Alena Mornštajnová

Years of Silence

2019 | Host



I have two memories of my grandma. The first is hazy and vague. I’m still very young. I am in our house, standing at the bottom of the stairs, my bare feet feel the cold of the tiles as items of clothing in many colours drift down on me. They float in the air, some getting caught on the banisters, some ending up at my feet. Grandma is scurrying around picking up jumpers, tights, slips and enormous knickers and stuffing them into a bag pell-mell. I run over to her and help her pick them up. As I hand grandma a white slip, I look at her and see tears flowing down her cheeks.

Since then I’ve known that grown-ups, too, can cry.

My other memory is crystal clear and it precedes one of the most important decisions of my life.

A woman is lying on a hospital bed. The only reason I know that this is grandma is because my father told me so. Her eyes are half-closed but she is not asleep. Her chest is heaving and her breath comes in rasps, the paper-thin skin on her arms is covered in red and purple patches. I try not to take breaths that are too deep because the air in the room reeks of urine, sweat and disinfectant. I examine the pale face to see if I recognise the woman of my childhood memory. Grandma opens her eyes and fixes them on me.

“Blanka, my little Blanka.” She smiles.

My name is Bohdana. I turn to my father in confusion.

“My little Blanka,” Grandma repeats, but when I shake my head, my father squeezes my arm.

I look at him.

He looks away.

“Blanka was her sister,” he says a touch impatiently. “She’s no longer with us.”

I know he’s lying. I can tell from the way he has averted his gaze and also from the flashback of the earlier memory.

Because that time, after she had picked up the last bit of underwear, Grandma straightened up, wiped away her tears and shouted up the stairs: “You’re driving me away. You drive everyone away. Blanka also left us because of you. You’ll end up all alone.”

Grandma lived for another couple of months but my father never again took me to the hospice to see her.

I was thirteen when I had a glimpse of my own end as I stood in that foul-smelling room in the hospice for the terminally ill, where four patients drugged with medication lay dozing in their beds. I realised that the people around me had been marked by what they had experienced in the past and that made them into what they were today. I realised that my family too had a history. And that I knew nothing about it.

That was when I started digging back into the past and to etch the present into my memory.

I became a collector of memories. I started to record my thoughts and everything that happened to us in a big red notebook lined with blue, even things that seemed quite unimportant at the time. Only with the passing of the years has it become clear that everything that happened was important because, just like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can bring about a typhoon at the opposite end of the world, uttering a single word can often hurt and mark forever the relationship between two people.

Sometimes I would fill page after page on a single day, while at other times, after a long break, I might jot down only a line or two. But all along the person I had in mind was the one my notes were meant for. The one who got lost in the past I knew nothing about and whom I needed so badly.


1 / The Daughter


Our house stands at the edge of town, at the end of a cul-de-sac. Behind the garden full of old trees and running wild with untrimmed shrubs and rarely mowed grass, there is only an unpaved road, a meadow and a seemingly endless forest. The fence and the walls of our house are covered in ivy, so that if you look at it from the far end of the road, the house blends into its surroundings and is difficult to spot. But once you get closer, it comes clearly into view.

The house is large and solidly built, with dark windows gazing out from behind green foliage as if on the lookout for every new arrival, eyeing them up to make sure they are worthy of passing through the iron gate, entering the front garden, and walking up the paved path that has moss and grass growing through its cracks, and then up the three stone steps to the front door.

Outwardly the house resembles my father. Like the house, he seems to merge into his surroundings, but as soon as you come closer, you notice his bulk, sense his strength and are exposed to his penetrating gaze.

But there is one respect in which my father differs from our house. As soon as the house opens its doors, it surprises you with its welcoming brightness and the comforting sense of homeliness that it exudes. My father never opens his doors. I have no idea what lies hidden behind them.

Our house is magical. I know, because on the fourteenth of September 1980, the day I was born, exactly a year and a day had passed since my parents had moved in. My father was well over forty and Mummy only a few years younger. I was born twenty-five years after they were married and grew up an only child. On the back of one of my first photos Mummy had written that I was a gift from heaven.

To my father I was nothing but a burden.


When Běla was still living with us, the house smelled of lavender, glue and burnt food. These three smells formed part of Běla, just like her eyes that were the colour of freshly-ground coffee and her dark brown hair, cut in a style she called Mikado, which actually looked as if she had cut it herself using a pudding bowl. Běla considered this hairstyle very French. She spoke not a word of the language but had a soft spot for everything to do with France. That was probably also where her love of lavender came from.

Purplish-blue lavender blossomed in the flower-beds that lined the garden path leading to the house, in the pots surrounding the stairs, and in the window boxes. Běla’s faith in the all-powerful qualities of lavender was unshakeable. She claimed that lavender repelled bothersome insects and protected clothing from moths. She tucked sachets of the dried flowers between the items of clothing in the wardrobes and pretended not to hear my father grumble that his shirts, jumpers and trousers smelled like some loose woman. She used lavender oil to treat my father’s sadness, her own insomnia, as well as my grazed knees. She claimed that lavender was an aid to digestion and helped prevent bloating. She flavoured her jams with lavender, kept it in sugar bowls, added it to food, and used it to make vinegar and ice cream.

The house was too big for us. Some of the rooms were never used, except when Běla and I occasionally went in them to dust the furniture and the curtains, and vacuum the carpets to stop spiders and other uninvited guests from taking over the uninhabited rooms. But Běla had chosen the kitchen as her realm. Not that she loved cooking – despite all her efforts and sophisticated ingredients à la française, every dish Běla cooked tasted the same, that is to say – burnt. She had chosen the ground-floor kitchen because its windows let in the most sunlight and because it had the largest table in the house.

Běla needed a large table. She would spend long hours at it, painting, cutting out, gluing and assembling things. She produced collages in a wide palette of colours and created patterns of dreamlike images and portraits of people which, on closer inspection, splintered into hundreds of brightly-coloured fragments. There were piles of coloured paper and cuttings all over the table, forcing us to take our meals next door, in the living room.

Father complained that the kitchen was a mess, that because tea, soup and stews that were constantly being carted to and fro the whole house and all the carpets were covered in stains.

When father’s grumblings grew in intensity and some sharper words were used, Běla would give a sigh, gather up her sheets of paper, scissors and tubs of glue and stow them away in boxes, and we would eat in the kitchen until the cuttings drove us out into the living room again.

Běla’s predilection for making things, which annoyed my father so much and which I so adored, might have struck an outsider as strange, but it had its justification. Běla didn’t only make collages but, since she worked as teacher in a kindergarten, creating things was also part of her job, even if it had got rather out of hand.

Although she was normally rather restless and unfocused, always trying to find something she had mislaid and forgetting one thing while doing something else, she often became so engrossed in her collages or the children’s assignments that she would forget she had potatoes or rice on the stove, a chicken or meatloaf in the oven, or a sauce that needed to be stirred, and would only be roused from her absorption by the smell of burned food. She would then give a sigh of resignation, put down her scissors, push her chair back and try to limit the damage, mentally bracing herself for my father’s sarcastic remarks.

On the afternoon we came back from visiting my sick grandma, we could smell burnt milk even before we entered the house. Father’s furrowed brows became even more furrowed and the corners of his mouth sagged. He slammed the door shut more loudly than necessary and I decided I’d better just give Běla a quick hug and hole up in my room. My head was buzzing with questions and doubts stirred up by what Grandma had said, and I didn’t feel like listening to my father’s spiteful comments and watching Běla meekly endure her humiliation.

Běla was sitting at the kitchen table, her hands sticky with glue, pasting wings, eyes and beaks onto little paper birds. She had hung some of the paper toys she had completed on the chandelier above the table. The little birds started to sway and spin in the draught coming from the slightly opened door and seemed to circle above Běla’s head as if looking for somewhere to land.

I forgot about my plan to quietly disappear, sat down at the table, picked up a template and started to draw and cut some wings out of coloured paper.

“Now what’s that smell?” Father didn’t even make the effort to say hello.

Běla was unabashed.

“I wanted to make you some jelly and I must have burned it a little.”

“Must have. A little.” Father snorted contemptuously and swung an arm at a paper bird floating in the air. He snapped the string it was hanging from and yanked it to the ground. “I wish you’d do something sensible instead!” He turned on his heels and left, slamming the door behind him.

I saw Běla swallow hard and tighten her grip on the scissors.

“Daddy is sad,” she said without looking at me. She was the only person who ever referred to my father as daddy. Sad, unhappy, tired, overworked – those where the words Běla used to excuse her husband, and I was happy to go along with her.




2 / The Father


It had been a mistake, but it was too late to do anything about it now. They were having another child. The mother-to-be closed her eyes, rested her chin on her chest, and gave another almighty push.

Svatopluk came into this world one mid-afternoon in the spring of 1935, after ten hours of strenuous labour.

“They can’t even feed themselves, but still they breed like rabbits.” Those were the words that greeted him as he came into this world. Many a soul would have been put off by such a sour welcome, but the new-born evidently didn’t care.

His dad, on the other hand, took offence and objected: “What rabbits! This is only our second boy. The two girls before him don’t really count.”

The child’s mother lay in a bed screened off from the rest of the single room that the family was renting on the ground floor of a tenement in Žižkov waiting for the placenta to slip out. She was sore all over and annoyed by the midwife’s churlish comments and her husband’s pathetic replies. This was the fourth time in the course of ten years that her body had been racked by contractions, the fourth time her breasts had started swelling up with milk, the fourth time she was worried sick by how she would feed her poor family, further impoverished by the crisis, and now, to cap it all, she had to listen to the midwife’s squawking. What’s her problem? How would she make a living if poor women stopped giving birth?

“He’s as long and thin as a snake. What will you call him?” asked the midwife.


The midwife sniggered.

“Another grand name. Oh well, a name is about all you can give him.”

What makes this female think that helping women in labour gives her the right to be rude? Svatopluk’s mother didn’t want to listen to any more of this and gave one last push to get it over with and make the annoying midwife go away. A soft lump slipped out from between her legs.

“The afterbirth,” she sighed.

The midwife checked the sheets to make sure that all of the placenta had come out, and the new mother swore to herself that this child would be her last. Let the priest say what he likes, she was determined to follow the advice of her more experienced neighbours and try everything, from rosemary tea to vinegar-and-water enemas. She could endure the contractions but wouldn’t put up with the carping midwife for another minute.

“The afterbirth is all here, and I don’t see very much bleeding either. There’s no need for me to stay here. It’ll be enough if a neighbour looks in on her every now and then. You can go to the pub now, if you can afford it, that is,” the midwife said, making a last dig, and the next thing the new mother heard was her husband pouring the woman a stiff drink… and another one for the road – as if the old witch deserved it – paying her with the money they had scraped together and leaving the flat with her to bring the children back from the neighbours. She did in fact wish he’d go to the pub instead, like all the men in their street, and give her a few more minutes of peace and quiet. But her husband never went to the pub. If he went out, it would be to one of his damned meetings, and although he came home sober, he’d be spouting some drivel about equality and justice. It was bound to get him into trouble one day.

Actually, the midwife was right. Doubravka, Hedvika, Rostislav and now Svatopluk. She bent down to the new-born sleeping beside her and felt the urge to grab a pillow and press it into the baby’s face. What was the point of having children if she could give them nothing more than a grand name?


If someone had asked little Svatopluk to make one wish, he would have said he wanted to be like his dad. To talk like his dad – loudly, passionately, persuasively – to walk like his dad – that is, upright and resolutely – and to sit, eat, drink and, above all, to shave like his dad.

Whenever his dad poured water into a small tin basin, worked some soap into a lather in a small bowl, reached into a leather pouch and pulled out a razor so sharp you could cut yourself just by glancing at it, little Svatopluk perched on a wooden stool and watched in awe as his dad trimmed his ginger stubble in long, sweeping strokes.

As much as he loved this procedure, so did his mother hate it. Shaving was a sign that her husband was about to go to a meeting, from which he would return with his head filled with queer ideas. Not that these were dangerous in themselves, but they were godless. As if it wasn’t enough that she betrayed God by taking precautions against conceiving, and that she had to look at Svatopluk and be reminded every day of the many failed attempts to get rid of him during pregnancy and how close she had been to committing a mortal sin on the day he was born.

“You’re shaving for your comrades,” she complained in a plaintive voice. “You ought to shave for your wife,” she added, hinting at something that little Svatopluk didn’t understand but that made his older sister Doubravka grin knowingly behind her mother’s back.

His dad usually retorted that he would indeed shave for her if only she showed any interest, and a conversation would ensue whose sense eluded Svatopluk, and invariably ended with his dad slamming the door and his mother poking Svatopluk in the ribs with the words: “Why do you keep staring at him like a holy picture? Get out of the way and be a nuisance somewhere else.”

This was another thing little Svatopluk had long got used to. Their tiny rented room in the Žižkov tenement was far too small for a family of six. Unlike him, his elder siblings were at least able to make themselves useful in one way or another – even the dim Hedvika could peel potatoes and sweep the floor – so he wasn’t surprised that he was the only one his mother would always chase away.

He would run out into the street and follow his dad at a safe distance all the way to the pub where his meeting was held. When his father vanished from view, Svatopluk would turn around and walk back. In wintertime he’d walk at a fast pace to keep warm, and in summer he’d saunter home slowly, making a detour through the leafy district of Vinohrady. He liked to walk this way because of the music that came streaming out of the ground-floor window of one of the villas, left a little open in balmy weather or thrown wide open on hot days. On some days inexperienced fingers would be tapping out tedious exercises but sometimes, if Svatopluk was in luck, the tunes emanating from the window would constrict his chest and practically choke him before rising gently towards the treetops and floating up into the clouds. He would sit on the fence, close his eyes and soar high into the sky along with the music.


While Svatopluk admired his father and looked up to him as a hero fighting for justice in the world – a kind of musketeer or Robin Hood figure who takes from the rich and gives to the poor – he felt strangely detached from his mother. As if she radiated some kind of repellent force that wouldn’t let him hug her even at times when he longed to be held in her arms. There was something cold, matter-of-fact and severe about her, although Svatopluk couldn’t hold that against her because he correctly sensed that a certain toughness was indispensable for survival if you were poor.

But ever since the day he saw his mother drown a kitten in a bucket behind the house he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that she would drown him, too, if necessary. He didn’t tell anyone what she had done, not even his sister Hedvika, who had found the emaciated kitten in the street the previous day and had made it a little bed out of old rags. When the kitten disappeared, she kept looking for it desperately for several days. She searched every backyard in the neighbourhood, crawled into basements, pestered the neighbours and passers-by with her questions, until her endless moaning and whingeing wore their father down and he promised to get her another kitten.

The thought of another dead kitten sent shivers down Svatopluk’s spine. But his mother said firmly: “Get that idea out of your head! I’m not going to waste milk on a cat when I don’t even have enough for my own kids.” Then she turned to Hedvika: “And you there, cut it out or I’ll punch you so hard you’ll really have something to bawl about.”

Hedvika was a little slow-witted. She hadn’t even been admitted to school as the authorities said she would only hold the other children back and she should be sent to a special school where they would know how to cope with her. Her mother took exception to this, and declared that although Hedvika might be a little slow, rather than sending her to a school for idiots, where they wouldn’t teach her anything useful and she would just be abused the other children, she would keep her at home and have her help around the house. What does a woman need to learn anyway? A little bit of arithmetic, to make sure she doesn’t get cheated at the shop, and maybe a little reading, but really just a little, because newspapers are for men and journals only for young ladies.

Hedvika was as kind and trusting as she was dim. Maybe that was why their mother loved her more than any of her other children. She knew that Hedvika saw only the best in her and loved her just the way she was. She treated Hedvika as the cross she had to bear, since she knew she would have to look after her until the end of her – or Hedvika’s – days. She felt that by looking after her she might atone for her sins so that the Lord, when she came to stand before him, wouldn’t judge her too harshly.

But there were limits even to her love for Hedvika and the girl knew it, because her mother was never loath to box any child’s ears.

Hedvika sighed again, looked at her father reproachfully for not standing up for her, and went resignedly to Doubravka for a cuddle.

Svatopluk would also often take refuge with his eldest sister. It was Doubravka who would kiss his grazed knees better and splash cold water over them, it was she who told him stories at bedtime, even if some were so scary they would keep him awake.

His mother had no time for this kind of nonsense. She worked as a cleaner in three tenements in their street to earn at least a little money to feed the family while her husband was out of work, which happened quite often. His dad was hard-working but, at the same time, he was keenly aware that people deserved to be paid a fair wage for their work. He was also prone to talking to his colleagues about justice, decent wages, medical insurance and paid leave, which set his superiors against him and, as a result, he never lasted very long in any job.

“Do you have to go keep spouting these pearls of wisdom? You should at least stop trumpeting them at work when you finally manage to land a job,” was his wife’s advice, but to no avail.

“But I’m only speaking the truth,” he replied. “Someone’s got to stand up to them. If we all obey like cattle, things will never get better.” The more he talked the more worked up he got, and he would talk more and more loudly. “How come some people get to ride in motor cars when others can’t even afford a loaf of bread?” Svatopluk watched in admiration as his father rose from his chair. All of a sudden, he appeared to be large and invincible.

“Maybe because they keep their traps shut and don’t let themselves be sacked from their job after two weeks,” retorted his mother, grabbed a bucket and a coarse broom and went off to wash the stairs in the house next door. “And he’s thinking of bringing another cat home,” she hissed and slammed the door behind herself furiously. She felt like weeping but since tears don’t solve anything, the least she could do was lash out with the rag at Rostislav who was unlucky enough to have come home from school at that very moment. “Look at that trail of mud behind you! Who’s supposed to clean up your mess all the time?”

Once his mother was gone, his father took his jacket off the hook, put his hat on and went out. Svatopluk waited a little before running out into the street. His father was nowhere to be seen but he didn’t feel like going back to the oppressive flat with its dreadful kitchen smells. He looked around but couldn’t see any of his friends and he didn’t dare to whistle to Franta on the first floor for fear of attracting his mother’s attention. No doubt she would come up with some more useful occupation for him than roaming the streets. He pulled his cap further down on his forehead, sank his hands into his pockets the way he had seen older boys do, and headed for the residential district to take up his favourite position on the fence. Today might be his lucky day and the window of the music room might be open.



Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood