From Angel Dinner
Translated from Hungarian by Timea Balogh
At the end of November, the angels appear in the forest. They arrive with the first frost. They hide from us, to some extent, though their flickering lights make it easy to discover them. They build nests out of icy, decaying leaves and broken-off twigs. Then they lay eggs. They eat the frost, and at night they venture out to the border of the village to sing Christmas carols to the drunk mailman and the coupling dogs in the corners of the fences.
Years ago, the teacher caught one. He kept it in a birdcage for a couple days, but he didn’t know what to feed it, so it died before Christmas. He asked it what they’re doing here, why they envelop our forest every fall, and it sounded like the angel had said they bring us joy, and lights, but it could’ve been that the teacher didn’t hear it right, because the angel had trouble talking with a dry mouth. He didn’t know what to give it to drink.
But what’s certain is that they were the ones who stole the bell off the neighbor’s bicycle.
It’s best to hunt angels at dusk, because they sparkle, so it’s easiest to spot them in the dark, and because by then the males are sleeping in their nests, too. And it’s best to hunt them with your finest buckshot, like for a rabbit. An older, well-built specimen can grow as big as a typical hare. But there are few older ones where we live. In the winter, we shoot just about all of them; the teacher said we have to do this systematically, like with the dodos, and use it to our advantage that they’re not afraid of us, and that they don’t even fly much better than hens. I don’t know what dodos are, but I know that the teacher is always right. The problem with angels, though, is that it doesn’t matter if you shoot them every year, because they always reappear from somewhere the next. It’s true, there are fewer and fewer of them. The teacher says we can count on them showing up for another ten years or so.
Angel meat is delicious, kind of sweet. Though it doesn’t save well. But on ice it can last until Christmas. And the skin, if any remains intact, is also great, long-lasting, you just need to wash the twinkling dust off it, the kind that moths have on their wings. Once cleaned, it’s like pig skin. You can sew shoes out of it. And work gloves.
In the evenings, if we’ve finished our daily tasks, we gather together, us men from the village, sometimes bringing along the inquisitive youngsters, too, to show them what men’s work is. We carefully surround the nests. Who knows how dangerous a group of sleeping angels may be. And then we all shoot at them at the same time on command. After a few campaigns like this, we don’t need to do much more to get rid of them for the year. When we have enough meat, we strap the last few to dynamite. For fireworks. Then the wives sit outside their houses, wringing their hands, complaining, as they watch the zig-zagging, sparking little angels above the forest. This is how we know that the celebrations have begun.
I shot the most this year. It came in handy, too, because we didn’t butcher any hogs. In the evenings, on my way home, the little angels that hung from my belt loops bounced off my heels. My wife spent all night scrubbing the sparkling dust off my pants. I skinned most of them. We had little backpacks, little boots for the kids from them. And a belt for me. That serves the kids, too, if you look at it that way. We sewed some of the skins together, like they do with cats in the city. My wife had been complaining anyway that she didn’t have a good winter coat. Then we made lots of bacon. And sausage. And delicious chitterlings from the plump angel kids. We stuffed our pillows with their hair. They buzzed under our heads, and they had a strange smell, like the priest on Sunday, but even so, it felt good to sleep on them. I whittled the little angel bones one afternoon, made toy soldiers out of them, a quill holder, small white bells out of the skulls for the Christmas tree. We froze the most beautiful one just the way it was. That’s the one that’ll go on the holiday table on a nice aluminum dish, filled with honey cakes, a roasted apple in its mouth. Until then we’d eaten stew, fried meat, patés, and meatloaf, too. The neighbors envied us. They knew that I had it easy, because the forest starts at the end of our yard. If they came to sing at night, the angels had to sneak past our windows. I shot them from my bed. They flew up at the cracking sound, they beat their stunted wing stumps, silvery clouds of feathers danced around them. But they couldn’t stay in the air long. They flew back down, surrounded those that laid in the snow, whispering in surprise, but they never fled. As if they couldn’t believe their eyes. That’s when it was worthwhile to shoot at them again. That’s if the neighbors didn’t wake up to the racket, because the others wouldn’t let me hunt alone since it gave me an unfair advantage. But luckily angel’s blood doesn’t stain the snow. It has the color of a snail trail. It leaves a mark on metal and wood, but on snow, it’s not noticeable at all. I reeled the spoils in on a fishing rod. I didn’t even have to get up.
And then on Christmas we had a wishing-table like never before. And a pine tree, too. With honey cakes and little bells on it. And candles. And by candlelight, twinkling angel hair. The room smelled like a church.
There was soup and fish and dessert. And there was angel sausage, angel soup, angel rinds. And, of course, a grilled angel. The honey-cake one. Angel meat is like fish soup, you can eat it on Christmas, too. But it’s much heavier. Because it’s greasy. And redolent. We could barely get up from the table. The world was already swirling before my eyes when I finished sucking on the last bone. The children held me up on either side, even though they were lugging themselves along, too. It was hard for us to make it to Midnight Mass. I could barely even stand. I leaned against a column, and centered myself with deep breaths. I didn’t think I was going to make it. That I was going to explode all of a sudden. All my insides were shaking, especially while my chest rattled. The little angels wanted to come out, fly around a bit. I figured that they were drawn to the light, too, like night moths, and that they’d soon escape and fly into the candles on the altar. I tried to turn away, but the church was full of candles. When I couldn’t handle it anymore, I washed my face in the holy water. That’s what saved me from having a stroke, I think. By the end of Mass, I felt respectable again, just unbearably thirsty. At home, we took out the house wine and the cumin pálinka, and we started drinking to the holiday. But maybe I shouldn’t have mixed the wine with the pálinka, because my stomach started churning again. What choice did I have, though, but to drink them as they came? Then, when I felt I couldn’t hold it any longer, I went to the end of the yard. At first I just rubbed my face and the nape of my neck with snow, maybe the cold would do some good, because I remembered that the same thing had worked at church, too. But it didn’t do any good this time, because the angel blood was still on the snow, I could smell its redolence, and that reminded me of dinner, and the angels started squirming in me again. So finally, I hunched over, grabbing the fence with half a hand, my other hand pressing against my stomach, trying to pump out all the goodies that were in me, the wine, the pálinka, the soup, the sweets, and all the many, many angels, their delicious meat. From all the puking, tears started trickling from my eyes, which I closed so I wouldn’t have to see the horror of waste on the snow. And then suddenly some warm, moist thing touched my face, and the all-encompassing, suffocating redolence was overtaken by a soft, animal exhalation, and my angry insides instantly became much calmer, though they waved and swelled a while longer. I barfed a little more with my eyes closed, if I was on a roll anyway, meanwhile, more and more things touched my face, like they were petting me, so initially I even thought that my angels had resurrected, and now they’re beating their wings around me, running into me as they take flight. But then my nausea passed, and I could finally open my eyes. Then I saw that deer were surrounding me from all directions, a whole big group, at least a hundred animals, ranging from small to large, and one after another, more and more hoofed animals were coming from the forest to join the rest, the luckier ones were licking the freshly squeezed tears off my face, while the others patiently waited their turn. Because these animals terribly love salt, they gathered here for it, and I subserviently held my face out for them, blinking often, and I tried to think of heart-wrenching, depressing, and hopelessly sad things, so I could keep crying, and so they could finally, for once, have a nice Christmas, too.