I have never understood why adults tell children it pays to be good and do as you’re told. If I had been the perfect daughter, my name would now be carved on a headstone like the names of Mum’s parents – Grandma Elsa and Grandpa Ervin, who died long before I was born – or Grandma Ludmila and Grandpa Mojmír, at whose grave Mum and I always lit candles in brown jars, even though we had to go all the way up to the top end of the cemetery.
On Sunday afternoons when the weather was nice, my friends went for family walks in the park or strolled around the town, whereas Mum decked Dagmara, Ota and me out in our Sunday best and stuck us in front of the door to the watchmaker’s. It had once been ours, but by that time Dad was only allowed to work there for a pittance and Mum was permitted to mop the well-trodden floor in the dark ground-floor shop for nothing.
Every Sunday after lunch, Mum washed the dishes, put on her little black hat, got Ota into his pushchair – or, once he was older, took him by the hand – and steered us towards the cemetery. The journey seemed endless to me. We had to go past the church towards the river, across the bridge, through the whole of the lower town, which for some unknown reason was called Krásno, trail along the length of the castle park beyond the last houses, go through the cemetery gate and wait while Mum wiped the gravestones clean, arranged the flowers in the vases and lit the candles. As she did so, she spoke to the dead and told them what was new in Meziříčí, who had been born, who had died, what people were saying in the town, how the neighbours were getting on and what we children had been up to this time.
I didn’t dare say anything, just sighed heavily so Mum would understand how much I hated waiting, but even so she always told me reproachfully: “Take that look off your face. If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be here.”
When other names appeared on the headstones and Mum’s was among them, I remembered how she had stood by the graves every Sunday and talked to her loved ones. It was a comfort to me to think she was with those she had missed so much.
The only reason my name is not among the gold inscriptions on the headstone is that it sometimes pays to be disobedient and rude. If you disagree, don’t read on. And just to be on the safe side, never let your children get their hands on this book.
The winter of that year when I was nine and my whole life changed completely was beautifully white and frosty, but by February it already seemed endless. It was only in the final days of that month that it got warmer, the snow began to melt and the ice to crack.
In places the river separating Meziříčí and Krásno just crawled modestly along rather than rushing into larger rivers, and because the snow on the nearby hills was melting slowly and so far had quickened the flow and raised the water level only slightly, it seemed to us just made for a short ride on the drifting blocks of ice.
That February of the year nineteen fifty-four, when evil was already lurking in the depths below the town, we ran straight to the river every day after school. There we eagerly investigated whether the ice was giving way and breaking up and whether the current was strong enough for us to jump onto an ice floe and let ourselves be carried along for a few metres, relishing the adventure we’d been told about at break times by the sixth-grade twins Eda and Mirek Zedníček, who had experienced a cold winter like this a few years earlier and tried it out for themselves.
After a few days, the ice finally developed cracks, the middle of the river broke free and the blocks of ice slowly moved off downstream. The moment we had been praying and carefully planning for had arrived.
I stood in the doorway to the kitchen, holding a red pom-pom hat in one hand and gloves in the other.
“What kind of crazy idea is that?” asked Mum in astonishment when I asked if I could go sledging with Jarmilka. It was cosily warm and fragrant in the kitchen, because Mum was baking cakes for her birthday celebration. “The snow’s melting, it’s really wet, you’ll get drenched.”
I reached out towards the baking tray for a cake, but quickly recoiled, because it was still hot. “Exactly, what if it’s the last chance to do a bit of sledging?”
Mum looked at me suspiciously. “Mira, you’d better not be thinking of going to the river.”
The fact that Mum had an inkling of what I was planning with Jarmilka Stejskalová and the Zedníček boys and had strictly forbidden me to go to the river made me conclude that in the days before she was a grown-up and overly cautious, she had gone in for ice-floe riding too. But the list of things I wasn’t allowed to do in case I got hurt was so long!
I wasn’t allowed to go into the attic in case I tripped over some junk or fell out of the window. I wasn’t allowed to go into the cellar in case I slipped down the stairs. I wasn’t allowed to go out on the loggia, because I could fall through the flimsy structure onto the paved courtyard. It’s no wonder a person doesn’t take the phrase “not allowed” seriously when they hear it in every sentence.
“Of course not, me and Jarmilka are just going to the hill behind the Zedníčeks’ garden,” I said, slipping one of the hot cakes into my pocket.
Mum was very pretty, and when she hugged me she was warm like a stove and smelled wonderfully of vanilla sugar. But just then she fixed her big brown eyes – which always seemed so sad that I was afraid to look into them – upon me suspiciously, as if they were reading my innermost thoughts.
“Jarmilka’s waiting,” I said, doing up my coat, lacing up my warm ankle boots and pulling my hat right down over my forehead.
Mum handed me another cake. “Take one for Jarmilka too.”
I ran out, grabbed Jarmilka’s sledge by the carrying strap and set off towards the square. I could feel Mum’s eyes burning into my back.
“Goodbye, Mrs Karásek,” called Jarmilka, “and thank you.” She tossed her long blond pleat – which I envied her in a not very friendly way because all the boys from our class tugged on it admiringly – smiled innocently at Mum and bit into the cake.
At the end of the street, I turned left.
“Where are you going?” asked Jarmilka, jerking the strap to stop me. “Surely we’re not going to walk round the whole town.”
“I don’t want Mum to see that I’m going to the river.”
“She can’t see round corners!”
I glanced down the street. A curtain twitched on the first floor of a house with a peeling facade. Perhaps I’d only imagined it or perhaps old Beneška was keeping watch at the window to see everything that went on around the square. I picked up my pace. “You never know. If we bump into anyone, there’ll be trouble.”
“And you’ll get peas for dinner,” said Jarmilka, laughing, and she scurried after me in resignation.
I really couldn’t stand peas, and Mum knew it, so when I answered back or did something my parents thought I shouldn’t have done, I usually got them for lunch or dinner. I would sit at the table with the others and watch them tucking into potato pancakes with homemade jam or some other delicacy, while I ate green mush. I grimaced to myself and said aloud: “It’s still better than when Dad takes off his belt.” That was something I couldn’t avoid from time to time – more often than my two younger siblings. And this would be a belting offence, I had no doubt about that.
My brown boots were soaked through before we even got to the river, and my fingers were numb with cold in spite of the gloves. The Zedníček boys were already waiting for us on the river bank below the little white-plastered church with its roof of wooden tiles. They were running around on the slushy snow, trying to detach ice floes that had drifted to the bank with long sticks. As soon as a block of ice slid down to the surface of the water, the current took hold of it and, at first slowly but then more and more quickly, carried it off to a low weir fifty metres away, where it was stopped by the accumulated drift ice.
At that moment my courage abandoned me, and Jarmilka probably felt the same, because she sat down on the sledge and said: “I’m just going to watch.”
“Scaredy-cat,” said Eda Zedníček contemptuously, and I realized that even if I couldn’t outdo Jarmilka in beauty, I could in courage. Boys might tug on her pleat, but they would point at me for years to come and tell their younger classmates: “That’s the girl who went down the river on a block of ice.”
I watched Eda skilfully dislodge another chunk of ice as big as the woven rug by the bed in Mum and Dad’s room, step right onto the middle of it, push off from the bottom with his stick and slowly float downstream towards the weir. We ran along the bank, while Eda, standing astride the ice floe, kept his makeshift vessel in calmer waters using the stick, jabbing at the river bed and heading towards the weir at a safe distance from the bank. He used the pole to soften the impact and stepped over the accumulated ice to the bank.
Simple, I thought to myself. Apart from clambering from one floe to another.
On the way back to the sledge I was given some well-intended advice, which robbed me of my courage once again. “The most important thing is to stand in the middle of the ice so you don’t slide off into the water. And keep to the bank, it’s shallow there. There’s a current in the middle that could carry you away, and even I couldn’t handle that. And you have to push off to the side with the stick – don’t shove it out in front or you’ll fall off.”
Now my legs were trembling from fear as well as cold. Eda and Mirek helped me to dislodge a block of ice. “Jump on,” shouted Eda and I jumped, but in the meantime the ice had drifted a little further downstream, so I landed on the edge, the ice rocked, and I slipped.
I threw my hands up as I fell and felt myself hitting the surface and sinking into the water, which at first wasn’t cold at all but then squeezed me like a giant set of pincers, flooding my ears, eyes and nose, pressing me towards the shallow river bed and pushing me somewhere into the darkness. Before I had time to take fright, someone’s hand grasped my coat lapels and hauled me up above the surface.
“I told you not to stand on the edge!” declared Eda and then he turned to Mirek and added scornfully: “It was your stupid idea to bring those girls along. Now we’re in for it.”
Jarmilka was standing on the bank snivelling. I quickly peeled off my heavy waterlogged coat and began to wring it out. I couldn’t go home like this, but I was terribly cold. It occurred to me that we could make a fire so I could dry my clothes a bit and get warm, and I wanted to ask the boys for matches, but my teeth were chattering so badly I couldn’t speak.
“Don’t stand there bawling, lend her your coat and take her home,” shouted Eda to Jarmilka. She reluctantly unfastened her winter coat and draped it over my shoulders. It didn’t help much – instead, both of us were shivering now.
“If you blab to anyone about us being here with you, I’ll beat you up, even if you are girls,” Eda continued. “Now run on home.” He nodded to Mirek and they both dashed off up the slope.
I threw my sodden coat on the sledge and we set off for home by the shortest route. The cold was biting into my skin, driving me on at a faster pace. Two streets away from our house, I gave Jarmilka back her damp coat. She pulled it on with obvious pleasure, gave me a sympathetic look and left me to my fate. I was still hoping that with a bit of luck I would get up the stairs without being noticed, manage to sneak past the kitchen, run up to the room on the second floor I shared with my brother and sister, and secretly change into dry clothes.
I had never noticed before that the heavy front door needed oiling, the stairs creaked, and if I didn’t switch the light on – which I couldn’t very well do – then I couldn’t see to the next step.
“Is the light broken?” came a voice from above, and then the bulb flickered and I remained standing there in the middle of the staircase. When I looked back, it was clear to me that I couldn’t have escaped detection anyway. I had left a wet puddle behind me on every step.
“I don’t believe this!” yelled Mum, and she swooped down on me, pulled me up the stairs and then started tearing off my wet clothes. “What have you gone and done this time? I told you you weren’t allowed to go to the river.”
With one hand she peeled off my soaking wet tights and with the other she gave me a hiding across my icy backside. That surprised me. It was the first time Mum had hit me. The blows didn’t hurt, but they were totally humiliating.
“No,” I screamed. “It’s not true! I wasn’t at the river. I went sledging with Jarmilka. The snow was really wet, that’s why I’m soaked.”
I burst out crying from the shame and the cold and the fright I’d had. My brother and sister appeared in the kitchen doorway, but when they saw the skirmish, they backed up again. Downstairs the front door opened, because Dad had heard our cries all the way over in the watchmaker’s and come running to see what was going on.
“You little liar,” said Mum angrily. She rubbed my body with a towel so hard it hurt and shoved me under the covers. “Make some tea, quick,” she called to Dad, throwing a duvet over me. “Do you want to get pneumonia and die?”
What kind of question was that? Why would I want to die? “I wasn’t at the river, I fell in a puddle,” I sobbed. “It’s honestly not my fault.”
Mum put the mug of tea on the bedside table, pulled a knitted hat over my head, stuck a hot-water bottle by my feet and closed the door behind her. I burrowed into the covers, trying to grip the hot-water bottle with my frozen feet and quietly whimpering. I was cold and I felt bad that Mum and Dad were angry with me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have lied, perhaps I should have said someone had pushed me into the water, perhaps…
After a while, a pleasant warmth began to spread through my body. Half-asleep, now and again I heard the door open, felt a hand on my forehead and thought to myself that Mum wasn’t so angry after all and maybe I’d avoid the belt and mushy peas for dinner would be enough to set things right.
Dad had a special ability to walk completely silently, so sometimes it seemed as if he didn’t actually enter through the door but passed through walls and floors like a ghost. He spent his days in the watchmaker’s workshop on the ground floor, bent over his work bench, repairing clockwork movements. His back was all hunched from the constant sitting and he walked leaning forward slightly. His hair was thick but almost grey, so he looked more like Mum’s father than her husband.
When I was young, so young that I didn’t go to school yet and my little brother Ota was still hiding behind Mum’s skirts, I wondered how it was possible that my beautiful mother had married someone so old, so I asked her.
“She had to marry me,” said Dad, “after all, it was because of her that my hair went grey.”
“That’s true,” said Mum, patting him on his crooked shoulder. “But you’re glad, aren’t you? Who else would carry litres of tea down to you in the workshop? Do you know how many stairs there are?”
Eighteen. The narrow staircase had eighteen steps, and since the watchmaker’s had been taken over by the state and bricklayers had walled up the connecting door between the shop and the staircase, Mum had to run out into the street with each mug of tea and enter the shop by the main door, which was particularly unpleasant in winter or when it was raining.
Dad spent a long time in the shop among the clocks – not just on weekdays, when the watchmaker’s was open, but also on Sundays. He only came up to our flat on the first floor to eat and sleep. Over lunch and dinner, he told Mum about the movements he had just repaired, and Mum listened to him as if he were relating the most wonderful adventures. He didn’t talk to us children much, and when Mum had to go away and Dad was left in charge of us, he was totally nonplussed. It wasn’t that he didn’t love us. It was more that he didn’t know what to do with children and was waiting until we had grown up a bit and would listen to his talk of clock movements with the same rapt attention as Mum.
That Sunday, when my world started to turn in the wrong direction, Dad was in a foul mood but was trying not to let it show. At first I thought he was angry because of my dip in the icy water, but this time it wasn’t my fault. Mum was celebrating her thirtieth birthday and Dad was ill at ease because the celebration was disrupting his regular daily routine. He couldn’t go to his workshop, sit down at the bench and fix whatever could be fixed. He had to sit at a specially laid table in the living room with his wife, three children and sister-in-law Hana – and his relationship with her was something he couldn’t fix, even if he wanted to.
The reason was simple – his sister-in-law was the epitome of reproach. Every word, movement and look of hers made it plain to him how much she disliked him. Spending time at the same table with her was just as much of a trial for Dad as it was for me.
I was afraid of Aunt Hana. She sat on her chair like a black moth and just stared. She never wore anything colourful. In winter and summer alike, she wore a black sweater with pockets over a black long-sleeved dress, with black stockings on her legs and lace-up ankle boots. I never saw her without a headscarf, which I kind of understood, because even though she couldn’t have been that old, I’d noticed white hairs poking out from under the scarf.
“Why doesn’t she ever take that sweater off?” I asked Mum.
“You’ve seen how thin she is,” she told me. “And thin people tend to feel the cold.”
“If she ate properly, she wouldn’t be so thin. All she eats is that bread she carries around in her pockets. Why doesn’t she have something decent?” Or is it OK for grown-ups to drop crumbs everywhere they go, but not children?
“You and your whys. What’s it to you? Does Aunt Hana tell you what to do and what not to do?”
And that was the God’s honest truth. Aunt Hana was the only adult I never heard utter the phrase “not allowed”. In fact, I rarely heard her utter any other phrase either, because Aunt Hana hardly ever spoke, just stared. Really weirdly. As if she looked but didn’t see. As if she had departed but forgotten to take her body with her. At times I became afraid that she would suddenly slide down to the ground, leaving only a pile of black rags behind her on the chair.
I might have known Mum would defend Aunt Hana. Aunt Hana was her big sister and the only relative we actually had. Mum was very fond of her, which kind of surprised me, because my aunt never gave any indication that she cared about any of us. Once I saw how Mum went to hug her as she arrived, but my aunt recoiled as if she had been burnt. Mum always smiled at her and spoke to her in a soothing voice as if speaking to a little girl, and she’d probably have given her the moon and stars if my aunt had asked for them. But my aunt never asked her or anyone else for anything. She just sat in the living room and stared into space and sometimes gave a brief reply in a voice that sounded just like Mum’s.
We sat down to our celebratory lunch, and I was half expecting to find mushy peas on my plate instead of beef in cream sauce. Although I hadn’t noticed Mum making peas for me during my morning reconnaissance trips to the kitchen, I sensed from her aloof behaviour that the matter of yesterday’s dip was not yet closed.
I was given the same food as everyone else. Was it possible that Mum had granted me a pardon on the occasion of her thirtieth birthday?
I was already beginning to hope so, but then came the time for dessert: magnificent, splendid pastry wreaths topped with glossy icing, bought in the patisserie by the square to mark this extra-special event.
Mum picked them up from the tray with silver tongs and placed them one by one on the gold-rimmed dessert plates she only took out of the cabinet on special occasions. She set the first one in front of my aunt, then another in front of Dad, Dagmara and Ota. After that she glanced around and said: “There. And one for me.”
“And what about me?” I asked rather brashly, because I knew what answer I would get.
“You don’t deserve one. You went to the river, even though you knew you were forbidden to, and what’s more you lied to me.”
I began to snivel. Everyone looked at me – my brother and sister sympathetically and Aunt Hana uncomprehendingly. And Dad just nodded and said: “Don’t cry, or I’ll take off my belt. Even so, you’ve got off lightly.”
“Enjoy yourselves then,” I said, pushing my chair back so hard it almost overturned, and ran out of the room.
“And on top of everything she’s cheeky,” I heard Dad say. “I should have given her a thrashing.”
“But it’s my birthday,” said Mum in a soothing voice, and I didn’t hear what came next, because I ran up the wooden stairs to our room on the second floor. There I threw myself down on the bed and cried out loud in anger.
So loud that I didn’t hear the evil that had been born under the town and infiltrated our house that day. Through my tear-filled eyes I couldn’t see it stretching out its greedy fingers towards us, strangling hope and sowing the seeds of death. I had no idea it was lying in wait at the table downstairs, unseen and unheard, choosing its victims.
Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble