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By the River

 

For Aljoscha

 

ST LAWRENCE SEAWAY

 

Under my finger the map, this quiet pale blue of the cold estuary, the countless small elevations of the islands, white and pale green, they rub against my fingertip, press into the grooves and rings of the impinging skin. Under the fingernail and pressed deep into the nail bed the black earth of this godforsaken strip of Middle Europe, far from any sea, any estuary, with a view to the horizon in the west and in the east to the bench by the yard gate, where Auntolga awaits the evening, I see her through the sparse branches of the young cherry tree in front of my house, she sits in the light of the late afternoon and scrapes the ground with her black laced shoes until her friends come and sit down beside her, sit there until dusk like old ravens.

 

Auntolga scrapes with her feet and nods and nods with her raven’s head, we call out something in Serb to each other. When she talks in Hungarian to her raven friends, I hardly understand a word, yet once a word flew from their beaks onto my table – Mississauga. No doubt, the word had become Mississauga on its flight between Olga’s bench and the table in my room and had sounded quite different at the beginning of its trajectory, but now it was Mississauga, as on the freeway signs in the dazzling early summer light in Ontario, a quarter, a third, half of a lifetime ago? Almost still a child I found myself, together with my son of a few weeks, in a big American sedan. The woman in whose house I was going to live had picked me up at the airport, she spoke a language I could not quite make out, later I understood that in her mouth a German dialect unfamiliar to me and English were engaged in an unceasing struggle, now paralysing, then again racing into each other, only occasionally, whether out of inattention or a generous mood, permitting a recognisable word in one or other language, such as formula or Boxboitl to leap from the tongue. Her six-year-old daughter sat in the front seat. After two sons who, under the rough buffets of their betterment-craving parents, had grown up into soft-hearted rascals, this little blonde-plaited late arrival was expected finally to drag the immigrant cart out of the mud. From time to time the girl interrupted her mother by reciting patriotic school verse, again and again she turned to the back seat in the course of her declamation, her vague child’s gaze roving to the rear window, to the shimmering surface of the expressway flowing away behind us, waved her hand in an exaggeratedly adult gesture of dismissiveness and said through the gaps in her teeth: The olden days they lie behind us.

 

Too young, too confused, too dizzy from the flight and the sight of the ice floes, water, water, islands and hard to distinguish barren land, to bid farewell to the olden days as cast-off ballast, I clung to my child and to the name Mississauga on the signs high above the roadway. Where had I arrived? Was I stranded, had I exiled myself? Toronto, Ontario, Mississauga, names unfamiliar and beautiful. Once I had swum through the river of these names, then – I thought of the ice floes I had seen from the airplane window, this estuary, which was in itself like a sea – then the olden days, the olden lands would be washed away, forgotten, forfeited, deposited in another space, in another dimension.

 

The old raven women scuffed away into the evening, each into her own. Auntolga’s red-patterned yard gate, once green, swung shut. In the shadowy twilight I could hardly recognise anything on the map any more, which was here and there torn at the folds from the many moves from place to place and from being packed and unpacked, without ever lying opened out. I had not thought of Toronto for a long time, not until this Mississauga, twisted by the wind, by the bleating of the sheep, by the late call of the oriole, wafting over to me through the Banat evening from Olga’s bench, did it come to mind again, and with the name also the map, far to the back and underneath in my collection of maps which had grown over the years.

 

This map of eastern Canada was the first map I had owned, the untouched goodbye present from my map-obsessed father, which, weeping he placed in the baby basket at the airport. I had never seen my father weep before and at first took it to be a trick, a clumsy actor’s turn to pass time at the airport, or a game, with a nod and a wink, for my child, or for me, a little bit of clowning, which was supposed to say: you, too, should be among the map readers, but then came the tears which didn’t seem to go with any antics or ham theatricals and I turned away a little embarrassed, relieved that the flight was being called.

 

I had spread out the map only once, on the floor of the sparsely furnished dark room on the lower ground floor of the wooden house on Roxborough St West. A room with a kitchenette and a little bathroom, in a moment of armistice in the mouth of the landlady the word gahdenruhm tumbled from her lips and with her chin she indicated the wire mesh door, secured with a hook, which gave onto the narrow dust bin passage between this house and the next and from there out to the street between the meagre front gardens. Meanwhile the six-year-old was turning pirouettes and singing a Canadian homeland song in French, her pigtails flew and once struck me quite painfully on my bare arm. I spread out the map when Aunt Liesl wanted to explain to me where she had lived on the St Lawrence River. Aunt Liesl spoke a kind of Austrian sprinkled with English, she also had a room in the landlady’s big house, under the roof, and every morning, while it was still dark, she came down the creaking stairs in her clumpy black shoes and made her way to the Hungarian bakery where, under the name Ershinanie she talked and laughed in a language I did not understand. Now when, in the semi-darkness of my house in south-eastern Hungary, I folded the map up again it became clear to me that Auntolga reminded me of Aunt Liesl. Was it because of the shoes? Because of the addition of aunt to the name, this wondrous shared characteristic of elderly women from the great land of aunts? Because of the defenceless blonde layer on the grey locks, because of the made-up narrow mouth in the pale, blue-tinged face of the heart disease sufferer? On this one occasion Aunt Liesl’s well-kept elderly hand had gone up the river, down the river on the map, by the great St Lawrence River she said again and again; I thought I could feel the little islands on the map arching their backs under her pointed fingertip, the little ice floes further up in the estuary produce a faint buzz when they brushed against the grooves in the skin of Aunt Liesl’s fingertips.

 

In the evenings Aunt Liesl came back with a white linen bag with bread which had been left over in the bakery, dark rye bread with a shiny hard crust, kifli that had started to turn dry, cardboard boxes with slices of strudel. She gave the landlady some of it, sometimes also gave me something; once she invited me to eat cake with her. The window in her room was open, I saw into the tops of trees, which seemed much higher than trees in Europe, full of birds with calls I did not know. On the walls there were photographic prints, calendar pictures of sunsets shining on wide plains and smooth water surfaces. We ate the strudel from the cardboard box and drank ginger beer, while outside in the tall trees the birds warbled and trilled their shrill melodies, a communication about a landscape of treetops and roofs of which I had no idea in my basement room. Aunt Liesl took down an old shoebox from the wardrobe; still sticking to the cardboard was a specimen illustration of the black shoes she wore when she went to the bakery. She laid photos on the low table, black and white pictures, colour photos with a blue cast, on which greenish pallor coated the faces of those pictured. As if she had a hand of cards, she dealt out the photos onto several small piles, making brief comments as she did so: one pile was for her husband, he ‘had made over the river to the States’, a broad-shouldered fellow with a tentative smile and a straw hat. I wondered how I should imagine this ‘making over the river’, with or without straw hat, swimming, in a boat, riding on the back of a giant fish, perhaps on an old-fashioned ferry, on which he had signed on as a ticket seller before, in an unobserved moment, disappearing into the embankment shrubbery of the ‘States’? I had no idea what the riverbanks of the Saint Lawrence River might be like. Were they forested or built on, covered in undergrowth, lined by overhanging flood plain trees, or were they meadowland, or did one busy settlement follow another?

 

The other piles were for Aunt Liesl’s sister, who liked to pose in traditional costumes, for landscape and, as Aunt Liesl said, the old days. In the old days Aunt Liesl had lived by a very little river, that was the Raab, she said, as if the little river didn’t exist any more, which had bubbled and gently glided through the old days, occasionally, when swollen by floodwater, causing unpleasantness; that, too, was pictured, the foaming Raab and battered wooden bridge, being examined by a concerned young Aunt Liesl with her soldierly husband. My son began to cry, Aunt Liesl took him in her arm and rocked him jerkily by the window, as if she wanted to thrust him out into the twittering, whirring and trilling, perhaps give him a bath in these alien strains. I followed her instructions and picked up one photo at a time, noticed how on every picture of the St Lawrence River ships were to be seen in the background, big black barges, huge tankers, floating cranes, little white pleasure boats with waving passengers at the railings, the opposite shore very far away.

 

I grew up by the Rhine, I said in passing, once I had looked at the photos. My child had become quite still from the jerky rocking, she put him back in the carrycot, which was gradually becoming too small for the baby. I’ll take you down to the St Lawrence River sometime she said.

 

*

 

It was a very hot summer in Toronto. On the walls of the houses water trickled from the buzzing dehumidifiers, a word on everyone’s lips that I had never heard before. I carried my son to Ramsden Park, we lay in the shade, I stared at the treetops, listened to the noise of children in the paddling pool. Other young women with their children came. Their conversations usually revolved around quantities, how big was the baby, how heavy, how much weight had it put on, these questions were ticked off as if on a list. The women were all young, poor and unemployed, a couple even younger than I was, girls with small pigtails in cut-off jeans and the cheap t-shirts of their ex-boyfriends, they played with their babies as if with dolls, were always hungry, rolled joints, laughed a lot and imagined futures in which they made good as hairdressers or receptionists. Sandy, a girl with red hair, was somewhat older, she had a pram for her little daughter and talked about her weekend job in a motel in the west of the city. Towards Mississauga she said and waved her hand in the direction of the park exit. Her boyfriend was working night shift in a factory, they wanted to get out of the city. Sandy considered the pram to be a good investment, because it made it easier to steal food in the Chinese supermarkets of the neighbourhood, which she stuffed under a blanket around the child and into the basket. Out of the remainder of the tiny inheritance with which I had come to Toronto I bought a pram, which reminded me of the dolls’ prams of my childhood, a record player and a second-hand portable typewriter, because my landlady had found me a small job, which consisted in translating business letters for a wholesaler of expensive porcelain. The landlady was proud of her success and swore that in a few years I could rise to be the porcelain dealer’s personal assistant. Once a week my father called, the phone hung on the wall in the landlady’s hallway, she left the kitchen door open and listened without embarrassment, sometimes heard me crying or saying to my father: Don’t cry, I’m fine, after which she gave me tips on how to save money on transatlantic phone calls which I was supposed to pass on to my father. Sometimes she invited me to watch TV in the kitchen with her family, the television was on very loud, to drown out the buzzing dehumidifier. I sat between kitchen table and refrigerator and saw the heads of the three family members outlined against the screen. The fat father came home at the weekends from the building site in Rochester in the States, he sat on his chair in his undershirt and stared into space more than at the screen. The family ate liver with cucumber salad and huge dry boiled potatoes. From time to time the little girl turned round to me, pigtails swinging, and smiled, a little bit of friendliness for the stranger in the cheap seat. I soon sneaked away. When my son slept I lay on the bed in the dark and quietly listened to the Neil Young records I had brought with me from Germany or heard the racoons that were busy at the refuse bins.

 

I took lessons from Sandy at the Chinese supermarket round the corner. When I stole a basket of pale green summer apples by myself for the first time, the shop owner came running after me shouting, a bevy of black-pigtailed Chinese children stood in a row in front of the fruit display and waved their arms, but the man quickly gave up, in order not to leave his shop unattended. Outside, after days of stifling heat a terrific thunderstorm was in the offing. A gust of wind caught hold of a dress just picked up from the cleaners which had been lying spread out, still in its cellophane wrapping, across the back seat of a convertible and deposited it, rustling, on top of my pram with the early apples. The woman in the car had not noticed the flight of the dress and, with squealing tyres turned into Avenue Road while the puffed out plastic covering slowly subsided. It was a dark blue summer dress with little white flowers and a white collar, a sleeveless chiffon item, in which the owner will have seen herself at a garden or a cocktail party. Now it hung on the door of my cellar room and the cellophane sheath from the laundry swelled listlessly in the flurries of wind which burst through the mesh door. The next moment a deafening rainfall descended, shortly afterwards the air was full of the sirens of the fire engines fighting water, fire and storm damage. I plaited my hair into little braids, cut myself bangs in front of my pocket mirror and put on the dress. I didn’t have a large mirror, just looked down at myself and felt as I had once done in the clothes that my grandmother sewed for us for dressing-up games from her worn-out or moth-eaten things.

 

The summer lay heavy and motionless over the city, a kind of animal, its sighs slow and laborious. The air was so damp that I sometimes thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe any more. Sandy and I took the underground to the lake and walked with our prams through Budapest Park, a green space and promenade with a view of the lake and with little wooden buildings in which one sat in the shade. Like all wooden arbours in public parks they smelled of urine and moss; from the lake came the warm fug of water, oil, tar and sewage, seagulls hovered indolently on the small currents of air above the dully reflective surface of the water. Sandy explained that the lake was really a river, she described the lake as a huge river bulge, which grew thinner again towards the northeast and drained into the sea. Anyway, she said, with a sweeping gesture, anyway, all these lakes here are only river bulges, huge broadenings of the rivers which had absorbed too much water to be able to conduct it to the sea, so they gave birth to one river bulge after another, in which the quantities of water lay sloshing around, behaving like little oceans and waiting to be allowed to move seawards. Sandy grew more and more excited, as if these expanses of water were something close to her heart. She outlined the shapes of the lakes in the air, called birds and fishes by names I had never heard before, rose to her feet, as if she wanted to turn directly towards the lake with her exposition, and before my eyes there appeared the picture of a land mass, of which one half was still dreamily attached to the Flood and with its regular breath tended alternately to ocean and mainland. All water wants to reach the sea she said finally and sat down again. Lake Ontario itself was like a sea, the various marine birds, the harbour smell, the big tankers and barges shadowy in the haze were reminiscent of something oceanic. The outline of an opposite shore never appeared.

 

Once Sandy and I took the ferry to Toronto Island. It was a very hot day in September, the leaves hung tiredly from the trees, and the days were already noticeably shorter than in summer. It was a Sunday or a holiday, the ferries shuttled ceaselessly back and forward, on the expanses of grass and on the picnic tables big Chinese families had spread out countless bowls, plates, dishes. Sandy and I pushed our prams along the paths and talked about our childhoods, of standing by the river and of looking seawards and of the barges which passed by. It seemed to me as if there were two monologues, yet the St Lawrence River, lying further north, freed from its bulges, this fabulous stretch of water inhabited by countless islands which I had seen from the airplane, trumped the Rhine which, described from the great distance of the other continent, appeared so small and slight that my childhood by its banks seemed all at once weightless and fleeting. We sat at the bank of the river disguised as a lake and ate our meagre picnic, threw stones into the water and looked at the dark violet cloud front that was pushing closer. Wind came up, the lake began to throw up waves as in the wake of a huge ship, thunder rumbled, the families hastily gathered up their picnic displays and formed into small troops trotting to the ferry landing stage, their plastic rain capes billowing out as they went, white, blue and pink flightless birds whose wings, overwhelmed by the rain, were soon sticking to their bodies. We got going but had to seek shelter from the sudden furious rainfall in a small pavilion through the windows of which we saw the city skyline disappearing behind veils of water; waves broke onto the lawns and paths. The small ferries stopped running, now and then a ship’s siren slid between the drumming of the rain and the thunder. Our children in their pillows looked anxious, we laughed to give them courage and sang ‘Helpless’ to them, because that was the only song we both knew by heart, finally the thunder ceased and the rain eased.

 

With this thunderstorm the autumn came, I lost touch with Sandy after I moved into a flat on the first floor of another house belonging to my landlady, where from the kitchen I looked out at a winter-bare tree and a bit of garden which no one tended. My son sat on a blanket on the floor and played with coloured spoons and a rag doll, while I learned Russian and read him the short lessons I was working my way through. I pushed the pram through the snow to the Hungarian bakery and chatted to Aunt Liesl behind the counter. Sometimes she dropped by and brought leftover bread and dry cake in her bag. She sat down in the only easy chair I owned, an old dark red piece of furniture, from which the yellowish foam rubber was trying to escape through tears and burst seams. On my son’s first birthday she brought him a red fire engine with six little firemen who had painted-on moustaches and stood stiffly in their little recesses, palms, in soldierly fashion, flat on their painted-on trouser seams.

 

Not until the following spring did I see Sandy again. She now occasionally worked in a shop called Mother Earth, where she sold soya beansprouts, molasses and brick-heavy loaves. Her hair was no longer red but pitch black and hung down her back in long thick pigtails. In the morning sun of May days we pushed our children to the play park where they played glumly in the sandbox among intrusive grey squirrels. A bold grey nature, which had already completely dedicated itself to the refuse of the city, made its presence felt everywhere: the fat squirrels, the racoons, the crows, even the flocks of gulls, which in the morning swung over the flatter parts of the city – they were all grey.

 

Sandy told me that in reality she was First Nation. I had never heard the phrase before, she whispered the word ‘Indian’ as if she didn’t want to say it out loud, the previous summer she had dyed her hair red. On the way to the play park we came past the employment office, in front of which clusters of men gathered in the mornings, the Indians were a head taller than all the rest and stood quietly at the side without talking, they also remained impassive when Sandy attempted to greet them with gestures and incomprehensible words. One day, said Sandy, they were going to leave the city and settle in a forest. She described the advantages of life in her compound, a word that sounded military and didn’t call to mind the wild life she was describing. She disappeared, the summer spread out its damp, warm blankets over the city again, and in the hot nights I sat with my son on the steps of the front veranda until we were so tired that we could sleep. That summer the district around Bernard was a quarter of sects and runaways, who lived in and wore out the old wooden houses until the Great Improvement would sweep them out with a few strokes of the broom. Hare Krishna followers had settled into a shut down church at the corner, they pushed through the streets in small orange groups, and pale, pasty-faced women in long dirty skirts took their shaven-headed children to the play park. The houses were divided into cheap bedsits in which young couples lived, sometimes a whole floor was taken over as a communal flat. The marijuana clouds hung thick and motionless in the humid air, the sounds of boisterous cocaine parties spilled out of the windows of the communal apartments, bottles smashed, police cars drove slowly, softly and aimlessly along the lit up streets as in American movies. Across the street a girl in a yellow dress played guitar at night and sang in a shrill voice, in between the songs she played she came across, and with the air of a clumsy actor trying to play an uncle, gave my son a friendly tickle under the chin. She claimed also to have a child, said she was going to live in the country soon, just this one more summer here, then in nature, there’s nothing like nature, she said again and again. I never saw her during the day, only at night, sometimes she wandered down the street arm in arm with a young man, they strolled, stopped here and there, began conversations, everywhere the sleepless sat on the veranda steps and stared at the variations on the late night film which unreeled out there evening after evening. Hardly a week passed without a house burning down. One night the church of the Hare Krishnas went up in flames. The sirens of the police cars and fire engines wailed for hours, at the corner of my street a fire engine skidded and crashed into a lamppost. The fire engines in Toronto looked like big toy cars, the firemen stood on running boards alongside the vehicle, holding on to iron handles, under their helmets they stared ahead towards their fate with immobile faces. Fortunately none of them came to harm when the engine went out of control at the street corner, they were skilful and practised at jumping off before the vehicle came to halt in order swiftly to take up position at a fire. Now they stood around looking a little awkward until the engine had been manoeuvred onto the road again. The impact had not been very violent, a jolt and the firemen mounted their running boards again and raced off, the extinguished street lamp leant crookedly into the front garden of the corner house.

 

One morning Sandy appeared in a big old saloon, to pick up me and my son for an outing to the country. We drove past the airport, under the signs for Mississauga. Again and again along the way the city already seemed to be crumbling away into rows of one-storey shops, car dealerships and workshops with gaps between them, only to catch and hold its breath again with yet another suburb. At some point there was wasteland and scrub between the rows of shops, which meanwhile looked more like stands intended to hide a great emptiness. Finally open country spread out, huge fields, young straggly copses. Sandy’s compound was in some sparse woodland not far from a small town that was surrounded by its own little ring of low sheds and shops. Between the trees one could see the gleam of bright water, on one side a high dark fence ran through the wood, behind which lay who knew what. The living quarters were tent-like huts which Sandy called our wigwams, ragged tarpaulins, cardboard boxes, pieces of corrugated iron were tied to bound branches and scrap wood, patchwork roofs, through the cracks of which one could have seen the stars, if the tops of the tall trees had not arched over them. Discarded objects stood around between the wigwams, shabby finds, donations, remnants of the life before the forest: an old cooker, a settee, a sunshade. In a little hollow away from the compound the packing refuse which animals had torn, scratched and bitten piled up, milk cartons, corn flake packets, chocolate wrappers, beer cans and the disposable plates with their traces of bloody pieces of meat.

 

At midday Sandy went to the river to fish, the children slept in the shade. We sat on an old lump of concrete by the riverbank, Sandy talked without stopping about the new life in the woods and by the river, about how they would behave like Indians once more, live on berries, mushrooms and fish and read the stars. The children woke up crying, Sandy didn’t catch a single fish and asked me to collect brushwood with her which was supposed to drive away the mosquitos in the evening.

 

The evening was beautiful. A breeze blew from the river, it was peaceful, one heard the waves softly lapping, the treetops stirred in the wind, and now and then individual stars in the sky could be seen through the foliage. Sandy lit a fire, giving the appearance of really having mastered the tricks of life in the wilds, the flames rose and crackled cheerfully. A man with a moustache played the guitar and sang. Look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies. Everyone could sing along with that, producing an oppressive kind of cosiness, from which I would gladly have fled.

 

I shared the sleeping bag I had brought with me with my son and was unable to fall asleep. There was a musty smell in the wigwam, the man with the moustache and his friends muttered and hummed by the fire, now scraps of music drifted through the wood from the distance, accordion and harmony singing, which were louder than the rustling and the whispering of the wilderness. The Danube Swabians, said Sandy in explanation in the darkness. They’re on the other side of the fence.

 

The next morning the sky was milky white. It was very warm, the birds trilled lethargically in the treetops, flies gathered in vibrating swarms around each crumb on the floor. Sandy showed me a spot where one could look over the fence from an easily climbed tree. Big trailers, decked out like little family homes on wheels, stood on bright green grass. A swimming pool glimmered turquoise a little distance away. In front of a long hut two women in floral aprons were laying a table. The sound of church bells rang from the open windows of the hut. The whole park, apparently completely enclosed by the tall fence, seemed as if bathed in a dazzling light although the sky above the woods was overcast. Everyone wants a paradise which the angel is not allowed to enter, said Sandy. Later in the day we drove back into town. We stopped at a lopsided shop at the edge of the city, where Sandy’s boyfriend conducted small deals. My son whimpered from the heat on the sticky imitation leather seat. Leatherette it was called here, a word that seemed absurdly delicate in the face of these seats. As consolation for their artificiality things are given a pet name.

 

Sandy’s boyfriend gave us all sugary drinks and pushed a bundle of banknotes over to her for household shopping. Flies gathered around the little pools of spilled liquid beside the glasses, Sandy’s boyfriend was expecting a customer, we set off again. On the car radio there was news every quarter of an hour about a mysterious virus which someone had brought in from Africa. The woman responsible had collapsed and died at the airport, the passengers on her flight were requested to report to quarantine, the possible symptoms of the sickness were listed. Hours after the first report the hospitals of the city were already crowded with patients who had fallen ill with one or more of the symptoms described. Sandy gave a brief raucous laugh each time the identical report was broadcast, while we slowly drove down the heat-flickering streets of the inner city and, after the cloudy day, there was a red evening sun in the rearview mirror.

 

In late summer Aunt Liesl was knocked down by a fire engine and died of her injuries two weeks later. I heard it from my landlady, when she collected the rent. The funeral was a couple of days later, in Kingston, where Aunt Liesl had bought a plot. The landlady generously offered to take me to the funeral with her. In the days leading up to the burial I was haunted by the image of the silent embarrassed firemen standing around the body of the casualty. Had it been a call-out for water damage or a fire? Had Aunt Liesl been lying in a thunderstorm puddle, in still-pouring rain, or on the hot asphalt, in the dark, in the light of a street lamp?

 

On the day of the funeral there was a cool wind blowing, already autumnal, bitter, the light was different from Toronto, it seemed sharper to me, the shadows more pointed. Soon it would be autumn again. We stood by the grave under swiftly moving clouds, a little group without tears. The priest launched into a hymn that no one could sing. After the funeral I went walking by the river with my son. I’ll take you to the St Lawrence River one day, Aunt Liesl had said. The sun shone down obliquely from the west, there was a greenish blue above the clouds. I looked downriver towards the northeast and felt a little nearer to Europe until I remembered the ice floes, which I had seen from the plane when I arrived. My son didn’t say a word, as if he took no interest in the names of things, but laughing threw stones into the water and at the sight of the big ships spread out his arms. A steamer pitched and rolled past, on its railing a sign advertised: St Lawrence River Gateway to North America. For a moment I was confused and dismayed. Where did this river lead? Out, to the sea, or into the land? I looked at the water, and couldn’t make out which way it was flowing, the waves were meeting and parting, this way and that way and I was overcome by a sudden fear, catching all reason unawares, that my child and I were at the mercy of a region in which we would never be able to rely on anything, not even that a river flows to the sea.

 

A couple of weeks later the two soft-hearted rascal sons of the landlady drove me to the airport. As a farewell present they awkwardly accepted my three Neil Young LP’s, they probably had them already. It was a rare humid autumn day, a reminder of the summer. The air over the road to the airport was full of dust, the sun squatted heavy and red under the sign saying ‘Mississauga’ which stretched over the carriageway. I thought I recognised the lopsided shop in which Sandy’s boyfriend conducted business and looked for a battered saloon in which Sandy and her child might sail by. At the airport I squeezed the rascals’ hands, their soft faces twisted into friendly expressions and they well-meaningly pinched my son’s cheek. He cried, I quickly took him in my arm, and before I entered the terminal building I threw three handfuls of dusty dusk over my left shoulder for both of us. That, Sandy had once said, is what the Indians do before crossing a river.

 

*

 

Auntolga died in the autumn of my first year in south-east Hungary. It was said her sister had found her dead on the veranda, I imagined a dark raven bundle, the blonde-dyed white locks protruding roughly at one end, at the other end the feet in their black lace-up shoes sticking out from the clothes as if they had been taken off, an accessory of the great dead bird body which was no longer of use for anything.

 

On the day of Auntolga’s funeral the women of the village cycled past my window to the Serbian cemetery. In the bicycle baskets were big bouquets of asters and chrysanthemums in dull leave-taking colours. Shortly afterwards I went to Budapest. The train stopped at a halt signal in a piece of woodland at the edge of the city. Many leaves had already fallen; out of the train window I looked at the now sparser wood and saw huts made of rags and wood between the blue-grey tree trunks. Figures were walking around, doing something at the huts, bluish smoke rose from a stovepipe, beaten paths across the pale strip of grass between the railway embankment and the edge of the wood could be made out. A winter camp for those tired of the city, a shadowy band of escape which, behind the glowing yellow leaves spinning to the ground, falling from scattered birch trees onto the grass, appeared in the half-light like a dreamland. The train started with a jerk, slid slowly forward; as it went past, I saw a crooked sign nailed to a tree and thought I could read: Budapest Park

 

*

 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahier Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is an award-winning writer and translator. She has published prose and poetry, essays and children’s books in German and English and translated a number of twentieth-century writers from Russian, Polish and English into German. Her most recent publication is, together with Martin Chalmers, Karadag Oktober 2013, a geopoetic exploration of Crimea. Her novel By the River is forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2017.

Martin Chalmers was born in 1948 and grew up in Glasgow. He was an award-winning translator of Austrian, German and Swiss literature into English and a writer of essays. He translated authors as diverse as Elfriede Jelinek, Ernst Weiss, Alexander Kluge, Thomas Bernhard, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Peter Handke. Martin Chalmers died in Berlin in 2014. Together with Esther Kinsky he wrote the book Karadag Oktober 2013, a geopoetic exploration of Crimea, published in 2015.


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