The snow would not fall that winter, and just a couple of weeks before Christmas, the land with its shivering, frozen clumps of earth was still black. It was from this darkness that the woman emerged, cradling a small infant in her arms. There was no knowing where she’d come from or how long she’d been standing outside our door, because she didn’t knock.
“In the name of God,” my mother said, “you’re freezing. Come in.”
But the woman did not move. She just raised her eyes to my parents and said, very softly, “They’re after me.”
“After a woman and a baby?” my father said. “Why?”
My mother took the woman gently by the arm.
“Don’t be afraid. Come on in.”
“I haven’t done anything bad,” the woman said, but she still would not cross our threshold.
“They said if anybody helps me, they’ll be severely punished.”
“Never mind. Come in.”
The woman was very beautiful. She divested herself of her exotic, light coloured mantle adorned with golden trim, undid the swaddling clothes of her baby boy, changed him and nursed him at her breast. The baby laughed at us with its toothless wisdom.
“Just till Christmas,” the woman said. “By Christmas we’ll have a place to go.”
Mother looked at us children.
“Children, you mustn’t tell anybody that the lady is staying with us. All right?”
“You needn’t fear anybody here, of course,” my father said. “In Rácpácegres, no one’s going to tell on us. Still, better be safe than sorry.”
We were all thinking of Duri Bederik, of course. He didn’t live in Rácpácegres, but he was always lurking around the neighbourhood. He was some sort of keeper or forest or field guard. He shot our dogs when they strayed outside the confines of the village, and he made the children cry, and he scared the women when they carried food to their men in the fields. Yes, he was a man to be feared.
Ever since the woman with the infant came to stay, he’d been lurking about the neighbourhood more than usual, and after the decree had been read out in the village, he went about it openly.
The soldiers had come in a camouflage-painted jeep and honked their horn until all the folk came out of their houses. One of the soldiers stood up and read out something – what read? bellowed, fit to burst. They were looking for a woman with a baby, he said, and anybody that sees them is bound by the rigor of the law to report it. If they don’t, they’ll be shot and their house burnt to the ground.
As we listened, our hearts turned to ice. Would they search the houses? But they left, all except Duri Bederik, who made straight for our place.
“I can leave right now, if you wish,” the woman said to my father. “I’ll sneak out the back and no one will be the wiser.”
“You’re staying right here,” my father said. “It’s only five days to Christmas. We’ll manage till then. Now go, hide!”
Duri Bederik sat in our kitchen till nightfall, listening for a baby’s cries. But he listened in vain, because as soon as he’d made himself comfortable, Jancsi Jósvai appeared from behind the outbuildings and waved to my mother until she finally caught sight of him.
“What is it, János?”
“I’ve come because of the woman and the child.”
“What child?” my mother asked in alarm.
“Don’t be frightened. The whole puszta knows. As long as that man’s sitting inside, they’ll be safer with us. They could sneak through the back without being seen.”
This is how it transpired that the woman with the baby first ended up with the Jósvais, and when Duri Bederik began snooping around their place, they were taken to the families at the lower end of the village, then the upper end, then back to the middle. There was no family in Rácpácegres who had not given them shelter, if only for an hour or two.
Christmas came, and my sisters wrapped walnuts in silver foil and ran threads through popcorn to hang on our Christmas tree. The woman with the baby was back with us by then.
“They’ll be waiting for me at the foot of the Old Hill in Pálfa come nightfall,” she said softly.
My father harnessed the horses and just to be on the safe side made a detour, taking the woman and her infant son to their appointed place through the woods above the Sió River. He even smiled at his own extravagant safety precautions. Who’d be loitering around these parts on Christmas Eve?
But somebody was. Duri Bederik jumped out from behind a clump of trees.
“Stop!” Who’s that with you?”
Instead of answering him, my father snapped his whip, and the cart gave a jerk and a start. But he wasn’t fast enough, and Duri Bederik grabbed hold of the woman’s mantle with the golden trim. It stayed in his hand, and he waved it about triumphantly.
When my father and the woman reached the foot of the Old Hill at a gallop, they found another cart waiting. The woman bid my father a quick farewell, got on, and the light peasant cart was swallowed up by the dark of night.
My father turned the horses around and started for home, and this time he took the high road. But when he reached the foot of Paphegy, a peal of uncanny laughter issued from behind the bushes lining the road. My father didn’t have to be told who it was, and in that chilling darkness, his heart aching, he watched a bunch of tumble weed being swept hither and thither by the wind.
At dawn the following day, the people of Rácpácegres awoke with a start. The soldiers! The soldiers are coming! I don’t know who’d brought the news, but before long everyone in the village had heard that a monster with caterpillar tracks was coming to demolish their homes. Duri Bederik, who had lost no time, was now at the head of the column, we were told, running in front of the tank, waving the evidence, the blue mantle with the golden trim, in his hand.
For a while we were hoping that the men who brought the news were just trying to scare us, but as the rising sun illuminated the slumbering countryside, it cast its light upon the soldiers marching along the road to Lőrinc. They were fully armed, and behind them roared and rumbled a monster with caterpillar tracks. We’re done for! Rácpácegres, you’re done for! We prepared to flee. The women hurriedly tied together their bundles, but by then somebody had come running from the granary. There’s no escaping, he said, anyone with eyes in his head could see that we’d been surrounded. From Ráadás Road all the way to Paphegy, even as far as the Vitéz farm, soldiers were swarming everywhere, their raised bayonets like so many spikes on a barbed wire fence.
But who is that woman and her infant son that they should be the objects of such hatred?
The women dropped their bundles and we all backed away, huddled together under the great mulberry tree like a herd of cattle at high noon. The rumbling monster was already approaching the Small Corner. We could hear the ominous roar and we could see, too, the flash of blue in Duri Bederik’s hand when Pisti Keserű shouted, “Look!”
And indeed, the outlines of the houses began to dissolve as if a heavy fog had settled upon them, except it couldn’t have been fog, because everything else could be clearly seen – the fir tree on Erzsébet Hill, and the church spire in Lőrinc, too. But the houses, they were cast in a haze, insubstantially floating like the mirage over the puszta on a sweltering summer’s day. Then came another shout, “My hand! My hand! Look, my hand!” and lo and behold, our bodies were dissolving, too, by then, our hands turned translucent, our clothing paled in colour, and for a moment I could even see the nearby hills through the bodies of the people huddled next to me, and the moment after not even that, just the hills and the trees. The people and the houses, they’re like mist, they’ve disappeared, and the village of Rácpácegres nothing now but a deserted plain! And still, we’re here! I can feel me grasping my mother’s hand, and I can feel my little sister’s breath on the small of my back.
The soldiers stand stupefied in the midst of this emptiness, while Duri Bederik snaps his head like one demented. What’s going on, it was all here a minute ago, it’s gotta be here! Then a soldier, an officer-type, climbs out of the tank as Duri Bederik repeatedly waves the blue mantle with the golden trim at him. The officer-type raises his cane and strikes Duri Bederik first on the shoulder, then across the face. Someone laughs out loud. Be quiet, my father orders, but there’s no stopping the sound of malicious glee as it comes trickling, then bursting from the many throats. You had it coming, you traitorous rascal! And before long the people fall on him and whining like a wounded animal, Duri Bederik starts running helter-skelter inside the circle of villagers so that one is almost tempted to feel sorry for him.
Their mission unaccomplished, the soldiers form ranks, the tank turns around, and Duri Bederik, he’s lying on the ground like a discarded rag. When the soldiers disappear on the horizon, he scampers to his feet, boiling over with rage, shaking his fist at the sky, the soldiers, the villagers, and in answer, we, the invisible, give way to a great, joyous laughter of relief as Duri Bederik makes for the fields, putting more and more distance between him and us, until he looks like a wind-swept bunch of tumble weed himself.
A pale tremor, the houses are solidly back in place, our hands and faces reappear from the mist, hurray, we’re back, the jubilant folk of Rácpácegres glow incandescent; and as if it had been waiting only for this all along, the snow begins to fall in fluffy white flakes, just like grace from the very heavens.
Translated by: Judith Sollosy
Tags: Ervin Lázár