07. 08. 2011. 06:54

Legendary Danube VII: Mouth-sparrow

Father clambered in order to feel around the place of the tongue that was not to be found... The onlookers, affronted to their toll-paying core, nodded away. They had not paid good money out for this. Father checked the mouths of all four lions but did not find a tongue in any. Tumult, as the district rag put it.

Men who were unhappy lived on Pinkóc—at least our father did. He was just 27 or 29 years old when he tacked a third room onto the house at Pinkóc so as not to be obliged to look at Mother’s sour features. He cut a new doorway into one of the walls of the new room and made a window opening behind the curtains. No more than two or three times did I go into the little room, which looked out on the cemetery hill, with bedclothes, curtains and clothes all having an odour of corn. As the times when my parents’ hearts softened always coincided with the carp spawning season, my siblings were also girls. Whether on that account, or for some other reason, he became totally cheesed off with his family and at the age of 31 or 33 he scooted off to relatives in Budapest. We left his room empty.

We never did enquire after him with them. Once a year Mother received the rebellious relatives pokerfaced. Whenever conversation turned to Father, she switched to Croatian or sprinkled cream riesling from Nova Gora onto the guests’ pinafores. It was an outright obsession of Mother’s cousins that all four of us looked like Father, but I’m not at all sure what they wanted to say by this. (We stood in front of the mirror like Thomas did before our Lord Jesus.) Our faces were sour, not acrimonious like Jakob Frick’s, which is to say Father’s. The Budapesters never stayed longer than two days. God be with them. So long!

We stopped our ears and closed our eyes, notwithstanding which tittle-tattle did sometimes come our way. The district newspaper even wrote about Father’s case in ’54. Sometimes we ashamed of Father, sometimes we were proud of him. The paper was plonked down before us by the Pinkóc grocer, who was courting one of my younger sisters. There are such things as stories which deal with the happiness of the unhappy.

After Father fled to Pest he worked for years for a cobbler acquaintance of his (Mother used a Croatian word to indicate what kind of woman the cobbler’s spouse was; I would bid her to hush when she broke into the conversation). When Father got fed up with the drudgery or the cobbler’s spouse he wangled it to be taken on as a taster at the Nádor Inn. He thought he was supposed to pass an opinion on the quality of the food that was served but his superiors merely observed whether his face went blue or blanched. It neither went blue nor blanched. He was kicked out of the Nádor soon enough, but he was allowed to keep his claret-coloured velvet working dress with corded borders. He went nervously and longingly around the city, looking at statues, the houses under construction past the Pest quay, the extravagances of the Lloyds Palace building. He confessed to one of his sidekicks that for some unaccountable reason he felt like smashing flat the glazed terrace of the stock-exchange building with a polished pebble from the Danube. While he warmed his legs in the steam slipping from the grille of the Diana Bath he nagged away at every dusty-faced worker he saw. He picked quarrels with master builders about how sand should be sifted in from the side, not from above. Father thought he was someone else from what he had been born as. Mother’s mother said in Croatian what awaited those who dig a ditch around themselves when they are raising a hill.

Father acquired from somewhere a walking cane with a brass ferrule, which he would use to point into construction pits, drive away beggars, or rap on the misshapenly botched handle of a radial-patterned oak gate. It became a passion for him? to look for faults on buildings. He would go along Upper Danube Terrace four times a day in order to be able to grouch about something. He scathingly slated the two bumps on the porticoes of Kemnitzer House, the railway halt and the turrets of the Stein building. With equestrian statues he would check whether the scabbard had been placed on the right side—just in case it hadn’t. Windows had been set so close together in the façade of the Angelus Estate that the shutters of each one being thrown open took ten inches of sunlight from the neighbouring windows, though perhaps he was dreaming. It was a good day for Father when the components of the southern Pest copper mill were blown up and the pendulum hammer crippled three Serb workers. There was even a cartoon of Father to be found in the district newspaper. In this he has his feet on the kerb of the pavement and is brandishing his walking cane with the brass ferrule at a landowner cowering in a landau. Mother said it did not even vaguely look like our father Jakob Frick, however we recognised the wrinkles of rancour that had formed on either side of the nose. Mother tore out the picture with a jack-knife and when she thought we weren’t looking she hid it under her bolster.

Jakob Frick envied those who had been able to be present when the chain of Széchenyi’s Chain Bridge sprang free while being shackled. People fell from the scaffolding into the Danube, including the illustrious Count himself. The greatest event in Father’s life, however, was the day he pinpointed the bridge’s weak point; he must have been 36 or 38 years old then. He did not begrudge the two-kreutzer toll that had had to be paid as he went back and forth between Pest and Buda until he spotted that the sculptor had failed, so to say, to carve out tongues for the four recumbent stone lions which beef up the abutments at each end of the bridge. I make so bold as to venture that the lion has no tongue! That’s a far graver error than the count pitched into the water or a misshapen handle! The rifle-shot gaze in the deep eye sockets and the manes looking like they had been drenched by the Danube.

Father knew how to attract the attention of daydreamers sauntering on the bridge. He had a ladder brought from the riverbank, entrusting the cane with the brass ferrule to a lady of winning outward appearance, her cheeks like Gugelhupfs (Mother did not only weep but howled with laughter). Out of the mouth of the lion in question a sparrow flew out all of a sudden like a giggle. Father clambered in order to feel around the place of the tongue that was not to be found. His audience grew. The onlookers, affronted to their toll-paying core, nodded away. They had not paid good money out for this. Father checked the mouths of all four lions but did not find a tongue in any. Tumult, as the district rag put it. There were some in the crowd who had visited the menagerie in István Square and had seen live beasts of prey—this was not such. When Jakob Frick teetered at the top of the ladder, he had to hang on to the lion’s dentition. Two teeth had broken off. No matter! Father triumphantly shinned down the ladder and kicked the teeth, which were even more yellow than his own, into the Danube. He dusted down the claret-coloured garb with its corded borders. A number of the citizens applauded. Those who had come from the Pest end knew the sculptors name, the Tabáners from the district at the foot of Buda Castle knew the commissions he had been awarded. They too shook their heads like the bouquets at a bridge-opening. When he struck up conversation Father deemed it appropriate to declare that he was working as head confectioner at the Queen of England Hotel. In order to add weight to what he said he poked with his walking cane at the most radiant spot before bidding farewell.

The rumour soon spread that there was something wrong with bridge. All Pest was abuzz with talk about this time how the sculptor had blundered. János Marschalkó the sculptor was not fit to work on the Kaschau Cathedral; confidence in him had to be withdrawn, no question. Exit one Marschalkó. The more sanguine just jeered.

As this was going on Father got onto first name terms with the Gugelhupf-cheeked dame. She lived on Aréna Road (behind a radial-patterned oak gate) and had a husband. Father still failed to secure work, though he did still change clothes; we imagined those too carried a whiff of corn, and the husband’s shoes fitted his feet perfectly. Someone would always come by to invite Father to the theatre, for a snack, or to the horseracing. Word got round that he had been a cobbler’s drudge, contrary to what he had fibbed on the bridge. We have no way of knowing whether he was happy at this point in his life. At all events he would not walk on dirt paths as he wanted to hear the heel clicking of new shoes. The report concluded with the news that before the end of the year, so pitilessly had he been mocked on account of his lions, the celebrated sculptor threw himself over the cast-iron railings of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Our father, Jakob Frick, was a monster.

Mother’s mother died at the age of 65 or 67. The grocer wedded my younger sister, and without saying a word they moved to the far side of Pinka Brook. How should I put it: during the spawning season. They took the smell of corn away from Father’s room. From time to time Mother would unfold the newspaper clipping and muse over the cartoon. When in the late Sixties I and my two maiden younger sisters made an excursion to Pest, our first tracks were to the rebellious relatives. Pokerfaced we spooned out the floating islands, or what we call bird milk. Our hosts whetted their pink tongues with cream riesling from Nova Gora.So long. Let’s be off to the bridge. We paid the bridge toll, enquiring from a splendidly bewhiskered man on which side of the river was Buda to be found. Our hearts were pounding harder than the southern Pest pendulum hammer could ever have pounded. We found it. We stood on tiptoe. Can you see? One of the two Buda lions is missing two teeth. I can see. We would have liked to touch the lion but it was lying too high up. Our ankles eventually tired from peeking and one of my sisters burst into tears. We would have set off back home if a sparrow had not happened to take wing from the lion’s mouth. It flew full circle before depositing its droppings on my parasol with the lily-of-the-valley pattern.

The first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest, the Chain Bridge, was initiated by Count István Széchenyi (often called ‘the greatest Hungarian’) and opened in 1849. An urban legend has it that when a cobbler’s apprentice (called Jakob Frick) shouted out that the lions of the Chain Bridge do not have tongues, János Marschalkó, the sculptor who made them jumped from the bridge, thus becoming the bridge’s first suicide, to be followed by many more.

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Edina Szvoren, Danube