Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
She never answers, but still, I talk to her all the time. Listen, I tell her. I’ve made mistakes. When it first started, sometimes I would try to pretend that I was helpless in all of it, that I’d been buffeted by fate; that as surely as those eight women are twisting in the wind now, in my way, I’ve been twisting in the wind my whole life. It’s not true, though; it’s just a lie that I told myself when I wasn’t feeling strong enough to face up to what I am, and what I’ve done. In truth, I’ve made my choices, and my hand is strong in all of this. Without me, none of this would have even started.
I’m twenty-eight, but I look older, and that doesn’t even come close to how old I feel. That’s not so unusual where I come from. In the city, I’ve heard that women are cosseted and coddled, treated like elaborate ornaments or playthings. Here, we carry our parents and our husbands and our children on our backs; we’re the dumping ground for all of life’s shit. Judit taught me that early on, and nothing I’ve gone through since has gone any way towards disproving it. They used to wonder why I was still alive; in the villages, people regularly kill themselves over less than I’ve endured.
When I was small, maybe eight or nine, Katalin Remény, aged sixteen, drowned herself because she was pregnant without a husband. She was hauled out of the river – at a time when bodies in the river were far rarer than they have been recently – and at her funeral her body was paraded through the streets, surrounded by howling mourners, but of course she had to be buried outside the churchyard because of her sins, and later, Judit and my father went to pour boiling water over her grave, to stop her from stalking the village in death, as suicides are said to do.
Judit came to speak to me a few days after Katalin was buried, and I remember she was hissing and spitting with fury: she told me that what Katalin had done was pointless and meaningless, that having a baby without a husband was only a sin in the eyes of those people who want to control women, and that, in any case, if a woman ever found herself with a baby that she didn’t want, she could always come to Judit and Judit would take care of it – though, at that age, I only had a vague idea of what ‘taking care of it’ meant.
Like with most of Judit’s rages, it was born out of a desire to protect me, and it worked. Katalin took up residence in my mind, a symbol of the opposite of everything I was going to be; a mindless, sacrificial lamb, caring more about the opinions of a few stupid villagers than her own life. I knew that I would never give up my own life if there were any alternative left to me in the world, and as it’s happened, I could never be accused of failing to seek out as many alternatives as possible.
That’s at the root of it all, I explain to her: my survival instinct, my will to live. That’s behind all the choices I’ve made. I could have given myself up at any number of points, and I suppose it would have saved lives. But not my life, and not her life, and that’s all I’m looking out for. I’ve learnt that it’s too painful and dangerous to care about much else.
Is it odd that I feel like this, given the twenty-eight years I’ve had? Maybe I should have accepted the bitter slice of life I got as something easy to surrender. But once I got it between my teeth, I was never going to let it go without the most violent struggle. What’s good about life? Ask me that when you’re watching a summer moon, bloated and white, floating over the plain. Ask me that when you’re looking into my child’s face. Of course, there are terrible things too, and sometimes – often – they outweigh the good. But you can’t have beauty without a bit of terror.
Sari is fourteen years old when they carry her father out, carry him through the village lanes, his face bare and blank to the wide sky, carry him through the summer wildflowers that bloom alongside the river, carry him to the cemetery. It is a public end for a private man, infused with the drama that makes village life bearable; a final chance to be the centre of attention, something that Jan Arany had never sought. Sari doesn’t cry, because that isn’t her way; instead, she wraps a cloak of silence around herself, and lets the other village women do the wailing for her. Her silence almost gives the impression of absence. It is misleading.
Her father had been a Wise Man, respected, a táltos, and they’d lived for all of Sari’s life on the outskirts of the village, in a wooden house with steps that creaked, the grass in front of it worn thin by the feet of villagers in search of cures, help or salvation. Her father had been a big man, tall, broad-shouldered, light-haired – unusual in that place – a wide face like the sun, Sari thinks: warm, but remote. The villagers had loved him and feared him in equal measure. They just fear Sari.
As long as she can remember, she’s been skirted by whispers wherever she goes. Her father had tried to explain it. ‘It’s because they loved your mother,’ he said, but that’s never made sense to Sari. She loves her mother too, a wraith-figure whom she’s never met, only heard about, and woven her image out of stories and imagination; a young woman – barely older than Sari now – who had left her family, smiling, to marry Jan Arany. Still smiling, she’d swollen with Sari inside her, and then split open at Sari’s birth, and died.
‘I didn’t want her to die,’ Sari would say to her father, after someone or other had hissed witch behind her back.
‘I know,’ he said, ‘But they just think it’s unlucky, that’s all.’
That’s not all, though, and Sari knows it, though she’s always appreciated her father’s kindness to pretend otherwise. Sari understands that she is odd, that there’s something in the way she holds herself, in the way she looks at people, in the things she says and the things she knows, that isn’t what the rest of the village considers right and proper. She envies the girls she sees walking through the village, arm in arm with easy familiarity, but she can’t see how to get from where she is to where they are, how to change her behaviour in order to be liked. The only concession that she makes these days is her silence. Keeping her mouth shut gives the villagers fewer new stories to tell about her, but as with most villages, many of them are all too happy to tell the same stories over and over again.
It happened the day her father died, too. It was morning, and Sari was at the door of the Mecs house in the noise-choked heart of the village, buying a bottle ofczerenznye from Dorthya Mecs. As she reached out her hand to take it, she heard the voices – distinct, clear, dominated by Orsolya Kiss’s high, nasal drawl. Hearing her name, Sari moved her eyes without turning her head, and saw Orsolya, one hefty buttock hoisted onto the edge of the Gersek porch, leaning and grinning, surrounded by three or four other women. Two, Sari saw, were Orsolya’s best friends, Jakova Gersek and Matild Nagy, flanking her like bodyguards; one of them she didn’t recognise, but the shape of her face recalled Orsolya’s, and Sari remembered hearing that Orsolya’s cousin from Város was visiting. Well-practiced at avoiding notice, Sari softened her body slightly, fitting herself easily into the swoops and shadows of the narrow, slanted lane.
‘She’s never quite been right,’ Orsolya was saying, the mock sorrow in her voice unable to hide the underlying glee at being the bearer of a good story. ‘A terrible trial for her father, who’s a good man. And her mother—’ Orsolya paused to raise her eyes piously to heaven, the other three following suit, ‘– Monika was a good woman. Her death was tragic, so young, but, forgive me, sometimes I thank God that she never had to live to see what her daughter is.’
‘What does she do?’ Orsolya’s cousin whispered, in the hushed, excited tones of the consummate gossip.
The exchange was wearyingly familiar to Sari, a ritual song of call and response. She realised she was frozen, one hand holding the bottle of alcohol, as she met the eyes of Dorthya, who raised her eyebrows and gave a slight sympathetic shrug. Sari withdrew her arm, but remained rooted to the spot, listening, still. Which one will it be, Orsolya? she asked silently. The one where I drive the dog mad because it won’t stop shitting in front of our house? The one where I put the curse on Éva Orczy’s baby because I think she looks at me oddly? The one about me having a birthmark in the shape of an inverted cross on my back? Or maybe something new that you’ve dreamt up? Come on, Orsolya, Sari challenged. Surprise me.
‘Well, I saw this one with my own eyes,’ Orsolya said, and Sari relaxed slightly. She’d heard this one, and it was almost comforting to hear it repeated; it had taken on the soothing quality of a fairy tale. ‘She must have been four or five,’ Orsolya continued comfortably. ‘It was Sunday, and we were in church. It was summer, maybe late July, or August, and you know what the flies are like then – anyway, there was a big old dongó buzzing around Sari, and she was swiping and swatting at it, like children do, but it wouldn’t leave her alone. So finally, she sat up straight, and just stared at it – this fly – and that wa...