György Dragomán's The Bone Fire, a Gothic novel about an orphan who's adopted by her mysterious grandmother, is out this week with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In the excerpt below, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, a day of household chores takes an unexpected turn.
It’s Saturday; I’m heading home from the market with Grandmother. We’re standing in front of our gate. I wait for Grandmother to take out her key and open it.
She takes out the key, but she doesn’t put it into the lock; she hisses once, as she stands there with the key in her hand, she’s looking at the gate.
On one of the wings of the gate, somebody has drawn, with white chalk, a pale snail shell, the size of the palm of a hand. Grandmother just stands there and looks at it, her mouth sharp as a blade, the way it always looks when she’s extremely angry; she shakes her head, making her hairpins clang. May God strike the heavens down upon them, she says; she raises her left hand to her mouth, licks her thumb, and with quick, angry, wild movements, she rubs the traces of chalk from the iron gate.
On Sunday it’s still dark when Grandmother wakes me up; the sun hasn’t even risen yet. My muscles are aching, I’m sleepy, I tell her, there’s no school today, let me sleep, but Grandmother says not today, today we have to clean.
I tell her I don’t want to, we’ll clean in the afternoon, let me sleep, but Grandmother says, No sleeping today. She slaps her hand on the end of the bed so hard that it makes the entire bed tremble as if it’s been struck by lightning.
I sit up, feel the sleep vanishing from my eyes. Grandmother sticks a mug of hot cocoa under my nose, and she says I must drink it right away, before the sun rises, because today we may not drink or eat anything else until the sun sets; we must work hungry and thirsty today, because only in that way will there be true cleanliness, only then will there be true order. Only in this way and only then.
The cocoa is thicker and sweeter than usual, and the mug isn’t the usual one, it’s bigger and rounder. Grandmother watches as I drink, and she says I should drink it up nicely, it will give me strength.
Then, for the entire day, we clean, we sweep, we scrub, and we scour; we beat the dust out and we vacuum; we wipe up and we polish. By the afternoon my hands are hurting, as are my arms and my elbows and my knees; everything hurts but still I don’t feel tired, I work without stopping, I do everything that Grandmother tells me to do. Grandmother is working much harder than me, she doesn’t stop for a moment, not even long enough to wipe the sweat off her brow, and I don’t stop either, I try to work just as hard as she does.
“Grandmother doesn’t worry about the drops of oil falling onto her arm.”
When we’re finished with the cleaning, we begin to wash. We wash everything in the kitchen, we wash and we dry everything, then I have to clean the silver spoons while Grandmother cooks; she kneads the dough and then makes potato soup, with chicken paprika and gnocchi for the second course, and by the time that is ready, the dough has risen. Grandmother rolls it out, puts a pot on the stove, fills it halfway with oil, lights the burner, then takes a glass and cuts circles out of the risen dough for doughnuts. On the glass there is a large emblem made of two parts, I see it between Grandmother’s fingers; on one half of the shield there is a man with bent knees and outstretched arms, and on the other, there are white tulips in a green field. I’ve never seen this glass before.
I watch as Grandmother cuts with it; it’s as if the man with the outstretched arms were flying, he descends and then he rises, he descends and then he rises up again; the edges of the cut-out doughnuts don’t remain sharp even for a moment, the soft dough swells up as soon as Grandmother places the glass onto it.
Grandmother uses the spoon to place the doughnuts into the oil; the oil spits and hisses. Grandmother doesn’t worry about the drops of oil falling onto her arm; she turns back to the table, kneads the rest of the dough, rolls it out, and cuts disks out of that as well, and finally there’s just a tiny bit that is too small to be cut into a circle. Grandmother kneads it again, forms a small bird out of it, and throws that into the oil.
I polish the spoons; each one is shining and glittering, but I can’t stop, I must keep rubbing them with the buckskin cloth, and while I do it, I watch the doughnuts frying. They smell delicious, but I’m not even hungry, I don’t know how we’re going to eat all these delicious treats.
Grandmother turns the doughnuts over in the oil; they’re puffing up nicely, bubbling on the surface, they’re brown and crimson like fox fur; a tiny pinkie-size white ribbon runs around their sides as if painted on with a brush.
Grandmother places a cloth napkin on a large porcelain platter with a flower pattern, and she places the doughnuts on that, making a pyramid out of them. She goes into the larder, brings out a jar of plum preserves, then she takes the silver gravy boat from me and spoons the preserves into that; she sticks a silver spoon into it, looks at it, and adjusts it.
The oil has begun to smoke on the stove. Grandmother turns to the stove, takes the pot from the flame; the oil undulates within it, nearly spilling over. Now only the bird formed out of dough bobs up and down in the oil; it’s burned. Grandmother reaches over and picks it out with her hand; she hisses, throwing it from one palm to the other, there’s no ribbon on it, only a tiny white spot where its wings should be, its head is nearly burned black. Now for sure it’s not so boiling hot. It’s lying there in Grandmother’s right palm. Grandmother dips the nail of her pinkie into the plum preserves, quickly dots two eyes on the bird, then draws its wing and tail feathers. I can see from the wing feathers gleaming blue that it’s meant to be a blue jay. Grandmother puts drops of plum preserve on the bird’s legs, and she uses that to attach it to the top of the doughnut pyramid, then adjusts it so the jay is standing nicely; she lets go of it, and suddenly the pendulum clock begins to strike.
One of the weights on the clock descends, clattering and rattling; I look at it, the clock strikes, ringing out, many times, I don’t count the number of strikes, the flour-covered kneading board has disappeared from the table, I didn’t even see when Grandmother took it back into the larder, I must have been looking at the silver, I was looking at my own face in the glittering silver. Only the glass that Grandmother used to cut the dough circles is still on the table; now it stands on its base, I can see the emblem on it. The man with the outspread arms in the field filled with white flowers isn’t flying, he’s not even alive—he’s dead, he’s strung up by his legs; he hangs from a beam beneath his knees, only the smile on his face remains the same.
“I look over and I see her hand is trembling.”
I’m seized by nausea. I look again at the wall clock, it’s still striking, loud and buzzing in my head, it’s making my head ache, the throbbing pain begins at my temples, goes back to the nape of my neck, right to the base of my plaited hair.
The clock stops ringing; there is silence; it echoes for a while in my head, then that too dies down. Grandmother speaks, says the evening star has risen, we’re ready just in time. She praises me, saying that I worked as one must, and she’s very happy with me.
I’m pleased that she has praised me, but I can hardly pay attention, I feel very tired, extremely tired, as if the entire day’s work were piled up and poured onto me. I feel it clinging to me and pulling me down heavily, like liquid mud, I can’t move at all.
Suddenly my nose is filled with smells—the scent of the rosemary of the potato soup mixes with the onion and lard and paprika scent of the chicken and the scent of the vanilla sugar melting on the doughnuts. I’m very hungry, and the hunger is made even stronger by the fatigue. I imagine myself dipping my spoon into the soup, and before I even swallow it, I’ve already put another spoonful in my mouth, then another and another, and that’s how I’ll greedily eat up the chicken paprika as well, and the doughnuts; first I will split one open with the edge of the little spoon, and then I’ll fill the inside with plum preserves. As I bite into it, the thick gluey sweetness will spurt into my mouth, and I’ll just swallow and swallow, stuffing one doughnut after the other into my mouth; the powdered vanilla sugar will stick to my mouth and my chin but I won’t wipe it off, I won’t even stop long enough to do that.
I’m waiting for Grandmother to speak, to tell me to put out the cutlery and the plates; I’m waiting for her to say it’s time to eat. I look at the bird standing atop the doughnut pyramid, and I think maybe Grandmother will give it to me. I’m going to eat that right away, just as soon as we’ve finished off the chicken paprika.
I look at the doughnuts, I look at the vanilla sugar melting on the doughnuts; the handle of the spoon stuck into the plum preserves scatters the lamplight into my eyes. I look at Grandmother, ask her to let me try one of the doughnuts, I promise her that I’ll eat my soup properly too, and the second course, just let me try one of the doughnuts first, because I really have been wishing for that.
Grandmother says that’s not possible. She says she sees how I’m looking at the food, but I can’t have any of it, not any of the doughnuts, not the chicken, not the soup, it’s not possible, neither of us can have a bite of it, not even one bite, not even one morsel, because the entire thing is for the guest.
I ask her, my voice cracking, what does she mean for the guest, what guest? Grandmother says not to think about that, I don’t need to worry about the guest, that’s not my problem. She knows I’m very hungry, she knows it’s not good to sleep on an empty stomach, but there’s nothing else to do, this is how it has to be. She tells me to go and put on my nightgown, lie down, turn to the wall, go to sleep, and don’t wake up, not until tomorrow morning. And she says that if I wake up, I shouldn’t get up, and under no circumstances should I leave the room.
I want to yell, I want to yell in her face that this isn’t right; I could reach over and grab one of the doughnuts and stuff it into my mouth, and she wouldn’t be able to stop me, but Grandmother looks at me, and she says, Don’t even try. Her face is severe, but not as it usually is; beneath the severity there is something else too, something I’ve never seen in her expression. As she picks up the glass she used to cut the dough, it knocks a little bit against her ring; I look over and I see her hand is trembling, she has to squeeze the glass with all of her strength so her hand won’t tremble, and already I know that Grandmother is afraid.
Excerpted from The Bone Fire by György Dragomán, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Copyright © 2014 by György Dragomán. English translation copyright © 2021 by Ottilie Mulzet. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Open to Disagreement: Six Contemporary Hungarian Women Writers