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My grandfather built the garden.
It was fifteen kilometers from the city. At first it was just an oily, black piece of land. No one had even marked the boundaries. My grandfather and father grassed it and planted cherry trees. All by themselves they erected a house on the land and painted it white. With their hands they dug the well, and my grandfather poured the concrete lining by himself. My father was twelve at the time.
My grandfather spent all his free time in the garden. He would drive there on his Red Simson motorcycle, and the family would follow on foot. Sometimes I could mount behind him on the motorcycle and ride with him. I loved that. After my grandfather died, we went there less and less often. The garden reflected this. No one cut the grass or pruned the trees.
If we went there, it was mainly to repair the deterioration. The garden was entirely different now. The air was full of the scent of wildflowers and adventure. By the time I was ten, the grass was up to my knees, and the plaster was peeling off of the house. Grasshoppers leapt in front of my footsteps. In the trees gone wild, redstarts and thrushes had built their nests. The nestlings followed the food, chirping; I could see them sticking their necks out of the nests.
I did whatever I pleased.
I was my own master, and the garden was my realm.
It was a bright spring day at the end of April. The sky was blue and cloudless; the fiery sunlight had taken the dew away. My grandfather was already eight years dead.
My grandmother was in the house, cooking lunch and listening to the radio. Hungarian melodies were playing; I could hear her humming them. The scent of paprika potatoes wafted around the front door.
My father was kneeling beside the Simson motorcycle with a wrench. His hands were greasy. His forehead was greasy too when he wiped off his sweat.
I was ten. I was standing on the other side of the house, in the sun, and had dragged a dingy suitcase from my grandfather’s workshop into the light. The lock was rusty. I pressed the latch in vain; it wouldn’t open.
I went back to the shed, took a screwdriver out of the toolbox, and pried the suitcase open with it.
It was difficult. I knew that there was something inside it. My fantasy was instantly released. I hoped to find a treasure.
Of course this was my grandfather’s. I didn’t feel any particular guilt over rummaging through his belongings. He had died years ago. “His heart was broken,” my parents said. I was very small at the time.
A “broken heart” is a medical expression. It means that, as a result of multiple cardiac infarctions, one of the heart’s chambers breaks off. My mother explained this to me. After Grandpa’s death, I couldn’t sleep for days. I lay in the dark, afraid that this would happen to me too. Everyone said I was just like my grandfather. I took for granted that the same fate awaited me. If I shut my eyes in bed, I could hear my heartbeat, and I waited for my heart to break.
Photo: Me and my grandfather around the early '80-ies, probably taken by my father.
My mother had to reassure me that my resemblance to my grandfather did not mean that I would die in the same way. “Grandpa never took of himself, and he smoked two packs of filtered cigarettes a day, and he kept this up for a long time,” she said. That calmed me down. For my part, I detested cigarettes and was sure I would never light up.
I took the screwdriver and wedged it behind the suitcase’s metal strip. The strip tightened, then broke with a loud snap. I did the same with the other strip. I stayed quiet for a few seconds to make sure no one had heard what I was up to, then opened the suitcase.
A bundle of yellowed papers, tied together with twine, lay inside. No pistol, no bomb or gold coins, as I had hoped. My grandfather was a war hero, or at least that’s what all the grownups called him, so I had reason to expect treasures.
Instead, I found handwritten letters, in water-logged, now illegible handwriting. Disappointed, I lifted the bundle. As I did so, the twine broke and the letters scattered.
From the middle of the bundle, black-and-white photos clattered down in front of me. I picked them up.
All of them had my grandfather in him, from the time of his youth. Staring back at me were people I knew from stories, family members long dead. Great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, deceased distant cousins and great-uncles.
There was just one photo that I didn’t know what to make of. Grandpa was in this one too, already an adult. He was in a winter coat, standing behind a woman with curly black hair and holding her breast. The woman was wearing a coat too, and both smiled at the camera.
I examined the picture for a long time. I didn’t understand why the woman was smiling, if someone was holding her breast, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Grandpa was smiling while holding someone’s breast. I had held a girl’s breast only once, in second grade. Her name was Sári, and once during recess we showed each other our private parts. There was nothing laughable about this.
I stood up, brushed the dust off my pants, and tidied myself. Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother was always very strict. She always scolded me if I got dirty. I didn’t want to end up having my head shampooed for an eternity. After I finished, I headed to the house, photograph in hand.
My grandmother was standing by the gas cylinder, washing the dishes for lunch in a large plastic basin.
Although her mourning obligations had long ended, she still wore black.
“Grandma!” I shouted, stopping in the doorway.
“What is it, my boy?”
“Why is Grandpa holding this woman’s breast in this picture?” I asked, shoving the picture in front of her nose. Her face turned grey when she saw it. Her mouth started to tremble.
“He’s not holding her breast, my boy, he’s covering her yellow star,” she said, dropping a dish into the water. “Where did you find that picture?” she asked, her voice angry and indignant.
“In a suitcase.”
“Give it here.”
“I’m not giving it to you.”
“Give it to me, or you’ll regret it.”
She went after the picture, but I was quicker. I whisked it away from her and was already in the doorway.
“If you don’t hand it over, you won’t get any lunch.”
“I don’t need any shitty lunch!” I shouted, and ran away as fast as I could. She emerged from the house but didn’t chase me.
She stood in the doorway, swearing. I didn’t stop. As I ran, I grabbed my air rifle, which was leaning against the wall of the house, and ran out the back garden door onto the plough field. I ran so fast and hard that the blood pulsed in my temples and I had to stop and regather my strength. By now I was on the white dirt road of the soldiers’ exercise grounds.
For a long time I stood catching my breath, and then, with the air rifle on my shoulder, headed toward the stream. Tall steel watchtowers stood rusty in the green field; the contours of crumbling whitewashed houses loomed under the southern sky. Acacias stood on both sides of the road. Now and then a gentle wind caught their leaves.
My stomach was growling. “I’ll catch a bird and cook it up,” I thought. “The old hag isn’t going to blackmail me.”
I knew that at the end of the exercise grounds, an hour away, there was a stream. I would set up camp there.
Leaning against a weeping willow, I stared at the stream. I had already given up on kindling a fire. I had rubbed two sticks together until my hands were exhausted, yet neither one of them began to smoke. I didn’t understand how they did it so easily in the movies. I figured they must have used a different kind of branch. My tongue curled up in my mouth. I nibbled on grass ends to ease my hunger, and spit the large ones into the stream. I heard a buzzing sound above the dirt road. I stood up and looked. My father was approaching on the red Simson. I hid behind the willow. My father, however, didn’t go further; he stopped the motor in the clearing.
“I know you’re there,” he said. “You left the air rifle in front.”
I emerged nervously from behind the willow.
“I brought you lunch.”
He got off the motorcycle and rested it on its stand. He lifted up a plastic bag that was hanging on the steering handle, and put it in my hands.
There was a plastic food dish with cover in the bag, along with two thick slices of bread and a spoon. He sat down on a willow root.
I took off the lid of the container and, spoon in hand, began to shovel away at the paprika potatoes, which were still warm, and crammed them with the bread into my mouth.
“You are going to choke.”
With full mouth I shook my head, then resumed eating. He didn’t say anything until I had finished and put the container on the willow root. Then he took a cigarette out of his pocket, tapped its tip on the box, put it in his mouth, and lit up. He took a long drag, then exhaled the smoke.
“What did you do to make the old girl so angry?” he asked.
I took the picture out of my pocket and put it in his hand.
“I just asked why Grandpa was holding the lady’s breast.”
“Very well. And what did she say?”
“That he isn’t holding her breast, but covering the yellow star.”
“Do you know what the yellow star is?”
“During World War Two, that is what the Nazis used to identify the Jews.”
“Who are those Jews?”
“People like you and me.”
“And who are the Nazis?”
“Bad people. They hated people for being different. They wanted to kill them, and that’s why they put a sign on them.”
“Are Jews different?”
“No. But the Nazis thought so. They killed many of them during the war.”
“Are we Jews, dad?”
“No. We are Catholics.”
“And Grandpa? Was he a Jew?”
“No, Grandpa wasn’t Jewish either.”
I didn’t know much about my grandfather. He had greyish hair and was always smiling when he came over to see us.
My grandfather with a soviet PPSH machinegun, sometime after the end of the II. World War.
In the mornings he would bring us breakfast. He loved me and my little brother and played a lot with us. We knew he was a soldier; at Christmastime he would put on his uniform and take my grandmother to the soldiers’ ball. We loved that, because we wanted to be soldiers too.
“So why is he covering the star?”
“Because he was in love with the girl and didn’t want them to hurt her.”
“They were already hurting Jews then?”
“Yes. At that time they were shutting them up in ghettos and making them wear a yellow star. They were hungry and had to go into hiding. Ágnes’s family too.”
“Her name was Ágnes?” I asked, pointing at the woman.
My father took a thoughtful drag of the cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and then looked me up and down.
“You are a big boy now. You have a right to know the truth.”
I nodded. I had no idea what he meant by that, but I was happy to hear that I was a big boy already.
“You know, your grandfather’s family was very poor. There were eleven siblings. Everyone had to work, but even with that there wasn’t enough food. They lived in Szigethalom; they were peasants.”
“Were they idiots?”
“No, farmers. In the summer they grew melons, and in the fall they worked in the field. And that wasn’t enough. By winter they had run out of food. You have no idea what hunger is.”
“How is that possible? I’m always hungry,” I thought, but didn’t say anything.
“Your grandfather was the oldest of the siblings. He had to go to the capital and find work. First he worked at an iron smelter’s, then hired himself out to a Jew by the name of Rátgéber, who had a smoke shop in the city. He worked for him as an errand boy.”
“This Rágéber had a daughter, Ágnes, who was Grandpa’s first love. Have you ever been in love?”
“Not yet. But I hope I will be.” I felt myself redden.
“Yes, you will. A bit later. Anyway, Ágnes was Grandpa’s first big, true love.”
“Is that why Grandma was so mad?”
“And what happened to the girl?”
“Well, those were very bad times. The boys were enlisted as soldiers.”
“Did they enlist Grandpa too?”
“He tried to get out of it, and succeeded for a little while. Then 1944 came, and the Germans attacked Slovakia, and Grandpa got sent there because he spoke German. By then, Ágnes and her father had to go into hiding. And wear the yellow star.”
“Where did they hide?”
“With friends, acquaintances. They had to arrange this in secret.”
“And did Grandpa go into hiding too?”
“No. They enlisted him, and so he had to leave when the Germans and Hungarians went together to suppress the Slovak revolt.”
“They didn’t meet any more?”
“Grandpa was taken away to Kassa by train. On the way, he got very sick with mumps.”
“I’ve never had that as a kid.”
“Yes, you have. But this illness is much more dangerous when you’re grown up. They had to take Grandpa off the train. He ended up in the hospital. There he received a letter from Rátgéber saying that Ágnes had been taken away and killed by members of the Arrow Cross Party.”
“Who were they?”
“Were all Hungarians Nazis?”
“Not all, but a lot of them.”
My father stood up, took the plastic container in his hand, went to the stream, rinsed it, then filled it with water and brought it back.
“Are you thirsty?”
I drank. The water flowed down my chin, drenched my T-shirt, and splattered on my shorts. “And what did Grandpa do then?” I asked.
“That day he was released from the hospital and deserted to the Slovak partisan side. From then on, the war was a personal matter for him.”
“A personal matter?”
“Yes. He wanted to hurt those who had killed his love.”
“And did he?”
“Yes. He fought in Besztercebánya. The Slovak partisans were there up to the end of the war. When they released him, he walked to Budapest with a machine gun on his shoulder.”
“And what happened to Rátgéber?”
“Ágnes’s father? The Nazis killed him too. Two of Grandpa’s brothers died in the war.”
“When the new Hungarian army was installed, he signed up,” my father continued. “Because he spoke German well, he was assigned to Sopron. That is where he met Grandma.”
“Was she also a great love of his?”
“I don’t know. But Grandma’s family took Brennbergbánya’s chief engineer into hiding, so politically anyway, it was a good match. At that time Grandpa no longer believed in God, but in communism.”
“Why didn’t he believe in God?”
“Because God let all of this happen.”
“Is that why we don’t believe in God?”
“Yes, more or less.”
“And then what happened?”
“Grandpa and Grandma got married. I was born shortly afterward. Grandpa was a military officer under the new system. Actually, we can be grateful to the Nazis.”
“Because if they hadn’t taken Ágnes away, we wouldn’t have been born. Not you, not I.”
“But I would rather kill the Nazis.”
My father smiled and stroked my head.
“I hope you won’t have reason to do that. Anyway, come along, let’s go back.”
We got up and walked to the motorcycle. My father mounted it. At first the motor wouldn’t start. He had to kick it several times before it started to crackle. I put the air rifle on my shoulder and climbed on behind him.
“Dad, if Grandpa didn’t believe in God, why did he teach us the Lord’s Prayer?” I asked, hugging his waist. My father rolled the throttle, and we were whisked off on our way.
“The story isn’t over yet.”
“No. In 1968, Grandpa received a letter from Israel. Ágnes wrote that she had survived the war and wanted to meet with him.”
“And what did Grandpa do?”
“Nothing. He didn’t answer, because I was already there, and your grandmother too. He just bought and renovated the garden. He always went there earlier than we did. Once I went early too and watched what he was doing.”
“It was spring. He was kneeling by the blossoming cherry trees and praying.”
“Did he believe in God again?”
“Yes. And that was a fairly dangerous thing for a military officer at the time. That’s when he told me this story.”
“And later? Did he write to Ágnes, talk to her?”
“But why on earth not?”
“Because he already had a family. And for a man, a family is the most important thing. He didn’t do anything else, just went to the garden to pray. Then the cardiac infarctions came. The seventh one did him in.”
“His heart was broken.”
“Yes. His heart was broken.”
We were silent for a little while. I watched the shrubs flying by on either side of the road, the white gravel rattling under the wheels.
“Don’t tell your grandmother that I told you this, all right? And don’t show her any pictures of this sort,” my father said.
“All right,” I replied.
We were already approaching the garden; we could see the green chain-link fence, the white walls of the house, and the fir trees next to it. Everything looked peaceful and relaxed. I stared at the cherry trees scattering their flowers into the wind, and decided that I would never fall in love.