Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
A New Directions Book
It wasn't easy. Back then it had taken her two days to work out where she should plant her foot, what to grab for support and how to squeeze herself through what looked to be the impossibly narrow hole left by a few slats that opened under the eaves at the back of the house now, of course, it took only half a minute and was only mildly risky, entailing one well-chosen movement to leap onto the woodpile covered with a black tarpaulin, grabbing the gutter, slipping her left foot into the gap and sliding it to one side, then forcefully entering, head first, while kicking against the support with her free foot, and there she was inside the old pigeon loft in the attic, in that single domain whose secrets were known to her alone, where she had no need to fear her elder brother's sudden inexplicable assaults, though she did have to be careful not to awaken the suspicions of her mother and elder sister on account of her long absence, because, should they discover her secret, they would immediately ban her from the loft, and then all further efforts would be in vain. But what did all that matter now! She pulled off her soaked sweater, adjusted her favorite pink outfit with its white collar and sat herself at "the window" where she closed her eyes and shivered, ready to jump, listening to the roar of rain on the tiles. Her mother was asleep in the house somewhere below, her sisters hadn't yet returned though it was time for tea, so she was practically certain that no one would look for her that afternoon, with the possible exception of Sanyi, and nobody ever knew where to find him which made all his appearances sudden and unexpected, as if he were seeking the answer to some long ignored riddle of the estate, a secret that could only be discovered by means of a sudden surprise attack. The fact was she had no real reason to be frightened, because no one ever did look for her on the contrary, she had been firmly told to stay away, particularly-and this was often the case-when there was a visitor at the house. She had found herself in this no-man's-land because she was incapable of obeying orders she wasn't allowed to be anywhere near the door nor to wander too far because she knew she could be summoned any time ("Go fetch me a bottle of wine. On the double!" or "Get me three packs of cigarettes, my girl, Kossuth brand, you won't forget, will you?"), and should she fail but once in her mission she'd never be let into the house again. Because there was nothing else left to her: her mother, when she was sent home from the special school "by mutual agreement," put her to kitchen work, but her fear of disapproval-when plates broke on the floor, or enamel chipped off the pan, or when the cobweb remained in the corner, or when the soup turned out tasteless, or the paprika stew too salty-made her incapable of completing the simplest tasks at last, so there was nothing for it but to chase her from the kitchen too. Prom that time on, her days were filled with cramping anxiety and she hid herself behind the barn or sometimes at the end of the house under the eaves because from there she could keep an eye on the kitchen door so that, though they couldn't see her from there, if they called she could appear immediately. Having to be constantly on the alert soon played havoc with her emotions: her attention was almost exclusively restricted to the kitchen door, but she registered that with such keen sharpness it almost amounted to acute pain, every detail of the door impinging on her at once, the two dirty panes of glass above it, through which she glimpsed flashes of lace curtains fixed there with drawing pins, and below it, splashes of dried mud, and the line of the door handle as it bent toward the ground in other words a terrifying network of shapes, colors, lines not only that, but the precise condition of the door itself as it changed according to her curiously chopped up sense of time, in which possible dangers presented themselves every moment. When any period of immobility came to a sudden end everything around her shifted with it: the walls of the house sped by her as did the crooked arc of the eaves, the window altered position, the pigsty and the neglected flowerbed drifted past her from left to right, the earth under her feet shifted, and she seemed to be standing in front of her mother or elder sister who suddenly appeared before her, without her being able to see the open door. The brief moment it took her to blink was enough for her to recognize them, since that was all she needed, because the shadowy forms of her mother and sister were constantly imprinted on the scene before her in the throbbing air: she could sense their presence without seeing them, she knew they were there, that she was facing them down there, just as she knew that they were rising above her to the point that if she once looked up and saw them, their image might crack right across, because their intolerable right to tower above her was so unarguable that the vision she had of them might well be enough to explode them. The ringing silence extended only as far as the unmoving door, beyond that she struggled to distinguish her mother or sister's angry command from the pounding noise ("You're enough to give anyone a heart attack! Why are you rushing around like that? There's nothing for you here! Go on, get out and play somewhere!") that quickly faded as she ran away to hide behind the barn or under the eaves, so that relief might overcome panic, of which she was never quite free because it could start again at any time. Of course, there was no playing for her, not that she had a doll, or a storybook, or a glass marble to hand with which - if any stranger should appear in the yard or if the people inside glanced out of the window to check on her-she might pretend to be engaged in a game, but she dared not, because her constant state of alert had prevented her, for a long time now, from being immersed in any kind of game. Not merely because her brother's rapidly changing moods determined what objects presented themselves to her to play with-ruthlessly deciding what things she might keep and for how long - but because of the games she was expected to play, that she might playas a kind of defense to satisfy her mother and sister's expectations of "the kind of games she should play;' for, this way, they were not forced to endure the daily shame of her ("If we let her!") "peeping at us, like a sick thing, watching everything we do:' Only up here, in the old unused pigeon loft, did she feel at all safe: here, she didn't have to play there was no door "that people might walk through" (her father having nailed up the door as the first stage of some never executed plan in the dim and distant past) and no window "that people might look through," since she herself had taped two color photographs torn from newspapers across the projecting pigeonholes so that there might be "a nice view," one of them showing a seashore with setting sun, the other a snow-covered mountain peak with a reindeer in the foreground. Of course, everything was all over now, forever. A draft blew through the space once occupied by the old attic flap: she shuddered. She felt for her sweater but it wasn't dry yet so she took one of her greatest treasures, a scrap of white lace rescued from among the rags in the back kitchen and spread it over herself rather than go down into the house, wake her mother, and ask her for some dry clothes. She wouldn't have believed herself so daring, not even one day before could she have imagined it. Had she got soaked yesterday she would immediately have changed her clothes because she knew that, if she fell ill and had to be confined to bed, her mother and sisters couldn't abide her crying. But how could she have suspected that as late as yesterday morning, there would be this event, like an explosion that did not knock things flat, but, on the contrary, made things stronger and that, having been purged by "a belief built on the tempting sense of dignity," she'd been able to sleep and dream in peace. She had noticed a few days earlier that something had happened to her brother: he held his spoon differently, closed the door after him in a different way, would wake suddenly on the iron bedstead beside her in the kitchen, and spent the whole day puzzling over something. Yesterday after breakfast he came over to the barn but instead of pulling her up by her hair or- what was worse-simply standing behind her until she burst into tears, he pulled a piece of Balaton Slice candy from his pocket and pressed it into her hand. Little Esti didn't know what to make of it and she suspected something bad might happen in the afternoon when Sanyi shared with her "the most fantastic secret ever:' She never doubted the truth of what her brother told her, and was far more inclined to disbelieve and find inexplicable the fact that Sanyi had chosen her of all people to ask for help, she "who was completely unreliable:' But the hope that this wouldn't turn out to be just another trap overcame her anxiety that it would so, before the question could be resolved, Esti immediately and quite unconditionally-agreed to everything. Not that she could have done anything else, of course, because Sanyi would have forced a "yes" out of her anyway, but there was no need because once he had revealed to her the secret of the money tree he immediately won her unqualified confidence. Once Sanyi had "finally" finished, he looked to see what effect he had had on his sister's "dumb mug" j she was practically in tears with this unexpected burst of happiness, though she knew from bitter experience that crying was not an advisable course with her brother. Confused, she handed over the little treasure she had scraped together since Easter, as her contribution to the "can't lose" experiment, because she had intended this collection of dimes she had picked up from visitors to the house for Sanyi anyway, and she didn't know how to tell him that she had hidden it away for months and lied about it, just so that it-her savings-should remain a secret ... But her brother showed no great curiosity and, in any case, the joy she felt at being able, at last, to take part in her brother's secret adventures immediately overcame any sense of confusion. What she couldn't explain was why he should be burdening her with this dangerous confidence and why he should risk failure in this way since he couldn't possibly believe that his sister was capable of executing a mission that demanded "courage, endurance and the will to victory:' On the other hand she couldn't forget that beneath all the harsh suffering he inflicted on her, under all the ruthless cruelty, there'd been one time, when she was ill, that Sanyi allowed her to creep into the kitchen bed with him and even let her cuddle him a little and so fall asleep. That would explain it. And there was that other time, some years ago, at her father's funeral, when, having understood that death, which was "the most direct way to heaven and the angels," was not only the result of God's will, but was something that could be chosen, and she herself was determined to find out how that worked, it was her brother who had enlightened her. She couldn't possibly have worked it out by herself: she needed him to tell her what exactly to do, a solution she might perhaps have stumbled on by herself, which was that "rat poison would do the trick too.” And then yesterday, when she woke at dawn, when she had finally overcome her fear and decided to wait no longer, and was feeling a real desire to be raised to heaven, and a mighty wind seemed to be lifting her, so that she saw the earth beneath her receding further and further, the houses, trees, the fields, the canal, the whole world shrinking below and she was already standing at heaven's gate, among the angels who lived in a blaze of scarlet-it was again Sanyi with his talk of the secret money tree who had yanked her back from that magical yet terrifying height, and so, at dusk they set out together-together!-for the canal, her brother happily whistling and carrying the spade on his back, she a couple of strides behind, excitedly clutching her little hoard of money, tied up in a handkerchief. Sanyi dug a hole in the canal bank in his customary silence and, rather than chasing her away, even let her place the money at the bottom of it. He instructed her more strictly that the money-seeds they had sown should be generously watered twice daily, once in the morning, once in the evening ("or it all dries up!") then sent her home telling her she should return "precisely" an hour later with the watering can, because he had to utter "some magic spells" while she was gone, and he had to be absolutely alone while he uttered them. Little Esti conscientiously went about her task and slept badly that night, dreaming of being pursued by escaped dogs, but when she woke in the morning and saw it was raining heavily outside, everything took on a more cheerful air, a warm miasma of happiness settling over her. She immediately went back to the canal so she could be certain of giving the magic seeds a truly thorough soaking in case they weren't getting as much water as they needed. At lunch she whispered to Sanyi-she didn't want to disturb her mother who was asleep because she'd been making hay all night-that she hadn't seen anything so far, " ... nothing, simply nothing," but he argued that it would take at least three, possibly four, days for the shoots to appear, and there would certainly be nothing till then, and even that depended on whether "the spot had been properly watered:' "After that," he added impatiently, in a voice that brooked no contradiction, "there's no need for you to spend the whole damn day crouching there to watch it ... that won't do any good. It's enough for you to be there twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening. That's all. Do you understand, retard?" Giving her a grin, he left the house and Esti decided to stay up in the loft until the evening if need be. "Until the shoots come through!" How often, after that, did she close her eyes so she might imagine the shoot rising and growing ever more lush, its boughs soon bending under the tremendous weight when she, with her little basket with the torn handles, might - abracadabra!-gather up the fruits, go home and tumble the coins out on the table! ... How they would all stare! Prom that day on she would be given a clean room to sleep in, one with a big bed with a really big eiderdown, and there would be nothing for any of them to do other than to make a daily visit to the canal, fill the basket, and dance and drink cup after cup of cocoa, and the angels would be there too, fleets of them, all sitting around the kitchen table ... She wrinkled her brow ("Hang on a minute!") and, bending from side to side, began to sing:
Yesterday's one day,
Add today, makes two days,
Tomorrow's the third day,
Tomorrow's tomorrow makes four.
"Maybe it only needs two more nights' sleep?" she thought in her excitement. "But wait!" she suddenly stopped. "That's not right!" She took her thumb from her mouth, pulled her other hand out from under the lace cover, and tried counting again
Yesterday's one day.
Today makes two,
Two and one makes three days,
Tomorrow, ah, tomorrow,
Makes three, plus one, makes four.
"Of course! So it might be tonight! Tonight!" Outside the water rushed, unobstructed, from the tiles, in a hard; straight line and beat at the earth by the walls of the Horgos farm, forming an ever-deeper moat, as if every individual drop of rain were the product of some hidden intent, first to isolate the house and maroon its occupants, then slowly, millimeter by millimeter, to soak through the mud to the foundation stones beneath and so wash away the whole thing so that, in the unremittingly brief time allowed for the purpose, the walls might crack, the windows shift and the doors be forced from their frames so that the chimney might lean and collapse, the nails might fall from the crumbling walls, and the mirrors hanging from them might darken so that the whole shambles of a house with its cheap patchwork might vanish under water like a ship that had sprung a leak sadly proclaiming the pointlessness of the miserable war between rain, earth, and man's fragile, best intentions, a roof being no defense. Below her the darkness was almost complete, only through the opening did some faint light, like thick rolling fog, seep in. Everything around her was calm. She leaned against one of the rafters and because something of her earlier joy still lingered she closed-"Now's the moment!"-her eyes ... She had been seven the first time her father took her into town, at the time of the national cattle fair he had let her wander around among the tents, and this was how she met Korin, who had lost both eyes in the last war and who was kept alive by the little money he earned by playing the harmonica at markets and bars at festival time. It was from him she learned that blindness "was a magical condition, my girl" and that he, meaning Korin, was not in the least sorry, but, on the contrary, glad, and grateful to God for "this eternal dusk of mine;' so he just laughed when someone tried to describe the "colors" of this poor worldly life to him. Little Esti listened to him, mesmerized, and the next time they went to the fair she went straight to him, when the blind man revealed to her that the way into this magical world was not "barred to her either, and that she had only to close her eyes for a long time to be there:' But her first efforts frightened her: she saw flames leaping, pulsing colors and a horde of furiously fleeting shapes, as well as hearing a continuous low humming and thumping noise nearby. She didn't dare approach Kerekes for advice, Kerekes who spent his time in the bar from fall through to spring, so she only discovered the secret solution much later when she caught a serious lung disease and the doctor was hastily summoned to spend the night at her bedside. With the fat, enormous, silent doctor beside her, she felt secure at last, the fever having numbed her senses, a tremor of joy ran through her, she closed her eyes, and then she finally saw what Korin had been talking about. In the magical country she saw her father with his hat on his head, wearing a long coat, holding a horse by the reins, driving the cart into the yard, taking from it a bowl of sugar, a sugarloaf, and a thousand other items brought from the market, and spreading them across the table. She realized that the gates of the kingdom would only be opened to her when "her skin felt hot all over," when her body and eyelids started to shudder. Her excited imagination usually tended to conjure her dead father as he slowly vanished over the fields, the dust rising before him and in his wake as the wind blew and, increasingly often, she would see her brother too as he winked cheerfully at her, or sleeping beside her on the iron bed, the way he appeared to her now. His dreaming face calm, his hair over his eyes, one arm dangling from the bed and now his skin contracts, his fingers begin to move, suddenly he turns over and the covers slide from him. "Where is he now?" The magic kingdom buzzed and rattled and drifted away as she opened her eyes. She had a headache, her skin was on fire with fever, her limbs felt very heavy. And suddenly, as she looked through the "window" it occurred to her that she couldn't just wait here for the ill-omened mist to clear all by itself she understood that till she proved herself deserving of her brother's irrational good mood, she was risking losing his trust, and, furthermore, that this was her first, and possibly last, opportunity of gaining it she couldn't afford to lose it because Sanyi knew the "triumphant, mad, contrary" nature of the world, without him life would be a matter of blindly stumbling between fury and murderous pity, between the thousand dangers presented by anger and waste. She was frightened, but she understood that something had to be done now, and because this wasn't a feeling previously known to her, it was balanced by a flash of momentary, confused ambition suggesting that, if she could earn her brother's respect, together they could "conquer" the world. And so, slowly, unnoticeably, the magical treasure, the broken-handled basket, the golden boughs bending with coins, drifted from the narrow confines of her attention and their qualities were transferred, by adulation, to her brother. She felt she was standing on a bridge which connected her old terrors to the things that had terrified her just the day before: she had only to cross over to the other side where Sanyi was impatiently waiting for her, and there everything that had hitherto mystified her would be explained. Now she understood what her brother had meant when he insisted on winning-"We have to win, do you understand, retard? Win!"- because she herself was moved by the hope of winning, and while she still felt that there could be no winners at the end if only because nothing ever ended, the words Sanyi had spoken yesterday ("People here make a mess of everything, it's one mess after another, but we know how to straighten things out, don't we, retard? .. :') had rendered all objections ridiculous each failure was an act of heroism. She took her thumb out of her mouth, gripped the lace curtain even tighter, and started walking around the loft so as to feel less cold. What to do? How could she prove she was capable of "winning"? She looked around the loft for inspiration. The beams above her rose in a sinister fashion, rusty nails and old carpenter's hooks hanging from them. Her heart beat wildly. Suddenly she heard a noise from below. Sanyi? Her sisters? Carefully, silently, she let herself down onto the woodpile, then slunk by the wall as far as the kitchen window, pressing her face to the cold glass. "It's Micur!" The black cat sat on the kitchen table, happily lapping up the remnants of the paprika stew from the red saucepan. The lid of the pan rolled along the floor right into the corner. "Oh, Micur!" Silently, she opened the door, threw the cat down on the floor and quickly replaced the lid on the pan, at which point an idea occurred to her. She turned around slowly, her eyes seeking Micur. "I'm stronger than her," the thought flashed across her mind. The cat ran over to her and rubbed herself against her legs. Esti tiptoed over to the coatrack and, picking the green nylon net bag from one of the hooks) silently made her way back to the cat. "Come along now!" Micur obediently strolled over and allowed Esti to put her into the bag. Her indifference didn't last long, of course: her legs slipping through the holes without finding any firm ground, she let out a scared yowl. "What's up now?" came a voice from the other room. "Who's out there?" Esti stopped in fright. "It's me ... only me .. :' "What the fuck are you doing messing around in there. Get out now. Go play somewhere!" Esti said nothing, but holding her breath, stepped out into the yard, the cat still yowling in the bag. She reached the corner of the farmstead without further trouble, stopped there to take a deep breath, then set off at a run because she felt the whole world was waiting to leap on her. When eventually, at the third try, she succeeded in reaching her hiding place, she leaned gasping against one of the rafters and didn't look back but knew that below her-all around the woodpile-the barn, the garden, the mud, and the darkness were helplessly rushing at each other, their faces contorted with fury, like hungry dogs that have missed a meal. She gave Micur her freedom and the black cat immediately glossed over to the opening before turning round and sniffing its way round the loft, occasionally raising its head, listening for the silence, then rubbing itself against Esti's legs, raising its tail in pleasure and, once its mistress had sat down in front of the "window," it settled in her lap, "You've had it," Esti whispered as Micur started purring. "Don't think I'll feel sorry for you! You can defend yourself if you like, if you think you can, but it won't do any good...” She pushed the cat off her lap went over to the opening and, using some planks leaning against the tiles, closed it off. She waited a little while so her eyes could get used to the darkness then slowly set out toward Micur. The cat did not suspect anything and allowed Esti to grab it and raise it high, and only started struggling when its mistress threw herself to the ground and began wildly rolling about with it from corner to corner. Esti's fingers closed around its neck like handcuffs and so quickly did she lift the cat up then turn over again, so the cat was underneath her, that Micur was frozen with terror for a second, and quite incapable of defending itself The struggle couldn't last for long though. The cat quickly seized the first available opportunity to sink its claws deep into her mistress's hands. But Esti too had suddenly lost confidence, and however furiously she railed at the cat ("Come on then! Where are you? Go on, go for me! Go for me!") Micur was unwilling to try her strength against her, in fact it was she who had to be careful not to squash the cat under her palms when they next rolled over. She stared in desperation at the fleeing cat who stared back with her strangely luminous eyes, fur on end, prepared to leap. What to do? Should she try again? But how? She made a frightening face and pretended she was about to rush at the cat as a result of which the cat sprang to the opposite corner. After that she made just one sudden move-raising her hand and stamping her foot then suddenly leaping closer to the cat-and this was enough for Micur, ever more desperate, to throw herself into a yet more defensible corner, not even caring that she was cutting herself on the hooks and rusty nails, that she was crashing full tilt against the tiles, the king post, or the planks covering the opening. Both of them knew, with absolute certainty, where the other one was: Esti could immediately tell the cat's precise whereabouts on account of its luminous eyes, by the noise as it touched the tiles, or the dull thump of its body as it landed as for herself, her position was clearly perceptible even from the faint whirlwind she created in moving her arms through the dense air. The joy and pride that swelled within her from moment to moment sent her imagination into feverish overdrive, so she felt she hardly needed to stir, her power being such that it must bear down on the cat with irresistible force in fact the consciousness of her own inexhaustible grandeur ("I can do anything, absolutely anything with you ... !") confuse': her a little at first, presenting her with a completely unknown universe a universe with her at the center, unable to decide anything given the vast range of choice available to her, though the moment of indecisiveness, that happy sense of saturation was soon enough broken, and she could see herself stabbing through Micur's terrified, sparkling eye, with their deathly glow, or in one movement ripping off her forepaws. or simply hanging her from every damn hook or cramp at once. Her body felt strangely heavy and she felt an ever-keener, ever more alien kind of self-consciousness. The fierce desire for victory had all but vanquished her old self, but she knew whichever way she turned she was bound to trip, to fall right through the floor and that, at that last moment, the sense of determination and superiority positively radiating from her would be deeply injured. She stood there stiffly, watching the phosphorescent glow in the cat's eyes, and suddenly realized something that had never before occurred to her: looking into the light of those eyes she understood the terror, the despair that might almost make another being turn against itself; the helplessness whose last hope was to offer itself up as prey on the chance that that way it might yet escape. And those eyes were like spotlights cutting through the darkness, unexpectedly illuminating the last few minutes, the moments of their struggle when they were now apart, now clinging to each other, and Esti watched helplessly as everything she had slowly and painfully constructed in and of herself was laid flat as if at a single blow, The rafters, the "window," the planks, the tiles, the hooks and the walled-off entrance to the loft once again drifted back into her consciousness though -like a highly disciplined army waiting for the word of command-they had moved from their appointed places; the lighter objects were receding little by little, the heavier ones, strangely enough, were getting closer, as if everything had sunk to the bottom of a pond where the light no longer reached and where the direction, speed and momentum of their movements would be determined by weight. Micur lay flattened on the rotting boards across a spread of dried pigeon droppings, every muscle tense to the point of snapping, the outlines of her body a little lost against the darkness, so the cat seemed to be swimming toward her in the dense air, and she only came to full consciousness of what she had done when she seemed to feel the cat's warm, violently pulsating stomach and the skin with its various lacerations and the blood trickling between them. She was choking with shame and regret: she knew her victory could never be made good now. If she started moving toward her, to stroke her, it would be in vain, Micur would just run away. And that this was how it would remain forever: useless now to call her, useless to hold her in her lap, Micur would always be at the ready, her eyes would always retain the terrifying, ineradicable memory of this flirtation with death that would force her to make the last move. Until now she had always believed that it was failure only that was intolerable, but now she understood that victory too was intolerable, because the most shameful element of the desperate struggle was not that she remained on top, but that there was no chance of defeat. It flashed through her mind that they could try again (" ... if she clawed ... should she bite…') but she quickly realized that there was nothing she could do about it: she was simply the stronger. The fever was burning her up, sweat covered her brow. And then she caught the smell. Her first reaction was fear because she thought there was someone else in the loft with them. She only discovered what had happened when Micur - because Esti had taken an uncertain step toward the "window" ("What is this smell?") and the cat thought her mistress was about to attack her again - slipped by her into the opposite corner. "You've shat yourself!" she cried furiously. "You dared shit yourself!" The smell immediately filled the loft. She held her breath and leaned over the mess. ''And you've pissed as well!" She ran toward the opening, took a deep breath, then returned to the scene of the crime, and used a broken piece of plank to prod the mess into an old piece of newspaper and threatened Micur with it. ''I'd like to make you eat it!" She stopped suddenly as if her words had finally caught up with her, ran to the opening and pushed aside the slats. ''And I thought you were frightened! I even felt sorry for you!" Quick as lightning, so as to allow no time for escape, she dropped down onto the woodpile and threw the stinking paper package into the darkness, to let the invisible monsters hidden there, ever on the lookout for scraps, gobble it up, then crept under the eaves and stole over to the kitchen door. She carefully opened the door to find her mother loudly snoring. "I'm going to do it. I dare. Yes, I dare:' She shivered in the heat, her head heavy, her legs weak. Quietly, she opened the pantry door. "A thing that shits itself! Well, you deserve it!" She took the milk pan from the shelf, filled a bowl and tiptoed back into the kitchen. "Too late for anything else, anyway:' She removed her mother's yellow cardigan from the rack and very slowly, so as not to make any noise, she went out into the yard. "First, the cardigan:' She wanted to put the bowl down on the ground so she could simply slip the cardigan on but as she bent down the edge of it trailed into the mud. She quickly straightened up again with the cardigan in one hand and the bowl in the other. What to do!? The rain slanted in beneath the eaves, the lace curtain was already soaked through on one side. Carefully, uncertainly, wary of spilling the milk, she started backing away ( “I'll hang the cardigan out on the woodpile and then …”), but, suddenly, she stopped, because she remembered she had left the cat's dish by the step. It only occurred to her what she should do when she returned to the kitchen door: if she draped the cardigan over her head she could just about put the bowl down and so - finally being ready to move over to the woodpile with the bowl full of milk in one hand and the deep cat's dish in the other - everything looked much easier. Having control of the situation, she felt she had found the key to the tasks that lay ahead. She took the dish up first, then successfully went back for the bowl. She covered the opening with the slats again and started calling Micur in the pitch dark. "Micur! Micur! Where are you? Puss, puss, I have a treat for you!" The cat had flattened itself against the furthest corner and was watching from there as its mistress reached under one of the boards beneath the "window" and pulled out a paper bag, sprinkled some of its contents into the dish, then poured milk on top of it. "Hang on, this won't work:' She left the dish and went over to the opening - Micur gave a nervous twitch but however far she moved the slats no light came through it now. Apart from the battering of rain on the tiles the only noise to be heard was the howling of dogs in the distance. Lost for ideas, she stood there like an orphan, the cardigan hanging down to her knees. She longed to flee this dark place, escaping the oppressive silence, and because she no longer felt secure there, she was scared alone, in case something might leap out at her from a dark corner, or that she herself might walk right into an icy extended hand. "Must get on!" she cried aloud and as if clinging to the sound of her own voice she took a step toward the cat. Micur did not move. "What's the matter? Not hungry?" She started calling it in cajoling tones and very soon the cat did not leap aside when she took another step toward it. And then the opportunity presented itself: Micur - perhaps trusting the voice for a second-allowed Esti to get close, so, quick as lightning, she leapt on the cat, first holding it tight to the floor, then cleverly, avoiding those scratching claws, she raised it and carried it over to the dish waiting by the "window:' "Now, go on, eat! Nice treat!" she cried in a trembling voice and with one forceful movement pressed the cat's face into the milk. It was in vain for Micur to try to escape, and it was as if it understood that all further resistance was pointless, because it stayed quite still, and its mistress, when she finally released it, couldn't tell whether she had drowned the cat, or if the cat were merely "pretending," because it was lying by the empty dish as if it were already dead. Esti slowly backed into the furthest possible corner, covered her eyes with both hands so as not to see the threatening, deathly darkness, and stuck her thumbs in her ears at the same time because, suddenly, out of the silence a host of clicking, crackling, hammering noises homed in on her. But she felt no trace of terror because she knew that time was on her side and that she had only to wait for the noise to die away by itself the way a robbed and defeated army deserts its general after the initial panic and chaos, fleeing the battlefield, or, if flight was impossible, seeking out the enemy to plead for mercy. A long time after, once the silence had swallowed the last burst of noise, she felt neither hurried nor becalmed she was no longer concerned about what she should do but knew precisely where to step, her movements faultless and properly directed: it was as if she was rising above the field of battle and her vanquished foes. She found the curled, stiff body of the cat and, her face flushed with the fever, dropped down into the yard, looked round her, and proudly set off on the path to the canal because her instincts whispered she would find Sanyi there. Her heart beat loudly as she imagined "the face he would make" when she presented him with the corpse that would be cold by then and her throat tightened with joy when she noticed how the poplars leaned over the farm behind her like old women jealously, scoldingly, following the path of the bride as she leaves them behind, clutching the dead body of Micur, forever extended, holding it by the legs, away from her body. It wasn't a long way but it still took longer than usual for her to reach the canal, because, at every third step, her feet sank into the mud and she slithered to and fro in the heavy boots she had inherited from her sisters and, what was more, the "shitty creature" was growing steadily heavier too so she continually had to be shifting it from one hand to the other. But she wasn't discouraged, nor did she take any notice of the pouring rain, and was only sorry she couldn't fly like the wind to be at Sanyi's side, and so she blamed no one but herself when she finally arrived and saw there was not a blessed soul around. "Now where could he be?" She dropped the corpse in the mud, massaged her aching arms, burning with fatigue then, forgetting everything, leaned over the seedlings only to stop in mid-movement, breathless, as if hit by a stray bullet straight to the heart, uncomprehending and quite alone. The magical spot had been disturbed and the stick they had used to mark the spot lay on the ground in the rain, broken in two where the carefully tended earth had been piled, the earth her imagination had dwelt on and cultivated all this time, and now she was confronted by just a hole in the ground, like a hollow eye socket, a hole half filled with water. She threw herself on the ground in despair and started digging away at the crudely scraped hollow. Then she jumped up and gathered all her strength to out-shout the night towering above her, but her strained voice ("Sany-i! Sany-i! Come here! ... ") was lost in the overpowering din of wind and rain. She stood on the bank, quite lost as to what to do, which way to run. Eventually she set off along the side of the canal but quickly turned back and started rushing in the opposite direction, but within a few yards had stopped again and turned toward the metaled road. She found the going slow and ever harder because her feet would sink in the mud up to the ankle, the ground having been all but washed away, and she'd have to stop, pull her foot up, step out of her boot, then balancing on one leg, spend time extricating the boot from the mud. She reached the road exhausted and when she surveyed the deserted terrain-the moon appeared for a second above her head-she suddenly felt she had taken the wrong direction, that it might have been better to look for him at home first. But which way home? What if she went by the path round Horgos's field and Sanyi was returning by the Hochmeiss route? And what if he was in town? ... What if he got a lift from the landlord? .. But what to do without him? .. She dared not admit to herself that the fever had seriously weakened her and that it was the light flickering in the distant window that really drew her. She had only taken a few steps when a voice to one side of her demanded: "Your money or your life!" Esti let out a cry of terror and started running. "What's this, little squirrel! You shitting yourself? ... ," the voice continued in the dark and gave a hoarse laugh. Hearing this the little girl's fear evaporated and, relieved, she ran back. "Come ... come quick! The money! ... The money tree!" Sanyi slowly stepped out onto the metaled road, straightened himself and grinned. "Wow! That's ma's cardigan! You'll get a thorough beating for that. You'll spend next week in bed! Moron!" He dug his left hand deep into his pocket, his right holding a lit cigarette. Esti smiled in confusion, bowed her head and simply continued where she had left off. "The money tree! ... Someone! .. :' She didn't raise her head to look at him because she knew how much Sanyi hated making eye contact with her. The boy looked Esti up and down, and blew smoke in her face. "What news from the asylum?" He blew his cheeks out like someone who can barely suppress laughter, then suddenly his face turned stony. "If you don't scram at once, I'll give you such a smack, sweetheart, your thick head will drop off! That's all I need is to be seen here with you ... People would be laughing at me the rest of the week. Now, go on, disappear!" He quickly looked round over his shoulder and, clearly agitated, scanned the metaled road as it vanished into the dark, then - as if his sister were already gone looked over her head toward the distant lit window with a puzzled expression, as if he was trying to work something out. Esti was perfectly terrified now. What had happened? What could have happened for Sanyi to revert to ... Had she done something wrong? Had she made a mistake? She tried again. "The money we seeded ... It's been stolen ... Stolen!" "Stolen?" the boy shouted impatiently. "Well, well! Stolen, you say? And who stole it?" "I, I don't know ... some .. “ Sanyi gave her a cold look. "You giving me lip? You dare to give me lip?" Esti quickly shook her head in fright. "Oh, right. That's what it sounded like:' He drew on his cigarette and suddenly turned around again, tensely watching the bend in the road, as if he were waiting for someone, then turned back to his sister and looked at her, his face full of fury. "Can't you even stand up straight!" The little girl immediately straightened her back but kept her head bowed, staring at her boots in the mud, her straw-blonde hair tumbling over her face. Sanyi lost his temper. "What's wrong with you!? Fuckoff! Understand?!" He stroked his pimply, fluffy chin then, seeing that Esti hadn't moved, was forced to speak again: "I needed the money, see! So what!?" He stopped for a moment but his sister was still there, she hadn't shifted an inch. "In any case, for fuck's sake, that money was mine. Is that clear?" Esti nodded in fright. "The money ... was mine too. How dare you hide it from me!?" He grinned with satisfaction. "Be glad that you got away with the little you have! I could have just taken it from you!" Esti nodded understandingly, and started slowly backing away because she feared her brother was about to hit her. ''Anyway;' he added with a conspiratorial smile, "I've got some really cool wine here. Do you want a sip? I'll let you have a bit. Do you want a drag of this? There:' And he extended the by-now-dead cigarette toward her. Esti made a tentative effort to reach for it, but almost immediately snatched her hand back. "No? OK. Now listen, I'll tell you something. You'll never amount to anything. You were born a retard, and that's what you'll remain:' The little girl
screwed up her courage. "So you knew?" "Knew what, bug? What the fuck did I know?" "You knew that ... that ... the money plant ... never ... never? ... " Sanyi lost his temper again. "What? Don't try to put one over on me. You should have tumbled to that much earlier, you retard! You think I'm going to believe you never had a clue? You're nm that soft in the head ... " He took out a match and lit the cigarette, shielding it with his hand. "Brilliant! So you're the one upset! Rather than being happy that I'm paying some attention to you!" He blew out the smoke and blinked. "Right! Session over! I haven't got the time to stand here debating with idiots. Scram, little baby. Scram!" and he prodded Esti with his forefinger, but the moment she set off at a run, he shouted after her. "Come back here! Closer! Closer, I said. Good. What's that in your pocket?" He reached into her cardigan pocket and pulled out the paper bag. "Fucking hell! What's this?!" He raised the bag and examined the writing. "For fuck's sake! This is rat poison! Where did you get this?!" Esti couldn't get a word out. Sanyi bit his lip. "Fine. I know anyway ... It's from the barn and you stole it! Right?" He pressed the bag. "So what did you want it for, my little retard? Be nice and tell big bro!" Esti didn't move a muscle. "I see it now. A pile of dead bodies back home, right?" the boy continued, laughing. ''And I'm next in line, eh? OK. Now let's see if you have a spark of courage in you! There you are!" He pushed the bag back in the cardigan pocket. "But be careful. I've got my eyes on you!" Esti started running toward the bar, waddling a little, like a duck. "Easy now! Be careful!" Sanyi shouted after her: "Don't use it all at once!" He stood for a while in the rain, his shoulders hunched, his head up, holding his breath, listening to the noises of the night, then fixed his eye on the distant window, squeezed a zit on his face, then he too started to run, turned off by the road mender's house and vanished into the darkness. Esti, who kept looking back, saw him for a split second, his cigarette alight in his hand, like a comet fading, never to reappear, its trace remaining for a few minutes in the dark sky, its outlines growing blurred, eventually absorbed in the heavy night haze that snapped its jaw around her now, the road beneath her immediately snuffed out so she felt as though she were swimming through the dark without any support, weightless, quite isolated. She was running toward the flickering light of the bar window as if that could compensate for the lost glow of her brother's cigarette, and more than once she shuddered in the cold when she reached it and hung un to the bar's projecting windowsill, because her clothes were completely soaked through and the lace curtain was clinging to her hot body, and it felt like ice. She stood on tiptoe but couldn't quite reach the window so had to jump to look inside and because her breath misted the glass she was only able to hear a confused babble inside, the clinking of a glass, some more glass breaking, and snatches of laughter that quickly melted into the louder sound of human conversation. Her head was pounding: she felt a flock of invisible birds were screaming and circling her. She pulled back from the light of the window, leaned her back against the wall and dreamily stared at the ground with its patch of light from the window. That was why it was only at the last possible moment that she became aware of heavy steps and the sound of gasping as someone emerged from the road and mounted the steps to the door. There was no time to escape now so she just stood by the wall, her feet rooted to the ground, hoping she wouldn't be noticed. She only moved when she saw it was the doctor, and ran to him in a panic. She clutched at his soaked coat and would have most happily hidden herself inside it, the only reason she didn't burst into tears was because the doctor did not embrace her and so she Simply stood before him, her head hung low, her heart racing, the blood throbbing in her ears, and she didn't really take in the fact that the doctor was saying something, she understood only that he was impatiently wanting to be rid of her and, not being able to make out the words, her original relief was quickly succeeded by an incomprehensible bitterness because rather than hugging her he was sending her away. She couldn't understand what had happened to the doctor, to the one man who once "had spent the whole night at her bedside, wiping the perspiration from her brow," why she had to wrestle with him to hold on to him and to prevent him from pushing her away but, in any case, she simply couldn't let go of the edge of his coat and only gave up when she saw that everything around them-suddenly-was caving in and rising up, and it was hopeless trying to detain the doctor because, at last, it was all over, and she watched terrified as the earth opened under them and the doctor disappeared in the bottomless pit. She started to run, with a chorus of baying voices, like wild dogs, pursuing her and she felt it was the end, that she could do no more, that the howling voices were bound to seize her and grind her into the mud, when it suddenly fell silent, with only the humming of the wind and the soft explosions of a million tiny raindrops covering the ground around her. She only dared slow down a little when she reached the edge of the Hochmeiss estate but she couldn't stop. The wind drove the rain into her face, the cardigan had come unbuttoned and she couldn't stop coughing. Sanyi's frightening words and the nasty incident with the doctor bore down on her with such force that she was incapable of thinking; it was little things that drew her attention: her bootlaces had come undone ... the cardigan was unbuttoned ... did she still have the paper bag? ... By the time she reached the canal and stopped at the hole in the ground a curious calm had settled on her. "Yes," she thought. "Yes, the angels see this and understand it." She looked at the disturbed earth around the hole, the water dripping from her brow into her eyes, and the ground before her started, ever so gently, to undulate. She tied up her laces, buttoned the cardigan and tried to fill the hole by pushing the earth with her foot. She stopped and left it. She turned to one side and saw Micur's dead body extended on the ground. The cat's fur had soaked up the water, her eyes were staring glassily into nothing, her stomach was strangely sagging. "You're coming with me," she said quietly to the corpse and lifted it out of the mud. She hugged it close, and thoughtfully, decisively, set off. She followed the course of the canal for a while then turned off before the Kerekes farm, reaching the long, winding path round the P6steleki estate, which, having cut across the metaled road into town, leads straight past the ruins of Weinkheim Castle, toward the fogbound P6steleki woods. She tried to walk so that the lining of her boots rubbed less painfully against her heels because she knew she had a long way to go: she had to be at Weinkheim Manor by daybreak. She was glad she wasn't alone and Micur was warming her stomach a little. "Yes," she quietly repeated to herself, "the angels see this and understand it:' She felt a more naked kind of peace now: the trees, the road, the rain, even the night, all radiated calm. "Whatever happens is good," she thought. Everything was simple at last, forever. She saw the rows of naked acacia on either side of the road, the landscape that vanished into the dark within a few yards of her, was aware of the rain and the stifling smell of mud, and knew for certain that what she was doing was absolutely right. She thought over the events of the day and smiled as she understood how they all connected up: she felt it was neither chance, nor accident, but an unutterably beautiful logic that was holding them together. She also knew she was not alone, since everything and everyone- her father up above, her mother, her siblings, the doctor, the cat, these acacias, this muddy track, this sky and the night below it-all depended on her, just as she depended on everything else. "What a great champion I might become! I just have to keep going:' She squeezed Micur still closer, looked up at the unchanging sky and quickly stopped. "I'll make myself useful once I'm there:' The sky was slowly beginning to lighten in the east, and by the time the first beams of the sun touched the ruined walls of Weinkheim Castle and streamed through the gaps and the enormous window spaces into the burnt-out, overgrown rooms, Esti had made all the preparations. She laid Micur down on her right, and once she had divided the remaining contents in brotherly fashion, half and half, and had succeeded in swallowing her half with a little rainwater to wash it down, she placed the paper bag on her left side on a rotten board, because she wanted to be sure her brother wouldn't miss it. She lay down in the middle, stretched out her legs and relaxed. She brushed the hair from her forehead, put her thumb in her mouth, and closed her eyes. No need to worry. She knew perfectly well her guardian angels were already on the way.