by Theodora Goss
I sit in one of the cafés in Szent Endre, writing this letter to you, István, not knowing if I will be alive tomorrow, not knowing if this café will be here, with its circular green chairs and cups of espresso. By the Danube, children are playing, their knees bare below school uniforms. Widows are knitting shapeless sweaters. A cat sleeps beside a geranium in the café window.
If you see her, will you tell me? I still remember how she appeared at the University, just off the train from Debrecen, a country girl with badly-cut hair and clothes sewn by her mother. That year, I was smoking French cigarettes and reading forbidden literature. “Have you read D.H. Lawrence?” I asked her. “He is the only modern writer who convincingly expresses the desires of the human body.” She blushed and turned away. She probably still had her Young Pioneers badge, hidden among her underwear.
“Ilona is a beautiful name,” I said. “It is the most beautiful name in our language.” I saw her smile, although she was trying to avoid me. Her face was plump from country sausage and egg bread, and dimples formed at the corners of her mouth, two on each side.
She had dimples on her buttocks, as I found out later. I remember them, like craters on two moons, above the tops of her stockings.
Sorrow: A feeling of grief or melancholy. A mythical city generally located in northern Siberia, said to have been visited by Marco Polo. From Sorrow, he took back to Italy the secret of making ice.
That autumn, intellectual apathy was in fashion. I berated her for reading her textbooks, preparing for her examinations. “Don’t you know the grades are predetermined?” I said. “The peasants receive ones, the bourgeoisie receive twos, the aristocrats, if they have been admitted under a special dispensation, always receive threes.”
She persisted, telling me that she had discovered art, that she wanted to become cultured.
“You are a peasant,” I said, slapping her rump. She looked at me with tears in her eyes.
The principal export of Sorrow is the fur of the arctic fox, which is manufactured into cloaks, hats, the cuffs on gloves and boots. These foxes, which live on the tundra in family groups, are hunted with falcons. The falcons of Sorrow, relatives of the kestrel, are trained to obey a series of commands blown on whistles carved of human bone.
She began going to museums. She spent hours at the Vármuzeum, in the galleries of art. Afterward, she would go to café, drink espressos, smoke cigarettes. Her weight dropped, and she became as lean as a wolfhound. She developed a look of perpetual hunger.
When winter came and ice floated on the Danube, I started to worry. Snow had been falling for days, and Budapest was trapped in a white silence. The air was cleaner than it had been for months, because the Trabants could not make it through the snow. It was very cold.
She entered the apartment carrying her textbooks. She was wearing a hat of white fur that I had never seen before. She threw it on the sofa.
“Communism is irrelevant,” she said, lighting a cigarette.
“Where have you been?” I asked. “I made a paprikás. I stood in line for two hours to buy the chicken.”
“There is to be a new manifesto.” Ash dropped on the carpet. “It will not resemble the old manifesto. We are no longer interested in political and economic movements. All movements from now on will be purely aesthetic. Our actions will be beautiful and irrelevant.”
“The paprikás has congealed,” I said.
She looked at me for the first time since she had entered the apartment and shrugged. “You are not a poet.”
The poetry of Sorrow may confuse anyone not accustomed to its intricacies. In Sorrow, poems are constructed on the principle of the maze. Once the reader enters the poem, he must find his way out by observing a series of clues. Readers failing to solve a poem have been known to go mad. Those who can appreciate its beauties say that the poetry of Sorrow is impersonal and ecstatic, and that it invariably speaks of death.
She began bringing home white flowers: crocuses, hyacinths, narcissi. I did not know where she found them, in the city, in winter. I eventually realized they were the emblems of her organization, worn at what passed for rallies, silent meetings where communication occurred with the touch of a hand, a glance from the corner of an eye. Such meetings took place in secret all over the city. Students would sit in the pews of the Mátyás Church, saying nothing, planning insurrection.
At this time we no longer made love. Her skin had grown cold, and when I touched it for too long, my fingers began to ache.
We seldom spoke. Her language had become impossibly complex, referential. I could no longer understand her subtle intricacies.
She painted the word ENTROPY on the wall of the apartment. The wall was white, the paint was white. I saw it only because soot had stained the wall to a dull grey, against which the word appeared like a ghost.
One morning I saw that her hair on the pillow had turned white. I called her name, desperate with panic. She looked at me and I saw that her eyes were the color of milk, like the eyes of the blind.
It is insufficient to point out that the inhabitants of Sorrow are pale. Their skin has a particular translucence, like a layer of nacre. Their nails and hair are iridescent, as though unable to capture and hold light. Their eyes are, at best, disconcerting. Travelers who have stared at them too long have reported hallucinations, like mountaineers who have stared at fields of ice.
I expected tanks. Tanks are required for all sensible invasions. But spring came, and the insurrection did nothing discernible.
Then flowers appeared in the public gardens: crocuses, hyacinths, narcissi, all white. The black branches of the trees began to sprout leaves of a delicate pallor. White pigeons strutted in the public squares, and soon they outnumbered the ordinary grey ones. Shops began to close: first the stores selling Russian electronics, then clothing stores with sweaters from Bulgaria, then pharmacies. Only stores selling food remained open, although the potatoes looked waxen and the pork acquired a peculiar transparency.
I had stopped going to classes. It was depressing, watching a classroom full of students, with their white hair and milky eyes, saying nothing. Many professors joined the insurrection, and they would stand at the front of the lecture hall, the word ENTROPY written on the board behind them, communicating in silent gestures.
She rarely came to the apartment, but once she brought me poppy seed strudel in a paper bag. She said, “Péter, you should eat.” She rested her fingertips on the back of my hand. They were like ice. “You have not joined us,” she said. “Those who have not joined us will be eliminated.”
I caught her by the wrist. “Why?” I asked.
She said, “Beauty demands symmetry, uniformity.”
My fingers began to ache with cold. I released her wrist. I could see her veins flowing through them, like strands of aquamarine.
Sorrow is ruled by the absolute will of its Empress, who is chosen for her position at the age of three and reigns until the age of thirteen. The Empress is chosen by the Brotherhood of the Cowl, a quasi-religious sect whose members hide their faces under hoods of white wool to maintain their anonymity. By tradition, the Empress never speaks in public. She delivers her commands in private audiences with the Brotherhood. The consistency of these commands, from one Empress to another, has been taken to prove the sanctity of the Imperial line. After their reigns, all Empresses retire to the Abbey of St. Alba, where they live in seclusion for the remainder of their lives, studying astronomy, mathematics, and the seven-stringed zither. During the history of Sorrow, remarkable observations, theorems, and musical arrangements have emerged from this Abbey.
No tanks came, but one day, when the sun shone with a vague luminescence through the clouds that perpetually covered the city, the Empress of Sorrow rode along Váci Street on a white elephant. She was surrounded by courtiers, some in cloaks of white fox, some in jesters’ uniforms sewn from white patches, some, principally unmarried women, in transparent gauze through which one could see their hairless flesh. The eyes of the elephant were outlined with henna, its feet were stained with henna. In its trunk it carried a silver bell, whose ringing was the only sound as the procession made its way to the Danube and across Erzsébet Bridge.
Crowds of people had come to greet the Empress: students waving white crocuses and hyacinths and narcissi, mothers holding the hands of children who failed to clap when the elephant strode by, nuns in ashen grey. Cowled figures moved among the crowd. I watched one standing ahead of me and recognized the set of her shoulders, narrower than they had been, still slightly crooked.
I sidled up to her and whispered, “Ilona.”
She turned. The cowl was drawn down and I could not see her face, but her mouth was visible, too thin now for dimples.
“Péter,” she said, in a voice like snow falling. “We have done what is necessary.”
She touched my cheek with her fingers. A shudder went through me, as though I had been touched by something electric.
Travelers have attempted to characterize the city of Sorrow. Some have said it is a place of confusion, with impossible pinnacles rising to stars that cannot be seen from any observatory. Some have called it a place of beauty, where the winds, playing through the high buildings, produce a celestial music. Some have called it a place of death, and have said that the city, examined from above, exhibits the contours of a skull.
Some have said that the city of Sorrow does not exist. Some have insisted that it exists everywhere: that we are perpetually surrounded by its streets, which are covered by a thin layer of ice; by its gardens, in which albino peacocks wander; by its inhabitants, who pass us without attention or interest.
I believe neither of these theories. I believe that Sorrow is an insurrection waged by a small cabal, with its signs and secrets; that it is run on purely aesthetic principles; that its goal is entropy, a perpetual stillness of the soul. But I could be mistaken. My conclusions could be tainted by the confusion that spreads with the rapid advance of Sorrow.
So I have left Budapest, carrying only the mark of three fingertips on my left cheek. I sit here every morning, in a café in Szent Endre, not knowing how long I have to live, not knowing how long I can remain here, on a circular green chair drinking espresso.
Soon, the knees of the children will become as smooth and fragile as glass. The widows’ knitting needles will click like bone, and geranium leaves will fall beside the blanched cat. The coffee will fade to the color of milk. I do not know what will happen to the chair. I do not know if I will be eliminated, or given another chance to join the faction of silence. But I am sending you this letter, István, so you can remember me when the snows come.
First appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet Issue 11, 2002
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Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.