The little boy ran from the lake, squealing in terror and joy.
“I’m going to get you!” called a man, running behind him. “Sea monsters love little fishies to eat for lunch!” The two raced down the hill, tall chasing short, looking out at the skyline. The city of Budapest was just visible in the distance, with its ancient domes and spires piercing the blue backdrop it was silhouetted against. It was a city of ghosts—not those that haunt the attics and lurk in the corners of children’s tales, but those of history. They whispered their stories to the wind, which carried them through the city, translucent, shimmering tendrils of memory gliding into the ears of those who will listen.
“No, Bela!” The boy shrieked again as the taller figure caught up to him. They scrambled over the grassy hill like puppies, half-fighting and half-playing. The little boy’s face was cracked in half by a wide grin, which twitched uncontrollably as he giggled. The man laughed, deep and booming, as he galloped up to his younger brother, ruffling his mop of dark hair.
The boy looked up, across the field, to see an older man, a scowl marring his handsome features.
“Son,” he said. The boy walked slower now, stumbling and stammering, as his brother trailed behind. “What are you doing?”
“We were just playing, papa—“ The young man began.
“Honestly, Bela, you know that your leave ends tomorrow. Inside, please. Pack.” He hung his head, dragging his feet inside. “And you,” said the man, indicating his younger child. “Do not waste your time playing silly little games. You must do something with your life, Andras.” He sighed. “Let me talk to you.” He drew the boy up onto his lap as he reclined in a wooden deck chair. The old man looked out over the horizon, and he, too, saw the buildings of his city in the distance. Looking down again, he began.
“Listen, my boy. It is important that you do not waste your time playing games with your brother. You cannot waste his time, and you mustn’t waste yours. Your mother wanted sons, and when she died she made me swear that I would keep you two on the road to success. You must develop your talents. Then, when you are older, you may find a wife to marry. ”
“But, papa,” They boy interjected. “The sea monster was going to get me. I was a fish, papa, and Bela was the sea monster. Bela makes a really good sea monster, Papa. He’s really scary—“
“—This is exactly what I mean. You are not a fish, and Bela is not a sea monster. You are a little boy that is very lazy, though, and if you’re not careful you will get eaten by it. This is very serious, son. You need to find something, anything, you have a passion for.
“Let me tell you a story. Do you remember your uncle Istvan? You have never heard of him, to be sure. And do you know why I have never mentioned my brother?” The little boy shook his head. “It was because of his life, how he ruined it.
“Istvan was very handsome, more handsome than I. All the girls would clamor to dance with him at the midsummer ball. But Istvan did not want to marry. Instead, he preferred to spend all day reading and all night dancing and playing cards. He never worked, because he was very wealthy, but he could not focus and never finished anything in his life. The girls grew tired of him, because he became fond of pastries and ate them all day long. He was fat and ugly, and he had no wife, no children, and no livelihood. One day, he died from disease. All the pastries had made him weak, in his body and his mind. Would you like to end up like Istvan, son?” The boy’s eyes were wide. He had acquired an expression much like that of a rabbit when it encounters the muzzle of a wolf beside its quivering ear.
“No,” he whispered.
“So, what do you intend to do about it?”
“What did you do, papa?”
“Well, son, when I was your age my father gave me a set of toy soldiers. I set them up in different battalions, and they fought wars against each other. When I grew up, I became a commander in the Hungarian Army, and now Bela is going to become one, too.”
“But I am not good at anything. Bela can do fighting, but I can’t do fighting. I’m not strong like him. That’s why he was the sea monster, and I was the fish. It’s because I’m so small,” He said, picking up speed. “Did you see him, Papa? When he ran to me, but he missed me! I ran as hard as I could—“
“--Well, you are much younger than Bela. He is already a man, thirty-one. What do you like, tökmagolaj?”
“I like kifli. Could I be a baker?”
“A baker is a career for commoners. We are not commoners, remember?”
“Oh, yes. Well, I like music. Could I be a music player?” The old man closed his eyes. Painted on the inside of his eyelids, he saw his son, at twenty-five, as the first violinist in the Vienna Symphony. He pictured his thin, wiry arms guiding the bow over the strings of the finest violin that money could buy, eyes closed, swaying gently to the gentle music of the orchestra behind him. In and out, the bow would weave, sculpting music from a simple series of notes. After the performance, a beautiful woman would greet him, holding the hand of a beaming little girl dressed in white. His son would sweep up his child, tossing her in the air before returning her safely to the ground.
“Yes, Andras. I think that would be quite a good idea.”
The boy sat on the floor of the music emporium, looking up at the rows of different instruments on the walls. He and his father had left early in the morning for Budapest, and the boy was still groggy from the trip.
“We need something small, you see. He’s only seven,” his father was telling the clerk.
“You might try the violin, sir. We carry a range of sizes, including children’s ones. All handmade, hand-polished wood.”
He watched his father hand over a wad of neatly folded bills, in exchange for a rounded blue case with a black handle.
Two hours later, he was sitting in the car, the violin sitting on his lap.