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History of a Conversion: A Political Profile of Mario Vargas Llosa, Part One

Children’s Literature in Translation: Pushkin Children’s Books

from the March 2018 issue

“The Song of Seven,” a Children’s Classic by Tonke Dragt, Considers the Joy and Perils of Fiction

After Disaster: Embracing a Living Past through “Ghosts of the Tsunami”

International Women Writers and Translators Who Press for Progress

The City and the Writer: In London with Rachel Holmes

“Dreaming Murakami”—Bringing Literary Translation to the Screen

Shadows, Shrouds, and Family Chronicles: Writing from Lithuania

A document of injustice, memorializing the names, professions, and ages of those who perished—many who were buried in unmarked graves. A celebrated modernist novel about a neurasthenic elevator operator, detailing the refugee experience in mid-century Manhattan. And a four-volume chronicle about the lives of the slachta, the Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, impeccably researched by an historian, narrated in ornate, Baroque style. This issue of Words without Borders thus introduces the Anglophone reader to three monuments of Lithuanian literature and history.

Shadows on the Tundra, written by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (1927–87), first appeared in print in the late 1980s, when the Lithuanian independence movement Sajūdis began to openly discuss previously censored topics and texts. Among these, the 1941 and 1944 Soviet deportations to Siberia of tens of thousands of Lithuanian men, women, and children, who, without due process, were arrested in their homes, transported in freight cars and barges to the inhospitable territories of the Soviet North and Far East, and exploited as slave labor. Among those arrested was fourteen-year-old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, who ended up in Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle in the Altaj Peninsula with her mother and little brother. Their crime, like that of many other families, was that by virtue of their education, profession, wealth, or political activities, they posed a threat to the new Soviet government. Grinkevičiūtė, understanding the injustices she was witnessing and determined to document every detail while events were still fresh in her memory, wrote her memoir several times, secretly, piecemeal, on scraps of paper, hiding them under her mattress and inside her clothing. She wrote the first version in 1949 when she illegally brought her ailing mother home to die in Kaunas, Lithuania. She buried the memoir in a peony patch in her family garden. Fearing that this version was lost (this “peony patch” version was discovered in 1991 after the author’s death and published in the Lithuanian literary review Metai in 1997), Grinkevičiūtė wrote the memoir a second time. A third version was written in Russian and published in 1979 in Moscow. In 1950, the KGB arrested Grinkevičiūtė in Kaunas and sent her to prison, shortly afterward returning her to exile in Jakutsk, Sakha Republic, USSR, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle. She was released from exile and allowed to return to Lithuania in 1956.

Lietuviai prie Laptevų jūros (Lithuanians by the Laptev Sea) stunned the nation: this was the first time many learned about what had happened to their parents, grandparents, and neighbors. Many could not believe that this taboo subject was being discussed openly; others were simply amazed by Grinkevičiūtė’s fierce determination to survive in the face of unspeakable dehumanization and suffering.

Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir reads almost like a screenplay; each episode is meticulously constructed, evoking anger, empathy and awe. The story is realistic, although some details are so gruesome that they feel like they must have been invented. Despite the horror, however, the text (and Delija Valiukėnas’s skillful translation) cannot but inspire admiration for the protagonist’s tremendous mind and spirit.

The White Shroud by Antanas Škėma (1910–61) presents another key theme of twentieth-century Lithuanian history: the frustrated talent and potential of the refugee, traumatized by World War II, living in a foreign environment and unable to practice his profession on account of language or the fact that his degrees are not recognized in his adopted land. Škėma, like thousands of his compatriots, fled Soviet occupation and eventually ended up in the United States. Like his protagonist Antanas Garšva, Škėma worked as a hotel elevator operator.

In this modernist gem, Škėma converts the tragedy of the refugee into a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition. The elevator operator transports wealthy hotel guests up and down, down and up, day in and day out. Škėma’s commanding stream-of-consciousness narrative, perceptively translated by Karla Gruodis, incorporates elements of folk songs and stories and religious and mystical imagery in the broken, accented English of the protagonist and allows readers to meander between the very specific life of the twentieth-century refugee and universal human experience.

The third text is an excerpt from Silva Rerum, an epic four-volume historical novel set in the waning years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1659–1795 and written by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (1974- ). These volumes were published between 2008 and 2017 to tremendous acclaim in Lithuania, as well as Poland and Latvia, where the novel has already been translated and similarly celebrated. (The phenomenal success of Silva Rerum has even inspired a “historical turn” in Lithuanian literature more generally. Some of the most widely read novels of the past two years, including works by Alvydas Šlepikas, Rasa Aškinytė, Sigitas Parulskis, and Saulius Šaltenis, have taken on historical topics.) As the author herself explains in a history of the Lithuanian historical novel, this work could only have been written under very specific circumstances: during Soviet rule, the experience of the aristocracy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not conform to the dictates of socialist realism’s focus on the workers and their class struggle. Prior to Soviet occupation and immediately afterward, the construction of Lithuanian national identity based on the use of the Lithuanian language precluded this experience of Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen from national discussions. One might add that this novel could not have been written by anyone other than Sabaliauskaitė, an art historian as well as a writer. Written in the Baroque style of the time in which the novel is set, it reflects her extensive and painstakingly accurate archival research, its extremely complex and ornate sentences here expertly translated by Romas Kinka.

This is an exciting time for Lithuanian literature, which is finally finding an international readership thanks in large part to the energy and generosity of the Lithuanian Cultural Institute and the emergence of a new generation of talented translators. It is our hope that this Lithuanian issue will inspire Anglophone readers to seek out more work by Lithuanian writers.

© 2018 by Jura Avizienis. All rights reserved.

from the March 2018 issue

The Trial

In this excerpt from her memoir, Dalia Grinkevičiūtė recalls the 1941 Soviet deportation to Siberia of thousands of Lithuanians and their harsh lives as slave laborers.

I am sitting in the dock along with the five others on trial for stealing boards from the storeroom. Across from us, at a table with five lighted candles and covered with red felt, sits the magistrate, an eighteen-year-old Yakut. An inspector by profession, he was ordered to preside by the Party. It must have seemed inappropriate to have an insider as judge. The magistrate is flanked on either side by two secretaries taking notes. One of them—Novikova from Leningrad, a teacher of draftsmanship at the school and a member of the Communist Youth. The other—Mironova, a higher-ranking member of the Communist Youth. This one spends her days and nights entertaining supervisors. The trial chamber is just an empty barracks next door that serves as a sewing workshop by day. The two cast-iron stoves are red hot, spreading warmth. My head is in a shambles; images, faces, a blur, my eyelids droop. I just want to sleep. I hear the voice of Riekus as in a dream:

“No, that’s not true, citizen magistrate, I did not steal. I had been making a coffin that day and took home only the leftover scraps of wood.”

Idiot, why defend yourself? What’s the point of lying? What difference does it make where we die—in prison or in this majestic factory of death called Trofimovsk? My head drops to my chest, I’m overwhelmed by sleep, the room is filled with spectators, I hear a buzzing in the room, the drone of voices.

“That’s not true, judge, I didn’t take that stick of wood. I did pick it up, but when I ran into Sventicki, I dropped it as soon as he yelled at me. I didn’t bring home so much as a sliver.”

I tear open my eyes. It’s the old Finn, who is about seventy years old, with the deeply sunken eyes of an abused dog. The face an artist might draw of famine. He had been in Leningrad during the blockade, where the daily ration had been 125 g of bread made of chaff and clay. Then he was upgraded to Trofimovsk’s factory of death (600 g of bread, frigid weather, scurvy, typhus, lice, and a polar winter). A felon, obviously. He’s undermined the state. How dare he bring back some firewood to light the stove in his ghastly barracks—just to thaw his face and eyes, dry his icy clothes, which are as hard as armor.

Nothing but lies. Markevičienė is lying. The brigade is lying. The entire Soviet State tells lies and will continue to lie in perpetuity. It stole, it steals and will steal. All four plaintiffs deny the charges. Behind me, I can hear the crowd murmuring in approval. It will soon be my turn.


A week ago, I had just come home from school. I found Mama too weak to get up. She was begging everyone for water, but no one had a drop. I fished around in the dark and found the bucket, which still had several bits of ice sticking to the bottom from the snow we melted yesterday. By now almost everyone was bedridden. So Žukienė lit her stick of kindling and said to me:

“Light the stove, Dalia. Bring back some boards. We’ll melt some water for your mother, you’ll feel warmer yourself, and I want some soup. No one has lighted the stove today. The sick haven’t had any water. There is no one else to do it.”

I slide out of the barracks. It’s quiet outside, profoundly quiet, even eerie. Not only is there no blizzard, there’s not even a breeze, just an immobilizing cold that has turned everything to ice—the mouth of the river, the tundra, the barracks, and us. The Northern Lights have illuminated the sky; it’s bright out, which is a bad thing. Stealing is going to be tough tonight. I sneak over to the depot, slip through the fence, and grab three marvelously thick boards. The snow crunches underfoot. Alerted by my footsteps, a guard wrapped in dog pelts heads in my direction. I drop the boards, drop face down in the snow and press myself flat against the tundra. I raise my head. Long pelts has turned back. I give him or her the finger and thrust the boards through the fence. In the blink of an eye, I’m on the other side, crawling with one end of each board tucked firmly under my armpits and the other end dragging in the snow. The minutes seem like hours. Faster, faster! Ah, here we are, our king of barracks—I’ve reached the first corner of the red brick building. But my energy is gone. I feel dizzy and ravenously hungry. I suck, I bite my lips, stuff my mouth with snow, chew, but my hunger does not go away.

Yet what splendor above. The Northern Lights are a magnificent web of color. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea; the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, hundred-meter pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the Aurora Borealis. Against a background of such majesty, we are the pitiful things here—starved and infested like dogs and nearly done rotting in our befouled and stinking ice caves.

Here we are—our barracks. Quick as lightning, I fling the boards inside. I chop them up and get the stove going. It turns red-hot in no time. We melt some snow, give it to the sick, they salt it, and drink. I spoon hot tea into my mother’s mouth. She doesn’t have the strength to speak. Male and female have become indistinguishable, just bones, bones, and more bones. Suddenly, Sventicki appears. He lights his candle. The construction boards are crackling in the fire, and the rest lie chopped up in a pile.

“Who stole the boards?”


“Who chopped up these boards?” The always proper but cunning Pole inquires pleasantly.


I pull the covers over my mother and slide off the berth.

“I did.”





“Will the accused citizen rise.”

I stand up. The magistrate observes my hideously wrapped feet, my tattered, padded pants, the jacket quilted out of a bathrobe, my thick braids, and raising his narrow piercing eyes, he looks directly into mine. The room suddenly falls silent. I see the school principal, Guliayev; the factory manager, Mavrin; and the food king, Travkin. They’re on the side bench whispering to each other. It is strangely quiet. I look the judge squarely in the eye. For about thirty seconds.

“How old are you?”


He reads the charges. He reads a long time. The candles on the red table flicker, and shadows writhe on the red brick walls. My legs tremble, as though they had weights on them. If only they’d let me sit down soon. Mama has probably died. They’ll also be charging Juozas. He began cramming cans of food into his mouth during the unloading in the fall right under the supervisors’ noses. He suffers terribly from hunger, it’s a lot harder for him than it is for me. Yesterday, he tried to get up and inch his way to the stove on his heels—he can’t walk since he got frostbite of the toes—but he crashed full length on the floor and fainted. His handsome face looked very white against the darkness, his slender body practically weightless. Mother is dead, Juozas will also die. He already has dysentery, and that’s usually a ticket to the pile of cadavers outside. Suddenly, Mother’s face appears before my eyes, as I remember it from childhood. Beautiful, gentle, eyes large, curls on her forehead, a smile on her face. “Mama, Mummy, you’re gone, you’re growing cold even as I stand here. I should be there to close your eyes. Juozas, who is lying by your side, will weep helplessly when he realizes that you’ve grown cold. Why did you have to starve yourself for us, just to let us starve a little longer, die a lingering death, become a laughingstock in prison, which is where we’ll be headed tomorrow? But I don’t care. You’re gone, and what happens tomorrow doesn’t matter anymore.” I hear someone talking to me.

“I’m asking you a question, which you’re obliged to answer.” A voice breaks through my fog, and I, finally, comprehend what’s being said. “Do you agree to the charges and acknowledge that they are truthful?”


A pause.

“Do you understand Russian well?”


“Do you admit your guilt?”


The magistrate looks confused. There is a din in the room. “Stupid girl.” “A child.” “Defend yourself.”

“Will the defendant, please, answer the question thoughtfully. Do you admit that you stole boards from the storehouse?”



“And chopped them up?”


“Who put you up to it?”

Žukienė shuts her eyes and turns white as a sheet.

“No one.”

“Did you know that the boards are state property?”

“I did.”

“Were you aware that there’s a penalty for stealing . . . ”

“I was aware.”

“Do you realize what you’re saying?”

“I do.”

“Where do you work?”

“I haul logs.”

“I’m told you attend school.”

“Yes, I also attend school.”

“What grade are you in?”


“Aren’t you ashamed, you, a schoolgirl, to be sitting here on this bench?”

I feel the prying eyes of the room on me. They stare intently. Am I ashamed? Ashamed of what?! Of giving my dying mother a drink of water?  What is it you want to see, you Travkins, Mavrins, and Sventickis? You gluttons, you. Is it remorse? Shame? But it’s you that should be ashamed, you’re the murderers, not me! I can hear the question being repeated.

“No, I am not at all ashamed.”


The court leaves to deliberate. It deliberates a long time. I’m tormented by sleep, by exhaustion, by weakness. All I want to do is put my head down and sleep. I’m awakened by a sharp jab in my side:

“Get up, damn it!”


Riekus, Kobra, and one other Lithuanian, I seem to remember, get two years apiece. As a minor who admitted her guilt, I am acquitted. I probably have my teacher Novikova to thank. What a blessing. To think that such good fortune has befallen me. Lialė kisses me and weeps, but this time with happiness. You have a beautiful soul, Lialė. But not for long. Life will prove a hard taskmaster, and in time you will become less discriminating in choosing between good and evil, especially where others are concerned.

Extract from Peirene No. 26, Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, published by Peirene Press, London.

from the March 2018 issue

Biront Speaks to God

Lithuanian author Kristina Sabaliauskaitė portrays how the traumatic destruction of his family leads bedridden and mute Jan Kirdey Biront to a crisis of faith.

To have called him a devil would have been a rhetorical exaggeration, but, to put it mildly, Bachelor of Philosophy Jan Kirdey Biront had some personal accounts to settle with God, and the fact that he would gladly have met Him on some dark evening in a narrow Vilnius alleyway and used his fists to come to an understanding as regards his relationship with the Lord was in spite of everything the surest proof of his faith. First and foremost he would have looked that all-seeing scoundrel in three persons, without whose knowledge not a single hair falls from anyone’s head and who proclaims that He is the arbiter of retribution and righteous vengeance, straight in the eye and asked where He was and in general what He was doing when a Cossack, called Bohdan by his accomplices, took his five-year-old brother and threw him with such force against the wall of the Biront family children’s room, on which Noah’s ark had been painted with all kinds of birds and animals climbing aboard it, that Antoni Hieronim’s brains were splattered all over the fresco in an instant. He would remind God, if He no longer remembered, where he, Jan Kirdey, was at that moment—in a hiding place in another wall behind a door hidden by wallpaper across which his father and mother had hurriedly pushed the heaviest Danzig armoire one could imagine; in a narrow stone-dark hiding place where he spent five days and nights, upright, where, petrified, he had emptied his bladder and bowels for the first two days listening to the screams of his mother being raped and his father tortured by the Cossacks from Muscovy, and later to the sound of blows, of furniture and dishes breaking, of wallpaper and wall hangings being torn down, then someone, who had emptied out the wardrobe that had been pulled across his hiding place, not content with that, had pierced the wall with his yatagan so that the tip was just a couple of finger spans from his face, then everything calmed down and after a little while all that was heard was the frighteningly quiet sound of the floorboards under the feet of the marauders who would just come by to have a look since, to tell the truth, everything had been carried out, torn out, or pulled down from the home of the Biront family on Horses Street. It was there that his uncle, Teodor Biront, found him five days later. Ignoring the Cossacks running rampant in the city, he had come to his older brother’s house to pay his last respects to the bodies of his family members and furtively had decided just to be sure to check out the hiding place known to him in which, in addition to his older brother’s savings and valuables, his last will and testament, as well as documents relating to the Biront family’s property, lands, and estates were kept; and when he pulled aside the damaged armoire, he found his twelve-year-old nephew Jan Kirdey, with his extremities numb and deprived of speech, the only barrier to him, Teodor Biront, inheriting the wealth of his Biront relatives; a sickly being, annoyingly alive only in the eyes of the law. Teodor Biront was a God-fearing Christian and so he dismissed the sinful thought that had fleetingly crossed his mind not to find his nephew alive who could have disappeared in the heat of the attack or who knows how, and so he took the half-dead boy to his home, but, to tell the truth, it would be a lie to say that he tried particularly hard to have his nephew nursed back to full health, believing the good Lord would find a way for his honor to be protected in the eyes of others and the inheritance to come to him of its own accord. Jan Kirdey lay for, it must have been, half a year on a bed in the servants’ quarters, visited only by his uncle’s housekeeper and a refractory servant woman who, if she did not forget, would bring him some broth once a day and, muttering under her breath, change his sheets and turn him so that he would not develop bedsores. All of that time he lay half-dead or, as the doctor, who had come to visit him, put it, adflictus, paralyticus hypnopompicus. However, he did not lie there completely alone, since he tried for days on end to speak with the Christ at the foot of his bed, in the picture of the Resurrection on the wall. He most often put questions to Him and the questions he most frequently put to Him began with “why?”, “what for?” Why his parents? Why his brother? Why him? Why were his hands and legs not moving? Had the two most hateful persons in his life, Bohdan, the Cossack, and Teodor, his uncle, been sent to him by Him, by God, on purpose, and if so, what did He wish to say by sending them? Why? However, Christ, seen dressed in pink between the clouds, had His eyes directed solemnly to the top of the picture frame and had not the least intention of answering any of Jan Kirdey’s questions, and for this reason when the doctor, who as usual would nod his head to say that his condition was unchanged, only now one could add with full confidence atrophia muscularis progresiva to the diagnosis, and that was undoubtedly the beginning of the end, it was his uncle Teodor who would answer those questions with: “What can one do? If that is how things are, may God’s will be done . . .” It was then that the speechless boy lying there like a wet rag became deadly angry and made the decision that he, Jan Kirdey Biront, whatever happened, would not become the instrument of the will of that heartless man, and may the devil take him, but he would get up from the bed—not because he particularly wanted to live but only to challenge God; out of anger with Him and anger with his uncle Teodor.

From Silva Rerum. © 2008 by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Romas Kinka. All rights reserved.

from the March 2018 issue

The White Shroud

In this modernist classic from Lithuanian author Antanas Škėma, the tragedy of the refugee is a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition.

The elevator goes up, the elevator goes down. Not all of his memories return. A partial amnesia remains. The polyphonies and the nightingale have traveled to the depths of his unconscious. The spring snow has melted. No more footprints in the steaming earth. But a new craving to retrieve the damp fragrance of the acacias, the nightingale, the ancient signs. I am like a scientist who has lost his formulae. And I don’t want to write a popular pamphlet. I must start again. Wait for a winter consciousness, for snow.

I want to go back to that evening in Aukštoji Panemunė, to the veranda. I need geometric mercy. Mysticism. Judgment. 

We gather in the Valley of Josaphat. I arrive in a blue bus. It’s good that it’s blue. That’s a sign of hope. The driver won’t answer my questions but I don’t mind, it’s best not to speak to bus drivers. I’m not being shown the passing sights. The windows of the bus are opaque. And the driver is blocked off by black fabric. Finally, we stop. I get off. The bus drives away.

The Valley of Josaphat is paved in cement and enclosed by a stone wall. It is the size of a room. A gate opens in the wall and three judges enter the valley. They are wearing judges’ robes, their parchment faces set off by white wing collars. The middle one opens a thick book and begins.

“Your name?”

“Antanas Garšva.”


“Poet and unsuccessful earthling.”

“Your worldview?”


“What was the worldview you were born into?”

“Formally, the believers’ one, but . . .”

“No comments, please,” interrupts the judge.

“Did you follow the commandments?”

“It’s possible that I didn’t follow them in strict terms, but . . .”

“Comments are unnecessary,” the judge interrupts again.

“Did you follow the commandments as you were taught them?”

“It appears not.”

“Very well. According to paragraph eight you are slated for liquidation. Thank you for your replies.”

“Could you please tell me what it says in paragraph eight?”

“It’s a rather long paragraph. In short: anyone who failed to follow the commandments is liquidated. For example. The faithful—those for the faithful, atheists—those for atheists, liars—those for liars, murderers—those for murderers, cowards—those for cowards, moralizers—those for moralizers. And those who followed the commandments are transferred to Heaven.”

“I followed the commandments for seekers.”

Now the three judges laugh rhythmically. Like members of an opera chorus.

“There is no such category in the Valley of Josaphat.”

“Forgive me. One more question. Why was I brought here in a blue bus? That color inspires hope.”

But the judges can’t answer in time. Antanas Garšva is already at the bottom, the door opens, and there is the starter.

“Listen, Tony,” he says sternly. “What did you do to the chinchillas?”

An elderly man and woman stand to the side. The cross-eyed old man holds a small wooden cage. One of the slats is broken and a pointy-nosed chinchilla sticks its head out, greedily sniffing the old man’s fingers, while its mate sleeps rolled up in a little ball, perfectly calm. The old lady stares at Garšva as though he had tried to murder her grandchildren.

“They say that up on the eighteenth you slammed the door shut too quickly, shattered the cage, and almost killed the chinchillas!”

“That's right, O’Casey, I damaged the cage, because this gentleman entered the elevator and then, inexplicably, turned around and tried to exit. At that moment the door closed and the cage suffered some damage. The chinchillas, I believe, are fine, though the fellow got a little spooked. But his beloved is sleeping quite peacefully. It seems that, like most men, he’s the more anxious one.”

The starter smiled faintly. “OK, Tony. Go around the corner, and come back after these people have cleared out.”

Walking away, Garšva hears the starter’s words:

“He’ll present himself to the manager and will be punished. What a criminal! The poor little creatures!”

Garšva comes back and the starter says:

“Bloody chinchillas! They belong in hell. Be careful, Tony.”

“Thanks, O’Casey. I will.”

The express from the tenth to the eighteenth. Your floor, here we are, please, thank you, button, hand to handle, going up. I'm not angry that the old people lodged a complaint. I was inattentive. Who told me to dream about the Valley of Josaphat? Poor, sweet old people. They’re probably childless and will raise those chinchillas like their dearest darlings. Maybe I should follow their example, maybe that would save me?

Elena and I—together. Domestic bliss. A little house somewhere in Jamaica. We have a whole floor to ourselves. We hang some reproductions. We arrange our books. The art books and poets look serious. A separate little shelf for our own people. In the evenings we listen to music, read and argue mildly, savoring it. The lamp shines, and it has a green glass shade. We find Station C, it doesn't have marble columns, but its vestibule offers peace. And on the coffee table—fresh flowers. And our faces always contain the possibility of smiles. And our dreams—a sense of awakening. And our embraces—the first trip to Jones Beach. And our emblem is the dead noblemen’s heads. We play at leisure. We stack blocks, build castles, dream about life and death. And the books offer us some help. Not only Homer or Dante. Our own authors, too. We drink sparkling wine and a flamingo flares up on the expensive ebony table; we sail on Lake Lucerne, and, in that other land, a dead boy plays a tune on the guitar that has never been heard on this earth. And the rising sun once again awakens our world, and we live in the cool, endless North with field, path, meadow, cross. Palms, my beloved palms, sing slender in this windy oasis.

Zoori, zoori, magical word, magical key, magical desire, magical conventionality, magical nostalgia, nostalgia for an unbreakable cage.

And then one day, in our little cage, a child is born.

First published in 1958 as Balta drobulė. © The heirs of Antanas Škėma. Translation copyright © 2018 by Vagabond Voices. From The White Shroud, forthcoming from Vagabond Voices. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

from the March 2018 issue

Open to Disagreement: Six Contemporary Hungarian Women Writers

“[T]o be humanly would be to be charged with humanity comma, with humanity humans and animals, proliferating oneself while exceeding one’s limits, moving out in front and anticipating us. It would be or It will be? […] For me, to find oneself human in Humanity has been forever, before any knowledge and any reading, to find oneself a rather lame dog, mole, shrew, eagle, girl, brother, lover, simultaneously, born at the same time, born several and several times. I had already died and been born more than once when I discovered, while making my way, other strollers, naturally poetic ones who had already signed, countersigned, the books of the Humanities of Humanity.”

The voice above is of a reader honoring a debt to writers by writing across their works, volleying words toward them on a sheet of paper coincidentally placed between two cats, working toward a literature that will be comparable to a work of justice — a literature of, and for, humanimal beings. This writer/reader happens to be female; the spectral presences whom she engages in conversation in, and by, writing herself into literature and into volleys of beings, happen to be mostly men—Rimbaud, Derrida, Jaurès, Joyce, Primo Levi; no mention is made of the two cats’ gender. The arcs of Hélène Cixous’s 2009 Volleys of Humanity (trans. Peggy Kamuf) stretch not only toward the absent writers she addresses, but also toward players volleying the words of their language—always in the plural, as Cixous reminds us—towards a different set of literary predecessors and from different positions and spaces, including the ever more shadowy regions of Eastern and Central Europe. These fellow players have also found themselves brothers, girls, tramps, witnesses of disasters, laboratory or zoo animals, different figures of death before and in order to find themselves human; similarly to Cixous, they have remained faithful to this debt by remaining open to indecision and to the possibility of disagreement.   

Coming in the wake of the so-called postmodern prose turn, an important slice of recent Hungarian writing is indebted, in the sense spoken of by Cixous, to the literature of the 1980s and ’90s that subverts, with jocoserious thoroughness, the ideological remainders entrenched in language (best illustrated by the opening sentence of Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis, "It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth,” trans. Judith Sollosy), and has the invisible, silenced, and unacknowledged part of history as its watermark. Honoring this debt, Hungarian literature has continued since the turn of the millennum to seek out the invisible and unsayable in the recent past, showing how private and public pathologies are interlocked; the history that oozes into it is singular, sensorial, unexpected, often suppressed, and derails self-knowledge almost by default. Or, to quote one of the writers selected here, Zsófia Bán, all the “nohoo” that schoolbook history, geography, and physical education impart is the endless recycling of nationalist and masculinist clichés, beneath which lurks the violence of a shared past and present.

In questioning the foundation of so-called reality, the dominant literary discourse of the recent past seems to have given up all aspiration to engage referential reality "out there,” let alone act upon it. What in the 1990s seemed a valiant and jocose reflection on the nature of language with its bricolage of received ideas and tropes, and its inbuilt biases and blindness to certain types of experience, in today’s context, when so-called "reality” is washed out and supplanted by layers of virtuality from the most banal everyday situations to media mongering "alternative facts,” the framing techniques of postmodern extraction seem a surrender, no longer suitable to contest the forms of representation assimilated by the global entertainment industry.

It is in this context that recent Hungarian literature has turned increasingly toward the previously unacknowledged, or downright uncharted territories of the domain of the sensible—first and foremost, in an attempt to address the egregious gaps, ideological silencings and amnesia in the fabric of cultural memory, that form the underpinnings of endlessly recycled historical mythologems. At least as emphatically, it is concerned with the creation of a space for the un- and underrepresented: for the vulnerable, the socially marginal, those short of world and of words for the abject, ill, or traumatized body; for a more empathetic voicing of the experience of women, of sexual minorities, and lastly, the nonhuman. Among the writers Ágnes Orzóy and I have selected here, two have created a space in their earlier writing for the voices of the ultimately unacknowledged, the animal other—laboratory animal, pet, game: Bán rewrites tongue-in-cheek, in the style of a school reader, the experiment of sending up the dog Laika into space, while Zsuzsa Selyem has some of the bleakest episodes of Communist-era history retold by a host of detached, wry animal narrators. The most pervasive questions their fiction asks are: who wields language, from what position, to what end, claiming what prerogatives, and what voices are suppressed by their voiceover. This increased concern with ethical questions in writing is inevitably accompanied by a pervasive sense of unease and of darkening, behind which it is not difficult to see a response to the country’s slide into far-right authoritarianism, the hijacking of the institutions of democracy, and the quick evaporation of whatever hopes were built up in the nearly three decades since the regime change.

The (inevitably incomplete) selection of writers presented here can be framed in many ways—the most obvious would be that in a literary field still overwhelmingly dominated by a male canon, they are routinely hedged in as women writers, at a time when such distinctions ought to have been long superseded. Three of the six started writing in the 1990s, three in the 2010s; today they rank among the most critically acclaimed of the younger and midcareer generations of Hungarian writers. Two of them (Krisztina Tóth and Kinga Tóth) are primarily poets; two (Bán and Selyem) are academics and critics by profession; two come from a background in some other field of art (visual arts in the case of Krisztina Tóth, music in that of Edina Szvoren), while two also work with other media (Bán in film, whereas Kinga Tóth is a multimedia artist); two (Selyem and Krisztina Tóth) are also distinguished literary translators. Traffic between languages is a constitutive experience for nearly all of them: Bán was brought up between Brazil and Hungary; Selyem and Mán-Várhegyi come from multiethnic Transylvania, Romania; Krisztina Tóth spent a formative period of her life in Paris; Kinga Tóth writes and performs in both Hungarian and German. To differing degrees and in divergent forms, the writing of all of them reflects an interface between fiction and literary or cultural theories, between the language of literature and that of the other arts, a critical probing into various discourses, including that of the literary tradition, as well as a self-conscious harnessing of the ethical potential of literature. Finally, the preferred prose form of all six is short fiction, a compact form that still comes second in the symbolic hierarchy of genres.

Two of the stories presented here rewrite narratives or texts of cognitive and artistic mastery over women’s bodies. Zsófia Bán’s “Frau Röntgen’s Hand” scrutinizes the first X-ray image, of the hand of Röntgen’s wife, and writes around it a ghostly domestic narrative, showing an intimate codependence of the language of science and the absence of a language that could do justice to its object. Bán’s stories, located between essay, cultural theory, and prose narrative, stray far abroad in space and time and tend to revolve around still or moving images, performing on them a veritable archeology of knowledge and amnesia, showing how their ellipses speak about the silencings at work in cultural memory. Her approach is predominantly ironic and invariably undermines the authority of learning.

Zsuzsa Selyem’s “That Little Strip of Sunshine” rewrites one of the iconic poems of the recent past, by György Petri (first published in 1990, reproduced here in Owen Good’s translation), which, with its unflinching depiction of sexual abjection and liminal poverty, flew in the face of the aestheticized rhetoric and confessional mode of the Hungarian poetic tradition, while also holding up the cracked looking glass to the alleged humanism of Communist-era culture. Selyem’s story gives voice to the poem’s object, a decrepit homeless prostitute, exposing the limits and gaps of the dissident poet’s male-gendered, de-romanticizing poetics of cruelty. One of the leading experimental writers and critics of her generation, Selyem writes a taut, dialogic short prose that moves among various voices to shed painful light on the continuity and complicity of dominant discourses, including that of literary traditions, with the ongoing violence at the basis of putatively universalist humanism and anthropocentrism, whose ethics she recently summed up in an essay as "the cold indifference toward the other and inside me, smarmy self-pity.” Importantly, the story’s topography is suggestive of some of the most traumatic sites of Hungarian history: the town of Nagykálló was among the region’s prewar centers of Hasidic culture, while Városmajor Street housed the headquarters of the Arrow Cross militia.

Krisztina Tóth ranks among the best-known contemporary Hungarian writers, who works in both prose and poetry, including children’s books. The present story is taken from Pixel, a collection of loosely interconnected short stories corresponding to various bodily parts, which together amount to a necessarily incomplete, pixelated tableau, as well as a diagnosis of mentalities prevalent in Hungarian society. “The Tongue’s Story,” having at its core the organ of speech and of taste, recounts a failed encounter between people from different cultures—a group of refugees from the Greek civil war around 1950, and the inhabitants of a rural Hungarian area where these are taken for shelter. Tóth’s sparse, economic prose presents small vignettes of banality, beneath which lurks the symptomatology of a history never fully confronted, a choice bound to reproduce old biases at every step. Her mapping of contemporary Hungarian paralysis shows the inevitable interconnectedness of private and public self-delusions.

Edina Szvoren burst onto the Hungarian literary scene with a volume of short stories in which everyday banality, presented in a detached, bare prose, reveals an uncanny underside, the absurd and monstrous growing into banality itself: In one of her stories, living next door to the country’s best executioner is narrated with a Kafkaesque matter-of-factness. The texts reveal only gradually and at the cost of the reader’s painstaking detective work the past events and traumas that have produced the present situation’s derailment. The laconic story presented here, balancing uneasily between fiction and reality, shows a warped family encounter with a well-rehearsed set of silencings.

The last two authors of this selection are millenials whose writing practice reflects different sensibilities. Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s buoyant new realism tends to take up stereotypes that might have been cut out from lifestyle magazines and psychological counseling books, giving them an unexpected twist, as happens in the short story reproduced here, in which a grotesque dream becomes the basis of a married woman’s metamorphosis into the world’s greatest football player. Written with a wry gaze, these stories encapsulate whole life histories of an indomitable, clichéd search for happiness.

To complete the selection is a sample of Kinga Tóth’s short prose. A crossover artist and performer working in the medium of sound and visual poetry, illustration, and music, Tóth writes in both Hungarian and German. The texts from her first prose volume, Moonlight Faces (2017), accompanied by the artist’s illustrations, write the imprints of illness on bodies: the premise of these brief descriptions of the intimate experience of illness is that the human body is a machine, so that the incurable illnesses that populate these texts become part of the bodies’ clockwork routine. 

These dissimilar, divergent texts can perhaps give a sense to an international audience of ongoing explorings, side alleys, tentative re-beginnings: of writing on the lookout for a literature that is wry, irreverent; vulnerable like the hedgehog crossing a highway in Derrida’s metaphor, and yet capable of withstanding the subjection of language; undisciplined, curious, multiple, playful, thorough; You before it is I. 

© 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa. All rights reserved.

from the March 2018 issue

Woman Striker Has Killer Left Foot

A csatárnő bal lába életveszélyes

In this tale of fortune and fame by Réka Mán-Várhegyi, we learn it's never too late to upset the world of competitive sports. But at what personal cost?

One sweltering summer morning I wake up to find I’m Lionel Messi, the FC Barcelona player. The sun’s coming up, everything in the room is orange. My husband and I lie beside one another naked. I climb out of bed and stand in front of the mirror. I’m not shocked, even though his face is staring back at me. My sweaty brown hair is stuck to my forehead, I’ve got a receding chin and a pug-nose. For a minute, I look at myself with my little beady eyes, suspicious, but then, what can I do, I lie back down. I hope my husband will accept me like this, my last thought as I drift off.

The clock says eight when I come around again. My husband groans, he can’t take the heat. Me neither. We go naked to the kitchen and lie down on the cool kitchen tiles. That’s when I remember my experience at dawn. I turn to my husband, the first sentence I utter today is that I dreamed I was that soccer player, Messi, that he was staring back at me and smiling. This makes my husband happy. He feels like I’d dreamed something about him.

Later that day, in the early evening, we stroll to the city park. He’s playing soccer with his pals, I plan to sit on the edge of the pitch reading a book, glancing up every now and again and watching as he dashes about, as he winks at me when he scores a goal. That’s the usual routine. But now when I see the ball, it’s as though I’ve been bewitched, I can’t take my eyes off it. There’s no trying to get into my book, it doesn’t work, all I can think about is the ball. When one of the guys kicks the ball out, I spring up and run after it. In those seconds I imagine picking it up in my hands, I’m even a little worried whether or not I can throw it that far.

But when I catch it up, my feet do the work for me. With a foreign mastery my right foot controls it and my left boots it back. The ball soars in a perfect arc and there’s something elegant about it—I can’t believe it was me who did it. I look on, shocked, at which point my husband and his pals laugh. I’d put it back on the pitch from at least a hundred and fifty feet.

When I sit down beside my book, someone asks why I don’t come play. I shrug my shoulders, I’ve never played  soccer, I’m scared I’ll get hurt. My husband gives a wave of his hand not to worry, they’ll go easy, it’s pretty relaxed, nobody here’s as sprightly as they used to be fifteen years ago, don’t worry.

“I promise I’ll pass,” sniggers one of his pals.

“Come on, a bit of running around will do you good,” says my husband.

So I put down my book and step onto the pitch.

From the very first minute the ball sticks to me. Soon I’m running rings around my own teammates on my way to the goal. The city park crowd has seldom seen goals like these. I’m honestly dancing with the ball, I tap it this way, I tap it that way, and it’s like I have complete peripheral vision, I’m passing backward. Nine out of ten shots go in. It’s unbelievable.

An hour later we pack it in. I feel like I could easily play on, but the boys are already dying for a beer. We laugh our heads off about the stuff I pulled off on the pitch.

“If you’d started ten years ago, you know where you’d be now?” sighs my husband. Soon he starts feeling sorry that I’m a woman. “If you’d been born a boy, you would’ve known at six years old what an incredible gift you have." 

I’m scared that he’s wrong. Up until now, I’d never shown any sign of feeling for any sort of ball. I’ve always been clumsy and timid. Back in the day, school gym classes positively wore me out if we had to play basketball or volleyball. I found team games too fast and nerve-racking. I was kicked out of ballet class at sixteen, and from then on I was suspicious toward all forms of exercise. Ballet was the one thing I had any ability for, and even then it wasn’t enough.

Thank god that’s all in the past, I dealt with failure, I enjoyed university, and settled into public administration. I got married during university and I’ve been doing yoga for years to ready my body for pregnancy. I keep my body in perfect shape, time doesn’t bother me, or only a bit. I long for an air-conditioned, three-bedroom flat with a rooftop terrace, a spacious fitted wardrobe in the hallway, and a dishwasher in the kitchen, and I want a spine-friendly coir mattress.

“This whole soccer thing is obviously something you wanted on some level. Ask yourself why you didn’t dream you had a three-bedroom flat,” my best friend says and shrugs as we sit on a café terrace. We leave it at that.

The next day my husband persuades me to go out and have a kick around. When I get home from work I’m already tired as usual, but him I’ve never seen so enthusiastic. He wants to teach me tricks, but it turns out I already know them all. At home he shows me videos of the best goals in football history, and most of them I feel like I could do myself anytime. We soon get used to my newfound skills. We join others’ games too, and I realize that sometimes it’s better to hold back. Some people take it badly when I crush them. They get aggressive, they boot the ball at me or tell me to get back in the kitchen where I belong.

In the park it’s mostly boys playing on the pitches, there aren’t many girls. When I do meet those few, they tell me they’ve been coming for years and they practice a lot to teach themselves the moves that come so naturally for the boys. Boys have been doing it since they were kids, it’s no wonder the moves have soaked in. I only meet one girl who’s as good as the boys.

We’ve been kicking it about for an hour when she arrives. She’s short, wiry, bull-necked, her hair’s cut short and gelled back. She’s wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts, and black trainers. She expertly spits pumpkin seed shells as she sizes up the game. I’m standing goal, mostly out of sight. After a couple of minutes, she asks with a grin if she can join, after taking a few steps to warm up, she jogs onto the pitch. She’s not just talented, she’s smart, she looks around her while she’s dribbling for someone to pass to, she uses the wall to pass back to herself. She shoots a goal practically from the halfway line. Afterward she cracks her neck and punches the air. She looks like a boxer, too. It’s as though that’s the price for playing well. I feel bad for her, for her illusions, for her sad toughness, so I tie my laces, come out of goal, and show her what I can do. I avoid her gaze at the end of the game, but she comes over and introduces herself. She says I’m pretty good and invites me to come to the club where she plays, maybe they’ll let me in.

It never even crossed my mind to join a club, what a ridiculous idea! My husband persuades me, it seems he has a dream that I’ll be a professional soccer player. You’re crazy, I tell him, no way! The last thing I need after work is to go to practice! Before falling asleep that night, I think about fate, when I close my eyes, all I see is the ball.

After this things happen rapidly. I get accepted into the club, I go to practices and matches, I score a huge number of goals, and a few months later I realize I’m playing for the Hungarian women’s national team. After the Swedish Euros—where we get silver—well-known clubs want to buy me. That’s when I hand in my notice at work. The international press writes about me more and more, I’m considered a genius of my time, my technique is compared to Messi’s.

I’m signed by the Danish team Fortuna Hjørring. My husband and I move into a sunny house where the most amazing spine-friendly mattress is waiting for us. The following year my team wins the Champions League and the experts unanimously attribute the victory to me. They say I play twice as well as the best. That I play like a man. It might be because of this, but I start being attacked more and more, people try to expose me, like I was some sort of fraud. A student in Copenhagen writes a thesis about me. Soon the FIFA leadership is wondering what to make of my situation. In the end, they make a revolutionary decision: the division between men and women’s football disappears. An hour later I get a call from Real Madrid, and they imply they’d be willing to pay a large sum for me.

We’re in Spain by August. Woman plays Cristiano Ronaldo’s position, write the papers. I’m a bit nervous. I honestly don’t want to disappoint the Madrid fans. In my first match, which we play against a Valencia in very good shape, I turn two stunning setups into goals, but they’re playing at their best as well, by the end of the second half it’s two-two. Then in the ninety-third minute I score a beautiful free kick, the crowd goes wild, they cheer me like a hero. Even though the majority of my teammates are a few years younger than me, because of my short height and my youngish looks they treat me like everyone’s little sister. When someone scores a goal, I’m the one they put on their shoulders, whom they run around the pitch with, whom they toss in the air. The following February I dress up as a koala bear for a costume party, it turns out so well they immediately pick a koala to be the team mascot.

Regardless of every goal and win, it bothers a lot of people that despite being a woman I play for Real and earn almost as much as Cristiano did before me. FIFA receives a huge number of complaints, many would like experts to examine what sort of effect my presence at Real Madrid has on football. But thanks to some influential names, nothing comes of this. Adidas approaches me, then Gucci, to promote their shoes. That’s when the fashion industry discovers me. I work for the biggest brands. The only things I’m not willing to advertise are Louis Vuitton bags, I state this several times. When a reporter asks why, all I say is: they’re rank. It’s as though the fashion magazines are released from a decades-long burden, they’re so keen on those two words: they are rank, they write in massive letters about the mopey-brown Louis Vuitton bags. Elle names me Woman of the Decade.

Many are amazed, but my husband feels great in our new life. My parents and gossip magazines both predict that our relationship won’t be able to take the burden, all the attention I’m getting, but luckily they’re wrong. The truth is without him I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, never mind go onto the pitch. He’s not just my partner, he’s my manager, too. He sets up a charity in my name for children in the developing world, and after a while he’s making frequent visits to Africa as a UNICEF ambassador.

We play El Clásico against Barcelona and I meet Lionel Messi for the first time. I could have forgotten that dream ages ago, but it’s still clear in my memory. Now, looking at his nose or his chin, his neck or his hands, I feel as though they’re part of my body, they belong to me, I’m controlling them. The match kicks off, the two teams tear into one another and he scores a goal, then I score a goal. It’s impossible to say which of us is better, more unpredictable.

A couple of days later, we meet at a gala where I arrive dressed head to toe in Dior. We present awards and receive awards, we laugh in front of the cameras, but when they disappear, he doesn’t laugh, he just stares at me like a dog. I don’t get what he wants. Maybe he’s in love with me. I swear, I’ll crush him next time.

My husband comes home from one of his UNICEF tours, and I feel horrible seeing the photos with scrawny African children hugging his legs.

“I want to have children,” I burst out crying. “I always did!”

“We will,” my husband consoles me. “It’s just not time yet.”

“But I’m thirty-five!” I howl.

I have to go to practice, I’ve no time to take a break, but I’m not well. I cry, I scream, I swear to my husband, I’ll leave Madrid, I’ll leave everything and I’ll become a professional mom. Of course I can’t do that—after all, my contract in which I promised not to get pregnant doesn’t expire for a while.

We’ve no other choice than adoption. A few months pass and children arrive to our sunny home one after the other. I don’t want a rainbow family like Angelina Jolie, my kids are pale, sour-faced Eastern Europeans. Regardless, people compare our big brood to hers.

For a long time the Hungarian political elite don’t know what to make of me. An album about Hungarian football legends is published with government funding, but I don’t even get a mention. I’m not invited onto the Hungarian national team either, even though on several occasions I state that I’d be happy to join. A few journalists compare my situation to the legendary Ferenc Puskás’s.

I spend another three fantastic years at Real. During the last winter my game gets sloppy, the club hesitates to extend my contract and little birds are chirping about my retirement. They’re sorry I only got a few years. But what years they were! I reckon I’ve still got a bit of spark in me, but I admit that I really wasn’t convincing during the recent stretch. That’s when Manchester United approaches me and I tell them I’m tired but they insist, they say I just need a new challenge. They show me footage that they believe proves I’m in better shape than ever. That’s how I join United.

I play so well, the world has never seen such a second wind. It’s largely thanks to me that we win the Premier League and the Champions League, where in the semifinal we beat Real, but I don’t celebrate my goals against my former team.

I like living in England, initially I enjoy the cooler weather. We have a traditional house and a well-kept garden. By this point I have to commute in a bulletproof car, as do my family. I’m on the cover of the Sun at least once a week, millions follow my posts on the Internet. I’m forty years old, but I don’t even look twenty-eight. I’m asked to advertise anti-wrinkle creams, but I turn down the offers. I plan to write a book on natural beauty care. I’m a legend.

Everything has to come to an end sometime. It doesn’t show on the outside, but I can feel it. I say good-bye to MU and announce my retirement, but I get an irresistible offer from Saudi Arabia and I decide to play one last round. My husband and I joke that with the money I’m earning here I could pay off Hungary’s national debt. My children are school-aged and they study at home with a private tutor. I don’t want to send them to a local school, these Arabs are weird. I’m homesick for Europe, the game’s not enough anymore, I can’t take it for long. After two years I hang up my spikes.

Finished, done, it’s over.

It’s hard to be home. My mind is blank, I just lie about on the couch. There are countless things ahead of me, says my husband, I could be a coach, I could write an autobiography, I could design clothes. I could go back to public administration, I say, and at least that one makes us laugh.

We need to settle down somewhere, but it’s not easy with the fame. What sort of life are we going to live?

“I don’t want my kids to be little Paris Hiltons,” I say.

My husband sits down beside me, he takes my hand. He has to tell me something, he says. It strikes me that I’ve been waiting for this conversation for a long time. He had an affair with the nanny, he says, and tears come into his eyes. It’s OK, I say, I slept with the club manager, but it means nothing, it really means nothing.

“Let’s move home and live like we used to,” he says.

I sigh.

“I never got the Ballon d’Or,” I say.

“You can’t have everything, love,” he answers, “You can’t have everything.”

We look at one another.

"A csatárnő bal lába életveszélyes" © Réka Mán-Várhegyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.

A csatárnő bal lába életveszélyes

Egy forró nyári hajnalon arra ébredek, hogy én vagyok Lionel Messi, az FC Barcelona játékosa. A nap most kel fel, a szobában minden narancssárga. Meztelenül fekszünk egymás mellett a férjemmel. Feltápászkodom az ágyból, hogy odaálljak a tükör elé. Nem ijedek meg, pedig ő néz vissza rám. Barna hajam izzadtan tapad a homlokomra, az állam csapott, az orrom pisze. Kis gombszememmel gyanakodva figyelem magam egy darabig, de aztán, mi mást tehetnék, visszafekszem. Remélem, hogy a férjem elfogad így, ezzel a gondolattal alszom el.

Nyolcat mutat a falióra, amikor újra magamhoz térek. A férjem nyögdécsel, nem bírja a meleget. Én sem. Ahogy vagyunk, meztelenül kimegyünk a konyhába, és lefekszünk a hűvös konyhakőre. Ekkor jut eszembe a hajnali élmény. A férjemhez fordulok, ma ez az első mondatom, álmomban az a focista, a Messi voltam, ő rám néz és mosolyog. Jól esik neki. Úgy érzi, ez olyan, mintha vele álmodtam volna valami szépet.

Aznap kora este kisétálok a Városligetbe. Ő a barátaival focizik, úgy tervezem, hogy én a pálya szélén ülve olvasok egy könyvet, amiből időnként felpillantok, és nézem, ahogy rohangál, ahogy rám kacsint, amikor gólt rúg. Így szokott lenni. De most, amikor meglátom a labdát, mintha megigéztek volna, nem tudom levenni róla a szemem. Hiába próbálok a könyvbe mélyedni, nem megy, csak a labda érdekel. Amikor az egyik srác kirúgja a pályáról, felpattanok és utána szaladok. Még ezekben a másodpercekben is azt képzelem, hogy kézzel fogom majd meg, kicsit aggódom is, hogy el tudok-e dobni odáig.

De amikor utolérem, a lábaim mindent megoldanak helyettem. A jobb lábam ismeretlen szakértelemmel kezeli le a lasztit, a ballal pedig elrúgom. A labda röpte íves, és van benne valami elegancia – el se hiszem, hogy ezt én csináltam. Megütközve nézek utána, amin a férjem és a barátai jót nevetnek. Legalább ötven méterről tettem vissza a pályára.

Amikor visszaülök a könyvem mellé, valaki megkérdi, miért nem játszom én is? Vonogatom a vállam, soha nem fociztam, félek, hogy megsérülök. A férjem legyint, attól igazán ne féljek, vigyáznak rám, egyébként is visszafogottan játszanak, itt már senki sem olyan virgonc, mint tizenöt éve, szóval nyugi.

– Ígérem, passzolok – mondja az egyik nagydarab fickó vihogva.

– Gyere, jót tesz egy kis futkározás – mondja a férjem.

Így aztán leteszem a könyvet, és a pályára lépek.

Első perctől kezdve tapad hozzám a labda. Hamarosan a saját csapattársaimat is kicselezve kapura vezetem. Akkora gólt rúgok, amilyet ritkán lát a Városliget közönsége. Valósággal táncolok a labdával, ideteszem, odarakom, és mintha teljes periférikus látásom lenne, pontos passzokat adok még hátrafelé is. Tízből kilenc lövésem bemegy. Elképesztő.

Egy órával később hagyjuk abba a játékot. Én úgy érzem, hogy még simán bírnám, de a fiúk már nagyon szeretnének meginni egy sört. Nagyokat röhögünk azon, amit a pályán műveltem.

– Ha tíz évvel ezelőtt játszani kezdesz, tudod, hol tartanál most? – sóhajt a férjem. Mindjárt azt is sajnálni kezdi, hogy nő vagyok. – Ha fiú lennél, már hatéves korodban kiderült volna, milyen káprázatos tehetség vagy.

Tartok tőle, hogy nincs igaza. Korábban semmiféle labdaérzékről se tettem tanúbizonyságot. Esetlen voltam és gyáva. Annak idején, a középiskolai tornaórákon kifejezetten megviselt, ha kosarazni vagy röplabdázni kellett. A csapatsportokat általában túl gyorsnak és idegesítőnek találtam. Tizenhat évesen rúgtak ki a balettintézetből, és utána sokáig gyanakvó maradtam mindenfajta testmozgással szemben. Egyedül a baletthez volt tehetségem, de ahhoz sem elég.

Hála az égnek, ez már rég a múlté, a kudarcot feldolgoztam, elvégeztem az egyetemet, és elhelyezkedtem a közigazgatásban. Az egyetem alatt férjhez mentem, és már több éve jógázom, hogy a testemet felkészítsem a terhességre. Remekül tartom magam, nem sürget az idő, épp csak egy kicsit. Klímás, tetőteraszos, háromszobás lakásra vágyom, tágas beépített szekrénnyel az előszobában, mosogatógéppel a konyhában, és az ágyunkba majd egyszer gerinckímélő kókuszmatracot szeretnék.

– Ezt a foci-ügyet nyilvánvalóan te vonzottad az életedbe. Kérdezd meg magadtól, miért nem arra ébredtél, hogy van egy háromszobás lakásod – vonogatja a vállát a legjobb barátnőm egy kávézó teraszán. Ennyiben maradunk.

A férjem minden második nap rávesz, hogy kimenjünk passzolgatni. Bár munka után már fáradt vagyok, őt viszont rég láttam ennyire lelkesnek. Cseleket akar tanítani, de már mindegyiket ismerem. Otthon videókat mutat a focitörténelem legnagyobb góljairól, és a legtöbb esetben azt érzem, bármikor utánuk csinálom. Hamar megszokjuk, hogy ennyire ügyes vagyok. Beállunk játszani másokhoz is, és megtapasztalom, hogy néha jobb visszafognom magam. Egyesek rosszul viselik, ha lemosom őket a pályáról. Agresszívvá válnak, belém bikázzák a labdát, vagy hazaküldenek főzni.

A városligeti pályákon többnyire fiúk játszanak, lányból kevés van. Amikor azzal a néhánnyal összeismerkedem, elmondják, több éve lejárnak, és sokat gyakorolnak, hogy a lábuk megtanulja azokat a mozdulatokat, amelyek a fiúknak olyan természetesen mennek. Kisgyerekkoruk óta ezt csinálják, nem csoda, hogy beléjük ivódtak a mozdulatok. Csak egy lánnyal találkozom, aki olyan jól játszik, mint a fiúk. Már egy órája rugdossuk a labdát, amikor megérkezik. Alacsony, szikár, bikanyakú, a haja rövidre vágva és hátrazselézve. Fekete pólót, fekete térdnadrágot és fekete sportcipőt visel. Szakértelemmel köpködi a tökmaghéjat, miközben felméri a játékot. Én éppen a kapuban állok, nem vagyok feltűnő. Pár perc múlva vigyorogva megkérdezi, beállhat-e, majd néhány bemelegítő mozdulat utána bekocog a pályára. Nemcsak ügyes, okosan is játszik, cselezés közben nyugodtan néz körbe, hogy kinek passzoljon, a palánkot használja, hogy saját magának visszaadja a labdát. Szinte félpályáról lövi a gólt. Utána megropogtatja a nyakát és a levegőbe bokszol. Úgy is néz ki, mint egy bokszoló. Mintha ez lenne az ára annak, hogy ilyen jól játszik. Megesik rajta a szívem, sajnálom az illúzióit, a szomorú keménységét, úgyhogy bekötöm a cipőfűzőm, kijövök a kapuból és megmutatom neki, hogy mit tudok. A játék végén kerülöm a tekintetét, ő viszont odajön hozzám, és bemutatkozik. Azt mondja, elég tehetséges vagyok, és hív, menjek el a klubba, ahol játszik, talán felvennének.

Eszembe se jutna elmenni egy klubba, micsoda abszurd ötlet! A férjem győzköd, úgy tűnik, arról álmodozik, hogy profi focista leszek. Nem vagy normális, mondom neki, ez fel sem merül! Csak az kéne, hogy munka után még edzésekre járjak! Elalvás előtt mégis a sorsról gondolkodom, majd amikor becsukom a szemem, már csak a labdát látom magam előtt.

Ezután felgyorsulnak az események. Felvesznek a klubba, edzésekre, meccsekre járok, rengeteg gólt szerzek, és néhány hónappal később azt veszem észre, hogy már a magyar női válogatottban játszom. A svédországi EB-t követően – amelyen ezüstérmet szerzünk – már ismert klubok akarnak megvásárolni. Ekkor felmondok a munkahelyemen. A nemzetközi sajtó egyre gyakrabban cikkezik rólam, korszakos zseninek tartanak, a technikámat Messiéhez hasonlítják.

Leigazol a dániai Fortuna Hjørring. A férjemmel egy napfényes házba költözünk, ahol a legcsodálatosabb gerinckímélő matrac vár minket. A következő évben a csapatom megnyeri a Bajnokok Ligáját, és a győzelmet a szakértők egyértelműen nekem tulajdonítják. Azt mondják, kétszer olyan jól játszom, mint a legjobbak. Hogy úgy focizom, mint egy férfi. Talán emiatt, de egyre több támadás ér, egyesek megpróbálnak leleplezni, mintha szemfényvesztő lennék. Egy koppenhágai egyetemista rólam írja a disszertációját. Hamarosan már a FIFA vezetősége is azon gondolkodik, hogy mi legyen az ügyemmel. Végül forradalmi döntést hoznak: megszűnik az átjárhatatlanság a női és a férfi foci között. A következő órában a Real Madridtól telefonálnak, és jelzik, magas összeget hajlandóak kifizetni értem.

Az augusztust már Spanyolországban kezdjük. Egy nő játszik Cristiano Ronaldo posztján, írják az újságok. Kicsit izgulok. Igazán nem akarok csalódást okozni a Madrid-szurkolóknak. Az első meccsemen, amit a nagyon jó formában lévő Valencia ellen játszunk, két briliáns helyzetet gólra váltok, de ők is nagyon igyekeznek, a második félidő végén kettő-kettő az eredmény. Aztán a 93. percben gyönyörű szabadrúgásgólt szerzek, a tömeg őrjöng, hősként ünnepelnek. Bár a csapattársaim többsége néhány évvel fiatalabb nálam, de alacsony termetem és fiatalos külsőm miatt úgy tekintenek rám, mint a legkisebbre, mint mindenki kishúgára. Ha valaki gólt lő, én vagyok az, akit a nyakukba felkapnak, akivel körbefutják a pályát, akit feldobálnak a levegőbe. Februárban a házi farsangunkon koalamackónak öltözöm, ami olyan jól sikerül, hogy rögtön meg is választják a koalát a csapat kabalaállatának.

Minden góltól és győzelemtől függetlenül sokakat zavar, hogy nő létemre a Realnál játszom, és majdnem annyit keresek, mint amennyit előttem Cristianónak adtak. A FIFA-hoz rengeteg panasz érkezik, sokan szeretnék, ha szakértők vizsgálnák meg, milyen hatással van a futballra a jelenlétem a Real Madridnál. De befolyásos embereknek köszönhetően ebből nem lesz semmi.

Megkeres az Adidas, aztán a Gucci, hogy velem reklámozzák a cipőjüket. Ekkoriban fedez fel magának a divatipar. A legnagyobb cégeknek dolgozom. Egyedül Louis Vuitton táskákat nem vagyok hajlandó reklámozni, ezt többször is kijelentem. Amikor egy riporter megkérdezi, hogy miért, csak annyit válaszolok: mert rondák. Mintha évtizedes teher alól szabadulnának fel a divatlapok, úgy lelkesednek ezért a két szóért, tényleg rondák, írják hatalmas betűkkel a szomorúbarna Louis Vuitton táskákról. Az ELLE az évtized nőjének választ.

Sokan csodálkoznak rajta, de a férjem remekül érzi magát az új életünkben. A szüleim és a pletykalapok is azt jósolják, a kapcsolatunk nem fogja elbírni ezt a terhet, ezt az egyenlőtlenséget, de szerencsére tévednek. Az igazság az, hogy nélküle felkelni sem tudnék, nem hogy a pályára kimenni. Nemcsak a társam ő, de a menedzserem is. Létrehoz egy rólam elnevezett alapítványt a harmadik világbeli gyerekekért, és egy idő után már az UNICEF nagyköveteként látogat rendszeresen Afrikába.

El Clásicót játszunk a Barcelonával, ekkor találkozom először Lionel Messivel. Rég elfelejthettem volna azt az álmot, mégis élesen él az emlékezetemben. Most, ahogy ránézek az orrára vagy az állára, a nyakára vagy a kézfejére, úgy érzem, ezek az én testrészeim, hozzám tartoznak, én irányítom őket. Elkezdődik a meccs, egymásra ront a két csapat, és hol ő, hol én lövöm a gólokat. Eldönthetetlen, hogy melyikünk a jobb, a kiszámíthatatlanabb.

Pár nappal később egy gálán találkozunk, ahova tetőtől talpig Diorba öltözve érkezem. Díjakat kapunk és díjakat adunk át, nevetünk a fényképezőgépek előtt, de amikor eltűnnek a kamerák, akkor ő már nem nevet, csak néz engem, mint egy kutya. Nem értem, mit akar. Talán szerelmes belém? Esküszöm, legközelebb lemosom a pályáról.

A férjem hazatér az egyik UNICEF-túrájáról, és én rettenetesen érzem magam a fotókat látva, amelyeken cingár afrikai gyerekek karolják át a lábát.

– Gyereket akarok – tör ki belőlem a sírás. – Mindig is gyereket akartam!

– Lesz gyerekünk – vigasztal a férjem. – Csak még nem jött el az ideje.

– De már harmincöt éves vagyok! – bömbölöm kétségbeesetten.

Muszáj edzésre járnom, nincs időm elhagyni magamat, pedig nem vagyok jól. Sírok, kiabálok, esküdözöm a férjemnek, hogy otthagyom a Madridot, otthagyok mindent, és elmegyek hivatásos családanyának. Persze ezt nem tehetem, hiszen még sokáig nem jár le a szerződésem, amiben arra is ígéretet tettem, hogy nem esek teherbe.

Nincs más választásunk, csak az örökbefogadás. Néhány hónap telik el, és napfényes házunkba egymás után érkeznek a gyerekek. Én nem akarok szivárványcsaládot, mint Angelina Jolie, az én gyerekeim sápadt, savanyúképű kelet-európaiak. Ettől függetlenül népes famíliánkat hamarosan az övéhez hasonlítják.

A magyarországi politikai elit hosszú ideig nem tudja eldönteni, hogyan viszonyuljon hozzám. Kormányzati forrásból albumot adnak ki a magyar focilegendákról, de engem meg sem említenek. A magyar válogatottba nem hívnak, pedig több fórumon is jelzem, hogy szívesen mennék. Néhány újságíró az esetemet Puskáséhoz hasonlítja.

Még három fantasztikus évet töltök a Reálnál. Az utolsó télen langyosabbá válik a játékom, a klub hezitál meghosszabbítani a szerződésem, és a madarak is a visszavonulásomról csiripelnek. Sajnálják, hogy csak néhány év jutott nekem. De micsoda évek voltak! Szerintem van még bennem szufla, de belátom, hogy tényleg nem voltam meggyőző az utóbbi időben. Ekkor felkeres a Manchester United, és én ugyan mondom nekik, hogy fáradt vagyok, de ők erősködnek, azt mondják, csak új kihívásra van szükségem. Felvételeket mutatnak nekem, amelyek szerintük bizonyítják, hogy jobb formában vagyok, mint valaha. Így kerülök a Manchester Unitedhoz.

Nem látott a világ még ilyen másodvirágzást, annyira jól játszom. Nagymértékben nekem köszönhető, hogy megnyerjük az angol bajnokságot és a Bajnokok Ligáját is, ahol az elődöntőben éppen a Realt győzzük le, de a volt csapatomnak lőtt góljaimat nem vagyok hajlandó ünnepelni.

Szeretek Angliában élni, eleinte jólesik a hűvösebb idő. Ízléses házunk és kulturált kertünk van. Ekkoriban már páncélozott autóban kell közlekednem, akárcsak a családomnak. Hetente legalább egyszer szerepelek a Sun címlapján, az interneten milliók követik a bejegyzéseimet. Negyvenéves vagyok, de nem nézek ki huszonnyolcnak sem. Ránctalanító krémeket akarnak velem reklámoztatni, de visszautasítom az ajánlatokat. Azt tervezem, könyvet írok a természetes szépségápolásról. Legenda vagyok.

Törvényszerű, hogy egyszer mindennek vége legyen. Kívülről még nem látszik, de én érzem. Búcsút intek a MU-nak, bejelentem a visszavonulásom, de ekkor Szaúd-Arábiából ellenállhatatlan ajánlatot kapok, és úgy döntök, futok még egy levezető kört. A férjemmel azon viccelődünk, hogy az itt keresett pénzből kifizethetném a magyar államadósságot. A gyerekeim ekkor már iskoláskorúak, és magántanárral tanulnak otthon. Nem akarom helyi iskolába adni őket, furák ezek az arabok. Honvágyam van Európa után, nem elégít ki a játék, nem is bírom sokáig. Két év után szögre akasztom a cipőt. Kész, vége, nincs tovább.

Nehéz otthon lenni. Nem jut eszembe semmi, csak heverészek a kanapén. Számtalan dolog áll még előttem, mondja a férjem, beállhatok edzőnek, megírhatom az önéletrajzomat, ruhákat tervezhetek. Visszamehetek a közigazgatásba, mondom én, és ezen legalább nevetünk. Le kell telepednünk valahol, de az ismertség miatt ez nem olyan egyszerű. Milyen életet fogunk élni?

– Nem akarom, hogy a gyerekeim kis Paris Hiltonok legyenek – mondom.

A férjem odaül mellém, megfogja a kezem. El kell mondania valamit, kezdi. Belém nyilall, hogy már régóta várok erre a beszélgetésre. Viszonya volt a dadával, kezdi, és könnyes lesz a szeme. Nem baj, mondom, én is lefeküdtem a klubelnökkel, de nem számít, igazán nem számít.

– Költözzünk haza, és éljünk úgy, mint régen – mondja ő.


– Végül nem kaptam meg az Aranylabdát – mondom én.

– Mindent nem lehet, drágám – válaszolja –, mindent nem lehet.

Nézzük egymást.

from the March 2018 issue

Moonlight Faces

Moonlight Faces

In these short texts, Hungarian writer and visual artist Kinga Tóth writes about the distress wrought by the effects of illness on the body and the uncertainty of a cure.

Listen to Kinga Tóth read "Moonlight Faces" in the original Hungarian​:



it’s always now, sitting in that room with the window. we have two types, they know what one of them will be, but they won’t say, the other is a secret, we will find out. (my pulse is ticking, i’m here, we’re here. the moonlight doesn’t show on my face, but don’t come any closer.) there are different diagnoses, they can be ordered by mood, like places of residence, two or more registered addresses, residing either there (at home) or somewhere between (unknown to the authorities). we think we are in control of the situation. things only rarely slip from our grasp, we learn to examine and to assess. to pay attention to medication, there are papers, when we believe them, we are ill, we are tired and do not want to work, we are ill, when we are angry, we are ill.


mariann has to, she’s told, she pulls it on over her pajamas, and asks in the snack bar if they’re showing, because then she’s not ladylike. wear it as long as possible, as long as your feet are all right, no stitches. i buy a velvet-buttoned miniskirt in the summer, when i'm fine, and some high-heeled sandals, i'm not even sick. but tights are a must, otherwise i catch a chill, wherever i sit, and that’s it. i buy paper toilet seats, there’s a ten-pack in my handbag, and hand sanitizer, paper tissues, so everything is safe, proper ladies are prepared, they hope for the best and are ready for the worst.



icicles pierced my eyes, icicles, police come and take blood. they cut your hair, constantly checking everything for you, this one wasn’t noticed. we broke one from the windowsill, it's like a vagina welder, cold, but it disappears.



the children in the movie say be brave like a lion. be strong, in the drawing the lion is the biggest, it overcomes all obstacles, its hair is huge too, that's its crown, my hair's big too. there are a lot in africa, my name means brave. there's a lion there too, a white one. but it's called kimba. anyway, you're brave too, you're the white lion.



it can end whenever, wherever. the course of the illness and the cure is unknown. there are various diagnoses, they can be ordered by mood. when feeling down, no improvement, healthy in the summer, warm and dry. after rain, the humidity, ill again. i am ill. the illness is me. the illness is writing this. i have a lot of time. i have little time. i am impatient. tricks, vitamins, tonics, products, cures, treatments, magicians.


writing reminders for myself, one on each tissue. drawing frowny faces above the messages, the rest of the paper i leave for beards. no gluten, no flour, no milk, a little cheese, bread none. no sugar, no cake, no pears and grapes, fruit juice only mornings. no preservatives, no conserves. no cans. no gas, no animal, no fat. so i’ll always see them and it’ll never cross my mind to break, because then there are consequences, then i have to face them again. for each rule a frowny face, the bathroom is full of nos, these are the new principles, this is the new life, where every rule is just a good intention.

© Kinga Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.

Moonlight Faces


Mindig most van, ott ülök abban az ablakos szobában. Két fajtánk van, az egyikünknél tudják, hogyan lesz, de nem mondják meg, a másikunknál titkos, ott majd kiderül. (Ketyeg a pulzusom, itt vagyok, itt vagyunk. A holdvilág nem látszik már az arcomon, de ne közelebb.)

Számos diagnózis van, a hangulathoz lehet őket rendelni, olyanok, mint a lakhelyek, két- vagy többcímű kártyák, lehet ott is lenni (otthon), vagy közöttük (amit a hivatalok nem tudnak). Azt képzeljük, urai vagyunk a helyzetnek. Csak ritkán csúsznak ki a dolgok a kezünkből, megtanulunk ellenőrizni és felmérni. Figyelni a gyógyszerekre, vannak papírok, ha elhisszük őket, betegek vagyunk, ha fáradtak vagyunk és nincs kedvünk dolgozni, betegek vagyunk, ha haragszunk, betegek vagyunk.


Mariann-nak muszáj, megszólják, ráhúzza a pizsamára, megkérdi a büfében, kilóg-e, mert akkor nem jó asszony. Hordd, amíg tudod, amíg jó lábad van, oda még nem szúrnak semmit. Veszek egy bársony gombolós minit, az nyáron, amikor jól vagyok, meg magas sarkú szandált, nem is vagyok beteg. Harisnya viszont kell, ha nincs, rögtön felfázom, bármire ráülök, és akkor kész. Veszek papír vécéülőkét is, 10-es csomag van a retikülömben, és fertőtlenítő folyadék, papír zsebkendő, így már minden biztonságos, a jó asszonyok felkészülnek, eltervezik a jó részeket is, nehogy jöjjön a baj.


Jégcsapok fúródtak a szemembe, jégcsapok, rendőrök lesznek, és leveszik a vért. A hajadat le kellene vágni, folyton néznek mindent neked, nem szúrták ki. Letörünk egyet az ablakpárkányról, olyan, mint a hüvelyhegesztő, hideg, de elmúlik.


Azt mondják a gyerekek a filmben, légy bátor, mint az oroszlán. Légy erős, a rajzon az oroszlán a legnagyobb, legyőz minden akadályt, hatalmas a szőre is, az a koronája, nekem is nagy a hajam. Sokan vannak Afrikában, a nevem azt jelenti, bátor. Van egy oroszlán is, fehér oroszlán. De az Kimba. Mindegy, te is bátor vagy, te vagy a fehér oroszlán.


Akármikor akárhol be lehet fejezni. A betegség lefolyása, gyógymódja ismeretlen. Különböző diag- nózisok vannak, hangulatokhoz lehet rendelni őket. Ha rossz a kedv, sikertelenség ér, beteg vagyok, nyáron egészséges, ha száraz és meleg. Eső után, nyirkosságban megint beteg. Beteg vagyok. A betegség én vagyok. A betegség írja ezt. Sok időm van. Kevés idő van. Türelmetlen vagyok. Trükk, vitamin, erősítő, készítmény, kúra, kezelés, varázsló.


Figyelmeztetéseket írok magamnak, minden gurigára egyet. Mogorva fejeket rajzolok nekik az üzenetek fölé, a maradék papírt ott hagyom szakállnak. Nem gluténost, nem lisztest, nem tejest, sajtot csak keveset, semmi kenyér. Nem cukrot, nem torta, nem körte és szőlő, gyümölcslé reggel. Nem tartósítószer, nem konzerv. Nem dobozos. Nem szénsav, nem állati, nem zsír. Hogy mindig lássam, és eszembe se jusson megszegni, mert akkor megvan a következmény, akkor megint sokáig kell szembenéznem velük. Minden szabálynak egy mogorva fej, tele van nemmel a fürdőszoba, ezek az új elvek, ez az új élet, amiben minden szigorúság valójában csak egy jóakarat.

from the March 2018 issue

Frau Röntgen’s Hand

Frau Röntgen keze

Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán rewrites the history of the X-ray in this short story that zeroes in on the domestic cost of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s journey toward discovery.

Listen to Zsófia Bán read "Frau Röntgen's Hand" in the original Hungarian​:


Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm. 

Anna Bertha! 

No answer.

Oh God. The woman has vaporized. So thought Wilhelm bitterly. She does not obey the laws of physics. And the laws of physics, c’est moi. Ich.

The laws of physics obey me.


But Anna Bertha refuses to obey. When I look at her, her image slowly fades, then disappears. If I take hold of her, the flesh, the bone, all slip from my hands and evaporate. Whoosh. Anna Bertha—now you see her, now you don’t.

That would be my wife, my better half—fifty percent of me, in other words. I have no idea what fifty percent of me does for most of the day, or even where to find it. Is this not negligence? Am I not irresponsible? It eludes my attention like a slippery-scaled fish. Anna Bertha’s body is not slippery. Anna Bertha’s body is . . . well, let’s see. What, exactly? Anna Bertha’s body exists independently of me, lives its own life, observes, touches, holds, reads, eats, and licks the corner of its mouth, though the tongue darts out for a mere instant, like a lizard sucking in a bug, then vanishes back into that soft, moist, dark mouth that manages so to stick to a non-negligible area of my body (let’s say 98.9%) that it refutes all the laws of physics, and then my body knows no gravity, and in fact ceases to be altogether. Then I find myself floating in the universe without any boundaries at all, as if suspended in some thin liquid, all of me suddenly fluid, mingling without regard to contours or borders. Then this unified cosmic suspension suddenly yields to some primal seismic undulation, a slow, building, approaching swell, hurling down a vast mass whose substance, scope, and size I cannot fathom. Once its Herculean mass towers over me like a monstrous flood and shakes my every fiber, a big bang splitting me into my constituent elements and—still defying the laws of physics—I split apart and off into space, yet all the while, there is someone nearby, still in one piece, witness to it all. It is akin to experiencing my own death, a thing otherwise granted to no one, the sole experience that is ours alone, yet not part of our lives, ours though we cannot possess it, ours though always the property of someone else, the one who observes it, knows it, tells it, writes it down, who registers it, files it away.

And yet.

Despite the sense of annihilation that Anna Bertha imparts with her soft, slick mouth and sticky, burning fingers something that is mine, so deeply mine, indeed mine beyond all measure, I must be on guard lest she suck me in and digest me into nothingness, which would be the end of any thinking on my part—now my every sinew is focused on when this something will all happen again, and again, and again, until the end of time, because next to this all else is nothing but a cooled, petrified, sooty lava flow that kills and buries all living things—and that is the end of science, nay, the end of all worldly knowledge, and Wilhelm, I said one morning to myself, since after, oh, I don’t know, hours of contemplation, I managed to somehow gather up and reconstitute all of my parts, now scattered all over the room, Wilhelm, you can’t afford to do that because you have taken an oath to science that no oath to any woman can annul.  

It was on that cool October morning that I decided—without retracting the oath I had made to my woman—to do everything in my power to keep that feeling at bay in the future, but at that same moment I also realized that this would mean keeping Anna Bertha away, that we would be living together, yes, yet still somehow apart, in separate worlds, and if this meant that I would never have an heir, then so be it, because if I allowed this overwhelming radiation emanating from her to sweep me off, then I would be the master neither of myself nor of my wife, and would be expelled by the scientific community, left to scratch at the gate then slammed shut with a thud, like some dog tossed out on the street, forever bearing the stigma of the disparaging gaze of Professor Zehnder and his posse, meaning I would have no way to support my family, my wife, and myself, and must die sick and alone, nameless, penniless, without ever discovering the secret of this mysterious emission that moves from one body to the next before any touch, the secret nature of this penetrating, permeating force, or gaze rather, before which I stand like one whose flesh has been flayed from his body, my skeleton laid bare, shifting from one leg to another in the chill. This is it, this not-knowing is what truly rends me asunder, humiliating and destroying me, because wherever this radiation shows its power there must be some physical explanation for it that I have, alas, been thus far unable to divine, though we have been married twenty-two years and I have kept my distance (in the hope of an uncluttered perspective) for at least fifteen of those, but all the same it saddens me to say that any explanation of this radiation, or of its nature, has remained an X to me, that is, an unknown.

Now I must speak to her at once, conjure her up, even from below ground if necessary because—and I say this with great hesitation—our shared project of separation may finally have borne fruit: I have lately become aware of something in the laboratory, a sort of fluorescent presence appearing at the emission of cathode rays, leaving its image on a piece of cardboard, and then once, when I tried to capture it with any number of materials, to cage the rays as it were—O here do not forsake me, sweet Lord!—I think I recognized my own glowing skeleton in the projected image, though for the time being I shall keep mum about it, since if it proves to be nothing but my imagination playing tricks on me, my scientific reputation will surely be destroyed, together with the general assumption that I am sound of mind. Given that the origin or nature of this ray, or radiation, is yet unknown to me, I have simply marked it in my notebook with an X. The instant I jotted down this X, my legs gave out under me, the blood drained from my head, and I daresay I lost consciousness for a few minutes. I had discovered something that I can never describe in any scientific journal, indeed never so much as put on paper or discuss, without losing whatever remaining professional status I yet enjoy, given that the source of this X, this unknown radiation, is likely Anna Bertha herself, who over the years and by dint of assiduous effort has worked her way through the walls of the countless rooms of which our residence, hardly to be considered modest, consists, from the bedroom to the bath, from there to the salon, the guest rooms, the library, the music room, the kitchen, the laundry, the servants’ quarters, and then to the pantry, finally penetrating the furthest corner of the building, where I had set up my home laboratory and where, when I first became aware of this unknown ray in the earliest days of November of this year 1895, I shut myself up for weeks, and where Anna Bertha, as expected, eventually found me.

She must have sniffed out my trail, if she had had any use for her nose, since it seems that she used this radiation (X), from which I had spent the earliest years of our marriage seeking refuge, and the thought of which gave me not a single day or night of peace, left with no choice but to wonder when it would happen again, when the event I simultaneously desired and feared because it was not of this world, or at least of the world marked out for me, where it makes my flesh decay and drop from my body leaving nothing but a clanking tumulus of bones, so it was this fatal radiation, beyond the merest doubt, that found me in the laboratory, which if I had wished to be faithful to reality I would have named the Anna Bertha Ray, but for this, anyone even tangentially part of the scientific community would have expected a great belly-laugh at me, and my name to be permanently expunged from the Great Ledger of Science. And so it continued to bear the name of X in my notebooks (since at least the capital letter would make it resemble a name), but I still knew that I must get to the bottom of this matter, at least for my own sake, and there was no other way to do this than to investigate the supposed source, and by this I mean Anna Bertha, and for this I really must be quick, as Christmas is here in two days, and I am not allowed to work over the holidays, so let us make haste, the holidays are upon us like a real, final death.

By now Wilhelm knew what he must do. He knew that if he were to irradiate some part of Anna Bertha’s body, getting a look into his wife, such crafty subterfuge might allow him to seize that unknown something that had held him captive for five years, incapacitating him from all work, the something that now, suddenly, seemed on the verge of crowning his scientific career, assuming he would ever dare to publish his findings. Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm. 

Willi isn’t here. This was Anna Bertha’s thought upon waking on the unusually cold morning of December 22, 1895. This was not so much a thought as a feeling she got from the cool vapor leaving her skin, the barren patch of empty space at her side, and the stark bewilderment that had slipped through the sheets’ pores. It was this same feeling that had repeated itself practically every morning for the past fifteen years. And each morning, to somehow rouse her cool body to life, to gather, from somewhere, the strength to rise from her bed and begin another seemingly endless day among countless others like it, overfull with errands to be done in the real world, yet still ultimately empty beyond measure, and now, summoning all of her imaginative power to focus on the moment when Willi’s body last intertwined with hers, when they last awoke like a fresh-baked loaf of braided bread, like two snails stuck together or fatefully fused twins, when they had taken possession of each other’s body like one walking the grounds of his leafy woodland estate, where every last bud and blade comes to life under the other’s gaze, at the other’s touch the juices begin to flow, where the other’s breath conjures up oxygen and warmth, the steam of morning and the afternoon’s buzz, and where all this was once conjured up by the sheer force of her imagination, now her hand that had always worn—even at night—her engagement ring from Willi and her wedding ring, reached for her lap, and then, with a slow, circling motion on that spot, that world of the past that had perhaps never been, but which must have existed because otherwise she would have been long dead, as this contained the invisible seed of her reality, kept her alive, indeed you could say this was her life itself, and when the first waves of her solitary pleasure came as she recalled their shared delight, she cried out his name, first quietly, then ever louder, that he should return, for her life was nothing but a fluorescing presence that quickly flickered out, and then she felt a kind of force, magnetic you could say, radiating from within herself, which she was certain would sooner or later find its mark. And for precisely this reason, as well as to get herself out of bed, she repeated this every morning, and every morning absolutely nothing happened, and by the time Anna Bertha had made her way to the kitchen, the servants were scurrying about with eyes lowered, having heard Anna Bertha’s cries, and the only one not to hear them was Willi, for whom they were intended.

But then one day, as time passed, on the morning of December 22, 1895, two days before Christmas, as Anna Bertha’s final scream still resonated in the air, her attention was caught by a voice, first far off, then closer, louder, and once it was only a few rooms off, she seemed to recognize the voice as Willi’s, calling out Anna Bertha’s name, and then the very figure of Willi himself burst into the room and breathlessly requested Anna Bertha to dress and come with him to the laboratory, the place that had always been off limits to Anna Bertha, and then Anna Bertha realized that this radiation had indeed found its mark, had brought her what she wanted: drawn Willi to her, and now it was Willi who was about to lead her into a secret corner of his life never seen by her, and while Anna Bertha, her heart pounding, scurried into her clothes, she knew now that this Christmas would be very different from the others, and somehow even felt, though at a loss to explain it, this Christmas would be memorable, not just for her and Willi, but for the entire world, and so as they reached the laboratory, where Willi hurriedly directed her in and shut the door behind him, with a solemn expression, Anna Bertha was as animated as if Jesus himself were preparing to be reborn that Christmas, right there in their house in Würzburg, and certainly there was something of the incomparable sense of rebirth when Willy took Anna Bertha’s ringed hand saying, in a quavering voice, May I have your hand, which Anna Bertha took to mean in marriage and thus explained why he was squeezing it, adorned with the rings she had received from him, and then Willi placed her hand on some kind of plate, then messed about with his instruments, and then, pale as death itself, informed her that it was done. The picture was done.

What kind of picture, asked Anna Bertha, at which Willi showed Anna Bertha the first image created with X-Rays (actually Anna Bertha Rays), showing the skeletal outline of Anna Bertha’s hand, stripped of its flesh, but all the more highlighting the engagement and wedding rings that tied them, Willi and Anna Bertha, together.

Seeing the picture Anna Bertha cried out, I have seen my own death!, but even this did not concern her at the moment since Willy, his joy infinite, threw his arms about her, and his hot tobacco breath filled Anna Bertha with such happiness that she wouldn’t have minded if she had truly collapsed dead on the cold floor of the laboratory. Then Willi, sensing the familiar, suffocating effects of the Anna Bertha Ray, but before it had weakened him beyond all help, quickly grabbed a pen and in his flowing, spiral cursive, wrote across the top margin of the picture: Hand mit Ringen, 1895.

The rest is X.

"Frau Röntgen keze" © Zsófia Bán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.

Frau Röntgen keze

Anna Bertha!, kiabált Wilhelm.

Anna Bertha!

Nincs válasz.

Istenem. Ez a nő nincs sehol.

Ez a nő nincs.

Ezt gondolta keserűen Wilhelm. Nem engedelmes­kedik a fizika törvényeinek. A fizika törvényei pedig én vagyok. Ich.

A fizika törvényei nekem engedelmeskednek.


Minden más, logika, rendszer, szabályok igen, csak Anna Bertha, ő nem engedelmeskedik nekem. Ha csak rápillantok az arcára, máris elhalványul, majd eltűnik. Ha megragadom, a hús, a csont kicsúszik a kezem kö­zül, a semmibe vész. Huss. Volt-nincs Anna Bertha. Ez volna az én feleségem.

A feleség valaminek a fele, vagyis az ötven százalé­ka. Az én feleségem az az én felem, az én ötven száza­lékom. A nap túlnyomó részében fogalmam sincs, hol van, mit csinál az én 50%-om. Nem könnyelműség ez? Nem felelőtlenség, hogy így elengedem?! Kicsúszik az ellenőrzésem alól, mint egy síkos testű hal. Csakhogy Anna Bertha teste nem síkos. Anna Bertha teste… nos, milyen is az ő teste? Anna Bertha teste, noha nem sí­kos, mégis rendre kicsúszik az ellenőrzésem alól. Ki­vonja magát, hogy így mondjam. Anna Bertha teste tő­lem függetlenül létezik. Tőlem függetlenül éli világát, tőlem függetlenül néz, tapint, fog, olvas, eszik, nyalja a szája szélét, ám a nyelve csak egy pillanatra csap ki, akár a gyíké amikor rovart szippant be, s aztán berántja ab­ba a puha, nedves, sötét szájába, ami úgy tud rátapad­ni a testem nem elhanyagolható, mondjuk 98,9%-ára, hogy az ellentmond a fizika összes törvényének. Ilyen­kor megszűnik a gravitáció, sőt megszűnik a testem is. Körfogat nélkül lebegek az univerzumban, mint vala­mi könnyű folyadékban. Minden cseppfolyóssá, egy­neművé válik, nincsenek kontúrok, határok, de egyszer csak ebből a kozmikus, egyenletes lebegésből elindul valamiféle szeizmikus ősmozgás, valami lassú hullám­zás, valami felgyűrődés, ami a távolból közeledni és nö­vekedni látszik, és amikor már olyan közel van, hogy óriás tömegével fölém magasodik, mint valami monst­ruózus árhullám, ősrobbanás ráz meg tetőtől talpig, én alkotóelemeimre bomlok és a fizika törvényeinek ellentmondva zúgok szerteszét, bele a világűrbe, mi­közben mindezt mégiscsak valaki, aki az én, érzékeli. Mintha saját halálomat élném meg. S mintha éppen ez volna benne a legnagyobb ajándék, hogy Anna Bertha létezése olyasmit ad, amit máskülönben nem kap­hat emberfia, egy olyan élményt, ami a miék, még­sem tartozik az életünkhöz, a miénk, de nem vagyunk képesek birtokolni, mert mindig a másé, éppenséggel azé, aki látja, azé, aki tudja, azé, aki elmondja, aki le­írja, aki adatolja és kartotékolja. És mégis. Amit An­na Bertha ad, a teljes megsemmisülés érzésének ellent­mondva, a síkos, puha szájával, a forrón tapadó ujjaival, olyasmi, ami az enyém, ami csak az enyém és olyan­nyira az enyém, olyan mértékig, hogy minden idegszá­lammal, csak arra tudok gondolni, hogy mikor fog új­ra megismétlődni. Újra és újra az idők végezetéig. Mert minden más ehhez képest csak kihűlt és megkövese­dett lávafolyam, ami minden élő organizmust megfojt és maga alát temet, megszűnik a tudomány, megszűnik minden világi tudás, és Wilhelm, mondtam egy reggel magamnak, miután órákig tartó révület után sikerült a szobában szanaszéjjel heverő darabjaimat valamikép­pen újra összerakosgatni, te ezt nem engedheted meg magadnak. Te a tudományra esküdtél, és egy nőnek tett eskü ezt az esküdet nem teheti semmissé.

Azon a hűvös októberi reggelen tehát megfogadtam, hogy anélkül, hogy nőmnek tett eskümet felmonda­nám, mindent el fogok követni, hogy ezt az érzést távol tartsam magamtól. Ám azt is megértettem, hogy ehhez magát Anna Berthát is távol kell tartanom. Együtt fo­gunk élni, de mégis külön világokban. S ha ennek az az ára, hogy soha nem születik utódom, akkor ezt az árat meg fogom fizetni. Mert ha hagyom, hogy megbénítson ez a lényéből áradó ellenállhatatlan sugárzás, akkor elveszett ember vagyok. Akkor sem magamnak, sem asszonyomnak nem vagyok ura, akkor kizár a tudomá­nyos közösség, s kaparászhatok Professzor Zehnder és sleppje megvető pillantásától sújtva, minek következ­tében családomat, asszonyomat és magamat eltartani nem leszek képes és nincstelenül, névtelenül és betegen kell majd meghalnom, anélkül, hogy legalább azt a tit­kot felfejthettem volna, mi is ez a titokzatos sugárzás, ami egyik testtől a másikig hatol, még mielőtt egyálta­lán egymást érintenék, hogy mi az az átható erő, illetve pillantás, amitől úgy állok előtte, mint akinek a testé­ről lefejtették a húst, és csak a pőre csontvázamra vet­kőzve állok egyik lábamról fázósan a másikra, legin­kább ez, ez a tudatlanság az, ami kikészít, ami megaláz és romba dönt, hiszen ahol ilyen erős sugárzás van, ott valamilyen fizikai magyarázatnak lennie kell. Huszon­három éve vagyunk házasok. A távolság tartását a tisz­tánlátás reményében legalább tizenöt éve gyakorlom. Mégis, szomorúan jegyzem meg, e sugárzás magyará­zata, illetve természete számomra x, azaz ismeretlen.

Most azonban azonnal beszélnem kell vele, Anna Berthát elő kell kerítenem, akár a föld alól is, mert kö­zös fáradozásunknak, azaz távolságtartásunknak, fél­ve mondom ki, mintha végre megszületett volna az eredménye. A napokban olyasmit észleltem a labora­tóriumban, amit eddig még soha, valami fluoreszkáló jelenséget, ami a katódsugarak kibocsátásakor keletke­zik, s ami egy darab kartonra vetült ki, majd egyszer, amikor megpróbáltam különféle anyagokkal felfogni, mintegy kelepcébe ejteni a sugarat, édes Istenem, ne hagyj el, a saját villódzó csontvázamat véltem felismer­ni a kivetített képen. De erről egyelőre mélyen hallga­tok. Ha kiderülne, hogy csak a képzeletem játszott ve­lem, az porig rombolná tudományos hírnevemet és az ép elmémre vonatkozó általános hitet. S mivel a sugár vagy sugárzás eredetét, illetve természetét nem isme­rem, a jegyzetfüzetemben x betűvel jelöltem. S abban a pillanatban, amikor ezt az x-et lejegyeztem, hirtelen kifutott a lábamból az erő, fejemből a vér, és úgy hi­szem, néhány percre el is veszíthettem az eszméletemet. Valami olyasmire jöttem rá, amit soha, semmilyen tu­dományos közleményben nem fejthetek ki, nem írha­tok le vagy elő nem adhatok anélkül, hogy a tekinté­lyemet el ne veszíteném, nevezetesen azt, hogy ez az x, vagyis az ismeretlen sugárzás alighanem magából An­na Bertha lényéből ered, aki az évek során szívós mun­kával rendre átküzdötte magát nem éppen kisméretű házunk számtalan helyiségén, a hálószobából a fürdő­szobába, onnan a szalonba, majd a vendégszobákba, a könyvtárba, a zeneszobába, a konyhába, a mosókony­hába, de még a cselédszobákon át a szörnyű kamrába is, bejárta a házunk összes zugát, hogy végül eljusson az épület legtávolabbi pontjáig, ahol a laboratóriumo­mat rendeztem be, és ahol idén, 1895 novemberének első napjaiban, először észleltem eme ismeretlen ­sugarat, és hetekre bezárkóztam. Ám Anna Berthának mégis sikerült rám találnia.

De még nem léphetett be hozzám, jóllehet semmi másra nem tudtam gondolni, csak arra, hogy mikor ke­rülhetek ismét a közelébe, hogy mikor ismétlődik meg az, amit egyszerre vágytam és féltem, mert nem erre a világra, de legalábbis nem a nekem kijelölt világra való, amitől felbomlik, lefoszlik rólam a húsom és nem ma­rad belőlem más, csak egy zörgő csonthalmaz. A sugár­zásnak tehát az Anna Bertha-sugár nevet kellett vol­na adnom, de ki ne tudná, aki csak egy kicsit is járatos a tudományos világban, hogy ha így teszek, gúnyosan nevettek volna rajtam, és örökre kitörölték volna ne­vemet a Tudomány nagykönyvéből. Így aztán jegyze­teimben továbbra is X néven szerepelt (a nagybetű leg­alább a név képzetét kelthette), ugyanakkor tudtam, hogy legalább a magam számára a dolog végére kell jár­nom, és ennek nincs más módja, mint hogy magát a feltételezett forrást vegyem vizsgálat alá, vagyis Anna Berthát. Igencsak sietnem kellett. Két nap múlva kará­csony, és az ünnepek alatt nem dolgozhatok, siessünk hát, nyakunkon az ünnep, sőt mindjárt nyakunkon a valóságos, végleges halál.

Wilhelm már tudta, mit kell tennie. Tudta, ha meg­sugarazhatná Anna Bertha valamely testrészét és a se­gítségével beleláthatna az asszonyba, talán e ravasz kör­körösséggel sikerülne tetten érnie azt az ismeretlen valamit, ami évekig fogva tartotta és munkaképtelenné tette, ami azonban most mégis, hirtelen megkoronázni látszik tudományos karrierjét, ha ugyan valaha is közzé meri tenni az eredményeit.

Anna Bertha!, kiabált Wilhelm.

Willi nincs itt.

Ezt gondolta Anna Bertha 1895. december 22-ének szokatlanul hideg reggelén, amikor fölébredt. Nem is annyira gondolta, mint inkább a bőre hűvös kipárolgá­sából, a mellette támadt üres tér tapintható kietlensé­géből, a lepedők redői közé bújt sivár döbbenetből érez­te, hogy egyedül van. Még nem nyitotta ki a szemét. Ez az érzés az elmúlt, hosszú évek óta minden reggel meg­ismétlődött, és minden reggel, hogy kihűlt testét vala­miképpen életre keltse, hogy valamiből erőt merítsen ahhoz, hogy kikeljen az ágyból és egy újabb, végtelen­nek tűnő, s éppen ezért számtalan, a való világgal kap­csolatos tennivalóval teletűzdelt, ám valójában mér­téktelenül üres napot elkezdjen, minden képzelőerejét összeszedve s erősen összpontosítva arra a pillanatra gondolt, amikor Willi teste utoljára kulcsolódott az ő testére. Amikor utoljára ébredtek úgy, mint egy fris­sen sült fonott kalács, vagy összenőtt ikerpár. Ami­kor egymás testét úgy vették birtokba, mint aki saját, lombos-pagonyos birtokán jár-kel, amelyben minden egyes cserje és fűszál a másik tekintetétől kel életre, a másik érintésétől keringenek a nedvek, a másik lehe­letétől termelődik az oxigén, a meleg, a hajnali pára és a délutáni zsongás, s amikor végre mindez a képzelete puszta erejétől megidéződött, a keze, amelyiken min­dig, még éjszaka is hordta a Willitől kapott eljegyzési és karikagyűrűt, elindult az öle felé, amelyet aztán ujjai lassú, körkörös mozdulataival juttatott ebbe a múltbé­li, talán sosemvolt világba. Ez tartotta benne az életet, sőt mondhatni, ez volt az élete maga, és amikor a közös gyönyör felidézett emlékének eredményeképpen meg­érkeztek a magányos gyönyör első hullámai, akkor a másik nevét kiáltotta, először halkan, aztán egyre han­gosabban, meg azt, hogy jöjjön vissza a másik.

Jöjjön vissza hozzá az, aki nélkül az ő élete csak egy fluoreszkáló, s gyorsan kihunyó jelenés. Olyan delejes erőt érzett magából kisugározni, amelyről biztos volt, hogy előbb-utóbb célba ér, és éppen ezért, meg azért, hogy fel tudjon kelni, minden reggel újból és újból meg­ismételte, és minden reggel, újból és újból nem történt semmi, a szolgálók, mire Anna Bertha kiért a konyhá­ba, lesütött szemmel sürögtek-forogtak, hiszen ők hal­lották Anna Bertha kiáltozásait, csak az nem hallotta, akinek kellett volna, a Willi.

Ám 1895. december 22-ének reggelén, karácsony előtt két nappal, amikor Anna Bertha utolsó kiáltá­sa még éppen ott rezgett a levegőben, egy hangra lett figyelmes, mely először igen távolról, majd egyre kö­zeledve és erősödve hallatszott, s amikor már csak né­hány szobányira volt tőle, felismerte, s csakugyan, hir­telen Willi robbant be a szobába és lélekszakadva kérte Anna Berthát, hogy öltözzön fel és jöjjön vele a labor­ba, oda, ahová Anna Berthának még soha nem volt szabad belépnie. Anna Bertha szívdobogva, kapkod­va öltözött, tudta, hogy ez a karácsony más lesz, mint a többi, s valamiképp azt is érezte, bár nem tudta volna megmagyarázni, hogy miért, hogy ez a karácsony nem csak számukra, Anna Bertha és Willi, de az egész világ számára emlékezetes lesz. Willi sietve beterelte a titkos laborba, majd komoly képpel behajtotta az ajtót. Anna Bertha olyan izgatott volt, mintha maga Jézus akarna a würzburgi házukban újból megszületni. Kétségtelenül érezhető volt valami az újjászületés semmihez sem fog­ható érzéséből, amikor Willi egyszer csak hozzáhajolt, és azt mondta elfúló hangon, kérem a kezedet, amit Anna Bertha úgy értett, hogy Willi újra megkéri a ke­zét és ezért szorongatja éppen a tőle kapott gyűrűkkel ékesített ujjakat. Willi ekkor ráhelyezte a kezét valami­féle lapra, matatott a műszereivel, majd holtsápadtan egyszer csak közölte, hogy kész.

Készen van a kép.

Miféle kép, kérdezte bizonytalanul Anna Bertha, s ekkor Willi felmutatta neki az első, X-sugárral (valójá­ban Anna Bertha-sugárral) készített képet, amelyen az ő kezének csontozata látható, megfosztva húsától, ám az őket, Willit és Anna Berthát összekapcsoló jegy- és karikagyűrűkkel ékesítve. Íme:



A kép láttán Anna Bertha fölkiáltott, láttam a halá­lomat!, de ebben a pillanatban ez sem érdekelte, mert Willi, féktelen örömében, a nyakába borult, s dohány­szagú, forró lehelete őt olyan boldogsággal töltötte el, hogy azt sem bánta volna, ha valóban holtan esik ös­sze. Ám ekkor Willi, mikor érezni kezdte az Anna Bertha-sugár ismerősen fojtó hatását, ellépett tőle, sietve fogott egy tollat, és gördülő, cirkalmas betűivel a kö­vetkezőket kanyarította a kép fölső szélére:

Hand mit Ringen, 1895.

A többi: x.

from the March 2018 issue

The Tongue’s Story

Tizenharmadik fejezet, avagy a nyelv története

An arduous journey of Greek migrants leads to an absurd culinary miscommunication in this story by Hungarian author Krisztina Tóth. 

Listen to Krisztina Tóth read "The Tongue's Story" in the original Hungarian​:

Dimitrios hadn’t said a single word for the entire journey. He held the enormous pack between his legs and slept with his eyes open. His wife and two children had remained at home with family, but Dimitrios had been promised that they’d be brought later within a month. Nakis, who was dozing beside him, had no family of his own yet, though he’d gone twenty-five. He’d left his three sisters and his old parents in Kastoria. All together, there were eight of them sitting on the back of the truck, they’d crossed the border in four black trucks, then the trucks lost one another again. There were no children on any of them, they’d said farewell to the little ones two weeks earlier, back at Lake Prespa.

They were dirty, lice-ridden, sweaty, their packs filthy from the long journey. Their food had run out, they had to ration their tobacco. By night they tried to sleep, by day they watched the fields. The land wasn’t bad, the corn grew tall and there was good yield on the grapes.

During the last couple of days the rain had started up, it pattered endlessly on the canvas. The canvas protected them to some extent, but their clothes were soaked through. Nakis turned his coat inside out and picked the lice out of the creases in the fabric. Old Mihalis watched and shook his head as though he were absorbing the rhythm of the Tatra pickup.

After the rain came a fierce stifling heat, the drying clothes and steaming bodies began to reek on the truck bed. They were approaching their unknown destination. The sly sun caught them from one side, they jerked wildly at each bend. Everyone’s head had grown drowsy with hunger, lack of sleep, and exhaust fumes.

It was around midday when they pulled into the main square of a small town. They passed by strange signs in an unfamiliar language. The Greek men looked at the butcher’s, they saw the tall, baroque church and the completely identical-seeming, impassive women. The locals crossing the square stopped in their tracks, sizing up the Czechoslovak truck with suspicion: it was the third that day. Exhausted men blinked from behind the canvas, nobody had given them any sign they ought to get off.

Eventually a man in a green jacket appeared and loudly conferred for some time with the driver. Neither of them spoke Russian well, so the conversation was supplemented with gestures and volume. They came round the side of the steaming truck and waved, Come on, let’s go, everybody off.

The passengers clambered down, stood with their packs, then set off uncertainly after the man in the green coat. They crossed the square, passed the women watching from the shop window, and were herded into a gravel courtyard. A dog at the back barked wildly at the newcomers, until a gangly teenager coming out of the stairwell shouted it down. From then on it just whined in defeat. It was a mystery as to what the mongrel was doing in a schoolyard and where the actual schoolchildren were. And anyone for that matter, the whole town seemed dead, while the dawdling residents seemed so confused it was as though they weren’t even from there. 

“What day’s it today?” Joannis asked suddenly.

“Wednesday. Wednesday noon,” answered Marku, who hadn’t opened his mouth for days but had kept watch with knitted brow, ready to leap. He counted the days, counted the border-crossings, then moving his lips he counted the cornfields and the remaining tobacco. In his head he counted how many cousins he had, including those who’d died as children.

“It’s Wednesday noon,” he repeated somberly.

Nakis ran back to the gate, he wanted to see whether the truck had left or not, but the man in the puffer jacket shouted, ordering him to go back to the rest. They left their packs in the yard and filed into a gym hall. There were Greeks lying everywhere on the floor, mostly strangers. Mihalis recognized a man with a gray beard who was from their area and was even older than he was. He was called Zeys, he’d arrived that morning. He said they hadn’t been able to wash yet, but they’d been given water, and he wasn’t sure whether they could stay or if they’d have to keep traveling. Most of them tried to get settled so that they’d be comfortable for the night, but soon a narrow-eyed man came in and started speaking to them in Hungarian. The parka had disappeared.

Nobody could understand what he wanted, they listened to the forty-something, broad-faced fellow completely at a loss. His voice was a shade firm, but the starved travelers couldn’t hear the veiled confusion, all they could hear was the irritation. He spoke at them for a long time in a clipped tone, then pointed for them to stand in a line. They got to their feet from their various spots, thinking to themselves, Good, now the newcomers will get their water, the whole group was standing.

The man led them through to a long concrete hall whose wall was painted with schoolgirls dancing in skirts and happy peasants at work in the fields. In the middle stood long wooden tables pushed together into one long row but with nothing on them.

They sat on the benches and took off their caps.

Then nothing happened. They sat, holding their caps, glancing now and again toward the kitchen. At times an alarmed woman in a white apron peeked out from behind the frosted glass but never came out. When they’d been sitting like that for maybe thirty minutes and there still wasn’t any water, Marku stood up and made for the door. His manner wasn’t threatening, but Dimitrios grabbed his arm and looked him in the eyes. Marku took his seat in silence, everyone gazed at the door.

Soon a short, freckled woman appeared and set out plastic pitchers of some red liquid all along the table. She didn’t return with any glasses. Mihalis dipped the tip of his tongue into it and said something. The murmur ran quietly along the two rows of men:

“Not wine.”

Then the glasses arrived and they awkwardly sipped on the sugary fruit juice.

It was weak and tasted odd, but it did provide some relief for their thirst. Many added water from the sink on the wall. Another painful fifteen minutes went by, then a woman in a headscarf appeared and slammed down plastic plates and forks along the table. She didn’t look up, she didn’t speak to anyone, if there was no space she set the cutlery in the middle with the napkin. Soon after, the freckled lady appeared again with a kitchen hand, a stout older woman; they shuffled out with an enormous aluminium pot between them. And then another. The two pots were set at opposite ends of the table.

The men began to stir, waiting for their portion. But the two women didn’t serve them, they went back behind the white door and waited to see what the guests would do from there. The guests waited a while, then Nakis got up and looked into the pots.


Two men dished it out at either end. First to the older men, then to the rest, one by one.

They were about to dig in when once again the bony woman in a headscarf who’d brought the plates appeared. In each hand she held a heaped bowl, she banged them down at opposite ends of the table and then clomped out again. She wore clogs and white socks like a nurse. In the bowls were mounds of gray dust, there was no way of telling what for.

A few started eating the pasta, others were waiting for the meat. Nakis examined the bowl. He sprinkled a little dust between his fingers.


“Must have to wash up with that after,” said Marku.

At the other end Dimitrios leaned over the bowl and gave it a whiff.

“Dirt,” he assured them sternly.

Joannis had almost wolfed down all his pasta when the freckled woman and the one in the headscarf came out. The freckled one marked time with a red face, while the taller one raised her voice and started giving orders in a foreign, rapid tongue as though she were cross. She pointed at the bowls and repeated a single incomprehensible word, then made broad gestures with one arm, as though she meant to clear the guests out. The men listened confused, looking to one another, at a loss. The woman shook her head, then moved suddenly and before they could cover their plates with their hands, she began soiling their pasta with the dust. On the other side the freckled one did the same, soon they had done it to them all. They glanced back as though they’d completed their order, then withdrew again. For a few seconds there was silence, then Dimitrios spoke:

“They’ve covered it in dirt!”

“They’ve covered it in dirt, so we can’t eat it,” the word spread along the table.

Marku slammed down his fork, staring ahead furiously, while the others gaped at their food disappointedly.

“They don’t want us here,” declared Joannis. “It’s because we don’t speak their language. That’s why they’re defiling our food.”

Dimitrios was so hungry he would have eaten the pasta, dirt and all, but he restrained himself and waited to see what the others would decide upon. 

“We should stand up and leave!” Nakis slapped his cap on the table.

Support for the idea wasn’t unanimous, they hadn’t seen hot food for days.

Eventually the old man Zeys stood up, took his plate, and in a dignified manner, with his head held high, started over to the wall. Everyone thought he was going to pour it all out or simply bring it back to the women.

But no. He stopped at the enamel sink on the wall, and covering the plate with his big, wrinkled hands, he started washing the pasta. The black dirt was rinsed away and soon only the wet pasta was left. With that, the rest of the Greek men stood up and made their way single-file toward the faucet to wash their food. The dinner ladies whispered as they watched, nobody dared step forward.

The Greek men ate, then discussed. As their hunger abated, their bitterness grew. They stood up and filed through to the gym hall in solemn silence. By the time the lad in the green parka had arrived, they were already lined up in the yard, threatening, kitted up. One of the fat dinner ladies dashed out, dragged the lad in the jacket inside, and showed him in alarm the sink in the dining hall.

The sink was full of stray pasta pieces, while the drain, as though it were full of greasy ash, was completely clogged with sweet, ground poppy seed.

"Tizenharmadik fejezet, avagy a nyelv története" © 2016 by Krisztina Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.

Tizenharmadik fejezet, avagy a nyelv története

Dimitriosz egész úton nem szólt egy szót sem. A lába közé fogta a hatalmas batyut, és nyitott szemmel aludt. A felesége és a két gyerek otthon maradtak a rokonoknál, de Dimitriosz ígéretet kapott, hogy egy hónapon belül őket is elhozzák. Nakisznak, aki mellette bóbiskolt, még nem volt saját családja, pedig már huszonöt is elmúlt. Ő három lánytestvérét és öreg szüleit hagyta Kasztoriában. A platón összesen nyolcan ültek, a határnál négy fekete teherautó érte be, aztán veszítette el újra egymást. Gyerek egyiken se utazott, a kicsiktől két héttel korábban, még a Preszpánál elbúcsúztak.

Piszkos, tetves, izzadt mindenki, a csomagok meg sárosak a hosszú úttól. Az élelmük elfogyott, a dohánnyal spórolni kell. Éjjelente próbálnak aludni, nappal figyelték a földeket. Nem volt rossz vidék, nagyra nőtt a kukorica, és szépen termett a szőlő.

Az utóbbi napokban megeredt az eső, szünet nélkül kopogott a vásznon. A ponyva valamelyest védte őket, de a ruhájuk átnedvesedett.. Nakisz kifordította a kabátját, és a gyűrődésekből szedegette a tetveket. Az öreg Mihalisz nézte, és folyamatosan ingatta a fejét, mintha átvette volna a Tátra ritmusát.

Ez a teherautó vitte át az ágyban nyitott szemmel fekvő lányt egy másik valóságba, messze, mesze a sötét szobától. David hangja melegen, szinte szerelmesen kígyózott az éjszakában. Fél három volt.

Az esőre aztán ádáz, fülledt meleg jött, a száradó ruhák és párolgó testek bűzleni kezdtek a platón. Közeledtek az ismeretlen úti célhoz. Alattomosan, oldalról sütött a nap, nagyokat zökkentek a kanyaroknál. Mindenkinek elnehezült a feje az éhségtől, a kialvatlanságtól meg a kipufogógáztól.

Délre járt, amikor bekanyarodtak egy kisváros főterére. Ismeretlen nyelvű, különös feliratok előtt haladtak el. A görögök megbámulták a húsboltot, megnézték a nagy, barokk templomot és a teljesen egyformának tűnő, egykedvű asszonyokat. A téren áthaladó helyiek megtorpantak, gyanakodva méregették a szovjet teherautót: aznap már ez volt a harmadik. Elcsigázott férfiak hunyorogtak kifelé a ponyva alól, senki nem adott jelet nekik, hogy szálljanak le.

Végül jött egy zöld kabátos ember, és hosszan, kiabálva egyeztetett a sofőrrel. Egyikük se tudott jól oroszul, így a tárgyalást kézjelekkel meg hangerővel egészítették ki. Megkerülték a párolgó kocsit, integettek, hogy gyerünk, gyerünk, mindenki lefelé.

Az utasok lekászálódtak, álltak a batyukkal, aztán bizonytalanul megindultak a zöldkabátos után. Átmentek a téren, elhaladtak a boltból bámészkodó nők mellett, majd beterelték őket egy sóderos udvarra. Hátul egy kutya fékevesztetten ugatta a jövevényeket, amíg a lépcsőházból kilépő nyurga kamasz rá nem ordított. Onnantól csak meghunyászkodva morgott. Rejtély, hogy mit keresett a korcs egy iskola udvarán, és hogy hova lettek maguk az iskolások. Egyáltalán, az egész kisváros kihaltnak tűnt, az őgyelgő lakosok pedig olyan zavarodottnak, mintha nem is ide tartoznának

– Milyen nap van ma? – kérdezte hirtelen Joannisz.

– Szerda. Szerda dél – felelte Marku, aki napok óta nem szólt egy szót se, de összehúzott szemmel, ugrásra készen figyelt. Számolta a napokat, számolta a határátkeléseket, aztán mozgó szájjal megszámolta a kukoricaföldeket és a megmaradt dohányt. Fejben azt is kiszámolta, hány unokatestvére született, beleértve a gyerekként elhaltakat is.

– Most szerda dél van – ismételte meg komoran.

Nakisz visszaszaladt a kapuhoz, meg akarta nézni, hogy elment-e a teherautó, de a pufajkás férfi kiabálva visszaparancsolta a többiekhez. A csomagokat az udvaron hagyták, és bevonultak egy tornaterembe. A földön már mindenütt görögök feküdtek, nagyrészt ismeretlenek. Mihalisz fölismert egy ősz szakállú férfit, aki az ő vidékükről származott, és még nála is öregebb volt. Zeysznek hívták, aznap reggel érkezett. Elmondta, hogy megmosakodni még nem lehetett, de vizet már osztottak, és nem tudja, maradhatnak-e itt, vagy tovább kell utazniuk. A legtöbben úgy próbáltak elhelyezkedni, hogy éjszakára is kényelmes helyük legyen, de hamarosan belépett egy szűk szemű férfi, és magyarul kezdett hozzájuk beszélni. A pufajkás közben eltűnt.

Senki nem értette, mit akar, tanácstalanul figyelték a negyvenes, széles arcú figurát. A hangja árnyalattal erősebb volt a határozottnál, de a kiéhezett utasok nem a leplezett zavart, csak az ingerültséget hallották ki belőle. Hosszan, pattogva beszélt hozzájuk, aztán mutogatott, hogy álljanak sorba. Feltápászkodtak a helyükről, gondolták, jó, akkor most az újonnan jöttek is megkapják a vizüket, ott állt az egész csapat.

A férfi átvezette őket egy hosszú betonhodályba, amelynek a falára táncoló, szoknyás iskolás lányok és hajladozó parasztok voltak festve. Középen hosszú faasztalok álltak hosszában egymáshoz tolva, ám teríték nem volt rajtuk.

Leültek sorban a padokra, levették a sapkájukat.

Aztán nem történt semmi. Ültek, fogták a sapkát, nézegettek a konyha felé. A tejüveg mögül időnként kipillantott egy-egy riadt, fehér köpenyes nő, de nem jött elő. Mikor már vagy harminc perce ültek így, és víz se érkezett, Marku felállt, és megindult az ajtó felé. Nem volt fenyegető a járása, de Dimitriosz megfogta a karját, és a szemébe nézett. Marku némán visszaült, mindenki az ajtót bámulta.

Hamarosan megjelent egy alacsony, szeplős asszony, és csőrös műanyag kancsókat rakott végig az asztalon valami piros folyadékkal. Poharat továbbra se hozott. Mihalisz beledugta a nyelve hegyét, mondott valamit. Végigfutott a moraj a várakozókon:

Közben megérkeztek a színes műanyag poharak is, sután iszogatták belőle a málnaszörpöt.

Híg volt, furcsa ízű, de csillapította kicsit a szomjúságukat. Sokan a fal mellett álló mosdóból vizet engedtek rá. Közben eltelt egy újabb kínos negyedóra, aztán megjelent egy fejkendős nő, és kopogva műanyag tányérokat meg villákat rakott végig az asztalon. Nem nézett fel, nem is szólt senkihez, ha nem fért oda valamelyik helyhez, lerakta középre az eszcájgot a szalvétával együtt. Nem sokkal ezután megjelent az előbbi szeplős asszony és egy kövér, idősebb konyhásnő: hatalmas alumíniumlábast cipeltek ki csoszogva. Aztán egy másikat is. Letették őket az asztal két ellentétes végén.

 A férfiak mozgolódni kezdtek, várták az adagjukat. A két nő azonban nem szolgálta ki őket, visszamentek a fehér ajtó mögé, és onnan figyelték, mit tesznek a vendégek. Azok vártak egy ideig, aztán Nakisz fölemelkedett, és belenézett az edényekbe.

 – Tészta.

Ketten osztottak a két végen. Először az öregeknek, utána sorban a többieknek.

Már éppen nekiláttak volna, mikor újra megjelent az előbbi csontos, fejkendős nő, aki a tányérokat kihozta. Két kezében két púpozott tálat tartott, lecsapta őket az alsó és felső asztalvégre, aztán visszaklaffogott hátra. Fapapucsot viselt és fehér bokazoknit, mint egy ápolónő. A tálakban szürke por állt, nem lehetett érteni, mire való.

Néhányan elkezdték enni a tésztájukat, mások még vártak a húsra. Nakisz a tálat nézegette. Szétmorzsolt egy kis port az ujja között.

– Hamu.

– Biztos ezzel kell majd elmosogatni – mondta Markus.

A másik végen Dimitriosz hajolt a tál fölé és beleszagolt.

– Föld – nyugtázta szigorúan.

Joannisz már majdnem az egész tésztát befalta, mikor kijött együtt a szeplős és a fejkendős asszony. A szeplős piros arccal topogott, a magasabb viszont fennhangon magyarázni kezdett idegen, pergő nyelven, mint aki mérges. A tálakra mutogatott, és egyetlen érthetetlen szót ismételgetett, aztán széles mozdulatokat tett a karjával, mint aki ki akarja innen söpörni a vendégeket. Zavartan hallgatták a férfiak, néztek egymásra tanácstalanul. A nő ingatta a fejét, aztán váratlanul megindult, és mielőtt kezüket védekezőn a tányér fölé tarthatták volna, elkezdte beszennyezni a tésztájukat a porral. A szeplős a másik oldalon ugyanezt tette, hamar végeztek mind az összessel. Röviden visszanéztek, mint aki parancsot teljesített, aztán megint visszavonultak.

Pár másodpercig csönd volt, majd Dimitriosz megszólalt:

– Földet szórtak rá!

– Földet szórtak rá, hogy ne tudjuk megenni – futott végig az asztalon.

Marku lecsapta a villát, dühösen nézett maga elé, a többiek inkább csalódottan bámulták az adagjukat.

– Nem akarják, hogy itt maradjunk – mondta ki Joannisz. Mert nem beszéljük a nyelvüket. – Azért gyalázzák meg az ételünket.

Dimitriosz olyan éhes volt, hogy akár földdel együtt is megette volna a tésztát, de visszafogta magát, és várta, mit határoznak a többiek.

– Álljunk fel és menjünk! – nyomta a sapkáját az asztalra Nakisz.

Az ötlet nem aratott osztatlan sikert, napok óta nem láttak meleg ételt.

Végül az öreg Zeysz felállt, fogta a tányért, és méltóságteljesen, egyenes tartással megindult a fal mellett. Mindenki azt hitte, kiönti valahová az egészet, vagy egyserűen visszaviszi hátra az asszonyoknak.

De nem. Megállt a zománcozott fali csapnál, és nagy, ráncos kezét a tányérra borítva mosni kezdte a tésztát. Ázott le róla a fekete föld, hamarosan csak a vizes szálak maradtak. Felállt erre a többi görög is, és szép sorban odajárultak a csaphoz, lemosták az adagjukat. Aztán merev derékkal visszaültek a helyükre. A konyhások sugdolózva figyeltek, senki nem mert előjönni.

Ettek a görögök, aztán tanácskoztak. Ahogy csillapodott az éhük, úgy nőtt bennük a keserűség. Felálltak, súlyos hallgatással átvonultak a tornaterembe. Mire a zöld pufajkás férfi megérkezett, már az udvaron sorakoztak, fenyegetően, felmálházva. Az egyik kövér konyhásnő kirohant, bevonszolta a pufajkást, és riadtan mutatta neki az ebédlőben a mosdót.

Teli volt lehullott tésztacsíkokkal, a lefolyót pedig, mintha zsíros hamu ült volna meg benne, teljesen eltömítette a mák.

from the March 2018 issue

That Little Strip of Sunshine

Az a napverte sáv

Listen to Zsuzsa Selyem read "That Little Strip of Sunshine" in the original Hungarian

Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Selyem’s short story rewrites an iconic poem by György Petri in this tale of sexual abjection and poverty.

I ordered a rum and beer. When he walked in, I felt I would melt into the sky. Good God, what I must look like. I’d long given up the thought of ever seeing him again. He left me ages ago. Impossible to count the years. For me there are no years, months, days anymore, I’ve given up on myself. Seasons I still keep track of, or maybe just guess at. In the summer I’m hot in all these rags, in winter I’m cold, spring and fall are the same. He was a nice boy, loved me like no one ever did. They’re all dead now, Mother, Father, everyone. All my relatives. My little brother and I were taken off to Auntie Mari’s. There it turned out that we were Jews and if anyone found out they’d kill us.

I was thirteen when I found out. I wanted to kill myself, but who’d have taken care of my brother? He wasn’t even seven. Auntie Mari died too, her heart gave out. We were put in state care, Áronka screamed and kicked like hell, but we got separated all the same. Haven’t seen him since. In the institute they beat me for everything, fight or obey, it made no difference. Take that, you stupid Jewish bitch, and with that they got down to business. Somehow I got hold of a razorblade and slashed my veins, but there was nowhere to hide with informers all over the place. They dragged me off before I was completely out. At the hospital they never stopped screaming at me, Don’t cut across, stupid, the nurse hissed, Cut lengthwise, so next time I cut lengthwise and she was right, I almost did it, they pumped an IV into me for days while I was far away, out beyond the dim, scattered lights, beyond the thundering voices, beyond the strip of sunshine beating down on the bathroom floor mired in my blood. I heard Áronka pleading, but something drew me on toward our house in Nagykálló, Buksi wagging his tail, Cili looking at me through the slits in her green eyes, the hens toddling in the yard and me in the middle, Mother is laughing and I don’t know why the fuck they took me back to the hospital bed. I looked around, the informers were all asleep. Outside only darkness. Run, I thought, which was easier said than done, as I could barely lift myself off the bed and the moment I got on my feet I felt dizzy. No, Teri, no falling back, I reminded myself of the instructor who would cover my mouth with his palm and schlep me out of bed by my hair every other week when he was on the night shift. This gave me the strength to bumble out of the ward, carefully down the corridor, down the stairs, out onto Városmajor Street. There was a park across the way. I plopped down on the first bench I saw and looked up through the branches at the dark sky. My entire body was trembling. This is what my life had become.

He smiled and raised a thick eyebrow and his thin shoulders in disbelief then turned to the barman. A rum and beer for the lady, and a vodka over here.

Was I confusing him for someone else? I didn’t dare ask him, You’re János Hell aren’t you? My heart was thumping like crazy, I could hardly breathe. I wasn’t really afraid to ask, but for some reason I didn’t want to do it right away. Besides, what would be the point of talking? I’d sooner have just hugged him on the spot, burying my head in his neck. Then he would have recognized me for sure.

I gulped down the sticky drink, which hit me immediately. He tossed back his vodka. We sat side by side, he facing slightly outward. Just like in the old days. My goodness, I wouldn’t have guessed he’d still be alive, or that I would for that matter. But back then I didn’t shake when I drank, this I learned quickly enough. Also that you have to pay for it. At first, of course, I would be bought rounds just like that, by the others. I used to be their little Teri, up until Kacor tried to mount me and I started screaming. With this I’d broken something, I now realize. Stupid cow, do you want to bring on the cops, this was the mildest I got, so I cleared out. Hit the road if you’re so squeamish, they’d shouted after me and laughed, Prince Charming is waiting!

At night I’d sit in a pub as long as I could. Sometimes they paid me in advance, sometimes afterward, it no longer hurt, I wasn’t afraid, I felt nothing, only the comforting warmth of alcohol. I slept through the day most of the time on some bench until I was chased off. This is how Hell found me. I can’t remember it all exactly, but I woke up feeling my head was in someone’s lap. I looked up, squinting at the sun in my eyes, and just above me a dark pair of eyes glistened at me from a much greater height than I expected, like the eyes of someone who understands everything. Hello, I said, but he didn’t answer. What’s the matter, you deaf, I growled and wanted to jump up, for who knows what crank I’d come across this time, but he elbowed me back down and asked my name. And how I got there. What had happened with my parents. With my little brother. The instructor.

By the time I’d answered all his questions I recognized him: János Hell. His parents were alive, pushing on, groveling their way up, harassing one another, and Jancsi until he fled from home. They’d never tell the truth, not even by accident. He has a few buddies who can take him in, and if not it’s no tragedy, he’ll take on some temporary job and get a bunk at the workers’ dorm, he’s planning to get his certificate from night school and apply to study philosophy, because he wants to understand what he’s landed in, so he said, and all the while he was stroking my hair, my face, darkness fell and he invited me to his place because he happened to have a place to stay, I went. He made tea with rum. We sat smoking, ringed by the walls covered with books. At a certain point I thought I heard Mother laughing, but it was only me.

“You getting me something?” I asked once I gathered the strength to use my voice. A hoarse one at that, it’d been a long time since I last spoke to anyone. He didn’t recognize me. But then I didn’t recognize anything either anymore. When we were together my body had been supple, I was nimble, and he said I was hot, not that I cared much, but the way he said it, with a wink, made me feel immortal, or how to put it. So there came a moment when I didn’t want to die.

Jancsi Hell or not, he wasn’t very talkative either. “I’ll go with you for a twenty,” I heard myself say. Nothing extraordinary, after all, I long ago learned not to be picky. When there’s no money, you must make some somehow. But right there I was more inclined to think, what you cannot speak about you must pass over in silence. Or, if all there is is nothing, you must drink. Whatever. The rum and beer threw open the gates: Come on, I want to, I’d really love to, the words poured out of me once I saw it was not him but a stranger. In a second he’ll stand up and leave without paying, or hit me. But if he ends up coming with me he’ll recognize me for sure.

As soon as we got out into Frankel Leó Street I snuggled up to him and he put his arm around me. I had waited in the park for days, weeks, months on end for him to return, I scribbled notes for him in the dust, on the leaves. Only in my head, of course. If I needed a drink, and I did because I was all shaky and afraid, I took a turn on Rákóczi Square, but had to drink even more afterward, and of course I ended up with the girls Sunka was running. He needed the money for poker. He’d beat me up, though he used to be a ward of the state too. When the drinking got him in a sentimental mood he’d tearfully recount how he was beaten and raped by the instructor. A different one, but the system was the same. Then, after a couple more of rums, he’d start yelling and slapping me around, saying that I was lying to him and hiding the money, though he was the one who scraped me up out of the dirt. I was covered in bruises, my face swollen, and one time he even knocked out two of my teeth. One drink and I felt nothing. I wonder what happened to you in the meantime, did they lock you up, did they put you in a lunatic asylum or did they just beat you up? But then you would surely have come back, I’d been waiting for you on that bench. Perhaps you had someone who was not such a repulsive wreck as me and you returned to her, but why did you wake me up then, why don’t you speak to me, and why did you tell me I was hot, why are you hugging me so unwillingly, why did you make me believe for a moment that I. Never mind, it’s almost morning, my den’s in this basement.

Sometimes he wouldn’t say a word to me for days on end, I didn’t undress, dark objects floated about in the early morning semi-dimness. Who do you think you are, I shouted at him, I pushed my trousers down, the felt of matted wadding rustled. He said nothing, which made me even more furious, this is how I do it when I screw in a park, the strip of sunshine beating down on the blood kept haunting me, chopping my heart into pebbles. At least the others didn’t deceive me. They might have hated me or tried to put me down, but they never told me I love you, Teri, I screeched, and he calmly took off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. You’re filthier than the floor, screamed the objects around me. Well now, lyric self, do you look down on me like I couldn’t hold my own at this, or at anything ever anywhere? Kiss me, I asked him, hoping that with this I could shut up the yawning dark objects for good. In the old days, though, and now the flood of boneworn words burst from my mouth, his saliva soothed my bruised tastebuds, knives, chainsaws, gadgets with razorblades started toward me to cut me to bits. You’ve never loved me, I muttered, gathering my strength for the next assault, and he laughed. Grinning, the blades drew closer. There’s no love, János, you only invented it to feel superior, I snarled at him, he was laughing and his tears poured onto my face. I tried to concentrate on how hard I wanted him, but the dark objects were sucking me up, in all directions, to bits. He jerked as if gutpunched, margarine helps on such occasions, I thought mercilessly, I scrunched up into my cunt and sucked the boy in, and the objects went on whining but didn’t get me. He gave me the same look he had on that bench, his bony hip ramming against my thigh, and a darkness so thick descended on us that the object-demons couldn’t find me. At that same moment I understood he was about to leave. I cringed for him to stay, but I couldn’t find words anymore, can I wash myself off somewhere, he asked, and the searchlights scanned the basement. I didn’t say forgive me, the water spurt out and soaked his trousers through, the sharp lights cut me to bits.

He wanted to leave me the fifty. You’re an idiot, I tried to clamber back into the reasonable world. If I could give change for a fifty I wouldn’t need your twenty, I said, but the spirit was already pouring out of me.

He went up the broken steps like a self-possessed god. He didn’t look back. It was dawn, summer. Before the universe took me in, before I got mixed into all the raw, useless, rotting matter, I caught a dim glimpse of him stepping across that little strip of sunshine.

"Az a napverte sáv" © Zsuzsa Selyem. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa and Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.



That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming
By György Petri  (1943–2000)
Translated from the Hungarian by Owen Good

It started as a routine summer night.
I wandered from pub to pub.
Perhaps I was drinking at The Polythene,
a booth beside the station at Margit Bridge
(or had it been demolished already?). I don't know,
maybe I was on Boráros Square.
This wandering would always
last until the morning or go on another day,
and led me anywhere.
In any case, I was sitting somewhere, drinking.
(Back then I drank anything—the sampling of youth.)
I didn't read in pubs yet,
no no, I didn't bury myself
in books and papers or gawk at the tabletop.
I wasn’t irritated when someone spoke to me.

"You getting me something?" asked the smoke-etched
voice of a woman behind me. A young voice.
"Go on then." I said turning. Fifty
she was perhaps, standing behind me. Matted,
crusty, once light-brown hair;
gums collapsing in, chapped lips, bloodshot
whites, aquamarine eyes,1
a yellowed, white synthetic sweater,
brown trousers, white sandals lifted from a bin.
She ordered a cheap rum and a small beer. I did not dispute her taste.
"I'll go with you for a twenty," she said. This surprised me.
The price—as prices go—was absurdly low (even then).
I knew the rate of the District. Twenty forints was no price.
Besides the woman would not have held her own
on Rákóczi Square, or any square for that matter.
If she was keen, the sensible thing would have been for her to pay.
But much more. And she was keen. "Come on,
I want to," she said "I'd really love to."
I never could hurt a woman in her womanhood
(unless it was my express intention).
But this . . . ! I went; I felt I had no choice.
Why, I was restless and muddled
like stirred-up sludge back then, and
only in these Espresso bars and Bistros
could I feel the slightest false superiority
among the true, miserable victims of hardship and homelessness.
She pulled me along a lengthy street, snuggling up.
Awkward, but a true part of contrition. I put my arm around her,
and we landed in a basement, countless steps
led downward, lit by some unexplained half-light.
The bed. A clawed-up felt strip of matted wadding.
She didn't undress, just undid herself and pushed her trousers down.
"This is how I do it when I screw in the park."
she said quite casually. I did not object,
I, too, only undid what was necessary,
and dropped my jacket—I'd rather it dirty than crumpled.
"Kiss me." Well. I guess that's unavoidable.
Her mouth smelled stale, her lips were scaly, her tongue,
the roof of her mouth dry, like an empty sardine tin,
my tongue prodding around inside—the sharp edge drawing blood any second.
I was terrified I'd presently throw up in her mouth,
yet at the thought I felt the urge to laugh,
my tears poured on to her rough skin, while
I got the better of my esophagus. Between her legs
it was tight and dry. It hardly relaxed or grew moist.
"Hang on," she said, and gouged her fingers
into some half-eaten margarine, massaging it into herself,
then took some more.
Is she going to EAT from that?
"Can I wash myself off somewhere?" I asked later.
She pointed to a pipe-end. The water spurt out and pure
soaked my trousers through, as though I had pissed myself.
"I suppose that's part of it too," I muttered. A fifty
was all I had. She shook her head, "I said a
twenty, but it's not a price. It was me who wanted to. The twenty,
I just need one is all." "So give me change," I said,
"you see, I don't have a twenty." "You're an idiot,"
she said, "If I could give change for a fifty
I wouldn't need the twenty." A reasonable point.
And the next second she’s asleep mouth =agape.
I shrugged (well if you're so proud),
I stuffed the fifty in my pocket, found my jacket,
then groped my way up the steps.
That I might reach the strip of sunshine beaming,
to emerge, clothes of beige and shirt all-white shining,
on up these broken steps toward some purity,
to where wind blows and white foam spatters,
grimly absolving, coldly threatening,
stairs of nausea, unremitting downward ascent,
a summer dawn, nineteen sixty-one.


1. Rubbish. You have aquamarine eyes.
The woman? What do I know.
Like copper sulphate in a trough of water?
I just want to offer that poor creature something,
perhaps, your eye color and a rare word,
so she wouldn’t be such a repulsive wreck,
and myself somewhat more understandable 

Az a napverte sáv

In memoriam Petri György

Kevertet kértem, pikolóval. Amikor belépett, úgy éreztem, menten elsüllyedek az égbe. Hogy nézhetek ki, úristen. Már rég feladtam, hogy valaha még látni fogom. Elhagyott időtlen idők óta. Szerintem nincs ember, aki számon bírná tartani, hány év telt el. Nekem már nincs év, nincsenek hónapok, napok, elhagytam magam. Csak az évszakokat tudom, de azt is inkább megsaccolom, nyáron melegem van a sok rongyban, télen fázom, tavasz meg ősz egyremegy. Kedves fiú volt, úgy szeretett, mint soha, senki. Meghaltak mind, anyám, apám, mindenki, az egész rokonság. Öcsémet és engem Mari néniékhez vittek. Akkor derült ki, hogy zsidók vagyunk, s ha ezt megtudják, megölnek.

Tizenhárom éves voltam, amikor megtudtam. Amikor megtudtam, meg akartam ölni magam, de ki vigyázott volna az öcsémre, még csak hét éves se volt. Mari néni is meghalt, a szíve miatt. Állami gondozásba kerültünk, Áronka üvöltött, rúgkapált, de hiába, szétválasztottak minket. Soha többé nem láttam. Az intézetben mindenért megvertek, hiába harcoltam, hiába voltam engedelmes, na, ennyi, te hülye zsidó kurva, elengedett és ment tovább, és én szereztem zsilettpengét, és fölnyiszáltam az ereimet, de nem tudtam rendesen elrejtőzni, mert nem volt búvóhely, mert a sok spicli mindent látott és jelentett, elvittek, mielőtt elszálltam volna, és a kórházban is ordítottak rám, azt sziszegte az ápolónő, hogy ne keresztbe vágjad, te nyomorult, hanem hosszában, úgyhogy legközelebb hosszában vágtam, és hát igaza volt, szinte jó lett, napokig öntötték utána belém az infúziót, miközben én már messze jártam, túl a homályos, szórt fényeken, túl a mennydörgő hangokon, túl az intézet mosdójának véremtől mocskos, napverte sávján, hallottam Áronka könyörgését, de valami lökött tovább, nagykállói házunk felé, Buksi csóválja a farkát, Cili néz figyelmesen, az udvaron totyognak a tyúkok, én is köztük, anyám nevet, én nem tudom, minek a francnak kellett visszahozzanak a kórházi ágyra. Körülnéztem, aludt a sok spicli, kint sötét. Futás, gondoltam magamban, ami azért nem ment olyan könnyen, alig tudtam kinyomni magam az ágyon, s amint felálltam valahogy, szédülni kezdtem. Nem, Teri, nem zuhanhatsz vissza, és eszembe juttattam a nevelőbácsit, aki minden második héten, amikor éjszakai szolgálatban volt, számat tenyerével betapasztva, hajamtól fogva kiráncigált az ágyból. Ettől lett annyi erőm, hogy kitámolyogjak a kórteremből, óvatosan végigmenjek a folyosón, le a lépcsőn, ki a Városmajor utcára, ott volt szemben a park, az első padra leroskadtam, néztem a lombok között a sötét eget, reszkettem, ez lett az életem.

Elmosolyodott, ugyanakkor az egyik vastag szemöldökét és vékony kis vállát kétkedőn felhúzta, majd a pultos felé fordult. Kevert és pikoló a hölgynek, ide vodka lesz.

Vajon összekevertem valaki mással? Nem mertem megkérdezni, hogy ugye te vagy a Hell János, a Hell, a szívem, mint állat, ki akart ugrani, alig kaptam levegőt. Nem is az, hogy nem mertem, inkább valahogy nem akartam pont ezt kérdezni. Egyáltalán, minek beszélni, leginkább azonnal átöleltem volna, belefúrtam volna a fejem a nyakába, akkor biztosan felismert volna.

Felhajtottam a gyorsan ható, ragacsos italt, a fiú is a vodkáját, ültünk egymás mellett, ő kicsit tőlem kifelé fordulva. Mondjuk ezt régen is csinálta, jaj, nem gondoltam, hogy még él, vagy hogy én, csak akkor nem reszkettem, ha ittam, ezt hamar megtanultam. Azt is, hogy pénzbe kerül. Persze az elején kaptam csak úgy, a többiektől, akik kint voltak az utcán, én lettem nekik a kicsi Teri, egészen addig, amíg a Kacor rám nem mászott, és én sikítani nem kezdtem. Megtörtem ezzel valamit, utólag már tudom. Hülye liba, ránk akarod hozni a zsarukat, ez volt a legfinomabb, amit kaptam, úgyhogy húztam, menjél, ha olyan finnyás vagy, kiáltották utánam, vár rád a szőke herceg, röhögtek.

Éjszakánként ameddig lehetett, ott maradtam valamelyik kocsmában, volt, hogy előtte fizettek, volt, hogy utána, már nem fájt, nem féltem, nem éreztem semmit, csak a jó alkohol-meleget. Inkább nappal aludtam, egy-egy padon, amíg el nem zavartak, a Hell így talált egyszer rám, vagy nem is tudom, arra ébredtem, hogy valakinek az ölében van a fejem. Fölnéztem, hunyorogva, mert sütött a nap, és pont fölöttem egy sötét szempár világított, úgy nézett rám sokkal messzebbről, mint ahol volt, mint aki mindent ért. Szevasz, mondtam neki, de nem válaszolt. Mi van, megkukultál, mordultam rá, és gyorsan föl akartam ugrani, ki tudja, miféle őrült ez is, de fél kézzel és könyökkel visszanyomott az ölébe, és megkérdezte a nevem. És hogy kerültem oda. És mi lett a szüleimmel. Az öcsémmel. A nevelőbácsival.

Mire minden kérdésére válaszoltam, megismertem Hell Jánost. Az ő szülei éltek, törtettek, hajbókoltak, hajszolták egymást, Jancsit, míg ott nem hagyta őket. Soha, érted, soha, még véltelenül se mondtak igazat. Van egy-egy haverja, azoknál tud kecózni, de az se baj, ha nem, időszaki munkákat vállal, és akkor kap helyet a munkásszállón, azt tervezi, hogy dolgozóin leérettségizik, utána meg beiratkozik filozófiára, mert meg akarja érteni, mibe keveredett, ezt mondta, és közben simogatta a hajam, az arcom, ránk esteledett, azt mondta, ha akarom, menjek fel vele, éppen van hová, felmentem, teát főzött, rummal, ültünk a földön a könyvekkel borított falak között, cigiztünk, adott ponton mintha anyám nevetését hallottam volna, de csak én voltam.

Fizetsz valamit? – kérdeztem tőle, amikor már volt annyi erőm, hogy hangot adjak ki. Elég rekedtes hangot, régóta nem szóltam én már senkihez. Nem ismert fel, már én se ismertem fel semmit. Amikor együtt voltunk, ruganyos volt a testem, gyors voltam, azt mondta, jó nő vagyok, ami egyáltalán nem érdekelt, de az, ahogyan mondta, cinkosan hunyorogva, attól halhatatlannak éreztem magam, vagy hogy is mondjam, szóval lett egy pillanat, amikor nem akartam meghalni.

A vodkás ember se volt valami beszédes kedvében, akár ő volt a Hell Jancsi, akár nem. Eljövök egy húszasért, hallottam magam ezeket a szavakat mondani. Végül is semmi rendkívüli, megtanultam rég, hogy ne legyek finnyás, ha nincs lóvé, akkor szerezni kell. Csak most inkább ahhoz voltam közel, hogy amiről nem lehet beszélni, arról hallgatni kell. Vagy ahhoz, hogy ha csak a semmi van, akkor inni kell. Mindegy, a kevert meg a sör felcsapta a sorompót, gyere, akarom, nagyon szeretnék, folyt belőlem, mikor láttam, hogy nem ő az, hanem egy teljesen idegen fiú. Mindjárt föláll, és kimegy, pedig nem is fizetett. Vagy megüt. De ha mégis eljön velem, akkor majd felismer.

Ahogy kiértünk a Frankel Leó utcára, hozzábújtam, ő átölelt, napokon-heteken-hónapokon át vártam a parkban, hogy visszajön, üzeneteket írtam neki a porba, a falevelekre, persze csak fejben, hogyan másképpen. Ha inni kellett, és kellett, mert reszkettem és féltem, akkor kimentem a Rákóczira, és lenyomtam egy-egy fuvart, csak utána még többet kellett innom, és persze az is hozzátartozik, hogy Sunkához kerültem, ő futtatta a lányokat, kellett neki a pénz pókerre, vert, pedig ő is államis volt, a piálás érzelmes fázisában sírva mesélte, őt hogyan verte és erőszakolta meg a nevelőbácsi, nem ugyanaz, aki engem, csak a szisztéma ugyanaz. Még egy-két kevert, és ordított és ütött, hogy hazudok neki, meg eldugom a lóvét, pedig ő vakart ki a mocsokból, kék-zöld foltok borították a testem, az arcom bedagadt, egyszer még két fogamat is kiütötte, ráittam, és már nem éreztem semmit, vajon veled mi történt ezalatt, lecsuktak, internáltak, vagy csak megvertek, de akkor visszajöttél volna, ott vártalak azon a padon. Vagy volt valakid, aki nem olyan undorítóan elesett mint én, és visszamentél hozzá, de akkor miért ébresztettél fel, miért nem szólsz hozzám, miért mondtad, hogy jó nő vagyok, miért húzódozva ölelsz át, miért hitetted el velem egy pillanatra, hogy, na mindegy, hajnalodik, ebben a pincében van a vackom.

Volt, hogy nem szólt hozzám napokig, nem vetkőztem le, sötét tárgyak úsztak a hajnali derengésben. Mit képzelsz te magadról, kiabáltam vele, letoltam a nadrágom, morajlottak a befilcesedett vatelindarabok. Hallgatott, és ettől csak még inkább elöntött a düh, így szoktam meg, ha bokor alatt dugok, üldözött a véres, napverte sáv, kövekre vágta szét a szívemet. Mások legalább nem vertek át, gyűlöltek, el akartak pusztítani, de legalább nem mondták soha, hogy szeretlek, Teri, sipítoztam, ő meg nyugodtan levette zakóját, és ledobta a földre, mocskosabb vagy mint a föld, üvöltötték körülöttem a tárgyak. Most mi van, lírai te, lenézel engem, azt hiszed, erre se vagyok jó, meg másra se vagyok jó, soha, semmilyen téren, kértem, csókolj meg, hátha befogom ezzel a sötét tárgyak pofáját. Bezzeg régebb, zúdultak ki a csontig koptatott szavak a számon, a nyála kicsit megnyugtatta felhorzsolt ízlelőbimbóimat, kések, láncfűrészek, pengés szerkezetek indultak felém, hogy elvágjanak. Soha nem szerettél, motyogtam erőt gyűjtve a következő támadásra, ő meg nevetni kezdett, a pengék vigyorogva közelítettek. Nincs is szeretet, János, te találtad ki, hogy különbnek érezhesd magad, vágtam hozzá élesen, nevetett és folytak a könnyei az arcomra, próbáltam koncentrálni arra, hogy mennyire kívánom, de a sötét tárgyak szívtak el, magukba, többfelé, darabokban. Megrándult, mint akit gyomorszájon vágtak, a margarin szokott ilyenkor segíteni, gondoltam kíméletlenül, belekucorodtam a pinámba, és szívtam magamba ezt a fiút, a tárgyak meg vinnyogtak, de nem kaptak el. Rám nézett, ugyanazzal a nézéssel, mint a padon, csontos csípője hozzáverődött combomhoz, olyan sötét szállt közénk, ahol a tárgydémonok nem tudtak rámtalálni. Abban a pillanatban megértettem, hogy el fog menni, szűköltem, hogy maradjon, de szavakat már nem tudtam mondani, meg tudom mosni magam valahol, kérdezte, és a keresőfények végigpásztázták a pincét. Nem mondtam, hogy bocsáss meg, rácsurgott a víz a nadrágjára, az éles fények összevágtak.

Itt akarta hagyni az ötvenesét. Hülye vagy, próbáltam visszakapaszkodni az épeszű világba. Ha vissza tudnék adni ötvenből, nem kéne a huszasod, mondtam neki, de folyt már belőlem kifelé a lélek.

Úgy ment fel a csorba lépcsőkön, mint egy fegyelmezett isten. Nem nézett vissza. Reggel volt, nyár. Mielőtt az univerzum befogadott volna, mielőtt végleg összevegyültem volna a nyers, fölösleges, oszlásban lévő anyaggal, még homályosan láttam, amint átlép azon a napverte sávon.

from the March 2018 issue

Working Name: Person

Munkanéven ember

In this short story by Hungarian author Edina Szvoren, a young writer’s troubled relationship with her parents is told through the everyday objects their struggles imbue with weight and new meaning.

My face today is Gothic. I twirl a turquoise bracelet around my fingers. My Brigitte Bardot glasses, their lenses translucent, create the effect of swollen cheekbones. The grease spots on them are weeks old, months. When I wipe them off, my head aches from their absence. My gray incisors are a pile of roof tiles. I turn from the café mirror and, scissoring my legs, lift the empty chair opposite me, again and again, until I wear out. I put up my feet. A waiter sizes me up from behind a raised shoulder. There are amorphous white spots on my nails. You could, or should, tell the future from them. Take the ring finger, for example: my son’s life. (He won a recitation contest with an Ágnes Nemes Nagy poem.) The index finger is my literary career, and the middle one is the school principal who is sweet on me. I look up. Here comes Mother and her burning bones, like someone battered daily. But, in fact, she’s only proud.

A tall woman, exuding the smell of pomade, she sits down. Like one with sea legs, she can only lean, not bend over. Her hair quivers in strong but flexible curlicues as she shakes her head in disapproval. She props her bag against the chair leg; its long shoulder straps remain upright, stiff in the air, imperiously, for several minutes. Her shoes, as is her way, form part of the Mercedes logo under the table. The shoes are a gift from Papa. The Indian bag: a gift from Papa. Her gold-plated eyeglass chain: a gift from Papa. My mother and I have met in cafés ever since Papa disowned me for one of my writings.

A hard-breasted case officer for the National Health, she carried me in her womb for nine months. Now she pulls out her yellow plastic case, sixteen years old, a cloverleaf pattern embossed on its lower left corner. She offers me her open palm with a selection of pens. Her skin glows hot, but her promo pens are cold. (Back in the day, thermometers would freeze in her armpits.) She’s got a political pen, one with cholesterol, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses. I pick one out and tighten my upper lip over my teeth. My mother slides the lottery ticket over to me and taps on Papa’s numbers with a bent index finger. Her bones are like the steel inserts in work boots. Seventeen and eleven. I’ve been taking part in this nonsense for sixteen years now. I only get paid if it’s a winner. So I take Mother’s pen (cholesterol) and mark my X’s in the second square, far from Papa’s. Twenty-six and twenty-eight. Me, I have no regular numbers. Papa always goes first, then me, and my mother last, since she’s happy with one sole X. I look at the lotto ticket, and swing my legs. The plastic tips on my laces clack together. Papa’s scratchy two X’s protrude from the box; my mother’s looks like a twirled mustache. Your grandson, I say. Just to get us talking. (My parents know more about the Qahatika Indians than about my son.) He’s won a recitation contest; it’s on YouTube. My mother holds her waist erect like a first violinist in the orchestra. Her response: Like you at that age. Well, of course, at that age I was building trains on the bed out of father’s size 10 shoes, stuffing them full of plush rabbits and dogs, the passengers. If I can’t remember the trains, I can’t be the same person (working name).

Mother, whose regular number is eighty, signals for the check and leaves. She pays even if we win. It would never occur to me to push the matter. I’m perfectly satisfied that we’ve managed, over sixteen years, two three-number winners and six pairs, perhaps seven. My mother, out of the blue, slides an official bank envelope over to my cup, her stare a windowsill, polished to a mirror finish. Last week we hit a Pick Three. You can finally have your teeth done, she remarks, every inch a moral creature. (I like to avoid mentioning the fact that light-year is her favorite word.) She swings her Indian bag up over her shoulder and goes, always moving toward something better, more expansive, like undersea methane bubbles breaking out of ice-prison.

Today my face is Gothic, my calves Romanesque. I push my sunglasses up onto my brow and take a look in the envelope. I riffle through the banknotes. Must be more than nine hundred thousand forints. I pull my lips taut over my teeth, and make a little pucker. The waiters whisper behind a shield of nickel trays. My purse sits in the middle of the round marble table, its zipper teeth broken off in spots. Its mouth has a twisted—human—smile. The drinks menu has a crumple in it, the trace of my mother’s hand. Her will presses the shapes of ancient ferns into stone. 

"Munkanéven ember" © Edina Szvoren. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.

Munkanéven ember

Az arcom ma gótikus, ujjaimon türkiz karkötőt pörgetek. Áttetsző üvegű Brigitte Bardot-szemüvegem mint egy földagadt arccsont, a zsírfolt rajta: hetes, hónapos. Ha letörlöm, hiányuktól megfájdul a fejem. Szürke metszőfogaim egymásra csúszott tetőzsindelyek. Elfordulok a kávéházi tükörtől, és lábam ollójában a szemközti üres széket emelgetem, amíg el nem fáradok. Fölrakom, leteszem. Fölhúzott válla fedezékéből pincér méreget. A körmömön alaktalan, fehér foltok. Jósolni lehetne belőlük, vagy legalábbis kellene. A gyűrűsujj, tegyük föl, a fiam élete. (Szavalóversenyt nyert egy Nemes Nagy Ágnes-verssel.) A mutatóujj az irodalmi életem, a középső az iskolaigazgató, aki udvarolgat. Fölnézek. Hát itt van anya, a forró csontjaival: mint akit örökké ütnek. Pedig csak büszke.

Ez a magas, pomádészagú nő most leül. Mint egy tengerjáró, csak dőlni tud, hajolni nem. Haja erős, rugalmas csigákban rezeg, miközben rosszallón ingatja a fejét. Táskáját a széklábnak támasztja, és a hosszú vállpántok még percekig, parancsolón merednek a levegőbe. Cipői szokás szerint a Mercedes-jel egy részletét formázzák az asztal alatt. A cipő: Appa ajándéka. Az indiai táska: Appa ajándéka. Az aranyozott szemüveglánc: Appa ajándéka. Mióta Appa kitagadott egy írásom miatt, presszókban találkozom anyámmal.

Ez a kemény mellű TB-ügyintéző kilenc hónapig a méhében hordott. Most előveszi a tizenhat éves sárga műanyag tokot, a jobb alsó szegletben a dombornyomott lóherével. Tenyerén tollat kínál. A bőre parázslik, de a reklámtollai hűvösek. (Lázmérői a hónaljba fagytak annak idején.) Van politikai tolla, koleszterines meg jehovás. Választok egyet, és felső ajkamat a fogamra húzom. Anyám elém tolja a lottószelvényt, és begörbített mutatóujjal Appa számaira koppint. Csontjai, mint a munkavédelmi cipők acélbetéte. Hetvenkilenc és tizenegy. Tizenhat éve asszisztálok ehhez a marhasághoz. Pénzt csak akkor kapok tőlük, ha nyertes a szelvény. Fogom anyám tollát – a koleszterinest –, és ikszeimet Appa számaitól távol, a második cellában helyezem el. Huszonhat, huszonnyolc. Nem állandó számok. Az elsőbbség mindig Appáé, aztán én jövök, legvégül pedig anyám, mert ő egyetlen iksszel is beéri. Nézem a papírt, és lóbálom a lábam: cipőpertlim végén összeverődnek a műanyag toldalékok. Appa két iksze szálkás, és kilóg a keretből, anyámé, mint a pödört bajusz. Az unokád, mondom aztán. Hogy beszélgessünk. (Szüleim többet tudnak a kahatika indiánokról, mint a fiamról.) Szavalóversenyt nyert, fönt van a Youtube-on. Anyám egyenes derékkal ül, mint az elsőhegedűsök. Azt feleli: te ilyen idős korodban. Na, igen, ilyen idős koromban én Appa negyvenhármas cipőiből csináltam vonatot a franciaágyon: plüssnyulakat, plüsskutyákat tömködtem beléjük utasnak. Ha nem emlékszem a vonatozásra, már nem lehetek ugyanaz a – munkanéven – ember.

Anyám, akinek állandó száma a nyolcvanas, odainti a pincért, kéri a számlát, búcsúzkodik.  Akkor is ő fizet, ha nyerünk. Eszembe se jut békétlenkedni, túlfeszíteni a húrt – boldoggá tesz, hogy tizenhat év alatt kétszer volt hármasunk, hatszor vagy talán hétszer kettesünk. Anyám egyszer csak a csészém mellé csúsztat egy fejléces banki borítékot. A tekintete tükörfényesre szidolozott párkány. A múlt héten hármasunk volt. Végre megcsináltathatod a fogad, mondja ez a minden ízében erkölcsi lény. (Szeretem elhallgatni, hogy kedvenc szava a fényév.) Vállára lendíti az indiai táskát, és megy. Mint a jég fogságából kiszabaduló tengeri metánbuborék, úgy törekszik – mindig – valami jobb, valami tágasabb felé.

Arcom ma gótikus, vádlim román. Napszemüvegem a homlokomra tolom, és belenézek a borítékba. Fogdosom, lapozgatom a bankjegyeket: több lehet kilencszázezer forintnál. Fogsoromra húzom az ajkamat, csücsörítek. A pincérek alpakkatálcák mögött súgnak össze. Retikülöm a kerek márványasztal közepén, cipzárjából itt-ott kitört a fogazat. Szája torz – emberi – mosolyra áll.  Az itallapon horpadás. Anyám keze nyoma. Akarata őspáfrányokat présel a kövekbe.

Introducing WWB’s Editorial Fellows, Ghayde Ghraowi and Núria Codina

Introducing WWB’s New Watchlist Curator, Tobias Carroll

The Translator Relay: Chet Wiener

In the Absence of Words: An Interview with Verónica Gerber Bicecci

On Translating Davide Reviati’s “Spit Three Times”

Flinging Open Literary Doors: A Dispatch from the 2018 ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Single Translators Seek Same: The WWB Lonely Hearts

5 Erotic International Reads That Will Make You Blush This Valentine’s Day

The City and the Writer: In Minneapolis–Saint Paul with Leslie Adrienne Miller

First Read—From “The Endless Summer”

Training for Pyeongchang 2018: Reading South Korea

Words Without Borders Receives National Endowment for the Arts Grant

Lisa Lucas on the National Book Award for Translated Literature

Núria Codina

from the February 2018 issue

Latvia: A Small Country with a Big Literature

Latvia is a small country of two million inhabitants in northeastern Europe, a relatively inconspicuous place on the map. The country is celebrating its centenary this year, with a host of events, including Latvia’s participation as one of the Market Focus countries at the London Book Fair, putting its culture in the spotlight.

The history of Latvian literature spans several hundred years; its most recent chapter, however, began when Latvia declared the restoration of its independence in 1990 after decades of Soviet rule. Censorship was lifted, and this new freedom was seized upon by both well-established and emerging writers. For example, novelist Alberts Bels discussed the inner workings of the former Soviet regime in his book The Black Stain, while the young writer Gundega Repše’s Mark of Fire dealt with the suppression of the Latvian intelligentsia in the 1960s. 

The resulting freedom also brought about new styles that would have been hard to imagine just a few years before. Jānis Einfelds’s short-story collection Moon Child and his surrealist novel The Book of Pigs stretched the imagination of Latvian literature.

The end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s saw several writers begin to blossom. Nora Ikstena’s earlier short-story collections set the stage for her first novel, The Celebration of Life, which established her as one of a new wave of women writers who still dominate the Latvian literary scene. That group includes Inga Abele, whose short stories and plays like Dark Deer catapulted her into the literary heights of the country.

The middle of the 2000s saw several writers hit their stride, including the aforementioned Inga Ābele with her novel High Tide, as well as writer and publicist Pauls Bankovskis with his book Euroremodeling, which details the days of Wild West capitalism and the resulting social chaos. The current decade has seen a wave of new talent, including EU Prize Winners like Inga Žolude and Jānis Joņevs, whose novels have been bestsellers in Latvia and well-received abroad.

The last few years have seen several trends, including a burst of historical fiction, led by a series of novels under the title We. Latvia. The 20th Century. Writer Gundega Repše and publisher Dienas Grāmata spearheaded this initiative to explore the often dark and complex history of the last century. Although there have been writers known for their historical fiction in past decades (Aleksandrs Grīns perhaps being the most brilliant of these), this series examined several events that up until that point had scarcely been broached. Māris Bērziņš’s book The Taste of Lead looked at the Holocaust, while Kristīne Ulberga’s novel There explored the hippie movement in Latvia in the 1970s.

Another change in the literary landscape is the growth of genres like fantasy and sci-fi. After decades of underrepresentation in the 1990s and 2000s, the last several years have seen a steady diet of books by authors like Ieva Melgalve, whose novel Moon Theater set off a wave of interest in homegrown sci-fi and fantasy novels. Newer writers like Linda Nemiera and Laura Dreiže have begun to dive deeper into areas that Melgalve has opened up.

A third noteworthy trend is the return of the short story. It is hard to say whether more writers are turning to the short story as a mode of expression; it can be said, however, that the recent Annual Latvian Literature Awards (LALIGABA, in the Latvian acronym) have given ample attention to the short story the last several years. Jana Egle’s short-story collection Light garnered the 2017 Best Book Award, while Sven Kuzmins’s collection, Urban Shamans, was shortlisted for the 2017 Best Debut Award. Other short-story writers of note include Daina Tabūna and Dace Vīgante, whose collections were also nominated for LALIGABA awards in 2015 and 2017 respectively, along with young writer Alise Redviņa.  

Three representatives of this vibrant form appear in this feature. Poet and prose writer Jana Egle’s short stories are hard-hitting gems that talk of loneliness, broken families, and violence, often taking place in the provinces. Her story "The Quarry," which comes from her Light and is translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, tells of a boy who one day unexpectedly takes one of his playmates to a large quarry in the area, and decides to leave her there.

Sven Kuzmins’s texts often veer off into almost magic-realism-inspired twists and turns. The stories of his Urban Shamans are mostly set outside Latvia, imposing a foreignness unusual for the Latvian short story. His “Three Weddings and a Funeral,” translated by Uldis Balodis, is a realistic portrayal of a wedding musician who, due to an absurd contract clause, is forced to appear at two separate weddings, but not allowed to play.

Alise Redviņa writes often uncomfortable stories that confront the reader's innermost thoughts and desires. Her story "Lynn," translated by Laura Adlers, tells of a man who develops a relationship with a blow-up doll, only to fall for a coworker.

Latvian poetry also deserves a brief mention. Unlike poets in countries such as the US, who can spend years establishing themselves through journal publications before their long-awaited first book, Latvian poets often begin publishing their work in book form in their early twenties, and might even have several books before thirty. Some very active young Latvian poets publish their first books and are never seen in print again. Others continue to build on their prior work and take a long and steady climb upward. The latter group includes poets like Inga Gaile, Artis Ostups, and Arvis Viguls, whose two poems “Forgetting” and “Home,” translated by Jayde Will, are also featured here.

This very short introduction cannot do justice to all the authors out there. There is good news, however, for those seeking Latvian authors in English translation. Due to recent efforts to promote Latvian literature abroad, over thirty new translations of Latvian authors will be published by the end of 2018, allowing English-language readers a chance to see for themselves what that inconspicuous northeastern European country has to offer. In the meantime, we offer you the selection here. 

© 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.

from the February 2018 issue

Past, Future, Present: International Graphic Novels, Volume XII

Welcome to our twelfth graphic novel issue, and to our annual celebration of this endlessly expressive genre. Though much of the art here may be in black and white, the topics addressed are anything but. In settings ranging from the bowels of a 1960s German lab to an antiseptic future Sweden, and with characters as diverse as rural bigots and urbane aesthetes, the pieces here explore the challenges of life in a variety of locations and eras. Some revisit the past, both personal and political, and one constructs a chilling future; yet as they look to other times, these pieces also comment on issues facing our world today to striking effect.

In Scandorama, the Finnish novelist Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, who writes in Swedish, and the Kenyan-Swedish artist Catherine Anyango construct a “perfect Scandinavian city.” This utopia, though, is achieved through dystopian means. The ideal population of Stohome (“The clean city. The beautiful people”) has been engineered by scientists at the evil Gentech corporation, with the undesirables—“the rubble of humanity”—banished to the dark side, the grimy, decaying city of Helsingy.  With their portrayal of technology in the service of prejudice, Taivassalo and Anyango also represent the social manipulation that needs no scientific intervention to ghettoize “others.”

Davide Reviati’s Spit Three Times illustrates that impulse, here represented by Italian anti-immigrant sentiment and generalized hostility toward the other in rural Italy.  European animosity toward Middle Eastern and African refugees has been well documented; the “outsiders” in this case, however, are not refugees fleeing Syria or other contemporary war zones, but Roma who settled in this small town over thirty years ago. Their long tenure in town does nothing to change the locals’ sneering intolerance: “They’re only gypsies.”

Yet another sort of bias informs “The I-Formula,” by the German team of Barbara Yelin and Thomas Steinaecker.  Their graphic novel, Der Sommer ihres Lebens, depicts an elderly physicist recalling key moments of her life. The chapter here takes place in the mid-1960s, when Gerda Wendt, fresh out of graduate school, secures a post in a physics research lab. Her boss refers to her as "little lady"; her (male) fellow student assistant addresses her as "little Wendt." The episode chimes with the current #MeToo movement: Gerda’s confrontations with the sexism of superiors and peers, and her success despite that opposition, remind us of the obstacles others have faced—and of the incalculable potential contributions lost to those impediments. Yelin and Steinaecker’s work was originally serialized on Hundertvierzehn, the online literary magazine of the German publisher S. Fischer, and their playful manipulation of form—see the winding extended page where Gerda literally starts “at the bottom”—demonstrates the marriage of text and image facilitated by the web.

Another brilliant pairing here brings us political, rather than personal, history. The great French graphic novelist David B. appeared in our February 2007 issue. Since then, among his many projects, he has collaborated with the Arabist and historian Jean-Pierre Filiu on the sprawling, multivolume Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations. In this extract from the third volume, which covers the years from 1990 to 2013, the pair interrogate the official version of the US involvement in Iraq under George H. W. Bush.  David B.’s surreal illustrations—a ghoulish army of uniformed skeletons marches down “the road of death,” giant politicians each grasp one leg of a tiny soldier as if they’re breaking a wishbone—both represent and comment on Filiu’s sober chronological narrative to produce a nuanced chronicle of a fraught time.

And in our first Czech graphic novel, Lucie Lomová’s Knock ‘em Dead! stages a murder mystery within a theater company. When the leading man calls in sick at the last minute, his alternate takes on the role.  But someone’s interfered with the props, and instead of the expected “star is born” narrative, the melodrama turns tragic. Lomová’s work has appeared in French and Hungarian translation, but never in English. We’re delighted to present her debut.

Whether revisiting past conflicts or projecting an ominous future, these pieces comment directly and otherwise on the events of the day. They are prime examples of the continuing power of lines on the page.  

© 2018 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

from the February 2018 issue

Three Weddings and a Funeral

Trīs kāzas un vienas bēres

Latvian author Sven Kuzmins describes the absurd toils of a depressive wedding musician.

“Why are you tying that weird rag around your neck?” Bush asked as he spit the toothpaste into the sink, leaving numerous white flecks on the sleeve of Ziedonis’s suit jacket. Ziedonis looked into the mirror, rinsed them off with water, and, without hiding his offense, said to Bush, who was standing behind him:

“It’s not a rag, it’s a genuine nineteenth-century jabot.”

“It would’ve been better if you’d just put on a tie like a normal person.”

“Oh look, suddenly we’ve got a fashion critic here, somebody who bleaches his hair like it was still 1992,” Ziedonis replied as he watched Bush’s heavyset, half-naked figure in the mirror and thought to himself: Goddammit, what am I even doing here?

“Well, OK, don’t get offended,” Bush came closer and put a hand on Ziedonis’s shoulder. Ziedonis turned his head and carefully freed himself from Bush.

“I have to run,” he said, shoving the synthesizer under his arm as he walked out into the hallway.

“Did you take your pills?” Bush called after him, but Ziedonis was already in the stairwell.


Ziedonis arrived at work before ten. The white hall of the registry office had been cleaned, aired out, and prepared for the wedding ceremony. Sharlotte was putting on her lipstick in the side room and was reading something intently.

“Good morning. What are you doing?” Ziedonis asked.

“I’m studying my speech.”

“You’re studying your speech? I thought it hadn’t changed in twenty years.”

“Yes, that’s exactly why I decided to introduce a few small corrections. To keep with the times, so to speak.”

“That’s a good idea. The most important thing is to throw out all those ‘in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Latvia . . .’”

“Ziedonis, sweetie, you know very well I can’t and don’t want to throw those out.”

“Why not? They sound so dry. You get the impression that marriage is nothing more than a responsibility. And anyway, if I had any say in it, I’d take the coat of arms off the wall, too. Why does a wedding hall need to look like the state revenue service or an enlistment office? Why can’t a wedding be a light and pleasant event?”

“But Ziedonis, honey, a wedding is a pleasant event. That’s why we have you,” Sharlotte said smiling as she straightened Ziedonis’s jacket, which was at least two sizes too big for his lean frame. “Just learn once and for all that the bottom button on a jacket has to stay undone! And take off that crochet work. Put on a normal tie.”

“That crochet work is a genuine nineteenth-century jabot! You said yourself that a musician has to pay attention to his appearance.”

Sharlotte opened the wardrobe and tossed Ziedonis a wide, slightly crumpled tie. He noticed that Sharlotte herself was wearing a brightly colored, unusually tight dress completely out of place in the registry office’s sterile interior. He carefully studied the director’s sturdy frame and concluded that her total body mass might be greater than Bush’s. However, while the extra pounds made Bush look flabby, Sharlotte’s Willendorfian complexion created an impression of health and strength.

She returned to the mirror and repeated her new speech:

“The union of two individuals is not just the joy they share during the most beautiful moments of their marriage and also not just the difficulties they overcome on life’s winding path. It’s also an example for friends, other people close to them in their lives, and fellow human beings. An example and a reminder that marriage stands at the foundation of every healthy society. How do you like it?” she asked.

Ziedonis felt an irresistible urge to go back home, crawl underneath his blanket with his clothes still on, and never come out again; he remembered that he hadn’t taken his Zoloft for three days in a row.

“It’s really good,” he said, lying. “Inspiring. And what are we playing?”

“What do you mean, what are we playing? Mendelssohn. What else?”

“Fine, Mendelssohn at the start. But how about something new toward the end?”

“Oh, look at that! We’ve got ourselves a visionary. No! We’re doing everything by the book.”

“Please! Something from Kalniņš at least. 'Little Blue Bird,' for example.”

“Not on my watch. Let’s go,” Sharlotte said as she gave him a hard slap on the shoulder. He studied his reflection with loathing and, using all his strength, pulled his tie into place. Sticking the synthesizer under his arm, he proceeded out to the hall.

None of the wedding guests looked especially happy and both rings ultimately turned out to be too small, though that didn’t significantly impact the pace of the ceremony. As he played the usual Mendelssohn, Ziedonis understood he needed to hurry home and take his pills, because his depression was becoming increasingly unbearable. After the ceremony he lifted the synthesizer off the stand and proceeded to the side room to say good-bye to Sharlotte, but she grabbed Ziedonis by the sleeve and said:

“Wait, wait. Where are you off to? We still have two trips today. The car is outside; go load up your piano.”

Ziedonis looked at the calendar on the wall. Two wedding trips were, in fact, scheduled, but there was a small note next to both of them: “No music.”

“But I don’t have to go. It says: ‘No music.’” he said.

Sharlotte looked at the schedule, looked into one of her folders, and said:

“Yes, but they’ve signed a standard contract, my friend. So you’re coming along.”

“Good God. Again? Why do I always have to go even when nobody ordered music?”

“Because, Ziedonis, sweetie, it says so in the contract. If it’s written on paper that there’s going to be a fully equipped pianist, then we have to bring along both the pianist and the equipment.”

“Is there no way of finally getting those standard contracts in order? Because this is totally absurd. More and more often I come along with all of you for nothing. Lately I’ve been driving around more than playing.”

“Come on, don’t exaggerate. Some people would love to have your job—a party outside of town, new people, free food, nothing to do.”

“But I don’t want to do nothing! If they’d ordered a ball, I’d happily come along to play for that ball. But they’ve clearly stated they don’t want it.”

“I’ll say it one last time, both contracts say we are providing a pianist. So we are providing a pianist.”

“Sharlotte, please understand me,” Ziedonis was grasping at his final straw, “I’m a professional composer and I want to use my time productively.”

Sharlotte twisted her face into her “boss” grimace, flipped a page in her folder, and said:

“Really? That’s funny. It says here that you’re a wedding musician. So load up your piano into the car, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Ziedonis was about to answer: “Yeah, a wedding musician who goes to weddings to play no music,” but he knew it wasn’t worth arguing any further.

On the way Ziedonis pressed his head against the window and, catching sight of his reflection, shuddered at his unattractive exterior. During his student years he’d also recognized that he wasn’t especially attractive, if attractiveness is defined as the classical Greek ideal. His long nose in combination with his diminutive chin made him look like a half-melted wax doll. In his youth he could still joke about it. Now, on the verge of forty, his half-long hair had hopelessly receded from his forehead, and what are often referred to as bags under the eyes, in his case looked more like overcooked dumplings.

The wedding took place on an empty beach. The groom had long dreadlocks and an upturned mustache. The bride distinguished herself with brightly colored yet very tasteful makeup, a baroque dress, and a diadem tattooed onto her forehead. The guests also looked sufficiently colorful for Ziedonis to understand why nobody required his services here. Lately, Sharlotte had increasingly wed people like this and her attitude toward them was simple, she’d say: “It’s nice for anyone in this world to find someone like themselves.” However, during the speech she’d usually diverge from her script and go off into detailed instructions regarding the sacrament of marriage and an adult’s moral responsibilities.

Ziedonis stood off to the side hugging his synthesizer and watching the bridal party as he wondered what would end up being this event’s musical direction. Maybe it was worth it to go up to the groom’s relatives and ask? Maybe he should introduce himself and familiarize them with his high school experiments in progressive rock? However, this group looked even more advanced. People like this might even be interested in his more recent work—his jazz compositions from his time at the conservatory as well as the piano concertos he’d composed according to the modes of limited transposition, which incidentally was also his diploma piece.

After the rings were exchanged the wedding guests invited Sharlotte and the driver for a picnic in the dunes where two girls were playing an Indian tabla with remarkable dexterity, while a young guy was tapping an instrument with his fingertips that looked like a flying saucer and produced a harplike sound. Making sure his boss didn’t see him, Ziedonis exchanged his tie for the jabot and tried to stay close to the percussionists. After a while he succeeded in striking up a conversation with one of the wedding guests—not exactly one of the musicians, but without a doubt one of their friends. It was a young man named Mark Vorman. He carefully quizzed Ziedonis about the life of a wedding musician, but most of all, for some reason, he was interested not in Ziedonis’s musical experience, but instead in his mental state.

“How long have you been struggling with depression?” he asked.

“Nine years.”

“Shit. Thank God it only took me four years to get over it and without pills.”

“Lucky you,” Ziedonis said as he traced rings in the sand with his finger.

“It’s good at least that you’re able to live with it.”

“With varying results,” he sighed. “For a moment it even seemed like it was all over. But then I skipped a few days on my Zoloft like an idiot and now I feel the floor crumbling under my feet. Trust me, it’s not pleasant.”

“You bet,” Mark said as he motioned to a young man sitting nearby. “Hey, Harry, do you happen to have anything for depression?”

“I do,” the guy named Harry replied, “we were just thinking it was a good time. Let’s move to the woods, though.”

They sat down inside of an out-of-the-way ring of pines behind a dune—Vorman, Ziedonis, and a crowd of followers. Harry lit something that resembled a cigarette and passed it around.

“I don’t really smoke,” Ziedonis said when his turn in line came.

“Suit yourself, but this is a good anti-depressant. Worked wonders for me.”

Ziedonis shrugged and indifferently took a drag. At first it sent him into an unpleasant coughing fit, but soon he was overcome by a strange tranquility—similar to what he’d felt as a child, running across the meadow and on hot summer nights when he’d slept in the loft at his father’s house. A peace that he’d been seeking for so long that he couldn’t even understand at first whether he was worthy of it. He lay down on the warm seaside earth and for a long time watched tranquilly as clouds crowded together, touched, formed shapes, separated, and in all of that there was a wonderful harmony—musical as well as geometric. “If I died right now,” he thought, “at least it would be with the awareness that once in my life I’d heard the music of the spheres.” And his thoughts, too, were deeper, more expansive than usual. It was pleasant to linger in them.

“Doesn’t it seem to you like at every moment up there in the air a new, completely unique composition is being written?” he asked slowly.

“That’s a lovely idea,” Mark agreed.

“I could try to play it.”

“Go ahead and try.”

“I’ve got a combo amp in the car,” he said.

“Go get it. I’d love to hear it,” Mark said and the rest agreed.

Ziedonis was overcome by a long-forgotten feeling of happiness and motivation. This kind of effect wasn’t something that even Zoloft offered (it just made his mood somewhat bearable). He got up, laughed about the situation he’d unexpectedly found himself in, and went to the spot where the driver had left the van. Time went by slowly and Ziedonis didn’t want to rush it.

But when he reached the parking spot at the forest’s edge, the van was no longer there. The rest of the cars were all in their spots, but their gray Volkswagen was gone. Ziedonis patted down his pockets looking for his phone, but it too had gotten lost somewhere. He ran back to the beach where the wedding guests were congregating in small groups and soon found his phone half buried in the sand. Sharlotte had called him exactly eight times. Ziedonis dialed her number.

“Hello? Ziedonis? Where are you? We’re going to miss the wedding because of you,” she yelled anxiously into the phone.

“I’m sorry. I lost my phone.”

“Unbelievable! Everything always goes off the rails for you, even if you don’t have to do anything. Walk out to the highway right away, we’ll come get you. Don’t waste any time!”

It occurred to him that he could just as well hang up and stay in the dunes with his new friends, but remembered that all of his equipment was in the van. “That’s right,” he thought as he walked back toward the highway, “it was all too good to be true.”

Apparently, the van had already gotten pretty far. The empty road seemed endlessly long, the synthesizer was awkward to carry, but that wasn’t enough—clouds had gathered in front of the sun and it began to drizzle. At first the rain was very light, but soon it turned into a heavy downpour.

“No, no, no! Not the keyboard, please, not the keyboard,” he muttered as he cursed himself, Latvia’s climate, and the registry office. He took off his jacket and tried to wrap it around the synthesizer, but it didn’t help. The rain was crashing down onto the highway and roadside ditches like an avalanche. Pressing the drenched synthesizer up to his chest, Ziedonis kept moving forward. A few minutes later a car’s headlights pierced the impenetrable downpour. But as soon as Ziedonis got into the van, the rain, as if by cynical comedy script, stopped.

“You’ve put on that stupid crochet work again,” was the first thing Sharlotte said when she saw him.

The next wedding took place in a large hall; a bit further on there were not just one but two saunas heating up by the pond, and all in all everything looked very traditional. The exchange of rings was followed by the traditional crowning, during which, for some reason, a couple of burly twins carried the bride around on their shoulders. Women gossiped at the tables, men wasted no time getting drinks and every few minutes yelled at their children who were racing across the space reserved for dancing—just in case. The wedding party gave their toasts, the bride’s grandfather watched the guests with suspicion from his wheelchair, while two short-haired young guys in white shirts played exactly the same kind of repertoire on their synthesizers that Ziedonis would’ve played in their place.

But Ziedonis’s perception had changed. He almost couldn’t hear the people bellowing out their toasts. On the other hand, he could hear even the softest whispered conversation underway at the tables. When people came closer to him, he could see each clogged pore on their skin, every unshaved piece of stubble. But the most terrible thing was that Ziedonis had the power to predict their thoughts and movements.

Having discovered this kind of power, he was dumbfounded. “How strange,” he thought, “in a moment 'The Blue Carbuncle' will end, one of the musicians (the one on the left with the Yamaha) will play a bar from 'Raise Your Glasses,' the hosts will set up a game involving guessing answers to riddles so guests can get to know each other while delegating two of the groom’s relatives to protect the bride, but this guy in the pink shirt who’s sitting next to me will go for a smoke on the balcony and will think about how to strike up a conversation with the groom’s redheaded sister without alerting his wife who, incidentally, will be the next one to give a toast. They’re all programmed like electronic watches. Goddammit, what am I even doing here?”

Ziedonis understood that he needed to get out of there fast. He quietly asked Sharlotte when she was planning on going home. But it seemed that his boss was already a bit tipsy and she gestured indifferently:

“Are you in a hurry? Let’s sit for a while,” and nudged the gentleman next to her to fill up her champagne glass.

Ziedonis fell back into his chair and remembered how good he’d felt reclining by the forest under that cloudscape. It turned out that right next door there was a world in which he’d gladly live out his life, but it wasn’t meant for the likes of him.

“Not meant for the likes of me,” he repeated under his breath.

“What?” the man in the pink shirt asked.

“Nothing, nothing,” Ziedonis answered and the man got up and went for a smoke, glancing at the groom’s redheaded sister.

The entire evening Ziedonis privately predicted the wedding guests’ actions and his predictions came true without fail—even his premonition that the twins, who’d spent the entire time obsessively carrying around heavy objects, would convince him to go to the sauna. After dusk the men had grown rowdy. They packed into one of the saunas, didn’t waste time on speeches and most of the time made do with primitive sentences. Some of them were standing naked on the deck drinking vodka, trying to outgrowl each other, though most of them crowded together in the narrow rooms inside. The twins brought in a special wooden chair where the grandfather had been sitting and placed him in the center of the sauna. The group sitting on the upper bench was constantly throwing water on the hot stones, yelling, “Saunas are tops when your heart stops!” The thermometer’s indicator had climbed up to the 120-degree mark and the steam chamber resembled a shared taxi at rush hour. When it’d get too hot for the grandfather, he’d motion and the twins would carry him out on his chair. He’d sit like that in the moonlight as steam rose off his bony flesh. When the grandfather felt sufficiently cooled down, he’d motion again and the twins would carry him right back inside. One of the musicians had dozed off on the steaming bench, hit his forehead on the hot stones, and was now resting by the edge of the pond. The other one was rolling around like in a trance in the corner of the sauna and kept repeating, "Sometimes I wish I were an angel . . . " But Ziedonis, trapped between men drenched in alcohol sweat, was sitting on the lower bench and kept trying to think of clouds and the music of the spheres.

The one who’d been next to him and had spent the evening glancing at the groom’s sister sat down next to Ziedonis and introduced himself as Egon. The whites of his eyes were as red as his face.

“Hey, you some kind of a musician?” he asked.


“Hey, uh, can you play for us? The singers, uh, went off.”

“My synthesizer got soaked on the way,” Ziedonis said. “I don’t know if it’ll work.”

Egon considered what Ziedonis said as if it had been something complicated and called out:

“Hey, guys, we need to bring over the piano from the guest house!”

“It’s not necessary,” Ziedonis tried to object, but the carrier twins had tied towels around their waists, carried out the grandfather who had overheated again, and ran over to the guesthouse. Realizing that these guys were beginning to exhibit too much interest in him, Ziedonis decided to sneak out and disappear. But, while he was looking for his clothes in the overfilled front room, the twins had already taken the “Riga” brand piano and pushed it along the wooded path placing it on the deck. The women, who were using the other sauna, had gathered on the edge of the pond and were watching the chaotic scene.

“You’re crazy! Why do you have the piano?” the bride yelled.

“We’re having a concert! Come on over here,” Egon yelled back.

Ziedonis had found his socks and was hurrying to put them on, but the twins/porters had lifted the taboret on which he was sitting and carried Ziedonis over to the piano.

“Play something fun,” yelled the ladies.

“Yeah, something to dance to,” yelled the men.

There were calls coming from every side: “Yellow Leaves!” “Genovefa!” “Legionnaire songs!” But Ziedonis, who was sitting at the piano in nothing but his socks, hands shaking, quietly said:

“Piss off with your Genovefas,” and forcefully slammed out a heavy minor chord on the keys. Then another one, and another, and soon he was running up and down the octaves with so much force that for a few euphoric minutes he’d forgotten where he was, and on that dark night the comets and meteorites streaked across the sky and the trees looked alive as they shivered in the wind. His euphoria transformed into anger. At Bush, at Sharlotte, at the registry office, at the wedding guests, at the crowd of intellectuals he was destined never to join, at all the world known to him.

Then he stopped, took a break, walked into the front room of the sauna, and returned with the jabot around his neck. Making eye contact with the steaming grandfather, he continued to clatter the keys until he started getting cramps in his frozen legs.

The audience applauded. Without looking back, Ziedonis walked into the front room of the sauna. He wrapped himself in a white bathrobe, grimaced as he took a big gulp of vodka, waited until the audience started to disperse, and then went off to find Sharlotte. “That’s it,” he thought, “now I get to decide who goes where and when.”

“Hey, buddy, you’re fucking psycho,” Egon tried to pat Ziedonis’s back approvingly, but he pushed away Egon’s hand with a strong and precise motion and went off in the direction of the other sauna.

“Sharlotte,” he yelled, looking into every room. “Sharlotte, where are you?”

“Ziedonis, honey, is that you? Come up,” a voice echoed from the second floor.

Ziedonis walked up the stairs. There was a light on in one of the bedrooms. He opened the door. Sharlotte was standing in front of him with wet hair, noticeably drunk. She looked Ziedonis in the eyes, made a crooked grimace, which was surely meant to be seductive, and let the bathrobe slide off her shoulders.

“Tell the driver to start the car. We’re leaving,” Ziedonis said categorically.

“No, Ziedonis, sweetie, we’re staying for the night,” she replied and put her chubby arms around Ziedonis’s waist.

“Stop this behavior right this second! Get yourself together and go find the driver.”

“No, no, you’re not getting away from me that easily,” Sharlotte said with a smile, pulled Ziedonis by his jabot, pushed him into bed, and rolled on top of him with all her weight. Ziedonis clenched his teeth and tried to avoid Sharlotte’s kisses, he attempted to fight back with both hands.

“Pull yourself together, music man,” she ordered. “Don’t be such a wimp!”

“Yeah, pull yourself together! Be a man!” a voice echoed from the hallway. Ziedonis and Sharlotte looked up. Both musicians were standing by the door—one was supporting himself against the door frame, the other had a small trickle of blood flowing from his cracked forehead.


Shading her eyes with her palm, Sharlotte looked out at the chill autumn sunset, while Igor, the pianist who was now working at the registry office in Ziedonis’s place, played the most popular melodies of the composer Raimonds Pauls. Eight people out of the ten invited had come to Ziedonis’s funeral—Bush, who’d found Ziedonis hanging from his bathroom ceiling, still couldn’t pull himself together and was drinking for the third week straight, whereas Ziedonis’s father upon receiving the invitation had replied: “He had it coming, almost drove me there himself.” On the other hand, Mark Vorman had somehow found out about the funeral. He arrived late and stood off to the side the entire time, but when the proceedings were over and the gravediggers pushed the cross into the sand with the handles of their shovels, he walked up to Sharlotte.

“So strange to get to know a person in their final months,” he said.

“I feel like we never got to know each other at all,” Sharlotte sighed and blew her nose into a napkin.

“Seemed like everything was going to be fine, right? He said he had finally recovered and felt relieved.”

“Yes, that’s what he said, but I suspected that it wasn’t entirely true.”

“Apparently,” said Mark. He shoved his hands into his coat pockets and looked at the piano player, Igor. “Who the hell is that?” he asked.

“That’s our Igor.”

“Igor who?”

“Igor the pianist. He’s taken Ziedonis’s place.”

“I see,” Mark nodded expressively, bit his lip, and hung his head.

“What? Something wrong?”

“No, no. Everything’s OK,” Mark said as he rustled the leaves with the tip of his shoe.

Coolness arrived with twilight. Igor finished the melody and shot Sharlotte an inquisitive glance. She dragged her index finger across her throat indicating that it was time to go. Igor turned off the synthesizer and began unplugging the cords while Sharlotte produced a tiny bottle of Condy’s Crystals from her pocket and went to spray the flower bouquets and wreaths. So they wouldn’t get stolen.

© Sven Kuzmins. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018  by Uldis Balodis. All rights reserved.

Trīs kāzas un vienas bēres

– Kāpēc tu sien ap kaklu to dīvaino ļecku? – jautāja Bušs un izspļāva zobu pastu izlietnē, atstādams uz Ziedoņa žaketes piedurknes vairākus baltus punktiņus. Ziedonis ieskatījās spogulī, noskaloja tos ar ūdeni un, neslēpdams aizvainojumu, teica aiz muguras stāvošajam Bušam:

– Tā nav nekāda ļecka, tas ir īsts 19. gadsimta žabo.

– Būtu labāk uzsējis kaklasaiti kā visi normāli cilvēki.

– Atradies modes kritiķis, pats balini matus tā, it kā būtu 92. gads – Ziedonis noteica, spogulī vērodams Buša drukno, puskailo figūru, un pie sevis domādams: "Velns parāvis, ko es šeit daru?"

– Nu labi, neapvainojes, – Bušs pienāca tuvāk un nolika roku uz Ziedoņa pleca. Ziedonis atskatījās un ar piesardzīgu kustību no tās atbrīvojās.

– Man jāskrien, – viņš teica, pasita padusē sintezatoru un izgāja gaitenī.

– Zāles iedzēri? – Bušs sauca nopakaļ, taču Ziedonis, šķiet, jau bija kāpņutelpā.




Darbā Ziedonis ieradās pirms desmitiem. Dzimtsarakstu nodaļas baltā zāle bija izmazgāta, izvēdināta un sagatavota kāzu ceremonijai. Šarlote palīgtelpā krāsoja lūpas un kaut ko cītīgi lasīja.

– Labrīt. Ko tu dari? – Ziedonis jautāja.

– Mācos runu.

– Mācies runu? Man likās, ka tā nav mainīta jau gadus divdesmit.

– Jā, tieši tāpēc es nolēmu tajā ieviest mazas korekcijas. Iet kopsolī ar laiku, tā teikt.

– Laba doma. Galvenais, izmet beidzot ārā tos "saskaņā ar Latvijas Republikas likumdošanu..."

– Ziedonīt, tu ļoti labi zini, ka es tos nevaru un negribu mest ārā.

– Kāpēc ne? Tas izklausās tik sausi. Rodas iespaids, ka laulība ir pienākums. Un vispār, ja man būtu teikšana, es noņemtu arī ģērboni no sienas. Kāpēc laulību zālē jāizskatās kā ieņēmumu dienestā vai kara komisariātā? Kāpēc kāzas nevarētu būt viegls un patīkams notikums?

– Bet Ziedonīt, kāzas ir patīkams notikums. Tāpēc jau mums esi tu, – Šarlote teica un smaidot piekārtoja Ziedoņa žaketi, kas viņa kalsnajam augumam bija vismaz divus izmērus par lielu. – Tikai iegaumē beidzot, žaketes apakšējai pogai vienmēr jābūt vaļā! Un to tamborējumu ņem nost. Uzsien normālu šlipsi.

– Tas tamborējums ir īsts 19. gadsimta žabo! Tu pati teici, ka labam mūziķim jāpiestrādā pie sava vizuālā tēla.

Šarlote atvēra drēbju skapi un pasvieda Ziedonim platu, nedaudz saburzītu kaklasaiti. Viņš pamanīja, ka Šarlotei pašai mugurā bija koša, neierasti pieguļoša un dzimtsarakstu nodaļas sterilajā interjerā pilnīgi neiederīga kleita. Viņš nopētīja priekšnieces dūšīgo augumu un secināja, ka viņas kopējā ķermeņa masa varētu būt lielāka nekā Bušam, taču Bušs ar saviem liekajiem kilogramiem izskatījās ļumīgs, turpretī Šarlotes villendorfiskā komplekcija radīja iespaidu par veselību un spēku.

Viņa atgriezās pie spoguļa un noskaitīja savu jauno tekstu:

– Divu cilvēku savienība ir ne tikai prieks, kurā tie dalās laulības skaistākajos brīžos, un ne tikai grūtības, kuras tie pārvar dzīves līkločos. Tas ir arī piemērs draugiem, tuviniekiem un līdzcilvēkiem. Piemērs un atgādinājums, ka laulība ir katras veselīgas sabiedrības pamatā. Kā tev patīk? – viņa jautāja.

Ziedonis sajuta grūti pārvaramu vēlmi atgriezties mājās, palīst zem segas ar visām drēbēm un nekad vairs nelīst ārā; viņs atcerējās, ka jau trešo dienu nav dzēris zoloftu.

– Ļoti labi, – viņs sameloja. – Iedvesmojoši. Un ko mēs spēlējam?

– Kā, ko spēlējam? Mendelsonu. Ko tad citu?

– Labi, sākumā Mendelsonu. Bet varbūt beigās uzraujam kaut ko jaunu?

– Kas vēl nebūs! Inovators atradies. Darām visu pēc programmas.

– Bet varbūt tomēr? Kaut no Kalniņa. "Zilo Putniņu", piemēram.

– Nekādu "Zilo Putniņu". Ejam, – teica Šarlote un spēcīgi uzsita Ziedonim pa plecu. Viņš ar nepatiku nopētīja savu spoguļattēlu un no visa spēka savilka kaklasaiti. Pasitis padusē sintezatoru, viņš devās uz zāli.


Neviens no kāziniekiem neizskatījās sevišķi priecīgs, un beigās abi gredzeni izrādijās par mazu,  taču tas būtiski neietekmēja ceremonijas gaitu. Spēlējot mūžīgo Mendelsonu, Ziedonis saprata, ka steidzami jādodas mājās iedzert tabletes, jo grūtsirdība kļuva arvien neizturamāka. Pēc ceremonijas viņš nocēla sintezatoru no statīva un devās uz palīgtelpu, lai atvadītos no Šarlotes, taču viņa satvēra Ziedoni aiz piedurknes un teica:

– Pagaidi, pagaidi. Kur skriesi? Mums šodien vēl ir divi izbraukumi. Mašīna jau ir ārā, vari iet un iekrāmēt savas klavieres.

Ziedonis ieskatījās sienas kalendārā. Divi kāzu izbraukumi tiešām bija ieplānoti, taču abiem blakus bija maza piezīme: "Bez mūzikas".

– Bet man jau nav jābrauc. Te rakstīts: "Bez mūzikas", – viņš sacīja.

Šarlote aplūkoja dienas plānu, ieskatījās vienā no savām mapēm un teica:

– Jā, bet viņi ir parakstījuši standarta līgumus, draudziņ. Tā ka nāksies vien braukt līdzi.

– Dieviņ tētīt. Atkal? Kāpēc man vienmēr jābrauc līdzi arī tad, ja neviens nav pasūtījis mūziku?

– Tāpēc, Ziedonīt, ka tas ir paredzēts līgumā. Ja uz papīra rakstīts, ka būs pianists ar pilnu aprīkojumu, tātad mums jāved līdzi gan pianists, gan aprīkojums.

– Vai tad nevar beidzot tos standarta līgumus savest kārtībā? Jo šis ir pilnīgs absurds. Es aizvien biežāk braukāju jums līdzi pa tukšo. Pēdējā laikā vairāk braukāju, nekā spēlēju.

– Nu, nepārspīlē. Cits tavā vietā būtu pateicīgs – tusiņš ārpus pilsētas, jauni cilvēki, ēšana bez maksas, nekas nav jādara.

– Bet es negribu neko nedarīt! Ja viņi būtu pasūtījuši balli, es labprāt brauktu un spēlētu balli. Bet viņi ir skaidri un gaiši teikuši, ka to nevēlas.

– Pēdējo reizi atkārtoju, abos līgumos ir rakstīts, ka mēs nodrošinām pianistu. Tātad mēs nodrošinām pianistu.

– Šarlot, lūdzu, saproti arī mani, – Ziedonis ķērās pie pēdējā salmiņa, – es esmu profesionāls komponists, es gribu izmantot savu laiku lietderīgi.

Šarlote savilka īpašo "priekšnieces" grimasi, uzšķīra kādu no lapām savā mapē un teica:

– Tiešām? Dīvaini. Te ir rakstīts, ka tu esi kāzu muzikants. Tā ka krāmē vien savas klavieres mašīnā, izbraucam pēc 20 minūtēm.

Ziedonis jau bija gatavs atbildēt: "Jā, kāzu muzikants, kurš brauc uz kāzām, lai nemuzicētu," taču zināja, ka tālāk strīdēties nav vērts.


Pa ceļam Ziedonis atspieda galvu pret logu un, ieraudzījis savu atspulgu, nošausminājās par savu nepievilcīgo ārieni. Arī studiju gados viņš apzinājās, ka nav diez cik skaists, ja par skaistumu pieņem klasisko grieķu ideālu. Garais deguns kombinācijā ar niecīgo zodu padarīja viņu līdzīgu pakusušai vaska lellei. Jaunībā viņš par to vēl prata uzjautrināties. Tagad, uz 40 gadu sliekšņa viņa pusgarie mati bija bezcerīgi atkāpušies no pieres un zem acīm iezīmējās tas, ko parasti sauc par maisiņiem, bet kas Ziedoņa gadījumā vairāk līdzinājās pārvārītiem pelmeņiem.

Kāzas notika tukšā pludmalē. Līgavainim bija gari dredi un uzskrūvētas ūsas. Līgava izcēlās ar spilgtu, taču ļoti gaumīgu meikapu, barokālu kleitu un uz pieres uztetovētu diadēmu. Arī viesi izskatījās pietiekami kolorīti, lai Ziedonis saprastu, kāpēc viņa pakalpojumi šeit nevienam nebija vajadzīgi. Pēdējā laikā Šarlote šādus cilvēkus laulāja arvien biežāk, un viņas attieksme pret tiem bija vienkārša – viņa teica: "Jauki, ka jebkurš šajā pasaulē var atrast sev līdzīgu," taču runas laikā parasti novirzījās no scenārija un izplūda detalizētās instrukcijās par laulības sakramentu un pieaugušu cilvēku tikumisko atbildību.

Ziedonis stavēja nomaļus, apskāvis sintezatoru, vēroja kāziniekus un domāja, kāds būs šī pasākuma muzikālais noformējums. Varbūt būtu vērts pieiet pie vedējiem un painteresēties? Varbūt iepazīstināt ar sevi, ar saviem vidusskolas laika eksperimentiem progresīvajā rokā? Lai gan šī kompānija izskatījās vēl advancētāka. Tādus varētu interesēt arī viņa jaunākie skaņdarbi – gan konservatorijas laikā tapušās džeza kompozīcijas, gan pēc ierobežotās transpozīcijas principa sacerētais klavierkoncerts, kas cita starpā bija arī viņa diplomdarbs.

Pēc gredzenu apmaiņas kāzinieki ielūdza Šarloti un šoferi uz pikniku kāpās, kur divas meitenes ar apbrīnojamu virtuozitāti spēlēja indiešu tablas, bet kāds pavisam jauns čalītis ar pirkstu galiem sita instrumentu, kas izskatījās pēc lidojošā šķīvīša un izdeva arfai līdzīgas skaņas. Pārliecinājies, ka priekšniece viņu neredz, Ziedonis nomainīja kaklasaiti pret žabo un centās uzturēties perkusionistu tuvumā. Pēc kāda laika viņam izdevās uzsākt sarunu ar vienu no kāzu viesiem – ne gluži ar mūziķi, taču neapšaubāmi ar vienu no viņu draugiem. Tas bija jauns vīrietis vārdā Marks Formans. Viņš cītīgi izprašņāja Ziedoni par kāzu muzikanta dzīvi, taču visvairāk viņu nez kāpēc interesēja nevis Ziedoņa muzikālā pieredze, bet gan viņa psihiskais stāvoklis.

– Cik sen tu jau cīnies ar depresiju? – viņš jautāja.

– Deviņus gadus.

– Šausmas. Es, paldies Dievam, tiku galā četru gadu laikā un bez ripām.

– Laimīgais, – teica Ziedonis, ar pirkstu zīmēdams gredzenus smiltīs.

– Labi vismaz, ka tev izdodas ar to sadzīvot.

– Ar mēreniem panākumiem, – viņš nopūtās. – Vienu brīdi pat likās, ka tās mocības ir galā. Bet tad es kā idiots izlaidu pāris dienas zolofta kursā, un tagad jūtu, kā zem kājām brūk pamati. Tici man, tā nav patīkama sajūta.

– Ticu, – teica Marks un pamāja kādam puisim, kurš sēdēja turpat netālu. – Klau, Harij, tev gadījumā nav kaut kas pret depresiju?

– Ir, – puisis vārdā Harijs atsaucās, – mēs tieši domājām, ka ir īstais laiks. Bet ejam tur, mežiņā.

Viņi apsēdās nomaļā priežu ielokā aiz kāpas – Formans, Ziedonis un bariņš sekotāju. Harijs aizsmēķēja paštītu cigareti un palaida to pa apli.

– Vispār jau es nepīpēju, – teica Ziedonis, kad rinda bija nonākusi pie viņa.

– Kā vēlies, bet šis ir labs antidepresants. Man palīdzēja.

Ziedonis paraustīja plecus un vienaldzīgi ievilka dūmu. Sākumā tas izraisīja nepatīkamu klepus lēkmi, taču drīz vien viņu pārņēma dīvains miers – līdzīgs tam, ko viņš bija piedzīvojis bērnībā, skraidīdams pa pļavu un karstās vasaras naktīs gulēdams tēva mājas sienaugšā. Miers, pēc kāda viņš bija tiecies tik sen, ka sākumā pat nesaprata, vai tik laba sajūta viņam vispār ir piemērota. Viņš atlaidās siltajā piejūras zemē un ilgi, nesteidzīgi vēroja, kā gubu mākoņi drūzmējās, saskarās, veidoja formas, dalījās, un tajā visā bija brīnišķīga harmonija – gan muzikāla, gan ģeometriska. "Ja es tagad nomirtu," viņš domāja, "tad vismaz ar apziņu, ka vienreiz mūžā esmu sadzirdējis sfēru mūziku." Un arī domas bija dziļākas, apjomīgākas nekā parasti. Tajās bija patīkami kavēties.

– Jums nešķiet, ka tur, gaisā katrā dotajā brīdī tiek sacerēts neatkārtojams skaņdarbs? – viņš lēni jautāja.

– Skaista ideja, – piekrita Marks.

– Es varētu mēģināt to nospēlēt.

– Nu, pamēģini.

– Man mašīnā ir kombis, – viņš teica.

– Aizej pakaļ. Es labprāt paklausītos, – teica Marks, un pārējie piebalsoja.

Ziedoni pārņēma sen aizmirsts prieks un motivācija. Šādu efektu nesniedza pat zolofts – tas vienkārši padarīja noskaņojumu mēreni ciešamu. Viņš piecēlās, pasmējās par situāciju, kurā negaidot bija nokļuvis, un devās uz vietu, kur šoferis bija atstājis busiņu. Laiks vilkās lēni, un Ziedonis it nemaz nevēlējās to steidzināt.

Taču mežmalas stāvvietā viņš secināja, ka dzimtsarakstu nodaļas busiņa tur vairs nav. Visas pārējās mašīnas stāvēja savās vietās, bet viņu pelēkais folksvāgens bija prom. Ziedonis iztaustīja kabatas, meklējot telefonu, taču arī tas bija kaut kur pazudis. Viņš aizskrēja atpakaļ uz liedagu, kur bariņos pulcējās kāzu viesi, un drīz vien atrada savu telefonu līdz pusei ieputinātu smiltīs. Šarlote bija zvanījusi tieši astoņas reizes. Ziedonis uzspieda viņas numuru.

– Halo? Ziedoni! Kur tu vazājies? Mēs tevis dēļ nokavēsim kāzas, – viņa satraukti kliedza klausulē.

– Piedod. Es pazaudēju telefonu.

– Apbrīnojami! Vienmēr tev viss aiziet šķērsām, pat tad, ja nekas nav jādara. Tūlīt pat nāc uz šoseju, mēs pabrauksim pretī. Nekavējies!

Viņš iedomājās, ka tikpat labi varētu nolikt klausuli un palikt šeit, kāpās ar saviem jaunajiem draugiem, bet tad atcerējās, ka mašīnā atradās viņa aparatūra. "Tā jau man likās," viņš domāja, soļodams šosejas virzienā, "viss bija pārāk labi."

Pēc visa spriežot, busiņš jau bija ticis diezgan tālu. Tukšais ceļš likās bezgalīgi garš, sintezators bija neparocīgs nešanai, taču ar to vēl nepietika – saulei priekšā nemanot bija savilkušies mākoņi, un no debesīm sāka smidzināt lietus. Sākumā tas bija pavisam viegls, taču drīz vien pārvērtās pamatīgā gāzienā.

– Nē, nē, nē! Tikai ne sintezators, lūdzu, tikai ne sintezators, – viņš murmināja, domās nolādēdams gan sevi, gan Latvijas klimatu, gan dzimtsarakstu nodaļu. Viņš novilka žaketi un mēģināja to aptīt ap sintezatora taustiņiem, taču tas nelīdzēja. Lietus gāzās pār šoseju un grāvmalām kā kalnu lavīna. Piespiedis samirkušo sintezatoru pie krūtīm, Ziedonis soļoja uz priekšu. Pēc dažām minūtēm necaurredzamās šaltis caurdūra auto lukturu gaisma. Bet, līdzko Ziedonis iekāpa busiņa salonā, lietus kā pēc ciniska komēdijas scenārija mitējās.

– Atkal tu esi uzsējis to stulbo tamborējumu, – bija pirmais, ko Šarlote teica, viņu ieraudzījusi.


Nākamās kāzas notika lielā viesu nama zāle, nedaudz tālāk dīķa malā kūrās nevis viena, bet divas pirtis, un kopumā viss izskatījās ļoti tradicionāli – pēc gredzenu apmaiņas notika mičošana, kuras laikā divi būdīgi dvīņi nez kāpēc nēsāja līgavu uz rokām, sievas klačojās pie galdiem, vīri bez liekas kavēšanās ķērās pie dzērieniem un drošības pēc ik pa brīdim sabāra savus bērnus, kuri skraidīja pa dejām atvēlēto platību, vakara vadītāji teica vecus tostus, ratiņkrēslā sēdošais līgavas vectēvs vēroja publiku ar šaubu pilnu skatienu, bet divi īsmataini puiši baltos kreklos uz sintezatoriem izpildīja tieši tādu pašu repertuāru, kādu viņu vietā būtu spēlējis arī Ziedonis. Taču bija mainījusies Ziedoņa uztvere. Viņš praktiski nedzirdēja klaigājošos vadītājus, toties spēja saklausīt katru smalkāko sarunu, kas pusčukstus risinājās pie galdiem. Kad cilvēki pienāca viņam tuvāk, viņš redzēja katru aizsērējušu poru viņu ādās, katru nenoskūtu rugāju. Bet briesmīgākais bija tas, ka Ziedonis spēja paredzēt viņu domas un kustības.

Atklājis sevī šādu spēju, viņš apmulsa. "Cik dīvaini," viņš domāja, "tūlīt beigs skanēt "Zilais karbunkulis", viens no mūziķiem (tas, kurš pa kreisi, ar Jamahu) izpildīs "Par to mums atkal jāiedzer" takti, kāzu vadītāji izspēlēs iepazīšanās spēli ar mīklu minēšanu un deleģēs divus līgavaiņa draugus sargāt līgavu, bet šis tips rozā kreklā, kurš sēž blakus, izies uzpīpēt uz balkona un domās par to, kā lai sievai neredzot iepazīstas ar līgavaiņa rudo māsu, kura, starp citu, būs nākamā, kas teiks tostu. Viņi visi ir ieprogrammēti kā elektroniskie pulksteņi. Velns parāvis, ko es šeit daru?"

Ziedonis saprata, ka steidzami jāmūk. Viņš klusi pajautāja Šarlotei, kad viņa domā braukt mājās. Taču priekšniece, šķiet, jau bija iesilusi un vienaldzīgi atmeta ar roku:

– Tev kaut kur jāsteidzas? Pasēžam vēl, – un piebakstīja blakus sēdošajam kungam, lai tas papildina viņas šampānieša glāzi.

Ziedonis atslīga krēslā un atcerējās, cik labi bija juties, guļot mežmalā zem mākoņi ainavas. Izrādās, tepat blakus bija pasaule, kurā viņš labprāt paliktu uz dzīvi, taču tādiem kā viņš tas nebija atļauts.

– Tādiem kā man tas nav atļauts, – viņš pusbalsī atkārtoja.

– Ko? – jautāja vīrs rozā kreklā.

– Neko, neko, – Ziedonis atbildēja, un blakussēdētājs, pametis aci uz rudo līgavaiņa māsu, izgāja uzpīpēt.


Visu vakaru Ziedonis domās pareģoja kāzinieku darbības, un viņa pareģojumi nekļūdīgi piepildījās – arī tas, ka dvīņi, kuri visu laiku kā apsēsti pārnēsāja smagus priekšmetus, viņu pierunās iet pirtī. Pēc saulrieta vīriešu kompānija bija kļuvusi zvērīga. Tikuši līdz vienai no pirtīm, viņi vairs netērēja laiku liekām sarunām un iespēju robežās iztika ar nepaplašinātiem teikumiem. Daži no viņiem kaili stāvēja uz lieveņa, dzēra šņabi un sacentās rūkšanā, taču lielākā daļa drūzmējās šaurajās telpās. Dvīņi ienesa pirtī speciālu koka krēslu, kurā sēdēja vectētiņš, un novietoja to pirts viducī. Uz augšējās lāvas sēdēja kompānija, kura visu laiku meta garu un kliedza: "Laba ir pirts, kurā apstājas sirds!" Termometra stabiņš bija pakāpies līdz 120 grādu iedaļai, un pēršanās telpa atgādināja maršruta taksometru sastrēgumstundā. Kad vectētiņam kļuva par karstu, viņš pamāja ar roku, un dvīņi iznesa viņu ārā ar visu krēslu. Tā viņš sēdēja mēnessgaismā, un no viņa kaulainās miesas cēlās garaiņi. Bet, kad vectētiņš jutās pietiekami atdzisis, viņš atkal padeva mājienu, un dvīņi apņēmīgi ienesa viņu atpakaļ. Viens no mūziķiem bija aizsnaudies uz lāvas, pārsitis pieri pret karstajiem akmeņiem un tagad gulēja dīķmalā. Otrs tādā kā transā vāļājās pirts stūrī un visu laiku atkārtoja: "Sometimes I wish I were an angel..." Bet Ziedonis, iesprostots starp alkohola sviedros izmirkušajiem vīriešiem, sēdēja uz apakšējās lāvas un centās domāt par mākoņiem un sfēru mūziku.

Blakussēdētājs, kurš vakariņu laikā bija metis aci uz līgavaiņa māsu, apsēdās blakus Ziedonim un stādījās priekšā kā Egons. Viņa acu baltumi bija tikpat sarkani kā viņa seja.

– Eu, tu kaut kāds muzikants esi? – viņš jautāja.

– Nu, jā.

– Eu, a tu nevari mums uzspēlēt? Dziedātāji, redz, atlūzuši.

– Man pa ceļam samirka sintezators, – Ziedonis atzinās. – Nezinu, vai strādās.

Egons apdomāja Ziedoņa teikto, it kā tas būtu kas sarežģīts, un iesaucās:

– Eu, veči, vajag atnest no viesu nama klavieres!

– Nē, nevajag, – Ziedonis centās iebilst, bet dvīņi-nēsātāji apsēja ap gurniem dvieļus, iznesa ārā vectētiņu, kurš atkal jutās pārkarsis, un aizskrēja uz viesu namu. Sapratis, ka veči sāk par viņu izrādīt pārāk lielu interesi, Ziedonis nolēma slepus izlavīties ārā un pazust. Taču, kamēr viņš meklēja savas drēbes pārpildītajā priekškambarī, dvīņi jau bija pa koka celiņu atstūmuši klavieres "Rīga" un novietojuši tās uz pirts lieveņa. Sievietes, kuras pērās otrā pirtī, bija sastājušās dīķa malā un vēroja haotisko ainu.

– Trakie! Kam jums klavieres? – sauca līgava.

– Mums būs koncerts! Nāciet šurp, – Egons atsaucās.

Ziedonis bija atradis savas zeķes un steigšus centās tās uzvilkt kājās, bet dvīņi-nēsātāji pacēla tabureti, uz kuras viņš sēdēja, un aiznesa Ziedoni līdz klavierēm.

– Uzrauj kaut ko jautru, – kliedza dāmas.

– Davai, kaut ko dejojamu, – kliedza vīri.

No visām pusēm skanēja saucieni: "Lapas dzeltenās!" "Genovefu!" "Leģinoāru dziesmas!" Bet Ziedonis, kurš sēdēja pie klavierēm vienās zeķēs un kuram no visa šī ārprāta drebēja rokas, klusu noteica:

– Kaut jūs visi nosprāgtu ar savām genovefām, – un ar spēku izsita no taustiņiem smagu minora akordu. Tad vēl vienu, un vēl, un jau pavisam drīz viņš ārdījās pa oktāvām ar tādu sparu, ka uz dažām eiforiskām minūtēm aizmirsa, kur atrodas, un tumšajā naktī komētas un meteorīti švīkāja debesis, un vējā trīcošie koki izskatījās atdzīvojušies. Eiforija pārauga dusmās. Uz Bušu, uz Šarloti, uz dzimtsarakstu nodaļu, uz kāzu viesiem, uz intelektuāļu bariņu, kurā viņam nebija lemts iekļauties, un uz visu viņam zināmo pasaules daļu.

Tad viņš apstājās, ieturēja pauzi, iegāja pirts priekškambarī un atgriezās ar žabo ap kaklu. Saskatījies ar kūpošo vectētiņu, viņš turpināja rībināt taustiņus, līdz nosalušajās kājās sāka mesties krampji.

Publika aplaudēja. Ziedonis neatskatīdamies iegāja pirts priekštelpā. Viņš ietinās halātā, viebdamies iedzēra lielu malku šņabja, nogaidīja, līdz publika izklīst, un devās meklēt Šarloti. "Viss," viņš domāja, "tagad es diktēšu, kurš, kad un uz kurieni brauks."

– Eu, vecīt, tu esi pilnīgs psihs, – Egons mēģināja atzinīgi papliķēt Ziedonim pa plecu, taču viņš ar stipru un precīzu sitienu atvairīja Egona roku un devās otras pirts virzienā.

– Šarlote, – viņš kliedza, ieskatīdamies visās telpās pēc kārtas. – Šarlote, kur tu esi?

– Ziedonīt, tu? Nāc augšā, – atskanēja balss no otrā stāva.

Ziedonis uzkāpa pa kāpnēm. Vienā no guļamistabām dega gaisma. Viņš pavēra durvis. Šarlote stāvēja viņam priekšā, slapjiem matiem un manāmi iereibusi. Viņa ieskatījās Ziedonim acīs, uztaisīja pašķību grimasi, kas droši vien bija iecerēta kā pavedinoša, un nometa no pleciem halātu.

– Saki šoferim, lai darbina mašīnu. Mēs braucam mājās, – Ziedonis kategoriski sacīja.

– Nē, Ziedonīt, mēs paliksim pa nakti, – viņa atteica un aplika tuklās rokas ap Ziedoņa vidukli.

– Tūlīt pat izbeidz šīs vaļības! Saved sevi kārtībā un sameklē šoferi.

– Nē, nē, šovakar tu no manis tik viegli vaļā netiksi, – Šarlote smaidot noteica, pavilka Ziedoni aiz žabo, iegrūda gultā un ar visu savu svaru uzzvēlās viņam virsū. Ziedonis sakoda zobus un, vairīdamies no Šarlotes skūpstiem, ar abām rokām centās atkauties.

– Saņemies, klavierētāj, – viņa pavēlēja, – neesi lupata!

– Jā, saņemies! Esi vecis! – atskanēja balss no gaiteņa. Ziedonis un Šarlote atskatījās. Pie durvīm stāvēja abi mūziķi – viens no viņiem balstījās pret durvju stenderi, otram no apdedzinātās pieres tecēja smalka asins strūkliņa.




Aizēnojusi acis ar plaukstu, Šarlote skatījās vēsajā rudens saulrietā, kamēr pianists Igors, kurš tagad strādāja dzimtsarakstu nodaļā Ziedoņa vietā, spēlēja Raimonda Paula populārākās melodijas. Uz Ziedoņa bērēm bija ieradušies astoņi cilvēki no ielūgtajiem desmit – Bušs, kurš atrada Ziedoni karājamies pie vannasistabas griestiem, joprojām nespēja atgūties un trešo nedēļu no vietas dzēra, bet Ziedoņa tēvs, saņēmis ielūgumu, esot atbildējis: "Tā viņam vajag, pats mani gandrīz tur iedzina." Toties kaut kādā veidā par bērēm bija uzzinājis Marks Formans. Viņš ieradās ar nokavēšanos un visu laiku stāvēja nomaļus, bet, kad process bija galā un kaprači ar lāpstu kātiem iespieda smiltīs krustu, viņš pienāca pie Šarlotes.

– Cik dīvaini iepazīties ar cilvēku pēdējos mēnešos, – viņš teica.

– Man ir tāda sajūta, it kā mēs vispār nebūtu iepainušies, – Šarlote nopūtās un izšņauca degunu salvetē.

– Bet likās taču, ka viss būs labi, ne? Viņš stāstīja, ka beidzot esot izārstējies un jūtoties atvieglots.

– Jā, tā viņš teica, bet man bija aizdomas, ka tur kaut kas nav tīrs.

– Droši vien, – teica Marks. Viņš sabāza rokas mēteļa kabatās un paskatījās uz pianistu Igoru. – Un kas tas tāds? – viņš jautāja.

– Tas ir mūsu Igors.

– Kāds Igors?

– Pianists Igors. Viņš tagad strādā Ziedonīša vietā.

– Skaidrs, – Marks daudznozīmīgi pamāja, saknieba lūpas un nodūra galvu.

– Kas? Kaut kas nav kārtībā?

– Nē, nē. Viss okej, – teica Marks, ar kurpes purngalu rušinādams lapas.

Līdz ar krēslu iestājās vēsums. Igors nospēlēja melodiju līdz galam un uzmeta Šarlotei jautājošu skatienu. Viņa novilka ar rādītājpirkstu pār kaklu, dodot mājienu, ka jābeidz. Igors izslēdza sintezatoru un sāka atvienot vadus, bet Šarlote izvilka no kažoka kabatas pudelīti ar zilajiem graudiņiem un devās ar tiem apslacīt ziedu pušķus un vainagus. Lai nenozog.

from the February 2018 issue

The Quarry


A young boy adapts to living with his grandmother and learns the ripple effect of his actions in Latvian author Jana Egle's tale on youth, loss, and shame. 

Listen to Jana Egle read "The Quarry" in the original Latvian

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a painter just like my dad,” the boy said, his knees pulled up under his chin as he outlined designs, decipherable to him alone, with a stick. 

“Do you think you’re good enough at drawing?” the girl asked, glancing incredulously from the boy to the lines he had etched on the ground. 

“Yes, of course. Dad taught me.” The boy looked across the pit to the white gravel road. A black car crawled along like a lazy fly, the hum of its engine just about audible as it weaved elegantly along. The cloud of dust at its rear suspended in time immobile in the air . . . 

“Where is your dad?”

“Far away.”

“My uncle is far away, too. He is in Denmark but has come home twice already. When are your mom and dad coming back?” Anete was persistent in her line of questioning. 

“Soon,” the boy snapped, pressing his cheek against his dirty knee. 

“And when will soon be, exactly?” The little girl wouldn’t let up. 

The boy stared at the cloud of dust frozen mid-air. 

“Soon means soon. And quit asking so many questions, will you? Curiosity killed the cat!”

“Like the one your granny used to have? No one’s coming to see you, just you wait and see. So nyah!” The little girl stuck her tongue out before disappearing behind the bushes.


“Markus! Marky!”

The boy heard well enough but didn’t move a muscle. His bottom seemed to have taken root in the earth, his hands and legs molded from soft, damp clay. Closing his eyes, he lay back and gazed through his eyelashes at the sunset. If you screw your eyes into narrow slits, the whole world glitters in clear, pure tones like a watercolor painting scattered with gold dust. The underbellies of seagulls floating above him were as pink as flamingos in the rays of the setting sun as the distant forest, trembling through the boy’s eyelashes, lifted its gray-blue branch arms eerily skyward. Markus turned his head and pressed his cheek to the sand. It was warm. 

“Markus! Why aren’t you answering me? It’s dinnertime. And then it will be time for bed.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I see.” Grandma sighed heavily. “There are a lot of things I don’t want to do, but I do them anyway.”

“We could do with some rain,” Grandma mumbled as she turned her attention to slicing bread. The boy knew no reply was needed. After living alone for many years, Grandma was used to talking to herself. “There are no cucumbers and we won’t be getting any either, and there’s no knowing if those potatoes will swell before the autumn, they are that tiny.”

“We are going to the cemetery festival tomorrow. I need to see if you have anything half-decent to wear,” she continued, glancing sideways at Markus. 

“I don’t want to go.”

“Is anyone asking what you do or do not want?” Grandma didn’t sound cross, merely exhausted. “I went today; tidied the grave, raked it over, watered it. We will lay some flowers down tomorrow before the festival starts.”

“Have you finished your soup?” By the sound of her voice, she was clearly speaking to the boy again. “At least you have a decent appetite, thank goodness for small mercies.”

Markus thanked her and somehow, seemingly unintentionally, managed to avoid his grandmother’s rough hand as it reached to caress his fragile, slightly hunched shoulders. 

“My sweet little hedgehog,” Grandma sighed quietly when the boy had set off for his room.


Markus undressed slowly. It was still light, so he didn’t turn his bedside lamp on. The moon was not yet an entire orb, one side blurred as if smudged by a careless paintbrush. 

Sometimes, the nights here were pitch-black in a way they never were in the city. As he burrowed into his bed, the only light was the thin line outlining the closed door, behind which Grandma was doing the dishes, discussing the events of the day with herself. When Grandma went to bed, the light disappeared altogether. On such nights, the boy felt frightened. On nights when he hadn’t yet fallen asleep by this time, he would lie there awake—his eyes open but unseeing, he too scared even to close them.

Nights had been so different at home. Light from the streetlamps shone into the room. Even in the dark, the tram rails beneath the window creaked and every so often Markus’s bed trembled slightly as a tram rambled past. Dad always left the door ajar, even when his buddies came round and sat smoking their roll-ups right there in the next room. That was the fun part; everyone sitting round listening to some kind of prehistoric music—Joplin, The Doors, Bob Marley—all of them laughing nonstop. And all the while Markus lay in his bed, joyfully inhaling the weird-smelling smoke drifting in from the room next door and wanting to join in the laughter. Other evenings, when there were no visitors, his dad would stay up late on his own, standing at his easel for the longest time, the sound of his brush quietly stroking the canvas lulling the boy to sleep. He missed the city lights, the sounds and smells, and his dad. 

Markus shoved his hand sleepily under his pillow. There it was. His penknife with its sharp, paper-thin blade. It was the only thing he had been able to grab from his dad’s room when Grandma, the policeman, and the woman he didn’t know had come for him. As the boy’s fingers touched the knife’s smooth, plastic cover, he calmed down and, closing his eyes, yawned drowsily. 

In the morning, Markus woke without being called. Grandma was bustling about the kitchen, chortling softly to herself. A deliciously tempting smell was wafting through the cracks around the door. The boy quickly pulled his clothes on and opened the door. 

“Good morning! Do you want some pancakes? Strawberry jam, or cream and sugar?”

Pancakes sat steaming in a ceramic bowl on the table—thick, fluffy, and golden brown with crispy edges. 

“Jam.” Grinning, he dove straight into his breakfast without so much as washing his face. 

Grandma carried on cooking, glancing over her shoulder with satisfaction at the boy as he wolfed down pancake after pancake, dipping them into the puddle of jam on his plate as he went. 

After breakfast, the boy went out into the garden. The feel of the cool grass tickling his bare feet was lovely; Markus stood a while trying to snap a long blade of grass between his toes. 

“Hey, Markus! What are you up to?”

“Nothing.” After a moment’s silence, Markus added, “If you want, I can show you my secret?”

“What secret?” Anete widened her eyes. 

“Well, a secret.” Markus dragged out the answer elusively. “Let’s go!”

Markus set off at a run. Bare feet flashing, they both made toward the dip. At its edge, the boy stopped dead in his tracks. When Anete reached his side, Markus said, gravely, “Do you really want to know?”

Looking excitedly into his face, the girl answered impatiently, “Yes, of course!”

“OK, we need to run, stay close by and don’t leave the track!”

The boy ran along the side of the dip without looking backward, at times running bent over, at others leaping. Pigtails waving, the little girl dashed after him, furtively straining to look ahead and discover what the secret might be. Suddenly, the ground beneath her feet gave way, something in her tummy tickled, flipped, her legs still running despite being momentarily up in the air before her frail body landed with an almighty thud and rolled to the bottom of a deep, narrow pit. 

There was a desperate wail. The boy’s head appeared over the edge of the pit against a background of clear blue sky. “So, how do you like my secret! Didn’t I tell you to stay on the track?”

The girl stopped howling and pouted. 

“Give me your hand!”

“No way, it’s not going to be that easy. I’m going to play ip-dip. If I lose, I’ll help you. If you lose, you’ll have to do it on your own.”

“But how can I do that?”

But the boy wasn’t listening. Pointing at his own tummy then at the girl at the bottom of the pit, he recited the counting-out rhyme in a monotonous tone. “Ip, dip, sky, blue, who’s it, not YOU!” he finished, his outstretched finger aimed at the little girl’s heart.

“OK, I’m off then!”

“Wait! Marku-us!” The girl called but the boy’s head had already disappeared from the little spot of the sky, now glittering bluer and clearer than before. 

She tried to clamber up the wall of the pit. The dry, silky sand slithered beneath each step she took—it was hopeless, she would never get out on her own. Anete sat down in the pit. What a terrible mess. Every so often she called out Markus’s name, each time louder than the time before. She had no idea if he was coming to help her out of this secret. She tried desperately, over and over again, to climb out, but the cool sand just kept slipping smoothly down the wall of the pit and covering her bare feet. The whole time, she felt a rhythmic thud in her ears . . . Ip, dip, sky, blue, who’s it, not YOU . . . 

Markus was on his way home. Grandma had probably been expecting him for some time. The boy felt dizzy with elation, a lightness spreading through his limbs. Now the secret was truly real, alive. He straightened his back, relaxed his shoulders, and galloped off home with a light, dancing step. His hair shone like polished copper in the morning sunshine, flopping up and down at his every leap. 

“Markus! Where have you been?”

“Nowhere much! Right here!” The boy marched calmly into the yard.

“Come and clean up and we’ll get ourselves ready. We don’t have long. Give me that T-shirt you’re wearing. There we go, now I’ll give you a clean one.”

Flooded with the sudden desire to throw a tantrum, the boy pushed away his grandmother’s hands as they reached to peel off his dirty T-shirt. 

“Don’t touch me,” he hissed. “I’ll do it myself.”

“OK, OK, there you go. Just get a move on. I’ve put some water in the bowl in the hallway. Go and have a good splash. You’re always so on edge, I really don’t know how to handle you.” The last utterance, accompanied by a heavy sigh, was to herself. 

Standing with his feet in the enormous bowl, the boy scooped up water and poured it over himself several times; the tiny, refreshing rivulets splitting then reuniting as they ran down his itchy skin. The wounds had almost healed but they still hurt. Markus took one damaged palm in the other and pressed. He moaned quietly yet continued applying pressure. Then he scooped up water in the palm of his hand and let it caress the inflamed, slowly healing skin. 

Half an hour later and the pair of them set off, all dressed up and flowers in hand. It was a fifteen-minute walk, going at a decent pace, to the cemetery. As they passed by their neighbors’ fence, his grandma stopped in her tracks. The woman was quite worked up about something, waving her arms about as she spoke. Her husband just shrugged.

“Ilzy, aren’t you coming to the cemetery festival?”

“We are, Aunt Velta, yes. Only we can’t find our daughter.” The woman turned her eyes on Markus. “Have you seen Anete?”

Markus shrugged his shoulders in silence and shook his head.

“She never goes off far but we haven’t seen her for almost an hour and I’m starting to get worried.”

“She must be somewhere nearby,” Anete’s dad remarked, seemingly unconcerned. “We will have to give her a good talking to when she comes back.”

Konrāds Kaparkalējs (1946–1999) and Velta Kaparkalēja (1948– . . .) A black butterfly had alighted on the oak leaves and inscription chiseled into the polished stone. Spreading its wings, the butterfly proudly displayed its bright orange spots and impressive wingspan. The boy placed his hand on the warm stone and slowly let it creep toward the butterfly. But the creature fluttered off playfully. 

The white shirt Grandma had made him put on was a bit too tight; the seams cut in under his armpits and around his neck.

Standing in the chapel beneath an enormous cross, the pastor preached at great length and extremely tediously. The women’s choir wailed at great length and extremely piteously. Parish members sat down, stood up, and joined in the wailing as necessity required. 

Markus looked around at the congregation, bored stiff. Thinning white hair, faded, wrinkled, paperlike faces and knotted hands. He listened to the quivering voices. It was dreary but peaceful. Behind his grandfather’s headstone were two graves overtaken by weeds. Markus went over and sat down beside them. This was the final resting place of Grandma’s grandparents. Further off were some smaller graves with tiny crosses, encrusted with yellowish-gray lichen. His grandma had told him on a previous visit to the cemetery that they were her mother’s brothers and sisters who had died in their first few years of life. 

“Why did they die?” Markus had asked at the time. “I don’t know,” Grandma replied, raking the sand next to Grandfather’s headstone into a pine-cone-like pattern. “A lot of children died back then. It was after the war, times were tough.”

The boy stared, immobile, at the dark crosses for quite some time. Then he looked up; he seemed to see identical crosses in glittering white paint against the bright blue sky. Markus became pensive, what if Anete dies? Then she would be buried and have a tiny cross just like the ones he’d seen on her grave. Or maybe a headstone like Granddad’s. The boy pictured a small, neat wooden coffin with Anete laid out within, her hair neatly braided in pigtails. Last spring, Grandma had taken him to the funeral of a distant relative. He had seen her laid out; yellowy pale in white lace, her eyes sunken and blackened, as were her cheeks. She had definitely died because she was so old. Anete’s suntanned face is so pretty. If she actually died, Markus would probably feel very sorry.

The wind rustled through the trees in the cemetery, tugging rain clouds like a dark gray blanket across the sky in the blink of an eye. Moments later and the occasional heavy raindrop began to fall. In no time at all, the crosses, headstones, and trees were blotted out by a thick, white sheet of rain, and blundering figures stumbled about in search of shelter. 

Markus pressed himself up against the warm, rough wall of the chapel and watched his grandma in the rain, turning this way and that as she scoured the surroundings for her grandson. When her eyes alighted on the chapel, Markus waved. Grandma scurried over to him and wriggled under the narrow space next to the boy. 

Slightly out of breath, Grandma asked, “Didn’t you get caught in the rain?” as she brushed the rain from her clothes and ran her fingers through her hair to tidy it. Markus just shook his head without taking his eyes off the congregation who, now crouching over and soaked to the skin, were still trying to escape the rain while holding song sheets and bags over their heads. 

“Velta, I can give you a lift home, it’s on our way!” a lady running past them called out. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.”

The car was parked right behind the chapel but Markus’s white shirt still got soaked by the rain. His skin glowed through the wet patches and, as he climbed into the back, Markus carefully inspected his left palm. There was nothing to be seen. Grandma got into the front seat and, her feet still outside, banged the soles of her shoes together to get rid of the thick layer of sandy earth that clung to them. 

As they drove along, the windshield misted up. They were dropped off right on the doorstep. Once indoors, they changed into dry clothes and Grandma put some tea on. The rain pelted down all around.

Then something happened. There was a knock at the door and, without being invited in, someone stormed straight into the house. It was Anete’s mother . . .

Markus shrank deeper into the room and, barely breathing, pressed himself up against the unlit wood burner.

“Where is that bastard grandson of yours, the degenerate!”

Grandma instinctively stepped in front of the door, barring the way. 

“What is it? What’s happened?” she stuttered.

“It’s insane! How could you, you little creep? How could you do something like that?” Ilze tried to push Grandma away so she could get at the boy. Markus shrunk closer to the wall. 

“Will you tell me what’s going on? What has happened?” Grandma asked, rock-like as she held her ground. 

“The dog found Anete. At first I couldn’t understand why he was yelping and trying to get me to follow him. As far as that old quarry pit—there are still some pole shafts that haven’t been filled in.” Ilze had begun speaking in calmer tones before suddenly remembering herself and starting to shout again, even more furiously than before. She knew Markus was in the next room. “And don’t you dare try and say you weren’t there!” Tears caught in Ilze’s throat. 

At a loss for words, Grandma put her hand on Ilze’s shoulder. “But is she all right?”

“Well, she’s alive.”

“Then everything is going to be fine . . .” Grandma murmured and, taking Ilze by the elbow, made her sit at the kitchen table. Not knowing what else to say, she reached for a tea towel and wiped the sweat from her neck. “Shall I pour you some tea?”  

“Her dad has taken her to the doctor’s. The child was stiff with fright.”

At this, Markus finally let his breath out and felt his entire body, which seemed chiseled into the wall, finally relax. Hearing him sigh, Ilze leapt up and flung herself toward the door again. Grandma was quicker; she got there first and barred it. “Why on earth are you defending that bastard! Just you let me get at him!”

Grandma clung to Ilze like grim death, her heels digging into the floor. Then she raised her voice, too, telling Ilze to sit down. She should be ashamed of herself, attacking an old lady like that. Ilze calmed down and sank back into the chair. Grandma reached for a cup and was about to pour her neighbor some tea when Ilze spoke up again. “How can the earth bear such vile creatures?” Raising her eyes to meet Velta’s again she continued, her voice lowered yet still audible to the boy in the next room, “Why did you have to bring him back here from that junkies’ den? If you only had left him where he was, everyone would have been better off. We would have been, definitely.”

Replacing the teapot firmly but quietly, Grandma said, “I think it’s time you went home, your daughter is probably back from the doctor’s by now.”

Ilze grew even more agitated and started shouting again. “Oh, do you think so? You know what, your daughter-in-law did well to dump the lot of you. None of you are right in the head. None of you!”

Markus was sitting right there on the floor. Tonight, the moon was perfectly round. He hadn’t uttered a word the whole time. Grandma asked him repeatedly how he could have forgotten about the girl. What on earth had he been thinking? He should never have run away and left Anete in the pit, not even for a moment. 

But Markus hadn’t forgotten about the girl, not for a moment. It was just how things had turned out, it had all been quite fair. Ip, dip, sky blue, who’s it, not YOU! He had played the counting-out game and it had landed on her; it was what they had agreed. And it wasn’t as if she had died—she had only fallen into a pit. Markus thought he heard Grandma crying when she went back to her room. 

Markus crawled silently out of the window. The earth was soft and smelled of rain. The rain had stopped, only the odd cloud drifted overhead without ever completely blocking out the moonlight. A sharp, honeyed scent rose from the flowerbed. A light was on in Grandma’s window. The boy snuck quietly across the wet grass to it, standing in the flowerbed so he could peep inside. Grandma sat slumped in the chair, her back to the window, staring at the painting on the wall. Markus had always known there was a painting on the wall but tonight, for the first time, he took a good look at it. A tranquil landscape drowned in golden sunlight and green life. Markus knew it well; it was the scene from the edge of the forest beyond the pit. Only that in the painting, in the place of the enormous gravel pit hole, was a meadow full of dandelions. 

One corner of the painting carried the year it was made—1998. The other, the initials MKK. Modris KaparKalējs always signed his work like that. In awe, the boy realized that his dad had done the painting, although it was far removed from the ornate, impetuous pictures he used to paint at night in the spare room of their city apartment . . . Markus’s eyes started itching; he glanced at Anete’s house. The only lit window there was in the kitchen, yet it somehow appeared just like the glittering, sunny landscape in Grandma’s room—now lost to them forever. His feet were freezing cold and he felt incredibly lonely. 

Markus crawled back to his room. Having rubbed the soles of his dirty feet against his shins, he took off his shirt and slipped into bed. He thrust his hands under the pillow and felt for the knife. Then he let his fingers run over the back of his left hand and the already healed cut—MKK. Markus Kaparkalējs. The boy pulled the knife out from under the pillow, flicked it open, and took it in his left hand. Cutting clumsily, he slashed crosses, one after another, from his right shoulder down to his hand—one, two, three, four. The blood ran in warm black streaks down the length of his arm in the moonlight.


Originally published as "Bedre" in the short-story collection Gaismā. © 2016 Jana Egle. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini. All rights reserved.


– Kad izaugšu liels, būšu gleznotājs, – noskrambātos ceļus pie zoda pievilcis un ar zariņu vilkdams smiltīs tikai sev vien saprotamus rakstus, teica puika. – Tā kā tētis.

– Tu tik labi māki zīmēt? – meitenīte neticīgi paskatījās uz puiku un zemē iešvīkātajām līnijām.

– Māku. Tētis iemācīja, – puika vērās pāri karjeram uz balto grants ceļu. Pa to, līgani līkumodama un tik tikko sadzirdami dūkdama, kā liela, slinka muša līda melna mašīna. Saceltais putekļu mākonis ilgi, nekustīgi karājās gaisā...

– Kur ir tavs tētis?

– Tālu.

– Mans onkulis arī ir tālu, Dānijā, bet viņš jau divas reizes bija mājās. Kad tavs tētis un mamma atbrauks? – Anete turpināja izjautāt.

– Drīz, – puika, strupi noteicis, piespiedās ar vaigu netīrajam ceļgalam.

– Nu, kad tas ir – drīz? – mazā nerimās.

Puika vēroja sastingušo putekļu mākoni.

– Drīz – tas ir drīz, un izbeidz prašņāties. Daudz gribēsi zināt, ātri veca paliksi!

– Tik veca kā tava ome, ja? Redzēsi, ka tev neviens neatbrauks, bēē!, – mazā parādīja mēli un pazuda aiz krūma.


– Markus! Markusiņ!

Puika dzirdēja, bet nekustējās. Dibens šķita gluži vai saknēm ieaudzis smiltājā, bet rokas un kājas veidotas mīkstā, valkanā mālā. Pievēris plakstus, viņš atlaidās guļus un caur skropstām lūkojās uz rietošo sauli. Ja acis samiedza pavisam šaurā svītriņā, pasaule iezaigojās kā zeltainiem putekļiem piebārstīts pastelis dzidrās, tīrās krāsās. Kaiju vēderi slīdēja pāri, saulrieta staros sārti kā flamingo, bet tālīnais mežs, trīsot starp zēna skropstām, spokaini cilāja pret debesīm zilpelēkas zaru rokas. Markuss pagrieza galvu un ar vaigu pieglaudās smiltīm. Siltas.

– Markus! Kāpēc tu neatsaucies? Ēst jānāk. Un drīz jau gulēt.

– Negribu.

– Nu ja, – ome smagi nopūtās. – Es arī daudz ko negribu. Bet jādara.


– Ai, kā vajadzētu lietu, – maizi griezdama, ome purpināja. Puika zināja, ka nekas nav jāatbild. Ome, ilgus gadus viena dzīvodama, pieradusi pati ar sevi runāt. – Gurķu nav un nebūs, kartupeļi arī tik sīki, ka nevar saprast, vai līdz rudenim piebriedīs.

– Rīt uz kapu svētkiem. Jāpaskata tik, vai tev ir kas pieklājīgs mugurā velkams, – viņa turpināja, sāņus uzlūkodama Markusu.

– Es negribu iet.

– Vai tad es prasīju – gribi vai negribi? – ome pat neizklausījās pikta, drīzāk nogurusi. – Šodien biju, kapiņus sakopu, uzrušināju, aplaistīju. Puķes aiznesīsim rīt, pirms sāksies.

– Nu, zupu izēdi? – pēc balss bija noprotams, ka nu atkal runā ar puiku. – Labi vismaz, ka tu normāli ēd.

Markuss pateica paldies un it kā nejauši izvairījās no omes raupjās rokas glāsta pār smalkajiem, mazliet uzrautajiem pleciem.

– Kā tāds ezis, – ome klusi nopūtās, kad puika iegāja savā istabā.


Markuss lēni ģērbās nost. Šonakt bija gaišs, tāpēc naktslampiņu neieslēdza. Mēness gan vēl nebija gluži apaļš, viena mala paplūdusi, kā ar paviršu otu piezīmēta.

Reizēm te mēdza būt pilnīgi melnas naktis, kādu pilsētā nekad nebija. Ielienot migā, tad vienīgā gaisma bija smalkā, četrstūrainā aizvērto istabas durvju kontūra, kamēr ome mazgāja traukus un pārsprieda ar sevi dienas gaitas. Taču, kad ome aizgāja gulēt, gaisma pazuda pavisam. Tādās naktīs puikam bija bail. Ja nepaspēja iemigt, viņš gulēja vaļējām, neko neredzošām acīm un baidījās tās vērt ciet.

Mājās naktis bija citādas. Istabā iespīdēja ielu laternas. Zem loga arī tumsā vēl čīkstēja sliedes, un Markusa gulta laiku pa laikam viegli nodrebēja, kad garām aizdimdināja tramvajs.  Tētis istabas durvis vienmēr atstāja vaļā. Arī tad, kad pie viņa sanāca čomi, tina cigaretes un turpat istabā pīpēja. Tad bija jautri, visi klausījās kaut kādu aizvēsturisku mūziku - Džoplinu, The Doors un Bobu Mārliju – un visu laiku smējās. Bet Markuss, guļot savā gultā, ar patiku ieelpoja dīvaini smakojošos dūmus no blakus istabas, un arī viņam gribējās smieties līdzi. Citreiz, kad neviena nebija, tētis tik un tā negāja gulēt, bet ilgi stāvēja pie molberta, un puika klausījās otas klusajos švīkstos pār audeklu, līdz iemiga. Te tik ļoti pietrūka pilsētas gaismu, skaņu, smaržu un tēta.

Samiegojies Markuss pabāza roku zem spilvena. Tur tas ir. Saliekamais nazis ar ļoti plānu un smalku asmeni. Vienīgā lieta, ko viņš paspēja paķert no tēta istabas toreiz, kad ome ar policistu un svešo sievieti atbrauca Markusam pakaļ. Pirkstu pieskāriens gludajam plastmasas spalam nomierināja, un puika, aizvēris acis, miegaini nožāvājās.


No rīta Markuss pamodās pats. Ome sparīgi grāvās pa virtuvi un pie sevis ķiķināja. Pa durvju spraugām istabā līda iekšā kārdinoša smarža. Puika veikli apģērbās un atvēra durvis.

– Labrīt! Pankūkas ēdīsi? Ar zemeņu zapti vai krējumu un cukuru?

Uz galda māla bļodā jau kūpēja biezas, čaganas, zeltaini brūnas pankūkas ar kraukšķīgām maliņām.

– Ar zapti. – Un viņš smaidīdams, nemazgātu muti ķērās pie brokastīm.

Ome turpināja cept, pār plecu apmierināti noskatīdamās, kā puika loka iekšā pankūkas vienu pēc otras, ik pa brīdim pamērcējot ievārījuma peļķītē uz šķīvja.


Pabrokastojis puika izgāja pagalmā. Vēsā zāle tīkami kairināja kailās pēdas, un Markuss kādu brīdi stāvēja, mēģinādams ar kājas pirkstiem noplūkt smilgu.

– Čau, Markus! Ko dari?

– Neko. – Markuss, brīdi paklusējis, ierunājās, – Gribi, es tev parādīšu noslēpumu?

– Kādu noslēpumu? – Anete iepleta acis.

– Nu, noslēpumu. – Markuss izvairīgi novilka. – Ejam!

Markuss sāka skriet. Abi, basajām pēdām zibot, devās karjera virzienā. Karjera malā puika apstājās kā iemiets. Kad Anete nostājās viņam blakus, Markuss nopietnā balsī vaicāja – Tu tiešām gribi to zināt?

Ar aizrautību palūkojusies Markusa sejā, meitene nepacietīgi atbildēja: – Nu, jā!

– Tad skrienam, turies cieši aiz manis, nenovirzies!

Puika neatskatoties skrēja gar karjera malu, vietām līkumodams, citur palēkdamies. Mazā, bizēm plīvojot, nesās pakaļ un snaikstīdamās mēģināja saskatīt uz priekšu, kur tad ir tas noslēpums. Te piepeši zeme zem viņas pajuka, vēderā kaut kas iekņudējās, sagriezās, kājas vēl brīdi skrēja pa gaisu, bet tad sīkais augumiņš, viegli nobūkšķēdams, noripoja šauras un dziļas bedres dibenā.

Atskanēja izmisīgs raudiens. Pār bedres malu uz dzidri zilo debesu fona iezīmējās puikas galva. – Nu, kā tev mans noslēpums? Es taču teicu – nenovirzies.


Meitēns pārstāja brēkt un uzmeta lūpu.

– Padod roku!

– Nu, nē, tik vienkārši nebūs. Es tagad skaitīšu pantiņu, ja trāpīs uz mani, es tev palīdzēšu. Ja uz tevi, tad tiec ārā pati.

– Kā tad es tikšu?

Bet puika neklausījās. Ar pirkstu rādīdams te pats sev vēderā, te uz meiteni bedres dziļumā, viņš monotoni deklamēja – uz kla-vie-rēm stāv vī-na glā-ze, kas to dzers, tas MIRS! – un ar izstieptu pirkstu notēmēja tieši uz sīkās sirdi.

– Tā. Es aizeju!

– Pagaidi! Marku-us! – meitēns sauca, taču puikas galva jau pazuda no mazā debesu laukumiņa, kas mirdzēja daudz zilāks un dzidrāks nekā jebkad agrāk.

Viņa mēģināja rāpties pa bedres sienu augšup. Sausās, glāsmainās smiltis plūda lejup ar katru soli, un tikt ārā saviem spēkiem bija bezcerīgi. Anete apsēdās bedrē, bija baisi, ik pa brīdim viņa aizvien skaļāk sauca Markusa vārdu. Viņa nezināja, vai puika kaut kad atgriezīsies, lai viņa no šī noslēpuma tiktu ārā, un atkal un atkal izmisīgi mēģināja izrāpties, – vēsās smiltis joprojām zīdaini slīdēja lejup pa bedres sienu, klājoties uz meitēna basajām kājām, un ausīs viņai ritmiski skanēja – uz klavierēm stāv vīna glāze, kas to dzers, tas mirs...


Markuss devās mājup. Ome droši vien jau gaidīja. Puika sajuta pacilājošu reiboni un vieglumu visos locekļos. Tagad noslēpums bija pavisam īsts, dzīvs. Mugura iztaisnojās, pleci atslāba, un puika vieglā, dejojošā galopā lēkšoja mājup. Priekšpusdienas saulē viņa mati mirdzēja pulēta kapara krāsā un cilājās līdzi katram palēcienam.


– Markus! Kur tu biji?

– Nekur, tepat! – puika pavisam mierīgs iesoļoja pagalmā.

– Nāc, nomazgājies, un tad taisīsimies. Laika pavisam maz. Dod šurp šito kreklu, re ku, iedošu tīru.

Puika pēkšņā niknumā atgrūda omes rokas, kas jau dzīrās novilkt viņam nosmulēto T-kreklu.

– Neaiztiec, – viņš nošņācās. – Es pats.

– Labi jau labi, še, ņem. Tikai nečammājies. Ūdeni jau bļodā ielēju, priekšnamā vari šļakstīties, cik gribi. Kā tāda jaunava, nevar saprast, kā ar tādu apieties, – pēdējais teikums līdz ar smagu nopūtu jau atkal bija sev pašai.


Puika, ar kājām stāvēdams milzīgajā bļodā, smēla ar kausiņu un lēja sev virsū ūdeni,  ļaujot, lai mazās, veldzējošās straumītes te šķirdamās, te atkal savienodamās skraida pār sūrstošo ādu. Brūces bija mazliet apdzijušas, taču vēl smeldza. Markuss ar plaukstu aptvēra savainoto augšdelmu un cieši saspieda. Klusināti iekunkstējās, taču tvērienu uzreiz neatlaida. Tad atkal pasmēla saujā ūdeni un ļāva tam glāstīt kaistošo, pamazām dzīstošo ādu.


Pēc pusstundas abi saposušies un ziediem rokās devās ceļā. Līdz kapsētai piecpadsmit minūtes prātīgā solī. Ejot gar kaimiņu sētu, ome apstājās. Kaimiņiene tāda kā satraukusies, rokas vēzēdama, kaut ko stāstīja vīram, bet tas tikai raustīja plecus.

– Ilzīt, vai tad uz kapu svētkiem netaisāties?

– Mēs jau taisāmies gan, Veltas tant, tikai bērns kaut kur pazudis. – Kaimiņiene pavērsa skatienu pret Markusu, – tu neesi redzējis Aneti?

Markuss klusējot paraustīja plecus un  papurināja galvu.

– Nekad jau nekur tālu neiet, bet nu gandrīz stundu nevaram sameklēt. Es sāku kreņķēties.

– Gan jau tepat kaut kur ir. – Anetes tēvs bez jebkāda uztraukuma bilda. – Būs smaga runāšana, kad uzradīsies.


Konrāds Kaparkalējs (1946-1999) un Velta Kaparkalēja (1948-....). Uz pulētā akmens ar iekaltajiem vārdiem un gravētām ozollapām sēdēja melns tauriņš. Izplētis spārnus, tas pašapzinīgi demonstrēja koši oranžos lāsumus un apbrīnojami plašo spārnu atvērumu. Puika uzlika roku uz sasilušā akmens un lēni virzīja to aizvien tuvāk un tuvāk tauriņam. Taču tas laiski aizplivinājās prom.

Omes uztieptais baltais krekls bija nedaudz par mazu, vīles spieda paduses un kaklu.

Mācītājs, stāvot pie kapličas zem milzīga krusta, runāja ilgi un vienmuļi, sievu ansamblis vilka gari un žēlīgi. Draudze te sēdās, te cēlās, te vilka līdzi.

Markuss garlaikots vēroja ļaužu pulciņu. Baltos, plānos matus, izbalējušam, saburzītam papīram līdzīgās sejas un mezglainās delnu virspuses. Klausījās trīsošajās balsīs. Bija neinteresanti, bet mierīgi. Aiz vectēva kapakmeņa vīdēja divas ar zāli apaugušas kopiņas. Markuss piegāja tuvāk un apsēdās tām līdzās. Te gulēja omes vectēvs un vecāmamma. Tālāk vēl piecas mazākas kopiņas ar nelieliem, dzeltenpelēka ķērpja apaugušiem krustiem. Citreiz, kad viņi bija atnākuši šurp divatā, ome stāstīja, ka tie ir viņas mammas brālīši un māsiņas, kas nomiruši pavisam mazi.

– Kāpēc viņi nomira? – Markuss toreiz jautāja.

– Nezinu, – ome atteica, ar mazo grābeklīti ierušinādama zigzagu rakstus smilšu klājumā pie vectēva akmeņa, – tad jau bērni daudz mira. Tie bija pēckara laiki, visiem bija grūti.

Puika nepakustēdamies ilgi lūkojās uz tumšajiem krustiem. Pēc tam pavērās augšup – šķita, ka tādi paši krusti ar mirdzoši baltu krāsu iezīmēti koši zilajās debesīs. Markuss aizdomājās, – ja Anete nomirtu, viņai arī uz kapa uzliktu mazu krustiņu. Vai tādu akmeni, kāds ir vectēvam? Zēns iztēlojās mazu, glītu koka zārciņu un tajā guļam Aneti ar viņas kārtīgajām bizēm. Pavasarī ome bija paņēmusi Markusu līdzi uz kādas attālas radinieces bērēm, tā gulēja baltajās mežģīnēs dzeltenīgi bāla, iedubušām, samelnējušām acīm un vaigiem. Bet tas noteikti tāpēc, ka viņa bija pārāk veca. Anetes saulē nobrūnējusī sejiņa ir skaista, ja viņa patiešām nomirtu, Markusam droši vien būtu pa īstam žēl. 


Kapu kokos iešalca vējš. Kā tumši pelēku segu tas vienā mirklī debesīm pārvilka pāri lietus mākoņus. Pēc pāris minūtēm sāka krist retas, smagas lāses un jau drīz vien balta, stāva lietus siena aizsedza krustus, akmeņus, kokus un neveiklos stāvus, kuri apjukuši metās meklēt patvērumu.  

Markuss stāvēja piespiedies pie siltās, grubuļainās kapličas sienas un skatījās, kā ome, galvu grozīdama, stāv lietū un ar acīm meklē mazdēlu. Kad viņas skatiens pavērsās uz kapličas pusi, Markuss pamāja ar roku. Ome, neveikli steigdamās, devās turp un ielīda zem šaurās pažobeles blakus puikam.

– Nesaliji? – ome, mazliet aizelsusies, jautāja Markusam, ar plaukstu notraucot lietu no apģērba un tad ar pirkstiem piekārtojot matus. Markuss papurināja galvu un turpināja lūkoties uz cilvēkiem, kas salīkuši un jau sen samirkuši, bet vēl somas un dziesmu lapiņas virs galvām turēdami, bēga no lietus.

– Velta, varu jūs pa ceļam aizvest mājās, – kāda kundze, garām skrienot, uzsauca. – Neizskatās, ka pāries.  

Mašīna stāvēja tepat aiz kapličas, taču lietus paspēja samērcēt Markusa balto kreklu. Cauri miklajiem laukumiem spīdēja āda, un Markuss, iesēdies aizmugures sēdeklī, uzmanīgi nopētīja savu kreiso augšdelmu. Nekas nebija redzams. Ome apsēdās priekšā un, vēl ārpusē kājas vienu pret otru sasizdama, nopurināja kurpju zolēm aplipušo, biezo smilšu kārtu.

Braucot mašīnas logs pamazām aizsvīda. Viņus pieveda tieši pie mājas. Ienākuši abi pārģērbās, ome uzlika tēju. Visapkārt šalca lietus.

Tad kaut kas notika. Kāds  piedauzīja pie durvīm un, nesagaidot uzaicinājumu, iebrāzās iekšā. Anetes mamma...

Markus ieslīdēja dziļāk istabā un, tikpat kā neelpodams, piespiedās pie aukstās krāsns.

– Kur ir tas tavs kuņasbērns, tas izdzimtenis!

Ome instinktīvi aizstājās priekšā istabas durvīm.

– Kas nu? Kas tad nu? – viņa stostījās

– Ārprāts! Tu, sīkais mērgli, kā tu varēji? Nu, kā tu to varēji? – Ilze mēģināja pastumt malā omi, lai tiktu pie puikas. Markuss pierāvās vēl tuvāk sienai.

– Kas galu galā ir noticis? – ome noprasīja, stāvēdama pretī kā mūris.

– Suns Aneti atrada. Es uzreiz nesapratu, ko šis tā smilkst un vedina. Līdz pašam karjeram, kur neaizbērtās stabu bedres. – Ilze runāja rimtāk, bet tad atkal it kā atjēgusies sāka klaigāt vēl niknāk. Viņa zināja, ka Markuss ir istabā, – Un nestāsti, ka tevis tur nebija! – asaras aizžņaudza Ilzes kaklu.

Ome apjukusi uzlika roku Ilzei uz pleca. – Bet viņai nekas nekaiš?

– Dzīva ir.

– Nu, gan jau būs labi... – ome murmināja un, paņēmusi Ilzi aiz elkoņa, nosēdināja pie virtuves galda. Nezinādama, ko vēl sacīt, pastiepās pēc dvieļa un noslaucīja sviedrus no kakla. – Ieliešu tev tēju?

– Tēvs Aneti pie ārsta aizveda, no izbīļa bērns galīgi sastindzis.

Markuss, to dzirdēdams, beidzot skaļi izdvesa aizturēto elpu un juta, kā viss sienai piekaltais augums atslābst. Sadzirdējusi Markusa nopūtu, Ilze satrūkās un atkal metās uz durvīm, kurām ome paguva piešauties priekšā, – Ko sargā, dod šurp man to krupi!  

Ome turēja Ilzi atspērusies. Un tad arī pati uzsauca skaļāk, lai Ilze apsēžas, vai neesot kauna ar vecu cilvēku cīkstēties. Ilze norima un atslīga krēslā. Ome pasniedzās pēc krūzes, un jau gatavojās ieliet kaimiņienei tēju, kad tā atkal ierunājās: – Kā tādus zeme nes? – un tad, pacēlusi acis uz Veltu, turpināja klusāk, bet pietiekami skaļi, lai puika istabā dzirdētu, – Kāpēc tu viņu savāci no tā narkomānu midzeņa? Būtu viņš tur palicis un visiem būtu miers, mums jau nu noteikti.

Ome nolika tējkannu un klusi, bet stingri bilda: – Man šķiet, ka tev laiks iet, varbūt bērns jau no daktera mājā.

Ilze saskaitās vēl vairāk un atkal pacēla balsi – Ak, tā, ja? Nu, pareizi darīja tā tava vedekla, ka pameta visu, – jūs taču neesat pie pilna prāta! Neviens!


Markuss sēdēja turpat istabā uz grīdas. Šonakt mēness bija pavisam apaļš. Tā arī nevienu pašu vārdu viņš nebija izrunājis. Ome vairākas reizes uzstājīgi tincināja, kā viņš varēja aizmirst par meitēnu. Ko viņš vispār domāja, kaut uz brīdi aizskrienot prom un atstājot Aneti bedrē.

Bet Markuss par meiteni nebija aizmirsis ne mirkli. Tā vienkārši sanāca, tā bija godīgi. Uz kla-vie-rēm stāv vī-na glā-ze, kas to dzers, tas MIRS! Skaitāmpants krita uz sīko, un tā bija sarunāts. Viņa taču nenomira, tikai iekrita bedrē. Markusam šķita, ka ome raudāja, kad aizgāja uz savu istabu.


Markuss klusītēm izrāpās pa logu. Zeme bija mīksta un smaržoja pēc lietus. Vairs nelija, tikai kāds rets mākonis pārslīdēja, nespēdams pavisam aizsegt mēness gaismu. No puķu dobes cēlās ass, medains smārds. Omes logs bija gaišs, puika pa slapjo zāli klusi pielavījās un iekāpa dobē, lai ieskatītos iekšā. Ome sagumusi sēdēja pie galda ar muguru pret logu un vērās gleznā pie sienas. Markuss vienmēr bija zinājis, ka glezna tur ir, taču šonakt pirmo reizi kārtīgi uz to palūkojās. Mierīga zeltainas saules un zaļas dzīvības piesātināta ainava. Markuss to pazina, tas bija skats uz to pašu mežmalu aiz karjera, tikai milzīgās grantsbedres vietā pieneņu pļava. Gleznas vienā stūrī gads 1998 un otrā paraksts MKK, – tā vienmēr parakstījās Modris KaparKalējs. Puika piepeši pārsteigts saprata, ka tā ir viņa tēta glezna, kaut pavisam neizskatījās līdzīga krāšņajām, trauksmainajām bildēm, kuras viņš naktīs gleznoja pilsētas dzīvokļa otrajā istabā... Markusam sāka grauzt acis, viņš pameta skatu uz Anetes māju. Tur gaišs bija tikai virtuves logs, taču tas šķita tik līdzīgs mirdzošajai, saulainajai, uz visiem laikiem zudušajai ainavai omes istabā. Sala kājas, un bija tik vientuļi.

Markuss ierāpās atpakaļ istabā. Nobraucījis netīrās pēdas pret apakšstilbiem, viņš novilka kreklu un ielīda gultā. Pabāza rokas zem spilvena un sataustīja nazi. Tad pārbrauca ar pirkstiem pār kreiso augšdelmu ar jau apdzijušo griezumu – MKK. Markuss Kaparkalējs. Puika izvilka nazi no spilvenapakšas, atvāza un paņēma kreisajā rokā. Un, neveikli šņāpdams, uz labās rokas no pleca uz leju pa vienam vien grieza krustus – vienu, otru, trešo, ceturto. Asinis mēness gaismā zīmēja siltas, melnas līnijas pāri rokai visā tās garumā.

from the February 2018 issue



Latvian author Alise Redviņa portrays a socially awkward office worker searching for true love.  

Before Lynn came into my life, I only knew how to love people from a distance, only in my mind, and it was torture to bring myself to demonstrate verbal or physical affection.

My mother was convinced that I did not love her. Even the time when I gave her a bouquet of white lilies and an amber necklace I’d bought by saving my lunch money for a whole year and told her that she was the best mom in the world, she just thanked me dryly and didn’t speak with me the rest of the night. That was all because I once again withdrew when she tried to kiss me on the cheek and made a face when she stroked my head. Something about my mother’s caresses felt unbearable to me, too intimate. I wanted to like them and wished that I could respond sincerely, but I could not even muster a convincing act. I wanted to learn how to touch, but I didn’t know how to do it in a way that did not seem painful and unnatural.

It was the same with all of the women I liked, even with the one before Lynn—Greta. Back then when I was all alone, I would think about her a lot. It was so easy for me to imagine our relationship: my life would not change much, except I would have someone with whom to make dinner, my favorite macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans, and discuss the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones.” And at night, I would kiss not the pillow but Greta. Of course, when I met with Greta in real life, these simple fantasies became impossible. Everything I said I had to consider five times over, as I was afraid of saying something inappropriate, not to mention touching her—I never knew what was allowed, what was not, what she would like, what not. The last time we met, we sat at a brightly lit table in the middle of a crowded cafe, and, unintentionally, I asked her too loudly in front of the waiter if I could hold her hand, after which she got scared and immediately asked the waiter for the bill.

After that, I gave up and decided that my only experience of love would be lonely dreams. I started to look in the other direction as soon as I saw a pretty girl, and had decided that I would spend the rest of my life dining alone. But then—then I noticed and found Lynn. 

She arrived in a long cardboard box, lying down. She looked just like the kind of girl that I like best: long, dark red hair, green eyes, a bit chubbier than the models in magazines. Lynn also had an ideal personality: calm and reserved.

On the first day, I just sat her on the sofa and observed with insecurity her curvy limbs and face full of superhuman love. The next day, I started to talk to her. I shared my opinion about the last episode of “Game of Thrones.” On the third day, I touched her hair, and after a few days also her skin. It was soft and smooth, almost too much, but not one hair out of place. With each day my courage grew and I started to kiss her belly, caress her feet, touch Lynn in all of the ways that I had dreamed of touching a woman. Her body, despite being cool and hard, always responded to my touches with complete surrender. If I held Lynn’s hand for a long time, it would warm up a bit. At first this scared me and left me uncomfortable, but soon I started to like it.

I couldn’t take her outside, so my home became our mutual world. Together we prepared macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans, curled up on the sofa, and watched “Game of Thrones” or listened to Tchaikovsky, who was our favorite composer.

When I wanted Lynn to touch me or cuddle up in my lap or kiss me, I always had to fold and arrange her arms and legs myself, since, although she cooperated, she did not show initiative. She used only words to express what she wanted, but Lynn’s wishes were always the same as mine, and her voice was so quiet that I heard it only in my mind.

I am not crazy. I knew that I was the one giving Lynn her words and opinions, I knew that she gave in to my touches because she could not protest. But I liked to fantasize about what Lynn could think and feel, pretending that she wanted to touch me as much as I wanted to touch her. I held Lynn in my grasp, she was real and touchable, yet half-imagined, but all the same it felt like the truest love that I had ever experienced.

Until the moment I met Mary. A real woman in flesh, blood, and mind, who started working at our company as the office assistant, and who eventually I would see every workday. Her hair was not red, nor were her eyes green, but the fact that she tended to smile shyly and clumsily walked into the corners of furniture moved me. From time to time she would come up to my computer monitor, where I was tapping out new programs, and give me some client update or ask what kind of tea I wanted to order for the office. It was difficult for me to answer Mary without hesitating and, after returning home from work, I still could not stop thinking about her beautiful voice, her eyes, which looked straight at me, rather than empty space. Once I lay down in bed, arranged Lynn’s arms on my naked chest and imagined how soft and warm Mary’s hands would be. Lynn could only get such warm hands in a microwave oven. I held Lynn close to my chest and tried to imagine that it was Mary, but Lynn was offended and stiffened even more, and became even colder, and I had to get up and seat her in a chair on the other side of the room.

But the next day I saw Mary again. She smiled and again banged her hip on the corner of my desk. This made me thirst for her touch, to have her next to me, more than ever before, and after work I returned to Lynn. I was angry with Lynn, because I could not imagine Mary in her place, because she lacked warmth, because she was so annoyingly quiet and still and agreed with everything I said and wanted with indifference. Even so, I continued to touch her, I used her with malicious pleasure, knowing full well that she could not resist. Once I thought I detected some expression in Lynn’s eyes—disapproval, perhaps, that someone else now lived in my thoughts.

This is how I suffered, my imagination leaping from one woman to the other. Being at work and speaking with Mary, I sometimes longed to be with Lynn, because with her it was easy after all. I didn’t blush, get tongue-tied, or work myself into a frenzy about what she would think or do. As I increasingly felt Mary leaning out from behind her desk and staring at me, I missed Lynn’s empty, indifferent, uninquisitive eyes. Once, on a Friday, Mary invited me to have lunch with her, when she asked hopefully about my plans for the weekend, and from fear I blurted out that I would be relaxing at home with my girlfriend. Mary lowered her eyes, so did I, and we no longer spoke that day.

When I returned home again to mute, cold Lynn, I of course bitterly regretted what I had said. Lynn just sat there quietly grinning, and I squeezed my hands into fists to avoid grabbing her and throwing her against the wall. But I was incapable of harming a woman, even a plastic woman. That weekend I didn’t even touch Lynn.

Mary no longer invited me to lunch, and she bumped into my desk less often. When she distanced herself, my obsession with her only grew. Once I found the courage to invite her to have lunch with me, but she just smiled shyly and declined, saying that she had quite a bit for breakfast that morning. On other days, when I showed great interest and asked Mary about office paper and coffee supplies, Mary answered politely, but was always very businesslike.

Everything ended—or one could say, finally began—that night when we were celebrating our boss’s birthday at the office. The boss bought a few drinks for everyone and later several colleagues went to a bar, including me and Mary. I was generously soaking my stressed brain in beer and noticed that Mary was drinking more than I imagined her capable of. While others were heading home, I convinced Mary to stay for one more drink. She hesitated, so I immediately ordered two rum and cokes, so that it would be rude for her to leave. And then when we sat down at a corner table, just the two of us, my protective walls came down. I told Mary that actually my so-called girlfriend was not alive and partly imaginary and that I really liked Mary, but was frightened by how alive and real she was. Mary did not understand what I was talking about, but I was afraid to tell her the whole story. I ordered two more drinks and told her about how hard it was for me to hug my mother when I was a child, and about how I didn’t know what to say and where to put my hands when I was together with Greta and all the other women that I have ever liked. Mary nodded her head in understanding. We each had another drink, and with the last sip I found the courage to ask Mary, a little too loudly, if I could show her something at my place. I said it and hoped that Mary would understand completely once she saw it with her own eyes. My enthusiasm, the alcohol, Mary’s realization that she did not live far from me—something convinced her.

When we came into my apartment, Lynn was sitting in the bedroom—in the recliner, thank god, not on the bed. I imagined how embarrassing it would have been if she had been rolling around naked in my unmade bed, and I laughed nervously. But my laughter fizzled when I saw Mary’s serious face, which was looking first at the passionless Lynn and then at me. I waited for her to call me a pathetic lecherous man or something like that and rush out the door, but then Mary started to laugh. Loudly, uproariously, really laughing. And this laughter, although the most wonderful sound I have ever heard, scared me a bit, just like Mary’s experienced, caressing hands when she approached me, having lost her inhibition in her drunken state. But then I glanced one more time at Lynn and remembered that when I was with her, I tried to imagine I was with Mary. I was not successful, and yet I had touched Lynn in all the ways I wanted to touch a real woman. And now I was acting the opposite: I remembered all of my time spent with Lynn and touched Mary in the same ways that I had done with Lynn. I put my palms in all the same places, starting with her hair, moving to her upper arms, her belly, her legs. And Mary let me, she responded to my caresses similarly to how I imagined Lynn would respond: she ran her fingers through my hair, kissed my neck, brushed against my chest. At one point, I noticed that Lynn’s face was turned toward us. I wanted to throw a piece of clothing on her, but then I remembered that she is only a doll, of course, she couldn’t see a thing.

Still, when Lynn’s place in my life was replaced by Mary and we decided to live together, we did not get rid of the doll. Mary learned to live with her. Sometimes we prepare macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans together and afterward watch “Game of Thrones.” Sometimes Mary argues with me and says that she would rather order a pizza and watch “Sex and the City,” and at these moments, I tend to think about the time I spent with Lynn, secretly putting her hand in mine and smiling about how compliant she was, even if artificial, cold, and helpless. 

But when we have guests, we hide Lynn in the closet. They would not understand.

"Linna" © Alise Redviņa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Adlers. All rights reserved.


Pirms manā dzīvē ienāca Linna, es pratu cilvēkus mīlēt tikai no attāluma, tikai domās, un mokoši bija piespiest sevi vārdiski vai fiziski izrādīt pieķeršanos.

Mana māte bija pārliecināta, ka es viņu nemīlu. Pat toreiz, kad uzdāvināju viņai baltu liliju pušķi un dzintara kaklarotu par visu gadu krāto pusdienu naudu, un pateicu, ka viņa ir labākā mamma pasaulē, viņa tikai sausi pateicās un atlikušo vakaru ar mani nerunāja. Tas viss tāpēc, ka kārtējo reizi biju atrāvies, kad viņa mēģināja mani noskūpstīt uz vaiga, un saviebies, kad viņa noglaudīja man galvu. Kaut kas mātes pieskārienos man šķita nepanesams, pārāk tuvs. Es vēlējos, kaut man tie patiktu un kaut es spētu no sirds atbildēt, bet nespēju pat ticami tēlot. Es gribēju mācēt pieskarties, bet nezināju, kā lai to izdara tā, lai nešķistu samocīti un nedabiski.

            Līdzīgi bija ar visām sievietēm, kas man patika, arī ar to pēdējo pirms Linnas, – Grētu. Toreiz brīžos, kad paliku vienatnē, daudz domāju par viņu. Tik viegli spēju izsapņot mūsu attiecības: dzīve daudz nemainītos, tikai man būtu kāds, ar ko kopā vakariņās gatavot manus mīļākos makaronus ar čedaras sieru un pekanriekstiem un pārspriest “Troņu spēļu” jaunākās sērijas. Un naktī es apskautu nevis spilvenu, bet Grētu. Taču, kad satikos ar Grētu dzīvē, šīs vienkāršās fantāzijas kļuva nepiepildāmas. Viss, ko teicu, bija pieckārt jāpārdomā, jo baidījos pateikt ko nevietā, nemaz nerunājot par pieskaršanos – nekad nevarēja zināt, ko drīkst, ko nedrīkst, kā viņai patiks, kā ne. Mūsu pēdējā tikšanās reizē sēdējām pie gaiša galdiņa piebāztas kafejnīcas vidū, un es netīšām pārāk skaļi viesmīļa klātbūtnē pajautāju, vai drīkstu satvert Grētas roku, viņa nobijās un uzreiz palūdza viesmīlim rēķinu.

            Pēc tā es padevos un nospriedu, ka manā dzīvē mīlestība tā arī paliks tikai vientuļi sapņi. Sāku skatīties citā virzienā, līdzko ieraudzīju kādu glītu meiteni, un biju apņēmies vakariņas visu atlikušo dzīvi ēst vienatnē. Taču tad – tad es ieraudzīju un ieguvu Linnu.

            Viņa ieradās garenā kartona kastē, noguldīta guļus. Izskatījās pēc tieši tādas meitenes, kādas man vislabāk patīk: gari, tumši rudi mati, zaļas acis, mazliet apaļīgāka nekā žurnālu modeles. Arī Linnas raksturs bija ideāls: mierīgs un kluss.

            Pirmajā dienā es tikai nosēdināju viņu uz dīvāna un nedroši vēroju viņas izliektās auguma aprises un pārcilvēciski piemīlīgo seju. Nākamajā dienā sāku arī sarunāties, izstāstīju savu viedokli par “Troņu spēļu” pēdējo epizodi. Trešajā dienā pieskāros viņas matiem, un vēl pēc dažām dienām arī ādai. Tā bija maiga un gluda, pat pārāk, bez neviena lieka matiņa. Ar katru dienu arvien vairāk saņēmu drosmi un sāku apskaut viņas vidukli, glāstīt pēdas, pieskarties Linnai visos veidos, kādos biju sapņojis pieskarties sievietei. Viņas ķermenis, kaut arī vēss un ciets, vienmēr atsaucās maniem pieskārieniem ar pilnīgu atdevi. Kad ilgi turēju Linnas roku, tā mazliet sasila. Sākumā mani tas biedēja un lika justies neērti, bet drīz iepatikās.


            Es nevarēju vest viņu ārā, tāpēc mājas kļuva par mūsu kopīgo pasauli. Mēs kopā gatavojām makaronus ar čedaras sieru un pekanriekstiem, saritinājāmies uz dīvāna un skatījāmies “Troņu spēles” vai klausījāmies Čaikovski, kurš bija mūsu abu mīļākais komponists.

Kad es gribēju, lai Linna pieskaras man, iekārtojas klēpī vai apskauj, vienmēr nācās pašam ielocīt un izkārtot viņas rokas un kājas, jo, kaut arī atdevīga, viņa neizrādīja iniciatīvu. Tikai vārdos mēdza izteikt, ko vēlas, taču Linnas vēlmes vienmēr sakrita ar manējām, un viņas balss bija tik klusa, ka dzirdēju to tikai savās domās.

Es neesmu jucis. Zināju, ka visus Linnas vārdus un viedokļus viņai piešķiru pats, zināju, ka viņa ļaujas maniem pieskārieniem tāpēc, ka nespēj pretoties. Bet man patika fantazēt, ko Linna varētu domāt un just, iztēloties, ka viņa grib man pieskarties tikpat ļoti, cik es viņai. Tā es turēju Linnu savās skavās īstu un taustāmu, tomēr pa pusei izsapņotu, bet vienalga tā šķita īstākā mīlestība, kādu esmu piedzīvojis.

Līdz brīdim, kad satiku Mariju. Ar miesu, asinīm un domām apveltītu sievieti, kura sāka strādāt mūsu uzņēmumā par biroja asistenti, un turpmāk man nācās viņu redzēt ik darba dienu. Viņas mati nebija rudi, nedz arī acis zaļas, bet tas, kā viņa mēdza kautrīgi smaidīt vai neveikli uzskriet mēbeļu stūriem, mani aizkustināja. Šad tad viņa pienāca pie datora monitora, aiz kura es klabināju jaunas programmas, un nodeva man kāda klienta ziņojumu vai jautāja, kādu tēju es vēlētos pasūtīt birojam. Man bija grūti Marijai atbildēt bez stomīšanās, un, pārnācis no darba mājās, es vēl nespēju pārstāt domāt par viņas skanīgo balsi, par acīm, kas skatījās uz mani, nevis kaut kur tukšumā. Reiz apgūlos gultā, iekārtoju Linnas rokas uz savām kailajām krūtīm un iedomājos, cik mīkstas un siltas būtu Marijas plaukstas, Linna tādas varētu iegūt tikai mikroviļņu krāsnī. Es spiedu Linnu pie krūtīm un centos iztēloties, ka tā ir Marija, bet Linna apvainojās un sastinga vēl vairāk, un kļuva vēl aukstāka, un man nācās celties un nosēdināt viņu krēslā istabas otrā pusē.

Taču nākamajā dienā es atkal redzēju Mariju, kura man uzsmaidīja un vēlreiz atsita gurnu pret mana galda stūri. Alkas pēc viņas lika man slāpt pēc pieskārieniem un tuvības vairāk nekā jebkad agrāk, un pēc darba es atgriezos pie Linnas. Es dusmojos uz Linnu, ka nespēju iedomāties Mariju viņas vietā, ka viņai nav sava siltuma, ka viņa ir tik kaitinoši klusa un nekustīga un vienaldzīgi piekrīt visam, ko es saku un gribu. Un tomēr es pieskāros viņai, izmantoju viņu teju ar ļaunu prieku par to, ka viņa nespēj pretoties. Vienu reizi man šķita, ka Linnas acīs parādās izteiksme – pārmetums par to, ka manās domās tagad dzīvo kāda cita.

Tā es mocījos, iztēlē mētādamies no vienas sievietes pie otras. Būdams darbā un sarunādamies ar Mariju, es dažreiz ilgojos pēc Linnas, jo ar viņu tomēr bija viegli, man nenācās sarkt, pīties vārdos un drudžaini satraukties, ko viņa padomās un darīs. Kad arvien biežāk notvēru Marijas skatienu, uz mirkli pagriezdamies pret viņas darbagaldu ieslīpi aizmugurē, man pietrūka Linnas tukšo, nekritisko, nepētīgo acu. Reiz kādā piektdienā Marija uzaicināja mani kopā ēst pusdienas, un to laikā cerīgi apvaicājās par maniem nedēļas nogales plāniem, un es nobijies uzreiz izmetu, ka atpūtīšos mājās kopā ar savu draudzeni. Marija nolaida skatienu klēpī, pēc tam arī es, un todien mēs vairs nerunājām.

            Kad dzīvoklī mani kārtējo reizi sagaidīja mēmā, aukstā Linna, es, protams, rūgti nožēloju pateikto. Linna tikai sēdēja klusi izsmējīga, un es sažņaudzu rokas dūrēs, lai nesatvertu viņu un netriektu pret sienu. Bet nespēju nodarīt pāri sievietei, pat plastmasas sievietei ne. Tajā nedēļas nogalē Linnai vispār nepieskāros.

            Marija turpmāk vairs neaicināja mani pusdienās, un arvien retāk uzskrēja manam rakstāmgaldam. Kad viņa attālinājās, mana apsēstība ar viņu tikai auga. Vienreiz pats saņēmos uzaicināt viņu kopā pusdienot, bet viņa tikai kautrīgi nosmaidīja un atteica, ka torīt paēdusi pārāk sātīgas brokastis. Citās dienās, kad ļoti ieinteresēti uzmācos Marijai ar jautājumiem par biroja papīra un kafijas krājumiem, Marija atbildēja laipni, tomēr lietišķi.

            Viss beidzās – vai var teikt, beidzot sākās – tajā vakarā, kad birojā svinējām priekšnieka dzimšanas dienu. Dažus dzērienus boss visiem uzsauca, un pēcāk vairāki kolēģi devās uz bāru, starp tiem arī es un Marija. Es savas saspringtās smadzenes dāsni mērcēju alū, ievēroju, ka arī Marija dzer vairāk nekā es būtu iedomājies viņu spējīgu. Kad citi jau posās mājup, pierunāju Mariju palikt uz vēl vienu glāzi. Viņa vilcinājās, tāpēc es uzreiz pasūtīju divas rumkolas, lai aiziet kļūtu nepieklājīgi. Un tad, kad mēs apsēdāmies pie stūra galdiņa divatā, man sabruka visi aizsargmūri; es Marijai sacīju, ka patiesībā mana tā sauktā draudzene ir nedzīva un pa pusei izdomāta un ka man ļoti patīk Marija, bet biedē tas, cik viņa dzīva un īsta. Marija nesaprata, par ko runāju, bet es baidījos paskaidrot līdz galam. Pasūtīju vēl divus dzērienus un tad izstāstīju viņai par to, cik grūti man bērnībā bija apskaut māti, un par to, kā es nezināju, ko sacīt un kur likt rokas, esot kopā ar Grētu un visām citām sievietēm, kas man jebkad patikušas. Marija saprotoši māja ar galvu. Mēs iztukšojām vēl pa glāzei, un līdz ar pēdējo malku man izdevās saņemt drosmi un mazliet par skaļu Marijai lūgt, lai ļauj man kaut ko parādīt savās mājās. Sacīju un cerēju, ka Marija līdz galam sapratīs tikai tad, kad būs redzējusi savām acīm. Mana dedzība, alkohols, atklājums, ka Marija dzīvo netālu – kaut kas no tā viņu pārliecināja.

Kad mēs ienācām manā dzīvoklī, Linna sēdēja guļamistabā – paldies Dievam, klubkrēslā, nevis gultā. Es iedomājos, cik apkaunojoši būtu bijis, ja viņa kaila vāļātos manā nesaklātajā gultā, un nervozi iesmējos. Bet smiekli apdzisa, kad ievēroju Marijas nopietno seju, kura vērsās te pret bezkaislīgo Linnu, te pret mani. Gaidīju, ka viņa nosauks mani par nožēlojamu izvirtuli vai ko tamlīdzīgu un steigsies uz ārdurvīm, bet tad arī Marija sāka smieties. Skaļi, dzīvi, īsti smieties. Un šie smiekli, kaut arī patīkamākā skaņa, ko jebkad esmu dzirdējis, mazliet biedēja mani, tāpat kā Marijas pieredzējušās, glāstošās rokas, kad viņa man tuvojās, dzērumā aizmirsusi kautrību. Bet tad es uzmetu vēl vienu skatienu Linnai un atcerējos, kā, būdams ar viņu, biju centies iztēloties Mariju. Tas man neizdevās, un tomēr es biju pieskāries Linnai visos tajos veidos, kādos gribēju pieskarties īstai sievietei. Un tagad es rīkojos pretēji: atsaucu atmiņā visus ar Linnu pavadītos brīžus un pieskāros Marijai tāpat, kā tiku to darījis ar Linnu. Liku plaukstas visās tajās pašās vietās, sākot ar matiem, virzoties uz augšdelmiem, vidukli, kājām. Un arī Marija ļāvās, viņa atbildēja maniem pieskārieniem līdzīgi, kā biju iztēlojies Linnu atbildam: izbrauca ar pirkstiem caur matiem, apskāva kaklu, aizskāra krūtis. Kādā brīdī ievēroju, ka Linnas seja ir pavērsta pret mums, gribēju viņai uzmest kādu apģērba gabalu, bet tad atcerējos, ka viņa taču ir tikai lelle, viņa neko neredz.

Tomēr, kad Linnas vietu manā dzīvē aizņēma Marija un mēs sākām dzīvot kopā, no lelles neatsacījāmies. Marija iemācījās ar viņu sadzīvot. Dažreiz mēs trijatā gatavojam makaronus ar čedaras sieru un pekanriekstiem un pēc tam skatāmies “Troņu spēles”. Reizēm Marija strīdas pretī un saka, ka labāk grib pasūtīt picu un skatīties “Seksu un lielpilsētu”, un šādās reizēs es mēdzu pārdomāt ar Linnu pavadīto laiku, paslepus ielikt viņas plaukstu savējā un pasmaidīt par to, cik tā pakļāvīga, tomēr mākslīga, auksta un nevarīga.

            Tikai tad, kad nāk ciemiņi, mēs Linnu noslēpjam skapī. Viņi nesaprastu.

from the February 2018 issue

“Forgetting” & “Home”

Aizmiršana and Mājas


Listen to Arvis Viguls read his poem "Forgetting" in the original Latvian

The pawn shop, where we sold your rings,
was shuttered.
The silver spoons that you got for your baptism
have disappeared.

Oblivion smells like ammonia.
We scattered salt on the floor
and our memories
and poured chlorine—on our history.

We buried you so deep,
but you
still come to us in our dreams
and don’t say a word.


The key jiggles in the door.
The dinner table is splitting in half
like a sinking ship out of a film.
With Mom on one side, the other—Dad.

Each one holds on for dear life
to the plate in front of them.
No, that’s not a life preserver.

The chandelier glows in all its brilliance
between the room’s Scylla and Charybdis.

They have put on their best clothes,
leaving their life vests in the closet.
No one gets up from the table
until their plate is empty.

The telephone rings.
The Christmas tree decorations
have scattered on the floor.

A family—
they talk about everything else but that at the table
but then the glass balls break beneath their steps
and cut their feet
as they go toward one another—
right through the pain.

It’s the shortest path.

"Aizmiršana" and "Mājas" © Arvis Viguls. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.

Aizmiršana and Mājas


Lombardu, kurā atdevām tavus gredzenus,
Sudraba karotītes, ko tev dāvināja kristībās,
ir pazudušas.

Aizmirstība smaržo pēc dezinfekcijas līdzekļa.
Mēs nobārstījām grīdas un savu atmiņu
ar sāli,
tavu vēsturi — ar hloru.

Mēs tik dziļi tevi aprakām,
bet tu
joprojām nāc pie mums sapņos
un pat nesaki ne vārda.



Atslēga skrapst durvīs.
Vakariņu galds lūst uz pusēm
kā grimstošais kuģis no filmas.
Vienā galā māte, otrā — tēvs.

Ikviens iekrampējas ar skatienu
šķīvī savā priekšā.
Nē, tas nav glābšanas riņķis.

Lustra mirdz visā spožumā
starp telpas Haribdu un Skillu.

Viņi uzvilkuši savas labākās drēbes,
glābšanas vestes palika skapī.

Kuģis grimst,
bet neviens necelsies no galda,
līdz šķīvis nebūs tukšs.

Telefona zvans.
Ziemassvētku eglītes rotājumi
izripojuši pa grīdu.
Ģimene —
pie galda viņi runā aplinkus,
bet stikla bumbas plīst zem viņu soļiem
un griež pēdas,
kad viņi iet viens otram pretī
tieši caur sāpēm.

Tas ir vistaisnākais ceļš.


from the February 2018 issue

It’s Cold and It’s Getting So Dark

Listen to It's Cold and It's Getting So Dark, produced by Play for Voices.

(Musical sounds are heard. As if someone were practicing the trumpet. Then a long pause. And the narration begins.)

SPEAKER 1: She wore a gentleman’s hat and with a trumpet in her hand directed a music that was audible only to her. At last you arrived on time. For once in my lifetime. Then she resumed singing, listening attentively to her inner music. She sang without words, syllables whose meanings only she could understand. Her eyes yearned for that which could not be seen.

Until a shimmer of color returned to her skin. Of the color of the earth. Of the wilted fields in winter. Her brow was damp. And beads of sweat streamed from her skin. They rushed down her face. Her voice was like the trace of a knife. Scratchy and thin, it slipped into my ears.

She didn’t want chocolate. She wanted beer instead. Flensburger, she said. Bring me a Flensburger. I didn’t know how important this Flensburger was to her. I went through a lot of trouble to find it. I don’t know anything about beer. I put everything off to the last minute. I didn’t buy it until shortly before I got there. She told me: Be on time. I still have a lot of things to take care of. My life is not terribly varied. But still, I do have to plan it properly.

I didn’t know if I could manage both. To get the Flensburger and to be on time. It seemed as though I had to choose one of the two. But then I got lucky. As if by accident, I managed both.

She set the trumpet down and looked at the clock and laughed as I came in. For once in my life. For once in my life, she said, you made it. You are too punctual!

I had no idea what time it really was. My perception of time had left me in the lurch. On the way to her place, I began to hurry and was out of breath. And if there’s anything I’m really incapable of it’s hurrying.

For once in my life. In my life, she said. I had thought I was late and I became furious. Furious at her, because she had demanded something that put a great deal of strain on me. To be punctual. I was furious at myself. And unhappy at the fact that I interpreted her wish as a demand. To be punctual goes against my subconscious.

I brought you chocolate. Your favorite chocolate, I said. But she made a gesture. Raised her hand, rested it on her breast and pushed it away. She pushed thought away from her. And I watched the tiny chocolates, filled with sweet alcohol and cherries, fade away. Disappear from the view. From her view.

Flensburger, she said to me. I had already unpacked it and was looking for a glass.

The air on the table stood still. It had the consistency of plastic. The air was colored gray. Or was it the table itself that had this wretched color?

The legs of the table upheld an empty surface. As if the sole purpose of a table were to support this emptiness. All of the stains, the breadcrumbs, the food remains were forgotten. A table without a memory. A table that had forgotten its purpose for being. And now she had to sit at such a table.

I can’t sit up any more, she said. I can only lie in bed. Suddenly she seemed to be exhausted. And with her eyes she pointed at this slightly raised surface close to her bed. First she fixed her gaze on the gray table. As soon as I followed the gaze, it slid over the room onto a small lackluster curve by the night table, and then it grew blurry. Lost. Like a piece of ice in a lake. And deep inside it one saw:


SPEAKER 2: He had gotten me the shoes. These shoes that I wished for. Back then I wished for stiletto heels. He had gotten them from his mother’s closet. You can have them, he said. Anyway, she won’t even notice they’re missing. She has too many of them. And when I one day earn money myself, I’ll buy you much nicer ones. I didn’t kiss him as he had hoped. His name was Franz, the same name my father had. And he already went to school. And I thought: one day when I’m old enough, he’ll be the one to get my kiss. It will be for always and forever. I hid the shoes in the barn.

Mother had discovered the shoes and we both got a beating. These shoes only brought bad luck.


SPEAKER 1: A glass of water reflected the pattern of the reddish brown saucer on the night table. And the pane of glass on the night table mirrored a timeless figure. I looked into this mirror. And saw the filtered view of a being that could only be Deborah. Deborah, the way she had always been. And the way she would remain. She grabbed hold of her walking stick and directed its silver tip, shaped like the head of a duck, toward a bottle. Pour me a little, please. The bottle stood next to the water glass and was filled with a reddish juice. A vitamin bomb, she said. They bombard me with visible and invisible ones. With atomic particles and vitamins. Between all of this stuff I’m taking, who knows if one thing can make up for what the other destroys?

Pour me a little. Not from the red bottle. No, from the dark bottle. That one over there, over to the right, over there, to the right. Slow down, not so much. Stop.

She wanted to have the glass next to the red bottle. And she wanted to have the red bottle next to the dark one. Not to the left. Not any closer. No. Also not any farther. And she wanted the pills right next to those. And the slice of crisp bread. For when the acids in her stomach would start to sting. She also wanted to have the beer close by. The Flensburger. Everything within reach.


SPEAKER 2: I still can’t stand beer. Father always smells like beer when I think of him. The memory smells like beer. I sit here in bed and smell father. And I’m repulsed by it.

Thirsty, father said. I am thirsty. Bring me a beer. Bring me a beer from the cellar. I can’t stand this smell. The sweat fermented in his skin and streamed out of his pores, stale and salty. I don’t bring him beer. I bring him water. Before I fill the bottle, I cup my hands under the water like a bowl. Fill the bowl. Fill it with fluid crystals. I sniff this freshness. I slurp it up. New water flows into the bowl. It sprays the stone basin full. It runs over. My feet are wet and so are my shoes. My dress sticks to my legs. I fill the bottles with water and take a drink from it from time to time.

The water shrouds my tongue. It fills my mouth with my own taste. Only when one drinks water can one discover what one tastes like, said Franz, who had the same name as my father. The man I would marry.

Water tastes like happiness. Father does not know this and drinks beer. Nothing in the world has a taste like it. Nothing can top the taste of water. Father does not know this and will never find it out. Because he’s never lived in the city and has never craved fresh water. He always had this well in the cellar and he’d had his fill of water. But one can never drink enough water to be sated. One only learns this when one no longer lives near the well.

I don’t bring him beer. I bring him water. Do you want me to rot, my father shouted at me. Do you want me to drown? Father shouts and throws the bottle against the wall. And he raises his hand and gets like a dragon. A Flensburger is what you have to bring me. That’s what I told you. But we don’t have Flensburger in our Saxon village. That’s right, a Flensburger! Our new gentlemen, our new comrades don’t like its taste!

Water from the well. From the well in our cellar. Our cellar. Our water. Our house. Our country. Sometimes the people from the village would be allowed into our cellar. To drink to their satisfaction. To fill their pitchers. But only when father was not around. Soon you’ll want to have the well that my grandfather discovered. You’ll want to steal his hard work. Soon you’ll want our family well. As national property. You’ll get nothing, you pack of scoundrels. You with your communes.

Mother says, Franz, let the people drink. Let them quench their thirsts. Let them drink to their hearts’ content. Let them have their part. Let’s share with them. Sharing increases the well. And father says, shut your trap, woman. This thirst can’t be quenched with water. And I don’t think much of sharing, anyway. You women always want to share.

I didn’t try a Flensberger until I got to the West. After the fall of the wall. Father was no longer with us. A Flensburger is what you should bring me. He smells like beer. Father. Whenever I remember him.


SPEAKER 1: On her night table lay a broken beer bottle and the smell wafted through the room. Deborah said, I’m not drinking any beer. I’m only smelling it. I’m not smoking any more pipes and no more cigars, either.

But you should smoke one for me. So that I can remember what it felt like.

Deborah wanted to remember everything. This had already started last winter. In the early summer she’d still wanted to travel with me.


SPEAKER 2: I still have to show you my hometown. The well. I want to sit with you on a step in the cellar and wait until the smell of the stew reaches us from the kitchen. To find the place in the cellar where mother keeps the cream. I want to stir the clay pot and spread a layer of cream two fingers thick on warm bread. I want to drink fresh milk. I want to go up the granite steps to follow the smell of the stew and find Mother in the kitchen. Mother, saying to me: you can’t fool me. I know the little kitty that dips into the cream. You have a white moustache.


SPEAKER 1: Everything is still there. The smell of mangel-wurzel is there. The smell of old potatoes. The stink of cows and pig dung, said Deborah. I’ve found it again, said Deborah. I wanted to show you Grandfather’s workshop and the barn, where I let Franz fit the shoe onto my foot and where I danced with him. Franz in his play shorts. With his blond curls.

I wanted to show you the pattern on the door handle. The first door I can remember. The first opening. Doors were always important to me, she said. Her voice was like a shaky veil. Sadness came over her face. Then her mood changed. She suddenly gazed at me with a mischievous look on her face and said: Now you must discover all of this on your own. This is your task. You are not the only one I assign tasks.

Up until the early summer, she had wanted to take me with her on her trip. I had canceled on short notice. I had stood her up. I didn’t know at the time that I would never have the chance again to take a trip with her.

All of a sudden she couldn’t stand the smell of the broken beer bottle on her night table. Pour it out she said. I’ve had enough of it.


SPEAKER 2: The first time I drank a Flensburger was with her. With my love. On the night that changed everything. The night with the wall. I called her right away. She lay in bed. She had sprained her foot and could barely walk. I’ll grab a taxi, she said. But there were no more taxis. Everybody hurried to the gate as fast as they could. Wait for me, my dearest. This time, it will be I who come to you. That way we won’t miss each other. I’m with you, my dearest, I told her, as we embraced each other. And no one will ever be able to keep us apart. I had a hard time believing it, to be allowed to drive through this opening with my Trabi. And no one who would want to shoot at me right after. And the border security just stood around clumsily and didn’t dare to stop us. Everybody hugged, cried and laughed and was ecstatic. And no one knew how the next day would be. And if there would be some terrible awakening.

She packed a couple of Flensburgers with her. It was her favorite beer. I couldn’t stand Flensburgers. But everything was different on this night with her.

She left me. Left me. She said it would strain her to see me every day. With my missing breast. It would strain her to hear my wheezing breath every day. She would feel guilty. My voice. The tumor in my throat. On my vocal chords. And this sound that I make every time I swallow. It unleashed a fear in her. And she couldn’t live with this fear. With this voice that would remind her of death every single day. Of my death. That would remind her of the fact that all of us are mortal. She didn’t want to be reminded of her own death on a daily basis, she wrote when she left me. She didn’t want to be reminded of the grieving she would one day have to experience. When it would get to that point with me.

I got her farewell letter in the hospital. After that I never saw her again. I waited for her the whole time. Waited and waited. My whole life through I waited. For father. For him to return from the war. For him to take me up on his lap. For him to stop drinking beer. I waited for him, who had the same name as father, to bring me back the shoe. And I waited for us to be happy with one another again in spite of everything. For the fall of the wall. For God to help me. To pull me out of the hole. And he did. I couldn’t announce the news on the radio anymore.

I had to strain my vocal chords excessively in order to get through it and to announce to the people the news from all around the world every day. In our country. The news. I felt as though I had a lump of lead in my throat, out of which sticky tentacles grew and numbed my vocal chords. I prayed to I don’t know whom. That he would help me to not have to announce the news anymore. That a miracle would happen. I waited for salvation. My body had liberated me from that. The lump grew wild. It flooded my voice with mold. With a poison. And I could no longer speak. I was relieved. But then came the fall of the wall. And I wanted to live. To conquer the world. To start everything from scratch. The world was born anew and I believed that it would happen to me too.

I wanted to conquer the world with her. With her, the love of my life. I had waited so long for her. And now I am only left waiting for eternity.


SPEAKER 1: Deborah sat in bed, propped up by a pile of pillows. Her skin had gotten translucent. So much so that one could see her cheekbones and her teeth right through it. The skin on her hand had shriveled up. The bones of her fingers were bulging out. Her veins were like hardened strands of blue. Everything about her had gotten small. Only her eye sockets were big. Her eyes were bursting out of them. Alert, oversized marbles. The head itself seemed to have gotten smaller. And on her head she wore this gentleman’s hat. She was small and her head was big. With time the hats got ever smaller and the cigarettes became cigars. Now her body had shrunk like laundry.

From hospital stay to hospital stay she grew smaller and smaller.

Her eyes were getting lighter and lighter. Bigger, brighter. They sucked in the world. As if she wanted to take everything with her. As if she wanted to store everything in her retinas. They were oversized marbles. Bigger. Wider. It looked as though only her eyes wanted to remain. Alert, oversized marbles. Underneath the covers, her legs were impatient.

Her impatience reminded me of my mother. Her intemperate way when I didn’t immediately pick up on what she wanted from me.

That ended with a slap on my face.

I know, I am unbearable, said Deborah.

You are not unbearable. You are only tired.

She was tired from the daily swallowing. And elimination. And from the daily stepping on the same place. From walking and never getting anywhere. One must live in harmony with one’s body. I grasped this too late, she said. My body. I always treated it as my rebellious subordinate. My body and I, we were enemies. I fight with my body on a daily basis. I still believed this up until the summer. I want what it wants. And it wants for me to want no more. One day we must come to an understanding.

She started to get restless. The trumpet. Give me the trumpet. I want to play the trumpet one more time.

Today I had myself rubbed with ointment, she said to me. She let the trumpet fall onto the bed. It didn’t emit any sound. Only a croak. A grind. A scratch of a wound in her own skin.

One day we will have to come to an understanding. My body and I. We’ve agreed on a couple of more days still. One day the time will come when one has to give up. Simply stop. And accept everything. She said. I would like to be a tree. A tree in the wind. That only falls over when it is felled. Now I’m like a crawling bush. A dry juniper.

Are you afraid, I asked her.

The crutches leaned on the bed next to her walking stick. She wanted to have that too. Because it was beautiful. And the crutches, she thought, were so unaesthetic. On the wall hang the other walking sticks. She wanted to look at them all. She wanted to bid them farewell.

I grabbed hold of the crutches. I wanted to help her. My hands were shaking and I dropped them. Just accept it, Deborah said. No one can help me. I have to die on my own.

Are you afraid?

The room was full of books. All of this I won’t read anymore. One doesn’t need to read everything in order to grasp what it’s about. One reads only until one manages to grasp it. Once that has happened, one looks out the window and stares into space.

It took forever for her to grab hold of her crutches. I can still do this myself, she said. And tapped me on the hand whenever I tried to help her. Getting to the bathroom felt like a trip around the world.

I stayed alone in the room with my fear and shuttled back and forth from the chair to the bathroom door. And back to the chair. And sometimes I’d sit back down and swing one leg over the other. Make yourself comfortable, she said from the bathroom. It’s going to take a while. I was afraid. And I asked myself what this fear was about. And if it was that I was afraid that she could die. At this very instant. In the bathroom. And I couldn’t catch her. She could slide right into death. And she would disappear. Completely disappear. And no one would be with her.

Don’t be so tense, she whispered to me. It was a loud whisper, a scream filtered through the layers of tiles. As if it had been sieved of the unessential. Of the unimportant. And as if only the essence of the scream had remained. Its force could not be measured by its volume but by its pain and the exertion that one surmised was behind it.

I was alone and listened attentively. It was dark in the room. She whispered once more from the bathroom: Open the closet, that way you won’t get bored. I have something for you! She didn’t let me turn on the light. You don’t need any light. There’s enough light there. Look inside.

(Music: Valse triste by Sybelius)


SPEAKER 2: The ballroom was overcrowded when I came in. It was my first ball since the Wall came down. It was the first ball in my life. Life no longer seemed to rush past me. I was immersed in its flow and I flowed with it. I had no time to stand still. We were invited by the president of the Federal Republic. And try to imagine somebody who was just as wide as she was tall. And round. That was me. The fall of the wall found me this way. And since I had no wish to hear any more advice on how to lose weight, I designed this dress.

Imagine somebody who was as tall as she was wide. And who rolled into the ballroom on the arm of a very young prince. It was a real prince that I chose for myself. It was a real ball. On the following day it read in the tabloids:

Edmund Prince of T. and T. accompanied the journalist D. to the presidential ball. She wore a red silken Rococo gown. A dress that bore a string of lights. The president of the Federal Republic greeted her among his guests. The prince and the journalist bowed before the president and she pressed a hidden button and her whole dress lit up. She did this every time she was introduced to someone. They were both in very good spirits and danced until the wee hours of the night. And the dress lit up countless times. It seemed as though the journalist had spare batteries on her. Or was it possible that she wore a dynamo underneath the dress? It shone brighter and brighter as she danced.

Even the president of the Federal Republic asked the journalist to dance a waltz with him and the photographers snapped pictures.

(Music escalates from a waltz to something quicker. And ceases. Or it slows down until it becomes quiet.)


SPEAKER 1: She came out of the bathroom with the hat on her head. A man’s hat. She seemed to discover me all over again and removed her hat to greet me. Her wilted hair clung to her head. She set the hat on her night table.


SPEAKER 2: What else can I do for you, my lady? Don’t look at me that way. It isn’t such a bad thing to go through the gate.

I’ve been in front of the garden gate so many times before. In front of the hedges. I stuck my finger and felt the thorn. Pull it out for me, I told my mother back then. But Mother was blind. Mother was deaf. Mother was not there. Pull it out for me, I yelled at the young Franz. But he’d already been long gone. He’d disappeared. He took the shoe back and gave it to somebody else. Never mind that one should never take back a gift. And that it didn’t even fit the other girl’s foot. Her big toe was too long. One toe-length too long. It lay in a package one day in my mailbox. I wasn’t happy about it. And I threw away the toe. Threw it to the cat.

Her foot didn’t fit the shoe. And in the end everyone sang: Oh yay, oh yay. The queen has no toe. O yay. Hurrah!


SPEAKER 1: Come. Why the long face? I’m doing my best to try and get you to laugh. I want to make it easier for you, she told me.

Today I’m going to get up for the last time, she said. From now on, I’m only going to sit. Until everybody is here and I will have taken leave from them. I’ve planned everything. Down to the last detail. I don’t have much time left.

Therefore, everybody must arrive on time. And no one may show up unannounced.

Tell me something about the children. She said. About your son. He’s probably a full-fledged man by now. Does he help out enough? Tell him, otherwise I’ll come to him as a ghost and lay him one on the ears.

Are you afraid, I asked her. What should I be afraid of? She said. I have made a truce with my body. And since then, I’m not afraid anymore.

It’s cold here and it’s getting so dark.

They told me, it’s supposed to be fun up there. Soon it’ll be Christmas. And whoever dies at Christmas, she said, goes straight to heaven. And white lilies bloom up there and it rains roses and jasmines. The ground is full of moss. I’m going to sit on the bench and play the trumpet. The cat will rub against my leg and lie in the grass. I’m going to sit on the bench and breathe in the air. And have time. And think of everything and everybody. And think about how I’m going to do things when I start fresh. I will play the trumpet and never wait for anything again. Because everything will have already happened. And everybody will already be with me. I know what awaits me. Just a couple of more days. But I still have a lot more to do until then. I still have to take care of so many things. Father smells like Flensburger. But I’m not mad at him for that anymore. And to the one who has the same name as father, I’ll gladly leave the shoe.

She should be able to get up a couple of more days still. Up until the end she should still be able to do that. I’m adamant about that she said. At least to be able to sit up. Then she fell asleep. With her mouth slightly open she snored lightly. I took her hand. She was like a breath. The weight of the world had vanished from her. Like a swan feather, she lay in my hand. I laid her on the bed. Everything felt so light. The fear was dispersed. A light flowed out of her, it flowed through the room. It lay over my fear. And painted it gold.

Shortly thereafter she woke up and smiled at me. Go, she said to me. There’s nothing left to say.

On the threshold of the door, I turned around one last time. I was on time. She saved an hour of strength for each one of us. For each one of us, a gift. A memory that we should take with us. I’m laden with my memories. I’ve already been to the garden gate many a time. In front of the hedges. Now I have no more fear. Now, everything is white and flowy. Go. There is nothing more to say.

Before I leave the room, at the threshold I turn around to look at her again. She laughs at me and says. Go now. Then she signals me with her hand and goes into the garden. The door is open. She has a trumpet in her hand. And she waves at me with the others. Then she disappears through an arch of roses.

(Wild waltz music playing in a frenzied crescendo. Then the music ceases to be heard and sudden bursts of freewheeling bands are heard. Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius.)



For production credits, an interview with the author, and more information about Play for Voicesvisit the Play for Voices website.

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