The whale-size Air China aircraft, sliced in half by a chicory-blue stripe, broke through the fog above Lhasa airport in the afternoon.
Ennio Marino, who was looking forward to landing, snapped the lid of his spectacle case open and placed his reading glasses inside. The golden stripe adorning the case was broken at only one place, exactly where a symbol showing a truncated pyramid was printed onto it. He mused over the sign and broke into a smile.
‘Sir, would you mind fastening your seat belt?’ a stewardess in crimson uniform asked him. She was obviously fascinated by the case. ‘We landing soon, you know. Captain already announced. You have very beautiful case, sir. I hope you’ve found the flight pleasant.’
Ennio nodded, noticing the woman’s beautiful almond eyes, and asked, ‘Would you like to have one?’
The red cap the stewardess was wearing on her crown of hair shook as she started at the unexpected offer.
‘Ah sir, I only, I only want say it really special,’ she faltered as her eyes kept returning to a specific point on the case.
‘Do you know what it means?’ Ennio asked as he fastened his seat belt and straightened his shoulders.
The stewardess turned scarlet.
‘What you thinking of, sir?’ she asked and spread out her pretty little fingers.
‘The truncated pyramid.’
He tapped the sign with his finger.
‘If you think that, I do,’ she replied. Her face grew serious.
‘So then, would you like a case like this? I have another one, I could give this to you.’
The stewardess adjusted her knot of black hair, fidgeted with her hairpins and said coolly, ‘We cannot accept presents of passengers, sir. Though very kind. I must to proceed now if you not mind.’
Ennio instantly opened his suitcase and took out another spectacle case with the same golden stripe. He usually kept his sunglasses in it, but it was now empty. I must have left them in the car, he thought. He put in his business card and folded a thousand dollars into it. As he was leaving the plane, he handed the case to the stewardess, who automatically reached out to take it. Ennio glanced at her name badge, then at her, and broke into a wide smile.
‘Well, dear Jiang Li. Please keep this case and don’t forget that your brilliant smile made this flight even more wonderful.’
‘Oh, thank you. I not know what say. I cannot accept this. I not mean this,’ she stammered in her Chinglish while the skin on her face turned flaming crimson, She was about to hand the case back, but the archbishop walked on.
‘All the best, Jiang Li.’ He turned back, grinning, then jogged along the bridge and disappeared inside the terminal.
At the same time, Ma-gios and his father, Kunga, were on their way to Lhasa. After his wife’s death, Kunga had become hopelessly reserved. He only spoke to his neighbours when absolutely necessary. His heart was broken. He found pleasure only in his son. Trying to be his mother as well as his father, he pampered him terribly. But one thing troubled him: Ma-gios had changed since he had found him unconscious beside the dead leopard on the rock, lying with a mouth blackened with dry blood. The villagers whispered weird things about him, things like, ‘He was possessed by the devil.’
Kunga had laughed at this drivel first, until, one morning, he was woken by gruesome shrieks. He only had his underpants on, so he grabbed his fur coat to cover himself and ran into the yard. He still had a vivid memory of that dawn. The chicken scraping the ground slipped away before him like mist. In the waking sun’s rays, he saw the silhouette of one of his neighbours kneeling on the ground, sobbing over the lifeless body of her son, while her husband ran round and round with a hatchet in his hand. He was not crying: he was roaring. Whether from pain or anger, Kunga did not dare to guess.
‘If he comes out, I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him! I’ll tear him up!’
‘No!’ the woman shrieked. ‘Isn’t it enough that Rabten has died? You’re not going to kill anybody!’
Caressing her son’s lifeless face, she went on sobbing. She lifted her son’s cold hands, which were stretched towards the earth, petrified in spasm.
‘My dear son! Dear son! Rabten! Have you died? That goddam idiot’s killed you.’ Her sob became a hiss.
‘Yes, goddam idiot!’ her husband echoed, ‘He must be killed, otherwise he’s going to kill us all! He’s going to kill everybody.’
‘What are you talking about? What’s happened?’ Kunga cut in, as his presence had not been noticed thus far. His sudden appearance further inflamed the couple’s blazing rage.
‘His father’s here! His father’s here!’ somebody shouted from the half-light.
‘My son’s dead. Look, Kunga!’ sobbed the woman.
‘Ma-gios has killed Rabten! He’s killed my son!’ bellowed the man, his voice overpowering that of his wife.
Kunga thought he was still dreaming. He stared at the couple in confusion, then quietly asked,
‘Ma-gios? Ma-gios?’ Rabten’s father was choking. ‘Ma-gios is in the house, but I’m warning you not to bring him outside, otherwise I’ll kill him.’
‘Tashi, don’t!’ his wife begged him, whining. ‘Vengeance only makes everything worse.’
‘Then I’m going inside to fetch him,’ Kunga turned towards the woman. ‘Please don’t hurt him.’
Snivelling, she nodded, but her lips were quivering and a desperate fire was ablaze in her eyes. Kunga entered the yellow-striped red door. His fingers froze on the latch as he realized in astonishment that he was afraid. He detested this feeling. It visited him very rarely, but now he was overcome by all his ancient phobias. Approaching the room where he suspected his son to be, he recalled his grandmother’s tales about demons who materialized and snatched human souls so quickly that their victims had no time to even open their mouths. The floor squeaked underneath him, but he walked on, undeterred. He saw streaks of blood, which must have been made by Rabten dragging himself out of the room. Kunga’s heart was thumping in his throat.
‘Whatever’s happened, he’s my son. I love you, my dear son. What’s happening?’ he whispered, tears trickling down his face. ‘Am I losing everybody?’
He grabbed the doorknob and listened. The silence was nerve-wracking. Outside another woman was wailing. With a sweating palm he grabbed the solid copper candleholder from the shelf in the hall. For a second, he was ashamed of himself. Am I meeting my son with this? Yet he took hold of it firmly and lifted it, ready for a blow. He drew a deep breath. As his hunter’s instincts kicked in, he stamped his foot, slammed the door open and stood aside. Nobody and nothing ran out. Keeping the candleholder in front of him threateningly, he examined the room. The chairs and the table were overturned. Black patches of congealed blood marked the yak skin spread out on the floor. There were also patches of blood on the bed. The floor lamp was broken in two and lay among goji berries from a broken platter. Drops of blood on the lampshade. The window broken. He backed to the wall to avoid being surprised by the terror from the corridor. He could not imagine how a little boy was able to kill a teenager and break the wooden window frame. But if not him, who had done this? Drops of sweat formed on his forehead. He leaned against a wall rug but, even so, he felt defenceless. By now he had seen all but what was concealed by the overturned table. If it’s a panther, it’ll jump to my neck. He brought his left arm up in front, lifted the candlestick high, then, as softly as he could, called out,
‘Ma-gios? Where are you, my dear son?’
There was no answer. It may have killed Ma-gios too. And it wants me now. But I won’t give in. A faint noise from below the little table covered with embroidery made him go white as a sheet. So it is still here. Still here. If it jumps at me, I’ll hit it, he encouraged himself.
‘If you jump at me, I’ll hit you!’ he shouted into the void.
‘Daddy, don’t hurt me!’ whimpered a thin voice from below the table. ‘Daddy, is it you?’
Kanga let the hand holding the candlestick drop.
Tears were gushing from Ma-gios’s eyes. He wailed and crept from under the small table.
‘Come here, my dear! Come!’
Kunga took the trembling body into his lap.
‘Why is there blood on your mouth again?’
‘Please don’t hurt me, Daddy!’ the boy shouted, already sobbing.
Kunga realized he was still holding the candlestick and tossed it on the floor in disgust.
‘Of course I won’t. I love you. What’s happened to you? And what happened to Rabten?’
He drew his son to him, examined his body but he could find no injuries on him.
‘Why is there blood around your mouth, dear?’ he asked again and the thought of Rabten lying outside made his stomach turn – his neck and face had been covered in bite-marks.
‘Daddy, I don’t remember anything.’
‘Yet something’s wrong?’ insisted Kunga and took his son’s face between his palms.
Ma-gios freed himself from his hands and enfolded him tightly.
‘I don’t remember how I got here.’
‘It’s all right, son, there won’t be any problem. I, I’ll defend you whatever happens.’
‘I only remember going to bed at home, with Granny,’ said the boy wiping his tears.
‘And then I woke up here.’
‘Think about it, Ma-gios. Wasn’t there anything in between?’
‘No,’ he answered with a hangdog look.
‘Well, we won’t get far with this, son. Rabten’s parents are waiting outside, raging. They demand an explanation. They must’ve gathered half the village by now.’
He pressed his chin to Ma-gios’s little head and his brow darkened.
‘Whatever happens, I’ll defend you, son. But uncle Tashi has totally lost his mind. Of course, I understand.’
‘Daddy, do they want to kill me too?’
‘No, son. But if someone tries to, he’ll have to kill me first.’
Ma-gios buried his bloody nose into his father’s neck.
‘Daddy, I’m very scared. I love you.’
‘Then love me very much and hang on to me very tight. Don’t let me loose.’
Kunga lifted the light body and made for the exit. The murmur got louder and, as soon as he stepped outside with Ma-gios in his arms, a woman screamed,
‘That devil! Death upon him!’ bawled a man’s deep voice. To Ma-gios’s heart it was like the strike of a hammer.
The little boy covered his eyes and pouted. The villagers formed a silent half-circle in front of the gate but, when Kunga stepped towards them, with Ma-gios in his arms, some took flight. Tashi was standing petrified at his wife’s side, and she was firmly clinging to her husband for fear he might make a violent move. He still had the hatchet in his hand.
Some were whispering. A little girl began to chuckle and was instantly rebuked by her mother. Kunga, firmly looking into Tashi’s eyes, had drawn near to him when the man’s lips began to quiver. Then the quivering spread to the hand holding the hatchet. His wife started sobbing again and took hold of the head of the hatchet. The quivering stopped. Kunga had got a stone’s throw away when Tashi gave out a yell and lifted the hatchet high. His wife was no longer able to hold him back. His face turned crimson. Kunga’s breath froze but he did not turn around. The crowd began to rumble but Tashi did not run after them. He collapsed on the ground and struck his index finger with the hatchet. Blood splashed and the man howled, but with rage rather than pain.
Ma-gios, who had watched the scene to the end and saw the truncated finger, turned his head away in revulsion and whispered into Kunga’s ear,
‘Uncle Tashi’s gone mad.’
‘No, son. Uncle Tashi wants to remember his son forever.’
Events accelerated afterwards. Chinese inspectors flooded the place, asking them a lot of questions. They took Ma-gios and Kunga to Lhasa, for their own safety, they said. Ma-gios was subjected to hypnosis as well but, apart from hearing a strange animal sound while he was on the toilet that night, he could recall nothing.
Late one afternoon, a grey-suited detective visited them at their temporary lodgings in a boarding house and announced they could return home.
‘As well as human tooth marks, the pathologists also identified the mark of an animal bite and, as it turned out, it was this single bite that caused the boy’s death. He bled to death from the femoral vein; the other bites were only surface injuries. The blood samples also showed that the attacker was a carnivore. Your son just got involved in it somehow, though we don’t understand how.
‘So it was an animal after all?’ Kunga asked in bewilderment, but also in relief. He could have rejoiced and danced and kissed the officer from head to toe.
‘Thank you, inspector, thank you! I knew my son couldn’t have done anything like this.’
‘It must have been a big feline, perhaps a snow leopard from the neighbourhood. We have analysed the blood samples from the ground. We’ve collected fur samples from the window frame and we’ve found marks of paws in the yard.’
The inspector lit up a cigarette but, after one drag, doubled up in a fit of coughing.
‘Sorry, sir.’ He turned to Kunga imploringly. ‘Have you got a handkerchief?’
‘Certainly. Ma-gios, give the inspector a mint leaf.’
The boy quickly took out a rolled-up nylon bag from his leather satchel and took a heavily scented leaf of paper out of it. The leaf was moist and soft to the touch and spread a heavy fragrance of mint.
‘Well, this will do best for you,’ Kunga told the inspector. ‘Breathe in deeply from this deeply and your cough will pass.’
The inspector took the little leaf sceptically but, when he sniffed it, his eyes lit up.
‘Thank you, thank you … sniff … This is really good … sniff … it’s clearing up … God bless you both. I really needed this.’
Kunga took heart.
‘Put out your cigarette, sir. It’ll kill you.’
The man threw it away instantly, as if on doctor’s orders. Kunga nodded with satisfaction and went on inquiring. ‘Sir, why do you think that terrible racket didn’t wake Rabten’s parents? They could’ve got there in time to save Rabten.’
The inspector poured the contents of the ashtray into the dustbin, coughed a little more and opened the window.
‘They woke up at once. Man, the whole thing only took a couple of minutes. By the time they got there, your son was already sitting in the room with his mouth bleeding and Rabten was dying in the corridor. What were they supposed to think? It’s sheer luck they didn’t strike him dead on the spot. I’d have done so myself.’
He looked at Ma-gios, who was on the brink of crying again.
‘That’s right, young man. We don’t bite the neighbours. It’s a rather nasty habit.’
‘But, inspector,’ Kunga interrupted, ‘don’t you think it’s very strange that such a large predator would kill the bigger boy but let the smaller one live?’
A smile flitted across the officer’s face as if appreciating such sharp intelligence.
‘Some colleagues say the strangest thing of all is that a big cat doesn’t lose nearly a litre of blood from some superficial scratches. Somebody must have injured it too, otherwise it would have butchered your son as well. Well, what do you say to that?’
‘You’ve won,’ replied Kunga humbly. ‘We can’t understand secrets. I’m only a shepherd.’
The inspector plopped himself down on the table and remarked, offhand, ‘We should find that damn leopard. It would clear everything up. But the beast buzzed off, for all the blood it’d lost. Anyway, let’s not be greedy. You two can return home tomorrow. I’ll let you know about the result of the investigation too. I’ve got to be leaving, homicide is expecting me to talk about another matter.
‘Another murder?’ asked Kunga.
‘Ah yes, unfortunately. A woman killed her husband.’ Before Kunga had time to react, he went on: ‘A love triangle, it seems. The husband was cheating on her.’
‘Sad.’ The shepherd lowered his head.
The inspector threw on his grass-green jacket and left. Father and son were left alone. Sparrows hammered on the windowsill, glasses rattled as a tram passed nearby.
‘Well, then, we’re going home, son. You understand? We’re going home. Enough of this. We’re free. Away from these accusations, this noise. You hear me?’
Ma-gios did not reply but, staring ahead, cracked his finger joints.
‘He took revenge for the other leopard,’ he whispered.
‘What’re you saying, dear? What is it?’
‘This leopard took revenge for its mate, the one I’d killed.’
‘You don’t say! Nonsense! Leopards aren’t human. They’re only interested in my tender young sheep and keeping as far away as possible from my gun.’
He kept a moment’s silence.
‘And anyway, even if it had been so, why didn’t you kill him like you killed the other one?’ he asked the boy with a happy face.
‘I don’t know.’
Ma-gios retreated into himself and no entreaty could get one word more from him.
On the following day, before their return home, a scrupulously elegant man wearing a signet ring with a truncated pyramid on it visited them. He made a strange offer.
Despite the findings of the investigation, the villagers were still holding Ma-gios responsible for Rabten’s death. Tashi avoided greeting Kunga when he saw him in the village, refusing to even look at him, but Kunga always expressed his goodwill towards him.
On an icy December day troubled by roaring winds, Kunga came across Tashi shivering. He waved to him and, to his surprise, the man returned his greeting. He slowly walked up to Tashi, whose rage seemed to have abated.
‘My wife is expecting a baby,’ he said gently. He stepped up to Kunga and hugged him tightly. Both men were in tears.
The town of Ajka was ideally situated on the north-eastern slopes of the Bakony hills.
It was there that Edith had a clerical job. She felt herself really fortunate, since there were practically no employment opportunities in Úrkút. Today was the fifth day of school for her little daughter and she was in a particular hurry. She rolled her battle-weary jeep into the schoolyard anxiously, afraid that, sooner or later, her extraordinary offspring would draw attention. She jumped out of the car and rushed to the building, whose pale yellow plaster was covered with thin pads of moss. The ledges of the windows had been chewed away by centuries, and paint was flaking off the window-frames. She paced along the deserted, echoing corridors. Sometimes she met mothers coming the opposite way with their children. Some chattered like birds about their adventures that day, some were gabbling and jumping, but others just dragged their feet along beside their mothers. And what about my sweetie? How did she feel today? Doesn’t she … stick out? The thoughts flashed in her head as she turned into the classroom. She said hello with a smile. Most students returned her greeting.
While waiting for their parents, the children were diligently drawing the day’s letters. That their letters were spindly and scratchy was obvious from afar, but the persistence, which compelled the children to restlessly re-draw the immature forms, was a source of happiness to the spectator. Angela was also drawing away but, when Edith came closer, she saw in astonishment that the letters Angela had drawn, although familiar to her, were not Hungarian.
‘Alef, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet, Hey, Vav. Angela, what are you writing?’
‘These little letters, Mummy. Hungarian letters are so boring, I’ve seen more beautiful ones in your prayer book,’ she said in an innocent voice and waved her hands as if wanting to write her letters in the air as well.
‘But, Angela, I never use that book for prayer. I got it as a present from an old Jewish lady I used to talk to outside the synagogue. You were inside my tummy then. How have you learnt the Hebrew letters and how—?’
She clipped the end of her sentence because she noticed the other children were listening. The day-care teacher also looked up from planning the timetable. Heavy silence ensued in the classroom; only one little girl chuckled to herself. It came to Edith’s mind that there was a spelling page in the prayer book. She must have been looking at it for a long time, but how she has memorized their form and order so precisely, I can’t fathom.
‘What are you staring at?’ the teacher asked the children. ‘Practice what I’ve given you.’
Edith hastily packed up her child’s things and looked around, but the curiosity had soon subsided. She kissed her daughter on the forehead.
‘Come on, Angela dear, we have a lot to do at home. I see there are a couple of things I have to explain to you about Hungarian letters.’
‘Mummy, I could hardly wait for you to come. I miss the house, the garden, and I’ve missed you too. I want to go home.’
She pressed her velvety face to her mother’s wrist. Edith was overcome by emotion.
‘I’m very happy about that, dear, from the bottom of my heart. I could hardly wait to see you either.’
She glanced at the teacher surreptitiously and started towards the door.
‘Please say goodbye to the teacher and the children,’ she whispered to Angela, subtly pressing her hand.
Angela did so and hurried after her mother. Their hands were entwined. The little girl felt safe and her heart leapt for joy as she was again able to be with the person she loved so much. Her head was reeling with experiences, fears and questions. For as long as she had been able to speak, she had always needed someone able to comb her confused thoughts into neat order and to part mismatching threads, someone who could tie up the disorderly strands of her thoughts. This is a mothers’ real task. If she succeeds, the child will grow to become useful for lots of people, just like a grain of corn is useful for bread, Edith remembered the words of the old Jewish lady who had given her the prayer book. They left for the yard with swift steps and soon reached the jeep. Thrilled, Angela threw her satchel on the back seat, threw herself on the upholstery, which smelt of petrol, smiled happily and tried to fasten her seatbelt. This time she was successful.
’I’m ready, Mum, you can start. I can’t wait to be at home, playing.’
Edith closed the back door of the car and climbed up into the driver’s seat. The engine roared, pieces of limestone shot up from under the rolling tyres with a rude noise. She turned onto the asphalt road. As they got out of town, she accelerated. Autumnal trees ran past them in single file. The smell of the forest drifted in the air, the solitude prevailing among the trees and the feeling of tranquillity enchanted the little girl. Only the tyres could be heard murmuring on the asphalt.
‘Mummy, can I study those letters that I saw in your book? You know, in the one you got from the old lady on the bench,’ she asked unexpectedly, gazing searchingly into the rear-view mirror.
‘Oh, dear, you know very well that you have to learn the Hungarian letters first of all. But, if you feel like it, you can draw those ones in the evenings. Only children in Israel need to learn those letters.’
‘Israel? Where is that?’
‘It’s a faraway country, in the Near East, sweetie, where a lot of Jewish people live and speak in Hebrew.’
‘Then is it near or far away?’
Edith laughed. ‘Well, rather far away.’
Angela’s face lit up and she stroked her mother’s shoulder.
‘You’re the sweetest mum in the world!’
‘I know. But it’s easy for me since I have the sweetest little girl in the world!’
The sun’s rays scattered far and wide on the road like sparkling glass beads, but bluish-grey rain clouds waited over the summit of the far hills. Edith wondered about her daughter’s sudden changes of mood over and over again. Last night’s events, Angela’s eyes, the dream she had recounted and the broken clay jar were still fresh in her memory. She was astonished at her little daughter’s unconscious ability to vibrate together with trees, grass or even ants when she was playing in the garden.
‘Mummy, did you know that, if somebody didn’t hold us in his hand, we would break just like that clay jar at home?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Edith asked in a sharp tone.
The girl did not look at her, she was digging around in an eyesore of a hole in the upholstery. The woman lost her temper.
‘Angela, I swear I sometimes have no idea what you’re thinking of! Try to speak a bit more clearly. You must simply realize that I don’t really understand your little dream world.’
Hardly had she uttered the last word when she regretted what she had said.
‘All right, sweetie, I’m sorry. You know I like you just as you are. Go on dreaming, that’s your thing, you’re a child.’
Sunshine, which for a while had been shrouded by the sombre clouds of what it might mean to become an adult, spectacularly returned into the little girl’s eyes, whereupon she went on watching the lines marking the lanes playing tag with each other. Tiredness, with its thurible of frankincense, overpowered Edith like an invisible kobold. The Bee Gees were playing on the radio. Her eyes closed: first for a split second, then for a few seconds. As if the jeep had been waiting for this, it turned its wheels off the road with grating delight, crushing the ragweed lolling about at the roadside. ‘How deep is your love …’ came the refrain, lulling her to sleep. Her relaxed hand was no longer holding the steering wheel. The tyres kept on bumping against the shoulder of the road as if unable to decide whether to stay or let go. Angela jerked up her head.
‘Mummy!’ she howled as loudly as her thin vocal cords would allow. Though it was no howl really, more an ominous last scream. At that moment Edith, waking up with a start, clutched the steering wheel by instinct. But she had run out of time. The surging mass of steel ran into the crash barrier, grinding the bumper, throwing sparks. The woman threw herself upon the steering wheel with all her might, twisting it and turning it, but it held its own. The odoriferous stench of scorched paint and plastic wafted through the compartment, the tyres belched steel-blue smoke and skidded unhindered along the ground covered with pea-size pebbles. Edith was unable to match the centrifugal force pulling the car further into the barrier even though she managed to turn the wheel in the right direction at last. Angela kept screaming. The murderous equation of momentum determined the direction of the jeep, and their vector was pointing along the slope. They cut down a road sign. The seatbelts stretched with the sudden impulse; Angela was jackknifed into the headrest of the front seat. Trembling, she grasped the seat cover. Metal strained against metal, mass against mass, force against force, but the jeep came off victorious in the battle at last. The crash barrier bent, and tore at a weak point, like a sheet of paper. The steel monster made for the slope with its engine rattling. Desperate cries escaped the lips of both its passengers. Edith’s pupils dilated. She felt an icy scarf entwine her throat. She was aware that the other end of this scarf was being held by Death himself. The only question was, would he give it a final tug? She had only one thought milling around in her mind and she blasted it out.
‘I’ll die! We’ll die! Angela, hold on, hold on tight, dear! I love you!’
Dread flashed through her mind. She foresaw the jeep falling into the rocky ravine below them, dashing through the masses of ferns, smashing the shrubs into smithereens, then pirouetting like a spinning top. Reaching the bottom of the slope, they would crash into the ground, the petrol dribbling from the tank would start burning violently and the leaves of the green bushes beside them would wither with harsh whimpers. The upholstery would be dyed red with blood oozing from their heads. Smoke-smelling silence would fall over them. Death would whisper to them in his mysterious language, proclaiming the power of evanescence over everything alive.
The usual script for car accidents, however, was re-written in this case. By heavenly hands.
The jeep did not tumble down the slope. As if an invisible fishing net was keeping it in the air, all movement ceased, reality froze into a bizarre stillness. The light-blue beads of the rosary that usually dangled from the rear-view mirror were floating in the air. A majestic fog descended on them. The woman turned back to find Angela looking at her.
‘Mummy, have we died?’ she asked with a troubled face, but her mother was in a trance. She shook her shoulder.
‘Mummy! Mummy? So have we died, or what’s happened?’
The woman came to and shook her head.
‘I don’t know … I don’t understand. Even Newton couldn’t grasp this …’ she mumbled inarticulately.
‘What, Mummy? What is new?’
‘Newton, dear. He was a physicist who proved precisely that this, that this is impossible.’
‘What is, Mummy?’
‘For God’s sake, Angela! Look around. Can’t you see? We are being held by good old nothing.’
That was correct. The abyss the size of a football field below them seemed sickeningly deep.
‘Or have we got stuck on something?’ she asked herself.
She wound down the window and looked back.
‘Well, Mum, are we being held by nothing?’
Mesmerized, Edith pulled her head back.
‘Mum, do you remember when we were skiing? This is like the cable car.’
‘What shall we do now?’ Edith turned back towards the windscreen and looked steadily at the precipice.
‘I think we’d better wait for New Tom,’ the little girl replied.
Newton, however, who had been walking about heaven in a body of light, did not notice anything unusual on that road basking in the afternoon sun. Laws of nature that neither he nor his contemporaries had even suspected came into force. Even angels took flight from the area, and Newton would only have been able to observe events from afar, because He was there. Because of His presence, the ether was trembling so much that the noise of its chattering made it up to the spheres of eternal silence. God quivered the atoms of the physical world. Lots of creatures of the invisible world peered into the small area which was now receiving such particular attention. Heaven was waiting in silence until, upon His word, the sky swelled and a huge, cone-shaped cloud reached the jeep stranded in the air. The mysterious field of energy made some parched weeds burst into flames. Time almost came to a standstill. Trees and their leaves glowed dazzlingly, the air began to sparkle. It seemed as if the sky had been cleft open, its contents running down over nature like molten wax. Slowly, the light covered everything, stirring pebbles and the roadside into pulsating flames. Earthly matter in the way of this heavenly river began to pulsate. Atoms were enlivened and rejoicing at the loving touch of their creator. Then the flood of light reached the jeep too. Streams sparkling like diamond dust appeared on the windscreen, wound across the dashboard and, finally, dripped to the floor. The seats were sparkling too, their dark pattern no longer visible. Edith was shaking all over.
‘Angela, are you all right?’ she would have asked, but her words were reduced to a slur.
With each intake of breath, her lungs filled up with the haze of light swirling inside the car. Tears were beginning to seep from her eyes, though she managed to keep down the sobs that threatened to burst from her. Rationality failed her; her arguments and explanations disappeared into thin air. A floating sensation possessed her, as if gravity had been switched off at the push of a button. She had last felt like this as a child, when she had jumped off a swing and stopped mid-air for a second. She felt completely free and happy. For a second.
This inexplicable, childhood happiness appeared inside her now too, although she was in the grip of mortal fear. What kind of a perverse joy it is! I’m terrified like never before and I’m overcome by happiness. She was about to burst out laughing, but that failed too: no sound left her pale lips.
‘Mummy, Mummy, don’t be afraid!’ Angela implored her, caressing her face. ‘I’ve told you he won’t let us break like a clay jar, only you didn’t understand.’
She was ‘talking’ with her lips still, but her teeth flashed in her smile. How did she know she did not have to speak? Her thoughts rang out as if somebody had declaimed them. Edith was still struggling with speech, her eyes incredulously scanning the windscreen which was vibrating with millions of little orbs the colour of the whole rainbow.
Whispering reached Edith’s ears and she suddenly had the frightening suspicion that there was somebody else besides them in the car. She glanced back. The sight gave her a shock. Angela was whispering to two angel-faced creatures. She wanted to shout, her lips twitched, but then she recalled that speaking was impossible. She also heard, “Impossible”. Afterwards, “I’ll go mad! I’ll blow up! What’s this?” Then, in a flash, it became clear to her what she had to do. She knitted her brow and looked straight at the light-creatures.
‘Who are you and what do you want from my daughter? Answer me! Why are you here? What’s all this about?’
Angela shielded their surprised guests protectively with her arms.
‘Mummy,’ she cut in with her own thoughts, ‘they’re helping us. They’re my guardian angels, don’t talk to them like that. They’re good and holy. We can never be so, so …’
The girl wanted to say something sublime but could not put it into words. Edith was surprised by Angela’s confidence and, although trembling like a leaf, she took a better look at the angels. Colourful rings, with patterns like a futuristic map of the starry sky glowing inside them, ran up and down their skins. The air around them was vibrating. She glanced at Angela, who was smiling as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be sitting between two angels. One of them extended her hand towards Edith.
‘Don’t be afraid, Edith. Your daughter was born to be a very special child. Few diamonds like her are bestowed upon this fallen world by heaven. Take good care of her, very few like her are born in a thousand years. Return home in peace.’
Edith looked at them in bewilderment.
‘I see. But what’s going to happen to us? Are we going to keep floating until someone finds us here?’
The angels did not reply. They put their hands on the top of the girl’s head and disappeared in the blink of an eye. The woman stared before her, as if brooding, but was suddenly startled by some infernal honking. The cream-like fog had disappeared, she only saw a human head a few metres away from the car window. It was shouting. She could not completely comprehend the sounds, they appeared so distant and weak, but they were getting louder fast.
‘What are you staring at, you stupid goose? Pull your fucking jeep out of the way so that I can get past. What’re you waiting for? Thirty people are late because of you, including me!’ She now heard the driver of the coach crystal clear. ‘I bet you’ve broken the crash barrier too. Who lets such idiots on the road?’ His bald head went red with anger.
Edith automatically reached for the ignition, turned it and slowly pulled over to the roadside.
‘Thank you, lady. Did you win your licence in a raffle? You’d better cycle!’ The man went on raging but, getting no reaction, shut his door, puffed the air brake and rolled on. Angela’s nose was stung by the exhaust of the bus so she pinched her nostrils shut with her tiny fingers.
‘Phooey, Mummy, this is terrible. There surely aren’t any buses over there.’
The woman did not answer but reached for the key to stop the engine.
‘When did we get back to the road?’
‘Didn’t you see it, Mum?’ Angela shouted.
Edith shook her head.
‘And you were staring at them so much, mum. Have you never seen angels before?’
‘Where could I have seen any?’ She dug her fingers into her hair nervously.
‘But angels are like these, Mummy.’
‘”Angels are like these.”’ Her mother imitated her. ‘You just know, my all-wise child. Come here now, I’d like to give you a hug.’
Angela crept up to her and Edith embraced her and rocked her long.
‘I’m glad you’re my daughter. I love you.’
‘I love you too, Mummy.’
All became quiet again. The warbling of the birds in the early autumnal forest was dancing under the foliage and filtered into the car as well. A squirrel on a branch opposite watched the windscreen them for a while, then disappeared with a start.
‘They can still see us, it’s only us who’re so blind!’ burst out the little girl, who stretched her arms towards the sky.
‘You must be right.’
‘Mum, promise me that you won’t fall asleep next time. You’ll tire out poor God if He always has to send his angels to save us.’
Edith burst into guffaws, though her eyes were clouded with tears.
‘I promise! Oh, Angela, you’re such an oddball, you know that, don’t you?’
‘I know,’ the girl whispered and held her mother tight.
They were hugging for minutes, then the woman stepped out and walked around the jeep. She stroked the dents, tapped the half-torn-off mudguard with the heel of a shoe. Her pulse raced at the sight of the ominous marks the hot tyres had left behind on the asphalt. She walked back to the ruptured crash barrier. You couldn´t misread the signs: tragedy had been inevitable.
She climbed back into the car and snuggled up to Angela. She felt her daughter’s naked shoulder leaning against her side. Her skin was burning. She must have become feverish with the anxiety, Edith thought and hugged her, fondly looking into the glowing blue eyes.
‘Dearie, what has just happened must stay our little secret, don’t tell anybody about it.’
‘Mum, are you afraid to tell Daddy?’ the girl asked her in surprise, frowning at once.
‘No, my dear, I don’t mean him. But I’m not sure your two angel friends would be pleased if you talked about them, right?’
Angela freed herself from the embrace. She could smell her mother’s rose perfume.
‘I know you’re afraid, that’s why you’re saying this.’
‘I’m not afraid, my dear child, but you have to understand that I don’t know exactly what’s really happened. Perhaps we only hit our heads when the car spun around and we both lost consciousness.’
‘Mum, what did we lose? What is consciousness? I don’t understand. Does it mean our mind? If you don’t even believe your eyes, why do you believe in God’s existence? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in the other world?’
Edith realized that her doubts had cost her her daughter’s trust. She sat back behind the steering wheel and set off. The engine made strange noises all the way but it did not matter to her. Something might be scraping against the mudguard. What is important is that we are alive. My God, I’ve almost killed us both! She was scratching nervously at the steering wheel. Angela’s eyes were throwing lightning.
‘Why don’t people believe that there’s another world full of benevolence and love?’
Her mother thought for a moment, then replied gently, ‘Because they don’t know the way, and neither do I, my dear. Nobody has ever come back from there to recount what it’s like. I don’t know how I could get to the other side alive. Until now I’ve always thought it’s only possible after we die.’
‘Daddy said before that you can get into that other world through your heart, didn’t he?’
‘That’s only a metaphor.’
‘Metaphor? Is that something else, like consciousness?’
‘No, it isn’t. It means that …’ she began and glanced into the rear-view mirror, but Angela was no longer listening to her. The sunshine was gone from her eyes. She was back to the ordinary world, at least for a while. Since her first experience in the bathroom, light had spread over her mind. It was as if the cover of her brain had burst. Something inside her had lit up in the way a smouldering torch hidden inside an earthenware pitcher lights up in the fresh air when the pitcher is broken. Some huge, unknown flame. It filled her with confidence in the existence of the other world, and brought meaning into her ignorance.
She watched the landscape fly by. Trees raced past the car like brown-booted, green-haired champion runners soon lost in the distance. Titmice were gossiping on the kilometre stones. There was a strung-up dog hanging from a roadside pine tree. Flies buzzed on the string that cut deeply into his throat; a five-pointed star had been burnt into the fur on his bloated belly. Shocked, Edith turned back towards the carcass rocking in the wind. What people! Angela also stared at it, mouth agape, then her little face changed as if a ghost had passed through her.
‘Death got only this far, but has no power over me. He is fighting a losing battle,’ she told Edith, and drew another pentagram on the window with her fingers.
The woman’s face went white as a sheet. She had never heard her daughter speak like that.