I’m about to start eating when I spoon a little dead mouse out of the bowl of soup in front of me. I nearly choke on the bread, my limbs drain of strength. I’m sure it was my granddaughter who did this.
One winter night I wake to find that I’ve become my own grandmother. I turn on the bedside lamp. I’m lying in the bedroom of the old apartment, the furnishings exactly as they were twenty years ago. I climb out of bed and step to the window. Outside, the street is dark. I can’t see anything. I reach for the flashlight I keep on the bureau and direct the narrow beam of light towards the thermometer attached to the outer side of the window frame. The strip of mercury is so low I can’t even see it.
The glass cabinet looms beside the bed. Its shadow stretches across the ceiling. Even this is the same. Inside, the starched and ironed tablecloths, sheets, duvet covers, and curtains are stacked in a regimented fashion. I’d only need to open the cabinet door to be struck immediately by the smell of mothballs. Behind the glass, volumes of the World Literature Series press tightly against each other, set deep on the shelf. Porcelain ballerinas dressed in purple, lifting their legs, stand in front of the books. Slipped between the sliding plates of glass are photos of the grandchildren. There’s a picture of me holding a sponge cake, my hair down to my waist, a brown patch pasted over one half of my glasses. There’s a snapshot of my older brother too, standing with hands on hips, one foot resting on a red dumper truck, just like a pint-sized army general, his name embroidered onto his sweater. As I look at him now, my heart thumps hard, though I have no recollection of loving my brother.
I flee from the room. I have to get dressed and go to the market. I have guests coming over this afternoon. I shuffle down the hallway. How small this apartment is, I realize suddenly. Small rooms, and the ceiling unusually low as well. I trail my fingers along the hallway wall. The green bits of the flower print wallpaper haven’t faded yet. I enter the bathroom. In winter, this is the coldest spot in the flat.
The cylindrical washing machine is still so new that it shines. It looks like a squat snowman. I run the tap and wash my face. I know the smell of the towel well. I take off my nightgown and gaze at my body. I’m shaped like a spindle, small at the top and bottom, wide in the middle. I can’t see between my legs from my belly rolls. I cautiously touch my pubic mound, and I’m surprised by how wiry the hair is, like a brush. My clothes hang from a hook. I put the garments on one by one: the granny panties, the white undershirt, the brown nylon hose, the thick housedress, and the brown knit cardigan. I brush my hair thoroughly with the red, radial brush, and when I look in the mirror, I remember all the times I laughed at my grandmother behind her back, because after brushing her hair, she resembled a microphone, with a head of hair as big as an afro. I reach for the large can of hairspray, shake it, and spray it onto my hairdo for several minutes.
It’s always February. My birthday falls on a Saturday this year. I’m not planning any big celebration. I’ll cook some tarragon beef soup, make four pans of meat loaf and some mashed potatoes. Warm apple compote for dessert. We’ll pull out the kitchen table’s extensions, gather round it, and drink a toast.
I’m about to start eating when I spoon a little dead mouse out of the bowl of soup in front of me. I nearly choke on the bread, my limbs drain of strength. I’m sure it was my granddaughter who did this. She looks too cheerful, the way she’s grinning at me. Good God, I think, she must really not like me at all.
Any second they will ask if it was me who put the mouse in the pot. If I cooked it into the tarragon beef soup deliberately.
“I swear,” I say to them, lifting my spoon, “when I die, I’ll come back to haunt you all.”
I have to talk to my friend. I climb up the stairs, feeling my way up the dark stairwell, and shout that I’m being robbed blind. Vivien lets me in, a cognac glass in her hand, her husband passed out and snoring on the rug.
“If only you knew how hard it is to keep myself from plunging the kitchen knife into his back,” she says.
“At least thank God you didn’t have kids,” I answer.
We sit in the kitchen and talk way into the night, and though the hours pass, her husband remains motionless. Vivien grabs my hand and says she has a plan.
“We’ll go to Turkey and become gold merchants.”
A few days later, I pack my clothes. They smell of mothballs. My son and daughter-in-law shout at me, saying that what I’m doing is unacceptable. I don’t care. I tip my hat and slam the front door behind me.
We rush along in the double-decker bus. It’s full of retirees who’ve never been anywhere in their lives, but now they’ve finally forked over the money for this holiday package. In Istanbul, we’re treated like royalty. The hotel staff showers us with compliments. The people we buy the gold from praise our beauty, even though anyone can see that we’re not twenty anymore. We’re even past sixty. But we look pretty good for our age.
We start home with heavy hearts. Our plan is to sell the gold for three times as much as we bought it. We’ll use the money to buy more gold and then sell that for a profit too. I burst into tears on the bus.
“I don’t want to go back,” I say.
“You’ve only ever been a good person, yet God has made you endure so much suffering,” my dear Vivien says to me. “It’s impossible that God is blind to good deeds. He’ll reimburse you with interest for all the good you’ve done, you’ll see.”
“I’m a good soul, that’s all I know,” I keep repeating.
The bus has been standing for hours. Border guards overrun the vehicle, searching for undeclared customs items. I’m convinced that if they find the gold on us, they’ll take it all.
“I won’t let those thieves take it,” I tell Vivien, pulling out the golden rings and swallowing them, one by one.
Réka Mán-Várhegyi was born in Romania, and later moved to Hungary with her family. Currently she lives in Budapest and works as an editor at a publishing house for children's books. She has published a collection of short stories, and is currently working on a novel.
Translated by: Ildikó Noémi Nagy
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