Balaam Is a Terrible Prophet of Doom (Part I)
Being incapable of uttering curses can be a real liability, especially when you're from a family of professional doomsayers...
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Today’s story is Part I in the larger saga of Balaam, incompetent Prophet of Doom. It takes generous liberties from the canonical tales found in Numbers 22-24. Enjoy!
Balaam, Son of Beor, was about as bad a Prophet of Doom as a person could possibly be.
“What’s the matter with you?” said his mother, smacking him around the ear. “Can’t you stick with the script?”
The sign above the door said “Beor and Sons, Prophets for Hire,” but nobody ever hired Balaam. People who wanted somebody else cursed—a business rival, say, or a mother-in-law—would stand in the entryway and ask for old man Beor, or Balaam’s brother Hob, or even the family’s talking donkey. But whenever Mrs. Beor would drop ten-shekel hints that young Balaam was available, they would scan the rafters and mumble excuses, then slowly shuffle backwards out the door.
“One curse,” Mrs. Beor said to Balaam again, shaking her head. “One little curse, how hard can it be?”
The truth was that for Balaam, one little curse was very hard indeed. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to say the curses—of course he wanted to—it was that he simply couldn’t do it. They choked in his mouth, somewhere between the back of his throat and his lips. Or they came out in gibbering stammering fits, as if each curse clung to his uvula, dug in its heels around his gum line. The noises Balaam did manage to produce were pure babel—and not the impressive kind of mumbo-jumbo, either, which the family might be able to sell. More like a strangulated, hysterical sob—like someone being attacked by their own tongue.
“Again!” said his mother, shoving the clay tablet into his stomach. Balaam looked at the arcane inscription (“‘May their clothing rip in embarrassing places’—⅛ silver shekel”). His lips twisted and jumped, then flatlined with a sputter. His mother glared, then handed him another (“‘May his servants set fire to his beard’—¼ silver shekel or two live pigeons”). His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. She gave him another. He just had time to scan the inscription (“May they step on a crack and break their mother’s back”) before she yanked it back again. “Nevermind that one,” she said.
There was a guffaw from the back of the room. Balaam turned. His father looked on in stony silence while Hob jeered. “Bah!” said Hob, closing one eye and sticking out his tongue. “Bayley Balaam can’t curse anybody!” He stood on his head and wiggled his toes in a highly derisive manner.
“Why can’t you be like your big brother Hob?” snapped Mrs. Beor. “Look how he wiggles his toes just so. See how insulting it is? Who taught him that? Did I? Did you father? No. He comes up with it just on his own.”
“I’m trying, okay?” said Balaam, defensively. “Maybe it’s just not for me.”
“Not for you? Not for you?” This was his father, erupting suddenly—his voice and body rising to match the redness of his face. “We are a family of professional cursers, Balaam! Somebody wants somebody cursed, we take care of it.”
He watched his father look around the shop, as if surveying his domain. The big man’s eyes swept across the low tables covered with amulets, decorated with various depictions of the Evil Eye, to the shelves of incantation bowls, for trapping demons, to the stack and stacks of curse tablets, each one containing a different industry-standard imprecation. (These, it should be noted, are more commonly known as “off-the-rack” curses, though Beor prided himself as a fine purveyor of customizable curses for every occasion.) A look of misty-eye determination crossed the old man’s face.
“Curses, Balaam. That’s where the money is. That’s what people come to buy, and that’s what we give ‘em. Tomorrow morning you try again.”
But when the morning came, Beor was called away on business, and Mrs. Beor went to demand a refund on the latest batch of sculpted fertility goddesses (“Just look at these narrow hips and tiny bosoms!” shouted Mrs. Beor), and Hob, who had taken a more-than-professional interest in haruspicy, was off hunting for animals to disembowel. Balaam and the donkey were left alone to run the shop.
The bell above the entryway rang with a fury—the door having been flung open by a long thin man with an important look on his face. He was followed by a number of soldiers with pointy hats. “I need a curse!” declared the man, and his voice was as flat and forked as a snake’s tongue. Balaam noticed that the thin man’s hat was a little taller and a little pointier than the rest. “The biggest one you’ve got. And I need it—” he narrowed his eyes “—right now!”
“Uh,” said Balaam, because he could think of nothing better to say. “Good morning. Welcome to Beor and Sons.”
The man stopped and stared. “Are you Beor, or Sons? I’m thinking Sons. Definitely Sons, am I wrong?”
“Ah— right,” said Balaam, confused by the phrasing. “Balaam, son of Beor, at your service.” He took a ridiculous and culturally-inexplicable bow. “Look, ah, everyone’s out at the moment, so if I could just get you to wait until—”
“Take him,” snapped the man, turning to the soldiers. “Stick him on that silly talking donkey. Let’s get moving.”
And that is how Balaam, disastrous Diviner of Doom, failed Conjuror of Calamity, incompetent Prognosticator of Peril, found himself on the back of his untrusted steed, on his way to meet the King of Moab, to attempt what would turn out to be the single largest curse ever commissioned in the history of professional cursing. As one might expect, things did not go as planned.
Stay tuned for Part II, coming next week…
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