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Naamah

by Sarah Blake

Hardcover, 298 pages, Riverhead Books, List Price: $26 |

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Naamah
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Sarah Blake

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NPR Summary

Revisits the story of the Ark that rescued life on earth, and rediscovers the agonizing burdens endured by the woman at the heart of the story. Naamah is a parable for our time: a fable of body, spirit, and resilience.

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Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

Noah's Wife Gets A Name In 'Naamah'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Naamah

one

Naamah is watching the horizon, hoping something will interrupt it and distract her, pull her eye to it, a moment of focus. She is humbled by the flood, but how long can someone reasonably be asked to experience humility?
She hears Noah's steps behind her and turns to him. "You scared me," she says.
"Sorry. I came to find you."
If she positioned Noah just right, along the railing, if she backed away from him, maybe his dark body would be tall enough to break the horizon. "I don't feel well," she says.
"Sick?" He puts his arms around her waist.
There are chickens and other animals wandering the deck. She can hear them, but she can't see them.
"No," she says. "Tired."
"Go tend to an animal."
She sways her body in a loose no.
"Let one nuzzle into your hand."
He's right. That used to cheer her up. "I can't see them anymore," she admits.
"You can't see them?" He comes around beside her, looks at her.
"No," she says. She states it so plainly she surprises herself.
The chickens are around their feet now, knowing Noah often has grain in his pocket. She feels one brush her leg and her body jumps; she hadn't realized how close they were. She doesn't know why she can't see them, but she's almost happy to be free of them, in this one way.
"Maybe you'll be able to see them again tomorrow," Noah says.
But that makes her feel worse. She squeezes her eyes shut.
Noah puts his hand on hers. "Come to bed, won't you?"
"It smells down there," she says.
"Then we'll sleep up here tonight. I'll get blankets."
"Okay," she agrees, and he is already off with purpose in his quick step.
Sleeping on the deck is cold, even under the blankets and folded into Noah, against his large, flat stomach. She remembers nights in the desert, in the tent, sleeping in this same position, but warm. They started so near to home; now, she canÕt say where they are. She thinks that air must get cooler as it crosses the water. She thinks of the air traveling with such freedom across the earth, and she falls asleep.
Her oldest son, Japheth, often stands with her, looking out over the water. HeÕs not much taller than she is. She doesnÕt have to raise her head to look him in the eye when he speaks. He tries to keep conversation light, tries to keep her happy, as if her unease depends on whether he can make her laugh. But sometimes he lets her lead the conversation where sheÕd like.
"Do you think about how many animals died?" she asks.
"Yeah."
"Do you think about how many people died?"
"Yeah, Mom."
"Do you think about the little things? Like what clothes they were wearing?"
"No."
"Only the big things."
"Yeah."
"Like how terrible it would be to drown?"
"Yeah."
She turns even further to the water. "It's all I can think about." She opens her shoulders to the floodwaters, which she wants to call the sea. "When do you think it will go down?"
"Soon. I have to think it's soon."
"Yes," Naamah says.
Her first labor, with Japheth, had been the most difficult. She had cramps through the night, then the mucus fell out, bloody and thick, then the pain, then the water, then, eventually, Japheth. They saw his head so many times, with each push, before she could get him out. But she did. And then her next sons came easily, as if Japheth had broken something that never needed to be set right again.
When Japheth was a teenager, he noticed that one of his teeth still had a ragged top, as all his teeth had when they first tore through his gums. He ran his fingernail over it again and again. It made a small click only he could hear. He asked Naamah if it would ever flatten, but she didn't know.
As soon as she birthed him, she knew that his body would be the most unpredictable thing in her life. It should have been obvious. Noah's body was not hers. No one's body was hers but her own. But after growing Japheth, after seeing the shape of his head through her skin, she felt deeply that his body was hers. And that feeling never passed. Later, as she had her other sons, the feeling grew less distinct and gave the illusion of passing, but then something would happen-say, a skin tag growing at an alarming rate near the crease of his elbow-and she would feel it again. How he belonged to her. And how separate they were.
She also began to feel separate from her own body. During that first labor, she had developed a hemorrhoid, which she didn't notice until weeks later, when it was no longer filled with blood, just a fold of skin that refused to retreat. If she gathered it up and pushed it down, it felt like a soft, round button. Otherwise it sagged. Her body made less and less sense to her as it seemed to reject itself.
But she loved to think of that first labor, holding on to that memory more vividly than others, than normal, happy times, eating dinner, playing games with the boys, telling them stories. She wanted to remember those times, but what could she do? Now she revisits her body in full contraction, covered in sweat. She can see the color of the sand beside her. She can feel the desert air rush through the tent, opened in the back and front, to cool her. She can no longer smell it, but the rest is enough.
Naamah lays out lunch on a blanket on the deck. Bowls of hummus, flatbread, dried figs, water to pass around. Noah and Japheth come to the deck first, followed by the younger sons, Shem and Ham, and then each of her sons' wives, as if theyÕd been speaking somewhere, privately.
"Good morning," Noah says, beaming at his children.
They all say their good mornings, first to Noah and then to each other, nodding little nods, smiling, sitting down in spots that have become theirs in the weeks since the rains stopped.
They eat quietly. They seem to pause to smell the wind off the sea, but it is not the sea; the smell is not salty but cool and crisp and not unpleasant.
Shem shoos away two goats that Naamah cannot see. Ham's wife, Neela, tosses a bit of bread in their direction. Naamah watches the bread land, then watches it disappear. She can picture the animal so clearly: its bent neck, its lips and teeth. She doesn't need to see it.
"Don't do that," Naamah says.
Neela looks embarrassed until Ham places his hand on her hand, and Neela remembers she doesn't need to mind Naamah.
For forty days and forty nights, they had to stay below deck. One time, Naamah undressed and snuck up. The rain hurt her skin as it fell on her, as she watched it beat the deck and then rush off the sides through the bars of the railing. The boat rocked, but not enough to worry her, just enough to let the water show how it could move together, just enough that one could imagine how waves form.
When she couldn't take it any longer, she returned to her room with Noah, her brown skin beaten pink. Noah rushed to her with a blanket and held her, dried her, warmed her, and she hid how much it hurt her, to be held then. The next day it was easy enough to avoid anyone's touch. And the day after that her skin had calmed.
She had wanted to try going out again, to test the feeling, but she was overwhelmed by her new understanding of the deaths of the people God no longer wanted.
Now, after lunch, Naamah sits on the deck with a mallet and chisel, some rope, and a piece of wood, slightly longer than the width of her. She hammers holes into the wood and threads the rope through. Once the rope is in place, running along the underside of the wood and splaying out of the other side like two tentacles, she sits down on the wood and pulls the ends of the rope up around herself.
She raises her arms above her head, trying to imagine the safest way to position the rope if she were deadweight. She lets herself slowly feel out the differences in the rope, higher and lower, with her head hung and with it raised. The rope is rough and reminds her of a braid of hair.
When everything feels right, she readjusts the lengths of rope on either side of her and ties a square knot, securing it. She tests it again, her hands above her, her head leaning into the softness of her own upper arm.
She's so near to completing the swing that she fills with excitement. She has been building it in her mind for days and has to remind herself not to rush now.
Finally, she adds another rope to the end of her first with a sheet bend knot. She uses two half hitches to tie it to the railing by the stairs. In her eagerness, she pulls on it harder than necessary, to make sure it holds. Her hands are burned. Where they were already chapped, they bleed.
Blood marks the wood of the seat when she grabs it and throws it over the side. She closes her eyes to listen, to hear if the rope is long enough to reach the water. It is. She hears it splash. She takes a few deep breaths, reveling in this small glory. Then she pulls the seat back up, leaves it to mark the deck a shade darker with its wetness, for as long as the sun will allow.
When the boys were young, they would walk quite far to the river for water. The boys would get their feet wet in the shallows and run away from the muddy bank, as fast as they could, hoping their feet would stay wet long enough to make footprints when they reached the sand. ShemÕs small feet were somehow always dry when he got there; Ham left only heel prints because heÕd run on tiptoe through the softer dirt. Japheth teased them both.
Naamah caught Shem looking at the bottoms of his feet as if something were wrong with them. She took off her shirt, wet it in the river, and laid it down. Ham immediately stepped on the shirt and made a detailed footprint, but Shem looked at her for permission. She nodded him on. He jumped on the shirt and then jumped away, leaving two perfect little feet staring back at them in the sand.
Naamah runs through the lower deck, calling for Noah. She passes the wives in a room, laughing about something. Sometimes they bring a small animal into a room, say a chinchilla, and laugh at its behaviors, sharing the story with the family later over dinner, cooing, How adorable. Naamah has no time for them.
"Noah!"
She passes more doors. By now, even though she can't see the animals, she knows where each of them rests. They used to make a lot more noise than they do now, and while she is glad for the relief, she worries they've grown accustomed to the boat. That makes her feel sick.
"Noah!"
Noah comes around a corner with a concerned look on his face; she's going so quickly that she runs into him. She laughs, and that catches him off guard and puts him at ease at the same time.
"What is it?" he says.
"Come with me." She would grab his hand but the halls are too narrow for that. She leads him to the deck, where the swing is. She undresses quickly. He smiles but doesn't understand until it's too late, until he sees her jump over the side of the boat.
"Naamah!" he shouts after her, and he immediately starts undressing, his eyes fixed on the water. His shirt is off when she resurfaces, spitting and splashing.
"Are you okay?" he shouts.
"Yes!" she yells back. She looks up and she's smiling. "When I'm done swimming, throw down the swing!"
"Are you done now?" Even yelling, she can hear the worry mixed into the joke.
"No! No, let me enjoy this!"
"It's not too cold?"
"I'm fine!"
She starts to follow the length of the boat, swimming on her side, but the boat is too long. Her breath tires first. Then her arms. She has to stop and float on her back, but this view of the sky is different, obscured by the boat, shaded but still lit, blue.
When she no longer wanted to go out in the flood's rain, she'd still come to the trapdoor that led to the deck and listen to it falling on the boat.
She had heard stories of light rains, of rains that pitter-pattered, that sprang lightly, but she was used to desert rains that came on fast and left everything drenched. She thought the flood rains would be like that, too. But they weren't. Their sound was horrible and flat in its constancy.
If she had to describe it, she would recall how each of her sons had, at some point, discovered that if they peed on a rock, the pee would splash. They would pee as hard as they could, aiming at an ant or a leaf, until their legs were covered in a spray of their own pee.
The rain reminded her of that, except that the rain came in a million streams. Which made her imagine God as a being with a million penises. Which terrified her. But she feared that He would see her terror and punish her for it, so she tried to feel love, instead, for the many-penised creature inside her head.
She hears the swing slapping the side of the boat.
"Naamah, come back up! Please!"
Naamah swims over to the swing, grabs the rope, pulls herself up, swings her legs through, and seats herself on the wood. She positions herself exactly as she'd planned, but it feels different this way, her legs hanging heavy over the wood.
"Ready," she calls up to him.
As he starts to pull, she uses the balls of her feet to bounce up the boat. Otherwise her body would be scraped against it. The boat would lick her coarse.
When Noah and Naamah had gone looking for a place in the desert to build the ark, they found a trove of cypress trees that God had made for them. They cut down one and fashioned a giant tub and a small bucket. They collected sap in the small bucket, from every tree, and gathered it all in the tub. Then they began to cut down the small forest.