The Moon through the Hard Water: America Doesn’t Like Me

translated by Erika Mihálycsa

In May 1974, in New York’s René Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway, Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) carried out his performance “I Like America and America Likes Me.” Arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he was taken by an ambulance, on a stretcher, so that his feet would not touch the land of Americans who had treated the continent’s Native populace so abominably, and had himself driven to the gallery, where he locked himself up, for eight hours a day, with a coyote. Wrapped in a felt blanket and brandishing a staff, he defended himself from the small animal; he also had a triangle on him, which he sounded every now and again, and on each of the three days he took into the cage a pile of the day’s Wall Street Journals. At the end of the three days, he took a flight back; nobody knows what happened to the coyote. 

Days before the humans captured me, there was some vibe in the air. Not the kind of dense vibe that gets under your skin, like when we howl our longing for eternal life into the night, but a vibe nevertheless. I was cocking my ears, ready for anything, sniffing around at random, and I obviously neglected the pack. Mother gave me scrutinizing what’s-amiss-with-you looks but didn’t growl, what with the six squinting little pests that kept her on her toes full-time.

Of course I’m fond of the little scamps, especially after their eyes open and they drop off methodically gutting our mother. I let them tug at my fur, roll them over with my nose, bring them voles, something we usually arrange with badger: he sniffs out the ware and digs it up, I catch them, I’m the first to eat and he’s next, and if they’re lucky, the pests too get something to eat. I’m kidding, they always get something, in the worst case it’s badger who doesn’t get his delivery. After all, the food tastes simply better if the kiddos have put away their share first.

When I got the first whiff of tension to come I yelped to badger to come along, but he seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. Badger is the more experienced of the two of us: when I got to know him, he had already mastered the art of harassing small rodents. What could he know to have disappeared like that?

Every night a small coterie gathered around me, the moon shone, the stars shone along, the boys saw me home at dawn, and I became ever more certain that he was the one.

Anyway, I was on my own again. Things somehow turned out this way: on the first winter my howl was so shilpit that I had a hard time picking it up myself, small wonder no one followed me, I was left with the pack, helping mother and father to feed the little pests. By the time the next howling came, last winter, I was already calling out with my voice to the pulsating world-all, I got the hang of something, I could hardly believe it myself that those sounds were coming from me. Every night a small coterie gathered around me, the moon shone, the stars shone along, the boys saw me home at dawn, and I became ever more certain that he was the one. He was strong, his fur clean, his long nose glistened, his ears tilted toward me amiably, and when he looked at me his pupils nearly devoured his yellowish-brown eyes. We had got as far as pressing our noses to one another’s necks and remaining so for long minutes, feeling one another, everything was 100 percent unequivocal: he was the one I’d live with forever. Then a day came when he wasn’t waiting for me in front of the lair. I sat around, searching the horizon. The pests were tugging at my fur, biting me, giving thin little woofs, hoping I’d join in their hijinks, but I just stared in front of me, more and more tense. For days I didn’t eat and didn’t drink, didn’t move, mother brought me herbs and put them down in front of me, gesturing with her nose that I ought to eat up the whole lot, but I was too weak even to sniff it. I stared like an eejit, eyes misted over. Mother then stuck the herbs under my nose, so the smell oozed into me and it was as if somehow the mute howl softened inside. Mother felt this, placed the stuff before me, and signaled that I must eat it up. At first I could scarcely bend my neck to bow and sniff, but after some time I managed. What I didn’t manage, though, was to open my mouth. The dspr, dspr kept rolling between my teeth and didn’t let me be. The next day mother brought a fresh batch, held it to my nose, I breathed it in, a bit of peace, and my jaws relaxed enough so I could chew a few blades. A few days on grass and I realized there was no point in waiting any longer, so I started on the road of self-sustenance. The scamps had grown, the gals were already joining in the winter howling party, the little weenies, too, were returning to the lair in the mornings with glowing eyes. I didn’t join the concert.

Badger must surely have caught the whiff of danger, and he’s never wrong, and yet I followed my nose. As I approached the smell I saw more and more clearly that it was a sizable motionless hare, a hell of a lot to haul. But was there anybody else eyeing it? I waited, searched in every direction, but there was no one around.

So this is my hare, I opened my jaws to snatch it, when out of the blue something snapped around me and I found myself with an unmoving hare in mouth, unable to go home. They shut me up in a small space. Humans were everywhere around, showing their teeth, emitting all kinds of sounds, and they were carrying me away. For a while there was whoppin’ stinking dark, I let go of the hare as I wasn’t exactly in the mood for eating, with my nerves strung to breaking point. I was scared. I sat as motionless as the hare but could feel some movement all the same. There was a roaring background noise, to this were added other, approaching or departing roars and screeches. I couldn’t see a thing, it was a night as cloudy and as stormy as it gets. I wasn’t cold but I was shivering all the same. Next to me the hare was quietly shaking along. It was so dark I couldn’t catch its eye.

Then the shaking and the noise came to an abrupt end, there was light, and humans lifted me in my small enclosed space, carried me for a while, then put me down, and a portion was open, so I fearfully ventured out into a bigger outer space, which spread a familiar smell. Hay. I was looking for the way out. They grabbed my hare by its hind legs and took it off. There was no way out. On one side iron threads closed me in, I tried in vain to squeeze through or to gnaw them, there was no getting out even there. A human brought meat and water, placed it in front of me, and left. I drank. They didn’t set on me. Nobody came to claim the meat, so I gulped it down and went on reconnoitering where I was. The dry grass was okay, the smell of the earth was not okay, because it was not earth but wood, and what was that smoothness and that light which came neither from the sun nor from the moon or the stars? Anyway, let’s leave the stars and the moon alone, I curled up and tried to get a nap in the hay. One moment I was wide awake, the next moment I drowsed off, but of course I kept my ears cocked all the while to hear what was happening: humans came and went, clatter, humming, creaks, rippling sounds, after some time they all seemed harmless. But how was I to get home from here?

Humans came and went, clatter, humming, creaks, rippling sounds, after some time they all seemed harmless. But how was I to get home from here?

I got a strong whiff of sheep. A longish thing came approaching, a sheep-smelling, small moving hill, it went round me tilting here and there, a crooked crag grew on top of it. A mound of sheep-smelling whatsit dropped to the ground, I poked at it, it moved with my poking, didn’t attack and didn’t defend itself, although it was quite some jumbo beast. I tucked under it to see if there was something beneath, but the whole lot was nothing but sheep-smelling inertia. The hill bent double and withdrew a little at my approaching, but I could smell that, however big hulk of a critter it was, it was scared of me and so tried to always turn toward me with its crooked crag, like stags with their crown. I bit the inertia dangling from the hill, the crag almost swatted me but I dodged, so it went until the hill threw off the sheep-smelling stuff and behold, the human. Something flashed at its throat, and he threw me a bit of meat, the same kind that I got here, only smaller, I clasped it mid-air, gulped it down, waited, another bit was thrown, I caught it. Beyond the iron threads more and more humans gathered, standing there gawking. The human inside touched the glinting whatsit hanging from its neck and it gave a long, shrill scream. My ears ached from it. The human continued thumping the glitter at his neck even harder, as if I weren’t there at all, it nearly pierced my drum, but he didn’t come any closer. I was looking for the way out, the humans were gawking at us from outside, the human inside was making weird movements to them. He had also brought along a lot of featherweight, iron-smelling stuff, one was almost as big as me but completely flat, he laid it out. It was no size really. I ran across it and marked it. The human sat down in the hay, then puffed out a bit of smoke. But where could you get out of here?

As it turned out, through the iron-threaded side, but not me. The human took his props and went out without the least bit of effort through some suddenly opened crack in the iron threads. I cast around but couldn’t see the crack anywhere. The humans from outside left too. I was on my own again in a place where there was first-class food, water, warmth, but everything was motionless, a bit of humming came from one side all the time, more muffled now, the same roaring noise that we heard with the shaking hare. And now and again some screeches. I could even see where it came from, for only some kind of hard water separated me from it. I sat on the hay, stared out toward the noise, saw tiny humans and glowing, unknown animals rushing by.

I was awakened by the human from yesterday who had given me meat to eat: now, too, he was putting in front of me a supersize portion and kept droning to me that everything was all right, another day has come, that it was warm, and that I shouldn’t be afraid. We both knew that he meant it to comfort me, but as consolations go, this wasn’t much. Outside humans were gathering, and there came the human disguised as a small sheep-smelling hill with the crooked crag above his head, he bowed here and there, approached, what on earth could he want from me, I haven’t slept for days, and only wanted to go back home to the pack, to tickle the little scamps with my nose and to catch voles with badger, and here was this human hill throwing his dumb sheep-smell around left right and center. A bit of meaty bouquet got mixed into it nevertheless, so there I go up to him and get some, clasp the sheep-smelling stuff and tug at it, the human is revealed for a moment, he lets down part of the sheep smell, just like yesterday, and no harm comes of it. Whatever causes no harm is play, so I play along with the sheep-smell, the crooked crag and the human, he even throws me meat, I catch it in the air, he pours me water, I drink it, he sits down in the hay, I sit next to him, he puffs out smoke, I don’t look at him. It would be great to get home, but I can’t find the way out.

In the end the human rises, wraps the flattened sheep around himself, and leaves. The others leave as well. I too feel the need, but there is no place inside, so I hold it back. Then I just sit on the hay. Looking through the hard water. Is that the moon I’m seeing, or do my eyes deceive me? It starts as a whimper, I can’t hold it back, my voice is still sliding up and down from all the silence, but some force is pushing me on and freeing me, and the old howl escapes. It swells on and on, I can’t hold it back. No one comes to me.

But some force is pushing me on and freeing me, and the old howl escapes. It swells on and on, I can’t hold it back. No one comes to me.

Only in the morning, the human who gives me something to eat and drink and growls peacefully. I go up to him, he smells of friendship, he scratches my head, I hold it out to him to scratch it at leisure, in the end he pats my back and leaves. Behind the iron threads a great many humans gather again, then they pull apart and there comes the human with his sheep-smell and the glitter at his neck, with his flattened gimmicks. And the minute bits of meat. I wasn’t hungry but it went down well all the same. He was doing his number a tad less pompously this time, looking more at me and less at his companions outside. When we sat down on the hay in front of the hard water and he started puffing smoke, he no longer smelled of fear. We were sitting side by side, watching the distant movement, all I was thinking of was how I was going to get home, that is, how I got here. It all started with the vibe and with badger vanishing into thin air, and with me going on all the same like a cretin, one moment I was sinking my teeth into the motionless hare, the next I was already hemmed in and surrounded by humans. He, too, had a hare, the human next to me thought, he explained to it what he liked doing that makes the world seem a bit different. Why should it be different? So it doesn’t hurt. Mother knows an herb that makes the hurt go away. Do you know that herb too? Of course I do, I’ve been on it for weeks, I’d recognize its smell in a thousand. You could really show it to me next time. Sure I will, but it doesn’t grow around here, can you arrange with your humans that they take me back to my desert? Okay.

Perhaps this is not how it happened. What is entirely sure though is that he gave me a hug before he left, and another night came, and I howled again, because the moon was fully visible through the hard water. It would have been nice to be home, but there was no way out. Sheep-smell will be back any time. Behind the iron threads a couple of humans were pacing up and down. They entered in such a way that I couldn’t get out, brought in the small closed space and put it down. I waited. Sheep-smell didn’t show up. The other human came in with my water and super-size, but didn’t give it to me: he placed everything in the small closed space. No problem, I went in, and then they shut it behind me and took me away.

Where did they take me? Back to the desert, I was free again, I ran to the pack, my folks sniffed me from all ends and growled, for a while I ambled around alone, caught a limping hare and took it to them, they took me back.

Where did they take me? To a place that smelled of fear where there were so many odors to make my head swirl, all screeching and bawling, they locked me up among unknown coyotes, I was scared, then I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to live and multiply in this place, with my fur growing ever shabbier, my nose hanging, my ears drooping, my sight getting blurry, there is no way out.

Where did they take me? I was shivering, it was cold and misty, closed-in grayness, a human bringing my super-size, iron clanks.

Translation from the Hungarian

Photo by Miklós Déri

Zsuzsa Selyem is a novelist, poet, translator, and associate professor in the Department of Hungarian Literature, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania. Her 2006 novel 9 kiló (Történet a 119. zsoltárra) (9 Kilos [Story on Psalm 119]) represented Hungary at the 2007 European First Novel Festival. In addition, she has published two volumes of short stories and five volumes of essays.

A lecturer in the Department of English at Babes-University, Cluj, Romania, Erika Mihálycsa has translated William H. Gass, Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, George Orwell, and others into Hungarian and regularly contributes to several literary publications. Two of her translations into English were among WLT’s 2015 Pushcart nominations.