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Jan/Feb 2007 Fiction

Red

by Bojan Pavlovic

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber


Istvan Szabo was a man of uneven character. It was obtuseness of spirit that defined him. Often described as misanthropic and even a troglodyte, he was known in the town mostly by the effects of his presence, by the uplifting feeling one got as his figure, slightly humped and lurking, strode away without ever saying a proper good-bye. We did not know him well in our family, and I doubt that he was known by anyone, save perhaps his maid, Bertha, who was his loyal servant for fifteen years and had wasted her youth strutting about the strange man, a smile on her face and her blonde hair tied in a strong knot. There were beside Bertha a cook and a gardener who worked at the Szabo household, the first an elderly German woman who spoke Czech with the typical slur of Sudetenland, and who had, by the age of twenty-three, been married twice, each time divorced in a whirlwind of controversy and sorrow. She carried her unfortunate romances with her in a small box with golden Hungarian cursive on top, storing away letters and little bonbons she had received over the years. Since the dalliances' end she had not remarried but had withdrawn to our little town and remained a poor cook, first in the service of the deceased Madame Szabo and later that of her husband, throughout his slow decay. She lodged on the second floor of the house, her room exhibiting a strong white glow, almost opaque, from either a strange lampshade or the curtains she sewed herself. Regardless of its source, the light emanating from that room remained ethereal and gloomy, reminiscent of limpid conquests of Childe Harold or even Macbeth. And yet her corner was not at all the most sullen quarter of the residence, that honor being reserved for the backyard, inefficiently and slovenly kept by Marek Copek, a ruin of a man who, while not drinking himself away, would serve as the indolent gardener and would attempt, each day, to bring order to that chaotic flora. It was in the garden, amidst the weeds, stems of dead dandelions, tubers thrown about accidentally, perfunctorily, almost spitefully—amidst the very state of entropy, that consistent urge of the universe itself to drag all that is beautiful to decay, to utmost despair and disorder—it was there that, at night, the unruly grass and plants would form horrific shadows, demonic if not on purpose then through a joke of fate itself.

In our town we had a single square and a church built in the charming baroque of Saxon genius that had, at some point, been commissioned by the Austrian margrave presiding over our Bohemian lands in the mid 1700s. The church had been refurbished twice in its 250 years of stolid existence, each time to its own aesthetic disadvantage. It carried the name of the Virgin, as so many churches in this part of the world still do. On its north side it faced an old guild house that had since been converted into a hotel, the only one of the town, and which had, through some ingenious machinations of its illustrious owner, Ingelbert Kupka, hosted the late Emperor of Austria-Hungary himself, when he was a beautiful young hussar, clad in white and with a Bidermeier Empress at his arm. It was due to this very Imperial visit sometime in the late 1850s that the Hotel was renamed "Kaiser" and carried its peremptory name with no little pride, the walls in every room as well as in the loud but unkempt anteroom reverentially bedecked with pictures and paintings of the late ruler until the end of the Great War. On its outside it sported a renovated renaissance façade, with little acuity of line remaining from its original cinquecento brilliance. Its front facing was dark brown but with a number of crimson red brick lines that had faded through time and remained a distinct feature of the lower floor, separating the portico and the upper windows, both physically and conceptually, from the ground level.

The eyes of the town were used to the temperate square, the hills that seemed to roll outward forever, and the predictable windings of our streets. In the summer there would be many tables laid out in front of the little hotel, each with its own parasol, the rims of the parasols marked with gothic lettering, alluding to a medieval rather than a nineteenth century imperiousness as references to the Empire were no longer popular. There, the youth of our town congregated in the evenings, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, to relax and enjoy the last vestiges of the sun, and were joined by travelers who, as all travelers do, possessed a naively optimistic glow about them, ephemerally attached to wherever they might have been residing, and thus, removed from the inevitability of boredom, not accepting the realization that after the very wonderful sunset in this little town, each one of its pleasant sites would remain nothing more than one of so many before and so many after, each in its repeatability a bane to beauty, since all things repeated eventually lose their brilliance. They faced, across the open array of cobblestone, a fountain and a monument to Huss himself, conceived and executed by Johan Mestrak of Karlove Vary in 1849, in the very fervent nationalist style of that short but effervescent epoch, and completed with those very sensibilities: wavy, rash, romantic and unruly. Huss was thus not what he must have been, a medieval scholar and a hermit; rather, he was a hero whose hair rode on gusts of wind, unwavering and steady. The statue had a green colour of faded bronze, weakened through both rain and the elements, and at the bottom joined a granite pillar almost seamlessly, rust becoming stone. Further across stood the yellow-painted Post Office, flying the flag above its pediment.

Behind that postal office stood the house of Istvan Szabo, flanked on one side by a road that linked the Square to the rest of the town, while to the West its feral garden obscured any view of what lay beyond. At the garden's end its flora was precluded from extending its tentacles further by a strong fence, painted bright red toward the outside and left colourless inside. The poor owner-constructor had hoped to obtain permission to paint both sides, but old Szabo just mockingly waived him away, looking sadly at the state of his garden as if thinking it beyond help. It was the colour red that had excited him too much, he clumsily explained, and he could not have it there, sorely attacking his eyes, weak as they were. Thus his property remained a wide grey chasm, just behind the lively square and at the cusp of Karl Street, unrelenting in its visual indolence, a rude monument to some secret affectation of its inhabitant. And it was Istvan Szabo himself who carried that surreptitious tragedy openly, on his sleeve, as some people, usually of sanguine complexion, carry their heart and emotions. As if their antipode, Istvan took with him a sense of doom and despair, perennial and outside of time, for there were none in the town who could remember him being any different.

The Szabo family had moved here from Hungary some two generations before Istvan's birth, his grandfather a rich horse trader and a petty noble in the old Empire. It was this elder Szabo's blond and pale face that ornamented the black walls inside the residence, sometimes photographed and other times painted in dark oil, large sideburns hiding the limp cheeks. Only his eyes were memorable, standing out in cold blue from the hirsute, otherwise ghostlike face, and these were the same eyes that he had bequeathed his grandson. Istvan Szabo was the last living of three brothers, one of whom died during the Great War in Galicia, the other succumbing to consumption two years after the new Czechoslovak republic was established on the ruins of what was once an empire stretching from Russia to the Adriatic. Left alone, Istvan married Elzbieta Krajcek, who was seven years older than him and had at that time been slowly morphing into old maidhood, that precarious state of female existence where lost beauty is jealously and clumsily cherished through eccentric behaviour. Pomades, crèmes, cucumber, and other vegetables, all such concoctions were used fastidiously by Istvan's new wife to replenish and enyouth, as he slowly receded away from both her and himself, refusing sometimes to see anyone at all, even at an hour of dire need, as that one time when he was close to death due to a nasty pneumonia. Sadly, the wife had no desire for light and colour, much as her husband, and the residence remained as it was, diminished and grey, white curtains and pale walls encircling dark brown furniture. Some years into the marriage, Elzbieta, who otherwise seemed a strong and athletic woman, contracted a disease that befuddled Janacek, the town doctor, who, habitually lifting his glasses up the nose with the index finger, could only sigh with some honest desperation at the sight of her pale body stretched before him, feverish and moribund. There were many diseases he had cured or treated, going as far back as an outbreak of typhus in 1911, but this specific malady he had never seen before, and he could not understand how the tall, muscular woman could succumb to exhaustion and fatigue so rapidly and then diminish into herself over a period of only two weeks, expiring silently and without a fight.

After the burial, which Istvan attended with Elzbieta's relatives from Bistrice, there was not much reason for him to remarry. An eccentric man of independent means, Istvan roamed about the little garden, read on the porch, or smoked a Cuban cigar at the gate to his property, leaning with one hand over the side, nodding wistfully to passers-by.

"Good evening, there. How do you do?" he'd mutter, not removing the thick cigar from his lips, which further slurred his speech. Each morning he'd walk through the square and past the church to the shop to stock up on supplies in little increments—half a loaf of bread, some pate, a milk bottle—purposely avoiding a proper provision that would have obviated the excuse to venture outside again for some time hence. On his morning walks he'd gaze about with his brown eyes, like a dog searching for a tap on the head, but as society hates those who cannot dance to its tunes, Istvan remained alone during even those short promenades.

One must be fair and admit that he did try, albeit rarely, to ingratiate himself with the town, as most hermits sometimes reach that point of saturation when even their walls seem hostile and sharp, and they must run outside to look for at least a nod if not a hug from fellow man. In 1929 there had been a fire, and the church together with some of the older houses on the east side of the Square had been badly damaged. The fund for reparations was quickly raised, as people here were always self sufficient and had the capability to organize without much help from the authorities—a trait well formed among all long-subjugated peoples, such as us Czechs. However, after careful counting and recounting, the amount raised had fallen considerably short of what was required. Two days passed, and only a few more men had come forth with donations, but on the third day, a large sum was paid to the city in the name of Istvan Szabo, and the reconstruction went ahead. The mayor and the councilors walked passed the Szabo yard and there spoke to the man, as he stood leaning over the gate with his cigar, spending a few minutes in grateful chit-chat, but his dead gaze must have been too much even for the most gregarious to bare, and the chatter soon subsided into an awkward silence. As the men left under a series of perfunctory excuses, Istvan stood again not unlike a forsaken dog, and had there been a tale attached to his body, it would have been at that moment sadly limp.

The Sudetenland crisis caught the town as it did the rest of the country, in a fervent mood, as wars usually begin. Regardless of the well-known truth that all wars are bitter and terrible, young men and women celebrated loudly into the night, singing the anthem and wishing a fast victory to our boys on the border. All had put out the beautiful Czech tri-colours. It was noted, however, that only Istvan's house stood bare, as it usually did, and that he had refused to put up even the smallest of standards to express his solidarity with the republic. While the elderly assured the youth of Istvan's eccentricity and requested he be left alone, their words of wisdom and conciliation fell on deaf ears. It was hard to preach tolerance in a time of war, and Istvan's house was promptly pelted with rocks and eggs, glass and plaster flying about the disorganized garden. We all watched as he stood, a shadow behind the white curtains, a monster from Mary Shelly's darkest imagination. He remained motionless as hordes of insults rained down upon him: traitor, Hungarian swine, Nazi. Many, many accusations flew at him, but he remained without a single word in his defense. Perhaps, as a dog would, he could not fathom the cause of this violence but could only wait for its end.

In the early days of the crisis, young men continued to throw projectiles at his house each night, but these excesses ceased suddenly as the country fell to the invader without putting up an expected fight. The Slovaks in the east had seceded, the Hungarians in the south took a large share, and the rest was swallowed up into Germany, unnaturally and a-historically, as we Czechs were better suited to Austrian masters. Nevertheless, the town saw its first German troops later in the month, on an unusually sunny day when most people were out in the square going about their business. Their arrival was much as their invasion, expected and loud, motorcycles first, then infantry trucks, a few officers. They took the Post Office and pulled down the flag. Shortly after all flags had been put down, it was remarked that only Istvan had no such work for himself, the traitor that he was. Some of the younger men who were the leaders of the recent attacks against the Hungarian Fifth Column of the town now feared its counter-attack, and as Istvan was the only member of that despised element, people's imagination ran wildly, for only a monster could live in that gloomy place, and only such a place could create sensibilities that were monstrous enough for a horrid revenge. Days passed in anticipation of Istvan's walk to the German Command, where he would devise with his new allies a most macabre method of torture for his enemies. But days passed, and Istvan remained at his gate, smoking the last of the cigars, silently looking over the square where young Czechs girls now sat beside German officers, clad in colourful, checkered dresses.

The visit of Reinhard Heidrich, the Governor of Bohemia and Moravia, as our lands had been aptly renamed, was prepared for days by the Germans, who bedecked the square and the adjoining houses with their own, dire flags, with their hated hooked-cross and ominous geometry. The new standards flew from the Post Office, as if carved into it with a jack-knife, from the church even, and the little hotel. The houses around the square had to comply, and aptly all men hung the flags out of their upper windows, creating a circle of fascist adoration for the brief visit of the Governor. It was only Istvan's house that remained different. The man had refused the Nazi flag on the grounds that red was, to him, the most irascible of all colours. How could he, he explained, put up a flag as red as that one, when he could not allow his fence to be painted with such a bitter color? He explained that he was nothing more than a simple man of a few needs, and that he understood the affairs of states were above his station. Yet he impressed upon the German command the importance of good breeding, of leaving people to their own devices, especially if such were of aesthetic nature. He went on about his insistence on drab and calming colours in his surroundings, on account of his humours, which were gentle and irascible. He squinted with his brown eyes tamely and hoped his arguments would be well-received, but as always in situations of life and death, men's sensibilities are the last consideration, and his comments were understood as seditious. The night prior to the visit of the Governor, soldiers came through the Szabo gate, where buts of cigars lay in a small pile, and took Istvan out to the protestations of his cook, who swore in German that he was a good and loyal man, but she could not help her master. In front of the door, he was savagely beaten but did not yelp. He lay there, grunting into himself, as each blow fell on his head and back. They dragged him up on the stairwell and beat him there, his back pressed against the sharp edges. Then they threw him into the mud and pressed his face against the gravel, then picked him up and beat blood out from his lungs. When they weree finished, he lay on the ground, coughing, covered, from head to toe, with blood. A fat little soldier climbed up through the house and put out the flag through the kitchen window, waving down to his friends. Finding it to have been a tiring ordeal, they went over to the hotel for a drink and sat there late into the night.

Istvan was helped in by the cook and the maid. The two women, panting, took him up the stairs. There the master was washed and given some brandy, but by then he was too weak to speak or eat. They called for Dr. Janacek, who came the next day, careful to remain unnoticed, and saw that the extent of the wounds was too serious for the old man. Istvan Szabo died that night in front of the plump doctor who, propping up his spectacles with his index finger, sighed in displeasure. It was the doctor who had told Anton Rajner, the math teacher, that Istvan's last request was to remove the swastika from his window. This request was quickly transmitted through the city as a sign of defiance, and the younger men who pelted Szabo's house just a year ago now spoke of him as the martyr of the town, the first victim in what was to be a bloodied resistance. Thus Istvan's name grew and his persona changed through telling, as if he himself was a figment of the popular imagination, malleable and fancied. When Heidrich, on the account of whose visit the entire beating had occurred, was shot dead in Prague a year later, people in the town spoke of Istvan's murder finally having been avenged. Later, when the Germans were finally gone and another force had come with its own red flag, they had a hero's burial for Szabo, his grave clad in Czech and Soviet colours. It was underneath the fabric, colourful and bitterly red, that this town's last eccentric lay, utterly unaware of the irony in which his death, as much as his life, were steeped. Some of us, however, who in our later years regretted the disappearance of freedoms more fundamental than those of eccentricity and even misanthropy, could not help but wistfully remember, as we passed each time by the old house, Istvan's slouched figure, leaning against the gate, enjoying a Cuban cigar.

 

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