Last night I had a dream, and in it I was brave: three boys were coming toward me as I stood in a clearing. At first I didn’t recognize them, but then I saw it was Perec and the boys. The shortest one had a hatchet in his hand. I figured they wanted to do that again. Just how I managed to take away the hatchet I do not know, but take it away I did, and I did what I had in my other dream. It happened fast. So fast, that this time I didn’t even see any blood, though for sure they spilled a lot of blood. Then I waited for the police. Two squad cars arrived, but without sirens. When the cops got out I turned to the side and saw, three or four yards away from me, two bodies floating in the water, face down. Before I knew it, the cops were lifting the third boy out of the water. A river? That’s what I thought at first. Then I realized that I was standing by a lake. I wasn’t scared. I was calm. I was glad I’d done what I’d done. The funny thing is, Perec’s face looked normal, as if he’d just gone and drowned. Though I didn’t see the faces of the other two boys, for some reason I thought that their faces, too, looked exactly like they did that time when they cornered me. But I’m sure I did what I had in my other dream. Absolutely sure. One of the cops put a hand on my shoulder. The hatchet was still in my hand. That felt good.
At four-thirty, when Papa leaves for work, I wake up. Papa still works for the state railway, but now he’s at the railway directorate in Rákoskeresztur, a little town by the Danube, where not long ago he also accepted the post of watchman. He’s got to learn new jobs, because while we’re busy building the Big House, we really can’t be spending all our time making devotional objects at home, that religious stuff we sell to the Church. Mama wakes up around five. I know this because she then goes right out to the street and asks someone for the exact time. She always does this when she’s on morning shift. The first time the Church did a collection for us we didn’t get a clock, and she can’t be late for work at the pen factory in the nearby town of Szentendre. She was hired there not long ago for two whole shifts. With her having kids all the time, Mama never got a trade, which is why she’s got to screw ballpoint pens together all day. While she’s getting ready I pretend to be asleep like the rest of us. My head is under the pillow and my brother Teeter’s foot is right by my face: I push it away, like other times. Then I try getting back to sleep, but it doesn’t work.
Nowadays we’re living in the Little House in a village called Pomáz. Papa and the three big boys built it with Mr. Miska directing the work, while us little kids stayed back at the Bombshell Villa along with all the girls and Mama too. The Bombshell Villa, where we used to live, is in the eastern town of Debrecen. We called it the Bombshell Villa because it burnt to a crisp on account of a bomb in the Second War, but back in ’45 right after the war, in exchange for free rent, Papa fixed it all up, because back then he still had money from being in the army. It wasn’t till later that the communist people’s army sent him packing.
All of us were born there, in Debrecen, I mean. Mama always took a wooden cross with her to the baby ward in the Big Forest Park just outside downtown Debrecen. But Doctor Szilágyi said to her, “Mother dear, this won’t do, last time I almost got into trouble on account of that cross.” Mama then spread her arms wide while her insides took to crying, which maybe the others saw, too. Doctor Szilágyi saw it for sure.
Then she sat up on the baby-making bed and clutched that wooden cross tight while we came out, one by one.
I was the ninth.
The Little House has a room and a kitchen. Papa sleeps in the kitchen, the rest of us get the room. Papa has a bed in the corner by the stove, a bed he all to himself. In the kitchen there’s also a table and a chair. Our room has space enough for the three wooden beds, a cast-iron stove, and a big chest. We keep our clothes in there. We pushed the beds together to make one bed, or else we wouldn’t all fit on them. Even so, we’ve got to sleep crosswise; thank goodness us little kids, excepting me, aren’t so big.
Back in the Bombshell Villa, where we had two rooms, sleeping was easier. Papa bought iron-frame beds from the railway directorate in Debrecen at a discount, beds we could close up during the day. At night we opened them up, and the two rooms were chock full of beds, which is not even to mention the writing desk, the die-casting machine we used to make plastic vats and other stuff that we’d sell, the reed organ, the bookshelf, and the brown closet us little kids climbed inside whenever one of the big kids got a serious whipping. But we didn’t bring those iron-frame beds with us when we moved across the country, to Pomáz. I was happiest about leaving them right where they were. It’s best if I explain right away why this was.
I must have been four. One afternoon, when for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to play leapfrog with the others, I went into the inside room and began toying around with one of the iron-frame beds, because we usually left one by the die-casting machine when need be, to sit on while forming plastic, I mean. Anyway, I was pushing the bed here and there, as strong as I could, and then I stuck my fingers between the clamps one after another to lock them up. My left thumb happened to be in the hole when my brother Socks—that’s what we call him—appeared from out of nowhere and jumped right on me on the bed. I didn’t feel a thing, but I wailed away all the same. Mama ran in and yanked out my thumb. But it wasn’t her who took me to the doctor. First my thumb was wrapped in a rag, and the rag was wrapped in some newspaper, I have no idea why newspaper, and then Nanny—that’s what we call my really big sister—took me to the railway directorate, and from there with Papa to the clinic. The doctor praised Nanny, like so: “You’re a clever one, my girl, you saved your little brother’s finger.”
That was the first time I spent much time in a hospital.
Mama wakes up fastest, but Nanny and Tera wake up second fastest. They get ready almost right away, seeing as how, in winter, anyway, they leave on their day clothes at night. It’s no use them warming each other under the blankets, no, that’s just not enough. Since being pulled out of the Franciscan school in Szentendre, Nanny and Tera have been going to work in the flax mill way down in Budapest. Papa arranged them being pulled out of school in no time. He said to the head priest, “Please understand, Father, that on the nine hundred forints a month we earn—if you can call what we get from those dirty communists earning at all—we can’t even begin to cover our expenses. And as you know, sir, we’re still building our house.”
Nanny and Tera leave the house every morning not long after Mama.
There are only seven of us left on the bed. Priest—that’s what we call my biggest big brother—takes up the most space, because he acts as if he’s sleeping in a bed all to himself. It does no good kicking him, no, he won’t budge an inch. He’s special even in his sleep, which is not to mention that he always gets to sleep near Mama. And in the morning it’s him we all listen to. He shows us how to make a toe-rag to stick in our shoes, because otherwise our feet will get all drenched in the snow and the slush. And if need be, he tells us how to tuck our shirts in our sweatpants. Or if we announce that one of the little kids has a cold, he then orders Socks and my other big brothers to hand over their sweaters for the day. Priest really likes talking for others, but he doesn’t let anyone touch his clothes. He’s got a little box by the big crate that he can lock with a key. He’s the only one of us who has jeans; he got them when we were still living in Debrecen, and none of us know where from. Mama really wanted to be a pianist at first, and then a nun, but then the World War II came along, so my Transylvanian grandparents decided that it would be best if she found herself an officer from the main part of Hungary to marry her, because then she could get herself out of Transylvania. “Second-lieutenant, sir, where my baby lives, there should be a piano, too,” Transylvanian Grandma told Papa before the wedding, and he promised he’d buy the best darn piano money could buy.
Priest is seventeen, and he for one can keep attending the Franciscan school in Szentendre. Mama secretly hopes he’ll become a parish priest some day. All the way until she had Tera, who is the littlest big girl among us, Mama was really disappointed at not being able to have a boy, seeing as how she wanted a priest by all means. It did no good taking that wooden cross with her to the maternity ward, no, all she had was girls. First came Kláró, then Nanny, and finally Tera. But then Priest came along, after all. Doctor Szilágyi then figured he’d never meet up with Mama again. That’s not what happened.
Nowadays we don’t have breakfast in the Little House. Only at night do we light up the stove to make tea and toast bread: we’ve got to save on coal, especially now that we have just four bags left—and luckily the weather’s been milder the last few weeks. Papa says that over to the east during the war, in the Carpathian Mountains, where the Russians kept them on their toes, the Hungarian soldiers had to sleep in freezing temperatures for a long time, and sometimes they didn’t eat at all. “So don’t you kids go being cream puffs, either!” He says that a lot. According to Papa, there’s nothing more “perfidious” than someone being a cream puff. But if there’s tea left from the night before, we do drink it. Sometimes with sugar, sometimes without, depending on if we were able to buy any. We’ll get a snack in school, anyway, for ten-o’clock break. We’re all paid up to be watched over at school into the afternoon, which is twenty-four forints a month for each of us. For that money we get lunch, too, plus an afternoon snack. Only Priest and Socks don’t get one, no, in high school they get only lunch.
Around quarter after seven we leave for school. Us little ones usually go together, because we all attend Elementary School Number Two. Benjamin is in first grade, Teeter is in second, Mara is in fourth, and I’m in third. Risi is older, and for some reason he wound up in School Number One, close to Meselia Hill; and since last year, anyway, Socks has been studying in the technical school in Békásmegyer. Once he finishes, he’ll be an electrician. Our school is at the end of the village, not far from the older part of the village; from our house we have to walk at least a half-hour, if not more. That clattery bus would get us up there fast, but we don’t have money for that. When we go from door to door on Easter Monday sprinkling some perfume on ladies we get some change, then we’ll be able to buy bus tickets again for a while, just like our classmates from the new part of the village, most of whom take the bus all the time.
In school we make as if we don’t know each other. Only Mara tries talking to us sometimes during breaks, but she’s a girl, and anyway, her accent isn’t as weird as ours. If we can, we avoid her, and if we meet up with her by accident, we get away from her really fast. When we have to form a line, then there’s no avoiding her, so then we just say something.
My teacher is called Miss Vera. Her hair is dark brown, and her voice is almost as beautiful as Mama’s. She doesn’t take her socks off during class. Miss Magdi, who taught us back in second grade, dried her socks on the iron stove all the time. And she put her feet up on the table. “You know, kids, this is the only thing that does my hurting feet any good.” She said that all the time, and then she gave these great big sighs. But you know, the classroom didn’t get any smellier because of her socks. At least it seemed that way to me. I didn’t ask the others, though: even in second grade I mostly didn’t say a thing.
Miss Vera made me sit by Szabó. We’re the last ones in the row by the window. Szabó is really fat, smells funny, plus she’s a girl. As soon as I wound up sitting next to her, she began staring at my fingers, seeing as how I sometimes forgot completely about my left hand. Then it hit me, and I poked a pen into her hand. At first I thought the fat would come flowing right out of that hand, but nothing came out, no, her skin protected her.
Until our writing lesson, my mind is mainly on ten o’clock snack, and the snack in the bag that Dunai brings with him every day. Dunai sits right in front of me, and sure enough, he brought a roll packed with slices of paprika-spiced salami. While we’re reading the lesson out loud, the paprika smell hits my nose more and more. Yes, it’s practically as if I’m in the butcher shop I go into once or twice a week. When that happens, I always wish salami had never been invented. If I didn’t wake up so early every morning, I wouldn’t smell smells as strong as I do, and then maybe Szabó wouldn’t have a smell, either. I don’t know if she has a bathroom at home, and if she washes herself at all, but if I forget about Dunai’s snack, I immediately smell what I smell in the house of the man next door, the man who sometimes invites me over to watch TV, and who says all the time while watching football matches, “Where’s the frog? Where’s the frog?” But maybe the smell is coming from me, and I just go blaming Szabó for it.
During the first break, I go to the toilet out in the schoolyard. This is almost my favorite place to be. It’s at least ten times as big as the toilet we have at home. You can even walk around inside it. I don’t mind it being smelly and all. It’s just right. When the others come in, I make as if I’m just about to pee. Sometimes I do that six or seven times even. That’s where I check my belly, too, but only if I’m all alone, of course. I pull up my shirt, let loose my muscles, and then I check to see how much my belly sticks out. In the morning it sticks out pretty good. My classmates think I’m scrawny. But I’ve grown a whole lot, yes, I’m almost as big as Risi, though he’s thirteen and I’m just nine; and when I’m all dressed up, my whole body does look bony, I must admit—except my belly, that is, which is all fat and which I keep sucked in all the time. True, probably it’ll never grow as big as Szabó’s belly, but the other day I had a dream in which all her fat flowed straight into me.
During our writing lesson I begin getting dizzy. It’s a good feeling, as if I’m sitting there on the bench, and I’m not, all at the same time. My right hand is shaking a little, and the letters are reeling about. When Miss Vera reaches over to me, she tells me to write straight. I try. Miss Vera always smells good. I wish I could ask her how she does it.
After the ten o’clock snack I feel a whole lot better. Pretty soon I’m in a better mood, and I’m better at solving problems, too. When I say I’m in a better mood, I mean that I start becoming more like the others, except of course that I barely say a word. Luckily I hardly ever have to read out loud alone. Miss Vera lets me get out of it, besides, this way I don’t hold back the others. It was different with Miss Magdi. She kept calling on me over and over again to start reading aloud, saying to me, “You’ll see how good it will go.” Except it didn’t go good; indeed, when I finally got a sound out after being all quiet for I don’t how long, she laughed along with the others, because no matter how much she wanted to, she just couldn’t keep herself from laughing. The worst thing of all was that Pető always did good when he came after me, but only then, because when he came before me, he often stayed all quiet for as long as half a minute, and then he began all the same, and he got stuck practically every time, except that no one laughed at him.
Anyway, whenever I sat there all quiet I often said to myself over and over again, “Hey, Miss Magdi, why shouldn’t you be able to dry your socks on the stove? Why shouldn’t you be able to dry your socks on the stove? We do it at home that way, too.”
Now that I’m starting to be more like my classmates during our reading lesson, or at least I think so, all of a sudden it crosses my mind that it might just go good at last. And, indeed, I manage to pronounce a syllable here, a syllable there just like it should sound, though I’m still gasping for air, yes, let Miss Vera think I’m making progress.
Mama and Papa don’t have time to bother about how good we talk. Maybe they can even be a bit happy that, excepting Priest and Nanny, we’re all full of speech defects. Kláró, who also speaks like normal, doesn’t live with us anymore; she stayed behind with Csizmadia back in the Bombshell Villa, since she got hitched soon before we moved across the country, right around the time I was sick. Yep, Mama and Papa can rest easy, especially when it comes to us little ones. Of course, even if we didn’t have speech problems, probably we wouldn’t go blabbing about Mama’s ritual of checking us all over for fleas, about our prayers, and about pretending we’re Indians on the way home when we look for smoke coming out of the chimney of our house. Other times our mouths could go on no problem—for me, when Miss Vera calls on me to recite, “How do we clean ourselves at home?” Yes, I always get satisfactory marks when it comes to just plain talking about things, which I’m really good at.
But it’s also true that if we spoke like we should, a whole lot would turn out differently: I don’t know exactly what Benjamin and them think about this, but I’m sure I’d tell Kerepesi a thing or two. Kerepesi sits on the bench in the front row, and at least once every semester he tells us about how they keep only one or two pups their bitch Szundi has and whack the other ones to death. Other times he says, “After three or four of you were born, your old woman should’ve been sterilized!” And then he bursts out laughing. At first I didn’t get what “sterilize” meant, but later on Dunai told me: his folks are doctors. Starting then, my face got even redder than it was, and I went on not saying a word. When that happens, I don’t dare give Kerepesi a kick no matter how much I want to; for he’s a whole lot stronger than me. Priest would no doubt beat him up good, yes, maybe he’d even break his hand, but I don’t talk to Priest about Kerepesi, either.
The reading lesson goes by fast, and meantime my belly starts hurting. That’s because of Dodó, who’s going to call me over to him. Dodó is in seventh grade, and in school he bosses everyone around. He even bosses Molnár around; Molnár, who’s already in eighth grade and looks like a regular adult. Dodó isn’t really tall, but he does have muscles, and he doesn’t have any extra weight on him; his hair is short, and there’s a long line near his mouth that Kerepesi says is from being knifed. Dodó likes to see me during the third break of the day, by which times he’s already taken care of some of his business. Lots of times, he sends guys from the lavatory to get kids he wants to have a word with. Today he sends the Gáls. “Hey there, dumb bunny,” Dodó says to me when I got there, “still scared of dogs, are you?” And he takes a jab at my chest, but just hard enough so it hurts a little. He’s been saying that to me ever since he saw my face one day in the lower courtyard, where two dogs couldn’t get away from each other. At least that’s what I thought. It happened back in September, not long after the school year began; it was main break, and all of a sudden I noticed the guys: ten or fifteen of them were surrounding the two dogs, which were backed up against each other and whining away. Several of the guys were throwing stones at them while Dodó stood there with his arms crossed on his chest. When I got there, he turned his attention to me right away, because he saw how scared I was. And then the dogs finally did get away from each other. Dodó then spat and said, “Morons, you think the only way to be is stuck together like that?!”
I mumble something to him, trying to speak without making mistakes, so he doesn’t go making me talk nice and proper by saying things after him, because when he does that, well, that’s the worst. If he’s in a good mood, he’s satisfied with bouncing. Which means that he pulls up his shirt, and I have to press his muscle to make it bounce about here and there. I’m not allowed to touch him with my left hand, though. One time I was so nervous that I frogged him with my left hand by mistake—he sometimes calls bouncing frogging. And when he saw my thumb, Dodó pushed me away. “You cripple,” he yelled, “Don’t you dare touch me with that ever again!”
Today he tells me that I’ll be the ball boy at their football game that afternoon. “All right,” I say, and he lets me go, though lots of times he makes me stay there next to him the whole break. When that happens, I watch how he bops the others on the head, how much money he gets out of the first-year students, or who he selects as his day dog, meaning who’s got to carry home his notebook, because Dodó doesn’t have a bag, or if he does, he never does bring it with him.
After our singing lesson we have lunch; all the first-year students eat together in the cafeteria. My favorite part of the whole school except for Miss Vera is the lunchroom, which is not to mention Miss Annus, who works there and always gives seconds. Lots of times she does so for us even if she can’t give seconds to everyone else. Miss Annus is the head cook, which is why, after lunch, she can let me in the kitchen, where she has me sit down at the inside table. At first she didn’t do this, but after she heard the others making fun of me, that’s what she came up with along with the teacher who watches us in the afternoon. She sometimes calls in Teeter and the other Little Kids, too, so all four of us are there pretty often, just like we were right at home.
Today it’s pea soup and rice mixed with bits of meat. There are six of us at a table, but not all of them are in my grade. Fazekas is in Mara’s grade, like Little Red, too; Vodenka is in Benjamin’s; and Pető and Zsoldos are in mine. Little Red leaves his food there now, too, just like other times; he says he doesn’t eat “slop.” He takes hardly a spoonful of the soup, then he scowls, after which he lets his pea-colored drool back into the bowl. That takes Pető and the others’ appetites away, but it doesn’t bother me. No, I just keep looking at my own bowl while eating the soup faster and faster. I like rice with meat an awful lot. When I see Little Red push his plate away from himself without taking even a bite of the rice, I ask him for his serving. “Gobble this up, too—if you can,” he snaps and turns away from the table. Luckily the others don’t say anything this time, so I quickly eat the second share of rice, too, and then I say to myself, He who gave us food and drink, blessed be His name, since that’s what Mama taught all of us to say. At the gave us part, I think of Little Red, even though he was really nasty the way he said the if you can part extra loud.
During lunch it snowed outside, which everyone is happy about. Me too. But when lining up, I look around to see were Mara is, since I want to ask her what she thinks of the snow; for when it snowed back in Debrecen, in no time it got really cold, too, and at home we had just four sacks of coal. As soon as I looked at her, she broke into a smile, as if she know exactly what I was thinking. Later, after the football game, she comes over to me and says, “You’ll see, everything’ll be all right.” Then she breaks out laughing so hard that I get almost scared. I’ve been suspicious of her smile ever since then.
In the study room, we do our homework. All four of us are together in there, but we never sit next to each other, even though Mara really wanted to end up next to me. I can’t really say why I didn’t want her being on the same bench with me. I didn’t, and that’s that. Instead I chose Donalics, who’s freckled and who comes to school all the way from Pilisszentkereszt, a village way up in the hills; he always comes by bus, since it’s far. His freckles made him just right to sit next to me. The others are always saying to him, “Donalics, your face is like an ass rash!” He always turns all red on account of this, which make his spots become bigger. I must have been a good choice for him, too, even though one time when he locked the bathroom door on me, I yelled the same sort of thing at him: “Hey Red Rash, let me out now!”
Benjamin’s class doesn’t have much to do; they practice mostly reading. Sometimes the lady who watches over us in the afternoon wonders out loud how it is that Teeter, my second littlest sibling, sometimes speaks without making any mistakes. Not even we can understand what’s happening with him then, for he doesn’t speak this perfectly in the morning. Maybe it’s the delayed effect of the laundry detergent: back in Debrecen he practically grew up in this huge detergent box, seeing as how Mama was afraid that the big kids would squeeze him to pieces if he slept with us on the iron-frame bed. Mara finishes her work in no time: she’s the best student among us. She may be just ten years old, but she’s always reading; and she already has glasses. And then all of us in the study room can stop studying, and it’s time to play.
It’s dark by the time we head home. Not as much as yesterday, when there wasn’t snow yet. Today we can see a lot better. Most kids in school live in the upper part of the village, and they get home in no time. Those from the new part of the village have to wait for the bus, but then they get to the commuter train station within minutes.
We walk, like usual. The lamps are never lit up on the main street of the village, at most only as far as the cinema; and up where we live, they haven’t even put up any lampposts. But I walk home alone; I always come up with some excuse.
I go as slowly as I possibly can, looking in the windows of practically every house; the main street has almost only low houses whose sides are nestled right up beside each other. My favorite windows are those where the curtains aren’t drawn. I watch those windows until someone inside, whether from the room or the kitchen, notices me. When I’m in luck, I can stand there for minutes at a stretch watching the furnishings inside: the table, the bed, the closets, the carpet, the glazed-tile stove, and everything else that’s inside. What I usually like the most is that every single house is all cleaned out and has a real electric lamp. Sometimes, when I’m not careful enough, I’m caught red-handed. Sometimes by someone inside, sometimes by someone outside. What that happens, an old man or woman snaps at me, “What are you staring at here?” and shoos me off. I then skip the next few houses, but afterward I start looking in the windows again.
At the commuter train station I almost always go into the snack bar. They call it the Bull, and it’s full of men; they’re drinking wine, fruit brandy, and beer. The smoke is so thick that I can hardly see. It’s good being here, even if I always have to be careful not to be noticed by Mr. Pista, who around six o’clock isn’t drunk enough yet to fall asleep. Only later does he curl up in the corner, from where his kids take him home. I know that because one time I got there after seven, right when Zsuzsi and her brother were waking him up. And anyway, Benjamin and I also saw them a bunch of times while having Mr. Pista lean up against them so he could stumble on home. They live near us, and sometimes they invite us over to watch TV.
At first I went into the Bull only out of curiosity. I often do the same with other places, especially stores: there’s hardly a shop in the whole village I haven’t been inside. The second time I went in was on account of the small, block-shaped, fancy sponge cake covered all around with hard colored icing that I’d seen the first time I went in, in the glass cabinet under the counter. It was beside all the slices of bread spread with lard, and it was reddish-brown. It didn’t look too fresh, but I figured that was on account of the smoke. Weeks later, I realized that I was always staring at the same little block of cake. I didn’t keep it up for long: just long enough until I had enough.
Though our Little House is five minutes from the Bull, that’s still the longest part of my way home. The houses around here are big; each one has an thick, ornamental layer of rock sandwiched between its foundation and the main part of the house, just like our Big House, which is just half done. If we get that loan from the Catholic newspaper New Man, we’ll finish it by autumn. We know hardly anyone in the new part of the village, which is understandable, because we moved here only two years ago. Papa would have had the opportunity to chum up with the neighbors, but he doesn’t like that sort of thing. Why, he wouldn’t even let my big brothers near the neighbor kids when they wanted to make friends with them while our Little House was being built. “We didn’t come here to have fun, but to work!” Papa told them—and so they had to stay by the tent in the yard, which is what they were sleeping in that summer. The one exception he made was with the Bakoses, but only because Miss Bakos was bringing food all the time to the boys, and other times she let them into her house so they could wash up, and if there was a big storm, they could even sleep there.
When I reach our street, I stop after about two hundred yards, in front of our yard but at the corner, and I spy a bit on the Little House from there. The first time I saw something like this was from the train, when Nanny took me to the sanatorium. Back then I thought there could be houses like this only on the Great Plain, but now I know that they’re building them even in the upper village, and it’s practically the only sort you see in the new part of the village. The walls of our Little House are as tall as Papa; if he stands up nice and straight, he’d easily reach the bottom of the roof. The house is about ten yards long and not quite five yards wide. The outside walls look bare, seeing as how they don’t have any plaster coating on them. There’s a door plus a window. The window is in the room, just about in the middle of the wall. Mr. Miska advised Papa to put in only one chimney, saying that would be plenty enough. Just now, I’m looking at the chimney to see if there’s smoke coming out or not. From here in the corner of the yard, which is more than twenty yards away, it’s not so easy to figure out. Lots of times my eyes play tricks on me; more than once, on reaching the front corner of the yard, I could have sworn I saw smoke, but then when I stepped into the kitchen, it was cold. When I do sometimes come home with Teeter and the others, and we reach the train station, we always send someone on up ahead to check for smoke. And then when we reach the end of the street, the person who ran up ahead gives a signal. That’s what we call playing Indian.
Today my eyes didn’t fool me. As soon as I open the door, right away I see the big pot and the blue pan on the stove, and the warm air hits me. “You’re home at last, my little boy,” says Mama, who is sitting in the kitchen on the one chair in the house. Mama is just barely taller than Nanny, and by evening she seems even smaller, as if she’s shrunk a little during the day. She turned forty-five not long ago. She’s always combing back her short brown hair, and that makes her forehead stand out more. But the most obvious thing about her faces is her nose, which is really long and a little bit bony, yes, we’re always telling her that it’s just like the Virgin Mary’s. Her bluish-gray eyes sometimes change completely, especially when she’s praying. On account of having so many babies, Mama’s belly is big, and so she wears a corset under her dress, which helps a bit. She has the whitest skin in the whole family. Now, in the candlelight, she seems completely pale, as if all the blood has left her.
“How many times have I asked you not to wander about alone?” she says, but I don’t answer.
Except for Papa and for Priest, who is always out tending to some business, everyone is in the room. We light two candles every night: one on the big chest, the other on the windowsill. When I step inside, the room seems to quiver a tad, maybe because my brothers’ and sisters’ shadows are flickering about on the walls. Mainly that of Teeter, who is lying on the bed and rocking back and forth. He does that all the time, which is of course why we call him Teeter. He started doing that back at the Bombshell Villa, after he left the detergent box. There, next to the plastic-die-casting machine, he would sway about for hours. He’d lie down on the iron-frame bed, lift up his hands, and start rocking his upper body about while singing or humming away. We have no idea what he must have breathed in when inside that detergent box. No, the only thing that’s certain is that he began doing this when he was a year-and-a-half old, and that he’s never kicked the habit ever since. He just can’t stay put without moving himself about all the time, even though he’s eight years old. Papa says it’s girlish, and we laugh about it. But it drives Socks crazy. “Little Man, you’re a clever one, you are, so get a hold of yourself, huh?!” he shouts at him a lot. But Teeter just keeps it up, as if he hasn’t heard a thing. The shadows of the other two little kids jump about like crazy: Mara is chasing Benjamin in front of the bed. They’ve had another fight; and as soon as I hear Mara yell, “Give it back,” I know it’s about Mara’s doll. Among all of us, only my littlest sister has a toy at all—since last Christmas, to be precise. True, she had one before too, back at the Bombshell Villa, but I took care of that, and how: I threw her doll Kati right into the fire.
Nanny’s and Tera’s shadows change only around their hands, and that’s because they’re kneeling by the big chest, beading away. That means they’re tying rosaries. We started doing that back in Debrecen around the time Socks was born. Mama and Papa already had five kids by then, so getting by got harder and harder, as Nanny later told me: besides the five hundred forints family allowance, all they had was Papa’s pay. And he didn’t make much. On account of his military past, no one had wanted to hire him for a long time, and when he got a job, after all, at the railway directorate, his salary was less than it should have been. “I’ll show these dirty reds who I am,” Papa said one night to Mama, and with Mr. Miska’s help, within a few weeks he got an official permit to be a plastic-die-caster on his own. Papa wasn’t even afraid of Mr. Horváth, though he should have been. Mr. Horváth was a policeman who’d been living with us since December 1956 in the Bombshell Villa, because the Party Secretariat in Debrecen had him move in with us on account of state security. Anyway, that’s when we bought the plastic-die-casting machine. But when we moved across the country to where we are now, we didn’t bring it with us, since it wouldn’t have fit in the Little House. So we’ve stopped large-scale making of devotional objects at home for now, though Papa sometimes travels to Debrecen and casts raw materials at Kláró’s place. He then returns with a suitcase full of rosary beads, which he sticks under his bed in the small chests.
I knew even before stepping into the room that Nanny and Tera had begun beading because of the snow. Whenever we were hard up for cash the past few months, we always kept up the business on a small scale, even though Papa had returned his permit to the National Federation of Craftsmen. Anyway, Nanny and Tera are all busy tying rosaries already, even though they must have just gotten home. Mama gave them the work right away; because first you have to pop each bead off a plastic frame using pliers, and then you have to weave the beads onto a string, and only then do you tie it. Mostly it’s us little ones who do that part. But just now, Socks and my other older brothers are doing it on the bed, seeing as how they also know how to tie rosaries. They, too, had their weekly quota back at the Bombshell Villa, just the same as Priest and the big girls, and if they didn’t finish their share, Papa gave them a whipping.
Ever since we moved out of the Bombshell Villa, Nanny has been the oldest one of us. She’s nineteen years old, and she’s the only one of us who’s fat. She’s been fat ever since she was little, and no one knew why, since it’s not like she ate more than we did. When she transferred for a short time from the Svetics Catholic Girls’ School in Debrecen to the Franciscans, she tried losing weight so Father Bentai would be pleased, but when they then took her out of the Franciscan school, she stopped losing weight. For us little kids, though, it’s outright good she’s got so much fat on her: when we lie down in bed every night, we almost always cuddle up to her, and as she hugs us, all this extra warmth comes out of her, which would probably not happen if she was thin. Pretty often three of us can squeeze in right next to her, and for her part, well, Nanny is tickled pink to be able to hug and scratch away at us. But then Mama—assuming she’s home and not too tired to make a fuss—is always telling us not to go touching each other, like this, “Enough gobbling each other up like that, stop it at once!”
“Did you bring something?” I ask Nanny while squatting down beside her. “No, little piggy, not today,” she says, and her face becomes like it is in church, where I sometimes look at her in secret. I don’t know anyone whose expression changes as fast as Nanny’s. When she saw my thumb that day back in the Bombshell Villa—how only a little shred of skin kept that thumb from dropping right to the floor—she first turned pale and then started to scream, at least according to Priest, who remembers lots of things.
There’s something wrong with almost all of us. Not so much with Socks, if you don’t count him being a really high-strung. Back in the Bombshell Villa, for example, when Priest didn’t give something to him one time, Socks picked up a brick and threw it at Priest’s head. “Next time you’ll give it to me, big man,” he shouted and ran out to the street as the blood flowed from Priest’s head. I have to admit that Socks did try being patient with me and watching out for me after my accident. When they let me out of the hospital after a few weeks, he took me straight over to the iron-frame bed my thumb got caught in and said, “Look here, little shit, these clasps are not for sticking your fingers into! I don’t want any more trouble, okay?” The he patted my head, which felt good. Nowadays his beef is mostly with Teeter; we don’t really understand what bothers Socks so much, just like we don’t ask him if maybe instead of Teeter, it’s him who’s dizzy in the head. All we know is that after a little while, Socks always explodes. Even now he shouts, with blazing eyes, “Do something with this loony already!”
Around seven we begin eating supper, so we can finish before Papa gets home. After work, Papa can’t stand hubbub around him. Neither can Mama, except that she pretends it doesn’t bother her. As a little girl, she couldn’t fall asleep even if the alarm clock was left in her room. “Baby, how can you stand this?” asked my Transylvanian Grandmother when the authorities finally let her cross into Hungary so she could visit us in Debrecen, which is right near the border. Mother just raised her hands wide and smiled.
Now it’s time for supper, and each one of us sits wherever we can find room. Though we got chairs during the first round of donations for our family, we keep all except one of them in the shed out in the yard, since there’s no room for them in the house. And so we usually eat on the big, three-person bed, where there are six of us even now. Only the two older guys have gone into the kitchen, where they eat at Papa’s bed.
Like usual, we’re having toast with tea.
Everyone drinks three or four mugs of tea, and I drink even more. So at least one of us is always off to the toilet. The toilet is at the end of the yard by the shed; we go out, one after another, and see to our business. It’s not always easy in the cold, but it usually works. After getting back we wash our hands in the plastic wash basin, then we finish supper and get ready to turn in. That doesn’t take long, since we take off hardly any clothes.
There’s one blanket for every two of us, so we sleep with our heads by the feet of the person next to us. Back in the Bombshell Villa, we did the same until Papa brought home those beds from the railway directorate. Us little kids would be happy to lie down like normal, but we can’t, because we’d take up everyone else’s place. Before going to sleep we don’t cuddle up to Mama, because she doesn’t go for that. Even back in Debrecen she said that’s inappropriate. Anyway, I almost always sleep between Teeter and Risi. Even now I’m there between them, waiting for the prayer to begin.
We’ve got to tell Teeter to cut it out, else he won’t stop all that teetering back and forth even during the Lord’s Prayer. Someone takes his hand; I don’t know who. But even though Teeter drinks the most mugs of tea except for me, the tea isn’t swishing around his belly anymore.
Then Mama starts the Lord’s Prayer. Like usual when she does so, her voice is higher than normal; it thins out a bit, and you can hear the quivering more—not like in church, where she prays louder than practically anyone else, but there you don’t notice as much. We know this prayer by heart really well; for years now we’ve always said it before falling asleep. When Mama is on afternoon and evening shift, Nanny leads us in saying it.
After the Lord’s Prayer we say a Hail Mary. Lots of times Mama doesn’t even take a break, no, she starts the next prayer right away, even if we’re still saying deliver us from evil. Then we say a prayer for Imuka. He was the seventh one of us. He died back in Debrecen the same day Mara was born. Imuka had leukemia, which is why he couldn’t stay alive. Anyone with leukemia when they’re two years old can’t be alive anymore. They told us in the clinic in Debrecen that it’s incurable. Mama didn’t believe it at first, no, she figured that she could pray her way out of Imuka’s incurableness, just like she did Priest from his spine problem. The doctors said Priest would never be able to walk again; and they even stuck him into this plaster splint he had to stay in for two whole years. Then Mama prayed his way out of it, after all. She couldn’t pray Imuka’s way out of leukemia, though. But she didn’t cry at the funeral. I wasn’t alive yet, so I know that from Nanny, who also said that during the whole funeral Papa never stopped trembling.
If I hadn’t gotten sick, we’d be praying for our dead brother right now back in the Bombshell Villa:
Lord, let Imuka’s innocent soul, which did not yet know sin, be close to You, for this was Your will. You saw to it that he should not come to know better the world in which we must live. You spared him from having to find his way back to You through temptations; accept his suffering into your boundless dominion, for only You can know why you chose him for this early sacrifice. Amen.
It’s really Mama who says this prayer. We say only the bits about suffering and accepting Imuka into your boundless dominion or his being innocent—and we don’t even say those bits at the same time, because every night Mama comes up with a different prayer for Imuka’s soul, so we can’t remember just one prayer. But we do say the Amen together, drawing out the A sound really strong, and then we laugh to ourselves, just like other times. Mama laughs along with us, meaning she forces a smile to her face, figuring that if she does so, her face will change. But she can’t fool us even in the dark, and especially not in candlelight: her voice is so faltering as she says keep the laughing down that we can tell she’s crying to herself again. But we can see it and especially feel it so much, just like other times, when her stare seems so distant, that we’re practically scared of her. Then Mama stands up, blows out the candles, says good night, and goes out to the kitchen.
As soon as we’re left alone, we stop laughing. All of us make as if we fall asleep just like that. The neighbors’ dogs are barking. They’re talking, we’re not. And then, after a while, everyone really does fall asleep—everyone except me. No, I’m thinking that if Imuka hadn’t gone and died back in Debrecen, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick, either. The problem was, I started becoming like him, all pale, I mean. It began a few months after Socks almost cut off my thumb. When I was around five years old, I began getting all white. Especially my face. Not that I remember this, no, I was told about it later on. At the sanatorium up in the hills on the Buda side of Budapest, I couldn’t even tell my roommates why I had to be there. Sure, Nanny told me when she visited that Papa and Mama had me taken up there so I get stronger, and that the doctors at the Debrecen clinic said that only fresh air would help me. I always forgot that, though. But now I know that fresh air heals. That’s why we live here in this village, Pomáz, in the Pilis Hills. These hills won’t let me die. My complexion is better already.
But if Imuka hadn’t gone and died, Mama and Papa no doubt wouldn’t have gotten so scared about my face, and about me not wanting to get out of the iron-frame bed. Sometimes I just lay there for weeks. One time, when Teeter and Benjamin and I were in the closet, I saw myself lying there in the iron-frame bed; I have no idea how that can happen. It’s also strange that I can hardly remember the sanatorium. If, for example, Nanny hadn’t come to visit me there every two weeks, maybe I wouldn’t even remember that I was ever there, though it’s only been about two years that they let me out. Besides me letting out sounds to pretend I’d fallen asleep, all I can remember is that someone or other took away my chocolate, but I wouldn’t even be able to say where I was when that happened. Nanny was the one who told me that we’re moving to the hills north of Budapest. “You’ll see, little piggy,” she said, “we’ll be going to live in Pomáz before long, and then you can come out of the sanatorium.” She said this while holding my hand—my good hand, I mean, since I don’t let anyone hold my other hand, not even Mama. If we really get the loan, we only have to put up with a few more months of this, and then we can move into the Big House. There, each one of us will have our own bed. And we’ll have a bathroom, too. We’ll take baths in a real tub. This is on my mind almost every night. When I think of water, sleep usually comes easier.
(translated by Paul Olchváry)