I have been reading “Savage Continent”, by Keith Lowe. I can’t put this book down and have been getting up in the middle of the night just to read more. It’s about Europe after WWII and it is nothing we in the US have been taught. At least most of us. The turmoil after WWII, when nation’s borders were expanded or condensed, when people who were minorities were expelled, slaughtered by ‘ethnic cleansing’ by new and vengeful governments and citizens, where starvation and disease were even more prominent than during the war years of rations and ‘without’….this book opened my eyes and my heart.
It is not an easy book to read because the horror of what happened is heart wrenching. Since the men were off fighting a war, the majority of victims were women, children and the elderly. I encourage everyone who reads this blog to get this book. It also influenced my writing of “A Kapitany”, though only in the past few weeks. This history can’t be ignored, especially when you are writing about conditions (as in Hungary) today. The impact of war and it’s devastation in the 10 years after will impact generations to come.
Chapter 30 is a gentle chapter. No warnings. Just two elderly aunties that have seen much and survived more.
A Kapitany, Chapter 30
Vadas walked down the street in Rozsadomb, a well heeled part of Budapest. He looked for the elaborate iron grill of their balcony, and saw the geraniums in pots. Aunt Eva was the gardener. Vadas remembered his mother and Eva spading up the flower garden when he was a child. They planted cabbages and turnips. He remembered some man helping to uproot the old rose bushes. Cabbages would feed them, Eva said. Roses only smelled good.
They had lived a long time in Rose Hill. Their home was part of an old mansion, subdivided into apartments. Before there were only old people around. So many of the rich, those who had built these villas, had fled Budapest for the west. They had settled in Paris, Toronto, in London. Now Rose Hill was again an expensive residential neighborhood in Buda. Some of the former residents had moved back in the twenty years since the Iron Curtain had fallen. Many of the new owners of these places were foreigners. Vadas wondered what his aunts thought about the changes around them, these new people. The last time he had talked to them, they had bemoaned the dying off of neighbors of many years. They had grown old, and despite war and political turmoil, claimed the world was moving too fast.
Vadas stood in the street and looked at the stonework of the building. Elaborate carvings and even more elaborate iron work on the balconies. This type of construction would never be reproduced now. Too expensive. The skilled workers, stone masons and artists who produced this decoration would have died off. Tastes had changed and now efforts were put into economical and fast construction. The housekeeper appeared on the balcony. Vadas waved to her.
He rang the buzzer at the door and was let into the vestibule. He climbed the stairs to the second story, ignoring the small elevator and was met at the door by the same woman. She led him down the small hallway to his aunts.
They were sitting with big smiles creasing their faces. Vadas embraced them, kissing both on their cheeks.
“You have come! You rascal, you don’t visit us much. How many times a year, Vadas? Perhaps you are waiting for our funeral to pay your respects?” Aunt Magrit was the fierce one, and pulled little Eva around in her wake.
Vadas grinned. “You look very well, dear Margit. As well as ever.”
He was fondest of Eva, who was younger by two years. She looked so old, but then, both of them were in their nineties. They had seen so much; war, the starvation after war, displacement, casual violence outside their windows. They had survived events many others hadn’t. Aunt Eva’s eyes had almost disappeared into the wrinkles of her face.
Still they shone with tenderness.
The housekeeper came in with a tray of coffee and Vadas took a cup, placing the saucer on his knee like he did as a young boy.
“Your last letter said you had a surprise for us? Come Vadas, you know we have little time left to play riddles with you.”
Aunt Margit always had a sharp tongue. She meant well, still was a formidable woman. Aunt Eva just smiled at Vadas. She was used to her sister and all these years nothing had changed.
“I am going to marry.” He took a sip of his too-sweetened coffee.
Both women looked at him and Aunt Margit exploded in cackles.
“You? The man who has run all these years from marriage? Hah! This news is unexpected. Tell us who this poor woman is. We will warn her.”
Aunt Eva had tears in her eyes.
“Ah, Margit, leave the poor boy alone. He means well, you know his heart.”
“Well, then. Tell us about your intended and wedding plans.”
“Well, it won’t be until after the harvest. I have hopes for this year’s grapes. The wedding will be in Eger.”
“We hear you have done a good job with the vines, Vadas. Your hard work is paying off. Your dear father would be proud of you and your labors.”
Aunt Eva nodded her head. She was the silent one when Margit was around.
Vadas didn’t think his father would be proud at all if he knew how he had made the bulk of his money. The past five years had made a difference, though. The grapes were producing well, and he had expanded his clients. At least that part was good.
“Elizabeth is a few years younger, past child bearing age, but still in good shape.”
He took another sip of his coffee. “She is a small woman, sometimes quiet. She is an artist.”
“Ah, good! She will paint a picture for us! Tell her I want one of the old house and be quick about it. I won’t live forever.”
Eva laughed at her sister. “Go on, Vadas, dear. Tell us more about this Elizabeth. It is good you are marrying a countrywoman. Poor Marta. After all these years, you are going to have a wife.”
They would not be pleased when they found out more about Elizabeth, thought Vadas.
“Actually, darlings, Elizabeth is an American. But she’s half Hungarian”, Vadas rushed to add.
“What? You are marrying someone foreign? Why? Why can’t you find a good Hungarian girl to marry, Vadas?”
Aunt Margit’s cup rattled in her saucer. Aunt Eva looked confused.
“Well, simply….I have fallen in love.” Vadas put his cup and saucer on the table besides him.
“Look, she is a good girl, a good woman. She is sensible and not someone who is just out to spend money. She wants to raise sheep after we marry. I don’t understand this, but she wants to sell wool to some market. She is industrious and she will be good with clients. She is smart. And pretty.”
“Wool?” Aunt Margit looked at Eva, her jaw dropping. “Does she understand the duties of a wife? Does she cook?”
Vadas laughed. “Oh, believe me. She understands the duties of a wife. I have taken her out for a test drive a number of times.”
Aunt Eva laughed and Aunt Margit blinked several times, the joke going over her head.
“As to cooking, I don’t know. Maria Kovacs has taken care of that so far. Two women in the same kitchen look like trouble to me so I haven’t encouraged this.”
“Well, that at least shows you have some sense for a man. So tell us, Vadas, in what church will the wedding be?”
Vadas knew he was in trouble now. He hadn’t given it any thought. He left these details to Soffia and Elizabeth.
“Oh, a good Catholic church. When I get back to Eger I will discuss this with Elizabeth.”
“A good Catholic church? Hah! You haven’t been to mass in years. Is this Elizabeth even Catholic?”
Vadas thought carefully how to answer. “We don’t discuss religion too much, Auntie. There has been so much on her plate. We haven’t had much time to talk about these things.”
“Have you met her family?”
“No, Eva. She only has one elderly Aunt. We will bring her over for the wedding.”
“Oh! Are her parents dead? Poor woman, to be alone in a country, planning a wedding and no one to help her.”
“Remember Soffia Horvath? She is helping her. She’s with her right now. They have been visiting churches and looking for a wedding gown.”
“Soffia! Oh, Vadas, that Soffia is not a good woman to throw at your bride. I remember her. She was quite something. Attractive, yes, but not wife material at all.”
Vadas laughed. If they only knew the truth about Soffia.
“I’m not marrying Soffia, Aunt Margit. She’s just company for Elizabeth while I am gone on business. She is serving a purpose and likes Elizabeth. Soffia is a sweet girl, don’t worry.”
They were silent for a few moments as the aunties digested this news about the intended marriage.
“I am very glad you are settling down, darling. I remember the sadness when Marta died. Oh, that poor lamb!” This from Aunt Eva.
“Thank you. Elizabeth is very different from Marta, but then again, this is to be expected. And I am twenty years older. I am different, too. Elizabeth is very curious about the vineyard and I have shown her the vines. She will adjust to being married to a humble wine maker.”
“Will this American woman want to live in Hungary? Aren’t we very different than the States?”
“She will adjust, Aunt Margit. She is in love with her Vadas and she will adjust.”
They talked about other matters, and Vadas relaxed when the conversation shifted from Elizabeth. How could they grasp anything about her? She was different, a foreigner, a woman not of their culture. But it didn’t really matter. The adjustment would be between them. And there would be plenty of it. First they had to get past Miklos. But that was still in the future. Nothing to bother the old aunties with.
“Well, Vadas. You know this news changes a lot of things. We were holding the estate for you, and you would get it when we died. But with your marriage, this changes. Would you want to live in that old house?”
“Elizabeth has seen it. I made it a point to show it to her. She has given some excellent advice on the murals and the restoration. She and Soffia are travelling around Eger right now talking to people to begin at least repair the roof.”
“Does she speak Hungarian?” This from Aunt Margit.
“No, just a little bit. That is why Soffia is so helpful right now.”
Both aunts looked at each other. “Well, she will have to learn, and fast.”
“What did she think about the house?”
“Ah, she loved it, Eva. Tears were in her eyes. She said she couldn’t marry me because I would think she was
marrying for the house.” Vadas laughed. “I convinced her otherwise.”
“Yes, said Margit, I bet you did. You always had a persuasive way with women. You know we heard stories of your exploits, Vadas. We might be old, but we still can hear and enjoy gossip.”
Vadas smiled. “Well, you don’t have to worry about rumors anymore. You will like Elizabeth. She is the soul of kindness and good sense. You will love her in time.”
They had asked him to stay for dinner and Vadas didn’t see how he could politely refuse. He wanted to drive back to Noszvaj that night but they had more to say. Aunt Margit went to instruct the housekeeper who also cooked for them, and left him alone with Eva.
“Have you given her a ring, yet?”
“No, Aunt Eva. I did pick up a box of jewelry from the lawyers in Paris, but there was nothing I saw on first viewing. I will look for something, probably in Eger.”
“Wait, Vadas. I have something to give you. I don’t know if you will like, but perhaps it will work.”
Aunt Eva left him in their sitting room, and went to her bedroom. She returned with a small box and presented it to him. In it was a diamond ring. Heart shaped, with a pave of tiny diamonds on either side, set in platinum. Vadas sucked in his breath when he saw it.
“I can’t accept this, Eva”. He looked with fondness at his aunt.
“And who am I to give it to, then? I didn’t think to give it to you for Marta, but then, it was all over so soon.
Ah, Vadas, how much our hearts were broken. We suffered along with you, darling boy.”
“It is beautiful, Eva. It is perfect for Elizabeth. She will love it. Thank you.”
Vadas embraced this tiny, frail auntie and held her long. He didn’t want her to see the emotion crossing his face. He was deeply moved.
After dinner and during the coffee that followed all meals in Budapest, the aunts told him they had another thing to talk about. They felt he needed to know this, and were wrong to hold it so long.
“Do you remember the man that came and helped your mother? He dug up the rose garden and helped her plant cabbages? It was Zoltan’s father. Your mother had a child by him. Your father was in prison, and your mother was very alone. It is hard for a women to face the world without a man, and she faced more than the world. She faced the Germans, and then the Russians. That house almost killed her. Everything weighed on her until it broke her health. That is why she died, Vadas, before her time. Don’t judge, Vadas, war does terrible things to people and especially women. You wouldn’t have known this. You were in France, with us. You were so young, just a baby.”
Aunt Eva did the talking. Aunt Margit was silent with the memories.
“The years after the war were almost as terrible as during the war. The starvation, the lawlessness in the cities, the rampages, and especially the famines, all these things happen, Vadas. What are we to do? We just go on. This child, Zoltan, was given to his father’s family to raise. Your mother didn’t have milk enough to nurse him. Cabbages and turnips were not good food for this. He would have died, one amongst so many babies who did. People suspected his parentage, but who could care? They all had their own worries. One child born above the blanket was not an event to produce much concern during those years. People had too much to do. This was nothing.”
This was nothing? Vadas couldn’t think straight. So, Zoltan was his half brother. What was he to think? Why did they not tell him before? Ah, God! He had almost killed Zoltan, had seen him awash in his own blood, and only a mercy had saved him. He, Vadas, had sent him into danger. He had almost died. He would have killed his own brother had he died. This blood would have been on his hands.
The two sisters couldn’t know what Vadas was thinking, but the shock of it was on his face. He felt physically sick and stood up. He passed his hand over his face, and walked to the window. The two women looked at each other in fear. They didn’t expect this old news, of sixty years duration, to do this to him.
At the window, Vadas took a deep breath. Zoltan was alive and recovering. He would do everything in his power to rectify what he had done.
He faced his aunts. The shock of this was still on his face, and his voice wavered.
“Zoltan is my brother? This is true?”
“Yes, Vadas, he is your half-brother. We didn’t know until recently that Zoltan was still alive or living in Hungary. We had lost sight of him many years ago. We just forgot all this. But we were visited by some investigator and he mentioned Zoltan had been injured. They also mentioned your name. We didn’t give any information, played two old rattled women, which we are, but it was time for you to know about Zoltan.”
Vadas was curious about this investigator. He didn’t want to alarm his aunts. He would find his own answers later.
“Since Zoltan is my half brother, then the estate should be divided between us.”
“There is the house and the hunting lodge. Since Zoltan is not married, we thought perhaps he could be settled in the lodge? But it is up to you, Vadas. You are the main inheritor.”
Vadas thought hard. What should he say to them?
“I was hoping I could restore at least part of the house for us to live in. I don’t know, it would be too expensive to restore the whole house. There isn’t any furniture in it. It isn’t something you can ask a bride to do. I was thinking we would live in the lodge until we could fix up a couple of rooms, and of course patch the roof first. Everything else can be later.”
Vadas looked at the floor. “I thought of asking Zoltan to come live in the lodge. I knew he was injured, and I visited him in hospital. He has no wife or children I know of. I think that is right, to deed over the lodge to him. Of course Janos and Maria would continue to live there. They have been there so long. They also can help Zoltan. All this changes everything, no?”
“Yes, Vadas, it does. And Zoltan living in the lodge is a good idea. He doesn’t know you are his half brother. We thought it would be up to you to tell him.”
Ah God, thought Vadas. I wonder what he will think. And why so long in the coming?
The aunties later said there was a warehouse in Eger full of furniture they had saved from the Russians, first from the Germans, and then later from the Communists. They didn’t know the shape of the stuff, perhaps the mice had destroyed the upholstery, rats had eaten the legs of tables, but it was from the house. Perhaps Elizabeth could see what was there and choose what she wanted?
Vadas smiled. He already knew of a nice bed needing a mattress. Aunt Magrit gave him her best severe look and Eva chuckled. Their darling boy really hadn’t changed over the years. Thank God something of life was still the same, even if in the telling it would make a priest blush in the confession box.