The Widow Tree Excerpt 


Autumn, AD 45
Pan­nonia, Roman Empire

“Devi sep­pel­lire” Bury it.

“I do not understand.”

“The trees. The trees are hid­ing something.”

The sol­dier fol­lowed the centurion’s gaze but saw noth­ing in the for­est to cause con­cern. No threat of inva­sion. Still, he did as he was told, bend­ing and putting the rest of the coins away. A month of wages for the legion. He paused as he picked up the final one, study­ing the image of a pray­ing man­tis, spindly legs, cling­ing to a shaft of wheat. You will be a man’s future, he thought, and brought it to his lips and kissed it. Then he took the small clay pot in both hands. As he strode out­side, he pressed the pot close to his body. Just a sim­ple clay con­tainer, pale brown, cov­ered with loops and whorls from its maker’s fingertips.

He found a place between two tents and dropped to his knees. Using his pugio, he cut into the soft black earth, form­ing a deep hole. He gen­tly placed the clay pot at the bot­tom of the hole, cov­ered it with dirt, pressed it down with the heel of his hand. When he stood, he kicked dry soil over the area to dis­guise it.

Walk­ing out into the field, he stopped for a moment to watch the trees. Again he could detect noth­ing, other than the leaves had grown tired and the colour had begun to drain. He did not expect to see them fall, though, as soon they would be mov­ing on. Going home. He would see his young chil­dren. The cam­paign would be behind them and the worry would be over.

As he stood there, the wind lifted, rustling through the for­est in a con­stant drone. The sol­dier cocked his head and squinted. He did not like it when he could not hear.


When dark­ness came, he lay down on the floor of a tent, thick stew and sour wine slosh­ing in his stretched belly. He dreamt of rid­ing toward his vil­lage, the hooves of his horse strik­ing the damp ground, muck spat­ter­ing its legs and under­belly. His pugio near his thigh remind­ing him he was once a fighter. A strong fighter. A pleas­ant image, and he wore a faint smile as he slept.

He woke in the dead of night, his nose filled with a dense odour, like the stench of yel­low wounds that refused to heal. Lying still, he heard a rhyth­mic shift of fur, squeak of hard leather. Inhala­tion. Exha­la­tion. Some­thing sav­age was stand­ing just behind his head.

A gust of wind. The door of the tent flapped open. For an instant, the full moon illu­mi­nated the room, and he saw a sud­den blur of pelts and greasy skin, limbs scram­bling on top of him. Then a for­eign eye pressed against his own, and another man’s breath entered his lungs. A cud­gel hov­ered above his body, and he raised his hands, fin­ger­nails still black­ened from his dig­ging. Song of pol­ished wood moved through air, and a bolt of light­ning arrived inside his skull. Moments later his ears detected the thunder.

He felt no pain after­wards, just a seep­ing wet­ness. Warmth. As though he were float­ing in the salty sea, swal­lowed by deep blue. When he breached the sur­face, he called out instruc­tions to his wife. She was a hazy form in the dis­tance, like a soli­tary tree, wav­ing her branches. Two young boys, his sons, danc­ing in her crooked shadow. He told his widow where to find the clay pot. He tried to wish them a good life with all he had saved over so many years, but the words never left his mouth.


Chap­ter 1


Autumn 1953
Bre­gal­nica, Yugoslavia

As soon as they left the town of Drob­nik, the road turned to dirt. The bus creaked, bounc­ing from side to side, and in the sun­light Dor­ján Szabó could see small clouds of dust ris­ing up from invis­i­ble holes in the floor. The harsh smell of exhaust filled the bus, and Dor­ján sipped shal­low breaths. Too early in the morn­ing to inhale such fumes, he thought, and his sen­si­tive stom­ach turned, as it always had with such things since he was a child. He brought his hands to his face, breath­ing in the chem­i­cals on his skin. Hours ago he had been swim­ming, and the lin­ger­ing scent of the pool water was famil­iar and soothing.

He was seated in the mid­dle of the bus, near the aisle, and had a clear view of his teacher. Gyuri Takáts stood just behind the dri­ver. His arms were up, hands hold­ing the metal racks where trav­ellers might lay their lug­gage. The tem­per­a­ture was still cool, but Dor­ján saw the dark rings of under­arm sweat already stain­ing Takáts’s shirt.

“Remem­ber,” Takáts yelled, cut­ting through the chat­ter. “I expect hard work. You are not clear­ing your nagyanya’s potato patch today.”

They were head­ing toward a poljoprivredna zadruga. A field of toma­toes, pota­toes, corn, owned by the gov­ern­ment. Dur­ing the first morn­ing les­son at school, a bell started to clang, over and over again. Dorján’s entire class lined up in sin­gle file, marched down the hall­way, and boarded the wait­ing buses. He had no idea what was hap­pen­ing or where they were going until Takáts announced they would spend the remain­der of the day work­ing in the field har­vest­ing a crop that would later be dis­trib­uted for sale. In the class­room some­one had asked where the money would go, and Takáts replied, “Where it is needed, of course.” A snicker, and Takáts spun around, nar­rowed his eyes, scanned the stu­dents. Dor­ján looked down, swal­lowed. Not because he had made the sound, but because he knew his best friend, János Kele­men, surely had.

They drove through Bre­gal­nica, the vil­lage where Dor­ján now lived with his grand­mother. The place was not much more than a series of nar­row streets lined with white stucco homes. Old ladies leaned against the walls, some of them knit­ting, balls of wool pushed into their armpits. They kept their wrin­kled faces lifted toward the morn­ing sun. As they passed, small chil­dren in cuffed shorts and long socks jumped up and down, wav­ing at the bus. Most every­one ignored the chil­dren, but Dor­ján noticed Nevena, the Komandant’s daugh­ter, three rows ahead, press one white hand against the streaked glass and smile.

Even though their vil­lage was small, they still had a proper square. An expanse of cob­ble­stone, cir­cled with stores and stands and a tall church, the largest struc­ture in Bre­gal­nica. On this warm Octo­ber morn­ing the square was bustling and the buses slowed. Women strolled about with bas­kets, scarves tied over their heads. Men sat at the small tables, sip­ping cof­fee from tiny white cups, laugh­ing with rough voices. Dor­ján stretched his neck, and sure enough, he located his grand­mother. Stand­ing on the stone steps of the church, fan­ning her neck with her stubby hand. While young peo­ple would not cross the thresh­old, every morn­ing she went into the damp build­ing by her­self. She lit a can­dle, bend­ing on her knees to pray. Dor­ján once asked why she prayed so much, what did she want, and she replied, “I ask for noth­ing, szívem. I pray only this soil feels no more sorrow.”

After his par­ents had died, Dor­ján had moved from Drob­nik to Bre­gal­nica to live with his nagyanya. He fought against it, insist­ing he could man­age on his own. He knew where to buy bread. A quar­ter loaf. With his mother now gone, that was all he would need. His grand­mother was wel­come, he told her, to bring him a boiled egg and a bot­tle of milk on occasion.

When­ever he reflected on this mem­ory, he always felt a wave of love for the old woman. She had not laughed at him when he was that child. Never took his thin wrist in her grip and dragged him out the door. No, she paced the floor, as though she were pon­der­ing his ideas. “I see,” she had said. “I see you are an inde­pen­dent man.” He nod­ded, and she said, “Today I insist. I have soup. You will insult me if you refuse my soup. Then tomor­row we will see. And each day after. Yes?”

In his child’s mind, he had regained con­trol over some­thing uncon­trol­lable. Agreed to her con­di­tions. He took her hand, and together they strode down the dim hall­way and out through the door. He promised her he would return to Drob­nik the next day. Once the soup pot was empty. But his grand­mother made palac­sinta filled with warm apri­cot jam. The day after that a flat apple cake. And the day after that bis­cuits filled with morsels of bacon. “All for you,” she had said as time and grief slowly slipped away from him.

On the edge of the square, Dor­ján noticed Gazda László’s wooden cart, laden with a vari­ety of fruits and veg­eta­bles. An enor­mous mound of pointed red pep­pers shone as though they were greased. Gazda’s young grand­son, Tibor, who did not attend school, worked there nearly every day, sell­ing what­ever Gazda plucked from the vine or pulled from the earth. Dor­ján knew Tibor was star­ing at the bus, and Dor­ján bent his head, exam­in­ing his knuck­les. He could not look at the slow boy’s dam­aged face. It had all started as a joke, a tease, but so quickly had degraded. And then the hor­ri­ble fight, the flesh on Tibor’s cheek­bone burst­ing open.

Out of the cor­ner of his eye, Dor­ján caught János push­ing his face toward the win­dow. János pointed at Tibor and then, putting one fin­ger to his lips, said, “Kuss,” in a long, low whis­per. Shhh. Behind a moun­tain of wild mush­rooms, Tibor danced from foot to foot, shak­ing his hands on limp wrists like a flight­less bird. Anger made him do that, not fear. Dor­ján had seen him doing it before. His mus­cles twitch­ing with so much frus­tra­tion and no way to express himself.

When they moved onto a nar­row stretch of road, Dor­ján said, “He couldn’t hear you, you know.”

“Of course he couldn’t.” János began to chuckle. “But he knew what I meant.”