The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Belshazzar

(Context: Daniel 5:1)

Here, now, I am waiting; in this gaping, gasping silence, in the midst of this blaring party, waiting; in this air suffused with incense, with the scents of meat and sweat, waiting; waiting for this supposed prophet, for this man who is said to speak of dreams, in dreams, to dreams; waiting, praying that he will soon arrive, that he will never arrive.

The Persians, the Medes, are at the gates of this city. Tomorrow they will enter, and my reign will end. Something has happened to me, to us, to this nation, to this empire, and we are no longer who we were. Those whom we swore to protect have cast us away, as if the empires for whom they have left us will be better, as if the other empires would be any different.

We are all here in this palace, this maze of buildings that stretch seemingly forever on, here in the great hall, fires lit, music playing, dancers in motion across the floor, in one last party, celebrating all that we have known, all that will end tomorrow.

But I can only vaguely hear, smell, see the world that surrounds me. My thoughts, my senses have been suspended, caught in a web of what must be madness, balanced on the points of a triangle of words, three words, incessantly repeating, the names of three coins (one repeated twice), maddening, mundane, elusive. I know what each means on its own, but what they mean together I cannot say. And these words circle, shift, repeat, echoing within me, until all I sense is a howling, humming ordered chaos, an intricately textured smear to which all other words and thoughts must bow.

And now the words have broken free. Looking up from my goblet a moment ago, a lifetime ago, I have seen what I thought was a final hallucination: a ghostly hand has appeared, four times larger than any human hand, glowing like burning ebony, like gold, writing, slowly, carefully, to my horror, these words upon my wall, in letters of fire against the royal blue tapestries, these three simple words that have enslaved me, naming these coins for a purpose that I cannot understand: m’ney, m’ney, t’keyl and farsin.

At first I had thought that they had appeared only to me. But then another person pointed to the wall and gaped, and another, then two, three, many more, all those at our table, all those who could see the wall from where they sat. Some applauded, seeing it as magic, some were frightened, some amused. Those who saw it asked each other why the words were there and what they could mean. Nobody knew.

Then they looked to me and saw that I, too, was staring blankly at the words. They knew that I had not summoned them as a trick, as entertainment, knew that I was disturbed by them, knew that I needed them gone. My advisors came to me, all my enchanters, my Chaldeans, my astrologers, my wise men. None of them had done this. None could say why the words were there.

And then, at last, my beloved queen returned from the ladies’ chamber, saw the writing, saw my fear, saw the advisors gathered there, placed a hand on my hand, looked into my eyes, then turned to the advisors. “Be gone,” she said to them. “Return to the celebration. Act as if nothing is wrong. Nothing is wrong. And summon Daniel, the man of Judah, who interprets secrets and brings meaning to dreams.”

They returned to the party, to the music, to the wine, all but one who stepped away to go to the far end of the palace, to bring us Daniel. And we were left to wait, waiting as the music plays, waiting as the fire of the letters shifts and flickers but does not die, as I close my eyes and fight against being swallowed by the words, though with each moment my will to fight fades.

But now, abruptly, the noise in my mind stops, clears, and is replaced by the reverberation of a single name, my own name, Belshazzar. It has been so long since anyone, even my queen, has called me anything other than “My King” that it takes me a brief moment to recognize it. I think, “I am Belshazzar,” then, automatically, “I am king. I am here.”

“You are here, but you are lost,” the voice within my mind says, “lost within your kingdom, lost within yourself, lost within a song.”

“A song?” I wonder.

“The words within your mind, the words upon the wall,” it says. “Listen closely to them.”

I listen to them, repeat them within my mind. I still do not understand.

“Listen to the words. Repeat the words. The words have a melody,” it says.

M’ney, m’ney, t’keyl and farsin,” I think to myself. Then again, “m’ney, m’ney, t’keyl and farsin.” And suddenly I realize that my inner voice is not speaking the words but singing them.

“Listen more deeply,” says the voice within me. “Whose voice is singing?”

The words, the melody circles within, through, around me. The melody rises in pitch, lightens, becomes bright. And I know it is not my voice, but the voice of a little girl. “Yes,” the speaking voice says to me, “and where had you heard this song?”

I listen, focus, and my palace, my world drop away. I am outdoors in the early morning. I am young. I am leading my army into battle. The enemy waits, just over a hill, not knowing that we are about to attack. I wave my army forward, and they raise their swords and rush toward the top of the hill.

I am first to the peak, and I realize that I hear a child’s voice. Just over the ridge, a little girl is wandering among the flowers, not picking them, just looking at them, smelling them, then moving to the next. And she is singing as she walks:

“A m’ney, a m’ney, a t’keyl and some farsin
These are the coins that my father gave me
A m’ney, a m’ney, a t’keyl and some farsin
To buy a locket with a picture
of the boy I will marry.

A m’ney, a m’ney, a t’keyl and some farsin
I throw the coins in the waiting river
A m’ney, a m’ney, a t’keyl and some farsin
The ripples spell the name
of the boy I will marry…”

Then the sound of the girl is lost as my army rushes past me, obscuring her from view. I turn to signal them, to stop them, to protect the child — but I hesitate, and the critical instant is lost, as the momentum of our army carries them over the hill and into battle. The enemy, hearing us, rushes forward, their front line meeting ours. The moment, the song, the girl disappear in a sudden frenzy of iron, of bronze, of blood.

And in the madness of battle, I forget the girl, forget the song, until — “Yes,” says the voice within my mind, “until now.”

“Why now?” I ask. “Why have I remembered this?”

“This moment, like all moments, is the product of all the previous moments of your life, all the streams of choices within your history that you could have changed, could have stopped. You hesitated, did not speak up for the girl, and she was lost. And now, you have hesitated, have failed to support your kingdom as you should. You have not lived up to your responsibility, and your reign is at an end.”

“The girl…” I ask. “Did she survive?”

“No,” says the voice, without anger. “But she died suddenly, without knowing that it was happening, without fear, too swiftly to feel the pain.”

“And the kingdom… will it survive?”

“You know the answer to that. It has come to its end.”

“Can you change this?” I ask.

“I will not change it. History has made its choice. But not all is sealed.”

I listen in my own soul for any hope, for any sense of peace. There is none to be found. “If you can affect these things at all, can you make my passing, the passing of my kingdom, less savage than it might be?”

“And why should I do that?”

“Out of…” I pause. “Out of compassion?”

“Do you deserve compassion? Have you acted from compassion in your own life?”

I peer down a corridor of memory. “Yes, of course. Sometimes. Rarely. No, not that I can really recall. No. I have not acted from compassion. I am not worthy of compassion.”

There is a long silence, then the seeming sound of a gentle smile. “That you realize that you have not been worthy of compassion is the first step in becoming worthy. If you are willing, there is this that we can change: At the end of the night’s festivities, you and your queen will return to your quarters to sleep. There, in your sleep, you each will die: you, so that you will not see the end of your kingdom, and your queen, so that she will be spared what the enemy would do to her should they find her alive without you. You will die peacefully, without knowledge, without fear or pain. At dawn, your servants will find your bodies, and the palace will go into mourning. When the enemy arrives, they will find a kingdom without a king. Those that remain will surrender. The king of the Medes, an honorable man, will let them live, will give them amnesty, will work to absorb your kingdom into his so that the people can live well under his reign.”

I say nothing, but feel my soul gliding from shock to terror to acceptance to understanding to peace.

“And though you will die,” the voice says, “your soul, like the soul of all that die, all that live, will live again, absorbed into the loam of the soul of all and spun out again, in different combinations with the souls of others. And in your next existence, the greater part of your soul will be merged with the greater part of the soul of the little girl, the girl with the flowers and the songs, the girl that you now mourn. Thus each part of your soul, and the universal soul of humankind, may teach the other and itself about strength, about joy, about comfort, about compassion, about song.”

There is a long silence within myself. I listen, and hear that the words have returned, but not in the torrents that blocked out the world, but in the melody of a child’s voice that blesses it. The sound of the life outside myself, of my people, of my party return.

I open my eyes, and I see that Daniel, the prophet, is standing before me, his eyes opening gradually as we emerge from our shared dream. We look at each other and nod.

And now he is speaking aloud, his voice the same as the voice within my head. He is speaking of the wrongs that I have done, and is declaring a meaning to the words on the wall: cryptic, stretching their meaning, not telling others of the pain within my memory, of where the words were born, of what they mean.

The party is continuing on. The people far from my table do not know that anything strange has occured. Those around me are listening intently to the prophet, wanting to believe that they understand what he is saying.

But I am only vaguely listening to the prophet, to the music, to the people around me. I am holding the hand of my queen, resting my head on her shoulder, and quietly humming a child’s song, a melody that draws a path between my history and my hope, the pain of my past and my future peace, the wrongs that I have done and the sacrifice that I will make to set things right, the memories of sorrow and the dreams of imminent joy.

(Next: Ezekiel)

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October 13, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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