By Lavie Tidhar
11 January 2016
In the land of Utz there lived a man named Iyob. He had one daughter, named Zophar, whom he loved very much. And it came to be that, on her third year upon the earth, Zophar fell ill with a sickness; and, after several days of suffering, died.
Such stories have been told, without rhyme nor reason, throughout the history of humanity. Yet for Iyob this was not a story. His world constricted to the head of a pin when Zophar died. He could see no light. Human moments are fleeting, as the sages wrote. Zophar's scrunched up little face when she came out of her mother's womb; Iyob's unsteady fingers when, guided by the midwife's calloused hands, he cut the cord; Zophar's first smile, full of trust and blind love, which lit up Iyob's life the way nothing ever had before; holding her close in his arms, her face in the crook of his neck, breathing on his skin – moments he wished never ended, had stretched to infinity, were suspended, eternally, in time.
For three short years Iyob had been happy, and did not know it.
Now came the time for the exhumation of Zophar.
The ceremony took place on a day when God passed low over the earth in a south-westerly direction. For days now, heaven had been visible in the sky, a mass of solid white clouds drifting close and closer still. Using binoculars and telescopes one could see the Godbeard as it fell below the cloud layer like a great white waterfall. Fleeting in the shadows of the clouds were the Cherubim and, rising from the earth heavenward in their passing, there came floating lanterns beyond count, rising and rising until they disappeared into the clouds of heaven. Armed with a telescope, one could almost discern features above the great Godbeard: a vast and colourless eye, a craggy rock cheek covered in snow, ivory pillars which could have been teeth.
But such an act would have been heretical, for looking upon the face of God was punishable by the inquisition with death.
Iyob was a God-fearing man, and yet when heaven came and its shadow fell on the Place of Exhumation he felt new and unfamiliar emotions rise in him, and the most prominent of them was rage. He kept the rage concealed within himself, coiled like a wire, as his daughter was brought from the crypts and, for a short moment, he could once more gaze upon her face. He cried.
The Godbeard dominated the sky and the sun hid behind the heavens. As the darkness fell candles were lit. The priest intoned the words of Ascension. In the glow of the candles Zophar's face was wan and yet serene. She was placed on the small platform as the funeral lantern was lit. The flame heated the air trapped in the thin paper shell and it pushed upwards. The gathered mourners watched as Zophar's body rose into the air. It began to drift upwards, taken by the wind, rising until it became a glowing point of light, merging with the others rising all about them, until it disappeared amongst them, a river of light flowing upwards to heaven.
In the coming days heaven drifted through its inexorable orbit away from the town in which Iyob made his dwelling. As it left it rained, and it was said that God was crying. The water irrigated the fields and the farmers knew their produce would be rich and fruitful that year. The sun returned, but it did not come back into Iyob's life, for everywhere he turned, where once was meaning there was now an absence.
And at last he began to think of heresy.
In a tavern on the outskirts of the town, where the low clay buildings ended and the irrigated fields began, Iyob met with his friends Elihu and Eliphaz.
The sun was low on the horizon and the wine thick and sweet with summer, yet Iyob tasted nothing, and took no pleasure in the beauty of the setting sun.
And Iyob said: "Why are we born, only to die?"
And his friends said, "We do not know."
And Iyob said: "Why did my child die, yet I live still?"
And his friends hid their sorrow and said, "We do not know."
And they drank their wine in silence, and the sun fell, and the world was dark.
And Iyob said, "Where do the dead go?"
And his friends said, "To heaven."
And Iyob said, "Then I shall go to heaven."
And he watched his friends keenly, to see if they would hide their faces at this heresy; but they did not.
And so it came to be that the three friends began to plot; yet there are always ears to the walls, as the sages say, even in the night; and so what heresy they spoke of did not go unnoticed by those who maintain the faith.
Three Ascension Days previous Iyob's wife too was exhumed, having given birth and then perished. Iyob tried to forget her the way a man pretends a chronic pain does not exist. He walked as he always walked and he talked as he always talked, but underneath that he was grimacing with hidden pain. Of course he had had Zophar to look after; but now that she, too, was taken, his pain came to the surface, and crippled his steps. It blunted his tongue so that he no longer spoke softly, and he no longer stepped as one bound to the earth, but as one wishing to take flight.
Iyob's wife had been called Sitis, and amongst her possessions was a small plot of land to the east of the town, in the confluence of two rivers. On this plot, which was far from any other habitation, there was a farmhouse and storage sheds which had been left unused and in some decay. To this plot of land came Iyob and his friends, and there they began to assemble their equipment.
God, it is known, orbits the globe; and though heaven's path sometimes changes, for reasons unknown, nevertheless the year is measured from one Ascension Day to the next. The conspirators, then, had but a short year to prepare, for when God returned they must be ready.
They had formed a firm friendship many years previous, at the university they all attended in Edom, the neighbouring land, which itself borders the great desert to the west. Iyob himself trained as a scribe; Elihu as a map-maker; and Eliphaz as a surveyor. The three had become close friends, being strangers together in the land of Edom; and, on their return, had settled in the same place; though only Iyob himself married.
For an entire year they planned and prepared, assembling equipment in secret and training their bodies and their minds. And the Inquisition waited.
The seasons changed and bled into each other; and one day in spring a boy came running into the town, crying: for he had seen the return of heaven far in the distance. And soon they could all see it.
Iyob and his two friends made their way to the farmhouse. All was quiet. Heaven drifted close, approaching from a north-easterly direction. The three friends looked at each other and they were ready.
Together they brought out the sack. For a year they had woven and stitched it, from the lightest and most durable cloth, and it covered the ground from one border of the fields to the other. It was attached at one end to a gondola of wicker, which Eliphaz himself had built, and inside which they stored cold weather clothes, food supplies and climbing materiel. Iyob began to turn the handles of a great manual fan, bellowing cool air into the sack, or envelope as it is sometimes called. As the sack began to inflate they heard the sound of approaching hooves and Elihu climbed to the roof of the farmhouse and saw a great multitude approach.
At that he jumped from the roof and set to light the flame within the great burner. The fire warmed the air inside the envelope. The gondola shuddered and hopped off the ground, then settled again. "Hurry, hurry!" called Eliphaz, for he saw the insignia of those approaching, and knew that the Inquisition was on its way. "Hurry!"
As the horses of the inquisitors drew into the courtyard, the great balloon was rising. Overhead heaven approached and God’s beard could be clearly seen for miles in all direction, ending at a point some four thousand cubits overhead.
"Halt!" cried the Head Inquisitor, whose name is not recorded. He drew a strange elongated stick and pointed it at the rising craft. "You may not trespass where only angels dwell!"
At that Eliphaz made a rude gesture at the Inquisitor, whose face turned red with anger. "Forgive them, God," he said, "for they know not what they do." And he pressed the trigger on the device in his hands.
A shaft of metal shot out of the shaft and flew at the balloon. At that moment, as though by heavenly intervention, a gust of wind hit the balloon, sending it violently upwards and sideways. The rocket missed the balloon and flew on, where it fell harmlessly amongst the reeds on the riverbank. The onlookers gasped. The Inquisitor cursed, though what words he used, exactly, were lost to posterity. The balloon rose, faster and faster, joining the funerary lanterns on their way into the sky.
As they ascended a wild savage joy rose in Iyob's breast, and he saw the earth whole below him, fields and towns, rivers and roads, and the people small like insects; and he laughed, with relief and exultation.
Then the sun disappeared entirely, and the shadow of heaven fell heavy and absolute.
As they rose higher they began to discern a sound, as of a thousand throats open in song. The sound was ethereal, incoherent and yet whole. Under the clouds they could see the fleeting shapes of Cherubim darting in and out of the cloud cover. Day turned to night and the air before them had become a black sea in which a thousand lanterns bobbed, pinpricks of light in the darkness under heaven. "There!" cried Eliphaz, and then they saw it – the point of the beard, high overhead, but expanding outwards marvellously, glowing as with an internal white light. The air became cold and though they stood around the open flame of the burner they felt it. They put on the thermal clothing they had stored on board, heavy lining and gloves and headgear. The balloon rose. The song – if that's what it was – grew in intensity. It seemed to emanate from the thick cloud underbelly. The men felt light-headed, drunk. The balloon continued to rise but the land below was erased in the darkness. The clouds were approaching them rapidly and they did not know what they would find once they hit them. The clouds seemed as impenetrable as a rockface. 'Now!' cried Elihu. The beard rose directly overhead. They each held grappling hooks and line. A gust of wind rose from below and drove them upwards. Laughing maniacally, Iyob threw the grappling hook at the fast approaching beard. It caught in the thick weave of glowing white hairs and stuck fast. Iyob pulled on the straps of a thick bag onto his back. The balloon rose faster and faster. "Now!"
Iyob jumped. The balloon, at last, hit the cloud cover. Rather than sink into it, it exploded with a sickening sound, crushing into the clouds with a burst of burning air and a splintering of wicker. Suspended in the air above the world, Iyob watched the great sack deflate and fall to earth like an undulating sea creature. A shower of wicker followed and with it came tumbling down the great burner, its flame extinguished, sinking silently towards the earth like a bomb.
The burning air hit Iyob and threw him upwards, singeing his face. Elihu and Eliphaz were similarly arrayed to him, one on either side, holding on to their own fastened ropes. They were thrown upwards until they came tumbling into the white landscape of the beard and there. . . stopped.
For a moment the world was white and soft.
The hairs of the Godbeard were each some five cubits long and two fingers across. They were supple like bamboo and surprisingly soft, yet they wove together into a thicket into which there was no easy breaching. When they had regained their breath, the three friends donned their harnesses and rope and began, laboriously, to climb. Their progression was slow and hazardous, the air turning cooler by degrees so that their breath began to fog before their faces. Below, the shadow of heaven spread out for miles. Beyond it, beyond the terminator, glorious sunshine fell down on the lands unvisited yet by God. Pausing in mid-air, hanging suspended by the ropes fastened to the tangles of hair, Iyob watched the horizon, on which the sun shone, where flocks of birds rose in great big clouds, soaring and falling in unison. Iyob drank it in, willing the moment to never end.
Onwards and upwards they climbed. As they did the Godbeard thickened. Here and there openings appeared in the thicket of white hairs, unexpected tunnels or caves leading deep into the whiteness. Iyob saw the skeleton of a bird caught in the hairs, the bones translucent in the sunlight, the beak open in silent supplication. They saw a hole where the hairs had been singed by the impact of a molten lamp of rock which must have come from the sky. As they rose higher they began to discern other objects embedded in the Godbeard, unexpected debris. Funereal lanterns upon which the dead were entombed, more birds caught in mid-flight, some of them strange and vast, more reptile than bird. As the tunnels grew the men abandoned the ropes to climb deeper into the Godbeard itself. It was a maze of whiteness in which direction felt meaningless. The Godbeard surrounded and enveloped them. It seemed to go on for miles in every direction. Iyob thought they would never reach the top, never find God. In one clearing in the whiteness they came across a curious scene. The mummies of three men reclined against the walls. They were dressed in a manner popular some centuries past. Their bags lay beside them, untouched, one partially open to reveal crude instruments of navigation. Elihu knelt beside them. Their clothes and equipment were perfectly preserved. After a moment the three friends carried on in silence.
The climb continued. Iyob began to feel unsettled by the silence. He tried to recall his pain, his wife's face, his daughter's laughter, but they seemed remote, meaningless. He could not form them into coherent wholes. The white walls exerted a trance-like influence on him, and he began to wonder, uneasily, just how these tunnels had been formed. Minute sounds emanated from behind the walls, through the Godhair. The sound of slithering and scuttling, of living things. Once, they reached the vertical cloud layer itself. When Eliphaz pressed his hand against the clouds they parted easily, and his fingers disappeared into the white. Yet when he tried to hit the cloud wall his hand bounced back and he grimaced with pain. "It must do with the velocity of impact," he said, trying to explain the crashing of their balloon, if only to himself. But a hush had fallen over the three explorers. Heaven seemed as remote as ever, the climb unending. Exhausted, they stopped at a crossing of tunnels and made their bed on the Godhair. Iyob remained awake for a while, hearing the unseen sounds whisper just beyond the walls. He thought of the former expedition whose remains they had found. How had they died?
"Wake up!" he shouted, jumping. "Wake up!" His mind felt clear. The murmuring behind the walls exploded into a roar. Elihu and Eliphaz, lying in each other's arms, rose dazed. "What—" Eliphaz began to say.
A hole opened in the wall of their shelter. A vast white head pushed through, red reptilian eyes blinking at them malevolently. "Seraphim!" cried Iyob. He had never thought them real, had only seen their etchings in the holy books. The Seraphim opened its maw wide. Its mouth was lined with ivory teeth. It had the red eyes of an albino creature. "Eliphaz—!"
The giant head snatched up Eliphaz as though he were a straw doll. Iyob watched helpless as the Seraphim dangled his friend in the air, shaking him this way and that. A long white tongue snaked out of the creature's mouth and wrapped itself with a wet sucking sound around Eliphaz's torso. It squeezed, and Eliphaz cried, and then went limp and still. Then the hole in the wall closed and the Seraphim’s head withdrew and disappeared. It took Eliphaz with it.
How long and how far Iyob didn't know. When at last they stopped his heart ached with newly remembered pain. They had burst through the Godbeard and nearly fell into infinity. The world spread out below them, clouds floating far below fat and yellow like beetles. Looking up, Iyob could discern dizzying detail, an eye as large as a valley, the slope of a mountain which formed the turn of a nose. The air was cold but breathable. Elihu looked at Iyob and there was anguish in his eyes. "I cannot go farther," he said.
"Please," Iyob said. "I cannot do it alone."
"Why?" Elihu said. He spoke with no intonation. "Why should Eliphaz die, and I live still?"
And Iyob said, ‘I do not know.’
"I lost him," Elihu said. "We should not have tried to look upon God's face."
"You are a map-maker," Iyob said. "You must chart our course." But Elihu said, "Where we are going there are no maps."
They began to climb again. They climbed by rope and pulley, slowly, laboriously. Below, the flocks of Cherubim took flight, fat little baby-like bodies, winged and hairless, singing their warbling song. The world rolled underneath. Overhead the Godbeard spread out forever and they began to clutch at the hairs to pull themselves up. The hair was thicker, softer here. At last Iyob felt that they were gaining, that heaven was at hand. He longed to look on the face of God, to challenge him, to ask him why Zophar had to die. But the face was above. Overhead there was blackness where God's head disappeared beyond air and sky. Then the cloud layer hovered into view again and abruptly terminated. Iyob heard Elihu gasp beside him. They had risen at last beyond heaven's cloud mass and now could discern a white landscape stretching out for many miles. Hurriedly they untangled their hooks and ropes and, exhausted, flopped down onto the ground.
It felt soft and yet stable to the touch, like cool pillows upon which one could recline. The ground undulated gently, as though it were but the hide of a great beast, slowly breathing. The Godbeard fell down above them like an icy waterfall to the stars and, behind it, they could discern the flesh and belly of the God like a great wall rising.
This land above resembled earthly topography. There were mountains and valleys, islands and troughs, in different hues of paleness. Almost, Iyob thought he could discern rivers, irrigated fields, houses: but when he tried to focus on a single point he saw nothing but clouds.
They began to walk, haltingly at first and then with increased confidence. Each step here was the equivalent of three steps on the earth. The air was thin and they felt light-headed. The Godbeard rose overhead and disappeared into space and they could discern stars beyond God's brow, like a golden crown.
"There are heavens above heaven," Elihu said, and tried to laugh, though it came out as a choked sob. All about them lay funeral lanterns, silent and still. As they walked, more emerged slowly and regularly from out of the cloud cover on which they stood. As they broke through the surface their light was extinguished and they came to rest on the ground, which resembled snow. As Iyob watched the lanterns, the bodies they carried began to glow with an internal light. The corpses' skin grew translucent, their veins clear with a blood of flame. Slowly they became like snow, or air, and dissipated into nothing. Once, they were startled by the arrival of a flock of Cherubim, rising out of the cloudscape with the delighted cooing of babies. They swooped around the two explorers but seemed to find no interest in them, making little crying sounds of distress. Then a lantern rose out of the clouds, carrying the body of an old woman, her eyes closed in peace. The flock descended on the corpse with innocent delight, their grubby hands tearing at the dead flesh and their toothless gums masticating on meat and bone until nothing remained and the flock dove back under the clouds with a sleepy sigh.
In all this time, which could have been hours or days, the two travellers spoke little. Heaven continued on its inexorable path, following the sun. Down below people were born, and died, and rose into the air. Iyob and Elihu trudged for countless miles through a white landscape filled with the vessels of the dead. None rose to greet them. A great silence filled the heavens. Iyob forgot the last time he ate. He felt as light as air. Beside him Elihu stiffened suddenly. He turned his head this way and that, listening.
"Did you hear it?" he said.
"Eliphaz," Elihu said. His face changed, lit from within. His smile made his face softer, serene. He began to walk away. "Wait!" Iyob said, but Elihu was soon lost in the white mists.
Iyob walked alone. He came to the edge of the cloud layer. When he looked down he felt dizzy, for he was looking on the world from a great height. But he turned from the world, and when he looked up he looked upon the face of God; yet he saw only topological features.
As he walked back along the plane he felt a small hand tug at his own, and small, hot sticky fingers in his palm. He turned his head and saw his daughter, Zophar, walking beside him, but after some time again it was not Zophar at all, but God; and it made Iyob smile, to realise that after all God was not an old man who lived in the clouds, but just a small girl.