I am Lot’s wife, a deer lick in the desert, a pillar of salt, a vapor on the Plain, the buoyant sea. You’ve heard my story. I have no name. His story, I call it–it’s cautionary. As everything was his, including me. Including our daughters, I surmise now, looking back.
Don’t look back! he commanded me. Of course he’d say that. Like most men, he always scoured outward, ahead. He was searching for the best deal. He wouldn’t want me to know how he took our daughters freely, possibly often, ignoring their husbands, bypassing me. But I never searched the meaning of those words for myself until that brilliant, noxious night–my night of liberation–that soon-to-be sulphurous night when Lot offered our spirited, insidious, and flirtatious girls to strangers, the townspeople of Sodom.
Neighbors clamored on our doorstep, stones and fists banging heavy wood and bronze, demanding Lot send out our luminous young males. “We want to know them,” the neighbors leered, surrounding our house as the young men feasted at our dining table. The two young men were our guests. Angels, Lot whispered. Assigned to our city by the Lord. How come God only talked to Lot when I was out of the room? The Angels, men of rare beauty, had been lowered to Earth by the Lord to investigate rumors. “What rumors?” I said. Lot answered, evasive. At all costs, I must protect them.
The Sodomites, drunk, their judgment long ago immolated by lust in advance of their actual immolation, rocked their elbows, pounded. They ogled. "Send out the two visiting beauties!” they shouted. “Send out your graceful young men!”
Rape my daughters instead! Lot suggested, oily-voiced. Please, please, pretty please, he might have pleaded. He was drunk too, like the other Sodomites. His voice was mild, brightly persuasive, shmoozy. We were scared. Did I nod too reflexively? I’d stopped listening to my own words. My daughters’ husbands also nodded. I eyed the men who’d married Thamma and Pheine, tall, broad-shouldered brutes with curling, cow-greased hair. Timid men, ambitious to throw in their fortune with my so-called “good” husband.
But the crowd refused Lot’s offer, business-as-usual. Women were plentiful. The casual way Lot proffered our fleshy girls made them think that this was an offer they could take up any old time.
“No, the men, the glowing men! Bring those strangers to us, to slake our loins.”
“The strangers!” they clapped in unison. They stamped their feet.
My girls’ feelings were hurt. “What’s wrong with us?” Pheine shouted. “Suddenly we’re not good enough for Sodomites?”
Thamma whirled on me. "You let Daddy be with us," she accused me. "You didn’t stop our father, did you? And now we’re unclean? Now nobody wants us?"
“I didn’t know about Daddy,” I told them, doubly ashamed–for the charges were true, I did and didn’t know. A split-brain knowledge because I didn’t want my daughters to realize that I no longer held any power of desire over Lot.
“Nothing is too unclean for these townspeople,” I scoffed.
I stared straight ahead, as if arrogant, ignoring Lot and the townspeople too, tracing the design in my mind of a rug I’d soon hang on the clay wall, ignoring the din on our doorstep, the thuds on tile.
Lot slammed our carved and massive door. The Angels helped. On the other side somebody yowled like a woman. Lot smashed fingers in his haste. The door held against the mob.
“You’re jealous of our cleavings with Daddy,” Pheine said, sliding her long, up-tipped, gaze towards me, gauging the impact of her words. Of Pheine’s youth and voluptuous curls? Of Thamma with her long-lashes, sinuous gestures, plump lips? Who wouldn’t be jealous? I was, by then, used up, my hair wooly, my nether-lips bald.
I’d believed I was protecting my daughters.
I recalled our long-dead daughter, Palith. My earliest and most comely, oh, precious Palith, my most beloved. She declined her father’s advances. Palith, sparkling, yet unadorned. Palith confided this to me, small and trembling, with lowered head.
Then I spoke to Lot, short-breathed with anger.
Lot claimed, You women are inward, and foolish.
But the next day, Palith’s small body was found hung and strung on the pink walls of our city, smeared with honey for sweetness upon her skin, eaten by bees. Her corpse was ruddy, deformed. I suspected Lot’s hand. Lot was provoked by my outburst. What horror! What loss!
I clawed at myself though, not Lot. Lot owns us, I thought. My baby. Palith, I called.
Don’t look back! Lot had often told me, long ago, Don’t grieve.
I cultivated silence. The habit of ignorance.
Don’t look inward? How not? Was that what Lot meant?
But no, I defended myself to myself. I was an obedient wife. I scanned the horizon, saw nothing, as if I were blind. Or blinded, perhaps. As the Sodomites would be, who reached greedily for Angels and stood closest to our door.
Don’t look back, Lot had always instructed me. Do as I say. He spoke such things when I asked him–not often--about events in the past. In the future as well.
“What happened to Palith?” I asked only once.
His rage! My own!
“What happened to your partnership with Abraham?” He didn’t answer. I knew.
Lot’s deceptions were many.
He was a punishing man. Pride, that was Lot’s problem. He had to have the upper hand–he had to be a big shot, the bigger shot, even when he became his Uncle Abe’s henchman in sheep contracting, shamelessly buttering up Abraham just to get close to God. Nepotism. Abraham was God’s favorite! Why cross him. Lot had no sense. He was a drunk and a cheat.
Lot couldn’t stop himself from gypping his most useful relative–his best buddy--when they’d counted and separated ewes. Lot always had an eye out for the best deal. He decided God was the best deal. But still Lot complained.
Abraham expects me to be his follower. Lot sulked.
Yet Lot was a follower too. Following is easy. That’s what I wanted to tell my husband. And the wisdom I wanted my girls to know. Don’t be a follower. Men say that they follow God, but how godly are they, these men of the Plain? Why does God need followers? But Thamma and Pheine were different from Palith. They throbbed only to power and to their own desires. Later, they would take apt revenge.
Don’t look back! Lot said to us at dawn. God has commanded. This time I believed him because God smote the city with brimstone and fire.
But our daughters’ husbands refused to flee. They didn’t trust Lot.
We ran, led by Angels, at first hand-in-hand, our skirts and cloth thrown over our heads. We felt flames. We heard shrieks. Our path was zigzag, towards Zoar, beyond the Plain, the mountain. Fireballs shot in the sky, hissing, exploding--ash, air dark and thick with the flakes of people I’d known, neighbors, choking my words, my thoughts, my throat, my sandals ripping, my daughters and husband alongside as we fled.
Then, they say I looked back, lagged behind–"dawdled," as my mother would have put it, I was a daydreaming child--because I wanted to cling to my luxurious life in Sodom. My vases and rugs, my jewels, our home. But I was not looking back at the city, I was gazing inward as I fell to the earth, facing Sodom. I stumbled, head twisted, examining what I had done, and not done, my past, our family, my silences. Silence can be a lie. My silence was mistaken for arrogance. I saw that the past is innocent, at least of the present. The present stretched forth in the thick morn on the Plain. It bore intimations of future, of future fear. I was a woman, beginning to shrivel, not ripe like my daughters. Lot heard the Voice. Lot was God’s boy. At the time we were one of many semitic tribes in the desert, still close to our wandering past. God loved Lot. How come? Despite Lot’s cheating, Abraham had pled for Lot, intervened.
God didn’t love me.
Hidden by smoke, sulphurous vapors surrounding us–Lot, my girls, they still rushed ahead.
I fell. I stayed fallen. Was that defiant?
The Angels vanished.
Lot is forever praised as a “righteous man”–and I, his opposite. Yet even now his name invokes me, as his lesson, and I, the bad woman, labeled arrogant and disobedient–I survive, ensure Lot’s memory. His story. His pillar, his salt. This is what happens when the Voice is not obeyed, they say. But they misunderstand. I flailed in the dirt. I fell on the Plain looking inward, not back, facing myself, not the city. Call me Edith, Ildeth, Irit. I long for my real name.
In Zoar that next night my daughters and Lot on the hill, plotted to repopulate our clan. These girls on two consecutive nights conceived Ammonites and Moabites, while Lot, as usual, was drunk. But they’d done it before, Lot, he was compliant–or more. And they conceived the children of the Hebrews’ enemy tribes.
I became melach, the pillar of salt, on the Plain where nothing would grow. I was consigned to my fate, so they say. But the Hebrew root word is malach, to vaporize, to vanish away. The salt pillar I was, over time, with tears and rain, became sea. I became, have become, the barren sea of the Plain, the Dead Sea, where no life grows, yet bearing up all, unsinkable. Arabs and Jews and tourists today wade into my depths for healing. The sick, poor and the rich alike, smear mud from my shores on their sores and their pain.
I do the best I can. I, the barren mother.