The house stood next to the belfry where it had always stood; it just seemed smaller, and the pink was more of a pinkish-grey now, dissolving with every flake of the coat peeling off. Yes, it was the kind of winter that exists only in St. Pavol in January—all the bookish heaving, crisping and freezing was happening in real time here.
The huge red gate, the huge gate key, and more keys—to the yard, the kitchen, the back room. I think of my grandfather as a boy; surely he didn’t have to unlock three doors when he was herding the oxen out of the gate with his father. No, there used to be a simple bolt, even I remember using it. That was before we got robbed.
Grandma’s painting got stolen then; the one with the poppies that I never noticed, and then suddenly missed when it was gone. The gypsies did it, people had said. And after that they added quickly, as always when the gypsies were mentioned, not the good ones, the bad ones. One more inevitable sentence would follow: If Betka hadn’t sold the first house to the gypsies back then, we could’ve lived in peace....
Now I am selling the house. The house where my grandfather was born, where we spent all our holidays. I’m selling it to an English couple from Plymouth; they want to open a bed-and-breakfast. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m shivering in this short bed under this heavy endless duvet where I had once split my skinny wrist doing a memorable salto mortale, a so-called deadly jump. The duvet is cold. Cousin Ana has managed to raise the inside temperature to twelve degrees Celsius since she came to switch on the electric heater two days ago. This morning she was here too—she fired up the old cylindrical stove. As a kid, she burned her fingers on its door, down to the bone; the whole room reeked afterwards.
Every time I turn my head, these little micro-movies start running. The house is doing what it can to save itself and to avoid having to learn English at its age—bread toasted directly on the electric plates and smeared with garlic, that’s how it’s supposed to stay forever.
The peaks of Kriván can be seen from the kitchen window. “This is emotional blackmail,” I say to its hinged mountaintop, after I finish brushing my teeth.
The village is quiet. “The gypsies hide inside in the winter,” Cousin Ana, the fire tender, tells me and then cannot resist: “But in the summer, they all sit outside on the porches and watch everyone else work as if they themselves were being paid for it.”
She says hl’adia—they watch—and one has to imagine the softest L in the world.
“And how is the infrastructure in Pavol?” my buyers, the Davises ask on our first meeting in the district town where they are staying in a hotel.
“Why, there is a small grocery store at the upper end of the village—they have fresh bread in the morning but you have to hurry, and next to it is a murky pub. And a butchery, there’s also a small butchery.”
Only on the way home does it occur to me that the information I have given them might be outdated by 45 years.
45 Years Ago
In the butchery Betka is standing behind the counter in a white apron with dark brown spots and she is shooing the glistening flies away from the cutlets. I rode my grandma’s blue bike here, standing; I couldn’t reach up to the seat. There’s also the old Favorit, but the brakes are broken and it will take at least another two summers until I dare to ride it down the hill next to the cemetery and make a sharp right turn at the bottom to slow down. I rest my bike against the rusty lamppost and walk in. I ask for twenty deka of ham and wait for Betka to hand me a slice to eat on the spot.
Before, I went to the butchery mainly because of the flies and the extra slices of ham. Since I found out the thing about Betka, I want to be like her. I wish a man would die for me. Or maybe wanting to die for me would do.
Threw himself into the river behind her house.
I don’t tell anyone; somehow I understand it’s not the nicest thing to wish for. I stand in front of the counter, on my tiptoes, so that I can stare at Betka’s swollen ankles overflowing her white orthopedic slippers. How is it possible that someone had drowned himself because of this lady? She’s probably got problems with her thyroid, like that fat girl from my class. That’s the only possible explanation.
Betka calls me Marika. Usually I hate the nickname, but I don’t mind with her.
For a while we both hypnotize a fly sitting on the leg of the Nitran sausage. Then the fly takes wing and sits down again on the counter. Flap!—the fly swatter lands on the its back. Betka clears the counter backhand.
45 Years Ago
Grandfather and I watch Ružové sny, “Pink Dreams”, on the old black-and-white TV that Grandma has schlepped on the train from Bratislava after they got a color one. Slim stripes keep flashing across the miniature screen, but in the movie when Jakub spreads out his umbrella and jumps off the roof because of Jolanka, I am enchanted. Flying off the roof is much better than jumping into the brown gushing water of the river Váh. There’s poetry in it, I can already understand that before starting fourth-grade at school.
I want to be a gypsy now, like Jolanka in the movie.
45 Years Ago
Across the street from our house, the neighbors’ girl is getting married. On the first night, we’re not too worried about the loud music. “A gypsy wedding,” grandma sighs when violins start fighting with guitars and singing. I am watching the party from the window on the second floor. My bare feet stick out, next to me is a basket with red currants and cookies, and I am imagining that the bride’s younger brother—Dezho—a dark boy with a big head, will marry me. After he breaks a leg jumping from a rooftop, of course. His ears are prominent like those of Jakub the Postman in the movie, but Dezho is not as handsome.
The next evening when grandma finds me sitting in the window again, she leans out and starts swearing. She swears out loud, so that the wedding guests can hear her. “How are we supposed to sleep with this noise? Some of us have to get up in the morning to go to work!”
“But we are on holidays,” I say, and she drags me into the center of the room by my T-shirt and shuts the window.
Now, Here: Enter, the Movie Director
I’m having restless cinematic nights; it’s probably the low temperature. In my mind, the beautiful curly-headed Jolanka I remember from “Pink Dreams” melts together with Betka from the butchery. I wish I could direct my dream, but Dušan Hanák, the film director, stands in the background, smoking. He’s giving out instructions. “Slide down more naturally, you looked more scared the first time,“ he commands me flatly after my heels reach the drainpipe. I’m holding an umbrella in my right hand; I’m using the left to balance, just like Jakub. I look down, over the tip of the rooftop and I don’t get dizzy from the height; I am horrified when I see my ankles. They are thick as tree trunks. “Don’t worry about that,” Hanák shrugs. “That’s how it is with femmes fatales.”
The Sunday bells startle me in the morning. Kriván, my mountain, is still there in the kitchen window. I know I will never climb him again. Our relationship has become harmonious: I don’t want to conquer; he doesn’t need to resist. The sun is shining, but when I run out to the yard to fetch wood for the stove it’s still a numbing minus-twenty. I pull up the sweats, and also the pajama pants that I wear underneath, to cover my lower back. My ankles peek out and they are just like in the dream. They’re not even worth diving into the shallow water at the mill-dam.
I need to buy bread. There’s no one in the front of the grocery store but when I push, the door gives, and the bell above it rings. Behind the door on the right, the cashier is sitting on a revolving chair, neither young nor old, her hair dyed orange. She’s texting on her cell phone. I get a nod instead of a greeting; it’s more of an affirmation. She has registered my presence and she will behave accordingly. The shelves are scantily filled, but treska, shredded cod in mayo, and bryndza, the regional sheep cheese, are obligatory and present items. There’s also ham, but the one that is vacuum-packed, sweating between two pieces of cellophane.
Is Betka open? I ask the cashier.
“You mean the butchery,” the cashier says, one finger on the dial button. “That’s been closed for a long time. You have to go to Hráádok to buy meat,” she sings.
To Hrádok, I repeat, with a single long “a.”
I actually am in Hrádok in an hour, but meeting the buyers.
“Why do you want to sell?” the English couple are asking.
Should I tell them that I am not enough for the large house? More people in it would suit it better—it deserves saltos mortales, banging of doors and yelling. There should be a lot of yelling all the time.
“My husband passed away, and I don’t live in Slovakia...” I say, and even though it’s the truth, it sounds like an excuse.
They murmur understandingly. We are sitting in the Tuscan restaurant of a posh hotel that the city-based owners have built from the medieval castle ruin.
“Very nice here,” Mr. Davis nods approvingly toward the cave-like bar. “We’d like to do something similar with the house.”
I want to tell them that our house has a different spirit. The village theater company used to perform in the back room and, in the front, there was once a pub and after that a tailor shop. And, and, and.
They nod, but they do it like the cashier. Just to let me know they have registered my lips moving.
45 Years Ago and Now: The Movie
In “Pink Dreams” Jakub and Jolanka are sitting on the bed, in white sheets, dressed. Jolanka is combing her hair, Jakub doesn’t dare to breathe. That’s how it is in the screenplay. Jakub starts counting time on his watch. Then Jolanka lights a cigarette for him and kisses him. Maybe there’s a pigeon taking off of the rooftop at that moment (the screenplay actually says there’s a plumber working on the neighboring rooftop—but the scene sort of asks for a pigeon).
In my film-dream version it’s Betka, frozen in time, who’s sitting on the bed, wearing a white sleeveless dress. Her veiny feet are freed from the orthopedic slippers; she wiggles her toes. When she lifts her arm to retouch her short permed curls, a burl of light hair peeks out from underneath her armpit.
I remember the gesture, I have seen the hairs. And the white dress now looks familiar as well. It’s Betka’s old uniform from the butchery. For a moment the camera zooms in on the chair. A stained apron hangs over the backrest.
“What are you doing?” long-eared Dezho asks Betka, as he is supposed to, according to my dream-screenplay.
“Cut, cut,” Hanák interrupts and then walks into the scene and into my dream with a lit cigarette. “You‘re not supposed to sound so frightened,” he tells Dezho, his hand on the boy’s dark shoulder. “Do it like Jakub did—with the stop-watch, and, poetically.”
I’m craving treska. And ham, but not the cellophane kind. This morning there’s a different cashier, older. Old.
“And whose are you?” she asks for my name nicely. Even though she must be about my age, I feel like I’m twelve.
McDonalds’, I want to say, but then I catch myself.
“From the Mrnco family.”
She approves. She knows the Mrncos, or rather, she knew them.
“I remember you when you were this tall, Marika. Did you come now for skiing?”
“To sell the house.”
“And? To who?”
“An English couple. They want to open a bed-and-breakfast,” I say.
“This is going to be worse than that time when Betka sold her house to the gypsies.” The cashier sulks, and dusts off the crumbs from her woolen pullover.
And she goes on: “They said they were the good gypsies. Decent people. And they were decent. They worked and their kids were always clean. But then his sister had moved in with them with her five kids. Spring came and they had to build up. A year after that there were two houses, and then more of them came. And now we’re a gypsy village.”
The Sale, in Summer
I’m back again. It’s hot and the house is doing what it does best—it’s keeping its rooms cool and casting a shadow onto the backyard, where I’m sitting behind the wooden table covered with a plastic tablecloth. My feet are swollen from the long journey. The Davises will arrive in Pavol tomorrow for a final inspection. I am hulling red currants from the bush at the fence where I once watched, fascinated, a ring-snake slowly eating a frog. I know the hulling is useless—I’m not going to make preserves for a pair of strange Britons. Still, I can’t help it. And the grass in the yard needs cutting. I go to the back room where the theater group used to perform, and where an unused ping-pong table has been stored for decades. I lift the scythe off the iron hook on the wall. I swing it precisely four times—the fourth time, I fumble it, cutting my shin.
And the cut leg hurts; it’s uncomfortable to lie down with my foot elevated on a pillow. In front of the house across the street, on the clay that they have instead of a sidewalk, men in black suits and small hats have gathered. Their women are shining. Surely, long-eared Dezho is getting married. Will he be scared amidst the white sheets, watching his young wife brush her hair with magic strokes?
Nonsense. Dezho is as old as me. He’s probably giving away his daughter, or rather, a granddaughter. The tempting smell of burned meat flows in through the open window and pinches my nose. An off-key violin blends with a husky choir. There are so many guests that their suits cover up the dump that has grown in the back of the yard over the years. Wherever did Hanák get the idea of a romantic Romany wedding in a garden for his film? Bottles, tarts, cakes... all that—yes, but a lain board under a tree? Gypsies don’t really grow gardens, or trees, and I can’t imagine Dezho dragging his numerous family members to the mill-dam, under the willows, where during the day women came to wash their colorful woven carpets.
Grandma and I also used to do the washing there. Among the carpets baby geese flapped around, the women sang; Hanák would have liked that. Romany women came too, but they sang more than they washed.
The Future in St. Pavol
The house has a brand-new pink coat and its spacious rooms have been rebuilt into dens small as keyholes. Every guest gets his own den. The Davises are sitting in the kitchen, frying their eggs sunny-side up, with beans. They can’t have bacon while the sheik from Saudi Arabia is staying in the house. I’m standing on my tiptoes, barefoot, and peeping into his room through the gap between the tall winged door. He picked the largest room, with the stuffed owl sitting above great-grandma’s dressing table (described as “vintage” in the charmingly amateur-looking B&B brochure.) Stuffed animals are a hit these days; the sheik has become aware of the trend in New York, during his vacation with his first wife and his first four children. He also appreciates the rug made out of the dog that had belonged to my great-grandfather. It’s tastefully arranged in front of the carved bed, with the snout facing the door and me behind it.
After the sheik smears sweet-brier jam on his toast and eats a couple of slices of sheep cheese that creaks between the teeth (“organic—fresh from the sheep farm,” the brochure assures), he heads out to take pictures of the belfry.
The gypsies admire him from a distance. His skin color is right, turban opulent, belly round enough. After a short speechless moment of bewilderment they gather around him. They attempt to converse. St. Pavol gypsies are not fluent in Romany, they try that Esperanto of theirs. The sheik is amazed too—he thinks he has come across some exotic low-caste people. His camera is doing click, click, click. For every picture, he forces a nondescript banknote into Dezho’s clenched fist.
For some reason it pleases me to see that Dezho is offended. Integrity is what I admired about Jakub the Postman in the movie as well. Dezho drops the notes and disappears inside his house, dragging his siblings behind him.
The St. Pavol Past Makes a Visit to its Future
When an impromptu dance party begins in the street, the big red gate opens cautiously, but only so much as to allow grandma’s alabaster-white hand to slip out. Her index finger is signaling me to come inside, and when I don’t obey, a head appears in the door, its curls slightly crushed after a substantial good-night’s rest. Grandfather says it’s the mountain air that makes us sleep like logs.
“In you go, Marika, you hear me!”
I shake my head and circle my hips to the rhythm of the violin.
“For Chrissakes, you’re in your pajamas, girl! Like a gypsy.”
I look at my feet and really, I’m still wearing pajamas, and what is worse, it’s a “house” set, one that had stayed in the house from great-grandfather’s time. The long pants dangle around my skinny ankles.
My face turns the color of the red currants that grow against the fence. I run inside the gate, slam it behind me and hurriedly lock the bolt so that no one can get in, not even the sheik. When I get dressed, I will take grandma’s bike and ride to the butchery to buy fresh ham. I will finally ask Betka if it’s really that great when somebody kills himself over you.
fiction poetry "fact" photography