24th May 2022


18 minutes read

Benedek Totth


translated by Thomas Cooper

24th May 2022

18 minutes read

“… wars occasion a certain natural selection among peoples, which plays a very important role in the gradual perfection of the human race, because victory is generally won by those peoples who are physically, mentally, and morally the strongest and who stand at a higher stage of culture.” – Lajos Méhelÿ: The Biology of War


As they pushed the crippled boy out of the examining room, the soldier watched the flies mating in the strip of sunshine and thought of the one-legged prostitute he fucked last time in the brothel in Lemberg. He found it easier to get intimate with whores, even when he wasn’t arriving in a city as an officer in an invading army. Most people were suspicious and surly, even members of the classes and races who in principle were on the same side. Memories of faces distorted with looks of feigned kindness, eyes smoldering with affable loathing. But the hookers befriended them without reservation and took anyone into their confidence. It wasn’t on them, after all. It was the war. And it was all the same to them, everything. They didn’t care whether the guy was handsome or ugly, sober or drunk, tender or violent.

The crippled boy had been tied to a wheelchair with a thick strap. He was making noises that sounded like he’d been shot in the throat. The woman was rolling him towards the exit, but she couldn’t move through the narrow space very quickly. Everyone was looking at them. The woman didn’t look at anyone. The clock clicking on the wall of the waiting room was the only thing that gave any sign that time had not stopped. As they rolled in front of him, the soldier looked up at the kid, with his twisted body and bizarre posture. He then lowered his head in disgust. His hands began to shake again. That was why he had come in, because of the incessant shaking.

“What’s wrong with him. He’s going to die. What’s wrong with him. He’s going to die. He’s going to die,” the boy spluttered, his shrill voice stirring the air in the stuffy waiting room. The woman, his mother, gently put her hand on his shoulder to calm him, but her touch only made him more agitated, and he grabbed her arm and began to tug at it. His crippled body was remarkably strong.

“Get him out of here,” an older woman snarled.

The mother started to fumble at the wheelchair, accidentally pushing it into the soldier’s leg. She apologized. Her voice trembled with anger and shame. The soldier pulled his leg back a bit and nodded without saying a word.

He could not take his eyes off the boy, who resembled an insect. The crooked posture, the shoulders pulled back, and the bulging eyes reminded him of a private who had been put in front of a firing squad for faking a wound. The young grunt had had a minor hit on his hand, but they immediately recognized it as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It happened all the time, but it was still a little shocking that someone had tried to get sent home with such a light hit on the back of his hand. Little more than a graze. When the medic asked him if he did it himself, the kid hung his head low and said no, his gun went off by accident.

The soldier had seen cases like this before, more than one.

He could guess what the kid was thinking, and he couldn’t understand why he didn’t just deny having committed such a cowardly act. That was what most of the grunts who tried this trick did when they were cornered. But this poor worm was too cowardly to defend himself and too cowardly to confess, or even just to shoot himself properly. In the end, the commander decided that there was no real sickness to speak of, that it was all a sham, and he decided to purge the company of the unmanly cowards and fakers who wanted to shirk their patriotic duties. The weak, useless soldiers who trembled with fear, who failed to fulfill their oaths to their country and king. These unmanly men were moral and willful retards, hysterical defects, the scum of the army, and he would leave them with a choice: either they pull themselves together and put an end to their pathetic sham or they get a bullet in the head. Quite a few of them ended up suffering the latter fate.

And the soldier had stood by the firing squad and given the order to shoot.

He was jarred from his recollections by the crippled boy, who was grabbing at the leg of his pants and spluttering his little monologue louder and louder. Like a scratched record, the soldier thought. The woman made a concerted effort to peel the boy’s fingers from the man’s pants, but she could not calm him down.

“Forgive him, sir, it’s not his fault,” she said apologetically. These moments had wearied her. She was thin and haggard, her face was sunken and her skin pale, but her beauty still cut through her misery. There was something otherworldly about her. The soldier cleared his throat and nodded once more.

“No worries,” he said at last. She set out towards the exit, pushing the flailing, screaming child along in front of her. As the door closed behind them, the elderly woman turned to her husband.

“How can she bear to live like that?” she asked in a voice audible to everyone else in the room.

“Drop it,” the man said.

“She can’t manage on her own with that cripple. That pig knocked her up and abandoned her. Not that she doesn’t deserve it, the slut. You’ll see, she’ll stick her head in the oven and finish herself off one of these days, miserable wretch.”

“Do be quiet,” the old man muttered. “What do you care who speared that wretch?”

The soldier then noticed that something had fallen out of the wheelchair during their little bump-up. It looked like a maimed puppy. He picked it up and stood to set out after the woman and her son, but the door to the examination room opened and the doctor summoned him in.

The doctor, a man with a thick mustache and a stern but inquisitive look, had also served on the front, but by the grace of God, returned home unharmed. Many people were crippled in the war among his patients. He knew the symptoms of shellshock and battlefield hysteria well, and he was a firm believer in progressive therapeutic methods and eugenics. He was all too aware that most doctors tried to treat neurosis caused by fear with drugs, isolation, darkrooms, and all kinds of physical therapies, including electroshock and hot and cold water cures. These humiliating and painful tortures did not work for everyone, however, although electric shock treatment, the “surprise cure,” when a patient’s body was briefly exposed to a faradic current, causing great pain, did relieve symptoms in most war neurotics.

As soon as the soldier took a seat, the doctor questioned him thoroughly. The soldier didn’t deny he still suffered some pains, especially in his groin, where he was hit by the Russian shrapnel, but otherwise, he felt quite well. The doctor’s gaze slid to the soldier’s trembling hands. The soldier clenched his fists.

The doctor cautiously tried to explain the traumas that events in the theater of war can cause and the effects these traumas can have.

“Give me something for the pain, doctor,” the soldier said. “There must be some way to put an end to the pain.”

In the end, the doctor prescribed strong painkillers and sent the soldier on his way, telling him to return if the pains persisted, and they would come up with something. The soldier stood up and walked towards the door to the examination room. He was reaching for the handle when he suddenly stopped and turned.

“What’s wrong with that kid?” he asked.

“Which kid? Oh, he was born like that. I prescribed a sedative for his mother. She’s a nervous wreck.”

“Must be hard for her.”

The doctor nodded silently and then launched into a long monologue. A society in which natural selection is not allowed to run its course, he explained, is doomed to destruction. A mere glance at the crowds on the streets is enough for one’s pride in the human race to falter. Even if one ignores the more serious physical handicaps, there are swarms of people wearing glasses, people with bad teeth, bald spots, stooped backs, and any one of them can become a cause of degeneration. The war hadn’t gone far enough, and moreover, huge numbers of men with healthy genetic material had perished. People with physical and moral defects must be excluded from reproduction, and then no one will have to suffer like this unfortunate cripple and his mother suffer. That is why we must start the racial purification project as soon as possible.

The soldier nodded as he listened to the doctor’s explanation. He had never thought about the future of the Hungarian race from this point of view. He then bid a polite farewell and set out for his workplace. The Cartographic Institute was far away, but he decided to go on foot. No work was waiting for him in the office, and he was hardly on good terms with his colleagues. As he stepped into the street, he looked around to see if he could find the woman and her crippled child. On the next corner, workers were tearing up the sidewalk. As the soldier walked past the pit, something started buzzing in his brain like an angry swarm of bees. He found an empty bench and sat down. A worker crawled out of the pit. His coworkers taunted him, possibly because of his filthy clothes, and he swung his shovel at them in response. They hit each other with their fists, but laughed and guffawed the whole time. The soldier wanted to caution them that in the rain fresh shell-holes quickly fill with water, but he wasn’t able to lift his hand and wave to catch their attention. As if a suit of armor had been strapped to his body.

Night was falling, and the orange sun was rolling down towards the horizon like a severed head. The soldier was still sitting on the bench, motionless. He must have fallen asleep, for when he opened his eyes, the pit where the men were working was empty. He remembered the incessant cannon fire at the battle of Lemberg, the pouring rain, the feeble, drawn-out moans from the dark depths of the shell-holes of the wounded men in their death throes, moans which gurgled out like the guts spilling from their bellies.

The wounded who were left blind and deaf from the explosions sought cover in the pits,

but in the torrential rain, the water rose rapidly around them, and they didn’t have the strength to climb out.

The soldier was haunted by horrific visions of men maimed and shaking, men who even at the last moment hoped that their comrades would find them in the pitch-black night, but he knew there was nothing he could do for them now. In one of his recurring nightmares, an insect-like creature garbed in a military uniform crawled out of a shell-hole towards him, grabbed him with its pincers, lifted him to its mandibles, and sucked the fluids from his body. He woke up screaming in terror and swimming in cold sweat. The sound of children cackling spilled in from the street, and a little girl with her hair in a ponytail, one of the five children who lived next door, peeked in through the window. Only her head was visible, like a framed portrait on the wall. When she saw he was awake, she ran away screeching.

The sunlight was streaming in through the window. The soldier had no idea how he had gotten home. He climbed out of bed and went to the kitchen to get a drink. The water tasted of blood. He drank his first coffee on an empty stomach. His hands were shaking, and the drops that spilled over the side of his mug formed a misshapen black head on the tablecloth. By the time he finished his coffee, he made up his mind to find the woman, the crippled boy’s mother, and give them back the toy.

He had no romantic intentions when it came to the woman, nor could he have, but he still dressed up. He shaved, smoothed wax onto his mustache, and even sprinkled a little patchouli on himself. His body was covered with ugly scars. Each one had a story. The mosaic of the great war, which formed the great lie. For only those who are still alive repeat the old line, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

He didn’t know where to begin looking for the mother and her crippled child. He strolled the streets of the area for days, especially the places where crowds gathered and dispersed. He went back to the doctor’s office a few times but always stopped short at the gate. He feared the doctor might misunderstand his intentions. The search finally gave some purpose to the passing days. In the end, one Sunday, he happened across the old woman from the waiting room of the doctor’s office at the market. She seemed startled when he walked over to her and addressed her politely. Once he clarified how he knew her, the soldier asked if perhaps she knew where the crippled child and his mother lived.

“What do you want with that woman?” the old woman asked.

“I want to give the boy his toy back,” the soldier replied.

“I live in the same building as that woman,” the woman said. “Give it to me, I will take it to him.”

The soldier politely declined, at which the old woman began to recount all the rumors that the people in the building passed on about the woman and her boy. This time, her husband wasn’t there to mutter at her, and the soldier didn’t want to be impolite, so the conversation went on for some time. The soldier rather suspected that most of the malicious rumors had been concocted by the woman herself. Later, the woman would readily tell the investigators that she was suspicious of the soldier from the start. There was a strange, evil gleam in his eye. She would only fall silent for a moment when the interrogating detective asked her why, if she saw an evil gleam in the soldier’s eyes, she told him how to find the apartment where the woman lived.

The mother of the crippled boy was startled by the sound of the doorbell, as no one ever visited, and was even more shocked when she opened the door. The soldier introduced himself and, seeing the look of bewilderment on her face, he explained that they had met at the doctor’s office and that he wanted to return the boy’s toy. From the hallway, he could hear the boy screaming inside, but the woman had a different reason for not inviting him in. The neighbors already gossiped about her more than enough, calling her a slut and a tramp and other names. The last thing she needed was to have them see her with an unfamiliar man, so she asked him to come back in the evening, after nightfall. Her boy would be asleep then, and the neighbors wouldn’t be snooping around.

The first night, they talked a lot and sat in silence a lot. They discovered they had a childhood friend in common and they both liked dry red wines and Chopin’s piano concertos. The soldier was glad she didn’t ask him about the war. Then the boy woke up and started screaming. He was frightened. She went to reassure him. She gave him a sleeping pill, sang to him, and caressed him for a long time. The soldier closed his eyes and imagined she was singing to him. When she returned, she tried to smile, but the teardrop rolling down her cheek gave her away.

“Now, please leave,” she said.

The soldier nodded without saying a word. She walked him to the door. They stopped in the doorway. The soldier wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. Finally, the woman began to speak.

“This isn’t a life worth living,” she sighed. “Neither for him nor me.”

The soldier nodded again and then stepped into the hallway. A light went out in the apartment next door.

On his way home, the soldier resolved to kill the crippled child.

He felt that the woman wanted him to do it too. She had pleaded with him, without saying anything, to save her. She had told him with her gaze. By the time he got home, he thought of a way to dispose of the body and felt as if a great weight was lifted from his shoulders. For the first time in months, he slept through the night without taking a sleeping pill.

That night, the boy was more restless than usual. The soldier wondered if perhaps he sensed what was in store. The woman gave him a double dose of sedatives, and after he fell asleep, she wheeled him out into the hallway. There were no lights on anywhere. The woman watched the boy breathing peacefully for a while. His deformed body looked beautiful to her. Then, she put the toy dog, which was missing its head, in the boy’s lap, wiped the saliva from his chin, and went back into the apartment to pack up his things.

Later, she told nosy inquirers that the boy had moved in with relatives in the country for a while to get more fresh air. Everyone wanted to believe the story, so didn’t ask any questions. Except for the old woman who lived in the building. She continued to gossip for a while. A few days after the murder, the soldier’s hands stopped shaking. Then, one evening, as he rested his head on the pillow and squeezed the air out from the feathers, he remembered one of his brothers-in-arms who had served in his company. A grenade had exploded next to him, and the air pressure knocked him to the ground. He fell on the belly of a Russian who was dead for days, and the bloated body burst open. Before the soldier lost consciousness, he realized what had happened, that the foul, fetid substance that spurted into his mouth was the runny mess of his enemy’s internal organs. He was never able to swallow another bite of food. The doctors at the camp hospital tried force-feeding him for a while, but slowly he withered away.

The soldier and the woman met often. Gradually, her hysterical cheerfulness began to irritate him more and more. She tried to seem carefree but in vain. The soldier could see that she might break down in tears at any moment. She was only calm when they went for walks in the park, so they went to the park every day. One day, they happened across a friend of hers at the fountain. The friend was pushing a stroller. When the baby cried, the friend took her out and rocked her back and forth in her arms. The soldier immediately noticed that something was wrong with the child. The face peering out from under the little cap was strangely distorted. The soldier felt dizzy. His body was buzzing as if a swarm of ants was crawling around in his guts.

When the bodies of the first children were recovered from the ditch, crime reporters picked up the gruesome story. More and more people began to speak in hurried whispers about injured, crippled, and mentally handicapped children from all over the city disappearing, and of a mad soldier who had suffered shellshock on the eastern front.

One hot autumn evening, the police arrested him. The fallen leaves crumbled under the soles of their shoes.

The soldier confessed everything during the first interrogation. He took all the blame for the murders and did his best to save the woman, for she had known nothing of his deeds. When asked by the head of the investigation why he committed these crimes, the soldier explained.

“We cannot lose the next war because of these half-breeds,” he said.

“We have to purify the bloodline of the Hungarian race so that we can take our revenge.”

He then leaped from his chair and rushed at the policeman who was standing guard. The policeman had just enough time to draw his weapon. In the scuffle, the gun went off. The soldier ended up sprawled on the floor, blood splattering from his neck. His hands were no longer shaking.

written by

Benedek Totth

More about the author

translated by

Thomas Cooper

More about the translator


Apothetae by Benedek Totth
In novelist Benedek Totth’s short story the violence of a soldier suffering from shellshock is cast into the light when he meets a mother and her disabled son.