We boys set out with empty knapsacks to see what we could find. We heard a machine gun ratatatatting from the direction of the Danube. There would be trouble if the Germans came back: the Dravidas would have us removed from Aunt Zsófi’s apartment and our feet would never again cross the copperplate but long unpolished threshold.

A well-worn path led from the front gate of the school across the snow-covered courtyard to the back staircase and down into the cellar. We saw German corpses sticking out of the snow and shone our flashlight in their faces. I had always thought the dead grimaced, but every one of the faces was peaceful, including the one lying on his back on a wooden crate in the cellar next to a depleted bag of beans, his head hanging in a rather uncomfortable position. The only possible explanation was that there had been another crate under his head. And if they didn’t leave it there, it must have been worth taking.

We filled our knapsacks with beans, peas, wheat, and dried onions, which was all that remained by then, but were still interested in the crate lying under the young German. He was a tall, handsome young man with a powerful brow and a light-colored stubble on his narrow face. His deep-set large eyes were open, and he observed us with interest.

“Forgive us,” we said to him as we tried rolling him off the crate.

“I will not forgive you,” the soldier responded coolly. “I have no idea why I had to die on this crate after taking a bullet on the basement staircase and dragging myself over here. In fact, I have no idea what I am doing here. You will find this crate to contain fairly high-quality sausage, and though it has turned white on the outside with mold, after a bit of scraping you will find it perfectly edible. I have turned stiff, and you will take
the crate out from under me and steal away with the goods, but I will remain here in the dark, in this cellar of death, until the corpse-removers take me to an even darker place. No, I will not forgive you.”

But we persevered. “O unknown German soldier, we understand your sense of injury, since, to put it bluntly, we are not allowing your earthly remains to rest (however uncomfortably) in peace, though it might be said in our favor that by removing the crate of sausage from under you we may actually straighten you out. Still, we hasten to observe that you have come a great distance from your permanent place of residence, by command to be sure, but not by invitation. Moreover, it is probable that when the bullet hit you you were engaging in activities of which we do not approve. May we point out that it would not have occurred to us to shoot at you, but the issue of whether or not
you shot at us was a function purely of the random circumstances of the commands you received. From your perspective there would have been no obstacle. You shot your innocence dead, whereas we are still innocent—though understandably cynical—
young boys.”

The moment we lifted the crate, we were filled with disappointment: it proved mournfully light. And what remained of the ten scrawny sausages once we had scraped off the white and chopped it into the beans on the little utility stove would not hold us for very long. Two weeks later we were resigned to the wheat, grinding it up and boiling it for hours to soften it. While it cooked, we stood around it to keep warm, dipping dried onions in mustard to trick our hunger in the meantime. Mr. Dravida, a fur cap on his head, sat in a rocking chair wrapped in a blanket up to his waist, squeezing a tennis ball in each hand. “It works the muscles, very soothing, and helps you
think.” He wore a winter coat with tassels and hiking boots with gaiters. His mouth, thin but sharply delineated and outlined by an equally thin mustache, had the sour twist of scorn and pride. From Uncle Gyula’s high-backed reading chair he cast
an occasional glance at us noisy ghosts. “Just because you’ve won, you’ve no right to come snooping around.” Next to him sat his old dog, slapping its tail back and forth. Now and then Mr. Dravida touched the tennis ball to the dog’s head. “I brought Bella’s food inside because you ate her baked potatoes. There are a lot of you, and you make noise, and you eat my dog’s potatoes. Don’t stand in the door! Either come in or get out! What’s this? Garlic sausage? You’ve got it good. You people always have it good.”

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