(Budapest Draft, December 2002)
You assemble the picture later, after all the bodies have been examined and the clues tracked down and all the facts have come to light. Or most of them. Or some.
It is 1956. The Comrade Chairman has been dead three years, and General Secretary Mihai has less than a year left to him. No one knows this yet, but Mihai knows. Maybe this knowledge shadows every decision he makes.
The year feels light after all those others, and once news of the 20th Congress in Moscow spreads, the pictures of Stalin begin to disappear from the bookstores and post offices and living rooms. Soon, it’s hard to find the old man anywhere in the Capital. Where his volumes of speeches were once shelved, there is now a stack of crisp little pamphlets by N. Khrushchev. Stalin chose the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the Party and the Soviet government.
You hear about Budapest on the radio—the Magyars are setting fire to Comrade Chairman Stalin’s posters. They make a show of dancing in the ashes, in the middle of the street. The Hungarians are a surprisingly vocal lot.
The Poles, you learn, have also made noises and faced tanks on what they call Black Thursday, setting off a ripple of discontent through their own young nation.
But at home it’s a good time. Some of the old writers return to the shelves, and you’re surprised, even, by what you read. In The Spark’s editorial pages, citizens complain about hot water and trash disposal and crime. Their anger sweetens the air, and this irony is intoxicating. After war and the era of the Comrade Chairman, it feels like we’re finally finding our own path. You hear it in the radio speeches, in the promises from Mihai’s own lips, and from others in the political stratosphere. There’s the old history professor, Bobu, and Kozak the Engineer who rants about the “thick Muscovites” in the Central Committee and demands a new, national path to socialism. Mihai gives up his First Secretary post and keeps only his Prime Ministership—a reminder of the progress to collective leadership. Truly, says an editorial, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat has never been so democratic.
All this is just background to the hope. Certainly now it seems naïve and unwarranted, but it was there. For a few months. Years may pass but the memory of that hope always warms you. Future generations will not understand, but you would want to make the historic moment clear. Not for individual glory, nor opportunism. Only clarity.
Resolution 683 was first suggested by Mihai at the 5th Party Congress of the Central Committee. 25 July, five months to the day after Comrade First Secretary Khrushchev’s words to his own secret Congress, and two months after the Yugoslavs spilled the secret to the rest of us. Mihai announced with grave urgency his agreement with the First Secretary. Stalin’s crimes. Stalin’s mass terrors. Stalin’s insidious effect on the development of socialism in this eastern edge of Europe.
In the newsreels Mihai purses his lips between thoughts, hands gripping each side of the podium, over the profile of a hawk surrounded by laurel. These pauses are heavy with meaning, and you want to think this signifies that his words are heavy with meaning, that this is a man convinced of the truth of his own words. But again, with all that follows, you wonder.
He proposes to right the wrongs of the Comrade Chairman. From 1945 to 1953, he explains, hundreds—no, thousands—in our own dear land were wrongly jailed in tiny municipal prisons, in medieval dungeons, in the labor camps of the western provinces. Under the express urging of the Comrade Chairman.
No one in the Committee chambers is hearing anything new. No one in the entire country. It’s the telling, the act of speaking aloud, which is new. The Central Committee chamber—all two-hundred-thirty-six men and women—is silent. Mihai’s dark hair is mostly white; he’s not the young partisan he once was. He sighs significantly and tells the chamber that he proposes to release all political prisoners, effective immediately.
There is a polite pause. The room waits for a but, or a however.
The room erupts. Thunderous applause. A few stunned Committee members, unsure, lag behind. Maybe they’re wondering where they will be in this new world of prisoners in the streets. But then they’re swept up in the wave of clapping hands. The domed ceiling rolls their applause back down at them, and that only heightens their fever; the noise rises. Deafening. They’re on their feet, stomping, clapping, shouting unintelligibly. And under this onslaught of approving mayhem, Mihai folds his speech in half, creases the edge, and slips it into a jacket pocket. In the newsreel, you can see the fatigue. Wrinkles clear under the harsh lights, eyes weathered and sagging. Maybe he knows everything. All that will follow. The applause lasts a full seven minutes. There are wet eyes—yes, even tears. The Amnesty has begun.
PART ONE: SUMMER
Packing up the dacha was a simple, silent affair. Three weeks’ worth of clothes, damp underwear still hanging from the back porch, pens and paper, and all the books. I saw Flaubert and Dostoyevsky to the Skoda’s trunk, then wedged my own novel beside them. The creased, sewage-colored paperback was a vainglory I still felt I could afford.
Stories begin this way, with the mundane details. Underwear, books, leaves. Because these are the irrefutable facts; they exist outside speculation. I’m in that dacha now, verifying everything, because while other points in time may be chosen, this is where my confession truly begins.
Then there were the empty brandy bottles, clanking on their way to the car, two full boxes. Magda had helped out that first week, when the conversation sank into mute glances and nods, pouring whenever our glasses were low. But after she walked out I had two weeks to tackle the bottles alone: a big, hulking thirty-seven-year-old drinking brandy from tiny glasses, spending the days in front of blank sheets of paper at the small desk that looked out onto the dried forest, thinking only that, yes, my wife has finally left me.
And each morning I woke with a stunned head and a pile of still-empty pages.
Once everything was collected I made the slow walk through the empty bedroom, living room, kitchen. I even looked in the fly-infested outhouse to be sure nothing was left behind. Methodical. This was the only way to not imagine her in the shadows and ignore the long walnut hairs left on the sofa. The kitchen stank of old, spilled liquor and the occasional gusts of forest decay through the open windows.
Locked the shutters, then the doors. No extended pause on the front steps, no reflections while looking back on her family’s dacha, nervously adjusting my rings.
It took a half-hour to reach the main road, then I turned south, where the trees thinned into farmland and fields and the sun caught on the dirty windshield. I tried in vain to dampen my mouth. By a detour, the road was torn apart, and an old woman poured a kettle of steaming tar into a hole while other women with kerchiefs on their heads leaned on shovels and watched. The Skoda’s engine sputtered when I went too fast, and I remembered Georgi’s comment when I’d first bought the car. He had walked around it slowly, a hand on his chin, then said: I do believe that very soon socialist engineering will accomplish the dream of fitting an automobile into a shoebox.
Her parents’ modest farmhouse looked exactly as it had when I first saw it. 1935, October. I can mark only a few things in time. Magda was a lithe schoolgirl who spent the days in class being ogled by my best friend Stefan and me, and after some unbearable amount of time, I was the lucky one invited to her house for lunch on a Friday afternoon. Sixteen years old, and I was already with her. Storm clouds had overrun the sky then, like now. Deep shadows and a warm wind rolled over the orchard-covered hills that had once been owned by one man; now they were owned by all.
Teodor was outside, eyeing the car before I turned off the engine. His washboard face was crossed by scars and pits. Farming had done it to him, that or the 1949 collectivization push. At family gatherings there were always veiled allusions to commissars starving them out of their complacency.
We shook hands, and he asked how long the trip had taken. He always seemed to think he could judge the value of a man or a day by the economy of travel.
“Two hours, about.”
“Some good time, that.”
“My daughter around here somewhere?” I asked.
Teodor nodded at the house, and as we approached it he spoke almost beneath his breath: “How about my daughter?”
“Don’t be smart.”
“She’s in the city, I suppose.”
The old farmer opened the door for me, and Pavel, our black-and-tan dachshund, trotted up and let out a short bark.
Magda’s mother’s baked apples smelled sweet and fruity—it was all she knew how to cook. She came out of the kitchen, wiping fat fingers on her apron, and gave me a kiss. Pillow cheeks and thin lips. “Hello, Nora.”
“Hello yourself.” She didn’t need to ask the question; she only needed to look significantly over my shoulder at the empty doorway.
Ágnes stumbled out of the guestroom holding a book and squinting through thick, black-framed glasses. “Hello daddy.”
Fourteen years old and, even behind glasses and foggy with sleep, showing strong signs of her mother’s lazy beauty. I could smell the boredom of these three weeks all over her.
We ate Nora’s meager potatoes and paprika outside in the shriveling, bush-lined private garden, shaded by the house. A dusty breeze from the apple orchard made the napkins tremble on the worn wooden table. Teodor kept on with his questions about the condition of the road, the shape of his dacha, and, after these practicalities were out of the way, the writing. “Is your book still in print?”
“It’s not,” I admitted as I finished the meal. “Maybe once I get this other one finished, they’ll print more, but not now.”
“And when will this second book be done?” asked Teodor. “It’s been—how long?”
“Four years,” said Nora, but without judgement.
“It took ten years to get that first one out,” I said.
“Daddy’s going to write a proletarian novel,” said Ágnes. It was the second time she’d spoken since I arrived, and in her long grin I read a lovely irony.
“Like that man?” asked Nora. “What was his name?”
“I don’t know what I’ll write.”
Magda’s father leaned forward. “You mean you haven’t started?”
I wanted to explain, again, that I was a militiaman. Maybe I had only one book in me—that was okay—and now I could go back to what I actually was. And lead, at least generally, a virtuous life. The brief celebrity had been good, the friends I’d made—the literary clique led by Georgi Radevych—and the supplemental income. Although the primary proceeds of the book went into the state bank, a personal allocation had bought the Skoda sitting outside, most of Ágnes’s better clothes, and the big German radio-set back at home. But now, the writing was probably finished. It certainly hadn’t come at the dacha, once my wife had left me again, and the last two weeks had been an unproductive alcoholic misery.
But I said nothing. I forced a smile and looked at Ágnes in order to forget the old farm couple waiting for that next book.
Magda’s father was still sturdy despite the weathering he’d taken over the years, and could probably even stand up to me, were it to ever come to that. He was nearly as big as I was, and I’d wondered often if this was part of Magda’s attraction to me, that I was a large man, like her father.
We’d eaten the apples, which were blander than they smelled, and the women had gone inside. Teodor uncorked a bottle of northern red for us, but did not pour. This was the obligation of entering his house and eating his food: the talk. For a while, we only looked out at the thousand hectares he shared with nearly a hundred other families. Pavel burrowed frantically into clumps of hot earth.
“So it didn’t work,” he said finally. “What now?”
“You wait for it to go to hell.”
“Something like that.”
Teodor gazed at the spindly bushes that separated their personal plot from the fields, then rocked his head from one side to the other.
This was the long silence in which Teodor worked. It made me—and he knew this—want to clarify that I wasn’t simply admitting defeat. For the last four years I’d known what was going on. I’d seen it in her, in myself, and I’d done what I could. Maybe I wasn’t bright enough to know what to do; maybe we were both stupid in such matters. So we listened to our friends and family, who told us we needed to get out of the city. We needed peace. Together in her parents’ small dacha in the woods near Sárospatak, over the space of three weeks, we would find what we’d lost along the way. But Magda’s patience had crumbled. This is all too self-conscious, she said before she left. You can’t force this kind of thing.
“I don’t think she wants to,” I told him. “She’s always the one to walk out.”
“And you didn’t chase her down, did you?”
I looked at my oversized hands, at the rings on each finger.
“You think you’ve got problems.” He poured our glasses and watched as I swallowed mine quickly. “I got a letter from a friend in Warsaw. You know what’s been going on there? It’s not in The Spark, I can tell you that.” He tapped his glass on the table. “Demonstrations in Poznan, that’s what. Back in June they had days of it. Workers out in the street because they were hungry. Then the troops came in, shooting. Seventy-four killed. Not by Russian troops, not like you’d think. But by their own boys. Polish soldiers killing Polish workers.”
I poured myself another. He was right; I hadn’t heard any of this.
“When that happens,” said Teodor, “you get your bearings again. It’s only in peacetime you have the luxury of divorce.”
She kept Pavel on her lap as I drove, and the dog slept, blissful and mute. I asked her about tomorrow, her first day at school. She shrugged. “Did you study your French?”
I had been hoping to get her into the French high school at the beginning of Yalta Boulevard. Her state-run school, the “Rosa Luxembourg,” had never been much of an institution, even before the Liberation. But she’d failed the language test last May. “We can try again. There’s no shame in a second chance.”
She shrugged again, then after a moment asked the question, easily, trying to make it sound as if it hadn’t been the only thing on her mind ever since I had shown up. “Mama didn’t make it?”
I shook my head and watched the road, but could see her mouth moving as though she was chewing on something. Maybe she was.
She squinted through her glasses into the wind and chewed. “How did she get home?”
“There’s only one car.”
I glanced into the rearview and noticed a hitchhiker with a small, hand-drawn sign: released from political prison. I hadn’t seen him when we approached, and that troubled me. “I drove her to the station.”
“She took the train?”
“That’s what I said.”
I understood a fraction of what she was thinking. She could not fathom how anyone could calmly drive his wife to the train station and send her away. Not without some scene, not without some breakdown and reconciliation.
She nodded at the road. Her cheeks and forehead were very red from these three weeks under the provincial sun. I always insisted she wear a hat, but she thought she looked stupid in hats, which was untrue. And Magda’s parents seemed to think any amount of sun was a virtue, that even when my daughter’s pale skin turned red and crisp it was only a sign of health. She looked thin, too, and I rashly decided to never leave her with them again.
“Did you have a good time?”
She grunted something incomprehensible.
“Well? What did you do?”
She pulled too hard on Pavel’s ear, and the dog made a squeaking noise in his sleep. “Picked apples, bought apples, talked apples.”
I laid a hand on her shoulder, then tugged her earlobe. “Miss me?”
She pulled her head away, but smiled. “Of course not.”
They had been working on the Ninth District for as long as I could remember. Whenever I left town for an extended period, I fantasized that when I crossed back over the muddy Tisa and drove north, the roads would be smooth, and the piles of broken concrete gone. But now, as then, there were still three unfinished shells, and the road that wrapped around each unit of eight blocs had still not been paved. Long ago it had been plowed, some gravel thrown half-heartedly on it, but with each hard rain, the road slid into the ditches. Now that it was dry, the Skoda whined, climbing out of potholes, and crunched when it hit them. Pavel sprang up in the back seat, barking at a couple strays running past. Ágnes was unconcerned, but I calculated damages in my head. The six-story blocs of Unit 15 to our left, set at an angle to the road, were lit yellow by the descending sun, and I wondered if she was up there, watching us navigate the holes and turn off the road into the well of shadow between the buildings, trying to get home. At least I hoped this with every muscle in my tight, sweating hands.
Children at the next corner climbed over a hill of concrete slabs, and just beyond them two slumped, babushkaed women fed chickens in the heat that in the provinces had been almost invigorating; here, it was only stifling. I parked by two other, older Skodas and a Russian make I didn’t know, and grabbed our bags from the back seat. Ágnes took Pavel. As we stepped over dry rivulets, one of the women with the chickens called to me: “Come arrest my brother, Comrade Inspector! I’ve been waiting a month!”
I measured out my syllables, as if for a child: “We’ve been through this, Claudia. I can’t arrest your brother for drinking in his own home. Anyway, homicide inspectors don’t take care of this. You have the number to call.”
“See what I told you?” she said to her friend, who hadn’t looked up from the chickens until now. “Just does his hours and goes home.”
The friend shook her head, muttering something I couldn’t hear. I started to tell Ágnes to hurry up, but she was already ahead of me, looking down on Pavel, his leg raised, pissing absently on the corner of our bloc, Unit 15:6.
The mailbox was empty, which was a good sign. The stairs had been recently cleaned, though nothing could get rid of the smell of boiled cabbage, and on each landing someone had set out leafy green plants. On the top floor, there were none. Our door was locked. The apartment felt stuffy, unlived-in, and I began speculating wildly. We opened the windows, the fresh air bringing in voices and the hack of a car coughing to life.
“She’s not here,” said Ágnes as she set Pavel on the rug. He did not run away, only peered around at the sofa and table and the wide German radio against the wall.
The bed didn’t look slept-in. But Magda made it up every morning; it told me nothing. The ice-box, though, had fresh milk. Ágnes took out some water. She drank from the bottle and leaned against the counter, looking at me.
I hoped she wouldn’t repeat the obvious because if she did I was afraid I might shout at her. She didn’t. She instead drank her water and left the kitchen, making tsk tsk sounds, calling for Pavel.
When she came across the note on the radio, I was still in the kitchen. The curtain was pulled, so it was very dark. Ágnes, from the doorway, said, “Daddy?”
I didn’t answer right away, but noticed that she’d turned on the radio. Shostakovich murmured through the house. “What is it?”
“She left a note for you.”
Something seemed to crack inside me. She had a small sheet of paper in her hand. It was almost weightless, and when I brought it into the light of the living room it shook in my hand. I unfolded it by the window and got a clear view of the angular script. I read it twice to be sure. Then I almost laughed. It was a telephone message. Stefan, my old friend and Militia partner, had called. While I was on vacation—if that’s what it could be called—there’d been a case.
“Daddy?” said Ágnes. She sounded afraid, so I smiled and turned up the Shostakovich.
“It’s nothing,” I said, my smile now authentic. “Someone’s been killed.”