The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: 2 Kings 25:18)

Fire — all around me — fire — wings of fire — tongues of fire — apparitions of angels and demons of fire. I rush through fire, through rooms of fire, halls of fire — through paths and patterns made unfamiliar by fire — until I pass through fire to the secret room — the home of God — the holy hall that only I can know —

Here at its border — the edge of this secret room that only I can cross — there are no markings — all gold and brass that had been here has been taken — all curtains burned by fire — all wooden forms consumed by fire — and yet I know that this is the edge — know it as clearly as if I were standing at the edge of lake of fire — standing at the edge of the physical world. Only I can enter — only the high priest — and only on one day of the year — two months and one day away — I can sense the date’s approach — as clear and as far away as a storm of fire across the ocean — and I can only enter when prepared by prayer — when cleansed and anointed by the other priests — all gone — or by the Levites — all gone — all taken or dead —

And today I am unclean — unclean — having run through filth — having carried the dead — and I cannot enter — cannot cross this final wall of fire — yet I must. The word of God — the very stones on which God himself carved his words — carved with fire — with black fire on white fire — are here — and I must save them — must save them from unholy fire — strange fire — from fire that might burn them — might release them into the hands of the unclean — those even more unclean than I — into the hands of Babylon — of those who speak what words of our God they know with spite — as jokes — as curses — with hearts of the unclean — tongues of the unclean — tongues of the serpents who spit venom — the poison that kills — that burns like fire —

God — you who saved my fathers — I cross this line — the one that you ordered us not to cross — to save what we have of you — I cross this line — disobey you to honor you — I — distant son of Aaron — knowing what happened to the sons of Aaron. If I live, I live for you — if I die, I die for you — the merciful and compassionate — who determines who shall live — who shall die — who by water — who by this fire —

I cross this line — walk with fear — without fear — through the wall of fire — eyes closed — then speak the most secret name of God — the most secret name that I know — open my eyes —

And there is silence. Here, there is no fire. Expecting to feel the smoldering wood of the floor, my feet, amazed, feel damp grass. On my head, on my body, soft rain falls. I look around me, and see that I am in a meadow, a paradise.

“Have I died?” I say, and am surprised to hear my voice, not to hear it drowned out by the sounds of fire, of roaring flames and buildings collapsing in fire.

In front of me, I see what must be the ark, the small cabinet with the mighty cherubim seated upon it. I am comforted, but then, again, surprised. The cherubim, forged from our finest metals, should not be here. All the ornaments of the temple had been given over to the Babylonians, in an attempt at appeasement, to avoid the destruction of which our prophets had warned. “No, not the statues.” I hear two voices, male and female, in unison, speaking these words. “We really are here.”

I look up, and see the cherubim are now standing, wings outspread, one hand of each on the shoulder of the other. “How?” I say. “I had never seen you alive in the temple. Are we still in the temple?”

“No. And yes,” they say. “The temple on earth is gone, is burned. This is the greater temple, the temple that no man can destroy.”

“And the tablets? Have they been saved?”

The angels part and step to the sides. There, on the ground, between them, sits what appears to be a small, clear cabinet, protected from the rain by the cherubim’s outstretched wings. I cannot see its walls, save for the way that the image of what lies beyond them is bent by the light passing through.

And there, in the cabinet, are the tablets of stone with their sacred writing, the two complete tablets sitting among the rubble of the stones that Moses broke. They are tilted at an implausible angle, resting against the ark’s now invisible walls.

“What will happen to them?” I ask. “Do they stay with us, with the priests, with the people of Israel?”

“No,” the cherubim say. “They will remain here, in the safest of places, in the Garden of Eden, until the end of days, until the world is healed and Eden and your world of actions can again be one.”

“But how can we live? How can we survive without the tablets? The children of Israel are dispersing, and the temple is burning. Where will we find what we need to keep us whole? How will we find and worship our God?”

“Did you ever wonder how Abraham worshipped?” they ask in return. “Or Moses before the tablets appeared to him? Remember that there have not always been priests or a temple. Remember that all that exists on your world is temporary. When you had many people in one place, it helped you to have a temple. Now the people are leaving the land. Many, though not all, will return. And all need to be able to worship the Lord.”

“But without a temple, what do we have now?”

“What you have always had, what only people have had. When it was time for the first people to leave this green place, God blessed them with words, with the power to speak, with the power to give names to the things and ideas of your world. You now have these words, and with them you can carry the tablets within you, as you always have.”

“What words are these?” I ask. “All words? Any words?”

“All words, yes, and any. But most particularly, you must remember these.”

And the cherubim bend do to human height, and each whispers a sentence in my ear. Not the same sentence—in this lone moment each speaks different words.

And as I hear the sentences, each in one ear, they combine in my mind. And in their combination, their collision, their clash and their harmony, I find that they have collected all knowledge, everything that I have ever known.

They stand again, as one, the edges of their wings brushing my shoulders as they pass. They wait, silently, as I recover from hearing their words.

After a while, they speak again, as one. “We must leave you now. You must leave us. This world must fade for you. You must return to your own.”

They gesture around themselves. In the distance, beyond the almost infinite green, fire is rushing toward us, contracting toward us, the flames of my destroyed world pushing in towards this sacred place where we stand.

“Will I survive this fire?” I call out. “How will I live? Where will I live?”

“You will live a bit longer,” they said. “And though you will be martyred, you will die quickly, with honor, without pain. But you must tell these words to all who you meet. All to whom you tell them will live to tell them to more people, and those people will tell them to even more. And over time, all Israel will hear these words, and perhaps all mankind. And in these words, you will find life.”

I look around, and see that the green around me is almost gone. The flames are rushing toward me, the furnace that had been the temple almost returned to bring me to certain death.

I fall at the feet of the cherubim, try to grasp at the tips of their wings. But the softness within my grasp dissolves like dreams, dissolves like smoke. “Please — do not leave — do not make me leave! How can I live without the presence of God?”

“The presence of God is all around you, is within you,” they say together, their voices now faded, now obscured like light beyond smoke. “As it always has been. Look, listen, open all your senses to the world outside yourself, within yourself, and you will find that you are in the presence of God.”

I look up and see the fire rushing toward me, surrounding me. The roar of the flame merges with the rush of the cherubim’s mighty wings. They are ascending, drifting upward toward the sky, out of our shared reality. I see them get quickly smaller, more swiftly than mere distance would imply. Their voices ring out, almost inaudible in the noise, but clear within me. “You must speak our words to all that you see. But now — stand — and prepare to run!”

And all around me — the green world gone — flames rush to me, engulf me — I stand — I run in the arbitrary direction that I am facing — through walls of fire — past pillars of fire — and am not consumed — surrounded, protected by steam — drenched with the gentle rain of Eden — not blinded — not burning.

And then screaming — I hear screaming — crying — from before me — to my right — by my feet. I look down — into a pocket of the absence of flame — a space beside, below an altar, where the flames have not reached. There — surrounded by fire — protected from fire — two children huddle — a boy and a girl — trapped — terrified — alone. I reach down — through flame — into the pocket of air — scoop them up — one under each arm — protected by the dampness of my robes. Again I run — through the temple — what remains of the temple — out of the temple — out of the fire — out to the open air beyond the reach of fire.

I set them them down on the ground. They are stunned — no longer crying — terrified into silence. “Are you an angel?” the boy asks.

“No,” I say, “but they sent me to save you.”

“What do we do now?” the girl asks.

“Someone will find you. You will be safe,” I say — surprised that I know that — not knowing how I know that.

They nod, but do not move. “I need you — the angels need you — God needs you to do something. Are you willing?” I ask.

Again they nod.

“I will tell you each one sentence. You must say it to everyone that you meet. Tell them that this is what God needs them to know.”

I kneel down — embrace the boy — whisper in his ear the sentence that the male cherub gave me: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God is the one God.”

The boy closes his eyes — looks like he is thinking — hard — then repeats the sentence back to me: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God is the one God.”

I kiss him on the forehead — relax the embrace — shift over to the girl — take her in my arms — whisper in her ear the sentence from the female cherub: “Don’t do to anyone else what you would want him not to do to you.”

She furrows her brow — cocks her head — looks at me — says, “That’s all? That’s simple!”

I smile — look her deeply in the eyes — say, “Yes, you can still believe that it is” — kiss her, too, on the forehead — let go — stand up — say to them, “Now run together back to the other people. You will be safe. And tell them what I have said —- what the angels have said — what God has said.”

They turn from me — look back at me — look ahead — join hands — then run off — to where other people still live — to where they can tell their sentences to the other people — where the sentences will combine in the people’s hearts — where from the simplicity of the combined ideas will rise the complexity that will sustain their lives —

I look at them — see them run off — around the fire — past the fire — until they are obscured by the fire — by the smoke — until I can no longer see them —

I know that I have work to do — know that I do not have long — know that soon I will be captured — soon I will die —but that there will be time before then — all the time the world needs — time to spread these words — to those who will survive me — who will spread the words to the heart of the world —

Then I turn — face back into the fire — hear further voices calling faintly — calling from in the fire — and I run back in — to save them — to save the people — to help God save the people — to help the people preserve the memory — the glory — the beauty — around us — within us — all that exists — all that is all — all that is the presence of God.

(Next: Adam)


March 29, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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