One afternoon the twins disappeared. Maris looked for them everywhere—in every room, the crawlspace under the house, the cave in the split boulder in the back yard, hacking her way through ferns, salal, blackberry to the sunken meadow where she found Tommy with his wooden gun, Clara with her bow and arrow. Hunting bear, is what they said. Tommy pointed to a rotten log that had been clawed apart, fragments of a beehive inside, bits of shredded honeycomb trailing into the underbrush. There were a few bees still squirming in the wood, whether salvaging honey or larvae or numbering the dead Maris couldn’t tell. She grabbed the twins’ hands and raced them back through the trees.
Two weeks later, Tommy screamed “Bear!” inside the house, and Maris came rushing out from the kitchen. The bear was up on its hind legs, ten feet tall, so black Maris thought she saw stars glittering in its fur, as if she might fall inside, spend the rest of her life drifting in space.
When she opened her eyes Tommy and Clara were standing there, plunging their plastic knives into nothing.
After Paul came home from work he’d hunt bear for fifteen, twenty minutes, until finally he had enough. The twins would grab his hands, but he’d shake them off, irritated. It was always like that—furious play, then a dead halt.
Paul was like that with Maris too. It was how he disarmed her—“I promise when we’re ready we’ll move away from here and buy a house and get you a bank account”—but the minute there was an actual opportunity, action to be taken, he was paralyzed. When she made an appointment with a real estate agent or bank manager he grew sullen, resistant, and finally enraged, staring her down and shouting: “Why do you want to move us into town when we can live here for free? This is a perfectly good house. Why should I go through the trouble of getting you a bank account when it’s easier to just hand over the money?”
If Maris persisted he used the kids. “Don’t upset Tommy and Clara,” he hissed at breakfast and dinner, on Saturdays before he went off to hunt or fish. “They don’t need you attacking me, they’ve gone through too much already.” But the yelling drained him. There was too much risk, too much work, in rage. “Later, later,” he said, waiting for her silent treatment— short and fierce—to soften into despair, helplessness. Then, late at night, with the bedside lamp throwing their shadows against the wall, he would present more reasonable objections, his voice going from a rasp to a murmur: A promotion at the company if he stayed put and did as he was told; the bad schools—full of Indians and rednecks—the kids would have to go to in town; the transfer to head office in Vancouver that was just around the corner, where they could really settle down.
“We’ve been in this place two years already,” Maris said, turning away from him and glancing out the window in the direction of the bay, the waves black except for where they curled silver under the lights of a distant dryland sort. “Nobody stays in these houses for long,” she said to herself. Paul was already asleep.
Some days the kids would go into the other Company houses—there were only four, down the dirt road at the edge of Stillwater Bay—through a broken window or a door left creaking. Maris found them up on counters, fingers reaching for the high cupboards. They discovered a glass door etched with Chinese birds. Someone (but who?) must have brought it with them, installed it, then left. They found a torn note under a light switch cover hanging from one screw: I spent a winter here in 1959, driven to see…. Why had they hidden it there, and what was the rest of the message? They found a bottle of blackberry wine hand-labelled 1945. She shooed them out, said the places were private property. Clara asked if that was so, then why did no one live in them. “Sometimes they do,” said Maris, thinking of the people who’d been here when they arrived, the woman, Julie Locke, taking her aside, “Listen, Maris, we’ve been here nearly a year and we should have left months ago. It’s free rent, but it’s a trap. You can’t sit around month after month with no one to talk to but kids. At least get Paul to buy a car so you can go into town.”
Sometimes the children said they could hear voices off the sea. They interpreted every shriek of the wind as a message bearing news of kings and Turks, the Tartar invasion, palace intrigue, wheels of fire rolling through armies—all the things Maris read to them at night. There was no reason for them to learn English. They never spoke it, mute in the company of a rare visitor trying to piece together Maris’s broken grammar.
She waited for Paul to get transferred. What was the longest the Company stationed you in one place? Three years? They’d been here two already. Other families came, sometimes for as short as eight weeks—the men off into the bush with their pickups, surveying tracts of forest, engineering roads and bridges, making sure the log booms left on time to mills in Port Alberni, Crofton—then they left and the houses were empty again, stovepipe chimneys silver in the rain.
Sometimes feral cats got into the houses. They screeched and growled and hissed all at once, as if sound was a sheet you could rip into pieces. There were a lot of cats in the forest. People stopped along the nearby highway and tossed them into the ditch. They formed packs that sometimes sat in the middle of the road like a carpet that suddenly unravelled in every direction. Tommy and Clara were fascinated, pulling fish bones out of the garbage to feed them, until they were bitten or scratched. The cats liked to give birth on the verandahs and in the abandoned rooms, the children transfixed by the fetuses being pushed out, the mother licking them clean, eating the afterbirth. Whenever a cat came too close, or Clara and Tommy got hurt trying to grab one, Paul would pull out his .22 and go outside. He said that killing a cat once in a while made them respect you. Animals stayed away from places of unnatural death. He was a good shot with the .22, resting the barrel on the hood of the truck, taking his time to sight the scope. Usually it only required one bullet, and Paul was back inside within minutes, but one night a few months ago the first shot was followed by another, then another, and another, and Paul was gone upwards of an hour, returning with leaves in his hair, scratched by brambles, too angry to talk, locking himself into the bedroom for the rest of the evening. After breakfast, the children followed the red spots from leaf to leaf, before they found the injured cat, dragging it back over pinecones and rocks and fallen branches in their wagon. Maris promised she’d fix the animal, but after the children went for a nap, she took it down to the bay. The next morning, drawing the rope in, unknotting the sack, she looked at the glossy fur, ran her fingers through it, and felt a strange peace.
It was a feeling Paul never had. He still walked as he’d done in those taut hours when they snuck across the border in 1956. He’d gone ahead of her and the children. The guard towers were darkened on purpose, he murmured. It made you think snipers were present when they weren’t, or absent when they were there. Kept you scared. He ran beneath them, hands over his head, as if the tiny bones of his fingers would stop bullets. He parted barbed wire with old mittens brought along for the purpose, then snipped them with pliers. Maris followed when he indicated it was safe, trying to keep the children quiet and in line. He spent a lifetime moving to the left, to the right, in fields he thought were mined. He approached the Austrian guards on the other side; battled with the English language, paperwork, passports, the big decision on where to go—Australia, Canada, the US; then struggled up the job ladder of the logging industry. He refused to move another inch.
Every three weeks a letter arrived from his sister, Anna, in Budapest. They hadn’t even told her they were going. The radio came on that morning, reported that Soviet tanks were entering the country to beat down the “reactionaries,” and in that moment the decision was weighed and taken. Anna’s letters detailed, repetitively, how she was paying the price for Paul’s treason. The state made public examples of people like her, the family left behind, as a warning to others thinking of escape. Her name was at the top of every blacklist (“class traitor” was the official designation); she’d been fired from her job, barred from Party membership, relocated to a coldwater flat on the industrial island of Csepel, sharing it with a couple of factory workers, young men, illiterate, sexually explicit, farting in front of her. She was a trained chemist with a PhD! She was the daughter of the conductor of the national symphony! She’d looked after Paul when their parents disappeared, carted off along with the other dangerous hordes of middle class citizens after the Red Army arrived. She’d found them an apartment, worked for three years in a tire manufacturing plant to prove her loyalty to the proletariat. Until then they’d both been classified as “X citizens,” inheritors of their parents’ crimes, unable to get good jobs, party membership, or, in Paul’s case, entry to university. It was her sacrifice that changed that. Paul had been able to name her, this factory worker, this proletariat, as his “guardian,” and in that moment, with that one alteration, he had gone from a criminal to favoured son, picking his university from the list. They’d lost it all, she reminded him, the villa in Rózsadomb, the Bösendorfer pianos, gala dinners, ancestral portraits in oil, the peace of the vine-shaded arcade. Now he was out in the west, where he could start over, while Anna was still at the factory, in an even worse apartment than the one they’d shared, collecting tinned sardines, underwear, looking for that perfect pair of boots for when they finally took away what little she had and kicked her into the street.
Paul sat with the letters as if they were maps that would keep him from getting any further into Canada.
“I’m so tired of escaping,” he said to Maris.
“We have escaped, Paul. We made it.”
“They’re still shooting at me from over there.”
He thought he was the victim in all this, Maris realized, looking at him slumped over the letters. Maybe he was. He’d used up all his courage surviving what happened to his parents, getting her and the kids out of Hungary. He was beyond repair.
Clara found a scaffold one day, buried in ferns. The forest was filled with things like that—discarded furniture, cars without wheels, a bullet riddled radio. People left these things behind when they moved away, dumping them in the ravine south of the main road. Sometimes Tommy brought her pieces of silverware—they looked silver, but how could they be?—a knife with a rose on the handle, a soupspoon shaped like a shell.
The children ran to get Maris, dragging her along to the scaffold, ignoring her as she yelled at them for playing unsupervised in the forest. “Can we use it, Mom? Can we?” Clara was already straining, trying to lift the structure to its feet. Stepping carefully between the ferns, unsure of what they might be hiding, Maris examined it. The pipework was rusty, some of the boards needed replacing, but it was still solid, and small enough that she could haul it disassembled on the kids’ wagon. When she made it to the house, Tommy had a blueprint unfurled, flapping in the breeze, along with his father’s hammer and nails, new planking. Maris dropped the rope from her shoulder and gathered up her drawing, fighting the wind to get it furled up again, then turned on Tommy. “Did I give you permission to go into my things?”
Tommy looked at her, then at Clara, who took her mother’s hand. “You look at them at night,” she said, “Dad says you wanted to be a builder, a long time ago.”
Maris reached up. Her hair was thick with sweat. “Not a ‘builder,’ an architect,” she said, flicking the blueprint at the children as if it was useless, a worn poster. “But I got interrupted by…” Neither Tommy nor Clara understood. Maris squatted and rolled out the drawing, a project for architecture class, white lines on blue, a design for an observatory, and fixed the corners on the grass with rocks. Then she took a hammer from Tommy’s hand. “Let’s build it,” she smiled.
They worked all day. The bottom level was the engine room. The middle one was the lab. Up top was the observatory, and they sat there until night, Maris bringing them food for a picnic, Paul’s voice crackling on the CB radio in the open window saying he was stuck at camp and wouldn’t be home before morning. The stars were painfully bright, uncut by the lights of a city, like the ends of needles on Maris’s eyes. Tommy and Clara called out to them to fall, their fingers tracing new connections between the points.
She worried that the children would learn nothing out here. Once in a while they went to town in the Company pickup loaned to Paul. The town was a ribbon of houses stretched along the coast, bulging around the pulp and paper mill, thinning out as it hit the fishing community at the furthest point north. Maris spent a day figuring out which dress to wear of the three she’d managed to bring, which pair of heels, the matching mother-of-pearl earrings her mother had given her at the wedding or the secessionist locket handed down by Paul’s grandmother. It was probably all out of date already, she imagined, thinking of the women in the latest fashions on Váci Street. She combed Tommy’s splayed hair, drew a necktie tight around his throat. She put Clara into a dress, French braids. In the driveway, Paul looked at them and shook his head, but otherwise stayed silent. They climbed into the truck and bounced into town.
Maris worked at not turning her ankle in the gravel parking lot when she got out. They stood for a second in the old townsite, the place where the first homes had been built, for workers, around the pulp and paper mill in the early 1900s. She hobbled to the edge with the children, gazing downslope at the beach, the campsite farther on, the pulp mill a kilometre up the coast, billowing smoke. The sea stretched onward from there past islands and mountains and unbroken wilderness. Paul waited by the truck, smoking a cigarette, looking at the ground. When they came back he walked a few paces behind them in his woollen coat, workboots, the logo on his cap advertising a hauling contractor.
The main part of the town was one road, six blocks from end to end, filled with a stationery store, book-shop, Chinese-Canadian restaurant, boat and outboard motor repair, donuts, used cars, bank, liquor and grocery store, and the strip bar. They walked up one side and down the other in half an hour. Maris was stared at in the bookstore, the woman behind the counter whispering to the proprietor while their eyes were like fingers poking at her clothes. Tommy and Clara were befuddled by the books they couldn’t read. Paul stood by the door, ready to leave at any second, wincing whenever she pronounced his name “Pál.” There was something different about how the women dressed here. Maris couldn’t quite sort it. The fabrics were different, stiffer, more opaque. The cuts were definite, square.
On the way back to the parking lot a man rolled down the window of his truck, leaned out and glared at her over his moustache. “How much you asking, baby?” He sneered at Paul, who stared at him for a few minutes then looked away. “Faggot,” he said, rolling up his window and rumbling off.
When they got home, Maris sat at the bedroom desk, staring at a blank sheet of paper. Kedves Édesanyám, she wrote, and then it poured out of her. It was the first time she’d use the phrase, “My pushed-underwater life.”
Paul was drinking a beer and listening to Leo Weiner. The groceries were still on the kitchen table where she’d left them. Clara and Tommy sat sleepy-eyed in the kitchen staring intently at a mouse edging closer to a trap behind the fridge. Clara was aiming her slingshot loaded with a marble, and there were already a few dents in the side of the refrigerator. Maris stared at them a minute, then began pulling cans from the shopping bags. She cleared the table, set them down. Here was Buda Castle. That fold in the embroidered tablecloth was the Danube. Here was Mátyás Templom. Big can, big can, little can. “Watch the spires rise,” she said, Clara and Tommy edging close the table. “Here’s the Lánc Hid,” Maris said, lining up a series of matchboxes, “across the Duna.” More cans, and then she’d built the white towers, fine as fish bones, of the parliament buildings. Then Saint Stephen’s Basilica. The Academy of Science. The kids were helping now, fishing cans out of the cupboards, carrying them to her. Maris then went on to describe the city as if they were walking through it. She told them the story of the architecture, how the stone set aside for the parliament was stolen, and that the architects replaced it with was softer, more porous, sponging the grime of pollution from the air. Paul looked in on them and smiled, the music soft in the background. Clara was lost in the streets. She didn’t even notice him. “It’s time for the children’s bath,” he finally said.
The haze across her eyes faded. Maris stepped straight out of the city. It seemed to come with her, trailing behind in a series of fading images, as if she was as quickly stepping into a frame as leaving it behind. She nodded at Paul as if she didn’t know who he was. The children followed her traipsing up Andrássy Boulevard, through Heroes’ Square, straight to the entrance of the Szécsényi Fürd´o´, steam rising off the waters.
Every day after that she walked them along the streets of the capital. Tommy always wanted to go to the Nemzetí Múzeum and see the crown with its tilted crucifix. Maris peered between the pillars of split pea and cream of broccoli soup and described what they saw in the glass cases of the exhibits: coats of arms, chain mail, swords unearthed at Mohács, the shifting borders of the kingdom. Clara wanted to stand spinning beneath the secessionist motifs of the Iparmu´´vészeti Múzeum, ceilings of ceramic tile, all flowers and arabesques. Mother and children, they walked through the old city for miles.
In fact, they never left. In the forest near the house they were on the kis körút, farther away it was the nagy körút. Maris carefully corrected the children as they listed the streets: Szent István, Teréz, Erszébet, József, Ferenc. The old logging road met with the abandoned spur met with the new way to the dry-land sort met with the long driveway to the house that had been towed away met with the gravel track that led home again. They circled around and around, stopping at famous places along the way: The West Station, Theatre of Comedy, Hotel Royal, the New York Café, the twin towers of the Józsefváros Church, the Octagon, Batthyányi Palace. They dined with artists and faded aristocracy and the apparatchiks whose evil Maris taught them to recognize on sight.
At home, they spoke only Hungarian. Letters arrived from Maris’s mother, filled with news of the family, the events less important to Maris than where they took place. She closed her eyes and imagined taking the Hév to Gödöll´o´. She thought of the seven hills of Veszprém. She could see the waters of Lake Balaton, iridescent green, from the dry forests of Almàdy. She could smell the waves on the breeze.
The children started calling Stillwater Budapest. “Stay with us in Budapest,” they said to Paul, the next Saturday, as he got into the truck.
He looked at Maris, then squatted to speak with the kids. “I have to go to work today,” he said. “Just until lunchtime, then I’ll be home. And all day tomorrow.” He looked back at Maris, who was holding out the hem of her dress and swaying slightly, like a young girl hearing a waltz for the first time.
“We’re going for a walk to the castle today,” said Tommy.
“We’re going to look out from the Halàsz Bastya,” said Clara.
“I’ll be back in time for lunch,” said Paul, frowning. He finally caught Maris’s eye. She smiled and whispered to him to come back soon. She told him he should stay. She said whenever he came back was okay.
Paul sat in front of the stereo and watched her, Bartók’s 4th string quartet jabbing at his nerves. Maris was making madár tej—bird’s milk—for dessert that night, describing, plot point for plot point, the first time her mother had taken her to see Bluebeard ’s Castle at the Opera House. The children were sitting in the aisles with her, desperately waiting for intermission, Tommy unwilling to break from the story to go pee. Maris would not pause. “We’re at the opera,” she hissed. “You can’t just get up and disturb all these people because you forgot to go beforehand like I told you.” Paul turned over the record and reset the needle, pausing to push a loose floorboard with his toe.
“Do all the wives die?” asked Tommy.
“When I grow up I want to be Bluebeard,” said Clara.
“You can’t be Bluebeard. You’re a girl.”
“Yes I am. And you’re going to be my wife.” Outside the door cats were fighting. Paul went into the cabinet and pulled out the .22, happy to have a problem with an easy solution.
When he came back, they’d barricaded the door. Maris was whispering to the children of the defense of the city. Paul could hear her through the frame. One minute it was 1848, with the Austrians and Russians entering Budapest. The next it was 1918 and the French and Romanians threatening to bring them down. Then it was 1945, with the Soviets on one side and the Nazis on the other. “Someone is always threatening the beautiful city,” she said, and Tommy and Clara looked at her with wonder but also uncertainty, glancing at the front door every time their father hammered it with his fists.
“This isn’t going to work, Maris. I don’t think you’re crazy.”
No, Maris thought, you’re the one who’s crazy. You with your fear of change. She brought out the soup cans again, giving the kids directions. Tommy had to build the cathedral. Clara was working on the spires of Mátyás Templom when Paul finally kicked in the door and stormed into the kitchen knocking everything over. He glared at her a moment, then shook off his boots, put away the gun, and tried to sit again by the stereo as if nothing had happened. Maris helped the children re-stack the cans, telling them the city was a maze. You could get lost in it. There were a hundred places where you’d suddenly come across beauty—a stained glass window filled with flowers, a tiny café no one had heard of, a chapel left alone by the government, two old men on a bench reciting banned poetry they knew by heart. There was too much in it for anyone to control. There were perfect moments, she said, kept secret.
At this, Paul got up and ripped the needle off the record. They could hear it score the vinyl, like a rusty zipper. He cursed, fumbling with the record and the paper sleeve, and finally just left it there, half stuffed into the jacket, when he went to the bedroom and slammed the door.
It was Tommy who ran up to the house the next day saying he’d discovered the garbage. He didn’t use the word “garbage.” It was treasure, an avalanche of it, he said, down the hillside into the field where the Lockes used to live, and it had appeared magically after a night of rain. He was tugging Maris’s hand, pulling her along, trying to get the story out of his mouth, talking about the Avars, the Romans, ancient tribes in the Carpathian basin, the relics they’d left, rituals they’d enacted, like a mash-up of the exhibits Maris had described during their many walks through the Nemzeti Múzeum.
The two of them walked along the ridge above the Locke property. Clara was waiting for them a half kilometre off, hair blowing around her face as she stared down at the fallen trees, drifting clumps of wild grass, and the steady flow of the Stillwater River, swollen with rain. When they arrived, Maris saw where the earth had washed away, a scar, and inside it were old TVs, chairs, throw cushions, toasters, hubcaps, rusted saw blades, bestsellers, and under these the occasional china teapot and ceramic dish and glass vase and rotted leatherbound book. “Look at it,” said Tommy, wading into the river before Maris could stop him, reaching down, water wicking up his shirt sleeve, and pulling out a scalloped plate fringed with curling vines and gold leaf. Maris took it into her hands as if the rest of the world had faded. Tommy fished through the garbage and handed her something else—a ceramic ladle, white, with deep blue tracery, only a few hairline cracks to show for being buried. How had it survived? By now Tommy was in the river up to his thighs, one hand gripping a long branch from a tree along the shore, reaching down to bring up a photograph in a steel frame of interlocking birds. It showed a woman in a ball gown. Maris gazed down the hill. “Clara, go back to the house and get some rope out of the shed.” All afternoon they worked, rope knotted around their waists, though by afternoon the level in the water had fallen to their ankles, and in some places was already gone. Buried in the muck was a gilt mirror, a bone hairbrush, a bottle of Lamprecht’s No. 36587. They were finding fewer things now, but still finding them. They seemed to be more precious the deeper they went beneath the trash on the surface—a cameo locket filled with hair, a cut-steel necklace with crystals in the shape of daisies, a belt buckle that was a butterfly with enamel wings.
They piled what was valuable on the solid earth at the edge of where the river had been. Maris was so obsessed with the work she didn’t notice the afternoon become evening then night, or the arrival of Paul’s truck in the far-off driveway. The kids saw the headlights and stopped, but she urged them on, saying they had to get it all out before it was too late. She looked up, expecting clouds, more rain, the possibility of the hillside washing away.
“Mom, it’s Dad,” said Tommy pointed along the ridge, where Paul was striding, swatting aside branches, fronds, blackberry.
“Maris, what are you doing?” He was yelling. Normally at this hour he’d be opening the front door, the smell of dinner rising from the kitchen table, on schedule with the predictable, routine life he demanded. “There’s all these things,” said Maris, gazing into the seam. “These beautiful things.” She pointed them out to Paul with a finger, though there seemed less of them now than an hour ago, as if they were burrowing back into the earth. Maris was trying to explain it to Paul with her hands. She kept turning them, knuckles up, palms up, unable to decide, tracing in the air the contours of the bank as the rain washed it into the meadow. “Why would they?” She was looking at Paul and the children for an answer. “Why would anyone bury such things?” She wiped at her cheeks and forehead, leaving streaks of dirt on her skin, her hair wisping around her face. “Why wouldn’t they keep them safe?” She was crying. “Who would do something like that? What kind of people?” She was holding a tiny wooden barometer, intricately carved, and waving it around in the air as if she might summon whoever had once owned it.
“It’s just a bunch of old garbage,” said Paul. “Someone probably threw it out when they moved away. You shouldn’t be playing with the kids in a place like this.”
“No,” said Clara, bending down to pick up what was either an ear trumpet, or the horn from a wind-up turntable. “They didn’t throw it away. They buried it. They wanted to be able to come back to get it.”
Tommy nodded in agreement. “They wanted us to find their treasures. They put it here so after a hundred rains it would come up.”
Clara said, “It’s on our map. Right here.” She pulled a piece of paper covered in crayon scrawl from her pocket and showed it to Paul, who took it and shook his head, then looked up at his daughter and went back to the map, slowly, almost imperceptibly, starting to nod in thoughtful agreement.
“I’ll bet you there’s more!” said Tommy. “That’s not our only map.”
Paul looked at him sadly, still nodding. “You could be right.” He didn’t yet sound convinced of his own words.
“There could be treasure everywhere!”
“Everywhere here,” said Paul again, his voice firmer now, as if he knew what he had to do. He winked at Maris, who looked at him strangely.
“In our city!”
Was it Clara who had spoken or Tommy? Maris couldn’t tell. Paul was squatting in front of the children now, as if he was addressing them, but really he was speaking to Maris. “Many ancient cities were built on top of older ones,” he said. “It goes deep. City upon city upon city. There’s no end to the traces…to what you might find. They’re all there, underground, waiting for you.” He drew an X on the ground as if they could start digging right there, as if they didn’t need to move an inch.
The children were looking back at Maris and smiling, as if victory was theirs, as if Paul had finally come over to their way of thinking. But Maris’s hands and face shook. She knew what Paul was doing. “Your mother is right—” he continued, “the city goes on forever.” His voice was hard with false conviction, the rage of teaching her a lesson. Tommy and Clara were in his arms now, they looked like three children babbling excitedly, building Maris a prison out of her own glittering words.