12. 08. 2009. 12:04

Landscape with Raft (short story)

István Szilágyi

Nowhere else will you find as many angel-faced children as there are up there. And nowhere else will you see as many adult faces ravaged by decay and crumbling with rot.

    Somewhere on creation’s unfinished edge, the land is a gutted shell. Water’s collected in its lower whorl, forming a basin one thousand meters above sea-level; its shores are layered with the sediment of what life up on the mountain once was.
     At one point, some officious state of emergency dammed a few streams, a dozen brooks and a creek or two in the hopes of producing an altogether negligible amount of electricity. The reservoir alone swallowed up two or three villages. The mountain people were forced to move their homes and livestock higher up, to the mountain’s icy, windswept shoulders stretching far above the treeline. Nowhere else will you find as many angel-faced children as there are up there. And nowhere else will you see as many adult faces ravaged by decay and crumbling with rot. In their eyes a lurking sense of desperation glitters beneath apathy’s sticky ooze.
    The reservoir didn’t just swallow up the villages: its foaming waves rock above the stumps of decapitated pines and drowned meadows, too. By summer’s end the water swells to the feet of those forests that are still left. In spring—because it’s mostly in winter that they wring all the electricity they can out of it—every bit of this sarcophagus world is revealed. The changing levels of lapping waves have gnawed the soil from immersed meadows and forests down to the bone (or to the stone), depositing a regurgitated muck at its bottom.
    As spring approaches, the spire of one of the sunken churches juts out of the shallow water and the sea of mud. Never registered a historical monument, it’s become a monument to shame instead. It dries in the serrated, violet cliff wind, staring into the puddled mirrors of the lake; if it had a bell, it would wail.
   Ten logs hastily lashed together: the raft. Three figures cling to this raft, as the current tosses it from the direction of the opposite bank, near the upper end of the reservoir. The advancing waves drove a fragment of a village up there, too. The people living in the mountains around here are all relatives, one tribe bound together by either blood or marriage. When they used to live down in the valley currently located at the bottom of the lake, one village had been within shouting distance of the other. Nowadays, should some clan member marooned on the opposite shore feel the need to look up his kinsmen, he has no choice but to take a fifty-kilometer jaunt around the lake. That is, in summer. From October to May there are times when even a tank couldn’t get through.
    Yet these three are still on their way, drifting along on the back of an unwieldy raft. Their paddles are long pine poles with a piece of plank nailed to each end. These ungainly, flapping wings hit the few glassy bits of lake glistening amongst the rotting ice-floes with a slap. It’s April, maybe even Easter for some. Heavy drifts of snow still hold the valleys below captive.
    Water splashes through the gaps between the logs, leaving the three sopping wet first to their knees, then to their waists. As it is, they’ve never gone wading in the lake, not even for pleasure. This may explain their lack of fear, despite the ten, or (in some places) even thirty-meter depths plunging below them. They don’t know how to swim, either. Long ago there wasn’t a place to swim, nor anyone who could have taught them; later on, after the lake was put here, the ability to swim only brought bad luck. At the time—this was right at the beginning—a group of about ten men in their prime started to go down to the lake. All of them had done time in the army, and most of them had wives as well. They came down from the pine-choked heights at dusk, so somebody could teach them to swim….
    True enough, they were actually yearning for a place far away, a place on the other side of the ocean—Jehovah’s tracks would lead them there. But they would have to swim across the Danube first. By their reckoning, the Danube couldn’t be any wider than the middle of this lake. Who knows, maybe they were right…. But what about the search-lights sweeping the night-darkened river…and the rounds of machine-gun fire? The bullets splashed harmlessly into the water. Really it was the propellers of the pontoon boats used by the border police…those chopped them to pieces. The fish ate well that night. Nobody from the mountains around here has learned how to swim since.
   When an autumn mist hovers above the lake at dawn, empty, black barges seem to appear. An entire fleet of coffins sways above the water—there they are, circling that murky spot where they sense the church spire’s presence. Unable to dive to the lake’s bottom, they’re left searching for the old cemetery.
    Those three have meanwhile finally nosed the raft to shore. They jump off the minute it scrapes across the bottom’s muddy rocks, then struggle to haul it out of the water and onto the slippery bank, to keep it from drifting away while they attend to business in the village. Afterward they start the climb up; farther on, deep drifts lie paralyzed at the foot of the forest.
    They trudge on at a steady rate, never once glancing back at the lake. They’re heading up the mountain, to the place where a few houses dot the slope rising above the pines. Are they intending to take stock of who’s survived the winter and who hasn’t? Hardly. It’s far too early in the season for that anyway. Could it be that some score from last year is about to be settled?
    Maybe the time is ripe to settle a score with somebody. Somebody who would take to his heels once the valley is released from winter’s grip. 
    If some kind of parallel existence could ever happen in this life, then I’m sure mine would be up there, roaming that one part of the mountain between the foot of the woods and the lake’s edge, the side that is barren rock at first, then grassy expanse farther up. Sometimes it’s spring, other times summer or early autumn.
    Time and time again, this other-me runs into someone who lives up there, on that mountain. It’s always the same person, the one with a few cows and a calf or two herded by a dog whose fur hangs in tufts. Even the soul of this dog is wounded because the bears have never been kind.
   After gripping an axe-handle for the last five hundred years, the mountain man’s hand looks like the head of a prehistoric reptile, the kind seen in some wild dreamer’s drawings.
    In this time governed by lex dog-eat-dog, we know everything about each other. We’d avoid one another if we only could. But we can’t, because it’s our job to keep an eye on the other, to keep track of who has been secretly plundering the lake for fish. And if the poaching was good, then what was the catch like? Was it a big one?
    There are times when we kill each other.
    Sometimes we only do it once in a hundred years. Sometimes we do it more often, let’s say every twenty of thirty years. Because we’re just fed up with all his hanging around. This at least is what we lie to ourselves when we lock our fingers around the other’s throat.
     I had no way of knowing that this time had once again come around. I was wrong. A sudden movement: his hand bit into the handle of his axe. Lucky for me, I was gutting a trout; before he had time to lift his axe, I rested the tip of my knife—a northern blade, flashing new like the crescent moon—against his stomach.
     The sun was shining, there were fish in my game-bag; as far as I was concerned, the time wasn’t yet ripe for revenge. I let it go.
     Yet I still couldn’t fathom why the time was ripe for him. The sun was still shining, he’d also bagged plenty of fish. Like sticks of salami softened by the sun, the catch bulged against the slimy gray canvas of his game-bag. 
      Could it be this wasn’t enough—he needed my fish, too? But I hadn’t caught nearly as much as he had.
     When it finally dawned on him that the score would be left for another day, he thrust his game-bag at me. His palm gaped wide with hunger. Then, when he saw me waver, he asked me to leave him the fish at least. His wife was sick, he’d caught them for her doctor. I threw the bag down, and the axe after it. Good riddance.
     He won’t do the same for me next time. He’ll not leave me my life, or my fish, for that matter. I wouldn’t either, if I were him. I’d spare nobody who’d ever shown me mercy.
     Sometimes I tell myself it doesn’t matter.
     You’d think we could have gotten used to it by now: men have been known to kill over a catch of fish.
Translated by Maya J. LoBello
Previously on HLO
Claiming the dead: the art of István Szilágyi

Tags: István Szilágyi