Lovers for a Dayby Ivan Klíma Translated from Czech by Gerald Turner
“Klíma is simply not read widely enough in the U.S. . . . A master of the significant detail–telling only that which is essential.” –Brad Hooper, Booklist
Ivan Klima has been called a “Czech genius” by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. In these stories spanning his long career from the 1960s to the present, he gives us a gallery of people searching, in love, for escape: factory girls on their day off and assembly-line workers lost in Walter-Mittyesque fantasies; a young woman on a honeymoon with the man she did not marry; a divorce-court judge whose mistress cannot understand his affection for the routines of his marriage; a young wife who falls into a passionate affair with an elderly bookbinder crippled by war. Lovers for a Day is a book stamped with Klima’s unique wisdom, a personal history of a national evolution and an acute and moving examination of our attempts to find freedom in love.
“A kind of taxonomic survey of Eros . . . [by] a writer at the top of his form . . . his powers of invention matching the pace of the journey, his surprises ripe with rightness.” –Askold Melnyczuk, The Boston Globe
“A Czech genius.” –Jonathan Levi, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Ivan Klima’s view of love is often witty, sometimes playful, and has a convincing sense of the erotic, but it is never sanguine. . . . Klima does not shrink from showing the indifference, even sadism, with which we often treat those we no longer love but whose own affections remain engaged.” –Andrew Miller, The New York Times Book Review
“Often funny and always refreshingly unsentimental . . . love pops up wherever no one expects to find it, blooming like an exotic desert flower–intensely, unpredictably, briefly.” –Elizabeth Gaffney, Bookforum
“This newest volume of stories . . . suggests that what we talk about when we talk of love is nothing less than the paradox of maintaining faith when betrayal is inevitable. . . .
Lovers for a Day reveals the increasing complexity of Kl’ma’s vision as he confronts universal paradoxes of modern life.” –Elizabeth Shostak, The Boston Book Review
“Klíma is simply not read widely enough in the U.S. . . . A master of the significant detail–telling only that which is essential.” –Brad Hooper, Booklist
“[Lovers for a Day] looks at the despair of love, then shifts to a more mature, bittersweet acceptance of its imperfections.” –San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
“What we witness is more than the natural development of a writer’s talent: it is the blossoming of his sensibility as the stunning secrecy and unhappiness of politics are removed. . . . Why do we pursue those who don’t want us? And why do the insufficiencies of those we love become evident only too late? In these questions we hear echoes of Chekhov. And Kl’ma’s technique, too, descends from Chekhov. . . . Kl’ma suggests we all avoid the simple acts of love that might redeem us . . . accomplished and insightful . . . wise.” –Adam Kirsch, Boston Phoenix Literary Section
“With precise prose and an uncanny ability to write conversations between husband and wife or lovers, Klíma gives the reader accurate portrayals of life. The overwhelming need for love and the unlikely matches that sometimes occur are deftly explored. . . . Excellent.” –Lisa Rohrbaugh, Library Journal (starred review)
“Klíma has evolved differently from his contemporaries. . . . Rather than become embittered by his country’s past, Klíma has come to a truce with imperfection–the imperfection of history and of love.” –Jennie Yabroff, San Francisco Chronicle
“The very human nature of Klíma’s work is precisely what makes it accessible. . . . It is his eye . . . for individuals’ means of coping with the tragedies and absurdities of political and social conditions–rendered in the background, or even in passing–that made Kl’ma dangerous to the Communists, and today makes his writing resonate with the dramatic changes in [his] country.” –The Nation
“Ivan Klíma must be regarded as Czechoslovakia’s greatest living writer of fiction.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Ivan Klíma is one of the greatest writers of Czechoslovakia. He is as good as Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, and Václav Havel.” –Daily Telegraph (London)
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Chapter One – Lovers for One Night
EXECUTION OF A HORSE
A bright violet flash. She half opened her eyes at the light. A storm, she realized, an early morning storm. The windows rattled slightly. She was gripped by anxiety. I ought to run to Mummy for shelter, it automatically occurred to her, but I can’t do that any more. It’s been ages since I could! She shut her eyes tightly, and strangely that feeling from the time when she could still run for shelter came back to her, that feeling of reassurance. Maybe it was because of the storm, or because she was close to dreaming, or because it hadn’t really been so long since she used to run to her mother.
The feeling was so strong that she actually reached out into the empty space beside her and thought she was touching a hand and hearing quiet breathing.
Having started with a storm, what sort of day would it turn out to be?
When she awakes for the second time, it feels like full morning already. She can feel the warmth on her eyelids and the sound of an argument comes through the wall.
She pads across the parquet in her bare feet: her toes sense the morning and how the day stands – it’s my free day – and once more there is the twinge of realization that she no longer knows what to blame him on or where to go to avoid him. But why should I avoid him? I simply won’t think about him. After all, it was what I wanted too. We weren’t a good match anyway – even if he hadn’t done what he did.
Even so she can’t stop feeling sorry for herself. How could he have done it? How could he have deceived her when she loved him and he said he loved her too? I could never have done it.
Love, she reflects, true love, is unbreakable. It: is complete and everlasting, even though I may never ever know it: not everyone is destined to experience true love. And she feels a sudden pang of regret. Just outside the window drops of water glisten on the dry branch which reminds her of an owl. You think I’ll never know it, that nothing like that happens these days, but I’ll bide my time, and then one morning like this one he’ll lean over me, my beloved, and put his hand here, right here, and he’ll be here at my side, all of him, and his warmth will enfold me.
And she feels lonely, very lonely. There is nothing else she need think about and she is utterly dejected. When she has dressed she quietly climbs the narrow winding staircase that emerges in front of a low door underneath the rafters. Here there is a room she can escape to. It’s not even a proper room. It used to be just a mansard: it has a sloping roof and a small, high window, starting at neck level and ending at the height of her forehead. The room contains nothing but childhood junk, a tin washbasin to bring water from the passage, and a cupboard, an ironing board with a hole burnt in the cover, a rocking chair and a great big ball of blue twine – not of hemp, let alone paper, but of some synthetic material: twine for tying up parcels and battered suitcases, as well as for hanging washing, and those in despair. It now hangs on a nail and its free end swings to and fro almost imperceptibly, rather scarily in this room with the door and window closed. But it calms her to sit in the rocking chair watching the world see-saw up and down.
It’s still the early morning and the sun shines in her eyes; above it the heavens with two clouds that sail slowly past. A shoreless lake with boats sinking, a blue desert with a caravan of white elephants. I can sail and wander. In the complete silence she can hear the sand noiselessly piling up into blue dunes, and slowly, like a mirage, the outline of the first tower emerges, and a chimney thrusting skywards and an enormous plinth for an enormous statue, with no statue, that marvellous landmark; and lower and lower, below the roofs – this is my city – down to the river, and above the river coloured prisms with cellophane and trams (chipped thermos flasks), motor cars and converging dots just moving – those are people – if I were to go down there I’d be like them and maybe someone would be glad and say, Stay here now, don’t go back. No thank you, I’m happy here. This is where I’m happiest of all. Here I’m all alone when I feel like it and I won’t be if I don’t feel like it. And up again: the owl-shaped branch again, and higher and higher up to the outline of the last tower and the chimney thrusting skywards. It’s still early morning and the sun is rising. The day had such a pallid start – but now, now it’s like a tree growing out of the damp earth, like a field, like a roof facing away from the city. She would like to do something: I have to do something on a day like this. I’ll put on that white pleated skirt and then I could go for a swim – with Mark”ta probably – or just go off somewhere, go and thumb a lift from the last tram stop, all on my own – why not, someone’s bound to stop and give me a lift somewhere. And maybe he’ll be young and afterwards he’ll say, Actually I’m not going anywhere, it was just a whim this morning. And I’ll reply, It wasn’t just your whim, it was mine as well. Except that it’ll turn out to be some dreary married man instead. But that doesn’t matter, I’ll get dropped off somewhere where there are some rocks and climb up them. And then when I get to the top, it’ll be like it used to be with us, only I’ll lie down in the warm clovery grass all by myself, far from any path, and wait.
And she quietly slips out of the room that is more like a mansard and in which only the end of the ball of twine will now swing to and fro almost imperceptibly behind the closed window and the closed door.
Heading for the tram in her white pleated skirt and green blouse she has to pass the old dump with BEWARE FALLING MASONRY and two hideous angels over the door. She hesitates briefly and then walks in past the one-armed watchman. I oughtn’t to really, I’ll end up bumping into that old so-and-so of hers I’m not supposed to know about, though these days she doesn’t make too much of an effort to conceal it. Poor Mum with that bald fat old slob. She knocks on the door and then opens it. From within emerges the confused din of typewriters with the pale blue glow of the strip-lighting and the stench of cigarettes and cheap coffee. But she stays outside.
`What did you want, Katerina?’
`Nothing in particular.’
Sallow cheeks, pouches under her eyes, lipstick meticulously applied – everything about her is meticulous, in fact. Her hair recently dyed black. She’s still trying to be attractive.
`I’m going out for the day, Mum.’
`On my own, Mum!’
`No, really on my own. Don’t worry.’
She looks round and steps away from the door slightly. `You’re telling me fibs again. Why do you have to as well?’
`I’m not fibbing. We’ve broken up.’
`Well take good care of yourself.’
`Why don’t you believe me?’
`Don’t cause me grief, Katerina.’
The door opens. The witch with the coffee pot lets out some of the pale blue light and typewriter din. Is that you, Katerina – how are you – fine thanks – it suits you, every inch the young lady, where did you buy the skirt, and you’re bigger than your Mum, come on show me, you really are – it’s my hair that does it, I tease it.
`You’re not up to something are you, Katerina?’
`No, I’m not, really Mum.’
She has powdered the wrinkles round her eyes – for that slob, but what’s she supposed to do, now that Daddy avoids her? `No, really, Mum. It’s lovely out.’
`What’s up, Katerina? You’re being distant, somehow. Don’t stay out late.’
`No, I won’t.’
She says goodbye to the one-armed watchman. Outside it is bright and sunny and oddly deserted. The rush hour is over. He’s probably just getting up. They get up late in student residences. If only I’d been able to study too. I’d have enjoyed it: preferably biology or literature. But those two would have had to keep me for the four years and where would they have found the money, those penniless pen-pushers? He has to pay for his tart and she has to keep her slob, if she’s going to have any fun any more – I’d sooner hang myself. No thermos flask anywhere, I’ll make a phone call while I’m waiting.
The phone box is empty. She makes herself comfortable, an elbow resting on the shelf and a foot on the ledge in the wall. I’ve got quite nice legs, really, the girls envy me them when I undress, but I’ve got only one twenty-five heller piece. I could try calling you but what’s the point – it’s just a game; to have you come to the phone and shout, Who’s that – Katka? Or is it you, Libuse? How could you have done it to me. You could have let me know, at least. Not that it would make any difference. What if I called Mark”ta? Have you heard the news? Ota and I have broken up. Would you believe it, he’s been carrying on with that PE instructor of theirs for the past two years and I didn’t know a thing. That time during the holidays when he said he was canoeing – that was with her. I told him myself: there’s no point. I could never do anything like that – we didn’t hit it off anyway. You were always amazed that he and I could, that I never seemed myself with him. It’s only now that I realize it. I feel great now, believe me, although before …
There’s a man knocking on the door of the booth. Every inch the gentleman. I bet he hits his children. Wait a bit, I’ll let you have my twenty-five heller piece, I didn’t use it. Sorry.
The thermos flask is half empty. I’ll stay out on the platform; it’s getting hot. She goes and stands behind the driver and ponders on love for a while. Living without love is not the worst thing: the worst thing is where love has fallen to pieces and is no longer love but a burden. She is pleased with herself for having managed to escape a love that was sure to turn into a burden.
She gets off one stop early and walks past the ugly student residence – his window is closed and the bottom half is stuck over with paper. But she doesn’t stop even for a second. She feels fancy-free, liberated: the whole day is spread out in front of her, her whole life is spread out in front of her – days unimaginable, full of promise. But she is not even thinking about that now, just about today, which is also full of promise.
A car soon pulled up for her, a private car, no less. The suede-jacketed driver opened the door and looked her over quickly. Obviously satisfied, he asked, `Where are you off to?’
`I don’t mind.’
`If you don’t mind, you don’t mind.’
He drove fast and talked non-stop. He was an expert on animal skins, apparently, and bought and sold them all over the world. He was a bit too tall and bony for her taste, and probably too old as well, even though he was under forty. He spoke very slowly and deliberately, which appealed to her. That was the way she imagined people spoke who had seen things and were possibly important in some way too. It had not been very sensible to have spent all her time with Ota recently, as if he were the only person in the world. Love is definitely the greatest happiness, but at the same time it swallows you up and at the very moment you feel you are living to the full you actually stop living. Countless possible loves, moments and opportunities pass you by and they might be more important and more fulfilling than what you have at that moment, but you’re unaware of them.
In the fields the corn was not yet ripe. The man had now fallen silent. The names of unfamiliar villages, the air shimmering above the road’s surface, a narrow valley and wooded hilltops. If only I could just keep on going like this: the whole day and again the next day and never return, never return anywhere.
The man asked, `And you really don’t care where you’re going?’
`Really!’ she exclaimed.
`I’ll show you something.’
Then, even though he really ought to have waited for her reaction, he turned sharply off the main road and sped on in a cloud of whitish dust.
She hadn’t the slightest idea where he intended to take her and not to know where you were heading or what might happen was quite exciting. The car took another turn and they were now travelling along a rough field track in the direction of three solitary buildings.
The man got out, opened the door and quite unnecessarily offered her his hand, giving hers a squeeze in the process. Only now was his full height apparent – he was a born basketball player: `I bet this is something you’ve never seen before.’
They entered a bare and deserted yard containing only a rusting pump and several rolls of barbed wire in one corner. She found the emptiness rather oppressive. It was a farm made for a murder. The man went ahead of her with long – rather ludicrously long – and important strides. They passed under a low gateway and suddenly found themselves in a strange, incredible township of thousands of wooden cages. `Wait here a moment!’ The stench of animal excrement hung in the air, as well as another smell she could not place.
In front of a building that resembled a garage with an excessively high opening – more like a hangar for a single forgotten aeroplane – stood a grey horse tied to a post with the bark still on it.
She had never before seen a colour like it – like black soil covered in a layer of hoar frost. She wanted to go over to that beautiful creature, but her companion was already returning, taking those ludicrously long and important strides. Actually, she was pleased he was on his way back, because a strange, inexplicable melancholy had settled on the place. Hurrying behind him came a bald fat man with a bunch of keys.
`What marvellous guests …’ said the fat man. `So the young lady is curious about our mink,’ and they passed through the barbed wire entrance between the cages standing on high crossed legs, in which solitary brown creatures ran here and there in confusion.
Her companion was openly delighted at the sight of them and talked about `those carnivores’ ceaselessly – maybe for her benefit, but no doubt also to show off to the other man. And so they wended their way through the maze of solitary cells from which the inmates had no escape, destined to live for just nine months, until they were at their most magnificent, and she felt pity well up within her as it did whenever she saw a captive animal.
They reached a row of cages, each containing a pair of the creatures darting to and fro. This is where we keep the sick ones, her companion explained. They recover quicker in company than on their own. And the two men continued their rounds. Perhaps they had forgotten about her and so she stayed by the couples that illness had redeemed from solitary confinement. It is often only solitude that drives people into love, and in fact people waver between freedom and solitude – except that most of the time they lose their freedom without escaping solitude. I must have read that somewhere, but now I know it, now I actually feel it.
The two men were now lost in the maze and she retraced her steps to the previous row of stinking animal cages and was suddenly seized by a very powerful feeling – an intuition almost – that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary day: it was a day when even love might come her way. She was so convinced of it that if the lanky man in the suede jacket whose name she didn’t even know were to approach her at that moment and say, I love you, she would most likely fall in love with him, totally and absolutely – until she came out at the spot where they had entered and she caught sight of the grey horse in front of her.
It stood there, head hanging. And as she approached it – she had never been afraid of large animals, only of spiders, caterpillars and frogs – she noticed that one of its eyes was covered in an opaque film and it struck her that it must be an old horse and that the layer of hoar frost was in fact no more than a sign of age. It was attached by the shortest of ropes, really a long rope but mostly tied round the stake, and its forelegs were bound together with thick twine. It too was a prisoners but she felt greater pity for it than for the paltry creatures in the cages. There was something human about its remaining eye – though it couldn’t be wisdom. Maybe it was sorrow or anxiety; maybe just pain or exhaustion. Exhaustion most likely.
Rummaging in her handbag she found some sweets and the horse nuzzled them wearily from her palm with its grey lips while gazing at her motionlessly with its one eye. She placed her hand on its mane and stayed at its side, feeling now the pulse of the large creature and hearing its breath, while its scent enveloped her. She suddenly felt something akin to tenderness or even love, or at least warm, comforting friendship. `You lovely beast,’ she murmured, `my little brother, you silly old horse,’ and the horse’s breathing seemed to slow down and a tremor ran through its enormous body.
Then the doors of the strange hangar opened in front of her and out stepped two men in blue-and-white striped overalls.
`He’s been getting friendly, the old so-and-so,’ said one of them.
She had to step back several paces and she observed how the men unwound the rope from the raw timber post and dragged the horse towards the open doorway.
She wanted to shout something after them but at that moment the horse stopped, braced itself and began to neigh.
`Come on, you stubborn old bastard,’ they yelled and the horse stood, nailed to the spot, tossing its old silvery head and neighing. One of the fellows turned towards her and said in a friendly voice, `The beast has caught the scent of blood. That’s put it off!’
And then suddenly she realized what the two men were and that she ought to do something to save the horse, though she knew she could do nothing.
All she could do was leave and that’s what she ought to do. At least she wouldn’t witness what was going to happen. But she couldn’t budge from the raw timber post and she stared numbly as the men lowered a pulley from the roof of the hangar, threw a rope over the pulley wheel, made a noose with the other end and put it round the horse’s neck. And she watched rigidly as the men started to pull with all their might, while the horse also strained its every muscle, all its veins standing out. And then she saw the horse gradually rear on its hind legs – in ghastly human fashion, pulled by the terrible rope, she saw its hooves first pound the earth in terror and then just thrash the air, heard the roar of the creature, the despairing roar of a horse, its cry of anguish, its vain entreaties, a roar not of foreboding but of certainty. And she watched the horse as with strange, unnatural leaps it drew nearer to the hangar’s gaping maw. Have pity! Oh, God! At least let them close the doors. And indeed at that very moment the doors closed behind the two men and the condemned beast and she waited, although she didn’t know what for, and then it came: not a cry, not a roar, but a thud, the dull, resounding thud of a heavy body falling on to a stone floor. So that was the end. Suddenly she could no longer feel her own body. She drifted in the air, before sinking on to the soft, sandy soil. But she still held on limply to the wooden post, her hands above her head, and pressed her lips to the rough, hard bark. She dug her teeth into the bark until she tasted the bitterness of the wood beneath.
And the thud swelled and spread out, resounding within her until it drowned out everything that was and everything that would be; she was sure the sound would never cease, because it was not the sort of sound made by things but a sound that came out of the void, from between slightly closed doors: it was the voice of the darkness into which all defenceless creatures are dragged.
Then she heard the creak of the hangar doors again and looked up in a sort of vain and macabre hope, but all she saw were the two men in the blue-and-white overalls, each pulling a small cart on which lay a metal washtub covered by a bloody canvas. So she stood up and even though she still could not feel her own body she set off with strange, unnatural leaps into the void in front of her.
Towards evening it started to cloud over again and the sun disappeared behind a smoky screen. The soldiers dropped her off as soon as they reached the city limits and shouted something at her in parting. That morning she had never suspected she would be back so early, while it was still fully light, or in such a frame of mind. Where shall I go now? I must go and find someone. I could go to a film – but go to the cinema on my own? Anyway I have to eat something. I’ll have something to eat and then I’ll call Mark”ta, but what will I talk to her about? A squalid eating place in a side street. Sit at a table on my own? But I’m hardly going to go home and sit looking at the pair of them.
She sits at a bare table. The grubby waiter arrives carrying mugs of beer, and a bowl of tripe soup for her. Her fingers tremble slightly. I’m really hungry. At least I’m eating and I’m able to eat, even if it’s vile, disgusting meat.
She wants to think about something, about some book or film at least, instead of about the man in the suede jacket, the township of little wooden cages, the stench … And here it is standing in front of her with its grey coat and lank mane. It’s no longer tied up but grazing freely, tossing its one-eyed head, and the meadow stretches from horizon to horizon and the horizon is dark, like a line run through the night. A corpse-faced man stares at her from the next table.
`Are you a student?’
`Come and sit over here, then.’
`I’ve got a bowl of soup here.’ And she doesn’t feel like sitting next to the man, even though it makes no difference in the end. He looks a bit like Mum’s old slob. I expect that’s the way they lounge about. Poor Mum, when he touches her afterwards with those yellow talons of his.
`It looks as though you’re a student after all.’ His voice is high-pitched, almost effeminate. `You don’t want to sit with a man.’ But I expect Mum is miserable about being left on her own. She needs more than just me. She misses love. So that’s what that love is, the divine love they croon about. She took her soup and moved to the man’s table.
`Are you a sales girl?’
`I thought so. You’re a student.’
`And what business is it of yours?’ she snaps. If she were a student … but what difference does it make. What difference does it make what I am, what we happen to be at this moment – and she hears the echoing thud; it comes out of nowhere and no one seems to hear it – when we know what we will be one day.
`I could have gone to college too. Only they didn’t send me there. I had to become a carter. And I can’t stand those smart alecs,’ he trilled. `They’re always showing off. What would they be without us? You’re a secretary, then?’
`I’m nothing,’ she says and it was true: nothing sipping tripe soup. But what will I be? Or will I stay being nothing until the moment when … no, I won’t think about it.
`But we had some fun with them last year on Petrin Hill. We lit them up with rockets and pulled them out of the bushes.’
`What were they doing?’
`What were they doing? What were they doing …’ and suddenly she remembers the little room almost up in the sky with the rocking chair and the window that starts at neck level and ends at the height of your forehead, and the enormous ball of blue twine whose free end is always swaying to and fro. She tries to remember when she was last up there and finds it impossible to believe that moment in the distant past had been that very morning.
`They’d already elected a prime minister,’ the man piped up. `They had it all worked out, the whole government and the central committee.’
`Did you beat them up?’
`Hold on, hold on,’ he rebuked her. `I’m asking the questions here.’ Then he said, `If my son went to college, he wouldn’t bugger about like that lot. You ought to see what they get up to in those student halls. They take some tart or other …’
She had finished her soup at last. I must leave, get up and go somewhere, but where? I’ll go home, but where … Or I’ll go to his place, He fancies me a bit, or he used to. Except we’ve split up. I can’t go and see him …
`You’re a hairdresser, that’s what you are! If you fancy making a bit on the side,’ the man suddenly said in his high effeminate voice; his eyes were almost popping out of his head and he spoke rapidly. `I don’t live far from here and it wouldn’t be anything – you’d only have to take off your skirt … Just watch,’ he burst out, `just you watch, Miss!’ He went over to the cracked counter and put a five-crown coin down on the sheet of glass covering the wafers and chocolate biscuits.
`Don’t worry about him,’ the barman said to her. `He’s a bit of a, you know, cripple. He can’t whatsname, you see,’ and he dashed here and there between the tables.
Afterwards, as she climbs the steps to the student residence and passes the scarred corner of the building and the badly-painted railing, that familiar sense of hope starts to come back. He might still love her, even if she doesn’t know what it means any more, love. But maybe he is expecting me and when I arrive he’ll say, What have you been doing the whole week? I’m glad you’re here. I’m not even sure why I’m here. It’s just that I was lying there with my head in the sand and it just occurred to me that you will be kind to me, for a little while at least, even though you don’t love me, and that you’ll pay attention to me even when I don’t say anything. In the passage there are two lit gas burners and a black student in white plimsolls and purple boxer shorts, and from behind a closed door the sound of a jazz trumpet.
`So you’ve come, then? You’ve seen sense, after all!’ The cocksure star of the parallel bars in a tracksuit that had shrunk slightly in the shoulders. `It was daft to sulk like that. You know how things are nowadays. You mustn’t take it that way …’
The bottom half of the windows pasted over with photos, a jumble of discarded textbooks and study materials, sporting trophies all over the walls, a carved ox horn, and on a shelf a glass box painted with flowers and birds that’s used as an ashtray.
`You’re such a little girl still, Katka. You’re always thinking about things you shouldn’t, even when they’re nothing to do with you.’
`But it is do with me when you’re going out with someone else.’
`Don’t be daft. All that matters is what there is between the two of us. Nothing else.’
And silence. The jazz trumpet from the passage. On the other side of the door the black student whistles a monotonous melody, outside the window it is evening. They chased them all over Petrin Hill, but I’m not a student, I won’t build bridges, I won’t reel off the names of kings or dynasties or study nine symphonies and it makes no difference, no difference at all. My kingdoms are white and pink cards in a hall with pale blue light and brushing off my skirt every single day at four-thirty. I’ll brush off my skirt tomorrow and live in hope of a glimmer of merciful consideration if he happens to turn up. I’ll wait outside the gate looking here and there and just go on waiting patiently, assenting now and then to clumsy minor indignities and to major deceptions like your current one, and go on waiting and waiting and waiting until the day when the two men in blue-and-white stripes arrive and toss a rope over and start to pull … No, I don’t want to think about it, about what is going to come, what has to come, I just don’t want to think about it.
`This is the third day here on my own already,’ he said. `After we’ve waited so long for it you had to go and sulk. Have you had something to eat?’
He’s got some wine in the cupboard – the cheapest kind, naturally – and yesterday he came second in the rings in the assessment competition.
`It’s time I was going.’
However she sits on the very dirty bed, the other bed is made and as level as a coffin. I’ll go over and sit on it and just watch you. I don’t feel like staying here, but where am I to go? And so she drinks some wine, cheap and sharp, that she doesn’t like at all and doesn’t even bring much relief, just a slight drowsiness and a gradual blurring of the day and the days. Now you can talk about what you like now you can touch me and kiss me.
`Why did you do it? Why did you run away?’
`You know why.’
`You’re like a little kid, Katka. What is it you’re after?’
He goes and switches off the light. We’re trapped in the dark like the mink, outside the window the lights from other windows. Now I see why they pasted over the bottom of the windowpanes. And a jazz trumpet from the other side of the wall.
`I’ll switch on the radio so they won’t hear …’
`Won’t hear what?’
`You are daft, Katka. Or do you just put it on?’
He carries her easily and now they lie side by side, the radio is playing, someone is walking along the passage; it’s bound to be the black guy in the purple boxer shorts. The jazz trumpet has fallen silent. If only it were quiet I would hear your breathing. God, I’m here next to you, what am I doing here? But I had to go somewhere, I didn’t want to stay on my own. That’s why I’m here, for one night at least. What choice did I have for tonight? And you’ll indulge me for a little while, for this evening and this night. We’ve been lovers for one night. Say something at least. Don’t stay silent – I feel uneasy with this strange music in a strange bed. And they lie here side by side. He kisses her, You’re really pretty, little girl, come closer to me. – I’d like to see your face. – Come closer to me, okay? – Say you love me. – You’re daft to ask me like that. – I’m daft to have come. – No, just daft to ask me like that.
But I do really love you and I’d tell you if you were to say it, but you don’t say anything, just let your hands wander all over my body and nothing, nothing – why don’t you take off your skirt? – but I’m glad, you lift me out of this day, you lift me up to you, maybe that feeling of happiness will come after all, so kiss me: I want to so much, I want to, my darling.
And so now they lie side by side half naked. It is stifling with such a low ceiling and the windows closed. He explores her body, pleased that she came by. The music has given way to a voice that intones gloomily … qui est aux cieux! Que ton nom soit sanctifi” … her eyes are half closed and she is waiting for that moment, intent on it, and her eyes staring inwards watch every movement of her heart and pulse and suddenly from out of the depths of the night there comes the sound of a hollow thud and the deafening roar of doors opening, and the two of them are already waiting, arms open, smiling; the ropes rise upwards, the nooses swaying delightfully; how beautiful you are, your body’s like silk, what for, for loving, what for, and the two of them are already swaggering over to her, show me your head, your throat is all white even in the dark, what for, for loving, silence, the priest has finished his prayers – silence and the sound of an organ.
`You’re crying, Katka. What for?’
They are gone. Outside the window lighted windows. You lie at my side wearily the way all lovers lie, that’s the way it is, and they leave and are lost, and they will return, the two stripy guys, and they’ll hang around and one day they’ll get to me too and the rope will start to chafe against my throat, and I’m rising upwards, for ever and for good, and you do nothing to hold me back, nobody holds me back, no one and nothing, and so the doors will close for ever, I know now, now I’ve realized it. Everything is clear to me.
`You’re daft, Katerina, you’ll like it next time.’
There is total darkness and silence. The two of them are at home asleep – if Mum were to wake up, I expect we’d both have a cry, but what’s the point, she’s got her own … The same old homecoming, how many homecomings like this. So she doesn’t even open the door but climbs the narrow winding staircase. The roof slopes down and the window is small and high and there is nothing here but childhood junk and a tin washbasin to bring water from the passage, and a cupboard, an ironing board with a hole burnt in the cover, a rocking chair and a great big ball of blue twine, not of hemp, let alone paper, but of some synthetic material that is much stronger than the strongest natural material, twine for tying up parcels of old rags and battered suitcases, as well as for hanging washing and those in despair.
She is tired. It is a strange, hopeless exhaustion that does not even desire sleep. Besieged by this exhaustion she switches on the light. It’s odd to think that she was in this room yesterday morning. It’s as if it all happened long ago, and she was standing at the end of it, or rather as if she was already standing at the beginning of a completely new time. She undresses slowly although she has yet to pull out the bed. On her skirt she discovers the shameful dark red stain, now almost black. It was such a beautiful skirt. And she feels like weeping over the white pleated skirt, over her tiredness and over herself, and she goes out into the passage and fills the washbasin with water. Then she takes the big ball of blue twine, but she has scarcely unwound a few metres when she is overcome with revulsion and rewinds it. And when she has washed off the stain she hangs the skirt over the ironing board. What am I to do now?
She switches off the light and sits down in the rocking chair, and at that moment it strikes her that love is actually like life. You know it’s going to end badly, that it’s going to end too soon and there is no hope of its lasting, but you go on living all the same. And so people love – in the same way they live – longing for it to last but without any hope of its lasting. They love with their eyes closed and with an uneasiness that permeates their happiness, and they don’t think and don’t want to think.
The night air creeps in through the closed window. So near to the sky but the stars are dim. In the far distance there is the pale flash of lost lightning and then darkness falls once more, the quiet outpouring of darkness, and gradually, like a mirage, there emerge the outline of the first tower and the soaring chimney, and the plinth for a statue without a statue, and lower and lower. The windows are dark; behind them they are all asleep: those who build the monuments, and those who knock them down, those who light the lights and those who put them out, those who study and those who hate all those who study, those who love each other and those who flee towards love, those who have never known love, and those who betray, and those who flee from betrayal into the arms of pathetic slobs in search of sympathy at least, and those in the stripy clothes and those who watch them, and those who await their arrival with painful anxiety, and those who torture their own love with worrying.
And I’ll go down and be like them under the dim light of the street lamps and someone will catch sight of me and say, You’re our little sister. You’re so alone there. Come with us. And I’ll go anywhere, but I’ll go – and I’ll float and fall, so long as … and higher and higher right up to the silhouette of the last tower and the soaring chimney, and the stars, the tiny, enormous stars, and she half closes her eyes, and the stars gradually go out, and instead it is here standing in front of her with its grey coat and long grey mane, the ground dusted with hoar frost, the meadow stretching from horizon to horizon and moving through it is an entire enormous herd of similarly graceful creatures and she is lying in the middle of the meadow and watching and cannot understand how anyone could kill these splendid creatures because of ugly little caged animals and she watches the horses shake their proud heads and can see the enormous herd come closer together and then move apart, and sees them make love – horses – in the middle of the meadow, in the middle of their single day and their single night, with their soft manes, those free horses, lovers for a single night in the middle of a long eternal silent night, and sees a foal running through the herd on spindly legs. My little brothers, she whispers, and no longer feels anxiety. Her tiredness has been soaked up by the hay of the meadow and she is so light that she can fall and float. And thus she sleeps, half undressed, in the rocking chair, while beyond the opening in the roof the day dawns and the foul-smelling city day descends on the room and the free end of the blue twine swings almost imperceptibly to and fro in the invisible draught.
©1999 by Ivan Klíma.
Translation ©1999 by Gerald Turner. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.