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Issue number seven




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The Gate of Understanding by Jana Moravcova

It all happened several months ago.

I was about to return from a business trip abroad when an all too familiar thing happened: our plane was grounded because of bad weather. I like traveling by plane and so had no enthusiasm whatsoever for the proposal of my hostess that I transfer to a comfortable sleeping car in the city train station, which would take me the rest of the way home. A person on a business trip must account for everything, after all, including how to explain such a delay as I was faced with.

The answer of the hostess was, however, quite reasonable. While it was true that the number of hours I would be spending in the train was no cause for celebration, she said, at least I knew when I'd arrive home. That was more than I could say for the plane, given the weather. And the thought of having my have own compartment on the train, as opposed to having to hang around an airport terminal hotel, was appealing.

So I agreed and, with a certain relief, my hostess informed me of the train schedule and even wrote down which train stations we would be stopping at--and where there'd be enough time to get off and do some sightseeing.

I, though, had no interest in this.

I planned to stay the whole time in my compartment, first sleeping and then, in a manner of speaking, reading my way through the trip and any sights it might have to offer. My only concern was who my roommate would be. To my complete satisfaction, however, I had the compartment all to myself.

So I slept through the first night. In the morning came customs and passport control.

The second day I did start to notice what lay outside the window when I realized that, for some number of minutes, we'd been standing in the same spot. And there really wasn't much to notice, as the train was standing in a station.

The platform was like all the others. Dreary and generic.

I looked at my watch.

According to the schedule my hostess had given me, we would be waiting here for almost two hours.

I'm not one of those people who leave things to chance, and so I asked the conductor specifically about this. He looked at his watch and confirmed that the train wouldn't be leaving for another hour and forty-five minutes.

"Most of the passengers do get out and take a look around," he said. I decided that a short walk around the area near the train station wouldn't hurt anybody. I didn't have time for a longer trip and, besides, I didn't speak the language here--I knew nothing beyond some simple phrases like "yes," "no," "thank you," and "pleased to meet you."

I don't like shopping. I say this only to point out that even if I'd had some of the local currency I wouldn't have made a beeline to the department stores or boutiques. Really, my only pleasure in this direction is collecting matchbooks. And so, wherever I go, I buy myself some matchbook as a souvenir even though I don't smoke (which means, at least, that I always have plenty of matches on me). My friends have long since gotten used to this and just accept it as one of my quirks. So, as I passed by a newsstand, my instinct was to buy a book of matches. Since I didn't have any local currency, though, I continued on my way, looking around as I went down the street.

A broad row of trees began at one of the corners of the intersection I was approaching, and I assumed that this was a park. The street leading up to it seemed rather dirty, as if they'd hauled away some material from a construction site and then dumped it along the cobblestones. Yes, they really were cobblestones--something that we in the age of asphalt were no longer used to seeing.

I heard a sound behind me. I turned around and saw that a dirty brown dog was following on my heels. He was shaggy--he looked like a sheep dog and was certainly no puppy. He watched me with his head aslant and with a quiet growl informed me of his opinion of my trip down the street. The people around me spoke to each other in a language I couldn't understand; only in the light tone of their chatter could I understand that nothing important was being talked about--the usual conversation of people strolling about.

It was a pretty cold day out.

The early spring weather hadn't yet permitted people to shed their coats and sweaters. My raincoat soon showed itself to be inadequate against such inhospitably cold and damp weather.

I crossed the intersection and found myself on the lower edge of a small park. The bare trees and twisted branches didn't make my mood any better.

Just in front of me there was a sand pit and then some number of paths with benches alongside them. Everything was covered with a layer of dirt, as if some plaster had shattered and its dust settled here.

Some women were carrying whiskbrooms and cleaning the benches.

The park's elevation climbed steadily up from this point. At the upper end of it they'd raised some scaffolding, and the sound of pounding could be heard. Dust rose up from the site. It appeared as if a large group of workers, who were standing around, had just finished work and were watching as the machinery was dismantled.

It was cloudy. In spite of the scaffolding something could be seen glinting through--it appeared as if whatever was being constructed was gilded.

Some people passed by me, arguing with each other and gesturing in the direction of the construction site, but I wasn't able to understand a thing. In addition, I was still rather distracted and irritated by the dog, which was still following me.

I crossed the lower part of the park and started up another street. There was nothing of any interest along it. At the nearest intersection I turned right, then did so again and finally once more--and again I found myself at the lower edge of the park. The benches were now clean, and up on top of the hill two gilded towers rose above the partially dismantled scaffolding. Everything had become quiet. Even up at the construction site, there wasn't a sound to be heard. Perhaps it was some kind of a work stoppage, or maybe just a coffee break--but the fact is, all at once everything had become quiet.

The sky had also started to clear, and the sun suddenly shone through the parting clouds, revealing the construction site up on the hill in its full majesty. I can't fully describe the effect this sight had on me, but the golden towers soaring above the white stucco were so magnificent they didn't seem like they could be real. I remembered a long-forgotten fairy tale about a beautiful princess and smiled.

I went up some steps until I got to a pathway. Then I saw a bench, a very clean bench, and sat down. I didn't care that this really wasn't the kind of weather to be sitting in a park--I felt too much like I was in a fairy tale to care about such things as that.

The wind, it was true, was unpleasant, and I did have to turn up the collar on my jacket. While I was doing so, I noticed that the gate leading into one of the homes opposite the park had opened up. Two girls came out--each about 15 years old--and stood for a moment as if they were rooted to the ground, both quietly laughing. They were holding some kind of a small object between themselves; at first I couldn't see what it was, though I could see that steam was rising from it. Only then did I understand: they were carrying a cup of something, maybe coffee. When the girls passed by me to sit on the bench nearest to me, I was able to confirm, from the aroma, that it indeed was coffee.

They sat there together, pressed one against the other, whispering to each other and sharing the small, white cup.

Everything was so odd and yet so simple at the same time!

Unpleasant weather and an uncomfortable situation. Why would two teenage girls carry a cup of coffee into a chilly park? They drank and looked around conspiratorially. God only knows what they were thinking of! What kind of sense does it make to carry a cup of coffee all the way into the park in this kind of weather?

I kept asking myself this question and at the same time realized that I was beginning to understand the girls more and more. As if they were entering into a different, perhaps forbidden world. Drinking coffee ... in the park ... so what if it is cold?

My thoughts were interrupted by somebody asking:

"Are these seats free?"

A very old women and an even older man stood next to me, smiling.

I moved over and they sat down, the old woman next to me.

"I was watching those women who were sweeping up here," she said. "They did a good job."

She spoke so sweetly of them--and yet she was only observing that they'd done something well.

"We have a small home," she continued after a moment. "What they were doing reminded me of it so terribly much. It is also well swept."

She looked at me questioningly. Perhaps she wanted to know if I agreed with her. I had nothing against their home.

"When somebody comes to our house, they always say that they could eat right off of the floor."

The old man who had accompanied the woman raised his eyes to look at the construction site above us and smiled faintly. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to doze off.

"My husband hears badly," continued the woman, "so he doesn't even notice all this racket..."' she nodded in the direction of the tower. "We live just around the corner and so we hear an awful lot of it. This week it's going to be finished, so there's a lot of activity..."

A man wearing work boots and dungarees was heading toward us from the construction site, making his way through last year's leaves.

"There'll be big celebrations here in the city," the old woman said. She had a gentle lilt in her voice, as if she were singing. "They built it according to some old plan for a gate on the hill--it's taken a long time, but this week it'll be ready..."

And then she began to tell me how, for the whole of the last year, people in the city spoke of nothing else besides the fact that once more they would be building this strange gate--and that there was a terribly old legend that a gate stood here a thousand years ago, because a path came this way that led into the city and where guards always asked newcomers why they'd come here and what they wanted...

"Yes," sounded a man's voice from behind me. "That's a fact. They called it the Gate of Understanding." It was the man in work boots. He'd made his way through the leaves and stopped by the bench. "None of you would happen to have a light, would you?"

I automatically reached into the pocket of my coat where I found one of my matchbooks; I realized that the newcomer had already turned toward me before I'd started my search.

I handed him the matches. Without looking at the matchbook he took a match out and struck it. Then he returned the matchbook to me. He turned his attention upward, to the construction site. He was quite certainly the man who'd just made his way here through the fallen leaves.

"I like orderliness," my neighbor continued in her pleasant way. "I'd like to invite you to our house so you could see how important a good sweeping is ... If you go to that corner and make a right you'll be standing right in front of a yard. That's our yard ... we live across the porch on the first floor ... only be careful--ours is the second flat! In the first lives an old spinster and she is very foul-mouthed ..."

"Yes--we've been putting all this here into order a pretty long time now," the man in the work boots and dungarees said. He stood next to the bench and looked up fancifully. He had one hand in the pocket of his dungarees and in the other hand he held a cigarette. He was a slightly built man whose face wasn't at all interesting; which is to say his appearance was mediocre and not at all memorable.

"They were always arguing," he continued, looking up at the construction. "Perhaps, they would say, those towers looked such and such a way ... or maybe not ... One scholar had one plan, another scholar a second plan..." He laughed and took a drag on his cigarette. "But in the end it turned out pretty good, didn't it?"

"That old woman is a terrible gossip," complained the melodious voice of the old woman. "She's always watching to see who's visiting who. And she's always chasing after us. One only needs start heading somewhere, and she's right on your tail ..."

"Don't forget the day after tomorrow," remarked the man in dungarees. "Then they'll take the scaffolding away. It'll be revealed in its full glory. That should be something to look at! They say that in the whole world there isn't a second gate like it. The Gate of Understanding ..." He shrugged his shoulders as his voice trailed off, but it was pretty clear that such primacy of place in the world wasn't completely unimportant to him.

The old man, the one with the faint smile, turned his face to the cold sun.

"Hello," a woman said shyly--she had just come around the bench. She was hurrying and looking around as if she was searching for someone.

"But it's you!" My neighbor rose with surprise and ceremoniously bowed. I couldn't tell whether she was bowing to me, or the woman. "I will introduce you."

She said many things, which in wondrous complexity expressed two simple facts: that I was the old woman's good friend--and that the woman that just appeared was the resident of flat number one on the porch she'd mentioned earlier. The old spinster fixed me with fearful eyes and even wiped her hand with the corner of her sleeve--and only then did she offer her hand. It was a completely involuntary gesture that awoke in me some kind of distant memory--in fact, a very distant memory. And some feeling that there was something I had to do.

But in the meantime I wasn't sure what that would be. Mechanically I shook the extended hand, acknowledged what the old woman sitting next to me was saying, and smiled at the old man, who had just in that moment roused himself from his sleep.

"You have a pretty dog," the man in overalls mumbled distractedly as he put out his remaining cigarette with his shoe.

I looked down at my feet. A pair of dog's eyes was looking up affectionately at me. The brown shaggy dog was lying in front of me on his stomach -- his wagging tail stirring up some dust -- and looking at me like we were friends.

Everything was really quite special. These all too ordinary people seemed quite special, as did the whole atmosphere of the place and even the sun, whose rays suddenly broke through the clouds and were reflected off of the gilded towers, which rose up out of the woods.

And then I realized there was something I had to do.

I looked at my watch.

After a quarter of an hour the train started to softly rock and started out of the train station.

And all at once it occurred to me that I had, at the end there, understood everything that had been said absolutely perfectly--and that they had understood me. That I had realized this only now was truly shocking, but it was a fact.

And that was all.

Naturally, I had to tell somebody about what had happened.

"But it's absolutely clear," a psychologist friend of mine said after I'd returned. "You already understood the language a little--you yourself admit that the common phrases weren't foreign to you. And then there was a certain moment, when everything endeared itself to you--most likely beginning with the girls and their coffee. Such an adolescent thing to do, and one that pleased you when you saw it. ... And that old woman! The one whose husband was deaf. Such people are thankful for each and every listener. Even for listeners who don't understand them! Which is to say, you only think that you understood everything, when you really only understood the sense of what they were saying."

But I could really have found my way to that old lady's porch--only on the basis of her description. And how about the description of the old spinster? And why did that workman make his way over and directly ask me for a light? Does every woman carry a book of matches in her pocket?

And what about that dog?

In the end, even it was able to understand me.

"But listen," said my friend. "When they said they'd just built a 'Gate of Understanding,' it turned your head, so to speak. And your subconscious can seem to make something like that into a reality."

I wonder ...

It's just that I really and truly understood them.

Those gilded gates, old people in the park, some guy in dungarees who came for matches--and finally that pacified dog, plus the old spinster and the two girls with the cup of hot coffee ... everything was only a part of something.

Something that you pass through, share in, even evidently help to create, but which you too late ...

I don't claim at all that it's something I can explain, only that it's something that can happen.

This is why that old science-fiction convention never bothers me anymore, the one where the hero of some science-fiction story comes to us from somewhere in the universe and understands our speech. There's certainly something in mutual understanding. Maybe even something absurd, like that cup of coffee that the girls carried into the park on that chilly day ...

I don't know.

If you want proof, though, I can tell you the way to that old lady's place on the porch.

But no ... Don't go there ...

You wouldn't, after all, be able to tell her the truth.

As for the rest--they say visitors from outer space also prefer to remain unrecognized.

And in this way, I think, they know the whys and the wherefores.

(translated by G.S. Evans)

Jana Movavcová was born in 1937 in the former Czechoslovakia. She made her writing debut with a children's book, O zlobivém delfínkovi (The Naughty Dolphin) in 1969, and published a series of children's books and poetry collections after this. Her Klub neomylných (The Infallible's Club) was a founding work of the Czechoslovak "Third Wave" of science fiction. Her most recent work is Trináct barev lásky (The Thirteen Colors of Love, Motto, 2001). She has also worked as an editor for the Ceskoslovenský spisovatel publishing house and lectured on Slavic languages in Cuba from 1961 to 1963. "The Gate of Understanding" was translated from the title story of her short story collection, Brána doruzumení (Ceskoslovenský spisovatel, 1985).

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story copyright by author 2002 all rights reserved
translation copyright by Greg Evans 2002 all rights reserved