Anna Bolavá

Into Darkness

2015 | Odeon

Denseflower mullein: Flowers

It drizzled in the night and outside everything is still wet. In terms of foraging, it’s going to be another lost day. Even so, it should be possible to find some elderflower – there are still bits left over in a few places, and its fresh-to-dry ratio makes it worth it. I have to think carefully now about what to channel my time and energy into. I’ve got as much of those as I could wish for, but the hole in my hand is slowing me down. Then there’s the weather – long-term it doesn’t look good. I don’t even need to turn on the radio, I hear it all in advance from Marcela. After yesterday’s disappointment at the buying centre I need to decide what not to pick any more. Obviously celandine. It takes up my time and also space in the loft, and it humiliates me. I’ll burn it, and serves it right. Summer’s begun and that will mean the end of all these weeds. I have to ignore plantain. I swear I will. And for health reasons I’ll forget about any horsetail. While the weather’s wet I’ll go round all the sites where deadnettles grow and try to double their second flowering. I might even get to the mountains this year, since I’ve got so much time. The late deadnettles might do all right up there – so long as they haven’t all been mown down. I’ll devote the rest of my time to the lindens. I’ll do every tree in the area. And I won’t be lazy in the mornings, I’ll go to the pig farm for mullein. Every day. Deadnettle, linden, and mullein will pay off. In the coming days I’m going to focus everything I’ve got on those.

The marigolds are still hanging their heads, so there’s no point searching the sky to see if better weather’s on the way. It’s not. The flowers which fell from the mulleins yesterday are lying in the grass underneath; today’s flowers are beautiful but damp. There aren’t many of them, but they’re enormous and fresh. When you haven’t seen any for a year, even the tiny ones are a joy. I study the mullein close up and marvel at the perfection of its form. Even just the skin of each delicate yellow petal is a miracle. What is it actually made of? It’s not a leaf, a stalk, a root. What are the flowers woven from? What is this perfect material? And why on earth didn’t I study botany? I wouldn’t have to be astonished year after year by ordinary things, and I’d know all of the answers. But perhaps it’s better not to know. And not deprive myself, or kill off the beauty.

This morning at the front in the courtyard it’s quiet. Marcela isn’t at home and pretty much everyone else from our street is at work. I put on my gloves and start weeding the beds. I try not to use my right hand, but it’s not that easy. When I press down on the palm, the pain brings tears to my eyes and I have to grit my teeth. Which gives me stabbing pains in my head. But I refuse to admit to myself that I can’t use my hands, and carry on. I’ve really got myself into a mess this time. Perhaps something’s got lodged deep in the palm and that’s why it’s not getting better. Maybe a bit of broken scissor blade. I wince and have to sit down for a minute. My head’s spinning and I feel like I’m going to be sick. This time from hunger. I should go to the baker’s and get something to eat. I’ll write myself a shopping list. I’ll tidy the kitchen and go through the larder. Maybe I’ll defrost the fridge as well and do the ironing. I’ll have fun keeping house, just like in the holidays. Because now I can do whatever I like, no one’s rushing me. I can do whatever I like, and yet at the same time I can see myself, as if from above, trudging my way home. I lock the door and go into the bedroom. Feeling dazed, I lay myself down on the bed. The bottoms of my trouser legs are wet from the grass, but I don’t even bother to undress, and immediately close my eyes. I’m so exhausted, I might even welcome death right now.

I’m woken by the sound of banging on the window. I’m startled and quickly sit up on the bed. I don’t know where I am or what’s happening. Immediately I feel guilty, like I’ve neglected something. Outside, Marcela is pressing her face against my window and trying to peer into the room. There’s no point pretending that I’m not at home, she must have seen me by now. I stand up and walk to the window. I don’t recognize my own body – every move it makes is sluggish and somehow delayed. I pull back the net curtain and nod a hello. Marcela doesn’t stop banging until I’ve opened the window.

‘What is wrong with you? Are you coming with us or what?’ she asks ferociously. She’s like a raging torrent that’s swept down from high in the mountains. The blinding noonday sun has roasted the windowsill and dried off the garden, and it’s only once my eyes have adjusted that I notice my cousin is dressed in black. It takes me a few seconds to realize what’s going on and what she wants from me.

‘We’re going in the car and we’ve got a spare seat, so we thought… But you’d have to come right now.’ She shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot and pulls up her tights – her best ones – adjusting them above her knees. I shake my head and close my eyes.

‘So you’re not coming with us? Fine. I’ll see you there.’ Then she stops herself and gives me a searching look. ‘They’re still our relatives. It’s polite to go.’ I don’t say a thing, but I don’t need to. Marcela looks at me with pity and shakes her head. Then she adds that I’ve currently still got three sets of her tiffin food boxes, so if I could wash them and give them back to her, that would be good of me. And if I don’t go to the funeral, then she’ll tell me all about it later. Before she disappears, she leans in close – as if anyone could possibly hear us – and says in a conspirator’s whisper, ‘I’m not surprised at you, I would have done it too.’ Then I close the window and am on my own again. What would she have done too?

It’s cold in the bedroom and I’m totally frozen. I wasn’t covered at all. I walk through the house to the bathroom and wait an age for the water to run hot. Blood and pus have soaked through the bandage again, so I try to give the wound a clean. I peel the medicated plaster off my wrist as well. I plunge both hands into the sink and notice how underwater they look bigger and not really my own. The left is grubby with soil and the right one is blue. All the way up to the elbow. Dead meat. Carefully I turn my hand over and inspect the palm. It was worth it, I say aloud, and look in the mirror. Blue eyes, blue lips. A blue face, and a strange, unfamiliar smile. Behind the door there are two stacked sets of food boxes, still completely full. I take them inside and look to see if there’s anything in them I might fancy eating. The best thing would be to finish it quickly and head off somewhere. When I have something to eat, and then start walking and concentrating on something else, my body begins to digest and I don’t even notice it.

I’ll start on the food some other time – right now I can’t face it. Everything will sort itself out, but later. For now I’ve got the right to feel mournful and fed up being alive. It’s stupid to force myself when I just can’t. But it’s also important to remember that things will get better again. Summer will come and body and mind will heal. The summer holidays can work miracles and not only on children. And I’ve got a long holiday ahead of me. I’ll look forward to it. I’ll do things which are meaningful. I swallow five tablets, wash them down with a good drink of water, and then head out. I give my shoes a kick, put them on, and then I’m outside.

I pluck the dried mulleins, putting them in the basket and then carefully laying out the flowers one by one in small wooden boxes. There aren’t many of them, so they’ve each got plenty of room to dry. Each little flower sits in isolation – that luxury’s the mark of a season that’s just beginning or just about to end. I set them out behind the house in direct sunlight and cover them with the sheets of glass. I have to give a little smile when I look at those age-old panes. I’ve lost count of how many times now they’ve cut me across the calves as I’ve been dashing past not paying attention. When I was a girl, I had permanent bloody gashes across the sides of my calves. At school they always thought it was from my wellingtons, but it was scars from the panes of glass. One time Vašek even tried to get involved in my mullein-drying, and wanted to cover the boxes for me. His help was intrusive and totally pointless. I left him to it – he’s not a baby, I thought. Let him figure it out if he’s so determined to make himself useful. With his one hand he picked up the biggest and heaviest pane of glass, and before he had even positioned it over the top of the box, it shattered and stabbed him through the tendon between his thumb and his index finger. It was an odd sound, and a strange, tense moment. Vašek’s only hand was draining into my mulleins and I stood wondering what to save first. I knew that this decision had been hanging over us for quite a while. How I chose to act at that moment would determine how our future would unfold. Without even touching him I phoned for an ambulance. It was clear: we had both lost. I threw the ruined batch of mullein out onto the compost heap and sold the rest as quickly as I could. All summer at the buying centre they categorized it as Class 2, they said it had gone black. I couldn’t understand how that was possible. I had picked it dry, and dried it in direct sunlight. There hadn’t been any problems with rain that year and things had all gone smoothly. I could sense that relationships in the family had worsened, but would someone really have deliberately sabotaged…? It wasn’t Vašek, he loved mullein. It’s true that he’d become friends with Jáchym, and that the two of them used to go on purpose to piss on my deadnettles by the garages, but he wouldn’t have done a thing to the mulleins. I mean, it made him happy that a kilo of flowers could earn you 300 crowns, and that they were all just growing there right under the windows. Once he even painted a close-up picture of one of those enchanting little flowers and got it framed. Who knows whatever happened to that painting. By then the only person that Vašek ever brought to visit was his dad. Apart from the two of them, nobody went near the mulleins. That summer all of the batches were damaged in some way or other. In the end – according to my father-in-law – there was a storm with winds and rain so strong that overnight they uprooted most of the mulleins in the garden and put an end to the early-morning picking. I was upset about that, because they’d been beautiful, healthy plants, and it was such a huge waste. And I was even more upset when Marcela told me, in her slightly superior way, that if there had been heavy rain, then she would have known about it, and that she hadn’t noticed any damage on her side of the courtyard. She pointed to the bucket that she used for collecting rainwater, with lines in it to indicate the amount of rainfall, and she shook her head. A drizzle, at the very most, she said, thinking hard. But she wasn’t convinced: the bucket was bone dry.

* * *

I trim off the marigold flowers as well and carry them up to the loft. The last batch, the ones from Prague, are nicely wilted, but there’s still a long way to go till they’re completely dry. And with the rain that’s forecast, they definitely won’t be dry by Tuesday. But at least the celandine’s disappeared and freed up some space. I sweep the floor a bit at the back and head downstairs to wash. Then I get changed, take the small bike trailer and attach it to the back of the bike, and cycle into town for groceries. I’m one of the last few people who goes shopping by bike. And the only one who uses a trailer. I can carry everything in it – it’s better than a car. And of course I can also cycle it straight into the shop and get everything done without needing a trolley. I head for the oils section – it’ll soon be the season for preserving herbs. I get the alcohol from Petrák and honey from Mikešová, but nobody round here makes pressed oils. I load the maximum permitted number of bottles into the trailer and then wheel over to the checkout. There I line them up on the belt, and after I’ve paid, I put them back in the trailer again. No unnecessary bags, plastic or otherwise. There aren’t many people in here today and that’s odd, because it’s Friday. Even the journey home is quiet, the streets are silent and deserted. Like it was the funeral of the Pope himself, I smirk. Then, just at that minute, a fly flies into my eye, nice and deep under the eyelid, almost into my head. It’s still alive, flapping its miniature wings, swallowing my tears and crying out, No blaspheming! I squirm about and try to ignore it. The main thing is I mustn’t fall off my bike. I cycle slowly, carefully, with my right hand only lightly holding the handlebars, so as not to stir up the fire hidden inside. The sun’s beating down on the asphalt but I’ve knotted a scarf over my head, so it doesn’t bother me, and actually it’s turned into quite a nice afternoon.

I go round the back way, so I can have a look at the confluence by the mill race, and check on the late deadnettles. Around the Stone Mill there are places which don’t see a ray of sunshine all day, and that’s why everything grows later there. Albeit only by a week, but even that’s enough. And no one with a lawnmower ever comes to call on any day of the year. The back walls of the mill are permanently wet and mildewed, and seeping cold air. Even on the most swelteringly hot days you can always spend a few bearable minutes here, except for the fact that this is the place where all the local cats retreat to. Every time I come I count at least ten of them. When we were kids, Mad Mácha used to live here, and people said that he skinned the cats and roasted them. Maybe that wasn’t true, but after he died, the cats in the mill bred like rabbits and the emergency vets had to get involved.

Now it’s all abandoned and neglected, and therefore paradise on earth for flora. The grass everywhere is knee-high, but the bits with deadnettle are easy to spot, and picking it will be easy too. Heading out here with a bag is definitely worth it. What really isn’t worth it – and I drum this into my head after every disappointment – is plantain. It’s absolutely everywhere along the edge of the path round here. Long, lush, and alluring, filled to the brim with energy from April to November. The leaves come off easily and I can do that comfortably using my left hand. I spare my right hand, but my left goes out of control and does unexpected things. There’s suddenly much more space in the bike trailer – the shopping can be shifted and also squashed on one side. And then into that space I line up nice regular bunches of plantain leaf, some of them maybe as much as 40 centimetres long. This isn’t something you can just casually cast your eyes over, this is beauty unparalleled – and it’s all the more magnificent once I see it laid out neatly in the bike trailer.

Home isn’t far away, I can be back in the courtyard in a few minutes. At the moment I’m basically just overloading the loft with a massive mess of weeds, but there’s nothing I can do except carry on and try to revel in it. It’s tricky with plant leaves – I just can’t control myself. The dandelion wasn’t something I’d been meticulously planning either, but all it took was one glimpse of that thick expanse round the back on Sokolská Street, and I was off. Now the same thing has happened again with the plantain, but what am I supposed to do? Pretend I can’t see it? There’s plenty of deadnettle here, that’s fine, I’ll come back for it tomorrow, but the plantain I’m taking right now. If anyone in our street bumps into me today, they’ll never guess I’m on my way home from the shops, because I’m pulling a cart overflowing with greenery. I’m leaving quite a trail behind me, but I can’t do anything about that. Once the holes in the road have finally been filled in, I won’t have to cycle through them or veer sharply round them, and then I won’t lose anything either. Damn it, I have to use my right hand completely now, and the pain burns through like a devil’s pitchfork. The bandage is oozing again, but still I’ve got to go up to the loft first, and it’s only after that that I can have a wash and take my pills. The last one is hard work, and it sticks in my chest for a long time afterwards. There are more and more clouds appearing in the sky now, small and all different shapes. But it’s still clear and dry, and it definitely won’t spoil my plans for this evening.

Altogether I’ve got four large bags full of stuff to burn. I put them in the trailer and cycle them over to the orchard. The area round the cherry trees is the most neglected, and there’s an overgrown pile of rotten planks there too. I hide the bags behind it and then cycle back to the courtyard for the next load. This time I get dry wood and bits of paper to use as kindling. I don’t need piles of letters and official documents, and there are certain photos in there that I don’t want any more either. It’s those in particular that will make the fire glow a different colour, and I like that. There are four matches left in the matchbox – that should be okay. I’m good at lighting them and getting fires going, and one match is all I need. Long-standing affairs begin to burn up in no time. Even when you spit on them and the fire changes colour, there’s nothing the past can do about these flames now. So I sit here at the old bonfire pit, and try to preserve this harmless little fire which no one in the street will probably even notice. The walls of the orchard are high, the grass is high, so the only thing that could give me away is the ominous black smoke, which of course I’m careful about.

This bonfire site right in the middle of our orchard was created years ago when the tallest pear tree got hit by lightning. Once Grandpa had sawn up the burnt trunk and taken it away, he crossed himself, and then brought in some huge rocks and laid them round the hole. As girls we used to come with small baskets and scatter little stones here. We used to walk round the garden, picking up more and more of them all the time. When there were no stones left, we went to the river to find them. We spent the whole summer diving and picking the best ones off the bottom. Then we dried them in the sun and brought them to the orchard to this peculiar grave for a long-barren tree. Dad put the biggest stones in a circle around it and lit a fire. It didn’t burn at all, everything round it was waterlogged and the timber was wet. That night he and Grandpa got blind drunk and then both of them threw up on the wall. In the morning Dad took a shovel and covered it over with soil. The spot creeped us out, so we avoided it, and the next spring it sprouted the biggest celandine I’ve ever seen. Marcela and Miluška split their sides laughing and tried to force me to go and forage from it, saying I would make an insane amount of money. The girls and me were always trying to make insane amounts of money, but all we ever earned was barely enough for an ice cream or a packet of sherbet. Even today I can still recognize that spot at the foot of the wall – the spot where our unhappy forefathers puked up the pain and the fear that they were going to lose everything around them here. And here I am today sitting on one of those stones, batting away the mosquitoes, and warming my hands with the light of a fire that hasn’t yet lost any of its natural hue. It’s only after I’ve opened up the first bag and fed the flames with a shirt that’s all stuck together that something changes. I give the fire time to adjust, and then heal it again with a bunch of half-dried celandine of dubious quality. This has still got sap in it. But it crackles nicely – pity that Jáchym can’t hear it. These stones will always be ours, I tell myself, and think back to all those insecure moments after my wedding.

Marcela advocated cutting the trees down, at least some of them, so they wouldn’t be as much work. Luckily she didn’t wield enough clout, and didn’t have a chainsaw either. Miluška basically didn’t mind either way, and every autumn she enjoyed helping with the harvest and raking the fallen leaves. It’s gorgeous here, just like when I was little, she would sigh dreamily, no doubt imagining that she was sitting here not with her boring cousins but with someone else entirely. Miluška, our fair-minded and eternally unlucky-in-love pharmacist. The third heir was me, and I liked the orchard just the way it had always been. Bountiful in every way. Overgrown, wild, natural. After I got married, it was my father-in-law who seized the main initiative. He spent years weaving a web, urging us down blind alleys, purely in order to get us all to sell the orchard. He wasn’t planning on grasping any nettles, he wanted to build a big posh house. Romantic, right by the stream. What a crazy idea! Maybe even worse than Vašek’s naïve scheme for making money in the holidays. Apparently I was going to spend the summer handing over the herbs I’d gathered, and he’d catch fish and sell them at the market. We’d pool the money we made and finally buy ourselves a proper lawnmower. That really was an idea that only an idiot could come up with. An idiot who had married without ever getting to know a thing about the person standing next to him. We’ll tidy up the orchard and it’ll be really nice! The fact that for years I’d been growing camomile there – camomile which, with difficulty, I’d brought and replanted from fields miles away – and that I didn’t want to tidy up the orchard in any way, that was irrelevant. I’ll help you, he said, pressing himself against me and stroking my hair with his only hand. He loved me. And at the same time he kept treading all over my freshly sprouting lemon balm, and instead of picking white deadnettles he picked purple. Just go and stay there as long as you need to, was what I wanted to hear, but he never said that once. Guilty consciences on both sides and Tuesday disappointments – that was our married life. Plus my father-in-law. A story in itself which today, I hope, is finally over. A little while ago, just out of town, on a hill which the groundwater hasn’t yet reached, the gravediggers have laid him to rest in peace. Amen.

It’s now pitch dark and the fire is petering out. The cold night air comes creeping between the trees and I too am gradually becoming ensnared by it. I throw on the last of the dry twigs that I’d dropped in the grass, and which I can still see, so that the flame will make its peace with me and amend its unnatural colour. That was a difficult mouthful which I’d given it this time. It didn’t let me down, though, and overcame it all. In the end I burnt the empty bags too. It’s true that people in our street did notice that in the end, but everything inappropriate is now gone. I’m just about to take the watering can to fetch some water when I hear something snap right behind the wall. I peer into the darkness and watch the back gate. I think it’s open and someone’s coming towards me. I can only see a shadow, but I don’t know whose it is. But the light of this fire means they can see me clear as day.

‘It’s me, don’t worry. What are you up to out here? At this time of night,’ whispers Miluška, huddling next to me. She’s wrapped up in some sort of enormous jumper, but she’s still shivering with cold.

‘What have you been burning?’ she asks me straight out, but she doesn’t mean anything bad by it. Once upon a time we sat many an hour here together, and I know she’s got nothing against big fires. But from her eyes I can tell that something’s going on. And it’s got nothing to do with bonfires. Miluška is subdued and her voice is tired and sad.

‘I’m just finishing up anyway. Or should I go and get some more branches?’ I ask, and it’s clear to both of us that her nod means a much longer night than either of us had originally planned.

‘Do you want a hand? What about those planks at the back?’

‘Not the planks, they’re wet. But there’s more wood in the shed.’

From the small shed by the wall we transfer the pile of branches left over from the spring pruning, and also a few thick, dried-out logs kept there for special occasions.

‘Let’s burn them all today, no point saving them,’ I smile, but Miluška looks at me uncertainly, and gives a faint shrug of her shoulders. Maybe I’m just imagining things in this frightening black-and-yellow light, but something today seems to have wounded this person beside me. And I know very well which house number at the end of our street she walked out of with a heavy heart a little while ago.

‘I don’t know if there’s any way I’ll be able to fall asleep – I was at that funeral,’ Miluška sighs, and then asks how much of it I can bear to hear. All of it. It’s night-time, and what I can’t take, I’ll let float away on the current of the darkness or up into the trees – it wouldn’t be the first time around here that they’ve lent me their support.

‘Have you not got anything to drink out here?’

I shake my head, and finally she smiles. Why would I have brought anything, I was here on my own. My cheeks are flushed from the heat of the large fire, which looks like it’s going to last now. The flames are roaring into life again and suddenly there’s more light all around. Right, so an expensive open coffin and one fat ring on each of his fingers, two on some of them. Eyes bulging, wide open, and the room full to bursting. I can’t believe how much my father-in-law demanded for himself in his will. Vašek complied with every one of his requests, because he couldn’t afford to run the risk of not inheriting the house. But he didn’t make it to the funeral himself. The rest of the bereaved divided themselves, just like on every other Friday, into two camps: those who condemned the no-shows, and those who apologized for them. People say he came back to you, says Miluška, telling me what she overheard on the way home. Then she describes everything else that happened, and I just nod in silence. I don’t know what to say about it all, but luckily she’s not expecting any comments. I can also tell that she’s sparing me certain details and not telling the whole truth. I don’t blame her. Why would she want to spread the suffering and anger any further?

‘So that’s everything. And now unwrap that hand, I saw it in the chemist’s.’ Miluška gently takes my hand and slips off the dirty bandage. Like a good girl I hold the hand steady and trust her completely.

‘This is not good,’ she says, inspecting my palm close up, shaking her head. She reminds me of Diviš – his gestures and intonation are the same in these situations. It’s astounding how similar he and she are. Why had I never noticed it before? Now I know exactly who it was he reminded me of in the lift the other day. But that’s not something you can say out loud, because I know full well that relationships in this town are complicated, and that unnecessary gossip only causes harm. Why would I want to tell my younger cousin how well suited she and the doctor are to each other, when he has no intention of changing and will never agree to a divorce?

‘You’ve been picking plantain with this? You can’t be serious,’ Miluška says, furious with me. I put a finger to my lips to stop her shouting so loudly, but she’s already getting all worked up.

‘Come and see me tomorrow. This needs antibiotics. But it’s the last time, you hear me? I don’t want any more to do with this. It’s just not getting any better! How much do you weigh? Each of your eyes twitches in a different direction, and now this hand on top of everything else!’

‘You’re exaggerating…’

‘Listen, we’ve arranged another stay for you at the hospital in Hradec. You’ve got to go! Things can’t go on like this and I can’t take it anymore!’

‘Please stop shouting, will you?’

‘You’re going there next week. Marek will take you. If you want, he’ll stay there with you, he knows someone who works there who he went to school with. And if they leave you there, you’ll stay there!’

‘I am not staying there! I’ll go, but I’m not staying!’ We stare at each other for as long as it takes till one of us looks away. Then she goes on:

‘Your hand’s infected and there’s no way you can deal with it yourself. Quite the opposite.’ She watches me and I have to laugh. At how serious she is, and how agitated, and how similar she is to him. Unbelievable. She loses her temper here beside the fire because of a hand she’s barely seen for more than a minute, and meanwhile the intensity and the anger have been simmering inside her for weeks. I put my arms round her shoulders and suddenly she bursts into tears. I don’t try to stop her. Then I let her carry on talking. I mean, it’s not as if I’m going to tell the whole world about it. Although in this town they won’t be able to keep this particular trouble of theirs a secret for long.

‘I’m there until the end of June and after that I’ll be at home.’ She wipes her eyes and blows her nose. I nod in agreement with everything. She always does everything well. No matter what kind of mess she gets herself into, she’ll find the right solution. She always comes out the other end in style. I’d do things the same way, but I’d never look ladylike in the process. I tell her that now, and say other things that will cheer her up too. Maybe not immediately, but later on. Old family sayings get an airing as well, and all sorts of silly quotes, until finally we’re cackling away like old witches. And just this minute the first bat’s flown over us.

‘You’re going there, Annie, okay? Promise me! I love you.’

‘You shouldn’t sit on that cold rock, you’ll freeze your ovaries,’ I say, defusing the awkward emotion with a quote from one of our old teachers. Then we say goodnight. We agree to meet tomorrow and Miluška disappears into the darkness. I don’t want to walk her home, she can manage by herself. Not for the first time I’m putting out a fire on my own and watching for the dawn. Just below the branches it’s barely noticeable, but in the courtyard I can already see the sky peeping through in places. My eyes are burning, my head’s heavy and achy, but I’m going to wait for it anyway. It won’t be long till the mullein flowers start to open. I want to see them. I’ll sit down in the garden right beside them, and this time I’m not going to miss it. I’ve tried to do this a few times in my life, but rarely succeeded. I was always too late. Constantly hurrying somewhere, even first thing in the morning like now. It’s only today that the right day has finally arrived. This is a moment that you have to come of age for. Have to mentally mature and advance in years for. The fact is that mulleins only open for souls who’ve been chosen. They do it every day, but they won’t let themselves be observed. It’s a mysterious process, a tiny little moment. This morning it might just work out. I’m master of my own time and prepared to wait. I’m not going to be in a hurry and I won’t arrive too late either. As soon as you can make out the lines on your hands, it’s over, finished, open. You have to arrive a moment before. Like right now. I can see it. I squat down, body rigid, gulping every movement the petals make, and feel my body filling with immortality. It’s golden, and gently radiating warmth. The mullein flowers have opened in front of me. All my pangs of guilt begin to leave me. For the first time in a long time I feel relief inside, together with joy at the fact that I too deserve something beautiful in this world. I wonder how long this particular dose of hope will last me. For the moment I’m like a vessel filled to the brim. But such a great weight can’t be held for long. I need to leave here and lie down somewhere, even though I know that with every movement, it’ll start to splash and spill over and I’ll gradually lose all of it again. The sky’s getting light, I need to move, I’ll be visible soon. I make my way home slowly. My legs are so weak, they wobble. I’m drunk from excessive wakefulness. I feel the cool, crisp air brushing against my face. It’s moist and that’s good.

I lie down in bed just for a moment, when it’s already light in the courtyard and the flowers on the other plants are beginning to open. I’m full of impressions, deeds, and facts. I close my eyes for a while and want to absorb them. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fall asleep. I’ll have to go into town soon, but I can rest for a little while, and most of all try to get warm. My head and hands are burning, but my legs are blue as ice. I’ll do what I do every morning. I’ll make myself some tea, and butter some bread. I’ll put some yoghurt out on the table as well. Everything will be fine. I’m not doing so badly at all – other people have far worse problems and they have to live with them. Things are never as bad as they seem. It depends on your attitude to your troubles. If you choose not to worry about them, they might actually melt away. Life is beautiful and extraordinary! Life is magnificent and unrepeatable. Especially when it includes tramadol. Two or three tablets in one go will bring a smile to any face, and even ease the pain in a hand that’s been troublesome.


Translated by Paddy Phillips

Paddy Phillips is a freelance editor, translator and teacher in Oxford. After studying Japanese studies he taught english in Tokyo and Brno and worked for nine years as a dictionary editor for Oxford University Press. Paddy has recently completed an MA translation course specialising in Czech to English translation at Bristol University. This excerpt won the 2016 Susanna Roth Award.