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.