("Too many of us")
From Isten a szekéren, God on the Farmwagon,
by Ferenc Sánta,
translated by Sándor Fenyvesi
This tragic story about hen soup and poverty in Transylvania in the 1930s was brought to my attention by Sándor Fenyvesi, an air traffic controller at Budapest Approach, who was kind enough to make the first English translation of it from Hungarian for me. His own bilingual site on cooking can be found at www.cookbook.hu
It was the third month of famine--and the second week that we had been eating only one meal a day. My mother would carefully measure one handful of puliszka, cooked cornmeal, for each of us. One handful per person, which amounted to two mouthfuls, and nothing more until the next day.
We four children stayed in bed under a heavy blanket. Here we kept warm, and we also stayed out of the way. My father was home all day long now. He didn't even try to make a living--he didn't even try to get day work anymore. He'd had enough. There were too many poor and too few landowners who could offer any jobs. So he stayed beside the stove all day, sitting on a bushel basket. On a few occasions he would come over to the bed and begin to tell us a story. But then he'd break off, distracted. "I will continue it tomorrow," he would promise, but he never did. To tell the truth, we didn't mind. It made us uncomfortable that he'd keep stopping in the middle of a story and just stare into space. It was better if he just stayed by the stove sitting on his bushel basket.
Hunger is a terrible thing. Those who haven't experienced it can't know what it is like. I remember that after we got our handful of puliszka and bolted it down in two mouthfuls, hot as it was, we children would jump out of bed and run to the wooden board where our mother had cut our portions. Here we would scrabble with our fingers or a pocket knife to rub off any leftover scraps. We would lick and lick our fingers for nourishment even though we were mostly eating wood splinters from the board.
When hunger is so profound in a family, every mouth counts. The more people you are feeding, the bigger the trouble. And we had too many to feed.
One evening my grandfather, who was 70 years old, or beyond 75, didn't eat his handful of puliszka. Instead, he brought it over to our bed and, with his big wrinkled hands, fed it to us. We jumped at the food like chickens. We couldn't imagine why he was giving us his portion. We just stared blankly, wide-eyed, and ate every scrap he gave us.
Only my father reacted. He glanced over at us with his gray, hollow eyes, then turned back to the flames of the stove and muttered, "You're doing the right thing." At the time, I didn't think twice about it, because it meant that I got an unexpected extra mouthful of food.
My grandfather continued to scrape away morsels of puliszka from his hands for us. Then he said quietly, as if he was talking to himself, "Do you think so, Ferkó?"
"Yes, I do," answered my father.
My mother dropped the big bowl she used for washing up, startling us. We saw her frightened expression, and we saw how she looked from one man to the other, frantically seeking their eyes. When her glance met my father's eyes, she slowly turned away. Her expression said that she knew she had poked her nose into something that was not a woman's business.
My grandfather wiped his hands on his pants. He reached down to arrange the pillows under our heads, taking great care and settling us with the tenderness of a nanny, or at least of a woman. Finally, his hands still lingering under our heads, he turned and walked toward my father. When he reached the stove, he bent down and methodically broke the firewood into small pieces. One by one he ceremoniously laid them down next to the stove. When he finished, he said to my father, "Next year, try to get a quarter lease on Kácsa András' land--he won't let you farm it otherwise. That land--that Fehér Martok field--is good, and you could use Ferike to pull the plow."
My father didn't look at him. He put something between his teeth.
"And think about what Tótos Jani said! Try to sell the winewater in town. You could earn enough in three years to buy a horse together to share."
My father remained silent. It was the same old story between them--my grandfather always talking about the winewater and the Fehér Martok land, my father angrily refusing to listen. This time, to our amazement, he let my grandfather speak it through without interruption.
But my grandfather could speak to no other purpose. He stood up, putting his hand on my father's shoulder, and said, "Well, let's not lose any time, Ferkó. Do you hear me, my son?"
My father stood up. He shook himself, then as though he was speaking to her, he looked at my mother. "Prepare for it," he said, "I will make the other arrangements."
At that moment, I looked up to see my mother standing at the door, keening as if she were at a funeral ceremony. As my father stood up to leave, she reached for his hat and fur cap, I saw her hold them out to him unwillingly, as if she knew he would give her a tongue lashing if she didn't. My father flung the coat around his shoulders, which he didn't ordinarily do, and strode out the door without looking back.
I was bigger than the other kids and knew there was something big going on. I looked at my grandfather for such a long time that he came to me.
"Listen to me," he said. "The nest I showed you on Bálványos' hillside, will you remember to take it down?" He looked at me and seemed to be crying. "And that good elder branch I told you would make a good sling, will you remember to prune off that branch?"
I looked at him, trying to understand why he was telling me these things.
"And next spring, will you remember to smoke out that beautiful, strong fox, like we talked about? Will you, Ferike?!"
I was looking at him, but I couldn't tell if he was crying. I looked at my mother, but she wouldn't meet my eyes. I turned back to my grandfather. "What's the matter with you, granddaddy?"
He refused to look at me. He pulled my little reed pipe from under my pillow. He turned it over in his hands, fingering the stops, caressing it tenderly as if he hadn't been the one to make it for me himself. He raised it to his lips, but after a few notes he put it down. Then he said to my mother, "Give me my next clean change of clothes--you, Anna."
I think it was at this moment that I began to understand that something very serious was happening. My mother opened the family clothes press and, one by one, began to hand my grandfather a complete outfit of clean clothes. Undershorts. A fresh shirt. Stockings. And she gave them to him ceremoniously--not all at once, but like she did with us children when she was dressing us to go to church.
My grandfather pulled them on, one by one. He rinsed his face with a little water. Then he took the chair, reserved for special occasions, and sat up to the table as if he were a guest in the house. He didn't look down. He didn't look up. He sat perfectly still, with his hands in his lap. I heard him sniff a few times. He only moved to wipe his nose with the back of his hand. He wouldn't look at my mother, and he wouldn't look at me.
My mother put the kettle on. I didn't understand why. We'd already had our puliszka for the day, and I knew my father would knock her eyes out if she cooked any more of it--he'd told her so before, when she was sorry for us and wanted to give us some more on the sly.
When my father came home, they kept up what they were doing--my grandfather acting like a guest in the house and my mother boiling the hot water for him. My father was carrying a hen under his arm--a pretty big speckled hen. And in his hand he held a bottle of pálinka. I couldn't imagine who was crazy enough to lend my father money for these things. He gave the hen to my mom, then placed the strong liquor in front of my grandfather. He took off his coat and sat down at the table as if he'd been hard at work all day.
They sat together without speaking while the hen soup cooked. My father elaborately trimmed his nails with his pocketknife. My grandfather drank the brandy. Soon a wonderful smell filled the room. Our mouths began to water and we began to arrange ourselves in the bed, making room for the pot. But we got none, not even a sip. My grandfather ate every spoonful of the soup. He looked at us while he was eating, and one time he wanted to offer to share the soup with us, but my father caught his arm angrily, as if he was his enemy. "No, leave them be. Eat the soup yourself. It's yours and yours alone."
This made no sense to me. It was so foolish and senseless that I could have cried--but I didn't. I was too shocked to cry. I stared at my grandfather as he ate this rich soup up, tearing the meat with his fingers. Only when I glanced away did I realize that my father was looking at me with that strange look in his eyes. There was a beating in those eyes, a big beating.
The house was silent. The only sounds were the noise of the breath sucking in and out of my grandfather's nose and his noisy chewing. He ate every scrap, every spoonful of the soup. The meal was over.
My mother began to clear the table. Without waiting for her to finish, my grandfather stood up, put on his vest and his coat, and picked up his axe. My father stood up and moved toward him, his face working with emotion as if he were standing before the priest at confession. My grandfather strode to the door quickly, as if he was afraid the door would lock him in, and opened it. Only then did he calm down and turn back. He smoothed his mustache, looking like he was putting himself right after mourning at a funeral ceremony, but still weeping a bit. He looked at my mother, then at me. My mother immediately began to dress me to go outside. To my surprise, my father permitted it.
We went out with my grandfather into the darkness. It was a starry night, and so dreadfully cold that the air itself felt frozen. My father stood with us, bareheaded. Even in my brother's slippers, I was too distracted to feel the cold--and my throat had tightened as if a terrible crisis was about to happen, a fire in the house or a beating I was about to get. I couldn't take my eyes off my grandfather. He was standing on the stairs with one hand in his pocket and the other gripping the axe as if he thought he was about to be attacked by a bear. That's exactly how it seemed. My father did not move. He looked off into the distance, though there was nothing to see.
After a long time, my grandfather spoke into the silence that wrapped around us. "Tomorrow morning, come out there because I will leave everything for you there."
My father only raised his face to the sky as if he would count the stars.
Then my grandfather slung the axe over his shoulder and said goodbye: "God bless you, my son!"
My father moved slightly. He looked at the ground and, still looking at the ground, said, "God bless you!" Only when my grandfather moved away did he whisper, "And be careful."
I watched my grandfather move along the road. I wanted to shout to him that he'd forgotten to say goodbye to me and that I wanted God to bless him too. He kept moving, farther and farther away, but then, after all, he turned around. We could only just hear his voice. "Ferike! Let Ferike come with me a little ways!"
As if he had just noticed me, my father glanced at me in my fur cap and big shoes and said, "Go to your grandfather!"
I ran, and when I reached him, he took my hand--just as he always did when we went raspberry picking together, when he told me stories, when he taught me how to collect eggs, find honey, look for goatsbeard and other herbs, when he taught me all the things I wanted to know. But this time he didn't say a word. He began to walk with me, taking very slow steps and squeezing my hand the same way as he did when he'd tell a real whopper in one of his stories.
I kept stumbling against him because I was trying to walk and watch him at the same time. Was he mad? Was he hurt? Who hurt him? I wanted to tell him not to do whatever he was doing because it would make me cry.
When we got to the fence, he stopped and crouched down. He looked into my face for a long time, then he spit at me three times, in the shape of Christ's cross, just like people do to infants and sick children to protect them against evil forever. He kissed me too, which he had never done before. Then, in a grating voice he said, "Go in and tell to your mother that she must take care of you, because you won't ever see me again."
He stood up quickly, as if he'd been called by name. He didn't look at me again. Soon I
could hardly see him against the snow as he was walking. Snow began to fall, and I lost sight of him among the trees in the forest.
When I got back to the house, my father was still standing where I had left him and still looking up to the sky. He sent me in alone, and I went to sit in my grandfather's place. When my father entered, I couldn't keep silent any longer, so I asked him when would my grandfather come back?
"Don't ask," he said angrily. He twisted up his eyes and paced up and down the room, like a trained bear on the end of a chain. He picked up things and threw them down. Then he sat down on his bushel basket and stared at the fire. My mother brought him firewood from outside; he began to lay the pieces on the fire. More and more wood. He made a huge fire, bigger than we'd ever had in the stove. Flames shot over the top and through the stove door like lightning, with sparks filling the house and crackling like the fires of hell. I could hear the stove itself cracking and moaning. And my father sat there piling on more wood, with such a dreadful expression on his face that I thought he would strike me dead if I moved a muscle.
Suddenly there was a tapping at the door. My mother opened it and welcomed Csürös Ignác, the grandfather of my friend Kelemen and my grandfather's best friend. "Good evening," he said.
"You are welcome," my father said, but he didn't move except to close the door of the oven.
My mother wiped the chair clean, and uncle Ignác sat down with the help of his walking stick. Nobody said a word, though I could see that he wanted to say something. He moved around in his chair, he cleared his throat, he blinked his old, small eyes--but, still, no one asked him what he wanted. Finally he said, "Where is your father?"
My father wouldn't look at him. "You can see that he isn't here," he said.
Uncle Ignác took out his tobacco but, as if he had forgotten what he was doing, he didn't smoke. He kept looking around. He looked at us children. He looked at my mother. Finally he looked at the small chair where my grandfather's old underclothes were still laying--and he looked at them for a long time. He began grinding his big hooked stick into one of his wooden shoes and without looking up said, "And is it true that he went away?"
My father looked up suddenly. "Where," he said, looking into the eyes of Uncle Ignác. "Went where?"
"Up to the Smelly," said he. [Reader note: this is a local cave full of poisonous gases from a natural gas deposit.]
My heart began to pound as if it would break. My throat ran dry and my blanket felt like it was burning me. Oh! The Smelly--it was the place whose poison fumes killed anyone who came close. No living creature could survive it. Birds that flew in never flew out again. And my grandfather was there! He would die! "Be careful and don't have trouble," my father had said to him. But he won't come back! My father and mother let it happen, as if that was exactly what my father wanted, for him never to come back. Oh my God, my grandfather! And they haven't gone after him to stop him. They don't want to, and I can't. I had heard a month before that it was happening, people going there to die because of the famine, but not my grandfather. Oh, my God, where is he now? Surely he has passed the Uzonka and maybe also the pine-shoulder. This land is full of wolves, and I pray he won't be hurt by one. I began to cry bitterly, hiding it so that my father didn't see me.
My father looked at Uncle Ignác. "How do you know that?" he said.
"Áron, my son told me. Everybody knows you went to the inn for pálinka. And you were seen with a hen."
"That is true," said my father. Now he was acting like before. He even opened the stove door to see the fire.
"Did he leave long ago?"
My father didn't speak another word. He ignored the old man. But my mother whispered, " It could be a quarter of an hour ago."
Uncle Ignác nodded. He stood up and walked to the door. Then he looked at us children and asked my mother, "Did he kiss them?"
"No, none of them," said my mother, and she wiped her eyes with her apron. When Uncle Ignác left, she sat down and began to sew. My father, in his misery, again stoked the fire, this time higher than before. I couldn't say a word, and I didn't. I fell asleep sobbing.
In the morning my father woke me. I don't think he had slept at all. "Get ready," he said, "we need to go cut wood."
He was right. We had no more wood in the house. He had burned every stick during the night. So we cut wood until midday. I could think of nothing but my grandfather. What was in my father's mind, I don't know--but he didn't beat me, not once, even though I cut my finger. Finally it was time to go, and I turned to take the path home.
"Not that way, you!" he said.
I followed him up the stony slope toward the Smelly. My heart rang like an alarm bell. I walked behind my father, in his footsteps. He didn't take my hand as my grandfather used to. In the cave opening, we found everything. There they were: the shirt, the underclothes, the coat, all my grandfather's clothing. On the top was his fur cap, pressed down with a big stone. He had taken his ax with him. Such a tiny pile of clothing--as if it wasn't my grandfather's, as if it was too small to have ever fit a man.
My father bent down and, one by one, began to pile the clothes on my arm. When he started to give me the fur-cap, something fell out of it--something that slid away on the snow. It was one of the hen's legs. I couldn't move. My father picked it up. He weighed it in his hand, and then--so tenderly, so gently, as if was a small fledgling bird--he slipped it into my wallet. He stepped close to me and, for the first time in my life, with the back of his hand he stroked my face.
"Later on you will eat it," he told me, "because it is frozen now." He didn't mention a word about my brothers and sisters at home, because he knew that I was the nearest to my grandfather's heart.
Further down in the cave, near the bottom, I could see one more pile of things, showing black. I recognized them. They had belonged to Csürös Ignác. No one had come for them yet--and maybe they wouldn't come at all. We could see from where we were standing that they were too full of holes to be useful to anyone.