A short story by Josh Baum
If you look at a page of Talmud, you will see that it has central text surrounded by texts in smaller and smaller print. These are the commentators. The lay out corresponds to the way it is studied in Yeshiva, where each line is read and interpreted considering the many voices of the commentators. Although it is not a visual decoration it is, to those who have studied it, an illumination. Each comment serves to illuminate the central text, often cross-referencing other parts of the Talmud. It a vast and at times labyrinthine kind of study and the comments are often presented as a set of opinions; or even opinions as to which opinions need to be considered. And so it grows like an imaginary forest. Originally all the conversations were aural and there was resistance to writing them down. But because of exiles and wars there was a fear that these aural teachings be forgotten. Eventually it was written down by Yehuda Ha Nasi in around 200 CE, this is also alluded to in my story. I spent many years studying the Talmud in Israel, but my career as an artist steered me far from the Yeshivah. Despite having encountered many other kinds of teachings and reading, the act of writing the story, Fleurs de Garance, was born in part out of a fear that my personal memory of the Torah would be forgotten.
Fleurs de Garance
After centuries of frowns and sighs from librarians, the cherubs on the outside wall of the library had become gargoyles, to which my librarian had contributed, because of me, her afternoon.
‘We will be closing in 15 minutes’ she said
The ceilings of the library were high with dark blue panels and gilded stars. I thought of Giotto’s blue and starry skies and then of Galileo under smaller stars and darker blues. It seemed that our imaginary nights were getting darker, the stars tiny and unreachable. The night, we now knew to be completely black and crossable only with a Millennium Falcon.
But my work here was to borrow something of the old night and with it the prospect of sleep. I would be exaggerating if I said that my pile of books reached the stars on the ceiling, but waking up with my cheek on the green desk, it did have the appearance of a minaret.
I had been commissioned to copy and illuminated manuscript for Professor Nasser Khalili. It was to be for an old Babylonian tale and the brief was to produce something for the nursery of his grand daughter who was unable to sleep; although I suspected it would really be for him. Khalili’s manuscript collection was extensive and famous and though no one could tell me exactly what he was a professor of, it was clear when I first stepped onto the lavish edge of his enormous Mayfair office, that his reputation and fortune were built on carpets.
The original manuscript did not belong to Khalili but was kept in a dark room at the library away from sunlight. It was only with a letter from him that the librarians had agreed to let me to see it, but they were guarding the story closely. The scroll was written on vellum in Aramaic and in addition to the letters not always being clear, the exact thread of the story was ambiguous and the subject of much debate. In fact, apart from my Concordencia Mithica, all the books I had requested were by Talmudic commentators to help discover a plot.
I was looking for details which would make good images for illumination. This usually started by choosing a flower for the border vine and because of who my patron was, it would be important that the images closely follow those of the tale: not to paint hibiscus flowers if the story spoke about poppies.
The basic setting was something upon which all the commentators agreed; even Luria, who tended to see everything differently and sometimes even backwards. I always kept my edition of Luria next to me.
The tale was set in a palace courtyard with a story teller and the King’s daughter Garance, who couldn’t sleep. Most agreed that the Teller was to tell a story to the girl, although Luria held that the story was actually told by the girl to the Teller who had, through some enchantment, lost the ability to tell. In this particular city, stories were vital to escort the children into sleep. Luria went on to explain that all stories in the city depended upon the imagination of this one man, the consequence being that none of the children in the city would go to bed. A footnote in my edition of Luria suggested that the King and the Teller might in fact be one and the same.
A second thing about which all were in agreement, and which was to form the start of my design, was the name of the girl after the plant fleurs de garance. It was among these plants whose flowers were yellow stars, and whose roots were long and red, that she would be found playing. The roots were used to make the red pigment Alizarin, invaluable to both carpet dyers and scribes.
There were, however, several opinions as to the origin of her insomnia. The commentator Al Q’abetz from Salonika tells of how an iniquitous jin had been stealing golden hours from the child’s sleep and giving them to a wicked scribe in exchange for hours in which the jin might be free. The wicked scribe would beat the sleep into thin leaves to gild stars onto an enormous manuscript. His desire for the gold was insatiable. As the stars grew bigger, there was less and less blue: his work was extinguishing the night.
I found that the best way to chose between the many conflicting voices of the commentators was to consult the Concordencia Mithica to see which plot lines were most widely represented in the world of stories. Wikipedia was providing too many empty facts which were making my heart feel thin as a rizla.
The Concordencia Mithica, or Mithica as it was known, was much simpler. I could look up an image or plot in the story and would find similar examples from folk tales across the world. The book didn’t seem to mind whether the stories were ancient or modern: just that they had been told. My edition had a green cover with gold lettering, beautifully thin pages and with a few carefully chosen etchings. Apparently, the author of Mithica, herself a collector of stories, was still alive and living in Helsinki where the nights were long. The book was born of her fear that even a single story be forgotten.
The Mithica offered three examples of sleep theft. One was a Swiss folk tale according to which, hours of sleep were being stolen by a watch maker in Tichino. His watches were said to keep perfect time and would run for a lifetime on a single wind, because of which all the other watchmakers were becoming obsolete. But it was revealed that instead of a steel spring, his were powered by the unused light and time of children which he would steal while they slept. He would collect their breaths with a goose feather and feed them to mollusks which would pace round and round their shells. The watchmaker would then break the shells with a silver hammer extracting the perfect and tiny coils to power his clocks. Apparently, the children in Tichino and the surrounding villages were dying, until the villain was discovered by a young clerk reviewing watch patents in Bern. He had taken apart one of the watches converting the coil back into light and time.
The two other accounts of sleep theft, one from Haiti and the second Aboriginal, had the thieves as birds. The Aboriginal story tells of a single bird who was stealing sleep to feed on the dreams. The bird is caught and punished by a serpent who confiscates her wings which breaks the spell returning the dreams and with them the sleep. The bird is sent into flightless exile and after many years wandering the bush her legs became long and slender. She is eventually spotted and betrothed to a Kangaroo. The Haitian birds however are many and are eventually caught shrieking and feasting on the sleep, by a black cat called Laila. Through a dark pact involving the exchange of a soul between a Haitian doctor and the king of the birds, the sleep is returned. In the Haitian story, it is certain that one of the deal makers, though unclear whether it was the doctor or the bird king, was in fact the Devil.
All the commentators and even Luria, agree that the original story, with Teller and girl, takes place on an enormous carpet. There is much debate in the outer margins of comment as to both the appearance and origination of this carpet, but most schools agree that it was the result of a competition set by the King, who had become increasingly worried about his daughter. The carpet was to bear an enchanting and hypnotic illumination where Garance could run around inside a story with mountains, rivers and palaces, in forests with animals, among soporific flowers and herbs until she was tired. Most useful to my illumination was that many commentators focused their attention on precise lists of herbs conducive to sleep, the most common of which were chamomile, melissa and hibiscus.
According to The Ramak, a commentator from Cordoba, the competition to design the carpet was itself an epic and bloody tale, and that to amass the necessary dyes and artists to deliver so fabulous an object was the cause of a great war. He said that the red used in the hibiscus flowers on the carpet’s margin was not Alizarin but was in fact the blood of a rival carpet maker from Cappadocia.
The commentator Nachmanides makes mention of one particular concubine who was part of the prize offered by the king, speaking at length of her extraordinary beauty. He wrote of how the Sufi poet Al Nurda had given up a life of faith and prayer to compose love poems to be written with henna across her body. The meter of the verses would rise and fall with her curves, conceived as a perfectly fitting garment of words. She herself would then slowly remove the poems letter by letter every night with almond milk so that he might begin again. The verses cited from Al Nurda were indeed beautiful. I noticed, however, that he would cite similar verses elsewhere, even during commentary upon legal texts, which led me to suspect, and I was not alone among the commentators, that Al Nurda was Nachmanides.
Rashi, a commentator from Troyes, suggests that the carpet corresponded to an old French legend of a girl playing in a field of rubia flowers, which the Mithica also mentions and for which it provides a rare etching. In the story the girl is dancing between fleurs de garance and coffee flowers, both of which I learned from Wikipedia, belong to the same family. During the dance, she would throw the coffee flowers into the river Seine, making from the fleurs de garance a crown of yellow stars. According to both Rashi and the Mithica, this little girl’s small journeys with coffee flowers to and from the Seine accounted for the very first few paths of Paris.
Luria, who maintains that the tale was told by the child to the Teller, holds that the Teller himself had commissioned the carpet that he might pace upon its imaginary gardens to regain his ability to tell. According to Luria, the borders did not contain chamomile and hibiscus, but sage, poppies and a forest of ginko trees to restore his memory.
Though I was following the majority opinion, I was curious about Luria’s reading and looked it up in the Mithica. The closest I could find was a story which dealt with two characters: one who sought to regain his heart and a second who sought to regain his memory. There was a particular Romanian folk telling of the same story where the memory seeker was a scarecrow.
As is so often the case with Talmudists, although the deeper meanings of the text were discussed at length, the simple content of the story exchanged between Teller and child was never mentioned. Which led me to wonder whether there was a central story.
Al Q’abetz said that Garance’s dance around the huge and colourful rug would bring the many motifs to life. Where deer would feed among the lilies, birds began to sing and fly and flowers exuded their maddening scents. Parts of the carpet were even dangerous with long grass and snakes. So vibrant was the life on the rug that when the energy of the creatures and flowers was spent, their combined fatigue drew down a new night from heaven, deep and blue, complete with stars and a new moon.
Nachmanides comments that Garance convinced the birds of the carpet to go and call the other children from the city to play under her new skies. She invited the Teller to play with her among the motifs and as he started to walk the many paths between vine and mountain, palace and tree, or along the edge of the carpet’s rivers he rediscovered his tales which he began to tell. Slowly all the children became sleepy and each found a place to lie down.
According to Luria however, the children continued to play and it was the Teller who fell asleep. The carpet became a canvas for his dreams. Luria refers us back again to the wicked scribe explaining that he was not wicked, but had had a vision of exile and was frightened that all the stories resting on the shoulders of this one Teller might be forgotten. He had not been gilding away the night, but borrowing nights for ink so that he could transcribe the many stories from the dreaming Teller’s sleep.
According to Luria, as the scribe wrote, the carpet started to dissipate and the motifs returned to the world. In its place he began to arrange all the transcripts of the stories as towers of books. But just as the brightness of the gilded stars had eclipsed the dark, the books which were written with the night needed to be kept away from the sun. For this purpose he appointed as guardians of the books, a small and meek species of angel, so that when the Teller finally awoke, he was not in a city but in something resembling what we have come to call a library.
Josh Baum www.jbaum.co.uk