I realized early on inside my mother’s belly that I’d be born a Gypsy. The realization made me drown at least twice in the embryonic fluid, but then I decided to resurrect myself. After all, being a Gypsy can’t be any worse than the state of the world itself. I’ll muddle through it somehow, just like all the other Gypsies.
While my father was taking an extension course in jail—due partly to having beaten up one of the wardens—my mother and I were left to fend for ourselves. She had a more difficult time of it than me. At least I was inside her body, while she had no one to hide inside. The Gypsies were telling her to join up with Dezső Botos, but my mother told them where to go—the DlSZ1 and the Komsomol, and go to stick it up the ass of the heroic Hungarian army, and frankly, also up the red flag’s cunt. At which they started explaining to my mother that the Hungarian nation has placed its hopes in us, too, that they, the Gypsies are now also with the people, safeguarding the achievement of the masses, as the song goes.
But this did not sway my mother, who hadn’t yet risen to that state of class consciousness, even though it was part of the Three-Year Plan. Except my mother couldn’t read Hungarian, something the down-and-out bums forced into the taverns by the exploitation of the kulaks, drinking and on the lookout for a free ass, refused to take into account.. As long as only the Gypsies tried their luck with my mother, all was fine, but when the peasants also entered into the ring of socialist morality, well, what can I say, this new agrarian working class’s struggle to reproduce surfaced with a vengeance, and they were at each other’s throats like animals for that by no means democratic narrow slit that happened to be my mother’s private property and my emergency exit. I fainted dead away when they came banging at the gates, but for a long time my mother didn’t give in. She put up a fight as heroic as Ilona Zrínyi against the Turks,2 until one night the Party’s will proved too much for her, and the Party Secretary of the Working Masses made my mother a bona fide colleague, plus, in the eyes of the Gypsies, a great big whore. But never mind! At least now she could clean their vodka-smelling offices and even defended World Peace in the Comrade’s arms. Which, let us add, is no small thing, for without peace there is no bread, and the other way around.
“A satisfying embrace is a great blessing,” my grandmother always said—according to my grandfather.
My grandmother is not with us any more. I never knew her. But I can travel back and forth in time as long as I’m in my mother’s womb. I’m sitting on the edge of time, taking it all in. What a shame that we turn into stupid little people after we’re dropped into the world, who are as scared shitless of the first intake of breath as of the last. Why does everything scare us? I don’t know. But I shall find out, like my grandmother in the gas chamber, who believed until her last intake of breath that the water would really come pouring from the showerhead and she could clean her lap, clean the memory of her pubic hair. They generally don’t cut off the pubic hair of the Gypsies in Auschwitz, but hers was so fine and strong that it was requisitioned for the greater glory of the German economy, they used it for the huge sieves, for not only were the mattresses for the soldiers stuffed with hair. Poor Grandmother! She always liked to be of use when she was alive. And all her life, she was conscientious. Once she was a maid in Pestújhely, and they gave her a postcard to mail. And she mailed it, but the postcard came back, while the gentlewoman who wrote it had died. She actually traveled up to the capital to the Turul Coalition3 to hand over the postcard, but the gentlemen refused to see her and sent her away. So when she took up with grandfather, she brought the postcard with her to the Gypsy camp as a souvenir. She pasted it on the wall. Even I learned to read from it. There was great rejoicing when I read for the first time, without making a mistake: “Honorable Turul Coalition High Command! In response to your article, ‘Memorial for the heroic students who fell in battle during the world war’: My brother Péter Pál Ádok fell in battle. Pál’s son was born in Földeák, County Csanád, June 29, 1893, a Roman Catholic. From Jan. 15, 1914, he spent two semesters at the Hungarian Law and Government Faculty, Budapest, first semester Sept. 19, 1914, then enlisted as a volunteer, Officers’ Academy, Kispest, from January 15, 1915. He was taken to the Galician front, and on March 5, 1919, fell in Galicia. Since then, we have received no news of him. I could send his records as proof. With respect: Mrs. István Bradák, Adria utca 65, Pestújhely!”
I was just growing my nooky to please my mother, when after a couple of days I decided to have a look at my achievement. I opened my thighs and stared at my lap as if I were looking at peacefully striking Gypsy coal miners in front of Parliament. I blushed, I think, but heroically as befits a latent partisan; I pulled apart my labia (which strangely enough women don’t paint, I wonder why?), and found my clit. I expected it to be brown, but no. It was pink and tiny. I could hardly find it. It was pretty. And then suddenly I thought, will there be a man who will ever find such a tiny whatnot? Maybe men don’t even like searching down there, just in the back of their cars? Or I won’t be a real woman, for whose sake it’ll be worth falling flat on your back even before flinging a blanket on the cement? I didn’t like the thought and decided then and there that I’d show my beautiful nooky only to a man who would one day say to me: “I adore you! Your clitoris is a pink tulip, an orchid, a bird of paradise, an oasis sweet with aphrodisiac. A chalice. A profound meditation on the past, a gentle stroke that bathes one’s cheek . . .” Oh, this is exactly what I will want once I’m a grown woman, but only a Gypsy man will be allowed to say such things to me—my male double! Which made me feel really good, and after the peeking I consumed two tomatoes. Mother liked them, too. Especially seeing how she hadn’t eaten anything all day. She wasn’t worried about gaining weight for there was nothing to eat. I’d have liked to stroke her cheeks and tell her that between squalor and poverty the difference is not merely one of quantity. Even a Gypsy will accept poverty in the Biblical sense, but squalor never! Only endure it. She wouldn’t have understood, I know. Yet sometimes a word spoken by a human being provides better sustenance than two forint forty fillér’s worth of bran bread. But no one spoke to my mother as a human being. And so I consumed another tomato . . .
My mother is wise for not knowing anything except giving life. Except for my granddad she’s the only other human being who I know is with me, and not against me, like the shoemaker who beats her within an inch of her life every day. But the other day I got fed up, and with my mother’s strong hand I slammed into his face so hard, I broke his nose. (I shall be the new generation . . .) He’s been on his best behavior ever since, while my mother fled to my granddad in the camp. I feel a lot better here and make no value judgments about the shoemaker, my mother, and the political culture as such. I’m drinking rum, admiring the Gypsy dances, and for a brief spell I’m not concerning myself with general social issues either, because it would be detrimental to my embryonic development.
In my mother’s womb, the smell and taste of brown roux always made me feel happy. I knew that at such times she was happy, too. She’s been late by two years delivering me, but I haven’t quite made up my mind to be born yet. What for? We have plenty of time. And at least, until the big day, nobody can call me a dirty Gypsy.
The Italian soldiers in charge of the POWs were always in high spirits. According to Granddad there was something rainbowlike about them that reminded him of the Gypsies. As a prisoner, he didn’t have it too bad. The hunger didn’t faze him, he’d had to put up with it in the Gypsy camp, too, if he wanted to survive. Perhaps it was this great determination that made two white doves nestle in his chest, for which the privates paid with bitter-smelling tobacco and strange-tasting bread to see. But if there was neither bread nor tobacco, he filled his tummy with a song. There was one melancholy Italian song he never forgot till his dying day. It said that women help men because men are weak, and that’s why women love them, because they feel sorry for them, but they can’t look up to them . . .
He came back from the POW camp to the Gypsy camp in May 1919. The inhabitants of the huts were delirious from the scent of lilacs. Böske Vargyas was standing in her bare feet by the well. She was the first person he saw.
“Would you like some water?” Böske Vargyas asked nonchalantly.
“Only if you’re that water,” my granddad said, smitten with love. “I’m already married, you silly man,” Böske Vargyas laughed, like she used to before the war, whereupon both white doves died inside Granddad’s breast.
I am going to be born in 1952, I decided, because Granddad was getting ready to die, or just acted like it. My mother cried her eyes out and almost drowned in her tears because there was no one else in the world she loved as much as her father, who was spitting blood.
“Name the child Jenő,” Granddad wheezed one night in the throes of a high fever, thinking his hour had come.
“Jenő, Jenő, what Jenő, when this here is a girl! She’s going to be called Sára, after her grandmother,” my mother protested, and I strained happily against her tummy to let her know I’m alive and well and I’m already Sára.
The next day, Stinking Zsuzsi, who fixed everybody up she could get her hands on, forced a concoction of horse piss, nettle grit, and pellets made of menstrual blood down Granddad’s throat. He, in order to spare himself the next batch of blood pellets, regained his health in a matter of days. And this taught me that disgust can be as great a lord as need or the new Party Secretary who, to everyone’s surprise, was a woman, even though she wore men’s clothes. Once a week she even visited the Gypsy camp. She came on foot. There’d been nothing like it in Gypsy memory, and the Gypsies were as scared of her as a twice-hung dog. The woman’s name was Klára, Klára Bán. She was fond of saying that life is neither bad nor good, life is, and that’s all there is to it! Which is something the Gypsies agreed with, so they accepted the tin cups she’d brought them as a present and didn’t hide from her in the outhouse when they saw her approach. That was no small matter, because you can’t make friends with the Gypsies if they won’t make friends with you, and you can’t “raise up” the Gypsies either, when they’re the ones holding up the canopy of stars! This is what Comrade Klára understood, and she began teaching the Gypsies in her own way. True, the chief ideologue of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party wrote her a dispatch, the gist of which was, “How can people that don’t exist be made into good Communists? Desist on the double, Comrade!” And the Party Secretary lady read the severe order, but she didn’t give a damn. She continued visiting the Gypsy camp and she didn’t even worry that the good-for-nothing Gypsies were actually getting something out of it, when after another severe dispatch she had to travel to the capital because the informers were vigilant and reported that “despite repeated warnings, she is violating the matter of Party discipline.”
“I find it outrageous that informers exist, but the Gypsies don’t!” Klára Bán fumed in front of the Board of Inquiry.
“Comrade! We have no choice but to consider your statement as your resignation!” screamed the head of the Board, and Klára disappeared down the hatch as if she’d never existed in the first place. But in the camp, the Gypsies and the 136 tin cups preserved her memory as a person who, for the first time after six hundred years, considered them human beings.
In 1920, Granddad was out in the yard, bathing in a wooden tub. It was a hot day in August, yet the swallows sat under the eves in clusters. Grandmother was scrubbing Granddad’s back with laundry soap.
“Do you know that we’re happy?” Grandmother asked suddenly.
“What’s happiness? That the Gypsies are forced between strict limits so they should learn to do without everything?” grumbled Granddad.
“I want you to be happy!” Grandmother said and stamped her feet and kissed him on the lips.
“You got a one-track mind! Isn’t the mutual aim, the mutual work more important?”
“Nooooo!” Grandmother yelled and tipped over the wooden tub. “I want love for love . . . I want a baby!” she cried.
Grandfather sat in the soapy foam flabbergasted. He was thinking of Böske Vargyas’s laugh that would always ring in his heart.
“It’s through sacrifice that feelings are strengthened,” he sighed, and nine months later, on a stormy night in May, my mother came into the world.
“It’s been such a long time since I was a child,” I thought sadly in my mother’s womb. And so I took my thumb, stuck it in my mouth, and fell fast asleep. In my dreams I said hello to a river whose waters were crimson red, and on the shore a handsome bearded man stroked my bosom and whispered in my ear that “sentiments have their life span, too, they are born, bloom, then die.”
“Die? No use being born for that!” I said, and bit a gap through his neck.
It is good inside my mother’s belly, if only it weren’t as empty of food as the lungs of a dead man are empty of air. It is good inside my mother’s belly, it’d be far worse inside my own, I said, comforting myself, and this, God only knows why, brought tears to my eyes.
My mother’s womb is timeless beauty itself. A fruit orchard that sustains me even when there is nothing to eat and all I can do is gaze at it. I realized that I’m afraid of being born, and my mother, too, is afraid of giving birth to me. No matter. I’m growing, I’m developing, and I’m learning the laws of the lean years while I wait for my time to come.
My mother weeps all the time. Life is strangling her. She feels that there is no way out of the Gypsy camp. I hear her thoughts, though they’re more like fragments, because she’s afraid to think anything through to its logical end. Also, there are days when she doesn’t think anything at all. On these days only the hushed coursing of the blood through her veins reaches me. Even though she’s a coward, my mother is brave. She won’t give me up. Women won’t give up so easily, no matter what the situation is. They know that one change follows upon the next and they are not as scared of change as men. According to Granddad, all women are admirable timebusters, because in their existence before time they learn something that makes them incomprehensible to men here on earth.
“What does it mean to be a timebuster exactly?” I asked.
“It is a state when you laugh and cry at the same time. Everything and everyone disappears, and we are left alone with ourselves,” said Granddad softly.
The yellow lilies faded in my mother’s womb and the barn swallows took to flight before I had a chance to understand their essence. I beat my fists and cried in my rage. I felt the sort of disappointment I’d feel in 2004, when I write to the man I love, “I want you! You’re missing from inside me!,” but he won’t give a flying fuck, just fade away atop a yellow lily. And I will learn that a lonely man is a free man, that the mysteries of blind faith can’t be understood by all, and that as long as I live, I won’t give a damn about etiquette if, for the first time in my life, I should be the one to want the man. Better late than never. Besides, who the fuck cares what anybody thinks! But now it’s still only 1951, and flowers will bloom in my mother’s womb again next year. I will wait it out. I have plenty of time. If there’s one thing I’ve got, it’s time.
Lately, Mother has taken to visiting the banks of the Tisza, whereas she’s been afraid of the river all her life. When night fell and the fog rolled in, the moon found her on the narrow path leading down to the river, where the sounds of the camp would follow her. Laughter, arguments, but especially coughing issued from the huts towards the stars. “When night comes, the Gypsies cough more than anybody else,” I thought inside my mother’s womb, and, my heart aching, listened to her crying. She always cried on the riverbank, but the Tisza just rumbled monotonously on, oblivious to my mother’s silent confession about her life. Possibly, it was this indifference that saved our lives, because my mother toyed with the deadly waves. But at the last moment she leaped to her feet and started running toward the huts, the wet grass gleaming on her naked feet, the bushes catching at her frock. She scared me. The void that filled her heart was deader than a dead man. At such times I left her body and began my lonely wandering in the world. I went searching for the sea so ships should come looking for me, because in my sadness I became one with a breathtakingly beautiful lighthouse. In the morning I returned to my mother’s womb smelling of the sea and olive trees. She noticed none of this, but from time to time Granddad would comment that “the scent of Italy fills the air.”
Once there was a really big wedding at the Gypsy camp. Laci Balogh had finally married Janka Burjás, whom he snuck out of the workers’ hostel in Pest, and who had already given him five children.
The women cooked real fresh meat and not old carcasses, and there was even cake, which Juli Bolond made out of love. And there was dancing, wine, happiness. But early in the morning I woke to two policemen standing in the hut and my granddad saying to them, “I’m not accusing the Hungarian people of anything! What could I have against them as long as Gypsy music can fill the air?”
“Well then, keep that in mind,” the policemen said darkly, and left.
The following day Granddad said that I’d dreamed the whole thing, there were no policemen in the camp, and I should forget all about it. But I could not forget it because the men, beaten black and blue, were all were cursing the very heavens, Granddad’s arm was in a sling, and the wedding cake made a sorry sight trampled in the mud. But when you’re nine years old you dream all sorts of things, even the truth.
All I had to do was imagine it, and the apple trees burst into bloom in my mother’s womb. They bore fruit, withered away, then burst into bloom again. It was a fun game, but still, I didn’t develop enough self-confidence, I was afraid of being born, and I was afraid of death. The example of the apple trees did not comfort me because I knew that they were me, too, and I can think up whatever I want, that will be me as well. Is my existence real? This question worried me. And when God wrote me in a postage-due letter that of course I’m real and I shouldn’t worry so much because if anybody, He knows what He’s doing, and I should believe Him that my existence is only natural, because nothing can come about by chance, without His intelligence, I calmed down.
But to this day death makes me shit in my pants when I forget about God, this higher order of intelligence who may have been created by man, because he was as afraid of himself, of death and the world, as afraid as I.
“I want to love you instead of all the women who didn’t love you, who rejected you!” I will write once, suffering from the greatest of loves, to the world’s handsomest Gypsy, who will not answer me, but Granddad will appear in my dream and say, love is the noblest form of pain, and some people are rendered mute by it.
(I will believe him and go on living.)
On my forty-fifth birthday I was home alone. I repotted my plants and listened to Ando Drom music. The music filled the terrace, then all of Szentendre, the Danube, the world, when I had to sit down because I suddenly remembered that until the age of eight, I called Granddad “Mommy.” I don’t recall how they weaned me of it, but I do know that they couldn’t free me of the feeling, and I kept it hidden inside me. This brought tears to my eyes. I missed my long-dead Granddad-Mommy. My ears were soaked up by the soil of the flowers, and this made me think that perhaps me and Granddad have also turned into flowers, just a bit.
“When will I get married, Granddad?” I asked, curious, at the age of nine at the fifteen-year-old Ági Varga’s wedding, who was already carrying the fifteen-year-old Robi Kanalas’s child.
“Ten years from now will be plenty of time,” said Granddad, stroking my hair.
“But when? Tell me when!” I asked impatiently and stamped my foot the way my grandmother used to when she was angry, according to my granddad.
“When tongues of flame shoot forth from your navel, Sára,” Granddad answered and laughed.
But I didn’t laugh. I took what he said seriously and waited patiently for the tongues of flame. I was forty-three years old when I felt the tongues of flame first burst forth from my navel, and yet I didn’t get married, for Granddad forgot to tell me that I mustn’t miss out on the right man, because his kisses can make flame issue from the navels of other women, too, and then, because of them, he’ll never notice me.
Life went its merry way inside my mother’s womb. I was floating in happiness and embryonic fluid, but not for long, because come early morning, I was born, at home, in our hut. My mother was tired, but the milk that came streaming from her breast into my mouth tasted fresh and warm. It felt good after all those dried prunes. When my mother fell asleep, Stinking Zsuzsi, who helped me into the world, carefully placed me in Granddad’s arms.
“So many years, but the little girl has found her way out of her mother’s cave,” Stinking Zsuzsi announced joyfully.
“Sooner or later we all find our way out of the cave, and there shall be light,” Granddad answered quietly.
“No, we don’t. There ain’t enough petroleum in the world for that,” Stinking Zsuzsi shrugged.
“You, Sára, will understand,” he whispered and planted a kiss on my forehead and my hand with which I was trying to grab his beard and laughed, because orange roughy were frisking inside it, just like in his two black eyes.
<sup>1 Short for Demokratikus Ifjúsági Szövetség, the democratic youth organization of the fifties.
2In the absence of her husband, Countess Ilona Zrínyi defended the castle of Munkács, the last remaining stronghold in the fight against the Habsburgs, for three years on her own.
3After the First World War, the Turul Coalition was the main organization of the young rightist radicals, many of whom were university students.
From Cigánymandala, Széphalom Könyvműhely, Budapest, 2007. Copyright Magda Szécsi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.