A Novelby Christina Shea
A vivid and deeply affecting novel about a woman’s life in Eastern Europe after she is smuggled across a critical border as a child in the waning days of WWII.
A vivid and deeply affecting novel about a woman’s life in Eastern Europe after she is smuggled across a critical border as a child in the waning days of WWII.
Sweeping from post–WWII rural Romania to the cosmopolitan Budapest of 1990, Christina Shea’s Smuggled is the story of Eva Farkas, who loses her identity, quite literally, as a young child, when she is smuggled in a flour sack across the Hungarian border to escape the Nazis.
When five-year-old Eva is trafficked from Hungary to Romania at the end of the war, she arrives in the fictional border town of Crisu, a pocket of relative safety, where she is given the name Anca Balaj by her aunt and uncle, and instructed never to speak another word of Hungarian again. “Eva is dead,” she is told. As the years pass, Anca proves an unquenchable spirit, full of passion and imagination, with a lust for life even when a backdrop of communist oppression threatens to derail her at every turn. Time is layered in this quest for self, culminating in the end of the Iron Curtain and Anca’s reclaiming of the name her mother gave her. When she returns to Hungary in 1990, the country is changing as fast as the price of bread, and Eva meets Martin, an American teacher who rents the apartment opposite hers and cultivates a flock of pigeons on his balcony. As Eva and Martin’s cross-cultural relationship deepens through their endeavor to rescue the boy downstairs from his abusive mother, Eva’s lifelong search for family and identity comes full circle.
An intimate look at the effects of history on an individual life, Smuggled is a raw and fearless account of transformation, and a viscerally reflective tale about the basic need for love without claims.
“The narrative follows tenacious protagonist [Eva] through fifty years of her harrowing, yet resilient, life and the devastating historical periods of Communism, the Holocaust, and the oppression of Nicolae Ceausescu, the cruel secretary general of the Romanian Communist Party. Shea’s elegant, pared-down prose . . . takes a significant slice of history and adroitly contains it into a tight, intimate story, where Eva collects bits and pieces of her shattered self, and stitches together a life of new possibility and humanity.” —S. Kirk Walsh, Boston Globe
“[Written] in poetic and emotionally restrained language . . . Evocative . . . Lyrical . . . An engaging read . . . Shea demonstrates her mastery of physical description and realistic detail.” —Amanda Holmes Duffy, Washington Indepdent Review of Books
“Shea does an excellent job of capturing the individuality at the heart of a war that most readers know only from textbook summaries. . . . A satisfying read.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Compelling . . . Affecting . . . Reveals how history can impact individual lives.” —Elayne Clift, New York Journal of Books
“Delivers a sure sense of . . . totalitarianism’s capacity to grind down the soul. . . . With a luminous ending.” —Library Journal
“Surprising yet realistic . . . Shea’s often painful chronicle is conveyed in beautifully sculpted language, alive with vivid prose and intricately layered metaphor. . . . But what might be a grim tale rises above its brutal context on delicate wings. Eva’s indomitable spirit provides the message of hope that gives this honest account the sheen of magic every story needs. When I had finished reading the book, I had the urge to press it on someone else. It is a book to love and to share. Pass it on.” —Kathleen Ambrogi, Belletrista blog
A Seacoast Area best seller (#2)
They would slip her between the seams of the two countries. Eszter made the chain stitches binding the thread into a knot, then she cut the thread close. Straightening up against the chair back, she reached to turn up the lamp. She had done the stitching by hand, not trusting the machine. The money lay flat beneath the coat’s lining. The sewn-in pocket was barely detectable. She shook the coat out, then clutched it to herself, shutting her eyes. When she opened them again György’s hand was on her shoulder, pressing. “Darling, it’s time. We must.”
She had to believe in the hiding place. Believe in order to risk the only thing that mattered to her now. She had told Éva the plan that morning.
“But when will you fetch me, Mama? After the war?” Éva had asked.
Her mother nodded. She had explained so many things to her this way. After the war they would have sugar in their tea again, after the war Éva could go to school.
“But you must not sulk or pine, Éva. You mustn’t burden your Auntie Kati,” Eszter cautioned. Her voice had been fraught, her thoughts at an impasse. “Listen, Éva, for once you do as you are told!” Her words were a declaration. All instructions she delivered with the same fervent insistence. There was no other way to suppress Éva. She was fearless.
It was all because of her hand, Éva felt. Nothing would ever be the same. Her mother had given her several spoonfuls of cough syrup before bed. She awoke from deep sleep on her mother’s lap in the passenger seat of György’s car. She was buttoned up in a strange coat. Éva stared through thick fog at György driving. She thought it must be Tuesday since her father was there.
At the train station, György took her swiftly in his arms and they hurried up the narrow flight of stairs and along the darkened platform. He drew up short beside the controller’s booth. She slid into her mother’s arms and was cradled like a baby and her forehead was warm with kisses. György held open the flour sack. They lowered her into it. The blackness swallowed her.
From the bottom of the sack she looked up at her mother’s face, a grave moon. Mama! But she shouldn’t speak or cry out. She must hide herself. She carefully pulled her broken hand out of its sleeve, nestling it inside the coat.
The moon came close. Her eyes shone. “I love you, my Éva,” Eszter whispered.
Then György tied the sack tight.
* * *
Kati crouched, waiting in the field adjacent to the tilled no man’s-land at the border crossing. She listened for her husband’s boots on the frigid ground. When she heard him approaching she stepped out of hiding. Ilie set down the sack, and Kati leaned in with a kitchen knife and carefully tore the seam. The child slid out, coated in flour dust, and slumped heavily onto the ground.
“Come, we must hurry,” Kati urged, shaking the child’s shoulders.
The girl’s eyelids fluttered open as Kati lifted her to her feet. She rocked unevenly on her thin legs and blinked, peering at their faces in the early dawn. She looked frightened, and Kati hastened to hush any outcry, pressing hard fingers over her lips.
“Carry her,” Ilie whispered. “She’s half asleep.”
He had to return to work. He couldn’t be gone long without attracting attention. He took the rake Kati had brought and retraced his exact path, working to erase his tracks.
Kati stared down uncertainly at the forlorn child. There was no time to waste. “Come,” she said, reaching for her hand, attempting to pull her. The child stumbled forward on rubbery legs. Kati panicked: the sun would be shining before they got home! They should have left her in the sack! Squatting, she took the girl by the arms and hoisted her onto her back. She straightened up carefully, steadying herself under the surprising density.
She went as swiftly as she could through the corn and tobacco fields. Dogs began to bark at the farm. Kati hurried, breathing heavy clouds in the cold morning air. Climbing the embankment to the road, she stumbled and fell on one knee. She pushed herself up, gritting her teeth, her back on fire from the child’s weight. In the distance she could see the house silhouetted against the sunrise. She crossed the road, stepping clumsily through an opening in the old sheep fence, and trudged doggedly across the last field, inwardly muttering her paternoster. At last she came to the hedge that bordered the garden wall. “Close your eyes,” she whispered to herself and pushed headlong through the privet, emerging on a small footpath. She groped for the key inside her pocket and fit it into the lock of the wooden door in the wall. The gate swung open. She stumbled in and, finally, exhaling, set the child down.
The dormant garden was covered in frost. Icicles hung from an arbor. Kati looked at the waif beside her. Her blood was still pumping. She extended her hand and, when the child didn’t respond, she took her firmly by the sleeve, up the pathway, into the shadow of the house.
Kati struck a match and lit a candle. “Godspeed,” she said, turning to the child, her breath evening out now that she was home. “I am Kati.” She clasped her hands together nervously and said, “Auntie Kati. Your father’s sister.” She hurried to hang up her coat and, tying on an apron, stoked the fire back to life. She was broad-backed and plainly dressed, her hair pulled back severely. Her face glowed over the coals. “I’m married to Ilie Balaj, a Romanian. That is who carried you from the train.” She set aside the fire iron and closed the stove. “You’re in Crisu now.”
She helped the child out of her coat, wrinkling her nose. She had soiled herself. Kati shook out the coat and coughed as the flour rose like smoke. She ushered the child across the room to the bath.
“I heated the water before setting out for the border,” she explained. She lifted the kettles, pouring them into the tub.
The child stared with glassy eyes at the steaming water.
“It’s good and warm,” said Kati, shaking the droplets from her fingers. “Go ahead, get undressed.”
When the girl didn’t move, Kati held her breath against the stench and stripped her down. She was terribly thin, small for her age, but long legged like a crane. The wild mop of hair on her head had gone stiff and hoary in the flour sack and her skin was coated in the pale white dust. Kati watched her climbing into the basin, the flour dissolving into parting rings on the water’s surface. A strange, ethereal child, Kati felt.
“You’re shivering. Sit down,” she urged. She slopped the washcloth over the girl’s bony shoulders, studying the goose bumps on her skin. She began to feel troubled by how dark she seemed.
The child was coming awake in the water, blinking her eyes and looking around the room.
“Your father and I grew up in this house,” Kati said to her. “This village was part of Hungary once, called Körös. Crisu is the Romanian name. The whole region, all of Transylvania, was once Hungary.” She sighed. She was talking to herself now. “At Trianon, they took it all away from Hungary, but with the Germans they have redrawn the boundaries.” Kati didn’t lament that Crisu had been left behind in the partition of 1940. She didn’t care what country she was in as long as she was in this house.
“Tip your head back so I can rinse the hair.” She nudged the child’s chin. The hair fell away from her face and fanned out around her as her head touched the water. Kati paused in astonishment over her upturned features suddenly exposed. The waterline crowned her—a delicate island, a floating jewel.
Their plan was to provide her with a new identity. It would be risky, but not impossible. The population wasn’t without empathy for the casualties of war, especially children. As long as they weren’t Gypsies. And the Jews were gone, purged from the villages on the Hungarian side after the border shifted, in a roundup of “aliens.” A final sweep had been done in Crisu only recently, conducted with uncharacteristic organization—every house, every barn. Everyone said that Antonescu was trying to impress the Germans so that he could get Transylvania back. When Kati wrote to her brother György, agreeing to his offer, she’d explained that Crisu was relatively safe now, isolated, cut off since the road closing, just the mail train going back and forth.
Now that the child was actually here Kati was filled with dread. She was wrapping the girl up in a towel afterward, still ruminating over her olive tone. Anyway, she was too dark to be Hungarian! She would be an internal refugee, Ilie’s side of the family. Of course, they would have to hide her until she learned the language, but they could also lie about her age. She was petite, even smaller from poor nutrition. She was five years old but might pass for three. The thought of not having to acknowledge her own blood tie was a quiet relief to Kati. Ilie didn’t care. He had no shame. He had been persuaded by the sum of money that György was paying. As for Kati, even though she had given up longing for a child of her own and was now rather too old for it, smuggling this girl over the border had seemed less a risk than a chance at something.
Her face was pink from the bath and from having her hair combed. She was buttoned up in woolens Kati had bought in anticipation of her arrival, seated at the table. Kati set a fork and knife down in front of her and a plate of stew and sliced bread. The plate was one of Kati’s, painted with ocher and indigo roosters. Similar painted pottery decorated the walls and shelves of the room. In the far corner were more shelves lined with trays of unglazed earthenware. Kati’s potter’s wheel was draped in a sheet.
Kati was rather frantically searching the inside of the wool coat the child had arrived in. At last she found what she was looking for. She slashed the lining with a scissors and began counting the reich marks from György. She glanced over at the girl. With a flush of color she tucked the roll of bills inside her apron. She reached across the table and nudged the plate of food.
“Aren’t you hungry? Eat something!”
She could barely manage the fork in her right hand. Her other hand was curled inertly in her lap.
Kati looked on curiously. “What happened to that hand? Are you a cripple?”
She looked timidly up at her and for a second they studied each other.
“It’s good,” suggested Kati, “if people will pity you.”
The old cat had one green eye, one blue. At night, the cat slept wedged between Éva’s back and the old smoke chimney, deaf to the mice that ran along the pickle shelves. The calico cat was the mouser, too tough to be cuddly, but she had Auntie’s respect. Auntie left the pantry door open at night so that the heat from the stove could reach her. She lay in the fold of a down quilt on the pantry floor, her knees drawn up to her chin as if she were still inside the flour sack.
“Anca,” Auntie had said to her. “That’s what we’ll call you. Do you understand? Anca Balaj is your name now. You must forget Éva.”
When she closed her eyes it was just a dream. The numbness and shock gave way in her sleep, and she could see her mother’s pretty face, yearning it into being. She was wrapped in Mama’s warm arms, her cheek pillowed against her bosom, the worn fabric of her blouse, the fading cherry bouquets. At the first signs of morning consciousness, she held her mother tightly, with two good hands, never letting go. Still, when she opened her eyes in the morning, Mama wasn’t there.
After one week, Auntie Kati stopped speaking to her in Hungarian. Only Romanian was permitted.
“It’s the only way,” Auntie insisted. “You’ll learn quickly. It’s not so difficult, you know. Even I have managed to pick it up and there wasn’t a Romanian school when I was growing up. It’s easier than Hungarian.”
There was constant confusion for her, beginning at breakfast. Auntie stood over the table, repeating her words. It was something about the milk. She looked cautiously at her cup. She despised the hot milk that Auntie served.
Auntie Kati tapped her foot, expecting an answer. “A mute child will not be understood even by his mother,” she interjected thoughtlessly, in Hungarian. It was an old expression. Auntie’s voice grew louder, returning to Romanian. She was asking her question again, her pitch rising. But she spoke so quickly! Was she asking if she liked the milk? She nodded politely at Auntie, and then looked on in wonder as she whisked the cup away, dumping the milk back into the pot to be reheated.
“There. I warmed it more. Now, drink it all up,” encouraged Auntie Kati, returning the cup to her.
She gagged on the scalded taste, swallowing shamefully.
All day long she was immersed in the strangeness of the new language. Her tongue would never get used to putting “the” at the end of the word. In Hungarian, you said things the way you meant them but in Romanian the order was always the same. She was continually forgetting this. Auntie would shout, reverting to Hungarian in her exasperation, sometimes banging her palm on her potter’s wheel. She was terrified, and struggled for control. Romanian sounded so angry. “Anca” itself was such an ugly name—like glass breaking. Her head throbbed with foreign noise.
At night she lay desperate in her bed, too tense to sleep despite her exhaustion, feeling helpless against the invading Romanian. She peered up at the little window for a glimpse of the moon. The cat purred at her back. In the next room Auntie Kati stayed up late working. Light from her lantern flickered on the pickle jars. Leaning in to center the clay at her kick wheel, Auntie sang to herself in Hungarian. Even if she couldn’t make out the words over the whir of the wheel, the rhythm and tone were a comfort.
She had never before been on a farm, and knew of village life only from picture books. Auntie and Uncle’s house was a different world. Besides the hens out in the yard, they kept a goat that they milked, and a pig, and a vegetable garden. Even though it was winter they were not hungry like she and her mother had been. Auntie added vegetable peels and table scraps to the pig feed every afternoon. She looked on from the window. As long as she stayed behind the curtain Auntie didn’t object. Auntie was friendly with the pig, patting its rump and talking to it. The pig would lift its snout from the trough and flash bright eyes.
On Christmas Eve, two months after her arrival, Uncle and Auntie invited her to go outside with them after dark. She didn’t catch their words but followed them out into the frozen yard wrapped in a shawl. She watched in horror as Uncle sliced the pig’s jugular and the blood pulsed out and into Auntie’s waiting bucket. An acrid smell filled her nostrils, her head reeled, and she vomited in the snow. Auntie looked askance. “It’s Christmas Day dinner. Come stir,” she urged, handing her the long wooden spoon, explaining, “The blood has to be stirred so it won’t separate.”
They would make blood sausage, véres hurka, but first Ilie poured a steaming cup out in the garden. “It’s the Romanian custom to sacrifice some blood to the gods,” said Auntie.
“The gods?” scoffed Uncle. “It’s for my dormant grapes!”
It was the first time she had breathed fresh air since coming to Crisu. She felt wide awake. Uncle was in a bright mood, making short work of the butchering. His expression was intent, his face glistening with sweat despite the frigid air. His sleeves were rolled and his apron was splattered and smeared with blood. He scooped the innards, depositing them in a basin of water. Auntie washed off the guts. Then came the all-night stuffing of sausage casings and the cooking of scraps for headcheese, with Auntie explaining the differences between the Romanian and Hungarian ways. “Romanians mix rice together with the liver, and sometimes mix rice with both the liver and the lungs . . .” assuming that she had tasted such delicacies before, but her mother had never served pork.
“Pay attention,” Auntie said sternly, handing her a bowl with the cleaned pig’s liver in it. “She’s busy looking up at the stars,” she remarked to Uncle.
He was tending the cooking fire. “Maybe she’ll be an astronomer.”
“Or a dreamer,” said Auntie, “like her uncle.”
Auntie Kati was a devout Catholic but she couldn’t leave Anca’s Romanian Orthodox education to an atheist like Ilie. She taught her to make the Romanian cross over the bottom of a loaf of bread before cutting into it. She called her to the window as a funeral procession was passing, on its way to the Romanian cemetery. It was the second one that week.
“See the open coffin, and the linen cloth over the soldier’s shoulders?”
She nodded solemnly, her eyes wide. The mourners were dressed in black, including the priest who had a long beard and was swinging a censer. In the late winter air, the smoke appeared lined in silver. Several people carried tall candles decorated in winter greenery and berries.
“The candles are larger and thinner and darker yellow than the candles Hungarians use.” Auntie went on as they looked out the window, “And the wax smells differently, bitter.” She thumbed her nose. “I don’t know why they prefer these.” Auntie tended to dwell when comparing. She glanced over at Uncle, who snorted, overhearing bias.
At first, she had believed that good behavior might restore her mother to her. Her mother could not deny her if she did everything she was told. But she would never like warm milk. And Auntie Kati’s language drills would never end! She was frequently distracted, looking out the window at the bare hawthorns and the blank gray sky, another funeral passing.
Auntie Kati was waggling a finger in her face. She didn’t like to have to ask a question twice. “What is your name, little girl?”
This was the dialogue she liked the least. It wasn’t just that she was tired of it. She paused, feeling sullen. Up until this moment she had been such a good girl—but what if Mama never came for her?
“I don’t know,” she whispered in Hungarian.
“Don’t know? Of course you know your own name!” Auntie insisted in Romanian. She stood arms akimbo now, frowning in consternation.
Sensing Auntie’s threshold, she was suddenly emboldened. “I am Éva, not Anca,” she insisted.
“What?” Auntie threw her hands up. “Are you thick as the dark of night?” She looked to Ilie, seated at the table reading the paper.
He set the paper aside and slowly pushed back his chair. She tensed at his approach. He got down on one knee and she quickly lowered her eyes. His breath smelled of stale coffee. “It will be a good day if the police do not put a bullet through your head before our very eyes,” he told her in a low tone. Cocking his thumb and pressing his index finger into the bridge of her nose, “Éva is dead,” he said.
“Enough,” Kati admonished him. “You’re frightening her.”
“We’ll all be dead,” said Uncle, straightening up. “They’ll shoot us all if she isn’t careful.” He held up a hand to silence Kati.
The Romanian language set seed finally, without her noticing. Simply, one morning in the new year, she was staring up at the dawn through the little window of the pantry, understanding the conversation she was overhearing. Uncle was complaining that his coffee was thin and Auntie replied that she had used twenty beans. The war was on, even for border personnel. Uncle was grumbling, his spoon tinkling as he stirred his coffee. The conversation turned to her own breakfast, which Kati was preparing.
“A child should eat eggs,” remarked Uncle.
“But I don’t ever cook for breakfast. There’s no sense in arousing the neighbors.”
He scoffed. “Tell them your husband’s hungry!”
“They’ll shoot us all!”” Kati mocked.
“Cook her an egg!” he thundered.
Then came a ruminative silence. “Where are her papers?” Auntie asked finally. “You said it would take just a few weeks.”
Uncle made no reply. Then she heard Auntie’s hurried footsteps, the back door opening and closing, heading out to the hens.
By winter’s end Kati had resumed her customary workday and expected Anca to keep herself busy. But the balls of clay that she gave her to mold quickly lost their novelty. Without her fingers, her left hand was limited, but she seemed to favor it. Her right was certainly clumsy. More than once Auntie Kati had asked her what had happened to her hand, but she acted mute.
“She’s useless for doing the washup or the mending,” Auntie complained to Uncle. “I don’t know what to do with her all day. She stands at the curtain looking out.”
“Well, you’ve got her imprisoned,” said Ilie, getting up, tucking in his work shirt. He folded up the newspaper. “There’s no reason she can’t go outside. I told you. Her papers are in order. I’ve seen to her registration with the county.”
She was in her usual listening place near the back window.
“I worry,” Kati said. She was filling Uncle’s lunch pails from the pots on the stove.
“About what?” How can you ask me?” She spilled a little of the soup she was ladling.
“We can’t hide her forever,” shrugged Ilie.
“What if her papers are suspicious?”
“They’re perfect, I told you.”
“She’ll need a new coat,” Kati said, after a moment. She snapped the lids and handed him his lunch. “I’ve laundered that coat twice now, beaten it with the broom, but it’s still sending up flour clouds.”
“Cut rags from it,” he suggested.
She nodded. “A shame because it’s excellent tailoring.”
The next day, Ilie brought home a burlap child’s coat. “Now there is nothing standing in your way,” he told Kati. “Let the stir-crazy child out!”
Kati bundled her up, tying a scarf around her head. She bent down to be at eye level, giving her an abrupt shake. “Keep your hand inside your pocket!” she said warningly. “And if anyone ever asks you what happened to it don’t act dumb. Say you were born with it this way.”
She made it sound as if there would be people lined up to meet her, but in fact the garden and yard were almost as quiet as the house. Still, the spring air was pleasant and Anca seemed enlivened by it. She lingered in the barn, petting the goat after Kati milked it. She gamely carried the water buckets up from the well. While Kati hung out laundry Anca roamed Uncle’s garden, on the verge of spring. Kati took the clothespins from her mouth when someone she knew passed by and conversed in Hungarian or Romanian, depending.
“She’s come to us from Sibiu. Ilie’s sister’s child, rest her soul,” said Kati, stirring the air with the sign of the cross. The postman straddling his bicycle tipped his cap, but she didn’t look up. She was cracking the frozen puddles with her shoe heel. “She’s a bit withdrawn,” Kati hastened to add. “It’s understandable.”
Kati took the letter he was handing her, her eyes fixing on the Hungarian stamp.
The postman’s squeaky wheels grew fainter down the road.
György’s letter confirmed what she’d overheard in the market about the organization of a ghetto in Szeged and mass deportations now that the Germans had occupied Hungary. György said that it wasn’t possible to travel inside the ghetto confine and the only tram went through without stopping, all the windows painted. He had lost contact with the child’s mother.
She stuffed the letter into her apron pocket and looked over at Anca. What had György been thinking? She couldn’t imagine it. Her brother György had been the youngest of three (the oldest had died as a result of a farm accident). Their mother had always babied György. He had been everyone’s favorite. Kati had envied him, because he’d gone to college and was successful in business, but she didn’t envy him anymore.
The child was here to stay, wasn’t she? Although this possibility was implicit to begin with, given György’s marriage, she felt the weight of it and caught her breath.
Anca had stamped the broken ice into dust by now, the calf muscle bulging in her skinny leg, surprising determination on her face. She was a pretty girl. Everyone could see how pretty she was. She had gained a couple of kilos over the weeks. Maybe she would have the Tóth shoulders.
She waved Anca away from the ice like she was shooing the chickens.
There was to be a wedding in the village, and Auntie Kati knew the family. Uncle would be on border duty, but Auntie had no choice but to accept an invitation, and to bring Anca. The mother of the bride worked in an outlying factory and rode by the garden gate every day. She had stopped to confide her troubles over her pregnant daughter and had met the “orphaned niece,” declaring her an unexpected blessing that had befallen Uncle and Auntie. Over several evenings preceding the wedding, Auntie Kati went to lend a hand plucking chickens and rolling noodles. It was to be a big party—guests coming from other villages. “You will not be the only stranger, fortunately.”
The wooden church sat perched on a hillside, the afternoon sun casting a shadow of the steeple on the green grass. A crowd was gathering. The weather was fresh and it had been a long time since the last wedding in the village. Women carried cakes for the party—flourless, honey-sweetened cakes, precious and lovingly decorated, whose presence transformed the walk to the church into a parade. The bride and wedding party brought up the rear. The young woman was dressed in traditional bridal dress, elaborately embroidered in bright colors. The same flower motif was repeated in the headdress, and symbolic strands of wheat were woven in.
The bride was a homely, chubby girl, her cheeks pocked with pimples. Long ago, when Anca was still Éva, she would have objected, her sensibilities offended by the unattractive bride, but she had only the faintest inkling of this at the moment. Standing on the roadside with Auntie watching the procession, she felt only goodwill for the couple. She was grateful to be out of the house and in a crowd of people, a part of something. She had never been to a wedding.
The bridal group and their invited guests went up the steps of the wooden church while the rest of the crowd, practically the entire village, milled about in the churchyard awaiting the party. She was pleased to be going inside with Auntie. She held Auntie’s hand and climbed the steps. The church interior was disappointingly spare, but there was a large candelabrum burning in the center of the wooden altar. She sat down next to Auntie in one of the rear pews. Her eyes lifted from the candles to the large wooden crucifix suspended from the rafters. She stared in horror at the plaster figure, the hands and feet driven through with nails. It seemed very strange that the wedding ceremony should take place underneath that swinging cross but nobody else seemed to think so. She looked around questioningly at the faces in the church.
The groom was just a boy in a soldier’s uniform. He also had a pimply face. The priest said the blessings. After a few jabs of Auntie’s finger she sat still through the entire ceremony. Only when she thought about it was she aware of a change in herself: Anca was different than Éva. Anca was not so demanding. She recalled how she used to recoil at the sight of the warm milk or yogurt that Auntie set out for her each morning, but now she ate her breakfast with gusto. She delighted in the bride and groom kissing.
The church bell had disappeared at the outset of the war, but someone struck a chord on a violin when the couple led the way out of the church, bound at the wrists with a ceremonial piece of cloth. Everyone made their way to the bride’s uncle’s house, the second house down from the church, and, with a salt cracker and shot of pálinka served, the party got under way. There was a roasting pig on a spit in the center of the yard. Gypsy music was playing on a phonograph. The crowd milled about. She was quickly absorbed in the festivities. Most everyone was speaking Hungarian and the air smelled of sweet pork. Someone handed her a stick and Auntie took it from her and skewered a little cube of bread from the basket, then nudged her over to the roasting pit.
“Here, catch the drips,” said Auntie. She gulped, catching herself, and quickly said it again, in Romanian.
Auntie was in a state of high alert after her slip. She insisted they would leave shortly, but the cake hadn’t even been served. Slices were just now being passed around, first to the children. Auntie couldn’t deny her a piece of cake! She looked longingly at the plates gliding past. Then one stopped in front of her face.
“Köszönöm szépen,” she chirped without thinking, making the same mistake as Auntie. She glanced up at the woman serving her the cake.
The woman smiled, remarking to Auntie Kati, “She knows Hungarian.”
Auntie looked stricken. “A little bit. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you,’” she recovered quickly. The server moved on and Auntie shot a harsh glance at her, speaking through tight lips. “We leave directly after your cake.”
She nodded quickly, trying not to shovel the cake into her mouth so quickly, gazing around at the other children at the wedding. She had not laid eyes on another child in a long while. She also had not tasted sweets. She was enveloped in the happy frenzy and didn’t even notice Auntie Kati elbowing her to leave.
Auntie leaned in, meaningfully, “Anca, it’s time to go.”
She didn’t want to leave! People had begun to dance the csárdás. The music galloped forward out of the big phonograph horn. She squirmed away from Auntie’s sharp pinch. Auntie Kati looked around frantically, at a loss. Just then they heard a motorcycle engine over the music. She and Auntie turned to see Uncle roaring through the village on his motorbike, spewing mud, dogs giving chase. Recalling the imaginary gun he once held to her head, she got soberly to her feet and took Auntie’s hand.
Uncle pumped the horn as he went by the party and people waved.
“His position at the border makes him a celebrity,” someone said to Auntie.
“It’s true, people depend on Ilie,” Auntie said modestly.
As they walked away, Auntie loosened her hold. In a little while she began to hum the csárdás. She seemed to be in a good mood, despite the mistakes.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” Auntie asked.
“‘She takes after her uncle.’ Did you hear everyone saying it about you?” Auntie looked pleased, the constant crossness in her face giving way to something softer, serene.
Really, her only likeness to her uncle was a darker complexion but it seemed to count for everything. Uncle Ilie was tall and hulking with beady eyes and a wiry black mustache. He was an eccentric with a hard heart, except when it came to his grapes, the sweetest in the village. Although he often ordered her around, he was more patient than Auntie. He discussed his grapes with her, calling on her to test and compare the varieties. She was tireless stomping the grapes for his wine. Even though he could be mean, she was at ease with Uncle. She always felt he didn’t care where she came from, even if he acted as if she owed them. He paid no mind to her crippled hand during the meager cereal harvest, demanding she do her share in bundling the wheat in the fields, barking at her to pick up the pace before the crop spoiled.
The Russians were driving the Germans out of Romania. The war was ending, Auntie said, but it was no cause for celebration with Russian soldiers encamped on the edge of town. Even girls of her young age were sent to hide in the haystacks. In the middle of the night, Uncle carried her out into the field wrapped in a blanket and tucked her in between the bales.
“Don’t even sneeze,” he warned her. “Understand?”
She cocked her thumb and forefinger, pointing to her temple.
He leaned in, kissing her forehead, and then he was gone until the next night.
It was a tense few days for all of Crisu. At night, she was warm and dry between the straw bales, but during the day she was sweltering. Braiding the straw required concentration she couldn’t muster in the heat, right-handed. Her skin itched. It wasn’t possible to sit up straight, so she lay curled up on the ground for endless hours. She closed her eyes and went inward.
There had been a storybook that her mother often read to her. She could see her mother’s hands holding the book, the identical moons rising on each of her thumbnails. With a rush of blood, she heard the timbre of Mama’s voice.
Once upon a time there lived a princess who possessed exceptional vision. She could see inside a mountain. To her, the stars were balls of fire, nothing was lost to her, and no one could hide from her.
She remembered suddenly a woodcut illustration of black boots. They were the swineherd’s boots, bestowed on him by an eagle he meets along the journey to the palace. She opened her eyes and the boots went away. Still, she could hear her mother. She was saying to her, “Éva, soon you will have to be my clever swineherd.” But she hated those boots. She was the princess!
Her mother’s throat was wrapped in a towel because it was sore, and her hair was loose. She had waves of hair. It was when Mama no longer cared if Éva sat at the table for supper. She would tear pieces from what was left of yesterday’s bread—the bread she used to feed the pigeons—and they would soften it in their glasses of tea. After supper Mama read to her.
“Éva, darling, the princess is haughty and proud.”
She bobbed up and down on the couch, more buoyant with every declaration: “She can see down to the bottom of the sea! She can see inside the fish’s mouth!”
“But the princess can’t see herself. That’s why she can’t find the swineherd when he hides inside the rose of her corsage.” Mama grabbed her tightly and looked intently down at her. “Don’t you see, my darling? You must be resourceful like the swineherd, cultivating friends who will help you hide.”
“I can be who I want to be!” Snatching the book up, flinging it clumsily.
She inhaled the hay and stared down at her maimed hand. It was not a dream, it was a memory. If she tried to make a fist with her hand she would feel sharp pain. She did it anyway. Her throat ached from wanting to cry. She consoled herself thinking how she’d gotten used to “Anca,” and she was no longer afraid of Auntie or Uncle. They weren’t ever unkind, really. She had grown accustomed to Auntie’s barking like a farm dog. She wiped away a single tear.
In the growing dark she looked forward to Uncle’s arrival. He would come to her with food and to apply an ointment for the rash that had broken out on her skin. Only once, in the few days that she hid, did she hear Russian, someone shouting along the road. Otherwise it was just the Gypsy sisters hiding in the haystack ten meters away. She tried to make out their mixed-up Romanian.
At Yalta, in 1945, Romania’s fate was sealed in a handshake between Churchill and Stalin and the Iron Curtain was erected. At the border, everyone sat tight while the powers shifted and Transylvania was restored. During this time, another letter arrived from Szeged, enclosing Éva Farkas’s Hungarian identification papers. György must have sent them but there was no note. Kati wasn’t sure what to make of it and then, a week later, there was a telegram from György’s wife reporting his suicide. Kati went to the post office and sent her condolences to Ildikó, whom she’d never liked.
It rained for days. By the end of the week she could bear Anca’s restlessness no longer. The child was bouncing around the house. “Stop it!” she called from the seat of her potter’s wheel. “Stop that hopping. I can’t center the vase.” Kati leaned over the wet clay. She had been wondering all week how to give Anca the news.
“Auntie, it’s not raining!” she exclaimed, running to the window.
Kati stared past her. There were deep puddles in the road. She thought of the grove on the ridge. “We’ll gather mushrooms,” she said. “Get your coat.”
A dank quiet had settled under the woodland trees. The mushrooms were plentiful, deep orange with white undersides, striated and velvety. Kati’s fingers dug deftly down into the loamy earth, extracting the clump with its root.
“There’s been a telegram,” she said slowly, sitting back on her haunches, studying Anca. The girl’s cheeks were pink from running the entire way, and the curls on her head shimmered with droplets of mist. She held out the burlap for the mushroom and Kati gently deposited it, sighing. She bolstered herself finally. “Your father, my brother György, has thrown himself in front of a train.”
Anca looked blank.
“György Tóth,” prompted Kati.
Anca asked, “Why?”
Kati paused, then reached out to embrace her. “His heart was broken.” It was the truth, she was sure of it. “Your parents are both gone now, I’m afraid.” Kati noticed Anca’s crippled hand had begun to tremble. “Why is it doing that?” she whispered, feeling spooked. “Hide it, put it in your pocket!” She glanced around at the ghostly fog moving between the trees. She grabbed the burlap and got to her feet.
They walked back through the trees. At the edge of the grove, Kati told her she could run ahead if she liked. She didn’t fly away like a dog let off its leash but kept on at Kati’s side.
Despite the risk they presented, Kati never could bring herself to destroy the Hungarian papers. After all, György must have sent them to her for safekeeping. She tucked Éva Farkas’s identification inside the Hungarian Bible she kept hidden under her mattress.
A week later Kati was in the garden crushing the blackened heads of sunflowers over a seed sifter.
“The sunflowers require two hands,” she insisted, when Anca came outside and asked to help. She had too much energy for one small child. Sometimes Kati wished she would just disappear. “Go and pick Uncle’s grapes,” she suggested.
“They’re not ripe yet, Auntie.” She wandered off.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kati watched her petting the goat and scattering cornmeal for the hens. She played at tossing stones into an old wine crate. Then she dragged the crate over to the wall for a step stool and scrambled up the side, swinging a leg over.
“Be careful!” Kati called out.
She stood up on top of the wall and flapped her arms like wings. Kati bit her lip. She was not going to watch her hurt herself. She turned back to her work. The sunflowers’ withered heads, gathered together and cinched with twine, disintegrated easily, leaving their hard seeds in Kati’s fingers.
“Auntie, where is my mother?” She had seated herself now, dangling her feet. She looked down at Kati from a few meters away.
Kati paused and squared herself, a hand at her aching back. The sun was strong, dark crescents had appeared under her arms. Hadn’t Anca understood in the forest the other day?
“It’s time she came to fetch me,” she persisted, legs swinging.
“This is your home now,” Kati replied.
“Maybe Mama doesn’t know where I am,” she suggested, brow furrowing.
“Your mother’s gone. All the Jews were killed,” said Kati sharply, first in Romanian and then in Hungarian so that there could be no mistaking it. “And, now, György is gone, too. I told you already. They sent you to Crisu to keep you safe. There was no escaping—only for you.” She felt frustrated for having to say it all over again. “You’re a big girl. You must stop pretending.” Kati walked around to the opposite side of the seed tray, turning her back and ignoring the tiny pebbles from the masonry that Anca pelted in her direction. When the pebbles ceased, Kati glanced curiously over her shoulder. Anca was on her feet again. She’d gone back to flapping her long arms and then holding them aloft on a current of wind.
Once upon a time, she had been known as Éva.
She was inside the roses looking out, crouched beneath the canopy of brambles so that Péter couldn’t find her. She was ignoring her mother’s calls, determined not to give her hiding place away. Now she could see her mother descending the stair, her graceful profile and languid step, reaching back absently to untie her apron as she went.
“Go away Mama!” she hissed under her breath. Across the courtyard, Péter was searching between the drying racks. She felt tickled by his blindness.
Her mother’s footsteps sounded on the courtyard bricks. Soon her face appeared, peeking under the thorns, her long rope of a braid swinging over one shoulder. “Éva, it’s time to come inside.”
Éva stuck out her tongue in reply. How did her mother always know exactly where to find her? Just then, Péter came running, hard leather soles slapping the cobbles, and Éva shrieked at having been found out. She slipped through her secret hole in the brambles and darted off. Péter gave chase but Éva was the princess, faster, more powerful. She snatched her mother’s apron on her way and ran with it billowing. Her mischievous laughter pealed through the courtyard, her heart-shaped face flushed with possibility.
Her mother shook her head in dismay. She wasn’t strict enough. She was making a mistake in raising Éva without God. Eszter Farkas was twenty-five years old, a girl herself. She sighed, turning resignedly for the stairs.
Soon Éva was charging up from behind. “Here I am, Mama! See? I’m coming!” Éva flung her arms around her, pressing her moist face into her skirt. “I love you, Mama!”
“I love you, too,” she said, gently unwrapping herself. “But next time, come when I call you.”
“I couldn’t help it!” She glanced back at Péter, who had turned to bouncing a ball.
“Oh? Why is that?” Eszter held out her hand and Éva grasped it. They took the last steps together.
“Because I was the princess and I was hiding,” Éva said.
“It’s the swineherd who hides from the princess, Éva.”
“But that’s not the way I play it!” Éva retorted.
“Well, be yourself now,” she sighed. “Your father will have dinner with us.”
György Tóth was almost twenty years older than Eszter, a married man, already the father of two grown children. She had met him at the tennis club where her mother was an instructor. When she was barred from entering university, she wasn’t too proud to accept a job in his coat factory. Within a year she was pregnant with his child. Her parents shunned her. György had secured this rental for her on the city outskirts, a neighborhood of working-class houses where few Jews resided.
Eszter had laid the table and swept the floors. She was in the bedroom pulling on stockings when Éva came from washing her hands and face. She ushered her onto the step stool.
“Do the buttons for me, Dovey?” She owned two evening dresses, both gifts from György, for wearing when he visited. She held her breath as Éva’s little fingers climbed the line of buttons up the back. The Germans were demanding reorganization. She had read it in the newspaper that morning. She breathed in her anxiety.
“Did the zipper bite you, Mama?” Éva quickly asked.
“Oh, no. I’m yawning, a little tired, that’s all.”
Éva stepped down from the stool and stood biting her fingernails.
Eszter smiled at her. “Now, sit while I comb your hair for you?”
She jumped backward, out of reach, hoping to incite a chase.
Eszter brought the wooden comb, seating herself on the edge of the bed. “Come,” she said brightly. “I’ll tell you the story of ‘The Princess Who Saw Everything.’”
She was compliant suddenly, swiveling around, presenting what was left of the morning braid. Eszter recounted the tale from memory. She had read it to Éva countless times. She studied the wooden comb on its downard press through the thick forest of her daughter’s curls.
1. As the book progresses from wartime Hungary to Communist Romania, what are the similarities? Is it poverty and hunger or fear of brutal authority that grinds the people down more?
2. From a flour sack to a haystack to fox furs, smuggling and hiding of people and things pervade the book. Talk about the incidents when characters are driven to subterfuge.
3. What is the quality of Anca’s mind? Would you call it a shifting balance between headstrong bravery and paranoid diffidence? Give examples of these conflicting impulses, starting from her childhood.
4. Are you surprised that Éva, witness to her mother’s brutal assault, and later as Anca, victim herself to multiple attacks, ever can trust anyone?
5. How are Gypsies and Jews linked thematically in the story?
6. Is it fitting that Éva/Anca develops an affinity with outsiders? Talk about Crin, the Gypsy boy (pp. 53-54) and Irina and Levente, the albino boy in Szeged.
7. “Bunica was always irreverent. She refused to feel threatened by the Stalinist cultural regime, which by now had reached the villages” (p. 56). Is irreverence a trait of survival? “Going to church was an act of protest that Bunica never tired of” (p. 57).
8. Tennis and table tennis as team sports begin as salvation for Anca but end in disenchantment. Why?
9. What is Anca’s attitude toward being Jewish? What is her experience of being treated as a Jew? Do you think she will reclaim this part of her heritage?
10. How does Éva, herself a refugee, become a caregiver again and again?
11. Are there good marriages in the novel? Whose? Which are the relationships that reaffirm the power of love, loyalty, or at least friendship? What are the degradations that often doom love in the book?
12. “Her banished self, the isolated past, was a dense forest. She felt its pull” (p. 107). As Anca begins to identify Peter in Romania, what are the risks to redeeming her “banished self”?
13. After Anca’s maimed hand is restored to her, Peter’s roommates “hypothesized that the deformity was also a psychic injury,” and Peter concurs. “You are living a lie here. We should get married” (p. 115). How do these issues work out?
14. Is there any hint about what makes totalitarianism thrive in Europe? Is it only fear that keeps people in their places, often ignoring the brutalizing and slaughtering of whole populations? Is there a different fear, a paranoia of enemies around the fatherland worse than the occupiers? What fuels the youth groups?
15. How does the Éva of post-1990 Hungary differ from the Anca of Romania she has been for nearly fifty years? Is there a new authenticity she is granted? Can you describe it? “She is rapidly coming up for air after Communism” (p. 211). How does Éva react to this disorienting feeling?
16. “If you were ambidextrous, you could survive life during Communism” (p. 271). What all does “ambidextrous” mean for Éva/Anca? Later in Szeged, how does she use her negotiating skills with the banana seller? (p. 209) How does she shrewdly supplement her income? What are other ways she has of feathering her nest? How do we regard Éva for cutting corners at this point in her life? Do you censure, or admire her ingenuity? What other characters have contrived to scratch out income in unusual ways in the book?
17. By the end, has Éva made peace with her childhood and adult lives? What evidence is there? Or, like perhaps most post-war, post-trauma victims, will she cope by drawing a curtain over the horrors?
18. “What are you escaping, Martin?” “An unresolved life” (p. 265). Describe Martin. Even as an American, what do he and Éva share in their “unresolved” lives?
19. What new aspects does Martin Tierny bring into Éva’s life? How much laughter have we heard in the book before?
20. “Something inside Éva is unfurling, layers giving way” (p. 276). What is it that releases her from her distrust? Martin? Levente? A combination?
21. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” This is a mysterious quotation attributed to George Eliot, but do you find it apt for Smuggled? Does the ending catch you by surprise? Does it seem credible? Why? Or why not? Do you think Éva’s experiences have been such that can make this resolution work?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi; Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie; Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum; The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer; The Hooligan’s Return by Norman Manea; Purge by Sofi Oksanen