The Witch Has Three, Three Kids Has She
(The Line’s Busy)
Let’s start with the stove. It’s covered with big, caramel-coloured tiles that are shiny like the brittle glaze on the top of a dobos torte. From close to, you can even make out the hairline cracks on their surface. The stove of my childhood was like this, in our very first home. I remember I was four and quite unable to understand what it meant to move house. I wasn’t clear about the meaning of the words. My father thrust a big nylon carrier into my hand and told me to put in it all the toys I wanted to take with me. Because we were moving house. I pottered around clueless amid the chaos: the contents of the row of mass-produced Varia wardrobes that had been moved away from their usual place lay scattered on the floor, my mother ran agitatedly to and fro with the rubbish to the outside corridor, while I sat on the floor leisurely stuffing building blocks into a sack. By the following morning everything was ready.
My father pointed to the blanket lying on the floor and the naked doll: What about these? You don’t want them? No, I shook my head, and dragged the sack, which I held by its opening, around the empty room. When I looked up again, I could see only that my father was stuffing the doll, leg first, into the stove, after the rags. You could see how these caught fire amid the orange glow of the embers, the doll taking only seconds to shrivel up into something unrecognisable, though the rags flopped about as their edges disintegrated into separate strands and glowed until my father slammed the stove’s iron door on them.
The screaming could be heard in the outside corridor, someone had moved house out of me, never to return.
The new place was not that bad, actually: I met little Imi from next door, and we fell in love and decided there and then we would be man and wife when we grew up. And have three children. It didn’t appear to be out of the question: life seemed to have prospects, despite the flames blazing in the stove, though tripping across the mist-shrouded fields of maize and that October night did not feature in it. To sum up, the way it was envisaged when wearing a white net curtain veil at the kindergarten fancy dress party was not precisely how things turned out, though if you look at the figures overall, the balance sheet is about even. I did have a son, there was true love after all, with Imruska: though it was slow in coming, come it did, and blazed with a great flame in what was already a blazing hot summer that never seemed to want to end. Even in October it was hot, the sunshine so improbably strong that my tee-shirt got soaked through on the trolleybus I took to the hospital, and behind my sunglasses my face was steamy with sweat.
There was a long wait at gynaecology: no matter that I had an appointment, even the doctor hadn’t yet arrived, and there were already four women waiting out in the corridor. None of them looked pregnant – I suppose I didn’t either, though by then I’d repeated the test several times and was sure that the hitherto unseen, round and beaming face would soon be visible to the whole world.
At first I didn’t take in what the doctor was saying: he kept pointing to the monitor and saying with a smile that I should just look; then he amplified the double heartbeat. That one was, in fact, two. Or rather, if you include the one we already had, three. It was improbable and a little frightening, too. I couldn’t imagine myself as a mother of three: that really was something else, another body, another life. I flung on my clothes behind the screen, stuffing my tights into my bag, as it was so hot anyway.
I made may way along Dózsa György Street, crossing the side streets one after the other, perhaps as many as three trolleybuses rumbled past me. I continued as I basked in the golden glow towards Ajtósi Dürer Row, planning the sentence, the sentence I would say to him on the phone, which would be followed by a long silence and ecstatic surprise, the sentence that I had once already imagined and composed, but which I now had to recast in my head, adjusting it to the bodies mysteriously growing in me, which I imagined right from the outset were twin boys.
The line was busy. I rang later: still busy. He’d gone out to clear his head a bit, write his lecture, and turn off the hosepipe in the garden, because it was quite possible we wouldn’t be able to go down to the cottage again before winter set in. The cottage nestled at the very end of a dead-end village, on the edge of the fields, in a remote corner of Nógrád county, with nothing beyond it but the forest and the endless sky. I rang his mobile; it was turned off. I imagined him in a tee-shirt raking in the leaves in the garden. I always told him there was no point, but for some reason he was keen to sweep up the leaves from the apple and the walnut trees. He liked to chop wood for kindling, invariably chopping up much more than was needed for the rare winter weekends we spent there. I pictured him chopping the wood and piling the logs neatly in the shed, I pictured him having a cup of coffee outside the house, I pictured him and I loved him. Even in the evening the line was busy, and the next morning, too. From midday I rang every half-hour. My love was busy.
Busy, busy, busy. In the afternoon I sat in the gloaming and mentally began to pack, but my body did not stir. The afternoon sun on the veranda felt good, and I knew there was not much longer to wait, as the last bus left around six, so at about quarter to six I could calm down, put on a cardigan, and stare at the room. To think about where you might put two small beds.
I couldn’t. At seven I called the bus station. There’s a bus at eight-thirty, said the voice at the other end. It only stops twice and is in Terenye by eleven. But you’d have to walk the rest of the way. No problem, I said, I’ve often done that, though it was true that had been in the summer and in daylight, but surely in the cool of the evening an hour’s walk wouldn’t be that tiring.
I also rang my son, who was at his grandmother’s, as if I were planning a longish trip. I didn’t say I was taking the evening bus, as they were bound to talk me out of it, I thought. I didn’t say anything about anything else either; there was plenty of time, I reflected, as the longer conversation I planned to have with my son about his siblings-to-be was scheduled for later. I called my best friend, too, saying only that I had to go on a trip.
“Don’t go down to the cottage,” she said with unusual emphasis, which only made me even keener to go.
They always kept a spare key to the house in the restaurant in Terenye. The bus was almost empty; I dozed off and the driver had to turn round and shout twice that we’d arrived. By this time it was pitch dark outside and suddenly I had a frightening thought as I clambered down from the bus: what if there’s no one in? I hurried along the highway and could see from far off that that there were still folk at the inn. There was very little traffic, just the odd car heading towards Tarján, their headlights blinding me. It was getting cooler. The door of the inn was already locked, but the lights were on inside. I knocked long and loud on the door. The astonished waiter, who knew who I was, finally opened up, and took some time to register that it was me.
As we stood facing each other, I gazed in stupefaction at the pale and bemused fellow and tried to interpret his expression. The whole story was written on his face, all one had to do was was make out what it said; it would have been best to just let him get over his confusion and say something, or invite me in for a drink. I sensed what he wanted to say, so rather than let him say anything, I asked him, quietly but firmly, for the key. His slightly alarmed question seemed to reach me from a long way away, and hung in the air:
“Would you … like me to drive you over?”
I made may way along the highway with long, even steps and taking deep breaths, like someone preparing for a long-distance walking race. I just carried on, inhaling and exhaling, and when at last the village came into view, broke into a run. I ran over the embankment and over the ditch, past the houses with darkened windows, leaving the lit-up church behind me, stumbling across the misty, pitch-dark maize fields, I ran and ran, sweat pouring off me in rivulets. Then I caught sight of the house from quite far, and came to a sudden stop.
Once my heartbeat had steadied, I lit a cigarette and drew the smoke deep into my lungs as I stared, through the cold air, at the picket fence and the door of our house. I completely forgot about the news I was bringing and because of which I ought not, of course, to have been smoking. I took out the mobile once more, for the last time, to ring our number. My beloved. Busy. I dialled his number: still switched off. I stood and felt cold. On the way the handle of my canvas bag had come off. Slowly I made for the house. The light in the back room was on. I knocked on the entrance door, and pressing my face to the glass tried to peer inside. He took a long time coming to the door, trying to figure out who might be standing outside in the dark. He switched on a light, his familiar naked body covered only by a towel around his waist. We stood there, neither of us saying a word. In the sudden silence my panting was quite audible.
“You?” he said.
I was speechless. I could see someone making their way out from the inside room and coming to the door. A blonde woman stood there in a dressing gown, her big breasts flopping out. She stopped behind him; they seemed to be almost the same height, and in fact the camera that continued to roll in my head independently of my conscious mind even registered that the woman had varnished toenails. The whole thing was like some improbable film, in which we happened to be playing the main roles, but had suddenly forgotten our lines, so this take would end up on the cutting room floor. There will have to be another take; this one wouldn’t do. The woman edged closer to him and quietly, sleepily asked:
“You’ve come at a bad time,” he said at last, still holding the door. The woman eyed me up curiously. I was not invited in. Perhaps I should have gone in, who knows. Suddenly the air came back into my chest, my mouth opened and began to speak in an alien, reedy, metallic female voice, as the air left my lungs:
“Take me home at once. This minute.”
Minutes passed, I hung around in the yard, peeked into the shed, in the scanty light filtering out from the house it could be seen that he had indeed been chopping wood and had indeed raked up the leaves. It must have made quite an impression: man with rake, maintaining his home. With a great big implement. He quickly got dressed while I opened the gate so he could drive out with the car. The woman didn’t come to the window, though I thought she would watch us leave. Maybe she is crying, it occurred to me, though she didn’t seem frightened. I didn’t cry, seeing as I wasn’t really there. The body that was allegedly mine, and now inhabited by two others in addition to myself, carefully closed the gate, let down the latch, got into the car, put on its seatbelt and said nothing. Not a word throughout the entire drive.
I’d never before seen him drive while drunk: we drifted from one side of the road to the other in the fog, at times almost leaving the road, and at one point we took a wrong turn at a junction and spent twenty minutes bumping along on dirt roads until we eventually found our way back to the highway. I did in fact speak, just once: I uttered a single, careful and chilly sentence, which included the unlikely word echocardiogram. He didn’t respond. The car jolted us around, but we didn’t die and by dawn we had reached Pest, where in front of the house he quietly opened the car door for me.
“What about you?”
“I’m going back.”
I didn’t put the key into the lock until the car had gone, and up in the flat I began to do quite ridiculous things. It was four in the morning, day was breaking, I put fresh sheets on the bed, lay down and stared at the ceiling with my eyes wide open. I still had the image of the little beds going around my head: I picked up where I’d left off in the afternoon.
I don’t know how long I spent like that, I didn’t count the days, I remember only that I stared at the ceiling in the same way in the hospital, as the doctor explained how I had to understand that because of the inflammation, the other one also had to be removed, we couldn’t take any risks. A large necrotic mass, that’s what he said. It had to be scraped out, removed, cleared away. He didn’t notice that I wasn’t even there, that I was just cutting across the maize fields and waving back to my childhood friends from the edge of the dirt track. For some reason snow started to fall, the waiter came with a cup of tea. Not the waiter from Terenye, but a nurse. She pokes a straw into my mouth, though I’m at home and I’m going to get up in the afternoon. Many years must have passed meanwhile, because my face is old and ashen grey, my body is old and ashen grey, my voice is old and ashen grey, it’s coming from the far end of the corridor opposite, but even from there it seems to be wrapped in several layers of gauze.
The autumn doesn’t seem to want to end, is incapable of ending, the sun can’t shine, and its rays only just about manage to penetrate the cold that is gradually taking over. When we arrive, my son and I, it’s still October, admittedly its very end. Crows waddle to and fro in the frosty gardens, and someone has gathered some walnuts in a basket. I throw down my rucksack, the boy sits up in the tree. He likes to dangle his feet from there in summer, too, shouting into the house to ask me to make him some tea. I’m tired and my back aches from all the walking. I light the big brown stove, then without undressing lie down on the bed, wrapping myself in a rough woollen blanket until the house heats up.
The next morning there is a knock on the door. My son went down to the general store because it will be shut for two days. So it seems I’ve managed to lock him out. But no: the door opens and it’s just the little girl next door who has come over. To check if the chimney was not blocked. Because – imagine! – at Uncle Antal’s they found a dead owl in theirs.
I don’t look up, busying myself with the stove. The ashes have to be cleared out, it must be cleaned of everything that has been burnt in it, so that the fire can blaze again once the inside of the stove has cooled down. I kneel down, reaching deep into the stove, but I can see from the side that the little girl isn’t coming in and keeps glancing nervously into the house, talking all the while:
“My daddy has chopped some kindling, I’ve put it down outside.”
I don’t know how much they know, I’ve no wish to speak with them. I’ve no wish to speak with anyone, I’ve specially pulled the phone out and switched off my mobile. I take great care sweeping up the ashes, but the little girl really will not leave.
“I tried phoning, too, but you weren’t picking up. It always just beeps. They’ll be having Hallowe’en in the village, for the first time. We can get dressed up. Auntie Ancsi is organising it, you have to go the house of culture for nine o’clock, that’s where they’re meeting up.”
Meanwhile my son has returned, walking all the mud into the house. He puts the bread down, and they immediately start discussing who will dress up as what.
The girl finally shuts the door behind her. She is excited and in a hurry, she’d like to start cutting up the bedsheet straight away: she wants to go as a ghost. Or, even better, as an Egyptian mummy.
“Hey, what’s Hallowe’en anyway?” she asks all of a sudden, because it hasn’t occurred to her before.
“It’s like the Day of the Dead,” I tell her. “It’s just that it’s an Anglo-Saxon custom.”
“What does ‘Anglo-Saxon’ mean?”
“What will you go as?”
“Me? I’m going as a witch.”
I put the bread away and don’t even notice that I’ve started humming the end of “The Witch Has Three, Three Kids Has She”: dum-di-dum-dee, dum-di-dum-dee…
I stop suddenly, sit down in the kitchen, then pick up the bucket, take it outside, and slowly start sprinkling the ashes by hand around the outside of the house. The church bells are tolling.
KRISZTINA TÓTH is one of Hungary’s most accomplished, popular and respected writers and an outspoken public intellectual, engaged particularly with the struggle for women’s rights and the increasingly severe restrictions on cultural autonomy in Hungary. Her first collection, published at the age of 22, won the Radnóti prize and she has since garnered a dozen or more major awards for her poetry, prose and (often taboo-breaking) books for children. Her prose is as outstanding as her plays and poetry: she has helped to define the character of all these genres in contemporary Hungary. She is also a translator of French literature, while being widely translated herself: 26 books in 15 languages. In English, some dozen short stories and a volume of prose (Pixel, translated by Owen Good, 2019) are available, while such distinguished poets as George Szirtes and the translator David Hill have published numerous acclaimed versions of her poems. Her new play The Bat will be published by Bloomsbury (London) in February 2024, in an anthology “Plays from Contemporary Hungary: ‘Difficult Women’ and Resistant Dramatic Voices”.
About the Translator:
PETER SHERWOOD taught Hungarian at universities in London and North Carolina for 42 years. His book-length translations from Hungarian include novels by Miklós Vámos, Noémi Szécsi and Ádám Bodor and collections of essays by Béla Hamvas and Antal Szerb, as well as poetry by, amongst others, Bálint Balassi, János Pilinszky and Krisztina Tóth herself. He was the recipient of the Árpád Tóth Prize for translating poetry in 2020.