Géza Csáth

Opium | Pig Killing

Translated by Judith Sollosy

From a neurologist’s mail box
for Attila Sassy

Waking up mornings brings with it untold suffering, and the suffering lingers on. In the morning, blaring accords of light roar through the streets, and not the frosted window panes, not the heavy, colorful drapes afford relief, for its rasping, precipitate rhythms penetrate everything, and beckon to you. You have no choice but to go, to go among low-statured human beings with unpleasant countenances who are convinced that this vile and unrelenting music is what life is all about, and that what they are about is called living.

They leap refreshed from their beds and their inconsequential, dreamless sleep. They take a brusque bath and applaud the cold water that causes them pain. They set to work with brain and brawn, when the labor they are about brings nothing but humiliation to the hearts – the hearts of those who no longer hanker after the miserly, petty pleasures of life, save for one: solemn and melancholy ecstasy. To emerge triumphant from the fray, to rest after so much fatigue and blood – there is no ecstasy in this, just the cessation of pain. For those who submit to pain with indifference and patience, this is enough, I know; it is even too much. They are mean of spirit. But we must bear no resentment against them, even though they prevent us from dedicating our lives entirely to the ancient, holy ecstasies, this being the sole purpose of life.

Of course, there’s a price to be paid. The light which comes with cruel regularity every morning exacts its toll. The heart is enervated, the lashes hang heavy under the weight of the sun’s rays, the skin shrinks from the wind. The muscles do their work grudging and sluggishly. The sound of shouting convulses the body and a dull pain invades the skull at the nape of the neck. This is why we must not laugh at the petty goings on of the foolish, seeing how it demands of them so much shouting, concentration, and effort. The light will not let them flee the cares, the loud noises and the monotonous, boring, overbearing rhythms. Besides, talk is dependent on words, and words are, so to speak, wholly unrelated to the concepts in the brain.

Many similar things appear by the consuming light of the sun.

In the mirror, our faces appear as so many stiff, shapeless patches of color which clearly have nothing to do with us. Trains run into the station houses, on the streets men, carriages and horses hurry past, all of which is marvelous and painful, too, but also incomprehensible and strange, and it fills us with the conviction that in this shape or form, things have no cause and no purpose. We must therefore escape to a place where these things become simple and easy of comprehension.

Ecstasy obliterates the outlines, gets rid of the incomprehension. It transports us outside the confines of space, and arresting the speeding second-hand of the clock, raises us atop gentle waves to the very heights of life.

To stop here for a moment or two only, trembling from the knowledge that in another moment we would irrevocable fall back from whence we came is misery incarnate. And yet, the multitude of people are satisfied with such moments of clarity. It’s not their fault. They lack the courage and the energy to risk the long ecstasy that could transport them to the wonder that is time without end, even though this risk comes cheap and is ridiculously small besides. Though the ten or so hours of the jaundiced, invasive light of murderous day crawl by at a snail’s pace, the fourteen hours of evening and night offer us a slice of eternity, wonderful, mysterious, timeless.

This is when we come to know the deeper meaning of life, and what was dim or dark is suddenly flooded with the light of comprehension. Like so many fine and cheerful girls’ lips, the sounds cover our bodies with kisses. In the brain and down the spine colors and lines vibrate in their new, primordial, pure state. And now that they no longer resemble the colors and lines familiar to the eye, they reveal the great secrets that lie hidden in Form. The false and rudimentary familiarity with existence, acquired through vision, hearing, the sense of smell and the sense of taste, not to mention the sense of touch, is now enhanced and set right. For the way now lies open to the full comprehension of the truth about life, which we all carry within us, and which is a perfect truth untainted by the prejudice of the senses.

This truth is as incapable of expression through words, ideas and preconceptions as it is unapproachable through the senses. I have no right to say that I know the weight of a cube which I have seen, but not weighed. In the same way, a man who has only seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched has no right to say that he has lived. Ecstasy alone is the source of knowledge and of the joy of consorting with the Divine. But can we posit that the joy of consorting with the Divine lasts but a moment? A moment is the extent of the hand-out God has granted to the foolish and the weak. But those who deserve more – because they want more – can have a bit of eternity so long as they are willing to be brave and take risks of a noble nature.

First of all, they must give up seeing and hearing well. Opium, the awesome and blessed mediator of ecstasy, wreaks havoc with the senses and the sensory organs. The appetite and the comfortable bourgeois feeling of exhaustion – these, too, must be relinquished. The eyes often fill with tears, and there is a ringing in the ears. Objects, people and characters on the page grow indistinct. Words and sounds wander through the chambers of the ear in chaotic disarray.

Stop the miserable, petty little automatons!

In silent rooms where every sound is muffled by the soft carpets and the colored glass disperses the flickering light of the small gas-lamp, lie on your back. Close your eyes. The small opium pipe will transport you to a place where we live only for the sake of living, and for no other reason. This is the only object of existence. For God in his tight-fistedness gave every miserable creature a moment or two of this life so he should live and continue living, and be the progenitor of new life. Then the new creature, too, has his share of a fleeting moment.

The essence of life is such an expensive commodity that through the centuries, entire generations are presented an hour of it all told. He who accepts this accepts the fact that he must die even before he is born. But he who has managed to become a real human being and has taken stock of himself as is suited to his dignity should wrench fourteen hours to himself out of every day. These fourteen hours are equal to eight-thousand years of life lived by four-hundred generations. But let’s just make it five-thousand. Which means that in the course of just one day I live five-thousand years. In one year, this comes to approximately two-million. Assuming that you start smoking opium as a strong, mature man and pay meticulous attention to the maintenance of your health, best left to a good doctor, you can live ten years, and then, having reached the age of twenty-million, you can lay your head in peace on the ice-cold pillow of perdition. As for him who will not or dare not carve twenty-million years out of eternity for himself, let him live a hundred years, and let him multiply and bring forth his descendants.


Pig Killing

The long winter’s night was drawing to a close, and far away, beyond the black cluster of houses where the field trails off into the indistinct horizon, a gray strip appeared at the bottom of the sky. The stars were still twinkling, but down below, among the houses, in the deep, shadowless dark where you could hear the breathing of folk as they slept, this gray strip of light was not yet a reality.

Maris turned in her bed, opened her eyes, and glanced out the window. Without giving it a second thought, she slipped out of bed and walked across the cold tile of the kitchen floor, but her feet did not feel the cold. She struck a match and wiping the hair from her face, she waited for the fire to pick up. She then lit the kitchen lamp and set to work. She did not have to bother about her dress, for with the exception of her bodice, she slept in her clothes. She combed her hair and quickly arranged it in a braid, securing it with two pins. (Her hair was kinky and blond, like straw, and not much bother to her.) She wet and rubbed her ruddy, fifteen-year-old cheeks and lathered her strong hands, red with work, yet covered with fine yellow down. She went about her toilet machinelike, quickly and mechanically. Then she found her slippers, folded up her bed, and hurriedly left the kitchen.

Out in the yard everything was covered with a fine layer of frost, and the stones were slippery. Maris very nearly tripped. “Goodness!” she hissed lightly between her teeth. The sow, who was about to be slaughtered that day, was rooting and grunting in the back of the yard.

Maris went over to her and patted her. “You’re up, too, old girl? Poor thing. You’re going to be slaughtered today, did you know that? The man with the big knife is coming to slit your throat, poor dear.”

The sow grunted and nuzzled Maris, who now scurried down to the cellar to start a fire under the big kettle.

The bitter January air was no less bitter down in the cellar. On the contrary, it seemed to have eaten its way into the walls and the floor. Still, despite her light dress, Maris, whose body was strong and buxom, did not feel the cold. She knelt on the cold stone and fanned the fire with her breath, adding kindling wood and straw until the tongues of flame shot up blazing in the stove. Then she woke the cook, laid out the sharpened knives, and hurried back to the fire.

When the sow grunted through the washroom door, Maris called to her, “Talk as much as you like, it’s your day to be slaughtered. The butcher is coming with his big knife, and he’s plunging it in your neck, no matter how much you cry!”

As she nursed the fire, the yard turned gray, and only a handful of stars could now be seen in the sky. A man entered the yard. It was the butcher, a brawny peasant with a pockmarked face and a handsome mustache, the kind of man who could be twenty-five or forty, there was no way of knowing.

He went to the kitchen.

“Good morning!”

“And a good morning to you too!”

Without saying any more he laid out his knives, divested himself of his overcoat, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and tied an apron round his waist. He went about his business slowly and deliberately, never once taking his eye from the girl. Then he poked the fire and dipped a finger into the water being warmed over the fire.

“Good work, big girl!” he said, patting Maris on the shoulder.

Maris did not turn around; she just gave an impertinent shake of the head, and put more straw on the fire.

In another hour the people of the house were up, too; the children, the young men and young ladies, were all out in the yard.

Next, they drove the sow out. The butcher walked up to her, grabbed her head, pressed it between his knees, and finished her off. Maris buried her face in her apron. The children began shouting, “Look at Maris, she’s afraid! Look at Maris, she’s afraid!”

The sow never had a chance to squeal, for within the hour, she lay in the kitchen cut up in pieces of all sizes. The house was permeated with the smell of pork. In the kitchen, the tables were laden with bacon and meat, the pots were filled to the brim, and the water was boiling over the fire.

The butcher, the cook and Maris were working for all they were worth. By noon they had only the sausages and the puddings left to prepare. The butcher, who ate his noonday meal inside at the table, had a little too much wine, and was mincing the meat for the stuffing in high spirits. The girls were cleaning the guts. When they were done, Maris showed them to the butcher.

“Not good enough,” the butcher said after examining the guts at close range, “don’t be sparing your hands, girl, or we’ll never see the end.” And he tickled her.

“I’m not sparing nothing,” Maris said, punching the butcher on the back with her fist, and blushing to the roots of her hair.

By early evening, everything stood ready; the sausage rings, the hams, the bacon, they were all hanging in the pantry, only the butcher was still busy down in the washroom, cleaning away the bristles.

“Hey, Maris, come here!” he called.

There was no one else in the washroom. The cook was upstairs, making dinner. Everything of interest in a pig killing was now over, only the fatigue of hard work remained and the stupor which sneaked into the brain with the pungent smell of blood and raw flesh. Outside, it was a cold winter’s night, but inside, the warmth of the fire filled the air.

The butcher took Maris by the waist as she came in, and pressed her close to him. Others had hugged her before this, but she never really felt it, for she gave them the slip, hit them, and ran off. But now a pair of strong arms were holding her tight, the huge sinews bound her like rope, paralyzing her. She could hardly breathe or shout.

A half an hour later, Maris was walking in the yard with the kerchief pulled low over her forehead.

“Mother would give me what for if she knew. She’d kill me, and I’d serve me right. Didn’t she say I’d end up like Julcsa Kovács if I acted stupid? Didn’t she? Just like Julcsa Kovács!”

Then she was called inside. She had to make the beds and serve dinner. She was kept very busy. Even putting the little one to bed was in her charge. She rolled round and round playfully with the child, planting innumerable kisses on his cheeks. Only when she herself was in bed did she – thanks to the little boy she had just put to sleep – think of what had transpired earlier. “I will have one, too,” she said, trying to comfort herself, but she ended up crying just the same. But her sadness was brief, for she was soon fast asleep, breathing deeply and evenly after a hard day’s work.