On that day Albert Zákány, the ranger, took the dirt road from Tiszalúc to Bôcs. He always took the dirt road when the weather was dry. On the paved road he would have to drive almost twenty kilometres, over the fields a mere nine, so from spring to the late autumn rains he preferred the shortcut. Sometimes, however, he had to take the dirt road even through mud and snow. If they warned him that poachers were in the area or possibly people have been spotted stealing timber, then there’s no nonsense, he gets in the Ford Ranger and sets off for the fields.
We’re sitting in that Ford right now, crossing through the middle of Tiszalúc to see the spot where József Kiss was caught in the act trapping gophers. The sun is baking hot, hardly anyone on the street. The concrete walls and iron fences alternate on either side of the street, behind them well-tended gardens stretch to the characterless grey houses. A cyclist turns out of one of the gates. When he sees the ranger he seems to say something.
“Stinking prick.” Albert translates.
“Can you lip-read?”
“I learned. And people always say that when they see me anyway. I’ve caught that guy poaching twice, for instance.”
“Do they just swear at you, or do they threaten you too?”
“They threaten me. Sometimes they attack me. One of the women who gather mushrooms tried to stab me for instance. These people don’t care about anything. The other day I was crossing the neighbouring village by bike, not long after they’d handed out the welfare payments. Everyone was drunk, and I was a little scared to think what would happen if they came at me. I remember counting to myself to see if I would have enough rounds in the two magazines I had.”
József Kiss, however, did not resist when the ranger appeared in the field in March. He just stood, stooping a little, the gophers lying dead on the ground beside him. Basically it was a repeat of a scene that had happened once before. In July of last year Kiss had been caught on the same spot, next to the Sarkad farmstead, trying to catch gophers with snares. He gave the same explanation now that he had made then: he has thirteen kids, he has to feed his family. What kind of a Hungarian are you that you would do such a thing, Zákány had asked, at which Kiss just shrugged and said he wasn’t Hungarian, he was a Gypsy. Then he dictated his personal data, but when Zákány told him to pick up the snares he suddenly turned stubborn. Zákány slapped him with the back of his hand. Kiss fell to the ground, and for a moment hatred flared in his eyes, but just as suddenly it flickered out. “O.K. chief, just don’t hit me”, he said, and he began to gather the snares.
József Kiss lives with his family in an abandoned building. They had lived on the Gypsy row of the village, but the spring flood had knocked down their mud brick hovel, so they had had to leave. Kiss had saved what he could from the rubble, a kitchen range and a television, he had spat on the rest. The devil take it. When we see the house, for a moment we look at it in disbelief, for the walls have been painted purple, like in a picture book. The yard, however, quickly jerks you back to reality. Everything is sitting in mud, not a blade of grass anywhere, trash covers the backyard, where, if there’s no wind, the stench collects. Though it’s really nothing but the stench of neglect and rust, the family tends to nature’s calls some two-hundred metres further down, in the corn patch.
“We have no water, no gas, nothing,” says Anikó Lakatos at the door.
You can see into the bathroom behind her, the tub almost completely covered in household odds and ends. The woman’s been living with József Kiss since she was a teenager. She was five months pregnant when he took her in, though the kid wasn’t even his. A tattoo on Anikó’s forearm is a reminder of her one-time love: another Jóska.
“Where is your husband now?”
“Cleaning a cesspool somewhere. May not come home until lunch.”
“What is for lunch?”
“Fish soup. It’s a good gentleman’s dish. I’ve got paprika and onion to put in it too.”
Anikó Lakatos points at the oil drum beside the entrance. Kiss keeps the fish that he catches from the Hernád river or the neighbouring lake in it. He uses neither hook nor net, goes into the water with nothing more than an iron hoop, then, where there’s a bubble in the mud, he quickly pushes down the hoop, for there must be a fish there too.
“What else do you usually eat?”
“Whatever we have. I’ll boil some chicken bones, sometimes I go to the market in Miskolc and gather up the scraps the stall-keepers have thrown away.”
“You go through the rubbish bins?”
“I told you, I gather up scraps. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, cauliflower. Or I buy some sowbelly and fry it for the lard.”
“How do you cook the gophers?”
“That’s easy. I just singe their fur off, boil them, then skin them. I take out their innards, wash the meat, add some vegetables, cook them, and done. “But you know it is illegal to trap gophers, because they are a protected species?”
“What do you want me to say? Legal, illegal, it’s all the same.”
Anikó Lakatos is standing in the middle of the room, next to the stove, which is sticky with dirt. She is short, has black hair, her front teeth are missing, which makes her face shrivel when she speaks. She is forty-four years old. She has completed six grades of school, five more than József Kiss. Though he went to school too, he did first grade eight times in the maximum security prison in Szeged, just he never passed. When he speaks of this, Anikó Lakatos laughs out loud, then scared, she clasps her hand to her mouth.
“And you are going to write about this all?” she later asks.
“The gopher stew part too?”
It is in fact child’s play to catch a gopher using a snare. You just bend a bit of wire into a circle, put it at the entrance to the gopher hole, and tie a long stick to the end. When the gopher goes into the hole, the wire tightens around its neck, and he struggles in vain to escape into the ground, the stick gets caught at the mouth of the hole and the animal slowly strangles itself.
“It’s an ugly thing,” says István Hevele, the commanding officer. “Nastier than pouring water into the hole, then they just hit the animal once with a shovel and it doesn’t suffer.”
The commanding officer is a young man, wasn’t even alive back when gopher stew was an everyday meal in these parts. In the 60s and 70s poor people often ate gopher. They hadn’t yet ploughed everything up, there was still plenty of open country, for gophers love fields, plains with low-lying grass, where they can rear up on their hind legs and survey the terrain. Then everything changed. Bigger and bigger tracts of land were cultivated, and on top of that the white-tailed eagle became a protected species, so the gopher, on which it feeds, was made a protected species too.
Heleve opens a file: “Proceedings are underway against József Kiss for fifty counts of cruelty to animals and two counts of damaging the environment.” This is the legal way of referring to what we would usually just think of as gopher trapping. “Then there are eighty-two counts of attempting to damage the environment, since they found that many snares on him.” “Do you have many such cases?”
“So far this is the only one. People usually steal wood or iron, or they glean corn that the combine leaves behind. But that’s stealing too.”
The telephone rings, Hevele answers. He speaks quietly into the receiver, yes, no, it’s not possible now, we hear. The district is not that large, but the commanding officer has plenty of work. And winter is here, they’re starting to steal wood. “What will become of Kiss?” we ask, when he hangs up.
“As I said, proceedings are underway. The fine for one gopher is ten thousand forint, and they found nine gophers on him, and one of them was pregnant, so with the babies it would come to more than the limit of one hundred thousand forint.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That his actions constitute a criminal offense. In other words Kiss could even end up in prison.”
Hevele falls silent for a moment. He pokes at the edge of the table, then lifts the filer.
“That’s what these people are like,” he says.
In his fifty-two years of life József Kiss has done time for homicide, theft, assault and battery, but not once for gopher trapping. In the Szeged prison he was nicknamed the Wild Man, and in Sándorház they called him Carrion because once on the hog farm he had pulled the carcass of a dead pig out of the sty. When we meet with him in the afternoon at 3:00, he has just come home from work. He has taken off his rubber boots, now he is wearing a dirty white pair of women’s slippers the heels of which dangle loose.
“Do you really have thirteen children?”
“And two grandchildren.”
“And do you know all their names?”
“Of course. There’s Renáta, little Anikó, little Zsanett. Then there’s little József, Natasa, Paula, and Petra.”
“And Klaudia,” Anikó Lakatos helps. “Did you mention Márton?”
“Then Márton. And Julika.”
“And little Ágnes,” said Kiss. “How many is that?”
“Then I’ll think about it a little.”
József Kiss himself had fifteen siblings. The family had lived in Miskolc, supporting themselves with basket weaving and house cleaning. Then they had moved to Hernádnémeti. Kiss was only barely seventeen when he was found guilty of homicide.
“Two families got into a fight outside the inn,” he recounts. “But I wasn’t the one who stabbed him, I just took the blame.”
He had ended up in prison along with his father and his older brother. In prison he had welded, worked at the press brake, even been a cook. He had cooked peppery squash stew for several hundred inmates. After five months they had caught him selling meat for cigarettes, so they had put him back at the machines. When he was freed he worked as a trash man, in a cement brick works, and in a plant that made screws. Sometimes he wound up in prison again, was released, then sentenced to do time again for something, and he viewed this continuous back and forth as an unpleasant but almost natural part of his life.
“What do I have to lose?” he asks. “They cannot do me any harm.”
He has spent a total of twenty-two years behind bars, and when he mentions this we resent him a little bit for it. As if he had ruined our game. We had wanted to meet a man in despair, who in his utter despair traps gophers for his family. We wanted drama, the grotty faces of children who cry as they ask for food. Instead we find this man, who has spent almost half of his life in prison. But surely someone who has done time may despair?
“We are poor,” Kiss says, apropos of nothing, as if this were an explanation for anything.
Then he lifts his hand, gestures towards the cupboard in which there are a few kilogrammes of flour and a pan with the lard which will be turned into candles, too far gone to be eaten. He opens the working refrigerator and the stench of fish soup hits your nose. The man turns around in the only room that’s heated, shuffles, tells us to look at this, and look at that. Can you live like this, he asks, four of us sleep in this bed, he says, but Anikó Lakatos protests, what rot, only you and I sleep in that bed, and sometimes one of the kids.
“Alright, alright,” he says, and keeps speaking. We watch this gesticulating man, the absurd slippers on his feet, the electrical wiring sticking out from the ceiling, the windows that won’t close properly, and slowly we realize that perhaps he is right: poverty explains a great deal. Perhaps not everything, but certainly a few gophers.
Of course in these parts things more dramatic than gopher trapping take place. Two years ago they used dogs to chase a deer into a gully, where they then beat it to death with sticks, skinned it, and ate it. In the area around Miskolc they regularly strip the weekend gardens. Sometimes they cut down a cherry tree because they are too lazy to climb it to get the cherries. Today in the area around Harang, which is known for its wines, almost no one cultivates grapevines, because what’s the point, they’ll just steal them. No need to speak of this to Zsolt Orosz, the mayor of Hernádnémeti, he knows plenty such stories.
“Just go towards the Hernád river,” he says. “There is an area called Szilvás, or ‘Plummy,’ because it used to be full of plum trees. Now you won’t find a single one.”
He has been the head of the village for twelve years now. He qualified as a geography and physical education teacher, then took correspondence courses and completed studies in law. He speaks slowly, his head slightly tilted to the side.
“I have no idea what to do. We hand out welfare payments, we have a public works programme, but it’s not enough.”
“You need permanent employment.”
Orosz looks up, as if we were joking.
“Things are very bad,” he says. “We have come to a point where people don’t even bother mentioning when something disappears from the village. In the summer after the floods the suggestion was made that the local government build housing to be rented by those in need. The representatives rejected the proposal, arguing that it would not turn out well: first they wouldn’t pay rent, then they would dismantle everything that could be moved, in other words they would ruin the property. I could not even say they were wrong.”
We are sitting in his office. The mayor speaks reluctantly, it’s apparent that he is not overjoyed that we are there. You want to write about something bad again, he sighed a few days ago on the telephone, and we felt a little sorry for him. And really, does anything good ever happen in these parts? Hardly. On one occasion they chase a deer into a gully, on another someone lies down under a train in despair, usury is rampant, they steal wood, fruit and vegetables, and the fact that József Kiss has caught a gopher barely even registers.
Zsolt Orosz leans forward in his chair.
“Sometimes I think these people no longer care. They have crossed every limit.”
“What do you mean?” “It’s hard to explain. Society has written them off, and they have written off society. They feel that they don’t belong anywhere and they cannot be made to answer for anything.”
“So what will happen now?”
“I don’t know.”
We ask József Kiss to tell us of the happiest day in his life.
“It was winter, everything was covered in snow,” he begins. “I remember the date, December 13th, 1985. I was released that day, along with my father. They let us out of prison in the early morning. It was still dark, but across the way the stallkeepers were already bustling around the market. My father had a short drink, I had coffee. Then we travelled to Hajdúhadház, because I had a woman there. I had started writing letters to her in prison. So we went to see her, her mother was there too. My father cooked sztrapacska for them, potato and flour dumplings with cheese and bacon. The women had never had it, they couldn’t get over how delicious it was. We ate and drank and had a good time. I was happy to finally be out, to have gotten out of those four walls. That was the most beautiful day of my life.”
We leave the house through the kitchen. There is a pan of fat on the table and a knife, but no chairs anywhere. Nothing to sit on. It only occurs to us now that we did not see any chairs in the house at all. At the door we shake hands with József Kiss. He looks away, we follow his glance, then we see something above his shoulder. Our task is not difficult, the place is almost disturbingly bare. There are no pictures, no newspaper clippings on the wall, not even a calendar anywhere, just this one thing.