by Csilla Kleinheincz
“Rabbits” previously appeared in Roham Magazine and the author’s short story collection Nyulak, Sellők, Viszonyok. Translated from the original Hungarian by the author.
The air was boiling above the highway, whipping up the smell of dust from the car seats, as if the road led into the past instead of to Lake Balaton.
“You don’t look so well,” said Vera, glancing to her right. She leaned on the wheel almost as if she was afraid that without holding on, the car would leave her behind. “Why don’t you roll down the window a bit?”
Amanda was wondering whether what she felt was nausea. It was difficult to tell. The smell of the dust made her woozy. She wanted to ask the little girl on the backseat if she was sick, too, but then rejected the idea. The girl couldn’t speak. Or maybe she could, but no one had yet the guts to ask her anything.
“I spread the tarot for our vacation,” said Vera. “It was all swords. What do you think it means?”
“If you can’t read it why do you lay it out?” Amanda decided not to risk being sick; the air whistled in the window and tore the words from her mouth bite by bite.
“Because when I spread it and clean it and light a candle, it calms me. Plus it is super-mysterious. If someone were to see me, he would think I’m a witch.”
Amanda frowned. Vera knew as little about tarot as about everything else; she dipped in it because it interested her, but only tried it on briefly like a new dress.
The wind felt good, it invigorated Amanda, the nausea was blown out of her. She felt empty. Now she saw Vera and the curly locks stuck to her forehead more clearly.
“And if no one sees you?”
“Then I imagine that someone does.” Vera laughed but Amanda was in no mood to join her. Hi, my witch. This is me you are talking to. I look right through you like an X-ray.
She would not have minded if it had been so. Vera would become transparent like glass, Amanda would see the car door behind her and could reach into her like into an aquarium, and then she would pull out what was wrong with her. Presto. A routine operation, madam, you may go back to your girlfriend.
“Swords is an air element,” she said. “Which cards were they?”
“Does it matter? I did the spread, seemed like a good idea. I am sure it had some meaning. It is enough to know that, isn’t it…?”
Amanda looked at her to elicit some explanation but her friend didn’t notice it.
“It is enough to know it means something,” said Vera loudly over the wind, and she leaned even more on the wheel.
They set off an hour earlier, and yet they hadn’t left the highway yet. Vera must have been the slowest driver on the whole stretch of road and if she could, she would have driven in the service lane. She feared for the car, which was new as her driver’s license.
Well, Vera certainly isn’t her old self, either, thought Amanda sadly and cranked up the window. Her ears hurt from the whistling wind.
They passed harvested wheat fields, the stubble shining golden on the face of the sleeping earth. Amanda’s nausea returned; she felt as if their journey to Lake Balaton had been a succession of swigs from stale water.
“You shouldn’t have eaten both of those fried eggs.”
She shouldn’t have, but fried eggs were a symbol just like Vera’s tarot spread. Each morning they fried something for breakfast and Amanda did the same this morning to pretend they were still together. She doggedly ate the eggs and bacon while Vera waited for her, then took her bag and they were off.
As an experiment she put her hand on Vera’s knee, but her girlfriend apologetically took her wrist and pushed it away. For a while the silence was cold.
Thy stopped at a gas station at the beginning of the Balaton road. Vera stepped out to fill up the car and make a call. Amanda turned back to the child.
The little girl didn’t say a word during the journey. She sat with a chocolate donut in her hand and smears on her face.
Clean your face, Amanda thought hard, wondering if she could make the girl speak. Maybe the child was silent for the same reason. Maybe she just thought hard about the things she wanted to say.
The girl did not wipe the chocolate off her face. She just stared with eyes as blue as corn-flowers, as those of Amanda. Her curly hair – so very like Vera’s – was matted with chocolate. She dropped the doughnut into her lap, onto the white skirt.
“We are on the road, yes, almost there… Of course…” Shrill laughter. Amanda looked out the open door at Vera. “Yes, I would love it… Hmm? You say you can magic yourself here?” Laughter again. “Yes, Tintin. Kisses.”
Tintin. What kind of nickname was that for a grown man? And who was called Jusztin nowadays? Amanda was sure it was a stage-name, required by the circus, but Vera was adamant that it was real.
“Did you ever see his ID? Did it say Jusztin?
“Yours says Amanda, so why not?”
Vera got back in the car, smiling nonchalantly, and started the engine.
“Hey,” said Amanda later, when they were at Siófok. “Do you remember Panna?”
Vera looked up in the rearview mirror, then turned on the turn signal. Their street was still far away, but she was cautious.
“Oh, that. It was a nice game. I mean, pretending she existed.”
Amanda looked back. The girl shrugged as if to say she didn’t care, then faded away. The chocolate doughnut remained a little while longer above the seat, then it also disappeared.
Only the headache remained, and the feeling of dejection.
Tintin was a traveling circus magician. Vera said he was too young to get offers from bigger companies.
And not handsome enough, added Amanda, first in thought and later in words. She thought that Jusztin – no Tintin for her, thank you – had carrot hair and small, unpleasantly gleaming eyes. Vera liked him though. This only showed that Amanda didn’t know her friend as well as she believed: if these Jusztin-types were acceptable – and what’s more: delightful, enchanting, sexy – then perhaps in Vera’s eyes she was not who she really was.
Two weeks ago, in the town of Fót, Jusztin literally enchanted Vera: he turned her into a rabbit then caught her with a lasso. He winked, smiled at her, and in the next minute it was Vera who shuffled her feet at the end of the rope. Jusztin wanted her to bow, then released her.
Vera thought this romantic. Amanda said it was love magic, a low one at that, but the only one she could ask about it was her enchanted friend.
As they strolled on the beach and inspected ice cream vendors, Amanda watched Vera walk, watched for the signs that her steps faltered when Amanda peeled the panties of her bikini off with her gaze. Once, her girlfriend had said Amanda could ignite an ant with her gaze. Now Vera hardly even noticed. You see?, Amanda looked at the little girl who followed them mute and grimy. The child glanced back, shook her Vera-hair and raised her hand. Her fingers were closed as if she had been following a string.
Her face remained calm, though as they walked the Balaton promenade, she faded and started to lose herself. When her feet melted away and her pink legs walked on blunt ends, Amanda turned away.
“Do you like ghosts?” she asked Vera. The little girl was sitting on the grass in front of them. She was playing with sticks, fencing with them, as if they were swords. Amanda didn’t like that; the rattle gave her a headache.
Vera held her cell phone in her hand and smiled dreamily at it as she was punching its buttons.
“Not ghosts of dead people. But ghosts of people we create by the force of our mind.”
“Tintin says ghosts live in his sleeves, in his opera-hat, in his tail-coat. He stuffed them into his wand, like the scarves, gave them as fodder to his rabbits. When I was a bunny I think I saw them.” She paused. “Then it turned out they were only feathers, he makes bouquets from them and conjures them out of his buttonhole. Tintin says because the ghosts live with him, they do not exist. He told me to imagine them existing and not existing at the same time.”
“He is good at it, yes,” said Vera.
Sometimes it would have been better if she had quarreled. Or struck back. Or at least gave a sign that she knew that Amanda didn’t like Jusztin. Acknowledged, and then filed it. Then they could have gone on, closed the file. Instead, this was an endless interrogation with Amanda as the inquisitor.
“He doesn’t really love you,” said Amanda crossly.
“What’s your problem? I came with you, didn’t I?”
“But when you go back… he won’t love you.”
Vera’s face was smooth and calm, not bothered by anything. It was possible that her heart remained a rabbit’s even after the trick, and was interested only in grass and fucking, maybe that was why she loved the carrot-haired Jusztin and his carrot so much.
Amanda watched the little girl knock the sticks together, with her pink tongue stuck out in concentration. The child annoyed her. She would have shouted at her, but you don’t shout at imaginary children, especially when there are others around.
The little girl appeared after one of their lovemakings when they stretched lazily and naked on the rug. Their hands drew slow circles on each other’s belly and breasts, and they were whispering so softly that only they and the rug could hear them. Then abruptly the girl was there on the sofa, picking her nose. She wasn’t bothered by their nudity, her face was devoid of emotion, of either smile or frown.
Amanda’s aunt, who was almost admitted to a ghost-researching course of a professedly Tibetan sect that was in truth run by Hungarian pensioners, once said that spontaneous spiritbirths were common, and added that they were nothing to fuss about. They existed only in the mind and if one wanted to get rid of them, one only had to purge them from within. Garlic was good, said the aunt seriously. Our ancestors knew that, although they were mistaken when they believed that garlic had to be hung in the room. You had to eat it to shoo ghosts away. They didn’t care for stinky breath. Amanda laughed at that.
The little girl unnerved her. The child’s shin was short as if it had melted away. Her eyes sparkled red.
“I’m going inside.”
“Hmm,” mumbled Vera and put the cell phone to her ear.
“I’m staying outside,” said Amanda in the same voice.
“Aham,” said Vera, then her face lit up. “Oh, Tintin!”
Amanda wished to strangle her, but didn’t because of Jusztin. She felt him watching them from the distance through his magic wand like through a telescope, his breath ruffled the grass at their feet. She would behave nicely in front of him.
In fact, very nicely.
She leaned forward and kissed Vera’s nape. He girlfriend shot a glance at her.
“And what was the performance like?”
When she bit Vera’s nape, she got a light slap in the face. Amanda growled back.
“What…? Yes, a doggie.”
Amanda turned up her nose. You won’t mislead Jusztin, he saw what I did. He is here with us. More and more real every minute.
She hesitated a little in front of the bungalow, then went inside to open the bottle of whisky she had brought herself.
She smelled their perfumes in every room. Vera was Kenzo Air, Amanda was Summer. The two glasshouse scents made the world feel stuffy. Two hothouse flowers without stamens, Amanda thought.
In the bedroom, under the bedcover, the perfume mixed with the smell of soap. Amanda wanted to snuggle closer but didn’t dare. She felt someone lying between them: a long, heavy body, pressing down the quilt, but still invisible. Vera was dreaming of Jusztin.
Amanda watched Vera, and in turn Jusztin’s ghost watched her. He was only a heavy void in the air: invisible, but she could feel his gaze upon her. He conjured himself here, thought Amanda, to keep an eye on me. He is a cheater. I don’t ogle them when they are sleeping together.
Defiant, she slid closer, pushed away the ghost and slipped her hand under Vera’s cover. Her girlfriend’s skin was warm and soft. She moved her hand up to Vera’s breasts and massaged them gently. Vera sighed.
Hearing a soft hiss, Amanda smiled. Take that, Jusztin.
She slid her hand lower, inside Vera’s pajamas. The faint stubble prickled her but the opening was invitingly wet.
“I thought we have discussed this,” muttered Vera sleepily.
Amanda’s fingers groped further down.
“We can stay friends without this.” Vera took Amanda’s wrist and squeezed it.
“I don’t remember anything like that.”
“I told you I have Tintin now.”
“And did you tell him you have Amanda?”
Vera pulled her hand out of her pajamas.
“Be a good girl.”
Amanda looked around. She didn’t see either the child or the void in the place of Jusztin’s ghost.
“He is not here to see!”
“Just don’t do it, okay?”
Amanda pulled her hand back and pushed it into her own pajamas. She closed her eyes and pretended it was Vera. If her girlfriend heard her gasping, she didn’t show it.
She couldn’t reach release. Sometime during her caressing herself, Jusztin laid back between them, his presence cold and sobering. Amanda felt she would never have an orgasm. With a sigh, she pulled her hand out of her pajamas.
She turned her back on them and tried to sleep. She had a headache, maybe from the whisky, maybe from something else. She was nauseous, but when the white-dressed, red-eyed child appeared under the window and squatted down, the nausea had passed.
The little girl didn’t walk after them anymore. Her legs and arms had melted to drumsticks and she hopped forward. Whenever she saw something interesting, she stopped and sniffled it. Her hair was falling badly, and under the curly locks she was downy like a newborn baby or a chick. Amanda felt sorry for her but didn’t know what to do. When she tried to caress the child, her hand passed through her, and she couldn’t bear the reproachful gaze the girl cast at her.
“What’s the matter? You look upset,” said Vera.
“Do you know that Panna dies this way? If you leave?”
“Aren’t you too old for an imaginary daughter?” asked Vera.
They walked on the Balaton beach among the other people enjoying their holidays. Amanda would have stopped at the corncob-seller, but her girlfriend hurried on. She walked with quick, jerking steps as if something drew her.
“Our imaginary daughter,” emphasized Amanda.
They walked a step away from each other. They never held hands, not even before, because of the strange stares they got, but now Amanda longed for it more than ever. Just to show the world. She had enough of love confined between walls.
Pink skinned people buzzed around them, wearing ice cream colored clothes, holding fashion colored ice creams. Not far away on the lawn, vividly painted wagons stood. The crowd pressed close around them. Poles speared the sky.
“Hey!” Amanda stopped. “Aren’t they…?”
Vera stopped and turned around. Her face was red. She smiled but her smile never reached her eyes.
“The circus came this way, is it okay if I say hello?”
Amanda opened her mouth, closed it, then shouted at Vera.
“Do you believe that if you pretend we don’t have a problem you won’t be a stupid bitch?”
People stopped for a moment around them, then started walking again. None of their business. Vera paled, turned around and ran towards the half-erected circus tent.
Amanda bit her lip and looked around. The child disappeared.
In the end she followed Vera. She knew her; she would calm down, forgive and smile – almost like letting her close – even though she was the most distant in those moments.
The frame of the circus tent was already erect, the dirty, blue-yellow tarp was half-pulled over it like a coat. Fat women in heavy make-up shepherded the children away, worried they would be hit if something fell, like a tilting pole. The tarp was rolled back from the cages; scraggy bears, ostriches and monkeys watched the humans with bored eyes.
Amanda saw neither Vera’s curly blonde hair nor Jusztin’s red head. She was lost among the spectators, but in the end, she was swept towards the cages together with the children. Rancid bear stink wrung her nose, ostriches clacked their beaks. Jusztin’s ghost watched her from the eyes of the gum-chewing monkeys and swam in and out of the animals’ ears.
You don’t deceive me, Amanda thought. I see you. I know you are watching.
The attention upset her. Jusztin’s ghost had no business here, he was with Vera, so why was he watching her?
In front of the rabbit cage, a big, white and fluffy dog stood on his hind legs with his paws on the wire mesh. When Amanda turned, she saw it was the little girl. The child waved her stubby arm then plopped down on the ground. She was melting disturbingly fast.
Soon there will be nothing left, thought Amanda, watching the girl reproachfully. You should try to stay. At least fight a little!
The ghost of the girl sat down in front of the rabbit cage and licked her white hand. She either didn’t hear Amanda or was not interested.
“Tintin says once he tried to magick himself from one end of the ring to the other.”
“The ring is circular, it has no ends.”
“Stop nit-picking.” Vera gazed down at the half-peeled potato in her hand. She didn’t look angry. “So he attempted it and part of him teleported but the rest stayed where it was. He said he doesn’t mind it, because it was his faults that went forward.” She giggled.
Amanda stared at her.
“Is this a joke?”
“Yes. Just imagine, he can make jokes!” Vera raised her voice and looked at Amanda for the first time. “Would you bring the carrots from the car?”
Amanda shrugged and left the house. As she was walking through the garden towards the car, she was followed by the hopping girl on one side and by Jusztin’s ghost on the other. She looked at neither of them, just opened the trunk, grabbed the bag and hurried back. They followed in silence. When she stopped, they stopped, too. They touched her a little as if they needed to feel her.
She took the bag inside, grabbed a knife and started to clean the garlic.
“Do you remember last year, when we were here and your bra snapped on the beach?” asked Vera. She seemed to carry a conversation that didn’t include Amanda; perhaps she started it when her friend went out for the grocery.
“Of course. You covered my tits until I refastened it,” said Amanda gruffly. Her throat was dry. When was the last time Vera touched her breasts?
“Sorry,” said Vera. “It’s just…”
“I cannot do magic.”
“I’m not saying…”
“And I won’t. I don’t think it’s fair.”
A small pause.
“If you ask me, he cannot do magic either. Magicians are just quick, you know? Very quick,” said Vera.
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
They were silent. Strange, Amanda thought, we seem to do the most talk when we are not speaking.
“Why so much garlic?”
“To eat it.”
Vera stared as Amanda popped the first three cloves into her mouth and forced herself to chew them. Vera grimaced.
“You want to sleep in the same bed as me smelling like that?”
“Why would we sleep in the same bed?” asked Amanda. “You won’t eat me out anyway.” She flung the knife on the table and ran out. The garlic stung her tongue but she forced it down.
The ghosts were standing beside a shrub. Jusztin looked almost like himself, although transparent. The girl sat at his feet, white and shapeless. Only her eyes sparkled red and familiar. Amanda walked to them and breathed at them.
Their shapes blurred and hollowed, their pose faltered.
Amanda opened her mouth, breathing in and out. In and out. The smell of garlic enveloped her and the ghosts retreated a step.
She was not sure it was the garlic that made them fade or her will, and she didn’t know whether they would be back or not, but she didn’t really care.
She stood and breathed garlic until the girl and Jusztin disappeared, then went back into the kitchen and flushed Vera with thick garlic stench.
“Silly,” said Vera.
“I am blowing Jusztin out of you.”
“I love you,” said Amanda.
Vera made no answer. After a while she said: “Brush your teeth.” She turned away indifferently, but Amanda heard from her voice that she wouldn’t kiss her even if she did brush her teeth.
They were not the only adults in the circus tent without children – this was Lake Balaton, nothing was considered embarrassing here – but they were the only lesbian couple.
The only ex-lesbian couple, thought Amanda.
“We are ex-bians,” she told Vera.
Her girlfriend laughed politely.
“Tintin says there are no real lesbians. Only women who haven’t met him yet.”
Amanda didn’t laugh.
“Tintin has to have an opinion of everything.”
The auditorium darkened and the purple-coated ringmaster walked forward in a circle of light to announce the program. The children shouted, their parents whispered in their ears to shut up and listen, soon the bears would come.
What am I doing here, Amanda asked herself, but couldn’t find an answer. Even Vera upset her. She looked around to see the little girl among the babbling, beaming children, but couldn’t tell them apart in the semidarkness. She is not here. Amanda hadn’t seen her since afternoon when she breathed garlic on her. Did she banish her together with Jusztin? Did that really work?
She felt slightly sorry.
In the ring, bears circled on unicycles. Their acrid stench mixed with the smell of popcorn and floss candy. The tent was stuffy and noisy; the racket and the lack of air made Amanda’s head throb.
Vera almost slipped from the seat as she leaned forward. Thanks to Jusztin’s tickets they were sitting at the edge of the ring, and every time the bears passed in front of them, driven by the whip of their handler, the stink overwhelmed them. The wheels stirred up dust and one of the bears sneezed. It sounded almost human.
After the bears came the strongman. The children chattered during his performance and demanded more animals. Amanda stared at the slowly flexing, oiled muscles and watched herself intently to see if the sight of the man made her skin tingle. She was not surprised by the lack of reaction and glanced enviously at Vera. If they both had their men, she a strongman, her girlfriend a magician, perhaps they wouldn’t need to part. At night, when the men were sleeping, they could sneak into a shared bed.
The strongman was followed by a pair of nicely trimmed poodles that rolled around on red balls and jumped through hoops. Their handler – a fat, blonde woman – shrieked her commands and bowed after each trick, her breasts straining against her dress. The men whistled.
Then came Jusztin. He wore a black tail-coat and a top-hat. Wrinkles lined his long horse-face as he raised his wand and waved it. White doves flew out of his sleeves then circled and disappeared under the tent, as if the canvas had been as high as the sky. Amanda had a feeling the tentpole was higher than the moon. She didn’t see the far wall.
She watched Jusztin and he watched her. First Amanda thought he was looking at Vera, but the small, deep eyes locked at her. It was a familiar gaze, the ghost had watched her like this before she blew him into oblivion.
The doves were followed by paper flowers and scarves; objects were raining from Jusztin’s ears and mouth. Vera clapped her hands enthusiastically, her palms were already red. Amanda hugged herself and watched Jusztin sternly.
You won’t enchant me. Using magic is not fair.
The magician played just for them. The children cried in awe when suddenly fish appeared in an aquarium and then jumped into the air and disappeared again.
Jusztin bowed and took off his hat. His red hair was ruffled and his ears were sticking out on either side. He glanced up, nodded, then hit his hat with the wand and stepped to the edge of the ring.
The children behind Amanda and Vera stretched toward Jusztin and cried: “Me! Me! I want to!”
Jusztin paid them no heed and presented the hat to Vera. Amanda glanced at her girlfriend: her face was red and her smile was cruel to see. Vera gingerly reached into the hat and pulled out a white rabbit.
The audience roared with delight. Jusztin stepped back with a satisfied smile.
Amanda was staring at the rabbit. She knew it. The red eyes of the bunny locked at her and her ears twitched when Vera lifted it up for others to see. Its downy fur was almost like a real rabbit’s, but Amanda saw that here and there curly, blonde hairs were sticking to it, and that it was smeared with chocolate.
She looked back at Jusztin who received the applause with arms opened wide, then gestured and two assistants pulled a long, wheeled crate to the center. Red stars sparkled on its blue velvet cover and the swords, laid down on top in a star, shone brightly.
Jusztin raised his hand.
“And now, for the next trick, I would like to have a volunteer!’
Vera jumped up, with the rabbit in her hands.
“Me! Me!” cried the children.
Jusztin turned around, looking for someone who fi=t the decorated crate most perfectly. Amanda knew he had already chosen, he just turned around to key up the expectation.
I see through you like an X-ray.
She thought Jusztin would choose Vera, but the long finger pointed at her. From the magician’s eyes, the ghost was looking back at her.
She felt strangely relieved. She calmly rose and stepped onto the ring with ease. Amid the applause she walked to Jusztin.
“I know you are cheating,” she told him, then hopped on the wheeled platform of the crate and handed the swords to Jusztin. The assistants opened the crate. The walls of the circus tent flew away. Amanda didn’t recognize Vera’s face among the white dots. Maybe she wouldn’t have found her even if she had gone back now.
With a calculated movement, she lay down into the crate. She couldn’t do anything else anyway. Jusztin showed the audience the swords.
When the lid closed, Amanda thought that with a little bit of luck she could turn into a rabbit as well. A humanoid bunny, like Vera. Then perhaps she could also forget everything except grass and carrots.
The drums boomed louder, then stopped altogether. This is already the trick, she thought and laced her fingers. She held back her breath and waited in the dark of the crate for something to happen.
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