The Writing on the Wall

by Billie Pritchett

Daniel was seventy-eight, and King Nebuchadnezzar had been dead for twenty-five years when Cyrus the Great began besieging the walls of Babylon. The current king Nabonidus was only king in name, since he spent more time refurbishing temples to Bel than with ruling the kingdom, which was now in the hands of his young son Belshazzar, the regent. Neither Nabonidus nor Belshazzar took seriously the Cyrus’s legions, even though they were, at the very moment, battering away at the doors to the city gates. Belshazzar’s men struggled to fortify the gates, but it was only a matter of time before the enemy made entry.

“The Persians don’t stand a chance against our armies,” said Belshazzar at his banquet. He had set before him various wines from the conquered regions, and his table was flanked by the most beautiful women of Babylon. A quivering messenger appeared before him. “Why are you here?” said Belshazzar. “Can’t you see we’re having a party?”

The messenger addressed his sovereign with a formal greeting and genuflection, crying “O king, that you live forever” (for it was already the custom to address Belshazzar, the regent, as king), then he rose and, with some hesitation, passed his king a note.

Reading the note, Belshazzar laughed and said, “Surrender to Cyrus? Bend the knee? Whose joke is this?”

“It was passed from Cyrus himself,” the messenger replied.

Belshazzar crumpled the note and tossed it at the messenger, who remained on his knees. “Cyrus thinks he will have my head. I’ll have yours if you don’t leave my presence.” The guests of the king laughed at the fear in the poor man’s face as he made haste. To show his unconcern, Belshazzar ordered everyone to carry on with the party. And why not? By his side were his many concubines, and gathered before him were the greatest men of his kingdom, whom he loved for their unsavoriness, for they had brought their concubines and their wives, and the pimps had brought the women who had been sold into slavery, handpicked by the king and his advisors. Belshazzar called for the gold and silver goblets pilfered from the temples at Jerusalem to be distributed to the nobles and proposed several toasts. “To Bel.”

“To Bel,” the crowd roared.

“To wine.”

“To wine.”

“To women.”

“To women.”

“And finally,” he said in solemn jest, his hand across his heart, “to Cyrus the Persian.”

At this, the crowd jeered.

The concubines and wives of lords began dancing. The slave women were shoved to the center of the room and stripped. Belshazzar rose, pointed to one man, then another, and so on, until he had selected his coterie, who went to join the reluctant women at the center.

Then a mighty wind blew through the halls and snuffed out all the candles. “What prank is this?” said Belshazzar. “Lights.” In the darkness, there was a scraping along the walls, then the candles were again lighted.

“O king, that you live forever,” called out the messenger from before, who when the lights were turned on was revealed kneeling before the king.

On the wall behind him, above a table with a candelabrum, there appeared what looked like writing in the plaster. But Belshazzar could not make out the words. He grabbed the servant by the collar. “It was you,” the king shouted. “You fool. You desecrated the walls of my palace.” And before the messenger had space to speak, Belshazzar had grabbed the knife strapped to the messenger’s ankle and slit the wretch’s throat. The king addressed the guests. “Can anyone tell me what this message says? Anyone among you who can read this message will be granted the most powerful position in the land, my father and I his only superiors. Anyone?”

No one answered. The king’s face turned ashen. The nobles, shaken, stood silently. Outside, through the palace windows, the sky lit up and the heavens stormed with cracks like the sounds of whips.

The queen mother hurried into the banquet hall and broke the silence, bowing to her son, saying “O king, that you may live forever. Do not fear these strange letters. Whatever import they have cannot harm you. Besides, have you forgotten that you have the best diviners on retainer? Among them, there is one to whom no man in all four corners can compare.”

Belshazzar approached and said, “Mother, who is this man?”

“Why, only the wisest in the land. This man contains the divine spark. He has served your father and your grandfather before him. He can solve any riddle and discern any dream, so great is his genius. His mind bears the fingerprint of God.”

“Bring him at once.”

This man was not difficult to find since he lived in a storage room within the palace walls. He appeared in front of Belshazzar. From externals he looked like a beggar. He kneeled, as was custom, and did not speak. Upon seeing him, the king did nothing to restrain his mockery, delighted as he was that such an old and ugly man was believed by his mother to possess great powers. “So you are the man? What is your name?”

His head bowed toward the floor, the old man spoke. “Since the time of your grandfather, King Nebuchadnezzar, I have been called Belteshazzar, which was the name King Nebuchadnezzar gave me.”

“Your name, which is like my own, means ‘Bel, guard his life.’ Are you aware of this?”

“I am. But call me that name I was given at birth, a name I proudly answer to: Daniel.” The old man rose, his shoulders broadening. Even though his clothes were ragged, even though he walked with a limp and scarcely had a hair upon his wrinkled scalp, he carried himself as though he wore a crown. With a regal bearing, he moved toward the wall. His face glowed in the candlelight as he deciphered the hastily written words. He turned from the writing to the king. He seemed to shine of his own effect, but it was only some light that flashed across the night sky, reflected in his face, the illusion of which amplified his gravity, and the whiplike crack outside underscored the portent of his carriage as he parted his lips and said, “I know what these words mean.”

“Well then, Daniel, wisest of magicians, astrologers, enchanters, do tell, and if, as my mother believes, you are as expert at solving riddles and interpreting dreams and reading walls that have been defaced by vulgarians such as this man who lies at my feet in his own bloody pool—if in view of all that you tell me what this means, I will clothe you in purple and place a gold collar around your neck and make you third greatest in the land. But if your explanation fails to satisfy me, I will place a noose around your neck and hang you from the ceiling this very instant. Only speak, old man.”

“Keep your presents and your noose,” Daniel responded. “These words were written in Aramaic, the common tongue. Mene, tekel, upharsin: a mina, a shekel, a half mina. This is a play on words. If you spoke the dialect of the people, you would know. Rearrange the words and you have the following message: ‘Your days are numbered. You have been weighed and found wanting. The Persians will have your kingdom.’ Now have I satisfied your curiosity, sire?”

Nabonidus, Belshazzar’s father, who still bore the title of king, came rushing in, clutching his robe at his waist, and coughing, exclaimed, “Cyrus has sacked the temples.” Then the old king fell to the floor.

Belshazzar kneeled and pulled off his father’s garments, which revealed a wound. He had been cut under his leg. There was no evidence whether he had made the cut himself or whether he had been wounded by the enemy. But the father’s final words were these: “Would that I never gave birth to you,” he said, and took his last breath.

Panic stirred the guests. In their commotion, they ran for the doors, almost trampling the kings. No one got far, for the doors swung open and behind them stood Cyrus holding a chain latched to the queen mother, who walked a little in front of him. When Cyrus stepped inside, he looked around and spotted Daniel. Seeing past the rags to the old man’s regal bearing, he asked, “Are you the lord of these scoundrels?”

“Yes, he is the king,” said the queen mother.

But Belshazzar in his pride got up and said, “No, I am king,” which prompted support from some revelers, who shouted hurrah.

Cyrus approached the young king and cut him down. He fell to the ground, clutching his throat. Then surveying the assembled, Cyrus asked, “And are there any more kings?” At which point the revelers held their tongues, since now there was no reveling to do.

Billie Pritchett is an assistant professor of English at Kyungnam University in Masan, Korea. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Murray State University. His work is forthcoming in Concho River Review, Delmarva Review, and Pensive.

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