The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(I wrote this story after the publication of The Book of Voices. When I was back in my hometown in New Jersey for a bar mitzvah, the rabbi asked me to perform a piece, in lieu of his usual sermon, based on the week’s haftarah reading. I wrote and performed this new piece for the occasion.)

(Context: 1 Samuel 20:18 “And Jonathan said to him: ‘There’s a new moon tomorrow…'”)

This bow, these arrows weigh heavily on my back. My quiver can hold many more arrows than the three that it carries now. But each arrow is laden with the message that I had prayed that I would not have to send, the message of goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

An attendant walks beside me. But this boy is too small to carry my weapons, too small to know anything, to do anything other than follow the clear directions that I will give him.

We walk slowly eastward through the forest, toward the barely risen sun, away from the pale dim sliver of the setting moon, eastward to the edge of the dew-dampened meadow. Arriving, we set down our packs and wait until enough light appears for us to see the target.

There, off at the far edge of the meadow, the marker stone gradually shows itself: white, taller than most men, slightly wider than it is tall. On the far side of the stone, I know that a man awaits: my beloved, David, huddled against the morning chill as he listens for my sounds, for my words.

We set up this meeting four days ago, a lifetime ago, it seems. We met, then I went back to the palace, to my home, to gauge the madness of my father, the king, to learn whether David could safely come home with me, or whether he would need to flee to other lands, to save his life, to be able to continue with his sacred destiny. Now I am here, and I know that he is here, though I cannot see him in the distance, silent as he is amidst the sound of the morning breezes against trees and grass, amidst the chatter of the morning birds.

I kneel and pick up the bow from the ground. I pluck the string to test its tautness. A clear note sounds with a secret harmony, resonating with my memories of the sound of David’s harp. “Boy,” I say to my attendant, “pick up the quiver there, and be ready to hand me each of the three arrows, one at a time, as I ask you for them.”

I rise to standing. He picks up the quiver and stands near me, but not too near, off where he is away from any danger from sudden motions of the bow.

“Hand me the first arrow,” I say. The boy reaches into the quiver, lifts the arrow out, and hands it up to me, careful to keep it pointed down and away from us.

I take the arrow, position it on the bow, and pull back on the string. Focusing on the target, focusing as if I, too, were to launch with it and fly, I let a full breath out and take a full breath in. With an instant of clarity, of prayer, I let go of the arrow. My eye is sharp. My aim is true. The arrow arcs and lands precisely where I sent it, directly in front of the marker stone.

I reach back down to the boy. “The second arrow,” I say, and the boy hands it up to me. Again I set the arrow on the bowstring. Again I pull it back, breathe out, breathe in, and let it fly. It sails, arcs, and lands, several strides nearer to me than the first arrow and slightly to the left.

I reach down, and, without needing me to say anything, the boy hands the final arrow to me. I launch it, watch it fly, and see it land, several paces to the left of the other two, forming a perfect triangle, exactly as far from each of them as they are from each other. But rather than feeling any pride in the accuracy of my archery or joy in the mathematical beauty of their pattern, I feel only pain, pain as if each of the arrows had pierced my own heart.

I look down to the quiver and see what I already know, that there are no more arrows left to shoot. For a moment, I am tempted to turn and run away, away from David, away from our destiny. But to run from him now would be to leave him with no news, which would be harsher than the foul news that I have to convey.

I put the bow on the ground and, crouching, speak more quietly to the boy. “Run ahead now, to the arrow nearest us. Pull it from the ground and wait for me to tell you the next thing to do.”

The boy runs on ahead. His short legs carry him toward the arrow as swiftly as they can. The furrow that they trace through the long wet grass takes a eternity to grow toward the arrow, toward David.  It takes an eternity, but not nearly long enough.

The boy reaches the arrow and, trying first with one hand then with two, pulls it from the ground. He stumbles backward slightly as it comes out, but does not fall. Turning, he waves the arrow in the air for me to see.

This is the moment for which I had waiting, the moment that I had been avoiding. David and I had established two signals. If David hears me tell the boy that the arrows are off to his side, he will know that he is free to come home. If I tell the boy that the arrow is beyond him, David will know that he must run. And if… Is there a third option? Might I say something else or say nothing? Might we avoid or change our fate?

My heart and mind thrash through the spectrum of possible futures, searching for a possibility of possibilities. But none appears. My father’s heart has hardened, and if he ever finds David, David will die. The future has constricted to one small truth. The words that I must speak are cast in stone.

I call out to the boy, “Aren’t the arrows –” My voice breaks. I pause and try again. “Aren’t the arrows beyond you?”

The boy turns and walks toward one of the arrows. I call out to him, but even more so to David, “Quick! Hurry! Do not stand still!”

The boy runs as quickly as he can and retrieves the remaining arrows, yanking first one and then the other from the ground. He turns again and, looking toward me, sees me wave, signaling him to return to me, to return the arrows to me.

He runs back to me, back along the furrow of trampled grass that he had made while running out across the meadow.

He reaches me and hands me the arrows. I pull a soft cloth from the quiver and wipe the arrows clean of the dirt from the ground that they had pierced.

I crouch down to his level and hand him the arrows. “Bring the arrows back to where we store them. I will bring the bow back myself.”

The boy takes the quiver, takes three steps away from me, turns away, then turns back. He stands silently for a moment and looks deep into my eyes. “Have you lost something?” he says. “You look like you have lost something. Is there something that I can help you find?”

I place my hand on his shoulder. “No, I have not…” I say, then, “Yes. Yes, I have lost something. It isn’t anything that you could help me find. But I hope that someday you might find it for yourself.”

We look into each other’s eyes for a moment longer. Then I stand, and the boy takes three steps backward, then turns and runs off.

I shade my eyes and look to the east, toward the now fully risen sun, toward the marker stone behind which my David hides. I take a deep breath, start to call out his name, then refrain. If he feels that it is safe to come to me, he will come. If he feels that he must run, he will run.

My mind prays that he will run far away from me. My heart prays that he will run swiftly toward me. And my soul prays that God will grant us magic and grace, that he will change the world, change time, change my father’s vicious will, that David and I will dance once again, under a new moon, there in a new tomorrow.

March 5, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment