10. 09. 2006. 08:13

Miserere (Draw a Line)

Krisztina Tóth

"I want to see the bodies. As I come to the fence, I jiggle the latch. From where I’m standing, I can see that a few of the legless bodies scattered in the grass are still moving, even though an entire endless night had passed."

Even in its most threadbare of moments, the fabric of the law still binds the world. The pattern of connections can be at times indiscernible; and at others, it can shimmer like a spider's web in the dawn dew, the ends fastening to different corners in time.

In the morning, the yard is covered in dew. I’m heading out in front of the house, wading through the grass in sandals, my legs wet and grazed by the outstretched roses. I want to see the bodies.  As I come to the fence, I jiggle the latch. From where I’m standing, I can see that a few of the legless bodies scattered in the grass are still moving, even though an entire endless night had passed. I, too, had tossed and turned, scratching at the bloody mosquito bites on my legs and counting how many more nights I still had to spend with these people. They may have been friends of my parents, but they were entirely incomprehensible and alien beings to me, filling what I had once thought of as a familiar, unchangeable summer cottage with their foreign objects and strange smells. Out in the yard there are diapers hanging to dry. In the small room where I always used to sleep, there’s the twins’ playpen, and I have to share a bed with a large, bony boy who steals the covers, rants about terrible things in the dark, and then pretends to fall asleep, so he can unleash the nastiest gas. “Storks don't bring babies,” he whispered one night. The twins didn’t arrive that way. He remembered that a frog died when his mother came home from the hospital. I asked him why. “Well, because my mother had been pregnant, that's why. She got a baby in her stomach, and the frog died of that, especially since there were two babies,” he added. I didn’t quite understand, but I saw some kind of cryptic connection between the stork who doesn’t bring babies, but who does eat frogs, so I figured they might have something to do with one another.

If the gate were open, I would run away. I know how to get to the train station – head straight down the cherry tree-lined, patched sidewalk towards the paved road, like when you’re going to the beach, make a right, and the station’s white-washed concrete fence and the tracks will already be visible.

The twins are still sleeping, though they’re usually crying by now. I am the middle child, since the twins’ brother, Little Jani, is three years older than me and already old enough to go fishing with his father, Big Jani. For a long time I had wanted to go fishing, too, often hearing as they stumbled off before dawn, and I’d fall back to sleep until the howling of the twins woke me up.  Then one morning they handed me the littlest fishing rod and said, “Here you go, go on down to the dock and catch some frogs.” After the initial rush of pride passed, stage fright took over, and I wondered what exactly I was supposed to do. I couldn’t find a red rag anywhere, and so in the end, I threaded the hook through the torn-off corner of a red plastic bag. The boys said that would do just as well.

But the gate is closed.

Little Jani and his new friend, who brought an air gun over from his place, were only hunting frogs that day. They went down to the edge of the reeds on the lakeshore. They aimed at the floating frog heads peering out of the stagnant water, unsuspecting. Whenever they hit one, they jumped up in victory and slapped each other five, then quieted down to wait for the green bodies to resurface. I watched them from far away, while with one hand I dragged my line back and forth from the left to the right. But the frogs leaped one after the other into the water with each sounding of the distant shots, until finally one trailed the dancing red bait and bit.
"I got one! I got one!" I screamed, my heart racing. They ran along the shore, the dock rocking as they approached. I pulled the twitching body at the end of the line out of the water. The body throbbed in my hands, held its mouth wide open, and seemed to be looking right at me. Suddenly overcome with doubt, I thought I should set it free, but by then the boys had arrived.

“Take out the hook, you retard.”

“I don’t know how to,” I said.

“Well, show her how.”

When the boys couldn’t get the hook to come out, they started thrashing the frog around.  Something white slipped out of its open mouth that looked like folded silk, then something red.

“Shit, its guts are coming out – it swallowed the hook.”

“Oh, the hell with it.” 

The friend took out his pocketknife, snipped off the end of the nylon fishing line, and tossed the frog together with the hook back into the water.

“Tie a new hook on the line,” he said, holding out a little white box towards me.

Initially, the frog turned onto its back. Then it began to swim on its side, propelling itself with its muscular back legs. From time to time, it stopped, floated, and again swam a little bit until it reached the edge of the reeds.

We stood and watched. I held my breath, secretly praying to God for help, just this once. Please let the frog get away.

“It’ll get better, right?” I asked Little Jani hopefully.

He was probably ashamed of the quiver at the corner of my lips and my whimpery voice in front of his friend, so he answered between gritted teeth, turning to direct the line at his friend, “Yeah, he’ll just stop into the emergency room.” They snickered and went back to shooting. I swore off fishing for the whole week, the rest of the year, the rest of my life. I stopped envying the early risers, and instead, I hung around the yard in a daze and fed raspberries to the neighbors’ dog through the holes in the fence.

I can tell by the sound of their fidgeting that the twins have awakened. They should be getting a bottle of their chocolate-flavored formula in a moment, and once they finish, I’ll be allowed to drink the rest. I’m sitting on the patio and thinking of my mother’s morning cocoa and about how I still have to make it through a few more days until my parents come back from Germany.

After breakfast, Aunt Ági takes the twins’ diapers off. They lie around buck naked for a while in the playpen on their stomachs. Their muscular, white thighs and raised feet remind me of frogs. Their egg-shaped, downy heads would be nice to pet, but I’m not allowed, because Aunt Ági explained that their skulls are still soft and haven’t closed yet. She comes out to the patio to yell for me, a bottle in her hand, “Well, aren’t you coming?”

“I don’t want it. I don’t want anything,” I said. Since last night, there’s been something in my throat, a hot, sour taste coating my mouth. When Big and Little Jani left at dawn, I pretended to be fast asleep, even though Little Jani purposely grabbed at my leg as he climbed out of bed.  This afternoon, they’ll be coming home with fish again; but yesterday, it wasn’t just fish they brought home.

I cannot forget what I saw beyond the fence, the bodies scattered in the dusty grass. Aunt Ági shrugs and goes back inside.

Yesterday afternoon in the kitchen, Little Jani proudly presented a mesh bag wriggling with a throng of sluggish, confused frogs. His mother screamed at him to get them the hell out of there.  But Big Jani, slipping his arms around her shoulders, hushed her, saying, “Come now, don’t make such a big fuss. We’re going to eat them. The French eat them, so they can’t be all bad. Messioor, parlay voo froggay?” He twirled the bag around under his wife’s nose, and Little Jani smirked.

“You can do it in the backyard, fine, but you will not muck up my kitchen,” Aunt  Ági said and shot one more look of disgust at the bag before going to the twins.

The fish waited their turn in a bucket; they weren’t the main attraction of the day. Big Jani undid the mesh, while Little Jani built the fire. The neighbor stood by the fence, letting them know you couldn’t just go ahead and eat any old kind of frog, and you should be careful they didn’t pee into your eyes, because that could blind a person. The dog scampered back and forth on the other side of the fence, barking with excitement. Little Jani kneeled down and egged him on with a stick.

“They won’t have time to pee,” Big Jani fired back and went in for a skillet. A few low tree stumps stood by the fire, and during barbecues, that's where we would squat, propping the skewers up on the stumps. Big Jani grabbed a knife, laid the first frog down on a stump, and in two swift motions, chopped off its back legs. He did the same to the rest, one after the other. He tossed the bodies still alive into a plastic bag and arranged the legs in the skillet. “Bring this out to the front.  The storks will take care of them,” he told Little Jani.

Little Jani hurried them out past the fence. He lingered, curious to see if any of the bodies might use their front legs to crawl into the grass. Their mouths were agape, but not a sound left their throats. Those that could move squirmed off in the same direction, as if they were trying to reach the other side of the road. Something in the humid air beckoned them – the promise of deliverance into frog-heaven, the shadow of the bushes, or the instinctive memory of the distant lake. 

Aunt Ági scaled the fish. The twins woke up wailing from a nap. I burrowed under a blanket in the living room and prayed to dear God for help. “Please tell the storks to hurry over, so all of this can end. Let it end, let it end, let it end,” I repeated, rocking myself in the muggy darkness. A jumbled swirl of birth and death, blood and horror congregated in my head, hot and dizzy with sobbing. I would have cried myself to sleep if Big Jani hadn’t suddenly snatched away the blanket.

“What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you going to eat any dinner?” he asked. I shook my head, but I couldn’t manage to speak. Big Jani, plates in his hands, looked outside, unsure what to do. “Quit your whimpering. Why this crying? That’s why you’re such a toothpick – you don’t eat. We’ll leave some fish for you,” he finished and left.

For a while, I could still hear everyone talking outside; and later, I heard Big Jani making a scene, spitting out dinner. “Damn, this is crap!  Disgusting!” he shouted. The neighbor laughed smugly, the dog barked, then the garden voices slowly lost their forms, gradually blending with dreams.  In the dimness, on the border of dreams and wakefulness, a spider’s thread glimmered from the luminous fabric that holds together the fragmenting world. A soft web buoyed my scrawny young body back into the world through the gaps in existence.

I wouldn’t eat the fish, nor much of anything else. That week I didn’t eat another bite. According to my mother, I essentially lived on cocoa and fruit as a child, but somehow I managed to grow up anyway.

And the twins, they, too, grew up. Their pale, frog bottoms became the muscular bottoms of adult men, and Little Jani, a bulky family man, now takes his own twins out for walks. Year by year, a blank imbecility has stiffened the lines of Big Jani’s face into a mask, as in a sullen, childlike stupor he has endured the increasingly frequent and harsh assaults of illness. He had been in a wheelchair for three years by the time I got up the nerve to visit. My parents had been pushing for it. Once I was pregnant, my relationship with my parents began to improve, and they hastened to close the distance between us with the constant mention of childhood things. So actually, with this visit, I was moving closer to them, knowing that there’s no way back in time, but by summoning up figures from our past we might tighten the slackened ties between us. Throughout it all, I was ashamed of myself for what I lack even as an adult, the capacity for forgiveness. I wander around with the memory of decades-old pain, the pain of spoken words bottled up inside of me, and I cannot forget, reevaluate, nor even understand what has wounded me. “You must draw a line,” my mother always used to say, “draw a line, and that’s the end. From that point on everything is forgotten.” Fine, but just what kind of line?

The moment I entered the musty living room, I knew I shouldn’t have come. I didn’t know that old man, and for a long time now, he hasn’t know anyone among us. His wife and one twin held onto him on both sides, a glistening strand of drool descending onto the afghan on his lap. He had been sick that morning. “Miserere,” his wife explained, “that’s the medical term for the regurgitation of feces, when the intestines simply fail, become paralyzed, and the contents neatly reverse through the digestive system, then exit through the mouth.” She motioned the process with her hands.

“Or to put it bluntly, he vomits shit,” the twin said. I couldn’t say which twin, because his mother hadn’t used his name since I had arrived. “Miserere, miserere,” I repeated to myself and scanned the cabinets, the familiar childhood objects, the striped porcelain cat and the Margit Kovács figurine.  I wanted to pat Big Jani’s hand, but I felt uncertain; and instead, I stood there at a loss, feeling out of place. They turned the wheelchair towards the window. His wife dabbed at his harrowed face with a moist towel, not in expectation of anything, just out of the desire to care for him, to stifle the frustration of her powerlessness with an exaggerated sequence of gestures. They pulled back the armrest, and when I saw them rolling back the afghan, I went out to the kitchen. They were initiating a solemn, practiced ritual to which I did not want to be witness. I saw a flash of the implausibly thin and flaccid thighs, the yellow-white lower body wasted away to the size of a child. Outside on the balcony, I nearly stepped into a red washbasin on the floor, filled with rags.  The sound of a radio drifted over from somewhere. I wanted a drink of water, looked for the glasses, noticed the aluminum stripe on the side of the kitchen cabinet was peeling off. The water was lukewarm and chlorine white. I sat down on a stool, watched the sun sinking lazily behind the corner of the neighboring apartment block. Please let this be the end, let the invisible thread tense and shudder like a fishing line, allow what’s bobbing at the surface to dive down once and for all. I understood, everything comes down only to moments, hours, years. All of this is simply a question of lives, and so it will continue.

Translated by Rachel Miller

Tags: Krisztina Tóth