from Greetings from Inside the Continent

Gábor Schein

Captain Cornelius’s Letter from Pannonia to Burrus,
               to the Colonial Office in Rome

For you, a gently sloping, friendly country; to me, the land
of sluggish, nondescript winters, with an unwholesome climate.
Only the thick wines offer consolation to the one
fed up with the ill-humoured nepotism of governance
who, past his prime, realizes at last
that the odd pasquinade is all his talent can yield.

But he goes on yet, hoping for late-life love, trusteeship
in bankruptcy, and finds it ever harder to bear
that making any change here is truly pointless.
Even though it’s no easier to die here in peacetime
than in another province, and a reliable technique
of drainage was implemented over the centuries,

all things considered, you could only live decently in this frosty
bog fringe at the end of the seasonal wars when they let
everything rot on for a while, and hyperactive ignorami
didn’t set out to launch charges of mass murder
and imprisonments. Needless to say, all the wars were lost.
Not that they were failures down to the last one.

They lost deliberately: out of this they hoped
to botch eternal forgiveness for themselves, and as
even today they are entranced by the funeral
marches and the ponderous fantasies of reburials,
their style, a mere parody, is growing truly alarming.
So we took back this province. I find the fertile

heritage of local customs enchanting. I like
the huts’ colouring, how it reminds one of the closeness
of earth: dull browns and yellows succeed each
other, now and again mauve is tried out, but nothing
would withstand the insistencies of grey. No
attempt is made to fix the damages of time. 

And yet, my dear Burrus, what is this but deceit, ominous
deceit, for the land is theirs, it is their lares who lie
buried in it and whose names they are no longer afraid
to invoke. We had better admit that we can’t fix this turn
of the times either! Consider: all our spoils, apart from a few flocks
of sheep, is yet another unintelligible tongue, into which

it was a waste of time to translate Plato. Luckily
they are always the first to be scared off by blood.
And although after yesterday’s assault further ones
can be expected, for the moment all’s quiet in this superfluous
province. Let’s hope the terminal cancer will not
spread from here. I have a sinister premonition.

The Taste of Salt

The fall of a mug from the table would be enough.
Enough, if a gadget broke down, if I poured
the soup on my shirt. Enough, if one of us
did not hear a sentence’s end. A missed phone call
would be enough, a twitching of the face which is not about
what you, what I believe. Enough, if you or I still
hoped for something. Enough, if we forgot to remember,
if for once we both tried to imagine what way
it would be good, or at least better than it is.

Better than it used to be, when from the window we looked
on the chestnut tree’s green globe. Now the leaves
are rusty, the sap’s gone. The pencil-marked times
are islands without passageways: comparisons
take the place of traffic. The chestnut tree used to turn
every day; every day the sap was drained from the leaves.
But we didn’t notice. We live on islands: now this,
tomorrow another one. Enough, if one of us
wanted to have done with endless comparisons.
If one of us could believe that time is a sea and under
water we can hold onto tomorrow’s fin, eyes shut tight.

That some place, some promontory exists, from where everything
is bathed in the same blue if you look up or down. For the hardest
is to be where we happen to be: in those shoes. In that skin. In this
forever dehydrated, unfinished otherworld. There where
we are needed perhaps, or not needed. Where we could
rest only if we were prepared to go off love-making,
if we were not nailed to the absence gaping within.

Comparisons are like a sickness you can’t
get rid of. It nestles in your system, vanishes
for a while, then flares up again. The eye gets inflamed
because it wants to see. In self-protection it secretes
tears. And tears remind you of the sea again, of a journey,
of the vast salt ponds stretching for kilometers
along the shore: their water not blue like the sea
but brownish. The eye is one such pond. If time evaporates
from it, fever’s white crystals will sediment on the bottom.

But it’s not for us to collect the salt. The one who will
compare two things, who in restlessness counts beyond
one, will never be able to stay in his shoes, his skin. Whatever
he says or does, he would dash to the utmost limit but cannot, for
nobody can shed their skin. So fires light up in his body here and there.
It takes less than a casual word: the cause, if there must be one,
is rather a word or gesture that failed to happen.
If absence turns stifling in a repressed system,
autoinflammation is likely to start in the cells.

The body’s habitual self-cooling mechanisms will not
help at such times. Walls burn through, and what in the body
is called soul is torn to pieces. On the outside only the red
spots on the neck and chest show it; skin takes on
a marble-like appearance. Inside though the brain
is criss-crossed by the meanest thoughts. You ponder the death
of the ones you love. Body and soul function in death mode.
No telling how much time passes, although at such times,
time is all-important. Inside everything darkens.

Dark thickens. The sediment on the bottom of the pond
is invisible yet; above it the water is mud-coloured, still. Someone
is lying, still, inside. Not knowing what to do. Fearful timelessness.
And then not he but someone from him starts praying. Asks for a new body.
In the body, for a new soul, whatever it be. He can’t get to the end of the words,
and not sure he’d like to. But this seems to be enough.
Forehead and back are drenched in sweat: cold, unsalted.
And the soul at once pretends it has nothing to do with all
this. It merely wanted to learn the taste of salt.

translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa