Hardly had the first torch been lit when the first watchers appeared. "Mutatvány," the signs said. "Exhibition." They came in groups for safety, as wary of starving Hungarian former soldiers wandering the countryside as they were of the conquering Russians. They came wrapped in heavy coats with the thick wool turned out, the men wearing long mustaches and leather caps, the women wearing tall boots and colorful shawls. Walking close together, they watched the rolling horizon of the plains in the dark. They crossed frozen rivers where the bridges had been bombed out, hoping for an evening of forgetfulness. Only one came from the forest, the black pines where feral dogs roamed.
It was January 1946. He was a gypsy boy. Under the mud on his skin, he could have been fourteen or twenty. He had large hands, blistered with cold, his brown eyes like hollows. Black hair matted on his forehead, long on the sides to cover his missing ear. His dirty patched coat hung open, all of the buttons cut off. Blood darkened and hardened his once white shirt front and back, the fabric tearing apart to expose his goosebumped skin. The last embers of the burning sky hung on the horizon when he arrived at the exhibition.
As people arrived, the man with dirty gold piping on his coat did tricks with a ball of fire. He put it in one pocket and pulled it from the other. He swallowed it and his eyes glowed. He pulled it from his ear. He threw it into the air, and it flew away over the heads of the crowd. People ducked.
The day before, the leader of the troupe, bearded old Levente, had gone with the trick shooter and the long-limbed juggler to the neighboring villages. The show was free, he said. The people could give what they wanted. They knew they were beggars, and in those days they were paid as often with coarse bread and onions as with money. Sometimes, with the inflation, it was better to eat than to have money.
The wagons circled into a horseshoe shape around the rickety stage, presenting their painted faces to the shivering crowd. Beyond the torches, dark crawled over the prairie, hiding the shriveled stalks of grain that would never be harvested. Because there was no one to harvest them, fields died under the snow while people starved. Many of the men were dead, others held in prisoner of war camps by the Russians for fighting for the Germans until the end.
In the old days, Levente had spoken of acts gathered from the corners of the globe, of the wonders of the civilized world and the mysteries of the East. But this was meaningless now. The East had come down hard on Hungary, and folk songs gave way to laments.
Now, Levente simply said, "Some people say this is the wrong time for a show. But when could people need an exhibition more than now? We have come to bring color to the gray winter, so that you may have a little more color in your hearts. If anything you see tonight makes you smile, even in these days, please give us a little to show your appreciation. We are all cold and we are all starving. Come closer. We will build bigger fires. Put the children on your shoulders so they can watch. They will tell their children about this."
Even so far from the village, there was a risk. Russian soldiers still wandered the countryside, and they would use the excuse of looking for partisans or escaped war prisoners to round up whoever they wanted. The lucky ones returned days later, bootless and robbed of any scraps of jewelry they still possessed after the starving winter. Many were shot on sight.
The boy stayed away from the torches, even though he shivered in the cold. He stomped from foot to foot. His boots were too big for him, stuffed with dead grass. The wagons drew his gaze, the torchlight making the tall words painted among the pictures dance. The bare-ribbed horses that pulled the wagons stood steaming, tethered to the wagons because the men could not pound stakes into the frozen ground. The workers were gypsies, gathered around small fires and watching the crowds with dark eyes.
The people talked nervously among themselves. They asked after each other's health. Bad, bad, bad. There was dysentery and fever, and no medicine. Some worried there would be no show at all, and that their houses were being robbed. This drew a chuckle from the trick shooter, who leaned against the stage and smoked cigarettes. His eyes were a gun barrel gray. In one of the wagons, a gramophone scratched out a song.
The first act drew a gasp from the crowd. A bow-legged man with one eye led a bear out of one of the wagons. A metal ring hung from the bear's nose, dragged by his handler on a chain. Children pointed, and men nodded and twirled their mustaches.
The bow-legged man had a quavering voice, and his nose was as red as the firelight. "Dance with me, Balázs," he called to the bear. The beast went up on his hind legs. The crowd gasped again. The little man hopped from leg to leg, and so did the bear. In the shadows under the wagons, a gypsy played the fiddle. The boy's eyes blazed.
The bear sat down and drank from a bottle like a child. He rolled a somersault. A woman wearing glittering blue stepped out of the wagon, her legs and arms bare even in the cold, and when the bow-legged man said, "Give her a kiss," the crowd leaned forward. She stood on her toes, and the bear leaned down and pushed his flabby lips against her forehead. Then, the bear threw his arms around the woman in blue, and she disappeared into his crushing embrace. A frail shriek winged over the audience. But then the woman, still smiling, spun free and bowed. The bear did a very near curtsey. There was laughter and applause.
Jugglers and acrobats followed the bear. Beautiful women in glistening costumes spun, feather-light, across the stage, holding each other in elaborate positions like dolls in the hands of little girls. A girl balanced on one hand upside-down on the head of another. Their supple bodies did things the boy had thought impossible.
Next, a man and a woman with one leg each tied a rope around their waists and performed a dance. Together, they danced as well as someone with two legs. For just that night, there was no world beyond the light of the torches, no occupation, no fallow countryside, no Russians.
Bearded old Levente stood under the stage and told the stories. The couple had lost their legs in a bombing raid. Another had been a landowner in Transylvania when the land still belonged to Hungary. Another had been married to a man who died in the war. Levente's stories said the same thing: we, too, suffered in the war, and yet we dance and sing and swallow fire.
Something twinkled in the crowd, as evanescent as the torchlight on the snow. Smiles appeared, furtive as small furry creatures leaving their burrows for the first time in the thaw. For just a moment, they let themselves believe anything could come out of the next wagon.
These showmen did not know where they were. The retreating Axis armies had torn down the signs to confuse the Russian soldiers pushing them back across the country.
When the sky was filled with stars, the trick shooter climbed onto the stage and flicked away the last of his cigarette. He started with a bolt-action rifle, its wood dark brown, the steel glistening with oil. The woman in blue held a red paper target over her head, standing on the other end of the stage. He fired five times before the boy could draw two breaths, the sound of each shot crashing into the next. When they passed around the target, the boy poked his fingers into the five holes. He covered them all with his palm. The feeling made his stomach tighten and sweat bead on his skin. He had never seen such shooting. The boy breathed through his open mouth, tasting the gunpowder on the air. The feeling in his belly was like the sting of a thousand long needles. To be able to shoot like that!
The woman tossed five plates into the air, one after the next, so rapidly that it seemed they must collide. The trick shooter fired five times.
A sigh went up from the audience as they watched plate after plate being smashed, the familiar patterns of flowers and birds shattering into meaningless shards. So few of them had such fine things. What hadn't been destroyed in the bombing had been stolen by soldiers. They took a kind of pleasure from watching the carnage, because there is a luxury in destroying something you want. They did not see the blonde woman sitting patiently in the grass hours later with her colorful skirt all around her, gluing each fragment back together.
The boy pushed his way closer through the crowd, forgetting where he was. He had to see the shooting up close. The trick shooter wore a mustache curled up at the corners and his dark hair was slicked back with grease. A forest green greatcoat hung from one shoulder in the huszár style. Reaching under his coat, he pulled an automatic pistol with a magazine forward of the trigger and a rounded grip. He held it casually by his hip. A man from the audience climbed to the stage and tested the rifle and the pistol. He fired them into a block of wood and confirmed that they were real. He tried shooting a plate out of the air, and when it broke on the stage everyone laughed.
The boy did not laugh. He was mesmerized by the trick shooter. As everyone else watched the man from the audience shoot, the trick shooter lit a new cigarette. He looked beyond their heads, out into the darkness past the torches. He looked hard, his gray eyebrows contracted, as though he could see something in the night.
The woman in blue had long blonde hair tied up tightly. She tossed playing cards into the air, Hungarian cards with suits of acorns and oak leaves. They fluttered in the air, but the bullets made them jump every time. When the trick shooter fired the pistol, it popped faster than the firecrackers on New Years' Day. There were no more cards in the deck, so they let the children gather the cards. When they stacked them all together, the woman could poke her finger through all of them in the middle.
The boy had gone to the front with the rest to gather cards, but he kept one. He poked his finger into the hole, and then tucked it into his waistband because he had no pockets.
Two men tied the woman in blue to a table and stood the table on its end. They covered her with a black sheet. The trick shooter turned his back, blowing smoke. The boy breathed the scent of tobacco and gunpowder. The smell made him shudder with more than the cold, and he squeezed his eyes shut until memories of armed soldiers faded. He watched the woman squirm under the sheet to show she was still there.
The trick shooter never turned. The boy's heart beat against his chest as though it was trying to leap out of the cage of his ribs. Even he, who had not blinked once as she was tied, did not know where it was safe to shoot under the sheet.
Between puffs of his cigarette, and still staring out between the torches across the crowd, the trick shooter stuck his pistol casually under his armpit and fired until the trigger clicked. The sheet rippled with every hit. In the flickering of the torches, the black cotton writhed.
No one screamed. The boy forced himself to watch, even though dirty tears streamed down his cheeks. Even the crickets were still. A man from the audience, stuttering and stumbling, rushed up and tore down the sheet. The audience sighed and pushed each other. Was she dead? Was she alive? The woman in blue climbed onto the upturned table and sat on it like a garlanded girl on a wagon during the harvest festival, waving to the crowd. The clustered holes in the soft wood were black in the torchlight. The audience clapped and cheered, but the boy did not clap. He stared, not at the woman, but at the trick shooter. He calmly reloaded his pistol before finishing his cigarette.
That was the last of the shows, but Levente invited the villagers to stay. "Please, visit Mamma Szofía to learn your future or let your children ride on Balázs. He is as gentle as a sow. Enjoy our music, and please buy some wine. You will find none better this side of the Danube."
The boy went to see Mamma Szofía, though he had no interest in having his future told. There were no stars or moons painted on the side of her wagon, but a rabbit the size of a man with the pathways of his body marked in red.
A brown-skinned woman, stern and tall, with heavy breasts under a half-opened blouse opened the wagon's door and pointed at him, though there was a line of curious men. Despite her thick gray braid, no wrinkles marred her face. "What is your name, boy?"
He said nothing to her. She took him by the hand and led him into the wagon. It stank of incense and sweat. The thick air made him gag. "How did you come here?" she demanded. She held his wrist with fingers like iron and shook him. A deer's skull sat in the middle of the carpet. A single candle burned on its forehead. "Don't you know it's not safe?"
"Yes," was all he said.
Mamma Szofía shook him again, more gently. There were tears in her voice. "Where did you come from? Where is your family? Did you escape when they came for them?"
She released him. He watched her cry, rubbing his wrist. He was shorter than she, his shoulders too broad for his coat.
With steel fingers, she grabbed his wrist and pulled so hard he cried out. Pulling his fingers, she forced his hand back and spat on it. The swarthy skin was like her own. Then she spoke to him in a language that was not Hungarian.
The sound of the language he had heard before but never learned made the tears gather in his eyes. He turned away and left, rubbing moisture from his eyes with the back of his sleeve.
"You're not man enough for her yet, son!" the men said.
The boy went back to the stage but found it deserted. He gathered cold brass shell casings from the pitted wood. So close, he could see how the planks were held together by wedges. The whole thing wobbled when he walked on it. A group of men with long black hair folded up the stairs. He helped clean up mechanically. When they stacked the pieces of the stage in a wagon, he asked, "Where is the man who shoots?"
The biggest of the workers, a sour-faced man with crooked teeth, smiled. "You won't get anything from him."
"Let me come with you. I can work with wood."
"Go home, boy," they said. But the boy did not leave even after all the torches burned out.
The boy appeared at the next stop. The sun was still high when the crowd started arriving. There was no stage now, and Levente did not give a speech. The acrobats performed only a few stunts. One of the jugglers dropped a baton and laughed. The boy did not care. He only wanted to see the trick shooter. When the bow-legged man with the red nose danced with Balázs, someone in the audience called out, "He dances better than you do!"
The boy looked around himself. There were no women or children in the crowd, though some of the men were no older than he was. They passed tiny cigarettes to each other and stomped their feet in the cold. They were waiting for something, impatient and crude.
In the sunlight, surrounded by mocking men, the vision fell away from the boy's eyes like a mist under the sun. The paint on the wagons that had seemed so bright and colorful looked faded and chipped. When the bow-legged man led Balázs away, the boy saw gray in the bear's fur, the limp in his shuffle, the scars on his muzzle. The acrobats balanced themselves slyly with hands on the flagpoles and the sides of their wagons, where in the dark the crowd could not have seen.
When Mamma Szofía took the stage, she chose men from the audience to join her, and told lurid stories about their wives and mistresses. She talked about the size of their penises and the quantity of their emissions, imitating the reaction of their women, sometimes with shock and sometimes with dismay, and only once with pleasure. The men grinned. One man, she took one look at, turned away, and said, "Sheep!" The crowd roared with laughter. To the boy, who knew little about this, this was just something to wait through until the trick shooter came on stage.
The man and woman with one leg did not perform. When the boy was starting to think the trick shooter would not perform at all, he stepped up. The hem of his greatcoat looked tattered and muddy, but his mustache was perfectly curled. He waited for the blonde woman to prepare the cards. She did not wear the blue sparkles, but a tight blouse that showed her soft white stomach.
The rowdy crowd hushed as he loaded his pistol and waited, the pistol's thin barrel pointed into the heavy sky. The pops of the shots tore through the silence, each catching the echo of the last. He never looked at his pistol as he shot, but at the cards, and the pistol in his hand jumped like a living thing. The trick shooter only reloaded once. He did not even shoot through the whole pack. When he turned to step down, one of the men, slurring his words, shouted, "You're a cheat!"
The trick shooter had not bothered with the wooden block. He knew he was not the attraction. Without a word, he waved the drunk onto the stage, loaded, and handed the pistol to him. He then picked up one of the cards from the grass. The boy smiled to see the showmanship of the apparently random choice; the card had a hole directly in the center. The trick shooter turned to the man and said, "Show me how I cheated," and tossed the card into the air.
The card fluttered above the trick shooter's head like a butterfly. It floated toward the greased black hair, closer, closer. Between heartbeats, it hovered in front of the trick shooter's face. The pistol wavered, then spat fire. The trick shooter had not moved. A few of the men craned their necks. They were no strangers to death. But the trick shooter bent down and picked up the card.
"Who would have thought it? He put the bullet through the same hole."
Nobody objected to the deception. When they were finished laughing, the crowd moved to the wagons. Some bought wine, postcards with pictures of naked women, books with the covers of Bibles with hollow spaces inside, and hazy bottles filled with homemade fruit moonshine called pálinka. Others gathered in small bunches by wagons with closed doors. The fiddles screamed and the drums hammered on the cold air, they climbed one at a time through the curtained doors. When they were finished, they headed home. Once, the boy saw the blonde woman come to the curtain of the trick shooter's wagon to call the next man. The boy watched her. She was part of the magic, but in the daylight he saw she painted her face thickly to hide her age the way Mamma Szofía did. Others went to Szofía and the acrobats. When they emerged, the men walked back down the roads like men after taking a swim.
The trick shooter smoked alone, as though he did not hear the sounds in the wagon he leaned against. It had been his wagon, but there was another man in it now. "You're wondering if I always use blanks in my pistol, and have Anna throw cards that already have holes in them."
The boy looked away from the wagon as a man came out. He could picture the blonde woman in blue stretching her back, her blue eyes on the rain-warped ceiling. In his imagination, her eyes had the same look as the trick shooter's, empty and sad. "I don't believe it. I saw the cards jump in the air."
"You should not believe so much in anyone other than yourself." The trick shooter watched the boy's face. Under the dirt, the gypsy boy's thick dark lips cracked and bled. The man lit another cigarette with a battered lighter. "Our aim is to give people what they want. That is how we eat. When there are children, we let them ride the bear. When there are no children, the men ride somewhere else." He did not laugh or even smile. "These people want cards with holes in them, so they get cards with holes in them. It's only a veneer. If they want an exhibition, we give them an exhibition. I perform any shot they need, but only if they deserve it. I always shoot to kill. If I could see them, I would shoot the angels out of the sky."
"What do they call you?" the boy said.
The trick shooter looked at the boy's bloody shirt and made his choice. "Koenig. It means…"
"…king," the boy finished. It was a German name, though the trick shooter spoke Hungarian perfectly, his skin and eyes as brown as anyone's. Yet, the name fit. After that, the boy traveled with the wagons, and they let him share in their soup when there was some to share. When there was not, he gnawed the ends of stale loaves of bread, letting them soak in his spit until they were soft enough to chew. The boy could barely remember when winter smelled like salted meat and pickled vegetables, like the tobacco juice his mother spat in the mud. Now it smelled like smoke rolling over the plains.
When it was not too cold, they lay under the stars, men and women lying close together for warmth. Anna, the blonde assistant, asked him, "Why don't you wash the blood out of your shirt?"
"The rivers are frozen," the boy said.
He watched her breath rising into the sky like a cloud. "Break the ice," she said.
"I am afraid."
"Why are you afraid?"
"I'm afraid of what is below the ice."
Her fingers were cold and smooth against the scar of his ear. "Did they miss? Is that how you survived?"
The boy winced away and tucked his face under the collar of his coat to hide his tears.
Koenig did not sleep among them. Sometimes the boy saw him sitting in the darkness, smoking his cigarettes. Once, the boy asked the trick shooter, "Do you mind when they go into the wagon with her?"
"She does not love them," he said.
"Does she love you?"
Koenig raised his eyebrows and smiled only with his mouth.
In the middle of the night, the boy woke screaming, kicking at the people sleeping around him. "Get them off me! They're so heavy! Get them off! Their horrible eyes!" In the darkness, they listened to him crying.
No one mentioned it in the morning.
The trick shooter woke the boy while the others slept and washed his face and hands in cold water. "Never handle a gun with dirty hands," Koenig said. He always made the boy show him his fingernails. He still did not ask the boy's name.
"Learn the rifle first. Any fool can shoot a rifle. The pistol is a piece of your body, closer to you than your left hand." He made the boy lay down and made him prop the rifle through the spokes of a wagon wheel. He showed him how to work the bolt without taking his middle finger off the trigger. "I can load and shoot forty rounds in one minute. You must learn to do twenty." Neither of them had a watch. The oiled metal slipped from the boy's numbed fingers. The kick of the butt bruised him like a fist. "Keep it tight against your shoulder," the trick shooter said. He did not look at the boy. It was enough to listen to his breathing, his fumbling with the bolt. "Do not take your finger from the trigger. Do not look at the bolt. That is not what you are trying to shoot. You must always look directly at what you're going to kill."
The boy looked from the target to Koenig. Night after night, he performed with the toothless bear, the cheating acrobats, the magicians, and the jugglers with hollow bats. Compared to them, he was more than a king. He held life and death in his callused hands. "When did you learn to shoot like this?"
The trick shooter could not meet his eyes. "Not so long ago, may God curse me for it." He refused to say more.
Once, Russians stopped the wagons. When they gathered them together, the trick shooter was not there. They searched the wagons and the woods, but found no one. "Is this all of you?" the officer said, in Hungarian. He had a long gray beard and eyebrows that hung into his lashes. "Yes," said Levente, in Russian. "Good," said the officer. His Russian was not much better than his Hungarian. They rode off after they took all of the silverware they could find. "Cossacks," said Levente. At the next stop, the boy found Koenig leaning against his wagon, smoking a cigarette. No one knew where he had been.
They taught him to do minor tricks with coins and handkerchiefs. The big man with crooked teeth showed him how to pinch and lift a man's pocket so he would not feel your fingers in it. Hunger was stronger than guilt in his belly. One of the fiddlers told him to try the instrument. "Can't you play it at all?" he said. "Didn't anyone teach you?" The boy never said.
When Koenig let him hold the pistol, he first showed him the safety. "Never point this at anything you do not want to kill," he said.
"You do not kill the cards," the boy said.
"You cannot think that way. There is no difference."
Koenig blindfolded the boy. "You must feel where the bullets will go without looking. It must be like pointing your finger. You do not have to look at your finger to point. When it is far away, you must imagine the bullet dropping like a stone. Find your bullets in trees and learn to judge how far they fell. Remember, you must aim to kill."
Sometimes the trick shooter performed blindfolded. Once, he shot bottles from the heads of three of the women, one after the other, with his back turned. The audience never laughed at him. When they walked away, whatever they had come for, they thought about the crack of the pistol and the hollow gray eyes that never looked directly at anything but what he was shooting. He is what they remembered.
Once, he saw Anna washing her face after breaking the ice that formed over the bucket. When he saw her face under the paint, he thought, She's just a kid. She paints her face to look older. He had forgotten his own age. In his mind, he had become an old man, his beard in his dreams as long and thick as the white hair on the shoulders of a longhorn bull.
Later, Anna returned from the forest with the rifle slung over her shoulder, carrying a rabbit dangling by its ears. The trick shooter did not shoot anything living. He only said, "Good," when she got back, not looking up from where he sat, the pistol spread out in components over the table. Like a midwife washing a baby, he greased each piece after removing it, setting it gently on the rag. If he hadn't watched, the boy could not have said that the carefully arranged pieces formed together into a weapon. Taking such dissimilar things and making a killing thing from them was part of the trick shooter's art.
Anna asked the boy where he was born. He could not say.
"Where are your father and mother?" She slid the knife through the rabbit with a twist of her wrist.
"I have none."
She nodded and looked sad, her lashes almost white as they lowered over her blue eyes. "I am the same." She did not pause in her work.
After Mamma Szofía saw them sitting together to eat, she said to him, "One day she will not speak to you again, because you are a gypsy and she is not."
Spring was coming. The boy joined the first acts, doing what tricks he knew while the crowds gathered. When his time was his own, the boy watched flocks of wild geese splitting the sky and calling to each other in the voices of old women. There was talk of elections to choose someone to lead the country. When the boy asked the man with crooked teeth how he would vote, he laughed and said, "Even the Communists won't give gypsies the vote."
Only once, the boy asked Koenig to show him how to shoot.
"No. I shoot to entertain them. To you, this is not entertainment. Now squeeze the trigger like I told you and breathe out as you do it. Do not take your eyes from what you want to kill."
More Russians found the wagons. The soldiers emerged from the morning mist. Some rode horses. Others sat in cars with their boots on the doors. Many were drunk. Fear reached down the boy's throat and wound his belly around his spine.
Levente climbed down stiffly from the front wagon, rubbing his knees and elbows. The officer remained seated with his shoulders low on the seat of the automobile.
"I have nothing to say to you, old woman," he said in Russian. None of them laughed. They did not even need to touch their weapons.
The bearded old man pleaded with them. They had no more silverware to steal. They wore no buttons. Even their trousers were held up with rope. The last few villages had hardly given them enough food to keep from starving. Look at the horses. They are half dead on their feet. If they died, there would be nothing on them to eat.
The soldiers did not listen. "We know you have women in your wagons. We have good money. We can share our vodka rations with you. We do not have to be enemies."
"We have nothing left to give you," Levente said.
"Let your women tell us that."
The boy watched from the trick shooter's doorway as the soldiers spread out among the wagons. They threw clothes into the mud. He could hear Balázs snorting. They chased the bear around with their bayonets, pricking his sagging haunches. Anna stifled a cry. They dragged the woman with one leg from her wagon and threw her down on the ground. When she managed to stand, they knocked her over again. They did this over and over until mud covered her clothes. The boy turned his head back and forth, watching Koenig. He sat on a chest of clothes and did not watch.
A young soldier saw the boy watching and jumped up the step. He pulled the door open and saw the girl's blonde hair where she cowered under the colorful blankets. The boy felt as though he was trapped under ice. He could do nothing but watch.
The trick shooter stood and walked forward. The pistol appeared in his hand. Every step he took was like the ticking of a huge clock. The soldier walked backwards as though he was in a trance. He watched Koenig's eyes, but the trick shooter did not look at him. He looked far away, as he had looked into the darkness the first time the boy saw him.
When the other soldiers saw what was happening, they gathered around, though none stood too close to the young man. The boy watched his upper lip quiver. He was growing his first mustache. His brown uniform hung on his long limbs.
As the boy watched, he opened a pack of cards. Without looking, he ran his thumbs over them.
"Listen," the officer said in Hungarian as he stepped down from Mamma Szofía's wagon. He held his trousers in one hand. "Calm."
The frozen air cracked wide with every report of the pistol. When he was done, the trick shooter did not look at the boy. He did not look at the thin men in their uniforms lying so awkwardly in the mud. Koenig carefully reloaded the pistol. The whisper of his fate blew in the wind. The Russians would hunt him down for what he had done. If he stayed with the exhibition, he put them all in danger. They all knew it, though none of them spoke up. In that moment, the trick shooter was the master of life and death.
"We must run!" said the boy.
"No. We must make sure." Koenig's voice sounded as though he had not slept for a year.
As the boy watched Koenig walk among the corpses, stopping at each one, the boy's knees shook and his eyes blurred. In his mind, he saw a similar scene, but it had been him on the ground. Every time the gun spoke, the boy's fingernails dug deeper into his palms. When he could stand it no longer, he ran.
Anna found him in the forest after he had been sick. "Do you feel better?" was all she said. She cried over the bear and poured a bottle over his wounds.
The next day, the boy saw her leave to the river with a piece of chalky soap. It was easy to follow the footsteps she left. Waving his hands, he could feel the breezes changing among the black pines. The spring smelled like fresh water and wet mud. Koenig found him watching her from the bushes. For the first time, the boy saw Koenig truly smile. Anna did not turn away from them as she removed her cotton blouse and sank into the water. She was too far for the boy to hear the water splashing on her white skin.
The trick shooter dipped his razor into the stream and held a piece of mirror in his other hand. He shaved dry, the steel scraping over his tanned skin. He spoke to his reflection in the mirror, whispering so Anna would not hear. "The first time we did it, we did not know to attach bayonets and set them against the top of the spine. We did not know how to aim. There was blood and pieces of skull." The words plunged deep into the boy like fingers, and he wanted to scream for Koenig to stop, but he could not find his voice. "The sergeant told us to shoot again. We could not. He yelled at us. He called us cowards. We were sick. After that, he made us follow the trucks from the town square where we gathered them into the forest. They knew what was happening. Only a few tried to run. But at night, as we tossed shovels of dirt over them, we saw the mounds move. Many could not shoot to kill. They could not aim the way one must."
The boy watched Anna. The cold water glistened on her skin. It seemed horrible that she could seem so beautiful now. Koenig did not stop talking to the mirror. "Sometimes, we saw men and women wandering with dead eyes, covered in blood, their fingernails torn off. They had clawed their way out of the graves. The sergeant made us dig new graves. 'You must always shoot to kill,' he said."
The pain of betrayal exploded in the boy's chest. He clenched his teeth to fight down the waves of sadness and rage. He stared straight ahead. There was a sound like a waterfall in his ears. He forgot to breathe until his chest ached. When he touched his brown shirt, it felt smooth under his fingers, stiff with blood. Their blood. He did not wash it because it would never wash out. Even if he burned the shirt, he wore the blood on his skin. His jaw ached from clenching it so hard. He threw himself onto the ground and cried loudly with anger and grief, sobbing with his entire body.
When he came to himself again, Anna and the trick shooter were gone.
The field where they had stopped was deserted when he arrived. The embers of the fires and the piles of the horses' droppings felt cold under his hand. He found the rifle against a stump. It was loaded. He needed no other message. He ran his hand over the cold steel and bit his lip, shuddering when he thought what Koenig had done.
He walked along the path the wagons had taken. They would stop before dark to put on another exhibition. It would not be long.
With every step, he remembered the bouncing of the wheels of the truck over frozen ground. The soldiers spoke his language. They did not look at him. They passed around cigarettes and did not speak. When they unloaded the trucks, they paired one soldier per gypsy. His soldier was an old man with false teeth and dirty glasses he kept wiping on his dirty coat. They were mostly reservists and police, mixed in with the remains of the army smashed on the Russian front. Among them, he saw the black uniforms of the German SS. His soldier's hand shook. The rattle of the rifle's bolt was like the beating of his own heart. In his memories, he saw the old man who had taken him into the forest, but he now had Koenig's face. The face of the man he had trusted.
He heard strains of fiddle music before he crested a hill. The cheerful sound seemed strange to him, whose face had grown as cold as the winter wind. Now, it was he who carried the gun. When he reached the wagons, the trick shooter was not performing. He sat in the darkness with Anna. Even with his eyes used to the dark, the boy saw him as a gray ghost. His cigarette flared and bathed his face in red. Anna sat beside him on a stump, her head hung. They had been speaking, but they were quiet now.
Born in Germany to a Hungarian mother and an American father of Hungarian descent, poet and fiction writer Daniel Nyikos earned a BS and an MA at Utah State University. His poetry has been featured in former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's syndicated newspaper column, "American Life in Poetry." A doctoral student in fiction at the University of Nebraska, he served as the senior fiction reader of Prairie Schooner. He is currently in Hungary doing research for a novel, funded by a Fulbright grant.