26th May 2022
21 minutes read
Moments of Mercy
translated by Thomas Cooper
26th May 2022
21 minutes read
Gilda had closed the gate behind her and was setting off down the only street in the village to pay her visits to her elderly patients when suddenly she remembered how she and Peti Sziraki had spent the better part of one morning staring at the white hairs coming out of Uncle Titi’s ears. She must have been six or so at the time, Peti maybe eight. The house out of which she had just stepped, the door to which she never locked, much as she merely pulled the gate closed behind her, had once belonged to Mama Mariana and Papa Karel. It had been full of the scents of soil and cakes and tea brewed from dried wild herbs. In the afternoon, when she came home after days of griping and meandering stories and dull stares and was met by these scents, she could still taste Mama Mariana’s blackthorn jam on her tongue. You can’t make good jam from blackthorn, the women of the village had said, almost contemptuously, and of course they hadn’t bothered trying. Only here, in the summer kitchen behind the house, was the tart, sweet jam made, the jam that made every inch of your tongue seem to sparkle with new flavors. It was better than the pop rock candy that Pavel and his friends used to buy at the store with the coins they had managed to save up. Gilda could have eaten it with a spoon, straight from the jar, but Mariana only allowed two licks, and then she would spread some on a slice of bread and lock the rest away in the pantry, and Gilda would have to wait until she made crêpes or pastries to get another taste of it. It wasn’t just delicious, it had a powerful, persuasive effect on the taste buds. You had to relive the moment again and again when the first stinging firecracker touched your tongue and popped, followed by the sweet, deep heat, then the fruit, and then the whole thing all over again. Mariana flickered among Gilda’s memories as a sort of sorceress, as if she had never once smacked her on the back of the head, for example that time when Gilda had crept into the pantry with a long-handled spoon in hand. Marianna had given sharp little slaps. They hadn’t hurt. They were like a tiny spark, like the first lick of her jam. She kept a few jars on the top shelf of the pantry, a great treasure, set aside for festive occasions.
The light had been similar the day she and Peti had taken the stool out to the sidewalk and sat down next to Uncle Titi. It must have been some time towards the end of summer, and Gilda had been getting ready for school in the fall. She had been looking forward to it. For two summers, she had been listening enviously to Peti’s indifferent accounts of life at school. He was in the second grade, and in the capital, furthermore. He took the tram, which was quite natural for him, as was using escalators. Gilda was a little angry at him for talking about all these wonderous things as if they were boring. She had only been to the capital once. Peti always spent the summer vacations here with his grandparents, Uncle Sziráki and Aunt Sziráki. Most of the time, they played in the area around their house, towards the far end of the gardens, because Peti had to remain within earshot so that, if Aunt Sziráki called him in for lunch or dinner, he could run home. They were always worried that something might befall him, especially his mother. At the beginning of each summer, when she left him with Aunt Sziráki, she would always entreat her to take good care of the boy. Please keep a close eye on him, she would say.
He’s a city boy, you know, and he can’t watch out for himself around here the way the other kids do.
Peti’s mother had had big, yellow, frizzy hair. She dyed her eyelids blue, and she would totter down to their Zhiguli in her high-heeled slippers and take her seat next to Peti’s father, and then they would drive off to the capital. She had good legs. Gilda had decided that when she grew up, she would wear her hair in a big yellow bun and paint her eyelids blue. Uncle Titi lived two houses down from the Szirákis. He spent the mornings at the gate, and he was always willing to share a story if anyone asked. Otherwise, he was pretty quiet, or at least Gilda could not remember ever having heard him speak much. He would sat silently on a bench thrown together out of logs, lean his back against the latticed fence, rest his hand on the shiny, worn handle of his cane, and stretch his wooden leg out in front of him on the pavement. Passers-by would shout greetings in loud voices, and he would raise his right hand, give a wave, and squint, and his toothless mouth would strain and wriggle a bit. This was his friendly smile. On better days, he could spit quite a mouthful, and if he gave it a good heave from his throat, he could shoot the glob in a nice arc over the ditch beside the sidewalk. Sometimes children would stop beside him, or, like Gilda and Peti, they would bring a stool or push their soccer balls under their bottoms and sit down on the pavement beside the bench and say, Uncle Titi, tell us a story. And the old man always launched into some tale. In a faded, trembling voice, he told of the war, not of the shots they fired or the guns they used or the enemies they faced, but rather of what they ate as prisoners and how dark and cold it had been where he had been locked up with his friend, with whom, eventually, he had escaped. He also recounted how they had escaped, but the subject of which he spoke in the most colorful detail was how cold it had been. Nobody here knows cold like that. Godless, merciless. Their toes had frozen. Some mishap had left a tear in the toe of his left boot, so his whole left foot and shin had frozen. Black all the way to the knee, he said. After a while, it hadn’t hurt at all. Tales fell from his wrinkled lips of foxes waiting for rabbits and voles by the holes in the forest floor, so Uncle Titi and his friend would always watch the foxes to figure out where they should wait to catch a rabbit, because they had had nothing to eat. He told of a woman who hadn’t had the mushrooms she had gathered in the forest checked by anyone. She had quickly made them into a paprika stew for her family, rushed off to catch a train, dropped in on her child’s godmother, and the next day, when she had come home, found the whole family dead, poisoned. And other happy stories. As the white morning light wrapped Uncle Titi in its glow, Gilda and Peti had looked intently at the hairs growing out of his ears and noticed a shimmering white layer of tissue on his skin. It was particularly noticeable by his ears. That afternoon, they had talked about it at length. They had talked about how, if they looked closely, they could see that this was not some layer of tissue on Uncle Titi’s skin, but rather his skin itself, a strange, translucent husk of sorts with sunlight shining through it. It was hard to see, hardly even a millimeter thick. Maybe that’s how it starts, Gilda had thought.
Sooner or later, we all start to become translucent.
That was also the summer of the piglet. It had had begun with Gilda and Peti feeling sorry for the poor animal as they watched it from their seat on the wall, which they’d climbed with the help of the pine ladder that Uncle Sziráki used when he pruned trees in the spring. They had looked at the piglet and thought what an unfortunate creature he was, a beast who saw nothing of the world except the whitewashed wall and the mud squelching under his trotters. He couldn’t even look up properly when he came out of the covered pen. They found some twigs, pressed themselves against the wall, and fiddled with the latch on the gate until they’d freed the little piglet, but the animal had not behaved at all as they had expected. He seemed to have had not the vaguest grasp of good manners, and on top of that, the little fool had run off. Gilda and Peti had taken off after him. Peti had had a branch in his hand which he had hoped to use to herd the animal. They would take him for a walk in the area beyond the gardens and let him see a little bit of the world, but alas, they had been unable to catch up with him. One of the neighbors had seen the whole thing, and later, he said he thought he had lost his mind, because he thought he had seen a pink dog scampering around just beyond the gardens. Of course, he had soon realized that it must be a pig, and so he had rushed over to the Sziráki house. They had checked the sty, and it had been empty. Uncle Sziráki had set out after them, and aunt Sziráki had shouted to the neighbor one house up to tell the slaughterman, and then everyone in the village who had heard her had started running after the pig, with the slaughterman at the back. They had found him by the gardens, at the edge of the village, digging at the soil with its snout, looking for some root with a tempting smell. The slaughterman had adroitly tied him to a cord and led him home. Gilda would never forget the way the piglet had trod along beside the big man, very much like a dog, except that there had been a sort of great, final resignation in his jerky walk, as if he had known that he had reached the end of the line. Gilda and Peti were never allowed to play around the pigsty again. They had been happy just to be able to sit on the sidewalk with Uncle Titi. When autumn had come, Gilda had gone to school and met Pavel. The piglet had been slaughtered that winter.
When she had moved to the capital, Gilda had considered dropping in on Peti, but she didn’t have his address, only an old landline number. Peti’s mother had given it to her mother years before, in case anything were to happen to the old folks. If Aunt Sziráki happens to finish making all the jams in the fall or Uncle Sziráki manages to prune the plum tree when spring comes, no real need to call. Just if something happens.
Today, Aunt Sziráki and Uncle Sziráki are no more, and Uncle Titi too is no more.
The “For Sale” sign has hung in the streetside window of the Sziráki house for more than twenty years.
In the end, Gilda had never called the number. They probably didn’t live there anymore, and if they did, what would she have had to say to them? By then, all she thought about and all she had time for was the hospital. Faces blurred into an indistinguishable mass over the course of twenty-four-hour shifts on call, and the same phrases echoed as she fell into bed at dawn. Nurse, could I please get a laxative, could you please check my dressing, this infusion takes forever, just give me one more pain killer for the night, oh, thank god you’re the one on call, I can ask you for my medication, you’re so gentle when you give shots, I can hardly feel it, nurse, could I get a cup of water. The wrinkled slip of paper had remained somewhere at the bottom of her purse for a few years until, one morning as she was finishing a shift, she had thrown it out. She and Pavel had decided to get married. As the lid of the wastebin had closed over the piece of paper, she had felt a tightness in her throat, a bit of pressure for a half second in her temples. Maybe that’s how it starts, she thought. We forget the kids we used to play with. Except one, whom we marry.
She dismissed the recurring impression that Pavel in the meantime had become someone else, that something irreversible had happened to him. She didn’t want to acknowledge anything that suggested that Pavel might have begun to fit into the world. Maybe it’s just that he’s grown up. And why would that be a problem, since after all, then they could be adults together, she thought. But years later, she still saw a blank face in the mirror. I don’t want to become translucent yet, she thought. From the moment their daughter had been born, there was no going back to the hospital. Twelve-hour shifts, twenty-four-hour shifts were incompatible with family life. She made her rounds in their cramped city apartment, in the streets and on the playgrounds, scrolling through the years like a giant void, staring at her hands folded in her lap every evening. How many times had she used them to cradle someone else’s frail, fragile hands? That was what they were really for. That was what she had been given them for.
I’ve made quite a circle, Gilda thought as she walked past the well, the school she had once attended, and the shop with its low ceiling. She had reached old man Kinizsi’s house. She had played a lot with Peti and, later, with Pavel at the far end of the garden, on the other side of the fence. Kinizsi had built the dramatic palisade himself when still in his prime to foil anyone plotting to steal the fruit from his trees. He watched over his orchard as fiercely as he watched over his daughters. If he could have, he would have locked the girls up forever too. Perhaps because he himself had quite a reputation as a womanizer. People talked of how there was not a single fetching lass in the village whom he had not somehow persuaded to open her door for him, and as they finished their prattle, they always threw in the explanation that his wife so often repeated: he can’t help it, it’s just his nature. By the time Kinizsi’s daughters were free to move around on their own in the village, Gilda never had much of a chance to meet them. By then, she was out in the meadows with Pavel and the others or playing detective in Mariana’s cornfield.
The girls grew up and set out to discover the big world.
Kinizsi’s wife had died seven years earlier.
Kinizsi now lived alone in his house with its green plaster walls. He kept an eye on the trees from the window and sometimes went out to size them up, looking at them with such an intent gaze that he almost ripened them with his stare. They offered a pretty mediocre yield, but even in a bad year, there was enough to make fifty or even a hundred liters of brandy. The next-door neighbor brewed the stuff according to very precise instructions. Kinizsi walked with a bit of a limp. His knees were worn out, and his shoulders had grown a bit slumped since he had buried his wife, but he still held himself upright, and he must have been a handsome man once. The only thing that really put him to the test was his blood pressure. He often felt dizzy. Gilda couldn’t always figure out how much of it was an act. When the old man sat down in the wooden armchair and let his head lean back and a smile spread across his face that smoothed out the wrinkles, she could tell that he enjoyed the attention. He heaved heavy sighs, watching Gilda through half-closed eyes as she took out her blood pressure monitor. She tried to do her work as quickly as possible. She knew the type from the hospital. Older men who, the moment they begin to feel better, seem to think it their obligation to flirt with any and every woman who happens by. At first, it had seemed pretty innocent, but over the years, she’d learned that it often wasn’t. But in the hospital, the relationship lasted at most for a few weeks, so it was relatively easy to dismiss the awkward remarks with a loud joke. In the case of Kinizsi, however, she had been taking care of him for years, and if everything went well, she would continue taking care of him for years to come. Three times a week she would take his blood pressure and listen to his reports on the health of the trees, on the work of pruning, of harvesting, on when the last harvest was, when the next harvest would be, on whether the next-door neighbor was working hard, whether his friend was working hard. She would listen to the old stories, and if the old man seemed unusually glum or despondent, she would sit down next to him and take his hand in hers. On Mondays, she gave him a shave. He would wait for her inside with the armchair turned to face the window, his face bathed in natural light, the enamel basin already set on the table, shaving soap and a shaving brush next to it, and a towel tucked into the collar of his shirt. He had an old-style razor, the strap for which hung on a nail next to a small mirror on the back wall of the room.
Gilda walked into the yard through the side gate, knocked, and said “good morning” in a loud voice, as she always did before opening the door. Kinizsi was sitting by the window, looking out at the orchard.
“My beautiful angel has arrived,” he said, adjusting the towel under his chin.
Gilda stepped closer, and she caught a whiff of his deodorant and the soap on his skin. In the bright light, she could see the stubble on his chin, his knobby Adam’s apple, the corners of his mouth moving towards his ears, and the white hairs peeking out of them. There was a peculiar sparkle in his eyes that day, not the usual mischievous twinkle. This was something different. Gilda put her bag down on the table.
“Let’s check your blood pressure first,” she said, trying to muster a smile, “and then we’ll give you a shave.”
“Oh, my dear girl, my heart is always fluttering when you come,” the old man said. “And you know it’s been yours for a long time now. If you take my blood pressure, don’t be surprised if it’s high, and most importantly, don’t be alarmed.”
Indeed, his blood pressure was a little higher than usual, and his cheeks seemed redder than usual, but not too terribly so.
“I’ll give him a shave,” Gilda thought, “and then check his blood pressure again.”
She focused on the shaving soap. She did not want to notice the way Kinizsi was looking at her. A tingling sensation ran through her, and a shudder, a mix of pity and alarm and a shameful curiosity. She lathered the razor blade.
The old man slid down a little in his armchair and threw his head back.
Beneath their drooping lids, his eyes followed her every movement.
“I know that I want too much,” he said in a voice unusually quiet.
Gilda continued to lather the soap as if she hadn’t heard him. She then began to spread the lather on the left side of his face in careful, circular motions. The bristles of the brush crackled on his stubble.
“I know that you see me as just another old man,” Kinizsi, continued, his voice still quiet, “but you don’t know what I have to endure here. Every week, I look forward so much to Monday, when you come to give me a shave. You can’t imagine.”
He paused for a moment. Gilda dabbed the brush in the soap in little circles and then brushed the soap in circles on his face. She pressed her lips together in the hopes that he might do the same, but he continued talking.
“I’m always thinking of you. When you’re not here. Even when I’m falling asleep. You know, no one ever drops in on me. Not my old friends, not my children. My old friends are dead. My daughters are good kids, but they live so far away. I only see them when the holidays come around. I’m lonely. You know what it’s like to be lonely. You’re young, but still, you know, you know.”
Gilda considered jamming the shaving brush down his throat. She felt ashamed.
“You’re my angel. My only hope, my ray of light, day after monotonous day,” he said with a bizarre sensuality in his voice. Then he slowly took Gilda’s hand in his bony hand, removed the brush from her fingers, and put it down on the little table in front of the window. His hand was trembling slightly. Gilda was afraid that his blood pressure would go up, that there would be trouble, and the old man, as if reading her mind, said, “if you help me out now, I wouldn’t mind dying. I’d die a happy man, believe me.”
The edges of his mouth twitched as he spoke. Gilda stared with a motionless, despairing gaze.
“How many times have I cursed the cruelty of it! If the Lord takes away the ability, then why, why does he leave us with the desire? But now,” he said, pulling Gilda’s hand towards his crotch, “now you can feel it, can’t you? Now we’re here, and I have you to thank for that. And that little pill. But mostly you. Please, it won’t take much, your lovely white hand is more than enough.”
He sounded like a child begging for sweets.
Kinizsi pulled down the zipper to his pants. Gilda stood just as she had all the while, leaning over him, her gaze fixed on his shoulder, for she could look into neither his lap nor his eyes. Be ashamed or shame someone else. She let him take her other hand in his trembling grasp. She felt the strange, warm skin on her palm, she heard a sigh heave upwards, as if it were coming from the depths of the hill itself. Moments of mercy. The words drifted across her mind from some old notes. She remembered the lecture. There had been a sentence in it about the moments of mercy that come with senile dementia.
There was no retreat from that moment. There were no textbooks or lectures about it, and there was no choice but to drift onward.
He’s just asking this one thing of me, he’s never really asked for anything. Perhaps this is the last time he will ask. He looks at me like a dog who charms his master in exchange for a treat, begging, submissive, as if his life depended on it, it’s almost heartbreaking. But in the depths of his gaze, you still see the animal. It’s just his nature, Gilda thought.
She had two more patients to see that day, no office hours, and she was home just a bit after noon. She went straight to the pantry, took a jar of jam from the top shelf, and closed the front door.