Viktorie Hanišová

The Mushroom Gatherer

2018 | Host


I hated it. An old-fashioned frilly pink dress which was too tight round the waist, my toes all pinched from my white patent-leather ballet shoes, me sitting on an upholstered chair, my back straight as a die, and if I lowered my shoulders even a fraction, a jab between the shoulder blades: “Sit up straight!”

From the corner of my eye I could see my brothers making faces and spitting out the odd obscenity now and again. They looked forward to opera about as much as a pig does to being castrated, and they’d have much preferred to have been going to the cinema or watching TV at home. They might even have put up with a show at Alfa, but there was no chance of that happening. We had to go to the Grand Theatre in the Smetana Gardens. To the one and only “true theatre in Plzeň”. A proper stage with a large orchestra and elaborate set designs, the classic composers – Prokofiev, Verdi and Smetana. My mother was mad about classical music.

I couldn’t wait till the lights dimmed in the auditorium and the hum of the audience subsided. As soon as the first notes of the violin cut into the silence, my eldest brother discreetly took out his Discman, put in one earphone and gave the other to my younger brother. Even my father, who was sitting on a stool, began to relax slightly in the darkened box. Slouching, he leant his head against the wall and even crossed his legs. Millimetre by millimetre I began to unwind my shoulders, my chin getting closer to the balcony railing until I finally rested my head on my hand while I hunted for the opera glasses in my bag with the other. It was more fun for me to observe the audience than to watch what was happening on stage. In my field of view were ladies with purple coiffured hair, young people with their mobile-phone screens shining in their palms, and tourists who had come in jeans and clapped eagerly after every solo.

However, the most interesting thing was happening behind me. I had never seen anyone devour what was happening on stage like that. Through my opera glasses I had seen some of the audience hold their breath, some even weeping, but that was nothing in comparison with her performance. Mother sat on a stool, her back ramrod-stiff, her hand on her chest, mouth slightly open. She looked as though someone was performing an exorcism over her. Every word from the stage, every thump on the hollow floor resonated in her expression – she shrank back if there was a loud noise, her eyes widened or narrowed. Her face flushed during love scenes, and if there was something nasty happening on stage, she would cover her eyes with her hands and watch the performance through the gaps between her fingers. I could have sworn I could hear her heart beating. I could have stared at her throughout the whole performance, I could have pinched her thigh – she wouldn’t have noticed a thing.

My mother was the kind of audience member every true theatre deserved. She was as much as part of the Great Theatre just as much as the ushers with their programmes and the carefully painted sets. In fact, she was even more than that. My mother was the best actor in the theatre. Her performance deserved a prolonged standing ovation. Bravo! It was her moment of glory. Next to her my father, the head of the family and sole provider, looked like a mere appendage, a supporting actor whose role was to make the real star look good.

My mother was an artiste who was so immersed in her role that she was unable to switch off even after the end of the performance.

And so no-one could think badly of her when she took those theatrical gestures with her to her death bed. Her final hour was reminiscent of a classical tragedy that Sophocles would have been proud of.

They phoned me just after six in the morning, asking me to come as soon as I could. Apparently Mother was very weak and they feared the worst. I hesitated for a moment, the sun from the window beckoning me to the forest, but then I dragged myself out of the crumpled bed, dressed quickly and headed to the station.

I arrived at the hospital just before ten.

The two of them were already waiting in front of her room. Evžen was standing upright with his hands behind his back, looking out of the window. Milan, half a head smaller, was leaning against the white wall. He nodded gently in greeting, smiling cautiously, but when he saw Evžen turn round to him with a sour expression, he quickly straightened his mouth.

“What are you doing here?” snapped Evžen at me.

I didn’t answer, heading straight for the door instead, but Milan caught me by the shoulder.

“Hang on, Sis, we’re not allowed in yet.”

He coughed into his clenched fist with its white knuckles and looked at the ground. The muscles in his face were taut and drops of sweat glistened on his brow.

We sat down in silence on the leatherette bench beside the door. It was only after a few minutes that I realised why I couldn’t go in. The door to Mother’s room opened and a nurse came out into the corridor wearing blue rubber gloves and pushing a trolley with a basin and some wet cloths. She signalled to us that she had finished.

“I won’t disturb you,” she said, pushing the trolley towards the nurses’ station. The wheels of the trolley squealed like a mouse caught in a trap.

I was the last to go into the room. I wasn’t in the least bit nervous as I was convinced this would be another false alarm. Despite all their efforts, not even Evžen and Milan could hide their annoyance. It wouldn’t be the first time we had been dragged out for no reason – Mother had called us out twice in the past month alone.

However, as soon as we saw her ashen face and looked into her glazed, poison-yellow eyes, it was immediately clear to me that this was no act.

The nurse had managed to rid mother of her unpleasant smells and she now lay theatrically spread out on the hospital bed, a white sheet draped over her body like a painting by Rubens. However, there was no lively young body lying under that material. The stretched skin on Mother’s plump white arms formed unsightly wrinkles at her elbows and underarms, her long, uncombed hair spread out on all sides, and yellow saliva was stuck to the corners of her mouth. The air in the room was permeated with old age, disinfectant and pathos.

Mother gazed at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes, seemingly unaware of our presence. We stood motionless for a while before Milan went over, gently touched her hand and whispered hello, but his words made no impact on Mother’s confused expression, sliding off her like droplets from glass. He shrugged, curled his lower lip and walked back to us.

All three of us sat on the empty bed beside her. None of us knew what to say. Milan played with his mobile phone, Evžen stared impassively out the window while I dangled my legs from the high bed. None of us wanted to look death in the face. We sat next to each other like three people who just happened to be sharing a park bench – no-one would have guessed we were related.

I have no idea how long it took – it could have been minutes, it could have been hours. Finally, there was movement in the bed and Mother slowly turned her head in our direction. The misty cloud was gone from her eyes. She was looking at us.

“Children,” she said hoarsely. An enormous goitre wobbled underneath her yellowed skin. I noticed how shallow her breathing was. A monitor was bleeping above her head.

Mother swallowed with difficulty, blinked several times, stretched out her arm and opened her hand. We understood that she wanted to spend the last moments of her life with those closest to her.

Two hands, three children. A choice to make even on your death bed. We exchanged awkward glances – no-one wanted to go first. Milan rubbed his chin indecisively, Evžen bit his lip, while I chose to stare at my worn-out boots.


From the start it was obvious who was going to leave the group first. Evžen looked around a few more times, climbed down from the bed and then gingerly moved towards Mother’s right hand. Then immediately after him Milan began to weave his way through the tubes from the drip, the electrodes and the monitor cables. He brushed against the urine bag, let out a guilty “oh-oh”, but eventually succeeded in finding a place to the left of Mother.

Mother clutched the hands of both her sons and managed to rasp something out again. The words she slowly uttered were interspersed by a dry cough. The brothers looked into her eyes and nodded their agreement. I was sitting too far away from them to understand Mother. For a moment I thought that I should join them and try to embrace her and kiss her forehead – after all, I was one of them too, my mother’s only daughter, but I didn’t want to disturb the perfect symmetry. At any rate, there wasn’t enough room for me on the bed. Evžen stroked Mother’s hair, bent down towards her and whispered something in her ear. Mother smiled slightly and her eyes almost sparkled. Even Milan bent down to her and pressed his cheek against hers. I had the feeling that they were fossilized in this close bond, and this image made a great impression on me. That was how you should die, I thought, in the embrace of your family, that was how a proper tragedy should end. It was cathartic for everyone. The only one to spoil this exalted atmosphere was me – a voyeur with no hand left to hold.

My mother and brothers remained in this tight embrace for a few minutes. Now and again Mother would mumble something. I looked out the window at the sun gleaming off the roofs. I wished I was back in the Šumava mountains.

When I eventually turned round, it was all over. The monitor above Mother’s head was bleeping rapidly and a nurse ran into the room, this time without the rubber gloves. She pulled away Mother’s generous drapery, placed a palm with outstretched fingers on her waxy skin and shouted at my brothers to move away. They did so with startled expressions.

They tried to resuscitate her for a short while before saying it was no good. The love triangle of a mother and two sons had been torn apart forever.

“Death occurred at 1.56pm…”

None of us fell to our knees in despair or tore at our hair. The three of us who were left in the room tried not to let on to each other what we were all feeling at that moment. Relief.

We closed the wide door, leaving Mother behind forever, her face covered by a white sheet. We smiled compassionately at one another and shook hands.

“We’ll let you know when the funeral is. We won’t bother you with anything, we’ll sort out everything for you, Sis,” said Evžen as we were leaving. Milan shook my hand and then gave me a brotherly slap on the back. I stood there and watched the two of them disappearing down the hospital corridor. Evžen walked upright and distinguished, while Milan was pumping his arms in an effort to keep up with him. Before reaching the stairwell he turned round briefly and waved at me.



The funeral was a week later. I almost missed it. The train was held up on the line between Mileč and Nepomuk – another suicide with no regard for other people. After half an hour I gave up waiting and went to hitchhike as I had no money for a taxi. Nor did I fare any better in Plzeň. At the stop by the main station I accientally got on the bus to the shopping centre instead of the Central Cemetery, and so I had to run all the way up the hill.

I was one of the last to arrive at the funeral parlour, my polo-neck sticking to my back with sweat. Perhaps it was only me, but I felt that as soon as I walked through the door a hush fell over the room. As though a wasp had slipped into a beehive.

Almost all of the benches in the crematorium were full and people were even pressed up against the walls. The number of people in the hall was astounding.

I managed to find a place in the last row. A heavily perfumed forty-something to my right threw me a hostile look. I searched in vain through my memory for a name to match the face, but I had been used to people’s disapproving looks for a long time now.

The door cut us off from the fresh air and sunshine, and the murmuring in the hall became a muffled silence punctuated by muffled coughs. After a while the first notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata sounded in the hall. As if on command, everyone stood up and the dark hall blossomed with white handkerchiefs. The music faded and everyone sat down again. The first speaker came up to the podium – one of Father’s colleagues from the faculty and a friend of the family. He stood at the lectern, took out some notes and began: “Dear guests…” He spoke for a long time about hard work, about honouring traditional values, pausing significantly between words.

“She was the wife of a great man,” he emphasized to the hall, turning away from his notes and nodding his head.

His speech left me at a loss. He was right in a way because Father stood above Mother in most respects. Mother, with no education, job or status, was no match for Father, while she was also a good two heads shorter. But it was her funeral, it was nothing to do with Father, he had already had his final celebration two years ago. I wanted to stand up and tell the speaker that it was my mother who was lying in the coffin to his right, not my father. I looked around the hall, but the guests around me just obediently pulled out their handkerchiefs, eyes fixed on the speaker. Not even a glance at the photograph of my mother.

It occurred to me that these people had not come here to pay their last respects to my mother, but to honour him – my father, and by so doing, honour my eldest brother as well. So that in front of Evžen – who had not only inherited my father’s looks and manner, but also some of his influence – they could show their loyalty to our family. My mother’s funeral was only a pretext.

“We are saying farewell to a wonderful wife, mother and friend,” said the speaker at the end, his voice faltering appropriately.

I almost shouted at him: And what about Magdalena Tichá, maiden name Mináčová – don’t you want to say farewell to her?!

The people got to their feet once more. Music played again – this time shorter and more sorrowful. I tried to spot my mother’s coffin through the rows of people’s backs, wreaths and bouquets, but without success.

I wondered what she would have made of such an ostentatious ceremony. Whether at least once she wouldn’t have wanted to climb down from the grand stage and run home unnoticed? Perhaps she would have preferred a modest ceremony, somewhere near her home village at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. A small group of relatives and the priest around her, a three-piece band and then a place in her native soil beside her old mum and dad. Instead they were going to burn her and tip her into a pretentious brass urn.

The guests in their perfectly fitting suits and gleaming shoes lined up in single file before my brothers, the main representatives of this tragedy, who shook their hands and exchanged a few words. Apart from a certain facial resemblance, they didn’t seem to have anything in common. Although they were only separated by two years, Milan looked ten years younger – not a wrinkle on his brow, a strand of hair that had come loose from his gelled hairstyle dangling in front of his eyes. I noticed his top shirt button was undone and his shirt tail was poking out from the back of his jacket. Evžen, on the other hand, was immaculately turned out and sterile. At each thank-you for the sincere condolences the crease between his eyebrows would deepen.

I was happy to avoid all of that, so I walked straight over to the coffin. It looked so alone in the packed hall.

I wondered why my brothers had decided on a closed coffin. Mother’s body was sure to have been well preserved and funeral services these days can work wonders with people’s faces. Make-up can be plastered over the deceased’s face so that it scarcely resembles the inert body of the corpse. Perhaps my brothers were ashamed to show everyone Mother’s bloated face and fat, wrinkled neck. However, beside the coffin there was also a huge photograph of Mother from when she was still beautiful.

Anyone could have been in there, but nevertheless, I was intensively aware of her. My body began to itch all over and just the thought of the dead body hidden under the lid caused me to feel anxiety and shame. But somewhere underneath the layers of resentment, defiance and suffocating memories I felt a deep tenderness. That mass of flesh and bones used to be my mother. I stroked the area on the coffin where I imagined her face was, on the inlaid poplar wood which would soon be carrying her to the incinerator. I bent down towards the coffin, closed my eyes and exhaled. Now for the moment I had long been waiting for.

Then someone bumped into me from behind. ‘Excuse me’, apologised a sweaty bald man, gesturing meaningfully. I realized that I was in the way – the queue was moving away from my brothers towards the coffin. I stood where I was for a moment, but what was the point – the bald man had spoiled everything. I left the coffin as it was and hastily left the hall.

I ran down the steps outside and hid in the shadow of a statue of a female figure with a burning torch. I looked at my watch – if I left within half an hour I would just make the train to Horažďovice. I could stop off at the cottage, take off my black polo-neck, dig out my old boots and still make it to the forest.

Instead I stood there as if nailed down. I kicked a red cemetery candle that was lying next to my feet. The candle rolled onto the sunlit pavement in the direction of our family grave. Soon they would be putting the urn with Mother’s ashes onto its enormous gravestone.

I was brought back down to earth by a thump on the back. “So, Sis,” said Milan, “it’s good you came.” He took out some blue Gauloises from his jacket, tapped the top of the closed packet and then took out the middle cigarette, licking it before putting it in his mouth. Some loser in Sušice did it the same way while standing in front of the wine bar on the square. He thought it was cool and sexy too. In town they’d call him either a pedo or just a plain idiot. When Milan had finished his cigarette he offered to take me to the station.

“So you don’t have to wait around on public transport, Sis,” he said, but that wasn’t what it was about.

I was just about to agree and thank him when defiance suddenly swelled up inside me. So all of a sudden I wasn’t one of the three relatives? Wasn’t my name on the funeral announcement immediately after the names of my brothers?

“I’ll go with you both,” I told him, and Milan scratched his head self-consciously.

“It’s up to you…”


Translated by Graeme Dibble