They can Count on Me
Translated by: Ágnes Megyeri from the original Hungarian.
20th June, 2063
I’ve rented a raspberry-picking robot today. Can’t be bothered picking raspberries any longer, damn it. It’s a humanoid robot, quite cute. There aren’t too many raspberries yet, they’ve started ripening only recently, so the robot can be finished with them in no time.
The robot had so many idle hours that I thought I would send it up on the cherry tree. It went up there but made faces. Because it’s a raspberry-picking robot, not a cherry-picking one. That’s what it says.
I thought I would send it back to the company I rented it from when it was finished with the daily raspberry picking. Why should I pay for the whole day when it works two hours a day, if that. And it won’t pick cherries.
Well, that really made it go nuts. Not only did it make faces, oh no, but it screamed at me that I belonged to it and it was not going anywhere but would rather sleep in the shed. “I don’t mind,” I said, “just don’t make any mess dripping oil everywhere at night”. It got so offended that it wouldn’t even answer. Just turned its nose up and walked away under the shed.
I waited a few days hoping its work morale would improve a bit. But no. Even though I didn’t check on it once, on purpose. I didn’t want it to think I was some sort of dictator. An ancient slaveholder! But today I’ve heard weird moans coming from the depths of the shed. I peeked in carefully but pulled my nose back straight away. The robot was making love to a robot girl in there. Sure, humanoid both of them… And hardly had I opened the door than it chucked a huge turnip at me. Yep, I will definitely send it back.
It was a long day yesterday. I had to wait quite a bit until it stumbled out of the shed with a weak smile on its face, the lazy bastard. “The girl has worn me out,” it says. “How could it be?” I ask. “I am a robot,” it says, but “I regard nothing human as foreign to me”. Well, this saying just drives me around the bend, I have written it down myself once or twice, always in a different context though. And these are not my words, of course. I saw them first in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the devil says it twisting the original Terentius quote, which was roughly this: “I am a human, I regard nothing human as foreign to me”. And now this good-for-nothing wastrel says the same! Is this robot reading my mind? I have to ask:
“Hey, are you reading my mind?”
“I do have my name, don’t call me Hey,” and it shrugs its shoulders and scowls at me.
“Yeah, sure, I keep forgetting, you are that thingy… anthropoid.”
“Sir, listen, I will not put up with your insults any longer,” and as it straightens up its dirty work clothes suddenly turn into a well-tailored suit. As if its face were touched by a razor the three-day stubble disappears. Within a second, this bastard becomes a pretty good-looking guy. “Apes are anthropoids. I am an independent being. My name is Publius Terentius Afer.”
The suit disappears, it stands before me wearing a toga. Its beard has also grown back.
“How can you do that?” I ask.
“I can sense your thoughts, sir, and I change myself accordingly, should I wish to do so.”
“And what do you mean you don’t put up with insults? What are you going to do?”
“I will go back to the company you rented me from. But I take my woman with me,” and points behind its back.
Only now do I catch a glimpse of her. A beautiful girl climbs out of the shed cautiously, her blond hair down to her waist. Her clothing is rather lacking, as if she appeared from some ancient time. Just like the first woman, I think.
“Ah life, ah life, how sweet, how beautiful.”*1
My jaw drops. But my Terentius turns towards her and answers:
“And to be the lord and master over all.”*2
The toga disappears and the scoundrel stands naked in front of me, a fig leaf just about covering its privates.
This is when I lose it completely. I run into the house and lock the front door, the windows, everything! And I call the company.
“You must come and pick up your bloody robot immediately, or I will call the police!”
“What’s wrong, mate? Won’t pick raspberries?” asks a slurred voice jovially.
“I’m not your mate. How dare you…”
“Just stop being so sensitive, mate. I am a poet, too, like you. Same profession. Just haven’t been discovered yet. Now tell me, what’s the problem?”
“That robot is driving me crazy! I dare not even go outside! If I look at it, it changes its shape according to the literary piece of work I’m thinking of. What if I think of a murderer? Or the devil itself?”
“No need to worry,” says the slurred voice. “We will call it back. Oh, by the way, it’s actually standing right behind you.”
I turn around as if I had been bitten by a flea. I face an unknown figure. The guy is dressed in black armour from head to toe, his body covered by a raging red cape. He is heavily balding on both sides of his temples. He has a friendly grin and shoves some bloody paper right in front of my nose.
“Oh my God,” I groan.
“I have just spoken to him,” he starts off in a chatty voice. “I like, at times, to hear The Ancient’s word: And have a care to be most civil: It’s really kind of such a noble Lord so humanly to gossip with the Devil!”
“Damn it,” I rub my eyes, “You must be Mephistopheles from Faust then”.
He bows theatrically. I remember that I must think of something else before he gets me to sign the contract. Quickly, I think of the little duckling, swimming in the black lake, about to go to its mother in Poland. *3
The villain flips over and turns into a duck. I sigh, but my relief is too early, as my house is suddenly flooded by water. The black lake!
“The blistering sun in the midsummer sky!”*4 I shout at the top of my voice and look, the lake is tamed into a little creek trickling away under the bookcase. Johnny from John, the Valiant is lying around next to it on his sheepskin coat, and that girl standing in the water must be Nell washing the clothes. You can see her two… pretty little knees. It is still no good like that, even though the Devil has turned into peaceful characters, I still won’t be able to eliminate it. I would not have the heart to drown Nell in the creek! And Johnny wouldn’t let me, either… How about The Ant and the Grasshopper? If it’s one or the other, I will stamp them to death! But that’s not a good idea, either. A grasshopper the size of a man appears, wearing a little waistcoat and holding it tight on its chest against the cold. An ant, also the size of a man, laughs loudly in the corner, points at the Grasshopper and bellows: dance! Cold wind is blowing, snowflakes twirling, falling from the ceiling.
I pass out. Wake up in a hospital. Everything is white around me. First, I think the vision goes on, but no. A uniformed nurse leans over me and checks the infusion.
“What day is it?” I ask and have a peek in between the mounds of her breast. I feel better straight away.
“Wednesday,” she answers with a smile.
“But what year?”
“Day and month?”
“Then… aren’t there any robots? And am I not in 2063?”
“You’ve just dreamt it. Because of the operation.”
She is still smiling. She has a pretty face with regular features, two little holes beside her lips. Dimples. Really cute.
“What operation?” I ask.
“You know. There was something wrong with your head,” and she touches my forehead gently. Her hand is cool and soft. Feels good. But what is wrong with my head? “You are over it now. Just rest. Or close your eyes and try not to think of anything… Anything bad.”
I close my eyes obediently, though I would rather keep watching those round figures. It can’t be that bad, I think. Nothing hurts, and there are no robots. Only humans. Soon I’m going home, and I can see my loved ones again. I live in Budapest and write books. There are buses and trams outside in the streets, driven by humans. Beautiful sunshine is coming through the window, I can sense that even with my eyes closed. Really nice… I had merely dreamt. Everything will be all right. But what was wrong with my head? That is still the question. I just have a quick peek to see if that beautiful nurse is still around. I can see her leaving the hospital room. She is pushing the trolley in front of her, with all the bloody bandages and dirty sheets on it. And some instruments… And then her uniform splits at the back, just above her skirt. I can see tubes winding. Wires. Lights flashing as electricity circulates in there. She looks back flirtatiously, her robot eye winks at me.
There is no escape, I think, and I tear the infusion out of my arm. After that I just run. Who knows where or for how long. As long as I have my breath. I am not to blame for anything.
*1 The Tragedy of Man (Scene 2, Eve) – Hungarian play written by Imre Madách, translated by J.C.W. Horne
*2 The Tragedy of Man (Scene 2, Adam) – Hungarian play written by Imre Madách, translated by J.C.W. Horne
*3 Hungarian children’s song
*4 John, the Valiant – starting line of Hungarian epic poem written by Sándor Petőfi, translated by John Ridland
Ferenc Gaspar is a Hungarian writer, journalist, and teacher of Hungarian and history, born in Budapest in 1957. He has numerous publications of his short stories, critiques, and essays in most Hungarian literary magazines. He has published 17 books – young adult fiction, short fiction, monograph, novels, and short stories – since 2001. In 2022, he was granted the Attila József Prize, which is an annually awarded Hungarian literary prize for excellence in the field of belles-lettres. His works have never been published in English before.
Agnes Megyeri, the translator of Ferenc Gaspar’s work, was born in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, in 1975. Her passion for the English language started in her early teens. She spent several years living in England and has been teaching the language for over 30 years now. She has an interest in writing prose and had some publications in Hungarian literary magazines, which created the opportunity to use her language skills when translating Hungarian poems and short stories to English.