An excerpt from:
by Alexandra Berková
he woke up staring in a puddle of sweat at the ceiling.
The screen flashed up, the delectable announcer lady smiled at Dad delectably, drooped her heavy eyelashes and said in her deep voice:
we wish you a calm, peaceful, and untroubled good day! And she raised her eyebrows encouragingly.
She is beautiful; delectable. Who cares if she has no legs--announcers don't need legs--
but her white teeth look just like real--
her deep eyes look just like real--
and everything she says sounds from her lips like it's true.
she is so perfect, it almost mocks human dignity.
I'm scared, said Dad.
You are calm--your body feels heavy--a pleasant warmth flows through it--repeat eight times after me, said the announcer and she smiled encouragingly.
I'm all in a sweat and I'm afraid, said Dad.
You are calm--you are absolutely calm--you are relaxed--your heart beats rhythmically, your breathing is regular--you are strong and afraid of nothing--repeat eight times after me, said the announcer.
I'm shaking all over and I reckon I've wetted myself, said Dad.
You are calm--you are absolutely calm--your problems are faraway, easy to solve, everything in good time--you are level-headed and happy--you are quite perfectly happy!--repeat eight times after me, said the announcer.
Bugger off, said Dad with the emphasis of a dying man and he clenched his eyes shut, to black out the screen.
Outside it had suddenly gone so dark, you couldn't hear a thing.
So now the doctor stepping out at first at a brisk pace, started all of a sudden to stumble. The doctor so now, at a brisk stepping out at first pace, to stumble all of a sudden started. To stumble--all of a sudden--so now--fortunately Jiřík is sitting on the doorstep, ablaze with desire and lighting up the front entrance. Love has battened upon the poor lad's soul; it lashes from his eyes, his ears and his nose, steam is coming from all over and there's nothing can be done about it.
Jiřík, robbed of all reason, just babbles away quietly: I want you, Hymenopterous, I want you, or I'll shoot!
The doctor paused over the flamboyant youth, leant on the railing, by now preparing to blossom, and warmed himself for a while. Then he nodded his head and said: there, there, son, pity the love that falls by the wayside! But on the other hand you mustn't take life so much at its word! Africa maybe don't smell so good and they're plagued by mosquitoes--there's a snag to everything--
the main thing is to have faith! The cock crows and the station guard knocks his cap to the left--everything will be all right.
Jiřík's shell got up, gave greetings and roughly kicked a pebble.
Jiřík minus his shell, entirely defenceless, stayed on the doorstep, delineating a drying puddle and whispering with fever-dried lips:
into these lines I have imprisoned time, Hymenopterous, and as this water hastens into metamorphism, so I too vanish and dry up here without you, here without you, here without you--
--had the dew not happened to fall a little earlier that day, he would have been ashes that instant.
Mum is waiting already with the gugelhupf cake.
Nature be praised, said the doctor and sat down.
Mum sat down opposite him stroked the tablecloth with her palm and said:
--well you know how things are with us--how else can they be--
we're never told anything either--
they say it's all going to be changed again--
you can't make head nor tail of it--
fortunately though nothing's new--
well and what of the emperor? they say he's got new clothes again? we were just taking a look--it really suited him--and how beautifully he spoke--the words just cascaded from this mouth--course it was dubbed by you know who--whatsisname--that fancy-looking chap--wedded to the arch chief-priest's daughter--
--they say he's kind of ill again, apparently--
minute the news got about, with us, anyone with any health to lose, scarpered off quick to lie low--
love's all very well, in its place, eh--
never mind me--I'm tubercular--leave me as I am--but what about the young?--
Well and what's up at the royal seat?--they say they're building another new palace--now that's a splendid thing--I mean that's why we're here i'n it, why we sweat and toil, so his imperial highness can have things nice for him--
and they haven't emptied our cesspit neither--
one thing after another--
take our Janinka: how she's been looking forward to it all--getting things ready--everything just so--so keen she was on having that little girl, and a singer--and bang: off she goes and has a boy, a librarian--and you know what; she bashed him like a dog--they say he'll be an old maid now long as he lives--
--well and what else--neighbours better off than us--wouldn't mind a bit of the same--still, as I says-- everyone can't be better off than the rest --some folks has to take the rough end of the stick, don't they--
--they say it's organised with people in mind--must be quite a sight--I'm always saying to myself, know how nice it could be, this place, if it was a bit more for people--aye well, there we are--
and the bees aren't working no more neither--ever since they set up unions, it's nothing but meetings all the time--
I see here they say we're first in the world for egg production--
well well now--doesn't that make you feel a whole lot different about things--
otherwise--I tell you--there are times life costs so dear, it's doubtful if it pays--
Granddad came shuffling across. He just loves a sit and a chat with someone they tore to shreds a moment ago.
So? How's things? we were just talking about you, he said with a leer.
The doctor smiled.
I've just screwed your new geriatrician, Granddad said with a leer.
Mum rapped him with a cloth.
She's jealous, 'coz Jožin can't get it up no more--says I: be nice to me, you'll get your reward! Granddad giggled, and got the cloth again--
but now they all feel awkward pretending not to notice Jaryn, who's been standing here all this time on the sidelines, so as not to be noticed. Mum put another cup on the table and another gugelhupf and Jaryn, sidelong--as if inadvertently--unwittingly even--sits himself down.
They say we're going to be sprayed again, he said half-inaudibly.
The doctor coughed and shifted his seat.
Jiřík's shell sat over the gugelhupf, gazing at it without seeing.
Jaryn plunged his eyes right into the doctor's face.
The doctor swallowed, patted Jiřík's shell and said out loud: so, right then, lad, what're you going to do when you grow up?
Jaryn bent towards the doctor with a view to reading all his thoughts at once. Jaryn, leave the man alone! said mum and slapped him with the cloth.
The doctor smiled awkwardly.
You mustn't get cross with him, said Mum, he's persecuted so long…
Then Jiřík spoke up quietly, soppy with love:
they say at the royal seat they sell spheres with snow falling down inside--and spheres with rain falling inside--and spheres with sun shining inside--is it really true?
You mustn't believe everything just like that, said the doctor.
And they say they also sell a teeny little engine--that goes through a teeny little countryside--and when there's a little teeny derailment--a little ambulance comes along to take away the teeny bit wounded, who groan a teeny bit with a teeny little pain--
Mother clasped her hands: good lord, child! your soul's breath is escaping! hey do you hear me?--doctor, do something!
--and quickly she looked for something to stuff Jiřík's puncture, as he murmured mutely: till the end of my days I shall eat nothing but coffin candies, if you will not mine Hymenopterous …
Mum gives Jiřík a good shake, summons him back, tries to stuff his soul with leg of pork, saving-bank cheques, a new winter woolly--
quickly she closed the windows and doors, irately lamenting: who did this to you? who was it? do you hear?-- tell me at once and I'll fix her face for her good and proper!--
--but Jiřík is far away: he has just been united with his Hymenopterous, where the rushes rustle and the water has a heady scent--he soars upward and plummets sharply downward drawing figures of eight for infinity--while his shell tenderly digs into the sponge of the gugelhupf cake …
The doctor stood up, dusted his files and asked Mum to take him to the patient. And he asked Mum to take him to the patient. And he asked Mum for Christ's sake to be so good as to leave the boy alone.
Mum reluctantly let Jiřík go and led the doctor to the room.
Beguilement only flickered over Dad's head slowly and faintly now: the news had just ended, announcing scabies, smallpox, cholera and plague--domestically of course all was in order. Dad, reassured, closed his eyes and the screen went dark.
So?! off colour, are we?! the doctor roared from the door.
I'm all messed up, whispered Dad.
You mustn't believe everything just like that! roared the doctor, palpating Dad--when nothing emerged, he washed his hands.
There's no strength in me. I'm afraid. And I murder in my sleep, whispered Dad. Also I have dreams perhaps I'd better not even tell you.
For instance I'm speaking at some kind of assembly--and I say such terrible things--
I tell you what--perhaps better not even tell me, said the doctor giving Dad a long intense look.
Through the open window there came the roar of a mown meadow and it suddenly became very gloomy in the room.
The doctor went right up to the bed and gazed to the very bottom of Dad.
And there, right at the bottom, behind a thick high wall, squatted a little boy, his eyes swimming and biting his nails.
Look at me, said the doctor, look at me, look right through me--into the distance and high up into the air; what do you see?
I see darkness, the little boy whispered.
And when you look diagonally upward--right in front of you--what do you see?
I see only darkness itself, the little boy whispered.
The doctor grew solemn and nodded his head. Mum burst into tears. Dad lay there helplessly with only his eyes peeping out.
And there in the mirror, what do you see? asked the doctor.
I see an ugly, weak, wicked child, whom it is no crime to harm or to hurt, the little boy whispered.
And when I look a you, what do I see? asked the doctor.
You see a man, big and strong, heftier that yourself! You wouldn't dare to trespass on my preserves, for I am terrible!
Give me your hand and out you come, said the doctor.
I mustn't! shouted the little boy.
You have nothing to fear, said the doctor.
Halt! Not a step further! I am my wall, and you are my enemy!
Look, said the doctor, sitting on the edge of the bed, I too spent years hammering away at a cold door, behind which lay the warmth form which I was once expelled--only recently did I discover that the door wasn't closed, that behind it there was no house--so out you come--time has speeded up, everything's been changed for a long time now--nothing is threatening you, said the doctor.
I won't let anybody come to me! The little boy shouted.
--even if my brother comes and says: brother, come--I won't, because I know he has a knife in his hand!--
--and if a sun-tanned blonde comes with the scent of the sea, and says: darling, come!--I won't, because I know she only wants to raise me up in order to cast me down--
--and if my father comes, I'll yell: get out of here! Where were you when I was afraid?!--
--so it is and so it ever shall be--
Hurry along now, laddie, we're wasting time, said the doctor, giving a yawn.
I'm weeding flax, said the boy.
Nothing will happen to you, we're all friends!
When I'm done weeding, I'm going to harrow, said the boy.
Hhm, said the doctor, I'd like to know where I always go and make a pig's ear of this. And he started writing out his prescription.
So? what is it then? is it serious? asked Mum.
The doctor nodded his head: his future is closed.
Mum began to cry even more: and such a kind, reliable, decent thing he was--and I always kept telling him: Dad! pull yourself together! everything's all right! read the newspaper--it's all there: the good things--the bad--the things you need to have--the things that do you harm--what you're supposed to do and not supposed to do--it's all there--neatly-laid-out-one-thing-next-to-the-other!--every day again! And this is all your thanks for everything? do you have any idea what it costs me? to think for you, take decisions, watch your every step?--but no not him--he has to have a mind of his own he has--and so he ends up crying out for fear in the middle of the night, crazy fool--
Oh, doctor, is there no help for him?
No, not now--only advice--but where's that to be had for the taking: indeed, it is better to be sucked up by a tornado into the realm of eternal frost and fall to earth in the shape of hailstones--than to have your future closed; it is better to live under a flat stone, with your mouth full of clay and salt in your eyes--truly it is better to be dead, than to have your future closed--for that permits neither light nor warmth nor time into the soul--not even the voice of the organ--and that's something, for the voice of the organ can penetrate stone and lift the soul up into the sky, said the doctor.
Oh, doctor, what are you doctor of, that you are so good for nothing? groaned Mum.
I am a doctor of general human being and a doctor of laws, so I know what I'm saying when I say to him Amen. In the meantime give him this--the rest can wait for the post-mortem, the doctor said, making his way out. Weeping, Mum accompanied him.
Meanwhile perspiring Dad sinks again into a slumber; defending himself feebly with shreds of consciousness, he roars in a whisper: no! won't!--
(translated by James Naughton)
Alexandra Berková (1949) was born in the city of Trenčín in the former Czechoslovakia. Her first published work, Knížka s červeným obalem (Práce, 1986) was a literary sensation and her next work, Magorie (Horizont, 1991), from which this translation was excerpted, won the Egon Hostovsky Prize as the best Czech book of the year. She is also well known in The Czech Republic as a journalist and screenwriter.
James Naughton is University Lecturer in Czech and Slovak at Oxford University. He has translated a number of works of Czech and Slovak fiction and poetry, including Bohumil Hrabal's The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. Recently he has produced a short reference grammar of Czech.
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story copyright by author 2005 all rights reserved
translation copyright by translator 2005 all rights reserved