Danube

Imagine, if you can, you are standing on the west bank of the Danube river. Directly across from you is the Hungarian parliament building. Something is being discussed, debated, determined. Last week the topic was the Danube and how its traffic benefits the city. The Danube. In Hungarian, Duna. Originally, in Sanskrit, Danu or “dewdrop”.

Imagine, if you will, you take a step into the river’s flowing waters. The first step feels simple. Your shoes and socks quickly fill up with water. It reminds you of when you were younger, when it felt like a sin to get your clothes wet. Another step or two and now the water is at your knees. You look down. The Danube is a brown color. It must be for it carries with it the grains of dirt and sand from countries upriver. Where does it come from? Austria and, before that, Germany. That’s where the whole flow began.

Another step. Now the water is at your waist, and it has become a stronger thing. It forces you to plant your feet and lean northward to keep your balance. A branch flows by on the swift current. Another branch, this one with a pigeon perched on it.

Soon the water is at your throat. Now the cool of the water has replaced the warmth of the summer day. A few more steps and you are under. But you can breathe. There is no fear within you as you walk forward and leave behind the steps of the rampart and eventually feel your feet sink into the mud. You can see the waters flowing all around you, and you are able to see what the river brought with it over the centuries. You see barges of grapes from upstream, heading south where they will be churned into wine. You see grain from northern Europe, passing through Hungary, headed for parts south, for larger ships awaiting cargo in the Black Sea.

A few more steps and now you are at the center of the river…in fact, at the center of Budapest, the city the river bisects. This city used to be three smaller cities, each comprised of the various names Buda and Pest and Old Buda. But even as the city changed and rearranged itself with the tide of history, the river has always been here, flowing fast from the past into the future. Here at the river’s center you see the burdens of the city’s past. There are still pieces of broken bridges from the bombings of the past wars. The enemy targeted the bridges first, dividing families, preventing fathers from returning home to wives and children.

You look up from where you stand and you can still see the faint sun above you. What did this river see? It saw Hungarian mothers and fathers bring their children to the banks and fish for their first trout and carp. It saw, farther north, its waters gather force for a spin through the Danube Bend, home to so many cottages and summer resorts, both now and back when Socialism still lay thick over the country. It saw, farther back, men and women and children, lined up on the east bank, and shot, their bodies falling forward into the same swift water, but leaving behind their shoes on the bank so that the shoes could be sold or melted down for leather to be used again.

Imagine, a few more steps, and now you are ascending the east bank, your head gradually coming out, feeling the warmth of the day, gathering itself at the vertigo of the parliament building that now rises above you, closer than it was when you were on the far bank.

How is it that a river can so describe a nation and its past? It does. For if you mention the river to anyone in Hungary you will see their hearts swell with pride. Their eyes will shine as they remember a river, grand and splendid. A muse to poets. A guide for composers. A brother. A mother. A friend.

*****

Zary Fekete

grew up in Hungary

has a novelette (In the Beginning) out from ELJ Publications and a debut novella coming out in early 2024 with DarkWinter Lit Press in addition to two short story collections later in 2024

enjoys books, podcasts, and many many many films. Twitter and Instagram: @ZaryFekete