Story Publication logo May 10, 2011

Toxic Red Flood

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English

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Toxic Riches

Poorly regulated mining and refining facilities are causing enormous devastation, while corporate...

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His boss told him he could take the day off. Monday was slow at the CBA supermarket after the weekend shopping spree. Tuesday was delivery day. On Wednesday business usually picked up. But Monday–nothing really happened on Monday.

Peter Pallanki felt happy. He wouldn't have to stand in the freezing meat section of the supermarket at Ajka, butchering pork and beef and mutton all day. He was a skinny guy–"the skinny butcher," he called himself. He was not the man for the job. He was a homebody and preferred to work around the house, fixing things. Just last night, at midnight, he had finally finished painting the walls and put down the brush. His bedroom had new window frames. Now, with the day off, he could put on the final touches: a new carpet and new light bulbs. He wanted to surprise his boyfriend when he came back from work.

It was a little after noon, when Peter heard a commotion outside. He looked out of the window. A police car was speeding down the street, blasting incomprehensible words. Water. Coming. Climb. Roof. What was going on? What kind of water? Had the little river that passed nearby overflowed? It had been unusually rainy the last couple of days, true, but nothing so out of the ordinary. What was all the fuss about?

A few moments later he saw it coming. A river of blood. It was moving fast, too fast for anybody to escape. He ran into the yard to bring the dog in. He shut tight all the windows. He turned off the main power switch. There were five more people in the house with him: his boyfriend's mom, his boyfriend's grandmother (the owner of the place), another relative, and a 12-year-old cousin, who had just come back from school with one of her classmates.

The place was chaos, everyone screaming. The flood rushed around the house, then started to seep in under the doors, through the windows. A red pool appeared on the floor. Soon it was up to their knees. They splashed through the hallway into the grandmother's bedroom, which seemed like the safest place in the house, the farthest one in. They huddled in the middle of the room, together with the dog, waiting in horror. The blood–or whatever in God's name it was–was rising. The furniture trembled and tipped. The lighter pieces got unmoored first, swirling around the room. The two girls climbed up on the raft of the bed. The blood–or whatever in God's name it was–kept on rising. Now it was up to Peter's chest. Abruptly, part of the wall broke in. There was no time to waste.

A window in the room led out onto the backside porch. Peter opened it and climbed over. The others followed him. The plan was to somehow get to the roof of the house. But how? There was a tree nearby, but its branches were too far out.

It was a lucky find: a small ladder. Peter saw it floating near the porch and waded through the current after it. He got a hold of it and then, with a final push, reached the tree. He placed one end securely between the thick, low branches and put the other on the ledge of the roof. Now they had a bridge to salvation.

He helped the grandmother climb up the tree, and over the ladder, onto the roof. He helped the two little girls. When everyone was safely on top, he followed them himself.

The whole country around was underwater. Cars floating by, furniture, doors, fences. The girls, covered in red, sat down on the roof tiles, shivering and crying. Peter was cold too, but there was also a burning feeling in his knees and he was sure it was not the fatigue. Something was slowly seeping into his skin. He took off his pants and looked down. His skin was peeling. Blood–real blood–was dripping down his legs.

***
It was lunchtime at the Roma quarter in Devecser. Eva Kurucz thought of grilling some meatballs and turned on the gas burner. Laszlo, her son, liked her cooking. It was October, harvest time, and he was out in the garden now, picking apples. She wished she could help him, but felt too old for that. At 71, she still looked good, but her health was already failing. Just this morning she had gone to the doctor to get some prescriptions.

Eva had been strong once, raising three children, working alongside the men at the local automotive factory in Ajka. The Gypsy blood running in her veins had kept her young longer than most, but now it seemed that even she had reached her limit. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, she liked to quote. Only the wooden crucifix on the wall gave her hope now. The face of Jesus, suffering yet hopeful, was what life was all about.

She was about to start cooking the meatballs when she looked out of the kitchen window. Saint Mary! A red river was rushing through the garden, swallowing everything in the way. Eva stood petrified, not believing her eyes. Was this Noah's Flood? The Second Coming? Were the wounds of the Lord so deep that the whole world would drown in them?

The red liquid started seeping into the room. Eva turned off the gas and tried to move the carpet away, her favorite carpet. It was hopeless. In the next moment she was already knee-deep, then waist-deep in what looked like blood, but wasn't. It was red and freezing cold. Everything was floating around the kitchen: the table, the refrigerator, the oven. She managed to make her way to the door and go outside. By the time she reached the gate of her garden though, the flood was chest-deep. The current was so strong she could barely keep her balance. Just when she felt she was going to be drowned, she took a hold of the fence.

She stayed in the freezing flood, holding onto the fence, for four hours. She called out for help, cried, but all the neighbors had gone away. She prayed to God. She prayed to Saint Mary. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, but she wanted so much to stay alive.

It was her son Laszlo who saved her. He had been swept away, but after the flood subsided he managed to get to her. He picked her up and carried her on his back to higher ground. When they were safe, he put her gently on the ground. Eva's skin was peeling away. The wounds were burning. Blood was dripping on the red ground.

***
Erzsebet Juhasz was so happy in her new house in Kolontar. She and her husband Zoltan had been married for thirteen years, but only recently was their mortgage approved. They had gone through some hard times together: a few years ago their two-year old son, Alexander, had been killed by a passing train because of a careless babysitter. It had been the bleakest period of their lives; everything had seemed pointless for a while. But, as they say, time heals the deepest wounds, and somehow, step by step, they had managed to get back on their feet. Now Zoltan worked at the French division of the Ajka plant, they had a new house, and their four children seemed healthy. Things were starting to look up.

That's when the worst happened. On the 4th of October, at 12:25 p.m., just as Erzsebet and Zoltan and their two youngest daughters, the one-year-old Angyalka and the three-year-old Dora, were finishing lunch, they heard a crack and a boom in the distance. Erzsebet and Zoltan glanced worriedly at each other not knowing what was going on. Their new house was in the shadow of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar reservoirs, where toxic red mud, the byproduct of the refinement of bauxite into alumina, was stored, but they never thought much of it. The steep, grassy walls of the reservoir were like a natural part of the landscape, a hump, a strangely regular hill. They couldn't even imagine that the high walls of reservoir number 10 had been breached and one million cubic meters of highly alkaline red mud was rushing toward them at this very moment.

Their house was one of the first the flood hit. They didn't even have time to go out and see what was happening. The red mud wave, about six-foot high, smashed into their house directly, broke through the doors and window, and rushed inside, overturning everything in its way–the furniture, the chairs, and the table they had been peacefully eating at just a moment ago.

Zoltan was immediately swept away by the current. Erzsebet grabbed both kids, holding onto them as tightly as possible, but the flood overpowered her. She lost her balance and fell. The one-year old Angyalka, a beautiful baby with gray eyes, was torn away from her hands. Erzsebet screamed as hard as possible, but Angyalka was swallowed by the red mass.

A mattress came in floating on the current and Erzsebet threw Dora on top, herself holding to the sides. Soon there was only a foot of air between the surface and the ceiling. They floated with the mattress for what seemed like eternity. Erzsebet tried to break through the plywood into the attic, but her hands were too weak. Dora had ingested a large amount of red mud and was violently coughing. Erzsebet thought this was the end.

After more than two hours, the freezing sludge slowly started to subside. Zoltan, who had been swept out of the house, reappeared. The skin of all of them was burning, the alkalinity eating through their tissue. Out in the distance they could already hear the sirens of fire engines. Helicopters were hovering in the air. Somebody was coming to their rescue. They would survive. They would live.

Only Angyalka, their little angel, lay lifeless in the mud.

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