After the lesson I went to the department building to start work. Professor Fisher ushered me into his office, where a little desk and computer stood waiting for me in the corner.
“Rose,” he said.
“My grandson clearly thinks incredibly highly of you, and not for an instant does that surprise me, nor, I imagine, will it come as news to you to witness the effect you have on men. I therefore would like to ask you to exercise caution.”
“There’s nothing going on between us that you need to worry about, Professor. We’re just friends, and that’s how it’s going to stay. That and nothing more, I can guarantee it.”
“I am reassured to hear that, Rose, but I would like to ask you, as kindly as possible, to bring that to Gordy’s attention at your earliest convenience, using your cunning female charm and skill. So that he does not expend his energies chasing a dream in vain. I know from painful experience how sorely such fires can burn.”
“May I ask, Professor, what exactly you mean?”
“I suppose you may. I have seen you, several times, looking at the letter “R” on my medallion, Rose.”
“Yes, I couldn’t help wondering…”
“… who it could be?” he completed my question for me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”
“It is not a problem. Far from it. You have an inquiring mind, Rose, coupled with intelligence, and that is precisely the kind of person we are in need of. So, to answer your question, “R”, who shall remain simply “R”, is the love of my life, my destiny, my idol. My eternal, unrequited love.”
“Why was that?”
“Firstly, because it was forbidden, because I am a shaman, and she, well,…” he assessed how much of the story to share with me. “…, she was not. And under ancient law, a shaman may only breed with a shaman. My family is fully aware of this fact, but that is a different story.”
“Did “R” know how you felt about her, Professor?”
“Absolutely. Though I never told her, but I’m sure I didn’t need to. I served her, and besides, she always knew everything. About everybody and everything.”
“Was she some kind of noblewoman, or very rich?”
“Oh my goodness. Where?”
“I can say no more than that, Rose.”
“Did she feel the same way, Professor?”
“In her way, she did, but not in the way I would have wished. Nobody could touch her, nobody could reach her heart, except the most villainous lord in the world. To put it briefly, Rose,” the professor made it clear I was to ask no more questions, “I do not want Gordy to spend his whole life suffering from the same yearning that I have.”
“What about Gordy’s grandmother?”
“She was a shaman. Her name was Emma. I married her because that was expected of me, and because I wanted to escape from the spell that “R” had cast on me. Emma was a good woman. She knew who my heart longed for, but she never once mentioned it. I was not a good husband, and she wasted away in sorrow beside me. So let us say that I know how much pain, sadness and misfortune can be caused by a hopeless love. That is why I am asking you, please, for my sake, not to let Gordy go down the same path I took.”
“I won’t let it happen, Professor, but in my humble opinion, love is sometimes uncontrollable.”
“I am afraid you are right, Rose. Let us hope for the best. And so… to work.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I would like to ask you to carry out some thorough, deep and wide-ranging research for your presentation. This is a comprehensive subject, the alpha and omega of everything. It is not by chance that it was assigned to you. I suggest you set to it as soon as possible. I have put some relevant literature on the desk for you, perhaps you can start with those. And as I have mentioned, you have access to the internet and to several online libraries right here, through the university’s computer system. You can come here to the department to work at any time, and if you have any questions, I am usually around as well. We can discuss your experiences as you progress. I would like to include the essay in the book I am preparing. What you will deliver to the students will be an abridged version.”
As soon as I had called Rafi, to tell her about our invitation to have dinner at Gordy’s, I got my nose straight down to reading, and then the afternoon flew by, almost without my noticing. I put all my effort into the work, because on the one hand I wanted to prove myself by producing something excellent, after all the trust the professor had placed in me by giving me the job. On the other hand, the deeper I immersed myself in the subject, the more I began to enjoy this surprisingly varied and interesting mythical world, which was coming to life from the books in front of me. I treated the whole thing as a fairytale, but there were some places where things didn’t seem quite so unimaginable as I would once have thought. Since my conversation with Rafi I’d started to formulate “What if…?” questions in my mind. I was almost overjoyed that mine was the last presentation, that I wouldn’t have to end my research in just a week’s time, that I could spend the whole term with this fascinating subject.
I didn’t even go home to change. I met Rafi close to the university. Gordy lived in a nicely renovated old bourgeois building, in a penthouse apartment with a sunny roof terrace and a panorama over the Danube. Gordy was waiting for us wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon in his hand, and it goes without saying that he was smiling broadly.
“Evening ladies!” he called from afar. “Lucky that you called me a handsome man, because now you can taste the latest masterpieces of Gordy Ramsay.”
“Thanks for inviting us, Gordy,” we said almost in unison, and such tantalising aromas made their way past him out of his apartment that my mouth started to water.
The terrace that surrounded the glass walls of the living room was enormous, and whether inside or out we were treated to an amazing view over Budapest, with the Danube slicing the city in two. On one side – the Buda side – we could see the royal palace and Matthias Church, while the Pest side was dominated by the parliament building; between them, spanning the water, stood the beautiful bridges uniting the two parts of city. At times like this I always thought how fantastic the world is. This sight was a wonderful combination of the natural and the built environments. What a magical landscape God had placed here, and what fantastic constructions humans were capable of achieving!
“I’ve laid the table on the terrace, there’s an outdoor heater, and I’ve prepared ponchos for the ladies,” Gordy enumerated.
“You’re so sweet! We’ll come again,” I told him as Rafi and I each chose an upholstered rattan armchair. The whole place was elegant but homely, and every tiny detail in the apartment spoke of harmony, good taste and refinement. The furnishings, the pictures on the wall, the cavernous designer kitchen, the royal dinner service (with plates of different sizes, expertly arranged cutlery, cut crystal glasses for wine and champagne), and the finishing touch of fresh flowers in the middle of the table.
“You wouldn’t get service like this in the most expensive restaurants in Buda,” said Rafi in approval.
“Once I have my law degree, as Grandpa insists, it is my plan to work in such a place. I can see into the future, and I will have at least three Michelin stars.”
“Why does your grandfather make you study law when everyone can see you want to be a star chef?” I asked.
“Because there’s going to be a reason for that too in my life. That’s what he can see. But, ladies, you haven’t told me yet,” Gordy changed the subject. “How do you like my apartment?”
“I love it. It’s modern, luxurious. The view’s gorgeous, especially with the river,” I said. “I think this is the kind of place every young person dreams of living in, me included.”
“I’m blown over,” Rafi agreed.
“Maybe I’ll get into the fortune-telling business too, if it leads to a life of luxury like this,” I teased Gordy.
“The fact of the matter is I bought this apartment out of my inheritance. As fate would have it, my parents shuffled off this mortal coil at rather a young age. My grandmother passed away from heartbreak soon afterwards; Grandpa, it seems, has loved another all his life, so he was unable to be her rock, to keep her spirits up. My grandfather looked after me alone from the time I was a baby. Then, when I turned 18, I received my inheritance, and I used it to buy this apartment, not so long ago.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything, I was just trying to make a joke. Stupid of me. Do you mind if I ask what happened to your parents?”
“Don’t worry, Rose, how were you to know? My father was a shaman too, and my mother was a beautiful fairy. She captured my father’s heart, just like that mysterious woman stole Grandpa’s. Anyway, my father fell passionately in love with my mother, though he ought not to have done. Shaman men are only supposed to get together with shaman women. Shamans are mediators, so they have to maintain their neutrality, the purity of their shaman blood, and their distinction from other living beings.”
“What happened to your parents?” I asked him.
“They ran away and hid for a while, but the powers soon caught up with them, because their marriage was condemned by both the Golden Father and the Devil. It is rare for them both to agree on anything, but it can happen. This time it was about upholding the purity of world order, of maintaining the status quo. And now, the fruit of this forbidden love stands here before you.”
“Are you still in danger, Gordy?” asked Rafi, concerned.
“No longer. Everything has calmed down again now. My parents have both earned forgiveness and been accepted into the Upper World, and Grandpa has intervened so that my existence is tolerated, but with a few conditions,” Gordy replied.
“Such as?” asked Rafi.
“Officially I’m not allowed to work as a shaman. I have to live like an ordinary person, because I’m not a hundred percent shaman. That’s the agreement. My maternal fairy blood also flows through my veins, and in their view that destroys the purity of my blood and my impartiality. And this is the reason why instead of mediating between the different levels of the world and performing grand deeds of world redemption, I have to content myself with gastronomy and with fortune-telling as a hobby.”
“Never mind, Gordy, believe me, you’ll have big, global tasks of your own,” Rafi tried to console him. “The main thing is, there’s no immediate danger. Nothing happens by chance, there’s a reason for everything. The world needs a shaman who’s got fairy blood inside him too. Your parents’ love and sacrifice wasn’t in vain. You’ll see, I’m sure of it!”
Gordy was visibly touched by Rafi’s words. He turned and headed for the kitchen, while I just sat there like a lemon, ignored from the conversation again. This time they made no attempt at an explanation or an excuse. I guess they thought I’d eventually make my own contributions when I was ready for it, and that until then they’d just talk over my head, like parents around their children, who say they don’t understand what the grown-ups are on about anyway.
Gordy soon re-emerged with three glasses of kir royal and the appetiser. Then, with a deft movement, he lit the portable barbecue that was standing on the terrace. It was as though he was making fire out of nothing again, just like before, at the wine festival.
“Ladies, a toast! To our health! For starters I would like to tantalise your tastebuds with king prawns marinated in champagne and lime,” said Gordy, rattling off the evening’s menu. “That will be followed by grilled salmon, served with fresh, home-made pesto and salad with pine kernels and almonds, and then, for dessert, I have prepared a mango mousse. So make sure you leave enough room in your stomachs!”
“That sounds great, Gordy. By the end of the evening I’ll believe you really are a magician. I can already see how well you get on with fire!” I chuckled, but nobody laughed with me.
The supper and the venue were both divine, and though the company was a little far out, the atmosphere was nice and friendly so I had a really good time. By the time we’d finished with all the courses, I felt relaxed and open enough to take Gordy up on his offer to tell me my fortune, just in case it took me a step closer into their world.
“Gordy, at the spa at the weekend you said you would tell me my fortune. I’ve changed my mind and now I’d like you to do it, if the offer’s still open…”
“Of course it is!” Gordy answered, pleased at the sudden chance to show off his knowledge.
“I’m not sure this is the right time,” said Rafi coolly but kindly, but we didn’t listen to her, and Gordy had already reappeared with a drum in his hand, made out of a piece of leather stretched across a wooden frame.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“I have to get in touch with the right spirits.”
“How do you do that?”
“With a symbolic spiritual journey, by holding my drum above glowing embers until the leather reaches the right tension. My drum symbolises the horse that I ride on my journey, to find out more about you.”
“Gordy, do you have to do this?” asked Rafi in a concerned voice. “It could be dangerous.”
“What’s the worst that could happen? That we find out Rose’s essential being?”
“Well, exactly!” said Rafi with a shudder.
“What’s so dangerous, Rafi?” I inquired.
“With the fire and the drumbeat, the shaman goes into a trance, and in this state, he not only has to keep control over himself, but also over the spirits he summoned up. But that takes so much effort out of him that there’s a danger of schizophrenia, even death. It’s not the same in a séance, where the spirit possesses the medium. Here Gordy has to possess the spirit, and sometimes more than one.”
“Then don’t do it, Gordy, please! Nothing’s more important than your own safety, certainly not some silly fortune-telling game.”
“This is not a game, Rose. It’s very important for me to do this.”
“Rafi?” I looked over to where she was sitting. “It’s up to you, I don’t know how risky it is.”
Rafi looked at Gordy’s imploring, puppy-dog eyes, and finally decided, “Do it!”
Then Gordon set to work. Feeding his horse with embers, he held his drum over the grill, and drummed away, eventually drumming himself into some kind of trance. All of a sudden he stepped behind me, placed his palms on my temples, and whispered:
“By the tree of life, in fields of green, in ages past a pact was sealed.
All drank from the Well of Oblivion, lest knowledge thereof be revealed.
The war thus ended, the charmer yet did cheat the villain at the last.
Long in the future, she divined, her child would resurrect the past.
Oblivious to oblivion, she will awake, and battle for her ancient nation.
A pearl with red and purple petals, she rescues hope and brings salvation.”
“Almighty, is that you?” he shouted, after he had finished and regained normal consciousness. He was blue and quivering, like a poplar leaf.
“It seems so,” said Rafi quietly. “That was impressive, Gordon. Which spirit did you invoke?”
“I tried to contact Ilona at the Tree of Life.”
“You’re really amazing, really talented. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out what you’re supposed to do with your life, you little magician. Now you need to get some rest, we’re leaving. Thanks for having us over!”
I was already used to being left out of their conversations sometimes, but now I wanted to find out more, especially as it all had something to do with me. But Rafi grabbed me by the arm and I could see the consternation in her expression, so I kept quiet and obediently accompanied her through the door, only managing to utter:
“Thanks, Gordy, for everything! See you in school.”
“My pleasure, little fairy of mine!” he replied, standing there as though rooted to the floor, still visibly exhausted.
We strolled home side by side, not talking, Rafi clearly caught up in her own thoughts.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, when I could bear this strange and awkward silence no longer.
“Not a problem,” she answered. “A task. And it seems that things are about to begin, to make it all happen.”
“It involves me, doesn’t it?”
“That’s a bit scary. If it was up to me, I’d rather stay out of these mystical battles, if that’s at all possible.”
“Well, I’m afraid it’s not going to be possible.”
“How do you know so much, Rafi?”
“Do you really want to know, Rose?”
“Are you some kind of special being too?” I asked quietly, shyly. “Wait!” I corrected myself. “I’d rather not know!”
“OK. I think that’s enough for today, anyway,” Rafi replied, cutting things short, which made me even more nervous than I already was.
When we got home, instead of fishing around for something to say that would make me feel better, like she usually did, Rafi freaked me out by refusing to discuss things at all. As soon as we shut the door, she said goodnight and told me to sleep on what had happened, then she promised we’d talk about everything when the time was right, before disappearing into her room.
I also went to lie down, but all I could do was toss and turn in bed. I was trying to remember the details of what Gordy had said and make sense of it all.
I took the string of beads that Grandpa had left me and placed them around my forehead, and as soon as I’d gathered up enough clothes for a couple of days, I sat behind the wheel of my car. Everyone at home apart from Dina assumed I was heading for the university. A hidden voice inside my head kept telling me, persistently and uncompromisingly, to head for Transylvania, Siculia, to the place where Grandpa was born, to find Arpad, his beloved cousin. No ifs, no buts, I had to go there immediately. My mind was a blur, I just drove and drove along endless, winding roads for more than half a day. When I arrived in Arpad’s home town I got out of the car. All I knew was that Arpad lived here. I’d last seen him when I was five, so I’d been told.
I parked somewhere in the centre of this little town, which seemed familiar even in its unfamiliarity; there was some kind of market going on, with stalls squeezed side by side selling local specialties: sweet pastries, grilled meats and drinks. I was just trying to work out where to buy a parking ticket when a man of enormous size appeared beside me – slow-witted, but with a pure and honest face.
He stepped towards me. “Greetings stranger, welcome to Fairyland! I’m Bruno.”
“Excuse me,” I said, and tried to sidle past him. This was my usual tactic when someone started up a conversation with me uninvited. This time, though, ignoring him didn’t help. He came after me, and kept on talking.
“You look some surprised, Miss. But Transylvania is Land of the Fairies. Were you not aware? Looks to me you don’t know nowt, but folks round our way say you’re canny and wise.”
“You’ve got a screw loose, haven’t you?” I snapped at him. “Leave me alone, please!”
“Don’t mean to pester nor prattle, Miss, but all round here they know your family, and they say I come look after you.”
“Well, you’d better not pester me,” I bristled. “Who told you to come?”
“Cortina the Black.”
“I’ve never heard such a name, you must be confusing me with someone else. Look I’m sorry, I’ve got things to do.”
“What things, Miss?”
“That’s none of your business! Leave me alone, will you?
“Can’t do that, Miss. Like I said, they told me stick right by you.”
Here I lost my temper.
“Listen you,” I flashed him a firm glare. “What I’ve come for is private, I don’t need some do-gooder volunteering to be my minder. Now for the last time, leave me alone!”
“You do need a minder, you gotta believe me. You came too early, and if they find out you’re here, they’ll be spitting blood and fire. If they get hold on you, they’ll whop you till your nack goes crack.”
“What on earth are you talking about? Is that some kind of fairy language?” I teased him slightly.
“It’s Siculian, what I speak. Come let’s drink a palinka, till we get you safe.”
“I don’t like palinka.”
“Cause you ha’n’t drunk no Transylvanian palinka yet. What’s made with the farmer’s heart and soul.”
“I’m sure you’re right, big man, but I’m driving later on, so I’ll have to turn you down, I’m afraid.”
“Then let’s grab some grub.”
“Bruno, you said your name was, I don’t ‘grab grub’ with strangers. And I really have got things to do, I’m looking for someone. And …,” An idea crossed my mind. “You know what? Maybe you can help me after all. Do you happen to know a man called Arpad Rapson? He’s about eighty years old, and the last thing I know is he lives somewhere round here.”
“Course I know him. We all know the Rapsons round here. I knew I weren’t ‘fusing you with no one else, Miss.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Course I know. His house is over there, but the mean folk in the town teased him bad ‘bout how he got bewitched by his old woman, Cortina the Black, so he’s moved on.”
Cortina the Black … It suddenly crossed my mind that she might be the black-haired girlfriend Grandpa had mentioned.
“Who is this Cortina?” I asked the giant.
“A charmeress,” came the answer, which left me none the wiser.
“Hmm, listen Bruno, to be perfectly honest, let’s try and talk a little simpler. If you don’t mind, I don’t always understand what you’re saying. Can we try again, who is Cortina? And how does she know Arpad?
“Rumour is they’re a couple. Some folk say Cortina’s a witch, but nobody could ever prove it for sure. But they couldn’t nor prove it that she’s not a witch, nor that they’re really in love, her and Arpad. If you ask me, they can’t be really, that Arpad’s such a drunkenly old stag. P’aps it’s not the town folk what keeps him on the gander?” he said, chuckling beneath his moustache, “but Cortina, so the old white wench can’t find him.”
“So did Cortina ask you to come and look after me? Why are you helping her? And why is she helping me?”
“Hmmmmm,” Bruno scratched his head. “You know, I never stopped and thought on that. I s’pose I’m helping you, Miss, ‘cause Cortina asked me to.”
“Fine, thanks Bruno,” I gave up. “Will you take me to Arpad, please? I think he knows a lot of things I came here to find out.”
“Him? He knows so much, if he drinks a few drops of palinka, he won’t stop talking till sundown. Let’s go! No mind if we don’t find him. I don’t know if we’re allowed, but they never said we can’t. Least we can skedaddle from the town for a while.”
We set off on foot across unmarked pathways. Looking back on it, it’s hard to see how I could have placed my trust in this enormous stranger, but somehow, for all his simplicity, he gave off good vibes, and besides, I really needed some help.
“What are they celebrating in town?” I asked him.
“They’re readyin’ for the Whitsun pilgrimage. It’s the biggest festival for the Siculians. Big crowds of pilgrims come here for Whitsun. In groups they climb up Jesus Hill to pray to the Virgin Mary and ask for her Holy Son to help them. Then they spend the night out in the open. They wait till first light, all pious and devoted. Some go round the villages, visiting relatives, eating and drinking all they can, then they’re heaving and retching their guts up. It’s all good fun. Watch where you’re stepping, Miss, there’s lots of holes and bumps.”
The scenery was magical. Even the air tasted like some holy mystery. We were surrounded by pristine, ancient nature, untouched and untarnished. We walked along the river valley, through grassy uplands with sheep grazing all around, with the Hargita mountains rising above us in the distance. It seemed to me that the land and the people living here enjoyed perfect harmony. Nothing fancy or frivolous, just real life, pure and simple.
When we finally arrived at the little house in the hills, the giant knocked on the door loudly enough to wake the dead, and without waiting for an answer he began to squeeze himself through the gap, which looked far too small for him. Still, he managed to get through somehow, and I followed him in.
It was a comfortably sized and charmingly attractive peasant house, with a spacious veranda, green shutters on the windows, and Whitsun roses mixed with lavender bushes all around, dazzling the eye with a cavalcade of reds and purples, and tantalising the nose with sweet aromas. Inside, about to light the fire, was an elderly man, who at first sight struck me as somewhat grumpy.
“Good blessings to you, Mister Arpad, Sir,” Bruno raised his hat.
“Blessings, titan! Who you brung?”
Arpad turned around, and his eyes fixed straight on the string of beads around my forehead. He didn’t look into my eyes at all.
“How come she came up here all alone?” he asked Bruno distractedly, not taking his eyes off my beads.
“Not alone. I brought her, Cortina the Black asked me. I’m sticking on her side till they come and help her.”
“So you made it here safely, Rose Rapson?” the old man awoke from his reverie, finally turning his eyes on me, while his face softened entirely into friendliness. “I hope she’s not going to send that wimpish fairy friend of hers to help her,” he turned back to Bruno, the hardness in his features restored. “What’s his name? Philemon? We’ll be needing more than him.”
“He’s not a wimp, Mister Arpad, Sir. Cortina says he’s small but strong, like a hot chilli pepper.”
“Oh, that’s enough Bruno, I won’t hear about Cortina, you hear?”
“Hello, Uncle Arpad,” I cut in. “It seems you know much more about me than I know about you. Where do you know Philemon from?”
“He’s from these parts, my dear. Just, he and his family moved away, a while ago now.”
“I see. I’d like to know more about that later, but perhaps I should start at the beginning. You know, I came here because Grandpa died, and before he passed away he was expecting you, really expecting you…” I broke off, as tears ran down my face. When I looked up at Arpad, I could see his eyes were wet as well.
“I couldn’t go, Rose. Look, I’m an old man too. But I spoke to him, and to Dina too, several times.”
“Well, before Grandpa died, and afterwards too, some strange things happened, and they all seem to link up here, in Transylvania, with you. To be more precise, with Lady Rapson. Grandpa told me the legend, and he asked me to come and find you. Apparently, I’ve got something to do with all this. So I came to try and find out what. Please, tell me what you know about all this. I want to know everything you can tell me.”
“Your grandfather sent you here, Rose, for me to tell you the whole tale, all the things he couldn’t tell you, because of where your grandmother came from, and because of the secret pact. So he did all he could to whet your appetite, and then sent you to me, to fill you in. My woman’s no angel, Rose, but now, truth is, I’m not afraid of the Devil either. The Devil can dance for all I care. They’re on my back all the time anyways, and I’m nearing the end, I can sense it. So if you listen to me, I’ll tell you everything, the whole story, from top to tail. But first things first, a drop of palinka!”
“Thanks, Uncle Arpad, not for me right now.”
“My stuff’s no rough moonshine, lass. Don’t go squeamish on me!”
“Thanks, a little later.”
“Then it’s just us two, Bruno my boy,” he said, and poured two shots of palinka. “So, Rose, where to start? It all began so long ago… Lady Rapson had her castle perched on a cliff peak overlooking the valley of two rivers, not so far from here. Close by were the castles of her sisters, the fairies Tartod and Firtos. Oh, Lady Rapson, Queen of the fairies… Such a dazzlingly, magnificently, indescribably beautiful lady, she drove even Duromon crazy.”
“Who’s Duromon, Uncle Arpad?”
“Duromon is the Devil himself, so he is. He makes no end of rumbling, roaring and cursing, so round here the fairies gave him that name. Now, don’t be surprised. Lady Rapson, our mother ancestor, was once the Devil’s mistress. Let me tell you how.
“The fairies of Lady Rapson, and Duromon’s fallen angels and demons were constantly at war with one another, and that’s how it had been ever since the world began. Now it wasn’t like a human war, they didn’t fight with weapons on a battlefield or anything like that, but they fought somewhere invisible to humans, fighting for their souls, their lives, their thoughts, to change the world for the better, or for the worse.
“Then one day, all of a sudden, Lady Rapson looks around and finds her empire of the fairies is getting smaller and smaller, while Duromon keeps pushing forward, never tiring, sending more and more demons all over the world, guided by his black angels. They went about corrupting people, and even fairies. Many perished. There were devastating world wars, whole races were persecuted, and people treated each other like animals, or even worse.
“The fairies who had once lived all over old Transylvania, and the other fairy regions too, dwindled down to just a handful, and they gathered together and retreated here, to Siculia. It seemed all was lost and the Devil would take everything, but then Lady Rapson had a canny idea, threw caution to the wind, and started fawning upon Duromon, with no shame at all. She was not just beautiful, this fairy queen, this ancestor of ours, she was also artful.
“To cut a long story short, Duromon eventually fell in love with her – never mind the fact he was once an angel, he can be gullible and simple in his thinking. This, with his slow wit, is his great weakness. His skin is well-armoured, except over his heart, where his armour’s weak. Oh yes, it’s hard to believe, but he has a heart, indeed he does. That’s his only weak spot.
“So while Lady Rapson was keeping Duromon busy, the fairies got to work, doing their darnedest to revive the ancient fire, the old religion. More and more were brought back close to the Almighty, to purity, and the way of the world started getting back to normal. The wars slowly ended, and so did all the persecution, and the eternal battle between good and evil went back to its original gentle pace. Duromon didn’t mind, for all he cared about now was Lady Rapson and her happiness, and he wasn’t interested in anything more.
“He satisfied Lady Rapson’s every wish. Among her wishes was a paved road leading from her castle all the way to the city. Lady Rapson told him it was so she could get to mass. Oh, such a true Christian soul, of that you can be sure! Even that didn’t bother Duromon, he was so enraptured by Lady Rapson’s female charms. She certainly knew how to convert pagan superstition into Christian faith, how to turn evil onto her own side. So she tempted him and twisted him round her little finger, and the Devil did as she bade him.
“According to the folk legend, the one you’ve heard too, Rose, Lady Rapson promised him money to build the road, two mountains of gold and a valley of silver. Then, when he went to fetch his payment, Duromon found her laughing with a gold coin on each breast, and a silver one between them, and that drove him into a fury. But the truth, my dear – and you’ll know soon enough why the legend leaves this truth out – is that Duromon was much more in love than that. He didn’t want Lady Rapson’s money, but Lady Rapson herself.
“After all, she had promised to be his wife, yet she kept putting off the wedding day, making one excuse after another, hoping that the Devil would one day forget he’d ever asked her to marry him. But Duromon was serious about marriage, and he was growing tired of all the delays and broken promises. Exactly one year after the road was completed – which was as long as Lady Rapson could keep him waiting, saying she needed so much time alone to prepare for the wedding day in the proper, pious fashion – so, one year later, Duromon goes to the castle, not to fetch his money, but to take Her Highness Lady Rapson to be his wedded wife. Then, when he arrives, he finds not a bride, but a young mother, with an infant in her arms.”
“Forgive me, Uncle Arpad, for interrupting you, but where in the story is Lord Rapson, her husband? I guess, if there is a Lady Rapson, there has to be a Lord Rapson too, whose wife is Lady Rapson, Queen of the fairies. But there’s no mention of the poor man in any of the tales or legends. He’s a bit like Columbo’s wife.”
“Rose, I’ve no idea where Columbus and America comes into all this, but I understand your question, and yes, you’re right, he was indeed a poor man. Lord Rapson was a Transylvanian leader, and he was once married to Lady Rapson. But it’s a thankless task to be the husband of a great, powerful woman, as you may imagine. It was no different in their case either. Lord Rapson one day disappeared without a trace, a long-long time before Lady Rapson began fooling around with the Devil. Nobody knows how he left, where he went or why. The best what people say is, he died in battle somewhere, but actually, you never can tell. It’s all shrouded in mystery.”
“Whose child was it, Uncle Arpad?”
“The child’s name was Irma, but whose it was, there’s no way of knowing. One thing is sure: Duromon was infuriated at the sight that greeted him.
“‘Turn the world inside out at all its four corners,’ he shouted, ‘so I can cover it in brimstone!’
“In a fit of rage he murdered all the men he found in Lady Rapson’s court, just to make sure that the one that had cuckolded him would not survive.
“‘Damnation on the world, and all its living and dead!’ he cried. His voice was loud enough to make the earth shake, crumbling cliffs and mountains, and destroying the road he had built for Lady Rapson. He foamed at the mouth, effing and blinding, stomping till the very ground beneath his feet trembled. He turned on his heel and, swearing vengeance, he vanished from sight.
“Lady Rapson realised how grave the situation had become, and she sent word to all the other fairy kings and queens, and all their representatives in every corner of the globe, telling them what had happened, imploring them to put together an army right away, and to rise up and come to her castle for a war council.
“But the majority of them were furious with Lady Rapson for treating the Devil with such disregard, and for bringing so much danger upon her people and upon all the world’s fairies. Apart from messages of contempt, they sent her nothing. Nobody came to help. The Celts were busy destroying their neighbouring principality or defending their homeland, the Balkan fairies didn’t come either, because they don’t care for clubbing it, especially not in war.”
“Sorry, what do you mean, Uncle Arpad?”
“What’s the question?”
“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting you’re new round here. Your grandpa could at least have taught you how to speak properly. Clubbing it means going and doing some work for your friends or neighbours when they’re in need. It’s like a club, see, so you do the work, all together, and then the host invites his guests afterwards, to drink some wine and have a good time. Rose, look, it’s getting dark. You’ll both have to spend the night here, it’s too dangerous to go back to the town now.”
The afternoon flew by and twilight steadily closed in. I stood with Lady Rapson in front of the castle.
“I can feel the castle vibrating, preparing to rise up once more. Are you nervous, my child?” she asked me.
“A little, but I guess that’s just natural. After all, I have an appointment with the Devil, and if the legends are anything to go by, he could even be my ancestral grandfather,” I gazed inquiringly at Lady Rapson, waiting to see if she would rise to my challenge.
But she was wise to my tricks. She didn’t even look back at me, but just stood there beside me, staring intently at the setting sun, her eyes fixed ahead, not giving anything away.
“Are you nervous, my lady?” I asked back, giving up on my question.
“A little, but I guess that’s just natural,” she echoed me. “After all, I have an appointment with the Devil, and if the legends are anything to go by, he could even have been my lover,” she smiled inscrutably.
As evening fell, the castle gradually rose up and began to shimmer, like a mirage. It looked exactly like the castle in the park, the one I’d jogged past so many times in Budapest. Somehow, the image of the castle must have been imprinted deep in my ancient fairy soul. That’s what had given me the feeling of déjà vu, and that’s why I’d often entertained the idea that the castle was mine. Well, in fact, it really was.
Gentle, laughing voices could be heard all around. Lady Rapson’s fairies had come home, and were hovering around the mesmerisingly transformed castle in excited, joyful anticipation. Everything was immeasurably bright and beautiful, glittering in gold and diamonds. Lady Rapson had ordered blood-red clothes for all the Transylvanian fairies, and all of us, myself included, were clad in blood-red dresses, with purple waistbands and purple hairbands or hats, just as their outfits had been on that dark, fateful night long ago.
A tense, expectant hum, mixed with the harmonious sounds of sundry stringed instruments, rang around the ballroom.
Everything was just as it had been described in the ballad in the book my grandfather had given me. Perhaps the writer himself had been here before me.
Lady Rapson was seated on her throne, dressed in her finest regalia, with a face that was radiant and proud, yet lined with sadness. She was beautiful, majestic. On either side of her stood a peacock, while her lynxes prowled to and fro around her and behind her. There were Whitsun roses decorating everything.
Lady Rapson welcomed the guests, reminded them of the reason they were assembled, and thanked them for their kind participation.
Then the steward came to tell Lady Rapson that her people were ready to present their annual report. Lady Rapson gestured with her hands and silence fell. Nobody spoke and the music also ceased. One after the other, the officials lined up: the court judge, the castle lieutenant, the mountain shepherd, the hunter and the Fisher. They all presented their reports for the past year, and Lady Rapson thanked them for their work and their loyalty.
Then Lady Rapson waved to me, and I went up to her. She was slightly nervous.
“Dear guests, my beloved people! As you all know, this evening promises to be exciting and special for us all. Beside me stands Rose Rapson, my flesh and blood, the One we have been waiting for!” she raised her voice as she introduced me. “I will now let her speak, to set the mission in motion.” Then she whispered to me, surreptitiously, without moving a muscle, “Say something encouraging, my dear! He’ll be here soon. I can sense the approach of danger.”
“Sure,” I whispered back, also without moving, although I was surprised by my own confidence, because I hadn’t at all expected to have to speak in front of everyone. Perhaps I really had found my inner spontaneity, and I no longer had to prepare for everything in the tiniest detail.
I stepped over to the piano, not far from Lady Rapson’s throne, and raised my voice:
“My dear fairies! I do not know if I am the One who should be standing here before you now, but I do know that I am a good person, and I want to help you all, because deep in my heart I can feel that you are my own people, my own family. There are great things ahead of us! I can sense it. All through my life I’ve stuck to the rules, rigidly, conscientiously, but tonight, for your sake, I am putting that habit to one side, and I say to you:
“Wake up, my fairies!”
The crowd let out a roar of approval, and some chanted back, “Wake up! Wake up!”
“He is here!” Lady Rapson stood and signalled for silence. “May the Lord Almighty be with us! Rose, take your seat at the piano. Play the Fox Dance, by Weiner!” she instructed me hastily.
I had just hit the first few notes when Duromon entered the ballroom, accompanied by his dark angels. A tangible wave of negative tension and foul vibrations now spread across the room. Never before in my life had I come across any living beings that gave off such a disturbing aura of noxious energy. But despite the sinister atmosphere they created, I was surprised to notice that they looked … well, quite normal. There was nothing repulsive about them, no hunchbacks, no fur-covered faces, no deformities or forked tails; their appearance was in stark contrast to all the common images that human civilisation has dreamt of to depict the devil and embodiments of evil. Neither Duromon nor any member of his entourage was the least bit ugly, and in fact they were all tall, muscular macho men, with a scary, mean look in their eyes, all dressed up to the nines in top hats and tails.
I turned my eyes back to the piano as soon as they entered.
“Lady Rapson!” said Duromon, gallantly greeting the woman who had broken his heart, as he took off his hat and bowed to her, maintaining eye contact all the time. “And, of course, I extend my most courteous greetings to the many ladies and gentlemen assembled here this evening!” his sonorous voice rang out into all corners of the ballroom.
“Unless my nose deceives me, we have the pleasure of two Rapsons among our female company. Their scent today has sweetened the entire land of Transylvania. This will be a true one-night adventure! At least I won’t get bored with you, my lady!” he laughed heartily, crudely, loudly and maliciously, underlining the fact that Lady Rapson had only one night each year to live.
That’s great, I thought, so he not only knows that I’m some kind of chosen One, but he also knows that I’m descended from Lady Rapson. Cortina and Lady Rapson were wrong to believe he wouldn’t find out. I felt a flutter of nervousness, and I realised I was fixed to the piano stool, like a pillar of salt, unable to turn around or stand up.
“I sensed the younger Rapson once already, about five weeks ago. I even sent a pretty little storm to welcome her,” he went on, “but it is apparent now that she did not take fright; nor did she take flight. It seems I was wrong in assuming she was dead, or had run away, because since that day, I have not caught a trace of that irresistible, unmistakable, irreplaceable Rapson scent. Until today, that is. Where could the little lady be hiding, I wonder?”
It seems that Cortina’s trick with the lavender had really worked then. This was the first day since the accident that I hadn’t smeared and sprayed my body with all the lavender ointments. I hadn’t had the chance.
“And what of this elaborate company?” he asked. “I see we have guests from abroad. This would lead one to suspect that Lady Rapson, Her Majesty, is up to something,” he smiled mockingly.
Seizing his opportunity, Finvarra now stepped forward and shook the hand of each and every one of the new arrivals. He introduced himself as a distant cousin of Lady Rapson’s, and as he did so, he looked deep into each man’s eyes, which I guessed was him searching for any memories that would be unpleasant for Lady Rapson, before extricating them and banishing them forever, as Lady Rapson had asked.
There was no apparent change, but as Duromon gave up asking where I was, Finvarra’s powers had obviously had their effect. If he had managed to delete the image from Duromon’s mind of him finding Lady Rapson with her baby in her arms, then everything that resulted as a consequence of this would have been wiped from his memory too, and that included me. As my mind went over everything, I remembered that the next thing would be for Duromon to begin courting Lady Rapson.
“Duromon, you have earned a name for yourself as a fine chess player. Would you accept my challenge, my friend?” Finvarra went on, following Lady Rapson’s plan.
“But of course, my brother!” replied Duromon, as though at a family get-together.
The two men sat down at the chessboard, each with their supporters standing behind them: the black angels watched over Duromon’s shoulder, while Patrick observed the match by his father’s side. Finvarra’s magic was working.
“May we have some wine, please, Lady Rapson!” Finvarra called out, and the hostess waved her hands at a servant. The two men lit cigars, and before long the golden goblet was brought forward – two of them in fact, for Duromon would have grown suspicious if he’d had to drink alone. The chief cup-bearer carried them on a tray. What I couldn’t work out was whether one goblet was a fake, or if both of them had the same power, and Finvarra was able to resist the challenge posed by his own wine goblet.
They drank and played, in tense silence, and to me it seemed that time had slowed to a crawl. Then all at once Duromon let out an exclamation of delight. Finvarra, I expect, had let him win, to hasten events forward a little more rapidly. At that moment, Lady Rapson stepped beside Duromon and reached out her hand to him.
“My lord!” she said sweetly. “Let us proceed to the table, to dine.”
They walked past the piano, where I still sat, frozen, trying my hardest to generate a sense of fearlessness within me, as Nicholas had taught me, for I was still tense with anxiety. Lady Rapson gave a discreet nod of her head as she passed, indicating that I should get up and join her. I stared down at my legs and urged them to stand and move, and somehow, summoning all my concentration, I managed to make my way to the table without collapsing nervously to the ground. Once there, Lady Rapson introduced me at last to the Devil himself.
“Duromon, this is a distant cousin of mine, Rose Rapson. If it please you, she will assist me this evening in keeping you entertained.” Lady Rapson gestured for me to sit on Duromon’s other side, and together we surrounded him at the table.
“Of course it pleases me!” said Duromon. “Your cousin’s beauty is so close to your own, Lady Rapson, that it almost rivals yours,” he went on, kissing my hand.
His voice was so strident that every word he spoke could be heard, crystal clear, at the other end of the ballroom, even when he was not speaking loudly. It wasn’t hard to imagine that if he began to shout, he really could topple whole mountains.
“Pray tell me, Lady Rapson, what is the occasion for bringing so many relatives together tonight? What are we celebrating?” asked Duromon, slightly nonplussed.
I was now certain that Finvarra’s memory purge had worked, and this at least gave me something to relax about.
The time had come for me to begin to try to soften Duromon up a little, and suddenly I remembered Nicholas and his tennis sessions. I had to find the right balance of power, direction and control. Right now I had to play thought-tennis against the Devil, using thought-balls. I imagined how the whole match was structured, what its framework would be, and then, as we talked, I would improvise on what to do next. As Nicholas had taught me, I served, bringing the thought ball into play, making the most of the advantage this gave me. And of course, I concentrated only on the ball in play, one thought-rally at a time. I resisted the temptation to plan ahead how our conversation would pan out, how I would defeat him in the end, and instead I simply began the first point with a safe and careful pre-emptive serve, not waiting for Lady Rapson to answer Duromon’s question.
“Duromon!” I began, “What do you think about diversity?”
“Oh, I think the world needs it! At the Creation, the Big Man forgot about free will. But I think you need black and white, and grey, and all the colours too, every shade of them,” he returned my serve easily.
“It’s just that nobody wanted to wear the colour black, did they?” I said, empathetically, vying for his sympathy, to keep the ball in play.
“That’s right. Until I chose to, the prodigal son! It hurt me to a certain extent when I had to hurt the Big Man like that, for he really treated me like his own son. But I had to do it, I couldn’t go on strangling in the rose-coloured illusion for ever and ever, till the end of time. We did not see eye to eye, I’m afraid. I believe that alongside good we also need evil, and we need free will, to make our own choices. If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s boredom,” he concluded, lobbing the ball high in the air.
“Then that’s one thing you and Lady Rapson have in common,” I smashed it back down again.
“Oh yes, you are absolutely right there. She’s perfect for me,” confessed Duromon, and I scored off the first point, before serving again.
“Duromon, how big a part do you actually play in the ruination of the world? To put it another way, do you work a lot?” This time my serve was firmer, more precisely targeted, and he was visibly pleased that I was taking an interest in him, and that he could talk a bit about himself.
“People have a tendency to blame all evil deeds on me, even if they were the actual culprits, committing evil acts from their own free will!” he said. “That’s not to say that I am completely idle, of course. I put my finger in here and there, tipping things over, meddling wherever I please, giving out warnings, meting out punishments, call it what you will. I make my presence felt, the presence of evil. Just so that the mortals never lose their faith in me! The truth is, though, I do not really need to work too much. People are adept at punishing each other, and themselves, and they got on with it perfectly well without me,” came his response, straight down the line.
“If you like diversity and free will, Duromon, then you must be happy to live so close to the fairies here,” I managed to get a hand to the thought-ball, slowing the rally down a little.
“The truth is, though I am not averse to the idea of absolute power, this way, at least, I have someone to wrangle with for human souls. I am sure my life would be utterly dull without them. After all, the freedom of power feels like neither freedom nor power if there is nothing trying to keep it in check. Counterbalance, you know,” he now sent the ball back, spinning all the way.
“And without Lady Rapson, of course…” I hit the ball powerfully into the corner, there was no way he could respond to that.
“Oh yes, Lady Rapson. She really is something glorious. Look at her! There are no words for how much I love her, and what a blessing it is to have her around.”
My point, I thought. First game to me. As we talked, Duromon kept gulping down Finvarra’s wine, and the goblet kept replenishing itself. Duromon hardly touched his food, he was so engrossed with the delicious nectar. The wine and our first two rallies were clearly having an effect, as Duromon grew increasingly amorous and flirtatious, smiling incessantly at Lady Rapson like a teenager discovering feelings of love for the first time. We had found his weak point: his heart. He usually kept it buried out of sight, for it didn’t fit in with the image he wanted to project, the role he had cast himself in. But the love was there, deep inside him, and the combination of Lady Rapson’s charm, Finvarra’s wine, and my spontaneous questioning had brought it to the surface, laid it bare for all to see.
“Duromon,” I said, launching into the next round of the match. “Can you imagine any situation in the world that you would back out of, anything you wouldn’t dare to do, or any rule you wouldn’t break, that might prevent you from being together with Lady Rapson?”
Meanwhile I tried to focus on my third eye, using my supposed gift of suggestion to transfer from my head to Duromon’s the irrepressible thought that he could never live without the fairies and Lady Rapson, and that he would never even want to live without them.
“Young girl, you ask this of Lucifer?” he laughed, so unrestrainedly that the walls of the castle trembled. “There is nothing that I wouldn’t dare! I rebelled against the Almighty, I alone, since the world began!” he was now ranting, all force and no control, and that gave me this point as well.
“But why do you ask?” he enquired, setting the next ball in motion himself.
“Because of the rule forbidding interbreeding,” I replied quickly, receiving his serve gracefully.
“What rule?” he hit back, with all his might once more; he was no longer master of his own game.
“Lady Rapson is Queen of the fairies, and you, you are the leader of the fallen angels. There is a pact, sealed by the Almighty, that forbids fallen angels and fairies from mixing their blood, and this forbids you from consummating your love for Lady Rapson – you are the leaders of two opposing groups, after all. If you both want to be together, then you will have to repeal this rule!” I sliced the ball back to him, hoping I could force an error.
“We’ll repeal it!” he exclaimed at once, slamming the ball into the net with such force that the noise resonated around the whole ballroom and lingered for seconds afterwards. “I’ve turned against him once before, I’m not afraid to do it again. What does it matter? Especially if the reward is Lady Rapson. Bring me that confounded rule, place it here in front of me, and give me something to destroy it with!”
Lady Rapson signalled to Firtos, who came hurrying over.
“Tell Tartod to make haste with the Pact and the quill!” Lady Rapson instructed her, and Firtos was gone in a flash.
“It is Whitsuntide, Duromon!” I began, launching my final thought-ball. “It is the festival for redeeming promises, and for renewing and reinforcing friendships and relationships. It is a time for a spiritual awakening, which allows us to accept and receive others, and with so many different voices around, it is now that we can communicate with those in the world who do not speak the same language or think the same way as we do. That means, in my view, that you have picked the perfect time to repeal the rule forbidding interbreeding, and to acknowledge your love for Lady Rapson. Today will be a celebration for bringing together and tying the knot between two different worlds.”
“That is such an image of bliss, Rose Rapson,” said Duromon, sequestrating my thought as his own. Then he turned to Lady Rapson and said, “My dearest one, tonight at last, can we announce our engagement?”
“We can only do so after the barrier to our love has been destroyed, Duromon,” Lady Rapson replied.
“Naturally,” answered the Devil.
Duromon’s heartfelt words did not go unnoticed a few seats away, where Professor Fisher was sitting, whose face now turned white as a sheet, bearing an expression of horror. Even if he’d wanted to, there was no way he could hide how unreservedly he loved that woman, I thought. Or had he perhaps had a vision of something? I let the thought go. I’d won the match, and this stage of the plan was complete. Now it was time to move on.
I gave Lady Rapson a wink, letting her know I’d succeeded in planting the right idea in Duromon’s mind.
Lady Rapson clapped her hands to call for the surprise performer, and into the ballroom, already singing sweetly, came Lorelei, gliding gracefully, like a beautiful swan. Duromon had no time to grasp what was going on, let alone protest, for her song captivated him from the very first note. His dark angels, meanwhile, were being kept busy by the attentions of the Transylvanian fairy girls. And Lorelei sang:
“Duromon could ne’er be wounded till bold Cupid took his aim,
Struck his heart, his only weak spot, lighting love’s eternal flame.
His desire is Lady Rapson, all he dreams of, night and day.
Now he cannot live without her, by her side he longs to stay.
Still a pact impedes his yearning, hindering the path to bliss,
Duromon and Lady Rapson never may so much as kiss.
Quickly, bring the pact unto me, with the golden quill delete!
When the pact is torn asunder, love and bliss will be complete.”
The orchestra now struck up to accompany Lorelei as she kept on singing. The Vilas rose from their seats and led Duromon away to dance. The Transylvanian fairies joined in, and the entire party of ravishing beauties pulsated round and round, twirling and gyrating to the wondrous music, and though I remained seated, I grew quite dizzy just from watching them.
This must be catharsis, I thought…