The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Jeremiah 39:7)

This morsel is lamb, cooked in a mint yogurt, I believe, with a hint of cardamom. As usual, it is only a single bite, as small as the last segment of my thumb. Still, chewing as gently as I can, I can hold it in my mouth for a hundred heartbeats, savoring its texture, its flavor, memorizing it, until it dissolves and drifts down my throat to give my stomach a hint of its joy.

The rest of the day’s meal, as always: a loaf of bread, a bowl of lentils (still warm, this time, with sufficient salt), and a jar with enough water to last the day. The morsel was tucked under the bread, as it often is. The tiny gifts do not appear every day, but often enough that the anticipation is worthwhile, and that the experience of that day’s morsel or, if there was not one that day, the most recent, is fresh enough in memory to recall and relive throughout the day and into the night. Perhaps they are scraps retrieved from the king’s table, perhaps from a peasant’s, as one might toss a scrap to a dog. I don’t mind. I am satisfied. I am thankful. I am unashamed.

The bucket in which the meal arrived sits a few steps away from me on the ground, a rope leading slackly upward from its handle to the place above from which it comes. My waste bucket sits at the far end of the space, a distance roughly twice my height away, its cover fortunately secure. Once a day (or at least once in each of my cycles of sleeping and waking—I have no sense anymore of what a day is), each rises to the top then, a while later, is lowered again, the waste bucket having been emptied, the meal bucket (in which I have placed the emptied plates and jar) containing the next meal. It took me a while to learn the rhythms and protocols of my captivity. If I would fail to put the emptied bread plate, lentil plate, or jar in the meal bucket, no new one would be returned. Fortunately, the rules for the waste bucket were less ambiguous, once I discovered, in my blinded explorations, that it was there and what it was for.

There is little else here: a stone bench, a knife, and some robes that have accumulated over time. I sleep on the bench, and sit on it while awake. It is not secured to the floor, and is just light enough that I can push it across the floor or lift one end. I move it when I feel like changing my space or for exercise. I also try to lift it with my hands or with my legs to keep my body strong.

The knife, like the bench, was here when I arrived. I have never encountered, or even spoken to, another person while I have been here, so it is of no use as a weapon. I use it to cut the bread and to trim my hair and beard. When it gets dull, I sharpen it on the edge of the bench. I remain surprised that it is here at all. Perhaps they hope that I will injure or kill myself. Perhaps they trust that I won’t.

The robes appear at random, a long time passing between them. When the first new one appeared, I had sent the old one back up with the food tray, but it came back unchanged. So as they accumulate, I use them when I sleep. Two, folded up, lie under my head. I spread the third across the bench as a sheet, and use the fourth as a blanket.

I do not understand why I have not been killed, or why I have received what few mercies arrive. Perhaps it is some form of professional courtesy, king to former king. Perhaps another king has arisen. And perhaps someone in a position to make a difference has taken pity on me (I am no longer too proud to benefit from pity), or is repaying some kindness that I had done (though that is unlikely, since kindness was not among my more noted attributes as king).

The morsel continues to dissolve as I chew, over the now forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one heartbeats since I began. Its juices comfort and awaken every point on my tongue. Its fibers detach, drift apart, decompose into bearers of beauty against my teeth, tongue, throat.

I still remember the years when I had taken such food for granted: the years as the guest of a king, then the years as king, after my brother and his idiot son were gone and I was free to run the kingdom as it should be run. Perhaps I gambled poorly. Perhaps I backed the wrong empire. The cost that my family paid were great; I know that I was, I am, I am to be the last of the kings.

So here in this pit I live what I have left of a life. I sleep. I awaken. I eat. I sleep again. I feel almost as if I am an orphaned child: the basics of sustenance come from someone and somewhere unknown, according to rules that I slowly learn to follow. I have no family, no friends, no kingdom, no gods, other, perhaps, than the mysterious beings who raise and lower the buckets and allow me (or condemn me) to live.

There is no sound, other than my own motions, my own heartbeats, my own breathing, and the clanking and whispering of the buckets and ropes. Without eyes, I see nothing. Still, the world of my inner eyes is rich, is busy. As I look about, I see palaces, fields, oceans, memories of my former life, as vivid as if they were real, more vivid than my reality would be were I to see it. I listen within the visions, and hear with my inner ears the sounds of song, of wind, of fire.

As I sit still, ignoring the roughness of my robe against my skin, the hardness of the stone on which I perch, these images rise, congeal, overwhelm my senses and take me off to where I was, who I was. I let them carry me, rejoicing, comforted by memory, by imagination.

Sometimes they take me to the garden where I played as a child, where my caretakers sheltered me against all that was outside, where I met the other children who became my friends as we played, who also became leaders, also became kings, who may now be rulers of empires, or may be living in a pit like mine, or might not be living at all. And I see them sitting still with me, sometimes children as they were, sometimes grown, alone together in considering who we could have been, who we have become.

And sometimes I arise and dance with them to music in my head, to what I have remembered from the playgrounds and banquet halls so many years ago. I do not know if anyone can see me, do not care: if this is madness, it is a blessed madness, a madness for which I would thank the gods, if I ever had believed in gods.

And then I return to the silence, the darkness, the textures, the scents, the tastes of my world as it is now. I feel a chill, feel myself shiver slightly, feel an itching in my side. And I taste the last of the morsel of lamb, now dissolved, disappearing, digesting. And I hold that flavor on my tongue, in my mind, as I lay back, on the robes, under the robes, and hope that sleep will take me back, back to memory, back to innocence, back to the madness of dreams.

(Next: The Shulammite.)


November 17, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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