A Prelude

The sparrow had disturbed Grandmother throughout the week.

She was living with us, and had been for some time. Grandmother had grown so frail that I insisted she move in. For her advanced age, Grandmother was healthy and content with only the faintest hits of senility. Her eyes were failing, we weren’t sure she heard half of what was said in the home, and she tired easily; a woman with nearly one hundred years on this planet will struggle with these things.

Grandmother possessed a true joy of living. She had a peace and inner fullness that so many in their youth never find. Even when she was ill, and her body failed her, Grandmother rejoiced in life’s simple blessings; the presence of family, the satisfaction of a lovingly crafter meal, and the warmth of the sunlight shining in spite of the world’s collected strife.

It is for this reason that we became concerned at her agitation and sudden pallor.

We worried after her; who wouldn’t? For a soul of her age death is always lurking in the shadows. The reality of her diminishing days was perennially the elephant in the room. At first we ignored her anxiety, hoping to divert her by heaping love upon her and involving her with distracting activities. On the second night her sleep became troubled and the loss of rest robbed her of her cheer. It was then we knew something was truly amiss.

There was an understandable lack of comprehension at first. She tried to explain to us what had unsettled her. Grandmother’s words were always heavy with Hungarian accent and difficult to understand beyond the simplest of conversations. Now, with the weakest breath behind her words, communication was reduced to random words and short phrases, most of which unintelligible to us. It wasn’t until the third day that we finally understood the source of her stress.

It was the sparrow.

Grandmother loved to sleep with her window open, insisting that even the polluted air of our crowded city was a gift from God. She had always felt caged when confined indoors; going for long walks alone on the crowded, and notoriously unfriendly, city streets surrounding our humble neighborhood. We were concerned for her safety, of course. In an old warehouse, just blocks away, there had recently been a series of murders. The papers said that it was an isolated gang related incident, but for days afterward reports and rumors spoke of continued violence that did not reach newsprint. We begged her to relent from her walks, but she would not hear of it. Grandmother intended to use every faculty until the moment they failed. This included not only her legs that yearned to roam freely in the outdoors, but also the lungs that found joy in sour urban night air.

This desire to share the external atmosphere with all of God’s creation had allowed a sparrow to fly into her room. At first I assumed I was not interpreting her words correctly, for a sparrow is probably one of the least foul denizens of this filthy city. Indeed it was a sparrow. The small bird fluttered about her bed, circling without a hint of confusion or panic, and then settled upon the oval frame above her bed.

Above the faded sepia portrait of Grandmother as 17 year-old Hajnal, beautiful yet already appearing fully adult in her features and stoic expression, lingered the sparrow. It noted her presence with its cocking head and shallow flaps of its wings. With that small signal of recognition, the bird left as suddenly as it entered. For Grandmother to be disturbed by the appearance of such a small beast was one thing, but for her reaction to be so severe concerned us deeply.

Relaying the story to us, Grandmother sat immobile in her French library chair. She was reducing in stature and growing in frailty before our eyes. The image of her in that chair formed a strange juxtaposition that hinted at the oppressive volume of years that she carried. The mahogany chair was worn, older perhaps than Grandmother herself, but remained one of her few possessions originating from the old country.

We knew little of her life prior to emigrating from Hungary, but the anecdotes and fuzzy memories had always had a curious touch of nobility to them. While never rich, once they arrived in New York, Grandmother’s family carried themselves with a poise and reservation alluding to something greater than the near-poverty blue collar world they joyously struggled within. My father had once confided to me that they had left something great behind in the old country. Regretfully, the ignorance of youth and the tragedy of Father’s early departure from this Earth conspired to prevent me from inquiring deeper into what greatness he spoke of. Whatever Father knew of their life in old country went to the grave with him with the finality that only death offers.

Why had Grandmother’s family done this? It was one of those mysteries that would return fewer answers as time marched on. Why indeed would a family, possibly of ample means, abandon it all for a fresh start here in the United States? Based on stories told around the dinner table and over coffee, they were met with no graces, no opportunity, and no lucky breaks. Like so many who came to America, they scraped, starved, and smiled their way to contentment. They took pride in their labor, desired nothing they did not have, and they each pitched in equally to ensure no one went without. They were a true New York story if I had ever heard one.

And now it all was unraveling, because of a sparrow.

Staring down forty years of age, just ten shy of Father’s last birthday, I found myself the patriarch of our humble family. It fell on me to care for Grandmother, but I was happy to do so. Elise and I had never had children of our own, so having Grandmother join us helped us to feel like a family again. Her presence made our lives feel full for the first time since our marriage. Not once had she felt like an inconvenience.

Our love for Grandmother grew daily, even as we learned to ignore her quirks. In the beginning we would lie in bed and giggle about her strange mannerisms, and her eccentric superstitions. She often spoke of things taught to her by the taltos, which I assume was a type of Old Country holy man. More likely it was less of a righteous counselor and more an opportunistic carnie. She often spoke of the taltos in the same breath as luck, omens, spirits, and divination. There was always a glimmer of fearful reverence in her eyes when she spoke of these things.

Grandmother was no pagan, her devotion to God would not allow such a notion. To her the world was a complicated and mysterious amalgam of the natural, supernatural, and Holy. The earth itself had a way, and that way would impose itself on daily life. Everything was potentially an omen, from seating arrangements, winter’s severity, which foot hit the floor first upon waking, and the presence of various itches along one’s body. Our bedtime giggling soon dulled as the folksy mannerisms simple became part of our daily expectation. Grandmother was marvelously authentic, and for that we adored her.

On the second day following the bird’s visit she stopped sleeping. Grandmother prayed deep into the night, finally leaving her bended knees only to lie wide-eyed in bed, clutching a ragged iron cross and singing a haunting melody to herself, barely loud enough to escape her lips. Grandmother shivered convulsively on these troubled nights, and I feared for health. The trembling of her body would shake her bed, rattling the headboard against the wall. Fearing that she was falling into seizures I would check in to find her awake and singing. Her lips had a look of cyanosis, and her body was frigid to touch.

Yet she petulantly refused to close her window in the evening. When I first suggested it to her, because of her plummeting nocturnal body temperature, she spat toward the window and spoke rapidly in Hungarian. My linguistic skills were embarrassingly poor, having been the first generation of our family to “go native,” so I did not comprehend much of what she excitedly murmured into the darkness. From the aggravated words that Grandmother spoke that night, only the word “izcacus” stuck with me. Its meaning is unknown to me, but something told me not to dare ask Grandmother for definition.

It had been six days since the sparrow visited Grandmother, and she was now a wispy scrap of what she only a week prior. She was fading from us; she refused any mention of doctors, and denied our attempts to help. Grandmother would not take any food, save for a chicken stock heavy with garlic and a floral herb I am not familiar with. She would struggle to prepare this concoction every morning, chasing us from the kitchen if we tried to meddle. The broth’s bouquet still stalks our home like a fragrant ghost.

Strength was bleeding from her even as her breathing became more labored. My dear wife and I could do nothing but stand by and watch as my beloved Grandmother faced the coming finale. Our own consciences were comforted knowing that we were there for moral support as the end neared. She gave no sign that our companionship was appreciated, but given her deterioration we knew her mind and heart were preoccupied. With much guilt I prayed to God for a sudden and final end for her; she deserved eternal rest more than anyone I have ever known. Yet even as I prayed for her death, I could hear her in the next room, tenaciously battling to live.

My own sleep would not come. I listened to the rising and falling of her prayers, her songs, her breathing. Something was pushing her towards the Final Moment, but she was clinging to life. Perhaps she was expecting something, or someone, to appear to usher her from this world to the next. Maybe Grandmother was afraid to leave too soon, awaiting fulfillment of some scrap of taltos prophecy or another.

Then all fell silent in our apartment.

Gone were the mutterings, the melody, and the stilted breathing. Elise slept beside me, unaware of the change. All I could hear was the racing of my own heartbeat and the gentle lapping of Grandmother’s curtains against the window’s frame, ever billowing with breezy night air.

Motivated by some blend of morbid curiosity and true desperate concern I slid from my bed and hurried into Grandmother’s room. Once my still-adjusting eyes comprehended the tableau awaiting me, I reeled. Staggering back into the room I confirmed what my brain was struggling to fathom. Upon the window sill sat what at first appeared to be a fat, filthy gourd. It was instead a rat, large and greasy, standing on its hind legs and exploring the scent of the room with its twitching nose.

Opposite the window was Grandmother, sitting upright in her bed. She wore an indignant expression on her face, lower jaw clenched as she ground her teeth. With her left hand she clutched the crude iron cross, and as I looked on, she swiftly pulled her right hand from beneath her sheets. She was holding a glittering knife, more dagger than cutlery. Its pointed blade caught the low, lazy light of the candle sitting upon her night stand. Silvery reflections scattered across the walls, chasing shadows away only momentarily before darkness again reclaimed the room. I stood befuddled, perplexed by this unexpected scene.

The rat flinched as Grandmother leaned forward and began to exhale a whistling litany from between her teeth. Her throat raspy, her mouth dry, she continued to repeat a series of rhythmic phrases. My ears tried to tune into the syllables, hoping to find some meaning to her troubled monologue. All that my ears found was a hypnotic lullaby that froze me where I stood helpless to watch this standoff play out.

I saw tension form in Grandmother’s wrist, and it was clear that she was preparing to throw the knife.

Time slowed and my eyes grew larger, wishing for all of this only to be a dream. My dear, sweet grandmother was gone, replaced with a wild, dementia-touched woman I did not recognize. I could not move, nor could I speak, so I cried. Large tears welled in my eyes and streamed down my face as this mad performance continued.

The dagger snapped forward and Grandmother’s bony fingers flung it towards the rodent. The flashing blade had just begun its flight when the oval portrait fell from the wall unprovoked. The visage of young Hajnal crashed onto the floor as the knife simultaneously glanced of the sill, low of its desired mark. The rat recoiled and escaped into the dark beyond.

By the time the knife clattered harmlessly to the floor, whatever emotional hex immobilized my body had faded. I moved across the room to find Grandmother had fainted, already lapsed into a steady sleep. I paced about her bedside, fretting of what to do. She seemed to be sleeping, but I feared that she had spent the last of her vitality in that bizarre display. Should I wake her? Should I wake Elise? Call the doctors? As I looked down at her face, removed of all tension and expression, it suddenly seemed like a betrayal to do anything but just let her be. If she was to slip into oblivion, so be it.

I returned to my bed and wept myself to sleep.

My wife was soon rousing me, having waked before I had. She couldn’t speak, yet she continued to choke on words that refused to come forth. She chewed on her knuckled and bloodshot eyes swam behind pools of tears. I nodded, and immediately decide not to tell her about the previous night’s commotion.

Assuming that I would find Grandmother as I left her, I was unprepared for the visual offered to me.

Slung across Grandmother’s bed was a rigid and deflated equivalent of Grandmother. The body lying before me was more than gaunt; it appeared mummified. The corpse appeared to be nothing more than a sharp featured skeleton swaddled in loose, ashen casing. It didn’t look real, certainly not immediately recognizable as Grandmother, and my mind refused to grasp the horror of it all. Just hours before this had been a living, breathing human being. Grandmother. My heart broke as the sight this ghoulish cadaver, drained of all spark or sign of vitality, defiled my memories of her.

Elise appeared behind me, herself still sobbing and unable to speak. With great difficulty she pulled one hand from her mouth and pointed towards Grandmother’s pillow. More specifically, she drew my attention to Grandmother’s neck. Just below her ear and above her collar there was a terrible wound.

While the rest of her form appeared to be drained of all color, this pair of swollen lacerations still held the angry crimson hue of injury.

There was no doubt that the rat had returned. Perhaps the foul creature smelt impending death and sought a defenseless meal. Perhaps to these slinking rodents even human beings, the able masters of the animal kingdom, were just another option along the food chain when opportunity arose. Life feeds on life. “Nature red in tooth and claw,” as is said. My body shivered at the thought and my stomach knotted. Resigned that there was no other explanation for the source of the wound, I turned to my wife.

Elise collapsed into my chest, now in hysterical mourning. Her grief was contagious and I too broke down anew.

Part-dragging and part-dancing my grieving spouse to the window, I slammed it down tight. I twisted the brass latch tight, thus sealing our home from the cruelness that seethes unseen beyond our sills and thresholds. My wife and I stood together before the window, bathing in the sun’s warm rays, and cried for most of the morning.

Things had changed.

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