Saturday, April 08, 2006

Miracle at Jerusalem

Excerpt (pp. 76- 85) taken from the Time of Miracles, English translation by Lovett F. Edwards; copyright © 1976 by Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Northwestern University Press, 1994. Originally published in Serbian –Vreme čuda, © 1965 by Borislav Pekić.

(…) Valerius Gratus strolled on lazily, paying no attention to the crush of the tormented, but Pilate several times was on the verge of bursting out in howls so that, deafened by his own voice, he might drown out all the others.

“Let’s choose someone who isn’t too talkative and boring,” said the old hand, “and among the Zion beggars that could only be Mesezeveilo, known as the Mute. He was born dumb and begs in front of Amonach’s tavern.” (…)

(…) Not far from the door stood Mesezeveilo, a stocky Ishmaelite overgrown with gray hair and dressed in rags. In a deformed hand he was holding an earthenware bowl with which, by clinking coins in it, he hoped to arouse the generosity of passers-by. With the other hand he leaned on a thick staff. From his dumb lips, as if from a well almost dry, gurgled fragmentary sounds that expressed his feelings and thoughts. (…)

In the mean time Gratus was asking the mute: “By this coin I can see that a Roman has passed by here. Am I right?”

Mesezeveilo jumped up and down, squeaking, as a sign of agreement.

“Are you a favorite of my legionaries?”

Mesezeveilo again leaped up and squeaked an affirmative reply.

“And you,” Gratus asked him, “do you like us Romans?”

Mesezeveilo jumped up, raised his staff and, squeaking like a rat, pointed alternatively to heaven and earth. Fearing he might not be understood, he repeated the same convulsive movements until Valerius Gratus translated to Pilate:

“He wants to say that his attachment to Rome is as great as the distance between heaven and earth; and even though I believe all Orientals exaggerate, he deserves a copper.”

He dropped one in the cripple’s bowl. The copper coin clinked and Mesezeveilo, as if some giant had kicked him, went on bounding up and down on the pavement. Wheezing and hissing, alternately he drove his staff now into the ground and pointed it at the heavens; his face shone with a fire of gratitude, while he thought: My Jehovah will come down, my Jehovah will plunge down from above to save the sons of Israel; very short is the way between the heaven and earth and my Jehovah will leap across it; he is a great leaper across the world, the first rider in the saddle of the planets; and you’ll have no time to burrow in the earth, nor to hide under the iron shield of death, for my Jehovah will find the Roman bloodsuckers, monsters, filth, godless idolaters, cursed by heaven and earth. A curse on you Romans – he leaped enthusiastically, pointing now to heaven and now to earth – on earth and in heaven, under the earth and under the heavens! (…)

All the time the cripple never stopped leaping up and down. He muttered unintelligible distorted syllables and was thinking: Fall from heaven, O Jehovah, and on the earth smash the Romans like the lice you once sent to Egypt as a warning, then wiped out as an absolution. Slaughter, o Lord, the tyrants with heavenly thunderbolts and earthly cleavers, so that their bleeding stumps drag along the ground and flap in the skies as a lesson to those who have been torturing us for ages past. This one especially, he repeated, thrusting his staff toward Valerius Gratus. (…)

The next passers-by were two provincials dressed like Galilean peasants. Mesezeveilo rattled his bowl and bowed just enough to accord with the modest appearance and undoubtedly shallow purses of the two travelers. He didn’t do this from cupidity, but from habit. He didn’t spare a single anathema for such worthless persons.

The elder of the two wanted to pass by, but the younger held him back: “Give to the poor, Rabbi, for theirs is the kingdom of heavens.”

The elder one answered impatiently: “A short while ago, when I asked for a contribution for expenses, didn’t you say you didn’t have a penny in your purse, Judas?”

“I’m not thinking of money, Teacher, for it’s written: ‘I will sing unto the Lord for all his mercies,’ and whatever is written must take place. I’m thinking of the treasure for which his soul yearns.” (…)

Mesezeveilo shut his eyes. He heard the elder traveler say “Ephatha”, a summons for something to open – a purse, probably – and felt and felt the gentle touch of fingers on his lips, heard the sound of coughing, and then nothing more.

When he opened his eyes those two had gone and in the bowl, which without a thought in his head he kept shaking, there was no more then before: the quadrant of good luck, the coin from Esau and the governor’s copper.

Pontius Pilate returned from Moriah without Valerius Gratus, who had been delayed at a goldsmith’s. He stood in front of Amonach’s tavern and smiled amicably at the mute. He had seen the strange behavior of the two Galileans and the cripple’s disappointment. Here was a chance, he thought, to recruit a reliable dependent and thus do the fatherland a first official service. He chose from his purse a fairly large silver dinar bearing the head of Agrippa and dropped it in the beggar’s bowl.

“What do you say to that one, friend?” he asked.

Mesezeveilo was silent.

“Come, speak freely.”

Then something improbable happened that so perplexed the governor of Judea that from then on he regarded all Orientals – rulers or criminals, slaves or nobles – as incomprehensible and, from a Roman viewpoint, irresponsible.

Something happened which like a magnet drew all the beggars on the pavement and the guard from in front of the Pretoria – something which even the astonished Mesezeveilo couldn’t understand, though he had had his doubts about the two Galilean peasants, and which he couldn’t prevent, however much he tried not to say what he thought, and prayed that Jehovah take him under his special protection: the tongue tied since birth, twisted even in his mother’s womb, was completely loosened.

Gaily, provocatively, derisively he proclaimed his most secret thoughts, silent till then, in a pure, resounding voice which hovered above the squares, above the roofs of the houses, above the synagogues, above the entire Holy City, like the outcry of the chosen people responding to the revolutionary war cry of the Lord of Hosts.

“So you ask what I have to say, Roman?” Mesezeveilo burst out as if his lungs were a smith’s bellows. “I say: Down with Rome! I say: Down with the Emperor Tiberius! Down with the procurator of Judea! Let us kill the Roman usurpers! Let us cast down the gods of the Palatine! Take up the sword, O Israel! To the flame, O Israel! Hurraaah!” he yelled, eyes rolling in astonishment6 and panic, in preposterous efforts not to think of anything so he would yelp out nothing. He was in deadly fear, like a beast before slaughter, but he couldn’t stop abusing and vilifying Rome and the Roman regime until by Pilate’s order the guards took him away, first to interrogate him as was the regulation, then to scourge him and finally to crucify him. (…)

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