Early last year this was still the one remaining empty lot on the street, but then in February new construction got underway. Actually, there had stood a tumble-down two-room house in the middle of the large garden, with a wood-burning stove and an entrance in the back that faced apple trees in the far end of the garden. When they began building the new condominiums, these apple trees werent in anybodys way, though the little house they knocked down in a day. By the end of the summer the new structure was upseven apartments on three levels, garages in the basement, yellow walls, a reddish-brown roof.
Even before moving in, the new owners met to adopt rules on cleaning the common areas and maintaining the garden; they even held discussions on the need to turn down the volume when watching television or listening to music early in the morning or late at night. This last subject was brought up by Gyula Takáts, a chemical engineer who was moving into one of the top-floor apartments. Leaning his hand, his spread-out fingers on the tabletop, he pulled himself up and began to discourse solemnly on personal freedom, which, as everyone knows, has its limits and must not infringe upon our neighbors freedom; in this instance, what he meant by limits were the walls of their apartments, the privacy of their soon-to-be neighbors.
After they moved in it became clear, however, that because of a flaw in the design or in the workmanship (both, said an angry dentist from the first floor), the water pipes in the building functioned as though their express purpose was to conduct sound. In other words, if the faucet was turned on in the bathroom or over a sink in any of the apartments, the gushing and splashing could be heard everywhere, to say nothing of the noises emanating from the toilets. Privacy considerations, rules and regulations, oh pleasewalls and doors in this situation meant nothing.
Its the concrete mixture they used, the chemist said knowingly.
But at this point nothing could be done about it. The owners, to their surprise, did learn a great deal about one another in very short order. In a way, this unwanted knowledge, gained through familiarity, became not at all unpleasant; indeed it brought them closer together. They got to know who came home when and who left for work early; they learned who showered in the morning, who let the water out of the bathtub in the evening and why, and who had to get up several times a night to go to the bathroom.
It was early winter, a foggy, nippy day, when the chemist stopped the dentist on the staircase. He must have noticed, how could he not, he must be hearing it this very minute, the strange, mysterious sound, which has been wandering through the house for days, most exasperating, as if one of the water pipes were sounding off, which of course would come as no surprise, but this quivering sound reminded one of singing, yes, it was like a human voice, if one could imagine someone singing uninterruptedly from morning to night; he didnt want to be the cause of unpleasantness, it was enough to put up with things that couldnt be helped, no need even to mention them, but here in the entranceway was where you could hear the sound the clearest, there can be no doubt it came from the Kárász apartment, here on the ground floor, on the right.
I can hear it, nodded the dentist. Even when I dont want it.
It took another two days before the neighbors finally decided to ask Antal Kárász about the source of the noise.
Kárász, who first appeared surprised though ready to help, told them that he and his wife, as they all knew, left their apartment very early every morning and returned at the end of the day; consequently, they knew nothing about what went on in the house, let alone about such things as strange noises and singing voices. Of course he was not about to doubt his neighbors words, oh no, he wouldnt dream of it; but perhaps not all of them were aware that for about two weeks his recently widowed mother had been living with them, the smaller bedroom became her room and needless to say, she stayed home all day; in fact she wouldnt leave the apartment, or her room for that matter, even when invited to do so. Perhaps she should be asked if shed heard songs meandering through the water pipes.
No need to be sarcastic, the chemist said, raising his hand. Sarcasm will get us nowhere.
Yes, Mr. Kárász, added the dentist, if we all keep hearing this singing, there can be no mistake.
That weekend, Sunday morning, to be precise, after an entire Saturday of unbearable silence, some of the neighbors (the chemist, the dentist, and Dukai from #2 on the ground floor) knocked on the Kárászs door.
Mrs. Kárász opened it. What news from the three wise men? she said with a smile, and asked the visitors, who kept shifting their feet in their embarrassment, to come in.
Thats not why we came, the dentist blurted out finally.
I should think not, laughed Mrs. Kárász. I didnt think so.
But on account of the singing, the chemist continued. That insufferable noise.
Oh yes, the woman said, turning serious. My husband did mention it. But he is not home right now. Do come in, though, if you like; my mother-in-law is in her room, sitting by the window, as usual.
In the little room that overlooked the garden, she was indeed sitting by the window, a tiny wizened woman, her face like the skin of a shriveled fruit, her silver gray hair braided tight as a closed fist and resting on the back of her neck. She now leaned back in her armchair; her shoulders were covered with a heavy black shawl that reached down to the floor.
If she didnt mind, they said, they were neighbors, from the building; Sunday morning may not be the best time for a visit, but human endurance did have its limit, didnt she agree, thats why they came now, on account of that unbearable, ceaseless singing sound.
Singing? the woman asked quietly. Her voice was weak, raspingdry leaves have that sound when stirred by the wind. Singing sound, you say?
The rules, you know, Takáts tried to explain.
All day long, Dukai said, leaning closer to her.
I sit here by the window the whole day, the old woman said. As you can see. I look at that apple tree near the fence. Its branches are dry, it has lost its leaves. When I came here it was still green. Or I should say a leaf here and there stayed up there, who knows why, and theyre still on the tree waiting for the first snow. All curled up but hanging on.
That tree there, in the back? the chemist asked.
Yes, that one, see it? And on the branch thats sticking out, there is still an apple. The stem must be all black, but its skin is still red. For some reason it didnt fall off, it just hangs there, and the birds that stop here keep picking at it. Its flesh is bone yellow, they took quite a few bites out of it, can you see it? How long can that black stem hold it up? Its getting more and more shriveled and dried out. Because when a sparrow or a wren lands on the branch, their weight pulls the apple down, closer to the ground. Then again, the more they bite out of it, the lighter the apple core gets on the tree. Stands to reason. The more it dwindles away, the more easily it stays up there. But if the bird didnt pick at it, then it would start weighing less, and when it sits there it wouldnt drag the apple down to the ground. And if the apple wasnt on the tree anymore, then the bird would stay hungry and fall dead on the ground, into the dry leaves, you do see that, dont you? The wren keeps coming back, there is less and less of the apple left, and its held by nothing more than a stem thats turned all black. You do see it, dont you?
Yes, nodded the dentist.
How long can it stay there? she said, raising her hand.
Thats what you look at? Dukai inquired. All day long?
Takáts from the second floor said nothing; he silently bent down and adjusted her heavy black shawl that had slipped off her shoulder and touched the floor.
In the third week of December the first snow of the winter fell, and the last remaining leaves fell off the trees.
Before Christmas Kárász from the ground floor put out a black-bordered notice near the entrance of their building.
The garden was white and silent; dense, impenetrable fog settled on the trees, the back fence seemed to expand and recede into the distance, the birds got lost in the congealed winter air, time stood still, and within it there was no soundnothing, nothing at all.
Translated by Ivan Sanders