The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Haggai

(Context: Haggai 1:14)

I fade slowly into consciousness, awakened by the sound of panting, the scent of stale breath, and a rough wetness moving against my face. My eyes blink open after several tries and look into the eyes of a small dog, mottled grey with a white stripe on its nose. I sneeze, and the dog yelps, stops licking my face, and backs away a few hands’ breadths before he returns and starts licking again.

I try to stand and discover that I can’t. A heavy weight lies on top of my head, back, and one leg. One hand reaches back and feels rough wood, and I suddenly remember where I am and how I got here. I am just inside the borders of Jerusalem, lying in the dirt, pinned face down under a beam that I had been dragging in the middle of the night toward the site of the temple.

I hear a high-pitched voice in the distance call, “Caleb! Caleb, where are you?” The dog yelps, its bark even higher than the voice, piercing and almost painful this close to my ears. Small feet, running, approach to my left. From the sound of it, they seem bare, without sandals, though I can’t turn my head to the left to see them. Equally small hands reach down, coming into view, and pick up the dog, who yelps again.

The feet walk around me and stand in front of my face. “Hello,” the voice says.

“Hello,” I reply.

“Why are you lying on the ground?” it asks.

I attempt to shrug, but the beam on my back keeps me from moving. “I fell,” I say. “The beam fell on top of me. I cannot get it off my back.”

“Why do you have a beam?”

“I was carrying it up to the top of the hill.”

“Why?”

“I’m rebuilding the temple.”

“The temple? What’s that?”

“It’s a building. People go there to worship the Lord.”

The voice says nothing. Perhaps the child has nodded. The feet step closer to me.

“Can you help move the beam off of me?” I ask.

I feel the child push on the beam. “Too heavy,” he says.

“Can you find someone to help move the beam off me?”

There’s a silence, then, “Maybe Shimshon or Tzvi can help. They’re big.”

“Could you go get them?” I ask.

The voice, again, says nothing. I hope that the child has nodded again. The feet turn and run away from me. As they get farther away, more of the boy comes into view. He is young, maybe six years old, in a simple short robe of a vague brown that contrasts with his curly black hair.

A long time passes, as do several more pairs of feet. No one else stops or says anything. Another dog runs past, farther away. A salamander wanders quite close by, but doesn’t seem to notice me. I move my arms, place my palms on the ground, and try to push upward. When I get a few fingers’ breadths off the ground, the beams slips very slightly, banging into the back of my head. I collapse, raising a small cloud of dust. Again, I sneeze.

The boy returns with two larger boys, though seeing them, I doubt whether they’ll be much help: the one to the first boy’s left is quite tall, but limps; the one to the right, though shorter than each of the others, appears to weigh as much as the two of them combined.

They come up to me, close enough that all I can see is the three pairs of feet. The pair to the right (the fat boy, I think, if they haven’t changed places as they have approached) tap impatiently. “Who are you?” says the voice from that side.

“My name is Haggai. Can you help me?”

“What can you give us?” he asks.

I pause, thinking. I really don’t have anything. “An opportunity,” I reply. “You will be remembered as one of the first people to help rebuild the temple.”

“Why would I want that?” he says.

“I—it’s just a good thing, a chance to do something good.”

“Let’s look in his pockets,” says the voice from the other side.

“How, you idiot?” asks the one with all the questions. “He’s lying on top of them. Let’s go.”

“I will not just leave him lying here!” says the one in the center, the one who brought the other two here. “Can you just try to lift the beam? Or are you too weak to lift it?”

“I am not!” The boy on the right moves closer and pushes on the beam. It rocks slightly, then falls back into position, once again hitting me in the head.

“So?” says the boy to the left.

“The balance is wrong, obviously” says the boy on the right. “You have to learn how to do these things.” He walks to the end of the beam, just past the top of my head. The other two join him, now all out of my sight. “Now: you put your hands under this end, here. And you put your hands under there, where I had them just now. I’ll go around here.”

Two feet appear again in front of me. I feel hands under the beam, sliding against my back on either side of it. “Now lift on my count: four… three… two… Caleb!”

I suddenly feel paws on my head and a slurping noise, as the dog apparently has returned, and decided to jump up and lick the face of one of the boys.

“One?” asks another boy, and two sets of hands lift the beam.

“Not—ow!” I sense several things in the same instant: The feet of the boy in front of me fly up and out of my view. A cloud of dust replaces them, causing me, again, to sneeze. The beam lifts off me slightly and slides to my left, landing on my shoulder and bouncing further over, off of me and onto the ground. One of the boys (I sense, gratefully, that it’s the thin one) lands on my back. The boy at my head cheers. The dog yelps, again far too high and loud and far too close to my ear.

“What’s going on here?” A deep voice approaches from behind me, accompanied by the slapping of sandal soles against the dirt.

The boy lying on top of me scrambles to his feet. “Nothing, father.”

The man stops to my left. “If you are involved, Shimshon, it is never just ‘nothing’. Who are you?” he says, apparently to me.

Pressing my right palm against the dirt (I feel two sharp pebbles jabbing into it), I roll over onto my back and look up at the man. He is shorter, stockier than the instant image that my mind had formed from hearing his voice, but still a formidable man. “My name is Haggai, the son of—”

“Yes, yes, Haggai the supposed prophet. Well, get up.”

I bend my knees, roll onto my calves, and try to stand, but can’t quite get my balance, after the night spent under the weight of the beam. I start to crumble, my hands flying out to grab the air. The man catches me under my arms and holds me up until I manage to stand on my own.

“What are you doing out here with this beam?” he asks. “Have you been here all night?”

“Most of the night. I was trying to bring it over to the temple site. I’m rebuilding the temple.”

“By dragging a single beam over?”

I shrug. “One has to start somewhere.”

He laughs. “I suppose one does. And what will you do with the beam when you get there?”

“I think it lies along the southern edge. It may be too long, but I can try to find a saw and cut it to size if it is.”

“Do you have plans for how to build it? Or do you think that the Lord will let you know bit by bit?”

I reach into my pocket and pull out a small scroll. It unrolls unevenly, after having been flattened under my weight. “Actually, he told Ezekiel some time ago.”

The man takes the scroll from me, turns so that it catches the sunlight, and peers at it. “There’s a lot of information here, but it needs to be more complete. I can tell that this ‘man who shone like copper’ that he quotes was not an architect. Now, is this south wall that you are building for the gate, the court, or the temple itself?”

“It’s for… one of those.”

He looks up at me, then back down at the scroll. “Words will not be enough. I need to draw plans.”

“Yes,” I reply. “Thank you.”

“Do you have any experience in construction?” he asks.

I shrug. “None at all. I figure that the Lord will help me when I need it.”

He smiles. “Well, I guess I’ve turned into some sort of messenger of the Lord. Look, do you really mean to do this? And will you commit to sticking with the job until it’s done?”

“Yes, I do and I will.”

“That is a start, then,” he says. “Do you have any funding?”

“I hope that the Lord will provide.”

He sighs. “A community project, then. Well, my wife is good at pulling that kind of thing together. And I’m an architect. My team has just finished with Zerubabel’s summer home, so we have some time to get this happening.”

“Yes,” I say again. “Thank you.”

“We can go up to my office and take a serious look at this. And we should get you some breakfast. But first we have to get this beam out of the road. Think you can handle that end?”

I bend down and lift it slightly. “This end, yes.”

He steps over to the other end. “Then I’ll grab this one, on my mark.” He pauses, then yells, “Shimshon! Tzvi! Yerachmiel! Stop playing with the dog! Get over here and help us!”

The three boys, who have wandered off to sit under a nearby tree, stand and come toward us. “Stay, Caleb!” shouts the youngest. The dog yelps again (his voice not as painful, now that it is not right next to my ear) and stays.

“Now stand over here—no, on the other side of the beam, that’s right — and we’ll all lift and move it over to that stone. On my mark: four… three… two… one… Now!”

We all lift the beam and carry it as far to our left as the beam is tall. “Now, gently! Lay it down.”

We lower it to the ground. The man pulls a bit of limestone from his pocket and makes a mark on the beam. “There,” he says. “People will know that it’s mine and won’t take it.”

As we stand, I get a closer look at the man’s face. “Haven’t I seen you before, down at the temple site, when I was trying to get people to work on the rebuilding?”

“Oh, yes,” he replies. “I’ve been there many times.”

“So why are you helping now, when you chose not to help then?”

“Because then, all you were doing was yelling,” he says. “Yes, I heard you there, babbling endlessly, talking, shouting, threatening us with the Lord’s wrath, telling parables that, frankly, no one could understand. But now…” He puts the limestone back in his pocket, pulls his hand out, and gestures down at the beam. “Now you are actually doing something. It is a ridiculous move—this beam is the wrong kind of wood, by the way, for the part that I think you are trying to build — but it’s action, rather than words. And if you are willing to keep working on this project rather than just yelling about it, we can start to get something done.”

He looks down as his sons. “Boys! I think you all have chores waiting. And please try to keep Caleb out of trouble. And you…” He looks up and slaps me on the shoulder (the right one, fortunately, not the one on which his son let the beam fall). “You need breakfast, then we’ll try to make some sense out of these plans. We have a lot of work to do.”

(Next: Pharaoh Hophra.)

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September 15, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Cool. I think, though, this is not so much Haggai’s story as the anonymous engineer’s.

    Comment by John Cowan | September 15, 2007 | Reply


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