IT HAPPENED ON THE FIRST OF SEPTEMBER
Karcsi Rónai came home on leave on August 24. Péter barely recognized him. The last time Karcsi had been home was nine months ago, at Christmas, and he looked almost the same then as he had before he entered the army. Now he was a different person: a thirty-year-old with a wrinkled forehead and sharp, protruding cheekbones. He was very muscular. His biceps were twice the size of Péter’s, and his forearms were bigger than his brother’s thighs.
But what had changed the most was Karci’s personality. He spoke softly, or rather hardly at all, except for the rare occasions when he let out a word or two in a throaty voice. He didn’t go out, nor did he look up any of his old friends, even though they had come by the house several times to invite him to the pub. He preferred to get drunk at home. And even when he was drunk, he didn’t rant the way he used to. He’d just set a chair out on the landing, pick up his glass of wine or liquor, and stare at the ground.
Once in a while Péter sat down next to him. He smoked a cigarette or had a few drinks with Karcsi, but he could tell that their parents didn’t approve. They were worried that he would become a drunkard like his older brother.
In the evenings Karcsi sat quietly at the table and watched his mother pray. Her lips moved silently through the rosary, and he looked as if he were trying to figure out which part of the prayer she was saying.
Not once did he mention the war in Bacska or his barracks in Újvidék.
Like Gábor, Péter had stopped going to school. He often helped his father in the shoe repair shop, and by now he was able to do many of the simple jobs himself. Work was plentiful. The less money people had for new shoes, the more they needed to spend on repairing the old ones.
Gábor had turned into a first-rate spekuláns, who knew the value of his merchandise in the inflated market. He didn’t so much set prices as assess his customers’ ability to pay. The same item commanded a different price at the bank director’s door than it did at the door of a farm worker’s cottage. Mr. Rosenberg hardly had to do anything; he just made sure that the smuggled wares in their basement didn’t get damaged or otherwise devalued. And he constantly worried about being raided by the police.
The first of September was not a warm day. The sky was clear, but a cold wind was blowing. If Péter and Gábor hadn’t arranged to meet Mária, they wouldn’t have gone swimming. But since they hadn’t gotten to see her at school every day for the last year, every moment with her was precious.
“Gábor and I are going to the Perec for a swim. Do you want to come too?” Péter asked Karcsi. It was almost a given that his brother would silently refuse, as usual.
“Sure,” Karcsi said.
Péter was not happy about that answer. He, Mária, and Gábor were a closed trio. Their conversations weren’t just superficial flirting. They had their preferred topics, and an unspoken agreement about a long list of subjects that were off limits. In front of Karcsi there was nothing to talk about. To make matters worse, Karcsi didn’t seem the least bit interested in participating in a conversation. His one-word responses were accompanied by a distant, vacant stare. The one saving grace was that he spent most of the time jumping into the water from a sturdy branch instead of sitting on the blanket next to them.
“I have a surprise for you.” Mária pulled something out of her bag. “I got a letter from Honza. He sent a photo too. Look.”
“Honzík,” Gábor said.
“He’s gotten a lot cuter, don’t you think?” Mária said.
“Cuter? He’s wearing glasses,” said Péter.
Looking at the photo, Péter and Gábor realized how much their childhood friend had changed. He had always been more physically mature than they were, but the difference had never been as pronounced as in this picture. It was a portrait of a young man with a groomed mustache, while they barely had a whisker between them.
“He looks good in glasses,” said Gábor.
“So what did he write?” Péter asked.
“He’s starting an apprenticeship in September, today actually. He’ll be working in some kind of a canning factory. He didn’t go into any details. You know how it is, everything’s classified in wartime. And Jitka doesn’t live with them anymore. She may have gotten married.”
“May have?” Péter and Gábor asked at the same time.
“That’s what he wrote. She may have gotten married by now.”
Honza’s picture was an unexpected intrusion into the world that Péter and Gábor had created for themselves. It was a closed world that had them and Mária in it, and they hadn’t intended to let anyone else in. Then again, Honza wasn’t some interloper; he had as much right to be with Mária as they did.
“Does he write you often?” Péter asked.
“The last thing I got from him was a Christmas card,” Mária said. “Why do you ask?”
“Because he has stopped writing us,” said Gábor.
Karcsi came back from the water. He sprawled out on the grass next to them and breathed heavily. Then he turned to Gábor.
“You Jews really are the chosen people. When you join the army, you’re not allowed to carry a gun.”
Gábor didn’t say anything. Péter feared that his brother was about to get into his usual anti-Semitic diatribe, as he had so many times in the past. But Karsci just added:
“What I wouldn’t give to be part of such a ban…”
There was nothing to say in response, so they just sat there, waiting to see what else Karcsi would come up with. But he didn’t say another word.
It got colder, so they packed up and left.
As they were crossing the square, they heard music.
“It sounds like Denko’s is still holding their five o’clock teas,” Karsci said.
“Yes, on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays,” said Gábor.
“Let’s go, it’s my treat.”
“We’re not dressed for it,” Péter said. “Besides, we haven’t gone dancing since last summer.”
“I need to get home,” Mária said.
“And I go back to the barracks tomorrow. Our regiment’s already left for the front, and my company will be joining it in a couple of days. It’s my last night here,” said Karcsi, and no one could argue with that.
The only available table was at the back of the café, where they couldn’t see the band. The upside was that they were right next to the dance floor. A waiter showed up promptly, and Karcsi ordered four teas and a bottle of white wine.
Fizik’s band had a set playlist. Two polkas—a waltz—a polonaise—break—three Argentine tangos—break. And again: two polkas—a waltz—a polonaise—break—three Argentine tangos. For guys like Péter, who could barely tell a trumpet from a drum, the sets were extremely helpful because they were an indication of which steps to use when. In Péter’s case, dancing well meant not stepping on his partner’s feet. And he didn’t always manage even that.
“Péter, go dance with Mária,” Karcsi prompted. He had already drunk almost the whole bottle of wine, and his eyes were glazed over.
Péter had danced with Mária a few times in the past, but now he was embarrassed, possibly because Karcsi was there. He could tell he was blushing all the way to his ears.
“I don’t know if she wants to,” he said.
“Then ask her.”
Péter obeyed his brother. “May I have this dance?”
“Only if it’s what you really want,” Mária said.
Thankfully, a waltz was playing. Soon Péter stopped counting the steps in his head and adjusted his tempo to Mária’s. At one point their faces touched briefly, and Péter felt the warm glow of her blushing cheek. Her hair still had the lingering scent of flowers and grass from that afternoon. Péter got through the polonaise too, and then the band took a break.
When they came back to the table, a second bottle of wine was already standing in front of Karcsi. Péter had finished his tea earlier, so he poured some wine into his empty cup.
The musicians struck up a tango.
“It’s your turn, Gábor,” Karcsi ordered. “You can’t let Mária sit there.”
“I’m not sure it’s the right time,” Gábor said.
Karcsi turned to Mária.
“Is it the right time for an Argentine tango?”
“Certainly.” Mária laughed. “We’re not at war with Argentina.”
After Gábor and Mária went off, Péter took a cigarette from his brother.
Gábor was a good dancer, and tango was his specialty. More than a year ago, when he and Péter used to go dancing, some woman complimented Gábor, calling him “a lion of the dance floor.” Later Gábor told Péter that perhaps she had felt the lion’s tail pressing up against her thigh as they danced.
A while back Péter had noticed that Gábor and Mária danced the tango very well. They looked as if they had practiced, because once in a while they’d replace a standard move with one of their own. And although they hadn’t danced together for some time, they looked good.
Péter saw someone get up from a table at the other end of the room and move closer to the dance floor to watch Gábor and Mária. He realized it was Gyula Harsányi. Trouble was sure to follow. Gyula waited until Gábor’s back was turned, then snuck up behind him and stuck his foot out.
Gábor hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, and pulled Mária on top of him. People who didn’t know Gyula burst out laughing, because they thought the whole thing was an accident. Those who did know him laughed too, because they knew it was no accident. The real entertainment was about to begin.
Gábor felt the same way he had years ago when he was drowning. He couldn’t catch his breath, as if his lungs were filled with water, which pounded on his eardrums. He heard the band continue playing, except that Árpi missed a few beats on the clarinet.
Gábor fumbled to help Mária get up. He tried to ignore Gyula.
“Listen, Yid, haven’t you heard that racial pollution is against the law?” Gyula shouted.
“You’re done bastardizing the Hungarian nation with your dirty blood.”
He grabbed Mária in one hand and Gábor in the other.
“Are you deaf, Yid?” Gyula yelled.
Then someone jumped between them. Gábor didn’t realize it was Karsci until he saw a large fist hit Gyula in the gut. Gyula doubled over, but didn’t fall, because a powerful hand grabbed him by the hair in order for a huge knee to kick him in the face. Before Gyula’s friends could get up from their table, their buddy was lying on the floor with blood gushing from his nose.
“What were you saying about blood?” Karcsi asked with a cigarette stuck to his lower lip. “Just how much blood have you seen? Have a look—it’s red. In a moment it’ll turn maroon, then brown. Everyone’s blood is the same!”
By the time Péter and his brother made it home, their parents were already saying their prayers. Mrs. Rónai asked her sons to join them.
After they finished the rosary, their mother made her usual plea:
“Dear God, please bring Karcsi home safely from the war.”
“Amen,” Péter and his father said.
“No,” Karcsi said, “I don’t want to come home. Instead you should pray that I live a less depraved life in hell than I have in this world.”
The next morning Péter woke up early, but Karcsi was already gone. He must have taken the first train. That night their mother prayed as if Karcsi were already dead.
“Lord, forgive Karcsi for all his sins and receive him into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Amen,” Péter and his father said.
PAVOL RANKOV (b. 1964) is one of the most prominent contemporary Slovak writers. He has published four collections of short stories (S odstupom času ; My a oni / Oni a my ; V tesnej blízkosti ; Na druhej strane ), four novels (Stalo sa prvého septembra (alebo inokedy) ; Matky ; Miesta, čo nie sú na mape ; Legenda o jazyku ), a novel published under the pseudonym Peter Pečonka (Svätý mäsiar zo Šamorína ), and a book of fairy tales (Princezné a Princovia ). Rankov’s works have been translated into more than a dozen languages. It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time), which won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2009, is his first book translated into English. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Bratislava, where he is a professor of library and information science at Comenius University.
About the Translator
MAGDALENA MULLEK is an independent literary translator and scholar. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Indiana University. Her translations from the Slovak have appeared in TWO LINES, Words Without Borders, Slovak Literary Review, B O D Y, and other journals. Her recent publications include the Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature (Dedalus Books, 2015), Into the Spotlight: New Writing from Slovakia (Three String Books, 2017), and the children’s book The Escape by Marek Vadas (BRaK, 2018). Magdalena lives with her husband and their daughter in Orlando, Florida; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; and Poprad, Slovakia
Read more work by Pavol Rankov:
Review of It Happened on the First of September in Versopolis
Fiction in B O D Y
Interview in Literalab