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Chapter 8 : Hungary
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When the moon is bright and the stars glimmer in her radiance, pale and golden specks in comparison to her luminescent white, and the clouds cannot be seen from the window in my tower though I know they are there, more often than not – then, then I hear the wolves.
Hundreds of feet below, they pad through the forests at the base of Nurmengard, attracted to the magic, perhaps, or simply curious (though I would like to think they were not as trapped as I; this is my punishment and mine alone, and the solitude I suffer through only makes your knees groan ever louder under the crosses you insist on bearing), and howl, calling to one another. At first it is soft, then it grows and grows until it floats up to me on the night breeze, and I close my eyes and smile.
I can just imagine how they must look: slinking through the trees, quiet on velvet paws, their coats gleaming mottled grey and brown in the dark, eyes bright and cunning and hungry. Predators, in every inch of their bodies, for they have known nothing else, know no other way of life; they are made to run and hunt and kill, and they can only obey Nature’s commands.
Once, I was like them: proud and calculating, the leader of a pack which only ever grew and grew and grew, until I fell and they shattered without me to bind them together. Once, I would run through the forests, the wind urging me on, the frost nipping at my heels as I raced the dawn and won, wild and endlessly curious. Once… ah, but I was many things once, Albus, and now I am merely your prisoner – and I am specifically yours, am I not?
Now, as it is, I can only sit here, caged inside by stone and metal, and listen to the wolves far below, and as their cries drift to me, weakened by distance, I do not remember you or the way power thrummed in my blood and set my heart to fluttering, but the wide, jagged hills of Hungary, and the way they reached up into the sky, dark and threatening, their sides and tops covered in trees upon trees. Then, just beyond them, the edges of the steppe, grassland plains stretching out to the horizon, the air around them tinged with salt from the rivers, covered in meadow flowers, colouring the grass pink and purple and white so that it looks almost like those sweets of which you were so fond.
There was pride there; pride and ferocity and an individualism of which no other country can boast. Passion was abundant – passion in every form, seeping through the cracks in the floor, embedded in the land itself, and it swept my soul away with it.
Perhaps, if you had come, it would have swept yours away too, stiff and reclusive and English though you were, even then.
Perhaps then you would have tapped into the music inside your soul, would have felt all the burdens of society, of life, of intellect strip themselves from your shoulders, and you would have known freedom, and joy and hope and passion beyond anything else. Fear would have been left behind, back in your Wales and dreary England, and you would have glowed.
I would have loved you then; ah, but human courage is fickle and sometimes it fails us, does it not?
Now, as you sit in your office, pretending you are not what and who you are, who we both know you to be, you are a fox in chains, tied to your stoicism and your false modesty and your endless, crippling guilt, and you are surrounded by wolves, ever closing in at the first scent of weakness, the first hint of frailty or fear or shame.
That is in truth, in life; in dreams, it is much different, yes? In your dreams and mine, you are a wolf, strong and sleek and hungry, and you run by my side from dusk until dawn, roaming the woods of Hungary.
13th March, 1906; Visegrád, Hungary
My mother was dying, or so the letter claimed, and before her soul was committed to God’s grace she wished to see my father again, one last time, in an act of confession, to release her from the burden of her sins. It would free them both, she said – my father’s forgiveness would undo the shame and the hurt the past carried, would soothe the scars imprinted on their hearts.
It sounds so very lovely – so romantic, so wonderfully poetically just, that a dying woman should want the man she loved so briefly and so passionately to hear the truth, that her soul should mean enough to her to beg to be freed from the horrors which would await her otherwise – until one remembers that nothing is ever without motive, selfish and selfless in the same breath, and no one is ever more desperate for salvation than a dying man.
You have no need to be concerned, though, Albus – I am quite certain I am beyond redemption.
If I had chosen, I would not have gone, even though she asked for me in the letter (asked for me by name, no less), for what did I owe her? My life, perhaps, but I owed that to my father also, and far more to him than her. No, I owed her nothing, except my name, and that was only because she kept me long enough to ascertain that I was not her husband’s child, as she had hoped so vainly.
She asked, though, and my father insisted, and so I found myself at the end of winter riding down to the river, and then sailing east and south, down into Hungary, down to Visegrád, the place of my birth.
I was sullen throughout the journey, talking little and then only waspishly, preferring instead to stare out across the river, back upstream, up towards the mountains of the Alpes, their tops, snow-covered and jagged, visible from even this distance. It was a wonderful, clear day, bright and cheerful, the kind normally I would have loved to lie on the grass in, but that day there was little I could find to enjoy about it – even the gentle lapping of the waves on the sides of the ship and the wind in my hair could not quite dispel my discontent.
(That is one of your English plays, is it not? Now is the winter of our discontent… A tragic king, twisted by history as all who are defeated become, in the end. Is that story not so very familiar to us both?)
Of all the places I have visited, none have ever inspired the same sensation of mystery, of fantasy, the same belief that stories and legends could be true, that gods and demons could walk among us, hidden from our sight. The land held something to it, a quality I could not put my finger on then, nor name now, but it put me in mind of knights and maidens, tourneys and battles; all the glory and bloodshed and romance contained within the epics.
Perhaps it was the castle, old grey stone, nestled in a thick bank of trees, up on the hilltop; perhaps it was the arched bridge we drifted under, lined with stalls and traders, their voices ringing, bouncing off the stone; perhaps it was the vast wilderness which lined the banks as we neared the town, and the sense of something ancient still residing there.
Whatever it was, I do not know any more; like so many other things, it has been lost along the way, flung from my mind as it shrinks in the night.
You may blame yourself for that, Albus. I am, after all, your prisoner.
Then, too soon – far too soon, for I had never intended to return, intended instead to stay as far away as possible if only out of spite – I was standing inside my mother’s house, with my father by my side and a girl (woman, really, since she was older than me and already married with a child of her own) watching me with a wary, almost disdainful expression. It was judgmental, harsh: as though she had already measured me, weighed me, and found me wanting, her long-forgotten half-brother.
I could not blame her for the dislike – to see the physical proof of your mother’s lies, of your mother’s betrayal, of your father’s shame is something no child should have to bear, truly – merely where it was placed and the way, hard and stony and silent, she dealt with it.
While she led my father upstairs, I was directed, rather than shown, into a small room off to one side of the entrance, and told, like a child, to remain there until she returned.
I had already lost hope that there was anything here for me, that there had been any point in my coming. Was this what I would have to endure for however long it took the woman to die? Pointed stares, cold silences, and expressions, albeit fleeting, of disgust at having to house her mother’s bastard son. Within days, I was certain I would hear the word bandied about me, whispered behind my back, and pointing fingers from others, as though I were an animal in a zoo, to be poked and prodded and marvelled at.
In the end, it was much like I had predicted. My two half-brothers, both older and sterner than I, with broad shoulders and dark, scowling faces, made a point of barging past me in the corridors, hissing at me under their breaths in Hungarian when their children could not hear them. The last child, a girl four years younger than me, when she discovered she was to sit beside me at dinner the first evening, flew into a rage at the thought, screaming about how she would not eat with the reminder of her mother’s disgrace.
Though it all, my father said nothing. Instead, he chose to glance around him with a strange, melancholy expression I did not recognise on him, on the rare occasions he was not cloistered upstairs with my mother, hearing her apologies and her regrets, pressing forgiveness to her brow.
The others I do not think saw it, but I did. To me, it was as plain as day: glittering in his eyes, distant and glossy, half-dream and half-memory; he had wanted this, this family, this life, with her in this land – not just me, alone and back in Germany at the foot of the mountains.
My throat burned at the thought that I had been nothing more than a mistake (though, in a sense, I had known that since youth; my father’s silence on the subject of my mother had always made that obvious enough), my eyes filled, and I darted out into the garden, desperate beyond anything to get out of there, to get away from the idea that I alone was the stranger, that I alone was upsetting the balance, the odd one out still, even beyond the shadow of Durmstrang.
Outside, the air was still, nothing moving on the steppes, picking at the water in the river, though the tops of the trees shivered a little, as though chattering to one another. A pair of birds flew on darkened wings, casting no shadows on the ground under the clouds and the bruised sky; and I, I stood there and breathed, desperate to wrest back some semblance of self-control, of pride.
I would not allow them to break me. I would not give them that satisfaction; it was the least I could do, when faced with their scorn.
So, I endured. I sat at their tables, slept in their beds, and nodded in all the right places. I offered to help to wash up, left the house when there was trouble around, and stayed well away from the doctor on his few visits. In short, I was the perfect houseguest: silent, undemanding, and wilfully uninterested in the secrets of those who lived there.
(A kinder man might protest the presumption of there being secrets; a wiser man would know better. There are always secrets, in every family. In yours, you had Ariana, the truth of your father’s crime, your own predilections… in mine, I was only the beginning of the lies, of that I am certain.)
Three days into our visit – three days of glares and my half-brothers knocking me against the walls as they passed me, of my sisters ignoring me with practised, simmering anger – my father came downstairs, and tried to smile at me.
“Your mother would like to see you,” he said. My half-sister, the eldest, dropped a china plate, decorated with blue ink to show a windmill; her child, barely three years old, shrieked and hid behind her skirts.
I nearly froze there, unsure of what to do, unsure of what I wanted to do. Should I run out into the road, go back to Germany, my beloved homeland, and declare myself never to have been part of this wretched, sullen family; or should I stay, stay and ascend the stairs to meet my mother for the first time in my memory?
Either choice would damn me in my half-siblings’ eyes: one for being a coward, for being too proud and too weak to admit the truth, and the other for being too presumptuous to assume they would not mind.
I must admit that the one thing which pulled me towards the stairs, onwards and upwards as they creaked under my weight, as the bannister slid below my hand, was curiosity. Oh, I knew even then I did not want to know her, not as a child should know his mother, but I simply could not resist the opportunity to see her, to put a face to the title which before then had always simply been white space.
The room was cloying, the scent of death, half-smothered by endless bunches of flowers – lilies, for the irony, and jasmine – clinging to every particle available, and reaching for the door handle made my stomach clench with a cocktail of nerves and anticipation.
Even to this day, I do not know why I was nervous; I admit it only grudgingly. It is nonsensical – all the reason to be afraid was hers and hers alone. For her, I was the judge and jury and ghost of lives past all in one; for me, she was nothing – and yet, and yet, I could only hold my breath as the door swung open.
My mother smiled at me as I entered, though it was not a kind smile, nothing tender in it at all. I suspect she saved that for her true children, leaving none of it to spare for me. No, it was a sort of satisfied expression, a sort of wistful pleasure underneath, as though I had matched up to the tales my father had no doubt told her of me, in the same way as a stables owner admires his prize stallion once the horse has reached maturity.
The illness had been no lie, I saw that then: she was thin, her dark hair limp and heavy with the weight of gathering dirt, and her skin seemed almost translucent in the light from the lamps around the room. Perhaps if I had looked harder, looked deeper, I would have seen the traces of myself my father had once described to me: the same shape of eyes, the same habit of raising my head just a little bit higher when challenged, but I did not.
I was not interested in similarities and differences, in bonding with my mother. I was only interested in trying to work out how long it would take her to die.
“Gellert,” she breathed, her hands, ivory underneath paper, smoothing down the orange velvet blanket restlessly. She pronounced my name differently – the Hungarian way, with the inflection on the second vowel – and for a moment, it resonated within me, struck something in my distant memory, but I could not think of it and it passed. “My son. My Gellert. You… you look so much like your father, do you know that?”
She was watching me closely, intently, waiting for an answer. I did not disappoint.
“Yes,” I responded simply, staying still at the end of the room, my hands folded behind my back.
“Come here, please,” she asked, beckoning to me with a skeletal hand, and, much against my own judgment, I found myself walking towards her, found her taking one of my hands in hers. She smiled at me, then, but I could not smile back.
For a moment she said nothing, focusing on my hand, on brushing her thumb and fingers over the back of it, seemingly fascinated by the movements of my flesh and the feel of my skin. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to snatch my hand out of hers and stalk out of the room, slamming the door behind me with a thunderclap.
“I am sorry,” she whispered eventually. “For what it is worth, I am sorry. I was not a good mother to you; I made bad choices, in the end. What I did, though, I did to protect you. My husband… he was already beginning to suspect – your hair was so blonde and your eyes… - it was not safe for you to stay, for your father to stay either. Now, I find that I have missed your life, that I do not know you at all when I should know everything there is to know. I do not expect you to forgive me, but I want you to know that I love you.”
She looked at me, her eyes large and deep mahogany – identical to those of my half-brothers and sisters downstairs, only hers were flooded with tears, red-veined and puffy – a plea, desperate and heartfelt, reaching out to me from them, and for once, I did not have it in me to condemn.
Then again, she was not asking for condemnation or relief – not from me. It was a message only, nothing more. A message, perhaps, I should have heard a long time before then.
Before leaving, I turned back to face her, one hand already resting on the frame of the door, the grains of the wood harsh under my fingers.
“Tell me,” I demanded softly, and my voice was too tender, too calm even to me; she flinched in her deathbed and I half wanted to laugh. “How did I die?”
Her eyes closed, her hands clenched around the sheets, and I saw the indecision on her face, read the shame in her body as she replied,
“Colic. It was sudden – quick. There were… lots of children sick, lots of bodies. It was believable; no one would suspect,” she swallowed, her voice halting and slow, unable to look at me as she brushed the velvet the wrong way, turning it darker, deeper, the colour of brandy. “There was a casket. A funeral, in the cemetery. Empty, of course, but… but…”
“Of course,” I repeated, finding my hand on the door was shaking, rage and loss waging a war in my chest. “Colic.”
Upon my return downstairs, I did not go back into the body of the house. I could hear my half-sisters gossiping as they sliced vegetables in the kitchen, the clunking of spoons on pots a harsh accompaniment; my half-brothers, it seemed, had vanished for the time being. No, instead of offering to help (an offer which would never be accepted), I slipped out of the door, shutting it behind me and walked.
Aimlessly, I walked, up towards the hills which overlooked the town, the old castle resting high up in the distance, birds flying overheard. It was a simple pleasure, one I wanted rather more than needed, to be alone and outside, and so I walked for hours, until my legs burned from the effort and my stomach rumbled, my breathing sounded in my own ears and I finally, for the first time in this wretched country, felt my mind clear and my shoulders, my whole body relax.
Still, I could not shake the sense that I was utterly, completely alone, that there was no one who truly understood me, that I had no one I could whisper secrets to in the dead of night, or simply sit in silence with for hours as I dozed and dreamed and wondered.
Certainly, I had friends back in Germany, I had allies and comrades and those who would become my supporters when the time came, but nothing closer, nothing deeper or more permanent – no childhood friend who recognised the jump of every muscle in my face, every twitch I had, or limits I set myself. For family, I had only my father; my great-aunt being them an untenable connection (for reasons I do not think I have to explain to you), and my father’s parents disinclined to approve of their only son’s bastard child.
My father, then, was the closest, and even he I did not tell secrets to - when he had so many of his own: how he longed for a life he could not have, he could never have had, truly, and could not simply be satisfied with the life he had. Resentment stung, slicing deep into my flesh as it went, its poison flooding my veins, even as I wanted to cry.
As I sat and thought, the sun beginning to set around me, the sky dimming to pale, pastel pinks and then dusky, bruised indigos, shot through with bolts of turquoise blue, I breathed out a sigh, leaning back against an elm tree, and confessed to the wind, to the forest and the clouds, that what I wanted was someone more.
I had enough friends, I did not want another one – instead, I wanted… ah, I do not know if there is a name for such a thing – not a lover, not quite an amant, but closer than a friend, almost a brother but not quite, either in blood or in water. I wanted, craved, not having to explain myself any more, not having to pretend perfection every day, not having to wonder what they would think if they knew the true depths of my thoughts, of my plans and desires, and hold back, bite my tongue when the topic arose.
You see, Albus, how weak I was, how young and naïve and foolish, because for the second time since I had left Wales, I missed you.
A/N: Translation: amant = lover (French)
The phrase 'now is the winter of our discontent' is from the play Richard III by Shakespeare and is not mine.
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