8 FEBRUARY 1967, WEDNESDAY
He left the Capital that morning, and at ten stopped in Uzhorod to fill his petrol, then continued up into the mountains, alert to each curve hidden behind clusters of snow-sprinkled pines. A small suitcase and briefcase shivered on the passenger seat.
His name was Brano Oleksy Sev. He had reached his fiftieth year the previous month with fewer scars than he deserved, and owned the same white Trabant P50 he had bought ten years before. He had replaced so many internal parts that likely nothing inside it had come with the original car. Even the steering wheel had been replaced in 1961 (31 October, the same day Stalin’s sarcophagus was removed from its Red Square mausoleum), after he had taken a particularly sharp turn while trailing a suspect and found it sitting in his lap.
In Vranov he took lunch at the empty restaurant he knew from his last visit three years before, because this stop never changed. The waitress, a large woman with a cleft lip, frowned a lot at him. Then she leaned against the edge of the table, a faint odor of sweat misting off her cheeks, and asked if he was sure he didn’t want a drink with that. “We’ve got the best brandy in the region.”
Brano shook his head and watched her return, frowning, to the kitchen, then opened his briefcase and took out the case file with cold fingers.
Until last August, Brano had been a major in the Ministry for State Security, located on Yalta Boulevard, number 36. But for the last five months he had been a comrade-worker at the eternally noisy Pidkora People’s Factory, the third man down the assembly line, fitting electrical wires into gauges so that the machines of socialist agriculture would never fail. Then, yesterday, he felt a tap on his shoulder. His alcoholic foreman stood behind him.
Someone to see you, Sev! In my office!
Brano followed him through the jungle of machinery to the glassed-in box in the center of the factory floor. Behind the cluttered desk, holding a newspaper and smiling, sat the Comrade Colonel, Laszlo Cerny, wiping his unkempt mustache.
The foreman closed the door as he left, muffling the sound of machines.
Sit down, said the colonel, tapping the newspaper on the desk. Then he held up the paper, which was Austrian. Kurier. He said, You ever meet this guy?
Brano said he hadn’t, then began to understand. This was the way meetings at Yalta Boulevard had always begun, with pleasantries and diversions. The Comrade Colonel even read out portions of that expatriate’s slanders about the “acts of barbarity” committed by the Ministry for State Security. The lies he tells. Those Austrians will believe anything. Say, Brano, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in leaving this factory, would you?
The waitress delivered his coffee with an arched brow. “You’re up here for work?”
Brano closed the file. “How do you know I’m not from here?”
“Your accent. And your car.” She nodded at the mud-grayed window. “Those plates are from the Capital.”
“That’s very good.”
“Are you here on business?”
“You’re very curious.”
“My husband says it’ll get me into trouble one day.”
“Visiting family,” he said. “In Bóbrka.”
“Bóbrka?” She crossed her arms over her chest and raised the mottled side of her lip. “From the Capital to Bóbrka. That’ll be a shock.”
“It certainly will be.”
He opened the file again as she walked away, and he looked at the top photograph, of a handsome man’s face—wide, with faint features.
This was the reason for interrupting his day’s work—Jan Soroka. Five and a half months ago, in August, this petroleum specialist had made it out of the East, to Vienna. Colonel Cerny shrugged. Through Hungary, we suspect. Their border is full of holes. Assumedly for asylum, Soroka twice visited the American embassy, then remained in Vienna for the following three months. In November, he reentered the American embassy and did not emerge again.
Well, we lost track of him at least. It happens. Just an oil rigger. Sometimes people slip through your fingers. But listen to this.
Ten days ago, Soroka had reappeared, magically, in Bóbrka—his hometown, and Brano’s.
Brano had left Bóbrka in 1941, so Jan Soroka was unfamiliar, as was his wife, Lia, whose puffy lips in her Galicia Textile Works identification photo made her look as if she’d just been hit. There were no photographs of their seven-year-old son, Petre.
And he hasn’t been arrested? Brano asked.
Colonel Cerny shook his head. He won’t be, not yet, because that’s what he must be expecting. His wife and son have joined him there. It’s the “why” we’re after. And who would be best equipped to go in and work on him?
Does this mean that I—
Cerny held up a finger. Temporary and unofficial reinstatement, Brano. These might come in handy. He reached in his pocket and handed over Brano’s old internal passport, marked with the crest of the Ministry: a hawk with folded wings, its head turned aside. The Lieutenant General wasn’t in favor of it, but I used my influence. And if you distinguish yourself, then there’s a chance—
“That your wife?” the waitress asked.
Brano closed the file. “Wife?”
Among the papers he found a brief typed summary of the file’s contents. Soroka had been born in 1934 in Sanok, to Wladislaw and Soft Soroka, farmers. His childhood was not mentioned, nor his parents’ 1947 transfer to the Bóbrka Petroleum Works, though it was noted that in 1950, at sixteen, Jan was part of a Red Pioneer trip to the Capital to shake hands with General Secretary Mihai and see the sights. When he was twenty-three, Jan applied for and received permission to move to the Capital, where he advised the Central Gas Industry Committee as part of the industrial reform program Mihai had implemented the year before, in 1956, some months before his death. Before he disappeared, Soroka attended a conference in the spa town of Gyula on “the future of power in the socialist neighborhood,” attended by scientists from all over the Empire, specialists in gas, petroleum, and nuclear energy. But a week after it ended, his wife, Lia, filed a missing person’s report—Jan had never returned home. Militia Lieutenant Emil Brod investigated it—but without success. A line toward the end of the summary said, “EXTERNAL ACTIVITIES: See attached.”
The Vienna report’s five pages speculated on Soroka’s date of entry into Austria—21 August, six days after Brano had left—and listed various places he had visited. The list was not exceptional. There were the regular sights—the Stephansdom, the MAK, the Schönbrunn Palace—and bars where one might run into one’s own countrymen, the most well known being the Carp, on Sterngasse. Then, on 25 August, a Thursday, he first entered the American embassy. During that five-hour visit, his hotel room was searched, but nothing of interest was found. Soroka returned to the embassy the next day, for only an hour. He then went to the Carp and got drunk.
On the following Monday, he appeared for the first time at the Raiffeisen-bank and, as far as the agents could discern from their vantage on the other side of the lobby, opened an account. This was never properly verified.
The report became sporadic after that, skimming over the following three months with summaries. Soroka began eating in specific restaurants and going to a limited number of bars—the Carp most often—and made brief friendships before dropping out of touch. It was the life of a dissatisfied exile. A couple of these acquaintances were agents who tried to get the story out of him, but short of a full interrogation there was no way to learn more. He was not considered important enough to abduct—which, the report speculated, was probably a mistake, because on 18 November he returned to the American embassy and did not emerge again.
Brano said, Who’s the Vienna rezident now?
Cerny pressed his lips together. Josef Lochert.
He—But Brano didn’t finish the sentence. After his expulsion from the Ministry and five months standing beside an automated belt, this was, finally, something. So where does Soroka say he’s been all this time?
The Comrade Colonel grunted his delight. You’ll like this. He says he’s been with a mistress in Szuha—a small village near the Ukrainian border. Guess her name.
I don’t know.
Yes, said Cerny. I don’t know what the Americans are up to. They know we’re aware Soroka was in Vienna, but they’re willing to send him in with a terrible cover. We want to know what’s going on.
Myself, and the Comrade Lieutenant General.
Don’t misjudge him, said Cerny. What he did to you was what he thought he had to do.
He wanted me in prison.
Colonel Cerny shook the newspaper at him. Well, when Josef Lochert reported that you’d attacked him and tried to sabotage the operation . . . what did you expect him to think?
Thank you again, by the way, said Brano. For keeping me out of prison.
You know I’d do much more for you. He stood up and looked through the glass at the factory that reached beyond his line of sight. Maybe this isn’t much better. He stuck out a hand, and Brano took it. So? Have I put something bright into an otherwise dull day?
You’ve put something bright into an otherwise dull life.
Cerny tossed him the Kurier. Enjoy the read. That stuff is no good for my bladder.
Brano accepted the gift of a small roll from his waitress and drove through the mountains to the other side, passing Turka and then moving farther north beyond the Carpathian hills. Giraltovce and Svidník glided past, and after dark he reached Dukla. There was a new billboard outside town, briefly lit by his headlights: General Secretary Tomiak Pankov, bald head shining above a blue suit, stood smiling, arms out, while around him a ring of twenty children danced. Beneath: THE SOCIALIST WORLD IS THE WORLD OF PEACE.
With children dancing in his head, Brano drove north into the forest.
He could not see the drilling machinery in the dark, but he knew it was there, among the pines. As he emerged into the sparse, rolling terrain that led to the village, he had an overwhelming urge to turn back. A couple of houses appeared on the left—new, unfamiliar homes—but the graveyard on the right brought on the subtle push of nostalgia he’d been waiting for. He took a left at the crossroad and drove into the center of Bóbrka.
It seemed that everything was already known to him in this town of less than four hundred; everything was tactile. The lit windows with their rough lace curtains, the tire-mangled road, the sharp grass springing up in his headlights, the fogged windows of the village’s one bar and the old man shivering outside in the cold with a beer in his hand, watching Brano’s Trabant roll past. Otherwise, the village was deserted. The bus stop was dark, though the yellow church with its statue of the Virgin Mary was lit by a floodlight. He followed the right-hand bend in the road, passing the small state store his mother ran, continuing without looking at the prim homes leading up to hers.
Brano was genuinely surprised to see the house as it had always been, small and remote from the road. After the dynamism of the Capital, he was in a place that lived as if nothing had changed in the last fifty years.
He parked in the gravel, took out his suitcase and briefcase, and paused at the gate. He took breaths of cold air until the red tint in his cheeks began to fade.
The kitchen light glowed from around the side of the house, so he walked through shrubs to the kitchen door. Whitewashed by the thin lace curtain, she was still heavy, her thick elbows on the table, staring at the playing cards laid out before her. She jumped at his knock.
As Iwona Sev approached the door she squinted, and he leaned close to the glass to help her out. Then her head slid back, eyes filling with light before the smile came. She pulled the door open and shouted, “Brani!”
He kissed her, then came into the kitchen, which had also never heard of progress. Wood-burning stove, gas lamp, a pail of fat in the corner. She held his face by the chin and turned it in the light. “You’re thin, thin. Are you all right? Is everything okay?”
He noticed that on her forehead, between her eyes, was a smear of soot. He kissed her cheeks again. “I’m just taking a vacation. It’s all right to stay here?”
“How can you even ask? It’s not every day I have my son here. Or every year, for that matter.” She tried to take his suitcase, but he wouldn’t let her. “Get those to your room and I’ll make something to eat. You must be hungry.”
He tilted his head from side to side.
“Of course you are. I’ll heat some soup.”
“You’ve got a spot,” he said, touching his own forehead.
She opened her mouth, blushing. “Oh yes, yes.” She wiped the spot with a thumb and looked at her dirty print. “If I had an electric stove, I’d be a lot cleaner.”
It could not really be called “his” room anymore. All personal effects—the toy oxcart with the broken wheel, the rotary board game, and even the set of French metal skiers with little metal skis and sleds—had been removed long ago, and his younger sister, Klara, had taken her possessions to her own home on the outskirts of Bóbrka. A group of framed photographs hung on the wall in a loose pastiche of half-forgotten faces. Uncles and distant cousins who were killed in the war, and their wives, who had remarried or stuck out the following years in solitude. A group shot of his mother’s family from the ’teens, faces serious, as befitted the weight of such a sitting. Brano was also there, at two, and at six years old, with curls that made him look uncomfortably like a girl; Klara as a nine-year-old had the same intense features she had carried into adulthood. In the center, a larger portrait of his father—his Tati—stood sentry over the others. It had been taken during the war, a young man’s face with too many worry lines sprouting from his eyes. His mouth was open, revealing the chipped front tooth Brano always imagined when he tried to remember the face of Andrezej Fedor Sev.
He sat on the edge of the bed, gazing at that tooth. The man was probably dead now, one tiny fraction of the endless stream of refugees who made their way west after the war. But this man had been ordered to leave, by his son, on a frigid October night.
Brano wiped his palms dry on his knees.
It was not his room anymore. It had become a home for guests. A guest room, and he was a guest. He put the suitcase into the wardrobe.
Her forehead was clean and the cards cleared away. She was heating pork stew in an iron pot and toasting bread. He asked her about the store. “Well, you know. Eugen is a good boy, but I don’t need him. I could do all the work myself. It’s a small place. But the State wants two employees, and who am I to argue?”
“You could bring it up at a council meeting.”
“Do you think that would help?”
“The State can’t know things unless it’s told.”
She hummed beneath her breath and stirred the fragrant soup. She added a spoonful of fat from the pail and let it cook a little more before ladling it into a bowl and collecting the toast. She poured him a glass of brandy and seemed pleased just to watch him eat.
He told her a few necessary details about the Pidkora factory and spent more time describing new construction in the Capital and everything that was changing. “The metro was a fantastic success.”
“That’s a good thing,” she said.
“When you travel you see the entire cross-section of the city—Gypsies and workers and university professors riding side by side.”
“And Politburo men?”
“I’m only asking.”
He finished eating and sipped the warm brandy. She poured herself one and refilled his.
“And what about your personal life, Brani? Do you have friends? Any women you’d like your mother to meet?”
He hesitated. “No, no women.”
“You’re not so young anymore.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“And when you reach a certain age you’ll kick yourself for not having a wife.”
“Maybe we can find you a nice girl around here.”
“No. Mother, don’t try that.”
“If you’re not going to be sensible, then I’ll have to be sensible for you.”
She finished her glass. “What, son-of-mine?”
“I’m quite happy with my life.”
“Nonsense. No one is happy with their life. Your Tati used to say that all the time, and he knew what he was talking about.”
He stared at his drink until she let the subject go. She went on to other matters, and by eleven had told him all about the happenings in Bóbrka. Alina Winieckim and Gerik Gargas had died in the last six months, the first of encephalitis, the other in a gory drilling accident. Alina’s husband, Lubomir, got a permit to move to the Capital—“Did you hear from him? I gave him your phone number.” Brano hadn’t. “Always unsociable, Lubomir. Always . . .” She twisted an index finger against her temple to signify insanity, then told him that the entire Ulanowicz clan had moved to Uzhorod.
Brano rubbed his eyes.
But there was good news as well, she told him. Wincet and Kalena Szybalski had gotten married after only a three-week courtship (though Kalena’s soon-swelling belly made the reason clear enough). Also married were Piotr and Jolanta, and Augustyn and Olesia. “There’s love in the air,” she said. “Maybe you’ll smell it, too.” Krystyna Knippelberg was seven months pregnant with her sixth. “You should see how ecstatic she is. But who wants six children? All she really wants is one of those Motherhood Medals, it’s obvious.”
“Is that so bad?”
“It’s bad when you can’t feed the five children you’ve got. Krystyna will have to send one off to the orphanage, mark my words.”
The most spectacular news, however, of Jan Soroka’s mysterious appearance did not cross her lips.
“And what about my sister?”
She yawned into the back of her hand, then took the bottle to refill his glass, stopping when she saw it hadn’t been touched. “Klara is doing well. Oh, very well. She and Lucjan are as happy as you can imagine. No children, though I talk to her.” She drank her brandy and put her chin in her hand. “Maybe Lucjan is seedless. You can’t blame a man for that, but I would like some grandchildren before I’m dead. Klara’s not my only child, though.”
“You see?” she said as she got up. “It’s not just in the Capital that interesting things happen.”
She kissed him good night and left the brandy out, but he didn’t drink any more. He sipped tap water and read Colonel Cerny’s copy of Kurier. In a long column called “An Eye into the Other Side,” Filip Lutz told of his own interrogation in 1961, a year before he escaped through Prague to the West. He said that the brutal treatment he received at the hands of the Ministry for State Security was the sure sign of a paranoiac society in the advanced stages of collapse. He gave the regime three years at most.
When the words began to blur, he went to the bedroom, undressed and folded his clothes, then climbed into the cold bed.
Brano was not the kind of man who liked to recall his youth, preferring to forget that time of zbrka—Dijana Frankovi?’s word for “the confusion of too many thing.” Before and during the war, he had stumbled through the stages leading to adulthood with his loud friend, Marek. The road to adulthood had been so clumsy and hesitant that even at the end of that life he was still unsure what to call himself. But after sending away his father, the zbrka dissipated. He was Brano Oleksy Sev, first a private, and then a sergeant, a captain, a lieutenant, a major. Then a factory worker. Now, he was neither an officer nor a worker but something undefined, lying in this cold room in the north of the country, where he always found the childhood zbrka waiting patiently for him.