The Great Silence

An Apocalypse Short Story by Fanni Sütő

The Great Silence

by Fanni Sütő


Other TTTV stories by Fanni Sütő

One day it will brighten, hid now in safety’s dark

Till peace shall write upon our land its shining mark

And answer our choked words in sentences of light.”

< Miklós Radnóti: I know not what…

Translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth & Frederick Turner>

The heavy air of the bunker covered us like a stuffy duvet. My kid sister slept in the other corner and when I turned towards her, I saw a huge roach scurrying along her naked foot. I didn’t even try to chase it away. Lili could sleep through an apocalypse, but she woke up from my lightest touch. What she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her, right? Any kind of creepy-crawlies freaked her out, but we weren’t in the situation to choose our flatmates. Anyway, they’ll probably be here even when we’ll be nothing more just nuclear waste under the ruins of the burnt up world.

Did you know that cockroaches can live up to a week without their head?” V’s voice echoed in my head, from a Biology class a long long time ago. We were listening to the monotone and hypnotic voice of our teacher, explaining something about ganglia. I was reading my favourite poet, Radnóti under the desk while V was drawing the frog skeleton that sat next to us on a shelf. She neatly labelled every tiny bone. Then I noticed the horizon burning in a strange crimson light. I’d never seen anything so terrifyingly beautiful. I just stared out of the window watching the town hall go up in flames. It was V that grabbed my arm and woke me from my trance.

Her nails left tiny painful crescents on my skin as she dragged me away. A few minutes later a bomb fell on our classroom. I would have stayed there forever, hadn’t it been for V. The world fell apart in front of our very eyes.

I pulled the tattered blanket over my head, but it offered little protection against the misery creeping up on me and even less against the despair raging inside. It was only at night that I could shed the cape of level-headedness and hope, a disguise I wore during the day for my sister. I had no idea how long I could keep up this charade.

I woke up to something soft bumping against my nose. When I managed to pry my eyes open I saw my sister’s face from up close.

What are you doing?” I yawned.

I’m checking if you’re sleeping,” she laughed.

Well, not anymore,” I grumbled. “We don’t have time to laze about anyway! Lilieutenant, supply report, please!”

Yes, ma’am!” She slipped into her role with full seriousness. It’s 14th March, 2050, our supplies are the following: three cans of beans, five spam conserves, two instant soups, seventeen somewhat shrunk potatoes. Soon we’ll have a few new carrots and bell peppers ripening in the glass house.”

We won’t last long, I thought, but I pulled my lips into a tight smile.

Thank you for the report. News from the outside world?”

The radio is silent today, like always.”


Dad had taught us that no news was good news and if somebody knew how to survive, it was dad. He was the reason we were still alive.

I ran my fingers through Lili’s too short hair. She used to be like a doll with thick, curly locks. We couldn’t allow ourselves such luxuries anymore. I shaved our head with my dad’s machine, leaving only enough hair to protect our skin. Lili said we looked like soldiers, but I preferred to think of the female monks in Tibet. It was nicer to think that we’re recluses on a journey of spiritual growth than willess puppets in a war. In any case, long hair was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

We still don’t know who started it. Was it Russia bombing the USA or North Korea wanting to break out from its long solitary confinement with nuclear experiments? It happened too fast and every source had their own theories. Dad had taught us not to believe anybody.

We didn’t have time to think. When the sky went up in flames and the bombs started falling, I knew what I had to do. My brain and my muscles did their thing almost automatically; years of seemingly pointless drills saved our lives. After V dragged me out of the building, I rushed to find my sister. She was standing with other primary school pupils looking like lost baby birds. I grabbed her and ran towards the fence where I kept my bike. My Science teacher called after us, but I didn’t listen to her. I knew that there was only one safe place in the world: home.

I looked back at V. I felt guilty leaving her after she’d basically saved my life, but I had to take care of my sister. V just smiled at me and shrugged in her “I’ll figure it out” way. This was the last time I saw her. V was the cleverest person I’d ever known, she had to survive.

I pedalled like mad towards the edge of the forest, Lili crying without tears behind me. As we got further away from the heavily inhabited parts, the sounds of the attack grew more distant. Only the half-collapsed houses reminded me that it was real and not a passing nightmare.

Out here everything seemed eerily quiet. The heavy silence of the neighbourhood felt more painful than the sound of the impact. Death was prowling the abandoned the streets.

I pushed my bike in a ditch and ran for the cover of trees, dragging Lili behind me. I shot an anxious look towards our house, but it perched on the edge of the field just like in the morning when everything had still been alright. I didn’t dare to go in the front door, so I opted for the secret entrance. I didn’t trust appearances anymore.

I could hear the clamour of tanks in the distance. I pulled Lili to the cover of what used to be an old ranger’s house. My hands were trembling as I cleaned the leaves from the hidden trap door.

I climbed down the rusty ladder with palms slippery with sweat. Lili followed me without a word; my sister, always so energetic and bubbly, was without words. We had to get through another thick metal door, I knew the code by heart, would have known it even if I was woken up in the middle of the night. Only when the heavy door closed behind us did I dare to let out the breath I’d been holding.

Are we going to die?” Lili asked. Her voice rang strangely factual.

No, no, silly. We’re safe. Dad’s going to be here soon, he’ll take care of us.” I tried to mask my trembling voice with confidence.

I didn’t want to think, so I got busy. I shaved our hair and, just to be safe, our eyebrows as well. Lili giggled, she found our bald head funny. I turned my head to hide my tears. I swept up the hair and burnt it alongside our clothes. I pushed Lili under a cold, cleansing shower. Basic precaution against radiation.

While I’d been looking for Lili in school I caught the terrified whispers of our headmistress, apparently in the east they threw down that kind of bomb. I even believed to see the distant shadow of the distinctive cloud lurking on the horizon while we rode home. I hoped it was just my imagination.

I found our ancient slide-projector and I spent the whole afternoon telling tales to Lili. I tried to pretend this whole thing was just an adventure, another weekend survival bootcamp. For a few minutes I felt I’d succeeded.

Time became slimy underground, we got stuck in it and we wreathed in like flies in a spider’s web. I knew that sticking to a strict schedule was our best bet at survival and staying sane. After a day I came up with a rigorous timetable and I did my best to continue Lili’s education from where it was broken off that horrible day. Even if some days I thought it was completely pointless. I tried to convince myself that one day we could return to our normal life and I didn’t want her to be behind in the curriculum.

We hoped for a very long time that we would hear dad’s secret knock on the door, but the only answer to our prayers was silence. I don’t know what would have happened to us if his drills hadn’t burnt into our bones like napalm. Actually I know exactly what would have happened: we would be also lying in the unmarked mass grave of victims. On the worst days I think it would have been for the better. Death is easy, life is hard. But I can’t give up, the will to survive has been drilled into me too deep.

Dad had bought the house at the edge of the fields six years ago. Mum thought he was crazy. Everybody did. His colleagues whispered behind his back when he browsed books about survival. His boss laughed at him, but he didn’t fire him because he was a good employee. Dad forbade us to talk about the bunker or the preparations. I didn’t understand why, but I kept my promise and I didn’t say anything, not even to my best friend. Now I understand that dad was only trying to protect us. He didn’t want people to laugh at us too. He saved our lives and we’ll never be able to thank him.

I often wondered how he could see the future this clearly. Where did he find the strength to follow his conviction?

I didn’t believe him either, I suffered through his drills in silence. I quickly understood that the sooner I did what he said, the sooner it was over. As a teen I was far more into virtual adventures with V and gossiping about boys than the possible consequences of a nuclear fallout.

Now Lili and I were in great preparations for the celebration of the 15th March national holiday, the anniversary of a revolution which was full of high hopes, but ended in misery. It was the third time we commemorated it down here. Probably it was also going to be the last. Even though in the beginning the bunker had been chock full of provisions and dad had even created a small glasshouse lit by infra lamps, our supplies were running out. Two measly carrots per day won’t sustain a teenager, or a small kid, for long. If we continued this way, we were going to starve by my eighteenth birthday. It was only four months away.

A weird twist of fate, but when we were still in school I used to hate all compulsory school celebrations. We were crammed in the gym, watching the projected virtual reality version of historical events. It was the same boring shit every year, they didn’t even care to correct the bugs like when half the beard of Táncsics disappeared or when Petőfi suddenly turned completely blue.

Everything had changed down here: starved for opportunities to break away from the routine, we marked every holiday and memorial day with embarrassing enthousiasm. Lili learnt a few paragraphs from Petőfi’s comic epos and I came up with clumsy melodies for a handful of Radnóti’s second world war poems. It might have been anachronistic, but there were no adults, forcing us to be rational.

I was suddenly overcome by nostalgia and opened my old history book. What will historians write in the books of future schoolchildren about our age? Will there be anyone to tell our story? Falling out from among the recycled pages, a drawing floated to the floor. My heart sunk as I looked at it. V drew it for my birthday, god knows how many years ago. Maybe it wasn’t even a birthday. The drawing showed an imaginary city and a girl floated above it in a blindingly white nightgown. The girl was me and it was an illustration to “Júlia nem akar a földön járni1” by Napoleon Bouelvard.

It was an old, old band. I’d found a few cassettes and my grandparents’ place, first I couldn’t even imagine what to do with them. It was so strange that our ancestors used to store data in such a clumsy way. I fell in love with this song because the girl’s name was Júlia, just like mine. She was also lost in her daydreams. V liked the fact that I chose such an old song for my anthem, it made it feel like a secret message. Very few people knew the pop music of the last century.

My nights were getting more and more restless. The bunker, which used to mean safety and survival, had slowly become an oppressive prison. I lingered on the border of dream and waking like a restless spirit.

The commemoration was a success. I felt quite patriotic even though I wasn’t sure there was a homeland anymore. After the show we cleaned up and suffered through the one hour compulsory workout. The ventilators stirred the air painfully slowly, so the room smelled of sweat for a while after the gymnastics. I suddenly felt dizzy, I couldn’t stay there anymore, so I escaped to the cool kitchen. I didn’t want to look at our diminishing supplies so I fiddled with the radio. In the first months I spent long hours trying to find a signal, but I got nothing but white noise or stammering army news. Then the great silence fell.

My strange feeling was growing as I surfed through the frequencies. Something had changed, I seemed to catch human voices amidst the white noise. I held my breath and listened, but when I paid closer attention, it fell apart to meaningless fizzling. And yet and yet…

In the following days I kept thinking about the radio. We ate the last can of beans. I spent hours hunching over the wireless, convinced that I once caught a fragment of human speech. I searched through the slightly mouldy books and I read all amateur radio magazines granddad had left for us.

We ate the last instant soup and had only a handful of potatoes left. The plants in the glass house didn’t grow fast enough. Lili slept all day, she had no strength for anything. It was better this way, maybe in her dream she went to nicer places. I was turning the buttons of the radio without hope, well aware that very soon we’d have to leave the bunker. I didn’t want to die underground like a mole.

The sizzling suddenly stopped, its place taken by an insecure melody. I thought I was going to fall off the chair when the trembling voices come together in a meaningful, oh so meaningful text:

Júlia nem volt erős, vagy több mi nálunk

Júlia nem volt se jó se szép

Most Júlia nem akar a földön járni

Fölszállt inkább a fejünk fölé2

I pinched myself, afraid I was dreaming. A few minutes later Lili appeared in the door with eyes sticky with sleep.

What’s this hullabaloo? Why are you blasting music?”

This is the radio, sis, the radio!” I cried and spun my sister around. She still didn’t get it. It might sound crazy, but I was convinced it’s V trying to reach out to me. Who else would play such an ancient song? Hope coursed through me like electricity. I jumped up and put on my overalls and gasmask with insane speed. Lili didn’t understand what got into me, but she still followed my example. I filled an old army bag with the essentials and I even packed granddad’s old hunting gun. Lili was afraid, but she didn’t ask anything. She followed me without a word as a climbed up the ladder.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a friendly welcome committee waiting for us with kind words and hot cookies. I know, however, what I was afraid of: indescribable, deformed mutants. Or soldiers.

I pushed the trap door open; it felt unbearably heavy to my weakened arms. My first instinct was to hold out the digital Geiger-Müller counter. I didn’t forget about the rational steps even when I was drunk on hope. The device showed some radiation, but not as much as I feared.

The earth around was covered in a thin layer of ash and dark clouds hid the sun. The landscape felt eerily silent. Nothing moved, the world was deserted.

Disappointment slowly slid down my throat and sat in my stomach. I felt stupid for thinking that a few seconds of an old song could change anything. I slid onto the cold ground and wept. Lili sat down next at my side and tried to hug me as much as she could. I don’t know how long we sat there, but darkness slowly rained down on us. I didn’t want to go back to the bunker, there was only death and hopelessness waiting for us down there. Up here lay a new world to be explored. I knew it was crazy and dangerous, but I had to believe my best friend was still alive, waiting for us somewhere. I was going to find her.

1Julia doesn’t want to walk on the ground

2Júlia wasn’t strong or more than us,

Júlia wasn’t even good or beautiful,

But Júlia didn’t want to walk on the ground

So she decided to fly high up above our head.

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