If we imagine an almost straight line connecting Novi Sad, formerly in Yugoslavia, with Odessa, one of the points of embarkation for emigrants to the New World, then at what is roughly its midpoint can be found the modern-day Romanian city of Sibiu. Close to that city is a small town now known as Ocna Sibiu, or Vízakna (Water Inlet, so to say), as it was called in old Hungary, in whose waterlogged old mines lurk salt baths medicinally beneficial to those afflicted with troublesome breathing and other recalcitrant health problems. Few people these days are aware that peaceful, pleasant Ocna Sibiu, with its air of revitalisation, once reverberated to the sounds of desperate struggle and war. It was here that the legendary Polish-born General Józef Zachariasz Bem, Father Bem – a Hungarian commander in the 1848–49 War of Independence, founder of the newspaper Home Defence, revered leader of the Székely army in Transylvania, who after Hungary’s defeat nominally converted to the Islamic faith in Aleppo, then in the Ottoman Empire, to become Murad Teslik Pasha – fought the professional army led by the bloodthirsty, severely asthmatic pro-Austrian Anton Stanislas Freiherr von Puchner, later governor of Venice.
On 4 February 1849, the constellation did not look auspicious for Bem’s forces, but as we now know, they managed to seize back the initiative at the bridge over the River Mureş at Piski and, making daring use of Puchner’s “breather” at Ocna Sibiu, were even able to retake Sibiu itself at the beginning of March. Deprived of a secure foothold and struggling for air, the imperial general and his army were obliged to flee to the Principality of Romania, then under occupation by tsarist Russian troops. To skip the details, no doubt to your relief, the fire of the War of Independence of course was extinguished in the endgame, and there ensued on Hungarian soil a far more brutal and terrible beast than Puchner in the shape of Haynau, when the only thing that thundered were the rifles of the execution squads, and great fear stalked even the boldest of hearts. Here the wheel of history sluggishly but smoothly creaks further ahead for the nth time, barring the odd attempted lynching. The long, thick and slack silence stretching between Ocna Sibiu and Sibiu, the one in which the howl of laughter froze for the first time in the throat of the by-now extinct or mutated Transylvanian spotted wolf (Hyaena transsylvaniensis), who, too, grew tired of being terrified, well anyway, the deadly silence was shattered by an entirely different kind of shooting towards the end of the century.
The chronicle recorded that on 3 July 1890 Ocna Sibiu was visited by a dreadful cloudburst and hailstorm from the south the like of which even the town’s oldest inhabitants could not recollect. It was a hammering and clattering, ear-splitting din that happened just at the right time for an inventor and adventurer of Austrian extraction to try out a storm-cannon he had developed in an effort to disperse the towering banks of cloud. He did so in contravention of a ban, then still in force, that had been imposed by Maria Theresa, that most illustrious of Austria’s empresses, who by then had given birth to her nth child and deeply detested any senseless blasting away. The empress, convinced by the implausibility of tales about witchcraft and general lack of success of the questionable practice, had introduced the ban around the middle of the eighteenth century. The well-intentioned efforts of this “lawless” man turned out to be of no avail. Firing bullets made from consecrated wax into the firmament proved an exercise in futility. A contraption he later developed – that detractors derisively called “dragon’s droppings” – met with similar failure as did another model that used genuine, propeller-like, live ball- cartridges. The missiles either did not reach the altitude of the clouds, or if they did, had no effect on their state, or on the formation of hailstones.
The fact that even thousands of the noisiest guns are unable to alter the weather gives us pause for thought. The Austrian’s experiment that day may not have worked, but, on the other hand, it may possibly have contributed to a quite remarkable, scintillating phenomenon: in plain view before the pop-eyed inhabitants of Ocna Sibiu, in the centre of a blinding satanic halo in the sky appeared the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Everything fell silent at that moment, and for the instant of time that it takes to shuck half a corncob nothing was to be heard, but at the same time everything was to be seen. The first horseman was riding a hoof-clattering white stallion, an arrow in hand, crown on head: he was the horseman of Conquest. The second arrived in black armour on a flaming, blood-red mare, provocatively brandishing a huge sword in his left hand: he was the horseman of War. The third was seated on a black steed, dangling an empty set of scales: he was the horseman of Hunger. The fourth galloped on a charger of changing colour and was as thin as a skeleton, so thin one could imagine the bones rattling, and he was the horseman of Death (on his skull was a cowl, his breath smelled of pestilence). And bringing up the rear of the hair-raisingly sublime and, at the same time, nightmarish scene, like a sort of sweeper-up, was Hell itself. An end was put to the unearthly spectacle – amidst all-round sheet lightning and sulphurous stink – by a desperate, manly scream from Lajos Kossuth, leader of the Hungarian fight for freedom. For eyewitnesses there was nothing for it but to make the sign of the cross and prostrate themselves. Among them was a certain Géza Szász, a dour, confirmed bachelor, roughly forty years old and not exactly famed for his zeal, who practically became unhinged at the sight, later withdrawing into a hermit’s existence on the snowy slopes of Mount Harghita, where over many long years, in a work entitled The Revelations of St Géza of Water Inlet, he committed to paper his visions of the coming of the end of the world.
Géza’s magnum opus survived the First World War but didn’t make it through the second world conflagration. Only its title remained, and that only because it was inscribed and displayed for public viewing on Géza’s brow, the skin shrivelled to indestructible parchment by the mountain air. Which brings us to the motif that, dialectically as it were, anticipates the strange something that later became known far and wide as the miracle of Ocna Sibiu. The wonder sparked great furore in scientific circles in the United States, the home of Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the lightning rod, although today, in an age of countless abominable cataclysms, it has almost totally wiped from memory.
So, anyway, we were at the point – as indeed one can even read about it, possibly even while taking the “boundless” waters at Ocna Sibiu, in a specialist compendium of odd events compiled by Dr Béla Tóth and published by the Athenaeum Press, Budapest, in 1899, under the title Magyar Rarities – that on 3 July 1890 Ocna Sibiu was caught napping by a dreadful cloudburst and hailstorm. This despite there being in the vicinity a long-disused salt mine by the name of Echo Ocna about which it was rumoured that the death-rattles of the battle of Ocna Sibiu resounded there like the murmur of the sea from a conch. Echo Ocna was still flooded on the day in question in 1824, when suddenly a rumbling and sound of boiling could be heard from the ground before a bubbling and hissing column of water, shaped like a sheaf of wheat, shot out fifty feet into the air sprayed a disgusting spume far and wide. Dancing on the head of the torrent were the timber planks and baulks used to prop up the mine, and there amid the debris, human corpses. “A frightful and magnificent apocalyptic sight”, considers Dr Tóth in his book. The following day, when the storm had abated, daring men, at a cost of no small peril and toil, pulled fifty-five intact bodies from the huge puddle, collecting them at its edge. Two days later they fished out a fifty-sixth. The slash, stab and bullet wounds that were visible on the first fifty-five bodies testified without any doubt that these were the remains, a far from pleasant sight, of the home-guard soldiers who had fallen at Ocna Sibiu in the War of Independence on 4 February 1849 and been tossed into Echo Ocna the next day. The astonishment was all the greater when the fifty-sixth dead body was identified with complete certainty to be that of Mátyás Kolla, the Sibiu beggars’ judge whose job also included regulating hawkers, who, three years before, had committed suicide by jumping into the mine in question. The unfortunate judge had fallen in love with a Gypsy girl, who, being of a jealous nature had slipped a horsehair loop around her stout-hearted lover’s virile member while he dribbled slobber in his sleep. By the morning it had gone purple and been rendered unusable, in respect of any woman, that is. On hearing the bizarre news, people flocked in their thousands, by foot, horseback, cart and rail, to see with their own eyes this incredible thing. The marvel was true: virtually everyone recognised the beggars’ judge, a man widely known as Iron- Prick Mátyás. A story that Kolla was a murder victim, according to some, belongs to another page rather than here.
What is in less doubt is whether or not the other fifty-five bodies were indeed those of the fallen home-guard soldiers. Still alive eye-witnesses from the time testified unanimously to Dr Tóth that General Bem, having suffered defeat at the hands of the Austrian imperial forces, left behind more than three hundred casualties on the battlefield, and that the next day those corpses were tossed naked into Echo Ocna by the mopper-uppers, because the ground had frozen so hard in the bitter cold that it was impossible to dig graves. In the Benedek family chronicle (the author of which was a certain Antal Benedek, about whom we know next to nothing) a historian writes with sharpened goose-quill: General Bem was attacked and vanquished at Ocna Sibiu by the imperial troops led by Puchner, and the roughly three hundred dead left behind were, on the order of János Szász [grandfather of St Géza of Water Inlet, the Inspector at the time, notes Dr B. T.], thrown into the mineshaft there.
It is beyond doubt, therefore, nods Dr Tóth, the Hungarian mummy expert, that the fifty-five stiffs in the mine were among those who met a glorious end on 4 February 1849 in the struggle for Hungary’s independence. On the fifty-sixth dead body however there was a checked shirt, and since the eyebrows, moustache and part of the hair were still in situ, it was possible to identify with complete certainty the person of Mátyás Kolla, the expired beggars’ judge.
Post-mortems of the cadavers were carried out by a certain Dr Henrik Aurelius König, a soft-spoken, pedantic man. From his scientifically fascinating report, a portion of which, for some reason or other, lurked undisturbed in Petrovaradin’s municipal museum in Vojvodina until the end of the twentieth century, Dr Tóth quotes everything that, in his opinion, can be relevant to a non-medical public. According to this – and anyone with a queasy stomach should turn their tremulous head away right now – due to the permeation of their tissues by salt water and the widespread deposition of salt crystals, the cadavers were conspicuously heavy. Signs of rigor mortis – excepting the, for some reason, restored and in death obstinately rampant, strongly rightwards-curved stiffening of Mátyás Kolla’s virile member – were slight; no putrefaction, the odour that of old salted meat. They were swollen, very much like cadavers pickled in formaldehyde for anatomical purposes.
The skin was ashen, hard to the touch and smooth, except for a wrinkling on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands rather like that after a long bath. All the hair had disappeared from the home-guard soldiers, not a tuft to be seen anywhere. The mucous membranes of the lips, mouth and eyelids were pale and delicate. All of the ocular orbits, except for Kolla’s, had spilled out, and specifically in such a manner that no trace could be found of the vitreous body and lens. The pinnas, ear-holes and nostrils were finely wrought and covered with pin-shaped salt crystals. The nails were in part smooth and white, in part strongly adherent, very thin and coated with a yellow layer, under which could be seen a blackening of the nail. Since the bodies lay for a considerable length of time in the air, and the water had evaporated, the skin came to look as though it had been sprinkled with sugar, due to all the salt crystals that formed. Apart from contusions that had been caused during their ejection from the depths, on every body there could be seen the slashes of swords, triangular stab-marks from bayonets, and bullet wounds. On one body it was possible to trace the entire path made by the shell, from the right rib, through the liver, under the left lobe of the lung, then twisting slightly to reach the lower scapula.
Dr König writes that when he cut into these crystal-filled bodies – those morbid souvenirs – with a whetted knife blade, he heard a squeaking and had the sensation of slicing through the rind on a slab of bacon fat. The thorax, abdominal cavity, heart, intestines and joints were chock-a-block with cuboid salt crystals, small and large. What surprised the investigator most of all was that everything looked as fresh as if he had been working on people that had died just the day before. There was no internal part into which the crystallised salt had not penetrated, with plenty of tiny plaques of salt showing up even in tapped-out, blown-out or scraped-out bone-marrow.
Dr Henrik Aurelius König went on to convince himself, with the aid of experiments on the metaphysical acceleration of time on his own innocent rabbits – especially on his favourite, a jack-rabbit by the name of Tihamér that somehow managed to reach a ripe old age – and many other subjects, to demonstrate that water from the Echo Ocna mine was the most superb preservative fluid, laboratory use included. Bodies and body-parts remained unchanged, but on the other hand, in concentrated saline solution everything rots, as the writer of those lines, intrepid communicator of interesting phenomena, experienced personally when he came to grief while steeping hams for the year that started the new century. All of which goes to show that the reason why the bodies of the home-guard soldiers remained intact lies not purely in the large amounts of sodium chloride that were in the mine’s water, but in the content of carbonated lime, sodium iodide, potassium and calcium chloride as well. The salt of the water of the Echo Ocna mine, then, is most likely identical with Thököly’s salt, which is a salt of preserving strength that has the highest concentration of iodine and other components anywhere in Europe, possibly even the entire world. Dr König considered proven false the old physiological dictum that the skin is impervious to fluids surrounding the body, as by virtue of the Ocna Sibiu phenomenon it was in fact shown to be pervious.
What we have here is soldiers, salted. Or a soldier, salted, Dr Béla Tóth concluded. It turns out from other sources, of course, that the home-guard soldiers of Ocna Sibiu were in the end laid to eternal rest – along with the beggars’ judge Mátyás Kolla. The latter, however, was dug up one night by vagrant Gypsies who happened to find themselves in that neck of the woods and, capable of anything in their wretched destitution, took him along too. Kolla became probably the only person in this big, wide world who visited the United States after he died: somehow or other, they managed to smuggle his mummified body across the ocean. The cadaver was lugged around the country by itinerant showmen, along with a live, twelve-breasted woman, a sixty-toothed hermaphrodite, and a six- headed turtle that could be spun on its back, until a strapping sheriff by the name of James Kinsella from the confederate state of Utah – under the influence of his own bigotry as well as that of his intensely religious and deeply shocked spouse – brought to a halt the “tasteless display”, confiscated the beggars’ judge’s earthly remains, and handed them over to the Institute of Mummiography in Salt Lake City. Kolla’s afterlife activity seemed not to have ended there however as, after lengthy investigations, the scribbler of these lines (Balázs Cuniculus of Vojvodina, an outlaw, due to his worldview, and a notorious pacifist sceptic, so beware! Here our master shall call, and to some extent characterised, himself as a chronicler) saw him back in show business, as it were, on 13 September 1979, in tourist- thronged Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Kolla was lying in a glass sarcophagus next to the middle finger of some Chinese emperor and a Japanese statue furnished with original human hair and genuine human teeth. A brass plate below announced that this was none other than MÁTYÁS KOLLA, one of the famous Transylvanian vampires. Five dollars to see the vampire. The aforementioned entrance price was also calculated to cover the mechanical bats that were buzzing over the terrified visitors’ heads. Nor was that all as, every now and then, Mátyás Kolla would sigh and say something in Romanian.
St Géza of Water Inlet, for his part, predicted the following (in Hungarian):
“When at least another two hundred blind soldiers shall rise from the grave, and the dead beggars’ judge also comes into vogue, then the world shall be lost in the doomsday sea of tears in which the fresh waters also wind up.”
Well, that’s the point. According to some, Mátyás Kolla, the beggars’ judge, reached Odessa by a fairly direct route, then travelled on further. According to others, he first turned up at Buda fair, and from there with waggish watermen made his way down the Danube in a hammock on the deck, in his lips a cigarette rolled from unadulterated blond, Herzeg-Bosnian (later Bosnia-Herzegovinian) tobacco. It may also be that he turned up at the Novi Sad fair, or rounded the bend in front of the long silenced gun-barrels of Petrovaradin and thus continued his freshwater route to the salty sea and finally the equally salty ocean and did not stop until he reached the land of old dreams and new promises. Holding up impressively to the long voyage without a word of complaint.
Translation by Tim Wilkinson