During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.
Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.
He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.
No one came up around where we lived at the edge of the forest, and Grandpa wouldn’t have liked it if they had, because he said he was afraid people would be disgusted by me. When he went into the village, he never took me with him, and when we wandered the forest, we always hid when I heard strangers approaching. I had to let him know when people were coming, because his hearing was bad. Of course, there were times I would’ve liked to welcome a stranger and strike up a conversation with him—I learned the phrase from one of Grandpa’s books, and I really liked it, for years I planned to someday strike up a conversation with someone—but I didn’t want to make Grandpa mad, and I was also worried that strangers really would be disgusted by me and wouldn’t want to talk to me. But I always wore a pair of beautiful red gloves to hide my finger-less hands, which is why Grandpa called me his Little Glove.
And then one day, a fine September or October day—I don’t remember exactly, but the grass was damp, and the mushrooms thronged in the stomped-down vegetation—Grandpa wheeled me out to the forest for some fresh air. We listened to the birds. They didn’t sing, but a jay screeched, and a woodpecker hammered away, which made my head hurt, because I’m really sensitive to loud, sharp noises. But Grandpa said this was nature’s song, and I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I didn’t tell him what I thought of Nature, who was the reason I didn’t have fingers on my hands and who I was convinced was only waiting for me to die somewhere and decay, so that it could seize me and use me as it saw fit. So that thistle could take root in my stomach and squirrels could move into my skull. Maybe this was the family Grandpa always referred to.
We wandered among the trees, undisturbed, because no one but us came around here, and we both eyed the soggy, rotting leaves on the ground. I counted the spiders, centipedes, and slugs while Grandpa picked mushrooms. He would make lunch from some of them, cook them or fry them, or he’d chop them up and put them in a salad that he’d shred munkchengo cheese over—which, contrary to its name, has nothing to do with monkeys—but he’d pickle most of them with vinegar and save them in a mason jar for the winter. Pickled mushrooms don’t taste good, but they’re nutritious, and that’s why, when there’s nothing else, we have to eat them, because we can’t afford to be picky. Munkchengo cheese doesn’t taste good either, though that might just be me. I’d prefer if it were actually made from monkeys, because I’ve never seen a monkey yet, or at least made from bananas, because I had those once, and that’s what monkeys eat. So if I eat a banana it’s almost like I’m eating a monkey. I’d really like to eat monkey someday, and camel, and elephant, because those kinds of animals live far away from us and our little shack, in a place where there’s no Grandpa or slugs in the grass that squish apart under my wheelchair. I’d like to eat parrot, too. Parrots also live far away, but you can get them in the city, and the bus runs there. Grandpa promised he’d bring me one someday. That’d be good, because the bus doesn’t go to Africa.
When Grandpa’s picking mushrooms, sometimes he’ll leave me under a tree, because he can get around more easily without my wheelchair, and it’s important for us that he pick as many mushrooms as he can. That’s what happened this time, too: he left me in the middle of the forest and told me not to move, not like I could, because the ground was too soft, I sunk into it and I didn’t have the strength to roll myself out, but Grandpa liked to pretend sometimes that I was a normal kid, which always made me mad, and then I’d usually start screaming. But I didn’t scream this time, because I was afraid I’d scare away the mushrooms. So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.
I hoped at first, like I always did at this point, that somebody would show up who I didn’t know, but who I could meet and get to know, who might grow to like me and take me into the village, or maybe into the city, and would keep me at their place, like how we kept someone at our place once, too, Morzsa, but then Grandpa took him into the city, and I never saw him again. Grandpa said a car ran over him. He didn’t want to tell me for a long time, so that I wouldn’t be sad, even though I was rather happy about it, because Morzsa always barked, which made my head hurt. He lived outside in the yard, so I saw him very seldom. He didn’t come on walks with us, because he couldn’t get used to not jumping on my knees. I don’t like it when someone jumps on my knees, because it hurts. Morzsa had his own little house in our yard. I’d like one of those in someone’s yard, too. It’d be best if I could have one in Africa, because there are no slugs there. So I even envied Morzsa, and the only reason I wasn’t totally happy after he died was because Grandpa didn’t bring him home, even though it was winter and we could’ve eaten him instead of mushrooms. I’ve never tried dog before.
So Grandpa disappeared, and I was waiting for someone to turn up who I didn’t know yet, but who I could get to know and who could take me home with him to his house, where there would be no slugs and where I wouldn’t have to eat pickled mushrooms from a jar. But then I remembered that I’m scared of squirrels, because they might climb into my head and mate in my skull, and I wanted to scream for Grandpa to come back already, but then I didn’t scream, partly because I didn’t want to scare away the mushrooms, but also because there would’ve been no point, since Grandpa was almost entirely deaf, yet somehow he could always hear my wheelchair on the floor of our shack. So I sat under the tree where he’d left me, the fog drizzled on me, and small, black spiders crawled all over me. They weren’t disgusted by me, but I definitely was by them. That’s how things go, either we are disgusted by someone, or they’re disgusted by us, and this is natural, which is another reason I don’t like Nature.
Then I only wanted Grandpa to come back, but he didn’t come. What did come was nightfall, which silenced the woodpecker, but then I was even more afraid, because I didn’t know whether squirrels slept at night, and also because I realized that Grandpa wasn’t going to come back for me. His memory was really bad, sometimes he completely forgot things, though this was the first time he’d forgotten about me, because I was lucky, and usually right in front of his eyes. This time, though, he’d picked enough mushrooms to wipe me from his memory, went back home to the shack, made himself some sweet curd cheese porridge—which I love, and which we ate exclusively after picking mushrooms as a reward to ourselves for our hard work, and he’d usually put crispy bacon on top of it—but now he was eating dinner alone. Soon he’d sit down in his rocking chair and read a book—probably one about Africa, because those are the kinds of books he has the most of—and read until he was asleep. So weeks could pass before he’d remember that he had a Little Glove who he lost in the forest while picking mushrooms. Later, I thought about how if Grandpa doesn’t wander over here, maybe an elephant from Africa would, and then I could eat it. Or it could take me home and I could live in a little house in its yard.
It’s just that, whoever is forgotten about, even for such a short time, dies. That’s what happened to me, too. I died that night. Bats circled above my head, and I hoped they wouldn’t get caught in my hair, because my hair is my sex appeal. By morning, my insides had shriveled up, like the meat of a walnut, and ants carried me out through my nostrils. My skin hardened, like the shells of dead bugs. I realized this when it started raining and I clanged from the hollowness with every water droplet that met my skin. Only my red gloves didn’t fade. They stood out boldly and attracted insects from far and wide. In the afternoon, the sun shined on me, which dried me out, while the forest came to life.
A family of squirrels moved into my skull. They started mating and stuffed my mouth with nuts. I thought about the mason jars stacking up on the shelves in our shack, but I wasn’t even thrilled that I’d never have to eat pickled mushrooms again. Slugs crawled on me and covered me in slime. At home, Grandpa would bathe me once a week, normally it wouldn’t be time for that yet, even though I was really dirty and covered in moss. The squirrels danced around in my skull. My stomach filled with flourishing plants. Wild thistles grew up to my nose, and in the mornings, dew rested on the cobwebs that enveloped their leaves.
On an evening colder than most, the ground became covered in frost. That night, the wolves howled. I thought about how when it’ll get much colder and the snow will fall, they’ll venture down to me, I’ll harness them to my wheelchair, and they’ll pull me to Africa. On the way there, I’ll eat one or two. But it didn’t get much colder, and the wolves didn’t come.
One night, the sky ripped through my head with a huge crash. It rang something dreadful, louder than when Grandpa would drop his toolbox. I needed to scream, but I couldn’t, because the squirrels had stuffed my mouth, and I was bursting with ice-cold stars to the crown of my head that had popped my eyes out. I watched one roll across the rotten leaves, shining blue. I thought then about how Grandpa had never mentioned that, that my eyes were beautiful, like his. And that this is another sex appeal of mine. But then, one, two stars burrowed into my eye sockets, and suddenly nothing mattered. The slugs were cold inside my feet and a sick hare died in my knee.
A week later, when Grandpa finally remembered me and came back for me, I wasn’t even happy that he was going to take me home, bathe me, and that perhaps there was enough corn flour left for him to make me a bit of porridge with crispy bacon. But there’s nothing more important than forgiveness, so I went home with him anyway.
Ilka Papp-Zakor was born in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, where she studied Russian and Hungarian philology. After earning her M.A. in Hungarian, she moved to Helsinki, Finland, where she semi-officially attended biology courses at the local university and trained rats. Her first book, the short story collection titled Angel Dinner, won the JAK-kendő Award and was published in 2015 by József Attila Kör, a prestigious Hungarian emerging writers’ association that published the first books of many internationally acclaimed Hungarian writers like László Krasznahorkai, Tóth Krisztina, and Péter Eszterházy. Papp-Zakor’s second collection, The Last Zoo, was published in 2018. She is currently at work on her first novel. Papp-Zakor was a participant of the Visegrad Literary Residency Program and most recently of the Akademie Schloss Solitude Residency. She was also a finalist for the 2018 Horváth Péter Literary Fellowship. She lives in Budapest with her husband and their dog named Pig.
Timea Balogh is a Hungarian American writer and translator with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A 2017 American Literary Translators Association Travel Fellow, her translations of Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Offing, Two Lines Journal, Waxwing, Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation, Split Lip Magazine, Arkansas International, National Translation Month, and the Wretched Strangers anthology by Boiler House Press, among others. Her debut original short story was published by Juked and was nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She divides her time between Budapest and Las Vegas. You can tweet her at @TimeaRozalia.
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