The Crunch of Empty Boots
Gábor T. Szántó:
The Crunch of Empty Boots
Flakes of snow.
Falling, falling, flakes of snow.
Marci presses his nose against the glass.
Panting, Santa Claus binds the skis onto his boots. He struggles to move in his thick red quilted coat and trousers, his red cap on his head; he’s no youngster, he’s like Grandpa, and what with his sclerosis he probably finds it hard to bend over. Maybe he needs help putting his skis on, just like Grandpa needed help to get into his galoshes. Someone will surely give him a hand, because if he starts bending over with so many clothes on, he will sweat, and is bound to catch a cold, get a fever, and his tonsils will swell up. Then he could hardly be able to ski from Finland to Hungary, which is a very long way – Dad once showed him Santa’s route on the luminous globe. Dad is always arguing with Mum about how he doesn’t have to dress up so much for tobogganing, because when climbing up the slope he will heat up, start to sweat, and then look what trouble they get into.
Who is going to help Santa fasten his skis? And who will care for him if he gets ill?
And who is Santa Claus’ father? What’s his job? Retired Santa Claus?
He must remember to ask Dad about this the next time he sees him. You can’t ask Mum about this kind of thing, because nowadays, ever since they got here, she has been sad and irritable. Her response to everything is ‘you can’t’ or ‘it’s not allowed’, and she really won’t say a word about why they have to be here, or when they can finally go home to meet Dad. She even slaps him sometimes, though luckily not hard. Dad isn’t at home, either: this is what Mum always says, as if it that made things any better. Well it doesn’t. And he told her as much. Just because he is not there, they could still go home and wait for him. Mum made no reply, but the next time she gave him a smack, he felt he was getting it for this, too. This is why he is angry with Mum, and this is why he won’t say anything to her. At most he can tell Dad when they get home. He will tell him everything. The sour bread, the inedible jam they called marmalade, the horrible soup, which Mum calls dörgemüse, and which she makes him eat by shouting at him. And he would tell him how disgraceful it is that he does not have his own bed like at home, but has to sleep between Mum and Grandma, squeezed between the two bunks, where the edge of the boards presses his side, and either he creases up the blanket beneath him and freezes, or he wraps up tight, but is woken by every little movement, and his ribs hurt.
Things have never been this bad.
They were not this bad even when Mum and Dad once had a nasty falling-out, when they shouted and grappled with each other, locking him in the kitchen, from where he saw nothing, but heard everything, even the nasty words he was not allowed to utter himself. Yes, that was pretty bad, he even shouted for them to stop it, but they only shouted even louder, and so he overcame his fear and opened the door to sort things out between them, telling them that even the kids in the kindergarten don’t fight like that, and that he intervened there, too. It was painful to watch someone hitting another person, especially a girl, and in any case Dad had once told him that you must never hurt a woman, as women are fragile (that’s what he said, though he was talking about Julcsi and Ibi, who were only little sissies, not women, but girls, at most) and then he imagined himself hitting Julcsi, and Julcsi breaking into pieces like the ground-floor window he once kicked the leather ball through. That would be terrible, unthinkable, if Julcsi fell apart, the one and only Julcsi, whose thick yet soft blonde pony-tail is so nice to hold, squeeze and tug at, even if she screams in the meantime. That is what he was thinking when he opened the door and himself screamed for the quarrellers to stop it, and ran up to use his body to separate them, for fear that Mum might break into pieces, too. They went silent and picked him up; a huge lump in his throat, he blinked in alarm first at one, then at the other, to make peace between them. Seeing their relenting expressions, smiling in embarrassment, he did not know whether to laugh or to cry.
Things were not this bad even when one day he hid in the park, and afterwards on the way home he threatened Mum that he would leave home, and in the evening, after Dad came home, they shoved his rucksack into his hand, with a roll, an apple, a pullover and his teddy bear, showed him to the door, and said: ‘Bye Marci, you can go’. He thought the house would cave in, but it didn’t, he just sat out on the courtyard balcony, stared in the dark at the starry sky, and had no idea what would happen next. He would never forget that feeling. He stood firm, and though he was both cold and afraid, he did not ring the bell. He woke up in Dad’s arms, and he could also remember Mum dressing him, tears in her eyes.
Things were not this bad even on the train, though it was crowded and smelly; we had to pee and poo in front of strangers, and others, grown-ups, did the same, including Mum. She told him to close his eyes, but he saw others, there was so little space; Mum wouldn’t take him in her arms, and he slept amidst everyone’s legs. He was constantly afraid that they would kick him or flatten him. The grown-ups behaved badly as well, much worse than the children did when breakfast was handed out at the kindergarten, when only the first half of the queue would get cocoa, the others only milk. They jostled, swore, even hit each other. But at least on the train something was happening, they were travelling, not like here, where nothing ever happens, except hanging out in your room all day, playing with pieces of wood and other nonsense, or with that one girl from the neighbouring barrack, who is always ill, and who only has dolls, no car or rifle. True, he doesn’t have a rifle, either, just a car, but at least that is a Model T Ford, one of whose wheels has broken from being revved up so much, to which the girl next door always pulls a face – why does he make that whirring noise when the car is not even real? Idiot! But what can you expect? Girls. They can’t all be as tough and boyish as Julcsi. But there is only one of her, unfortunately, and that one is not here, unlike him, who has to be here, if only he knew why.
Things were not this bad, not even when they heard that Grandpa had left…
Mum cried then, too. Dad hugged her, then hugged Grandma, who was also crying, they lit a candle, and all they said was: ‘Grandpa has left’. But where to and for how long? Far away and for a long time, said Mum, and hugged him, too. He could tell that something was not in order, for when Grandpa and Grandma has previously gone on holiday to Hévíz or Trencsénteplice (the name of which he liked to repeat again and again – it would lose its meaning and sound like some naughty word), there had been no need to cover up any mirrors; besides, Grandpa never went anywhere alone for a single day, let alone a longer period, neither did Mum whisper to Dad to take his shoes off, to at least show him that much respect. Of course she always told Marci off if he walked around in socks at home, that it wasn’t the done thing. Can anyone understand this? Maybe there are things that grown-ups don’t talk to children about, not because they fear the children won’t understand them, but because they don’t actually understand them themselves. Like when Grandma reassured him that Dad had not left home in the same way as Grandpa, just they didn’t know when he was coming back yet. Is he going to join them in the camp? Mum shook her head: he probably won’t be able to come after them, and she looked so sad, it was he who had to console her. Yet again he had the feeling that something was wrong.
But just because Dad can’t come now, Santa could still make an appearance! Or is it possible that he has forgotten that someone is expecting him? True, it would be a bit odd if all of a sudden he appeared at the barrier guarding the entrance, pulled by his reindeers, where the German soldiers always shout and wave their guns when people go in and out. Maybe even he doesn’t dare to come here. Maybe they wouldn’t even let him in.
His throat tightens. Maybe things have never been this bad. Not the cold, not the dörgemüse, not the hole between the two bunks, but the fact that Santa isn’t coming here to the camp.
He looks behind him. It would be nice if Mum winked at him and said he should put his boot out in the window after all, because maybe he would find a present or two in it in the morning. Everyone in the barrack is quietly tinkering around their own bunk. By the evening they are all tired; at most it is impulsive arguments that break the silence. Grandma is lying up on her bunk. Sometimes she is there all day, saying nothing, except to tell him off for things. He is strictly forbidden to leave the barrack, except when Mum occasionally takes him for a walk. This only happens on rare occasions, and he is not allowed to play out there, either, only to get some air in silence.
Mum sits on the edge of her bunk, sewing a shirt, saying nothing to him. She doesn’t talk to others much, not even to him. Even though they are together in the evenings, she is always tired and moody. Unless he asks her, she never talks about Dad, as if she doesn’t even miss him. She doesn’t say much at all, and he doesn’t even expect her to spend time with him, and so he only cries and makes a scene from time to time, knowing it makes no difference, nothing will change anyway. The little girl in the next-door barrack is ill again, he can’t go near her. They won’t say what’s wrong with her, nor when she might get better, which is pretty bad news, because there are no other kids to play with. Mum leaves for the factory early in the morning, and it is dark by the time she gets home. They live here now, so this must be home. It hadn’t been the same going home before, but if he thinks about it, there were times when he felt bad back home, too, so it is possible that this is also home. If only he wasn’t bored so much.
It’s as if they are being punished for something. The iron-nosed witch in the fairy-tale takes the children away and locks them all up. But what have they done wrong? It is quite certain that Mum and Grandma did something they weren’t supposed to, and so they are being punished with all the others, and he could not be left at home on his own. It is hard to imagine that Dad could have done something he wasn’t supposed to, because Dad is a pretty important man. He wasn’t sent here with them, for one thing. He is on the front, fighting for the fatherland. While they were still at home, he worked from morning till night, and they were not allowed to touch the important papers on his desk. Dad is a lawyer, he defends innocent people. All the law books are there on his shelves. The laws say what is allowed and what isn’t, just like in a board game, and so Dad is bound to know what to do. True, Mum once said that he was taken to the Ukraine like they were brought here to the camp, but still, that was different. He doesn’t know exactly what they did, but it was certainly worse than what they make you stand in the corner for, and even worse than the things that make other children pretend to see straight through you. But whatever they did, he must forgive them, even if it is because of them that he has to be in this uncomfortable place; he only has to think of all the times when he was naughty and was punished, and how this did not mean they loved him any less than before. He loves them too. He loves Dad, he loves Mum, and even Grandma, although he is angry that he had to be deported because of them. But just because the grown-ups did something wrong is no reason for Santa not to come. It is not fair that they are punishing the children because of their parents, whatever it is they have done, for a child is not to blame if its parents have behaved badly, just as parents are not to blame if a child has been naughty.
Or maybe he has done something wrong himself? Are there bad things you can do without realising it? Sadly, on these occasions he can always sense that what he is doing is naughty, that he will be punished if caught, it’s just that he can never stop himself.
But somehow he can’t get into his head why it is only Jews they are punishing for doing wrong, why only they have to wear the yellow star, why only they have to leave home to live and work here, when the other children in the kindergarten were always just as naughty and were also punished, and quite right too. And he really can’t believe that of all the grown-ups, the only ones who have done things that deserve deportation are Jews. The children are even worse. Kolonics from the first floor, for example. He is always coming up to their place on the third floor to spit down onto the courtyard; much worse, he once stole the change from the hat of the blind beggar on the street corner and even knocked over his stick perched against the wall, so he couldn’t find it and would trip over it. He watched him from the doorway. That really was naughty. If anything deserved punishment, this was it. He would never do anything like that, though he might once try out the spitting. It is nice to think how Kolonics would look with a canary yellow cross on his chest, in the company of other wrongdoers, here in the camp.
‘Marci, get away from the window!’
It’s not nice of Mum to talk to him like that. As if he were solely responsible for them being here, in Hochenau, Austria, or wherever they are, far from home, far from Kárász street, far from Dad, in this horribly boring camp, where they make inedible food, and where the guards shout all the time. What is most alarming is that sometimes even Mum seemed to be afraid, even though grown-ups are grown-ups, who have no reason to be scared, who cannot get lost, who can get food and water if they are hungry or thirsty, and who even know how to get home. And if they don’t know exactly when they can go home, they can ask the Lagerführer, the man you only see at the morning roll-call, who once even stroked his hair. There is no way that grown-ups can be like children and not be capable of settling things in an orderly way. Maybe someone is in the doghouse for a while, but then surely they sort things out.
It’s Mum’s fault that they are Jews, too. At some discussion, when they were visiting people and he was listening in, he once heard that it all depends on the mother. If someone’s parents aren’t Jewish, they aren’t Jewish, either. That idiot Kolonics, for example, who was allowed to stay home, started school in the autumn, even though he is almost a year younger than him. And maybe right now he is sitting right next to Julcsi. True, Dad is also a Jew, for sure – you can tell, because his willy was sliced when he was a baby – but Dad is at the front, so he can hardly be blamed in the same way. It’s not fair! Not enough that they have to go to the camp, but they are circumcised for good measure, so that damned Kolonics can have something to jeer at in the toilet. What injustice! Why do they have to pee together with those who haven’t had it sliced?
It can’t be easy for Kolonics at school without him, though; discipline is much greater there than in kindergarten. But if he had the choice, he would rather go to school as well. No doubt Kolonics has already put his boot out in the window, and there will certainly be a present in it by morning. This is also unfair! How can one kid get a present when the other doesn’t?
‘Marci, come away from there, they’ll turn off the lights in a minute, and we’ll be fumbling around in the dark. You still have to brush your teeth.’
Mum climbs off her bunk, moves up to him, but he doesn’t want to move. He wants to stay by the window he has been breathing on and draw a pine-tree on the foggy glass with his index finger.
His mother sighs loudly. She looks around, as if expecting help, or at least suggestions for what to do. She forgot all about it, it hadn’t crossed her mind to prepare for this, though she could have guessed that the falling snow would remind the boy of presents. They celebrated his seventh birthday in the autumn; she got hold of a slab of chocolate in the factory, though probably he wouldn’t have noticed if there had been no present. But she clean forgot about this wretched Santa, even though Marci knows precisely from the falling snow that it is time for him to come.
‘How many times do I have to tell you something before you understand me?’ she rebukes him irritably, then feels ashamed. It is not her son she is angry with, it is the helplessness, the hopelessness. Though she knows she should be happy that here, even if they are all cruelly made to work day after day, they are not hurt like those taken to the camps in Poland; she should be happy that their lives are not in immediate danger, like those they heard such incredible stories about back home in the spring.
Marci still doesn’t move, though he knows that Mum’s hand has been quick to strike for a while now. She gives one warning, then slaps him. ‘You are a big boy now and a very disobedient one’ is always the explanation she offers if he gives her a reproachful look. Dad would surely do something about Santa. He could imagine Dad escaping from the camp, tricking the guards, and tracking down Santa, to let him know that he, Marci, is not waiting for him at the usual place, but somewhere else, far away from home. Dad might be capable of this, but Mum isn’t. Mum is a woman, and a woman can’t slide around in the snow next to the guards with guns. Neither does he expect her to, but he does miss the present, and he misses Dad, too. And Mum really isn’t behaving nicely. She is impatient and short-tempered with him, as if it were his fault that they had to come here to the camp. But it isn’t, quite the opposite, he has done nothing that would merit such a big punishment. He has thought through this a thousand times, first on the night of their arrival, when they shouted with them, pushed them around, when there was Appel all the time, standing to attention, chaos and roll-call, and he leant against Mum, who could not bear him in her arms and begged him to stand on his own feet.
No, he still believes that he did nothing that would merit such a punishment. This is unjust! Dad would certainly not behave as Mum is behaving. Angry, he clenches his teeth to stop himself crying.
As his mother looks at her son’s shaven head from behind, egg-shaped and as strokable as his father’s was, she suddenly becomes even more angry. She is angry with herself, for not being more patient, with Marci, for not being able to occupy himself, with her own mother, for lying up there on her bunk, helpless, and with her husband for letting himself be killed. She is angry because thanks to him she has a child she is not able to protect from this wickedness they are inflicting on them, and because she left, let herself be taken away, like the others. ‘Your husband is recorded as having disappeared in combat’ was all there was in the wretched letter, and since they arrived here she is unable to kid herself, as she did for a year, that a new letter would arrive, saying: ‘Your husband has been found, he is alive.’ Crumpling up the announcement in her hand, she burst out crying, and felt that she would never be able to stop her sobbing, then, concentrating on her son, she pulled herself together, suppressing her despair, as if a realization, superior to her every thought and feeling of the moment, was reminding her that there would be further ordeals to endure, and that Marci would be more capable of resistance if the hope of being reunited with his father was dangled in front of him. For a whole year she had kidded herself; now she would only have to kid her son, for at the time she was incapable of telling him, then later, when she felt she had to tell him, there came the German invasion, the ghetto… She could not tell him, she was not up to it, and she made everyone promise: ‘Not a word to the kid!’
She can predict what Marci’s reaction will be, and is frightened of it. He will hate her for tricking him, but she has no choice. This gives the boy strength, and is the only way to keep him under control, else he would be unbearable. ‘What would Dad say if he knew?’ – these were the magic words. And this is the only way to reward him. He is proud if he hears her say ‘That’s the way! That would make Dad happy!’ And this is not such a big lie, as he would really be happy – if he were still alive. She could cry when she sees the gleaming satisfaction on his face, and when, at his request, she mechanically repeats that she will not forget, that she will tell Dad. Marci thirsts for his father, and is cold with her, so very cold, as if he were blaming her for having to be there, far away from him. Sometimes she feels like shouting at him. Sometimes what she would most like is to scream into his defiant face that his father is dead, that he should stop blaming her for having to be without him! That he should stop doing or not doing things because of Dad, but occasionally think of her, too, who after twelve hours’ work a day has to care not only for him, but for her mother. She is in need of attention, care and a nice word, too. But while he at least gets a bit from her, she gets none. She hasn’t felt the affection of a man for two years, and her mother has been a living corpse for a good six months, sitting in silence or lying, slumped, ever since, in broad daylight, back at home, in view of everyone, they were shoved first to the ghetto at the brickworks, then to the train. She has long had enough, but before giving up the ghost, she holds herself back. This silent defiance she is now faced with shuns her away from the kid like a brick wall, while her forgetfulness fills her with shame. She knows very well that Marci is aware of her lapse, and he is right to be angry with her. As much as she tries, she is resigned to failure. She has never forgotten a single special occasion before, but she cannot hold up the pillars of this fairy-tale world any longer.
She steps up to the boy and puts her hand on his shoulder. She has to start somewhere. He must understand what is happening to us. He has to grow up, and grow up faster than the other children. He can no longer live in the world of dreams.
Like we all did.
We all lived in a dream-world, she thinks, staring out of the window into the pitch black of the night outside. The snow is hardly falling any more, but they sometimes hear it crunching under the pressure of boots in the freezing cold. Both their faces and figures are reflected in the glass.
‘My dear Marci,’ she says, sitting next to the table and lifting him into her lap. She whispers to him, so others can’t hear and so he realises that what she has to say is confidential. ‘You don’t have to put your boot out in the window this year.’
‘Why, I’m not going to get a present?!’ the boy asks, with sad, resigned reproach.
‘No, sweetheart. You will. But the present will not be some item you can hold in your hands. This year’s present won’t fit in a little boot.’
Marci, who until then had only turned his head towards her, now clasped around her neck, and asked with eyes glistening in hope:
‘Dad is coming here?’
As if she had been struck in the stomach. But she must not let even her facial muscles tremble. Nice and slowly, in order. She cannot demolish everything at once. She puts her finger to her lips to hush him, many are already sleeping.
‘No, darling, Dad can’t visit us, but we thought of your present together.’
The boy’s eyes open wide. He even forgets to ask when they thought of the present, as they haven’t seen Dad for so long.
‘But how big is it?’ he blurts out, his wide eyes blinking, his nose twitching. ‘Is it too big for me to carry?’
‘It is a big burden, but I hope you can handle it. I had to handle it, so did Dad, when we first got this as a present from our parents, though it’s true we were older than you are. But you can have it now. You have matured faster than your kindergarten pals, faster than we did.’ At least, that is what he will have to do, she says to herself.
‘Matured like a peach?’ the boy’s eyes glisten, and the saliva collects in his mouth as he remembers the sweet, rich flesh of the soft fruit. Back at home, in the summer, at their swimming house on the banks of the Tisza, he ate them peeled and cut in half.
His mother sighs, and nods. Marci straightens himself up proudly. He blushes. He can’t remember the last time they spoke with him clasping onto his mother’s neck like this.
‘This present is not something you can hold. It is not something like a toy car. This present is knowledge. I’m not sure it is nice, but it is true. It is something children your age don’t know, but which, now, you have to know.’ She braces herself at length, plucking up her courage, and yet she is still struggling for words. For his part, Marci is enjoying her struggles, even if his curiosity is killing him. This is rather like when he had to find a present hidden somewhere in the apartment, and Mum and Dad would give him clues: cold, warmer, warm, very warm, hot, hot, boiling!
‘You will become a grown-up faster than the other children, and so you must learn the truth before them, too. Santa Claus does not exist. You know, he is like a character from a fairy-tale. What happens is that a grown-up dresses up and hands out the presents the parents have bought. Here in the camp there is no Santa, and I couldn’t buy you a present, either, so I thought it was time I told you the truth. Be proud of yourself! Just think, maybe you are the only seven-year-old boy in the world who knows the truth. Accept this as a present, if you can.’
Marci’s face is on fire. He can feel his throat tightening. He swallows loudly and is suddenly giddy: he has acquired some extraordinary information. Information that, as Mum said, no other child has. It is not even this information that he is proud of, but his mother and father, for considering him worthy of being given this knowledge reserved for grown-ups. He is dizzy with pride. Questions spin in his head, but he can’t quite express them. He doesn’t even know if you say thank you for a present like this as you do for a ball or a popgun. Tears are rolling down Mum’s face; when giving him a present she doesn’t normally cry, rather her face goes red from the excitement, even though she is the one giving it, not getting it. He should do something: she just said that he was almost grown-up, and a grown-up boy is a man, and – so Dad said – a man should defend and console a girl. And at the end of the day Mum is a girl, just a grown-up one.
‘Don’t worry! Don’t worry!’ he strokes Mum’s hair, in the same way they usually console him; Mum hugs him, then starts to undress him. Marci hates being naked in front of other people, but here there is no choice – the women have to dress and undress in front of him, too. Tonight Mum does not insist on a thorough bath. The water in the bowl in which Grandma washed is not only cloudy, it has gone cold. The two stoves only provide warmth to their direct surroundings. Stale, heavy air weighs upon the barrack; its residents satisfy the call of nature in two bowls in a corner separated by sheets. Windows are hardly opened, and yet it is still cold.
He has to brush his teeth – something Mum insists upon as if there were a dental examination every night – and then he slips back into his trousers, vest, shirt and pullover, before climbing up to his place. He cannot tell whether Grandma has finally fallen asleep, or whether she is just resting silently, turned toward the wall. He lies next to her. Mum is still busy down there. She mustn’t be bothered at a time like this. She washes herself, but Marci doesn’t peek. At the beginning the others also told him to turn away, but later they gave up worrying about it, once they realised that he is bound to potter about while they are washing, even if he is a boy. Back home it was exciting to watch Mum through the bathroom keyhole, but here he has to pretend to see neither her nor the other women naked. The other thing he cannot get used to is the cackle of arguments as the women feud over petty things and scream as forcefully as any guard or child. Sometimes they even scrap with one another. They are capable of fighting over a single jacket potato. So is Mum. It is painful to watch, it makes him cry, though the potato would be nice. He feels embarrassed, though it is the grown-ups who should be ashamed, not him: he does not argue, at worst he cries that he is hungry. But today there is not a harsh word, as if everyone knows that it is not allowed, what with Santa coming. Or rather not coming, now he is not real.
It’s as if he always knew that this was a fairy-tale they just made up. But it is still a bit bad that he doesn’t really exist, because it was so exciting to wait for him to come with his red sack, and to listen to what he said to all the children in the kindergarten – and he would knew everything about them. At least he didn’t have to be frightened of him any longer. Even that fatso Kolonics was afraid of Santa Claus, he just never admitted it.
Groaning loudly, Marci makes himself comfortable in his uncomfortable sleeping place. Whispering, he asks if Grandma is really asleep, or whether she is just pretending because she doesn’t feel like playing with him. Pity, because he wanted to tell her the news that Santa is not real. Grandma knows, of course, but she doesn’t yet know that he knows.
Finally, Mum climbs up and lies down next to him, and they turn off the light. All that is visible in the dark is the red glow of the top and tin chimney of the stoves. They are so interesting you can watch them for hours, though you can only see the glow at night. If there is anything worth staying here for, it is these stoves. At home you would never see or hear anything like the special lights and sounds they produce. Sometimes the fire fizzles, roars, or growls, or a spark leaps into the air and the leftovers roasting on top of the stove crackle; at other times spooky shadows dance on the walls and on the ceiling. During the day it is his job to guard the fire; he can’t touch the stoves, of course, or he would burn himself. They don’t trust him to understand this, of course, and remind him every single day. Grown-ups really test your patience.
He holds his mother tight. She must also be missing Dad. He has to think of her situation, too. She has to work all day, is tired, and that is why she shouts in the evening, and sometimes in the morning as well.
‘Mum,’ he whispers, ‘that really was a great present.’
Mum smiles a tired smile, and leans her head on a crumpled-up cardigan. She falls asleep from exhaustion almost immediately. Marci is still up, he cannot sleep. He is thinking of that stupid Kolonics and that sissy Julcsi with her big pony-tail which is so nice to squeeze and tug at. Those two don’t know a thing. They don’t know that Santa Claus isn’t real, and they don’t even know what a concentration camp is. If Santa Claus did exist, maybe no one could ever be deported. But he doesn’t. And when they are older, maybe they will be the ones who are taken away.
Translated by David Robert Evans