For Baltic-blooded fingertips and beauty from the snow and rain.
“I could teach you all the songs of the coal-daughters of Arkhangelsk, if I wished.”
She rocked back on her heels, the pale blue smock pooled around her calves as she observed the quick, black eyes of the women watching her. The young patient flexed her bare toes, coughed dryly, and wrapped a stray lock of hair around a forefinger before speaking. Silence filled the room.
“I could show you how their hands trace leaf patterns across the breasts of dead men, or how their fingernails chip in the springtime, leaving jagged ridges on mahogany fingers.”
She spoke for a very long time, occasionally pulling at her sleeves or wiping a bead of sweat from her eyelashes.
“I could show you, if you sat awhile and watched, the dances of the heirs of Vasco Da Gama; those strange contortionist rituals that portray in miniscule rhythmic detail the barefooted footsteps their ancestor walked, from Porto to Calicut, only to be shunned with his bibles and beads so long ago. It’s all here, in my head. I learnt these movements and a thousand more when the wall collapsed ten years ago, when the people of the two cycles started mixing freely, started speaking in one language again after so many generations apart.”
With her monologue complete, her offers ignored, the young woman slumped back against the whitewashed wall and returned her gaze to the dry, cracked flooring of the hospital. Her audience of patients muttered among themselves and busied their hands with dog-eared playing cards, with backgammon and knucklebones. The combined clattering of dice and ivory against polished rosewood and ebony produced murmuring vibrations that fluttered through the plastering with inertia, echoing around unfortunate heads and gathering beneath the fingernails of the insane. The wards of Balaton hospital were sweating, clawing with dehydration and maddening closeness. This June had been one of the hottest anybody in Keszthely could remember, the streets shimmered and kicked up dust and motes in hacking vortexes around the slippers of the women; in the distance, Hévízi Gyógy-tó, the great lake of Western Hungary, looked parched and pallid, its dark waters grasping at its own boundaries with cracked tendrils and rasping, lapping breaths.
The grey, lumbering matrons of Balaton had begun their rounds, serving out the porridges and pills that made up the diets of the hammocked and straightjacketed women, their heavy feet and lidded eyes avoiding contact with the moaning patients that passed their days in the open cells and old, high fenced gardens in this forgotten corner of the Hungarian lowlands. Their presence was met with wide eyes, incomprehensible babbling, crooked fingers and arched backs; all was routine, all was normality beneath the flat ceiling. All, that is, except for one of the patients; Béla, whose startling lucidity, whose daily lectures and lyrical nonsense caused a sense of unease among even the most hardened matrons. The other patients would gather around her at eleven o’clock each day and sit cross legged, disciplesque, as she spoke her ravings with her soft voice, rocking backwards and forwards on her heels. She would talk for up to an hour each day, reciting half-histories, semi-truths and quasi-myths of when the Hungarian people were Magyar, not Slavic or Soviet; the nomadic central Asian wanderers who settled around the great rivers of Eastern Europe over a thousand years ago. She spoke at length of the man she claimed to be her grandfather; the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who came to Balatonfǜred in Western Hungary in 1927 and astonished crowds and gathered followers through his eloquent command of the original Indo-European language in the most delicate, almost magical ways. Béla would speak animatedly of the Portuguese explorers who travelled east, of rivers that once encircled the globe, of their connections with the Scythians and Serbs, the Huns and the Tatars, the oldest and noblest of peoples. Once a month, Béla would speak in tongues, in old languages forgotten by all but dry, ancient academics in the dejected libraries of Buda. Occasional words would stumble from her lips, and doctors from Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia and Austria would visit on these days with linguists to record the presence of Sanskrit and Aramaic in her ramblings. For an hour each and every day, Béla was impossible to ignore; she would deliver her impossible sermon, and then spin on her heels and face the chipped walls, sitting in shivering silence for an entire twenty-four hour period before beginning her peculiarity once more. Matrons and nurses who were new to the establishment would discuss her condition with excitement and in hushed tones, comparing her to saintly figures, fakirs and clairvoyants; but after the heavy and dusty miasma of Balaton hospital had entered their bloodstream by a process of relentless repetition and droning osmosis, they would become content to simply join the humming masses that gathered around her at eleven o’clock each day, and listen with their jaded ears to the mysteries that poured forth from her thin and emaciated lips.
* * *
Petra was relatively new to Balaton hospital. She had studied for her nursing qualification in a small college in the region of Transdanubia, and had accepted the position of medicine distributor at the hospital soon afterwards. To her, Keszthely seemed much like the other small towns of Hungary, the same fields and peddlers and strangely positive contradiction of the soviet hangover that was evident throughout the country, contrasting heavily with the burgeoning tourist trade of Budapest that many were claiming to be a second golden age for the city (only this time attracting not the prodigious sons of great artists and composers but plane-loads of testosterone fuelled stag parties). Keszthely had its own vibrancy, brought about by location and the adaptability of its denizens. Religion was seeping back into the lives of the formerly repressed, and the sweltering heat of the summer had spread a little panic among the farming communities that stretched away from the bays and the great lakes. Despite the new changes and the flurrying of the field-masters, the outside world apparently ceases to exist the moment one steps through the iron gates of Balaton hospital for women of mental disturbance.
Petra’s first week of work had frightened her; despite her training and respectful, courteous disposition, she found herself unable to deny the nightmarish quality of the cells, the eerie looming presence of the electro-shock therapy wing and the coasting beds with shackles rusted onto their fenders. She would walk silently through the linoleum corridors, handing out rainbows of capsules to each of the lank-haired, sad eyed women who swayed in the mildewed doorways and stared at their feet. The hospital was filthy; there was no possible way to ignore the fact that Balaton was a decrepit, crumbling mass that posed as a healthcare establishment. The asylum was a relic of a unenlightened age, forgotten by agents of sanitary standardisation and largely ignored by local authorities; the water system was infested with flukes and flatworms, the chipped, cracked plaster walls housed innumerable many-legged creatures and lice were a constant source of irritation, raised welts on the scalps of the patients were routinely lanced and daubed with iodine, with no thought given to the route of the cankers themselves.
Petra first heard Béla’s name mentioned on her second morning of work, after walking into one of the many dank and heaving administrative offices that were situated near the gatehouse. Angela, the hospitals head matron, was shouting down an old, ivory coloured telephone to somebody, her fat hands slamming repeatedly with frustration onto a mahogany table, scattering biros and sample pots, ring binders and flow charts. Over and over again, the obese matriarch of the asylum was fumingly reiterating that one of the patients, Béla, was not to be released from her course of medication for at least another seven years; that her condition had shown no signs of improvement and that her lying had become pathological, obsessive and damaging to the other patients. Somebody was giving her books, she said. Somebody had to be giving her history books, encyclopaedias, poetry and classical works; somebody was attempting to usurp the authority of the sisters on the ward. There was no possible way that a disgusting urchin like Béla, a disgraced, clinically insane and potentially dangerous girl from the mountains could have access to the vocabulary, let alone the information that she spouted each morning, and that the conspirers would be crushed. The sweat pouring from Angela’s rage-contorted face was running from the mouthpiece of the telephone as she repeated herself over and over again to the receiver, anger rippling through the fat on her arms as she gesticulated wildly and slapped away nurses who were milling around her with papers to sign and slips to authorise. After an almost identical occurrence a few days later, Petra left the office and walked hurriedly to the bland-walled communal area of the hospital where the clicking of knucklebones and slamming of backgammon chips could be heard ricocheting off the stones, drowning out the ever present humming and moaning of women, alone behind doors. It was two minutes to eleven, and silence was falling like pebbles in a barrel as the patients took their places, sitting cross legged in a semi-circle around a crouched, small female figure hunched against the far wall.
“We are called Balkan, but we are not Balkan. We are called Slavs, but never were we Slavic. Our people originated far beyond the borders of these fractured states, our forefathers wandered the Siberian foothills, the Thar desert of Rajasthan, the banks of the mighty Volga – of which the Danube that laps at our feet is a mere devotee, a weeping tributary – once rang with the songs of the Magyar, and were pounded into shape with the dances of the women who led the people across the continent.” Béla paused in her oration and looked up at Petra, her face frozen as if possessed. A hum, a deep vibration started somewhere in the depths of her lungs and tricked from the speakers lips, seeming to pierce the listeners’ skin and invoke a trance-like aura in the dust-flecked air. A breath, deep and purposeful, and then the sermon continued, as Petra found herself sitting on the uneven stone floor. “Your grandparents, the people of Keszthely at the beginning of the twentieth century, they thought Rabindranath Tagore was a foreigner, a man of exotic virtue and eastern mystery. They saw his words as undecipherable poetry and hailed him as a poet, an oddity, albeit a much loved one. Indeed, isn’t there a promenade alongside the springs at Gyógy Tér that bears his name? Your forefathers accepted his presence when so many people of these states would not, and yet they never realised why. My grandfather was of the same blood as yours, he danced the same dances and supped at the same waters, his bloodline stretches back from the forests of Bengal to the very cradle of Indo-Europe and his people, my people, your people are one and the same.” A pause allowed Petra to break her gaze from Béla’s rocking form, and she saw the patients of Balaton hospital silent, rapt, sitting meditatively around this medical curiosity who was incapable of conversation and showed signs of distress and terror at the smallest movements, at any confrontation, and yet for one hour a day accepted the mantle of messiah for the mentally unsound. Petra pulled a notepad from her uniform and began to take notes, but a hand appeared on hers and gently, almost reverently removed the item from her grasp. The patient, who placed the paper on the ground, looked up at Petra and simply shook her head and gestured towards Béla, who was drawing another deep breath and preparing to speak once more. The nurse complied, put away her pen and returned her gaze to the speaker.
“Walls came down a decade ago. Walls came down, and language changed; we all began to speak alike. This was the first part of the greatest change that is yet to fully manifest, the circle of generational difference is approaching completeness, almost a thousand years since the Magyar settled on the Danube. Walls came down, and they call us mad, call us by races and creeds we do not recognise, do not need. Not Balkan. Not Slavic. I can show you the dances that were revered by the wolf runners of Schwartzwald, the songs that were sung to greet the apostles on the cape of India. The Carthaginians were young and weak when our tongues were raising mountains, and giant men still walked on Albion when the Magyar stood at their finest.” Béla shut her eyes, turned on her heels and faced the wall, as if she were a figure mounted on the great clock on the town hall at Pécs, clock-work, operated by tiny golden cogs from Switzerland, awoken at the eleventh hour by a single penny falling into place. The room awoke from its trance, and clattering, humming, moaning and the pitter-patter of bare feet on cracked floor filled the dry and choking air.
Petra stood up, smoothed her overalls and walked over to the now silent woman who faced the corner of the room. She was, she reasoned, only a few years younger than this patient, who could not have been much older than twenty-five. Her file stated that this was her tenth year within Balaton – she must have been little more than a child when she was brought here; the other nurses spoke of how she was found wandering the streets of Keszthely, babbling incomprehensively and scratching pictograms into any flat surface she could get her hands on. There were rumours that Angela was terrified of her, that Béla somehow used to walk into the locked bedroom of the head matron’s quarters in the dead of night and stand at the foot of the bed, whispering and staring at the sleeping bulk of the nurse until she would wake in a cold sweat and scream at the teenage girl, beating her with her fat forearms.
Béla visibly stiffened as Petra approached her from behind, her body trembling and hunching closely into a foetal position. The nurse stepped back; painfully aware of the intense and distressing effect her presence was having upon this patient. Could what Angela had said be true? Was a nurse supplying a patient with books and knowledge? The idea was impossible; nobody could even approach this woman, let alone converse with her or exchange items. Petra hung her head and walked away from the shaking ball of nervous murmuring that filled the corner of the communal room, resigning herself to the same curious apathy that possessed her colleagues in the face of an apparent miracle.
The sun continued to beat down on the town of Keszthely as the pills and porridge were ladled into identical receptacles, and many more days passed with many similar sermons delivered by the young woman, interrupted by only one hour of nonsensical babbling, the sincerity of which passed a chill through the hearts of all that heard it – here was language in its rawest, wildest state, pure, untamed and meta-expressive in its roundness, its seeming oldness and the disquieting calm of its delivery. The apathy towards Béla that had taken root in Petra was momentarily dislodged as the hour drew to a close, and as the girl turned on her heels to face the wall as she had done at noon each day for ten years and eighty days, the nurse sat beside her and faced the plaster in the manner of the patient. Petra shut her eyes, pulled herself into a ball and mimicked Béla’s pose, remaining that way in silence for a long time, her thoughts turning inward. It felt to the young nurse as though years had passed since her days studying nursing in Transdanubia, since the passion to help and heal had first driven her in the direction of hospital employment. This asylum was a dying institution; that was assured. Béla was its youngest patient by far, and no new patients had been admitted since her arrival. When would its doors be closed for the last time? Would they have to wait until the last of the women had faded, rattling breath in plaster-dust and porridge, before putting the building to rest? Petra could feel the pen in her breast pocket pushing hard against stomach – her torso was contracted with her foetal positioning – and she was growing uncomfortable. As she placed her hands on the ground to help her stand up, a soft voice emerged from the woman to her left, coming from Béla’s mouth, but sounding remarkably different from the faraway, assured orators tone that she usually carried. This was a gentle voice, a friendly voice without the edge of darkened sincerity it carried less than an hour before “It isn’t true what they say about me, you know”. Her head turned, and Petra saw the dark eyes of the patient look into her own, a smile playing on her lips. “I never wandered the streets of Keszthely, speaking in tongues and running with dogs. I wasn’t brought to this hospital by anyone but myself. I have a job to do, I do it well, and I am almost done.” No more was said, and the nurse nodded her head, stood up, and returned to her sleeping quarters to take her lunch, to prepare herself for the afternoon’s duties.
It was on the eleventh hour of the day that followed that the first rain came to Keszthely. Silence had once again filled the communal hall of Balaton, and silence continued for an entire hour. Béla was nowhere to be seen, and her audience sat in respectful, tranquil anticipation until noon, at which point they dealt their dog-eared playing cards and shook their dice in the cups and resumed their humming and moaning and bickering. The same thing occurred the next day, and the one after that, as the rain drummed hard on the flat roof above them and the head matron locked herself in her study. One by one, the nurses walked to the corner of the room and ran their fingers over the space of flooring once occupied by the youngest, the last of Balaton Hospital’s patients, a space where the stone was smooth and glossy amongst the rough, uneven surface that surrounded it, and bore the imprints of two small feet.