ПРЕЗ ЧУМАВОТО by Yordan Yovkov

ПРЕЗ ЧУМАВОТО by Yordan Yovkov

“Божием попущением тое лeто
удари една чума напрасно, и запали вся земя,
в касабитe, и селата. Не оста чисто ни едно село,
грeх ради наших!”

Стар летопис

Чу се, че в долните села, далеч не повече от един ден път, дошла чумата и хората там мрели толкоз много, че не сварвали да ги погребват. Тая страшна вест изплаши всички и, както ставаше и при друга напаст – когато се зададяха кърджалии или се повдигаше сефер и война, – мъжете се насъбраха на Черковното кафене, а жените по протките и се заловиха да тълкуват новината. И тъй като опасността беше еднаква за всички, примирението лесно идеше и в тая задушевност мнозина дори можеха да се шегуват и смеят. Но вечерта, когато всеки се прибра у дома си и остана сам, призракът на смъртта отново се изправи, неумолим и страшен. На другия ден всеки мислеше съседа си за молепсан от чума, затваряше се в къщата си и здраво залостяше вратите. Спотаиха се всички и само чакаха да чукне клепалото за умряло или да се вдигне плач в някоя къща.

А и самото време беше нездраво, задушно. Въздухът, отровен от тежките миазми на лешове и нечистотии, беше замрежен от прах. Същият тоя прах покриваше къщи, дървета и улици, тъй че всичко беше потъмняло и сиво, каквато беше и изсъхналата земя. Месеци наред не беше капнало капка дъжд. Горите насреща в планината горяха. Денем там се виждаше само дим, но вечер върху тъмните плещи на Балкана пламваше огнената линия на пожарите, сключена в огромен кръг, който все повече растеше.

Всички тия неща, твърде обикновени във всяко друго време, сега добиваха смисъла на знамения. Страх подкосяваше силите, помътваше разума. Страшната болест дебнеше отвсякъде и всеки гледаше да си помогне сам, както знаеше и както беше чувал. Чесънът стана скъпо и рядко лекарство. Не забравиха и силата на магиите: пред много протки увиснаха чудновати китки, в които имаше сух босилек, червена нишка и крило от прилеп или кълка от жаба. Из гиризите протекоха разноцветни води, в които се виждаха остатъци от варени билки. Някой се досети и запали в двора си огън от говежди тор. Скоро такива огньове пламнаха във всяка къща. Гъст миризлив дим изпълни селото, смеси се с дима от пожарите на Балкана и замъгли цялата околност. Не подухваше и най-слабият вятър. Тишината стана още по-дълбока и по-страшна.

Минаха тъй няколко деня. Никой не умря, чумата не беше дошла, може би и нямаше да дойде. Хората позабравиха предпазванията си, взеха да си приказват най-напред през плетищата, после по комшулуците и най-сетне излязоха и по улиците. Но никое зло не иде само. През тия няколко дни във всяка къща усетиха нужда от много неща. Брашното се привършваше и друга не по-малка опасност показваше вече страшното си лице – гладът.

Жените се вайкаха и плачеха пред мъжете, мъжете се срещаха край плетищата, разменяха по някоя дума и гледаха в земята. Утре селото щеше да пламне от страшната болест, какво ще правят? Да бягат в Балкана ? Но всеки имаше на главата си по пет-шест гърла и трябваше да се мисли за най-главното – за хляба. Трябваше един умен, един сърцат човек, който да каже какво да се прави и да поведе селото. Името на хаджи Драгана започна да се шепне по-често. Той беше човекът, който можеше да спаси селото. Първо това си го казаха помежду най-близките съседи, после премина от махала на махала и не след много време четирма старци, избрани от цялото село, отиваха вече към къщата на хаджи Драгана. Отиваха да му кажат, че съдбата на селото е в неговите ръце.

Из пътя старците позабравиха за чумата и мислеха как ще влязат в къщата на хаджи Драгана. Сприхав и начасничев човек беше хаджият, понякога ще те посрещне тъй, че не знае къде да те тури, а понякога ще те нахока и ще те изпъди. И когато старците стигнаха пред тежките, обковани с желязо порти на хаджи Драгановата къща и дядо Нейко, муфтарят, почука на мандалото, всички други сложиха ръце на патериците си и потопиха очи в земята. За голямо учудване, тоя път, щом казаха на хаджи Драгана кои са и защо идат, той на часа каза да ги пуснат.

И дворът на хаджи Драгана се стори на старците не такъв, какъвто го знаеха. Аргатинът, който вървеше пред тях, като че стъпяше на пръсти, очите му гледаха плахо. Никой от многобройната челяд на хаджият не се виждаше из двора, големите анадолски кучета не се и помръднаха на синджирите си. Но през оградата на градината заничаха вейки с жълти едри дюли и старците си помислиха, че ако те изглеждат тъй хубави, то е затуй, защото утре не ще има ръце, които да ги откъснат. Когато стигнаха под асмата и повдигнаха очи, там нямаше толкова листи, колкото грозде. И тия черни, набити гроздове им се сториха също тъй прокоба на напаст.

Намериха хаджият горе в стаята, седнал по турски на минсофата, с чибук в ръка, а други пет-шест празни чибука бяха наредени на стената зад него. Отпреде му на червения килим беше сложен филджан с кафе, в слънчевия сноп, който влизаше през прозореца, плуваше на тънки ивици тютюнев дим. Изути по лапчуни, старците безшумно минаха и насядаха по възглавниците. Скъп беше на приказки хаджи Драган и направо ги попита какво ги носи при него.

Мъдро, отмерено и бавно, дядо Нейко започна да говори най-напред за чумата, за страха на селото, после за немотията и тъкмо щеше да започне да приказва за глада, влезе Тиха, дъщерята на хаджи Драгана. Тя донесе кафе за всички. Отдъхнаха си старците, като видяха поне една весела душа в селото. Очите на Тиха, продълговати и черни като сливи, пак тъй дяволито си светеха, косите й бяха гладко прибрани на път, страните й пресни като праскова. Тя не се стърпя да не се закачи и сега и като подаваше кафето на старците, успя да им пришепне, без да я чуе баща й, че й е чудно как чумата не е взела още такива стари хора като тях.

– Да пази бог, чедо – каза дядо Нейко, – то като дойде, не гледа старо, младо…

– Не – засмя се пак Тиха, – стари кожи й трябвали сега, старите щяла да мори.

Докато хаджият разбере за какво приказват, Тиха излезе. Поизкашля се дядо Нейко, едно, да скрие шегата на момичето, друго, за да се приготви, и пак почна думата си. Отново приказва за чумата, после за глада, после пак за чумата. Най-после той свърши и рече:

– Селото на тебе гледа, хаджи. Ти баща, ти майка…

В тая решителна минута старците наведоха очи и чакаха да чуят какво щеше да каже хаджи Драган. Изведнъж весел, гърлест смях екна в стаята: смееше се хаджи Драган. Старците учудено го гледаха. Едър човек беше хаджият и както беше се дръпнал назад и се смееше, цялото му тяло се тресеше, а лицето му беше се наляло с кръв.

– Та затуй ли сте дошли при мене? – гръмна дебелият му глас. – Ами че аз… Ха-ха-ха! Аз сватба ще захващам днес, а вий за умиране приказвате.

– Какво думаш, хаджи – рече дядо Нейко, – може ли?

– Защо да не може? Женя Тиха, ви казах. Останало ми е едно момиче, ще оженя и него.

– Бива ли, хаджи? Хората мрат…

– Кой мре? Къде мрат? Какво ми дрънкате вие мене! Никаква чума няма, ви казвам аз. Ако мрат някои, мрат от страх. Така е – уплаши ли се човек, поиска ли да умре, ще умре. Не ми е изпила кукувица ума мене; ако имаше чума, залавях ли сватба!

Старците трепнаха. Надеждата, която всеки таеше в себе си, се пробуди и те й повярваха.

– Право казва хаджият – казаха си те. – Не ще да е чума, страх ще е…

Не отстъпваше само дядо Нейко:

– А глада? Брашно няма вече у никого.

Хаджи Драган махна с чибука си.

– Хамбарите ми са пълни. Има за цяло село. Ще дам на всички. Не ще им го дам току-тъй, ще ми го платят, когато имат, но ще им дам. А сватбата ще си направим.

Когато по-късно Тиха влезе и за трети или четвърти път внесе пълно бакърче с вино, от старото, червено вино на хаджият, тя завари старците, че приказват всички в един глас, весели и пийнали. И тя шеташе между тях, усмихваше се и по-смело им подхвърляше шегите си.

– Вий приживе помана ли си правите – казваше им тя.

А старците клатеха глава, смееха се и в сладкото опиянение на виното, което сякаш ги люлееше на люлки и ги караше да забравят възрастта си, тая черноока мома им се виждаше такава палава, такава хубава!

*

А след обяд стана тъй, както беше казал хаджи Драган: сватбата започна. Сред мъртвилото, което досега цареше в селото, и сред гъстия дим на огньовете изведнъж се зачуха гайди, загърмяха тъпани. По протките и по мегданите се насъбраха жени. Какво е туй? Луди хора ли има в селото? А когато разбраха, че хаджи Драган жени дъщеря си Тиха, същото казаха и за него: “Луд ли е? В такова време!” Но колкото и да осъждаха хаджи Драгана, ударите на тъпаните ги ободряваха, развеселяваха се, без да щат, радваха се и най-после свършиха с туй, че сами признаха, че хаджи Драган постъпва много добре. Хаджи Драган знае какво прави. Остана само една загадка: защо хаджи Драган женеше Тиха за същия тоя момък, чиито сватовници беше върнал преди месец? Тогава бяха помислили, че Тиха иска да чака Величка Дочкин, с когото се бяха искали и който от три години беше на печала. Какво беше станало сега – Тиха ли се беше отказала от Величка, или хаджи Драган беше се раздумал?

Ето за кое се приказваше по протките и по мегданите. А в това време дядо Нейко слизаше от единия край на селото към другия. Защо хаджи Драган даваше дъщеря си на Люцкановия син, добър и имотен момък, а не чакал да се върне синът на Дочка вдовицата, гол като хурка – това не го занимаваше. Хаджи Драган знаеше какво прави. Важното за дяда Нейка беше, че хамбарите на хаджи Драгана се отварят за селото и каквото и да става, глад няма да има. Това той разправяше на жените, покрай които минаваше, и завършваше:

– Чума няма. Ако имаше чума, луд ли е хаджи Драган да започва сватба?

И той казваше това не само да ободрява другите, а сам вярваше в него. И весел, важен като всеки муфтар и малко с помътена глава от старото вино на хаджи Драгана, дядо Нейко продължаваше пътя си. Той гледаше да стигне до долния край на селото, защото там беше си нарочил най-главната работа. Знаеше, че докато мало и голямо се чудеше где да се дене от страх, тук, в долната махала, дрипави нехранимайковци се събираха по механите и казваха: “Нас чума не ни хваща. Чумата е за чорбаджиите. Ние ще ги мъкнем на гробищата.” Сега дядо Нейко ги свари в механата, че държат чашите си, слушат тъпаните и се гледат като замаяни. “Какво е?” – питат се. “Какво е – отговаря дядо Нейко, – сватба.” И си излиза, като ги оставя да се гледат един други в очите и да се чудят.

Когато дядо Нейко се върна у хаджи Драганови, на двора под асмата, под черните гроздове, играеше голямо хоро. Играеха като луди, потънали в пот, като че бяха къпани. Нямаше врагове вече хаджи Драган, в двора му беше се събрало цяло село. Който беше на хорото, играеше, който не – отиваше при хамбарите и подлагаше чувалчето си: Вълко, кехаята на хаджи Драгана, сипеше жито като злато и бележеше с ножа си по рабошите. Дядо Нейко беше доволен.

Така вървя тая небивала сватба цяла неделя. Съмнеше ли се, всеки тичаше към хаджи Драганови. Развеселяваха се един други, играеха до премаляване. Но имаше нещо болно в това веселие. Пиеха вино, за да приспят грижите си, смееха се, за да прикрият страха си. И гледаха се плахо един други и всеки мислеше, че някой знае нещо лошо и не го казва. А вечер пожарите светеха на Балкана. Щом се приберяха у дома си, същите тия хора, които бяха се веселили на сватбата, сега заключваха вратите си и плахо се ослушваха. Залъците се спираха на гърлото им. Когато заспиваха, душеше ги тежка мора. И при слабия блясък на кандилата лицата им изглеждаха бледи и измъчени като на мъртъвци.

Дворът на хаджи Драгана беше пълен с хора. Чакаха да изведат булката. Но тъкмо в това време се случи нещо, което внесе голям смут сред сватбарите: откъм север, над кориите, се показаха орли. Гледаха ги всички. Много орли. Опънали широки криле и сякаш не хвърчат, а се плъзгат, като че ги носи вятър. Къде можеха да отидат тия орли, ако не там, гдето има мърша, гдето има леш. Отиваха право към долните села, а там беше чумата, там мряха хора. Никой не каза това, но всеки си го помисли.

– Какво сте се зазяпали? – екна силният глас на хаджи Драгана. – Я свирете! – викна той на слисаните гайдарджии. – Чорбаджийско хоро искам. Тежко. Хайде, захващайте.

И гайдарджиите, на челата на които светна по една жълтица, залепена от хаджи Драгана, надуха гайдите. И хорото се залюля от единия край на двора до другия. Сам хаджи Драган го водеше, на две глави по-висок от другите.

Лудешко веселие обзе пак всички. Но останаха някои настрана, които си шепнеха нещо.

– Виж какви са червени очите на хаджият! – казваше един.

– Тряба да си е попийнал.

– Не, плакал е!

А вътре в къщи, в стаята, където обличаха Тиха като булка, никой не беше останал освен нея. Дружките й бяха излезли да гледат орлите. Когато се върна първата от тях, Рада, която беше и най-вярната дружка на Тиха, видя, че Тиха беше си закрила лицето с ръце.

– Ти си плакала! – рече й тя.

– Кой, аз ли? Мислиш ли, че аз мога да плача?

И Тиха се смееше, но в очите й светеха сълзи.

– Ах, Тихо, ах, сестро, само да видиш колко орли! Ах, не е на добро!

– Я се остави!

– Тихо, сестричко, не се сърди. И що ти трябаше в таквоз време, да беше почакала. Можеше и Величко да се върне.

– Величко ли? Защо ми е Величко, аз си имам мъж. Кой знай къде го е тръшнала чумата. Дано тез орли неговите меса да късат!

За миг очите й потъмняха, но веднага пак се напълниха със светлина и тя се засмя. Влязоха и другите й дружки. Върху черните коси на Тиха сложиха червено було и пръстите на момичетата бързо започнаха да го диплят, да го редят.

Обичай беше да се плаче, когато булката напуща бащината си къща. Но сега плакаха не само домашните, но всички, плакаха дори хора, които не знаеха що е сълзи през живота си. Трябваше хаджи Драган пак да се намеси и сватбата тръгна към черквата.

Нищо не се случи из пътя, освен конника, когото видяха да влиза от другия край на селото. Тоя човек препускаше с всичките сили на коня си, кой можеше да бъде той, какво носеше?

Черквата се изпълни с народ. Запалиха свещите на полюлея и под него се изправиха булката и младоженецът. Започна се венчаването. Отведнъж откъм вратата се зачу шум. “Не сте ли го видели?” – викаше женски глас и в настъпилата тишина познаха гласа на Дочка вдовицата.

– Ей сега си дойде – говореше тя на най-близките до нея. – Скочи от коня си и щом му казах, право към черквата… Тук тряба да е дошел.

– Дошел? Кой дошел? – плахо попита някой.

– Аааа! Дошла, чумата дошла! – писна женски глас навътре.

И както беше гъсто насъбрано, множеството се поклати, готово да бяга.

– Стойте бе, хора! – завикаха някои мъже. – Нищо няма, нищо!

Поуспокоиха се и се повърнаха. Но отпред, пред олтара на черквата, остана празно. И ето, на това място се появи мъж, млад, но почернял, прашен. Очите му, устремени към булката, горяха като въглени, полюляваше се. Поиска да пристъпи, но се присви в страшни гърчове, на лицето му се появиха черни петна. Краката му се подкосиха и той падна.

– Чумав! – извика някой. – Бягайте!

Всички се урнаха назад, заблъскаха се, завикаха. След туй се чу тропот като от стадо и черквата, останала съвсем празна, светна. Под полюлея стоеше само Тиха. Искаше да бяга и тя, но видя една жена и се спря: беше Дочка. Тя гледаше падналия пред олтара, чупеше ръце, очите й бяха като на луда.

– Ах, боже, какво да правя – викаше тя, – син ми е, а е чумав! Ах, боже!

Няколко пъти ту пристъпва към него, ту се връща и най-после, като се хвана за косите и заплака, избяга и тя.

Тогава Тиха тръгна към чумавия – Величко беше, позна го още щом се появи. Тя се наведе, обърна лицето му, после седна на каменното стъпало пред олтара, тури главата му на коленете си и го загледа в очите. Булото й падна и закри нейното и неговото лице. Отзад, от потъмнялата икона, Исус ги гледаше и вдигаше десницата си.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Yordan Yovkov (1880, Zlatitsa) is a pivotal figure in 20th-century Bulgarian literature. His profound connection to Bulgaria’s cultural heritage shaped his artistic vision. A prolific author, Yovkov demonstrated literary prowess in poetry, plays, and short stories, blending realism and symbolism to depict Balkan traditions and universal themes. Yovkov’s stories, with their intricate exploration of love, spirituality, history, and human experience, resonate universally. They transcend geographical and cultural boundaries, offering English-speaking readers a chance to delve into the complexities that define the human condition, as seen through the lens of Bulgarian life.

Yovkov’s global impact is evident as Thomas Mann featured “The Sin of Ivan Belin” in his world’s best short stories anthology. Ivo Andric revered Yovkov, Jules Romains admired him, and Yachar Kemal equated him with Chekhov, solidifying the significance of Yovkov’s contributions on a global stage.

Poems by Rimas Uzgiris

Poems by Rimas Uzgiris

Visiting Kernavė

(The archeological, near-mythological once capital of Lithuania)

The view
from the uppermost
castle-hill
breaks

onto a river valley,
and when the sun
is just right
there’s nothing like it

for thousands of miles.
A country
so flat –
where would Zarathustra

dance? Or Zorba?
Here,
we are always looking
up

at skies
(usually cloudy),
at church vaults
full of putti,

saints
on faux marble clouds,
or at the crowns
of pine trees

swaying, at
the crowns of foreign
kings drooping
like wilted flowers

over their eyes.
Where can one ever feel
within oneself
the gay god’s elevation?

You have to will the belief,
I suppose, like my grandfather
going to church
without feeling it.

So I look up
from this omphalos
to all my ancestors
in the vault:

Can the light step
of a dance
erase the treads
of fate?

And they answer
with a cold drizzle
that bathes
my upturned face…

I smile and
welcome
the strange fonts
that fall

on the palimpsest
of my life –
unclosing a hint
of what has been,

like make-up smudged
(can you tell the dancer from the rain?)
but ready
to be re-made.

The Café across the Street

—Vilnius, Lithuania

Enwrapped in wafting garbage smells
I sit on the sill
and smoke my cigarette.

Across the narrow street
in the Dominican
basement lie the mummies:

Renaissance-era men
preserved by dry, cold air.

They knew a bit of everything.
So it’s said. Did it help

when like the aging garbage truck,
they shuttered and spilled their
steaming fluids onto the ground?

The books behind me climb the walls.
There is a bit of everything. Coffee. Tea.

When the wind blows, it
smells of corpse flowers. I stick

my nose in a book. I become
the paper. I become the leaves.

Yellowing like autumn outside.

Words lie on the shelves
in thought’s keen air.

Citizens of the plague.
Desiccate bodies in a room.

Waiting to be reborn.

Tract

– Vilnius, Lithuania

The turgid slopes of the riverbank
Flooded with the road’s effluvia
After the martial taps of rain
Writhe in a kind of miasmal stew
Similar to that in which life began.

The ruin of an outlook lingers
With fluorescent tags marking it
Lost to “good” society. Though lovers
Once came here to see, seeing
Themselves in the scene – not

 

The Jewish cemetery across the stream,
Replaced by a brutalist wave cresting into
A present that never arrives, the pace
Of progress stalled in space, boarded up,
Pushed out of mind like this place

Where new people arrive to hide, imbibe,
Or generally degenerate among crumbling
Concrete blocks – a political system erased
By its own hands, but its replacement
Has yet to resurrect this tract. It’s humbling:

The ruin lies beside the bus stop, within
The shadow of the ancient castle, itself
Rebuilt. You can still come and see the body,
Washed up on shore like a victim waiting
For the relative weighing of virtue and sin.

Here the present interweaves with the past
Like two points of parallax, a double vision
Soon to be spirited away by practical
Quotidian powers making sense of sight:
Glass walls… a bar? The mind’s own prison.

Sure it’s not your part of the world but

 

i’m trying to tell you something about riga
and its hard with all these distractions
the enchantments of old town
winding cobblestone streets
hanseatic architecture
mysterious stone-lined passages
opening onto brick-oven churchyards
with the bremen musicians in deathless bronze
turning left into a secreted pub
to imbibe meter-long sausages and beer
ending up at the monument to independence
an obelisk on viagra, excited to be here
beside a curvy park along the canal
with pleasure boats sailing pleasantly towards
eisenstein’s new town art nouveau
with women in the walls
holding up the world
as i said in another poem
while on the other side of the old town maze
you hit a river, the dauguva, its big-lipped mouth
not like our vilnius rivers: anorexic models on high heels
but voluptuous like the mississippi
and you can almost imagine huck finn
floating down in his stone-age raft
though he wouldn’t have an african-american with him
and he wouldn’t be huck finn but some child of german imperialists
or of russian imperialists, scion of some transplanted soviet worker
who never learned latvian in the forty years of his life here
and jim would be the latvian serf who had slaved for his master
or the latvian laborer who had slaved for the master class
and he’d probably think, fuck this, and hit that asshole
– call him jurgen/yuri/huck
with his oar, and his oar would break over the dude’s
broken skull, and our latvian jim, call him toms
would sit down on his raft and resignedly float
out to sea, he’d float across the whole damn baltic
maybe shivering a bit, our hardy toms
eating raw fish, drinking the wind
and cheekily ask for asylum in sweden
which he’d get because the swedes once invaded latvia
and feel guilty about it, maybe
he meets an open-minded swedish woman
and has some woke-ish swedish children
who learn a bit of latvian from their odd, throwback father
and come back one day to the mythical fatherland
to wander the streets of old town
where it feels like you’re walking on a mōbius strip
winding around and around
but always on the same side
you hope it’s the right side
but how do you measure
the moral curve of history?

One May Day in Lithuania

You walk down to the park
where the leaves are turning
that deep green of maximum
efficiency, and the sun says,
“Hello!” with a burst of yellow
that makes you squint to see
after the months it spent on tour
in Tenerife, Ibiza, and Capri.
That’s very nice of it, you think
as you take a left up the street
busy with cars racing each other
to nowhere fast. You press
the crosswalk button and wait.
Suddenly, a large rusty leaf
falls into your hands, pulsing,
beating its wings with the wind,
and you think of the heart of the martyr
in the green Orthodox church,
or is it a communist leaflet?
“This is the past,” you say,
“Or this is the future.” You
don’t know which. The light
flashes. You are waiting
for everything to turn green.

Portrait of Rimas Uzgiris

Rimas Uzgiris is a Lithuanian/American poet and translator writing in English. Born, raised, and educated in the USA with a PhD and MFA, he is the author of the poetry collections North of Paradise, and Tarp [Between] (poems translated into Lithuanian, shortlisted for best poetry book of the year). He has translated seven poetry collections from Lithuanian, and the Venice Biennale Golden Lion-winning opera Sun & Sea. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review, Poetry Daily, and other journals, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Uzgiris is a Lithuanian selection for the Versopolis Poetry Platform, and a member of the Lithuanian Writer’s Union. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a NEA Translation Fellowship, he teaches at Vilnius University.

“Little Fluff” by Catherine Hoffman

“Little Fluff” by Catherine Hoffman

BROKEN HERO: LITTLE FLUFF

A TRAVEL MEMOIR

 

May 20. 2015. Sopron, Hungary. Lövér Hotel. What luck! A trump from fate! This return to my birth zone of Hungary, the anvil on which I was struck! Then to have wangled just this leaf-embowered room of the hotel on the forest’s edge. The fluke of it! That I can afford it at all in my life as a ramble-around vagabond, which, yet again, turns out to be the Fortuna Bella of my existence. Vagabonding is how all I see makes sense. Out on the roam, I don’t have to fight my vanity at a life-work done under inspiration having gone to waste.

Though, of course, nothing wastes in the Cosmos, Schatzi!

Only ego.

 

May 21. So, out the window, I now see, I must have come for this, the arms-open oak tree waiting golden outside the window of this 3rd-floor room. It stands aureate, a grand gold a-glimmer and mute, a botanic quirk. Can transcendence shine through a swish of leaves? It did for the Druids in their oaken groves. Those Celts were here in Sopron too, and this tree tells … life doesn’t have to be successful, requited, or even understood, for it to be happy: that song The Fool on the Hill says it all.

 

May 21 Still this afternoon. 2015. So I write now, down to the end of it, sitting cushy on one of the couches of the Lövér lobby, plumped here by a life-long affliction of wanderlust. It was the magnet to which I’ve been zapped as to lust, just to go, go-a-roving, sally forth. Wandering was my gravity pull to Reality – but it wasn’t to hog it, have clout with it, prevail, or win. What I wanted from that gorgeous, flexuously wriggling magnet of Reality was to get encompassed by it, navigate with it, go with it to anywhere, and connect with that to everything on earth.

 

And I did.

 

I stayed out. I stayed on the road. I did because I could. I lived poor in rooms, just fine in slums, cushy in scungy hostels, did salaried stretches at classy residences, minding the adorable darlings, dogs and cats, once even a snake, and some beloved rats. I got jobs young, worked easily, haggled and bartered, less of a Jew than a real smarty-pants who knew how to scrimp and save to launch into that life of wandering I craved. Vagabondage was a longing to go, mind and heart open to a mixed world of gore and glory, of chaos, order, and contradictions. I roamed the planet, went anywhere, did it on the cheap, no posh, and no design, I had no plan, not even seeking, it was just the going, and no agenda.

 

Alright, I did, I do have a failure. But it’s on end-play now. So these words are my Vale to that. I think I got the drive in me wrong. In brain terms a bimbo, I got seduced by the word, the belief that God was it. But God’s not a word! Nor its authoritarian hammer of fact. I ran too far up the skiddy slopes of the word’s Nimrod babble when I should have stayed out with the ineffable, or that other movement in me of music, or maybe with my familial skill at visual art. If by now a vanishing part of my logic stands in shame at what I failed to give back of the world’s investment in me, there’s also that other, a radical self who only ever loves the stuff given. Take existence itself. The sheer fact of it. This marvel from nowhere! Like, where did it come from? Just the one atom? That first cell! And why? It still feels like a miracle from nowhere, that instead of nothing, there is life! This is the mind-blow, that there is a life for the body, a life for the soul, a life on route through even this world of bliss and grunge.

*

May 22. 2015. But then comes a day when it’s suddenly not worth it. A day you know, for all the philosophising, you’ve been teetering on the edge. When in this beautiful world of a Northern spring’s plumply budding jasmine banked on the hotel’s terrace, I suddenly see — I do not prefer my own existence after what happened last evening.

It was a small thing. Very small. But what I saw was all it took to snooker me over the edge. It was a kind of nothing. Just a bird. Not even a legendary albatross, or haughty hawk, or sacred dove, just a tiny, tufty little baby chick, crazed with thirst, hopping mad up and down on the grass.

After the Lövér’s palatial diner in the hall, I had swanked down the stairs with an apple and serviette in my pocket, for a trot around the evening garden, when I heard a piercing shrill. It was a bird. Sickened, I stumped around looking under the shrubs. I found it. Bent to it. Then crashed to my knees because of the pain arrowing at my back when I saw the chick, its miniature beak stuck open in a cry. Without help, it was dying. The bird kept shrieking in an open-beaked squawk. So, at a loss, I grabbed that apple from my pocket, bit off a piece, barely managing to slot a morsel of it into the starveling’s beak. It was too big. But, a miracle! Though his neck was way too thin, he spiked the chunk, gulped it, gagged, but his throat pumped and pushed till he got it down! I bit off more bits, some still too big, they fell from his beak. Not managing to fit another piece into his beak, there were now only the gags of my own mutely screaming rage, my long hair, a net of needles whacking at my face not letting me see where to place the crumbs of moisture for him. But I tried. Kept it up. On and on, blind, my nose running itchy with snot and tears, but kept at it, he getting a bite, me feeding. As I sat plopped beside the no longer shrieking chick, he could have been calming, even settling at last. Then, the tiny thing, – I think it was a Cinke – leaned against my shin and fell asleep. With the stroke of a shaky, feather-light finger I gave his torn, tufty form the lightest of possible pats. Too small even for that. He nearly toppled over. But shuddering, his wings trembling open, he parted his beak for more. And then more. And more. This bird, as small as my palm, gulped and gnawed and chewed on.

A man, utterly useless, and to remain a nobody to this story, was traipsing towards the hotel’s Main Reception, and just as irrelevantly, asked me, ‘What – what’s that?’

‘It’s a Cinke – a bird – hurt – ‘

‘It has only,’ his voice was archly prim, ‘fallen from its nest’.

At that tonal reproach from him, I,  at my best in a panic, yelled at him in Hungarian, a ‘Rack Off!’

He did.

From the red napkin in my other pocket, I built a paper shelter for the bird. Shaped it into a triangular tent, secured it with pinecones on its edges against the wind. I lifted the birdling’s trembly little no-weight body. And placed him into the red tent. Put around him more apple crumbs. He reached to peck some. Then closed his eyes becalmed. And fell asleep.

I got up. And left. I cursed God for everything. For all of it. And on into the night.

Came morning. Threw on a top, slacks, and ran first thing to see if the bird, oh please, oh please, at least let him be there.

The tent-tomb was empty … and no sign.

I turned blank. To my rage at least the one word came; it was, WAIT. The bird may have recovered. Or been reclaimed by his mother. Or an animal ate it. With every guess, I was more outraged for this tiny thing, more lividly hurt than by any other loss remembered.

*

May 23. Next day. Everything’s crashed. Yesterday was a harrow. Today has turned into offense. That in the Universe’s arrangement, there is a law of nature endured by God. The insult too is, why hadn’t I known of this! Or, to have known, maybe seen it the 100 times, but to have never taken it in.

 

Late afternoon same day.  Darkness, wrath, offense. I’m at war. With nature, its law, at the Creator who tolerates atrocity. Next to this, however mad a curse it may sound to be, Auschwitz does not offend. Because I know where human martyrs go after death. But I do not know where animals go after a whole life of being tortured to death. After my non-Jewish father drummed it in, the horrors of history’s detail, (but strangely, my Jewish mother who lost everyone, did not,) I knew what humans can do; we make for one another’s death. But the Divinity that accommodates this baby bird’s anguish is not a God I want to know. For all my daily discernings, I hadn’t kept it in mind, not in all my aesthetic poncings about, that the most helpless of living innocents are slain, massacred, flayed, skewered alive and die in thrashing agony and go to nothing. If this Cosmos is the Creator’s life, why would I want to participate in it? This howling scream of injustice, why would I want my life in it? Let alone add to it, care for it, achieve or succeed at a thing?

Of all the horripilations to break your soul’s neck, a tiny bird was not on my list. This little fluff’s perishing out of its small desperate life shut me down.

Till now, life was sacred. All of it. Including those of idiots, of even Hitlerian morons and mutts, of serpents and slugs. And then, to really stick it to me, on this very night on TV news there comes a clip of a yawning truckie who had been driving cross-country to the Miskolc abattoirs with 400 piglets crammed on top of each other. His truck had crashed. The piglets, already mangled, bones broken and crushed, all died. On the driver, not a scratch. What deranged entity would drive 400 squashed, squealing, broken little lives to their execution?

 

The answer is: a human being.

One of us.

 

 

 

April 24. There’s no let-up on this. No winkling out. My one strategy, stay empty. A blank.

To an extent, I already have. I did so by blabbing about it. After breakfast, I told my sick ‘Cinke-story’ to my hotel buddy, Miki, the head waiter. After the years of my visiting the Lövér, he listened to it with the obliging pathos of a measuring squint on his face. And I got what I deserved. ‘What comes through all this,’ with ardent banality Miki waffled, ‘is the stifled pain at the deaths in your own life. You’ve put your own un-mourned feelings on the baby bird’.

 

‘How sweet’, I, the liar, gagged at the emetic cliché, and stuffed my real response of ‘Idiot!’ to Miki back into my festering self. Miki’s palm-off was gooey and false. My fury is not because of un-surrendered mourning for the humans lost to me; it’s a black wrath at the Universe Creator who had, if not organized, acquiesced in this. This bird’s call for its life had drawn my soul’s sword at Him. ‘You!’ in me to Him I said, ‘You had better reveal something not known to me! For neither truth nor justice mean a thing in the outrage of this, Your heartless ordering.’

Never a namby-pamby agnostic, to God, He, by now become the viper at my bosom, I roared, ‘Hey! So where’s Lucifer! Is Luce you?’

With that, I became, not as might have been wished, an atheist, that’d be just nuts as well, but an alien, no longer at home, adrift in myself.

An age of untimed time passed.

God was to blame.

Or worse.

A horrible endless blank.

 

*

 

May 27. Morning. Okay. So, something’s different. It is the 5th day. Might I be getting it back, that ‘mustard seed’? At least a pip of it? Because yesterday there was an encounter. It was about a worm.

I took my bicycle to Joska’s. He works in the backyard of Sopron under a plane tree the size of a green, aerially floating football field. He’s a Joe-the-Fixer, a mechanic. Joe’s a man battered by booze and duress to look twice my age, though he is half of it, and from whom I rent the bike. With the usual boy team, Joska was hammering away under the tree as I wheeled in on the bike. His mates told me Joe had been flushing oil from a car, and had found an earthworm, a giliszta, slaked in oil. It was dying. So, Joska, the mates’ yarn went, had placed the inert worm on his palm. He had walked over to that barrel of rainwater, washed it, dried it, patting it dry gently with grass. Then positioned it carefully in a box among soft mulch and leaves. Turning back to his heckling mates, he had sworn a ‘Fuck yourselves!’ at them and said, ‘The one who touches the giliszta, is dead!’ The mates said that Joska had often checked on the worm, to see. And now by this morn? The worm was well.

 

‘Such is the man to lead the nation!’ On hearing the story, I whacked Joe on the back. We both roared. I, because it was true; he, because he had no idea why. So I thanked him Hungarianly, the way it is here useful.

‘B-but – why?’ sneered he, once a handsome whelp of a lad, now snatching his hand away from the wad of money I was trying to squash in it.

‘You know why’. I crammed the notes back into his palm. Dirt poor, he pocketed it gingerly, hunched his shoulders, shook his head, turned his back. And walked off. Not for a minute knowing why.

Now, that’s what good is. Joska’s care of the worm – a modern-day psalm.

*

 

May 28. Evening again. On my usual walk through the dusk, I took the shadier path up the high hills of Sopron. At first, it went under latticed shades, the branches latched overhead. Then the track widened into airy woodlands, brighter, I saw, with returning light, roan-pink on the bark of the elms, a flickering hue of May green on the grass. Splotches of bluebells under silver birches as the terrain wound rolling under the gloam of evening’s lights. Across the hills, the melancholy cuckoos cried. On return for dinner, inside the Lövér’s reception hall, there it came extending again, life’s once magnanimous hand, as in the foyer stood two highly attractive and deeply black guests by the desk, checking in. I might have smiled to them.

Abend!’ spoke the woman in German, as people do in this border town.

‘Oh hi!’ I must have chimed back in chummy Oz, ‘Nice to see you!’

‘Why, thank you.’ She drawled in American. And we three laughed.

What’s better than that?

 

At dinner in the banquet hall, the couple from America waved me over, and I sat at their table with them. We had a conversation about the insanity now rampaging on the planet, the cruelty of laws, the brutality of borders and bans, the con of legality, the insanity of guns, the vicious scam of all military stipulations, the split of refugees into rich and poor, black and white, good and bad, the deadliness of all separation and dominance, and how the push for prestige and status was pathetic and dangerous. The man, he was a bank teller in Ohio, leaned forward on his elbows and said, ‘Power is boring,’

I couldn’t believe it. ‘What’d you say?’

He said it again.

We three hooted with the relief of recognition, wriggled on our seats, and nearly danced.

The next day, we exchanged emails, and they took off to see the ancient inner city of Sopron.

I’m beginning to guess: if you want to be invited to the real ‘Feast’, don’t judge. Stay open, just watch, and shut up. There may be something outside all your knowings that will let you live.

*

 

And … I’m also getting it, why people pull faces at all and any talk of animal pain. Because anguish makes you look at the tragic, the outrage to animals by humans, at the hideous and wasted suffering that slinks through a lot of what is never said, seen, known, or talked about, the horror of all power without compassion.

 

At bottom least, I didn’t want power. Not out of virtue, or cleverness. I just didn’t recognize it, not even enough to respond to it. But I should have never waited to be accepted, or to be found relevant. Or liked. As a human being and a writer, I should have only brought forth the crop within. Just know what you are doing. Just share it. And deliver it.

I do so now.

And leave the writing world on that.

*

 

May 29. Oh! And here is an ‘Open Sesame!’ For $54.00 a day to the illustrious Pannonia Hotel!

 

Isten hozta! ‘God has brought you!’ bawled the Pannonia’s poncy proprietor in a nobly moustached, brow-emblazoned, breast-thumping Hungarian patriot’s cry. He was Doctor Szilagy, a dentist of éclat, renowned from Sopron all through Burgenland, to Vienna, Pozsony-Bratislava, even to Istria and Switzerland. His last year’s middle-ager glob of a gut lost, he cut a newly dashing figure. On turning to him, I tried on a face of stern restraint. But he rounded on me with an embrace that crushed me to him with a hug.

 

‘The Creator,’ I drew my limp little rapier to swashbuckle with him in my pseudo-baroque Hungarian, ‘hath contrived Thou shouldst lose much weight!’

 

‘Aye! Indeed!’ cried he heraldically, ‘Though I too, had a tad to do with it!’ We roared, charmed by ourselves, while he, playing gallant, kissed my hand, the bastard! And he nearly had me, a craven fool complimenting his new waist. ‘But not only!’ Szilagy, the swaggard, cockrelled on, ‘It’s not just the lost weight! Feel,’ he grabbed my hand and squashed it to his bulging bodily part, ‘Feel this!’ In front of the dining hall’s Europeanly chomping breakfast audience, he flexed a bicep, (which was, I admit it! A Wow!) causing me to play coy and withdraw with a hiss. Which he’d have heard as another drooling compliment. Therefore, on netting his prey, as does the hunter inveterate, Szilagy lost all interest in me and shot through, leaving me and my soul’s face adrip with panderer’s goo.

 

Not that on account of this Szilagy incident, I’m going to blame myself. Self-hatred is also a judgment, and that’s ego too. It’s just you trying to inflate yourself, significate in reverse.

*

 

2nd day at Pannonia. 2015. To understand a new thing takes humility. You have to bow out of yourself and reach out over yourself with a welcome for the Unknown.

So why did I leave that dying bird? The Cinke frequently opened his beak, reaching for the apple of life, trustful and desperate. Our exchange had been pure despair and love. That bird had nothing. Does suffering ever help you fall back into your real self? I know it happens for humans. So, I never fear for them. Heaven is there for all; everyone is going to heaven. But the one single question that hurts is, what is there for my broken hero, the bird?

 

*

 

May 31st.At Sopron’s Petöfi Theatre. Queen Csardas. Rotating my ankles with pleasure through the operetta, I was again my parents’ child, sprung from their culture of Lehár and Kálmán operas and operettas, about Lords and Dames, Vienna and Paris, soldiers, songsters, soubrettes, the fools and the fops of the Empire’s gentry class, singing schlagers, hit tunes that go You, You, You Rag of a Life! trilled to fubsy old belles by doddering idiots and decadent dotards – how I laughed with the audience, as well as with my otherwise bird-broken heart!

 

Back at the Pannonia. Told Attila, the waiter, about the Cinke chick’s death. That it tore my cosmology of God to tatters. That I was by now a no-God person. That it demands answer. And I wasn’t getting it. To which, Attila staggeringly said, ‘Perhaps the little bird’s sacrifice – it served some end – even for you,’ As we stood in the Pannonia’s Turkish carpeted, art-hung, Carrara marbled corridor, he added, ‘There is, there has to be justice, a place of evening-out. For animals as well, or, don’t you see, our own meanings turn into rot’.

‘What!’ I yowled, ‘How!’ I blubbed ‘How does a waiter, your age, a boy! – get to know all this?’

To which, he, with a shrug of superiority, said, ‘I just know it. Everyone does. Everyone. If a bird suffers without meaning, the Creation loses it too’.

‘You’re kidding me, right?’

‘Nope,’ he laughed at my drop-jawed incredulity, ‘ask anybody.’

 

I did. I asked Richie Kaiser, the Pannonia’s pianist. A musical virtuoso boy of 22, Richie thought about it for one entire second or less, and puckering with a laugh, snapped, ‘Of course, I know everything. Even what I don’t, there’s something in me that does.

I asked him about the Cinke.

‘Of course, his soul lives!’ Richie looked annoyed by my interrogating the obvious.

‘How do you know?’

‘And how do you know otherwise?

By him knowing, he lets me know it too.

 

That bird may have been a call to wake up. To what? His poor beak agape, his valiant swallowing, the bitten-off morsels too large, but he worked and muscled the apple scraps to get them into him. And then ate more. And was not there in the morning.

It’s going round and around in me.

I’ve lost the God-structure of the universe because of that Cinke.

A bit of fluff.

*

June the 1st. And no. There’s no more May. May is over. June is only a fey green. And flat. There’s no love in me for a God in whose universe one single creature dies in a cry of abandonment.

*

June 1st. Evening. And that’s it. Though I keep on asking for the meaning of it, there’s no telling my ‘chick’ story. Or hearing the salve for it. Not to or from anybody. Not in words, not usefully, or humanly.

 

At God, I remain swords drawn. He died in that bird. And with that to me. But why did I not stay with the Cinke until he died? If I stop the love, it will take away my life. There never was any other side.

 

There’s that priest, that Richard Rohr, who he says, ‘If you love, you will suffer.’ The scream of that bird, there’s no forgiveness in me for that. It makes my own hurts not redemptive, but infernal, suffering has no rise, no ascension to it. To not forgive is to stay with atrocity. And I do. Yes. Also, because, if the ‘farmed’ African leopard that, to provide a seamless fur coat for some gorgeous twittess got its skin torn off its body and does not resurrect, then neither shall I. Same for the fish hooked through its flesh and choked out of its life. Or the dogs in China flayed alive. If they don’t rise, why would I want to? It’s what Attila, the waiter said about the Muslim refugees being locked up, then criticized at Budapest railway station for throwing away the food given to them.

‘I would too,’ Attila said, ‘if the refugees around me didn’t also get fed.’

 

June 2. Darkness comes to the life lived false? My hurt doesn’t feel sacred. It just stinks. The offense is only going to heal in Heaven if I meet with that Cinke up there. Otherwise, my heart is shunting off into deep freeze. And yet, a sliver of a chink in me says, there’s a matter not yet known, it may be known to others, but not to me.

So whatever it is, make it clear!

 

Until I know it, I don’t even want God to exist. Not alongside an outrage like that. Silence, chaos, and nothing is preferable. My blade stays drawn. Its point is tipped. I’d like to plunge it, in an act of the heart, my last moral muscle – into Him!

*

 

June 3. Went to the Pannonia Hotel’s cafe of sprawling oriental divans, couches, paintings, bars hung with chandeliered lights.

‘How are you, drágá?’ from the bar sang Zsuzsi Gosztola, the long-time barista, for whom, as to many Hungarians everyone is a ‘drágá’, a darling. ‘You look peeved,’

‘It’s God,’ I snarled, camping it up – the only way you can speak of this – ‘we’re having a punch-up. I’m daggers-drawn at him’.

‘Oh, gooood!’ grinned Zsuzsi, languidly pouring the coffee ‘He just loves a stoush,’

‘The hell! We’re not doing a friendly argy-bargy! I hate his guts!’

‘How coo-hooo-oool!’ laughed she, pouring me more, ‘It means you’re with him! He loves it! Especially a war!’

 

…Ggrrrrrr….

*

June 4. Days of fuzz. No more talk about it. I’ve already received all the answers. And still feel tripped not to have known. The humiliation! To have your Cosmos gashed by the cheep of a small, desperate bird. Its death is a deal-breaker. A drop-kick to the soul. It’s my step out of the dialogue.

 

I know, all this, it’s so in excess. Could it just be what Attila had said, only the ego’s humiliation of getting to know something I hadn’t known? Or is it me having had enough of the Beauty, the Bon-Bon of Loveliness? Is this bird event the very angel ‘Kismet’, saying to me, ‘You’ve had enough! You’ve gorged and gobbled plenty, you asthetico-porky-pig! You’ve pigged-out on the Lovely, the Fortuna, the Bella, the Transplendance and Ponderosities! Now, get ready! Strap in! Take this!’ Here comes Reality!

Chirp-Chirp! Says a bird.

Boom!

 

June. 5th 7.40pm. By the drear grey end of Sunday, my brain hardly works. Don’t feel with it anymore. But here’s a smidge, it’s crumbling in, a hunch from Simone Weil, ‘We’re not to eat the beauty here below.’ Simone bids humans to be content just looking. Don’t eat. Be content to remain hungry. Stay hungry. Not just for now. But for evermore.

*

 

And this is the one fact. The hunger has stayed. Despite all. For all the biffs and bangs, the punches and whacks, this hungering is the only evidence, if still not the proof of the reality of God.

 

And who was it that said, ‘The only proof for God is God’?

*

Still June the 6th. After the Hotel Pannonia, back on bus to the Lövér. The world outside it is no longer melodious. It’s under a hot summer cloud. The enclosing forest is denser, sombre with some intent. But in me, and I’m hanging by it, a ghost of a thread of a chance for which, like an echt! a real Hungarian, I first begged, then wheedled, whined, then pulled out my gun. It’s a whisper of what has already been said by all the people I asked for a reply. The helplessness of God. The Guy carries no Gun. He has no shooting power. He lost it to matter when he withdrew from it to allow human history to unfold from a point of almost incomprehensible nothingness. And into which I blundered a week or so ago with the cry of a bird shrieking for its life. But if I allow this to God, my grief will not be quelled. And God too shall go on suffering as well. If I let this go for Him, it means I shall have the same pierce of pain here on this dimension called ‘earth’, as He in Heaven for every creature not there with Him.

 

June the 7th. But from this dirge of misery, a memory springs back; there was a speck of the sublime in the course of the events that happened with that fluff of a bird.

 

First, it did not flee me. Second, the Cinke showed me what to do – he kept opening his beak for me to feed him. And, how come! What are the odds? – that I just happened to have an apple in my pocket? As well as that, the birdling Fluff, he actually ate the apple crumbs too big for his gullet. He pushed it, worked it, swallowed it down. And maybe even lived! Or simply flew away. Why haven’t I even thought of that! Even further, he let me feed him. And not from the ground, but from my hand. And then, Fluff also accepted a pat or two from the one finger.

 

What the bird has shown is that though we animals are all set for death, we can feed each other, we can take care. It also showed that I, for long hadn’t taken care. Yes, I shrug it off, have no care, fear to me is a fraud, a vacillation, I take no caution in my life. But the fact that I cared for a bird says, I might care for myself as well. Be like Joska, I mean, he did, he helped a worm, so why wouldn’t I?

I am not my own, is what all this said. I’m not owned by me.

I’m a piece of the goods, a possession of a Force outside myself, a thing of use, and a home of everything else.

This is from the Unknown, always loved by ancients, the Druids, all primitives, and by me too.

This is good news, isn’t it?

Anyway, it opens the view.

***

Portrait of Catherine Hoffman

Catherine Hoffman lives in Melbourne but returns annually to Sopron, Hungary, where she was born in 1948. Her early novels, Perilous Journey 1985,  Forms of Bliss (1988), and Crystal  (1987) drew critical acclaim. Since then, she has published short stories, “A Radical Life of Christ”, an early novel, and a cycle of novels about the Mendez family; Of Exile and Yearning (2009), Across the Burning (2010), and Taking Wing (2010), and Wolf & Stone, Tree and Dove‘.

“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

I.

Kurt probably did have a point, Ernst thought, as his BMW lost speed on the poorly lit Polish roadway that led to the Ukrainian border. It hadn’t been worth it to come here by car. Not only was the road badly lit, its state of repair also left much to desire. Ernst’s car, pampered by the impeccable German autobahns, bounced and wobbled weirdly from time to time. By Ernst’s calculation, it was only fifteen kilometres to the border.

He was driving to Ukraine, led by a light. A woman’s name – Zoriana, meaning “star” – was that light. He had already exchanged letters with Zoriana for seven months, since March 1996, and had been cultivating serious intentions toward her. And here he was, travelling to see her at last, excited, chewing over the possibility of disappointment. Yet Zoriana’s letters were sensible and smart, and she sometimes responded to what he had written with irony and wit. No tense resistance could be found in her correspondence. Her German was quite decent. Ernst perceived in Zoriana the mother of his children. He thought about this with a warm thrill in his chest.

Of course, Ernst had never been to Ukraine. A year ago, he had not even realized that such a country exists. For him, just like for ninety-five percent of Germans, the immediate neighbour to the east of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary was Russia. And even though the Soviet Union had collapsed five years earlier, the place it had claimed in the minds of West Europeans had now been taken up by Russia. Only through Zoriana had he learned, with astonishment, that there was a language called Ukrainian, spoken by thirty million people. She insisted that Ukrainian was not a dialect of Russian, that it was as far from Russian as Dutch was from German. Ernst had discovered an entire world about which, until then, he had not had the faintest idea.

He learned that many of the things around him that were taken for Russian, were actually Ukrainian: Cossacks in wide trousers, embroidered women’s clothing, soup made from red beets (he had forgotten the name), and even the world’s largest aircraft, Mriya, as well as Serhiy Bubka, whose athletic accomplishments Ernst had long followed.

For his acquaintance with Zoriana, Ernst was indebted to Oksana. Oksana was beautiful and energetic, she loved to dress elegantly, and she was a good mother to her three-year-old daughter. She was the wife of Joerg, a friend from Ernst’s school days. They had married four years earlier, about a year after Oksana had arrived in Heidelberg from Lviv, in order to work on her graduate research at the University Library. She had been awarded a scholarship for young researchers. Their daughter had already been born when Oksana travelled back to Lviv to defend her dissertation.

Joerg was happily married, and Ernst wanted the same for himself. Loneliness bore down on him, he had just turned forty-four, and he wanted children and the comfort of family life. Alongside that, the modest restaurant on the ground floor of their building, a family business, required more attention, and his mother, who had just turned seventy-five, no longer entered it. For Ernst, relationships with women had somehow never worked out. His last girlfriend, to whom he had proposed marriage two years earlier, turned him down, saying that they could date, but she did not want to marry because she had good career prospects in her company. In a year, she could head the department in which she now worked. Her boss would soon retire, and the company director had hinted that, if she did not get married, she could prepare to take his place.

So, once during a visit to Joerg and Oksana, Ernst jokingly asked Oksana if she perhaps had a good-looking and unmarried female friend in Ukraine, one who might know German. The question was, in fact, a serious one, even though Ernst had framed it with a pretend playfulness. Oksana responded with enthusiasm: she did have a friend, from her cohort at university. She was thirty, lived in a small town, and dreamed of a family, but there was no man in sight with whom she could make plans. Did Oksana have a photo? asked Ernst, trying as much as possible to appear neutral. There was a picture, Oksana found it in an album she had brought with her from Lviv. Dark-brown eyes, large and smiling, peered out at Ernst. The woman’s face radiated joy, and a faint trace of flirtatious provocation. This might be her, Ernst thought, feeling his heartbeat quicken. Maybe, if she likes…

Oksana noticed Ernst’s interest, and offered to send a photo of him to Zoriana. She said she would do this herself, he just needed to bring a picture. Two days later, everything had been arranged: Oksana had written to Zoriana that Ernst would like to meet, and that he had serious intentions. About two weeks later, when he had already begun to forget about it, Oksana called to say that Zoriana had sent a letter: she did not mind meeting. Oksana gave Ernst her friend’s address, saying that he could write to her himself.

That evening, Ernst sat down to write a letter. How to begin? Dear Zoriana? No, perhaps something more neutral: “Hello, Zoriana.” And then? But the letter finally emerged. It was natural and friendly, and also … very open. Ernst had an instinct for when honesty was appropriate. This was just such a case. The response came without delay. The correspondence continued, and after ten letters Ernst already knew that this woman had been sent to him by providence.

He lived in an old three-storey building, which belonged to his family, on the market square in a small town in central Germany. The building had been built by Ernst’s great-great-grandfather, and his grandfather had opened a restaurant on the ground floor. The regular patrons of the restaurant were locals, mostly Ernst’s neighbours. In recent years, the number of tourists had grown. Not long ago, the entire business had passed suddenly into Ernst’s hands, and it brought in a decent profit. On the second floor, above the restaurant, was his mother’s apartment, and on the third floor, his bachelor apartment. He dreamed that the light of his Zoriana would begin to shine within those walls.

Ernst smiled while imagining their meeting. He had a feeling that it would not be a disappointment, and his heart brimmed over with love and happiness. He would invite her to his home for Christmas, in order to acquaint her with his world, and he would do everything to satisfy her. They would take trips together, go to concerts in the evenings, and have dinner in Ernst’s favourite Thai restaurant. Perhaps they would even go to the Alps: in one letter Zoriana had confessed that she dreamed of them. And, through their correspondence, it had already become clear, too, that Zoriana was not without practical attributes: she had made several astute observations about the management of the restaurant. And now Ernst was on his way finally to see her, to get acquainted with her, and to learn about Ukraine.

His friend Kurt, the owner of a hair salon across the square, almost directly opposite Ernst’s restaurant, had suggested that Ernst travel by train or rent an old car. But Ernst had not followed his advice. There could be no question of going by train, since Ernst did not know a word of Ukrainian, and renting a car did not seem necessary since, after four years, he had grown quite used to his BMW.

Apart from that, it did seem to him that Kurt had had a point.

II.

A long line of vehicles perambulated toward the border, soon slowing to the point where a quarter of an hour was needed to advance just a few metres. Interruptions in the forward flow sometimes grew especially long, with the column not budging from place for as long as forty minutes. Both ahead and behind Ernst, people got out of cars and buses, smoked, chatted briefly, some looking over with interest at the outsider, but no one tried to make conversation. The darkness was cut only by the headlights, and it was chilly and damp. A drizzle of rain turned into snow. Finally, after two hours of driving at a snail’s pace, Ernst saw the flags, first the Polish, and then behind it, in the distance, the Ukrainian.

But getting to them was tortuously slow. Ernst’s thermos bottle was empty, and the sandwiches he had prepared for the road were finished. But more than hunger, he was fixed on the need to use a restroom, the vicinity of which was uncertain. So he had to meet necessity in simple fashion, by the side of the road. He was not the only one to do this. At close to ten o’clock in the evening, after a period of nearly three hours, during which he had managed to transit a kilometre of road, Ernst stepped out of his car at the building of the Polish passport control. After opening his passport, a Polish border guard with white gloves looked across at him, and then toward his car, with an interest that was more genuinely human than professional. He did not ask a thing, simply put a stamp in the passport and said something in Polish, smiling faintly. He probably had wished Ernst a pleasant journey.

In their last telephone conversation, Zoriana had said that she would come to meet Ernst at the border, together with her cousin, who owned a car. She said that finding the way to her town without help, a one-and-a-half-hour drive, was something their esteemed guest was not likely to manage. But there must be street signs! Ernst had exclaimed with astonishment. At this, Zoriana had only laughed. Now he saw that she was right. They had planned to meet at six o’clock, and it was already almost eleven. A man finally appeared behind the small window of the Ukrainian border post. There were no white gloves on his hands, and he looked inquisitive and unfriendly. Opening Ernst’s passport, he said a few words that Ernst, of course, could not understand. Having not received an answer, the border guard gave him a look that promised nothing positive and, perhaps, he repeated what he had said.

Ernst responded in English. “I don’t understand.”

“So, so?” the guard said with surprise.

Not waiting for a further response, Ernst repeated himself in German, just in case:

“Ich verstehe nicht.”

“Shit,” the guard softly blurted in something vaguely like German, and spat in disgust. Ernst was quite unsettled by this. “Wait here,” the guard grunted in Ukrainian, and went off somewhere.

Naturally, Ernst had not understood, but he remained standing, concluding that the border guard had gone for help. He looked around. The light was dim, and a sort of grey pallor, quite strange to him, lay over everything, stirring up a feeling of terrible despair. Two young men appeared from somewhere in back. They wore leather jackets and track pants with white stripes down the sides, and, openly examining his vehicle, spoke with one another, not looking at him the entire time, as if he were not there. They spat once in a while, and one even kicked the toe of his shoe repeatedly into the rubber of a rear wheel.

“Nice car, eh?” Ernst said in German, addressing them in as friendly a tone as possible, but he received no answer. The men in the track pants crushed cigarette butts under their feet, and ducked into one of the cars that stood further back. Just then, an official came out through the door of a building with Ernst’s passport in his hand. Another, older, official was with him. Seating himself in the passport control booth, the second one looked over at Ernst.

Speaking in Polish, he asked, “What is the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” Ernst said in English.

“Oh, bloody hell,” the official said in Ukrainian. “He doesn’t speak Polish, doesn’t speak Ukrainian. He’s talking something there, but what … who knows?”

“Well, it’s probably German. Can’t you see? He’s German. Tell Yurko to make a good sweep of his “beemer,” what he’s driving there, and then he can go to hell.”

One border guard remained seated in the booth, and the other one went off somewhere with Ernst’s passport, gesturing sideways at the foreigner in a way that was probably meant to encourage him to drive forward, to free up a space in front of the booth for other cars. After all, what more could they want with Ernst?

After five minutes, a customs officer appeared with a German police dog on a leash. He was a heavy-set man who considered Ernst with interest. Asking something, and receiving from Ernst the answer, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” he motioned for the car door to be opened. He said something to the dog, who quickly sniffed through every corner of the vehicle, and afterward stood calmly next to its master. The customs official indicated a bag that lay in the trunk. Ernst opened it, the customs official began to sort through its contents, and, removing one of four packages of coffee, said in Ukrainian:

“You are allowed to bring only 500 grams, and here you have a whole kilogram.”

Ernst did not understand, and so the official demonstrated what he had said with gestures.

“Alright,” Ernst said, since he wanted finally to be on his way.

The customs official confiscated half the coffee and left satisfied, while Ernst received his passport and sat down behind the wheel.

Zoriana had said that she and her cousin would wait for him one hundred metres from the border crossing. But there was no possibility to stop there, and he was forced to travel on in the current of traffic. Ernst came to a stop only when the opportunity arose, parking at the roadside, and he decided to return to the border on foot. He was hopeful that Zoriana and her cousin were still waiting for him, even though it was already past twelve. He stepped into the darkness and, having walked a hundred metres from his car, suddenly heard the sound of its alarm. Without a thought, he rushed back, and, on arriving there, saw a dark silhouette at the car door.

“Stop! Stop! I’ll call the police!” he yelled in German.

The silhouette abandoned the car, and, moments later, the roar of an engine could be heard from a few dozen metres further up. Luckily, Ernst’s car door opened without effort, and, in light cast from the car, he saw on the ground the pick-lock that had been used by the thief. Wrapping it in a napkin, he slipped it into a pocket and sat down behind the wheel. He felt that he should proceed with an undivided focus and deliberation, since the situation had become unusual. It would be impossible to find Zoriana and her cousin here, even if they were somewhere nearby. It was even darker on this side of the border, and the street signs were barely visible and written only in Cyrillic, which it took Ernst time to read. The person who had tried to break into his car might try it again, so it was not worth it to leave the car. He had Zoriana’s home telephone number, but to look for a pay phone just then would have been unwise. Assuming there was even a public telephone here… His pager had been silent, but only for the last little while. It seemed there was no network here, as Zoriana would have already sent him a message. Ernst started the engine, and set off into the night.

After several hundred metres, he saw a road sign, but he would have had to stop in order to read it. The name of Zoriana’s town, it seemed to him, had not been on it, so he decided to drive on to Lviv. Even if there were a shorter road from here to his destination, finding it would be impossible. It was a forty-minute drive from Lviv to Zoriana, but he could always also spend the night in the city. The clock showed half past twelve.

Wet snow fell. The road was even worse than in Poland. His car jolted over the potholes, and Ernst was afraid of damaging it. He drove slowly, and was passed even by Soviet-made “Moskvitch” vehicles. At some point, he noticed that a Volkswagen Passat had been trailing him for a while, even though it would have been able to pass him long ago. Out of caution, Ernst reduced his speed, but the Volkswagen doggedly remained behind him. So, he was being followed, tailed, presumably by the person who had tried to break into his car half an hour earlier. Ernst pressed down on the gas, passed two vehicles, and looked in the mirror. The Passat had also fallen behind.

Forty kilometres remained to Lviv. Ernst had no idea where to go from there, but he was determined to break free from his pursuer. He did not reduce his speed, and increased the distance between himself and the Passat. And then, at some point, Ernst saw a sign that showed the name of Zoriana’s town. The town was thirty kilometres away, and, without hesitating, he circled around, switching to the direction shown by the sign. This road was still more dark and narrow. Looking in the mirror, he did not see his “tail.” The pursuer had evidently lost the trail, having failed to notice where the coveted BMW “7 Series” had turned off at the junction.

Ernst would eventually learn that, here, his car cost as much as an apartment in the centre of Lviv, and that it was an object of delirium for those criminal elements with high ambitions. He was later told that the bosses of serious criminal groups travelled in “beemers.” Higher up in the hierarchy, there were perhaps six hundred Mercedes.

When, after entirely circling the town, an exhausted Ernst finally found the desired address, well known from the exchange of letters – 7 Silver Springs Street – the clock showed a quarter to three. The house lights were on. The door that faced the late-night visitor opened immediately once the doorbell had been pressed, and there appeared in its frame the astonished, brown-eyed, beautiful Zoriana. Her pretty eyes smiled. Standing behind her were her parents, her cousin, and a cat.

III.

Ernst was awakened by the smell of cooking meat and a quiet but intense bustling in the kitchen: frying pans sizzled, dishes occasionally clattered, and water burbled. For breakfast, there were cutlets with fried bread and omelettes, milk-rice kasha with raisins and honey, and crêpes with cottage cheese and jam. Ernst tried to explain that, for breakfast, he usually had sliced bread with cheese, washed down with milk coffee. They immediately brought him sliced bread and cheese and coffee, but they did not forget about the rest. His plate was continually replenished with cutlets, fried bread, crêpes. They discussed the previous night. It turned out that Zoriana and Pavlo – that was the name of her cousin – had waited for him at the border from six until twelve o’clock, and that meant while he had been passing through customs and later looked for them in the dark. The entire time, they had been somewhere close by.

Now, looking into Zoriana’s eyes, Ernst forgot all about the troubles of the previous night. Zoriana was just as he had imagined: she was as if from a dream. They communicated well, and they were never short of things to discuss. The next day was dry, and they decided to take a trip to Lviv. But they left Ernst’s car behind, so as to avoid unwanted attention, and instead took a train in which Ernst felt as if transported back in time. The effect of Lviv, by contrast, was of a different order. Ernst discovered a wondrous world. They ascended the gloomy Citadel, from which they had a beautiful view of the city centre. Ernst took hold of Zoriana’s hand.

“You’re not disappointed?” he asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said, looking into his eyes and smiling, “I’m definitely charmed.”

“Me too,” he said, and, for the first time, he leaned in toward her lovely lips.

From this moment on, they were a couple, and there was no force by which they could have resisted this.

Ernst’s vacation lasted two weeks. He had prepared in advance, bringing with him an official police invitation for Zoriana, and they agreed that she straight away submit an application to the German embassy for a guest visa. Here was the plan: Zoriana receives a visa for one month, Ernst introduces her to his mother and friends, and they celebrate Christmas together. He shows her his surroundings, and if she likes them, she becomes the queen of his world. They would make a home for themselves in Germany. Zoriana liked the plan, and she set about preparing the necessary documents.

The plan was not immediately fulfilled. Zoriana worked at one of the three schools in her town, and her salary was adequate. The embassy would need a certificate from her workplace that confirmed her salary. A small income heightened the risk of suspicion at the German embassy that the applicant did not intend to return home. Similar grounds for suspicion were family status – an unmarried Ukrainian woman. But nothing could be done about this.

The school principal’s suspicion was piqued by Zoriana’s request for a work certificate, and when the principal discovered that her teacher was, more generally, preparing an application for the German embassy, she became upset. Zoriana knew that for her work colleagues, ninety percent of whom were women, the fact that she was collecting documents for a visa would cause a sensation the next day. Finally, after three intense days of rushing around, through which she was accompanied by Ernst, who was astounded by the bureaucratic maze, everything was ready. Having gathered together papers translated and certified by a notary, Ernst and Zoriana sat in the train to Kyiv on Wednesday evening. He did not understand why it had not been possible to mail the documents into the embassy. In order to get a visa for the West, why did one have to endure a 500 kilometre passage to the East?

But the real test awaited them at the embassy. When, at close to eight o’clock in the morning, they finally found themselves near the building, they saw a colossal line, in which they had to stand for three hours. They were among the last to be allowed in that day, with the many people further back having stood in vain. Finally, just before noon, they left the embassy with a slip that gave them the right, after three days, to retrieve the passport with a visa. Or with a refusal. Travelling another 500 kilometres in three days? thought Ernst. Maybe they could ask a friend in Kyiv to pick up the passport? But Zoriana had no friends in the city. Waiting for three days in Kyiv? Also not the best option. So, they wandered around the city, and then boarded the train that evening, arriving in Lviv the next morning.

On Monday of the following week, the couple once again prepared themselves for the road. Return tickets for a sleeping berth cost almost as much as Zoriana’s monthly salary. The trip took the entire night. Travelling with them in the compartment was a tight-lipped middle-aged man in a necktie, and carrying a black briefcase. Throughout the evening, the man watched his neighbours attentively, but said not a word to them.

When, after lunch, they finally retrieved the passport at the embassy, and opened it, instead of a visa they found a stamp of refusal. When they asked for an explanation, the official at the window responded dryly, saying that the consul makes decisions on the basis of the documents submitted by the applicant. The visa section reserves the right not to disclose the reason for a refusal, but if they did not agree with the decision, they had the right, within a week, to submit an application, and then…

Zoriana was distraught, Ernst seething with anger. He asked when they could speak to the consul, and he was given a time – the consul reserved the last workday of each month for citizens. But December had just begun. It should be understood that an inquiry will bring nothing. They walked out into the street and Ernst said:

“Don’t worry, darling. I won’t let them ruin our plans for Christmas. We’ll think of something.”

On the return journey, Ernst quizzed Zoriana: where does one get a passport for international travel, and how long does it take? what happens when a passport has been lost or damaged? and similar things. Zoriana responded, saying that cases where an embassy refuses a visa application from a single, unmarried woman were common. Once they were at home, Ernst asked Zoriana to give him the passport, and he covered a table with old newspapers. Onto the papers, he laid down the passport, opening it to the page with the refusal stamp. Taking an ink bottle from the writing desk, he poured some of its contents over the stamp.

“What are you doing?” Zoriana asked with a burst of laughter.

“I like your reaction,” he said. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll get you a nice, new passport.”

“But, darling, I’ll still have to go back to them for a visa, and they already have a record of my application in their database, not to mention that they also rejected it.”

“Don’t worry, Zori, we’ll manage without them. Tomorrow we’ll request that a new passport be issued. How long will that take?”

“At least one week, and it’s really expensive.

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs. The only problem is that I’ll be back home in five days. But that’s not such a big deal. We still have three weeks until Christmas. We have enough time.”

IV.

The next day, after standing in line for a long time at the migration authority’s passport office, they submitted a request for a new passport, paying a modest penalty for the old, damaged passport that they had included with the application. The couple spent the next four days travelling, as well as visiting with Zoriana’s relatives. On two evenings, they dined by candle light, though not entirely of their own free will. In Ukraine, there were breaks in the power supply. In order to conserve electricity, the supply was simply interrupted, according to a schedule. But these peculiarities cast no shadow at all on Ernst’s happiness. And Zoriana’s family were also delighted with their future son-in-law. The fourteen-year age difference between the betrothed no longer struck Zoriana’s mother as an obstacle.

One evening, Zoriana and Ernst attended a concert by the Lviv philharmonic. The ticket price for the concert was, Ernst declared, absurdly low, and when Zoriana explained that the salary of the musicians barely reached forty dollars a month, he thought he must have heard her wrong. The performance was of a professional calibre, and, on top of that, Ernst discovered Ukrainian composers, being especially moved by Vasyl Barvinskyi.

On the eve of Ernst’s departure, the family decided that their guest’s car would be escorted to the border by Pavlo and his friends. Zoriana’s mother supplied Ernst with a package of road food that suggested her future son-in-law’s trip home could last at least a week. And then they said goodbye. For the first time, Zoriana sat in the car next to Ernst, and he thought with pleasure that her presence would soon become the most important daily attribute of his life.

Zoriana and Pavlo decided to remain at the border until Ernst had crossed it. The line was once again long, and the wait took almost three hours, but they were together.

“I’ll call you as soon as I’ve arrived home,” Ernst said, hugging her as they parted.

And he called the next morning.

A week later, Zoriana received her new passport.

“Terrific!” said Ernst into the telephone. “What do you need to be able to travel to Poland?”

“I’d have to buy a tourist voucher, it’s not expensive. With one of those, I think you can stay for up to a month.”

“Perfect. Get one of those vouchers and, on Friday in a week, use it to travel to the city of Zgorzelec. It’s on the border between Poland and Germany. Its German part is called…”

“Görlitz,” said Zoriana.

“That’s it, sweetheart. You’re very knowledgeable.”

“I’ve been diligently studying the geography and history of your country.”

“I love your diligence.”

“And I … you.”

“Also terrific. You’ll arrive at the station in Zgorzelec. I checked the time table of the Polish railway, there’s a night train from Przemyśl that arrives there. Bring enough things with you for a month…”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Trust me. You know I’m an adventurer, but an honest and sensible one.”

Zoriana laughed and decided to trust her honest and sensible adventurer.

 V.

 Zoriana felt excited as she prepared for the road. Until then, she had crossed the western border just once, and that had only been on a trip to Kraków. Like most pupils of the Soviet schools, she was wary of the border, having a persistent, deeply ingrained feeling that what lies beyond the frontier is hostile. For “homo sovieticus,” this feeling could not be entirely overcome. On the border, in one way or another, you find out who you really are. So, crossing the border is like a litmus test, it reveals your degree of intrinsic freedom. Yet, on the official scale of values used by Soviet people, the grade for “personal freedom” was below zero.

That was roughly how Zoriana felt when she opened her bag in front of the imperious Polish customs officer, with his white gloves. When asked by the border guard about the reason for her visit to Poland, she tried to answer with as much confidence as possible, saying, in Polish, “visiting friends.” No one ever believed such an answer. Ninety-five percent of Ukrainians who travelled to Poland were “shuttles,” a name given to small-scale traders in whisky, cigarettes, and other modestly sized items. The customs official was surprised to discover that there was nothing typical for a “shuttle” in Zoriana’s bag, and he even asked her if this was really all of her baggage.

Just in case the immigration authorities had wished to inquire more concretely about the friends she was intending to visit, Zoriana was prepared to name her father’s relatives, who lived in Kraków. Before Zoriana’s departure, her father had called them and asked that they, if need be, confirm that they were expecting Zoriana as a guest, and guarantee her accommodation for the length of her stay in Poland. But, luckily, she was not asked any questions about this.

The bus was crammed full with the wares of “shuttles,” a portion of which was confiscated by Polish customs officials, who shut their eyes to the fact that thirty-five to forty of the bus passengers were suspiciously stout, dressed in broad coats and long skirts. The officials already knew that, under those coats and skirts, cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whisky had been tied to bodies. But if one of them had tried to frisk the improbably wide bodies of one of these women, an extraordinary fuss would have erupted. So, as was usual, everything had been arranged such that the wolf was satisfied and the sheep left intact.

After customs control, which had eaten up two hours, Zoriana’s bus arrived in Przemyśl, well behind schedule, and it was only through some miracle that she made her train to Zgorzelec. She was full of disparate feelings: uncertainty and fear of the unknown, alternating with excitement, and then joyful euphoria – tomorrow morning, she will see him again! Ernst was the kind of man with whom Zoriana would gladly go anywhere in the world, it made no difference, to the east, to the west, the north, or south. She would have preferred that such a man had been born in her own country, and spoken her own language. But things had turned out differently.

In Zgorzelec, German border police entered the train. Zoriana’s heart almost sprang from her chest. But, because she was getting off on the Polish side of the city, they left her alone, not checking her documents. Stepping down from the train, she saw Ernst’s solitary silhouette. His calm embrace revived her optimism and composure.

“Let’s go, darling,” Ernst said. “I’m not here alone. My friends Otto, Doris, and Kurt are with me. They’re waiting for us in a cafe nearby. Let’s go drink a coffee, and get warm.”

“Friends? What do you have in mind, Ernst?”

“You’ll soon find out, sweetheart.”

The train station was on a hill, and they had to descend to the river to reach the city centre. The river, the Nysa, divided the city into two, and one of its bridges served as the border crossing. On the opposite bank lay the miraculously preserved old city of Görlitz. Here, Germany began.

It was cold, with snow lightly dusting the rooftops of the houses, and smoke billowing from the chimneys. After fifteen minutes, they were down at the river. Zoriana admired the Gothic dome on the opposite bank, near the ancient bridge.

“That’s the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. We can take a look at it today, if you like,” Ernst said.

“I don’t have a visa, and the church is on the German side, isn’t it?”

“It’s on the German side, but Mrs. Vogel doesn’t need a visa,” he said with a laugh.

“Who is Mrs. Vogel?,” asked a bewildered Zoriana. In German, the name Vogel meant bird. “What sort of bird?”

“You’re about to find out,” Ernst replied enigmatically.

They entered the cafe, and were met by a cheerful group, who rose from a table.

“Let me introduce you, Zoriana. This is Otto, my friend from school.

Otto, a slim man with pleasant features and a prominent bald spot, affably gave Zoriana his hand.

“Doris, Otto’s wife, she’s a designer.”

“So nice to meet you.” Zoriana gave her hand to the smiling, red-haired Doris.

“And this is Kurt Vogel, my neighbour, and the owner of a hair salon across from our restaurant.”

“Kurt’s wife is named Beatrice. She’s not here, but this name will be of use to you, darling. Remember: Beatrice Vogel.”

They all had a good laugh, but Zoriana did not understand why.

Ernst ordered them coffee and some toast.

When they had finished lunch, the friends rose from the table. Ernst paid for everyone, and they went out to the square, where their three cars were parked. Otto and Doris got into theirs, Kurt opened the door of his Opel, and Ernst invited Zoriana to take a seat in Kurt’s car. Ernst’s BMW stood next to it.

Together with the general merriment, Zoriana felt a certain unease.

“Zori,” Ernst said, looking into her eyes. “Don’t be worried.”

He brought out a small bag from the rear seat of the car, and opened it.

“We’ll now drive to the border point on the bridge, the German-Polish border. During these few minutes, you’ll need to be Beatrice Vogel. Here’s your passport. You’re Beatrice Vogel, the wife of Kurt Vogel. If they ask you anything, stay silent. Kurt, your ‘husband,’ will speak for you. Here’s a wig. Kurt made a copy of his wife’s hair in his salon, just like in the passport photograph. Put it on!”

Still feeling off balance from what she had heard, Zoriana put on the wig.

She was frightened, but it flashed through her head that this was the one possibility to save her love and future from a dependency on the German embassy.

With his right hand, Kurt adjusted the wig on Zoriana’s head and, taking out a makeup case, put some powder on her cheeks, and brushed shade onto her eyelids.

“All done,” he said. “Overall, it’s even pretty close. Beatrice’s eyes are a bit lighter, but that’s minor. The face is a little more oval. But, yeah, let’s just say that this has improved her a bit,” he said, laughing.

“Zoriana, Otto and Doris will go first, you and Kurt will go after them, and I’ll take up the rear. The border guard will collect our passports. Kurt will hand over his passport, as well as the passport of his wife, Beatrice. I doubt three vehicles with German plates and German passports will attract any extra attention from the border police. They’re just checking. So you don’t have any reason to be upset. You don’t have to do anything, don’t have to say anything. If things head toward a confrontation, just keep quiet, you can pretend that you have a toothache. Kurt will do the talking. Okay, sweetheart?”

“Okay,” Zoriana said, as cheerfully as she could.

Otto and Doris set off, and Ernst got into his car. Kurt started his engine.

About one hundred metres separated them from the border crossing on the bridge. There were only two cars ahead of their motorcade. The border guard greeted them, took their passports, and peered briefly into the interior of each car, amicably remarking that the noble gentlemen were, presumably, on their way back home. “Beatrice Vogel” moved not an eyebrow.

Her self-control astonished even Kurt.

After three minutes, the border guard returned their passports. They drove on.

And after another three minutes, the procession came to a halt in the parking lot of the German Görlitz.

An occasion like this should be celebrated

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Halyna Petrosanyak (1969, Ukraine), poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator, grew up in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains, and now lives in Switzerland. A poem from her 1996 debut collection won Ukraine’s Bu-Ba-Bu prize for the year’s best poem. She has since been awarded the 2007 Hubert Burda Literary Prize for East European Poetry (Austria), and the 2010 Ivan Franko Prize for Literature (Ukraine), and she has held residencies at KulturKontakt (Vienna, 2001), Villa Waldberta (Munich, 2011), the City of Graz (2013), and the Lyrikatelier Biel (2022). In addition to numerous essays and translations, Petrosanyak is the author of four poetry collections, one novel—Villa Anemona (Vydavnytsvo 21, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Don’t Keep Me from Saving the World (Dyskursus, 2019).

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Jeff Kochan is a Canadian-Swiss writer, translator, and academic from Alberta, now living in Switzerland. His poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and translations have appeared in several Canadian literary journals, and his scholarly writings can be found in diverse international academic journals. He has translated into English the Bernese Swiss German poetry and the German postcard stories of, respectively, the Swiss writers Kurt Marti and Franz Hohler. He is currently translating into English portions of Ukrainian historian Zhana Kovba’s 2009 book, Compassion in the Depths of Hell: Conduct of the Local Population in Eastern Galicia during the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” (Kyiv: Dukh i Litera).

“Little Fluff” by Catherine Hoffman

Teendők halálom után by Miklós Vámos

Kovács Sanyit szerették Ladánybenén. Ő viszont szívből utálta a szülőfaluját. Annál erősebben csak a szülőapját, akinek legfőbb nevelési eszköze egy öreg, itt-ott repedező bikacsök volt. Sanyi megkérdezte, honnét szerezte, de nem kapott választ. A Kovács családban ritkán jöttek válaszok, ennek következtében a kérdések is elapadtak.

Kovács Bélát, az apját nem szerették Ladánybenén. A legutolsó ház volt az övé Csikós dűlőn. Lovakat patkolt, a kert sarkában lévő fészert használta műhelyként. Cigánynak tekintették, pedig tót volt, a nagyapját – Sanyi dédapját – még úgy hívták: Kožický. Állítólag Mária Terézia királynő idejében telepítették át őket Szlovákiából. Kovács Béla kisebb lakatosmunkákat is vállalt, hogy javítson a helyzetén, de hiába, sötét árnyalatú bőre miatt nem volt képes leradírozni magáról az előítéletet. A holokauszt idején elvitték, a cigányokkal együtt, csak akkor tudta igazolni magát, amikor a felesége utána futott a nagyapa keresztlevelével, amelyen szerepelt a dédpapa neve.

Durva, fennhéjázó ember volt, nem tűrt ellentmondást. Haragudott a világra, mert cigánynak minősítették, a felmenőire, mert nem gyűjtöttek össze jelentős vagyont, a feleségére, mert csak egy fiút szült neki. Azt nem vette számításba, hogy egy másikkal azért vetélt el, mert ő ostorral kergette az asszonyt ki az utcára, valamiféle háztartási mulasztás miatt. Sanyi igyekezett megvédeni az anyját, ő is kapott néhány határozott sújtást az arcába, később ezeket himlőhelynek gondolták az emberek, attól fogva ő is azt mondta, hogy igen, elvakarta a keléseket, őt nem figyelmeztették, hogy akkor megmaradnak..

Háromszor szökött meg, vándorbotra kötött batyuval, de a csendőrök mindig visszavitték, olyankor az apja úgy megverte a bikacsökkel, hogy lábra se tudott állni. No, ebbül majd tanulsz, te barom! – és durr, durr, durr!

Mihály tisztelendő úr eljött a házukhoz, próbált Kovács Béla lelkére beszélni, ő elhajtotta: Ebbe senki ne dumáljon bele, én nemzettem erre a világra, ha akarom, én is pusztítom el, no, viszlát, tisztelendő úr, kívül tágasabb.

Sanyi csak hat elemit végzett, utána az apja a földeken dolgoztatta, sokszor maga helyett, mert a patkolás többet hozott a konyhára. Tizenhét lehetett, amikor az anyjának nem sikerült kimosnia egy borfoltot az apja ingéből, önként feküdt hasra a földön, hogy az ostorcsapások a hátát érjék. Kovács Béla ekkor – mindannyiuk meglepetésére – a derékszíjat rántotta ki a nadrágjából, hogy azzal üssön. Az anyja vinnyogó hangon könyörgött, Béla, ne a csattal, az isten álgya meg, ne a csattal! – ez olaj volt a tűzre, a fémdarab keményen durrant az asszony hátán, csontot ért. Sanyi odaugrott, élő pajzsként, a csatt a szemét találta el, furcsamód mind a kettőt, szinte megvakította. Megragadott valamit, ami gereblyének bizonyult, úgy emelte két kézzel a feje fölé, ahogyan a nagybaltát szokták, s odavágott vele. Kovács Béla összecsuklott. Az anyja jajveszékelt, jaj, édes Sanyikám, mit tettél, jajistenem, mit tettél! – rázogatta, élesztgette a férjét, hiába. Addigra Sanyi visszanyerte a látását, kifordult az ajtón. Szemerkélt az eső, a hűvös cseppek úgy landoltak a feje tetején, mintha parányi kavicsok hullanának a mennyekből. Isten ad jeleket?

Elkullogott a rendőrségre, köszönés helyett bejelentette: Hát, agyoncsaptam az apámat, gyüttem börtönbe.

Soká tartott még, amíg kimondták az ítéletet, szándékos emberölésért. A kirendelt védőügyvéd az erős felindulás megállapításáért küzdött, Sanyi azonban minden terelő kérdésre fittyet hányva azt ismételgette: Nem tom, tisztelettel, lehet, hogy meg akartam ölni, mer ez így má nem mehetett tovább. Az anyja végigzokogta a tárgyalásokat. Sanyi az ítélethozatal előtti napon töltötte be a tizennyolcadikat, ennek is köszönhetően tíz év szabadságvesztésre ítélték. A szegedi Csillagba került.

Kovács Sándort a börtönben is szerették. Mintha kivirult volna. Állandóan mosolygott. Sanyi, te minek örülsz már megint? – kérdezte egy rabtárs. Én, kérlek szépen, nem tudom. Mindig boldog vagy? Asszem igen.

A smasszerok is kedvelték, kivételeztek vele, amióta kérésre gyerekjátékokat faragott nekik, hozott anyagból. A vésőt és a kalapácsot csak az irodában használhatta, szoros felügyelettel. De látták, nem akar ő semmi rosszat se másnak, se magának. Csodás pici hintalovat, szuronyos katonát, Szűz Máriát és Szent Pétert készített, szalonnadarabkákkal fényesítve. Rábízták a könyvtárat. Vesszőtálcán hordozta szét a rongyos köteteket, s úgy ajánlgatott bizonyos regényeket, mintha olvasta volna.

Heti kétszer bejárt egy tanár, Sanyi szorgalmasan gyakorolta a betűvetést, a helyesírást, mag a számtani alapműveleteket. Ugyanaz az ember nyelvet is tanított, oroszt és angolt. Sanyi az angolt választotta. Pedig a smasszerok az oroszra akarták rábeszélni, annak több hasznát venné. Ő azonban ragaszkodott az angolhoz, a cirill betűkhöz nem volt kedve. Elhatározta, ha kikerül innét, mindennel foglalkozik, csak földet nem túr, állatot nem gondoz. Nadrágos ember lesz, városi.

A rácsok mögött megállt az idő. Sanyi alig érzékelte a napok, a hetek, az évek múlását. Arcszőrzete olyan gyér és vékonyszálú volt, hogy hagyta nőni. Az egyik fegyőr szerint Nepomuki Szent Jánosra hasonlít, akinek arcképe látható a közeli templomban, majd megnézheti, ha szabadul. Ő a szabadulásra nem gondolt, nem is vágyott. Jól érezte magát. Míg a többi rab szünet nélkül számolgatta, hogy mikor telik le az ideje, Sanyi élvezettel merült a napok végtelennek tetsző óceánjába. A börtönmiséken sokszor részt vett, noha az imák helyett a saját belső filmjeit nézte, amelyek élvezetekkel teli jövőjét vetítették. Ha kitölti a tíz évet, s nem eresztik ki innen a jó magaviselete miatt, huszonnyolc lesz, amikor a többszörös rácsajtókon keresztül a szabad életbe léphet. Még előtte az élet! Úgy képzelte, sütni fog a nap, és fúj a tavaszi szél. Azt valamilyen okból biztosra vette, hogy tavasz lesz.

Újságot a rabok nem olvashattak, rádiót nem hallgathattak. Mégis beszivárogtak bizonyos hírek, a barátságosabb smasszeroktól. A legalapvetőbb, újra és újra elterjedő értesülés az volt, hogy általános amnesztiát hirdet a kormány. Ezt szerették bizonygatni a magukat legokosabbnak hívő elítéltek.

Egyszer csak azt a bizalmas hírt árulta el Sanyinak valamelyik fegyőr, hogy kitört a forradalom. Ugyan má, gondolta ő, a szociálizmusba nincsen forradalom. De egyre több jel utalt rá, hogy talán mégis. Megkettőzték a smasszerok számát, és csökkentették a kedvezményeket, például a séta időtartamát, ahol a rabok feltűnés nélkül cserélhették ki értesüléseiket. Valamelyikük talált egy eldobott újságot a kerítés mentén, gyorsan átfutotta, mielőtt elkobozták tőle. Tüntetnek az egyetemisták Budapesten. Az írók kiáltványokat fogalmaznak és tiltakoznak. Uramatyám.

Másnap bezörgettek minden cellába, s megparancsolták, hogy körletenként vonuljanak a zuhanyozóba. Mi a fene? Hetenként csak egyszer mehettek oda, s tegnapelőtt voltak.

Hatosával kísérték le az embereket a földszinti helyiségekbe, ahol a látogatások zajlottak. Senki nem akarta elhinni, de valóban szabadultak. Visszakapták a civil ruhájukat, ezeket papírzsákokban őrizték, többnyire megpenészedtek. Akié nem, az se járt jobban, mert a rabság idején kihíztak mindent. Érdekes módon Kovács Sanyira passzolt a cejgnadrág és az orosz nyakú ing, amiben bevonult ide, a cipője is illett a lábára, csak a fűzők szakadoztak el.

A kétszárnyú vaskapuhoz vezető első udvaron néhány öltönyös ember álldogált, valamennyi szabadulóval kezet fogtak, és sok szerencsét kívántak a Budapesti Forradalmi Bizottság nevében. Egyikükről lehetett tudni, hogy híres színész, a bátyja is itt raboskodott, a politikaiak közt.

Kovács Sanyi megállt a poros utcán. Ősz volt ugyan, de a nap sütött, s fújdogált az enyhe szél, cirógatta a haját. Most aztán hová? Kaptak búcsúzóul némi pénzt, tellett volna vonatjegyre, hogy eljusson Ladánybenére. Oda azonban nem kívánkozott. Kevéssel azelőtt kapta a hírt, hogy az anyja, aki újabban már nem látogatta, meghalt. Hiába, jobb ötlete nem lévén, mégis odavonatozott. A vasútállomáson és a görbe utcákon nem ismert rá senki. A Csikós-dűlő végén a ház elhagyatottnak látszott. A kertkapu nincs lelakatolva, berúgta. Néhány macska és egy kóbor kutya rebbent szét. A gyom térdig ért. A verandán leült a dikóra, ahol az anyja szokott megpihenni az egész napi lótás-futás után. No, most aztán?

Furcsamód a nedvesedő vályogfalakból áradó savanyú penészszag hatására sújtott le rá az éles fájdalom, akár egy kivégző bárd. Erre nem számított. Térdre hullott, és zokogott, vinnyogó hangon, ahogyan az anyja szokott. Istenem… szegény anya, elemésztette a magány. Most, hosszú idő után az apja is agyába ötlött, akit ő küldött a halálba. Eegen… az igazságügyi orvosszakértő szerint egy szemvillanás alatt meghalt, a gereblye három foga ütötte át a koponyacsontot, létfontosságú területen fúródva az agyba. Sanyi ezt el sem tudta képzelni, noha a bűnügyi eljárás alatt sokszor megpróbálta.

Megöltem az apámat, motyogta, milyen ember vagyok én? Nem volt képes lelkifurdalást érezni, de most már bánta, hogy elutasította az ügyvéd javaslatait, először azt, hogy önvédelemnek állítsa be a történteket, aztán hogy az erős fölindulást hangsúlyozza. Talán bűnhődni akart? Vagy szenvedni azért, amilyen helyzetbe az anyját taszította, aki nemcsak a férjét vesztette el, hanem a bevételi forrását is. Csak úgy tudott gondoskodni magáról, hogy eladogatott mindent, kezdve a műhely szerszámaival, folytatva a mezőgazdasági eszközökkel, a bútorokkal és a három parcella földdel. Mielőtt végső álmába szenderült, tárgyalt az egyik téesszel, megvették volna a házat magtárnak, erre már nem került sor. Sanyi nem bánta volna, ő úgyis elmegy innét, amint lehet s szabad. Kecskemétre. Vagy a fővárosba, ott pörög az igazi élet.

Délután lövöldözés kezdődött a falu főterén. Valaki bezörgetett az utcára néző ablakon: Ki van odabe? Sanyi ment a kertkapuhoz, csak én.

Gyerekkori pajtása, Józsi állt ott, Balog Józsi. Kezében kétcsövű vadászpuskával. Benyúlt a függőleges lécek fölött, és magához rántotta, átölelte: Sanyiii, te ithol? Sanyi egy pillanatra hátrébb lépett, kinyitotta a kaput, és visszaölelte. Úristen, mennyi mindent csináltak együtt kiskorukban, tették a rosszfákat a tűzre, s kapták a kiadós veréseket az apjuktól. Sanyinak újra csorogni kezdte a könnyei.

Hát én azt nem is tudtam, hogy téged kiengedtek! – Józsi hangjának most már nagyon cigányos lett a kunkorodása. Korábban nem így beszélt, vagy Sanyi nem vette észre. Amnesztia, suttogta. Naccerű, gyere velem! Hová? Hát te nem tudod? kitört a forradalom, barátom, elkergetjük a tanácselnököt meg a párttitkárt, és most má jó lesz!

Derűlátó lendületének egy töredéke átragadt Sanyira. Ő is elővette az apja ütött-kopott flóbertpuskáját a kamrából, s noha töltényt nem talált hozzá, vitte magával. Mire odaértek, legalább harminc fölfegyverkezett ember rikoltozott a tanácsháza előtt. A faluban szolgáló három rendőr holtsápadtan állta körül a bejáratot, pisztollyal hadonászva: Oszoljunk, emberek, mer baj lesz! – ismételgette az egyik gépiesen. A kutya se törődött vele. A cigányok bátorodtak föl leghamarább, kapanyéllel terelték félre a rendőröket, eszetekbe se jusson, hogy lőjetek, forradalom van, ha nem tudnátok! – betódultak az épületbe. Addigra a tanácselnök és a többi hivatalos személy már meglépett a hátsó kijáraton, széjjel spricceltek.

A cigányok ledöntötték az iratszekrényeket, és kitörtek néhány belső ablakot. Aznapra ennyi volt a forradalom Ladánybenén.

Este az iskolában tartottak gyűlést, kokárdákkal az ingükön. Sanyinak Józsi adott egyet. Megalakították a Forradalmi Bizottmányt, amelynek feladata a falu vezetése. Balog Józsi lett az elnök, a cigányok egyhangúan rá szavaztak, ő pedig addig erőskötött, míg Sanyit választották helyettesének. Utána átvonultak a kocsmába, megünnepelni, hogy mostantól ők az urak itten. Sanyi szinte soha nem ivott alkoholt, a vegyes pálinkától hamar berúgott, és az asztal alá csúszott. Józsi vitte haza, lefektette a tiszta szobában az egyetlen ágyra, ami megmaradt a bútorokból. Sanyi a forradalom következő két napját átaludta, hiába zörgetett be érte a barátja, hogy menjenek gyűlésbe. Így nélküle hozta meg a legfontosabb döntéseit a Forradalmi Bizottmány öt tagú vezetőségéből a többi négy. Józsiék nyári konyhájában.

Mire Sanyi csatlakozhatott hozzájuk, már nagyon éhes volt. Józsi anyja megetette szalonnával, friss kenyérrel és juhtúróval. Nem győzött hálálkodni. Az enyhén púpos asszony csak nevetett, enni azér mindig jut, akárkik a kormányok, csak lehessen állatunk meg kertünk, erre tik is ügyeljetek. Engedelmesen bólintott. Fogalma se volt, hogyan kéne ügyelni rá. Majd alakul.

Hallották a rádióban, hogy a ruszkik kimennek, nagyon örültek, erre is koccintottak. Ehelyett a ruszkik inkább bejöttek. Az országúton görögtek a tankok és a teherautók Pest felé. Ajjaj, mondta Józsi, bajba leszünk!

Úgy döntöttek, meglépnek innen. Balog Józsi nagybátyjához mentek, Dabasra. Ott töltöttek néhány napot, aztán Sanyi köszönetet mondott, és elindult Budapest felé, gyalogosan. Ahol ráesteledett, megaludt a földeken.

Vecsésen tartóztatták föl az oroszok, fegyverrel kísérték egy gépállomásra, amelyet gyűjtőhelynek rendeztek be. Legalább ötszázan vártak itt a sorukra. A legkülönbözőbb rémhírek terjengtek. Kihallgatás után nyomban kivégzik őket. Sőt kihallgatás helyett. Megint az lesz, hogy málenkij robot, mint negyvenhatba, s visznek Szibériába, sopánkodtak az idősebbek. Vagy olyan lágerba, mint a zsidókat a németek, oszt nekünk annyi!

Ezek egyike sem ígért semmi jót. Sanyi úgy döntött, az első adandó alkalommal megszökik. Erre akkor nyílt mód, amikor lovaskocsival kihajtottak a gépállomásról, valamilyen raktárba indultak, kenyeret és konzerveket vételezni. Egyetlen géppisztolyos katona volt hét fogolyra, az is a bakon ült a fuvaros mellett. Amikor bekanyarodtak egy szélesebb utcára, Sanyi átvetette magát a saroglyán, s belehengeredett a gyommal sűrűn telenőtt vízelvezető árokba. Lehunyt szemmel számolt magában húszig, míg a keréknyikorgás elhalkult. No… megúsztam?

Csak akkor folytatta útját, amikor besötétedett, igyekezett a településeken kívül maradni. Fázott, nem volt nála meleg ruha, kénytelen volt lopni köpenyt és lópokrócot egy istállóból. Iratait és kevéske pénzét a nyakában lógó vászonzacskóban tartotta, amit Józsi anyjától kapott. Fogalma se volt, merre jár. Vasúti sínek állták útját. Éppen közeledett egy hosszú tehervonat, csikorogva meg is állt. Isten küldte, gondolta, és fölmászott a vaslétrán az utolsó vagon peronjára. Amint a szerelvény indult tovább, letelepedett a fékezőfülkében. Hamar álomba merült.

Nem tudni, mennyi idő múlva ébresztette föl, két egyenruhás. Sanyi automatikusan a magasba emelte a karját. Nyugi, fiam, mink vasutasok vagyunk.

Annyira összebarátkoztak, hogy elárulták Sanyinak, ők a maguk részéről átszállnak egy másik vonatra Rákosrendezőn, és meg sem állnak Sopronig. Mostan át lehet szökni Ausztriába. Onnan meg, ki hová vágyik. Anglia is lehet? Mér ne, fiam, Ausztriába hontalanok leszünk, kapunk nanzen útlevelet, az mindenhova jó, kivéve Magyarországot, hehe.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Miklós Vámos (1950, Budapest) is a Hungarian writer who has had over forty books published, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly thirty languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the five thousand Hungarian Jews sent off to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.

“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

ПАНІ ФОҐЕЛЬ ВІЗА НЕ ПОТРІБНА by Halyna Petrosanyak

«Курт, мабуть, таки мав рацію, – думав Ернст, коли його «BMW» опинився на погано освіченому польському шосе, що вело до українського кордону, – не варто було їхати сюди автом». Мало того, що дорога кепсько освічена, але і якість її залишала бажати кращого: Ернстів автомобіль – пестун бездоганного німецького автобану – час від часу незвично підстрибував і хитався. До кордону, за Ернстовими підрахунками, залишалося кілометрів з п’ятнадцять.

Він їхав в Україну, його вела зоря. Ім’я дівчини – Зоряна – було цією зорею. Він листувався із Зоряною вже вісім місяців, – з березня дев’яносто шостого року, – й плекав щодо неї серйозні наміри. І ось їхав, щоб нарешті побачити її, хвилювався, думав про опцію розчарування. Але у листах Зоряна була розумною й дотепною, іноді реагувала на його слова з іронією й гумором, напруги спротиву у їхньому листуванні не відчувалося. Її німецька була цілком пристойна. Ернст відчував у Зоряні матір своїх дітей. Про це він думав з хвилюючим теплом у грудях.

Звісно, в Україні Ернст ще ніколи не був. Рік тому він навіть не усвідомлював, що існує така країна: для нього, як і для 95 відсотків його співвітчизників, одразу за східним кордоном Польщі, Словаччини й Угорщини починалася Росія. І хоч Радянський союз розпався п’ять років тому, але ж Росія в уявленні західних європейців залишилася там, де й була. Лише від Зоряни він з подивом довідався, що існує українська мова, якою послуговуються зо три десятки мільйонів людей. Дівчина запевняла, що це не діалект російської, що українська віддалена від російської настільки, як голландська від німецької. Ернст відкрив для себе цілий світ, про який досі не відав ні сном ні духом.

Він виявив, що чимало речей, які в його оточенні вважаються російськими, насправді є українськими: козаки в широких штанях, вишиваний жіночий одяг, суп з червоних буряків (забув, як він у них називається), ба навіть найбільший літак у світі «Мрія» і Сергій Бубка, за спортивними досягненнями якого Ернст здавна стежив.

Знайомством із Зоряною Ернст завдячує Оксані. Вона гарна, енергійна, любить чепурно вдягатися, добре виховує свою трирічну доньку. Оксана – дружина Йорґа, Ернстового товариша часів навчання. Вони одружилися чотири роки тому, десь через рік по тому, як Оксана зі Львова приїхала до Гайдельберґа попрацювати в університетській бібліотеці над своїм науковим дослідженням. Вона отримала стипендію для молодих науковців. Свою дисертацію їздила захищати до Львова вже після народження доньки.

Йорґ був щасливий у шлюбі, й Ернст бажав подібного й собі. Самотність гнітила його, йому минуло сорок чотири, він хотів дітей і сімейного затишку. Крім того невеличкий ресторан на першому поверсі їхнього дому – родинне підприємство – вимагав додаткової уваги, а мама, якій недавно минуло сімдесят п’ять, до ресторану більше не заходила. Стосунки з жінками в Ернста якось не складалися. Остання його подруга, якій він два роки тому запропонував одружитися, пропозицію відхилила: мовляв, зустрічатися вони можуть, але заміж вона не хоче, бо для неї у фірмі непогані кар’єрні перспективи, через рік вона може очолити відділ, в якому зараз працює. Шеф невдовзі вийде на пенсію, й директор фірми натякнув їй: ящо не одружиться, може готувалася на його місце.

Отож, гостюючи якось у Йорґа й Оксани, Ернст жартома запитав жінку, чи нема в неї в Україні гарненької неодруженої подруги, яка б розуміла німецьку? Власне, запитання було серйозне, лише що Ернст задав його з вдаваною грайливістю. Оксана зреагувала з ентузіазмом: подруга в неї була, її одногрупниця з університету. Їй тридцять, вона живе в маленькому містечку й мріє про сім’ю, але чоловіка, з яким би можна її планувати, на видноколі немає. Чи нема в Оксани її фото? – намагаючись бути якомога нейтральнішим, запитував Ернст. Світлина була, Оксана знайшла її в альбомі, який привезла з собою зі Львова. На Ернста глянули усміхнені великі карі очі, обличчя дівчини випромінювало радість й ледьпомітну кокетливу задерикуватість. «Це може бути вона, – подумав Ернст, помічаючи, як його серце прискорило ритм, – може, якщо захоче…».

Оксана помітила Ернстів інтерес й запропонувала йому послати його фото Зоряні. Сказала, що зробить це сама, нехай він просто принесе світлину. Через два дні все було владнано: Оксана написала Зоряні, що Ернст хоче познайомитися й має серйозні наміри. Десь через два тижні – чоловік уже й призабув справу – зателефонувала Оксана й сказала, що Зоряна прислала листа: вона не проти знайомства. Оксана дала Ернстові адресу подруги: мовляв, він може написати їй сам.

Увечері Ернст сів писати листа. З чого почати? Люба Зоряно? Ні, мабуть, все таки нейтральніше: «Привіт, Зоряно». А далі? Але врешті лист вийшов невимушений і симпатичний, а ще – дуже відкритий. Ернст мав природне чуття того, де відкритість буде доречною. Це був якраз той випадок. Відповідь не забарилася. Листування продовжилося, після десятка листів Ернст уже знав: цю жінку йому послало провидіння.

Він мешкав у старому родинному двохповерховому будинку на Ринковому майдані маленького містечка у центральній Німеччині. Будинок збудував Ернстів прапрадід, дід відкрив у його партері ресторан, завсідниками якого були містяни, здебільшого, сусіди Ернста. Останнім часом побільшало туристів. Віднедавна підприємство цілком в Ернстових руках, воно приносить непоганий прибуток. На першому поверсі над рестораном було помешкання матері, а на другому – його парубоцькі володіння. Він мріє, щоб в цих стінах засяяло світло його Зоряни.

Ернст усміхається, уявляючи їхню зустріч; відчуває, що не розчарується: його серце сповнене любові й радості. Він запросить її до себе на Різдвяні свята, щоб познайомити зі своїм світом, він зробить усе, щоб їй сподобалося. Вони подорожуватимуть разом, вечорами ходитимуть на концерти, вечерятимуть в Ернстовому улюбленому тайландському ресторані. Можливо, навіть з’їздять в Альпи: в одному з листів Зоряна зізналася, що мріє про них. До речі, вже з листування було видно, що дівчині не бракує практичних рис: вона зробила кілька слушних зауважень щодо ведення справ у ресторані. І ось зараз Ернст їде, щоб нарешті побачити її, познайомитися з її рідними й пізнати Україну.

Курт – його товариш, власник перукарні, що була з іншого боку Ринку, майже напроти Енстового ресторану – радив їхати потягом або взяти на прокат старе авто. Але Ернст його поради не прийняв: про потяг не могло бути й мови, адже він не знав жодного слова українською, а позичати автівку не вважав за необхідне, та і за чотири роки уже звик до свого BMW.

І все ж, здається, Курт таки мав рацію.

ІІ.

До кордону прямувала чимала колона автомобілів, яка невдовзі сповільнилася, що чверть години просуваючись лише на кілька метрів. Іноді перерви в русі ставали тривалішими, й протягом сорока хвилин колона не рушала з місця. Попереду й позаду Ернста з автівок й автобусів виходили люди, курили, щось незадоволено обговорювали, дехто поглядав на іноземця з інтересом, але в розмову ніхто не вступав. Темряву розсікало лиш світло фар, було холодно й волого. Дрібний дощ переходив у сніг. Нарешті через дві години черепашої їзди Ернст побачив прапори: спочатку польський, а за ним вдалині – український.

Але наближення до них було мучівно повільним. Ернстів термос стояв порожній, бутерброди, які чоловік приготував на дорогу, закінчилися. Але більше, ніж голод, допікала потреба сходити в туалет, якого поблизу не було видно, тому довелося просто справити потребу на узбіччі. Він був не єдиний, хто так робив. Близько десятої вечора, після майже трьох годин, впродовж яких вдалося подолати кілометр шляху, Ернст вийшов з авта перед будкою польського паспортного контролю. Розгорнувши його паспорт, польський прикордонник в білих рукавичках глянув на нього, а потім і на авто, з інтересом, що був радше чисто людським, аніж професійним. Він нічого не запитував, лише поставив у паспорт штамп і сказав щось польською, ледь усміхнувшись. Мабуть, побажав щасливої дороги.

В останній телефонній розмові Зоряна казала, що приїде зустрічати Ернста до кордону з кузеном, який мав автівку. Бо, мовляв, самотужки дістатися до її містечка, що лежало за півтора години їзди від кордону, високий гість навряд чи зможе. Але ж є дороговкази! – дивувався Ернст. На це Зоряна лише сміялася. Тепер він зрозумів, що вона мала рацію. Зустріти його вони планували о шостій, а зараз близилася одинадцята. Нарешті чоловік опинився перед віконечком українського прикордонника. Білих рукавичок на руках службовця не було, та і дивився він насторожено й непривітно. Розгорнувши паспорт, він мовив кілька слів, які Ернст, звісно ж, не зрозумів. Не отримавши відповіді, прикордонник підняв на нього погляд, що не обіцяв нічого доброго й, мабуть, повторив сказане.

– I don‘t understand, – сказав Ернст.

– Шо, шо? – з подивом зреагував прикордонник.

Не дочекавшись реакції, Ернст про всяк випадок сказав те саме німецькою:

– Ich verstehe nicht.

– Бляха, – тихо кинув прикордонник і сплюнув перед собою, чим неабияк спантеличив Ернста. – Почекайте тут, – кинув він й кудись пішов.

Ернст, звісно, не зрозумів, але залишився стояти, здогадуючись, що

прикордонник пішов по допомогу. Він розглядався довкола: світло було тьмяне, на всьому лежала якась невідома йому сіра паволока, що навіювала відчуття тяжкої безнадії. Звідкись ззаду вийшли двоє молодих чоловіків у шкіряних куртках й спортивних штанах з білими лампасами по боках і, відверто розглядаючи його машину, перемовлялись між собою, зовсім не дивлячись на нього самого, так ніби його тут і не було. Час від часу вони спльовували, а один навіть кілька разів копнув носаком черевика шину заднього колеса.

– Еin gutes Auto, nicht wahr?[1] – якомога приязніше сказав Ернст, звертаючись до них, але відповіді не дочекався. Типи в спортивних штанях кинули недопалки під ноги й пірнули в котрусь з автівок позаду. Тим часом з дверей будівлі вийшов службовець з його паспортом в руках. Поруч з ним ішов інший, старший. Сівши в кабінку паспортного контролю, другий глянув на Ернста:

– Jaka jest cel wizyty pana na Ukrainę?

– Sorry, I don‘t understand, – сказав Ернст.

– Холєра, він і по-польськи ні бе ні ме. Шось там шпрехає, а по-якому, неясно.

– Та, мабуть, по німецьки, не видиш – німак. Скажи Юркові, хай добре прошманає його «беху», що він там везе, та й хай їде до холєри.

Один з прикордонників залишився сидіти в будці, а інший кудись пішов собі з Ернстовим паспортом, зробивши у бік іноземця жест, який, мабуть, означав заохочення проїжджати вперед, щоб звільнити місце перед будкою для іншого авто. Бо що ще вони могли запропонувати Ернстові?

Через п’ять хвилин, з німецьким вівчуром на повідку з’явився митник, кремезний тип, який дивився на Ернста з інтересом. Запитавши щось й отримавши у відповідь Ернстове «sorry, i don‘t understand», він жестами спонукав відчиняти двері автівки. Сказав щось псові, який швидко обнюхав усі закутки автомобіля й спокійно став поруч з господарем. Митник показав на сумку, що стояла в багажнику. Ернст відкрив її, митник почав перебирати речі й, вийнявши одну з чотирьох упаковок кави, сказав:

– Можна ввозити лише 500 грам, а у вас тут цілий кілограм.

Ернст не зрозумів, і тоді службовець жестами продемонстрував йому сказане.

– Okay, – сказав Ернст, бо хотів нарешті поїхати звідси.

Митник конфіскував половину кави й залишився задоволений, Ернст отримав свій паспорт й сів за кермо.

Зоряна казала, що вони з братом чекатимуть його за сто метрів до

прикордонного пункту. Але зупинитися там не було жодної можливості, чоловік змушений був рухатися далі в потоці машин. Ернст зупинився, як тільки випала нагода, запаркувався на узбіччі й вирішив повернутися до кордону пішки. Він мав надію, що Зоряна з братом все ще чекали на нього, хоча вже минала дванадцята. Він ступив у темряву й, пройшовши в ній зо сто метрів, раптом почув звук сигналізації свого автомобіля. Не роздумуючи, кинувся назад, й добігаючи, побачив біля дверей автомобіля темний силует:

– Stop! Stop! Ich rufe Polizei an![2] – закричав він.

Силует кинувся геть від авта, а через хвилину за кілька десятків метрів попереду почулося ревіння двигуна. На щастя, двері авта Ернст відчинив без зусиль, в світлі автомобіля побачивши на землі відмичку, якою орудував злодій. Загорнувши в серветку, він сховав її до кишені й сів за кермо. Міркував, що мусить діяти особливо зосереджено й виважено, адже ситуація непроста. Знайти тут Зоряну і її кузена буде годі, навіть якщо вони десь поблизу. По цей бік кордону ще темніше, дороговкази погано видимі й написані лише кирилицею, на читання якої Ернстові потрібен час. Той, хто намагався відкрити його автомобіль, може спробувати зробити це знову, тому авто покидати не варто. Він мав номер Зоряниного домашнього телефону, але шукати зараз телефонний автомат було б нерозумно. Якщо тут узагалі є телефонні автомати… Його пейджер мовчав, що й не дивно: очевидно, тут не було мережі, бо Зоряна уже б надіслала йому повідомлення. Ернст завів двигун і рушив у ніч.

Через кілька сотень метрів він зауважив вказівник, але щоб прочитати його, мусив зупинитися. Назви Зоряниного містечка на вказівнику, здається, не було, тому чоловік вирішив їхати до Львова: навіть якщо тут і є коротша дорога до його мети, то знайти її буде годі. Від Львова до Зоряни 40 хвилин їзди, але, зрештою, у Львові можна і заночувати. Годинник показував пів на першу.

Падав мокрий сніг. Дорога була ще гіршою, ніж у Польщі, автівку підкидало на вибоїнах, Ернст потерпав, щоб не пошкодити її. Їхав повільно, його оминали навіть радянські «Москвичі». В якийсь момент чоловік помітив, що позаду нього вже достатньо довго їде «Volkswagen Passat», який давно міг би його обігнати. Про всяк випадок Ернст сповільнив швидкість, але «Volkswagen» вперто залишався позаду. Отже, це був хвіст, мабуть, його переслідували ті, хто намагався відкрити автівку пів години тому. Ернст газонув і, обігнавши два автомобілі, глянув у дзеркало. «Passat» теж кинувся в обгін.

До Львова залишалося кілометрів з сорок. Ернст не мав уявлення, куди поїде зі Львова далі, однак вирішив відірватися від переслідувачів. Він не збавляв швидкості, й розрив між ним й «Пасатом» збільшувався. І ось в якусь мить Ернст побачив вказівник, на якому впізнав назву Зоряниного містечка. Містечко лежало за тридцять кілометрів, й не вагаючись, на об’їзній Ернст повернув у напрямку, який пропонував вказівник: на ще темнішу й вужчу дорогу. Глянувши в дзеркало, «хвоста» чоловік не виявив: очевидно, той відірвався й не збагнув, куди саме на роздоріжжі звернув омріяний сьомий «BMW».

Згодом Ернст довідається, що його автівка тут коштувала як помешкання в центрі Львава й була предметом марень того прошарку криміналу, який мав неабиякі амбіції. Як йому згодом розповіли, на «бехах» тут їздили ватажки серйозних злочинних груп. Вищим в ієрархії був хіба що шестисотий «Mercedes».

Коли вкрай знесилений Ернст після кружлянь містечком нарешті знайшов потрібну адресу, добре відому з листування, – вулиця Срібних джерел, будинок 7, – годинник показував чверть на третю. В домі не спали: двері назустріч нічному гостеві відчинилися одразу по натисканні дзвінка, і в них з’явилася здивована кароока красуня – Зоряна. Її любі очі сміялися. Позаду неї стояли батьки, кузен і кіт.

III.

Ернст прокинувся від запаху смаженого м’яса й тихого, але інтенсивного руху на кухні: там шкварчали сковорідки, подзенькував посуд, кипіла вода. На сніданок подали котлети з підсмаженими грінками й яєчнею, молочну рисову кашу з родзинками й медом, налисники з домашнім сиром і джемом. Ернст намагався пояснити, що звик снідати канапкою з сиром, яку запиває кавою з молоком. Канапку й каву йому негайно подали, але знехтувати рештою не дали: на його тарілці чергувалися котлети, грінки, налисники. Обговорювали вчорашній вечір: виявляється, Зоряна з Павлом – так звали кузена – чекали на нього біля кордону від шостої до дванадцятої, отож, коли він проходив контроль, а потім намагався їх знайти у темряві, були десь зовсім поблизу.

Зараз, дивлячись в очі дівчини, Ернст забув усі нічні неприємності. Зоряна була такою, як він собі й уявляв: вона була мрією. Вони добре розумілися, їм не бракувало тем для розмов. Наступного дня було сухо, й вони вирішили поїхати до Львова. Але Ернстове авто не взяли, щоб не привертати небажаної уваги, а скористалися потягом, в якому гість мав стійке враження подорожі в минуле. Зате ефект від Львова був іншої якості: Ернст відкрив для себе чудовий світ. Вони піднялися до похмурої Цитаделі, від якої відкривався прекрасний вид на середмістя. Ернст узяв Зорянину руку:

– Ти не розчарована? – запитав він.

– Навпаки, – сказала вона, з усмішкою дивлячись йому в вічі, – я зачарована остаточно.

– Я теж, – сказав чоловік і вперше припав до її любих вуст.

З цієї миті вони були парою, й не існувало жодної сили, яка б могла цьому протистояти.

Ернстова відпустка тривала два тижні. З собою він привіз заздалегідь оформлене в поліції запрошення для Зоряни: вони домовилися, що дівчина негайно подасть заяву на гостьову візу до посольства Німеччини. План був такий: Зоряна отримає візу на місяць, Ернст познайомить її з мамою й друзями, вони проведуть разом Різдвяні свята. Він покаже їй своє оточення, і якщо на те буде її воля, вона стане королевою його світу. Вони поберуться в Німеччині. Зоряні план подобався, і вона заходилася збирати необхідні довідки.

Це виявилося непросто. Вона працювала в одній із трьох шкіл свого містечка, її платня була більш ніж скромною. До посольства треба було подати довідку з місця роботи із зазначенням заробітку. Малий заробіток підвищував ризик, що в посольстві Німеччини заявницю запідозрять у намірі не повертатися. Підставою для подібних підозр був і сімейний стан: неодружена. Німецьке посольство неохоче давало візи молодим неодруженим українкам. Але робити було нічого.

На Зорянине прохання про довідку з роботи директорка школи насторожилася, а коли довідалася, що її вчителька збирається подавати документ до посольства Німеччини, взагалі, опечалилась. Зоряна знала, що для її колег, дев’яносто відсотків з яких – жінки, її збирання документів на візу завтра стане сенсацією. Нарешті через три дні інтенсивної біганини інстанціями, в якій Ернст її супроводжував, дивуючись бюрократичній дрімучості, усе було готове. Зібравши перекладені й засвідчені нотарем папери, у середу ввечері Ернст із Зоряною сіли на київський потяг. Чоловік не міг зрозуміти: чому не можна в посольство надіслати документи поштою? Чому, щоб отримати візу на захід, обов’язково треба подолати шлях в 500 кілометрів на схід?

Але справжні випробування чекали їх у посольстві. Коли вони близько восьмої години ранку нарешті опинилися поблизу нього, то побачили велетенську чергу, в якій їм довелося провести три години. Вони були серед останніх, кого впустили до середини сьогодні, чимало людей позаду стояли даремно. Нарешті близько дванадцятої вони вийшли з посольства з талончиком, який давав право через три дні забрати паспорт з візою. Або з відмовою. Через три дні знову їхати за п’ятсот кілометрів? – дивувався Ернст. Можна було просити когось з київських знайомих забрати паспорт за дорученням, але близьких у дівчини тут не було. Чекати три дні в Києві – теж не найкращий варіант. Отож, погулявши містом, увечері вони подалися на потяг й уранці прибули до Львова.

В понеділок наступного тижня пара вже знову збиралася в дорогу. Купейні квитки туди і назад коштували ледь не цілу Зорянину платню. Подорож тривала цілу ніч. В купе поруч з ними їхав мовчазний чоловік середніх років в краватці й з чорним дипломатом; увечері тип насторожено спостерігав за своїми сусідами, але не мовив до них ані слова.

Коли нарешті після обіду вони забрали в посольстві паспорт й розгорнули його, то замість візи побачили штамп, який означав відмову. На прохання пояснити, службовець у віконечку відреагував сухо: мовляв, рішення приймає консул на підставі наданих заявником документів, візовий відділ зберігає за собою право не пояснювати причин відмови, але якщо ви не згідні з рішенням, ви маєте право протягом місяця подати апеляцію і тоді….

Зоряна засмутилася, Ернст кипів від злості. Він запитав, коли можна поговорити з консулом, і йому назвали термін – в останній робочий день місяця в консула прийомний день для громадян. Але грудень щойно почався. Було зрозуміло, що з’ясувати нічого не вдасться. Вони вийшли на вулицю й Ернст сказав:

– Не турбуйся, моя дорога. Я не дозволю їм поламати наші плани на Різдво. Ми щось придумаємо.

Дорогою Ернст розпитував Зоряну, де саме й скільки часу виготовляють закордонний паспорт, як діють в разі втрати або псування паспорта й подібні речі. Зоряна розповіла й казала, що випадки, коли візові заяви одиноких неодружених жінок посольство відхиляє – непоодинокі. Уже вдома Ернст попросив Зоряну, дати йому паспорт, накрив стіл старими газетами, поклав на них паспорт, розгорнувши на сторінці, де був штамп про відмову і, взявши чорнильницю з письмового столу, вилив на штамп частину її вмісту.

– Що ти робиш? – засміялася Зоряна.

– Твоя реакція мені подобається, – відповів чоловік. – Не турбуйся, дівчинко, ми зробимо тобі новий, чистенький паспорт.

– Любий, але ж по візу мені звертатися все одно до них, і в їхній інформаційній базі вже зареєстрована моя заява і те, що вони її розглянули з негативним результатом.

– Не турбуйся, Зорянко, ми обійдемося без них. Завтра подамо прохання на виготовлення нового паспорта. Скільки часу на це потрібно?

– Мінімальний термін – тиждень, щоправда, це дорого.

– Пусте, що дорого. Шкода лише, що мені через п’ять днів пора додому. Але і це не біда. До Різдва ще три тижні. Встигнемо.

ІV.

Наступного дня, вистоявши довжелезну чергу в паспортному відділі міграційної служби, вони таки подали заяву на виготовлення нового паспорта, заплативши невеликий штраф за зіпсований старий і додавши його до заяви. Наступні чотири дні пара провела в мандрівках і в колі родичів Зоряни. Двох вечорів вони вечеряли при свічках, хоч і не зовсім з власної волі: в Україні були перебої з постачанням електроенергії. Щоб зекономити електрику, її просто, за графіком, припиняли постачати. Але ці дивовижі не кидали жодної тіні на Ернстове щастя. Та і Зорянина сім’я була в захваті від майбутнього зятя: чотирнадцять років різниці у віці між нареченими більше не здавалися Зоряниній мамі перешкодою.

Якось увечері Зоряна з Ернстом побували на концерті у Львівській

філармонії. Ціну квитка на концерт Ернст визнав сміховинно низькою, а коли Зоряна сказала, що платня музикантів заледве сягає сорока доларів на місяць, чоловік подумав, що йому причулося. Виконання було професійним, крім того, Ернст відкрив для себе українських композиторів: особливо до душі йому припав Василь Барвінський.

В переддень Ернстового від’їзду на сімейній раді вирішили, що авто гостя до кордону супроводжуватиме Павло зі своїм товаришем. Зорянина мама приготувала Ернстові в дорогу такий пакуночок з харчами, ніби дорога майбутнього зятя додому мала тривати щонайменше тиждень. І ось вони прощалися. Вперше Зоряна сиділа в авто поруч з Ернстом, й він з насолодою думав, що невдовзі її присутність стане щоденним найважливішим атрибутом його життя.

Зоряна з Павлом вирішили, що залишаться на кордоні, аж поки Ернст не перетне його. Черга знову була чимала, усе тривало близько трьох годин, але вони були разом.

– Зателефоную тобі одразу, як приїду додому, – казав Ернст, обіймаючи її на прощання.

І зателефонував уранці наступного дня.

Через тиждень Зоряна отримала свій новий паспорт.

– Чудово! – сказав він у телефонну слухавку. – Що потрібно, щоб ти могла поїхати до Польщі?

– Потрібно купити туристичний ваучер, він недорогий. З ним у Польщі можна затриматися, здається, щонайбільше на місяць.

– Дуже добре. Придбай такий ваучер і в п’ятницю, через тиждень, приїжджай з ним у місто Згожелець. Воно лежить на кордоні між Польщею й Німеччиною. Його німецька частина називається…

– Ґьорліц, – сказала Зоряна.

– Саме так, люба. Ти дуже ерудована.

– Я старанно вивчала краєзнавство твоєї країни.

– Я люблю твою старанність.

– А я – тебе.

– От і чудово. Ти приїдеш на вокзал у Згожелець. Я дивився розклад польської залізниці, там є нічний потяг з Перемишля, який прибуває уранці. Я чекатиму тебе на платформі, до якої він прибуде. Візьми з собою речей на місяць….

– Що ти замислив?

– Покладись на мене. Ти ж знаєш – я авантюрист, але чесний і справедливий.

Зоряна сміялася й вирішила покластися на свого чесного й справедливого авантюриста.

V.

Збираючись у дорогу, дівчина хвилювалася. Досі вона лише раз перетинала кордон на Захід, та і подорож була лише до Кракова. Як і більшість вихованців радянської школи, вона остерігалася кордонів: тривале систематичне навіювання того, що за кордоном – неприятель, для «homo sovieticus» не могло минути безслідно. На межі так чи інакше виявляєш, що ти є тим, ким є. Тому й перетин кордону, мов лакмусовий папірець, показує ступінь твоєї внутрішньої свободи. Але в шкалі офіційних цінностей радянських людей поділка «особиста свобода» була нижче нуля.

Приблизно так думала Зоряна, розкриваючи перед зверхнім польським митником у білих рукавичках свою сумку. На запитання прикордонника про мету візиту до Польщі вона намагалася відповідати якомога впевненіше: мовляв, «wizyta do przyjaciel.w». У такі відповіді ніхто не вірив: дев’яносто п’ять відсотків українців, що їхали до Польщі, були «човниками»: так називали дрібних гендлярів горілкою, цигарками й іншим дрібним крамом. Митник здивовано виявив, що нічого з асортименту «човників» у Зоряниній сумці немає й навіть перепитав, чи це й справді увесь її багаж.

На випадок, якби прикордонна служба хотіла конкретніше довідатися про друзів, яких вона має намір відвідати, дівчина збиралася назвати батькових родичів, які жили в Кракові. Перед Зоряниною поїздкою тато телефонував їм і просив у разі необхідності підтвердити, що вони чекають Зоряну в гості й забезпечать її житлом на час перебування в Польщі. Але, на щастя, про це не запитували.

Автобус був напхом напханий товаром «човників»; частину всього польська митниця конфіскувала, закриваючи очі на те, що тридцять п’ять із сорока пасажирок автобуса – підозріло товсті й одягнуті в широкі куртки й довгі спідниці. Службовці вже знали, що під цими куртками й спідницями до тіл прив’язані блоки з цигарками й пляшки з горілкою. Але якщо хтось з них усе ж наважувався обмацати неправдоподібно широкі тілеса котроїсь з цих жіночок, зчинявся неабиякий рейвах. Отож, зазвичай, усе залагоджувалося так, щоб і вовк був ситим, і вівці залишились цілими.

Через митний контроль, який затягнувся на дві години, Зорянин автобус прибув до Перемишля із значним запізненням, й лише дивом дівчина встигла на свій потяг до Згожелця. Її переповнювали різні відчуття: непевність і страх невідомості чергувалися з азартом, а ще з радісною ейфорією: завтра уранці вона знову побачить його! Ернст був чоловіком, за яким Зоряна ладна іти на край світу, не важливо, на захід, схід, північ чи південь. Вона воліла б, щоб такий чоловік народився у її країні й розмовляв її мовою. Але трапилося інакше.

У Згожелці до потяга зайшла прикордонна німецька поліція. Зорянине серце ледь не вистрибнуло з грудей, але що вона виходила в польській частині міста, то її випустили, не перевіряючи документів. Зійшовши з потяга, на пероні вона побачила самотній Ернстів силует. Його затишні обійми повернули дівчині рівновагу й оптимізм.

– Ходімо, люба, – сказав Ернст, – я тут не сам, зі мною Отто, Доріс і Курт, мої друзі. Вони чекають нас поблизу в кав’ярні. Ходімо, вип’ємо каву, зігріємося.

– Друзі? Що ти замислив, Ернсте?

– Скоро дізнаєшся, моє серденько.

Вокзал тут був на пагорбі, до центру польського містечка треба було спускатися униз, до річки. Тиха Ніса розділяла місто навпіл, один з її мостів служив прикордонним пропускним пунктом. На протилежному березі лежав дивом збережений старий Ґьорліц; тут починалася Німеччина.

Було холодно, над ледь притрушеними снігом дахами з димарів здіймався дим. Через чверть години вони зійшли до річки, Зоряна замилувалася готичним храмом на протилежному березі біля старовинного мосту.

– Це собор Петра і Павла, заглянемо туди сьогодні, якщо хочеш. – сказав Ернст.

– У мене немає візи, а церква ж на німецькому боці?

– На німецькому, але пані Фоґель віза не потрібна. – засміявся чоловік.

– Хто така пані Фоґель? – спантеличено запитувала Зоряна. – Що за пташка?

– Зараз дізнаєшся, – загадково відповів Ернст. Вони зайшли до кав’ярні, їм назустріч з-за столика піднялося веселе товариство.

– Знайомся, Зоряно, це – Отто, мій шкільний друг. Отто – худорлявий, з приємними рисами й чималою лисиною – приязно подав Зоряні руку.

– Доріс – дружина Отто, вона дизайнер.

– Дуже приємно, – Зоряна подала руку усміхненій Доріс з рудою чілкою.

– А це – Курт Фоґель, мій сусід, власник перукарні навпроти нашого ресторану. Куртову дружину звуть Беатріс. Її тут немає, але це ім’я тобі пригодиться, люба, запам’ятай: Беатріс Фоґель.

Усі засміялися, щоправда, Зоряна не зрозуміла, з чого.

Ернст замовив для них каву й кілька тостів.

Коли вони поснідали, товариство піднялося з-за столу, Ернст заплатив за всіх і вони подалися до майданчика, де були запарковані три їхні авта: Отто з Доріс сіли в своє, Курт відчинив двері свого «Опеля», й Ернст запросив Зоряну сідати в авто з Куртом. Ернстів «BMW» стояв поруч.

Попри загальні веселощі, Зоряна відчула якесь занепокоєння.

– Зорянко, – сказав Ернст, дивлячись їй у вічі, – лише не хвилюйся.

Із заднього сидіння авта він дістав невеличку сумку й відкрив її.

– Зараз ми проїжджатимемо пункт прикордонного контролю на мосту, це польсько-німецький кордон. На ці кілька хвилин ти мусиш побути Беатріс Фоґель. Ось твій паспорт. Ти – Беатріс Фоґель, дружина Курта Фоґеля. Що б тебе не запитували – мовчи, за тебе говоритиме Курт, твій «чоловік». Ось перука, у своєму салоні Курт виготовив копію зачіски своєї дружини, точнісінько як на фото паспорта. Одягай!

Ще не оговтавшись від почутого, Зоряна вдягла перуку.

Їй було страшно, але в голові промайнула думка, що це єдина можливість не узалежнювати від німецького посольства своє кохання і майбутнє.

Вправними рухами Курт поправляв перуку на її голові і, вийнявши пудреницю, трохи припудрив їй щоки й наклав тіні на повіки.

– Ну ось, сказав він, загалом, навіть дуже схожа. В Беатріс очі трохи світліші, але це дрібне. Обличчя дещо овальніше. Але ж, припустимо, це вона трохи поправилась, – засміявся він.

– Зоряно, першими поїдуть Отто з Доріс, за ними ви з Куртом, а позаду я. Прикордонник збере наші паспорти, Курт подасть йому і паспорт своєї дружини Беатріс. Три автівки з німецькими номерами й німецькі паспорти не викличуть у прикордонників жодного додаткового інтересу, повір. Це перевірено. Тому в тебе немає жодних причин для хвилювання. Тобі не треба нічого робити, нічого говорити. Якщо все ж дійде до конфронтації – ти мовчиш, можеш вдавати, що втебе болить зуб. Говорить Курт. Гаразд, люба?

– Гаразд, – якомога бадьоріше відповіла Зоряна.

Отто з Доріс рушили, Ернст сів у своє авто. Курт завів двигун.

З прикордонним мостом їх розділяло десь метрів зо сто, перед їхнім кортежем було лише дві автівки. Прикордонник привітався, зібрав паспорти й швидко заглянув у салон кожного авто, приязно зауваживши, що панство, мабуть, повертається додому. «Беатріс Фоґель» і бровою не повела.

Її самовладанню здивувався навіть Курт.

Через три хвилини прикордонник повернув паспорти. Вони рушили.

А через наступні три хвилини кортеж зупинився на паркувальному майданчику німецького Ґьорліца.

Таку подію треба було відсвяткувати._

[1] Хороша машина, чи не так? (нім.)

[2] Припиніть! Я викличу поліцію! (нім.)

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Halyna Petrosanyak (1969, Ukraine), poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator, grew up in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains, and now lives in Switzerland. A poem from her 1996 debut collection won Ukraine’s Bu-Ba-Bu prize for the year’s best poem. She has since been awarded the 2007 Hubert Burda Literary Prize for East European Poetry (Austria), and the 2010 Ivan Franko Prize for Literature (Ukraine), and she has held residencies at KulturKontakt (Vienna, 2001), Villa Waldberta (Munich, 2011), the City of Graz (2013), and the Lyrikatelier Biel (2022). In addition to numerous essays and translations, Petrosanyak is the author of four poetry collections, one novel—Villa Anemona (Vydavnytsvo 21, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Don’t Keep Me from Saving the World (Dyskursus, 2019).

Acknowledgements for Recrudescence

Acknowledgements for Recrudescence

The excerpts of Dánial Hoydal and Annika Øyrabo’s Strikurnar / The Lines as well as Bárður Oskarsson’s Hilbert, translated by Marita Thomsen, are excerpted courtesy of Bókadeild Føroya Lærarafelags. A special thanks to Yiddish translator Jordan Kutzik for connecting me with the press.

Halyna Petrosanyak’s short story “ПАНІ ФОҐЕЛЬ ВІЗА НЕ ПОТРІБНА” / “Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” appears courtesy of translator Jeff Kochan.

The excerpt of Teendők halálom után / Things To Do After My Death by Hungarian author Miklós Vámos, translated into English by Ági Bori, is excerpted courtesy of the translator.

The short story “ПРЕЗ ЧУМАВОТО” / “Through the Plague” by Yordan Yovkov, translated from the Bulgarian by Teodora Gandeva appears courtesy of the translator.

“Little Fluff,” an excerpt from Catherine Hoffman’s travel memoir Broken Hero, appears courtesy of literary agent Ted Reilly.

The selection of poems by Rimas Uzgiris is excerpted courtesy of the author.

Eva Moreda’s “As Costuras,” translated from the Galician as “Stitches” by Lindsay Semel, appears courtesy of the translator.

The excerpt of The Red Handler by Johan Harstad, translated from the Norwegian by David Smith, appears courtesy of the author, translator, and Chad Post from Open Letter Books

A special thanks to Mark Chester for supplying the photos for this issue.

 

The Red Handler by Johan Harstad, translated from the Norwegian by David Smith

The Red Handler by Johan Harstad, translated from the Norwegian by David Smith

Chapter 1

Rain-soaked streets. One of the town’s lost souls flew past like a leaf in the wind.1 In the old Opel with Haugesund plates sat the Red Handler, private detective. He took a gulp from a flask etched with the words, To my dear husband.2 He envisioned his ex-wife for a brief second, before the liquor flushed the painful memory down the sewers of oblivion.3 He turned on his car stereo. From the speakers flowed the tones of Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations.4 The later recording, the one from the 80s.

The Red Handler closed his eyes as the eminent piano tones played with his ears.

Chapter 2

Suddenly, he heard a sound. He could see nothing. He opened his eyes. That helped.5 Someone was trying to break into a house a little ways down the street.6

The Red Handler burst out of his vehicle. A short chase ensued. Then it was over. Before the thief could protest, the Red Handler had laid him out, smack on the ground.

“Now I’ve got you,” whispered the Red Handler. The thief knew at once the jig was up.7

Chapter 3

 The weather had cleared. The city was safe once more.

The Red Handler lit a cigarette and got back into his car. After the divorce, this was his sole source of pleasure. To smoke in his own car, free from that bitch’s constant sniping.8

He turned up his car stereo full-blast. From it came some sort of rumba melody.9 That’s just how it was sometimes.

 Endnotes

1 My very first thought, when Frode Brandeggen showed up unannounced at my office in Dresden one afternoon in 2013 with the Red Handler manuscripts, was, in all its prosaic terseness, as follows: This is not particularly good. My subsequent thought, I imagine, was a corruption of the first, and went something like this: This is really, really not good. Dutifully—for I am nothing if not dutiful—I leafed through the heap of papers while he waited impatiently by the window, as I wondered why he’d come all this way to meet me, of all people. How had he even managed to find me? He told me about the one novel he’d had published, his subsequent jobs as a trash collector and library attendant, and the literary comeback he was preparing with what he called “a new form.” I eventually asked him to step out for a while and come back toward dusk. Then I began reading. As I mentioned, this was more out of duty than anything else. I’m not an editor, I don’t decide what and what not to publish, I only explain and add context to what others have accepted, what others deem important, canonical, consequential. No one ever asks me: What do you think about this? My sense of duty, therefore, was challenged by the humility I felt before this author, who said he knew my work as an annotator from a long line of scholarly editions now considered classic in Germany. He told me he appreciated what he termed my “ability to read clearly.” So read I did, in the hours he spent wandering Dresden. I read, I read again, and little by little, I was transformed. Since then, night has fallen, and everything has taken on significance. As afternoon turned to evening, above all it was Brandeggen’s fury that stood out to me, the literary obstinance that would keep me returning to these texts time and again, the uncompromising tenor that emerges in spite of what seems, at first glance, to be the reductive language of crime fiction, the comic-strip sense of narrativity. This too is why—now that I’ve agreed to write endnotes to this first edition of Brandeggen’s crime novels, ostensibly because he asked for it, in the papers he left to me—I have to treat Brandeggen’s project with the utmost seriousness, even if that makes me his Sancho Panza. And it has been liberating, so very liberating for my work on this book, to dare, after so long, to step out of my accustomed shadows, to decide for my- self the relevance of these endnotes to the text, to strike my own course and enter nothing but what I deem necessary. I should also add that the conversation that began that evening between me and Brandeggen would last three years. I don’t believe he had many other people to talk to. But talk we did, by telephone, by letter, during my visits to him in Stavanger or, more often, in my welcoming him to Dresden, where he made do with the tiny guest room I’d fitted out in my apartment. Before him, I’d never had any guests. But if I may say so, I don’t believe anyone knew Frode Brandeggen in his last days quite like I did. I say this not to lay claim to any role in his success, should these books move readers as much as they have moved me. I say this, rather, because of the way it foreshadows this man’s terrible loneliness. The anger I find in these books is real, as is the despair that precipitated his dramatic swerve away from his avant-garde beginnings. It may be that that anger can only be grasped within the context of the gulf between his first book and the Red Handler. But the anger, nonetheless, doesn’t give us the whole picture, be- cause Brandeggen also cares all too much about his protagonist. His interest in the Red Handler, his level of concern and sympathy for his character, is genuine. As the author, his emotional stake is palpable, essential. The texts can never fully hide that they are fundamentally about Brandeggen himself, about a man who obviously is deeply troubled, and who, more than opposing crime literature an sich or the book industry’s thirst for profit, is desperately trying to create a world with some semblance of meaning and predictability, where the structures are clear and there is such a thing as sincerity.

2 When, eventually, Frode Brandeggen learned to accept the fate of his 2,322-page debut novel, Conglomeratic Breath (Konglom- eratisk pust), ⁂ from then on forgoing the avant-garde in favor of chiseled-down, commercial crime fiction, he still held out some hope that the world might one day accommodate a more expansive, exploratory mode of literature. In the very first stages of the Red Handler project, Brandeggen wrote a separate novel as both a warm-up to the Red Handler universe and (he hoped) a standalone work in its own right. From what I have gleaned, he never mentioned this work to anyone. The unpublished novel, All of These Loves (Alle disse kjærlighetene, 433 pages in manuscript) deals with the Red Handler’s relationship with his wife Gerd in Haugesund, where the Red Handler—who here seems to have a proper first and last name, though both are crossed out throughout the entire manuscript—works part-time as an electric meter reader. The novel is a passionate account of their intense love and often exemplary marriage that slowly but surely becomes counterproductive, to put it mildly, culminating in a magnificent scene in which the Red Handler persona is born and the protagonist leaves Haugesund for good. There are hints toward the end of the manuscript that the wife leaves the Red Handler for his future nemesis, the Glimmer Man. There is no evidence Brandeggen was ever in a serious relationship himself.

⁂ From the back cover of Conglomeratic Breath: “Imper Akselbladkvist is turning his house upside down in search of something he has lost. But is it really his house? And has he really lost anything? And if so, then what? Himself? Or everyone else? Distended and distracted by existential angst, he ambushes the constituent parts of his life (is it really his life?) through an intense, ruthless, and often heartrendingly intricate exploration of the potential Heidegger-plagiarist level of the self, represented by the distance between two threads of an almost fully disintegrated bedspread that his grandmother (if she is even his grandmother—and for that matter, how do we know she was really all that grand?) bequeathed him. Through more than two thousand pages— free from even the slightest scintilla of what Imper Akselbladkvist calls deformative abominations like punctuation and paragraph, chapters, and other readerly crutches—the author delves further and further into the bedspread, into the threads, into the yearning for his own constitutive fibers, and ultimately, his own text. That is—if we can even call it a text? And is it really a novel? And if it is, how can we know that the novel is his?”

3 Prior to my work on these endnotes, I read out of curiosity Brandeggen’s debut novel, Conglomeratic Breath. Or, I should say, I tried. The publisher, Gyldendal, released the book back in 1992, but when I started asking around, no one could tell me anything about it. There were no reviews, no record of any

readings, no book festival appearances. The editor-in-chief of Gyldendal, Kari Marstein, took me down to the archives, and sure enough, we found a clean copy of the book, along with information about Tord Gusthjem, Brandeggen’s editor. A quick check of the records revealed that Gusthjem was hired in the late summer of 1990 and that the only book he edited through to publication, before leaving the job over two years later, was none other than Conglomeratic Breath. I called him one day to ask him what working with Brandeggen was like, but as soon as I mentioned the title of the book, I was met with silence on the other end. Finally, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it. I broke my back on that book, okay? I’m no longer in publishing.” It was an uncommonly brief conversation. Brief, on the other hand, is the last word you’d use to describe the novel. At a ridiculous 2,322 pages, Conglomeratic Breath has the distinction of being, without question, the longest single-volume novel ever released by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. The number of copies it sold can be counted on one hand. Apart from the twenty-five free copies given to the author, the one in the archives, and the thirty-two distributed to reviewers and booksellers, the remaining print run of 1,600 books was destroyed. This is not very hard to understand. The book is, in short, absolutely unreadable. Normally, I can appreciate books that push back against the reader, the ones that demand real effort, as long as they’re well written. And at times, Conglomeratic Breath seems to fit that bill, as it showcases the author’s exceptional linguistic perceptiveness, his virtuoso ability to navigate between multiple registers in a way that is very likely unparalleled in Norwegian literature. Nevertheless, the novel remains, for this reader, perfectly unreadable. Impenetrable, to an extent that frustration isn’t even the right word. Next to this novel, Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (both of which Brandeggen read several times) look reader-friendly. It begins straightforwardly enough: the protagonist, with the trendy, alienating name of Imper Akselbladkvist, arrives at what he calls his house. He stands on the front steps, fishes for his keys, and enters once he finds them. This takes one hundred fifty pages. From there, it’s full-on disintegration, until our level of disorientation becomes monumental and absolute. There are no paragraphs, no chapters, not even so much as a comma or period; at any given time, the identity of the speaker, when and where we are, what is happening and why, are all anyone’s guess. For instance, Brandeggen devotes large parts of the book to exploring what he calls “the potential Heidegger-plagiarist level of the self,” a notion every bit as perplexing as it sounds, which is made no more comprehensible by the fact that the starting point for these investigations is an old bedspread given to the protagonist by his grandmother. That is, two threads within the bedspread are the starting point, and the distance between them opens up entirely new vistas and a fresh round of investigations that themselves necessitate their own exploration for Akselbladkvist. As the text zooms further and further in, it deliberately and expressly assumes the structure of the Mandelbrot set, a fractal whose edge shows an infinite number of satellites, i.e., small copies of the original Mandelbrot set. To put it another way, soon enough, the reader is so deep into the details and the details of the details’ details that not even the slightest glimmer of textual daylight remains. But then, somewhere around page 700, the text suddenly arrives at a light in the forest, a clearing. The reader’s relief is enormous, almost indescribable, as Brandeggen gives us an unpretentious, affecting account of life on a street in Stavanger in the mid-70s. ⁂ This section becomes a small novel in itself, and a rather conventional one at that. A novel in which love and terror are forever living under the same roof, but the former always wins out in the end. Thematically and linguistically, it recalls the modern Scandinavian tradition of (rather more successful) coming-of- age novels, like Torbjörn Flygt’s Underdog, Beate Grimsrud’s Tiptoeing Past an Axe, Tore Renberg’s The Orheim Company, and Lars Saabye Christensen’s Beatles, even though only the last of these had come out in time to have influenced Brandeggen. It is not hard to imagine his editor pleading with him in vain to publish these 300 pages and scrap everything else. Nor is it hard to understand why the editor had had enough after this book. On page 1,009 the new story abruptly ends and the forest becomes thicker and more impassable than ever. The stitchwork of the text becomes tighter and tighter as Brandeggen weaves in more and more intricacies, setting a new standard for textual resistance and arousing an almost physical reluctance to read any further. As I strain myself to the utmost in order to drag my way through the unreadable, it becomes clear to me that the “novel” inside the novel, with all its rays of light and hope, resembles nothing so much as a nightmare, and that its only purpose is to underscore the impossibility of arriving and remaining in such a place in real life. Reality, Brandeggen seems to be suggesting, is the inexorable other from which we can never escape, where nothing is certain, and where every utterance opens into a chasm of doubt and new questions, which themselves open up even more doubt and even more questions that lead us smack into the Mandelbrot set once more. I gave up on page 1,700, more than six hundred pages away from the finish line, and never have I been more relieved to put down a novel.

⁂ Astra Road in Tjensvoll. A winding street with both detached houses and low-rise apartments.

4 The only musical reference in the Red Handler books (with one exception) is to Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. This may have been a conscious choice on Brandeggen’s part to emphasize the problem of duration and length vs. quality, which is further complicated by the fact that Gould’s 1955 recording has a length of thirty-eight minutes, while the 1981 recording clocks in at over fifty-one minutes. In other words, a movement opposite to the one Brandeggen took in the Red Handler project.

5 The three sentences dealing with the eyes are easy to dismiss as bland, even silly. But looking past their slapstick absurdity enables us to notice Brandeggen’s critique of crime literature, in which novels often get needlessly prolonged (often by several hundred pages) and the reader’s time wasted by the detective’s failure to look closely and follow up on clues and hunches fast enough. To Brandeggen, the overwhelming majority of crime-fighting heroes were shockingly ineffective, in the sense that they coldly allowed the suspense to idle as the reader is led on— like the dog who follows a biscuit held by its owner as the latter moves further and further away—and were therefore unworthy of the fame they were customarily afforded. To his mind, the profusion of dead ends and suspects quickly became tedious. In these three sentences, on the other hand, the Red Handler a) identifies his problem and chief constraint (his eyes are closed),

  1. takes action and solves the difficulty (he opens his eyes), and
  2. is once again able to do his job in a prompt and exemplary

6 Note the complete absence of a murder mystery in this and several other of the Red Handler novels. Brandeggen consciously chose to break with the established rules of the detective story, laid down by Van Dine and Knox, e.g., at the end of the 1920s. The private detective who only worked on murder cases, he reasoned, restricted the genre and alienated the reader, who presumably would be better able to identify with other types of crime, such as burglary, which deserved to be taken just as seriously given the major impact of these crimes on the lives of their victims. He had often read about families who were forced to relocate in the aftermath of a burglary, regardless of whether their abode had sustained any damage or whether the victims had been at home or not at the time of the break-in, simply because they now regarded their home as forever tainted with insecurity. Brandeggen also scoffed at Van Dine and Knox’s unbending rule that the detective must never solve the crime as a result of blind chance, coincidence, or being at the right place at the right time. On the contrary, this became the Red Handler’s modus operandi, given Brandeggen’s deep interest in coincidence, the collective unconscious, and synchronicity. “Our reality is full of coincidences, or seeming coincidences. Linkages and undercurrents. Why shouldn’t the Red Handler live in the same reality?” Brandeggen wrote in his notes. Again, he believed that reorienting the genre around a greater appreciation of people’s lived reality would be key to the Red Handler’s success.

7 As early as the first Red Handler novel, the style has been perfected. The solution comes before the reader has a chance to get bored. Or, as Brandeggen himself wrote in one of his notebooks, in English (probably because he imagined presenting his concept to international publishers): Crime fiction for the gentleman who loves crime novels, but hates reading.

8 The final reference to the Red Handler’s wife, and one of only a handful to smoking. Brandeggen himself smoked constantly and advocated for the greater social acceptance of double-smoking (inhaling from two cigarettes simultaneously) as something more than a party trick.

9 The one exception to musical references noted above in the footnote about Glenn Gould. A possible nod toward the Saraghina sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½, a film dear to Brandeggen ever since he began frequenting the Stavanger Film Club, where he never missed a screening, yet always missed the chance to socialize with the other members.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Johan Harstad (1979, Stavanger) is a Norwegian novelist, short story writer, playwright, and designer. He published his first work, Herfra blir du bare eldre in 2001. Since then, he has published over nine novels and 6 plays. His works push the boundaries of form, genre, and storytelling, making his work as much about the art of creation as it is about the story.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

David Smith is a translator of Norwegian who holds an MFA in translation from the University of Iowa. He is currently working on a translation of a short story collection by Tarjei Vesaas as well as a novel by Leif Høghaug. 

“Stitches” by Eva Moreda, translated from the Galician by Lindsay Semel

“Stitches” by Eva Moreda, translated from the Galician by Lindsay Semel

We were all watching Sister Elvira Lecumberri on tiptoe from the window as she climbed up the steep path that led from Agromos, the village, to Polar, the school. Sister Elvira Lecumberri, we called her, even though the last time we’d seen her she already hadn’t been a sister anymore; she’d left the order, left Polar, to marry. Yet there she was, climbing with that gait that we’d always admired, more dainty than we ourselves were ever likely to manage—time would tell—even though she was a very, very tall woman.

It was already getting dark, but we didn’t feel like going upstairs. Sister Elvira Lecumberri had been absent from us for two years but, as we now observed from the window, there wouldn’t be a third. In the darkness, squinting our eyes, we could tell that she was wearing a hat—the kind that ladies wore, our older sisters, for example—but we couldn’t tell if she had her habit on underneath, even though some of us were so anxious to see that we stuck half our bodies out the window. We were still young and could do things like that. That was the sort of thing we did at Polar.

The other day, Sister Mártara Junior read us the schedule. Third period, sewing, she said.

Sewing? we asked. Sewing was what Sister Elvira Lecumberri taught when she was still a nun.

She answered: That’s what I said. Or are you girls going deaf? And so we copied it down by hand, even though our pencils were trembling: Sewing.

Sister Elvira Lecumberri would put us in pairs—never the same ones. We took each other’s measurements and cut the cloth right against our bodies. These were not pieces that we could wear in Polar—we could only wear the uniform: the smock or nothing—nor at home, but we hung them in our closets and kept them there like treasures. We were at that age, after all.

Two years earlier, on the last day of the course, Sister Elvira Lecumberri walked into the classroom and announced in front of everyone that she was leaving the order to get married. We almost thought she would take off her habit right there the way she was going, but she didn’t. All the better, we quickly realized, because only an immature mind would desire such a thing.

Since then, we girls had started to better understand whom Elvira Lecumberri had married. He was the editor of a journal. A journal that some of us knew from our houses because our older brothers had begun to bring it home—the ones who were studying to be things like notaries, businessmen, or pilots, and wrote poems in their leisure time. When they did, our fathers scoffed and said: Let’s see what filth you’ve brought us now. You kids just love to be provocative, don’t you (our mothers didn’t say anything, because they were doing something else). But, when they got bored, the fathers would pick up the journal themselves and read it. Then they’d say: I’ll tell you what, there just might be something to this FA-SCI-SM. They said it like that. Some of us knew very well that the fathers weren’t as dumb as they looked, but they pronounced it that way to make us see that something of these modernities they’d already taken up.

For us, on the other hand, FA-SCI-SM caught us too young and too uninterested in what the world of the not-too-distant future, our brothers’ world, would hold for us. The gentleman became a household name for some of us, though—a man who started as a poet and became the editor of a journal. If this was possible, anything was possible, we maintained—or would be soon enough. (Some of us thought that even a girl could become the editor of a journal; others said that was impossible.) When we returned home for Christmas, some of us began to read that journal when our brothers or fathers happened to buy it. We read it only to see if Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s name would appear (now just Elvira Lecumberri), and occasionally it did: twice, and both for her charity work. Which we also did, us and the mothers. We were disappointed by the similarity, but we counselled ourselves: Once you go out into the world, you’ll have to do a bit of everything. We also reminded ourselves that girls who did charity work would never be told to measure and cut their clothes against their own bodies.

We heard about fascism the same way we heard about so many other things: vaccines, catastrophes, factories—matters for our fathers and brothers, those of us who had them. It didn’t escape us, though, how plump and handsome some of our fathers made themselves for their discussions about fascism, as if they were living their second youths; they brushed their hair back, shaved closely, and bought new suits. One or two younger men kept watch in the streets and, if we went with them, other women eyed us jealously. The world is going to change, our brothers would say by way of explanation, but our older brothers said so many things that we didn’t pay much attention.

We brought some of what we’d gleaned back with us to Polar after Christmas break, but so well disguised that it barely amounted to anything. The nuns didn’t want to hear a peep about fascism. Once, years before, the school was almost shut down because of fascism, and since then they were much more careful. An inspector had come. She was quite arrogant, well buttoned up into a dark coat with a belt at the waist. Back then, we were still young and we gathered behind half-open doors to watch her pass by, watch how she spoke first with Sister Dolor, then with Sister Mártara Junior, then even with the less powerful nuns: Sister Mártara Senior, Sister O’Malley, Sister Chinta, Sister Radegunda.

When she went to speak with the latter, Sister Dolor and Sister Mártara Junior’s eyes bugged out in horror. Sister Radegunda, even though she was paralyzed from the waist down and spent nearly all her time in her room, had studied in Hildesheim as a novice and liked everything with a whiff of Germany: magazines, old languages, old music. The inspector went to Sister Radegunda’s room and asked to see the magazines. She saw them and didn’t respond in any significant way, but Sister Dolor and Sister Mártara Junior got nervous and said: Nothing like this will ever enter Polar again. At least not if we can help it. We, innocent nuns that we are, can only control what we see; everything else is in the hands of God.

Therefore, it wasn’t fascism that was banned per se, because we couldn’t call it by its name inside of Polar, but a lot of things that came from the outside. Some things and not others; there was no hard rule, a detail that showed, for once, some prudence and intelligence on the part of the nuns. And so when Sister Elvira Lecumberri happened, the nuns didn’t comment one way or the other. Just once did we extract a remark from Sister Mártara Senior, back when she was still teaching our sewing classes. She said: This sort of thing happens in all the convents. What do you expect; she’s at that age, that Elvira Lecumberri.

In the first sewing class of the new course, we did everything we could to call Sister Elvira Lecumberri by her name so she would help us with this or that. Each time we deliberately called her Sister Elvira Lecumberri. We’d already observed that she was wearing her habit again, but. Sister Elvira Lecumberri this, Sister Elvira Lecumberri that; help me with this stitch, please, Sister Elvira Lecumberri. She did everything we asked—not with a smile, but she hadn’t smiled much before either (in Polar, only the older nuns smiled). We could only conclude that she was a nun once again, and that is how we came to know someone in the flesh for the first time who had been married and now wasn’t.

When we went down to Agromos on Sundays after mass, we bought that journal (when they had it) to see if we could find out anything else about the man with whom Sister Elvira Lecumberri had been married; we wanted to know who he was, how he was, if Sister Elvira Lecumberri had also cut his clothes against his body like she had us do. In the journal, we never found anything about him besides his name printed on the masthead—which wasn’t helpful, but it was enough for us to understand that the gentleman did, in fact, exist.

Soon San Martiño arrived and, with it, the first and last time that a pig was slaughtered at Polar. Sister Dolor had ordered Sister O’Malley to raise a pig outside the kitchen and Sister O’Malley, who was mute and Irish, raised him well and we were fond of him, but then on the day of the slaughter, since Sister O’Malley was inexperienced, all the meat was lost and Sister Dolor exclaimed: Never again, I swear.

By San Martiño, we’d already grown tired of buying the journal, but we still wanted to know more about everything: about the gentleman, about the married life he’d had with Sister Elvira Lecumberri, about why Sister Elvira Lecumberri had left us and then returned. (Deep down, we wanted to believe that Sister Elvira Lecumberri had returned for us, because, like us, she’d missed our sewing classes).

During the first weeks of the course, we studied Sister Elvira Lecumberri in the dining hall. Sister Elvira Lecumberri was serious and pale (before she’d had a caramel tone; she’d lost her color—during her marriage, before, or after, we’ll never know—and she never got it back). She wasn’t quiet. At the table she spoke plenty and the other nuns spoke back. About what, we didn’t know; what the nuns talked about between themselves was always a mystery to us, but we had the impression that Sister Mártara Junior spoke to Sister Elvira Lecumberri with an air of condescension, the same way she spoke to us when we got back from bathing in the swimming hole on Saturdays: What on earth were you thinking, going to the swimming hole alone without your bloomers?

We spied on Sister Elvira Lecumberri away from the table too. We took notes about what she did: that she walked down to Agromos alone, that she came back at unusual hours (though to be fair, we didn’t know how she behaved before, so). We took notes, but we learned very little for all our hard work. The idea began to congeal among us that something more needed to be done; we would need to make more of an effort if we wanted to find out anything worthwhile about Sister Elvira Lecumberri. If we were to get close to her, one of us would have to undertake the mission alone. Since the day we entered Polar, we had always done everything together, but we were beginning to understand that some things were better done separately.

After thinking it through, we chose a girl who we’ll call Imogen. Imogen wasn’t her real name—you needn’t know what it was, but it was similar—and Imogen’s mission was the following: fish the information that we wanted from the very mouth, the very body, of Sister Elvira Lecumberri.

(What did Imogen look like? Believe us when we say that we barely remember; what we remember, of course, are the important things.)

So we sent Imogen on the mission; we were already nearing the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the weather had turned quite cold. The nuns hadn’t let us swim in the river at the foot of the mountain for some time already. We told Imogen that she had to affix herself, endear herself to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, just like a niece or a younger sister. And so she did. From the Feast until the solstice, almost nothing happened. We watched Imogen getting closer to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, especially in the dining hall; she seemed to be doing everything that we’d told her to, but our hopes still weren’t very high. One has to give these things time, Imogen repeatedly reminded us in the dormitory at night, especially when we exposed more of our impatience than we should have.

Then Christmas break arrived, which was somewhat of a pity but no more than usual; we’d barely settled into Polar after the summer and we had to leave it behind again. We always left at Christmas and Holy Week, or almost always—not when our parents happened to go to Rome or Florence for Easter Sunday and left us to stay at school. That year, though, not one of us stayed behind at Polar. At home, alone as usual, we would think: What is she doing right now? It bothered us inside, in silence, that question.

The day we returned to Polar, four of us swore that we’d seen Sister Elvira Lecumberri during the holidays (one in A Coruña, two in Vigo, one in Betanzos). During those sightings, Sister Elvira Lecumberri always wore pants and never had her habit on. Even before finishing our first breakfast, we’d already concluded that none of that meant anything: mere coincidences, hallucinations that attacked us when we were alone. So we returned to the task at hand. With our bones still sore from the bus journey and the second term ahead of us, we looked to Imogen. While all of us girls at the table awaited her insights, Imogen only watched, half-smiling. What is it? We asked her. What? But don’t you realize that you can’t smile in front of the nuns? You shouldn’t smile; this we had all known since the day we stepped through the gate.

She said: But I’m not like you. I’m on a mission, or have you already forgotten? We turned our heads and saw Sister Elvira Lecumberri at the nun’s table, lifting a biscuit delicately to her lips. We sighed all at once, but we were always very sensitive anyway, returning to Polar after a holiday. Then the bell rang and we went to class. In terms of learning, it’s true that we didn’t learn much at Polar, but it would only occur to an outsider that we were there to learn; we were at Polar to be with each other.

At breakfast a few days later, we were surprised to see Imogen getting especially close to Sister Elvira Lecumberri in the dining hall, and then again the next day and the day after. You’d better watch yourself, we said to Imogen later in the dormitory while she sat Indian style on the bed brushing her hair. Look, we weren’t going to mention anything, but wasn’t the goal of your little mission to report back to us? When you sit with Sister Elvira Lecumberri in mass, when she asks you to organize the needle boxes, what does she say to you? She must say something. She must tell you something.

Something, concedes Imogen elusively. But these things take time. We were forced to admit that she was right.

She strung us along for weeks (she was clever that way, the pig). Then she started to tell us things, always a bit at a time. Look, she said to us in the dorm, putting on her know-it-all voice. Look, the two of them already knew each other from before, through Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s brother, who’s a poet and columnist (just like ours, we thought admiringly). Or did you think that the editor of a journal, a journal like that, no less, would come here to cozy up to nun?

A journal like what? the rest of us insisted earnestly. Deep down, the curiosity was consuming us; we, like Sister Elvira Lecumberri, had brothers, and some of them were poets and columnists, but how were any of them going to introduce us to their friends if we were always here at Polar? At home, we saw some of them in passing, but we usually hid because we weren’t presentable.

A journal like that, says Imogen. That one that you buy at Eliseo’s store in Agromos—or did you think that the nuns don’t see you? Of course they see you, and what’s more, when they see you, they want to follow you, but they control themselves. Listen to what I’m telling you: the whole country wants to move backwards, and it will. And when it does, the country won’t turn around again like Sister Elvira Lecumberri did.

Imogen’s words made the flesh inside our blouses tremble, because we knew that these sorts of things weren’t to be said, not inside Polar and not outside. Some of us even mustered the courage to respond, in voices a bit louder than necessary: Imogen, you’d better spit that filth right out of your mouth. We know that your grandfather kept pigs in the yard and killed them with his own hands; people like him, sure, they believe in all the things that this journal wants to bring to the country without shame, without thinking. We have more common sense. Imogen stretched out her legs on the bed and smiled again. That pig, we thought.

What bothered us most, though, was when we realized that Imogen had stopped reporting anything new; it became more apparent as heat began to linger in the air and the days began to grow longer—finer clothes, more hours of light to think and to notice things. Contemplating Imogen—her sleeves rolled up higher than before, her cheeks shining—many of us began to see her as separate from us.

Search and you will find, as it goes, and needless to say, what we found unnerved us; we marched like bullets to the chapel to kneel in prayer. Back then we still thought that certain things were incompatible; prayer we instinctively associated with the known, so it followed that prayer could dispel the unknown. We still understood everything in pairs.

The nuns didn’t mention anything, but they were suspicious. So much praying, they said when they saw us marching about the chapel at three in the afternoon, at eleven in the morning on a Saturday, after dinner. So much praying. Could it be because they don’t want to study? They need to study, because they’ll have to do something with their lives when tomorrow comes. The latter, which the nuns said casually, startled and confused us; we’d always known that words like past, present, and future didn’t make sense in Polar, but the nuns, who’d been there longer than us, used them anyway. What we wanted to do when tomorrow came, we had no idea, but we knew what we didn’t want to do: be nuns.

Trusting Imogen less and less, we began to observe Sister Elvira Lecumberri ourselves. We felt unsettled, because it had never occurred to us to distrust one of our own. At the beginning, it was hard for us to interpret what we were seeing. We spied on them rearranging the flower pots through the window overlooking the patio and, reading their lips, we found that it was Imogen rather than the nun who said: This goes here, Sister Elvira, and that goes there. Don’t you see? And Sister Elvira Lecumberri said yes and did as she was told. Then she rearranged the flowers as she’d had them before and then again how Imogen instructed. Imogen stuck too close to her; Sister Elvira joked, at first, that she wanted to escape (which surprised us), but then she would let the matter drop.

What do you have for us today, we pressed Imogen too eagerly at night. We still wanted her to tell us in her own words. She just brushed her hair parsimoniously, not nearly as bothered as we were, and shrugged her shoulders apathetically. This made some of us grip our own brushes with an angry fist, as if we wanted to strike Imogen in the rear with them. Others put a hand on her shoulder from behind as if to say: We were just hoping to hear your side of the story, we promise we’ll believe you.

Imogen hemmed and hawed, but she always ended up speaking, and she always had plenty to say. We asked her: What have you discovered about that man? She sighed and said: Lots of things. Do you know what? Sister Elvira Lecumberri, as much as she washes and scrubs, can’t rid herself of the smell of that man, neither inside nor outside. It’ll always be with her. It’s the same for our mothers and it’ll be the same for us.

Almost without thinking we answered: Spit that filth right out of your mouth, Imogen. (We did want to know more about those things, because we were at that age, but they also repelled us.) Spit that filth out of your mouth and tell us about what really matters: how did they meet, what did Sister Elvira Lecumberri see in him, an all that?

 

That’s what really matters, she said. It matters because the smell of that man—and now also of Sister Elvira Lecumberri—is the smell of their substance. Now the two of them think and smell the same, and that’s how we’re all going to end up thinking and smelling; it’s the law of nature.

At the time, cornered, we answered: Psh, Imogen. Psh. Forget about the mission right now; it’s not necessary anymore. Forget about Sister Elvira Lecumberri. We have to forget about her too; we’re not the same girls we were four or five months ago. Forget it. Deep down, the thought of forgetting about her just like that stabbed at us, because we were girls and curious, but it was more important to make Imogen forget so that she wouldn’t take us with her down this path. Imogen rejoined: How am I supposed to forget now that I’ve discovered the most important part. You’ll discover it too; you already have, really, but you’re pretending that you don’t understand. I’ll tell you something: that’s no way to spend your life.

That night, each in her own bed, we thought about what had happened during the previous months and we all arrived at a similar conclusion: that Imogen had embraced the teachings of that man she didn’t even know, because she was a simple girl who believed things as they were presented to her. The rest of us girls and Sister Elvira Lecumberri were clearly more mature, and that’s why we fearfully shut our eyes against everything bigger than us, and having closed them, we were in danger of getting swept along with everyone else. The other nuns didn’t count; they were very obtuse. The other conclusion we drew was that something had to be done. Now we were all a little bit closer to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, because Imogen, even as simple as she was, had strung us along here and there about the school however she wanted. Being so close to that nun gave us some consolation, perhaps all that we had during those years in Polar.

Spring had sprung by then, somewhat earlier than normal. In the first days of March, we were already altered, agitated by that whisper in the air around Imogen: Giovinezza. Giovinezza. Primavera. Di Bellezza. We tried to deafen ourselves internally, but we couldn’t; there were some things that we weren’t ready to learn yet. Spring also brought the usual excitements: finally going to bathe in the swimming hole, for example, to relieve the heat we’d accumulated all winter. Imogen came with us to bathe, and in those hours we almost believed once again that she was one of us, especially when we observed her flesh—the same as ours, we repeated to ourselves while we cooked in the water. Even on those very first hot days, the water was too warm and did little to alleviate our fevers. When she finished swimming, she got out of the pool naked, dried herself clutching the towel very tightly to her body, and smiled. That was the end of the illusion that she was one of us; at Polar, we all made ourselves serious—it was our lot to endure. Even when she wasn’t smiling or laughing, there was a happiness in Imogen that was not in us; it wasn’t the happiness of the girls of Polar.

Some days, sure, we managed to go on with our lives. We were horrified to think about what it was that we’d have to do. We couldn’t continue this way, but to do something also seemed impossible. Maybe we’d have been able to go on like that for many years, even until we had to leave Polar, if it weren’t for something that happened a few days later when we saw Imogen leave Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s sewing classroom.

It was like seeing her climb out of the swimming hole once again. Soon, Sister Elvira Lecumberri appeared behind her. This time she wasn’t pale but positively aflame. What’s more, it looked to us as though Sister Elvira Lecumberri was blushing because Imogen had just gotten something from her that she’d wanted very much—the thing she’d wanted most in the world—though we didn’t know what it was. We had to look away; we’d never seen anyone blush like that. Meanwhile, that filthy Imogen had the nerve to laugh. Climbing the steps to the dormitory, she looked at us, looked at Sister Elvira Lecumberri, and fell into stitches.

Another day, Sister Elvira Lecumberri was showing us a stitch and getting a bit irritated when it didn’t come out well. We couldn’t get it right, because we were thinking to ourselves that now we’d really have to do something. Whatever shall we do, we thought. The only answer that occurred to us was to continue as always, go bathe in the swimming hole and allow what would be to be.

The nuns must have noticed something. Look, they’re more sullen than normal, more withdrawn, a bit congested, they said when they saw us walking in the hallways towards the dining hall, towards the dormitory, towards the communal showers. They’re congested; the water won’t do them any good. They’d better not go to the swimming hole this Saturday. We started to tremble in alarm, which only encouraged the nuns. They said: Look how the shivers rise from their toes to the tops of their heads; you can see it all the way from the third floor patio. Soon we’ll have to send them to Sister O’Malley in the infirmary; that’s what she’s there for after all. We straightened up, plucked up, and ran outside. We even fought with one another to show that we were as strong as ever, pounding flesh with closed fists, which also helped us release what we had boiling inside. It goes without saying that Imogen, in those moments, didn’t come anywhere near us; she was off alone, the pig, smiling and silent as if nothing mattered to her.

Saturday finally came. We had study hall in the morning, but we spent nearly the whole hour looking out the window (studying was, of course, a pretext; many of us read novels or wrote in our journals). We went to lunch when the time came, and when we finished, went outside as if daylight itself pulled us towards the swimming hole. Walking down the hallway, we looked behind us to see if Imogen was there. She was, she came, and so something worried at our hearts, each of us separately, because if Imogen walked with us, some part of her must still be like us.

We got to the bottom of the hill and turned towards the swimming hole. We thought that maybe Imogen had been one of us before, but wasn’t now (remember that, at Polar, it was difficult to separate the present, past, and future). Warmed by the sun, we arrived at the swimming hole. First, we all occupied ourselves with undressing and admiring how the sun penetrated our skin. We approached the water, stepped in, dunked our heads, and came back up, as we always did.

The water seemed warmer to us than usual. We had already all gotten in when we noticed that Imogen hadn’t. We looked over to terraferma and saw her walking towards us. Here she came, smiling, her skin shining as if she were covered in scales, the pig. You’ll have to excuse us, but the bitch! There she came as if she were superior to the rest of us—which she was.

How can we tell you what happened next? Truthfully, when we saw her, we all threw ourselves onto her—some from above, others from below. Don’t imagine that we’d planned it like that; it was some primal force waiting inside. We hadn’t believed in it before, but Imogen had. We would also have you believe that we got rid of it that day once and for all, every drop. We didn’t think that any more would come out ever again.

When we returned to Polar, the nuns gathered us all urgently in the assembly hall. We told them the story, and the nuns agreed that they’d have done the same. Look me in the eyes, said Sister Mártara Junior when we’d finished, are you sure that you’ve told us everything you have to say? We have, Sister, cross our hearts, Sister. Well, that’s that, then. Go rest now and, if you can’t, go see Sister O’Malley for a cup of English breakfast tea. Tomorrow this will all have passed. It will have, Sister, we said like an echo, and we left. Sister Elvira Lecumberri was hunched over in the hallway watching us. We didn’t even turn our heads to look at her. We had lost interest in her; we were at that age.

Portrait of Eva Moreda

Eva Moreda was born on the northern border between Galicia and Asturias in 1981. She has been active actively publishing novels in Galician since adolescence and is currently a professor of musicology at the University of Glasgow.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Linsday Semel is an emerging translator, freelancer, and organic farmer living in northern Galicia. Her book reviews have been published in the Women’s Review of Books, Kirkus, and Asymptote, where she was also a long-time staff member.

Things To Do After My Death by Miklós Vámos, translated from the Hungarian by Ági Bori

Things To Do After My Death by Miklós Vámos, translated from the Hungarian by Ági Bori

Sanyi Kovács was well-liked in Ladánybene, although he despised his village with every fiber of his body. What he despised even more was his father, whose child-rearing method was limited to an old bully stick, its shriveled surface lined with a few cracks. When Sanyi asked where the bully stick came from, there was never an answer. Answers were rare to come by in the Kovács family, and therefore the questions began to dry up, too.

His father, Béla Kovács, was hated by everyone in Ladánybene. His house was the last one on the street near the Csikós ploughland. He shoed horses in a small shed, tucked away in the corner of the backyard. He was Slovak, but people assumed he was a Gypsy, though the last name of his grandfather—Sanyi’s great-grandfather—was Kožicky. The family supposedly had been relocated from Slovakia during the time of Maria Theresa. Béla Kovács took on smaller locksmith jobs to better his situation, but his dark skin continued to prevent him from being able to shake off the prejudice against him. During the Holocaust he was rounded up and taken away with the Gypsies, and he could only identify himself and save his skin when his wife ran after them, waving around his great-grandfather’s baptismal certificate to prove who he was.

He was a barbaric, arrogant man who refused to let anyone contradict him. He was mad at the world for labeling him a Gypsy, mad at his ancestors for not laying aside substantial assets. Mad at his wife for bearing him only one son. He did not take into account that she miscarried their second child because of the cruel beating he gave her with a whip, for what he claimed was some sort of unfinished domestic duty. She frantically ran out to the street to get away from him, with their son Sanyi trailing behind her trying to protect his mother from his beastly father who, without hesitation, flogged him too, across his face, leaving him with scars, which, once they healed somewhat, the townspeople assumed were pock marks, so he also called them that. No one warned him that picking off the abscesses would leave him with life-long scars.

He ran away three times, always with a cloth sack tied to the end of a stick, but the gendarmes took him back home each time. His return was met with brutal beatings from his father; he hit him so hard with the bully stick that for days he couldn’t even stand on his feet. This’ll teach you, you scumbag!—he yelled, as he thwacked him. Bam, bam, bam!

One day the Reverend Mihály stopped by the house and tried his best to exhort Sanyi’s father to pull himself together, but he refused to hear the priest out, no matter how hard he tried to talk some sense into him. He stood his ground and was firm in his resolve: No one can tell me what to do, I fathered the child, and I can wipe him off the face of the earth, if I want to. And now, if you excuse me, Reverend, get the hell out of my house!

Sanyi did only six grades in elementary school; afterward, his father sent him out to work in the fields, often to take over for him, so that he could carry on with his farrier job, which brought in more money than the revenue from the crops. He must have been around seventeen when one day his mother could not completely remove a stain from his father’s shirt. She took the initiative and lay down on her stomach at her husband’s feet, so that the majority of the lashes would be absorbed by her back. His wife and son were surprised when, instead of reaching for the whip, Béla Kovács began to undo his belt. Sanyi’s mother whimpered and begged her husband, Béla, please don’t use the buckle, I beg you, may God have mercy on your soul, don’t use the buckle! But her yowling only added fuel to the fire and before she could say another word, the metal buckle landed on her back, across her spine, nearly breaking her bones. Sanyi jumped to her rescue, did his best to act like a human shield, but the buckle somehow hit his eyes, causing him to momentarily lose sight. He grabbed the closest thing, which happened to be a rake, lifted it above his head as he would an ax, and swung it really hard. Béla Kovács collapsed. His mother screamed, Sanyika, ohmygod, my dear Sanyika, what have you done, ohmygod, what have you done?! She kept shaking her husband, trying to resuscitate him, but her attempt was in vain. By then, Sanyi had regained his sight, turned around, and went out the door. It was drizzling cold raindrops, as if they were tiny pebbles falling from heaven, landed on his head. Was that God sending some sort of sign?

 He made his way to the police station where, instead of offering a greeting, he announced: I killed my father and I want to turn myself in.

It took a long time for the jury to return with the unanimous guilty verdict for voluntary manslaughter. The defense attorney assigned to the case argued that his client acted in self-defense, but Sanyi brushed his lawyer’s deflective attempts aside: With all due respect, I might have murdered my father intentionally, because we couldn’t live with him no more. His mother was inconsolable throughout the trial. Sanyi turned eighteen the day before the verdict was delivered, and that also played a role in him receiving a ten-year sentence. He was sent to the infamous Csillag Prison in Szeged.

Sándor Kovács was well-liked in prison, too. He seemed to blossom behind prison walls. Sanyi, what’s with the constant happy mood? asked a fellow prisoner. With all due respect, I really don’t know. Are you always happy? I think I am.

The prison guards liked him too and showed favors toward him when, upon request, he started to churn out hand-carved children’s toys—tiny rocking horses, soldiers with bayonets, small statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter—from whatever materials they brought in for him. Initially, he was tightly monitored and could use the small hammer and chisel only in the main office and under close supervision, but he quickly proved to be trustworthy. It became clear that he meant no harm to anyone, including himself, so they entrusted him with the library. He carried around the prison’s well-worn books on a handwoven rattan tray. His enthusiastic book recommendations resonated across the long hallways with gusto, as if he had actually read the books he was endorsing.

Twice a week a teacher came to the prison and, under his guidance, Sanyi diligently learned the alphabet along with basic grammar and mathematical skills. The same person also taught Russian and English. Sanyi chose English, though the guards tried hard to convince him to pick Russian. It would have been a more practical language for him, they said. But he could not be swayed, plus he was not electrified about the Cyrillic alphabet. He made up his mind that once he got out, he’d do anything but agricultural work—he no longer wanted anything to do with farms and stock-raising. He would be a white-collar worker, a city dweller.

Time came to a screeching halt behind bars. The passing of the days, weeks, and years barely registered with Sanyi. His facial hair was so thin that he did not bother to shave it and just let it grow wild. One of the guards said he looked like John of Nepomuk, whose portrait was painted on a nearby church wall, and when Sanyi got out, he could go see it. He didn’t give any thought to the day when he’d be released from jail. He felt content being institutionalized and had no desire to be free. While other prisoners could not stop counting the days until their sentences were up, Sanyi blissfully immersed himself in the myriad days that to him simply felt like a never-ending oceanic current. He often attended mass in prison; instead of reciting prayers, he covertly watched on the silver screen of his mind his own self-directed movies, which projected a future full of joy and hope. At the end of his ten-year sentence—assuming he was not let out early for good behavior—he’d be twenty-eight, with his whole life ahead of him. He was sure that the day he stepped across the prison gates, the sun would shine, and he would feel a spring breeze on his face. He somehow felt certain it would be springtime.

Prisoners were not allowed to read the newspaper or listen to the radio. But snippets of news still made their way into the prison through the friendlier guards. The most basic information that came up again and again was that the government was granting blanket amnesty to prisoners. Many prisoners who thought themselves to be the smartest claimed this to be true.

One day a guard confided in Sanyi that a revolution was underway. No way, thought Sanyi, there are no revolutions under Socialism. But more and more signs indicated that the guard was telling the truth. The prison doubled the number of its guards and decreased its extracurricular activities, such as daily walks, where prisoners might clandestinely exchange inside information. One of the prisoners found a discarded newspaper by the fence and quickly read it before it was confiscated. University students were demonstrating in Budapest. Authors were protesting and preparing manifestos. Mother of God, thought Sanyi.

The next day the guards rattled the rows of cell doors and ordered the prisoners to head to the shower room with their assigned groups. What the hell? Prisoners were allowed one shower a week, and they just had one yesterday.

They were chaperoned downstairs to the visitor area in groups of six. None of them could believe that they were actually being released. Their civilian clothes—stored in paper bags for years, now heavily covered in mold—were handed back to them. The few who escaped the villainous mold were not better off, because they had gained so much weight during their imprisonment that they could no longer squeeze into their old garments. Interestingly, the button-up shirt and linen pants Sanyi Kovács wore the day he came to prison still fit him perfectly; his shoes also felt comfortable, only their shoelaces had become thin and tattered with age.

Next, they were herded into the inner courtyard—a straight path led from there to the double iron gates through which they were to gain entry to the outside world—where a few men hung around, dressed in pristine business suits, waiting for the prisoners to arrive, so that they could shake hands with each one and wish them good luck on behalf of the Budapest Revolutionary Committee. One of them was a famous actor whose brother was also locked up for political sins.

Sanyi Kovács stepped through the iron gates and paused for a moment on the dusty road. It was a cool autumn day, but the sun was out, and it warmed him against the gentle breeze that cooled his face. He had no inkling of where he wanted to go. He stood with his feet glued to the ground and played around with the small allowance in his pocket that he received from the prison officials. It was enough to purchase a train ticket to Ladánybene, but he did not feel like going there. Not long prior to his release he received news on the passing of his mother. Despite the heavy loss, he was unable to come up with a better plan, so he took the train to Ladánybene. No one recognized him at the train station, and no one recognized him later either as he ambled along the crooked streets of his hometown. His family home by the Csikós ploughland appeared to be neglected and dilapidated. He kicked in the unlocked gate. A few cats and a stray dog scattered. Weeds brushed up to his knees as he approached the veranda and sat down on the rickety stool where his mother used to catch her breath after a long day of hard labor. He had no plans whatsoever.

A whiff of sour mold from the damp walls penetrated his soul like an executioner’s sword. He was not expecting that. He fell to his knees and sobbed, whimpering like his mother used to way back when. He cried for his poor mother who withered away in a lonely existence. He also thought of his father, whom he sent to his death; it has been years since his memory had last crossed his mind. The report of the forensic pathologist stated that his father died instantly when the rake’s three prongs went through his skull, damaging the most vital parts of his brain. Sanyi could not imagine the rake lodged in his father’s skull, though he tried many times during the criminal proceedings.

Does it make me a horrible person that I killed my father? he mumbled to himself. He was unable to feel guilt but, for the first time ever, he regretted not having listened to his lawyer who had wanted him to tell police that he had acted in self-defense, and emphasize the flurry of emotions that surrounded the murder. Perhaps he wanted to atone for his sins? Or did he want to punish himself for creating a situation where his mother not only lost her husband, but all of her income as well? After her husband’s death, she could only support herself by selling off all her belongings, piece by piece, starting with the tools from the shed, then the agricultural equipment, and finally the three plots of land and her meager furniture from the house. Shortly before she breathed her last, she was in negotiations with an agricultural cooperative that was interested in buying her house to use as a granary, but she passed away before the deal was sealed. Sanyi wouldn’t have minded if the house had sold; he’d planned to leave anyway, as soon as he could, and head to Kecskemét. Or to the capital, the city full of excitement.

In the afternoon the town’s main square erupted in gunshots. Someone knocked on the street-facing window: Who’s inside the house? Sanyi walked up to the gate: It’s me, Sanyi.

There stood his childhood friend, Józsi, Józsi Balog, holding a hunting rifle in his hand. Reaching through the vertical planks of the wooden gate, he grabbed Sanyi and pulled him closer, and gave him a bear hug. Sanyiii, you’re home? Sanyi stepped back, opened the gate, and hugged him back. They were both overcome with emotions. Triggered by memories of childhood mischief—for which they got their fair share of punishments—Sanyi shed tears of joy and gratitude for having been reunited with his childhood friend.

I didn’t know you were let out of prison early, rejoiced Józsi, curling his words with a heavy Gypsy accent that Sanyi detected immediately. He used to not talk like that, or Sanyi hadn’t picked up on it before. He whispered in Józsi’s ear: Amnesty. Józsi was ecstatic: Great! Come with me! Where are we going? Józsi explained that a revolution had broken out: My friend, he said, it’s 1956, and we have a revolution on our hands! Let’s chase away the president of the council and the party secretary! Life will be much better without them, trust me!

Some of his optimism rubbed off on Sanyi; he located his father’s beat up Flobert rifle in the shed and, despite not being able to find any bullets, decided to take it with him. By the time they made their way to the main square, at least thirty armed men were shouting in front of the town hall. The town’s three policemen, their faces as white as ghosts, blocked the entry of the building and waved their pistols around. One of them kept repeating in a robotic manner:  Keep moving people, or there will be serious trouble! No one paid attention to him. It was a group of Gypsies—wielding long-handled hoes—who first worked up enough courage to chase away the police officers: Don’t even think about shooting at us, there is a revolution, in case you didn’t know!—they swarmed the building. By then, the party secretary and other officials had managed to sneak out the back door.

The Gypsies knocked over some cabinets inside and broke a few windows—that was the end of the Ladánybene Revolution.

At night they held a meeting at the elementary school; all the attendees wore cockades on their shirts, flaunting the national colors of Hungary. Sanyi got his from Józsi. They formed what they called a Revolutionary Committee, whose sole responsibility was to govern the town. The Gypsies unanimously cast their votes for Józsi Balog, so he became president. Once his position was secured, he insisted on Sanyi being his vice-president. Afterwards they went across the square to the local pub to celebrate that now they were the ones in power. Sanyi hardly ever consumed alcohol, so the bootleg pálinka went straight to his head, and he soon found himself under the table. Józsi took him home and laid him down on the bed, the only remaining piece of furniture in the so-called parlor of Sanyi’s house. He slept through the next two days of the revolution. He never heard his friend knocking on the door, reminding him that it was time to attend the meetings; therefore, the other four members of the revolutionary committee were forced to make important decisions without his input. The meetings usually took place in Józsi’s backyard, in the summer kitchen.

When Sanyi finally came to from his drunken stupor and joined the group, he was so hungry he could eat a horse. Józsi’s mother fed him a generous portion of bacon, warm homemade bread, and cottage cheese made from fresh sheep milk. He couldn’t thank her enough. The slightly hunchbacked old woman laughed and reassured him that there would always be food no matter who ran the country, as long as people had vegetable gardens and a few farm animals, which he needed to have too, if he wanted to survive. Sanyi nodded, though he had not the slightest idea where he would even start. God willing, things would work themselves out.

They heard on the radio that the Russkies were going to leave Hungary; the news made them happy; they cheered and clinked their glasses. But instead, more Russkies came in. The roads were swarmed with tanks and trucks, heading toward Budapest. Józsi sensed trouble ahead.

They decided to leave their hometown behind. Józsi Balog’s uncle lived in the nearby town of Dabas, so they headed in that direction. After hiding out there for a few days, Sanyi had enough and decided to set off to Budapest on his own. He walked during the day and spent his nights under the stars, curled up in the fields.

He almost made it to Budapest when he was stopped and arrested by Russians on the outskirts of Vecsés. They frog-marched him to an equipment yard that had been designated as an assembly point. By the time Sanyi arrived, at least five hundred people had been packed in there, waiting their turn. Frightening news circulated among the captured. They would be executed after interrogations. Or executed without interrogations. There will be malenki robot, like back in ‘46, then off to Siberia again, moaned the older men. Or to concentration camps, like the ones where the Germans kept the Jews, and that will be the end of us!

None of the options seemed promising. Sanyi made up his mind to escape at the earliest opportunity. The first chance came when they left the equipment yard on horse-drawn carriages, supposedly to go to a storage shed to bring back canned goods and bread. One Russian soldier with a machine gun was in charge of the seven prisoners, but he sat up front, next to the coachman. When they turned onto a wider street, Sanyi threw himself over the side and rolled into a weedy ditch that was used to divert water away from the streets. He feared with each passing second that the carriage might come to an abrupt halt, but it never did. He closed his eyes, lay motionless, and thanked his lucky stars.

Once darkness fell, he continued his journey, trying his best to stay away from populated areas. It was bitterly cold and he didn’t have any warm clothes, which left him with no choice but to steal a cloak and a horse blanket from a barn he passed along the way. Józsi’s mother had sewed him a neck pouch for his papers and handful of coins, whose overall value amounted to a pittance. He wandered aimlessly, but at some point he had to admit to himself that he had completely lost his bearings. And now a railroad crossing blocked his way. In the distance he spotted an approaching train, inching closer and closer, its wheels weighed down by heavy cargo; it eventually came to a full stop, producing a high-pitched, screeching sound. What a godsend, thought Sanyi, as he hopped up on the last coach. When the train began to move again, he cozied up in a small area that housed the brake system. He dozed off straight away.

It wasn’t clear how much time had passed before he was woken up by two uniformed men. He reflexively raised both of his arms. Everything is fine, calm down, they told him, we’re just ordinary railroad workers.

The three of them got along so well that the two men confessed to Sanyi that as soon as the train reached Rákosrendező, they would hop onto another train that would take them close to Sopron. From there, only a stone’s throw away was the Austrian border, where they could cross illegally and go anywhere! Even to England?—asked Sanyi, starry-eyed. Why not, sonny? In Austria we’ll automatically become refugees and get a Nansen passport that’s good for any country, except Hungary. Har!

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Miklós Vámos (1950, Budapest) is a Hungarian writer who has had over forty books published, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly thirty languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the five thousand Hungarian Jews sent off to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Ági Bori originally hails from Hungary, and she has lived in the United States for more than thirty years. A decade ago, she decided to try her hand at translating and discovered she loved it. She is a fierce advocate for bringing more translated books to American readers. In addition to reading and writing in Hungarian and English, her favorite avocation is reading Russian short stories in their native language. Her translations are available or forthcoming in Apofenie, Asymptote, B O D Y, the Forward, Hopscotch Translation, Hungarian Literature Online, the Los Angeles Review, Litro Magazine, MAYDAY, and Northwest Review. She is a translation editor at the Los Angeles Review.

“Stitches” by Eva Moreda, translated from the Galician by Lindsay Semel

“As costuras” by Eva Moreda

Mirabamos todas, postas de puntas tras da fiestra, para Sor Elvira Lecumberri subir cara o Polar, o colexio, pola corredoira pina que tiraba desde Agromos, o lugar. Sor Elvira Lecumberri, dicimos, aínda que da última vez que a víramos xa non era Sor: saíra de monxa, deixara Polar, para casar no século. Aló subía con aqueles andares que sempre lle admiráramos, pode ser que algo máis encollida do que estábamos afeitas, ela que era unha muller tan tan alta. Podía ser, podía non ser: xa estaba a se facer noite e custábanos poñernos de puntas, saciadas como estabamos despois da enchenta que sempre se facía en Polar o día antes de empezarmos o curso (porque Sor Dolor, a superiora, era anglófila, e ben que lle gustaban aquelas cerimonias todas: a nós tamén, pero doutro xeito). Fora aquel o segundo ano que non sentara Sor Elvira Lecumberri no medio de nós: pero, matinabamos agora na fiestra, era obvio que un terceiro ano sen ela xa non ía haber. (Na escuridade, a forza de mirar, distinguimos que levaba un chapeu, dos que levaban as señoritas, as nosas irmás máis vellas, por darlle un exemplo, pero non lle dabamos visto se debaixo levaba cofia, e isto aínda que algunha de nós ben teimaba por ver e case sacaba medio corpo da fiestra para fóra: aínda éramos novas e facíamos aquelas cousas; así era daquela o facer de Polar).

Díxonos para o outro día Sor Mártara a Nova cando nos dictaba os horarios: Terceira hora, costura. Preguntamos: Costura? Contestou ela: Iso dixen. Andan vostedes xordas ou que: a ver se lle vou ter que dicir a Sor Priscila que non veña xa máis. (Sor Priscila era unha monxa guapísima que non vivía en Polar: vivía na Coruña cos pais, e unha ou dúas veces ao mes viña tocar o órgano e ensaiarnos. Que faría en Coruña cando non estaba con nós, non lle sabemos). Copiamos, logo, coa man que xa non podiamos nin aguantar o lapis dereito: Costura. Costura, por explicarlle a vostede, era o que ensinaba Sor Elvira Lecumberri cando aínda era monxa: facíanos poñer en parellas, nunca as mesmas, tomarnos as medidas as unhas ás outras, cortarnos a roupa sobre o corpo mesmo: e non eran estas tampouco prendas que puidésemos levar en Polar (só se podía levar o uniforme, o camisón ou nada) nin nas nosas casas, pero colgábamolas nos armarios e aló as tiñamos coma un tesouro; estabamos na idade. O último día de dous cursos para atrás, chegara Sor Elvira Lecumberri e anunciara na aula principal diante de todas que saía de monxa para casar. Case esperabamos que quitase a cofia aló diante nosa, con fruición, pero non o fixo, e menos mal, que axiña nos demos conta de que aquel era un desexo que só podería ter unha cabeza aínda sen formar de todo. Para o curso que seguiu, decidírase que as clases de coser as dese Sor Mártara a Vella, pero non resultou, porque Sor Mártara a Vella chegaba e mandábanos coller puntos como se fose aquilo calcetar. Non pasara nin un mes cando dixo Sor Dolor que se substituían as clases de costura por unha hora máis de aire libre: e así foi. Foi daquela tamén que se soubera con algo de máis fundamento en Polar con quen casara Elvira Lecumberri: fora co director dun xornal, e era este un xornal que algunhas de nós coñeciámonos das nosas casas, porque o empezaran a traer os nosos irmáns máis vellos – os que andaban a estudar para cousas como Notarías, Comercio, Piloto e logo no tempo de leisure escribían poemas – e, cando o traían, os papás rosmaban e dicían: a ver que trapallada traes; moito vos gusta aos mozos facer o que pensades que non queremos que fagades (as mamás non dicían nada, porque andaban a outras cousas). Logo, cando se aburrían, acababan os papás por coller o xornal e lelo. Entón dicían:  Vouvos dicir unha cousa: que a ver se isto do FAX-CIS-MO vai ter o seu aquel. Dicíano así: ben sabiamos algunhas que os papás tan torpes non eran, pero pronunciábano daquel xeito para facer ver que a eles estas modernidades algo vellos os collían xa. A nós, en troques, o FAX-CIS-MO collíanos novas de máis, e sen querer saber se o mundo (non do presente, senón o que ía vir dentro de pouco: o dos nosos irmáns) había ser para nós. Nós estabamos a outras cousas. De tanto oír, porén, o señor aquel convertérase para algunhas de nós nun household name: un señor que de poeta virara en director de xornal: se iso se podía, todo se podía, matinabamos, ou ía poderse axiña. (Mesmo unha rapaza ía poder virar en director de xornal, pensabamos algunhas; outra dicían que nunca tal). Aquel ano anterior, cando volvéramos á casa polo Nadal, algunhas de nós déramos en ler o xornal aquel cando cadraba que os papás ou os irmáns o mercaban. Liamos só para ver se saía o nome de Sor Elvira Lecumberri (agora só Elvira Lecumberri), e algunha vez si: dúas, e as dúas por facer obras de caridade, que era unha cousa que tamén faciamos nós e as mamás. Coincidir niso deixáranos decepcionadas, pero diciamos para dentro: unha vez que se sae ao mundo, haberá que facer de todo. Matinabamos tamén que ás rapazas aquelas ás que lles facía caridade nunca lles diría de medir, de cortar a roupa sobre o propio corpo. Enténdanos ben: nós oiamos do faxcismo como oiamos de tantas outras cousas: vacinas, catastros, confeccións: cousas dos papás, dos irmáns tamén, as que os tiñan. Non nos escapaba, porén, o repoludos e ben guapos que se puxeran algúns dos papás co faxcismo, como se fose a segunda mocidade: peiteaban o pelo para atrás, barbeábanse con tino, mercaban traxes novos. Máis dunha e de dúas ben máis novas ca eles quedábanlles a mirar polas rúas; a nós, se iamos con eles, algo celosas nos poñían tamén aquelas outras mulleres. O mundo vai cambiar, dicían nosos irmáns máis vellos para explicalo: pero os irmáns máis vellos dicían tantas cousas (e moitas, xusto, de cambiar o mundo ou de non cambialo) que non lles faciamos tampouco moito caso.

De volta do Nadal, algo de todo isto leváramos para Polar, pero foi con tanto disimulo que case quedou en nada, porque, de todo o que fose faxcismo, as monxas non querían nin oír falar. Unha vez, anos antes, case lles pecharan o colexio por culpa do fax-cismo e desde entón gardábanse ben. Viñera daquela unha inspectora, ben altiva, ben cinchada cun abrigo escuro que marcaba a cintura. Éramos daquela aínda todas novas e xuntábamonos detrás das portas entreabertas para vela pasar: como ía falar con Sor Dolor, con Sor Mártara a Nova, e mesmo coas que en Polar pouco mandaban: Sor Mártara a Vella, Sor O’Malley, Sor Chinta, Sor Radegunda. Cando ía a inspectora falar con esta última, a Sor Dolor, a Sor Mártara a Nova, poñíanselles grandes os ollos de horror. Sor Radegunda, aínda que estaba paralizada de cintura para abaixo e case todo o tempo o pasaba na celda, estudara de noviña en Hildesheim e gustaba de todo o que cheirase a Alemaña: revistas, linguas antigas, música antiga, mesmo se a nós do que nos daba clase era de matemáticas. Foi a inspectora pola celda de Sor Radegunda, logo, e díxolle de ver as revistas: viunas e nada nos dixera de importancia, pero Sor Dolor, Sor Mártara a Nova, espantaran e dixeran: Aquí en Polar, pola porta adiante, estas cousas non entran máis. Polo menos no que se ve.  Nós, coitadas monxas que somos, só podemos coidarnos das cousas que se ven; do demais, xa se coidará cada un ou cada unha. Quedara entón prohibido, non o faxcismo, porque non había que nomealo, senón, en xeral, moitas cousas que viñesen do século (unhas si e outras non: non había tampouco unha regra fixa, e naquilo demostraron as monxas, por unha vez, tino e intelixencia). E así, cando fora o de Sor Elvira Lecumberri, as monxas nada dixeran, nin para arriba nin para abaixo: só unha vez que lle tiramos algo da lingua a Sor Mártara a Vella, no tempo que aínda daba clases de costura por substituír á outra, dixo: “Cousas así pasan sempre en todos os conventos. Que lle queren: está na idade esa Elvira Lecumberri”.

Na primeira clase de costura do curso que comezaba, fixemos todas por chamar moito a Sor Elvira Lecumberri para que nos axudase con isto, con aquilo (antes case nunca a chamabamos, porque explicaba tan ben as cousas ao comezo da clase que entendiamos á primeira). Todas as veces faciamos por chamala así: Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Xa víramos que volvera con cofia, pero. Sor Elvira Lecumberri isto, Sor Elvira Lecumberri aquilo; axúdeme con este pespunte, faga o favor, Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Ela todo o facía: non cun sorriso, pero é porque xa antes ben pouco sorría (en Polar só sorrían as monxas máis vellas). Daquel facer concluímos que era outra vez monxa: virara así na primeira persoa que coñeciamos na carne que estivera casada e agora xa non. Cando baixabamos a Agromos os domingos despois da misa, mercabamos o xornal aquel (cando chegaba) por ver se dabamos sabido algo máis do home aquel co que estivera casada Sor Elvira Lecumberri: queriamos ver quen era, como era, se Sor Elvira Lecumberri tamén lle tería cortado a roupa enriba da pel como nos mandaba a nós. No xornal non saía nunca nada del, non sendo o nome impreso debaixo da cabeceira: normal, pero servía para dármonos conta de que o señor aquel existir existía. Ao pouco chegou o San Martiño, e foi aquel o primeiro ano, tamén o derradeiro, que en Polar se fixo matanza. Mandáralle Sor Dolor a Sor O’Malley criar un bácoro por fóra da cociña e Sor O’Malley, que era muda e irlandesa, criárao ben e dera non se encariñado, pero logo o día da matanza, sendo Sor O’Malley inexperta, púxose todo perdido e clamou Sor Dolor: Máis disto xa non; claro que non. Para o San Martiño xa cansáramos de mercar o xornal e queriamos saber máis de todo: do señor, da vida conxugal que tiña con Sor Elvira Lecumberri; queriamos ver tamén por que Sor Elvira Lecumberri marchara de canda nós e agora volvía. Queriamos pensar que Sor Elvira Lecumberri voltara por nós, porque, igual ca nós, botaba de menos as clases de costura.

As primeiras semanas estudabamos a Sor Elvira Lecumberri no dining hall e criamos ver que as outras monxas a trataban diferente: con admiración, con algo de condescendencia tamén. Sor Elvira Lecumberri estaba seria e pálida (porque antes tiña un ton de caramelo, tanned, que dicía Sor Dolor, a anglófila; esa cor perdeuna e nunca a recuperou, non sabemos se no matrimonio, se antes ou se despois). Calada non, porque na mesa falar falaba e tamén lle falaban as demais; de que, non sabemos: sempre fora un misterio de que falaban as monxas entre elas, pero queriamos ver que Sor Mártara a Nova lle falaba a Sor Elvira Lecumberri cun aquel de condescendencia, como cando nos dicía a nós ao volvermos o sábado de nos bañar na poza: Isto que querían facer, de bañarse na poza vostedes sóas sen levar os pololos, non o deron feito. Non o van facer e non o deron feito, e por que? Porque non é así, porque non se pode. Espiabamos logo a Sor Elvira Lecumberri fóra da mesa: tomabamos notas do que facía; viamos que baixaba soa a Agromos, que subía, a horas que non eran moi aló (pero saber non sabiamos tampouco como facía antes de marchar, así que). Seguimos anotando; pouco aprendemos. Foi entón cando se nos formou dentro a todas o pensamento de que algo máis tiñamos que facer, algo máis tiñamos que nos esforzar, se queriamos saber algo que pagase a pena sobre Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Pasamos uns días máis a pensar, e decidimos que, para achegármonos a ela, tiñamos que mandar unha soa de nós cunha misión: desde o día que entráramos en Polar, sempre todo o fixéramos xuntas, pero xa empezabamos a entender que algunhas cousas mellor facelas de unha en unha. Despois de pensar algo máis, escollemos unha de nós, á que chamaremos Imogen.  O nome da rapaza – non fará falta que lle digamos – non era de verdade Imogen, pero era polo estilo, e a misión de Imogen era esta: averiguar aquelas cousas todas que queriamos saber da propia boca, do propio corpo, de Sor Elvira Lecumberri.

(Que como era Imogen de cara e de corpo? Debe crernos se lle dicimos que pouco nos lembramos diso: do que nos lembramos, é, por suposto, das cousas que importan. Cando pasou tempo, algunhas de entre nós deron en dicir: Esa Imogen xa sabiamos nós que non. E dicían tamén que Imogen era unha mulier nova que non levaba no colexio tantos anos como levabamos as demais. Pero todo isto foi a posteriori; non lle imos dicir tampouco que tivésemos unha clarividencia que, a aquela idade, non nos correspondía).

Mandamos, logo, a Imogen coa misión; xa era o tempo da Inmaculada e facía ben de frío: había xa tempo que non nos deixaban as monxas ir bañarnos á poza que había ao pé do monte collendo en dirección contraria a Agromos. Dixémoslle a Imogen que ela tiña, primeiro de todo, que sentar con, estar preto de Sor Elvira Lecumberri: igual ca unha sobriña. Da Inmaculada ao solsticio non logo pasou case nada: viamos a Imogen achegarse a Sor Elvira Lecumberri, sobre todo no dining hall; semellábanos que estaba a facer todo o que lle dixéramos, pero aínda non esperabamos nada: a aquelas cousas había que darlles tempo. Isto logo nolo repetía tamén Imogen polas noites no dormitorio se algunha vez mostrabamos máis ansiedade da que tocaba. Chegaron logo as vacacións de Nadal; algo de mágoa si que nos deu, pero igual que nos daba sempre: case non nos afixéramos a Polar despois do verán e xa había que deixalo atrás: sempre en Nadal, case sempre tamén en Semana Santa, menos cando cadraba que marchaban os pais dalgunha a Roma ou Florencia pasar o domingo de Pascua e deixábana quedar no colexio. Daquela vez, porén, non quedou ningunha, e nas casas, soas como estabamos sempre, demos en pensar: e que andará a facer xusto agora Sor Elvira Lecumberri? E que andará a facer: picábanos dentro, en silencio, a pregunta aquela: algunha vez chegamos a poñer a pluma enriba do papel para ver de escribirlle a Imogen e que nos contase, pero ao pouco decidimos cada unha que mellor que non. (Todo, por separado: nas vacacións preferiamos non falarmos moito as unhas coas outras, menos cando por casualidade nos atopabamos entrando ou saíndo de misas, que aquela época do ano era sempre de ir a moitas misas; mesmo entón nada máis que nos diciamos ola, adeus, boa noite, boas festas).

O día que volvemos a Polar, catro de entre nós xuraron que viran a Sor Elvira Lecumberri nas festas (unha na Coruña, dúas en Vigo, unha en Betanzos) e sempre naquelas visións Sor Elvira Lecumberri levaba pantalón e non levaba cofia. Aínda antes de rematar o primeiro almorzo despois da volta concluímos que todo aquilo non quería dicir nada: todas aquelas coincidencias non podían ser outra cousa que os restos de alucinacións que nos viñan cando estabamos soas. Volvemos entón ás nosas tarefas, cos ósos aínda doéndonos da viaxe no Castromil, e seguimos polo segundo term adiante a mirar para Imogen. Imogen, mentres as outras rapazas contaban na mesa das súas visións, quedara mirando, sorrindo de esguello. E logo que?, preguntámoslle. Que? E non sabes que diante das monxas non se pode, non se debe sorrir: iso sabémolo todas desde o día que entramos polo portón adiante. Ela dixo: Pero eu non son coma vós: ando on a mission: xa vos esqueceu? Xiramos  entón a cabeza, vimos na mesa das monxas a Sor Elvira Lecumberri empuxar con delicadeza un biscoito ata o padal mesmo: suspiramos todas á vez, pero é tamén que o primeiro, o segundo día de volver a Polar andabamos sempre ben sensibles. Logo tocou o timbre e fomos para as clases: Sor Chinta, Sor Dolor, Sor Mártara a Nova, Sor Mariacamilla. Aprender non aprendiamos moito en Polar, era verdade, pero só a un estranxeiro ou a unha persoa que non nos entendese se lle ocorrería pensar que estabamos aló para aprender: estabamos para estar en Polar as unhas coas outras.

Pasados os primeiros días de despoi do Nadal, sorprendémonos de ver unha mañá no almorzo a Imogen se xuntar máis do que tocaba con Sor Elvira Lecumberri no dining hall, e logo, para o día seguinte e para o outro, igual. Ti mira ben o que fas, diciámoslle despois a Imogen no dormitorio de todas, con ela sentada enriba da cama coas pernas ao estilo indio, cepillando a cabeleira. Nós non che imos dicir nada, pero se che deixamos ir será tamén para que nos contes logo cousas: ou que? Cando sentas na misa con Sor Elvira Lecumberi, cando che di de ordenarlle a caixa das agullas, que che di? Algo che dirá. Algo che contará. Algo, dicía Imogen, elusiva. Pero estas cousas levan tempo. Naquilo tiñamos que darlle a razón. Así nos tivo varias semanas (que era lista para aquelas cousas, a cabroa dela); logo empezou a nos contar, sempre aos poucos. Mirade, dicíanos no dormitorio, poñendo voz de saber. Mirade que eles dous xa se coñecían de antes por un irmán de Sor Elvira Lecumberri que é poeta e redactor (igual cós nosos, pensabamos admiradas). Ou pensades que o director dun xornal, e dun xornal como ese ademais, ía vir aquí para lle facer as beiras a unha monxa? Un xornal como que, increpábamola as demais, poñéndonos serias. (Por dentro, non deixaba de nos comer a curiosidade: nós, como Sor Elvira Lecumberri, tiñamos irmáns, e algúns deles eran poetas e redactores, pero: como nos ían dar presentado eles a ningún dos seus amigos, se nós estabamos todo o tempo en Polar? Na casa viamos de pasada algún, pero lles escapabamos, porque non estabamos afeitas a estas con xente). Pois un xornal coma ese, coma ese, dicía Imogen. Ese que ides mercar á tenda do Eliseo en Agromos: ou pensades que non vos ven as monxas cando ides? Ben que vos ven, e aína máis: logo queren ir elas detrás, pero se aguantan. Mirade o que vos digo: o país enteiro quere ir detrás, e vai ir. E o país, cando vaia, non dará a volta como deu Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Cando dicía aquilo Imogen, axitábansenos as carnes dentro da blusa, porque sabiamos que cousas coma esa non se podían dicir, nin dentro de Polar nin fóra. Algunha mesmo se atreveu a dicir en voz algo máis alta da que tocaba: Imogen: a ver se  tiras da boca esas porcalladas, Imogen. Sabemos que o teu avó tiña porcos na corte e os mataba coas mans: xente coma el si que se botaría sen vergoña, sen pensar, a todas esas cousas que ese xornal quere traer a este país. Nós temos máis sentidiño. Imogen estiraba as pernas enriba da cama, volvía sorrir: a porca dela, pensabamos entón.

O que máis nos proía, porén, era decatarnos de que Imogen comezara a mudar: máis o viamos canta máis calor caía de enriba e máis medraban os días. Todo era entón roupa máis fina, máis tempo de luz para pensar ou para se dar conta de cousas. Ao contemplar a Imogen, coas mangas máis arremangadas do normal, as meixelas repoludas, a moitas de nós véusenos por separado ao miolo, formándose como se da nada, as palabras: GIOVINEZZA. GIOVINEZZA. PRIMAVERA. DI BELLEZZA.  Saber non sabiamos o que era, ignorantes como éramos das cousas do século, pero logo cando unha vez nos sentamos xuntas a falar das nousas cousas e comparar, vimos que daquela vez se nos ocorrera a todas o mesmo. Puxémonos a buscar e atopamos, e non haberá que dicir que quedamos todas espantadas: marchamos escopetadas poñernos de xeonllos e rezar na capela, porque daquela aínda pensabamos que unha cousa e a outra eran incompatibles (o de rezar, instintivamente, asociabámolo co que era coñecido e o outro co que non: daquela aínda todo o entendiamos en dicotomías). As monxas non poñían reparo ningún, pero sospeitaban tamén. Tanto rezar, dicía algunha cando nos vía marchar sobre a capela (a flamenca non, a outra) ás tres da tarde, ás once da mañá do sábado, despois de cear. Tanto rezar. Por que non estudan, que para iso está aquí? Estuden, que algo terán que facer coa vida o día de mañá (isto último, que as monxas dicían como ao chou, arrepiábanos e confundíanos: nós sabiamos desde había ben de tempo que en Polar palabras como pasado, presente, futuro, non tiñan sentido, pero as monxas, que levaban no colexio desde antes ca nós, nin o cheiraran. nós o que queriamos facer o día de mañá non o sabiamos, pero o que non queriamos facer si: ser monxas).

Ao decatármonos, demos en confiar xa menos en Imogen; como non nos fiabamos xa do que nos puidera traer, empezamos a observar nós mesmas tamén a Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Andabamos aceleradas, porque nunca nos ocorrera de non nos fiar dunha de nós, e ao comezo custábanos decatarnos do que viamos. Espiábamolas pola ventá que daba ao patio, recolocando os percais no baúl, e, léndolles os labios, acabamos por ver que era Imogen e non a monxa a que dicía: Isto aquí, Sor Elvira. E isto acó. Non ve? E Sor Elvira Lecumberri dicía que si, e facía, e logo volvía colocar como o puxera ela antes e logo volvía colocar como dixera Imogen. Imogen pegábase a ela máis do que facía falta; Sor Elvira vacilaba primeiro, como se lle quixese escapar (e isto nos sorprendía), pero despois volvía se xuntar ben con Imogen ata a seguinte vez. Que traes hoxe para nos contar, insistiámoslle de noite a Imogen (porque queriamos tamén que nos contase ela da súa boca), xa mudadas mentres ela cepillaba no cabelo con parsimonia: ela si que non se aceleraba nada e mesmo se encollía de ombros con despego. Entón, algunhas de nós colliamos os cepillos polo puño, con raiba, como para darlle con eles a Imogen unha malleira nas cachas; outras, por detrás, poñíanlles a estas a man no ombreiro, como pra dicir: Pero que: esperemos mellor a oír o que teña que dicir Imogen, que aquí somos todas de crer nas palabras. Imogen tardaba, pero ao cabo falaba sempre, e sempre tiña que dicir bastante. Preguntábamoslle: A ver que diches sabido dese home. Ela suspiraba e dicía: Moitas cousas, porque, sabedes que? Que Sor Elvira Lecumberri, por moito que se lave e se fregue, non pode toller o olor dese home nin das súas cousas de dentro e de enriba dela. Évos sempre así. Foi coas mamás, será con nós. Sen case pensar, contestabámoslle: Tira esas porcalladas da boca, Imogen. (Algo si que queriamos saber máis daquelas cousas, porque estabamos na idade, pero tamén nos repelían). Tira esas porcalladas da boca e cóntanos o que importa de verdade: como se coñeceron, que lle viu a el Sor Elvira Lecumberri, etc. Iso xusto é o que importa, dixo ela. Importa porque o olor dese home – e agora tamén o de Sor Elvira Lecumberri – é o olor do que ten dentro do miolo: agora pensan e ulen os dous igual, e así é como acabaremos ulindo e pensando todas. Acabaredes: é lei de vida. Isto (o “acabaredes”, sobre todo, o C ben explosivo)  espantábanos sempre. Diciámoslle entón, derrotadas: Boh, Imogen. Boh. Deixa xa a misión: xa non fai falta. Esquece a Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Nós tamén hemos esquecer; non somos xa as de hai catro, cinco meses:  esquece. (Por dentro, o pensamento de deixalo sen máis abríanos as carnes, porque éramos mozas e curiosas, pero o máis importante era facer que Imogen esquecese, para que non nos levase con ela polos camiños aqueles). Imogen retrucaba: Como vou esquecer agora que descubrín o máis importante. Vós ídelo descubrir tamén: en realidade, xa o descubristes, pero de todo facedes con tal de non vos decatar. Dígovos unha cousa: así non se pode andar pola vida.

Aquela noite, cada unha na cama súa, pensamos en todo o que acontecera nos meses anteriores e chegamos todas a unha conclusión semellante: que Imogen abrazara o que traía aquel señor que ela nin sequera coñecía porque era unha persoa sen dobrez que entendía as cousas como lle viñan; que o resto das rapazas e tamén Sor Elvira Lecumberri estabamos máis desenvolvidas por dentro, e por iso pechabamos os ollos con medo a todo o que fose máis grande ca nós, e xusto por pechalos estabamos en perigo de que outros nos arrastrasen con eles. (As monxas nin as contabamos: eran xente ben roma). Pensamos tamén que algo había que facer. Agora estabamos todas un pouco máis preto de Sor Elvira Lecumberri, porque a todas nos levaba Imogen de acó para aló polo colexio adiante como ela quería, aínda simple como era. Estarmos niso preto da monxa aquela dábanos algo de consolo, se cadra o único que tivéramos todos aqueles anos en Polar.

Aqueles días empezaba tamén a primavera, que chegara algo antes do normal:  xa o un, o dous, o tres de marzo, andabamos aceleradas, pinchándonos con máis forza ca nunca aquel cantaruxar que nos saíra de ver a Imogen: GIOVINEZZA. GIOVINEZZA. PRIMAVERA. DI BELLEZZA. (Teimabamos en pechar o oído de dentro e non dabamos feito: decatbámonos de que había algunhas cousas que nin sabiamos facer nin iamos aprender xa). Había tamén as cousas de todos os anos: a teima por írmonos, por fin, bañar á poza, despois de xuntar calor, por dentro e por fóra, o inverno todo. Imogen veu connosco se bañar, e pasou que naquelas horas volvemos pensar que era unha de nós. Isto pensabamos cando na poza lle observabamos a carne, igual cá nosa, repetimos unhas cantas veces para dentro mentres cociamos na auga: mesmo aqueles días primeiros de calor, estaba máis que morna e pouco nos aliviaba os calores. Rematou de se bañar, saíu da poza espida, secouse coa toalla ben preto do corpo e sorriu. Acabou aí outra vez o pensar que era coma nós: porque nós, en Polar, todo o faciamos serias, e era ese o xeito que tiñamos de sobrevivir. (En Imogen, mesmo cando non ría ou sorría, había unha alegría que non era nosa: non era a alegría das rapazas de Polar.)

De volta todas en Polar, uns días si que demos tirado para adiante. Tiñamos horror de pensar que era o que habería que facer: porque non podiamos quedar como estabamos, pero facer algo tampouco se nos daba. Cruzámonos un día co señor de Agromos de camiño para as tendas, e nin nos inmutamos: así lle estaban as cousas. Igual poderiamos tirar así varios anos, ata que nos tocase a todas marchar de Polar, se non fose por algo que pasou cando aos catro, cinco días vimos a Imogen saír da aula de costura de Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Foi como se a volvésemos ver espida igual que saía da poza. De alí a un pouco vimos aparecer detrás a Sor Elvira Lecumberri: desta vez non viña pálida, senón encendida. Tiña ademais pinta Sor Elvira Lecumberri de poñerse así de colorada porque Imogen viñese de de quitarlle algo que ela quería moito: o que máis quixese no mundo (que nós non sabiamos tampouco que era). Torcemos a mirada para dentro de nós: nunca tiñamos visto a ninguén acenderse así. Namentres, á porca de Imogen dera en rir: en subindo pola escada cara ao dormitorio, miraba para nós, miraba para Sor Elvira Lecumberri e escachaba coa risa. Apareceu entón Sor Mártara a Nova arriba de todo da escada. A ver que fan aí a apampar, dixo: vaian lavar a cara e as mans, que logo lles toca cear. (Pensamos que nin debeu ver a Sor Elvira Lecumberri: estaba entrenada para vernos só a nós, dicirnos en que andabamos en falta). Obedecemos: fomos nos lavar, tiramos para adiante, volvemos facer as cousas nousas. Para o outro día xa estaba Sor Elvira Lecumberri coma sempre, guiándonos no dar puntadas e irritándose un pouco cando non as dabamos ben (pero que pespuntes me andan a facer, dicía: pero que). Non dabamos feito, porque por dentro andabamos a pensar: Hai xa que facer algo. A ver que vai ser o que poidamos facer. A resposta única que se nos ocorría era: facer o de sempre; seguir co de sempre; ir nos bañar á poza; que as cousas vaian por onde teñen que ir. As monxas algo debían notar. A ver, que se ve que andan algo arrefriadas, algo encollidas, algo conxestionadas, dicían ao vernos pasar polos corredores para o comedor, para o dormitorio, para as duchas comúns. Andan algo conxestionadas e para esas cousas nunca vai ben a auga: mellor será que para o sábado non vaian á poza. Nós botábamonos a tremer: de medo, e as monxas, con iso, envalentonábanse. Pero non ven o calafrío que as acaba de cruzar de abaixo a arriba, que ben vimos como lles chegaba ata a punta do cabelo, dicían: se as vemos estremecer mirando desde o terceiro piso para o patio abaixo. A próxima vez que as vexamos, teremos que mandalas á enfermería con Sor O’Malley, que para iso está. Nós poñíamonos ben dereitas, afoutas, e corriamos polo patio adiante. Mesmo dábamos en pelexar as unhas coas outras, para facer ver que nunca tan fortes estivéramos, mazándonos nas carnes co puño pechado, e así, de paso, botabamos para fóra tamén o que se nos cocía dentro. Non lle teremos que dicir que a Imogen, daquelas veces, nin nos achegábamos: aí estaba soa, a cabroa dela, e sorría e calaba como se nada lle importase.

Chegou logo o sábado; pola mañá tiñamos a hora que lle chamaban de estudo, e case toda a pasamos a mirar da fiestra para fóra (estudo, xa se dará vostede conta era un poñer: moitas liamos novelas ou escribiamos cousas de nós. As que estudaban facíano cunha devoción que non sabiamos de onde colléramos: das monxas non, xa lle dicimos). Fomos xantar cando tocaba e cando rematamos foi como se a luz do día nos tirase para fóra, cara á poza, pero aquilo, se o pensamos ben, era o que pasaba sempre. Baixando pola corredoira pina, miramos para atrás para ver se viña Imogen camiñando connosco: camiñaba, viña, e entón, a cada unha por separado, algo nos pinchaba no corazón, porque se Imogen camiñaba connosco sería que algo aínda era tamén nós. Chegamos ao pé do outeiro, collemos para a poza: xa daquela iamos pensando que igual fora Imogen parte de nós antes, pero non agora (porque en Polar era difícil pensar o presente, logo o pasado, logo o futuro). Así, quecéndonos o sol, chegamos á poza; ao primeiro andamos todas ocupadas a nos espir e a nos admirar de como o sol nos entraba pola pel. Fomos para auga; chapoteamos, mergullamos as cabezas e volvemos saír, como facíamos sempre. Pareceunos tamén que estaba a auga máis quente que de normal. Estabamos, logo, xa todas na auga e vimos que Imogen non; miramos entón para a terraferma e vímola camiñar cara a nós. Alí viña sorrindo, coa pel brillándolle como se a trouxese cuberta de escamas, a cabrona dela. Haberános desculpar, pero: a cabrona dela, aló viña como se fose superior ao resto de nós: e era.

Como lle podemos contar o que pasou? Non lle imos dicir máis que a verdade: que, cando a vimos, aló nos botamos todas enriba dela; unhas enriba e outras debaixo. Non crea que o tiñamos tampouco pensado así: isto foi que de dentro de nós saíu aquela forza primeira que tiñamos dentro e que criamos que non, pero Imogen sabía que si. Tamén lle dicimos que coidamos que aquel día botamos fóra de vez todo o que tiñamos daquilo: xa non cremos que nos volva saír nunca máis.

De volta en Polar, metéronnos as monxas de urxencia a todas no salón de actos; contamos, e as monxas a todo nos dixeron que si: tamén é verdade que outra cousa non ían facer. Mírenme ben, dixo Sor Mártara a Nova ao rematarmos: están seguras de que dixeron todo o que tiñan que dicir? Dixemos, Madre. Como non lle iamos dicir, Madre. Pois será así logo: vaian agora descansar, e, se algunha non dá feito, que vaia canda Sor O’Malley e que lle faga unha cunca de English breakfast tea. Mañá xa pasou todo. Pasou, Madre, dixemos como un eco, e marchamos. Coidamos que no corredor andaba agachada Sor Elvira Lecumberri, mirando para nós. Nin ladeamos a cara para mirala. Aí nos decatamos que o interese que tivéramos por ela perdéramolo todo: estabamos na idade.

Portrait of Eva Moreda

Eva Moreda was born on the northern border between Galicia and Asturias in 1981. She has been active actively publishing novels in Galician since adolescence and is currently a professor of musicology at the University of Glasgow.

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