10. 30. 2006. 16:13

Jadviga's Pillow (excerpt from the novel)

Pál Závada

One of the Hungarian literary sensations of the last decade, Jadviga's Pillow (1997) was an oddity in Hungary, being both a critical and a public success. The novel, portraying life in a Slovak village in Hungary between the two world wars, was recently published in German under the title Das Kissen der Jadviga.

Zachinam tuto knyizhechku. (1) I, András Osztatní, am starting this little note book on the 5th day of the month of February, 1915, just one day before my wedding.

Restless and fired with anticipation, sleep escapes me, and so I will now take out my note book, which I bought at Binder’s for the sum of one crown 40. (The minute I laid eyes on it, I was taken with the soft lilac lines on the sheets, and the indigo-colored cloth binding, and I made up my mind to use it for my Diary as soon as I could call myself a married man). The clock has just struck midnight, and so I can now record that today, it being the 6th day of the month of February, 1915, I will lead Mária Jadviga Palkovits to the altar as my newly wedded bride.

Dyakovaty pana Bohu, (2) may the Good Lord be praised that I have lived to see this day.


The first time I approached Mother, resolved if weak in the knees, after she heard me out she turned as red as pickled beet, and while her komondor growled menacingly she advanced, huffing and puffing, backing me up against the wall.  “Cho?, zhse koho?, chsooo?” she repeated, first choking with rage, then screaming and yelling so hard, the windowpanes trembled, What’s this? Who would I marry? And also, that you will study, not marry, understand?! Though she was never one to curb her tongue, I have never seen her quite so incoherent with rage. We were practically at fisticuffs when the dog growled at me again, so I thought better of it and fled to the kitchen, and Mother slammed the door.

We didn’t speak to each other for two weeks, but then I couldn’t take it any more, and one night I said to her, “Let’s talk it over...” She stopped me with a wave of the hand and snapped, “Chobi vas chert zobrav, tak si ju veznyi,” i.e., what does she care? (3) I was surprised that she had changed her mind like this, and elated, too, though she quickly added, “Considering how blind and deaf you are, she’s got you over a barrel, son.” (“You let her lead you by the nose, son, didn’t you?”) And that I don’t even care about the difference in our ages, and that her smell has made me lose what little sound sense I may have once possessed. (To tell the truth, Mamovka used the word smrad which, as we know, means stink, because she’s not used to Jadviga’s lotions and perfumes. As far as I’m concerned, they make my head spin. Once on the way back from visiting her, I stopped in Vienna and bought some of the camphor ointment she uses, and I kept sniffing at it, sometimes until my head reeled, which is how it was until I could see her again many months later.)  

I wasn’t offended by Mother’s gruff manner though; I would have liked to hug her and thank her, but she rebuffed me, saying I should let her good enough alone. Still, I was happy, though once again it was no thanks to me that Mamovka changed her mind in my favor. In this manner was the rosemary fragrance of our love born from the noxious brimstone fumes of Mother’s curses and the camphor scent of my true intended.


The truth is, she is infinitely more sour and forbidding since the loss of her daughter, for now it is but the two of us; my older sister Zsofka, who was a bride to be, we buried just four months before Apovka’s death, in October, 1913, our poor unplucked lily-flower. She was the apple of Mamovka’s eye, the daughter on whom she bestowed her name, and in whom she saw her former maiden self. It was for her she had planned a grand wedding like this, I know that, and not for me. And when my time would come, she thought, it would certainly be with somebody else.

She wanted me to marry the girl who was Zsofka’s constant companion, and whom I would not offend for the world by setting down her name, the girl I did not want, whereas she always entertained certain hopes of me.

Incidentally, I saw her again three days ago at the Hromnyice-Day ball, where she danced through the night with my friend Pali Rosza, may the Lord be praised. It was there, at the Mária Day Smallholders’ dance (4) and her Name’s Day, that I first appeared with Jadviga in public, and I was as proud as a peacock with my lovely bride, who was dancing as a maiden for the last time in her life.

This morning, I dashed over to the other house for Jadviga (it was built by Apovka for Zsofka, but now we are going to live in it). “Come along,” I said to her, dragging her across the garden. I then opened the cellar with the big key, and led my wonder-struck bride down the stairs to the oleander wintering in the large cauldron. “Pluck me a spray of rosemary,” I said, “and stick it in my hat!”  We laughed when she did this, and embraced, and then I said, “I had better be off, and so must you, lest someone should see us,” even though it was not somebody else who did not want us to be seen together that day (or even custom, which is not especially strict on this point), but her.
If there was no separate bride’s house and groom’s house, she wanted to be spared for one more day, at least, the ordeal of greeting a hoard of chicken and cake bearing relatives. Besides, she felt a cold coming on and preferred drawing the curtains in the new house and inhaling a brew of herbal teas, and applying her camphorous ointments to fend off an attack of migraine on her big day.  “Also,” she said, “I need time to think, Dear. I’m sure you understand.”
 “Oh,” I said, stroking her, “there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” though I knew perfectly well that Mother wouldn’t leave this, either, without comment. Mamovka Drahá! Mamo, Mother dear! If only the Good Lord would soften her heart!

I have just put that spray of rosemary into my wedding suit pocket (having read the other day in “A Practical Guide” that this is the way), and I also crumbled some between my fingers, because it smells so nice when I raise them to my nostrils. I will also take out the camphor ointment, possibly for the last time, so I can pine for its mistress, who will soon be mine for ever.

For this little note book, and for myself, too (and for myself only), I will first set down how I won my Jadviga’s hand in marriage, so that I may recall it until my dying day. I will write it down starting tomorrow, after I am a married man. Right now I feel very tired.


8 February, 1915
(...) I shall write more about my wedding (which went without a hitch mostly), especially my wedding night, at a later date. (Actually, even though four nights have passed, it hasn’t happened yet, not really, in its natural way, even though we have mutually assured each other of our amorous intentions – gentle stroking, etc. I haven’t slept a wink for days, what with transports of ecstasy and extreme agitation vying for supremacy.)


9 February
I will now set our story down on paper, as promised, from the beginning, though our present situation, and most especially our nights – I would not forget any of it, for the world. (Perhaps it could lead to insight, or serve as a lesson.) But that will come bye and bye.

So then. Having harnessed Zephyr at the crack of dawn, I was soon off the farm, saying I had to give Gregor his orders, whereas it is not Gregor at all who needs ordering, but me, for crying out loud, me, inside.

My Jadviga got up with me, an angelic smile on her face, whereas she couldn’t have slept much either, and she gave me clean linen and ranyaika (5), toasted bread in the stove (old granny Balhov had fired it up by then), and spread duck fat on top. I stealthily pocketed my small note book (I have pen and ink out on the farm), and we parted with a kiss.

I quickly gave Gregor his orders, dispatching him to do the harrowing, though he knows what he has got to do perfectly well, without me having to tell him.  But hold on. Who am I trying to kid? If only this weren’t a Diary! I can’t send Gregor off anywhere, least of all to do the harrowing; I need him to tell me whether it is harrowing that’s on the agenda today, or possibly something else.


The following also happened yesterday. I must note it down, because tripping over that peacock is not all that happened.

The truth is that when, wet as I was, I unharnessed the horse and left the stable with the traces and wet blanket, I couldn’t see a thing. Still, when (after flinging the stuff down angrily by the shed door) I kicked that poor stupid creature with all my might, I suddenly thought: She’s just like this peacock. And also: Get out of my sight! And that my wife is just like you! And with that, I kicked it against the wall. I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. It hawked, shook itself, and strutted away without a backward glance, gently swinging softly to and fro. And that’s not all, because I don’t know why, but as that peacock marched past me, its head held proudfully high, its large tail swaying – is the long-tailed one the hen, or the little grey one, I wonder? – my anger doubled in upon itself and I grabbed the wicker broom and flung it at its chicks. I hit the largest of the three, and as I removed the broom from its fluttering wing as it lay on its side, something came over me and I trampled it to death with my booted foot. The peacock never looked back at its young but I looked around, horrified, lest someone should see me, especially Mamovka, who has been trying, ever since she had sent away for this pair of peacocks years ago, to hatch a rare egg or two; and it is only recently that these three chicks finally came, with a hatcher. I swept the flattened chick into a dustpan, took it round back, and loosening the top of the dung heap with a fork, stashed it under neath. I felt such loathing, I nearly vomited. But the loathing, I knew, was directed at myself.


The 19th of February, 1915, Zsuzsanna Day
(...) I should begin with our wedding night, for in Stralsund, we never progressed beyond kissing, and for a long time, even that meant only the touching of the lips, for she would not let me probe between her pearly teeth with my tongue until the night before we left for home. (Not to mention pressing my face against her breast, over her bodice, or cupping my hand over it; such things were also forbidden.) Here at home, she usually brought up Mamovka as an excuse, saying she might come in at any time. But she never turned me away outright, she just smiled and gently pushed me away, though she was always blushing and hot, her breath quickened, and her hips, too, quivered ever so slightly, with barely perceptible, convulsive little spasms.

We could not escape the wedding feast and retire to our room until very late. The more hardy of our guests, my friends Pali Rosza, Szvetlik and the others, had a grand time of it, and towards dawn had the band play marches only, and kept kicking the wooden floor with their boots so it nearly collapsed under them, but then they persuaded the girls to join them once again, and they danced to Slovak songs. It was at that point that we left. We glanced at each other, and off we went. (I told only Miki Buchbinder, but not Mamovka, who was in the kitchen, out back.)

We ran to the house that from now on would be our new home hand in hand, and the icy air refreshed me. Not wishing to grow drowsy and weak and get a bad stomach, I drank in moderation throughout the night, and though I ate a hearty meal (especially Boszák’s excellent stew), I was able to relieve myself before we sneaked away, and to reduce the painful bloating. (I have often wondered while passing wind at night under the covers – because it’s not like passing water, when you can relieve yourself and be done with it; with wind you must wait patiently for it to happen, not to mention the fact that you can not stay in the john for hours! – in short, I have often asked myself what it would be like with two of us in bed? And would the bloating, which can be excruciatingly painful at times, stand in the way of the body’s labor of love, for with its abdominal excitations, that likewise stimulates the bowels. And will that mean a disillusioning dash for the bathroom? Or what?)

We did not immediately divest ourselves of our clothing (having changed at midnight, she was wearing her “new wife’s dress”), but leaning against the lukewarm stove and each other, too, we talked in whispers about the wedding and how well it had turned out. (However, I had first kicked off my boots and turned the lamp down a bit.) Later, Jadviga slipped out to the dark kitchen and washed herself in the porcelain wash basin. I peeked, and though I could see nothing, she reprimanded me, so I turned up the bed in the meantime. She came back fully dressed, and after I had also rinsed the sweat from under my arms, what’s more (something I normally did only when I took my regular bath), I hastily splashed water on my privates as well and came back to the bedroom, she was sitting on the ottoman as before. I kissed her then, and she suffered it, but I did not feel her arousal as I had done the last time. When I began to fumble with the buttons of her gown, she stayed my hand. Go slowly, she whispered, and that she would rather do it herself, and the other side, that’s yours, Ondrisko. And she pushed me away. She then slipped out of her clothes, I could hear, and then she sat on the side of the bed in her nightgown. I pulled off my trousers, but after some hesitation, leaving my shirt and drawers on, I got in on the other side and touched her.

I leaned over her and embraced her, and since she was still partly sitting up, and me pushing her down, she finally relented. Instantly, this gave me such a hard-on my body went into convulsions. But soothing my more urgent gestures, for her part she asked that we remain still and just lull each other in an embrace. I did not care. Light-headed with her smell, I snuggled up to her, and since this time I was not vehement, she let me. And though I liked this, besides which I am by disposition not a fighter, my palm started slipping up her cheek just the same, then her neck, then her arm, then from below, from the knee, carefully working its way upwards. But she stopped my hand, saying I should move closer instead. Inviting and repulsing me at the same time, I thought, at which I plucked up the courage to lie full length against her right side (she was lying on her back, and me on my left side); cautiously, I laid my throbbing member on her thigh, and – there is no denying it – when she felt this, it made her shiver, and she shied away, but later, as we lay there without moving, she did not object to my lying so close on top of her. Still, though we were kissing passionately, when I tried to raise her gown with my right hand, again she would not suffer it.

And so it went. Kissing and snuggling, breathing ecstatically – that was all right, but finding my way to her lap, that was out. “Let us divest ourselves of our clothes”, I entreated (having first discarded my shirt). After much persuasion, she let me pull her gown up over her head, but she hooked a finger into the hem of her silken drawers, that was out, and she made me promise we’d lie quietly side by side, just the way we were. However, she could not prevent me from divesting myself of my own drawers, and I was in seventh heaven as I snuggled up naked to her thighs (to the extent that the leg of her drawers would allow as it slipped up), and her right breast, too, not to mention the moment when, presently, I could touch the left. I could stroke her everywhere then, except the waist of her drawers, she would not let me touch that, she would not let me near her lap, despite my fevered embraces, and I tried to force her thighs open with my knees to no avail. 

Yet she was highly excited herself, I am sure of that, and not just me. She addressed unforgettable, endearing words to me, as I to her, but she asked me to be patient, & etc., let’s get used to each other first, let’s be satisfied with what we have. But I, such is human nature, could hardly contain myself at this point, and when she felt my breath turning more and more uncontrollably vehement, and me pressing against her thigh with all my might, she grabbed me round the waist, tightened her embrace, and began rocking herself slowly back and forth, and me, too, and she whispered, panting, no, don’t, take it easy, my dear! takto, takto!, yes!, and while I rolled her drawers down her waist with my trembling fingers, so I could press my erection against her bare skin at least, we ended up holding on to each other for dear life in a quickening rocking motion, until the juices of my passion trickled down her marble thigh. The bed spun round with me, and my breathing came so heavy, it scorched my insides, tears of joy and gratitude flooded my soul, though mixed with shame, to be sure, but as I lay panting on her shoulder, Jadviga calmed, hushed, and soothed me as if I were a child, and whispered, dobre, it’s all right, my dear, it’s all right. Dobre, Milyí moy, dobre!


Today, it being the 1st of March, 1915, is my wife’s 28th birthday. I have a necklace for her. I will give it to her this evening. If only we could give ourselves to each other, too, entirely tonight! For I yearn to be in my Jadviga’s lap at long last; I yearn to relieve not only my body, which throbs with want of her, but since her obscure “confession”, my soul, too, into the bargain, tormented to its utmost limits with doubt. Perhaps I will also light upon the certainty I seek, possibly reassuring, as I now hope, or even the kind that, though it will corroborate my worst fears, will mercifully put an end to this unbearable state of suspicion.

But this gives pause for reflection. Could the painful certainty be preferable to this nagging doubt? Could it offer relief? Or will the opposite happen, and our love, which has not yet matured into unreserved giving, yet, despite its struggles, is profound (and may grow still more profound in our laps) – could our love, I say, be undermined by the mounting grievances? I do not know.  However, let the inevitable have its way;  let it come, if for no other reason, then because she is my wife, a fact I would rather not remind her of. My patience is at an end, husband and wife sharing a bed, every single daybreak with teeth clenched, and virgins still!

Could her heart be harboring stories of which I am ignorant?


(...) My Jadviga’s fate as an orphan was also resolved through Apovka’s contacts, though that came later. At first, according to Gregor’s account, anyway, the child’s life was no bed of roses, though Father provided for the wet nurse Anka, and furthermore, covered all of the little girl’s other expenses. But after the death of the unfortunate mother, Mária Ponyiczky, Anka had to take the poor little orphan girl home with her along with her own, which would not have been undesirable, for in this way Jadviga would have had a sister, at least, but they lived in want and misery, not to mention the fact that there was Anka’s good for nothing husband and foul-tongued mother-in-law to contend with, whose abusive language to her daughter-in-law – as Gregor related to me – was outdone only by Mamovka, who chastised my kind-hearted father, saying, what the zhranyik (6) hell business did he have with other people’s brats. (By the way, up to that time they’d had just one sickly little girl unfit for life who lived but a few short days, and my sister Zsofka was brought into the world only four years later, and me two years after her, in November, 1892 (7).)

Seeing how things stood, Apovka then had Anka, with the two little girls, taken in as a domestic at the Reverend Szpevács’s house that stood in the neighboring village, where he not only provided for the orphan, but also paid Anka’s hire in stead of the Reverend and his family, who in turn were bound to treat little Jadviga as if she were their own, and to look after her even when Anka was given the day off to visit her family. And may the Lord be blessed, this servant of the Almightly and his kind-hearted wife, well-disposed toward children as they were, kept not only to the letter of their written contract, but showed the orphan sincere love and affection.

These details of the story I could pry of Gregor, I recall, only during the summer before last, after Apovka and I traveled to Germany together, for the last time, and where, in express obedience to my Father’s wishes, I became reacquainted with Jadviga in Stralsund, though this time, as a grownup.  However, before I could reveal to Apovka the emotions this encounter had stirred in my innermost heart, he was taken ill with an especially virulent and dangerous disease that frustrated precise diagnosis, and which, after two horrible leave-taking weeks, the most painful period of my young life, took him from us on 8th February, 1914, at the age of forty-nine. I conveyed the devastating news in a letter to Jadviga, who confessed her great affliction in a desperate letter of her own and who, now that Father had been taken from us, thanked me personally for every thing she owed her only benefactor, which was nothing less than eternal gratitude, she said, yet at the same time upbraiding me for failing to dispatch a telegram as soon as Father was taken ill, for she would have come home then, either to nurse him or to take her leave. Poor soul, how could I have written? Mamovka would not have let her pass our threshold. However, Jadviga, I suspect, was most certainly ignorant of the anger that for some unfathomable reason had turned Mother against the poor orphan at the start.

As a child and adolescent, I saw Jadviga, whom Apovka had adopted as my sister, only on rare occasions. Later, when I was a stripling and she a budding young lady, I saw her with something like more frequency, for Father would sometimes take me along when he paid his respects at the Reverend’s; but my recollections of these visits are vague. The visits to Pest have remained more vividly in my memory, occasions when we looked up my  “sister” at the English Ladies convent school on Váci utca. I was a small, callow youth and she a young lady by then, who, on top of every thing, would be English when she grew up (or so I imagined the ultimate aim of her studies), and then she’d be taken away to England, whereas my heart ached at the very thought that at the end of our visit we would have to leave her behind.

Perhaps it is not only in retrospect that I say: even as a child, I was in love with Jadviga. I can clearly recall how I would attempt to touch her dress and inhale her smell, and how I contrived for her to lean over me, or pull me on her knee (which, from her physical proximity, flooded me with delight not unmixed with shame, due to her treatment of me as an innocent babe in arms); and I also recall the pangs of jealousy as she and my Father would stroll down the Promenade along the Danube arm in arm, and me trailing behind, fuming with rage.

For years after that, I did not see Jadviga for, having reached her fourteenth birthday, Apovka arranged for her transfer to the English Ladies at Sankt Pölten where, or so I suspect, he visited her on his own, stopping there on his way to Germany. As for me, I came to regard her as the fairy tale princess of my favorite children’s story whom I was destined never to forget, but whom I could never hope to encounter in her physical reality, for in the meantime, I had grown too old for fairy tales.

(1) I shall now begin this small work.
(2) Praise be the Lord, in the Slovak language.
(3) In short, the devil take the both of you, go marry her.
(4) Hromnyice is the Day of Mary and Candlemass Day, and it is her name’s day because she is Mrs. András Osztatní, née Mária Jadviga Palkovits. (Otherwise, a dance like this is just like the Smallholders livestock fair, except they don’t have to listen to the tooting trubachs.)
(5) Breakfast. But they also call it frushtik, from the German.
(6) Zhranyik, that’s sort of like what the hell.
(7) In order to provide a clear picture of things: Of the marriage between György Osztatní (b. 1865) and Zsófia Racskó (b. 1867) who tied the know on May 7, 1886, the first Zsofka was born June 2, 1887, and died soon after; the other Zsofka was born March 22, 1890 and died Oct. 9, 1913.  András Osztatní was born on Nov. 21, 1892.

Translated by: Judith Sollosy

Tags: Pál Závada