[Felsőőr, in Burgenland, circa 1787. Inside a mud and wattle hut. A boy of approximately ten, thin but not to the point of starvation, sits on a stool in the foreground and a man of indeterminate age dressed in a Turkish caftan, stands to his side. They are lit, but the source of the light is not evident. Behind them, there is a wooden table where a man and a woman sit on rough stools. There may be two or three small children sitting on the ground under the table. The man has his hands open on the table and he and the woman, his wife (?), are staring intently at them. They are talking but we only hear it like the rustle of trees in a November wind.]
How did you come by your violin?
My father was named Ferenc, but nobody I knew ever called him that. Maybe later I can say at least why I cannot tell you his real name, his Gypsy name, that his mother who was dead before I was born slipped into his ear one night, when the bats were sleeping, that my mother plucked from that same ear years later with her sharp night teeth, wolves' teeth that I only saw once myself, on the day my father came into our room with his hands hanging like ripe plums running with sweet purple juice. He set them on the table where we ate, these bruised fruit, as if proud to have brought them home for our family meal. That was when I saw the wolf’s teeth flashing in my mother’s mouth, just for a second, and then she was again my mother, three teeth gone from what might have been the smile that won my father’s heart. Her skin darkened, her lips glowed red, and she took my father’s broken hands in hers and said his name, two times. Which I will not say to you, even once.
Josef, my father said to me. Where is my violin?
I wanted to ask about the shapes his fingers made, bent right where they should have bent left, wrong roads and impossible returns, but he said, Josef, please find my violin. Tears ran in rivers down our one window.
I guess I will wait to hear how you came by your father's violin?
Before you did not know that it was my father's violin and that says something about you, that you didn't know where a son comes by his violin. If it is truly to be his violin. My brother once had a violin that an old man gave him in exchange for a cup of wine because the old man had forgotten how to play. He went away before the glass was finished and did not find his way back. My brother learned to play his violin and carried it with him everywhere and perhaps he still has it hidden in his pocket, but it was never his. It doesn't matter about the old man either. He could be dead or just lost or turned into a buzzard by the djinn. That was not my brother's violin. It was only the violin he sometimes played when he didn't have something better. Then my brother carved his own from wood he stole from the Hungarian in town who makes instruments, though he took so much wood he had to make a viola instead. Don't bother to tell the violin maker because he knows, like everyone, where the wood for the viola came from. And do you know what he says. He says that is my brother's instrument now, and there is no wood that was stolen. He only wishes he could play so well as my brother.
I think I understand.
You understand nothing, but that's your own violin. Ask me another question.
What happened to your father’s hands?
Orhan told me that it was soldiers who had broken his hands, for reaching up to stroke the mane of the horse one of them was riding. My father knew the names of many horses, even horses he had never previously seen, and some of them knew his name. Perhaps they had exchanged a word. The soldiers were Czech peasants grown from a beet patch, drunk, spewing their foul language. They kicked him from where they sat astride their horses, and the horses cried out against their riders, but they only dismounted and beat my father to the ground with their fists, then kicked him with their farmer’s boots, and when he was on the ground, they stomped on his hands, first his left and then his right. They would have killed him but for the horses threatening to run off this time for real.
Orhan never told the truth in his life. His father was a liar too and I would say the same thing about his mother but she gave me milk whenever I came to her house. There was no dishonesty in that milk. Once Orhan told me that he fucked my sister Julka in the bushes behind the blacksmith’s shop. He told that story over and over because boys are always eager to hear lies about fucking. Julka was not a perfect angel but going with Orhan into the bushes, this is not something my sister would do willingly. And Orhan did not have a silvery tongue and never won at arm-wrestling so he had not power over Julka. She always like Orhan anyway, she would say his lies made her laugh, so maybe she did fuck him. Only not in the bushes.
The second time Orhan told me about the soldiers, my father was playing his violin for them in the square, hoping for a coin or two. But when they threw down their tiny coins and my father picked them up, the soldiers accused him of stealing. When he tried to give them back, they said they did not want coins touched by a gypsy. Nobody wanted a coin that was touched by a Gypsy, they yelled! Then they kicked my father from where they sat on their horses, and when my father bent over to escape their blows, they dismounted and beat him to the ground, and then stomped on his hands. The horses did not play a role in this story. What about the violin, I asked Orhan, what happened to the violin? Orhan couldn’t remember seeing it at all. You see how his story begins to fall to pieces.
What happened next, after your father came home without his violin?
We were more worried about his hands, and a fox or a squirrel would wonder why you aren't too. Why do you care so much about this violin anyway? It really is nothing special, and my father was not a great virtuoso. My grandfather, Lajos, now, was an excellent musician and traveled everywhere with his brother who played the guitar and a drunk named Django who might not even have been ciganjok who had a bass from nobody knew where, until it was taken from him to pay his debts. My grandfather used to tell this story about Django and how he lost his instrument. And his bass too. He was a large fat man, this Django, with the manners of a dog that eats carrion instead of hunting, with gadjo white skin, and whenever he had the chance he would sit down in a tavern and play cards for money. Nobody knew he was a gypsy or they would not have let him play. Django was a very good card player even after many glasses of palinka, and usually came away with his pockets full of coins.
One night, though, he found himself in a tavern playing against a real Gypsy, who was well-known and in the village. This Gypsy businessman knew that Django was also a Gypsy, and was just passing as a gadjo. He waited until Django had all his money on the table and then suggested to him in our language that the two of them take advantage of the stupid gadje peasants they were playing with. Django responded without thinking, also in our language, that this was an excellent idea. ’Look, this lying Gypsy is trying to cheat us!’ the village Gypsy cried, and the men fell upon Django. They demanded not just the money he had in his possession, but something more, before they would release him. This was how Django lost his bass. The village Gypsy sold it to another group of musicians, gave the gadje half their rightful shares, and kept the rest for himself. From then on, Django played only a washboard he stole from his mother. Eventually, my grandfather left him behind, and he heard later that Django had fallen ill and died.
Your grandfather gave his violin to your father?
My grandfather Lajos was able to obtain a much finer violin, and he gave my father the old one. My grandfather went to play music in Budapest and became wealthy. But then he began to cough and he coughed and coughed until he was dead. That’s the story my father would tell. Somewhere in the middle of the coughing that went on day and night until Lajos could not hold himself upright, his new violin was traded for medicine that did nothing to stop the cough. Finally the final cough arrived, really no more than a rasp and a wheeze, and my father and his brothers and sisters and mother were left with nothing and came to live here where their uncle lived.
Could we go back to the day that your father came home without his violin and his hands broken?
I don’t understand why you are asking me these questions. Why do you care?
My mother took my father to the woman who knew about medicine and she wrapped my father’s hands in old cloth soaked in something that smelled like cow dung. He wanted to drink some palinka but we did not have any so I went to my uncles home and asked if he had any, but he didn’t. All day I went from house to house looking for palinka and finding nothing. Finally I went out to the woods where there were some wagons with Gypsies from Wallachia and they had some palinka, and two of them came back with me to our hut to see if I was telling the truth about my father. They gave me some of their palinka, and then some more, because it made them laugh to see my getting drunk, just a boy. By the time we reached our hut almost all the palinka was gone because they had been drinking also. And they gave what they had left to my father, because they could see his suffering, and every day after than they came with more to help my father with his pain. Until some soldiers came and made them leave the forest with their wagon.
We did not see them again after that but it was OK because my father was feeling worse from all the palinka, which was not really very good, made from some fruit that was not ripe or was spoiled, and caused great headaches. I only had the palinka that first night because my head hurt so much the next day. The woman who helped with my father’s hands had made good medicine though, and all his wounds healed, but some of his fingers were still bent in the wrong directions and it was all he could do to hold a spoon without spilling soup on his pants. There wasn’t any question of his playing the violin anymore, and to be honest, nobody cared so much because he only knew three or four songs anyway, and compared to his father, Lajos, well … it was hardly music that he played. My mother used to say she would rather hear a dog howl. But we all missed the few coins my father had earned with those three or four songs, so my mother told me I should find his violin and learn to play so that we could eat again.
Did you find the violin?
No, not yet. But my mother had a feeling deep in her belly that Orhan knew more than he was saying. Or what he was saying was not what he knew. It was a lot of yammering to keep from just saying straight out that Orhan was lying. Did we know for sure that there had been soldiers involved? I could hardly go running to the barracks and ask them, unless I wanted some of the same that my father had received, or not received. It would not make a difference for me, if I bothered the soldiers. Who could I ask? My father would say nothing. Whenever we asked him what had happened, he put his head in his broken hands and tried to pull out his hair and said nothing. My brother said he was so ashamed of losing his violin that he had made himself forget that it had ever happened at all. I imagined the insides of his skull and his thoughts bent like his hands into shapes like tree branches in the winter. Once in a while, my father would ask for his violin, and when someone told him that it was missing, he would only put his head in his hands again and, when there was still palinka to be drunk, he would drink some of it.
I went out to find Orhan to see if I could learn something more. But not in a way that made him suspect that I was suspicious of him. He was sitting in a harvested field bent down low so he could not be easily seen from the path because it was not his field and there would be trouble, or at least some running, if he were caught there by the peasant who farmed the land. Orhan had some old dried stalks in this hands and he was attempting to weave them together into a basket. Anyone could see that he was never going to make a basket that would hold anything. I came and sat next to him, and began pulling dead stalks from the earth and giving them to him, so he could go ahead with his basket-making. In the morning it had rained and the ground was still wet, but now the sun had come out and the wind had tapered off, so it was not unpleasant sitting on the ground with Orhan.
He asked how my father was feeling and I told him. I asked him if he there had been anyone else he knew who had seen what had happened. Now chewing on the dried stalks instead of trying to weave them, Orhan looked at the sky as if he kept his memory somewhere up in the clouds. There were some gadje, and some other soldiers, but none of us but me were there. He knew that I could not ask these Hungarians what had happened anymore than I could ask the soldiers. Do you remember what happened to my father’s violin? I asked him. Instead of Orhan answering my question, he told me about the sound the soldiers’ boots made when they stomped on my father’s hands. A little bit like crushing grapes, he said, but also a little like crushing pumpkin seeds. I could not put the sound together with what I saw, he said, and there were tears in the corners of his eyes. I admit to feeling my eyes fill with tears also, but we did not saying anything about that, only wiped them away and dug our little holes in the ground to bury the stalks we had finished chewing. One of the soldiers took the violin, he said. The other one was about to stomp on it too, but this soldier yelled at him to stop, and picked up the violin himself, and the bow too, which was just a few feet away. And then this soldier tucked the violin under his chin and played a song. Your father was screaming and twisting around in the mud, but the soldier just went on playing. It was like a dance and your father was the dancer.
You know I can help you get the violin back?
I don't know how you can get the violin back. You are blacker than me. Nobody's going to let you into the barracks looking like you do. Almost invisible but not enough.
I should tell you who I am. What I am.
You might think you're something other than what I see in front of me, but as my grandfather Lajos says, when you're out of key the whole world is going to know, and you can wish for whatever you want.
I am your guardian angel.
I see what I see and I hear what I hear and I don't believe in guardian angels anyway. That's a story my mother tells herself when my father brings home a whole potato and then its a djinn with a forked tail when he brings nothing but peels. It's only my father and whatever part of the potato the world has given him. If you were my guardian angel you'd be offering more than an old violin that I don't even know how to play.
It's your father's violin, you said, and that means something even if you can't play.
Leave the violin to the soldier and give my father back his hands.
Bur then there would be nothing for you, and I am your guardian angel, not your father's. Not everyone gets a guardian angel, you know. Maybe your father doesn't have anyone looking after him, but you have me. There's nothing I can do about his hands
Can't or won't. Any sort of djinn could fix my father's hands, if he wanted. And if he was my djinn, he would have to do whatever I told him.
I'm not a djjin and not the kind of angel who can just do anything he wants or you want. I can help you get your father's violin back. Maybe there would be something else too, but I don't know yet.
I don't believe anything you say.
You understand that nobody else can see me or hear me but you. Isn't that something? You just said that you saw me standing -- well, perhaps not exactly standing -- in front of you. And you hear me or you would not be answering.
I could be crazy. My mother and my father and my sister already think I'm crazy.
You may be crazy in the way they are thinking about it. But you see me and you hear me. That does not make you crazy, because I am here for you. And even if you are crazy, you still see me and hear me so it's all the same in the end.
I don't believe anything you say. I know that I am not crazy and I know that I see you in front of me and I hear what you say. I told you before the violin is not the important thing. Why do you want me to have it back? Who are you anyway?
My name is Majnun. Or once my name was Majnun. I'm not certain I have a name anymore. But even the dogs and cats have names, so you may call me Majnun. I'm not supposed to tell you but once I was a boy like you and then I was a man, though I did not last very long as a man. Possibly I never finished being a boy. My family. Yes, I had a family also, and possibly my father who also played the violin. it's hard to remember. But I could only be making this up, and maybe what I'm thinking about who I was is only a reflection of what I see before me, in you and your family. I spend too much time alone.
What if I don't want the violin back? What if I think my father cannot play a violin anymore anyway and maybe the stupid soldier who can play the violin should keep it. There is not even anyone to teach me since my grandfather went to Budapest. I have a cousin named Layla and her mother, who is not my aunt, though I don't know how that can be, but my mother said I was not to think of her as my aunt. My aunt who is not my aunt has a brother who is not my uncle who plays the violin but he only has three strings now and no money to buy another. He does not keep the three strings in tune. He sits under a tree in the forest and plucks because his bow has not hair and he has not put any new hair in even though there are many horses where he could get hair for his bow. To tell you the truth I think Layla's uncle might have been kicked in the head by a horse when he was a boy. People just say he's lazy but maybe he's just got no thoughts in his head to put together. How did you get to be an angel anyway, if you were just a boy before?
It's a mystery. What happened was that I sneaked into the harem of a rich man because the other boys said I did not have the courage to climb over the wall. My soul was an empty room then, a large empty room, with all sort of crazy ideas about what I had to do in order to become a man chasing each other in and out of the door. I chased this idea about being a coward over the wall and into the room of a very beautiful girl. She did not give me the welcome the other boys had promised. She screamed. The harem guards came, eunuchs, but large and strong eunuchs, and that was the end of me. I won't describe the passage from life to death. Or really, to this, because I never really arrived at being dead, unless you think maybe I'm dead now. I still find it confusing and it's been a very long time. Would you be upset if you thought you were speaking with a dead guardian angel?
Why are you my guardian angel? If you are a guardian angel? And not a djinn.
That's a question without an answer. I simply am, in the same way that you simply are.
I would like to give you to my father, because he needs guarding more than I do.
I am not a horse to be traded.
Am I the only one you are guarding?
I shouldn't tell you this, but the answer is no. As it turns out, I am also the guardian angel of the soldier from Olomouc who beat your father and took his violin. Somebody's got a strange sense of humor.
Who do you mean? Who decides? Is this something that God does?
I can't say exactly where my orders come from, they only come. Delivered in secret while I am busy with other business. Suddenly I just know. Maybe this is how God works. I don't know much about God.
Have you seen the guitar? Since they beat my father and took it?
I was there when your friend Orhan saw the soldier pick up the violin and begin to play. This young man, whose name is Jaroslav by the way, plays the violin very well, and what Orhan did not see were the tears in Jaroslav’s eyes when he heard the song that he was himself playing. It is a song that his own father used to play, before he was sent away to war and did not return. Would you like me to hum a little bit? It’s a beautiful tune, something to do with the harvest … (Majnun begins to hum.)
I hope this boy plays better than you hum. And my father lying in the dirt with his hands turned to meat, what did your boy think about that?
I think that the tears were partly for what he had done. Maybe I only hope this, against all evidence. Because I have seen Jaroslav do terrible things to cats. He was crying for himself, not for your father. That’s the truth. But still I am his angel.
I want to know more about your Jaroslav. Because I know that you are not supposed to tell me. Do you care for him? Is that what it means to be a guardian angel?
I care for him in exactly the same way that I care for you. It is more exact than you can imagine. Not the fake sameness between a mother’s love for a son put against her love for a daughter. I have the same feelings for the two of you. And for others too, some of them dead already and some of them not yet born, already.
What have asked this boy about my father’s violin? Do you want him to keep it or give it up?
What I want does not matter. What you want and what he wants, that is all of my business.
I have told you that I don’t care about the violin. He may keep it.
He has no thought of giving it up. It is the best thing to come his way in a very long time.
Then your work is done. We both get what we want. And if you can give us nothing else that we need, and you can do nothing for us, there is no more use for you.
I don’t believe my work is done yet, because neither of understand what you have chosen. There is a picture in my mind. Let me tell you want I see.
I will tell you instead what I see. My mother cries the tears of carrion birds and my father studies his hands like a book in a language he does not know. The letters are familiar but the words are strange and meaningless. Together they try to piece it out, what this book means. My two little sisters sit on the floor close by and moan. And then they laugh. And then they moan again. There is no place for me to sit, nothing for me to eat, nowhere for me to go. But then morning arrives, splinters of light riding a cold wind through the window that has no glass.
From here it is a long walk away from the hut where we live and its cousins, through the woods where we are not allowed, and down the hill to the barracks where the soldiers sleep. Their horses are hobbled in the pasture and they keen like old women at a wake. The door to the barracks is guarded by a drunk from Vienna who tells himself a story of desertion and ascendance in which the keening horses play a crucial role. He is confused and the story makes no sense. When I come to the door he is guarding he asks if I understand his story and I tell him, a little, but more than I say in my own language. Let me go inside, I ask, and find someone who speaks your language. Inside, I immediately see Jaroslav. Who is lying on his back, in his narrow bunk, bowing my father’s violin, but there is hardly any sound, only a squeak or a rasp as if furniture were being dragged across the floor upstairs. He sees me and smiles and begins to play the song he played when he was stomping on my father’s hands. And it is a beautiful song, maybe the most beautiful song I have ever heard, and we are crying together. The beauty of the melody. And under that, the counterpoint of bones cracking like dried pumpkin seeds underfoot in the heat of the summer.
That’s all I see. It ends there.
Jaroslav rises from his bunk and offers you the violin, and you take it. He begins to sing, the same song he has been playing, with words that you don’t understand. You imagine that they are about angels and miracles and the abstruse angles of broken fingers and winter branches. Caught up in his singing and your imaginings, you begin to play, believing that the spirit of your grandfather will somehow skip over your father’s sorry scratching and you will be able to play the notes that harmonize with Jaroslav’s melody. But the violin will not make music for you. It screams and yelps and barks, even as Jaroslav continues to sing. You raise the violin over your head, to throw it, to break it over the soldier’s head, over your own head, to beat the ground with it’s fragile wood.
Tell him he can have it. That’s what you want. That’s what he wants. That’s what I want.
Even if Jaroslav keeps the violin, it will still be yours. He will always only be playing for you, and he will know this. That is why he cries.
Let him cry then.