The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Genesis 35:29)

Through the years, this landscape has grown familiar. To the north, a ladder rises without visible support. A host of men with hidden, glowing faces climb and descend, moving past and sometimes through each other as they travel to and from what must be the heavens. In what should be the ladder’s shadow, a man without a name waits in a circle of blinding light, in wrestling garb, always prepared for battle. The moon is always three-quarters full, shining through a gap in clouds that never block the stars. Constellations spell new signs each night. A rainbow, full and bright against the darkness, arcs out to the caves below them. Where the colors meet the sand before the caves, my sons await.

I am always running when I find myself here, running with my flock of mottled goats, running from a darkness behind me that I cannot see, but can feel, can smell. The scent of the skin of slaughtered goats pursues me, threatens to envelop me. I know that if I stop, if I am captured, the skin will bond to me, shape itself to me and me to it, suffocate me, make my blood its blood. I shout out the name that my father gave me, but the echo comes back in the laughter of the man beneath the ladder, with a new name that he says that I must now use.

The weeping fades toward me as I approach the caves, shading from high-pitched peaks of sound down through full-throated sobs. Wisps and gasps of breath become audible as I grow nearer. From the mouth of each of the caves I hear the tears themselves, like the rushing, the rhythm of invisible rain. They are the tears of my beloved, the only woman that I have ever loved, crying for being taken too soon, crying for her sons, unable to be consoled about her sons, because she cannot hear them.

She cannot know that her sons are both right here, outside the stone-sealed mouth of the caves. The older son stands in the caves’ cool shadow. His blond curls wave in the gentle breeze as he makes up wordless songs in his high, ethereal voice. He rocks his brother’s cradle as he taps one foot in rhythm with the rain of tears, with his song. He does not recognize the sound of the rain as his mother’s tears. To him, the rushing, the darkness are simply the weather, the way that things have always been, will always be.

In the shadow of the caves, I reach, lift, embrace, and hold my older son. The running, the panic cease as the scent of the pursuing skins is replaced by the whisper of pure soap, of flowers, of my son’s flowing hair. I listen to him breathe until the rhythm of my own breathing matches the pulse of his breath, the cradle, the tears, the rain.

After a long moment (I cannot tell how long — since the moon and shadows never move and the breeze always blows steadily from the west, it is as if time does not move when I am still), I slowly put my son down. I sit on a flat rock next to the cradle. My son sits next to me, tilting onto his side, his head resting on my thigh. I lift an earthen cup that is on the other side of me and drink its warm spiced tea. My free hand gently rubs my son’s back as we sit in silence.

I finish the tea and put the cup back down on the rock. My son looks up at me. “You are tired,” he says. “What dreams kept you awake?”

I look into his eyes, which seem so much older than the rest of him. Drawn into his gaze, I feel the memory awaken within me.

“I am in that strange, familiar world,” I say. “I appear to be successful, with many wives and many sons and many, many goats. I am traveling across a partched landscape, as I have so many times before. This time, I am going to my father’s house. He has died. Why am I dreaming this?”

My son closes his eyes, sits silently, then opens them. “You fear for me when you die. You fear that you may be taken from me far too soon. The family and flocks are the wisdom, the skills that you have accumulated here. You fear that even they may not keep us from being separated.”

I nod, say nothing, take his small hand in both of mine and hold it tightly.

“Was there more to the dream?’ he asks.

“In the dream, I, too, have a brother, a twin. I have not seen him in many years. I fear and distrust him, and even consider finding an excuse to be late for the funeral so that I will not encounter him.”

“This brother,” my son asks, “had he hurt you in the past, betrayed you, shown bad faith toward you?”

“No, no, it is more that…” I pause, reach more deeply back into the memory of the dream. “It is more that I have hurt him, that I have repeatedly lied to him and betrayed him. Yet he continually pursues me, wants to connect with me, embraces me when he does encounter me, and does me no harm.”

“And what is pursuing you here? Can you see what he represents?”

“The… skin?” I ask. “The scent of the invisible skin?”

My son nods. “What do you know of the skin? Why does it pursue you?”

“It seems like it is rushing to fill a void, to fill some gap in itself. It wants to engulf me, make me part of itself.”

“Do you see your brother in the dream? What does he look like?”

“I didn’t see him, but I remember having seen him. He looks… he is my twin, and looks exactly like me, only hairier. His skin is rough. In the dream, I remember the sensation of wrestling with him, remember the sense, the scent of his skin, all bristles and acrid sweat…”

“And you are running from him.”


“As you are running from the skin.”

“I… Yes. But they cannot be the same.”


“The skin is pursuing me, always pursuing me. And there will be great danger if it catches me.” I shudder audibly.

My son places his free hand on my right hand, so that each of us holds the other’s hand in both of his own. “But in the dream,” he says “you recall finding welcoming peace each time that your brother has caught up with you.”

“Yes. But still I fear him, fear what he might do, what he might say.”


“I fear… I fear that he knows me too well. He has seen me take from him what should be his, has seen me betray him, has heard me tell lies when he knows the truth. He knows that he is the good man that I only appear to be, and even though he knows that I — and even my sons — cannot keep ourselves from telling the stories that deride him, he still has…”

I feel my tears begin, gathering in my eyes and flowing in parallel to the sound of the tears from the cave. I lower my head, rest my forehead against my son’s soft curls. “Compassion,” I whisper. “For all that I am renowned to be strong in the dream, that I am known to be brilliant and successful, he is the bearer of compassion, honor, and truth that I can never know.”

“And when he reaches you?”

“When he reaches me, embraces me, I feel the void in my life, then feel it filled, as halves of a soul that was split in the womb become one. And when he lets go, I feel myself diminished, as if what I need has been taken away. And I resent that, and that turns into fear, fear and hatred of him.”

My son looks into my eyes even more deeply, and his own eyes glow and reflect like screens, like mirrors, showing me an image of myself. In a slow transformation, I see myself grow coarser, hairier, yet somehow gentler, see myself change into the image of my dream brother.

Then the image of my brother thins, like steam dissipating from above the kettle. But what mists away is what of me was in my brother’s form, subtracting and dissolving until all that is left is —

“Yes. The skin,” my son says. “Why do you run from it? What danger do you fear if it reaches you?”

“If it reaches me, it will absorb me, consume me. I will become part of it.”

“Or,” he says more quietly, “it will become part of you. The gaps in each of you will be completed, and you will be a whole being.”

We sit in silence. Around me, I sense the colors of the landscape becoming richer, stronger. The foot of the rainbow, which had been closer to the mouth of the cave, is now nearer to us, now surrounding us, until all is color, and the rocks and sand and caves have faded away.

“Listen,” my son says. “All that you have ever been, all that you have ever seen, all that you have ever dreamed is part of you, and will be part of you forever. What is in your arms is in your soul. What you are running from is running to you. And you, and it, and I will always be here together.”

As he speaks, the sound of the rain of tears grows louder, until it is a rushing of waves on a beach, until it is the white noise of a static storm that obscures all other sound. I hold him tightly, but I feel him being taken from me by a torrent of history that crashes across realms. I cannot hear my voice when I cry his name, no longer feel his pulse, his breath, his warmth against me. My arms fold in against me, collapsing across my chest. I open my eyes and see that I hold only his cloak, a cloak made from the rainbow. I howl in pain, in loss, and start to run, in no direction but away.

When again I look around me, I see that I am running through the usual landscape, with the ladder, the wrestler, the moon, the caves all in their usual positions.

A voice comes to me from beyond the caves, its echoes preceding it, as if the words have been flung backward from a distant future: “Do not fear, my servant Jacob, for I am with you.” I have never heard the voice before, have always known that voice, which rings with memories of my son’s voice, of my brother’s voice, of my own.

I hear a silence following me, a gap in the landscape of sound, almost tangible in its presence of absence. Then my senses are overwhelmed by the scent of the skin, the memory of dreams of slaughtered goats, the hole in this world, in this life, that I know will fill me, that I know that I must fill.

Fighting my own momentum, I slow my running, stumbling as I walk, as I stop, as I turn. The presence of the skin hurtles toward me. I whisper my son’s name, then look up, close my eyes, and open my arms.

(Next: Jeremiah.)


July 14, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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