07. 26. 2009. 19:46

Flower Eaters (excerpt from a novel)

László Darvasi

"Slips of paper fell to the ground when the little girl impatiently shook the boxes open. The first one said, NO!, the second said, YES!, and the third said, MAYBE! Klára whispered hoarsely to herself, like someone holding untold wealth. 'Yes, no, maybe, and it’s all mine, mine, mine!'"

Riotous Mimosa
Strolling Down Nothing’s Banks
 
You, my girl, are exactly like a willow wand!  You bend and bend, yet never break! You should know, there’s a kind of laughter that lets the devil loose in the world. The damage is put right, dust to dust, one wind chases the other, good breeds bad. But when you laugh, dimples pit your face, your eyes flash like the thimble on a fine tailor’s finger; across the street a gentleman sporting a walking stick pauses under the crippled shoemaker’s creaking sign and beetles his brows as if composing a secret report on a miracle. Then he brays with laughter, even if he is a thorough scoundrel as I well know. Paper ribbons fall to shreds in your hands, yet a blade of grass twines itself about your finger and gleams bright and fresh even a day later. In the center of your palm a stain blushes red, no doubt the mark of an angel’s foot. An angel lighted there the day you were born and pirouetted on your tiny palm. 
 
    Your name is Klára Pelsoczy!
 
    It’s a beautiful name, a noble name!
 
    I, your father, was disowned by my family one stormy day, while winds whistled and the weather-vane atop the family seat creaked and groaned. And how right they were! I spun far too many yarns for them, those sirs with their waxed mustachios and riding crops for beating the servants, those ladies in their lace collars and all those gaggles of sniggering cousins. Said too much about worlds that never existed, although they certainly could have. My dear girl, in the world I occupy there’s not a trace of God, and I don’t bother crying out to Him. My family thrust me out into the cold. Why, indeed, should they make room for somebody who sits in the clouds of steam rising from porcelain tureens, constructing pyramids out of soup bones or smearing his face with chocolate.  The same one who has a sneezing fit in the middle of mass and blows pigeon fluff while his relatives in their hussar uniforms pound the table and their every other word is Magyar, Magyar!  
 
    You’re my little girl, the blood of my blood, and if you should decide to soar, then come soar with me. Just don’t ruffle your feathers over disparaging words.  Ask me about fate, and I’ll simply answer that a creed, a church, a champion can be found anywhere, but never forget that for people like you and me, our only remaining mercy is usually dissent. I drink too much and gamble too much, I’m as ruinous as a night of carousing. My eyes are blood-shot, my face bloated, my hands tremble like autumn leaves and mornings I stagger about slurping my coffee. None of this really matters. I can soar beside you without a moment’s notice! There’s not a chance that I’d ever turn you away! Pour me a drink, would you, yes, out of that bottle. Thank you.
 
     My dear little girl, I beg you on bended knee not to fear your mother! Don’t be terrified of her, and don’t stoke that wounded pride of hers which is already seething away by dawn, together with the tea kettle slammed on the stove lid.  It’s enough for me, your father, to be afraid. I do, I really do fear your mother! Let it be known that this, too, binds us together.
 
     My sweet girl, never go about with a wounded pride!
 
     Be wounded instead, you’ll fare much better!  
 
     I bless you with the smoke from my cigar, be patient and stop coughing.
 
     I am your father! Here I am, squeezing your tiny hand, your slender arm, just don’t cry! I hold you in my arms, cradled here against my ragged vest! Hold your breath, my shirt is a bit ripe. If I die then come wake me up! I’m your father! Endure the nature of my love! Your mother loves you too, but her kind of love is different.
 
     I, László Pelsoczy, wise and utterly unique, have chosen to be wounded instead. Did you know, Klára, that we live in a city plagued by a wounded pride?  I could love it, perhaps, if only it were just wounded. This city’s the very picture of health—not a bruise on it!—yet it still insists on making mountains out of molehills and putting on airs about things it’s never had, only to pout over what it rightfully owns.
 
     Did you know a feather is gleaming white in your hair? Don’t be afraid, it’s only a bit of down from a seagull’s wing. Come along now, take my hand and off we go to the dock! Lead the way, and let that laugh of yours ring out when and where the fancy strikes you, m’girl!
 
     Klára ran out to the yard, calling all the while as if the words were being pulled from her throat on a length of thread. Mama, mama, the window doesn’t want me to see through it!  Mama, the trees are laughing at me! The kitchen fire is telling me to stroke its heart!   
 
     With her every movement, the woman creaked like a hinge left to rust, the light cleaving her face in two as she gazed in the direction her husband had last been seen. Clouds were racing across the sky and the wind shook the sagging branches of the mulberry tree next to the fence. Pelsoczy had thrown on his overcoat, wiped the toe of his shoe on the hem of his trousers and left—but not before he’d filled his daughter’s head with all that nonsense again. Tears streaming down her face, the little girl ran to her mother, holding up her blistered finger. The woman hissed, you’re the one who did it, now it’s up to you to take care of it! Still sniffling, Klára headed for the jug of sour cream. A smile suddenly lit her face: this wasn’t the first time she’d  reached toward the flames. Evening fell upon them before anyone had even realized it. First the world was leached gray, then the shadows slowly rose up to dance, until every form and shape had been swallowed up by the dark. The flint rasped again and again before the candle finally burst into flame.
 
     The candles are little girls, just look at how they dance!
 
     The lamp’s so pretty with its slender waist!
 
     The girl’s mother sat with her back as straight as a poker, muttering and muttering to herself as she crocheted, counting her stitches. She laid her work aside and began to read, but soon threw the paper down and started crocheting again. The tea grew cold, leaving a perfect ring of brown around the edge of the cup. How white the sugar was! Klára licked her finger and stuck it in the bowl, plundering the white crystals. Her mother watched with stony eyes, her lips forgetting to move. Then finally the clock struck, just when Klára thought she couldn’t wait another minute to see the little blue soldier who came out every hour, on the hour, banging open a tiny door and lifting his bayonet high in the air to signal it was one o’clock, two o’clock, or midnight, the darkest time of night!
 
     Go to bed!
 
     I want to wait for Papa!
 
     I told you to go!
 
     I want to wait for Papa!
 
     Her father’s footsteps echoed, followed by indistinct scuffling and scrabbling noises until he finally shoved  the door open, bringing with him the combined stench of alcohol and tobacco smoke. A puddle of water collected around his shoes as he stood there, his hair standing up on end, a stupid grin stretched across his face.
 
     Hear that rain, m’girl? It’s drumming like an army of lead soldiers!
 
     He held his trembling hand out, offering her three wooden boxes.
 
     Pick one, but think before you choose!
 
     Then I’ll take them all, Papa! she chortled.
 
     Feigning annoyance, her father grumbled as he threw his coat into the corner, then stomped about looking for his dressing gown and rubbing his tousled head with a rag. Deep down, her solution had pleased him. The woman, Margit, knotted her fingers over her stomach as if hugging close an unborn child. She observed them from afar, her face expressionless. Slips of paper fell to the ground when the little girl impatiently shook the boxes open.
 
     The first one said, NO!, the second said, YES!, and the third said, MAYBE!
 
     Klára whispered hoarsely to herself, like someone holding untold wealth.
 
     Yes, no, maybe, and it’s all mine, mine, mine!
 
     Her father laughed till he coughed, then guzzled another cup of wine, leaving trickles of red dribbling down his neck. Then he gathered close the little girl twirling about with her arms stretched wide.
 
     The next morning Klára stood on the threshold to the kitchen, the sunshine gleaming through her hair and burnishing her face with droplets of gold. Even with eyes still gummed by sleep she could see her mother tossing the boxes into the fire, where they crackled bitterly amongst the flames. No, this couldn’t be a dream. Fire was gobbling up the Yes and the No, while even the Maybe was turning into ashes! If only she could reach in there to save them, and she’d do it, too, if her mother weren’t standing there!
 
     Her mother slammed the stove door shut, hissing as she shook her hand singed by the lid lifter. The servant-girl stood leaning against the pantry door. She smirked, then turned wordlessly away. She gave notice a day later, saying she felt afeared, she did, in a house where all the people were like haunts. Her hands clenched into fists, Klára remained silent. A smile stretched taut across her face, and it was actually this desperate smile of hers that turned her mother’s gaze into thin air. Klára smiled and smiled until her mother finally snapped at her.
 
     Off with you, now, go make yourself decent!
 
     As the girl pulled on her stockings, it occurred to her that far more can be taken away than was originally ever given, the same way a beggar can be robbed again and again. Even things we never possessed can be snatched away!
 
     Nobody was going to take this smile away from her, which is exactly why Klára kept on smiling, willful and angry, when she presented herself in her very best dress to her mother, who was waiting motionlessly on the settee in the sitting room. A string of pearls gleamed at Klára’s neck, rose petals stitched in red brightened her stockings and a black mourning ribbon bound her hair. Defiance shone bright in her eyes, a proclamation that her happiness was, in fact, invulnerable after all. 
 
Translated by Maya J. LoBello

Tags: László Darvasi