The vicar had nipped off for a few moments and Marie Lopatková stood up from the table, stretching a little as her legs had started to go numb from sitting so long. Then she opened the window. It was stiff. Nothing works as it should do round here. She caught the heat and the smell of grass and summer apples. Breathing in, she alternately raised her arms and extended them sideways, moving rapidly and easily for her age. Inside it was cold. The awful stale air hung in the room like a mouldy rug. Mould gets into everything here eventually. It had probably got engrained, and it didn't smell any better up here than it did down there at the Catholics'. Except that St George's Church was 13th century, whereas this chapel…she thought of the Bartáks with distaste. Couldn't they give the place an airing once in a while? They really ought to air the place out and clean it up a bit too. Living in the vicar's flat suited them just fine, and that's where it ended. But then who does what they're supposed to do these days? Nobody. No use getting angry. Bartáková is a dirty, lazy slattern. Everybody knows that.
„It's good of you to open it, Mrs Lopatková. We should have done that long ago.“
She quickly turned towards the vicar as he approached the window.
„Just look at that apple tree! Isn't it marvellous? I'd paint it if I could. Dark foliage with green applies shining brightly. I'd do the background sky dark just like before a storm.“
She didn't know what to say to that, so she answered that it would be interesting.
„And that Bartáková should clean up in here sometimes,“ she added. „She ought to be told.“
„But I can't“
What can't he do? Tell her? Or draw? Perhaps he'd not heard her at all. Sighing, she returned to the table and gently pushed the heaps of sorted papers, little piles of envelopes and some of those giro forms to one side.
„I think we've finished here,“ she said. „I've brought some cake and a little apple juice. Do try them.“
She deftly set them all out in the small space that was available.
„You are so kind to me, Mrs Lopatková. I don't deserve it.“
He set to with a will. She was pleased. He was so very young, so very…And he was a fine looker. That was why those girls would traipse in – the youngsters who had suddenly started coming. Just now and then, but it was still quite unprecedented. They were coming because of him, quite obviously. He didn't speak that badly and the main thing was that it suited him – that black stole with the red chalice made him look like Jan Hus, or even…Lord forgive me! But if it occurred to me then something like that is even more likely to occur to those long-haired types. They're all very shaggy and quite incapable of coming to church decently dressed. But then again, just the other day one of them held the door open for her.
„After you,“ he said.
So maybe, possibly…If he wasn't making fun of her. She was still unsure how to deal with this. Maybe it's good that they're coming after all, but she still couldn't manage to think of them with anything other than a certain distaste.
The room was suddenly filled by a clanging polka coming through the ajar window. „Your attention please! Your attention! This is a local public address system announcement.“ A public meeting of the local People's Council, voluntary work and the firemen's event in Zdice on Saturday. Secretary Fencl in person stammered it all out twice and when he'd eventually finished grunting, the polka played again followed by a cheerful march.
„Oaf! He's incapable of putting together a single decent Czech sentence,“ she said angrily.
The vicar smiled. „You know, these days even the President is incapable of putting a decent Czech sentence together.“
„You're right. Only he's a Slovak. I used to teach that Fencl. Just imagine!“
„So it's actually a disgrace for me too.“
„Come, come, you mustn't take it that way. And what was he like?“
„What was he like? It was such a long time ago…You know how old I was then? Twenty-six. I was twenty-six years old when I started. I can hardly believe it. What was he like…? I can't really remember. Thinking wasn't particularly his thing, but I suppose he wasn't a bad lad. He didn't stand out in any way, you know what I mean? He came from a poor family, his old man drank a good bit and didn't do much in the way of work. But otherwise they can't have been that badly off. I taught his sister Božena too. She was quite a clever girl and tried hard, I remember…Here, I'll close that window. It's quite unbearable, that is.“
„By all means, Mrs Lopatková. I'm not especially fond of brass band music myself.“
„Ah yes, I know. You prefer the guitar.“
„You find that odd, eh?“
„Oh no, it's just that I…Do have some more cake, vicar. The main thing is that they come, you know. Even the youngsters come here for you.“
„True, I'm very pleased about that too.“
"When Miler was here there were always just the three of us sitting here. At most four. All the old biddies.
„Grannie! When are we going?“ Kamila absently rubbed against the door frame like a large ginger cat. Marie Lopatková sighed.
„Alright, alright. We're on our way. Not to worry, we've finished here now.“
She had stuck it out quite a long time, she had to admit. She'd walked around the chapel and climbed up into the organ loft. Lord knows what she'd actually been doing up there all the time, but Marie was not particularly out to get her. She was glad to have some peace for a while. There was nothing here for a girl to do, but then again it wouldn't do her any harm. And what was she to do with her all the time? They'd already been mushrooming twice. She knew the caves like the back of her hand and the cinema was only open on Saturdays. Jenda had taken her to Beroun with him once, but he couldn't do that all the time either in this heat. She would be happiest spending all her time by the water, but without a car it was difficult. The frog pond was overgrown with duckweed as if somebody had thrown a green carpet over it, and the dug-out pit behind the village might look like a swimming pool one day by the time Kamila was old enough to go to dance classes. Rome wasn't built in a volunteer work campaign.
„Which year are you in?“ the vicar asked the girl.
„The second. Well, I'm in the third now.“
She doesn't even smile, Marie thought. Sometimes she really didn't know what was going on in that bespectacled creature's head!
„It's creepy in here,“ said Kamila.
„Creepy? How do you mean?“
„Yes, do say what you mean. It's those murdered saints down there at the Catholics' that are creepy. All bloody and eyes cast heavenwards!“
„Oh no, they're just normal pictures. But these pictures here, these painted straight onto the church walls all in blue. These are weird. All graves and crosses. That's creepy.“
„This is just silly. There aren't any graves painted here.“
„Come on,“ the vicar invited Kamila, „show me what you mean.“
They walked down the hallway. It was only a couple of steps, but again he realized how dark and depressing it was. Hus's Chapel no longer struck him as light and optimistic, a work for the greater glory of God, or a place for convivial gatherings – there was just this omnipresent damp, maybe mould now, and darkness. As it happened, everything here looked like those caves up in the cliffs. And nothing about that could be changed by a lone guitar.
„There,“ Kamila pointed. „And there, there too. Where it says ‚Truth Will Prevail‘ underneath. Nothing but graves. Like they're all going to die and then truth'll prevail?“
„No, no,“ Grandmother said with some irritation. "They're not graves, I've told you. They're coats of arms. That's George of Poděbrady's coat of arms. You know what a coat of arms is, don't you?
„The Hussite coat of arms or shield. Truth will prevail – Master Jan Hus said that – that's his motto. And that's what we profess.“
„I know. Just like ‚unity is strength‘“
Grandmother waved dismissively.
„Come on, we're going. We have to give Grandad something to eat.“
The vicar didn't say anything at all. He was thinking of the two-toned green apple tree, and considering buying a sketch-book and paints. What did it matter if he didn't have the skill?
Behind the table in the vestry sat Růžena Svobodová, who greeted them without getting up. She'd definitely eaten a cake. Probably two. And she'd definitely rummaged in the post, thought Marie. A couple of crumbs stuck to her round mauve lips. As soon as she spoke they floated down to the forward positions of her granite bosom – the phrase „an entire nation built of solid rock“ passed through Marie's mind.
„I've brought it for you,“ Mrs Svobodová announced, „as promised.“
A square flat newspaper-wrapped package leant on the table leg. Clearly a picture or what have you.
„Thank you, Mrs Svobodová, thank you. You are kind. But do excuse me, I shall have to go now. I must be in Zdice by five o' clock. I'm only just going to make it.“
„Oh fine, I'm on my way. I shan't keep you.“
„So keep well and thank you. Next time we'll have a little chat.“
„And we're on our way too.“ Marie collected her things in her bag.
When the door had closed behind Růžena she could not restrain herself. „What on earth is it?“
Speechless the vicar removed the newspaper.
„Oh good heavens!“ Marie was staring in surprise into the cold eyes of President Gustav Husák.
„Mrs Svobodová feels that I ought to hang it up here.“
„And what…? What are you going to do?“
„Well what…They've been snooping around here twice already, you know. Once they were here from Beroun and then there was a chap from Prague. I…wouldn't want…The youngsters come here now, so it would be a pity…“
The vicar looked out of the window. In the shop opposite, Růžena Svobodová was engrossed in conversation with Fencl. He turned round.
„I might have to hang it up. Perhaps I ought to.“
Kamila drew a dirty fingernail across the glass. It was not a pleasant sound.
„President of the Czechoslovak Socialist…“ she slowly read out, syllable by syllable.
She should be able to read better by now too. Marie Lopatková folded the torn newspaper into small, neat squares and threw it into the bin. So as not to leave any untidiness behind.
„So good-bye, vicar.“ She pushed Kamila towards the door. „Take care.“
Kamila yawned noisily. Of course she didn't put her hand over her mouth.
„Good-bye and thank you.“ He accompanied them out and stroked her fine long hair several times.
„You know how it is. Render unto Caesar…“
Marie Lopatková protected her eyes from the glare of the light. She almost stumbled.
„That's bad,“ she sighed. „That is just bad luck. Master Jan Hus would gawp at the way we do things here. Poor man would find it beyond a gawping matter.“
A spark of interest lit up in Kamila's bored face. Grandmother mentioned
Jan Hus quite a lot, like God but a bit more than that even. Perhaps he was
somehow more important. But bad luck?
„What's bad luck?“ she asked. „Has something happened? Or do you mean the way they burnt him at the stake?“
„Do you have to keep jumping around like a goat?“
„What is it?“
„That Mrs Svobodová has a mouth like a hen's backside.“
She looked at her granddaughter as if seeing her for the first time that day and smiled briefly.
Outside it was still far from being dark when a thoroughly washed and fed Kamila rolled into the large white bed. Grandmother supervised all this carefully and then came to give her duvet and pillow a shake.
„Tell me a story,“ Kamila begged.
She was pining for some reason. Maybe it was that church and those folk paintings that she would never understand or like, even if „Truth will prevail“ were written up there a hundred times.
„And what's it to be then?“
She sighed with relief that Grandmother hadn't refused.
„How about those elephants, you know the one I mean? The white elephants.“
„The white elephants…very well,“ Grandmother opened the window and sat on the stool next to the bed. "The elephants then. Once upon a time, a very, very long time ago, so long ago that you can hardly imagine it, there lived a young prince. And when you look out of the window here – not now, do please lie down – you will see the hill on which his fort was built. He was powerful and rich and prospered in all things. He is said to have acted wisely, avoiding profligacy and all manner of vain entertainments. And he was a good lord who looked after his people and fields. His success was also supposed to be due to the new faith that he had taken on after his father's death. The new God from the East was more powerful than all the old gods and successfully protected his followers.
But in those harsh times the prince could not be a mere landowner. He was also an able warlord without peer far or near. I'll close that window now."
„No, not yet, I'm hot.“
„Oh, alright then. It is said that once the prince set out on a long, dangerous journey somewhere far, very far away. Far to the south, they say as far as the sea and perhaps even farther. There he waged several battles and won them all, so he brought many treasures home with him from those distant parts, as well as a host of foreign captives, thus almost calling down misfortune on himself. He behaved generously towards them, even giving them land which they could farm and where they could live their own way, but they were not allowed to leave. Among them there was a maiden, very beautiful and considered noble in her land. And the prince fell…I'm finishing now. That's it.“
„Oh come on, keep going…Tell me more!“
„The prince fell in love with the maiden. Madly…“ said Grandmother,
still standing by the open window, looking out somewhere. Perhaps at the hill
with the fort on top. The sun had sunk behind it just a moment before, its last
purple rays still touching the panes of the window, which she presently closed
with a slight clatter.
"And so he decided to take her as his wife, no matter what the cost. But this maiden had another faith and other customs, and everything about her was different and dissimilar to anything or anybody that the people here had ever seen. And that was not the only thing. There was something even worse. The prince already had a wife. And she too was still young and beautiful and had borne him two daughters. The new God, to whom the prince had sworn his devotion, did not permit any such thing. Quite the contrary. All the prince's counsellors and friends tried to dissuade him from his foolish plan, for they knew that it would lead to no good. But he took no heed and ordered his intended to be well guarded in one tower, while his wife and children were put in the other, and he hastily arranged for the wedding. Are you asleep?
„No, tell me more.“
The foreign maiden was very unhappy. She did not wish to renounce her faith and marry the prince, although she esteemed him in her way, as he was a comely man whom she did not find entirely disagreeable. Day and night she prayed to her gods, beseeching them to help her, as she was so weak. But she received no answer and so eventually she yielded and agreed. After all, what did her consent matter? The prince had prepared a magnificent celebration, in fact, there were to be two ceremonies in one: a baptism followed by a wedding. The fort was festooned with flowers, two stone thrones were raised in a great open space, the beaming prince in one of them while the foreign maiden in a radiant ceremonial gown knelt down before the other. The prince made ready to sprinkle her garlanded temple with holy water. He raised his arm, but before he could complete the motion… he toppled over like a felled trunk! There was a terrible clap of thunder and in an instant the sky grew dark. The maiden's throne rose up, drawing her to it. The entire slope behind it started to move. Some dreadful force was transforming the rock beneath the grass and the soil into a long line of enormous elephants. White elephants. And the elephants strode off, taking the maiden away with them. The most magnificent of them took her on its back while the others formed an impenetrable wall to protect them. The gods of the far south had heard the prayers of the unhappy supplicant. The prince and all those assembled froze in horror and wonder. Dumbfounded, they stared as the miraculous procession receded.
Then the sudden darkness was riven by a flash of lightning even more terrible than the first. The angry God from the East, who is but one, or maybe three, and whom few understand, interceded. He called up such a wild tumult that no one properly beheld what came to pass.
But when a little light again fell on the land, those great white cliffs rose above the valley opposite the fort. He who knows nothing of this and who is unable to look with discernment will surely not see the procession of white elephants. But they are there. Now sleep."
„And what happened to the maiden?“
„The maiden? Well, what might have happened to her?“
„Yes, right. What might have happened to her?“
„I don't know. She might have turned to stone. She might have turned to stone too. What else could have happened to her?“
„But she couldn't help anything.“
„But she could. She should never have agreed – at any price. Here, now go to sleep. Maybe she didn't turn to stone. Maybe she flew back to Africa or wherever she came from. I really don't know, I didn't make it up. It's just a tale that's told round here. You know.“
„I don't like it.“
„So why do you want me to tell it all the flipping time then? Goodnight.“
„And what about him? What happened to him?“
„Oh, nothing. I don't think anything happened to him. Probably went back to his wife and children.“
„But that's really unfair.“
„Well, you know, justice is blind.“
„But that's not justice.“
„And don't forget there is a God and divine mercy. The prince must have regretted it, so he had the opportunity to…“
„That's all just daft.“
„Daft, right…So it's all daft…So next time better just read something yourself or whatever…Daft…such language.“
The clock on the railway station building facade had stopped. It didn't show any time at all, not even the past. It was chipped and covered in a thick layer of dust, or perhaps dried mud, though it was hard to say how any mud could have got up there. What's more, its little hand had gone. Somebody had broken it off some ten years previously. Then the big hand wandered round and round pointlessly for some time, until it stopped.
Kamila Papadoulisová got to Zdice around half past two. There was nothing at all of interest about the low, grey, dirty yellow houses and she didn't much like the church right by the road there either. At a quarter to three she was standing on the pavement in front of the metal railings opposite the station, examining the blind clock and the ochre-coloured building, which was evidently of such importance to everybody. But Kamila didn't know what time it was. She only found out it was a quarter to three when she crossed the road and looked inside. On the wall opposite there was another clock with a jumpy minute-hand, which seemed to be working. She didn't have a watch – she didn't even have any money for a chocolate wafer or raspberry lemonade. So she quickly came out again on the other side once she'd turned one of the four rollers covered in tiny letters and numbers two or three times. They were timetables – that's what it said on them, though there wasn't a single word about how to find anything on them. She would have looked it over a little more after all, but as soon as she touched the roller, a gruff voice had sounded close behind her:
She started and quickly put her hand in her pocket. A grey-haired old man on a bench by the wall was all asplutter with laughter, snorting and chortling in his enthusiasm for giving her a fright, until it made him start to cough. He wore a crumpled hat, his sunken face twitched and his thin skin stretched taut over his bones, all of which she managed to notice even though she was rapidly departing – rather more rapidly than she herself considered dignified. Papadoulisová‚s eyes were good, even though she had to wear those silly thick glasses. She might have been shortsighted, but few would have noticed so many things. So many nothings, Grandmother would have said. Kamila had run off as soon as lunch was over. She did say she was going out, but she didn‘t say she was off to Zdice. Grandmother would never ever have let her. She hardly ever let her do anything and Kamila needed to go there. Everybody kept talking about Zdice, but she'd never been there yet. If something couldn't be bought in the village then they said they might have it in Zdice. If they wanted to go swimming they said we'll have to go to Zdice, but nothing's going there now. When someone mentioned going back to Prague they said they'd walk to Zdice and take the train from there. But that wouldn't be for another five days for her, unfortunately. The vicar had also been in a hurry to get to Zdice and there was to be some big do on Saturday – where else but in Zdice?! So she wanted to have a look. At first she did mention it in front of Grandmother – not that she wanted to go there, but just by the way, as if it wasn't anything.
„So what's in Zdice then, Grannie?“ she asked.
„Nothing,“ Grandmother answered. „Nothing at all. Just the station.“
Now Kamila Papadoulisová was standing there on the platform in Zdice and she had to admit that Grandmother was right. Apart from the station there really was nothing here. But then again there was nothing in her village either. Actually, there was nothing at all anywhere. She knew that for absolute sure, although perhaps she didn't know exactly what something there might have been.
Perhaps the sea? Or at least a swimming pool? Or something like the Astrological Clock. That was in Prague. Come to think of it, there were swimming pools in Prague too, but she could hardly remember ever going to any with her Mum. They didn't go to the Astrological Clock very often from Prosek either. They had been there with the school, true, but Mum had hardly wanted to go anywhere lately. She didn't want to go to town, she'd say.
„Sorry, I'm not feeling all that…Maybe tomorrow,“ she'd always promise.
Two girls were sitting on the platform. Other people were sitting there too, grown-ups, but what of them? The girls were sitting a little to one side, near the last bench on the right. Not on it, but swinging on the railing. Papadoulisová sat down on the bench tentatively.
„What are you gawping at?“ shouted the largest and fattest one in blue tracksuit bottoms.
The smaller one laughed. Of course, what else? Everybody was always saying she was gawping because of her glasses. If they knew her name they'd say: „what are you gawping at, Papapa?“
An express train came from Plzeň on the second track, followed by the slow train from Beroun on the first – a fine double-decker stopping train. A pantograph train. Mum called them panto trains. She had already been on one a couple of times to Grannie's, but always got off at Beroun. There was another announcement, but it was awfully hard to hear. The train slowly moved off.
„Good luck,“ said the big girl.
„Bad luck,“ said the little one.
„Love,“ the bigger fatter one continued.
And so they went on one after the other, counting and naming the carriages as they pointed each one out. „Love…marriage, fable, cradle, sable, death“. But there were more carriages than words, so death was followed by good luck and bad luck, and the last carriage disappearing round the golden bend was love all over again. Kamila Papadoulisová had never heard it before. She wondered. Should she ask? Should she ask, even though the one in the tracksuit bottoms was eyeing her with an evil little piggy eye and the smaller girl with the gold tooth was laughing stupidly? They'd only say something nasty again. And yet she needed to know.
„Good luck, bad luck, love, marriage…“ she recited as if to herself, but loud enough…Aloud, but with her head slightly tilted away, as if she weren't asking anything.
„Obviously they've got it mixed up. Sable? That should be ‚ladle‘. That's as obvious as a slap in the face.“
„Ladle, huh?“ the fat one started. „Do you hear that, Dana? It's supposed to be ‚ladle‘“. And what's that meant to be, eh?"
„I know but you don't,“ Kamila tutted.
„You're stupid,“ the gold tooth glinted.
„Yeah, stupid,“ added tracksuit bottoms. „Actually, it's to tell you your fortune. Whatever comes up is what's going to happen to you. And what could ‚ladle‘ possibly mean then?“
„And what about ‚sable‘? There isn't any sable these days. If you don't know that then it's you who's stupid.“
„Sable means that you're going to be rich. Surely that's obvious,“ said the larger girl with contempt, but she clearly couldn't wait for the answer.
„‚Ladle‘ is totally obvious too. It means you're going to ladle the money in.“
„Ladle it in? Ha ha. Ladle it in…He he he.“
Gold tooth really was stupid.
„Aha,“ the bigger one thought it over, „so it's actually the same thing.“
„Well, yes it is,“ Kamila admitted. „But anyway, what's this ‚fable‘? That has always been ‚table‘. What fable?“
„You shall be of fabled beauty, of course.“
"So what about ‚table‘?
„You shall be…you shall be…“
Kamila wasn't doing very well with ‚table‘. She was going to say that you might have to put your cards on the table, but even she thought that was feeble and didn't really fit.
At the very last moment she exclaimed: „Table means there will be war. Under the table, like in the next war.“
She laughed with relief: „War!“.
„Table,“ spluttered the small girl with a squeaky laugh. „War, he he he.“
She coiled herself round the railing like a giant roundworm, awaiting praise.
„Huh, 'fable''s better.“
The fat one put a dusty blade of grass into her mouth and didn't say anything else. Nothing else needed explaining. Everything else was clear.
„Bye then, I have to go,“ Kamila Papadoulisová said.
„He he, she has to go. Ha ha he he.“ It was a wonder she didn't fall off the railing.
„What do you keep gawking at like that for?“ Kamila asked.
The fat one jumped down and spat out the blade of grass.
„She's always gawking like that,“ she explained to Kamila by way of farewell.
The way back through the woods was shorter. Shorter and prettier. What was there to be afraid of? The grass buzzed avidly with insects, as if autumn weren't getting any closer at all. A dry cracking sound could constantly be heard from among the spruce trees and underfoot too. But up where the path turned there was still a large puddle from three days before, with water skater insects jerkily skating about here and there. Papadoulisová knelt down over it. Her glasses trembled blurrily on the surface as did Grandma Lopatková‚s sandy hair over them. Testily she stood up. In the photographs Mr Papadoulis had hair that was thick and black along with bushy eyebrows. But Mr Papadoulis was back in Greece, so they said. Mr Papadoulis was not available at the moment, as Grandmother would say. Kamila couldn‘t remember if he ever had been.
As soon as she got up the hill, she caught sight of both church spires in the distance before her. Just a little more forest and then the path dipped down through the cherry orchard, past the transformer station, across the road and eventually between the fields to the village. She would be there in a while. There was enough time. She climbed up a deer stand – which wouldn't have been possible with Grandmother. It was easy enough – she was almost sorry that nobody could see her. Now she could see everything – individual houses, blocks of flats and small buildings, a tractor in a field in front of the village and two cars on the road from Křižatky. She also noticed a motorbike parked by the path beneath the pinewood, with its nose in the bushes, but the sun still caught its perspex windscreen. For a moment she thought that Mr Kynštekr's motorbike was on fire.
In the tall grass between the young trees a large hairy bottom, quite bare, moved above two open white legs. Kamila Papadoulisová quickly closed her eyes and held onto the floor with her eyes closed. When she'd opened them again the chimney sweep was already standing and zipping up his trousers, while Mrs Podzimková was still gleaming there in the grass.
„Get up, love,“ he gave her his hand.
Kamila watched the motorbike bumping across the cherry orchard and Mrs Podzimková jumping off at the transformer station. The chimney sweep carried on along the road alone. Only then did Kamila carefully climb down. Quite a hold-up! Grandmother would be angry. Thirstily she chewed on some sorrel. He'd said ‚love‘ to Mum last year too, when Kamila went to the swimming baths three times, twice to the zoo and once to the Spejbl and Hurvínek puppet show with Mum. But that was long ago now. She came out of the forest as the sun slowly ceased beating down.
„Everyone sleeps at ease,
Safe and snug at home,
Me, I sleep where I please,
With the dogs I roam.“
By the cross beneath the lime tree the grey-haired old man lay singing. She ran all the way to the transformer station, but needn't have. He carried on lying there and singing with his crumpled hat covering his eyes.