This story is about an encounter I had with a woman my first year in Hungary. It was a brief conversation, but I was so broken by her anger that it stuck with me and lead to a story beyond my true knowledge of her. It’s one of my longer ones, so grab a cup of coffee before you sit down. As always, please provide any feedback you think would be helpful. thanks
The Empty Tomb
Morning began, but not before she had risen before the sun to start her day. The water boiled on the stove and the rolling bubbles and the shuffling of feet were all that was heard. Rozsa Nemeth lifted the kettle and poured the water over the tea bag. Her name had once made perfect sense. She had been a rose, pink and elegant, demure and ravishing. It had been years since she had looked so. She was perhaps still a flower, but one that has been resting in a vase too long, overlooked and only there because the once delighted recipient had forgotten to discard it. The water had since grown green and slick with algae. Her nickname had been “Rozsi,” but now it seemed silly to have called her so. Rozsa was wilted and alone in an empty vase; her other floral companions had died long ago.
She sat and surveyed her quarters of yellowing wallpaper and faded upholstery. Her eyes rested where her heart always dwelled – upon two pictures on an end table. The men looked like brothers whose pictures had been taken in the prime of life. Yet, with a generation between them and life behind them, they occupied the altar of Rozsa’s heart. There was room for little else or if truth be told, nothing else. Her eyes rested on theirs and a deep sigh welled up and the morning tears began to flow. She missed her husband and son, both taken from her so young, so suddenly and very begrudgingly. She never questioned the years of tears; it seemed natural to cry and habitual. Had someone been there to ask what she missed most, Rozsa would have been hard pressed to pinpoint a memory or characteristic. These two men were no longer living memories; they were a reason to weep. This habit of tears was a deep rut she’d worn from constant travel; she no longer mourned her men, she mourned sorrow. She did not realize this, nor would she have been able to see this clearly with her eyes so callused by the determined flow.
Wiping her eyes, she reminded herself of what remained. She had her habits and God and the two overlapped twice daily. Looking at the clock on the wall, she stood up, pulled on her coat, faded and worn and walked out her door. Everything would be the same when she returned; only the steam would no longer rise from her nearly full cup of tea. The delicate china had a few chips, yet Rozsa continued to use the same cup disregarding the perfectly intact ones in the cupboard and took only a few sips each morning. This too was an empty habit that was no longer performed for enjoyment, but was a well-worn tread.
As she turned onto the sidewalk from the front door of her building, it occurred to her that it had snowed the night before. The street lamps were still lit as if to tell her that she was awake long before she was expected. The walk to the center of town was not far and the steady crunching of fallen snow counted her steps. Hers were the first footprints along this side of the street and it was unnatural for her to step where others had not. The wind blew slightly and her coat, although old, still managed to keep her frailty warm. The flakes from rooftops whirled and landed on her kerchief that covered her grey hair and then melted instantly. She reached the church steps just as the bells tolled five times. In as many steps she reached the top and slipped in with the other kerchiefed veterans.
The church was cold and did little to welcome those who had ventured out so early to pray. Rozsa found her seat and stood and sat and stood and knelt and stood and prayed in harmony with the others. She could have done as much at home as her heart nor mind had joined her for the service. They rested on her two men she had left at home. The men guarded her tea as she came to ask for mercy that they might know heaven some day. She never thought about heaven for herself. It was not that she didn’t deserve to go, she simply was so preoccupied with the destiny of the other two that she never thought about her inevitable journey to eternity. The priest continued to speak thus providing a constant drone to pave the way before her thoughts. She thought about nothing but her husband and son or perhaps the absence of them. They were no longer with her, thus they had nothing better to do than consume her thoughts more much so than when they had been living. She welcomed the dead into her mind and lived with them in closer proximity than when they had shared a home.
Unconsciously her attention drifted back to the mass just as stealthily as it had escaped. Rozsa gazed at the other women in the service. Her eyes drifted from person to person with a half-interested gaze as she wondered for whom they prayed. Did they have children at home? Were their husbands alive? Did they love God? Were they here for pretension only? There were no answers for her and if there had been, she would have wandered away before an answer had been given. She had enough sorrow of her own. There was no more room for another person’s tragedy.
As the mass ended, she made her way to the front, dropped a few pennies in the box as the widow in the parable, and lighted a candle. She said her words, moved the beads between her wrinkled fingers and left. With a sigh Rozsa pushed open the heavy wooden doors of the church and entered the land of the living. There was a bustle around her unlike when she had entered an hour before. The stores were open and the kids were on their way to school. So much living to do. Having already exited this life, she headed home, ready to exist.
She stopped in at the deli to buy bread and luncheon meat. The bread was fresh and soft to the touch and its fragrance rose when she lifted the loaf. This too was unable to lift her spirits. Years ago, the smell of bread had given her a smile as she thought of how her two men at home would be pleased with her morning purchase. This had been a delight with jam and tea or fresh peppers and coffee for her husband. Now it was bread; something to eat with cold tea when she arrived home. The shopkeeper smiled and greeted her as he did every morning and received his daily nod in return. He had gone to school with Rozsa in childhood. He remembered her pink cheeks and auburn hair and felt as if a part of his life had wilted along with her petals. She climbed the steps to the second floor and opened her door. All was the same and her cold tea sat waiting its consumption with a slice of bread.
The day droned on as it had thousands of times previously. The wash was done and supper prepared. A few times she stole a glance out the window. She never stayed long beside it this time the year. Despite the double-panes and the cushion she placed between them for insulation, there was always a draft. As a young girl she could have sat for hours looking at the world outside. During the summer months, she would open the windows wide and watch as people passed. Her mother always scolded her for giving the neighbors something to talk about.
“Rozsi! How many times do I have to tell you? Come away from that window. Good girls don’t stand there presenting themselves for those who walk by. Nobody likes a forward girl.”
In the winter months the rebuke was similar, but had one addition.
“Rozsi! It’s cold. The draft will kill you. I swear that habit will be the death of you. Mrs. Kovacs told me she saw you sitting there yesterday when I went to the store. Why do you provoke me so?”
While she had never been quite cured of the habit, her mother’s admonitions were always present in her ears. She sat there for just a minute or two, but only to look, she never seemed to acknowledge the life outside nor the part she had once played in it.
As five o’clock neared, she put on her coat again and headed outside. As she neared the square two people approached her. She stopped, confused and almost shocked that something unplanned had taken place.
“Good evening ma’am. I’m sorry to bother you,” they continued talking but her mind was preoccupied with the task at hand; the service would be starting soon. They continued, Rozsa was paralyzed and although not frightened, she dared not move. She said nothing until she heard the word “God.”
“God! Do you want talk to me about God?”
“Are you religious?”
“Religious? Twice a day I go to mass and pray at that church right over there,” pointing to the edifice across the street that waited her arrival. For seventy-five years she had attended that church and in the thirty years since the death of her men, she had ascended those steps twice daily. She began to share this with the two strangers in a manner determined to educate them more on the subject of devotion, than to casually mention her habits.
“Twice daily for thirty years! You are very devoted. You must truly love God.”
At these words, her entire countenance was altered and the rose began to redden.
“Love God? God?” she stammered as if this preposterous question had never occurred to her.
There was silence around her, but the crashing clamor of false ideas inside was deafening. At this question she lifted her hands to cover her face and the wept. “Love God?” she continued. “Love Him! I, I hate Him. He stole my life from me. Love God? How could I love someone so cruel? He is a thief! Love God! No one can lose so much and then kiss the hand that took it.”
Rozsa had carried a grudge like a millstone bound around her neck for years without speaking a word about it, least of all to God. As if recounting for a moment the words of Job, she visualized herself in a courtroom and pointed her finger at her divine enemy, “Oh if I had one to hear me!” God would answer for His evil works against her. She stood before these two strangers and wept and wept. For these thirty years she had mourned the death of her husband and son and had failed to mourn a much more significant loss. Preoccupied with her mortal bereavement, she had neglected to mourn the death of God. These thirty years, He had lain buried in a coffin of mistrust and hopelessness; six feet of human unwillingness and malevolence remained between Himself and Rozsa. At this confession, the bitterness was washed away making room for truth. That evening the tomb was opened.
Lifting her eyes, the strangers saw something no one had witnessed in thirty years. Rozsa smiled and clasped their hands. As she crossed the square, she hurried as the bell tolled. She reached the church steps just as the bells tolled five times. In as many steps she reached the top and slipped in with the other kerchiefed veterans. She must hurry, God was waiting.