‘Whose is the corpse? Marius asked as the gates of the TB clinic swung open and the glass-sided hearse clattered by. Wreathed in paper flowers it was borne along by four sleek horses caparisoned in vermillion and gold. Their violet plumes nodded in the wind.
We stepped back from the frozen track to let the cortege pass. Opposite, inmates wearing disturbing stripy pyjamas stared into nothingness behind the decaying metal fence. They were swilling gruel around dented aluminium beakers. Unkempt hair, shoes clogged with mud, desperately pale. Snow fell.
‘It was a boy’ one of them wheezed indifferently and looked away.
‘He had lemon hair.’
In Transylvania ambiguity prevails. Everything seems to have a double meaning. You read about vampires and Vlad the Impaler who allegedly murdered one quarter of the population, but is any of it true? Does it matter? In the absence of certainty the mind casts about for connections.
We decided to search for the boy’s grave. At the nearby Saxon Church two gravediggers dressed in blue aprons stood before a newly-dug pit surmounted by a stone cross. They resembled butchers with their blood-chapped hands, ruddy faces and implements of steel. I ran the upturned soil through my fingers. Fertile, friable, warm, it stank of moss. The stuff hyacinths love.
It was an old man’s grave, not a boy’s.
Everywhere we looked lay intimations of the macabre. It was 1993. Ceausescu and his wife had been shot. The country was shedding its communist skin and we felt trapped. It was as if we’d crossed over into a parallel world, what the Celts called ‘the Edge’. We wondered if we’d ever get back.
‘I take you to Botinda’ Marius announced darkly.
‘The castle is haunted’.
Here we go again, chasing the supernatural as if we were pawns in a groove. Okay we decided, let him take us there and be damned.
I wish we hadn’t. The gaunt 18th century pile exuded decay. Shattered and mutilated its gaping baroque rooves leered into a pewter sky. It resembled the victim of a blitzkrieg attack. We tiptoed round the broken statues. Exasperated by the last incumbent, the novelist Miklos Banffy, the Nazis had torched the place. Everything had gone up: the library, the family portraits, the petit point cushions worked by the Countess descrying images of birds.
Only smoke-dyed walls were left offset by a sculpture of Cronos devouring his son: the screaming half-eaten boy held to his father’s mouth as if he was a chunk of kebab. It was dreadful. Marius, a former member of Securitate, the Romanian Secret Police, flinched. ‘We call it the Forest of the Hanged’ he said simply. No further explanation was offered.
Gingerly, as if negotiating a carpet of ice, a gypsy woman approached dressed in a rose-patterned shawl. What she had come to disclose was unsettling, the stuff of fantasy. The corpse of a young lad lay buried within the castle walls, she whimpered. No-one knew where. Stabbed in the back when love-making in an act of seduction and revenge. They strewed his coffin with paper flowers, violets in the form of crowns. He’d had lemon hair, she added sadly, as an afterthought. Tears slid down her face.
We wanted to give the woman something, a few leu or some food from our cache of provisions, so when Marius shooed her away I couldn’t help projecting my frustrations. Oh, why not bestow her with humility? Why not listen and let her finish? There had been nothing to like about the side of Transylvania he had shown us. All this talk about death had been hateful, depressing, ugly, lop-sided.
Whereupon the sky darkened over the derelict park and the rooks ceased cawing. I wanted to leave.
And yet I knew of the existence of a different Transylvania, one I remember seeing in the cinema as a child. A landscape of sunlit valleys and warm bucolic hospitality, of country dancing and costumes of crimson and apple moving to the rhythm of the zongora, violin and drum; and little wooden villages surrounded by cows with bells, and children with shells on their shoes. The pace of life had been slow and rhythmical and appealing. It had touched my heart and it’s still there. What we’d seen represented only the dark side of the coin. The picture was incomplete.
I dug deeper. Who was the boy with lemon hair if not an aspect of me? The puer aeternus, the eternal youth, who must be incorporated in order to reveal new horizons?
The moment had come for me to exorcise that boy.
To re-establish my love for Transylvania I need to go back.