Bianca Bellová


2019 | Host

On the crest of the hill the grass rippled in the sunlight and among the blades Mona saw a silhouette. It was the back and horns of an ox. Alongside the ox a tiny figure carrying a stick skipped lightly. In such a furnace, it was surprising that anyone had the strength to skip. In such heat, it was surprising that the blades of grass were moving. Where was the wind to move them? And who was that skipping figure?

Mona wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. A wisp of her hair freed itself and she stuffed it back under her cap. There was a rumbling in the pipes as if an animal were shuffling about in them. Otherwise it was peaceful. There wasn’t even anyone moaning.

Whose was the silhouette that held such happiness and energy within itself? Her Grandma had been full of life, had climbed trees right into her seventies, and the slight build would even have made sense, but this figure had a child’s energy. Yes, it was her own silhouette urging the ox forwards with disproportionate sweeps of a stick, her skirts falling from her skinny hips. The ox had been called Mun. At least, that’s what she had said when addressing him. “Mun, have you ever heard about the guided dead?” she had once asked, rolling her eyes importantly and covering her mouth with her hands. Mun had turned his head slowly in her direction and his great, dumb eyes had said “no”, he had never heard about the guided dead.

Sometimes, Mun, it would happen that a person died far from home. You know it’s wrong, don’t you, Mun, to bury someone far from home? The young ox had bent his head and felt sadness. When a person is buried far from home, they will never find rest. They simply can’t be at rest, you see? You end up a restless corpse. And so there used to be people who would magic corpses like those home. It could sometimes take weeks. It just depended on the length of the journey. One of these people would guide the dead person the whole way, walking horribly slowly (that’s how you recognise them, from how wearily they both walk) and all the time having to summon the dead person back from the kingdom of the dead. Mun, are you listening to me at all? Mun nodded his head as if to say that he had been listening, and she patted him on the nape of the neck. At night they would stay at an inn and, in the morning, before it got light, they’d be on their way again. The cadaver would have a large straw hat on his head and a veil over his face. The guide and the corpse were always dressed in violet. They’d take slow steps and whenever they met anyone along the way, everyone would leap to avoid them. Children would shriek “A corpse in a hat!” and run off into the fields. Yes, me too.

Mun placed one foot slowly in front of the other and thought about the guided dead. Mona laid her hand on his flank. He had been a good ox. He’d worked excellently in the fields, had done the work of two. She had led him home and talked to him all the way. He had looked at her with his dull eyes and, although he wasn’t able to understand her, it had been clear that he was trying to do so. When they had come to sell him, they hadn’t been able to get him out of the cowshed until Mona had arrived. She had led him to market, where they had both cried when a buyer was found. Mun had looked at her with his stupid eyes and, for some time to come, Mona had had dreams from which she had woken with tears in her eyes.

“One exitus on the large ward,” reported the nurse from the day shift. “The patient with the bullet hole in his lung. One acute amputation following gangrene. One resuscitation.”

“How are we for analgesics?” asked Mona, returning unwillingly from sleep. The day nurse just shook her head wearily. At eye level, a near-transparent lizard walked its deliberate way across the wall.

“It’s hot today,” said Mona to reassure herself. She always felt ill at ease when no one was saying anything. The day sister nodded and slowly freed the clip that fastened her cap to her hair.


The boy who had had the amputation was screaming. Mona knew it would be a demanding shift. There were few opiates and they needed to be thrifty with them. The duty doctor was asleep and wouldn’t thank her for waking him when it wasn’t a matter of life and death. He had had a difficult day, had been working on the front lines, and if he didn’t get at least a bit of sleep, he wouldn’t be able to look after anyone at all. But Mona could cope alone. She was sufficiently experienced.

She glanced at the card hanging at the end of the bed. The boy was called Adam. He had prominent cheekbones, typical of the people from the mountain tribes. His wound was oozing blood and needed a new dressing. The boy let out a groan and looked in her direction, but his eyes were blurred with pain and it was clear that he couldn’t see her at all. His face was speckled with beads of sweat. Mona heaved a sigh and laid a fresh compress on the boy’s forehead. He extended a hand towards her. She let him touch her and his fingers intertwined unexpectedly with hers. His hand was hot and seized by fever.

“Everything will be fine, Adam,” said Mona soothingly.

“It hurts so much,” he groaned.

Mona nodded. Yes, I know, everyone here at the hospital knows how much it hurts. “Help me.”

How could she explain to him that the key to the near-empty opiates cabinet was with the duty doctor, who was currently fast asleep?

“It’s a disgrace,” uttered an older man from the next bed. He raised himself slightly on one elbow. “These boys risk their lives, they fight bravely for you too! They lose a leg, if not their whole lives. And you leave him to suffer like an animal! A disgrace!”

“Quiet please,” Mona hissed at him. “You’ll wake the other patients.”

Under her cap her forehead wrinkled. She extracted a thermometer from her breast pocket and glanced at it closely. Then she slipped it gently under the boy’s armpit.

“Thirsty,” groaned the boy.

Mona snuck into the doctor’s room, a little cubby-hole containing a table, a squeaky chair and, against the wall, a scuffed hospital bed. The smell of almond blossom carried in through the part-open window. Dr Kamran was asleep with his face to the wall and was whiffling noisily. The keys were on the table so there would be no great drama. Mona would simply need to lift them gently so that the metal didn’t jangle.

“What’re you up to? Stealing?” mumbled Dr Kamran quietly. His voice was still husky with sleep.

“I need sedatives for the boy who’s had the amputation,” sighed Mona wearily. She knew there was no longer a chance of sneaking back out of this one.

Dr Kamran beckoned her over with his hand and she went slowly. He got up from the bed and, in the half light of the doctors’ room, fastened himself around her from behind like an amoeba. Mona observed the cockroach that was scurrying across the wall of the room. She was unheeding of the lascivious hands that groped her breasts, belly and crotch. She was pleased that she couldn’t see Dr Kamran’s face; that she couldn’t see the huge callus in the middle of his forehead.

The boy slightly arched his back when the morphine first mixed with his blood. Then he became calm and Mona held his hand until his eyes closed. The patient by the window was crying in his dreams. The man in the next bed once again propped himself up on one elbow and shrieked “You’ve been rolling around with the doctor, haven’t you, you piece of trash? These boys are risking their lives for you, are dying here, and you spend your time luring good men into hell!”

“I warned you!” Mona heaved a sigh and set about dragging the protesting man and his bed out into the corridor. She collided with the doorframe twice before she got her aim right. The man in the bed hissed. Then, at last, he fell silent.


Hání observed his feet, watched how the stream’s rapid flow deformed their appearance and glued little bubbles of air all over them. It was not yet spring. The air was cold and the water icy enough to make one’s bones hurt. He stood and counted, trying to break his record, but when he got to sixty-five he swore because he saw that two leeches had fastened themselves to his left instep. Suddenly there was a whole cluster of them. They came nearer and rose up to the surface. That meant there would be a storm. Hání scrambled out onto the grassy bank and stuck his nail in under the leeches’ suckers, but then lost patience and just tore the disgusting gits off. They were all covered in blood, like when his mother slit the throat of a chicken. He threw the leeches into the grass. From their filthy, part-open mouths his blood gushed out onto him. Dang sat on the grass with a blade in his mouth.

“A leech?” he asked, disinterestedly.

“They make me sick,” answered Hání.

“Arseholes,” nodded Dang.

“Just think, they’ve got five pairs of eyes! Doesn’t that make you sick? There’s a storm coming.” Hání nodded towards the sky. Just at that moment there was a clap of thunder in the distance.


“Hání!” called his mother, at first to dinner, then later just because; from fear and inertia.

“We can’t go home now,” whispered Dang. Hání nodded in agreement. They simply couldn’t do anything as banal as go home now. They lay in the bushes by the clearing on top of the hill above the village.

“What do you think it was?” asked Dang and rubbed his eyes.

Hání shook his head to make it clear to Dang that he was a complete idiot. What else could it have been? It was completely obvious. There could be no argument about it. Hání had it burnt onto his retinas too; the outline of the ellipsoid that had taken its time to rise hesitantly above the hill until it had come to a silent halt over the clearing in the forest. Its illuminated pale-green undercarriage had been ribbed like the body of a leech. Around its girth little oval windows had blinked.

For a long while the boys had held their breath and waited for something to happen; for the trapdoor in the saucer lid to open and for extra-terrestrials to emerge and enter into some form of extrasensory communication with them, Hání and Dang, humanity’s representatives.

“I’m cold,” hissed Dang.

“Hold on a bit longer.”

Then the saucer had risen once more into the air, as inaudibly as it had arrived, and had flown away, off through the dark summer skies.

“What the fuck’s it flying about for?” asked Dang, amazed.

“How come we can’t even hear it?”

“We can never tell anyone about this,” said Hání solemnly.

“Why not?”

Dang had already begun to imagine how the whole village would hang off his every word. He turned his head in incredulity.

“No one will believe you. They’ll say you’re a halfwit who’s got confused between extra-terrestrials and a stray lantern from the Festival of Lights.”

“No no no!” Dang cried. His bottom lip began to quiver.

Hání shrugged his shoulders.

“There’ll be traces, you’ll see,” shrieked Dang. “In the morning there will be traces of that spacecraft.”

Hání closed his eyes and replayed in his mind what they had just seen. There had been a reason that it had happened to the two of them specifically, to two boys from a mountain village that wasn’t even served by a bus. It could only have been seen by the two of them. It had been so personal, so intimate. It had been destined for no one else’s eyes or ears but theirs.

“Mum’s going to kill me,” said Dang and tried to suppress a sob.

“Me too,” nodded Hání and put his arm around Dang’s shoulders.

The following day they went together to the hill and searched for burnt grass or other traces of the space ship’s landing, but found nothing.



“Will I live?” patients sometimes asked. Mona would squirm. She never knew how to respond, but the question no longer threw her into complete disarray. Normally she would fold her arms across her stomach, take the patient by the hand and say that God alone could tell how things would turn out for him. God and Dolores, the matron, who had been nicknamed the Angel of Death. When she stepped onto a ward, she could identify with absolute accuracy which patients would not survive the night, whether they were lying peacefully or were giving out a death rattle and had blood flowing from their ears. Wordlessly, she would point a finger at them and the staff would understand from her gesture that they could soon count on a free bed. Mona lacked this ability and was pleased that it was so. She would often go to the cellar corridor that led to the now half-empty store of medical materials and blood, to the dissecting room and to the morgue. There, leant against the wall, she smoked cigarettes and observed the hospital’s perimeter wall cracking before her very eyes under pressure from the tree roots. The jungle was meeting no resistance as it forced its way into the building. What did it matter when they would die?

The majority of patients didn’t dare ask, however, or weren’t sufficiently in their right minds to be able to. Like Adam that evening. His breathing was shallow and fast like a dog’s, and his face was sweaty. If Matron Dolores had been there, she would doubtless have been able to tell with one glance whether the boy would live to see the morning. Mona was pleased that the matron wasn’t about. If she found out that Adam would die that night, it would probably have a bad effect on her work.

Distractedly, she took his temperature (39.6), changed his antibiotic drip and gave him an injection of sedatives.

She sat down beside him and laid her arm on the bed. And her head on her arm. From close up she watched the rapid rise and fall of the boy’s rib cage.


The eight-storey apartment block’s ceremonial opening had taken place in the same year as the photo Mona had of her parents. The block’s façade and balconies were a brilliant white, like laundry dried in the sun. The floors were decorated with floral embellishments made from Italian tiles and the staircase was trimmed with ironwork, like a garden in bloom. The feature that attracted the greatest admiration, however, was the lift that travelled in a slow and dignified manner between the floors and transported the local bigwigs up and down so that they could savour how softly the liftboy opened and closed the metal doors and pressed the buttons. Down and outs pressed themselves up against the iron railings on the stairs and could only watch with astonishment as the lift cabin (and, in the opposite direction, its counterweight) ascended and descended.

Mona’s father had been excited and filled with joy that a little bit of Paris had been built in his town. He had yelled angrily at the boys who tried to bend the metal locks on the mezzanine windows and had given one of them a restrained clip round the ear. He was always saying how sorry he was that they couldn’t afford to live there. Mona’s mother would smile at him, go up on her tiptoes and caress his face. “But you’re much happier now than when your daughter was born!”

Into the block had moved the mayor and deputy mayor, the bank manager, the post office manager, the head of the police, two doctors and a dentist. The manager of the school and a few tradesmen, the judge, and the editor in chief of the local daily news, her father’s superior. All of them with their families. The only woman who had managed to acquire herself a boudoir in the block was Madame Li, the proprietress of the whorehouse, against whom a wave of resistance immediately rose up amongst the other residents. But Madame Li had already signed a tenancy agreement and it was impossible to get her out of the block by the usual means since she had something compromising on everyone who was anyone in the town. With gusto, therefore, she had walked around provoking the god-fearing wives and their frustrated husbands with her powdered face, the clatter of her high heels and her heavy perfume.

Some of the residents had even had cars – pale blue and black sedans – parked outside the block. Mr Rúní, the owner of the cinema and café, even had a convertible with a roof that sprang up and back down again.

Every day a mob of kids had gathered in the block’s courtyard and, on a variety of pretexts, tried to gain entrance. Behind a heavy wooden desk in the foyer, however, sat a guard who had given every lad who managed to get inside a sharp thwack with his stick, even though – right up until the very last minute – he had always appeared to be asleep.

Only the priest in his grey kaftan had given the block a daily shake of his fist. And every now and then a stone had come flying in from somewhere or other and broken one of the windows.


How much time had she had back then, when she had gone with her parents to the opening party for the Parisian apartments? How many shared mornings, when her father had quickly knocked back his black coffee and nervously fixed his tie? He had had no objective reason for his nervousness. It had just been part of his nature. He had always answered curtly, without ever fully opening his mouth, as if he had been lost somewhere else in his thoughts. Mona inherited the wandering, the restlessness and the inability to remain in one place from him. Her mother had on the contrary been calm, devoid of any obvious internal conflicts. She had been precisely the element Mona’s father needed: quiet, admiring, adoring, always standing just where he needed her.

In the mornings, Mona’s mother had made coffee for her father and breakfast for Mona: pancakes, doughnuts or little sesame-coated crescent rolls. Mona’s father never ate anything in the mornings. That year, Mona’s mother had often laid her hand on her belly or on her lower back and spent a lot of time sitting down. She had also eaten little, and it was strange that Mona remembered that now. Her mother had enjoyed bathing in the tub that her husband had given her as a wedding present. It had wrought-iron feet in the shape of lion’s paws, at which Mona would sit and wash her mother’s back with a soapy sponge. Her mother used to lie back in the water and her long hair would fan out among the hibiscus flowers on the surface and appear even more beautiful than usual.


That year, God had shown the town how debauchery was punished, and had cloven the Parisian block in two. The terrible wound had announced itself suddenly, like cannon fire, and then there had been a long, unbroken silence. After a little while shrieks had begun to be heard. People had gathered from all over the town and the surrounding area but, for a long time, the air had been filled with swirling dust from the rubble and nobody had been able to see anything at all. In the cloud everyone had collided with each other, fallen over each other and sworn. The first to take advantage of the situation had been the street tea sellers, who drew everyone’s attention to their wares with loud cries. As if bewitched, people had searched their pockets for change and drunk the hot, sweet tea as if it could somehow ward off the impending doom.

When the cries of the injured had fallen silent and the dust cloud had settled, the spirit of the previously imposing building had appeared before them. The sumptuous construction looked as if it had been chopped up by giant axes: it seemed to have been split in two, just like the earthworm that Mona and her classmates had dissected at school. The external walls had disappeared and provided the onlookers with a direct view into the disembowelled rooms, from the walls of which still hung mirrors, family photos and pictures, as well as majolica washbasins. On the first floor, a pink cot still stood by the wall. In it was a frightened toddler, who dared not even make a peep. Rooms full of random bits of furniture, swinging ceiling lights and Isfahan rugs hanging halfway out into space looked like stage sets. The heavy lift cabin had been left dangling on its steel cable and continued to sway at third-floor level. On the ground floor, where the reception and its marble desk had been, was a tottering mound of debris topped with a dusting of Madame Li’s many-coloured slippers, all feathers and lace. Mona imagined how Madame Li’s shoe cupboard had all of a sudden disgorged its contents and how, like multicoloured confetti, the shoes had flown through the air in slow motion as if in an American film. Everyone had watched in silence as if they had lost their powers of speech. Quietly, dust had settled on them. Mona’s mother had squeezed her father’s hand and said that she would just buy dinner from a stall that night, that she didn’t feel like cooking. When they arrived home, Mona’s father had started to cry. He sat on the terrace behind the house and tears flowed down his face. At first it had been soundless, and then he had burst into loud sobs, just like Mona when her classmates had stolen her lunch. Mona was terrified by this. How could she not have been? What father cries in front of his children? She had never realised that men had tears too.

“Bigoted swine,” wailed her father.

“Shh, someone will hear you,” her mother reprimanded quietly.

Mona had no idea whom her father was talking about, nor really knew what the word meant. He got drunk and shrieked at the top of his lungs. Mona’s mother knelt beside him until he calmed down. At last he fell asleep on the terrace, and her mother covered him with a light quilt and left a candle burning to ward off the mosquitoes.

They had brought the injured here, to the very same hospital where today, through the same walls that still concealed their wails and last whispers, streams of sludgy water trickled and the jungle’s roots grew, uninhibited.

Adam started to groan. Mona leant down to him, adjusted his pillow and laid her hand on his forehead. When she stood up and fixed her uniform she felt a smack on her bottom. She gave a start and swung round at lightning speed, but Adam was lying with his eyes closed and breathing with difficulty.


Translated by Julia Sutton-Mattocks