She Is Cigarette
By Rita Taryan
We are holding hands because one of us asked the other for encouragement. It doesn’t matter who asked who—does it? The point is that we are inseparable, for now. The point is the peril, which is all around us, and the request for a hand, which was—thank God—within reach.
Across the river, they are still shooting. We can hear them, but we are strolling anyway. The people we pass dismiss us as young. They are right. We are young, so we are able to share this nightmare, she and I, whereas everyone else must suffer it alone, because everyone else is old.
She points to a dead man or woman, or horse that is half-buried in the snow. It is a lot of snow, even for a January. We cross Városliget. Did you know that Városliget was the first public park in the world? This fact may or may not be true.
Half-dead people are digging in the snow for food, and dismissing us as dreamers. She and I are not digging in the snow because there is nothing in the snow to dig for except half-buried people digging themselves deeper. So I ask you: who here is dreaming, and who is awake?
I am hungry. She and I are as hungry as anybody else. And thirsty. She tells me that her parents are alive. She already knows how my family came out of this. I lick my lips. She pretends she doesn’t see, which I know is hard for her. I hear her stomach grumble. Selflessly, I pretend I don’t hear, which is hard for me. Everybody is born with an acute this or an acute that, which is hard to suppress, no matter what—love, war.
I bend down, stab the snow with the tips of my fingers, raise a small block of it up to my mouth. I lick it carefully because it burns. I offer the snow to her. She smiles at me. We pretend that we’re children eating ice cream, and that our thirst is quenched.
The gunshots echo in the ancient hills, in twelfth century caves, in my generation’s skulls.
It is very cold, even for a January. Also, we’re cold because we haven’t been warm in a while. Cold isn’t something the body gets acclimatized to. You don’t overnight become a polar bear, or a penguin—haha.
She points to a burned-out tank, out of whose hatch two clothed pairs of legs, plus a lone pantless leg, are hanging. The five legs are frozen and, also, burned. I imagine how hot that tank must have been, too hot to approach and touch, when it went up in flames. I wish the tank were still on fire, and giving off some heat, which is to say, I am not sorry that this tank exploded and that those legs were hurled and set ablaze. I have spent the last two years in a labor camp, so I have smoldering feelings about those four uniformed legs, and that uni-leg, too, clothed or not.
My hand is trying to warm her hand, or her hand is trying to warm my hand. It doesn’t matter whose hand is trying to warm whose hand—does it?
The point is that we care about each other. Right now. The point is the death, which is all around us, and the friendly impulse of an alive hand—thank God.
Before I switched from Saint Stephen High School to the Jewish Boys’ High School, our physics teacher at Saint Stephen, Mr. Szentamásy, was teaching us about the British chemist Humphrey Davy. Davy rubbed two ice cubes together in a vacuum, in a freezing room, in order to prove that heat is a mode of motion. Davy was only seventeen when he conducted this experiment, a year younger than I am now.
“To see a world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour. ”
I recite for her Auguries of Innocence, which I memorized for Mr. Lusztig’s Foreign Literature class at Jewish Boys’, before I went to work, for two months, to stack piles of wood and unload hay at Keleti station; then, for eight months, to dig ditches in the Carpathian mountains; then, for ten months, to refill ditches in the Carpathian mountains. I wouldn’t have minded, if there had been a point to it. The reason it took ten months to fill the ditches but only eight months to dig the ditches is that by the time we were filling the ditches the ground was frozen. It was like lifting icebergs.
She says that I am obsessed with everything English. I tell her that she and I are moving to London, just as soon as the British liberate us from the Russians who are liberating us from the Germans and the Arrow-Cross.
Just who will liberate us from freezing-to-death? she asks.
It is funny to think about penguins. There are people being dug up out of the snow by strangers, and by family. Once you’re dug up, you’re buried again in the cemetery, with or without your valuables, depending on if you had any on your carcass, and if you were dug up by strangers, or by family. But she and I imagine that the strange diggers and stranger diggees are penguinsin black tail and bow ties—haha.
I try to squeeze her hand, but it is solid, so doesn’t yield, which is comforting. It is as though she was liquid iron poured into my hand and, now, she is solidified in my hand, and my hand is a sculptor’s mold, a hollow cavity, which her hand fills so well. Thank God. Her hand is cold, and draws every bit of heat out of me.
At Saint Stephens’, the same as at Jewish Boys’, I received perfect marks, I don’t mind saying, in the sciences as well as in the humanities. I have the aptitude to go into either, Mr. Volgyi, the headmaster at Saint Stephens’, told me.
Shots ring in my ears. Old men strip themselves naked and space themselves evenly, for the convenience of the murderers, along the continuum of the nightmare, and along the stone embankment of the Danube.She tickles my palm with her pinkie. I laugh because I am young. She tickles because she is young. We are not callous, we are young. This fact may or may not be true.
I tell her that William Blake will save us from freezing to death.
She likes to point, but I wish she would stop.
But it is part of our deal: she fairly apportions the horror. She points. I look.
She points at a neatly arranged row of shoes by the river. I look at the shoes, for her sake. But then I look at her instead, for my own.
Who wouldn’t? She is beautiful. From all sides, but especially from this one: her left. I chose it, without her knowing I was making a choice. I could have had her right hand, but I wanted the left so I could have this view of her nose bending toward me; her hair swept over this shoulder and held in place by a smile and a shrug she just gave; her beauty mark on the cheek I kissed when we rendezvoused an hour ago at Bucsinszky Café.
Bucsinszky Café is now, officially, clear of corpses. They have been dragged away.
Of course if she had offered me her right hand, I would not have refused it—not for anything. I could never hurt her feelings by saying no to any part or aspect of her. I can’t forget that she is as vulnerable as I am now. So, now, she and I could sit down at Bucszinsky’s—though there was no espresso, or piece of dobos torta to halve and nibble with two forks. And, now, I can describe for her the cottage in the English countryside, in whose garden she will one day sit and smile, quizzically, at me.
This obsession with the British, she says. She laughs. When she laughs, she throws her head back, and her chin and chest rise. Her hair falls out of place. Her teeth glint. They are young teeth, the war has not been able to rattle them. We are walking through Heroes’ Square, that is, between two colonnades that look like curved jaws each with five tremendous fangs. Between these fangs, where there could be an outlook of expansive nothing, and free wind whistling, there are instead statues of heroes. Some of the heroes have lost their heads, especially the Hapsburgs. Warily we tread past the jaws and kick the rubbled monster heads. Actually, we feel very brave. The Hapsburgs had faces like viperfish.
As for my teeth, I lost a front one while I was chasing and falling over a mountain marmot, as any hungry boy will, if put to twelve-hours-a-day labor on thin potato soup. I don’t tell her this, and she doesn’t ask about my teeth. Anyway, this fact may or may not be true.
Her eyes shut, especially the left one, which is the one I see shutting, so it seems like she’s winking at me. Before the war, this city was beautiful. Now, it’s an ugly hag, consisting of sockets. Toothless. Windowless. Chattering.
I hear gunfire again. I am not sure now from which side of the river—only the other, or this one, too? It is my own remaining teeth chattering, and we are chatting and passing the Manfréd Weiss weapons plant, which is gone—thanks to the British. But we see that the Apolló movie theatre is gone too. And the Rudas swimming pool. These were our favorite hangouts. She tells me that it was the British who firebombed the Apolló and the Rudas. I call her a liar. I tell her that the British wouldn’t be so careless as to bomb the Apolló and the Rudas. I tell her that it must have been the Americans, whose bombing style is notoriously overconfident and unrestrained, whereas the British are measured and precise. We have a little quarrel, which makes her pull away from me.
Now she lets go of my hand, or I let go of her hand. Does it matter who lets go of whose hand?
The bombings were instantly blamed on us. The Arrow-Cross pulled people out of the ghetto. They said, for every Christian who is killed by the Allies, ten of you will be shot. Ten of her or ten of me.
The point is that we count, for now. The point is the counting, which is unforgivable. The point is the asking back for a hand, which, in torment—because of God—is returned.
So I apologize to her. So now we link elbows, that is, she wraps her arm around my arm, or I wrap my arm around her arm. It doesn’t matter who wraps their arm around whose arm.
Her teeth are like pillars of resistance. We are like marchers at a wedding. Arches and roofs, her kerchief and my cap, and the snow is white.
We stop. From this side of the river, we can see the three hills on the Buda side: Castle Hill in the middle, Gellért Hill to the south, Rose Hill to the north. Rose Hill was planted with roses by an old anthophilous Turk in the sixteenth century but it was an old Hungarian Romani who was planting roses now, in the twentieth century, until militiamen plucked him from Rose Hill and marched him to the internment camp at Komárom. Militiamen threw the old Romani, and thousands of his typhus-fevered fellow-gardeners, into a pit, and covered them with quicklime. Under Henry III, the English Navy beat a French fleet by throwing quicklime in their faces, so they choked to death.This is the kind of story—inspired by what I recall from Mr. Pataki’s European History class at Saint Stephen’s—that I tell her while we stop on the embankment at the river, at its narrowest here, where there used to be a bridge.
But,boom —all the bridges are destroyed. The Elizabeth, the Chain, the Liberty. So you are on the side that you are on. There is nowhere to flee. Germans and Russians are fighting street to street, house to house, cellar to cellar. And you are stuck, like rats—with rats—haha. Trying to stay out of the way.
I promise her that I will tell her many more stories, like the one about the English Navy, when we are safely ensconced under the shade of our native apple tree in our English countryside. Soon, I say. By August, I promise her, putting my arm around her shoulders.
The boys at Jewish Boys’, just like the boys at Saint Stephen’s, used to make up dirty jokes about the three Buda hills. My favorite was about a three-titted Romani suckling triplets. It was a stupid joke.
She tsks. Her tsk is admonitory. She smiles. Her smile is gracious. She laughs. Her laugh is boisterous.
I notice how broad her shoulders are. My arm almost doesn’t go around them. She used to be on the rowing team at Jewish Girls’. Her shoulders shake when she laughs, so she is like an apple tree dropping fruit. She is slightly taller than me too, so my arm is at an angle. My arm grips her tightly, like a caliper instrument, measuring her diameter at breast height. She blushes. Her blush is yellow-pink like a Worcester Pearmain.
Or, she puts her arm around my shoulders. It doesn’t matter which one of us puts their arm around the other—does it?
“It was roses, roses, all the way…A year ago on this very day.” The Patriot: An Old Story, Robert Browning.
Now she is serious. It is getting dark and we have to be off the streets before nightfall because it is unsafe, because that’s the curfew. There have been patriotic Hungarian curfews, which applied just to Jews, but this is a Russian communist curfew, so it applies equally to everybody. The embankment is stone-deaf. The river is flushed a copper-color. I want to keep staring but, We have to hurry, she says.
I clinch her waist. She giggles. God—I love her. We hustle toward Baross Street.
When we arrive at number 33, we embrace, because we have to let go. Somebody kisses somebody’s lips. Somebody strokes the small of somebody’s back. Somebody whispers something comforting—or, it’s a light flurry. Anyway, we have trouble letting go. I let her go.
Anyway, 33 Baross Street is uninhabitable. All the furniture in my family’s apartment is there, and the pots and pans, but the windows have been shattered by the bombings, so the indoor temperature is minus ten. A stranger lived in our apartment while we were not permitted to, but now the stranger has fled because the Russians are going apartment to apartment looking for Nazi collaborators. So, for now, my mother and I are staying on the main floor, in a small room looking out onto the courtyard. I carried down two beds from the third floor. There is a stove in the small room, on which my mother is boiling potatoes, and there is even a working tap. In this part of the city, the waterworks have not been blown up. The WC is in the courtyard, but we are used to this by now. In fact, we consider it a luxury that the WC is in order. It is dark. I am afraid. But I tell her, My mother is worried about me, you know how mothers are.
My love smiles down at me. She is too tall right now. I say, You understand, don’t you? I go inside the building.
She pockets her hands, which makes it final. Her hands are her own. The first star appears overhead. She must hurry home to her parents. Home is Váci Street, which is clear across town.
As if I were there, I can see her reaching into the inside pocket of her overcoat and pulling out a cigarette pack and matchbox. She pulls a cigarette out of the package with her lips. Her lips tremble, but they’re handy. I don’t like it when she smokes, so she waited until now.
Her hands, in charge of the matchbox, shake. The matchbox shakes though there are only six sticks in there. It is cold, and it is late. Her hands manage to open the matchbox, remove a match, close the box, turn the box. She strikes the side a dozen times before the match lights. She shakes from head to toe until she takes her first drag. Then she stops shaking. The golden flame is her entire body.
On her last night in the ghetto, she slept on the floor next to an old man. The old man tossed and turned and moaned all night, and in the morning he was dead. That same night she became infected with head lice.
She walks. For an hour, she hardly makes a sound. There is only the match—when it is snatched, struck and bounced off buildings—when she lights the next cigarette, and the next; and the muffled crunch of her boots, step-by-soft-step, on the snow that has stiffened. Her walking makes no sound, it is just the boots.
She walks on top of the snow, so she doesn’t break through it, so she doesn’t come into contact with the buried boots, shoes and crocheted bootees sixty centimeters deep. She walks on the boulevards, steering clear of alleys and corners where drunken Russian soldiers are playing cards, burning furniture, and cursing and leering at shadows.
She passes a metal gate behind which a dog starts barking and throwing itself against the metal. She is startled. Around the corner a Russian soldier pricks up his ears and puts down his playing cards.
She lights another. She takes a long drag. A dry squall in the dark makes her squint, and lean into it. The dog drowns out even many heavy footfalls.
Two decades later, I photograph her sitting on our American-style wraparound porch in the English countryside. I built the porch for her because she wanted it. She doesn’t like sitting in the garden because she says the insects bother her. So, of course, I built her the porch, during my sabbatical year. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for her. There is some shade provided by a native English apple tree of some breeding, but my wife—odd dear—she always prefers to sit in the blazing sun.
That’s right—she is my wife. Anyway, I requested her hand and—thank God—she gave it to me.
Anyway, we have three children now. They are napping on sofas in the house because they have been playing tag in the garden, and it’s humid, so they’re briefly tuckered out under cool linen sheets. So she, herself, is taking it easy, in a wicker chair on the porch, which I had built for her, because I am very busy at the Academy.
The summer breeze and the sun are in her eyes, where she likes them. She squints. She smiles. Take the picture already, she says.
But when I point the camera, she turns away. Her hands are shaking, my poor luv. I see now that she is troubled, even after all these years, by how we suffered.
Anyway, she is a woman now, not a girl. War, plus time, has done that.
Anyway, it is years later, but her wrinkles have, thousandfold, only beautified her face. She still has nothing in common with any old person. We are as young as ever.
So I want to take her picture, but her hands are shaking. She pulls a cigarette out of the package in her lap. The poor dear smokes, I can’t deter her. There is a spark, which does not echo, because here, in the English countryside—though not quite a vacuum—geography and theory are reasonably free. Gas ignites, but this is a restrained affair. Then, a golden circular flame becomes her entire body. I remind her that this is an excess, but she just squints harder.
Her face is lit up. The sun is high. Her hands have stopped shaking. Her skin tans. Anyway, the tree tries to shade her, but to no avail—she won’t let it. I say, Look here, darling.
She looks at me, quizzically. Fleetingly, I think it is accusingly.
Anyway, she poses for the shot, she says, like her favorite American film star, Lana Turner.