The Time of The Uprooted
I'm four years old, or maybe five. It's a Sabbath afternoon. Mother
is lying down in the next room. I'd asked her to read to me from the
book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So
I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there's a knock at
the door. "Go see who it is," says my father, reluctantly glancing
up from the journal he's keeping. A stranger is at the door.
"May I come in?" he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyesthere's something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
"Who's there?" my father asks, and I reply, "I don't know."
"Call me a wanderer," the stranger says, "a wandering man who's worn-out and hungry."
"Who do you want to see?" I ask, and he says to me, "You."
"Who is it, a beggar?" my father asks. "Tell him to come in." No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night's shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of cholent and hallah. But the stranger doesn't touch it. "You're not hungry?" my father says.
"Oh yes, I'm hungry, and I'm thirsty, but not for food."
"Then what is it you want?"
"I want words and I want faces," says the stranger. "I travel the world looking for people's stories." I'm enchanted by the stranger's voice. It is the voice of a storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: "I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I've seen pleases me." With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
"Don't tell me you are the prophet Elijah," says my father.
"No, I'm no prophet." The stranger smiles down at me. "I told you, I'm just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer."
Ever since that encounter, I've loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it's not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilitiesand then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It's second nature with me. Some collect paintings; others love horses. Me, I'm attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God's. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.
Is today Monday? Maybe it's Tuesday, but no, it's Thursday. As if it matters. The wanderer can't seem to wake up, which is unlike him, and so it was with Isaac and Job when they were full of years, as Scripture tells us. In his dream, he has just seen his father. He stands solemnly for a long moment, and then father and son embrace. He awakes with a start, then falls back into heavy, oppressive slumber. No more father. Talk to him, he doesn't answer. Stretch out a hand, he turns away. With an effort, he opens his eyes. He knows he's alone, that he should get up, that he has a long and trying day ahead, but he can't seem to place the day in his exile's life: Does it belong to his future, to his past? His soul is lost in the fog and is taking him to some terrifying place of the damned. Somewhere an old woman ravaged in body and memory is watching for him, perhaps to punish him for misdeeds long forgotten, for promises carelessly tossed aside. Who is she? A beauty he dreamed of as a boy but could not hold on to? One of his daughters, stricken in her mind and lost in the depths of time? He searches his memory; their dark faces circle around him and seem about to close in and suffocate him. He knows that he is destined for a fateful encounter with a mysterious woman. A turning point? The end of a stage of his life? If so, isn't it time for some kind of heshbon hanefeshan accounting of his soulin which he would review the fires he's been through and the many lives he's led?
Excerpted from The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel Copyright © 2005 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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