5th July 2022
18 minutes read
translated by Thomas Cooper
5th July 2022
18 minutes read
As he makes a nighttime visit to the cemetery where his grandparents are buried, a young man ponders questions which have troubled him since his childhood. He muses over the places where he sought refuge from the fuss and to-do of the world, including the imaginary garden of an imaginary friend.
There was no light. All the while, this one sentence had spoken within me in an unfamiliar voice, a voice I nonetheless knew better than I knew anything or anyone, though I had no idea whose it was. This sentence was behind every other sentence. I have known this voice since my childhood. It is among my earliest memories. A voice that seems as if it were mine but is not mine. A voice that does not actually exist, for I have never once heard it from the outside, from the world, only in my head from time to time. But that’s not quite right either, that it’s in my head, for this voice never had any specific source. The only thing that seemed certain was that I heard it within me. But this within me does not mean in my body. Rather, it seemed to be speaking from my soul, an unknown voice speaking from my unknown soul. I have never understood what is meant by soul. If the soul exists, where is it, and if it doesn’t exist, why do people talk about it so much. I never understood any of it. Indeed, I never understood anything.
I never understood myself or the world, either.
I understood the world so little that I would have had a hard time thinking about what the world even was. And I myself was the center of the unknown, an uncharted world of unknown expanse in which I was compelled to exist, because I had no other choice.
There was no light.
I left my bike by the cemetery, chained it to the rusty iron gate next to the handpump well. I could hardly see anything in the darkness, there was but a single candle burning under the stone cross, but I still could have found my grandparents’ grave. I didn’t want to go there now, though I considered going for a moment. I sat down on the mossy concrete frame and smoked a cigarette. I’ll talk to them, I thought, though I have never been able to talk to the dead. The dead never answered when I asked them questions. The silence that came in the wake of my questions only grew thicker while I waited for answers. Perhaps this thicker silence is their answer. Perhaps this thicker silence is the language of the dead. But I never understood this thicker silence either. I thought of my grandmother. I was eight years old the last time the ambulance came for her. As I stood next to my bike in the darkness, I clearly saw my grandmother’s face before me. We were playing football in the garden. I had to hit the iron gate, she was the goalie. She was half-paralyzed on one side, but when I asked her to play with me, she always came out into the yard to let me shoot penalty shots. The leather ball slammed into the gate. It was May. May in the old yard. The yard is now long gone, sunk in time. Or it ended up on the far side of time. Perhaps everything still exists somewhere, just not here. Because everything seems to flee from here.
There was no light.
The road curved as it went up, above the cemetery, to the ridge of the hill. It was as if the hill too had long since ceased to exist or had emerged from the far side of time. I could see the currant bushes in front of me, our old land, which was not far away, at the crest of the hill. A summer afternoon, I am sitting among the currant bushes, I’m holding a single currant in front of my face and looking at the sun. A translucent red orb, like a tiny star in an unknown galaxy. We picked the currants and put them in wicker baskets. Uncle Béla’s weekend house was on the other side of the dirt road. An elderly couple, no kids, I can’t remember his wife’s name. I don’t really remember their faces either, only the memory of them survives in me, an imprint which is at once more than a picture and less.
In the end, it’s impressions of people like these that survive in others.
Or maybe they don’t survive either, and then there is really nothing but death. They had had me over many times. I had sat in the kitchen of the little house, a bowl of colorful candy in front of me. I didn’t like the sticky, gooey candies, but I always pretended to eat a few of them. One could hear nothing from the world below but the sound of the train. There were fewer cars on the roads back then. There was more silence. But something had gobbled up the silence in the meantime, torn huge chunks out of it, and even now this something was lurking nearby, with bloody chunks of silence in its slobbering maw. Like a werewolf, or so I envisioned this silence-eater. Huge eyes glowing red. Like the currants glimmering in the sun, only the glow in its eyes is fed not by the sun, but by the dying silence that it is constantly devouring. But this is all in retrospect, of course. Back then, there was no werewolf with glowing eyes, just the silence of the currant bushes, and in the depths of this silence, the anxiety to which I had not yet given a name. Nothing had had a name yet, but this great namelessness was much closer to me than the world that followed, the world of names.
I didn’t want to turn on my headlamp, because it would lock me into its narrow little beam of light. I preferred the pale glow of the moon filtering through the thin mist. I left the old currant field behind me. There were no currants there anymore, no chestnuts, just bramble and weeds that had grown shoulder high. Our neighbor had killed the chestnut tree because its branches blocked his view of the castle across the river. He had drilled holes in its trunk, just above the ground, and injected petrol into the holes. The tree died slowly. It suffered for years. When some local man cut it down, he showed me the holes in the trunk. To get revenge, the following winter, I came down with a friend and smashed the windows of our neighbor’s house. Or maybe I came down alone, I don’t remember. I climbed over the fence, found some broken bricks, and smashed the windows one by one. When I had finished, I didn’t feel like anything had happened. I had not restored order, I had not balanced the scales. Perhaps there had been nothing to that winter afternoon apart from the taste of the raw joy of destruction. Now our old neighbor could see the castle, nothing would conceal it from him. But the house is empty and abandoned. No one has been there for years. The terrace is overgrown with wild grapes. The view is clear, unobstructed, but there’s no one left to see it. Not a single pair of eyes in the emptiness.
There was no light.
I didn’t know where I was going. I knew where the house was, of course, the hovel on the far side of the hill. I had been there many times, I knew the way. But I still didn’t know where I was going. Because I hadn’t been going to that hovel when going that way. Which way, then? To be able to say anything about this journey, I would have to start from a very long way off. From the very beginning. But where is the very beginning of what I would say? Where do the sentences begin?
My mother has told me many times about how I had tortured her by being born.
Her tone was never reproachful, but it still sounded as if she were telling me to think about this torture. Or who knows what she really wanted. Maybe she just wanted to tell someone. Because there was no one else she could tell but me. I had wanted to turn back in the birth canal, thus causing her almost unbearable pain. As if I hadn’t wanted to be born, as if I had changed my mind at the last minute. But by then, there was no way back. I had struggled in vain. This desire to turn back, perhaps this is what has determined everything ever since. To turn back, but to what? Stupid questions, and unanswerable, but I only have stupid, unanswerable questions, I have never had anything but stupid, unanswerable questions. My mother’s unending loneliness, with a child in her womb who didn’t want to be born.
My footsteps in the frozen leaves can be heard from far away. The many fallen oak leaves crunch under my boots. I have a thick sweater in my backpack, an old edition of Rilke’s collected poems, and a bottle of dry red wine. I stole the book of poems from the school library when I was still in high school. There was a time when I could not resist the temptation to steal books of poetry from the high school library. I stole French poets, for the most part. Books by Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, and Jules Supervielle. Nobody ever went to the library, and I only went to steal books. I never went to history class, lest the teacher with the limp and the scars on his mouth quiz me about something. Instead, I hid in the dim, silent rooms of the library. I didn’t feel so alone among the books. Or the silence of the bookshelves revealed a hitherto unfamiliar form of loneliness. Perhaps it wasn’t really the poems that caught my interest. I didn’t want to read, I just wanted to be in the company of dead people who had the same kinds of questions I had, stupid and unanswerable. The shelves cluttered with books of poetry had an atmosphere of bankruptcy, an irresistibly alluring air of failure. I stole books just to keep these relics of failure and defeat close to me. The day I stole Rilke’s poems, I didn’t even bother to open the book until the next day in the yard, when I sat down with it on the moss-covered stone slab that covered the well. There was no one at home, I was supposed to be at school, but I decided not to go in that day, or at most just for the third or fourth class. I’ll come up with some lie for my homeroom teacher about an acute case of diarrhea. The well in the yard was older than the house, it must have been drilled at least two hundred years ago. Its walls were lined with bricks, and it was so deep that the pale ring of water glimmering at the bottom seemed as big as the full moon. The two semicircular stone slabs covering the well did not fit together perfectly. There was a narrow slit through which you could see into the darkness below. The cool, dark depths smelled of ditches in the forest full of mushrooms and ferns. It was like a tunnel leading to some distant, unreachable world. When I lay on the stone slabs and looked down, it was as if I were looking into myself. As if this image were the only message for me, a message from somewhere, from a world that might not even exist. Like a self-portrait, the only authentic portrait of me, a portrait that had been hidden here so that no one would see it but me. Back then, there had been clear water glistening at the bottom of the well. When the nearby river had flooded, the water in the well had risen, and when there were bigger floods, I could almost touch the dark surface. My father had decided to let the sewage flow into the well, because the old cesspits had become greasy, and they filled up too quickly. He had brought home a submersible pump from one of his trips abroad, and he had used this cumbersome contraption, which looked a lot like a bomb, to pump the filth into the well. He didn’t know, and, indeed, how could he have known, that in doing so, he had destroyed the one place where I could see myself. As if he had desecrated a church. He had filled the sacristy of an ancient altar with shit.
I have always suspected that most people don’t know what they are doing or why.
They know nothing of the motives behind their acts, and they don’t see the threads that bind their lives to the lives of others. Of course, I almost never knew what I was doing or why I was doing it either. I just sensed the presence of the structure, the invisible system behind the event horizon. There is something here that is not and cannot be. This was and is the basic statement of my life. This unintentional act of desecrating the well closed off the only path towards myself. At the time, I didn’t put it like that, but I felt it very clearly. As I sat that morning on the mossy stone slab of the well with Rilke’s poems in my lap, the clear water was still and silent beneath me. The first poem I read from the book was titled “Autumn Day.” I read it several times without looking at any of the other poems, just reading this one poem over and over again. It was as if someone were speaking to me from the bottom of the well. As if the darkness beneath the stone slabs had spoken. Which also meant that it was as if I were hearing my own voice. Then I do exist, I thought, and later, I could think of nothing else, only that this murmuring from the depths of the well, these words from the darkness were proof of my existence. Nothing else in the world, just these words. But I still didn’t go to school that day. I would have been unable to get on the train and then go into the dilapidated, frightening building where I always felt as if I were in a courtroom, on trial. A trial in which I was the accused, and the verdict had been reached long ago, regardless of my testimony. They had pronounced the verdict at the beginning of time, and all this was just to torment me. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t give a confession, since I couldn’t speak because of my severe speech impediment. I have no words. Only the voice speaking from the dark, from the depths of the well with its scents of ferns is mine, all other words are words of judgment, of a judgment that was, by all indications, put in writing, proclaimed, and affirmed with a heavy stamp before I was born.
I noticed a trail marking on a dried acacia tree. A yellow phosphorescent stripe against a white background. Here, I had to turn left. The moon in the clouds and total darkness. I took out my headlamp. Ahead of me loomed the huge black block of Gate Hill. On the other side of the hill, in a beech forest, stood the hovel I had to reach. I had never gone there alone at night.
Everything is different at night.
The landscape shifts, even though nothing actually changes. But still, it was as if I were in another world. Nothing is exactly where it is during the day, as if everything were floating, but barely perceptibly. In my high school years, I invented a girl for myself who lived in the woods, in a hovel that was the precursor to the hovel to which I was headed. I only spoke of this girl to my best friend, no one else. To this day I don’t know if he believed any of what I told him about this girl Eszter. Because that was her name, Eszter. For some reason, from the outset I had called her Eszter. She was a painter, she lived in a little house in the woods, and she listened to sad music. Sad, slow music with guitars thrumming, and behind the curtains of the thrumming guitars, girls with veiled voices singing about love, autumn mists, and afternoons by the sea. She never painted anything but the walnut tree in the middle of her garden, nothing else. Beneath the walnut tree was a rotting table. Eszter sat at this table from spring to autumn painting the ever-changing canopy of the walnut tree. She made the canvases, the frames for the pictures, and the paints herself. She hung the pictures on the walls inside the house, and when she ran out of space, she hung them on the walls outside. Her paintings covered the house. Some of them had gotten wet many times, and you could no longer tell what they originally had depicted. Some of the pictures had mold growing on them, and wasps had used some of them to make their nests. But none of this bothered Eszter. She thought that her pictures were meant to be slowly digested by nature, to sink back into the circle of life from which they had emerged. She had no one but me. When I would drop in on her, she would make me a cup of tea, and we would sit at the old table under the walnut tree and look at her pictures without saying a word. I never imagined that I would ever touch her. I certainly never imagined kissing her. That would have been utterly out of the question. For several months and perhaps even a whole year, she completely captured my imagination. I meticulously worked out the layout of her house, the furniture, the curtains, the bookshelves, everything. I devoted particular consideration to her clothes. She wore baggy clothes that shone with an unusual glow in the garden. It was as if she had stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painter’s canvas. At the time, I knew nothing of Pre-Raphaelite painters. I saw their paintings only much later, and they immediately reminded me of Eszter, whose figure by then had faded into obscurity. I never felt like I was lying when I spoke of Eszter to my friend. If there was anything true and real in my life back then, it was Eszter and her garden. Maybe everyone has an angel, but most people never meet their angel. Or if they do, they don’t recognize them. I now know that Eszter was the angel assigned to me, not created by my imagination. She simply had appeared on the surface of my consciousness, slowly emerging like a photograph in developing liquid. And you cannot touch an angel. You cannot kiss an angel. When I sat next to her under the walnut tree, the anxiety withdrew somewhere. It was as if I’d actually managed to turn around in my mother’s birth canal, and the trip back had led straight to Eszter’s garden.
The garden is still there somewhere, and so is Eszter.
But I have vanished from it, I no longer see it. The photograph has faded, and the contours and shadows have dissolved in the all-consuming emptiness.
On the far side of Gate Hill, a candle was burning in the window of that hovel, the hovel that was at least a hundred years old, but I didn’t know that at the time, on the way up. It had been lit by Anna, who had arrived the night before. The next day, she wandered through the forest, weaving a wreath of moss and pinecones that she later hung on the door of the hovel. At eventide, she came out to sit on the log and have a cigarette with a glass of ice-cold red wine. She was waiting for me. In vain.