Paulette Rommel

He was resting on a bench in a Budapest park when he'd looked into a stroller and glimpsed the child who would change his life. This stroller was blue, the color of sky, and it was parked beside the bench directly across from his, with a uniformed nursemaid seated beside it. He'd been aware for some time that this stroller was there, but he hadn't paid it much mind. It was only when the nursemaid had leaned forward and dropped the stroller's hood that he'd sensed movement and looked reflexively toward it.

It was the child's head he'd noticed first: it was misshapenly large and thinly thatched with blue-white hair. The huge moon face was inset with pale round eyes, clear and enormous, with the left turning drunkenly inward. There was a nose of sorts but it was snub-flat and incompetently sculpted, as if constructed from clay by a child. Its strange lips were parted, twitched in a mindless smile.

The child's limbs, he saw, were hideously stunted. The sleeves of its white shirt were short for the summer and he could see that in the place where should be its arms were seal-like appendages that resembled flippers. Stumps of legs protruded from its leather shorts. The child was so grotesquely deformed that it was difficult to gauge its age, but he guessed it to be about three years old.

He just sat for some minutes, stunned, his hand flat against his chest. But, as he sat, dazedly staring, an idea had come to him. Water came to his eyes as this idea surged through his soul; his whole body shuddered. Deformed children were high currency in his family's begging trade. His second brother had paid a fortune in Sarajevo for a boy with lobster hands. The third brother had paid thousands to purchase a crippled girl in Romania (a bad bargain for the third brother, because as was so often the case with bought children, the girl turned out to be a surly creature who spat at tourists on the street). He was Zurka, the fourth brother, a mediocre pickpocket with little money to buy anything, but now, gazing at this tot, he felt that queer weightless sensation a man feels when he's figured a way to get something he badly wants. What he hadn't figured on was how easy it all would be.

He'd initially set his day's pickpocketing to work the trade coming out of the island park's two hotels, but now his concentration was ruined. He kept his place on the bench and, when he could, sneaked looks at the child from behind his newspaper. Several times during this period the nursemaid rose to tend the child, adjusting the stroller's hood against the sun, and giving the child drinks. In each instance he pulled back and pretended not to be looking; but as soon as the woman returned to her book, his attention went back to the child. After an hour he moved to another bench for fear his dazzled eyes would betray him.

And so it was that Zurka was more than a little startled when, a few moments after he'd moved to the new position, the child's nursemaid came over to his bench.

"Sir," she said. "I have to leave briefly. Would you keep an eye on my stroller until I return? The child is asleep. I've raised the hood to shield him from the sun."

Keep an eye on her stroller? Her words hit him with ironic effect. His eyes hadn't left the stroller since he'd seen what was inside. He looked up at this woman, a bulky iron-haired soul who stood looking down at him without giving hint of a smile; he couldn't see her eyes clearly behind the grayed lens of her glasses but her face was ruddy and as precisely round as a coin.

He just stared at the woman, for an instant paralyzed, then he twisted his wrist to sweep air with his hand. "Of course, of course. Please, madame... I invite you... go ahead." He lifted his hat and quickly showed her some teeth. It was the best he could do, put on the spot.

This seemed to satisfy the woman; she nodded, slung her bag over her shoulder and turned decisively back out to the main path. She moved efficiently for a woman of her bulk, propelling herself on legs thick as logs down the path and deeper into the island toward the theater; Zurka supposed she was going to the W.C. there. He watched her dazedly until she was too small to see. When he was satisfied that she was truly gone, he stood up and stretched his arms, warily shooting looks around. No one was looking.

When he was sure no one was watching, he gathered his things and with pounding heart stepped toward the bench the woman had left. When he came abreast of the stroller he put one hand on its handle, leaned down and had a look inside. The back of the stroller, he saw, had been dropped flat to make a bed. Inside this canvas cradle, head resting on a pillow printed with little bears, the child lay on its back, asleep; the lid of one eye was slightly ajar, revealing a slice of blue iris. The child's facial skin looked like unbaked dough; drool silvered the bloodless lips, which, he saw, had relaxed their grip on a pacifier nipple device.

Gently, he pulled the pacifier from the child's mouth and slid it into his jacket pocket. He had another good look around, and then, satisfied that no one was watching, he spread his raincoat over the child, covering it up to the chin. He tucked his umbrella and newspaper in the space beside.

After another look around, he put both hands on the stroller's handle and kicked off the foot-brake. He squared his shoulders and, keeping a pleasant gaze ahead, began pushing the stroller in a leisurely pace back down the path toward the footbridge. It was his idea that he should have a story to cover himself if challenged. He'd say he'd found the child abandoned and was taking it to the police.

He had crossed the footbridge and was turning the stroller onto the larger Margit bridge when, from inside the park, came the sound of a woman's screams. Zurka kept calm; he pushed the stroller onto the Margit bridge and stopped on its raised concrete pedestrian walk. He dropped to a squat beside the stroller and searched its undercarriage cargo tray; inside he found two thermoses, six paper diapers, two plastic nursing bottles and a ring of toy plastic keys. He pulled them out and stuffed them into various hidden pockets in his coat.

Gently, he lifted the sleeping child from the stroller, swung it up against his shoulder and covered it with the coat. He removed his things from the stroller and left it conspicuously parked on the pedestrian path of the bridge, knowing that it would be stolen before the police would find it. He then set off walking with the child in an unhurried pace across the bridge, crossing over the Danube from Pest into verdant Buda at the other side.

* * * * * * *

Things seemed to happen in a blur after Zurka arrived at the metro. He had the sensation of his life rushing like a train across tracks, with everything speeding up and happening at once. He discarded his umbrella and newspaper in the catacomb caves of the metro stop. It grieved him to lose these possessions but what with the child now, and its paraphernalia, it was too much to keep up with, and his nervousness had increased. Things were moving with ferocious speed and he knew there would be no turning back. Some odd unnameable fear had seized him, diluting the euphoria he felt at having the child. He fed coins into a pay telephone and called his first brother, Nanosh, back in their village, and in great agitation confessed what he'd done. He told Nanosh to have their second brother prepare his car for a journey. Hurry! Hurry! Time was of essence. Those who aided him would be rewarded.

* * * * * * *

On the journey back to his village he clutched the child to him, dazedly watching trees and houses shoot in a blur past the train's window; he had the sensation of his poor heart ticking inside him like a terrorist's bomb; at one point his anxiety became so overwhelming that he was tempted to abandon the sleeping child on the seat and rush off at the next stop, but he overrode it. He was careful, of course, to keep the child's limbs covered and he held it pressed against his shoulder, hidden from others' view. He'd been relieved to find the train uncrowded. What passengers there were were dour and indifferent; each mulled his own concerns. The child awakened once. Zurka swaddled him in the coat, held him as one holds an newborn infant, and fed him juice from the nursing bottle. The child nursed sweetly, then fell back to sleep. Again the rapture spread inside him; this child would give no trouble.

* * * * * * *

As bidden, Nanosh and the second brother were waiting in the village with Zurka's son and a journey-readied car. Zurka left the stolen child with staggered relatives in his brother's garden and rushed into the house for their papers and valuables; he prepared thermoses of liquids and supervised the preparation of a sleeping potion for the child, who would have to be smuggled across the border. When things were prepared to his satisfaction, he reclaimed the child from the relatives and made a snug place for him beside his own place in the rear seat; his son, Lotyó, shanghaied from a day's dancing in Szentendre, sat up front with the second brother. Zurka sensed from his son's heavy silence and sullen glances that he resented this disruption of routine. But he'd adjust. The boy was accustomed to sudden moves and shifts of fortune that were their people's lot. They'd lived in three different houses in three different countries since Lotyó's mother died.

* * * * * * *

They made it to the border well before midnight and idled four hours in a line of traffic waiting to be processed across. Sometime before dawn, with the drugged child hidden under blankets in back, they crossed into Romania . Once inside Romania , they drove steadily and arrived to Cluj as breakfast was being served in the house of their cousin. The cousin's mother awaited them inside the kitchen with fig cakes and strong coffee; her eyes grew wide when Zurka showed her the child. She peeled away his blanket and examined him, touching him all over.

"Never have I have such a child," she said, her huge goat's eyes boring into Zurka's as she shifted the child back into his arms. Zurka said nothing but his heart flooded with pride.

Lotyó, who was bringing in things from the automobile, shot the woman a scornful look.

"He is the ugliest child you ever saw! Foolish hag!" He threw down the eiderdowns he'd been lugging inside.

Zurka caught the old woman's wrist when she lurched out to strike his son, but gave the boy a sharp cuff from his own hand and furiously ordered him from the room. He made a show of kissing the old woman's hand before releasing it.

The cousin's mother was not appeased; she gave Zurka a black look and strode off in a fury. Zurka laid the child on the table, bent down, collected the eiderdowns and shook them out. Visible sadness had come to his eyes. He was finding it harder and harder to know his only son. The boy had inherited his mother's fluid dark beauty, and Zurka's slightness of form, but his talent was his own. In early childhood he'd mastered flamenco; his red sequined suit and arrogant grace set tourists' souls afire. But now, at twelve, he was subject to odd moods and his child's body was changing. Hair had darkened above his lip and he'd unclothe only at night. Zurka tried to look at it from his son's perspective. In Hungary Lotyó had been star performer in the second brother's dance troupe. Uprooted now to Romania , he'd have to join another troupe, or dance alone. It was natural that he resented this move; given time, he'd adjust.

* * * * * * *

Zurka's stolen child, a boy, could not walk, they'd discovered, did not talk, could not toilet itself, but could drink from a cup, if assisted, and eat solid food if fed; it seemed to understand what was told it. Further, it seemed to enjoy being held and petted. The cousin's young daughters, attracted by the child's gilt hair and docile nature, tried to make a doll of it and took to wheeling it around in a cart in the garden, but Zurka put a stop to it. He didn't want the cousin's dull-witted girls playing with his valuable boy.

Within the week news arrived from Budapest . Someone in the shops had seen a notice in the newspaper and told Nanosh about it. The notice said a boy had been stolen from St. Margit's park. This boy, Klaus Bauer, a Swiss citizen, had been brought to Budapest for treatment at the Peto Institute; his nursemaid, suspected in the disappearance, was being questioned by the police.

* * * * * * *

As soon as they judged it safe to do business (on a sharp-sunned day in July) Zurka and the cousin dressed the kidnapped child in rags and laid him on a blanket in the main square of the city. By now they'd dyed the boy's white hair black, and masked his pale eyes with dark-lensed glasses. The commercial benefit was that now the child appeared blind, as well as deformed.

Their take from the boy's first day's work exceeded their wildest expectation--almost every tourist who saw him dropped something in his bowl; two Americans, a couple, the wife distraught, had emptied their pockets, returned to their hotel and rushed back with more money. And so it was that the child was established in business. And each day, when the child was brought home from the day's begging, even before the money was counted, Zurka would prepare a bath. He'd strip off the child's ragged begging clothes, lay him in a pan of scented water and gently bathe his body.

He insisted on bathing the boy himself; it pleased him to see the naked child's skin. Zurka's people, the Nadosh, were intensely dark-skinned, with vast mournful eyes and slick, mirrored hair. The child's skin was tightly woven and blue-white, like the ceramic skin of museum dolls. Several times while bathing the boy he'd seen Lotyó lurking, watching him with brooding, bitter eyes. But he'd dismissed the image.

During the first days he'd taken a miser's pleasure in looking at the child. But after a few weeks had passed, with the begging proceeds pouring in, the boy began to look truly beautiful to him. More beautiful even than Lotyó, who was physically perfect. Not only this, but Zurka found himself developing a genuine fondness for the stolen boy, whom he'd renamed Putzina after his own dead father.

* * * * * * *

When, in late August, word came from Turda that there would be a wedding feast for a high cousin, Zurka commissioned a woman to sew Putzina a silk suit, embroidered with flowers and birds. He couldn't wait to show off Putzina to the high relatives; he choked with pride at mere sight of Putzina, whom he had now fully adopted as a son and given his family's name. Everyone had come to love his dazzling second son. All, except, of course, Lotyó.

Zurka wanted to bring his sons together as brothers; he'd put Putzina in the same sleeping room with Lotyó, hoping they'd bond. But he'd had to separate them after one night, so much did he fear for his second son's safety. Lotyó refused to touch anything that touched Putzina and violently resisted others' efforts to involve them, insisting, vehemently, that the boy was not only ugly and cursed, but was Marime, unclean.

* * * * * * *

The cousin was irritated by Lotyó's attitude and wanted to send him back to Budapest . Zurka placated the cousin by appealing to his family instincts, and begged for more time. At the same time he redoubled his efforts to break Lotyó from his superstitious notions. He thought that when he could afford his own house things would be better.

He bought Lotyó a small radio with earphones and offered it as a gift from Putzina. Lotyó threw it down the toilet hole. And that wasn't even the oddest thing: each night the boy dragged his pallet outside to the cousin's car and slept inside it. Some strangeness was festering inside Lotyó and so it was understandable that Zurka didn't take him seriously when he made his first complaints about having soreness in his legs.

Why should Zurka have been alarmed? It didn't seem like anything at first, maybe a pulled muscle--growing pains; children were like that. Maybe he'd gotten a cramp in his legs from sleeping in the car. But then, in September, on the morning of the day they were to depart for the wedding feast, two months before Lotyó would turn thirteen, the boy refused to budge from his pallet. He said he had no feeling in his legs.

At first Zurka was angry. He was sure it was a ruse from Lotyó to avoid the wedding and the attention it would bring Putzina. But the boy stuck fast to his story, insisting he couldn't move his legs. As time went Zurka saw all spirit drain out of his son. Day after day he lay listless and frail on his pallet, barely picking at the food that was brought him. He no longer spat at or struck out at Putzina, and impassively allowed him to share the room. Once, Zurka actually thought he saw Lotyó smile at Putzina, but it was a strange, sickening little smile.

After four weeks had passed with no change in Lotyó's condition, the cousin himself grew concerned and brought in a witch-woman from a village. This woman stripped the boy, laid him on the kitchen table and made a kohl mark on his forehead. She ran a knife blade along his legs, flat side down, working one leg, then the other, but Lotyó said he felt nothing. She made a dirt cross outside the house and buried coins in it. But her magic was worthless. Zurka refused to pay her.

In the next week a decapitated chicken miraculously appeared on their doorstep. A week after that it was the rotting carcass of a goat. This goat, as had been the chicken, was left sometime during the night. The cousin made a great issue of the incident as he interpreted it as a curse from the old woman and pressured Zurka to pay her. Zurka refused.

In mid-October Nanosh came from Budapest for a money meeting with Zurka and the cousin. The three were sitting at the kitchen table on the first night of the visit, sharing a jug of pálinka, when the cousin launched an account of Zurka's conflict with the witch-woman. When the cousin fearfully related the part about the dead animals left on their doorstep, Zurka slammed his glass against the table.

"Beheaded chickens! Rotting goats! These are cheap tricks to fool the Gajé. We are intelligent men, not superstitious boys! Shall we forget our own king's admonition to honor the times or be like the forest--burned by its own wood? Have we not surrendered our wagons for cars? Are we to be diverted by the tricks of women? Or are we men with men's brains?

"You know, as I know, Lotyó suffers from a medical sickness. He belongs in a hospital where the doctors make modern cures. Hear my proposal. I ask that you give me all proceeds from my second son's begging to put my first son in a hospital for treatment. Then, when he is healed, I swear on the heads of both my sons to give you all our shares for however long it takes to replace your losses, at triple your rate of interest. Brother, cousin, consider my offer; it is fair!"

Across the table Nanosh looked at Zurka for some time before he answered. "Brother, forgive me, but there will be no money from my purse. Who knows if the hospital could cure the boy or how long it would take. I, too, have a family to consider."

The cousin, who was sitting beside Zurka, put a hand on Zurka's shoulder. "Your first brother speaks truth. Lotyó's illness is written."

Zurka threw the cousin's hand off his shoulder. "Nothing is written! Nothing!" He leapt from his chair and fled the room.

* * * * * * *

After the blowup with the cousin Zurka spent hours each night lying on his pallet between his sons, stewing on this matter of the money. After much agitated thought the idea came to him that he deserved a greater share from Putzina's begging--the boy was his. It was sometime soon after this realization that a plan took form in his mind. He would steal the cousin's savings, and his car, to take Lotyó to the hospital in Bucharest ; he'd leave them Putzina so they could use him for begging. Afterwards, when Lotyó returned from Bucharest healed, the cousin would see the mercy of Zurka's act, forgive him the thefts.

* * * * * * *

It was not until November, two months after the high cousin's wedding and the onset of Lotyó's illness, that Zurka finally felt safe to make his move. He waited until the house was asleep after they'd all eaten and drunk heavily, celebrating the achievement of Lotyó's thirteenth year, then he left his pallet and crept into the kitchen. He knew from Lotyó where the cousin hid his money--in a box under a floor board in the kitchen.

What Lotyó didn't tell him, or didn't know, and what he couldn't see in the frail light from the moon, was that the cousin had fastened on an assortment of tiny round bells--of the type designed for a horse's harness--to the framework of the box. There was something slimy on the box's surface and when Zurka lifted the box out it slipped in his hands and set off the bells.

It seemed like no time passed between the sounding of the bells and when the door to the kitchen flew open and the cousin charged him. The cousin was massively built, with the arms of a bear; when his fist slammed into Zurka's face Zurka had the sensation of flying backwards through black skies lit by pinpricks of light. And for some hours after that he knew nothing.

* * * * * * *

He came back to consciousness sometime in the night. He was lying fully clothed on his pallet, his face was throbbing pulp. His nose was swollen almost shut; he could feel crusts of dried blood caked on the coarse hair above his lip. When he felt up under his lip, the tip of his probing finger went into a space at the front of his mouth where two teeth used to be.

And the pain, Sweet Spirits, the pain. It was a sea unto itself. It ebbed and flowed in its own tides and Zurka drifted with it all night and a good part of the following day, bobbing in and out of consciousness. Late that afternoon the cousin's mother came into his room with a basin of water and cloths. To spare himself the shame of having the old woman clean him, he crawled out of his pallet and cleansed himself of the blood. He went into the kitchen and had a little warm tea. To take his mind off the pain, he wrapped himself in an eiderdown and sat in weak sunshine in the garden, watching the cousin's wife take down her wash. Putzina was home from the day's begging but Zurka didn't have the strength to tend him. The cousin had left him with the women in the garden.

At some point as Zurka was sitting in the garden the cousin came out of the house and took a chair beside him. The cousin reached into his pocket, fished out a vial of capsules and set it on the small stump that stood before their chairs. "For pain," he said. "My gift."

Zurka stared at the vial and the ironic thought came to him that his pain was the cousin's gift too. When the cousin saw Zurka return his smile, bitterly, yet make no move to retrieve the vial, he turned his huge eyes on Zurka and Zurka felt repulsed. The yolks of the cousin's eyes were dull black against their whites; his coarse brows came together over the bridge of his nose. When the cousin saw Zurka staring at him, he threw out his hands and lifted air with the palms; he spread his fleshy lips and showed him some teeth.

"Zurka, my cousin, blood of my blood. Come to reason. Already the legs of your first son have begun to wither. There is nothing more to be done. In the words of the witch-woman, 'it is written'. But you can take comfort knowing that your second son, with his visible affliction, will assure the life of your first. Tomorrow we shall take your sons to the square and let them beg together as brothers. Why would you want to give your second son a secure livelihood and deprive the first?"

Zurka didn't answer. His eyes had left the face of the cousin and were fixed on Putzina, who was propped in a barrow, his body shrouded in blankets. The boy's head was covered by an acrylic cap, an Icelandic design knit in brown and putrid green. The membranous skin of his cheeks was chafed raw red from the cold; silver slime trickled from his odd flat nose.

One of the cousin's daughters, the oldest heaviest one, had made the boy a paper bird and was kneeling on the ground beside his cart, dangling this bird from a string. When a breeze stirred the bird and made it flutter, Putzina looked up to follow the movement.

Zurka saw Putzina look up to see the bird and said the child's name softly, like a prayer. When Putzina turned toward the voice, a shaft of sun struck his eyes, reflecting the stinging blueness; and Zurka, watching, felt a surge of dazzled pride.

© 2007 Paulette Rommel

Paulette Rommel, originally from the Albany, Georgia, lives in Connecticut with her husband whose hobby is sailing, so at the present time, both are busy sailing. She has written many stories about the South. She came in First and Second in distinguished English competitions, and is published in several literary publications.