“Count Eszterházy’s Harmonium” by Joe Pitkin

6 January, Anno Domini 1529

My Dearest Ágnes:

Forty days and forty nights I have labored. Forty days through the winter fog when I could scarcely move my fingers for the chill; forty nights colder still, when the empty sky gazed back at me and I went mad until the fog returned.

I am not mad now, I assure you. But neither am I entirely sane. My father once told me, sixty years ago, that a true madman never believes himself to be mad. Poor benighted Papa! (Or blessed simple Papa!) How I wish the world were so simple as he had explained it to me when I was a boy. To Papa, sanity was a door that stood open or closed, with a stout handle and well-oiled hinges and (to extend the metaphor) a set of simple locks, which is to say taking Holy Communion each Sunday and drinking wine in moderation and forswearing scandalous books. Do these things, and the door will remain closed and locked and the mind will stay sane as it did for him until the day he died. Great is the cold outside the house; a man unlocks the door at his peril.

But perhaps, dear Ágnes, the world is indeed so simple as your grandfather had tried to make me believe. Perhaps I was simply one who unlocked the door. I confess that almost two weeks have passed since I have taken Holy Communion. And, after all, I have looked in books that would have terrified your grandfather to think upon. Over the decades, and at great expense, I assembled quite a library here in the Buda house: On Planetary Movement by Theophrastus the Areopagite, The One Hundred Thirty Seven Divine Names of Khalid ibn Ghazal, Lucian Strabo’s De Musica Universalis, The Signature of the Demiurge of Shmuel ben-Yehuda, De Anima Terrae by Benedict of Augsburg, The Algebra of the Tetragrammaton by Hieronymus Abdul-Qayyum Ben-Shlomo, and a thousand others whose insights annealed to make possible the construction of The Harmonium. I have opened the door and gazed into the black zero of the night without the house. If I cannot quite close the door again, it matters little now. No one can think on my condition, or pity it, without also thinking “this is the man who built The Harmonium.”

This morning, the morning on which I finished the great labor, the entire household is buzzing with the news that Cegléd apparently fell to the Turks last week. János, Ferenc, Szabina and Dorotea are in hysterics, wailing that the fall of Buda cannot be far behind. They are hardly able to carry out the simplest of their household duties. They wish to lock up the house and flee for Kismarton, or perhaps even Vienna. They think I am mad for the precise reason that I am not mad: I have no fear of the Turk.

My greater fear is that the defenders of the city will discover The Harmonium as it chimes in my study. So much bronze would surely be melted down into cannon for the coming battle. If I could bring myself to dismantle the miraculous machine, even for a few weeks, then perhaps I could transport the pieces by wagon to Vienna, reassemble it as it was here in Buda. Another man might be able to break down The Harmonium, but I cannot, knowing what it is. And so I stay.

I ask that you not pity me, daughter, and that you refrain from prescribing some regimen of masses and rosaries to remedy whatever deficiencies you perceive in my spiritual state. My spiritual state is happier than you can imagine, and my only worry is that you remain secure in Kismarton while The Troubles persist. If Buda falls, and I have little doubt that it will, you have my blessing to remove the household to Vienna or whatever city in Christendom that prudence dictates.

In hopes of our happy reunion in more joyous times, and in the end of times, I remain,

Your Loving Father.

* * *

From: Katie Eger
To: Gabe Eger Date: Thursday, August 16, 2012 7:43 pm
Subject: Re: Hey Kiddo

Hi, Daddy! Sorry to be so late writing back to you — jet lag has taken its toll on me! I felt like writing you at 3:00 am a few times over the last week, but I took your advice and kept the computer off when I would wake up in the middle of the night. I think my brain is finally tired of acting so bananas and I’m sleeping on a semi-regular schedule again.

Budapest is crazy and beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. It kind of looks like a down-in-the-mouth version of Vienna: lots of Belle Époque public buildings and townhouses, almost all of them peeling and grimy. Lots of them have bullet holes in the walls from the uprising of 1956 (or from 1945, or 1918, or for all I know the siege of the Turks).

I’ve met now with my adviser at the university and with the other Fulbright scholars in the country — there are about 30 of us. The Fulbright director here is the most charming, courtly old man I’ve ever met in my life (he made a good first impression because he is a Gábor like you. It turns out, though, that most men in Hungary are named Gábor.)

Every Hungarian you meet will tell you within the first 20 minutes of conversation that Hungary used to be three times the size it is now. I don’t think I’ve ever met a group of people so fixated on the past. Not even in England or Germany or Austria. Every conversation turns sooner or later to a discussion of what a powerful country Hungary used to be — at first I found it amusing, but more and more it just seems sad. Maybe I’m starting to understand where the black humor of Hungarians comes from.

Monday I get started on my project. I haven’t done a lick of math since finals week of last spring quarter, so I’m a little nervous. Sometimes it seems like I can feel my math knowledge physically leaving my brain as I sit here. I’ll be busy soon enough, though.

Give my love to mom — I hope I’ll see you both here before the year is out.



* * *

12 February, Anno Domini 1529

My dearest Ágnes:

I endure in the hope that my letter will reach you and that you will receive the one who bears it with all the warmth and hospitality due to a faithful servant of our household. In the months since I last paid you a visit in Kismarton, I have come to see Ferenc as the most devoted of butlers and I was even sorrier to see him go than I was to witness the departure of the others in my retinue the week before. He was wise to leave, though, and if he had spoken freely with me he would have said I was foolish to stay.

I wish that I could convey to you, daughter, the wisdom that has come to me through The Harmonium. Ferenc might think me a fool, all the world might think it, but I have seen now that what passes for wisdom in the world is the true foolery. I wish that I could make you see now the armies of the Turk encamped below Buda, already flying their banners in the market squares of Pest across the river, and know as I have come to know how small is the consequence of the battle to come. How inconsequential, indeed, is all of our earthly strife. The Harmonium has taught me this. Much more have I learned from my creation, much, much more, but so little that I have learned can be captured in the paltry language of this letter. I am like a child again, full of sensations and joy, and no words to contain the impressions that fill every moment of the day.

Remain in safety, daughter. The Time of Troubles is passing away. In anticipation of that happy day,

I remain,

Your loving father.

* * *

From: Katie Eger
To: Gabe Eger Date: Saturday, August 25, 2012 4:54 am
Subject: A Pauli Pariah

Hi Dad —

Finally settling in to really get some work done here. Dr. Orban (that’s DOCTOR Orban — don’t call him Zoltan!) is an even worse adviser than people led me to believe, but he’s every bit as brilliant as people say. Probably more brilliant. Before I met him I imagined he would be some kind of Paul Erdos type, one of those geniuses that doesn’t know how to drive or tie his shoes, and I wasn’t too far off. He’s a step down the brilliance ladder from Erdos, but he does know how to tie his own shoes.

Actually I got into a weird argument about that with some of Dr. Orban’s grad assistants. They wanted to know whether I thought Erdos or Von Neumann was the greatest Hungarian thinker of all time. I said they should consider Pauli as well and they looked at me like I didn’t know what the quadratic equation was. Turns out Pauli was Austrian. It was a stupid discussion anyway — it felt like we were arguing about which football teams would end up in the Rose Bowl this season. But maybe there’s a mathematicians’ ranking page I don’t know about.

In non-mathematical news, I’ve moved. The apartment we found before I left the states? I guess there’s a reason that it had been advertised for three months. Something about a disco bar operating downstairs. I guess some things shouldn’t be bought sight unseen. Anyway, I have a new place now on the Buda side of the city, which is generally a little quieter than the Pest side. I’m only a block from the Collegium Budapest, two blocks from the bells of the Matthias Church. But it’s a lot easier to study with bells going than with dubstep music.

I’m working hard on the tachyonic antitelephone thought experiment. Hard to know what implications my work will have on the future of physics. I predict “none.” That’s a real morale booster, to know that we’re spending all our time thinking about an impossible device made out of imaginary particles — the only thing going for tachyons is that no one has been able to prove their non-existence. Because nothing can be proven not to exist.

On that cheery note, I’ll get back to work. I love you, dad. Kisses to mom.


* * *

1 March, Anno Domini 1529

My Dearest Ágnes:

I have been so immersed in the bliss of contemplation that today is the first day I have set pen to paper since I wrote you last. My affection for you, though, is such that I would fain reassure you that I am well, and safe, and that I am forever beyond the weight of melancholy which attended me from my youth. Please attend with charity to the family that bears this letter.

In my study I have freedom to sit and observe The Harmonium, as pure and flawless as it was on the day I first set it in motion. How I wish that I could bring you by some magic to my study so that you could behold this wonder! And yet, I see also that all my wishing begins to melt away like fog, that every day I wish for less, and presently wish for nothing. All I wish for or could possibly wish for is at hand, poised in the Eternal Now of The Harmonium. Heaven and earth are passing away, as they are made to pass away. Like water flowing down the mountain out of a spring, a river whose course will not be reversed, time wears away all things, all things but one, and the course of time will not be hindered. But the Eternal Now does not pass away. It falls to me to see the eternal moment in The Harmonium, and this vision is my delight.

Ah, but what can I say to you of my vision that you will not think madness? I have tried to tell you, knowing I am doomed to fail, but it would be unbearable not to try to tell you. From the Pest banks of the river the Turks fire upon the castle with their great bronze guns, and the smoke of the fires comes into my study and to me smells of roses. I wait for the Turk as for an old friend whom I will welcome with singing and wine and rejoicing.

I have seen in the fullness of time that I shall not write you again as I am, but neither shall I die in the way that you fear so. I beseech you, daughter, to fear nothing on my account. Seek a letter from me in the wheeling of the stars.

In the supreme love that animates all things and which endures beyond the despoil of time, I remain,

Your doting father.

* * *

From: Katie Eger
To: Gabe Eger ate: Sunday, September 2, 2012 9:02 am
Subject: News

Hi Daddy —

Thank you so much for the package! I was amazed at how much I have come to miss peanut butter in the few weeks I’ve been here. You and mom read my mind, or maybe just predicted the future.

I’m working hard, but the tachyonic antitelephone still doesn’t exist and can’t exist apparently. Maybe Orban and I will prove ourselves wrong sometime this year. Until then, it’s a beautiful impossibility which leaves unfinished equations all over the whiteboard. What a lovely thought, though, to be able to send a message backwards in time to myself. Probably if the antitelephone existed I would send a message to the 18-year-old me and advise myself to study biochemistry instead of theoretical physics. I’d be much likelier to get rich that way. I’ll leave you to think about the paradox of how I would invent the tachyonic antitelephone if I had decided to major in biochemistry instead.

Part of me wants to keep believing in the self-help book wishful thinking about “what the mind can conceive, it can achieve.” But I’m starting to believe that it’s better that the mind can conceive impossible things. The only ones who think they can achieve everything imaginable are people with very poor imaginations. Or gods.

It’s hard being here, daddy, but I’m doing my best. Also, I met someone. Actually I met him the first day I was here. His name is Michael — he’s another Fulbrighter, a history grad student from New York. He’s here working in the Vajdahunyad Castle Museum reassembling The Harmonium of Count Eszterházy, whatever that is. I thought a harmonium was a pipe organ, but apparently it’s something else. Anyway, I hope you can meet him when you come to visit.

And you are coming to visit soon, I hope!



* * *

Dearest Ágnes:

I write to you, beloved daughter, knowing the letter will not arrive, watching the paper yellow away to ash as I write and as each letter dissolves in a moment as though I had inscribed it with my finger on the surface of a still pond. And yet I know that you will hear my words in the fullness of time, as it is the destiny of all peoples one day to see as I see now, and you will see my words as you will see all things, hear them as you will hear all things.

I have seen that the Turks will capture Kismarton, and that they will lay siege to Vienna but fail to take it. You will worry for the fate of both towns, and because of the death and wreckage you witness you will bear a scar on your heart until the end of your days. János and Szabina will die in the defense of Kismarton, and Ferenc in the defense of Vienna, and you shall suffer to contemplate the fall of the House of Eszterházy, and indeed the captivity of all Hungary. You suffer needlessly, though, and the day is coming when you will leave off your suffering as the butterfly leaves the chrysalis.

The Turk is your brother, the Jewess your sister, the gypsy your beloved daughter. No, more—the Turk, the Jew, the Gypsy are you yourself. You will see one day the foolishness of our house, a house already passing away, as all houses in Hungary will pass away, as the Ottoman and the Habsburg houses and all earthly houses will pass away. Then our home will be among the stars, and we shall see one another face to face, with new visages, and you will see yourself in me and I in you.

In expectation of that endless day, I greet you. In one love I remain, after all things,

Your Friend,

Mihály, once your father.

* * *

From: Katie Eger
To: Gabe Eger Date: Thursday, September 13, 2012 7:14 pm
Subject: More News

Dear Daddy:

I know I shouldn’t be up in the middle of the night on the computer, but I am so happy I can’t sleep, and I wish you were here to share my happiness.

I had such a strange experience yesterday. I went with Michael to his museum so he could show me his work. He had spent all last year in this dreary attic, measuring 500-year-old pieces of bronze machinery, weighing them, drawing them. Now that a replica has been cast of each piece, he has assembled them into this beautiful renaissance machine, something like a clock, but also like an astrolabe, and also like an alembic.

As we were going upstairs to see it, Michael kept playing cool, as though the last year of his life were no big deal, but I could tell that he was over the moon to show me what he’d been working on for so long. And then when I came in, the machine all of a sudden began to whir and chime and I was astonished by the beauty of it. Michael was shocked too — he said he hadn’t tried to make a working replica and had no idea how the thing had started up. It reminded me of the Pauli Effect in reverse: if machinery was always breaking down when Pauli was in the room, then maybe machines spontaneously start functioning if another specific person (e.g. me) is in the room. Call it the Anti-Pauli Effect (or the Eger Effect if you prefer).

I have no idea how long we spent looking at the harmonium. It felt like just a minute, but we may have been there hours or even a day or two. It was bliss to watch. And the most amazing thing was that as I watched the math of the tachyonic antitelephone all fell into place in my head. No, that’s not quite right: it was more like I realized that the tachyonic antitelephone had always existed, or even better that the whole concept was meaningless because the tachyonic antitelephone is a kind of optical illusion, an artifact of our peculiar blindness regarding time. If I could explain it, I would, and I know that it will seem to you that because I can’t articulate it, it doesn’t exist. But it does.

I had been looking for symmetry where there didn’t seem to be any. Time’s arrow appears to fly in one direction only — entropy demands that. That’s what made — what makes — the tachyonic antitelephone so beautiful: sending a message into the past is wonderful because it seems so impossible. There’s no point in despair and I won’t despair about it. The way Orban and I were working it, the thought experiment was doomed to show that the tachyonic antitelephone was impossible, and now I realize how beautiful it is that we couldn’t stop thinking about it anyway. In the same way a living organism looks like a violation of the second law of thermodynamics: we take in food and air and in our brains we convert them into mathematical formulas and love songs. It’s as though we’ve refused to believe in entropy, at least for a moment. Eventually we all dissipate into ashes and entropy wins, or seems to, but for a moment we write out a love song and what we are really saying is “not today, entropy.” There’s something in us that refuses entropy, sitting in a kind of peace beyond the arrow of time, or where the arrow of time is meaningless.

Whatever happens, please don’t worry for me. I am happy. I love you.


* * *

From: Gabe Eger To: Raquel Solano-Eger
Date: Friday, September 21, 2012 11:42 am

Hi Love:

I tried calling all afternoon but something must have happened to my phone during the trip and now it won’t connect. So I’ve gone to an internet café instead to give you an update on what I’ve found out.

Unfortunately I haven’t found out much. The police here seem evasive and officious. Is that because they know something about Katie’s disappearance, or is it because they know nothing and don’t want to admit it? Every little word I hear in the city — whether it’s addressed to me or not, whether I even understand the language — seems like a clue that I need to follow up on. But another part of me knows that what I really need is sleep.

The police inspector heading up Katie’s case will accompany me to the site of the collapse tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll have something real to tell you by then. I miss you more than I can say.


* * *

From: Gabe Eger To: Raquel Solano-Eger
Date: Saturday, September 22, 2012 2:32 pm

Hi Love:

Well, the police are acting like they don’t know anything because, so far as I can tell, they don’t. There’s no trace of Katie, or of Michael.

I went to the museum with the police inspectors this morning and it’s hard to describe what I saw there. Their working hypothesis is that pranksters or saboteurs loaded all of the Turkish cannons on display in another wing of the museum, fired them all simultaneously across the museum courtyard at the room where Katie was, and then fled without a trace. It sounded like the stupidest explanation I’d ever heard, but believe it or not it’s hard for me to imagine an alternative hypothesis now that I’ve seen the sight. There were sixteen stone cannonballs in the wreckage, sixteen broken windows across the courtyard, and sixteen bronze Turkish guns in the armaments wing of the museum had black powder traces that were only a few days old. I had assumed that cannons in a museum would have been spiked or had the firing pins taken out, but these were all ancient muzzle-loading pieces, and whoever fired them just dropped the powder and the ball into the bombard from the front.

There’s nothing left of the room where Katie and Michael were. Just a collapsed room with sixteen stone cannonballs. No sign of Katie or Michael, no sign that they had ever been there. No fingerprints, no footprints, no blood, nothing. My hope is that they weren’t there at all when the room collapsed. The security cameras show them entering the museum at 8:14 pm on September 18, and there’s no record of them leaving, but of course cameras can malfunction and that’s my fondest hope.

Love you — I will try to have somebody look at my phone on Monday so I can call.


* * *

From: Gabe Eger To: Raquel Solano-Eger
Date: Sunday, September 23, 2012 4:17 pm

Hi Love:

Hard to get much searching done today. I met with one of the police inspectors to talk about the possibility that Katie had left town. But there’s no record that she bought a train ticket or bus ticket, or rented a car, anytime after 8:14 pm on September 18. In fact, not only is there no record of credit card use after that time, there’s no record that Katie ever had a credit card at all. According to her bank she never existed.

Everything is so hard to sit with, Raquel, and I miss you so much right now. I had gone to bed in despair almost, but Katie came to me in a dream. I was sitting on the floor of our living room in the dream, and she sat behind me on the couch. A strange music filled the room and seemed to connect both of us, as though the music was another word for family. I couldn’t see her, but I recognized her voice when she spoke, and I knew her by the way she stroked my shoulder from behind. Everything works out, daddy, is what she told me, and then I woke up and felt an inexplicable joy for a moment.

Just a crazy dream, I guess, but my brain can’t help going there. Everything connects to Katie in my mind: when I walk in the street I still feel that I will see her come around the next street corner at any minute. The signs in shop windows seem to point to her, and ten times a day I mistake the voice of some young woman on the street for Katie’s voice. I connect everything to her — I can’t help it — even when there is no obvious connection to be drawn, or the connection is impossible to explain. I’m in agony, Raquel, but there’s a feeling beneath it, or beyond it, or inside it, that tells me everything is going to be all right.

Joe Pitkin has lived, taught, and studied in England, Hungary, Mexico, and, more recently, at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. His fiction has appeared in Analog, PodCastle, Drabblecast, and elsewhere. He has done biological fieldwork on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, and he lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and daughters. You can follow his work at his blog, The Subway Test, at thesubwaytest.wordpress.com.
Be Sociable, Share!