"The Procession to Calvary" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Ben-Tobith

Leonid Andreyev (1905), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2017)

On that terrible day when a universal injustice was committed and Jesus Christ was crucified among bandits at Golgotha—from the very early morning of that day a Jerusalem trader Ben-Tobith was afflicted by an intolerable toothache. It began on the eve of the previous day: the right side of his jaw began to ache slightly, and one tooth, the one at the end before the wisdom tooth, seemed to have been slightly raised, and, when the tongue touched it, produced a mild sensation of pain. However, after having eaten the pain completely subsided and Ben-Tobith forgot all about it and relaxed—that day he profitably traded his old donkey for one young and strong, was very cheerful and did not place any significance in ominous signs.

And he slept deeply and very well, but just before sunrise something began to trouble him, it was as if someone was calling him on some very important business, and, when Ben-Tobith sulkily woke up, his teeth were in pain, openly and malevolently, with the full strength of a sharp drilling pain. It was no longer possible to tell whether it was yesterday’s tooth that was in pain, or whether others have joined it: the whole of the mouth and head were full of the terrible sensation of pain, it was as if Ben-Tobith was forced to chew a thousand red-hot nails. He took some water into his mouth from an earthenware jug—for a minute the raging pain ceased, the teeth began to twitch and sway in waves, and this sensation was even pleasant compared with the previous one. Ben-Tobith once again lay down, remembered his new donkey and thought about how happy he would be if not for these teeth, and he wanted to get back to sleep. But the water was warm, and after five minutes the pain returned with even greater fury than before, and Ben-Tobith sat on the bed and rocked like a pendulum. His whole face became wrinkled and gathered up at his large nose, and on the nose, which has become pale from his suffering, lay frozen a drop of cold sweat. Thus, rocking and wailing from pain, he met the first rays of that sun which was destined to see Golgotha and the three crosses and grow dim from horror and grief.

Ben-Tobith was a good and kind man, he did not like injustice, but when his wife woke up, he, hardly opening his mouth, showered her with many unpleasantries and complained that he was left alone like a jackal to howl and squirm from his sufferings. His wife patiently accepted the undeserved reproaches as she knew that it was not an evil heart that said them, and she brought him many good medicines: purified rat droppings, which was meant to be applied to the cheek, sharp scorpion elixir, and an authentic stone fragment from one of Moses’ shattered tablets. The rat dropping improved things a little, but not for long, and the same with the elixir and the little stone, but every time after a brief improvement the pain returned with renewed strength. And in the short minutes of respite Ben-Tobith comforted himself with the thought of his donkey and daydreamed of it, and when he felt worse he moaned, became cross with his wife and threatened to break his head against a rock if the pain did not subside. And all this time he would walk from corner to corner of the flat roof of his house, ashamed to come near to the outside edge since his head was all wrapped in a headscarf, like that of a woman. A few times children ran up to him and in hasty voiced told him something about Jesus of Nazareth. Ben-Tobith would stop, listen to them for a minute, his face wrinkled, but would then grumpily stamp his foot and shoo them away; he was a kind man and loved children, but now he was angry at them for bothering him with all sorts of trifles.

There was one other thing that was irritating, and this was that people gathered along his street and atop neighboring roofs who did not do anything other than curiously stare at Ben-Tobith, wrapped in a headscarf, like a woman. And he was just about going to lose his mind when his wife told him:

“Look, they’re leading the bandits. Maybe it will entertain you.”

“Leave me, please. Can’t you see how much I’m suffering?” grumpily answered Ben-Tobith.

But in the words of his wife sounded a vague promise that his teeth might get better, and he reluctantly moved closer to the parapet. Leaning his head to the side, closing one eye and propping his cheek with his hand, he made a squeamishly-sad face and looked down.

Along the narrow street, which went up a hill, a large disorderly crowd was making its way, clouded in dust and incessant shouter. At its center, bowed from the weight of the crosses, moved the bandits, and curled round them, like black snakes, were the whips of Roman soldiers. One of them—the one with long, fair hair in a torn, bloodied chiton—tripped on a stone which was thrown under his feet and fell. The shouts became louder and the crowd, like multicolored seawater, closed in on the fallen. Suddenly, Ben-Tobith was startled from pain—it was just as if someone thrust a red-hot spike into his tooth and turned it—he wailed: “Oo-oo-oo”, and moved away from the parapet, fastidiously-indifferent and angry.

“How they shout!” he said begrudgingly, imagining wide open mouths with strong, pain free teeth, and he himself was about to shout, if only he was well.

And this spectacle enraged the pain, and he shook his head many times and bellowed: “Mm-oo-oo…”

“They say that He has healed the blind,” said his wife, not moving away from the parapet, and she threw a little stone at the place where Jesus, held up by whips, was slowly making way. “Oh sure! If only He would cure my toothache,” replied Ben-Tobith sarcastically and being annoyed he added bitterly: “How much dust they raise! Just like a herd! They should all be driven away with a stick! Sarah, take me downstairs!”

It turned out the wife was right: the spectacle did somewhat entertain Ben-Tobith, but perhaps the rat droppings did help in the end, and he managed to fall asleep. And when he woke up the pain has almost disappeared, and there was only a small gumboil on the right side of the jaw, so small that it was hardly noticeable. His wife said that it was completely unnoticeable, but Ben-Tobith smiled slyly: he knew how kind his wife was and how much she liked to say things to please. A neighbor came over, Samuel the skinner, and Ben-Tobith led him to see his donkey and with pride listened to the warm praises directed at him and the animal.

Afterwards, by the request of curious Sarah, the three of them went to Golgotha to look at the crucified. Along the road Ben-Tobith related to Samuel from the very beginning how yesterday he felt an ache in the right side of his jaw and how afterwards at night he woke up from a terrible pain. For effect he put on a suffering face, closed his eyes, shook his head and moaned, and the gray-bearded Samuel shook his head in sympathy and said: “Ay-ay-ay! How painful!”

Ben-Tobith enjoyed the recognition, and he repeated the tale and then returned to that remote time when only his first tooth has gone bad, on the lower left side. Thus in a lively conversation they arrived at Golgotha. The Sun, sentenced to light the world on this terrible day, already rolled over the distant hills, and in the west, like a bloody trail, there burned a crimson-red band. In its foreground dark crosses were hazily fading away, and at the foot of the central cross there were some vague white kneeling figures.

The people dispersed a long time ago; it was starting to become cold, and, having caught a glimpse of the crucified, Ben-Tobith took Samuel by the arm and carefully turned him homeward. He felt himself especially eloquent, and he wanted to finish talking about toothache. Thus they walked, and Ben-Tobith, encouraged by Samuel’s sympathetic nods and exclamations put on a suffering face, shook his head and skillfully moaned—and from deep ravines, from remote sun-baked plains, the black night was rising. It was as if it wanted to conceal from the sight of the sky the great atrocity of the Earth.

Published February 2017