Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
There are things you can see and hear, nowadays, long after: the way the ditches were dug, and the way the ground trembled, and the way birds don't fly anymore over Belsen, about what happened to all our Czech brothers, our Polish sisters,
our Hungarian cousins, how we in Slovakia were spared, though they beat us and tortured us and jailed us and took our music, how they forced us into workcamps, Hodonin and Lety and Petic, how they placed a hard curfew, and even that curfew had curfews upon it, how they spat at us in the streets. You can hear stories about the badges that were sewn on the sleeves, and the Z that split the length of our people's arms, the red and white armbands, and the way there were no lean dogs near the camps, the way Zyklon-B turned all the hair of the dead brown, and how the barbed wire flew little flags of skin, the slippers that were made of our hair. You can hear all this and more. What happened to the least of us, happened to us all, but little will ever bring it back to me in quite the same way as the day when my grandfather, Stanislaus, was stopped by a tall fair-haired soldier in the little gray streets of Bratislava.
We had gone, on a coal train, all the way through Trnava, beyond the lake, to the thick air and stinking puddles of the city. Grandfather was carrying six homemade toothbrushes to sell at a house where it was reputed there were streetwalkers: it was the only way in those days to make a little money.
Thirteen years to heaven, I had grown curious about the life beyond. What a sight the city was for me—the laundered shirts on strings across the streets, the fancy paper wrappers on the ground, the tall cathedral, the bony cats staring out from windows. Grandfather said to keep close by his side—there were a lot more Germans around now the resistance was stronger, they were helping the Hlinkas with reinforcements, and it was best to keep out of their way. There were rumors of what they would do to us if we took a wrong step. Still, I fell behind. He called at me: Come on, you lanky camel, keep up. I hurried and
linked my arm in his. We came to a narrow alley in a hundred narrow alleys, up on the hill, near the castle. I stopped a moment and watched a child playing with a paper kite. Grandfather turned a corner. When I caught up, he was standing boardstiff, next to a kiosk. I said: Grandfather, what's wrong? Say nothing, he said. His eyes had grown huge and he began to tremble slightly. A German soldier was coming towards us. He had fair hair, like so many of them. We had not broken curfew and I said to Grandfather: Come on, don't worry.
The soldier's uniform was crisp and gray. He had not yet seen us, but Grandfather couldn't help staring, watching his manner—a Rom knows another anywhere.
Grandfather pulled hard on my elbow. I turned away, but just then the young German soldier saw us and his face slid like snow from a branch. He could, I suppose, have walked away, but he hitched his rifle to his chest, cocked it back, stepped across and ignored, with no great difficulty, the pleading of my eyes. He stared at Grandfather, picked the toothbrushes out of his pocket one by one, and then replaced them just as slowly. A dog loped away to the side of us and the soldier aimed a kick at it.
And what is it you have to say? said the soldier.
What is it you want me to say?
The soldier prodded him in the chest, hard enough that Grandfather took a step backwards.
It was demanded of us that we give praise to Tiso and then, if required, to say Heil Hitler with a snap of the hand. Grandfather let the first of the salutes out easily. He had learned to say it so often that it had become as easy as a simple hello. Good, said the soldier, and then he stood waiting. The bobble
in Grandfather's neck grew. He sucked in the skin of his cheeks, leaned towards the German soldier, and whispered in Romani: But you are one of us, you have colored your hair, that is all. The German soldier knew exactly what he was saying, but he thumped Grandfather on the cheek with the butt of his rifle. I heard the jawbone crack and Grandfather went down to the ground. He rose and shook his head and said: Bless the dear place your mother came from.
He was knocked down a second time.
On the third time, he rose again and said Heil Hitler and his boots snapped together smartly at the heels.
Do it again, said the soldier, and this time click your heels together better and while you're at it, salute.
This happened eight times. In the pocket of my grandfather's jacket, the toothbrushes were all bloody.
Finally the soldier nodded and then he said in perfect Romani: Thank yourself, Uncle, that you and your daughter are alive. Now walk on and do not look back.
Grandfather put his head on my shoulder and tried to clean the lapels of his jacket. Hold my elbow, he said, but do not look at my face.
Slowly he put one foot in front of the other on the steep, slippery stones. At the door of the streetwalkers, he leaned down and commenced to cleaning the toothbrushes in a puddle. A fly settled on the balding spot at the top of his long hair. He looked up and said an old thing, but in a new, weary way: Well, I guess the horses didn't shit, too bad.
I got married when I was fourteen. Petr and I had a quiet linking of hands under the trees. Stanislaus had picked him out
for me. I had no choice. He was older than a rock, slow to walk, quick to sleep, but Petr was hailed as a violinist amongst our people. He was big-shouldered and still full-haired. And Conka was right, he could make his violin stand up and play, it still had rosin, we laughed at that, although I wept on the morning when the sheets were checked. The women all asked me about it, Eliska did not stop, but for a long time Petr's rough hands didn't lose their charm for me and, besides, I wanted to make my grandfather happy, that has always been our way.
I do not care for your protests, he said to me, but from here on, now that you're married, with no exception, you will just call me Stanislaus, do you understand?
I watched Stanislaus walk away to sit in a rough-hewn chair by the bushes. He fell asleep with a bottle of fruit wine in his jacket pocket, and, when he woke, it had spilled across his shirt. What's my name? he said. I laughed at him. Not much of a name, he said. I unbuttoned and changed his shirt. He fell asleep again. Petr walked across and righted Stanislaus in the chair.
Further along, down among the caravans, the wedding music began. Our names were called, the sound of my own so strange alongside Petr's.
The rest of the day still shines in my mind, but in truth it is not my own marriage that I remember the most now, daughter, no, it was the wedding of my heart's friend, Conka, that was, in the end, the most splendid affair of wartime. Her young husband, Fyodor, came from a family of wealth. He seemed to smile out loud as he walked along. The marriage was announced far and wide. Curfew was defied, and our people came, some on trucks, some on foot, some on horses, already tuning their instruments, and the harps had been dug up from the ground and
cleaned, tuned, rosined. He wore silver bands of coins around his waist. Most everyone had visited the tailorshop in Trnava where the young man behind the counter liked us—he took the risk and made clothes without the fancy price of other tailors who didn't want us in their shops anyway.
Stanislaus picked out a thin tie and he put the Marx pin underneath one flap so that when he danced the badge jumped around. His jacket was light blue velvet. My own skirts were tripled over, the top one made of silk—better clothing than I had worn for my own wedding just a month before.
Petr had me sit at his right-hand side all the way through Conka's ceremony, and I did not leave, except to sing songs, my favorite was the one about the drunken man who thought he had seven wives when in truth he only had one, though he called her a new name each night of the week. It was a funny tune and my husband rose to his feet in pride, in his hat and waistcoat, and played alongside me. He tucked the violin against his shoulder, raised his bow with one hand, gripped the neck with the other, and a shadow of joy smoothed his brow.
We watched Conka and the sparkle of her as she stepped under the new brooms we held aloft. A few cars were lined up along the hedges, their lights shining. The white skin of the linden blossoms spun and caught and scented the ground. The moon was a half-cut apple above us, and just as white. The best animals had been slaughtered and the longest tables laid out leg to leg, filled with hams, beef rump, pig ears, hedgehog. Lord, it was a feast. Earthenware jars full of plum brandy. Vodka. Wine. So many candles had been hollowed out from potatoes that there were not enough insects to gather round them. Conka and Fyodor stood opposite one another. A few small drops of spirit were poured into their palms and they drank from each
other's hands, then a kerchief was tied around their wrists. Afterwards they threw a key into the streambed and were wed. Conka unbound the kerchief and tied it in her hair. Feather blankets were laid out on the ground. We sat under the stars and we put a few coins in the bottom of a bucket so the money would get bigger under the moon. No Hlinkas came, no farmers walked up with pitchforks, it was the most peaceful night imaginable, with hardly even a raised word about dowry, mistrust, sin.
Men kept their blackened hands behind themselves so as not to dirty Conka's dress, and even Jolana's little Woowoodzhi, who was born strange, danced. It seemed to me that the night could have go on for more than the three nights it did; we were blind with happiness.
It was my first night drunk—I had not been allowed to drink at my own wedding. I whispered to my husband, Get rosin on your bow, Petr, and we went off into the night, that's exactly how it happened and, although I know that a wall to happiness is expecting too much happiness, it still makes me smile.
While there were times that I yearned for a softer face to touch, or a neck without folds, it was never shameful to think that I slept content with my neck at the crook of Petr's arm. He lay under the covers with a string vest on. I suppose I began to think that I too had suddenly grown older beside him. Between one moment and the next, chonorroeja, I had grown a lifetime. The younger boys looked at me and made jokes that I should not buy any green bananas for Petr. They each had the eyes of Bakro, my suitor, but I did not gaze their way.
Stanislaus had settled on Petr as my husband because he
knew that I would still be allowed to guide the pencil, even when the war was over. Few others would ever allow their wives to put words on a page. I had gone far beyond the first
but I wrote in Slovak. Romani never looked right to me on paper, though it sounded beautiful in my head. I never wrote in front of Petr, nor did I read in his presence, what use would it be to bring mockery down on him? But I had fallen in with books, they were friendly to me in the quiet hours. For a long time, I remember, the only book I had was
penned by a German whose name I can't recall. It was a book given to simplicities. Still, I walked out in the forest and read it enough times to know it by heart. It was about Apaches and gunfighters, a volume for boys. Finally I was given a different volume,
The Lady of Öachtice,
which I loved—it was cracked and torn with so much use.
Stanislaus was given a copy of Engels by some men who worked in the salt mines. It was a dangerous thing to own and he sewed the pages inside his coat. I read the parable of the master and the servant, and while it didn't make much sense, it was the other voices, the Kranko and the Stens, that I truly liked. One day Stainslaus found a Bible printed in Slovak and said it was a handbook for revolutionaries, a notion I tested and began to like since there were ideas in there that made sense.
And yet, still, it was really only song that held me, our own song, which kept my feet to the ground.
New laws came upon us, even harsher than before. We were no longer allowed to travel at all. We stole back to Trnava and lay camouflaged in the forest, eight kilometers out. The chocolate factory was making armaments. The smoke drifted over us. We were joined by some of the settled Roma who left the town when their husbands were hung from the lampposts by
way of reprisal: the law was ten villagers for every one of theirs. The mayor of the city gave the fascists the cheapest lives and what was cheaper to them than their Gypsies and, of course, Jews? On one steel pole eight were hung and left for the birds. For years afterwards no man or woman would ever take that street again, it was known as the Place of the Bent Lamppost.