THE village where I grew up no longer exists. It used to rest three, four days’ ride from Budapest, halfway up the Carpathian range. There, nestled in the snow-covered Mesnek pass, was little Pilsden, place of my birth. It was a small village, sustained only by the intermittent travelers who dared the shorter, over-mountain journey from Budapest to Salgótarjan, and the small tin mine that the men in the village had worked in for hundreds of years. My ancestors had lived in Pilsden for nine generations, coming up the mountain during the end of Ottoman rule, refugees from the Habsburg consolidation of Budapest. We were exiles then, cast out by King József for ties considered too close to the former ruling power. Only in Pilsden, buffered by the mountains that surrounded them on all sides, could my family find safety from the long reach of the king. But unpleasantries such as these were quickly forgotten in the deep, cold recesses of small mountain towns. They had to be; it is a necessity of survival. Places like Pilsden must have short memories, lest grudge or ancient feud rise up to spill more blood or cause more strife in the hardworking lives of plain village folk.
Yet some things, even in Pilsden, were never forgotten.
The town was buried during the Great War, the first one to carry that name. An airplane—Russian? German? One of the Empire’s?—crashed into the peak of Mount Kékes, directly over the village, during the tail end of the war. The plane was a bomber; its payload was full. Untold tons of snow and rock buried the little town, forever erasing it from maps and the minds of men. Yet so few knew of the little town in the pass or ever spared it a stray thought that I am sure its passing was hardly felt. I felt it; my family was still there, still living their ancient, unchanging lives as my family had in that town for so many years. Of course, they were not the only family lost that day. Most of the old families were wiped out in the avalanche; men and boys buried in the mines, the women and children in their homes, generations lost all at once, crushed beneath tons of rock and debris and despair. And snow. Oh the snow, the wide and blanketing snow, seemingly so soft and innocent, so white, so pure, but always, as I know now, full of evil, full of intent and menace. Snow lives. It consumes; it smothers. It kills. Even today, so many years removed from those times, when I think of moonlit winter nights and a beautiful, crystalline sheen of white snow blanketing the frozen earth, I shudder, and not from the cold. I shudder because I know the snow. I know what it is capable of. I know what is concealed in its cold, white heart.
And I feel sure, somehow, it knows me, too.
There were no survivors of the avalanche. No people, anyway, no livestock. Yet I often wonder if there is still something up there, something not alive but somehow not dead either. I only knew that there was nothing left of Pilsden for me anymore, though there had been nothing there for me for some time. Just pain and memories, nothing more. Though as my grandmother always said to me, when she would still speak my name, “Ferenc, what are we if not the ache that we feel, the tragedies that we remember?” She always told me this with melancholy in her voice, a melancholy brought on by a life of slings and arrows that, no matter how often they landed, never dulled her grief. She knew pain: the pain of burying two children young; the pain of seeing a husband with a gaping hole in the back of his head, his brains scattered all across the large stone hearth of the family home. My grandmother had been a formidable woman in her day. In the village, it was always whispered amongst the less kind citizens that my grandfather had killed himself only to escape her nagging tongue.
When I knew her she was but a silhouette of her former self, all darkness and form, lacking substance, lacking color. I often tried to imagine her as a girl, light, airy, without a care in the world, but this was a vision I could not conjure, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how desperately I wished to believe in happiness—hers, mine, Pilsden’s. To me, my grandmother epitomized the care and woe that perpetually held hostage the spirit of my town: isolated, dark, forever contained in the icy grip of the mountain.
Still, I loved her fiercely, loved her if for no other reason than that she loved me the same way, with an abandon that created a bond between us, one stronger and more fragile than I could ever hope to understand. She was my protector, solace for all my cares. Whereas my mother doted on my sister and wept over the elder son who had died in childbirth, I was my grandmother’s, and she was mine. Many were the evenings of my childhood I whiled away contained in the folds of her dark muslin dress. She used to entertain me for hours, entrancing me with dark stories of the ghosts and demons that lived in the mountains that loomed above us. I half-believed her then, as the snow-capped rocks glared down on the village, seeming malevolent and all too capable of frightful, dangerous acts. But I only half-believed her, as any boy only half-believes the stories told to him by his elders.
I think of her often, my grandmother, buried beneath all that snow, and when I do, I ponder, with great dread, what her final moments must have been like. I only hope her end came quickly; that is the only comfort I find in such terrible moments of remembering.
Yet, somehow, I doubt it to be so.
I could have shared her fate, all their fate. I sometimes wonder if it hadn’t been meant for me, if the snow that came hurtling down the mountainside wasn’t coming for me, just for me. Coming to claim the rest of what it had taken on that sunlit day three years prior. Even today, though the coming of snow is all but impossible where I now reside, I still shiver when my calendar announces the approach of winter and still feel afraid when I see snow-capped peaks in pictures from far away or long ago. I know what is there; I know what horror lurks in those frames. But I only escaped it because I had already been claimed by death, claimed by the war, fighting at the front near Ardennes. My family had seemed so safe, sheltered in their little mountain town so far away from the fighting and the bloodshed and the ravages of men’s rancor. Nestled in rocky arms that had protected them for centuries, kept safe by walls of nature so solid and so foreboding that no man, no king, and no army had ever dared to cross or conquer. On the front, I held no worry for their safety; they were buried deep in the heart of the empire, in a small, unassuming corner of this tempestuous world. Rather, I hoped it was they who despaired for my life, though I doubt they ever thought of me, at least not in such a way, not in a way as to care about my fate. After all, they had left me to it, left me to this world.
As I said, some things in these small mountain towns are never forgotten.
Before the war, before the terrible times, we were a happy, bountiful family. My family ran the mine, the only thriving livelihood in the entire village. And I was the owner’s son, an enviable position for any heady youth. Because of it, I had been viewed all my life as different from the other boys. Their fathers worked for my father. And the other boys knew that someday, most of them would work for me. So sometimes they shunned me; other times I was courted by them. Envied and liked, feared and needed, I had learned to navigate these oft conflicting positions as capably as possible, reveling in the attentions of my peers when they came and turning to my own solaces when they did not. Still, what right had I to complain? I had just turned eighteen, though I was young for my age, protected as I had been by my father from the true dictates of village life, and pampered by a mother who doted on, if not truly loved, her only remaining son. Like her, I was flaxen-haired and bright of cheek, and not unpleasant of features, though as my grandmother always said to me, “I could never tell your many blessings with that look on your face.” And she was right. I had become distant, sullen, weary of our simple, provincial life. I longed for an escape, a way off the mountain. I heard the tales of visitors who came from the big cities far away or, more often, read about them in the few available books that made their way up the mountain, cities like Budapest or Prague or even Rome, far-off Rome, with its cinemas and automobiles and teeming masses of people. Such places held firm in my imagination; surely there was nothing here in ancient, tiny Pilsden to compare with the many splendors of Rome!
Of course, these are just the fevered imaginings of all youth. Perhaps every boy in every small town feels this way when confronted with photos of beautiful people in bathing costumes taken on the Italian Riviera or the sight of impeccably dressed men and women listening to orchestras and dancing on balconies bathed in moonlight and the artificial glow of paper Chinese lanterns. Still, none of those boys left their small towns, as none would leave here. As they grew older they grew complacent, grew accustomed to their tiny spot in the larger world. And off they went, one by one, to the mines or the fields or the forest, to whatever passed for industry and work in their own place and time. And I, as my father’s only son, had been raised with the idea that I would someday run the mine that provided succor to our town. It was the way of things in Pilsden; back then, it was the way of the world.
Yet I never felt I would be happy there. I can only remember one true moment of happiness that ever transpired for me in Pilsden, and that memory—that exquisite, precious memory—is too painful a moment to bear, even now, even after the passage of so many years. Still, when I left, when I went off to war, I didn’t leave for opportunity’s sake or out of an errant restlessness or a desire to see the outside world. I left because I had no choice. I left because, like my family those hundreds of years before, I was an exile, fleeing for my very life. Banished from my own home, from my own name and existence, never to see my parents, my grandmother, or little sister Alona again. For when I left, I knew I would never be welcomed back.
I just hadn’t realized there would be no place to come back to.
I wonder sometimes at night, as I lie in my bed on the warm, tropical beach I now call home, thinking of the blustery, biting cold that always seems to anchor any memories of my childhood—I wonder if it is still buried there, my childhood, buried with them, beneath the rubble and the twisted trees and the broken homes and freezing, preserved bodies of people I once knew as my family. I wonder, too, what else may lurk beneath the frozen wastes of that high mountain pass. Is it buried and gone, never to be known of again? Or is it still there, beneath the snow, lurking, waiting to be released? Is it still feeding on my loved ones, cold and unrepentant under miles of snow? I wonder this—it consumes my thoughts—but I will never go to seek the answer for myself. I will never go near that place again. Not where I saw him last. Not where he left me. Not where it was. And not where it may still be, lurking, waiting for those unwary enough to fall into its grasp. I have learned only too well to trust in the dark tales ancient crones like my grandmother tell of the evil that dwells in those small mountain passes. Only too well, though too late, did I learn that truth.
I think of him too, though only at night, when I don’t have the business of day to distract my mind. Hendrik. I think of the alabaster beauty of his cheekbones, of the soft raven color of his hair, highlighted with flecks of auburn crafted carelessly by the summer sun. I think of the hot intensity of his green eyes. I think of the cool feeling of his hand on mine. I think of our love. I think it was love, what we had, what we shared; it was young and foolish, but it was truly felt and real and keenly returned. And I think we all must think this way about our first loves and remember only the briefest of moments from our times together, the way a flower smelled on a summer’s walk or the smooth caress of the back of his hand on mine. Hendrik. He will always be young for me, always be beautiful, always be the first man who panged my heart in that way. And the last. And I wish, I wish it so with all my life, that that was the only way I remembered him, sweet moments ever dimming across a wide expanse of time. Yet even now, when I cannot control my thoughts of him, his memory always comes with the horror, the dread always tripping that spot in my consciousness I have tried so hard and so futilely to forget.