12. 23. 2008. 10:34

Apagyi (short story)

Géza Ottlik

"Out of all the hundreds of cadets either plowing ahead of us, trailing behind us or plodding along with us during those long years of military school, only one single boy was ever called a 'bad apple'. I can even remember his name. It was Apagyi."

Out of all the hundreds of cadets either plowing ahead of us, trailing behind us or plodding along with us during those long years of military school, only one single boy was ever called a “bad apple.” I can even remember his name. It was Apagyi. At the time we were seasoned cadets in our last year, first-classmen who’d seen it all and done it all. Our every movement was ruled by a swift economy of motion: each and every command, every school tradition, the building’s every scent and smell had long ago infiltrated our tiniest nerve endings. Apagyi, on the other hand, was a fresh recruit, a “plebe” who arrived in the same division with all the other new cadets. The entire institution was soon alerted to his stubborn rebelliousness, which it proceeded to follow with malicious interest. The word was passed on to me at the very start of his time at the school:
 
“Hey, there’s a plebe here, he sits at Urbán’s table, make sure to take a look at him."
 
The only time we could meet with cadets from other classes was either at mess or on the training grounds; I therefore made my way to the other end of the mess hall where the new cadets sat just before lunch was served, when the supervising officer still hadn’t reported for duty. News of Apagyi’s reputation had obviously spread—a bunch of other first-classmen were already jostling for room around Urbán’s table and it took a minute for me to get my bearings.
Everybody was staring at a rosy-cheeked, moon-faced little fresh recruit who seemed no different from any other ten-year-old, except for the fact that he was grinning broadly and not responding to anything. It didn’t matter how many times his name was called, Apagyi didn’t once snap to attention or obey any of the orders or commands given to him. He just shrugged his shoulders and tried his best to turn away.
 
“Apagyi, Apagyi,” they called. “Forward! Atten-SHUN! Drop and give me twenty! Apagyi!”
 
Apagyi didn’t move a single muscle in response. Yet the broad grin never left his face, even though all that harrassment must have been annoying. We, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of this novel entertainment. It was a frightfully fascinating, altogether hilarious turn of events. We looked at one another with shining faces, the laughter bubbling up from our throats.
 
“There’s never been anything like it! Incredible!”
 
“Leave him alone,” said Péter Halász, pushing his way to the front. He then stepped up to Apagyi and began to explain in a friendly tone.
 
“Listen to me, I’ll tell you the way things are here. Just do what I say. When your name is called, stand to attention, like this. Understand? There’s nothing to it, old boy.”
 
Quite unexpectedly, Péter Halász’s patient benevolence did actually succeed in getting Apagyi to talk.
 
“Ssss! Huuhhn!” he said, wrinkling his nose in contempt. While nothing more than a wordless interjection or a drawn-out sound of exclamation, Apagyi’s silence had still been broken.
 
“You know,” Péter Halász continued, “you have to do what an officer or a first-classman tells you to do.”
 
“Well, I’ll be!” Apagyi chortled. “You won’t make a fool out of me!”
 
Everybody was watching Apagyi. His words struck a totally bizarre and unlikely note as they floated upward in the sudden hush. To our surprise, Apagyi swallowed his vowels and drawled out his words in the purest dialect of a farmboy straight from the backcountry, like a character right out of a slapstick stage routine. “Waaall be” comes closer to sounding like what he actually said.
 
Péter Halász didn’t laugh. Instead he gently did his best to explain matters to this child, only now he made sure to grab on to one of Apagyi’s ears for the sake of emphasis. His grip was so firm—perhaps with a bit of spite—that Apagyi shrieked and flailed about with all his strength in an attempt to get loose. Péter Halász held on to Apagyi’s ear and backhanded him across the mouth for good measure. This just made Apagyi bawl even louder. Then, before we’d even seen him draw it, the open blade of a jack-knife suddenly glinted in Apagyi’s hand.
 
At this moment the supervising officer stepped into the mess hall and the order to stand at attention was given. I managed to slip back to my seat, which was why I could only watch from a distance when the officer walked up to Apagyi after the blessing was said. By then the others had also disappeared. The officer started to say something, but abruptly stopped in mid-sentence to stare in shock at Apagyi, who was standing with his feet splayed and calmly twisting his head from left to right as if looking for somebody. The officer glanced behind in a look of mute appeal that immediately drew the warrant officer to his side. The warrant officer’s voice was barely audible as he first made his report, then replied to the supervising officer’s resulting question. Finally they stood and watched Apagyi in silence.
 
“Take your seat,” is all the officer eventually said, turning his back on Apagyi.
The two officers headed back to the front tables, leaving Apagyi looking lost and bewildered in the middle of the hall, where he now stood all by himself since everyone else was already sitting. After a while he slowly turned around and took his seat.
 
All in all, Apagyi spent an entire week at the academy, from the day he was inducted to the day he left. I saw him marching back and forth with his division in that lumbering walk of his, not even trying to keep in step. I saw him say the blessing together with everybody else at meals; Apagyi was the only one not standing at attention. One morning, when his division was being made to do the “squat stance” for violating some rule, I even saw him stand up and simply walk away after just a few minutes. Obviously, he’d had enough of the burning ache setting his leg muscles on fire. One week is a long time. It was only thanks to his jack-knife that Apagyi managed to last that long.
 
It generally takes far less than what Apagyi did to elicit the endless hounding of one’s peers. The others pounced with fierce savagery upon anybody revealing the least hint of fumbling helplessness or displaying the slightest nuance of difference. Among the new recruits there were a few cadets who’d had to stay behind and repeat a year; it was at their urging that the rest of Apagyi’s classmates took to kicking and beating him whenever they had the chance. Not only did they tease him, goad him unmercilessly and pick fights with him, they also made sure to trip him up for no reason at all, hit the cup out of his hand when he was trying to rinse his mouth, or to dribble a few spoonfuls of soup down the back of his shirt during meals. If the deputy officer wasn’t in their barracks, then they would all sweep down on Apagyi and shove him into a nightstand or place him on the stove.
 
In short, Apagyi soon figured out that nobody else was going to protect him. It was all up to him; the academy’s supervisors and officers didn’t care in the least about the cadets’ “private matters”. The military code of honor left absolutely no room for complaints or accusations: anyone who dared to report another cadet was swiftly and brutally punished while his complaint naturally fell on deaf ears. Not that this would have mattered anyway since Apagyi’s attitude toward his superiors was hostile from the very first. So he drew out his jack-knife and put up his best defense. By this time Apagyi was so jittery he couldn’t stand even the lightest touch.
 
The sight of a sharp blade did a lot to cool the delight of Apagyi’s tormentors. As a result, Apagyi was abandoned in favor of other targets for a couple of days. Nobody laid a finger on him: when one of the deputy officers was busily dealing with Apagyi in an attempt to break through his mulish obtuseness and finally penetrate his obvious stupidity, then the others only looked on mockingly.
Apagyi’s broad grin returned once more to his moon-shaped, ruddy face during these days of rest. He was still grinning when made to stand in front of the colonel, commander of the entire school. At the colonel’s orders Apagyi was led before him one afternoon, while the usual basic military exercises were being conducted on the big field called the parade grounds. The colonel said a few encouraging words before asking the boy:
 
“Didn’t you obey your parents at home?”
“Ma’s dead,” replied Apagyi, shrugging his shoulders.
“What about your father? Did you obey him?”
“’Course I did!” he said, grinning.
“Well, then! Soon you’ll be obeying us, too. You’ll see!”
“No, I ain’t!”  he shouted merrily.
 
He didn’t even address the colonel by his rank, or say anything such as, “Yes, sir! Colonel, sir! Reporting for duty, sir!” It was marvelously entertaining to hear him talk this way to officers, especially for us first-classmen. All the same, in the end it was Apagyi who was right, not the colonel.
 
We never learned the exact details of what actually took place, but it wasn’t very hard for us to put it all together. Apagyi’s jack-knife just wasn’t sharp enough. It was his seventh night in the barracks; just before lights-out, the supervising officer came in and agitatedly summoned Bognár, the warrant officer for our barracks. Once Bognár left, a group of us crept out to the hall to see where he was going. Muffled sounds were coming from the plebe barracks, followed by a sudden, frozen silence. Then the shouting, pounding footsteps and other sounds of turmoil resumed. We flattened ourselves against doorways and the two stairways leading up to the next floor. A few minutes passed, and a door opened, forcing us to retreat.
 
All I saw was two sub-officers backing out of the room, immediately followed by three boys carrying something. There was barely any light at all in the hallway, and the stairs were thrust into utter darkness. Opposite the third-year division’s office a single lightbulb burned. We held our breaths, hugging the wide, stone banister of the stairwell in our shirts and underwear. The moment they walked under the single lightbulb’s halo of light, I recognized what they were carrying. It was Apagyi. He’d been wrapped up in a cloak. First his two, bare feet passed under the light, then his sagging body. Two of them were holding him, one by each arm. His head had fallen to one side and was resting on his shoulder. His eyes were closed and a trickle of black blood gleamed darkly on his face and brow. Péter Halász, who was kneeling beside me, later claimed that a patch of hair the size of a palm had been ripped out of Apagyi’s head, leaving part of his skull exposed, but I didn’t see this myself.
 
“Think he’s dead?”
“As a doornail.”
“Sure he is, I saw him!”
“Like you’d know.”
“It’s over.”
 
It was early fall and the night was soft. The sound of a distant train whistle clearly lingered in the silence of the large park. We peered from the privy window into the darkness below us, but it was no use. Our opinions later proved to be gross exaggerations. The new cadets hadn’t beaten Apagyi to death; they’d just rushed at him, wounding him in the course of the ensuing confusion. It was all an accident, probably caused by his own jack-knife. Three days later a couple of cadets saw Apagyi leaving the school with a bandage on his head. He walked down the tree-lined avenue in civilian clothes, holding the hand of an old man with a mustache who was wearing a black broadcloth suit, just like they said.
 
(1948)
 
Translated by Maya J. LoBello

Tags: Géza Ottlik