The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Shadrach

(Context: Daniel 3:19 )

Seven times hotter than mortals’ fire. And thus the roaring metal melts, collapses, drowns. Seven times hotter than mortals’ fire. And thus our human flesh should be turning to ashes, to gases, to a burst of absence where lives had been.

We should be afraid but are not afraid, we three who are falling into the furnace at this giant golden idol’s core. As we had walked here, proud in our resistance, arm in arm up the long, high ramp to the idol’s mouth, we sang out King David’s song, the one that Daniel had taught us. Where we should have seen this barren plain of dust, we saw green pastures; where we should have felt this inhuman heat, we felt cool breezes, the breath of spring across the still waters of rivers that we had never seen. As our captors tied us up, we looked into their eyes and whispered: “May the Lord give you peace.” As they pulled the hoods over our eyes, we returned to King David’s song, repeating over and over “Lo ira ra. I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil.”

And now our captors have pushed us down, one by one, into the mouth of the idol, and we are falling. We should be dying, should be burning, should long ago have hit bottom, in the belly of this idol who is only ten times the height of a man. But we do not feel the fire, do not collide. We are falling, more and more slowly, until we are suspended, without weight, in an upward rush of cooling air.

Our bindings are untying, unfolding from us, expanding, becoming not shrouds but flowering cocoons. The tongues of flame flicker gradually around us, moving as slowly as the branches of willows in gentle breezes. Below us is a meadow. Something like a man is standing at its center, hands and face aglow, waving and beckoning us to come down to him. We drop gently to the ground beside him, landing gently like butterflies, like small leaves.

As we look at him, face to face, we realize that this is no apparition, no angel of death. It is our friend, our teacher, Daniel. I wonder, then do not wonder, that I had not been surprised by his not being with us when we had stood up to our captors, when we had not bowed to the idol, that I had never realized that he was not human but rather a visitor from the Lord, that I am not surprised that he now appears like this to us.

Daniel is smiling and speaking to us. Though his lips do not move, we hear his voice within our minds. “You have been brave and did not fear, and you have been protected. Stand with me, and we will see the fire speak.”

And around us we can hear a liquid ringing, a roaring of metal as it succumbs to the fire. Seven times hotter than mortals’ fire, this fire that the king’s magicians believe that they have set, but that could come from nowhere but the Lord, is hotter than the idol’s gold can stand. We are dropping, slowly, steadily. The idol’s knees, softening, bend, dropping to the ground. Then it bends at the elbows, at the waist, turning and dropping, until it falls and prostrates itself on the plain of dust, facing east, its eyes to the rising sun. (We cannot feel it bend and fall, though we can see it: our pearl of protection, our meadow, surrounds us, suspended, slowly turning, so that our feet always point toward the ground.)

The eyes of the idol open, revealing orbs of blue-green fire that the magicians had not made. The metal of its forehead melts, rearranges, hardens, to spell in clear Hebrew letters the unspeakable name of the Lord. And its throat, its lips, melt, rearrange, form into changing, resonant vibrating channels. The heat of the fire summons wind from its depths to rush from its mouth. A voice greater than that of a thousand trumpets yet clearer, more beautiful, than the laughter of a child roars from its lips, echoes from the mountains that surround our plain. “Listen, Israel,” it sings out, “the Lord your God is the one god!”

The people on the plain are dropping to the ground, prostrating themselves like the idol, bowing not to the idol but to the one god that it has revealed. And now there is silence, as the echoes fade, as most of the people listen within themselves and hear the words of the idol resonate within their hearts. Most, but not all — some stubborn people, wicked people, people whose hearts are not open to hear, break the silence with bitter laughter, mocking the words of the voice of the fire.

And now there is a new roaring, as the fire returns to its gyrations of sound. One last stream of flame emerges from the idol’s mouth like the tongue of a serpent. It passes over those who lie prostrate, but touches each of the mocking people more quickly than they themselves can move, ignites them, turns them to flame, to ashes, to dust.

And the idol is again melting, its back opening to the sky, the gold of its body flowing across the plain like lava, like dense water rushing through a wadi after sudden rain, opening and darting around the people on the ground, leaving them on islands of earth surrounded by the flowing gold.

Amid this glistening golden ocean, a path before us cools, solidifies, hardens. At the end of the path, the king — yes, Nebuchadnezzar himself — is lying on the ground, immobilized by fear and awe. We walk forward, the three of us and Daniel, until we reach him.

Daniel is reaching down toward him, taking his hand, and guiding him upward until he stands among us. He embraces the king. The king embraces each of us, then turns and calls out to his satraps, his prefects, his governors, and his advisors: “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued the servants who trusted in him!” Though he has seen Daniel, he has not recognized him with his face aglow.

And now the silence is returning, save for the whisper of the cooling breeze that now drifts across and blesses the plain. The molten gold is disappearing, evaporating and sinking swiftly into the ground. Now no sign remains of the idol, nor of the fire, nor of the people who died. The only sign of what has happened remains echoing in our hearts.

The king waves his hand, and the music begins, the horn, the flute, the zither, the lyre, the harp and all other sounds repeating, resounding, embellishing and improvising on the melody with which the idol had proclaimed the glory of our Lord. Slowly, the king, his company, the three of us (and where is Daniel? Had we seen Daniel today?) walk on, across the plain of dust, back to the castles in which we will redefine our lives.

(Next: Judah.)

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May 12, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. should seen => should have seen (graf 2)

    (Fixed it. Thanks. –Joe)

    Comment by John Cowan | May 13, 2007 | Reply

  2. In choosing this character, the chance operations actually pointed to an instance of his Hebrew name, Hananiah, rather than the Babylonian name Shadrach. Since there were several Hananiahs in the Bible, and since the name Shadrach is more recognizable, I used Shadrach as the name of this piece.

    As with many of the pieces, this one had several possibilities. I sketched and discarded versions that focused on Daniel’s death and on his recruiting the three others when they were young. But eventually it all came back to the furnace.

    The original text doesn’t say that the furnace was inside the idol, though it doesn’t clearly say that it wasn’t. I had read, in researching the piece about Abraham, about idols (often of Moloch) with furnaces and ovens inside, and the image stuck here.

    The imagery of the melting idol was spawn by recent events in my area: a gasoline truck had crashed and burned on a highway overpass, burning so hot that the steel of the roadway melted and collapsed. When I put that together with the furnace being seven times hotter than usual, the rest came into focus.

    In the original text, Daniel is curiously missing from this scene, but a mysterious fourth man appears in the furnace. This led me to speculate that Daniel was the fourth man, and not actually human. (And this connects us, via a huge leap of assumptions, to one of my favorite fictional characters, Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw.)

    Comment by bookofvoices | May 17, 2007 | Reply


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