‘Do they still practise magic? Tell fortunes by cards?
(evasively) Only in the country.’ D.K.
THE CUTTING SHEPHERD
Karcsika trudges from the kitchen into the best room of the cottage to fetch the photos and the articles with slow, heavy steps, though he’s only in his forties. I study the stove, black with soot and splodges of spilt and burnt food, and at the same time because it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing try out just how vulnerable a dirt floor is, whether it’s possible to mark the surface with the edge or the heel of my shoe.
’That’s us, in t’picture,’ says Karcsika as soon as he returns, ’Old Sanyi Földes, Pista Tokaji, him we called Old Goat-horned Beetle, and these others. And these’re what were written about us.’
I cannot resist his controlled pride, I rest my elbows on the table to get a better look at the collection; the oilcloth makes my skin feel greasy.
’Those’re the ones’ he says ’but we’ve been written up before, ye know.’
’I see’ I reply.
On top of the pile, the Smallholders’ Magazine, underneath it the Szeged University paper. I flip through them. A double interview, a mirror held up to a mirror: as I read the answers he gave I try to evoke Karcsika’s voice, and while I’m doing this I decide that, as it’s fitting, I will write up this situation. Here it is: from there, forwards, it’s easy, from here, backwards...who knows.
’(...)Have you never felt it was time you got married? Or don’t you think it necessary?
I would’ve, but then my poor mam died, so I put it off...Then the girl left me...
What did she have to say about your work? Castrating sheep with your teeth?
Well I never told her, did I?
You mean your fiancée never knew?
She might’ve known, but I never told her.’
’I cut the goat here, yesterday,’ says Karcsika, growing bored with the silence, ’they grabbed hold of his legs and then I cut him. Grabbin’ him took longer than the cuttin’.’
His impatience is infectious, I can’t restrain the journalist inside me any longer. While we were just sitting here in companionable silence, it almost felt as if I too could be concerned with the seedier aspects of a castrating shepherd’s life.
’How long is it that you’ve been carrying on this trade?’ the voice asks from inside me.
‘Since I were nobbut a lad,’ he says. ‘That’s when I learned, from t’old shepherds. T’old shepherds showed me how, showed me the way to do it. Once you got the knack, it’s easy.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’
‘I’m tellin’ ye.’
‘Depends on the person though, doesn’t it.’
‘Ye could do it, easy.’
‘It’s kind of you to say so.’
‘’S just work, and ye canna do it alone.’
‘How d’you do it, then?’
‘You need someone to hold t’legs, else ye canna do it. Soon as they’ve got hold of t’legs, I cut into the tip of his purse, go round wi’ the needle, then nip with the teeth. I spit a swig of brandy on it after, not for the taste, mind, just so it won’t get infected.’
I make like I understand, pondering, as if the method of doing it properly was being played out in my mind’s eye. I make him retell, again and again, exactly how the cutting is done. He warms to the task, shuffles to the middle of the kitchen and play-acts for me. Pantomime artist, actor, populist politician. He is holding the shanks of the animal, as if he were about to pick up a child with its back to him. ‘I hold ’im by his shanks,’ he says, and I try to picture the scene: the hind quaters sink a little and yes, I can see the scrotum tightening. He sits down and smiles.
‘D’ye see now?’
I’d like to hug him. ‘Did they used to castrate animals like this when you were working as a shepherd?’ the voice asks from inside me. It was better when I was silent, I think.
‘Aye,’ says Karcsika. ‘T’bosses brought out a litre, litre an’ ’alf of brandy, and we’d be cuttin’ sheep all day. Then we’d build us a fire and make stew out of t’goolies, and very tasty it was, with ’taties.
‘Does it taste different from other kinds of meat?’
‘Cooks quicker, for one. An’ ye can cook it shredded up, with eggs.
‘While you’re cutting animals... how shall I put it... is there no danger of...infection?
Don’t you have to wash the scrotum of the animals before cutting them?’ Once again, naturally, it is the voice that puts the question. Karcsika recoils; I’ve put him off answering questions.
‘Now why would I do that? T’is clean enough, it’s got wool on it.’
I wanted us to be pals, and now I’ve been shown up for what I really am: a snob. ‘Is there still a demand for this type of cutting?’ the voice asks from within, to salvage what I can of the situation.
‘’Course there is. Why, in the spring, we was snowed under with work for two weeks. Went clippin’ with those shears o’er yonder.’
With his grimy hands he points to the sheep-shears lying on the kitchen stool.
‘We trimmed their feet as well, cleaned them up proper. If I had all the sheep I ever clipped wi’ these, if they were all mine! A good sized flock that’d make.’
‘And what does the vet have to say to your method of cutting? Has he seen you do it?’
’Course ’e has! Says I do a good job, ’n’ says t’old shepherds used to do it jus’ the same in the old days. An’ one time when Doctor Buda was ’noculatin’ piglets, they asked him to cut the lambs, at one of t’houses. And Doctor Buda told them to call me. Never had a mite of trouble o’er bein’ cut like this.’
I feign obtuseness for a little while longer, ask whether there are any animals lined up for today. The article would be more authentic if I were present...much shuffling and scraping of feet, I don’t rightly know which word to use, Karcsika looks at me uncomprehendingly, he’s told me quite clearly that there aren’t any animals lined up for today. But we walk out into the yard. Zsófi and Gyurka are munching grass in the back yard, Gyurka is not very happy to see us. Karcsika grabs him and holds him close.
‘This is how ye do it,’ he says, and lifts up the goat. ‘Kneel down,’ he says, ‘that’s right, now bend down and tek a look.’
I cannot see any mark or wound on Gyurka, who was cut yesterday. True, I can’t see any sign of testicles, either.
‘Y’see now,’ he asks.
‘I see,’ I reply, lifting my eyes from the exceedingly flat, soiled and muddy scrotum.
THE SHEPHERD OF THE FIELDS
For five minutes there is a profound silence, then Karcsika says a wine-and-soda, or perhaps two, might go down well, and that people have always been wantin’ to hear about Sándor Daru, Rabid Daru as he’s known around these parts. The miserable, muggy morning slowly turns into afternoon, the Kinizsi pub smells frowzy, and through the windows the wide square of the main street of Füzesgyarmat appears dazzling white in the sunlight.
‘Who have been wanting to hear about him,’ I ask.
‘Ah don’t rightly know,’ he says, ‘but these museum people and such like were always comin’ and askin’ questions, an’ he told them what he knew about him.’
‘He were a great man. Must’ve been, seein’ as they were so curious.’
‘So who did they ask about him?’
‘Old Pista Tokaji.’
‘Let’s go,’ I say. Karcsika’s four-wheeled contraption, designed to traverse the Russian taiga, squeaks distressingly. Eyes flash through the laths of the fences like in an Italian mafia film; the asphalt steams gently in the heat.
‘Been in a contest, I have,’ he shouts over his shoulder. ‘An’ I came fust in cuttin’. They gave me wine, and choc’late.’
‘If cutting’s so easy,’ I shout forwards, and grab hold of his shoulder, ‘that there isn’t even a wound, how can the judges decide who wins?’
‘Nobody else was cuttin’,’ he says, ‘’cept me!’
‘Wasn’t a close contest then.’
‘’Course it were. I knows how to cut and no one else does.’
Old Pista Tokaji lives on the outskirts of the village; if it stood just a bit further away his house would be called a detached farm. It takes him a while to shuffle out to the gate; his hat is shabby, his waxed moustache sparse and greying, but he walks proudly with his head held high. I tell him the reason for our visit. He walks back into the house, reappears after ten minutes.
‘My son doesna want to talk to you because he isna well,’ he says.
‘But it’s you I want to talk to...’ I say.
The kitchen looks worse than Karcsika’s. The dirt floor has not been swept for some time, crumbs crunch underfoot. All the time, even when no one’s walking over them, or at least that’s how it feels. The conversation will be much the same, but I have no inkling of this as yet. We are tongue-tied...
‘That Sándor Daru was a great scoundrel, that’s for sure,’ he says. ‘He had six oxen, eight horses. I worked for him from when I were fourteen, then for twenty years I were a shepherd, until t’Russians came.’
‘Is it true that he could work magic? Make animals go rabid for instance?’
‘Made ’em sick an’ made ’em well. When he saw ’em hangin’ their heads he made up medicine for ’em.’
‘And could he really call any animal to him without saying a word?
‘He’d give ’em back the selfsame day. He were a wily one, he were. I took a pitchfork to ’im once, thrashed him within an inch of ’is life,’ he says, and laughs. ‘He could hardly stand up on ’is feet after.’
‘Did the people from the village bring their sick animals to him to make them well? The ones that had gone rabid?
‘Nay, they never did!’
‘Why didn’t they, if he could make them well?’
‘He didna know how to make them well, there were always a rabid dog circlin’ his place. We could hear it durin’ t’night, that there was a rabid dog on the prowl.’
‘ Pista, I don’t understand. What did he do exactly? Just now you said...I thought you said he made up some medicine, if the animals were hanging their heads...’
‘Knock’em on the head!’
‘With a shovel.’
‘He were a wily one, he were. He could make a horse or an ox sick, an’ make them well too. Dogs he said to knock on the head! It was he who made the dogs sick, made them go rabid. I had a sheepdog once, a puli, vanished off me sheepskin coat what we were resting on, never saw it again.’
‘Did you get another dog?’
‘Daru said to bring a puli from Szeghalom. To buy one off me mate Sándor Szűcs, but he said no. Daru called the dog o’er to Gyarmat in the night, and from there to Barnasziget. The man’d wanted to drive his flock o’er to a new field in t’morning. Never knew what happened to his dog. It were a very good dog, that one were.’
‘Can I just ask you again...what’s the truth then...did he heal animals... or didn’t he?...did he really know how to make animals rabid...or not?’
‘He disappeared. One day he was gone, just like that. A lot o’folk hated him, I never saw him again. He were a right scoundred, that’s for sure. Had six oxen, eight horses...’
The last sentence reminds me that there were shepherds in Barnasziget who lived their lives without ever even hearing about communism. Perhaps because the devil’s land is never entered in the land register. We have fallen silent. From the next room I hear a rustling, then a couple of despondent groans.
‘The lad’s sick agin,’ says old Pista Tokaji, upon which the lad appears in the doorway. They step up to each other. A father in his nineties and a ‘lad’ well over seventy. The silence is deeper than deep, and in the meanwhile the dog ambles into the kitchen.
‘How do the infants behave during baptism?
‘Here in Pest they smile throughout, but out in the country where I came from, they cry.’
There is a bus as far as Szeghalom, and no further. Hours to wait until the next bus to Csaba. Szeghalom is a small provincial town, a sad and harsh place full of love, desire and dusty devotion. Standing before the county-court feels as if you were standing in the exact centre of the universe; your eyes search instinctively for the sacred pillar and the members of the tribe who believe in it, if need be at the cost of their lives. I stop in front of an industrial unit; women wearing headscarves are stacking plastic crates in the yard. For a short half-hour not a soul passes by. Then a Polski Fiat rattles into the silence, I wave at it, step off the kerb into the road. It does not swerve to go round me. Father G., former parish priest, is notorious in our part of the world and elsewhere; I bid him good day as if I did not know him. At the time, the bishop of Szeged appeared on television to make a statement, knitting his brow throughout, then auctioned off Father G.’s furniture from the parsonage.
‘Which way?’ asks the Father.
‘To Csaba,’ I reply.
When Father G. started a printing press in Szeged, and published works which the clergy welcomed and the secular arm received with some measure of resistance, the bishop is purported to have whispered in Father G.’s ear one Wednesday morning: if you make money out of it, son, half of it is ours, but if you fail, or if someone reports you, then I never knew anything about it.
‘Can one ask for a blessing on anything, Father?’ I asked.
He does not move a muscle. If I know him, I know him.
‘Are you taunting me?’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘But you’d like to.’
‘Of course not!’
‘You want to hear about sperm blessed by God, don’t you?’
‘I’m a journalist.’
‘That’s no excuse.’
‘I didn’t intend it as an excuse. It’s only that once when I had to write up a wedding from start to finish, in a general way, I looked you up.’
‘I don’t remember that.’
No reason why you should. I wouldn’t.’
‘If you underestimate yourself,.others will do the same.’
‘Maybe I’d just like to see clearly.’
‘You told me about a lot of things that time. About barren women, among other things.’
‘But not about sperm blessed by God.’
‘No. I only heard about that later. It made a good story...embellished a bit...if that’s what it was...?’
‘I also heard that one time, early in the morning, in the dark silence of a stairway, someone asked you whether you’d been giving extreme unction, the last rites to someone?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘You were on your way home from somewhere.’
‘And what did I reply?’
‘That you’d certainly given unction, though it had not been the last rites.’.
He does not even smile. He remains silent, not the most appropriate reaction for my report. He keeps himself in check, or perhaps does not care about the legendry I’ve trotted out so impertinently the figure of the legend does not coincide with the real person. I begin to find our suspended state of stillness insupportable.
‘Someone once asked me in a kitchen in Pest,’ I say now, ‘whether there’s any place round these parts where you can see nothing on the horizon. Not a tree, not even a bush.’
‘No. There’s no place on earth where you’d find that kind of emptiness.’
‘Yes, there is, the desert where Christ was tempted. That was a place of such emptiness.’
‘Where the Church was born,’ I smile.
‘You’re thinking of Ivan Karamazov, aren’t you?’
I feel ashamed of myself. The safety belt cuts into my chest, I can hardly breathe. I tap my fingers on my thighs. ‘Can one make a confession on the telephone?’ I ask.
I fall silent again.
‘Where shall I put you down?’
‘Wherever you like,’ I say, and open the window.