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5 min read

Starless Night

A piece of "flash fiction" by Hungarian writer Krisztina Tóth, presenting a haunting snap-shot of everyday life in Budapest today.

Credits TEXT: Krisztina Tóth Translation: Rachel Miller, Tímea Széll March 13 2018

Hungarian writer Krisztina Tóth has written some twenty books, both prose and poetry. She is an acclaimed and popular writer, whose books are widely distributed in her home country. She often uses everyday motifs in her works, and draws an unvarnished picture of Hungarian society. Her work has been translated into several European languages.

The girl who usually refills my milk bottles can’t be more than twenty-five. Her short white apron and white blouse accentuate her youth. Her sky-blue eyes smile at the customers, but she is talking to the other girl behind the meat counter, who is busy arranging the sausages. She says she doesn’t get what the big deal is, why not just shoot everyone who tries to get ashore? That’d be the simplest solution. They’d be better off anyway, given what their lives have come to.

Her gloved co-worker murmurs in agreement and nods, yes, indeed it would be much better for them, too, into the water with them all, and then that’d be that. The blonde girl turns back to me and asks if I need anything else. No, nothing, thank you. Yes, the words, thank you, come out of my mouth while I slide my bottle into my bag.

At home, whenever I pour milk, the girl is with me, her voice in my ears all day. I keep wondering what I should have done differently – questioned the girl’s thinking and held up the other customers, gone to another store, perhaps even given up milk altogether, or learned to ignore words not meant for me and slowly gotten used to hearing or seeing nothing?

The next night I find myself running late for dinner at a friend’s place. Glancing at my watch as I reach the metro station, I decide instead to call a cab. Since I only ever go to the Buda Hills for day trips to Normafa Forest, I am not that familiar with these streets. I stare blankly out at the darkening city as we head for the outer, greener parts. Kálmán Széll Square is pure chaos. For a little while the cab driver manages to weave expertly around the heavy traffic but eventually gives up. All traffic is at a standstill. The dispatcher announces that someone needs a ride to Óbuda while opposite us a blaring ambulance hopelessly lurches from one side of the road to another and back, making no headway.

Bored and exhausted, the driver wants to chat. I neither encourage nor stop him, letting him speak at will. Killing time while we’re stalled, he starts rambling about what he calls the filthy migrant hordes. He refuses to believe, he says, that with our current technological know-how we cannot solve this problem. Why don’t we herd them all into a tent and pump a little gas in there? And while we’re at it, why not send the homeless in there as well? It’s not as if we don’t have enough decent people already here without a place of their own.

Suddenly the air is gone from the car. I want out. This is it, I tell him, the end. I’ll walk from here. The driver looks up, surprised, and tells me to hang on, just a few hundred meters more and we’ll be past the minor collison at the intersection. I refuse the receipt and don’t reach for any change.

I start walking, taking deep breaths, away, away from the center of town, walking out of my city, the city of my birth. I walk the length of two stops down the line when the tram arrives. I get on and start scanning faces. I look at an old man with a bandaged foot, and on his lap, a bucket of overripe figs. I study his eyes, trying to imagine what he might be thinking. Then my glance shifts to an elderly woman with a dog, and from her to two boys, standing and hanging on, one of them with colorful bracelets on his wrist. Taking in all the passengers, I try to gauge how many of them would agree with the cab driver. How many would shrug off his remarks? How many would be outraged? At the last stop, everyone gets off the tram, and I stand unmoving in the brisk autumn evening. Five out of ten, let’s say? Four? All ten? It’s cold, and getting colder by the second, and the feeling of suffocation sits on my chest. The cloud cover is low, leaving the sky starless, as if a giant tent covered us all.

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