The Chronicles of Babylon
(excerpts from a novel)
                                                                                     The MAN in the DESERT

   
Two nearly full grown mountain lions sat side by side looking down on a man, face buried in the sand, his clothes blackened and caked in a maladorous mix of mud, blood and dried excrement. Except for the whine of flies, there was an absolute stillness in the cool, pre-dawn hush of the desert.
     "Better eat 'im now 'fore he spoils, said one of the cats."
     "The admonitions. Don't forget the Admonitions."
     "As I recallll, the Admonitions apply to Sentients. The dead, by default, don't qualify."
     The sound of a tail thumping sand in ill-tempered response.
     "I remind you brother. Five days and we've ate little more than stinken desert rats, nasty snakes and foul tasting.  grasshoppers. 'Nough to make a grown cat weeep. We need sustenance!"
     They sat quietly for a couple of minutes, thinking of long days of fruitless hunting in the broken reaches of the Waste, thinking delicious memories of hot blood in a still quivering  deer carcass. The second cat was about to speak when suddenly the man coughed and rolled over onto his back, spilling sand over his face and dispersing a fog of flies.
     "Hishaaa!" hissed the first cat. "Still alivvvvve!"
     But his brother, his massive head cocked sideways was looking intensely at a point just below the man's hairline. Stretching forward he sniffed the blood crowned forehead.
     The smell triggered memory. The memory of pain perhaps. The grim odor of life scraping and bleeding against the hard edge of the world....  No. It was something else. Something deeper. More distant ......... And then, it came to him.
     The hairs on his tail began to stick out.
     "It's him," he whispered. He turned and stared at his brother. "It's hhhimmm. It's the Man!"
     Puzzled at first, the other cat stood up and raised his ears as fatigue gave way to a gradual, excited understanding.
     "Whatta we do now?"
     "I stay. Keep the buzzards at bay. You go get Mom. She'll know what to do."
     As fast as thought the big cat powered away, weariness and hunger forgotten; a streak of gold slicing through a gray land as a quarter ton of tawn and brawn, bounded toward the dawn, where the first of Babylon's twin suns was about to rise.
    
                                                                       ON the ROAD to CEDAR MOUNTAIN

    They rode in silence for an hour, entranced by a scene of pastoral tranquility; a perfect balance of color and light; the nostalgic scent of herbs and merry river sound that combined to smooth the mind without overwhelming it. Nansen was reminded of the ineffable mystery that beats at the heart of all beauty.
     Then the road dipped into the shrub-lined marshes along the river's edge, obscuring their view of the valley. They passed a clutter of rude huts crowding the narrow strip between levee and river. Half-naked children stood in the tilted shadows, staring blankly at the cart. The air, stagnant and miasmic, reeked of garbage and human offal and other foul odors. Nansen tossed loaves of bread to the children as they passed, precipitating a loud scramble as a melee of bodies emerged from the huts and fought over the bread. Some of the younger children started to follow the cart. Nansen threw the remaining loaves far behind into the bushes.
     Aya breathed a sigh of relief when the road once more ascended the levee. "Those poor children. Why doesn't anyone help them?"
     "Charity is easy. Achieving a mindset capable of charity is not."
     As she often did in times of agitation, Aya took her flute out. Fingering the stops, she held the instrument but didn't play it.
     "How can people allow children to go hungry? The Compassionate One said ...."
     "Aya, listen to me. There's the world as we want it and the world as it is. Between the two falls the shadow."
     Nansen pause to yawn. "See that zu riding the updrafts? He pointed to the west where a dark speck floated above the hills.
     "Six eyes see better than two. It's said a zu can count the whiskers on a man a league away. It can surely see the City thirty leages or so to the south with its palaces and pleasure gardens and all the other decadent playgrounds of the Imperial Court. There's enough wealth in that one city to feed the poor in our world for a hundred years."
     "It's not fair," said Aya plaintively. "The aristocrats play while the poor go hungry."
     Nansen looked into the aquamarine eyes, the pool of passionate naivete bubbling behind a face he would come to know so well.
     "Welcome to Babylon, baby."