Sanyi Kovács was well-liked in Ladánybene, although he despised his village with every fiber of his body. What he despised even more was his father, whose child-rearing method was limited to an old bully stick, its shriveled surface lined with a few cracks. When Sanyi asked where the bully stick came from, there was never an answer. Answers were rare to come by in the Kovács family, and therefore the questions began to dry up, too.

His father, Béla Kovács, was hated by everyone in Ladánybene. His house was the last one on the street near the Csikós ploughland. He shoed horses in a small shed, tucked away in the corner of the backyard. He was Slovak, but people assumed he was a Gypsy, though the last name of his grandfather—Sanyi’s great-grandfather—was Kožicky. The family supposedly had been relocated from Slovakia during the time of Maria Theresa. Béla Kovács took on smaller locksmith jobs to better his situation, but his dark skin continued to prevent him from being able to shake off the prejudice against him. During the Holocaust he was rounded up and taken away with the Gypsies, and he could only identify himself and save his skin when his wife ran after them, waving around his great-grandfather’s baptismal certificate to prove who he was.

He was a barbaric, arrogant man who refused to let anyone contradict him. He was mad at the world for labeling him a Gypsy, mad at his ancestors for not laying aside substantial assets. Mad at his wife for bearing him only one son. He did not take into account that she miscarried their second child because of the cruel beating he gave her with a whip, for what he claimed was some sort of unfinished domestic duty. She frantically ran out to the street to get away from him, with their son Sanyi trailing behind her trying to protect his mother from his beastly father who, without hesitation, flogged him too, across his face, leaving him with scars, which, once they healed somewhat, the townspeople assumed were pock marks, so he also called them that. No one warned him that picking off the abscesses would leave him with life-long scars.

He ran away three times, always with a cloth sack tied to the end of a stick, but the gendarmes took him back home each time. His return was met with brutal beatings from his father; he hit him so hard with the bully stick that for days he couldn’t even stand on his feet. This’ll teach you, you scumbag!—he yelled, as he thwacked him. Bam, bam, bam!

One day the Reverend Mihály stopped by the house and tried his best to exhort Sanyi’s father to pull himself together, but he refused to hear the priest out, no matter how hard he tried to talk some sense into him. He stood his ground and was firm in his resolve: No one can tell me what to do, I fathered the child, and I can wipe him off the face of the earth, if I want to. And now, if you excuse me, Reverend, get the hell out of my house!

Sanyi did only six grades in elementary school; afterward, his father sent him out to work in the fields, often to take over for him, so that he could carry on with his farrier job, which brought in more money than the revenue from the crops. He must have been around seventeen when one day his mother could not completely remove a stain from his father’s shirt. She took the initiative and lay down on her stomach at her husband’s feet, so that the majority of the lashes would be absorbed by her back. His wife and son were surprised when, instead of reaching for the whip, Béla Kovács began to undo his belt. Sanyi’s mother whimpered and begged her husband, Béla, please don’t use the buckle, I beg you, may God have mercy on your soul, don’t use the buckle! But her yowling only added fuel to the fire and before she could say another word, the metal buckle landed on her back, across her spine, nearly breaking her bones. Sanyi jumped to her rescue, did his best to act like a human shield, but the buckle somehow hit his eyes, causing him to momentarily lose sight. He grabbed the closest thing, which happened to be a rake, lifted it above his head as he would an ax, and swung it really hard. Béla Kovács collapsed. His mother screamed, Sanyika, ohmygod, my dear Sanyika, what have you done, ohmygod, what have you done?! She kept shaking her husband, trying to resuscitate him, but her attempt was in vain. By then, Sanyi had regained his sight, turned around, and went out the door. It was drizzling cold raindrops, as if they were tiny pebbles falling from heaven, landed on his head. Was that God sending some sort of sign?

 He made his way to the police station where, instead of offering a greeting, he announced: I killed my father and I want to turn myself in.

It took a long time for the jury to return with the unanimous guilty verdict for voluntary manslaughter. The defense attorney assigned to the case argued that his client acted in self-defense, but Sanyi brushed his lawyer’s deflective attempts aside: With all due respect, I might have murdered my father intentionally, because we couldn’t live with him no more. His mother was inconsolable throughout the trial. Sanyi turned eighteen the day before the verdict was delivered, and that also played a role in him receiving a ten-year sentence. He was sent to the infamous Csillag Prison in Szeged.

Sándor Kovács was well-liked in prison, too. He seemed to blossom behind prison walls. Sanyi, what’s with the constant happy mood? asked a fellow prisoner. With all due respect, I really don’t know. Are you always happy? I think I am.

The prison guards liked him too and showed favors toward him when, upon request, he started to churn out hand-carved children’s toys—tiny rocking horses, soldiers with bayonets, small statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter—from whatever materials they brought in for him. Initially, he was tightly monitored and could use the small hammer and chisel only in the main office and under close supervision, but he quickly proved to be trustworthy. It became clear that he meant no harm to anyone, including himself, so they entrusted him with the library. He carried around the prison’s well-worn books on a handwoven rattan tray. His enthusiastic book recommendations resonated across the long hallways with gusto, as if he had actually read the books he was endorsing.

Twice a week a teacher came to the prison and, under his guidance, Sanyi diligently learned the alphabet along with basic grammar and mathematical skills. The same person also taught Russian and English. Sanyi chose English, though the guards tried hard to convince him to pick Russian. It would have been a more practical language for him, they said. But he could not be swayed, plus he was not electrified about the Cyrillic alphabet. He made up his mind that once he got out, he’d do anything but agricultural work—he no longer wanted anything to do with farms and stock-raising. He would be a white-collar worker, a city dweller.

Time came to a screeching halt behind bars. The passing of the days, weeks, and years barely registered with Sanyi. His facial hair was so thin that he did not bother to shave it and just let it grow wild. One of the guards said he looked like John of Nepomuk, whose portrait was painted on a nearby church wall, and when Sanyi got out, he could go see it. He didn’t give any thought to the day when he’d be released from jail. He felt content being institutionalized and had no desire to be free. While other prisoners could not stop counting the days until their sentences were up, Sanyi blissfully immersed himself in the myriad days that to him simply felt like a never-ending oceanic current. He often attended mass in prison; instead of reciting prayers, he covertly watched on the silver screen of his mind his own self-directed movies, which projected a future full of joy and hope. At the end of his ten-year sentence—assuming he was not let out early for good behavior—he’d be twenty-eight, with his whole life ahead of him. He was sure that the day he stepped across the prison gates, the sun would shine, and he would feel a spring breeze on his face. He somehow felt certain it would be springtime.

Prisoners were not allowed to read the newspaper or listen to the radio. But snippets of news still made their way into the prison through the friendlier guards. The most basic information that came up again and again was that the government was granting blanket amnesty to prisoners. Many prisoners who thought themselves to be the smartest claimed this to be true.

One day a guard confided in Sanyi that a revolution was underway. No way, thought Sanyi, there are no revolutions under Socialism. But more and more signs indicated that the guard was telling the truth. The prison doubled the number of its guards and decreased its extracurricular activities, such as daily walks, where prisoners might clandestinely exchange inside information. One of the prisoners found a discarded newspaper by the fence and quickly read it before it was confiscated. University students were demonstrating in Budapest. Authors were protesting and preparing manifestos. Mother of God, thought Sanyi.

The next day the guards rattled the rows of cell doors and ordered the prisoners to head to the shower room with their assigned groups. What the hell? Prisoners were allowed one shower a week, and they just had one yesterday.

They were chaperoned downstairs to the visitor area in groups of six. None of them could believe that they were actually being released. Their civilian clothes—stored in paper bags for years, now heavily covered in mold—were handed back to them. The few who escaped the villainous mold were not better off, because they had gained so much weight during their imprisonment that they could no longer squeeze into their old garments. Interestingly, the button-up shirt and linen pants Sanyi Kovács wore the day he came to prison still fit him perfectly; his shoes also felt comfortable, only their shoelaces had become thin and tattered with age.

Next, they were herded into the inner courtyard—a straight path led from there to the double iron gates through which they were to gain entry to the outside world—where a few men hung around, dressed in pristine business suits, waiting for the prisoners to arrive, so that they could shake hands with each one and wish them good luck on behalf of the Budapest Revolutionary Committee. One of them was a famous actor whose brother was also locked up for political sins.

Sanyi Kovács stepped through the iron gates and paused for a moment on the dusty road. It was a cool autumn day, but the sun was out, and it warmed him against the gentle breeze that cooled his face. He had no inkling of where he wanted to go. He stood with his feet glued to the ground and played around with the small allowance in his pocket that he received from the prison officials. It was enough to purchase a train ticket to Ladánybene, but he did not feel like going there. Not long prior to his release he received news on the passing of his mother. Despite the heavy loss, he was unable to come up with a better plan, so he took the train to Ladánybene. No one recognized him at the train station, and no one recognized him later either as he ambled along the crooked streets of his hometown. His family home by the Csikós ploughland appeared to be neglected and dilapidated. He kicked in the unlocked gate. A few cats and a stray dog scattered. Weeds brushed up to his knees as he approached the veranda and sat down on the rickety stool where his mother used to catch her breath after a long day of hard labor. He had no plans whatsoever.

A whiff of sour mold from the damp walls penetrated his soul like an executioner’s sword. He was not expecting that. He fell to his knees and sobbed, whimpering like his mother used to way back when. He cried for his poor mother who withered away in a lonely existence. He also thought of his father, whom he sent to his death; it has been years since his memory had last crossed his mind. The report of the forensic pathologist stated that his father died instantly when the rake’s three prongs went through his skull, damaging the most vital parts of his brain. Sanyi could not imagine the rake lodged in his father’s skull, though he tried many times during the criminal proceedings.

Does it make me a horrible person that I killed my father? he mumbled to himself. He was unable to feel guilt but, for the first time ever, he regretted not having listened to his lawyer who had wanted him to tell police that he had acted in self-defense, and emphasize the flurry of emotions that surrounded the murder. Perhaps he wanted to atone for his sins? Or did he want to punish himself for creating a situation where his mother not only lost her husband, but all of her income as well? After her husband’s death, she could only support herself by selling off all her belongings, piece by piece, starting with the tools from the shed, then the agricultural equipment, and finally the three plots of land and her meager furniture from the house. Shortly before she breathed her last, she was in negotiations with an agricultural cooperative that was interested in buying her house to use as a granary, but she passed away before the deal was sealed. Sanyi wouldn’t have minded if the house had sold; he’d planned to leave anyway, as soon as he could, and head to Kecskemét. Or to the capital, the city full of excitement.

In the afternoon the town’s main square erupted in gunshots. Someone knocked on the street-facing window: Who’s inside the house? Sanyi walked up to the gate: It’s me, Sanyi.

There stood his childhood friend, Józsi, Józsi Balog, holding a hunting rifle in his hand. Reaching through the vertical planks of the wooden gate, he grabbed Sanyi and pulled him closer, and gave him a bear hug. Sanyiii, you’re home? Sanyi stepped back, opened the gate, and hugged him back. They were both overcome with emotions. Triggered by memories of childhood mischief—for which they got their fair share of punishments—Sanyi shed tears of joy and gratitude for having been reunited with his childhood friend.

I didn’t know you were let out of prison early, rejoiced Józsi, curling his words with a heavy Gypsy accent that Sanyi detected immediately. He used to not talk like that, or Sanyi hadn’t picked up on it before. He whispered in Józsi’s ear: Amnesty. Józsi was ecstatic: Great! Come with me! Where are we going? Józsi explained that a revolution had broken out: My friend, he said, it’s 1956, and we have a revolution on our hands! Let’s chase away the president of the council and the party secretary! Life will be much better without them, trust me!

Some of his optimism rubbed off on Sanyi; he located his father’s beat up Flobert rifle in the shed and, despite not being able to find any bullets, decided to take it with him. By the time they made their way to the main square, at least thirty armed men were shouting in front of the town hall. The town’s three policemen, their faces as white as ghosts, blocked the entry of the building and waved their pistols around. One of them kept repeating in a robotic manner:  Keep moving people, or there will be serious trouble! No one paid attention to him. It was a group of Gypsies—wielding long-handled hoes—who first worked up enough courage to chase away the police officers: Don’t even think about shooting at us, there is a revolution, in case you didn’t know!—they swarmed the building. By then, the party secretary and other officials had managed to sneak out the back door.

The Gypsies knocked over some cabinets inside and broke a few windows—that was the end of the Ladánybene Revolution.

At night they held a meeting at the elementary school; all the attendees wore cockades on their shirts, flaunting the national colors of Hungary. Sanyi got his from Józsi. They formed what they called a Revolutionary Committee, whose sole responsibility was to govern the town. The Gypsies unanimously cast their votes for Józsi Balog, so he became president. Once his position was secured, he insisted on Sanyi being his vice-president. Afterwards they went across the square to the local pub to celebrate that now they were the ones in power. Sanyi hardly ever consumed alcohol, so the bootleg pálinka went straight to his head, and he soon found himself under the table. Józsi took him home and laid him down on the bed, the only remaining piece of furniture in the so-called parlor of Sanyi’s house. He slept through the next two days of the revolution. He never heard his friend knocking on the door, reminding him that it was time to attend the meetings; therefore, the other four members of the revolutionary committee were forced to make important decisions without his input. The meetings usually took place in Józsi’s backyard, in the summer kitchen.

When Sanyi finally came to from his drunken stupor and joined the group, he was so hungry he could eat a horse. Józsi’s mother fed him a generous portion of bacon, warm homemade bread, and cottage cheese made from fresh sheep milk. He couldn’t thank her enough. The slightly hunchbacked old woman laughed and reassured him that there would always be food no matter who ran the country, as long as people had vegetable gardens and a few farm animals, which he needed to have too, if he wanted to survive. Sanyi nodded, though he had not the slightest idea where he would even start. God willing, things would work themselves out.

They heard on the radio that the Russkies were going to leave Hungary; the news made them happy; they cheered and clinked their glasses. But instead, more Russkies came in. The roads were swarmed with tanks and trucks, heading toward Budapest. Józsi sensed trouble ahead.

They decided to leave their hometown behind. Józsi Balog’s uncle lived in the nearby town of Dabas, so they headed in that direction. After hiding out there for a few days, Sanyi had enough and decided to set off to Budapest on his own. He walked during the day and spent his nights under the stars, curled up in the fields.

He almost made it to Budapest when he was stopped and arrested by Russians on the outskirts of Vecsés. They frog-marched him to an equipment yard that had been designated as an assembly point. By the time Sanyi arrived, at least five hundred people had been packed in there, waiting their turn. Frightening news circulated among the captured. They would be executed after interrogations. Or executed without interrogations. There will be malenki robot, like back in ‘46, then off to Siberia again, moaned the older men. Or to concentration camps, like the ones where the Germans kept the Jews, and that will be the end of us!

None of the options seemed promising. Sanyi made up his mind to escape at the earliest opportunity. The first chance came when they left the equipment yard on horse-drawn carriages, supposedly to go to a storage shed to bring back canned goods and bread. One Russian soldier with a machine gun was in charge of the seven prisoners, but he sat up front, next to the coachman. When they turned onto a wider street, Sanyi threw himself over the side and rolled into a weedy ditch that was used to divert water away from the streets. He feared with each passing second that the carriage might come to an abrupt halt, but it never did. He closed his eyes, lay motionless, and thanked his lucky stars.

Once darkness fell, he continued his journey, trying his best to stay away from populated areas. It was bitterly cold and he didn’t have any warm clothes, which left him with no choice but to steal a cloak and a horse blanket from a barn he passed along the way. Józsi’s mother had sewed him a neck pouch for his papers and handful of coins, whose overall value amounted to a pittance. He wandered aimlessly, but at some point he had to admit to himself that he had completely lost his bearings. And now a railroad crossing blocked his way. In the distance he spotted an approaching train, inching closer and closer, its wheels weighed down by heavy cargo; it eventually came to a full stop, producing a high-pitched, screeching sound. What a godsend, thought Sanyi, as he hopped up on the last coach. When the train began to move again, he cozied up in a small area that housed the brake system. He dozed off straight away.

It wasn’t clear how much time had passed before he was woken up by two uniformed men. He reflexively raised both of his arms. Everything is fine, calm down, they told him, we’re just ordinary railroad workers.

The three of them got along so well that the two men confessed to Sanyi that as soon as the train reached Rákosrendező, they would hop onto another train that would take them close to Sopron. From there, only a stone’s throw away was the Austrian border, where they could cross illegally and go anywhere! Even to England?—asked Sanyi, starry-eyed. Why not, sonny? In Austria we’ll automatically become refugees and get a Nansen passport that’s good for any country, except Hungary. Har!

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Miklós Vámos (1950, Budapest) is a Hungarian writer who has had over forty books published, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly thirty languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the five thousand Hungarian Jews sent off to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Ági Bori originally hails from Hungary, and she has lived in the United States for more than thirty years. A decade ago, she decided to try her hand at translating and discovered she loved it. She is a fierce advocate for bringing more translated books to American readers. In addition to reading and writing in Hungarian and English, her favorite avocation is reading Russian short stories in their native language. Her translations are available or forthcoming in Apofenie, Asymptote, B O D Y, the Forward, Hopscotch Translation, Hungarian Literature Online, the Los Angeles Review, Litro Magazine, MAYDAY, and Northwest Review. She is a translation editor at the Los Angeles Review.

Trafika Europe