The Danube Queen

Mátyás Dunajcsik
Excerpt from the novel in progress Cities of Water


If you start off from the Tunnel and head for home along the Danube, right after the Chain Bridge Palace you will pass by a somewhat austere, seemingly insignificant house, on which the coat of arms of the city of Buda is still visible under the middle first floor window. The only embellishments of the red colored façade are the ornamental reliefs embracing the top of the semi-circular windows, but even those are not too complicated, and the whole structure seems to be rather the brick-and-mortar realization of some mathematical concept than anything else. Above the entrance of this house, there is no lion roaring at the unsuspicious visitor, howling out of the acanthus jungle that supports the upper balcony, just like at your house, and no face of a clown sticks out it’s wrought iron tongue on the gates protecting the carved wood door, just to let this long meandering body part to bifurcate into a network of tendrils and grapevines, forming a curtain of black lacework to block the entrance, as if it protected the lair of a cursed princess or some hellish monstrosity. No, this house is more like the pillared switch-boxes and inlaid electric cabinets of our grandfathers’ time, or the factories and engine rooms that disguise themselves as tenement houses and modest villas in the most unexpected places in the city center: as if the rigorous calculation of the engineers that move the machines inside had somehow made their way to the forefront of the buildings, inspiring even the outside pedestrian to walk in a more regulated way, unconsciously measuring his steps when passing by.

fortepan_13674This is the Water House, and the machineries in its basement have been pumping drinking water up to the hill, into the Buda Castle, for almost four centuries; so it is no wonder that the faeries of the waters of Budapest also used the water-pipes departing from this house for their travels whenever they had business in the royal palace above.

For in every thermal bath of Budapest, there is a girl who emerges time and again from the white veils of the undulating mist, sometimes lays down on the wet marble benches, or sits quietly for hours in the hottest of the hot tubs where medical recommendation would only allow ten or fifteen minutes at a time; who swims several circles in a row underwater, among the patiently paddling pensioners and the fast and furious fanatics of sport; who is quietly greeted by every regular of the bath as an old acquaintance, but is never spoken to; and who is never seen entering or leaving the premises of the swimming pool. If you notice someone who you think might be one of them, try to look her in the eye, if even for a moment, and maybe you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of her second pair of eyelids slowly receding when she blinks; because these eyelids are transparent as those of frogs and other amphibians, enabling them to see perfectly under water – and if you need further evidence, just check if they wear some small jewelry, a bracelet, a pendant or a headband that reminds them of their home. Mussels, volcanic stones, fish bones and seaweed braids are the most common; but sometimes it happens that for the same purpose, they use some man-made object that has sunk into their waters and has been lurking there for centuries.

They are the faeries of the thermal springs. They rarely have a word with anyone, and yet know everything about us, since their hearing is excellent – and they know very well that if something is not spoken about in the pools, it most probably it never happened at all. They take on a human form whenever they fancy, but see this as only one of many disguises; and through our plumbings, aqueducts and drinking wells they can go wherever they wish in our cities. Because if you think of it, these pipes, underground tunnels and hidden sewers form a city of their own within the city, running through our habitats like the network of veins in the human body; and if ever some curious flood was to wash away everything else from our settlements, the walls and the cobblestoned roads, the floorings and the tin roofs, the signposts and the streetcars, still the borders of our city would be clearly retraceable according to these labyrinths of the remaining plumbing, running up to several stories in the air and secretly passing under our streets and squares. This is the reason why whenever someone whispers a drunken confession into a toilet bowl, half-mutters a sentence over a kitchen sink, or utters declarations of love beside a fountain in the park, it is also heard by the faeries of water, who walk among us unnoticed, the same way as we’re never aware what vast underground rivers, what secret streams and springs lie under our footsteps when we walk.

fortepan_24127If on peculiarly silent night, you bend over the tap at home, or curl into the emptied bathtub, pasting your ear on the plughole, sometimes you can hear them sing in the cisterns of the city below.

From the numerous mermaids of Budapest, it was always the three thermal faeries of the Gellért hill who were the most reckless – maybe that is the reason why even in our times, it is still the most unpopulated hill in town, and that since the middle ages, there were rumors of it being the dwelling place of witches. But then in the nineteenth century, when all the three sisters have opened their respective palaces at the foot of the hill, which we know nowadays as the Rudas, the Rác and the Gellért baths, they ceased to be the only witches around: soon every coffeehouse, every vinery and every store converted to the merchandise of the most profitable product of all – love. And of course, wherever there is plenty of love for sale, it is not uncommon for girls to appear and disappear into the night without a trace, after having fooled some precocious youngster around the pool.

The pimps of the girls working here were the men called the donaujäger, or hunters of the Danube, who spent their days by the water, looking for the occasional driftwood, clothes and furniture and everything else the waves could bring, including of course the numerous dead bodies, whose fingers and pockets often turned out to hide something valuable – but during the night, they left the cold waters of the river for the overheated baths and boudoirs, to oversee the nocturnal market of pleasures behind the steam clouds, becoming the worse nightmare a girl could have under the Gellért hill. And if during their night shift, they happened to put up a fight with the wrong girl, who was one of the witches of the hill in disguise, it was not uncommon that the next day’s catch by the Danube became the death of them, as the body drifting downstream that first seemed to be just another beautiful suicide, grabbed the grappling hook shoved in her direction with such a force that it was the scavenger himself who went to meet the body in the deep, with no hope of ever coming back.

fortepan_9998And who knows, maybe it was because of these danubian escapades of revenge, or the fact that they were such close neighbors with the big river, that of all the mermaids of Budapest, it was these lecherous faeries who were granted the honor of which all the others could only dream of: since when the queen of the Danube herself payed a visit to the Hungarian capital, to greet the freshly crowned emperor and king Franz Joseph in his palace, she chose the three sisters to accompany her as her maids of honor. If during that night, someone leaned over the railings of the Chain Bridge, and stared long enough into the abyss of the whirlpools down below, he could easily discern the three unusually colorful water snakes swimming in formation towards the bridge from the direction of the Gellért hill, and disappearing on the other side, just in front of the Water House. It was here that they met their ruler, with whom they climbed the hill through the aqueducts leading to the castle, passed under the square of Saint George, and entered the water closets of the royal chambers.

We do not know exactly where it was that they took a human form. But we know of several people who later claimed to have seen a fabulously dressed woman and her three companions, as they made their way towards the study of the emperor. The queen of the Danube wore a long, silvery dress, which appeared to be an armor of fish scales or opalescent seashells, glittering in the light of the candelabra, with a train of white lace so dense and so long that she seemed to be drifting on top of a foaming wave that swept the marble corridors; so it is no wonder that behind her, the three maids of honor in their light green seaweed garments seemed to be fading away, as the smaller stars fade around the royal radiation of the Sun – their brows were only crowned by their youth, instead of the river pearl tiara of their lady; but were they alone just for the moment, they surely would have made the whole royal guard fall to their knees in adoration.

And then, when the gilded doors of the imperial study closed behind the queen, and the three sisters took their watch posts in front of it, the audience began. There was no need for introductions: the young Franz Joseph immediately recognized the queen when he saw that she wore one of his favorite childhood toys as a brooch over her breast: a little tin soldier, of which he knew perfectly well that it fell into the river decades ago in Vienna; and he also knew quite well what she was capable of, having heard more than enough complaints and admonitions about floods and inundations in his realm.

The only thing which remains unknown, is what they conversed about, if they conversed at all.

fortepan_32583But it is possible that they only stood in front of the other, as two monarchs of equal dignity, quietly measuring and contemplating each other, and quietly assuring their counterparts of their existence, and the fact that they are not afraid of one another. Like two planets, who for a brief moment during their millennial journey, come closer to each other than ever before, but then, when the seconds of the rare equinox have passed, resume their travel with the same indifference as before.

Translated by the author. Read the excerpt in Hungarian.
All images are from the Fortepan Archives.

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