Budapest in January had not seemed like a terrible idea. Elias was aware the climate was likely to be a lot harsher than what he’d grown used to, but he figured it couldn’t be much worse than his undergraduate days on the East Coast, which he had weathered just fine, in the end, with college scarves and pots of sludgy coffee. And he had been eager to get a break from the House of Many Voices.
For years, the House of Many Voices had been theirs, had been silent: the upstairs a soggy forest of mouldy newspapers and yellow wads of armchair stuffing, through which he would tread carefully when she sent him in search of a clean blouse, an old art book, the right coffee spoons for the occasion. The ground floor was maintained by the oafish, hearing-impaired neighbour, who, although Elias didn’t like him much, kept it in immaculate condition—the hallway an armour of crisp black-and-white tiles and scalloped moulding, guarded by the cast-iron piggy bank on the dresser: a crude caricature of a Black boy in a top hat holding out his hand, an artefact which always caused Elias to recoil from its implicit venom.
At the centre he would find her, always in the same place, with stacks of books around her, and a dozen half-finished crossword pages. The notion of any other part of the house being used as anything but a kind of museum of her travels and their past had come to seem inconceivable. Twice a day, before and after the Meals on Wheels delivery, he came and fussed over her. “Did you see that thing about the Governor on the news, Mother?” “You can’t just have grits all the time. Here, have a sandwich, it’s fresh from that deli that you like, the one run by those Ukrainians.” He heard the laboured lightness in his voice.
Some days, her crosswords would be filled with gibberish, words that were neither of her languages—neither the Hungarian of her girlhood nor the English she had worked so hard to perfect. On those days, he would wait for an unnoticed moment to slip them in with the waste-paper so he could dispose of them later. Such reminders were of no use to anyone.
At other times she was fiery and irresistible, taking out dog-eared picture books, doing line drawings by the dozen, sharing nursery-rhyme riddles and jabbing a spindly, crooked finger into his face when the answers eluded him, confounded him.
But torpor and confusion had come to prevail. She made him think of the dogs she had told him about from her childhood on the countryside, who would crouch under the table when they felt an earthquake coming. She was letting it all pass over her; waiting for her moment.
But since the news of her diagnosis had been passed on, as in a relay race, from her closest friends all the way down to god-aunts and old colleagues of his father’s whom he hadn’t seen since childhood, the house had attracted an inpour of visitors, with hushed solemnity and ill-advised gifts, who came to watch as one watches a bullfight: the last cornered moment of the dying matriarch. And it only seemed to exhaust her more.
So when she had first mentioned to him she might like to see some old friends back in Hungary, he had taken her up on it immediately, eager to escape the house’s air of expectation and inevitability.
Elias did not feel much of a connection to Hungary. He spoke passable Hungarian—his mother had insisted on it—but, if anything, it had always been his father’s Mediterranean ancestry that had held his interest: their broad-planed features; a world suffused with sunlight, without the stifling gravitas of the Iron Curtain. But now Hungary, for their purposes, seemed perfect: a hiding place, hermetic, impenetrable to outsiders, purposely oblique.
What he had not been prepared for was the people. Shrugged into their coats like crows, stony-faced, funereal; the occasional hint of a smile truncated by a deeply set and unconquerable grief.
His mother seemed unaffected: if anything, her spirits seemed lifted by a newfound sense of autonomy, by steering him through the streets of the belváros; by the taxi drivers who clearly regarded her as exotic, this woman with the Hungarian that by now, too, had become accented, interspersed with foreign words. She was finally able to feel like something other than a woman in need.
Their days were structured. In the morning, he’d head to the pastry shop on the ground floor of their building (they had found a sublet through a friend of a friend, something grand and dilapidated, with wooden parquet flooring, impossibly high ceilings, an old tiled stove and the gaudy furniture typical of the new Hungarian middle class: all brass and black and glass) to buy breakfast while she washed small items (her underthings, his socks) in the bathtub: one of the frugal habits of her past that she had insisted on reinstating.
Then they would eat: she sitting primly on the edge of the bed, he pacing around, following the sounds of life that surrounded them: someone running a bath in the apartment next door; a child riding a tricycle along the walkway around the courtyard, hitting the same loose tile over, and over; somewhere, far off, a cat in heat.
One morning, she called him Leo by mistake—his father’s name—seemed, for a moment, not to know who he was. He fled to the balcony to finish his coffee; she had fallen asleep again when he came back in, and half an hour later, things were as before, her light wakeful eyes and accipitral nose, back to calling him her “dearling”, as she had done since he was little.
She had daily appointments either with people or parts of the city: the market hall in the 7th district, now taken over by a Spar supermarket, but with the same tiny coffee booth in the courtyard; friends down in Solymár that he remembered, vaguely, from the Eighties, both warmer and more fatigued than they had been then. He would accompany her, then take her back to the apartment so she could rest while he spent the afternoons wandering around the city by himself.
He began to spend his time in the romkocsmas, watching scraggly art students down spritzers and smoke at an alarming rate. He kept his distance from the city’s few expats, burly Irishmen with bloodshot eyes, and generally kept to himself. He once shared a beer with a Hungarian old-school rocker with grey curls and full-sleeve tattoos who approached him in broken German, seeing him read a foreign newspaper, and went on to recount his wandering days as a carpenter, summers spent restoring churches. It was one of the few encounters that truly took him outside his own head for a moment.
On days when he was tired of sitting around at bars and coffeehouses, he took the little number 2 tram by the river from the 9th to the 13th district, wandered into used bookshops and bought Hungarian novels that were too much of a challenge for him to read, helped sunken-cheeked nénis with skin-tone support stockings cross the street, and was glad that they weren’t his mother, that his mother was fierce and beautiful and drew portraits of the waitstaff on the back of their receipts.
Sometimes he returned home for a moment just to see her sleep. She slept like a picture, in the lamplight, her white hair framing her face, or curled into herself like a mouse, her face to the wall, her breath raspy, but even.
The days began to seem cyclical, without beginning or end, as coiled into time as her house back across the Atlantic. This world which to her was rich with flavour to him seemed flat, vacuous. He stopped looking people in the eye, and noticed he often quickened his pace now, walking as though in a hurry. He began to feel like a ghost.
While he was growing up, the problem between them had been similar to his Budapest predicament: a fundamental sense of disconnect. She would weep for hours over newspaper clippings about writers he’d never heard about, writers the world had never heard about, and their fates.
He was a little embarrassed, bringing home school friends, of her sketches and her eccentricity, her flawed grammar. But he did see her fierceness. He saw it most clearly whenever she took him and his brother into the forest. He liked her in her raincoat, throwing a stick at one of their endless succession of greyhounds (he could never tell them apart, they all seemed equally aloof): a formidable woman in her own right. But then there was her fussy, troubled nature, and her stories about the Mrs So-and-sos down the street and what they were up to—he had even thought her a little two-dimensional, at times. Couldn’t see her somehow.
It wasn’t until after college that he truly began to know her. He came back for graduate school, an endeavour he entered into without a great deal of enthusiasm, constantly sidetracked by translation projects he was invited to take part in, and chaotic love affairs or love’s absence. His brother Thomas had fled by that point into suburban security, a marriage with a schoolteacher from New Jersey who looked perpetually exhausted, and Elias had initially sought out closeness with their mother more as an act of defiance towards him. I still see her. I can still see the beauty in this. Ordering her books she missed, setting up cable television for her, making sure to update Thomas in a sufficiently casual tone on the latest improvements.
But he was surprised at how shy she was towards him, how unsure of his affection. And so he began to court hers, with grand statements and tall stories, by showing her the projects he was working on: a database for a new unabridged Italian dictionary. Twice-weekly dinners became a pattern, a routine. He came out to her at last.
After the fire their contact had become more frequent. “She’s slipping,” he had said to Thomas on the phone, with urgency and surprise, but when Thomas had suggested a nursing home, he dismissed the idea offhand. He shifted from being the cosseted youngest son to being the carer: from sitting down at her table to cooking her meals. The dictionary project fell into neglect, and he resigned to pre-empt being fired, sustaining himself on freelancing work instead, translating articles, doing a day of interpreting at a conference here and there. She encouraged him to pick up music again, and his life in the city took on a new dimension, wild and strange, with a flamboyance his muted college years had lacked.
She liked it best when he played Bartók for her. Sometimes he’d play an entire sonata and she’d blithely request the same one at the end. He didn’t know then if she’d forgotten or if she just wanted to hear it played again. He didn’t want to know.
She demanded his attention ceaselessly, almost shamefully at times, always stopping him in his tracks with some senseless question as he set down the garden path back to his car. She lashed out and then was repentant, grabbing his hand as he cleared the table: “You’re taking such good care of me, darling. You know that, don’t you?”
They settled into this precarious balance. She had, by then, become utterly real to him. Telling him about her childhood on the puszta and her adolescence in the city, how much she had hated America in the beginning. How his father had sat with her night after night with the sketches for the house until she could picture it in her head, making sure that it made sense to her, that it would feel like her house every bit as much as his.
For nights on end, Eszter has been trying with increasing urgency to start a discussion with her son about practical matters. The days are charcoal-crumbly. It gets harder and heavier to demarcate moments. They fly from her like birds before she can even anchor them in her mind. Sometimes, late at night, from the jumble in her head, an image will pop up, a laughing mouth or pair of eyes she can’t place, until she finally realises, each time with the same dropping sensation in her stomach, that it’s the person she has met with earlier that day. Sometimes he answers her questions in the wrong language. Or did she ask them in the wrong language to begin with? She tries to tell him things but he is soothing, dismissive. “It’s alright, Mother. Go rest. You need it.”
She feels the earth, her earth, tugging at her. In the moment just before she falls asleep, the walls shake and change colour and thick beads of sweat roll down, leaving a slimy trail on the wallpaper. Her mind flickers like an old movie. Then nothing.
It had been a better day. The previous night, the two of them had gone to Andrássy Avenue with friends to see poetry adapted into a puppet play with song. He had understood little, but she had crowed and clapped her hands in delight. They had walked together down the boulevard towards the glare of Oktogon and he had felt almost a part of something, almost as if they belonged here, in this Hungary, in this in-between.
The next day he went for a long afternoon walk on Gellért Hill, where he sat for what seemed like more than an hour as a man with a torn shirt collar on a bench across from him leisurely fed a group of pigeons. Darkness fell, and, knowing she’d still be asleep (her naps were growing longer even as the days refused to stretch, the winter unrelenting), he called upon a Swedish pianist he had met recently, who served him cognac and pretzels and talked at length about his ex-wife.
At around seven, Elias put his empty glass down on the table and the table shook. The couch shook and the blinds rattled, and a loud crashing sound came from the kitchen as one of the potted plants on the refrigerator fell to the floor. Elias and Rolf, the musician, stared at each other, both of them stopped in their tracks. Rolf turned on the television to reports of the first earthquake in Hungary in decades as doors opened and the courtyard of the building filled with chatter, echoed murmurs of földrengés, földrengés.
The commotion made Elias aware of how much time had passed. Was she awake? Would she have been scared?
When he entered the room, she still lay motionless, curled into herself like a mouse, facing the wall. Silent. He sat down on the edge of the bed, putting down a hand on her forehead. She was cold.
He stayed by her side for a moment. Then he got up and started pacing around, following the sounds of life that surrounded him: someone running a bath in the apartment next door; a child asking the same question over, and over; and somewhere, far off, a cat in heat.
~~~ The End ~~~
About the author: Emma Rault is a writer and translator who belongs to many places, including Cologne, Germany, the Netherlands, LA, and a canal boat on the waterways of London. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch Media, Shooter Literary Magazine and The RS 500, among others.
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