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