On a frosty December night the old man was rolling in his sleep. He was in a state of dreaming. Recently he had remembered all the images, voices and smells conjured by his mind at dawn. They came in abundance without him consciously programming his mind – from time to time the images remained in his memory and lingered there for a long while after waking up to the grey, monotonous reality of everyday existence. Some pictures accompanied him for days, and the one that newly emerged this morning promised to be such a long lasting one.
In his dream the old man saw his own room, with old family photos and prints of prayers hanging on the wall. A kitchen and a hall adjoined the tiny living space, with a spacious garden so overgrown with nettle and weeds that it was virtually impossible to get to the dilapidated wooden toilet located a couple of meters’ distance from the door. The planks of the shed in the courtyard were staggering and falling as if drunk, and the roof had a huge sunken dip in the middle, as if ready to collapse at the slightest cough of merciless winter.
He was hovering above his own dwelling, such a unique perspective was offered by the bird’s eye view! Peeping into his room through the numerous cracks on the attic tiles and an open window, he was astounded by how strange everything looked from a different angle: small and insignificant compared to the big scheme of things and the vast space outside. He was enjoying the levitation and the complete freedom, something he had hardly ever experienced during his restricted life. How different it felt to take advantage of the warm winds which gently enveloped him and rocked him in their firm but lenient embrace! He did not want these moments to end – sinking into timelessness he stretched his body and let all aches and pains go, his joints and bones did not sing from pain anymore. He had never sat on an airplane before, so the novelty of the experience heightened his sense of immense joy.
Bang! The landing was utterly unexpected. It did not hurt though – the old man touched the ground of his own room with a clearly audible noise but with relative ease. The pleasurable ’honeymoon period’ was over. Although he’d never had a long term spouse, he felt as if he had returned from a journey where he was united in strong bondage with a nameless lover. There was no point in asking the gale that took him on her wings to come back, she had left.
Looking around, his eyes took in the familiar environment – everything greeted him with obedient silence as usual. The only perceptible change was in the air. It was stuffier than he had ever noticed it to be. Dust started to nag his olfactory sense, melancholy was emanating from the aged shelf above the washing bowl and from the tiny glazed cupboard next to the stove, once proud and white, now faded into dirty yellow instead of an elegant ivory colour. The oven was yawning from boredom and lack of everyday use, the kitschy china figurines on the shelves peered at each other lustfully and laughed at the decay mockingly. The piled up bedlinen and towels quietly lay without function like corpses awaiting the day of judgment. The window would not open, it was nailed to its frame, no one had bothered to repair or oil the hinges.
Slowly but steadily, a feeling of uneasiness perched on the old man’s shoulders, his eyesight became blurred from the lack of vivid impressions and clear shapes, even breathing posed a challenge. The air was getting suffocating. He knew he had to get out to the garden to gain access to fresh, oxygen rich life-affirming air. His legs were heavy like lead but he had to escape. So he started toward the door with shaking steps, but, alas, the floor began to sink as he treaded, it was heading downwards as if bound for a cellar or pit. The plants in the garden were waving to him invitingly, but in vain: he was unable to reach them. When he got to the door, he was already in a half catatonic state – his head was at the same level as the handle that towered in front of him menacingly. All seemed to be lost, hopeless.
Ping! The old man’s eyes sprang open, he woke up in cold sweat. The strange scary dream had only tortured him for a few minutes but the subjective time got elongated to a tremendous extent so now he felt as if he had run the marathon: only the victorious feeling was missing. Trying to move his limbs a numbness prevented him from elbowing on the bed and then getting up: as if weights had been hung on his body, all he could do is remain still.
After a few snail-paced minutes this state of helplessness grew so intolerable that he unintentionally resorted to play a movie on his mind’s screen: characteristic of mankind in old age, he was able to evoke faces from the distant past, and events of his youth rather than those of the present. This little game helped him overcome the fright over his present condition and his body commenced to relax again, his eyes half closed as his brain kept entertaining him before sinking into a slumber again.
He had never been married, which he did not really regret, he was not the type to commit to the framework of long term relationships: he spent decades as a proud, confirmed bachelor, never intending to hurt anyone with false promises. To cope with practical issues, he had constantly relied on his beloved older sister Iris, primarily in the tricks and toil of maintaining a household. It was not easy for him to show his gratitude and affection toward her, but as he was aging and their health faded, he became mellower and more inclined to express her value and importance. But she passed two years ago, causing a sudden, sharp cut on his heart. Though they had only met once a month, then they spent a good few days together, working around and in the house till both dropped from fatigue, regaining their energy with delicious warmed up leftover food from lunch and teasing each other, debating over luck in card games won at random, or sharing stories of their common, rather sheltered childhood.
Their twin brothers, John and Jake had said farewell to their fatherland for good after the Hungarian revolution in 1956: for them the daily grind at the forced village cooperative that awaited private farmers as a result of the seemingly egalitarian policies, the meagre living and the utter impossibility of further education did not seem attractive enough to pursue and strive for. They had left on a train bound for Western Hungary, and although they bought a return ticket to confuse stern conductors, they forgot to come back: instead they walked in the cruel December snow as far as the Austrian border and smuggled themselves through with one bag each, finally ending up in Belgium after months of dire deprivation.
Their non-compliance with the dictatorship had always been a source of utmost pride and dignity for the whole family: for a decade they only kept in touch through densely written letters composed with care and marine blue ink. Finally, when the first rare visit took place still behind the Iron Curtain, his brothers’ children admired the old man’s ancient stove, creaking wooden floorboards and incomparably humble way of life with that of the liberal West, but left with an appropriately polite ’Thanks for the hospitality, Uncle’ and no trace of tears on their untanned cheeks. Life resumed its normal flow for both parties, the ones who left and the one who chose to stay.
A solitary, rather conformist existence followed after the split of the family. Work, church, pub, in this order and often the other way around, occasionally a lover for a one night stand. Neighbours he could rely on when the festive day of pig killing dawned at the beginning of each year, the camaraderie of stirring the blood and making black pudding after a palinka or two. In a land of little opportunity, he had none. His future was barren, always constrained by the norm. There was hardly any time to be pensive anyway as making a living and accumulating some capital for his retirement took their toll on him: the only week in the year he did not spend with work usually passed in bed, grappling with a virus of some sort until Diligence commanded his body to amend itself to the degree of at least feeding the animals and bringing the hay into the shed. Discipline in the street, discipline inside his mind, his days ticked away without major occurrences.
The only definitive change of circumstances in the past decade was brought about by the turn of history’s giant wheel: having lost all his property virtually overnight during the years of persecution and nationalisation following the world war, now he was resting in his own house on the tiny piece of land and somewhat more spacious jungle-like garden regained from a compensation scheme initiated by the government following the political changes. He kept his just inheritance in order as much as the strength of old age allowed, using a scythe to prevent the ruthlessly spreading nettle and weed from annexing the territory, chopping wood already in summer to prepare for the ever recurring cold months. He had the gas heating installed not long ago, nevertheless he was too ingrained in his habits and too thrifty to make ample use of the modern technique he did not particularly admire or appreciate anyway. He still looked after his parents’ and Iris’s grave conscientiously, armed with a hoe and rake each Sunday after mass and a beer in the nearby Inn.
The only slight disturbance in any major physical effort was a feeling of dizziness that had come over him recently without prior heralding, more and more regularly. He attributed the vertigo to his age and only saw his doctor for prescriptions of general medication. Obstinacy had always been one of his defining characteristics – it had helped him through the trumped up trials of confiscation of his lands and youth, assisted in fighting the pneumonia that almost cost his life after one of his most copious seasons of harvest thanks to all the exertion and toil. Stubbornness enhanced his will of survival once he was ’over the hill’ and his days became even more irrelevant, ticking along running errands when necessary, hearing the news in the radio, with no one to embrace or talk to. The blooming flowers and verdant bushes still smuggled some colour and versatility to the spring and summer days, but when Autumn started lurking around and Winter was looming on the horizon, blunt grey took over.
He had lately took to sleeping in after the Cockerel’s first crow, listening to the pecking of his poultry, the birds’ awakening songs and the church bell’s toll each quarter of an hour in a dream-like state. The oak-panelled, straw-mattressed, generously wide but disproportionately short bed was worn by age, creaking at every twist and turn, his now emaciated and shrunken body occupying only a fraction of the available space. After his nightmare, he was now soothed and reconciled with the fact that reality was more pleasant than the realm of night as an exception.
The old man heard a voice in his sleep. He was unable to identify the direction of its source, nevertheless it was firm, confident and had a gently persuasive tone. Being addressed by someone unknown and invisible was more than unusual even in a dream, the situation felt entirely surreal and the ensuing conversation was even more so.
’So, my faithful one, what would you be if you were a plant?’
’What a strange question’ – he thought, with a slight tinge of impatience, having always preferred practical, tangible interrogation from people he knew. There had been times when he was questioned by unknown secret agents about sins he had never committed, and these hours got burnt on his brain. Now the scars of his dignity almost started to unravel but the voice felt warm and pleasant to his ears, making the dark memory retreat and putting him at ease. After trying to guess the whereabouts of his friendly interrogator in vain, he resorted to thinking the proposed subject over, unleashing his imagination, which required an effort in his age and set of circumstances. The answer he came up with was unexpected even to himself:
’Unknown one, well…I think I would be a Venus fly trap. I was lucky and saw one once in an arboretum near here and it made me so curious: its colour, so vivid and deep, you should see how it cajoles its victim into its cone and then…devours it. Yes…a wondrous discovery. This is only a game by the way, isn’t it?’
’Take it as you wish. Let’s see…Hmm, nice one. You would be a predator plant, voluptuous to the eye but highly dangerous. An inviting trap for innocent applicants. Not bad for a start, not at all. You’ve managed to capture my attention. So now, secondly, tell me, honest one, what would you be if you could be an animal?’
The man – now more obediently – pondered again, though a nagging curiosity kept biting his brain, trying to find a feeling of ’deja vu’ connected to this strangely persuasive voice without a body or countenance. This proved impossible so he quickly gave up. After a pause devoted to thinking, an equally astonishing thought cropped up, delivered with a tinge of confidence this time. He did like animals, he’d worked with them throughout his life, so this topic struck a stronger chord with him.
’Weird to think of it, but I reckon…yes, I feel I’d love to be a raven. Though hardly anyone likes them, I’ve always loved their shiny black waistcoats, sometimes grey bellies and pompous walk in the city parks. But…why are you asking me anyway and who are you?’
He was not able to control the question which burst out of his turbulent mind as a passionate reaction. He had always been a direct conversational partner, but these unique images and out of the blue answers made him self-conscious. What could come next?
’It’s me on the questioning end now. You’ll know soon enough. So. A raven, an omnivore, not refusing to eat the dead, either. Or their larvae. Or anything really. Good. I will only ask you one more thing – and then, ’nevermore’, as the raven says in the poem. What would you be if you were an object?’
’Hmm…in all honesty, I’d rather not be one if I could avoid it, I prefer to be alive, even though it’s not that pleasant anymore. Still…I’ll try to think. Hmmm…I need to say that plants and animals were fine, but now I’m stuck. No idea really..tell me, must I answer this question?’
’It’s inevitable, to be truthful. One of your talents has always resided in your imagination, even though you were unaware of it and suppressed it with continuous action, busy as a bee whatever the season. Come on, there’s no time to hesitate.’
’Nevermore, nevermore, says the raven, don’t know where…well, then. Here you are. I’d be a piece of charcoal, to draw expressive and striking pictures with. Yes, to draw every tiny detail as I saw them, to show the world what a beast man can turn into during chaos and war. I’ve seen it enough, and I have experienced the opposite too: what a bastard one can become when there is tough order and dictatorship. Yes, indeed, I should show all this to the wide world, the victimisers should be made responsible without exemption. There you go. ’
’Ugh…I appreciate the novel idea indeed. A black, dexterous charcoal, to show the bleak side of the world without any distortion. No colours, just shades of darkness – on a sheet of glaringly white blank paper. No more innocence: sharp strikes on the palette of life, a clear-cut, visceral presentation of mankind and their instincts. So many things are grey in life, and the boundaries washed away. Forgetting is not possible but take heed: revenge is no path, either. Still, you’re right after all, my friend: we all have to eventually embrace the wild in us so that we can let it go when the time comes. You’ve done it, precious man. Now you’re ready.’
That was the moment when the flames reached his bedroom, slowly but steadily spreading from his sister’s gift, the handmade Advent wreath left burning in the back room. The fire grew more and more powerful as it waded through the door left ajar. It bit into the ancient furniture relentlessly, finally consuming the old man, who now lay peacefully on His altar.