issue

From our brass band’s vantage point at the Gilgal plains, the glass dome was impenetrable. An immense central copper tube supported it, using a full city block for its foundation and generating energy for the whole town by absorbing the sun rays trapped within the glass. One skygate operated through the top of the dome, opening only to let merchant airships and their escorts in and out. The ships floated by so high, we could barely make out what was seared into their taut material: giant brands bearing profiles of the cityscape. The same image, embossed in a black pattern, circumnavigated the dome’s bottom edge. A single word in bold typeset appeared above each repetition:  Jericho.

They never sent so much as a volley our way. Who could blame them? We looked a sorry mess after forty years spent crossing the desert, but we were many. Forty days our parents had been told, but as it turned out, solar-powered chariots don’t work so well in the desert. The salt from the Red Sea air had rusted most of their steel frames within days of the crossing, leaving us with only a handful, and those were barely powerful enough to raise one person off the sand at a time. Then there was the pillar of smoke blocking out half the sky. Little sun meant less energy for our solar cells to regenerate. When the pillar lit up like a fireball that forgot to fly at night, we tried to mine the heat, but we never could get the calibrations right.

“The pillar will lead us into the Promised Land. It is Yahweh’s own guide.” That’s how Moses had explained it when it first appeared, before I was ever born. The old geezer had keeled over about a month ago. Paps laughed out loud when he heard, but his heart burst mid-guffaw, and he keeled over, too. Three days later, we crossed the Jordan.

“Our own Red Sea!” Lizbet had proclaimed as we walked over to dry land, the river water withdrawing as our sandals smacked the muddy ground. That girl was a looker, ample breasts hiding behind a lacy chemise, a thin vest draping over it. The Promised Land was meant for us young folks, she told me that night, resting her blonde hair against my shoulder, goggles shucked up on her head. Goggles were one of the few things we’d carried out of Egypt that had proven useful on the march. We didn’t need them to block out wind when we had no airships to ride, but it turned out they work just as well for keeping eyes safe in a sandstorm. Not that I’d have known the difference. Sitting outside Jericho’s dome was the closest I’d ever been to an airship. In the wilderness, they were mere specks passing us way up high, distant and pale fireflies at night. The airships couldn’t get closer with that pillar of fire smoking. Everything I knew about them, I had learned from our parents’ and grandparents’ stories. They were all gone by then, the people and the stories.

I supposed Lizbet was right, it was our time, but I still missed Paps. On a leather strap around my neck, I kept two sets of gears that had been embedded into my parents’ upper arms when they were slaves. All the old folks had them. The gears latched into their skin with fine teeth except for an exposed raised keyhole. If they misbehaved, an Egyptian overseer inserted a key into the hole and gave those gears a sharp twist, stretching the skin tighter. One of the first things Moses did was tell our parents how to dig the gears out and disinfect the cavities left behind using water we had sanctified.  I couldn’t imagine living like that. The only thing that got under my skin was all the rules old Moses, and now Joshua, inflicted on us.              

I had my doubts Joshua knew where we were going at all. The Promised Land would have felt a lot more promising if it hadn’t taken forty years to get there. Or if the first city we encountered hadn’t been locked up tighter than the Ark of the Covenant. That was near the center of camp, floating on a flatbed chariot that hovered lower and lower over the sand each day—like I said, it was hard to keep those solar cells full.

Despite Moses’s claim that Canaan was overflowing with milk and honey, our scanners hadn’t registered a blip of either, according to the Dans. Those guys were our tech specialists, or at least they would have been if we had more than a dozen sun cells left, enough to run the scanners and those few chariots that hadn’t rusted away to nothing. Most of the machinery that we’d dragged out of Egypt, I’d never seen run. No doubt those airship merchants laughed when flying over our abandoned, half-buried-in-sand gadgets, an endless trail of hermit crab shells leading all the way back to Thebes. We didn’t bother with much but our sandals, clothes, and goggles anymore, though we all had a few things we carried anyhow. I had my horn, Lizbet had her grand mam’s cameo brooch, and probably a thousand of us had our parents’ slave gears stashed somewhere.

It was Joshua who called our band, the Parched Priests, together for a meeting. There were seven of us, mostly Levites: two horns, one sax, two trumpets, one drum, and that triangle player from the Ashers—I don’t think I ever heard her speak in anything but chimes. We had practiced nearly every night for a decade. The band used to be bigger, but taking care of instruments in the desert is only a task for the devoted.

Joshua blathered on again about needing to give Yahweh the glory before Yahweh gave us Jericho, but I’d had about enough of that talk in my lifetime. Watching the electricity spark up the copper rod through the glass was driving me crazy. All my life, I’d wanted to see an icebox, have one drink that quenched my thirst, and I was certain that in that town, I’d find it.

“Look, I can blow Hot ‘N Horny here all day,” I said, rolling her mouthpiece between my fingers, “but she ain’t cracking that dome. Only weakness I can see is the gate, and I don’t think they’ll let us just roar up seven of our little scooters and invite us in to play a concert, you catch?”

Back in Thebes, my old man had played that same French horn in one of a chain of nightspots downtown. Rockin’ Ra’s, they’d been called. Mama had been a cocktail waitress there serving only Thebes’s finest clientele. She rolled around the joint on wooden skates with ribbons laced like a cobra around her calves. On bad days’ marching, she would draw wide stripes on her legs with kohl, claiming she needed the reminder to keep walking.

“Oh, I catch,” Joshua answered, and he was holding back from yelling. You could always tell by the way his cheeks sucked in. “But if we don’t do what He tells us, then we won’t get very far.”

Jehos, the saxophonist, laughed. “Now that’s rich. Tell me, boss, how far is it from Thebes to Jericho?”

Joshua reddened. His next words came out through gritted teeth. “The people always make it longer than it needs to be.” Lifting his hands toward the heavens, he closed his eyes and moved his lips without talking. A few minutes later, he shrugged and turned back to us. “Tomorrow morning, meet me by the Ark. We’re having a parade with you and the Naptali soldiers—they’ve been itching for something to do since Heshbon. I can’t make you go, but I don’t see how it’s too much to ask.” Then he hopped up on a chariot and floated off, probably so the Dans could give it a tune-up. That thing barely moved ten yards a minute, and it’d seen a lot of use inspecting the dome.

“What do you think?” Lizbet shifted her vest this way and that, trying to get at an itch.

Our drummer, Sammy, piped up. “Seems like a waste of a day I could spend conditioning my drum skins.”

Jehos and the other horn player concurred. The gal from the Ashers beat her wand violently against the triangle.

“I don’t see the harm in considering it.” Zeke, our first trumpeter, shrugged. “I know you cats pretend you don’t care about Yahweh and all that, but I do. Why not go along with Joshua on this?” He grinned while he spoke, which is how I knew he was serious. Zeke always looked the opposite of how he felt.

“Let’s all consider it overnight, okay? Whoever shows in the morning, shows.”

I stopped by one of the Gads’ campfires on the way back to my tent. When the manna had stopped falling, we learned fast they were the best cooks. Who knew roasted goat could taste so good coated in caraway seeds and honey? My plate piled high, I changed direction and made my way through a mile of pavilions. I’d never had a good look at the town at night. About all I could make out above the row of Jericho brands were hundreds of chimneys with saucer-shaped toppers that flickered orange-gold. Electricity zapped out of them in a continuous chain, reaching for that copper coil. They licked up and down the tube from all sorts of heights. I wondered how hot the chimney toppers had to get to liquefy. If we ever did move forward, we’d probably melt them in a worship fire and make new temple candlesticks or something twice as useless. Maybe a few could be converted into solder for new sun cells, if Joshua weren’t looking.

But that was the kicker. We weren’t going anywhere with Jericho in our way. And if we weren’t moving, why not join a caravan of madmen and parade around the city? The townspeople had shown no sign of coming out, so they probably wouldn’t attack us for what appeared to be a celebration. It was bound to be more exciting than picking manna crumbs out of my hair. Heck, I couldn’t even do that anymore. The manna had stopped falling.

I thought it over while I cleaned my horn. I had to do it weekly; you know how sand gets in all sorts of crevices. Imagine that with a horn. Paps used to oil it daily when he was working at Ra’s, but every few months, he’d give it a vinegar-water soak in his wash tub, a luxury I didn’t have. I needed to make sure that grit got out or the valves would get gunked up.  After we played, I’d head over to the water stores with some soap shavings. The Issachars were in charge of that. They had designed a rig that produced pressure without sun cells. The water was stored in these pretty metal boxes we made after the golden calf incident. Little jars on top collected any evaporation, and valves were attached to the end of narrow tubes. Whoever minded the water built up pressure with a foot pump and expelled it out real fast, which did wonders for blasting sand from horn valves. Those Issachars sure were smart. Us Parched Priests made them a lot of extra work with our instrument cleaning, but they never complained. Wasn’t much else to do in the encampment at night but watch us play.

Back in my tent, it was time to give that horn a good once-over and lube it up. Paps had a store of rotor oil when they left, but like I said, forty years. I’d been using rendered fat from the sacrifices for ages. Got one of the holy Levites to bring me a cup of it every few weeks. I’d dilute it until it reached an oily consistency, drip it into the slide tubes, and work it in with the valves. Then I’d use undiluted fat for the valve springs and caps. Everything went back in the case once I’d wiped it with a polishing cloth to remove my fingerprints. By the time I finished, I was so tired my cot stuffed with disintegrating manna felt like Pharaoh’s own bed.

Next morning, it turned out the whole band came to the same conclusion. Parading around the city just sounded more fun than counting its chimneys. We weren’t the only ones huddling up near the Ark, either. Joshua had been busy.

“Soldiers, you’ll lead the group out. I want you to march in circles around the dome, but don’t draw your weapons. Just march.” A group of probably a hundred Naptalis, all men, nodded their heads in unison. They wore leather sword belts branded with a blazing bush.

Joshua next addressed a group of dour Levites the rest of us called the High Holies. They were in charge of leading temple services, washing the Ark down from a safe distance with the water pumps, and maintaining its circuitry. “Priests, you’ll walk with the Ark, praying over it and us. One of you needs to keep an eye on its propulsion, though.” Joshua leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t let the Ark levitate too low or the parade will have to stop to get it back in the air, and that’s bad news. Elam, you can slip a charged cell in and out while you’re walking, right? In case the Ark noses down toward the sand?”

A teenager with choppy brown hair that fell past his chin nodded yes. He practically glowed being given the responsibility of the task, though his hands trembled a little.

“Good,” said Joshua. “Now except for a pair of you who’ll hold the net to make sure the Ark doesn’t move forward too fast, the rest of the priests should follow behind. I want you praying, but don’t be loud about it. Keep it to yourselves.”

The twenty or so High Holies agreed without complaint. Being quiet would be a challenge for them, though. Singing prayer chants was their bag. No matter how far away I staked my tent at night, I could hear their tuneless prayers rise up from the temple pavilion. I think that’s why Moses made us Levites priests in the first place—robust lungs. Us Parched Priests weren’t quite so sanctified; our repertoire cycled through the ditties Paps had taught me from his club days.

“Then line up!”

At Joshua’s command, the rest of the group shuffled to take their places, but we had no idea what was going on. Jehos thought it was hilarious. Between guffaws, he said, “He forgot ... he asked ... us here!”

Had he? All I knew was I had less faith in him than in those milk and honey scanners. It was obvious Lizbet felt the same when bright streaks of red flared over her forehead and cheeks. That girl hated getting up early, and I knew from experience what would happen if her anger was allowed to fester.

“Joshua!” I yelled before our leader could get too far away. “Joshua!”

He had almost reached the nearest line of tents, but he turned on his heel and came back.

“What’re we supposed to do? The band?” I gestured to include my compatriots. We were scattered in the sand but united through our flummoxed expressions.

“Oh.” He furrowed his brow and thought for a minute. “Well, you’ve got to march with them. Take your instruments, but don’t use them, okay? Just hold them close and keep walking. Go in before the High Hol—the other priests—but after the soldiers.”

Well, that sounded less fun than it had the night before, but I figured we’d already said yes by showing up. So I opened my case and pulled out the horn, and my polishing cloth, too. I would need something to hold it with because that sun was already burning, and nothing hurt Hot ‘N Horny worse than sweat.

We marched. And marched. The dome was big, but not until I’d circled around it could I call it colossal. The perimeter had to be at least two miles. It wasn’t so much the physical movement that bothered me—we had all been walking since we grew too big for the slings our mams had carried us in. Nor was it the heat bearing down on us, though I burned pretty quickly without the Lord’s cloud pillar filtering the sun. What got to me was all that time peering through the dome glass and the people staring right back. With how little they’d acknowledged our camp, I didn’t think they gave two figs for the children of Yahweh. But they stood on their wrap-around porches and in their streets observing us, and more came once they realized what we were doing. Their bulky clothes would have dragged them down into personal quicksand pools outside that dome, but I supposed the copper coil powered some sort of cooling device. Ice. Mama used to talk about it, how she would crush it up with a heated chisel when making cocktails for the Egyptian upper crust. It sounded so refreshing, probably more so than manna. On days the sun beat down so hard I was soaked with sweat before I’d so much as had a piss, I imagined sitting in a tub full of it. The day I sucked on ice was the day I’d be fulfilled... or maybe it’d just make me miss Mama more.

Sorry, sorry. Sometimes the memories are a bit much for this old shaker. There were plenty of parents inside the dome that first morning. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters gathered together and gazing back out at us with scowls. The men wore top hats so tall, they toppled off their heads with the slightest movement. One gust of a desert breeze and those things would be lost in a haze of sand. The little girls were in bustles and fluted sleeves, and it made me laugh. We’d had clothes like that once, too, but Moses had ordered heavy moleskin and brocade shredded years ago, not long after Thebes and its giant spinning fans were left behind. Only lace was spared from our parents’ trunks, and the Reubens learned how to hand-stet it, separating the fibers of the other clothes and turning them into lace shirts, lace pants, lace undergarments. It was breathable, and most of us wore two or three layers, so you couldn’t see too much through them.

When we got back to where we started, I was ready for a break, but Joshua waved us on, and some of the kids ran up with ladles full of water. We had mastered the art of drinking while moving ages ago. Another wave of children pressed opened parasols into our hands. I didn’t care that mine was pink—that umbrella was a balm for my reddening burn. So we kept on.

After the first two laps, the folks in Jericho got bored. They trickled away, sometimes whole families or blocks at a time, but the kids mostly stayed. They were adorable despite being heathens. A curly, black-haired boy kept one eye on us as we passed and another on a stone he kept trying to skip across a puddle of water. I wanted to yell at him, “That’ll never work, kid. Your puddle’s too small,” but he wouldn’t have heard me. And I was in no place to talk, walking circles around a glass dome and hoping for a miracle of my own.

That kid made me think. I wasn’t an idiot; I remembered what happened at Heshbon, east of the Jordan. The Naptalis, eager for their first battle, had swept in, sabers slicing through whatever and whomever they encountered. We burnt the remains, leaving nothing but smoldering ashes and a horrendous smell. Camp was made upwind to avoid it. I wasn’t sure I could handle that happening to that kid. He didn’t seem like he’d give us any trouble, just playing in his hometown, having fun like I used to counting lizards scurrying in the sands.

When I passed him for the last time, it neared dusk and he had given up on his rock pile. Standing maybe a foot from the glass, he stared right through. Those eyes—I will never forget those glassy, green eyes. They were pale, two brimstone butterfly wings pounding against that cage. A child’s awe flickered in them and pulled me in, but something else took its place as our eyes met. Something that made me clutch at the slave gears swinging ’round my neck. Hatred. That kid didn’t know me, didn’t know anything about me except that my people were camped at his door, and he hated me for it. I realized then there was no way our people would ever coexist in peace, not when we knew what fear like that could lead to.

I held onto that feeling, kept it close as our parade continued over the next six days.  Each morning, we renewed our circling, and each day, more and more of the people in Jericho mirrored his loathing. Look, six days is not that long when you’ve been wandering as many years as we had. But in another way, each second spent on the verge of something happening makes it that much harder to be patient. “Keep marching!” Joshua said again and again. The band would exchange glances and roll our eyes but we kept on. So on the seventh morning, we showed up as usual, and I tried not to think about another day of those angry Jericho eyes staring back. I’d made a habit of rubbing my parents’ gears with my free hand. Joshua started on again about Yahweh’s glory, but then that rascal, he changed it up.

“On the seventh lap—don’t worry, I’ll have the kids from Gad waving flags when you start it—I want the band to play their instruments loudly, all at once.”

I had to shake off my early-morning stupor at that. Jehos slapped his knee and said, “All right,” stretching out both syllables. Lizbet was taken up with the sudden attention and giggled.

I was just confused. “Hey, boss? Do you want us to play something special? Maybe a prayer chant with a flamenco downbeat, something like that?”

Joshua smiled real big and clapped me on the shoulder. “Naw, Abe. You just blow ‘em down, man. Show them Canaanites what you’ve got in that instrument.”

“All right, I can do that.” The others agreed, Jehos repeating, “Just play, just play.”

When the seventh lap came, I almost didn’t notice the group of kids waving flags. Lost in thought, my mind worked through chord progressions and key transpositions until Lizbet nudged me with the bell of her trumpet. Oh! A glance back at the others confirmed they were ready to blow: lips half-pursed, batons held high, triangle raised. So I pulled out my mouthpiece and nudged it into the rod, lifted Paps’ horn to my lips, and pressed the rotor to adjust my pitch. Tensing my lips harder than I ever had, I blew fast bursts to reach the highest G I could. I did it three times, barely registering the cacophony my bandmates made behind me. Two roars drowned us out fast after that. The first was the rest of the Israelites watching us. They yelled, screamed, pounded their feet on the ground, all but made an earthquake of human rumbling. The second was a hum.

It wasn’t just any hum. Maybe Joshua had planned it, I don’t know, but the skygate at the top of that dome opened at right that moment to let an airship rising inside pass through. The reverberation of our clamor went straight through the ground and up that copper tube smack dab in the middle of Jericho. We made the tube shake and tremble enough to knock it off-kilter. It shifted rotation slowly, rubbing against the glass edge of the opened gate, a giant mallet tracing the rim of a singing bowl. I could feel that hum in my body, making my breath catch as it tickled my ribs.

Then it cracked. Not my ribs, but the dome. It cracked, and all other sounds dropped for a heartbeat. The cracking grew louder, grew like an orchestra swelling as more spidery veins appeared on the glass, omens of the Canaanites’ doom. They rushed out of their homes and stores, shocked eyes trained upward, waiting. Our soldiers did the same after closing ranks and raising their weapons.

I don’t know what prompted him, but Sammy struck his marching bass drum and the dome shattered all at once. It got real noisy with wailing and screaming once the people of Jericho wised up. Glass chunks speared some of them. Falling buildings trapped the others. I dropped my parasol once it had all fallen down and pulled my goggles over my eyes to block out the particles.

The sound of people dying sticks with you. Some gurgled when a shard sliced them in two. Others yelled angrily, holding on for a few seconds after the Naptalis’ sabers lanced through them. Which death call they made didn’t matter. Jericho fell, and we descended. The whole of Yahweh’s chosen people ran into that city, ransacking it like the mob we were. I rushed in after the Naptalis had advanced far enough I knew I’d be safe from the Jerichoans. Near the tube’s foundation was a street of three-story houses partially standing. Thousands of scalloped, painted wood tiles in bonito-flesh pink, acacia-leaf green, and indigo blue made up their sidings. In a word, they looked wealthy. Wealthy like the patrons at Rockin’ Ra’s.

I had only one thing on my mind then. A few bodies that had been crushed by a large chunk of dome blocked the door of the nearest house. They had puncture wounds from sabers, too, just the Naptalis making sure. I stepped around them gingerly. Inside, a man in a pristine five-piece suit slumped in a red-velvet armchair, still gripping his top hat. A spilled goblet on the floor smelled of wine and bitter almonds: cyanide. Something clear, solid, but melting rested above the carpet where the liquid had soaked through. The cold shocked me when I touched it, but I knew better than to plop those cyanide-laced cubes in my mouth. I scanned the room. There! In the back corner, right under a half-collapsed stairwell, was a box carved of cedar set in an ornately filigreed black case. One tube ran inside the case’s metal beams, and another went into the box. Water would probably have been flowing through it if the energy was.

After lifting the handle, I felt giddy. A wave of frigid air hit me, and I grabbed at a chunk of ice almost too wide for my mouth. Cool luxury coated my inner cheeks and numbed my tongue.

Then something else caught my eye. A horn sat in a case on the window seat like someone was about to play it. It was bright gold, probably had never seen a scuff or known a lip. I had to have it. Hot ‘N Horny had treated me well, but it was Pap’s joy, Pap’s instrument. The feeling that I was just borrowing it had only grown in the days since his death.

“Israelites, head back to camp. It’s not safe for us yet in Jericho.” Joshua’s voice rang out loud and clear. The townsfolk must have had some means of amplification. “The Canaanites are a defiled people and their things, their buildings, their everything is impure. We’ll torch the city at nightfall as Yahweh has instructed.”

Well, crap. I spit the ice out of my mouth, and it hit the swanky blue carpet without a sound. But I couldn’t leave the horn. I just couldn’t. It was so shiny and perfect. I caressed its curves then pressed it into the case and clasped the buckles. If I could get it into my tent with no one noticing I had two, then I’d be in the clear. And besides, if Yahweh didn’t want me to have it, I wouldn’t have found it, right?

The horns and I made it back to my tent fine, and I spent half the evening staring at the new one. I didn’t even go outside to watch the city-wide bonfire. Eventually, some obnoxious Ephraim collectors made rounds. Their tinny voices raised a constant call of “Anything from Jericho? Need to burn or liquefy it, make an offering to the Lord.”  Weren’t the last forty years an offering to the Lord, I wondered. Weren’t my parents—all our parents—dead and buried in the wilderness to appease Him? One horn wasn’t too much to ask in exchange for that. My chest constricted as I pulled it out of its case and hugged it close. 

“Flammables for the fires, metals for the melt.”

My parents’ gears clinked against the horn’s bell, scuffing it a little. And I realized something. There was no judgment in the Ephraims’ call. Yahweh knew we’d take what we wanted from Jericho despite Joshua’s warnings, knew I’d be wiping away salt tears before they could mar that horn’s brass while I weighed keeping it. And He sent the Ephraims around to give us—me—another crapshoot’s try at trusting Him and following His rules. This was our time, our chance to make good on what our parents had wanted, to obey where they had failed.

If I wanted those promises fulfilled, I needed to toss that horn. 

The city was a wasteland of smoke and debris encircled by glowing embers. Not far from it, several vats had been lifted over fires, and some Simons stood over them on piled rugs, goggles on as they stirred with humungous paddles. I left mine off, wanting an unobstructed view of the horn melting down, one expanding pool in a molten mix. Its brass shone brighter than it ever would have under my polishing cloth.

Off to my right, the milk and honey scanners beeped in unison. A bunch of Dans clapped each other’s backs, laughing with relief. Later that night, I started the Parched Priests off with a melody I’d composed for one of the High Holies’ chants. As I blew Hot ‘N Horny, I swear I could feel Paps’ nimble fingers over mine, guiding the slides and valves into the right positions.


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Rebecca Gomez Farrell's wanderlust affliction has moved her most recently to the Bay Area of California. She also suffers from genre confusion, having written fantasy, horror, romance, personal essay, television commentary, and food and drink reviews published by Bull Spec, WRAL, All My Writers, Astraea Press, and her website, rebeccagomezfarrell.com. She's hopeful that both of her conditions remain incurable.

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