Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
He clapped his hands and clicked his fingers: “That's it, that's it, that's it.” Leaning back in his chair, he twirled the tiny peninsula of hair in the center of his forehead.
Zoli improvised as she went along—he'd ask her to repeat a certain verse so he could transcribe it, and the verse would shift and change. It seemed to me that her words contained simple, old-fashioned sounds that others had forgotten or didn't know how to use anymore:
trees, pooh, forest, ash, oak, fire.
Stränsky's hand rested on his leg, where he held a glass of vodka. He bounced his knee up and down, so when he finally stood up and went to the window there were dark stains on his overalls. Late in the afternoon, when darkness lengthened across the floor, Stränsky extended a pencil. Zoli took it gingerly, put the end of it against her teeth, and held it there, as if it were describing her.
“Go ahead,” said Stränsky, “just write it down.”
“I don't really create them on the page,” she said.
“Just scribble the last verse, go on.”
Stränsky tapped his knuckles on the edge of the table. Zoli turned the thread on a button. Her lip was bitten white. She lowered her gaze and began to write. Her penmanship was
shabby and she had little idea about line breaks, capitalization, or even spelling, but Stränsky took the sheet and clutched it to his chest.
“Not bad, not bad at all, I can show this to people.”
Zoli pulled back her chair, bowed slightly to Stränsky, then turned to me and said a formal goodbye. Her kerchief had slipped back on her head and I noticed how pure the parting was in her hair, how dark the skin between two sets of darkness, how straight, how clean. She readjusted the scarf and there was a flash of white from her eyes. She stepped towards the door, and then she was gone, out into the street in the last of the light, under the trees. A few young men on a horsecart were waiting for her. She put her nose to the horse's neck and rubbed her forehead along the top of its spine.
“Well, well, well,” said Stränsky.
The horsecart went around the corner and away.
I felt as if a tuning fork had been struck in my chest.
The next day Stränsky and I were invited to an air show for journalists on the outskirts of Bratislava: three brand-new Meta-Sokols, high-technology jets, were on display. Their noses were pointed westward. It was still a no-fly zone around Bratislava, and the pilots had been forced to drive the jets into the airfield on huge trucks, which had become bogged down and had to be pulled onto the field with ropes. Stränsky had been asked to write an article about the Slovak-born fighter pilots. He slinked around the machines with a general who lectured us earnestly about landing patterns, high-range radar, and ejector seats.
After the lecture, a young woman from the air force strode out to the planes. Stränsky nudged me: she had a stillness at her center that might have been called poise, but it wasn't, it was more like the tension that can be seen in tightrope walkers. Her blond hair was cut short, her body slim and winsome. He followed her up into the cockpit of one of the machines and they sat for a while, chatting and flirting, until she was called away. The journalists and dignitaries watched the thin sway of her as she climbed down. She reached up and helped Stränsky to the ground. “Wait,” he said. He kissed her hand and introduced me as his wayward son, but she blushed and shimmied off, with just one look over her shoulder—not at Stränsky, nor at me, but at the military jet stuck in the grass.
“Hey-ho, the new Soviet woman,” said Stränsky under his breath.
We walked across the airfield, through the giant muddy marks made by the trucks. At the field's edge Stränsky stopped and wiped some of the muck off his trousercuffs. He turned, rubbed one shoe against the other and said, suddenly, as if to the trampled grass: “Zoli.”
He hitched up his trousers and walked over the tire marks. “Come on,” he said.
Out past Trnava, towards the hills, along a dirt road, through an isolated copse of trees. I clung on as Stränsky brought the motorbike to a skidding stop and pointed to a series of broken twigs arranged to mark a trail.
“Around here somewhere,” he said.
The engine of the Jawa sputtered. I hopped off. Smoke rose from some distant trees and a series of shouts rang out. We
pushed the motorbike into the center of a clearing, where intricately carved caravans stood in a semicircle. Light came through the high pines, creating long shadows. Young men stood by a fire. One turned an axehead with a pair of tongs; another blew a bellows. A number of children darted towards us. They climbed on the bike and yelped when their bare feet touched the hot pipes. One jumped on my back and slapped me, then yanked my hair.
“Say nothing,” said Stränsky. “They're just curious.”
The crowd swelled. The men stood in shirts and torn trousers. The women wore long-hemmed dresses and thick jewelry. Children appeared with babies clasped against their chests. Some of the babies wore red ribbons on their wrists.
“It's an adorned world,” Stränsky whispered, “but underneath it's plain enough, you'll see.”
A middle-aged man, Vashengo, with long wisps of graying hair, strode through the crowd and stood straddle-legged in front of us, hands on his hips. He and Stränsky embraced, then Vashengo turned to assess me. A long stare. An odor of wood-smoke and rank earth.
Stränsky slapped my shoulder: “He looks Slovak, sounds Slovak, but at the worst of times he's British.”
Vashengo squinted and came close, dug his fingers into my shoulder. The whites of his eyes had a smoky gray tinge.
“Old friend of mine,” said Stränsky before Vashengo parted the crowd in front of him. “He owes me a thing or two.”
At the rear of the crowd, near a series of carved wooden caravans, Zoli stood with four other women in colorful dresses. She wore an army greatcoat, river boots rolled down on her calves, and a belt made out of willow bark. She held a coat-
hanger skewered with a piece of potato. She glanced at us, strode towards a caravan, stepped up, closed the door behind her.
For a split second the curtain parted, then ricocheted back.
Food was prepared, a ball of meat served with haluski and flatcakes. “How's your hedgehog?” asked Stränsky. I spat it out. Vashengo stared at me. It was, it seemed, a delicacy. I picked it up from the dirt. “Delicious,” I said, and speared a mouthful. Vashengo reared back and laughed, jaunty and intimate. The men gathered and slapped my back, filled my glass, heaped more food on my plate. I washed the hedgehog down with a bottle of fruit wine, then tried to share the bottle with the others, but they turned away.
“Don't even ask,” said Stränsky. “They're just not going to drink from your swish.”
“Learn silence, son, it'll keep you alive.”
Stränsky sat down by the fire to sing an old ballad he'd learned in the hills. The wind blew, stirring the ash. The Gypsy men nodded and listened seriously, then brought out their fiddles and giant harps. The night tore open. A child climbed on my shoulders and began to shine Stränsky's balding head with her bare foot. After a second bottle, it didn't seem to me that my corners were sticking out quite so much anymore—I opened the neck of my shirt and whispered to Stränsky that I'd take whatever was to come.
In the early evening, crowds of Gypsies started to arrive from the countryside. They packed into a large white tent where a row of candles lit a makeshift stage. The benches were made from fallen logs. The singers began with raucous ballads, gamblingsongs, weddingsongs, lovesongs, eveningsongs.
When Zoli walked in, she wore a long multipatterned dress with flared sleeves. Tiny beads were sewn into the dress front, and an anthracite necklace lay at the long curve of her throat. At first she was just another one of the singers. Her body was held straight and her head almost motionless, all the movement in her shoulders, arms, hands. It wasn't until later, when the night had a coating of drunkenness and the darkness had fallen, that she began to sing on her own. No harp, no violin. Raw. Sad. An old song, long and rambling, nostalgic. The firelight flickered on her face, her eyes closed, lids blue-veined, half a smile on her lips. It was not just her voice—it was what she sang that rattled us. She had made up the song herself, a story with place names, Czech and Polish and Slovak, dates and times too. Hodonin. Lety. Brno. 1943. The Black Legion. Chimneys. The carved gateposts. The charnel houses. The bone fields.
“I told you, son,” said Stränsky.
When Zoli finished, the tent fell silent: only the sound of the breeze through the trees outside, ancient, unpackaged. She stepped across to a wreck of an old man—the sort of creature who could have lived shabby and mumbling in a shoebox room somewhere. He wore a half-shirt, the sort favored by musicians, with no cloth at the back. When he stretched his arms towards her, his naked skin showed. She kissed him gently on the head, then sat down with him while he smoked a pipe.
“Her husband,” whispered Stränsky.
I sat back on the log.
“Careful, Swann, your mouth's open again.”
Zoli leaned in to the older man. He looked as if he had been tall and broad-shouldered once and he still annexed that space, though he was clearly sick. Later in the evening, he coaxed
sounds from a fiddle that I'd never heard before—fast, wild, screeching. He was given an extended round of applause and Zoli supported his elbow, left the tent with him. She did not come back, but the night started up again, raucous and pure. My shirt was open to the belly button. I hardly knew what to think. Someone threw a bottle of slivovitz at me—I unscrewed the lid and drank.
In the early morning, Stränsky and I stumbled towards the motorbike. The seat, the blinkers, and the handlebar grips had disappeared. Stränsky chuckled and said it was not the first time he'd had unreliable Czech machinery between his legs. We climbed on, tamped our jackets down for a seat, and made our way back towards Bratislava. We approached the city, the tall brickwork adorned with arches and lintels. Rows of pigeons dozed on high ledges. Wreathed dates commemorated memory in stone. It was an old city, somewhat Hungarian, somewhat German, but on that day it felt newly and wholly Soviet. Crews were working on the bridge and, beyond that, towers and factories were going up.
Stränsky's wife was waiting for us in the courtyard of his apartment block. He kissed her, skipped up the stairs, and immediately went inside to transcribe the tapes. He placed the recorder on the top of her latest cartoon. She took the drawing and smoothed it out.
“It's a Hungarian name,” Elena said as she listened. “Zoltan. I wonder where she got it.”
“Who knows, but it's quite a song, isn't it?”
“Maybe she got someone to write it for her.”
“I don't think so.”
Stränsky unjammed the play lever on the recorder.
“It's naive,” said Elena. “Your mother cries, your father plays the violin. But there's a quiver to it, isn't there? And, tell me this, is she beautiful?”
“She's more beautiful than she's not,” he said.
Elena cracked her husband's knuckles with a rolled-up newspaper. She stood, her hair full of colored pencils, and went off to bed. Stränsky winked and said he would join her shortly, but he fell asleep at the table, bent over the transcribed pages.