Suzanne Hermanoczki (University of Melbourne, Australia)
Anya gives the boy a pair of shoes. He looks at them but doesn’t touch them.
‘Bah, what are you waiting for? Take those dirty boots off and try these on!’
The boy knows these shoes are for girls. The ornate stitching on the side, the thin heel is what the girls in his class wear. He can’t turn up wearing these to school; the other boys will tease him like crazy. The boy shakes his head slowly. He isn’t wearing them.
His mother takes him by the ear and drags him to the stool. She unties the old piece of string he has wrapped round his boots to keep them from falling apart and forces the new shoes on his feet. Jabbing two fingers into his back she makes him stand up. The boy feels the worn imprint of the toes and the mismatching heels don’t quite match his own step. A cold shiver runs down his spine. The shoes disturb him.
‘See, much better,’ his mother says, shoving him out the kitchen door. ‘Now you can help your father in the vineyard. Go on! Get on with you, before it gets too late.’
The boy clears the front gates and rounds the corner before kicking the shoes off. It feels like somebody’s in them, he thinks, as he tugs at his feet. He looks down at the brown pair of shoes and for a moment he considers hurling the shoes into a passing field but the thought of his mother’s anger stops him. He ties the laces together in a knot and flings them over his shoulder and continues on, barefoot.
He takes the long way to the vineyards, through the quieter back streets, keeping to the sides where the grass grows long. The streets are pebbled and hard and littered with puddles. After a while, the sharp edged stones begin to pierce into the soles of his feet like glass. Leaning on a neighbour’s fence, he rests on a patch of grass to cool his feet. Ahead, he can just make out the worn path through the tall grass that will take him up and over the hill and across the fields to the vineyards.
The boy recognises, without turning around, the voice of his friend Peti.
I can’t let him see my shoes, he thinks. Pretending he doesn’t hear, the boy starts up again, quickening his pace to the path towards the vineyards.
‘I said, “Hey!” ’ Peti yells after him. ‘Where are you going? Can I come too?’
The boy breaks into a run and doesn’t stop till he reaches the end of the street. He stops at the beginning of the path at the foot of hill to catch his breath. Out of the corner of his eye he spies Peti scrambling barefooted over the rocky street, stopping every now and then to let out a small wince of pain. He’ll want to try on my shoes for sure. I can just picture him now laughing through his no-front-teeth, dancing in them like a girl before running off to tell the others. That Peti, he can never keep his mouth shut, the boy thinks as he takes the first step up the path. I don’t have time for him today.
Higher and higher the boy climbs. With each step, he notices the blue skies clear over the horizon and the growing chill hovering in the air, like a ghost. If he doesn’t pick up his pace, he won’t reach his father until afternoon. If he doesn’t make it before the sun drops, the hills over the horizon will become nothing more than black shadows. He will miss his father walking home in the pitch black with his heavy buckets and tools. His father will be disappointed but won’t say it. His mother, on the other hand, will thrash him a good one, that’s for sure.
The boy scrambles to the top. He looks back, down the hill and over the village, to where his house lies buried. There is nothing visible from this height, except for a slow curl of smoke coming out of the chimney yet he knows his Anya is there, inside. With angry thoughts of his mother, the boy flings the shoes high into the tree. The laces catch on a branch and wind themselves round the limb like a noose. He scans the other side of the hill now to the straight lines of the vineyards below. He searches the rows until he locates the lone figure at work, his father.
‘Ha! There you are!’ Peti emerges through the grass, puffing out of breath. ‘Didn’t you hear me? I was calling you from way back,’ Peti says, before dropping to the ground.
The boy turns on his heels and starts on the path down the hill to the vineyards.
‘Hey, what have I done? Why are you running away from me?’
The boy continues running, the grass cold and slippery under his bare feet.
‘Wait! I want to tell you something-’ shouts Peti.
But the boy doesn’t stop. With the cool wind rushing by his cheeks and the pounding of his feet on the ground in time with his heart, the boy does not have time to hear the rest.
‘Where are your shoes?’ she asks.
‘I took them off. I-I didn’t want to dirty them.’
His mother gives him a suspicious look, but is distracted by her husband, as he steps between them, heading to the white enamel basin by the well to wash his face and hands. The boy quickly follows in his father’s steps and rushes ahead to fill the basin with water.
Once clean, Apa sits on the wooden stool by the door and kicks off his boots, replacing them with his papucs, his worn leather slippers, to enter the kitchen.
‘It’s going to get cold soon,’ Apa says, taking his seat at the head of the table. ‘Did you see that blue ring around the moon?’
The boy nods. His mother shrugs off the remark and turns to the cook top.
Apa picks up the hard round loaf and after crossing it with his knife on the bottom, he cuts three thick slices.
Anya carefully carries the bowls of red broth from the cook top to table. Tired and hungry, the boy picks up his spoon first. Knowing better than to dive into the gulyásleves, he waits until his mothers’ lips have stopped moving in prayer before dipping his spoon in to fish out a tiny square of potato. Watching the boy devour his meal Apa scoops a cube of meat from his bowl and gives it to the boy. Anya shakes her head. The boy smiles at his father. Consumed by hunger, he doesn’t notice his mother’s quiet gaze as he laps up the hot leves with little pinched dumplings or the silence at the dinner table broken by his spoon tapping gently against his bowl.
Tap tap tap.
The boy rubs his eyes and he sits up.
Tap tap tap.
‘Open up!’ Peti whispers, his head framed by the window.
The boy turns the latch and pushes the window open. An icy breeze floats through the crack, sending a cold chill down the boy’s spine.
‘It’s frozen over!’ Peti says, hopping about from one foot to another.
‘The lake. Come on!’
The boy dresses quietly in the dark, throwing his shirt, vest and trousers over his night shirt. He crawls under his bed for his old boots and remembers they are outside. He puts on his gloves and a pair of socks and slips quietly out of the room into the kitchen. He goes to the newspapers kept in a pile by the door (some will be used to wrap the vegetable peelings, the rest torn into strips and wound round the metal roll to be used in the outhouse) and takes a few sheets, but not enough to be noticed. He stuffs the paper under his vest for extra warmth. Without a sound, the boy opens the latch to the kitchen door and closes it behind him. He fishes his boots from under the bench and, barefooted, he sneaks to the gate.
Peti is waiting in his usual spot under the street lamp. He waves to him across the street.
Still barefooted, the boy navigates his way, avoiding the dirty pools of water in the middle of the road. He doesn’t want to risk putting on his shoes in case he gets stuck or worse, loses a sole in a thick patch of mud. His mother would be sure to notice that he’d been up to no good.
Peti greets the boy with a grin from ear to ear.
‘Look!’ he says, pointing to his feet.
‘Hey! They’re mine!’ the boy grabs Peti by the front of his shirt.
‘They are not!’
‘I hid them in the tree at the top of the hill. I left them tied together hanging off the branch. I went to look for them after in the fields but it was too dark,’ the boy lies. ‘That’s why I couldn’t find them. You took them, you thief!’
Peti looks to the ground. The boy watches his face change. Only last week Peti was made to walk to school with newspapers tied around his feet. The boy glances to his own boots, falling to pieces.
‘We can share,’ Peti says, quietly slipping the brown shoes off his feet. The boy hands Peti his old boots. As they tie their laces, the boy tries not to notice his friend shivering with cold in his short pants.
Peti takes a step towards the boy, huddling close for warmth. ‘C’mon!’ he says.
The boy pulls his woollen cap down over his ears and wraps his scarf tight and high, before tucking his frozen fingers under his armpits. Peti rubs his hands together, his thin woollen gloves barely keeping out the coldness of the night. Together, their breath rises in the pale moon light, like clouds from a steam train.
‘You go first!’
‘No, you go! It was your idea!’ the boy says, giving Peti a hard push.
Peti stumbles across the frozen lake and stops.
‘Never do that!’ Peti shouts.
The boy stays back and watches his friend creep across the ice, stopping every now and again to tap it, checking whether the water is frozen solid and will hold.
‘So?’ he asks.
Peti walks to the centre of the frozen lake and jumps up and down.
‘Ha!’ the boy shouts.
‘Gyere ide!’ Peti beckons, imitating their school master as he calls them up to the front of class to receive their punishment.
The boy laughs and walks slowly to the middle where Peti is.
‘Here,’ he says, taking off the shoes and handing them over to him. ‘You first.’
Peti looks at his friend, his eyes shining in the dark. Peti quickly takes off the old boots, then stops. ‘We’ll take turns,’ he says, handing the boy back his boots.
The boy puts the old boots on. They are still warm.
Brushing themselves off, the boys walk to the far edge of the lake. Peti draws a line across the ice with a stick.
‘Are you ready?’ Peti asks, taking his mark.
The boy looks at his friend. ‘Always.’
‘One – two-’ and letting out a yell on three, the boys spend all evening racing each other around the frozen water.
‘Ha! Beat you!’ the boy shouts, sliding to a stop before falling over.
‘That’s because I let you,’ Peti shouts, falling on top of the boy.
‘We better get back,’ the boy says, feeling the wetness of melting ice seeping through the back of his legs.
‘Ok,’ Peti answers, brushing himself down. ‘Here, you better take these back,’ he says, taking off the brown shoes.
The boy puts the shoes on and waits for Peti to tie on the old boots before the walk back home. The night is clear and dark and crisp, he thinks. Soon, it will get much colder, too cold to skate. There will be a lot of work to do before the winter comes.
‘One more?’ Peti asks.
The boy quickens his pace before breaking out into a run.
‘Hey, not fair!’ Peti shouts, sliding on the ice after him. ‘These piece of crap boots are falling apart!’
‘And these shoes are full of holes!’
The boy knows better than to turn around.
‘Race you back! Last one home is a dead man!’
Anya catches the boy stuffing his new shoes with newspaper.
‘Bah! What are you doing?’
‘They-they – are a little big,’ the boy stammers.
‘What? They weren’t big when you tried them on before. Bring them here.’
She bends down and inspects the shoes. Holes the size of apples at the sole of each one! ‘What?’ she cries, lunging at him as he takes a step back.
Picking him up by the ear, she drags him over to the stool. The boy’s ear burns hot between her pinched fingers, his eyes water in pain.
‘You don’t know what I went through to get these for you!’
She lets go of the boy and drops to the bench by the front door.
‘I-I’ll fix them. I’ll ask Apa for some glue. I-I’ll-’
His mother looks up and for the first time, the boy sees her face close to tears.
‘Anya-’ he says, taking a step towards her.
‘Get out of my sight!’ she shouts, turning her face away. ‘Go!’
‘Ah, so young.’
‘Yes,’ she nods.
The girl’s mother touches her daughter’s face and shakes her head. ‘Thank you for coming.’
‘It was the least I could do,’ she answers. Anya looks at the sleeping girl in the simple pine casket dressed up for school in her white blouse, black skirt and blue head scarf. Her thin hands, clutching one another, hold a small blue flower. She looks no more than twelve.
Anya nods at the girl’s grieving mother, crosses herself and kisses her fingers. Turning to go, her eyes drift to the girl’s feet.
What a waste, she thinks, eyeing the girl’s brown lace up shoes. With that, Anya takes her spot in the third pew. No more than twenty neighbours have turned up to pay their respects for the dead girl. More than what she had expected. She kneels down, behind two old nenis, widows and professional mourners, who come to every church session.
Clasping her hands together, Anya tries to block out the neighbours’ chatter.
‘…the boys had raced ahead you know. She fell straight through the thin ice and into the water. Her brothers didn’t even notice she’d followed them until they heard her scream. They tried to pull her out,’ the old woman shakes her head. ‘Ah, such a pity.’
‘Such a fool,’ the other answers.
At the altar, the dead girl’s mother breaks into sobs. One of her sons steps forward and takes her by arm and leads her out of the church.
‘At least now, there is one less to worry about,’ the old widow pulls the black scarf over her head and follows the family out.
Taking their queue, the congregation trails behind the priest and the grieving family on the way to the graveyard.
As the neighbours file past, Anya’s mind wanders after them. Everyone knows about the lake, even she used to skate there when she was a girl. Ah, but that was such a long time ago.
She closes her eyes to the sound of their exiting footsteps.
‘Ay, Istenem,’ she prays, bowing her head. If only you would hear my prayer. If only you could find a way to help.
Anya opens her eyes. The small church is empty. Nothing but the open cask left for the undertakers to close. His men will come in soon to carry the coffin to its final resting place in the graveyard, but not yet. Her eyes stray to the girl in the casket.
She gets up, crosses herself and walks to the altar. No one will come inside now.
‘Forgive me Father for what I am about to do,’ she mutters under her breath.
Slipping off the dead girl’s shoes, she tucks them under her armpits. Covering her shoulders with her shawl, she exits quietly out the side door.
Suzanne Hermanoczki is currently a PhD student in Creative Writing at Melbourne University. Her works have been published in Cha: An Online Literary Journal, The Hong Kong U Anthology, and SWAMP. She is now working on her first novel.