The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Ezekiel 1:3)

I am soft stone, yes, a heap of dust that only God’s word can animate, that returns to dust when God’s will is done. The animal sense of my body drags me from my sleeping mat to a table to the rain barrel as I awaken, feed myself, clean myself. The dogs of the street that I once befriended bring me their scraps to eat. The rats and the rain carry away my waste. I sit in silent stupor, waiting for God’s word, fearing God’s word. When he needs me to dance for him, he puts visions in my head, causes me to demean myself, to rant like an idiot in the eyes of the people. Then I sit again, speechless, broken, cowed. I do not complain. There is nothing left within me that knows how to complain.

I have no father. I have many fathers. My mother, when asked, could not remember who my father had been, or perhaps did not care. When she dumped me at the temple gates, she insisted that he was a priest, since so many of the men who came to her were of the caste of priests, so they declared that I was a priest, too. When they asked what to say my father’s name was, she said, “He is the son of buzi—the son of my shame.” And Ezekiel the priest, son of Buzi, I became.

I do not know which of those women was my mother, whether she is alive or dead, whether she was left behind in Jerusalem or came with us here to Babylon, to the banks of the Chebar. But I do know my anger when I see any of them, see them luring our men into their temples, into their beds, taking from our men each time a bit of their money, a bit of their seed, a bit of their souls, leaving in each of them an emptiness, a hollowness, a disease in their hearts that spreads by conversation, spreads by scent.

The priests took me in, yes, and raised me with those whom they knew to be their own. But I was never truly one of them, always the last in line, the last of the chosen, the runt of the litter. Had I been a rodent, I would have been eaten immediately when I was born. All seemed to know, though none ever mentioned aloud, that I was close to untouchable, the bastard son of a harlot and a sinning priest. I failed at my studies, failed at physical activities, failed at all my social endeavours. The boys, the girls, all shunned me, all but one, but the cruelty of fate and law kept her away.

I had my own inner life, yes, a world of monsters and angels that hid inside my head, whispering and laughing and playing with and for me, in secret languages, with secret fire. But I knew that that was inside me, knew that it was less real, knew that though it could warn and comfort me, it never could protect me from the human shadows of real life.

We were ruled by so-called kings in Judah, weak shadows of their ancestors, the mighty rulers who made us a people. When the invaders came to take our land, the supposed king shrugged and gave us up, not with any sudden collapse of our world but by a gradual dissolution, as the vermin of Babylon chewed at our culture and drained us of what made us more than just another people.

And now the people sit here on the banks of the Chebar. I took the long walk when I was twelve, exiled from Jerusalem with the rest of the now-useless priests. No longer fed by sacrifices, we would sit and wait for people to bring us sustenance, telling ourselves stories of how things were, of how things would be when we would return, berating the people on whose charity we depend, telling them that they were at fault for angering our god, for causing this exile in which we had suspended our lives.

And still the women followed, these parasites upon parasites, these harlots, who would open themselves to anyone who would give them some fresh-caught fish, who would leave a few farsin at the foot of the beds as they pulled their robes of shame back on and slithered out of the tents. I would glare at the women, never going to them, seeing them as they were, as seething bags of corruption who infected our men with their wiles, with their lies. I was not tempted, though my resistance to temptation was rarely tried: when their eyes would dare to meet mine, even they would skitter away like insects into the night.

And yes, I do love, did once love a girl, my lovely Zipporah, my flightless bird. So fair of skin, her bright red hair told all who gazed upon her that she was alien, was to be feared, no doubt a witch. Her parentage was also unknown, her future as uncertain as her past. I was eleven when I met her. She was nine. When I would sit in the dust at the edges of the fields, gazing into the shadows as the other children played, she would also often be sitting, also watching. And I noticed that everyday she seemed to sit a little closer to me, and I would move closer to her. Finally, after who knows how many months, how many days, we reached each other, reached out to each other, took each other’s hand. We sat silently in the corners, in the dust, her head resting sometimes on my shoulder, my head sometimes resting on hers. We spoke once, exchanging names. Then there was nothing more to say, nothing more to do, but to meet, to sit together, to hold each other’s hands, to gaze into the shadows, alone, together, in silence.

And then the invaders came, as they did so often, separated a group of us, seemingly at random, and ordered us to leave Jerusalem, to make the long walk to Babylon, to this camp here by the waters. I thought of running, of hiding within the city, but when I saw that all around me were resigned to leaving, my will drained away and I joined the trudging pack. We gathered in the fields where the other children had played. I looked for Zipporah in the crowds, in the corners, in the shadows, but she was gone, safe, I hoped, with whoever might look after her.

Then we walked, the long walk from Jerusalem to the heart of Babylon, in the sodden cold of winter, so many weeks — though we lost count of how many, since they never let us stop, not even for the sabbath. Some died. Most survived. Some were dumped from the group earlier, some later. We were left at the camp at the Chebar, without guards, without guidance, a sad pack of people, stranded in a valley and ignored by the world.

Here we have sat for many years. Something of a city, of a society has rebuilt itself, has grown, without a temple, with some people trying to repeat the words of our history in lieu of sacrifices, and some mocking as arrogant their attempts to sing the Lord’s songs in this foreign land. Again I sat in dust, in the corners, doing what small tasks I was ordered to do by the other former priests, speaking only to the animals who shared my place near the gutters, closing my eyes to the outside world when I could and running within myself with the monsters and angels who had been with me since before I could speak. And often, over the years, I imagined that I could sense a soft hand held in mine, the scent of fine, freshly washed hair from a small head resting against my shoulder.

And then, some weeks ago (how many weeks?) a new group of our former countrymen were dumped in our camp, people held by the cruelest of the invaders and used to their will, then cast out like garbage into our dunghill of a supposed town. Many were crippled, many insane, all defeated by horrors of which none of them would speak. I was assigned to work with them, cleaning the sleeping mats and collecting the chamber pots from the ones who could not bring themselves to move.

And there, among the women, those who shrieked and those who whimpered, those who tore all clothing from their bodies and those who wrapped themselves in infinite layers of whatever coarse fabric they could find, I saw a small woman huddled in a corner, in the dust, staring at shadows. A cry emerged from within her shabby robe, and I saw that she was holding a baby, with the palest of skin and bright red hair.

I reached down to touch the baby, to brush a leaf from where it had landed on the baby’s face. The woman’s hand shot up from within her robes and clutched my wrist, holding my hand away from the baby, her jagged nails digging into my skin. I pulled my hand loose and, stepping back, knocked her cowl away from where it hid her face — and I saw that she, too, had the same red hair, the same fair skin. She turned to look at me and our eyes met. Then her hand reached up, and I held it in mine.

“Zipporah?” I said. “You are alive?” To the first question, she nodded. To the second, she shrugged.

“Is the baby yours?”

She nodded.

“Where is your husband?”

Her eyes widened. Tears formed.

“You have no husband?”

She bowed her head.

“The invaders — did they —”

She pulled her hand from mine and placed it over my mouth, silencing me.

I did not think, did not need to think. I knelt by her side. “This baby will have a father. You will have a husband. Arise. We will marry. Now.”

And we arose, and we embraced, and I took her by the hand and led her and the baby to the home of the eldest priest of the town. We entered, and I told him that we wished to marry.

“So…” he said slowly, “you have found someone who would marry you.”

“Yes,” I said, almost proudly.

“This one?” he said. “This one with the child?”

“Yes,” I said.

“She is a widow?”

I looked towards her. She looked down and shook her head.

“Then, no,” he said.


“It is the law,” he said. “You are still a priest.” He closed his eyes, moved his head as if scanning an invisible scroll, then chanted: “They shall not take a woman that is a harlot, or profaned; neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband; for he is holy unto his God.”

“Then I resign my priesthood,” I said.

“You cannot,” he replied. “That is the law.” He opened his eyes and glared at me. “Did you want anything else?”

I stood in silence, stunned. Then I slowly turned and looked at Zipporah.

And she screamed, long and loud, a howl rising from the depths of her bowels up beyond her voice’s highest reach, where only the dogs could hear her pain, the cry of a heart exploding, the cry of a soul being ripped by the talons of eagles, by the teeth of lions, by the horns of oxen, by the harshest words of man. Then she ran from the house, clutching her baby, down the dirt road, toward the edge of the camp, until her screams could no longer be heard in the distance.

I turned and looked back, mutely, at the chief priest. “Now,” he said, “it is not good for any man, even you, not to be married. I know of a woman who will marry you.”

And he took me to the daughter of the cemetary keeper, the sickly, sullen, stumbling, stupid, hairy woman that no other man would have. And, with all choice, it seemed, torn from my life, I married her, grunting through the ceremony some time later, ignoring the half-hearted, mocking good wishes from the other priests who happened to be around, trudging back with her through the winter mud to the tent that would be our home.

After the sun set, she lit a candle in our tent, shrugged her robe onto the floor, and lay there on the bed, naked, large, and hideous, her doughy flesh seeming as if it could consume me, destroy me, as if she would burst into putrefaction if I would ever touch her.

And the monsters and angels from within my mind leapt forth and told me to run with them. And as if in an instant I was far away, lying naked on the banks of the Chebar. And the creatures hovered above me, outside of me, burst out into the real world, each turning and guarding a wheel with which they would crush anyone who would threaten me.

Then a glow emerged from between them, a radiance like burning amber, like a rainbow from a storm, and I knew that it was the presence of the Lord. And a hand emerged from the radiance and handed me a scroll. It ordered me to eat it, and it tasted like honey, like love, like all the good things that had been missing from my life.

But then the scroll began to glow within me, to burn like fire, and I felt my very self being seared away from my body. And the Lord ordered me to shout the words that I had eaten, to go and berate my people, to tell them that they, too, must do what he would order, or all would be destroyed, all would die.

And the great hand grabbed me by the neck and threw me onto mountains, into valleys. It gave me orders to enact performances before the people, to act out symbols that few would understand. God told me to lay siege to toy cities, and I did as I was told. He told me to bind myself with cords and lie on my side in the street for hundreds of days, and I did. He told me to bake and eat bread slathered with human excrement; in his mercy, he changed that order and allowed me to merely use a cow’s excrement.

And now I am standing in the street, eating the bread of filth and screaming at my people. This screaming is all the speech I have. I have no words for myself anymore.

I hear the shocked mumblings of the people around me, hear everything that they say about me, the disgust they feel about me, know that they do not understand the message that my performance was to convey. I have heard that my life as it was, my world has ended. My sickly wife will soon be dying, and the Lord has ordered me not to mourn. I will not mourn.

My last thoughts of anything like joy are of my Zipporah, my beloved Zipporah, my tiny, wounded, defeated Zipporah. For I have heard whispers that she, at least, has escaped, that when she ran from the city, the wise women found her, comforted her, spirited her back into Judah, into the hidden caves where they hide and where they keep the Eternal Flame, where she can revive, can heal, can remember, unlike me, what it means to be alive, to be human.

For now I am nothing but God’s mouthpiece, God’s machine. My mind is that of an animal, running in circles on a leash, obeying commands. My body is excrement, fed on excrement. My soul has burned, rotten, decayed. There is nothing human left within me. I am the ashes, the dregs, what indigestible refuse remains after all that was human is gone.

I am human no longer. I am Ezekiel no longer. I have no name. Call me only “Son of Man.”

(Next: Nathan.)


October 19, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Yeeesh. Partridge — I mean, Outrage.

    Comment by John Cowan | October 20, 2007 | Reply

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