If you are a Hungarian reader, before you launch yourself into this short story, please take the trouble reading the previous note (published the same day): Szeptemberi áhítat. You will understand why.
Year after year there comes the time of a ritual, perhaps the only fix ritual I perform in September. On this birthday month of self-questioning I do another deeply inveterate thing as well: I read one particular poem, the one entitled ’Pieties for September’ by Hungarian poet Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936). It is one of my favourites, I commend it to all who have a moment to click here (hopefully you won’t forget to turn back to me afterwards)
If there is a hauntingly beautiful ode to this month, I firmly believe, it is this poem.
Instead of publishing it here now, I would like to show you a short story of mine written some years ago as a Swan-song. Is is an independent story, an imagined afternoon of some really old archetypal September... Enjoy!
The Eighth Day
He wanted the eighth day to be just like the seventh. And then just like the ninth, tenth, ten millionth. To lean back, put his hands on the back of his head and watch and wonder silently. Without interfering. By then the skylarks and vultures have tried out their wings, the wind knew how speedily or skulking he has to move in order to slightly stir oak tree branches or to sweep away all the golden leaves from the ground.
While having a cup of milk he watched the sun pushing up his orange-red head on the east horizon, and thought of the evening when he would be watching it sinking down on the west. But around noon he had a strange feeling. Still there was something that wasn’t there. Around 4 p.m. he had to admit clearly: something was indeed missing. The job is not yet done. In fact everything was as good as he had wanted, even his own little unplanned surprises came out very well, but somehow the soup needed salt. He needed someone to confirm that things went well so far, that the lush green of the nearby forest was the shade exactly suitable for whispering secrets and that the vine grapes turned the right hues of purple.
He stood up with a sigh and clapped. There came the nicely combed boys, clearing their throats, adjusting lutes and guitars. It was clear that the sunrise and the lush green of the bush had efficiently inspired them. They could flawlessly, tangibly reproduce it. One could feel the air draft created by the wing of a hawk, one could shoot his eyes and yet see the perfect bright orange blaze of that morning... Yet he sighed. He made a dismissive hand movement and let them go back to the garden. It wasn’t their fault. He couldn’t explain to himself either what was not to his liking. After all, they perfectly depicted all he had done and seen.
He lay back again and concentrated. First with a question mark (what exactly do I miss?), then with a growing certainty (Yes, I want them not to faithfully describe my deeds. I want them to add that salt in the soup!). So, he created poets.
Soon he found himself in an old armchair on his terrace, amidst dozens of them, and the dozen dozens of their vine flasks, fulfilled and shattered dreams, dry and fresh cut flowers and pens and knives and blades and photographs and magnificent or senseless life stories, agreements and arguments, lost and won battles, lost and won women... He had a great time. They all spoke differently, they seemed to agree, although never really listened to what the other speaker had uttered, then they seemed unable to find a common point until one of them pointed out that it was all about war, vine and women. They all seemed to have something to say to him, even the one who notoriously shun his eyes and tried to escape his view. Some wanted to ask for little or big favours, some just complained, some just explored his terrace and house and the female invitees. He was actually quite pleased to imagine the dozen dozens of different versions of the same sunrise he had watched the same day, interminably long hours before they gathered at his place.
Nevertheless, by 6.30 p.m. on this late September day (the Eighth day) he knew again, that he was still unsatisfied. The soup tasted salty enough, but it was a heavy feeling he had. So many things taste salty, things like blood, sweat and tears. He had wanted that salt in its pure form. Lightly, without the feeling of guilt or approval, without the blood, sweat and tears that accompany the great things of life. He wanted the essence from beyond all these.
He didn’t mind the guests praising, complaining, swearing, cursing, wanting, yearning, longing, adoring or hating any of the things and beings they wanted. But he had an increasing uneasiness at the bottom of his stomach. ‘It looks like they don’t get the point’, he thought, but didn’t say a word. Somewhere deep beyond his gaping sense of void he liked them. But in an unnoticed moment he managed to retire from the terrace, on tip-toe he moved across the salon, went down the stairways, silently opened the back door and escaped out in the never ending garden that ended however in a never ending forest. And there, already close enough to his natural bush fence he saw the unhurriedly moving fellow in dark grey suit, almost camouflaged by the descending twilight. There came Kosztolányi. Dezső Kosztolányi from Szabadka or Tátraszéplak or Budapest or maybe even Vienna. He leisurely wandered across the September afternoon and the garden-cum-forest. Their eyes met and they both felt a surge of happiness welling up from deep. He now knew what he had been missing earlier that afternoon.
‘Where have you been? You missed most of the discussions.’ He asked Kosztolányi. The poet replied:
“Drinking the cellar dry is not for me,
no dinner tempts me, nor patisserie.
I’d sooner raid that storehouse of belief
eternity has hoarded and defy
the void with never ending signs of life.
You bring on the ripe clusters of the vine,
my patron and protector, hand of fate;
bring me on too, I tremble on your line,
but look my spirit and my spine are straight.
My arm still has the power to command;
another draught, another, ever fill
and ever gild, immeasurable hand;
my head’s unbowed, no autumn shows there still.
The melon yields her ripeness; white as milk
her baby teeth are sparkling in the gum;
exhausted wasps find shelter in the silk-
soft garages of flowers in full bloom;
the grapes are almost splitting with their sweetness;
struck dumb with joy, the mouth is rendered speechless.”
‘I see, he said, continue my son, just go on. What else do you want to tell me?’
“The earth has never been so richly tinged
with madness and enchantment, the trees prattle,
the sky drops loops of crazy colour, fringed
with bright vermilion flaming into purple,
the dusk blows kisses to the mist and sinks
with her in one enormous wave of pink.
Tell me, if you can, what place this is,
What lost domain of childhood fantasies?”
For the first time on this eight day, while facing this fellow, he finally felt sincerely happy. He looked at the poet and wondered whether it was the right thing he had done to Kosztolányi. But in the poet’s eyes there was no reproach. Two years have passed since he became aware of his mortal disease, thirteen years have passed since he lost a friend but managed to make a great novel out of it, seventeen years since he lost his homeland annexed to another country with his relatives still living there, and only days and hours since the continuous little losses of his everyday life. Nevertheless, Kosztolányi was smiling. He had that little mysterious smile that strikes through his portrait pictures.
He smiled too. He was one step ahead and knew what was next and after next, but then something came to his mind. ‘Actually, one more year, why not? Let’s give him enough time to write it down. Otherwise I will be the only one who has heard all this.’ But he didn’t say a word.
For some time they looked at each other. He knew that the poet was temporarily feeling better, out of hospital, able to do this long walk across the fields and meadows and orchards and vineyards and bushes and village pathways... The poet knew it too that this was TEMPORARY.
At this thought a big realisation dawned on him. He almost turned pale when he suddenly understood that Kosztolányi knew something more than he did. Yes, Kosztolányi knew indeed the meaning of TEMPORARILY, even the stem, the root of the word: TEMP.
‘Yes, he knows TIME. And that’s what I don’t. To me it’s the same whether the seventh day or the eight or the ninth or the eighteen thousandth... Now that I got what I wanted... But this poet does know the difference between day seven and twenty seven of this September. And surely does he know the difference between 1917 and 1927. He just doesn’t know 1937 and he won’t know it ever’, he thought and smiled back to Kosztolányi.
‘You may want to ask something, if you have covered such a long journey. You have some question, haven’t you?’
‘No, thanks. Oh, still, yes, actually there’s so much to ask’, said the poet.
“So tall a sky, such wonder beyond reason.
Why are the stars so huge today, of all days?
Each afternoon the kitchen is ablaze
with crockery delightful to the senses.
What is one to do with confidences
of this nature? Whose epiphanies
are these? Who buffs the hills and scours the sky?
What pantheistic store of memories
invites me to relive the centuries?
Orion’s helmet – is it sparkling still?
Why are all things laundered in this thick
celestial vapour? Whose responsible?
Why stare, enchanting one? It’s only magic.
Sweet flame of being, may your fire be drawn
however aimlessly, through dusk and dawn,
arrest the clock and calendar, destroy
this rotting intellectual granary,
and raise my flag of youth, in attitudes,
of grace, above the festive altitudes.”
(Szeptemberi áhítat, Pieties for September)
‘Fine, you don’t need to come in, but before you go back, at least quench your thirst here by the spring. And as long as you can, be my guest at 3 a.m. in your Budapest window. I like your “Dawn drunkenness”, he said loudly.
‘Oh you mean that poem?’, replied Kosztolányi, sure I can still quote it, I still feel so. He began reciting his own poem written on an early dawn...
“I also realise there is time for leaving,
but in my racing heart one string held firm and bent
to song, and I began to sing the firmament,
that unlocated Unlocatable,
out of reach and unobtainable
in life or death. My muscles slacken,
already, my friend, intimate
with much more dust and clay than I can reckon,
yet I was a guest at the party of a great anonymous potentate.’
(Dawn Drunkenness, Hajnali részegség)
They both smiled and nodded. It was late, the dusk turned on chilly breezes on this eighth day of creation.
(The quoted translations are from one of the rare geniuses able to transliterate our sophisticated language, George Szirtes. They were originally published in the bilingual anthology of Hungarian poetry entitled: The Lost Rider, published in 1997 by Corvina Books Ltd., Budapest)