The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Joseph

(Context: Genesis 42:6)

At times, I cannot remember if I am real. Much of what I know about myself comes from stories told about me; I doubt my memory if it conflicts with them. I have always lived in a world built half from matter and half from dreams. Neither seems more lucid than the other. When I wonder if I am dreaming, I too often forget to check whether I can fly. And I sometimes forget whether flying would show me to be dreaming or to be real.

My life has always seemed tenuous, disconnected, made up of states without transitions, disjunct moments threaded together by the logic of dreams. For a seeming instant, I was a child. Then I was grown, with a beautiful coat, but with vengeful brothers, with my mother gone. Then I was in a pit, my coat torn from me. Then I was sold to the Midianites, then sold to the Egyptians. Then I went from being a slave of an Egyptian to running his household, then from being a prisoner to runnng the prison, then from being dragged in front of the king to running the kingdom. Everyone has always seemed to like me, though I don’t know why—everyone, that is, except for my brothers, whose distaste for me was as baffling as everyone else’s trust, and except for the wife of my first captor, my first employer, who liked me perhaps far too much: the effects of that love could not be distinguished from the effects of equal hate.

I try to remember my life, but true history gets tangled with other editions, other incarnations, other fantasies of myself. I see myself saved from the pit at Dothan and sold, my bloodied coat shown to my father, evoking his anger, his grief. But I also see myself dead in the pit, then raised from the dead, and I see my coat shown to my grieving wife (though I don’t recall being married at the time). And I see an earlier, parallel history in which I am not human but a god, an emblem of my tribe, of fertility, and I hear the story told of my death and rebirth at the same time every year.

In my dreams, in my memory, I hear my brothers arguing above the pit, shouting that I am dead, shouting that I should be dead, that I must die, that I must not die. The voices have changed over time: At first I remembered Reuben calling for my death, then I remembered Levi, but now the memory is mostly of Simeon, as angry and vengeful as Levi, but without Levi’s gift of using his voice to lull, to convince, to coerce.

I see my memory of my father, wailing and clutching the shreds of my coat, calling my name, refusing to be consoled. Yet clear as that memory is, I know that it is a fabrication, perhaps the memory of a dream, since had I been there to experience it, it would not have happened.

I hear a voice arising from Ramah, my mother wailing for me, though I know that she is long dead, crying for all of her children, for the children of my father, as if they, too, were gone, too, though they all now are well, are alive.

I feel the gentle touch of my only sister, Dinah, now departed from the family, living in the city of women, a survivor of their brother’s violence, making peace with the survivors of our brothers’ violence toward them. Her city, her people cycle in time, the city forever destroyed and repeatedly rebuilt, its well always standing, its water circling, streaming across the memories of my bones.

And I remember my little brother Benjamin, my mother’s only other son, as he crawls to my father’s side to pull on his robes, as he stays away, crying, at the far side of the room, frightened by the ferocity of my father’s grief. In some memories, he is not there at all, too young to remember me, not knowing that I had been there, that I had gone. And I see him growing up, attached to our father, yet resenting our father for his refusal to let him be an adult, to let him out of his grasp, to see him not as an echo of my mother, of me, but as a singular person himself. And I know that these memories, too, must be false, since I was not there, could not have been there when all this had gone on.

Now my brothers are coming here, coming to see the mighty vizier
Zaphnath-paneakh, not realizing that I am he. (Have I always had that name? Have others had it before me?) Yes, I know that they are coming, as I have known what has happened with the family over the years. The reports have had gaps, have conflicted with and contradicted one another, though the contradictions may only have been with my memory of them, with my memories of dreams of them.

I have often imagined this moment, playing out fantasies and scenarios of our meeting: I am kind to them, I am cruel to them, I comfort them, confuse them, torture them, torment them, I seek revenge, I refrain from seeking revenge, all in imaginings rehearsed so often and so clearly that I remember them as perfectly as, more perfectly than things that have already happened. Perhaps, in their conversations (conversations that I have imagined, dreamed, remembered), they have considered the ways in which they might encounter me, whether they might find me as a servant, a slave, a beggar, as one who has blended in, passing as an Egyptian, as one who has taken revenge by enslaving those who had enslaved him, as one who has come to the fore to free our slaves. (Do I recall having done so in my alternate lives? Does one of my descendants do this, or a descendant of one of my brothers? I have future memories of a descendznt of Levi, his history scrambled with mine as a son of our father in a Pharaoh’s court—but he stammers, without his family’s magic tongue, so this may not be a child of Levi but my imagination’s parody of one.)

They have probably forgotten me, have not imagined that I might still be here. I will begin by greeting them as foreigners, as strangers, as if I have no idea who they are. Then I will glide through the moments along the branching paths of what might happen, reading my script from the forking stele chiseled deep within my heart.

For now, my mind is clear. I must stay focused on the real moment, the real reactions, the real conversation. I will remember my scenarios, my imaginings, my future memories of what will happen. But when things happen here, in the time and space of the inarguably real, I must be prepared to react, to respond. There will be time in the night to digest what has happened, to determine what must happen next, to dream.

I can hear my brothers approaching. My eyes are open, my back straight, my visage stern as I glare (the image of sanity, of order, of control) out through the door, above their heads, as if barely noticing that they are here.

This is the moment to which all other moments have led. We meet at the center of this labyrinth of time. Let them all speak. Let the performance begin.

(Next: Asa.)

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December 1, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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