A beggar receives an unexpected donation: a mysterious donor fills his hat to the brim with “round and delicate pearls” of caviar eggs. Ilka Papp-Zakor’s story works first on our senses, allowing us to sense the texture of the luxurious delicacy, to hear the steps of the beggar returning to his corner, but only to transport us to her strange and original world. With an impressive elegance, the realistic image slides into a surrealistic story, and the juvenile sense floating, evoking the experience of reading a folk tale or children story, transforms into a scene of unbridled violence – leaving the reader surprised, even confused, but with a satisfied smile.
I’ve found so many things in my hat by now, I couldn’t even list them all. Sandwiches, rotten food, rocks, trash, dog shit more than once. I end up with more junk than bills. But of course, what I get the most of is change, denominations so small and worthless that even the coffee machine won’t accept them. I don’t look over at the people who pass by me, but I figure they know I’m not blind. That’s the expectation. I kneel on the sidewalk with my eyes closed. A pair of dark sunglasses would look better, but how can I afford dark sunglasses when I’m just trying to feed myself? Sometimes I feel like hunger ate itself into my stomach for a lifetime, even though I work for myself so I keep all the money I make, but my spot is the worst. No one comes this way except laborers and hobos. My growling stomach wakes me in the morning, and my growling stomach rocks me to sleep at night.
Every once in a while, I’ll squint, open my eyes a crack, and catch a glimpse of the blurry hand that moves toward my hat, sometimes the light bounces off the coin, sometimes I only hear the jingle, sometimes there’s a hollow thud, and then I lean in close, sniff to see if the deposit stinks. If it doesn’t stink, it might be edible.
The sound I like the least is the one I’m hearing now, a suspicious mashing sound, barely audible as it hits the change in the hat, I sniff angrily, some moron spoiled my fortune. The smell of fish lingers over the hat, not rotten, but fresh, mixed with something else I can’t quite place. I reach into the hat with my left hand, it’s not the nasty mush I expected, but something more pulpy, slippery, I stroke it with my fingers, round little pearls brush against my palm. I pull out my hand and sniff it. Again, I smell fish and that strange scent. I blink at the hat, filled to the brim with pink, glowing orbs. A few of them have stuck to my fingers, I lick them off now. The taste is pleasant, a little salty, a little fishy, a little greasy. The pearls glide around on my tongue, when I bite them apart, they pop quietly, their juice sliding down my gums. I don’t need to be told what caviar is. I’ve heard about it plenty. I lift my hat a few times, this must weigh half a kilo, I might’ve just become infinitely rich. I reach into it again, my eyes closed, just to be safe. I pour a handful of caviar into my mouth carefully, like I’m drinking water. I chew slowly, and the taste dissolves in my saliva. I swallow the caviar while kneeling on the dusty sidewalk, well, I made something of myself after all, who would’ve thought I’d become such a big shot!
I carry the hat with the brim folded together so the caviar won’t spill, and so that people won’t see it. I can make it home with my eyes closed, I know the way, I have a white stick, too, that scares away the people walking toward me. I’ve grown used to opening my eyes only when I’m alone. When I started panhandling, this was the hardest part, these days, it’s a welcome rest, my eyelids don’t snap open all the time like when I was starting out.
At home, in my little shack, there’s barely any light, although the roof is a see-through plastic wrap, it’s dusty, the caviar’s pink doesn’t want to shine here, like it’s dusty, too. I spit on the little pearls, spread the saliva over them with my finger so they shimmer again. At first, I eat them one at a time, trying to make them last until morning, but then I speed up without meaning to, since they could go bad by then, it’s not that cold at night anymore. By the end of it, I’m shoveling them into my mouth with my hands, but when I get to the bottom of the hat, I need to be careful not to squish the delicate eggs. Before I take the last few bites, I grab the hat, walk out into the yard, and bathe my dinner in the moonlight. The soft, warm meal fills my stomach, like someone’s stuffed me with elegant, expensive velvet. When I pour the remaining caviar into my mouth, the coins at the bottom of the hat clink against my teeth. I should buy some bread, I don’t want to get sick. Later, though, I don’t feel sick at all, I sleep sweetly, like fish in wet sand.
I’m back at it the next day, the sun beats down on my head, and I close my eyes, take pity on a poor blind man, I say whenever I hear footsteps. If coins jingle, I have to say, God bless you. For a long time, my good taste wouldn’t allow it, I settled for a thank you, but that’s not what they expect from me, there’s not enough humility in a thank you, and I can’t afford to lose my regulars. Then I hear yesterday’s rustling again, the hat gets filled with a dollop, and I don’t even have to sniff it, it’s a sweltering day, so I can smell the fishy scent immediately. Of course, I’m still cautious, who knows, maybe it’s all a big joke, one day caviar, the next, poop. People are like that, they’re rude, they ooze bad taste. The pearly little eggs push their way to my palm, I pet them, because they’re my friends, we’ve been acquainted. At night, I’m full again from drinking the refreshing juice that spills out of the eggs.
After that, the caviar-man doesn’t come for a few days, even though I secretly wait for him, but then, for long weeks, he visits me every day, I recognize his footsteps. Of course, I don’t dare open my eyes when he makes his contribution, only as he walks away, then I squint at him with narrow eyes. The shiny, black, fake leather shoes he wears are just what I expected, though I can’t be a hundred percent sure he’s the one. He’s not the only person who passes me at that moment, and yet after this I always picture him in water-reflecting shoes, the kind that even I could buy for myself if I saved all the caviar. Sometimes I promise myself I’ll save it, only fish out the change, and sell the eggs, but I never do, because I always end up convincing myself that no one would buy caviar from a beggar’s dirty hat. Change makes it into the hat less often now, maybe because the hat is even dirtier than it used to be, or maybe because I’ve grown a bit of a belly, which I try to suck in while I’m working, but it could also be because I’ve gone back to saying thank you. I don’t get angry over the little change, in the past few days, I’ve become someone new, the caviar’s made me a better person. When I was always hungry, the spite in my empty stomach was so dense, there was a serving of stabbing malice in me, no matter what I thought of. Since I’ve started going to bed full, though, there’s no room for that spite in me, at first, it was stuck between my esophagus and stomach, but now it’s disappeared. Fullness and the love that stems from a full stomach have replaced it. Sometimes, I get the urge to kiss the generous hand that reaches into my hat.
It bothers me quite a bit, though, that lately, I haven’t been able to sleep. The night is drenched in the relaxing silence of the river-bottom. I can make out the sky between the layers of plastic wrap that reach to the ground. The waxing and waning moon is like the elastic mouth of a fish, gaping at the clouds. Even the stars don’t remind me of fat nits that stick to your skin anymore, but fish eggs, shining faintly. My insomnia is not a fight against sleep, but a cold and fragrant white fish-meat that I turn and nestle into. My stomach, bloated from my dinner like a fish’s bladder, distends and keeps me afloat while I swim through the night. Even the steps of the cats that circle around my shack, attracted by the smell of fish, remind me of a whirlpool. Their streamlined flanks stroke the darkness. Only their muffled thumps break the quiet, when they step onto the plastic roof, and their hoarse tomcat yowls as they angrily guard from one another the who-knows-what, because I didn’t leave them a single egg.
I can hear my contributor’s heavy, manly footsteps again today. Puddles rise on the concrete in his wake, with mysterious whorls on their surface, like that spiral of hair on the crown of your head. Leaves drift around on them. I’ve never been so thirsty in my life. I feel my lips get chapped, my nostrils tremble, and I’m already holding out the hat, pour your contribution here, I’m ready to slurp out their refreshing juice, but the sound of the fish-eggs falling into the hat never comes.
The caviar-man stops to my right, while someone, probably his friend, stops to my left, they lift me by my armpits, and tell me, bluntly, come on, you bum, pick up your feet. I don’t open my eyes, so I’m tripping over myself, but they hold me, they’re strong guys. Fear expands within me, and so does confusion, but somewhere, deep down, at the surface of my stomach, where my spite has been quelled over the past weeks, I suspect that this is how my story ends, too. Just don’t fall, I tell myself, because I can’t take that kind of humiliation, or I suppose I can, to be exact, but I don’t want to try, so I grope the sidewalk with the toe of my shoe.
We make a sudden right turn and step into an apartment, where the coolness of the old room with thick walls flicks me in the face. Open your eyes, one of them says and kicks me in the stomach, making me stagger. My eyes open with surprise, and I look around, if the jig is up anyway. The room we’re standing in has no furniture, the mold has peeled the plaster off the walls. The two guys who brought me here wear dark sunglasses, but it’s clear that they can see well, one of them aims now, and kicks me in the left nut, so they’re not blind either, I think, as my legs give out under me. But how could they be anyway, if they dragged me this far? I lay my face onto the shiny black shoes, which are pleasantly cold, as is the puddle below it. I lick it, and my body trembles into a kind of happiness.
Then they lift me up, one of them holds me while the other hits me, then they switch, and I take their hits. Later, one of them bites my ear off. I howl from the pain and the shock—how can someone be so despicable as to bite someone’s ear off?—but the other, who’s clearly more civilized, says, why are you making a scene, shut your mouth, shit-bag.
Their fists sail through the air. One of them holds me up, and the other kicks my legs out from under me, then they switch, and sometimes, neither of them hold me, letting me fall, I’m an easier target on the ground. If I close my eyes, they tell me to open them and watch. Die, you worthless piece of shit, die, you con artist! they yell. Then they poke me with a cane, aiming at my chest, as if I weren’t already half-dead. We’ve been watching you a long time, shit-bag, don’t act like you’re so innocent! Sadistic animals, I whisper to the dusty floor. Then I close my eyes and stop moving.
He’s dead, one of them says. Can you believe how tough he was? says the other. These guys always are, says the first one again. Then I’m riding in the trunk of a car, straight to the shore that’s dense with willow trees, where the river has dug itself a lazy pool. There, the guys, like dropping a rock into a pocket, sink me into this pool.
I open my eyes in surprise and can suddenly see from below how the willow trees claw the surface of the water, like they want to sink to the bottom, too. The fish that were sleeping in the sand jerk, startled, who knows what they were dreaming about, I think, but by then they’re already awake, snapping their heads in panic, gazing at the green shadows above them, confused, they’re quivering, they’ve pissed themselves in fear, but I can’t be sure, since we’re in water, though this would explain the embarrassed look in their eyes. I sink into the wet sand, like into an old mattress, while the fish float up above me, still afraid, they circle around me, then swim back, stretch out on the river bed, and stare at me with their big fish eyes. Finally, one of them carefully starts to peck at me, pulling out the threads from my sweater, then it takes a handful of the wool into its mouth, twirls it around curiously with its tongue, and spins it into a ball, it doesn’t bite it off, just chews it mindfully, like a child sucking her thumb before falling asleep. Slowly, the other fish become aware of my sweater, nibble it softly, picking out a few little pieces of it, stuffing it into their mouths, and their fear disappears, turns into sleepiness. I remember that I’m supposed to be blind, I close my eyes, and when I do, I can feel the fish brush up against me, we snuggle close to one another, and the black water calm tucks us in.