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Number 16, Csalogány Street

June 10, 2011

………Number 16, Csalogány Street, was the picture of Hungarian paradox: venerable with its pale, heavy masonry, Romanesque in style; stately windows, arched, with warbled glass—and the lower six feet plastered in graffiti, the base of the door littered with cigarette butts, broken glass, some lewd advertisements soaked in mud, a faded Milka wrapper. It had the appearance of a dignitary who had just climbed out of a dumpster.

            Two elders, one short and ruddy in complexion, the other tall and somber, stood puffing steam, dark scarves mounting snugly to their chins. The ruddy elder watched as the tall elder studied the panel of buttons near the door, locating the correct csengő—fourth floor, third door. He pressed the button with a long, rough finger.

            Igen?

            Jó napot. It’s the elders. May we come in?

            Tessék?

            The elders. The young American guys—do you remember? We talked last week. You said we could come by today, to talk. May we come in?

            What is this! What are you saying?

………We’re the Mormons.

            Ja!

            The door buzzed obnoxiously, and the deadbolt withdrew with a faint clink.

………The old man had a swooping part of white, slightly yellowed hair, his jaw frosted with a few days’ worth of stubble. He wore a deep gray cardigan. His apartment was a painting of another decade—perhaps the twenties, maybe earlier—the elders did not know. It was large, by Hungarian standards, easily doubling the elders’ small apartment. The little halls and rooms played hide-and-seek, tucked around corners, not in the logical flow of American homes. A certain spring in dark, worn floorboards created a sensation of instability. Many rugs of various subdued colors, worn yet clean, lay in the halls and rooms in neat, comfortable incongruity.

………The ruddy elder made to take off his shoes but the old man stopped him with a wave of his hand, and turned to lead them down a semi-dark hallway. On the wall, encased in glass, was a small Hungarian flag with a fist-sized hole torn in the center. At the hall’s end, the parlor revealed an old piano with yellowing keys, the floor beneath bowing slightly under its weight. A couch and an overstuffed chair hid behind it, lit comfortably by yellow lamps, and in the corner, an easel with a painting. The man placed his hands upon his knees and flopped into the chair, and waved the elders to the couch.

………The ruddy elder rested his scriptures on his knees in case he needed them, while the tall elder, still rubbing warmth into his rosy fingers, studied the painting on the easel. It was a map of Old Hungary—before Trianon, before the borders of the country were stripped away and parceled off to neighboring countries, like a butcher strips fat from a roast. The elders knew better than to mention the map to the old man. It was a topic about which Hungarians could speak endlessly.

………The old man’s eyes were a blaze of gray. He peered from weathered lids, leathered patches of flesh, under wintery brows.

………Na. Boys. Let’s talk.

            Sir, we’re from America. We’re here for two years, teaching the Hungarian people—

            What do you teach the Hungarian people?

            —teaching them, about Jesus Christ. Sir—

            Jesus Christ?

            Yes, sir.

            Na. Well, then.

            Sir?

            The old man’s eyes flitted to the map of Old Hungary, as if it were a third guest who had just begun to speak. He pondered it while the two elders exchanged a glance. They watched the man. When he finally spoke, he did not remove his eyes from the map.

            Jol, na. Jesus’s friends are my friends.

            That’s wonderful.

            Yes. Jesus is wonderful. He’s had a long history with the people of Hungary, you know. God has His eye on us.

            That’s true. God is mindful of all His children, whatever land they might be in.

            The Turul Madár, the great eagle—do you know the Turul? The Virgin Mary saw the Turul in a dream. Are you familiar with the Virgin’s dream?

            There was silence as the young men glanced at one another. No, we’ve never heard of this particular dream—

            Ah. Well, na. The Virgin dreamed that the Turul came and flew over her—over her head—and she was impregnated. A stream of water flowed from her—from out of her—and turned into a great river—flowing towards a golden tree. Surely you are familiar with the Danube river?

            Sir, we don’t know the dream—it’s not in the Bible.

            Na, when King István died—do you boys know King István? When he died, Mary—the mother of God—the Virgin—she came down. Do you know this? She came down and took King István’s sword, and his crown—do you understand? Took the sword and crown—up.

………The old man pointed to the ceiling, his eyes on the young men. They glanced at the ceiling, back at him, did not speak.

………And when this country needs it most, the Turul—the very same Turul—will carry back the sword, and the crown. Do you understand, boys? Do you see it? It will come again. I should think it will come very soon. Come with me.

            The man stood up with some effort. The young men hesitated, then followed him through a door, down a dim hallway, which became dimmer as they progressed further, because the lamp at the end of the hall had burnt out. They stopped before a closed door—the first closed door they had thus far encountered—and the man pulled a key from his cardigan pocket. His hand shook as the key made several attempts into the hole.

………When at last the door opened, chill air reached out from the room, and the sweet scent of old wood and vinegar. The man turned on a light and they walked inside. There was a small bed centered on a rug, and by the door, a dresser. That was all. The man reached down and grabbed the corner of the bed, and with a small grunt moved it askew of the rug. The young men looked on.

………The communists, the old man muttered.

………Tessék?

            I said, the communists.

            With considerable effort, the man bent down, and reached for the corner of the rug. When he pulled it up, the young men made out a dark ring—a circular blot—on the floorboards.

………The old man looked up at them, still bent over, holding the rug, his face red under the white whiskers. Blood.

………The young men did not move.

………Not human, do you understand? Not human blood—dog blood. My dog was killed here. They killed my dog— The old man’s voice cracked and his face twisted into a sob—and then he regained his composure, and massaged his eyes with a dirty handkerchief.

………We’re sorry, sir. Perhaps we should go now. Sir, we’re going to leave, now.

            Wait. The old man was opening dresser drawers and fumbling through clothing. The room was cool and quiet. The ruddy elder fidgeted and glanced at the tall elder.

………The old man drew a gun out of the drawer. I’m sure they’ll come again. I’m sure of it. They’re coming. Do you want to know what I’m going to do to the next communist who comes into my home?

            The room was very cool and quiet. The young men shook their heads, and one said, Sir, but his voice died away. The old man raised the gun until it was pointing at the ruddy elder’s head, who continued to breathe through his nose, although the rapidity of his breaths caused his nostrils to flare and deflate, flare and deflate. The tall elder stood still, with mouth parted.

………The gun—an old, wooden handled revolver—sat squat in the old man’s liver spotted hand. He pressed it gently to the ruddy elder’s forehead, who opened his mouth as if to say something, but did not. There was silence. The old man studied the ruddy elder, his own mouth parted. Still straining to breathe through his nose, the ruddy elder reached up and rested his hand gently on the gun. He pushed ever so softly, but the old man’s hand did not respond to the faint, pleading touch, the slight resistance—it did not move. The ruddy elder did not make a second attempt to push away the gun. They stood still, the old man holding the gun to the ruddy elder’s head, the ruddy elder cradling the old man’s hand the way a woman might cradle her lover’s cheek. The old man’s expression remained blank. He rested his thumb on the hammer and drew it back slowly, until it locked into place. The floorboards creaked when the ruddy elder swayed slightly, his bloodless face no longer ruddy but corpselike and slick with sweat. The tall elder was statuesque, flushed, fierce and immobile. When the old man finally squeezed the trigger, the gun only made a click—loud in the silence of the room. The ruddy elder’s lip quivered.

………Empty. Na. You see— the old man began, but the ruddy elder, wide eyed, squeezed the old man’s hand on the gun—grabbed his wrist and squeezed with all his strength and lowered his shoulder and charged into the old man, who lost his balance and flew to the floor, landing thickly, and the elder almost landing on top but catching himself on the corner of the bed, so that he stared for one second down at the bloodstain. Then the elders turned and left.

………The ruddy elder, eyes wide, reached with trembling hands for his scriptures lying beside the couch. His shoulder bumped the easel, which skidded and swayed slightly before coming back to rest, and the tall elder stared for a moment at the painting of Old Hungary.

………Should we go back? The tall elder asked.

………The ruddy elder looked very ill and only shook his head slightly. He walked out of the building and the tall elder followed him.

………As the two young men descended on weak knees the steps out of Number 16, Csalogány Steet, the ruddy elder looked around at his companion as if expecting him to speak. But the tall elder did not notice. He thought only of the old man in the room. He saw him lying quietly, thinking perhaps of Old Hungary, of the bird, the Virgin and the river. He saw the old man’s gray eyes staring up at the ceiling from frosty brows—waiting for the future—for what was coming.

© Trent R. Leinenbach, Ashen Apples, 2011.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2011 3:36 pm

    I know you made very small changes to this story, but I like it a lot more. I think the cleanup of all the action at the end added a lot. Nicely done, Leinenbach.

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