The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: 1 Samuel 28:7)

This cannot be happening. This does not happen. I was dead, am dead, my body buried, returning to dust at Ramah, my soul at rest, dissolving into the universal soul, the loam of Sheol.

But a vibration is disturbing the surface of this substance of souls. I –the specks of this substance, once part of a separate soul, coming together, restored to an earlier order that remembers that it once formed a single being, that it once had an identity — can feel this vibration focusing into sound, this sound into a voice, the voice of a person, the voice of a woman, of a woman whose soul once knew mine, who once had run and shouted and sung with me in the circuit of prophets.

She is chanting a cycle of long sounds: a voiceless hush, then a hum, then a sustained voiced vowel, moving in stages from the back of the mouth to the tip of the tongue before it fades and the cycle starts again with the hush. The cycle moves faster, the sounds resolving into letters, gaining meaning, becoming a word — sh’muel — becoming a name, a name that resonates within me, that awakens me. It was, is, my name. I was, am, Sh’muel: Samuel.

I am drawn up, drawn out, drawn forward, from this existence without place or direction, across the barrier that I had thought could only be crossed from there to here, across into the world of objects, the world of temporary life. I cannot touch things, cannot smell, taste, hear, but the light (created before objects, before life) comes through to me, revealing the images of this world, reveals this room, with two people, three candles, a talisman, and an air of wonder and fear.

I still hear the voice, though now it is not a voice at all but the echoes of the thoughts of the woman who stands before me. She is turning slowly, her right arm outstretched, brandishing the talisman. Shadows hide her face from the candles’ light, but I recognize the tone, the signature of her thoughts.

I call out her name. I cannot speak, but the motion of my mind that, when alive, would trigger speech sends the name across to sound within her soul. “Yael,” I call. “You were, are, Yael.”

She stops her turning, and faces the three candles. “And you were and are again Samuel.”

“How am I here? How have you torn me back into this world of the living? The prophet that I knew you to be could not, would not have done this.”

“Time has passed, Samuel. All but the prophets who swore everlasting service to the king have been driven into hiding. I have been living here, at the Well of Generations, with the order of the daughters of Jephthah. And yes, we have learned the unspoken arts and hidden magic, to call out along the paths between the spheres and to reach across the membranes between the worlds. And the pain within the heart of this man who sits before me called out to plead for my help, despite the danger that revealing myself might bring, despite the threat of death declared by King Saul himself.”

“By King Saul? Do you know that that is Saul who sits before you?”

I feel shock and fear come from Yael. I see her cry out, though I do not hear the sound. She speaks to Saul and he responds, though I can only hear a faint murmur of his thoughts. Yael gestures toward the candles, shows that she sees me between them, an image that only she can see in the refraction of their light. He falls to his knees, then to the ground, head bowed, facing them, facing me.

In terror and unaccustomed humility, his soul is open to me. Yael channels a connection between us. The tale of his life is spread out as a single image outside of time. His birth; his boyhood; my anointing him king; his rise to power and corruption by it; the illness that causes him to believe that he, rather than God, can be the ultimate power and that those who love him are plotting against him; his wars, both righteous and insane; the act that doomed him, early on, not caused by trying to evade God’s will but by trying to improve on God’s command; his inevitable, imminent death — all these appear in a single brushstroke, in all possible colors, all painted at once.

Yael turns again to face the candles, to face me. “He swears that no harm shall come to me, though I know that his will is mutable, that those that he embraces in one moment might face his spear in the next.”

“Why has he called for me? The living fear all contact with the dead. He had ignored me, had not spoken to me nor summoned me to his court in decades before my death. Is there no one else he can trust, no one else that he can ask what lies before him?”

Yael turns and repeats my question so that the living man could hear. The king raises his head to look at her, to respond, and I can see that his eyes are weighted with the beginnings of tears. He speaks, stops, closes his eyes, opens them, speaks again.

Yael nods to the king, then says to me, “In the noise of war, all has fallen to silence. He asks his generals how he might evade defeat, and they cannot answer. All contact with the voice of God has faded from him. His advisors and prophets can tell him nothing at all. The priests plead with the gems of revelation to hint at the future in their patterns and their lights, but they remain dark, remain static. He looks to his dreams for omens, but all he sees is abstract, unfocused, the red of blood across skin atop grass and dust, the blue and black of empty skies from which no clouds or stars will spell out what might be. And even when he listens within himself, he finds dark silence. No roar of certainty nor whisper of hope, no inner voice, however still, however small, sounds within him. In a mind that once swarmed with voices, he is terrified, alone. So he turns to you, the one who found him in the crowd and declared him king, the one who led the people, the one whose advice he knew to be true even when he disobeyed. He needs one last word of truth from you before he is out of reach.”

“Yael, when I look at this king, all I see is the blankness of sealed fate. I need to speak truth to him, but I fear that the words will be harsher than silence. His sole good fortune is that he has come to you, who have always been known as the prophet of compassion, the one who speaks truth gently. Tell me what I might say to this man.”

Yael stands silent, looks at the king, at the talisman, at the candles, at me. “Perhaps I can speak for you, as you, can be the filter that translates what you must say into what he can hear. Open to me the wisdom that had lived in your heart, and I will endeavour to blend it with what wisdom lies in mine.”

She raises the talisman above her head, then brings it down, touching it to the crown of her head, to her forehead, to each of her eyes, to her lips, to her throat, and holds it to her heart. I see her aura glow and widen, and feel drawn into her.

Some of what had come together to form this temporary soul one last time pulls away from me, a part of myself that leaves me forever, speeding into her physical world. Focused between the candles, it collects at the center of their space then is pulled to the talisman, to her, forming a cloud of all the colors and degrees of light. It surrounds Yael, encloses her, then gradually merges with her aura, till she and what had been part of me are one.

Yael looks down and speaks to the king, echoing her words back to me as she says them aloud: “Thus says our teacher Samuel, whom you have drawn from beyond the grave:

“I know no more than you know; what we both know, you refuse to believe. Yes, your kingdom is ended. You have known from the moment when, newly crowned, you immediately disobeyed the Lord, that your line would not continue as kings. The one that you loved, then resented, then sought to kill, the one that always loved you, that your son and daughter love, will fight this enemy and defeat them. He will continue the kingdom and will make certain that your name is honored and not forgotten.

“You know that you will not see the sun set again. By this time tomorrow you and your sons will be as I am, though your daughters and many grandchildren will survive. You can do no more to change this outcome. You may choose to tell your sons; you may decide for yourself whether it is a greater act of mercy to tell them when their lives will end or to let them fight without knowing.

“Take this night for yourself: eat, sleep, pray, cry if you must, set your affairs in order if you can. Trust Yael, of the daughters of Jephthah, to guide you and comfort you through this final night. If this woman embraces you, accept her embrace, as I too am embracing you, both now as you reach across the chasm between our worlds and tomorrow as you step from the world of objects into the embrace of this world of the substance of souls.”

The king lies on the ground, his face hidden from me. He curls up slowly, his arms and legs drawn into himself as he shudders and rocks.

“Yael?” I ask. “What is he saying?”

“There is nothing left for him to say. All that he has, for the moment, are tears and certainty. His soul has faced what it can. What he needs now is to be comforted, to eat, to sleep, so that he may face his final day.”

Yael kneels beside the king, places her hands on his head, on his back, and softly sings a wordless melody, the song that the king’s successor first played on his harp to calm him when his madness had first set in. Gradually the king stops rocking on the ground and lies quietly, taking in the blessing of her presence, of her song.

But as I watch, I see them fade, become unclear, as if their world is painted on a sand dune being eroded by the wind. I feel myself start to come apart, breaking into the tiny atoms of the substance of souls. I am overwhelmed by fear, afraid that I might dissolve without returning to the source of souls, that I might be left as fragments of what once was a person in this gap between worlds.

“Yael!” I call. She looks up, stands, takes up the talisman, and once again begins to turn, the opposite way this time, looking clearly at me when her eyes pass the candles, her gaze certain and strong.

I hear her chant the sounds of my name, reversing their order, the voice returning from the front of her mouth to the back, closing into a hum, then into the voiceless hush. The sound repeats, slows, forming a lullaby of farewell. I feel my soul releasing its grasp on itself, on location, on time, feel myself forgetting, feel myself forgetting what it was that I was forgetting, feel myself forgetting my life, my name, my self, returning to the substance of souls from which we all emerge and return.

One last thought links from Yael to me across the border between the world of the living and the spacious timelessness where I — the specks of existence that still resonate together as fading identity — abide. She swears to me that she will remember this meeting, this moment, this soul for as long as she shall live.

And the fragments of my soul each pray, as I — we — they dissolve into the embrace of the void, that, when they return to new lives, combined with others as they may be, when they hear the story, hear whispered the tale of the prophet at the Well of Generations, that these souls might touch a memory of her powerful, gentle soul, and that, at least, remembering, they may smile.

(Next: Jehoiakim.)


June 16, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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