10. 27. 2018. 10:41

Imre Oravecz: The Ol' Country (An Excerpt)

On Christmas Eve Steve grabbed an axe after work and went out to Kishegy to chop them down a Christmas tree. – We are pleased to bring you an excerpt from Imre Oravecz, translated by Peter Sherwood...


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The Germans had gone. Now they were expecting the Russians and took the necessary precautions. They stashed away their flour, most of the bacon and sausages, the bolts of cloth, the wine, their wedding rings and earrings, but above all they hid the girls and the young women, or dressed them up as ugly old crones in black, because word was that the Russians were a wild, rampaging Asiatic horde who raped women.

Júlia, too, went into hiding with the two children at her father's place, taken there by Steve. The village seemed to be safer than their isolated farmstead out at Rácfalu. Not least because it guaranteed a pool of women and there was safety in numbers. They also suggested to their guests that they come along. Júlia shared the bolthole dug under the smokehouse with her younger sisters, but there would've been room for them as well; if necessary, they just wouldn't keep the candle lit for so long, so it used up less of the precious air that came to them through the stovepipe ending under the woodpile, for their father had sealed off the exit with a sheet of metal which he covered with a mixture of ashes and charred bits of wood left over from the smoker.

But the Csillags wouldn't leave, saying they had no reason to go. In their judgement they didn't need to. They weren't under any threat and they wouldn't – couldn't – come to any harm, since they were victims of the war and were bound to be treated differently. And also, if they went into hiding, they would miss meeting up with the Russians and be unable to express their gratitude, whereas they were keen to meet them and give them a warm welcome. They could hardly wait to see their first Russian soldier and run over to him, or at least shake him firmly by the hand.

The Russians did turn up eventually – two days later, four days before Christmas, and didn't live up to their bad reputation. Once they'd combed the village and were satisfied there were no Germans around, with cries of dyevushki, dyevushki (girls, girls) they hurried over to the few young women who hadn't secreted themselves away or whose disguise hadn't done the trick and started feeling them up and giving them a squeeze. But after that they only did a bit of looting, primarily of pocket watches, though from Henry-Imres’ place – Henry-Imre himself had fled to the West, salvaging the manor's equipment – they also carried off their grandfather clock, weights and pendulum and all. They were also keen on wristwatches, but on the farmstead only Steve had one of those, and they didn't go out there. They must have overlooked the place, or thought it was too far away. They didn't cart off anyone for hard labour, unlike the Germans, who'd made the men dig trenches in Borzsa.

Whenever they relieved a farmer of his pocket-watch, they'd install themselves in his kitchen and demand food and drink. They were given bread and bacon, and wine. Gábor Kusnyár and József Vitéz even put sausages out for them and, also unlike the others, invited them in and veritably wined and dined them royally. Realising that the wind had turned, they had turned their coats with it and tried to wheedle themselves into the occupiers' good graces. Franci Baji – Baji was just her nickname –, Péter Kis's chaste daughter, who was well-versed in socialist doctrines, went even further. Seeing in them the harbingers of a better world, she had a pig slaughtered and arranged dinner in their honour, with a gypsy band supplying the music. The majority didn't fraternize with them and hoped to win them over just by offering no resistance and putting a brave face on everything. Nor did they find this especially burdensome to do, for many were indeed glad that the Russians were there at long last. Not that they sympathized with Soviet communism, but they'd had their fill of war and the Russians' arrival was a sign that it was over. They were taken aback only when the Russians started requisitioning things left, right, and centre, taking horses from their stables, cows out of their stalls, and pigs from their pens. Panni Dudás, a war widow, seeing one of her horses being led away, burst out:

"Damn you fuckers, why didn't you stay where you came from!"

Others, too, bemoaned their loss, but her outburst raised eyebrows because she was alone in having once publicly declared that she could hardly wait for them to come.

The Russians spent in all no more than a day and half in Szajla. Being a combat division, they continued on their way the following afternoon. Although a horse-drawn ammunition transport later passed through the village, they couldn't cross the Tarna at Péterke because the Germans had blown up the bridge, so they headed instead for Recsk. When the Csillags realized they were actually in Rácfalu, they went out to their front gate and waved to them, hoping they would stop by, but the soldiers roundly ignored them.

As there were no further arrivals over the following two days, everyone thought no more Russians would be coming and that they'd had a lucky escape. Much relieved, they dug out what they'd hidden away, the women and girls came out of their hiding places, those who'd tried to make themselves look old washed the soot off their faces and put their own clothes on again. They did hear, though, that there were several waves of Russians, a second and a third wave, too. Those in the second wave were less friendly, but it was those in the third who were the most dangerous of all, downright evil. These were soldiers who'd got cut off from their units or deserters who had gone rogue. They'd struck out on their own and rampaged over the freshly occupied territory, and it was chiefly these who raped women. It seemed there'd be no more waves, that for some reason the village had been spared.

Steve nevertheless remained on his guard. He didn't take his wife and children back to the farmstead from his father-in-law's. Júlia and her sisters no longer spent all day in hiding but were ready at a moment's notice to retreat there if necessary, and for the same reason their father, too, stayed at home to help them do so.

Steve was right. Appearances were deceptive: more Russians did come, that third wave. He had agreed with his wife that, provided there were no more Russians by then, he would fetch them at midday on December 24th and they would spend Christmas Eve together as usual, the only difference being that this time it would be Fáni who made the poppyseed noodles for lunch, and that would also have to do for dinner. And after midnight, when they could break their fast, they wouldn't have the usual pig-feast, since they weren't yet slaughtering pigs, the front being so near. In fact, they might not stay up all that late: why should they, as in these circumstances they wouldn't be going to midnight mass, though maybe they wouldn't have gone anyway, because the church was freezing cold and Jancsika might have caught his death.

On Christmas Eve Steve grabbed an axe after work and went out to Kishegy to chop them down a Christmas tree.

It was cold and there was a lot of snow. Though the sun did shine until midday, at that point a blanket of fog suddenly descended on Rácfalu and Kishegy. Not from above, but from somewhere else, because earlier the sky had been blue and there was not a cloud to be seen. It was a thick white mass, like cotton-wool, so you could hardly hear a thing. It absorbed the sound of his steps, the crunching of the snow underfoot, and even the distant rumble of the cannon that could earlier be heard from the direction of Péterke. Visibility, too, was significantly reduced but he wasn't unduly concerned. He knew the way to the top. He'd done the trip since the time Júlia had been taken up there. Once just with her, and several times with Georgie, to cut hazel and dogwood twigs to make a besom for sweeping the yard, and even to pick mushrooms. Up on the hill the fog was even denser, but he managed to find the cluster of junipers on the Darnó side.

He was just heading back with a fine example of a juniper twig and turning off the footpath to take the highway when he heard the sound of Morzsa barking. He must have been really angry, because he was barking his head off. He could be easily heard, as the fog was beginning to disperse, though enough remained to make his thin, spiky yelping sound deeper and more muffled. "Whatever's going on at the gate?" he wondered. Because he could tell that the howling came not from behind the house but from the front yard. Though as he came closer he could still see nothing and no one, because the front yard was obscured by the gate. He discovered why the dog was agitated, the reason for his fury, the moment he opened the gate.

There were four Russian soldiers in the front yard, who were doing just what the locals had feared, and so far managed to prevent them from doing, to the women of Szajla. Aranka was lying on her back facing the veranda, minus her skirt and held down by two soldiers, with a third kneeling before her, while a fourth pointed a machine gun at her mother, keeping her at bay as she stood a little way off wringing her hands in deep distress.

Steve threw down the juniper twig and ran towards the girl.


"Stoi, stoi! [Stop, stop!]," roared the man with the gun and, to emphasize the point, fired into the snow at Steve's feet.

Steve stopped in his tracks.

The soldier continued shouting in Russian and gesticulating towards the axe, a clear indication that he should drop it and, once he did, used the barrel of his weapon to steer him over to stand by Mrs Csillag.

"Oh, Steve, do something!" begged Mrs Csillag.

"I can't, there are four of them and they're armed."

"And I have to watch this, me, her mother!" wailed Mrs Csillag and made to run off, but the man with the gun barred her way, forcing her back with the barrel of the gun pointing at her chest.

"Don't look," said Steve and held her close so she wouldn't have to witness the scene.

Meanwhile the kneeling soldier had lowered his trousers and set about performing the act. The other two held down Aranka's spreadeagled legs, but she still had some room to manoeuvre and thrashed about with the lower half of her body. When the weight bearing down on her made this impossible, she spat the penetrator in the eye, whereupon the latter struck her across the face, then grabbed her by the throat and only let go when she started to splutter and choke.

Aranka was weeping and sobbing, but this did not bother the fellow who'd had his way with her, or his colleagues. They were far more worried about Morzsa, who was still on the scene and wouldn't stop barking. The two who'd held Aranka down kept pointing at Morzsa, whereupon the one with the gun tried to shoo him away. Morzsa retreated a few feet, but then returned and jumped in front of Steve and Mrs Csillag, as if to protect them. This was too much for the man with the gun. He took aim at the dog. The bullet caught Morzsa's right hind leg and he scuttled away, limping.

When the first soldier had gratified himself, he changed places with one of his helpers. When he, too, had ejaculated, it was the turn of the third. He didn't need any help. Aranka no longer had to be held down, she'd caved in. And she wasn't weeping any more and bore impassively whatever they did to her. Those who were done didn't leave but stood above their rhythmically pounding colleague, scratching their scrotums and guffawing away as the air pumping in and out repeatedly produced a slurping sound very much like a fart.

Though Mrs Csillag couldn't see that two of the men had already abused her daughter, she could certainly hear those sounds and the guffaws that accompanied it. She wrested herself free of Steve's embrace and dashed towards Aranka.

There was the sound of a gunshot and the woman fell forward, flat on her face.

Steve made as if to run over to her but the man with the gun leapt in front of him, barring his way with the gun aimed at his chest. The guffawing men shouted something to the man with the gun, whereupon he made Steve turn round and marched him to the cellar door at the back of the house. He had Steve open it, bundled him inside, and locked the door. Steve was surprised to have the key turned on him. When they were home they never locked the cellar door.

The moment the key turned in the lock all became clear. The cellar already held one inmate, Mihály. He'd been shut up there too. Even though, as he said, he hadn't done anything. Though he did admit that he hadn't told the ladies of the house that the Russians were there, but he couldn't anyhow, seeing as he was hard of hearing and never heard the dog bark, and only noticed them when they were chasing Miss Aranka round the yard, but by then it was too late. But if he thought about it, there'd have been no point saying anything to them anyway, since they weren't afraid of the Russians and it may well have been them who'd invited them in, from the highway. Fáni must have had her wits about her and slipped out by the back door and skedaddled, as she'd disappeared and was nowhere to be seen.

They stayed holed up in the cellar until evening. They did try to break out but couldn't force the iron door open. In the end it was Fáni who came to their rescue. It was just as Mihály had suspected. She had slipped out through the back door and hidden, first under the granary, then in the henhouse, where it was hot because the hens had come in to roost. She didn't come out until she thought the coast was clear.

What else the Russians had wrought Steve had to piece together from the words that filtered down and into the cellar and what he saw later. On this evidence it seemed that when the soldiers had satisfied their needs, leaving Aranka in the yard, they pressed on into the house and had a slap-up meal. They consumed every bar of soap they could lay their hands on, a flitch of bacon, and an entire hock of ham so dry it was virtually inedible, these last on their own, without any bread. They didn't have any sausages, as there were none left. They drank two small bottles of eau de cologne, almost half a litre of methylated spirits, and four litres of mixed-fruit brandy. The brandy must have made them so befuddled that they didn't go looking for wine, though there was some, in the cellar. They ransacked the place, turning it upside down. They smashed up anything made of glass, including the brandy demijohn. They swept up every watch, bracelet, ring, brooch and earring. The jewellery belonged to the Csillags, though there was also a gold necklace with a cross that was Júlia's, a gift from her mother for her first communion. From the stables they took Star as well as one of the saddles. They left Butterfly, because straps hanging down from the ceiling held her by the abdomen, giving the impression that she was having to be supported because she was so sick that she couldn't stand on her own feet. Steve had heard they wouldn't be interested in a sick horse, and this was the best way of simulating that she was not well. The motorcar also caught their eye. They rolled it out of the granary and spent a long time kicking the starter, but that didn't work – indeed couldn't have worked – because they must have failed to notice that the petrol tank was empty.

Eventually, as their footprints showed, they'd left, heading in the direction of Upper Rácfalu and Recsk. It was a wonder they could walk at all, because they must've got very drunk. The state of the snow in the yard indicated that they did a great deal of staggering about and rolling around. And they also threw up, not just indoors but also outside, where their vomit had turned the snow brown and flecked it with chunks of bacon and ham.

Not all of this became apparent to Steve at once, but even if had, his first thoughts would've been with Aranka, whether she was alive, and where. So he dashed straight over to the front yard.

The girl was there, propped up against the wall of the house, not far from the crime scene, her legs pulled up to her chin, with her hands embracing her knees and her head leaning on them, motionless and silent. She'd dragged herself there after the Russians disappeared into the house. Not at once: for a while she remained lying in the snow, barely conscious. Then she tried to stand up but couldn't, as she didn't have enough strength. With a great effort she'd rolled over onto her side, then her stomach, and pushed and crawled her way to the wall on all fours, and there managed to sit up. She was staring ahead, at the snow, the yard, and her skirt and panties, strewn about some way off.  She tried to take in what had happened, but couldn't. All that got through to her was that it was something very bad. She was wearing nothing underneath, but because of the numbness that affected her entire lower body, she didn't feel the cold or the snow.

Steve went over to her but didn't ask her anything.

He touched her shoulder very gently.

Aranka didn't react.

"Aranka," he said, "come, my dear, let's go inside!"

At this, too, she made no movement, not even raising her head.

Steve bent down, placed one arm behind her back, the other under her knees, and gathered her up.

"Mihály, you wait here, in a minute we'll take Mrs Csillag in as well," he instructed Mihály, who was kicking his heels behind him.

The main door was open, wide open, just like every other door in the house, but Fáni ran on ahead, as if it had to be opened for them.

Once inside he first considered laying Aranka out in the front room, but that was covered in vomit, then he thought of putting her in the guest room, but then realized it would be better to keep that for the dead body. In the end he took her to Júlia's room. The suggestion came from Fáni, who said that, unlike the other beds, Júlia's hadn't had a mauling. Fáni also wanted to undress her, to make sure she didn't mess up the bed, and to put her nightdress on, but Aranka wouldn't let her. So they just rolled back the eiderdown and laid her on the bedsheet.

Fáni also offered to boil some water and wash off the filth – that was the word she used – the men had discharged, but the girl said no to this as well. Not in so many words, since she remained resolutely silent, but with a vigorous shake of her head.

Steve hurried over to the guest room to get it ready for Mrs Csillag. There, although the Russians had not only savaged both beds but also flung the bedclothes all over the place, somehow one of the sheets, the mattress topper and a pillow had survived intact. Using these he quickly made up one of the beds as best he could, but as he was about to leave he came back from the doorway and snatched the sheet and the pillow off the bed, because it dawned on him these were no longer needed.

He went out into the yard.

Mrs Csillag had died where she'd fallen. And obviously instantaneously, because there was no sign that she'd tried to crawl away, or that she'd been in her death-throes. She lay in the same position, face down, and literally frozen in her own blood, because the blood, having spurted onto the snow as well as seeping into her cardigan, had frozen solid. They realized this when they turned her onto her back and saw that the blood frozen in the snow and in her clothes had solidified into a single block and if they didn't want the whole lot to melt indoors, what was frozen in the snow would have to be hacked off from what was frozen into her clothing.

Steve had someone fetch a putty knife and painstakingly did the job.

Mrs Csillag presented no further problems. Though she might easily have done had she held her arms out ahead of her, or to the side, as she fell, or in her death agony, because then she would've frozen stiff in that position and it would've been impossible, or at least difficult, to get her into the coffin. She did give them pause, nonetheless. Her legs had splayed out somewhat, and remained so. Yet even this was not without a short-term benefit. Mihály, whom Steve had ordered over, could position himself handily between her legs when she had to be lifted up.

Having laid her out in the guest room and folded a worn-out towel under her cardigan, Steve went back to Aranka.

The girl's lower half was still naked and she hadn't covered it up. The only difference now was that she'd turned to face the wall and curled up into a ball. Steve offered to fetch Radetzky. He had a little petrol stashed away and could drive over to Recsk. Though it would be better if she went with him, as it was Christmas Eve and doctors didn't like being called out at such times. They'd be lucky if he were even willing to see them. But even that Aranka was unwilling to do. At least, so Steve deduced from her silence, because she still wouldn't say anything and now no longer even shook her head, acknowledging his presence only by kicking off the eiderdown whenever he tried to cover her up.

There was nothing to be done. They had to accept that it was just a matter of waiting, waiting and hoping she wouldn't always be like this, that she'd get better in due course, that the edge would be taken off the shock, her condition would improve, and she would come to. Perhaps as early as tomorrow, and then they'd see what could be done. But maybe sooner, today even, perhaps that very evening, once Júlia came, Júlia was her friend, after all. Perhaps she'd know what to do, or maybe just her sheer presence would have a therapeutic effect.

Steve harnessed up Butterfly – at first she didn't realize she'd be drawing the cart on her own – and took his wife and children home. However, this did nothing to improve Aranka's condition. Though Júlia tried everything. She covered her with kisses, stroked her, spoke to her tenderly, comforted her, encouraged her to get washed and put on her nightdress and not let herself go. What had happened was horrendous, an evil that cried out to high heaven, but she'd survived, everything would be all right in the end, and things would be just as before. And she really couldn't be certain that she was pregnant, but even if she was, well, she could have it aborted and that was all there was to it, there was no need to give birth to the bastard of a wild animal. She made her some peppermint tea and wanted her to take a sedative. She even lay down beside her and hugged her to try to help her relax, but Aranka shrank back and when Júlia turned her round so they were face to face, Aranka didn't seem to recognize her. She even called in Jancsika, whom Aranka loved dearly, but that didn't help either, though the boy scampered over to her bed and reached his little hand out to her and called her by her name.

"Ayanka," he lisped.

Júlia gave up, at least for the moment, though she put out a glass of milk and some biscuits on her bedside table. Then she rejoined her family, who were waiting for her in the front room. They were on their own, Mihály and Fáni having gone home.

Júlia served the meal, Steve said grace and they set about eating the poppyseed noodles. It was Christmas Eve, but it felt strange, having a dead body in the house. Jancsika, who ate at his own little table and didn't use a fork but stuffed the food into his mouth with his hand, would give a little tinkly laugh whenever he managed to suck in a string of pasta. His mother didn't tell him off, merely giving a shrug and throwing Steve an apologetic look.

When they'd put him to bed and were sure that Georgie, too, was asleep, Steve put up the Christmas tree and Júlia decorated it. They couldn't get any of the traditional fondant sweets, but they still had the wrappers from last year, so she put sugar cubes in them and hung these on the tree. Then they put the presents out under it. These were rather modest this year. Jancsika got a wooden tractor, Georgie a penknife, and Aranka an embroidered handkerchief. For her mother they'd bought a headscarf, but they left it in the wardrobe, thinking they might later give it to Fáni. For themselves they put nothing under the tree. They'd agreed not to give each other anything this year, because of the exceptional times they were living through. Júlia didn't particularly mind, as it was not the custom in her family to give each other Christmas presents.

Before settling down for the night, Steve did a round outdoors. In the granary he checked on the animals, particularly Morzsa, who had been found a place in the stables on a pile of straw. Before he had fetched his family, he'd removed the bullet from the dog's hind leg and bandaged up the wound. Quite pointlessly, it now transpired, because the dog had pulled the bandage off.

Júlia decided to check on Aranka. She found her asleep. She hadn't touched the milk or the biscuits. She didn't dare cover her with the eiderdown in case that woke her up, though she was worried she might catch cold when the fire went out. She was about to go and turn off the lamp when she had an idea. She took a sheet out of the wardrobe. It was thin, but better than nothing and so light that she would hardly feel it being drawn over her, and proceeded to cover her up. She felt somewhat relieved as she turned down the wick in the lamp.

The following day, on Christmas Day morning, Steve drove into the village to report the death, then went over to Recsk to pick up the doctor, who'd promised to come over after lunch. Jancsika said how much he liked the tree and took possession of the toy tractor. Georgie, too, was pleased with the penknife, though he no longer believed it was Father Christmas who brought the presents.

Aranka didn't catch cold but was in the same sorry state as the previous evening, or even worse, because she ignored every plea and still said nothing, and when Júlia again turned her round to face her, her eyes blazed with hostility. If looks could kill. And she still wouldn't have anything to eat or drink.

After breakfast, Júlia got the Christmas meal ready and they went off to Christmas mass. Fáni stayed at home. They entrusted Aranka to her care, saying she shouldn't disturb her, just make sure she didn't go into the guest room. Even if she was aware that her mother was dead, at least she shouldn't see the body. They would've locked the guest room door but couldn't find the key.

The mass took longer than those during the year and it was well after midday when they finally got home. Júlia planned to make one more attempt with Aranka. She couldn't bear the thought that while they were having Christmas lunch she'd be holed up in that room without anything to eat or drink. Nothing, however, came of this, but they had to put off lunch for another reason, because by the time they got back Aranka was no longer in the land of the living. She'd stolen out of the house and hanged herself in the granary. She'd taken advantage of the few minutes Fáni had spent in the cellar to get some eggs. They'd run out of dry pasta for the soup and Júlia had asked her to make pasta squares while they were out. She'd got everything ready and was about to start kneading when it occurred to her that the two eggs already in the bowl wouldn't be enough.

They found her on the hayloft, above the chute. She'd got hold of the rope by giving Mihály the slip in the granary. How she'd managed to secure one end of it to the rafters was a mystery, but she'd chosen that part of the roof deliberately. It was the only place with enough room for her to hang down, into the hay chute.

They cut her down immediately. She was still warm, but no longer alive. Radetzky, when he arrived, had two death certificates to make out.

The village paid for their burial out of public funds. Though not right after the holidays.  First they attempted to trace any next of kin. Calls were made to Erdőkövesd and Steve even went there in person to make inquiries, but they couldn't turn up anyone.

There being no rabbi around, they were given a Christian funeral. At first rural dean Lados was reluctant but then he relented, recalling that although the Jews had indeed killed Jesus, they too were God's creation, though he was adamant that their graves couldn't have crosses on them.



English translation © Peter Sherwood 2018

Translated by: Peter Sherwood