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Vereš

Story by Neven Ušumović
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth

The story "Vereš" is published in the collection "Best European Fiction 2010" (Dalkey Archive Press) edited by Aleksandar Hemon.



 

VEREŠ

 

1.

 

After a certain length of time—or would it be better to say: uncertain?—I began wasting hours and hours on questions such as: “Budapester,” “Budian,” or “Pester”? That is, what’s the correct name for these people around me, my temporary fellow citizens? This problem acquired undreamed-of dimensions when I set off from Déak Square (i.e., in Pest) to the other side of the Danube, to the Déli railway station. Because: which station is it where Pesters get out but Budians get in? Is it before or after crossing over/under the Danube?

What I mean is, George Soros’s money had never been so pointlessly wasted! Yes, I completed all my course assignments enthusiastically, I perfected my English until it was intuitive; but when I went outside, into the street, when I plunged breathlessly into the murky depths of Hungarian babble, I shriveled up and shrank to the size of a question mark: Budian or Pester? Pest is beautiful, I wrote on the postcards I sent home. The Danube is wide, and Gellért Hill is high. After that I stopped sending postcards. I became a Pester. A Budason! Luckily, with the payments from my scholarship arriving regularly, and with my pre-secured accommodations, my only real existential concern was in choosing a cheap but decent-quality menu (as though everything advertised in the big city wasn’t automatically both cheap and of decent quality!).

Of all the cafeteria-style restaurants in town, I quickly settled for and became most used to the Chinese ones. The question of whether I would go to the Kínai fal, the Kínai nátha, the Shangai, or the Aranysárkány was entirely a matter of my energy level and how much time I wanted to spend walking. The food tasted the same everywhere: the slight sweetness of the rice, the soy sauce, the mixed eggs and boiled carrots all went very well with the—to say the least, vague—taste of the tofu. Why, that’s me, I would say to myself at my worst moments—an unbearably vapid sweetness.

Nevertheless, with time it was the Aranysárkány (The Golden Dragon) that came out on top. That is, one day as I waited my turn for my favorite meal of rice with eggs, tofu, and pickled bamboo shoots, I heard a familiar swear word, a curse in my own language. I turned and saw a young man whom I had thought till now to be one hundred percent Hungarian stringing together the most varied possible expletives in Croatian while staring unblinkingly at the ceiling! I supposed that this was his way of trying to alleviate some—to me invisible, but nonetheless concrete—pain.

“What’s the problem, friend?” I called to him.

And, as though our Croatian in the middle of Pest was the most normal thing in the world, he replied, his gaze still fixed on the ceiling, “Oh, I’ve just poured boiling Szechuan soup over my shoes, that’s all. Fuck, I might as well have stuck them in the oven!”

A door at the back of the restaurant opened, and the young man—his name was Vereš, as I would soon discover—disappeared into the darkness.

                                               

2.

 

I usually went to the Aranysárkány for lunch, around two o’clock. I didn’t get on line immediately, but put my backpack with my notes and books on the first free table in the small back room, where there were four tables set with four chairs each. There would always be two employees taking turns working the counter: apart from one Chinese person, there was usually an Indian girl working there, or else our own Vereš.

Although the dishes on the menu changed day to day, the smell was always the same. At first it seemed as though something spicy and attractively sweet was hanging in the air, but then, when you sat down at your table, you would quickly find yourself overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness in the scent, a lack of essence, as though each of the foods here had passed through some Eastern European disinfecting laboratory on their journey from China to Hungary.

The actual cleanliness of the restaurant was another matter, however; it was a cleanliness that never shone, a cleanliness that seeped into the skin, steaming from the ceramic tiles, as in a bathroom, beading your forehead, beading the walls. A very low-level, institutional cleanliness: rational and merciless.

            There was no music. The customers ate in silence. No smoking either, only the clouds of steam rising over the deep, square containers of food. No windows anywhere inside, except at the front. That was why some people sat exclusively on the uncomfortably high stools there, eating on a raised counter, looking out onto the street. I stuck to my corner, I was quite content to let the airily resonant Chinese voices there free me from the usual stifling cage of the Hungarian language, with its Jó napot . . . Tessék . . . Ez nagyon finom, ez is, ez is, hogyne . . . persze . . . Jó étvágyok.

            Vereš would say a word or two as he rushed past. Nothing in his haste suggested that he worked with Chinese people. He hadn’t adopted any of their indifferent pleasantness; on the contrary, he was like someone being compelled to search among the restaurant’s customers for a mask he’d managed to lose without trace.

After combining my rice-tofu-egg-soy sauce in two or three ways, I sat vacantly pouring myself a green tea. The tea leaves as fat as caterpillars rose from the bottom of the pot and kept interrupting what was in any case a thin trickle. I drank, and every sip spread a flowery peace through my insides.

At such moments of tranquility, Vereš would often make some nonsensical remark:

“Well, well, my countryman. Dogs may bark, but you just sit there and droop!

“Make sure you don’t fall in!

“Hey, keep both feet on the ground!”

And when he was in a particularly good mood, he would start to sing, right into my ear, the Hungarian children’s song that goes Hull a hó és hózik-zik-zik, Micimackó fázik-zik-zik— about Winnie the Pooh freezing.

I had to have a real talk with this Vereš character, one day. One fiiine daaay! I smiled as I put on my backpack. Szia (bye, ciao!) Vereš!

 

3.

 

I stayed on a bit longer than usual in the Széchényi Library one afternoon. I didn’t reach the Aranysárkány until around four p.m. Now I’ll just get whatever they’ve got left over from the lunch rush, I thought, but no, everything was exactly as it always was, as though it were only just midday: full dishes of the usual Chinese specialties, the intoxicatingly sweetish, piquant steam in the air, the pleasant, stiff, masked Chinese faces . . . Only Vereš was absent. His shift must have ended.

As though they had figured out—it was only logical—that I was hungrier than usual, the servers piled my plates high with boiled rice and salad. I quickly sat down at my table and got to work.

When the first beads of sweat from the spicy sauce were breaking out on my face, my Vereš suddenly appeared, large as life, from some room I hadn’t known about before—that is, some room I’d never noticed, He made his way over to me; without asking permission or even saying hello, he sat down at my table.

“We’re lucky these Chinese guys exist,” he said loudly, as though his employers could understand his Croatian. Then he went silent, waiting for me to finish eating and for his colleagues to bring us tea.

            But Vereš’s story began even before the tea had cooled in our cups:

            “I ran away too, like every ‘citizen of Serbia’ who had half a brain! Which isn’t to say I have half a brain myself . . . besides which, what little brains I do have these Hungarians will turn to mush soon enough.”

‘Wait a minute—you’re one of them, Vereš is a Hungarian name, right? You’re some kind of Vojvodina mutt, or else you’re a pure . . .”

            “A pure Croat, thank you—my name’s spelled with a š at the end, you know? Not the way the Hungarians write it, without the little squiggle. But, look,” he added cynically, “when I’m here, I’m Hungarian, for everyone except you!”

The Vojvodina Hungarians saved their own skins as best they could. They ran from being inducted into the army reserves: they would have been treated like sacrificial lambs by the other, Serbian reservists. One of the best ways to get safe was to make an illegal run (the Serbian police probably already had files on us) across the border.

“I went through Kelebija, with Hungarian friends. They all had someone over there, someone who’d described the procedure for them. And it wasn’t even a proper, daring escape, since everything happened under Kraus’s direction. Mihajlo Kraus, the customs officer. He would wait for you in a precisely determined location. You met up and paid him for your crossing.

“That night, we spent hours making our way along these sandy trails through Kelebija Forest. We found Kraus at some faraway checkpoint. This Kraus, he was a bony scarecrow. It looked like the devil had splashed his face with acid. He had this enormous nose with yellow eyes crouching at its base.

            “The most humiliating thing was waiting to be searched. He insisted on doing this in strict order—and he started squawking the instant any of us so much as twitched! The first thing he did, though, was take our money: a minimum of a thousand marks a head. If you could pay more, it might reduce the length of your search and increase Kraus’s politeness, but that was all. So he stripped us bare, checking every document we’d brought with us, and then he threw every single thing we had onto a heap (of course, watches, gold chains, and that sort of thing all ended up, without discussion, on a special pile). He worked without much commentary, as placidly and precisely as a butcher. He was a smuggler, and we’d brought him a good haul for selling in Hungary. We were his pawns.

            “Although we already knew what was coming next, we still let out a sob when, with the aid of two young soldiers, in a series of practiced movements, Kraus poured gasoline over that heap of our most personal possessions and set fire to it. Illuminated by that pyre, our angel of destruction cursed us all with a loud: Now—pick up your clothes and get lost!

            “We ran as though there was an army of vampires behind us. For a while, when we came out of the woods into a clearing, we got down on our bellies and crawled—over frozen meadows and ploughed fields. We had to stay invisible until we reached Pest!

            “Luckily, near Tompa, the first Hungarian settlement on our route, we were hidden by plumes of fog and smoke. Dawn was breaking and it was only then that we finally felt the cold of that winter morning, as well as fatigue. Our steps faltered. We were being steadily choked by the smell of burning, overcome by a ghostly deafness in which we heard the echoes of stifled crying. We felt like a band of criminals, like Chetniks sniffing round a recently burned village. We were expecting shots, an ambush.

            “The first signs of life were in the courtyard of a luxurious house that looked like it had been built pretty recently. Apparently the villagers of Tompa had laid down their hoes at some point and become traders—thanks to the embargo on Serbian stewing pots, the village had been transformed into a commercial mecca. István and I agreed to be the scouts for our band of refugees. We crept up to the fence and heard the hissing—we realized at once—of a pressurized-gas flamethrower. Several men in black rubber boots, and with fur hats on their heads, were wading though puddles of fresh blood. They had stretched out a huge dead sow, while a man in a grimy white coat burned off the animal’s hair with his weapon. The smell of scorched pigskin, we realized, was what had settled on our stomachs and driven fear into our bones.

            ‘Kocám, kocám,’ a little girl was crying behind her mother’s back, ‘szegény kocám, leöltek most téged, leölték . . .’

            “By the evening, we’d all dispersed—this way and that—through Hungary. We steered clear of one another as though we were all accomplices in some bloody crime. In Tompa they’d given us food and drink: tey didn’t skimp on the freshly made sausage and black pudding. They directed us to addresses in Szeged, Kecskemét, Budapest—and that was that. We scattered.

            “The following day, on a train, I looked forward to Pest with a sense of foreboding. Before this I’d only ever gone there to see concerts at the Fekete lyuk and Tilos az Á . . . but now I was a frozen, bloodless refugee. But for the Hungarians—whether we were Hungarians from Vojvodina, Serbs, or Croats—we all had blood on our hands. And they treated us like we were mounds of stinking carrion.”

           

4.

                       

One of Vereš’s colleagues, a Chinese girl with a long, pale face, brought us a fresh round of green tea; as though there were a precise rule, a proper moment when this had to be done. She directed a meaningful smile at me at the corner of her eye: she knew what Vereš was like and how long his story was.

“Budapest was everything I could have wanted, at a moment when I didn’t really want anything. Just to disappear into the city—though also, of course, NOT TO DIE! I kept cruising round the Oktogon, slipping down always-dark Dohány Street, walking endlessly beside the Danube, up and down. I circled the city for days, without any kind of refuge. At first I slept in the studio of a painter from Senta. He was called Zoltán; he’d been given the attic of an abandoned electric-motor factory. Everything in it was broken, the constant draft drove me crazy, and loneliness even crazier, because I soon found out that Zoltán’s art consisted in doing absolutely nothing: he was a conceptualist—as he explained to me—and his particular concept amounted to a complete abstinence from creating, from leaving any kind of trace of himself in the world. What was essential to me was that he wouldn’t let anyone find me, so on that score we had an understanding, but beyond that, every word was torture for him, because speaking is creating, isn’t it? land let’s not even mention going to the bathroom!

“Nonetheless, I still had to give my particulars to someone or other on several occasions. I concentrated on the Hungarian pronunciation of my surname:

“ ‘Vörös?’

“ ‘Vörös!’

“ ‘Magyar vagy Szerb?’

“ ‘Magyar!’

“Budapest was my harbor. The aroma of garlic and ground paprika, the indescribable noise of the busy streets filled with silent people. I staggered through the empty side streets, sniffed around dives, taking in the stench of alcohol and warm human flesh. Dull, colored glass hid miserable basements and vibrated with shrill Hungarian gypsy songs and the booming of hideous male bass voices. The wine was too sweet, it made me sick, just like the insane make-up of the whores and streetwalkers. ‘No, no, my dear,’ my too-young, now-dead friend Daca recited drunkenly behind a counter, ‘you can’t disappear between their legs . . . not even with ample use of Hungarian Easter eggs. . .’

“But still, I was lucky: one evening I ran into (or got into?) Anikó, a girl with red hair and white skin . . . I called her Anikó after a favorite cheese I’d eaten as a boy, kind of moist, but all rubbery and squeaky between your teeth. And the stuff was always painfully white, just like my little friend, the rubbery Anikó. She was the real embodiment of male fantasy: a little porcelain angel that any one of us—for a fairly low price—could tickle and dandle on his knee . . . But, above all, like I said, she was like rubber, invulnerable, unbreakable—and so uninterested in life that I was able to let her passivity rub off on me. I found the idea of a life without real physical pleasure very attractive; I wanted to join a pure, silent community of dulled existences.”

 

 

5.

 

“Later that evening, after she’d opened the door of a truly isolated little room in her apartment, made up the bed, and quickly, at a run, gathered up all the cobwebs within reach, she explained, as we were getting comfortable, that from now on we would only be able to see each other back in town; the apartment she’d brought me to was the ‘empire’—she stressed that word ironically—of her younger brothers, Árpád and Géza, I mean, no, forget those names, I remember her face darkening, just call them ‘Hartmann and Conen.’ In any case, they’ve already seen you. They’ll get in touch soon.

“And they did. The next morning I found a piece of letterhead on the floor, with an ancient seal reading Hartmann és Conen Rt. On the paper, in rather poor Hungarian, they’d written a whole lot of nonsense, something about the rules of the house, emphasizing again—among other things—that the two brothers were only to be addressed as Hartmann and Conen, not in any other way, and absolutely not with some kind of primitive Hungarian first names! I remember that my head kept buzzing all day with the verb with which the brothers had ‘politely’ repeated their childish command: méltóztassék, méltóztassék, méltóztassék . . .

“I took a little walk round the neighborhood. A street or two, and I found myself at an enormous construction site; this area of ancient apartment buildings—bérházak—had evidently been taken over by the construction mafia. The building I’d just left was already in line to be knocked down. I walked back and looked it over. But first there’d be bloodshed, I thought, being a little theatrical. After all, what did I know about that kind of thing? Two dark little heads whistled past me:

“ ‘Szia Vörös, Hi Vereš!’ Only the echo of their greeting was left when they’d gone. Hi Vereš! One of the kids had called out in our language. It was a bit of a shock.

“I followed them. The building stank of cat piss; the large wooden door was lying broken by the steps in the garbage. The walls were scrawled with coal. If you can say that something is nicotine-colored, then that whole place was nicotine-colored.

“Everything was suffocating in that smoky tint. I continued my search for H&C, in the hope that they might lead me to some breakfast and a coffeepot full of that wonderful black liquid. I’ll give you a kran for a coffee! I yelled up the stairs. A kran for a coffee!

“And, indeed, those two black faces appeared above me, on the next floor up. Just follow us, Vereš, gyere ide—up here, one of them called down in Hungarian. Just keep following, called the other in Croatian, as though he wanted some confirmation that I would reply. I followed them, listening for the clatter of their footsteps; they didn’t stop until they reached the attic.

“When I got there, all sounds died out. It was pitch dark. Hartmann, Conen, I shouted and my voice spread through the attic in distorted echoes. Instead of the boys’ voices, I heard something like a constrained, hampered flutter of wings. And then a hideous bird’s cry cut through me. I stopped, petrified. And then I yelled, Árpád, Géza, what on earth are you doing up here? Where are you? I was really furious. I shouted all sorts of things, even that I’d beat the shit out of them.

“I heard laughter. Come on Vereš, come here, what are you afraid of? one of them asked, in Croatian again. I saw his silhouette in the meager light coming through the roof struts. You’ve come at just the right moment, Vereš, came the voice of the other, maybe you can help us out . . .

“At last I reached them. They didn’t look round, they were too preoccupied with something else. They were kneeling over a creature that was lying bunched up on the floorboards, and I realized at once that that the appalling shriek I’d heard could only have come from this creature. In the air here, as you can see, one of the kids went on mockingly, as much to himself as to me, in the air here there are plenty of soft, sticky women, prettier and better than your goddamn Anikó, Vereš, Vereš! . . . I was about close enough to smack him when I finally got a good look at what they were crouching around, a bird, a fettered, bleeding bird. I asked them what it was. An owl of course, can’t you see? they said at the same time. They were proud of it, proud to show it to me.

“ ‘Is it yours?’ I asked them, but the little idiots only laughed. It’s ours, ours, but it’s going to die, Vereš, do something, we haven’t got any food for it!

I looked a little more closely at the owl. Someone had gouged out its eyes. Only fresh meat, I said, without thinking. I was so astounded that I’d lost control of the situation—then one of them hit me over the head with a metal bar, and I lost consciousness as well.”

 

 

6.

 

We went out for a cigarette. There was no smoking in the Aranysárkány. Vereš made some jokes at his own expense, but I was only half listening. It was noisy and lively outside, already evening, car headlights crisscrossed the city streets with their bright beams. Women’s fur coats left little clouds of perfume in their wake; I breathed these in absentmindedly together with the smoke from Vereš’s cheap cigarettes.

Inside, a new round of tea was waiting for us. I looked affectionately for our Chinese waitress, but only found one of the cooks staring dully at me from behind the counter.

“I woke up the next morning, in another room, narrow and dark, tied to a bed, with an unbearable pain in my head and legs, and I saw that one of my legs was covered in blood. H&C came in soon after, in a great mood, and they threw their school bags into a far corner.

It wants it, the owl wants your flesh! You’ve saved us!

“I probably cursed at them then, I don’t know what else I could have done. Apparently they had sliced off part of my calf and given it to the owl. Cool it, Vereš, relax, we’ve got drugs for you, it won’t hurt at all next time! We’ve got to keep you going, fresh and healthy!

“And that’s how it was, they put me to sleep with a pillow soaked in some disgusting chemical—I always thought they were about to suffocate me. I was tied up and helpless. I always woke up in horrible pain—if you can call that druggy, groggy dream state being awake. I kept hearing a piano tune, over and over again, hundreds of times, as though some child was practicing Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, or just playing that children’s song: Boci, boci, tarka, se füle, se farka . . . The sounds collided, rang out, as though a hundred cats had hurled themselves at the piano at the same time, yes, I could smell their stink, there must have been cats roaming around the apartment, around my corpse, waiting for their share, waiting for a moment of Hartmann’s or Conen’s mercy or inattention; I was staggering again down the sandy Kelebija Forest trails, through those dead vineyards, in the frozen darkness, no one could help me, there was no wine or wedding brandy buried in the sand, I rooted through it nevertheless, furiously, in a frenzy, but all I found were some disgusting insects, mole-crickets, they were used as bait for catfish and sterlet, but not for me; and then I saw I was surrounded by Chinese people. You eat mole-crickets! I yelled at them from my bed, yes, I know it, you eat them both fried and boiled, you eat them with those little sticks of yours!

“I don’t know how long I was stuck in that room, but I think that the Chinese people had been there for a while already. When they first came in they took no notice of me at all, who knows what Hartmann and Conen had told them, no doubt the blanket they’d covered me with stank to high heaven by now, soaked with pus from my wounds. I guess the Chinese are used to anything. Someone had probably sold or rented them this apartment, because I knew enough to guess that this wasn’t part of Anikó’s place. Those two crooks must have hidden me here because the apartment was vacant at the time, but now, with the arrival of the Chinese tenants, H&C had vanished.

“When I realized that I had been left entirely at the mercy of the Chinese, my horror reached its peak. I could hear them opening their enormous suitcases and taking out shiny blades. Their snake-like eyes pulsed in the darkness like little sparks of fire. I knew that they seasoned their tasteless rice with little pieces of human flesh, I knew that they fed their snub-nosed yellow dogs with human bones, and I knew that soon after their dogs too went under the knife . . .”

“Oh, good evening, Jó estét kívánok Vörös úr.” We were interrupted by a tiny Chinese man who came up to our table, impeccably dressed and courteous. “Jó barátja?” He turned to me.

“Yes, a friend from Subotica,” Vereš lied. I don’t know why.

                  “Pleased to meet you.” The Chinese man offered me his hand. “Do you speak Hungarian?”

                  “A bit,” I said.

                  “Yes, we all speak just a bit,” said the Chinese man seriously. “We ought to try harder. This is their country after all. But your friend Vereš is one of the best. I’m glad that we got him out of a jam and gave him a job. We Chinese work for two Hungarians, but you know,” the Chinese man said with a broad smile, “Vereš works for two Chinese people! Two plus two equals four! Isn’t that right?’

                  “That’s right,” we agreed. The Chinese man looked us over again, with a satisfied air, and then touched the brim of his hat.

                  “Have a pleasant evening!” he said, then quickly raised the lid of our teapot ‘What, you’re out of tea?” he asked, astonished. There followed an explosion of incomprehensible sounds intended for the staff, then he turned toward us once again, gave a small bow, and left without a word.

 

            The tea arrived at once. We drank it in silence; now everything was perfectly clear.

 

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Ana Romić (1993., Hrvace) studirala je hrvatski jezik i književnost na Sveučilištu u Zadru gdje je magistrirala s radom Filozofija egzistencijalizma u romanu „Sam čovjek“ Ive Kozarčanina. Velika je ljubiteljica književnosti, osobito poezije koju i sama piše, te psihologije i filozofije. Živi u Zagrebu.

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Matea Šimić: Kuća za bivše

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Matea Šimić rođena je 1985. godine u Oroslavju, Hrvatska. Diplomirala je engleski jezik i komparativnu književnost na Filozofskom fakultetu Sveučilišta u Zagrebu. Piše poeziju, prozu i društvene komentare na hrvatskom i engleskom. Članica je Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop-a od 2012. godine. Radovi su joj objavljivani, između ostalog, u časopisu za istraživanje i umjetnost EuropeNow, časopisu za feminističku teoriju i umjetnost Bona, portalu za književnost i kulturu Strane te portalu za politiku i društvena pitanja Digitalna demokracija. Osnivačica je i urednica dvojezičnog magazina za književnost i umjetnost NEMA. Živi i radi u Barceloni.

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Dalen Belić: Ispovijed serijskog samoubojice

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Dalen Belić rođen je 1997. godine. Živi u Pazinu, a studira engleski i njemački jezik na Filozofskom fakultetu u Rijeci. Objavljivan je u istrakonskoj zbirci Apokalipsa laži te zbirkama Priče o manjinama i Priče o Pazinu u sklopu Festivala Fantastične Književnosti. Osvojio je drugo mjesto na Riječkim perspektivama 2017. godine i prvo mjesto 2018. Jednu njegovu priču teškometalne tematike možete pročitati na portalu Perun.hr.

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Monika Filipović: Ljetna večer u Zagrebu '18.

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Monika Filipović rođena je u Zagrebu 1996. godine. Studentica je politologije na Fakultetu političkih znanosti u Zagrebu. U slobodno vrijeme bavi se pisanjem poezije i kratkih priča, a trenutno radi i na svom prvom romanu. U svome pisanju najradije se okreće realizmu. Dosad nije objavila nijedan svoj rad.

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