György Dragomán: Tulips
This is the first chapter of my novel, The White King.
The night before, I stuck the alarm clock under my pillow so only I would hear it ring and Mother wouldn’t wake up, but as it turned out I was awake even before it went off, that’s how wound up I was for the surprise. After taking my extra-special nickel-plated Chinese flashlight off the table, I pulled the clock from under the pillow and lit it up, it was quarter to five. I pressed the button so it wouldn’t go off, and then I took the clothes I had put on the back of my chair the night before and dressed in a hurry, careful not to make a sound. While pulling on my pants I accidentally kicked the chair, which luckily didn’t topple over but only thumped against the table beside it. Carefully I opened the door to my room, but I knew it wouldn’t creak because the day before I’d rubbed the hinges with grease. I went over to the cupboard and slowly pulled out the middle drawer and removed the big tailor’s shears Mother always used to cut my hair, and then I opened the lock on our apartment door and slipped out, quiet as could be, not even hurrying until I reached the first turn in the stairwell, where I broke into a run. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped outside our apartment block, I was warm all over, and that’s how I went toward the little park, whose flower bed, next to the iron spout where people went for spring water, had the most beautiful tulips in town.
By then we’d been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to go away for only a week to a research station by the sea on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he told me how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see. “But no matter,” he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me too, so I could have a look for myself, why, he just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea. “But that’s okay,” he said, we’d make up for this along with everything else we’d make up for, no sense in rushing things, there would be plenty of time and more for everything because we had a whole life ahead of us, yes, this was one of Father’s favorite sayings, and I never did quite get it, but then when he didn’t come home after all, I thought about it a lot, and that farewell came to my mind a lot too, when I saw Father for the last time, when his colleagues came to get him with a gray van. I’d just come home from school when they were about to head off, if our last class of the day, earth science, hadn’t been canceled I wouldn’t even have met them, they were just getting into the van when I got there, they were in a real hurry, Father’s colleagues didn’t even want to let him talk to me, but then Father told them not to do this, they had kids too, he said, they knew what this was like, five minutes really wouldn’t make a bit of difference, and then one of his colleagues, a tall silver-haired man in a gray suit, shrugged and said he didn’t mind, five minutes really wouldn’t make a bit of difference here. So Father then came over and stopped right in front of me, but he neither gave me a pat nor a hug, no, he just kept clutching his sport coat all the while in front of him with both hands, and that’s when he told me about how he was needed urgently in that research institute, he’d be there for a week, and if it turned out the situation was really serious, then he’d be there a little while longer until he put things right, and then he got to talking about the sea, but suddenly that tall silver-haired colleague of his came over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, doc,” he said, the five minutes were up, now it was really time to go or else they’d miss the plane, and Father then bent down and kissed my forehead, but he didn’t hug me, he just told me to take good care of Mom and to be a good boy, because now I would be the man of the house, time to raise that chin up high. And I said, “Okay, I’ll be good,” and told him he should take care of himself, and then his colleague looked at me and said, “Don’tcha worry, little guy, we’ll take care of the doctor all right,” and he gave a wink, and then he opened the side door of the van for Father and helped him get in, and meanwhile the chauffeur started the engine, and no sooner did the door slam shut on my father than the car headed off, and I picked up my school knapsack and turned around and went toward the stairwell because I got a new forward, one more button for my miniature soccer team, all its players were buttons, and I wanted to test the forward on the oilcloth to see if it slid as well on that as it did on the cardboard, so anyway, I didn’t stay there and I didn’t even wave, and I didn’t keep watching that van, and I didn’t wait for it to disappear at the end of the road. I remember Father’s face clearly, he was scruffy, he smelled of cigarette smoke, and he seemed really, really tired, even his smile was a bit crooked. Anyway, I thought about this a lot later on, but I don’t think he suspected beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to come home.
A week later we got just one letter from him, and in it he wrote that the situation was much more serious than they’d figured, not that he could give details, seeing how this was top secret, but he’d have to stay on there for a while yet, and if everything went well maybe he’d get one or two days’ leave in a couple of weeks, but for the time being he was needed there every moment. Since then he sent a few other letters too, every three or four weeks, and in every one he wrote that he’d come home soon. But then he couldn’t come for Christmas either, and we waited and waited for him even on New Year’s Eve, and before we knew it April had arrived, and no more letters were coming either. Which is when I got to thinking that Father had in fact fled abroad like the father of one of my classmates, Egon, whose dad swam across the Danube and went to Yugoslavia and from there to the West, but they hadn’t heard a thing from him since then, they didn’t even know if he was alive.
Anyway, that morning on my way to the park I slunk along behind the apartment blocks because I didn’t want to meet up with anyone, no, I didn’t want anyone at all asking where I was off to so early. Luckily no one was at the waterspout, so I was able to climb over the chain and right into the flower bed where the tulips were, and I took out the shears and started cutting the flowers, snipping their stems way down by the ground because my grandmother once told me that the lower down you cut tulip stems, the longer the flowers will last, that it’s best if you just cut the whole thing, leaves and all. Anyway, at first I wanted to cut only twenty-five stems, but then somewhere around fifteen I lost count so I just kept cutting one after another, meanwhile my jacket was getting all covered with dew, and my pants too, but I didn’t bother about it, no, instead I thought of Father, of how he too must have done something like this every year, he too must have cut the tulips like this each spring. Mother told the story lots of times of how he gave her tulips when he proposed, how he courted her with bouquets of tulips, and how he gave her tulips every year on their anniversary, every April 17 he surprised her with a huge bouquet. Yes, by the time she woke up, the flowers were there waiting for her on the kitchen table, and I knew that this anniversary was going to be their fifteenth, and I wanted Mother to get a bouquet bigger than any she ever got before.
I cut so many tulips that it was all I could do to hold them right, and since the bouquet only slid apart in my hands when I tried hugging it tight, I laid it down on the ground beside me, shook the dew off the shears, and went on cutting one stem after another, and meanwhile I thought of Father, how he must have used these very same shears, and I looked at my hands and tried imagining Father’s hands, but it did no good because all I saw were my own thin, pale hands, my fingers in the shears’ worn metal rings, and then all of a sudden this old man shouted at me, “Get over here at once, what do you think you’re doing, cutting those flowers? I’ll have you know I’ll call the police and you’ll wind up in reform school, which is where you belong,” but I looked up and luckily didn’t recognize him, so I shouted right back, “Shut your trap, stealing flowers isn’t a crime,” and I pocketed the shears and gathered up the tulips with both hands. A couple of stems fell away, but by then I’d already jumped out of the flower bed, and I heard the man shouting after me that I should be ashamed of myself for talking that way, but no matter, he’d jotted down the ID number on my arm, but I didn’t even look back because I knew he couldn’t have done that, since I had come on purpose in the jacket without my school ID number sewn onto its arm, and so I ran right on home holding the flowers in both hands, carefully, so they wouldn’t break, the flowers were smacking against each other and sometimes touching my face, the broad leaves were swishing and swooshing and flapping about, and the smell was like freshly cut grass, only much stronger.
When I got to the fifth floor I stopped in the hallway in front of our apartment, crouched down, and put the flowers carefully on the doormat, and then I stood up, slowly opened the door, and stepped over the flowers and just paused there in the dark hall, and listened. Luckily Mother wasn’t yet awake, so I carried the tulips right into the kitchen and put them all on the table, and next I went into the pantry, got the biggest empty pickle jar out from under the shelf, and took it over to the faucet, where I wiped it clean with water and set it down on the middle of the kitchen table and went right to work stuffing the tulips into it. But there were so many tulips that they didn’t all fit in the jar, about ten stems just wouldn’t slide in, so I put those in the sink, and then I went back to the kitchen table and tried my best to set the bouquet right, but it didn’t work too well. What with all those leaves, the tulips were really tangled up, some stems were too short and others were too long, I knew I’d have to cut the stems the same length if I wanted the bouquet to look decent, but then I thought that if I got the big washtub from the pantry, all the flowers would fit in that, and maybe I wouldn’t even have to cut their stems, so I went back to the pantry door, opened it, bent down, and pulled the tub out from under the shelf, which is when I heard the kitchen door open and I heard Mother’s voice. “Who’s there?” she said. “Is there someone in here?” She didn’t see me yet, on account of the pantry door being in the way, but through the crack in the door I could see her standing in her long white nightgown, she was barefoot, and her face turned pale when she noticed the tulips, and she leaned with one arm against the doorjamb and her mouth opened. I thought she was about to smile, but instead her face looked more like she wanted to cry out or shout, as if she was really angry or something was really hurting her, she bared her teeth all the way and she scrunched up her eyes, and I heard her taking really deep breaths, and then her eyes began scanning the kitchen, and when she noticed the open pantry door her hand came off the doorjamb and swept the hair away from her face, and she let out a big sigh and asked, “Son, is it you, dear?” But I didn’t say a thing just yet, no, I first came out from behind the pantry door and stopped beside the table, and only then did I say that I wanted it to be a surprise, and I begged her not to be angry. “I didn’t want to do anything bad,” I said, “I did it only because Father asked me to be the man of the house while he was away.” Mother was straining to smile, but from her eyes it was obvious that she was still really sad, and now she said in a deep, raspy voice that she wasn’t angry, no, she wasn’t angry, she repeated, “Thank you very much, dear,” and as she said that, she stepped over and gave me a hug, not her usual sort of hug but a whole lot tighter, she held me really tight the way she did when I was sick one time, and I hugged her back and held her tight too, and through my clothes and through her nightgown I could feel her heart beating, and I thought of the tulips, of how I’d knelt there in the earth in the park, cutting one tulip after another, and I felt Mother hug me even tighter, and I hugged her even tighter too, and my nose was still full of the tulips’ smell, that thick green scent, and then I felt Mother shudder, and I knew she was about to cry, and I knew I would start crying too, and I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t let her go, I could only hold her tight. I wanted to tell her not to be so sad, that everything was okay, but I couldn’t say a thing, I couldn’t open my mouth at all, and at that very moment someone pressed the buzzer on our apartment door, and the person sure did press it hard because the buzzer buzzed really loud and long, once, twice, three times, and I could feel Mother letting me go, her whole body seemed to turn cold all of a sudden, and then I also let her go and I told her, “Wait here, I’ll go and see who it is.”
On my way to the door I thought it had to be the police, yes, that old man in the park had recognized me after all, he’d reported me and now the police were here, they’d come to get me and take me away for vandalizing public property and cutting tulips, and I thought that maybe I’d better not open the door after all, but the buzzer just kept buzzing really loud, and by now there was knocking too. And so I reached out a hand all the same, turned the lock, and opened the door. It wasn’t the police standing there in front of the door but Father’s colleagues, the ones I saw him leave with on that day a while back, and I was so surprised I couldn’t get a word out, which is when the tall silver-haired man looked at me and asked if my mother was home, and I nodded, thinking Father must have sent a gift with them for his and Mother’s wedding anniversary, and I was just about to tell them to come on in, I wanted to say, “My mother will be really glad to see you.” But before I could get a word out, the silver-haired man snapped at me, “Didn’t you hear me, I asked you something,” and I said, “Yes, she is home,” and then the other man, the shorter one, snarled at me too. “Well then,” he said, “we’ll just come on in,” and he pushed me away from the doorway and both of them did come right in, they stopped in the hall and then the shorter one asked which room was my mother’s, and I said, “Mother is in the kitchen,” but by now I was leading the way, and I called out to Mother that Father’s colleagues were here, that they must have brought a letter from him or maybe he’d sent some gift.
And right then Mother was drinking water from the longeared mug we usually used to fill the coffeemaker, but her hand stopped in midmotion, she looked at me but her eyes then fixed on Father’s colleagues, and I saw her turn pale behind the mug, which she then lowered, and I saw her mouth turn to stone like it did whenever she got really angry, and then, in a really loud voice, she asked Father’s colleagues, “What are you doing here?” and she slammed the mug on the counter so hard that all the water splashed right out, and she said to them, “Get out of here,” but by then both of them had followed me into the kitchen. The tall silver-haired man didn’t even say hello, but instead he said to Mother, “What is this, you haven’t even told the kid?” And then my mother shook her head and said, “That’s none of your business,” but the tall silver-haired man said, “Well, that was a mistake because he’ll find out sooner or later, anyway, best to get this sort of thing over with from the start, because lies breed only lies,” and then Mother gave a laugh and said, “Yes, of course, you two gentlemen are the guardian angels of truth,” and then the shorter one told Mother to shut her trap, and Mother really did turn all quiet, and the silver-haired man stepped in front of me and asked, “Hey, son, do you still believe that we’re your father’s colleagues?” I didn’t say a thing, but I felt my body turn cold like in gym class after a timed run when you have to lean forward because there’s no other way to catch your breath, and then the silver-haired man said, “Why then, I’ll have you know that we’re not your father’s colleagues, we’re from the state security service, and your father’s been arrested for conspiring against the state, so it’ll be a while until you see him again, a good long while at that, because your father is shoveling away clear across the country at the Danube Canal, which they’re digging to shorten the winding Danube. Do you know what that means?” he asked. “It means he’s in a labor camp, and as scrawny as he is, he won’t be able to take it for long, and he’ll never come back from there ever again, maybe he’s not even alive anymore, who knows,” and as he said this Mother took up the mug from the counter and flung it on the floor so hard that it broke into pieces, and the officer then got all quiet, and for a moment you couldn’t hear a thing, but Mother then said, “Enough of this, stop it right now, if you want to take me too, then take me, but leave him alone because he’s a child, understand, leave him alone, and tell me what you want, tell me what you’re doing here.” The shorter man said they’d just been passing by and as long as they were here anyway, they figured they’d look around a bit, maybe they’d find something interesting in the doctor’s room.
Mother asked if they had a search warrant, and the tall silver- haired man smiled at her and said they didn’t need a warrant for every little detail, that there was nothing wrong with their looking around a bit, besides, he didn’t think we had anything to hide.
Mother now said really loud, “You have no right to do this, get out of here, go. If you don’t leave right this instant, why then I’ll go to city hall and stage a sit-down strike, yes, I’ll publicly demand my husband’s release, what is this, keeping him locked up for half a year already without a trial and without a sentence? Be this country what it may,” she said, “we have a constitution all the same, we have laws all the same, searches still require a warrant, so you’d better show one or get out of here, now.”
The silver-haired man then smiled at Mother and said that this scrappiness really looked good on her, and no doubt my father down there on the Danube Canal must really miss her, for she was truly a beautiful woman, too bad they’d never meet again.
Mother’s face turned all red and her whole body tensed up, I thought she’d go right on over there and slap that silverhaired officer, I couldn’t remember seeing her that angry ever before, and then Mother really did move, but not toward the officer, no, instead she went straight to the apartment door, opened it, and said, “Enough is enough, out, get out of this building at once, because if you don’t,” she said, “I’ll call my father-in-law.” She told them they knew full well that he was a Party secretary, and although he’d been sent into retirement he still had enough friends in high places so he could arrange, on account of what they’d done here, to have the two of them transferred to the traffic division, so if they knew what was best for them, they’d better get out right this instant. Mother said this so firmly I almost believed it, even though I knew full well she would never call my grandfather’s home of her own free will because ever since my grandmother said to her face that she was a screwed-up Jewish slut, yes, ever since then Mother wouldn’t give her or my grandfather the time of day, but from the way Mother spoke now, you couldn’t tell that at all.
The shorter officer now said that if she thought the old man had any clout left, especially now that his son had been taken away, well, she was quite mistaken, my grandfather could thank his lucky stars he himself hadn’t been interned, but if my mother wanted to pick up the phone and complain, why then, she could go right ahead, and he stepped over to the counter, took the silverware drawer by the handle, and yanked it right out with such force that although the drawer itself stayed in his hand, the knives, forks, tablespoons, and teaspoons flew all over the kitchen, and the officer then slammed that empty drawer back down onto the counter so hard that its back edge tore right off, and he said, “There you are, now you have something to complain about, but this is just the beginning, that’s right, just the beginning,” and he bared his teeth, and I knew he was about to knock over the table. But then the silver-haired man put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Take it easy, Gyurka my boy, take it easy, let it be, it seems we misjudged the lady, we thought this was a missus with brains, we did, we thought she knew when and with whom she has to be polite, but it seems she doesn’t have the sense to recognize her well-wishers, it seems she’s dead set on getting herself all mixed up in trouble too. Fine, then, let it be, just like she wants.” The officer called Gyurka now flung the broken drawer to the floor where the silverware was all scattered about and he said, “Fine then, Comrade Major, let’s do as you wish, let’s go.”
The officer called Gyurka now looked at Mother and nodded, and then he turned and looked me square in the eye and said fine then, they’d leave, but only because he saw that we liked flowers, and anyone who liked flowers couldn’t be bad, and as he said that, he stepped over to the table, and I thought for sure that he was about to fling that pickle jar to the floor after all, but all he did was pluck out a single tulip, he held that flower to his nose, gave it a sniff, and said, “The only problem with tulips is that they have no smell, otherwise they are really lovely flowers,” and then he left the kitchen. “Let’s go, Comrade Major,” he said, to which the silver-haired man didn’t say a thing but only waved his hand for him to go, and the officer called Gyurka began heading out, and on reaching Mother he stretched that tulip out to her and Mother took it from him without a word, and the officer called Gyurka said, “A flower for a flower,” and he turned toward me again and looked me square in the eye and gave a wink, and he went out the door and right down the stairs. The major then also stepped out into the hall, and Mother was just about to slam the door on him when he suddenly stepped back over the threshold, put his foot in front of the door so Mother couldn’t shut it, and said, nice and calm, “You’ll come to regret this, lady, because when we return we’ll yank the floor right up, we’ll scratch the putty right out of the window frames, we’ll look under the bathtub too, and into the gas pipes, we’ll take apart the whole place bit by bit, and you can be sure we’ll find what we’re looking for, you can be certain of that,” he said before falling silent, turning, and heading down the stairs.
Mother slammed the door, but before it closed all the way I heard the major say, “See ya around,” and then Mother turned and fell against the door, she just stood with that red tulip in her hand, looking at the pieces of the broken mug, the silverware thrown all about, the drawer broken in two, and her mouth winced before slowly hardening, she now squeezed her lips tight and looked at me and said, quiet as could be, “Go get the dustpan and the broom, let’s pick up the pieces of the mug.” And I then looked at the tulips on the table in that pickle jar and I wanted to say to her, “It wasn’t true what those officers said about Father, was it, he’ll come home, right?” but then I turned toward Mother and saw that she was sniffing at that single tulip, and her eyes were glistening so much that I knew she could hardly hold back her tears, so instead I asked her not a thing.
Translated by Paul Olchváry
Except for the last one, all the chapters of the book can be read as standalone stories.
The second chapter, Jump was published in THE PARIS REVIEW No. 178 Fall 2006
The third chapter, The End of the World was published in THE PARIS REVIEW No. 183