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‘.

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