See the little choo-choo chugging down the track. Hear the whistle, toot toot toot, as it goes down and back. Hear the whistle, toot toot toot, as it goes down and back.
I watch the fields and meadows and woods and sky, or the fields and meadows and woods and sky are watching me, just like if you gaze too long into the abyss it gazes into you, or something like that, and I can tell you a story about it, I can tell you right now even, while it’s all passing by the windows and I don’t have to move an inch, and time? Time dances to my tune. Outside the windows the years go flying by, but here inside, everything waits along with me.
We barrel along, faster than the river, the one I can’t step into twice, three times, a hundred times, no! Floating on the river in the distance I see an effigy of Morana, goddess of death and winter, a new summer is headed our way. I reach into my pocket where I always keep a stone tucked away. Out of habit.
But the river isn’t outside the window anymore.
Now, instead, it’s the two of us, Madlenka and I, flying a kite. It goes, up, up, up, over a corn field, and the field is full of Madlenka’s laughter as she lets the string out from her fingers as if feeding it to the wind.
Now, instead of a kite, my dad’s face, which in the space of a moment changes into the four seasons. He tries to speak, but instead the line of his mouth just keeps getting thinner. A Russian melody wafts through the church—
My dad turns into a leafy tree, and underneath me the branch breaks and I fall, ripe apricots tumbling down around me. Karamel barks. Something cracks and it isn’t a branch. My arm at a funny angle. Roots pressing into my back. Karamel’s snout on my forehead. Adam shouts, “Máry!”
A gym full of people bent into camel pose. “Breathe shallowly so you won’t get dizzy,” I hear the instructor say, watching everyone upside down from upside down. “Breathe shal—” I hear upside down. Until I start holding my breath.
My mother’s back in the doorframe, feet barely grazing the threshold as she quietly slips out of the house. From my hiding place in the entryway I hear the click of the lock and watch the door handle return to a horizontal position as my mother carefully, quietly, ev-er so slow-ly closes it from the other side.
Madlenka’s hand is a gun, which she holds to her temple and pulls the trigger.
And the water, that water! Icey water . . .
Ta-dum. My dad’s face. Madlenka’s laughter. Licking my nose. Breathe shal—. Pulling the trigger. Ev-er so slow-. Adam. Screaming. Máry!
And then—you. Opening the door for me.
Ta-dum ta-dum. Ta-dum ta-dum.
Sposedly nobody noticed that girl lying on the subway tracks. Sposedly she walked down the stairs right at the mouth of the tunnel, in front of that big black hole—just walked right down and lay on her back across the tracks, with her neck on the rails. Then she waited. For the C line, Letňany–Háje.
And now that girl’s in my head, lying straight across the tracks, neck on the rails. I can see her standing on the platform, a few minutes maybe, maybe hours, and with each train that pulls into the station, as the crowds exit she disappears from view, dissolving, disappearing, then again reemerging, and when the space around her empties—she’s standing there the same as she was a moment before, like a wave just washed over her, barely licking the shore and receding back into the sea. Then, after a period of time that she decides, she walks slowly to the edge of the platform, descends the stairs, one, two, three, and lies down, perpendicular to the tracks, neck on on the rails—like a sleeper, holding the rails in place.
I wonder if her eyes are open.
I wonder if she’s scared.
I wonder if she feels relief.
I wonder about the girl and the head that, unnoticed, separated from her body as she waited for line C of the Prague Metro, Letňany–Háje.
When I was little, I wanted to be a magician. Sometimes I still do. But mostly when I was little. I used to videotape David Copperfield whenever he was on TV, then rewind to the best scenes and practice along with him. I also used to watch the Czech illusionist Kožíšek perform sometimes on The Golden Cage and variety shows like that. But I never got into him as much as Copperfield. I even watched reruns of Maybe a Magician Will Drop By, every episode, all the way through. No magician ever came. It was just a stupid line. Adam, my brother, laughed his head off. But he was the one who baited me into watching the show in the first place, since after all, it had “magician” right there in the title.
Even back then I thought it was kind of weird that it was only ever men doing tricks, with the women just as flunkies and butt-wigglers, handing the men their props and smiling radiantly, or playing the role of mock victim, climbing into the coffin with a radiant smile to be sawed in half and glued back together again, or locked in a closet to disappear, then reappear—it’s magic! I mean I didn’t find it weird in a fascist sexist gender way, just a regular kind of weird, which tempted me even more to become the world’s first woman magician, and I wouldn’t need an assistant to smile radiantly, hand me stuff that I could pick up myself, or use me as a guinea pig. I could do it all on my own. There was no Internet yet back then, and in the town where we lived it took a long time to get it even after they had it everywhere else, so I used to go to the library, our little local library, where the wasn’t a big selection of any books, let alone books with instructions for magic tricks. There was one, though, which was totally paged out and sapped of magic from my constantly taking it home and paging through it and paging through it and magicking and magicking. The tricks in it were mostly for little kids, I learned them all without the need of any assistant or helper. They were real spellbinders, though! All I could do was sleight of hand, with cards and coins and scarves and boxes of matches. I performed tricks for my family, the neighbors, Mr. Voráček down at the pub, the doctors at the hospital, my classmates at school, even the teacher, when it was it her turn to be hallway monitor. I did them for everyone, over and over again, but pretty soon we all got tired of it.
I wanted to learn bigger tricks that would make people crazy amazed, like not just to make me happy, but so they would be truly amazed and say to themselves: Wait, how did she do that? And then say out loud to me: Wait, how did you do that? And I would just smile that mysterious smile I practiced in front of the mirror, and I might even super-mysteriously raise an eyebrow, but I wouldn’t give away nada. Except there was nowhere to learn those tricks from. I kept bugging the librarian to order a book of witchcraft, but the closest she ever came was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. She didn’t have a clue. Until one day my dad took me, Madla, and Adam into the city. I was eight, Madla was six, and Adam was fifteen. Adam got the new version of Dragon’s Den and the Dungeon Master’s Guide to go with it, Madla got a book of nursery rhymes, and I got a magic book. It had glitter on it and a picture of a boy in a hat—probably like the one Harry Potter wore at Hogwarts—and finally I learned some new tricks.
But still, the one trick I wanted to learn the most wasn’t in there. It wasn’t in any book I’d ever seen. You can probably guess, right? Tell me, if you were going to be a magician, what’s the first thing you’d want to learn? For me it was disappearing. Because whenever I saw a magician, or their female assistant, disappear, I wanted to know what happened to them. Did they just, like, dissolve into space, or were they actually someplace else? And if they were, where did they go and what did it look like there? Was it someplace they knew? Did they disappear back home, quick wash the dishes they didn’t get to before the show, and then return? Or did they disappear someplace nice? The plains, the woods, a desert, a beach? Or was it not a place, like maybe another dimension? A place just for magicians? Did only their bodies disappear, or also their souls? Was it under their control, or was it not up to them?
I wanted to vanish. To explore whatever place it was they disappeared to. And then come back again. Come back.
I watch myself reflected in the window of the train. And at the same time I watch myself reflected in the window of Adam’s room, Adam’s head six feet behind mine in the reflection. I’m bawling because I just found out there is no such place. And I’m a little baby if I believe in magic, because all magic is just make-believe, duh!
I sometimes think about magic and all those tricks I still remember while I’m at my real job. I’ll be vacuuming up sawdust and wood chips from the sales counter and meanwhile I’m pulling a ten-crown coin from behind Madlenka’s ear. Cleaning a drawer with a damp cloth while I make my mom’s purple scarf disappear in my fist. Dusting off the merchandise while I pull an ace of hearts from the deck, flip it over and ask my dad: Was this your card? Sweeping cobwebs from the corners and meanwhile . . .
“You can leave the workshop for tomorrow,” says Mr. Rochester as he carries a new piece of furniture into the store. He places the chest right up front in the display window. I nod, bent over a bucket of lukewarm water, then bring my palms together, cupping them like two bowls, and blow, sending at least a dozen confused little Copperfields into the air, butterfly wings protruding from their backs. They flutter about with radiant smiles, winking at Mr. Rochester. But he doesn’t even notice, so one by one the Copperfields’ smiles turn to sneers of disgust, and they burst like soap bubbles as he vanishes out the rear door back to the woodworking shop.
I like coming here to clean. Even if there are a lot of cobwebs and reaching up to remove them takes a toll on my shoulder. And even if at times the aroma of wood is overpowering. And reminds me too much of the woods. Sometimes.
Sometimes. A word I will never be able to say out loud again.
Before I leave, Mr. Rochester graces me with one of those short smiles of his, which I never know if he’s conjuring out of pity or courtesy.
Mr. Rochester isn’t named Rochester at all.
And almost no one else boarded the train with me. I limped my way to the station so early the hall hadn’t had a chance to fill to bursting with paddlers, campers, and people commuting to work. It makes me nervous when places designated for bustling aren’t bustling. It’s often the case that early mornings in Prague aren’t bustling, which is one of the reasons why mornings give me trouble sometimes. I tend to have an ambivalent relationship with them anyway, they make me insecure, since every morning is totally different from the one before, and they come so suddenly you don’t have time to prepare. You just open your eyes—and they’re there. Nothing hits as unexpectedly as morning.
The only way you can sort of pull a fast one on them is not to go to sleep, and keep an eye out as they sneakily come creeping in. That way they can’t surprise you. But you have to be careful. Not to fall asleep. Just like I didn’t fall asleep last night. Which is why I got on the train so early.
There are mornings when I wake up and I know nothing. It only lasts a moment, but I enjoy this nothing of mine.
There are mornings when I get up the moment the alarm clock rings, without the slightest difficulty—that is, without any difficulty on the part of my will, my body always has one difficulty or another—I get up from the mattress. And then go to work. And I look forward to it.
And then there are mornings when the alarm clock doesn’t ring, because I don’t have to go anywhere, when the moment of my nothing passes and suddenly there’s something. Something that clunks down on you from the ceiling so hard that if you weren’t lying down it would lay you out, guaranteed.
The seat underneath me changes into my mattress at home in Žižkov. I’m lying with my head where I usually put my feet. It’s been a habit of mine ever since childhood. When I can’t claw my way to my feet and I don’t have to, nothing is forcing me to, but I want to stay awake, I lie the opposite way. To throw myself off balance. And at the same time, I still feel some of that childish thrill tucked away inside me. Like when you’re playing hide-and-seek and you find a great hiding place just as the person who’s it finishes counting. Like when you go up to the attic even though you’re not allowed. Like the first time you’re home alone. I can still feel that quiver of excitement inside my body anytime I lie down in a bed anywhere with my head at the foot and my feet at the head.
Rolling over onto my side, my gaze settles on the window.
With my next blink, two girls appear, perched on the sill. I raise my hand toward them—
—We sit facing each other in the window, stuffing ourselves with still warm blueberry pie. Madla reaches for the ringing cell phone and rolls her eyes. “I don’t want to talk to him. Here, you take it.”
“No! What should I tell him?” I resist, but rather weakly. Not to mention my mouth’s so full, I can barely get the words out.
“I don’t know, tell him I died. Tell him I had a tragic accident.” She’s just saying whatever pops into her head, but then her eyes light up and I can tell she has a plan. And when Madla has a plan . . .
“Forget it, you’re crazy.”
Too late. Her hand is already holding the phone in front of my face, and the display shows that she accepted the call. I shake my head as I take the phone from her. Her eyes twinkle mischievously over the rim of a huge mug of tea. She takes a loud sip.
“Haho?” I say through a mouthful of cake, bulging my eyes at my sister. A confused boy’s voice replies on the other end. I cover the phone with my palm.
“Tell him I kicked the bucket,” Madla whispers loudly. She tries to muffle the stream of high-pitched giggles that follows in the crook of her arm, the same one she used a moment ago to push the phone in my face.
“Hi, Robert,” I say, crumbs dropping from my mouth. “Um, Madla isn’t here.” I shake off her leg, prodding my knee as she balances on her rear end. I struggle to hold in my laughter, waving her off with my free hand. “Where is she? Um . . .”
Madlenka’s arm is a noose. She hangs from it, tongue lolling out of her mouth.
Madlenka’s fist is a dagger, stabbing into her belly. “Dead, dead, dead,” she blurts, tea sloshing onto her shirt with each syllable.
“You see, she’s . . .”
I shove my knee into her to stop. But now Madlenka’s hand is a gun. She holds it to her temple and pulls the trigger.
“Deee-ad, deee-ad,” she says, moving her mouth silently.
“Madlenka is dead.”
Madla bulges her eyes in disbelief, takes a big breath, and bites down hard on my knee to keep from exploding out loud. I bellow in pain, and in my attempt to kick her lose my balance, tipping toward the edge until I collapse onto the floor with a dark thud. The phone goes flying out of my hand and breaks into three pieces under the radiator: front, back, battery.
“You are such a cow!” I yell, cradling my bruised tailbone, but Madlenka can barely hear me through her screeching laughter.
“I’m gonna pee my pants!” she squeals. “I’m gonna shit myself!” she says, bouncing up and down in the window. “I think I’ll jump off the roof or I don’t even know!”
The door to Madla’s room opens. “The whole house can hear you yelling,” Adam says calmly. “And by the way, you can smell the weed from the stairs.” That just makes the whole situation worse. He stands in the doorway, watching as we struggle to catch our breath. Madla jumps down off the windowsill and onto me, her tiny body riding my back, hand soothingly stroking my hair. Adam reaches for a piece of blueberry cake. “Are you two off your rockers?”
I like when someone strokes my hair. I also like when people sneeze with gusto, nice and loud, so it really carries. And I like listening to people whose vocal cords don’t close all the way, so they’re kind of hoarse and their voice sometimes cracks. I like the way chairs creak after someone sits down on them, as if they were moaning or sighing in bliss, as if they were just waiting for that moment when they would be occupied and finally they could welcome their host and relax. I like the sound of Karamel’s paws on parquet floors, the sound of nuts being cracked, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner as it nibbles up all the crumbs from the corners and cracks. I like the first morning coffee and the first swallow of wine. I like the expression “cunt to the wall,” meaning everything’s going bad, because I don’t know where it came from, and “why don’t you just shit your pants in the movies” when you want to point out how ridiculous something sounds. Madla and I often engaged in lengthy debates about the backstory of phrases like these. We even thought some day we might publish them all as a book, like how somebody shit their pants in a movie theater once and somebody else blabbed it to their friends, and then one day when one of the gang did something out of line, someone said: “Why don’t you just shit your pants in the movies like Karel?” Another one I like is, “Don’t pull a Zagorka” for “Don’t fuck it up.” Even though, for the record, I actually think Hana Zagorová’s a pretty good singer. I like fragrant toilets, crooked walls, and a storm. I really like when someone strokes my back. Or my hair. I like when someone strokes me. I like fine-tip pens. I like when someone strokes me. I like how everything always has three pieces. Three main sections. Three basic parts. Beginning, middle, end. Frog, guard rail, wing rail. Stigma, style, ovary. Head, heart, base. Introduction, body, conclusion.
Mr. Rochester leaves behind him a tender trail of sawdust, wood shavings, and litter, of all the little stuff that falls from him onto the floor—the floor that I wipe clean for him day in and day out. He leaves behind a little trail when he goes to open the door for me to leave.
Before I had my job cleaning, I used to restock shelves at the supermarket. But they fired me over the incident with my jumping off the shelf. From ten feet up.
I stand in the office, watching as my boss plays me the footage from the security camera the day before. He doesn’t have to play it for me, of course. He doesn’t have to do anything about it at all. I’m not asking for compensation, and I don’t intend to report it to the insurance company. But he insists on playing me the footage anyway. I watch myself loading up on items from the storeroom, pulling pixelated inventory from the lowest shelf on the rack. Then I squat down on the ground, empty-handed, and just sit there a while. Suddenly I start glancing around, almost frantically, and shooting out of my squat with surprising agility I attach myself to the metal rack, scrambling up to the second story like a monkey, and fling myself to the ground onto my back. I remember a cleaning lady spotted me and shrieked in alarm.
The boss paused the recording on a pixelated me, sprawled between the shelves with the wind knocked out of me.
He fired me on the spot, still looking like he might throw up a little as he ushered me out of his office. He didn’t even ask me for an explanation. I wouldn’t have given one anyway. Afterwards I didn’t even try to call the agency that had placed me there and beg for another job.
Approximately twenty-four women and seventy-five men are killed in this country each year by falling from height. Fifty years ago, the number for both sexes was over eighty—so while there hasn’t been any dramatic change in the number of men jumping, roughly sixty women fewer a year jump now than in the sixties.
You have a ninety-percent chance of success if you leap from a six-story building. The more floors, the better your chances, obviously. Though quite a few people choose this method, they often fail to go through with it because of their fear of heights. Be that as it may, statistics say that nine out of ten people who jump from the sixth floor don’t survive.
Every now and then, I think about the tenth.
Translated by Alex Zucker