It is 1715 years before the common era.
Near the city of Sodom lives a man named Lot, and he takes many guests within his house. Yet when he serves them meals, and offers them salt, his wife says, “None yet, my husband. There is none.”
Zachariah, a guest, asks her, “What, none?”
And Lot smiles.
“It is a thing my wife says,” Lot explains.
Zachariah is looking at the shelf on the wall. It has salt on it. The jar is labelled. But Lot only shrugs.
“When we argued with Abraham,” he says, “and then came to this place, she shed no tears. And when the men forced themselves on her, she did not cry. And when our daughters were born, there were no tears; nor when the first of them was slain. So I asked her, ‘Flower of my heart, are you so stingy with your salt?’
“‘This is not pain,’ she said. ‘This is life.’
“‘And what is pain?’ I asked.
“‘Something that our guests will bring.’ And since that time, when I bring in a guest, and ask her for seasoning . . .”
Lot shrugs expressively.
“I do not see why I should be deprived on account of your wife’s strangeness,” Zachariah complained.
“It is a meal,” Lot says. “And I have learned to favor meals that do not so much depend upon the salt.”
So Zachariah eats.
“Can you show me the children?” Zachariah says, after a while.
“I am scarcely a man of Sodom,” Lot demurs.
Zachariah gives him a keen regard. “You would not be here if you had no sympathy for them, nor they for you.”
Lot glances at his wife. She shrugs expressively and scrubs out a pot.
“Come with me,” he says.
He takes Zachariah out into the city, and down its hidden ways, and to the nursery, and there they look in on them. The building is crowded with beds, clothing, pots, and children. The children are between six and thirteen years of age, and the undertone of their skin is gray. Some are playing; others, resting. There’s an undertone of malaise.
“They do not seem like much,” Zachariah admits.
“It’s just . . . I’d expected more.”
Lot looks up. “Amiel,” he says. “Lia.”
He speaks to two girls sitting side by side on a rough cot and playing some game involving the postures of their hands. They turn, and look towards the entrance. Their eyes are like a shock to Zachariah, and he stumbles back.
“Lot,” says Amiel. Her voice is chimes and wind, a thing of unnatural beauty. It is not suited to her throat, and as she speaks, Zachariah can see the pain that word causes her. He thinks, though he cannot know, that it must rub the inside of her throat raw. Lia places her hand protectively over Amiel’s.
“This is Zachariah,” Lot says. “He’s visiting. He wanted to know about you.”
“I—” Amiel gets out the first part of that word, and nothing more, before Lia’s hand is clamped over her mouth. Lia shakes her head, firmly, and then looks towards Zachariah.
“We are gods,” Lia says. “They call us Nephilim and say that we are the children of angels. But they do not know us. We are gods.”
“I had heard,” Zachariah says, “that some survived the flood. But . . . there are dozens of you.”
“Hundreds,” Lia says. Her voice is matter-of-fact. “This is not our only house.” She looks at him. “Shall I tell you your future?”
Zachariah shakes his head.
“Thank you,” Lot says. Lia nods, and Amiel too. So Lot leads Zachariah back to his home.
Zachariah sits a while in thought.
“When they are of age,” he says, “this city shall be invincible.”
“An empire,” Lot agrees. His wife turns and gives him a harsh look; but he only shrugs and smiles at her.
“And those of us allied to it, . . .” Zachariah adds.
“Why do you think I have shown it to you? . . . I am drawn here,” Lot says. “To these people. To the children. They are a wonder of our time. I cannot betray them. Yet when they sweep out in conquest of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, the Jebusites; when Jordan falls, and Egypt, and even Babylonia; then the tribe of Abraham will not be spared. That is why I bring my people here, to meet the people of Sodom, and sometimes show them these wonders. We must be here, standing behind the scythe, lest our people die like wheat.”
“Where did they come from?”
“It is the Lord’s way,” Lot says, “when he destroys, to leave a remnant.”
His wife snorts. Lot ignores her.
“It is Sodom’s way to breed with such remnants, by force if such it requires, and create the god-children you have seen.”
Zachariah turns his gaze to Lot’s wife, who flushes and turns her head aside.
“My flower bears only mortal children,” Lot says, quietly. “They leave her be.”
It is the night. The fires are low. Zachariah wakes and goes outside. He finds Lot’s wife seated against the wall. He takes a seat beside her.
“It is a night of ill omen,” she says. “You had best be on your way.”
“Pardon,” he says. “But I do not know your name.”
“Well,” he says. “I do not.”
“He calls me his flower,” she says. “Isn’t that enough?”
She flushes again. There’s a pause.
“My name is Maya,” she says. “I am the desert, and the desert wind, and the sky, and the sea, and life, and death, and the beating of your heart. I am the perfume of a spring morning. I am the abattoir stench. I am everything in this world.”
“You have fallen low.”
“No,” she says. “I have not.”
She holds out her hands, palm down. “I have known hardship and loss,” she says, “since I came to Jordan, but it is not pain. I am Maya. Even the brutal ways of these men are not pain to me. They are simply life.” She turns her hands upright, and moves them together to cup the air. “And in exchange for this suffering, I may have Lot; and I can tend the children; and these things make me glad.”
“He is a good man,” she says, defensively. “He is not schooled in goodness, he has no great philosophy of virtue, but he is good at heart.”
“You could have palaces in the sky,” Zachariah says, “attended by thousands of men or maidens, and sup on the best of all the world.”
“I have done so,” Maya says, “and will do again; but that is not pleasure. That is simply life.”
“I would lay with you,” Zachariah says.
She sighs. She rises. “You’ll come to a bad end if you do.”
“Leave,” she says. “You have the chance. This is a favor. Do you understand? It’s not that I’ll stop you. It’s just . . . you’re Lot’s guest. He wants you safe. If you do this, you’ll die horribly, and not at my hand.”
Zachariah looks disturbed, and then he nods. “Thank you,” he says. He leaves, hurriedly; and dawn comes, and turns to evening, and the creatures of beauty, that some name seraphim, come down the road.
Lot is sitting outside his house, outside the city walls, when they approach. He rises to his feet.
“My lords,” he says. “Please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
They regard him with a cold and casual regard.
“We will spend the night in the square,” one answers. Lot shivers, hearing the creature’s voice.
“Please,” he says. “They will do you harm.”
There is an indefinable hesitation, and a sense of pressure in the air. Lot’s ears hurt, deep inside. Then the feeling fades.
“Very well,” they say, and enter Lot’s house. Maya gives them a sardonic look.
“More guests?” she says.
“My flower,” he protests.
She looks them up and down. “Leave,” she says flatly. There’s a pause. Then her eyes shadow. “Please.”
The men turn and look at Lot, who smiles jovially. “Ignore her,” he says. “She is ill-mannered; but you are my guests.”
Maya scowls and goes to the cookpots. She feeds them a meal, and does not stint the salt.
“Tell me,” she says. “Is there any way that this city will be spared?”
One of the creatures smiles at her. “If there are fifty,” he says, “fifty virtuous men, why, then, Sodom shall live.”
Lot looks uncomfortable. “How do you mean?” he asks.
“Or forty-five,” the other creature points out.
“Yes. If there are forty-five virtuous men. Why, even forty should do.”
“You mock me,” hisses Maya. “You know there are but three.”
Stung, the creature looks down.
“We had hoped,” he says. “We had hoped there would be ten.”
Lot has gone very quiet; but Maya laughs, and her voice is bitter.
“They are all beautiful,” she says. “The children. And the men! Their ambition is ambrosia. And the women, who keep their men and raise their own cubs in the shadow of such gods: they are heroes too. Oh, this place is a jewel, thou seraphim. But virtue is a measure ill-suited to it.”
“Spare them,” she says. Her voice is flat.
“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is too great,” one seraph says. “If what we see is as we have been told, this place must end.”
Then the walls began to shake from the pounding of fists, and a voice rose up from outside: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
“If you ignore the first impression,” Maya says, thinly, “they do have redeeming qualities.”
“Bring them out!” cries the voice.
“Can they get children on us?” the seraph asks, in a voice of faint distraction.
“I do not know,” Maya says.
“Bring them out!”
Lot goes outside and shuts the door behind him. “No,” he says. “I pray you. Do not do this thing.”
“It is our way.”
Lot tilts his head to one side. “I have two daughters,” he says. “They have never known a man. Take them, in my guests’ stead.”
Inside, Maya winces. A seraph catches her gaze, and says, “They will be safe.”
“It’s embarrassing,” she says. “I love him for his good intentions, but I’ve met spiders with a better moral compass.”
“You could drive them away,” the seraph suggests.
“It’s not my nature.”
Outside, the leader of Sodom’s men shakes his head. “We seek power, Lot; and so, I think, do you. We won’t be bribed with mortal sex.”
“Then,” says the seraph, inside, “it falls to me.”
The seraph spreads his wings, and his jewel-like eyes blink once, and a great light shines forth within Lot’s house, and from every window and under the door. It blinds the men of Sodom, and they stagger about. Lot, with the quiet step of a child who has erred, walks back inside.
“There is judgment,” the seraph says. “This city shall die. Gather those that are yours. Take them from this city. In the morning, Sodom and Gomorrah shall be dust and ash.”
“The children,” Lot says.
The seraph snorts. Then after a moment, he sighs, and shakes his head.
“There are no innocents,” he says, “in Sodom.”
Maya breaks for the door.
“Maya!” Lot says. But he cannot stop her. She flees into the night. And through the night he went to those he had brought there, and told them to leave, but they did not. And in the morning, the seraphim put their hands on his, and on his daughters’, and take him from the town.
In the shelter of the children, the air is very still.
“What will happen?” asks Lia.
“Brimstone and fire will rain out of Heaven,” Maya answers.
“I don’t know,” Maya says. “Flaming rocks are traditional.”
“Will we die?”
“Yes,” Maya says. The stillness deepens.
“Don’t die,” Amiel says. The voice is clear and beautiful. The flesh inside her throat tears and bleeds. Lia glares at her, then hugs her tightly.
“Please,” Amiel adds.
“I won’t,” Maya says.
Then the fire comes. Maya rises over the city like a veil, her skin shining with the night and the stars, but Maya is illusion, not substance, and the fires come down through her and render all Sodom ruin. She watches as the towers fall. She watches as the nursery crumbles, and the children die, and the men of the city, and the women, and the rats that scurried near the walls. And in the end, only two remain, battered and red, but breathing; and she manifests again at their side.
“Lia,” she says. “Amiel.”
“It is the way of the Lord to leave a remnant,” Lia says. Her voice makes Maya catch her breath. There is nothing of the divine in it, only emptiness, and her godhood has burned away in the crucible of Sodom.
“. . . so cruel,” Maya says.
Lia turns Amiel over, and listens to her heart. “It’s all right,” she says. “Amiel is still herself.” She looks at Maya. “I suppose,” she says, “that my better part was deemed unworthy.”
“It’s not a judgment,” Maya says.
“It was deemed better,” Maya says, “that all these die; and you be scoured; and Amiel burned. But that doesn’t make it a punishment. There’s never correlation between one’s suffering and one’s guilt.”
She takes their hands, and leads them away, and at some distance, she looks back.
“You’re crying,” Amiel says, and then begins to choke.
“Help her,” Maya says. And Lia does.
Maya’s tears do not stop, and the salt flows from her like a tide.