My paternal grandmother served as assistant choir leader – a precentress, no less – in our village church. My father was the youngest of her eleven sons, and thus heir to the family home. I and my five siblings lived in the same house and the same backyard with her. One of us had to spend the night beside her, or else she would keep us awake all night by singing her “otherworldly” songs, as we beratingly called them, out of sheer boredom. One of us – one of her numerous grandchildren totalling four soccer teams in headcount – may have managed to scale back the formidable volume of her singing to a point, but never quite enough to prevent the scrawny adobe walls from resounding with her ceaseless wailings, powered as they were by all the anguish of the 20th century. I was well into adulthood and living in Budapest when I learned that my grandmother’s chants, which I had had to endure between fits of trepidation and cold sweat, had been gems of medieval church music in Latin.
My meanderings to the Hungarian capital led through the Transylvanian town of Csíkszereda, a six-year sojourn in the land of Szeklers. Then I moved from what was essentially a village to the city, trading my status as Csángó for another kind of minority. To be more precise, I woke up to a state of being that no one in his or her right mind could ever covet: the questionable identity of a Csángó without a face, a past and a future. At the age of eleven, I was grateful for sitting in school away from the farm fields, tending to books rather than livestock, and spending my days improving my erudition instead of gnashing my teeth to toe the line of a culture I was expected to fit in with. Already then, I knew there was no way back. Yet I still find that the soul has a hard time keeping track of the body, which takes in its stride hundreds of kilometres and eons with ease.
Time, which in the Eastern Carpathians the course of the Sun would have everyone frolicking from the bridal dance to the tryst with the world beyond, gathers breakneck speed to the mechanical ticking of a clock in the Carpathian Basin, and becomes practically immeasurable in Budapest. Here, man himself is now the hand on that clock’s face, the indicator between the is and the was. Measured by the instrument of immortality, 20 years – the 20 years I have been here – do not even put a dent in time. Nor do the thousand kilometres between where I live and what I call home, a distance I have travelled back and forth a thousand times. It is but the shortest of paths leading to the end. This is just a circuitous way of saying that the wanderer that I am will keep trudging to catch up with a being in search of God, shunning the company of the atheist, delving into religion. Playing with fire, if you will, under the cloak of creation.
It Was Snowing
Days on end I waited for this day to come. Well-combed and dressed to kill, to be snatched up by a gentle God as a gift for his own pleasure. I stood ready, somnambulistic, a girl in love. Nothing happened, then or since. It was snowing all day long, then more snow came before I wove a wreath of holy flowers for your evergreen forehead underneath the hamlet sky.
Smoke recoils perpetually; a wary bum from a handshake. I don’t know how it always starts to snow when I set out to pick you up, by the misty back roads of the mind. I know you’d lock me in your arms. Seconds against your beating chest: Our time cut out. And terror for the rest.
Staves of Reed
Clouds moving in, God happens to turn his back, musing as I remember my mother wringing her hands in diligence of old age, just sitting there in her heirloom linen shirt. God has not cried for a drink of water since yesterday. The thrashing clapper of a bell – a half-message for a full farewell – takes the world upon its shoulder like a corpse not yet grown cold. And each knell from any spire, over who knows what altar, will make the stooping spine of God a-tremble.
Kids at Night
The trees grow old at night
just when you hear the cries
of childhood. And the sound
of prisoners stripped in a lager.
Some will be taken to Rome
and hung with a halo for a head.
Winter, too, comes wrapped in light,
hatching the frost
like a bird.
Death at night will never divulge
the abode of the soul, or the wherefore
of the haste.
It’s like pulling a blanket over
to keep your body from the cold.
Love in the Days of Charon
Should I be so afraid, you ask, as a scarecrow of the firefly? As the tin soldier of the dying ember? of the tryst of salt and water? No way of knowing after the silence who will speak clutching my cross wishing a happy landing, or, down there, who will untie my braid amidst the beating surf so I can kiss your holy hands.
I packed up yesterday
wanting nothing but to roam
from spire to spire,
in a tolling attire
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel