Waiting At the Gates of Heaven

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Chapter 9

When the prow of the vessel was pointing towards the speck of land that loomed in the horizon, the two friends saluted with cheers the contour of Palestine. An hour later, the ship reached the harbor. Uriah and Gabriel looked around with curiosity. There were thousands of people swarming to and fro. Some were selling almonds or bananas, others were crying in their mysterious gibberish. There were also plenty of gaunt and sun burnt men carrying huge knots of rope on their backs or oriental carpets on their shoulders. Men with keys in their hands were approaching each sailor coming out of the ship, and they offered to lodge them for a night or two.

“They always greet like this”, O’Hara explained to the two British, “They simply jump like gnats on whoever steps on the land of Palestine. They are greedy little Jews, but there are also barbarians among them who wouldn’t hesitate to cut your throats for even a morsel of food. They have been like this ever since my feet stepped on this land, and that was a very long time ago.”

“The seven capital sins can be found in all nations, as well as their opposites, i.e. the seven virtues of the Soul. I think you are mistaken in calling them greedy Jews or barbarians.”

Uriah’s reproach made Captain Ralph O’Hara raise a skeptical eyebrow.

“I know what I know, lad.”

“And I know what you don’t know, captain”, Uriah retorted smiling.

The Captain was not offended at all. He gave a healthy peal of laughter and patted Uriah on the shoulder. Meanwhile, in the harbor people were going up and down their business.

The men who jingled the bunch of keys in their hands were cottage owners, who for a living they were ready to lodge foreigners. But Uriah and Gabriel refused their offer and went to recover their car. They would drive till the nearest hotel and check in. After a proper meal and a nice shower, they would consider the matter carefully and decide what to do next. According to the internet, and to O’Hara’s personal statement, the most convenient hotel was “Thalmuses”.

“It is the best hotel in the area”, the captain had assured them. I know the owner. Unlike these dirty Jews, Mika is a fine chap. Funny, he even reminds me of my Katarina.”

And after one last long account of his unfortunate love, the captain had concluded his narrative stream with a hug and a good luck wish. Uriah and Gabriel decided to follow the captain’s advice, and when they got on shore, the two friends bid Ralph O’Hara goodbye and disappeared from view.

“Perhaps I am not to see you any longer, just like I will never see my Katarina”, they heard the Captain sobbing behind them.

“Don’t worry, captain,” Uriah shouted at him amused. “There is always another Katarina waiting to be discovered in the harbor of her life.”

The Captain shook his head doubtfully, and that was the last image the two friends had of him as Queeny left the main road and headed towards untrodden paths. They had to drive through rough scenery for almost an hour, but the captain had told them that the hotel’s prices were low and so the two friends didn’t complain. In fact, they were captivated by the wild and beautiful surroundings. Everything around them had a voice of its own. Driving through the narrow streets of a Middle Eastern country, the two British experienced a sort of elevation. Each brick, each house possessed secret language that seemed to enfold in a poem of visual images, and for the first time, both Uriah and Gabriel felt the calling of pristine nature throbbing in their veins.

When they arrived in front of a rocky hill, a gravel path opened before them, leading straight to a building they immediately assumed it had to be “Thalmuses”. It didn’t look like an ordinary hotel. It was more like a spacious, four storey house. Nevertheless, Uriah immediately liked the place, unlike Gabriel who kept complaining about the distance from the town center of Jaffa.

“We’re not here as tourists”, Uriah reminded him. “Do you really have to rain on my parade all the

time?”

“Only when I have to talk some sense into you”, Uriah replied smiling.

Still muttering incomprehensively, Gabriel drove Queeny and parked it in front of the main entrance. There was no other car, which either meant there were no visitors at all, or that people had ridden a horse or a mule to the hotel. The two friends got out of the car, helped by no usher or other member of the staff.

“You know, I am beginning to think that my cousin, the captain, was right about the local people.”

“Stop it, Gabriel. We are not in Kansas anymore, besides we can park our car without someone else’s assistance.”

“Yes, whatever.”

When they entered the hotel, a tiny old woman rose from a crimson coated armchair where she had been dozing, and dragged her feeble feet towards them. Her wrinkled face and dazzlingly white hair caught the eye in a whirlwind of imagination. She appeared ageless, although time had heavily set its mark upon her. Uriah was fascinated, unlike Gabriel who stepped back, and avoided being much time in her vicinity.

“How do you do?” Uriah greeted.

She didn’t speak English at all, but fortunately, there was no need of some acts of communication between the British and the Jewess. She showed them a piece of paper where the prices had been printed, and that set the entire affair. The real owner appeared later, still holding a towel in his hands. He had a robust countenance, and a joyful mood.

“Good evening, gentlemen”, he thus greeted his new lodgers. “Sorry if I’ve kept you waiting. I’ve been busy in the kitchen.”

His tenor like voice reverberated across the room.

“It’s fine”, they both assured him.

“We’ve already checked in”, Uriah added.

“Oh, I see that you’ve met my mother. In her youth, she used to be more talkative, but after she became a widow, for the third time”, Mika added and blinked at them, “she simply shunned herself from the world. She doesn’t speak anymore.”

“No problem”, Uriah tried to assure him. “We managed to understand each other perfectly.”


The Jew seemed thrilled and kept smiling at them.

“I am glad to see you here. My name is Mika

Bernstein. Shalom aleichem5, my dear gentlemen.” “Shalom aleichem! We are pleased to meet you.

My name is Uriah Reed and this is my companion, Mr. Gabriel Archer.”

“It is an honour making your acquaintance.” The Jew gave them a curtly bow.

“I am sure you must be very tired after such a long and exhausting journey. I will lead you to your room and make sure you have everything you need.”

The two British thanked him heartily for his hospitality, and followed him up a flight of stairs. All over the walls, there were Rembrandt’s paintings. First, there was “Christ driving the Money-Changers from the Temple”. Fascinating picture, indeed…Uriah looked mesmerized at Christ’s face. It showed an unspeakable wrath, whereas the money-changers, although frightened by Christ’s fury, were desperately trying to save their money. The portrait seemed authentic, a real life depiction, and not a Biblical reification of Christ’s history. Even the “Portrait of a Scholar” showed no trace of having been forged. The scholar’s penetrating gaze seemed just now to have been startled from the solace of study by the importunate visit of the two travelers. And the more they climbed the flight of stairs, the more Rembrandt paintings they encountered. There was “The Adoration of the Magi”, and “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”. And when they reached the first floor, they had to cross a little hall with more paintings hanging on the walls. Uriah and Gabriel could now admire “The Descent from the Cross” which was a unique canvas, depicting Christ’s

5 Peace be upon you (Hebrew) human frame in all the splendor of its mortal flaws. Also, the despair of the Holy Mother united in pain with the bereavement of any mother who had ever lost a son or a daughter. And then, there was “Abraham’s Sacrifice”, depicting the faithful love of the man who chooses the death of his son over the sin of disobeying God.

“Amazing”, Uriah exclaimed. “The paintings seem so authentic. One could easily mistake them for the originals.”

Mika laughed, but one could see that he was very pleased about that eulogy. The two British were very amusing. They kept staring at his canvases as if they were pieces of gold.

“No one can mistake something for being what it already is.”

Uriah was flabbergasted.

“Are you telling me these are real Rembrandt paintings?”

“I don’t like fake artifacts or imitations. There is nothing in my house unworthy of praise or value.”

Gabriel looked at him incredulously, and despite Uriah’s exaggerated enthusiasm, he liked Mika less and less, although he couldn’t tell for sure what it was the exact reason for his dislike.

“But aren’t you afraid that thieves may broke in?” Gabriel dared to ask.

“They might try, some have indeed tried; still, none has succeeded. In the house of Mika, only those admitted by Mika himself, manage to get through the main entrance.”

Gabriel suddenly began to feel uncomfortable, but Uriah was more and more intrigued. And when he saw the “Portrait of an old woman with spectacles” at the end of the hall, he couldn’t refrain from allowing a shiver to cross his spine, realizing how much the old woman in the painting resembled Mika’s mother.

“It is amazing”, Uriah heard Mika saying, “how portraits emulate life. One looks at a canvas, and it is like looking into a mirror. Each colour, each landscape, and each face tells you something you already know. It reveals the hidden truths of your being. And the reason I like Rembrandt is because the man is a genius, and every painting is a masterpiece. Don’t you agree?”

Both Gabriel and Uriah nodded their heads and let themselves carried away by the spell of Mika’s words.

“There you are”, Mika said when they reached the door of their room. “The best chamber of Thalmuses…”

Gabriel and Uriah waited for Mika to unlock it, and when the door was open they stepped in.

“How do you like it, my gentlemen?”

“It is won…” answered Uriah, and stopped suddenly.

On the wall, above their beds, another Rembrandt painting mastered with its grandeur the entire room. That was the reason why Uriah halted, losing the thread of his words.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son”, he whispered slowly. Nevertheless, Mika heard him.

“It’s breathtaking, isn’t it? I consider it to be Rembrandt’s greatest achievement.”

“Indeed.”

Contemplating the canvas, Uriah did feel like a prodigal son, returning to the Holy Land to kneel before his father and to ask him to place the burden of the cross over his mortal shoulders. The figure of James Reed was there, symbolically lingering on the canvas, and he was there too, trembling at the feet of the patriarch.

When Mika wished them good night and retreated downstairs, Uriah heard nothing. His eyes were filled with the beauty of a symbolic epiphany.

As for Gabriel, he entirely neglected the canvas. His eyes were analysing the room they had taken. It contained two beds, one big bathroom, and a balcony that opened to an orange grove.

Woken up from his revelry, Uriah realized that he was not alone in the room.

“How do you like it here?” he asked Gabriel. Gabriel frowned and busied himself with

unpacking his luggage.

“I feel like a boy scout visiting for the first time the Hermitage Museum.” Gabriel mockingly remarked the moment he finished unpacking.

“You’ll get to like it as soon as you become more acquainted with Palestine.”

“Blimey, Uriah, I hate raining on your parade, but have you seen the hotel manager’s mother? She looks like a ghoul, a corpse ready to descend to the valley of the shadows. It really sends me chills all over my spine. Not to mention the manager himself. He doesn’t seem, well, how to put it, quite normal.”

“Strange as it may sound, I like the old woman’s face. It is rather peculiar, like a story that never gets to be told. It is only hastily scribbled and people pass by without taking time to notice the tiny paragraphs of a human life. She, too, was young, and maybe even beautiful, but time has kissed her brow and now she is only the empty vessel of the being she used to be. And her son, Mika, is a genuine art collector who loves the beauty of life. You should at least appreciate his love for art. As a matter of fact, you should even recognize that Mika is an original.” Gabriel scowled, but his friend didn’t seem to notice.

After unpacking, Uriah took a shower and put on a silk gown. It was warm, and the desert air filled the night with hot vapours. There was something in the vibrations of the wavering sands, in the tremulous shudder of the orange branches, and in the stillness of the night that foretold the intrusion of mystery and the unexpected. Feeling warm, Uriah opened the door to the balcony. The noise of the running water, as Gabriel was then having his shower, was deafened by the soft rustling of the orange leaves. Like a distant memory, it hit Uriah’s understanding. He frowned, trying to recollect something. What? What was there to remember? But the fact kept coming back to him. He had seen the forest before. From a logical point of view, the thought itself was impossible as it was his first time in Palestine. Yet, everything seemed so familiar… And right when he was about to remember, his attention was distracted by a sudden apparition. The silhouette of a woman, in all the splendor and loneliness of the moment, grew visible, framed by the silver moonlight. It was then when he realised who she really was. Her face, bathed in the nocturnal light, appeared before his eyes and he saw her. The same woman he had seen crossing the London streets, that same woman who had been returning in his dream as Andromeda, that woman was now strolling at night in the orange grove. The woman was not alone. She was accompanied by a Greyhound, a big white dog with brown spots.

Uriah was so fascinated and bewildered that he even tried to wake up from a revelry he thought to be impossible.

“Have I lost my mind? She can’t be here. How is this possible?”

Nevertheless, she was there, walking in the moonlight in a beautiful white dress which appeared to be floating around her body like a halo of silk and embroidery. Her hair was loose, wavering in dark ringlets, falling over her shoulders till it reached her waist. Her pace was gentle and springy at the same time, uniting in cadence with the greyhound’s own pace. Yes, it was her. Uriah knew what he had to do. He needed to convince himself of her presence. Without losing a second or two in speculations and assumptions, he left the balcony and returned inside. Gabriel was still in the shower. Uriah hastily put on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and ran out of the room. Luckily, he was staying on the first floor or else he would have lost his breath until he got outside the hotel. And strange as it may seem, he meet neither Mika nor his mother on his way out. It was as if they had vanished from the hotel. But Uriah didn’t want to think about them at that moment. He needed to find her. He must find her.

He was now approaching the orange grove. Nearby, he could hear the Greyhound barking. The dog had a hoarse and strong bark.

“No, Igor”, he heard her saying to the dog. “Leave the poor bird alone. It is only roosting in the tree.”

Her voice…It was the same…the same voice he had heard in his dream. He approached her, and the dog gave another long bark; this time it was barking at him.

She had heard footsteps coming down the gravel, and when she turned to see who the intruder was, nothing could have prepared her for the surprise. Apparently, she remembered him from London as they had briefly met for few splitting seconds and had exchanged few glances. At least, that was what Uriah wanted to believe.

“I am sorry, miss, for startling you.” Her dark eyes were still fixed upon him. “But I think I have seen you before.” He was almost losing his breath. “Are you from London?”

She was puzzled, knowing not how to answer such a direct question but then she laughed.

“No, but sure…I remember you. I never forget people’s faces. They stay with me, lingering in my memory. You are right. I was in London some weeks ago, and I think I saw you standing at your window, as I was crossing the street to reach my hotel. Yes, as I have told you, I never forget a face when I see it.”

“Neither do I.”

The dog ceased to bark. It had smelt Uriah’s trousers and hands, and deciding he meant no harm, it allowed the presence of the stranger around its mistress.

“May I join your walk?”

“If Igor doesn’t consider you to be dangerous, I have nothing against. I totally trust my companion. My Igor knows how to judge people.”

“Igor? Is it a Russian name?’

“Yes, it is.”

“Then you are a Russian.”

“Why do you assume I have to be a Russian? Don’t judge a person by its name or in my case by the dog’s name. No, I am not Russian, but I am of a mixed blood. My grandparents from my mother’s side were from Bulgaria. They are both of them dead, they died when I was little, and I never got the chance to learn Bulgarian so don’t try to test my Bulgarian language skills. Nevertheless, let’s return to Igor. It was my father who chose this name. Have you read “The Song of Igor’s Army”?

“Yes. I am a librarian. I have read almost every

book.”

She laughed again, and he blushed. It was a funny sight. He was behaving like a scholar.

“Not every book…You couldn’t have read every book. Do you have any idea how many books are right now being born? We are standing here talking, and right now, maybe even at the other end of the world an idea bursts out of the bloom and a writer imagines writing a book. Other books are now being written, or printed, and so on, and you wouldn’t know, because you only get to read those books that fate or circumstances provide you with. You haven’t read Păsărea Albastră, have you?”

“What?”

“The Blue Bird”, she said translating the title. “It’s a Romanian book.”

“Then, you are from Romania, aren’t you?” Her laughter filled again the night.

“Why are you so keen to locate me? I hate being tied to one place or another, and I hate this geographical division. We are all children of the universe, living under the same sky and treading on the same earth. Why do we have to belong to different nations and to talk different languages? We should only dwell as brothers on this earth and speak the language of the soul, the only language worth talking. But, yes, to answer your question, I was born in Romania, although I have always been a wanderer, going from one place to another, never settling down…I guess I find myself in the myth of the blue bird, the metaphor of utter freedom.”

She nodded approvingly.

“Yes, like a blue bird, I only find my rest in the nest of perpetual motion.”

Uriah Reed had listened fascinated, and the title Pasărea Albastră was calling him from an unknown knoll, beckoning his mind to feast upon the strange words of a Romanian piece of literature. He needed to know the name of its author and to read more of his or her works.

“Who wrote the book?”

Her sweet laughter filled again the night with its melodious peals.

“Lalage Petrov.”

“I haven’t heard of this female writer.” He said blushing and puzzled, feeling ashamed of his ignorance.

“That would be because we haven’t been properly introduced.” She held forth her hand. “How do you do, Sir? My name is Lalage Petrov and I am pleased to meet you.”

He blinked and stammered.

“You…You wrote the book?!”

He couldn’t believe his ears.

“Yes. I am a writer. Is that a problem?”

“No, of course not…” He seized her hand, bowed and kissed her knuckles. “I am Uriah Reed, and I am a librarian.”

Her dark eyes twinkled.

“It seems that tonight the stars have decided. Far away from civilization, from Christianity, a writer meets a librarian. And for the second time, both in London and now in Palestine….As interesting as it can be.”

“That reminds me, if I may ask, what were you doing in London?” he asked her.

“I was researching for my new book.” “What is it about?”

“About the sea, about a girl who loses her love, about myths, and about everything that my imagination is able to bring to life…Don’t question me further, I don’t like to talk about my novels before their publication.”

“I can totally understand. But The Blue Bird, tell me

please, what is it about?”

“Have you read Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know that Williams talks about a blue bird that forever flies, a blue bird that even in the arms of the wind keeps flying, without resting. She flies and soars to the endless horizon, being one with the sky, and not even the accursed falcons dare to follow her in her flight. I was fascinated by the idea and I used it to show man’s pursuit for utter freedom and happiness.”

“It sounds interesting.”

“Thank you. You should read it one day, only if to be able to say, this is a book whose author I got to know.” “I would like that,” acknowledged Uriah smiling. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated in

English.”

“I could learn Romanian. I am a quick study.” She laughed again.

“And I can teach you. I am a patient professor.” She beamed at him. “I like you, Uriah. You are a good soul. But you’ve been so much inquiring about me, and I so little that I am ashamed of myself. Tell me, if I am allowed to know, what’s a librarian doing so far away from his library?”

“I am also researching.” He again blushed.

“I hope your research proves successful.”

Lalage asked no other questions. She immediately

understood his need of secrecy.

“Funny”, she said. “We saw each other in London. Then, I was the one who was researching. Then we meet again so far away from the place where we first met. And now we are both researching.”

Igor barked and ran ahead.

“My friend is tired”, she said. “I am afraid our meeting is over for the moment.”

“Where are you staying in Palestine? Let me accompany you.”

“Thank you. I am staying at a little cottage near the hotel. I know the owner. It’s an old man with whom my father exchanged letters on philosophical matters. You see, my father teaches philosophy, and I can also say that I love wisdom as much as my father. When my father heard that I intended to come to Palestine in order to carry on my research, he wrote to Mr. Rai and enquired if he had a spare room. That is how I ended up living next to your hotel.”

“I am very glad to have met you again and to also have you for a neighbour.”

“And friend”, she added smiling.

“And friend.”

They walked next to each other, treading firmly on the land of Palestine. The moon rose red and fiery, like a Phoenix of light, but they only noticed the shadows of their two bodies joined together by a strange fate. The dog was barking and running ahead, and they were silent, listening to each other’s breath. The winds of the desert were blowing warmly, and the perfume of the orange groves was enchanting and dizzy.

When they reached her cottage, a tall shadow crept quickly inside, and Lalage frowned.

Uriah noticed the sudden change of her complexion. “What is the matter?” he asked.” What was that?” “It’s just Mr. Rai’s son, Lucien. He is a strange

fellow. His father is nice, but Lucien does not resemble him. He keeps following me, talking strangely about a valley where I need to descend.” Uriah’s heart beat faster, but she did not notice. “As a matter of fact”, she went on, “he was the one who told me to walk through the orange grove. I didn’t mean to listen to him, but the orange grove was so beautiful and inviting that even Igor ran to it. Nevertheless, I am glad I went to the grove and met you.”

She smiled and he smiled back at her, but his thoughts were wandering back to Lucien. Mr. Rai’s son seemed to know something about a valley; maybe the same valley he was looking for. Determined to visit Lucien the following day and discuss with him face to face, Uriah bade Lalage goodnight and kissed her hand.

“Till tomorrow”, he whispered to her.

“Till tomorrow”, she acknowledged.

She entered the cottage, and the door closed behind her. At one window a curtain moved, and Uriah swore he saw the outline of a man hiding behind it. For all he knew, it could have been Lucien. Throwing one last glance to the cottage, Uriah departed, followed by the glowing eye of the moon and by the glittering of the nocturnal stars.

“Till tomorrow”, he whispered again, this time to the man behind the curtains.

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