Miss Handbag was sitting on the table observing the dog that was lying next to the shoe rack and snoring. She knew that if she moved, the dog would lunge at her and start barking. Her mind raced thinking, what now? She opened just a crack to let Mouse out. Mouse stuck out her little snout and tried to catch a scent. She pulled herself up to the edge by her paws, climbed down Miss Handbag onto the table and started eating the breadcrumbs that were there. She even found a piece of cheese that Grandpa had left. Miss Handbag was glad that Mouse was eating something and that she was happy. She carefully took out the book Secrets of the Night and started reading by the moonlight: Everything is bigger at night. Be it fear or happiness. Some really enjoy the nighttime. They get excited: singing, running, jumping and dancing ‘til the morning. Some are afraid of the dark or dangerous people or ghosts. And then there are those who like walking on rooftops – sleepwalkers… But the best thing to do is to learn to enjoy the night, simply slide into it and just be in it. The most important thing is not to turn on the light. One only needs to calm down, stare into the darkness and listen carefully to the noises of the night – sleepers breathing, clocks ticking, dogs barking and cats caterwauling. The eyes slowly adjust to the dark. Soon, they’re able to see better and then it happens: you blend into one with the night. And that’s what it’s about. Miss Handbag felt it happening to her. She slowly shimmied along the table to the edge. Once there, she quietly hopped down and headed for the bedroom. Like breath, like darkness, like a dream. The dog was sleeping. He barked in his sleep several times but didn’t budge. It was quiet. Miss Handbag walked around the bed where Grandpa and Grandma were sleeping, she passed the night table, on top which stood a glass with teeth floating in it and she also noticed an embroidery kit. Grandma must have tried something out of that book Embroidery from Times Past. Miss Handbag looked at the embroidery in awe. Sigh, I’d love to have that, such beauty… Then she went over to the window. Mouse watched her from the corner of her eye. Miss Handbag jumped up on the windowsill and cracked the window open. There was a small basket with pegs next to her on the windowsill. Outside, under the window stood a drying rack with a clothes line hanging from it. Miss Handbag saw it. She moved onto the top of the rack carefully. That really was a huge drop below but she wasn’t afraid at all. The night gave her courage. She moved along the rack carefully all the way to that clothes line. Mouse stopped munching on the crumbs from the table, climbed down one of the legs and sprinted after Miss Handbag with her tail sticking up high in the air. She couldn’t get up the bare wall and started panicking. The dog howled from his slumber now. Mouse decided to climb up on the bed. A corner of Grandma’s blanket fell down so it wasn’t difficult at all. Mouse climbed up it to Grandma and Grandpa’s bed, ready, set, go and with a skip and a jump over Grandpa’s mustache, Grandma’s nose, she landed next to Miss Handbag. Grandma sneezed, Grandpa snored, but they slept on. Miss Handbag was already tying the clothes line to her straps. Mouse didn’t skip a beat and jumped inside. Miss Handbag pushed off and lowered herself down. As luck would have it though, she was left hanging on the third floor. The rope wasn’t as long as she was expecting and didn’t reach the ground.
Mr. Coat jumped down to the courtyard under the window of the bathroom. He felt kind of like a burglar and a little bit afraid too. But the surrounding houses were quiet. The lights in the windows were slowly going out until they were all off. Dark houses were looming around Mr. Coat and the moon was shining in the night sky. It was cold. Mr. Coat walked through the passage in the building and grabbed the door handle. The gate was open. He walked out into the street. He was free. He spun around in joy with his sleeves spread out and skipped along. The street was empty. He noticed two policemen on the other side of the street. They were shining a flashlight into a shop window and were checking on the store. He was sure that it was them who had been shining the light into the pub. Luckily, they were so enthralled with examining the store that they didn’t notice him. Mr. Coat now walked along the sides of the buildings very carefully and slowly gained distance from the policemen. He walked along the quay. The moon was shining over the river and Mr. Coat noticed sleeping swans and ducks in its moonlight. The river flowed calmly as if nothing was going on at all. Sleeping fish were floating in it, levitating under the surface. And those not sleeping were slowly crisscrossing the river back and forth. The boats tied to the dock were swaying there and back. Mr. Coat walked to the bridge and noticed someone sitting on it. It startled him a little. A fisherman? Nope, that was no fisherman. He carefully walked towards the figure. He was curious. The person was sitting on the very edge looking down into the water below. Mr. Coat didn’t like it one bit. He could fall. He ran ahead and stepped onto the bridge. He walked slowly towards the sitting man and was afraid of scaring him. The man was sitting without moving though and continued staring motionless into the river. It didn’t take long before Mr. Coat was standing right behind him. He carefully stepped up next to him so that he could see his face. Finally, he sat down next to him and softly put his sleeve on the man’s shoulder to warm him up. As the man felt warmer, he sighed. Mr. Coat started humming him a song that he had just made up:
Who knows, what the pockets hold
What happens tomorrow, none of us know
Button all the way up
Before it blows over
What hurts now, shall pass
And will soon feel better,
So pull up your collar
And bet your bottom dollar,
Your heart will skip once again
And your eyes will sparkle like they did then
Shabadoooo….yes they will doooooooo….
The person listened to Mr. Coat’s humming. When Mr. Coat was done, he sighed again, but it was a different kind of sigh. He suddenly straightened up and started humming along with him: … your heart will skip once again… And your eyes will sparkle like they did then… Then he started kicking his legs back and forth, swaying them up and over to the other side of the bridge. He jumped down from the ledge and ran to the other side. Mr. Coat was left alone and he felt content. He looked down at the river flowing under the bridge and if he could, he would have smiled. This way, he was only chuckling inside, making his shoulders shake. He also jumped down and set out in the opposite direction than the man, who was already gone out of sight.
He walked home slowly, feeling exhausted and so he climbed into his bed and fell asleep quickly.
Miss Handbag was hanging mid-air and felt horribly sick. Who could have known that I have vertigo, she thought. Mouse’s snout popped up over the edge and hid inside again. Miss Handbag tried to close herself but she couldn’t do it. So she at least looked up at the starry sky above and slowly tried to calm herself down. Venus shone directly above her. That she was certain of. Venus, which they call the Evening Star at night and when the morning comes, they call it the Morning Star – so it all depends on when you’re looking at it. But it was a mystery to her why it shone so brightly in the first place. Unless it was because Uranus was close by. That could be the reason, she thought, then it would shine double, yessiree. She tried looking down inside of herself into the book Black Holes and White Dwarfs but there was nothing there. Too bad that she didn’t borrow something about star constellations. She forgot the Secrets of the Night on the table at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s so she had to rely only on her memory. The Big Dipper, well of course, everyone recognizes that one but I can’t ever find the little one… How did it go… If we stretch out the back wheels five times, then we should hit the North Star… Yep, I know that by heart, I’ve tried so many times… and I never found it… if we stretch the wheels five times… she turned back and forth… five times… but which way? If I could find the North Star, then I’ll find the Little Dipper as well. She turned in a circle until her head starting spinning. Well I don’t know, she sighed to herself. Nothing. Again. But over there is Cassiopea, that I can recognize, it looks like a W. And Orion’s Belt – those are my favorites. She was staring at her own belt at that point. Well, I hope it’s strong enough, she thought. Hopefully it won’t break with me hanging on it. She looked at how high she was actually hanging. Well, that’s pretty high. There was not a soul in sight down below on the street. Only a car passed by every now and then and once even an empty tram. Miss Handbag sighed. Then she dug out Black Holes and White Dwarfs and started reading. She completely forgot that she was hanging mid-air somewhere. The book was unbelievably suspenseful. A place where everything disappeared. A black hole… Everything is pulled in with a massive gravitational force…
She fell asleep. Some footsteps and a rustle woke her in the middle of the night. “Jana, Jana…”
A window opened, the one right next to Miss Handbag, and a sleepy-eyed Jana peered out. “What is it Matty?” she asked.
“I love you, you know that? And I’ll marry you if you want…”
Jana started laughing. “What did you say?”
“That I’m gonna marry you and that I love you.”
“Matty, I knew that you were crazy.”
“And what about you? Will you marry me… Jana?!”
There was a silence and then Jana whispered: I will. I will marry you, Matty. You’re my one and only.”
The window on the 5th floor opened and Grandpa stuck his head out: “Quiet! We’re trying to sleep over here!”
Jana waved to Matty and Matty disappeared into the night.
It was quiet everywhere again. Little beady eyes peered out from the handbag, little paws took out a piece of bread and Mouse started chewing on the crust. Then she disappeared into Miss Handbag like she was some black hole.
Mr. Coat woke up in bed in the morning. He was craving something good to eat so he jumped out and started rummaging in the kitchen. No cookies, no chips, gum but I don’t feel like having that, a hard roll – shucks, how long have I had it here? Pate, pickles, lentils… Well, nothing to do but go out and buy something, otherwise I’ll die hungry here, he concluded. Now where is my scarf, he thought. He looked up his sleeve, then on the hanger, behind the shoe rack, in bed, but no scarf anywhere. Well I must have lost it then, he growled, annoyed. Where could I have left it? I’ll go to all the places I went yesterday and we’ll see. That way I’m bound to find it for sure. And so he headed outside. He went down his familiar street along the buildings all the way to the end of the barbed wire fence behind which was the snowy garden, then around the street lamp and on and on. He kept glancing around to see if the scarf was laying somewhere but it was nowhere to be seen. He ran across the crosswalk, passed the bus stop and stopped. Hmm, but where did I go next, he thought. I went through the passage, I remember that, but then? Left or right? I can’t remember at all. It was probably to the right, he huffed and ran up the stairs. A bus was coming and Mr. Coat got on, even though he wasn’t sure whether it was a bus with this number. He ran up the bus from the front to the back and looked under all the seats. No scarf anywhere. He was the only passenger. So he sat all the way in the back and looked out the window. He suddenly thought of Miss Handbag. He closed his eyes. The memory was so vivid that he almost felt as though she was sitting right next to him. He quivered and put the sleeve down next to him… but there was no one there. He looked sadly out the window. He thought about whether it was possible that they could run into each other again in this big city. He got off at the next stop and slowly walked up the hill on Belocerkevska Street until he reached the gray house. And there, by the doorbell, he found his lost scarf. It was a little wet and covered in snow but Mr. Coat was so elated that he started jumping up and down and spinning around in a circle. And so it happened that he slipped on a patch of ice that still hadn’t melted and slid down the street all the way to the bus stop. He was laughing merrily the whole time. He decided to go to the municipal library. Maybe they could run into each other there again, maybe he’d find her there. Since he found the scarf. He got on the bus and rode on. He got off after a while and marched along the half-empty street towards the library. He only passed figures with face masks covering their noses and mouths. So he pulled his scarf all the way up to his collar even though it was still a little bit wet and was glad that he found it.
The sun was out and all the ice and snow were melting. Spring was almost here. Many birds sat on Miss Handbag during the day. All of them were looking for something good to eat. They chirped, looked inside and off they went. Titmice, sparrows, bullfinches and even robins. This made Miss Handbag happy because she loved birds. She offered them bits of bread and even a lollipop and a bit of a sesame cracker, which belonged to Mouse. And then Mother Bird appeared. She sat on Miss Handbag and kept looking her up and down carefully. It seemed she was finally satisfied and began collecting little twigs to build a nest on Miss Handbag. Truth be told, Miss Handbag was quite speechless: Well that’s just great. I’m going to be a nest. Even Mouse was worried and quickly moved to the outside side pocket so that Mother Bird didn’t trap her inside. Luckily, there was a tree branch close to where they were hanging and so Mouse could run up and down to fetch food. Mother Bird worked hard until the evening. Then she disappeared. Miss Handbag was resigned to her fate. First, she thought she’d ask Mouse to chew off the rope but a fall from such a height would probably kill her. Luckily, she had her books. Embroidery from Times Past stayed at Grandma’s just like Secrets of the Night but she still had Bird Songs, Black Holes and White Dwarfs, The Lives of Rodents and Spring Flora. They came in very handy now. Especially Bird Songs. The author managed to create a dictionary of the different chirps, singsongs and peeps so at least Miss Handbag knew when her new neighbors were arguing and when they were just chit chatting. She wrote everything down and as the days went by she understood them better and better. There were already two eggs in the nest and Mother Bird almost never left now. They started talking. Miss Handbag in awkward bird language but it was better than nothing.
“I’m very grateful for the refuge,” said Mother Bird one day.
“It’s an honor. I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” answered Miss Handbag politely.
“Last year, I had my young in a chestnut tree but I lost one because of the cats.”
“No cat would dare come close to me.”
“But I can’t wait to get down.”
“You want to get down?” asked Mother Bird in panic, “I hope not now!”
“Not now. I don’t even know how.”
“I’ll help you afterwards. But please promise you’ll wait.”
The little snout looked up eagerly from the side pocket. Mouse also wished to be somewhere else now. Mother Bird squawked in alarm and Mouse’s snout disappeared immediately.
Another night was setting on Miss Handbag and her tenants.
“Would you like a meatball, honey?” asked Grandma on the 5th floor as she hang wet clothes on the drying rack.
“I’d love one, sweetheart,” he called back from the inside.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m reading the book that you left here.”
“Secrets of the Night?”
“Secrets of the Night.”
“Suspenseful, isn’t it?”
“Suspenseful and beautiful,” agreed Grandpa.
Jana was singing in the window on the second floor. Love, dear God, Love, where do people find you…
The drops fell on Mother Bird and Miss Handbag.
“Yup,” said Miss Handbag and they both trembled.
Mr. Coat went to the library every day even though it was closed. He always stood in front of it for a bit, looked around and then walked back. Is it possible that we’ll never meet again? He always thought. Then he bundled up and disappeared into the streets of Old Town. One day he noticed a strange statue above the entrance to the library. A caryatid. She was holding a book in her hand but wasn’t reading. She was looking down with her lips turned up in a slight smile. She held her other hand out as if inviting those walking past to grab it. Mr. Coat couldn’t resist, stood up on the column next to the library door and stretched towards the inviting hand. It was cold and made of marble, a little bit slippery, yet he still grabbed it and pulled himself up. It made him laugh. I grabbed a statue’s hand and she pulled me up. Then he used the book to swing up on the caryatid’s head and higher to where another caryatid sat. It was a man holding books in his hand – a whole pile of them. Well what a heavyweight, nodded Mr. Coat. He sat on the column for a while and looked own on Marianske Square. He was quite high up. When he got enough, he climbed further, higher and higher. Once he reached the second floor, he climbed up onto the window sill and then up along the stone fruit even higher, to the third floor and up the leaves and stone flowers to the statues of pelicans and then from the pelicans up to the roof. At first he just sat there but then he stood up. The wind pushed into him and Mr. Coat puffed up. He laughed at first, enjoying the sensation, but then he walked over to the chimney to hold on just in case. I’m as close to the sky and the clouds as I’ve ever been, he thought to himself. Ahhh, so beautiful.
The people down on the square looked like tiny ants. But they were all looking down into the ground. No one looked up at the library. Mr. Coat spread his sleeves out and exhaled in satisfaction. At that moment, the wind really pushed into him and chased him to the other side of the roof. Mr. Coat tried to grab the antenna but the wind chased him with such force that he immediately found himself on the edge of the roof. He was already on the gutter, right on the very edge of the roof on the other side. He didn’t know what to do. He can’t fall down! He balanced in desperation but then he spread out as much as he could, the wind picked him up and Mr. Coat started flying. He flew like a hang glider, like a parachute, flying above the square and the streets below. He surfed over Charles Bridge and the Bridge Tower, flew above the Vltava to the other side. Gulls and honking swans passed him by. One even snapped at him. Mr. Coat maneuvered right and climbed upwards over Prague Castle and above Daliborka Tower. He flew on and on, above the Loreta and the Savoy Hotel, floating above buildings and tree tops.
It was slowly getting dark, Mother Bird had long tucked her head below her wing and Mouse also climbed into her little pocket. But Miss Handbag couldn’t sleep. She had to think about Black Holes and White Dwarfs, like she did every other night. She could understand the dwarfs, she thought: that the stars collapse on themselves at the end of their life and that’s how dwarfs were made, though why do they call them dwarfs, she chuckled. One of the dwarf stars was supposed to be the companion Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. But… which one was it, that brightest star in the sky? She racked her brain and looked into the book and then up at the sky again. If we stretch Orion’s Belt to the left, we’ll find the brightest star in the sky. But how many times? How many times are we supposed to stretch it out? I’ll try it, she thought. It still wasn’t completely dark. A light breeze blew and there was a nice scent in the air. The trees were already in bloom. She looked up and waited for the first star to light up. It was so quiet.
And then she saw him.
There was something large and black flying above the tree…
What on earth… She frowned… Why yes, it did look like… a coat… “Mr. Coat,” she shouted startling even herself. “Where are you flying to?”
Mr. Coat turned over to see who was calling him and tried to use his sleeves to brake his wild flight: “Miss Handbag, he yelped in surprise, what are you doing over there?”
But the wind shook him up and then carried him up above the buildings higher and higher. Miss Handbag spun around on the rope and started laughing. Wow, that was Mr. Coat… I would have never guessed that of him… That he’d be flying over the city… so high…
She was hoping to see him again once the wind brought him back but the sky turned dark and the night came. The first star lit up in the sky. The wind swayed the tree branches and Mr. Coat was gone. She sighed. She was still happy she got to see him again though.
When darkness came, Matty appeared in front of the building. He whistled at first and then called out: “Jana… Jana… You home?”
Silence. The window didn’t open.
Matty sighed in disappointment, “If only I had a pen and piece of paper, I could leave her a note…”
He lifted his head up to the sky. And Miss Handbag threw down a notebook with a pencil. It hit him right on the nose. He was looking up in surprise and didn’t understand what just happened. Miss Handbag laughed quietly to herself. Matty wrote a letter and threw it into the mailbox. Then he looked up at the building again. The Evening Star was twinkling in the sky and everything was quiet.
Mr. Coat flew upward. The wind was pushing into him like a sail. People were watching from their windows.
“Wow, look at that,” they shouted to each other. “What is that? Hellooooo!”
And Mr. Coat also shouted helloooo back and then suddenly the wind stopped and Mr. Coat fell in a splat on the ground. Luckily, onto grass in the park.
“Well that was something,” he said as he stood up and brushed the dirt off.
There was a man sitting on a bench nearby. He was swaying a little from side to side, mumbling to himself and held a bottle in his hand.
“A flying carpet?” his eyes big with wonder. “I would love to fly too…”
Then he stood up and staggered over to Mr. Coat.
“Are you magical?” he asked nosily.
Mr. Coat was lying down not moving an inch. As the man bent over to look at him though, he lost his balance and was suddenly lying on top of him. What was strange was the fact that he stayed that way. Mr. Coat first though that something had happened to him so he prodded him and pushed him and finally even tickled him a little from below. But the man started snoring. And then slept like the dead. Mr. Coat first tried to slide out from under him to free himself but it was impossible. Then he felt sorry for the man and so he covered him up like a blanket. He figured he’d disappear in the morning. He watched the night sky for a while and found Orion’s Belt right away. He knew all about stars. He stretched Orion’s Belt over to the left out of habit and saw Sirius immediately, the brightest star in the sky. Then he remembered Miss Handbag, how she hung there spinning with a nest on top of her and a bird in that nest. And how she called out to him when he flew above her. He felt happy just thinking about it as though everything was just like it should be. He looked at the stars and smiled to himself. He fell asleep soon after.
Something woke him up before the sun came up. He started fidgeting. Something was biting him. In the lining of his sleeve, in his pocket and under his collar. It was biting him all over. Flees. Mr. Coat shook and quickly started to smell. His father taught him that trick a long time ago and it helped. The flees packed up to go. His night resident was no longer snoring. He slept quietly like a baby. Even the smell didn’t bother him. He even snuggled into Mr. Coat more and they both slept peacefully until morning.
It happened that day even before the sun came up. A cracking sound woke up Miss Handbag. She was wide awake immediately. She had read about an earthquake in a book once and that was the first thought to go through her mind. We have to get away, away from the large buildings!
“Snap,” the sound came again and Miss Handbag felt an internal tremor.
It’s as though it’s coming from inside of me. But I’m not a volcano.
“Crack,” the sound came again, this time quieter, more like a crackling sound.
Should I wake up Mother Bird? Miss Handbag thought. It would probably be wise to do so. I’m surprised she herself doesn’t feel it too.
“Crack,” the sound came again and this time it woke up Mother Bird.
“Finally,” thought Miss Handbag.
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking, finally,” yawned Mother Bird.
“What’s finally?” asked Miss Handbag in awe of her being so calm.
“Well, finally,” repeated Mother Bird.
“Earthquake? A volcano eruption? Or what, finally?” writhed Miss Handbag.
Mother Bird burst out laughing. She couldn’t stop.
“Crack, crack” came the sound again and “Crack, crack, crack,” it continued.
Miss Handbag would have rather plugged up her ears, she couldn’t take it anymore. But it was no use. Her ears were on her straps, which were tied with the rope and pulled all the way up.
“Crack, crack, crack, crack, crack.”
“What is it?” she yelled out desperately.
And then she heard baby bird squeaks.
Miss Handbag froze and repeated in surprise: “What is that?”
The squeaking grew louder and Mother Bird answered between laughs. “My baby birds!”
“Oh,” said Miss Handbag, feeling relieved.
That was before she realized that the bird squeaks won’t stop until the baby birds leave the nest. It was morning and Mother Bird starting looking for food. Miss Handbag first tried to calm the baby birds using bird language, telling them that mommy would be back soon and to not be afraid, that she of course wouldn’t leave them alone for long… But they didn’t listen to her at all. They were squeaking one over the other until Miss Handbag’s head throbbed. So she opened her book Bird Songs and started singing. That calmed them down a bit. Mother Bird came back to the nest ever so often and brought the baby birds little worms and beetles and earthworms and flies as Miss Handbag sang to them. When she got to the last bird song, she grabbed another book and started reading Spring Flora and finally The Lives of Rodents by the time evening came. Even Mouse listened to that one, having climbed all the way up to the nest; she perked her ears and nodded her little head as if she understood every word. She was biting on an old hazelnut she had found and checked out the new tenants.
Miss Handbag was exhausted and fell asleep in no time. Mouse couldn’t resist and started biting the beautiful book about rodents. It didn’t take long before only the hardcover of the book was left. But the baby birds had their blankets nice and fluffy.
Translated by Alžběta Belánová