I was sitting down to breakfast on a Saturday morning when the delivery truck sounded its horn. I took another glance at my watch. Strange. I wasn’t expecting anything. Especially not on a Saturday.
The usual guy who did the deliveries in my neighbourhood had a grumpy look on his face when I opened the door after the third blast. He took his sweet time getting out of the truck before searching for my package.
“Hey,” he said curtly, as he handed me the delivery sheet to sign.
“Morning. Didn’t know you guys did deliveries on Saturdays,” I said as I took the pen and board.
“Yeah, well, apparently this was urgent. Came in the warehouse this morning on the last flight out yesterday. My boss really got on my ass for it. He wanted it out to you double-time. Don’t know what you ordered, but someone sure pulled a lot of strings for you,” he replied, mild annoyance in his tone.
“Huh,” I said. My surprise was genuine.
“Honestly, I don’t remember ordering anything. Where’s it from?”
“Some place I can’t pronounce,” he said, handing me the package.
It had an odd sort of heft to it – not too heavy, not too light, and it was about the size of a tissue box. I rattled it a bit in a juvenile manner. Something shifted inside. I offered the delivery guy a can drink from the fridge, but he waved me off and left without a goodbye.
Closing the door behind me, I set the box down on the dining room table and resumed eating my breakfast. Whatever it was, it could wait. I was hungry. And still groggy from sleep.
Yet, the box looked conspicuously out of place as it sat on my table. It was covered in important looking stamps from the customs and official departments that it had apparently been documented through.
I picked it up to look at the return address. There was no name, just a street in a language that wasn’t familiar, followed by what I assumed was a postal code and the words “Nyíregyháza, Hungary”.
I stared at the address as I tried to decipher the words. I didn’t know anyone in Hungary. In fact, the only thing I knew about Hungary was that it was the birthplace of scores of world famous composers, and sadly, not much else. To me, Hungary was some far-flung country in the farthest reaches of Europe. It could well have been Narnia.
The words on the parcel clattered about in my head, not meaning anything in particular. Consonants and vowels slid around in tiny boxcars, ramming into each other, leaving shattered pieces of themselves all over the place. The syntax is alien, indecipherable.
I needed stronger coffee.
After clearing the table, I began the task of peeling back the wrapping. It was double-wrapped in thick brown parcel paper and sealed with what appeared to be three layers of cellophane tape. Meticulous.
Inside, among folds of bubble wrap, I found a letter and an ornate black box about the size of my fist. Holding both in each hand, I contemplated what to do next; read the letter, or open the box.
I decided on the latter.
Inside was an antique music box. Expensive, by the looks of it, with an emblem carved in the centre, depicting the figure of a woman playing the harp. Probably the mark of the maker. There was also a tiny hand-scrawled note, which bore the name of a composer and symphony piece: Franz Liszt – Liebesträume No. 1.
I shifted my attention over to the letter. I was starting to get an inkling of who it was from. Taking another sip of coffee, I began to read.
Jó napot kívánok! Hogy vagy? Tanulom néhány mondat magyar nyelven. Ez igazán nehéz. Especially the kiejtés. (Good day! How are you? I am learning a few sentences in Hungarian. This is really hard. Especially the pronunciation.)
I don’t think I’ll ever get it down. My tongue just won’t listen to me, you know? Plus there’s a huge difference depending on how long you stretch the e’s and the ra sounds and god knows what else. Anyway, it is interesting to learn a new language. Keeps me on my toes, breaks the monotony. Well, not that there’s much to begin with.
It’s my first time in Hungary! To be precise, a city called Nyíregyháza. Don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either. I’m writing this from my room here, in a mansion on the outskirts of town. I can’t go into the details, as you know, but there’s a huge lake nearby, with crystal clear waters, and in the morning a thin mist falls over the entire estate, and everything feels like a scene from a movie.
Wait, wait, I’m skipping ahead here.
The last time we spoke was in March, right? That felt like a really long time ago. Honestly. Since then, I’ve been to two different continents, five countries and crossed so many oceans I can’t even keep track anymore!
Our little town tucked in a corner of South East Asia seems so very, very far away. That afternoon spent in that little café is a distant memory – but not so distant that I can’t remember.
How’s your sister doing? Is she still making you cook her stuff in the middle of the night? Tell her I’m sorry we couldn’t meet when I was back. I’ll make it up to her next time. She’s not still seeing that guy, is she? I can’t remember his name… Edward or Ethan or something like that. I’ve got a pretty Bad Feeling about him. You think so too, right? Tell her I said that, will you? She doesn’t listen to you, but if you tell her I said it, she’ll come around.
Anyway, I left about three days after we met. Had to get some things sorted out. Silly chores, really. Say hi to my parents, stuff like that. Not that they were that thrilled to see me, you know?
The agency had a booking for me right after, so I had to leave. First stop was LA. Can you believe it? Do you know how long it takes to get to LA? The transfers, the stopovers? By the time I got there I had bags under my eyes like you wouldn’t believe. Never was too fond of LA in the first place. But the guy was nice; had a penthouse right in the middle of the Miracle Mile. Wilshire’s real glitzy, but after work, I like to just hunt for food trucks, you know? Get out my phone, do a quick search. Tacos, burgers, ribs, crepes. Stuff with some real substance.
After that it was off to Hawaii (too hot) and then to the East Coast (too drab) before entering Europe through London.
Now, you know how I am for guys with accents. It’s just so incredibly sexy. I can’t get enough, seriously. It was just a job, but I ended up staying much longer than I expected. The only problem was, he talked in his sleep. It didn’t really bother me at first, ‘cos you know, we didn’t get much sleep anyhow, but I started to notice it a couple of nights later. Always mumbling something about “lobbies” and “bills” and a “caw-cuss?” I have no idea what that last one is about. It rained all the time too, and that just sort of reminded me of you, so I got out as soon as the next booking came in.
I was in Santorini before ending up here in Hungary. You know where Santorini is, don’t you? The island really stuck out on the boat ride here, the white-blue buildings dotting the cliff face and the colour of the rocks. In the setting sun, the whole place almost looked like it was glowing. I liked Santorini. The food was simple, the people smiled all the time and the sound of the waves played all day and night without a break, sounding different every time I stepped out onto the streets or opened the windows of my bedroom.
I wasn’t there very long though – just under a week. I travelled inland, past Bulgaria and straight through Romania before winding up in Hungary. The guy is some wealthy heir to a really prominent family or something, with ties to the old monarchy. I’m not really sure, but from the looks of the place I’m staying, it’s not too hard to believe.
Sorry, I just looked up and realised I wrote all sorts of nonsense. I’ll make a mark here so if you’re just glancing through the letter, you can start reading from here onwards if you want to skip right to the point.
I think that letter looks very pretty, doesn’t it? If you happen to be reading this just now, start from here.
I’m in a city called Nyíregyháza in Hungary, which you probably guessed from the address on the parcel. Open up the box! I think you’ll really like what I got you.
We were strolling through town the other day when I saw this in the window of this old shop that specialises in making these things. I absolutely had to get it for you. The owner wouldn’t sell it at first though, so it took a lot of convincing (and a pretty penny) to get him to part with it. The guy I’m with is really generous that way – a little different from the others. I don’t know how to describe it. But anyway. I got it! I hope you like it. It plays such a pretty song, doesn’t it? My companion told me later that the reason the owner didn’t want to part with it was because the mechanics for this particular composition was really hard to craft or something, and thus super rare. There’s supposed to be a series of three, and this one is the first, and the most sought after. So you better appreciate it!
A funny thing happened on the way back though.
We ran into this old crone by the street, just around the corner from the store. I think she was a gypsy. She kept calling out to me. She looked ancient, with bony fingers, all hunched over and everything, like a Disney villain. I’m serious. I made the mistake of stopping and making eye contact. She had this great shock of grey hair that was matted down in places. I could feel the air around us change as I came close to her. Almost immediately, she grabbed my hand and looked straight into my eyes, and told me in a shaky voice, in heavily accented English:
Child, child. You are lost. So very lost. A shadow follows you wherever you go. Let me tell you what I see. What I see reflected in your eyes. Serpents, hundreds of them, surrounding you, coiling around you, hissing and spitting. You lie there, undaunted, but the serpents grow in number, and they cover almost every inch of your body. But there is one. A serpent cloaked in deepest black, with one eye. It is the most dangerous. It is already coiled around your neck, its scales tightening, squeezing, whispering its venom into your ears. Oh, child, child. I weep for you. I weep for what comes next.
And she did. She began to cry. Only, it wasn’t tears that fell from her eyes.
It was blood.
I pulled my hand out of her grip as hard as I could. It all happened so fast. My chest felt tight, like I couldn’t breathe. My companion cursed at the old woman in Hungarian, and we got into his waiting car to get out of there.
Normally, stuff like this doesn’t scare me. Just another crazy old fortune teller looking to scare the helpless Asian girl, right? Probably just makeup made to look like blood, too.
But what she said… I can’t get her words out of my head. Pretty creepy. Probably just coincidence. Synchronicity, and all that jazz.
I think I’ll end this letter here before it gets too long. If you’re worried, don’t be. You know the agency screens everyone thoroughly before they’re allowed to place a booking. I’ll get in touch with you soon. ‘Till then, take care of yourself, okay?
Keep me in your thoughts.
P.S. I made the courier get this to you as quick as they could, or who knows when it’ll arrive. And in how many pieces. All it takes is a little nudge sometimes.
I folded up the letter neatly, placed it in front of me and stared off into space for a while. My guess had been right.
“…Idiot. You take care of yourself,” I muttered to the wall.
I picked up the music box and wound it up, opening the lid as I did.
Liszt’s Liebesträume began to play. The oft-neglected first set.
I was surprised at the clarity of the music produced by this tiny box. It didn’t sound shrill or stuttered in sections, as music boxes occasionally do. Instead, every note rolled off at an even tempo, softly but clearly. It brought to mind windswept hills and cold misty mornings, tinged with a hint of sorrow and hope that lingered on the edges of a window somewhere in a city with a name I can’t pronounce.