Authors: Julian Barnes
‘Doesn’t seem right, the Soviets having a piece of it,’ commented Jimmy.
‘Guess they weren’t Soviets at the time,’ said Spike. ‘They were Christians like us when they were just Russians.’
‘Mebbe the Lord took their slice of the mountain away from them when they became Soviets.’
‘Mebbe,’ replied Spike, not wholly certain of when the boundaries had shifted.
‘Like, not letting his holy mountain fall into the hands of infidels.’
‘I read you,’ said Spike, a little irritated. ‘But I guess the Turks aren’t exactly Christians.’
‘They’re not as infidel as the Soviets.’ Jimmy appeared reluctant to give up his theory at the first objection.
On the road north from Dogubayazit Spike shouted for Jimmy to stop the car. They got out and Spike pointed to a small stream. Gently, but unarguably, the water in it was flowing uphill.
‘Praise the Lord,’ said Spike Tiggler, and knelt to pray. Jimmy bent his head a few degrees, but remained on his feet. After a couple of minutes Spike went back to the Merce and filled two plastic water-bottles from the stream.
‘It’s the land of miracles,’ he announced as they set off once more.
Jimmy Fulgood, geologist and scuba-diver, let a few miles go by, then tried to explain how it was not scientifically impossible for a stream to flow uphill. It depended on a certain weight and pressure of water higher up the mountain, and on the apparently uphill stretch being a comparatively small section of an overall descent. The phenomenon had, as far as he knew, been reported on previous occasions. Spike, who was driving, kept nodding away as cheerful as they come. ‘Reckon you could explain it like that,’ he commented at the end. ‘Point is, who made the water to flow uphill in the first place? Who put it where He did so that we should see it as we were passing on the road to Ararat? The Good Lord, that’s who. It’s the land of miracles,’ he repeated, nodding contentedly.
Jimmy had always found Spike an optimistic kind of guy;
here in Turkey he became frankly ebullient. Neither mosquitoes nor misfortune troubled him; his tipping showed a true Christian generosity; and he had the habit, whenever they passed a cow on the road, of winding down the window and shouting to its owner, or even just to the countryside in general, ‘Drive it or milk it, fella!’ At times this could get to bug you, but Jimmy was one hundred ten per cent funded by Project Ararat, so he endured such high spirits as he would have suffered bad temper.
They drove until the road ran out and the two shapes of Great and Little Ararat rose ahead of them.
‘Kinda like man and wife, ain’t it?’ Spike remarked.
‘How d’ya mean?’
‘Brother and sister, Adam and Eve. The big one there and that little neat pretty one by his side. See?
Male and female created He them.’
‘Do you think the Lord had that in mind at the time?’
‘The Lord has everything in mind,’ said Spike Tiggler. ‘All the time.’ Jimmy Fulgood looked at the twin shapes ahead of them and kept to himself the reflection that Betty Tiggler was an inch or two taller than Spike.
They sorted their equipment before entrusting themselves to the two feet the Lord had provided them with. They left the bourbon in the trunk, sensing that it was wrong to consume alcoholic liquor on the Lord’s mountain; neither had they any more need for the Carter buttons. They took their travellers’ checks, lucky horseshoe and Bible. During the transfer of supplies, Jimmy caught Spike sneaking the deflated football into his backpack. Then they set off up the southern approaches to the mountain, the lanky ex-basketball star a few yards behind the exuberant astronaut, like a junior officer trailing a general. From time to time Jimmy’s geological interests made him want to stop and examine the rock; but Spike always insisted that they push on.
They were alone on the mountain and found their solitude exalting. They saw lizards on the lower slopes, ibex and wild goats higher up. They climbed above the operational altitude of
hawks and buzzards, up toward the snowline, where the only movement was the occasional dart of a small fox. In the cold nights Jimmy wrote up the expedition journal and Spike read his Bible by the stark and hissing glare of their gas-lamp.
They began on the south-eastern slope, that area of lukewarm agreement between church and science. They probed rocky gulches and looked in barren caves. Jimmy was uncertain whether they were due to find the whole Ark, preserved intact – in which case they probably couldn’t miss it – or just some significant remnant: the rudder, perhaps, or some planks still caulked with bitumen.
Their first rough survey revealed nothing, which neither surprised nor disappointed them. They crossed the snowline and headed for the summit. Towards the end of their climb the sky slowly began to change color, until by the time they reached the top it appeared bright green. This place was full of miracles. Spike knelt in prayer, and Jimmy briefly joined him. Immediately below them was a gently sloping valley of snow, which ran down to a secondary peak. This could have made a natural resting-place for the Ark. But they searched it without success.
The northern side of the mountain was split by an enormous fissure. Spike pointed to where this chasm ran out, some thousands of feet below them, and said there’d once been a monastery down there. Real monks and all. Then in 1840, he said, a terrible earthquake had gotten hold of the mountain and shaken it like a dog with a rat, and the little church had fallen down, and so had the village below it, some name beginning with an A. Everyone had been killed, apparently, and even if they hadn’t they would have been a bit later. See this fissure, well, four or five days after the quake a build-up of snow and water started to move down it. Nothing could stand in its way. Like the vengeance of the Lord. Wiped the monastery and the little village off the face of the earth.
Jimmy Fulgood nodded seriously to himself as he listened to the story. All this had happened, he told himself, at a time when the Soviets had owned this slice of the mountain. Of
course they were Russians then, and Christians, but it proved the Lord sure did have it in for the Soviets, even before they were Soviets.
They searched for three weeks. Jimmy wondered if the Ark might be buried deep in the cornice of ice which encircled the mountain; and Spike agreed this might be possible but if so the Lord would surely indicate it in some way. The Lord would not send them upon the mountain and then conceal from them the very reason for sending them there: such was not the nature of the Lord. Jimmy bowed to Spike on this. They searched by eye, binocular and infra-red night-sight. Spike waited for a sign. Was he sure he would recognize the sign when it came? Perhaps they should search in whichever direction the wind blew them. They searched in the direction the wind blew them. They found nothing.
Each day, as the sun heated up the plain below them and the warm air rose, a halo of cloud formed itself around the mountain-top, shutting off their view of the lower slopes; and each night, as the air cooled, the cloud dispersed. At the end of three weeks they came down to collect more supplies from the trunk of the Mercedes. They drove to the nearest village, from where Spike sent Betty a card saying No News Is Good News, which struck Betty as less clear than it could have been. Then they returned to the mountain and searched for another three weeks. During this period there was a full moon, and Spike would gaze up at it every night, remembering how the present mission had begun up there in the shifting dust. One night Jimmy stood at his elbow and examined with him the creamy, pitted orb. ‘Sure looks like a custard pie,’ Jimmy concluded, with a nervous laugh. ‘More like dirty beach sand when you get there,’ Spike replied. He continued looking up, waiting for a sign. No sign came.
It was during their third spell on the mountain – agreed to be their last for the year – that Spike made his discovery. They were a few thousand feet below the summit and had just crossed a treacherous piece of scree when they came upon a pair of caves side by side. Just like the Lord stuck two fingers in the rock,
they agreed. With the incorrigible optimism which Jimmy high-mindedly endured, the former astronaut jauntily disappeared into the first of the caves; there was silence, then an echoing howl. Jimmy thought of bears – even of the abominable snowman – until the continuing howl modulated, almost without breath being drawn, into a series of sporting whoops.
Not far into the cavern Jimmy found Spike Tiggler kneeling in prayer. A human skeleton was laid out before him. Jimmy sank down beside Spike. Even on his knees, the former basketball star retained a height advantage over the ex-astronaut. Spike extinguished his flashlight, and Jimmy did the same. A few minutes of purest silence passed in the cold darkness, then Spike murmured, ‘We found Noah.’
Jimmy didn’t reply. After a while they switched their flashlights back on and the two beams reverently explored the skeleton in front of them. It lay with its feet pointing towards the mouth of the cave, and seemed intact, as far as either of them could tell. There were a few scraps of cloth – some white, some of a grayish color – hanging between the bones.
‘Praise the Lord,’ said Spike Tiggler.
They pitched their tent a few yards down the mountainside and then searched the other cave. Spike was secretly hoping they might find Noah’s wife, or maybe the Ark’s log, but there were no more discoveries. Later, as the evening darkened, there was a hiss of compressed air inside the tent and then Spike Tiggler threw his football across the rocks of Great Ararat into the hesitant arms of Jimmy Fulgood. Time after time it thumped into Jimmy’s large, ex-basketball-playing hands. His own returns were often poor, but Spike was not disconcerted. He threw and he threw that evening, until the air was cold and the two figures were lit only by the rising moon. Even so, Spike’s eye was flawless; Jimmy felt the football homing in to him with the nocturnal accuracy of a bat. ‘Hey, Spike,’ he shouted at one point, ‘not using that infra-red sight, are you?’ and a chuckle came back from his barely visible partner.
After they had eaten, Spike took his flashlight and returned to Noah’s tomb, as by now he had christened it. Jimmy, either
from tact or superstition, remained in the tent. An hour or so later Spike reported that the position of the skeleton would have allowed the dying Noah to gaze out from the cave and see the moon – the very moon on whose surface Spike Tiggler had so recently stood. ‘Praise the Lord,’ he repeated as he zipped up the tent for the night.
After a while it became clear that neither of them was asleep. Jimmy coughed slightly. ‘Spike,’ he said, with some caution, ‘It’s … well … it’s my perception that we have ourselves a problem.’
‘We have ourselves a problem? We have ourselves a
‘Sure we have a miracle. We also have a problem.’
‘Tell me how you perceive this problem, Jimmy.’ The tone was amused, tolerant, almost patronizing; the tone of a quarterback who knew his arm could be relied on.
Jimmy went carefully, not being too sure himself what to believe. ‘Well, let’s say I’m just thinking aloud, Spike, and let’s say I’m into negativity at this moment.’
‘Fine.’ Nothing could harm Spike’s present mood. The mixture of fierce exhilaration and relief reminded him of splashdown.
‘We’re looking for the Ark, right? You were …
we’d find the Ark.’
‘Sure. We will. We’re bound to now, next time mebbe.’
‘But we were looking for the Ark,’ Jimmy persisted. ‘We … you … were
to look for the Ark.’
‘We were shooting for silver, we got gold.’
‘Yup. I was just wondering … didn’t Noah strike out somewhere after the Ark landed? I mean, he lived on a few centuries, didn’t he, in the Bible?’
‘Sure. Three hundred fifty. Sure. That village I told you about when we were on the top. Arghuri. That’s where Noah had his first settlement. Planted his vines there. Had his first farm. Built his homestead up again.’
‘Sure was. Down in the Soviet sector,’ added Spike teasingly.
Things were getting less clear to Jimmy now. ‘So God let Noah’s settlement get destroyed in an earthquake?’
‘Musta had a reason. Always does. Anyway, that’s not the point. Point is, Noah settled down there. Maybe he moved on, maybe not. Anyway, what’s more likely than he came back to Ararat to be buried? When he felt the weariness of Time upon him? Probably staked out that cave the moment he stepped down from the Ark. Decided that as a sign of gratitude and obedience to the Lord for preserving him he’d drag his old bones up the mountainside when he knew his hour was upon him. Like elephants in the jungle.’
‘Spike, those bones in the cave – don’t they … don’t they look a little, how shall I put it, well-preserved? I mean, I’m only playing devil’s advocate, you understand.’
‘Relax, Jimmy, you’re doing fine.’
‘But they do look well-preserved?’
‘Jimmy, we’re talking miracles and signs here. You’d
them to look well-preserved, wouldn’t you? Noah was a real special guy. Anyway, how old was he when he died? Nine hundred fifty years. He was greatly blessed in the Lord’s eye. Now if he had bones which were strong enough to carry him around for a thousand years, you’d hardly expect them to decay at the standard rate, would you?’
‘I take your point, Spike.’
‘Anything else worrying you?’ He seemed to welcome Jimmy’s doubts, confident he could field any ball thrown to him.
‘Well, what exactly are we going to do?’
‘We’re going to tell the world, that’s what we’re going to do. And the world will rejoice. And many souls will come to the faith as a result of this discovery. And there will be a church built once more upon this mountainside, a church built over Noah’s tomb.’ In the shape of an Ark, perhaps. Or even in the shape of an Apollo spacecraft. That would be more appropriate, that would complete the circle.
‘I’m with you about the repercussions, Spike. Let me put something to you, though. You and I are men of faith.’
‘Men of science, too,’ said the astronaut to the geologist.