DANCE WITH THE DEAD MAIDSERVANT
In which we find out absolutely nothing, a servant-girl dreams of nettle soup and a widow receives a letter
It has to be heard to be believed, but here in Dolné Uhry, Lower Hungary, at the end of the plain, in the county of Szabolcs, near the village of Tisza-Eszlár, from spring onwards the River Tisza sings. And today, on this Friday morning, so much in flood, so immense that all the cornfield and potato fields alongside are under its water, the river is not singing alone. Its fish, usually so quiet, are also singing and the little black storks in their nest on the chimney of Lustig’s inn (what they call the charda here) are screeching with such hunger we might also call that singing too.
The flies in the fish soup at the bottom of the bowl on the kitchen table right next to the head of old Benkóczi (as always on Fridays she has nodded off) are also singing. In the yard outside Mamusha Ursula, bent over the washtub is also singing as is her thuggish-looking son, Vasile, though what it is he’s singing is known only to him.
He is standing naked in a large wooden bucket in the small back room humming some song to himself as he washes. If he could think of another he might go on singing but once this one is over he squats to splash his stomach and crotch with cold water, rinses off his thighs and sides and then gently, carefully runs his wet fingers over his eyes and cheeks. He shudders with cold, steps onto the pair of trousers thrown on the floor and lifts one foot to dry it with some piece of torn pink curtain his grandmother has given him instead of a towel. Vasile then looks into a small round shaving mirror with a sense of great pleasure and pride.
The mirror magnifies young Vasile making his bulging brown eyes with their yellow-speckled irises look quite huge. And he is pleased by what he sees—though only in that round shaving mirror. Recently he has not been so enamoured of himself, not with all those pimples on his face. He has counted six: three on his forehead, three on his nose, above his left nostril, above and below his left eye, and two by his left ear. Which, bugger it, makes eight and not six, all on the left of his face. And what’s on the left, he reminds himself, is not worth shit.
Vasile smiles at his wit and starts squeezing out the pimples. They are repulsively enlarged in the mirror and again he starts singing one of those songs known to him alone. It is only when he is angry or in pain that he sings. As he squeezes, he hisses and swears but quietly, under his breath, because the door is slightly open as his mother and grandmother insist upon. He is not allowed to shut himself in and lock the door—God forbid!—much though he would like to. His mother and grandma have both forbidden it because Vasile is ill. He sleeps badly at night, cries out in his sleep, sometimes even walks around the room; recently strange things have been happening in the morning before he wakes up. As if he has wet the bed just a little bit and cannot help himself.
Last night was no exception.
His quilt has been thrown over the chair and he is too ashamed to look at it. The worst thing is that ever since that new servant girl arrived, it has been happening almost every night.
She is a looker, that Ester, pretty—and he has even seen her naked for a moment when Mamusha was washing her in the washtub in the barn soon after she arrived. Because they wanted her to serve them at table, they had to make sure she was clean. But Mamusha saw him spying and immediately slammed the door shut and at dinner later, shook her finger at him menacingly.
She has got nice hair, though, that servant girl, black and shiny, and a mouth neither too big, nor too small—just right, in fact. And she can smile sweetly but she never does at him, the minx. Her lips are thick, not fit for kissing just yet but they should be soon enough. Her breasts are still small, fine for looking at but not for anything more. And what if, what if? Her thighs are slim and when her skirt ripples and Vasile sees her as she crosses the yard, he imagines all manner of things and is not quite himself for a few moments.
Why does she wiggle her bottom like that, the minx, oh why? And he reckons that probably yes, you could do it with a girl that, definitely. Vasile is convinced about it. Of course it would be very different from how it was with that painted whore in Nyiregyháza, but that was grandma’s fault, not his. Because Vasile Benkóczi went to the school in town but has now stopped going and no-one in the village will ever know why. No-one in the whole world knows it apart from him, his grandma and that Vali in the salon at Madam Pásztor’s in Nyiregyháza whose throat he wanted to slit but didn’t manage to. And ever since he has been wetting himself at nights. Grandma gave that rusty little whore five Austrian guilders that time. He saw her giving them to her—she had to to shut her up and stop her making threats. If Vasile was a policeman, he would carry a sword and hat with cock feathers like Béla Piczely. How different it would all be!
He has already tried to grab hold of that little servant girl but she’s tricksy and keeps pushing him off, the little Jewish minx. Grandma said she isn’t completely Jewish, just half, because her father’s the Jew, not her mother, and Jewish girls don’t work as servants. Her mother’s a Slovak and that’s even worse because Slovaks are soaks and they stink because they’re up for any kind of work and don’t wash. But they do work hard, his grandma said, though she hates those Slovak women. And if this one is hardworking, then she’ll want washing, she said sagely, nodding her head, so that his mother took her on in the end. Vasile couldn’t care less whether she was Jewish or Slovak provided she would let him do the things he wanted. Just so long as she wasn’t a Hungarian. He’s afraid of them. He’s heard the Tótfal cops telling each other how Hungarian women bite so no Hungarian women for him, thanks very much. If his mother would only let him, he would call that Ester into that little back room, get her to scrub his back and then she would have to rub his whole body, all over, till it was perfectly dry. And then he would quietly lock the door so that his mother and grandma heard nothing.
He has been daydreaming and the blood has oozed from some of those pimples leaving his face covered in dark-red patches. He examines himself with disgust, bringing that little round mirror so close that it frosts over with his breath. He grimaces, coughs up some phlegm and spits it out at his magnified reflection. He is not very enamoured of himself these days at all.
Ester looks out at the world with big dark eyes under a smooth low brow decorated in the middle by a truss of oily, shiny hair in the shape of a crooked bisected heart. She is clasping a large bowl of cream in both hands into which her young mistress has chopped some dried apples and plums and added some mulberry jelly before sprinkling the whole with ground walnuts and fresh leaves of lemon balm. Under her chin she is holding a folded tablecloth she will lay the dining-room table with as instructed. Taking small, careful steps, she is getting closer to the door, leaning to one side, opening her mouth and sticking out her little pointed tongue in concentration. And then she smiles as she gently pushes down the door handle with her right elbow, smiles silently to herself to celebrate her success. She is pleased to be so clever, pleased that her young mistress praises her and smiles at her. She has even promised to give her something—a graiciar or a kopeyka— whatever it may be. And if neither, Ester is still content. Her mother, the widow Jaworeková, will be pleased when she tells her how her mistress is happy with her.
She likes her young mistress but not her old one. She is a witch and always takes the side of that nasty boy. On her very first day there he pinched her hard on the thigh, the pig, and it still hurts even now. When the young mistress was washing her to make sure she didn’t have any diseases, she noticed the bruise on her leg and asked her how she got it. Ester decided not to be a tell-tale and told her she had banged into the kitchen table. But her mistress didn’t believe her so she then said some boys by the river had pinched her when she was out bathing the geese. But her mistress still didn’t believe her, pulled her hair and told her not to tell lies because she knew exactly who had done it.
So that evening at dinner, young master Vasile got a clip behind the ear from his Mamusha (the funny name he uses for her). And he went bright red and lost his temper, yelled something out in Hungarian, banged his dish with his spoon so that he splashed soup all over the tablecloth, jumped up, kicked his chair, ran to the door and shrieked at her, saying she was a little Slovak bitch and using lots of horrible Hungarian words Ester didn’t know the exact meanings of. And then he ran out into the yard and they heard the dog yelping pitifully from the kick it had been given, followed by the sound of the gate slamming. The young master had run off.
The Benkóczi women went on sipping their soup in silence. Then when the older of the two had finished eating, she glared at the servant girl, wiped her nose on the tablecloth, swore something in Hungarian under her breath and clambered up heavily from her chair. Ester came to help her but the old woman waved her away with her stick. And then she yelled at her, saying how thanks to her, the smelly little bedbug, the young master would have to go without his dinner and how she too would go without:
“You vermin….you piece of filth, you little whore carved out of Jewish shit.“
The old woman smiled at her wit, again threatened the whole world with her stick, belched loudly and went out through the door.
The next morning when Ester goes out to milk the cows, there are still stars low in the sky, twinkling coldly but merrily above the cowhouse. She could almost burst into song but no melody comes to her. She puts the lantern in her left hand in order to unlatch the door but it is already open and in the gloom she can see the figure of the old woman leaning on her stick, her eyes glistening. She is waiting for her.
Startled, the servant girl gasps and breathes in so deeply she has to cough. Old Benkóczi is looking daggers at her, saying nothing just resting on her stick. She has a woollen stole around her shoulders and is leaning against one of the wooden posts behind which the little calves are enclosed. Their heads are outstretched as they lick the old woman’s hand.
Ester greets her in Hungarian, mutters a blessing in Slovak as she crosses herself and follows a wide arc as she goes past the old woman. She then digs the stool from out of the straw, settles down on it and starts milking.
The moon has gone down, disappeared somewhere; the stars are now a pale yellow colour and fast fading, all the merriment having gone from them. Dew is falling as Ester carries the milk pail, says czokolom, thank you, in their language and tries to squeeze past the old woman on her way out. But the old woman blocks her way and says that she will thrash her, the lump of rubbish. And then she starts beating her over the head and shoulders with her stick.
“Ouch, don’t hit me, Miss, please don’t hit me so. Don’t hit me so hard— I’ll spill the milk. Please don’t.” The girl holds on dearly to the pail but drops the lantern to the ground and its flame flickers out. In the dark the old woman goes on shouting and beating her then pushes her off with the stick. Sweating profusely, Ester falls backwards into a pile of manure and spills the milk all over her face and shoulders. She then bursts into tears and goes on crying until old Benkóczička finally stops shouting and beating her, leans over her and, speaking Ruthenian because she thinks it is Slovak, tells her to stop yelling and to get up. Then her good mistress, the young one, runs in and rescues her, suddenly it is morning, the black sky has faded and the cockerel is on the steps of the verandah cock-a-doodling and unable to get enough of the brand new day.
It’s a hard, hard life that fourteen-year-old Slovak servant Ester Jaworek has in the service of the Benkóczis. She begged God, prayed to him morning and night but to no effect so she does not pray anymore. Now she’s afraid that she has sinned somehow and that God is punishing her for it. She’s forgotten all her Slovak songs, has lost her appetite and keeps having to pee in the night; there’s even red stuff coming out of her and it burns. She sleeps badly and when she does finally fall asleep, she dreams about nettle soup, which means someone is going to drown in her family.
JURAJ BINDZÁR, born in 1943 in Pezinok, Slovakia. A theatre and film director, screenwriter, writer of theatre plays and radio drama, journalist, songwriter and poet. He studied Aesthetics and Theatre Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts in Prague and Theatre Directing at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. From 1975 to 1989 he worked as a dubbing director. He founded the LUDUS Studio for which he wrote and directed the plays Modrý vták, Robinson, Krava, Skaza akadémie, Turandot, etc. In 1967, he made the animated film Oko. The production of his next animated film Aplauz was suspended for political reasons. A couple of years later he made a live-action film called Okresné blues from his own screenplay. He also wrote several radio dramas and adaptations.
In 2001, he made his literary debut with the book entitled Krajina nespavosti, which was followed by Zabi ma nežne and Šibenica pre malého muža in 2002, Prázdny hrob (2003) and Tanec s mŕtvou slúžkou (Dance With The Dead Maidservant, 2004). He is a laureate of the Pezinok Prize for Art Creation and he has been awarded the Slovenské Pohľady Prize for Cultural Journalism four times (in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2005). In 2011, he published the “plebeian” novel Bez dúhy / Without a Rainbow, which was nominated for the Anasoft litera prize in 2012 and was followed by Hekuba, román herečky / Hekuba, novel by actress.
About the Translator:
JONATHAN GRESTY is originally from Cheshire, UK, but has been living in Slovakia for over twenty years. At present he lives and works in Prešov where he teaches at the local university and also works as a freelance translator. He has just submitted his PhD thesis all about the translation of tourist texts from Slovak into English. He is married with two children.
Jonathan has translated work by Peter Pišťanek, Peter Milčák, Jozef Karika and Jana Bodnárová, amongst others. At present he is working on the translation of the novel Tábor padlých žien by Anton Baláž as part of a Slavic Authors to the World project and due to be published in 2016.