07. 24. 2018. 09:58

Noémi Kiss: Barren

translated by Peter Sherwood

On the x-ray monitor my womb is transparent, empty. A bottle. Sometimes it's a small, bent potato that the doctor shows me. – We are pleased to bring you an excerpt from Noémi Kiss, translated by Peter Sherwood.

The Fester moved in for the winter. It found itself a home in the warmth of the room. It gave off a stench, it was shrouded in putrid vapour. I couldn't keep up with it, it might turn up anywhere, any time. The Fester is a nasty feeling, a tingling, gooseflesh, and it convulses you. It might slither onto the carpet, and I would just lie there, or else it might bob up in the bathroom and I would clutch the edge of the bath for dear life. It was looking for a radiator, a host cell. I turned into its host, the Fester. I took my illness into my lap, nursing it, nurturing it. My womb is a room, a great big, empty, trashed void. Less than a room, a garage, a dusty woodshed. A pit, black, at the end of the garden.

That you can't have children is not something anyone ever says to your face. Fester is a scummy secret. There's no evicting it, once wedged in you it stays for ever. Trying to hound it out is no use, I'm fooling myself, hanging round, hoping against hope. Clinging on by hope's toenails. And still the scum sits there. Sticking to me, embracing me, dragging me back. Dragging me out of normal life.

On the x-ray monitor my womb is transparent, empty. A bottle. Sometimes it's a small, bent potato that the doctor shows me. I don't think it's like others', I'm the only one blessed with a stumpy one the size of my fist. I don't see anything, there's no problem, the ultrasound is perfect. Says the doc. What d'you mean, nothing? We've been trying for years. You have it all to play for, the doctor says, beaming at us encouragingly. It's just that it wasn't encouragement I wanted, I've had it up to here with words. Most of all I would've loved to scream at his latex gloves. Don't you dare touch me again!

Or rather: do touch me! Do something, I beg of you. Someone make me a child!

In my dreams I wished I could be chewed by mice, it would've been enough to have maggots, grasshoppers, fleas, even a pinhead-sized louse inside to prick the uterus wall. But it wasn't pricked, sperm avoided me like the plague. The lifeless eggs would drip into my tampon like withered seeds. From the tampon they went straight to the drains, I'm not throwing them in the bin only for them to stink the place out, my eggs should swim off, far, far away, to make sure I never saw them again.

It was a washout with the boss, having sex eventually became an exhausting pastime, it was no use drawing his sweet little bald pate towards me. It tired me out, dreadfully. A lump had now lodged itself permanently under my skull, a pain trapped deep inside it. This pounded up and down my head. It gave me migraine, sleepless nights, and mornings when I didn't want to get up, too washed out to even lift the covers, that's how weak I felt. As if stabbed by pins again and again, my arms were numb and dragging me down. Underground, down to where a fire was blazing, a towering inferno.

Year in, year out none of my lovers could get me pregnant. I scurried from one to the next. I was happy every time the sudden urge came to move on, quite sure this was the one that would work out. Why shouldn't I have a child, every woman can have one, even birds mate, noisily too, it's nothing to be ashamed of. They build a nest, and bang, a little one comes along. Even rats can manage it. The sow has her piglet, just as a tree has its offshoot. Grass grows, the fertilized egg grips the womb wall. The candidates followed one after the other, like lessons in the school timetable: PE, maths, chemistry, physics, music. Even fungi multiply. Bacteria, nerve cells. Two guys at the town hall. After a stupid Christmas party I stayed behind in the arts centre, alone with the caretaker. How my spine ached afterwards. I remember getting home, opening the gate, Orsolya running out, and me, feeling faint and keeling over. Kiddo had to carry me in. Count yourself lucky you didn't get a hernia, the doctor said.

I was disgusted to see in the mirror the scratches covering my face and the blotches on my neck. But then the waterpolo doc came and we did it in the medicine cupboard. Others eat herbs, take vitamin supplements, go haring off to their psychiatrist, or their psychologist gets them pregnant. I know someone who went to get acupuncture and got knocked up. People go in for hormone treatments, get tubes poked up their uterus while they're ovulating. But I was afraid, terrified of all the paraphernalia. I preferred to imagine I could pick up a kid, get a bun in my oven, some other way. With my legs akimbo, it would be inserted under the endometrium, squeezed into the uterus. It seemed simpler than waiting for the needle in the surgery, legs held high in the air.

I imagined things. The problem was me. First I reproached myself, then everyone else: my mother, my father, and Kiddo, school, the neighbours, the entire city, I thought the whole world had turned against me. And then the cycle would start all over again: it was my fault it didn't work out. I stood on tiptoe on the cold stone floor of the bathroom, a puddle beneath me. I laughed out loud in my agony.

My faith began to ebb, it ebbed away completely, I stopped trying, I didn't want it, it disgusted me. My thighs were burnt to a crisp, I wanted no one, every last drop of desire had drained from me.

A skeleton, that's how I felt.

We'd been trying for three years without success, and that's without counting the months before we actually married. One thing's for sure: we're neither of us going to knead a little person out of this stuff. You don't get to make a baby out of mud, all you get is dry, alkaline soil. Foul, discarded swaddling clouts, the wind blew them about the fields. Flung them around, tossing them high into the sky, then they came crashing to the ground.

I thought I was done for. That I'd go mad. No end to it in sight. A voice drilled in my head. Motherless mother! At first I thought I wasn't hearing right, that it was some repetitive drone, but then it became steadily louder, a shrill, female voice. It came with me everywhere.

Kiddo was furious if I complained. Put a sock in it. You're out of your mind! And he didn't say this quietly but yelled: what are you yammering on about!

I became an automaton that wept, lying in bed with a vacant look, if it wasn't a workday, I wouldn't stir. By Monday though I always managed to pull myself together. It was school that saved me from the worst: the darkness of my cold bedroom at first light. I was all dried up, all the water had drained from my body. Thirst is not the agony of love, I hadn't the foggiest notion of love. What I longed for wouldn't come, and my body reacted to this by not wanting any water. The pimples on my face perched on the flaking fish-scales of my skin. My periods came like clockwork, I was never late, as if this was the hormones' response to the absence of desire. Perhaps they were just trying to make sure the household was well-run. To keep the life of a messed-up woman on track.

A mother: not me.

I kept thinking back to the doctors in the old days, who treated me in surgeries of all sorts, not even wearing white lab coats, sitting in their pullovers as they did the ultrasound. The probe was like a blood-filled penis. A white plastic pod, hard as concrete. And the way they spoke to us was quite different, they buoyed us up, energised us, even if all they were doing was counting the eggs on the monitor it made us feel good. A thousand times better than just sitting here now, under the duvet, propped up hopelessly against the headboard.

One time a doctor advised that before ovulating I should have a pouch of rat urine injected into my abdomen. Supposedly to stimulate the ovaries. Lugging little sacs of liquid around in my gut, I thought I would burst. When there was no blood left, my hormone levels spiked again: lightning struck. A good sign! the nurse exclaimed. Have faith in yourself, it's going to work. Soothed by the doctor's velvet voice, I shelled out at the chemist's. A single course of treatment cost several thousand forints. I got six eggs. I believed – I was certain – that success was in the bag. My soul whispered, spoke to me, my gut filled with strength. I was in terrific form! The injections made me swell, ripen, round out. In my joy I ran around, flew about, until the blood started to flow again. My head slammed against the wall.

I deflated, a lead balloon at the Mayday fair.

I sat on the toilet and the blood came dripping down, first one drop, then ten, by the end there was a steady stream. I was in the ladies' by the equipment store, a bowl with a wooden seat, I recall how it stank of urine. And then of blood. The students were waiting, I had set them an essay to write, but I just couldn't make it into the classroom.

It wouldn't stop, the blood, it just kept coming. Oozing out every month. A downward spiral of barrenness, a winding, purple road. Flowing into itself only to start all over again from the beginning. As if someone had taken a bite out of me.

The hormone injections gave me a lift, so I'd be fine for a while, but soon came down with a crash. And then it would begin again.

I clambered off the toilet, going down with great effort on all fours, then lay on the cold hard tiles of the floor. I wept. I howled, stuffing a clenched fist in my mouth, it felt better if I bit hard into it. With luck maybe no one would hear.


(Translated by Peter Sherwood)


Previously on HLO:
Breaking the silence – A Review of Noémi Kiss' novel by Réka Barcza
Birthday – An excerpt from Noémi Kiss