The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Pharaoh Hophra

(Context: Ezekiel 31:18)

I am kneeling by the water, summoned from my sleep by the full moon, by its light from above, by the light of its reflection in the water, in the river below. I have slipped from my bed, careful not to awaken whichever wife it is whose sleeping breath has brushed my face like an echo of the river’s breeze, and crept out of the royal house, almost silent, almost awake, almost alone. I have put on a simple robe, simple sandals, and almost, as usual, put a crown on my head. But tonight I wish to be only a man, called from my bed to the light, the water, the arms and embrace of this present moon, this swollen river.

They say that it is by my power alone that the river is fertile, that the river is alive. But the breeze, as it whispers through the reeds, through the rushes, as it makes the face of the moon dance and explode into shimmering hieroglyphs on the face of the water, as it makes the reflection of my own face now distort into grotesque and magical caricatures of itself as I kneel and bend down ever closer to the water, speaks of the deeper truth: that it is only by the power, the blessing, the love of this river that I am here, that I am alive.

I was born to be king. I was raised to be king. It was not a choice but a destiny, they told me. I am, my father was, my firstborn will be incarnations of the falcon god, fated, bred, and blessed to wear the brilliant crowns: red and white for the upper and lower river; for when we ride into battle, a brilliant blue.

But each time that I rode proudly into battle, I retreated in secrecy, in shame. That I failed in battling Babylonia was allowable. That I could not lead us into effective combat against Greece could be understood. But when I could not even defend Judah, scurrying back in disgrace, camouflaged, like my chariot, under the haughty stars and mocking moon, I knew that I could no longer lead these wars. My general, Ahmose, runs the armies for me. I remain here, as if tethered to the palace, seeing to ceremony, to the dutiful couplings that seek to extend the dynasty, to the myriad of supposedly critical details designed to keep me from getting too usefully involved in the actual work of governing.

I kneel here by the water, my clothes neatly by my side, and breathe in slowly, listening to the whispers and sighs of the river. I let the scents and sounds expand and fill me, enveloping and silencing all rational thought, all worries and dreams of my supposedly real life. I catalog these senses deep in my memory, next to the memories of so many similar nights, merging them with these impressions to create a new reality within me to replace this netherworld of gold leaf and shadow, goat’s hair beards and ill fitting crowns in which my body finds itself.

I have found my escape within, into this night-born world, so many times before. When my hooded chariot carried me home from hopeless battles, I curled up on its floor, hidden, embraced by the nondescript cloak thrown on top of me. I opened my mind, my heart to my memories of the river, let them fill me, let them welcome me into a world of comfort, until I no longer smelled the stench of combat, until I no longer heard the cries, the screams, the moans of the wounded and of those who counted and carried off the dead.

I kneel ever closer to the water, see the rippled reflection of my face grow larger within it, hear the water lap against the reeds, the stones, its voices broken into the infinite pitches of a curtain of dripping bells. I smell the air changing from the fertile green pungence of the rushes, the reeds, to the musty clear scents of the living water itself. My arms, my thighs propel me forward, forearms and knees still stable on the ground. My face approaches, meets its reflection, until the tip of my nose meets its nose, my lips touch its lips, my eyes, still open, meet its eyes. I slide forward, further forward, until my shoulders touch the water, my head submerged. In its not quite darkness, its not quite silence, the water has welcomed me into its embrace, into its love.

I raise my arms and immerse myself further still, tilting forward as my weight presses my knees into the damp earth. I submerge my head further into the love of the river, not thinking of breathing, further forward until my knees begin to slide backward, until my waist touches the ground and, my feet in the air, my body begins a final descent into the waiting water.

But then my descent stops and I feel myself pulled backward, out of the embrace of the water, into the dank air of the world outside its grasp. Firm, gentle hands have taken hold of my feet, then of my waist, then finally, with a strong arm reaching around me from behind, of my chest. My head comes up above the water as it went in (though I do not see the matching reflections of the way out, since my rapid emergence has disturbed the water so much that all I see is glimpses of the color of my skin against the colors of the rushes, the sky, the moon. Coming up to rest again on my knees, I tilt my head back onto the solid shoulder that I know will be there, as I shake and cry with the shock of my emergence from the water, from the river’s embrace.

For I am not alone. I am never alone. Hemwahibre, my constant servant has been silently by my side, watching, listening for my needs. He keeps his distance, appearing when I want him, when I need him, often before I know of the need.

I close my eyes, feel his breathing calm against my skin, feel my own breath synchronizing to his breath, my pulse to his pulse. “So you have saved me again,” I whisper.

“I have saved you again as I must,” he replies, his voice as quiet as mine.

“Even if I command you not to,” I say.

“Yes. It is the one command that I can not obey.”

We have had this conversation before, and will have it again. It will never change. All he knows is to be my servant. He even has no name of his own, only the title that incorporates my name, sworn to me, my servant for life. He was born to one of the women of the palace (we do not know whom) in the same hour that I was born, and taken to be raised with me, to be dedicated to my life, to my care. He expects to die in the hour that I die, to be buried with me, unless he dies earlier, defending me from harm or obeying my most trivial requests; my commands are more valuable to him than his own life.

He takes the hanging sleeve of his robe and moves it over my hair, my face, drying them, removing the water of life, the water of my beloved river from them. The only water remaining on my face is that of my tears. I rest there for a long time as he kneels with me, my head on his shoulder, my back against his chest, one of his arms around me, centering me, as the other moves around me, drying me and swatting away the river’s flies, his scent mixing with the fragrance of the river, of the rushes, the touch of his skin, of his moving hand, strong and soothing as the breezes, as the yielding, supporting earth.

I do not know how much time passes as I listen to his breathing, to the breeze, to the rushing of the river. What thoughts I have, what words I have, drift and flow like the soul of the river, swirling in whorls of image and meaning, chaining and blending with other thoughts that emerge, unbidden, in my mind from nowhere, in streams, in channels and cycles, until the dissolve and disperse into the trails of other forgotten dreams.

When I open my eyes again, the moon is much lower in the sky. “I love this river,” I say.

“Yes,” he replies.

“Does the river love me?”

“If that is your desire. You are the master of the rising and falling of the river.”

“Would the river love me if I were not its master?”

“If that would be your will.”

“Would anyone love me if I were not their master?”

“You are loved,” he replies. “You have the love of the people, the love of your court, the love of many gods.”

“Though not the love of the armies,” I say.

“Armies do not march on love,” he replies.

We are quiet again for a long time, until we see the faintest hint of dawn appear before us. “It is time to go home,” he says. “It would be good for you to be back in your bed when your queen awakens.”

I try to picture the face of the wife that I have been with tonight, but all that comes to mind is the shimmering of the face of the moon on the river. “Which queen is that?” I ask.

He utters a name, long, complex, and not entirely familiar. “That is one of my wives?”

“She is.”

“And does she love me?”

“She is your queen. It is time to return to her. Come. The river will always be here.” He places his free hand at my elbow, and powerfully, easily, lifts me to standing. He holds my robe, open, behind me, and I slide into it, fasten its belt, and step into the sandals that rest by my feet.

We turn, away from the river and back toward the palace. There, I know, a prepared bath, a warmed clean robe, and a bed with a sleeping wife already await.

We walk. The sounds of the river, of the breeze through the rushes, mix with songs of the first of the morning’s insects and birds. As they move through the space around me, behind me, I still hear their whispers forming into my name, calling me back, promising me the eternal love of the river once I submerge myself, submit myself to the call of its waters.

And I know with a peaceful clarity that one day, somehow, perhaps when I have sent my servant off on an impossible task from which he cannot quickly return, I will be able to answer the call of the river. On that night, I will leave a wife asleep in my bed, leave dressed in simple clothes, and go to the banks of this beloved river. I will kneel in the rushes, prostrate myself, and eyes open, slide into the river’s embrace. Then I will let its voice envelop me, take me, consume me. And I will drift north, into eternity, north, past the workings of man and the images of gods, north into the waiting ocean, into the waves, beneath the waters, into the salt and water and sand for which the river itself yearns and which it worships, north into the seas of silence, where I will find love, where I will find my hope, where I will find my home.

(Next: Jushab-Hesed.)

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September 29, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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