09. 04. 2009. 15:56

At the Western Gate (short story)

Zsolt Láng

I should at first point out that in the two or three years previous, the blows of fate (drought, earthquake, floods) had followed each other in rapid succession. At that time, my father was still an active dancer at the Opera, although it was growing ever harder for him to lift his partners.

He complained continuously of the ballerinas’ gluttonous habits, not for a minute thinking about his back. When on stage, of course, he ploughed through the rehearsals and performances without a word of reproach; yet ever since my father had commented to the director Sorbán – a vain prick – that the dancers should be engaged for their talents alone, Sorbán had turned against him, looking for the most trifling pretext to give my father the sack. All of this was nothing, though, compared to what we were about to face.
 
Our house, which had been built by my father’s grandfather, was located on the eastern edge of the city; it rose up to the crowns of the trees like a castle at the end of Acacia Street, close to the gently sloping bank of the river. When the refugees began to arrive, they knocked at our door first, perhaps believing our house, with its wooden balconies and roof-gables, to be a sanitorium. My father generously provided them with food, even slipping some money into their hands. When others came knocking on the door in the middle of the night, he would clamber out of bed, grabbing something to eat from the refrigerator or the larder on the way.
 
Then, after that, there were no more beggars. It was said throughout the city that because of the more recent flooding, they could not make their way up the river, and that several had drowned near the Gyöngyös farmstead. Silence descended upon us. My father continued to grumble about Sorbán from dawn to dusk, and of course about the ballerinas as well. My mother would smile with malicious enigmatic glee, although I could say that while my father’s fidelity was untarnished, my mother might have had something to hide. Once a rag merchant moved in with us, ruddy-faced and grizzled; she followed him everywhere, yet at the same time was visibly revolted… Perhaps it was precisely that dark, deep repugnance that captivated her, and something had happened between them, because afterwards she always shuddered if she happened to pass by the ramp leading up to the attic. For a while, I thought that something similar had come to me from my mother’s dark side, as an inheritance, but later I realized that its source was completely different.
 
And then, from one day to the next, the animals disappeared, even though before they had been forming into vast assemblies surrounding the house. One evening, as it was growing dark, two foxes appeared in front of the kitchen window overlooking the garden. They circled around intensely, their movements slow and swaying. The first one darted and capered in a wide circle around the second, at times from left to right, at times in the opposite direction. The other moved in a circle around its own axis, its fox-gaze riveted upon its companion. Suddenly, they noticed us: they raised their heads and looked at us for several long minutes. The next day we waited for them in vain; the dormice and the martens too had moved away. They’ve all taken off, my mother said, and shuddered again as if she were in front of the attic ramp. I, however, could not free myself from the fox’s gaze. Wherever I looked, I saw that gaze lurking, a mute disembodied creature underneath the garden shrubbery.
 
Then the birds disappeared: only the crows and the jackdaws darkened the sky like seeds cast from a sack above the distant streaks of forest, near the farmstead once held by the Gyöngyös family, though of course long ago, at the beginning of collectivization, everything had been ploughed under. Perhaps they had been drawn by the raging whirlpools, seeking their nourishment among the liquid siftings cast up by the current on the shore, but the fact is that in the morning, they were already circling above, their shapes visible against the moistly glittering sky. They were so far away that you could not hear their cawing. In the city, silence reigned.
 
So it was all the more surprising when one morning we became aware of a sizeable group of people in front of our house, standing among the trees of the small nameless park. There were six of them to be precise, two adults and four children – one of whom we took to be already grown up but who, it turned out later, was barely thirteen. It was enough to cast one fleeting glance at their nylon bags and muddied shoes to see that they had come from the East.
 
The father was dressed in black, with a white shirt and black tie. The people from the East always dressed strangely, and their speech was strange as well. Their gestures were marked by a kind of fumbling solemnity. He was a priest, we discovered when he rang at our door that evening, as dusk began to fall. It was hard for us to understand what he was saying; not because of his accent, but because he used lengthy, archaic expressions. They had done nothing all day but sit on a bench under the acacia trees and stare into space. All six on one bench. They were despondent, and the little ones did not even scamper about, which was unusual. We had always imagined that the children in the East ran around wild all day; it was said of them that they were more or less savages.
 
We spied on them from the window of the smaller front room. They sat there like people waiting for the rainfall to stop, but with no idea as to what would happen then. As darkness began to fall, the priest rang our doorbell.
 
Necessary to mention as well is the wooden shed at the far end of our garden, which (ever since gas had been laid on in the house) had been used for storing tools, as well as ripening plums and drying herbs for tea. An ancient pear tree, nearly collapsing under the weight of its countless fine-grained yellow pears, stood in front of the shed; thanks to the recent rains, the wasps had not pilfered as much of the fruit as usual. The priest, as he was sitting on the bench, stared uninterruptedly at the wooden shed, then at the luxuriant pear tree in front of it, and of course it was not hard to guess the direction of his thoughts. Who knows what the crux of the matter was: would he feel worse if he climbed up onto the fence and stuffed his pockets with fruit from the lower branches, making him a thief, or if he merely asked for the fruit, making him a beggar.
 
My father went once again to the front door. He returned after a short time and, nearly laughing, informed us of the priest’s request. He wanted to stay in the little wooden house with his family for a few days.
 
As my father went out again, we feared he would do something rash. His nature was accommodating, even morbidly generous. We were afraid we’d have to eat dinner with the strangers, or else that they would settle permanently in the woodshed where we, the children, had our own comfortably furnished nook. But our father showed a new side of his character. As he sat down again at the table, he was grumbling about why they had come just now. The children and the elderly had been taken weeks ago to camps because of the typhus epidemic, the new arrivals were obviously pestilent with every kind of bacterium possible. I’m not going to let them shake it out here! And then, why did the priest desert his flock? My father spoke these words very gravely, although he never went to church and personally knew no priests himself. This phrase became so fixed in his mind that it reminded him again of his own work and his own responsibilities, and without being prompted, he began to list everything that was wrong at the rehearsals: how could you even rehearse when the carpets were full of holes, the parquet floors thick with bumps, the mirrors blotchy. The passion of duty, in a word, burned in my father like a flame, and he would still return to the Opera as a conscientious artist, with a sense of his calling, to make a few twists and turns at the bar. My mother, who was usually not as generous as my father, all the same took bread and some fruit to the priest and his family, and maybe some more nylon bags as well.
 
Their lodgings were actually not too uncomfortable: the rain never penetrated under the thick cover of jasmine bushes. We often played there with the other children in the neighbourhood. I had long been planning to spend an entire night there as a test of my own courage.
 
My father arrived home late, but we were upstairs and heard what he was saying to my mother. He did not like that man; he could sense an ulterior motive. The priest had picked out this very house for himself and his family. First the woodshed, then the house… There had been many similar instances, my mother surely had heard of them too. No, my mother replied, she hadn’t heard. Well, they talk about it, my father affirmed, and like someone alarmed by his own words, took the flashlight and went outside to check if all the doors and windows were shut. We watched the circle of light from the windows as it fluttered fearfully here and there. Then he came back and declared that it was far from stupid to listen to the children, because without a dog the entire house was at their mercy.  As if our house were a giant, idiotic reptile, incapable of defending itself against attack.
 
No one broke into the house. The priest and his family came up with a few thick poles, stuck them into the ground behind the bench, cut up some of the nylon bags to stretch across them, and began to set their things in order. I liked their little hut, especially since the little bench was promoted to the status of a terrace, where one could sit outside without a care.
 
My father, however, watched them with ever greater anxiety. After lunch, he always performed his role for us, his feet stamping wildly by the finale. He would start by standing in the middle of the kitchen, torso convulsed, and in the midst of such crashing and cracking noises that we thought that the roof was about to collapse onto our heads; then he would start his diatribe against everything in our town: ever greater neglect, nothing was properly cared for, as if doomsday were around the corner – which of course many would be able to use for their own profit. Then came the good-for-nothing Sorbán: he had engaged a new dancer again, one with no sense of rhythm except in her own tail. Yes – here he tried to be vague, taking alarm at the disapproving wrinkle in my mother’s eyebrows – the director was exactly like a squirrel who would go plunging from the tree without his bushy tail. Finally, he quickly veered onto the topic of the priest and his family, and here he stumbled. Leave them alone, can’t you see, they’re not bothering anyone, my mother reassured him. But I told them I won’t give them the shed, so they can leave already! Then Sorbán again, Sorbán who sent his own mother to the nursing home.
 
One Sunday morning, when no rehearsals or performances were scheduled in the Opera, my father went out to the priest and his family, and performed his role for them, from the twisting at the waist up to the howling at the end. He went so far as to grab the priest’s arm and swing it around as he used to do with his female partners in his youth. The priest, however, instead of pirouetting, fell clumsily across the bench, tearing through one of the walls of their makeshift hut, and then lay stretched out on the ground. Instantly, my father calmed down, but began a loud disquisition on his moral principles to the gaping bystanders. If he had taken them in, it would have put the refugees in an unfair position – they would have become envious, or the recipients of the bread of charity, mouths slung open. Which was, of course, the lesser of many evils, yet it was clear that no matter how much the situation would improve, they would never know, and never be willing to return home. Who knows just how far they could go in their petrified hopelessness! We’ve all heard of similar instances… If, however, he didn’t let them in, the result would be that they would lure the others with their little hut, poisoning the lives of every one of us. Of course, he could see that the priest was basically a decent, upright man, but those who would come next would clearly be much more aggressive, quarrelsome, uncouth.
 
It is hard to know the precise cause – whether the physical or the verbal onslaught – but the next day the priest and his family began preparing to leave. They packed up all of their belongings and stared with disquiet at the birds circling low in the overcast sky, or towards the West, thought at one time to be the promised land.
 
But here I need to leap back a few days. One afternoon, the priest’s daughter and the elder of her younger brothers somehow ended up at our house, and we – the two of them, my younger sisters, and my cousin who lived nearby – played hide-and-seek together until evening. It happened that at one point we hid with the girl in the cellar. We were squeezed tight against each other in the narrow space, my palm pressed against her breast. In quick response, her hand lightly touched my groin. At first I felt her gesture to be impudent; both indignant and ashamed, I avoided her until the end of the game. That night, though, after I lay down, my vagrant thoughts ceaselessly wandered around the question of what I had let slip by me.
 
I even found out her name, Juliska Szabó. She could have been a relative, I thought, because my mother’s maiden name had been Szabó. But I didn’t mention that to anyone. After my father had fallen out with the priest, and the family had begun to gather up their things, I went down to the garden and beckoned to her over the fence, so I could hurl one of the insults learned from my father at her: I did not want to leave that moment when she touched my groin unanswered. She prowled across the damp grass as if searching for a fallen object, and then hurriedly whispered: Meet me in the wooden shed. In the meantime, I heard my mother’s voice calling me to lunch. I went into the house and sat down at the table such that I could see out from the kitchen window. I watched her as she climbed across the fence near the cornel bush and ran to the wooden shack. My heart was in my throat as I rushed there too at breakneck speed.
 
I stepped into the gloomy herb-scented cabin, then bolted the door from the inside, even pushing a basked filled with jam-jars in front of it. An orange-red light stole in through the tiny filthy window. There was a bed in the shack; she was already lying on it. She was completely naked. Paralyzed, teeth chattering, I gaped at her luminous body. Or rather, stared with shuddering eyes. In my panic, I stammered that my father would be coming immediately. At that, she made a grab for her clothes. I saw how truly penurious they were. And most ridiculously, how for all her girlhood, she had boys’ underwear with a slit in front. This seemingly sober observation brought me back to my senses. I wanted recompense for my teeth-chattering of a moment ago. I grabbed at the bottom of her blouse, and began to tug at it for her to take it off. She didn’t want to any more. We began to scuffle. The musty reek of poverty on her body infuriated me, yet still I wanted to slip inside her. She was scrawny but cunning, and easily slid out from under me. I jumped up and twisted her arm behind her; she was mere skin and bones, like a chicken leg. Panting heavily, we plunged down onto the groaning springs, I pressed down hard on her with my stomach. She withstood this mutely for a bit, as if thinking, then turned out from under me, wrenched the basket away from the door, tore off the lock. I leaped after her in vain but could not reach her.
 
Thinking it over, I must not have run after her, because before I could move, she looked around and turned to stone. As if in her eyes there was the gaze of the fox that for weeks now had been haunting me. And completely to the point, for the fox was merely the temporary owner of that gaze: in reality, it belonged to someone else. That someone was there with me in the wooden shack. It rubbed against my sides, prodded my loins repeatedly, settled down upon me: indeed, it was as if a demon that could never be expelled had taken up residence inside me for good.

Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
 
Zsolt Láng (1958) lives in Tîrgu Mures, Romania, where he edits the literary magazine Látó. He has many volumes – novels, short stories and essays – to his name.

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