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July 22, 2011

The old woman looked at the apparition and said, Mária. That’s your name.

Mária did not respond but covered her mouth, silent tears, and turned from the bed and vanished.

The old woman in bed listened. tick, tick, tick. The rosewood clock that broke the silence and joined the silence and made the silence ever present in her home.

Mária. Forgive me, I was sleeping, I felt your weight on the bed. I cannot remember who you were.

But Mária did not return, was gone, just sunlight streaming through dusty windows in Budapest on a Sunday, and the old lady in her bed looked around at the silence and blushed softly for a moment and looked at her hands, translucent skin, web-like veins, like blue ink on white porcelain cups.

Clasped in her fingers were warm rosary beads like drops of blood on her pale flesh. I have waited many years. The old woman spoke to the bedpost. When I was a little girl and the planes flew—flew over the roof, and I in the cellar, waiting for days.

We had snow.

The old woman looked up at the old man whose head had drifted up from behind the footboard of her bed. You frightened me. Snow? Yes. We melted the snow for our water. Were you there? I don’t recall you.

Yes we were married and I put my arm around you.

I was a little girl, you couldn’t have been there. Jancsi? Is it you? Were you there already?

We saw hard times. The boys in front of the bakery—do you remember? The tank came down Petȍfi street.

Yes, there were some of the fighting-men in front of the bakery, I remember.

Not armed. Not armed.

Tessék? They were armed.

They were boys. They had signs, and sticks. What is a stick to a tank?

The old woman was silent as she strained her memory. Jaj, she said. Oh. Enough.

The tank stopped and the gunner shot them all—pinned them—pinned them against the bakery wall until the shooting stopped and all those boys fell dead to the ground.

The old woman looked around. Jancsi? But he had gone. Had vanished, like the crying woman in the red dress named Mária.

The old woman covered her mouth, nibbling on her papery palm. She cried very often. This apartment was no place for the living. Memories born there had aged and crowded the living space, always sitting on the window pane, the worn floorboards, using the bathroom, the little kitchen with too many cooks, too many faces young and old that were so familiar that the woman puzzled at them like one trying to remember a dream. And in the closet a set of articles and photographs so enigmatic to her that for several years she avoided its opening.

Now her chin quivered as she opened it and she rubbed and rubbed the rosary beads and the dusty air buzzed with arcane silence. A red dress hanging, a flag folded, a cricket bat, a stack of hunting and fishing magazines, a thick and grimy glass bowl holding several chocolates in shiny red and green wrappers. She pulled a wooden box down from a shelf and her feet slid shortly along the floorboards to her bed.

A little pouch filled with rice, a clamshell, a few old coins. A sepia photograph of a young man with his arm around a dark-haired young woman in a dress and the back of it marked Jancsi és Mária, 1955.A wrinkled paper with the national anthem printed in rows of cursive: Megbünhödte már e nép a multat, s jövendȍt.

She felt some pressure at her chest and she put the paper down, and withdrew a yellowed newspaper clipping. A picture of the bakery, plaster ripped and shredded from the walls in patches, and the underlying brick peppered with black holes. Several bodies lying around, men and a few women still holding signs. Dark ink running down sidewalks, dark ink splattered on the walls, dark ink smeared on light skin.

She lay back in bed with a gasp and clutched her chest. She had been there that day, somehow or somewhere. Maybe she had viewed the scene from afar. Maybe she had been one of them—shot in the chest and the pain she felt now was from a bullet that could not be removed. Or had all the pain of her life been the communal pain of a country always reaping the harvest of wrath. Whatever way she remembered it, it was the truth.

Mária, said the voice of Jansci. Mária. Don’t suffer.

Mária? Am I Mária then? Am I the woman in the red dress? I did wonder. Wondered if it was Iif I was the ghost who comes to haunt me.

Mária why don’t you take those rocks off your chest? You can’t breathe.

Mária laughed a little and wheezed. Rocks! How absurd. She looked across the room at the window. It was a sunny day, the light spilling in through the warbled glass. There was a shadow in the dust when a pigeon fluttered by silently. There were no rocks on her chest.

Yes. I think I will. I’ll take these rocks away—they are getting heavy.

She waved her hand absently over her chest. Her eyes gazed up at the ceiling, and while the rocks faded away and her chest grew light, she thought of herself in a red dress with dark hair, and Jancsi, and the rosary beads tittered onto the floor, and she thought about the bodies by the bakery with their inkstains. She thought of years and decades past, and about the ghosts of things, and her last perception came deep and silent—of shadows and echoes and footprints in dust.


© Trent R. Leinenbach, Ashen Apples, 2011

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