Marietta Morry and Walter Burgess translate Anita Harag

Magnolia Estates

We were the first to move into the building. We pressed the elevator button for the third floor, the buttons were smooth, no one had yet carved their names or phrases on the elevator door. We looked at ourselves in the mirror, we were also smooth, two people, a man and a woman, we tried to see if they suited each other. The man is somewhat taller than the woman, his hair darker, his eyes darker, he looks like an engineer, someone comfortably off; the woman is pale, has good posture, she is, perhaps, a tired lawyer. We stop on the third floor and go to apartment 34. It is larger than we remembered, the walls are glaringly white, our heels clatter against the tiles. We enter each room, the doorknobs feel strange in our hands, the doors don’t open the way we expect. We turn on the tap, the water splatters as it comes out. We go out on the balcony, look at the fenced off yard, at the red swings, the wooden playground climbers, at the garden with its multi-colored flowers, at the empty windows of the apartments in the other wing of the building across from us, there are no clothes drying on the balconies nor chairs with tables holding ashtrays. We like the balconies and the idea that we will be sitting here in the evenings, light up and watch the people behind the windows. We go back to the bedroom and lie down, start kissing but the floor is too cold and hard. We brush our hands over the floor’s pattern, a slight coating of dust remains on our fingers. We don’t lock the door but then, out of habit, go back and lock it anyway.

The dog didn’t find his place for weeks. We put his bed beside the sofa, then beside the dresser, then at the kitchen door. He didn’t lie down in it even once. He stood beside the entrance door, then got tired and lay down, got up again and stared at the door.  We thought he wanted to go for a walk but once downstairs in front of the building he didn’t move. We carried him to the park in our arms, there he sniffed at the ground, he sensed the familiar smells and ran around in the grass. He’ll get used to it, we kept saying. Our furniture looked old in the apartment, the yellow sofa, the scratched desk, the white picture frames seemed yellowish or grey. The pictures became blurry or were not even visible from 9 to 1:30 because of how the light fell on them. You could only make out the shapes from a certain angle, from the left and below, the faces were unrecognizable because of the light when we looked at them close up. The plants suddenly started to grow, their stems got tangled; the day after watering them, new shoots appeared. Every week we brought new pots and we transplanted the plants into them on the balcony, sweeping the leftover soil down into the yard.  Even the first plant we bought together showed new life, although for years its leaves were yellow and we never knew whether it needed more water or less. 

We bought new furniture so the apartment wouldn’t seem so empty. There was less and less of an echo in the rooms when the dog barked. Sometimes after work we set off in the wrong direction to go home and only when we were halfway to the old apartment did we figure out that that was no longer the right way. The concierge smiled when we told him the story, smiled when we said good evening, smiled when the elevator door closed behind us, when he said good morning, good-bye, and “you’ve got a parcel”. He tried to guess whether the box contained a lamp or a coffee machine. We shook our heads and lied when we said that is was an electric kettle. We placed the salt lamp in the bedroom, a few days ago one of us woke up choking and said it was because of the air. We are standing in the middle of the room taking deep breaths, there is a faint odor of paint, something we can’t tolerate. 

When we arrive home one day we find the apartment empty, our furniture has disappeared, so have the plants that covered the balcony door, and the dresser, the small chest beside the entrance, and the bowl we bought by the ocean. We call for the dog, he doesn’t dash out from the bedroom where he was sleeping on the bed even though that was forbidden. The apartment echoes with our steps, neither of us says how relieved we are. There are no picture holes on the walls, the protective film is still on the windows. Everything is exactly as it was on the first day. We finally figure out that this is the fourth floor. We close the door, look at each other and go the next door. Our key opens four more apartments. 

We had the sofa cleaned but it still seemed filthy and so bought a new one and had been planning on getting a new desk for quite a while. The stems of the Komodo philodendron reached all the way to the floor, we hammered nails into the wall and let it climb on those. It will soon reach the first picture on the wall. One of us takes long walks with the dog every evening to be able to smoke pot, the other detects the odor but doesn’t ask about it. Sometimes we sit out on the balcony and share a cigarette. We watch the windows of the other wings, it seems as if something was moving in the dark, but there is nothing there, only darkness. How about over there, we ask, isn’t that a curtain? No, it’s only the window frame. There’s someone sitting on the swing; it’s only the shadow of a bush. Then some people start arriving looking for an apartment. We laugh about how keen they are. They don’t know yet how empty this building is. That the bathrooms are too small and the hallways too large. There are no radiators to stand in front of to warm up. The concierge accompanies them to one of the apartments, never on our floor, we watch from our window as they go out on the balcony, scan the courtyard, and when they look in our direction, we retreat behind the curtain. We watch as they walk around the courtyard, they resemble the figures on the poster that is still in front of the building.  Men and women are walking in the courtyard, children are on the swings, scrambling on the climber, a dog licks the hand of a girl.  Sometimes we imagine we are the couple walking snuggling up to each other or the ones sitting on the bench, but the more we look at the poster, the more we are convinced we are not on it. The potential buyers leave and don’t come back. Then, after a while, no one comes.

We hide different things in the building for the other one to find. One of us is in the front, the other following. Very cold, we say, or lukewarm, you’re getting warmer. Is it in the B wing we ask, the B wing is very cold. We head for the D wing, lukewarm, go to the second floor, cold, the fourth floor, getting warm, we say, and notice how the corridor echoes, we open the door of the apartment 46, hot, we find the theatre tickets on the kitchen counter. Apartment 46 is five square meters larger but it only has two rooms. The living room is like ours, with windows all around. We open the balcony door, the balcony is larger, a hibachi could fit in it. We would barbecue here, one of us says, there could be a hammock here, the other says. Once a month we would invite the neighbors over, if we run out of barbecue spice, the neighbor can hand it over the balcony railing. I would have an affair, one of us says. What do you mean? Here, I would have an affair, it’s that sort of apartment. Would you have an affair here? Not here. Then where? Somewhere else. I would have an inkling but I wouldn’t dare ask about it. We go back to our apartment. The dog is so happy to see us as if we had been gone for several days. 

Every evening at 8:00 the concierge checks out all the corridors. He arrives at our floor at 8:10, he slows down in front of the door, walks gingerly and goes down to the second floor.  He knows when we leave for work, when we get home, and when we go shopping. He asks if everything is all right when we take the dog for a walk more often than usual. He also knows that sometimes one of us goes up onto the roof and watches the street, anxious that the other one may not come home. The concierge could tell if we had a fight, at such times he gives us a wider grin. The tooth behind his eye-tooth is missing. He watches us take the elevator and go along the corridor. We look around in our apartment, check the lamps, pat the walls, we are convinced that there is a camera somewhere in the apartment so that he can watch us. For weeks we behave as if there was a third person in the apartment, we walk differently, we wrap a towel around ourselves in the shower stall, we touch each other differently, we pat the dog more often, but we don’t let him up on the sofa, as if we had borrowed it and had to be careful. Then we get used to the idea that the concierge is watching us, we get used to him having the tooth behind his eye-tooth missing, and then we find it hard to get used to the fact that now he only comes twice a week when he has to put out the trash. 

We are playing a game. We imagine that the man in apartment 13 is restless. He cannot replace the bulbs because they are all working; he cannot fix the doorknob because it turns easily; the kitchen cupboard door doesn’t creak, nor is the faucet dripping. We imagine that he opens the cupboard as if looking for something, closes it, opens it, closes it, what are you doing, his wife asks him. The man improvises that he is looking for a mug because he would like a coffee. You never drink coffee in the evening. I have a craving for it. But it’s almost 8 o’clock. The woman is fifteen years younger but mature for her age. She is sure that she knows everything about the man, she guesses if he would like to soak up the sauce of the tuna pasta with bread, she is already slicing bread when he puts his fork down and reaches for it. I always know what he needs. We decide that they are the ones sitting on the bench, it’s hard to make out their faces because the poster has gotten dirty in the past month. My husband married me because I can make the same pound cake with a chocolate glaze that he used to eat in kindergarten, I keep kidding him about it. Most of my stories have to do with my husband, he is the protagonist or he is the one who said something that I need to repeat to others. In these stories my husband is self-assured and strong, he knows exactly what needs to be done in all situations, while I am a likeable minor character who smiles even when she is not in the mood to smile. My wife appreciates my sense of humor. My husband has a great sense of humor. We imagine that we run into them in the lobby, the man is aloof, the woman is more polite than congenial, as if afraid that we will ask something that they will have to answer. 


We are sitting in the car listening to the radio. If we pay close attention we each can hear the other’s breathing. We notice a cat at the side of the road, there’s a cat there, we say. We like the same kind of music, we listen to the same radio station. Or rather one of us, the other doesn’t admit not listening to the radio except to the one in the car. We turn up the volume when our favorite announcer reads the news. The announcer’s voice resembles that of an actress but it is definitely not her because she always drags out the last vowel at the end of a sentence. We imitate her and try to drag out the vowel at the end of our sentences. We find the dragged out ee-sound the funniest, it makes us laugh out loud, our eyes meet as we laugh and stop at the same time. We slide our hands down our thighs, we no longer remember who copied this gesture from the other one. Two cats, we say and look at them but only for a second and look back at the road. On hearing the word “cat”, the dog raises his head on the back seat. We don’t like it when the highway is busy, we don’t like having to pass cars and merge back into the lane, having to watch when there is someone behind us who wants to pass and honks the horn if we make any sudden moves. We don’t admit that the honking startles us and we also worry that the honking would startle another driver who would jerk the wheel and cause a dangerous situation for us, just when the announcer drags out one of the vowels. 

We sat in this same car when we both had the same thought and one of us asked how does one know when one is in love, we had already crossed the third border and for the last half hour we were in a country neither of us had ever visited before, we were self-assured, curious and excited like those going on vacation who have accommodations 200 m from the seashore, 300 m from a department store, have GPS and internet, they couldn’t get lost even if they wanted to, isn’t that sad, and we came up with the same idea that it is about disgust, that is how ones knows. We both pretended that it was a difficult question that took a lot of pondering. We couldn’t picture each other’s face even though sitting side by side, that was another reason that we knew that we were in love, not only the fact that we were not at all disgusted by the other’s snot.  

We arrive home tired, we can’t talk about the trip for days. If our friends ask what it was like, all we say is fine, if they ask about the weather, we say warm. What was it like to sleep in the car, don’t we have backaches. Five cities in seven days, did we see anything of those cities at all, would we recognize them if we returned there, which one did we like the best. Can we imagine settling there. How much is a coffee, a kilo of bread, a liter of milk, are buns truly cheaper there. Several of our acquaintances moved there, it’s close yet it’s not here.  How busy was it at the seashore, is it as pretty as the Italian or Greek coast. And did we swim. We tell the same stories at least six times until we get bored with them, and instead of remembering them what we remember are the words we used to tell the stories. 


Now to apartment 25. My wife is sad today, as well, and once again I don’t ask her what is the matter. I was already in bed, my wife had gone to bed earlier, I forgot something that I tried to figure out and that’s when I remembered my wife. I decided to ask her the next morning, I will stroke her face or her arm, perhaps put my hand on her shoulder and ask her. I was awake. Were you awake? I couldn’t sleep. And why are you sad?  You can ask right now but I won’t answer because I will pretend to be asleep. I think you’re asleep but I ask in the dark what the matter is in case you might answer. I whisper the question so that if you’re asleep I won’t wake you. I don’t react. I don’t ask again, I will wait for morning instead. I have trouble falling asleep, the rain knocks against the window sill, I think you don’t hear this anymore and think how lucky you are to be already asleep. So why are you sad? Are you stroking my face or my arm? Your face. At first I say that I’m not sad at all. I say your name and look at you for a long time. There are so many things one can be sad about. Pick one. I am sad because I cannot have a child? Is it because I would like one but it is not happening? But I would know about that and it would make me sad too.  Am I sad because you are cheating on me? Maybe, but that is apartment 46. Then it occurs to me, what happens if you want to leave me again. Why did you have to bring this up now? Yes, I think that’s the reason. You ask about it and I don’t say anything. I just keep repeating that I’m not sad. Finally I say that I’m tired, probably that’s what’s showing, I’ve got a lot of work or something like that. Let’s go to an outdoor spa on the weekend and get a rest. They’re all closed already. Then let’s go for a hike. I nod, let’s go. But wait a minute, I’d prefer that there is no reason why I’m sad, there are a lot of people who are sad without any reason. As you wish. 

We remember less and less what our life was like before this building. We couldn’t tell what the entrance to our old apartment was like, whether we put a pine wreath on the door at Christmas time, what the view was like from the bedroom window, there must have been a draft by the window, we don’t know if the light in the bathroom was the cool or the warm type. We had a lot of neighbors, two per floor, we saw them often, talked to them, asked how they were doing, we helped them carry down their heavy furniture they wanted to get rid of when it was time for that. Yet we couldn’t recall their names. We seemed that we talked to each other differently in that apartment, we touched each other differently, and coming home we often focused on the other person, slicing tomatoes or reading the newspaper on the sofa, we lived in a bachelor apartment at the time but were uncertain whether there was another room in it somewhere, for example a bedroom, perhaps by the bathroom. We don’t understand how there was enough space for the plants, and if there was enough for the plants, how was there enough for us. The sun would only shine through one of the windows, that’s where we positioned the chairs, we turned toward the light like plants, we sat down and closed our eyes, put our feet on the window sill, the sun burnt our soles. 

The areca palm grew too big for its pot, we had a hard time transplanting it on the balcony, it was too tall. It’s getting increasingly more difficult to move the plants around, it is hard to get a good grip on them, it takes more and more time to water them. We put some of them in the corridor, they block the entrances to the neighboring apartments, and even there they grow so fast that after a while we can’t even find the doors. The sun fades the photos, the faces cannot be made out even when the light doesn’t fall on them. We get more and more confused who is who on the photos, we can’t picture their faces, as if we were in love with every one of them. Our friends come over less and less often because they do a lot of overtime or have a second job. We are sent back home from our workplace because the heating costs too much.  Days go by without us seeing anyone, or we only see them from a distance when we take the dog for a walk. Now to apartment 46. One of us has a lover. I don’t ask about it, just watch for the signs. That today you didn’t look back from the street when you left for work. You didn’t hear when I said that I missed you, or if you heard it, you pretended not to, so that you didn’t have to reply in kind. That I spent all afternoon writing something on a piece of paper that I left on the kitchen table, and yet you didn’t look at it when I went into the bedroom. That we hadn’t had sex for weeks, before when that happened you were ready to climb the walls and in bed you pressed your hard cock against my back, but you didn’t do it this time. I know there’s no point, as far as you’re concerned, we could just as well sleep in separate beds. Then that’s why you’re cheating on me. I guess so. Let’s look at apartment 13 instead. What are they up to?  I’m about to break the faucet so that you can fix it.

Sometimes we don’t talk to each other for days. We walk along the corridors, enter the apartments, take the elevator to the fifth floor, stand on the rooftop, and look at the other one on the opposite side. We don’t nod when we look at each other, then turn away, look at the building entrance, watch the street, the concierge hasn’t shown up for weeks to bring the bin back to the courtyard. A cat moved into one of the apartments, we must have left the balcony door open, and it had a litter in a kitchen cupboard. Five kittens were meowing when we squatted down close to them, their mother let us pet them, we must have the same odor as the building. We bring them milk, bologna, a blanket, we keep the dog away from the apartment, when we get back from visiting he sniffs our feet and follows us everywhere. One of us doesn’t come home one evening, sleeps in the cats’ apartment leaning against the wall surrounded by purring kittens. The other one notices being alone while half asleep but cannot keep alert enough to go looking.

  We brush our teeth, get dressed, make coffee and mix the muesli. One of us dreamt that the plants had disappeared from the corridor, got up a dawn, opened the entrance door, the other one didn’t wake up because the door opens so quietly, the floor doesn’t creak either, looked outside, turned on the light in the corridor, could see the plants, touched the leaves, felt their softness, stayed until the light went out then turned it on again, and when the light went out for the third time, returned to bed. We keep apart in the morning, pet the dog, check if the window is closed, and leave the apartment and lock the door behind us. We listen for sounds coming from inside. We walk along the white corridor, stop at the staircase, look down, then up, but we don’t see or hear anyone, we are alone. We want to say a name or any word to see if there is still an echo in the corridor, but in the end we don’t say anything because we worry that someone might hear it. 


A short excerpt of this story, not identified by title, appeared in the pamphlet “New Hungarian Books 2024 (Petőfi Literary Agency, Budapest, 2024).


Translators’ Note:

The Hungarian language is gender neutral in the third person. Writers in that language usually give their characters names or traits that make it clear who is being referred to. By contrast, in “Magnolia Estates,” Anita Harag revels in the ambiguity. In our translation, various mechanisms are used to avoid third-person pronouns where the author intends the reader to be unaware of which of the two main characters is the subject. 

This intended lack of clarity fits in well with a story in a sort of parallel universe. “Magnolia Estates” does not exist in a real world but rather in one that could exist if a universe had branched off at the moment when the couple moved in to the new apartment building. As the real world drifts away from theirs, even their individual identities lose substance.


Anita Harag, the author of the short story “Magnolia Estates,” was born in Budapest in 1988. After finishing her first degree in literature and ethnology, she completed graduate studies in India Studies. Her first short stories that appeared in magazines earned her several literary awards. In 2020, she was the winner of the Margó Prize, awarded to the best début fiction author of the year for her first volume of stories. Her second book of stories, including “Magnolia Estates,” was published in September 2023. Photo by Dóra Baranyai.

Marietta Morry and Walter Burgess are Canadian. They translate contemporary fiction from Hungarian. In addition to stories by Anita Harag (seven have been published), they translate short fiction by Gábor T. Szántó, Péter Moesko, Zsófia Czakó, András Pungor, and Anna Gáspár-Singer. Many of these stories have appeared in North American literary journals. Photo by Péter Moesko.