05. 15. 2006. 09:23

The Sneak Thief

Ervin Lázár has recently celebrated his 70th birthday. Although he is best known as the author of wonderful children’s books, his Csillagmajor (The Little Town of Miracles), fifteen short tales based on the author’s experiences as a child growing up in a Hungarian village, is written for adults.

“And now it’s the pestle,” my mother said. Her voice, which was strident and thin, told me that she’d reached the end of her tether. Whoever it is better stop this silly nonsense.
 “Is it you, son?” she asks, pleading. If I admit it, she’ll forgive me, she said.
“Me?” Her suspicion hurt me to the quick. What would I do with a pestle? What would I do with the lid of a clay jar, a fire poker, a cork screw, a two-bladed knife, a wooden spoon, a pepper mill, and other kitchen stuff like that?
“Well, then, who is it? First I thought that whoever it is must come during the day. But no. Last night, the pestle was still in its place. I remember it distinctly. I’d closed the window and the door. Everything. And it was still there. Right there, where it should be!”
Consequently, the culprit had to be someone inside the house. Even if he was in possession of a key, the chain and the latch on the door would have prevented a stranger from entering, which left me the sole suspect. My little sister was too young, my older brother too grown up, and my father wasn’t given to silly practical jokes.
“Why are you looking at me like that? Do you think I’m lying?” The anger, the shame, the sense of unfairness made the inside of my nose itch. Oh, dear, I’m going to start crying in a second. Oh, a tear drop. My mother runs over and pulls my face to hers.
At lunchtime, the family gathers. We’re eating onion soup with potato dumplings, and we’re working on a plan of action. “So he must come at night after all,” someone comments. “But how does he get in?” someone else muses. “I heard a clanging sound last night, like someone’s been into the cutlery,” a third offers. “I heard some steps. Someone sneaking about quietly, like a cat. In his bare feet.” “It’s time to put an end to this thieving,” my father concludes. He sounds determined.
In the evening, six young men come over to the house. The Jósvai brothers, Bedzsó, Pisti Gazdag, and Lorinc Tájbel. They troop to the kitchen. One positions himself under the table, another in the corner by the window, and Bedzsó wedges himself in between the wall and the kitchen cabinet. They are well hidden.
“Shout,” my father says, “and I’ll come running with the lamp.”
In the room he puts out the kerosene lamp lest it scare the thief away. But he does not lie down. He is sitting in his clothes by the oil lamp, with a box of matches within easy reach.
I try to stay awake, too. Nothing stirs. The silence roars, tearing at my ear drums. Gradually, my eyelids grow heavy, and I see a brownish fog, when someone shouts, “I got him!”
Hurried sounds, a match being struck, the flame flaring up inside the lamp shade, and in a leap my father’s in the kitchen, with us following close behind.
“He’s here. I got him,” Jancsi Jósvai says.
Everyone is standing within the circle of light now, with awe in their eyes.
Jancsi Jósvai is grabbing hold of the arm of a little naked boy, a stranger.
The child looks at us with fear in his eyes. Even his weenie is trembling from his great fear.
My mother goes close up to him and looks at his back.
“Dad,” she says, her voice choked with emotion, “bring that lamp here.”
My father raises the lamp and the light falls on the child’s back.
“Oh my god… Oh my god…,” my mother whispers.
We all see the thing she won’t say. The child has two white, feathery wings.
“Let go of him, János,” my mother says softly.
Jancsi Jósvai lets go of the child’s arm, while my father releases the chain on the kitchen door, turns the key in the lock, then opens it.
The chorus of nighttime cricket song comes pouring into the house. The stars in the sky, like so many diamond. The moon distant and yellow.
The child scurries out of the house. Not until he is gone dare we go after him.
“Where is he?”
We crane our necks and look at the sky.
“There,” my brother cries, “did you see? He flew past the face of the moon. Yes, a black spot just flew past the face of the moon!”
From that moment on and for a long time to come, our nights were restless, for we kept our ears open. But nothing clanked, nothing rapped, nothing thumped, nothing swished. The angel never showed again.
“Maybe he could have used other things, too,” my mother said sadly, and every night she covered the millstone table that stood in front of the kitchen with all sorts of kitchen things, tablecloths, napkins. But nothing was missing, ever.
Now that I am a grown man, I still startle awake at night and listen, for maybe there is an angel looking for something in the house. Maybe he needs something from my things. But nothing stirs. There is nothing, just the silence tearing at my ear drums.

Translated by: Judith Sollosy

Tags: Ervin Lázár