Two stories by S. Y. Agnon appeared in our October 1960 number. “Forevermore” was translated by Joel Blocker and will soon appear in a collection of Israeli stories, edited by Mr. Blocker for Schocken Books. Schocken is also bringing out a new volume of Agnon’s stories in Israel, which will include the present work, in the original Hebrew.
For twenty years Adiel Amzeh worked on his history of the great city of Gumlidata, the pride of mighty nations until it was reduced to dust and ashes by the Gothic hordes and its people enslaved.
After he had gathered all his researches together, examined and tested them, sorted, edited, and arranged them, he decided that his work was finally ready for publication and he sat down and wrote the book he had planned for so many years. He took the book and made the rounds of the publishers but without success. He looked about for patrons and benefactors but had no luck. During all the years he had been occupied with his research he had not taken the trouble to ingratiate himself with the learned men of the universities—nor with their wives and daughters—and now when he came to them seeking a favor, their eyes shone with such cold anger that their glasses seemed to warp. “Who are you, sir?” they said to him. “We’ve never seen you before.” Amzeh shrugged his shoulders and went away disappointed and dejected. He understood that in order to be recognized he would have to become friendly with them and he had no idea of how to go about it. Many years of painstaking research had made him a slave to his work from dawn till night, neglectful of all worldly cares. When he left his bed in the morning, his feet would carry him to the desk, his hands would pick up pen and paper, and his eyes, if not pursuing some obscure vision, would plunge into a book or into maps and sketches of the city and its great battles; and when he lay down to sleep he would go over his notebooks again, sometimes consciously, sometimes hardly realizing what he was doing. Years passed and his book remained unpublished. You know, a scholar who is unable to publish his work often benefits from the delay, since he can re-examine his assumptions and correct his errors, testing those hypotheses that may seem far from historical reality and truth.
Finally, when he had despaired of ever seeing the results of his work in print, his luck took a turn for the better. Gebhard Goldenthal, the richest man in the city, informed him that he would publish the book. How did it happen that the name of a humble scholar had reached the ear of this famous rich man? And why would such an eminent personage want to publish a work which was sure to bring no profit? Some said he felt so uneasy about his great wealth that he had decided to become a patron of learning in order to salve his conscience. He followed closely the world of scholarship and somehow had heard the story of Adiel Amzeh’s book. According to another explanation, Gebhard Goldenthal secretly believed that his ancestors were among the unhappy people who were driven out of Gumlidata, that they had belonged to the city’s aristocracy and that one of them had been an army general, the head of the palace guard. Of course, this was obviously untrue since Gumlidata was destroyed during the first wave of the Gothic invasions when the whole civilized world was turned upside down. No person can say with any certainty that he is a descendant of the exiles of Gumlidata. But whatever the reason, Gebhard Goldenthal was ready to publish Adiel Amzeh’s book, even though printing this kind of work would involve many extra expenses. Several colored maps were necessary, requiring many expensive colors: one for a general view of the city, another for its temples, a third for its sacrificial altars; a different color for each of its gods—Gomesh, Gush, Gutz, Guach, and Guz; one for the founding mothers of the city, one for its apostates, another for Gomed the Great, one for Gichur and Amul—the twin pillars of prayer—and one each for all the remaining holy men, the priests and priestesses, not to mention the temple prostitutes and the dogs and all the saints—for each and every one a different color, to denote position and function. Add to all these the Goths and their allies, their carts and wagons, their weapons and battle defenses, and you can see how much money was needed to print such a work. Nevertheless, Gebhard Goldenthal was ready to publish the book and make it a fine volume with beautiful printing and good paper, carefully detailed maps, expensive binding—perfect in every respect. His staff had already consulted with illustrators, engravers, and printers, and all that remained was for the author and publisher to meet, for in all his business affairs Gebhard Goldenthal would allow his staff to take care of the preliminaries, but the final arrangements had to be conducted between the client and the head of the business himself. If the client was unknown, he would be invited to Goldenthal’s office; if the man was recognized in his field, he might be invited for a cup of tea to Goldenthal’s home; and if he was important, he would be invited for dinner. Adiel Amzeh, who was more than a nobody but not well-known enough to be considered important, was invited by the rich man for a cup of tea.
So it was that one day Adiel Amzeh received an invitation for afternoon tea at the home of Gebhard Goldenthal. He was asked to be prompt and come at the designated hour since Mr. Goldenthal was soon leaving for abroad and was pressed for time.
An author who for years has searched without avail for a publisher is not likely to be late for an appointment with the one he has finally found. Almost before he put down his publisher’s invitation, he took out his best suit of clothes—untouched since the day he received his doctor’s degree—shook it out and pressed it. He hurried back and forth from his manuscript to the bathroom, from his bath to a store where he bought a new tie, and from the store back home to look over his book again. By morning of the day of his appointment, he had made all his preparations for his visit to the publisher. Never in his life had he experienced such a day as this. Adiel Amzeh, who for the sake of a city’s destruction had put aside all personal affairs, who cared nothing for clothes or any human vanity, was utterly changed. He had become like most celebrated learned men who neglect their work for the sake of the honor they receive from others who know nothing of learning and scholarship. He sat and stared at his manuscript, rose and inspected himself in the mirror, glanced at his watch, examined his clothes, and rehearsed his gestures. This is the regimen of all who wish to meet with a rich man. You must preen yourself and be careful of your demeanor and graces: the rich, even those who honor learning, prefer to honor it when it comes wrapped in a pleasing mantle. Yet that same love of learning which had used up so much of his energy and strength, furrowing his brow and bowing his shoulders, had touched his face with a special kind of radiance that one doesn’t find except among those who are truly devoted to seeking wisdom. It’s a pity Goldenthal never actually set eyes upon him; had he done so he might have realized that a pleasant and happy face can be shaped from things other than money. But you see, my friend, for the sake of a little moralizing, I have gone and given away the ending at the very beginning of my story.
Well, Amzeh sat for a while, then got up, sat down again, rose again—all the time thinking of the future when the printer would take up his manuscript and transform it into attractive pages; he thought of how he would correct proofs, add and delete, omit and include certain passages; of how the printer does his work and how his book would finally be published and received. Sitting there dreaming he might have missed the appointed hour, except that all the years he had devoted to his work had sharpened him in his external affairs as well. When the moment came for him to leave for his appointment, he jumped up from his chair, picked up his house key, and made ready to leave and lock the door behind him. He stared at himself in the mirror once more and glanced about his home, astonished that his house had not changed as he had. There ought to have been some transformation, he thought, for this would have been only just for a man who was about to undergo a blessed metamorphosis.
At that moment, he heard the sound of footsteps and suddenly became alarmed. Perhaps Mr. Goldenthal had to leave before the appointed time and someone was coming to tell him the interview had been postponed. Amzeh stood transfixed and could hardly catch his breath; his reason was gone, only his senses functioned. His entire body seemed to become one big ear. As he listened intently to the footsteps, he realized that he was hearing the slow shuffling of an old woman. In a moment, his powers of reason returned and he understood that a gentleman like Goldenthal would not send an old woman to deliver a note canceling their appointment. When the sound of the old woman’s footsteps came closer, he recognized them as those of a nurse who visited him once each year in order to collect journals and illustrated magazines to take to the inmates of the lepers’ hospital where she worked. It was difficult for Amzeh to put the old woman off by telling her he was busy and asking that she come the following year; he had high regard for this nurse who devoted her entire life to those whose existence was a living death. But it was equally hard for him to tarry on her account, for if he was delayed, with Mr. Goldenthal about to go abroad and no one knowing when he would return, then the publication of his book would also be postponed. I should mention another factor as well, which might seem unimportant but perhaps was decisive. To a man whose home is his whole universe, every unnecessary article in the house can cause annoyance. So it was with our scholar. When his mind was occupied with Gumlidata and he strolled through its ruins carrying on long conversations with the priests and holy men of the temple, he would occasionally raise his eyes and notice a pile of dusty old magazines.
Now that the old woman had come, here was an opportunity to get rid of them; if he didn’t act now, they would accumulate and gather dust for another year.
At the very moment when he was deciding what to do, whether to get rid of the superfluous volumes or to devote all his efforts to his own book, the old woman knocked on the door. He opened it and greeted her. The old woman understood immediately that he was worried and preoccupied, like a man uncertain whether to take an affirmative or negative course. “I see, Herr Doctor,” she said, “that I have come at an inconvenient time. I’ll leave and go about my business.”
He was silent for a moment and didn’t answer her. When she finally turned to go, he realized how tired the old woman must be from her long walk. After all, the lepers’ home was far from the city, and she had to come on foot. She was unable to travel by autobus for fear that if recognized she would be thrown off—most people are still terrified by the sight of someone who works with lepers.
“I’m sorry,” Amzeh said to her as she was about to go, “but I can’t take care of you the way I would like. I have been invited to afternoon tea by Gebhard Goldenthal, the famous industrialist whose name you have probably heard.” (As a matter of fact, forty years previously Gebhard Goldenthal had courted the nurse and wanted to marry her, but she refused him because she had already given her heart to God’s maimed, the poor prisoners of the lepers’ home.) “I have a very important matter to discuss with Mr. Goldenthal,” Adiel Amzeh went on. “I’ll be back in an hour or so. Please sit down until I return, and later I’ll fill your basket with books and journals and pamphlets and anything else I have about—they take up so much room here I can hardly breathe.”
“I would like to sit here and wait for you, Herr Doctor,” the old woman answered, “but I can’t leave my good people for more than a short while. They are used to me and I am used to them, and when I’m away from them I miss them as much as they miss me. They are used to receiving all their needs from me. I’ll go now, Herr Doctor, and if God grants me life and peace, I’ll come back next year.”
But Amzeh was unable to let her go away like that, without an explanation of why he was in such a hurry. Without thinking about how little time he had, he began to explain: “Perhaps you have noticed my appearance today. For many years you have been coming to visit me and you have always found me with slippers on my feet and a cap on my head, unshaven, my collar open, my hair disheveled. Today I’m dressed in a good suit and wearing shoes and a hat and a nice tie. The reason for the change is simple: for twenty years I have worked on a book and it is finally ready for publication. Mr. Gebhard Goldenthal has decided to publish it, and I’m now going to see him. He’s waiting for me and for my book.”
A flush came over the old woman’s face. “You mustn’t delay a moment, Herr Doctor, hurry, hurry, don’t wait, an hour like this doesn’t come every day, don’t put off even a minute what you have waited for for many years. It is good that you found Mr. Goldenthal. He’s an honest man. He keeps his promises. But I’m not a very good friend, intruding on you at a time like this. I remember when I began to serve in the lepers’ hospital, the rooms were full of dust and broken beds and chairs, the roof was caved in, the walls tottering and moldy. If he hadn’t given us money to put the place together again, to buy new beds and equipment and make all the necessary repairs, it would have been impossible to get along there.”
After the old woman had recounted all of Gebhard Goldenthal’s good deeds, she let out a deep sigh. “Are you unhappy?” Adiel Amzeh asked her. “Unhappy?” she replied with a shy smile. “I’ve never been unhappy.” He was quiet for a moment. “You are unique, nurse Eden, you are the only one in the world who can make such a declaration,” he said.
The old woman blushed with confusion. “I really should correct what I just said, Herr Doctor. I have had great unhappiness, but not of my own making.” Her face turned scarlet and she lapsed into silence.
“You stopped right in the middle of what you were saying, nurse Adeh,” Amzeh said, “and perhaps at the crucial point I’m certain it would be worthwhile to hear.”
“Worthwhile?” the old woman cried, stammering in her effort to speak quickly. “How do we know what is worthwhile and what isn’t? I’m an old woman whose grave is waiting for her—let me boast once that I told the whole truth. I flattered myself falsely when I said that I’ve never been unhappy. On the contrary, I haven’t known a day without sorrow, a sorrow greater than that of my good people who suffer more than any other creatures in the world. For the merciful God who inflicts suffering on man provides him with the strength to withstand his woes; but if one is healthy and without physical disability, then he has no special allotment of strength, and when he looks on those who suffer and on their pain he is chastened and has nothing with which to withstand his sorrow. And especially someone like myself, who has to look after the suffering ones. I’m always afraid that I won’t fulfill my obligations, that I don’t devote enough of my time to the good people. Even if I leave them for a moment, their suffering does not leave me. . . . But I’m talking too much. I’ve forgotten that you are in a hurry. Now I’ll be going. I hope, Herr Doctor, that your business will bring you a full life and peace. Only pity the poor people who must see me return empty-handed, without any books.”
“Why pity them?” he asked, facing her. “Have they finished all the books? They’ve read them all?”
“They’ve read them hundreds of times,” answered the old woman.
“What kind of books do they have?”
“Oh, I can give you the names of all of them.”
“All of them? Surely you’re exaggerating.”
“No, there aren’t very many. I’ve been there so many years, every article and every book is familiar to me,”
The old woman then recited the name of each book in the hospital library. “Not many, not very many at all,” Amzeh said after she had finished. “I can imagine how happy they must be to receive a new book. But,” he went on, jokingly, “I’m sure you have forgotten one or two, and perhaps they were the best books of the lot. For that’s the way we are—we always forget the most important thing. Isn’t that so, nurse Adeh?”
The old woman smiled. “I have no love of dialectics. But I must say for truth’s sake that there isn’t a book in our library that I haven’t mentioned—except for one, which is hardly worth discussing, since it isn’t read any more.”
“Why isn’t it read any more?”
“Why? Because it has decayed with age, and on account of the tears.”
“On account of the tears?”
“Because of the tears, yes, because of the tears that every reader of the book shed on its pages after reading the awful tales it contains.”
“What are these terrible stories?”
“I don’t know what they are,” the old woman answered. “Whatever I know I’ve told you already. It’s an old, worn-out book, written on parchment. They say it was written more than a thousand years ago. Had I known you would ask, I would have made inquiries. There are still old men in the hospital who can tell the story, which I remember many years ago the old men before them used to tell with tears—the same story that is in the book. But they say that even then, years ago, the old men already had difficulty in reading the book because its pages were torn and the words blurred. The manuscript is a heap of moldy, decayed matter. There have been many requests to burn it. In my time one of the caretakers was all set to destroy it, but I asked him to return it. I told him that a book which had found shelter with us mustn’t be treated like a dog. I believe, Herr Doctor, that a piece of work done by an artist gives joy to the creator as long as it endures.”
“Tell me, nurse Adeh,” Amzeh said, mulling over the old woman’s words, “perhaps you have heard something about the contents of the book. What do your old men say about it? I’m sure if they say anything at all, they must know more.”
“I’ve heard that all its pages are of parchment,” the old woman answered. “As far as what is written in it, I’ve heard that it contains the history of a city which was destroyed and disappeared from the face of the earth.”
“A city which had been destroyed and disappeared from the world!” Amzeh repeated excitedly. “Please tell me, nurse Eden, perhaps you have heard the name of the city?”
“Yet, I have heard the name. The name of the city is Gumlidata, yes, Gumlidata is the name.”
“What? what? what?” Amzeh stammered, his tongue caught in his mouth. “Have . . . have . . . you heard the name correctly . . .? Gum . . . Gum . . . Gumli . . . lidata . . . you said. Please, my good nurse, tell me again, what is the name of the city you mentioned? Guml. . . .”
She repeated what she had said. “Gumlidata is the name of the city, and the book is an account of its history.”
Adiel Amzeh grasped a table in front of him, leaning forward so that he would not collapse and fall. The old woman noticed his sudden paling and moved to help him. “What is the trouble, Herr Doctor,” she said staring at him, “are you ill? Is it your heart?”
He straightened up and pulled himself together. “It’s nothing, my good nurse,” he began with a smile, “there’s nothing wrong with me. On the contrary, you have given me new life. Let me tell you about it. For twenty years I have devoted myself to the history of this same city. There isn’t a piece of paper which mentions the city’s name that I haven’t read. If I were a king, I could build the city anew, just as it was before its destruction. If you want, I’ll tell you about the historical trips I have taken. I have walked in the city’s markets, strolled in its streets and alleys, seen its palaces and temples. Oh, my good nurse, what headaches I’ve suffered from the walks I’ve taken there. And I know how it was destroyed, who took part in the destruction, the name of each and every tribe that helped reduce it to ruins, how many were killed by the sword, how many died of starvation and thirst, and how many perished from the plague that followed the war. I know everything except one detail—from which side Gediton’s brigades entered the city, whether from the side of the great bridge which was called the Bridge of Valor, or whether they entered secretly by way of the Valley of Aphardat, that is, the Valley of the Cranes . . . the plural of crane in the language of Gumlidata is aphardat; the word does not mean ravens or chestnut trees or overshoes as some linguists believe. As a matter of fact, ‘raven’ in the language of Gumlidata is eldag and in the plural elgadata, since when the letters ‘d’ and ‘g’ come together in the plural they change their order. I don’t know the words for chestnut trees or overshoes in the language of Gumlidata. I really don’t know what they are.”
Suddenly his expression changed, his voice dropped, his lips twisted, and he let out a hoarse, stuttering laugh. His knees began to shake and he pinched his mouth. “I’m surprised at you, nurse Adeh,” he said, “after all, you are an intelligent woman. You should be more careful about what you say. How can you believe something which doesn’t make any sense. How can you say that your hospital possesses a book containing the history of Gumlidata. Gumlidata was destroyed in the days of the first Gothic invasions. And you say that a book from these ancient times has come down to our day, and the old people in the hospital have read it. Now really, my dear nurse, how can you reconcile this kind of nonsense with simple reality? How could a book like this ever get to the hospital . . . to the hospital which you, my dear nurse, serve so well. . . . How? How? Pardon me, my dear Adinah, if I tell you that this is a very doubtful story. You have heard a silly old folk tale and it has enchanted you with its romance. Or perhaps you have confused Gumlidata with . . . with . . . I don’t know with what city you might have confused Gumlidata. What did you hear about this manuscript? How did it get to the hospital? You have made me curious, my dear lady, very curious for more information. I feel just like a psychoanalyst. Aren’t you surprised at me, the author of a book myself, being so curious about someone else’s book? It’s not enough that my house is filled with books, I must go looking for others. Let me tell you, just between us, all these books in my cabinet are not there for reading, they’re there for effect. And if you want, I’ll tell you the real reason: self-preservation. People see the books and start talking about them, and I don’t have to discuss my own work with them. Please tell me, though, how did this history of Gumlidata ever get to your hospital?”
“I haven’t read the book,” answered the nurse Adeh Eden, “and when it was taken out of the reading room some time ago I forgot it. I don’t devote much time to books generally. When I come to your house for books, it’s not for myself, of course, but for the sake of my good people, in order to ease their suffering. Sometimes books can do that. As for the parchment pages, I remember how surprised I was when I first saw them about forty years ago—like most nurses, I had to know everything about every article I saw where I worked. An old man noticed that the volume of parchment interested me and he told me what he had heard about the book. I still remember a little of what he said. If old age hasn’t confused my memory, I’ll try to pass on his story. May I sit down and tell you what I heard?”
Amzeh was suddenly embarrassed. “My God!” he cried out in confusion. “How could I let you stand all this time! Sit down, do sit down . . . here, on this chair. Not that one, this chair over here . . . it is the most comfortable one in my house. Please sit down and tell me your story.”
The old woman sat down in the chair that he brought her, gathered up the folds of her dress, clasped her hands together, and, taking a deep breath, began. “As far as I can remember, this is the story. After the Gothic hordes had conquered the great city of Gumlidata and reduced its strength to dust, they found the tyrant ruler of the city, Count Gifayon Glaskinon Gitra’al, of the house of Giara’al, just as he was about to flee. He moaned and wept and pleaded for his life, asking that he be made a slave to their nation and their king, Alaric. The Goths allowed him to live, and carried him off with them as a slave. He had with him a history which contained stories of the city’s might and valor, stories that used to be read before the time of Alaric the King. On the way he fell sick, and the Goths left him for dead and went on. He wandered about in the fields until some lepers, who were following the soldiers for scraps of food and clothing, came upon him. They took pity on him, released him from his chains, and nursed him until he regained his health. He soon realized who his saviors were and began to groan and curse, declaring that death was better than life with the lepers. For in those days a leper was looked upon as a dead man and anyone who came in contact with an untouchable was himself considered to be infected. They tried to comfort him by saying that if he went away he might fall into the hands of the Goths and their allies who would surely kill him, or else he might be waylaid by roving packs of wild beasts who would surely eat him alive; but if he stayed with them he would be saved from the punishments of both men and beasts and have food to sustain him. They took him to their camp and gave him a bundle of straw to carry, so that if he were approached by a healthy man he might warn him away by shaking the straw, and they hung a small cup about his neck, for merciful people would sometimes throw scraps of food to the sick.
“He lived with them for some time, eating what they ate and drinking what they drank. He saw how well they treated him and began to repay them in kind. On long winter nights he would read to them from his book, entertaining them with stories of the great city of Gumlidata and tales of his ancestors, the tyrant counts who governed over Gumlidata and its dependencies. In time, both the Count and his benefactors died. No trace remained of them except the book. Men live and die, but their instruments remain and live on. The Count’s friends died, but their place was taken by a new generation. They discovered the book and read it from cover to cover, joining their tears to those of the first generation. After many generations the world began to change and people began to realize how great was the suffering of the lepers, how difficult and terrible their ordeal. Not only was their sickness a great tribulation, but they were forced to live in forests and deserts and wander about in search of food. And there were times during the hard winter days when they had no sustenance and were unable to beg for food and they simply died of starvation. Eventually, benevolent groups were formed and a shelter established for the lepers, where they were brought together and their needs taken care of. Herr Doctor, I doubt whether there is anyone else in the world who knows more than I have told you about these sheets of parchment. But you want to leave. I hope you aren’t late for your appointment.”
“No, I’m not late for my appointment,” answered Adiel Amzeh. “In fact, this is only the beginning of my appointment. Take a little more time, sit a little while longer, and we’ll fill our hands with books and take them to the good people. Sit where you are, nurse, sit a while and forget about my book. My book is used to waiting.” Amzeh went over to the cabinets lining his walls and began to take books down. When he had accumulated a large pile, he tied them up in packages. He took down more books, muttering: “They’ll enjoy them, they’ll enjoy these books.” Several times he repeated the process, searching and ransacking his shelves, whispering and muttering all the time, “What shall I give? What shall I give?” If the old woman had not stayed his hand, he would have taken all his books from their shelves and given them to her.
“You take a bundle and I’ll take a bundle,” he said when he had finished, “and we’ll deliver them to your patients. As for Mr. . . . as for Mr. what’s-his-name . . . Mr. Goldenthal, Gebhard Goldenthal, who is waiting for me to come, well, I’m sure he will find something else to occupy himself with. And now, my dear Adeh Eden, let’s hurry so that we arrive before the sun sets, and you will open the gate for me and take me to see the book—the book of which you have spoken. What’s the matter, nurse? Why do you make such a face? Don’t you think they’ll allow me to enter? We’ll swear that I’m going to visit my mother, and if they don’t let me in I’ll lie down on the steps of the hospital and won’t move an inch until they say I can enter. Are you unhappy? Are you sorry about something? If it’s because of me, don’t be sorry. This is the most glorious day of my life, sweeter than any day I have ever lived, and what you have told me is sweeter than anything I have ever heard since . . . since . . . I’m really confused now, I don’t know since when. Look, look, it’s already going down. I mean the sun, the sun. The sun is more beautiful when it sets than when it rises. For twenty years a man must be hidden in the sun’s shadow in order to be able to utter such a simple piece of wisdom.”
They went out of the city, the two of them walking together, Amzeh in long strides, the old woman with short steps. He chattered as he walked, she managed every so often to bring forth a word which sounded more like a sigh. Everyone who passed by and recognized her stepped aside, and she avoided them as well; she knew these people were afraid of her and was careful not to arouse any unnecessary terror. But Adiel Amzeh was not conscious of the passers-by, avoiding them as they went along. He turned to his companion suddenly. “Do you remember whether I locked the door?” he asked. He put down his package and saw that the key was still in his hand. “I’m carrying the key with the package and am not conscious of what I’m doing,” he said with a laugh. “It’s because of the heaviness of the burden I have to bear.” For a minute he was silent. Then he cried out, “My God!” with a mixture of impatience and reproach, for at the edge of his consciousness he saw himself reading the book of Gumlidata in the hospital and the faded words on the parchment prevented him from progressing quickly. Because of this book, too, he had forgotten his own book which he had worked on for twenty years, and he had forgotten Mr. Goldenthal who had agreed to publish it. After about an hour’s walk, they arrived at the lepers’ hospital.
I don’t know through which gate they entered or how much time it took before he was granted permission. And I can’t describe the condition of the book itself, which was so covered with pus that even the lepers felt a loathing for it. I don’t know all the details and have no love for suppositions. Let me put aside the doubtful and come back to what is certain.
Amzeh came to the house of the untouchables and after much argument he finally was allowed to enter. He went in and they tied him in an antiseptic apron which reached from his neck to his feet. They took the book out of the chest it was stored in, and gave it to him with a warning not to touch it. Amzeh stared at it until his eyes seemed to occupy half his face. He looked at it for a long time, then jumped up quickly to open it. They took hold of him and told him to wait. He was fitted with a pair of white gloves which they carefully tied so they would not fall off. Then they warned him again not to touch the book unless his hands were protected with gloves. They told him that only a simple-minded man would neglect such a warning. I don’t know whether he heard them or not. This I do know: his eyes grew so large they seemed to cover his entire face—and half his neck as well. When they saw that he had somewhat regained his composure, they left, providing him with a place in the hospital garden among the trees which are known as the “Trees of Eden.” Adiel Amzeh sat there and painstakingly read every letter, every word, column, and page which the book contained, the caretaker standing by his side and turning the pages as he progressed. For they were still afraid he was so excited that he would not exercise the necessary restraint. The book had been touched by the hands of many untouchables, and it seemed almost as if it were not written on parchment, but on the skin of a leper, and not ink but pus had been used to inscribe the words.
What more can I say? After he had carefully gone over every sentence in the book, he found the answer to the riddle that had troubled him for many years; how Gumlidata had been conquered, from which side of the city the first bands of the Goths had entered. For Gumlidata had been surrounded by a solid wall of stone and protected on all sides by natural fortifications. And so within a few short hours Amzeh solved the problem that had caused him so much trouble during his years of exhaustive research. For your sake, my friends, and for the sake of the whole House of Israel, let me tell you the story the dead words told our scholar. I’ll try to summarize what was written there at great length.
The book of parchment told the story of one of the Hun women, a young girl named Geldag or Eldag, who one day left the camp of the Huns, the allies of the Goths, and rode about on a wild ass. She reached the cisterns behind the city of Gumlidata where she was caught and brought to the city. The servants of the tyrant, the old Count Gifayon Glaskinon Gitra’al of the house of Giara’al, grandfather of the young Count Gifayon Glaskinon Gitra’al Giara’al, noticed her and brought her for a gift to their master. She was horrified by the old man and his city, disgusted by his groaning and drooling, his narrow bed and his strange manners, and nauseated by the smell of the city and its sacrificial altars. She tried to flee at once, but was caught and returned to the Count. The same thing happened three or four more times; each time she was caught. Finally, she saw that escape was impossible and she sat brooding how to gain revenge on her captors.
At about the same time the girl was held captive, the Goths, with Gaditon the Brave at their head, rose up and waged war with Gumlidata. The city’s inhabitants held the Goths in great terror, for they knew that every place the barbarians conquered they slaughtered and burned, and if Gumlidata was vanquished, their future was annihilation. The tyrant Count saw that his city was cut off from all help, and he fell into a deep, sorrowful melancholy. Had it not been for Eldag, the Hun girl, who had changed her ways and begun to show him a love and devotion he had known with no other woman, he probably would have died of his sorrow before the Goths had a chance to hang him.
When the court guards saw that Eldag had changed her attitude toward the Count, they ceased watching her as carefully as before. Eldag took advantage of the guards’ carelessness and began to take long walks through the city, wandering about everywhere. She even visited the city wall near the Valley of the Cranes, which most people avoided for fear that it might collapse. Years before, an earthquake had struck the city and shaken the wall in several places. The citizens of Gumlidata were careful not to bother Eldag, for they knew that only the power of her charms had saved their king from melancholy. So enamored of the girl was their king that he had his tailors make her a mantle as a gift, a kind of priestly garment normally worn by a queen, woven with bands of calves’ eyes arranged in the shape of the Valley of Cranes.
One day Eldag remained in the king’s garden, playing with her wild ass among the tall trees. This ass was one of many animals in the garden, each of which had suckled at a woman’s breast. For there was a strange custom in Gumlidata. If a woman conceived and it was not known who the father was, her relatives waited until she gave birth and then took the infant and brought it to these animals to be suckled. They looked for an animal that had recently given birth, and left the infant to be weaned, taking the animal’s young to the human mother for suckling. If they could not find the child of a tame animal, they brought her the young of a wild one. They were most careful about the children of the noblewomen, Givyatans in their language, for if a noblewoman had given birth and the father was unknown, the infant was killed and the young of an animal was brought to the mother, so that her noble blood would not be mixed with the blood of the common people.
So Eldag played with her pet in the garden among the tall trees. She was quite unafraid of animals, having spent most of her life with them: her father, Gichul the Clown, was the owner of a dancing bear. A young ass saw them and began snorting and hee-hawing, as if in reproach. Eldag heard the young animal’s cries. “An ass always sounds like an ass,” she said with a laugh, “even if it has been suckled by a duchess. What is it you want? Do you want this mantle which covers my heart? Come and I will wrap round your neck an ornament more beautiful than any that has been worn by your noble wet-nurse.” The young ass heard her and came close. She took her mantle from her bosom and tied it about the animal’s throat, and made him bow his head as if in thanks, as she had seen Gothic noblemen do when they received gifts.
Suddenly the girl was overwhelmed with a deep longing for her home, her family, and her people. She was filled with a burning rage and her anger turned against the ass who had reminded her of her former happiness. She was angry at the ass because he was more faithful than she was: even after she had placed the gift around his neck, the ass continued to groan. She grabbed hold of him by the ears in order to strike him. The calves’ eyes which had been woven into the mantle in the shape of the Valley of Cranes shone before her. Her heart began to beat wildly. She tried to gain control of herself so that she would not cry out and give away her plan. She forced herself to smile and dragged the ass to the city wall near the Valley of Cranes; there, she found the place which had collapsed during the earthquake and had not been completely repaired. She broke through the opening and pushed the ass with the mantle around his neck outside. And Eldag was happy, for she knew that if the Goths saw the ass, they would understand he had been sent as a sign that they should enter the city through the Valley of Cranes. She controlled her joy and returned to the old Count, assuming a happy countenance for him, his court, and his city. So charmed was the population by Eldag’s grace and beauty that they forgot about the Gothic soldiers who were besieging their city.
The ass went out of the city and reached a nearby forest. His nose sniffed the odors of trees and flowers and he began to snort loudly like a wild ass who has returned to his home. The noise was heard by some Gothic soldiers. They were surprised to see the ass with the mantle around his neck, for they had never seen an animal adorned like this. They brought the animal to Gaditon, their general. Gaditon the Brave saw the mantle. “Is there a place known as the Valley of the Cranes?” he asked his soldiers. “Is there one of our people in Gumlidata?” Gichul the Clown was brought to the general, and he told him that his daughter had disappeared. He saw the ass and the strange ornament it wore, and he knew that it was his daughter’s work. The Goths sent soldiers to inspect the wall near the Valley of Cranes, and when they saw the place through which Eldag had sent the ass, the Goths entered the city. They set the city on fire, killing everyone in their path: old and young, infant and aged, male and female. Not a man or woman was left alive except Eldag, the Hun girl, who was released from her bondage, and the grandson of the old Count who was made a slave. . . .
All this was written on the last page of the book as a kind of epilogue by the author. And when Adiel Amzeh read the story, his eyes shed many tears. How great is the true writer, he thought, who does not abandon his work even when the sword of death hangs over his neck, who writes with his very blood what his eyes have seen!
Adiel Amzeh read many other things in the book. There were pages which supported some of his theories, and there were other pages which completely contradicted what he had previously thought. It seems he had relied too much on earlier scholars, even though he realized that much of what they wrote was confused. Adiel Amzeh remained at the hospital throughout the summer reading the book. When the days grew colder and the land was covered with frost, he had to stop working outside. He took a room at the hospital and had a heater brought in. He sat there studying the text, joining letter to letter and word to word until he could read whole passages without trouble. And if he discovered something unusual he would read the passage aloud to the patients in the great hall. “My friends and brothers,” he would say, “listen while I read to you.” And he would read to them about the people of the great city of Gumlidata, who had been a mighty nation, full of pride and valor, until the Gothic hordes conquered them and reduced the city to dust and ashes. He would tell them about Gomesh and Gutz and Gush and Guach, the gods of Gumlidata, and about its apostates, its great temples, its priests—each one named according to its function. And sometimes Adiel Amzeh would tell them about his new theories. He had thought out many new hypotheses and some of them he had noted on the parchment book. But his book never reached the hands of the living, for it was forbidden to remove any article or letter or book from the lepers’ house. Nevertheless, in some way or other, some of his new ideas became known to his colleagues. Many times, when Adeh Eden had brought from his house the scientific journals which he received regularly, he would read his ideas in articles signed by others. He was shocked that something which he had worked on so long and hard was now published under another scholar’s signature. “If this kind of thing can happen,” he would ask himself, “then why do I work? I ought to be satisfied with what the others say.”
Yet learning bestows a special blessing on those who are not put off so easily. Yes, Adiel Amzeh would ask himself for what and for whom he was working. But the Goddess of Wisdom herself would take hold of him and whisper: “Sit, my love, sit and do not leave me.” So he would sit and discover new things which had been unknown to all the learned men of the ages until he came and revealed them. And since there were many things and learning is endless and there is much to discover and investigate and understand, he did not put his work aside and did not leave the hospital and he remained there forevermore.