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.
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.”