Beware, O wanderer, the road is
—Rainer Maria Rilke
On October 24, 1956, the day I turned 9.8, my grandmother came to take me out of school in Budapest’s 6th District. We were in the middle of reviewing decimal points because of a mistake a classmate named Mary had made. Other parents and grandparents were arriving too with the same aim, although no one had come yet to get Zoli, the boy who sat beside me.
My grandmother gripped my hand as we made our way down Andrassy Avenue. At the Oktogon, where many of the big avenues of the city met, a crowd had formed. We couldn’t get by. A tank stood in the street, a bold red star shining on its flank. There were Russian soldiers too, but no one paid attention to them. Everyone was gazing up instead at eight Hungarian soldiers, one hanging from each lamppost of the Oktogon. My grandmother pulled hard on my arm, but not before I had joined the lookers.
Most of the Hungarian soldiers weren’t dead yet. A couple had stuck out their tongues as they dangled—one seemed to be smiling, four others wriggled and bucked, but the nearest one to us, straight above my grandmother and me, looked down at us with evergreen eyes, but there was no anger in the eyes, or even light.
My grandmother breathed into the crown of my hair, sending hot tendrils down over me. “Come, please,” she whispered, and I shuddered.
The crowd was quiet. Even the few people sobbing were doing it silently, swallowing the sound. From a little way down the street came the sound of an orchestra and a woman singing a sad song. I looked around until my grandmother turned me toward the music.
“It’s a record,” she said. “From over there.”
We spotted an open window above a lacy café a half block away, the white tongue of a curtain flapping out from the window.
“It’s Mozart,” my grandmother said, steering me onward. “His ‘Laudate dominum,’ I think. ‘Praise the Lord,’ it means. Why would anyone play that now?”
“Because they like it,” I said.
“Yes, of course. Because they like it.”
“Did you see the man’s hair?” I turned back toward the Oktogon and the dangling men.
“Whose?” my grandmother asked me.
“The man with the green eyes.”
I knew she had looked with me, but just for a second. The man’s auburn hair was parted and brilliantined so that it shone even at this distance.
“Do you think he combed it for someone?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said. “His sweetheart, I suppose.” I thought she might cry, but instead she said, “Now, please keep moving, my dear. We’ll have cake. Let’s have cake, at Gerbeaud.”
“Yes, now. Let’s have a treat. You can order anything you want. I know you want poppy-seed strudel.”
She took me all the way to Vorosmarty Square. The cobblestones made me think of a great house lying on its side. From the top of the building opposite, two Russian soldiers, both sturdy women, unfurled a canvas sheet so big it covered a side of Kossuth’s department store from roof to sidewalk. It was a vast portrait.
“Look, it’s Papa Stalin,” I said. I knew him right away from the picture above the clock in our classroom. He had the same smile and mustache, a mustache that was three times as impressive as Hitler’s, which was little more than a black checkerboard square. I found myself smiling back at the giant face, like a circus face.
“Please,” my grandmother said, giving my arm another tug. “The great father forgot himself,” she said under her breath. “Forgot to leave. Come, Robert, please.” And she pulled even harder on my arm now.
I was as excited about poppy-seed strudel as I was about Kaiser Laszlo, Gerbeaud’s monkey in a golden cage. He squealed as soon as we walked in. I think he recognized me because I’d fed him some apple cake last time. If I were the kaiser, I’d recognize everyone who fed me cake. He was wearing a bellman’s blue cap and vest. He tilted his head in an appealing way and held out his little hairy hand.
At the table I felt warm, as if we’d come in out of a storm. The waiter placed our sweets and cocoas in front of us. My grandmother took out her compact and mother-of-pearl makeup case. I watched, dazzled, as like an artist she applied some lines and clouds, borders and dots. Once done, she fished out her monogrammed silver cigarette case, removed a cigarette from behind the garter, and tapped the end on the case before lighting it. I was just breaking off a corner of my strudel for the kaiser when the manager walked to the middle of the busy café, clapped her hands sharply, and called out to us, saying we all had to go. She was very sorry. The café was closing for the rest of the day, but we could take our cake with us. The waiters brought linen napkins in which to wrap up our things. For a moment I thought it was that they’d run out of cake, but the glass cases were full of colorful sweets. I noticed a colony of marzipan goblins and other figures. Our waiter brought me one of them, a marzipan monkey with a cap like the kaiser’s.
People were leaving quickly and abandoning their cake—most of them.
“What will happen to the kaiser?” I said. “They won’t hang Laszlo, will they?”
“No, of course not. Not a thing will happen to him,” my grandmother said. “He’ll be here for us next time.”
“Next time,” she said, as if she were saying “never.”
We hurried home to find my parents rushing around the apartment and making telephone calls. My mother flitted from one room to the next. She smiled when she saw that I was home. “Sorry you had to leave school, my lambkin,” she said, and then went about her business.
My brother, Attila, was already home. He was 13.7, and he had our mother’s blond hair, while I had black hair, like our father’s. Attila was also a head taller than I was, everyone kept pointing out. It made me want to plop an extra head on top of mine, a freaky one, possibly.
My brother was sitting on the sofa eating an apple. “We’re leaving altogether, my lambkin,” he said to me.
I sat down beside him. “Where are we going?”
He was chomping away but said, “West. We’re going to the Wild West. You’ll need your cowboy hat and spurs.”
My brother wasn’t saying any more. He acted as if he knew but wasn’t telling, so I said, “I saw the hanging men.”
His face fell open. “What do you mean?”
“From the lampposts.”
He turned his arctic blue gaze on me. “Which ones?”
I crossed my arms. “On Andrassy,” I said. “At the Oktogon.” I pictured the man with the green eyes and nicely combed hair, but I wanted to protect the secret of this man, so instead I said, “Some of the men had their tongues sticking out.”
Attila jumped to his feet. “That is not what happened. You did not see hanging men, and they do not stick out their tongues. I know that for a fact.”
I shrugged. “Ask Mamu.”
Attila ran off to get our grandmother, and I could hear him yelling out questions at her. When he came back to me, he had whitened. His blue eyes looked like marbles dropped in snow. I thought he might want to strangle me. He glared, slapped at the arm of the sofa. “Are they still there?” he asked.
“Are they still hanging there? Shit.”
He rushed out to the balcony and climbed onto the railing to peer out over the bronze head of Mor Jokai, the old Hungarian writer, whose statue sat at the top of our street, keeping watch over it. Attila turned toward me with his icy stare. Then he flew back past me to our bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
That night, as we got ready for bed, my brother looked inside his pajama bottoms—he did quite a study—then raised his arms, flexed, and faced the mirror, admiring the muscles and then the hairs sprouting from his armpits. “We are experiencing the balding of the world, my small brother.” He tugged on a couple of the hairs. “These tufts are the last bits of hair left to us. But notice the apes are having none of it. They probably know something we don’t.”
“What?” I asked.
“I told you, it’s something we don’t know.”
“How do you know it’s anything, then?” I said.
Attila sighed but then moved on, which was his way. He peered down again into his pajama pants. “I would have made sperm a brighter color,” he said, “if I had been the Lord God, Creator of the Universe.”
“What color is it now?”
“You don’t know?” he asked, smiling broadly. I shook my head. He said, “Do you want me to bring some forth for you to see?”
“No, I don’t.”
“It’s a drab pearly cream color. It doesn’t say how important it is, how exciting, how it makes babies, humans, soldiers, beauties, love, courage, heroism.” The image of the hanging men shot through me, this time the ones with their tongues out. Attila was still talking. “These are children waiting to be born, or bits of children—the Beck bits, in our case—they’re bits that carry messages, vital information on us, my golden hair, your black hair, my sparkling blue eyes, Mom’s smile, our grandmother’s niceness, our bravery—or at least mine.” He slapped himself on the chest. “The color says nothing, or it says it is nothing. Blood is red. It makes declarations. It says alarm; it says I am the living stream. But sperm does not. It is dull and poorly designed, or at least poorly decorated. ‘Give it something more,’ I would have said to the Lord. ‘Color isn’t everything. Give the little sperms horns, or feathers.’”
“Or full wings,” he continued. “Just fly through air. Right now, the slithery bastards swim upstream. Why not give them wings? Give them noisemakers, or little voices, so that all together they could sound like a mob storming the gates.”
Attila got into bed. I was still sitting on the edge of mine, waiting for more, I guess. I was staring at him, at the back of his golden head, his slender white neck. I was sure that even with a noose around his neck my brother would keep his tongue in his mouth, just to prove his point.
By the time I switched off the lights, he was asleep. He always fell asleep right away, even when our grandmother told us stories. Now I listened as she and our parents spoke in quiet but heated tones in the living room.
“We’ll go to Nebraska or Utah,” my father said. I didn’t know those places. Now he turned on his loudspeaker voice. “Yes, we’ll become Mormons. Lili, I want to become a Mormon, try on something new.” He was creaking back and forth over the floor, and then he stopped. “We’ll go to Canada. Why not Canada?” I knew my father’s cousin Adam lived in Canada.
“What are you talking about?” my mother asked. “And please keep your voice down.”
My grandmother said we should go to Paris first to visit her sister, Hermina. It would be a good place to start.
“We’ll visit Paris,” my father said, too loudly. “We’re not staying in Paris.”
“Why don’t we wait to see?” my mother asked.
“Because we’ve had enough of Europe,” he said. “Have you not had enough of the old bitch?” He was blasting out his thoughts now. “The whole place should be paved over and turned into a parking lot.”
“Simon, please,” Mamu whispered. “This has been our home. It has always been our home. You would not have said this if your father were still around.”
“He’s not around. He is resting at last.”
“Do you consider that a good thing?” his mother asked.
“It works for me.”
“Simon,” my mother said. “Why do you always have to go too far?”
“Here’s what I know,” my grandmother said, huffing. I imagined her getting to her feet. “I know that nobody knows anything. And some of us seem to know nothing with greater certainty than others.”
No one answered. There was some shuffling of feet and some tinkling of glasses, but they went quiet soon after.
In the darkness, the bar of light that started at the foot of our door floated up like a wand into the ceiling. When the living room lights finally went out, I waded through the black milk of the night. I saw the green eyes of the hanging man up ahead in some forest, like the eyes of a woodland creature. I heard music—drumming—from the window and thought of Kaiser Laszlo, deprived all afternoon of his usual morsels. But it wasn’t drumming. It was pounding. Our bedroom windows rattled in their casements and lit up as bombs fell in the distance, their sound muffled, as if I were listening through my pillow. I counted the seconds between the flashes and the sound, the way Attila and I did with thunder and lightning, to see how far away it was. Then the hanging man’s eyes drifted up again, greening over my sleep.
As Attila and I got dressed the next morning, it felt strange not to be going to school, like a holiday, but not a festive one. My father’s cousin Andras and his wife, Judit, were over, and the whispering continued until Attila and I joined them. They were sitting in the kitchen having tea and walnut cake. Judit was as pregnant as could be and panted as she shifted this way and that, too small and slight to have all that baby stuffed inside her. She had a glow about her in the early morning lamplight and a constellation of copper freckles, which moved with her big smile.
She gave me a hug and kiss. Up close, she herself smelled of the sweet, powdery scent of a baby. “I hope I have a child as beautiful and smart as you boys,” she said.
“You should be so lucky,” Attila said, as he reached for a cup and panted extra hard, the way Judit was doing.
Judit wanted me to sit in her lap, but I said I was too big.
“You’re not,” she said.
“He is, my sweetie,” my mother said, smiling.
But Judit had already pulled me down into her lap and thrown her arms around me. Everyone was smiling then as things seemed to swirl around us.
“I just want a good child,” Judit said. “A kind one.”
“Oh, is that all?” my brother said. He had poured himself some espresso and was adding ten spoons of sugar.
“Yes,” was the answer. Judit had a determined look in her eyes.
“Mamu and I saw people hanging our soldiers,” I told her. “Russians.”
Judit loosened her grip on me. “Oh, my dear Lord,” she said. “Oh, dear dear Lord. My poor young Robert.” She held my face by the temples, looked me in the eyes, then held my whole head too tightly.
There was a pounding at the door, quite a commanding one, and we all turned in that direction, as if to understand what it meant. We followed my father into the vestibule and huddled behind him, except for my brother, who stood by his side. It was Attila who opened the door. A man, a soldier the size of a tree, stood outside. He had such an overgrowth of beard, he could have supplied a whole room of teenagers with all the tufts they needed. He barked something at us in Russian.
The red star gleamed from his furry officer’s cap. He barked something again, and Judit squeaked and held her stomach.
The tree man paused, but then he entered the vestibule, parted us, and stepped up to Judit. He stared at her, gazed down at her belly, then bent down to listen there. No one knew what to do. He pointed a long finger at her stomach. Andras was ready to lunge at the Russian, and so was my brother behind him. Judit whimpered.
The man laughed as he straightened all the way up again. His mouth was like a jewel box, full of gold and glitter. He pushed past us and marched straight to our clock on the sideboard in the front room as if he knew right where it was. We followed him, and he waited for us to gather. He pointed to the clock, circled his long brown finger a number of times past the 12, and motioned that we were all to leave. Then, to our relief, he marched out again and slammed the door.
“We have until three o’clock,” our father said to us, “and then we have to be gone.”
“For how long?” I asked him.
“We don’t know,” my grandmother said gently.
“For about two centuries,” Attila said, “before we check back in with them.”
“What do you mean?” I asked
“They want us to get out,” Andras said. “Not out of the country.” We weren’t supposed to leave the country, weren’t allowed to, actually. We were just supposed to find lodgings elsewhere.
“But we’re not doing that,” Attila said.
“Be quiet,” our father said.
“We can’t leave now,” Judit said in a whisper. I could hardly hear her.
“We have to,” her husband said. “Now is our only chance.” The Hungarian rebels were rising up, he explained. There were breaks in the border. It would be the only time.
The Russian was back within an hour, and he had brought other soldiers with him, two women and one man. But the original one with the beard was obviously overseeing the proceedings. They worked their way through our home more like movers than invaders. They acted as if we weren’t there. From the china cabinet, they carefully pulled out Herend porcelain cups, saucers and platters, and a silver sugar box and teapot, wrapping them in cloth before placing them in large canvas sacks. Attila and I watched from the sofa.
They took down the paintings one at a time, leaving rectangular blond ghosts on the gold wallpaper. The largest of these was called Christmas 1903. It depicted two women dressed in dark coats and fur hats, one bent over a walnut secretary desk, writing a letter, the other looking out and down at us. Between them stood a potted Christmas tree on a table, festooned with bright ribbons and baubles and a star at the top. I always wondered why such a cheerful tree did not manage to spread its joy to the dark women in the parlor, who had most likely decorated it. Now the women were gone, together with their tree.
One solitary picture still hung on the wall among the ghostly rectangles. It was a drawing done by my brother of a Spitfire fighter plane tearing through the skies, spitting impressive bursts of fire. In the corner of the picture was the sun, and it too fired off spikes instead of rays of light. It was a sketch Attila had done in school, and our mother had had it framed in gold and hung over the gilded clock, in the shape of a double-headed eagle on the sideboard, which stood guard over the room. The fierce-looking bird was the emblem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
One of the Russian women carrying a canvas bag looked at the Spitfire twice as she passed by us. We watched her closely. She removed her snug army cap to reveal straw-colored hair tied back tightly, giving her head the look of an onion. She paused by the drawing but walked on. The eagle watched with its four sharp eyes. On her third trip by, she picked up the eagle clock with a strong arm and wrapped it up like a mummy before bending over to make room for it in her heavy sack.
Attila studied the operation, kept glancing up at his own drawing in its precious frame, waited for her to leave our home with the sacks, and then tore off madly to our room.
After that, things moved quickly. Our father told us we could each take what we could carry, no more. I snuck out again to the front room, peered in, making sure there was not a single Russian in the room. Then I ran to the sideboard, no longer watched over by the two-headed eagle, and removed a golden cup and saucer. They looked as if they might have come from an old palace, but they were small, like children’s dishes. My parents drank espresso out of them when we had company. I hid them in my shirt and slunk away toward the bedroom. I dashed out again, one last time, snatched Attila’s Spitfire drawing off the wall, opened my shirt, slipped it past the buttons, and slid it all the way to the back above my belt before buttoning up my shirt again.
“Come with me, my one true love,” Attila said behind me. “I want to show you something, over by Heroes’ Square. I hear something is happening there.”
“Where the big Stalin is? The statue?”
“Just come,” he said.
“Shouldn’t we tell somebody we’re going?”
“Not if we want to get out of here. We’ll be back before anyone notices; don’t worry.”
Of course we wouldn’t be, but I knew better than to argue. From the hard look on my brother’s face, I had a hunch he was taking me to where there were twice as many hanging men as I had seen and that his hanging men would be Russians, not Hungarians.
We slipped by the commotion in the kitchen, and Attila led me on a trot through the confused streets of our city, streets full of people not going about their business as they usually did, but acting alarmed, whispering rather than talking to one another. Nobody looked tired or bored, as they did on other days.
When we turned a corner, we just about ran down a man ourselves, a beggar holding out his hand. Attila stopped. He seemed to be out of breath for some reason. The man was a Gypsy, one-legged, one-armed, propped up against a bakery whose window had been shattered. In the window, a single dingy lace curtain clung to its rod, shaking its head no in the breeze. A loaf of bread sat inside inside on the counter, along with a cake that looked blue in the light.
The poor man stood out of the wind on his only leg and held out his only hand. He was like a badly designed tree, with a single branch held out to catch rain.
We took off toward Heroes’ Square.
I felt a little strange, but I could hardly wait to see the square again. It had been some time since I’d been there. I had come with my class on a clear day last spring. Stalin had stood like a Titan in the square on a high stone pedestal, a bronze man more impressive than a building. (If you want to make someone look like the Lord himself, my advice would be to make him big, his right arm raised high, his hand upturned, focusing the blue lens of heaven.)
When Attila and I turned the corner from Andrassy Avenue onto Dozsa Way, at first I thought we’d come to the wrong square. Perched on Stalin’s pedestal were two boots the size of boilers, but no Papa.
“There!” Attila said, clapping his hands and hooting. We ran like mad toward the pedestal. Attila hooted again and jumped.
Stalin lay toppled behind his high stone platform. He was entangled in ropes and chains, like a colossus hoisted from the sea. But his big bronze boots still stood. Rope ladders hung from them.
There were surprisingly few people in the square. They covered their open mouths when they saw what we saw and hurried away, as if the fallen god’s dark angels were still hovering, about to take revenge.
But Attila was fearless. He pulled me along like a dog toward the fallen father.
There was a shot, dinging something. I checked the windows all around the square, the trees, the moving shadows. Another shot pocked the pedestal.
My brother’s tone sharpened. “Come!” he said. “Hurry.” He was several rungs up one of the rope ladders. “Come!” he barked again.
I followed him. We scrambled up the sagging ladders. Who could have invented such a thing? I banged my elbow on the stone, scraped the knuckles of my left hand.
Attila was already on top. Several Russian soldiers came running toward their bronze leader from the other side.
Attila helped me reach the top of the pedestal. “We have to get inside.”
“The boots. One each. There’s a ladder up the far side of that one. You take that. I can get up this ladder.”
“We’re going inside the boots?”
Attila was hoisting himself up the ladder, moving his hands and feet like a monkey.
I clambered up the second ladder. “What are we doing?” I grunted.
“We’ll be like Mother Goose. We’ll be the Brothers Goose.”
Attila waited for me. Once I made it to the lip of the boot, I was surprised to see how cavernous it was inside, taller than I was and much darker than the bright day. My brother gestured to me to raise the rope ladder—pull it up with all my might—and let it fall inside the boot. I watched him do it first with his ladder, then I did mine. The ladder was bony and heavy. I didn’t think to use it once I had dropped it in and instead slithered down into the boot. I took quite a spill, landing on my shoulder at the bottom. I’d heard my brother sensibly drop feet first into his boot.
What now? I was quaking, my teeth clacking. I looked up into Stalin’s blue heaven. I was overcome with dread that we would soon become the Brothers Corpse and that it would have been a more glorious death to be strung up in the Oktogon. If we were to come out of this alive, my father would beat us, as he must. The inside of the boot darkened for a moment, and I thought what a good idea clouds were, not to mention rain. I wondered what paintings of the sky would look like without them. We’d have to use a very rich blue without them, very pure, and without any brushstrokes showing.
A shot clanged against my boot or Attila’s. My teeth clattered like mad, like something loose inside me, a box of buttons.
Then, just as suddenly, a calm settled over me like a gossamer net. Was this the end? Would they find us in these boots? Would Attila jump out like the warrior rebel he was and take the bullet he was born to take? Would the Hungarians come to finish Stalin and complete their triumph? Would the Russians come first and fill the boots with concrete instead, monuments to Stalin, the Ever Standing? If they found my brother and me, would they make examples of us, chain us to the boots until the vultures came to peck out our eyes? Was there honor in that?
The soldier of the Oktogon dangled before my eyes like a clear statement, and I knew that Attila and I would not die like legends but like jokes, the Brothers Grimm without a tale, our family shaking their heads, not allowing our names to be uttered again.
Attila was quiet in his boot. I wanted to call out to him but felt it best not to. I edged my way into the dark front of the boot, to where Stalin’s toes would have been, and then Attila loudly whispered my name. I crawled out from the toe, and he was there at the top of my boot. He must have pulled himself up.
“Let’s go, my tender love,” he said. “It’s all clear.”
“How do you know?”
“Look at me. I’m not being shot at.” He climbed down into my boot and lifted me onto the rope ladder, pushing me up before climbing out himself.
We flew down Damjanich Street and almost ran into a tank clattering to the right of us. These beasts bruising around the streets were less like vehicles and more like instant buildings plopped down in the middle of the street, daring you to pass.
Up ahead, a man stood calmly outside the Urania movie theater. He was dressed in a brown gabardine suit and wore a matching brown fedora. He was lighting a cigarette, turning away from the wind that brought us. The Urania was white and had Moorish windows. It always beckoned like a foreign land, like an exotic Arabian bazaar laden with wild and exquisite gifts, gifts with horns and warm gems.
We caught up to the man just as he exhaled his first full puff of smoke, and a shot sounded, taking off his hat. For a stark and childish moment, I tried, in my own mind, to trace the path of the bullet through the man’s head as it knocked over everything in its path: his day, his night, his next puff of smoke, his dinner plate of veal paprikas, his smiling daughter holding up a glass to the light to see if it was cracked, his wife entering the dining room with the wine, wiping a damp hand on her apron.
The bullet might as well have struck us too, my brother and me.
“Let’s go!” Attila snapped. He pulled me straight through the doors of the Urania, the white doors splattered now with blood.
Inside, in the darkness, Tarzan unleashed a sound like a jungle aria. The Urania was showing Tarzan the Ape Man. The theater was majestic, with its tall Arabian arches.
Attila stared at the screen.
So we were going to sit now and watch a movie? We had just seen a real man’s head explode, but now we’d watch Tarzan the Ape Man? There was an absoluteness to events as Attila lived them. It is sleep time, and now I will sleep. It is eating time, and now I will eat. It is ducking-into-a-theater time, and now I will duck. Once in the theater, I will watch a movie, which is what we do in a theater.
I could not draw one deep breath. Tarzan fought a lion. Jane was pretty. Tarzan swam with crocodiles. Jane loved Tarzan. Tarzan trumpeted through the jungle. Cheetah cringed. But where was Kaiser Laszlo? Where was the man in the brown hat? Who would carry him away? What time was it? Had the Russians expelled our parents? Did our parents think we were dead?
“I’m going,” I said and got to my feet. Attila couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. “I’m going,” I said again, and marched toward the front of the theater, where the fawn had disappeared.
Attila slapped at the armrest but followed. He heaved open the side door with his bum. The sun’s yellow smack blinded us, but we ran through it toward home as a cool wind blew up from the Danube, flecked with dust and leaves. Soon enough we could make out the familiar landmarks of our neighborhood and let down our guard a little. It was not until then that I finally found the meat of the air and gulped it.
I stopped for a moment. “Why did they shoot the man with the brown hat?” I said.
“I don’t know,” my brother said. He took my hand.
“What was the man doing?” I asked.
“He was lighting a smoke.”
“And he got shot for that?”
I stopped, but Attila pulled us along. “Not for that,” he said. “For stopping where he did, for being a standing target. For sport.”
We got home just ahead of the Russians, who were late. When we slipped through the door, we were met by our father. I’d never seen him in such a fury. He was a snorting bull. He lifted Attila by the collar of his shirt, a mighty act, since my brother was almost full grown.
“You Russian!” Attila shouted at him.
Our father banged Attila up against the wall. But the matadors swooped down on them: Andras, Judit, our mother and grandmother. My father let Attila down but raised his fist like a biblical figure at both of us.
“Don’t hit them!” Judit said. She embraced her swollen stomach, gasping and looking as if she might faint. “Oh,” she said to her belly. She staggered back into the living room with the help of her husband.
But our mother had already slipped between our father’s raised fist and my brother’s golden head. Our mother hugged and kissed my brother and me strenuously, squeezing too hard. “My lambs, my lambkins,” she said.
Our grandmother stood behind her, the disappointment on her face equal to my father’s fury, as if her faith in life had been shaken, her faith in love. Just as she hugged me hard too, Attila broke free, bellowed like Tarzan, pounded his chest, and flew off to our room. I lost my breath again. My heart took off without a runner. The dead man in brown rose up in front of me.
My father snorted and slapped at his sides. “We have to go.”
“Simon,” my mother said through her tears, “we have our sons back.”
“Yes,” he said, “and we have to go. Now!”
We went to get our few things. When we returned to the vestibule, we could hear Judit in the living room with Andras. “The Russians are distracted just now,” Andras was saying, “but not for long. They’ll send in reinforcements, and when they do, we’ll be stuck here. Our baby will be born here and grow up here.”
“Is that so bad?” Judit whispered. “We grew up here.”
“It will be bad, worse than we have known.”
A short while later, Andras and Judit joined us in the hall. We were all leaving together, Andras and Judit included. They had brought their bags to our apartment, including Andras’s dentist’s case, as well as a rolled-up carpet, a very old Persian one featuring a bird of paradise, which they treasured. My father pulled his leather satchel, which contained his tool-and-die instruments, onto his shoulder.
Minutes later, the Russians came, not a friendly group like the first one, and they pointed the way outward, out of our home.
My father had arranged for a small Hungarian army truck to take us to the Keleti railway station. The truck was waiting for us at the corner of our street, where the statue of Mor Jokai gazed out at Andrassy Avenue. Judit and Andras climbed into the back. Andras asked Attila and me what had taken us so long.
“We went to look at something,” Attila said right away.
“Come, get in,” Judit said. “Come, boys.” She was patting the bench seat on either side of her. She looked shiny red and bursting. A couple of Hungarian soldiers helped us load our belongings into the back.
It was not far to the station. People were cheering and chanting. A tank with the familiar red Russian star sat dead but still fuming in front of the station. Teenagers danced around the steel beast, waving the flags of Hungary with the holes cut out of the center. “Out, tyrants,” they were singing, and chanting. “Freedom, freedom, freedom.”
Behind them rose the Keleti station, as great and grand a palace as any ever made. Here, the train emperors and empresses rolled in and out, in and out, welcomed by the great glass eyes and arms of the building. A stone angel sat at its crown, flanked by attendants and steeds, blessing the path.
But when we stepped inside, the imperial trains were already choked with people. There was such a frenzy in the station that it seemed as if everybody wanted to take flight, but we were all pinned down by gravity, penned in by the way-high roof and rafters.
“Sold out,” we started to hear. “Sold out for today, and tomorrow. No seats. Sold out.”
The last of the ticket windows was closing. A single uniformed attendant weaved through the crowd, telling people they could spend the night on the cots around the sides of the building, where the soldiers used to sleep. “Find yourself a cot,” he was telling people, “or please return home.”
Beside us, Judit groaned.
“Can you not find two seats on the train?” our mother asked the attendant, gesturing toward Judit and Andras. “Just for them?” She smiled her radiant smile.
“Please,” Andras said to the man.
“I have no seats,” the man said. “I don’t even have standing room.” He hurried away.
My father had on a look like someone overcooked, ready to burst into flame. “We need tickets!” he shouted to no one in particular. The attendant hurried away from us. “Tickets! I’ll pay double for tickets!”
“Simon!” our mother said to him.
“We’ll be stuck in this place forever.”
“I have gold,” Andras said. “Let’s offer a ring, earrings.”
My grandmother put an arm around my brother’s shoulders, mine too, but Attila slipped free.
“I can get us tickets,” he said. “Give me the cash and jewels.”
Andras looked at my father. He seemed to be awaiting some kind of instruction, but then a woman approached us. She was wearing an apron embroidered with folk colors, but she also wore a brooch pinned to her sweater just below the shoulder, a big gold brooch in the shape of Hungary, with jewels where the cities were, and a snaking blue line meant to be the Danube. Her two front teeth were gold too.
“I have tickets,” she said to us. “How many do you need?”
“How is that possible?” our mother said.
“Seven,” our father said. “How much do you want for them?”
“I want the gold ring and earrings,” she said, glancing at Andras, “but I want more.”
My father was shaking. I thought he was going to hit the woman—punch her in the gut, possibly, and rob her. “What else?” he said through the cut of his teeth.
“I want your address and the key to your house.”
“No,” our mother said.
“One Jokai Street, second floor,” our father said, standing very close to her, the brooch of Hungary bending between them. He found the key in his pocket and held it up high in the air.
“There are Russians in our house,” our mother tried.
Our father glared at her.
The woman counted out seven tickets. She appeared to have as many left over. “The ring, the earrings, and the key,” she said.
Our father snatched the tickets from her and handed over the key, while Judit removed her ring and earrings.
Even waiting to depart on board the westbound train, we thought we would be stopped. Attila said he was ready if we were. Everyone looked around expectantly, but no Russians came.
The train was to leave in two hours, but it had easily been three before it did.
At last, we rolled out into the evening. There weren’t enough seats, and hardly even enough standing room. My grandmother held my hand as we stood in the corridor and jiggled along, my satchel clamped between my feet. Attila helped our grandmother with her bag. He asked if she was taking a boulder to Utah or Canada, and a man nearby told us that during the war there was a building called Kanada in a camp at Auschwitz. Kanada was where all the valuables, like gold jewelry and gems, were stored. I wondered whether Christmas 1903 was headed there.
Attila poked me in the back. He spoke right into my ear so the others wouldn’t hear. He made me promise that if I were the first one to be strung up in the Wild West, I would stick out my tongue for him.
The train lurched, and Judit gasped and held the side of her stomach. Andras embraced her. He had his dentist’s case with him, and some clothing and bedding in another sack. My father was carrying Andras and Judit’s rolled-up Persian rug, along with his tool bag.
The countryside outside our window was dark now. Only a single bomb lit up the glass, but I could not hear its pop.
Before long, the train squealed to a halt, but not at a station, just somewhere between stops, a place surrounded with fields. The conductor told us all to get off, and we helped Judit and my grandmother down before we started walking, the whole mob of us heading off in the same direction. The scent of night was heavy around us.
We left the railroad tracks behind and walked mightily toward the border, hundreds of us, many hundreds, like thieves through the dark. Now and then a bomb fell, and each time it did, Attila and I looked up to see who was dropping them. If they were celestial creatures, they flew without lights. They flew like bats. Judit whimpered and then yelped as if she were walking barefoot. My grandmother was beside me on my right, Attila on my left, and our parents were up ahead, keeping pace with Andras and Judit, our mother supporting Judit.
The sun had deputized the moon to give us light. Still, it was very dark—the stars were not much help—until a bomb went off again, again from nowhere. Something struck my brother, and he fell against me. My grandmother and I stopped and crouched beside him on the cool ground. My grandmother fumbled through her bag until she found her lighter. Its flame was as bright as a knife blade. It shone on a man’s shoe. The top of the shoe was red and steaming. My brother had been struck by a man’s shoe with the foot still inside it. Some of the blood dripped down his neck.
He jumped to his feet. “Where are these damn bombs falling from?” he said. He was rubbing at the side of his face where the boot had struck.
“They’re not falling,” our grandmother said. “This is a minefield we’re crossing.”
“Oh,” my brother said, and then he took off like a bird.
“I should lift you up,” my grandmother said to me. “It’s not far now.”
“You can’t. I’m too big. I should be lifting you up.”
She clenched my hand, our feet alive to every step as we walked.
It struck me just then how very keen I was on lamplight, its quiet little yellow show, and how nice it would be to have some in the field.
I took a last look into the darkness at Hungary. My grandmother took my hand again, lifted her bag, and led on.
It was just a few minutes, no more than ten, until we saw a light up ahead, a single bulb, a solitary lamppost. We heard someone say it. My father. “Austria.”
As we drew closer to the apron of light—there were only dozens of us now; we seemed to have scattered on our march—I saw Judit lying down on their Persian rug, her knees up, her head cradled by my mother, with Andras between her legs. She was lying right on top of the bird of paradise. The rug was darkening under her.
I was relieved to see my brother there too. His back was to us, and he was peeing.
My father offered to take my grandmother’s bag. “What’s in this?” he asked. He opened the bag. “What are these?”
“Phonograph records,” she said.
“You brought records with you?” he said in disbelief, and rifled through them. They were 78s. He held one up to the light. “The Barber of Seville?” He was yelling now. Judit howled. “This is what you brought?” he said. “The Merry Widow?” Then he hurled them, smashing one after another against the lamppost and against the concrete at its base.
“Hey, lunatic man,” Andras said. “Get away from here.”
“She was taking records to Canada. She wanted music there.”
“And now she’s not,” Andras said.
My father stopped. I looked at the scattered bits of record, shiny black shards of sound glinting in the Austrian lamplight. For the first time, I wanted to scream at my father, wanted to hit back.
But then a baby cried. Judit was crying, and my grandmother was crying too on account of the baby.
“Gisela,” Andras said, as he lifted the little thing waist high. She was still tethered to her mother. “She’s a girl. Austrian. Gisela.”
Judit continued her crying. She was sweating too. And her fiery red hair fanned out from her head, drawing the rest of the light to itself.
“Why Gisela?” my father asked.
But Gisela overwhelmed him with her crying. Her cry was the shrillest. A small crowd had gathered in the light, mostly Hungarians, but also a single Austrian border guard. The little soprano called out to everyone. She was so new and loud, it felt to me that she would lead us now, wherever she needed to go.
Excerpted from The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes, copyright ©2014 by Joseph Kertes. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.
Joseph Kertes was born in Hungary but escaped with his family to Canada after the revolution of 1956. Kertes founded Humber College’s distinguished creative writing and comedy programs. He was until recently Humber’s dean of creative and performing arts. His first novel, Winter Tulips, won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Gratitude won a Canadian National Jewish Book Award and the U.S. National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. Kertes has also been a finalist for a National Magazine Award and the CBC Literary Prize. The Afterlife of Stars is forthcoming in the U.S. in January of 2017.