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Joshua Malbin


Understand that El was different back then. He was one demon in a host of equally

unpredictable and bloodthirsty demons, the one who’d attached himself to my family.

Most of the time we knew how to deal with demons. We kept them glutted with

sacrifice blood and they left us alone. El was merely a little more baroque than others in

his directions for daubing and sprinkling that blood around his altar.

Unfortunately, as with all fickle demons there were times when the usual

propitiations didn’t work and El’s temper simply erupted. There had been no hint of

trouble for a long time when out of the blue El came to my uncle Abie’s tent, ranting that

he’d heard the city I called home was full of fags and queers and he wasn’t going to put

up with it anymore. He was heading straight down there to kill us all. When El appeared

in those days he looked like any ordinary man, but my uncle knew how dangerous he

was: he and his wife were both pushing a century, and merely because Sarah laughed at

him El threatened to make her pregnant. She ran off crying, terrified the labor would

snap her pelvis like a wishbone.

So Abie didn’t take him on directly. He didn’t ask what El’s problem was with the

gays, nor point out that I’d been living alongside them for years and thought they were

perfectly lovely people. No, he knew well that while my town had a prominent gay

minority, by far the majority of the people there were straight. So first he got El to agree

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it wouldn’t be fair to kill all the straight people alongside the homosexuals. He called

them “evil men” because sometimes you have to talk to a bigot in his own language if

you want to get through to him. Then he got El to agree that since it wouldn’t be fair to

kill everyone together, he should spare the city if it was evenly split, gay and straight.

And last he jewed him down on the percentage, until at last El agreed that if my town was

one-tenth straight, he’d let it be.

After that Abie decided that since he’d gotten El to agree to impossible conditions,

he didn’t have to worry about me or my town anymore, and didn’t bother to send anyone

ahead to warn me. I only learned about El’s visit after many months, when it was far too

late to do any good. But El sent guys, two of them, to count gays and straights, and they

had the bad luck to show up on the morning of the Pride parade. I was sitting on my step,

waiting for it to pass by, when they arrived and greeted me.

They said they’d come from Abie, which was half a lie since of course he hadn’t

sent them, but I’d probably have invited them to join me anyway. That’s simply what

you do in a hospitality culture. It’s not like they told me they were thinking of killing


Pretty soon the floats started to pass. (I call them floats, but they were really only

donkey carts.) Dolled-up men balanced on them and handed wildflowers and dates to the

spectators. There were dancers and musicians, too, lyre and tabor players, walking

before and behind. The carts nearly touched the building walls hemming the strait,

packed-earth streets, and the dancers and musicians passed literally within arm’s reach,

no more than three abreast. They shouted their usual good-natured innuendos, this year,

at my house, mostly directed at my guests.

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“Oh, honey, you must be angels,” called one man. “Come on and join us—take me

to heaven.”

“Behave yourself, Habbashak,” I said, “or I’ll send down my daughters to convert


To me it was all good fun, but my guests grumbled, their mood obviously darkening

the longer the parade went on. At first I thought, screw ’em, if gay people make Abie’s

hick friends uncomfortable, he shouldn’t have sent them down to the city. But eventually

they got so tense that every little comment literally made them flinch, and I suggested we

go inside.

Just then my good friend Abinoab came by, one of the many, many marchers who

walked the parade in their regular clothes, happy to be part of the show of numbers

without wanting to be showy themselves. I’d known him since I’d first come to the city;

he and his boyfriend at the time had been one of only a handful of people we’d invited to

my younger daughter’s naming ceremony. When I’d confessed to him, in private, that I

was disappointed not to have any sons, he told me not to worry, that was better than

being disappointed in your sons.

He blew me a kiss hello and one of the guests spat back “Fag!” with so much hate in

his face that it twisted his lips open; his teeth were bared like a dog’s.

Abinoab recoiled, though in the narrow lane there wasn’t far he could go. “Lot, what

the fuck?” He was genuinely wounded, and I didn’t blame him. “How can you stand by

these men?”

I pushed the guests into my house and tried to apologize, explaining they were

country relatives and I’d never invited them. But I didn’t think Abinoab was buying it

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and the parade began to pile up, as those nearby slowed to join my friend’s outrage and

others got stuck behind them.

Then everyone in the street froze and fell silent. Their hands all rose together, some

to paw the air around them gingerly, others to clutch at their faces. One cried out, “I

can’t see!” and soon everyone was panicking because none of them could see and in their

blindness they all tried to flee in different directions. They were trapped: any man trying

to escape the crowd ran into a man coming the other way, and if he got past the first man

there was another, and another. And the building walls gave them nowhere to turn.

I backed inside. “Did you do that?” I demanded of the two visitors, who now sat

cross-legged on cushions on my rug.

They nodded. Their faces were appallingly calm, almost beatific.

“It doesn’t matter, though,” said the one who’d insulted my friend. “We’re going to

put them all to death tomorrow.”

I begged them. Believe me, I begged and argued every way I could—even more so

when I came to understand that they intended to murder not only the paraders but

everyone. But they ignored me, saying that they’d save my family because of my

relationship to Abie, but that was all they could do and we’d better pack.

The only other people the men allowed me to warn were the boys betrothed to my

daughters. They were only a few years older than the girls, neither of them yet twenty,

and found it easier to believe I was crazy than that they might not yet know everything in

the world. I tried to convince them at least to warn their own families and everyone else

they knew, and they said they would, but I knew they wouldn’t.

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On my way back from the home of the second boy I met Abinoab on the street. He

started to give me hell for what had happened that afternoon, but I cut him off.

“It’s much worse than that,” I said, and I explained what was about to happen. This

was the closest I came to courage, since it was possible that the two demon-sent men

might be able to eavesdrop and learn I’d disobeyed them. I couldn’t know what they

were capable of. But when I saw my friend I knew I couldn’t simply let him die.

He was silent a long time.

“I believe you, but only because I was there when they struck all of us blind,” he

said. “You understand that if I tell people two men are going to kill us all, most won’t

believe it. Most will still perish.”

I nodded. He fell in with me and we walked a distance together.

“What if we killed them?” he asked. “You could sneak us into your house.”

“I don’t think we would succeed. Anyway El would send more.”

He stopped and looked at me, very grave. “Sooner or later,” he said, “every one of

us needs to defy his God if he wants to be a decent human being. Even if it’s futile.”

He may have been right, and if I’d been a bachelor I might found the will to be

defiant. I might have had the courage to stay and die with my city and all the people I

loved in it. But when you’re a parent and your kids are threatened, you lose the courage

to stand up for anything. I made my daughters pack against their will and they hated me

for it, like I hated making them do it.

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We hit the road early in the morning. All of the possessions we could carry were

piled in oxcarts, and my herders drove the sheep and goats and cows ahead of us. We set

the doves free, but they’re so faithful to their roosts they probably came back later in the

day and died with everyone else. Most of the household bricabrac we left behind.

We could only travel as fast as the herds were willing to be pushed and the oxen

were willing to draw their carts. If you try to force animals to go too fast, they start to

run and become hard to control. So we’d covered at best a few miles when the first

fumes caught up to us. It was an acrid, bitter smell of burnt hair overlaid with a heavy

rotten-egg stench. My wife was walking just ahead of me, and she looked back over her

shoulder to see what could be causing it—and then she wasn’t there anymore. In her

place was a rust-stained gray tufa.

I wheeled on the city-destroyers. “What did you do to her?”

“She cast her gaze back to the city of sin,” said one of the two, I couldn’t even tell

them apart anymore.

“But you never told her not to! Change her back.”

The other one shrugged, or maybe it was the same one. “We can’t. Only El can

breathe life into lifeless earth.”

I put my hand to the knife in the waist-sash of my robe, intending to kill them both,

but before I could get it loose everything went dark and I knew that they’d blinded me. I

sank to my knees and wept, clutching the base of the pile of salt that had been my wife,

whispering that I loved her.

I don’t know how much time passed like that. Hours. When my eyesight returned

the herders and animals were missing and all the oxcarts too, except for one. They’d all

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gone ahead to Zoar, my daughters told me. They alone had stayed behind, and they too

were crushed with grief. I took them by the hands and led them to sit in the cart, and

walked beside the oxen, leading them not straight toward Zoar but to the hills above it.

My elder daughter, who was sixteen, noticed the change in course.

“Zoar might as well be destroyed too,” I muttered. “None of us has any right to be

alive. We should all be dead.”

Maybe I should have hidden such feelings from my children. I had no strength to.

Nearly everyone I cared about had been wiped out in the same day, for no good reason.

Nor was there any good reason I alone had survived.

We stopped at a cave in a fold of the hills, the first shelter I could find with no view

of the valley below. The smoke and sulfur smell reached us even there, but at least there

was no chance of seeing Sodom’s smoldering ruins. I sat on the floor of the cave. My

daughters brought me wine from the oxcart, and I got blackout drunk for most of the next

two days. At night, when I passed out, I dreamt I was making love to my wife. When I

woke up I was happy from that foggy memory, until I remembered the truth behind it and

had to start drinking again. I gave myself no time to recover from my hangovers so I was

physically miserable the whole time, nauseous and prostrate with a raging headache.

The wine eventually ran out and I brought my daughters down to Zoar. They were

shocked to find that city untouched; according to my eldest they’d understood me to say

that everyone else in the world was already dead. I apologized and couldn’t figure out

why she and her sister seemed so appalled.

Not until a few months later, anyway, when their pregnancies began to show and I

grasped whom I’d been screwing while I dreamt of my wife. I maimed my penis then,

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the way Abie had been trying to convince me to do all along, and said a formal curse

against El’s name for slaughtering innocents while leaving me alive.

Maybe El heard. Maybe he will come and kill me too, though so far he’s left me

alone. I’d have thought incest was a more serious sin, but apparently El only hates some

sexual deviants, not all of us. Still, there are gay people in Zoar, just like in Sodom.

There have been gay people everywhere I’ve ever traveled and probably will be

everywhere I ever go. If the demon comes to kill them again maybe I’ll send my

daughters away, with their children I can hardly bear to contemplate, but this time I will

be the decent human being Abinoab wanted me to be. I won’t go too.

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