Dedicated to Irene Gyulnazarian
AHASFERUS – a hero in Medieval legends who did not allow Jesus—on his way to Golgotha—to sit down and have a rest, thus condemned by God to eternal life and affliction.
When I woke up, the sky had already made up—with blue and violet clouds. What a thing to do; painting the face early in the morning! I am yaaawning; I am scraaatching my belly. The windowpanes are just like me—they have been sweating a lot after an obsessive night with the wind, and now they’re expecting to hear the critical and instructive treatise of the mother building.
I’m shooting at eleven. Another trip to the edge of the world is waiting for me. Directors are weird folks. Instead of all those sightseeing places, they hunt for pointless backdrops where, according to them, “heaven and earth predominantly emphasize the psychological disposition and shape of the characters.”
In choosing my profession, I’ve gone wrong. I should have been a poet. Oh, what pathetic poems I would write! OK, I act here almost for nothing, but they could send a car, couldn’t they? What can I do if I’m young: I play the main part, right? Well, man, today my nerves will arrive at the Peak of Communism, as they say.
From childhood, I’ve detested the institution I’m heading for now. I don’t know whose head the idea struck to build this house for the elderly way out in the country, but I do think the guy did it with intent. Indeed, there’s some humanitarian touch in it. The likes of us can be undisturbed—no pangs of remorse. The house gates rasped so that I almost perspired.
“Could you tell me where the church is?”
I thought the guard would grumble something like I had lost my way and there was no holy institution at all; yet, to my surprise, he pointed out ahead, mumbling:
“Over there… Go straight that way… then turn…”
This is a labyrinth, I should say. Can I find it? Thank God, the assistant crossed my way before I reached the staircase.
“Stop. You can change your clothes here.”
“Where?” My hurricane of nerves was gradually swelling. One, two, three… Thank God, he noticed the sharp blades of my breathing, and luckily we stopped before the ninth wave.
“They’ll show you the way. Lovely,” he called the woman standing at the fountain spring, “Honey, show our pretty actor the way, let him change his clothes.”
Lovely seemed to be revolving in the wide sunlit corridor.
“We go up one storey,” she said. “Damn you!” she pulled an old woman’s arm at the window. “You’ve worn that the wrong side out again. What shall I do with you! Stay put, I’m coming. Stay put, I’m telling you. You can’t make it alone. Here we are. This is my room. Change your clothes; I’ll bring coffee in a flash.”
When I got down, the sky had cleansed its face with skeins of air. The sun was pallid—suffering maybe from decline of temperature. The reason could be either summer’s untimely death or the shrewd romance of the light. Or maybe it just tried the death scene of The Lady of the Camellias. It was trying, but could it really act the role? Who knows?
An hour later, the old men were led out for a walk. True, they were sick and slow, yet they were just run-of-the-mill. What’s more, they didn’t seem to show sniveling pictures for compassion.
I recalled how I, a boy of twelve, decided to visit a whore with the other boys in the neighborhood. In those days, sex was prohibited in our country, as they say, but there were underground lairs like reefs, where men used to go to play trick-track or just drink coffee.
Collecting the required sum (an uncle of one of the boys was a regular visitor) we went down to the basement. The most cunning one of us pressed the ring button and absconded. The others followed him in no time. I was there all alone, with the money in my clammy palm. The door opened, and a woman showed up, wrinkled with drowsiness. Her hair lay calmly beneath a garland. There was a bruise on her right arm. The smell of drug store and powder mingled with the stinking stairs. I sneezed.
“What do you want, sonny?” Her voice was harsh from smoking.
All my imaginings about whores and the psychological tension of meeting one vanished into thin air in a flash.
“Nothing,” I said, indifferently. I didn’t expect that a prostitute would say “sonny.” I thought she would drag me, without delay, to where she led all her visitors. “Won’t Hakob come down?”
The woman said I was mistaken, and shut the door. Thank God! I was happy to leave the building. The boys ran up and gathered round me like they gather round a hero.
The director was scratching his balls, staring at the screen.
“Just take a look, man. See what textures we have in these old people.” His brain, reminiscent of traffic lights, was sparkling with curious ideas. “Shall we shoot them, eh?”
“Oh well,” sneezing, the camera man dispersed the director’s feathery ‘idea.’ “Will be hard for them. Or—it’s up to you…”
After midday, the sky’s taste refined snappishly. The deep violet pile of clouds was replaced with delicate brush-strokes of sunlit colors. Good job!
Four chubby “lovelies” led the elderly to the filming stage.
Did he know me? Well, well, well. I had noticed him going down to the backyard; I decided not to approach, thinking he would have to look into the book of memory for a long time to call to mind who I was.
“You? Here?” I pretended I was taken by surprise, demonstrating all my melodramatic abilities. “What a nice surprise! How are you?”
“I’m all right, thank God. As long as God hears me, I’m ashamed to complain.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Recently. But I’ll stay here until springtime. No job outside. I’ll be traveling again in April. How are you? You’re a grown up now.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Well, thank God.”
The fireworks of toasts would not cease. Sixtieth anniversary. The words, like buds, uttered to my uncle’s health ruptured in the air, spreading the smell and warmth of flaunting sounds everywhere. Two or three hours later, when vodka stripped off their souls in an urge to watch an ardent striptease, and people, having forgotten the one whose jubilee they were to celebrate, started to mess around, drinking to everybody, I went and sat by my uncle.
“Have a guess who I met a couple of days ago. You can’t. Your former tenant, the one who helped me first when I, five-years-old, poured the hot milk on myself.”
“You don’t say!” The laurel leaves revolved three times on my uncle’s head and fell on his shoulders. “Where did you see him?”
“In a house for the elderly… He did look gorgeous. Don’t you know how old he is?”
“I don’t know. I was a kid then, he used to live in our barn. Then he vanished—to show up again after thirty years. He hadn’t changed at all. How old can he be? I’m sixty myself.”
“I have forgotten the sky’s real color. When they pierced the body of Jesus, the blood spurting from his veins purified the air. The sky turned purple. The earthquake really knocked me down. Now I knew who he was. Was it clairvoyance? I don’t know. It seemed to me at the time that the blue would dominate again following his resurrection and the forty days. I was wrong. Nothing changed. The clouds proceeded to sail over the blood-colored nebulous surface. Even the rain was different.
So my misgivings set in. 110-115 years after the crucifix (by that year, they had trampled the Great Silk Way underfoot many times) I met a Scythian woman who was teaching simple truths to her son. She would say: the wheat-ear is yellow, the leaf is green, and the sky is blue…Every day, every waking hour I remember Jesus on his way to Golgotha, his forehead covered with sweat and bruised by the wreath of thorns—his forehead against my forehead, his eye against my eye, and my speech—ringing, so momentous.
“Don’t stick around my house, go away!”
“You,” the voice is still ringing in my ears, like an ever-lasting echo, “will live forever and roam forever.”
I don’t remember exactly—maybe the sky turned blood-colored before the death of Jesus, the moment I was justly punished for my deed. I am sick—with eternal life. Red is the color of eternity; eternity is blood—an unending, explicit vein that is never cut.
It’s so good they don’t know me. It’s a shame I cannot laugh anymore, otherwise I would have exploded, having heard the fabricated legends told by these new-fangled believers who have seen God. Nobody knows who I am in this house, yet that guy—the actor—recognized me. He might tell his folks about me and… What a surprise it will be for them, especially the uncle whom I confessed half a century ago that I was one hundred years-old! What is a hundred? What is a thousand?
The dark violet face of the sky, covered with deep rash, was a testimonial to some contagious disease. The distance was hazy. The horizon reminded of a slimy fat worm that, rolling, occasionally disappeared behind the dingy cotton clouds. The director was scratching his balls, as usual.
“It’s a hard day.” His leather overcoat was torn from behind. “No wings of imagination, no nothing.” He tapped the assistant’s shoulder. “See if one of these old men agrees to carry the cross,”
“Morning. How are you?”
“I’m OK, thanks to God. Are you shooting again today?”
“Yea. It’s the last day. We’re finishing.”
“The director looks upset,” he said, scratching his back. “Or does it just seem so to me?”
“It doesn’t,” I could hardly restrain from striking the director’s hand: his balls must be bruised now. “The traffic lights have broken down. Got no way of knowing what to do.”
“Oh well,” the old man groaned despondently. “Me got no way of knowin’ where to go, either. Been roaming for two thousand years without purpose. Well, I mean—man has always gone astray, roamin’, searchin’ for meaningless things all along. Even the sacrifice of the Son of God didn’t help. Man obtained hope, but he didn’t cease to be lost. You know what death is for? For the soul to have a little rest. It can’t go on unruly without end. Kind of machinery. Now my soul is achin’ in turmoil.”
Lovely’s eyes had turned yellow, like her teeth.
“I saw you yesterday—on TV. Had something to be proud of before my folks. Hey dude,” she pulled the old man’s sleeve, “The man wants to make sure if you wanna be put in the movies. You fit in OK. Can you carry that cross on your back? Say yes to glorify our house.”
“I’ll carry… I tell you, I’ll carry that cross on my back.”
With one huge leap, the director appeared beside the old man. The wings of imagination had opened up in his brain; luminous feathers were pouring down his eyes.
“Look, what I mean with this scene is that man is born with this cross on his back. Those who cannot carry it as they should, turn to flies after death. Those who carry it with belief and righteousness overcome everything and turn to butterflies.”
“Until the crucifix, I’d been wonderin’ about the meaning of this kind of death penalty. Golgotha. I’ve been in Jerusalem just twice during those two thousand years. A thousand years following our Lord’s death, when I went back to the places I knew, I saw sands in the place of my home. I was there again two years ago. The city was teeming with tourists. They are strange folks. Some of them tried to ascend Golgotha with crosses on their backs. I remember: one of them, standin’ just where my house had been, stopped and mumbled in broken Italian: My muscles fail me; I can’t go on anymore… My thoughts help me forget tribulation. This is my third circle. Thank you, God Almighty; I lived to be in a film. I’ve seen everything. Ancient civilizations have crashed before my eyes. I’m still struck dumb hearing those scientists. How do they hit upon those phony hypotheses? Oh you eternity, you’ve been passin’ me by for two thousand years now!”
Next year, during the summer first night of the film, I reminded the assistant of the old man.
“You had better send him an invitation.”
He was flipping his eyelashes in surprise.
“I don’t remember who you mean. OK, I’ll reserve one seat, provided you deliver the card.”
The gates of the house for the elderly opened up squeaking. Nothing had changed there during the 7-8 months. I didn’t see Lovely, by the way! I was told she’d gone abroad—never to return. “What old man. Sonny,” the director demonstrated his shiny golden teeth, “Who do you want? You know his name? No? So what can we do? We receive and dispatch from 50 to 100 people a month. We cannot remember everyone.”
My uncle said, after ten minutes of painful attempts to recall his former tenant.
“Ah yes, we buried him two years ago. He died too young.”
The first night was spectacular and marvelous.
“Good show, I’m pleased with you.’ During the whole evening, the director was scratching his armpits. “I wish everybody worked like you. The way I saw it, they did the other way around. I’m still mad at the cameraman, boy. You remember the old man carrying the cross? We couldn’t find the still. Then I understood what was wrong. My dear cameraman had shot a butterfly instead of the old man. What a thing to do!