“MATRICIDE”

Here is an English translation of Géza Csáth’s story “Anyagyilkosság,” on which János Szász’s film “The Witman Boys” is based. Hungarian educator and film scholar Judith Sollosy is the translator. Following the story you will find a note about the translator.

Matricide

for Ernő Osvát

If the father of healthy and handsome boys dies before his time, trouble usually follows. Witman had two sons, four and five years old respectively, when on a sun-drenched, and just a bit breezy November afternoon, he took his leave of this world. He died without a struggle, and without leaving much sadness behind. His wife and widow was a beautiful woman, but easy going and profoundly selfish. She never tortured her husband, but beyond a certain limit, she did not love him either. This is much more excusable in the case of men than women, whose lives are given meaning and direction by their strong, though often imprudent, emotions. However, we must not be too hard on Mrs. Witman, for she brought two strong and handsome boys into the world. In the street where the Witmans lived in a ramshackle two-story house with wooden stairs, the blond Mrs. Witman, who went around in black mourning clothes, was thought most highly of by her neighbors. At first she was narrow-hipped and child-eyed, but as a human being, she was, as I say, neither good nor bad. She kissed her two boys as infrequently as she hit them. Indeed, they had precious little to do with each other, as it later became far too apparent.

The boys passed the afternoon playing next door, and would not return until late at night. They spoke little, and only to each other. The soul of their father, Witman, gleamed in their little black eyes. They climbed up into attics, searched through old boxes, and chased after cats. Often they’d chase after them through attic windows, climbing out on the rooftops all the way to the tall fire walls and the strangely shaped, sooty chimneys. While the summer lasted, they’d go down to the river to swim, and they caught birds in the woods. Mrs. Witman gave them food and clean drawers every Saturday night. She went with them to school, too, when it was time for them to register. The rest of the time she lived a secluded life, and quietly gained weight. Six months after her husband’s death, she met a bank clerk who was young, handsome, and her junior; he had a clean-shaven jaw, wide shoulders, but a fine, peachy complexion, like a girl’s. Mrs. Witman set her sights on him, and though it was a bother and tiring, too, she even flirted with him. The clerk accompanied her places and visited her, and got tea and kisses in return. He was far too lazy and comfortable to leave her.

Witman’s sons didn’t bother much about their mother and her lover. They had plans and things to do. They were in ninth grade by then. They had grown tall. Their little muscles bulged like steel wire over their small but strong bones. They did their lessons in no time, spending fifteen minutes on them in the morning, after they got out of bed. School played no part whatever in their lives. They thought of life as a gentleman’s profession, and unselfconsciously and early on they handled time to accord with their needs.

They fitted out a small lab in a hidden corner of the attic. It was crowded with arrows, machine guns, knives, pliers, rope and screws well sequestered and classified. On windy autumn evenings, after they finished supper and their mother had buried herself in a German novel bound in red, they quickly and silently dashed out to the street, broke into a run, and covered half the town. They laid in wait. If they found a stray dog, they slipped a noose around its neck and dragged it home. They bound its mouth and impaled it. Their tiny lamp pierced the brownish, damp half-light of the big attic like the far-off world of some enchanted castle lying in the woods.

The two boys set to work slowly and meticulously, straining in every nerve. They ripped open the dog’s chest, drained its blood, and as they worked, listened to its horrible, helpless whining. They examined the beating heart, taking the warm, moving little machine in their hands, and destroyed the valves and bursa with tiny pricks.

They couldn’t get enough of the mystery of pain. They’d even torture each other, though only by mutual consent, beating or pinching each other. Meanwhile, torturing animals had become a deep and natural passion with them. They killed a whole region of cats, chicks and duck with methods they developed and improved on all the time. Nobody knew what they were up to. They were able to hide with true manly circumspection and caution.

Besides, nobody minded them much in the house. An elderly law clerk who was seldom at home and a seamstress who worked with four girls lived on the first floor. The second floor was tenanted only by the Witmans and the owner of the house, a very young man, the son of the previous owner, who neglected the house as well as its tenants. The ground floor was taken up with a glass dealer and a small-wares shop, where no one ever saw a customer enter or leave. The Witman boys had the run of the house. No one ever visited the small, dirty yard in the back. The solitary sumac that stood in the middle of the yard and had been in bloom, bringing forth leaves and flowers for many years, must have surely felt that all this was not right. Still, just like anywhere else life went on in this small house, too. Of the tenants, only the two boys had a good time; they looked forward to the following day, and the day after that, too.

One evening in September, they came home flushed and panting. They had an owl with them bound with string. They climbed up to the attic of the old church to get it. They spent a week searching for it; they discussed how they would trap and kill it. Now they had done it. There was a gleam in their eyes, and as they ran homeward along the dark streets, they felt the strength of grown men in their strong shoulders. The owl had long interested them. Its head was as huge as two big eyes, they said, and fabulous old tales lay hidden in its brain. An owl lives a hundred years or more. They had to have an owl.

Now they had one. They tore the soft feathers from its breast one by one, and watched the colorful fire-tongues of pain burn in its mysterious eyes. Next, they wound wire round the base of its wings, its legs and beak, and watched the gagged bird in silence for some time.

They said that the bird, after all, was just a house that pain had made its dwelling place and will live there as long as the bird is alive. But where? Where does pain dwell? In all probability, in the head. They decided to leave the owl there for the night, and make their going to bed more exciting and exquisite. Indeed, they undressed with a great deal of excitement, all the time listening for any noises coming from the attic. They felt a taut sprightliness in their joints, as if the strength of the bound and writhing animal, which it was exerting in vain, was alighting on them. This is how they fell asleep.

In their dreams, they traversed great fields on snow-white horses that galloped like the wind. They flew down from the dizzying heights of the highest mountain peaks and swam across bloody oceans. All the pain and suffering in the world lay writhing and screaming horribly under the hoofs of their horses.

When they woke up, a sunny morning smiled at them. They jumped out of bed in the best of spirits. They asked the servant for their breakfast, because Mrs. Witman liked to sleep until ten. They hurried to the owl, and in an hour, had finished with it. They first gouged out its eyes, then opened its chest, but first freeing its beak, because they wanted to hear its cries. The sound, this bone-chilling, horrible sound, surpasses all expectation, but because of it, they had to dispense with their work – the execution and the burial – as quickly as possible, lest people in the house should hear. All in all, they were pleased. The thing was worth the trouble they took over it.

In the afternoon, the older of the two boys left home on his own. He’d discovered something in another house. He saw a half-naked girl through the window of one of the rooms, combing her hair in a pink slip. When he reached the corner, he turned around to have another look. The girl was now standing in the back of the room with her back to the window. Her alabaster shoulders veritably glistened in the sun. The boy walked through the front door of the house. An old woman came towards him, but just as she did so, the girl appeared at the end of the side corridor. The boy raised his head and said he wanted to have a closer look at her because he found her attractive. The girl lovingly stroked the virginal countenance of the tall and slender boy who was wearing knee-pants. In turn, he leaped at her, caressed her neck, and pressed his lips to her cheek. Meanwhile, doors were silently opened all around them, and the heads of young girls appeared from inside, only to disappear just as silently. A lamp in a blue glass cover was burning at the end of the corridor. The girl lead the older Witman boy to it. They closed the drapes. The afternoon sunshine spread its yellow rays over the perfume-filled room. The girl rolled herself down on the rug and laying still, letting the boy kiss and embrace her. Meanwhile, Witman’s son thought of the owl, and the thought flashed through his mind why it was that everything that is beautiful, noble and exciting in life is also fearful, mysterious, and bloody. But he soon tired of the game. He got to his feet in disappointment, waited, and regarded the woman with wide-open eyes. Then he took his leave, but promised to visit her again. He asked the girl’s name – she was called Irene. He found that it was a beautiful name, and in parting said good-bye.

That day, the two Witman boys wandered around the fields until late in the evening. Nothing was said of what had transpired. The older boy said that the air was inhabited by creatures that look like human beings, and when there’s a light breeze, you can feel their bodies floating in the air. Then they stopped, closed their eyes, and stretched out their arms. The older boy said that ethereal women, huge and soft-bodied, were floating about him, touching his cheeks with their backs and breasts. Shortly, his younger brother said that he too could feel the women. Back home, after they’d gone to bed, they were still talking about the women of the air, and they left the windows open, so they could enter.

And they did. They floated in without a sound, barely just touching the window pane with their velvety backs; then hovering and swimming through the air, they stretched out beside the boys on the pillows and the covers. They leaned their necks against the boys’ lips and cheeks, then floated past them with lazy, languid yet light movements. They stayed with them all night. They swayed in the air, holding hands, floated towards the window with a smile, then floated back towards them again, lay on top of them, and caressed them. They parted through the window only when the morning sun penetrated the room with its brilliant, warm rays, slipping out with slow, sleepy enervated movements only to vanish in the crisp morning air.

That day the two Witman boys visited the girl together. Coming home from school one warm noontime in May, they made a detour and sneaked through the gate. The girl came to greet them with a smile; her hair was unkempt, but her laugh was strong and radiant, and she led the Witman boys to her room. They put their books away, lay down on the floor, pulling the girl down with them, kissing, biting, and embracing her in turn. The girl laughed mutely and closed her eyes. The boys glanced at each other. They started to beat her. Now the girl let out a laugh, as if she were being tickled. The two Witman boys took possession of her, pinching her, pressing her down, rolling her about, torturing her. The girl did not move. Panting, she let them do with her whatever took their fancy. Their cheeks the color of crimson, the boys pressed against her pink silk robe. Later they gathered up their books and said to the girl that she’s the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. For her part, Irene said that she liked them, too, but next time they came, they should bring her something, sweets, or flowers. The older Witman boy said that she’ll be more than satisfied with what they’re going to bring her. The girl saw the boys to the front gate, and kissed their hands.

After lunch, the boys shut themselves into their room to talk about the girl. They agreed that nothing could matched what they’d just experienced, not even a tortured owl.

“It’s the only thing worth living for,” the younger of the two said.

“It’s what we’ve been searching for all along,” said the older.

On a radiant, warm afternoon in May, they set off for school without their books, and headed straight for the girl’s house. They stopped under her window. There was no one there. They turned back. Just then, the curtains moved, and the girl looked out. The boys stopped. The girl opened the window.

“Will you come tomorrow at noon?” she asked, smiling. “Do come! And bring something.” Then she waved and closed the window.

The boys blushed crimson. Their hearts raced from the very sight of her.

“We will bring her jewels,” the older Witman boy declared, breaking the silence. “Golden bracelets, or rings.”

“Where will you get them?”

“We have a mother. We’ll ask her.”

“She won’t give it to us.”

“We’ll get the key to the display case.”

“She won’t give up her keys.”

“She has four golden bracelets and seven rings.”

“And three that she wears on her fingers.”

In the evening, they hung around the display cabinet, taking stock of their mother’s precious possessions. There were two exquisite bracelets mounted with rubies and pearls.

They asked Mrs. Witman to show them her things, but their mother, this headstrong, soft and blond woman, chased them out of the room. She was just a bit afraid of her sons. She felt that there was a distance between them.

“It’s no use asking.”

“No use.”

“She won’t give us any.”

“No.”

“Let’s break the glass.”

“She’ll wake up and make a to do, and then we can’t take it to her.”

“She won’t wake up!”

Their hearts filled with hate for their blond, blue-eyed, lazy and fat mother. They’d have liked to torture her, too.

“I’ll smash in one of the glass sides with the handle of my knife. There won’t be any more noise. You’ll hold the light while I reach in take all the bracelets and rings.”

“We mustn’t take them all.”

“Yes, we will. She has no use for them. Why should she have anything left? Let her cry her eyes out.”

The boys went up to the attic and looked through the tools. They picked out a chisel and a pair of pliers, checked the flash light, and pocketed the whole lot. Then they hurried downstairs and got into bed. But first they peeked through the crack under the door, and saw that their mother’s room was dark. As they undressed, they decided not to go to her room until around midnight. They left their socks on, so the floorboard wouldn’t creak, and got into bed like that, wide awake, but calm. Leaning on their elbows, in whispered voices they planned how they’d hurry to the girl at noon, right after school. They’d bury their treasure up in the attic, carrying it away bit by bit. In the morning they’d deny everything, and if their mother tried to beat them, they’d run away. The thought that she’d be mad and cry helplessly when she couldn’t find her jewels filled them with delight. They never again mentioned the possibility that she might wake up. Then they got out of bed, opened the window, and leaned out into the lukewarm May night. The barking of the dogs and the rattling of the carriages, which with their sudden appearance gave a certain rhythm to the night, did nothing to shorted the slow passing of the late-night hours.

When at last the church bell struck midnight, the boys made ready. They lit their small lamp. The younger Witman boy took the pliers, the file and the flash light, the older one his long-bladed open pocket knife. He led the way. They sneaked across the middle dining room confident and calm, then the older boy went ahead and opened the door leading to Mrs. Witman’s bedroom. The door did not creak. They heaved a sigh of relief. Mrs. Witman was turned to the wall in a sound sleep. Only her fat, wide back showed. It was covered with a knitted night coat. The boys took their positions in front of the display cabinet.

The older boy raised the knife in order to shatter the small side-wall of the cabinet. He hesitated for a while, but then struck the glass. The sound was horribly loud, as loud as if they’d thrown a crateful of glass tumblers out of the window of a tall building. Mrs. Witman stirred, leaned on her elbows, and opened her eyes. She looked annoyed, angry and obstinate. But before she could say anything, the older Witman boy leaped to her bed and plunged the knife into her chest. Mrs. Witman fell back, her right hand flailing in the air. By then the younger boy was on the bed, holding down her legs. The older one pulled the bloody knife from his mother’s chest and struck again. He needn’t have bothered. She was dead. The blood trickled from her breast under the cover.

“That’s that,” the older boy said, “and now, let’s get the stuff!”

They took the jewels from the cabinet – the bracelets, the brooches, the rings, the wrist watch and the long, golden watch chain. Calmly, they laid their treasure out on the table, sorting it and dividing it up equally between them.

“Let’s go wash and change.”

They went to their room, washed their hands and poured out the dirty water, but they didn’t have to change, there were no blood stains on their clothes. Then they returned to the scene of the crime. The younger Witman boy opened the dining room window and waited for his brother, who closed Mrs. Witman’s room from inside, and stepping out on the ledge through the window, climbed into the dining room.

Outside, the street was pitch-dark and the silence profound. Still, they had to hurry, because the church tower had just struck one, and they wanted to get some sleep. They got undressed, slipped into bed, and exhausted with excitement, fell fast asleep.

In the morning, the cleaning lady, who always arrived exactly at six-thirty, woke them up. She knew that Mrs. Witman slept late, so she didn’t bother going to her room. First she cleaned the dining room, as always, then got the boys up, who hurriedly washed, had breakfast, and were off with their booty in their pockets.

“Let’s go before school!”

“Fine!”

“We mustn’t be late for class.”

“Especially today.”

“We’ll be called home by eleven anyhow.”

“Let’s get moving!”

The gate was open. They met no one on the way as they hurried along the corridor to the girl’s door. They opened it. The girl’s face was ruddy. She was in a deep sleep. They pulled the covers off her and kissed her, then took the jewels from their pockets. They covered her belly, her breasts and her thighs with their precious possessions.

“Look what we brought you.”

“It’s all yours.”

Gradually, the girl came to. She smiled, hugged the heads of the two little rascals, thanked them for the visit, and turned to the wall.

“We’ll be back today, or possibly tomorrow.”

And with that, the two brothers hurried off to school.

1908

In response to my inquiry whether she was the story’s translator, Judith Sollosy sent me this message:

As it happens, I know the translator very well, indeed. Her name is Judith Sollosy, and the story is from Géza Csáth, Opium. Selected Stories, selected and translated by Judith Sollosy (Corvina, Budapest, 2001). . . .

Judith Sollosy is the translator of contemporary Hungarian authors Péter Esterházy, Mihály Kornis, Lajos Parti Nagy, and István Örkény. She is senior editor at Corvina Books, Budapest, and teaches translation studies and creative writing at ELTE (Budapest University). Her latest major translation is Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies (2004) and More One Minute Stories by István Örkény (2006). Her book on translation, Hunglish Into English: The Elements of Translation from Hungarian Into English, was first published ìn 2005. She is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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