Géza Csáth

Father and Son

Translated by Judith Sollosy

One winter morning, the first assistant to the director of the Institute of Anatomy announced a visitor, who urgently wished to see the director. The director sent word that he had only a few moments to spare, because he was about to give a lecture. Indeed, the lecture hall was filled to capacity with noisy medical students.

The visitor, a tall, well dressed man with a pale complexion entered, bowed deeply, and speaking almost too rapidly in his excitement, launched into the object of his visit. Judging by his smoothly shaven face, one would have thought that he was not Hungarian, though his pronunciation was impeccable. In front of his extremely short-sighted eyes he wore a pince-nez in a heavy black frame.

“I beg our pardon, Your Worship, for inconveniencing you, but the matter is extremely pressing, at least, for me. My name is Pál Gyetvás. I am an engineer, and I arrived from America just yesterday. When I got off the train, my mother greeted me with the news that my father has died. I should have received the letter with news of his death the day I boarded ship to come home…. In short, I learned that my father died, and that he died at the clinic. My mother, whom I found in great want when I got home, could not afford to bury him…. In short, she left my father’s corpse at the clinic, because they promised to bury him. I made inquiries, and learned that his body was brought here to the Institute of Anatomy for the medical students to study. I also learned that the bodies are buried only after they’d been cut up into very small pieces, then they dump all the pieces into one casket. I want to know if this has also been my father’s fate, or whether, as the assistant hopes, perhaps his bones were boiled and his skeleton reconstructed. This is what I wish to know, and I beg Your Worship that should this be the case, kindly hand the skeleton or the skull over to me, for a proper burial…. In short, I implore you, Your Worship, kindly have them check if my father’s skeleton is around. The assistant said that they pick corpses with strong and healthy bones for this purpose, and my father had very big bones, and he was as tall as I…. Naturally, I shall reimburse the institute’s expenses.”

During this long and excited discourse, the director kept stroking his beard. When he spoke, he spoke slowly, his voice subdued.

“Yes, of course. I will have someone look into it. What was your father’s name?

“Pál Gyetvás, like me.”

“The institute does not release corpses. But if we still have the skeleton, possibly down in the boiler room, or possibly reassembled, I have no objection, you shall have it.”

The director rang and an assistant in a white coat entered.

“Doctor,” the director began, “kindly have them check if a corpse by the name of Pál Gyetvás was processed last month or the previous month, and if so, whether we had a demonstration skeleton made from him.”

The assistant hurried away, and the director offered his strange visitor a chair. After five minutes of silent waiting, during which time the visitor kept shaking his knee in agitation and the director, his hands sunk in his pocket, stared out the window at the rainy street, the assistant came running.

“The corpse is on the list, Sir. We got it from Internal Pathology. We carried out the autopsy in room C. I assigned it to the third year students because it had such a fine skeleton. I had it made ready last week. It was reassembled the day before yesterday. It is a very fine skeleton, so we had it set up in the autopsy lecture room. Last month the first year students broke one of the skeletons there.”

The newcomer made a sudden, spastic movement. For his part, the director spoke as slowly and deliberately as before.

“In that case, Doctor, kindly have the skeleton in question delivered over to this gentleman. As for you,” and he turned to his visitor, “kindly pay the expenses directly to me.” Then he turned to the assistant once again. “How much will that be, Doctor? Processing and reassembling a corpse comes to thirty-five crowns, does it not?”

The visitor quickly drew out his billfold and paid, and as he did so, he spoke with less excitement, with a certain jovial light-heartedness, in fact.

“Here you are, Your Worship, and thank you for your kindness. Do pardon me for the inconvenience. Good bye.”

The visitor was led to the autopsy room, where the skeleton in question was on display in a corner. It was a huge skeleton with strong bones and a handsome skull, boiled white as porcelain.

For a while, the visitor stared at it in amazement. He had probably never seen a skeleton before. He scrutinized it from the front and back, spun it round on its stand, slid his fingers along its ribcage, touched the springs used to fasten the jaws to the head, then threw a helpless glance at the attendant and the assistant.

The assistant began to praise the skull, at which the visitor discovered a sudden interest in various anatomical details. The man in the white coat soon took his leave. He was expected at the lecture.

The elderly attendant, who felt that he should offer some consolation, turned to his own knowledge of anatomy.

“A skeleton as fine as this is a rare thing. Gyuri, who is in Anatomy II, even said, ‘You know, Uncle Mátyás, I’d love to have this skeleton moved over to my own sector.’”

The visitor lowered his head and began to swing the skeleton’s legs back and forth. The legs jingled as they danced. Then he looked inside the eye sockets for quite some time, after which he bit his lips.

The cynical old Mátyás, who’d been handling corpses for thirty years, saw that the visitor had tears in his eyes, and felt it his duty to wax emotional himself.

“Were you by any chance related to the honorable gentleman?”

“He was my father.”

“Oh. Your father. Oh. I see….” Then he fell silent, and for a time they stood looking at the skeleton.

For a second the skeleton’s son felt that he should say something; he was under the impression that he should give vent to the curious and confused turmoil of thoughts and emotions that were beginning to torment his soul.

But the turmoil was gone as quickly as it had come, having dissipated itself in the clean autopsy room gleaming from all that white porcelain. The pain of bereavement and death melted into thin air, having dispersed itself in the brightness of the big windows. Then, obviously having come to a decision, the visitor abruptly grabbed the iron stand on which the skeleton stood and began dragging it towards the door. He hauled his curious load along hurried and determined, his eyes lowered, as if he were ashamed because of his father.

As he traversed the long hallway, a couple of tardy medical students, late for their lecture, caught a glimpse of him with the skeleton, whose arms and legs were doing a curious dance as the young man with the smoothly shaven face pressed him close in an awkward embrace – the boy his father.