Photo: Avshalom Tulipman
The Salt Line
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Youval Shimoni
Translated from Hebrew by Michael Sharp
All sorts of adventurers and explorers came to Leh motivated by curiosity or the will to make a name for themselves, and others were motivated by a sense of remoteness, seeking a place far enough in which to put roots down, and to which of these the wounded man belonged it was not possible to know.
His heartbeats were not promising. As to his state of mind, the doctor only knew what Rasul had told him, but who amongst all those coming to Leh do so with a completely lucid mind? He himself certainly did not belong to the lucid of mind when he arrived here, and after all, the definition of lucidity of mind changes from place to place, as the gods change and also as the rules of morality change. Things that Doctor McKenzie would not have conceived, of doing on a different continent, and which even his unfortunate luck did not lead him to do there, he was undeterred from here in Leh.
He now treated all the rogues whom he saw here with forgiveness, only if their roguery was not the cause of a death: crossing that boundary was forbidden. But in his eyes it was not terrible when they deceived customers as to the quality of the merchandise if those could afford to pay, or when they used trickery in some dubious miracle that found enough fools to believe it. Was he himself not aided by trickery in his veterinarian days? For example with the sublimated iodine and with turpentine causing crimson smoke to rise from wounds, thus persuading the farmers of the effectiveness of the treatment? Perhaps the chemical reaction helped the penetration of the iodine and perhaps not; either way, it looked marvelous.
The plan that he and Tenzin hatched, each for his own reasons, also did not seem terrible in his eyes, even if there was no beneficial intent in them. Tenzin’s father had become a broken man at the end of the century, and he, a well-loved veterinarian, against his will had become a wanderer and left for a long exile. It’s no wonder that they both wished for vengeance.
When he placed the tips of his fingers to the side of the neck of the wounded man, he felt his heartbeats and counted them again. They were now also frequent, at once sharp and fragile. Could he cure him? Local witch doctors crushed and ground grasses and stones and stirred the mixture in water and kneaded it and chanted all sorts of mantras, and their patients were cured. And fortune tellers revealed to clients their fates by the stars of the sky or the formation that grains of wheat created on the skin of a drum. One only had to believe in the meaning given to them, but such an explanation was not in his power to give for the suffering of any person, least of all for his own suffering.
At the commissioner’s wife’s evening teas they mocked the witch doctors, but frequently they were more helpful than his medicines, because they trusted in them and were still doubtful about him.; only his operating instruments impressed them, because they gleamed like the instruments of a ritual. In England he’d cut open the stomachs of dogs who had accidentally swallowed rubber balls, inserted his hands beyond the elbows inside the genitalia and anuses of cows and mares, and on the caravan in which he came here, he let the blood of a pony who had developed induration of hoof tissue, and only then did they begin to appreciate him a little (until then it seemed to each and every one that his only advantage was the whiteness of his skin). And last summer in the villages he performed cataract operations on dozens of villagers, and with more than half of them, despite not having any previous experience, he was successful.
When he became established here it seemed as if his suffering had vanished, but lately it appeared again. In his room in Changspa not only did the yearning lift his hand with the glass it was holding and fling it against the wall or the floor or to the twilight outside; there was anger in him as well. Not for one moment did he forget the money he had borrowed, the promises that he had promised the farmers, and for whom. (“It’s better this way,” he heard her voice again from beyond the mountain peaks.) With a sharpness that was painful, he recalled her franticness and her changeability, her resentment towards London and her longing for London, her attempts at domesticity in the village and her disappointment from the village and from herself for not succeeding in making a home in it, her desire to stand out in every place at all times, and her withering the moment she felt she was not desirable, in her husband’s eyes or the eyes of total strangers, Britons or Italians – all this had no explanation, neither did his love for her, despite it all; no explanation and no cure, and no operation could remove it.
With his operations in the village he needed to be helped by recommendations from Rasul, who disclosed that the doctor had operated even on the queen and now the queen can see like a baby. In vain he had tried to explain to him that actually babies cannot see well. And about the royal operation, even though it had ended in success and the cataract was removed, he preferred not to be reminded of it. There are acts which do not end the moment they seem to have ended, and their manifest beginnings also have concealed roots. When the queen was hospitalized she was accompanied by her whole entourage, and none of them angered him more than the king himself, who every evening would come to visit carrying the magic lantern which he had received as a gift from the commissioner, and in order to put the queen comfortably to sleep, he would install the oil lamp of the apparatus, and on the wall opposite would project sites of London, Paris and Rome – the Big Ben tower could be seen there, and the river Thames and Trafalgar Square – yes-yes, right inside this miserable hospital – Parisian boulevards and the Arc de Triomphe; the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome and fountains and marble statues; and amongst the passersby in the piazzas the doctor wondered every evening if by chance he and Kate had also been photographed.
Perhaps they were blurred there, and were included in the crowds or in the shadows of the buildings, nevertheless they had been there, if in fact these photographs had been taken then: a man and a woman in their attempt to repair the first year of their marriage, she a glamorous Londoner – that’s how he saw her in the beginning – and he a cumbersome villager. She has a new hairdo, and beneath her arm an expensive leather handbag which she bought in the morning, and he has coins in his wallet which he’s saving for stamps, and not far off from there, on the opposite sidewalk, amongst the passersby, with confident steps and without haste, advances his ruination. Yes, he could imagine there without difficulty even the one whom he did not wish to see, as with any panoramic photograph of a city which on sight one could assume that at least in one of its streets some crime is taking place, and which only due to the distance has evaded the camera’s lens.
Until not many years ago he still used to say to his alternating assistants that he would have given a year of his life in order to know what the unconscious hallucinate about at moments like these from the depths of their souls, but it’s been many a day since he’s said that to anyone, and the interior of the soul seems something better not to become involved with. Throughout recent times he has behaved like a practical man: examined the facts he gathered, made calculations of profit and loss, made advantageous connections – connections like those he had with Tenzin and with the caravan-bashi – for the long term, and from considerations which he tended not to share with anyone. How long was that term? Very long; indeed Rome was the place of its inception.
In crimson pillars of smoke he could have raised that damn Italian to the heavens – yes, it could have been a marvelous spectacle. Or, at the very least, he would have placed him next to him during some especially repulsive operation, for instance the time when in Begbrook he operated on the colonel’s cow who had swallowed a metal wire. How sure of himself the colonel had been at the beginning of the operation (“Doctor, I’ve already seen some tough things in my life”), and how stooped he had seemed at its end, after the intestines suddenly burst out when, on one of his attempts to push it back in, it suddenly squirted a murky jet which had found itself an outlet; after which the colonel looked as dark as a Tamil.
Unwillingly he saw the Italian again walking parallel to him and Kate on the opposite sidewalk of the Via Veneto, and he was not even one of those oily haired Italian men whose main business was flirting with female tourists; this Italian had an understanding of sculpture, and paintings, and all sorts of other antiquities, and not only Italian ones. He also took pains to say, without being asked, in which antiquities he specialized, and mentioned the name of the Asian desert where they had been discovered, and at the time that name meant nothing to McKenzie. In his eyes, deserts were associated only with Africa, and under no circumstances was it conceivable that the day would come when he would live the distance of one caravan away from those regions.
For that man, the professor, one characteristic hue was enough to identify every single painter with the same skill with which he, the veterinarian – he was then still a veterinarian – diagnosed an animal disease from one of its symptoms (for instance, lead poisoning from the foaming of the mouth of calves after eating strips of old paint). This man was a researcher of ancient scripts and not a researcher of art, but he gave them a detailed lecture on Michelangelo’s David, abounding with comparisons, and speaking especially at length about his loins. “Not only did your Victoria attach a fig leaf to him,” he said about the copy which was sent to the queen, “but also some of our popes.” And for a moment it seemed that he was directing his words on matters of modesty and shame to McKenzie’s shame as well.
A few meters away from them a small shoeshine boy was bent over his box, and when the German tourist placed her pudgy hand on his head, the boy was captivated by her touch like a puppy, whereas Kate distorted her face; she was wary of his lice and the sleep in the corners of his eyes. The blind eyes of the marble statues she did have affection for as did she for the muscular bodies, and every time her gaze lingered on them he would demonstratively stand up straight, as if he was up for renewed appraisal from the very comparison with the statue. Actually, David did not impress him at all, despite its stature – he had seen a copy of it in London, exactly a year before their trip. David stood like a model with his sling, and not like someone intending to hurl a stone at a giant and to subdue an entire army with it; and if his innocuousness wasn’t enough, he had a tiny Thomas. Some of the statues in Rome had similar ones, and the German tourist directed his wife’s attention to one such, and then Kate also blushed.
Those two Germans, neighbors on the other side of the wall in their hotel (“a pair of animals” is what they called them) they kept meeting by chance at all sorts of places that tourists habitually visit. He was therefore also not surprised to see that man again in the Vatican halls or in some piazza, drawing back a step or two from a painting with narrowed eyes, or slowly encircling a statue in order to become acquainted with it from all angles. “That one’s a professional,” Kate said of him, “you can see it right away.” She had enough integrity to admit that in every museum she first looked at the copper plaques next to the frame. (Only in the churches did she not hesitate to also look at what had not been pointed out in the guide; there it was not important what others said, but rather what her heart said.)
After detailing all the virtues of Bernini’s David as opposed to that of Michelangelo, without any hesitation he began to talk about the saint which Bernini had sculptured, a saint whose facial expression on the moment of union with the Lord resembled the expression of a woman achieving a climax: the head was slanted backwards, the lips parted, the tongue stuck out to the side, the eyes rolling from pleasure. “You simply have to see it,” said that man of short stature, of scant forelock, the erudite, the nuisance, the expert on sculpture and on painting and on antiquities and what not, as if he had already been appointed their host. And for a moment it seemed that his words had been especially directed at McKenzie, who the whole previous night had tried to bring such an expression to his wife’s face.
In the vase in their room the roses shed more red petals onto the small table (the chambermaid did not bother to replace them); their stems stooped farther, and with them his organ withered.