Photo: Galia Siman-Tov
A Panther in Jerusalem
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Oren Waldman
Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan
Outside of Room 6, Nahum’s empty bed sticks out like a monument. I glance at the beds on both sides of it. On one side is Yitzhak, who, though he’s also been here for over two months, is certain to get out eventually. His wife, Sarah, would simply never have it any other way. On the other side is Dov. What’s going to happen to him? I notice that Nahum’s bed is much closer to his than to Yitzhak’s, and I hope it isn’t some sort of sign.
I sit down in the red chair, waiting for Dov to wake up. The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, which I left here three days ago, is lying closed on the bedside table, and I wonder if he even looked at it.
Yaffa comes in to check his vitals, and I ask her how he’s doing.
“Let’s take a look,” she says as she wraps the blood pressure cuff around his left arm and inflates it. “Ninety-five over sixty, Mr. Gaponov,” she says, looking concerned. “We don’t like that. I’m going to add some more fluids for you. How do you feel?”
Dov doesn’t answer, only signaling with his eyes that there has been no meaningful change.
“Want me to ask the doctor to up your morphine dosage?” she asks.
Dov shakes his head. “No, that’s fine, thank you,” he says meekly. “I want to maintain my clarity of mind as much as possible.”
“Fine,” says Yaffa, “but if you change your mind, just call me.” She places her hand on his shoulder for a moment and looks into my eyes with an expression I can’t decipher.
“How can I help you?” I ask him once Yaffa leaves to check on other patients.
“No one can help me. Not now,” he says at a near whisper. “I’m next, that’s all.”
I look around for help, but all I see is Nahum’s empty bed, which reminds me there’s a chance Dov is right, and he truly is next. Maybe this really isn’t a place for children, just like Nahum had told me the first time I came. It seems like an eternity ago.
I pick up The Knight in the Panther’s Skin and look at the illustrations. They’re naïve but stunning. Clearly very ancient, but containing a power and vividness I can only wish to imbue my own paintings with.
“Who’s the illustrator?” I ask Dov, hoping to distract him from thoughts of his own fate.
He opens his eyes slowly and pauses to think before answering. “They’re by a variety of Georgian sixteenth to nineteenth century painters. There’s hardly a Georgian painter who hasn’t contributed several versions and central scenes to this work. Shlonsky almost destroyed me, demanding rare and original illustrations, the kind one can only find at museums and archives. I objected to this and begged him to publish the book already. The essence of it was the words, not its appearance, I wrote to him. I was afraid the publication would be put off indefinitely.”
I pull my chair closer to Dov’s bed so that he can see the pages as well, and keep flipping through. We look at the illustrations together until he grows tired and I shut the book. Then we look at the image of Rustaveli on the cover.
“It all started because of the search for him,” he tells me.
I look at Rustaveli, sitting cross-legged and writing something on a piece of paper, hoping for Dov to explain what he means.
“That long night I told you about, the night after Frieda and Anoushka left, the rock of insult that had petrified within me was too large to ignore. I felt it with every breath I took, but I also knew what I had to do to make it go away. I knew, but I was afraid. Eventually, a moment before the first light broke over the horizon, when the world was still pitch black, I made a decision and sealed the deal.”
He takes a deep breath, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “I decided I would show them. All of them. Grisha and Roman—those bullies from school who used to beat me up. The ignorant factory floor manager, who thought he was better than me because of his title. All the Jews of Kutaisi who never accepted me as one of their own. The entire world. Frieda, and mostly Anoushka. I knew I couldn’t turn back time. Grisha and Roman would never be my friends, and the Jews of Georgia would never make me feel like I belonged. Deep inside, I think I knew that I wouldn’t get Frieda back, either. But I was ablaze with a new and unfamiliar fire, and I didn’t want to put it out. I wanted to make them, all of them, feel sorry. I wanted to show them they had been wrong. That Boris Gaponov was not just another one of the countless small fry roaming this world, metabolizing as they wait around for death. That Boris Gaponov is different, a mensch, a man. I’d make them all know my name; know they were wrong about me. As deranged as it might sound, that was the only way I could think of to take apart the boulder that threatened to crush my chest.” For a moment, he seems to regain his strength, but then he doubles back into his familiar, defeated form, and falls silent.
“The deal,” I say with trepidation, “what kind of deal did you make?”
He turns to face me, examining my face. He seems a little more peaceful now. “I had to make a deal,” he says so meekly that I almost have to hold my ear against his mouth to hear. “I knew what I wanted would cost me, and in my state that night I was ready to pay any price in order to get what I wanted. I closed my eyes and wholeheartedly agreed to hand in my future in exchange for the promise that had been made to me. I turned in my long and pathetic life of mortality for a brief one of fame and an eternal memory.”
“What kind of deal was it? Who did you make it with?” I’m surprised by the anger his words bring up in me. I wonder who he might have cut a questionable deal with and why he hadn’t asked for his wife and daughter back.
He closes his eyes and carries on, ignoring my question, his voice calm. “I had to find an object for this new realization, some heroic enterprise to commemorate this ability I knew I had.
“As fate had it, while I lay on the couch, watching the first rays of light of my first day without Frieda and Anoushka, the morning news came on the radio that had remained on all night, reporting an event that made the earth shake. The central government’s minister of culture announced that a scientific delegation would be leaving to the holy land that very day, traveling to the Monastery of the Cross, to reveal to the world the truth of what had been considered until that time merely a fairytale. To expose the face of acclaimed Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, painted on the walls of the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem.”
“What?” I say, cutting him off. “Rustaveli’s face is painted on the walls of a monastery in Jerusalem?”
Dov nods. “Only a few years earlier, the journal of a pilgrim who had visited the monastery during the eighteenth century had been discovered, in which he’d claimed to have seen the mural with his own eyes. It depicted Rustaveli kneeling in prayer. It was the only piece of evidence that could confirm the rumor that Rustaveli had lived and was buried in Jerusalem. It was only right for Georgians to reveal this fact to the world, the minister of culture said in his emotional speech, and to prove once more the cultural and scientific superiority of Soviet people over the west.
“In that moment, I realized that Rustaveli was the hatchet with which I would hew my character anew. Rustaveli would help me shed the gray factory worker and expose the Hebrew poet I was to become. All of a sudden, my entire life course became clear. My talent for languages, my love of the holy tongue and the writings of our sages, the path of suffering that had led me all the way to Georgia. Even Frieda leaving. The knowledge that I was merely giving in to fate imbued me with tranquility. For the first time in my life, I knew what I had to do, and why.
“Of course I was familiar with Rustaveli’s venerable epic. Every Georgian child is. In a moment of epiphany, I realized this is what fate had in store for me: translating the sublime work of literature that had been composed in the Land of Israel, in our holiest city, into the language of our ancestors. Knowing that there was a grand, invisible plan, and that little old me was merely fulfilling my role within it was nearly enough to make me a religious man that day.”
He pauses and sips some water. I can tell he’s very excited, very different than the peaceful, introverted person I’d known up until now. I wonder which of the two is the real Gaponov, which is Dov and which is Boris. I begin to realize that the distinction might be harder to make than I’d thought. “But didn’t you go looking for them? Didn’t you try to convince Frieda to come home?” I ask, a little more aggressively than I intended.
“No,” he says simply, either not noticing or ignoring my tone. “At that stage, I couldn’t really make a different choice or take up a different point of view. Every evening, I came home from the factory, sat down at my desk, and didn’t get up before the break of dawn. I wrote ceaselessly, only pausing when my hand throbbed. I would read the Georgian original, and the Hebrew words would sprout on the page before me, as if of their own accord.
“You ought to know that translating Georgian poetry into Hebrew is a nearly impossible feat. It is not a simple, literal task, but one that presents the challenge of preserving the tone, the piece’s unique form, its flavor and its style. I had to mold a language of thirty-three letters into one with only twenty-two letters without compromising the sound, rhythm, and number of syllables in every word and every sentence. And though I had to concoct new words, distort grammatical structures, and bend Hebrew when the need arose, in spite of all this, at the end of each night I left behind about a hundred translated stanzas containing almost no errors and requiring almost no corrections.
“At dawn, I would take a quick nap, then head out to the factory, where I could sleep on the job. With every passing day, I felt my brain sharpening. I could hear sounds from a great distance, could see the wings of a fly as it flapped them.
“The disease was already nesting within me, but at that point it only had possession of my body. In exchange for my physical deterioration, illness charged my brain with many precious hours of creativity and inspiration. Dark circles hung around my eyes, my skin turned yellow, and my hair began to fall out. I grew older by a year with every passing day. But when I saw the stack of translated pages piling up on my desk, I knew I’d made a good deal.”
“But what kind of deal was it?” I ask again, leaning closer, feeling fury swell within me. “How could you give up your health, your future, everything, for… for what?”
Dov looks at me, mystified at my lack of understanding. I wonder if I would have been willing to cut a similar deal. Is there anything I want so badly that I’d be willing to give everything up for it? Dinners with Dad. My friendship with Sasha. My relationship, even if only in writing, with Mom. Sitting on the bench or the roof with Chava late into the evening. What might still happen with Chava. My health.
Now I think I begin to understand. I lean back in my seat, feeling empty for him. I picture him sitting in his cold, cramped apartment in the dark of night, at his small desk in a gray city where he lives alone with his mother, at the heart of an enormous country—a country where, though he could read, write, and speak the language, he would always be a stranger. Sitting there with a cup of lukewarm tea, seeking power and meaning just to be able to live another day exactly equal to the one that had come before it and the one that would follow. At that point, he had nothing to give up, nothing more to lose. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad deal after all.
“After a while, I couldn’t stop anymore,” he continues. “I felt as if I was possessed by a demon. The fire of creation was burning within me like a furnace and my hand could barely catch up with my brain. I stopped working at the factory. I didn’t leave home; hardly got up from my chair save for the occasional glass of water, a nibble of bread, or to use the bathroom. Every few hours, my head would plop down on the desk. After a few minutes of nightmares, I would wake up and carry on, translating another stanza and then another. After six days without leaving my home, I completed the translation and knew I’d created a gem. I couldn’t even put the pages in order. My body, which surely reeked from the inhuman effort of the passing week, was drained. With effort, I crawled into bed, where I slept for a full night and day.
“I woke up to a large, dark void. The fire that had burned in me had devoured any healthy patch that may have still remained, leaving me an empty vessel. The sunlight blinded me, hurting my eyes. I sat at home with the curtains drawn, a single candle disturbing the darkness that enveloped me. I wore my heavy, tattered jacket and a fur-lined hat. I suppose I must have looked a bit like a bear that had just awakened from its hibernation. Slow and skinny, eyes glimmering with a combination of hunger and insanity, I walked out of my home for the first time in ages, feeling like a sailor stepping on dry land after a long period out at sea. My knees buckled and my head was spinning. I walked straight to 10 Bialystok Street, where I paused and looked up at the second floor, searching for Frieda and Anoushka’s apartment. The windows were closed and the shades were drawn, and I realized I was too late after all. Frieda could not bear to wait any longer, and she and Anoushka had disappeared.
“I closed my eyes, trying hard to hear an echo of the past, sounds of crying or a lullaby, a hint of any souls that used to dwell there. But I heard nothing. I stood there, weak, outside of their building, looking up until my neck turned stiff, and realized how wrong I’d been, how it had all been in vain.” He can barely pronounce the final words. His voice turns to gravel. “All I wanted was to see the look in their eyes. To have a chance to see them gaze upon me without disappointment, boredom, or ridicule. With eyes that saw me rather than through me. But not an eye was left to look at me at all.”
I want to look in his eyes now, to tell him I can see him. But his eyes are fixed on the ceiling.
“I knew it wasn’t what Frieda had longed for. I knew the idea that translating the poem would bring them back to me was lunacy. But deep inside, I’d still hoped she’d understand. I thought if I only had one chance to explain it to her, to show her what I was capable of, things would work out. I prayed for her to understand that what I’d been occupied with was a work of alchemy. I didn’t just translate the piece. Any riffraff could do that. No, I had taken a hallowed Georgian creation, the pièce de résistance of Georgian literature, and converted it into a piece of Hebrew triumph.” He closes his eyes with frustration, then opens them again. “I continued to stand there for a long time, yearning for them to step outside, if only for a moment. I sat down on the frozen sidewalk, curled up inside my jacket, trying to see myself through Frieda’s eyes. But all I could see was a madman. A man who’d invested all of his time and health digging through a twelfth-century piece of writing, and I knew it didn’t matter anymore. I knew that even if she appeared from behind a corner now, it would change nothing. She was out of energy, no longer able to see a future for us. She couldn’t see how Boris Gaponov, the factory worker, would become the man of her dreams—Dov Gaponov, member of the Georgian Literary Association, celebrated by the Jewish community in Kutaisi, winner of the Tchernichovsky Translation Prize.” His eyes flicker, and for a moment I can see in them a combination of passion, madness, fear, and hope. “They would name streets after me, both in Georgia and in Israel!” His body, which pulled itself nearly upright as he spoke this last sentence, collapses back onto the elevated bed, as if all the air has left him. I begin to fear for him.
“I tried to ask after their whereabouts, but none of the neighbors recognized me, and no one wanted to speak to the shadow of a man with fiery eyes that I’d become. I went back there every day for a week, standing outside of their building for hours, smoking, hoping I’d made a mistake and that they would come back, vowing and making promises, but it was all for naught.”
“And your mother? Did she not know where they’d gone?”
“She did not. Nobody did. We asked anyone we could. They’d simply disappeared. One evening, after I’d spent more than ten hours outside of their building, two gendarmes showed up and asked what I was doing there. I stuttered something about waiting for my wife and daughter. They asked for my identification, took down my information, and warned me not to come back and bother the neighbors again.
“I came home in despair, sat down at my desk, pulled out the thousands of pages I’d written over the past decade, and started burning them all in fury, thinking I might be able to turn back time. Poems and stories I’d written, translations of Russian works, a dictionary of idioms and proverbs, and hundreds of copies of letters I’d written to my acquaintances in the Soviet Union and in Israel. I was about to add to the pyre the hundreds of yellow pages which bore my Rustaveli translation and were still scattered all over the desk but the coal stove in which I’d burned all of my writing was full to the brim, and I had to wait and stare at the fire that devoured my life’s work, as well as my soul. I was already holding the pages of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, intending to toss them into the stove as soon as it became available again, when my mother rushed inside and poured a bucket of water on the flames, attempting to salvage any piece of my writing she could. She grabbed the yellow papers away before I could burn them, too. Then she embraced me wordlessly for a long time. After that, she fished what could still be saved from the ashes—a handful of letters sent to Israel and a translation of Lermontov poetry—and made me swear not to destroy the Rustaveli translation.
“When she sensed that I’d settled down somewhat, she left my study, taking with her the pages she was able to rescue. She hid them in my grandfather’s embroidered tefillin case, knowing I wouldn’t dare bring harm to them while they were in there. When I finally immigrated to Israel, before she said goodbye to me, she handed me the tefillin case with the singed papers still inside, as a sort of good luck charm.
“That night, the national radio announced that two centuries after the last Georgian had witnessed the great poet’s likeness, the mural was once more exposed for all to see. After weeks of painstaking work, removing many layers of paint intended on concealing it, the research delegation revealed Rustaveli’s image on the walls of the Monastery of the Cross. The announcer breathlessly described Rustaveli’s portrait, with Rustaveli kneeling in repentance between two large figures of Christian saints, above him an inscription in which he begs his maker to remember his life’s work.
“I knew at that moment that in spite of the great agony I’d brought upon myself, I had to complete my mission at all costs, so that my sacrifice would not be in vain. Hope twinkled in my heart like a small Hanukkah candle, hope of sharing a crumb of the glory now surely possessed by the head of the delegation—the professor who would be remembered in history books as the man who had returned to the Georgian nation the mural of its greatest artist. I hoped to share in that honor by delivering the artist’s work to our people. A glory and an honor that, one day, might bring back, if not Frieda, then at least Anoushka.”
He falls silent, staring at the ceiling.
I keep quiet alongside him, flabbergasted.
“After I’d heard about the discovery of the painting,” he carries on after a while, his voice softer, “I went to the post office and sent parts of my translation to Shlonsky, with whom I’d already been corresponding. I asked for his opinion, and the wheels of fate, which had brought me thus far, began moving again. I still hear fate’s horrid laughter to this very day,” he adds, his tone sarcastic. “My fate was, indeed, like the professor’s. His name was never mentioned, so as not to take away any fame from the party leaders who’d sent him to reveal Rustaveli’s face. The man died of a severe illness in utter anonymity in Tbilisi, or so I heard. And now I lie here, all alone, forgotten and invisible, awaiting my demise, which every cell in my body tells me is imminent.”
He sinks into the mattress, a heavy silence falling between us. I continue to sit by his side, allowing his words to hover in the air, waiting for them to come down to earth, remaining alone with my questions. After sufficient time goes by, I know we won’t speak again today. I slip the book into my bag and go up to the roof, hoping to find Chava there.
I find Chava by the service door, sitting beside a small bonfire she’d started, watching the remains of light on the black horizon. I sit down beside her and warm my hands near the flame.
Chava looks at me quizzically. I suppose she can tell I’m scared.
“Dov’s in bad shape.” I tell her. “Ever since Nahum died, he’s been completely hopeless. It isn’t death so much as his feelings of regret and missed opportunities. He believes his disease is punishment from God or something like that. After he finished translating the entire poem, he burnt the hundreds of letters he’d written and almost his entire body of work, thinking that this way he’d atone for all the time and energy he’d devoted to words rather than to his wife and daughter. But his mother stopped him at the very last minute, and the book was salvaged. When it was published, he hoped that maybe the honor and publicity he’d gain would bring them back, but the opposite happened. They disappeared, he remained anonymous, and now he thinks he’s next to go. It feels like he’s just lying there in the room, waiting to die.” I speak the last few words timidly, not wanting to hear them myself.
Chava sits up and lights a cigarette.
I pull the book from my bag and show it to her. It’s almost pitch dark, apart from the meager light from the bonfire, and she can’t really see the illustrations or the printed words. In spite of this, Chava spends a long time flipping through the book, feeling the pages more than looking at them.
After she closes the book, I ask for her matches. I light one and show her the cover image. “This is the monk who wrote it. The uncovering of his portrait at the Monastery of the Cross was the event that started it all,” I explain.
Chava examines Rustaveli’s image.
I tell her about the moment when Dov discovered that his wife had left him, and about his failed hope that translating the epic would bring her back. I tell her about the Georgian professor’s enterprise of revealing Rustaveli’s mural, an enterprise he performed at the same time that Dov worked on his translation. When the match goes out, I light a new one, then another and another. By the time I finish the story, I’ve used up nearly all of them. Once the last match goes out, darkness falls around us again and silence surrounds us for a few moments. A cold gust of wind causes Chava to cling to me again, the large book on our laps.
“You know,” I tell her, “after what Dov told me, I understood how The Knight in the Panther’s Skin is an allegory about Rustaveli and Tamar the Great. But I can’t help thinking something else, too.”
Chava tilts her head, waiting for me to continue.
“Promise not to laugh at me?”
“Never,” she said, taking my hand.
“I really feel like Dov is the knight, Tariel. At least the way he was when Avtandil met him.”
“Tariel is a gifted warlord who lost everything after, in a moment of madness, he killed the prince who was meant to marry his beloved, daughter of the King of India. When Tariel learns that the princess is locked up in an enchanted castle, he loses his will to live and falls into a deep depression. He goes on to wander the world wearing nothing but a panther’s skin.”
“So if Dov is Tariel,” Chava ventures, “then you are…”
“Avtandil,” I say awkwardly. “The prince of another kingdom, whom Tariel meets by chance. Once he gets to know him, Avtandil helps Tariel snap out of his despair. At least, I wish I could be Dov’s Avtandil.” I feel myself flush and lower my head in embarrassment.
“I wish life had a happy ending, like in books,” I whisper. “I wish I could help him break into his own castle.”
Chava squeezes my hand again and I wonder what she’s thinking. After a few minutes’ pause, she says, “Maybe there are no storybook endings in life, but we can change the narrative.”
I nod, wondering what she means.
“If Dov is Tariel and you are Avtandil,” she says, and my heart overflows to hear her speak these words without a hint of ridicule, “then he must be delivered to the enchanted castle.”
“To his castle. There.” She taps a finger against the cover of the book. “He told you himself, he felt it was his fate, his destiny, to translate this work.” Her voice rises as she speaks, growing excited with her own idea. “There might not be a princess for him to rescue there, but at least we could bring him to the place where it all began. It might allow him to get some closure. You told me he hasn’t seen anything since he came here from Georgia. That they took him in a gurney from the airplane straight to the hospital. He told you that if there was one place he wanted to see, it was where it all began. Let’s do it. Let’s take him to the Monastery of the Cross.”
In spite of the dark, I can see her eyes glimmering with enthusiasm. It’s appealing and startling in equal measures.
“Think about what it can do for him, going to the very place where the original book was written,” Chava continues, marveling at her own idea. “Let him stroke the monastery walls, feel the cracks in the stone. Hear, touch, smell, see, and feel the very sensations that Shota had felt eight hundred years ago.”
“But how is that even possible? Who would allow us to take him out of the hospital? He’s half-dead.”
“We won’t ask for permission.” I can tell she is coming up with an answer as she gives it. “Of course they won’t let us, so what’s the point of asking? Listen,” she adds more softly now, “what does he have to live for? How long does he have left? He’s alone here. He’s got nobody. I’m sure it would do him good. We all need something to look forward to, or we wilt like unwatered plants.”
“But how are we supposed to get to Jerusalem? To the monastery? How would we get him there? We don’t even know where it is.”
“I don’t know. We need to come up with a plan. Of course there are plenty of details to square away. It’s like a military operation. I have no idea how we’re going to do it, but I know we can do it, somehow. I suppose Tariel and Avtandil also had no idea how to take over the castle, but they figured it out.”
I lean my head against the wall and close my eyes. I think about Chava, who’s going to leave, and about Nahum, and Dov. It’s all too much for me. A part of me wants to get up and run away.
“A panther in Jerusalem,” I say after a pause.
“If we’re going to plan an operation, we should give it a name. We’ll call it ‘A Panther in Jerusalem.’”
I can hear her smiling. Softly, she repeats the words: “A Panther in Jerusalem.”
Tonight, of all nights, the sky is cloudy, with forecasted rain and thunderstorms. Suitable weather for the season, but very unsuitable to our plan.
I try to push the wheelchair as fast as I can — almost running — without drawing attention. We move through the endless hospital hallways while I pray not to take a wrong turn and generate any interest in us. Chava is walking alongside me, making sure that Dov is tucked in.
I suppose this is a bizarre sight: a boy and girl dressed up as paramedic and nurse, rushing a wheel-chaired patient through the ward. I try to relax, but can’t. The truth is even stranger than it seems. We are smuggling a dying patient, winner of a national literary award, out of the hospital and to the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem. And if that isn’t odd enough, we plan to get there on a Vespa with a sidecar, and neither of us has a driver’s license.
It’s already 11:30 at night. Outside, we hear the sounds of an approaching storm, as well as cars on the road and the honking of ambulances. The sounds that come from within the hospital are the regular ones I’ve grown accustomed to and have stopped noticing: indiscernible shards of words spoken by employees on break; the fast footfalls of doctors and nurses; the heavier, lumbering steps of patients and their families; and, most of all, the constant backdrop of blood pressure, heartbeat, and breathing monitors, trying to keep as many people as possible alive for as long as possible.
“No chance of seeing the moon tonight,” I mutter nervously. “The sky is overcast.”
Chava gives me that look of hers, the one that made me fall in love with her at first sight. An amused look, as if she is taking it all in from the sidelines. “Eran, I promised you—everything is going to be fine.”
As we turn into the morgue hallway, I spot two tilting, banal, farmland paintings in plastic frames hanging above a broken wooden bench. The idiom “bought the farm,” which I heard for the first time last night, returns to me. Fear floods me. Are we doing the right thing?
As a child, I used to love Connect the Dots. Numbers would appear on a page in what appeared to be a random order, and I had to connect them all, one by one. When I finished, an image appeared from the dots, and I could never figure out how it was possible that the image already existed there before I connected the dots, yet I hadn’t been able to see it. At the moment, I’m trying to figure out how all the dots of our story connect, and what picture will pop up in the end.