Chapter 1

 Josef Lukacs raised the big mug in his right fist in mock salute over the table, “DAMN the landowners, DAMN the army, DAMN Hungary!” He drained the wine and slammed the mug onto the rough wooden surface, “Damn them all to hell. We should leave this country. Go somewhere that wants us.”

He squinted across the kitchen table until his brother-in-law, Istvan Mate’, came into focus. Mate’ grinned back. He’s drunk, Josef thought.

          “Josef,” Julia said sharply from the other end of the table where she was sharing a pot of tea with Kati Mate’, “You’ll wake the babies.”

          Maybe I’ve had enough wine too, he thought. His lips were numb and his tongue was thick and unruly.

          “Shorry,” Josef said, index finger against his lips, “Sshh, sshh, I’ll be quiet.”

          “Lower your voice,” Julia replied, “We’re right here. If you want to make an announcement to the entire county, go outs…”

          Istvan interrupted his sister with a drunken giggle, “Julia, it’s alright, he’s celebrating.”

          “What exactly are you celebrating? The bottom of that wine-jug?” she asked.

          “Josef says you’re going to be land barons in Canada.” Istvan announced, extending his mug in salute. “Here’s to the House of Lukacs, the new aristocracy in the New World,” He put it to his lips, gulped the contents, and slammed it onto the table.

          Josef laughed and reached across the table to clap Istvan on the shoulders in solidarity, “You’re coming too.”

          “You two couldn’t find the outhouse with a map and you’re going to get us to Kanadai? Not likely.” Julia said, shaking her head at Kati. She stood up and said, “Come on, your lordship, let these people get to bed. We have to work tomorrow.”

          She reached out to take Josef’s arm but he pulled away.

“I’m fine,” he said, “I didn’t have that much.”

But when he rose to follow Julia, the room tilted and spun. Josef closed his eyes and leaned on the table. The feeling passed in a moment but when he raised his head, Julia’s round face, framed by a tight headscarf, dominated his field of vision. Her dark eyes bore into his face with a look that made him feel like a drunken fool.

          He turned away from the disapproval and said, “Goodnight,” to the Mate’s and gingerly followed his wife out the door.

          No words passed between them for a few minutes, although Josef expected a verbal reprimand for his overindulgence before they arrived home.

          Instead she said, “Margete Goncsy came to see me today.”

          The matchmaker? “Why?” he responded.

          “She has a couple of men interested in Erszebet,” Julia said, “They seem suitable. I think she should meet them.”

          “What are you talking about?” he reacted angrily, “She can’t get married now. You know that.”

          “She must find a husband soon,” his wife said matter-of-factly, “She doesn’t want to be an old maid. She’s eighteen.”

          “What if emigrate?” he asked, “We might never see her again. We’d never see our grandchildren. No. No. I won’t allow it.”

          Julia stopped and faced him, “You won’t allow it? YOU won’t allow it? Really? Why not? Tell me, Lord Josef, why can’t your children get married, why can’t your sons do their military service so that they can get on with their lives? Tell me. Why not?”

           Josef hesitated, taken aback by the verbal barrage, and spoke quietly, “In case we emigrate. If we go we go together. You know that.”

          She wasn’t a tall woman but with hands on hips and her chin thrust forward even inebriation and thin moonlight couldn’t cloak a menace he’d never seen before. He took a step back.

          “You have been talking about this forever. Your children have been ready to go for years. But you go back and forth. Maybe yes, maybe no. It never ends and in the meantime your family waits in limbo. It must stop. It must stop now. None of us is getting any younger.”

          She went silent, and when he failed to respond, turned on her heel and stalked in the direction of their house. Josef followed at a safe distance.

The next morning, Josef greeted the unrelenting morning light with a groan. On his back, he covered his eyes with the crook of his elbow and silently cursed Istvan Mate’s home-brew. He usually didn’t drink that much but wine and political debates were a particularly bad combination.

Mate’ still believed that political change and land reforms were possible. The Farmer’s Union had been fighting the ruling class for more than ten years but it was 1904 and there was no indication that parliament was planning to give in. Change, if it ever comes, will be too late for our children. Josef knew it but Mate’ didn’t. It was a friendly disagreement that heated up with the right fuel.

The sounds of Julia’s morning kitchen duties stirred him to action. With another small groan he sat up and perched on the edge of the bed until his body was convinced to stand. It’s going to be a long day

“Good morning,” Julia said when he entered the kitchen. He ignored the scowl on her face and gulped three scoops of water from the drinking bucket before leaving the house. He walked to the outhouse at the rear of the yard past the outbuildings that held the family’s livestock and tools. The garden and animals supplemented the income earned by the family on region’s estate farms. He and Julia had even managed to purchase this one-hectare lot a few years ago.

On the way back to the house, Josef stopped near the pigsty to light his pipe. The swine squealed a welcome and scurried in his direction hoping to be fed. As he gazed down into their expectant faces, it occurred to him that his family had been looking at him the same way lately. God help me, he thought, how can we start over in a new country?  I’m over fifty. I don’t have the energy. He filled his lungs with the sweet smoke and ruminated thoughtfully while his mind and body girded for the challenges of the day. He finished the bowl of tobacco and returned to the house.

Inside, he sat at the big table that occupied the middle of the kitchen and Julia dropped a cup of tea under his nose with a emphatic thunk.

“Thank you,” he said as she went back to the ceramic stove that dominated the center of the small house.

He watched his children pass through on their way outside. They aren’t really children any more, he thought as Gyorgy, their youngest, hurried through. Twelve years old on his next birthday while Istvan, the next oldest, was already thirteen. 

The two eldest sons were next to roll out of bed. Gabe gave his Mother a quick kiss on the cheek and helped himself to a cup of tea before going out. Joe followed his older brother a moment later. Both boys, young men, he reminded himself, were sturdy and hard working. He couldn’t quite believe that they were twenty and twenty-one. It made him feel even older just to think about it.

Their daughters fell neatly between the four boys in the family. Erszebet was two years older than sixteen-year-old Rosa and both had become marriageable young women before Josef was ready to accept that reality. In the last couple of years he’d discouraged several potential suitors and marriage proposals. Until he decided whether to stay in Hungary or not, he wanted to hold the family together. For the same reason, he had directed Gabe and Joe not to report for mandatory military service. If the Lukacs’ emigrated, they would go together.

Before returning to the house for breakfast they would attend to their morning chores. Herding the cow into public pasture among the hills to the west was Rosa’s responsibility. Erszebet fed and watered the other animals, Gabe and Joe mucked out the stalls and pens, while Istvan collected eggs, and Gyorgy filled water buckets for use in the house. When they were done, everyone except Rosa found their way back into the house for a large morning meal. While the family ate Julia prepared a lunch to take to work.

“Where is Rosa?” Erszebet complained, “Does she think that she won’t have to go to work if she’s late?”

“She’s going to miss breakfast.” Julia said.

“She’s always trying to get out of her share of the chores too,” Erszebet said.

“Enough,” Josef said to his eldest daughter, “I don’t want to hear any more. Gyorgy, run and find Rosa. Tell her to stop dawdling.”

The two of them ran into the house a few minutes later and Rosa gulped the food hurriedly.

At the sound of voices outside on the road, the family rose and joined other workers walking past the house on their way to work. The late summer sun was now fully exposed over the eastern horizon, in the direction of Lake Balaton. It promised a warm dry day, perfect conditions for the harvest. The Lukacs’ joined the Kis’, the Nemet’s, and Istvan Mate on the dirt lane that meandered down to the fields. No one hurried. It would be a long day.

 Josef always appreciated the vista on the trip to the farm. The hills to the west were like fingers reaching from the mountains into the valley. From here, the little fishing pond just north of the village sparkled in the sunlight. Off to his right lay the center of Hungary. Large farm estates owned by the privileged elite occupied every inch of fertile land in the country. And the bastards won’t share any of it with us.  

His dark mood was interrupted by one of the other men on the road. “Are you alright, Lukacs?” Kis greeted him.

“Oh, good morning Kis,” Josef replied, “I’m fine, just a little tired.”

“He looks a little rough too,” Kis nodded in the direction of Istvan

Mate’, “you two weren’t tasting his wine last night, were you?”

Josef grunted, “Horrible stuff. My head’s pounding this morning.”

“You should know better,” Kis laughed.

“You’re right,” Josef chuckled, “a man should get wiser as he gets

older.”

They two men strolled side-by-side for a few minutes. The women walked together in a group and the younger folk lagged together behind their parents.

“Have you heard from your cousin in America?” Josef inquired

after a moment of silence.

“We received a letter from Lajos the other day. He even sent home a

bit of money. He has a job in a coal mine in Pennsylvania.”

“I don’t think that I could work underground.”

said Josef.

“I agree with you.”

They soon arrived at the assembly area near a large shed. The supervisor met them and recorded their arrival. At one of the shed door’s another man handed out tools and gave each family their daily assignment. The men, including Gabe and Joe, accepted their scythes and immediately checked the blade. Many of them worked on the edge with their own whetstone as they walked to the field. A dull scythe made for a tough day. The men stood in an evenly spaced line in one corner of the field. Josef, because of his seniority, was on the far left and he led the line. Each of the mowers waited until the man to their left was a few feet ahead before starting his swath. A sharp blade did a lot of damage to a man’s leg so everyone moved in careful unison.

The tall, dry stalks of grain fell gracefully under the onslaught. Josef enjoyed the rhythm of the scythes and the soft whoosh as the tall stalks surrendered to the blades.

          Behind the cutters, he knew that the women and children had begun the tedious task of gathering every stalk. They cradled the grain gently in the crook of their left arm to create a bundle roughly a foot in diameter that they bound with a stalk of straw. Ten or so of these sheaves were placed on end in a conical stack. Great care was taken at all stages so that few grains were lost into the soil. Later the stooks would be loaded onto a wagon and transported to the threshing shed. In the spring, fields were plowed and crops planted. During the summer, they tended to livestock, weeded vegetables and grapevines. The annual work cycle on a large farm had always required a lot of cheap, manual labour. But new farm machinery would change that, Josef thought, as they dropped their tools for the midday meal.

          The Lukacs’ sat in a circle around the bulky packet of food that Julia had prepared. Josef had just laid back on the grass and closed his eyes when he heard Istvan Mate’s voice.

“How’s the head?” Mate’ asked.

“Go away.” said Josef. He heard muffled snickers coming from his family but chose to ignore them.

“Have you booked passage to Canada yet?” Mate’ asked with a laugh.

“Uncle Istvan,” Gabe spoke up, “You know that all we do is talk about emigrating. I doubt that we’ll actually do it.”

“I don’t know,” Istvan replied, “Your Father sounded serious last night.”

“Are you sure that wasn’t the wine talking?” Julia chimed in.

“What do you put in that stuff?” Josef said, “I feel like hell today.”

“If it was so horrible, why did you drink half a jug?” Istvan said.

“Papa?” Elizabeth asked, “Are we going to leave Hungary or not?”

Josef refused to acknowledge Julia’s glare before addressing his daughter, “It’s not something we can rush into, so, Istvan, thanks for bringing it up but nothing has been decided for sure.”

He reclined again and draped his left arm over his eyes to cut off any further discussion.

At the end of the day as the men were turning in their tools, the overseer pulled Josef aside.

“Josef, you have been with us a long time,” he said quietly, “so I thought I should tell you something.”

“Oh?” said Josef. He felt his chest constrict. “What?”

“The owners are buying a mower and a threshing machine. If they work as well as the salesman claims…” the man shrugged, “well, there are going to be a lot fewer people working here next year.”

“I see.” Josef said. “Thank you for letting me know.”

Later, when the family had gone to bed, Josef sat at the kitchen table and pondered an advertising flyer that Istvan Mate’ had given him. On the front was an illustration of a wheat field under a clear blue sky. The headline declared in Hungarian, “COME TO CANADA!” Underneath the picture was written, “Free farm land for every man.” At some point that day, he had decided that they would do it. He pictured himself in the middle of that field. Golden stalks, barely able to support the fat heads of grain, reached up to his chest. His wheat, in his field, on his land.