The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

David

(Context: 2 Samuel 13:21)

The palace now is quiet. All my wives and daughters have gone off now, after a dinner where they all glared at me in sullen silence, saying the very least that they could without actively incurring my wrath, the wrath of the king. My sons have retreated to their houses, all feeling unwell after perhaps too boisterous a meal. All except Absalom: he joined the women in their silence, the whole time seated with his back to his half-brother, Amnon, the whole time keeping his sister, my youngest daughter, Tamar, carefully in his gentle gaze. Tamar, my tiny, beautiful, wounded Tamar, sat perfectly upright, staring straight ahead, silent as stone. Jonathan, you never would have guessed yesterday from her fragile poise, the sweetness of her smile (which none saw today and which we might never see again) and the clarity of her voice when we would hear her singing, laughing, and playing in the palace halls, how her screams, as she stumbled outside last night, would shake all who heard them and would reveal the cracks in this family, this royal house.


The screams echo in my mind as I sit here, alone, my head resting on the cool wood of my harp. I close my eyes, but I cannot banish the image of her as I found her outdoors, kneeling in the dirt, covering her face and hair with the dirt, clawing at her stained, ornamented robe, as if to both conceal herself further and tear it away. Flanked by my servants (always flanked by my servants), I knelt beside her and tried to put my arms around her, to comfort her in a father’s embrace. But she looked up at me, looked in my eyes without seeing me, screamed louder, and ran into the women’s quarters where even I refrain from going. I stood again, silent, not grasping what was happening, until Absalom came into the courtyard, face pale, with quiet fury in his eyes.

“Tamar?” I asked. He nodded.

“What happened?” I asked.

He said only “Amnon,” then turned and went back into his room.

And Jonathan, as a father knows the heart of his sons even if he does not want to believe what he knows, as a father cares for his sons even when the son has done wrong, I knew all that had occured.

My first impulse was anger, was to lash out against Amnon, to strike him down as I had ordered the deaths of others. But the fury was conflicted by sadness, confusion, and the dissonance between the love I felt both for Tamar and for Amnon. I stood, closed my eyes, asked God for guidance, and quietly sang to God and to myself one of my repeating, calming songs to lead myself to a silence from which I could act.

Amnon’s door was locked, bolted, when I tried to open it. “Unlock this door,” I bellowed, “this is the king.” There was no response. My servants stepped forward to break the door down. I stopped them. “Amnon,” I said more quietly, “this is your father. Please open the door.” After a long pause, I heard his chair move, and footsteps toward the door.

When he opened the door, dressed still in his sleeping robe, his face showed little, as if all emotion had been locked away. He stepped backward and sat again as I entered. My servants followed, but I gestured for them to wait outside. I stepped around the broken teapot and heart cakes on the floor, stood silently in front of Amnon, then pulled another chair over and sat down facing him.

“Amnon,” I said. “What happened?”

“What happened,” he repeated flatly. “What did she tell you?” He said “she” with a trace of a sneer.

“She is not speaking,” I replied. “What happened? When they told me you were ill and wanted her to make you some of her heart cakes. I sent her to you. And now you are sitting here with this affectless stare, your house looks like there was a battle in it, and your sister –”

“Half-sister. Not my sister.”

“She is my daughter. You are my son. And she is covering herself in dirt and screaming.”

He sneered again. “So she acts the madwoman well. She is a schemer and a liar. I hate her.”

“You loved her. You have always been her favorite brother, playing with her, talking with her, sitting with her out in the trees…”

“And she was always scheming to get me. And she got me alone, in my bed, and she made her move on me, and when she got what she wanted, she acted as if I was a criminal, insane.” He glared at me in silence, as if accusing me of something.

“Got what she wanted?” I said, keeping my voice low. “Amnon, she is a little girl. What could she want –”

“A little girl,” he said. “She is a woman, or will be. And you have taught me how women are, and how they are not to be trusted, and how they are to be taken –”

“I have taught you no such thing.”

“Not in words,” he said, “though you have rarely been one to teach in words — you save them to use in your songs to seduce your followers, your audiences. But I have seen how you have been to your wives, our mothers. You take them if you want them. If they are married, their husbands die suddenly. If they are from elsewhere, they are captured, or used in political bargains. And when you see the next woman that you want, you forget them, banish them to the women’s quarters, until you need to put them on display at state dinners, or summon them when your most recent wife isn’t satisfying you.”

I wanted to strike him. I refrained. “But your little sister –”

“Half-sister,” he said again. “And that I was her half-brother didn’t dissuade her. She has always been trying to get me, moving against me as she played, climbing across my back or hanging tightly to me as we walked together, as if she didn’t know what that did to — what that does to any man –”

“But she didn’t know!” I protested. “At her age –”

He ignored my words. “And now when I was ill, I asked her that she come to my house, that she cook her heart cakes with whatever witchcraft she uses so that they heal the sick. And she saw me in my bed, and worked her wiles, her witchery on me, singing and dancing and moving so seductively as she worked the dough and stuck the pitted dates within each and fried them for me. And then, when they were ready, she climbed up onto my bed, onto my lap, and snuggled up against me, and fed one to me with her beautiful little hands, looking straight into my eyes with her own brown eyes wide open, and then she kissed me, first on the tip of my nose, then on my lips, and I…” He paused, then hissed, “I hate her. I hate –”

He stopped. His eyes widened, then clenched shut. His hands came up, formed fists, pressed against his temples, as he curled downward. His head rested between his knees, as he shook, sobbing. Spasms through his body pushed him forward. His chair slid out from under him and he hit the ground heavily, his head protected by my foot from striking the floor. His breath came in voiceless gasps that gradually turned into keening sobs. “Father?” he finally said. “What happened? What have I done?”

“You know what really happened,” I said quietly. “You know what you have done.”

“Can you forgive me?” he asked.

“Forgiveness is not mine to give,” I replied.

He looked up at me and tried to rise from the ground, but the arm on which he raised himself buckled and he fell back to the floor. I reached down to him. He grasped my hand in mine and rose more steadily, first onto his knees and then to his feet.

He reached for his cloak. “I must go to her. I must tell her how sorry –”

“No,” I said. “You will not go to her. You will not speak to her again. As of this moment, she does not exist for you. I will not speak of this, but word has reached the women’s quarters and cannot help but spread like fire in a dry vineyard. As king, all whispers in the court reach me. The way that you looked at Tamar, that you look at the young girls has been noticed, though none wanted to speak aloud of it, none wanted to believe that what they sensed was true. You are the son of the king, and under protection of the king, and no harm can come to you. But know that you must never be alone with any of the girls without another grown person who is not one of your servants present. If you ever are, or if we ever hear of anything like what happened tonight happening again, my protection may not be enough. And I cannot protect you from the wrath of the Lord. You must look within yourself and out to him, to atone and to steel yourself against further sin.”

He nodded, and looked like he wanted to say something, but remained silent. I bent down, picked up the remaining heart cakes, brushed them off, placed them on the plate that lay beside them and, rising, handed the plate to my son. “You have been ill,” I said. “Eat and sleep, if you can. We need you to be well.”

He reached out and took the plate. I held onto it for a moment before letting go, then put my other hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. Neither of us had anything more to say. We held the gaze, then he lowered his head and bowed to me. I turned, opened the door, and left.

I went to sleep, returning to my house and settling into bed beside my most recent wife. No one said anything more about this. In the morning, everything seemed normal, though the noise of the palace sounded quieter, somber. The dinner for the heads of the tribes went on as planned; if they noticed the tension among us, none reacted. Since fame had spread of Tamar’s magical cooking, my wives helped her make for our dessert those small cakes that she does so well.

And now the women are gone. They have headed off in a small caravan with our best drivers. Tamar is going to visit the magical women at the Well of Generations. She may stay there awhile to recover, perhaps to learn from them.

And I am here, Jonathan, alone with my harp and the silence and the memory of you. After all these years, I still long for you to be here, to share my sorrows and occaisional joys, to listen to me and return sage words of understanding.

Amnon’s words still thunder in my ears. Yes, I have desired women, taken women, and have not acted well to them when new women came along. But though I have always desired the touch of women, the bodies and shapes and scents of women, I have never loved one as they have loved me, as I loved only you. Neither have I desired men, or ever loved other men, but your heart and mine, from the day we both were born, from the day we met, until the day you died, were joined as one.

My soul is torn by the things that I have felt, the things that I have said, the things that I have done. And now I see what I have done and what I have been thrown back at me in the words and actions of my sons. I worry whether I have not given them enough attention, if I have given them too much attention, if I have been too harsh with them, if I am now showing one son too much compassion. And I wonder if I should have asked their mothers how they should be raised, and if it will be too late, when they return, to ask for their aid.

I feel my fingers starting to move against the strings of my harp, and hear my voice raised, as if by a will outside my own. They are playing, singing one of my own old songs that I thought I had forgotten: “Happy is he who is thoughtful of the wretched; in bad times may the Lord keep him from harm. May the Lord guard and preserve him; may he be thought happy in the land…”

And now my voice and hands have fallen silent. And I wrap my arms around my harp, as I wish I could wrap my arms around Tamar, around Amnon, around my kingdom, around the Lord, and, most dearly, around my memory of you. Then my hands drop to my sides, and I know that I am alone, alone, in my thoughts and memories, among all my dreams and all my people, at last, silently, alone.

(Next: Jacob.)

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July 6, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. “acted well to them” is awkward: how about “behaved well” or “treated them well”?

    Comment by John Cowan | July 7, 2007 | Reply


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