Béla’s Table


(published in The Spiral Path anthology, Imprimata)

 Ignoble in matters of money, nobleman Nádasdy’s search for a carpenter hungry or foolish enough to work for but three pieces of silver drew him into the putrid bowel of the city, to the shadowy alleys lined with ramshackle houses where crosses hung hopefully on most every rotten door. With buds of lavender lodged in his nostrils to ward off the assaulting stench of the place, and cracking his whip in the face of anyone who stood in his way, he urged his mare through the soiled mud in which urchins squalled and women toiled, to the lane where a man named Béla Fodor, too old to join the war, was said to ply his trade. His house was the fifth in a row of some twenty, no better or worse kept than those that flanked it. Nobleman Nádasdy did not dismount his horse, but rapped at the door with a gnarled length of birch he kept slung across his back for just such purposes.

“What do you want?” a voice spat through the cracks in the wood.

“I am come to see Béla Fodor,” the nobleman ventured back. “I require his services as a craftsman.”

At that, the door was pulled open to reveal a scrawny toothless woman clad in coarse, dirt-caked skirts. “What do you pay?” she asked with half a look upwards.

Repulsed by the woman and the raw, pock-marked face which aged her well beyond her years and to the point of death itself, Nádasdy felt the bile rise in his gullet. Spitting his disgust at her feet, he repeated his question without deigning to answer hers. “Where can I find Béla Fodor?”

The woman opened the door wider, pointing her cocked head to a dark heap on a bed of straw by the fire. To the untrained eyes of the nobleman, it was a mere shape.

“If that is he, call him forth,” he insisted to the woman.

“What do you pay me?” she asked, sidling up to him. “My stomach is empty.”            “Call him forth.” the nobleman growled, as he kicked the woman back beyond the boundary of her own threshold. Steadying herself, she lurched to the hearth to deliver a similar blow to the lump of lifeless life beside it.

“Wake up lizard,” she hissed at the ground before kicking again. “Up now cockroach. A nobleman on horseback asks after you.” On those words the pile of raggedy clothes stirred, and as it did, the woman hastened back to the nobleman to set out her stall. “He will not work for you for less than two pieces of silver,” she told him, “isn’t that right Béla Fodor?” At the sound of his name, the heap by the fire rose to become a crooked man, who walked with a remnant of grace towards the dim daylight which framed this rare opportunity come knocking.

“Sire, I am Béla Fodor.” He did not looked fit to lift a twig, far less turn a table at which society could dine, and Nádasdy would have spurred his horse on were it not for the thought that he might get what he had come for, not for three but for a mere two pieces of silver. Perhaps, if he was candid, just one.

“Béla Fodor the carpenter?” he asked the man straightening up before him.

“Yes Sire, that is I.”

“Very well. I desire a table fit for eight. Cut from the finest oak, smoother than glass, grand enough for the King and ornate enough for his Queen. If you are able to graft for eighteen days and nights, I will grant you the right to craft it.”

“What do you pay him?” his wife demanded to know.

Chancing his luck, the nobleman looked Béla Fodor deep in they eye and offered a single piece of silver. “It is a fine price for one such as you.”

“Aye Sire, it is that,” the carpenter replied with a bow of pathetic gratitude that caused Nádasdy to salivate as he always did when a particularly favourable accord was within ready reach.

“A table for eight is hard graft for an old man like he,” the woman said.

“If the graft is too hard, I shall seek a man half his age,” the nobleman replied, wiping the corners of his mouth with a square of muslin.

“No Sire, your offer is generous-“ proffered Béla Fodor.

“Generous?” countered his wife. “Generous would be three pieces of silver. Sufficient would be two. But one? One is not enough.”

“Tis enough for me,” Béla Fodor whispered to himself, as he willed his wife to be still, to be quiet, or to be gone.

“Give him two pieces of silver,” his wife continued to the nobleman. “He will turn your table for two pieces of silver.”

“I do not barter with peasants.”

But Béla’s wife, who considered her true home to be in the lap of luxury, far from the squalor into which her useless husband had dragged her, was willing to fight for anything that would ease her passage on earth. If she could not use her husband’s pitiful talents to line her hem with silver, then she would at least use them to line her hungry stomach with something more than the nettle soup on which they subsisted. Pushing her husband out of the way, the woman snatched up an old blood-stained bucket from beside the door and thrust it at the nobleman’s leg.

“One piece of silver and a bucket of blood,” she entreated, flashing her foul, toothless gums at him. “Look at him, Sire. He has not eaten in days, and if he is to make you a table of oak, grand and smooth and ornate, he will need food. Just one bucket of pig’s blood. No meat, just the blood. The enemy has taken all our animals, left us with nothing to eat but the hay we made for them. A single bucket, Sire… I can make sausages for a month from one pail.”

The very thought of it filled Nádasdy with an inexplicable loathing for the woman, but his repugnance was outdone by the joy of his fiscal victory. Turning his horse, nobleman Nádasdy consented to the woman’s terms. “You will get your blood. But not until the seventeenth day.”

The woman did not curtsey, but waited until the horse was well gone and had then spun around to pour scorn upon her guileless husband. “Thanks be to me and none to you. If it were left to you, I would surely perish. Is that your desire?”  It was a question the carpenter had never dared pose himself for fear of the answer.

Béla Fodor was not a lucky man. He had been born into relative wealth but had lost his share over the years and had subsequently been forced to learn a trade. He had decided on wood because handling it came naturally to him. But wood seemed not to want him. His services were rarely called upon and after a time of trying to secure enough income to keep his ill-tempered high-ideas wife in relative comfort, he gave up and ushered squalor and decrepitude into their lives forever. He had never once tried to shift the path of his destiny, but accepted it as his lot. Indeed, the closest he ever came to bemoaning the trials life had cast in his path, was in daydreaming about his ascension to the heavens, where he would be forever rid of the knot of hunger scraping at his insides.

            But after nobleman Nádasdy’s visit, Béla had begun to imagine a different kind of life for himself, one in which he was paid silver by wealthy men to craft furniture for the court. He did not encourage the thoughts, he did not have to, for they came quite of their own volition, and appeared in no hurry to leave. They danced above him for the three days he spent in the forest felling oak for the great ornate table, and lent him the might he needed to haul it back to the dingy room where his wife sat by the fire drinking watery soup from a wooden bowl she habitually kept chained to her skirts. Upon the sight of her, the lightness of his new thoughts became filled with the burden of her company. Far from helping him quietly endure the torment of his marital mismatch, they transformed his wife into a witch and equipped her with a foot long thorn which dug into his side whenever she came near him.

For sixteen long days, she hovered around him, chastising him as he sawed and planed and turned, his hands gradually absorbing the splintered roughness of the timber they tamed. She fed him not with words of praise but with her derision for his work and her relentless disdain for the poverty which had become the fabric of their existence. “Béla Fodor your table is not great. Your table cannot be great for it takes a great man to make something great.” “Béla Fodor, that is not ornate. What do you know of ornate, you who dragged me from my future with ladies and gentlemen to suffer in this pit?” “And Béla Fodor, this is not smooth. As rough as the life you have given me, rougher yet than the floor on which I am made to lie when I should have been dining with kings and queens.”

Béla Fodor had learned long ago that to respond to his wife’s contemptuous outpourings was foolhardy. So for those sixteen long days, he remained silent, quelling his thoughts one by one as they rose in his tired breast. But come nightfall, when his strength was sleeping and he lowered his aching limbs onto the straw to do the same, he allowed himself to despise she who despised him. Night for night, he closed his lids over images of sawing and planing and turning, not the table, but his wife. There was no blood, just quiet. Beautiful, celestial quiet.

When he awoke on the seventeenth day, there was anything but quiet, and there was much blood. A whole bucket of it, delivered as promised.

“Mercy be upon you,,” his wife cried as she snatched the full pail and shut the door on the messenger who had brought it. “Now we shall not starve.” She turned to Béla Fodor. “You see, now we shall not starve. Thanks be to me, and none to you.”

In his usual steadfast fashion, the carpenter paid no heed to the point of his wife’s needle, but turned instead to admire the table which he had all but completed the night before. The only task he had yet to complete was coat it in resin. He had been out and collected the sap but before he melted it and mixed it, Béla Fodor wanted to savour the silken softness of his creation. He ran a hand over it. It was indeed as smooth as glass, perhaps smoother still.  He closed his eyes and touched the patterns he had carved into the legs. They were ornate, even a blind man could testify to that. He stood back from his work, scrutinizing it from every angle the little room allowed, and silently decreed that it was indeed fit for a king. He was not aware of the smile that settled on his lips as he congratulated himself on the fruits of his labours. But it was not lost on his wife.

“You may be satisfied Béla Fodor, for I have saved us from starvation,” she carped as she held the bucket in the air. “Thanks be to me. And none to you.”

The carpenter did not correct her, did not reveal his table as the real reason for his joy, but allowed her to believe it was the promise of her pig’s blood sausage that had turned up the corners of his mouth.

“This is good blood,” his wife said, detaching her bowl from its chains to scoop up a portion of the thick liquid. She held it to her nose and inhaled. “It’s from royal pigs. I know that smell. My father received a royal pig every Yuletide for his services to the king. And the same would have been due me had I not put my hand in yours, my belief in your baskets of lies.  Had I not put my trust in you, Béla Fodor, I would feast on royal meat every year,” she hissed and dropped the bowl into the bucket of black blood. “Had I not put my faith in you, I could have attended noble dinners in noble places. This could have been my daily fare.” As she spat her vitriol in his face, she swung the bucket on its creaky handle.

Béla Fodor saw the surge of blood leave the pail and saw it was going to fall where it had no right to be. Arms and legs sprawling, he threw the shield that was his body onto the table, but he was not swift enough. The damage had already been done,  and it was irreversible. A distorted round of blood covered an eighth of the table’s surface and was surrounded by hundreds of bright red spatter marks. Before his wife had caught up with the sorry tale unfolding before her, Béla Fodor was coughing what saliva his dry mouth would afford him onto the table to try and draw the blood out of the soft wood.

“Fetch water!” he shouted at his wife.

So stunned was the woman at the sight of her weak husband grown strong and mad in one and the same instant, that she could not move from where she stood.

“Fetch water!” he bellowed at her from atop the table, and this time the woman put down her pail, collected up her skirts and ran from the house down to the river. She knelt on the bank and reached for the bowl at the end of her chain, but it was not there. So she cupped her hands around the dirty water from which they drank and in which they washed their flocks and themselves, and carried it home. By the time she reached Béla Fodor, she had only a few drops left to dribble over the spilled blood, and they did nothing to slacken its scarlet grip. Even if she had arrived with ten buckets of the cleanest, freshest water, it would not have shifted the ugly stain on nobleman Nádasdy’s table. That, Béla Fodor knew only too well. It had sunk too deep into the silken wood to be coaxed back out by any means. The table was ruined, and so were the carpenter’s dreams of a silver-lined destiny. He sat on the floor, head in his hands and watched as they danced back out of his reach.

“Tis not my fault,” he heard his wife say. She had regained her strength just as her husband lost his, and was not afraid to show it. “I did not put that table there, and if you are any kind of carpenter will know to mend it. Plane it. Saw it. Turn it. Mend it however you will because I want that piece of silver.”

He looked up to see her standing in front of him, her filthy hands clutching her precious pail of pig’s blood, and inspiration fell upon him.

“Give me the bucket,” he demanded of his wife.


“Give it to me.”


“I said give me that blood you wretched woman.” As he spoke, Béla Fodor reached out to grab the bucket, but his wife was swifter than he and escaped his fumbling fingers.

“What do you want with it?”

“To stain the table.”

“With royal pig’s blood? Madness is eating your head Béla Fodor. I have waited years and years and seventeen days for this and I shall not waste it on a table.”

“There is nothing more to do,” Béla Fodor said as much to himself as to his wife. “I shall soak the whole table in blood, coat it with resin and tell the nobleman it is a rare oak, found only by those who know the forests as well as I. It will be unique. And the whole court will want a piece of furniture turned from rare oak. And I shall be the only carpenter in the kingdom who knows where to find it…”

“Your head is full of muck.”

“Not muck woman, sense. Destiny. Let me have the bucket.”

Béla Fodor moved around the table towards his wife, but for every step he took, she matched it with one of her own.

“You can take as many steps as you see fit, Béla Fodor, but I shall never not give you this bucket,” she jeered, holding it high for him to see. “I would sooner drink it. I’d even sooner pour it away as see you squander it on a piece of wood.”

With each movement she made, each word she spoke, Béla Fodor felt her thorn twist deeper in his side. And each twist cut a little further through the shackles which had contained his loathing of her all these years.

“Give it to me!” he shouted at her in a voice he did not recognise as his own.

“Never,” she shouted back, and before he could register what was happening, she had opened the rotten door and poured the contents of the bucket, his only salvation, onto the mud at her feet. Béla Fodor rushed outside and fell to the ground, trying in vain to collect up the blood from the quagmire in which he knelt.

“What have you done?” he roared at his wife.

“A court dining table is no place for a pig. Unless it be roast.”

The sight of her standing above him licking the last drops of blood from the bucket was the final cut. His hatred was free. It rampaged through him, pulling him to his feet and making him stare his wife deep in the eye. When she laughed at him, he knew what he had to do. He cast a glance though the door to the corner of the room where his axe stood glinting at him.

“You are right,” he told his wife as he pulled her back into the house and closed the wooden door behind them.

“A dining table is no place for a pig. It is for ladies. Like yourself.”

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