The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Proverbs 30:18)

Abishag’s eyes draw me deeply in, propel me down chasms of memory, engulf me in emotions that I had never guessed were there, suspend me in a maelstrom of feelings, of thoughts, of words. I suddenly understand the meaning of this love and the tragic mistake that I might be about to make. No, it isn’t Abishag’s love that I am experiencing, nor another’s love for me. It is the love of the woman that I am to marry tonight, that woman’s love for another man.

I did love, I do so deeply love that woman, though I have never told her so, and it has nothing to do with our wedding. Like all my other marriages, this marriage was to serve to symbolize politics, not passion. A payment to a high official of a territory, a physical consummation with the official’s daughter, and our nation’s ties to that territory are sworn to be secure, at least as long as he and I live. Perhaps the daughter and I do indeed find passion (it has happened a few times, with a handful of my dozens of brides), but I have mostly had dutiful matings with the wives. Most have ended up in the house of wives, getting on with whatever it is that wives do all day, available for me at night, should I have tired of my most recent bride and decided to revisit an earlier one as chosen from my menu.

But this woman, ah, this Shulamite (and I realize that I should find it more surprising that I don’t actually know her name), this one, this bride out of all my brides is different. I think of her, hear her voice in my mind, and the passion that I thought I had forgotten comes alive. I see her, picture the grace of her movements, her smile which could dispel the sorrows of the world, and I want to be with her. I feel her touch as she brushes past me while I complete negotiations at her father’s house, and I feel as if the breath of life itself has whispered past me.

She is not in her father’s house now, nor in mine, nor in the women’s chamber, preparing for our wedding. She sits in a cold room in our prison, captured by the watchmen of the city as she tried to run, tried to escape to the hills of Lebanon.

None of my brides and none of my father’s brides had ever run before, so the watchmen were unclear at to what to do. When they captured her, though she struggled, they tried to treat her with respect. Once she was secured, they summoned the Daughters of Jerusalem, who took her deposition and brought it to me.

It is not a common deposition, since the Shulamite, like most women not trained at my brother’s school, cannot read or write. Rather, Abishag worked her empathic magic on her, looking deep into her eyes, into her soul, and drinking in all that she could about the woman and her flight. And now she is here, looking into my eyes, transmitting the woman’s message, the depth of her feeling, the unknown history that ran against my demands.

The figure of this man runs repeatedly through her mind, through his desires. He is handsome, strong. In her memory, I see them meeting in her father’s house where he had labored for months, see them hiding out in a chamber, their embraces, their furtive lovemaking (and I notice, with unkingly blushes, that her beauty, her grace, is even greater than I had imagined, arousing me even more than I might have hoped), see their last meeting before I drafted him, among so many thousands of others, to go to Lebanon, to cut down the cedars that would form my temple.

And, as their souls have come so close, I see her own image, reflected in her heart as it appears in that man’s eyes: lovely, so unusually dark (her mother, I am told, was a sister of the queen of Sheba), her gentle movements, like a fawn who has grown certain of movement, whose every step explodes with the joy of flesh moving within and against the motions of air, the blessings of rain, the pull of the earth.

And, ah, their voices! They rise in song, in her own song, the one she sang alone in her house, a room away from where I was meeting with her father. I listen within my own history, my own heart, and locate the moment that I first heard her sing her song as the exact moment that I fell in love with her. For all that I am my father’s son, I have no music in me. I cannot sing. And hearing her voice singing her song brought forth all the longing within me, the desire to merge with this woman whose soul contained everything that I found missing from my own.

But now I know that that was only half the song: I now hear in this reflection of her memory a song for two, a sacred duet. Their voices merge, diverge. His voice coils around hers like a serpent around an Asherah tree, like her body wraps around his in those images that accompany the song. Their words strike deep into me, engraving their messages with joy, with love, with the eternal covenant of their love: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm…”

My own heart bursts with love, with the greatest desire for her, reaches out toward the emanations of her heart—but it does not reach her, does not connect with her. I know that her love, her joy, is with him alone. I call from within myself, demand of her memory, shout within the silence that I love her, that I can make her love me. But the demand, the plea is silence within silence, the scream of a child who cannot have what he demands.

“But I love her!” my heart cries out again.

Then I hear Abishag’s voice, a whisper within my own mind. “But what is love?”

“I want to be with her, her flesh, her soul, her song! I demand to be with her!”

“Yes,” Abishag’s voice murmurs within me, “and then what? You are the king, and certainly can order this marriage, this mating, can order her flesh to cleave unto yours for a night, or for as many nights as you wish. But what of her heart?”

“It can come with time. In time, as a favored wife of the king, she can forget that man.”

“Can she? Would she?” Abishag asks. “Listen within her heart, and see if they can ever be truly parted.”

And I listen farther, hear the words, the songs within her heart, within her beloved’s heart, her songs to him, about him, his songs to and about her, what they cry out to the watchmen, to the Daughters of Jerusalem, to those who guard our streets and our bodies, to those who minister to our souls and our hearts. I look for glimpses of the future, and see her joy in dreaming of being with him.

And I turn within the memory and look within her more probable future, of her life as a wife of the king, as object of my love, bedecked in jewels, a prize caught in my palace, called to sing her songs as one might call upon a jester, upon a court magician, upon a kitchen maid to bring us their wonders. And in the depths of her soul I taste nothing but bitterness, sadness, longing for what could have been, a life of looking out upon the palace grounds and wondering if any man that she sees might be him, could be him, could be the man to whom she swore her love, whom she dreams will return and take her away.

“What is love?” Abishag asks, demands again. “What do you wish for her in loving her?”

“I wish…” I pause and look within myself for an answer. “I love her, and so I desire to be with her, and desire that she will live in joy for the rest of her days.”

“And can you have both?”

“I… I fear that I cannot.”

“And which desire is stronger?”

I look into the balances, weighing the cry of my flesh, my mind, my soul, against the evidence of her body, her dreams, and her song. I cry out, seeing that my love is futile, that she cannot be happy with me. “What would my father do?” I ask.

“You are not your father,” she replies. “You can be better than your father.”

And she sends another flash of memory within me, captured from my father when Abishag was first summoned to minister to him, when she was brought by Daniel from the women of the caves to be with him as he died, to lie beside him and calm his heart, his soul, his memory.

Through my father’s eyes, I see my mother, young, beautiful, bathing on the roof, embracing her first husband, Uriah. I see my father summoning her to his chambers, taking her, then sending Uriah off to die so that he can have her for all time.

Then I look through his aged eyes, at the last grand dinner that he called before he was taken ill, before he died, and I see his wives arrayed before him, in the order of the dates on which he took them: first Michal, the old woman, daughter of the previous king, and on through the newest, some barely of age to be women, most briefly used and filed away in his archive of wives while he pursued his lust, his supposed love. In the eyes of each of them, I see the same dull sadness, mixed with bitterness for some, with resignation for others, but without any remnant of love for him or from him.

And I see Abishag there with my father on his deathbed, looking into his heart, placing one hand upon his chest, one upon his right hand, her head upon his shoulder, hear him whisper, with his final breath, the name of the only person that he ever really loved.

“Which desire is stronger?” she says again. And I hear the words again of the Shulamite’s song: “Love is fiercer than death, passion as mighty as the grave… If a man offered all his riches for love, he would be laughed to scorn.”

And I feel the sad decision forming within my heart. “Yes, I can be better.”

Abishag closes her eyes, and I close mine. As the connection between us fades, I realize that the words, the songs of the Shulamite and her love still reverberate within me.

“What is your will, my king?” she asks, this time aloud.

“Dress the Shulamite in her wedding dress, and bring her to the women’s chamber. Summon from Lebanon the man of whom she dreams, not as a prisoner but as an honored guest. Bring her father the bride-price on which we had agreed, and we will sign our treaty papers. And when her beloved arrives, he… they…” My voice stops, cracks, as a last explosion of my love for her, of the loss of glorious possibility erupts from within me. “When he arrives, they are to be married, with full ceremony. Promote him within the leadership of the Temple building project, with pay that will support them in the life that they desire.”

Abishag places her hand against my chest, nods, smiles, and leaves.

I look up as she passes through the doorway, and see my mother standing, listening. “Jedidiah…” she says, calling me by my childhood name. She looks like she is going to say more, as I see many emotions drift within her gaze. Then, silently, she walks up to me, places her hands gently on the sides of my head, rises on her toes, and kisses me on the forehead. We embrace for a long moment, then she, too, leaves me there, alone.

I sit at my desk, listening to the echoes within me of the songs of the Shulamite and her beloved. Almost without thinking, I reach for a fresh scroll, my ink, and my pen, and begin to create a wedding present for the betrothed, a record of the words that have burst from and joined their hearts. “The Song of Songs,” I write at the top, then, breathing deeply, start to transcribe the first of the poems: “Give me of the kisses of your mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine…”

(Next: Asaph)


November 3, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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