The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Sarah

(Context: Genesis 23:1)

“Hello, Grandmother.”

So it has come to this: after all these years, in the moment of my deepest grief, of my final betrayal, as my husband has led my only son off to die, a stranger has come to mock me.

“I am no one’s grandmother,” I say.

“No,” she says, “but you will be.”

“I have had enough of prophecy.” Sitting here on this low bench at the gateway to my home, I pull myself inward, away from those milk-white feet, clutching my knees even more tightly to my chest.

“This is not prophecy,” she says. “This is fact. Isaac comes back down the mountain, quite alive, and fathers sons, who father sons and daughters, and so on. I am indeed your granddaughter, seven generations removed. I am Miriam, known as the sister of Moses and—no, my brothers’ names will not yet mean anything to you. But I am Miriam.”

“I am Sarah,” I say automatically.

“Yes, Grandmother,” she says. “I know.”

“You say this as if this is history. Has the heart of time itself been broken? Has it flung me into the future?”

“We are still in your present time,” she says. “But I have stepped back into what, viewed from my lifetime here, is the distant past.”

“And why have you come here?” I say. “To confuse and to mock me?”

“I have not come to mock you,” she says. “I have come to take you home.”

“This is my home,” I say, “or as much of a home as I have ever had. Where would you take me? I lost my childhood home in Ur to fire long ago. None of us remain in the next city that we lived in, in Kharan. Abraham has dragged me all over Canaan and beyond, down to Egypt, up to this hilltop in Kiryat-Arba, and throughout all the rest of the lands that we know. His god told him to go for himself. He went. I followed. But since I was a child, I have never had a home of my own.”

The stranger’s feet step closer. “May I sit with you?” she asks.

I point to my right, “The bench is large enough,” I say. “Please pardon me, but I do not feel up to being a perfect host.”

“I understand.” She sits, and all that the corner of my eye sees is white upon white upon white.

I turn my head just enough to get a good look at her. She wears a robe of white linen, its hem faintly dusted and discolored by pale sand. Her skin is as white as the linen, and her hair even whiter than that. But dark eyes like mine peer out from behind pale lashes, and her features are like ours, not like those of the bleached travelers from the North.

Tzara’at?” I ask.

She nods, tenses, waits, then relaxes. “You didn’t flinch away from me though you recognize the disease! I assure you, though, that this peculiar joke that God has pulled on me is not contagious.”

I shrug. “I am not worried. God’s joke on me was to make me young and keep me from aging. I no longer get ill, even from the most trivial or virulent of diseases. I am afraid that I may be forced to live forever.”

“Would it be a consolation to learn that you do not?” she asks.

“I suppose that it would.”

“Then,” she says, “I can tell you that you do, indeed, pass from this life eventually and rejoin the realm of souls.”

“When?”

She closes her eyes, tilts her head to the left as it trying to remember, frowns, tilts her head to the right and then upright, then opens her eyes and smiles slightly. “That is a surprisingly difficult question,” she says.

“So you are not allowed to tell me.”

“No,” she says, “I am allowed. But I only know part of the answer. As viewed by people here, you leave your life quite soon. But you should live for many more years elsewhere.”

“Where?” I ask.

She seems not to have heard me. “Tell me,” she says, “when you picture your life, the way that you wish that it had gone, what do you see?”

“Really? Other than having been dragged about by my husband’s missions and his god’s whims?”

“Yes. Try to remember who you were, and who you wanted to become.”

My eyes close, and I wait for ideas, for images. But all that I hear, all that I see is the jumble of my current life, all that I have endured, all that has exhausted me.

I feel the faintest of touches brush and then rest against my temples. I open my eyes and look into the stranger’s. Her voice seems to come not from her lips but from within my own mind. “Speak to me. Who are you? Where are you now?”

My sense of where I am dissolves as steam disappears in the path of a cooling breath. “I am indoors,” I say, “in a large room, in what feels like a very old building. This room, its walls, its floor are simple, solid, as are the tables and chairs. Threads of text are inscribed on all the surfaces, intertwining into patterns, symbols, diagrams that reveal more than the words themselves.

“Others sit in the room with me, in a circle. I am teaching them, learning from them, speaking of history, of art, of all the things that join us together, that make us who we are as people. Most of those in the room are my many daughters, and it feels as if all of them are. We all have been here for a very long time, though we are continually learning things that are new. There is a sense of stability, of warmth, of all the things that I have missed in my life.”

My breath catches. The image shatters, dissipates, propels me back, to my home, to this dusty gateway, to this low stone bench.

I pull back away from this Miriam, away from her gaze, her touch.”Why have you forced me to see this, to remember this? I had forgotten what my life could have been. I had almost grown happy with who I am.”

She smiles, takes my hand in hers, pale flesh surrounding dark. “I show you this because it is true. This is where I came from, where we are going. It is indeed a memory, not of your past, but of your future.”

“Where is this place?” I say.

“This is also a surprisingly difficult question. I can say where its entrances are, but the location of the school itself is an ongoing source of debate. We seem to exist in a different space, a different time, connected but not the same as here.” She pauses, releases my hands, and rises to her feet. “So shall we go?”

“Why should I believe you?” I say.

“Because your heart knows it to be true.”

And as she says this, I look deep into my heart, out beyond the world that I know. Time suddenly spreads out before me, not as a line but as a plane. I see the world through Miriam’s eyes, and know that I am to leave here, know that what we see will indeed be my choice, my destiny.

“But what of my future here?” I ask aloud. “How will Abraham and my Isaac continue without me? Will they come to hate me for abandoning them?”

“The stories say that you pass away here, soon, as or just after they come down from the mountain. None of us can step back into this world within the span of our natural lives. But once you pass away, we can return you here. They will find that you had died while they were away, quietly, at rest, at peace.”

“And will they continue well?”

“They will,” she says, “from what we know. You have set up your household to run well without you. Your friend, your servant Eliezer, will watch over them. Soon, he will find a bride for Isaac from within your clan, and generations will extend through Isaac as far into the future as we can see.”

Silence falls. I sit and Miriam stands in the fading light of evening. When my shadow has lengthened to the point that it darkens her pale feet, I, too, rise.

“So shall we go?” Miriam asks. “We have a long walk ahead of us.”

“What may I take?” I ask.

“Whatever you wish. Whatever we can carry.”

I step back into my house and look around. Though, like all our homes have been, it is a temporary shelter, it is cluttered, strewn with gifts and tokens that have accumulated in our travels and transactions.

Off in a corner, one item stands out, as if a different light shines on it: a doll, intended as an idol, I suppose. My father Haran carved it from the wood of an asherah grove. I had clutched it as my Abram saved me from the fire in my home, and kept it with me throughout all these years.

I walk to the doll, pick it up, and cradle it in my arms. I take a couple of favorite robes and scrolls of stories that I would like to remember and teach.

I turn to the door, then turn back again. Taking a reed and some blank parchment, I write a quick note to Abraham reminding him to complete our purchase of the caves at Machpelah. After what he has experienced and is likely to experience, he is likely to forget. And I do love that piece of land, and would like to be buried there.

I pause at the end of the note. Should I say goodbye to my husband and my son? No, better for them not to know that I left them. Better for them to believe that my passing was sudden, was unexpected.

I cap the inkwell and rest the quill beside it. Looking around for what I know is the last time, I try to engrave the image in my memory. Looking into myself to remember my feelings as I leave, I am surprised that where I expect to find sadness and resignation, I find excitement, anticipation, joy.

I turn again and step out of the house. Miriam reaches out wordlessly and takes some of the scrolls and robes to carry.

“Shall we go?” she asks again.

I nod. We start down the path, down this hill, away from what had been, for awhile, my home.

After we have walked for awhile, I realize that I have been considering a question for a while. “This place where we are going,” I ask, “does it have a name?”

“Not one that we know,” she replies. “But our group, our school, takes one on.” She looks toward me, the glow of her pale smile as warm as that of the horizon’s setting sun.

“We have always known that you would be be joining us. Even though you have not come to join us until now, we have always spoken of ourselves as the Sacred Sisters of Sarah.”

I stop, surprised, then quickly return to walking down the mountain. Yes, I am returning to the life that I was meant to lead. Yes, I finally am coming home.

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July 17, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Many typos here. Use a spellchecker!

    I was reminded of the eighth line of this sonnet:

    “221B”

    Here dwell together still two men of note
    Who never lived and so can never die:
    How very near they seem, yet how remote
    That age before the world went all awry.
    But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
    Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
    England is England yet, for all our fears —
    Only those things the heart believes are true.

    A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
    As night descends upon this fabled street:
    A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
    The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
    Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
    And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
        –Vincent Starrett, 1942

    Comment by John Cowan | July 17, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks. I caught four typos, all of them dropped vowels. Should I blame them on working with sources in Hebrew ?-)

    That’s a beautiful sonnet, and quite pertinent. And it fits into one of those odd synchronicities: Today, for some reason (probably a summer reading list), I sold a lot of copies of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

    Comment by bookofvoices | July 17, 2009 | Reply


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