Night had fully settled when the boys arrived in the village.
Like most villages they had passed through, this one had the same impoverished, almost feudal look about it. The buildings along the main street of the village looked tired and dated, the designs and exteriors suggesting that they may have been built early in the previous century. This part of Hungary was resisting the call to move into the twentieth century, although that didn’t matter to Kurt Slovinsky, because the most important task was to find a bed for the night. Lanterns hung out the front of a few buildings and provided dull, patched light, although there were no signs on any of the buildings to indicate what business they offered. There wasn’t many people on the streets, a few tired looking men trudging up laneways, a few women scuttling about, and it seemed obvious that this village was preparing to shut down for the night. Kurt saw a portly woman carrying a large basket, and he jogged over to her and asked politely, “English? You speak English?”
The woman stared at him, seemed to be sizing him up; then she glanced at Jack, and instead of answering, the woman scurried away. Confused, the boys glanced at one another, then they turned their focus back to the woman. She seemed like she was in a hurry to get somewhere, although she stopped and looked at them, then she motioned for them to follow. They followed her, walking down the length of the main street, walked past the market stalls, then turned up an inclining cobbled pathway, walked past rows of small semi-detached houses, until she stopped at a door. She knocked on a door, and without waiting for an answer, she opened the door and ushered them inside, and then she pointed to a man sitting in a creaking rocking chair.
Kurt glanced at the man, then turned to thank the woman, but she had already scurried away. He cleared his throat and said, “Hello, you speak English?”
Without looking up, the man muttered, “American?”
Jack Trent strode in front of the man and said confidently, “Yes, yes, we’re Americans; you speak English?”
“I speak many tongues.” the man replied.
“Great, we’re looking for lodgings for the night; can you direct us to a motel?” Kurt asked.
“You have money?” the man asked.
“Yes we do.”
“How many nights you want lodgings?”
“We’re travelling, so just one night.”
The man considered, then said, “Ten dollar and you can stay here.”
“Okay, fine, thank-you.”
“You want coffee?”
The house was small, the living area pushing back to join the kitchen, and past the kitchen there was a back hallway. The boys were directed to sit at a small wooden table near the kitchen bench, and after sitting, Jack asked, “What is your name sir?”
“My name is Jack, and this is Kurt.”
“What is two Americans doing here?”
“We finished college last year and we’re travelling around the villages.” Kurt replied.
“My father lived in a village near here, and I guess I just wanted to know about my roots.”
“Well, I wanted to see the village where my father lived.”
Jack waited for his friend to be more explicit, although it appeared that he wasn’t going to be, so Jack added, “Kurt wants to know what happened to his father.”
Slovan looked at Kurt, studied him, then asked, “What your surname?”
“Slovinsky,” Slovan said, “I know of no Slovinsky’s.”
“His village was Crevenia.” Kurt replied.
The man offered no comment as he shuffled to the table and placed the steaming mugs in front of the boys.
“How far is Crevenia from here?” Kurt asked.
Slovan placed his mug on the table and then sat down as he said, “Crevenia half day travel; I can take you tomorrow.”
Kurt and Jack looked at each other in surprise, then Kurt said, “Great, thank-you.”
“Half day travel for you, full day travel for me, you pay me ten dollar.”
The coffee was hot, strong and bitter, and Kurt crinkled his nose and blinked his eyes as he sipped. He knew immediately that it was going to be a struggle to finish the coffee, and trying not to appear unappreciative, he turned away from Slovan then let his face crease in displeasure. With his head still turned, Kurt glanced around the room, looking at the old and tired furniture, looking at the worn and frayed rug sitting in the middle of the room, although he rocked back in surprise when he saw a photograph propped up on a table by the wall. Jack saw his startled reaction, and he asked casually, “You okay?”
Kurt glanced at him, nodded and said, “Arhhh, yeah, sure.” Then he swung his gaze back to the photograph and stared at it. He had seen the photo before, or at the very least, he had seen the person in the photo before. Unsettled and confused, he turned to the Slovan and asked, “Is that your wife?”
Slovan glanced at the photograph then muttered, “No.”
“May I look at the photo?” Kurt asked.
The top corners of the grainy three-inch by three-inch photo were curling, and white-lined creases were prominent through the middle of the photo, yet the image was very clear; a woman in a transparent white gown centred in the photo. The gown was gathered in front of her groin, although it was plain to see that she wasn’t wearing any undergarments, the buds of her nipples clearly visible. She had fair hair flowing well past her shoulders, the photo showing the woman with her head down, her facial features not fully visible. Her face was slightly turned to her left side, her delicate chin almost resting on her left collarbone, her lips slightly parted, her eyes closed. The shape of her body was visible through the transparent gown, the woman slim, her breasts generous, her legs shapely.
Kurt was stunned, because he had seen this image before, in his dreams. For more than two months, the image of the woman had randomly popped up in his dreams, and the image in the dreams was identical to the photo; the same modest pose, the same transparent gown. The modest pose seemed to suggest that the woman felt uncomfortable about being photographed, but the modest pose added to the allure of the shot. The photo spoke of shyness and innocence, yet it also blazed with mystery and intrigue.
Deep in thought, Kurt mumbled, “You can’t see her face properly.”
“She’s gorgeous,” Jack said, and then intent on allowing his masculinity to parade, he added casually, “With a body like that, does it really matter what her face is like?”
“Who is it?” Kurt asked.
“Her name is Thiebe, and some say she from Crevenia.” the man replied.
“She looks gorgeous, but have you seen her face?” Jack asked.
“Stories say that she is the most beautiful woman in the world,” Slovan began, looking up at Jack, “They say the woman lives in Crevenia, in a castle on a hill, deep in the woods, and wise men don’t disturb her.”
“What do you mean?” Kurt asked.
“A man went up to the castle on the hill, but …”
They both waited until Kurt prompted, “But what?”
“The man, he don’t come down.”
“What do you mean?”
“A man went up to the castle on the hill, and nobody ever seen him again.”
Jack was curious. “What are you saying; a man went up there and he stayed with her or something?”
“I said he went up and nobody ever saw him again.” Slovan said, then he allowed his gaze to fall to the table as he mumbled, “Stories about her, legends, myths about her.”
“What kind of myths?”
Slovan drew in a breath, then hushed out, “Some say that the woman is not one of us.”
Kurt glanced at Jack, then faced the man as he asked, “What do you mean, not one of us?”
“I know little of the woman, I know only of the stories.”
“Tell us about the stories.”
“I told you, a man go up to the castle on the hill, and he don’t come down.”
“Does she live by herself?” Kurt asked.
“Some say that another woman lives there.” Slovan replied.
“It all sounds a bit mysterious.” Jack muttered.
“So you’ve never actually seen her?” Kurt asked.
“I know of no-one who has seen her,” Slovan began as he glanced at the photo, “Some men in Crevenia maybe seen her.”
“I’d like to see her if she’s supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world,” Jack began, “So maybe we can speak to the men in Crevenia and they can tell us what she looks like.”
“Maybe that is so.”
Silence surrounded them, Kurt deep in thought. His parents had lived in Crevenia until his mother left her cheating husband and began a new life in America, so there could be a chance that his father still lived in the village. Slovan had mentioned that a man had visited the woman in the photo, and then the man was never seen again. With a nervous excitement, Kurt asked, “What was the name of the man who went missing?”
“Your question best be asked in Crevenia.” Slovan replied blandly.
“Okay, we will pay you to take us there.”
Slovan finished his drink and said, “I take you to Crevenia tomorrow.”
Slovan stood, walked into the rear hallway and motioned for the boys to follow him. He knocked his fist against a door directly in front of him as he said, “Bathroom.” Doors were closed at both ends of the small hallway, and Slovan pushed open the door at the northern end and walked into the room. Hunching over, he lit a candle that sat on a small table between the beds, then he said, “Two beds in here.”
Kurt and Jack dumped their back-packs at the end of the beds, and Kurt said pleasantly, “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Slovan put his hand out and muttered, “Ten dollar.”
Jack rifled around in his bag, and a moment later he handed the bill to Slovan, The man nodded, then walked out of the room. Kurt frowned as he suddenly realised that he still had the photo clutched in his right hand. His action hadn’t been intentional, and he considered slipping out to put it back on the table, but as he looked at it again, he decided that could wait until tomorrow.
The boys undressed and climbed into bed, and after shuffling restlessly, Jack complained, “Terrible mattress, lumpy and thin.”
“It’s going to have to do.” Kurt replied, then he held the photo near the candle and studied it, and the more thorough examination helped his understand that he had never been so aroused by simply looking at a single image. The photographer had produced an image awash with sensuality; the slender, feminine body demanding to be looked at, while the bowed face gave the woman a submissive, mysterious quality. Aroused yes, but also spooked.
Jack glanced at him and said, “I bet she is beautiful.”
“If she lives in my father’s village,” Kurt began, then he paused to blow out the candle, “We might be lucky enough to meet her.”
Eggs for breakfast, both Kurt and Jack having their coffee without the sour smelling goats milk.
While eating, Kurt couldn’t help himself staring at the photo, and it wasn’t just because the photo was mesmerizing, it was also because the image of the woman had floated into his dreams last night. Again.
“You like photo?” Slovan asked.
His focus disturbed, Kurt looked up and asked, “Sorry?”
“You like photo?”
“Yes I do.”
Kurt considered the offer, then he looked at the photo again. In the more modernized villages that they had already travelled through, they had bought a dozen photos of completely naked women for just a couple of dollars; but this photo, the photo of this mysterious woman, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world, was something else again. And for five dollars, it could be his.
A photo of a woman he had seen in his dreams.
He handed Slovan a five dollar note, placed the photo in a paper bag, then carefully tucked it into his back-pack.
After breakfast, Slovan led them around to the stables. He harnessed the tired looking horse, hooked up the dilapidated cart, then invited the boys on.
The morning had its customary chill about it, the leafy trees shimmering with evaporating frost as the horse plodded its way along the dirt path. The boys could see men out in the fields already, ploughing, hoeing, cultivating.
For most of the journey, the path inclined steadily, the horse resiliently trudging on, the fields eventually giving way to acres of heavily forested areas, the dense amalgamation of towering trees seeming to give the area its own sense of gloom.
By early afternoon, the density of the trees subsided, new fields appearing, fields with men hard at work, the figures seeming tiny from the elevated path.
Timber houses began appearing, then mud-brick dwellings, women with baskets strapped to their backs stepping aside as the cart rambled by them.
The sound of children playing became evident, and as they reached the crest of a hill and began descending, a large, bustling village came into view. The pathway widened to more than double its width as Slovan coaxed the horse down the hill, then pulled it to a halt at the start of the market.
Jack handed over the note, nodding, “Thank-you.”
“Who should I see to ask about my father?” Kurt asked.
“Ivan speak English, and he be at the Inn after supper.”
“We ask for Ivan?”
Slovan unhitched the horse and led him towards the stables, and Kurt called out, “Thank you Slovan, thank you for all your help!”
They walked down the main thoroughfare, and Jack smiled and nodded at the villagers who stared at him as they walked by.
“Come on Jack, let’s see if we can get a bed at the Inn; I’m exhausted.”
“Yeah funny,” Jack mused, “We’ve just been sitting on our backsides for six hours, but I could use a nap.”
Before bedding down for a nap, Kurt pulled the photo out and stared at it. Unfortunately, a grainy three by three photograph now had power over him; he had to meet this woman, the woman who had invaded his dreams.
The boys dined at the Inn, the meal a reasonable price, although the lamb was tough and stringy, the potatoes and carrots over-boiled.
After finishing the meal, they walked out of the meals area into the bar of the Inn, Jack nodding to the bar-keep as he asked, “You speak English?”
No answer, just a glare.
More than a dozen men sat around the tables, and all turned to look at Jack.
“Two beer please.” he said loudly, pointing at the keg, then he silently admonished himself. It was a habit that he just couldn’t break; raising his voice to those who didn’t understand him, as if speaking louder was suddenly going to help them understand what he was saying.
Two big glass mugs were placed in front of him, beer frothing down the sides, and Jack handed over a five, then he waited for a moment to see if there was going to be any change returned.
“Ivan?” Kurt asked the bar-keep.
The bar-keep glared at him, then pointed over to a dark corner.
The boys slunk over, Jack nodding at the men who were all still staring at them.
Kurt was uncomfortable because of the unwavering glares, although he tried to smile as he asked, “Hello, are you Ivan?”
The large bearded man glanced up, “Aye, who you be?”
“Slovan told us to ask for you.”
“My father used to live in this village, and he disappeared almost twenty years ago.”
“Yes, my father’s new wife said he went out one morning, and she never saw him again.”
“Father’s new wife?” Ivan asked.
“Ummm, my father met another woman, and my mother left him and then took me to America.”
Ivan slurped from the mug.
“Are you English?” Kurt asked, “You know, your accent.”
“Born here, spent twenty years in London, come back here.”
“Okay, well you may have known my father; Hors Slovinsky.”
“I heard the name, but no Slovinsky’s here anymore.”
Jack faced Kurt and said, “Maybe we can ask in the village tomorrow.”
Kurt nodded, then thinking about the woman, he asked politely, “Do you know Theibe?”
Ivan glanced at him and asked, “How do you know of her?”
Kurt pulled the photo out of his pocket and showed it Ivan. “Slovan sold me a photo of her.”
Neither his answer nor the presentation of the photo prompted a reply, so Kurt asked, “Do you know where she lives?”
“She lives in a castle on a hill in the middle of the woods.”
“Have you ever seen her?” Jack asked.
“Slovan said that she is supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world.” Kurt said meekly.
Ivan gulped down his beer, wiped a wrist across his whiskers then said, “Get me beer.”
Jack scurried over to the bar, and soon he returned with another large mug which he placed in front of Ivan.
Kurt was curious and he asked, “This woman lives here, but you have never seen her?”
“Woman lives in a castle in the woods, but no man should go there.”
Ivan was a big, fearsome looking man whose voice was loud and gruff, although his last statement seemed almost timid.
“We could pay you if you could take us to meet her.” Kurt stated.
Ivan leant forward, staring at Kurt as he hushed out, “If you meet her, there may well be a price to pay.”
Kurt and Jack looked at each other then turned their focus back to him. “We have money.” Kurt said.
Ivan pursed his lips, a suggestion of a frown appearing as he replied, “I not talking about money.”
Jack fiddled with his drink as he asked, “What are you talking about then?”
“A price boy,” Ivan replied quietly, “A big price.”
Kurt watched Jack rotate his mug on the coaster, then he looked at the man and asked, “What is the price?”
For the first time, Ivan leant back against the wooden frame of the chair and began drumming his fingers on the table. “Castle up on the hill be abandoned for near on fifty years, and the year the comet come through, the woman be in the castle. Some say that a man went to see the woman, and nobody ever seen him again.”
“What year did the comet come through?”
“1910, that’s the year that my father went missing!” Kurt stated.
Jack fidgeted with his drink then he said sheepishly, “Slovan said that the woman might not be one of us, but he wouldn’t tell us what that meant.”
“Slovan don’t know who she is, and I don’t know who she is,” he replied gruffly, then he softened his tone as he added, “Or what she is.”
“Or what she is? What do you mean?”
Ivan stood to leave, “If you pay me, I can take you to the bottom of the hill, but I say again, wise men don’t bother the woman.”
Ivan finished his beer, pushed up, then began to stride away. Kurt was bemused by the man’s sudden departure, and he asked urgently, “Jack, do you want to see her?”
Jack shook his head as he muttered, “I dunno, everybody seems shit scared of her.”
Kurt looked at the photo, then raised his face and called out, “Ivan, yes, we will pay you!”
Ivan walked back to the table, and bracing his huge arms on the table, he said quietly, “You pay me ten dollars and I take you there tomorrow night.”
“Ummm, how about tomorrow during the day?” Kurt asked.
“I work in the fields all day.” Ivan replied gruffly.
“Okay, tomorrow night, sure.”
“I call in here tomorrow at midnight, and I take you.” Ivan stated, then he began walking away. One of the men sitting at a table seemed to ask Ivan a question, and Ivan glanced at the boys, then turned back to the man and answered in the native tongue. After hearing Ivan’s answer, the men laughed, one of them sniggering as he looked at the boys.
“Do you think they’re talking about us?” Jack asked quietly.
“Arhhh, how about we finish the drink and go to our room.” Kurt suggested.
By early morning, the boys walked into the heart of the village and turned into a building that was obviously a bakery. “Hello, you speak English?” Kurt asked.
“Aye.” replied the middle-aged man.
“Great; we were wondering who is the Mayor, and where is his office?”
“What is?” the man asked.
“This is a farming village and they probably don’t have a Mayor,” Jack said to Kurt, then he turned his attention to the man, “Who is the village leader?”
“That be Boris.”
“Where can we find Boris?”
“Stables down there.” the man replied, pointing east.
The boys walked into the stables and a saw a young boy shovelling horse manure into a bucket.
“Excuse me my friend, we are looking for Boris.”
The boy straightened and stared at them for a moment, then walked away.
“Should we follow him?” Kurt asked.
“Arrhh, maybe just wait a minute.”
Soon the boy re-appeared, a portly man following him. The boy returned to the stable and picked up his shovel as the man stood in front of them and asked bluntly, “Who are you?”
“My name is Kurt, and this is my friend Jack.”
“What do you want?”
“My parents, Hors and Elena Slovinsky used to live here in Crevenia, and I was just wanting to speak to someone about them.”
“Are you son of Hors and Elena?”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“I remember the boy, young boy.”
“I was three years old when my mother left this village.”
“People say Elena Slovinsky move to America.”
“Yes, we live in America.”
“Why you come here?”
“My father disappeared almost twenty years ago, and I’m just wanting to find out what happened to him.”
The man deliberated then said, “Hors is no more.”
Kurt was a little stunned by the abrupt statement and he asked, “You knew my father?”
“Your father was a good man,” he stated, “But a foolish man.”
“Hors be tempted by a young woman, and he ruined his marriage.”
“Well yes, that is why my mother left him and moved to America.”
“Aye, then years later Hors stick his nose in things that don’t concern him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hors went up to the castle on the hill, and nobody even seen him again.”
Kurt rocked back in surprise, then he asked uncertainly, “My father went up to the castle on the hill?”
“So it is said.”
“So, so, my father could still be there?” Kurt asked expectantly, “He could still be alive?”
“No boy, men go up to the castle looking for Hors, but he nowhere to be found; we told Ivanka Slovinsky that he wasn’t there.”
“You were one of the men who went looking for him?”
“So you saw the woman, you saw Theibe?”
“Aye, Thiebe and another woman, Ada.”
“Had they seen my father?”
“Thiebe said no, she said we were the only men to ever go up.”
Kurt was pleased that he may have stumbled on to a clue, but he was annoyed that a man could go missing, and it appeared that the whole village was happy to go on as if nothing had happened. “Did you search the castle?”
“More ’ren a dozen men went up, and we search the castle, and Hors not there.”
“The women could have been lying, she may have done something to my father and then lied about it.”
Boris sighed, then said, “Hors tell Ivanka that he was going there, but the women in the castle said no man has ever been there, so maybe Hors be the liar; maybe Hors abandon another wife and go to another village.”
Kurt ran it through his mind then said, “Ivan is going to take Jack and me to the castle tomorrow night, so maybe you could organise a few men to come with us.”
Boris coughed out an unfriendly laugh then said, “No men from this village would even go into the woods.”
Boris drew in a breath then said, “I was one of the men who went up, and I will never disturb the women again.”
Boris lowered his gaze as he said quietly, “The woman called Thiebe is, is …”
The boys waited, then Jack prompted, “The woman is what?”
Boris stared at him then said blandly, “If you wish to go, you go; but no men will follow you.”
Kurt was bemused, although he regathered and pulled the photo out, then asked, “Is this Thiebe?”
Boris raised his eyebrows and asked, “Where you get this?”
“Slovan from the next village sold it to me.” Kurt replied, then he asked again, “Is it Thiebe?”
“Thiebe was standing in the shadows, so we never saw her face, but she said she is Thiebe.”
“Slovan said that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.” Jack mentioned.
“Slovan don’t know, cause he never seen her, and we didn’t see her face,” Boris responded, then he added thoughtfully, “She look good in photo.”
“I want to find out what happened …” Kurt began, although he stopped mid-sentence as Boris began walking away, “Hey, wait!”
Boris walked back into the stables, and slightly rattled, Kurt turned to Jack and muttered, “Can you believe that? He just walked away.”
Jack shrugged his shoulders and said, “I guess he’s saying, no, he doesn’t want to find out.”
Kurt and Jack had dinner at the Inn, then returned to the room, and Kurt opened a bottle of beer. The beer frothed gleefully, the white froth a contrast to the dark liquid. The beer had a kick, the taste bitter, sour, but it was all they could buy, and they needed a drink.
“After this bottle, we better have a nap, because Ivan will be here at midnight.” Kurt said.
“I don’t know, maybe we should just keep asking the villagers about your father.” Jack replied.
Kurt chugged back a mouthful of beer, wincing at the kick, then picked up the photo, studying it as he said, “Jack, I want to speak to this woman about my father.”
“Sure, but everybody seems shit scared of her, or scared of the castle or whatever.”
“Boris said that my father went up to the castle,” Kurt said, then still looking at the photo, he added, “We came here to find out about my father, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
“Kurt, we’ve met three guys who have told us the same thing; maybe he went up there, and he didn’t come down.”
“Yeah, three fools who are stuck in the middle ages. We’re Americans Jack, and nobody is going to mistreat us.”
“Hmmm, let’s sleep on it okay, and talk about it later.”
Kurt wondered whether he should tell Jack about his dreams, but as he thought about it, he decided that now wasn’t the right time. The dreams had been occurring randomly for more than two months, although even since they had landed in the country, he’d been having the dream every night, and the major image in the dream was always the woman in the photograph; so if he off-loaded this tale onto his friend, Jack may be even more reluctant than he was at the moment. Settling into bed, Kurt said, “Ivan’s coming to get us at midnight, so all the talking is done.”
It took Kurt ages to get to sleep, the photo on his mind. Briefly, he tried to convince himself that the woman in the photo wasn’t the same woman from his dreams, and maybe it was simply his sub-conscious haphazardly assembling the distorted pieces together; although quickly, he realised that he was kidding himself. He couldn’t run away from this, couldn’t ignore this strange reality, because while the first glance at the photo had rocked him, it had also been confirmation; a woman from his dreams was real.
Kurt had always vowed to find out what had happened to his father, and unwittingly, the frequent dreams had fast-tracked his actions. Finding out what happened to his father was his immediate concern, although something else was growing in importance; he just had to meet the woman.
As he began to dose, he thought about the dozen photos he had in his bag of completely naked women, and he imagined himself strolling up to the woman named Thiebe and saying encouragingly, For your next photo, maybe you could slip out of that lovely gown … and then he could loosen the transparent gown and guide it down the slender body, then his hands could cruise over the smooth flesh, and vitally, more importantly, he could cup a hand under her chin and gently tilt it upwards so that he could gaze upon the face that he so wanted to see.