by Noemi Szadeczky-Kardoss
My mom produced a foot-long, rusty iron key from her bag, held it up, and announced:
“This is the Key to Paradise!”
She and my dad had just gotten home after visiting the former owners of the little vineyard we bought. The key belonged to the house that stood there. Nobody could tell them the age of the building, but everybody agreed that it was at least a hundred years old.
That key was the largest we’ve ever seen. My mom smiled.
It had been her dream to buy a piece of land at Balaton one day. The green lake is the biggest in Central Europe. Dense forests surround it, and the water warms up in the summer. Hills with vineyards at their bottom cover the Northern shore. When she told me they had dubbed that key the Key to Paradise, I smiled, too.
Angels in Heaven
Later that day, I was sitting on a bench in a park. Zoli’s arms were wrapped around me. It was new love, and we forgot about the world around us. We spent the whole afternoon there just kissing and rarely saying anything.
“Are you a virgin?” he asked suddenly.
“Yes,” I said. “Are you?”
I was relieved. I knew it was best to tell him the truth. He was younger than me, and I would’ve felt embarrassed if he had been more experienced than I was. I told him my parents had just bought a vineyard and we were going there for the weekend if the weather stayed nice. I asked him to come with us, and pictured a romantic walk on the beach, hand in hand under the stars.
A couple of days later our little group stood in front of the hundred-year-old house.
Except for my parents who had seen it before, we all looked at it with disappointment.
“Ugh,” my sister said to briefly summarize our opinion.
That was no house, it was a mud hut! The paint was coming off the cracked walls and the door, and pieces of its thatched roof were scattered around on the ground everywhere.
“Isn’t it great?” My mom was very excited.
She ceremoniously opened the thick, wooden door with the Key to Paradise, and we stepped in. The seven of us could just about fit in the first room. It was dark; the tiny windows barely let in any light. A few pieces of old furniture lied in one corner.
“We even have air-conditioning!” my mom continued.
The air inside was indeed pleasingly cool. The thick walls made of wattle and daub kept the heat out. But they also kept fresh air out. The hut had a second room, a damp cellar. We peeked inside and as soon as we smelled the stuffiness there, closed its door back again. My mom enthusiastically started explaining to us how she would furnish the rooms, but I wasn’t interested. Instead, I went outside to discover our land.
The straight rows of vine-stocks on the slope seemed to merge into the woods above the vineyard. The trees of the forest were unbelievably green. I had heard about the frequent, heavy rains that were typical of that area of the Balaton’s shores, which nurtured the ground and turned the forests into jungles. I couldn’t wait to go on an excursion to the woods, and I knew my dad would’ve loved to go, too. I decided to climb up the hill and watch the view from the top of our vineyard.
“Where are you going?” Zoli asked. He stood in front of the door with his hands tucked in his pockets and a tired expression on his face. I told him.
“Don’t go there now.” he said.
“Why not?” I said as I walked off.
Standing on the top of the hill made me want to fly. I saw the streets and little houses of the village beneath where my mom’s aunt and her husband lived. In the distance, I saw the mountains that my dad had told me were remains of several million years old volcanoes. And I saw the lake, sailboats on its water, and sun-worshippers on the beach.
We slept in tents. Zoli was my brother’s best friend, so we three shared one tent. Eva, my sister, moved in with her friend, and my parents put up their tent somewhat farther from ours, hoping not to hear our music from there. In the middle of the night, Sely finally fell asleep. We were sure, because we heard him snoring a little. Zoli was lying between him and me, and he didn’t feel like sleeping. He snuggled closer and whispered in my ear, “Let’s go outside.” We unzipped the tent, which made Sely roll over, and quietly climbed outside.
I knew that he didn’t want to go out to watch the stars. Convinced that I wouldn’t regret it, whatever happened, I followed him. He was carrying a blanket.
It was darker than on the darkest, moonless nights in the city. We couldn’t see where we stepped; just tried to stay on the road that bisected the vineyard. Nothing moved, and it was so quiet that I heard my own breathing. Half way between the house and the end of our land, the slope was straightened. He flung the blanket on the grass under the apple tree that stood in the middle of the clearing. We lied down and started kissing.
‘What a perfect moment,’ I thought.
The End of the Peace
Less than a year later, I was lying under the apple tree again, hiding in its shadow from the cruel beams of the sun. The dry grass was pricking my bare legs and arms like needles. I could feel little creatures crawling on my skin, which would’ve annoyed me a lot if I hadn’t got any bigger problems. I was also hot and thirsty, and I had been there for an hour, but I didn’t want to move.
Nobody was near I could talk to, and I knew I had no place to go where I would feel better. Inside the tent, it was hotter than hell. The car, though it would’ve been a nice shelter with its doors open, stood too close to the house. And in the house, Zoli was cursing my name. That was the last place I wanted to go.
We had a fight again. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking about the previous fall, although that just made me feel worse. Swallowing my tears, I closed my eyes and replayed every hour of those last warm weekends we had spent on our vineyard that year.
With all of its hardships, my family learned to love the way of life there. Since we had no running water inside the house, we had to use the faucet under a tree outside. My mom hanged a mirror and a towel on the tree and placed a soap dish on one of its branches. We couldn’t convince her that we would’ve been fine living on fast food, and she insisted on cooking meals for us, which meant we also had to do washing up. For that, we used a big plastic tub we put on a bench. We did the laundry with our neighbors’ washing machine who in turn used our phone, because a phone was something we had and they didn’t. Our clothes, which were hung up on strings extended between trees and the house, were always waving at us friendly when we came back from the beach. Then, we even had a shower: A large, dark blue barrel atop another tree. We just had to fill the barrel with water, which the sun heated up during the day, and we could take nice, warm showers at dusk while the mosquitoes were singing in our ears. There was something special about brushing my teeth in the open air, and I enjoyed those showers so much that I never missed a real bathroom.
I remembered how Zoli and I had washed each other’s hair. We had heated up water in a teapot on the camping stove, mixed it with cold water in a basin, and used a plastic cup to pour it on each other’s head. My mom’s heart had melted at the sight. Of course, he hadn’t seen anything else but us shampooing each other’s hair, feeding each other rapes, and splashing about in Balaton like two little lovesick fish. She hadn’t known hat we had been doing at night.
I smiled at the thought, but it was a bitter smile.
“Nothing lasts forever,” I told the apple tree.
That summer, when I was lying under the apple tree again, Zoli and I decided to spend a week alone there, just to see how we could bear each other 24/7. We couldn’t. We had our little differences that led to big fights – every day. We would make up, but every day it lasted a little longer until we were friends again. If you’re not with the right person, then just the two of you night and day, living on canned food, and sleeping in a tiny tent is too much to handle.
“Hey, it’s going to rain soon, let’s go in the tent,” I heard his voice suddenly.
I had been dozing off under the apple tree and hadn’t noticed when the sky had turned dark green.
I staggered to my feet. It was still hot, but we knew what was coming. We ran down the sloping hill and climbed in our tent just before the heavy raindrops started hitting the ground.
He turned on the radio. I was afraid the tent would let the water in. He told me not to worry and hugged me. We were listening to the music, but soon the sound of the rain and the thunders became louder. So I made my peace with him once again.
The rain cooled down the air and turned the earth into a sea of mud in which our car sank as far as half of its tires. The fun part of our vacation was over. Just going to the bathroom was a misery. Everything was wet and slimy outside, and the nights were so cold that we couldn’t sleep until we had kept a hairdryer on inside the tent for half an hour.
We had to wait for the weather to get drier. The rain had stopped, but the sun didn’t come out for days, and the ground was still covered with deep mud. Zoli tried to start the car, but it wouldn’t move. We were stuck there.
And it just made us more impatient with each other. I started hating that place. There was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t be alone for one second. If not Zoli, then the mud and the freezing cold followed me everywhere. One day the wind rose. The radio said it was going to get worse. We decided to dig out the car and leave, even if we would arrive home resembling a big pile of wet dirt.
Zoli sat in the car and I pushed it. The tires threw mud into my eyes. It took several hours to get to the road that was thirty feet away.
Once home, we watched the weather update that said there had been a little tornado at Balaton. My mom called her aunt to ask her how they were. They were fine, she said, but they didn’t have electricity, and the wind had caused a lot of damage in their garden. I was afraid of what we would find on our vineyard the next time we went back.
Our land was never the same again. And not only because the tree with the mirror broke in two and fell on the ground. My mom decided to renovate the little house, build a bathroom inside, and make room in it for cots. We didn’t need to brush our teeth outside anymore, or take a shower under a tree, or sleep in tents.
And the house got a new door, which the Key to Paradise couldn’t open.