The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Genesis 19:23)

He tells me that his name is Orpheus. He sits before me as I, too, sit, here at the base of of this mountain, on this plain that is cursed by fire, ringed with fire. As I sit, my back rests against mossy rock. His rests against nothing, supported only by his firm resolve never to look to the south again.

I was alone, became alone on my path from the north across this plain, before I met this man, before our voices found each other, before we came to sit here before one another. He, too, was alone, became alone on his way across this plain. But when the sound of my mourning, of my wailing, rose from my voice and reverberated from the surrounding hills, it met the sound of his song, resounding with the same rhythm, the same feeling, the same wordless howl as mine, not quite in harmony but with a perfect dissonance that complemented and contrasted with my sound.  The pain exploding from each of us  made the cries of the other stand out, more stark, more clear, than either would have sounded on its own.

The echoes of our mourning drew us near to one another. Each of us saw the other at first as a specter emerging from the smoke, the haze, then as a shadow. Only when we were almost within an arm’s reach of each other did we see each other as distinct shapes, as faces that we could recognize as people. Only then did we know that we did not know one another.

We stood in silence.  In the time before one of us spoke, each of us heard the sound of his own labored breath, of the breath of the other, heard the sound of his own pulse within his ears, within his veins.

“You came from the fire?”

“And you?”

“Yes. And you, too, lost–”

“My wife. My love. My soul. I have lost–”


Another silence hung there in the smoke. One of us sighed. One of us coughed. When a moment’s breeze showed us that we were on a spot of uncluttered ground, we each sank down into the charred grass.

“You were in the city?” That voice must have come from me.

“No, not the city,” Orpheus said. “We lived on the water. We lived quietly, lived well, until death took my beloved from me.”

“Yes, we too lived quietly, lived well, though my home became less a blessing than a fortress against those who lived around me. Then the flames came to the city, and destroyed it all.”

Another silence. Again, memory can not tell me which of us spoke.

“You lost her to the flames?”

“No, not directly. I thought I had lost her, but she reemerged. Then again I lost her.”

“Lost to the looking back.”

“To the looking back.”

“If I could only relive that final moment, if only I could try again–”

“We can not try again. We can no longer look back, even to the moment of looking back.”

And another silence, the paths of its passing time sketched on our faces by our tears, by the tears through the ashes on his face, by the salt of the tears on mine.

“She had died, was as dead as she had ever been alive,” he said. (I must have been he who spoke.) “But my gods, the gods of my fathers, showed what I thought was mercy. They allowed me down to the place where the dead gather, before their souls drift down to the river of fire, become the river that flows outside of life. They let me sing my song to her one last time. And as I sang, I felt her soul emerging from the flow, collecting around the strands of my song, as salt–”

“As salt?” I cried.

“–as salt gathers around a reed in a drying sea bed. Then I walked away, drew her away from the river of souls.”

“And she lived?”

“For me, for the moment, she lived.”

“My love lived also,” I said. “She was dead, seemed dead, as the fire from above took our city.  We waited perhaps too long to listen to the travelers’ warnings, that their god had run out of mercy and that the city would burn. She was asleep when the flames erupted, asleep when the flames burst into our home. I saw her there among the flames and ran back after her. Her robes had already begun to smolder as I lifted her from our bed and ran toward the pool of water that we kept near our house. I immersed her and awakened her. She screamed in panic, in pain, but I told her that we must be quiet, that we must run, that there was no time. And so we ran from the city.”

“And she lived?”

“For the moment, she lived.”

Another array of breezes blew past us, first clear, but then carrying the grit, the scents, of ash, then salt air, then ash again.

“And then…” one of us, or maybe both of us said. For a long time, neither wanted to respond.

Then the silence became more oppressive than the telling, and I spoke again. “We got outside the city, and kept running, pursued by the rumbling of earth and the rushing of winds. Then we heard an explosion, as if Babel herself were collapsing again. I put my head down, and screamed for her not to look. But she stood, and turned. And then there was the flash, like a sun god dropping to earth, And the searing heat, and the wind–”

“–and she was gone,” Orpheus said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Her soul was gone. Her body—where her body had been was a pillar, white as cloud, hard as her body had been so soft. I embraced the pillar, kissed it, but all that was left was the taste of tears, the taste of salt. I fell back–and I saw what I could swear was her soul spiraling upward from where her body had been, dissolving into the wind, melting into the flames of the sky, without warning, without a farewell.”

“Without a farewell…” Orpheus said. “Thus, too, my love came away with me from the fire, from the river of flame that roared below. I could not see her, but could feel her breath, her touch behind me. ‘I am with you,’ she whispered to me, and her presence was as comforting as the scent of spices, as maddening as the brush of angel’s feathers hovering just within reach. ‘I am with you,’ she said, ‘but do not look at me.'”

“And she stayed with you?” I said.

“She stayed, for as long as it took for us to travel almost this far. My love for her grew even stronger as the echoes of her breath ignited my songs. But as my love grew stronger, so did my desire, and as a flash that I thought was an explosion of my passion came from what must have been the city burning, I could not keep at last from turning, to see her, to touch her, to be with her.”

“And she was gone,” I said.

“If only she had instantly been gone,” he cried. “I did get to see her, to touch her–but only long enough to feel her shadow-body dissolve. She decayed in my hands as one does over time in the grave, but swiftly, over the course of a single breath, long enough to see her beauty melt away to sinew, muscle, bone. I saw that what I had loved was now indeed as mortal as any other person. In my greed to be with her forever, I had not been able to let her go, gradually, as each of us must let the ones that we had loved cease to be flesh and dissipate into memory. And now she was gone, without a farewell…”

We both fell to silence. Were there new breezes? We did not notice the gusts of the wind against our faces, feeling only the gusts within us of terror, of regret.

Again, one of us spoke. “And we are here.”

“And we are here.”

“What are we now? What do we do?”

“We are the lost ones now, those who loved the lost. We continue. We continue. I sense that the gods will not yet let us die—there is more for us to do, more for us to regret. We must fade into stories. When we die, after we die, others will learn the stories of our pain. Perhaps they will learn from them. I fear that they will not.”

And then, now, we sat here in greater silence, in a silence that summed together the absences of all that had come before, each thinking of the other’s words, each drowning in his own despair.

But now the shadows are lengthening and growing less distinct. We know that it is time to move on. At the same moment, we each stand.

“I must continue, back toward the sea,” Orpheus says. “Will you come with me?”

“I cannot,” I say. “I know that my daughters escaped the fire before me. We have arranged, if disaster struck us, to meet in a cave just up the mountain from here. We keep there clean water, warm blankets, and wine. There would be room for you.”

“I cannot,” he says. “We must continue, each on his own path. Perhaps we will remember each other, sing of each other.”

“Perhaps.” We look into each other’s eyes for a brief moment, but neither of us can stand seeing the pain for long, seeing the pain of loss in each other’s eyes, each seeing the pain in the other’s eyes reflected from his own. Each of us steps aside then forward, past the other, losing the other swiftly in the darkness, in the acrid mist. Neither of us dares to look back.

(Next: Terah.)


October 15, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. […] Lot) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Bringing Children Into The World Romans […]

    Pingback by Adam « The Book of Voices | October 15, 2008 | Reply

  2. How beautiful and so sad. The pain of loss drives hard and deep.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Adele Lederman | October 30, 2008 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: