The truth is that a man never has enough time to remember, to linger in his and his family’s past, to go back further, as far as the ones everybody has forgotten, who no longer have a name, no longer preserve an identity, who are merely ghosts that flash across the fears of the living. We’re talking about a young man, obviously, who believes that he has glimpsed all the things he expects to do, but the sole truth is that he is on a mad race to grow old, to reach the years when all that remains for him to do is remember, sit impotently and alone and talk to himself in his head and out loud about the foolish haste to live. These are not my words, but an attempt to sum up as faithfully as possible the words of old man Hameg, who was a soldier in the empire and was repaid for the life he wasted with three acres of land and a site on which to build a house a great distance from the place where he was born. He for one could count himself lucky, he used to say, because he survived and received his reward, but the empire oughtn’t to have squandered its wealth on rewarding countless veterans like him, since otherwise poor soldiers like him wouldn’t have lived to see days of such loneliness and melancholy. Not that he wasn’t happy with what he had obtained, but he consoled himself that at least his bones were not rotting in some faraway country of the empire.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand, nobody in his right mind would have been able to imagine the true extent of what Hameg recounted; that’s why people came to disbelieve him and stopped listening to him after a time, and so he grew ever lonelier, shut up in the yard of his own empire, captive in the porch of his little manor house, built using the wages saved in his years as a soldier accustomed to marching and wars. Bought from those wages (or who knows, maybe it was war booty?), over his girdle, stitched with red and black thread, there hung a marvel: the chain of a Swiss silver pocket-watch with an engraved lid, carefully kept in his buttoned pocket.
I would have had the patience to listen to him for days on end, but he didn’t tell us children about battles, hand-to-hand fighting, mounds of dead bodies or terrified people fleeing over the hills, even though the wretches knew that the cavalry of the avant-garde (I later found out what that meant) would catch them up, he told us mostly about the cities and the cathedrals he had seen, some of them ten times taller than the spire of our church. At the time, not even I believed him, but I liked the idea that people could build something so tall, that they could built a new Tower of Babel and after that no longer speak the same language. I didn’t understand what the point was of making them so tall, but they must have left you open-mouthed in amazement.
In Hameg’s garden grew the best apples that have ever existed in the world, regal apples with an aroma that only the apple of temptation in Eden could have possessed, you could smell it from all over the village, that’s what I remember from that time, even if it might not be completely true, although it is well known that the memory of that age of life doesn’t lie. Those apples drew us without our being able to resist and we tried to win his favour through all kinds of wheedling that got us closer to the apple. He knew what we were after, but pretended it was difficult to bamboozle him, although the result was invariably that he went into the garden and came back with a hatful of apples, placed them on the bottom step of the porch, and we would rush at them, put them in our pockets, then we would rub them thoroughly on our shirts and trousers, till the red flamed, I don’t think we ever washed them. Nor was there any need; back then, only the rain sprayed the trees.
After he became almost deaf, it was rumoured that old man Hameg had started talking to himself, and not only did he let slip a terrible soldier’s curse every now and then, of the kind I used to hear everywhere back then, since the men had picked them up in passing and deftly fired them off in two languages, but also he talked as if somebody were standing next to him listening and answering. They said in a whisper, as if they were imparting a big secret, that the ghosts of the past had started to haunt him and that the old man would meet a bad end.
On sunny days, he would sit on a chair on the high veranda, beneath whose floor was a space for storing winter firewood; I sneaked into the yard through the gate, which was always half open, I saw him snoozing, with his head lolling to one side, snoring softly, and I sat down in the rough, dusty, sharp-bladed, thick grass by the cracked post of the veranda, which rested on a rough-hewn piece of soft sandstone, buried in the black earth by way of a foundation. That day, none of the other children happened to be with me; I loitered, plucking blades of grass until I started to doze, but I didn’t dare enter the garden, it would have meant I would never receive another apple if he caught me, obviously, but I wasn’t bold enough to risk it, better I wait till he woke up or somebody woke him. And somebody must have woken him, because all of a sudden, I heard him speaking. But when I heard his voice, I realised that I was dozing, too.
“Oho, what does a young man know, he obeys only his itch, the heat in his nuts, he goes through the world like a stray dog and ends up in the dog-catchers’ clutches, who quickly make him a soldier in the pay of the emperor, because otherwise you have no way of earning a crust. Either you become a soldier or you become a thief, it depends on whom you fall in with the soonest. If you become a soldier, you go off to break the heads of those who annoy the emperor, those are your orders. If you become a thief, you shorten your road to the gallows. On roads like those it’s hard to reach old age. My patron saint guarded me, even though I sorrowed him often enough . . .”
He fell silent and started snoring softly again. I carefully stood up and looked closely through the chinks in the planks of the porch. He was in the same position, with his head lolling to one side, breathing evenly. No question of there being anybody around. He was talking in his sleep. He was dreaming of somebody and talking to him. A few minutes passed without him saying another word, as if he were now listening to the person in his dream, who was answering him at length and with words just as slow, it would seem. It didn’t surprise me that I understood every word, although I ought to have asked myself whether I heard everything or only thought I did. When he spoke once more, I understood only a few words at the beginning, after which everything turned to mumbling:
“What a crazy man’s dream I had, to want to roam the whole of Europe with a piece of sharpened steel at my waist . . . What a chucklehead . . . What a loon . . .”
He muttered all kinds of words, sometimes I thought to understand snatches of it, but the sounds blended together and connected queerly, without any meaning, and then it occurred to me that maybe he was talking in a foreign language, since it was said that Hameg spoke seven or so. German and Szekler he knew for sure. It was difficult for me to understand him even when he spoke his language from “the bottom of Harghita,” let alone when he spoke some language or other he had picked up as a soldier.
“Ach, the devil . . .” he said resoundingly after a while and shook as if gripped by a sudden chill.
I thought then that he had woken up, he stirred, but only to change “the position of his bones,” as he himself often used to titter, after which he started snoring again. I no longer had any patience, I was thinking of leaving, of looking for the others and coming back so that we could wake him from his snooze with the din we made. I had already stood up, but I was still in the shadow of the porch, when he started to talk again, this time so clearly that it was as if he were talking directly to me:
“You never know what’s for the best . . . Don’t step sideways to walk straight ahead, that’s what I learned, but nobody teaches you what to do to stay out of harm’s way, they don’t teach that, it’s blind luck or care from above, that’s why, Lord, let me be less aggrieved for how much I’ve done you wrong and don’t awaken my regrets every day . . . Let me be less embittered at all the things I didn’t want to do, but I wasn’t the one to decide who ends up with the opportunity of knowing what the next day brings . . . How many times I prayed to you to call me by name, to summon me, but I never heard you so much as breathing down my neck . . . Forgive us for what we know we do best with sword and bad words, I was never niggardly with bad words in particular, nor they with me . . . But not even that is what aggrieves me the most, it’s far harder to endure this world’s end, this painful loneliness, than a wound that can’t be cleaned of infection . . . I’d tell you a thing or two, but even so, you still remember me, maybe that’s why you turned my life into a heap of misery . . . I’m not scared of what pains me any more, I think I’ve started to confuse the punishment with a boon . . . Sure, I’m itching to mock, but it’s not about you, it’s about me, I’m the only one with whom I’ve a reckoning to make . . . Sure, I’m trying to tell you that I don’t think it’s right, that I shouldn’t have risked anything for this loneliness, it would have been enough for me to go deep into the forest, and maybe that would have been to your liking too, maybe you would have shouted at me . . . There’s no reason I should be satisfied that you’ve kept me alive, this reward prompts blasphemy . . . I’d like to be silent . . . Do me that favour, do that for me . . .”
Chills went through me as I stood there, I didn’t know whether it was a prayer or a curse. Much later I understood that it was the strangest prayer I would ever hear in my life. It was then that I believed that this was how soldiers were supposed to pray and I memorised it without forgetting a single syllable.
I peeked through the chinks. He was still dozing, he sighed twice and then his head fell to his chest. Slowly, on tiptoes, I sneaked out of the yard and once I was in the lane, I broke into a run, down the back alley, to the football pitch. I would have liked to tell them all what I’d heard, that it was true that Hameg was going to meet a bad end, that he talked in his sleep and that he was in a terrible state and he was in the next world. But I didn’t say a word. To my amazement, I discovered that I had a secret, inner voice. If I had blabbed about it, they would all have said I was making it up and they would have made fun of me for a long time, until they found something more amusing to entertain them. Instead of boasting about it, as I’d expected I would do, I repeated to myself what I had heard until I memorised it. I knew it off by heart, like a poem. It would have been nice not to add anything, for my memory to have been an epiphany . . .
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth