I’d like to draw a parallel between the nascent Kingdom of Hungary and the passionate lovemaking of frenzied young lovers. Because passion and frenzy are the only words that come close to describing the manner in which the nomadic and the settled tribes of the area adopted each other’s goods, clothing, customs, figures of speech, and ways of life. They adopted everything, starting with decorative trinkets and ending with regional division. The settlers, dressed in their loose-fitting hemp shirts and pants would lean against their wooden ploughs and stare in mute astonishment at the riders in tight-fitting leather pants who adorned themselves with shiny buckles, clasps, and bracelets engraved with magnificent designs from the Eastern steppes. While the settlers couldn’t keep their eyes off the thousand-strong herds of horses, the nomads could barely contain their excitement over the flocks of white geese grazing on meadows by the farmers’ houses. In their travels across the arid plains they seldom encountered the cautious waterfowl, and even when they drove their herds along wetlands or riverbanks, a goose was such a rare catch that the chief was the only one entitled to enjoy its meat.
All it took was a few generations before the strands of the nomads and the settlers had been plaited into a peculiar new braid, in which it was no longer possible to tell who was who. The innovations adopted by each side were cultivated and exaggerated, taking on unexpected new forms. Fascinated by the beauty of nomadic ornamentation, the bareheaded settlers started to braid their hair, and they unabashedly added magnificent Eastern adornments onto their plain hemp clothes. They used colorful yarn to embroider every available inch of their shirts, cloaks, pants, aprons, skirts, and even their undergarments. Then they gleamed like multicolored exotic birds at fairs, holiday worship services, or at other public gatherings, and based on the shape of a leaf or the location of a bird’s foot in the upper left corner of the pattern, people could tell immediately which region the wearer of the embroidered gem was from. But that was nothing compared to the artistry in leatherwork and metalwork that the settlers quickly copied from the visitors. They took off the meager hemp cords that were holding up their pants and replaced them with well-tanned strips of leather with a multitude of buckles and clasps that had decorative engravings far surpassing any nomadic designs. In their intractable desire to attach as many shiny brass baubles as possible, the settlers kept making their belts wider and wider to the point that a proud wearer of one of these odd accessories could end up walking around bound up in a leather barrel reaching from his hips to his chest.
Of course the nomads were not immune to innovation either. At first, they just cast bewildered glances at the settlements where the bareheaded people dressed in hemp or linen garb dug in the dirt to get it to yield wheat, beans, and turnips. But the nomads quickly developed a taste for settled food, and after a few lessons in farming, they drove their ploughshares through virgin soil for the first time. However, their tight-fitting riding breeches were not well suited for field toil, so these shepherds of thousand-strong herds traded them out for loose-fitting hemp pants. Thanks to the unprecedented freedom afforded by the loose clothing, coupled with the desire to improve upon the newly acquired style, the first farmers from the nomad ranks were soon walking around with so much fabric hanging loosely around their legs, they looked as though they were wearing gathered skirts. The tight-fitting leather breeches stayed hung up in their abodes, and their owners only put them on whenever they needed to answer the call of their nomadic blood and spend some time on a horse, riding around their new fields.
By far the most important messenger of the changing lifestyle of the nomads was a certain waterfowl – the cackling goose. Only the most accomplished archers had managed to take down one of these skittish long-necked birds during their travels along the Eastern plains. According to custom such a catch had to be sent to the chief’s tent; nobles were the only ones fated to taste the exquisite roast. The cackle of tame geese coming from the meadows by the settler’s houses must have sounded like the song of angels to the arriving nomads. Under pressure from their disgruntled subjects the chiefs had to abolish the strict rule prohibiting the consumption of waterfowl, and thus the white goose landed on the dinner table of every epicurean nomad. Soon, raising the long-necked feathery beauties spread like a white plague, and it seemed that the settling down nomads couldn’t get enough of their musky delicate meat with hints of spice.
Some fads are short-lived. But the sizzle of fat melting beneath the skin of a roasting goose was not likely to disappear from the Danube plains so readily. The fact that the citadel on the promontory above the Danube was completely surrounded by enclosures full of cackling white geese was further evidence of the popularity they enjoyed in King Stephen’s court. There were times when a royal council or an audience with the king had to be interrupted because no one could hear a thing over the din of the white flocks.
Today the royal geese started cackling up a storm because the gates of their enclosures were thrust open and the retinue of the Bavarian princess Brezelmunda invaded the white waterfowl’s territory. The rumble of horses’ hooves, the barking of leashed hunting dogs, and the blaring of trumpets announced the arrival of the distinguished guest to the castle occupants, but this spectacular ruckus brought the company of the cackling guardians into a state resembling a heart attack. The entire retinue sighed a great sigh of relief when the upper castle gate, beyond which there wasn’t a single live goose, closed behind them.
The Bavarian princess Brezelmunda, a close relative of Stephen’s wife Gisela, was a noble and pious woman who lived an ascetic lifestyle. She strictly observed all of the prescribed fasts and spent many a night in reflection, trying to emulate the lifestyle of the charismatic hermits who lived in deserted corners throughout the Christian parts of Europe. When the virtuous Brezelmunda learned that her relative had married the King of the Pannonians, who had been baptized by St. Adalbert himself, she immediately started to make preparations for a journey to the court above the Danube. But for many years Bavarian envoys kept bringing home reports about the savage conditions and the ever-present pagan delusion in King Stephen’s lands. It was a long time before her relatives consented, and the delicate Brezelmunda and her retinue could set off on the harrowing pilgrimage into parts where the living tree of the Christian faith was just starting to put down its roots.
Stephen, who was well aware of the importance of the visit, which could result in a good report about his country to the arrogant and snobby Western princes, did not leave anything to chance. He had the court chapel freshly whitewashed, he replaced the stretched pig bladders in the windows with precious glass panes from distant Naples, and he forbade any displays of pagan idolatry in the immediate vicinity of the castle under the penalty of death by quartering. Lastly, he invited no less than a dozen Benedictine brothers from the monastery of St. Hippolytus to stand in the hallways with their hands clasped in prayer to lend the royal residence an air of a Christian metropolis.
Unfortunately, some circumstances are beyond the control of even the most powerful earthly rulers. There’s no telling whether the murky Danube water had taken its toll on the Benedictine brothers after they arrived on the royal promontory or whether their stomachs, accustomed to fasting, couldn’t handle the onslaught of the heavy goose meat. What is certain though is that a day before the expected arrival of the Bavarian princess, all of the brethren of St. Hippolytus were lying in the stables with terrible colic, their bodies shook with chills, and liquid gushed out of them from both ends.
The situation was threatening the image of the court above the Danube as a center of piety. In despair the king ordered the poor wretches to be stripped of their monastic robes and had them put on stable boys and mule drivers he had rounded up in haste. Then he personally instructed the boorish lot in what to do, where to stand, and how to clasp their hands. After all, the distinguished guests could be arriving any minute.
After Stephen and Gisela welcomed the Bavarian princess at their court above the Danube with all due honors and all of the members of her retinue had been shown to their guest rooms, the servants started to bring every imaginable delicacy to the royal table. There were roasted oxen, honey-crusted mutton, piglets with apples in their snouts, and most importantly, a regiment of roasted geese. All this food had landed on the banquet table in honor of the distinguished guests. Princess Brezelmunda, a delicate and ethereal woman with a stern look and a waxen face, was running late for the exquisite feast. She had prioritized a short visit to the chapel over worldly revelry.
Having expected little, Brezelmunda was pleased to learn that the court chapel was a grandiose building with stained glass windows, freshly painted, and gently illuminated with soft candlelight. Two monks, probably Benedictines, stood praying by the entrance. Another three or so sat in pews. Their hands were clasped in an unnatural pose and they were staring at the approaching stranger with wild eyes while their lips moved silently in an unfamiliar prayer. After the beautiful princess had satisfied her need for silence and reflection, she made her way from the chapel to the banquet hall. As she passed the Benedictine brothers, a quiet appreciative whistle came from somewhere.
Brezelmunda didn’t stay long at the feast. She pinched off a few small bites of rye bread, took a few sips of water, and made her excuses to the hosts, saying that the weariness from the exhausting journey would not allow her to remain in their valued company that night. Then she headed to her rooms accompanied by her servants.
Only a few people knew that the Bavarian princess kept to the strict rules of ascetic life despite the fact that she was a noble and could have enjoyed every possible worldly pleasure. This was why each night, when everyone was getting ready to go to sleep, she put on a hemp shirt similar to those worn by peasants, offered her soft princess bed to one of her serving girls, and unseen, she slipped out to go sleep on a hard board somewhere in the servant quarters. Though one can hardly speak of sleep in her case. Brezelmunda spent long hours in the silence of her own soul, attempting to penetrate the secrets which had led prominent men of their eras to abandon the hustle and bustle of the world and take refuge in hermitages, where they spent their time in silence and voluntary asceticism. Tonight, Brezelmunda was once again wearing her scratchy shirt and kneeling by the small window of an out-of-the-way cubbyhole used by servants. In the dusk, through the tiny opening of her window, she could see a small section of the courtyard in front of the entrance to the stables.
She watched two monks in thick habits rub their hands and shake their wrists to return circulation to their extremities, which had gone numb from being clasped together for a long time. The monks, who had been standing all day, relaxed their stiff poses, casually leaned against the wall, loosened their tightly laced collars, and once in a while scratched their crotches. When a few straggling maids passed by, they whistled at them boisterously and attempted to slap their rear ends. The girls giggled and ran away from the rabble-rousers. Then one of the brethren triumphantly pulled out a small jug from beneath his habit, removed the leather stopper with his teeth, and took a long swig. The second brother demanded some of the beverage too. In this manner they kept passing the jug back and forth until it was empty. Then they shattered it on the ground in their drunken euphoria, and they broke out into uproarious laughter.
Lastly, they took off their uncomfortable habits. They ran around in linen underpants, whipping each other with their monastic hoods and swearing to high heaven. They had no idea that the pious Bavarian princess dressed in her scratchy hair shirt was watching them from a tiny servants’ room and would be praying until dawn for the rapid and complete conversion of the savage Ugrians.
LUKÁŠ LUK is the pseudonym of a Slovak writer who cultivates a persona of anonymity. Luk has been writing short stories since the 1990s, and his first book, Tales from Považský Sokolec, was published in 2010. A sequel entitled Mystery of the Považský Bull was published in 2013. Both books have been shortlisted for Anasoft Litera, Slovakia’s most prestigious award for prose. Luk’s new novel, Honey Thieves, will come out in the original Slovak in early 2016. You can find out more about Lukáš Luk and read an excerpt in English from Tales from Považský Sokolec at www.lukasluk.sk.
About the Translator:
MAGDALENA MULLEK translates from her native Slovak. Her translations have appeared in The Dirty Goat, Alchemy, Asymptote, Ozone Park, TWO LINES, and Words Without Borders. She was one of the translators of the Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature. Currently, she is working on an anthology of contemporary Slovak prose due to be published by Three String Books in 2016. Magdalena lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and their daughter.