I am still half-asleep in the early hours when I hear sirens approaching the farm and it occurs to me that it’s Rebi being brought home, since her highness felt obliged to attend to her herding duties in the meadow in the middle of the night. But it’s not her that they are bringing.
Dear oh dear! With each passing year I find it harder to sleep, my nights are spent tossing and turning, brooding over matters long past, and I wake in a confused daze. There are times when I really don’t know where I am. That’s the state I’m in as these officials arrive with their van, sirens blaring.
It’s some kind of official vehicle, with a lot of letters and numbers on its side, and inside it are these folk wearing white CSI masks and protective gear. There’s a loudspeaker funnel on top of the van, telling me to go down into the cellar, barricade the entrance with a water butt or two, or pots and pans filled with water, and it would be best if I lay prone and motionless on the floor with my hands folded across the back of my neck.
Well, whatever next!
And yet, when I hear them with their sirens, I still think they are bringing Rebi. Because last night, when she suddenly ran off after the goats, she must have got well and truly lost trying to herd them back home. Perhaps she couldn’t deal with the creatures when they’d gone berserk, but equally, being the featherbrain that she is, she might have got lost even without them, because it’s almost daybreak and there’s not the slightest sign of her. That’s why it seemed to me that if there was a van approaching with its sirens blaring, they must have come across her somewhere and were bringing her home.
But no, it wasn’t her that they were bringing.
I give the folk in the van a wave anyway, and shout out to them. Haven’t they by any chance seen a grey-haired lady in a nightdress with nine Hortensen goats? But they don’t respond, it’s like I wasn’t talking to them at all, as if they hadn’t heard me. They trundle on, by now at the Nussbaums’ farm, giving Árpi Nussbaum and his loved ones the benefit of their loudspeaker.
And still no sign of Rebi.
The evening had got off to quite a good start, as we had made up after three and a half weeks. It happened from one minute to the next: we suddenly looked at each other and broke into smiles. We had both grown tired of being angry with the other at the same time. Anger’s mainspring had tightened up in us and just as suddenly it was released. Little wonder: Rebi and I! Our souls have so grown together that such things happen to us together at some mysterious inner command. We didn’t in fact have much to say to each other: we made peace and that was that. A steady silence descended upon us.
The evening was mild, considering it was September, and before going to bed we sat out on the deck for a while, listening peacefully to the chirping of the mole crickets and the soil’s snuffling beneath the freshly watered asters. Tomorrow, should there be something to talk about, we would. But for the moment the mole crickets held the stage.
Hardly had we fallen asleep – it must have been well after midnight – and again, as if by magic, we both woke at the same time, sat up in bed and stared at each other: what’s all this? What’s going on? Because we had the feeling that something was happening. Or about to happen.
And indeed, over in the east, there was a sudden glow in the sky, an enormous orange-like cloud rising above the horizon, making the sky just like the one that the prophet spoke of.
At this, outside in the pens, too, there was a sudden commotion. With her good ear Rebi heard our goats scrimmaging, and we could already see them by the light in the sky leaping out of their pens, one by one, accompanied by much bleating. The nine of them scurried off in nine different directions at lightning speed. So Rebi, since the goats were her responsibility, ran off after them squealing, still in her thin nightdress. The orange cloud in the distance lit their way nicely, and I watched them for a while from the deck.
Before getting back into bed, I shouted out a few times: Rebi, Rebi, Rebi! But answer came there none.
Should I have gone after her? But where?
Rebi has not come back since.
The poor dear must be afraid to come home without the goats. She knows very well why. The goats are our livelihood. Not just the goat’s milk but the fourteen by-products we make from it – curd cheese, goat cheese, ewe’s cheese, feta-type telemea, kashkaval, and so on. All Hortensen quality, organic. Goats are in: these days people are willing to pay well for such products.
Meanwhile the van with the folk in the white CSI outfits and the funnel on top is already beyond the Nussbaum farm, having reached the furthermost plots in the meadow; the wind in the forest resounds with the mantra of cellars and water butts.
And meanwhile, unless I’m very much mistaken, the figure of Árpi Nussbaum is approaching, with hurried, loping strides. Heading straight for my gate. I can’t see his face, because he is wearing a black raincoat with a hood and dark sunglasses, but the gait is unmistakably Árpi Nussbaum’s.
It is indeed him, and he comes racing up the steps, panting that Vera and the children would be along in a moment and I should let them into the cellar, surely I wouldn’t mind. Seeing as he has neither a cellar nor water butts, as I well know.
But of course you can come in, by all means, if you wish. By the way, Rebi isn’t home. But I’m sure she’d be glad to see you.
And what did I think, Árpi Nussbaum went on, he was already scratching his head last night, because that bright cloud had a sort of mushroom-like shape, and now it turns out that’s why there’s a bit of a hullabaloo. And he doesn’t have a cellar himself.
Of course you’re welcome, all of you. Plenty of room. But did you really think it looked like a mushroom? Because what I saw was more the shape of an orange, and orange-coloured, too, I say to Árpi Nussbaum.
But he is insistent that it was a mushroom.
I let him have his way. Very well, so it was. You know what, I say to him, from where you saw it, it could well have had more of a mushroom shape, right? But when she comes home we’ll ask Rebi, too. Because I thought it was an orange and if it was in fact a mushroom, we’ll let her decide, she’s very good at that kind of thing.
Árpi Nussbaum makes no comment.
From time to time I look out at the bushes in the meadow and the path winding between them. But no sign of Rebi, anywhere.
Then Vera arrives with the children, they too have been hurrying, their hooded raincoats are barely buttoned up. Without a word they stretch out on the bare earth floor.
So what’s all this about? What’s got into you with all this raincoat business? Is it raining out there?
Not yet. Árpi Nussbaum puts on his sunglasses and looks out through the dirty cellar window. But it’s going to. That’s what the loudspeaker folk said.
Just a minute, I’ll give it a wipe, I say to him, if you can’t bear to part with your sunglasses, I’ll wipe it down so you can see out properly. I pick up a rag to wipe down the dirty window, but Árpi Nussbaum pushes my arm away.
Don’t bother! I don’t mind the dirt! It may be better for the eyes if some dirt’s left on it, you know, it acts as a filter. It’s better if you can’t see out, to leave it as it is.
And then all of a sudden it really does start to rain, we didn’t notice down here in the cellar that it had clouded over. And how! A dirty big grey cloud settled on the meadow, its edges reaching right down to the bushes, and black rain was falling from it. It seems to be black at first, but as it trickles down the window it’s perhaps more bluish-black, like ink. Outside, too, the world is sort of dark blue, the air is dark blue, swirling round the oleanders and the yellowing leaves of the plum trees. Little puddles of dark blue everywhere; there’s a little rivulet, for example, already dribbling down the steps, heading straight for the gate.
The Nussbaums are not very forthcoming today, though it would be nice to somehow brighten up the day. We could play something, Ludo I was thinking of, someone would just have to fetch it from upstairs. For the children’s sake, of course, who were lying motionless on their stomachs, with their hands crossed on the backs of their necks, noses in the bare earth. But perhaps they’re not in the mood just now. Looking at them lying on the floor, I think better of the idea.
I ought to offer you something to eat and drink, I say to the Nussbaums, seeing as you’re here. I’ll fetch some cheese and apples, walnuts, whatever’s left over from yesterday’s trip to the market. Cheese, apples, walnuts! There might even be some of this season’s unfiltered grape juice.
They’re not hungry, they say. Thank you, they say, but they don’t want anything just now. Nothing at all. They couldn’t get even a bite of anything down.
Árpi Nussbaum then takes me by the arm, and pulls me back from the doorway: you’re not going anywhere, he says quietly.
But you know how headstrong Rebi is, she would have fed you long ago, I say.
But Rebi is nowhere to be found.
It’s getting on for midday when I want to go upstairs again, in fact I need a piss, and then snow begins to fall in enormous flakes the size of the palm of my hand. Yes, real, proper snow, piling on top of the dark blue slush, and that makes me think again of Rebi, who ran out after the goats in her nightdress. The snow falls more and more thickly, the enormous snowflakes almost stand still in the air, hovering, as on windless days at Christmas time, and the distant wind from the forest dies away at a stroke, even the Nussbaums’ farm can hardly be seen, the nutbushes of the meadow have all but disappeared, until in the end a snow-white blanket covers the path all the way from the fence to the house. Yes, indeed. Winter has come!
There’ll be a lot of shovelling to do.
Please stay, says Árpi Nussbaum. You can pee in the corner, we won’t look, just don’t open the door while we’re here. Please, just this once. Again he holds me back, grabbing me with a big peasant hand, this time around the crotch, holding me by my trousers. They’ll let us know, sound the all-clear, when we can go out again, he says hoarsely. And doesn’t release his grip on my trousers.
Get off, I say to him, you’ve got me by my cock! I even give him a little shove. You’re messing about in the right place with that pooftah paw of yours.
But now I no longer want to go out so much. They said they’ll look away.
I pick one corner of the cellar, but decide to wait before getting on with it, while I keep trying to peer through the layers of filth on the cellar window at the snow-white world. Perhaps I will see Rebi coming with our goats, or maybe by herself, or even just her footprints in the snow. I’d shout out to her: don’t bother looking for me upstairs, I’m down in the cellar with the Nussbaums.
ÁDÁM BODOR is one of Hungary’s most revered writers. He has lived all his life haunted by the experience of having spent two of his teenage years (1952-1954) as a political prisoner in one of the toughest jails in Ceaușescu’s Romania. As might be expected, his work is radically pared down and often uncompromisingly (though not entirely humourlessly) bleak, generally set somewhere indeterminate and isolated, though clearly on the easternmost fringes of European civilization. Though comparable perhaps to the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, this is by no means a sacred area of salvation and purification but rather a site for the exercise of raw power. Bodor’s work in English translation includes The Sinistra Zone (2013, translated by Paul Olchváry) and The Birds of Verhovina (translated by Peter Sherwood, awaiting publication). This short story, from his 2019 collection Sehol/Nowhere, is a fine example of his themes and writerly skills.
About the Translator:
PETER SHERWOOD has been an academic in the UK and the USA for over 40 years, translating since 1967. His translations from Hungarian include the novels The Book of Fathers, by Miklós Vámos (UK 2006, USA 2009), The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, by Noémi Szécsi (UK 2012, USA 2013), collections of essays by the philosopher Béla Hamvas (Trees, 2006, The Philosophy of Wine, 2016) and the writer and literary historian Antal Szerb (Reflections in the Library, 2017), as well as many poems and short stories, biographies, memoirs, film scripts, and even an opera libretto. With his wife Julia Sherwood he has over the last decade also been translating contemporary literature from Slovak and, occasionally, Czech and Polish.