A Western Tale
I was born a feral beast.
At the time of my birth, I tore my mother apart. It wasn’t on purpose. I think the circumstances caused it. There was a lot of blood in the hospital room.
My father, who gutted animals as part of his occupation, couldn’t bear to look.
He needed two dark beers and two shots of liquor to quiet the horror inside him.
In our country, alcohol can calm any horror. At that time you could still get alcohol at the hospital buffets.
“Is your wife giving birth?” the sixtyish serving woman asked. She was wearing a white frock, and her hair was in a net.
“Yes,” my father whispered. He had already set the beers and Unicums in front of him, between the sputtering neon light and the walls rotting with saltpeter.
“Five hundred forints, papa,” she said with a smile of understanding.
I think she thought that my father, like every man throughout history, was overreacting to the birth. Serious men start howling when their baby is born, they pass out, when actually there is no complication at all.
My father did not believe that a man should let himself cry, no matter what the circumstances. and he was not the fainting type. He just had a hard time with miracles.
Miracles happen in Eastern Europe, but especially in Hungary. Both he and my mother knew this.
For example, my mother knew from experience that infants do not necessarily die if their alcoholic mothers force half a deciliter of Williams pear pálinka down their throats because they won’t stop crying. At most the smell of pear pálinka will make them sick for the rest of their lives.
She also knew that not all girls raised at orphanages turned into prostitutes, and that you could graduate high school while working a day job in a needle factory and meeting the daily production quotas set by the party.
My father knew from his own father that it can happen, at any moment, that your love who was shot into the Duna will write you a letter ten years later, asking how you are. Because miracles don’t bother with petty details such as the fact that you started a family in the meantime and are raising children.
Hungary is such a place. If you were born here, you won’t even be able to escape it. It travels with you no matter where you flee. It’s at the bottom of your bag.
After you have thrown away your clothes, the charred pictures of the socialist realist buildings of your childhood; when you have already forgotten that they either told you that “you aren’t enough of a communist” or “actually, you’re a communist”; when you have forgotten the language and speak the foreign language well enough that you don’t stand out among the natives; well, that’s when you realize that it was all in vain, because there’s simply no way to free yourself.
Whether or not the state wanted to kill you, your unwavering faith in miracles surges in the dark, in your blood; it glows in the marrow of your bones. The visceral knowledge that anything can happen at any time. That the unimaginable can knock on the door tomorrow.
Yes, that’s why you have trouble sleeping.
In other words, my father needed alcohol so that he could watch four-and-a-half-kilo me tear apart his forty-kilo, black-haired wife.
Everything was bloody. The obstetrician was bloody, the nurse was bloody, the bed was swimming in blood, and the floor, too. My mother received sixteen units of blood so that she could survive the ordeal.
The doctor hemmed and hawed something like, “How in God’s name does so much blood fit into a young girl like this?” as he tied down the catheter again and again. Even when it comes to red wine, eight liters is a lot.
My mother was bleeding all over. Even the capillaries were bursting on her face by the time she pushed me out of her.
The doctor did not have to slap this four-and-a-half-kilo piece of flesh more than the usual. As soon as my head was out, I was already howling.
“A boy, and healthy,” he said to my mother, and put me in her arms, then gestured to the nurse to take us to the operating room when the emotional minutes were over. He didn’t change clothes. He just pulled the rubber gloves off of his hands, then went all bloody out to the corridor, where the only pay phone was. He dialed Budapest. Not the Party headquarters, because the comrades didn’t get too excited about the birth or loss of one more Catholic peasant child, but Endre Czeizel, the country’s foremost geneticist.
“No complications, four and a half kilos,” he said into the phone, then added:
“I can’t believe it either, fuck.”
Twelve months earlier, tears were pouring down my mother’s cheeks at the gynecologist’s office. My father held her hand and gazed blurrily into the distance.
He saw my grandfather’s and grandmother’s faces in front of him, his two Catholic peasant parents, whom he would have to tell that, due to certain unfortunate circumstances, they were not going to have a grandchild.
He was boundlessly happy that they had accepted this little waif from Miskolc, and inexpressibly proud of my grandmother for controlling herself and not digging into my mother’s background, and thus avoiding having my father set the apartment on fire, but now the family was going to die out without a trace because there was no way he would abandon this woman.
He didn’t care that he was going to do what the lords and warriors of the past century had been unable to accomplish. His father should have had several children, after all. It’s a lot less painful to perish if your fortune doesn’t stay in one piece.
My mother gazed at the ultrasound picture of her uterus on the screen.
“Unfortunately, your uterus is immature. It is incapable of bearing a child,” said the doctor, trying to assume as empathic an expression as his bad day allowed. Twice he tried to explain why a fertilized egg could not embed properly, then said that “with our current medical knowledge, there is nothing we can do,” then that “you can’t plant flowers in the desert either,” and that the lady comrade should understand that “your only way to have a child is to adopt one.”
They left the hospital without a word. The sunlight outside was blinding; the landscape howled green. They walked the long road home. My mother stopped in a doorway and looked into my father’s eyes.
“Do you want to divorce me?” she asked.
“No, I don’t.”
“That’s good. Because I’m going to have a child.”
Of course my father had no idea that when my mother decided on something, it would happen just that way.
She decided, for instance, that she would not die of alcohol poisoning, that no matter how much they beat her at the orphanage, she would surely graduate and have a family. That she would show the smelly bitch, who, after pushing her out, continually wanted to kill her, that something different was in store for her. It didn’t even occur to my father that he himself was my mother’s decision.
That’s why, when three months later my mother’s period didn’t come, he didn’t understand why she announced that she was pregnant.
He watched without comprehension as my mother started to howl and kick because the comrade doctor, with a large syringe in his hand, wanted to “put the little lady back in order” and induce menstruation. My mother refused.
“You are going to die if you don’t let the doctor help you.”
“He’s not going to kill my son.”
“But we are unable to have a child.”
“Believe it, we will have a child!”
“Hold your wife!” said the doctor with the syringe, but then saw my father’s glance and stepped back, scared that if he took another step, he would have a shooting accident in his own office.
“My wife is pregnant,” my father said.
“That is impossible.”
“At least give her a test.”
The doctor listed all his relatives, then, after my father explained gently that he was the son of a Comrade Major, that it would be very ugly for the doctor’s career if Comrade Major reported to the Party that he had refused his wife a test, he immediately called for an ultrasound to see what this poor fool had in her belly.
After my parents left the office, he relaxed. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t mad at them any more, but he felt truly sorry for them, and hummed to himself with compassion. After all, if there’s anything in the world that can drive a person mad, it’s the fact that he can’t have a child.
The doctor himself went to the council apartment where my parents lived.
He was standing deathly pale in the courtyard when they opened the door to him. He couldn’t utter a sound until my father poured him a cognac. Then the words started spilling out of him as if a pipe had been unclogged.
He said that although he had been aborting, keeping, delivering babies for twenty years, he had never seen anything like this in his practice. That he hoped that the lady comrade would forgive him, but this represents a new chapter in medical science, and he had already written to Budapest, to the geneticist, asking him please to explain how in God’s name a desert turns green. The geneticist would be here on Friday, and until then she was kindly asked not to get up, not to move, not to eat spices, and to breathe only enough air so that the child would not go away.
“Don’t worry, Comrade Doctor. My son is fine,” said my mother.
The doctor didn’t dare ask how on earth the mother knew that she would have a son when the machine showed only a blot with a heartbeat, so he let it go. He wasn’t surprised later when the machine affirmed my mother’s words.
Bandi the geneticist arrived punctually on Friday. From then on, there were weekly doctor’s visits for nine months. They drew blood from my mother, took urine samples. They measured her, tested her, but grew more and more puzzled.
For the child did not go away. In fact, he grew bigger from day to day. Bandi even obtained a camera so that they could take a video of the little mother, who was extremely cooperative with the medical experts, all the way up to the point when they recommended video-recording the birth as well.
“My twat is not a grand circus!” my mother told the camera operator.
One Wednesday her water dropped while she was doing the dishes. She finished with the remaining pots, then told my father that they had better get going if he wanted to meet his son.
They introduced me to my father thirty minutes after my birth. A nurse introduced us as I howled through the glass window of the newborn department. My father gazed and gazed at this four-and-a-half-kilo piece of flesh that had almost killed his wife, and smiled, because he now believed it would survive. “Congratulations, dad!” said the doctor in the corridor when they ran into each other, and shook his hand. “This was truly an exceptional achievement.”
My father went to the telephone, spent a long time fishing in his pocket for the right coin, then dialed my grandparents, who, in contrast with a significant portion of the sleepy proletariat of Sopron, had a wired telephone at home.
“Jesus Christ be praised!” my grandfather, the Comrade Major, said into the telephone, and then fell silent for a long time when he realized the consequences of what he had said.
It flashed through his mind that at that moment the Comrade Officer intercepting the conversation must have spit coffee on himself, knocked the buttered roll off of his plate, and with the same motion dialed the workers’ militia headquarters, to tell them, look here, a partisan deserted the Revolution tonight, and there must be some connection between the Comrade Major’s Jesusing and the fact that the imperialists committed yet another assassination attempt on our diligent people in Rome by consecrating the chapel of Our Lady of Hungary. What happened was imperialist onslaught and nothing else, because everyone knows that our lady of Hungary is named Mrs. János Kádár, née Mária Tamáska, let the clerics say what they will. Comrade Major has clearly switched sides.
“I am very happy!” my grandfather finally broke the silence.
He truly was. For three days now he had been lying to the border infantrymen that a healthy grandchild had been born. His tears poured down on the other end of the line when he learned that his family wasn’t dying out after all.
“Where are you going?” he asked my father, then got dressed and headed out to the Eger Winery, so that if by any chance the young mother didn’t start producing milk, the grandfather would know what to drink to set everything in order. According to ancient Hungarian belief and ritual, the more liquor the men drank immediately after a baby’s delivery, the more milk the mother would produce.
The Eger Winery had an arbor several meters large, where my father’s friends would get together. Although the winery sold mainly distilled spirits—thanks to the enthusiastic Lock and Hardware Brigade nearby—the owner, whom Satan had brought down from Eger along with the Iron Curtain, decided he didn’t give a shit, and kept the name.
In theory it was supposed to close at eleven, but he thought that the sudden arrivals were not joking, and that they seriously believed in the direct relation between the volume of their drinking and the volume of milk the mother would produce. Before his eager eyes he saw the Orion color television he had been saving for, and thought, in a saintly way, that the gentlemen would assemble the remaining cash. And he was not disappointed.
“A goddamn miracle!” Gege said to my father, and poured shots of the cognac in front of him.
“It sure is.”
“Just like a Western story. Everything turns out well in the end.”
“To the doctor!” my father cried, lifting his shot class. Everyone else followed suit.
When they had also raised toasts to the hospital reception staff and to all the head gynecologists to come, and it was necessary to drink wine, because they had drunk up all the beer in the winery, my father noticed my grandfather resting his head on his hand and looking sorrowfully toward the taproom.
“What’s the matter with the old man?” Gege whispered to my father.
“He just had a lot to drink,” my father replied. He lifted his glass toward my grandfather, who stood up and toasted with a smile, but when they finished the ritual, he sat down again and gazed just as sorrowfully into the far distance.
The drinking was not the problem for the old man. The Slavs in Slovak Tatra had taught him how to drink. He had drunk up the pálinka that fur-soled Russians made from potato peel and coffee grounds, because anyhow, it was not possible to kill Nazis every day, and solid determination could only go so far in replacing the proper political ideology.
No, my grandfather would have drunk anyone in the group under the table, and, unlike the vast majority, did not get sad from drinking, since he was gladdened by the knowledge that he had something to drink.
He was grieving because of the miracle.
For unlike my father, my mother, my father’s friends, and the whole tribe, he knew exactly what was going on with East European miracles.
That clearly this is a region where miracles happen constantly, without interruption, but in contrast with the place where, one thousand nine hundred and eighty years ago, the Lord God sent the Savior of the world to be born, East European miracles came with a price.
Without a doubt, someone would have to pay this price. If not my grandfather, then my father and mother, and if not they, then the child himself.
For God gives to the Magyars only to take just as much back. My grandfather was clear on this point. And the good Lord did this so that we wouldn’t start thinking that we were his intimate chums.
SÁNDOR JÁSZBERÉNYI is the author of The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (New Europe Books, 2014). In 2017 he received Hungary’s Libri Literary Prize. As a correspondent for Hungarian news sites, he has covered the conflict with Islamic State, unrest in Ukraine, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and the Gaza War. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Magazine, AGNI, B O D Y, and the Brooklyn Rail. He divides his time between Budapest and Cairo.
About the Translator:
DIANA SENECHAL is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities and the author of Republic of Noise (2012) and Mind over Memes (2018), as well as numerous poems, stories, essays, and translations. She lives and teaches in Szolnok, Hungary.