Suzanne Hermanoczki (University of Melbourne, Australia
…watching the sea rise on the horizon
where there is nothing but an old winter walnut-tree
which embraces the blue, which embraces the blue…
– ‘‘The Winter Walnut Tree’ by Guy Goffette
Inside his pockets he carries a pocket-knife, a handkerchief, a walnut stolen from Lazci Baci’s tree, a pencil stub, a sling shot, a used torn train ticket and nine pesos. The boy pulls the contents out of his pockets on the rocking ship’s deck and looks over each one again. He takes the black handkerchief, looks around, wipes the corners of his eyes then tucks it back in his pocket, choosing to wipe his nose with the back of his hand instead. He picks the rest of his things up off the deck and puts them back into their assigned pockets. Sometimes he forgets which pocket and reaches in and panics, afraid he’s lost something. The ship rocks suddenly, shifting to the left and for a moment he feels like he’s going to fall overboard like that old woman he saw on his first night on the ship. She just toppled over and without so much as a splash, fell into the sea. He goes over to the railing where everyone said she fell. The railing is metal hard against his stomach. He watches the sea but has learnt not to watch too long or he’ll get sick. The waves ripple away from where the ship’s metal hull slices into the water. He stares at the water below him churning white clouds into the ocean.
The boy looks up, his eyes trying to find where the sky ends.
He escaped at the age of sixteen, on the last days of old woman’s summer vénasszonyok nyara in the autumn of 1956. He remembers the exact moment, hiding behind a building wall in Budapest, the sound of the bullets, the men falling, screaming in pain. He could say it was a lifetime ago, that he forgot his past when he took his first step aboard the ship. Yet the past was with him always. If he took a moment to look back, he would have realized that boy never left.
On cool afternoons, he remembers the gypsies, coming by the house and digging up the garden in search of potatoes. The gypsies, with no work and no money, taking what they could even if it meant stealing just so that they would have something to eat. His father turned a blind eye when he saw them coming and often times when he thought no-one was watching, he would signal for them to wait by the back door while he went down into the dark pinser to bring them more. Stuffing the potatoes into their deep pockets, they would disappear like quiet ghosts into the shadows. The boy all the while watching them leave from afar.
The boy remembers his mother, sitting by the kitchen door, black scarf covering her head, metal basin balanced on her knee, pocketknife in hand, peeling potatoes. When the first gypsies came by the door she would offer them the potato peels, apologising and shaking her head, saying,
‘I have no more to give.’
Later, when times got colder and more of them would appear like birds after seeds to dig up her garden, she ordered a fence built round her land then shooed them away, threatening the gypsy thieves with her little knife.
The boy remembers how he would wake, the growls of his empty stomach. Crawling out from under the thin blanket, placing his feet onto the packed dirt floor and tiptoeing outside to the bucket beside the well to wash his face in the cool water. In the cracked piece of mirror that hung off a nail by the kitchen door, he would catch his reflection. His eyes small and troubled and grey, his face thin and long and pale.
Sneaking into the kitchen, he would sit on the wooden stool by the door, quietly watching his mother bent over her potatoes, counting.
‘I don’t understand. I counted them all yesterday.’
‘Maybe some rats have been stealing your potatoes? Eh?’
‘You think that’s funny? At this rate, there’ll be no food to feed us through winter!’
His father turns away, giving the boy a sly wink then ignoring his nagging wife, takes the bread and lightly marks a cross on the bottom with his knife.
‘Why do you do that, Apa?’
‘So God will provide.’
He cuts for the boy a chunk of bread, a thin piece of sausage, and a sliver of green paprika. The boy starts eating as fast as he can.
‘Slow down son, chew well for that’s all you’ll get.’
‘But Apa, I’m hungry.’
‘I know son. I know.’
For as long as the boy could remember, the rows and rows of grapevines were his backyard, his home. His father had showed him when he was but a boy, the gnarled trunk out of which the new shoots, the thin green tentacle-like tendrils appeared, curling themselves like tiny snakes around the wires.
‘When they get long enough to reach the ground, dig a hole and bury them. Make sure it makes a loop like this. That’s how a new plant begins again.’
Early each morning, the boy would work side-by-side with his father, after which he was excused and allowed to go to school. But for weeks, instead of going to school, the boy would go to the neighbouring lands and spray poison on their vineyards. The poison stinging his eyes and burning the back of his throat, but he knew better than to complain; not when it meant money to buy his train ticket.
Late at night, he’d return home. His mother scolding as she refused to let the boy inside the house before he washed that smell off.
‘What have you been doing? Up to no good I bet!’
‘Ah, leave him Beti. He’s a good boy,’
‘Good? Pah! Lazy as the days come and go. If I tell him to feed the chickens or fetch water, he forgets. He’s always forgetting, but no, not dinnertime! Eating me out of house and home- ’
‘He’s a growing boy.’
‘Ha! A growing horse more like it!’
‘Boy, go fetch some water from the well for your mother.’
His father goes inside the kitchen and hands the boy a little piece of soap. ‘And clean your hands while you’re there,’ then lowering his voice to a whisper. ‘Be a good boy now, and wash behind your ears too, so she won’t complain.’ The boy gives him a nod. His father winks back.
The boy starts scrubbing hard at the dirt embedded under his broken nails.
‘Guess who stopped me in the streets today? The boy’s teacher. Says he hasn’t been at school for days. I give him money for pencils and books and then I find he’s not even going. Taking my money and stealing my food. Bah! Good for nothing ingrate- ’
If only the soap was large enough so that he could wash out his mother’s mouth along with all her nagging words. The boy places his cold fingertips over his ears to try to block out her voice. His thoughts already far off.
The teacher stands in front of the room writing words on the board.
‘Now children, copy these words down. Puszta is the grassland where there are many horses and birds. But don’t confuse it with Puszka, that means a rifle used for shooting people. They’re easy words to get confused.’
‘Boy, why aren’t you copying the words down?’
‘I don’t have a pencil.’
‘Sir, sir, he doesn’t have a notebook either!’ Peti pipes in.
The teacher, a tall, thin man with grey hair and no patience raps the boy on the knuckles while his best friend Peti stifles a giggle. The boy returns the gesture by later kicking his friend in the shins. At school, the two boys were forced to share a desk and were constantly arguing over the littlest things – desk space, paper, stubs of pencil and the teachers’ attention. At recess, the boys fought and kicked and wrestled for real, yet when school was all over, their time like their friendship would resume again.
‘How many times have I told you?’ the teacher continued, ‘it is not up to the school to provide pencils or books. I’ll lend you this spare one, but just for today.’
The boy looks down at his teacher’s fingers holding out the worn out pencil stub; it is so small the boy has trouble holding it between his fingers.
‘After school,’ his teacher warned, ‘I want you to ask your mother for some money to buy these things or don’t bother coming back.’
‘Psst, after school I’ll race you to the old walnut tree and you’ll see, I’ll win,’ Peti leans in so close, the boy could see clearly the gap where his two front teeth were missing.
The boy quickly turns away, shaking his head. He concentrates on tracing the words from the board onto his paper. Repeating the word, puszka.
‘What do you want now?’
‘The teacher sent me home because- ’
‘You good for nothing ingrate!’ his mother reaches over to twist his ear. ‘Always getting into trouble.’
The boy cries out from pain and frustration.
‘No! No! Mama, you don’t understand. He sent me home because I didn’t have a pencil to write with or a notebook. He told me to ask you for some money to buy- ’
‘Buy me this, buy me that! Money always has a thousand feet with you,’ his mother complains. ‘If you want money, go work for it! You can start by chopping up that pile of wood, then we’ll see.’
‘Whether you go back to school or not.’
His mother turned her back on him, cursing as she stood over the bare stove, cursing for she had nothing to make dinner out of.
When he was a small boy, he and Petike would sneak into Laszi Baci’s orchard to steal its fruit and to climb the old walnut tree, taking turns practicing their aim on the sling shot by pelting anything that passed by. Every day after school, they would race each other, scrambling up its highest branches, bare feet dangling, their trouser pockets full of alma or dió, shouting and yelling the victory of who reached first.
‘From this spot,’ yells Peti, ‘I can see my home in the village!’
‘And I can see the church with the cross my grandfather built,’ shouts the boy.
‘And I can see our school!’
‘Well I can see the hills with the mounds that hide the underground wine cellars!’
‘And I can see the vines behind them in rows… like a spine…’
‘No…like a skeleton!’
‘And I can see the mountains reaching up to the sky!’
The boy can still picture Petike yelling up in that tree, leaves in his wild hair, his skin as if darkened by the sun, his black eyes, round and dark as coals.
The tree became their hiding place, their escape. When the boys got so hungry they would rush to it, eating the fruit while it was still green. Or when it got too cold, they would take its fallen branches for fire. The pair of them like wild monkeys, playing hide-and-seek with the old man Laszi until he would hobble down with his walking stick and sometimes his geese (with a bite nastier than any dog) and chase them away.
‘Bah, go on get away from here!’
Peti was the first to scramble down the tree. When he reaches the bottom he turns to look for the boy.
‘Just keep going,’ the boy whispers to his friend, motioning him to go.
‘Hey you, stop!’ Laszi shouts, brandishing his stick in the air.
Peti runs as fast as he can to the far wall, climbing up and over it, leaving behind him a trail of nicked fruit.
‘Stop, you little gypsy thief!’
Peti leans against the wall opposite Laszi Baci’s garden, waiting, catching his breath as a ragged band of gypsy kids run towards the empty church pelting rocks into the building now occupied by Russian soldiers.
Old Laszi hobbles out into the street, waving his walking stick still shouting after Peti when a sound fills the air, like the crack of a whip. The boy had never heard gunfire before and covers his ears.
From the tree top, the boy watches a big Russian soldier run out of the building dispersing the gypsies with a shower of bullets. Stopping, he takes aim at Laszi. The old man crumples to the ground. He goes after Peti scrambling up the wall, grabs him by the leg and pulls him down. The soldier barks something in Russian at Peti before bringing his rifle down, smashing him in the face with the butt of his puszka. The boy bites his knuckles as his friend drops into a heap, blood streaming from his mouth.
That night, the hollow sound of bullets puncturing human flesh and his friend’s bloodied face wakes the boy from his sleep. Creeping out of his room to wash the sweat from his face he makes his way outside where he notices his parents speaking softly in the kitchen.
‘Did you hear? Old man Laszi, who owns the land with that big walnut tree? He’s dead.’
When his father sees the boy listening at the door he stops, he drops his voice to a low whisper. ‘Oh you know, the usual.’ Then his father looks at the boy, like he already knew what he’d gotten up to.
‘Well, if the old man’s really dead, best send the boy round first thing in the morning. Get him to pick some fruit before there’s nothing left,’ was all his mother could say.
The boy creeps back into his bed and feels under his pillow. The walnut stolen from the tree was still there.
Lying awake in bed at night, the tree was all the boy could think about. That was how Peti lost his two front teeth. The morning before he left, he would climb Laszi’s old tree one last time and carve his initials deep into the bark with his mother’s pocket knife, so that he wouldn’t forget. So that it would always remember.
The boy had not told anyone he was leaving. He wanted no-one to know. He had gotten up that morning before anyone had woken, before breakfast and the day had time to begin again and filled his pockets full of the things he would take with him. But despite keeping his silence and distance, somehow his friend Peti knew. Staying up all night, he had waited outside his house in the cold. He had followed the boy all the way, to Laszi’s and to the edge of the train station where he stood behind some trees, watching him board the train to Budapest and go.
With an Argentinean mother and Hungarian father Suzanne Hermanoczki had an interesting bi-cultural childhood growing up in Australia. Since then, she has traveled and worked in many different countries and places and only last year returned back to Australia after spending 8 years in Hong Kong. She has a BA in English from the University of Queensland and PostGraduate Dip in Creative Writing (short fiction) from The University of Hong Kong. She is currently completing her Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Melbourne. Her works have appeared in Asian Literary Journal:Cha and The Hong Kong U Anthology.