It was quite late by the time Olda and Sabina knocked on one of the doors in a block with courtyard balconies. Sabina didn’t want to be a burden to anyone and disturb decent people at night, she would have preferred to go to Olda’s cellar. An elderly Rom wearing a flannel cotton shirt and blue tracksuit bottoms opened the door, face covered in lather because he was in the middle of shaving.
‘Well, well, Olda, I see you got yourself a new girlfriend?’ he said with a laugh and invited them in.
‘She’s got no place to stay, doesn’t know what to do. She’s all alone. Don’t turn her away, my friend,’ Olda explained.
‘What’s your name?’ the old guy asked Sabina as he turned back to the mirror to scrape the lather off his cheek with a razor.
‘Sabina Giňova,’ she said, like a good girl.
‘Got a mum and dad?’
‘So why don’t you go home to them?’
‘She can’t,’ Olda chipped in.
What have you been up to? You nicked something? Police after you?’ the old guy questioned her, putting on a strict face.
‘No!’ Sabina was taken aback. Tears welled up in her eyes. She felt as if she was being interrogated. She was sorry she agreed to come. ‘There’s these guys looking for me.’
‘Leave her alone. Can’t you see she’s soaked through? She’s missed her train, there’s no way she can get home, she’d have to sleep at the station,’ Olda pleaded for her.
‘OK, I’m not saying anything, but am I a boarding house or what?’ the old guy said, glancing in the mirror to make sure he was shaved properly and slapping some aftershave on his cheeks. Then he handed Sabina a towel and a tracksuit so she could change in the bathroom.
Actually, the old guy wasn’t as strict as he looked. He used to play the violin, he’d been a famous first violinist, but then he was in an accident, ended up with torn ligaments and a crooked arm. So he retired and now made a little extra by collecting rubbish. And since he had read all of Karl May’s books about Red Indians, people called him Winnetou. He taught Roma to read from these books in the rubbish collectors’ changing room. He had seen all the Winnetou films a hundred times and knew every scene by heart. He would always say out aloud what was going to happen next, which often led to rows in the cinema. And he must have been quite religious. Sabina noticed there was a tiny shrine to the Virgin Mary in the kitchen as well as prayer books among the books about Indians on a bookshelf.
While she was getting changed, Olda must have told Winnetou the whole story about Ferdy because when she came back she found him looking grave and shaking his head, he just couldn’t understand what the world was coming to and what was going on with people, what with murders everywhere and fathers selling their own daughters. How different things had been in his day! Sabina sat down on a couch under the window and as she towelled her hair dry Winnetou made her a cup of lemon tea. They talked for a while. But then Sabina got tired and her eyelids started to get heavy so Winnetou brought her a duvet. She lay there half asleep, listening to the two men. The clock ticked away and she felt warm and cosy under the duvet. The rain outside was putting her to sleep. She felt safe. She wished she could stay here at Winnetou’s until Ferdy forgot all about her. She wondered what she would do tomorrow, whether she should go home, but she was too scared. She was sure Ferdy would come looking for her. Images from the flea market, the Kapitán Bar, and all sorts of other things kept flashing through her head.
The old men turned off the light in the kitchen, put on the night lamp and lowered their voices so as not to disturb her. Winnetou talked about the old days, when he was first violinist in a café where soldiers used to play cards, and when they lost all their money they would go to an upstairs room to shoot themselves in the head. And then she heard Olda talk about the first time he had come to Košice many years ago and how he met her mother Róžika. He was with a touring circus and Róžika worked as a cleaner in a hotel. He looked her in the eye and fell in love with her straight away. ‘ Hello, beautiful!’ he said. ‘Come and have a coffee with me.’
They got together and started living in a tiny room, all they had was a little stove, a tin cupboard and a bed. But they were happy. One day Olda wanted to show off and invited Róžika to a circus performance. He leapt onto a trapeze, clowned around and did all sorts of tricks with snakes and bears but Róžika got so scared she gave him a good drubbing after the show. It was because of her that Olda gave up the circus and got himself a job as a labourer on a building site. But one evening he came home from work and Róžika was gone. After waiting for her for a while he went out and spent the whole night looking for her in the streets but she had vanished without a trace. He never saw her again. But today a miracle happened because he met her daughter. She looks exactly like Róžika did when she was young. Even her eyes are just as beautiful and velvety as her mother’s. Sabina listened to him and held her breath.
‘Why are you still here? Didn’t you promise you’d be gone?’ Winnetou asked Sabina when he came home from work in the afternoon and found her there. She stood in front of him looking sheepish, wiping her hands on her skirt and didn’t know what to say under the old man’s stern gaze.
‘Leave her alone,’ Olda defended her, wiping his finger along the sideboard meaningfully. There wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen. The place had been cleaned, the dishes washed, the rubbish taken out, everything tidied up. Even the books had been sorted according to size.
‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do, sir. I’ll do your laundry, I’ll cook for you. I used to do the laundry at home, too,’ Sabina begged. But Winnetou gave her a serious look. A cat wandered out of a door hidden by a wardrobe, followed by blind Karolko, his saxophone around his heck.
‘Just a few days, Grandpa,’ he said, sticking up for Sabina.
‘Where is she going to sleep? In your room?’ Winnetou was horrified. ‘You would like that, wouldn’t you?’
He paced up and down for a while, deep in thought, his hands behind his back. He looked after Karolko and guarded him jealously. He was worried about him.
‘All right then, you may stay. But I want no mischief!’ he said, wagging his finger at Sabina. ‘You leave Karolko alone!’
‘I’m not taking him away from you!’ she blurted out.
‘I know what women are like!’ Winnetou said, raising his eyebrows. ‘They’re bad news for men.’
‘She’s not like that, Grandpa,’ Karolko objected.
‘Oh yeah? How do you know that?’ Winnetou laughed. ‘You’ve made friends already? Behind my back? All right then. But only for a few days. And then dja andre to Krompachy, double quick! This is where you’ll sleep!’ he said, pointing to the couch in the kitchen. ‘Or else!’
Sabina was relieved. She was happy to be able to stay with Karolko. But nobody was as happy as Olda Novák. He was so pleased he started patting Winnetou on the back and immediately offered to go and buy two bottles of wine to celebrate.
In the evening they threw a bashavel. Sabina had a drink, too, to get Ferdy out of her head. She didn’t want any of those memories to come back. The radio was on, Karolko had two glasses of wine and started competing with the radio to see who would play better. Then they turned off the radio because it was time for the news. Sabina wondered where all the cats had come from. She’d only seen one earlier that day but suddenly there were eight of them. They were black, striped, grey and ginger with bushy tails. They jumped around on the wardrobes, chairs and the sideboard, climbed onto the table where the food was and helped themselves, and nobody chased them away. To mark the occasion Winnetou put on a white shirt and a bow tie and prayed at his little shrine but he wouldn’t have any wine. Later on, though, he did have a glass, just to cheer himself up. Soon Olda was in such high spirits that he leapt onto the table and started dancing, frightening the cats and overturning the glasses. He invited Sabina to dance, reached out and pulled her up. Karolko sat in the wardrobe playing Romany dance tunes but Olda asked for Roll Out the Barrel and later the Firemen’s Song. They danced on the table making the cats run for cover under the wardrobe, meowing mournfully. Later on, as Karolko started playing fast csárdáses, Olda clapped his hands and thighs like a Rom from the settlement and then he knelt down in front of Sabina, clutching at his heart as if declaring his love, and Sabina gently slapped his cheek and raised her skirt, but only a tiny little bit, so as not to make Winnetou angry. She felt great and almost fell over laughing at times as Olda pulled his funny faces. He did a handstand, shouting: ‘Csárdás handstand!’ and started dancing on his hands. When he did a complete flip in the air, Sabina gave a squeal. She was scared he might break his neck. But Olda’s feet landed firmly on the ground. And he went on somersaulting around the kitchen, turning all the chairs over. Sabina jumped off the table and when Winnetou wasn’t looking she gave Karolko a quick peck on the cheek. Olda sat down on the bed, out of breath, and started bragging about the times when he was a trapeze artist in the circus. He wanted to go out on the balcony to show them a difficult acrobatic trick on the railing but Winnetou stopped him saying he was drunk and no longer up to it. But Olda argued he would manage because he came from an old artistic family. He was the great-grandson of Vítězslav Novák.
‘Do you know who Vítězslav Novák was?‘ Olda shouted, filling the kitchen with his voice. Sabina didn’t have a clue.
‘He was a great Czech composer!‘
‘Oh yeah? And what did he compost?‘ said Sabina, laughing so much the wine came squirting out of her mouth. For a moment she thought Olda got offended because he went quiet. But he was at it again a minute later, lifted a chair and started walking around the kitchen with his arms spread out, balancing the backrest on his nose. Then Winnetou walked over to the sideboard and took out a case. Inside was a beautiful violin, all shiny. He sat down on the couch next to Sabina, plucked the strings, raised his chin high and started playing a wonderful, plaintive song. Karolko stopped blowing his sax, everyone fell silent and listened, only a cat under the bed was meowing. And right in the middle of the beautiful song, as if by design, the cuckoo clock chimed midnight. Winnetou said it was getting late, stopped playing, and put the violin back in the cupboard. And although Sabina still felt like dancing and Olda offered to go and get some more wine, Winnetou didn’t let him, saying he had to work in the morning. Sabina suddenly felt dizzy and had to sit down on the couch. She saw three Oldas instead of just one. She wanted to ask him something about her mum but fell asleep immediately.
She woke up in the middle of the night. Winnetou was snoring away in his bed. She made a smacking noise, which made him turn around but it didn’t stop him snoring. She got up from the couch; she wasn’t feeling dizzy any more, only very thirsty. She had a drink from the tap and wanted to go back to bed but then moonlight fell on the wardrobe that served as a passageway to Karolko’s room. She tiptoed over to it quietly so that the boards wouldn’t creak and opened the door. She looked back to make sure Winnetou was really asleep and slipped into Karolko’s room.
He had half kicked off his duvet as he lay in bed. He must have been hot because he was all covered in sweat. He was so slim, so handsome and so beautifully built! She watched him for a long time, then reached out with her hand and touched his cheek with her fingers. Startled, he sat up.
‘Karči, move over,‘ she whispered, covering his mouth with the palm of her hand.
‘What for?‘ Karolko asked, baffled, and lay back.
‘I want to be with you,‘ she whispered.
‘I’m so sad, you know… C’mon, move over.‘
Karolko moved towards the wall. Sabina quickly slipped under the duvet but then she got a fright.
‘What’s that?‘ she yelled out in surprise and pulled the saxophone from under the duvet.
‘If Winnetou finds us we’ll be in trouble,‘ Karolko said.
‘He won’t… He’s fast asleep. Karči? You know what I’ve been thinking?‘ she said as she put the saxophone on the floor by the bed. ‘That I’d like to be your girl. Ferdy is good-looking but I don’t want him. Maybe I did want him once but he betrayed me. You’re kind and you would never cheat on me. And I like it when you play. It gives me this feeling inside,‘ she took Karolko’s hand and placed it on her breast.
‘Winnetou won’t let me have a woman,‘ Karolko said pensively. Sabina lay next to him, saying nothing and started stroking his hair.
‘Where are your mum and dad, Karči?‘ she suddenly wondered. Why aren’t you with them?
‘Dad’s in Ilava,‘ Karolko said.
‘It’s a prison. For stealing something.‘
‘And your mum…? Why isn’t she with you?‘
‘She doesn’t want me. I used to be in an institution but Grandpa got me out of there and said he’d look after me.‘
Sabina embraced Karolko and started kissing him on the neck, cheeks and the mouth. She wanted Karolko to caress her. But Karolko had never been with a woman before and didn’t know what to do in such a situation. Sabina decided to teach him, although she didn’t have much experience either. She had long dreamt of making love. And now here was a chance of love and everything that went with it. But it turned out that Karolko was also keen to have a girlfriend. He started caressing her, gently touching her face, ears, nose and mouth, all of her head and hair, moving all the way down to her shoulders, stomach and hips, even kissing her breasts. He was very gentle with his fingers and Sabina was so pleased she pressed him to herself firmly. Then she pushed him away, laughing.
‘Silly boy, I’m not a saxophone,‘ she giggled when Karolko started kissing her breasts.
‘You’re so šukár,‘ he whispered into her ear.
‘Really?‘ she asked, surprised. ‘But how do you know if you can’t see me?’
‘I can’t say, but I can play it for you…’ he whispered and tried to reach for his saxophone but Sabina stopped him. She hugged him close and felt happy. Nothing she had known until now counted because it wasn’t love. But this counted because this really was love.
VIŤO STAVIARSKY (1960, Prešov) graduated in scriptwriting from the FAMU Film Academy in Prague. He has worked as stagehand, nurse at the Prague-Bohnice psychiatric hospital, orderly at a sobering-up station, bartender and shop assistant. He is currently an entrepreneur based in Prešov and is married with three children. His first work of fiction appeared in the independent student journal Otaznik (Question Mark) news, which was busted by the secret police in 1977. In the 1990s he focused on screenplay writing. His story “Laborant” (Lab Technician) was shortlisted for the Poviedka 2001 short story competition. His book debut, Kivader (Vista, P. Mervart, 2007), a novella set among the Roma, as well as his collection of short fiction Záchytka (Sobering-Up Station, Kalligram, 2009), were nominated for the Anasoft Litera prize. With his most recent book, the novella Kale topánky (Kale Shoes), published in 2012 by Marenčin PT and adapted from his screenplay “Šľepa laska“ (Blind Love), he returned to the topic of the Roma community. His latest collection of blackly humorous short stories, Muž s ranou v srdci (The Man With a Wound To His Heart), will be published by Marenčin PT in 2013.
About the Translators:
JULIA SHERWOOD (née Kalinová) was born in Bratislava, Slovakia. She has worked as a translator from English, Czech, Slovak, German, Polish and Russian into Slovak and English and is Chair of the NGO Rights in Russia. Her translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, and My Life with Hviezdoslav by Jana Juráňová due to be published by Calypso Editions in 2014. She has also translated work by writers such as Uršuľa Kovalyk, Michal Hvorecký and Leopold Lahola among many others. She is Asymptote’s Editor-at-large for Slovakia.
PETER SHERWOOD is the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.