Aleksandar Prokopiev

Human, all too human

This fairy-tale is not to be told at night on the motorway


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

(William Butler Yeats Sailing to Byzantium)

On the opposite bank, from the depths of the forests and through the mist that evaporated after the rain, a flock of birds flew almost vertically into the sky. Their cries echoed in the mist above the worried looks of the men and horses gathered on the riverbank, themselves soaked in the whitish sighs of the mushy soil—nameless members of a wild horde of centaurs, wandering aimlessly before their meeting with the Master of the Underground.

They had been following the river for two whole days and nights. At first they had fooled themselves they could outrun the babbling water. Now as they stood amidst the ghastly dying cries of the unreal shadows that had flown overhead, the river seemed ominous and immobile—a pool of dark green mud.

How have I ended up in this nowhere?

The rider looked about the enchanted emptiness as he struggled to calm his nervous animal. In the cramped muscles and cold sweat of his stallion he sensed the onslaught of his own madness. Earthly and devilish roads had intertwined and the time was fast approaching when the reins were to be relinquished to the mercy of the other—the maddened one, the one fleeing from reason. In the great year of darkness the rider recognized the signs—signs outside of books and beyond the order of letters:

 It is in here that the breath of our ancestors is hidden. The Oriental’s forefinger moved over the carvings. They carved their secret in this stone and then disappeared. Lightning and thunder announced it was time to leave. Who were they? For the deities, too, sunny days are migratory birds. A mere blink and it is autumn already. Silence. But the stone preserves their wounds from other people’s oblivion. Stretch out your hand. Can you feel the passion being released? And when you look at it, you think it is a bloodless stone that cannot suffer. Do you desire it? Still pressing the rider’s hand between his own hand and the amulet, the Syrian lifted his eyes under falling strands of greying hair. You are a noble. Your retinue are proud and harsh people. But I am not afraid of the sword. I left my fear in Beirut, in the ashes of what was once my home. And it was prophesized that I would be the donor to pass on the stone with a blessing. I, the descendant of Seth, who foretold the hour of death to Robert Guiscard. It was said that the stone would pass through hundreds of lives. Mine and yours are only gulps of water in its unstoppable flow.

The Syrian grinned, making his youngest attendant splutter—scared by the stories about the bloodthirsty Gylo that sucks the blood of children in the desert and leaves their skins sagging. The beardless young man’s cough, brief and sporadic, shifted the heavy space like a nimble sparkle absorbed in a silent embrace. Do not fool yourself into believing it will protect you, at least not in the way that fools who decorate themselves with golden chains believe they will... Ours is a fragile world in which we sell our princesses to the barbarians for a peace that will last only two years. No-one can claim to be innocent. The wolf packs from the East are a hundred-headed hydra, the warriors from the North are a frozen wind from the endless steppes that ravage the Holy City. In the past the Empire could turn their fierceness against each other, but what shall we do now? The stone will not help you if only your eyes can give you satisfaction, if you can’t see anything else but the dark surface of light. But if the light looks for refuge inside you, it might let you know some of its wisdom. Its predictions burst forth unexpectedly, like green moss on a bare beaten rock. Even though he was warned that the first who stepped upon Trojan soil would be murdered immediately, the son of Laertes was the first to jump out of the ship—but onto his shield which he had previously thrown onto the shore. He stayed alive and won fame.

The intermingled blood of the heroes, leaking from the eye-holes in their bronze armour like seeds sprouting from their slashed irises, turned the river red. War-cries and death rattles floated off together with the waves—the proud rage of the slain who had suffered for their hubris, a grey-bearded veteran joined together with a fiery boy in the eternal embrace of Charon’s waters. All of us gathered here have a Patroclus sunk in final loneliness, voicelessly mourning the Sun beneath which he would toil all day and night if only he could feel the touch of its rays again. The morning after the battle found a pack of dogs feeding on the corpses of the defeated—corpses dusted with snow—a spectacle worthy of the creation of the world.

He was left with the same impression as when he had watched the northern barbarians play their silent game with girls, a young man tempting a girl to repeat his acrobatics at an ever faster pace, each feat more difficult than the last. That game celebrated health; this was a celebration of death. And yet in both scenes it was the same light that spilled over the figures and the landscapes—light like the shafts that pierce through the wire mesh of insect-screens and fill the womb of the bedroom. The light of heavenly grace which changed the ordered relationship that seemingly existed down here between the face and its voice, between the object and its movement, the blissful stroke of our ethereal Father. He could feel the boundless kindness and immeasurable strength that extended both above and below the clouds. He could feel the curls of the conquered girls, the flash of creation everywhere, everywhere...

The Syrian’s scornful, gravelly voice brought him back to the stark reality of the cold mist on the river bank. Painfully he began to peel back the serene veneer of the idealized vision.

 The one who had the stone before me mixed wisdom with madness. He was known by the name of Constantine Anastasis, a learned patrician from the capital sent to administer our province. They say the hot sun stirs vain fantasies in Eastern rulers—fantasies of achieving immense powers for the new Empire, fantasies bolstered by gigantic statues. Down here a man asks for more and takes more, surrounded in his hammock by exotic plants. Thus Constantine, having learnt about the stone, was tormented by mad visions of what he could achieve if only he possessed it. He referred to his books and recited long prayers. But all he could see among the written pages and icons was the stone. He began searching, discreetly at first, then more and more frantically. And at the thirtieth sunset, by the martyrs’ grave in the apse of the martyrium, one of his spies whispered to him that the stone was hidden in the house of Moses, son of Azzai, a trader in the Jewish quarter. And so Constantine ordered his guards to have the trader brought to him. And in accordance with the magnanimous imperial law permitting Jews to work even as court administrators, he decided to welcome this Moses with a smile.

He could picture them together. The tenseness of the administrator’s body poorly concealed in his emerald-green velvet tunic, a grinning spasm on his face. The stooping figure of the Jew on his way from the tannery to the palace, bidding farewell to the jokes around the family table, to the serene murmur in the synagogue... By the time he stood before the potentate, he had purified himself of almost all fear, stooping not from humility in the face of his despised tormentor but because of his hereditary rheumatism. He thought of the trader mocking the arrogant Christian masters who squandered all their skills on fashion and intrigues at the Hippodrome between races and had no time to remember their people.

Yet again the hoarse voice of the Syrian cut through the living skein of the imagined scene.

The Jew had never used the stone. They say his Rabbi had advised him not to do so, repeating the words of Rabbi Hillel: ‘Do not be conspicuous in your community! Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death!’ He cited the example of Simon, Zoma’s son, famous as ‘Ben Zoma’ for his wisdom and kindness—hence the saying ‘Whoever sees Ben Zoma in his dream is assured of scholarship’—but who became carried away with his studies, became engrossed in Pardes, and bid farewell to his reason. Despite this advice, Moses ben Azzai was not willing to part with the miraculous stone and kept it in a casket in a secret compartment within the walls of his house in a hiding-place known only to his wife. Every evening he would lock himself in his room, take out the casket and open it to stare at the stone, enchanted. And even when Constantine applied the fiercest torture, Moses still refused to reveal the whereabouts of the stone. And so Constantine, with wicked cunning, ordered his guards to bring Moses’ wife and children to the underground torture-chamber. There they found, in place of their father, a mangled heap of torn and bloody flesh in chains, squirming and squealing from something that must once have been a face—one gouged-out eye amidst the horrific mess, another maddened with unspeakable pain. Rachel, Moses’ obedient wife, for all that she had been brought up on the histories of her ancestors’ sufferings, could not long endure the mad desperation in the eye of her beloved, an eye that could no longer even recognize her. Thus Constantine Anastasis obtained his stone.

- ...and hung it from his neck. They say that when he appeared before his servants the following morning his hair had gone grey and his eyes grown wild. He was seen drifting through the fields, his purple cloak waving behind him. And spurring his horse into a mad gallop, he disappeared before the eyes of the astounded soldiers watching from the city walls.

Looking at the tense face of the youngest attendant in his retinue, it occurred to him that many of these excitable young men seen as wasting themselves on cheap pleasures in the cities were often misjudged—in reality they were torn by restlessness and a fruitless search for meaning.

- ... and he never returned. First they found the riderless horse and later, in a forest clearing, they found his body, the skull cracked. It soon became known that the horse’s name was Theophilus, called after the one who sold his soul to the devil in a contract signed with his own blood.

- And the stone? The hissing of his own voice resembled a muffled echo from hell. How did the stone end up with you?

The Syrian stared at him with bulging bloodshot eyes. They said that the soul of the tortured Jew entered the horse. For that blow of its hoof, cracking the very centre of his skull, could not have been directed so precisely by a senseless animal. It must have been guided by a human hand...

It seemed to him that the Syrian’s voice wavered like that of an old man, or perhaps its obvious deflation was caused by the tensed fist of the moment that crushed all present. When I grabbed the stone, when I felt its pores next to mine... I was a young man in an unstoppable rush. As tall as you...Strong and thirsty... and now...

The withered and weakened hand held out the stone, the noble message carved on its surface—the message of the people of the golden race, those gods in human form who had enjoyed the world of white unicorns. Their message was destined to live on through the greed and recklessness of their descendants of clay: the son of Azzai, the patrician Constantine, the poor Syrian, and himself, and the young enchanted attendant who devoured the stone with his greedy look—all of them prisoners of their own vileness.

On his deathbed, his father, who had once so adored Plato, had whispered madly in his ear, fidgeting with his hair as if trying to rid himself of lice. Can you see those figs over there? Your mother brought them in. You think they look lovely? Juicy? The colour inside is a dark royal purple. But they stink! They stink! She’s poisoning me, son! See that stuff floating in my soup? Your bitch of a mother said it was pieces of fresh fish—juicy morsels and roe you’d think would make you drool. But I cut through the flesh and it reeks! His father had convinced himself that his most loyal ally—the only one person who had stuck by his side in the hard years of exile, who had followed him to desert islands, encouraged and advised him and borne him two sons and brought them up his with pride and warmth—was poisoning him. Even his own father, his bright paradigm of teacher and adviser, had not been able to escape the mark of the beast. What then could he hope for himself, so much lower and more soiled than his father? Self-exile, perhaps, but where? His father had had a home with a library and enough time to interpret books about animals for him on warm summer evenings, yet still he had cracked in the end. What did he have? A deserted parental house with no one to look after it since his brother, entangled in eunuchs’ plans, never visited the place. When those who called themselves guardians of the faith, with necklaces of wild boar’s teeth hanging from their fat necks, ransacked the Imperial City and soiled its squares, hurling curses and gnawed bones in their endless feasts, he had ceased to feel sure that next time they would stop at breaking down the gates and pillaging. His military rank of pronoiar, which in times like these denoted merely a minor army commander, brought only accusations, intrigues and uncertainties from which he had so far managed to escape but which he knew would eventually ensnare him.

Perhaps God had made him childless on purpose so that he could alienate himself more easily from everything but the fragile defence of thought. If it was his destiny for losses to outweigh joys, didn’t this appropriation of the imprint of the divine dancer on the softness of the stone predict his final defeat? What if he were to throw it into the deepest cave or abandon it in the remotest desert? He had chased the Syrian across the entire Empire, as tense as one about to take a leap into the dark, but now when he finally reached him in the abode of the forest dwarfs he accepted the carved stone calmly, almost languidly. Should he throw it to that young attendant whose sharp look pierced his back? Or hide it in his bosom with a victorious smile? It was all the same. The opaque eye at the centre of the stone watched him coldly—an ant, an unimportant speck in the shapelessness of Time. And whether it was on the following day or ten years later, he would merely be replaced by a different speck, naïve or bright or suffering but equally insignificant—human, all too human.

Translation: Matthew and Marija Jones

На Растку објављено: 2012-01-27
Датум последње измене: 2012-01-27 13:34:37

Пројекат Растко / Проект Растко Македонија