The China Doll

The stranger looked familiar. He might have come from Dorog, or possibly the county seat. István Jósvai said his name was Csurmándi. Csurmándi was a bundle of energy and self-confidence. His dark eyes gleamed above wide cheekbones. The locks of hair falling over his forehead were like the wings of a bird about to take to flight. His hunched shoulders too suggested staunch determination. You could tell  that he was supporting walls on his swarthy shoulders, the two supporting pillars of a new world.

“Men,” he announced, “from this day forth, everything here is yours!”1

Csurmándi’s sweeping gesture took in the servants’ huts, the stables, the granaries, the fields stretching into the distance, the boughs of the trees along the main road, and no two ways about it, even Count Pálfi’s palace. All this was embraced by that gesture, as well as the country estate of the Rácpácegres landowner, living in nearby Cece.

The people stood around Csurmándi in a half circle at the lower end of the village, in front of one of the houses, where in their free time the villagers would sometimes stop for a chat and lean their backs against the wall, though the small space served mainly as a playground for the children, whose naked feet had pounded down the clay.

Nobody said anything. Clearly, they weren’t sure what to think.

Csurmándi was about to raise his hand to give emphasis to his words, but before he could open his mouth, a sob broke forth from the lips of Mrs. Lajos Bűtös, who was standing on the outer edge of the ring of people.

“What’s got into you, woman?” Csurmándi asked with a frown.

Mrs. Bűtös didn’t answer him. Instead, her crying turned to quiet weeping.

“Why the tears, Aunt Juliska,” Junci Balog asked, as if in an attempt to translate what had been said in a strange tongue into the language of the people of Rácpácegres.

“If only my Rózsika could have lived to see this day,” Mrs. Bűtös sobbed,

“Rózsika, oh my sweet little Rózsika!”

“Pull yourself together, Mrs. Bűtös,” Gyula Hujber said sharply, like a man who does not think such an extreme display of emotion fit for the eyes of a stranger. “No person on earth could bring your Rózsi back. Besides, we’re discussing something much more important here.”

“What’s that you say?” Csurmándi thundered, the muscles of his face like the tremors of a volcano come alive. . Zeus’s countenance must have been like this when Pallas Athena sprang fully grown from his forehead.

Eyes flashing, he cut through the crowd and walked straight up to Mrs. Bűtös. He looked at her hard and long, as if trying to pierce her innermost being with his eyes. Frightened, Mrs. Bűtös stopped crying.

“How old was this Rózsika of yours?”

“Three,” Mrs. Bűtös whispered, an awesome hope stirring within her breast. “She couldn’t breathe. My poor child couldn’t breathe . . . Then she stopped moving altogether. Lovely she was, like a china doll . . . A lovely little china doll.” “Lovely she was.” This is how she said it, but the music of it could be heard only by the people of Rácpácegres, because in Rácpácegres words dance to a different tune.

Leaden weights settled on the assembled company, and the sentences got stuck inside them. Mortal man must not tempt fate!

“If only you could do something,” Mrs. Bűtös pleaded in a whisper, and she looked at Csurmándi as if she were under a spell.

Gyula Hujber felt a sudden surge of pity not unmixed with shame. He tore himself free of the spell, and screamed at the top of his lungs.

“But Rózsika has been dead these five years!”

He’d have gone on, had not Csurmándi’s gaze stopped him cold.

“Man,” he said very quietly, “for us, impossible is not an option.”

In the ensuing silence, the people could hear the blood throbbing and surging through their eardrums, and the cracking sound that the stretching wild mallow made could be heard, too.

“Bring Rózsika here to the front of the house tomorrow by noon,” Csurmándi said with barely a trace of excitement in his voice, as if he were talking about the most mundane of matters.

“You want us to exhume her?” Mrs. Bűtös said, trembling.

“Have I not made myself clear?”

Csurmándi was about to head for the dilapidated Opel that he used when he had to traverse the bad roads leading to the plains. But he’d hardly taken three steps when Mrs. Császár threw herself in front of him, clasped him around the knees, and squeezed them like a band of iron.

“What do you want, woman?”

“What about my Ferkó? My Ferkó, too, please, sir! I beg you!”

“Don’t call me sir,” Csurmándi growled as he tried to free his knees from Mrs. Császár’s grasp. “How old was this Ferkó of yours?”

“Fourteen,” Mrs. Császár whispered, releasing her hold on Csurmándi’s knee. But instead of getting up, she remained on the ground on her hands and knees, looking up at Csurmándi with her head thrown back.

Ferkó Császár had drowned in the Sió. They found him several days later by Uzd, caught on a weeping willow bush. He’d been deformed beyond recognition by then. It was against the law to move him, but under cover of night, Mrs. Császár sneaked him back home. They even put up a tombstone for him. He was her only son. After that, the geraniums on her windowsills withered, they say, their dog lost its hair and teeth, and her baby chicks turned black as coal.

“Bring your son, too,” Csurmándi commanded.

Mrs. Császár’s face lit up. Her hair took on a gleam, as did her eyes, and even her clothes. Who’d have thought that she was such a handsome woman? Even Csurmándi was taken aback, regarding her for some time before helping her to her feet. It was quite an effort to pull himself free of Mrs. Császár’s attraction, you could tell. Then he turned to the people of Rácpácegres.

“Is there anybody else whose child . . .”

Mrs. István Szotyori shot her husband a sideways glance, but since he was not about to ask, she spoke for them both.

“Is the body necessary?”

Csurmándi was about to ask something, but István Szotyori’s shouting prevented him.

“Be quiet, woman! Our son did not die!” Then he turned to Csurmándi, and lowered his voice. “There was an explosion, a bomb or whatnot, and my wife thinks our little boy died. But we all know that our little Pisti was turned into a bird.”

Csurmándi’s gaze flitted from face to face.

“A bird?”

“A bird,” István Szotyori said.

Csurmándi brushed a lock of hair from his forehead with the back of his hand, as if he were trying to keep something at bay.

“So then. Do as I said.”

He waved, turned on his heels, got inside his dilapidated car, then spurting and coughing, the engine started up. The children ran after the car in the wake of the heavy, beige streak of dust that the wheels stirred up. They ran all the way to the Small Corner, as they always did when, once in a great while, a car showed up in their isolated part of the plains.

The next morning, a silent crowd assembled around Rózsika Bűtös’s grave. The young men—the same who had dug the grave and buried Rózsika in it— sunk their spades into the mound that had caved in over the years.

András Priger stood with bowed head by the pointed end of the wooden cross that had been blackened by years of contact with the soil.

“It’s not right, disturbing them,” he said.

Relieved, the young men stopped digging. But just then, beside herself with rage, Mrs. Császár began screaming.

“Stop hooting, you bird of ill omen! Must you always think of the worst?”

After this, no more words were said, and only the sputter, squelch, thump, and thud of the soil as it was dug out of the grave broke the silence. When the spades reached the coffin, the people waited with baited breath. Mrs. Bűtös stood by the gravesite like a ghost, her eyes round, her kerchief pressed to her lips. The men hoisted up the coffin and placed it next to the freshly dug out earth. The rotten boards gave way, falling into palm-size pieces, and the little girl’s mourning smock revealed flashes of itself before the eyes of those who’d gathered around her grave. It was as pristine and white as snow. In the spellbound silence, Mrs. Bűtös walked over to the coffin and removed a piece of decaying board that had fallen on her daughter’s face. With a quick intake of breath, like when the steam is released from several boilers at the same time, the awed crowd stepped back in wonder and amazement. Then the rumble, which first became louder, then lower and deeper, was suddenly transformed into a great din pierced by laughter. The little girl looked just as if she were alive, as if she hadn’t spent a single moment, not to mention five years, in the ground. Then, as if on cue, the women burst into tears, while Mrs. Bűtös continued gathering the slivers of decaying wood from off her daughter’s face, hands, and smock. The little girl looked just like a china doll. Her cheeks had a light peachy color to them, and her yellow hair was playfully swept by the breeze as if it had been newly washed. On her chubby hands, which rested crossed over her chest, the nails were a healthy and cheerful pink.

When they dug out Ferkó Császár, they didn’t make such a to-do over it, and so reached the coffin in no time. It was in such tip-top shape, they were able to raise the lid in one piece. Those who had seen Ferkó dead at one time would have liked to turn their heads away in order to spare themselves the horrible sight of his deformed features. But when they saw the body, they cried out in surprise. There was no trace at all of the ravages of death by drowning. Ferkó Császár looked as if he were in a deep slumber, and the drowning and the weeping willow bush nothing but a bad dream.

András Priger felt ashamed of himself, and now thought of Csurmándi, his gleaming black eyes and locks of hair falling over his forehead like the wings of a bird, with something akin to love. He was filled with hope, and he felt as light as if every aching bone in his body had suddenly been rejuvenated, as if the blood circulating in his veins had been injected with new vigor, as if, indeed, he were eighteen once again.

Everyone was ecstatic, and the sky was an exceptional blue.

They were about to head back to the front of the house, as ordered, because it was getting on to noon, when Juci Barabás started screeching that they should take her mother to Csurmándi, too, “to face him,” as she said.

It was no use trying to tell her that the offer was restricted to children.

“If nobody helps me, I’ll dig her up with my bare hands,” she said with great determination.

Mrs. Ignác Barabás, née Örzse Holtyán, had died a week before, at the age of sixty-seven. Her death came unexpectedly, while she was hanging out the wash. She should have lived longer. For one thing, she was too young to die. For another, everybody liked her. And so, it was decided to make an exception in Örzse Holtyán’s case.

She, too, looked as if she were alive. Even the unsightly hair on her chin that had caused her so much annoyance while she was alive was in place. Mrs. Barabás looked at it with frowning disapproval, because she could clearly recall that she’d pulled it out before the funeral. She leaned over her mother, and hoping no one noticed, she pulled it out again. “I don’t want you resurrected with that unsightly thing, Mother,” she whispered in her ear.

By noon the dead were lying where they were told to lie, with the scorching sun beating down on them. You’d think they were sunbathing. András Priger even thought he could see a drop of sweat appear on Örzse’s face.

The women tidied the spot in front of the house with flowers and plants. They brought the geraniums from the windows, and also weed grass and wispy asparagus. The people pinned their gaze on far off Sárlőrinc, from where the trail of dust should have appeared by now, stirred up by the wheels of the dilapidated Opel. But the car was nowhere in sight. The children had gone all the way to the Great Corner and climbed the ancient maple to be the first to spot it. But nothing, as it was amply clear to anyone willing to see. Gyula Hujber pressed his back against the wall. Mrs. Bűtös’s eyes filled with tears.

“No! No! Oh, no!”

A thin crack, no wider than a hair, appeared on her daughter’s face, stretching from her nostril toward her forehead, then in the opposite direction, across the face toward the jaw, then the crack branched off into a multitude of directions, covering the girl’s face like a cobweb.

All three of the dead crumbled into ashes in front of their very eyes.

In the twinkling of an eye, Mrs. Ferenc Császár turned back into an old woman once again, her back bent over from the weight of her great pain. Then, as twilight descended over the village, great gusts of wind came sweeping over the plain, and for three days afterward, the sun would not show its face.

1 The reference is to the short-lived division of large estates after World War II and their distribution among the peasantry.

Translation of “A porcelánbaba.”From Csillagmajor,Osiris, Budapest, 1998. Copyright Ervin Lázár. By arrangement with the estate of Ervin Lázár. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.