Bottomless Lake Bus Stop

by Bogi Takács

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At that time, Budapest was full of monsters. I was a kid, with family who recently moved to the capital from the country, and every nook and cranny was crammed full of terrifying mysteries. I ate up the urban legends, the tales, the stories children tell to each other, all to provide a solid foundation for my fear of the unknown. After all, it’s much more comfortable to be afraid of the dragon than to be at the mercy of baseless, free-floating anxiety.

The dragon, as one story went, lived in the Gellért Hill Tunnel. I read this in an actual book, with corresponding illustrations and therefore, an air of mythical believability, even though by that point, I was well aware that the contents of children’s books were not necessarily real. I passed through the Tunnel several times a week, sitting on a chugging bus, staring out of the window. The dragon was nowhere in sight, but I knew that if I were to step through one of the service doors to the side, I would find myself in its lair.

How the dragon got there, being too large to fit through human-sized doors, I had no idea. Maybe when it was just an egg, abandoned by its mother and scooped up by a Transport Company worker, taken to the service area to hatch there among the warm tubes and the air pumps. I could only guess, as at that point, I had already returned the book to my newfound friend, Juli, who had originally lent it to me, and tried hard to forget about it.

As I grew up, the monsters faded into memory, less and less real with every step taken on the path to adolescence and then adulthood. Yet, there was one being whose existence I could never completely discount.

Have you ever heard of Bottomless Lake, in the heart of Buda, on a patch of green surrounded by buildings? Every time I left the city to visit my relatives in the country, the bus stopped there before leaving Budapest. I became obsessed.

How deep was the lake? Adults vehemently denied its bottomlessness each time I asked, but yet provided me with contradictory answers. Twenty meters. Thirty. Forty. Just five. Even twenty was astonishing for me, given that the largest lake in Hungary, Lake Balaton, was less than fifteen meters at its deepest. And for every adult who came up with a mundane answer was another one who had a mystery for me.

Nowadays, you can look up these pseudo-facts on the Internet, on more daring tourism websites and in urban myths collections, and indeed, when I do so now, I find many of the tales I was told at that time. One stated that the lake was originally a mine and miners were flooded when they hit upon a spring, to die there. The site was indeed part of a mine more than a hundred years ago, but more official histories of Budapest claim that the empty hole was simply filled up with water after recultivation. However, there are many hot springs underneath the city, so there could be some truth to this old wives’ tale, if not for the fact that the water of Bottomless Lake is cold.

Various urban legends state that dead bodies – sometimes whole bodies, sometimes just skeletons – surface from time to time, and one event even bears the official seal of approval: divers found a suitcase with several million forints in it, never claimed by its rightful owner. What were divers up to in the lake – who knows? Looking for cadavers? Maybe even the original owner of the suitcase?

With Juli, we decided to investigate. Our plan was to come home from summer camp a day early – “of course our parents know” – and get off the bus before it reached Central Station at Népliget. We had no idea how, or where, we would spend the night before we turned up in Népliget the next day. It wouldn’t have worked if not for Juli’s eccentric uncle who posed as her dad on the telephone, and he was also the one who picked us up at the lake. “What, did you seriously expect I would let you spend the night alone?” This was the eighties and Budapest was relatively safe, but not that safe, at least so he thought.

In person, I quickly realized he was one given to paranoia, even if, at that age, I would have opted for a lengthier description, not being familiar with the concept. While we lay in wait, he told us stories about eldritch horrors, abominations from the deep, in convoluted sentences the half of which completely went over our heads. He had a thin, long face and skin so pale I wondered if he ever ventured out during the day – from then on, he would be a semi-regular character in my nightmares, despite his good-boy impression and conservative haircut.

He brought a turtle with him, a small pond slider you could buy in any pet shop. For some reason, these aquatic animals were en vogue in the eighties – much later, I read a tongue-in-cheek short story by a Russian writer who claimed this was because of a surplus in one of the republics of the USSR and, with the vagaries of the planned economy, soon every child in the Eastern Bloc had a turtle. Ma, can you buy me one? They are soo cheeap! I could believe the theory, especially since, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, these oddball pets rapidly went out of fashion.

“When kids like you get bored of their turtles, they often bring them down here,” Juli’s uncle whispered. “All those intruders could ravage the ecology of the lake and yet, nothing happens. I think I have an idea why….”

The small animal tottered toward the edge of a plank. We watched, enraptured.

It happened too fast and the stalks of reeds obscured the view and it was dark, the streetlights were far away…

But still, to this day, I am perfectly sure that a tentacle rose up from the water and, without a sound, scooped up the little lump of flesh and vanished below the surface.

I glanced at Juli, her round face like the moon – she did not resemble her uncle, not in the least – and saw her bite her lower lip, squeeze her fingers to a fist, fight her urge to cry. The uncle looked vindicated and, for a moment there, I wanted to kick him.

Then the silent spell passed and we headed back toward the bus stop. It was very late – I was surprised; where did all that time vanish? – but still, I insisted on going home, not to Juli’s or worse, still, her uncle’s place. They had to accompany me all the way, under yellow streetlights, along empty avenues. My mom yelled at me. My dad stared in utter disapproval, not saying a word. I climbed under the sheets as fast as I could, but sleep was a long time coming.

From then on, every conversation with Juli would be strained and we slowly drifted apart. When her family moved to Debrecen, we exchanged addresses, promising each other to be the best penpals ever, but the novelty of letter-writing soon wore off. We never got back in touch.

Maybe we were mistaken. Maybe it was the excitement, combined with the late hour and the wait. Maybe it was something about Juli’s spooky uncle and my overactive imagination.

But every time a tourist asks me about the hot springs, I wonder what lurks beneath the city – I even have a little conspiracy theory that the monster drove the Ottoman Turks away. Yet, the Turkish baths still remain, probably with better plumbing measures to keep unwelcome intruders away. And where does the heat come from? You can talk about geothermal gradients as much as you wish, but the fact remains that Hungary has several anomalous hot spots underground, which neighbouring countries seem to lack – and the largest such spot is in Budapest…or maybe I am cherry-picking from half-truths, keeping only the ones that suit me?

I don’t know, and maybe it signals a certain weakness of character, but I am not sure I have to answer that question for myself and possibly for you. The monster remains.


Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish woman currently studying clinical neuroscience in Vienna, Austria. Her speculative fiction and nonfiction have been published in various Hungarian print and online magazines. She also helps run Expanded Horizons, a webzine dedicated to increasing diversity in speculative fiction.