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A Place Called Shiloh

by David F. Sweet

©1997 David F. Sweet

"...the Bible is constantly sending people into the desert for redemption, because it's there, away from the ease of settled life, far removed from ready water, that they turn to God for sustenance"
Bruce Feiler

Chapter 1

As I lay on the hot sand, face to the sky, watching several large birds circle slowly above me I could not help but wonder at how I had come to be here. Miles from anywhere in a seemingly endless desert with no one, not even the vagabond, with which to share the rigors and loneliness of my journey.

"My Journey" I said aloud to the circling vultures, "Perhaps if I live I'll write a book of that name recounting this trip."

"My Journey" I said again "When did it become my journey anyway? It was your journey" I said sitting up and casting a small stone toward the mound of sand at the bottom of the hill I was resting on.

I had buried the vagabond there and scratched his name on a flat stone which protruded up from the head of the mound. It read simply "Abel". The date seemed unimportant and I knew nothing more about his life than what I had written on the stone. That and a few of other things I could not write because they concerned the living and not the dead.

I began to think back to our meeting the day before. It started with him straggling into town and asking me for a drink from the village well. It was obvious that he had come across the desert and that was something that we tended to look down on in our village. All the elders had made it clear that there was nothing in the desert but sand and nothing beyond the desert but more sand, so anyone emerging from the desert with knowledge contrary to that was obviously delusional.

"I want to tell you about a place called Shiloh" he had said after drinking deeply and resting for a short while "but to tell you the truth, I don't know where to begin."
"Well" I said examining him doubtfully "Why don't you start at the beginning?"
"Too far!" he shook his head rather violently "We don't have that kind of time."
"Uh huh" I said trying hard not to sound rude "Look, I do have other things to do so perhaps, if you're going to tell me, you could just pick a place and begin?"
"Well the place would have to be Shiloh" he said "and the beginning, maybe, would be to tell you that I found it. Out there." he finished, nodding his head in the direction of the desert.

"Hmm. Beyond here? In the desert?" I asked.

"Yes" he said nodding his head vigorously "You've got to believe me. This place is real! I know you believe there's nothing beyond Beulah but it's out there!" he said waving his hand out toward the edge of town "I've been there!"

"OK, tell me about it." I said thinking, if nothing else, at least this might be an interesting way to pass the early evening hours.

He told me about his early life in the village and spoke well of his education in the Fellowship Hall. He had been to the High Place at all the appropriate times and had apparently been considered an aspiring member of The Council at one time. Something had gone wrong though after his ascension to adulthood.

"I was too adventurous for this place " he said "I believed that we were the only village under the Kings control, like I had always been taught. I believed the story about the rebellion and how that all the other villages were destroyed except Shemer, where his enemies live. And I believed that Beulah was the only place where his people had ever lived. Still, something drew me to the desert."

I nodded to let him know I was listening.

"I used to go out there." he said "Just walking".

"Alone?" I had asked him.

"Yes" he said "With no fellowship at all. Just me and my pack carrying some bread, water and a few old maps I found in the library. It was wonderful. I saw things that you cannot see here in the village."

"Things that we no doubt, were not meant to see." I said "But you were alone?"
"Yes" he said slowly and deliberately "I was alone. No elder to read the map for me. No one to share the heat of the day with. No one to hold my hand and lift me up or let me down. And you know what?" he said "I lived."

"I know you lived, that is if you were really there." I said "If you hadn't lived, we wouldn't be here talking now would we?"

"No, you don't understand." he said looking down at the ground and then back up at me "I lived. What ever I was doing here in the village it wasn't life. I think it was just existing, but I mean I really lived!"

"So you think that we should all head out there and live in the desert?" I had asked him.
"No. We need to live here in the village, where we can eat and drink and fellowship but listen there are some things out there in the desert that we need to see."

"Like what?"

"Like Shiloh."

Shiloh. He had this thing about Shiloh, although I could not see what it was that attracted him to the subject. It was some sort of village that he had stumbled on in his travels and it seemed extremely important to him that we knew of it's existence. He had been many places in the desert but Shiloh had impressed him more than any other because it was not on the maps available from the town hall. He had first noticed it noted on an old map from the library and had gone to the Elders to help him figure out the significance of the name. He said that they were very angry about his insistence that it was a village.

"First they told me it was a valley that the shifting sands had filled in long ago" he told me "then they tried to claim that it was an error made by a map maker who had long ago lost his position for carelessness."

"So this Shiloh is a village then?" I asked him as he leaned back against the well and closed his eyes, "Who lives there?"

"No one lives there any more." he said simply.

"Okay. So what's your point then?" I was getting a little irritated with him. He seemed to want to talk about this Shiloh place and yet he really did not seem to have any real knowledge.

"I'm not sure" he said growing secretive all of the sudden "But I'll tell you this..." he added opening his eyes and looking around to be sure that we were still alone "...the elders don't want us to know about it."

"Well then perhaps we shouldn't know about it then." I said "Did that ever occur to you?"
"Why would they want to deny the existence of a village that the old maps in the library acknowledge?" he asked "I guess I should say that the maps used to acknowledge it's existence because all those maps have been altered now."

I don't know why I even listened to him but I did. When I finally got bored with the conversation I went to bed. I felt sorry for him though and let him sleep on my porch that night and in the morning, on my way to my job, I stopped by the library and looked for the name of the village he had mentioned. An old man was seated in the main chamber on a stone bench and I asked him for help.

"Shiloh?" he said quizzically, furrowing his bushy brow "I'm afraid There is no village of that name in the archives young man. Never has been."

"Umm, yes" I said "I see. Well thank you. Where are the desert maps kept anyway sir?"
"There are no desert maps son, no one goes there." He answered narrowing his eyes and watching me suspiciously "Why do you ask?"

"Oh, uh, no reason" I told him backing up a little "Just curious I guess."

"Curiosity can be a very dangerous thing." he said standing up and following me as I made my way back through the curtain that covered the drab plaster doorway.

"I must be off or I'm going to be late for work. Perhaps I could check back later." I told him hurrying off back along the main avenue through the village, and out to the scribe who employed my services for copying legal documents.

I could feel his eyes watching me as I hurried off until finally turning a corner and moving beyond his vision. I was not apparently beyond his thoughts though. The morning passed uneventfully until we broke for midday prayer and Master Scribnal informed me that the Elders had summoned me to answer some questions regarding the visit I had made to the Library that morning.

"I'll go by and see the Elders right after work this evening Master Scribnal" I said acknowledging his note.

"That won't be necessary " he answered coldly "You've been excused for the remainder of the day and may go now."

The confrontation that followed and my flight back home was something that I wish I could forget. I had never seen the elders so angry as they were that day. They questioned me about the vagabond, the library, my lineage and everything else they could think of.

"Shiloh does not exist and you are foolish to be asking questions about it!" shouted Ebeneezer the Chief Elder, "Why have you sought to follow this error?!"

I patiently explained again about the vagabond and told them that I was only seeking to disprove what he had claimed not to prove it by any means. That seemed to appease them some what, and they finally allowed me to leave after making me swear to bring the vagabond back to them to confirm my story. I ran all the way home, hoping to find the vagabond and bring him back with me, but instead I found him waiting on the edge of the desert, beyond my house, with a fresh pack at his feet. I figured he was getting set to head back out the way he had come and I was extremely happy to see that he had not left yet. Until I recognized the pack as being mine and began to think about where he might have gotten the provisions to fill it.

"You thief! You've stolen my pack" I cried "And probably taken all my provisions too!"
"You misunderstand me." he said lifting his hands and trying to calm me down.

Before I could answer, or he could explain, I heard the twang of a bow and the vagabond lurched forward and fell into the sand with an arrow protruding from his stomach. Crimson blood flowed and stained the white tunic that he wore under his blue cloak.

"This pack is for you" he said "Take it and go. I have the maps in there for you already."

"What? I'm not going anywhere!" I said as I spun around and saw the archer who had sent the first arrow winging our way. He seemed to be alone and he was stringing another arrow to fire from the shade of a locust grove 50 yards away.

"You must go" he said struggling to get to his feet "I am too tired to finish this search and now I am wounded."

I have to confess I did not take the pack, or resume his journey, because I believed in Shiloh or even cared about it's existence. I cared nothing for him. Rather I saw what the elders had intended for the vagabond and I knew what I could expect myself if I stayed to face them again. I hoisted the pack to my shoulder and then helped the vagabond to stand. Soon we were scrambling across the desert with arrows falling in the sand around us.

He did not live long, a few more hours, and was not much help before he died. I learned his name and listened again as he told me, roughly, how to read the maps and use the compass he pressed into my hand.

"Curse your stupid Shiloh!" I said as I picked up another rock and flung it at the pile of sand below me on the desert floor "I wish I had never met you!".