11. 17. 2005. 02:42

The White King (Excerpt)

György Dragomán

"And that is when I knew for sure what she was thinking: Father had died, he’d wasted away once and for all at one of the labour camps along that faraway canal that hooked up with the Danube, the Danube Canal, it was called."


We hadn’t received a bit of news about my father in eight months, nor had any more letters arrived, not even the sort of pre-written postcard from the camp on which he used to let us know that he was fine and proud of overachieving the benchmark every day. No, we didn’t know a thing about him, and it was in vain that I asked Mother why Father wasn’t writing to us; she didn’t so much as reply. But then, on Saturday, when the mailbox turned up empty once again, her face grew tense, and as we then trudged up the stairwell she broke out in a sudden fit of coughing so violent that she had to grab on to the railing. From the way her shoulders shook and how she leaned forward out of my view, I knew she wasn’t really coughing but crying; that she was pretending to cough only because she didn’t want me to notice the tears, because she didn’t want to get me all scared. And that is when I knew for sure what she was thinking: Father had died, he’d wasted away once and for all at one of the labour camps along that faraway canal that hooked up with the Danube, the Danube Canal, it was called. But I knew for sure this couldn’t be, because if Father had met with some trouble I surely would have sensed it, if at no other time, then in the morning on my way to school as I studied his picture, the picture I’d taken out of his soldier’s ID booklet; for in looking at his image I always felt sure that Father was thinking of me there by the Danube Canal, and in no small part because, when they took him away, he promised that one day he’d return and take me with him to the sea. Anyway, although I noticed Mother crying I pretended not to have seen a thing, indeed I slapped her on the back a couple times, as if I really believed that she was only coughing. By the time we reached the fourth floor she wasn’t even crying anymore, no, she took out a handkerchief and wiped her face, said something had gone down her throat the wrong way, but all was now well. And I said, okay, but be careful, huh, I mean your eyes were full of tears from all that coughing, besides, your mascara smudged, so you should give that a wipe, too. She nodded, do be a good boy now and go on into your room, she said, do a bit of reading or check out your homework, go on now, don’t try weaseling out of it, she added, even though I hadn’t the slightest intention of putting up a fight, not the slightest, I swear. What in fact I wanted most, just then, was to see if the lead soldier I got in school would really match the armour I hammered out of the tin sheet I’d found in the garbage dump the week before; I mean, I really wanted them to be a good match, for I alone had no bona fide commander for the war game us boys played in the stairwell. Feri’s commander had been cast from lead specially by his father, who even helped him paint it, but I had no one to help me. Mother didn’t know a thing about all this; when the wheat field behind the block of high rises burned down on account of this war game, she forbade me to play any violent games, which is why I now went into my room without a word, just like she told me, I even put my math notebook and my math textbook on the desk, so if she were to open the door she’d see that indeed I was studying away, just like she told me.

But the door remained open a notch; enough, so I could hear Mother go into her room, come out again, and then open the door to the kitchen. The cupboard door now creaked just so, and I figured she must have removed a glass; indeed, I then heard her turn the faucet and let the water run so it would be nice and cold, then she drank in no particular hurry and finished by splashing what was left into the sink. Next she pulled a kitchen chair out from under the table and sat down. Meantime I crouched down warily by the desk and, quiet as can be, pulled out the bottom drawer and put it on the rug; for it was under that drawer where I kept those things I didn’t want Mother to know about. There was the old army medal I’d gotten from Grandfather after he taught me one time how to hunt cats; the tin whose top I’d blow clear off by burying the tin outside, sticking in a piece of carbide which I’d then spit on to get it fizzing, and reattaching the top as the gas formed inside; my sling shot, which turned stones into serious ammo; my tomahawk; all my lead soldiers; the spent bullets we’d dug out of the slate by the brick factory; and, wrapped in a rag, the armour. I removed the armour quickly, rag and all. Not a sound came from the kitchen meanwhile. What was Mother up to? It’s not like she ever came spying after me, but I didn’t want her to discover this secret hiding place, either. And so I slid that drawer back in just as carefully as I’d pulled it out. Then I stood up, sat down by the desk, and put my colour pencil and my ruler by the notebook, as if I was really doing my homework. Only then did I take the lead soldier out of my pocket and began to unwrap the armour.

Suddenly the kitchen chair gave a creak. Surely Mother has stood up, I figured, yes, in a split second she’ll come in here and see what I’m up to. In one flitting movement I slipped the lead soldier between my thighs, picked up the pencil, and began to write HOMEWORK at the top of the page in my notebook. That is when I heard Mother break out sobbing. It lasted a moment only, though. She must have put a hand to her mouth; for, like that, all was quiet once again. But even through that silence I could hear Mother crying. I gripped the pencil so tight my finger hurt. Try as I did not to think about Mother, I saw her before me all the same: how she sat there at the kitchen table leaning on an elbow and pressing both hands tight against her mouth, tears streaming down her face. Shutting my eyes wouldn’t do any good, I knew, for even then I wouldn’t be able to shake the image before me; nor would it do any good going out there to the kitchen and telling her not to cry, that would only make her yell at me. Besides, at night she would cry again for sure. The best thing would be if she didn’t even realise I’d heard her. Fat chance: no way could she bear it, sure as hell she’d break out sobbing again, then she’d be angry with me for having heard, though it’s not like I could help hearing it, could I now? She’d yell at me, no doubt. And so I thought it best to put the lead soldiers back in the drawer; for Mother would come by and there’d be a big scene, that was for sure. Easy to say, hard to do: I mean, I really was dying of curiosity, was I ever itching to know whether the armour would fit this new soldier! In no time I began peeling away the rag; warily, mind you, with my left hand only, yes, without so much as removing it from between my thighs. The pencil was there all the while in my right hand, as if I was doing my homework, but meantime I continued unwrapping that oily rag from around the soldier. Quite suddenly Mother now really broke out sobbing, louder and more suddenly than ever before. This made me so scared my hand jerked, pressing the pencil so hard against the paper that its tip broke. Now I heard Mother shove the chair back, stand up, and start cursing: goddamn it, she said, god damn this whole goddamned life.
Then, a clattering noise: Mother had flung the glass to the floor. Only then did I really get scared, real scared; Mother had never before flung anything to the floor, no, she’d never broken a thing, why she’d never even slammed the door, not even when she and Father had had their biggest fights. Mother now slammed the kitchen door so hard that the ornamental plates rattled audibly on the wall above the door. She stepped into the hall by the door and stopped by the little telephone stand, yes, I heard her take some deep breaths before quite suddenly snatching up the receiver and starting to dial; dialling so fast that before the spring had a chance to pull back the dial she was already wrenching the dial back the other way with her finger. And so the whole telephone kept clicking over and over again, this way and that. Then came a deafening silence. Not a peep out of Mother, not even a snuffle. I swear I could almost hear the telephone ringing at the other end, again and again. Then someone must have picked it up, for Mother shouted hello into the receiver maybe three times, hello hello hello. Then she said, if you’ve picked it up already you should say something, how dare you not say a word when I can hear you snuffling at the other end, so what’s it gonna be, say something already, don’t you recognise the voice of your own daughter-in-law? Her voice grew louder and louder, and the telephone stand began to creak as Mother nudged it with a knee. All this told me that she really was worried about Father; surely she wouldn’t have rung up my grandparents otherwise, seeing as how they refused to talk to her, especially since Father had been taken away. They blamed Mother for the whole mess. Father would never have signed that open letter of protest on his own, they insisted, he did it only because she had goaded him into it. Mother now fell silent; even the telephone stand stopped creaking. Her next words were quiet ones, to be sure, but she delivered them in that razor-sharp, dry tone of voice she uses when she’s mad as hell: all right then, she said, but I too might have a goddamn bone to pick here. You know, Comrade Party Secretary, you’d do well to be concerned not about your own honour but your son’s life. As soon as Mother had said this, she fell silent; for a moment, it was a deafening silence once again. But finally I opened up the suit of armour and tried slipping it onto the lead soldier, an unpainted, pitiful looking Swiss guardsman—a guardsman without even a halberd. But the armour was too big, there was just no way of clasping it on.

And then out there Mother spoke again, yes, she said, this is what she was talking about, what did my grandfather think, what the hell else could they still talk about, of course it’s this, meanwhile I was looking at the lead soldier, Feri had sold it to me because the casting had been botched, flattening the upper part. Figuring this wouldn’t be noticeable, anyway, under the armour, I thought it was a good buy. But now I knew: my failed attempt at fitting the armour onto the guardsman meant that this sorry-looking lead figure would be of no use to me, either. Meanwhile the telephone stand began to creak again, Mother must have leaned back against it, and now she put it loud and clear: Don’t go lying to me. I know full well you have contacts, you’ve been a party secretary for long enough so that more than a few folks owe you a couple favours, so come on, just spit out the name of someone who can help. Then she fell silent for a while; a silence she broke with a deep sudden breath, a breath she slurped like water. And she spoke as loud as could be into the phone, she told my grandfather that she wasn’t about to wait, is that understood, I’m not about to wait, let it be now or never, is that understood, now or never, and by the time Mother said this she was shouting, I mean she was really, positively shouting. She was about to slam down the receiver, I knew. Indeed, at that very moment she did slam it down, with such force that the telephone resonated with a deafening roar of silence. Enough is enough, she screamed, I don’t give a damn, the time has come for the old prick to do something already for his son.
Mother took off toward my room only to stop after two steps, and I hastily covered the soldier and the armour with my math book. She now flung something soft to the floor, at first I couldn’t figure out what it was, but then I heard her pulling the zipper down on her skirt, and she gave a hissing curse: her skirt was caught up in her foot, she’d tried pulling it off so fast. By now I knew it was her blouse that she’d flung to the floor. Mother began to hop—on one leg, it seemed—toward my room, shouting for me to go help, because her pantyhose was about to rip. I opened the door. There stood Mother in her bra, just as I figured, and she was indeed standing on one leg; her skirt and her pantyhose were pulled halfway down the leg she was holding in the air. No sooner had I approached than Mother told me to hold her side to keep her from falling. Standing there beside her, I put an arm around her and saw that her face was all in tears. She bent her head down and began, carefully, to pull down her pantyhose. While holding her like that, I could feel her heart beating really fast. This brought my grandfather to mind. I would have liked to know what he’d told Mother, but I wasn’t about to ask. Next, Mother stepped out of her skirt and pantyhose with her other leg, too, and I let her go. She stood there beside me, in nothing but her panties and bra. Before then, I’d seen her like that, uncovered I mean, only when we went swimming. I didn’t want to pass my eyes over her as she stood there like that, but what choice did I have?
But Mother turned the other way, then picked up her skirt and used it to wipe her face. She told me to be a good boy and go into my room and put on my Sunday best; for we were about to go somewhere. What I wanted to say was that I wasn’t about to put on that despicable knitted vest, but Mother had meanwhile set her skirt aside and looked at me in that way of hers that was quite enough to make me keep my mouth shut. I turned and went to the closet to fetch my Sunday best. I didn’t even ask where we were going.

Mother now got on her smartest red suit-coat and matching skirt, together with pin-heeled shoes I’d never seen on her before. She even stumbled as we headed down the stairs and had to grab hold of the railing; this happened just as I was about to ask if we were now off somewhere to sort things out so Father would be allowed to come home, or only to find out exactly what happened to him. But I hadn’t even opened my mouth to speak when Mother told me to keep quiet, for she needed a little bit of silence to gather her thoughts. Not only did I keep my mouth shut but I even tried not bothering to figure out where we were headed. Instead I occupied myself by counting steps: when we reached a bend in the stairs, I always made a bet with myself about how many steps it would be to the next bend, but since we kept zigzagging, since we always turned before I was done counting, figuring this out in advance wasn’t as easy as it seemed. By the time we arrived at that brand new block of high-rise apartment buildings which had been built on the edge of the city, I’d long stopped counting steps; the streets were all so much the same, I had no idea which was which.

We entered several massive concrete high-rise blocks, each with more than one building and stairwell, and at the foot of every stairwell Mother would scan the names on the adjoining metal post-boxes lining the wall. But invariably we would go back out. Mother looked increasingly anxious. We’re lost for sure, I figured, or else we can’t find the right building. But I didn’t say a thing; for I knew I couldn’t help, anyway. When we entered what must have been at least the fourth stairwell Mother presumably found what she was looking for: she stopped in front of an unusually large post-box, looked intently at the name tag, nodded, then took her pocket mirror and lipstick out of her purse. There, at the foot of the stairwell, she applied her lipstick. After putting away the lipstick and the mirror she adjusted my shirt, my tie, and my vest; she licked her palm and used it to pat down my hair. Then she announced that we would now go up to the fourth floor, to Comrade Ambassador. I should behave myself, speak only when asked and reply politely, and I shouldn’t be scared; for, as I would see, nothing would go wrong. At this I nodded and said, okay, I’ll do my best to behave. But on reaching the first floor, I couldn’t help but ask if it was true that we had come to help Father. No, Mother replied, she for one was here because she was in a jolly good mood. She licked her lips and told me not to say a thing.

Once we arrived on the fourth floor, I was amazed to see that only one door opened from the stairwell—not four doors, as on all the other floors—and that the cement floor was covered with a great big rag carpet; even the landing seemed practically like a hallway. Mother appeared not at all surprised, however; she went straight to the door, looked at the brass name-tablet, and pressed the doorbell hard. From the way she now took my hand and squeezed it tight, it seemed she wanted to say something. But at that moment, the door opened.

On the threshold stood a tall, grey-haired man in a light brown suit that made his face seem even paler than it was. Mother spoke at once, asking his forgiveness, I don’t want to disturb Comrade Ambassador, she said, but who else can I turn to? A couple minutes of your valuable time, that’s all I want. The ambassador passed his cold, grey eyes over Mother before finally breaking into a smile. Only then did he speak. Well well, my lady, you are lovelier than ever, you’ve become at least ten years younger since I saw you last. As he spoke I couldn’t help but notice that more than a few of his front teeth were gold. Next he looked at me, and although he was still smiling, his eyes now sparkled harshly indeed. And you, my boy, who might you be? I didn’t say a thing. Mother squeezed my hand. She told me to be a good boy and tell Comrade Ambassador my name, as if I were a five-year-old child. I said my name. Comrade Ambassador nodded and said, splendid, splendid, so your name is the same as your grandfather’s, is it? And you resemble him, too, indeed you resemble him much more than you do your own father. Although I kept my mouth shut, I thought: your mother’s cunt I do, Mr. Ambassador, I do too look like my father, not my grandfather. The ambassador now looked again at Mother, and asked what he could thank for her unexpected visit. Mother adjusted the brooch on her suit-coat and said that perhaps the stairwell wasn’t quite the place to discuss this. The ambassador nodded, excuse me, he said, I don’t even understand how I could have been so rude, naturally it would be better if we were to step inside. Mother told me to wipe my feet like a good boy, upon which we went in and the ambassador shut the door behind us. Go right ahead, he said, straight ahead. The dead bolt clicked twice behind us, and he said, please, please, do go ahead. We entered a big room, and what I saw really did surprise me: the room was a veritable museum. The walls were covered with a whole bunch of animal trophies. Hanging there, all over the place, one beside the other, in various shapes and sizes, were the mounted heads of antelopes, buffaloes, black bears, leopards, and jackals. One corner featured a huge hippopotamus with a gaping mouth; and opposite the entrance, on the middle of the wall above the fireplace, was a huge lion, looking pretty ferocious with its mane standing on end. Two large rhinoceroses towered on a black wooden board beside the lion; and colourful shields and spears and yellowed bone swords filled out the space between the trophies. This is not to mention a large photograph, in a thick golden frame, of a bespectacled black man: only his head was visible, his head and his shoulders, that is. He wore a military uniform with gold stripes and a little leopard-skin cap. He looked pretty darn good, he did. Still, I figured, his head must be all full of sweat in that awful heat plus being under the leopard skin and all. And as I turned around to look about some more, I heard Mother say, Comrade Ambassador, this is simply amazing, both the folklore museum and the natural history museum would have reason to envy this unparalleled wealth. The ambassador broke into another smile and said, oh come now, this is just a humble little collection. Four apartments had to be made into one to fit all of it, and even so, there was room only for a fraction of the entire collection. But of course this is something, too. Next he gestured toward the leather armchairs around the little glass table in the middle of the room. Please do sit down, he said. Once we’d taken our seats, he asked if he could get us something. Mother replied, oh please don’t bother. But the ambassador had already left the room. A couple minutes later he returned with a silver tray. On this silver tray were some crystal shot glasses and a four-sided bottle. The ambassador placed the tray on the little table and sat down. While pouring a glass for Mother and one for himself, he explained that what he was pouring was luscious, homemade cherry liqueur. Without so much as a toast he downed his glass at once. Only afterward did he say, to our health, and then Mother drank her own glass of liqueur, and the ambassador promptly refilled both her glass and his, and again he downed his own glassful at once. Then he didn’t refill, but instead sat back in his armchair and just stared at us without a word. I looked at Mother, and from the way she held her shot glass with both hands I could tell she was awfully nervous. It was so terribly quiet that I just had to speak. And so I looked at the ambassador and asked, so where were you an ambassador, Comrade Ambassador? He gestured toward the wall, toward the trophies, the shields and the spears, the swords of bone. In Africa, he said. I didn’t reply. I only looked down and saw that he wasn’t kidding: the carpet was made of a whole bunch of zebra skins all sewn together. Then I looked up again at the ambassador and asked, but Comrade Ambassador, where in Africa, to which the ambassador said, every which way, but mostly in the heart of Africa, right in the middle of the darkest, blackest Africa. So what do you say, boy, which country might that have been? And I replied at once, Zaire. The ambassador smiled and nodded, very well done, he said, I’m quite pleased with you, for you evidently know your geography well, you deserve a bit of cherry liqueur, too, you certainly do, you’re already a big boy, after all. He lifted the third crystal shot glass, filled it with the red liqueur, and pressed the tiny glass into my hand. Go ahead, boy, drink up, to your health. Accepting the glass, I looked up to see Mother nod. I took a well-mannered sip. Dreadfully sweet though it was, the liqueur stung and warmed my throat all the way down. The ambassador now poured a bit more for himself, again downed it at once, then he put his glass back on the tray. He looked squarely at Mother. How’s your husband, anyway? Mother downed her glassful of liqueur, crossed her legs, and said, why, that’s just why I’m here, this is exactly what I myself would like to know, seeing as how we haven’t had any news of him for eight months now. As awfully worried as I am, I’m certain that, what with your exceptional contacts, Comrade Ambassador, you can surely sort out in a couple of minutes what has become of him.

The ambassador nodded before downing his third glass of cherry liqueur. Fixing his eyes again on Mother, he asked, Now what makes you think such a thing? Don’t be so humble, Comrade Ambassador, came Mother’s reply, I know quite well just how important a position you still command, what with your past and your achievements. Sorting this out would really be nothing much for you, Comrade Ambassador, surely you could resolve much more serious matters if you wanted. To this the ambassador again nodded. Yes, my opportunities are indeed fairly broad, aren’t they? I suppose I do have what it takes to sort out a good many problems if I want to. But wouldn’t it be best to discuss the details in private? While saying this he fixed his eyes on me. Now be a good boy and go to the other room, you’ll find all sorts of neat stuff in there, a good many games, for example. Come to think of it, perhaps it would be best if I were to take you there, the apartment is pretty big, after all, and I wouldn’t want you getting lost, the way I got lost in the jungle way back when, that wouldn’t be good, not good at all. Once he’d finished saying this, Mother stood up half way and said, you shouldn’t trouble yourself, Comrade Ambassador, there’s really no need for this, he’s a smart, big boy, he won’t be a nuisance. To this he replied, I know children like the back of my hand, and I know that to them there’s nothing more boring, more unbearable than having to listen to adults discuss things. I really can’t expect the young lad to put up with this when I know full well that boys his age would rather spend all day playing football or chasing girls. He stepped over to me, pressed clawlike fingers into my shoulder and jolted me to my feet. Let’s be off, then. Mother didn’t even look at me but just stared down at those crystal shot glasses. From this I understood that it would be better if I went, if I did as I was told. And so I let the ambassador thrust me out into the hallway. Before stepping out the door he turned back, looked at Mother, and asked her to excuse him for a few moments. He’d be right back, he promised. Gesturing toward the bottle, he said, do have yourself a bit more of that luscious cherry liqueur in the meantime, that would be for the best, now, wouldn’t it?

Out in the hallway he again gripped my shoulder, shoving me in front of him at a pretty fast clip, all the way down the hall, then through a smaller room, and out to another hallway. Everywhere the walls were full of bone carvings, animal skins, trophies, and stuffed birds. We passed through at least two more rooms, and I was just about to say, so Comrade Ambassador has three separate toilets, bathrooms, and kitchens? But then the ambassador opened a door and thrust me into yet another hallway. Here, Persian rugs hung one beside the other on one wall and pictures lined the other wall, and as we passed by those pictures I saw that each of them featured the ambassador with black ladies and black little children standing all around him, a whole lot of them, and this surprised me so much that I turned my head toward these pictures and just stared. Anyway, the ambassador surely noticed, for he said, indeed it wasn’t by chance that I claimed to know children, I’ll have you know that those kids there on the wall are all mine. Whereupon I thought to ask, if those children are yours, why are they so black? But before I had a chance to do so we arrived before a door, and the ambassador opened this door and shoved me through. He himself didn’t come in but only stood there on the threshold, from where he told me to be a good boy and wait here for my mother. I shouldn’t touch a thing, though, and above all I shouldn’t try to steal anything, I’d be sorry if I did. And he repeated: I know children well, I know they’re all nothing but shameless little thieves, one shouldn’t trust them for a moment, so you’d better be careful. There, where these objects came from, the custom is to poke thieves’ eyes out. I nodded. The ambassador slammed the door behind him, and as he went down the hall I could hear him still mumbling away about how he knows children well, he knows the filching, thieving sort. Then another door closed behind him, and all was quiet; no longer could I hear even his steps. A cold shiver ran down my spine, and I felt as if someone was watching me.

At first I was so scared I hardly dared move. But on realizing that this could only be because of the trophies, I finally turned. That just made things worse, though, for now I saw that one of the walls, from the ceiling almost to the floor, was plastered with skulls and human heads nailed to wooden boards. On going closer it became apparent that these weren’t real human heads, after all, but chimpanzee, gibbon, and gorilla heads, and that not even the skulls were real. No, each skull consisted of only one or two bona fide bones, with the remainder filled out by plaster of paris. There was a little drawing beside each one, too, a drawing that showed whether the skull at issue had supposedly belonged to an ape or a living human being, how it might have looked as a head, that is, and the Latin name. I didn’t read the inscriptions, though, as that chill down my spine wouldn’t go away. I still had the sense of being watched. And, indeed, on turning back around I saw that there really was someone there - sitting in the opposite corner of the room by a little table, beside a chessboard with the pieces all laid out - and that this someone was in fact watching me.

An old, thin, black gentleman sat there on the far side of that table, from where he kept an eye on me. After my initial fright subsided, I greeted him at once. The old man didn’t return my greeting, but only gestured for me to go closer. Go closer I did. Not a word came from his mouth, he only pointed at the chessboard. Thank you, I said, but I don’t like to play chess. Again he gestured for me to approach, again he pointed at the chessboard. And so I finally did sit down in that chair beside the little table. The chair creaked under me. All at once the black gentleman reached out a hand, clutched the pawn in front of the white king, and pushed it two squares ahead. And then he pushed ahead the pawn in front of his queen, but by one square only. I wanted to say that it would be better if I were white and he were black, for he was the black man, after all, but then I didn’t say it, instead I leapt with both my knights so they ended up sort of beside each other, with two empty spaces between them. My grandfather had taught me this opening move so that one day I might use it to my advantage. No sooner did I let go of the second knight, however, than the black gentleman promptly moved ahead with his bishop on the queen’s side. As he moved his hand something in him creaked, I heard it plain as day. At this I stood up to get a better look at him. Which is when I noticed that it wasn’t a living person I was playing chess with, but a robot. Although in math class we’d learned that even as far back as the middle ages there were such chess-playing automatons, never had I quite believed it. This one here before me was just like a real person, like a very thin, very old, black gentleman. Indeed, he had turned his head as I stood up. But then he looked back at the chessboard. I went up really close to him, looking him over to see how he was made, what was directing his movements, and where his power supply was; I even touched his hand to determine if he was carved of wood. But he wasn’t made of wood. No, he was made of bona fide skin, his hand felt just like a real human hand, except it was much colder. As I touched it some more I felt bones and tendons twitching under the skin, and again I heard that hushed creaking; maybe his joints were creaking as he now pulled away his hands and picked up another one of his pieces, a knight. Only then did I notice just how extraordinary even the chess pieces were: the black ones were carved of ebony and the white ones of ivory, and each one depicted some monster. The white pieces were all skeletons; the black pieces were human-headed demons with animal bodies, every one holding a spear or a sword or a hatchet or a saw-toothed knife in its hand or paw, and the officers wore necklaces and belts strung of skulls and bones and human ears and human hands. Everything was carved to the finest detail?not least the face of the white king, which was a spitting image of the ambassador. That face looked pretty scary, it did. Much of my attention, however, was still caught up trying to unravel the mystery of what made the chess-playing gentleman move. Try as I did to sort it out, even examining his back, nowhere could I see where any sort of cable or driving-belt might have entered his body. He wore a threadbare military uniform and he was barefoot; his feet were made of the same material as his hands; and he looked very thin and very old. Then it occurred to me that perhaps he was moving on his own, perhaps he wasn’t an automaton, after all, but really was alive; or, if he wasn’t alive, that he was moving on account of some African witchcraft. A cold sense of dread came over me, and I couldn’t even move. But then I took a good hard look at his thick, reed chair. All at once I realised that his electric power supply no doubt entered him through the legs of that chair. This, then, was how he operated. Cautiously kicking at the chair, I saw that I was right; the chair didn’t budge. No doubt there was a quiet little electric motor in his belly that was making his joints move through some network of connections, by way of hydraulics and control cables like on a bicycle. Such things were possible these days, after all. Satisfied with this realization, I sat back in my chair and made a move. Just as a test I put him in check with one of my knights, but of course he noticed at once and captured that knight. With a precise, creaking movement he placed the knight on the table beside the board, and one after another he then proceeded to capture my pieces regardless of my moves, responding immediately, thinking not even for a moment. When I offered him my bishop, so that I might then capture his queen, he didn’t take the bait; it seemed he knew precisely what I was up to. As his hand creaked along, something must have heated up inside him, for he began to smell of rancid butter. As he cornered me increasingly, capturing more and more of my pieces, it seemed as if his movements became faster, that he even held his head a bit differently, as if struggling to keep from laughing. And then, when he captured my second bishop, too, and put me in check, I understood that it was all over now regardless of my next move: I was a moment away from being in checkmate.

Looking at the old black automaton’s face, at its dusty, grey-parched skin, I knew that I wasn’t about to let this happen. Just because. Suddenly extending a hand, I snatched the white king off the board. The automaton reached out after my hand, slowly, creaking along, but I was much faster. It emitted a loud murmur and looked at me with eyes that seemed to glisten with rage. This lasted only a second, however. With a wild, creaky swing of the arm it then swept all the chess pieces off the board. As the pieces tumbled here and there across the floor it flung back its head, opened wide its mouth, and broke out laughing. Meanwhile smoke began to pour from both its mouth and nose. I got to my feet so suddenly that my chair fell back, but that white king remained in my hand. The automaton was still cackling away, louder than loud: the walls and even the floor seemed to be trembling. Which is when I realised that it wasn’t the automaton that was laughing, it was Mother.

Yes, I could hear quite clearly that it was Mother: she was laughing louder than loud and shouting, too, even through all the walls and doors I could hear her shouting, Bravo, Comrade Ambassador, splendid, bravo, splendid, magnificent, don’t be afraid, go ahead, feel free to hit me one more time, go ahead and hit me with all your might, go ahead and hit me if you think that by hitting a woman you are more of a man, why then you can go on hitting me till morning, go ahead now, hit me, feel free, and even as she shouted she was laughing all the while. But her laughter was so strident that, I knew, she was also shedding tears. By then I had already opened the door and begun running toward Mother’s laughter, running from one room to the next, down the hallways and through one room after another, every one of which was crammed with objects?with crystal vases, glass fish, porcelain soldiers, shot glasses, and wine glasses that all jingled and jangled from Mother’s resounding laughter. Even the framed maps and photographs and the ivory carvings on the walls were swaying to and fro, and then there were the dried, varnished, shiny tropical fish dangling from copper wires in the aquarium, yes, even they were now quivering, just as if they were swimming; and this is not to mention the copper bracelets and anklets strung onto leather belts above the doors, and those bottles up on the shelves, bottles filled with some golden liquid and affixed with official seals. Every last chandelier was also swinging about. Everything was in motion, as if an earthquake was underway. Afraid that the trophies might tumble off the walls and bury me under them, I ran on, opening one door after another, heading from one room to the next, and just as I was beginning to think that I would never find Mother, I flung open a door, and there I was back in the big room. There was Mother standing on one leg beside one of the leather armchairs, laughing hysterically. The little table was toppled over; the cherry liqueur had spilled all over the zebra skins, oozing among the crystal shot glasses and slivers of glass that also littered the floor; and one of the antelope heads had fallen from the wall. Why, even that great big lion-head was half off the wall; the ambassador stood there underneath it, clutching the lion head with one hand to keep it from plopping into the puddle of cherry liqueur. His other hand was busily trying to put his shirt back on. When he saw me he shouted, so then, finally you’re here, then it’s high time you cleared out of here once and for all, and it’s high time you took along this tart-toed mother of yours! I don’t even know why I let you into the apartment in the first place, when I might have recognized your sort, not even your grandfather was ever worth a piece of flying shit. It would be best to just forget your father ever existed, never in this stinking life will you two ever see him again, because I for one can guarantee that he’ll rot away and die right where he is, by the Danube Canal, no, you two will never see him again. At this my throat froze up so I couldn’t swallow, but Mother went on laughing just like before. What choice did I have but to join in? There was no denying that all this was indeed terribly amusing, the way the ambassador stood there in his tank top under that huge lion-head with its gaping mouth, clutching the lion’s muzzle with one hand, jumping about as he tried to press the trophy back on the wall, meanwhile furiously trying to stick his arm back in his sleeve. It really was impossible to get through this without laughing. Mother now turned to me, however, and I saw that her nose was bleeding and that the mascara had smudged all over her face. Let’s be off, she said, still laughing uncontrollably. I put a hand over her shoulder and we left the room, and the ambassador was left standing there under the lion head and griping away. We could hear him even as I opened the dead bolt by the front door to let Mother out ahead of me. When the door finally slammed shut behind us, and we could no longer hear a thing the ambassador was shouting, Mother, still laughing, told me to give her a hand, for one of her heels had broken off. She put an arm around me, and that is how we went back down those four flights of stairs. Once we reached the bottom she stopped, adjusted her pantyhose with one hand, and as she pressed a handkerchief to her face with her other hand I saw that she was still shaking with laughter. Reaching a hand into my pants pocket, I clenched that white king tight: the cold ivory fit my hand like a kid glove. No one would defeat me ever again in the war game, I knew, because compared to this commander of mine even the most beautifully painted lead soldier is nothing but a cheap little puff of pussy smoke.

Translated by Paul Olchváry

Originally published in Cencrastus (Summer 2005), ed. Zsuzsanna Varga

Tags: György Dragomán