Alexandra Berková




(an excerpt)

Someone inside of me feels the need to repeat the painful experience overwhelming me—

dirty sister of dirty brothers—ding-ding-ding—

that’s probably why I have to yell sometimes, doctor, to chase off the fear that I’m tormenting her, the one who’s so irrevocably alone, who asks those stupid questions I don’t know how to answer: “Why do you have to fight everything?” “Why do you have to ruin everything?” “Can’t I even rest for a moment? Can’t I even get some sleep?” I don’t know all that: why I have to ruin everything and why she can’t even get some sleep—so I bite my lower lip:

most likely I shouldn’t have been born, most likely it’d be better if I wasn’t…
that’s why I bang something metal into the iron pipes sometimes—

dirty sister of dirty brothers,

ding, ding, ding,
merely to hear that sound…

…that’s probably why I had to yell back then, doctor, so they’d know about me, that I’m here and I’m trying, that I’m doing what I can not to trouble her, the one who’s so irrevocably alone, so they’ll keep me warm and give me something to eat… and some rags to wear so I don’t get so cold, really just enough so I don’t die, understand? And maybe some scraps, that’s enough, and I’ll leave them in peace—and they should leave me in peace too… I’ve got a lot of work, but I don’t have time for anything, because I’m eating. And when I’m eating, nobody should bother me. Nobody should talk to me, nobody should give any indication that they see me eating because, how can I explain it—I’m not really eating to feed myself—I’m just cleaning up, into my head, whatever’s left on the table, whatever’s left in the pots and in the fridge that’s already starting to spoil, because too much got cooked, because, you know, you shouldn’t throw things away, that would be a sin—

that’s why I stash all those scraps and trash and scrapings, doctor, because it’s a shame to throw them away. I’ll eat it all: I’ll finish up all those scraps and I’ll be useful and prevent waste—I’m good at that, I’ve got a knack for it! How many times have I been up late into the night before I finally unravel everything and knit it back together and eat it up, how many times have I been dreadfully tired and feeling ill, but I tell myself, no moaning and groaning now—you’re a big girl, you’ll manage!

Like the time mom ordered us to finish it all up so it wouldn’t have to be thrown away, because we were poor, because dad didn’t earn very much and wasn’t there with us and she was alone in everything and we only troubled her, so I had to finish it so it wouldn’t have to be thrown away, and so I obediently walked around the table and chewed on the dumpling that was growing in my mouth, and I had to finish it so it wouldn’t have to be thrown away, so that we weren’t wasteful, to help mom, it was a lot for her, and so mom always cooked everything together in one big pot so that she wouldn’t have so much work with us, when dad was always gone and she was alone in taking care of us, I walked around the table and chewed and tried not to vomit, tried to swallow so she could love me, it’s nothing, mommy, I’ll gladly do it for us!

I remember how she came in and was taken aback when she saw me there sweaty, obedient, eyes goggling, cheeks stuffed with floury meat—give that here, she said with revulsion—wait, mommy, I’ll finish it! I said so she’d know I’d stuff it in, that I’d manage it, just this mass and that—it’ll be alright then, everything will be okay—we’ll be able to love each other, right, mom?

She took the plate away in disgust and threw that last dumpling away—and we were poor—because dad didn’t earn very much and was always gone and she was alone in everything and we ate everything up as punishment because he wasn’t there—

because he was somewhere else and she had to be with us, so as punishment, that’s our punishment!

You wouldn’t believe what all a person can eat and not die—

But I’ll eat it all up, doctor, I know how to do that, I’ve got a knack for it! it’s just a matter of having the right relationship to it—why, even spoiled food can be eaten with a little effort, moldy yogurt—rotten apple—why, it’d be an everlasting shame to throw it away—you don’t have anything here, do you? see now! give it here—why, it’d be a shame—

I’ll finish it all up, doctor, I’ll happily finish up other people’s scraps so it won’t have to be thrown away, dry and maybe even a little moldy, doesn’t matter, gladly give it all here,

and raggedy old clothing, too, that’d be a shame to throw away, those old rags are still good for something, that’s why I stash all those old dresses and shoes from my aunts, you see, I’ll put it all to good use, patch up, sew up and eat up

even other peoples’ castoffs
I’ll put it to good use, patch up, sew up and eat up—
for all of us! I’ll prevent waste! You can rely on me, I’m good at that, I’ve got a knack for it!
I’ll wash away your sins—and there will be no more waste and no disgrace in the sight of the Highest—
and there will be no more accused and no more judges—
I’m the world’s trash bin!
dirty sister of dirty brothers—garbage this way!
ding-ding-ding! you wouldn’t believe what a person can eat and not die—


That one time—yes, I tried, I tried to help the one who was so irrevocably alone, I polished the floor with butter, I didn’t know it was butter, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t even walk, I wasn’t even a year old, I crawled across the floor and polished the floor with that butter that was lying on the wrapper, to help the one who was so irrevocably alone. I tried to explain it to him when he beat me after, but he didn’t understand me, I couldn’t talk yet and he was completely focused on his duty, to finally silence me, to break me, and so he didn’t listen to me and he intently and methodically carried on thrashing me—

that’s why I needed that little drum—I needed it desperately, so I could drum—they gave it to me, but I lost the drumsticks. I looked for them everywhere until I found one—but one drumstick, you’ve got to admit that’s no good for drumming—I looked for the second one, always and everywhere, but I never found it again—until years later in a box with dishes: mother had hidden that drumstick from me back then. I saw the scene clearly: the small, dark kitchen—mother in an ugly beige hand-knitted crewneck sweater, a zip in back, pregnant with my second brother, she’s standing next to the table and rolling some kind of dough, disappointed, hurt, unhappy, irritable; father is God knows where, that is to say at work, where he stays late into the night. My year-old brother is standing in his crib with a runny nose, screaming, mother with her big belly is rolling dough on the table and I march around her, five years old, and I’m drumming with all my might on the little metal drum—so they’ll notice me—so they’ll hear me, so someone will save us…

In that gloomy kitchen, where a very, very old doll sits on the cupboard wearing a sugared dress, a dress stiffened with sugar, long ago dipped in sugared water and then dried over a mug—and I chewed at that sugar on her, and then that spot was terribly dirty, grayish and grubby, and it dried and didn’t keep its shape—

we’re all of us listless and desperate, in that dark, poor, grubby kitchen, we all want out of it—him and her and me and brother and even the second brother who’s not born yet; no one wants to be here, but no one will say it out loud because—that simply isn’t done…

Once in the night I dressed my brothers, doctor, I was six, them three and two, I dressed them and we went out onto the street. I had to lead them off so they wouldn’t be swept away, too, by the breaker wave, we went out, into the dark, somewhere away, to find a new mommy, because we had that one only out of spite, we ruin everything, we only cause her worries, so she wouldn’t suffer then…

She knows how to suffer quite exquisitely, doctor, she sighs heavily, turns away and covers her brow with the back of her hand—and we all know that she can’t take it anymore—she doesn’t have the strength anymore, we’ve already worried her to death… meanwhile I only blink my eyes, swallow and look off to the side and I try to think of something else—meanwhile I tear out my lashes and bite my lower lip, I know that it looks silly and that I’ll get a bloody lip and then I’ll get a nasty blot on my lip, and that will annoy her even more, disgusted, she’ll slap me and say: Jesus, leave it alone! Or: take a look at yourself, you’ll be the death of me!—

and I know I’m her misfortune. If it weren’t for me, she’d be free. She could sing and dance and live. And I want to worry her to death. I want to ruin her. Skin her alive. I’m not even capable of cleaning up my toys, that’s how bad I am. That’s what she gets in return for all the love she gives me, for the whole of her life she sacrificed for me, that’s what she gets for everything: I’m six, I want to ruin her, so I bite that lower lip…

I remember those times, doctor, when I was shaking inside, that awful anxiety, do you understand? that I’m bad through and through, that it’d be better if I wasn’t, that’s why no one keeps me warm, smiles at me or loves me—

That voice, that voice of hers—when she’s complaining to me—its terrifying melody when he comes home and she goes toward him—

She doesn’t go to him or up to him: she goes toward him—that’s the right word for it—toward—or in his direction, you could also call it that: when she hears the key, she runs off somewhere, in the back to the coat rack, or to the window—and she stands there with her back to the door; then she turns abruptly, as if surprised—whoever could that be—she opens her eyes wide, sighs deeply, and throws her whole body toward him in one movement, as if cast forward with widespread arms—breaker wave—and her whole being sighs: finally! Or: if you only knew! Or: she’s ruining me!—and she huddles into his embrace like a defenseless rosebud—

and I stand there and blink and bite my lower lip and look aside, I’m six and my lip is already bleeding, but who cares; the punishment will come anyway. In that short little moment when he’s standing in the doorway and she’s thrown toward him by the strength of her desperation, they’re no longer bully and victim, no longer rivals; now they’re fairy and prince, fragile and strong. And he’s manly in that role and rises to punish…

Then when he beats me, intently and methodically, she covers her eyes and doesn’t want to see it: oh God, no! she’s just a child! Don’t be so cruel! And then she cries out: brute! Or leave her be! Or enough already!—and she stands between him and me, protecting me with her body—

and now it’s her who’s protecting me—and he’s alone now because we’re suddenly together, she and I, the two of us against him, see, mommy, we’re together and he’s suddenly helpless—I press myself to her and I know that I’m going to try awfully hard so it can stay like that, so she can love me and we can stay together, she and I—

after a while she sighs, grows heavy, wipes her eyes and says, let go, or run along, or leave me—she pushes me away and it’s all back the way it was, and I let go of her and move off somewhere, to some thing or other, and she goes about her work, some sort of detested work that she has to do here at home because of me, and she starts furiously sweeping the floor or dusting or rattling the dishes, because someone’s got to do it—

and he coughs decorously and goes off decorously to his study. Where he decorously. Straightens. Some papers. Slowly. Carefully. Tap-ping them. To cut off the edges. It’s very important now. To the millimeter exactly. At the edge of the table. And we’re each of us alone again…

Ah, yes: childhood! Land of terror…

ALEXANDRA BERKOVÁ worked a variety of jobs from editor to church cleaner, but by the time her first collection of short stories The Book with the Red Cover appeared in 1986, she had already become a beloved literary figure, and its 60,000 copies sold out immediately. She went on to publish four novellas (Magoria or: A Tale of Great Love; The Trials and Tribulations of the Devoted Scoundrel; Dark Love; A Banal Story), win the prestigious Egon Hostovský literary prize, work in television and radio, and influence a generation of writers as one of the first creative writing instructors at the Czech Literary Academy before her untimely death in 2008. As a testimony to her legacy for Czech prose, a writing manual, On Writing, was collected and published posthumously from previous essays and interviews. Her work has appeared in English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Finnish, and Slovenian translation.

About the Translator:

CORINE TACHTIRIS translates primarily contemporary women authors from the Czech Republic, Africa, and the Caribbean. She holds an MFA in literary translation and a PhD in comparative literature. A scholar as well as a translator, her essays and translations have appeared in Callaloo, The Comparatist, The Stockholm Review, Metamorphoses, Transference, and sxsalon, among others. She has taught translation theory and practice at Hampshire College, Kalamazoo College, and the Université Paris Diderot. She is currently assistant professor of literature at Antioch College.

Corine Tachtiris received a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for Dark Love.