Nodar Djin

Revocation Of Paradise

(An excerpt from the novel "The Story Of My Paradise")

        The presentiment of a paradise had touched me long ago. Till then, my life seemed dull to me, like life in the womb. I lived where I was born: in a big, but decrepit house, located in a moldy area of a dusty Georgian capital, Tbilisi -- in Petkhain.
        I was awakened before dawn; my grandfather, the sentimental rabbi Meir with a face that resembled images carved upon ancient medallions used to pull me out of bed. Reminding me each time that I had been lucky enough to be born a Jew, my grandfather dragged me to the synagogue in the morning, where he was awaited by other old men, who were eying color inserts cut out of the monthly Ogonyok, which were used by the headman to cover rain stains on the walls. Most often, the old men would crowd over the reproduction of Goyas Nude, or over a photograph of a blue sea, or over a portrait of Marshal Zhukov clad in white uniform atop a festive horse, enveloped in milky steam of military glory.
        Once inside the synagogue, where it smelled like armpits, I was to take an old, bent-out-of-shape prayer book and recite in a sing-song two texts which I had long before learned by heart. The first one said that our God Almighty is completely one and alone! The second text thanked the lonely God for giving out on a one-day-lease my own soul.
        Every morning my soul would come back to me on a condition that right after the synagogue I hurry home, grab my books and run off to school at the opposite end of the street. Now, with me, dressed in an ironed uniform of a Colonel of Justice, holding a leather folder that depicted Stalin's profile, was my father, the stately and handsome Yakov, much-respected city prosecutor, who wrote poems for special anniversaries in the history of our huge homeland and our multi-membered kin. On the way he would insist that God, and especially a Jewish one, does not exist, but he would do so waveringly, always thinking about something else and throwing frequent glances at the young women going past us and giving him morningly-coquettish smiles.
        I had suspected that there is no God myself, although I did realize that my father dissembled his feelings. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, at dawn, he locked himself in the attic, and my mother would send me to his office with the notice that Yakov Meirovich had unexpectedly fallen ill. He came out of the attic only after sunset, with a roving look of a man that had returned from a nether-land: inside a zinc tub on the upper shelf of the attic, next to his automatic pistol, I found a talleth that was sprinkled with mothballs and a prayer book for the Day of Atonement.
        It was that very pistol, with which, once, having learnt of his brother Besas death in a prison colony in the Urals, he, in a violent rage, shot in the middle of the night at the shaggy cockroaches sprawled out on the walls. Besa was doing time for concealing a scandalous secret at my fathers advice: his wife, a Bukharian Jew, had a relative in Turkey -- a lookalike of the head of the Secret police, Lavrenti Beria.
        My school days would begin with singing classes, during which, along with everyone else, I sang the cherished song about the indivisible and indestructible Union of the Soviet Republics, with two eagles in its high heavens: One eagle Lenin, and the other eagle Stalin. I sang in an unnaturally loud voice, purposefully trying to damage my vocal cords, since the pain rising in my throat, distracted my thoughts from the boundless, like melancholy, rear-end of my singing teacher.
        Wrapped in a delicate silk, that rear-end swayed rhythmically to the beat of the music suffocating inside me. The pain would settle down at night, but by morning visions would again enter my newly-returned soul: the sensual violet hips of the teacher and the angry god in the shape of a two-headed eagle. One head -- with the painstakingly narrow cut of Mongolian eyes, bald at the top, but with flocks of red hairs growing at the bottom; the other -- big-eared, with a face dug out by acne and a heavy moustache. Thats how my childhood went by, oppressed by a irresistible longing for another life -- perhaps unrealizable, yet inevitably approaching.
        And so, once, in February, before dawn, I was awakened by an unusual sound, the likes of which I had heard in the movie theaters, where they rolled films about the reckless acts of the Russian commander Vassily Chapaev or the Mexican daredevil Pancho Villa. This captivating sound did not resemble Rabbi Meirs hoarse coughing calling me to the morning prayer. Growing, it chained my heart in an anticipation of some sudden luck. My life, our ramshackle home that smelled of melted wax left by the sabbath candles, along with the entire dumbfounded world under the stars, was being invaded by rhythmic and resonant clicking of many horsehoofs. I was paralyzed. When I finally made it to the roof, where, not feeling the cold my whole half-naked family had already gathered, the most grandiose of scenes was revealed to my eyes. Prancing about, clicking their flashing hoofs, and shaking their manes enveloped in moonlight -- an infinite column of proud horses was proceeding down the crooked Petkhain streets. Hot steam was bursting out of their nostrils making a hissing sound and freezing in the air. Their long legs were wrapped in white leather belts, and their saddles were mounted by the cavalry men in papakha-hats that resembled moustached princes.  From under their white cloaks there dangled crooked swords and shiny boots that reflected our Petkhain stars and were topped by blue trousers with wide red stripes.
        A heady smell thickened in the air -- a smell brought over from distant and amazing places.
        Terror gathered in my fathers eyes. The balconies hanging over the streets, the windows thrown open were blackened by immobile silhouettes of our horrified neighbors. And only I could hear through that measured clicking of hoofs, through a rare neigh of horses, the promise of the now very near salvation.
        By sunrise the garrison of the Chechen cavalrymen began carrying out its order: every Jewish and Turkish household was handed an official paper with an exact date for evacuation. One week was granted for preparations, in rare cases -- two. Jews and Turks, crazed by fear, were taken to the railroad station at night where freight trains leaving for Kazakhstan waited for them.

        Our house stood in the middle of Petkhain, which, in the old days, was populated solely by the Jews. Although later, Georgians, Armenians, Tartars, Russians, Curds, Persians, Turks, Greeks, and even Poles and Germans came to live in this area; although next to the main synagogue stood a Christian Orthodox cathedral and a Shiite mosque, Petkhain was still considered Georgian Jerusalem, containing half-a-dozen Sephardic and Ashkenazi prayer houses, hundreds of Jewish vending shops, and even an ethnographic museum of Jewish culture. Petkhain, as tired as it was, was, nevertheless, the heart of the city -- its most bustling nerve.
        With the arrival of the threateningly incomparable Chechen riders, to whom Stalin, not long before, had entrusted the resettlement of Tartars into the same Kazakhstan, Petkhain grew deaf and mute. Days there became as silent as nights. Life went on, but now it was soundless: people talked in whispers and it seemed that they were walking about in soundproof shoes. Following some unspoken agreement, the Petkhainers tried not to notice each other, and each one of them who happened to catch a glimpse of a truck heaping with the road bundles and the evicted, turned the other way. Everything was occurring in silence, evoking a sensation that the Almighty, although He did dare to create this world, had turned off all the sounds in it out of fear of the moustached Chechens.
        My father was fired from work. Wrapping himself in a woolen blanket, he would sit by the frozen window from morning till dusk and scribble something into a notebook which he hid at night. My grandmother Esther, who did not know how to whine or cry, was making travel sacs out of bed sheets, while my mother melted butter in the jars and mended warm clothes. From time to time, they thought outloud about the reasons for our luck which came down to the fact that unlike the rest of the Petkhain Jews, we were given five weeks for our preparations.  My grandmother attributed it to the all-around respect for my grandfather; my mother thought it was due to my fathers merits in the eyes of the authorities.
        I was the only one who felt good. Embarrassed to show my joy at the approaching holiday of exile, I roamed the narrow streets of Petkhain reveling in one and the same vision that awakened blurry excitement one senses at the onset of experiences never before known. Mounted on a huge racehorse, crowned with a papakha-hat and red stripes along the blue trousers, I saw myself galloping by the Petkhain balconies, bent from the weight of the goitrous and eternally pregnant housewives, embittered by the doomed stability of their existence and deeply suffering at the sight of visiting, trim prostitutes, who exuded confidence in their sure knowledge of main secrets of the male flesh. I am galloping past the vendors stinking of sheep cheese and rotten apples, past the lop-sided synagogue, past the school building, plastered inside out with the portraits of Russian commanders and belted, for safety, by sheets of rusted iron that resembled mourning cloak. Right beyond the saddening gloom and doom of Petkhain, with no space in between, before me and my horse, there stretches the Kazakh steppe bathed in orange light with neatly parceled dunes and the red disc of the juicy sun at the horizon. Creating a wave of golden dust, my horse is tearing towards the warmth and the light -- and the horizon is shifting backwards to that unsteady line beyond which begins the sea. And at this moment, a sensation of discovering the yet-unknown secrets is emerging, strengthening, and overpowering inside me.
        However, that was not the strange part of it: this images and visions were not so much omens of my life as it would be tomorrow, but rather, -- recollection from a distance of the even more distant future. It was in those days, roaming the streets of the hushed-down Petkhain, that I first discovered in myself the ability to remember that which has never yet happened; the ability to perceive myself as the future of my own recollections, as the future of my own past. It was then that I sensed the seed of a notion that time is energy which is impossible to either stop, or divide into the past, the future, and the present.

        The only one who would not make amends with the present turned out to be Rabbi Meir.
        Before sealing the doors of the synagogue, the Chechen riders, in exchange for a container of vodka, allowed my grandfather to take with him a thick scroll of Torah, which, according to a legend, had been brought to our town by the descendants of the Babylonian Jews 25 hundred years ago. Without wasting any time, my grandfather placed the scroll on the dinner table in our living room, unwrapped its colorless slip-cover, pushed away its right reel, and sunk into the reading of the cracked parchment. With the eyes inflamed by tension, he was searching in the Torah for that tiny slip of the pen that must have brought about the otherwise unexplainable tragedy of mass exile that had befallen on the Jews of the Georgian Jerusalem. Suspecting, however, that God, although cunning, is never evil minded, Rabbi Meir was hoping that the invasion by the Chechens was not so much the fatal punishment for that tiny slip of the pen, but rather, a reminder of the redeeming powers of its discovery.
        And so, in the beginning of March, at dawn, heavy snowflakes started pouring down from the sky. Most of them, for some reason, fell onto our house. Each of us by his or her own window, we sat in our beds and stared enigmatically upon our white balcony and the anxious sparrows flying about it. Rabbi Meir, who had not slept in three nights, was busy with the parchment that was now rolled down to the bone of the reel. It was still. Then, suddenly, the snow stopped. It became very bright and, after a minutes pause, thick raindrops were falling down from the sky. The very same instant, my grandfathers hollow scream came from the living room:
        Here it is!
        I held my breath and exchanged a glance with my father, who was carefully unwrapping the blanket around himself.
        Here it is!, my grandfather screamed again. Here: Spill the dew! The heavens will spill the dew!
        We tore into the living room and stumbled upon my grandfather trembling from excitement. His eyes were burning with the fire of a saint who can no longer contain his feelings. Pausing for breath, he drew my father towards the Torah:
        I found the mistake. There: And Israel will live alone, in peace. Jacobs eye will see the land of bread and wine, and the heavens will spill the dew. Its in this word -- dew
        It became still again. Rain shuffled about outside. My grandfather approached the window-ledge, poured a glass of vodka from a decanter standing there, and whispered under his breath:
        Le Khaim!
        As he was raising the glass to his mouth, the entrance door screeched and the half-crazy shames, Yoska-the-Fatso, powdered with snow, tumbled into the room. My ear started buzzing, and I recalled that if the superstition is correct, I was about to hear some strange news now. Yoska looked around and shyly muttered four words into the space:
        I... mean... Stalin... died...
        The rain stopped and there were no sounds left at all. Finally, the doormat, smeared with melted snow, screeched under the Fatso, and my grandfather swallowed the vodka in one gulp.
        That was how my first exile into that nonexistent paradise was revoked, without the deafening nostalgia for which, I still havent learned to exist.

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