Waiting for the Ferryman
The wind whistled shrilly at the corners of the house, the keening sound matching the freezing February night. It tugged at the bare branches of the trees lining the white gravel path leading up to the front door. The moving twigs cast shadows in the bright moonlight that made the pathway itself seem to ripple in the wind.
The trees were old, and the avenue between them wide; Kovács could imagine looking out at them from the tall casements of a country manor. But although wax candles were burning in a three-branched candlestick on the table behind him, this was no stately home, just a cottage. The ceilings were low and the walls dark, the single window small and square-paned. The curtain he was holding aside to look out was hessian, by the rough feel of it. Letting it fall, he turned back and began once again pacing the length of the room.
The room allowed him seven steps from wall to wall. Its corners were lost in a brownish gloom. The candles on the table threw just enough light to cast Kovács’ shadow onto the walls, alternately looming and shrinking as he strode up and down. He felt compelled to walk, to move his limbs, simply to keep warm. The night outside was bitterly cold. There was no snow on the ground; the earth was simply frozen. The sky was gaunt and black, with the moon high up and distant and the wind filling all the space between sky and earth. Inside the cottage it was not much warmer. He had found only a few scraps of kindling on the verandah where the woodpile had once been, and the small fire he had managed to get alight had consumed them quickly. Some dull orange embers still glowed in the grate and the room now smelled of smoke, but that was all.
He hadn’t expected to find any food in the house – who knew when someone last stayed here – but he had hoped to find something to drink. Once he had a candle lit, he had discovered a bottle on a plank shelf, tucked behind a row of tins holding tea and sugar; vodka. A peasant’s drink, thought Kovács, no subtlety about it, not like wine, nothing like a Tokay or even an Erdelyi red. But his first glass of the spirit had warmed him and now, drawing the cork with a pop, he splashed another half-glass into the tumbler on the table.
The wind gave a particularly piercing shriek. He stepped over to the window and drew the curtain aside again; the sound made him feel that something might have changed. There was nothing to see but darkness, cold moonlit darkness.
Although it had been night for hours, it was not yet ten o’clock, and Kovács was not tired. He had looked in the single bedroom when he arrived. It held a bed, with a mattress and one or two blankets, but he knew that he would be even colder if he lay down. If only he could get warm, he would be quite content here; he wouldn’t care about being hungry if he were not so cold. He rubbed his fingertips over his cheeks. He could feel stubble there already, which by tomorrow would be darkly visible. He had always been uncomfortable to appear unshaven, feeling somehow that a man who had not shaved deserved to be treated with suspicion.
The second glass of vodka calmed him. He stopped pacing, drew a deep breath, and felt the muscles in his shoulders loosen. He sat down at the round table on which the candlestick stood. The candle flames burnt steadily, without flickering. Despite the keening sounds outside, no wind was getting into the little house.
Kovács stared at the three yellow flames. Watching them reminded him of going to church in his childhood in Sopron, when the voice of the priest would drone on and on and his mother would tug on his sleeve if his head dropped or pinch his ear if he yawned. The boy Peter Kovács had found the best way to get through the interminable hour of the service was to watch the candle flames, which flickered and danced on top of the big yellow beeswax candles lining the choir stalls and arrayed on the altar. He had played a game with himself, would the flames fluttering in the moving air in the church bend to left or to right? Try to count the seconds each way, add them up, which side would gain most during the sermon, left or right? Left was Satan, and right Jesus, who would win this Sunday?
And although the speech of the service was incomprehensible and boring, he loved the music, the voices of the choir and the resonance of the organ, the different vibrations in the air above him, rising up to the painted domed ceiling of the church. Light from a living flame, music, things you could not touch or weigh or keep, but which made him happy.
Now with the vodka spreading a pleasant numbness through him he was content once again to sit and watch candle flames, content once again simply to absorb time.
He had found the small house without much difficulty, following the directions he had been given. He had driven across the flat Hungarian countryside through the afternoon and, as the daylight failed, into the purple evening, taking the back ways, bypassing towns, although it was not possible to avoid every habitation; in some places a scruffy village flanked the only road. No-one though had seen him, or at least noticed him, he was sure.
Now he was here, and could not do any more. He had to wait for the ferryman.
“Révészem, révészem,” Kovács hummed the first few bars of the old song, “Ferryman, my ferryman,” but he could not remember any of the words beyond that. Why was the fellow in the song calling for the ferryman? Was it to cross the water to meet his lover, or to escape from prison, or to return to his village because his mother was dying? He could not remember at all.
He had been told that where the river passed by this place it was not so broad, perhaps two hundred metres. As a youth he would have swum it for a dare, or just for the exhilaration of doing it. But now the river was the border, and it was not to be swum with the freedom of youth. As the border, it was no doubt guarded; Kovács imagined wire and white searchlights and patrolling boats plying up and down the narrow waterway, even at night. And because it was the border, he needed a ferryman, someone who knew how the river could safely be crossed.
“Révészem, révészem, vigy által a Dunán!” The words came back to Kovács as he sat at the table, watching the unwavering candle flames. “Ferryman, my ferryman, carry me across the Danube!” That was how the old song went. A simpler time then, when you could stand on the bank of a river, shade your eyes, and look over to the other side, a time when you knew before the ferryman arrived where you were going. In those days you could see, unless there was a heavy river mist, your destination. Now it was not like that. He was jumping off into the dark, into the unknown, by crossing this river.
He could hear nothing outside now; the wind seemed to have died down. Kovács walked again to the window and drew the curtain a couple of inches aside to look out. The white moonlight lay flat and hard on the gravel path. The treetops had stopped tossing. The air near the window was noticeably colder than in the centre of the room, and his breath formed a cloud as he stood there staring out. Black and white, that was all he saw, still, silent, sharp-edged black and white.
He had decided once and for all that he had to leave; for his sanity, there was no other way to put it, and although waiting in this cold, poorly-lit shack was not pleasant, neither was it oppressive; it just was. Time did not seem to pass, or if it did pass it did not need to be counted. He was simply waiting.
He poured the last of the vodka into the tumbler and drank it off. Bad luck for the next man to wait here, I’m not leaving him anything, but it’s cold and I can’t sleep. Maybe someone will come by in the meantime and stock up. Vodka, brandy, a few tins of canned fish wouldn’t be bad either, chocolate, perhaps even a box of dried figs; he began to compose a list of suitable rations for the place.
For the first time it occurred to him that the ferryman might not arrive that night. All sorts of things could happen, maybe he would have to lie low here for a few days. That wouldn’t be so good, hungry and cold, waiting and waiting. Propping himself in the hard wooden chair, Kovács huddled down into his overcoat, crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes, trying to doze.
He heard a sound at the door. Scrambling to his feet he went to the window and pulled the curtain aside. Someone was standing there on the gravel path in front of the low front entrance of the place. Kovács felt afraid for the first time. What if it is not the ferryman, what if it is someone else, what if I am already betrayed?
The noise was repeated; it was a knock, a muffled sort of knock, but a knock. Drawing in a deep breath Kovács stepped over to the door, unbolted and opened it.
The moonlight was bright, almost dazzling, but it shadowed the face of the short man who stood on the step; he was wearing some sort of hat or hood, it seemed to Kovács. It occurred to him that he didn’t know any password or secret code, he hadn’t been told about that, so he didn’t know what to say to the man, who stood there, making no move to enter the cottage.
Kovács stared at him, but found it hard to see his eyes, although the man seemed to be looking at him. It is either the fellow I want or it is not, he decided, and opening his mouth with an effort asked, “Maga a révész?” “Are you the ferryman?”
“People call me that,” said the man. “Are you ready?”
Kovács nodded, and the man turned and walked down the white gravel path. Kovács followed him, without even turning back to close the door of the house behind him. He had a vague idea that he had had a rucksack, or something of the sort, when he arrived there, but it didn’t matter now, he was on his way, irrevocably on his way, the ferryman was here.
After walking only a little distance they came to the river’s edge, and Kovács made out a small open boat drawn up on the bank. His companion got in and Kovács again followed him, stepping over the gunwale and seating himself on a plank near the stern.
The short man pushed off from the bank with a paddle, the little craft rocked slightly and settled, and as he dug into the black water, moved off from the bank. There was no sound but the plash of the ferryman’s paddle. Kovács could not see the other side of the river, could not see anything except a white brilliance of moonlight on the black water to his left, quivering as the ripples from the small boat’s passage reached it.
He realized that the ferryman had not said anything to him about what was to happen, and he had not asked. It seemed foolish to say anything now. Presumably the man knew what to do, and would tell him when he needed to know. In any event, thought Kovács, sound travels over water, and we probably should not speak.
The boat glided on across the black surface. Kovács saw a bank of fog ahead of them and surprisingly quickly they were inside it. It was clammy and cold, and looking up he could not see a star, or even the moon which had been so bright a moment ago.
Kovács was suddenly very cold, much colder than he had been even before. The man at the bow of the small boat seemed indistinct. The fog was very dense. It will be safe enough to talk in the middle of this, he decided, and he called softly to the man at the front of the craft, ‘Where are we?’
The ferryman turned his head and looked at him, and for the first time Kovács could make out his features. He was grinning. ‘We are going across,’ he said, ‘isn’t that what you wanted?’
Kovács suddenly understood, understood the cold, understood the small cottage, understood how he had come to be waiting for the ferryman. The song came to him again, the old tune, and he understood too that he was hearing it for the last time:
“Ferryman, my ferryman, carry me across the Danube!”
Ah, the Duna, he thought, the Danube, beautiful river, river of life. At last I am crossing it.
The mist was thinning in front of them, and Kovács made out a dark line ahead where no moonlight reflected on the water. The boat drew towards it quickly. It was the opposite bank, Kovács realized, the object of the journey, the ferryman’s destination, his destination. There was a grating sound and a slight bump and the small boat stopped and then was still, in the absolute darkness all around.
And Peter Kovács knew that the trip had ended, that the ferryman had safely carried him across the river, and he realized that he knew the name of the river he had crossed. He sighed deeply, letting out all his breath. There was nothing left for him to do, nothing left that he could do. All that had gone before did not matter. The journey was over. At last he could rest. He had reached the other side.