Two seconds in Austria-Hungary
I confess that at that time examining the movement of hands and arms was one of my daily default activities, running somewhere in the background of every conversation or metro ride. I wasn’t impressed with prominent veins, I wasn’t interested in the color of the polished nails, I wasn’t trying to find hypotheses for green finger tips. Why and how they looked didn’t touch me much. With those impressions in mind, I would then return home, look at the turn-of-the-century building from across the street, and imagine stories about each window that still had the light switched on late at night. My stories were a collection of hands and windows.
Budapest, last night.
She was walking down the boulevard, heading to Hősök tere. As she passed by, I couldn’t help but notice that her left arm was swinging in the air in the most bizarre fashion. Her right elbow was resting on the large green leather bag she kept somewhat up, placed on her hip. The left arm, though, was mysteriously attractive, gently moving back an forth, as if almost estranged from the rest of the body. Its appearance was that of an abstract shiny sculpture and its movement that of a flying fish in a gliding flight over the water. It truly seemed like the body did not form a whole. Its strange and enticing combination of qualities made me follow the flying fish arm at some distance. I can hardly remember any other detail of the woman with a green bag, but for some reason, it made me think of two fashion advertisements from a Romanian gazette, from the early 1900s. A modern woman holding a cigarette in her hand, sitting crossed legged in an arm chair, wearing trousers, and pointing to her magnified Viennese gum heels that “every woman had to wear,” as the ad imperatively recommended. In contrast, another woman, with a forme droite, rationnelle, representing the reshaping of the woman’s body into the new “S-bend” corseted silhouette. As compared to them, it was as if the undefined arm was performing a coming out of some sort. A seemingly free gesture, I thought and was delighted by its sheer movement. But as I lapsed back in time for this one second, my unusual synecdoche too slipped into a crowd of tourists on Andrássy út, and I was left alone with my musings.
And so I carried on. Late that night, when I reached the end of the Andrássy boulevard, it was already 1896. The yellow metro was silent, and the preparations for the Millennium celebrations were over.
Brassó 1893, black ink.
She blinked a couple of times in a row, as if trying to hurry her thoughts and get to the conclusion. It was past midnight. In the yellow light, she caressed her ear and a few grey locks, and then her hand grabbed the glass of water, holding it half-way to her mouth, while writing the last lines of the report. Her handwriting was calligraphic. She then put in order the eight pages written in black ink, and patiently went through the numbers again in pencil. After all, the budget for the girls’ boarding school and for the orphanage was the crucial point of the report. Added up, the yearly expenses amounted to roughly 4,500 fl. – a manageable sum, with some efforts and donations.
She spaced out for a second, re-evaluating her work. “The Romanian women’s association in Braşov,” she thought, “has an important mission. The truth is that the boarding school and the orphanage that we are running are tremendously useful for our people. We are bringing up little girls, who are either orphans or come from our middle class, and we give them a practical education, which they otherwise wouldn’t get. We have to increase the number of girls that we educate, to have a bigger impact. Organizing the ball will help us raise some funding for that…” Meanwhile, her long bony fingers lit a cigarette, and the ash fell on her long black dress without her noticing. On the carpet, the shadow of her hand moved and looked like a pair of pliers, always ready and useful. Shortly, she cracked the window open, and drew the curtains.
On the first floor of the same building, a small silhouette appeared at the window. The little girl pressed her forehead against the cold glass, and felt her temples throbbing. She was one of the girls from the boarding school. The place had been established a few years earlier, in 1886, but it was still financially fairly insecure, especially given the fact that the women’s association had been trying to link it to a more recent project, that of an orphanage. Managing both of them was challenging and it implied to some extent a fair amount of networking and lobbying. But the little girl didn’t know any of these things. Her days at the boarding school weren’t particularly exciting, and she had to obey a strict program for three years. During that time she learned how to take care of a household, of the kitchen, how to wash, iron, sew, and make clothes. She learned knitting and the art of embroidery. She was also exposed to some pedagogical principles insofar as they were applicable to bringing up children. To this curriculum, the women’s association committee further added the practice of hygiene, a few aspects of gardening, religion classes, Romanian language and literature, arithmetic, and household bookkeeping. It was the woman in black dress with bony fingers that moved like a pair of pliers who wrote this curriculum.
The thirteen year old took a breath of cold night air, closed the window with a shiver and rested her palm against the window again. She had always liked feeling the contour of her hand, the first few seconds of touching the cold glass, the burning warmth of her hand. She innocently looked at her dim reflection – she was calm now.
The building was completely silent and dark. I sank my hands into my pockets and went down the street, pleased with this peaceful night and its detours.