If someone were to venture to say anything they would start by stating that the stones will again be nice and white for 2011. St Matthias’s Church may be dark, but it is nevertheless possible to go round it and its towers are visible to the unaided eye. The walls need a fresh coat of whitewash, Edith thinks to herself, as she looks into the dark. The rafters are also being reinforced so they will not crack under the weight of roof tiles. The rose window was still there a week ago—maybe it does not need refurbishing, it will put up with carpet bombing. A strong castle—a Feste Burg. My God, what a lot of rubble there is!
Cellars which have collapsed under houses, and all Father will say, again and again, 50 years later, is that I should stay a coward and get used to my face. He will be conceived not long from now, World War II is slowly coming to an end; Mother, heading home, is barely nine years old but muscular and conceals demonic forces. This is where, in a couple of years, she will meet Father, who is hiding underwater. Out of anguish and terror they become entwined into one; separately each is lacking for life. He is 18 and his gaze is wavering, whereas she is more woman than girl and will be 30 before long, but she still falls madly in love with the burbler. Mother, who has been painting a picture ever since, says that eventually there will be a big gateway on it, she can already visualise it, the perspective from ground up with the clouds and sky up above. Only because I was still a child. She has been on the point of painting it ever since, but perhaps now she will really set to it as for years all she has done is stretch the canvas, the material will take it, and maybe even the sun will begin to shine between the clouds, the gate will be converted into a door, budging and taking in. It would be a crime to wait for that.
There is nothing beyond the gate. Mother did not speak, merely slapped my cheeks when, as a joke, I set fire to a classmate’s hair. It had seemed a good idea at the time as I had already prepared the flies and they were waiting the next instalment. We looked through the magnifying lens at how the articulated legs thawed, the others standing around me and eagerly watching. Éva shouted ‘Look it’s about to fly away!’ Which was why I had plucked off their wings. Because love is madness, it was no use my explaining to Mother that Éva had dobbed on me to the teacher and I had to have her punished for doing so. She knew I was lying. If not then love and hatred were again touching on each other, and that was the worst thing which could happen to me. I stood by her, but Mother turned away. I’m not interested in you, she turned the tap on ostentatiously and washed the vegetables, but I yelled at her: Mummy, listen. That was the first time she had smacked me on the face.
The way Father told it there was a ring on Edith’s doorbell in the evening. Edith was my grandmother, and in her flat on Üllői Avenue in her haste she had slipped into court shoes as she could not find any others all of a sudden. She had draped a shawl over her coat and reached for her hat when she nevertheless broke into a smile: ‘Really, what for, for heaven’s sake’. She had learned a few years before that there is no such thing as human dignity. The Arrow-Crosser had visited every week so that she would not be taken away like the others. Nothing is for free in life, that she had learned, as well as the fact that there is such a thing as evil. When he had knocked on the door the first time there were still two of them, outside as well as inside: Edith and her spouse, my grandfather Jakob, and the Arrow-Crossers. One of them was a youngster, the other a gaunt fellow in his fifties who limped and said very little. His words stuttered out harshly; neither man found refuge in Edith’s blue eyes. They had come for Jakob, who (if it’s possible for a person to carry out that sort of absurdity) was prepared for every eventuality but did not dare stroke his wife’s belly. Father, with his pint-sized body, hovered or floated in silence. The Arrow-Cross shaver went back out of the door; he cannot have been more than 16, and Edith had lovely clear eyes which not much later were dead to all further looks because when, a couple of hours later, he knocked on the door again she knew what was going to come next. Edith cursed God and forget his very name. She damned the lad by singing a folk tune about the Danube as she slowly unbuttoned her shirt.
I’ll beat the stuffing out of you, squeaked the youth with all the arrogance of a 16-year-old’s bumptiousness in his voice, whereas Edith, for her part, was unwilling to peal off her petticoat, which had started to fray here and there along the seams. The shaver ripped off the straps; her shoulders by then were little more than sticks. ‘God, you would have to be made of sandpaper to be worth anything.’ If pain could be felt. The buttons holding the cotton stocking popped open, but Edith did not hear that. She hummed the folk song ‘My sorrow I’ll take it to the mill and have it ground there’. The slip stayed on as did the Arrow-Crosser’s uniform. The flagstones of the bedsit flat were cold; he made Edith kneel on them in order to part her bottom. From then on they alternated: ‘Let’s get cracking, my wee bint, let’s see you hop! Don’t even dream of it! No need to worry your head about getting a proper bastard! If your shoes are torn I’ll get you new ones,’ he growled. ‘A Yid whore is only good for screwing the arse off and it doesn’t put a bun in the oven—you’ll be taken off in a railway wagon before that. You’d deserve it too.’ Edith sang, whereat he socked her on the jaw; ‘I’ll slit your throat if I hear another peep from you!’
The shop assistant at the milliner’s shop insisted that she could bring Edith a suitable pair of shoes from nearby, a sort that film actresses themselves wore, genuine leather. Your ankles are heaps more graceful than even a star’s like Katalin Karády. It has a buckle on the instep, now Edith is looking at it, thinking how hard she laughed then. She slowly unbuckles it while the youth pokes her in the back. Get on with it! Edith is mute, like the mill. She can hear the creaking, the sound of a carpet bomb, the sound of her cotton socks sliding on the flagstones of the bedsit floor, grazing her knee. But in truth there is only the St Matthias Church rising opposite, with the cracked rafters, the rubble, and between it and me the water streaming from my eyes, so strongly am I looking.
No need for the big shot to call out; there was a soldier for every prisoner. The youth had finally left Edith on the quay, the squaddies lined up behind her. Behind the squaddies a barbed-wire fence. ‘Quick turn, all eyes towards the Danube.’ Edith quietly started humming again. Father was a tiny barge floating in her belly; Grandmother didn’t dare touch her belly, thinking that this child was not going to know what lies beyond the water, what does it take away, where does it flow. All I will tell him about is estuaries, and Edith talks to herself about the way the delta discharges into the Black Sea and the river is finally let go. There is no gripping at it, no dry land anywhere; the Danube is able to breathe again.
There is shooting, Edith topples into the Danube. Slowly, the way she had learned by eye in the mirror, the body splashing with a subdued plop into the Danube, with blood oozing profusely into the water. The fish gather around her, looking at her feet, which have no shoes on them, the soldier-boys leave on the quayside all the shoes they have ordered people to take off; the shaver spits on them too, cursing mightily: ‘Smelly-shoed-degenerates!’ Months later the river floods and those living in houses along the quayside are shaken to see them: ‘So everything is disposable,’ that is the way they thought, God is cruel and grotesque to play into the hands of the Arrow-Crossers because here, on the quayside, forgetfulness is a sin, and it occurs to them that we too are sinners. Yet the shoes stick strongly to stone; only the laces gradually loosen by the next January. First of all it is just mud which gets in and the brown leather dries up, the black ornaments that a cobbler once dreamed up. Neither the sales assistant’s nor Karády’s voice can be heard now, the high uppers wrinkle as if they were snarling lopsidedly. At the next full moon the tiny sea-snails and barnacles squat in the tips of the shoes, taking up abode in the glued inner cavities where a foot once drummed excitedly.
The feet have grown disproportionately large; that is what Edith thinks of while she hovers. The feet have grown disproportionately large, Edith, think of that while you hover, the calves had wasted away to the width of a B5 pencil, whereas the knees were like huge balls (‘Your calves have wasted away to the width of a B5 pencil, whereas your knees are like huge balls. Float!’). She was knock-kneed and had to stand straddle-legged so that the knees would not hurt and knock together, and Father should not cluck either amid the wild ducks on reaching the riverbank the morning of the next day. There is the same movement in Father’s gaze, barges knocking together on the river. ‘The train is taking me,’ she starts to hum the melody, ‘I’ll go after you…,’ but Grandmother does not complete it. Her thighs remain a secret. The cotton stockings ripped off the wizened skin by Boráros Square, just beside the Pest end of Petőfi Bridge, there no longer being anything by which her body might swell them so it let go. In the Lágymányos District, at the Buda end of the bridge, the coat was also left behind, and in the Free Port area on Csepel Island there was only a slip left to cover her body. Grandma is floating underwater, I have hummed it ever since; legend has it that she should have come to life somehow, but everything is different.
It is impossible to bear affection in hatred. Nor can I have any affection for either man or God who leaves Edith to plunge into the river and clutch her hollowed body on to the waterweed, wishing to feel the prickly undergrowth from close at hand, those innumerable tiny crabs and sea-snails; wishing to see Jakob’s face in the fish scales as if she were looking at me later on, looking into my eyes. Then let her slowly, as she had once unbuttoned her blouse, let her grow feathers, for down to appear in the deep pits of the eyes, for Edith to swim irrespectively in the Freeport, Arbeit macht frei, her mouth is frothing but she cries out, ‘It is a lie, it does not set one free, it does not redeem one.’ Father can hear that. Father is with Edith but the brain is like a sieve when it comes to remembering the nine months, along with the sea-snails, the green vegetation and the wild ducks.
I live in a way that the lower I reach in the river the more lies there are in me. Father is in the habit of saying ‘It’s not a lie, you only want to live, and to do that you have to lie.’ Forget the stench of burnt hair, give your heart an airing, tear away from Edith’s body as if she really were my grandmother, a woman who has turned into a wild duck with my father in her belly. They swim in silence; underwater it is silent—that is where they conceal themselves. But Edith grows fond of the waterweed, death, my boy, is madness, and love is also madness. And she hangs on while I pluck off the flies’ wings, the Danube stretches from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. I have no mercy in me, no kindness.
In 1944–45 countless hundreds of Hungarian Jews were shot into the Danube by militiamen of the Hungarian Arrow-Cross Party. In the course of the mass executions victims were forced to stand in line by the Danube and shot in the back of the head. Today there is a monument—sixty pairs of shoes made of iron—on the Pest side of the Danube Promenade to commemorate the victims.
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson