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The Lead Forest (excerpt)

Emese ran into the house, up the high stairs. She almost stumbled but caught herself and ran on, scant of breath. Her kite was foremost in her thoughts. The wind was blowing, now was the time to fly the kite.

Upstairs she rushed into her room, then suddenly stopped short.

It had previously escaped her attention, she being far too occupied with panting and the colorful image of the kite. A silent sob fluttered from wall to wall within the house like a trapped blackbird.

She peered out of her room. At the other end of the landing, at the foot of the ladder leading up to the attic, her mother was crying, slumped in the corner.

Emese found it scary when adults cried: it was obvious that they comforted children whenever the need arose for it, but who was there to comfort them? She had the feeling that something or someone should now come and do something to make Mom stop crying. But no one came, and the sound made her feel worse and worse.

Emese took a faltering step towards her. Whenever sadness veiled her mother’s eyes she usually knew what to do. There was an undeclared agreement between the two of them: she would make jokes or cuddle up like a kitten so Mom would smile again, even if ever so briefly. Both feigned joy as well as relief, but for Emese that kind of pretense was just as real as reality itself. She was happy enough with it.

But she had never witnessed these tears before and they frightened her. She didn’t know what to do. Mom looked up at her—sitting this way she looked much shorter than her daughter—but she didn’t smile, she simply gazed at her with large, tear-sodden eyes. Emese wished she could run away.

Still she held out her hand and carefully stroked her mother’s knee.

“Mom?”

“Hi,” Mom whispered, and wiped away her tears. She smiled, but Emese wished she hadn’t done that. That smile hurt her more than the sound of Mom’s weeping.

They remained silent for a while. Then Emese asked:

“What’s wrong? Have you fallen?”

Falling and crying looked like a logical enough explanation. If Mom said yes, then she could relax, even if she knew that probably something else had happened. Mom never stumbled; she never knocked an elbow or bumped her head, she always glided through the air as if dancing. Yet if she just nodded they could go on pretending, and then…

“No. I wanted to get up to the attic.”

Emese started and glanced up at the hatch cut into the ceiling.

“I know it looks frightening,” Mom said, and her warm hand rested lightly upon the girl’s shoulder. “But it was important. I had to try it, even though I knew… I saw…”

It’s dark up there, Emese wanted to say, but she couldn’t utter a sound. Images of cobwebs and musty air came to her mind—dark as death, Laci had whispered into her ear at school. Laci, who had seen horror films already and was terribly proud of it.

Her mother’s face was weepy just a moment ago, but now it changed: she seemed to have run out of tears. Emese instinctively snuggled up to her.

“I can’t get up there,” whispered Mom. “I tried, but I just can’t.”

“Don’t go then.”

Warm arms embraced her, but it was not the soft nest she expected they would drag her down into. Their heads knocked together. Their hair—the same fairness, the same golden tint—entangled; and their eyes were so close together that they could see the tiny stripes of each other’s irises. In Mom’s white eyeballs red veins ran in different directions.

“Sweetheart,” she said, leaving behind both comforting and sad tones. It was a different voice now, which made Emese uneasy. “I need what is up there in the loft. I cannot turn my back on it. I need it badly.”

Emese understood need and badly. It was the same with her. She either wanted something badly or not at all.

“Then go and get it.”

Mom smiled.

“See, I can’t. I’m not allowed.”

“Who’s stopping you?”

She didn’t get an answer.

“Who is it?”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Mom said, but her words rang hollow. Her huge eyes glimmered even beneath the veil of their entangled hair. “But… you could do it. You could go up there.”

“No.”

“I would be down here, to watch you… You’re just supposed to get me something.”

“No!”

Huge bright eyes.

“You’re right. I can’t ask you such a thing.”

The moment she uttered the words, Emese’s heart sank. You’re to blame, she told herself. Now she’s sad because of you.

She unfurled from the embrace but didn’t run away. She felt like hiding, yet simply couldn’t move. She gazed at the fitted carpet instead.

“There is a chest up there. With a lock on it.”

Mom’s hand appeared hovering over the carpet. A flat key lay in her palm, similar to the one that opened the shed.

“There is something inside…” She hesitated. “I can’t tell you what, but you will see it anyway.”

Emese squinted up at Mom’s face. She didn’t seem to be trying to deceive her.

“It is not so dark there now, and I don’t think the chest is hidden, either. I can’t touch it anyway. You could perhaps… Although… Well, it will be dusty, no doubt about that.”

Emese kept silent.

“Would you do it? Would you go up there?”

Her heart throbbed ferociously. Stale darkness prevailed up there. She had never been in the loft, therefore she didn’t trust it. Anything could be waiting for her up there, lurking in the darkness.

“You must be afraid.” Mom hugged her for a moment. “Forgive me, it’s not too nice of me to ask you such a thing.”

“Why do you need it?”

“Because I’m incomplete without it. Do you understand?”

She shook her head, but then nodded. The grayish sheen in Mom’s eyes and on her face: those were the sign of her lack.

“Is it so important?”

It was a crucial question and both of them knew it. She could see in Mom’s eyes that she was pondering the answer, and for a moment it seemed she would say no.

“Yes.”

She looked up at the hatch.

“Will you sing for me?”

Mom didn’t say thank you, only nodded. She pushed the key into Emese’s hand and reaching up she flipped open the two locks of the hatch, opened up the square door, then propped the rickety ladder against it.

At the foot of the ladder Emese peered up. Sheer darkness gazed back at her. She was about to turn around to take back her words, but then Mom started singing. First silently, trembling, then louder. She was crooning Emese’s favorite tune, the one that nobody else knew, neither in kindergarten, nor later at school.

Fading with the dawn, my body of mists flickers…

Emese started upwards, ascended with the melody. Her mother’s hands rested on her waist, pushing her up on the ladder. Warmth radiated through her palms all over Emese’s back.

Everything will be all right. Mom is singing.

Fish-scales drizzling from the clouds above…

The warm palms slid off her waist, and Emese drew in the air sharply. She staggered for a moment on the ladder, but the song didn’t cease so she put her palms on the floor of the attic and pulled herself up. She expected the darkness of death up there, but it wasn’t much darker than her own room at dawn with the curtains drawn. The window in the attic was dirty grey yet big enough to let the sunshine in. Silver rays licked the dusty floor and the boxes.

In one corner two racks stood with old clothes hanging like cocoons, several of them draped on the same single hanger. Boxes cluttered along the walls. Under the window, next to the rolled-up carpets, wicker chairs rested. No nooks anywhere to hide monsters, everything was arranged nicely as if it were a room to live in and not a storage closet. Only the thick film of dust and the cobwebs sticking to the beams indicated that nobody lived here.

You lift your eyes and see no thing…

The dark trodden path in the dust showed the way Dad normally took. The traces of his huge slippers took different directions here and there, but the main track was leading towards the wall on the left hand side, to one of the chests.

She looked around and made sure nothing lurked there, waiting in the darkness to dart at her. There was nothing behind her back, just a large cupboard with a cracked glass door. Emese turned back and with silent, careful steps approached the chest.

Walking gently in the field, it’s me you see above…

The floorboard creaked, and her heart—song or no song—leapt to her throat, fluttering there as if wanting to escape. She ran to the chest to stifle the sound of creaking with stomping, then spun round—nobody there. Finally she crouched to unlock the chest.

There was nothing unusual about the lock, it was similar to the one on the shed. She knew how to open that one: poke with the key from underneath, then give a turn, and the lock would automatically spring open. No need for additional force.

She looked around again. The darkness dwelling among the beams gazed at her with huge, hungry eyes, and even Mom’s song dimmed up here.

Silver spray I take to you to seal your eyes so true.

She started the song over again while Emese hastily, hence clumsily, plucked the hook of the lock from its ring. There was a scuttling noise not far away from her, and suddenly the song hushed to give way to a dull thump-thump: her own heartbeat. She quickly flung the top of the chest open. Some white cloth lay at the bottom there. She grabbed and clutched it tightly to her chest, then turned around. The top of the chest came down with a horrid bang, like the clack of gigantic jaws.

It didn’t matter anymore that she saw nothing up there and the place wasn’t utterly dark: she ran to the hatch and tucked her foot in, swinging in the air to reach for the rung. Two hands seized her waist and lifted her down. The song has stopped but she was safe now, drawing in air in huge gasps. She didn’t even realize that she had hardly taken a breath until then.

“Good girl, smart girl,” Mom murmured. She had been speaking for some time, but Emese heard her only now. “My wonderful little girl!”

She took the cloth out of her hands. It had a soft, feathery touch, but before she could catch a second glimpse Mom stood up and held onto it with both hands.

Her face was beaming and radiated some terrible, triumphant light which made Emese feel as if she were still up there in the attic, alone and exposed to the gaze of the invisible lurker. Then the moment passed, and she could feel again Mom’s usual gloomy look fixed on her face: this was even more unbearable than her radiance just a moment ago.

“Thank you,” Mom said, and looked as if wanting to add something else but not managing. She bent down and kissed Emese’s forehead. A hot drop fell on her daughter’s skin. “I’ll be back. Trust me, I will. Soon, and take you with me. I promise. But now… I have to go home.”

She spun around and rushed down the stairs.

Emese stood at the ladder and wiped off the tear from her forehead. She didn’t understand a word. The only thing she could feel was the overwhelming sense of hunger and incompleteness; as if her mother took away something that was hers.

She followed her down the steps but her mother was no longer downstairs. The front door was wide open, but she wasn’t to be seen in the garden either. The gate was locked, there was no use shaking it.

It was summertime, the smell of hay steaming in the air, tall raspberries bending over the grass along the fence, plum leaves rustling in the wind. There was a white bird hovering in circles up in the sky, its shape like the shadow of Emese’s infant dreams.

She said she would be coming back, thought Emese as she stood in the garden, and for years after that she kept hearing her mother’s words saying she’d be coming back.

She said she would return.

But she never did.

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