10. 05. 2004. 08:45

The Snake's Shadow (Excerpt)

Zsuzsa Rakovszky

"And did it really come to pass that one time, not far from where I was lying, the grass quivered, and a great snake hauled its thick, ringed body alongside me, so close that my upper arm shuddered from the touch of its cold, flaky skin? Was I only dreaming that the hand, which only a moment before had been stroking the nape of my neck, stretched out into the thick of the dark grass, grasped the snake and flung it far into the undergrowth?"

Zsuzsa Rakovszky (1950) had been an established poet for many years when she came out with her first novel A kígyó árnyéka (The Snake's Shadow). This story of incest, plague and fire, set in the year 1666 and told by a bourgeois woman, Orsolya Lehmann, was one of the greatest literary successes of the last few years.

My memory of the rest of the evening is clouded by a thick fog, through which, here and there, as if by a flame's flickering light, one or two details emerge. I remember, for example, how we sat awhile with strangers by a fire, next to which a girl was singing. I clearly recall her sad, pale face, her big, hooked, bird's beak of a nose, and her dark, ringed eyes - also very avian in character - and I remember the song she sang, about two lovers, and the lily that flowered on their grave. Presently we came to another fire: here people were passionately dancing to the music of a hunchbacked, beetle-browed violin player. Clenched together, the dancers whirled around the flames, at times slowly, at times gathering a quite giddy pace. On occasion they would pull the circle tighter, and with a series of single sliding steps, lifting one leg in the air, bended at the knee, they drew closer and closer to the blaze. The tips of their boots well-nigh touched the flames, as if, teasingly, their legs might yet tame this yellow beast. Meanwhile, hands outstretched, sides and arms melted into those of their neighbours, their bodies were engulfed by the fire's yellow light. As they slipped back from the aura of the fire into the shadows, their ring widened, their arms straightened, and now only their hands clasped them together. They would circle slowly for a while, before speeding up into a frenzy, howsoever the rhythm of the music bid them.

We took our place among the dancers, all of whom were alien to me. My right hand locked into that of a young shepherd, my left into that of a stranger, I watched the flapping of the torn, perpetually writhing flames, like so many animals straining on fetters, striving to break away from the bough on which they fed, only to be flung in a thousand directions into the air. As I gazed up at the sky, tracing the path of the sparks flying into the air, it was as if the music and the clamour of those leaping around the fire were fading further into the distance, and after the dizzying whirligig of the dance, the sight of the silent, motionless heavens sent a solitary shiver down my spine.

Then, just as it was at the height of its ferment, the dance stopped. Another girl's gaze may likewise have drifted up into the skies, for she carelessly stumbled on a stone, or someone's leg, and fell on her face, dragging with her all those who failed to relinquish their neighbour's hand in time. I took a tumble myself, and observing the direction of the preceding movement, fell over the dancer on my left, while the one on my right plunged onto me in turn. As my face pressed against his neck, I felt the fresh, clean scent of his young skin. He told Dorkó no lie, I thought to myself, when he said he had taken a dip in some hilly stream...

At long last, after much howling, rollicking, and mirth, we got back up on our feet, and all joined hands for another dance, only for this to come to a halt once more, this time for good. When the circle closed ranks again, one girl ventured too close to the beast, lying there in wait, and the flames snapped, angrily, at her dress. The poor child wrenched her hands away from those on either side of her, and began to run into the black of the night; wailing in fear, she tried madly to tear the burning clothes off her body, but to no avail. A number of people rushed after her, imploring her to stop, but the wretched, helpless creature had no idea what they wanted from her, and merely hurried on, her dress ablaze, screaming. At long last someone caught up with her, threw some cloak or mantle over her shoulders, and pinned her to the ground - no easy task, for the miserable lass, wriggling frantically, was thrashing her hands about in the air - and trundled her through the grass until, still smouldering, her clothes' flames were finally quenched. I saw the way the blackened girl stood there, her face singed with soot, her clothes scorched to rags, her trembling hands hopelessly trying to lift a flask of water, volunteered her by a bystander, to her lips. At that moment I felt the hand I had unwittingly clasped throughout the whole gruesome performance gently begin to tug mine forward; dutifully I made my way past the glare of the fire, toward the forest, at the stranger's side.

We all know that from time to time our memory deceives us, offering us pictures formed by our imagination as if they were from its own inventory; these scenes are sometimes so clear, so vivid, as to have been fashioned not from the substance of illusion, but wholly from that of reality. Our task is all the more arduous if it is our feelings that we strive to recollect: the most excruciating pain, the most exhilarating pleasure, leave behind nothing more in our minds than names, ashes, dust. I closed my eyes, and, buffeted by the wind, the fire wall I had fled in so many a dream seemed to catch up and collapse on me; it was then I realised, in wonder, that this inferno was the source not of anguish, but of the most overwhelming bliss. Its flames seemed to melt the impenetrable outer hulk of my soul, so that its twin, this other blaze lurking inside me, thus liberated, might fly about at will in the outside world, hunting its relatives in the pastures, the forests and spinneys, among the parasites of the Earth, and the stars in the heavens. That I might at once be all of these: parasite, pasture, spinney, star. That I might no longer be anyone at all. I opened my eyes, and saw that the dark of the pine branches had not yet broken away from the black of the sky. Once, as I looked up, a shooting star sprinted across the heavens, blazing a trail in its wake, only to vanish behind the tops of the trees: now is that how it really happened, or did I just imagine it? And did it really come to pass that one time, not far from where I was lying, the grass quivered, and a great snake hauled its thick, ringed body alongside me, so close that my upper arm shuddered from the touch of its cold, flaky skin? Was I only dreaming that the hand, which only a moment before had been stroking the nape of my neck, stretched out into the thick of the dark grass, grasped the snake and flung it far into the undergrowth?

Some time later, I looked up to see a glimmer of grey filtering through the pine's ebon branches, and presently I heard the sound of birds twittering and girls clamouring to one another. I thought I recognised Dorkó's voice among them, calling out for me. A moment afterward, as I stepped out from among the trees, I laid my eyes on her, standing by the half-smothered fire, dusting the needles and blades of dry grass off her skirt; she lifted her cupped hands to her mouth and called out to me again. I ran up and embraced her, without saying a word, but she slipped her arms out of mine: kneeling down on the ground, she was looking for something. When she straightened herself up again, she had a good-sized branch in her hands, and proceeded to push its bulkier end into the dying embers.

'We almost forgot!' she said. 'This is for killing the caterpillars in the cabbage garden,' she added in explanation, on seeing the vacant look on my face. When the end of the branch began to glow, she pulled it out of the heat, lifting it high into the air with her right hand. She then tucked her left arm into mine, and it was by the faint red luminance of this torch that we set off for home in the grey aurora of dawn. We descended the hill, rejoining the narrow track that ran between the fields and the forest. Clinging to one another to help sustain ourselves in the early morning cold, we had walked a good distance when we saw that beyond the trees, as if it were the sibling of our blight, the sky smouldered a blood red, as its embers kindled into a flame, a flame which, in the east, was gradually spreading. By the time we turned into the wider cart-road leading to the village, the murky grey of the sky had turned to a faint blue, and everything I laid my eyes on - the cart tracks in the dirt road, the prickly green spikes of the wild oats beside the ditch, the little grey hooks of the dandelion's orb, clutching each other and fluttering in the wind, the silvery, meandering traces of the snails' night-time travels on big, frilly leaves - was as clearly and brightly defined in the early morning light as if the finest of chisels had etched it into some translucent copper plate. And while my upper arm was still pimply in the matinal chill, on my back I began to feel the soft warmth of the newly-risen, callow sun.

Translated by David Robert Evans

Tags: Zsuzsa Rakovszky