I arrived in America on
the eve of the Jewish holiday of Exodus. The last fifteen years prior
to my emigration, I spent in Russia where I had moved from Tbilisi, the
capital of Soviet Georgia. In Tbilisi, I lived in Petkhain, the ancient
quarter of the city inhabited by Jews since their expulsion from
Babylon in the 8 c. B.C.
The only person, who never left Petkhain despite the turmoil of the Jewish Exodus from the Soviet empire and itís crash, was an old lady by the name of Yokha.
Yokha was a professional
weeper. Her sons died in the war, and after her husbandís death she
made a living by weeping over the deceased.
The Petkhainers called for her during the times of sorrow and paid her for the ability to extract a tear even from the most proud and angry. Yokha was a gifted old woman: itís not only that when she began crying she knew how to pick words that eat away oneís soul, like salt eats away the wound, and which rendered an intimate sorrow the size of an all-around disaster. And itís not only that every time, she wept differently - sometimes like a sound of a horn on the day of Doom, or like a saddening church song, or like a wail of a Muslim begging for mercy, and calling on all that is alive to gather under the dome of his mosque.
It was that Yokha truly and deeply suffered over the deaths of each and everyone she knew. Her talent consisted in her hate of death, although her every gesture and glance betrayed her readiness not to exist. She remembered lots of old legends about death, and she knew how to tell new stories as if they had already become legends.
She always began with the same words.
ďWhen a man dies,Ē she would utter, and hold out a pause, Ēonly those who loved him cry. There is a big mystery in that cry, my dear people, a mystery that is impossible to unravel. But one thing is possible: to feel its presence, to hear its breath, but even that is possible only while you are crying. And what happens after that, my dear people? After that, the sand dries out on the grave, and the mysterious seems like a simple and silly truth, known to each and everyone who is not crying. In the old times, people knew how to cry, and today, they either donít know how to do that, or - worse - are ashamed to. And what will be tomorrow, my dear and beloved ones? Tomorrow it will be worse! That is why I will tell you this story now - while there are still tears left in those who are ashamed to cry...Ē
Then, she would fall silent for some time, and sighing, would begin the story.
Out of all her stories, the one I remembered the best was the story of Mordekhai Djanashvili and Lea Zizov, which took place in Petkhain and which I recalled in America the very night of my arrival here, when - instead of the joy of a beginning - I felt a deep sorrow over the past.
Remembering that story, I shuddered: it began on a similar night, on the eve of the holiday of Exodus, in the first month of spring, when the air becomes so transparent as if it werenít there at all.
1. The stars, large and
polished, hung in Petkhain then lower than the clouds. A warm wind blew
down from the space between the clouds, lowering the moon to the roof
of the most noteworthy building, a brick house with curly baroque
front, which belonged to Gabriel Zizov and his wife Lea.
They were not the only ones sleeping: inebriated by the spring, the whole district was leaping in that pre-holiday languor, when the flesh does not feel the passage of time, and when the face freezes in a smile. Such silence reigned over the whole neighborhood as though with the coming of dawn, eternity would begin - and nothing will ever change in the future.
A few more hours passed by - and nothing did change.
Then, suddenly, right before dawn, pushing the flickering stars out of its way, a post office airplane shimmered by with the only passenger on board. And that was Mordekhai Djanashvili.
Soon there will be dawn, then it will be dusk, and the holiday of the Exodus will begin in Petkhain - and Mordekhai will go to the Zizovsí for the Passover supper.
Clinging to the window, he saw the moon, sitting on the roof of a Petkhain house, and instead of festive anxiety he was enveloped by dense sadness of touching an old dream.
The plane started landing, but it was only Lea Zizov in all of Petkhain who was awakened by the loud hooting of the motor. She experienced a usual sensation right before she woke up - as if someone had touched her warm body with an icy hand.
She opened her eyes and looked around: the rest was also as usual. With the usual business-like expression on his face - her husband was puffing in his sleep. A clock was diligently ticking on the night table, the moon was holding its weakening light at her motherís portrait in front of the bed, and in the sky - the first post office plane was hooting. Thatís how it was every time right before dawn: Lea would wake up out of fear before the new dose of existence, but that panic was usually dissipated by habitual sounds and images.
This time she could not return to sleep: her own body frightened her, because muscles sometimes remember the time which the brain forced itself not to think about - her hand suddenly stretched to turn off the long-nonexistant lamp, that stood by her bed, in another, her fatherís, house.
Lea got out of bed and approached the window. The night was free, as if happiness was blooming in it, but for some reason, it instilled in Lea the feeling of such festive anxiety, that the increasing hooting of the plane reminded her of the chariot tumble, in which once the prophet Elijah rode over the hilly clouds. Thatís because, she calmed herself down, today is a holiday...
The plane was flying in from Kiev, where the famous Jerusalem surgeon Mordekhai Djanashvili had arrived to perform a kidney transplant for the Ukraineís prime-minister. After the operation, he asked to send him to Tbilisi for one day, where Mordekhai was born 37 years ago, and left when he was 20. He had been dreaming of this return for a long time, but what kept him from hurrying this day was not only the fact that his requests to visit his native land always ended in refusal. Mordekhai started believing that if a dream is destined to turn into reality, it is not he who can do that, - but fate.
Thatís how the expectation began, which was not only torturous, but veneered with sweet bafflement that life is the nearing towards a certain goal that is more important than life itself. All these years, amidst the irresponsible vanity of existence, there had not happened a single day, when suddenly some shrill silence did not tumble upon him, - silence that shoveled into itself all of the sounds of the universe. These minutes of silence belonged to a Petkhain girl named Lea: the heart would suddenly stand still, as if it were ready to push its way out - just as his flesh would get embarrassed in order to later explode in a womanís arm, and turning inside out in sweet pain, throw away the consciousness into some primal space, permeated with the stinging sensation of solitude: ďLook back, look back, Sulamith!Ē
Just like Mordekhai, Lea was born in Petkhain 37 years ago, but unlike him, she never left anywhere. She had black hair, green eyes, a straight nose, and a sharp face - the kind that the jewelry makers of antiquity used for etching profiles on cameos. In addition, as Yokha used to put it, Lea was different from others because she moved along the earth slowly and elastically, like in water, and carried predawn silence with her.
Like her, Mordekhai spent his childhood in Petkhain. His father did not return from the war, and his mother Hava, waiting out three years, married a synagogue shames, the one-legged widower Simantob, huge and hairy like an aged palm tree. Simantob had a daughter Lea, who, as they say, inherited her beauty from her mother.
As far as Mordekhai was concerned, everyone expected him to become a wiseman. Returning from school, he spent his time with the elders, who crowded the synagogue only because no one except God was waiting for them anywhere, although his mother did despair that her son is attracted to people that have nothing to do. Simantob, nevertheless, was convinced that there is a lot of sense in the boy, even if its nature is still unclear.
Sitting in the synagogue yard and leaning his chin against the crutch, he proudly observed his adopted son, who imitated the cantor for the visitorsí fun, and for the cantor - he imitated the shames who, according to the rumors, did not budge from the TV set even on Saturdays if they were showing the half naked dancers.
The first called Petkhain the center of the world, where along with the fat-ass singing teacher, he dreamed of opening a school for cantors, while the second considered paradise to be the center, where among the hook-nosed prophets, transparent ballerinas flutter about and express the uncontrollable desire to convert to Judaism.
Contrary to such sacrilege, to which Mordekhai also attributed assertions by his school Geography instructor, he held Jerusalem to be the center of the universe. Rabbi Meir was of the same opinion, and this assured Simantob of the boyís intelligence.
But once, when Mordekhai became an adolescent, shut himself out and started to attend the fine arts club instead of the synagogue, Simantob discovered in the attic a roll of drawing papers which depicted - with pencils and ink, paints and charcoal - the naked image of his daughter Lea.
Mordekhai had been suffering for a long time now.
Even in his sleep the pain would not let go off him. It would either tangle into a knot, or, vice versa, spread like a viscous sadness across the whole body, or, again, explode suddenly and tear into the brain like a boiling brook. At first, he would feel coldness inside, and then - lightness. It was during such moment that he first felt like drawing Leaís portrait, for, it seemed to him, that would be able to cure him. The pain, however, would not vanish, and not finding a name for it, he agreed that he was overtaken by an illness called love, and described even in the Bible: ďYou are beautiful, my sister, you are beautiful!Ē
But this discovery scared him, because Lea was his sister, and therefore, love, in addition to being painful, turned out to be forbidden as well.
Lea was walking around concerned. It was impossible not to notice that her brother started to turn away from her. She stopped getting lost in guesses, however, when, once, getting drunk for the first time at the Red Syomaís wedding, Mordekhai returned home right before the dawn. He sneaked to the veranda, where she was sleeping, squatted down in front of her couch, and spreading his fingers, cautiously put his palm on her naked breast.
Lea woke up but decided not to open her eyes.
The palm seemed icy to her at first, and then, when she stopped breathing - hot.
As for Mordekhai he felt neither cold nor warmth: his hand went numb and became as if wooden, but inside he grew soft and sensed silence.
From that day on he started drawing Lea naked. He would lock himself in the attic lit with a kerosene lamp, and copy Goyaís nudes. The face would be Leaís which he would draw from memory. Soon, he got braver and started composing by himself: he painted a dim parader room; a closet with wide open door illuminated white light in the distance - and in the closet, there was a scroll of Torah. Above the closet, above the Covenant Arc there hung a velvet brocade with the star of David, and in from of it, on the platform, with the back to the Torah, and facing himself, Mordekhai depicted Lea. She was naked, hands stretching toward God, and thatís why her breasts with dark nipples jerked up. There was a menora at her feet, and Hebrew squares flickered under it - ďLook back, look back, Sulamith!Ē
When Simantob came upon that drawing, he was startled, as if slapped, and his crutch slipped from under his armpit. Not saying a word about it to anyone, he faked insomnia because of his wifeís loud snoring, moved to sleep at the veranda, and told his daughter to sleep in his bed, next to Hava. As for the drawing, he took it out of the attic and stuffed it into the pillow on the couch, where Lea kept the photographs of her real mother, for Hava was jealous of her not only with Simantob, but with her adopted daughter as well.
The next day after moving to Havaís bedroom, Lea recollected and decided to bring the photographs under her new mattress - and thatís how she discovered that drawing, concluding that it was Mordekhai who had put it there. Now there was nothing left to guess except - how to behave with her brother. The answer to the question turned out to be difficult, since fear did not allow her to understand her own self: whether she likes it or not. Meanwhile, she could not think of anything, giving the lead not so much to Mordekhai, but to the most indefinite things in life - the future.
Simantob did not do anything either, because in three months, after the graduation, Mordekhai was to go to study in Kiev, and Hava would talk of this with sadness. Lea regretted it too, although she did pretend not to care, and treated her brother either arrogantly or with a certain fear, which Simantob - unlike Mordekhai - could not help but notice.
Once Rabbi Meir came to
visit Simantob and Hava - to congratulate them with their childrenís
graduation. He never missed a single event in the life of the
community, especially if it was sad, and the Petkhainers were always
amazed - how does the old man have enough tears for everyone? The new
Rabbi Rafael answered that question by quoting from the Scriptures: ďA
wisemanís heart is in the house of tears, while a foolís heart - in the
house of joy.Ē Squinting devilishly, Meir used to put it in a cleverer
way: ďIf you donít go to a manís funeral, he wonít come to yours.Ē And
as for the households where they celebrated, Meir, like Rafael, went
there only if the people were dear to him, but unlike Rafael, he went
there bearing gifts.
Out of his helpers, Simantob was the closest to him, and thatís why he brought special presents for Mordekhai and Lea: for him - a Hebrew Bible and a 25-ruble banknote, and for her - an old Georgian edition of the Song of Songs, which she started leafing through during the supper. She opened it up and shuddered : ďOh, if you were only my brother, I would kiss you upon meeting you, and no one would judge me!Ē
ďWhat?Ē her father grew cautious. ďWhat did you read there?Ē
She answered that she was surprised by illustrations: someone had smeared them with ink.
Tradition prohibits the depiction of people, the rabbi remarked, adding that in all his Hebrew books he either rips the pictures out, or smears them with ink.
ďOf course!Ē exclaimed Simantob and looked at Mordekhai. ďOne should not draw people: it brings on disasters.Ē
Mordekhai burst out: a foolish tradition.
ďDonít you dare!Ē the stepfather shouted and hit his crutch against the floor. His eyes became bloodshot.
Hava started and was about to defend her son, whom Simantob lately, as it seemed to her, stopped loving, but the rabbi was faster.
He started convincing Mordekhai that it is forbidden to depict a human being, since he is created after the image of God, and therefore, the pictures or sculptures of a body are nothing but multiplication of little idols and deities. Everything in our world, semi-pure and semi-physical, is intertwined with the two others: with the invisible world above, and the vile world below. A man is given freedom to choose only between the two of those worlds - between ours, the semi-one, and the lower world. He can not reach the upper one, the paradise that is, because he had already been ousted from there. So, if anyone takes it upon himself to depict a human being, created after the image of God, then he depicts God as something obvious and strips Him of His purity. That is why, the rabbi concluded, drawing or sculpting people is a descend into the world of vileness.
ďIf a man is free to choose,Ē Mordekhai reasoned, ďand if by drawing people, he is drawing God, then, perhaps, he not only steps away from God through that image, but on the contrary, lets Him know that he would like to return to the paradise...Ē
The rabbi did not answer right away:
ďThen why do wisemen forbid it? Why should they forbid the return to paradise?Ē and gulping down a shot of vodka, he laughed. ďBecause there is nothing to do in paradise: there is nowhere to go from there!Ē and turning to Simantob, he added: ďThe boy does not agree with me. He became a man.Ē
ďI know! Soon - heíll be off to Kiev.Ē
ďI just might not go at all!Ē Mordekhai muttered.
Hava was overjoyed and didnít notice that her husband grew sad - but not because of those words: happiness flashed in Leaís eyes.
At night, when everyone went to bed, she turned on the nightlight above her pillow, and sneakily opened up the ďSongĒ on a marked page: ďBy waters of Jerusalem I charge you, oh daughters of Jerusalem, do not wake love until it comes to you!Ē
Then on another, also marked: ďOh, woe is me, if you were only my brother who suckled at my motherís breast! Then, I would kiss you, upon meeting you, and no one would judge me!Ē
Scared, she looked around. There was silence. Only water was dripping from the faucet in the kitchen, and her stepmother was dozing, moving her dry lips in her sleep. Lea looked after the movement of the lips and she thought she heard Hava whispering words that made her soul sink: ďMany waters cannot quench love...Ē ďWoe to you, my daughter of Jerusalem, woe to you, for love has come! But he is your brother, and that is why you will not kiss him!Ē
After those words, there was thunder in the sky, and it seemed to Lea that the prophet Elijah had tumbled over the roof on his chariot. In the morning, she came down with fever, and she uttered phrases in which it was impossible to hear anything except for separate words: ďDaughters of JerusalemĒ, ďI would kiss youĒ. A doctor came by the end of the day but he did not discover anything dangerous.
Closing the door bend him, Simantob hurried over to the kitchen and pulled out a bottle of vodka. He did not pour it - but drank from the bottle. He went to the veranda and squeezed the mattress. Not finding the drawing, he froze still, and then shuffled back to the kitchen. Emptying the bottle, he called for his wife and - when she appeared at the door - he raised the crutch over his head and blurted:
ďThe children are already grown, Hava!Ē and he pierced the crutch into the floor like an exclamation point.
A month later, they
married Lea off to a rich groom, the son of Yoska Zizov, Gabriel. The
morning after the wedding night, the bride and groom were taken to the
synagogue and raised to the platform for the blessing.
Kol sa-a-ason vekol si-i-imkha,
Kol kha-a-atan vekol ka-a-ala...
Mordekhai was bent over in the corner next to his stepfather, and repeating the words of the wedding hymn, moved his lips. There was a knot in his throat, and tears in his eyes, which made everything around merge into one. No one but Lea glanced at him from time to time, and no one in this half-made, half-pure, and half-vile world - no one understood him better than her during those moments, for they were both realizing one and the same truth: people live either the way they are expected to, or - rarely, and towards the end - the way they want to, and happiness or unhappiness depends on what you start with. They begin with the first, Yokha said, and no one had become happy yet... The only way - is to begin from the end...
Soon, they married Mordekhai off as well. Simantob matched him with his niece, Leaís cousin, Rachel. Hava was crying all through the wedding, as if she knew that she was to die very soon, completing the duty before her first husband, Mordekhaiís real father, and before Jerusalem although she had no idea of what that was...
Three years later, it turned out that Mordekhaiís father did not die at war, - he was alive: he was taken hostage, wandered around the world after the war and settled down - where?- in Jerusalem! He became a Hasid and opened an ice-cream making factory. When he started doing well, he started looking for his family, and discovering that Hava had remarried, he himself got married to a Morrocan refugee. The Morrocan was killed the same year and month that Hava died. The remaining days and strength the father dedicated to bringing his son back.
Mordekhai agreed to go to his father not because Jerusalem seemed the center of the universe to him like before: with every passing day of his prosperous life with Rachel, he missed Lea more and more, and feared that feeling more and more. He did not find his father alive, but he adjusted to the city easily, as if - out of the several thousand years that he had lived there - he were absent for merely as short a time as was his real age.
Seventeen more years passed, but all that time went to bringing closer the meeting with Lea, in order to be happy for at least a day, living as he wanted, and not as he was expected to.
He knew that the day will come, just as he knew that he should not hurry it: any beginning is better than any end, and the expectation of a beginning is better than the beginning, and especially better - than what follows it. Just as he hoped, fate meddled in - and Mordekhai found himself in Kiev, from where he was allowed to go to Tbilisi on a post office plane, because there was no passenger plane available that night.
Awake, Lea could no
longer go back to sleep and started to live: she got dressed, and put a
pot of water on the stove to boil the Passover eggs.
In the evening there will be a holiday. She recalled her childhood: her father Simantob, his hairy hands and thick voice. A juicy mix of ground chestnuts, walnuts, and fruits, - the khareisot, - is bubbling over the deep bowl: an appetizing symbol of sufferings on a deserted way towards freedom, where there was nothing but thorny bushes and hot wind for 40 years. Lea does not shift her eyes from the bowl and swallowing her saliva, waits until her father completes the long, like the exodus itself, Pesakh story - and it would be possible to forget about the thorny bushes and start the feast, that opened up with a generous spread of khareisot over the piece of matsoh. Hunger would be forgotten, however, when her father would reach the place in the Pesakh prayer book, when the whole family had to shout the word ďdayeinu!Ē.
Father read outloud: ďIf God would have taken us out of Egypt, without passing His judgment over them, we would have been - what?Ē And everyone shouted, laughing: ďDayeinu!Ē - ďSatisfied!Ē Father continued: ďIf God had just passed His judgment over Egypt, but not over her idols, we would have been - what?Ē And everyone: ďDayeinu!Ē, ďDayeinu!Ē Hava giggled and wiped off her happy tears. ďDayeinu!Ē father roared and knocked his crutch against the floor. ďDayeinu!Ē the guests squealed and clapped their hands. ďDayeinu! Dayeinu!Ē mumbled Mordekhai, Mordekhai, Mordekhai...
2. Mordekhai went out of
his hotel early: water sprinkling cars mingled along the deserted
street, and sleepy trolley buses with the same numbers snorted away.
Beds of flowers were already blooming and the air spread the familiar
scent of grass. Nothing had changed. The same intricate buildings with
clay figures of naked Atlantuses resembling Armenians stood on the main
prospect; they were still bursting out of their skin to support the
tall Georgian balconies.
Mordekhai was confused because the holiday was starting off in an everyday fashion.
This sensation increased quickly, and at any moment could rage into sadness. Posters hung in the empty shop windows. They informed a passerby that this city has no other way but towards happiness.
Mordekhai could not think of what exactly he should do to start off this new day, or - who knows? - this new life. A motorcycle roared by with a fan hooked to the wheel and a wide, weaved basket on its back seat. The basket was covered with a cotton towel, that hid matzoh for the evening seder - white, dry discs made from unleavened flower, embroidered by dots, that signified writings which could only be deciphered by oneís heart. Everything was as it could be only in this town, where they fasten miniature fans to motorcycles, because air-conditioners are too big and it is impossible to fasten them to the wheel...
Stopping in a short reverie, Mordekhai suddenly went back to the hotel, asked the maid for two stearin candles, and took a cab to the old cemetery.
A long birch-tree stood
over Havaís gravestone. Its leaves rustled in the wind. Mordekhai had
planted the tree together with Simantob, who was lying next to her,
under the basalt gravestone. He recalled the simple words from the
Talmud, for they seemed significant now: ďIf two lie down together,
they are warm, but how is one going to get warm?Ē
Bending down in his knees, Mordekhai brushed his lips against his motherís grave at first, and then - against Simantobís. The sun in the sky grew strong and the morning started to get dense from the smell of the heated mint. At first, the air was silent and nothing was happening with it, but then - all the grasshoppers started chirping together, as if they were drilling the dense space.
Mordekhai slowly wandered along the gravestones and monuments crowding each other and was amazed not only at the fact that even at the cemetery the Petkhainers crowded and kept each other warm, but also, that it was precisely here, in the ground, that he came upon so many people which he thought he would meet in the synagogue that evening.
A stone cutterís studio stood next to the cemetery, and thatís where he spent the rest of the day - with a sinewy Greek, by the name of Pavel, who buried the Petkhainers and made them gravestones. He treated his guest to vodka, cheese, pickled peppers, and first, told stories about those that were lying in the ground, and later, about those that came to visit them. The Greek lived at the cemetery and had the studio for fifteen years now, and thatís why he knew a lot about the Petkhainers - as much as only a gravestone maker could know who lives at the cemetery, and whom the Petkhainers endear (in case they turn up in the grave before him) with little secrets about their friends and themselves. Due to that reason, Pavel, according to his own words, knew more about the Petkhainersí sins, than God Himself, who, the Greek added, was too lazy to hear out foolishness.
He began, however, with announcing the international news: he pulled a cut-out of a Greek newspaper from his pocket and started translating it outloud. It turns out, that because of the inflation, even the prices of human skeletons are increasing. According to the Reuter agency, a more or less well-kept male skeleton cost 490 dollars in 1986, while just two years later - 1,000 dollars! A hand or leg could cost about 100 dollars today, and a skull could go for 340, if it has all the teeth, although two years ago, its going price was just 95 dollars! But a human skeleton canít even compare to the remains of a gorilla, which is priced at 7500 dollars! Thatís probably because, he concluded without unneeded philosophizing, the population of the universe is increasing rapidly and it is no longer threatened with extinction.
Yes, Mordekhai agreed, it is growing rapidly, but, first of all, not due to Petkhainers, and second of all, the number of wisemen stays constant at that.
Letís talk about wisemen, Pavel agreed, and named Yoska Zizov who, although he was considered a wealthy and wise man, became so stingy towards the end of his life, that he would stop his clock at night so that the batteries would not waste in vain, and dreamt of buying a model whose mechanism worked due to the earth turning around the axis free of any cost. In addition, he committed a serious sin: he married his son, Gabriel, to Lea who was a beauty, but after his wifeís death fell in love with his own daughter-in-law so passionately that he started hated his son and would have committed the unimaginable if God had not granted him strange death.
His servant, the Kurdish woman by the name of Shekheshekhubakri spread a rumor, that Gabriel himself had killed him, but Pavel did not believe that, because Gabriel Zizov is a deputy of the Town Council, and secondly, he brings two bouquets of flowers to the cemetery every week - not only for his mother, that is.
Mordekhai started asking Pavel about Lea, who, if the Greek is to be believed, was always a beauty, but with the age she started resembling the main concubine of the main god Zeus, thanks to which, she, a Jewess, was hired as an anchorwoman on TV. Mordekhai asked about her with faked indifference - as if he just wanted to kill time. The Greek, however, being generous with vodka, answered his questions in detail and asked just for one thing in exchange: only a couple of words more about Greece, where it turns out, the honorable foreigner often finds himself.
Mordekhai came to the
synagogue not long before sunset. The yard looked festively clean, the
ground was sprinkled with water, and many-colored lightbulbs shone in
the tree branches. Laymen were fussing all around topped with silk
yarmulkes. A rabbi sat on the bench next to the main entrance - a young
fatso with a white tunic and black beard. His legs were spread wider
apart than othersí, but there was no trace of noble devilishness about
him, although he did talk looking onto the space and although they did
listen to him with respect. Strange people came crowding into the yard.
It smelled not of poultry and wax like before, but of mint and cologne,
but there was a sensation that nothing had changed, and he, Mordekhai,
had left this place only yesterday...
Mr. Foreigner? Good! A Jew, of course? Very good! From far away? Yes, they come here more often and thatís good, but doesnít he think that when things are going well somewhere - that means things are not so well somewhere else? Where is the gentleman from, from America? What? From Jerusalem? People, he is from Jerusalem! So tell us everything, donít be silent! So how is everything there? And is it true that everything in Jerusalem is not like it used to be and learned Jews eat bread on Passover? And what does the gentleman think - should one believe in miracles or should one just depend on them? And do the local authorities know that he is from Jerusalem? And where did the gentleman learn to speak our language without any accent? Where?! What do you mean - in Petkhain?! That canít be! Which Hava? But thatís impossible! Our Simantob? Oh, Lord! Wait, donít say anything, donít say your name, weíll tell you! Oh, blessed be His name, you - are Mordekhai! Mordekhai Djanashvili!
A crowd formed around him, humming like difficult music. Petkhainers looked him up and down: some greedily, others cautiously, as if they were afraid to cause him discomfort. But thatís Mordekhai Djanashvili - the great scholar and wealthy richman! The one about whom they broadcast on the radio from there and whom even the children know here. No, just look at him, people, how handsome he is, and tall! And also how young! People, he was born among us, but just look at him carefully - does he resemble us at all?! Heaven has put its stamp upon him! Oh, it's true what they say - the God of Israel is invincible! These days will pass and others will come: our children, God willing, will grow up and become like Mordekhai! It is even written in the scriptures! Success and glory are awaiting us once again! Give us some time, we already began - and very soon they will again recognize us by our deeds and by the heavenly stamp on our faces! Listen Mordekhai, look at me, I am you wife Rachelís aunt! How is Rachel? Let me pass, I was friends with his father, with Simantob! Donít you recognize me, Mordekhai? I used to come to your house for Pesakh seders, and we shouted ďDayeinu!Ē Hush, people, donít scream all together, he canít hear anything that way! Please, Mordekhai, come to my house after the prayer, I have a son, he is so learned: he composed some good law about nature and life, and youíll have fun with him! No, no, Mordekhai, you will come with me, I was the cantor in your times, and I had a wife, remember, - the singing teacher, may her soul be blessed! Her name was Sofiko, donít you remember? She was... well, a little huge... Especially, from behind... Calm down people, calm down, and stop pushing, he will go with the rabbi! Why does he need our stinking rabbi, the man lives in Jerusalem!
Calm down, calm down! Mordekhai will not go with any of us: Mordekhai has a sister here! Mordekhai will go to his sister for seder, thatís where he will go! To Lea Zizov! What - is she his sister? Oh, yes, of course, she is!
There she is, there she is coming, there is Lea! What? Did they tell her already? Of course! Of course, they told her! And may be, they didnít tell her yet, but today is the holiday, people, and everyone comes to the synagogue!
Make way everyone and be silent!
Lea is coming to Mordekhai!
3. Right at the outskirts
of Petkhain, in a basement restaurant it smelled of wine and the music
was playing - intricate like a vine, and saddening like a guess. Only
men sat at the tables, slim, like cypress trees - they drank wine and
glanced at Lea Zizov from television, a renowned beauty with green
eyes, who, now after the wine, seemed accessible to them. They were
embarrassed only by the presence of a foreigner, who knew how to look
into a womanís eyes just as daringly as they did.
Meanwhile, Mordekhai was counting on the reverse: that wine would calm him down and return him to himself. Instead, he spoke louder and louder, trying to outshout the music, but forgetting to lower his voice in the intervals.
Lea, also inebriated, behaved accordingly: laughed irrelevantly, nodded, waving her head and fixing the hat with lowered edges - and she did that as befitted a beauty who had worked on every movement for years in front of the mirror... And for the first time in her life, she despised herself for it.
Mordekhai despised himself as well: is that how he imagined this meeting with Lea, was this here that he dreamed of meeting her, are these the words he was going to say to her?!
Stumbling in the middle of the phrase, he threw a confused glance at her, giving in to a sudden attack of that torturous feeling against which he did not know how and did not wish to fight, because the pain that was enveloping him bore the anticipation of never-experienced holiday...
He was familiar with that state from the Petkhain days, from the time that he started to be afraid of Lea, but after resettlement to Jerusalem, he began envisioning it more distinctly - like a heavy ascension along a thorny alley to reach a green hill in the middle of the universe topped by a castle. Your breath stays still and happiness grows within you together with anxiety; and you want to melt in that pure, golden-white-blue haze, for only after you melt in it, will you be able to penetrate another human being, without whom all of its beauty would be wasted in vain; to merge with him into one forever, after which - no matter what you turn into together with him, - whether it would be a white stone in the wall of that castle, a green grass, that tore its way into this wall, a gulp of cool air, or the inebriating smell of rosemary - after that the sun will stop in the middle of the sky and nothing will end anymore: ďLook back, look back, Sulamith!Ē
Lea got confused as if she heard the thoughts within him, and shifted her glance aside.
ďLea!Ē one of the cypresses grew over the table. ďThere you are! And I was calling you - you werenít there, Gaby wasnít there either, and your Myra keeps saying that you are at the synagogue: mama has a holiday today, she was taken away from Egypt today by Moses... So thatís what Moses looks like!Ē he giggled and his breath smelled of alcohol.
ďThatís Mordekhai... He is a brother to me... He is from Jerusalem...Ē
ďYouíve never mentioned him,Ē the cypress said and turned to Mordekhai. ďLet me introduce myself!Ē
ďThereís no need,Ē Mordekhai answered. ďWhatís the point if we must part right away?Ē
The tree rustled, but obeyed:
ďThe guest knows better! But my friends... By the way, have I introduced them to you, Lea, or no?Ē
ďNo,Ē she cut him off. ďAnd thank you for that!Ē
The cypress wished both of them a quick exodus and returned to the woods.
There was a pause: Mordekhai attempted to return to the pathway, which he was just climbing towards the top of the Jerusalem hill, but the pathway had vanished somewhere, and finding himself amidst dry, thorny bushes, he fell into despair. Lea guessed that as well, and thatís why she began a small talk herself. First - she said that this cypress, like the majority of Georgians, treats Jews well, is a friend of her husband and also works in the Town Council, where he was hired for his ridiculous name - Goelro, to commemorate Leninís plan bearing the same name.
Then there was a pause again. Mordekhai continued being silent, and Lea started to talk about herself. She could not manage to get a pass for a trip around the world, but her husband tells her not to despair, for he is going to arrange a trip for her to another place!
Mordekhai was not listening to her: he was watching and thinking that either she is no longer Lea, or she is trying to convince both him and herself, that she is no longer herself. So, how should he behave if she is pretending?
Mordekhai remembered that although he rarely lied to women, even more rarely he allowed himself to hinder them from telling him lies. Having thought of that, he was surprised that he is thinking of her as a strange woman, who is trying to seem happy and witty. But the problem is that even if she is indeed happy and witty - he still knew women with wittier minds! And what would happen if he suddenly starts talking about her kidneys and other parts of the body?! Will she get confused? Of course, she will! And the whole polish will come off! Thatís what happened to every single woman, whom Mordekhai for some reason decided to dethrone in her own eyes.
ďLook back, look back, Sulamith!Ē - he hasnít said that to anyone, however, but he is unable to say it to her as well.
He was oppressed: he could not believe that this woman in an awkward hat had tormented him for so many years, and every time he remembered her nipples under his numb palms after Red Syoma's wedding, he would grow soft inside. Could it be that I no longer desire her, Mordekhai was surprised; at least, as much as others?
That unexpected thought frightened him, but it was precisely this thought that urged him on to another, a more habitual one: if he doesnít take her with him now, to his hotel, does not undress her, and squeeze her nipples, there will be no end to his torments, and once again, his suspicions would come alive that the mysterious and grand is nothing but a lie - an intricate unity of something simple and obvious, and a holiday is just a sly entanglement of everyday feelings...
The music went mute. There was just the even rustle of inebriated cypresses left.
ďListen!Ē Mordekhai finally uttered in a quiet voice, ashamed that he was thinking clearly and was about to express himself in the same way. ďLetís get out of here! To my hotel...Ē
Her chest startled: although Lea desired those words, she was afraid of that which stood behind them; she was afraid of her nakedness before Mordekhai, and the icy touch of his palm, after which she was overcome by suffocating fever. Although that happened only once, long time ago, and in half-sleep, she shuddered every morning from that touch before waking up. The non-reality of that sensation and its fleetingness brought her pain in her sleep, which - as soon as she closed her eyes - became so unexpectedly sweet that it filled her body with the anticipation of a great luck. Sometimes it held for the rest of the day, but with years, it transformed into an expectation of new times, when, at last, the touch of that palm will cease being fleeting and unreal.
All that time a holiday was awaiting her in the future, and here, Mordekhai has told her the words, after which it became clear that the expectation might be coming to an end, and the holiday - might evaporate and turn into the same oppressing emptiness that fills up every day. Be silent, Mordekhai, I will never go with you, my brother! And I will never look at you enough; ďyou are beautiful, my brother, you are beautiful! And if you were not my brother, then I would kiss upon seeing you, and no one would judge me!Ē
ďLea,Ē said Mordekhai, ďwhy are you silent? Raise your head and look me in the eyes!Ē
She obeyed: behind Mordekhaiís back, at the door, stood her husband, Gabriel Zizov, who, standing on tip-toes, combed with his glance through the humming forest. Lea was looking at him and nothing arose in her soul - neither gratitude to him for rescuing her from the fear before the other world, into which Mordekhai was calling her, nor sadness for returning into the old one. She sat devastatingly empty - like in a train that had been going for a long, long time...
ďLetís go!Ē Mordekhai repeated and called the waiter.
The latter darted towards him but did not have the time to take the money. Gabriel Zizov pushed him aside and uttered:
ďNo, guests donít pay here!Ē
The Petkhainers tore towards each other, and embracing, started exclaiming stupid phrases and knock their fists into each otherís chest and shoulders. Settling down they sat at the table - Gabriel next to Lea - and started saying the unneeded. Mordekhai began with his post office plane, and Gabriel was saying that he could not believe Goelro, when the latter declared to him that her insolent brother with a Zionist name had come to her from Jerusalem.
ďWho could have thought?!Ē Zizov was laughing.
In the morning, he told Mordekhai, his wife had mentioned that something sad was going to happen today, for she had a bad dream: right before the Exodus from Egypt, the prophet Elijah had appeared to her in a chariot and ordered her proceed with the exodus without some important thing with which she refused to part and took in along secretly. And when the enemyís horses started pursuing them, and Moses divided the waters in half, because of that thing Lea did not have the time to make her way to the opposite shore, and together with the Egyptians she was swallowed by the waters. So, it turns out that the dream was good, although I, Gabriel Zizov, donít believe either in dreams or in Biblical legends: life - is a simple thing, and if, for example, it were not for the prime-ministerís kidney, everything would have been as it was!
Then, still reasoning, Gabriel called the waiter over and - while he was ordering a bottle of champagne - Mordekhai threw a brisk glance at Lea: just like a long time ago, on the day when her union with Gabriel was to be blessed, she was looking at her husband with eyes full of that transparent moisture which washes over the shores of careless childhood.
ďListen, Gabriel!Ē he said and sighed like a sailboat that had just made its way into the sea from a river would have sighed. ďNo wine, please! I still have to go to the synagogue, I promised...Ē
4. ďRight here, Mr.
Mordekhai, next to the rabbi!Ē
Mordekhai, however squeezed into the corner, to the seat that once belonged to the one-legged Simantob, and in which he sat on the day of Lea and Gabriel Zizovís blessing. There was a familiar scent of wax in the room and Mordekhai started swallowing the air so greedily, as if he had decided to never again part with it. The white closet became cracked, the brocade wore thin, but behind it and behind the closed closet doors, in darkness, in silence, and in coolness the same scroll of Torah, the Holy of Hollies, probably stood. Only the most pious were allowed to open the closet during the holidays, and only the wiseman were granted the honor of taking the Torah out of it to the platform in the center of the room, where Lea was standing on that day under the canopy. A new rabbi was standing on the platform now, the fatso with a black beard. Stretching his fluffy hands to heavens, he pushed the cantor away and said:
ďBarukh ata adonai! Blessed is Your name, Almighty!Ē
ďBlessed is Godís name!Ē the crowd sighed out.
Mordekhai was looking at the cantor next to the rabbi and was seeing Lea. In equally friendly tone people once answered the deceased Yoska Zizov: ďKol sa-a-ason vekol si-i-imkha...Ē Tears gathered in his throat, and Mordekhai unfastened his collar. Past did not die - it was still living, and it became apparent that this meeting in the restaurant served to confuse his soul just for a very short time. Another recent picture flamed up in his memory - a bright concentration of light in her green gaze, when the Petkhainers made way in for him and Lea, and opened them up for each other. For some instant, the crowd grew still and held its breath, but this vanishing of noise proved to be merely deafening: all of his being suddenly shuddered from the piercing silence. When he entwined her flesh with his hands and clung it to his, he had no thoughts or recollection at that time - nothing but the unconscious sensation of the impossibility of existence without that person, who was in his embrace.
However, along with the familiar bitterness - for the first time in many years - Mordekhai caught a glimpse of primal joy in that sensation, which he finally managed to understand before he unclasped his embrace. A simple physical sense of touch evoked that pure joy - the beating of the heart in a human being he was embracing. Recalling that sensation now, Mordekhai told himself that that is what happiness probably is.
Touching a human being, Yokha reasoned, makes any speculation superfluous, but now, when Lea was at the other end of the crowded room, Mordekhai thought that love - is not a figment of imagination, but the most important mystery, and it is impossible to murder that mystery with any truth whatsoever, for the truth is weak like life, while the mystery is strong like death. Mordekhai immediately remarked to himself that this thought is extremely vulnerable, and if he broods further, he could come to the understanding of the connection between mystery and love, for there is nothing in the world, he thought, that in the end does not reveal itself.
But once again he was ashamed to be thinking clearly and convincingly. Jerking away from his thoughts, therefore, Mordekhai returned to the rabbi, who was about to finish a second prayer:
ďKol adonai eloeinu veloe... Oh, the eternal God of ours and the God of our fathers, let us live till other festivities and holidays, that are hurrying towards us with peace!Ē
The return to the rabbi
turned out to be not so long: in an instant Mordekhai saw Lea on the
platform once again. He imagined that in the end of the room a closet
with opened doors stood illuminating whiteness, and on the platform,
with her back to the Torah and her face to the heavens stood naked,
young, and beautiful Lea: her hands are thrown up, her breasts are
standing straight, a Menorah is at her feet, and around her - itís the
Day of Doom.
Mordekhai became tense, but he could still not recall where that drawing, which just came alive in his head, ended up. Many days had passed since then, and people were crowding between himself and Lea on the platform, both alive and dead: Yoska Zizov with his son, Rachel with her parents, his mother Hava, the hefty Simantob. All of them were standing in front of the platform and did not let him go to Lea. But it wasnít anger in their eyes, but merely fear before something forbidden, fear, which, at that time, penetrated him as well, him, Mordekhai, but which, as it turned out, was weaker than the mysterious and the forbidden. If he would have gotten up from his place in the corner then and went up to the platform, towards Lea, - they would all have made way for him: Yoska Zizov with his son, Rachel with her parents, Hava and Simantob, all of them would have made way, for that which is forbidden and mysterious - comes from God, and the fear before the forbidden and mysterious - comes from people, and therefore, love is stronger than fear, just as it is stronger than death!
Mordekhai was indeed going towards the platform now. The crowd was making the way for him. Raising himself on tip toes, the rabbi threw a talleth over him and turned to the crowd:
ďGentlemen! With your blessing, on this festive day, I would like to ask Mordekhai Djanashvili to open the Arc and show us the Holy of the Hollies!Ē
The men started hooting approvingly, while women on the balconies squealed from excitement, although everyone knew that on these days it is forbidden to approach the Arc and touch the Torah, the Tree of Knowledge.
According to Yokha, they, however, understood something else as well: it is sinful not only to taste from the Tree of Knowledge, but also, to turn away from the Tree of Life. And if the great Book of Moses is going to be shown to them now by Mordekhai Djanashvili, the only one among them who went through the Exodus, and Rise - that would be like merging the tree of knowledge with the tree of life, and therefore , - it is a good deed, and not an evil one...
Covered with a warm talleth up to his head, Mordekhai approached the white Arc and froze still in front of it. He had ceased fearing lots of thing during the years, but the reverential fear of Torah became stronger, for now it was blessed with a thought. Although he dreamt of it since childhood, he had never opened the door of the Arc, and never before was he enveloped with that lifegiving coolness coming from the abyss in the wall. With time, however, Mordekhai began to fear his dream, realizing that it was precisely this sort of fear that God requires - just as Jerusalem owes its greatness and its demise to such fear. Even Moses, they say, was shaking when he was accepting the Torah from God, which he later gave to the people, recalled Mordekhai...
Grave silence stood in the room.
ďVeiti adonai lenegde! I stand before you, Lord!Ē Mordekhai whispered the ritual phrase and stretched towards the door...
Inside the cool depth of the Arc stood the young, naked, and beautiful Lea. The white stillness of the skin on her breasts was broken through with - like the first snow is broken through with thorns - strong stems of nipples. She was holding a scroll, wrapped in blue velvet, in the hands outstretched towards Mordekhai. Her thin hands flickering with light, shuddered, and the silver chains on the Torah let out brisk and careful bells. When Mordekhai took the weight from her and clung it to his chest, Lea uttered:
ďInto your hands I give my soul, Mordekhai!Ē
At that moment, it was not only quiet but bright in the room, and still no one heard Lea, and no one saw her, because people - when they are together - do not trust the truth, but each other...
5. After a crowded and
noisy supper at the house of Lea and Gabriel Zizovs, located in the new
area of the city, far from Petkhainís borders, after the joyful toasts
for the exodus from Egypt and the happy exclaims ďDayeinu!Ē, during
which, however, Lea would glance at him with hidden sadness, Mordekhai
Djanashvili, tired of his own pretending and the constancy of life,
hurried to return to the Jewish quarter, where there was no more light
behind the windows of slanted houses, behind the half-closed shutters,
and where even the stars had half covered themselves with cloudy shreds
at this late hour. Mordekhai, nevertheless, went deeper and deeper
along the narrow and crooked alleys of Petkhain, into its darkest
abysses. He recognized each and every door and a number on it with
equally as invincible clarity, with which he remembered each and every
corner in a human body.
The synagogue was locked, but, just like in childhood, he climbed into it through the basement window with the weak hook. Going up into the main room along the stairs overgrown with spider web, and approaching the doors of the Arc, he sighed and uttered in a half-whisper:
ďEveryone is already gone, Lea, and thereís no one here. Come out, and let us go to Jerusalem, because a lot of time had passed, but you see, our love is still strong like death!Ē
After a horrifying pause, the doors of the Arc suddenly screeched, and opened up slowly.
The young and naked Lea appeared at the doors, but when she stretched her hands, flickering with light, towards Mordekhai, - that very instant there was a deafening thunder, as if the Prophet Elijah had tumbled along the iron roof with his chastising scepter. Lightning flashed and it blinded the room with the impenetrable and primally-pure light...
When Mordekhaiís eyes once again got used to the darkness, Lea was not there any longer, and the Arc was smoking with clod steam and gaping with dead silence.
At that very instant, at the other end of the city, far behind the borders of Petkhain, where silence grew very thin, a womanís shrill and heart-rending scream was suddenly heard. Gabriel Zizov jerked up in his bed and threw the cover from his wifeís body but it was too late: Lea, primely white, was lying naked on a blue sheet, with her hands spread apart, and death was frozen still in her green eyes...
finished that story, I was silent, but later on I took a hold of myself
and asked: ďSo, what did Lea die from?Ē
Yokha shrugged her shoulders: everyone saw that she died - but no one knows from what. I shrugged as well: there is no such thing.
That was also how the rest who had heard this story from Yokha for the first time reacted: thank you, but we donít believe you. But it was precisely this, however, that the weeper was waiting for: she sighed, and gesturing with her hands, like on a stage, she told everyone words that she told me as well: ďMany people donít believe, especially those that did not know Lea, but what do they have to do with it?! You donít have anything to do with it either, if you donít believe it also. And neither does Mordekhai, who returned to Jerusalem. And not even Lea on whose grave - go and see for yourself! - the sand has not dried and will never dry. This story is for those who still have tears, but are ashamed to cry.Ē
I did know Lea. I also knew that Mordekhai Djanashvili was a renowned doctor and he really did come to Petkhain from Jerusalem just for one day, and that Lea died either on that very day, or the next one. Something else was unclear: did they really love each other or was their love Yokhaís guess, designed to make the Petkhainers cry over their own feelings, guesses, and sorrows.
As for myself, thinking over this story then, I figured that one can hardly know the truth about it, since - and rightly so - it is not the truth that has anything to do with it, but us - those who are afraid of it. But this is how I reasoned before, during the life that I abandoned. Now, however, entering new existence, for which I sacrificed the old one - now such speculations seemed to be unfair to myself. The point is not only in me, but in that which is outside of me, in the question of - what is reality: is it better than me? Itís not the point whether I am ashamed to cry, but - is it worth it to cry? Do people around us deserve our sorrow, are they as pure as we could be pure, when they are deserving of our sorrow?
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