The Bone Fire

Gyorgy Dragoman, trans., Ottilie Mulzet

February 25, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Gyorgy Dragoman's novel, The Bone Fire, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Dragomán is a translator and novelist, whose first book, White King, won the Sandor Márai Prize and the Jan Michaelski Prize. Mulzet (translator) was awarded the 2015 Man Booker International Prize for her work on László Krasznahorkai.

When I come out of the changing booth with the folded-up, brown ironing blanket in my hand, I immediately hear Krisztina screaming. The sound is coming from the direction of the trampoline; I set off in that direction between the large bushes. I’ve hardly gotten there when I see that she’s running straight at me; behind her are the boys from the class, they’re chasing her, there are a bunch of other girls running too, they too are screeching, but Krisztina’s screeching is louder than anyone else’s; all the boys want to get to her. 

To no avail, though; Krisztina is very quick, and every time they’re about to catch up to her, she changes direction; the boys try to grab her, their hands outstretched, but they can’t reach her, she spins and turns between them, her red bathing suit metallic and shining; she evades them, she ducks beneath their arms, she makes them dance in circles, she jumps farther away; she stops as they run after her with her arms spread apart, then, shrieking, she begins to run again. She runs around the trees, she jumps across the benches, she plunges through the sandpit; the boys are running after her, but they never catch up to her. 

I arrived at the pool late today; Grandmother made me sweep out the kitchen and the vestibule twice, only letting me go afterward, and almost everyone else from the class is here already. If the boys catch Krisztina, they’ll throw her into the water, then they’ll throw in all the other girls as well, one after the other, until everyone is drenched. 

I stand behind the bushes adjusting my bathing suit. The scale pattern on the green material is barely visible now; it doesn’t shine but absorbs the light, deep and dark, as if it were made of water. When I tried it on in the changing room, holding my hands above my head and sticking out my chest, I stood on my tiptoes, and I thought that no matter how beautiful Krisztina’s bathing suit was, mine was certainly more beautiful, and I was certainly more beautiful. But now that I see how she runs and jumps, how her skin glistens from sweat, for a moment I think that I won’t even step out from behind the bushes; instead I’ll quickly turn around, I’ll turn around and wind the ironing blanket all around myself so that nobody will see me, my thighs are too skinny and my skin is too pale, the veins on it are much too blue. My hand moves, beginning to unfold the blanket; a dry smell of iron seeps out. 

Krisztina once again allows the boys to approach her, once again she allows them to very nearly touch her, then suddenly she turns, laughing loudly, and steps to the side; just then she’s on the path strewn with pieces of tree bark and lined with stones. I keep hoping she’ll trip on one of the stones, trip and fall on her stomach, slide onto her stomach on the wood shavings, scrape her elbows and her knees on the stones, and smash her head. I wish she would die. 

I arrived at the pool late today; Grandmother made me sweep out the kitchen and the vestibule twice, only letting me go afterward.

I look at her leg, her slender foot, the toenails painted crimson, and I know that it will be exactly as I wish, she’s going to trip, striking her instep on one of those stones, then that stone will scrape her foot right up to the toes; her hands beating the air, she’ll try to regain her balance, but she won’t be able to. I think of the stone, the sharp and hard edge of the stone, then suddenly something is making the light flash in my eyes, sharp and strong, making me blink. It’s Krisztina’s foot that is gleaming, her ankle, there’s a thin golden chain around it, I didn’t notice it before, but now I see clearly that with every step she takes, it slides a little up her shin; there’s also a pendant hanging off it, and now I see that it’s a lizard. Her foot curves into an arch, it slides along the edge of the stone, and I know she isn’t going to trip. I watch her as she steps onto the stone; she stops, she smiles. 

She’s looking straight at me; I know that she knows that I’m behind the bushes. She’s not running now, she’s not laughing, she’s not even screeching, she’s just standing and looking at me, holding her arms apart. It looks as if she’s trying to embrace the air, but I know that’s not what she’s doing. The boys are running behind her, they’re getting to her, they’re going to reach her, she’s holding her arms out so it will be easier for them to catch her. 

The boys get to her; the first one to grab her is András, then Misi and Feri, and then Iván. I see their hands as they touch her body. Krisztina shrieks again, now it’s just a sharp little shriek, just a little Oh my! Iván grabs the upper part of her left arm by her bra, next to her heart, and it’s as if a cold hand were grabbing me, grabbing me and squeezing me. 

Krisztina throws herself back, back and up; the boys grab her, they hold her, they lift her above their heads; they’re carrying her. Krisztina is lying in the air, her head thrown back, her hair hanging down; she looks at me and she smiles; I see her face upside down; her smile is a grimace wrenched apart. 

The blanket drops to the ground, the fabric chafing like sandpaper. I kick off my flip-flops. I want to run after them, I want to reach them, I want to overtake them, I want to jump up and tear that golden chain off Krisztina’s ankle. 

The earth below my feet turns to dust; it feels like clumps of grass are tearing off beneath my feet, I’ve never run like this before, I’m not going to overtake them, they’re already at the footbath, they’ve already crossed it, they’re already standing there at the edge of the pool, on the blue and white mosaic tiles, they’re swinging Krisztina, and they’re shouting, Heave ho! Then suddenly they let her go; Krisztina is above the water, her body curved into an arc, she reaches back somehow with her left hand, grabs one of the boys’ hands with outstretched fingers; it’s Iván’s hand, I recognize it. Krisztina tugs on the hand, Iván topples over, and they fall together into the water. 

I already hear the laughter, but it’s not them, it’s the others who are guffawing, and I know that it’s at me, I know it’s because I called out Iván’s name.

I’ve just stepped into the flat footbath; I slip, and I nearly fall. The water throws up green-white froth all around them, I see the chain flashing, I see how the pool swallows their bodies, and now I can’t even see them. I call out Iván’s name, I know that I shouldn’t, but it’s too late, the surface of the water is a broken mirror, it’s throwing the light into my eyes, I know what’s happening beneath the surface, I see legs and arms and backs and waists, they’re grabbing at each other, they’re intertwining. 

Already they’re swimming upward; in a moment they will surface, their faces next to each other, and they will laugh, both of them will be laughing. 

I already hear the laughter, but it’s not them, it’s the others who are guffawing, and I know that it’s at me, I know it’s because I called out Iván’s name. 

I don’t want to see them come to the surface. I don’t want them to see me crying. I turn, and I begin to run along the footbath at the edge of the pool; the water splashes all around me, my bathing suit gets wet; I look up, and I see that I’m running toward the diving board. 

The concrete steps are closed off with a rusty chain; on it there’s a black padlock. I reach for it, grab the banister of the stairs, jump over the chain; one of my ankles hits it. I run up the steps. In many places the concrete is crumbling with iron pieces jutting out; I run higher and higher. 

I pass the three-meter diving board, then the five-meter, I don’t stop, I go farther, I pass by the seven-meter, then I’m standing at the very top, by the ten-meter diving board. 

The concrete panels reaching above the pool are, in many places, almost completely disintegrated, they have huge holes in them; as I step onto the board, a large piece breaks off it; for a moment there is silence, then it splashes into the pool. Below, suddenly everyone begins to cry out, everyone’s calling my name. I know that everyone’s looking at me, yes, they’re looking at me and not at each other, that’s what I’m thinking as I raise my hands above my head, that’s what I’m thinking as I slowly walk out on the concrete diving board, as I walk all the way to the edge, as I stop there, as I stand on my tiptoes, as I look up into the sky, as I fill my lungs with air, as I push myself off from the concrete. 

I want to let go of it, I want to let go of it and swim up to the surface, I want to break the surface smiling.

Me — only me. 


I fly through the air, I’m smooth, I’m a piece of stone covered with slippery green moss. Beneath me is the pool, the water is dark green, almost black; I tense my body, I try to turn forward, I stretch out my hands — too late, I will not reach the water headfirst, the world is spinning around me, I see the diving board, I see the crowns of the trees, I see my classmates standing at the edge of the pool, I see the water and, once again, the diving board. 

I turn on my side and plunge into the pool. The sound of my body splashing into the water is mixed with the cries of my classmates; I don’t hear what they’re yelling, the water punches me between my ribs, it becomes sharpened, stabbing across me, it is a black funnel filling me with pain, dragging me down heavily. Before my eyes, foamy white bubbles swirl around, then I only see the black water, thick liquid glass, spinning around, crushing me, pushing me farther and farther down. 

I reach my arms up, try to kick; the water presses coldly around my ankles and my knees and my thighs. I want to turn, turn upward toward the surface, but the strokes are only pushing me down; the pool is growing narrower, like an upside-down pyramid. Everything is green and murky, then I see the bottom of the pool, filled with concrete debris; placed nearly in the middle is a huge clump of stone and, from it, extending out toward me, are sharp-pointed pieces of twisted reinforced iron, already one of them is by my hand, the sharp strands of wire stand out jaggedly from its tip. I try to pull back my hand but it’s too late, the end of the iron bar slides between my fingers, almost touching the palm of my hand, then the inside of my lower arm. I know that I must not hold on to the iron, but I also know that if I don’t grab on to it, its tip will slash my lower arm in two, and my blood will become a black ribbon, I don’t want to, the touch of the iron is repulsive, slippery and dark, but I don’t worry about that, I clutch it, it doesn’t cut me, I hold on to it below the tip, but the iron clings to my palm, slimy, and I can’t let go of it. 

I want to let go of it, I want to let go of it and swim up to the surface, I want to break the surface smiling; with two hands, I want to smooth my watery locks away from my face, swim two strokes to the metal ladder, and climb out of the water nicely; I want to stand by the edge of the pool, leaning on the iron banister, and then I want to ask: Well, girls and boys, who dares to go after me? I think of Iván’s face as he smiled when he pulled Krisztina into the water; I know he will never be mine. So who needs him? Let him be Krisztina’s. 

I can’t let go of the iron. 

The air begins to warm my lungs, it’s pulling me upward; I tense the soles of my feet against the bottom of the pool, throw my head back, look up; I want to propel myself up, up to the surface, up toward the light, but this clump of stone won’t let me. 

I’m nothing; I’m troubled waters.

My hair has come undone, it floats before my eyes; there is a burning sphere in my chest; I want to call for help, but I can’t, I know that I must not open my mouth. 

Still, I must yell. I have to. The air breaks out of me in one single enormous bubble; it stops before my face, a great green glittering sphere. I see myself in it, my face is paper-white; in the middle my gaping mouth is a black hole, the water pours out of it coldly and sharply. 

The sphere slowly starts upward, and with my free hand I try to reach after it, and I reach it, but I can’t grab it, it breaks up into smaller bubbles, then two whirl all around my fingers, and, gurgling, they float upward. 

The deep green darkness closes in over me; I’m writhing, but I know it’s no use. I can no longer escape from here. 

I’m nothing; I’m troubled waters. I’m just imagining that somebody is embracing me from behind, I’m just imagining that a hand is grasping my wrist, I’m just imagining that it has yanked my hand away from the iron, I’m just imagining that it has begun to pull me upward. I’m also imagining the light, the surface of the water, the air too, and how everyone is screaming out my name. My eyes close. 


Excerpted from The Bone Fire by Gyorgy Dragoman, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Copyright © 2014 by Gyorgy Dragoman. English translation copyright © 2021 by Ottilie Mulzet. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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