The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Nathan

(Context: 1 Chronicles 3:5)

Again, one of my brothers has killed another. Or perhaps he has had him killed. I no longer keep track of the details, or of how many brothers have died, or of how many brothers survive. Thanks to my father and his many women, I seem to have had an endlessly replenishing supply of brothers. As far as I know, we have only had one sister, and none of us have heard from her in many years. But brothers kept being born, and brothers keep dying. I try not to think about it much. I don’t think about it much. I carry on.

That is my role in life: to carry on. Out here in this cool valley near the caves, far from Jerusalem, far from politics, far from that family, far from whatever might distract me from the work that I quietly do, I carry on.

I do have family here, a new family, a wife and children and this community that feels like family: the children whom I teach and have taught, and their parents and their children and their families whom I teach or will teach or have taught. In this small town, home to farmers, artisans, and a few tradesmen, those who wander off to sell things then return to their homes, to their families, almost everyone can read. I hope that I might be allowed some small pride in that.

My oldest brother, Daniel, brought the news. He always brings the news. We are now certain that he is the oldest brother, since Amnon, the other oldest, born at the same moment but to a different mother, died years ago, his death ordered by Absalom, who was killed by my cousin, Joab, who was killed on the orders of my little brother Solomon, who also just ordered the death of our brother Adonijah. I think it was Adonijah. I don’t keep track. I don’t think about it much.

Daniel looked great, as always. He never seems to age. He was already grown up by the time that I was born, and remains grown up, not aging. His hair should be white, since mine is going grey, his face more lined than mine is now, and he should be slowing down, not quite as able to run about with the playing children, instead, like me, moving more slowly now. Maybe it is that he has never bothered to marry and to have the responsibilities of a family. Maybe it is that no one knows how he spends his time, other than when he suddenly appears to one of us with news. But I don’t begrudge him this. He has found some secret of youth. I am happy for him. I am happy to age, to serve as an example to my students of how to have a good life as one ages. When I die, I will have many mourners and people who will remember me well. That is sufficient. I carry on.

Big Nathan used to bring us news, when he was young enough to travel. Yes, Big Nathan. I’m Little Nathan, even though I am at least a hand’s breath taller than anyone I know. I’ve been Little Nathan since my father named me for Big Nathan, his best friend. Well, his best surviving friend; there was always Jonathan, the one with whom he was so close, but he rarely spoke of him. He just looked pained when, at the family events that I attended, one of my stepmothers, Jonathan’s sister Michal, would bring him up, bitterly. My father always wanted to name a son after Jonathan, but Michal insisted that he could only name a son after her brother if the child were her son, too. They never had a son, as Michal often reminds us, also bitterly. Michal speaks of everything bitterly. I am glad that I live far from them.

So now, I am told, Solomon, my little brother, is king. I don’t know why my father chose him, and I don’t much care. He was chosen early, and raised to be king, being taught all the little mannerisms that make one royal. I have a different destiny. Big Nathan told me this many times, and he was usually right about things that would happen. My destiny has little to do with me. It carries on through me. Big Nathan says that our people will carry on for a long time. At some point, inevitably, we will lose the kingship, will lose our land, and be sent to wander amongst other peoples. But eventually, we will come back together. A king will arise who will bring us together. And that king will be descended from my father, through me.

Big Nathan almost told me too much, once, when he was getting very old, when my first child was about to be born. “Little Nathan,” he said, “it pleases me that you have married, that your wife is going to have a baby soon. Your children are important, since the house of David will continue through your son M—”

“Stop!” I shouted, startling him. I had never shouted at Big Nathan before.

“What?” he asked, blankly.

“Don’t tell me the name of the son that will carry the line on!”

“Why not?”

“If I know which son it is (and now I know that it will be a son and not a daughter), I will be drawn to care more for that son, since I know that he is more important than the others. Or conversely, I might let him get into more trouble and into danger, since I know that he is destined to survive whatever happens, at least until he brings me the grandchild that will carry the line on after him. And, come to think of it, if I know the name, I would logically want to delay giving any of my children that name, knowing that that might prolong my own life indefinitely, since I would have to stay alive at least until that child is conceived. As it is, I would be tempted to give none of my sons names that begin with the letter Mem, since you started to say the beginning of the name, beginning with that. And the right thing to do now, I suppose, will be to restrict myself to giving them all names that begin with Mem, so I won’t be certain that any of them is not the one who will continue the line.”

Big Nathan started to say something, stopped, gestured with a hand as if about to make a point, then dropped his hands to his sides and laughed, long and loud. “Brilliant!” he said. “I really must remember this and tell your brother Daniel. I would have thought that only he could come up with something that is both so convoluted and so perfectly logical.”
I laughed, too, but knew that my future had been constrained just a little bit more, and that, once again, no one had suspected that I might be as smart, as skilled, as strong, as dutiful, or as good as one of my brothers. I was ignored and passed over yet again, valued only for my ability to breed children (and if fecundity were a creature’s most valuable trait, we would be worshiping insects, though, come to think of it, they do worship the lord of the flies down in Ekron).

And it was because of this, because it was my destiny to have at least one child, not to be king, not to be involved with all the other dramatic affairs involved in being in the royal family, that I moved out here as soon as I could, out away from the family, here in this small village by the caves. If I was going to raise children, it would be my duty to raise them well, to teach them well, so I approached the teachers here and asked them to teach me how to teach.

I began slowly, as an apprentice, working alongside one teacher and seeing what she did. I started teaching children myself, with her watching, with her correcting me and giving suggestions so that I could work better, could teach more effectively. Eventually I was able to teach children on my own. And, one by one, the grown-ups would come to me, the men admitting to me (as they would not embarrass themselves by admitting to a woman) that they could not read, and I started to teach them too, individually, in secret if they wished, in larger groups if they were open to that. And after a while, when I was established, I approached my father for help, and he decided to humor me by giving me money and resources to start a school. So we opened the Academy of the Caves.

Most of the other teachers are women. A few men have joined me, but most are too invested in doing what they consider proper men’s work, running around in the heat and the rain chasing sheep and birds and harvesting crops. Maybe they think that they will never attract women if they stay here and do the quiet work.

I was afraid of this, too, I must admit. Though Big Nathan had assured me that I would have a family, I was too quiet, too shy with the other grown-ups, to imagine that I would somehow attract a wife. I thought that perhaps my father would choose one for me, though seeing the way that he treated the women in his life (even my mother, who some claimed was his favorite), I distrusted his ability to choose well.

But as I worked, over the years, I came to grow comfortable with the women with whom I worked. And there was one in particular, Aviva, with her lightning wit and her brown eyes that seemed to discern what was happening deep within people, with whom I got along especially well. She had come from the caves, from the community of women that began in generations past and were rumored to teach magic, to keep the magic in this world. Though further rumor had it that they had forsworn contact with men, some moved easily between the caves and the outer world, and most returned to the world of rain and sun and did have families of their own.

Though I had fallen in love before, in massive conflagrations of desire that quickly burned down to ashes of regret, I felt none of the same intensity with her. Being with her seemed somehow right, as if we were parts of the same machine that worked well together, each being there for the other exactly when needed. We spoke together easily, sat together easily, and taught as if we spoke with one voice, with one heart.

The other teachers, and even the children, noticed this even before we were aware, and began asking when we would be wed, even though I had not dared to ask her to marry me. Then, one time, she answered casually, “On the fifth day of the week after the next new moon,” and I said, as if equally casually, “I will cancel the day’s classes and let my father know.”

My father, of course, could not attend and sent his most sincere regrets, since he was dealing with some sort of crisis involving a more important son. But Big Nathan and Daniel were there, and we had a pleasant ceremony and celebration on the school grounds. Many women whom we had not seen before emerged from the caves, though most remained clustered among themselves far from the center of the celebration. There was one unknown woman whom some said looked very much like me, though, with her wild eyes and long, curling hair, I thought that she looked much more like my brother Absalom. But by the time that I was able to tear myself away from the well-wishers and approach her, she was gone.

Of course, Aviva and I had children, all with names beginning with the letter Mem. Meshullam has grown to be a strong, worthy boy, and Miriam a lovely girl who, we suspect, will continue with the teaching, perhaps running the school after we are gone. The twin boys, Mattatha and Melea, are as quiet as I am, seeming to share a peculiar language between them that only their mother can understand. We did lose one son, Menna, when he was a baby and the brief plague of rashes struck the nursery; while nothing can quite heal the loss of a son, the loss has made our remaining children even more dear.

I think that I have finished fathering sons, since Aviva and I are old, her black hair turned to the finest white and her time of bearing long past. But my children each have children, most recently Mattatha, who has named his newborn son for his lost brother at my request.

So I sit here, looking west, into the sunset, my beloved Aviva sitting, breathing gently beside me. The sky is red and a bit overcast, so the weather will probably be good. Daniel is already gone, apparently on a mission to Sepharad. He moves so quickly between places that it seems that he must step off our mortal plane entirely and step back in where he needs to be.

In the morning, I will arise and teach again. I continue to teach the children how to read. Aviva teaches them history. I can never keep track of history, can never summon the interest—all those judges, from Othniel to Ehud to Shamgar to Deborah and so on, through Eli and Samuel, then the kings, first Saul and then my father, well, with Ish-bosheth in between, or maybe not, then my brothers declaring themselves king one after another and killing each other over and over again, while I sit in this humble house out here by the caves, not wanting to be king, no, not at all, though it might be pleasant to be acknowledged by my family, for them to admit that, with all their fanfares and fighting, I am doing more to help our world continue than any of them will ever do.

Looking down, I see that my bare foot has idly been drawing figures in he sand, as if of its own will: first a picture of an ox and the letter Alef, then a picture of a house and the letter Bet. It all comes down to these. I teach the pictures. I teach the words. I teach the letters that form the words. The children learn to read. They grow up. They grow old. Their children learn to read. The words carry on. Life carries on. I carry on.

(Next: Solomon.)

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October 27, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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