Snow had started falling past the train window, as we rushed at good speed across the countryside. Here, the fields were already white. The morning tracks and lightless tucks below the pine branches were the only dim seams in the crystal. The small, unoriginal windows of farmhouses and unpainted barn doors turned in slow curiosity, for another echoing goodbye. Standing in the gangway between carriages, I lowered the window to take in a rush of cold air, to soak and shake myself, but I lasted a few seconds before repenting and wavering back to my seat. The lady opposite saw my wet hood and shoulder and pulled her scarf about her nose, blinking her eyes intermittently at a book.
After forty minutes I estimated that we should be nearing the village of Határ Gép. We had long since entered a thick forest and the carriage was sporadically dark. When we emerged, we seemed to be travelling the lip of a crater, or a lost lake, or the impact of a hydrogen bomb. It was a porcelain basin without vegetation, which the railway was forced to circle around, and in the distance, I could see what resembled a traditional station, but we navigated the crater so slowly that I began to feel we were approaching it backwards. The lady opposite watched me stand and sit, and stand again, and she opened a late conversation in a measured voice. “Things go slower here.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“You won’t be hiking in this weather.”
“Birdwatching. I’m thinking of buying a place.” I remembered the binoculars hanging around my neck, and I touched them.
She turned her swaddled face to the window and, giving it a wipe, she gestured at the turrets of a fortification lying on a hill just beyond the crater.
“The Alakítani is that way.” A convent. She had already inspected the carriage floor for any sign of a suitcase at my feet. “You missed the boat.”
The youthful and bearded keeper in the local store unpocketed a dinky calculator to do his adding up. He had appeared from behind a curtain, a wholesome butcher in a body warmer and blue apron, and he had treated me to intoxicating asides and trivia, even asking if I was famous. “You look like you could be.” I think he was serious.
“That was fresh nuts, wasn’t it? Chimney cake to keep you going. I do apologise. It’s the battery.” He shook the calculator quickly. “Stupid article. That’ll be fifty thous- I do-.” He shook it again, moving back towards the curtain. “I’m convinced that in some past life I was a shopkeeper wondering what he was in past lives. Wondering if a future life would even bother looking back at this one.” He paused. “We’re born alone and die alone and in between we’ve horse crap for company. That’s how my mother would put it. To you I’m a shopkeeper. To her I was a needed sense of adulthood. But she wasn’t an adult, really.” He looked along the far shelf, at buckets and watering cans. I explained the correct change from a note I had handed him, and his pale eyes fell on me, at first with indifference. Then he broke through the curtain, turning stony. I called to tell him that it didn’t matter.
The door chime rang, and there stood a senior nun in a black overcoat buttoned to her neck. She approached the counter to set down a suitcase, as a few flakes of snow fell about her.
“Good morning.” The abbess was a dry and faceless woman. She looked work-worn but peaceful at her core.
“It’s a big day.” The shopkeeper returned, smiling. “Last of the Poor Paulinas.”
“Richest of them all.” She mirrored a smile thinly, then passed a look at me. “The blessings are in place up there.”
“Seems like a lifetime since penultimate Paulina.” The shopkeeper was tapping a small pack of button cell batteries on the counter. “For the sake of argument, I swear she floated out of here.”
“I told him there was more to decommissioning sacred ground than he might be aware.”
I said nothing. Then I had to ask. “Mr Németh?”
“Right. You’ve got your things and there’s your change.” The shopkeeper’s tone was different. He slipped coins from his till. I wished them both a good day.
Since the snow seemed to be easing off, I lowered my hood and crunched my way up towards the forest, watching my breath furl out and fall away. I looked across the bone porcelain crater to the octagonal pipe of the Alakítani tower, which I knew to be a Pál Németh acquisition. Last night I’d decided to determine the area.
Dear Spirit. It has been a while. And the homeless and the hungry and the suicidal are still somebody’s slapstick. I want to thank you for the silence. You were right. I should phone my mother. That’s what Spirit’s silence means. Phone your mother.
Like any lone agrarian, without the luxury of self-pity, my mother put me to work around the farm, and the problem we faced were thieves. She could mend the fence here, only to find it cut down, over there, a few days later. They were organised. They came in a truck at night and they took cauliflowers by the sack load.
I was nine years old when she showed me how to hold a rifle like I knew how to use it. “Open this carefully. Don’t pull. Finger outside. There. Scare them off. Never shoot.” I didn’t understand why I’d been given something I could not use.
Nevertheless I loved my summer evening walks, representing as they did a tendril reach into adulthood and responsibility. I tried to keep to the vehicle tracks, but I admit that I meandered inwards from day one. I had no fear of the woods or of wild animals that I can recall. Facing the furrows in a slow sundown, I would place myself into the mind of a thief, until I was one in all but execution.
And on a night in August like any other, I was coming home across one of the fields when I heard three men in conversation upon the road ahead, where a white pick-up was parked. The engine was cut, and the lights were out, and they had pulled down the fence and were routinely loading our vegetables under a canvas tonneau.
I knew that they were hungry or knew people who were. But I knew that what they were doing was wrong. I knew they could see me creeping. I wanted to look bigger and more adult. But I lowered my voice and prepared the rifle and walked to a place where my height might be hidden, and I called out to them.
Their first response was to flee back through the fence to the truck. One paused and then took binoculars to search for me. I imagine he told his companions that I wasn’t armed. A thin man found a rifle in the back of the truck, while the third sat inside as a driver. I decided that I had to approach and that I would likely fire one shot at the air to warn them off.
And when I emerged in plain sight, someone laughed. They both swayed confidently through the fence towards me. And immediately I dropped to one knee. I don’t know why. I propped the rifle into my chest and warned them not to come any closer. They ignored me, but when they reached the flat field, I pulled the trigger and shot the man with binoculars in the stomach. The other considered his options and decided to flee. He returned to the pick-up, and the pick-up was gone.
I walked up to the man with binoculars and looked at him curling on the ground, spurting fragments of sounds. He did not look at me, for he was in too much pain. I looked at the row of holes in the soil and the cauliflower leaves. I didn’t see any blood, just a gummy darkness on the jacket under his hands. He started searching for a mobile phone and we fought over that for a while. I had to step on him and step hard, to prise it from weakening hands. He was rooted. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I told him that I was going home. I think I told him that I would call an ambulance. I wanted my mother to decide. I walked, then ran, home.
My mother was cooking in the wan light of the kitchen. She had no reason to suspect anything was wrong but when I opened my mouth to speak, she sensed a change. I told her the truth and she slapped me. She took the rifle away in a sweep of panic that I had never seen before. She asked me to describe the location and the vehicle. She tried to remove the bullets around the steam of the kitchen, but she put them back in and added more. She rushed to conceal the phone and when she returned, she had an overcoat on. She had a heavy shovel, and she took the rifle. I asked again if we should call an ambulance, but she didn’t look at me and she told me to get to bed.
Not talking about things became a part of our lives, not right away but to the point where not phoning became an unavoidable thing. A closed system of some kind. Even thinking about not phoning my mother is something I blind spot. In some ways everything else reflects it, draws from it and soaks it in.
I do not know what happened later. All I know is that I was not allowed to know and never asked. But the unsaid and the unexplained folded into our peripheries and eventually moulded us.
In the forest, enough light was projecting through the interior to polish a plump coating of snow. Things were still, and I felt no wind. And again, I cannot say that I felt fear, because I am not at all precious about life. Some see death as a separation from everything, but I cannot see how it could be, any more than living. Beneath the snow, who knows? Sleeper spores. Hollyhock. Basil. Mallow. Loves-lies-bleeding.
I called freely, through the trees. “The best thing about being a nun is the sense of community.” My return came seconds later. “I agree.” Then, after a pause, a half audible “Shh.” I began to tire of unreliable footfalls, blind orienteering between the untamed trees. I came to a natural pathway and dealt with ditches. Eventually I could not move. I returned to paths beside the stone wall and an old iron signpost came along to indicate that I was at the Alakítani.
A short history of Márk Németh material might include: “We were so rich, I used to creep around looking for my birthday presents on the Cayman Islands.” “When I turned eighteen, they bought me my first judge. Nice man, now I’ve got something on him.” “Birth needs a trigger warning.” “The governess didn’t snort cocaine. She just loved the way it smelled.” “My ambition is to roast billionaires. I don’t mean good-natured ridicule. I mean ovens. Rosemary. Cumin seeds. Zyklon B.”
Thinking, at first, that it might be a weakness of my vision, I noticed a white plume rise up on the pathway ahead, and something ghostly flashing from it. Quickly, I found my binoculars, to locate what appeared to be a youthful horse, bolting excessively and unevenly in my direction. I moved out of the way to let him pass but he saw me, and he took his chances, easily clearing a ditch into the forest. I decided to shadow him, suddenly responsible for the sodden, sinking hooves and legs facing injury and exhaustion.
We continued to map one another through the trees. He slowed to check on me, then rolled away to escape, but his head was beginning to nod. I kept my watch on him and he confirmed that I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew that I had to steer him and that his options were limited. When he bolted to my left, I pinned him in. He bolted to the right. I did it again. And every time I asked him to change direction, I shimmied a bit closer. I was now close enough to see blood seeping in a groove down a forearm. Paused and observant, I asked him for commitment by turning my back and beginning to walk peacefully to the pathway. And after a slapping chew of dead bracken under my boot, and then another, he shook himself and he began to follow me. When we reached our pathway, I engaged him immediately, caressed his forehead and ears and ran a hand along his neck. I closed my eyes, zoning in on the barrel of his chest and his back as it grew and fell in rhythm. At one with his young breathing, I turned his reins inside my fist.
“He hates me.” I heard a cry. “He absolutely hates me.”
The horse rose in alarm and tried to pull away, throwing me almost to my knees. I managed to walk with him and steady him, but I needed to find the source of his distress. Someone was kicking forwards in a sable-trimmed riding jacket and silicon breeches. “Thief!” she warned when the horse pulled me along the pathway again. “I’ll call protection.” Placing a large pearly phone in the air, she hurried up to us. I stood before the horse and petted him, touching brows. “Don’t, you idiot. Give him his tranquiliser.” She searched a pocket.
Bambi Németh was willowy and heavy-breasted, face-tuned and evenly tanned. She watched me from head to toe as she speed-dialled someone. The horse heightened in distress, but I saw to it. Getting no response, she pushed the tips of two fingers into her brow. Her eyes were used to laughing, a lot less since leaving university. She talked to the snow, to her right, and I sensed a flame of surrender in her inability to hold eye contact.
“He was a gift.” I know. From your husband, some time in the past two weeks. “He needs broken in.”
“He’s a little green but seems good-natured.”
“He knows I don’t love him.” Bambi looked back up the pathway.
“Is the stable this way?” I began leading the horse, and Bambi Németh, back towards the gates of the Alakítani.