The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Genesis 38:1)

These colors flash and melt before me. When my eyes are closed, they form shards of taunting brightness, too brilliant to allow me to sleep. When my eyes are open, the colors stain my view, distorting all that I see. These are the shades of betrayal, of guilt: the blue of distant sky and ocean water; the gold glare of the scalding sun reflected by the signet of a king; the green of the smears of grass on linen, on the robes of a father kneeling, crying in a field; and, smearing and mocking all the other hues, the visceral crimson of lambs’ and humans’ blood.

Even when I close my eyes, I can feel the presence of my father, a fading cloud of a man where once there was a star. His feet drag as he walks among his tents, his voice hoarse and mumbling as he does what little business he can still maintain. When he heard that our brother died, it seemed that most of our father died with him (as if, I notice, recognizing resentment in my noticing, he did not have another eleven sons and a daughter still alive). An aura of permanent mourning hovers around him, a darkness that turns day into twilight for anyone who comes near.

And I can not tell him, and none of the others will tell him, the truth, that our brother did not die at Dothan. None of my brothers seem to care. They seem happy in their lives, glad that the burden of our brother is gone, immune to the pain that what we did had caused.
All would agree that our brother was beautiful, with the look and the bearing of the child of a god, more striking than any of us. When we brothers would walk together into a room, those gathered there would see him enter alone.

And with that beauty came his arrogance and insolence, his way of working the desires of others to get the things that he wanted, ignoring and insulting those who did not fit his needs. He could not have failed to see that his telling of his self-inflating dreams would sting us like blinded bees exploding from their hives. He must have known that his shirking of his tasks, wandering up to us late, after the labor was done, to share in our meal without working as we had, would cause us to hate him, to want to be rid of him and his taunting pretences of innocence.

So on that day at Dothan, when our brother came to our camp at evening after we had worked all day, we brothers conspired to deal with him no more. Most wanted to murder him in that moment, to cut his robes from him, and slash away his life. But our oldest brother kept us from spilling his blood directly, and threw him into a desert pit instead, with no water, where there would be no refuge from the next day’s sun, so that we would be rid of him but our hands would be clean.

I, too, shared in their hatred and anger, and I did not speak up when they threw him in the pit. But when, emerging from the evening haze, a caravan of merchants passed us on the road, I saw a way that he might live but be gone from us. So I convinced my brothers to sell him to the merchants as a slave, to have him taken away where we would never hear of him again. They gave us twenty silver coins. Each of the ten of us took two apiece, though many of my brothers may have spent theirs quickly on harlots and on wine.

Then my brothers took his coat, the beautiful one, the one that our father had told the clothier to sew for him alone when the rest of us would all have benefited from better robes, and smeared it with the blood of a newly slain goat.

When we came home, we all entered as if in mourning, presented the coat to our father, and told him that our brother was dead. As I stayed with my father, I saw his soul crumble, and saw him become as one of the dead himself.

Yet I could not tell him what I knew, that our brother was alive, though gone. The guilt of what we did crushed me, locked my mouth shut and made it impossible to breathe those words. The guilt should have spread among all of us evenly, perhaps less for me than for the others, for I was the one who had kept our brother alive. But I was the one who made the final move, who sold our brother, banished him to a foreign land. As painful as it is to see my father grieving, I cannot confess, cannot tell him that he has not lost his favorite son to an unthinking wild beast but to the intents and actions of his other sons that he also loves and trusts.

Now my father is a living ghost, and I cannot bring him back. And I cannot get my brothers to care, to acknowledge that they had cast away their own brother, not a dog that they had kicked away and then dismissed.

But the guilt haunts my life, my every action. The colors of his coat swarm and smear before my eyes as I sleep and when I wake. I cannot banish them, cannot join in my other brothers’ laughter, in the unfeeling carrying-on of their lives.

So, in the night, as this full moon illuminates the grave of our brother’s mother and amplifies my father’s cries, I must leave. I have packed what few belongings I care to take with me and, leaving the rest of my life behind, will creep out of my father’s camp, down to Adulam. I will come there as a man without a past, without a name, and try to work, to marry, to have sons of my own, to give myself the life of a quiet, guiltless man.

But I do not know if I will escape these fears, these colors.

The pack on my shoulder has three days’ food, a robe, and a scroll that I have written as a will, as words to remember in my new life. In my hand, I clutch only two coins, the pieces of silver that are all that remains of the brother that I had betrayed. I cannot leave them behind, cannot forget. And I will ask that, when I die, these coins will be placed on my eyes when I am dropped into the earth. Perhaps, if I see my brother in the mists of the afterlife, I will be able to return these coins to him, and pray that he can forgive me, so that I can forgive myself.

(Next: God.)


May 18, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. The obvious choice for a monologue by Judah would have been to use the story of Judah and Tamar, since it’s neatly self-contained in Genesis 38.

    Trying to write it, however, I found that the story involved a lot of surprising assumptions that would have had to be understood and explained in the context of the story. The status and role of prostitutes, both sacred and otherwise, in that society was one tricky aspect. Levirate marriage (in which a childless widow would become the wife of the late husband’s brother) was also difficult. Getting these straight would involve so much exposition that there would be little room for any emotional content in the brief format that I have chosen for this project.

    So I backed up a step and looked at Judah’s role in the story of Joseph. I was surprised to see that Joseph comes across in the text as a lazy, arrogant jerk. The brothers’ resentment of him is, while taken to extremes, understandable.

    But I got to imagining the aftermath of the deed, when the brothers have to live with the enormity of their actions, not only having sold their brother into slavery but having to keep up the pretense that he was killed, not letting their father know the truth. Judah had saved his brother’s life, but he couldn’t let his father know. The guilt stayed with him throughout his life, until he tried to redeem himself by surrendering himself rather than his youngest brother to an Egyptian leader (not realizing that that leader was Joseph himself).

    This seems to give a reason for Judah’s abruptly leaving the scene at the beginning of the next chapter, beginning a new family and trying to forget what had happened.

    Comment by bookofvoices | May 25, 2007 | Reply

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