I am standing in front of the mirror, afraid that
I am bad.
I am ugly because I am bad.
I am a toad because the wicked witch has cast a spell on me.
That’s why my head is like a toad.
There are clean people: peasants, Germans, soldiers. They wear boots so they won’t touch a toad. They will squash me with their boots. Even the girls. The little princesses will turn me away in neat succession. I am not a human being. What a malheur. They won’t recognize me and I won’t change back. I will stay at the bottom of the well gaping up from there, just like now.
I turned gray as ashes when it occurred to me that the devil was inside me. Why not? Why not, I ask you? Just now when I looked at my doleful face in the mirror, at how terribly ugly I am, it hit me like a bolt of lightning: I am ugly because I am bad.
While they think I’m good. My poor parents.
For a long time I was good.
But then I couldn’t keep it up anymore.
Maybe I am ugly because I am bad.
The bad leaped inside me because, and it leaped inside me when, just now, it occurred to me to ask the question: am I not curious about the bad? Come on, now. Just a bit, a teeny- weeny little bit? After all, I am already a liar. Where does it come from? Until now I thought I was good. I was sure of it. It’d kill me if it turned out that it wasn’t true. That I’m like the others. Not everybody, but most. And everybody from class.
Or if I don’t die, what am I going to do?
How did the question inside me go? What if, without me knowing, I’m not at all the way I think I am, but have a bad side too? A very bad side. And that very moment the creepy feeling that if you can ask, you’re already bad.
Whereas I didn’t even want to ask.
Now I was utterly damned.
I can see it in the mirror.
This first happened to me just after ‘56 at the Pintér Tailor Salon, 10 Petőfi Street, where I went to visit Tomi Pintér during the coal shortage. We became friends through the window. The Russians had marched in weeks before, the confinement to the basement and the siege too had somehow come to an end, but you couldn’t go out on the street and school too was still out, though you could now open your windows. Tomi was looking out the window from sheer boredom, just like me, leaning his head on his hands, daydreaming for hours on end. I just remembered, theirs was the window right below the lady with the serpent’s hair. Wonder why? As for me, I used to go out on the balcony to take a peek at the street below, hoping I’d catch another glimpse of the revolution. Or a revolutionary. And then we spotted each other. For days we just looked and thought how stupid the other was. Then I waved to him. And then he invited me over. The first time in my life I was visiting someone I knew, and not my parents. A man’s tailor shop, classy, elegant. Private sector. And there was this mirror propped up on legs. On both sides of it was a mirror. And it even turned on its legs. Intriguing. As we walked past the busy tailor’s assistants, I took a peek every chance I got. I looked at myself, from top to toe. Whether that’s me. And can I be sure? Would I bet my last penny?
Can one know for sure?
There was a standing mirror in Olga’s tailor shop too. Olga was Grandfather’s lady friend. We visited there a couple of times during the revolution, on Üllői Road. Except hers wasn’t very big. A tailor shop for women, underwear. Corsets and bras. Once I’m walking around there too with nothing to do and as I look askance, hey, there’s somebody looking at me, but I don’t stop, I turn only after I’ve taken two more steps—oh!—then back, curious, there’s a child looking at me! Is there a child in this place? And that’s when I realized that it was me. A mirror.
For a second I didn’t recognize myself. I looked like a stranger. Which made me think. I am afraid I am bad. I really shouldn’t be looking at myself all the time.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, tell me. What makes somebody wicked? There’s no profit in it.
Or is that the point?
They were counting bolts of cotton, I ignored them, this whole thing here was totally off- limits to me, Granddad’s secret love affair, it was strictly forbidden, him bringing me along, but he did, along Üllői Road, shot to ruins, among corpses repeatedly crushed by tanks. They were even uglier than the corpses on Köztársaság Square. They had turned black. Those that were hanged in front of Party headquarters had reddish purple meat.
I tried to disengage myself from them.
This sort of thing wasn’t on my mind for a long time. Once I asked, this was back when I was still a little boy, what’s this, a mirror, what’s that, oh, it’s painted in the back, that’s what makes it look like water. You can see your face in it. Then I lost interest.
It’s like a scary dream.
Suddenly I had a whatnot, a sort of whatchamacallit, that I don’t know how I know that that’s me. What makes me so sure. Do I really exist?
That’s good, then.
Except, you can’t go behind the picture.
But back then I even made a game of it. I stood to the side of the mirror, put my hand in front of it, and first I cast a stealthy glance at the mirror image, then quickly checked in the back of the mirror. Though I felt a little ashamed, I had to do it. There was nothing there. Still, I kept looking.
To see whether I exist.
Then we had to leave, we had to leave there, they dragged me away, and for a couple of weeks this thing went clear out of my head, whereas it’s a fine game, is it not? Or so it seemed. A fine game. Why hadn’t I played it before? We have a mirror at home too.
The meeting with the mirror, it’s a sudden encounter. The same thing frightens me in front of every mirror: something is happening I hadn’t counted on, I discover something I was hoping to ignore. Except, that’s not possible. What you know you can’t not know. You can’t undo the thought in your head. It’s already there. And if you say it’s not, you’ve already started to lie.
I am lying.
I am so good at it, mostly they don’t even catch on. Laci Séth took me down to the boiler room and showed me Popeye’s bawdy house. His father’s creation. Photographs taken of a comic strip. There’s no way I’m going to tell them. I play the innocent. The Tessényi twins gave me such a beating today, I’m practically deaf in one ear. I’m not telling them this either. They won’t catch on. Only Dános still talks to me. But even he’s ashamed of me. In front of the others he pretends he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t want them to spurn him too.
Nobody is hated as much as I.
Every day when I go to school, I think this will be the last. All hell’s going to break loose today because if they try to beat me up again, I am going to bang my head against the ground until it splits open. Then the day goes by somehow, and when I head for home and I see that they’re not about to grab me today, I shake it off and don’t want to think about it any more. I go into our house, run up the stairs, ring the doorbell, pretend cheer, fling my school bag into the corner, go out on the balcony, or go stare into the bathroom mirror. And spit. I don’t tell them anything of what happened. These toad eyes. These toad lips. Pulled out of his mother’s oven, black. Urine, dust, and ashes. I have fallen into the well.
How can you keep it a secret all your life?
This is still just the first moment. I could still climb back up with great effort, hanging on to the chinks in the wall of the well with my fingernails, straining to climb up, a little wimp. I would like to think of my purity that Mother keeps mentioning. That it’s exceptional. Exceptionally suited to being bad.
They called me a toad.
But so did I . . .
I don’t dare move when I feel that they hate me. It paralyzes me. If they hate me even more, I thrash about like a crazed child to prevent them from coming close, from touching me. This way they’re sure not to touch me.
Mother says time and again, if only you’d control yourself, son, just a bit, a teeny little bit. But it’s no use talking to me. I can’t be stopped. I can’t be caught or prevented from doing anything. I vomit the carrot puree in a wide stream, no matter how they try to force it into me. It comes out in an arc like piss. Even when my mother is standing across from me!
The bad likes to be more terrible than anything.
I can’t make peace with my ugly mug.
The collar of my red shirt with the ace-of-spades pattern, it’s turned up.
During class, I croaked like a frog. And now, I am croaking again. I croak to scandalize the Court.
When I was younger, I looked a lot better.
I wasn’t ugly at all. I was beautiful. There are pictures to prove it. Then something went wrong. I don’t know when. Just look at me! You’d think somebody had stepped on my face. When it was still soft. Then it turned solid and stayed that way. And my parents pretend they don’t see. They’re too busy working, earning their daily bread, so the secret police won’t come and take them away. Unfortunately, there was nobody to watch the small child. I slept on my back, helpless. Then Puss in Boots came and like the peasants do when they spit on their boots, that’s how he mangled my face. There’s a bump on the top of my head, the fontanel. It’s a fontanel because it covers the well. To prevent the toad from getting out.
When I was three, something went wrong.
If I were to come face-to-face with myself, I’d beat the shit out of you, you little wimp. If we could finally come face to face, I’d squeeze out your protruding eyes. But why? In Somogyjád village they put a pot over my head, that’s how they cut my hair. That’s when they said that the top of my head is all bumpy. The fontanel. I don’t like reaching back there, into my hair. My lower lip stands out too. Like a halfwit’s. The corners of my lips droop.
What am I to make of this?
It’s not something I can talk to anyone about.
There’s something wrong with me. I’m untidy. I can’t do division. I keep forgetting to close my lips. Close your mouth or you’ll catch a fly. You’re not a nitwit. He’s reading with his mouth open. I can’t believe it! And he just shrugs.
I can’t take my eyes from the mirror.
I have tumbled into it.
Since January nineteenth, nineteen hundred and fifty-nine, approximately seven fifteen a.m., I think, everything has conspired to remind me of what came to my mind at that moment. The toad at the bottom of the well is gaping. Looking intently up.
I’m looking to see if they’re looking at me.I don’t think they are. But possibly, they already have.
The way I’m looking at myself.
I break free of my glance: I will not look at the hole where my pupils are any more!
Who am I kidding!
It’s either him or me. Or I am the eyes in the mirror. I can trust them. Their owner, he knows everything. That’s why they keep beating him up. It’s written all over him. He who’s got eyes to recognize him would beat him to within an inch of his life, if he dared. But what if this doesn’t solve his problem either?
Or am I the one looking?
The reason I’m bad is because I remember everything? Is this a kind of proof too? Am I the devil? The teeny-weeny little Puss in Boots, except I pretend I don’t remember?
I don’t believe what my eyes are telling me?
Through a lifetime?
I don’t know how others do it, they look into their eyes and they don’t, and if they do, how can they not find their eyes with their eyes, or if you see that dark shadow, or I don’t know what it is, at the bottom of your gaze, for you are bound to see someone there, you can’t say you don’t, then how can you take your eyes off of him, and even if you do, how can you ignore what you’ve seen, or if you don’t ignore it, how can you live with its memory, the memory of your eyes, with the thing that’s there?
Because there is somebody there.
There is somebody there.
And what if I’m as bright as the Sun and innocent as the Easter bunny, if such a Jewish bunny can be innocent at all, especially if he’s an Easter bunny who isn’t even Jewish, they say he’s Hungarian, but possibly he’s not Hungarian after all, they just say he is, he’s a Jew, a Jew, no matter what he does. And not a bunny rabbit but a goiter-eyed toad, go ahead, say it. The ugliest Toad Prince alive! If it’s to be like this I’d rather not be, I’d rather die right now, or at the latest tomorrow, or the instant I’m about to do the first bad thing, me, the apple of my father’s and my mother’s eye, their joy and last only hope. And the teeny-weeny Puss in Boots, ditto.
But what if it’s true?
If the roots of my being are bad, I won’t simply become bad, I’ve been bad all along. I am bad right now. I have made myself bad with this very thought. Or is there an escape route? I will not take my eyes from my eyes until I can say whether I am bad or not at the bottom of my heart.
Bara, who shouted into my face that I’m a toad, is he right, or is he a piece of scum? And it doesn’t matter how he meant it. I don’t even know why he said it, but it makes no difference. I’m past worrying about the opinion of the school at this point, or the opinion of my classmates, not even Jutka Perc, but: who am I? Who is in the lair at the bottom of my eyes, in the dark where because of the shadows my eyes remain inscrutable?
Who is that man?
As if struck by electricity, I stand and tremble. Me, when I’m scared, right away I start trembling, this too is part of my toad nature, the present shocks me, it crashes over me like a streetcar, crushing me past mending, smearing me on the wall. Shit meat, mud meat!
I see it in the mirror.
I have decided. From now on, I will deny nothing. I will not deny it, like the others. At the very least, I won’t deny it in front of myself! I see what I see and recklessly accept the consequences.
Now I am completely and utterly damned.
Translation of “A békakirály.” Copyright Mihály Kornis. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.
As a rule, Esti looked up to his father as he did to God, but when he bought him that certain bicycle, that clinched it. The way an atheist looks up to God. Easily gliding similes never give the fate (or destiny? or is that the same?) of the world a satisfactory design, for there are atheists by the dozen, martial-like, resigned, terrified, curious, just like God, who is martial-like, resigned, terrified, curious. Possibly, God should be written with a small g here, but the truth, primitive as it may seem, is that I have always suspected some commie trickery in it, and could never shake the thought that they made that small g compulsory, thus proving (!) the nonexistence of God. Gagarin didn’t see him either, did he? That’s what I like about grammar, it thumbs its nose at the commies and all things related to them. Esti must have been around ten years of age, his father a bit older, I should think.
The Good Lord enjoyed observing Esti around this time; or to put it another way, it was around this time that he felt the urge once more; and this time (thanks to some unexpectedly discovered old photographs) to his utmost satisfaction, for Esti’s sober and wild features reminded him of his own. I am proud that I resemble you, he announced (or put forth?) pedantically to his son, and the way Esti responded, slowly, deliberately and generously arranging his lips into a grin as wide, or nearly, as that American actress Julia Roberts’s, there was something highly reassuring, even encouraging in it, as if all were right with the world, and not only the two of them understand each other, and not only do they understand each other as father and son, going in the face of custom, Oedipus, and this whole rigmarole by now no stranger to either of them (or is it pickle?, or mess?, that’s it, mess), but . . . I don’t even know, possibly they were just overwhelmed by a fever pitch of love, and being bashful by nature, they lost no time in projecting this onto the world, as if the world also understood itself.
But what I said just now is not right; the purchase of the bicycle did not help and possibly it did not hurt Esti’s judgment of Esti’s father. For one thing, Esti did not judge his father, he paid him little heed, he was too busy discovering the world, something he’d do repeatedly in his life, he discovered the world repeatedly, but in this particular instance his father was not, strictly speaking, part of the world; but wait, I’m not putting this right either, he was part of the world, but was not part of the things waiting to be discovered; he felt that everything was as right with his father as with the garden gate, except the hinges could use a bit of grease because, like this, even when it’s not creaking, yet it’s as if something were not fully ideal; in short, he didn’t have to concern himself with his father, unless with the whimsical outbreak of some new initiative; these had to be nipped in the bud, but this, this nipping, was easily and consistently accomplished by the attractive grin on his face, his enchanting grin; besides, Esti didn’t regard this bicycle thing as such a big deal, an etwas, as I myself like to say.
Of course he knew perfectly well that for once this was an expensive purchase, for he studied the leaflets, procured from at least two independent sources, the folders, fliers, catalogs, advertisements and brochures at length and in great detail, considering in the process possible cheaper, alternative solutions with respect to the rear light, the pump, and the varnish, I think—considerable savings from a moral point of view only (good intentions!), but I fear that Esti had other considerations unknown to me, principles, bicycle principles; he had strict bicycle principles on which . . . to say that he insisted would not be felicitous, for he saw to their enforcement with the sort of offhandedness that made you think they were the laws of Nature; after all, it would be foolhardy to blame the force of gravity for the broken china or, on the contrary, to derive perverse pleasure from doing so, and it would be even more foolhardy because, to put it tactfully, it would be based on a misunderstanding to say that we, for our part, that as far as we’re concerned, we side with the gravitation. Esti wanted something. He wanted the bicycle, thisparticular bicycle, and what fell outside its scope was beyond his field of vision. The circumstances, the conditions and repercussion of his wanting it left him cold. We might call the bicycle the non plus ultra of his dreams, and in fact, nothing was more ultra, and so Esti was not particularly awed when his dream, the dream of his dreams, was made flesh. He must’ve felt about this, and excuse me for the frivolous, fickle and foolhardy, careless and reckless, whimsically inappropriate to its subject, but not irresponsible parallel, like the young hero of that certain novel felt about the concentration camp,1 to wit, they were just familiarizing themselves with the world, and since they were unbiased in their innocence and attentive (not in the sense of obliging, but like someone paying attention, who is careful, vigilant, attentive and alert), they saw that the world is the way it is, and as a result of their lack of bias and quiet attentiveness it never occurred to either of them to be surprised or perplexed by anything, not a muscle on their faces stirred; after all, they had no expectations, they had no wishes, they took seriously what they were just learning, and their joy (or let’s call it happiness) was rooted in this seriously, the way mine is rooted in this frivolity: The world, concluded one of them, is such that sooner or later you’re taken to a camp, it’s the way of the world, it’s the universal order, or to put it another way, and here Esti nodded thoughtfully, the world is such . . .—this sentence is more difficult to finish aphoristically—in short, the world is such that this bicycle in it is a possibility. That the story of this bicycle—with respect to Esti—is possible in it.
Esti was not spoiled, and if a grain of sand happened to land in the great pedagogical machinery, he even resisted being spoiled, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he respected money (a circumstance in which his parents set a bad example, they couldn’t hide properly and in accordance with pedagogical principles that they didn’t care about money as such, nor the acquisition of money, nor the lack of money, and since they were not entirely without money, though he tactfully looked the other away, Esti couldn’t help noticing that almost none of their actions were financially motivated); in short, he had no respect for money, but he didn’t squander it either, not that there was anything to squander thanks to the strictures pertaining to the doling-out of his pocket money, which at times fell prey to forgetfulness, which strictures he accepted without a word of complaint, even when they manifested themselves in the guise of disorder. He was a puritan child. He would have also accepted without a word of complaint had his father made it a condition that, let’s say, he earn part of the price of the bicycle, maybe not half, but maybe a third, through summer work. Still, his happiness did not go so far that he should make this proposal himself, for the simple reason that it never occurred to him. He felt rather than knew that his parents did not make decisions about so-called pedagogical questions on the basis of principles but, first and foremost (and naturally, not independent of said principles), in accordance with their own best feelings, with what made them happy, and yes, with what brought them joy. It was these sudden attacks of joy- gathering that Esti’s above-mentioned grins were meant to moderate.
Esti cared only about the bicycle and couldn’t have cared less about the purchase of the bicycle, and shoved the fifty thousand forints his father had ceremoniously handed to him under ceremonious circumstances into his pockets like so many half-used hankies; if anything, he was surprised only that his father was not coming with him to the bicycle shop to effectuate the purchase. For his part, Esti’s father couldn’t have cared less about the bicycle, he couldn’t tell one from the other, and so had no considerations; in this bicycle purchase, too, it wasn’t the concrete purchase, the buying that was important to him, and so it never occurred to him to go along with his son (besides, in this heat?).
On the other hand, ever since, dispensing with the usual childish wiles, to wit, caution, circumspection, and ingratiation, Esti did not bring up or hint at the question of the bicycle but confronted his parents with it as a problem in need of a solution, and did so with such disarming impertinence or innocence that they nearly forgot the obligatory lamentations and the shilly-shallying—nearly, because then they remembered and out of a sense of duty put up a fight, but were too lazy to provide reasons (in short, their resistance was meaningless and therefore useless), but without lowering themselves onto that bleak, alkali landscape where good grades become the pawns for the purchase, the pettiness of if-you-do-this-we’ll-do-that, in short, from that moment on, Esti’s father thought of the “father is buying a major present for his son” project with grand and noble emotions. Present is not the right word, because it’s not the thing that counts but the gesture, though the bicycle happened to be a fortunate choice, to start someone off on his path, isn’t that right? There won’t be many such occasions in their lives; besides, he couldn’t be put upon to buy such outrageously expensive things just like that; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to regard it (the outrageous expense) outrageous in earnest, though could someone please tell him why, in a city, on flat terrain, anyone would need twenty-seven (!) gears? And that’s just the beginning. He’s not saying there shouldn’t be progress, though his own R26 would satisfy allrequirements even today, it would be more than adequate with its three gears, three gears, not too much, not too little, just as much as is needed, these modern “in” bicycles are not the product of organic technological development but fashion and frivolity, excess, frippery, happenstance, but never mind, this is not about the bicycle anyhow, it’s merely the humble expression of a symbolic paternal gesture, I should know!, expressing yourself humbly for fifty grand!, something that not only he but his son, too, will not soon forget.
Though he did his best, Esti’s father often fell into the (classical) trap of considering Esti not only his equal, but a grown-up as well. Still, back then, at the age of ten, Esti was a ten-year-old in every sense, who would embrace his father with such unlooked-for vehemence, kissing his neck, that they (father and neck) turned crimson; be that as it may, he was to blame for the mistake, for he was fond of grown-up gestures; he didn’t say, like the other children, I kiss your hand, but how do you do, a Hungarian child doesn’t do that; his thinking, guided not only by consistent but veritably dogmatic principles also bolstered this mistake, as did his gift for argumentation with which he protected the untenable consequences of his stubborn insistence on principles, and his general meticulousness, too, which was not without a trace of squeamishness, and which stretched from attention to the color harmony of his clothes to the over-scrupulous choice of TV channels. (His father didn’t even know what he had on, much less the color, or that colors stood in a relationship to each other. Also, it would never happen with Esti that he’d turn on the TV first and only then check the TV guide, that was his father’s usual practice; except for Mezzo and Spektrum, Esti hardly watched anything else, films never, and if he found his father watching a “crimi” (Columbo, Petrocelli), his silence was as contemptuous as that of fathers with a perennial chip on their shoulders—how or why they do it, we shall never know.)
There was just one blemish in this regard, though it was dark, to be sure, and the size of a birthmark, not unlike a hairy wart—a year of Dragon Ball madness. (By the way, Esti’s father always said Boy, at least that makes sense, not like Dragon Ball—and I heartily agree with him.) Esti scheduled his life according to these Japanese cartoons, he watched every episode, he even recorded them on video and watched them eagerly again at the most unexpected moments (morning before school, Sunday during lunch, when a soccer match was on). Esti’s father felt as if he’d been corralled, as if he were being corralled in by growing idiotism, the TV channels are broadcasting nothing but nonsense, and to make matters worse, Esti kept redrawing the characters, spectacularly but in a servile manner, as a result of which a Dragon Boy might come leaping out from basically anywhere, the napkin in the kitchen, the toilet paper in the bathroom (can’t one even do you-know-what in peace in one’s own home any more?), and once (three times! three times!) one came leaping from the mirror, sketched in lipstick, and though he repeatedly and continually suspected himself, for self-irony, too, was in his blood, and though he never wanted to be in the right when he wasn’t in the right, still, at this juncture he was canonballed by the banal conviction that, simply put, he was in the right. Indubitably. Him. Sometimes he absentmindedly stopped in front of the TV and saw, askance, that unsurprisingly, it was Dragon Boy, he looked at Esti, the unapproachable Esti, and in his heart felt the cold arrogance of those who have right on their side. Naturally, he too was an object of his own disappointment, which just heightened the growing irritability with his son. At such times he would keep out of his way, tried not to bump into him. He saw no hope of freeing his son from the clutches of Dragon Boy. His fatal embrace. Also, Esti was gradually taking on the sketchy outlines of the cartoon figure, or so his father thought. But no, that’s an exaggeration. And to make matters worse, in this dazed, vertiginal state, Esti kept recording the series on one or another of his father’s treasured video cassettes, for instance, an archived memory!, which just strengthened the above-mentioned unpleasant feeling of being in the right. I’m right, Esti’s father grumbled, and ran out to the garden, just like a shame-faced adolescent. Then from one moment to the next the nightmare was over, Esti surfaced as if from the bottom of a lake, looking about him grinning and coughing and not remembering a thing. And truth to tell, there wasn’t much to remember.
In short, while it never occurred to Esti that the price of the bicycle, the number, might be of concern to anyone, basically unintentionally (!) Esti’s father, if he did not calculate outright, yet made a quick estimate of how many working hours that certain number would entail, more or less; he had no intention of rubbing this in but rather, like Pavlov’s dog, whom, reflex-like, I like to bring up whenever I can, he started to divide that appreciable sum by a rough assessment of his hourly wages. One makes do with what one can. Though he never mentioned the results of his mathematical calculations to Esti, still, he wouldn’t have thought it entirely ill-advised if this appreciable and in its objectivity, how shall he put it, more boring then petty revelation of the number of his workdays would reveal to (Esti) the structure of the world, to wit, that you, as bearded old schoolmasters would say, don’t get something for nothing, everything has its price; for his part, he’d rather put it this way, that this could remind Esti of an important Biblical admonition, namely, that we’ve been driven out of Paradise, in short, the sweat of our brow!, that our lives are full of the sweat of our brow, that the world is full of this salty, bitter seepage, his son doesn’t know this because neither he nor his mother bothered to teach him, nor was he particularly eager to learn it, and he suspects that Esti doesn’t even think it’s true, he doesn’t consider it inevitable, this is what he gathers from his son’s infinite glance (his glance pinned on the infinite), on his unclouded forehead, the way he soars rather than runs, sees it in the slightest ripple of his hand, the leaping of his thoughts, sees this ambition, which he respects, oh yes, when should a man want it all if not when he doesn’t know this all yet (and which is more finite than one would think); still, he’d like to warn his son after all, be careful, dear, he wouldn’t want to clip his wings, he’d be the last one around here to start clipping wings, though since we’re on the subject of wings, let’s not forget Icarus’s sweetly sorrowful gliding through the air.
Many a time did Esti’s father seethe inside in a like manner, though he rarely drew conclusions from it, rarely was this followed by action; he’d continually get bored with this typically paternal line of reasoning, he got bored with his duties, too, and fatherhood, the paternal nitpicking, and he loved standing around by Esti’s side, as if he were standing by his own. It’s at times like this that he was the best of fathers.
When Esti showed up with the new bicycle, there was no knowing where the sudden radiance was coming from, what was causing it, Esti, or the bicycle. They were standing in that radiance, Esti, the parents, the garden. If I were wont to be jocular I would say that Esti’s father would have liked to put the brakes on this excess of emotion, but it was Esti who put on the brakes, backing up in front of them with a dexterity bordering on the audacious. Hey, hey, hold your horses, mind the tires, Esti’s father would have liked to shout, but the way Esti put on the brakes, coming to a slanting halt from the swift movement like some sort of film trick or break in transmission, there was that radiance again.
The essentially silver-colored bicycle shot off quivering green flashes, as if a real painter—Chinese? Japanese?—had breathed them there, that’s how light and artistic they seemed, and Esti’s parents were struck dumb and just looked at each other in this silvery radiance, which in the meantime had turned white and milky, not a fog, though, because it was a glittering light and a dull gloom simultaneously—the least I can say is that everyone was happy, they had planned something, and it was now a reality, and if they could believe the silence (the silence rearing up between them), even more had been accomplished than they had bargained for. Esti’s father was the first to move; he placed a hand on the steering wheel, then stroked the light as if it were somebody’s head. Well, well, I’ll be, it’s quite a machine, he said exaggerating his own unintentional parodistic gesture, and then, continuing along the same line added: But it’s four horses! Which if I remember well is a sentence from Mikszáth;2 Esti’s father felt the innocent solemnity of Westerns. Esti raised the front wheel as if he knew about this Western feeling, the mechanical mount—that’s it! a mechanical mount—he reared up, rider and mount becoming one; Esti seemed to have entered another world, and spinning round on the back wheel he steered himself (the two of them) toward the street, waited it out, then whooping “I’ll be back!” galloped into the infinity of the side street.
Esti’s father was thinking about this, this infinity, even on his deathbed. Which, by the way, surprised him. However, let us add, for the sake of the truth, that this was not the only thing on his mind; he was thinking about lots of things there; in short, though he’d come to terms with that whole thing, death, as it were, sneaked his triumphant forces in through the back door. But never mind. He considered this grinning, this galloping (side street) infinite as the high point of his fatherhood. The high point was almost directly related to the low point, the bicycle affair to the bicycle.
Provided that the school janitor was called Kovács—that guzzler Kovács!—then the young man or mature big boy spoke thus to Kornél Esti, who was pedaling his bike in front of the school: Listen, you think the Guzzler’s at home? Or if Czigler, then Cigi-boy. Esti shrugged, he was busy balancing on his bicycle, advancing a little at a time, inch by inch, his entire attention concentrated on what he was doing. Cheaters have a natural psychological aptitude, they’re born psychologists, as if they’d learned it at school. The Guzzler’s buddy, that’s how Esti referred to him later on. And how beautiful his new bike is, this buddy said that, too. Esti got off the contraption; they were walking back towards the kindergarten. Possibly the kindergarten children—their innocent toddling, their chatter—may have had something to do with his lack of caution. It is hard to identify the source of trust. The big boy’s striped T-shirt, for example. Esti had never studied a T-shirt so closely before, with excited respect, in fact. Now and then the boy’s belly peeped out from under it. But what I’ve just said about the source of trust is not right, it’s the other way around, for at this point in time Esti trusted every Tom, Dick, and Harry—to give you one example, he even trusted his father.
Whether just this once, could he take it for a spin. Esti felt flustered, but was instantly ashamed of himself. At which the boy quickly resumed that he understands it, no kidding, a person doesn’t like handing his brand-new bike over to a stranger, and can Esti turn right around with two movements, no, three, two. What does he mean right around? Well, completely around. No. In which case he’d be happy to show him. Esti was holding the steering wheel in the middle as if it were the back of somebody’s head. And another as if: as they walked, he leaned the bicycle in towards the big boy as affectionately as if they’d known each other a very long time. That rotten, stinking thief got on the bicycle carefully, respectfully, that’s great, he said, first I pick up speed, and with that, picking up speed, he took off quick as a flash toward the main road, came to a sudden halt, pulled back the steering wheel as if it were a bridle bit, and wouldn’t you know, he turned a hundred and eighty degrees, then taking his time, he pedalled back toward the owner. He could have bolted the first time, Esti later said. Why didn’t he? Why was there need for even more trust? Just one more time, all right? No, screamed Esti silently. The boy picked up speed again, but now—surprise!—he didn’t put on the brakes, but with a hissing sweep rounded the corner. Confused, Esti took off after him, picking up speed, panting, no, no, he kept repeating; by the time he reached the corner the bicycle was just disappearing at the far end of the street. Was there something infinite about this, too? Surprised, dismayed, he watched as his bicycle disappeared forever.
Not much later, Esti’s father was pole-axed by an improved version of this surprise, this, one might say, dumb expression on Esti’s countenance.
First, they went back to the school, where the old guzzler Kovács was snoring hunched over the table in his kitchen, out of commission; he shrugged, don’t ask him, he doesn’t know anybody, so they continued their hopeless reconnoitering of the neighborhood in the car; both were sunk in silence, Esti more so. His father felt that he was going about his business as he should and tried not to think of the fifty thousand gone out the window. His new active self impressed him somewhat, and to the extent of this somewhat, anyway, he forgot about Esti. They even went to the police station, not because he (they) was (were) hoping to get anything out of it, but because this is the prescribed order of things, when there’s a theft, we report it to the police, we let them know that the order they’ve been charged to uphold has come undone. This is the first time in my life I’m reporting on anyone, and he shot a proud glance at Esti, who nodded noncommittally. As it turned out, it wasn’t easy, making a report. It’s got its own choreography. The young officer examined the first attempt closely, constructively. Osvát3 must have looked at manuscripts in much the same way.
This won’t do, Doctor. Esti’s father appended Dr. before his name for the occasion; he must have really thought, I think, he must have truly believed the nonsense that this will make the authorities throw more weight into the investigation. First kindly write at the top in capital letters REPORT so we know right off what we’re about, there’s a strict procedure to follow—just like the West, I swear—and stick to the facts as you write, it doesn’t matter what you or your son were thinking in the meanwhile, like it’s such a shock and the like. What is in one’s heart, the young officer explained politely, is not a police item.Heartache is not a police concern. Kornél Esti etched these two sentences into his memory.
Everyone was genuinely surprised, the police, the offender, the Estis, when three years later he was found, a needle in a haystack. He was a member of a drug ring, the sale of stolen goods constituted their capital. A call came from the police, a detective!, whether Esti would give testimony in court, it’s not obligatory, but is highly recommended. No!, screamed Esti’s mother who, whenever she heard the word drug, immediately and without fail fell into a funk, No! Yes, said Esti. His father accompanied him. The waiting at the law court was like in a hospital. Or the Council (local government). Esti tried to tell the witnesses apart from the offense, the guilty from the innocent, but failed.
During the hearing, the judge’s questions followed each other as indifferently as raindrops. When it was Esti’s turn he seemed to liven up a bit, as if wanting to protect him, calm down, son, just tell us what happened. The slim, sympathetic young man of about twenty years of age, Esti launched in, as if he were reading it from a book. Why do you say sympathetic? That’s how I felt. But he stole your bicycle. After a short pause Esti answered: I know that what is in one’s heart is no concern of the court. The judge sank back into boredom again, let’s continue, shall we?, do you see the offender in the courtroom? The sympathetic offender? Who was sitting in the first row, his hands in handcuffs. Neither Esti nor his father had ever seen real live handcuffs until that moment. There was something domestic about it, a slightly antiquated object, or mechanism, about which there’s no knowing the use, but no one dares dispose of it. It should be rusty, by all odds. Esti’s eyes wandered in a disciplined manner from the back rows forward, and when he saw the offender, his countenance brightened, he pointed to him, for he recognized him, I recognize him, he said. The guilty party raised his shoulders slightly, almost as if he were apologizing, or possibly he was just indicating, sorry, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I tried but failed. Esti nodded, a fleeting smile lending emphasis to his seriousness. His father, who was not sitting with the people in the courtroom but was standing behind a column by the door, was startled by the loneliness and pride in the thief’s gesture, and he saw the same thing in his son’s. He was being excluded from something, he felt, irrevocably.
When the bicycle disappeared from Esti’s sight, he started running for home, and his father, who came to him impatiently in response to his impatient ringing at the door saw right away that something was amiss. Panting, Esti related to him the facts of the case in a manner almost identical to his testimony at court years later. It wasn’t the bicycle that hurt, his father could see that, but that such a thing could happen. Something that he was confident could never happen. There was fear on his young face, the fear that, in that case, anything could happen. And by then there had settled in his bluish, melancholy eyes something, too, that nothing could entirely chase away later on—beyond the disappointment, the surprise and fear, an ashen and cosmic indifference.
1A reference to the young character of Nobel Prize Laureate Imre Kertész’s novel Fateless.
2Kálmán Mikszáth (1847–1910), major Hungarian novelist, journalist, and politician.
3Ernő Orvát(1877–1929), editor of various literary magazines who became famous for discovering young talent and for his unerring taste in literature, which is respected to this day.
Translation of Esti Kornél biciklije, avagy a világ szerkezete. From Esti (Magvető, 2010). Copyright 2010 by Péter Esterházy.By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.
Three homeless citizens were sitting on Budapest’s Liberty Square, watching television.
By the corner of the American Embassy, policemen with automatics were shuffling in place, as always, blowing into the plastic coffee cups held up to their lips and looking at the sky, the Good Lord’s grainy, melancholy TV monitor. The phenomenon was first spotted at 9:30 by Corporal Henrietta Kis who, for reasons of her own this time, glanced into the bomb-surveillance mirror and was glad to see that her eye was healing nicely, the one she’d bumped into the ceiling lamp of her sleeping quarters just two night before. Why not the ceiling lamp?; at least, that’s the story she told the others, that she’d knocked into the lamp at her quarters on her way to the lavatory, and why not, considering that her business would brook no delay. No one would’ve believed the truth anyway. One eyelid nipped up, she studied the minuscule, medium-red jelly and was pleased that the unsightliness had been absorbed, and the little that remained, why, she could have painted it there herself on a discoing Saturday afternoon, though to be sure, just one made-up eye is always just a bit suspicious. In short, she was satisfied and would have continued looking at herself, but her satisfying discovery was literally dwarfed by something else she saw.
Without informing her comrades-in-arm with a loud shriek, the young lady, medium height, short legs, turned on her heels and took out a cigarette, just the fourth that day, thanks to a cut lip. She blew out the match, then discretely pinched her arm, but without producing the hoped-for result. She quietly drew a couple of deep breaths, then in a low whisper proceeded to ask her two equally quiet colleagues whether they didn’t happen to see something out of the ordinary over yonder? Though pale from the cold and engaged in sipping their by now lukewarm coffee, their dropped jaws were a dead give-away. Yeh, shit, they’d seen it too, except they thought . . . in short, that they’re not seeing what they’re seeing, that the snow had dazed their eyes. However, as things stand, it’s no daze they’re in, but a predicament.
They cocked their automatics and dropped to one knee, just as they had been trained to do.
“Let’s hope they’re just one of them advertising gizmos,” one of the soldiers offered. “For instance, a hot-air balloon. They blow ‘em up, then they drink Nescafé, or whatever. Instant chicken soup.”
“Neh, they’d ‘a needed permission for that, ‘cause that’s aerial activity,” the other soldier countered. Their knees were freezing; besides, they looked ridiculous in that quiet morning, in the falling snow, especially since the three individuals over yonder—discounting the strangeness of the phenomenon, of course—were peacefully sitting on the bench in front of the Soviet war memorial.
The next few moments were taken up with linguistic problems, like what is it they’re seeing, and how could they describe it officially? Then the discoverer, Corporal Henrietta Kis, was given her orders to call headquarters over the radio.
“Homeless,” she announced. “Three homeless individuals.”
“So what, pumpkin,” a vexed-yet-liquid voice answered, “Soooooo?”
“Except, I beg to report, they’re the size of the embassy, more or less. Or the what’s-it-called, the National Bank . . . Sitting down, anyway . . . Yes, sitting down! You won’t believe this, but there’s this incredibly huge bench. It grew there, and it’s like totally proportionate to their size . . .”
Henrietta Kis would have gone on, if only headquarters had not cut her short, because the duty officer wanted a certain Louie on the line.
“You let her hit the bottle again,” a voice thundered into the ear of that certain Louie.
“I beg to report, we did nothing of the sort, Sir, and them whatchamacallits, they’re really here,” that certain Louie went on, “and we request our orders or precautionary measures. But if you ask me, you should dispatch a commando unit.”
At this point, something very nasty came over the radio, and headquarters cut off the transmission. One wonders why, when “commando unit,” is such a soft winter word, like hot-roasted chestnuts or hornets’ nests. Or jingle bells.
“Headquarters said we’re drunk,” Certain Louis announced coldly, and stood up. “But they didn’t fucking give us our orders. Like checking their IDs. Or whose jurisdiction this thing falls under.”
Meanwhile, the embassy windows filled up with well-groomed men with intelligent eyes and golden women who perched their blonde, red, and brunette offspring on the windowsills. Flashbulbs flashed and palm-size cameras clicked. Then, as if on a signal, they disappeared, and all the blinds came down.
Later, when the sirens started blaring in the side streets, the three of them jerked up their heads, not that they were particularly surprised. They just pulled the can closer to their feet, and one of them, the younger of the two men, began pointing, possibly at the nearby Parliament, possibly at the flashing police cars. In the end, the three of them remained seated and lit up a cigarette in the falling snow. They seemed to be conferring about something, but even though Liberty Square was wrapped in silence, it was impossible to hear just what. There was nothing but silence, and the smoke of cheap cigarettes.
By the afternoon, the eyes of the entire civilized world were trained on Budapest, the television stations took possession of the rooftops, and with a sizeable entourage in tow, the Minister of the Interior came on the scene, where he was briefed that except for the unusual incident, no unusual incident had occurred, and there was only one slight mishap—when asked for proof of identity, one of the suspects dropped his ID and because of its weight, which was in proportion to the size of the said suspect, it made an ugly dent in a Mitsubishi Pajero, but it wasn’t an embassy car, thank God.
The advisability of negotiations and the urgency of removing the three individuals from the public square, but without creating a disturbance, came from a joint statement by the Hungarian Prime Minister and President Clinton. The news had reached the former in the town of Hajdúhadháza just as he was taking off, while the latter heard about it in Washington, where only a quick and sagacious assessment of the situation and their legendary sangfroid could keep their surprise in check.
As the crane’s basket was being raised, you could hear the snow falling flake by freezing flake.
“What the fuck did you fucking eat that made you so big?” the psychologist who also happened to be a first lieutenant asked, possibly for the sake of alliteration.
“Biscuits and Malta rolls.”
“And also, the wine. It was a present,” the three added unwillingly.
“What do you mean a present? A present from whom and why?” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant asked.
They couldn’t say exactly, the homeless persons replied. Basically, it was four little guys that brought it in the morning. Pigeons. At first glance, anyway. They were wearing eagle anoraks, well-cut aviator jackets, white shoelaces. But they didn’t start a fight or anything by way of aggression, they just gave them the wine, brother to brother like, an absolutely free present! In a can, and pink, almost to the bottom. And impeccably semi-sweet.
“And then the genes just kicked into gear, is that it?” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant grunted sarcastically. “They started sprouting. Those chubby genes. Is that what you’re saying?”
“So it would seem,” the homeless individuals replied, not that they’re gene experts or anything. They were just sipping the rosé, savoring the bouquet, when what happened happened, and they started growing. Or the country began shrinking. Not that it matters, it’s just delirium, it’ll pass.
“Well, it sure as fuck better,” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant said. “Can you stand up?”
“Hilda can,” they said, whereupon one of them, the woman wearing a skiing outfit, unsteadily tottered to her feet. It was a moment filled with tension, and the skin on the cheeks of the sharpshooters hidden behind the cover of the surrounding rooftops grew taut—grew taut, then relaxed. The middle-aged woman gave a drunken hiccough. Basically the size of the National Bank, possibly a hair’s breadth taller, she flung her arms around the can, leaned her cheek against it, and began singing, “Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars, let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars . . .” She even attempted a step or two as accompaniment, but then fell back with a thud. This made the three of them scream with laughter for quite some time, their drunken mouse voices squeaking and weaving in and out among the boughs of the rustling trees as they shook off their white flakes of snow. Her comrades slapped her on the back and planted awkward kisses on her ski cap. In gratitude, the woman passed the can around. She drank from it too, smacking her lips, then set it down on her lap and clasped it to her bosom. The can’s got to stay, they said, or they can forget the negotiations, plus the clearing-out of the square.
Around three p.m. one of the two men announced that he’s got to answer the call of nature, and they either get the popular geneticist Endre Czeizel on the scene to reverse his genes, or else let him go to the back of the television building to pee.
“That’ll be the day,” the officials who’d been following the events over the radio frowned. “Why not Kossuth Square, while he’s at it,” one of them commented, the sweat trickling down his forehead at the very thought.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s helicopter touched ground, but after a brief but constructive exchange of views, he thought better of his original plan to ignore the danger and with the help of a crane and a safety helmet, shake hands with the oversize citizens.
Not much before sunset, the homeless individual who went by the name of Hilda informed the Undersecretary of State in charge of the negotiations that if they won’t let Berci answer The Call, she’s gonna rip the Soviet war memorial out by the roots, and let’s just hope she won’t get the sudden urge to fling it at anybody. Or drop it on top of the television building, God forbid the eventuality. It’s their choice.
All the while, the three of them were drinking steadily, if with some slight bitterness, handsomely depleting the contents of the can, so despite the considerable risk, action had clearly to be taken before the suspects got drunk out of their skulls. By the time night fell, with the assistance of American experts, the crisis staff had lighted on a concrete plan of action.
“Is it really that urgent for Berci?” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant shouted into the loudspeaker.
“Very,” came a subdued, wind-beaten voice from above.
“Oh, dear, dear,” an advisor said encouragingly. “In that case we will take hold of him and collectively proceed to an out-of-the-way place,” he continued, then patiently, first in Hungarian then in English, he explained the plan of action. After some hesitation and doubtfulness on their part, the three individuals appeared willing to walk slowly, commodiously (the Devil ain’t chasin’ us), and with adequate police protection, watching where they were stepping, to their appointed quarters at People’s Stadium.
“We can discuss the details once we get there, friends.”
On the six o’clock evening news the spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior announced that the Plenary Action Committee meeting that was called together after the ascertainment and inquiry into the facts of the case decided in favor of the Peoples’ Stadium and its auxiliary institutions because it proved to be the only venue where the minimum required conditions for the detained individuals and the police charged with keeping the peace could be guaranteed, to wit, hot tea and water canons. She is further pleased to report to the public at large that everything went according to plan and without a hitch or unforeseen complications, except when they reached the Eastern Railway Station, the female detainee insisted on taking the train to the aqua park in Hajdúszoboszló, but after yet another exchange of views, she quickly changed her mind.
Hastily edited and inadequately lit, the TV footage still made it clear that the three sensations of the day were pretty much frightened by all the to-do around them. They trundled silently on in the heavy snowfall along the deserted streets barred to traffic. Their opal-colored plastic bags and the can were carried along behind them by four fire engines with blaring sirens.
The night passed calmly, with rest. In their sleep, nobody can ascertain the exact time but it was toward dawn, they suddenly knuckled under like wet rags. The bulk was gone as quickly as it had come, or else the country got bigger; be that as it may, the three individuals in question woke up groggy, trying their morning-after tongues, and were confused by the police alert and the silent police cars with frost on their windshields. And ever since, they’ve been sitting, huddled together inside the start circle, the same size as you or I.
From A bufti genek [Heroes Square]. Copyright Lajos Parti Nagy. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.