Issue 155, Summer 2000
To reach Abulabaz, Isaac the Jew climbs a pyramid of slaves: one, two, three, up their black backs to his saddle (Persian carpets secured by a leather harness). The elephant and Isaac walk circles around the abandoned Roman circus that has become their home, Isaac telling Abulabaz impossible stories-about Charlemagne's court; Harun's Baghdad palace; China, India and Sind; Isaac's days trading eunuchs, boys and brocades for camphor, musk and cinnamon. Sometimes Isaac recites psalms, or discusses a passage of Talmud, taking first the part of Hillel, then that of Shammai. Sometimes the rhythm of their walking, the hypnotic crunch of snow underfoot, puts Isaac to sleep: he dreams, then-of dancing girls, the lost tribes, the End of Days when the righteous shall eat the flesh of Leviathan-for it is only on Abulabaz's back that Isaac ever sleeps.
Isaac envies Abulabaz his equanimity: the elephant is untroubled by nightmares, he does not fear his fellows, he is not tired, he does not despair.
At night, Isaac lies close to Abulabaz; alert, he rests his head on the elephant's giant gray flank, clutching his dagger- silver-handled, jewel-encrusted, a personal gift from Harun ar-Rashid; Abulabaz rests his trunk along Isaac's back.
Isaac keeps a close eye on Abulabaz-who can blame him?
What good is he if, after chis long journey, he can't give Charlemagne chis gift? Two slaves, tall, black, gleaming, stand, their backs to the fire, holding a canopy of snowwhite linen over Isaac, shielding him from the snow. The locals-Franks, Lombards, Romans-whisper that these men are fire-worshipers, cannibals. It is undoubtedly the slaves, and not Isaac's dagger, who keep Abulabaz's would-be enemies at bay.
Nigel wants me to coordinate U.N. efforts in Bosnia, that's why he called. He says I am wasting my time in Italy, doing a junior person's job. I asked since when had he become such a professional. He sighed in a way that suggested he was prepared to be patient with me, because of what we'd once meant to each other. All I could think was, I remember-how you went co Islamabad every weekend, Mr. Professional, to harvest marijuana from the side of the road, how you got drunk at the American Club, challenged Australian mine defusers to arm-wrestling championships, how I found you passed out in the chowkidar's guardhouse in front of my gate, how you pointed at your driver and said, Can you believe it, a month ago we were counting rupees, now we' re fucking lords of the universe.
I told Nigel I was happy processing Albanian refugees in southern Italy; I told him I was thinking about going home, when my contract was up. Home? he said. What's that?
Isaac wipes snow from his purple robe and curses the winter. He stomps his feet on the cracked Vercelli ground, and shouts, Hay! Abulabaz needs more hay! After all his years away, Isaac feels alone, betrayed: he enjoys inflicting his eccentricities on others. He shouts for hay in Frankish, Latin, Lombard, though he knows that, by now, Lombard is a dead language. When no one responds, Isaac mutters, The beast is enormous! Even someone with no experience of elephants could assume a voluminous appetite. These people! They know only what they've always known, they infer nothing from the unfamiliar! Isaac is terrified by the provincial. Not just in this backwater- at home, too, where someone-his wife, perhaps-was likely to say, What was it like, on the back of the wild black sea, in the court of the King of Persia, did you think of me ever, are you glad to be home? What will Isaac say? No, I can't tell you what it was like, and no, there came a time when I closed my eyes, and did not think, when I did not think of you.
Isaac doesn't have words to describe what he has seen. Ethiopian cannibals. Noseless tribes. Human beings bought and sold. Souks the size of small towns. Fire-worshipers who take their mothers and sisters to wife. Wind-worshipers who eat raw meat.Jews who know nothing of the Oral Law. Public executions. Unimaginable riches. All manner of unclean food.
Slave girls who look out with black eyes from under black veils. The deaths of Sigismond and Lanfred. A desert the size of the Carolingian Empire. White-crested waves skirting the waste at the end of the world.
Even if he could describe these things, how would his wife, his children, his neighbors-who know only the warm hum of daily prayers, the smoke of a stone hearth, the passing of seasons, every thing in its place-how could they understand?
Isaac imagines he could be more alone in his home than in the emptiest desert, the most desolate sea.
When he was younger, still trading, hungry for adventure, before he'd become a translator for Charlemagne, I imagine it was easier. He belonged in the house his father built-next to the beadle who sleepwalked, stole challah and blamed it on the werewolves; across from Rivkah, the most beautiful woman in the village, who married the town's most brilliant scholar, produced six ugly girls, seven stupid boys.
Then, slowly, things changed. The beadle died, Rivkah grew old, Isaac's wife grew cold, the village burned down, and when Isaac went home, he wandered the dirt roads alone.
Isaac stares at the Alps, nostalgic for nostalgia.