The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Genesis 11:31)

It has been too long since we have seen each other, too long since we have talked. But now, after so long, we are alone together. The house is quiet now. My son and what remains of my family have gone. They are finishing the journey that I began so many years ago.

Yes, we must talk again now, face to face. Here: if I hammer this thin brass nail down through your hair, along the fine wood’s grain, your head should stay on your shoulders for at least a while more.

You were always my favorite of the idols, Marumat, ever since I first met you when I was small. Do you remember –yes, of course, you remember when I took you from your honored place on my mother’s altar and brought you to my playroom. Quite a party we had there, with my dogs, with the stuffed animals that my mother had fashioned for me out of leftover linen, wool, and beans. You stood regally as always at the center of the room. I bustled about, making sure all the party guests were happy, making sure that all the imagined guests were well fed. I had taken the plate of grain that sat at your altar as an offering and placed it before you there. I wasn’t sure how you would eat it, but I was certain that you would.

Of course, the grain spilled along the way. That was how my mother found you and found me. She slapped me and snatched you up from the floor. “This is not a toy!” she yelled. “We treat gods with love, with fear, with respect.”

“But I do love this god,” I cried. “That’s why I made a party for him.”

My mother picked up the plate of grain and stomped out of the room, looking back at me with an expression that was not quite a glare. I think now that she was trying not to smile.

She always did have that streak in her, that fierce brilliance of penetrating doubt that burned through the stories that we told each other, burned through to the truths that the stories both concealed and revealed.

There, outside of our house in the city of astronomers, we would sit on our blanket on a warm night and look up at the stars. “What do you see up there?” she would ask me.

I would lie back and look for the stars, the gods that I would recognize, in the sky, as one would look for friends in a crowd. “There is Nergal,” I would say, “red and low to the ground.” Or “There is Marduk,” or “Is that Ishtar? Hello, Ishtar!”

Sometimes I would ask, “Where is Nephila? His belt should be shining in the sky.”

My mother would tell me, “Perhaps he had to visit his children, the giants fallen to earth. Or maybe he was sent on a mission. Or maybe it’s just not time for him to be in the sky.”

“But why are gods sent on missions? Don’t they set their own times?”

“We don’t know why they are there when they are there, and why they are missing when they are missing. They come and go. But when they are not in the sky, we have their idols at home.”

“Why don’t we have an idol for my father? He was once here, and now is gone.”

She held me closer. “That is good thinking. But we do not have idols for people. They are only for gods.”

“Maybe we should have them,” I said.

“Maybe we should,” she repeated. Though, when we remembered this conversation when I was older, she muttered, “But not for him.”

I never knew my father. I knew that his name was Nahor, and that he, too, crafted idols, as I did, as did my sons. He sculpted you, after all, making this form to please you so that your breath would come down and inhabit it.

He died, or went away, too young. I named my first child for him. Nahor, my son, was the eldest of three, though the middle one, Haran, died too young, in the fire that destroyed our home. Nahor brought Haran’s daughter, Milcah, into his home and married her. My youngest son, Abram, ran into the fire and rescued the younger daughter, Iscah, whom he married, and their brother, Lot, who so often seems to need to be rescued. I rescued you.

I couldn’t bear to stay in our city of Ur, after my home was gone, after all my work was gone. All the other idols had sacrificed themselves to the flames, the wood burning, the iron melting, the stone crumbling, the breath of their lives returning to their greater selves.

Nahor had his own home, his own friends, business and responsibilities. He stayed behind in Ur. But we picked up what little we had and traveled toward Canaan, to the city of Kharan (no, not spelled or pronounced like my son’s name, though I liked to dream that it was the city of his memory). We were a tiny caravan: you, me, Lot, Abram, Iscah, and, as always, Eliezer, Abram’s servant, his constant friend.

You were broken by then. Abram had broken you years ago, though he never admitted it. I remember coming into the room where you always stood so proudly, there next to the iron idol of Nakhin. You were lying on the floor, your head snapped coarsely from your neck. (Perhaps my father should have taken more care in creating your body, should have crafted a more sturdy neck for you. Perhaps this fresh brass nail will fix that failure of design.) Grain was scattered across the floor. A small ax rested in Nakhin’s strong arms.

“What happened here?” I said aloud.

“They had a fight.” Abram’s small voice came from behind me. I turned and saw him sitting in the far corner. “I had put the grain out for them. Nakhin wanted more than Marumat. So he took the ax and broke Marumat’s head off.”

I sighed and looked more closely. Your neck clearly hadn’t broken from an ax blow. It looked like you had fallen onto the ground, head first. And I could see Abram’s small footprints in the fallen grain, where he must have kicked it around to make it look like the result of a fight.

“Now, Abram,” I said. “You know that that doesn’t happen. Idols don’t break each other.”

“But they can do so,” he whined. “They are gods. They can do whatever they want.”

“They can do so, of course,” I said. “But they don’t. Idols remain strong, remain silent, for us to worship.”

“Does the neck of a strong god break?” Abram asked.

“The neck of an idol can break. It is our job to make them strong, to help them be strong.”

“Why do gods need our help?”

“Gods don’t need our help. But they want our help. Just like they want our grain, to feed them, to worship them.”

“But they don’t eat the grain,” Abram said. “When we put it out for them, we just end up picking it up later and throwing it out.”

“They don’t eat it like people do,” I said. “I suppose that their magic takes from it what they need, like we separate the grain itself from the chaff. They can see the difference, even if we can’t.”

“Why do the gods take things?” Abram asked. “Why did they take my friend Farah? I was playing with him a few days ago, but now they say that a god has taken him. They say that they are proud, but I saw his mother crying when she was burning something at the temple.”

I stood silently for a longer time than I had intended. Then I reached down and took him in my arms. “The gods do what the gods do,” I said. I tried to say more, to explain how you worked, but could not put it into words that a child could understand, could barely have put it into words that I could have understood myself. “The gods do what the gods do,” I said again. “We cannot understand.”

Abram, too, was silent. I saw that he was crying. I kissed him, and he rested his head on my shoulder. And I thought that, beneath his tears, I caught an echo of my mother’s smile.

After he was asleep, I went back to the room that you shared with the other idols. I took the ax from Nakhin and swept up the grain. Then, gently carrying your head and body almost as carefully as I had held Abram, I took you to my workroom, wrapped you in linen, and placed you in a box to be repaired soon.

How many years ago was that? Certainly you know. Though this physical instance of you has been sitting in the box, listening, silent, for all this time, I know that I have been connected to your soul, as you have been in my heart. All my life, I have felt your presence, your love. All my life, I have told myself that I would repair you someday. But the time has never been right.

Now I am alone. We are alone. Nahor passed away some seven years ago. I have not heard from Milcah since then, nor from anyone else that I knew back in Ur.

And my family here all have moved on. Abram never was good at making idols, could never put his heart into it. But he proved good at business, at government, at making deals and treaties. In the way that so many children eventually must, he has become his own man, moved to a new territory.

He has even changed his name in the new country. I don’t understand why – perhaps it is the numerology – but he is now calling himself Abraham. What was once his pet name for his wife, Iscah – Sarai, “my princess” – has now become her official name, Sarah.

And he does not care for the gods. His search is elsewhere. His brilliance in his business has gone into his everyday philosophy. “The world that you live in is needlessly complex,” he says. “When you look at what people want in a transaction, what people want in their life, it always comes down to one thing, though that one thing can rarely be defined. There must be one desire, one principle, underlying everything in the universe. And someday soon we will understand what that is.”

Perhaps. I do not understand my world, do not understand my gods. But I do understand what gives me joy, what gives me comfort.

So here we are, you and me. And securing you here within this vise for the moment, driving this nail through your head so that you can be whole, I know that you are here with me, in your fragile wooden body, in your place within the stars, in the eternal world beyond the worlds. Laying my hands upon my tools, I know that this is what I do well: I make bodies for the gods. This is what I do well. This is what I do.

And for this knowledge, my idol, my comfort, for this, my god among the gods, I bow before you. I give you thanks.

(Next : Serah.)


March 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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