The Highlander Journal, issue 4

The Highlander Journal

“A June Drive” by Christian Monroy

Gyuri sees a crumpled workman’s boot sitting by the glaring white river and wonders if it belonged to someone they made disappear. The dawn lightens all the colors of the little Hungarian town, from the dusty road to the sparse grass to the cattle by the river, and so the stern black truck squatting in the center of town looks even more like a pit than normal. Niko drinks from his flask and thinks aloud how crude it was to send them in the truck at dawn; it probably scares the kids, and it’s so unsubtle; really, subtlety was the point the Party wanted to make, right? Hard unmistakable subtlety can’t be conveyed with a black truck at dawn like it could if it was night. Sure, but we have a tight schedule, Gyuri reminds him.

 

       Sometimes, the people Niko and Gyuri make disappear reappear with a second chance and a job in the city, and others reappear in an article about recent martyrs in the struggle against the West on the back of the paper.

A pot-bellied middle-aged man with skewed glasses and gnarled lower teeth meets them when they knock at the door. He turns out his pockets before they even ask, and neither kicks nor begs nor makes any other lively declaration of innocence or injustice that dissidents usually make before disappearing. He leaves a grimy ring on a nearby drawer.

“My name is Levi. I teach math, you know, to the children here. There’s a schoolhouse behind the church. I studied in Cologne, very good university there. Sister Ena, she helps run the school, she knows I am good. Teaching, I mean.”

“Oh-ho, Cologne? I’m sure you must be a very learned man, professor. You know, I once taught biology. I studied in Miskolc,” Niko brags.

“These are your writings?” Gyuri presents four incriminating letters, intercepted on their way to the West, dripping in bombastic denunciations of the Party and rabid calls to arms against her principles. The penmanship is neat, deliberate cursive, and could’ve passed as type in its delicate uniformity. Unmistakable woman’s handwriting.

The middle-aged man squeezes the papers in a shaky hand. “Yes, yes they are. The climate, it just got to me, you know. I accept full responsibility, I’ll go quietly. Just take me away before the children are up to see, is all I ask. I don’t want them to fear the- I just don’t want to make a scene for them.”

“This writing is quite articulate for a mathematician. And the penmanship-”

 

        “Leave it, Gyuri, who says he can’t be both? After all, he did go to Cologne, you know. Ask to be an editor, Levi, they’re always looking for more editors.” Niko says with a light slur.

“You can bug every house in the town if you want, but I wrote them, I’m the one you’re looking for today. Please, before my students wake up to see this.” the middle-aged man insists.

Gyuri and Niko step back and exchange whispers. For once they agree that while maybe the old man wrote the letters and maybe he was covering for the one who did, what was more important was the principle of the incident. The West triumphed with every letter that slipped through the Iron Curtain. If not the middle-aged man, they’d have to take a young one. If not a man, then a woman. Really, they agreed, it was better for the town, and less work for them, if they just took this poor old sap and let the principles speak on their own from there.

 

On the way to the truck, Levi’s right leg gives out beneath him and he stumbles onto Niko’s waist for support, apologizing profusely.

        “You need help?” Gyuri asks.

        “Just an old army scratch. I’ll be fine.” Levi pulls away from Niko’s waist and pretends to adjust his pants.

        “Wehrmacht?” Niko asks.

        “Heavens, no. Deutsche Heer. But my son, he was Wehrmacht.”

        Niko cracks up. “Zero for two! My deepest condolences.”

        Gyuri stuffs the middle-aged man into the canopied back of the truck and starts it.

        “So, dead, then? Or do the Americans have him?” Niko asks.

        “No- you do, in Szeged. The Lord took him there before the end of the War, and then you took him from the Lord. He is set for a trial there.” Levi says.

        “You’re very forthcoming for someone with a Nazi son. I hope the Lord let you two make your peace; your trial is the other way, in Debrecen!” Gyuri laughs.

        “Something like that.” Levi agrees.

With the sun warming its shell, the truck ambles down the country road until the village is an indistinct ridge. Separating Levi from Gyuri and Niko is a steel wall with cross bars forming a window at the top. The wooden floor of the back is old and bare, and Levi has to sit on his coat to avoid splinters. Levi watches the sky through the front window, his hand still pressed against his thigh. In the front, Niko lazily nurses his flask with a mixture four parts water, one part alcohol.

“You’re just holding out on me so you don’t have to drive.” Gyuri says.

        “You had your chance to take some from the back room yesterday. I owe you nothing.”

        “Are we much farther?” Levi asks.

        “Usually they complain the ride was too short.” Gyuri says.

        “Settle in; there is time to kill.” Niko says. “Does anyone have a story to tell?”

        “Watch out- the truck is bugged!” Gyuri stiffly jokes.

        “Old man, that war scratch. Tell us how you got that, eh? Make it interesting.”

Niko screws the cap back onto his flask and stows it in his pocket. The drinking helps him fail to notice that right above his pocket, his holster has been empty for a distance of many miles now.

“It is really not such an interesting story. I chose a bad time to climb up, and the round cracked through my thigh. I was lucky to land back in the trench on my neck, because that kept the wound clean. You know, they let me keep the bullet. I think it was Russian, but you know there’s no way to tell.” In the back, Levi fiddles with Niko’s worn-down pistol, his nerves dampened by a measure of national pride that German guns were never so shoddy.

 

“No, not Russian. If his aim was so bad he got your thigh, he was definitely American!” Niko roars with laughter.

“Another likely possibility.” Levi says. “Say, tell me, sir- do we have enough gas to make it to Debrecen?”

“Don’t worry yourself with that, right now our biggest problem is how to get through the drive itself! Niko, your turn for a story.”

“Well, you’ll never guess what I saw the other day. She was so slimy and green-“

“So, say we were going to Szeged, we would have enough?” Levi asks.

“ You are going to Debrecen, old man.”

“Szeged is closer.”

“Oh, enough with the gas already!” Niko moans.

“So it is enough then?”

“Yes, yes, why wouldn’t it be? Niko, the girl, what did she have?”

“Actually, why don’t I go again?” Levi says as he steadies the gun’s barrel against the crossbars of the window. “A good one just came to mind.”

 

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