The Age of Discovery

The Oceans

We found the wash-tub along the Rákos stream. It was during a botany field trip organized by Mrs. Bátki, our teacher. We visited her apple orchard on the outskirts of Budapest. She said first we should pick the apples from her trees then for an hour we could do whatever we wanted to and after that, we’d rush back to school so our parents wouldn’t worry. Her apple orchard wasn’t far from the tram terminal and we finished picking apples very quickly as it was poor harvest. During our free time we went roaming along the stream and suddenly – wow! – a wash-tub. It was made of wood, its inside covered with sheet-iron.

“Just like a ship.” Szász said.
“There’s a hole in the bottom.” I said, after inspecting it.
“It could be stopped up” he answered with an expert expression on his face.
We stuffed some cloth into the hole and now the tub really looked like a ship.
“What about going?” he said.
“The Oceans.”
(It was as if he said ‘to the tram-terminal’.)
“Why not?”
“But I’m Captain.”

Well that’s what I always hated about him. I protested but he was firm. In the end he agreed I could be the helmsman as a ship needs one of those, too. I accepted but then I realized there was nothing to steer.

“And now? Where?” I asked at last because even if we didn’t have a helm, the helmsman is supposed to know the direction to go.

“First we go down the Rákos stream, that takes us to the Danube that runs in the sea and then to the Oceans.”
It sounded fairly logical, but still I had some doubts.
“Is it going to be good?” I hesitated. “I mean the Oceans.”
“Sure” he encouraged me.
He was talking about banana-trees, waves as high as mountains with spray on the top, graceful, snow-white schooners in the harbors (I asked what a schooner was, he said a kind of a ship, I asked if it was like ours, he said yes) and he was talking about friendly natives with flower-garlands around their necks (I asked how he knows, he said from the TV and I believed him as we didn’t have a TV).

I liked the banana-trees the most. I hadn’t eaten bananas yet but my father had talked about it.
“Let’s go” I urged him.” Right now.”
We launched our vessel; we sat in front of each other and began the voyage. The hole with the cloth stuffed in it was right under my bottom. As soon as we left, the ship turned around. I put my hands in the water and tried to navigate it with rowing gestures. Szász was commanding: one-two, one-two. I protested: I am the helmsman and not a rower. He told me to shut up; it was his duty to suppress rebellion as the captain has power over death and life on a ship, in case I didn’t know. But he helped me.

We moved along quite well; we were carried by the dirty water along the concrete embankments.
Suddenly I felt the cloth leak and water seeping into the ship. I reported it to Szász immediately and suggested we look for a harbor. He said: “No way. We can’t afford to lose time on our way to the Oceans.” He told me to scoop out the water with the palms of my hands and he’d take over the steering.

First I scooped with one hand then with both but in vain. More and more water leaked into the ship. Szász commanded me to sit on the hole to stop the leaking, but whatever I did the water got higher and higher until we were sitting in water. Soon our ship got out of control. It drifted into the middle of the stream and sank slowly. We gave up scooping. We realized our voyage had come to an end. Only an inch or two of the wash-tub was still above the water-line when our captain ordered us to abandon ship. I began preparing but he didn’t move. He said the captain must be the last to leave a sinking ship. I sat back and told him I would stand by him til the bitter end. He thanked me and we sank together, face to face.

The water was up to our necks when the wash-tub hit bottom, but we didn’t move. I could only see Szász’s head sticking out of the stagnant water and he saw only mine as we sat in the concrete bed of the stream with the wash-tub under us. I don’t know how long we could have stayed like that but then some disgusting carcass drifted by and we began flapping our hands and climbed ashore. Where once stood our proud ship, now only the nauseating and loathsome carcass was floating and slowly decaying.

We were covered with mud, stinking water dripping from our hair when we turned back and walked along the Rákos stream through a cabbage-field.

“What’s the matter?” he asked with tears in his eyes.
“The banana-trees…” I cried.
“That’s on TV only.” He wiped dirt,tears and snot from his face.
“The Oceans” I sobbed shivering “the banana-trees!”
We were clomping through the cabbage field.
We got back in time for line-up.

Published 15 February 2000
Original in Hungarian
Translated by Stephan Humphreys
First published by Magyar Lettre Internationale (Hungarian version) / Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Pál Békés / Stephan Humphreys / Magyar Lettre Internationale / Eurozine


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