Baradla Cave : Excerpt

Page 1

/ baradla cave

baradla cave

eva švankmajerová
Translated from the Czech by Gwendolyn Albert Collages by Jan Švankmajer
twisted spoon press prague 2023
Afterword by Vratislav Effenberger

Copyright © Eva Švankmajerová — Heirs, 1995, 2023

English translation © Gwendolyn Albert, 2000

Afterword © Vratislav Effenberger — Heirs, 1995, 2023

Illustrations © Jan Švankmajer; Eva Švankmajerová, 2000, 2023

This edition © Twisted Spoon Press, 2000, 2023

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be used or reproduced in any form, except in the context of reviews, without written permission from Twisted Spoon Press.

isbn: 978-80-86264-47-9

isbn: 978-80-88628-30-9 (e-book)

part one Jóstaf : 11 The Specter : 54 The Operating Room Nurse : 77 part two Milada : 99 The Twins : 116 The Hospital : 128 Afterword : 153 Translator’s Note : 157 / contents
/ 1


The remarkable Hall of Giants, 150 meters long and 84 meters wide, in which they were now turning southward. She was silent. He kept his eyes on her. She might be drunk . . . Jóstaf thought. Last time she had promised him they would discuss the main influences on skin, water and aqueous solutions certainly among the most widespread.

After all, everyone washed or bathed, and also came into contact with water several times a day when doing the laundry, cleaning the house, and performing similar activities while it was still in a liquid state. For the time being he considered this the usual way to encounter it. Jóstaf had seen a few things during his years of work. The region he lived in was abundant in snow, wind, and frost. He felt not only thoroughly frozen, but parched, or coarsened. His voice pattered off, even though everyone else’s voice in the interconnected corridors of Baradla normally boomed menacingly, some echoing repeatedly. But his bleached-linen voice sounded like burping, like a whisper, like a slow, inept continuation of a needless pronouncement, an unexpected, meaningless message. Like the unremitting pleading of someone already doomed and lost.

They climbed a gigantic stairway to the top, 130 steps. Here the stalactite décor thinned out.

I wanted to ask, when you were twelve or so, did you have a girlfriend you hit it off with?

She seemed to think of herself as having always been alone in their rural surroundings.

Darkness rushed into Baradla from the fissured entrance


among the big piles of boulders and rubble and followed the path around the petrified tunnel to the long waterfall before moving up to the steep side where it climbed along with Jóstaf. This entrance was once used by Neolithic man, he thought. Now the hole is a tourist attraction. He looked around the darkening earth and gravel of the cave and walked cautiously, methodically. The cave seemed able to grab a fistful of dirt to try to blind him with, so better to squint when looking around. Yes, once again he found himself where she needed him. She always assumed people were freely available for her needs — an honor even and lifelong solace for them to live this way. She couldn’t complain, she had plenty of nice folks in her, but it would have hurt her if one or two of the best weren’t among them. He wasn’t yet forty and had talked himself into a fear of robbers so that he could ask her to hold his money for safekeeping. Then he would feel secure (especially if she would stop nagging him). One evening, when, long since reconciled to his situation, he lay down and fell asleep without the light on, it happened. He was awakened by the feeling that a thief was somewhere close-by. Bareheaded Jóstaf, pale as a corpse, fumbled in the dark and after much effort ascertained that it was two o’clock in the morning. The opaque, fearful darkness seemed to be murmuring a message through the keyhole, trying to impart something evil. Jóstaf cowered in the cold. Jóstaf was afraid. Baradla slightly slopes and broadens out into colossal domes at several points. The entire system can be accessed by a number of entrances, although for tourists only two are presently in use.

The Kostelec entrance to Baradla lies amid foothills and high cliff walls. In the early Stone Age, Baradla had an additional entrance on this side, yet it got buried in rubble, and later, not far from the entrance, a bat was discovered. It is of interest for its


many stalactites formed by the force of running water. The signature of the famous Hungarian poet Petőfi is also found here.

The front part of Baradla consists of the Hall of Columns and Fox Cave, eaten into the rock by a subterranean stream. Both burnished, their magnificent ornamentation is a delight for the eye to behold — when there is light.

Baradla pitiless gaping rock, just as alien as she was years ago when a young doe ran through the collapsed entrances, knew as much as before.

This can’t go on, lamented Jóstaf, waking up to consider the misery of his humiliation. Every pebble must sense that he’s being flayed alive, of the natural right to have air to breathe and light to see. At two in the morning? As if Baradla were laughing. As if howls of laughter were squeezing their way through on his right, about half a kilometer away. Suddenly the potentially brilliant idea flashed through his head that it might be a platoon of soldiers snoring. Jóstaf didn’t go to look for them. An unexpected melancholy, or ague, laid him low. Teeth chattering, all he wanted was something to drink.

God, he groaned for four hours. He raged and jumped from boulder to boulder, screaming meaningless words and spitting. He alternately raised and lowered his arms. His own odor made his head spin. He would send word to her that he wasn’t going to hurt her, that he was going to treat her like a friend and would even bring many of his own friends to her, from all the places he had friends. He hadn’t known her personally for long, he had just heard stories about her. And then they met.

For many years she was completely motionless, as if paralyzed. She couldn’t get up at all, she just stayed put and needed constant attention. The only problem was that he and the children were


busy. They worried about how to manage. They moved a telephone into her, so she could have it within reach. He supplied her with everything she needed and asked the neighbor, a retired lady, to look in on her. The neighbor visited willingly for several days, but then her own family problems intervened. Everyone had more than enough on their plate. They were laying the groundwork for the facilities. The men were in the field all week, and on Saturday (it was still a six-day workweek) they came home. Mondays were exceptionally busy: in the morning the foreman convened the work meeting, the technicians picked up the materials, and once again they dispersed into Baradla. And the women worked on the recordings: For example, it measures almost three kilometers in Radish Corridor, punctuated by a stream that has its source underground with a small and a large treacherous sinkhole in an area of ponors. On the slopes, the point of elevation is 331 meters to the southeast. The most beautiful stalactite formations of the Baradla system have developed here, especially in the Diamond Corridor at the end of the cave. The corridors of the entrance to Red Lake are two rather short caves, carved out by the water that seeps into an underground area of large sinkholes to the southwest of Red Lake. Here the main corridor of Baradla is dry, however — only a year ago the dear boy of one of my colleagues came through this way, and because he lived in a different city he came by train. Everyone understands the feelings of a mom sending her child into Baradla for the first time. According to the schedule he was supposed to return three days later, but his parents waited three trains into the early evening for him, all in vain. His mother lost patience and went around to the other families with boys like hers. They seemed to be in the same situation, night was falling and there was no trace of them. After midnight nothing could stop


her, and she phoned into Baradla to find out what was happening. As a result, several people showed up for work the next day like zombies. But it all could have been avoided if someone had at least notified one of the families of the young boys.

Tired, Jóstaf watched the first signs of daybreak, holding his crimson nightshirt in his hands. These days the fits came and went with more frequency. Maybe it’s just that time of night, he thought, and slowly wound the delicate crimson fabric around his throat. He felt barren, without a history, even though he was surrounded by preserved treasures, not just the Theresian fortifications but also the magical El Dorado of spiky stalactites, which only had to fall to pierce his moderately thinning shock of hair. He hoped the crumbling noise continually drifting in from about half a kilometer away on his right would at least stop by early morning so he could catch some sleep. He hoped the boys would be found. He should probably get himself a sleeping bag, or more than one. He had a family, too, but this whole business should be wrapped up within a month. He took a step and wearily tried to remove his hat from his head in case he ran into a minder who was intent on doing her job conscientiously. Though they were well compensated, hats off to them all the same as more than once it had happened that one would come in unobserved on a Saturday and never return after Sunday evening. No one even knew where to look for her or to report her missing, when news came that someone had been found in a ditch on the outskirts. She had lost her coat somewhere and was completely covered in mud. Maybe she was a midwife.

Jóstaf was no longer young. So far he had left Baradla four times in his life. Even though there hadn’t been many of these trips, he really wasn’t much different in this respect from the average


resident of roughly the same age. Of course, these excursions couldn’t happen without considerable effort and tremendous excitement, and on such occasions he could not avoid his habitual musing on whether he would ever return to the cave, which at such moments reminded him of the dismal train station in Nymburk, where the only thing all the trains are able to do is wait an unbelievably long time, or the wide plain of the Elbe, extending to all four corners of the globe, as if life had absolutely no meaning.

He did not like to remember those rare trips outside of Baradla. His stomach would usually start to ache at the mere thought of what lay beyond the entrance. He didn’t know, nor could he, the habits and traits of those who lived there, even though they were usually chatty, cheerful, clean, important folk. Jóstaf hated them. He loathed them, just as he loathed himself and Baradla herself. Jóstaf was not happy to be in the world. He was born, as I’ve already mentioned, some forty years ago, at a time when the previous callous century had truly, irrevocably passed and a new era had begun to consume us. Jóstaf, sweet and innocent as any other who was blithely formed in those days, visited foreign lands during his subsequent existence and, I repeat, he always came back, four times, hardened, embittered, and full of suspicions that the whole thing was some conspiracy.

While Baradla still seemed to him unavoidably damp, colorless, cruel, and frigid with her entire marvelous labyrinth of corridors, Jóstaf always shouted “Good to be home!” and wearily sat down on the very first rough pointy stone. Proudly leaning back, he sat there and gesticulated grandly with his arms and legs to demonstrate, especially to the youth, his certainly absurd presence.

Everyone greeted him maliciously, with relief and a kind of envious hope. And Jóstaf, the old fool, did his best.


Lumps of gold nuggets are lying over there, but why?

Not one of Marie’s parents took much care of her.

I’m rooming at the girls’ dormitory.

I am inhumanly perfect.

I’ve been shunted over to a side track of the Nymburk train station.

Maybe I won’t have too much regret.

Jóstaf’s most intimate moments with Baradla were enacted, so to speak, in full view of the whole population. There was a sort of flamboyance to their naturalness. Jóstaf usually trysted with her at Golddiggers’ Basin. There she would be waiting for him, tawdrily decked out, her alluring charms on full display. He actually didn’t find her physically attractive, as he didn’t much care for round, short-legged types with broad skulls. Their entire affair had really begun out of carelessness. Each found in the other not only a certain danger, but also a jealous, intolerant rancor. An affectionate relationship between two lovers it was not. This escapade of theirs was more a vindictive brawl between two who each felt wronged. Her unexpectedly fiery reaction to his first advance resulted in particular complications. He had come on to her out of a sense of politeness and an undying feeling of obligation. The sexual act itself was certainly nothing exceptional or outstanding. It was a misadventure. Jóstaf did his best, he tenaciously wanted to come off as endowed with great vitality, but he couldn’t quite get it up. Maybe he had drunk too much, or he was undone by the harsh chill. There was also the eternal tension, hurry, and even fear, because fucking Baradla was just not allowed. Such a transgression would plainly lead to awful consequences. He had no way of telling what she might think of the whole thing and how she would


behave. She aroused his curiosity, and in his hostility toward her he felt that if they should indeed do it, then in a way he would be putting his signature on her, that he would have just a little bit of control over her, or at least distract himself from his eternal depression, and turn his thoughts away from his endless jealousy and miserable grievances.

But Baradla was smooth, sweet, and shy.

But Baradla was Baradla and woe to him.

Jóstaf led her to Golddiggers’ Basin somewhat late in the afternoon, and that it wasn’t a bright idea was absolutely clear to him. The basin was a place that created the illusion of peace and safety, where he had been doing such things since his student days. But on that particular day he wasn’t exactly in the best mood, he didn’t even know what to do with Baradla, feeling her exert a palpable pressure that she skillfully concealed in coyness. So he was near certain it was just a veneer beneath which he was sure to find much prowess. At the basin there was nothing left to do but disrobe. Jóstaf helped her undress and was actually moved by her hasty clumsiness.

By the time Jóstaf returned from his trip, the fishy smell had been aired out of Baradla, but he often thought of his compatriots who lived in the open air despite all the hardships. At the center of Baradla is a square that is dominated by the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built by those who perished on Baradla’s wet rocks, often while attempting to reform alcoholics and drug addicts. Their activity has been shrouded in mystery since time immemorial. Baradla had no tolerance for chemicals and travel, and also none for relocation or any notions associated with it. From what direction to what direction should nations move? From the Western Caucasus and Asia Minor to the Iberian Peninsula and


on to the British Isles and Scandinavia? Is that it? No, she wished nothing of the sort. Everything was more beautiful when we were young, thought Baradla, herself a million years old, but she told herself that in nature nothing is ever entirely black. They don’t know about the big bad world out there, they are the children of the cave, children of nature, even if their culture and traditions are dying out. Communities are being split apart by new aspirations, new thoughts, desires for the things they see on the surface. From the moment I came back to life, thought Baradla, the local radio has explained several times a day that beyond the point of departure lies a life full of difficulties. But their senseless, stubborn curiosity hurts me, I, who fight for every trail, for every single case! She made a number of decisions for the good of the cave; the interests of small groups were not to stand in the way of the utilitarian. She was willing to compensate the citizens generously, to allow them to walk through her corridors, to offer them preferential rights to work, in construction and as part of the service staff. Even so, she continued to sense tension. She well understood why some intended to scandalize her. Like a large painting, Baradla was best seen from a distance. This was easy to do because the gently sloping shore of a dirty river impinged on her such that her yawning hole was clearly visible even from a ship, whether at anchor or at full sail.

It can be seen from a distance of a quarter-mile away — all the centers of life and the most beautiful buildings naturally prefer to be located in regions other than this dreary place. God only knows where all these black clouds have come from, covering for most of the year the azure skies like a lid and regularly releasing a copious, fine, cold stream of rain. Once the surrounding waters were no doubt swarming with cetaceans and pinnipeds, maybe even


good-natured seals. Then it was the hunters who likely showed up, and then the centers for tanning hides were probably established, and then a much later evolutionary step is considered to be the hooking up of televisions in Trabants, which also, according to need, contained telephone circuitry and a conveniently connected device. Such a system was installed in Baradla, enabling its users to call up to 150,000 Trabants on their t vs. So it seems only a matter of time before a new era will dawn in which we will pass through concentrating boys, each devoted to his own chair.

One morning the weather was warm and sunny, proper Sunday weather, and the Baradlians went to the parks, for strolls through the corridors, the subterranean regions, and the large swallets. People enjoyed the brilliant day. Little did they realize that a convoy of Trabants driven by skinless seals had invaded their country in order to overturn all of the chairs.

What are you doing this afternoon? asked Jóstaf. I would love to see you. She went weak in the knees. She had time for him at once. Would you come around three to Golddiggers’ Basin? She came — and heaved a sigh, incapable of mustering even the requisite aloofness.

But the Trabants had a concrete battle plan. They had devised it over a couple of months and hidden it under their license plates. The merciless invasion of the cave, where human life has absolutely no value, ran into tenacious resistance. In the decisive war the Baradlians fought for every chair, determined to save not only their cave, but the land of the Trabants, too.

But right then she was hardly thinking about that apocalyptic campaign, as she decoratively lolled on the ground in black boots and on the white snow at Golddiggers’ Basin.

As it was, nothing remarkable happened the whole way. She


visited the public ruins, but her conscience wasn’t particularly troubled over it. Marie was usually tired and unhappy in the evening. It was beyond human power, it was just impossible that she could traverse all the paths she had set out for herself as blithely as someone adorning herself. Her entire extended family was usually a source of utter dismay. All of them constantly expected succor, or some reward. Marie, her dignity gone, fluttered like a crazy rag. It was a beautiful summer day. The Operating Room Nurse had gone to the seaside, which was a great relief for Marie, grateful that for three days she wouldn’t have to see that flaking, uncouth person. Even though the Operating Room Nurse was of no importance in her life, she was nonetheless happy that for a while she wouldn’t hear her freckled throat emit that croaky peacock-like shrieking from morning to evening. The only thing that pained Marie was that such a dirty, awkward, sluggish individual should show up at a Bulgarian tourist resort. She’ll likely be caked in mud like a pig, thought Marie, and her unbearable stench will go with her too. Such a specimen as she will probably refrain from starting out too aggressively, even though she’ll lose little time in making a path to the best place by the water and muck it up. And yet she is such a rare phenomenon. I haven’t seen more than six like her. One or two have been allotted to my brothers, Marie thought. Why didn’t I see them sooner? Their lives were probably shorter in the past because hunters shot them, mainly for their huge tusks. The situation is different today, Marie concluded, because they are everywhere.

As soon as the Operating Room Nurse, all hung with packages and luggage, lurched out of the car, she had to sit down in the round room of a ground-floor restaurant not far from her means of transport. She had her first experience of being offered either


schnitzel or cutlet, since apparently this was the only thing they cooked in this little seaport — they probably didn’t know how to make anything else. But that evening, when the diminutive waiter or sailor or whatever took charge of her, she was also offered some kind of hideous greasy dough in the shape of a little box. They kept wanting to add water to her wine, or rather they just did so without asking. They spoke a strange mixture of Russian and French. In the distance someone was always lamenting something, or else hanging out laundry. Over the entire vacation she was gripped by the real fear that she might not make it back home. Eventually she resolved to climb onto the roof of a train, so she bought a salt spoon. It was chock-full of Roma in folk costume, who were frequently showing each other their loot or grinning. A tiny child was sitting on the street corner. The local widow’s daughter was very young when she started to whore. The fountain in the socialiststyle park jetted water back and forth. A fat, heavy book. Schnitzel and cutlet in reused oil. Gypsy women sold corn on the cob. Beach of shit. Brown, round lumps in the sand and sparse bushes. German women. Paint enamel scream. Look, a gentle Germanic lady leading a small girl by the hand. Others jog here and there. I sleep in a room with drapes. The fat native woman lied. Romances get old real fast! Her birthday after fish. She bought it entirely white and held it in a bottle in her left hand the whole time. One day she menstruated, but it wasn’t too cold to keep from getting her ankles wet. Begging children. A complicated woman wanted to daub her face.

Marie folded her fan and glanced at the folds of her belly. It made her neither happy nor sad to quietly, brutally examine the tree-cluster panorama beyond her skinfolds. Her throat had dried out two days ago. She had long suspected that fun, good fun, was


connected to endless hard work. Gradually she began to cover the droopiness of her formerly lustrous, firm muscles with her nightgown. Marie, who had known for some time that nights can be made agonizingly long by insomnia, a mere wink at cruel exhaustion, stole from the day, contemplating filling the bathtub, which never left her bathroom. She should have brushed her teeth and been hygienically glad she didn’t need dentures yet. Turn on the hot water faucet built into the wall, towering above that personal basin of hers. It might be a good idea to rinse off the walls, to kick those rags lying on the floor to the side. His shirt, a shirt from his boyhood, bereft of sleeves and buttons, a synthetic fabric of some sort that didn’t absorb dirt or moisture, was a breeding ground for silverfish or sowbugs. The rusty, perpetually cold radiator, its pipes not yet walled over, already slated for demolition. A dull pain in her head and tedium. Marie had not been seeking pleasure. An iron band around her bosom and every one of the paths long. Slowly she pulled the shirt over her stench. It might’ve been the tortured glances of those scarpering down the street. Banging on doors. Meticulous hairstyles and coils of exhaust. The glum and resigned in constant motion. All the parties. All the offers. All the fears. All the cultural or social events where an attempt was made to say something sincere, but that always came out sounding stupid.

It was time to consider the future, it was time to prioritize uncommon tasks which urgently needed to be mastered. She would want to explain to whomever that they have no rights to her, because in fact such rights cannot be derived from obligation, or from boredom, or from biology.

She ran to her room as if she were a girl of fourteen. The coldhearted would have accused her of megalomania, because she took


out a notebook and pencil from a drawer. Yet in those wretched times this would have been chalked up to fever, or blindness, for that hope to have arisen at all, the hope for a few private moments that would afford her the opportunity to produce a straight line.

The sun shone as Marie was doodling on the paper, but all the same a thousand years had to pass in which one and all would leave each and every paper marked in such way to the worms of decay, or to the pyre. Marie was tortured by all the vows someone at sometime had cajoled from her unawares. Should she look in on the farmers? Maybe.

She finally realized it was better to bury herself in the pillows or the covers, peering through the cracks at the gloom where no dogs and mice ran. On such a day, ensconced in the burrow of her bed, in a good house, she felt she could sleep undisturbed. But the eternal stench of the hustle and bustle, the obtuse apathy! Mud, the street, and the squawking of a populace more mired in envy than a brood of hens.

Then the tourists arrived, irritable as wasps, in monstrous clothing, prideful women in a variety of colors confident in their tailors. A medley of big-wheeled machines rumbled around until the houses collapsed into rubble and dust. Children were few, only a handful tormented in their baby carriages or dragged by their mothers, at the limits of their strength, ripping up the pavement with their terrible horseshoes. The pigeons, already alarmed so many times, wheedling, seemingly tame, spread their tuberculosis of a belching summer’s day. Seeing a small house, the children stopped and looked in through an open window. The mothers and older sisters used this opportunity to roar and to peek inside, where they spied a woman on the ground floor crazily lurching to and fro. For several minutes she appeared to be trying to extract


herself from her bed, but her arms and legs had become so entangled that she kept falling back onto her smelly sheets. Then, from out of nowhere, she ran around with a notepad and pencil in such exuberance it was a wonder she didn’t injure herself. All the while she rattled the pots and pans and all kinds of weird bags in which she seemed to want to hide. She moved her mouth as if raising or lowering her voice. For a time she scurried around with a tray or a platter. She wandered among the chairs and tables, and from the way she walked it was clear she was giving them orders. She even seemed ready to saddle them. She wasn’t so small that her actions could have gone unnoticed.

Then came the sound of what seemed to be souped-up Trabants, between which her relatives were carried on imaginary stretchers to a lavishly laid table, and in the meanwhile two chambermaids clad in white, little caps on their heads, suddenly appeared and stripped her deplorable rags off her and dressed her head to toe in a nightgown. Before lowering the lights, they removed all her pills, nail files, and cuticle scissors.

It’s a wonder the tourists didn’t burst with envy. They wanted to open all the gates and storm the palace to give her a little piece of their minds.

This was repeated three or four times. That loathsome harpy, not wanting to chew her hay in front of them, walked slowly, stopping often, usually near a brewery. She would have been more useful as a beggar should the tourists order her out of the palace and hound her (preferably pregnant) after a thousand hardships. But the sour-faced tourists saw that they were not getting into the little house, because it was locked and solid bars covered the windows. So the mothers and older sisters told the children, “Come, don’t do that,” and traces of the poisonous slime of their gaze


lingered in the darkness of the house long after they were already tromping along the cobblestones toward the Loreto.

Luckily the builder was properly schooled and the structure isn’t made out of jelly, thought Marie. I’d pull this bed out from under my butt, get up and work like a dog if it kept me from being delivered to their tender mercies. All the same, I don’t know how to count, and even if I had some kind of security I wouldn’t even know it. I’d rather keep my distance from all this business and stockpile paper covered in writing, even if it makes no sense. After all, audacity isn’t as bad a quality as generally believed. And I can always keep this little notebook locked.

That evening Baradla did not eat dinner. She looked hard and cool, but not like some rather well-off pigheaded bourgeois. She’d had no luck with the detailed, systematic study of the topography of the non-karst substratum and the related hydrography of catchment areas, which had led to the discovery of another, heretofore unknown, massive water system, Béke-barlang (Peace Cave), in the autumn of 1952. The catchment areas of subterranean pools are connected to the depressions in the impermeable substratum relief of the southern Slovakian (or northern Hungarian) karst, and are rather clearly delineated by the distribution of a series of sinkholes on the karst surface. Hydrological, geophysical, and geomorphological methods have shown that an independent catchment area for precipitation extends between the catchment areas of the ponors Kis Ravaszlyuk and Nagy Ravaszlyuk and Szár hegy Hill (427 m). In these times of ours, when it is so hard to land a decent position, and when the general wasting away of the soul, of morality, and of beautiful estates is at such an advanced stage, one doesn’t need to be concerned with the happiness of men who, like Jóstaf, are still young. This ignominious era, completely devoid of


any sense of honor, is probably not even troubled by its wretchedness. Men in the prime of life dressing up like young ladies, towing along their shitty kids with idiotically happy faces. Ladies in the masks of day laborers, or of little girls, stumbling around without rules or assistance. Tots expelled before their time from a paradise of peace and blessedness into the role of cute monkeys. In the cages of our dusty zoos they blissfully live their miserable lives, as if childhood were a trek through a scorching desert. To quickly grow up and enter a plateau thorny with bushes and sparse grass. Baradla was not too unhappy or disturbed. Baradla was old and had nothing in common with the complicated machinations of ephemeral beings.

Am I really worthy of her? Jóstaf asked himself. He saw that he could walk through her as if she were a garden, that ultimately he could even leave, go down, enjoy her charms. It seemed only natural that she should feel some sense of commitment to him. But there was no one to ask for advice — or should he confide in the first returning tourist, steaming drunk, smoking, talking shit? He still had plenty to lose. In any event, everybody envies the many nice things he’s accumulated. Visitors weren’t afraid of him, but the stuff just kept piling up, like that porcelain noodle rolling pin, for example. A big (and pretty complete) spice rack. A set of antlers, wooden wall paneling, ceramic lanterns, and then that view of Vamberk through the row of birches. All this is an unforgettable experience for those who visit for the first time, perhaps just by chance. Or the cars in that deep recess.

These days lots of people have made a hobby of collecting and amassing old things. But only Jóstaf picked through hundreds of shops, down to the last bit of junk. At that moment he got up and started looking for a letter in the drawer of the dining table.


The formidable position of the wall’s elevation attracted him so much that he ended up in front of Grand Café Slavia. He stood stock-still with admiration, unable to believe his eyes, but he overcame his reticence and decided to go in, where he found himself in a big corner-shaped room full of round tables and stoned juveniles, tobacco smoke rising from their mouths. Youthful figures with rounded shoulders and long hair, these descendants of the old Hussites were silent. They had nothing to say. He most certainly lacked the courage to order a cup of coffee here. He stood motionless, as if admiring them, thinking of all of Baradla’s beauty.

He quickly headed out. After all, what sort of sympathetic curiosity could someone no longer young arouse in high schoolers? He didn’t even know how to offend them. Wouldn’t it be a ridiculous display at his age if he were to coldly scrutinize them while whistling? He felt like a bat from a nature preserve that had accidentally found itself near a big city or town. He was used to entirely natural depressions, rock fissures where he could find good living conditions. He felt like an endangered animal on the run. On the whole he wasn’t a fan of such gaiety as a café. Not only did he not have anything to wear, he didn’t even want to get himself anything, he didn’t want to attend a girlfriend’s wedding or a concert, and his graduation ceremony was behind him. He didn’t like being around these young, virtually single-celled organisms — or with worms, mussels, or snails, for that matter. He could have made a meal of them. The remains of all these high schoolers could form layers up to a hundred meters high and through physical and chemical processes change into organic compounds that then could be turned into oil. Jóstaf didn’t much like high-school students and would have loved to hear of some tragedy befalling them. After all, adolescents like these, afflicted by puberty,


meaning not only adulthood and possibility, but also pubic and facial hair, are transformed into adults by the maturation of their sexual endocrine glands. Whether acne then develops or not depends on the interrelationship and interplay of the glands along with the sensitivity of the skin. Other factors also play a role in the process, such as hereditary traits, lifestyle, and stress triggers. For example, it is well-known that the condition worsens during exam periods. Through negligent, unprofessional treatment, the skin of the back and face, even of the whole body, can be irreparably damaged. For that matter, at the beginning of our epoch the murder of infants was not a criminal offense — performed publicly, it prevented future unpleasantness, even though later, of course, fishermen caught the tiny corpses of newborns instead of fish when hauling in their nets. In bygone days, it was no big deal if in some years all died out. Nevertheless, there does exist a certain number of people, small people, who are called children due to their immaturity, even though we can read in the crime section about the murder of infants, or their suffering grievous bodily injury.

The organizational concepts and methods for this are still in the developmental stage. Therefore happy, orderly people must take on the task of parenthood. The methods employed by society to apply pressure are manifold, and yet some, especially the small and undamaged, are entrusted to the care of foster parents. The older ones are eventually placed in orphanages. A wide range of options exists today. For example, we find selfless people running a boarding school in the South Bohemian region. From the point of view of mental development, it should be kept in mind that it is precisely during the preschool years that a child’s fear and anxiety develop; hence, mass inspections and the persecution of youth are


appropriate measures, although we need to be aware that those who endure set an example for the rest. Our systematic influence must begin with the very youngest. As long as the correct principles are followed, it is possible to impose restrictions on nearly every child.

Desperate, Baradla thrashed objects and people along with herself. She couldn’t come to an accommodation with them, do any good for them. They didn’t want it. She told them she toiled like a coal miner and all she had to show for it was a mouth full of pebbles and sand. She brought the shallows closer to the great depths. She couldn’t pass judgment, but her rage grew, and not only at crossing the alluvium. The structures of little churches rose above her like gnats after a rain. Scientists embarked on complex research of the relief of her subaqueous belly. Research vessels sailed in for this purpose. An academic broke the iron band from the results of the measuring and it came in handy. She birthed another hypothesis. Aside from a light, pill-induced sleep, she didn’t flag. But events dragged on and vanished into futility, like all and everything. Tussles over radishes or keys at the other end of the corridors are what is called “whistling squalor.” If only during her entire human and nonhuman life she were to successfully avoid trucks and pedestrians who stopped so suddenly and if her child were to fall to the floor, then she would reach. There she took down a clothes peg, but was called to inspect some cherry trees. Later she was always there only for a second to pick up something. The other day she had just clipped something from the newspaper and they were calling for her again. From somewhere in the depths of her house she produced superfluous documents and they started sifting through them. She began to read her cursive writing so that. Sometimes she only walked among the players


and cribbed everything she observed. But lest she lie, the person who advised me was actually a coach. When I joined the family, we were always talking to each other. He still writes me today. When I went for that poster, it’s been three years now, I would speak with him at the hotel. He still fondly remembers me. He always spoke to me about my hockey sticks. “And I always took that advice to heart. Well, I glue together thirty pieces of ash-wood and propane or butane — nothing will be of a single piece. The sides are glued and the crotch is fused.” My hairs are so ginger how is it that down there I’m neither blonde nor brunette. Even today I would be able to make such a stick those young guys would go pale, the attacker would flip them over from the middle. And they wouldn’t break. The ones they make today can’t compare with mine. They argue that the same method of gluing is used today and they’re good quality and durable. Maybe, but mine use a different stock and type of wood, she said, stroking herself. But I can’t reveal the details to you, and she ran a finger back and forth.

Jóstaf, only partially understanding these miscellaneous truths, which were in conflict with everything, was overcome by a deep sense of gloom. He threw everything together and was able to learn it right away. Has the whole world forgotten about me? he asked himself.

He hastily brushed off his clothes and hurried down. He got there late. The guard admonished him. Although he remained reserved and silent, he could see that he was an object of curiosity. He ate with wild boars and drank water from pools overgrown with brambles and burning hot to keep the snakes and scorpions away. He wanted to look for his bed, since it would save him. He didn’t know what he was going to say to them, but he wanted to say something weird and grand. He would ask about the method


of recruitment and promotion, he’d have a thing or two to talk about. What is a virgin, really? Oh, if only he knew one! They can’t just be curious slave girls going to their deaths. Were they witches? Should he catch one and set her on his lap? Or wake them in their beds and analyze them until breakfast, when their mothers would be expecting them? In any case, at such a breakfast a stone-faced official after some incomprehensible apologies would complain about how the café was being run. Jóstaf was responsible for operations. The guard and the official led him down the left corridor on the first floor to number 28. In the illuminated shallows of a long chamber with several closed windows he finally saw her, carelessly dressed. Ready for the winter heating, the coal rattled as it fell from a wagon onto the concrete pavement of the courtyard. That place was full of loud noises, all sounding surprisingly near. “That’s the coal,” she said. “Take them off,” said Jóstaf touching her pale blue panties. “No way,” she answered with sudden coquettishness. “Take them off,” said Jóstaf, macho and brutish. She didn’t mind that he was a little ridiculous in this role; after all the inept, timorous lechery of officials, she quite enjoyed this sort of style. He tore off the delicate fabric easily and deftly, and it glided across her skin. Now seminude, Jóstaf grabbed her by the hips and sat her down on a discarded, dusty writing desk dating to the First Republic. “Dad brings all this old junk here,” she said as he spread her legs and positioned himself between them. “Please, be a good girl,” he said, “be a good girl.”

Despite all, life here maintains its peculiarities. Café regulars do not discard the heritage of the past, but refashion it according to the image of the times: Here are long-distance buses that in spring slosh through floods of orange schoolgirls, dark violet Gymnasium students, fragrant university students, bitter


wormwood and chamomile, through snowdrifts of white edelweiss and wild red-lady functionaries, and with the same self-evidence they take off their coats in cloakrooms. So they may make an entrance without their outer layer of clothing, looking for a familiar face, and when they find it, calling out importantly, “Hi, hi, do you have room there?” But children, why do you take the bus? Why not ride horses? Besides, that tradition reaches back into the distant Hussite past. The romanticism of the yurt, old hunting tales — all of that still goes on. Kamil, straight from Moravia, where prefab high-rises spring up like mushrooms after a rain, derricks and factory halls, told a story about the owner who was injured in the pasture by a bull. How he often lay on one of his female classmates. How he wanted to make it easy for the injured to sit on him. Everyone listened until closing time.

Jóstaf, in No. 28 left corridor first floor, slammed the slender ass seated on the writing desk onto his dick.

A pungent stench came from No. 29. Not a soul anywhere. It was clear the sane and healthy had fled the place and the dead were in that cubbyhole. Not even a doctor would want to remain there.

Jóstaf powerfully, powerfully ejaculated. They stayed a moment, connected by a kind of tenderness. You know, you have a nice belly. She laughed. “I happen to notice the bellies of women,” he said, as if needing to prove something. He helped her climb down from the desk, and she lay down on the bed. Naked, with his cute butt turned to her, he searched his pants for cigarettes and matches. “Want one?” he asked.

And then they heard a child crying in No. 29. The café manager, Miss Ludmila, was courageous enough to go inside. Among nine corpses she found a crying three-year-old boy and decided he would make an excellent epidemiologist. The café is not just a


cluster of wooden shacks, it is a prominent corner house on the riverbank where the Baradlians can get water, until it runs out, or where they can build a dam when the electricity stops flowing and needs to be produced there. But what will happen when the river no longer flows? thought Manager Ludmila as she wearily headed for the bus late at night. She was glad they were now closed, the day over, so she could go home, the cattle having dispersed. Although, when rescuing that little kid she had clearly heard smacking sounds, the creaking of a bed, and grunting. Clearly something dubious was going on in there, they got the semi-erect dick inside her somehow and they both groaned and writhed as if their lives depended on it. Why do they do it? the manager asked herself. Probably just to piss everybody else off. And half an hour later off she toddles all purple and squirting breath freshener into her mouth. Just a glance and you can see that lust in them. From a mile away. When one struts behind the other, or together. But why? the manager asked herself. As if they had no responsibilities. Groping around in her bra as if the world’s salvation were at stake. Then he rolls her over and thrusts his knee between her thighs. She turned her head and observed the swelling surface of the river. She approached the bus stop, improvised out of plastic boards and temporarily located behind Mánes Gallery. The roof was supposed to protect those waiting in inclement weather. She was toting two bags of meat the cooks had prepared for her as always and left behind the door to her office. Two bags of good food transformed a pudgy, middle-aged lady into a creature who was more kind, sincere, and charitable toward the weaknesses and shortcomings of the employees. This roly-poly little lady was neither fed nor watered in vain, and now, after all her honest, hard labor as manager of a grand café, she had almost reached her longed-for


destination, the bus stop. Buxom, plenty of fat, plenty of gold, with her mane cropped as short as possible, she was now feeling the mental distress of fear at such a late hour not far from the empty bus shelter, where someone might be lying in wait. Of course, during the evening, she usually took a nip of liqueur. Now, just like every other evening, her courage faded in this place because she was afraid she would find the youngsters here again. Normally there were three of them, and just as she approached the bus shelter two of them stormed out, one on either side of her. One arm ripped the bag out of her hands and another twisted her arms behind her back. They dragged her into the shelter and wrestled her down. They tied her arms firmly with the same old rope and spread her legs as they roller her over. The third mounted her and immediately thrust what nature had endowed him with into the open hole between her thighs and plowed away at her as the other two boys obscenely egged him on. During her first years of service in the café the lady had defended herself against the customers. She twisted and screamed something. But the boys never quit and fucked her with all of their youthful vigor, one after another, all these years, until the bus came, which, if it were empty, waited until they finished. Sometimes, if the driver was in the mood, he joined in, first wiping her off with his motor rag, because by that time she was a total mess. Neither the boys nor Miss Ludmila considered this rape, or even something vile; they had acclimated to the whole procedure and took it as a kind of obligatory ritual. For that matter, the parents of these young students generally wielded a good deal of influence in Baradla, and who would have supported the wretched lady if the entire affair were to come to light?

People are wicked and politics is a dirty business. A decent woman stays out of such things. She wondered if it might not be a good


idea to change bus stops, but the distance she would then need to walk, with two heavy bags, seemed unmanageable. And so, wellgroomed as always, her clothes neatly pressed like an American lady, she trudged to the bus stop.

The evening was undeniably warm and pleasant, a delicate breeze wafting from the river. The fresh liver, unfortunately, had been badly wrapped, and her bags left a trail of it behind her. Such were the things that tormented her as her wish was to always leave only the very best impression along the way. She made it there, actually running, and, breathing heavily, dragged herself into the shelter, yawning with emptiness. Yet before her stood a lone, completely abandoned bus. It seemed the silence was frozen and there would be no traveling. She wailed on the inside and was quiet as a warbler on the outside. No one anywhere, and she urgently needed a ride home. It was a long way to the housing estate, and this bus was the last one for the night.

Then she heard: “Would you like to take a walk with me?”

She turned around: “I’d love to, I have nothing to fear anymore. But what will people think of me? What about these bags? There’s liver in them, am I just going to leave them here?”

“Everything is as it always has been: the river, the sidewalk, and this bus sitting here out of order.”

“Well then, Mr. Bus Driver, you’ll have to kneel on raw peas as punishment,” she laughed in a throaty voice, “no, no, I can’t watch.”

“But you love me, Ludmila, admit it, your profession is a mistake, you can’t tamper with fate. Every operation involves pain,” he said and firmly grabbed her fat ass with a fat ginger hand.

“Maybe you’re right, but just don’t tell anyone.”

“What are you looking at, smile nicely at me, ok?”

“So you love me?”


“Of course I do.”

“I’m as weak as a newborn, so you’ve already forgiven me those boys?”

“No, let’s not hold anything against each other,” he said and rolled her over and the boys ran out from around the corner and tore her bags out of her hands. They whistled to one another and held her down so she wouldn’t twist and turn. She had no intention of struggling; it was good to know she was going to get home as usual at that late hour.

Worn down by life, Ludmila sat limply on the front seat and waited for the bus to arrive at her destination, where she would get off and perhaps finally make it home. While the journey was unpredictable, it did add something to her life, a suitable albeit sketchy activity, something she submitted to meekly and habitually, like the other situations in which she found herself. Ludmila lived as if she had suffered from stuttering since birth, so that whenever any convulsive rhythmic change arose, a closure in her existence, she was always as if unconscious, as if impervious to everything, or as if such an event, even if the most novel, were completely normal, entirely natural. Maybe her temperament was rooted in her corpulence. Intimately pudgy, squashed, she indifferently and uncertainly peered at the passing alley of linden trees, clutching the two shopping bags stuffed with bloody liver on her used crotch. If tomorrow the little clock hands all of a sudden started to run backward, this floral mama would adapt without saying a word, without batting an eye.

“Driver, driver, you didn’t stop for me!” her corpulent throat cried.

“Well, you didn’t ring!” roared the reply.

“How am I going to get home with these bags?” she wailed.


“Unwrap ’em, lady!” squawked a youth. And at once feisty kids assailed her and tussled with her over the bags.

“No, jeez, leave them alone!” she slapped them lightly across their mitts. The children laughed at her, so it looked like they might leave her alone, and they groped around in her bags and pulled out the bloody livers. They wasted no time enjoying it, sinking their teeth into them. “You bet we’re going to eat our fill!” they yelled as they beat each other across the shoulders with the livers. “Watch me take a bite!” yelled the smallest bastard, and stuffed his mouth until he almost puked. Their maws reeked of fresh blood as they gorged and gorged themselves. But who in those parts at two in the morning would be checking to see if some hooligans were devouring a fat lady’s livers? In such nasty little holes a person cannot think straight; the lady got off the bus and returned to her home in the steep, multistory henhouse. A sprinkle, the fresh rain rinsed her off, and so she bravely continued to plod to her apartment. You need a healthy constitution to survive these days, she thought, as she washed swollen and puffy. Then she didn’t think anymore, and slept and slept, her body in an armchair. She didn’t notice the stench from the kitchen and the toilet that didn’t flush. She didn’t even hear the rattle of the pipes letting loose their water to serve those who were first awake so they could catch the morning bus. For someone else, entire years of night after night like this would have been a horrifying prospect. There is perhaps no line of work as precarious and awful as being a chubby lady in the prime of life, a self-sufficient, responsible supervisor. For so many years she had made sure the business ran smoothly and then made her way back to her apartment, but the ordeal wasn’t really a nuisance to her. How else should it be? Where else could she go? She’s not that kind of person. Once she has a place, that’s where she stays.


She’s a widow and would marry again because she had a nice marriage — when someone has had a bad marriage, then she isn’t surprised if they don’t want to remarry, because they’re afraid of it, but she had a nice marriage. She liked it, and she’d like to marry again. One lawyer in the enterprise was trying to woo her, but she didn’t know about him, because he seemed so materialistic.

Women are so depraved, thought Jóstaf as he walked through the café toward the exit that afternoon. Miss Ludmila has such an obtuse face. She’s actually an attractive woman, for someone else she might not be, but she’s a pretty lady, yet how can she put up with the café’s egregious bad taste? Even though that painting must have some sort of value, the artist deviated completely from the color scheme and then even from his subject matter. He freely resorted to new motifs and didn’t hide that he was a realistic sourpuss, a member of that fusty old group and belonging to its lyrical wing. He would have scorned her as a stupid woman, because even though the paintings and prints of this genre did enrich landscape painting, they were in direct conflict with the needs of the institution that housed them. Jóstaf bent his neck forward and rolled his head ten times to the right and ten times to the left. She started to talk to him just to keep the conversation from faltering, so he wouldn’t take it out on her if he wasn’t feeling so well. He seemed overwrought to her, and she was driven by fear. She was blushing from embarrassment and confusion. Jóstaf also reddened when he realized the situation he had created. “Oh, I have lumbago, it’s nothing.” He smiled uncertainly. “There’s a few minutes before it starts,” she said, to erase any unpleasantness, and leaned on the reception counter. She laughed again in that beautiful, lofty way. Heat wafted around them. Jóstaf pretended to stumble and said: “We should have made an earphone jack.” “Look, it’s almost three,”


the fat lady set her watch. After all these years? thought Jóstaf. How many students? How many words? As if she could sense this, Miss Ludmila fussed with the telephone, pretending she was trying to get through somewhere because she’s important and has work to do. Approaching her, Jóstaf pressed the prongs for a moment. “Well there’s a dial tone,” he said and hung it up, sinfully running his other hand along her cellulite thigh to her crotch. It was pleasant. At this hour no one would walk through the reception area; yesterday’s staff had gone and today’s hadn’t come in yet. He was suddenly feeling spry, his groin especially. Ludmila was no sluggard and hung on marvelously for the right moment and sighed enough for five women. “True, it doesn’t seem so gloomy around here anymore,” she added, when for the umpteenth time she pulled her oversized undies over her gigantic ass. She gestured to the walls, marred by a new batch of paintings. This stuff on the walls was a whole other story. He couldn’t think of anything pertinent to say about it and hurriedly zipped up his fly.

“What a naughty boy you are!” she sniggered unctuously.

“Did you paint these?” he thought to ask.

“You’re such a fox, come around more often to shoot the breeze a little.”

He turned up the collar of his raincoat and went out into the rain. People in gym shorts and T-shirts threaded their way around him as they raced by. Even though he felt like a whipped dog, he did notice them. As was widely assumed, the pistol to start the race had been fired at three o’clock. All of Baradla had been getting ready for it for days. People and actors had played the role of horses for so long that all their work resulted in the establishment of this race. A work was being created, during which they were unaware that the runners were guiding them. The main character,


a horse named Kholstomer, does a lot of thinking and speaking. He is a mute face observing the strange creatures we horses are connected with, whom we call people. The childish joy of this recognition blooms in his coltish eyes, but since he instinctively threatens the purity of the breed, he’s neutered. An appalling yet tasteful scene. His face becomes sadder and wiser. Of course, the horse doesn’t understand why people consider those who own the most to be the happiest. A prince throwing around his inherited millions buys an even stronger gelding. Kholstomer’s purity of character, his joy that his strength, beauty, and usefulness are appreciated by his master, completely saves the story from having a hopeless ending. The gifted horse knows that the prince loves no one. His affection is so strong that he bears no malice to his benefactor who pushes him too hard when riding after his mistress, ruins his health forever, and unscrupulously sells him off. Kholstomer’s main adversaries are the runners, who in their gym shorts and T-shirts represent a herd, a collective united by individual exploits. The movement sequences and songs are especially impressive. In concert with the whole parable two runners sometimes sprint as horses, sometimes as human figures. A filly youthfully dashes past anyway. The kept mistress turns into a repulsive hanger-on, which in the third leg culminates with the broadcast of the slut’s disparagement. The most shattering scene is when two knife-wielding men approach Kholstomer and he sees that they want to operate on him again. In his ingenuousness he doesn’t suspect the lengths people will go to save money on food. All of this is a contribution to the Baradlian holiday, because even here an effort has been made to let everything be and just live to the hilt. What does this mean? Cinema, a race, society, a trip to Bulgaria? It turns out that once again it’s work that anchors a


person. Jóstaf looked around as if looking for someone. A sweaty latecomer trotted up, clutching a piece of horsemeat. He waved and shook it at him in honor of the holiday.

On such days the celebratory moments were enlivened by public street broadcasts. Their most impressive cultural experience of the week was the broadcast of a lady doctor, who in her “kultural” kind of way ushered them around various exhibition spaces or concert halls, generally any event that was customarily called culture. They ran, they listened, and several of them were suddenly overcome with a pleasant feeling of contentment from the recognition that they were one big family with the ingenious and clever, members of a single animal species. And they hankered for a nip of something good. Right away they went to the stalls, and whatever was available, that’s what they had — and why not?

But then they were knocked back to earth from their paradise by the voices trembling in rage of the elderly station workers and cleaning women, who were one and the same.

They went to look behind the stalls, real souvenir pieces. What they saw aroused two feelings: first — the urge to drink denatured spirits as quickly as possible; second — compassion for the woman who had to clean all this up, because she would earn no money for her labors — just the way it went. To describe the details would be to cross into the realm of poor taste. They will never forget their dread when they went to inspect those places in the early hours. The women who cleaned it all up had a full storehouse of crude expressions. No doubt because of their connection to culture. Turning their faces, full of disgust and shame, from the sight of the grubby facilities, they now wondered how such a running creature might behave if he knew that his mother or wife or daughter would be cleaning up after him. And here it occurred to them how


capricious they were, how bound by convention. And when that sense of control is removed, the thin veneers fall away and they’re worse than their forefathers, and actually blameless. Because staying home is quite different from running. If nothing else, at home their wives, or a sense of shame in front of their children, makes them toe the line. But in the stalls?

Economics is in vogue these days, exact numbers all the rage. The main thing, of course, is the applicability to people’s lives. The yearly figures for mirrors broken, seats destroyed, pictures stolen — this has been written about countless times. The situation remains unchanged. They write about the culture of running, but just try to talk about this subject with the girls — the women cleaning the stalls. Their opinions of the galloping public, unfortunately, cannot be published. True, only a few individuals are responsible, but how many of us overlook similar vandalism, especially in public toilets? How many of us tolerate a mess because someone else is paid to deal with it? If only there could be a regulation that pedestrians, or runners, would not be permitted to leave any street until they have properly cleaned it up . . . I have no wish to be anyone’s attorney, everyone has sinned a little, especially in the running around sector, but what about the conductor, poor creature, who has no rights and doesn’t enjoy the protection of a public official? It’s only a few months since two drunken travelers at the Stará Boleslav train station slapped a conductor before disembarking. Even the engineer received a few whacks. And only because they had advised these fine examples of humanity to get their act together after leaving the place. Real improvement will happen only when the runners manage to maintain order within their own ranks themselves. They could probably save a couple million if they swore less, after all, bartering brides is prohibited.


Baradla is a place of holes, covering almost a fifth of her. So it’s no surprise that in many of these orifices centuries-old traditions stubbornly persist. The more affluent men usually run in fours, more often than not having purchased a 14- or 15-year-old girl. She gives birth for them maybe twelve or fourteen times in her life, not all of them survive. They are becoming increasingly less literate because they run in isolation and in circles. Such touching matters seemed stupid to Jóstaf. His face became wizened, expressionless. It took him a minute before he could carefully close the door behind him.

He would have liked to stop by and see Baradla, but once again she had gone to her workshop full of clay and mud, in which she worked from morning to night even though it brought her no more enjoyment than service itself. She shut herself up in there because she was afraid of murderers. He would have at least brought her something to drink, but she screamed at anything that made a sound around her. He would have liked to see her, yet she was convinced that he would want her to cook for him and wait on him hand and foot, that he would take all her money and leave her nothing but the shabby clothes she had patched together herself, and a few leftovers from lunch, bringing cheap booze so she wouldn’t be able to tell how well-off he is. She thought he would make her work herself to the bone, that nothing would please him, that he would frighten her with the world outside so she wouldn’t run off, so he would have someone to vent his weariness to. He wanted to be on the other side of her locked door with a cheap bottle of alcohol in his hand, and he considered whether he could flush her out with water without damaging the workshop fixtures, so she could continue to work. She could tend to his and the children’s needs and would never ever think to express her own


opinion. Well, no one was ever born with an empathy for others. Baradla was cheerful, unhappy, and slovenly fat, but there was always some work to be done with her. Her single pleasure should have been to buy him gifts, but even if she did he would have been a constant source of stress and drive them both crazy that she was overspending. Because when Jóstaf was single, his mommy did everything for him, and now all that fell to Baradla! Every so often, if she should completely lose it, he could shut her up in the nuthouse. It would be very easy for him to arrange, for her own good, through a friend on staff there, and everyone would be so very nice to her. Everything’s getting more expensive, at least she wouldn’t drink so much. He could also just get rid of her when she became run down and it was convenient for him. Because how long could she continue this drudgery, especially if her work was selling? Another woman couldn’t be found who would be so stupid, just to avoid misfortune. He would break the window at once and squeeze through the bars.

Jóstaf strolled from Café Slavia toward Baradla and thought about how the life of a temperamental woman is never fun. But it’s wrong to want people to respect her. He shook his head as he used a log to break down the door of that archive where she lay sprawled as if she had Lord knows what kind of privileges. It’s a bad person who doesn’t know how to ask for money and fears winter and works as a housepainter. Such a person needs help, he thought, and tried to prise open the door. I will be his support, I will help him, I will make sure that people appreciate me. Jóstaf’s hands were covered in blood from his unabated assault, and he looked like a junkie. The doors remained impassive and unmoved, not even the brown paint had been disturbed. The sound of cursing came from inside the den. Resting his knees on the door jamb,


Jóstaf started to fall into despair over this hopeless situation. His dreams had told him that he would eventually find gold or some other reward. If only he could at least get a little money by selling her wedding veil. He would like to light up her face. His eyes were like enormous teeth. He could hear Baradla’s bosom desperately heave, and from it a cry, hoarse from the awful cold, ancient terror, and fresh astonishment that the doors had not given way. Her arms were extended as far as their stiffness permitted. She was still semi-naked from the mud. Her teeth were chattering; only now did she feel the chill, and she covered her breasts with his coat that she stole through the keyhole. “Thank God!” she cried, her eyes ablaze.

Dressed only in his shirt and pants, Jóstaf now got a good look at her through the keyhole. She seemed to be suppressing a grimace. “I’m gonna cut your throat, let me in, let me in there!” And getting a running start, he tried to break the door down by ramming into it.


“Come out or I’m calling them.”

“You’d do more for me than I ever could for you,” Baradla laughed.

Jóstaf shook his fist, turned his back to her, and left. He passed by houses of stone and brick as if they were shadows. People had abandoned the streets, they had run away like a flock of sheep. It was dark. Engravings hung on the walls, several books stood uselessly at the edge of the sidewalk. He found that strange. He wasn’t unhappy that in the end he hadn’t conquered Baradla. Life with her was like being in a madhouse, or the hangman’s house; let her live on her own with all that mud.

The sky above the street grew dark, and through the doors


came a young girl with a basket on her head, her mouth open. Quiet as a graveyard everywhere. He made it back to Café Slavia. He was surprised that the lights weren’t on at that hour. He knocked on the glass, and after a long while a pair of spectacles glittered opposite him in the dark:

“What do you want?”

“I’m looking for the manager.”

“She’s not here, why do you want her? We’re closed.”

“I can see that. Is the café shutting down for good?”


“Because I’d like to rent it.” The spectacles sailed out at Jóstaf and pieces of glass cut into his face. “I’ll show him!” He heard a woman’s voice. He recognized the foster daughter of the night bus driver. She was wearing an old German dress, the kind that gave painters a good laugh at Germans in the old days. But here in this street it suited her well. The red sky shimmered on her face as she pressed her lips together. She was a clear danger for society, dangerous even in her perverse wish that her friends become drug addicts. This decrepit, miserable, malnourished, neglected girl, an especial menace to the young, with the chilly red skies of dawn on her face, at once said nonchalantly: “At least put something on when you wander around outside on such dank nights! The foul stench of Baradla comes from the gray fog, sharp knives between the houses. In a moment the gates of the field hospital will come down on us.” Jóstaf took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.

“Something besides your calculations interests me, Miss. I’d be happy to say good night, but I count myself among the optimists, so you won’t be able to get rid of me so easily. I won’t run away from you.”

“What’s up with you, you seem to be shivering with cold,


maybe you think yourself an arsonist, and your face is peppered with bits of glass and your cheeks are red with blood.”

“I haven’t learned to set fires, Baradla didn’t want me, even though I really needed her.”

“If you’re not a cheat, don’t whine over hatred!”

Looking at her almost from below, he saw a figure as if made of dwarf pine and with the cruel whiteness of a face engulfed in a viper’s glow and the painfully cadaverous rime of junkies.

In every country there are individuals who are predisposed to drug addiction, and to what extent a drug habit takes hold merely depends on the level of prevention. Addiction has a tendency to spread like an avalanche, thought Jóstaf, turning his back to the depraved little girl, but she called after him:

“You’re not happy, you’re not rich, you’re not young, and your or Nurse is coming back . . .”

Here wretched Jóstaf gave a start, as if he wanted to earn some sympathy.

“What could you offer me, little girl? You have no ideology, no God, you’re clever at dissimulation and impertinent, and I have no interest in your astrological crap.”

“You mustn’t forget . . .” but she didn’t finish.

Jóstaf took a piece of the broken glass lenses and slit her throat.

It’s just a fact that substance abusers cannot hold down a job, nor properly care for children, and eventually resort to murder to get the money for more drugs. Statistics likewise show that the vast majority of substance abusers, including the more severe cases of chronic alcoholism, will die by the age of fifty-four. Each of us has ordinary human flaws. It was as chilly as in emigration. There went the murderer — grim, savage, surly, with cheeks and hands bloody.

Miss Ludmila had also murdered her husband, but it was a long


time ago. She killed him apathetically, for no good reason. Yet it wasn’t the act of someone deranged, she was just old school, the kind of person who wouldn’t, for instance, put up with someone interrupting the gentle flow of her memory. She liked to occupy herself with things that were warm and pleasant, and with the modest numbing of her mind should events prove too nettlesome or even repugnant to her. Practically nothing stayed in her head, in the dim airport of her memories something emotional, largely associated with worries swirling around tepid pots, politely, gently reverberated. No, the lady wasn’t perpetually eating, between individual courses she often drank, too, and while doing so she conversed in a subdued voice about food with the habitués or visitors to the café she ran with such love and tenacity. Miss Ludmila was not one to take ill, but she often pretended to be troubled by some ailment. What was the pathetic old bitch to do if one of the customers sucked up to her? Or if she did that to him? Even though some matters could be dealt with on the spot, what if there were complications, or too many circumstances, was she supposed to just drop everything and run? Closed again today, in front of the doors clustered an avid crowd intent on entering. The lady was not at all sentimental about her duties, and she had not intended to leave the business shut for the day. She had not counted on the unexpected delay, even though it could have been predicted. She regretted her inability to free herself on her own and that she had so stupidly walked into the trap on the first-floor left corridor. Something seemed to be burning up top, and she knew from the last time the café had burned down that it had started above and stank. She stood behind her little counter leaning on her refractory bosom, visible through her smock. At that moment the accountant arrived and said:


“Tell me, what are you going to do with these discarded files?”

She looked at him.

“Who came this way? That Jóstaf from the first floor? The guy you wanted to make a phone call for?” Nobody answered him. Ludmila leaned on her nipples, visible through the sheer smock, and gazed in fascination at a tangerine in his right hand. The old accountant turned his usual color of poppy red, moved the tangerine in front of her slowly opening mouth, and squeezed. Juice squirted into her eye. Not blinking, not lowering her eyes, she just said:

“Yeah, we royally screwed that one up. We didn’t give ’em the bed, only a mattress.”

“For God’s sake, are you fifteen? The sheets will be a constant mess, trampled, dirty, the bed all dusty. Look, all the dust under the bed will get into the bed.”

“What are you looking at me for, you expect something else to tumble out of me?”

“Why are you so uptight?”

“Because I think it’s stupid. What did you expect to get out of it? Tell me even one feeling you expect to get out of this.”

“That they’ll stop feeling claustrophobic.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re just stroking a false sense of confidence.”

“You’ve run out of arguments, haven’t you!”

The accountant squeezed the tangerine again and squirted her in the other eye. Then the entire scene changed beyond recognition.

“What is that all about?” asked the shortsighted woman passing through the reception area.

“The old accountant with the manager,” answered her interpreter.

Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.