The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Jonah

(Context: Jonah 1:2)

The call came to me in the night, in an instant, a compulsion echoing from inside, waking me up with the knowledge that I must go to Nineveh. I have never been there, have never been to a city larger than my tiny town, never been more than a day’s journey from the house where I was born, even on a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem where I have meant to go so many times.

And now I must go to Nineveh. I have tried not to go, tried to ignore the call, to continue as if I have a normal life. But every moment that I spend in evading the call feels like an eternity with my eyes on fire, with this feeling that whatever I am doing here is less important than being there, this feeling like a fine golden noose around my heart that pulls tighter with every second of delay and threatens, if I wait too long, to strangle my soul, to slice my soul away from my self and leave me falling forever into the abyss of what could have been.

I try to be pleasant with friends, cordial to my customers as I sell them the sandals that I had formed so carefully in my shop, that I had made so close to perfect for each individual foot, as if they were blessings, as if they were wings to carry each person on his own peculiar pilgrimage. But now I have to fight the desire to cut and shape each sandal quickly rather than well, to thrust the finished sandals at the customers and grunt when I take their barter or their coins, rather than listen to them and gently touch the expressive contours of their feet to sense their wishes and their needs.

And now my own feet shuffle nervously, trying to drag me to the ocean, to the west, to take me toward my destiny. I dream of Nineveh. My tongue and lips and larynx murmur the name of Nineveh without consulting with my mind. The landscape of my imaginings is only that of Nineveh, of the sights and smells of this city that I have never seen.

And all that I truly know of the place is that it is a city of unfettered evil, a city of slavery, of murder, of pain and cruelty, of people casually maimed as others cut away their satchels or their shoes. Few from my village have gone to Nineveh, and even fewer have returned. Those who have returned all fear to speak of the city, their eyes growing wide and filling with tears as they try to remember and try not to remember the horrors that they have seen.

I close my eyes and pause my breath, and I see Nineveh, I hear Nineveh. And within it I hear crying out the echo of my future voice, telling them to repent, telling them that their city will be destroyed in forty days if they do not repent. In response there is silence. I hear nothing that tells me if they will laugh at me, if I will be mocked or attacked or injured or killed, if the arrogant absurdity of the message that I hear myself bring will rain down wrath and destruction upon me and upon those back home that I love.

My mind, my heart, my soul all demand that I stay in my home, that I hide from this call to go to Nineveh. But I cannot hide from this compulsion. It screams at me from within the depths of my self, an invader from another realm, perhaps from the realm of my god, that will not let me rest until I go. As I stand and try to move to act against it, it throws me to the floor and shows me new visions, visions that can only end if I give in or if I die.

Enough, then. I surrender to this impossible will. I will take with me my food, my bag of small scrolls, a second robe and my sturdiest sandals, and I will proceed farther than I have ever gone, to the shores of the sea, to the port of Jaffa. There I will ask my soul again what I must do. If I must, I will go on to Nineveh. If I must, I will say what I seem fated to say. I will face the destiny that awaits beyond the silence at the edge of my dreams.

But I pray that this all will end. I pray that I will find that this has all been a nightmare within a nightmare, that I will rise from the floor and see the sun rise to the east, and I will know that I have survived some strange inner test that my soul created to torment and strengthen itself.

And I will sit quietly, here in the shade of my kikayon tree, huddled silently, never to travel, never to speak out, my eyes to the ground, as I work the strong leather of the sandals, listening to the footsteps and voices of the people of my town, answering only to the eloquence of the feet of those that I serve.

(Next: Hazael.)

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April 25, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. While this may be my favorite chapter yet, it didn’t turn out anything like I originally intended.

    You see, the Book of Jonah is, hands down, the funniest book of the Bible (not that it has much competition). There’s a stand-up routine waiting to be written, somewhere between Bill Cosby’s “Noah” and Lenny Bruce’s “Thank You Masked Man”, that would tell more of the story. Jonah gets the call from God to deliver a message, and keeps trying to get away from doing it. He keeps getting caught, though, and ends up where he has to be, kvetching the whole way.

    And despite his being sure that he’s going to be killed in the worst way by the people he’s trying to convert, they keep getting the message and changing their ways for the better (even the crew of the ship, who he weren’t even meant to be in his original audience).

    At the end, having successfully completed his mission, he sits under a kikayon plant (and no one seems to agree what a kikayon actually was), and complains some more. And one more time, the voice of God appears, figuratively whacks him upside the head, and yells “Yutz! Pay attention to something other than yourself!”

    But that’s not what I wrote here, since it would have been far too long, and I couldn’t get it in tune with the tone of the rest of the project. So I went all the way back to the beginning of the book, where Jonah first gets the call, and imagined his reaction then. (And people who’ve known me awhile may guess what events and now-offline blog posts I plumbed to get a feel for his obsessive, compulsive state.)

    There are surprisingly few interesting legends about Jonah, other than descriptions of the great fish that swallowed him and then vomited him back onto the land. (And how’s that for a striking, if perhaps uninspiring way to make an entrance?) Maybe it’s just that the story is pretty complete and well told in the original, though, terse as the Bible usually is, there’s plenty of cracks in which to insert new stuff.

    Comment by bookofvoices | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  2. See http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a5_244.html for more Biblical humor (including Jokes for Jesus, as told by Del Close).

    Comment by John Cowan | June 18, 2007 | Reply


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