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21 November 2014

Satantango – Excerpt


Carefully, silently, she let herself down onto the woodpile, then slunk by the wall as far as the kitchen window, pressing her face to the cold glass. “It’s Micur!” The black cat sat on the kitchen table, happily lapping up the remnants of the paprika stew from the red saucepan. The lid of the pan rolled along the floor right into the corner. “Oh, Micur!” Silently, she opened the door, threw the cat down on the floor and quickly replaced the lid on the pan, at which point an idea occurred to her. She turned around slowly, her eyes seeking Micur. “I’m stronger than her”, the thought flashed across her mind. The cat ran over to her and rubbed herself against her legs. Esti tiptoed over to the coatrack and, picking the green nylon net bag from one of the hooks, silently made her way back to the cat. “Come along now!” Micur obediently strolled over and allowed Esti to put her into the bag. Her indifference didn’t last long, of course: her legs slipping through the holes without finding any firm ground, she let out a scared yowl. “What’s up now?” came a voice from the other room. “Who’s out there?” Esti stopped in fright. “It’s me... only me...” “What the fuck are you doing messing around in there. Get out now. Go play somewhere!” Esti said nothing, but holding her breath, stepped out into the yard, the cat still yowling in the bag. She reached the corner of the farmstead without further trouble, stopped there to take a deep breath, then set off at a run because she felt the whole world was waiting to leap on her. When eventually, at the third try, she succeeded in reaching her hiding place, she leaned gasping against one of the rafters and didn’t look back but knew that below her – all around the woodpile – the barn, the garden, the mud, and the darkness were helplessly rushing at each other, their faces contorted with fury, like hungry dogs that have missed a meal. She gave Micur her freedom and the black cat immediately glossed over to the opening before turning round and sniffing its way round the loft, occasionally raising its head, listening for the silence, then rubbing itself against Esti’s legs, raising its tail in pleasure and, once its mistress had sat down in front of the “window”, it settled in her lap. “You’ve had it”, Esti whispered as Micur started purring. “Don’t think I’ll feel sorry for you! You can defend yourself if you like, if you think you can, but it won’t do any good ...” She pushed the cat off her lap, went over to the opening and, using some planks leaning against the tiles, closed it off. She waited a little while so her eyes couldget used to the darkness then slowly set out toward Micur. The cat did not suspect anything and allowed Esti to grab it and raise it high, and only started struggling when its mistress threw herself to the ground and began wildly rolling about with it from corner to corner. Esti’s fingers closed around its neck like handcuffs and so quickly did she lift the cat up then turn over again, so the cat was underneath her, that Micur was frozen with terror for a second, and quite incapable of defending itself. The struggle couldn’t last for long though. The cat quickly seized the first available opportunity to sink its claws deep into her mistress’s hands. But Esti too had suddenly lost confidence, and however furiously she railed at the cat (“Come on then! Where are you? Go on, go for me! Go for me!”) Micur was unwilling to try her strength against her, in fact it was she who had to be careful not to squash the cat under her palms when they next rolled over. She stared in desperation at the fleeing cat who stared back with her strangely luminous eyes, fur on end, prepared to leap. What to do? Should she try again? But how? She made a frightening face and pretended she was about to rush at the cat as a result of which the cat sprang to the opposite corner. After that she made just one sudden move – raising her hand and stamping her foot then suddenly leaping closer to the cat – and this was enough for Micur, ever more desperate, to throw herself into a yet more defensible corner, not even caring that she was cutting herself on the hooks and rusty nails, that she was crashing foil tilt against the tiles, the king post, or the planks covering the opening. Both of them knew, with absolute certainty, where the other one was: Esti could immediately tell the cat’s precise whereabouts on account of its luminous eyes, by the noise as it touched the tiles, or the dull thump of its body as it landed; as for herself, her position was clearly perceptible even from the faint whirlwind she created in moving her arms through the dense air. The joy and pride that swelled within her from moment to moment sent her imagination into feverish overdrive, so she felt she hardly needed to stir, her power being such that it must bear down on the cat with irresistible force; in fact the consciousness of her own inexhaustible grandeur (“I can do anything, absolutely anything with you…!”) confused her a little at first, presenting her with a completely unknown universe, a universe with her at the centre, unable to decide anything given the vast range of choice available to her, though the moment of indecisiveness, that happy sense of saturation was soon enough broken, and she could see herself stabbing through Micur’s terrified, sparkling eyes with their deathly glow, or in one movement ripping off her forepaws, or simply hanging her from every damn hook or cramp at once. Her body felt strangely heavy and she felt an ever-keener, ever more alien kind of self-consciousness. The fierce desire for victory had all but vanquished her old self, but she knew whichever way she turned she was bound to trip, to fall right through the floor and that, at that last moment, the sense of determination and superiority positively radiating from her would be deeply injured. She stood there stiffly, watching the phosphorescent glow in the cat’s eyes, and suddenly realised something that had never before occurred to her: looking into the light of those eyes she understood the terror, the despair that might almost make another being turn against itself; the helplessness whose last hope was to offer itself up as prey on the chance that that way it might yet escape. And those eyes were like spotlights cutting through the darkness, unexpectedly illuminating the last few minutes, the moments of their struggle when they were now apart, now clinging to each other, and Esti watched helplessly as everything she had slowly and painfully constructed in and of herself was laid flat as if at a single blow. The rafters, the “window”, the planks, the tiles, the hooks and the walled-off entrance to the loft once again drifted back into her consciousness though – like a highly disciplined army waiting for the word of command – they had moved from their appointed places; the lighter objects were receding little by little, the heavier ones, strangely enough, were getting closer, as if everything had sunk to the bottom of a pond where the light no longer reached and where the direction, speed and momentum of their movements would be determined by weight. Micur lay flattened on the rotting boards across a spread of dried pigeon droppings, every muscle tense to the point of snapping, the outlines of her body a little lost against the darkness, so the cat seemed to be swimming toward her in the dense air, and she only came to full consciousness of what she had done when she seemed to feel the cat’s warm, violently pulsating stomach and the skin with its various lacerations and the blood trickling between them. She was choking with shame and regret: she knew her victory could never be made good now. If she started moving toward her, to stroke her, it would be in vain, Micur would just run away. And that this was how it would remain forever: useless now to call her, useless to hold her in her lap, Micur would always be at the ready, her eyes would always retain the terrifying, ineradicable memory of this flirtation with death that would force her to make the last move. Until now she had always believed that it was failure only that was intolerable, but now she understood that victory too was intolerable, because the most shameful element of the desperate struggle was not that she remained on top, but that there was no chance of defeat. It flashed through her mind that they could try again (“... if she clawed... should she bite...”) but she quickly realised that there was nothing she could do about it; she was simply the stronger. The fever was burning her up, sweat covered her brow. And then she caught the smell. Her first reaction was fear because she thought there was someone else in the loft with them. She only discovered what had happened when Micur – because Esti had taken an uncertain step toward the “window” (“What is this smell?”) and the cat thought her mistress was about to attack her again – slipped by her into the opposite corner. “You’ve shat yourself!” she cried furiously. “You dared shit yourself!” The smell immediately filled the loft.
Translation by George Szirtes



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