The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Benjamin

(Context: Genesis 35:18)

Picture my face. Age it by a few years (though fewer than before, since I am now almost as old as she was when she died), make it thinner, with sharper eyes and straighter, paler hair, and make it, of course, female. That was the face of my mother, or so I am told.

Picture me again, a few years younger than I am now, the face now rounder, the eyes perpetually lost in waking dreams. That was my brother, at the time that he died. Or so, again, I am told. I was so young when he died, barely able to speak sentences on my own, that my memories of him are as vague as what memories I seem to have of my mother. And I know that my memories of her are false, since she died (as I am so often told) when I was born.

All the memories I have are second-hand. I have experienced nothing of my own. All my life, I have been cradled, been trapped by my family. My life is blankness, my face described only by reference to the memories of others. But there is no silence within me: I hear the noise between the cracks in the stories they tell. I listen for the truth, and sense how it may shatter the reality that they try so carefully to construct.

This is a family of instant legends. Everything that happens seems to be of catastrophic significance, as if the entire history of mankind hangs on whether one ate lentil soup at dinner. Every tale is told and retold, embellished and altered, until whatever truth there was is drowned in the resonance of the event.

So many of the stories speak of death, so few of birth (except, of course, my own, since my birth was woven into the tale of my mother’s dying). So many of these stories tell of armies and slaughter. And the slaughters grow greater in each retelling: the death of a few soldiers becomes the destruction of a city. What may have been a house fire and an earthquake becomes the sulphurous earth devouring tens of thousands at our god’s command.

And so many of the stories involve Joseph, my brother, my only full brother, the beautiful, the brilliant, the arrogant, the unsocial, the magical, the lazy, the dreamer, the reader of dreams. and, most importantly, the dead, torn to shreds, I am told, by animals in the fields near Dothan.

But as I listen to the stories, remember them, and compare them, I hear the spaces between the uttered truths. Some brothers will not speak of him at all: some become dismissive when he is mentioned; some grow pale and rush off, or quickly speak of something else. Most who tell the tale agree that he died at a pit, but each eyewitness recalls it differently: some say that he died at the lip of the pit, some that the beast had dragged him down, some that he had gone done there on an urgent errand, and some that he had wandered down there in his dreamer’s daze. Some say that he was killed by a wild bull, some by a lion, some by a creature the likes of which they had never seen; some that he struggled valiantly, some that the beast, too, was killed, some that he had had no chance to fight; some that he was killed by a single blow or swipe or bite, some that he was dismembered and devoured. That they only brought a swatch of his robe home with them has had many explanations: that he was buried on the spot, that there was too little left to bury, that the beast had carried his body off to its lair.

I always ask the unanswered questions, enjoying the ways that the stories distort, sticking pegs of doubt in the points where they don’t agree and watching my brothers improvise evolving myths to make it seem as if the stories cohere.

And I gather the testimonies of others as they visit. My uncle Esau comes by every few years, full of gifts, as gracious to our family as my father is curt and wary of him. He tells me that he has seen no graves in the fields near Dothan, makeshift or otherwise, and that few beasts are ever seen there. When I tell him of the stories, he smiles and sighs and tells me to let my brothers have their tales. Each, he says, has grown the story that he wants to believe, and the more time passes, the less important the actual truth becomes. And he tells me stories of the world outside our family’s lands, of the larger lands that he controls and the even greater lands of our great-uncle Ishmael, lands that I have never seen.

Now my brothers are gone again, all of them gone on a journey to the kingdom to the south of us, all the brothers gone except for me. Though I am grown, am able and eager to travel, my father insists that I stay home, thinking of urgent tasks in our own territory that only I, he says, can do. So I remain at home, keeping an eye on the servants, doing yet another inventory of what little grain and crops have survived these famine years.

But the lands to the south call to me, beckon me. I feel the pull to travel there, growing in the night, building through my haunted dreams.

I rarely dream, rarely have dreamed. But what dreams I have are always the same: flashes of color, of cloth, of blood, and a voice like my own, as if echoing from distant memory. The voice speaks, not in words but in sighs and resonances. It tells me not to forget, but not what I should not forget. It tells me to be awake, to listen for sounds, for words from afar, for the fragments of truth that escape when the walls of storytelling part.

This part of the dream always looks the same: the field of color is slashed by brilliant streaks like lightning, like the swipe of a lion’s claw. But unlike lightning, the slashes do not disappear. Instead, they hover in the space and build into patterns, as if they are words carved into an alien sky in an alphabet that I remember but do not understand.

I awaken from these dreams with a thirst for knowledge, for word of what passes between traders who come to us from foreign lands. I listen, I compile, and I analyse the news, suggesting to my father things that he should do, suggestions that he sometimes follows and sometimes ignores. It was I who heard the word of the traders from the lands to the south, word of the ruler there, second only to the king, who had organized their storehouses, who had established the methods that saved them from the famine.
The traders envy and resent this ruler, who came not from the king’s family but from some mysterious other land, first as a servant, then a prisoner, then the ruler of the kingdom’s stores. And their stories, too, resemble rumour, resemble myth, and, like my brothers’, do not make sense. But they are consistent in their incongruity, and I sense that this lack of logic somehow is indeed the truth.

But I am trapped here by my father’s orders, trapped by duty within my father’s home. I feel the call to travel where all except for me are allowed to go. I feel the need to study, to investigate, to discover what exists in the larger world, outside this web of myth and innuendo that stifles me within this tiny land. But I am always, have always been the dutiful youngest son. In my father’s eyes I will always be a child, endangered by a savage reality that has already devoured his most beloved, his dearest wife whom he desired from the beginning, and his previous youngest child, my only true brother, the only other child of that beloved wife, who inherited his dreams, embodied his dreams, and now exists only in family legend, only in my family’s dreams.

Yes, picture my brother’s face, or picture my mother’s. Take what is most distinctive from them and subtract it, average it and remove it, leaving that which is least interesting, is easiest to forget. What remains will be my own face, will be nothing at all. For someday that blur of what remains in the absence of legend will vanish, will merge with the colors, with the slash of knowledge that inhabits the star-abandoned sky of my long internal night, and I will be gone, off to the south, off into history, to escape or to join the family legend. I will meet this destiny, will step once into and once out of this book of stories forgotten and retold.

Then, like my being dissolves in a fog of description, like my face in this mirror blurs in a mist of breath, I will be free of these legends. I will be free of this family. I will completely, finally, disappear.

(Next: Jehu)

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January 12, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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