Holiday Fiction Issue

The Border at Midnight: A time of revolt, a need for escape

(Dan-ah Kim)
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By Julie Orringer
Sunday, November 21, 2010

Later she would remember it this way: It was because of a few cloves of garlic that they had to leave Budapest.

Ilona was in the kitchen, pouring poppy-seed tea into a tiny teapot for her doll, when the Tolnai woman came to talk to her mother. The woman stood in the doorway with her fists on her hips and announced that she and her husband had borne it long enough. They had delicate constitutions, she said. When Ilona's mother cooked with garlic, the smell rose to their apartment, got into the walls, and kept them up at night. A certain amount of consideration might be expected. A certain amount of respect.

Ilona's mother listened, smoothing her narrow skirt with one hand. "I, too, have a delicate constitution," she said, and smiled. "Garlic is good for your health."

"You don't look delicate to me," the neighbor woman said.

"I hate to think I disturbed your sleep," Ilona's mother said, though the twitch at the corner of her mouth suggested she was fighting laughter.

"Mistakes can be corrected," the neighbor woman said.

That night Ilona overheard her mother -- out on the balcony where anyone could hear -- telling Ilona's father about the conversation. She could do perfect imitations, Ilona's mother; if Ilona hadn't known otherwise, she would have thought the Tolnai woman herself was standing there on the balcony, describing her delicate constitution. Ilona's father muffled his laughter in his sleeve. And the next day, when Ilona came home from school, the scent of garlic met her on the stairs.


Later that month, the authorities came to ask the residents of 21 Bihari utca if they had anything to report. Such visits weren't uncommon at that time; it was December 1956, six weeks after the failed anti-Communist revolution. One afternoon in October, stark black-and-white posters had appeared on walls all over town, and crowds gathered before them, reading and murmuring. Young men in trucks drove in the direction of parliament, shouting; in their hands were guns, painted signs, Hungarian flags. Ilona had run home from school to tell her mother to turn on the radio, and they found every station playing the national anthem. Her father arrived from work a few minutes later; he told them that a group of Hungarian students had broken into a military warehouse and taken weapons, and were now fighting the Russian occupation. Shooting had broken out near the Parliament. Uncounted numbers of people had already been killed.

All that night Ilona could hear gunfire, explosions, men chanting slogans in the street. The next day she stayed home from school and her father stayed home from work. From her window she could make out the shape of an overturned streetcar on Szent István kerút, a fire blooming from its front end. That day the noise in the streets sounded like angry celebration. But a few days afterward the Soviet tanks arrived, and the sounds outside changed to chaos. Ilona's mother paced the apartment, wondering aloud when America or England or France was going to step in to help the revolutionaries. They never did, and before long it was all over.

Now the police were seeking those who were involved. In their interviews with the residents of 21 Bihari utca, a man called Tolnai and his wife made certain hints. They didn't know anything for certain, of course. But the Kohein man was a graphic artist. They'd seen him carrying the materials for signs -- large sheets of white pasteboard and black paint. And the woman was a dressmaker. If their eyes hadn't deceived them, they'd seen her smuggling into the apartment what looked like canvas for banners. They bore the Koheins no ill will, of course. But since the authorities had asked.

Ilona's parents had a friend who knew someone in the Party. That was how they'd learned who had betrayed them to the authorities, and how. This man had heard that they were slated to be arrested on a certain date and taken to Andrassy út 60 -- police headquarters, from which stories of torture emerged -- until they could be tried. If they were thinking of getting out, the friend said, they'd better do it now.

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