Born a farmer’s son in the Pacific Northwest, Stant Litore took the college road and eventually earned his PhD in English, but remains passionate for things that grow. He spent several years in a dim corner of a library, repairing bruised and battered books, before heading overseas to backpack through Europe. Haunted by the hunger and poverty he witnessed at home and abroad, he began spinning stories about the hungers that devour us and the hopes that preserve us. Today he lives in Colorado with his wife and their two daughters, writing about the restless dead and the restless living
The following is an excerpt from Litore’s most recent installment in his Zombie Bible series, Strangers in the Land, currently available from 47North in both trade paperback and e‑book form. Strangers takes its cue from Judges 4 and the story of Deborah, a strong prophetess and warrior who preserves the law and fights for her people against Canaanite forces and, as it turns out, the undead. – The Editors
The People of the Covenant had many judges, but only one navi who told them the future and the past and found truth. She heard their pleas four times a week from a wooden seat her husband had carved for her beneath the great olive tree on its hill near Shiloh. The tree had branches that spread wider than the roof of a cedar house, and it had been standing there, tall and green, when Yeshua the war leader first led their ancestors to the land. Still rich with life, it served now as a visible reminder to all who came before the navi’s seat that the fertility and possession of this land of promise, this land of milk and honey and olive groves, came with a high cost: the keeping of the Law and the Covenant, that commitment to ways of living that alone kept the People clean and secure in a world where heathen tribes or the living dead might rise up in the night and devour them.
To keep the Covenant meant olive oil and abundant fields of wheat and barley, many births among the flocks, and many children.
To break it — that meant a curse: blight and barrenness and unclean death.
Let the People look to the navi’s seat and remember this.
Devora the navi sat there now with the full authority of the Law at her back, her eyes hard among early wrinkles, her graying hair glowing in that softened light that comes before sunset. A massive, broad-shouldered man stood behind her with a stout ashen spear ending in a bronze head and the long, uncut hair that was the visible sign of his vow. As a nazarite, Zadok lived a life that had no meaning but the wielding of the spear and the defense of the tribe of Levi. He had trained his body for this. Zadok was not a farmer, a tanner, a vintner, or a priest. He was one who preserved life and dealt death when needed. In all the land, only four others shared his vow.
Two supplicants had just turned from Devora’s seat to make their way down the slope, one with a relieved look, the other with a scowl. Their argument over the possession of a bull had nearly drawn blood, and the details of the case were such that the seventy judges in Shiloh could not decide it and had sent the two men to the olive tree. But no vision had come to Devora to reveal where there was guilt and where there was not, and in her frustration the navi had resolved the matter by deciding that both men together would take the bull and give the animal to the priests, who would offer it up as an olah, a burnt offering before God. In this one act they would sacrifice their dispute and atone for the discord they’d brought to the camps of the People. This case, like others that day, had reminded Devora how divided the People were, how provisional their commitment to the covenants they’d made with God and with each other. In light of the evil news this morning had brought to the valley below, this division alarmed Devora. She sat very still, anxious to end the day’s judgments and return to the camp. She was intensely grateful for Zadok’s steadying presence behind her.
The people gathered on the slope below parted to let the two supplicants by. There were maybe thirty men and women, some standing, others seated on great slabs of rock that past supplicants had pulled free of the scree on the west side of the hill near the cairns of the dead. Beyond the supplicants lay the valley, filled with the white tents of Shiloh. That land was lush with tall grasses and stands of oak and terebinth near the water; faint from the far slopes across the river came the lowing of herds, many of them her husband’s. The slow river wound eastward on its way to meet the Tumbling Water, which ran through all the land from the Galilee hills in the north to the dead sea in the south where no fish were — and where the salt in the water was so thick a man could lie on the surface without sinking. Where the salt on the shore stood in tall white pillars, shaped like tents or women or creatures the Hebrews had not met before even in nightmares. Like so many reminders that the land was strange to them and they still strangers in it, and their possession of its fields and waters a blessing that could yet be revoked, a promise that could yet be rescinded.
As Devora looked out over the supplicants, she decided she had time before sundown to sit in decision over one more case. It was her responsibility to see as many as she could, yet she was weary. She yearned for a restful Sabbath meal with her husband. The cases of the day had not succeeded in distracting her from her real worry — the armed camp that had set up a few miles downriver around the tent of a chieftain called Barak ben Abinoam, bringing with it news of walking dead in the north.
Devora searched the supplicants’ eyes — herdsmen, levites, craftsmen — for some sign of an easy case, though only the most difficult were sent to her. A stir among those lowest on the slope drew her attention. People were drawing together as though to form a wall as a woman approached them, climbing unsteadily up the hill with a bundle clutched in her arms. Her lank hair hung forward over her face, and she was wrapped in a blanket that looked to be coarse wool. A salmah, the poorest of garments. One shoulder was free of the wool, bare and dirtied with the stain of a long and sweaty walk. Devora did not recognize her from the nearby camp at Shiloh nor from any of the herders’ camps in the surrounding valleys. She might have come a long way, wearing nothing but that salmah and her long, ragged hair, and carrying nothing but that bundle she held.
One of the supplicants, a white-robed levite, stepped directly into her way and must have said something that Devora couldn’t hear from her seat; she saw the young woman — a girl, really — lift her head and spit in the levite’s face. The man lifted his hand but did not strike, as though reluctant to touch with his bare skin this woman who came strange and dirtied to the navi’s hill.
The other supplicants formed a circle around the girl. A few who did not share the levite’s hesitation began shoving her, as though to push her back down the slope. Seeing the girl stumble to her knees, Devora hissed through her teeth. She didn’t want complications; the day had been tiring enough. The seat of decision was hers and there would be no stoning or reviling or barring of any supplicant from her hill unless it was at her word. She wanted to know what was going on, and quickly. She lifted her hand.
“Let the girl come!” she called, her voice sharp and clear in the late afternoon heat.
Silence fell over the hill.
The supplicants stepped away from the girl, a few of them with visible reluctance, and left an open path to the bare, trampled space before the navi’s seat. Now all their eyes were on Devora; she felt them, even as she kept her own on the girl who was stumbling the last fifty paces up to the olive tree. The navi put up her hand once the girl had come near enough, and the girl stood there with her eyes lowered, her shoulders shaking, her hands clutching the bundle as tightly as though it were her very life.
Devora knew at once something was wrong, badly wrong, and Zadok stirred almost imperceptibly behind her; he felt it too. The bundle the girl held drew the navi’s gaze.
“What brings you here, girl?” she said softly, without lifting her eyes from the bundle. “Who has wronged you?” Those four words were her ritual, her invitation to any who came to speak with her beneath the olive. Her promise that she would hear them before making a judgment.
The girl shook without speaking, and Devora saw the terror and wild hope in the girl’s eyes. She also saw that this was not a girl of their People; her sharp cheekbones and the kohl beneath her eyes, smeared from the girl’s tears, betrayed her. She was a Canaanite girl, though it was possible she was captive or wife to one of the People. Her features were those of the north, of the Galilee hills, and the state of her sandals and the half-healed scrapes on her shins beneath the ragged hem of her garment told the story of a long journey on foot, carrying her bundle down out of the hills to this olive tree.
The anguish in the girl’s eyes was a loud demand, though silent; it made Devora wary. The girl was heathen, keeper of no Covenant, a threat to the sons of the People. Devora wanted suddenly to turn the girl away. She could do this easily. The girl was not of the People. And she had not been sent here by the seventy judges — she had walked right to this hill and tried to shove through the supplicants who were already waiting. Devora could just send the girl to Shiloh to wait.
This girl had come willingly to the olive tree, in a land her strange, soft people had once possessed. She had come even as any daughter of the People might, to seek the navi’s knowledge and the navi’s justice. And the words of the Law spoke of how the People were to treat such as her:
Shelter the stranger you find in your land, for you also were strangers in the land of Kemet where none gave you shelter. Forget not your suffering in the land of Kemet.
Even had there been no such words in the Law, this girl had come to her. To the navi. With that anguish, that demand in her eyes.
She could not be turned away.
Devora felt a chill, a premonition that was instinct and not prophecy. She made her voice stern. “Who has wronged you, girl?” But suddenly that seemed the wrong question. She could see it in the girl’s eyes. Whatever this girl might tell her, it would not be a situation where justice could be meted out between her and another. Whatever judgment she would ask would not be one Devora was prepared to make.
“Navi—” The girl’s voice broke. Her hands whitened around the bundle she held.
“You stand before the Law and the Covenant,” Devora said sharply. “Why have you come, Canaanite?”
“Help me.” The girl’s voice was raw from crying. The plea in her tear-reddened eyes was one of panic, one woman’s cry to another. “They say you approach the Hebrew God without any veil between you. Please. Beg him to help me.”
Her hand shaking, the girl peeled away one corner of the bundle, and Devora wrinkled her nose at a stench of ripe decay. The bundle was a swaddled infant, less than a week old; the girl’s back was to the other supplicants below, and only she and Devora and Zadok behind the navi’s seat could see the infant. See what was wrong.
Devora’s breath hissed between her teeth.
Unclean! A wild cry in her mind, a cry as ancient and forlorn as broken tombs in a desert place. A cry her people had made around fires in the wilderness long before she or anyone she knew was born. Unclean!
The infant opened its reddened eyes and reached its hands feebly toward the navi, tiny fingers clutching at the air. Its mouth opened and let out a high-pitched moan. Devora felt terribly cold. The child’s skin was gray. Much of the infant’s left leg was gone, where some creature had bitten into it and torn away flesh and soft cartilage, perhaps only a moment before the child’s mother had been able to rescue it.
Its eyes gazed on the navi, but those eyes were dull and dry like small stones.
The infant was not alive.
It would never again draw milk from the young Canaanite’s breasts. It would never crawl or learn to walk. Its hair would never grow even a fingernail’s width, nor would it ever void its bowels.
But it would hunger.
Devora listened to that high, unwavering moan for one long moment, feeling not only chilled but old: the ache in her wrists and fingers, the sharp needles that lived in her back. Swallowing against the dryness in her throat, she motioned to the man who stood behind her. After an instant’s hesitation, Zadok set aside his spear and plucked from the girdle about his waist two gloves of dried goatskin. He drew them on, then moved forward quickly to seize the child.
The girl shrieked, tried to leap away with her infant, but the man caught her arm, pulled her savagely back, even as she kicked at him and screamed, her eyes dark with horror. He took up the baby by its remaining leg, wrenching it from her. He held the girl away from his body, and she clawed wildly at his arm, thrashing. Her salmah fell open, revealing a body thin and wasted, with great folds of skin slack from a childbirth that could not have happened more than a couple of weeks before.
“Navi!” the girl screamed. “Navi!”
The man hesitated, looked to Devora, even as the girl fought his grip. The infant wriggled in the air, hissing like an asp, its small arms moving. The people below on the slope could see it now, and several of them cried out.
Devora tensed. That corpse writhing in the nazarite’s grip was her most terrible fear made flesh. “Zadok,” she said—
Then, between one beat of Devora’s heart and the next, it happened.
The air around her heated, as though the navi were standing in a desert. A dry and violent heat that overcame her and swept into her. Devora knew what it meant; it was the shekinah, the holy presence of God, the same heat that dwelled over the Ark in the Tent of Meeting at Shiloh. Devora braced herself, and then the vision came. The seeing of what might happen.
She saw shambling figures lurching through the valley below. Some of them were on the slope below her, others were by the river. Still more were among the tents, small at this distance. Herds of them, all swaying as they walked. Arms lifted as though yearning for an embrace. The scent of decay stank sweetly in Devora’s nostrils. She coughed painfully and passed her hand over her eyes, which burned now with strain.
Her vision cleared, mercifully. There was only the girl screaming and Zadok the nazarite with the child clutched in his hand. And the supplicants below with ashen faces, the hill on which they stood, and around them the wide fields of heather and barley under a pale sky. No other dead, only that small, moaning infant.
Her lips tasted of salt; in the heat of God’s presence all the moisture had been baked from them, leaving only that taste behind.
She forced herself to breathe. Deeply, fully.
It was the future she had seen, but it was not the truth. Not yet. It couldn’t be. It mustn’t be. In her mind, she heard the screams outside her mother’s tent, screams that went on and on until they died in a gasp of breath. That was a memory, that was the past. She tried to shove it back as she turned cold eyes on the Canaanite girl. Thirty years ago, her people had brought the unclean death into the land. Now it was happening again.
“Please, navi,” the girl cried, her face twisted in pain and fear. “Please, pray to the Hebrew God. There must be something the gods can do. He didn’t die of illness or hunger or any wild animal. It’s unjust. The gods have to give him back! Please, navi, please, navi!”
The girl’s cries pulled at her, but Devora could not afford to pity her. The miracle the girl hoped for was not Devora’s to provide. It was brutally clear what she had to do, to avert what she had just foreseen. Her life had been a series of acts of extreme and necessary justice. Keeping the Law, protecting the People — this mattered more than one girl’s pain. She met the Canaanite’s eyes and made her voice hard as the edge of a blade. “Don’t be foolish, girl. Only one thing can be done. Go home; your husband will give you more children.” Devora turned to Zadok. “Do what must be done,” she said.
The nazarite gave her a grim nod. Unlike the others who’d taken the nazarite vow, Zadok ben Zefanyah had not made his covenant with the high priest, but with the navi. Devora had been there the night his father died defending the priests, had been the one person in the camp to stop and speak with the boy as he stood by his father’s corpse.
His vow and the events of his life had shaped him, she knew, into a man who grieved deeply but did not flinch; when the corpses he’d seen and the acts that had been required of him returned to his heart in the dark hours of the night, he would drown the memory of them in the heaviness of barley beer (the only violation of his vow that he permitted himself) or in the sweet softness of a woman’s body. The dawn would find him slumped over his cup or over his lover’s breasts, weeping. But his cries would pass. He would stand, unsteadily a moment, then leave the beer-house or the woman’s tent and return to his covenant and his duty. And whatever that next day required, he would not flinch.
He did not flinch now. He held the Canaanite girl at arm’s length and set the bundled infant upon the ground. Then he took up his long-hafted spear from where he had set it aside.
“No!” The girl began to shriek. “You Hebrew bitch!” she cried. “You Hebrew bitch!” The scream tore its way out of her throat, raw and frantic, as she tried to struggle past Zadok.
Devora closed her eyes, said a short prayer under her breath. She could hear the murmur of the supplicants — none of whom had moved. She heard the tiny moan from the corpse that had been an infant; it ended in a hard thock of bronze driven into flesh. A choked, sobbing noise from the mother, as though a scream had caught in her throat and would be lodged there for every night of her remaining years. The navi kept her eyes closed a moment more.
When she looked on the world again, the girl was on her knees, her face ashen, still making that choked sound. Zadok stood beside her; he’d cast his spear to the grass. Down the hill, some of the other supplicants were on their knees as well, overcome by horror. The bundle at Zadok’s feet didn’t move or make any sound.
Grimly, Devora rose to her feet. Too old, she felt too old today. Much too old for seeing…this. She stepped forward until she stood by Zadok and the Canaanite, with the small corpse at her feet. Glanced down at it. The head had been crushed entirely; one of the little hands was still curled as if to grasp at some flesh warmer than its own. There was no blood beneath the body, nor any on the bronze head of Zadok’s spear that lay beside it, for only living things bleed.
It was a small, mangled thing, without face or any color to its skin. It did not seem ever to have been human. There was a burn of moisture in Devora’s eyes; she forbade it. If no one had been watching she would have sat down beside that body and remained there until the world was old.
She glanced up, noted the position of the sun. Perhaps two hours before dark. Dusk would come swiftly, and with it the Sabbath bride. They must be in the tents before then or sleep on the heather; from sunset this day to sunset the next, she must rest. Yet she could not simply hurry to the tents and leave this body unburied through the Sabbath.
She whispered the words of one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, commandments given to their fathers in the desert for keeping the camp clean of disease and the dead:
You shall bury the flesh of the dead, and raise above it a cairn of stones, that God will see it, and remember, and make the land clean.
The People sheltered and hid from the dead within the mighty tent of the Law, and the poles of that tent were the living pillars of the Covenant, strong and binding promises between the tribes and God and between the tribes and each other; yet the roots of those pillars were intricate and fragile, for those roots were the acts of the People that upheld and sustained the Covenant. Devora sat in her seat of decision to pass judgment wherever the roots had been broken or eaten away by unclean choices, in order to keep the whole tent of the Law from collapsing and crushing the People beneath it. Now she could sense that mighty canvas of the Law tearing in the wind and heat of her vision.
What this day had brought to her. News of herds of dead moving through the high Galilee, a migration of corpses into the land such as she had never before heard or imagined. And one of them brought even here, to her feet, at the olive tree.
Her hands were trembling; she could not still them.
“We must bury it,” she whispered. “And we must hurry.”