The following is from Zsolt Lng’s The Birth of Emma K.. Lng is a Hungarian author, essayist, playwright, and editor from Transylvania, Romania. He has published five short-story collections and five novels and one work of criticism. His most recent novel Bolyai won the 2020 Libri Literary Prize, one of Hungarys most prestigious literary awards.
This story was translated by Owen Good.
God on Gellrt Hill
Our Lord was ruminating over who gave him the power through which he created the Earth and the Sky and the living creatures from clay, from whom this boundless power came and, if it was now his own, why it wasnt absolute. Because it wasnt absolute.
Our Lord was sitting in Budapest, in Buda on Gellrt Hill, or rather standing, and looking at the foggy Danube valley. That is, he wasnt looking at it, he was staring at it. With his boundless power, piercing through not only the fog but walls too, he could have caught and punished countless liars but he didnt. Instead, fixing his gaze below, he breathed a prayer to an all-powerful God, asking that Ida Palldys mind be taken.
That Our Lord was sitting or standing about on the side of Gellrt Hill, at the top of Szmad Street near the Sivlgyi familys villa, would be an exaggeration. Our Lord doesnt tend to sit or stand about, he floats. But just so we arent constantly searching for words and forever refining what we come up with, lets postulate that were not talking about the Father or the Holy Ghost, were talking about the Son, and then we can confidently say that there stood the Son of God at the corner of Szmad Street and Tndrlaki Hollow, in front of the Sivlgyi familys villa, or at least thats the name that was engraved with intricate lettering into the small nickel-plated sign on the wrought-iron gate. He was dawdling in front of the porters cabin, which hadnt been built for a porter but the rubbish, so the bags could be locked up from bin-hokers and stray dogs who often wandered up the hill. He was waiting a short distance away from the shed because it crossed his mind that he himself might be mistaken for a bin-hoker and wind up in an altercation. He kicked his heels there for at least ten minutes and prayed as he waited, nervously staring at the town. Suddenly he gave a start and his gaze dropped towards the figure making her way up Szmad Street, none other than Ida Palldy. It was no accident then that Our Lord was loitering where he was. Nor was it any accident that he wasnt pondering the wealthy patients of the concrete alcohol rehab centre opposite or the probiotic kefir in his pocket but was utterly immersed in the problem of Ida Palldy.
Ida Palldy herself was barely known in wider circles, but her surname said a lot. Her great-grandfather was the famous pilot who was the first Hungarian to fly across the ocean. There are some of course who debate that he was Hungarian, after all, every member of the family professed to be Italian, but the point is that Guid Palldy chose Budapest to be his home, and every one of his descendants grew up here. Ida had never set foot in Italy and spoke no languages other than Hungarian. She prays to Our Lord in Hungarian too, but so intensely that Our Lord understands, whats more, he listens readily and willingly, and as he does, hes thrown out of joint and gets caught in the eddying invocation like a fire whirl, unable to get free. Nor does he want to. Our Lord wants to help Ida.
Ida never had a religious upbringing, at most Our Lord was mentioned as a swear word, but since Ida wasnt the cursing type, she seldom said his name. But Our Lord still heard her, as he did the silent prayer of the probiotic kefir carton, in which the 250 ml carton, glued through a special process, asked Our Lord that it might hold strong against the building pressure of carbon dioxide emitted as the kefir fungi matured, and not burst at the seams. As for Ida, she prayed for things Our Lord couldnt grant because if he did, itd cause a stir the size of which not even he could resolve. Hed tried several times to divert Idas attention, but she was adamant.
Ida was an auditor in a nearby institute, but thats by the by, the crucial thing was that in the neighbouring office worked Tams Simon, who Ida liked to chat with, whats more, the young man wrote poetry, and she adored poetry, so she began to adore him. Indeed the reason Ida came climbing up Szmad Street, taking advantage of her lunch break to climb Gellrt Hill to the abandoned playground below the Citadel, and plumped herself on a graffitied bench, letting the gusts of wind dry her tears, was the following: three months previous, Ida had allowed Tams Simon to spend a long weekend at hers, whats more, she hadnt just welcomed him into her flat or into her bed but into her body too, not primarily because she would enjoy it, although she did, but because she adored him. As a result of this invitation, their lives didnt simply become entwined and entangled, they became entangled to different degrees, and consequently Tams had broken up with Ida a month ago, and, whats more, had taken a job offer and begun working in the Pest side of the city. In his absence, Idas adoration grew stronger, but it wasnt adoration anymore, it was burning hatred. She wished Tams would burn in Hell, that his shapely body would be torn to smithereens and that each of the thousands of little particles would suffer individually, multiplying the agony a thousand times. Our Lord tried to divert Idas attention, going so far as to win her four numbers in the lottery worth a modest sum, then three days later in a car crash he killed her mum, or rather he called Mrs Lszl Palldy to him, but neither the sudden stroke of luck nor the mourning snapped her out of it. She had such capacity for hate, Tams had fled even farther and relocated to Debrecen in the east of the country, but was constantly sent back to Budapest, due to his presumed contacts. Tams did his best to wriggle out of such jobs, but quickly realized he was less anxious when he was sent than when he wasnt. He missed her, and not just her body, into which hed been welcomed three months ago, and not just welcomedentreated to stay, pampered, showered with everything an honoured and welcome guest would be. He admits it, he got sad because he couldnt escape the thought that this exciting sojourn would become a tedious trek, because bodies waste away and habits thrive, but he also has to admit this sadness has no grounds, its based on blurred prejudices, whereas the current Debrecen one is true sadness, and so hes asking Ida, that they pick up where they lift off, and carry on with the same upward trajectory. Ida slammed the phone down, but not before yelling, fuck off and die you pig, because she thought Tams meant to fleece her of everything, like a robber with a blacked-out victim.
But Ida hadnt blacked out, the slam of the receiver, and its disintegration in her hand attested to the contrary, never to mention the burning desire to be standing beside Tams, to wrap the coil around his neck, and to pull it tight until his head went blue. Ida played out this strangling scene several times a day, and her muscles had grown so much from the exertion that she had to replace the cable on the office phone four times already. The image of the torn wires and their fraying ends demonstrates how potently Ida could also pray. Its little wonder Our Lord appeared at the top of Szmad Street. But that wasnt all, because walking up the adjacent Tndrlaki Hollow was none other than Tams himself. Though he was still at the bottom, since his legs were longer than Idas, seemingly they would arrive at the same time in front of the rehab centre on the small square, where Our Lord was also waiting.
Tams was in love with Ida, there was no question, he fell in love at first sight. So if that was the case, why did he leave her a month ago? He thought he knew why. Because through the open bathroom door he caught a glimpse of Ida washing the bath out after him, he saw her rinsing it with the showerhead, disgustedly, though hed already done so. But it wouldnt have mattered, had she not just five minutes later slandered the Chinese with the same disgust on her pretty face: Theyre swarming the whole country, and they cant even learn proper Hungarian, and they smell, they can wash all they like but theyll always be dirty, and they should send their kids to their own schools, the last thing we need is them together with Hungarians, once there was a Gypsy classmate, the whole class got nits. Thats what she said to him, then rolled onto him and made grand promises that come Christmas shed have a separate gift for every inch of his body.
Another five minutes, three even, and theyll meet at the corner of Szmad Street and Tndrlaki Hollow. They wont be surprised because not a minute goes by when one doesnt think of the other longingly, yet still furious, desperate, and angry that the other is so different. Ida Palldy hates Tams so much that Our Lord worried the hatred would catch hold of himself too, and hed smite the young man down in front of her with a lightning bolt. Thats the last thing he wanted; the consequences of a November lightning strike were catastrophic, besides, hed prefer to avoid that because yesterday Ida visited a fortune teller in Buda called Enikthough her real name was Tatjana Fjodorovna, she was a Georgian refugee, more precisely, she was the fugitive wife of a Russian mafioso in Georgia, hiding out under a false nameand for a sum she had put a curse on Tams; ergo, if hes struck by lightning now, Our Lord would be playing into the hands of some halfwit palm reader. To say nothing of picking a fight with the Russian mafia.
They met in front of Our Lord and he saw their hearts leap. Admittedly, at that moment with a wave of the hand he swept the fog away from under the Sun, and with the sudden wash of brilliance he did sneak a pinch of goodness and modesty into their hearts. Though they could hardly breathe from the shock, though warmth filled their hearts and they wanted to throw off their clothes, though they wanted to rush into one anothers arms, they locked their delight away in a cage of indifference. They agreed at least to stroll to the top of Gellrt Hill and have a coffee. Tams suggested the Citadella Cafe but Ida didnt like it, so not far from the rehab clinic they sat down in a glass-walled cafe facing the hillside.
Our Lord followed them, as long as hes here, he wants to see it through to the end. Theres still no guarantee hell intervene. Creation is like throwing a stone: Theres that ballistic arc from taking aim until reaching the target, and then there are the changes caused by gravity and wind; to intervene meant to retroactively meddle with time, at least thats what a philosopher claimed with whom Our Lord didnt agree (hence he never read the philosophers thoughts, though he could see into them). Our Lord is Our Lord because he sees things differently, he thinks differently, his reasoning is different from mans. But lets not get mixed up in the difficulties of creation. The situations already complicated enough; Tams cant understand why four months ago he didnt even notice Ida, three months ago he was writing her poems, two months ago he was sicker of her than of her fake silk pyjamas or her colossal fridge, all the while Ida couldnt take her hands off him, whereas now hes crazy about her and shes slamming down the phone. But maybe that too will change, after all, they can only have been reunited by the indomitable will of fate. Meanwhile Ida cant understand why shes completely forgotten her rage at one stroke; why she hasnt pulled from her handbag the kitchen knife she carries everywhere so that should the opportunity arise she could slit Tamss neck.
Our Lord listened to their conversation with innate curiosity. They were talking about Mrs Palldys ridiculous death, about death, about loneliness, about broken fridges, about the kitsch fountain in Debrecen. Tams ordered two shots of Unicum and two coffees from the boy in the cafe, Ida adeptly adding the kind of coffee and the quantity of milk shed like, and most importantly that the milk was to be warm. Tams said please and thank youIda didnt.
Tams couldnt tell her what he had wanted to. He could feel how important it was but he said nothing. Not because he was afraid, but because he couldnt find the words, that is, he did tell her, of course he told her, and she asked, Why do you want to change me? I dont! So whyd you say you did? I dont, I just want to be with you. Dont bother, youre incapable, you care about no one but yourself! I do, all I care about is you. What are you talking about; you havent even noticed my new glasses! I didnt notice because I care about you, Im listening to you. If you cared, youd have noticed! Come on, youve ordered a new pair of glasses identical to the old pair, just so you can say, fuck me! Fuck you! Impotent scumbag! You shit! Ponce! Slut!
Our Lord held his head in his hands. Moments before, he watched in bewilderment as a Croatian coach swept past the cafe and he recognized in one of the windows among the gawking tourists Radovan Gujevic, wanted around the globe on a charge of ethnic cleansing, nowhere to be seen, then here he is in Budapest. Even though it was a place Our Lord liked no more than other cities of the world, a second ago, while taking in the reddish-golden hillside, it did pain him a little that he hadnt seen it for so long, it was such a beautiful city, like Paris or London, but different. He was lost in his thoughts and hadnt noticed which criminal word had let the others break loose. He stamped a foot and the glass walls shook, tremors ran through the cups, the glasses, and the brandy bottles on the glass shelves. Even the bar stools began to rock. Once the shelves had quietened down, the cafe boy looked out at the sky and cursed those bloody sound-barrier-breaking supersonic aeroplanes. But not a single jet plane was trailing across the sky, as the nations military leaders were having lunch in the Golden Chalice restaurant below the Citadella, with the air marshals of the British Royal Air Force; it wouldve been improper to disturb the officers with a sonic boom, besides, the planes werent to escort the guest aircraft back to the border for another two hours yet. The couple fell silent and hadnt the energy to go on. Tams decided he was better off without Ida, in hopeless longing, Ida also thought how good itd be to go home alone, throw herself on the bed, and sob away her pain, and afterwards to carry on hating; tearing apart the phone cable and gripping at the wooden handle of the kitchen knife.
Except that Our Lord didnt want it to end like that. Especially as he was there. The best would be, he thought, if the Croatian coach, not the one hiding Gujevic but the next, were to drive into the glass-walled cafe because of a leak in the brake fluid, and the guests inside would be gathered up in pieces, and the police wouldnt even know how many had met their deaths; then the owner of the cafe whod been dreaming of a new life for a while now would seize the opportunity to go to Australia and live in a fishing village until the day he died, happy because nobody ever asked where he was from. But Our Lord didnt have the power. Anyway, he didnt want Ida or Tams to die. With these two he wanted to send a message to those he created in his own image. An important message. Maybe, if Ida was to fall pregnant, and when the child grew up if it discovered and understood lifes greatest secret. Or maybe if it had some special ability. Like it could fly. Or at least walk on water.
He let out a weary sigh. He fell to his knees. He didnt care anymore. Hed grown tired of bearing the endless cross of not-quite-absolute power. They took no notice that he was even there. Even if the agony drove them into the ground, they still wouldnt change an iota. Ida would never move her fridge an inch so that Tams wouldnt bump his elbow when he entered the kitchen from the bathroom. Tams would never drop his accusatory tutting. No, these two were incapable of rising above it and looking down on the certainty of their own existence. The agony of such a life would drive him into the ground. The agony of his own was already driving him into the ground. The next time he was endowed with power, he wanted it to be absolute. There was no point otherwise. A stone throw is perfect only when the fist doesnt let go but flies with the stone.
From The Birth of Emma K. by Zsolt Lng (trans. Owen Good and Ottilie Mulzet). Used with permission of the publisher, Seagull Books. Copyright 2022 by Zsolt Lng. Translation copyright 2022 by Owen Good and Ottilie Mulzet.