You'll tell me next time
The present swallows her up. A year after her marriage Anicka is born, a year later Marie. Josef and Antonin don’t lie long in their cradle: the tiny bodies are carried up the hillside path used by those who leave the house for the field—or forever. A plot bought in the cemetery, no money left for a gravestone. The plot—one of the few certainties in Justyna’s life. Here we shall all lie sooner or later. And this feeling is passed on to the rest of us. My grandmother Kristyna is the last of Justyna’s children. The midwife bends over her; the girl-child seems so small, her cries feeble. Quickly, they call the priest and light a candle. But when the baby opens her eyes and Justyna recognizes her own stubbornness, she puts Kristyna to her breast and says she must live.
Justyna’s picture is faded and static compared with the one I carry in my mind’s eye.
In first grade, we are learning to write the letter l. I keep stretching the tail-end of the down-stroke up too high, and our teacher’s red pencil comes mercilessly crossing it out—wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s when I get whooping cough and Mummy takes me to the country, to Grandma Kristyna’s.
The cottage huddles at the foot of the hill sloping down from the village, just above the creek which runs ribbon-like along the bottom. The first thing I notice are smells. Burning wood, freshly drawn milk, hay and stable, cellar and attic. Feeling comes next. Cat and dog fur, uneven threshold, damp wall.
I sit in the wood-lined kitchen, my back up against the tiled stove. A winking oil-lamp sways, the flame dwindles, then flares up again, reminding me of a clenching and unclenching fist. The damp stains on the plastered rear wall take on strange shapes. I squint and see a fish, a one-eyed face, a ball cut in half.
Justyna is sitting on the bench, cutting the crusts off bread and putting them in a basket for the lost dog Rold. "He won’t be coming back anymore, Mama," says Grandma. Justyna rests her crumpled hands on the table beside mine, which suddenly seem to me ridiculously small. But the next thing I know, she’s back putting crusts in the basket.
Two days later, we hear scratching on the door. Rold runs through the front room into the kitchen and lies down by the stove. His wet fur is steaming with rain. Justyna gives him milk and crumbles some stale crusts into the bowl. The dog gulps it down. "So there!" says Justyna to Grandmother with a triumphant smile.
By Christmas, I am well again, and Mummy comes to fetch me. When we take leave, Justyna holds her tight and says, "We won’t be seeing each other again: after the holidays I’m going to take to my bed, once I’ve cleaned up the attic, and I want to wear to my grave that dress you gave me, I do like it so." She is as calm as if she were saying it’s time to go to fetch wood for the stove or milk the cow. In early January, we get the telegram. From then on, Grandma Kristyna is alone in the house, except for the summer holidays when I come and join her. But in this house, whose roots are as deep as the darkness at the back of the fireplace, no one is ever alone. I have only to climb into the large bed, the feel of the straw mattress under my back and the soft down comforter at my feet fills me with the forefathers I meet with on photographs in the table drawer, in Grandma’s tales and my own imagination. With them I seem to have more room, in them I look for myself.
Summer holidays. I blow away school worries like dandelion fluff. I’m off to Grandma’s. Mummy packs my little red suitcase, an erstwhile Christmas present. That was the Christmas when I already knew it was Daddy ringing the bell in the hall, and that the presents were in fact bought by my parents. "Such nice and useful things the Christ-child has chosen for you," they would say, and they looked so happy that I didn’t want to spoil their joy—even though I had been longing for toys, not a sweater and a pair of pyjamas.
The bus arrives in the village. The inn-keeper Jires stands astride his doorway, his little eyes sparkling with mischief left over from his boyhood days. "Hey Kristyna, here she is," he calls to Grandma as I get off the bus. "My dear, you’ve grown up," and his huge palms rest on my shoulders, making my knees tremble. I want to hug Grandma, but my hands are full, so I drop both my red suitcase and my doll Julia—a prize for good marks at school. Grandma kisses me. "So glad you’ve got here."
The path to our valley is overgrown with tall grass which snares our feet. The sun hits the top of the tallest pine.
"Dew will be falling—take your shoes off," says Grandma. She unlaces her own shoes, picks them up, takes a deep breath and breaks into song. Small and shy as she may be, her voice is firm and broad, as if it contained the whole of her strength—and it never fails to surprise me. She sings of a boy killed at war, of his sweetheart crying for him. I try to sing along, but my voice is full of cracks, wavering, now too high, now again dawdling somewhere in the depths. I feel both grief and envy, realizing I shall never be able, like my grandmother, to tear a piece out of myself and let it soar away with my voice. Joy and sorrow well up inside me, but when I open my mouth, nothing comes out.
Grandma stops in the middle of her song. "We must hurry up, Malena’s about due." Malena is our cow. She’s rusty red and has big doe eyes.
So this is infinity, I think, when Grandmother takes me out to the field with its rows of turnips coming up. The hoe pecks at the ground, and the hostile rows go on forever. Impatience numbs my whole body. "When are we going home?" Grandma laughs, "Little girl, you see that field?" I wander over to the road and climb a high cherry tree. I spit the pips out on the asphalt below and listen to them ring like beads. When I can eat no more, I hang pairs on my ears and my blouse buttons.
"Climb down and run home to eat," calls Grandma, "there’s a potato pancake waiting in the oven." I race through the forest at breakneck speed. Thump, thump, I hear from a bush, echoed by my wildly beating heart. A hare starts out of hiding and stands still; our eyes, two pairs of magnets, connect for an short while, then we both run off on our various ways.
"Grandma," I cry out, shaking with the cold of a sudden awaking. A pitiful mooing is coming from the stable. Grandma climbs out of bed, dresses quickly and runs to fetch our neighbour. They light an oil-lamp and hurry to the stable. Malena is giving birth. I follow after them. I stumble on the threshold before my eyes get used to the dark. Under Malena lies a brownish wet bundle. They help it to its feet. Glued-up eyes open. I reach out towards it. A shiver of shock and awe runs through me. A tongue like a fine-toothed grater has licked my skin. We go back to the kitchen. "So you see, Kristyna, so much for your worries." Old Bergman laughs. Grandmother pours brandy into a fancy narrow-necked glass. "I was afraid. We lost our Motley that way back in forty-six at her second calf." Not knowing what “back in forty-six” means, I ask Grandma. Bergman pushes the glass towards her. "But no more," grins Grandma, raising a warning finger. I get back into bed with unwashed feet. Grandma won’t find out now anyway. I think, tomorrow I’m going to fetch the little calf the best grass around. In a dream I see Justyna walking round the yard and crying into her gnarled hands over the cow Motley.
We pick flowers in the garden for Justyna and great-grandfather Josef. Grandma ties a string around them and we take the bouquet to the cemetery.
The graveyard doesn’t scare me, only the greenish water and withered flowers. As soon as Grandma throws them away and new ones, whose names she tries in vain to teach me, appear in the vase, I see only their colours and I’m off skipping carefree on the edges of other people’s graves and reading the names. Josef Kuntos—the miller from Mohelky. A little dreamy angel with a scratched nose, a photograph with whiskers in an oval frame. "Grandma, you knew him?" "Of course, here everybody knows everybody."
Grandma moves her lips soundlessly, I look into her eyes, no, she never cries, she just brushes her hair off her forehead under the kerchief with its flowers blooming in orderly rows. She doesn’t take the kerchief off even in the steamiest summer heat. It is laid aside only to brush her hair. With swift moves she gathers the thick strands that slip out of her hairpins and stream through her fingers like water through a strainer.
Grandma never lets her cheerfulness show either, like the chubby-faced village innkeeper’s wife, who sells me candy. She takes it out of a glass case, with fond-mouthed flies sitting on it. "You're Kristyna’s, aren’t you?" The grid-like mouth widens. The voice rolls out of her like beer fresh from the tap, until the pictures of deer on the walls start to swing in their wooden frames. They all rock to and fro—deer in winter landscape, deer in green grass, even the stuffed stag’s head with sad eyes.
The inn is open from the moment Mrs. Jires awakes until the the last guest has gone. On Saturday nights almost all the tables are occupied, the air is whirling with noise, Mr. Jires plays the accordion, stretching it all the way it can go, then scrunching it back together. "Wasted all the loving I’ve given yooou" is to be heard all the way to the village green. 1 In the daytime it’s usually quiet in here, with just one or two customers on the bench in the corner. Mrs. Jires serves them and runs off to her cooking in the kitchen or to feed the hens in the yard. When she hears the bell over the door ringing, she calls out: "I’m coming, in a jiff!"
It’s most often the mailman Pepicek, a bachelor. He comes with clockwork regularity. He pushes back the beret that prints a red line on his forehead. "G’day." He answers her greeting and lets his smile dissolve in white foam. Sometimes he speaks up: "Marie, give me a shot of green over here," and Mrs. Jires hurries over with a little ribbed noggin which she fills with a liquid smelling of menthol. Pepicek spends the whole afternoon here, silent except for the thump of his mug against the wooden table-top.
At harvest time he doesn’t show up for two days. People go looking for him. His bicycle is found lying in the rye, by the water tower. Pepicek has drowned. Was he drunk, or unhappy? The village is full of stories.
Five hand-painted cups, that’s five visits from uncle Karel, my great-grandfather’s brother. The mugs stand in the cupboard, bellies swelling with pride, and when I want to pick them up, I need both hands to go round.
"Every time he came, he brought me one," says Grandma, "the one with Jenik and Marenka from The Bartered Bride is the last. Karel was a gardener at the Castle in Prague, he knew all about flowers. He was born in this house, he’d always look all over it, from cellar to attic."
Great-grandfather Josef had two brothers. He was the eldest, so he inherited the house. Karel moved to town, and the youngest, Vojta, went to America even before my grandmother Kristyna was born. He sent a card from Bremen, "14/6/1901—In two days’ time I’m sailing across the ocean on the Maria Theresa. God help me." On another card he wrote: "On May 24th 1909 I got married in Chicago."
I see Vojta on the hillside path walked by those who leave the house for the field, or forever. Another country, other people, another place, one thing remains sure. He died shortly before the war.
Paulina, my great-grandfather’s sister, worked as a servant on a farm. One Easter she came home with diphtheria. They called the doctor, did what they could. She was eighteen. She never had her picture taken. I don’t know her face, so I imagine it. Up in the hayloft, there’s a big trunk with a heavy lid. Inside it, a blue velvet dress with white ribbons. Too big for me, it slips off my shoulders. I hitch the skirt up, so as not to trip, and go downstairs to the yard. I feel the wet grass on my feet.
"She came home with diphtheria." I know nothing more about her. How can someone’s life be squeezed into a single sentence?
Great-grandfather Josef comes home from the First World War at the very end of November. Kristyna sees him first. He’s coming down the forest path, his head bent, his shoulders sunk. In the past four years, no man’s hand has touched his fields. Ploughing, sowing and harvesting, Justyna has done it all. Josef walks through the house, carefully picking up familiar objects as if they could help him get back into the tracks of his former life. A big hat bites its shadow out of his face. Just as those four years in Italy have take bites out of him. He’ll never leave home again. Perhaps only to go to Zourov, to take the grain to the mill, or to town in an emergency. Before each trip he tries to talk Justyna into doing herself whatever business there is to be taken care of.
That year he harvests his fields earlier than everyone else. All that remains to be done is to stack the hay in the loft. Josef´s hands grip the fork, plunging into the hay with sure movements. The threshing-machine is parked in the barn down below. All his movements are sure, all but one. One unsure movement, then a fall, and he’ll breath no more.
We’re raking hay on the hillside behind the house. My own raking is lazy and uneven, while each of Grandmother’s swift strokes leaves a neat little pile of hay. My stack is pot-bellied and lopsided. The hay pricks my suntanned legs. I screen my eyes from the last of the sunlight. All of a sudden the dark shadow of a large bird hits my face. "A buzzard!" shouts Grandmother, dropping the rake and running back to the house. A sharp, helpless shriek pierces the hot still air. The buzzard disappears over the woods with its prey, our speckled hen. Grandma raises her hands. "Bloody bird!" Other hens cower terrified by the stable wall. Their beady eyes are moist with fear. Even the rooster, who always carries his bulky body on skinny legs with dignity, now has a shivering comb.
Growing darkness makes the silence whole again, but I still feel sadness inside me. High over the forest, higher than the buzzard flew, I hear an airplane. All of a sudden I feel the urge to be in bed, hiding my head under the comforter.
There is cinema in the village twice a week. On Sunday afternoons, it's fairy-tales for children, on Wednesday evenings films for adults. The bill of very Wednesday show has warning in red under the title: “Young people not admitted.” I examine all the more carefully the pictures displayed in front of the inn, in a shallow case on wooden legs. A scantily dressed lady sitting up in bed with a man grinning beside her. “Divorce Italian Style” it says, top left. Boys gather on motorcycles with comb and ID card sticking out of their trouser pockets. "They will be let in," I think enviously. In the dance-hall behind the taproom, the blinds are being pulled down. They’re carrying in chairs and putting up the screen. The bus from town brings the film at half past seven. The driver leans out the window and hands over the mysterious reel to the projectionist, Mr. Borka. They take leave with raised arms and the bus goes on its way.
That bus is the village clock. Three times a day it goes downhill to town, and thrice it runs back up to Lesnov, the next village past ours.
"Grandma, what time is it?"
"The half past four just went up," my grandmother says, or yet again she calls out: "It’s awfully late, the half past eleven has already gone down and I haven’t lit the stove yet."
Grandpa left Grandma when my Dad was ten. "That darned card playing of his, he all but gambled the house away."
Grandma never speaks of him, nothing, not a word. Mummy and Daddy perhaps, off and on, but they make me leave the room. "Run along, this is nothing for your ears."
He’s sitting by the road at the foot of the hill. "I’ve been waiting for you here, why don't you drop by my place, I’m still your Grandpa." Fingers press into my palms, I feel my heart pounding, my cheeks burning. "I don’t like you, you’re not one of us." My voice echoes off the hillside and comes back... don’t like, like. He lifts himself heavily off the ground, straightens his hat and walks off with his incurable dry cough, a hunting rifle on his shoulder.
At the village fair he plays a solo on his trumpet in the inn full of smoke and voices. "So you see, it’s been a year since I saw the white pheasant, and I’m still here." It happens three days later. The telegram. Dad’s black suit. I’m not going, he wasn’t one of us. Grandma won’t go either. She just closes the door more quietly than usual. Keeps on singing the same song over and over again and says, more to herself than to me, "I sang that one with him in the theatre, y’know."
The Slukas have a television set. Everyone gathers at their place. We children stare in awe, even at the test pattern. The men twist the antenna. The women shout from the kitchen: "To the right, nooo, left, now it’s fine, all riiight, and now it’s wrong again." Here I can watch even forbidden films. Grandma says, "The girl is grown up enough, though she can be so clumsy at work and that voice is a pity, I’d so looked forward to her singing." But next thing she’s laughing. "She’s got my eyes, there’s no reason for her to come to a bad end." Sometimes television is really nice. I don’t even have to close my eyes when they kiss, like at home where my Dad always starts shouting and claps his hand over them. Other times I get sleepy, I can’t stop yawning, and Grandma whispers: "We’ll be going, we’ll be going any second now," but she can’t tear herself away from her chair and the TV set.
The village green is lit by a single street lamp. Right under it there’s a dry well that hasn’t been used for ages. Around it stand three lime trees. Trees like these were planted by everyone, including my grandmother, after the Great War. The stone St. John has a broad pedestal, in one hand he holds a cross, the other hand is broken off. His well-mannered eyes slip towards the church tower. The lighting on the village green reminds me of a theatre. It shines through the tree leaves and onto part of St. John, but goes no farther, beyond there is just the ravenous dark.
We go down into the valley with a flashlight. I cling to its beam as if it were a rope.
"You’re not scared, Grandma?"
"Scared of what, silly? Who’d want to lie in wait for us here? Look, the sky is lighting our way," says Grandma. She shows me the Big and the Little Dipper. "Somewhere up there, your star is twinkling too, look out for it." I choose from the small and remote ones. The highest one up there, that tiny, barely visible one, that’s it. I’ll never find it again.
The fair. My grandmother and I put pastry on a long plank. Little cakes filled with poppy seed, cheese and raisins, or preserves. The tiled stove is red-hot. I wait impatiently at the oven door for the first hot, sweet-smelling titbit. My parents have come and brought me a new dress. When I put it on, Mummy says, "You look really nice in it," and Grandma chimes in right away, "like a sugar doll". Only Daddy says nothing, he’s thinking to himself that I look nice all the time, after all, I’m his child and, to top it off, I take after him. With Dad it's always like this. Mummy only smiles when I do everything right. When I don’t succeed, her mouth grows narrow and tight-lipped. Daddy is happy just to see me breath.
On the village green, there’s music playing. The big wheel carries me high up, beyond humdrum, beyond myself. From behind, someone’s feet push my seat forward, I fly through the air, my stomach jumping, with that crazily exciting feeling spilling over inside me. My ponytail swings from side to side, a loud song tears the cloud apart... "This boooy, who kissed me yesterday..." Down at the shooting gallery, airguns aim at rain-bow-coloured roses. Triggers click, again and again, sending lead pellets through thin wooden stalks. A cloud collapses into rain in my lap. I run and hide under the canopy of the shooting gallery. I too will get one of those paper blossoms. It’s yellow with a blue heart.
I have a friend. Her name is Veronika, and she stays with her grandmother at the edge of the wood, on the other side of the valley. Veronika has a grandfather and a horse. Her grandfather likes to sit in the doorway, watching the branches of the apple-trees and smoking a pipe. When he sees me coming, he nods and gives a barely noticeable wave. He is very taciturn. He only really talks to his horse. He slaps him on the ribs and says: "Come on, old pal, move over." Often he harnesses him to a cart, we get in and go off to the field for grain or grass. Whoa, gee-ho. The old man walks beside the tilting and jerking cart, and we have to hold onto the sides so as not to fall off.
Veronika has long fair braids, and when we make believe to be princesses, she lets her golden hair hang loose, eyes proud, arms royal. She knows a lot more secrets than I do. I keep trying to lure them out of her, but she shakes her head, "I can’t tell you that, sweety, maybe next year, when you’re older."
In a small room at the rear of their house lives a skinny, wrinkled and smiling old woman. She’s Veronika’s grandfather’s cousin. Veronika calls her Stitchy. Stitchy has one leg shorter than the other and walks with a limp, Verca always says that’s why she never married. We often come to see her. We open the door and step over the high threshold. Stitchy is sitting behind her sewing machine wearing little round spectacles, bending so low over the cloth that she almost scrapes it with her nose. The machine keeps on buzzing the same melody, though the skirts and blouses that come out are always different. "Stitchy, tell us about when you were little."
We sit on the bed by the wall, the buzzing of the machine wiping away the meaning of the words, so that we each make up our own ideas of Stitchy’s childhood.
Veronika always knows what we’re doing, where we’re going to go, what to say to whoever asks questions. In the attic they have loads of books.
"This is a series of romances for girls," Veronika teaches me. "Take this one here, it’s a tear-jerker." She hands me the book. On its back I read “The Broken Rose”.
We play with dolls, we build a house, sew dresses for them. Next summer I bring Veronika a doll’s dress I’ve crocheted myself. She picks it up and tells me, "It’s nice, but I don’t play with dolls anymore." She puts the dress on the table and leaves. My feelings are hurt, but the next day I run back over to their place. Behind their house stands a motorbike, beside it sits a blond-haired boy. Veronika is kneeling in the hallway over a hand mirror, striking one match after another and blacking her eyebrows. Then she digs out of a tube a leftover bit of her Mom’s lipstick and spends a long time carefully rougeing her lips.
"I’m going to the cinema with Franta, sweety." She pokes a haughty forefinger into my cheek and goes out. Slowly, ever so slowly, I walk home. Traitor. From a distance I hear Grandma’s scythe. For today she has condemned the meadow by the stable. Weeping willows’ fat heads dissolve in the early evening haze. The sky is thick and dark. I lie down in the tall grass, throwing my arms apart. I am an imprint, I am a target, I am alone.
A few years go by before I see Veronika again. She has short hair and arms full of a one-year-old who’s beating her face with plump little hands.
"Veronika, have you still got some secret I can’t know till next year?" I laugh. In Veronika’s voice there’s meekness I never heard there before.
"When Grandpa died, my aunt sold the house to utter strangers. We’ve come just to look from afar, that’s all..."
Mr. Jires is standing in the doorway of the inn, leaning on crutches, no longer astride it. One of his trouser legs is empty. "Cancer," Grandma whispers to me, "They had to cut it off." I’m numb with fear, afraid to let it show if I lift my head. But when I finally manage, I can see that same old light flickering in Mr. Jires’ eyes, he picks up his accordion and a song floods the inn. The song is solace, and Mr. Jires is solace, with his gaze saying they can’t take everything away from you.
"You’ll be surprised," smiles Grandma, leading me to the stable. "We have a new calf?" I ask. In the middle of the stable stands a noisy white creature with a yellowish beard hanging under its chin. Me-eh, Me-e-eh, me-eh. "Where is our Malena? I don’t want this disgusting goat, I don’t want it." I cover my face with my hands, stamping my feet and crying.
"This is our Liza," says Grandma calmly, "you’ll see, she’s nice. Malena was old, and I couldn’t take care of her anymore, you see, what with all that milk to carry up to the village."
Only then do I look at my grandmother’s back, and I can’t but see that the year gone past has given her a stoop. She has grown smaller too, her face more sunken and shrunken. I take a conciliatory step towards the goat, running my hand along its rough back. The animal’s eyes are empty, but trusting. "All right, I’ll befriend her," I say, "but I won't drink her milk."
I come down the valley path. In the house on the foot of the hill the curtains are drawn and the chimney is still. I open the stable door, it’s empty. The cowshed is empty, the kennel empty. I know the house too is empty. From the doorway comes a breath of moist heavy air. The tiled stove is cold. The table and lamp are silent. Silent, silent, silent. Grandma, oh Grandma, you tried so often to prepare me for this. You said, "The daffodil and gladiolus bulbs are under the bed and the strawberries will have to be replanted over by the fence." I didn’t want to hear it. Your words cut into me like claws. I kept thinking, why don’t you make it easier on me, why don’t you let me hope, and so I’d hope all on my own and reply, "Next time, you’ll tell me next time."
I didn’t realize that this too is a journey one might want to prepare for.
More and more often you’d open the picture drawer and run your rough fingers over the faded faces. "I’ve saved up for the gravestone," you’d tell me with a meekly proud smile. The gravestone for your brothers, for Justyna, and for your father Josef, next to whom you were laid to rest.
I open the windows and a vivid scent sweeps through me and through the house. The rain is stopping. I’ll go out to the garden and plant Grandma's gladioli.
1 The tune is the same, but the words, in English, are: Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun…
Překlad Erika Abrams