02. 08. 2006. 10:15

Golden Embroidery (Excerpt)

Éva Bánki

"My brethren, he said... You can see that Our Goddess the Happy Lady, who is none other than the Virgin Mary, appears to you in her heavenly image, as a weasel. Listen to what she has got to say! The pagans were so drunk that they couldn’t tell a squirrel from a weasel."

[On account of an insurrection among Hungarian lords, Sebe, later Bishop Anastas, and the heavily pregnant Queen Sophia, wife of King Stephen’s successor, Peter Orseolo the Venetian, are hiding in the woods of Bakonybél, where the man who would become Saint Gellért (Gerardus) lived as a hermit for seven years before he became a bishop.]

God was happy the day he created Sophia, Gellért used to say. Anyone who took a close look at her delightful face would know how the Lord had loved his children. But when Sebe saw Sophia’s face now, he thought the happy days of the Lord were just as terrible as the rest.  The Queen’s face had been torn into tiny pieces by cobwebs, fatigue and care, her gaze was dim, her belly enormous. I will not emerge from this alive, Sebe thought, the pagans would pull this woman even from the cellar. There was not a single soul in the whole manor house, least of all a midwife, and yet the smell of peril trembled in the air. It vibrated everywhere, staining even the objects nearby; it was certainly not the Christian faith that taught me this, Sebe thought as he sat down beside the woman in one of the rooms. Gellért had the capacity to pray for an angel in the guise of a midwife to come and knock at the gate of the manor house. But nobody knocked, the building had been surrounded by the pagans, the queen told him, the night wind had delivered the neighing of their horses, the words of their curses and obscenities. Then, suddenly, they both raised their heads, because they heard the sound of children crying in the attic. ‘What is this?’, Sebe asked, ‘Perhaps my son,’ replied the queen, stroking her belly, I only have a few hours left to love this baby. But Sebe was not listening to Sophia, he rushed into the attic and indeed found a little boy and a little girl, children of some servant, frightened to death. Sophia’s face grew all smooth in the wink of an eye, she went into the kitchen to fetch bread; there is somebody else here, she told the children, a tame squirrel, I shall call it and show you all the tricks he can do. The children settled by her skirt, watching the squirrel, feeding it walnuts, and as Sebe reluctantly laughed along he felt overcome with the sense of her charm.

Perhaps the squirrel is a descendant of the one Stephen had sent to Veszprémvölgy, Sebe thought and he wanted to warn the queen that it would be best if the children were to hide out of doors. With his hands folded, he got her to pray for a quick death. Sophia gave thanks to God for his special mercy, for all the good things he had done by her, for the baby nestling under her heart, I shall live to see this joy, too, she said. Night fell slowly, and the squirrel grew increasingly frightened when suddenly there was a knock at the door. It's not the murderers yet, explained Sebe who had been looking out of the window, only a heretic priest from the court of Ajtony, a heretic who neither accepts Jesus nor believes in salvation. The priest kept bowing in front of the Queen of Hungary. Our brother Vata sends his compliments, he said and then instantly and without further ado asked the queen to marry his master. A realistic notion, thought Sebe, Sophia is certainly someone who knows all the rulers in Hungary quite intimately. Should the answer be yes, said the priest, I shall lead your Majesty by the hand to your future husband. Sophia smiled, said she was grateful for the honour and first of all wished the famous Lord Vata a long life and good health, next, she expressed her hope that his children were all well, and finally, she told the astounded priest that, for one thing, she was a married woman, and, for another, the highly honoured Lord Vata was a pagan man, so there were plenty of reasons why this match could never come to pass; nevertheless, she sent her most cordial regards also to Lord Vata’s wives. The priest could only blink, so Sophia asked whether the heat had not been terribly oppressive these last few days. The priest then turned red with extreme embarrassment and suddenly slammed the door on the queen.

Sophia went back to Sebe, sat down quietly. The little girl and the little boy buried their faces in her skirt, and she stroked them with her open palm, humming a tune. As dusk descended, she grew ever more peaceful, or perhaps she was praying, while Sebe watched in terror as a stain of blood crept out from under her skirt. The stain kept growing, behold, here comes the king of Hungary, thought Sebe. Sophia showed no sign of labour, perhaps the child was dead inside her, Sebe thought, or is dying right now, they should cut her belly open and lift the little body out, for if it stays in there, the foetus is sure to poison her. Anyway, the pagans will be here soon and perform that little operation themselves, he thought. But suddenly the notion that the body might be defiled appeared intolerable to him: that the child of Peter Orseolo should be ripped out of its mother’s womb in pieces by the pagans, that the locks of Sophia’s  hair might be soiled by blood and brains. Dear Lord, anything but that, thought Sebe and prayed very hard for a miracle.

My little blossoms, said the woman and stroked the children. My God, thought Sebe, I am watching this woman as if she were my wife, and he started saying a prayer, but Sophia interrupted. All may turn out well in the end, she said, the whole Story started in a garden, in a wonderful garden with only one man and one woman living there, and it ends in a garden where, according to Luke, it was a woman who first saw the Resurrected, a woman who was a sinner, one of the worst sinners of all. Only a few hours more and I, too, shall be seeing the face of Christ and the centuries that I must spend waiting under the earth shall turn into nothing. Sebe was shocked: he had believed her incapable of any thought other than wishing good health to the Great Lord Vata. Yet he had no time left to ponder the dimensions of the human mind – as darkness overcame the earth, a war-cry was heard, and rocks burst through the window. The Queen fell to the ground, hit by a stone; the squirrel dived in blind terror into Sebe’s arms and at that moment he realised what it was that he had to do.

My brethren, he said, and stood in the open door holding the squirrel by the back of its head. You can see that Our Blessed Lady, who is none other than the Virgin Mary, appears to you in her heavenly image, as a weasel. Listen to what she has got to say! The pagans were so drunk that they couldn’t tell a squirrel from a weasel, and Sebe, overcome by unexpected courage, started humming an old song. He grew startled. This was not his church voice, but another voice which had lived in his throat all along without his awareness. Have you no fear, to raise your hands in this fashion against Our Goddess the Happy Lady? The pagans all fell on their knees just the way you do at church, but the heretic priest kept screaming that Sebe was a heretic, Sebe on the other hand knew that all he had to do was keep on singing. The pagans in the front sang along with him and Sebe suspected that after a few minutes the song would send them into reverie. Yes, you should avenge the evil Orseolo, he shouted, but not at Bakonybél, not here at this sacred place where Our Goddess the Happy Lady has found refuge. Do not destroy the church, be sure not to harm the church, he said, because he knew that if he saved the manor house and the church nothing more would come between him and a bishop’s seat. Listen, just listen what Our Goddess the Happy Lady has got to say to your hearts!

As Sebe looked at the heretic priest, he suddenly felt ashamed. Should Gellért find out what I had done, he thought, if it is ever revealed that I called Mary and the dying queen Happy Lady, the pagan goddess…  But the crowd seemed to lack theological refinement, and so he was able to hurry back, anguished, into the house. I must hide the queen, whether she is alive or dead, he thought, but he looked for them in the attic, he looked in the rooms, in the courtyard, all in vain. He called the boy and the girl – the bodies had disappeared; only in the spot where Sophia was hit by a rock did he see a small cloud of vapour vibrating in mid-air.  This was the only public miracle of my life, thought Sebe, “the vanishing of the queen,” which the Hungarians simply referred to as the metamorphosis of the weasel for a long time to come. In fact, there was not a single weasel around the manor house, and most certainly no one had turned into one or even into a squirrel. What a piece of theological absurdity, he went on fuming to himself even now. But, ever closer to death, as his heart slowly opened to the Other King, he could see the hands of happy little girls parting the grids of the tree-cage, and as the ladies in waiting curtseyed to the king, he saw Sophia arrive under a clear sky where there was no more pain.

Translated by Orsolya Frank

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