A journal of narrative writing.
Christmas ’56
Andre Kocsis

For a while we sat in the kitchen, and we could hear as the soldiers went from apartment to apartment. My father would periodically get up and pace in the tiny kitchen. When he sat down, his right eye was twitching. My mother looked at him, her face showing concern.

Finally the building became quiet. My father went to our bedroom, and came back to announce that the tanks were gone. The bookshelves remained against the window, but we were allowed to play in the bedroom. I could hear my father in the parlour, speaking on the phone. His voice was harsh, demanding, but I could not make out what he said. Afterward, my parents talked in their bedroom again, for a long time.

We had just sat down to a supper of cold cuts when there was a knock on the door. My father went down the hall, and, after some low conversation, came back with Uncle Jozsef. He wasn’t really my uncle; he was a family friend, but we called him uncle. He was a lot of fun, always ready to give us a piggy-back ride, or play with Miki’s soldiers. He was younger than my father.

When he came into the kitchen, my mother looked frightened, and then she bowed her head. I watched as large tear drops fell on the table cloth in front of her, making damp patches that spread on the green linen.

“Sit down,” my father said, but Uncle Jozsef just stood, mutely looking at my mother.

Finally he said, more a statement than a question, “You’ve made up your mind.”

It was my father who replied, “Yes.” My mother did not look up.

Uncle Jozsef said, “This will be over soon.”

At this my mother raised her head. “They took his papers.”

Uncle Jozsef had an expression on his face that I had never seen before.

“Eva …” he said.

My mother looked up at him and almost imperceptibly shook her head. Tears glistened on her eyelashes.

Uncle Jozsef’s voice trembled as he turned to my father and said, “Good luck.” My father rose, shook his extended hand, and then accompanied him to the door.

That night, as I lay snuggled in my bed, I could not fall asleep for a long time. I heard my parents walking around the apartment, opening and closing drawers, murmuring.

It was Miki who woke me the next morning. He was standing next to my bed, shaking my shoulder. The flap at the crotch of his flannel pajamas was dangling; he had evidently just been to the toilet.

“Kati, wake up,” he said.

“What?” I said sleepily.

“Come and look.”

I slowly clambered out of bed as he kept pulling on my arm. The parquet floor was cold on my bare feet. With an air of self-importance, Miki led me out into the parlour. There were two small brown leather suitcases, battered from many years of use, standing next to the sofa.

I stood there wondering at this, my bare legs cold under my nightgown, when my mother came in.

“Get dressed and come to the kitchen for breakfast. We have to leave soon.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the country.”

“But where will we stay?” I insisted.

“With Aunt Magda.”

“I don’t have an Aunt Magda.”

“You’ve never met her.”

“I never heard of her!”

“Don’t argue, Kati! Get dressed and out to the kitchen right now!” She rarely shouted at me like this, and I was startled by her outburst. I took Miki’s hand and we scurried to our room, getting ready in record time. She had put out the clothes she wanted us to wear, and I helped Miki button his shirt. I noticed that some of our clothes had disappeared, probably packed into the suitcases.

We had an unusually large breakfast, using up the last of the eggs. This was strange, eggs generally being saved for dinner. Sandwiches were on the counter, wrapped in wax paper. Clearly, we would be travelling more than a few hours.

My parents took one more quick look around the apartment as Miki and I waited at the door with the luggage. My mother burst into tears, and father put his arm around her shoulders as he shepherded us out the door, double locking it behind him.

The sun was shining out of a clear October sky; the air seemed to be made of crystal, as if the right note would cause it to shatter, bringing a million shards of glass to the ground. We hurried along the empty streets, my parents carrying a suitcase in one hand, and each holding a child’s hand in the other. Not far from our house we saw a line of people snaking around the block, waiting for bread at the bakery. They were strangely quiet.

We took a streetcar to the railway station, which was, in contrast to the city, very crowded. The railcar which we boarded was jammed; Miki and I sat on our parents’ laps. After a long wait, the train finally lurched into motion. Soon we were chugging through the outskirts of Budapest, gradually picking up speed.

I tried to sit on my father’s lap quietly. His long leather coat was sticking to my bare skin, and I squirmed, trying to get my skirt farther down my legs. The air around me was redolent with the tobacco smell which I associated with my father. He had both arms around me, and my back was warmed by his chest. I felt very safe, and hummed a tune which blended with the rhythmic clatter of the train.

From my perch I surveyed our fellow travellers. Most of them were from the city, people with gray clothes and gray complexions. Not only were all the seats jammed, but there were people standing or squatting in the aisles. At the other end of our car, five young men in the drab green uniforms of the Hungarian Army were jammed into seats. They were playing cards. Clearly in high spirits, their yells and laughter contrasted sharply with the rest of the passengers, whose tight-lipped faces were stamped with fear.

There were no kids, except for a girl about my age, with thin blond hair, clutching a doll. I was amazed to see that it looked, from a distance, just like my Erika. I suddenly missed my doll. She was back in my room, which already seemed so far away. Well, I would be back there soon enough, and I would tell her about our trip to the mysterious Aunt Magda. I wondered how long we would be gone.

“Does Aunt Magda have cows?” I asked, turning to my mother. Miki was snuggled against her, dozing. My mother seemed confused by my question, and looked at my father. It was he that answered.

“Yes, she has cows.”

“Does she have a dog?”

“Yes,” my father said.

“Will there be kids to play with?”

There was a short silence. I repeated my question.

“Kati, please settle down. You’ll see when we get there.”

I was surprised by this rebuff. Usually, when we went on excursions, my parents were sympathetic to my excitement, and were only too eager to describe in great detail what we would be seeing.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I saw was that we were speeding through flat fields with the yellow stubble of recently harvested wheat. The sky was now gray, threatening rain.

Not much later, we started to slow down. We were on the outskirts of a town, with small whitewashed houses covered by thatched roofs. Eventually the train pulled to a stop in a station, and everyone got off. The crowd milled around on the platform, which was clearly not built to accommodate so many people. My father went into the small station building, and was gone for quite some time. In the meantime, sitting on our suitcases, we ate the sandwiches that my mother had packed that morning. Miki complained that the bread was soggy from the tomatoes, but he finally ate it. The soldiers from our car were sitting in a circle on the ground next to us. They were continuing their card game.

“Match this, you bastard,” one of them shouted, slapping a card violently onto the pile. He had a round sunburned face, with his spiky blond hair sticking out from under his cap. He looked up at me, and I averted my eyes.

“Where are you heading, little girl?” he asked.

I looked back at him. He had very white teeth.

“To my Aunt Magda’s farm.”

“I didn’t know they had farms in Vienna,” he said, winking. The other soldiers laughed loudly.

My mother stood up.

“Let’s find your father,” she said, and picked up both suitcases.