MELANCHOLY LEAVES FROM DEMOCRACY’S AUTUMN TREES
By October, the swallows had already flown away to a better place, and the weather was changing overnight according to the wind that ripples the Vltava River, frills the surface, and then sails on over the forests. That morning, I walked out the gate from our house, passed along the water, and only at the end of the village did I return to the broken district road which curves up the hill after the last house. The enameled metal sign on the building, identifying it as the Municipal Public Library, was chipped and was clinging to the wall by just two screws. Through the open door, I saw Gramps Michálek waiting inside. This was something that he was not taking lightly. “This is politics,” he would declare emphatically and seriously. The postmistress was there, too, so that was all of us: Chairman of the Election Committee, Vice-Chairman and Secretary.
“You’re tending to the chronicle?” Gramps croaked in his usual greeting, and I nodded that I was. The register of voters with the list of those inhabitants authorized to cast ballots lay on the broad table which Gramps and I had carried from the tavern on the town square. Most names on the list had been crossed off. They were the ones who had already come to vote on Friday. We knew that on Saturday, up until two o’clock in the afternoon, not many more would come. Perhaps a few more families from the surrounding villages and hamlets, and maybe a few of those who go shopping on Saturday to the hypermarkets around České Budějovice would come, or some people commuting to work in Městec and who couldn’t make it on Friday, or who didn’t really want to very badly. And the rest would not come at all, because they didn’t care who would be elected to the Senate of the Czech Republic from their constituency.
Gramps was worried about that, and so the night before he had walked around to a few houses in the village and had done some campaigning in the tavern. He had pressed me to do so, too, but I had refused. Gramps was worried that ours wouldn’t be the model municipality we always had been, that Neměřice wouldn’t rank at the top if the poll attendance was to be so low.
The afternoon passed slowly, and we left the door wide open in order to be able to see the road. The wind was rubbing the narrow leaves between its fingers from the mountain ash trees that grew along the blacktop road, and the fresh autumn air was clashing at the doorway with the slightly musty smell from the library.
For a while, I was tidying up the books on the shelves, arranging them by reference number, and straightening out the filing cabinet. Scarcely anybody was coming to borrow anything lately, but in summer I also lent books to the
tourists who camped around by the river and to children from the summer camp that they built every season a couple miles downstream.
I breathed in the sadness of the autumn and the acrid smoke from the chimneys and the gardens. There was that anticipation of winter and parched thirst from anxiety. Every half hour, I went to take a long drink from the faucet at the toilet, where the loosened stoneware floor tiles made a scraping sound beneath my feet. The old cracked mirror above the sink broke my face in two. Ages-old dust had settled into its lengthwise crack. In my reflection, I saw that water had dripped onto my tie. From the room full of books, I heard Gramps cough.
Several people had come in with their ballots in envelopes. Gramps was scrutinizing their ID cards with a stern gaze from behind his spectacles, even though he knew every one of the locals from birth, and in many cases he knew their parents from birth and the parents of their parents, because he was almost 80 years old. He was wearing a gray suit coat and a threadbare huntsman’s tie of a greenish yet indefinite color. Carefully shaven and with his sparse hair combed back, he was dutifully blinking his eyes at the papers.
At around 11:00, I ate an apple and then sat down on the chair behind the ballot box which was situated on a small table in the center of the room. The red and white state coat of arms was shining toward the door and could be seen from the road. Above me, there was a picture of the President of the Republic, in color, which Gramps and I had recently hung. To one side, behind a screen, there were two places for the voters. I watched as plaster flaked off the damp ceiling and the little pieces fell onto the register of voters and Gramps Michálek’s bald head, while over and over again he studied the list of people who had left here after completion of the nearby dam but before the artificial lake had flooded half the village.
Then, all at once, just before noon, three people came into our polling station at the same time – the old Navrátils and fat Mr. Chládek from the former mill by the river. I remained seated at the back, behind the ballot box, and left Gramps to enjoy these three more voters, and the proper identification, and the lecture about precisely how to handle the ballots. Then Mr. and Mrs. Navrátil went behind the screen, and Mr. Chládek stepped outside the library for a moment to wait with the postmistress. And that’s when it happened…
I saw Táňa at the last moment in the doorway. She startled me with how quickly she, my former girlfriend, had appeared on the threshold. In a red sweater and dark blue miniskirt, she was looking… good. The long legs atop shoes with massive heels stopped for a moment a few steps into the room.
“I expected you to be here,” she said, instead of saying hello, and looked at me a little sarcastically.
“You were always so…” she hesitated.
Táňa was grinning from ear to ear. She didn’t go any further, but she was only sort of contemplatively looking about.
“You’re here to vote?” I asked. “I don’t have you crossed off yet.”
“I’m just coming from the bus and am going straight to the house. I was never much for this hokum,” she said and nodded her head toward the voters’ register and Gramps Michálek.
“So what are you here for?” I asked grumpily. “Either throw us something into the ballot box, or go.”
“But I don’t have anything, you know,” Táňa said and walked slowly toward me. “What could I throw into your ballot box?”
Her elegant walk and sumptuous clothing contrasted with the shelves of much-handled books, and the vivid perfume masked the slightly moldy smell of the walls in the municipal public library. The blocks of her high heels clicked toward me, and Táňa was slowly drawing her hands up her thighs, up under the short blue skirt which pulled up a little at the sides. She pouted her painted lips and was still walking toward the ballot box and her hands were now moving down again, from beneath the skirt, and I caught a glimpse of white fabric in her fingers, but I could not see more, because Táňa was standing in front of me and the ballot box on the table was blocking my line of sight from her waist down. And she bowed down, her eyes fixed on me, lower and lower, then the heels clicked twice and I was sitting on the chair riveted to the spot. I only managed to say softly: “Táňa, don’t be a fool… You know, I can only tolerate so much…” But Táňa was already standing in front of the ballot box with the state coat of arms, erect again, and in the fingers of her right hand she was holding white panties, directly above the opening in the box for the ballots. At that moment, a soft bounce sounded through the silent room. Gramps had dropped his reading glasses, which had clicked against the table, and he was staring at Táňa. He wanted to say something, but nothing came out of him. Gramps was looking like a carp on dry land, with yellow, round eyes. I looked back at Táňa, sprang up from the chair, plucked the lily-white piece of lingerie out of her hand, and tucked it into the pocket of my jacket so that Gramps wouldn’t see anything. But he had already cleared his throat and snorted a “what is that supposed to mean.” He was looking around, frightened, as Mr. Chládek was returning from outside and both Navrátils were coming from behind the screens with their envelopes. Táňa took three steps back, to give them room, then laughed and spun around so that her short skirt lifted up in turning and white panties with blue polka dots shone from under it. Then she turned her back to us and sauntered out of the polling station with the relaxed stride of a top model. The scene lasted for only a few seconds, then I collapsed back into the chair. The Navrátils dropped their ballots into the box. Mr. Chládek also cast his vote and left. The postmistress was still outside smoking, and Gramps and I remained alone again. I was looking at him, sitting in the same spot, alternately turning his head toward me and toward the door.
“What was that?” he ejaculated, his eyes still wide open.
I shrugged and he suddenly got up and ran outside, disappearing around the corner of the library. There was still the smell of Táňa’s perfume in the room, as evidence of what had happened between these walls a moment ago. I reached into my pocket and touched the piece of soft fabric – yet more proof that it was real.
No, this was not a mirage. But it was not an act of voting either, I had to give Gramps that much. He came back and stormed at me, waving his arms, as I stepped back to the wall and could go no further. Gramps interrogated me with short and befuddled questions.
“What was that supposed to be?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Michálek…!”
“What did she do?”
“I don’t know what she did…”
“Where do you have it?”
“You have it in your pocket!”
“In my pocket…?”
“What was it supposed to be, I saw it…”
“I really don’t know what you mean…”
“What have you done?” Gramps Michálek cried hoarsely and started beating me on the shoulders with my leather briefcase he had picked up from the floor, and then when I turned around he was thrashing me on my back.
“I didn’t do anything, stop it!”
“Such shame!” Gramps shouted, choking on his words.
“It’s not my fault, what she did, I don’t…”
I finally caught Gramps’ arms and calmed him down, leading him back behind the table. He sat down by his roll of voters, where so many names remained not crossed off.
“Mr. Michálek, nothing happened, don’t be crazy…”
“There were so many people here, and the Navrátils are from Řepice. It’ll spread and…”
“Nobody saw anything,” I objected.
“I wanted to ask Chládek, but he was already gone.”
“What did you want to ask him?”
“Whether he saw anything…”
* * *
Two o’clock was approaching, and it was clear that nobody was going to come to the polling station anymore. We still had to sort the several hundred ballots from here and the surrounding villages, count them, and seal them up in envelopes. We precisely followed the procedure, which Gramps had studied down to the most meticulous details. Then the three of us got into a car and drove everything to the district office. We came back in time to see the second half hour of the second period of the championship soccer match.
On the field beyond a ditch, clumps of spectators were standing about. They had come to see the last match in the history of Neměřice, because starting the next year the third division of the district championship was to be played without us. Most of the young boys who could kick a ball were commuting from the nearby villages and did not want to keep playing for this half-razed village. But the main reason was that in a few days the local private farmer was to tear out the goalposts and fence off his property, his meadow, which he had finally gotten back in restitution after the revolution in ’89.
Gramps and I were standing behind the goalpost for the guests, who had journeyed here from the other side of the district. While a few people were sitting on benches beneath the wooden roof of the tiny bleachers, most were standing along the white lines or behind the goals. Next to the bleachers, stood two large election billboards – one from each of the main opposing political parties. It was as if the candidates to the upper house of the Parliament of the Czech Republic were also watching our boys in shorts and soccer shoes. One billboard was standing to the right of the bleachers, the other to the left. I was wondering what sort of accident made the left-wing party candidate appear on the right-hand side, and the right-wing candidate on the left, but then I realized it was only relative, because this just applied when I was facing the bleachers. If I were sitting in the bleachers, it would be the other way around, right would be left and vice versa.
“What’s the score?” I asked Mrs. Valentová. A mountain of a woman, about 50 years of age, she was standing next to us with her husband and kept shouting at the grass field where the game was being played.
“Nil–nil,” Valentová said and shouted loudly to the field, “Let’s go, boys! Let’s gooooo!”
Her voice was like a firefighters’ siren. Mr. Valenta was quiet, only nodding to his wife who apparently had a better understanding of soccer, or at least was more vocal about it.
“Stop worrying about it, Mr. Michálek,” I said to Gramps who was shuffling his feet beside me. He was still thinking about the glorious elections that Táňa had ruined for him. He had continued to scold me through the whole journey with the ballots, as if it were me who was pulling off his underwear in front of a ballot box.
“We must stop by at their place. Still today,” said Gramps who could not enjoy the last-ever soccer game in the village, because he was thinking about what had happened at noon.
“Whose place should we stop by at?” I asked.
“Who! We have to drive over to Řepice, to the Navrátils’ place, and then over to Chládek’s at the mill.”
“And why, for God’s sake?”
“Why? You’re asking me why? Don’t you know what kind of a scrape you put us in? Why, that’s defamation of the Republic and obstruction of elections. There are laws against that!”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I shrugged and turned my palms skyward. I couldn’t help but to laugh.
“At least don’t laugh about it,” Gramps warned me angrily, “and don’t shout.” He lowered his own voice, as well.
“But don’t you see, Mr. Michálek,” my voice lowered to a whisper, “I didn’t do anything. It’s not my fault that Táňa showed up there. I didn’t invite her. I haven’t had anything to do with her for a long time…”
“Oh, be quiet. Do you know what a scandal it could be if everyone around knows about it? It can be a real mess. We took on this responsibility for the elections for all the villages around here, and that’s an honor, a great honor. We were always the best, better than the others around, and this is politics, you know, it’s all politics…”
“Gooooal…” shouted Mrs. Valentová, startling the two of us, because at that moment we were not watching what was taking place on the field. “Goooal…” was murmuring softly all around us. We were leading 1:0.
“He’s a disaster, that Honza, why does he keep fielding him?” Valentová shouted, commenting on the goalie with the number 2 on his back. “And that boy of the Nováks’, just look at him, he’s running around like a mad calf,” Valentová, in her long leather coat and bleached, permed head, vented her frustration. “The coach should replace him in the attack, and use Kája there…”
“And what do you want to say to them, Mr. Michálek?” I asked Gramps. “What are we going to ask them?”
“We need to somehow carefully determine whether they had seen anything, and convince them not to tell anyone.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said immediately.
“You are. You’re going to drive me to the Navrátils and you’ll come with me,” Gramps insisted. “How else am I going to get there, on a bike? Or would you let me walk? An old man?”
I stopped objecting and watched the football. Our coach made a replacement and Valentová was pleased. “Kája, go for it!” she shouted at the fresh attacker.
“Why’d he keep that Mirda there for so long? He ruined whatever he could. If Kája’d played from the beginning…” Valentová was complaining to Gramps.
“And which one is that Mirda?” Gramps asked her. He had become frightened when she’d barked at him. “Is he Number 8?”
“Actually, Mr. Michálek, Mirda isn’t there anymore. He got replaced.”
“That’s a pity…” Gramps said softly.
“On the contrary, that’s good. He’s useless! Mr. Michálek, you really aren’t paying attention at all.”
“Why didn’t you come to vote?” I asked her, to stand by Gramps a little.
“Bah, who’d vote for that!” she said scornfully and gestured with her head toward the two giant portraits on the billboards.
Only a few minutes remained until the end of the match. Gramps and I were standing in the grass behind the goal, dressed in jackets and ties, and we saw Kája miss the goal from 10 meters away, and Valentová was grabbing her head.
“I’ve seen a lot – a vomiting horse, a kneeling snake, but something like that is just unbelievable…” she shouted at the field and lit another cigarette.
I was looking around to see whether Táňa was somewhere about. I really hoped that she would not be there, because it would provoke Gramps even more and he was already unbearable. I wished he would change his mind about visiting the voters, so I was silent and waited for the match to end. I noticed that Gramps and I were not the only ones in jackets and ties after all, as the two gentlemen on the colorful billboards were also wearing suits, and some politics was also shining from their eyes. I repeated Gramps’ favorite word to myself, silently rolling it around in my mouth and turning it on my tongue. Politics, p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s. The sound seemed to leave a salty taste in my mouth, like paying or payment, like the smell of an old banknote that had been fingered and worn and salted through by the sweat of hundreds of human fingers and greasy palms.
The shrill sound of the referee’s whistle stirred me from my contemplation. I hadn’t seen Táňa anywhere. Gramps and I were slowly walking toward the car, and by the road we met old Mr. Sklenář from the sawmill.
“So, how’d it come out?” he asked us.
“One–nil,” I said.
“I know that, I was watching too. I meant how did the elections turn out?”
* * *
We got back to the village only after dark, as we had been sitting in the Navrátils’ living room for two hours. Gramps was tactically and warily asking about the elections, how did they like the polling station and so forth. The Navrátils had not seen anything from what happened at noon, or at least they were not about to show it. So Gramps finally settled down after all, his mood improved, but on the way back it took ahold of him again.
We were driving through the forest, and the blacktop was wet with the October evening. I turned on the heat in the car and prayed to get home quickly, so that I could drop Gramps at his house and have some peace.
At first he started grumbling quietly next to me on the seat, just to himself, and then he started out loud:
“And I so much believed in you, Pavel. I thought you were reasonable. I’ve known you since you were little. I entrusted you with the municipal chronicle as my successor! Do you know what that means? The municipal chronicle! And this is what you do! Such a disgrace for the whole municipality, and now I have to settle it for you…”
I wanted to laugh, but I controlled myself. I didn’t even try to explain to Gramps that it was not my fault and that I hadn’t done anything. After all, it would serve no purpose. We were driving down the road to the valley of the Vltava River and to Neměřice, a village half-flooded by the Vltava. It was shining with a few windows and red roofs with parabolic antennas and white-washed walls.
“Tomorrow, we’re also going to visit Chládek,” he told me in parting when we stopped in front of his house. “And you take care of the chronicle!”
* * *
On Sunday in the forenoon, the handle from the gate clicked. I raised my head from the desk and saw Táňa for a moment, her head flashing through the trees and then disappearing at the porch. In a moment, energetic tapping sounded at the door. Táňa entered. Open in front of me on the desk was the municipal chronicle, wherein Gramps Michálek had been writing for the last 40 years, and the late Mr. Fuks before him. My first entry so far was two weeks old, one little paragraph about a death in house number nine. These records came more and more often, but if I wanted to find some record of a birth in the village, I would have had to go back many pages. I had just begun writing an entry on the Senate elections.
“Hello, national revivalist!” Táňa exclaimed, peeking over my shoulder.
“Hello. Did you come for your underpants?” I asked directly.
“You can keep them if you want. As a fetish, maybe…” Táňa laughed and lay back on the sofa by the wall.
Make yourself at home, I thought, and got up from the desk.
“Thanks, but no thanks” I said and passed her the jacket that I took from the chair’s backrest, “they’re in the left pocket.”
“It was quite a good joke, wasn’t it?” she asked cheerfully.
“Come on, you said it yourself that I had to throw something into the box, and I really didn’t have anything else with me. It occurred to me on the spur of the moment…”
“Don’t B.S. me.”
“What do you mean, B.S. you?” she objected.
“You had it planned out beforehand.”
“Come on… Why would I do that?”
“I noticed that you still had another pair of panties, when I already had these in my pocket”
“Pavlík, didn’t you notice I was wearing nylons? We sometimes wear it that way, another pair on the top, to keep the pantyhose in place, see?”
“Are you upset?”
“If I hadn’t known you, maybe…. It’s just that Gramps was quite outraged.”
Táňa was laughing, and as she was laying down her laughter resonated deeply. I snapped the old chronicle shut, turned around on the chair in order to see Táňa, put my elbows on the backrest and my head on the back of my hand.
“Why hadn’t you come to vote, anyway?”
“To vote? There’s no point. What is the Senate good for? Explain that to me.”
“The Senate is the second chamber of the Parliament. It’s this sort of a circuit breaker of democracy, a council of elders, which…”
“I read that in the newspaper, too. Personally, I’m fine with just one parliament and one election. Everybody does what they want in this state anyway.”
“So did you come to air the house or to pick the apples?”
“Neither, Pavlík. Today is an important day,” Táňa said meaningfully. “A buyer is coming in the afternoon. He’s willing to pay a pile of money for that house, and I need money desperately now. But first, that fellow wants to have a good look at it. I won’t hold out anymore. If he likes the house, I’ll move the last wardrobe of stuff that’s left there and I’ll sell it with the garden and all.”
“If your grandma and granddad were alive, then…”
“Then it would still be theirs and I wouldn’t be able to sell it. That’s clear, isn’t it? And stop with that prosecutorial bullshit, you know I hate it. The two of us just can’t agree on that. You’re just this type of person, a serene patriot, a literary type, like somebody out of a Jirásek novel. And I want to live in the city. I need an apartment, and I don’t have the money for it. It seems as clear as a bell to me. I can’t see why I should be staying here any longer.”
“You need an apartment, do you? Has that taxi driver of yours thrown you out already?”
“That’s none of your business,” Táňa said, folding that bit of lingerie like a handkerchief and putting it into the pocket of the old jeans she was wearing.
“Gramps keeps complaining about me because of you. He’s acting crazy, as if I’d committed high treason.”
Perhaps I had summoned him by those words, because someone was knocking at the window, and, when I walked out to the porch, Gramps Michálek was standing at the steps in a green sweater and hunter’s hat.
“We’re going to Chládek’s, Pavel, come on!”
“I’m not going anywhere. Why do you keep acting crazy?”
“We need to talk to him, discreetly, to inquire and so forth. You know he can give it away tonight at the tavern…”
“I’m really not going anywhere, Mr. Michálek. That awkward visit to the Navrátils yesterday was quite enough. I’m not going.”
Gramps stood there a moment longer, bewildered.
“Never mind then. I’ll go there by myself,” he said resolutely.
“As you wish,” I said, resignedly.
Gramps sat down on the steps and was scratching his chin. I sat down next to him and we were looking at the wooden door. Gramps was deliberating it all out loud and I knew I had to bear it for a while, that then he would go away and leave me alone. I yawned through a quarter of an hour and Gramps finally got up and walked to the river, where the mill had been without a wheel for a long time, the mill race was without water and had long ago filled with soil.
I returned to the room. Táňa was lying on her belly resting on her left elbow, and with her right hand she was writing something into the open chronicle before her, her sweater drawn up to reveal a piece of her tanned back.
“You are kidding!” I jumped at her and snatched the ball pen from her hand. “What are you scrawling there!?”
Táňa shut the old hard-covered volume in a flash and quickly tucked it under herself.
“I’m not scrawling anything,” she insisted in an innocent voice. “I finished that report on the elections for you.”
“That can’t be! Give it here!”
“Don’t worry, I always got an A in composition at school…”
“Get outta here! You always come and make a mess of some kind or another.”
“You’re right. That’s what the boss was telling me in my last job. Wherever you appear, missy, there is always some commotion…” Táňa was mimicking a male voice.
“You’re going to make me have a stroke. Show me what you wrote in there!”
“I won’t. You can look at it when I’m gone.”
“Give it here!”
Táňa was lying on her belly and was holding the edge of the sofa with her right hand. I was wrestling with her for a moment and finally I forced her to turn to her left side, the chronicle was lying on the blanket. I took it and, standing up, I flipped to the last written page.
Beneath my two initial lines about the elections in our municipality, there were six more lines of neat, feminine handwriting. They described, concisely and faithfully, what had happened in front of the ballot box at noon the day before, with the initials T.H. instead of a signature.
I sat down on the sofa next to Táňa, snapped the book shut and with all my strength I whacked her with the chronicle on her butt stuffed into tight jeans. She squealed in pain, but, at the same time, she was stirring with quiet laughter. Then she only looked at me silently and smiled, exactly the same way as in the election chamber, when she had been slowly walking toward me with her hands on her thighs. For a while, I was rubbing my forehead and eyes, and then I just shook my head.
“You really are not normal. Do you know what you did?”
“A report,” she said, provokingly.
“Gramps is going to kill me when he sees it. You violated his chronicle.”
“So tear it out, then, if you don’t like it…”
“Hmmm… In case you hadn’t noticed, the page is also inscribed on the other side, still by Gramps Michálek. And the pages are numbered to the end, so you can’t tear it out. Nothing at all can be done with this.” I said desperately.
“So, leave it there. After all, what’s written there is the truth, isn’t it? And truth is what’s supposed to be in chronicles.”
“That chronicle has been kept up since 1920. I’m the fourth chronicler.”
“You make such a fuss about it, you two patriots. This village is already done for – half is flooded, half nearly moved out, construction prohibited forever because of the water. A few holiday cottages will be left, and that’s it. Amen. You two will just have to come to terms with this,” Táňa said prophetically.
“So, geez… What am I supposed to do now? Gramps lives only for that chronicle. The other day, he brought me this pamphlet, called How to Refine Your Handwriting. It’s from the time of the First Republic, and he said it’s so I don’t cause a disgrace with my scrawling.”
“Stop your moaning and groaning and let’s go for a walk,” she insisted, softly tapping me on the back, “or you’ll rot to death in this hovel.”
* * *
Above the chapel outside the village, we turned up the hill toward the forest. The path was sticky with mud, and my feet were quite cold in just tennis shoes. We walked past rosehips and blackthorn bushes. Again, I felt more sorrowful as the sun moved across the sky and my thirst grew. At the abandoned hunting lodge, we crossed a half-collapsed fence, and Táňa was pumping water into my hands from an old rusty pump covered with moss so that I could have a drink. As we walked through the forest, it breathed cold upon us, and it was like always when we had been together, she was talking and I was silent for almost the whole time.
“You should get out of here, too, the sooner the better, or you’ll go crazy from all this,” she said, after we had walked a big loop and were headed back toward the village from the other side.
“That is precisely what I do not want to do,” I answered.
“There’s just no point in talking to you. For over a year, I’ve been trying to shake you out from that lethargy of yours, but until you get out of here, it won’t be any different. You’re all bogged down here. Your only pastime is guarding the library and reporting in the chronicle – and making an ass of yourself for them, taking care of everything nobody wants to do. It’s not worth it, don’t you see? No one cares.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. What keeps you here? Your love, Libuše Engelmanová, moved out when the new owner kicked her out of the tavern. What would she do here anyway? That catch of hers would only drink himself to death. All the young ones are somewhere in the city. It’s dying here – and it will all die. You have to know that better than me. Tell me, what is the average age in the town, Mr. Chronicler? You’ve got to have it calculated.”
“I do,” I nodded.
“So how much, tell me?”
“There you go. And that’s including my twenty-five, because I’m still registered here.”
“You’ll hurt our average, when you sell the house and leave.”
“At least you’ll have something to write into the chronicle, you literary patriot…”
We walked from the forest path to a road, and around a bend in the road there came into sight a white Škoda parked in front of the small scruffy church of St. Paul. The priest came every Sunday from Nový Městec at 1:00. About 20 people from Neměřice and the surrounding villages gathered for the mass.
In front of the small building where the post office was, Táňa stopped at a row of ornamental deciduous trees. Their unusual broad leaves were ablaze with the colors of autumn – yellows, reds and brown. I couldn’t even remember who had actually planted these trees with their round crowns and when and what they were called. They were foreign aliens among the common mountain ashes and lindens. One branch was freshly broken off, clinging by just a tiny strip of shiny, still-living bark. Táňa broke it off from the trunk, holding the branch aloft in the raw October wind as a torch. She smiled at me, with uncustomary emotion.
“That’s beautiful. I’ll put it in water at home. It’ll keep for a while, then it’ll dry out and the leaves will drop off.”
Down the road, as we were approaching the church, a clump of old women and various neighbors was slowly dispersing after the mass. They sighted us as we were approaching them.
“We should tell them that the branch was already broken off,” I said, “so they don’t think we broke such a beautiful branch on purpose…”
“Why would you tell them that? Let them think what they want.” Táňa said.
“But it’s going to look as if…”
“What do I care what it’s going to look like!” Táňa snapped at me. “We didn’t break the branch, did we? Screw what it’s gonna look like…”
“I know, but…”
“Okay, so I’m going to come to them and say ‘Hello everyone, I’m sorry I was even born…’ Like that, huh?”
I didn’t say anything more. We walked past them and said hello, and I could feel their gazes on our backs as we continued on.
“This is what always drove me crazy about you,” she continued, in an exasperated voice, “how you try never to offend anyone, to be nice to everybody. You’ve been nice your whole life, haven’t you?”
I laughed, and Táňa waved her hand at me resignedly.
“I’m surprised,” I said, “that you even talk to me, if I’m such an intolerable jerk…”
“It’s just that I’m angry about how you’re unable to do anything with yourself. The world sucks, it’s just bad, pure and simple. Either you let yourself get rolled over, or you somehow look out for yourself.”
“And that’s just what I’m not willing to accept,” I objected weakly.
“What don’t you want to accept?”
“That the world is evil and bad. Because if I were to accept that, then I’d feel that it is my own weakness that makes it so, my weakness that I don’t have the strength to see it otherwise, to believe it is not so or that it will change. So then it’s all my fault that I see it this way. It’s my shortcoming…”
“What’s your fault?” she barked at me. “For what someone else does? For what other people are like? That’s not your fault!”
“If you don’t start with yourself, then you always are at least partially to blame for what others do…”
“You’d better not say any more, or I’ll totally break down over you…” Táňa said in a resigned voice.
We walked to the building that Táňa had inherited and where she’d used to live as well.
“Do you remember how we painted this fence?” she smiled and was looking at the wooden planks. The white paint was already starting to chalk away.
“Those three years ago, you weren’t yet such a hopeless case…”
“Stop it, Táňa, you’ve gone over it quite well enough today.”
“So see you, Pavel. And think it over, before you completely grow over with moss here, about the house and all. If you want, I can find you a buyer,” she said, giving me a wink.
* * *
At about 2:00 in the afternoon, Gramps knocked on my window with his walking stick. I opened it and stuck my head out to the yard.
“So it’s alright,” he proclaimed contentedly, “you’re lucky. Chládek didn’t see anything yesterday either. The honor of our village is saved.”
“I’m glad,” I said in a meek voice, as if I were accepting guilt.
“You’re tending to the chronicle?” Gramps asked.
“I’ll stop by after Sunday, and we’ll do the report on the elections together.”
“I can handle that myself, Mr. Michálek.”
“No, no, no, it’s a very important thing, this is. You’ll write a first draft on a separate piece of paper, I’ll read through it and then you’ll rewrite it…”
I was shaking with fear whether Gramps would want to see the chronicle now, but he made a military salute and then walked away in his hunter’s hat down the road to the village square, not knowing anything about Táňa’s having ruined his whole diplomatic efforts of the last two days. Through the window, I breathed deeply the smell of the trees in the garden and the cold river.
In the evening, a chill came up from the Vltava and shadows crept into my room. Instead of the light, I turned on the television, which was showing a special news program on the results from the historic, first-ever elections to the Senate of the Czech Republic. Numbers and names were flashing by on the screen, and, among others, there appeared photos of the two candidates who had been watching the final third-division league soccer game of the district championship in Neměřice. According to preliminary results, neither of the two candidates had obtained a majority of votes in the first round, which meant that in two weeks our election district would have a second round. A second round of voting in that melancholy election month of October, year one thousand nine hundred and ninety-six.
JIŘÍ HÁJÍČEK was born in České Budějovice, Czech Republic, and spent his childhood and youth in the countryside of rural South Bohemia. A graduate of the University of South Bohemia, he worked in the countryside as an agricultural specialist for several years and then moved to České Budějovice where he presently lives and works as a bank clerk.
He has published seven books of prose including his debut collection of short stories Snídaně na refýži(Breakfast on Safety Island, 1998), his debut novel Zloději zelených koní (The Green Horse Rustlers, 2001), a second book of short stories, Dřevěný nůž (The Wooden Knife, 2004), his commercially most successful work to date Selský baroko (Rustic Baroque, 2005) and most recently the novel Rybí krev (Fish Blood, 2012), which was awarded the Magnesia Litera 2013 prize as “Book of the Year”.
“Melancholy Leaves from Democracy’s Autumn Trees” is one of the short stories from Jiří Hájíček’s collection The Wooden Knife that is included in the English edition of Rustic Baroque published by Real World Press. It is the writer’s first book in English translation, whose work has otherwise been translated into Italian, Hungarian and Croatian.
About the Translator:
GALE A. KIRKING grew up on a small family farm in Wisconsin and moved to what was then still Czechoslovakia in 1992. While living in Prague, Brno, Kiev and Vienna, he worked in stock brokerage and investment banking until 2002. In 2003, he established English Editorial Services, s.r.o., a business communications firm headquartered in the Czech Republic. His first book, Untangling Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Search for Understanding, based upon travels through postwar Bosnia, was published by Real World Press in 1999.
Read more work by Jiří Hájíček:
Sample (PDF) of Rustic Baroque
Transcript of a panel on 1950’s collectivization that Hájíček and Kirking participated in at Prague’s American Center