The tenants of huts do not wail all the time, often enough a hearty laughter comes ringing from their dwellings. I might even go to the length of saying that the poor often laugh when they have every reason to cry.
I happen to be thoroughly familiar with that kind of world. The generation of the Soós tribe that had brought forth my father went through the direst stages of destitution. At that time, my father worked as a day-labourer in a machine shop. There was nothing for him, nor for anyone else, to brag about in those days. (Yet brag they did.)
And it is a fact that never in my life was I to laugh as much as in those very years of my childhood.
How, indeed, should I ever again have laughed so heartily after I had lost my merry, red-cheeked mother, who used to laugh so sweetly that, in the end, tears came trickling down her cheeks and her laughter ended in a fit of coughing that almost choked her…
But she never laughed as merrily as on the afternoon which we spent searching for seven pennies. We searched, and we found them, too. Three were in the drawer of the sewing machine one in the cupboard… the rest were more difficult to find.
My mother found the first three pennies all by herself. She thought there ought to be more coins in the drawer, for she used to turn a penny by sewing and kept whatever she earned in that drawer. To me, the drawer of the sewing machine seemed an inexhaustible gold mine, and whenever you delved into it, all your wishes came true.
Thus I was flabbergasted to see my mother digging into a mess of needles, thimbles, scissors, bits of ribbon, braid and buttons, and, after she had poked around in them a while, to hear her say in astonishment:
“They have gone into hiding.”
“The coins,” she said with a laugh.
She pulled out the drawer.
“Come on, sonny, let us find the wicked things. Naughty, naughty coins.”
She squatted on the floor and put down the drawer so cautiously, she seemed to fear its contents might fly away; then she daintily turned it upside down, as though she were catching butterflies under a hat.
You couldn’t help laughing over the way she acted.
“Here they are, in here,” she giggled, and was in no hurry to lift up the drawer. “If there’s but a single one, it must be in here.”
I squatted on my heels and watched closely for a shiny coin to creep forth somewhere. Nothing stirred.
To be quite frank, neither of us really believed that there were any inside.
We glanced at each other, laughing over the childish joke.
I touched the drawer as it lay there upside down.
“Ssht!” my mother shushed me. “Keep still, child, or they’ll run away. You have no idea how nimble pennies can be. They run so fast, they simply roll away. My, how they roll…”
We rocked with laughter. We had seen often enough, how easily the pennies could roll away.
When we got over our fit of laughter, I stretched out my hand once more to lift the drawer.
“Don’t!” mother cried out, and I snatched back my finger as if I had scorched it on a stove.
“Easy, you spendthrift. Why be in such a hurry to send them off? They belong to us only while they are safe here, under the hood. Let them remain there for a little while yet. For, you see, I have to do some washing and for that I need some soap, and for the soap I must have at least seven pennies, they won’t give me any for less. I’ve got three already, I need four more, they must be in this little house. They live here, but they hate to be disturbed, and if they grow angry, they’ll vanish and we shan’t ever get hold of them again. Easy, then, for money is a delicate thing and must be handled gently. It wants to be respected. It takes offence quickly, like a sensitive lady… Don’t you know a verse that would lure it from its house?”
Oh, how we laughed while she babbled along! My incantation was odd indeed. It went like this:
“Uncle Coin, I’m no liar,
Your house is on fire…”
At this I turned the drawer right side up again.
There was every kind of rubbish below it, but coins… there were none.
My mother kept rummaging in the heap, making a sour face, but that didn’t help.
“What a pity,” she said, “that we have no table. It would have been more respectful to turn it over on a table, and then the coins would have stayed put.”
I swept up the things and put them back into the drawer. Mother was doing some hard thinking the while. She racked her brains to remember whether she had some time or other put any money elsewhere, but she couldn’t recall it.
Of a sudden, I had an idea.
“Mother, I know a place where there is a coin.”
“Where is it, sonny? Let us catch it before it melts like snow.”
“There used to be one in the drawer of the glass cupboard.”
“Oh, my lamb, I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, it would surely no longer be there.”
We stood up and went to the cupboard that had lost its glass pane ever so long ago; the penny was actually in the drawer I had suspected it to be in. I had been tempted to filch it for the past three days, but I never mustered enough courage to do so. Had I dared, I would have spent it on candy.
“Now we have got four pennies. Don’t worry, sonny, that’s already the bigger half. All we need is three more. And if it has taken us an hour to find four, we shall find the rest before We have a snack. That will leave me plenty of time to do a batch of washing by nightfall. Come on, let us see, perhaps there are some more in the other drawers.”
All would have been well, had each drawer contained one coin. That would have been more than we needed. For, in the prime of its life, the old cupboard had done service in a prosperous dwelling, where it had harboured many treasures. In our home, however, the poor thing contained little enough – weak-chested, worm-eaten, gap-toothed as it was.
Mother chided each drawer as she pulled it open.
“This one used to be rich – once upon a time. This one never had a thing. This one here always lived on tick. As for you, you miserable beggar, you haven’t a farthing to your name. This one won’t ever have any, we keep our poverty in it. And you there, may you never have a single one: I ask you for a penny just this once, and even so you begrudge it me. This one is sure to be the richest, look!” she burst out laughing, as she jerked open the lowest drawer, which had not a splinter to its bottom.
She hung it around my neck, and we both laughed so hard, we had to sit down on the floor.
“Wait a minute,” she started, “I’ll get some money in a jiffy. There must be some in your father’s suit.”
There were some nails in the wall upon which our clothes were hung. My mother delved into the topmost pocket of my father’s jacket, and, marvel of marvels, her fingers pulled out a penny.
She could hardly believe her eyes.
“Bless me,” she shouted, “here it is. How much does that make? Why, we can hardly manage to count them all up. One – two – three – four – five… Five! All we need is two more. Two pennies, that is nothing. Where there are five, there are bound to be two more.”
She went about feverishly searching all my father’s pockets, but alas, to no avail. She couldn’t find another. Even the merriest jokes failed to lure forth two more pennies.
My mother’s cheeks burned like two red roses with excitement and exertion. She was not supposed to work, for, whenever she did, she was taken ill. This was, of course, a special kind of work, and you can’t forbid people to look for money.
Snack-time came and went. Soon it would be getting dark. My father needed a clean shirt for the morning, and no washing could be done. Well-water alone was not enough to remove the greasy dirt.
Suddenly, mother tapped her forehead:
“How silly of me. I never thought of searching my own pocket! Now that I think of it, I shall have a look.”
She did, and sure enough, there was a penny in it. The sixth one.
A veritable fever took hold of us. Just one more penny was lacking.
“Let me see your pockets, perhaps there is one in them.”
Dear me, it was no good showing them. They were empty.
It was turning dark, and there we were with our six pennies, we might as well have had none for all the use they were. The Jewish grocer granted no credit, and the neighbours were just as penniless as we. Besides, you just couldn’t go and ask for one penny!
The best we could do was to have a good laugh over our own misery.
We were in the very throes of it, when a beggar came by, wailing his sing-song prayer for alms.
Mother almost swooned with laughter.
“Stop it, my good man,” she said, “I have been idle all afternoon, for I am short of one penny to buy half a pound soap with.”
The beggar, a kindly old man, stared at her.
“You are short of one penny, you say?”
“One penny, yes.”
“I’ll give it you.”
“A nice thing to take alms from a beggar!”
“Never mind, my child, I can do without it. All I need is a hole in the ground and a shovelful of earth. That will make everything well for me.”
He put the penny into my hand and shuffled along amidst our blessings.
“Thank goodness,” my mother said. “Now run along…”
She stopped short, then burst into ringing laughter.
“I can’t wash today in any case, but, just the same, it’s none too soon that we scraped together the money: it is getting dark, and I have no kerosene for the lamp.”
She laughed so hard, it took her breath away. A fierce murderous fit of coughing shook her body. She swayed on her feet and buried her face in her palms and, as I drew close to support her, I felt something warm trickling down on my hands.
It was blood, her precious, hallowed blood. That of my mother, who could laugh so heartily as few people can, even among the poor.