Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Man Who Wailed at the Sea

27 [Shalamu] (month), Shanatu 84 (year)

There once was old Ummu Amtumi whose wise thoughts just outnumbered the many creases in her weathered face. It was said that she was born with words already written on her tongue. On a bright day she hobbled off to the grocers to pick up bread and honey and apples when she saw a young boy crying. You see, he held a perfect ice cream cone but the ice cream had splattered onto the sidewalk. He cried and cried. Old Ummu Amtumi could not stand to see a little one weep so—such a gentle lady was she—so she hobbled to the little boy.
                The boy tried to scoop up the melting remains in his round fingers.
                Said Ummu Amtumi to the boy: “There, there, yaldu, that won’t do. You mustn’t eat that.”
                “Why not, Ummu Amtumi?” Everyone knew Ummu Amtumi in that town, even the little boy.
                “You’ll make yourself sick. See, it already has someone else’s old chewing gum on it and a piece of trash.”
                “But I want my ice cream Ummu. I want it. It’s mine.”
                “It may have been yours, but it belongs to the ground now. Here. Let’s share my apple.” She often shared what wealth she could even though she was poor; may we all be so generous.
                “I don’t want your apple. I want my ice cream.”
                “Here now, yaldu, it does no good to cry.” She reached into her flaking black handbag and pulled out a clean, wrinkled handkerchief scented with mint and sweet old perfume to wipe the poor boy’s muddy tears. “This reminds me of a story. Would you like to hear it? Good.” She sat the boy next to her on the brick retaining wall in front of the store.
                And old Ummu Amtumi began her tale.

Let me tell you, the Deities were everywhere back then. And then there was Yatnu. Yatnu was a rich man with a fine stout coat that had buttons which glimmered like the sun. He had a wide belly and ate the finest foods like caviar and expensive cheese. He had a good son and a good daughter, and the kindest of wives. His father lived with them in their fine house by the sea. Oh it was such a grand house, with an en suite spa bathroom, a room for each of the children and the grandfather, hardwood floors, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances. Everything new. Everything the best. Everything shining.
                You see, the man was deeply worried all the time. Nothing was ever good enough. He would go to work at his investment firm every day and he would be surrounded by people who had things and people who had money, and people who thought too much of people who had things and had money. He felt like he was less than them because they had so much more. Every time he would buy the newest phone or the newest computer he could find, and one of his clients would tell him that it was already old and look, here’s the newest one instead. They didn’t laugh at the man. Who knows whether they meant to poke fun of him or not, but he felt that way.
                The deities had blessed Yatnu aplenty but he could not see it. Said he to the deities that he believed didn’t exist, “I don’t believe in you. If you were real, you would make me happy.” He felt a hole of sadness in his liver. The hole ate away at him and he had to fill the hole. Poor Yatnu couldn’t see past his own nose.
                Here is what he did see: he saw that his furniture was out of style, so he got rid of it and bought new tables and chairs.
                His wife said: “Yatnu, why did you buy new furniture? The other chairs and tables are still good. There are no scratches on them.”
                He said to her: “They are not good. Others who come to our house will think our furniture is old and shabby and that we have no class.”
                His father said: “It may look nice, but it is no good for old bones. I can’t get comfortable.”
                His son and daughter said nothing, but agreed with their grandfather since the furniture was not easy on young growing bones, either.
                Yatnu installed a small home theater with velvet-clad folding seats and a flat screen plasma tv and special low lighting.
                His wife said: “I won’t be able to knit while I watch a movie.”
                His father said: “I don’t know what to do with all of these remote controls when I want to watch my western.”
                His son and daughter said nothing, but weren’t happy because they couldn’t play quietly during a movie: there was no room for it.
                Yatnu bought specially tailored new clothes, maybe hoping to hide the ugliness he felt beneath a shining veneer.
                His wife said: “But you are always handsome to me.”
                His father said: “I wish I were your age again, so young and strong.”
                His son and daughter said nothing, but knew that he wouldn’t go play outside with them in those clothes: they’d get muddy or grass-stained.
                None of the changes made Yatnu any happier.
                Good. Such as it was with Yatnu, and such it continued for a long time, until one season when the tides had gotten steadily higher.
                Higher one day. (Ummu Amtumi put her hands to her knees.)
                Higher the next day. (Ummu Amtumi put her hands to her ample belly.)
                Yatnu would go out on his porch and look at the sea, and he would scratch his head. He would roll his fine pantlegs up, take off his leather shoes and walk along the beach. He would look at the sea and he would scratch his head.
                His wife saw the tides rising, and she found a little cottage on the hill. The son and daughter were older and stronger by then and they helped moved some of the family’s treasures into the little cottage. It was a tough place to live when one had become accustomed to the good life. But the good family had determined to bear up and refused to complain. The son and daughter had to share a room with the grandfather. There was one bathroom. The toilet would sometimes stop up. The appliances in the kitchen were old and scratched, but they worked well enough. The cabinets were ugly. The countertop was out-of-style formica. The television was so old that it was analog and no longer worked with the new digital settings. They left their flatscreen behind because it was too complicated to disconnect from the speakers, the DVD, the gaming station, and all. The new furniture was too big for the cottage, so they made do with folding chairs, beanbag chairs, and card tables. But it had a fire place, and it had a good view of the sea, and it had cheerful neighbors, and it had a pretty little flower garden. And best of all, it had love.
                Where was Yatnu when all of this moving and rearranging occurred? He was there on the shore, staring at the sea and scratching his head.
                And then the worst news imaginable came on the little radio in the cottage as the wife prepared a casserole, and the kids did their homework at the kitchen table, and the grandfather worked his crossword puzzle. A hurricane was coming. She raised her hands to the flaking ceiling and she praised Mother Athirat for giving her the wisdom and the strength to move her family from the fine house on the sea. She prayed that Baʻal Hadad see fit to spare them all from disaster. And she prayed that ‘Athtart would help her husband come to his senses and get in out of the rain. She looked out past the bright red kitchen window curtains to the beach beyond and saw her husband.
                He had stopped scratching his head. He wept now. He wailed, even. His fierce, hot tears mingled with the cold rain and salt water. He raised his fist against Yammu, the sea god, and he said: “Roll back, O Yammu, roll back or I will make Ilu, god who has created both you and me, roll you back!” (Such futile pride!)
                He grabbed handfuls of water and tried to throw it back to sea. (Ummu Amtumi made a throwing motion with her hand.)
                He grabbed handfuls of seafoam and tried to throw it back. (Ummu Amtumi made her throwing motion again, and nearly toppled off the low brick wall.)
                But who can grab the sea? Who can grasp water tightly? No one, not even Yatnu. Water will only cling in droplets to your skin and slip through your fingers the tighter you hold them. (Ummu Amtumi opened her hand to show she held nothing.)
                 Yatnu dug up to his elbows in the sand, desperately trying to build a retaining wall as the crisp waves cascaded ever closer to his fine house. He yelled up to his family in the cottage, demanding their help, but no mother worth her milk would send her children to Yatnu’s useless war against the sea. Why her children would both drown, and all would be lost! Her son and daughter would become zhiluma, hungry shade-ghosts to roam the earth, unhappy and wreaking havoc.
                Good. So Yatnu had no strength against the raging sea. You see, Yammu the sea god had heard all he could of this prideful man’s moanings. Here the deities had blessed the man more than most people and yet he ignored each and every blessing, right down to his healthy children, his kind wife, and his wise father. Well Yammu had enough of that, so he decided he would push the man’s fine house into the sea. Yammu the sea god didn’t care whether or not Yatnu would ever realize how blessed he was. Enough was enough. A saltwater surge rushed against the house and pulled it into the dark, churning waves. (May you not see such misfortune!) He tried to collect remains of the house, but it grew dangerous.

                “Like you, little yaldu, and how you tried to pick up your ice cream from the sidewalk, that was how Yatnu was with his house.” Said Ummu Amtumi.
                Said the boy: “But Ummu Amtumi it’s not the same at all!”
                Said Ummu Amtumi: “Will the sidewalk give you back your melted ice cream?”
                Said the boy: “No. Of course not.”
                Said Ummu Amtumi: “Neither will the sea give back poor Yatnu’s fine house. It is gone. But you will see, for there are other blessings that Yatnu overlooked. And so the same with you.”
                Ummu Amtumi reached in the reused brown paper grocery bag and gathered her apple and her honey, and she reached into her purse and found a paring knife for the apple. (She was quite resourceful!) She pared and sliced the apple as she continued her story.

                Now don’t you say anything. Yatnu had gotten to the safety of a large boulder, but he would not be safe for long. If he didn’t find shelter, he would join the splinters of his house.
                His family called and called.
                “Don’t you love me?” The father asked.
                “Don’t you want to get warm by the fire we made for you?” The son and daughter asked.
                “Don’t you still want me as I want you?” The wife asked.
                The proud man decided he had better do something fast. Either he would throw himself upon the waves or swallow his pride and go live in that little hovel (for a hovel is what he thought it was). Although to him swallowing his pride was like eating a swarm of locusts, he was not ready yet to die. He climbed, and slid, and climbed, and slid, and climbed some more. His family threw out a rope and they all held on to the other end. He climbed and finally made it to the little cottage on the hill. Yatnu’s family wrapped him in a warm, dry blanket and brought him to sit by the fire. It was then that he first felt it—that warmth you feel when you are grateful. He realized that the hole he felt his liver was something that he himself had made. He had family, he had a dry roof over his head, and he was surrounded with goodness. He understood now and he felt sad for the clients at the investment firm who would never know where true wealth lay. After the storm abated the family invited their new neighbors over; they helped put the flower garden back to rights, and they brought over tables and chairs and food. The neighborhood had a great feast, but no one is greater than the god Ilu. They feasted on butter, and honey, and meat, and all sorts of good foods, they ate and they drank, and they lived.

Ummu Amtumi said to the boy: “So. Are you going to stop wailing at the sidewalk like Yatnu to the sea?”
                The boy, a bit sheepish, said: “Yes, Umma Amtumi.”
                “Would you like a bite of my apple?”
                The boy sighed, “Ok.”
                Ummu Amtumi poured a little honey on the apple slice. The boy asked “Umma, what are you doing?”
                “It is the new year. Apples and honey mean our year will be sweet.”
                “But I didn’t know you had honey. I like honey lots. You didn’t tell me there was honey and I like honey as much as I like ice cream.”
                Ummu Amtumi knew that the boy in losing one blessing had also learned he was surrounded by even more.
                 And the tale floats on the rivers. And you, my friends, are cheerful givers. Seven apples appeared, you my reader ate one and another woman ate one, and yet another ate one, and maybe your friends will take what is left.

Author’s Note:
I wrote this tale using techniques and occasional stock phrases found in Moroccan Jewish folktales: there are formulaic phrases that are just as necessary as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” are to Western folktales. The tales are told in with simple language, repetition, and a conversational tone, often having one tale within another. The story should be easy enough to remember, retell, and embellish or change, and it should be a good story for any age from three to one hundred and three.
                 “Yaldu” means “boy” in Ugaritic. In Ummu Amtumi’s name, the word “ummu” means mother, and Amtumi is an actual Canaanite feminine name which means “handmaid.” The name Yatnu means “gift.”
                I included the apples and honey in honor of the new year, for both our Natib Qadish religion and for Judaism, in hopes that your year ahead (and mine!) shall be filled with sweetness and that we may always taste the sweet above the bitter. To learn more about our new year fruit harvest holiday, 'Ashuru Mothbati, please visit 'Ashuru Mothbati: Festival of Dwellings & Canaanite New Year.

Image Credits: 


  1. That was such a charming story, with a perfect blend of the ancient world with the modern one. Thank you for sharing the tale! :)

  2. A sweet and clever tale, thanks for sharing it. :)

    I am indulging in a bit of a variation on the apples and honey tradition this year- caramel apples, a quintessential American autumn treat! Hope you have a wonderful New Year celebration.

    1. Mmmmm...caramel apples! How delicious. I can already smell them. I hope you have a lovely autumn, Monica, and a delightful new year as well.

  3. A fine yarn, however it really would not have been that hard to take the flatscreen; just disconnect all plugs that don't lead to the wall outlet (there's only one)!

    1. Hahaha! Goodness me! Well, perhaps they would have had a difficult time hauling it to the new home and Yatnu's wife preferred to clutch the family photos instead...

  4. Oh yay! This page is so amazing! Major kudos. :D

  5. This reminds me of Odysseus when the Gods like Poseidon-Neptune forbid him from returning home.