"...the Lázárs basically lost the war altogether, and yet it was not even halfway through." - Coming of age in a poor family in Kolozsvár/Cluj, during World War I.
István Nagy (1904–1977) was a Hungarian writer, playwright and journalist from Romania. Born into a poor working-class family, he had to leave school in his early teens to work in a match factory. Soon he joined the workers' movement and was jailed several times by the Romanian authorities. His short stories and novels—depicting the daily struggles of workers of the interwar years—were unanimously praised by contemporary critics, who compared them to the works of Gorky and Zola.
It had been two years since the world went up in flames. By now, the battalions boarded the trains mostly at night, and their rifles were not decorated with flowers anymore. The only soldiers who still received floral tributes were the ones transported home by the Red Cross, so they could finish their heroic deaths. Yet even so, just a few could hope for a whole wreath, since most flowerbeds were used to grow potatoes on them. Everybody was standing in a queue—the men were lining up to be drafted, while the women and children were waiting for bread. Many healthy sons and fathers walked into the army barracks on their own two legs, just to be brought back from the front line by the post, in the form of a notification. In better cases, it was their small belongings, personal objects, and glasses that were sent back instead. Many residents in the Kővári neighborhood received their lost loved ones this way, except for the Lázár family, who never got anything, not even an army postcard. From time to time there were rumors going around, people whispering that Mr. Lázár was executed for trying to escape from the front. Others said it was a Kazakh spear which ended his life. And yet a different source claimed he died from shrapnel shell. . . In any case, at the Lázár household the father was dearly missed. Not even the six of them could make up for the lack of his old wages.
The mother went to work on the fields for the landowners of Hóstát, since it paid better than the factory—that is, until the prisoners of war arrived. The two oldest sons, Tamás and Ferenc, worked in the match factory and earned a reasonable salary—until they brought in the Serbian prisoners for forced labor. The three younger ones wandered around the army kitchens on the Fellegvár every day, and would bring home bags full of coffee grounds and other leftovers—right until a Czech regiment was moved into the barracks. With all of this combined, the Lázárs basically lost the war altogether, and yet it was not even halfway through.
Mrs. Lázár, however, unwaveringly dictated her letters to Tamás, and sent them on a regular basis to the only army post box she ever got word from, two years earlier. At the postal censorship office these letters were most likely the cause of some amusement: “What is the matter with you, my dear husband? Two years were more than enough of this, enough for you and most certainly enough for us, so would all of you just please stop this bloody mess, I am truly fed up with this cursed war! I don’t understand—why isn’t it over already?, all the important people here are telling us time and again that our armies have conquered everything. . .” Of course, no answer arrived. And this made Mrs. Lázár even more restless. She carried on endless night discussions with her children: Where is the fault? Who is to be blamed? Is it God or is it Franz Joseph? But God is good, and the king is gentle; look there, one can see it clearly from the way he devoutly prays in the picture hanging on the wall. With folded hands and a pious bald head. The foolish printer even felt the need to write above the image: “The king is praying”—as if that was not obvious.
After long debates, they finally arrived at the conclusion that the house they had been living in for ten years must be riddled with bad luck. Evil must have entered it, since one night she dreamt that a deep grave had been dug in the middle of the room. Well then, they need to move out as quickly as possible, for the war to end sooner and her husband to return already. And move they did—almost every month they moved to a different place because the war did not seem to end just yet. When Mrs. Lázár finally got tired of all the hustle and bustle, she discovered better ways to free her soldier husband. She started taking his underwear to different fortune-tellers. Then, at midnight, she brought two mirrors and tried to position them so that they reflected each other nine times. Because in the ninth reflection of the mirror, the image of her husband, dead or alive, would have to appear. First she had to slap the children around a bit, so they would stop stampeding next to the table, making it impossible for the ninth reflection to be revealed. Yet her attempt was unsuccessful even with a steady table, and Mrs. Lázár felt the need to shout:
“I will beat this wicked war, even if I have to walk until my feet start to bleed!”
And she did, stubbornly. Taking half of their monthly tickets for bread, sugar, and wood rations to the wonder-working old women in the neighborhood and beyond. But so did others. The fortune-telling industry started to prosper in the city. Besides the transports of boots, crosses, and ammunitions, it was these fortune-tellers who provided the main supply of hope.
One winter day, around the Christmas of 1916, when not even horse meat was available anymore, either with a queue or without one, Mrs. Lázár finally discovered the genuine miracle after two days of roaming through nearby villages. Half frozen, but incredibly pleased with herself, she arrived home to her starving children, who were just about to turn the cupboard into firewood.
“My little darlings, your father will be home in nine weeks. I will bring him back from hell if I have to, don’t you worry!”
The children, except the oldest, started to cheerfully jump around their brave mother, and then charged on Tamás: why doesn’t he share their excitement?
“Because death is even stronger than mother,” he answered quietly.
“He is not dead, you prophet of doom.”
“Well, then the army won’t let him go. . .”
“We don’t give a damn,” shouted Mrs. Lázár, “we don’t give a good god damn about this war.” Then she mysteriously locked the door, hushed the children, and unloaded her bag with great ceremony, only to reveal a little black rooster with red eyes. “This is it,” she said finally, “this little rooster will bring your father home, but don’t you go blabbing about it to anyone!”
The children were screaming in their excitement; as they huddled around the frantic little rooster, they desperately wanted to fondle him, but the tiny warrior put up quite a fight and pecked at their hands. Soon, the children were forced to retreat, realizing with astonishment that one cannot simply treat such a special bird as a common plaything. Since, if you think about it, this rooster is mightier than God himself, who was unable to bring home their father in spite of all their prayers. And this little rooster is wiser than the Red Cross, who was unable to locate their father for the past two years. Yet to their horror, Tamás sneered at the bird, and said contemptuously:
“He’ll make a good enough stew. For poor folk like us, the only certain thing is what we can eat.”
Mrs. Lázár immediately slapped him hard for that.
“Here you go, you greedy bastard! You’d gobble down the only luck your father has in this world?! People have hearts too, you know, not only bellies. Don’t you worry about your father? Don’t you want him to come home?”
The boy covered his burning cheek with his hand, and answered defiantly:
“In the match factory even the Serbians said that we need to drown all the swindlers in the sea, and then everybody can come home from the front.”
“But we don’t have a sea here!” retorted triumphantly his eleven-year-old little brother, Feri.
Since Tamás could not deny this, he remained silent and looked hatefully at the little rooster. They tied the bird’s leg to the foot of the table, so he would not escape from the grand task awaiting him. Feeling unhappy about his state of affairs, he showed his discontent by picking angrily at the shiny buttons on Mrs. Lázár’s shoes.
The next day, Tamás, although with a heavy heart, set out to follow his mother’s instructions and took the little black rooster to Kétvízköz, to an old woman with big teeth. According to the instructions, he had to hold the bird under his left arm, and he was not allowed to look back at any moment, since then the magical power of the rooster would be spoiled. All of this had been the request of the big-toothed old woman, who insisted that the rooster needed to be black, with red eyes. Tamás’s role in the matter was also not accidental, because the old woman claimed that only the innocent assistance of the firstborn boy could enable the rooster to carry out its difficult task.
Thinking about all of this frightened Tamás, so he was quite scared by the time he reached the house at end of the city park, where the old woman lived in a dark and crumbling room. The cracks between the girders were full of willow branches blessed with holy water. All around the room, the walls were covered with rosaries and holy icons of different kinds and sizes, so that the whole run-down house, together with the rotting fences and the collapsing shack, seemed to be midway in falling piously to their knees. On the old bed, two black cats were walking in circles, with their tails raised high like the chimneys of old furnaces.
Tamás was nearly shivering from fear. He recalled all the gruesome and dark dreams that his mother had told him about; and dreaded to find out in what horrifying way he would have to assist the little rooster. His mind reeled from remembering all the superstitious rituals he had heard of. But the only thing the old woman asked of him was to chop up as much wood as he could until sundown.
And so Tamás spent the whole of Sunday wrestling with an old saw that would get stuck in every log he wanted to cut. Then, in the evening, the old witch gave him a grey piece of cloth torn from a dead soldier’s coat, and instructed the boy to wrap the small rag into his father’s handkerchief and throw it in the fire. She told him to come the next day as well. Tamás came after he had finished work at the factory, only to carry on chopping the rest of the wood in the afternoon and to bring several buckets of water from the well.
Soon, the boy started to rebel. Why doesn’t she put him to assist the little rooster already? And, by the way, where did the bird disappear? But the old woman snapped at him like a vulture, shrieking that he should stop asking pesky questions because he does not need to know about things that are beyond him! If he wishes to see his father alive again, then he must do as she tells him, and believe that everything has a well-defined and holy purpose. And most importantly, he mustn’t talk to anyone about these things, not even to the priest during confession.
So Tamás clenched his teeth and kept silent. What else could he do, he wondered, if there is no sea in the nearby, only the frozen Szamos river—there is no point in drowning the swindlers in the river. In any case, he truly felt that it was about time for his old man to show up already. He called him like that, his “old man,” just to follow the example of the other boys from the factory, although his father was only thirty-seven years old—if he was still alive.
From then on, he had to work for the old woman each afternoon. He brought her water, mopped the house, and shoveled the snow from the yard. In exchange, he received some beans or a bit of incense, which he was also told to throw into the fire.
By the next Sunday the old lady ran out of wood, so Tamás had to start sawing once more. As he was hacking away at the frozen logs in the shack, he was surprised to discover the little black rooster in an entirely different setting. The little bird was floating quietly in a large pan—plucked appropriately for such an endeavor—with an eerie indignation reflecting in his glassy eyes.
Seeing the rooster in this state reawakened the revolt within Tamás, but he dared not raise his voice again, even though his stomach—sensing the faint possibility of chicken stew—was roaring like a beast. He spat with disgust at the thought of the pasty rye bread they had been eating for months. But his contemplation of long-gone, peacetime feasts was interrupted by the old woman’s shrieking. She called him into her most secret and holy room, showed him a piece of an old nail, wrapped it in paper, and put it into Tamás’s coat pocket.
“Never come here again,” she said to him. “You will need to hammer this nail into the table, on the very side where your father used to eat. Afterwards, your mother will have to put a plate and spoon there, and serve the soup in it. When all of you have finished eating your food—and not sooner, you understand—then you can eat your father’s portion together. If you do not lose this nail and you do exactly as I said, then precisely nine weeks from now, at noon, your father will return to your house unnoticeably, he will eat the food prepared for him, and will become flesh and blood again. Now, a last request, my son, be kind and bring me another bucket of water from the well. You can leave your coat here so you’ll move easier. And then the blessings of the Virgin Mary may be upon you. . .”
Tamás threw his coat on a chair, brought the bucket of water, and then started running towards their home, filled with excitement, not even listening to the old woman who repeatedly shouted after him: “Don’t you lose that nail, boy!” He ran unto the frozen Szamos river where he just loved to slide on his wooden shoes, almost flying on top of the ice. He stumbled over so many times that even the cold winter sun was laughing at him. But Tamás did not mind because he was overly thrilled to have finally outsmarted the war, so that now his father could return and he would not be responsible for earning the bread any longer. From then on he would be left alone to sleep late, like he had been as a small boy. And all of this thanks to that little rooster and that piece of nail. He reached into his pocket to wonder at it once more, but he could not find the nail. It was gone, together with its paper wrapping and its miracles.
His face turned ashen grey while running wildly to and fro on the ice, searching through the snow with trembling fingers. He checked every square feet of the frozen river as he retraced his steps, but nothing, and again nothing. As the day was ending he wanted to prop the sun up with some giant bar, because the nearing darkness, oh, the darkness is consuming the little hope that is left. But the heartless sun disappeared behind the mountains of Gyalu. Then the moon maliciously conspired with the gendarmes at the army camps and remained above the front lines so the soldiers there could not escape, and here Tamás could not find that godforsaken nail.
He was crying in desperation when he went back to the old woman’s house and knocked on her door to ask for another nail. But she wouldn’t even let him in the yard, and told him in a screechy voice that no other nail would work because you only get one chance. Not even a new little black rooster could help them anymore, so Tamás should take his sniveling somewhere else and leave her alone.
Only after midnight did he dare go home with the awful news. The storm of wailing and sobbing that greeted him seemed to surpass even the one unleashed on the day his father was taken away to fight the war. His mother slapped him until her hands were numb and shouted with madness:
“You murderer! You killed your father! I never want to see you again! Don’t ever come back without that nail. . . Get out of here! Get out of here!”
Tamás had to spend the night in the waiting room of the train station, among the snoring soldiers. In the morning he looked for the nail again, and then in the evenings he would sneak into the old woman’s place in hope of finding something helpful. He saw that boys and girls his age were entering and leaving the house. Then one time, he saw a little girl frantically running around, crying and desperately looking for something in the snow. He stepped closer and asked the girl:
“Are you looking for the nail?”
“How did you know?” she asked in return with astonishment.
“Did you have to chop wood for her?”
“Yes,” came the bewildered answer.
“And did you bring her a black rooster?”
“No, I brought a yellow one,” she said, and started crying again. “She put the nail in my coat pocket, and then sent me to bring a bucket of water. . . and then. . . and then. . . I put my coat on and started walking home. . . and then I couldn’t find the nail anymore. . .”
In the following two weeks he met two other boys who were searching for nails around the infamous house. So he went home and told his mother about what he had learnt, suspecting that the old lady must be stealing back the nails when she sends the children to bring water.
“How dare you slander the name of that saint of a woman, you dirty little liar!” shouted Mrs. Lázár at him. “You made us miserable and ruined our Christmas! I don’t want to see you anymore, you heartless brat!”
What hurt him most was her calling him a brat. Murderer yes, liar yes, but not a brat. He was a breadwinner! Yet he could even accept being seen as a brat, if only his mother would stop her crying and sighing all night long. This bothered him so much that the only thing he could think of was how to make everything alright again and stop her mother’s crying. On Christmas Saturday, while working at the factory, he thought of the best gift to clear his name. He pulled out a nail from an old crate and slipped it under the lining of his coat. Later that night, he started to conspicuously feel the pocket of the coat, near the lamplight, so all his siblings could see what he was doing, and then exclaimed with surprise:
“What is this thing here, I wonder?”
“It’s a nail,” screamed his little brother Feri, and soon it became “the” nail everybody was hoping for. The nail that was thought to be lost. They ran hurriedly to get the axe, and after a few knocks it was nailed onto its designated place in the table. Not one of them worried about the missing Christmas tree, who would care about such a thing now that it was certain that in nine weeks they would receive the best gift in the world.
It was soon 1917, and after January came February. Impatience nearly drove Mrs. Lázár out of her mind. Then finally, on the foretold day she cleaned the house, sent the children to the neighbors and took a bath in the wooden tub, as if preparing for her wedding. The horse meat was cooking since morning, because Mr. Lázár doesn’t like his meat tough. The tolling of bells announced that it was noon. After the meal was served, they all gazed with excitement at the soup prepared for their father. Yet it was clearly not diminishing, the spoon did not move one inch, and the horse meat was shivering in the cold liquid. Mrs. Lázár’s face got paler and paler. Tamás lowered his head, so as not to see the sadness in their eyes. After a while their mother lifted the plate with trembling hands and poured it back into the pot. She sighed deeply, and wanted to send the children to the neighbors again, but none of them moved, since they knew she wanted to cry. Tamás wanted to say something soothing, but then suddenly they saw one of the women from the neighborhood running through the yard, holding a newspaper in her hand and screaming:
“Mrs. Lázár, my dear Mrs. Lázár. . . come quickly!”
Their mother sprang up and almost flew through the window to see what it was all about.
“Mrs. Lázár, look. . . it’s a special edition. . . In Saint Petersburg the Russians have proclaimed peace. . . and all the swindlers are fleeing.”
“Didn’t I tell all of you that the black marketers were to be blamed!” shouted Tamás, almost out of breath, but his little brother cut in: “It’s easy for the Russians, they have a sea to drown them in.”
Sáncalja in Kolozsvár, where István Nagy lived as a child
Translated by: Szabolcs László