The Coal and the Crown

Perhaps of all the creations of man language is the most astonishing.

Lytton Strachey, Words and Poetry

            When he was older Moshe would say that his first recollection was of seeping water and parting reeds, but his memory was not that perfect, and even the holiest of men lie sometimes.  In reality (if any memory can be called reality), Moshe's first lasting image was this: smooth gold curves, melting into each other and twining around the wild shimmer of bright stones.  He had never seen anything so beautiful, but then that was no surprise.  He was only a few years old.

            The thing that glittered belonged to an important man, who wore it on his head.  Moshe later learned that he was the king.  At the time, he only knew that the man was important.  Moshe liked the king, because the king would let him take the beautiful gold thing and wear it on his own head.  Eventually he would know that it was called a crown.

            When he was little, though, Moshe knew only that it was beautiful.  He liked to wear the crown, but he loved to hold it, cuddled close to it as if it would place secrets in his heart.  It asked something of him.  He wasn't sure what.  Despite all its beauty, it seemed incomplete.

            This was Moshe's second memory: tapping his chubby toddler fingers on the crown and feeling keenly distressed that it made no sound in return.

            He was waiting for something.  He did not know what it was.

            One day two strange men came to the king.  They were lean, angular creatures, and Moshe didn't like them.  They drew away from him distastefully when he stumbled up to them.  They huddled next to the king, looking at Moshe, murmuring, making the noises all grown men and women made.  And the king looked at Moshe in a way he never had before.  The emotion in his gaze was called "suspicion."  But Moshe didn't know that.

            When the king's daughter came to carry Moshe off and tuck him up in his bed for the night, he was glad.  The strange men made him nervous.  But the princess took him away from them and set him in the nest of blankets that was his bed, and he fell into the heavy folds of sleep.  His sister sang a wordless lullaby as he fell.

            That night was the first dream Moshe remembered.  It came back to him gradually, in bits and pieces, although in his old age Moshe doubted its truth, and only in his oldest age did he see it for what it was: a different kind of truth.  But a truth nonetheless.

            It was that silent hour of night when the world hangs between early and late.  The desert stretched out around his bare feet, but strangely, it didn't burn them.  A veil hung from the sky before him.  Moshe walked up to it without hesitation and pulled on the filmy fabric.  It fell away in his hands and turned to sand, which slid through his fingers and mixed with the cool desert ground beneath his feet.  A thin black chasm split the ground below where the veil had hung.  Moshe stepped over it.

            His breath twisted in his throat, changed, became something.  "I'm here," he said.  He was making the noises of the adults.

            A man, or something, stood in front of him.  He was tall and thin, although not in the painful, elongated way of the king, and black robes fluttered around him.  The arms of night, Moshe thought.  That's what he's wearing.  He felt a thrill run through him as he thought of the phrase.

            "Yes," said the man.  "You are here, and for a reason."

            "I know," Moshe said, savoring the flickering of his tongue as it shaped his breath into words.

            "No.  You do not know, or I would not have called you here."  The tall man's eyes were darker than even the night around him, except when stars burned inside them.  "Today two strangers came to see your king.  They spoke to him about you."

            "I know," Moshe said again, and this time he meant it even more.  "They looked at me like I would bite them.  They are afraid of me.  Aren't they?"


            "What are they going to do about it?"

            "They will do what all people of their kind do when faced with what they fear," said the dark man, who Moshe was beginning to realize was a king in his own way.  "They will try to kill you."

            "But you won't let that happen, will you," said Moshe.  Confidence swirled up around him, brought by the words, he thought.

            The king with stars in his eyes looked away for a moment.  "If it should happen, if it is right, then I would let it.  But it should not.  It is not right.  There are things you still must do."  He looked back at Moshe and said, "Listen: when you wake, you will be taken to your king's throne room.  A test awaits you there."

            The sand was shivering away into nothing under Moshe's feet.  The dream was breaking.  "Wait," he said.  "What should I do then?"

            "You will know."  The dream-king was himself fading now.

            Moshe clung to the fantasy, latched onto the remaining tendrils of thought.  The words.  He didn't want to leave the words.  "Why are you doing this?  What do I have to do in return?"

            "Because it is what is needed to continue the story."  The king of dreams was almost gone. "You need do nothing in return."  Did he hesitate a moment, or had Moshe only imagined it?  It was easy to imagine things, in dreams.  "There will be a price.  But there is always a price, and this one is as necessary as any other.  Remember that..."

            Then Moshe's sister was pulling him from his bed, and the dream had burrowed back into the corners of his mind, all except for twin stars like diamonds, which still glittered in his thoughts.  He blinked at her and said, "Sis.  Sister.  Miri--Miriam."  And she was all aglow, having never heard him talk before.  He never had talked before.  But time was short: the test waited.  Rejoicing in Moshe's newfound speech could also wait.

            Moshe's sister set him down on the floor, then backed away.  Unfamiliar hands--those of one of the visiting strangers--put two objects in front of him.  He recognized the crown immediately and reached for it.  Because he knew now why it had been calling to him before.

            No, he thought suddenly.  The other thing glittered too, with a red, faint light.  He thought of the stars that remained in his thoughts, although they were nothing like that red light, and remembered that they were eyes.  He reached for the dark lump that sat next to the crown.

            It seared his fingers.  He didn't care.  He knew what he had to do.  He held it up, then put it to his tongue.  It would save him now, save him from the judgment of the king as it burned away his lovely words.