The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Genesis 7:10)

Reaching out, reaching high into the night to touch the sky, to touch your stars, I fall again to earth. Here, in the mud, the dust, the ash, I cry, cry out your name. Nothing echoes, here on this sodden plain that we once knew as desert. My voice fades into emptiness, heard only, if at all, by this angel and by the moon.

Each ray of light cast through the dark brush here paints shadows of your form, spells with images of branches the letters of your name. I close my eyes and see in my internal sky the grace of your dance, hear within whispers of wind the streams of your song, feel in the tracings of the rain your hands as you once touched my face, my tears as I heard you leave, the waters as they swept away what I dreamed would be our home.

But when my eyes open, all I see are bones, bones upon bones.

The bones are my life, my destiny, my never-ending job. These fragments of things, of people, litter the landscape, take the place of all that had once lived (a year ago, an eternity ago), take up the space of all that must now live again. I try to keep them abstract, to think of them as simply trash that must be burned. But some are unmistakably human (a skull, a jaw, a hand), and each of these has paralyzed me with momentary grief, with overpowering terror, that they might have been what my heart seeks, that they might have been part of you.

But now, then, this morning, as I made my way over these hills and down toward the meeting of the rivers, I heard what I had never heard before in my wandering: a human voice (a voice that I thought was human) coming from beneath the bones of the giants that lived here before the catastrophe. And as I grew closer, I grew more sure that it was real, more sure that it could not be real, that my mind had truly been taken. For the voice was calling out the name that echoes forever in my heart, was calling out your sacred name: “Istahar!” the voice called, rasped, whispered, sang, cried, “Istahar!” over and over, not breathing, not ceasing, “Istahar!”

I ran to the bone pile and began to pull it down, straining with the weight of the bones (each not only longer than those of a man but far broader and more dense), pushing them off the pile one by one until the morning light revealed a face.

“You are alive!” I cried.

“No,” it said, then “well, yes. Alive… if I am to be as you are than I am alive. It appears that I cannot die. So yes, I am alive. Are you alive? Are you from the ark?”

“Yes, I am alive,” I said. “And yes, from the ark. But how did you know of it?”

“Back when I could fly, I traveled over your land, and saw Noah building the ark. Are you Noah? No, too young, you must be… a son?”

I nodded. “Yes, a son. They call me Japheth. I haven’t heard anyone call my name in a long time. But I still am Japheth. And you?”

“I am—I was Shemhazai,” the face said, “Though I have not heard my name in an even longer time. I have been lost in another’s name.”

I did not respond, did not want to acknowledge (to myself, to him) that I knew the name that he had been calling. I continued pushing the bones off the pile, watching them roll down, hearing their dull, hollow ring as they caught the wind and struck the ground.

As I got to the bottom of the pile, down to where he lay, I saw feathers stretched out to either side. As more bones rolled away, I saw that they were connected to the man (not exactly a man) pinned to the ground. I laughed aloud as I saw the wings, then quickly felt guilty for the laughter. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But yes, I do understand how you survived. You are an angel. You lay under the waters not needing to breathe.”

As I rolled the last of the bones away, the angel shrugged the dirt from his wings. Scraps of linen draped over him from what had been his robes. These fell away as he rolled to one side, pressed first his hand then his knees against the ground, and stood. He was tall, not as tall as the giants, but far taller than me. And all aspects of his form were impressive.

The angel noticed me staring at him, and shifted his wings so that they covered him, shoulders to knees. He smiled. “I am used to this. Few humans ever see angels, especially without our robes, and yes, we are (I say objectively) beautiful.” He looked around, then up at the sky. Seeing the last of the stars fading in the morning light, he flinched in apparent pain, in recognition, and again whispered, almost in a moan, “Istahar!”

“Istahar!” I echoed, not meaning to do so, not able to keep from doing so.

The angel looked at me, understanding me, as I understood him, more deeply than we could acknowledge. “You, too?” he asked.

“You?” I replied.

He nodded. “How? When?” he asked.

I sat down heavily on a stack of the larger bones. “Nine years? No, now ten—we met just before sunset on the third day after the full moon of the month after the summer solstice—yes, I precisely remember the date.

“I had seen her before, drawing water from the well, her long lovely hair (the deep purple-blue that blessed the hair of all the children of Cain) shimmering in the breeze. I had seen her before, and we may even have spoken.

“But at that moment I heard her sing, a quiet song, a song that she had made up herself, that she sang to herself. And that song pierced my depths, exposed the workings of my heart as a blade exposes the seeds of a pomegranate, showed to me in joy, in agony, all that was missing from my life. And being near her, my life seemed suddenly complete, and I could no more be without her than I could be without my own blood, my own skin.

“I ran to her, told her that I loved her. She was taken aback, said that she could not love me, reminded me that the children of Cain could not love the children of Seth, could not marry them. But I told her that I would be devoted to her for the rest of my life. She smiled, laughed gently (the bells of her laughter singing out as if to sketch in outline the vastness of this love), and went back to singing.”

The angel had sat down, too, his elbows resting on his knees, his wings retracted behind him. He touched his hands to his face. They drifted to his temples, to his ears. I could tell that he, too, was remembering your song. “How long were you… were you and she…”

“Together?” I said. “We never were together. Though I devoted myself to her, would drop everything in my life to run to her if I heard her voice, the closer I grew to her, the farther she pulled away.

“We never… we touched only once, once when we were by the well. She had dropped one of her buckets (though her image dances wondrously in our minds, she was not completely graceful in real life). I had bent to pick it up for her, and my hat fell into the bucket. She picked it up from there and placed it on my head. As she adjusted it, her hands brushed across my face. I dropped the bucket myself (I was never graceful, either), and reaching up, held her hands in mine, told her that I loved her, told her that I could not live in her presence without being with her, told her that I could not live without her, told her that I knew that she could love me, asked her to accept being loved.

“She pulled back, said that she had to get home, filled her buckets and departed. I didn’t… I never saw her again. And some days later, word reached me that her father had sent her to the city at the meeting of the rivers, though nobody knew why.”

The angel nodded and smiled. “And you did manage to live without her.”

“Yes, I did, though more from the sheer habit of living than from any effort to do so. That, and from remembering that she had made me swear to her, one time when my passion and despair had worried her, that this love would never cause me to harm myself. I lived, and my father found me a wife, and we have had sons and daughters. But my wife always knew that my heart was never fully hers, and when I went off on this mission to gather and burn the bones, I could tell that her sadness was tinged with relief.”

“And now you are here…” the angel said.

“And now I am here, and I do my work, and I continue to dream that I might meet her again, though my heart knows even better than my mind that she must have… that she must be…”

The angel reached out and touched his hand to my shoulder. “And now I am here. Have you heard the legend that one never meets an angel by accident? The legend is true.”

“How did you know her?” I asked. “How did you come to love her?”

He leaned back, rested his hands on the ground behind him, closed his eyes, and sighed. His wings spread then closed again, fluttering behind him, their tips, seemingly without his knowledge, tracing your name in the dust.

“It was here, by the meeting of the rivers. She had been here for some years when I came to earth here, sent to deliver a message to the king of this city that God wanted him to change his ways. (It didn’t work. It rarely does.)

“I was walking among the people, my wings concealed, when I, too, heard the magic of her voice. And I went to her, told her that I was an angel, and that her song was greater than any that I heard in our choirs.

“She was flattered, but aloof, unclear (as humans so often are) of how to respond to an angel. I told her that I could love her every bit as much as a human would, that I could show her joys like heaven.

“She ran off, but I encountered her again and again here by the rivers. I told her that one never meets an angel by accident, that we must have been destined to meet.

“I lost my heart to her, though my mind could not tell why. When I sat with the chiefs of the angels, with Gabriel, with Metatron, to seek their counsel, I tried to see her through more objective eyes. And I saw that she was not the most beautiful, not the most gracious, not the most compassionate of people, that her voice was not the most lovely, that she could be terse, could be petulant, and that it seemed that, no matter how many angels or men were captured by her song, she would not let herself be open to them, would not let herself be loved. And they told me to follow my heart, but not to forget my mind, and to remember that with love comes blindness, that with yearning comes fear.

“Then one night, I came to her, threw myself to the ground, brushed her feet with the tips of my wings, and asked her what I might do to show her that the heart of an angel was hers, to convince her that I might show her heaven.

“She backed away, then stopped, as if hovering, thinking. Then she stepped forward, knelt on the ground next to me, and asked quietly, ‘You can take me far from here, from this ugly city? You can take me to heaven?’

” ‘I can travel between heaven and earth,’ I said. ‘With the right word, I believe that anyone can.’

” ‘What is that word?’ she said.

” ‘It is a secret name of God,’ I replied. ‘But we are forbidden to tell it to anybody.’

“She looked at me for a long time, then shrugged. ‘If that rule is stronger than your love for me,’ she said, ‘then you do not really need to be with me. I should have known that,’ she said, then laughed, as if in derision, the shards of her laughter slicing through my heart.

” ‘Wait!’ I called out. ‘I will tell you!’

“She came back, and I sketched the thirteen letters in the dust. She looked at them carefully. ‘I say these out loud?’ she asked.

” ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But quietly, so that no one else may hear.’

“She looked at them, then looked up and gingerly, quietly, whispered the secret name. And a small whirlwind appeared, formed around her, obscured her. It roared in my ears, scrambled my vision, spun out the scent of ten thousand sacred spices, then swiftly calmed, faded, disappeared. She was gone.

“My heart leapt in the knowledge that she was now in heaven, waiting for me. I opened my mouth to call out the secret name—and no words came. My memory of the name was gone. I looked down on the ground where I had written it, but the whirlwind had erased my letters, smoothed the dust down to form an unreadable glassy sheen.

“I frantically tried variants of what I could remember, dredged my memory for scraps of the sacred name. But all was forgotten, all was gone. In that moment, I knew that the number of beings who could know the name was finite. In giving it to Istahar, I no longer had it for myself.

“And so I remain here on earth, trapped, immortal, walking the earth in mourning, trying to find how I might survive eternity without Istahar.”

He fell silent, his head bowed, his wings trailing limply behind him. I put my hand on his shoulder, as he had put his on mine. “So she is in heaven now? She is not… she is an angel?”

He smiled faintly, looking again to the sky. “In heaven, yes, but not an angel. When the other angels found me, they told me that yes, she had ascended, was no longer on the earth. But once in heaven, she could work no magic on the angels, and never did fit in. Her laughter grated on their ears, and her songs, sung in her human modes, clashed with the songs of the angels. She could not stay in heaven, but, being a human who had seen heaven’s secrets, could not return to earth.

“So they found a solution, found a way to keep her in the heavens, happy, looking down on the earth. She became a set of stars, a constellation. See, that one, close to the horizon, its stars winking at the rest of the sky. That, now, is my—is our Istahar.”

The angel fell silent. We sat and looked at your stars, at the horizon. When a cloud drifted before us, breaking the line from our gaze to the stars, he spoke again. “So when the floods came, everyone, everything else died, everything except the fish and what your father saved on the ark. But she, alone, escaped.

“For months, I walked then swam around this land, still an angel, not needing to breathe, not able to die. Eventually, a sudden current swept the bones of these giants on top of me. I lay here until you appeared to rescue me. But lying here, I realized that I was in exactly the right place, since I could see Istahar, the stars that had been Istahar, in their place in the sky, winking at me in what I have to believe is loving thanks, the shimmering of the stars echoing the rhythm of her sacred laughter.”

“So she is immortal!” I said. “The stars will be here forever!”

“In time,” the angel said, “even the stars must fade. But that may not be until the end of days, when all names will be revealed, when all will know God’s secret name, when all soul will be reunited into one supreme soul, when all the pieces of souls that inhabit men, inhabit angels, inhabit, yes, the stars, will return to being a perfect whole.”

I looked up at the sky, at your blessed stars, strove to say something, but only one word came to my lips. In perfect unison, the angel and I called out, “Istahar!”

I lay back on the ground, staring at your stars for hours. The angel and I exchanged few words. Eventually we slept.

And now I lie awake again. In the night, in the cold, the angel has moved closer to me, engulfed me in his wings to keep me warm. His breast rises and falls in the rhythm of sleep, though, close as his face is to mine, I feel no breath from him.

I look at your stars, thinking of you, remembering, rejoicing that you are not—yes, I can say it, that you are not dead. And I know that for the rest of my life, I will be able to look into the sky and know that, even by day, even beyond the cruelty of the sun and the taunting translucence of the clouds, you will be there, always, there in my heart, always, there to comfort me, to save me, to protect me, to join with my voice as I try to sing what I can remember of your songs.

I am not alone. For not only are you with me, but you have brought the angel to me. Indeed, meeting the angel was no accident, and my love for you, his love for you, must have been preordained, must have been real. I now have a partner, a friend. He will travel with me along these ruined hills and plains, working with me to build a new world from the fragments of the old.

I look around me, and all I see are bones, bones upon bones. But with the help of God, with your grace, with your magic and the memory of your music, these bones again can live, as I now know, in joy, in excitement, in love, that I, too, now, once again can live.

(Next: The Daughter of Jephthah)


February 29, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. While searching for legends about Japheth, I came across the story of Istahar and Shemhazai in Louis Ginzberg’s indispensable Legends of the Jews. It apparently was first written down in the Midrash Akbir. There are many variants of it, and like the other writers, I tweaked it a bit to tell the story that I wanted to tell.

    I knew that, for the flow of the project, I would have to write about someone related to the flood. The obvious choice was Noah, but Bill Cosby had pretty much cornered the market on that story. Shem did a lot of begatting, but I couldn’t come up with much of interest for him. And the story of Ham (or was it Canaan?) and his father (or grandfather?) is quite garbled, with additional unpleasant overtones added through history.

    So I chose Japheth, and the story of Istahar served as a catalyst to the writing.

    Comment by bookofvoices | February 29, 2008 | Reply

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