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Alta Ifland

A Summer with Aunt Susanna

       It was in the late eighties.  The Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen yet, but Hungary had started to move closer to the West and to adopt a free market economy since the early seventies, so the regime allowed a relative political freedom, and life as a whole was less gray than in the neighboring countries.  It was the first time that we, Alma and I, went abroad together, and the first time we went to visit our father’s relatives.  We’d been talking about taking this trip since we were kids, but the more we talked about it the more it turned into an intangible, faraway project, until the summer Alma confided in me that her marriage was on the rocks, and I said jokingly that she should see a psychic, and she answered, yes, Aunt Susana, because—and you certainly don’t know this—Aunt Susana is clairvoyant.  She even has an office—if a table in her partner’s bistro can count as an office.  This is how a joke took us to Budapest one summer day in the late eighties.
       At first sight the bistro looked more like a pub, with its stairs descending into a cave-like, small stonewalled room.  The whitewashed, slanted ceiling was crossed by a heavy beam from which hung pots of red carnations, and the few tables were all of lacquered wood with high stools. The menu and the drinks list were written in chalk on blackboards, and a red-cheeked, plump fellow in his early forties presided over the place behind a counter with a green sign labeled “Gösser.”  Aunt Susana greeted him and introduced us with a long preamble, a preamble we didn’t understand, it being in Hungarian, but we did understand that it was about us, her American nieces, her brother’s daughters who didn’t speak Hungarian and were visiting Budapest for the first time.  The man let out an interjection of surprise as if he’d met some long-lost relatives, as did other people we would later meet during our trip, which at the time I interpreted as a sign of enthusiasm for the distant land we came from, when in fact it was merely a token of appreciation for our aunt.  She was in her mid-fifties and, like most people in that part of the world she showed it, slightly plump, but not too much, with a posture verging on a caricature of femaleness, her round, overly outlined behind pushed back to the point of threatening her balance if it hadn’t been for her equally well defined breasts.  Unlike her brother, she was blond, the two of them thus creating a parallel couple to Alma and me.  Her skin was tanned with wrinkles around the nose and the eyes, and she didn’t wear makeup, save for the very pink lipstick applied to her thread-thin lips in the clumsy way a teenager might have done it.  She always wore blouses with deep-cut cleavages and crocheted skirts that accentuated her behind—this on top of her already very conspicuous figure—and she swung her hips in a way I’ve only seen done by African or chocolate-skinned women from remote islands.  So, when she walked, all the male heads around us turned to follow her, a large smile on their senile faces (older men seemed to prefer Aunt Susana).  She appeared to get a lot of pleasure out of this street show she performed each time she walked out of the door, and in fact, during the year she visited us, there was a man…  Well, but I’m getting carried away, let’s get back to the restaurant in Budapest.
       We seated ourselves at one of the tables and a minute later came Gyuri, Aunt Susana’s male companion, a man with the potbelly of a very pregnant woman resting on top of two skinny legs and two feet shod in plastic slippers.  His entire being, starting with his drooping face, seemed to be pulled toward the ground by a gravitational force that acted stronger for him than for the rest of us.  He hugged us, trying not to spill on us the ash of his lit cigarette, and then ordered palinka all around.  Aunt Susana also lit a cigarette.  When Alma and I declined to help ourselves to her pack of Marlboros, she smiled ironically, and turned toward her companion to make a comment about Americans and cigarettes, which we didn’t understand.  Gyuri left soon afterward, and Aunt Susana switched to English, which she spoke almost fluently, albeit with a very strong accent, those Hungarian o’s pronounced the way one says chalk.  She’d learned English when she lived in the States, yes, Aunt Susana came to visit us when we were little, and at Father’s insistence, she stayed for a whole year but hated it, and eventually went back.  From that period, Alma and I have gathered an impressive collection of hilarious memories we helped ourselves to whenever we were at a party and the conversation was slow, for “the adventures of Aunt Susana in America” were always sure to provide entertainment to a crowd of ironic hipsters.  Of course, Aunt Susana had her own version of that visit, and now for the first time we were provided with it, as she didn’t waste time and launched immediately into her own memories of that year, some seventeen years earlier, the last time she’d seen us we were still wearing diapers, she said, though it was probably true only of me not of Alma, both of us cute as a button, you more than Alma, she added with that lack of political correctness people have there, but she smarter than you. 
       And so, she began reminiscing about her year in America, a place, she soon realized, she had no need for, no thank you.  And she punctuated her remark with exactly the same gesture of twenty years ago, a gesture that fascinated us so: by raising her cigarette very slowly, her hand in that pose of relaxed boredom and her head tilted to one side, a pose one sees in photos of Marlene Dietrich, then, as she put the cigarette in her puckered mouth, by drawing on it as deeply as she could with ecstatically closed eyes, and finally, after keeping the smoke in for what seemed like an eternity, by letting it out in incredibly small rings for which Alma and I used to fight, placing our fingers inside as within a tiny Frisbee disc.
       And now, here we were again, watching her almost as avidly, and wondering—at least, I was—where that calmness inside her came from.  When we were kids we liked to invent little torments for her because we got a kick out of her hilarious reactions—those Iesus Mária’s of hers spoken with childish indignation: childish because she never was angry with us, but rather…perplexed at our unlimited inventiveness.  Now, she reminded us of our past mischief as if she were still trying to recover from it, with one hand over her heart, like the Jewish lady on Saturday Night Live.  No, we didn’t do anything too bad, just kid stuff, like telling her that the salt shaker was filled with sugar, or that Americans like to put a dark red paste called ketchup on their desserts, and encouraging her to do the same.  For months after she left, Alma and I kept repeating Iesus Mária with our hands united in prayer and our eyes rolled up in despair, and then crossed ourselves quickly, as she did—and this silly theater amused us more than any TV show, sending waves of uncontrollable laughter through our tiny bodies.
       Of course she asked us about Feri.  At the time, Feri was a forty-something-year-old unglamorous fellow—truly an old man—who had come to the States a decade earlier, and having unsuccessfully searched for a Hungarian woman, had ended up marrying “an American American,” as he used to say.  Aunt Susana met Feri when he came by one day to fix our kitchen garbage disposal and, charmed by his “perfect Hungarian,” which she contrasted with her brother’s unpatriotic accent and mannerisms, by his twisted mustache and hairy back showing generously when he crouched down under the sink, she forgave him for having married not only another woman, but a non-Hungarian at that, and embarked on a passionate affair that spanned the duration of her entire visit.  Aunt Susana and Feri spoke on the phone for interminable hours—about what we couldn’t tell because it was in Hungarian, though every now and then she tried to pronounce some English words we didn’t understand either, which she whispered, making funny faces and blushing, into the ear at the other end.  Whenever she attempted to speak English, Aunt Susana seemed to be holding a hard-boiled egg inside her mouth, and imitating her speech sent us into interminable fits of laughter.  Although at that age we didn’t hold the affair against her, we didn’t appreciate her confiscating our phone line for hours at a stretch, and Alma, who was older and smarter, found a way to disconnect the phone while she was in the middle of some lovey-dovey confession.  Every time this happened, Aunt Susana was as surprised as the last, shaking her head when Alma informed her that American phone connections were very bad.  “And they claim that they are better than us,” she muttered under her breath with all the spite she was capable of, enjoying once again the knowledge that American technology was, in the end, no better than its Hungarian counterpart.
       “So, how is my dear Feri?” Aunt Susana asked, enveloped in a halo of smoke so thick she appeared like a genie who’d just emerged from a bottle.
       “Well, Feri isn’t getting any younger, but guess what?  He got divorced two years ago.”
       “I knew it!”
       “You knew it?”
       “The cards!” Aunt Susana declared enigmatically, pointing at the pack resting on the table.  “It’s all in the cards.”
       “Oh…  So, then, if you knew, you must have been in touch with him…”
       “Noooo…  I haven’t heard from him in ages…”
       “He isn’t doing very well, you know.”
       As we explained to Aunt Susana that the amount of alcohol swallowed over the years was finally taking a toll on Feri’s liver, she began to shuffle the cards, the cigarette still in her mouth, the ash suspended at its end in a precarious balancing act.  The cards were like no other cards we’d seen before, with royal figures in red and green garments representing royalty from the Austro-Hungarian Empire—“Hungarian cards,” Aunt Susana explained.  The ash at the end of her cigarette was now half an inch long, ready to drop at any moment, yet continuing to stay there, in the air, in a way that defied physical laws and made it hard for us to focus on the cards.  I know Alma must have been really irked by it—I could tell from the direction of her gaze and the fixed expression on her face.  Finally, Aunt Susana took the cigarette out of her mouth with her right hand, while with her left she laid the cards on the table, and when we thought the ash was going to fall on the table, she aimed it at the porcelain ashtray without even looking at it, preoccupied as she was with the cards, and the ash fell effortlessly into the tray.  Then, she drew again deeply on the cigarette, let it stay between her lips, and thus freed, her hands returned to the colorful figures, which she moved with a magician’s dexterity, right and left, left and right, now a king showing his mustached profile with a pointy hat, now a queen revealing wavy hair descending over round, silk-clod shoulders.  She spread them in several rows, and as each card presented its face to us, Aunt Susana’s eyebrows moved up in a silent dialogue with it.  I don’t know anything about cards, and being unfamiliar with the Hungarian images, I have no idea what meaning was attached to each of them.  But I could tell that Aunt Susana wasn’t happy with what she was seeing.  She began to question Alma about her husband—what he looked like, whether he had dark hair and whether he was violent, if he or his family came from a faraway place, and if they spoke another language.  She refused to elaborate or to account for those questions, she just said the cards were inconclusive, or rather, to use her words, “the cards refused to speak”—though they did allude to a dark man and a threat lurking in the future, so the best thing was to look for a professional, someone who was a star in the art of divination, and she knew just the right person.
       And this is how we got to be acquainted with the Romanian-Gypsy witch, Smaranda Biglip.
       “Romanian Gypsies are the best in fortune telling,” Aunt Susana declared peremptorily, “and Smaranda is in the top ten.  People are waiting for weeks to get an appointment with her, so consider yourself lucky,” she told Alma, who, I could tell, would have dropped the whole thing had I not given her one of my don’t-even-think-about-it! looks. 
       “If you keep staring at me like that I’ll have to get a cure against the evil eye,” Alma said dryly.
       The truth is I was curious to see a real witch.  And yes, maybe my reasons were a little selfish since even more than hearing what lay in Alma’s future I was interested in having my own fortune told.  And so it was that barely three of four days after our arrival in Budapest, Aunt Susana took us to a rather sinister neighborhood at the edge of the city where dilapidated houses coexisted with barren plots of land on which lame dogs and blind cats strolled side by side in fraternal dejection.  Smaranda’s house was an imposing two-story building painted a painfully bright yellow on whose lower side white and light blue morning glories crept up with a dusty tiredness that stripped them of all their glory.  There was a strange contrast between the size of the house, on the one hand, and the broken wooden fence surrounding it, and the naked kids hanging around it, on the other.
       Aunt Susana gave Smaranda the presents she had asked us to buy for her: a liter of Palinka (the traditional Hungarian brandy made, in this case, of plums) and a pack of Marlboros.  Judging from Smaranda’s guttural voice, she must have been, like our aunt, an inveterate smoker.  She appeared to be in her forties, though you never know with witches, and she looked very different from what I’d imagined.  First of all, she was fat.  Second, her face was banal in a disconcerting way: dark, with a few fine wrinkles, some prominent pimples (one never imagines a pimply witch; warts—that’s something else…) and unkempt, dirty hair.  She didn’t wear the traditional Gypsy clothing I’d seen on the streets, but a very casual blue dress whose hem was coming apart.  She invited us to sit down on the two wobbling chairs in the kitchen, and then brought two upholstered chairs from the living room, full of stains and smelling of urine.  The house had barely any furniture in it, the walls were peeling off, and the floors, bare as they were, seemed full because of the trash scattered all around—crumpled paper, apple cores, shells of pumpkin seeds, old receipts, broken toys and other unidentifiable objects.  
       Smaranda didn’t speak any English, so Aunt Susana performed the role of the translator.  As we waited for the coffee to boil, a grunt followed by a long, agonizing cough came from the adjacent room.
       “My mother,” said Smaranda, and invited us to meet the woman who, as it turned out, was also a famous witch, and whose name was—I’m not making this us up, I swear!—Baba Udder.  Apparently, Baba Udder had been blessed with a pair of incredibly voluminous, tremulous breasts, whose aged remnants were still visible from under the blanket that covered her.  Abed, showing a tanned face wrinkled like a sun-dried tomato, Baba Udder, who was only in her seventies, seemed a hundred-years-old.  A pungent smell of urine wafted from the bed, and both Alma and I kept our distance.
       After we returned to the kitchen, Smaranda resumed the process of making the coffee, handling (explained our aunt) a Turkish pot in which the coffee had been boiled, and pouring it into some very small cups.  Meanwhile, Baba Udder made her presence felt by kibitzing from the other room, ordering her daughter to let her see “the grounds.”  We understood what she meant once we finished drinking the coffee and Smaranda showed us how to place our cups face down onto the little plates.  After a minute or two, during which time Smaranda and Aunt Susana succeeded in enveloping all of us in a cloud of Marlboro smoke, we each took our cup in our hands and examined it, making sure that all the liquid had been drained, and the configuration produced by the coffee grounds was stable.  I had never imagined coffee grounds could generate such rich, mysterious worlds in which one could get lost as in a labyrinth.  I stared at the laced darkness in my cup as into a well, fascinated but incapable of making sense of it.  It reminded me of the opaque, intricate beauty of Arab calligraphy.  Smaranda took Alma’s cup and began to turn it this way and that, like a doctor examining a radio from all the angles.  I whispered, afraid of disturbing her, that I’d never seen coffee made in this way, and Aunt Susana translated my remark, laughing.
       “Oh, it’s Turkish coffee,” Smaranda said, without interrupting her examination.  “That’s how we make it in Romania.  The best one is done in the south of the country, where they make it in the sand.  In the summer the sand gets so hot you can’t even touch it.”  Then, turning toward Alma, and taking a toothpick in her hand, she added, “Let me show you your trip.  See this long, long road here?”  Alma nodded her head in acknowledgment.  “That’s the road you took to come here all the way across the ocean.”  As she said this, she scratched herself methodically under each breast, holding each of them with one hand, like a round, puffy loaf of bread, and using the other to perform the scratch.  She didn’t wear a bra, and the breasts—which were taking after her mother’s—were moving freely, like (I thought, and made a mental note of it in order to use it later in one of my novels) “two wild animals.”
       “Let me see the girl’s grounds, you harlot!” bellowed the mother from the other room.
       “Shut up, you old bolunda!” the daughter quipped, but did go to the other room, and when she showed her the cup, the old bolunda let out a string of Ay-ay-ays, and the daughter asked, “Happy now?  It’s not quite that bad, what are you ay-ay-aying for?”
       The old woman spat and answered, “It’s death.  That’s bad enough for me.”
       That’s the word Aunt Susana used in translation, death, and Alma and I looked at each other, then at Smaranda, as she returned with the fatidic cup.  As she sat down to resume her investigation, she continued to question Alma, as if nothing had happened.  Eventually, Alma’s curiosity won, and she inquired with feigned nonchalance, “What death was your mother talking about?”  But Smaranda made a dismissive gesture, “Oh, this woman could see death just by looking into her asshole—pardon my language.  I do see tears, though.  See, here at the bottom of the cup.  The bottom of the cup is your home.  Tears, but no immediate death.  But I see separation and fear of death in the future.  You’ll leave your man and travel to distant lands, and then you’ll come back.  But I can’t tell you more because the coffee grounds can only tell us about the present and the near future.  I need to throw some beans and then see what the cards say,” and as she said this, she took a jar and spilled a handful of dry beans on the table, which she kept rearranging, furrowing her brow and muttering something.  I saw Alma give Aunt Susana a nudge, curious, no doubt, to know what the Gypsy woman was muttering under her breath, but Aunt Susana pretended she didn’t notice.  The Gypsy woman kept muttering, her eyes closed, her expression ever more focused, until she appeared to be in a trance, and then the volume of her voice grew higher, and the nonsensical words coming out of her mouth followed each other at increased speed, faster and faster, while her torso swung back and forth.  Until then, I had been vaguely amused, but now I grew scared.  It’s not that there was anything “evil” about the Gypsy woman; rather, there was something that reminded me of the irrational force of nature, something you don’t think exists until you witness it.
       The woman stayed in that state for at least three minutes, during which time none of us dared to even move.  Eventually, she stopped swinging, and her muttering turned into a whisper.  When she stopped, she said, staring into the distance, but ostensibly addressing Alma, “You have a curse on you.  And there are two men who’ll come in your life, and both will build you a house, but it won’t be a house of joy, it’ll be a house of tears and regret.  I see Death lurking behind the walls and behind the dark man.”
       “What dark man?” interrupted Alma.
       But Smaranada just repeated her words, as if she hadn’t heard her:
“I see Death lurking behind the walls of the house.”
       “Did you say something about a dark man?” insisted Alma.
       Smaranda stared at her with empty eyes:
       “You have a curse on you.”
       She now looked like a Sphynx, and I wondered where the pimpled, fleshy woman she was half an hour ago had disappeared.  Seeing that she couldn’t get a straight answer, Alma went on, “And did you say that both men will build me a house?  Do you mean a house from each of them?”
       “I said a house from both,” came the reply in an angry tone that cut off the possibility of any further questioning.  Like the Sphynx, the Gypsy woman expected us to figure out the riddle on our own.  She got up visibly annoyed, and turned toward our aunt:
       “Is this girl simple-minded or what?”  Then, facing me:
       “And you, you need a man.”  She grabbed the cup from my hand, examined it for a few seconds, then confirmed:
       “A man!  You need a man!”
       I was dumbstruck because, indeed, I didn’t have a boyfriend and was looking for one.  After her double diagnosis, the Gypsy woman stepped out of the kitchen, and left us there wondering whether she’ll be back or whether that was it.  From the adjacent room, the intermittent and bellicose snoring of Baba Udder came in waves, and a dog kept barking nearby.  We were getting ready to leave when, unexpectedly, Smaranda returned and handed Alma a small plastic jar, advising her to rub a smudge of the salve inside every night before bed on her forehead, her belly and her breasts.
       “It will undo the spell and lift the curse, but only if you use all of it.  It’s better not to use any of it than to start it and not finish it.”
       Alma took the jar with caution and held it two fingers away from her body, and in a tiny voice she inquired:
       “May I ask what’s in the salve?”
       The witch measured her again as if she were dim-witted, then began to list a number of things, which, once Aunt Susana translated into English, caused a burst of laughter from both Alma and myself.  We though she was pulling our leg, but when we saw the look on her face, the laugh froze on our lips.  The woman wasn’t kidding.  The salve was made of fat of bear, dog, snake and snail, combined with rainworm oil and crushed spiders.  That’s what she said!  And then, turning to face me, she said, “And you, girl, do you really want a man?”  I nodded: sure, I did.
       “If you want to see your future betrothed’s face you shall step naked at midnight onto a dunghill, holding a piece of Christmas cake in your mouth.”  She paused, and inquired a little worried, “Do you have Christmas cakes in that America of yours?”
       I swallowed, nervously: “Yes, we do, but I’m not sure we have dunghills.”
       She frowned: “You’re not sure you have dunghills?!  Well, if you can’t find one, let me know and I’ll ship you some from here.  As I was saying, stand on a dunghill, and at exactly midnight listen for a dog’s bark.  From where the sound comes from there your future husband shall come.  And now leave me alone!  You’ve tired me enough.”
       We left, and as soon as we were back in the car, Alma exploded in uncontrollable laughter, while Aunt Susana shook her head and her index finger to indicate that Alma was behaving like a naughty girl. 
       “It’s not a good omen to laugh at such things, dear girl.”
As for myself, I was still befuddled, not knowing what to think or feel.  Alma never used her salve, so for all I know she is still cursed.  Years later, Smaranda moved back to Transylvania where she was from, and when the Romanian government tried to implement a law penalizing Gypsies for false prophecy, she became a leader in the fight against it because, she said, “they should penalize the cards, not us!” 

Alta Ifland

ALTA IFLAND is the author of two collections of prose poems, Voice of Ice (Les Figues Press, 2009 Louis Guillaume Prize) and The Snail’s Song (Spuyten Duyvil Press); and of two books of short stories, Elegy for a Fabulous World (Ninebark Press, 2010 finalist for the Northern California Book Award) and Death-in-a-Box (Subito Press, 2010 Subito Fiction Prize).  She has been awarded fellowships in fiction at Wesleyan, MacDowell and Millay. 

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Alta Ifland
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