(This is the final story for the Book of Voices, at least for the book itself. I might write more stories in the Book of Voices universe sometime in the future, but this is the last for the book itself, as it will appear in its new edition, due later this year)
Asherah was worshipped by many as a goddess alongside God in the Biblical era, until the people who believed in only one god caused her worship to disappear. Memories of her remain in the Biblical text mostly as derogatory references. Belief in her eventually shifted into belief in more abstracted female figurs, such as Wisdom. As the Bible says,
“Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand.”
Asherah speaks just before the dedication of the Second Temple.)
I come into being in the gentle rain. I step forth from the embrace of the Tree of Life, guided by this pair of angels, one female, one male.
“We have waited for you,” they say.
“Have you waited long?”
In unison, they shrug. “All time is the same here. But anticipation preceded you.”
I look around. “So this is Eden.”
“That is what the people call it. Had you never been here before?”
I look through my memories of past and future times. “My stories begin after the people left the garden. None of the stories remember my having been in it. Why have you called me here?”
They gesture to the space behind me. I turn. There, not far away, sits a woman, human, ancient in years as measured by people. She is huddled, sitting on the ground, leaning against the base of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Her knees are drawn up toward her, her hands resting on them. She looks steadily toward me, a stone-like visage not of defiance but of certainty.
“A person in the garden?” I ask. “Are we at the end of days?”
“No,” they say. “Some get to visit, but only a few, and only for a short time. This one is here by permission of the archangels above us. She, and especially her sacred sisters, prayed for her to be allowed to come here. And they especially prayed that she might meet you.”
I walk toward the woman and offer her my hand. “Asherah?” she asks.
“Yes, I have been called Asherah,” I reply.
“Exactly as you imagined?”
“Yes. But how?”
“I exist outside of space,” I say, “outside of material form. I have no body, most of the time. When someone needs to see me, a temporary body forms, built from the story that the person has told herself of how I must appear.”
“This would lead to problems,” she says, “if two people were to see you. If one would see you as tall and the other as short, and both were to embrace –” She stops herself and laughs. “Forgive me. I am too practical. I’m worrying about measures and paradoxes in the presence of a goddess.”
I laugh with her. “I enjoy hearing you think like this. I have never figured out how it works, myself. I do not remember the creation of the world, but assume that God, and whoever else might have been with him, worked out the rules of science, magic, and all that lies between them, at the start.”
“The world would be an easier place if he would just tell us what the rules are.”
I nod. “There is so much that people do not know. I have appeared, at times, to help them learn. But God has never been particularly interested in making things easy for you. He challenges you to work your way through the world. That is his way as your Father.”
“And you, as our Mother?” she asks.
“I bring you what you need to survive the learning. I catch you when you fall, heal your wounds, and support you in your path.”
“But now…” she says, then pauses. “So few… only I know you now.”
“When is ‘now’? From what time have you come here?”
“I have lived a long time with my sisters, where conventional time does not work as it does outside. As far as saying when this is in the history of our people, I can say that we have lived for a long time in the land of our Fathers. We were once driven from this land, and the Temple — the place where most worshiped the Father God, but where we once had a tree, a space, sacred to you — was destroyed. But now, after a long enough time has passed that almost all who remembered that Temple are gone, we have returned, and the men are raising a new Temple in its place.”
“The men?” I ask. “Are there no women involved?”
The woman sighs and looks down. “In my day, in the time that I was queen, so many lifetimes ago, we had powerful women, the finest architects of whom one could dream. Now, they are gone. As people say, those who have the power over others get to write the stories. And the men have taken the power and told the official stories for generations. So women are seen as less than men, destined only to serve them.”
I look into the stories in my memory. There are so many — tales of people calling on me, praying to me, of my helping them, nurturing them, strengthening them. But the stories become thinner over time, until after a while time seems to break.
“I see no stories of that age,” I say. “Where are they? Where am I in them?”
“Few speak of you anymore, and fewer know your name. The men, when they wrote the stories down, removed all mentions of your worship other than as folly or a curse to be removed. Houses no longer contain the figurines by which we remembered you. Your presence, your memory, your stories — all are gone.”
I sigh and sit down next to her, resting my back against the broad trunk of the tree. “And all my physical children are gone, long gone, since God’s vengeful flood wiped out the last of the children of Cain.”
“How can we survive?” the woman cries out. “How can we carry on without your memory? Do your stories ever return?”
I close my eyes and look deep into myself, into the stories of past and future that make up my own memory. “Yes, there are stories of people who remember me. They come from your future, as far into the future as humanity has memories of the past. Gradually, my history is revealed. People once again find my figures and my stories, and decode the ways in which the men hid my existence in the texts that they came to call sacred. And they come together, some in your land, some in cities on the far side of the land on the far side of the ocean. They speak and sing of me in a great, ever-changing text, written on light, which all can read almost instantly, wherever they are, on your world and beyond.”
“And you become the equal of the Father God?” she asks. “And all worship you together?”
“Not all,” I reply. “But many. And it does seem that I survive in other ways.”
“Stories are not the only ways for us to carry meaning. While I lose my name for some thousands of years, I take on others. I seem to grow into metaphor.”
The woman looks deeply at me but says nothing.
“Do you hear people among you speak of Wisdom?” I ask her. “What do they say?”
“They say that she is among us, that she speaks to us,” she says.
“And who is this Wisdom?” I ask.
“Is it you?” she cries.
“It is, or it can be, if that is how you wish to see her. And what of the Sabbath?”
“They say that she is a queen who visits us and blesses us each week. Is she also you?”
“She is, if you believe her to be. And don’t the people speak of the Presence of God as if separate from God himself, as female, the one who aids and comforts humanity?”
“This also is you?” she says.
“It is, or it can be. Who I am is whoever I am in your hearts, until the stories and the memories return.”
She sits, again silent. She looks at me, looks down, then looks up again. “But what is there that we can see, now that the figures are gone? You are the light that shines deep within our hearts, but must the light be hidden from our eyes?”
It is my turn to look away and pause. “There is another fire, another light,” I say. “The stories say that a fire burned forever at the original Temple, at the Outer Altar where all could see it. What became of that fire when the Temple fell?”
“We have that fire.” The voices came from the angels. “But like the original Ark of the Covenant, it will remain here until the end of days, to be returned when all souls become one.”
“This is God’s will?” the woman asks.
“This is what we know to happen,” they reply. “It is not within our power to change it.”
“Then I will become that fire for you,” I say to the woman. “When people see the Eternal Flame, they will see the presence of God, and knowing of that presence, of the one who bridges the worlds between the mundane and that which cannot be known, they will know me.”
“You will become flame?” she says. “I would not see you destroy yourself for us!”
I smile and rest my hand on her shoulder. “This body is not my body. It is made of stories and exists only in your mind, in this place where metaphors become real. I will not be destroyed, but will spread out like smoke in gentle wind into the greater stories that people will tell.”
I rise and, stepping over to the two great trees, pick up fallen branches, one from the Tree of Life and, careful not to dislodge its fruit, one from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I stand between the trees and stroke the branches against each other until they begin to smolder.
“Wait!” The woman has stood and called out to me. When she hears her voice, she is suddenly ashamed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so –”
“So much like a queen calling to servants? I understand. After all, you were a queen for such a long time.”
“I –” She falters. “I have known of you for such a long time,” she says, “and for so many lifetimes, I have longed to meet you, longed for your embrace. And now you are leaving again, and…”
I open my arms, one smoldering branch in each hand. The angels each take a branch from me, moving in perfect unison. “Come to me,” I say.
The woman moves slowly to me, as if she were a child approaching the mother than she had feared that she would never meet. When she reaches me, I wrap my arms around her as her arms embrace me.
We stand for a long time, here where time has no meaning. The body that I wear senses the gradations in color of her hair and of her robe, the sound of her soft breath, the scent and texture of her flowing white hair, and her taste as I kiss her on her brow.
“I will remember you,” she says. “And Mother, dearest Asherah, please remember me in the stories that you know, the stories that you become. Let the stories know that I, your servant Maacah, did everything to honor you, gave up everything to be true to you, and longed to be with you all her life.”
“I will remember,” I say, “and we will come together again at the end of time. And you will be the one to carry my memory. When I become flame, please carry the fire back to the World of Appearances, so that, once again, I might live at the holy Temple.”
“I swear it,” she says.
I kiss her one more time, then she and I end our embrace. Each of us takes a step back. The angels, moving together, return the branches to my outstretched hands.
I touch the branches to each other. Sparks burst out from each and become flame. I raise them into the air then bring them close to me. My hands come together in front of this body’s heart.
The body begins to glow, to emit light, emit heat. It burns, not like wood but like the fire within a gemstone. It becomes a pillar of light, then contracts. The fire catches the branches as they lie on the ground, and they become a slow, steady flame.
I feel myself drifting away, dissipating, back into the stories, back into the hearts of those who, whether or not they know the name that Cain gave me, feel my presence across time. I feel the stories leap across the years, the lifetimes, toward the time that they reemerge, written in fire, written in light, as the world and its people move closer to the joys that await us at the end of time.
(This is another new Book of Voices story (probably the next to last), written as I prepare an expanded and enhanced edition of the book to be released in 2013. As with all the texts here, it is an early draft, and may change significantly by the time that it is officially published in the book.)
Obadiah was an administrator in the court of King Ahab, who took power twelve years after the death of Zimri. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel,
began to systematically wipe out the prophets of Israel’s God. The Bible says:
Obadiah, [Ahab’s] … palace administrator … was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.
The Bible contains a brief Book of Obadiah which contains prophecies of the fall of an oppressive Edom, though at that point in history, Edom was a vassal state to Israel.
Obadiah speaks late at night, after hiding the prophets.
The noise in here is incredible. Fifty prophets (well, they call themselves prophets, but they just sound to me like shouters) are milling about this small cave, all arguing about what is going to happen. It was hard getting them to move quietly to the cave, but we hope they will be safe here from my boss, King Ahab, and his crazy wife Jezebel. Now that there’s no need for silence (much as I might wish for it again), they’re making up for it by shouting even more loudly than before.
Everyone agrees that things are bad now and are about to get worse, but there’s no consensus as to what will happen after that. Some say that Israel and Judah are doomed. Some say that things will get better quickly, some that they will get better after a long period of troubles, and some that they will only get better at the end of time, whenever that is. But each of them is absolutely certain that God has shown the true future to him (or her — most of the women and a few of the men have gone off to the caves with Deborah, but some of the women have stayed with me) and that the ones who disagree are idiots, infiltrators, or insane.
Someone approaches from behind me as I look down over this ledge at the prophets milling below. The shuffling of small bare feet, a scent of lilacs, then a gentle hand on my shoulder — without looking, I know that Adina is here.
“How are you doing?” she asks.
“Tired,” I say, “and hoping that this works and is worth it, How are you?”
“Reasonably well,” she says. “I was able to find a chamber in which I could sit in silence for a while. It helped. I’ll have to show you where it is.”
“Thank you. So now we just wait?”
She steps beside me and also leans on the ledge. “We wait. A few days at most. Tomorrow Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal. When he wins, we’ll need to lay low for a little while, then our prophets can filter quietly back out into the populace.”
“Quietly? Can this mob ever do anything quietly?”
She smiles. “Each on his own can be quiet. Together, they just seem to get each other agitated. But I’ve found some busy work to keep them occupied. My friends have gotten some scrolls from the days of the Judges that might benefit from interpretation. They’re old enough and ambiguous enough that the crowd will likely consider them deeply important.”
“Will they keep shouting?”
“There will be some moments of quiet contemplation. But on the whole, there’s little to be done about the shouting.”
“I hate to ask, but what if Elijah doesn’t win? I mean, I know that God is on our side, but I still worry.”
“Appropriate worry is good,” she says, “as long as it doesn’t overwhelm you. But I have a backup plan.”
“You always seem to have a backup plan.”
“It’s my nature. I worry, too, but then I look for solutions.”
“And what is your solution?”
“If needed, we’ll move everybody to my sisters’ caves — quietly, very quietly, maybe only a few at a time. From there, we’ll be able to relocate them into safer places and times.”
“You make it sound simple.”
“These things are rarely simple, but they usually are possible.”
An even louder uproar rises above the general din. Two prophets have gone beyond arguing and are now punching and shoving each other. Two others, seeing the fight, run to them. Each grabs one and drags him to a fall wall. They then return to where they had been before intervening and continue their own bellowing argument.
“When you were young, did you ever imagine that you would be involved in anything like this?” Adina asks.
“Me? No, nothing like this at all. I thought I’d grow up to be a boring shepherd off in Edom, like the rest of my family. Then I followed my brother to Jerusalem, came to believe the word of God, got a job in the palace, and now here I am.”
“I wouldn’t have believed this either when I was young,” she says.
I start to laugh, then clap my hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s so hard to imagine that I was young?”
“It’s — well, you have always been the same age since we met decades ago, so I’ve never thought of you ever being another age. You were young once?”
“I was. Even those of us among the Sisters had to have been born sometime, and grown to our present ages. Some age more than others. For some it depends on how much time they spend out in the world, though others who never step outside age anyway. But I was, indeed, a child, a few hundred years from now, before I came to join the Sisters.”
“What was life like — or what will life be like — then? Or are you not allowed to tell me?”
“I can say that Israel still existed. We were ruled by others, but there was a Temple and we still prayed to our God. Most of us kept to ourselves, but others were involved in political struggles that I didn’t get to see much or understand. I was a young girl, after all, in a small village, and I didn’t get to see much before I went to join the Sisters.”
“It’s good to hear that we have a future. So are the shouters down there right?”
“None is entirely right. None is entirely wrong. Only God can see all of time (and frankly, I sometimes wonder if God knows how to handle the perfect information that he has). Each of us gets to see some glimpses of what will be. Some are better attuned to the information, much as some of us have better hearing or a sharper sense of smell.”
“Even you,” she says. “I can tell you this: a scroll survives into the future, with prophecies written under your name.”
“Mine? I’m not a prophet.”
“What is a prophet? Just someone who has a sense of the future and communicates it to others. Most people who see what is to be are never heard because they never tell anyone. The ones who are known are those to get the word to others. We usually don’t find the quiet ones.”
I point at the crowd below. “Hence, the shouters.”
“Yes, the shouters.”
We stand for a while, quietly watching the people below. Clusters of people form and dissipate as prophets move from one argument to another. On a table along the edge of the cave farthest from the entrance, a seemingly endless supply of simple bread and water fills a basket and a pitcher, no matter how many people eat and drink.
“So,” I say, “in this scroll of mine, what do I say?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Adina says. “I was tempted to read it when I was assigned to come here to work with you, but was advised against it — not that there’s necessarily a problem with what’s in it, but things are easier when we can’t divulge too much.”
At the edges of the crowd, toward the walls of the cave, I see that some of the prophets are beginning to lie down to sleep, wrapping their robes around themselves and placing their packs as pillows under their heads. This doesn’t seem to limit the noise much, but I suppose that some people can sleep through anything.
“Somehow,” I say after a long moment, “I can’t picture myself as a prophet or imagine what I might say.”
“Don’t worry about it too much. When the time comes, you’ll know what to say. For now, you’re being far more helpful with what you’re already doing. No one else, after all, seems to be able to talk to both Ahab and Elijah.”
“Though perhaps things might be better off if they hadn’t communicated.”
“Perhaps,” she says. “but we can’t know this for sure.”
“Until after tomorrow,” I say.
“Yes, until at least after tomorrow.”
A bellowing voice suddenly bursts from the noise of the crowd. “Thus says the Lord!” One of the older prophets has leapt up onto the table. “You are all liars — a generation of liars and — Oh!” The man is falling, having stepped and slid in a puddle where the pitcher of water had spilled.
Other prophets catch him and pass them over their heads toward the south wall, where, gently but unceremoniously, they set him down. He resumes his shouting, but his voice again blends into the blur of argument.
Several armed men — friends of mine, men whom I trust — have come in from guarding the entrance to the cave. Others are wearily picking up their swords and shields and heading out to replace them. It is midnight, and too few of the prophets are tired. The shouting here may never end.
It’s going to be a long night.
(This is the first new Book of Voices text in a while, written as I prepare an expanded and enhanced edition of the book to be released in 2013. As with all the texts here, it is an early draft, and may change significantly by the time that it is officially published in the book.)
Ahinoam was the wife of Saul, the first king of Israel. She is mentioned only twice in the Bible. The first is in a listing of Saul’s family, where it says:
Saul’s sons were Jonathan, Ishvi and Malki-Shua. The name of his older daughter was Merab, and that of the younger was Michal. His wife’s name was Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaaz…
The second is when Saul is yelling at his son:
Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! …”
King David also had a wife named Ahinoam. Opinions differ on whether this is the same person. But David married Michal, Saul and Ahinoam’s daughter, too, though, and his marriage to both a mother and her daughter would have made the family tree all too complicated, even by Biblical standards.
Ahinoam speaks to us on the night before Saul’s coronation.
The people of Israel want a king. I’m not sure why — maybe because everybody else has one. And they want my husband, Saul, to be that king. I’m not sure why — maybe because every other woman around here has had him.
(Yes, I know about that son of his that that woman in Gilead bore. I take some scornful pleasure in one of the few things that my friends who can see the future have told me: that long years from now, the memory of the boy’s name will be garbled, and people will remember him, if at all, as Ish-Bosheth — Embarrassment Man.)
It is far too warm tonight, and it will be hot tomorrow, when Samuel the prophet and the elders of Israel come to officially anoint and crown him. The air is far too still and damp within the house, so we have come outside to sleep, lying here in our courtyard atop a layer of skins, beneath the stars. Saul lies snoring beside me as I stare into the sky, wishing that the moon would rise.
I know that Saul isn’t perfect. Far from it. He does have his rages, though he always apologizes later, saying that “an evil spirit from God” had come over him. (I think the evil spirits are in what he drinks.) We have had to cover over too many holes in the walls of our house from when he threw his spears at things that we couldn’t see. The children and I have grown attuned to when his rages are coming, though. Before leaving or cowering in another room, we try to hide his spears where he won’t find them.
He is far too zealous, also, in defending his God, whom he insists is the only one. I still believe in and love Asherah, the goddess, alongside his God, but I have learned not to mention her in his presence or to have any items in the house that he would know to be sacred to her. That is all right, though. I know that I am with her whenever I am outdoors among all the trees of this world that she has blessed.
When I am indoors, wishing to be far away, I close my eyes and imagine myself to be in my favorite place, the grove of Asherah trees near Miriam’s Well, the Well of Generations.
It was there that I had wandered so many years ago, during the four days of the festival of the forgotten girl. We all would go out then, all the girls would otherwise be stuck at home with our families.
Each year they had to let us wander. They would give us our packs with food and provisions for four days. We knew that we would be safe. No man dared touch us if he encountered us then. Even the beasts of the forest kept their distance. (Whether this was by the doing of Asherah or of our fathers’ God was a matter of much chattering debate among us, though we would always come to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter whether it was due to either, both, or sheer luck.)
I was always glad when these days came, and never more so than in that year. I had grown to be just a bit more than a child, and the way that the men in my town looked at me seemed even more menacing than before.
My father had taken to picking fights with men whom he suspected of looking at me askance. He won some of the fights. He lost many. Often the other men would just step aside or trip him when he attacked, leaving him sprawled in the dust or mud, leading them to speak to and of us even more jeeringly and harshly. Then my father would blame me for his shame, saying that the way that I was dressing or walking or speaking was enticing the men to approach me and leer at me.
I had wandered far that year. I found myself in a dense grove, facing a sheer rock wall. At the foot of the wall was a deep well. Within it, the water reflected the light of the full moon.
I stared into the well for a long time. After a while, I said “Hello” to the image of the moon.
“Hello” came back up from the well, in a voice not quite my own. The water shimmered with the vibrations of the voice, making the moonlight seem to spell a momentary message.
“Can you help me?” I asked. “I am tired of my family, of this life in which I am trapped. I don’t want to return.”
“Perhaps we can help,” the voice said. This time, it came not from the well, but from behind me.
I stood and turned. A tall woman stood there, dressed in a simple robe. She smiled gently, the warmth of her voice enhanced by the fine wrinkles surrounding her oddly green eyes.
“I am Yael,” she said. “We are here to protect you. Please, come inside.”
“Inside?” I said.
Yael gestured to her right. There, where I had seen nothing but sheer rock before, a door had opened. The voices of more girls and women came from within.
Yael stepped through the door. I followed. There, in that room, many girls had gathered. Most carried the packs from their wanderings, though some had set them down. Scents of warm bread and healing teas filled the room. A few older women, dressed like Yael, spoke to individual girls or watched from a distance, gathered along walls that were engraved with endless texts.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“In one sense,” Yael said, “you are a few steps from where you just were. In another, though, you are far away, safe from that world. Where we are is outside of the world of your birth, outside of its time. We can step out of here into many realms, though most of us stay inside. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. If you care to leave after a while, you can return to your world at the moment at which you left it, or step into the future or the past.”
“The future or the past? At any time that I would wish?”
“There are a few limitations. You can’t return to a time earlier in your own life, since there can’t be two of a person in the world at once. And things grow far too unclear more than a couple of thousand years or so before or after your time. But other than that, yes, such things are possible.”
“Have you been to the future? What becomes of my world, of me?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that yet,” she said.
“Because you may choose to return to your world. And without proper training, your knowledge of the future might compromise and complicate history too much. But if you stay long enough, you will learn of these things.”
I sighed. “All right,” I said.
“Come join the others and eat and drink with us. These girls, too, have needed to find refuge from your world. You all are safe here.”
I set my pack down. With the other girls, I ate their bread and drank their tea. When we tired, they offered us each a simple room, and we slept.
I stayed there for what seemed like a long time. Months passed, perhaps, as I counted the days, though after a while I stopped counting. I lived and studied with the women there, learning the skills that too few of us learn in the outside world: how to read, how to write, how to work with numbers, how to do the simplest of magic, and how to speak to God and the other spirits of the world so that they might hear and might respond. Most importantly, our teachers taught us how not to be afraid, how to counter with our demeanor, our thoughts, our words and, yes, if needed, our fists and weapons the many assaults against our souls and selves that come upon us in this world.
Then one day, Yael came to visit me in my room. “Ahinoam,” she said, “It is time for us to talk. You have come to the end of the first stage of your learning. If you wish, you may stay and continue and become fully recognized as a Sister of Sarah. But you may also choose to return to the world as it was when we first met. The choice is yours. You may take time to decide, but you must make a conscious choice before you continue with your training.”
I closed my eyes and thought, though not for as long as I would have expected the thought to take. “Yael, I love this place and the people here, But I find that I miss my world and my family. I have a sister just a bit younger than me, and she needs my help and, if I can offer it, my protection. And I miss my mother and even my crude drunken idiot of a father. Will I forget and lose what I have here if I go?”
“No,” Yael said. “You will not forget us and will not lose us. We will stay in touch with you over the years. Should you again need refuge, come back to the Well, and we will be here.”
So I said goodbye to the school, to my teachers, and to the other girls who had chosen to remain. Yael brought me my pack, preserved exactly as it had been when I came there. Together, we stepped out into the grove.
I looked down into the well, down at the reflection of the moon, still full. “Goodbye,” I said.
Yael’s voice, behind me, said “Goodbye,” then echoed from the well, “Goodbye.” When I stood and looked behind me, she was gone.
I left the grove and rejoined the girls with whom I had been wandering. Most were as they had been. A few, though, whom I had seen in the school when I was there, seemed, like me, a little older, a little more serious, a little more prepared for the world to which we had returned. We gave a nod of recognition when we saw each other, but nothing needed to be said.
I returned to my village the next day, trudging up the road to my house. As I approached, I heard my father’s drunken shouting. “Clean that up, girl!” he said. “It’s enough that I have to feed the both of you. Make yourself useful! You are just going to end up like your big sister, lazing around the house, dressing to taunt the men into approaching her –”
“Stop.” As I stepped into the house, I was surprised that the powerful voice came from me. “You will not speak to either of us like that again.”
“Who do you think you are?” my father said.
“I know who I am,” I said. “Who do you think you are?”
“I am your father!”
“Yes,” I said. “But that does not give you permission to speak like that.”
He stood there silently, mouth agape, then slammed his glass down on the table, turned, and walked out. I embraced my sister and we stood there, equally silent, until her tears and shaking stopped.
My father died not long after, worn out by his drinking and his fights. My sister grew into a fine woman. I tried to teach her all that I had learned.
But I may not have learned enough, since when I married, I married Saul. When we met, he seemed strong and charismatic, with a certainty about him that seemed to override all his faults. Now that we are wed, however, he has proven to be all too much like my father, too prone to drink and anger, unable to stay faithful to me. He has become a warrior and leader, but while he has helped to protect Israel from its enemies, all too often I find myself protecting my family from him. I’m not sure that I love him anymore. But he is my husband, and this is my life.
Yael comes to visit often, though never when he is at home. She has said that she has been told that they can never meet. She has helped me raise our children to be good people and strong. Someday one of them will become king or queen — probably Jonathan, our oldest, though he shows little interest in being king. Our youngest daughter, Michal, shows the strength to lead, though she has developed a streak of grimness, perhaps from seeing all too clearly her father’s ways.
And tomorrow, her father, my husband, my Saul, will become Israel’s king. I suppose that that means that I will become its queen. As I lie here beneath the summer sky, I look quietly to God, to my Asherah, and to my friends in the place beyond time to grant me wisdom, to grant me strength.
“You are awake.” Saul’s voice murmurs in my ear. So, apparently, is he. “What are you thinking, my queen?”
“I am thinking about tomorrow morning. I wonder if we have to go through with this. Saul, are you sure that you want to be king? Can’t we just run off and not be home when they get here? We can duck away, just the two of us. Maybe we can go to the shores of that lake I showed you. I can bring those scented oils that you like…”
Saul puts a strong arm around me, pulls me closer, and quietly laughs. “You, my queen, are a perverse and rebellious woman,” he says.
“But you love me,” I say, moving closer to him.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I do.”
(I wrote this story after the publication of The Book of Voices. When I was back in my hometown in New Jersey for a bar mitzvah, the rabbi asked me to perform a piece, in lieu of his usual sermon, based on the week’s haftarah reading. I wrote and performed this new piece for the occasion.)
(Context: 1 Samuel 20:18 “And Jonathan said to him: ‘There’s a new moon tomorrow…'”)
This bow, these arrows weigh heavily on my back. My quiver can hold many more arrows than the three that it carries now. But each arrow is laden with the message that I had prayed that I would not have to send, the message of goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
An attendant walks beside me. But this boy is too small to carry my weapons, too small to know anything, to do anything other than follow the clear directions that I will give him.
We walk slowly eastward through the forest, toward the barely risen sun, away from the pale dim sliver of the setting moon, eastward to the edge of the dew-dampened meadow. Arriving, we set down our packs and wait until enough light appears for us to see the target.
There, off at the far edge of the meadow, the marker stone gradually shows itself: white, taller than most men, slightly wider than it is tall. On the far side of the stone, I know that a man awaits: my beloved, David, huddled against the morning chill as he listens for my sounds, for my words.
We set up this meeting four days ago, a lifetime ago, it seems. We met, then I went back to the palace, to my home, to gauge the madness of my father, the king, to learn whether David could safely come home with me, or whether he would need to flee to other lands, to save his life, to be able to continue with his sacred destiny. Now I am here, and I know that he is here, though I cannot see him in the distance, silent as he is amidst the sound of the morning breezes against trees and grass, amidst the chatter of the morning birds.
I kneel and pick up the bow from the ground. I pluck the string to test its tautness. A clear note sounds with a secret harmony, resonating with my memories of the sound of David’s harp. “Boy,” I say to my attendant, “pick up the quiver there, and be ready to hand me each of the three arrows, one at a time, as I ask you for them.”
I rise to standing. He picks up the quiver and stands near me, but not too near, off where he is away from any danger from sudden motions of the bow.
“Hand me the first arrow,” I say. The boy reaches into the quiver, lifts the arrow out, and hands it up to me, careful to keep it pointed down and away from us.
I take the arrow, position it on the bow, and pull back on the string. Focusing on the target, focusing as if I, too, were to launch with it and fly, I let a full breath out and take a full breath in. With an instant of clarity, of prayer, I let go of the arrow. My eye is sharp. My aim is true. The arrow arcs and lands precisely where I sent it, directly in front of the marker stone.
I reach back down to the boy. “The second arrow,” I say, and the boy hands it up to me. Again I set the arrow on the bowstring. Again I pull it back, breathe out, breathe in, and let it fly. It sails, arcs, and lands, several strides nearer to me than the first arrow and slightly to the left.
I reach down, and, without needing me to say anything, the boy hands the final arrow to me. I launch it, watch it fly, and see it land, several paces to the left of the other two, forming a perfect triangle, exactly as far from each of them as they are from each other. But rather than feeling any pride in the accuracy of my archery or joy in the mathematical beauty of their pattern, I feel only pain, pain as if each of the arrows had pierced my own heart.
I look down to the quiver and see what I already know, that there are no more arrows left to shoot. For a moment, I am tempted to turn and run away, away from David, away from our destiny. But to run from him now would be to leave him with no news, which would be harsher than the foul news that I have to convey.
I put the bow on the ground and, crouching, speak more quietly to the boy. “Run ahead now, to the arrow nearest us. Pull it from the ground and wait for me to tell you the next thing to do.”
The boy runs on ahead. His short legs carry him toward the arrow as swiftly as they can. The furrow that they trace through the long wet grass takes a eternity to grow toward the arrow, toward David. It takes an eternity, but not nearly long enough.
The boy reaches the arrow and, trying first with one hand then with two, pulls it from the ground. He stumbles backward slightly as it comes out, but does not fall. Turning, he waves the arrow in the air for me to see.
This is the moment for which I had waiting, the moment that I had been avoiding. David and I had established two signals. If David hears me tell the boy that the arrows are off to his side, he will know that he is free to come home. If I tell the boy that the arrow is beyond him, David will know that he must run. And if… Is there a third option? Might I say something else or say nothing? Might we avoid or change our fate?
My heart and mind thrash through the spectrum of possible futures, searching for a possibility of possibilities. But none appears. My father’s heart has hardened, and if he ever finds David, David will die. The future has constricted to one small truth. The words that I must speak are cast in stone.
I call out to the boy, “Aren’t the arrows –” My voice breaks. I pause and try again. “Aren’t the arrows beyond you?”
The boy turns and walks toward one of the arrows. I call out to him, but even more so to David, “Quick! Hurry! Do not stand still!”
The boy runs as quickly as he can and retrieves the remaining arrows, yanking first one and then the other from the ground. He turns again and, looking toward me, sees me wave, signaling him to return to me, to return the arrows to me.
He runs back to me, back along the furrow of trampled grass that he had made while running out across the meadow.
He reaches me and hands me the arrows. I pull a soft cloth from the quiver and wipe the arrows clean of the dirt from the ground that they had pierced.
I crouch down to his level and hand him the arrows. “Bring the arrows back to where we store them. I will bring the bow back myself.”
The boy takes the quiver, takes three steps away from me, turns away, then turns back. He stands silently for a moment and looks deep into my eyes. “Have you lost something?” he says. “You look like you have lost something. Is there something that I can help you find?”
I place my hand on his shoulder. “No, I have not…” I say, then, “Yes. Yes, I have lost something. It isn’t anything that you could help me find. But I hope that someday you might find it for yourself.”
We look into each other’s eyes for a moment longer. Then I stand, and the boy takes three steps backward, then turns and runs off.
I shade my eyes and look to the east, toward the now fully risen sun, toward the marker stone behind which my David hides. I take a deep breath, start to call out his name, then refrain. If he feels that it is safe to come to me, he will come. If he feels that he must run, he will run.
My mind prays that he will run far away from me. My heart prays that he will run swiftly toward me. And my soul prays that God will grant us magic and grace, that he will change the world, change time, change my father’s vicious will, that David and I will dance once again, under a new moon, there in a new tomorrow.
I’m pleased to announce that The Book of Voices will be published in physical book form in November by The Apocryphile Press, publishers of Shekhinah: The Presence and The Rounds. Stay tuned for more related happenings, including a complete revamp of this website.
Now the hard work begins…
(Context: Numbers 12:15)
An infinite moment of silence. In the deepening darkness, here within the well, I am falling, falling, past where I should have struck the water, past where I should have struck the earth at the bottom of the well. I have been falling for so long that I no longer feel myself fall, save that my hair (long, suddenly white) is trailing above me in my wake. Features within the walls shoot past me, helping me see the direction in which I am falling. But when I close my eyes, I feel as if I am floating, adrift on dry water on a sea of muted wind.
The life from which I have fallen – in huts, in palaces, in hiding, in the desert – seems as far from me now as the vault of heaven is from the lands where I have dwelled. But the distance, the time over which I have fallen cannot erase the senses and memories of life. Memory is seared into the milk whiteness of my flesh, my hair, in the exhaustion of my voice, raw from singing, from shouting, from celebration, from tears.
If anyone had the right to confront Moses, to criticize him, it was I, the one who had saved his life so soon after his birth, who had taught him, who spoke for him before the people as our brother Aaron spoke for him before kings. When Moses needed to sing, I led the people in his songs. When he summoned water from the rock, I formed the rock into this well, which has followed us in our travels through the desert, from Horeb on to Hatzerot.
And when his wife Zipporah came to me in tears, in despair over how Moses was neglecting her, I went to Moses, bringing Aaron with me, to speak on her behalf before all the people, to remind him that above all, above his responsibilities to his people, even above his responsibility to his God, a man’s first responsibility is to his family, to his children, to his wife.
Moses said nothing for himself. He stood silent, the image of meekness. When we were done, he simply opened his arms and looked upward. And suddenly he and Aaron and I heard the voice of God summoning us to the tent of meeting.
There we saw the pillar of cloud with which the Lord makes himself known. He summoned Aaron and me inside.
And there God rebuked me, his words slapping me in the face. Yes, he said, Aaron and I were prophets, but not prophets at the level of Moses. While God spoke to us from within dreams, within clouds, he spoke to Moses face to face. How, then, he asked, dare we speak against Moses?
And he left me as I am now, drained of all color. When I returned to the well and looked at my reflection, I saw myself as a sketch of absence: white skin framed by white hair against white clouds, then the near-white walls of the well, surrounded and completed by the desert’s white sands.
They banished me from the camp, by God’s command, condemned to stay here, in solitude, for seven days. While the people had planned to move on, they have refused to travel without me (though I wonder if they have done so in solidarity with me or out of fear of losing the well).
There I sat for six of the days, with no one to speak to, no sounds other than the wind. I took to sitting by the well, listening to how the wind, blowing across its smooth opening like breath across a flute, caused deep resonances to rise forth, groaning and rushing like the sighs and whispers of the desert itself.
Then, at twilight at the end of the sixth day, I heard the sounds coalesce into patterns. The deep hums brought forth higher tones, coming up and disappearing, forming phonemes, letters, a name: they were calling “Miriam.”
I looked down into the well, and saw, as always, the reflection of my face. But the face was speaking, calling me, calling my name. “Have I gone insane so quickly,” I thought, “that I see phantoms calling out to me?”
“No,” the face said aloud, “I speak for the Lord.”
“Have you come to apologize?”
“No,” it said. “Not to apologize, but to explain, and to ask a favor of you.”
I did not reply.
“You were right about Moses, about Zipporah,” it said. “The Lord has told him to return to his wife. His relations with her would not compromise his holiness but will enhance it. But at this sensitive time, as he builds these tribes into a people and prepares to lead them home, they could not see his leadership questioned. So the Lord chastised you, banished you, punished you, bringing you to this place, to this moment.”
“And now,” I said, “I am to be returned to the people?”
“Not now. The banishment will last the full seven days in the eyes of the people.”
“And in my eyes? In the Lord’s eyes?”
“This is the favor that the Lord asks of you. You have an opportunity to step outside of time. You would be a teacher, a leader. You can create a school, a community of prophets, where people can come, can seek refuge and learn.”
“Why would I receive this supposed honor?”
“Because you are a leader, a singer, a teacher. Because you care about doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord, but also care about the people. And, most importantly, you care enough to have challenged Moses, to have challenged the Lord.”
“And what need I do to make this transition?”
“All you need,” the face said, “is to step into the well.”
“Do I have a choice in the matter?”
“Yes. You can either accept or decline the offer.”
“Does the Lord know which choice I take?”
“The Lord sees time from outside of time. You would learn to do so also. He knows whether you come to accept the offer. But the choice is yours.”
“Both cannot be true,” I said.
“Look at the path that a serpent has left in the sand,” the face said, “or the path that a river has taken in its voyage from the mountains to the sea. Each is made of a multitude of tiny chances and decisions, but viewed from outside the voyage, the resulting path is clear.”
“And if I do not choose?”
“That in itself is a choice. In either case, at sunset tomorrow, as you measure time, you return to your people, healed.”
“If I step outside of time, do I live forever?”
“Not forever, but for a very long time. The doorway out of time opened in your world when the Lord gave the tablets of the Law to Moses. When they return to heaven from this world, the doorway closes. But that happens after more years here than, according to your histories, have elapsed since the beginning of recorded time. You would live for a very long time, but you would not age further. When you would return to this world when that world ends, it would be as if no time at all had passed.”
“Would the work there have an impact here? Would it be remembered by history?”
“No, not by history. But traces of your actions would be felt in legends and in songs. To be most effective, you would work in secret. But when people need you, they would find you. And when the Lord would need to remember his covenant with humanity, you would be there to guide him, remind him, and, when appropriate, challenge his decisions.”
I sat in silence, contemplating. When next I looked into the water, the face within the well was silent. I opened my mouth to sing a long tone, to hear it resonate in the depths of the well. The reflection of my face opened its mouth as well, then shattered as the water responded to the vibrations of my voice. When I fell silent, the reflected face returned to being identical to my own.
These were the choices: I could jump or I could stay. I knew that I would not die in the descent, since the face had said that, either way, I would return to the people, healed, tomorrow. I knew that the voice was telling the truth, knew that the voices of prophecy, though they might confuse, would never lie.
I had asked the right questions. I had received appropriate answers. The choice was mine.
I sat by the well for a long time, long enough for the sun to finish setting and for the full moon to rise. As I saw the moon’s reflection move to fill the surface of the water in the well, I heard its voice whisper to me, “Miriam, your sisters await you.”
The well filled with a brilliant glow, as if the light of the moon had transformed into a milky lantern. I knew that I would have to choose, but did not know what the choice would be. All that I could do would be to move to the point of decision.
Certain that I was alone, I dropped my robe by the side of the well, and stepped up onto its wall. For a moment that felt, itself, as if it was outside of time, I hovered there, between constancy and commitment, between time and infinity.
Then I felt my body decide: evenly, with a certainty that my mind did not yet share, my left foot stepped out into the air above the well.
I stepped out, and I fell, and I am falling, down farther than the earthly well could have gone. I hear echoes of sounds pass me (a distant gong, the wheeze of reeds, a resonance of deep sliding trumpets) as I leave the sound of the desert wind. Images flash around me, glowing from the walls (other women falling alongside me, a hare in human clothing, a circle of lesser angels shouting from and to a falling girl, a blue house in a whirlwind surrounded by leaves), as the light from the moon above fades away, and a glow from below grows more brilliant.
I fall away from the land, away from time, and see a multitude of destinies surround me. They spread out over all of time, as if a map has been laid out showing histories past and future, extending in more directions than I can name. Endless rivers of emotion flow through me, starting, perhaps, in fear or uncertainty, but all running toward an ocean of joy.
I know (though I do not know how I know) that this decision is the right one. I do not know if I will ever land, or where, or how, or precisely what awaits me. For now, I let myself sink into the luxury of this moment, away from the pull of time, of earth. I throw my head back, spread my arms, and let the ecstasy of falling overwhelm my soul.
(Context: Genesis 23:1)
So it has come to this: after all these years, in the moment of my deepest grief, of my final betrayal, as my husband has led my only son off to die, a stranger has come to mock me.
“I am no one’s grandmother,” I say.
“No,” she says, “but you will be.”
“I have had enough of prophecy.” Sitting here on this low bench at the gateway to my home, I pull myself inward, away from those milk-white feet, clutching my knees even more tightly to my chest.
“This is not prophecy,” she says. “This is fact. Isaac comes back down the mountain, quite alive, and fathers sons, who father sons and daughters, and so on. I am indeed your granddaughter, seven generations removed. I am Miriam, known as the sister of Moses and—no, my brothers’ names will not yet mean anything to you. But I am Miriam.”
“I am Sarah,” I say automatically.
“Yes, Grandmother,” she says. “I know.”
“You say this as if this is history. Has the heart of time itself been broken? Has it flung me into the future?”
“We are still in your present time,” she says. “But I have stepped back into what, viewed from my lifetime here, is the distant past.”
“And why have you come here?” I say. “To confuse and to mock me?”
“I have not come to mock you,” she says. “I have come to take you home.”
“This is my home,” I say, “or as much of a home as I have ever had. Where would you take me? I lost my childhood home in Ur to fire long ago. None of us remain in the next city that we lived in, in Kharan. Abraham has dragged me all over Canaan and beyond, down to Egypt, up to this hilltop in Kiryat-Arba, and throughout all the rest of the lands that we know. His god told him to go for himself. He went. I followed. But since I was a child, I have never had a home of my own.”
The stranger’s feet step closer. “May I sit with you?” she asks.
I point to my right, “The bench is large enough,” I say. “Please pardon me, but I do not feel up to being a perfect host.”
“I understand.” She sits, and all that the corner of my eye sees is white upon white upon white.
I turn my head just enough to get a good look at her. She wears a robe of white linen, its hem faintly dusted and discolored by pale sand. Her skin is as white as the linen, and her hair even whiter than that. But dark eyes like mine peer out from behind pale lashes, and her features are like ours, not like those of the bleached travelers from the North.
“Tzara’at?” I ask.
She nods, tenses, waits, then relaxes. “You didn’t flinch away from me though you recognize the disease! I assure you, though, that this peculiar joke that God has pulled on me is not contagious.”
I shrug. “I am not worried. God’s joke on me was to make me young and keep me from aging. I no longer get ill, even from the most trivial or virulent of diseases. I am afraid that I may be forced to live forever.”
“Would it be a consolation to learn that you do not?” she asks.
“I suppose that it would.”
“Then,” she says, “I can tell you that you do, indeed, pass from this life eventually and rejoin the realm of souls.”
She closes her eyes, tilts her head to the left as it trying to remember, frowns, tilts her head to the right and then upright, then opens her eyes and smiles slightly. “That is a surprisingly difficult question,” she says.
“So you are not allowed to tell me.”
“No,” she says, “I am allowed. But I only know part of the answer. As viewed by people here, you leave your life quite soon. But you should live for many more years elsewhere.”
“Where?” I ask.
She seems not to have heard me. “Tell me,” she says, “when you picture your life, the way that you wish that it had gone, what do you see?”
“Really? Other than having been dragged about by my husband’s missions and his god’s whims?”
“Yes. Try to remember who you were, and who you wanted to become.”
My eyes close, and I wait for ideas, for images. But all that I hear, all that I see is the jumble of my current life, all that I have endured, all that has exhausted me.
I feel the faintest of touches brush and then rest against my temples. I open my eyes and look into the stranger’s. Her voice seems to come not from her lips but from within my own mind. “Speak to me. Who are you? Where are you now?”
My sense of where I am dissolves as steam disappears in the path of a cooling breath. “I am indoors,” I say, “in a large room, in what feels like a very old building. This room, its walls, its floor are simple, solid, as are the tables and chairs. Threads of text are inscribed on all the surfaces, intertwining into patterns, symbols, diagrams that reveal more than the words themselves.
“Others sit in the room with me, in a circle. I am teaching them, learning from them, speaking of history, of art, of all the things that join us together, that make us who we are as people. Most of those in the room are my many daughters, and it feels as if all of them are. We all have been here for a very long time, though we are continually learning things that are new. There is a sense of stability, of warmth, of all the things that I have missed in my life.”
My breath catches. The image shatters, dissipates, propels me back, to my home, to this dusty gateway, to this low stone bench.
I pull back away from this Miriam, away from her gaze, her touch.”Why have you forced me to see this, to remember this? I had forgotten what my life could have been. I had almost grown happy with who I am.”
She smiles, takes my hand in hers, pale flesh surrounding dark. “I show you this because it is true. This is where I came from, where we are going. It is indeed a memory, not of your past, but of your future.”
“Where is this place?” I say.
“This is also a surprisingly difficult question. I can say where its entrances are, but the location of the school itself is an ongoing source of debate. We seem to exist in a different space, a different time, connected but not the same as here.” She pauses, releases my hands, and rises to her feet. “So shall we go?”
“Why should I believe you?” I say.
“Because your heart knows it to be true.”
And as she says this, I look deep into my heart, out beyond the world that I know. Time suddenly spreads out before me, not as a line but as a plane. I see the world through Miriam’s eyes, and know that I am to leave here, know that what we see will indeed be my choice, my destiny.
“But what of my future here?” I ask aloud. “How will Abraham and my Isaac continue without me? Will they come to hate me for abandoning them?”
“The stories say that you pass away here, soon, as or just after they come down from the mountain. None of us can step back into this world within the span of our natural lives. But once you pass away, we can return you here. They will find that you had died while they were away, quietly, at rest, at peace.”
“And will they continue well?”
“They will,” she says, “from what we know. You have set up your household to run well without you. Your friend, your servant Eliezer, will watch over them. Soon, he will find a bride for Isaac from within your clan, and generations will extend through Isaac as far into the future as we can see.”
Silence falls. I sit and Miriam stands in the fading light of evening. When my shadow has lengthened to the point that it darkens her pale feet, I, too, rise.
“So shall we go?” Miriam asks. “We have a long walk ahead of us.”
“What may I take?” I ask.
“Whatever you wish. Whatever we can carry.”
I step back into my house and look around. Though, like all our homes have been, it is a temporary shelter, it is cluttered, strewn with gifts and tokens that have accumulated in our travels and transactions.
Off in a corner, one item stands out, as if a different light shines on it: a doll, intended as an idol, I suppose. My father Haran carved it from the wood of an asherah grove. I had clutched it as my Abram saved me from the fire in my home, and kept it with me throughout all these years.
I walk to the doll, pick it up, and cradle it in my arms. I take a couple of favorite robes and scrolls of stories that I would like to remember and teach.
I turn to the door, then turn back again. Taking a reed and some blank parchment, I write a quick note to Abraham reminding him to complete our purchase of the caves at Machpelah. After what he has experienced and is likely to experience, he is likely to forget. And I do love that piece of land, and would like to be buried there.
I pause at the end of the note. Should I say goodbye to my husband and my son? No, better for them not to know that I left them. Better for them to believe that my passing was sudden, was unexpected.
I cap the inkwell and rest the quill beside it. Looking around for what I know is the last time, I try to engrave the image in my memory. Looking into myself to remember my feelings as I leave, I am surprised that where I expect to find sadness and resignation, I find excitement, anticipation, joy.
I turn again and step out of the house. Miriam reaches out wordlessly and takes some of the scrolls and robes to carry.
“Shall we go?” she asks again.
I nod. We start down the path, down this hill, away from what had been, for awhile, my home.
After we have walked for awhile, I realize that I have been considering a question for a while. “This place where we are going,” I ask, “does it have a name?”
“Not one that we know,” she replies. “But our group, our school, takes one on.” She looks toward me, the glow of her pale smile as warm as that of the horizon’s setting sun.
“We have always known that you would be be joining us. Even though you have not come to join us until now, we have always spoken of ourselves as the Sacred Sisters of Sarah.”
I stop, surprised, then quickly return to walking down the mountain. Yes, I am returning to the life that I was meant to lead. Yes, I finally am coming home.
And now I am alone, alone except for my silent angel, who comes and goes in ways that I cannot understand. How long have I been alone? My sense of time has fractured, scrambled. I can no longer remember the sequence of events, other than by reconstructing patterns, believing that one thing must have caused another and therefore must have preceded it.
This angel sits here, silent, forever by my side. His head is bowed, but his eyes look up toward me, here as I lie on this soft stone bed of comfort. His wings, his feathers whisper without words in the gentle breeze that flows through this sealed room.
He says nothing. I can say nothing to him, cannot speak in my own voice. But his words emerge from the silence of his heart and hover in the air, at the archway of the doors between our souls:
Speak to me.
Who are you?
Where are you now?
The glimmers of myself that remain within my mind try to retain this little knowledge of myself: My name was, is Elisheva. I am the last of these prophets, of these women, the last of my kind.
I once knew other stories of myself, but they have drifted away, lost like a song hummed by a child in a meadow in the gentle rain. Now I only know my name, what people called me, in the time long ago when there were other people here to call my name.
But now my voice is silent. All that speak from me are the voices of others, of those whose souls have touched mine, have been parts of other souls that had included parts of mine. When I open my mouth to speak, I hear these other voices, speak with these other voices.
This angel sits here silent, listening, recording, remembering. Again he prompts me, and again: Speak to me.
I hold my voice in stillness until I cannot keep from speaking, until the voice of a life from another time, another world, forces itself through my lungs, my throat, my lips.
The angel nods in silence. Let the voice flow, his soul says to mine. You speak in safety when you speak to me.
I shudder, breathe more deeply, start to emit the sounds of speech after seemingly eternal silence, with a cough, a moan, a sigh. Speak to me, the angel says. Who are you? Where are you now?
I breathe in the angel’s silence, close my eyes, breathe forth the voices of ancient souls.
(Context: Numbers 26:46.)
They all died at sixty, all of them.
Those of us whose ages were greater than sixty when we crossed the Sea of Reeds did not immediately die: we lived as long as we would have lived otherwise, dying suddenly or gradually, in pain or in senescence, by injury, by disease, or by the silent decisions of our bodies that their lives had been long enough. But at sixty, the rest of them all died.
Now only the two of us old ones are left, Moses and I, here atop this mountain. He is one hundred twenty years old. I have lost count of my years, but they seem to exceed four hundred.