Tatyana Tolstaya, Two Short Stories

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson

THE SEA

The Holy Land in April in the days before Easter snakes and shimmers in the sunshine like grass silk of an preternatural green. It seems never ending. It seems that as far as the eye can see the world is made of green waves shifting and quivering in the wind. Yet turn a corner, blink, and it`s gone.

Our car races between the hills and the world turns to sandy hummocks the shade of yellowish loaves, that repeat and stretch into the distance without end. We lower the window. The wind smells of stone and space. Grey green scrub dots the slopes. A tattered blue bedouin tent marks a distant hollow. These are the hills of Judea and a little behind them lies the wilderness where Christ wandered. “Jesus remained there for 40 days in the company of wild animals, tempted by Satan” the Bible says. The stillness outside is audible even from inside the car. True, we have Eddie`s running commentary, the man we hired for 200 shekels along with the car. Or rather, we hired the car and Eddie came with it.

They told us Eddie was a first rate guide, who had lots of experience and knew the ropes. He had agreed to drive us to the Dead Sea, to Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and beyond: anywhere in fact where light, time, petrol and energy sufficed. Right now Eddie was driving us mad with his constant comments and chivvying. He had come to the hotel in the morning and immediately ticked us off for sitting around6 drinking coffee. It was the first time we had set eyes on him.

  • “Well. Will you be indulging yourselves much longer? Are you always like this? We agreed on ten. I`ve got people waiting for me. Are you from Kharkov? No? Why not? Oh, Moscow? Do you know Volodya?”
  • “Eddie, perhaps you`d like to have some coffee? Or some breakfast?”
  • “Actually, I`ve just eaten, but never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Eddie perked up. Never refuse a free meal.`

We sat and waited patiently for Eddie to finish eating. Then he took us out to a car that was already filled to bursting. Inside was Eddie`s friend, with a look of terminal boredom on his face; the son of Eddie`s friend, two bags belonging to Eddie`s friend that had badminton rackets protruding from them; bundles of food and bottles of water. While Eddie had been eating, the water had warmed up, the friend had wilted and the boy was out for the count with his mouth open.

  • “I`m Misha “– the friend said dourly.
  • “Is this your son?”
  • “My tenth” Misha sighed. “What about Chernomyrdin then? Did he get the chop?”
  • “Find yourself some space in the back” Eddie instructed.

Then he started talking, without drawing breath, putting a name to everything that crossed our path. Like Adam.

  • “Those there are hills” he said. `Hills. Can you see them? We`re now heading east across the hills. Above the hills you can see sky. Can you see the sky? Look to your right and bend you head. Do you see it there? Over there`s a camel. That`s a camel. Over there are Bedouins. That`s their dust trail. The road`s bending now. We`re crossing the desert.”
  • “This place is the sticks” Misha muttered. “Call this a country? It`s sticks!”

Eddie suddenly braked.

  • “Right. Get out and take some photographs.”
  • “Why?”
  • “You must. See that marker. That`s sea level. We`re going below sea level. Get out of the car.”

We dutifully got out and took some photographs. The son of friend Misha woke up thirsty and we gave him something to drink. The road ran on and on, winding between yellowish grey rocks, lofty stone cupolas and bare chasms, plunging down empty, ancient and uninhabited since the beginning of time. All at once, the road broke off and a vast empty space stretched before us. The car turned right – into a dead, stony desert glinting with mica and salt.

The sun blinded. The salt gleamed. Ahead of us to our left lay the heavy silver blue of the Dead Sea. To our right rose the reddish sandy peaks of the cliffs. Silence. Beauty. The desert opened out and unfolded to meet us like a biblical stroll. Pure, scoured by the heat of the sun, whistled clean to the wind. To the east rose the dark blue mountains of Moab. There lay Jordan, another country.

Somewhere over there, a bit further north, up there by the River Jordan – they gestured towards the dark blue range, to Moab, to the other side – Moses stopped on a mountain and looked out over the Promised Land. A yellow salty land glinting with silver in the sunlight. Green and luxuriant, strewn in springtime with blood red poppies and star anemones. A land flowing with milk and honey. So close, yet so unattainable. Moses was not to cross the River Jordan and somewhere over there lies his grave. They waved also towards his grave. Over there. No over there. Not there. There.

What it have been like? As Moses stood there resting his weight on his staff, his hands mottled with time, grit scattering beneath his weary callused feet, his tattered clothes lifting in the breeze? What can it have been like? When he surveyed the river, perhaps straining to focus bloodshot eyes, bleary with age, clouded with cataracts? What can he have thought on that last day? I am here…? We are here…? It has all come to pass?

  • “What do you make of Kirienko?” Misha asked glumly.
  • “That`s water over there. That`s the sea` Eddie said.`Look ahead of you at the sea. What you looking behind for? Look ahead. Do you see it? The sea. Those are waves.”
  • “We can see them.”
  • “No, what are you looking at? Did you see the sea? Look at the sea!”

The boy was hungry. We fed him. Eddie stopped the car.

  • “Get out!”
  • “Why?”
  • “We`ll take your photographs.”
  • “But we don`t want our photographs taken.”
  • “What do you mean you don`t want them taken? You must. Everyone gets their photographs taken here. It`s the Pillars of Salt. The wife of…whosit.”

By the roadside stood small stone pillars, greyish yellow like everything round about them. They were liberally daubed with graffiti in all the languages of the world. Rust red inscriptions sprayed or painted on.

  • “Why aren`t you getting out? It`s the wife of that…Sodom.” Eddie pressed us. “You don`t want to? Well, don` say I didn`t give you the chance, that`s all! Look at your right. Bananas. Have you got bananas in Moscow? Can you get a banana?”
  • “Call this a country? It`s the back of beyond.” Misha whinged. “Do you think anybody here needs your degrees?”

We didn`t think anything. We wanted peace and quiet. We wanted a long , no an endless drive in silence between the Dead Sea and the dead hills the colour of camel skin. The colour of rust, the colour of tea roses. The colour of wormwood.

For a moment we glimpsed a banana grove in an oasis, then once more we saw only the salt in the sunlight, the bright wind, the slow waves of sea, the haze perpetually hovering over the water. This sea has no fish, no crabs, no reeds and is therefore bereft of birds. Far far to the south its strange sterile water drains away. Flows silvering into the sky and falls silent. This is not the breezy blue water of the Mediterranean with its seagulls, dolphins and fishing smacks. With its bright yellow nets draped to dry on harbour walls and its morning catch slapping into baskets like flashes of mercury. Here there is nothing to catch; there is no reason to sing. This is different. Here no one lives, or plants and harvests, fries and steams, or gives birth. No one slaps open their shutters in the morning, or calls out to each other across courtyards.

Here people come to listen for different voices. Here Satan spreads out his fata morgana of glittering dust before the righteous man, his brocaded mirage of earthly power and unlimited wealth. Here God speaks from the thunder cloud, from thorn bush, from the rock. Here He threatens and demands repentance. He laughs and curses. Here, insatiable, He demands to be loved.

  • “Did you remember your swimming costumes?” Eddie asks. “I advise you to get into the water backwards, or you`ll slip. The water`s so good for you it cures any sores. I advise twenty minutes, no more. You`ll float like corks. You know, you can read a newspaper in it! Did you bring one with you?”

The fact that you can read a newspaper in the Dead Sea is mentioned in every guidebook in every country in every language imaginable. For visual effect they often add a photograph of some plump soul in glasses bobbing and smiling in the water, as though they really were at home in their armchair reading a newspaper. Why you should read a newspaper in the Dead Sea is a mystery: at home they are best avoided.

Eddie felt let down. We should at least have brought a tabloid and, of course, had our photographs taken.

On the shore people were standing around and sitting without their clothes on, daubed pale black. They had smeared themselves with healing mud from the sea bed. Deposits of this blue-black soapy-smooth mud lie like plasticine under rocks a yard from the shore. People collect it in polythene bags and take it home. They cannot take away the water, but the sea salt is as effective as the mud and available on every corner. The guidebook says that Cleopatra smeared herself with mud, and it was highly recommended by Aristotle. Water from the Dead Sea is the most efficacious treatment for skin complaints known. Nearly half the people who have one month`s treatment in the local spas are cured for life. The spas are not cheap, but the Sea`s rocky shores are bare, wide, absolutely free of charge and just forty minutes drive from Jerusalem.

From my childhood I remember a question from “Geography can be fun”. Where can you not drown? Drowning in the Dead Sea really is hard as sinking in a rubber ring. The water contains ten times the salt of the Mediterranean and forces you up to the surface. Get a drop in your eyes, however, and you will be miming the agony to your friends for years to come. Its taste is so caustic and salty that you will not forget a drop on your tongue either. People swimming in the Dead Sea do not plash and splash, but solemnly pull past each other in a sitting position, as though they were balancing on stools under water. There are fresh water showers on the shore, and after sampling the sea and a shower you experience a sense of total rebirth, as though you are wearing an airy new body and a silky skin, that has never been tried before. It makes you ponder the deeper meaning of the fable about the raven that flies off in search of dead and living waters to revive a corpse. You cannot help reflecting on all the healings, resurrections and transfigurations that have adorned the history of this land.

  • “Now you`ll want some shut-eye` Eddie assured us. `We must go home.”
  • “But we`d still like to see…”
  • “No way. You`ll want a snooze. And you must eat.”
  • “But you promised….”
  • “The boy is tired. We must think of the boy. We`ll just play some badminton then we`ll be off. You can take photos in the meantime.”
  • “But it`s still early. We could go to Qumran!”
  • “There`s nothing to see there and the car won`t make it.`

It would have been as useless to argue with Eddie as plead with a bookie. We sat and watched as the tenth son passed by on roller skates and Misha and Eddie batted a shuttle cock between them, having bathed at our expense, and dark figures wandered across the pale shore. The road twisted and ran far off to the south, but we were not to take it. Ah Moses!

  • “This isn`t a country. It`s pits!” Misha cursed. His son had fallen asleep again, worn out by the trip. “Do you think this is a place to bring up children? Do you think they read books here? And the people! Do you call this a nation?”

We said nothing.

  • “In Canada one scientist spent ten years decoding the Bible.” Eddie said for our edification. “He worked out that if you combine all the letters correctly it says: Lenin, Marx and Engels. Yes it does! You must have heard about it? What do you think?”

We said nothing.

*******************************************************************************************

THE ROCK FACE

“Jerusalem is built as a city knit firmly together” the Psalmist said and today that description is more apt than ever. The Old Walled City, just one kilometre square, encompasses four Quarters: Christian, Armenian, Muslim and Jewish. Building is squashed upon building: what is roof to one is floor to another. The streets are stepped: you clamber upwards and find yourself lower, not higher, than you started; you strike out straight ahead and circle back to where you began. Some of the streets are covered and you feel you are wandering down the corridor of a large Moscow flat, whose occupants have spilled out of their rooms to sell you all their belongings: meat, crucifixes, vases, sandals, carpets, herbs, nuts, garish blankets with tigers on them, beads, coffee, pies, saucepans, tiles, film, Nintendo games and icons. Jammed onto the steps elbow to elbow, a crowd of tourists edges along both sides of the street, for some reason not stepping to left or right like tourists the world over.

Enticing lanes and alleyways snake off either side of the tourist track, but they are deserted save for an Arab beauty stepping in the distance, amply squeezed into lurex and a dazzling white headscarf. Other streams of people insinuate their way into the crowd: groups of pilgrims and tourists on the trail of guides. We are walking the length of the Via Dolorosa, the 14 Stations of the Cross to Golgotha where Christ was crucified. The guidebook says the route has no historical basis and was mostly dreamed up in the eighteenth century – but describes it in detail nevertheless. Here the Lord fell. Here He met his Mother. Here Simon of Cyrene put his shoulder to the cross and helped carry it. Here the Lord fell again. This was where He leaned on the wall. Here is the indent.

In our party the women, two elderly Armenians and a pale, seraphic old man shed quiet tears, whispered amongst themselves and fingered the spot. We flicked through the guidebook: the wall was built in the fourteenth century. An enormously fat lady who moved with difficulty on swollen legs continually rippled with dry sobs, clenching a handkerchief in her teeth and a friend in her arm, half dead with exhaustion. We less sensitive souls distracted ourselves with a glance at the stalls lining the Way of the Cross from end to end. Crucifixes, mezuzas, crescents, all jumbled together on one stall. What do you believe? Eenie meenie minie mo.

Sasha our guide was patiently repeating:

  • “So-o. Do not buy anything. No gold, no icons, no film. After we`ve been to the Church of the Sepulchre we are going to a shop where you can get terrific things half price. I repeat: half price. All eyes over here. Everyone listen. Where Jesus fell the third time we`re going to turn right, and everyone must watch for my umbrella. E-everyone watch for my umbrella. When I raise my umbrella hand, e-everyone gather round and don`t get left behind.”

Sasha launched himself easily into the crowd and we like sheep struggled after him, only to get caught in the crowd`s cross currents and slowly spun off course. There he was on the steps, waving his umbrella! But no, it was another guide. There he goes again! Again, someone else. The trouble was each one brandished an umbrella! Led astray by false shepherds we got left behind, but patient as always Sasha was waiting for us at the top of a flight of steps. We scrambled up with hands and feet, none of us waiting for the fat lady and her friend.

There was a small courtyard in a cluster of buildings: one small edifice on top of another, mossy plasterwork, nooks, crannies, green doors under red ribbed porticos. It was an Abyssinian monastery. On a folding garden chair sat an Ethiopian in lilac tunic, black burnous and black hat, watching impassively the way people watch you when you are one of a hundred thousand.

We dived into a doorway and found ourselves inside a church – right under its eaves, no less. We nipped downstairs to where a service was taking place and people were singing. Ethiopian icons hung on the wall like children`s paintings. The church doubled as a shortcut like everywhere else in the vicinity – because it is all built as a city knit firmly together. We emerged in the direction of a small square in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the magnet for all Christian pilgrims. Sasha waited until everyone had caught up.

  • “Ri-ight. Get out your crucifixes, icons and have you. We will go in and place them on the right side of the Stone of Anointment. I repeat, on the right side. What you put there will be blessed. Inside the church we will walk around separately. There`s a huge crowd inside. On your right upstairs id Golgotha. On your left – the Lord`s Sepulchre. We will join the queue one by one and touch the holy relics. I will be waiting for you all in an hour with my umbrella. Prepare your things for blessing!”

There was consternation in our party and a feverish rummaging in bags.

  • “What happens if you put it on the left side?…”
  • “Does it work through polythene?…”
  • “What if it`s not mine? – look, it`s not my icon. My neighbour asked me to put it on…”

The fat lady caught up and with her friend`s help wandered towards the low entrance like a blind woman, feeling before her with one hand. The pale old man stood stiff as a rod, in the grip of emotion. The Armenians propped each other up, arms linked. The young people darted ahead. What was going on in the souls of all these people and what did this holy place mean to them? Was this the right place? Did that even matter?

The guidebook said flatly that the Church disappoints many visitors. It has no majesty or architectural significance, being squeezed between some walls, storage sheds and lean-tos. Everything about it has been built and re-built, done and only half-done. Six different Christian faiths own it and cannot agree among themselves how to finish the roof. The Church has been destroyed more than once and hit by an earthquake. And if that was not enough, it is not clear that it really stands on Golgotha, or that the sepulchre discovered nearby really belonged to the Saviour.

The first Christians knew where Jesus was crucified and buried but they were Jews and forbidden to enter the city after the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD. Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, visited Jerusalem in 326 AD and was shown the legendary spot. She found a Roman temple to Venus on the site of the Sepulchre and a statue of Jupiter on Golgotha. She had them razed to the ground and in the course of the work a Roman cistern was discovered where crosses used in crucifixions had been thrown. Empress Helena indentified one of these as the True Cross. Should we believe her? She had no blinding revelation. These were just ordinary archaeological finds, now sanctified by tradition.

Inside the church the thick gloom slowly stirred with the light of thousands of candles. They came in all shapes and sizes: tapering, thick, twisted, painted, etched, smooth, bulbous and bundles. They were mounted, hanging, being carried from place to place. There was a smell of incense. A smell of candle wax. The place was thick with people on their own and in parties.

Ours split up. Some people forced their way into the queue for the Sepulchre, many bodies deep, and others mounted the steps to Golgotha. A canopy – or table – juts out over the crucifixion site. I do not know if it has a technical name. If you bend double and crawl under it you can see the top of a rock face – a smooth knob of stone – under a thick shield of bullet-proof glass in the floor lit by an electric beam. There were various offerings and decorations on it – crucifixes and flowers perhaps – but there is no time to look around and take note, because you have to crawl out backwards on all fours. You are glad just to have fitted underneath the thing and pressed your lips to glass. Golgotha is such a rammy.

The Catholics and Orthodox have constantly feuded over it. The southern part belongs to the Catholics and the north to the Orthodox, but people converge on it from all sides. If you don`t drive a wedge into the crowd as though you were boarding the tube at rush hour, the relentless impetus of the believers will force you out. It seems idiotic to push and shove on Golgotha, and a bit obscene, but could you really leave without kissing the glass?

Our pilgrims, predictably, were in a state:

  • “Seryozha, Seryozha! It`s your turn! Why let them in? They were behind you!”

I pressed forward. I elbowed Seryozha aside. I crawled in and I kissed the glass. I tried to magnify the Lord, but felt nothing, although I was trying. I could not magnify Him on all fours. I backed put.

  • “Get a move, woman! There`s a queue…”

Downstairs at the chapel built on the Sepulchre there stood a long unbroken queue. People were muttering in every language: there was a steady hum. I already recognised some of the faces. The pale old man even straighter, even paler, even more seraphic. The fat lady on the verge of hysteria was bobbling and wobbling her head, and biting her handkerchief to stifle a silent screen. The Armenians stood together as before, their arms linked, staring at the floor.

  • “Do they let you in one by one?”
  • “In fours, I think.”
  • “It`s taking ages.”
  • “They`re just making a mockery of us.”
  • “What are Japanese doing here?”
  • “They want to have a look too…”

Groups of Japanese – or they could have been Chinese – were moving from place to place like trained scouts without losing track of each other. One party wore red hats, another yellow, a third blue. They found their groups easily with no need of an umbrella. We edged forward. Suddenly a deacon appeared with a face like thunder, slammed the door to the chapel of the Sepulchre and all but shouted in German then in Greek. His face showed loathing for the crowd. The rabble. Us.

  • “What did he say? What did he say?”
  • “Are they closing already or what?2
  • “Why on earth didn`t Sasha warn us?”
  • “Do they close for lunch or something?”
  • “This is an absolute outrage!!” shouted the pale seraphic man, unexpectedly.

Sasha appeared from nowhere, squeezes through to where we stood and calmed us down. They would close for fifteen minutes then re-open. They were having a religious ceremony or something, then they would let everyone in.

It was stifling, packed, hot, frenetic and dark. Five yards from me was the tomb of Christ. His disciples had come, the stone had been rolled away, the tomb was empty and lo, there He was – in the flesh, resurrected, with shining visage. Death by death overcome…

Holed down in the tomb, on the third day I shall rise

And like a toil of tugs, or timber on the tide

The centuries will pull out of the assoiling gloom

And stand judgement before my radiant eyes.

I was tired of standing and my feet were sore. When all`s said and done, I thought, He has risen from the dead, He is not here, it is only an empty space. If they don`t re-open…But no, they re-opened. There were two minuscule rooms inside the chapel, the first with a large stone. The guidebook suddenly cast aside its scepticism and said this was “Perhaps part of the round stone covering the entrance to the Sepulchre, which the Angel levered away. “ Levered away. Angel. Like a car mechanic.

The second room contained the Sepulchre. It was a crypt with a stone groove hacked into the rock face: a resting place for the dead, a stone shelf in stone walls. Everything was draped in posies of flowers, embroidered cloths, trimmings, mats and curtains. Magenta stitched with gold. Despite the heat of the candles and icon lamps, the stone was frigid to the touch, gleaming and shiny, buffed smooth by a million hands and lips. These candles, flowers and crude bright coverlets that had something home-made about them, were an attempt to tame the crushing weight of stone, to dispel the deathly darkness. I found them touching…But only for amoment, because people behind were stamping impatient feet and the deacon watched from the Stone of the Angel with an awful Byzantine stare, ready to bawl out dawdlers. Why are these Orthodox priests so hard on people? `Only have faith`, the pilgrim in me said. `Just don`t mouth off at me`, came back the tourist.

It was a relief to be outside after the squash and hubbub of the Temple, but I had a vague sense of shame. You were supposed to experience heightened emotion, but experienced none – least of all in the Temple. Or in the Garden of Gethsemane. Or on the Way of the Cross. But occasionally – at a street corner, or looking down over towers and cupolas from a hillside; or simply driving towards Jerusalem with the city apparently suspended overhead, or wandering into a silent court yard where doves murmured and washing hung out to dry, I had a momentary sense of being close to something sacred: a sense that seemed to be instantly accessible to my chance companions. No sooner had they been squabbled and shoving, than they would emerge transfigured and hushed. For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sasha waved his umbrella chirpily and the flock wove in behind him.

  • “Now you can go shopping! Here`s the shop! They`ll give you coupons. Remember, everything`s half price with coupons. Ha-alf price, everything, even gold! Terrific things, stamped by the Ministry of Tourism.”
  • “All dollyar hat! All dollyar hat!” the traders shouted in Russian.
  • “It`s all half price. Do you understand?” Sasha fretted. “Just for you! Half! So?….”

But the pilgrims sat out side on the steps, stretching tired legs and thinking their own thoughts. Their eyes had seen the holy relics and they had no need of tat from Taiwan.