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Halting Air

by edre 

Posted: 05 October 2010
Word Count: 1816

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They came out of the trees at night, hoods and thick coats sheathed by shadow. From their hands hung canisters in which slopped thick liquid. They moved quietly across the wet ground moving towards a house, sitting silent and dark on the site. Four of them spread out and started to soak the house, each pouring a can over the structure. Tiles dripped, eaves splashed. Petrol and rain, washed over the walls. It was hard lighting a match under such a sky, several hissed in the drizzle, went out. One hood started swearing but the others soon shushed him. Folding their hands together, cupping their palms, they managed to light a single flame – that was all they needed. The house went up, a torch in the wet wood. Crackling and splintering, the plaster started to bubble on the walls. Inside billows of black smoke filled the rooms. The family awoke spluttering. The mother rushed to get the two girls, shouted at the father to take the little boy outside as quick as he could. He gently lifted the little fellow and rushed for the door. Meanwhile the mother gathered the two girls from the next room. Over their heads the roof started to crack, flames shattered roof tiles, piercing the shell of the house.

As the man and his son rushed out into the blissful night air, blowing the foul smoke out of their lungs, a pistol was raised. The little boy clutched his father’s hand tight as the bullet sank into his brain. The man had no time to react before his head also exploded in the damp night air. Further away shouts and screams could be heard, as neighbours caught sight of the fire, smelt its smoke, heard the dead crackle of the ruined building. The four hoods cursed and ran. They did not wait to finish the job off but legged it into the woods from whence they came.

Mother and daughters did not hear the shots, the noise of the inferno was too great. All around them the house groaned and grinded, the smell of wet petrol rubbed along their top lips searing their teeth. At first the mother’s instinct had been to grab a few things: Clothes, pots, shoes but the heat and smoke defeated her. Pushing the two girls through the front door she stumbled blindly into the open air. Weeping soot and clasping the ends of her singed hair she teetered out into the yard calling for her husband and son. Great rifts of orange lit the yard. One of the girls passed out, she fell onto wet concrete, collapsing in on herself. The mother sank down with her, cradling her head, bidding the older girl to go and get help. The girl did not need to run far, the yard was filling with locals who had heard the roaring blaze, felt its heat skim their walls. Neighbours gathered the woman and her daughters up, took them next door, lay them down and called police, ambulances and fire engines as quickly as they could. No one had seen the little boy and the man; they presumed they had been taken in by someone else. A great crash told them that the roof had finally caved in. Everyone waited and watched for the sirens, praying the wind did not blow it their way. It took half the night for the emergency services to arrive. There were no proper roads up to the ‘czigány település’, the Gypsy settlement, only a rutted track thick with mud, overhung by low, thick branches. Electricity had only found its way up this twisted track very recently.
- Typical! I bet they were stealing electricity from next door. A beer, that’s what started it!
- Bound to be mate! You know what these gyppos are like!
The firemen began unhitching ancient old hoses from the back of the truck and pointing them half-heartedly at the blaze. The police, believing that the fire was a deserved accident, did not search very thoroughly around the yard. When they found the bodies of the father and son lying by an outhouse, they merely assumed they had suffocated in the fire, despite the fact they were outside, and wrote ‘Accidental death’ in their report books. The smell of petrol filled the yard, lacing the mud with the stink of an airport where huge tankers fill enormous planes as they wait to take off, across the oceans. But no one noticed. Not a single ambulance man, fireman, policeman or medic even mentioned the smell. Silent; deadly. A fat doctor climbed out of an old Lada. He cursorily examined the bodies, declared death by misadventure and went home. The holes in the heads of the dead went unrecorded.

The hospital was far away and the ambulances bumped down the rutted track, slipping and sliding like toboggans as they went. Neighbours had insisted they take the girls and their mother. They had all fainted from the fumes and were still groggy with smoke. The mother moaned terribly about her boy and man, the medics gave her a shot to shut her up. The vehicle slid round a corner as they punched knock-out into three different forearms. The prone bodies jiggled in the back as the van trundled along.
Killers disappear into the woods like wind; knew the local police would do nothing, write it off as a tragic accident. Two of them had served in Bosnia, one was an ex-police sergeant, the fourth a gifted marksman from the Legion. They could spread like smoke, never be caught. Time to take the law into their own hands, force them out. Up in the Slovak and Czech lands no one had wanted the Gypsies either. Both new states had disowned them, said they belonged to the other, as villagers threw firebombs. Kill the men, and the women and children would go elsewhere. Back to where they came from - wherever that was. The four planned strategic hits: Watching and planning, they determined on a grandpa there, a boy here, fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, uncles, son-in-laws, cousins. A hit in as many villages would soon cause mass hysteria and the scum would start to leave. That was the overall idea! In the 39 war they had simply been rounded up; made to dig a mass grave and shot into it. Didn’t count the bodies, whether they were still moving; left them still shivering under the freshly dug earth; rats in the plague pit. Black shirts became red shirts, swastikas morphed into hammer and sickles, letters were swapped: SS mania transfigured = KGB delirium. After that nationalism kicked in, autonomy was the word on everyone’s lips for another half century, or so, of the wars that harrowed the region: Berlin 53, Budapest 56, Prague 68, Bucharest 89, Belgrade 91, Sarajevo 92, Pristina 98. The Roma knew this would not empower them, better to stay quiet, keep to themselves; playing right into the killers’ hands. Making use of the urban-rural divide that ruptured the region, the killers honed in on the small communities well beyond the towns. The apartheid of Eastern European villages, where Jews, Roma and whites had all lived next to each other, but separate, until the Holocaust had got rid entirely of the first component.

In the mortuary the young pathologist laid out the two corpses, read the doctor’s notes with disbelief: Asphyxiation! When the holes had bled blue on the necks of the dead! No bullet had lodged in the little boy; it had gone straight through. The man had cradled one in his skull tho’ – army issue! A phone call later; and it was journalists, not policemen, who gathered round the victims’ beds. Photographing with glee the face of the stricken mother, as she sat bolt upright in her hospital bed determined not to be put to sleep again by supercilious medics. Only when better-educated, more paternalistic police turned up from the capital did they disperse. These police in turn shook their heads at the amateur methods of their country colleagues, rolled their eyes and sighed. The urban snobbery of the town looked down, from a great height, on the vagaries of the village. The police circled her assiduously, while hacks scribbled articles about the emergence of a Magyar Ku Klux Klan. In their beds the two sisters turned to the wall and wept. Little Miki had climbed into to them in the morning, usually. His fat little legs had swung down the side while he had sung them songs he made up as he went along. ‘ I saw a bird do a poo,
He looked very like you’
Rude, childish, wonderful, nonsense. No one had told them… they had just heard the police telling their mother through the curtain that separated them off from each other. They trembled under the sheets: ‘Who would shoot a four-year-old boy?’
‘Will I be next?’

The beds were too far apart for them to clasp each other, their mother was curtained off. They heard her say in clear ringing tones:
- I want to see my husband and son. I must say goodbye to them. I want to see them now!
- Me too! Me too – called the girls in chorus.
For a moment they had forgotten Apa. He, who had flung them high in the air as babies, told endless stories and jokes, could make a tune with a click of his fingers and a stamp of his foot. They had always worried that he had liked Miki best. Now they would never know.

After much consultation the city police agreed that the women could see their dead ones. They were marched solemnly off. An officer wearing shiny, shiny boots led them down corridors on which they slapped, in ill-fitting hospital issue slippers. A dirty white room revealed two ancient metal cribs, on which they lay. Holding their mother’s hands they gazed down at the frozen faces. Miki’s eyes had been closed, yet his top lip curved as if in anticipation of a kiss or a treat, as it always had. But Apa had no peace on his face, not a shred. His jaw twisted, his cheeks sunken in his long face, his mouth set in a line of such anguish, that he was hard to see. Even the police withdrew as the family keened around the bodies:

Zöld az erdő, zöld a hegy is.
A szerencse jön is, megy is.
Gondok kése husunkba vág, ...

The girls sang with their mother in voices that grew stronger as their mother gripped them tighter and sang out loud:
Green is the forest, green is the hill. Luck comes towards us, so does ill.
Adversity’s blade slits our flesh…

The Roma anthem welled over the bodies pushing the guards to the corners. But it would not bring them back.
Not ever.

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