21st February 1898
It was just after Christmas when Augustin fell in love with his classmate, Lenka Číšecká. The only problem was that he didn’t understand his feelings and being in love made him feel ill. So he blamed all of this on Lenka, which is why he also tormented her – he’d put a hairy caterpillar in her sandwich, stick blobs of wax in her long hair, which was the shape and colour of sun-drenched flax tow, or deliberately give away the ending to a fairy tale while she was in the middle of reading it.
Lenka endured all of this with patience beyond her years because she loved Augustin too and believed that one day he’d learn to master his feelings.
Their teacher, Mr Nebejas, was aware of all this, and even though he liked Augustin as much as all his other pupils, or perhaps even a little more, he would often punish him for bothering Lenka, but always in tandem with another offender. This was because Nebejas never beat the children with a cane or a ruler. If someone behaved badly, then they would face a feared method he called “the water of life”: the offenders stood opposite each other, stretched out their arms, palms down, and the teacher placed a cup of water on their hands. You could stop whenever you wanted, but the boys began to compete against each other and wouldn’t give in. The first one who did was labelled a coward. And so they would stand there for long minutes, eyes fixed on the trembling cups, teeth clenched in pain, and sweat dripping from their foreheads into their eyes which they couldn’t even wipe away.
The genius of the water of life lay in the fact that the miscreants punished themselves and no traces of this torture were left on their bodies. The only disadvantage was that there had to be at least two of them.
Augustin could hold the cup longer than anyone else and over time had begun to develop a nice set of biceps.
The teacher felt even more sympathy for Lenka because he himself was very lonely. His only knowledge of female anatomy came from a fold-out atlas of the human body, and his one love was history. He felt embarrassed in the presence of women, and a simple calculation told him that he couldn’t support a family on his derisory teacher’s salary.
But when it came to history he was transformed from a shy virgin into a fearless warrior. For example, when he learned from the old chronicles that the neighbouring village of Kosmo had not been named after the universe, but after the fact that the local peasants built their homes askew, or “kose” in Czech, he wrote an article about it for the journal of the Museum of the Czech Kingdom. He was then lured to the pub in Kosmo on the pretext of giving a lecture, where the locals gave him a right royal hiding.
No sooner had the swelling on his face gone down than the incorrigible amateur researcher found a medieval parchment in the archives in which the lord of the manor, Lord Smil, granted the villagers permission to dig a well. The razor-sharp Nebejas realized that the name of the village should properly be written as Smilavoda, as in Smil’s Water, and not Smylavoda, as in Cleansing Water, as everyone had thought until then.
He even sat down at his desk and wrote a letter to the district governor’s office governorship suggesting that in the interests of historical accuracy the village should be renamed. However, no reply was forthcoming and everyone continued to misspell Smylavoda with a y. But the teacher did not give up. His research ground to a halt, he stopped shaving, his garden behind the school became overgrown with weeds and he began to spend all of his money on envelopes, ink and stamps. He sent request after request to every office imaginable, including the ministries of cultivation, railways and war, the police headquarters, the Jewish community, Emperor Franz Joseph I in Vienna and Pope Leo XIII in Rome, the university, the academy of sciences, the householders’ cooperative, the grand master of the Seven Retorts lodge of the Illuminati, and so on, but no-one paid him the slightest attention.
Nor did Peprník the mayor want to hear about any changes. The town hall would then have had to buy a new sign with the name of the village on it. And so he ordered the town crier to announce that the village had got its name from a legend about a robber knight who had been driven by unrequited love to abandon the Templar order seven hundred years earlier and had stopped at the local well to wash off the blood of his victims, hence the name Smylavoda or Cleansing Water.
When Nebejas heard this, he ran straight to the town hall.
“Mr Mayor, admit that you made that story up!” he accused him in a faltering voice.
“I made it up,” admitted the mayor without blushing, tucking his thumbs into the edge of his fancy gold brocade waistcoat with its pattern of scaly, long-eared demons from the Ace of Acorns card. Amongst other things, the mayor was a passionate devotee of the card game mariáš with its tarot-style cards.
“But in that case it isn’t a legend!” said the teacher raising his voice.
“What do you mean? Of course it is!” the mayor contradicted him. “A legend is a legend precisely because of the fact that it isn’t a fact. Logically, then, every legend must have been made up by someone. So why not me? Now be off with you, teacher. I’ve work to do here.”
The schoolmaster couldn’t think of a suitable retort, so he left, humiliated.
In despair, he gradually began to breakfast, lunch and dine on the cheapest grey liquor that the furrier and merchant Rosenblunt secretly distilled from stolen sugar beet.
In the end, Nebejas proved himself to be an inventor too by making an air balloon filled with marsh gas. He sewed it together himself from his only suit and filled it with gas from a bog known locally as the “Slain Man”. However, instead of a basket he attached a rope with which he hanged himself.
There was not a breath of wind that day and so the teacher’s naked corpse dangled above the village until firemen from the town of Bzdín arrived with a long enough ladder to pull him down.
Doctor Luftstein, who officially examined the deceased, took pity on him and wrote Smilavoda with an “i” for the place of death on his death certificate.
12th May 1945, 12.05pm
He went into the courtyard and his gaze fell on an unsightly, shiny grey patch on the farmhouse wall where Koza the nanny goat liked to scratch her behind on the way back from grazing. He pulled a plank away from a hole in the ground where some lime was maturing – lime which had been slaked before he was born – and filled a bucket with the wobbly white mass. While a loaf was baking in the oven, Augustin gave the whole wall a fresh coat of whitewash. After hundreds of millions of years encased in rock, the crushed shells of Paleozic molluscs reflected the sunlight once again. He cleaned his brush at the pump and the lime water seeped into the ground, leaving behind a white labyrinth in the brown courtyard.
His timing was perfect – from the oven wafted a smell so powerful you could almost touch it, signalling that the bread was just right. He opened the oven door and brought the bread out into the light with a wooden peel. Steam in the sign of the cross issued from the slit crust. As this gift of God began to cool down, it ever so quietly sang to itself.
Apolena came out of the barn with an empty cup in her hand, rinsed out the black strip of coffee and returned it to its place on the sideboard, where a shallow depression had formed over the years. Then she started to get lunch ready.
8th October 1899
For once his schoolmate Krajta had not been lying – their rabbit did have the heart of a dictator. Its furious biting, clawing and screeching had made a slave out of the old ram, who was many times its size, and it had then gone on to terrorize the whole farm. Even the vicious watchdog crawled into his kennel when he saw it, and the gleam would vanish from the eyes of the one-ton bull called Satan under its rheumy stare. The rabbit took a special liking to the ram’s warm, soft, fleece-covered back. Sprawling there like a lord, he let it carry him around his rabbit kingdom and slept on it at night.
Soon the rabbit cast its demonic spell over the farmer and his entire family. For this was no ordinary rabbit but a pure-bred Belgian Giant, a champion breed, bought by Krajta’s father in distant Prague at an exhibition by the Central Union of Czechoslovak Rabbit Breeders, and it had been hellishly expensive, so they couldn’t kill it. However, the rabbit made the mistake that all those who are too powerful make: it believed nothing could happen to it and let its guard down, and that was to cost it its neck.
It met its doom when a band of travellers came roaming across the sleeping village of Smylavoda. Here some hens disappeared from a coop, there a pot of pears went missing from a cellar. And even though in the morning the peasants who had been robbed called the thieves every name under the sun, everyone accepted it as the way things were and part of folklore. After all, if Gypsies had to work, then who would play the cimbalom and the tambourine until their souls danced out of their bodies? Who would tell fortunes from the lines in your palm or from coffee grounds?
That autumn night, the Krajta’s evil rabbit was resting on its laurels and awoke on a bay leaf in the Gypsy camp. Everyone was so relieved that the following day old Krajta sent the Gypsies via the local policeman a bottle of Augustin’s new liquor – candy schnapps.
The Hnát family, in contrast to this, had only nice, peaceable rabbits. Every morning Augustin would lovingly chop up some juicy young nettles and couch grass for them and then watch as they busily munched away.
The Krajta family looked down on rabbit meat and at most would use it minced to bulk out the pork meatloaf for the farmhands so that it would go further. The Hnáts, on the other hand, loved rabbit cooked in every possible way.
Every Sunday, Grandma Rozálie would choose the plumpest male, lift him up by the ears and tell him as usual: “Everything repeats itself and people never learn from it”, and then with one sharp flick of the edge of her wrinkled palm brought his soft existence to an end.
After that Granddad Vavřinec took charge of the rabbit. He slit it open and left it to bleed, hung it by its hind legs from the planks of the fence and gutted it with one clean cut. He kept only the liver, heart and kidneys for food; the blood and the rest of the innards went into an old pot for the flies to feast upon. After a few days the pot would begin to writhe with hatched larvae which were used as a nutritious snack for the roosters – although they were actually hens, in Smylavoda they were all called roosters.
He then pulled off the rabbit skin and left it hanging from the fence for the furrier to see. Once a week, on Wednesdays, Samuel Rosenblut would go around the village to collect them in a goat-drawn cart. All bedecked in rabbit skins, he resembled a furry tree, and he rang a bell, bleated at the goat and called out in both Yiddish and Czech: “Koyfn – pelts! Folks – furs!” He would expertly rub the skins between his fingers and stroke his cheek with them voluptuously. He would perform his ritual of haggling for a while before offering a good price – the Hnáts’ rabbits had wonderfully soft fur which was as black as an August night, ideal for making top-quality felt for rabbis’ hats.
The tender rabbit meat was then cooked in seven different alternating ways: in a creamy vegetable sauce, in garlic, in a rosehip sauce, with dried plums, in rosemary, with mushrooms, or – best of all –with onions.
You take the rabbit’s head and heart, thus ending the conflict between reason and emotion, and use them to make a stock as strong as a stockade. Finely chop half a dozen onions and fry them in rendered bacon until golden. Then let the hot onions enfold the rabbit, sprinkled with salt and cut into six pieces, in their loving embrace. Sear the meat and then add a bay leaf, thyme and pepper. Pour in the hot broth and simmer until tender. Transfer the meat to the pot, sieve the onion and the juices, and then pour the resulting sauce over the meat and cook it all together for a while with the lid on. You’ll know it’s ready when the rabbit begins to smell unbearably good. Then sauté the kidneys and the sliced liver and return them to the rabbit on the plate – which, fortunately, will not be enough to revive it.
What Augustin loved best out of the whole rabbit was the nice crust on the ribs with its lining of tender fat. But he never told anyone, because if he had, his older brother Libor would have eaten it on purpose, even if he didn’t like it. The only family member who knew his secret was Granddad Vavřinec, and he would always give Augustin a forkful of the best pieces from his own plate.
And just as the family was polishing off the small bones from the onion sauce, Zmok the town crier came out onto the square to announce that after Sunday mass they would be choosing the cabbage treaders.
Smylavoda’s pickled cabbage was famed far and wide and was much in demand – just like Pilsner beer, brandy from Cognac, Iberian ham from the Pedroches Valley or marzipan from Lubeck. Not only was the local cabbage more tender and juicy than anywhere else, it was also distinguished by the wonderfully subtle flavour that it got from the addition of grated horseradish, mustard seeds, apple and caraway, which grew on the other side of the cemetery wall, where suicides were buried. What really made it special, however, was it gained most in its flavour from the lactic fermentation in the bowels of a huge earthenware vat known as the cabbager, which occupied most of the cellar underneath the town hall. These days no-one could remember who had built this monster and, more importantly, how they had managed to get it into the cellar, as the only access was through a corridor much narrower than the cabbager.
One theory suggested that the barrel had been broken into pieces, taken to the cellar and then put back together again. However, this was refuted by the fact that no cracks were to be found on the cabbager. Another hypothesis was that the cabbager had first been formed out of clay and then fired inside the cellar itself. However, most of the villagers believed the old tale that the cabbager had been brought there long ago by giants who pickled people in it. It was only later that the town hall had been built on top of it.
Wherever the truth lay, the people of Smylavoda had kept their gigantic cabbager a secret. They didn’t even know about it in neighbouring Kosmo, while Kadlub the parish priest had only the slightest inkling.
The whole village lived for pickled cabbage. Since time immemorial the cabbage ritual had had its unchanging order and traditions, which everyone scrupulously observed. Each year in the autumn, as soon as the cabbage was ripe in the fields, they chose two “treaders” – the boy and girl with the most beautiful feet. Everyone shredded the heads of cabbage themselves and brought it to the cabbager, where the town crier weighed the cabbage and issued a certificate for it. The treaders then walked on the shredded cabbage all night until they had treaded all the air out of it. After six weeks the cabbage was ready and everyone could load their share into a normal fermentation crock and take it home.
It was a great honour to be a treader, and you also received a bonus in the form of the stalks from all of the shredded heads. That was why for years now Augustin had been treating his legs with a decoction of marigold and rich mud from the local swamp “The Slain Man”. So now he couldn’t wait until Sunday, when the decision was to be made.
No sooner had the organ finished playing in the new church with the miniature nave and oversized tower than the young people from the entire village assembled in front of the town cabbager. Peprník the mayor and Stojespal the blacksmith then inspected, sniffed and even licked everyone’s feet, and after much deliberation chose Augustin Hnát and Lenka Číšecká.
They scrubbed both children’s feet with river sand and soap, and then steamed them over a pot of boiling water until they turned red. With the aid of a pulley and rope they were hoisted to the top of the cabbager, where they jumped down onto the pile of shreddings. The strips of cabbage cushioned their fall better than a plump duvet.
They stood face to face with their hands on each other’s waists. Then they began to dance inside the vat to the music of their young hearts, which began to beat to the same rhythm. Inhaling the intoxicatingly pungent fumes from the cabbage sap sent them into a blissful trance, and the lumps of cabbage squeezed erotically through the spaces between their toes.
At first he tried to look down at the cabbage, but Lenka’s big eyes, the colour of morning grass, soon drew him towards them, and Augustin drowned in them for so long that he submitted to death and was reborn in the knowledge that she and she alone was the one for him, the woman of his life, destined to be his until the end of all days and nights.
His heart pounded, the cabbage squelched, and her firm hips burned his hands, but he felt no tiredness or pain, and he would gladly have danced and danced with her until he fell down from exhaustion.
Towards morning the air bubbles stopped rising from the shreddings. When they finally hauled them out from the cabbager onto dry land, Augustin and Lenka already had one foot in the land of nod. And even after they had been washed and put to bed, they continued to tread invisible cabbage in their sleep.
12th May 1945, 1.03pm
Apolena called to him from the kitchen range to bring some cabbage. He went down into the cellar, lifted the lid of the fermentation crock out of the water-filled groove and shook off the drops. Then he placed it on his head like an earthenware hat to free up his hands and ladled small clumps of cabbage into a bowl. Because the lid was quite large, he had to balance it carefully on the top of his head. When the bowl was full, he turned the ladle on its side and let the cloudy liquid run down it. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back and with slow sips revelled in the sweet-and-sour flavour of the juice.
Its sensuous bouquet conjured up memories which he quickly pushed aside. That night when he fell in love with her would never return. The two most important ingredients were now missing, never to be found again – Lenka was dead and the cabbager had been blown to pieces by the Germans.
He took the lid off his head and put it back in its place.
Their meagre wartime lunch consisted of celeriac cutlets with potato and cabbage mash. It was difficult to find it among the celeriac, but he managed to do so and gave his daughter the best pieces from his own plate.