Excerpt from “The Calf-Eyed”

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Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet

 

1

A milk offering was made to the gods every

morning and every evening. A small amount of foaming fresh milk

was suddenly poured in between the planks of the cowshed floor

from the flower-patterned enamel pail. It seemed accidental,

but this was in reality a necessary gesture, a custom kept

by everyone. The bits of manure clinging to the cow

hairs were tossed out, the dirt removed from the

milk’s surface. You only had to blow on the foam to one side

if you wanted to drink the milk straight from the pail. The milk was poured

into a mug so a child could slurp it up while still warm. It is forbidden

to place a knife or a fork in the milk because that will make

the milk bloody and the animal’s udder sore, they believed. We may

never reach into the milk with a knife, said the gods, weary in the evenings,

when my mother sat, hands immobile in her lap, on the kitchen stool.

 

 

2a

I first saw Manci at my great-grandfather’s, she was in the

cowshed and still just a heifer; I might have been four or

five years old. My older sister and I had to kiss each other

above Manci’s head. The adults held both of us up,

this was a good-luck ritual. The heifer had been a surprise,

a gift, I could see my mother was happy. Manci was hope

 

 

2b

itself, because no longer did the children have to keep going

every evening from the New Row to the Old Village, carrying

the polka-dot two-liter canister to get milk. My mother was happy

the issue was finally resolved, she would no longer have

to quarrel all the time with Máli, who was tired of having to strain the

milk for us. That’s just putting on airs. Why bother, it’s just as good unstrained.

You just have to blow off the cow hairs from the foamy surface, and

sometimes the manure stuck on the clumps of hair. The herd of cows

 

 

3a

lived in the Tisztaberek forest, where we went to visit Manci. That was

the custom. The owner went looking for its calf. Speaking to her so

she would get used to his voice. To not forget her family. Sometimes

we went with my father or my grandfather. I remember

once the cow herd, as we arrived, was still out

by the shady resting place. In the summer heat we had

to wait until the relief of the afternoon to drive the

herd back through the shallows of the Túr River, to refresh

their bodies. The water reached up only to below their chest. My father and grandfather

summoned Manci with salt, enticing her, then whispered

into her ear. And the calf-eyed animal came along,

she licked the salt. [ . . . ]

 

 

5a

Manci was thirteen years old and calved for the last time, she

didn’t come home in the evening with the herd, instead she hid. She calved

in the small forest next to the old mud-brick drying ditch. I

was out looking for her that evening with my flashlight. We were worried

because she was old. Without help, there could be problems. Manci

was elderly already. For a long time already it had not been right to make her

calve every year, the poor thing. The veterinarian said that he recommended once

every two years at the most. Slowly, time had passed her by

 

 

5b

as well. Manci was a bit like a member of the family, she

moved with us, got used to the new village, the shed, the herd,

and the gate as well. She got used to things just like everyone else, and came home

regularly, as the slow herd trudged along in the evening, carrying the setting sun

between their horns. Their great stomachs swayed, their strained

udders, the gods waited for them by the entrance to their houses. The gods stood

 

 

5c

and spit into the side of the ditch. We found her the next day. That night

we had stopped searching. We knew she had hidden somewhere,

as she always did. Every two years the inseminator, the Bull with a Necktie,

as the guffaws called him, paid a visit. It was a comfortable job,

you could make a good living. The inseminator got a service car, even

gasoline money. He dosed the bull sperm into a long tube

placed inside the cow. Because after the adventure with

the herder, Manci could not have any more doings with a bull,

only artificial fertilization remained. The next day

 

 

6

I searched the village boundaries, by bike, with my mother. Manci gazed at us meekly

when she caught sight of us. The calf’s hair had already

been licked to shining. The little one got onto its knees with trembling legs,

then stood up. It’s a bull, said my mother, half to herself.

Well, now, Manci, you’re clever, she caressed the body weary

from birth, grateful that even alone Manci had been able to bring

a son into the world, and at this age. It was as if my mother, who could no

longer give birth, envied her. She loved her very much. But our Manci

 

 

7

was broken by this birth. She hardly gave any milk. Nor could

she calve anymore. We kept her for months yet, but

my father, who said we must put her down, was victorious. My

mother didn’t want to. She wept when they took her away. Manci stepped onto

the truck bed gently. Her cow’s eyes were just as sad as when

I saw her for the first time. Deep black, meek,

and sad. My God, my God, my mother mumbled, do not judge me.

 

 

 

 


Ottilie Mulzet is a translator of poetry and prose, as well as a literary critic. She was awarded the Tibor Déry Prize in 2020, and her translation of Borbély’s Final Matter: Selected Poems 2004-2010 was a finalist for the PEN America Poetry in Translation Prize 2020. She is based in Prague.

Szilárd Borbély was an academic, writer, and poet. His verse collection Halotti pompa: Szekvenciák (Final Matters: Sequences) and his novel Nincstelenek (The Dispossessed) are considered among the most important works of modern Hungarian literature.

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