For Jonah

 

In the long room hard by a street of marble cutters

they have taken turns submerged in a large pithos of greasy water,

and line the wet benches naked and gritty with fine dust

from the stonecutters’ work.

Humidity is flavored with cypress and sweetgum

and voices rise and fall between the excitement of dice.

Just beyond the offing dark and moonlit

the holy sails glide home from Delos.

So much for his defense when they return.

He has seen the cistern in a further room

full of terracotta shards still wet with hemlock,

and more than once has tried overhearing from his own bed

the sounds one makes from having sipped their death.

He is ashamed to have listened with so much attention,

and sorry, too, for the sense of comfort he’s found

in the relative quiet, almost casual talk

before the breaking of the clay cup.

Did he not tell Phaedo how death was nothing,

hence no more reason to fear its evil

than praise its good,

or else it must be enjoyable as a good night’s sleep?

He knew the arguments like he knew love,

and that to be in love was the greatest happiness.

And yet there it was, like a thing misplaced,

like remembering how much time has passed:

a sense of compensation, an accounting of things,

the tallies against him grossly unjust,

his wife and sons taken from him

by the sleeved hands and square posture of Meletus,

by impotent resentment,

his friends made to look uncharitable,

pooling minae for his sake to bribe the courts

like he were a criminal, or worse, a sophist.

He desired, in spite of wisdom, for reckoning,

and cursed the name Athens beneath his breath,

repeating the maxim to himself like a prayer,

“I am not angry with my accusers; they’ve done me no harm,”

and overhearing the heart’s undisclosed reply,

“Nor have they ever done me any good.”

 

Today he meets the likes of a new prisoner,

an Arab money-changer from Yathrib,

a true son of the Qaynuqa,

who has operated a table in the arcades without a license

and awaits his brother from Tyre to pay his fine.

The man is tall and equine and old as sand.

He speaks a practiced, unadorned Greek

he found in the merchant-ports of Chios and Samos.

Bar-Rabbouni the Israelites call him.

They promenade the long room end to end,

take wine in the walled courtyard

among music of splitters and chisels.

They are both wise, their souls slip easily from prison

and regard the places of the world from great heights.

They barter stories and haggle over their worth.

The Arab mentions the story of Job,

of the man who brought a lawsuit against God,

and the Greek is curious to hear it.

“The man from Uz,” says the Arab,

“was blameless and upright, and feared Elah.

His house was the greatest in the kingdom of Edom.

He had ten sons and five daughters,

and ten thousand sheep, and three thousand camel,

and five hundred oxen and asses.

The number of his servants was great,

and he was beloved by all the peoples of the east.

One day Elah was admiring the burnt offerings of Job,

and thought to Himself, ‘I will test Job’s love for Me,

and put forth Mine hand and touch all that he hath,

and I will see if he curses Me.’ And Elah did so.

The fire of Shaddai fell from heaven

and consumed the sheep and camel.

The Chaldeans and tribes of Sheba

fell upon the oxen and asses and slaughtered their hosts.

The eastern haboob carried away the roofs of his children

and the walls fell upon them and they died.

Nor was the bone and flesh of Job untouched,

for Shaddai caused a pestilence of loathsome sores

everywhere upon Job’s skin, and made him to itch

and scrape away the rotting with a potsherd.

Among the ruins of his house Job wept

and tore his clothes, and tore the hairs from his head.”

“Yet He leaves Job’s wife unharmed,” Socrates observes,

to which the Arab replies with a half smile,

“This, too, Elah does to test Job.”

“So are ours full of mischief. But your one God is so jealous,

like a newlywed, that He must possess Man body and soul;

I wonder if this is because there’s only one of Him.”

The Arab continues, “Job cursed his day.

Why did he not die in his mother’s womb

and his mother give pains to birth a ghost?

Why is life given at all to him born of woman,

if he must suffer the days of his life, and long for death?

Now Job’s friends came and told him to repent,

for they thought Elah must be punishing Job,

or else why would such misfortunes beset a good man?”

At this the Greek is suddenly delivered,

the rigid brow furrowed, dogfish eyes uncertain,

considering himself and his own troubles

as one often does with stories that need to make sense,

which are, most of all, the ones about ourselves.

“How does Job answer?” Socrates asks.

The Arab raises a finger to the ceiling.

” ‘What’re these, my friends?

Surely now Elah has worn me out.’

But Job is in possession of his heart.

He knows how he is blameless and upright.

‘Behold, He takes away, who can hinder Him?

Who will say unto Him, “What are You doing?”

And if Elah does not withdraw his power,

how the proud helpers do stoop under him.

If Elah would draw back His hand, and let not His fear terrify me,

then I would speak, for I know I’m not what I am thought to be.’

Job desires to argue his case with Elah.

He says Shaddai has put him in the wrong,

and tallies the marks against himself thusly:

‘Elah hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone.

He hath removed my hope like a tree from the earth.

He hath put my family far from me,

and they whom I loved are turned against me.

I cry out of wrong, but am heard not.

I cry aloud, and there is no justice.’ “

“And is there?” Socrates asks. “Does your one God

answer the suits men bring against Him?”

“Well,” the Arab shrugs, “there are always exceptions.

In fact Elah did shew himself to Job.

Out of the awesome and splendor of a whirlwind

Elah reproved Job, taunting him

like boys taunt one another at the gym.

‘Gird up thy loins like a man,’ said Elah,

and asked Job many unknowable questions:

like who gave birth to the rain, and begat the dew,

and where comes the path of light, and so too darkness,

and what makes horses mighty, and locusts leap,

and how many clouds are in the sky, and what

causes the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

What need of Elah to justify Himself to Man

who knows so little, who knows nothing.

Man’s speech is darkness,

it darkens the very counsel it gives.

So Job sues for justice. What is justice to Elaha?

There is no such thing to Him,

not until Job, too, can shut up the doors of the sea,

and put a fishhook in the nose of leviathan,

not until Job can teach the hawk to fly,

and yoke a unicorn.

‘Wilt thou condemn Me?’ Elah demanded,

‘that thou mayest be righteous?’ “

 

Now the Greek finds himself bewildered as Job.

What can be done against outrageous adversity?

What argument at all might protect the innocent

from such injury, or grant a drop of justice,

a salve for the wounds of feckless power?

All the arguments he knew had brought him here.

“And how did Job answer his God?”

Socrates inquires, full of the same fear.

“Job,” says the Arab, his hand upon a knee,

“was not buying any of it.

‘What wonderful deeds,’ he said, ‘I knew not.

For I’d heard Thee by the ear, but now I see with mine eye.

If truly Man cannot be just before Elah,

then I retract my lawsuit against Him.

What use is there? I will look elsewhere for justice,

among the ashes and dust of His creation.’ “

At this the Greek leans back and considers.

“So Job has lost his case.”

The Arab mulls this over, and reconsiders.

“Perhaps. But Elah does restore all that Job has lost.

He gives him twice as much as he had before.

So let’s say they settled out of court.”

The Greek indulges the thought

like savoring a meal eaten the day before.

A blue predawn has lifted over them.

Crowns of plane trees over the courtyard walls

are black and still as sleeping Argus.

They have talked through the night,

and sucked the wineskin dry between them.

Having embraced and said prayers

they retire to their separate beds,

and there is little difference between

their last waking thoughts

and the dreams that overtake.

So when the guard opens the door for Crito

and Socrates is stirred awake,

he has no idea how long he’s slept,

and asks his old friend the time of day,

to which Crito replies, “Dawn has broken.”

“And are you only just come?”

“No,” says Crito. “I have sat here awhile

wondering at your peaceful slumbers

because I wanted you to be out of pain.

I confess I’ve always thought you happy

because of the calmness you show in life,

yet I’ve never seen the like of the easy,

cheerful way you bear this calamity.

You lie as easy as a babe in swaddling

while I am sleepless and full of sorrow.”

Socrates sits up and pinches his snub-nose,

and hears a thought almost too familiar.

“When a man has reached my age,

he ought not to be crowing at the prospect of death.”

“And yet plenty of old men find themselves

in similar misfortunes, and age

does not prevent them from crowing.”

“Have you come this early, Crito,

to tell me the ship has pulled into port,

on the arrival of which I am to die?”

The friend wrings his hands, is drawn

into the troubles of his mind.

He says they’ve seen the ship from Sounio,

and so tomorrow Socrates will die.

“If it pleases the gods,” he muses, “so be it.”

Once more Crito entreats him to escape,

to flee the city and be spared his fate.

But let him speak some darkness yet,

and let him make a case for how

the bud of a tender herb springs forth.


R. Charboneau

2 thoughts on “When Socrates Heard the Story of Job

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