08. 01. 2018. 11:01

Edina Szvoren: The Country's Leading Executioner

translated by Barney Bardsley with Krisztina Levine

My husband and I both hope that our neighbours were satisfied with us, and that there will be another opportunity to spend a few hours with the baby. Perhaps they will go to the theatre, or maybe visit their relatives. – We are pleased to bring you a short story from Edina Szvoren, translated by Barney Bardsley with Krisztina Levine.

A CHILD has been born to the couple living next door: a little devil’s spawn, with rolls of puppy fat, and the round face of a parish priest. The wife has kept house for years, the husband is a hangman – since they introduced the death penalty, he is apparently the country’s leading executioner. The husband has called in a locksmith, to strengthen the locks on the door, and to fit some artistic and graceful curls in the bars over the bottom third of the mezzanine windows and you know, this is natural, if a person suddenly wakes up to the fact that there is something that needs to be protected . We ourselves cannot have children, and so this sort of worry makes us jealous.

We rarely see our neighbours. Maybe my husband is a little bit ashamed, too, that we hold them in such high regard: their straightforward happiness, their modesty. The one problem in their carefree lives is, that in their one and a half bedroom flat, they cannot accommodate the wife’s childhood friends, who are stuck out in the sticks. Usually we greet our neighbours from the balcony, when we are sitting, after work, in the deckchairs still stained with my late mother’s suncream. The man can often be seen, leaning against the balcony rail in his velvet cord dressing gown, and studying - with his binoculars - the behaviour of the crows that nest in the park. In his notebook, he writes down his observations. Once he showed us the note he had made, on the very day of their baby’s conception. He presented the notebook across the balcony rail, and putting our heads together, humming and hawing, we read out the three lines of writing, framed with felt tip. We were moved: the crows, too, built their nests that day. We knew that this was one of the most sublime moments of our lives.

From time to time, the little parish priest, the devil’s spawn, cries out. If I glue my ear to our living room wall, I can even hear the lady’s encouraging coos. Sometimes I beckon my husband to stand beside me. This wall is ice cold, he says on these occasions, and I lay my warm palm on his face. Anyway, I have forgotten what it was that he said the other day was God’s retribution. My husband is the only one of my acquaintances who believes in heaven and hell – and he cannot get it into his head, why I call the neighbour’s child a spawn of the devil.

The man has more free time, since his position at work has changed. His personality has ripened, filled out: his characteristic and steadfast calm has transferred itself onto the house – such as the trees in the courtyard, and the squirrel wheel, erected in the front garden. And, as with the house, so with us, too. As if he were older than all of us. It makes us feel secure, that he has taken on the task of supervising our housing block. He has started researching the history of the neighbourhood, and in the afternoons he does a bit of carpentry in the cellar: a wooden console for a bookshelf, a roof over the dustbins, even a bird feeder. He doesn’t want any money for it, nor does he show off about being helpful. Recently, standing on the balcony, he said to us that he would like it if not just crows lived in the branches, but rare songbirds, capable of mimicking the noise of a car alarm, or a baby’s crying, in a lifelike way. I hope with all my heart that his wish comes true.

Sometimes our neighbours bring the baby out into the stairwell and let me hold him. My husband feigns concern all the while, putting his arms around the baby. Our neighbours are tactful people, they don’t ask which one of us can’t have children, and they encourage us to try bio resonance therapy. As if they couldn’t see that the time for that has already slipped away. My husband once blabbed that I am always loitering by the adjoining wall, and am moved if I hear the baby crying. Then I said to the neighbours: it’s not being emotional. I just wish that somebody – not necessarily them, nor me – would pick the baby up. I feel it’s more important than anything that the baby be comforted. I thrust my hands in my pockets, meanwhile, so our neighbours didn’t notice: I am biting my nails again.

The hangman’s knowledge of human nature is incredible. Sometimes I get the impression that he sees through everything, both alive and dead. According to him, this ability grew in him when he worked double shifts as a prison cell and corridor supervisor, before the death penalty was introduced; me, on the other hand, I think that - where this kind of work is concerned - exactly the sort of knowledge of people, which comes inborn, or which matures in you early, is what makes someone suited to it. In the final moments, says the man, for example, we are all the same. Terror loosens the sphincter muscles in the rectum and we mess our pants. I am shocked that he uses the first-person plural - including me and my husband with those who are condemned to death. And what’s most strange: him too.  When it comes to decluttering, we are constantly forced to feel ashamed in front of our neighbours. Whilst they, in thick gardening gloves, carry things out to the front of the house that are in spotless condition – for the most part, children’s toys which may be appealing but are damaging to their intellectual development, and which the wife’s country bumpkin friends inundate them with, year after year – we lug my mother’s furniture, radiating a smell of the deceased, out onto the street bit by bit, with a bad conscience. Every year just a little; as if we need to conceal something of her death. We had long ago thrown out the rug, worn out by the base of the portable toilet, but the armchair, that my mother was almost obsessively attached to, and whose upholstery is worn out in many places, could only be dealt with at the next clearing out. Our neighbours couldn’t have known my mother, because they moved into the house the year she died, when she had already been bedridden for months. In order to show some respect for the executioner’s intellect, as I stand over the pieces of junk, I try to call to mind – and apply to my mother – what the man said recently about people’s final moments, and their uniform natures, but I soon get confused, and all the components of the executioner’s trenchant, well-rounded, tough expressions, roll apart in my jaw. The man pulls off his gardening gloves, throws them onto the rubbish, and then in an overdue gesture of condolence, strokes my shoulder. This kind of rubbish clearance is an excellent opportunity, he says, for us to weigh things up, and compare the times before the death penalty with the present day.

When our neighbours had theatre tickets for the operetta, they entrusted us with the baby. I hardly knew how to disguise my happiness. The wife, dressed up in a trouser suit, full make up, and fire-red high heeled shoes, brought over her devilish morsel. We were given nappies, toys, barrier cream, and two different flavours of baby food – which happened to be the ones we used to feed to my late mother in the weeks before her death. The baby had a four-armed toy, in which musical planets, sprinkled with coloured glitter, orbited when you spun its arms round. It said on it, in English, that it was the Milky Way. My husband worked himself into a sweat, looking for a place for it in our living room, while the wife wrote a few instructions on a piece of paper. When the door shut behind her, I said to my husband : we have been left with an eight month old baby. We laid him on the carpet and surrounded him with our green, gold braided cushions, so that he wouldn’t crawl away. Have we earned this? I asked, snuggling into my husband. Yes, he replied. Life can’t just consist of hardship. We positioned the angle poise lamp, to which my husband had already fastened the Milky Way with cable ties, above the baby. When we spun the toy, the planets began to orbit, flickering and ringing, and the baby flung his arms about enthusiastically. The baby is too warm, I said, and I peeled off his little bee sleepsuit. His hair was soft and blonde, like the silky fronds on the top of an ear of corn. The grapes on his feet were all in a row – I squeezed them and kissed all ten. His ear was like a freshly opened bud. When the little baby tried to sit up, the folds of puppy fat piled up in the crook of his arms; when he fell back, little bubbles formed on the tip of his tongue. I gently massaged his limbs, and my husband dashed off to hunt for the camera. He wanted me to unbutton my blouse, and behave as if he were really ours: as if I were breastfeeding the baby. We almost fell out over this tasteless idea – finally my husband understood, that only in a buttoned up blouse could I be immortalised with our baby. Anyway, whilst the musical planets were rotating, the coloured glitter came loose, and trickled onto the head of the little vicar’s fledgling. We didn’t quite succeed in going through his hair with a fine-tooth comb, so that when our neighbours arrived back from the operetta, they would find everything in order. I put the little bee sleepsuit back on the baby, and my husband, with a snip, cut the toy’s cable tie.

It was almost inconceivable that someone would be granted the chance to be in the presence of something so monumental, day after day. For example, there was the mother, whom barely a few in the block remember, and who, many, many years ago, threw a switched-on hairdryer at her twins in a bath full of water.  She got sentenced to life, because the death penalty didn’t yet exist. When it transpired, that for years this mother was imprisoned in one of the cells that our neighbour supervised, I could hardly sleep from excitement. I planned to interrogate the man. I had to understand why, although the executioner knew how to speak, nicely and wisely, about these kind of women detainees in the female block, he chose never to speak about the hairdryer woman in the presence of his wife, after their baby was born. When, in vain, I pronounced, readily and out loud, that the hairdryer woman and I – but perhaps every woman: maybe even those, who, like me, didn’t have any children – anyway, we were all equal in the final instance, both those condemned to death and those guarding them, the man just looked into the distance in a dignified manner, or wiped the lens of his binoculars with a buckskin cloth. It was close to a miracle that the proximity of these criminals didn’t scorch him, and he always knew what was correct.

My husband and I both hope that our neighbours were satisfied with us, and that there will be another opportunity to spend a few hours with the baby. Perhaps they will go to the theatre, or maybe visit their relatives. Until then, I hold in my hands the restrained photo that we took when we were looking after the child, and I press my ear to the living room wall. I hear the baby crying out when it’s teething. I hear when it sneezes. I hear when the hangman hisses irritably because just before setting out, the baby has regurgitated its milk onto his indigo blue uniform, cleaned in the state laundry. I hear when they tip out the baby’s toys in front of him, or when the shape of the curtain, puffing up from a gust of wind, terrifies him, and he yells out - just as my mother also cried out, back in the day, when she had lost both her memory and her sense of security. I hear when the man saws the railing to size to strengthen the balcony rails, so that the building blocks, designed so that they are impossible to swallow, do not fall down into the garden. Even if he now vows to stay – uneasily I think of the day, when the country’s leading executioner gets a pay rise and when, sooner or later, he’ll have had enough of the one and a half roomed mezzanine flat, where it is impossible to put up his wife’s country bumpkin friends. And if what I fear does happen, and our neighbours move out of here, then nothing will remain of our devil’s fledgling, only this blurry snapshot, hastily taken, in which my blouse is buttoned up to my neck –  except a life without borders and quality, in which it is as if the death penalty never existed.


Originally in Hungarian: Az ország legjobb hóhéra (Magvető, 2015)

Translated by Barney Bardsley with Krisztina Levine


Previously on HLO:
"Let a commonplace be called a rite" – A review of Edina Szvoren's On Intimate Terms by János Szegő
Up to our chins – A review of Edina Szvoren's The Best Executioner in the Land by Sara Zorandy