Memoir — From the July 2013 issue

Other Types of Poison

Three legends

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1. THE INK
 

Whether or not there were, at that moment, Jews hiding in the closets of the little lake house, no one can now remember. The point is that there had been, and there often were, and there would be again; and even if there was no human ballast holding that house to the shore, surely there were other things as incriminating. Likewise, it is unclear, more than six decades on, whether the soldiers were even German, or whether they were the Russian liberators who so soon became the Russian occupiers. That summer, both were equally likely.

The soldiers pounded at the door looking for whatever nineteen-year-olds in uniforms are always looking for: food, lodging, sex, warmth, inebriation, water. In other words, the closest subconscious approximation of their mothers.

They found at this particular house an eight-year-old boy and a woman far too formidable to rape. They found kohlrabi soup and ate it, and they found the boy’s swing set, a four-legged frame sitting right in the water, with a swing to jump from and a slide that ended beneath the surface. They left their clothes on the shore and swung from the top beam and broke the whole thing. If no one has exhumed its bones, it is still at the bottom of Lake Balaton. When night fell and there was insufficient firewood, they tore the books apart and threw those on the fire. They demanded socks. The woman said, “Would you prefer a lady’s size or a small boy’s?”

That boy, this whole time, stood half inside a kitchen cabinet, his fingers curled around the handle, his heel kicking the canned fruit he hoped they wouldn’t take. If the story is hazy, almost seventy years later, that is because it is his. If the details are strangely specific — the dialogue, the type of soup — that is because they are mine.

By the time their flasks ran out, the soldiers were drunk enough to insist on more alcohol, but the woman told them she herself was out and that her son did not drink. They began a Russian drinking song, or perhaps a German one, depending on your version of the story.

One undisputed fact: They saw on the kitchen table the large bottle of black ink that had been the boy’s birthday present — a rare gift, dearly bought — and the drunkest soldier announced he had found the alcohol.

The woman told the truth. “That is ink,” she said, “you idiots.” But the soldier opened the top, got an astringent whiff, and declared her a liar and a slut. With his friends pounding the table, he guzzled the entire bottle, and then — friends laughing, pointing, demanding a camera — sputtered black and coughed black and wiped black ink down his arms.

The woman said, “I am a writer. I have more such drinks for you upstairs. Perhaps you’d like a typewriter ribbon.”

The soldier cursed her with his black teeth and tongue and lips, his face an abyss. He was already ashen as he stumbled to the door.

My grandmother claimed for the rest of her life that she once killed a soldier with a bottle of ink. Is it possible that he did more than empty his stomach in the bushes? I could ask a doctor the effects of eight ounces of cheap ink on top of alcohol and months of hard living.

But if this were your family legacy — this ridiculous assertion of the might and violence of ink, this blatant and beautiful falsehood — could you change it? Would you dare?

2. ACOLYTE
 

In the bedroom of her Budapest apartment, using the stage makeup left over from her acting career, my grandmother painted young women’s faces old. Greasepaint doesn’t go stale, and when properly applied — when a skilled hand traces lines that are not yet lines but the faintest shadows on taut faces — it can achieve the most astonishing prophecies of the body’s eventual self-betrayal. My father, still very young, stood far from the blackout curtains with a candle, and in thanks for this illumination my grandmother called him her little acolyte. She handed out canes and shawls, taught the girls to walk with the weight of eighty years — and thus superannuated they would shuffle through the streets, even at night, without fear of predatory soldiers. And if they chose to carry things other than yarn in their knitting baskets, so be it. Who would suspect?

Another impossibility, yet by most accounts true: More than once she voluntarily strapped a yellow Star of David on her arm before walking into the ghettos to visit old theater friends, her papers in her pocket to prove, later, her right to leave. How this could ever have worked is unclear, but then the ghettos were slippery, temporary things, their borders well guarded but shifting, the soldiers bribable and perhaps susceptible to charm and beauty. There are stranger things true. There are simpler things not.

Impossible as well: When my mother was engaged to my father, in 1964, she traveled alone into communist Hungary, which her fiancé was not allowed to reenter and her future mother-in-law was not allowed to leave. She spent three days there, and at the end of that time my grandmother asked her to smuggle out of the country the particularly incriminating anticommunist novel she’d completed in the decade prior. My mother rode the train to Austria with three hundred onionskin pages in her girdle. A vádlott was published in 1999, twenty years after my grandmother’s death. It’s the only book I’ve read, in rough translation, of her thirty or forty. But her longest novel, I’ve just learned (reeling with the glee and fear of things I don’t even believe in), involves a man from the Romanian region of Moldavia shot by the fearsome Iron Guard. My first successful short story was about an American boy learning of someone shot by the Iron Guard in Moldavia. I’d chosen the region at random, then became deeply drawn to its history.

I’d love to take this confluence as an indicator of inherited memory, as evidence of further legacies — of empathy, artistry, guts. But to claim one ancestor would be to claim them all, even the ones on the wrong sides of those decisive moral battles of history. The slave owners, the anti-Semites, the Huns, the cowards. And furthermore: Wasn’t the presumption of a genetic morality the error at the core of Nazi ideology?

I’ve written the story of the painted faces twenty times, from every perspective, at every degree of remove from reality, but my meager descriptions of candles and shadows have never come close to resurrecting the commingled scents of greasepaint and melting wax and fear. Certain images I’ve copied over so many times they’ve come to feel like truth. (My grandmother drawing the bristles of the brush through her lips to flatten them, naming the creases of the face as she etches each girl’s future there — the lines called think-too-much, the lines called worry-too-much, and smoke-too-much, and know-too-much. The way she flips her tarot cards on the small table after the transformations are complete, telling one girl to beware tall men, another she’s surrounded by protectors.)

When I tell it from my father’s point of view, it is always a story of innocence. In the girls’ narration, it becomes gossipy: This writer, this former actress, painting their faces in the closet, was surviving the war by pawning the family silver, one spoon at a time. She hadn’t a penny to her name, but she had enough spoons to last five more years. She was said to be psychic even beyond her tarot skill. Strangest of all was the fact that, despite her liberal views, she’d been married to the member of parliament who had penned, revised, and passionately argued for the Second Jewish Law of 1939. The law reduced the quota of Jews in most employment sectors to 6 percent, put tens of thousands of them out of work, restricted them from editing and publishing newspapers, severely limited their land ownership, and defined Jewishness as a race rather than a religion. Even the theater was affected. If only 6 percent of any cast could be Jewish, then in a cast of fifteen, one actor was too many. No Jew could direct a play or own a theater. Sometime the same year the law passed, Rózsa Ignácz divorced János Makkai. They were first cousins, the young women whisper. And this boy with the candle, he is their son. As my grandmother seals their wrinkles with powder, they wonder about cause and effect. Did the political differences destroy the marriage? Or was the specific inclusion of theaters in the law a form of revenge against a woman who was already leaving him? Perhaps she’d had an affair with a Jewish director. Their questions are my own.

One of these times, if I get the words in the correct order, if I retrace more precisely the lines of history, I am convinced I will learn something I need to know. If not about my grandparents’ strange marriage or its dissolution, if not about bloodlines, then at least about courage in its quietest manifestations.

In any event, the faces were finished, the walking sticks distributed. The girls laughed at themselves in the mirror and headed into the night. What acts of sabotage or simple self-preservation they accomplished on the streets are not a matter of record.

3. BIRD IN THE HOUSE
 

In almost any culture, it is an omen: of a death, or a birth, or a journey. Sometimes it is the ghost of the recently departed. Of all animals, it’s perhaps the one we are least capable of seeing rationally — especially as it falls in love with itself in our windows, as it flaps frantically past family portraits, as it kills itself against our walls.

When I was four months old, my father’s parents saw each other for the last time. My grandmother would be dead in thirteen months, crushed under a bus on a Budapest street. My grandfather would live on in Hawaii for two sunburnt and hazy decades. The summer of 1978 was a rare convergence for them, Chicago being a fairly precise midpoint, the birth of a baby being a neutralizing force.

The scene, as it’s been relayed to me: My mother in our family room, holding me. My grandmother at the kitchen table with my sister, peeling apples. My father in the living room, playing piano. My grandfather on the stairs, a threadbare towel around his neck. (His blind left eye, doomed in infancy when his tubercular mother broke out of quarantine and kissed it, dripped so constantly that the towel became necessary late in life. He lived out his second half as a Hatha yoga instructor, and at least when he stood on his head the tears fell into his white hair and not his mouth. A word about the old man: I am told that he did feel remorse. That he never imagined those laws to be a red carpet for Eichmann. That he regretted the turns things took. That, for whatever it’s worth, he never meant to hurt anyone. I suppose it’s worth precisely nothing.)

And then: A sparrow flew out of the fireplace and past my screaming mother, sprinkling ash, flailing in loud circles. It found its way through the kitchen door, and my grandmother, still seated but reaching one hand straight up, grabbed its tail. The longest feathers stayed between her fingers as the bird flew on, raining small, perfect circles of blood on the kitchen tiles, on the flesh of the peeled apples, on the lid of the Cuisinart.

The Mozart stopped midphrase and the bird found the upstairs hallway, following some unhelpful instinct of altitude equaling safety. My grandfather tried to throw his towel over it. When this failed (depth perception not his strength), he rolled the towel and snapped it like a locker-room bully until the wall was smeared with ash and blood, and the sparrow, dazed, beat its wings into the floor and tried to claw a foothold. The old man wrapped the towel around it like a sack, and flung the whole thing out the window with such force that the bird had five full seconds to stretch its wounded wings and find a flapping rhythm before it needed to fly of its own accord.

My grandfather credited his legendary luck. He always won at the track, as well. His secret was that he bet on the white horse. The white horse was the only one his good eye could always follow.

My grandmother, who knew more than a bit about omens, was somber the rest of the day.

When the two guests had returned to opposite ends of the world, there remained in the house only the detritus of their stay: the gifts my grandfather had brought; a brown patch scrubbed indelibly into the upstairs wall; in my sister’s room, where a writing desk had been set up for my grandmother, the typewriter purchased for the visit and the curiously tangled ink ribbons she’d abandoned.

She always shuffled cards as she wrote, but as my mother cleaned she found only five, their margins softly obliterated. Of the Hanged Man, only the bottom half remained. Lost in the fog of whatever world she’d been creating, or of the present world (announcing its intentions so brazenly), or perhaps in some past and brutal one, my grandmother had chewed and swallowed almost the entire pack.

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is the author of The Borrower, published by Penguin.

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