I had asked the seller who the house’s owner had been. I was not expecting a detailed account of how the previous owner had died. Not knowing how to respond, I pursed my lips and nodded solemnly in memory of a man I had never met.
“No one has ever died in this house, you see,” the seller continued in muted earnest.
The declaration surprised me, and it took me a few seconds to realize it had been offered up as a selling point, a feature to make the house seem more attractive – big yard, sturdy walls, spacious rooms, insulated windows, and no deaths within its walls. This was rural Hungary after all; folklore and peasant superstitions were still very much alive here. As the seller guided me into the kitchen, I stangely began to accept what he had revealed to me as a selling point. I had never seen ghosts of any kind and am rather ambivalent about their existence, yet I suddenly found it oddly reassuring to know that the seller's deceased Uncle András would likely not haunt me and family if I chose to buy the house. And I did buy the house. Before I finalized the down payment, I jokingly told my wife about the no-ghost selling point to which she responded with wide, somewhat amused eyes.
We moved in the large Kádár square house – named after the Hungarian communist leader whose social housing scheme had populated the country with these boxy looking buildings that represented the very essence of drab communist utilitarianism – and over the next year we began major renovations in an effort to modernize the place and make it our own. The no-ghost selling point turned out to be valid, for we saw no wispy apparitions or heard no inexplicable noises inside the house after we moved in. Nevertheless, traces of Uncle András were everywhere – in the old furniture the sellers had left behind, and in the walls themselves, which Uncle András, who had been a bricklayer by trade, had raised with his own hands. Though I had never met him, I slowly became familiar with Uncle András and pieced together his character and life through the objects he had left behind.
The framed painting of Jesus above the bed revealed he had been a religious man while the woodshed in the backyard, expertly tacked together with whatever odds and ends of wood he could find, showed he had been both frugal and resourceful. Behind the house Uncle András had built four large pig pens as well as a chicken coop and several rabbit hutches, and whenever I looked at these, I pictured the old man lovingly tending to his animals, fattening them up until the inevitable day came. He struck me as having been a remarkably self-sufficient man who probably rarely went to store for anything. Through my new neighbors I learned András had been a lifelong bachelor, which made me both respect and pity him. I envisioned him retiring into his empty spacious house after a day of work on his little smallholding and wondered what he could have done or thought of on those long winter nights when it seemed the sun would never rise again.
My neighbors spoke of Uncle András endearingly and often; they recalled he had been a generous and joyous man. He was very skilled in making pálinka, which was the primary reason for his apple and pear trees in the yard. A fan of football, he had been a staple at the village soccer matches and had also been, apparently, a boisterous spectator who had often launched memorable, curse-laden diatribes at the referees when they made bad calls. A yellowed certificate and cheap red star medallion I discovered in the attic told me he had been a distinguished worker in his trade, one lauded by the impersonal machinations of the totalitarian state. That he had stored these distinctions carelessly in the dusty attic, tucked into a box full of superfluous knickknacks, subtly revealed what he had really thought of the totalitarian state, and this made me smile.
My family and I have been living in the house for nearly four years now and during this time our presence has slowly eclipsed Uncle András. Whatever ghosts he left behind have been almost completely exorcised. The house no longer looks like the house we bought. Walls have been painted, the exterior totally renovated, floors redone, spaces remodeled, and soil overturned. The pig sties remain as do the pear and apple trees, but I will likely pull the sties down this summer and cut out the trees, which are all diseased and bear little fruit. A new outbuilding will replace the sties, and new fruit trees shall take place of the old ones. My neighbors rarely mention Uncle András anymore. They have grown accustomed to us – the reality of our present has dissolved the reality of András’s past. When I work around the house I ruminate on the passage of time and the realization that one day I will be like Uncle András; that everything I have worked on and worked for here will be left to others, perhaps strangers, who will remake the property in their own image until every last trace of me disappears.
When I get to thinking about these things, I remember the ghost-free selling point András’s young nephew had declared and find myself suddenly wishing the old man had died within the walls of his house rather than down at the end of the street. If he had died in the house, I surmise he very well might have returned to have a look around, to haunt the place a little in his spare time, and perhaps I could have offered him a chair, poured him a drink, and gotten to know him in a way I never had the chance to in life. But it is obvious Uncle András has found his peace elsewhere, and has let go of the connections he once had to the place he called home.
In any event, I’ll keep a chair free for you, András – should you ever feel the need to stop by and haunt me. I only have store-bought pálinka to offer, but I think you might like it all the same.