The Cause of the Storm
by James L. Ferrell
An excerpt from The Peacegiver, published by Deseret Book.
Rick’s hair was blowing in a stiff breeze. He looked to be in the middle of a sea or ocean, on the deck of an old-world wooden ship, about sixty feet in length. The wind was blowing briskly from the direction of a churning yellow sky as deckhands raced to and fro securing ropes and adjusting riggings. His grandfather was standing beside him.
Rick surveyed the scene. The vessel looked to be about twenty feet across for most of its length before rounding gently toward the bow and stern. From each end rose identical stem posts about ten feet in height, jutting from the tips of the ship toward the sky in arches like the forward end of ice-skating blades. A single mast towered midway on the deck, on which a large rectangular sail, quilted for strength with leather belts, was bursting with wind. The sky was darkening by the second.
Raindrops from the leading edge of the storm were just reaching the deck, and the sea began to kick at the hull. Rick looked skeptically at the crates and barrels that were stacked two deep along the edges of the deck. Expertly tied ropes appeared to hold them securely against the ship’s sides, helped marginally by a wicker fence that ran the length of the ship. But would they hold under the fury of the coming storm? Rick wasn’t so sure. Neither, apparently, were the mariners, for they were checking and rechecking every knot.
“Where are we, Grandpa?” Rick shouted above the gathering gale. The wind seemed to sweep his words out to sea.
“On a ship bound for Tarshish,” his grandfather called back.
“Tarshish,” he yelled louder. “A town in the southwest of what we know as Spain-in this day the westernmost point of the known world.”
“Why?” Rick called. “Why are we here?”
His grandfather motioned him over to a large crate that shielded them from the brunt of the wind.
They pressed themselves against the crate and huddled close together so they could speak and hear more clearly. Just then, the boat pitched suddenly, as if it fell in a hole on the starboard side, and a wave hurled itself over the crate that was their protection. Rick clutched at the ropes, entangling his arms around them in an effort to strap himself in.
“What are we doing here?” he gasped.
“You wanted what you deserved.” His grandfather replied with remarkable calm considering the circumstances.
“Just a moment ago you said that Carol isn’t treating you as you deserve to be treated. All you want is what you deserve. Right?”
“Well, yes, I guess that’s right. But what does that have to do with being here?”
“Ah, you’re not the only one asking that question tonight.”
Rick had no idea what his grandfather was talking about.
Just then a booming voice could be heard above the tumult. “Oarsmen! To your posts! To your posts!” Men scurried by them and disappeared down a hatch at midship. A few scrambled to lower the sail.
By now most of the sky was a foreboding black. Where light still shone, the clouds churned and swirled in sinister yellows and reds. The heavens were alive and moving, like a slithering mass of snakes. The ship pitched violently as if on a massive roller coaster. Waves began to rise far above them and then crash down across the deck. On the third of these blows a barrel near the bow on the port side burst free, hurling itself through the wicker barrier and out to sea. The crates and barrels behind it started sliding all over the deck, crashing against the other cargo. When the ship pitched again, all of the loose items flew from the deck.
“Overboard!” cried the booming voice they had heard a couple of minutes earlier.
“Throw the cargo overboard!”
The men who had been securing the sail quickly loosened the knots around the cargo and started heaving crates over the side. Others joined them from below. After about ten minutes and countless close calls of men almost being thrown in the sea, the deck had been cleared of most of the freight.
The mariners scrambled headlong down the hatch. Rick instinctively followed, his grandfather close behind. Halfway down the ladder the ship rolled entirely on its side, throwing Rick against the starboard side of the hold. The vessel groaned as it slowly righted itself.
If things had been crazy on deck, it was mayhem down below. Men were wailing in prayer in ankle-high water, their voices and faces desperate. Some had loosened their tunics and tied the ends to secure objects, making crude harnesses in an attempt to keep their bodies from hurtling across the hold. Others were clutching desperately to the arms, legs, or harnesses of their comrades, or else to the ropes of the crates that filled about a third of the area. The crates were wedged tightly together and for the moment, at least, appeared secure.
“Call to the gods!” came the booming voice once more. Rick whirled to his left and saw a sturdy, weather-beaten man, perhaps fifty years old or so, with sun-dried skin and meaty, heavy eyes stretched wide with concern. The men obliged, calling heavenward with even greater intensity.
The man with the voice-surely the captain, Rick thought-looked quickly from here to there around the whole of the interior that was visible from the hold. Rick followed his eyes wherever they looked but noticed nothing remarkable-a seam here and a joint there. The captain walked around and between the men, steadying himself on their shoulders as he went, combing every inch of the hold with his purposeful eyes. Just then, the ship rolled nearly to its side, throwing the captain halfway across the space. Water poured in through cracks in the hatch.
“Keep pleading!” he shouted again as he rose to his feet, the ship creaking loudly as it struggled to right itself. He then pounded on the ceiling on the port side of the hold. “Row harder!” he yelled, apparently to oarsmen in a chamber between the cargo hold and the deck. He pounded on the ceiling on the stern side and repeated his call, adding, “Take us to land! Take us to land!” He then disappeared beyond the crates to the back.
Rick’s grandfather was leaning against the wall to Rick’s right. He was a picture of calm.
“What’s the point of all this, Grandpa?”
Just then a man to Rick’s left cried out, “The gods are angry. Who has brought this upon us?” A few of the others responded in unison, “Yes, who?” The men began eyeing each other warily. The prayers stopped, and the chamber was suddenly awash in a flood of acrimony and accusation. “You despicable thief!” screamed a toothless man on the opposite side of the hold. “You are responsible!” He loosed himself from his harness and threw himself toward a lanky youngster in the middle of the hold. Others jumped in on either side of the conflict, and the space became a blur of fists.
Another pitch to the port side threw the mass of them together against the far wall with a loud thump, their wet garments splattering against the boards.
The men momentarily forgot their feud as they checked themselves for injury but seemed ready to resume the fight until one of them suggested casting lots to see who was responsible. “Yes, let’s,” agreed the others, eager to find an acceptable way out of the melee.
Rick watched curiously as the men spread into a circle. The captain, who had emerged from the back of the hold with another man, joined in the circle, as did his new companion. This second man was different from the rest of the men on the crew. He was dressed as David and his men had been, although more nicely, with a robe (which was wet all along the side and back, as if he had been lying in the water that now lined the hold), head covering, and sandals, whereas most of the mariners were barefoot and, besides their undergarments, wore only tunics, with linen bands around their heads like belts to secure their hair. The newcomer’s eyes were clouded by a look of resignation. He took his place next to the captain in the circle.
“Tolar, get the men!” the captain commanded, motioning to the compartments above them. The young man who had been the object of the toothless man’s fury leapt to his feet and knocked three times against the port-side ceiling. He then repeated the same knock on the starboard side. On each side of the hold, a hatch in the ceiling opened, and a half-dozen men dropped from each of them. Their tunics were pulled down to their waists, secured only by a belt. Beads of sea water and sweat streamed down their bare chests.
“Fall in the circle,” said the captain.
When all had hastily seated themselves, the most elderly-looking mariner among them began to chant some kind of incantation, the sound and language of which was completely foreign to Rick. The chant was a ritual of prayer to the storm god of the Phoenicians, inhabitants of the area known in modern times as Lebanon, who from 1000 b.c. to 700 b.c. were lords of ship building and ancient commerce-rulers of the seas from the coast of Israel to the mouth of the Atlantic, and from there north and south to the English isles and West African coast, respectively.
“Get on with it!” growled the toothless man who had led the attack a minute before. The old man stopped the prayer and pulled a pouch from his belt, from which he drew a dozen or so tiny beads and showed them to the circle. Rick’s eyes were drawn to a brilliant purple bead that stood out from the others.
“We need a dry surface; there is too much water on the floor,” the man said.
The captain raised himself with a loud grunt, walked back to the cargo, and with nothing but his bare hands ripped the lid off a large crate. He dragged it back to the circle and flung it in the middle of the men. “There, get on with it, Rabish,” he said.
Obediently, the elderly man cast the beads onto the lid. The men craned their necks forward to see the configuration of the beads, and all heads turned to the newcomer next to the captain. Rick could see over the men and saw five of the beads more or less lined up, with the purple one at the end, pointing to the man in the robe. The newcomer slumped in his place as the boat rolled suddenly to the port side, and the beads, the men, and Rick went flying.
“Tell us who you are, oh stranger,” implored the captain, once he picked himself up, “and for what cause this evil is upon us.”
The man remained silent for a few moments. “I am a despicable man,” he said finally, his sullen voice leaden with despair. “My name is Jonah, son of Amittai. The lot has been well cast. I have offended the God of heaven and earth.”
Jonah! Of course, Jonah! Rick thought to himself.
“What do you mean?” asked the captain earnestly. “What have you done?”
Agitation replaced some of the despair but none of the pain in Jonah’s face. “The Lord commanded me to go to the Assyrians in Nineveh, to cry warning unto them. But I would not, for they are barbarians in heart and mind.” At this, he cast a worried glance around the hold. Satisfied that there were no Assyrians in the group, he continued. “So I ran from the Lord and from his command. This is the cause of our calamity. The God of heaven and earth is wroth.”
“Pray, tell me where do you come from?” asked the captain. “What is your country-from what people are you? Who is this God that you worship?”
“I am a Hebrew and fear Jehovah, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. It is he who is angry. His arm will not be stayed.” At this, Jonah buried his face into his hands. “I have offended the Lord, and this is my recompense. I am condemned to die.”
The boat suddenly plunged forward, sending Rick’s stomach to his throat. The men, none of them restrained in harnesses, flew in a mass against the forward walls. The sea then bucked the ship over to its back, and pure bedlam broke out in the hold. The glass coverings that had been protecting candles that hung on the walls shattered, and all light was extinguished. At the same moment, the crates from the back portion of the hold burst from their restraints, crashed down onto the ceiling of the ship, which was for that moment the floor, and then began to hurdle violently in all directions as the ship tossed in the waves. It was two or three minutes before the ship miraculously righted itself once again, but the water in the hold was then almost knee deep.
The captain called out, “Oh, Hebrew, what must we do to calm the waters?”
“Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea,” he answered. “Then shall the sea be calmed. For it is for my sake that this great tempest is upon you.”
The captain looked at him warily. “We will not add to our troubles with your blood.”
“Oarsmen, back to your posts!” he bellowed. “Bring us round to land!” The bare-chested men climbed a rope to the hatches in the ceiling and pushed them open, exposing for a moment the compartments below the deck and on each side of the hold where a few men could add the power of oars to the sail that normally propelled them.
But it was no use. The storm was too strong and the manpower too weak. And without a tiller on deck, it would have been difficult to guide the ship even under normal conditions. All the while, Jonah kept imploring them to cast him out to sea.
Finally, when the futility of the quest was plain, the captain and his men turned to Jonah. “We are left without choice, oh stranger. We will do as you say. But we beseech thee, O God of the Hebrews,” the captain said, lifting his voice and his arms heavenward in the hold, his gray figure only faintly visible in the darkness, “we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life. And lay not upon us innocent blood, for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.”
At this, one of the men swiftly climbed the ladder to the deck and released the lock on the hatch. He then scaled down the ladder and made way for Jonah.
Jonah hesitated, but a swift jolt of the boat and a prodding from the captain moved him up the ladder. Two of the men followed him, secured by ropes. Twenty seconds or so later the two of them dove back down the hatch, fastening the latch once again before dropping into the hold.
Jonah had been cast into the sea.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.