The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Numbers 12:15)

An infinite moment of silence. In the deepening darkness, here within the well, I am falling, falling, past where I should have struck the water, past where I should have struck the earth at the bottom of the well. I have been falling for so long that I no longer feel myself fall, save that my hair (long, suddenly white) is trailing above me in my wake. Features within the walls shoot past me, helping me see the direction in which I am falling. But when I close my eyes, I feel as if I am floating, adrift on dry water on a sea of muted wind.

The life from which I have fallen – in huts, in palaces, in hiding, in the desert – seems as far from me now as the vault of heaven is from the lands where I have dwelled. But the distance, the time over which I have fallen cannot erase the senses and memories of life. Memory is seared into the milk whiteness of my flesh, my hair, in the exhaustion of my voice, raw from singing, from shouting, from celebration, from tears.

If anyone had the right to confront Moses, to criticize him, it was I, the one who had saved his life so soon after his birth, who had taught him, who spoke for him before the people as our brother Aaron spoke for him before kings. When Moses needed to sing, I led the people in his songs. When he summoned water from the rock, I formed the rock into this well, which has followed us in our travels through the desert, from Horeb on to Hatzerot.

And when his wife Zipporah came to me in tears, in despair over how Moses was neglecting her, I went to Moses, bringing Aaron with me, to speak on her behalf before all the people, to remind him that above all, above his responsibilities to his people, even above his responsibility to his God, a man’s first responsibility is to his family, to his children, to his wife.

Moses said nothing for himself. He stood silent, the image of meekness. When we were done, he simply opened his arms and looked upward. And suddenly he and Aaron and I heard the voice of God summoning us to the tent of meeting.

There we saw the pillar of cloud with which the Lord makes himself known. He summoned Aaron and me inside.

And there God rebuked me, his words slapping me in the face. Yes, he said, Aaron and I were prophets, but not prophets at the level of Moses. While God spoke to us from within dreams, within clouds, he spoke to Moses face to face. How, then, he asked, dare we speak against Moses?

And he left me as I am now, drained of all color. When I returned to the well and looked at my reflection, I saw myself as a sketch of absence: white skin framed by white hair against white clouds, then the near-white walls of the well, surrounded and completed by the desert’s white sands.

They banished me from the camp, by God’s command, condemned to stay here, in solitude, for seven days. While the people had planned to move on, they have refused to travel without me (though I wonder if they have done so in solidarity with me or out of fear of losing the well).

There I sat for six of the days, with no one to speak to, no sounds other than the wind. I took to sitting by the well, listening to how the wind, blowing across its smooth opening like breath across a flute, caused deep resonances to rise forth, groaning and rushing like the sighs and whispers of the desert itself.

Then, at twilight at the end of the sixth day, I heard the sounds coalesce into patterns. The deep hums brought forth higher tones, coming up and disappearing, forming phonemes, letters, a name: they were calling “Miriam.”

I looked down into the well, and saw, as always, the reflection of my face. But the face was speaking, calling me, calling my name. “Have I gone insane so quickly,” I thought, “that I see phantoms calling out to me?”

“No,” the face said aloud, “I speak for the Lord.”

“Have you come to apologize?”

“No,” it said. “Not to apologize, but to explain, and to ask a favor of you.”

I did not reply.

“You were right about Moses, about Zipporah,” it said. “The Lord has told him to return to his wife. His relations with her would not compromise his holiness but will enhance it. But at this sensitive time, as he builds these tribes into a people and prepares to lead them home, they could not see his leadership questioned. So the Lord chastised you, banished you, punished you, bringing you to this place, to this moment.”

“And now,” I said, “I am to be returned to the people?”

“Not now. The banishment will last the full seven days in the eyes of the people.”

“And in my eyes? In the Lord’s eyes?”

“This is the favor that the Lord asks of you. You have an opportunity to step outside of time. You would be a teacher, a leader. You can create a school, a community of prophets, where people can come, can seek refuge and learn.”

“Why would I receive this supposed honor?”

“Because you are a leader, a singer, a teacher. Because you care about doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord, but also care about the people. And, most importantly, you care enough to have challenged Moses, to have challenged the Lord.”

“And what need I do to make this transition?”

“All you need,” the face said, “is to step into the well.”

“Do I have a choice in the matter?”

“Yes. You can either accept or decline the offer.”

“Does the Lord know which choice I take?”

“The Lord sees time from outside of time. You would learn to do so also. He knows whether you come to accept the offer. But the choice is yours.”

“Both cannot be true,” I said.

“Look at the path that a serpent has left in the sand,” the face said, “or the path that a river has taken in its voyage from the mountains to the sea. Each is made of a multitude of tiny chances and decisions, but viewed from outside the voyage, the resulting path is clear.”

“And if I do not choose?”

“That in itself is a choice. In either case, at sunset tomorrow, as you measure time, you return to your people, healed.”

“If I step outside of time, do I live forever?”

“Not forever, but for a very long time. The doorway out of time opened in your world when the Lord gave the tablets of the Law to Moses. When they return to heaven from this world, the doorway closes. But that happens after more years here than, according to your histories, have elapsed since the beginning of recorded time. You would live for a very long time, but you would not age further. When you would return to this world when that world ends, it would be as if no time at all had passed.”

“Would the work there have an impact here? Would it be remembered by history?”

“No, not by history. But traces of your actions would be felt in legends and in songs. To be most effective, you would work in secret. But when people need you, they would find you. And when the Lord would need to remember his covenant with humanity, you would be there to guide him, remind him, and, when appropriate, challenge his decisions.”

I sat in silence, contemplating. When next I looked into the water, the face within the well was silent. I opened my mouth to sing a long tone, to hear it resonate in the depths of the well. The reflection of my face opened its mouth as well, then shattered as the water responded to the vibrations of my voice. When I fell silent, the reflected face returned to being identical to my own.

These were the choices: I could jump or I could stay. I knew that I would not die in the descent, since the face had said that, either way, I would return to the people, healed, tomorrow. I knew that the voice was telling the truth, knew that the voices of prophecy, though they might confuse, would never lie.

I had asked the right questions. I had received appropriate answers. The choice was mine.

I sat by the well for a long time, long enough for the sun to finish setting and for the full moon to rise. As I saw the moon’s reflection move to fill the surface of the water in the well, I heard its voice whisper to me, “Miriam, your sisters await you.”

The well filled with a brilliant glow, as if the light of the moon had transformed into a milky lantern. I knew that I would have to choose, but did not know what the choice would be. All that I could do would be to move to the point of decision.

Certain that I was alone, I dropped my robe by the side of the well, and stepped up onto its wall. For a moment that felt, itself, as if it was outside of time, I hovered there, between constancy and commitment, between time and infinity.

Then I felt my body decide: evenly, with a certainty that my mind did not yet share, my left foot stepped out into the air above the well.

I stepped out, and I fell, and I am falling, down farther than the earthly well could have gone. I hear echoes of sounds pass me (a distant gong, the wheeze of reeds, a resonance of deep sliding trumpets) as I leave the sound of the desert wind. Images flash around me, glowing from the walls (other women falling alongside me, a hare in human clothing, a circle of lesser angels shouting from and to a falling girl, a blue house in a whirlwind surrounded by leaves), as the light from the moon above fades away, and a glow from below grows more brilliant.

I fall away from the land, away from time, and see a multitude of destinies surround me. They spread out over all of time, as if a map has been laid out showing histories past and future, extending in more directions than I can name. Endless rivers of emotion flow through me, starting, perhaps, in fear or uncertainty, but all running toward an ocean of joy.

I know (though I do not know how I know) that this decision is the right one. I do not know if I will ever land, or where, or how, or precisely what awaits me. For now, I let myself sink into the luxury of this moment, away from the pull of time, of earth. I throw my head back, spread my arms, and let the ecstasy of falling overwhelm my soul.

January 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment