Noémi Kiss is a talented, fierce, young writer who is active and engaged in her home country’s literary scene, and is also successful in Germany, with much of her work already translated and published in German. She is part of a new wave of Hungarian women writers, whose perspicacity and talent – and whose serious devotion to the female point of view – deserve our attention. Noémi Kiss is interesting for several reasons: she has a striking and uncompromising prose style, which sometimes reads like poetry, sometimes like polemic; she is original, and her subject matter is similarly hard hitting; and she is unafraid to look at women’s very personal issues, such as fertility, sexuality, sexual abuse and male violence, conception and motherhood, and explore them in a visceral, challenging manner. (Barney Bardsley)
All at once, in the very same moment, the three of us were born, together. This is how we came into the world, and this is how we will stay, at least for a while, as if we were stuck to each other, like glue. Not for a single moment can I step out of the lives we share. Every day I long for it to be evening; impatiently I look for solitude; sometimes I could scream for a bit of peace. I could kill for it. Oh, to drink on my own, do the washing on my own, cook on my own, take a bath, or simply stare at the picture on my living room wall. I would just like to sit on the toilet, with my head bowed down, for a long, long time. Humming a tune to myself about love – but not even that is possible. Reading, with my feet up. Nothing like that. Walking, jogging, swimming. None of these things can I do any more, since they arrived. Here they are, with their sticky skin and sweet smell, with their eczema. They piddle, sick up their milk and suckle. They vomit and run fevers. They babble and they poo. One rainy warm winter’s day, they stuck their feet into our flat – a little unexpectedly – and became our children. Ever since then it’s been a downpour. At night, when I shut my eyes, I dream in terror that a candyfloss seller hands me two sticks in the park. We are standing by a castle gate, and all of a sudden they are in my hands. I hold them tight. A white plait of dusty icing is woven around them, as if conjured – all of a sudden – by a host of spiders, from snow. Blindly they follow me, fit into me, and stick to my lap. But I can’t lick them, can’t bite into them, because it turns out that these sticks of candyfloss are children. I am frightened when I see and feel them for the first time; I scarcely dare touch them, for I sense they will never let me go again, and I don’t want that, I really, really do not. So yes: they are stuck to me forever, and me to them. Baby-drug habit, bursting open the sky. Sometimes they are as quiet as the grave, snuffling softly, as if they were innocent as lambs. The next minute they are flaming red, on fire. They just hang there in my arms, and I touch them with my nose. They smell me, and I am sweaty. They cry out. I carry them in my fingers, and they weigh heavy against me; I hold them by the legs, all the way across the park where we usually walk, and along the furthest road, by the pavilion. Amidst the bare bushes and dropped rubbish we scurry, over the dried out, yellow winter grass. Over the piss and frozen dog shit we go, faster and faster. The dead bugs, the squashed worms, the empty snailshells. The homeless and the cyclists – they are slower than us. A sledge leaves track marks in the mud. Face to face I come, with babies in their mothers’ prams, in tractors, trolleys and trailers. There are joggers and schoolkids and the unseeing, invisible pupils from the Institute for the Blind. They are just learning to walk, with their carers at their sides. I have the thin little sticks that are my children in my hands – so small – only drawn to life a few weeks before. And again, the rain comes pouring down. The wind blows my neck red-raw, water flows under my feet, and it’s so slippery I almost fall, over and over again. The fog surges around me, hiding the houses. In the veil of the rain, the candyfloss can scarcely be seen; it has melted away. The weather pulls its curtain around us, and all the while I feel as if I were being followed: a shadow hangs over my head. We cross the subway and turn into our street. I am sweating, but already I have a hold of the handle – I have reached the front gate. I step through the door at the entrance – unusually, it’s open; quickly I call the lift, but my hand sticks to the button. I jump inside, with such a big thud that the two sugar skeletons knock against the wall and cry out. Opposite me in the lift is a large mirror. And they look back at me from it, with their black, searching eyes, their teeny mouths barely open, their tongues moving. They want me. They call for me. They cry quietly. I am already at my front door, but I cannot find my key. More muffled, drawn out whimperings reach my ears. I have to put the two pieces of candyfloss down, or I won’t be able to get my key out. But if I were to put them down, that would be the end of them, they’d get dirty, or they’d melt, they’d get covered in mud, or simply melt away, down the steps, through the gate, back into the cold winter rain. Then they would be lost in the fog. Suddenly I bite my tongue! Now a Serb legend comes to my mind, which says that babies are moulded from mud. They come up out of the black earth, or the yellow clay fields. That’s why they look like such dumplings. Strange beings, who half-belong somewhere else, who can’t even walk, they just roll around. Some people would throw them in the rubbish. And some would hurl their baby out of the window... Ow! That hurt a lot! I’d like to hold onto my children, lest they end up in the bin. I reach for them, so that neither be thrown out, or dropped, or allowed to roll away. The shrieks and cries of a baby saves the situation, an almighty wah, waah, waaaaah! It’s shouting, ”Mother, I’m dying of hunger!” I am killing my child – this wakes me up. Quickly, out of bed, throwing the cover to the floor, I go over to their cots. My head swims and I teeter a little, since everything happens so fast. Then I hollow my back round my belly. Just four seconds later, I am lifting up one of the babies, who is roaring at the top of his lungs. It’s the boy. I lay him down on the bed and stop up his mouth straight away with my breast. I know he’s alive, for with every suck a drop goes astray, the sweet, white, transparent liquid dripping onto the divan beneath.
Mama is trying to balance everything, but she’s not doing a good job. She squeezes us into the lift. At this point you always open your eyes wide, and whimper for mama to listen to you, but she doesn’t take any notice, because now she has pressed the call button, and is holding us, and holding her bag, and with a third hand – I don’t know where she got that one from – is searching in her pocket to put away her key; then with her other hand she puts on her jacket, ties her scarf, makes a call, maybe, or curses the system. She is angry, but she’s smiling too. She complains to our elderly lady neighbour, who got in beside us on the fourth floor. She joins in with the babble that leaks from her hairy mouth. She coos lovingly at us. Look at the lift ceiling, sis, all lit up by the stars and the moon. See how powerful the light is. Oh no, not yet, I still want it! But I am not allowed. Out we get, mama puts us down on the floor – and abandons us. First, she has to push the buggy out of the storage cupboard, and she leaves us in the icy cold. She opens one door and closes the other one. Our double buggy can scarcely get through; it clicks against the concrete post once, and then again. The wall will be covered in mud. Every day chunks of plaster break off from it, bit by bit. By the time we are one, everything will have worn away and the house will crumble, sis, do you hear? But that’s good, because then we’ll move. Daddy wants to get out of here too, he said so this morning, because this flat is getting too small for us – it would be big enough for him on his own, but there are four of us now. There is room for mother’s hands, because the handle on our buggy is big. She tucks us in, then pulls the handle towards her. We are setting off for our first spring walk. Long streaks of light pierce the clouds, just as they did when we came into the world. From the ultrasound room they transferred us into an operating theatre. All at once I saw stars. I whimpered, and you bellowed; I was one kilo, you were two. The both of us would make one normal person – two in one – said Doctor Joseph. Mama was trembling, she had no idea giving birth was like this, and already we were out. You are my sister, but I don’t know that yet, I only know that someone beside me keeps yelling, screaming, and this sets me off as well; I start yelling, and so mama sings for us. But afterwards mama cried too, I saw that. She was sobbing because of you, the tears were frozen on her face – but it’s better if you talk about that.
The street was milky-white, impenetrable. The fog dripped from the sky. We set off walking, but got lost. The wheel on our buggy came loose; some fellow helped mama but then he went off in the wrong direction, and mama didn’t pay attention. For three streets we were in a right muddle. Mama didn’t recognise the streets, of course, because since she gave birth – everything had changed. He was a bad guy, she said. She asked another man, and he took us in his arms and carried us back home. At the front gate he said goodbye and asked for our phone number. Inside, we waited in vain for the lift. Mama carried us upstairs in her arms – each of us hanging at awkward angles – and then, when we got up there, it turned out she had lost her key. She put us down on the floor, and left us waiting. Without cradle or bed, she left us, in our two red all-in-ones, and went off to look for it. She thought she had left it in the basement, then she thought it was in our street, then she looked three corners away, then in the park, and finally, she found it – between two statues. In the very place where the buggy wheel had rolled loose. All the time mother was away looking, you were crying out. I was scared, but not as much as you. You were in despair – even at the sound of your own voice. I wanted to cling to you, and I reached over, searching for you with my fingers. By the time mama got back, only you were there – the place where I had been, was empty. I had shivered with fright, and then fainted. I rolled down the stairs. I woke up in mama’s arms, with white hospital tiles all around me. When she saw that, she started to cry. They shone a powerful light into my eyes, over and over again. It was as if I had wriggled out of a dark hole, as if I had been inside mama’s belly. I was being born again, alone. You were nowhere to be seen. It was just mama and me. I don’t remember you from mama’s belly anyway. It’s possible you’re not telling the truth, and you weren’t there at all. I know now that you were in a fish tank for a month, and you came to us from there. The doctor didn’t want to take you out of that box, but mama pleaded with him. At last she got what she wanted and that’s how you came to us. There are two stone statues in the city park, looking each other in the eye. Elek Benedek and Milán Füst. Mama said the key was there – at the foot of the one with its head broken off.
About the translator: Barney Bardsley is a writer and dance-movement practitioner living in Leeds, with three books of non-fiction/memoir to her name, including Old Dog (Simon and Schuster, 2013). She is also a feature writer for The Guardian, Psychologies Magazine and Femail. In 1988-89, she worked as movement coach for the Kaposvár theatre company in Hungary, and fell in love with the country. In 2013, she took a Certificate of Higher Education with Distinction in Hungarian Language Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University.