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things 17-18
spring 2004
Plutonium-239 sample, 1941
Plutonium-239 sample, 1941.
From the Smithsonian archives
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István Örkény
Critical mass

I’d already been to all the logpiles in the area, but in vain. Buying anything was difficult these days. Then someone recommended a cellar somewhere in the suburbs, whose resourceful and energetic director could lay his hands on any kind of firewood, as long as you took him some rum.

I didn’t even have to buy it; we had some rum at home, and it was even genuinely Cuban. I found the cellar, and the eight steps that led to it. I was not even halfway down them, the rum bottle in my bag, when a man shouted from below:

‘If it’s East German briquettes you want, we’re out of them!’

I carried on down, greeted the man and set the bottle of rum on a tin tabletop covered in coal dust.

‘I’m not looking for them,’ I said.

‘What can I do you for?’ asked the director, directing a quick glance at the rum bottle.

‘I’d like to buy some nuclear fuel.’

Everywhere I’d been so far had said no. But he took a step closer to the rum bottle, read the label, looked at the sugar-cane drawn on it and then said:

‘I may be able to scrape together some uranium ore.’

You had to laugh.

‘You’re a real joker!’ I said to him. ‘What are you thinking of? I’m not going to enrich it at home in my kitchen, am I?’

I grabbed the bottle of rum and stuffed it back into my bag. The man immediately became more helpful.

‘Don’t be in such a hurry. Calm down and tell me what you need, and we’ll see what we can do.’

As if he didn’t know – I thought – but I nevertheless explained patiently that I needed it for an ordinary nuclear warhead, in other words pure uranium isotope 233.

‘Of course, if you can’t get any,’ I said, ‘plutonium 239 will do.’

I took the rum out again and put it on the tin counter. I did not say anything. He did not speak either, but took the bottle and put it in a ramshackle old filing cabinet further away. Why waste words? With this dumb show, we were making it clear to one another that the deal had been done, and the coalman would only haggle for show.

‘Might I ask,’ he said, ‘whether you already have a booster rocket?’

‘Yes,’ I answered curtly.

I did not go into details. If I had told him how much legwork there had been in finding a small business where – not, of course, for a single bottle of rum, but for an English player piano and six rolls of sheet fabric! – a medium-range rocket was made with great difficulty out of hours, it would only have raised the price of the nuclear fuel. I was right. The coalman stated a surprisingly low price, and I put the money down on the table.

‘Did you bring something to carry it in?’ he asked.


‘Two forints, then, for the bottle.’

I paid the two forints.

‘Do you have a cork?’

I didn’t have that either.

He sighed. Then he tore out a page of the newspaper and crushed it into some kind of bung to stuff into the mouth of the dirty Vichy water bottle. He had taken the bottle from the filing cabinet in which he had just hidden the rum bottle.

‘Do you want me to wrap it up?’

‘No need,’ I said.

‘See you again,’ said the coalman, politely escorting me up the steps. Then he asked: ‘You are going to use it for peaceful purposes, aren’t you?’

‘Of course,’ I answered.

‘Only asking. You look like a jovial kind of bloke,’ he said, wagging his finger playfully.

Translated via Finnish by Hildi Hawkins.

István Örkény (1912-1979) was a Hungarian writer and dramatist who supported the uprising of 1956 and subsquently worked in a medications factory. His ‘minute short stories’, of which this is one, were designed for those with little time to spare: ‘Let us read a Minute Short Story while we cook a soft-boiled egg or wait for an answer on the telephone (if the number is engaged). Ill health or stressed nerves are no obstacle. We can read them sitting or standing, in wind and rain or in a crowded bus.’

Image from the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology.


things 17-18, Spring 2004

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