On the Tracks

Nick Jones

            Emőke took us to the cemetery to see the kopjafa there, the Székely equivalent of a totem pole. The kopjafa is a carved wooden column not quite as thick as a tree trunk, and to the trained eye it shows how long the person it commemorates lived. We walked through the park, past the large granite cathedral. A touring bus was parked outside, a group of tourists from Hungary snapping pictures of the large cathedral, no doubt on a heritage tour of the lost lands of the old kingdom. Emőke told us that such groups are common, Hungarians who take pictures and buy an ice cream in each of the villages of Székelyföld, then go back to Budapest and go on with their lives.

Emőke told us about a dream she had the night before. She was at school with her classmates; they were playing a game that involved tossing live hand grenades back and forth. They asked her to join, but Emőke was too scared about the grenades blowing up in her hand. But her friends told her not to worry about it, you just have to make sure you get the grenade out of your hand before it explodes. If you can do that then there’s nothing to worry about.

We met one of Emőke’s friends from school on the street; the girl was coming back from taking a section of her graduation exams. Emőke explained to us how Hungarian-speaking students must take an extra exam because they are tested on Romanian literature and language as well as Hungarian, in addition to the normal science and math tests. Today’s Székely students were, however, lucky that they could take university entrance exams in Hungarian; their parents’ generation was required to sit entrance exams in Romanian, and as a result, college had been unavailable to most Székelys.

A car came down the narrow dirt road leading to the cemetery. It was packed with teenagers in black shirts, off to a midday funeral. We walked through the gate and wandered among the graves, noting the ones with kopjafa, reading the Bible verses and bits of poetry etched into the stone. We admired a tall, dead pine tree in the middle of the graveyard; it towered over the surrounding trees with its bare branches reaching out over us, the kind of tree suited for buzzards to perch on.

We walked to the edge of the field of graves; Emőke told us that they buried suicide victims on the edge, apart from the other graves. She didn’t think this was fair; she said that it was wrong to separate them from their families and friends. Some people feel pain that others don’t, suffer in ways others can’t even know; they suffer in ways known only to God.

*          *          *

            Weeks later, back in Hungary, I woke on a train from Budapest to Szeged to what seemed the smell of burning rubber. The train was stopped, but we hadn’t pulled up to a platform; we appeared to be on the edge of a small town. From the perfectly flat fields extending to the horizon I knew we were in the alföld, but this only meant I was at most an hour or so outside of Szeged. It was an hour before sunset, and from the time I guessed we were not far from the destination, and if we could get started again within the next half hour I could still be ahead of schedule. I had parted from Leinenbach earlier in the day in Budapest, so I sat alone, trying to assess the situation by gleaning information from the hushed conversations around me.

Across the aisle a young couple savored the quiet; their two small children had finally fallen asleep. No doubt they wondered whether their kids would wake up now that the train had stopped. The guy in the seat in front of me playing video games made no sign indicating he had noticed the train had stopped.

We all waited in relative silence for twenty minutes or so. In Hungary, twenty minutes of unexplained delay isn’t too much to ask of train passengers: things happen. I tried to continue working my way through Moby Dick, but didn’t have the energy for it. Some passengers began to ask around about whether anyone knew when we’d be starting up again. A few got up from their seats and left the compartment and went to find a rail worker who could answer questions.

The news trickled back into the compartment, confirming what I had suspected. The train had hit someone, and the matter had to be sorted out before we could move on. We met the news not with shocked surprise, but mild annoyance. The young father across the aisle, upon hearing the news, offered an “Aww, great,” before getting out his phone to arrange for a family friend to pick them up and take them the rest of the way into Szeged. A woman in her mid-thirties phoned her boyfriend to inform him she’d be late; they spent a few minutes deciding the kind of pizza to order for the night.

I wasn’t particularly shocked either. These things happen in Hungary, and suicide by locomotive seems to be a popular way to go. I had once been delayed two hours by an “accident” while traveling from Budapest to Nyíregyháza, a journey that is quite long to begin with. I had waited out the delay by playing cards with friends, but this time my options were more limited. Despite the lack of communication between us, I felt more connected to my fellow travelers, united by our growing dislike of whoever had decided to step in front of our train, of all the trains that pass through this forgettable town on a given day. Not only could he have waited a few minutes for our train to pass and used the next one, he could have made his exit in a number of other ways that wouldn’t have inconvenienced as many people. He could have sat in a hot bath and opened up his veins – a bit messy for whoever is on scene first, but in the end a much cleaner method than getting smashed by a train. He could have taken poison or wandered into a quiet field and put a bullet in his head; he could have tied blocks to his feet and jumped into a lake or sealed himself in a room with a few lumps of burning charcoal. He could have waited until winter and wandered off drunk into the forest to freeze, another Hungarian classic. After nearly an hour I was almost angry at this individual and what I guessed was a selfish desire to force his memory on all of us, to live on past the gory end by inconveniencing as many people as possible.

I listened carefully to try and figure out how far out of Szeged we were. I decided if we were only a few kilometers away it might be worth it to shoulder my pack and hoof it into the city. Finally, the conductor made an official announcement over the intercom: the train had, unfortunately, hit someone on the tracks and it would not be arriving in Szeged on schedule. The conductor stated that police had arrived and were completing a mandatory examination of the scene, and that alternative transportation would be arranged for all passengers. I heard from someone that we were only a hundred yards outside of the Kistelek train station; it was a name I remembered from when I had lived in Szeged, but I wasn’t sure how far out Kistelek was and decided to stay put. By chance I caught another bit of information from one of the more informed passengers; “még keressik a lábát”: they’re still looking for his leg.

Sometimes you can tell where a suicide occurred from the white paint they sprinkle on the tracks to cover the blood. I learned this from Lajos, a friend in Tatabánya; he told me during a two-day visit following my time in Romanian. We crossed the tracks a short distance from the pedestrian tunnel that leads under the tracks, too lazy to walk the extra quarter mile, and he pointed out the scattered splotches of white paint; “Somebody got run over, it looks like,” he said as if pointing out deer tracks in the woods.

The next day I came back that same way alone, and out of some bizarre impulse I lingered on the tracks. I made sure no train was coming the other way, about six hundred yards of clear track, and turned to look down the track in the other direction, toward the station. It’s hard to imagine how this fresh suicide could have occurred; the logistics were a bit complicated. The individual was hit on the track leading out of Tatabánya, toward Bicske. The train would have been barely picking up speed, just a few hundred yards out of the station. The gentle curve would have been enough bend to ensure the train would slow down, and there should have been enough room for the train to decelerate before reaching the foot crossing now covered in white paint. Did the conductor see the person standing on the track and figure he’d be doing the guy a favor by not braking? Was the conductor distracted enough that he didn’t see the figure alone on the tracks? Did it happen at night, was there enough fog that the train’s headlights couldn’t give the conductor enough warning? Do trains take longer to brake fully than I think they do? How fast must a train be going to deliver a fatal blow? Was the victim inebriated at the time and lay on the tracks, not visible enough for the train to stop in time, or did the victim stand upright, staring down the train until the very end, illuminated in that final moment by the bright headlights cutting through the darkness? I don’t envy the engineer who looks into the eyes of the suicide victim the moment before impact.

In the end, I decided that it must have been at night, and that the individual was determined enough to go through with it and had enough presence of mind to lie low beside the tracks, hidden in the dark, until the train got close, at which point he jumped up on the tracks. I wondered if it were appropriate to spend a moment of prayer on this man’s soul, to make these drops of white paint into something of  holiness, but I knew that there was no real significance to any of this, nothing more to be done, nothing more to be known. I turned to step down off the tracks and noticed that I wasn’t alone; a guy about my age walked toward me, crossing the tracks in the other direction. He looked at me as if I were crazy, perhaps wondering whether he had just witnessed a genuine moment of contemplated suicide. I thought about explaining myself to him, something as brief and easy as “Don’t worry, I was just trying to imagine it,” but the truth is we strangers don’t owe much of anything to each other, and this time it was best to walk away.

*          *          *

            Emőke took us to the village’s older cemetery, up on a hill overlooking the main section of town. At the gate to the cemetery we saw szamóca bushes; I had always thought that szamóca was simply a different word for eper (strawberry) that referred to strawberries grown in the wild, but I found out that szamóca are something else entirely, miniature strawberries so small it didn’t seem worthwhile to even pick them. We stopped and gathered a handful of the tiny berries – I even took the time to pick two or three and eat them, just for the taste.

The grass was higher than the headstones, partially hiding them from view. The stones were old and weathered, covered in lichen. We sat in the shade of a stone chapel at the top of the hill. Leinenbach brought out his copy of Örkény István’s Egyperces Novellák (one-minute novels) and read a few of the stories out loud so that Emőke could help us with some of the impossible vocabulary of literary Hungarian. I watched the village below us, at the base of the hill, the people walking in and out of corner stores, working in gardens, cutting hay in the fields on the edge of town. With my mind focused mostly on observing the village, the stories moved too fast for me. I listened passively to the sounds of the words, Leinenbach’s completely competent but still noticeably foreign pronunciation. The rhythm is always at least slightly off when we speak, the difference of a tenth of a second spent on a syllable we foreigners pass over with even weight; we’ve learned enough to enter the conversation, but we will never be anything other than outsiders, observers.

Emőke told us about how she wants to travel, not because she resents Székelyföld and its middle-of-nowhere feel, but because she knows there’s so much more beyond the mountains. Anywhere, really. Perhaps to America, but she isn’t particularly determined to see the land of liberty. Her travel plans take the form of cardinal directions rather than precise destinations, and even though to another these dreams may seem the flimsy, angst-inspired aspirations of a teenager that will never amount to much, I’ve met enough kids like Emőke to take her seriously. I know she’ll get out, they always find a way. To Denmark or Spain or Croatia or Canada.

She told us she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere: not in Romania, not in Hungary. Székely by birth, but beyond that unmarked, unsorted. Her grandfather’s fight wasn’t hers, she told us, she doesn’t care for lost lands or old battles or lines on the map. Her skin is the only border that contains her, her own body the sole homeland.

*          *          *

            The first leg of my flight to Hungary went from Los Angeles to Munich. While I waited in Munich I realized that I was hundreds of miles from the closest person who could recognize me, who could know my name without scanning a ticket. There was nobody to make sure I got on the next plane, nobody to keep me from walking through customs, leaving the airport, and heading out into the city. I had enough cash on me to start over, even though it would mean starting over near the bottom. I was, in those moments, my own man, but that’s all I was, the entirety of it. My world ended at my fingertips, as it always has, but without family, friends, nation, tribe, religion, and mother tongue, I was more aware of it than ever before.

*          *          *

            Emőke is already gone, you can read it on her. Székelyföld can’t hold her; I’m not sure this continent is even adequate for the task. Her nose is good enough to know there’s nothing here for her, and even if she were to stay within the borders of her ancestral homeland she would never take this fight as her own. Everyone can see that the Székelys lose too many of their best and brightest to survive the attrition, and it hurts those who want to hold on. Intermarriage, emigration, job opportunities, green cards, relatives in Toronto, a Russian businessman she met in Bucharest, a gig as a nanny in London, the French Foreign Legion. We’ll be gone in a hundred years, some of them say. I’d say that’s a bit too soon, but even I get the feeling that the ship is sinking.

Only about fourteen million speak Hungarian as a native language worldwide, just under ten million native speakers live in Hungary, and those are the only ones who have a decent chance of holding on. The other four million may stay true until death, but their children and their children’s children will have a rough time holding to their roots. It was common for people to ask Leinenbach and me whether we were ethnic Hungarians raised in America coming back with our strange accents to reconnect with our roots. When we tell them we don’t have any Hungarian blood, that we learned the language by chance, ended up living in Hungary on a whim, I see a flash of deep sadness within them. I don’t doubt that by now they know better, they know the lost ones never return, but they still hope. Bless them for it.

It may be that to be Hungarian or Székely, to feel it in your blood, is to know the end is near. The rebellions have failed, Mohács was lost, the kings are dead, the old kingdom dismantled. Some of the young ones learn the old songs and join folk dance teams, and while this may be heroic, it is ultimately misguided. The world moves on a course set without Hungarian interests in mind, and who can stand against it?

I claim The Once and Future King as part of my all-time top ten, and for good reason. It was assigned over the summer before my sophomore year of high school, and I loved every hour I spent reading it, stretched out on my bed in the late morning, sunlight pouring in from the bedroom window. But for all my fond memories of T.H. White’s masterwork, I’ll never read it again. I’ve tried a few times, but along with my memories of reading in the sunlight I recall the genuine sorrow I felt when idyllic Camelot fell and Arthur’s grand experiment with the rule of law came crashing down. There is something crushingly beautiful and sad in that ending, something I can’t bear to touch.

In some ways I felt betrayed by Emőke as we sat in the shade of the chapel. She has this cause to live for, this losing venture to devote herself to, something as tragic as it is ancient, and she refuses to make her stand. But I can’t blame her; it’s what I would do in her place. Experience shows that the world doesn’t take note of nobility or justice or good intentions. The strong break the weak, wind and water wear down stone. Why pretend that this isn’t the case? It’s especially tempting to believe in justice, that some all-powerful force will recognize the cultural richness of the Magyar tradition and choose to intervene, to snatch the nation from out of the flames – holding back those who leave for Canada, redrawing the borders to bring back the lost lands of the crown, breathing this language on life support into the dreams of the lost Magyars scattered throughout America, kids with last names like Szabo and Boros and Vereb that I went to high school with, kids who never realized that somewhere in the heart of Europe an entire nation mourns their loss. Sam Szabo, your name means “tailor.” Lauren Boros, your name refers to wine. Nate Vereb, your name means “sparrow.”

The poet József Attila used death by locomotive as his method of suicide in the early part of the twentieth century, perhaps initiating this trend, the evidence of which I’ve encountered thrice . Before him, notable Hungarians like Teleki Pál and Széchenyi István (known as “the greatest Hungarian) preferred a simple gunshot to the head. Times change. Hungarian or not, our lives are a struggle, and we might be tempted to say those who take to the tracks “gave up.” But in a Hungarian context, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that they understood. They realized that, much like a train accelerating down an unchanging track, the world has set its inalterable course and it moves against you, against what you are.

We all see the world move in directions we regret. But there’s nothing to be done. There’s no justice in this life, no switch to flip that would shape natural law to our whim. The fool Ahab, with his six-inch blade, tries to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. Drop the knife. Let it all go. Step up to the rail. Go to the light.