Pavla Horáková




Under the grey sky, a grey village. Everything is grey: dirty snow in an empty yard, the walls of a building whitewashed last year, the smoke rising from a chimney, even the windowpanes overgrown with frost. Everything swallowed by the omnipresent grey, yet it is disturbed by something, blotted. Thin beads of red, bloody drops trail through the centre of the yard, like a string of pearls. And yet, there was no pig slaughter at the Boukal’s this year; the yard is quiet, with no bustle or diligent preparation. And despite this, it is not entirely deserted here. A pained womanly figure hangs on that bloodied rosary like the Madonna, veiled, wrapped in a kerchief, huddled, shaking, perhaps from the cold… But no, not from the cold, her forehead is sweaty, and even the hair under her kerchief is damp. She is flushed, steam rises from her hands, from her face. The Madonna, herself unblemished, has stained the snow-covered yard with blood.

I straightened up in my chair and, knotting my fingers behind my head, stretched. The finished sentence beamed at me from the monitor. I read it once more and save the document. I’m no professional writer, that much is obvious. My sentences are too long-winded and clumsy. I don’t have any artistic ambitions and the words I’ve confided to my computer are my attempt to come to terms with something; something that has been eating away at me. The year is 1925 and although the characters were real, the scene that I have set most likely took place very differently. I myself appeared in this drama many decades later.

My name is Andy Jones. However, correctly-speaking, I should have had my father’s name – Vachek. That is a Czech name. My entire life, I thought my father’s family had come to the United States at the beginning of the Twenties to find their American dream, like so many other millions of poor Europeans. When I asked my mother about our family’s history, I didn’t find out much. My father, James Vachek, left us soon after my birth. He disappeared somewhere in the expanses of the United States and, according to everyone, is probably long dead. He and my mom didn’t manage to talk much about his past. She only knew that his family were from Czechoslovakia. His father was from somewhere in that country, but James didn’t remember much of him. Apparently he was called Martin, and supposedly his brother lived somewhere in America.

I was born when my mother was twenty-two. My parents were never married, and maybe that’s why it wasn’t such a problem for my dad to leave. We moved about the peripheries of Chicago, depending on where mom managed to get work and where rent was cheap. Even though she had only finished secondary school, she insisted that I would go on and study. She always worked two jobs to provide for us. During the day she worked in a supermarket and in the evenings cleaned offices. My grandma and granddad also helped a lot. Thanks to this, I made it through all my schooling and finished my Bachelor of Social Work. I found a job at a day care center for handicapped children. It wasn’t easy work, or well paid, but it gave one a certain freedom. Nobody criticized your long hair or tattoos, your boss wasn’t always demanding improved performance and you spent a lot of time outdoors. My girlfriend and I had rented a room in our friend’s house. We were planning to find something of our own and maybe, with time, start a family. It was hard to tell, but maybe I was just telling myself these things. It ended one day with me needing to pack my things and take myself back to my mom’s – I had nowhere else to go. I sat in the kitchen, in the dark, recovering from the shock, and my first thought was that my dad was responsible for everything. If he hadn’t left us, I would have had a model of a functional family and would have known how to maintain a relationship. After all, I didn’t even really know who I was.

After Jess broke up with me, I spent a few months down and out. I somehow got by at work, but from work I’d go straight to drinking and I would spend entire weekends in semi-consciousness. Then my friends got fed up with me and only my mom could stand me. One night, with my last can of beer in hand, for no reason I put the name ‘Martin Vachek’ into the search engine and added the word ‘immigration’. I don’t actually know why I hadn’t done it long ago. It jumped out at me in a split second:

“Martin Jan Vachek, born Cerna Lhota, Austria, arrived at Ellis Island 1925, residence, Illinois”

And directly below:

“Stephen Joseph Vachek, born Cerna Lhota, Austria, arrived at Ellis Island 1919, residence Illinois”

It couldn’t have been anyone other than my granddad and his brother. The internet wouldn’t tell me anything more about Martin in America. I entered “Stephen Vachek”. The first result was a hit:

“Father Stephen Vachek, member of the Order of Saint Benedict, born 1900, professed 1931, passed away 1984”.

There was even an address and a photo of the monastery, a modern brick building neighboring a Catholic university not far from Chicago. So, it turned out that until the age of seven, I had a great-uncle living close by. And not just a priest, but a monk at that. I was suffocating with anger: anger at that feeling of helplessness and futility. I wrote work an email that I was taking the day off tomorrow.

When one can’t see any future for himself, it’s probably only natural that one searches the past, seeking some anchor point, or the causes of his misfortune. I had started searching for my family at the very moment the possibility of starting my own had so suddenly ended. There is nothing special about this. Nearly every American starts to poke around their family tree at some point in their lives.

Even though I arrived unannounced, surprisingly I wasn’t thrown out of the Abbey grounds. When I told the gatekeeper my great-uncle’s name and the reason for my visit, he called the Abbot himself. He had been elected just last year and could’ve been about seventy. He had joined the Abbey in his fifties and knew Stephen Vachek well. They shared Czech surnames. A large Czech catholic minority had always lived in Chicago and sent their pious sons here to the Benedictine monastery. Even these days, half of the monks here have Czech names. However, none of them speak Czech. Not even Abbot Hlavsa. However, Stephen Vachek did and had even taught Czech at the adjacent university. He always spoke English with a foreign accent and even his Latin apparently sounded Slavic. Yes, he did have a younger brother in America, however he never openly spoke of him. Nonetheless, he often spoke of his parents and siblings in old homeland. In his younger years he served in Czech parishes in Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska, but then retired here and fully dedicated himself to an academic and monastic life.

“We have something of his here,” said the Abbot, as if he had just now remembered, and returned in a moment with a small, well-worn book.

“Brother Stephen wanted to give it to one of the new novices, but none of them knew Czech. Take it, it’s all the same to the Abbey, and we already have a few Czech bibles.” I took the book into my hands. I understood the first word on the cover but had no idea about the second. The foreign language on its pages seemed impenetrable. Something had been placed between the Old and New Testaments. It was a letter written on yellowing paper, in old-fashioned handwriting and that unintelligible language. The language of my family, of which I don’t understand a word.

The next day, I photocopied the letter and sent it to a translator I found online. I received a response a few days later. The letter had been sent in 1926 from the Černá Lhota municipality in Czechoslovakia to Father Stephen Vachek at the presbytery of the church of Saint Anne in Nebraska.

“To our Dearest son Stephen,
Although our hearts will always be broken, the letter from you, notifying us that your brother is in America and is alive and well, gave us great comfort. Here, in the circle of our family, there is no longer any room for him. He escaped earthly justice and now his fate is in the hands of the Lord. Nothing remains but for us to prayerfully ask the Lord, who is infinitely just, to also be merciful. We pray that we are able to forgive your brother, and find peace ourselves. May the Lord bless you for taking him in, but you have done well not to keep him for long. For you, as a man of God, it must be particularly burdensome knowing what sin your brother has committed and for which he refuses to take responsibility. We continue to ask where we erred and why the Lord is punishing us so. We are well otherwise, as are your brothers and sisters. Františka has already had her third child, Růženka, and she was christened last week.
Wishing you abundant health and the Lord’s blessings.
Your loving parents.”

Here it was, black on white. My father’s father hadn’t come to America as a poor villager wanting to make a respectable living by working hard. He had fled to escape punishment and sought refuge with his elder brother.

I thumbed through my great-uncle’s bible in case there was some other clue, but found only a single underlined passage. Exodus, Chapter Twenty, Verse Five. I didn’t need a translator for this, easily finding the verse in an English bible. “Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation,” was the only verse in the entire Bible that Štěpán Vachek had marked.

I immediately understood that verse to be a prophecy. Despite knowing what my granddad had actually done, his guilt had been carried to my father and now me. Maybe the restlessness that had plagued me all my life, and the pain that I was experiencing – perhaps it was all a hereditary curse.

Eastern Europe was still popular among young Americans and there was little for me at home. I handed in my resignation, withdrew some of the modest inheritance I’d received from grandma and paid the airfare to Prague. It wasn’t a big problem finding work as an English teacher at schools in Černá Lhota and the surrounding area.

I made friends with a local English teacher. Jana helped me with everything. Perhaps she fancied me, but I intentionally kept my distance. I came in search of what had happened and I didn’t want to further entangle myself or disclose my identity. It took a few months before I found the courage to ask if there was something like a municipal chronicle. Jana promised she would borrow it. I knew that the key date was 1925, the year that my granddad arrived in America. I asked Jana if she could go through the whole chronicle, just in case the chronicler had noted a criminal case; I would explain my reasons later. Though I felt sufficiently strong to face the truth, I still didn’t sleep that night. Unbelievably, Jana found the relevant entry; the disappearance of Martin Vachek, and the events that preceded and followed, including the police investigation.

The matter was more than seventy years old and I had never personally met its protagonist. Even though he was my granddad, he was, in fact, a stranger to me. Despite this, what he did shook me. He most likely regarded his actions as mischief but in reality it was a disgusting crime, and not only before the law but also according to basic humanity. I asked Jana if she could read the entire chronicle, just in case there was some other mention of the Vachek family. By now, I had decided that I wouldn’t reveal my identity. An awareness of the events of 1925 might have lived on, and I didn’t want to be connected to them. After the weekend, Jana brought me a few translated passages. In 1923, the Chronicler wrote that Štěpán Vachek had returned from America, where he had completed priestly studies on his own account, and served his first mass in Lhota. A year later, he sent a bell to the local church as a gift. For this, the Vachek family enjoyed great esteem. However, not one year later, the family befell the greatest shame through the guilt of its youngest son. No one from the family had the courage to enter the church since. The Vachek parents, the most pious in the village, now always arrived last, just before Mass. They stood in the door and were the first to hastily leave. All the Vachek children eventually moved from Černá Lhota and the parents died in seclusion, alone.

Since that day, I never discovered anything new about my family. I convinced Jana that Father Štěpán Vachek knew my grandma from the parish in Nebraska. I lasted in Lhota till the end of the school year. I was drained, as that place increasingly weighed me down, or more precisely, the knowledge that somewhere here, that thing had happened; that thing which pulses through my veins like an original sin. I have my granddad’s genes and his deed is written into my DNA. I started to watch myself, in case I had similar tendencies. I slept badly and was irritable. Instead of my planned Euro-trip, I flew back to Chicago and this time phoned ahead to Father Hlavsa. He listened to me understandingly and it was his idea that I should come to terms with this thing by writing it as a story, a piece of fiction, which I can look at from the outside as an uninvolved narrator.

Because of what was on my family’s conscience, I wasn’t able to even think about my usual occupation for the half year after my return from the Czech Republic. I got by usually working somewhere behind a bar. The fact that I had chosen to work with handicapped children never ceased to horrify me and I was afraid to return to it. What if, underneath my noble motives, lurked my granddad’s perversion? Is it possible that sooner or later I would commit an act like Martin Vachek did, even though I never knew him, like I hadn’t known my father? I am grateful to Father Hlavsa that I didn’t go crazy or completely drown my sorrows. He listened to me and encouraged me to spend hours writing, and constantly rewriting this story, until I was finally able to accept absolution: that it’s not necessary to carry my granddad’s guilt into the third generation, but rather that it’s possible to atone for it.

I once again read what I had written. Symbolizing the young woman in the snow as the Virgin Mary, hanging off the beads of the bloody rosary, now seemed strained; but I couldn’t think of anything better. “Madonna. Madonna without the Baby Jesus.” I unravelled the image further and continued writing, undertaking the therapy Farther Hlavsa had prescribed.

The Boukals had plenty of time to prepare themselves for the new situation. It was already evident by fall that their Marie hadn’t simply overeaten plums and, for some time now, her old petticoat could not cover her bulge. It was a blow to everyone on the farm.

Marie, the eldest daughter of old Boukal and his late first wife, had always been feeble-minded. She was known in the village as Dim Marie. She had only attended school a month before the teacher gave up trying. Now, at sixteen, she was in all other respects a healthy, grown woman. Everything was as it should have been and she would have even been pretty, were it not for that vacant stare. A grown woman in body; a child in spirit. And so it happened. They came to know only after begging, threatening, cursing, and even beating her. Martin Vachek would bring her sweets. He lured her to the sty with these. Once, twice, three times – old Benda from the general store recalled, that Martin had visited often during spring, and with his usual purchases, occasionally asked for a bag of candy.

The Vachek family were the most pious and exemplary in the village. Their eldest son, Štěpán, was toiling in America so that he could complete Seminary. He solemnly served his first mass in the village church. Just as well that he did then, as these days, shame would not permit him to show his face. The old Vacheks would only venture out through the back yard and, in the evenings, their lights do not shine. They were dealt such an unjust blow. Martin, the youngest of seven, seemed never to belong. When he was ten, he set a haystack on fire and ever since then was known as the Arsonist. The Arsonist, and now the Defiler. The feeble-minded Marie Boukalová became pregnant by him. The poor girl had no idea what Martin wanted of her, and to what he had no right. She was used to obeying, and when she was rewarded with a sweet, she thought she had done well. And, these days, Vachek is god knows where, and has been declared missing. No sooner had the situation dawned on him, he bolted like a hare, and not even his parents knew to where he disappeared. Rape of a minor, himself not of age, hangs over his head. Murmurs say that he most likely fled to his priestly brother in America, who would certainly not withhold a helping hand, despite Martin’s sin.

The police visited the Boukals and left, leaving their investigation unfinished. Indeed, nothing happened, as no child was ever born. The entire nine months, Marie didn’t understand what was happening to her body. When her day came, Marie thought that she had pains, having overeaten the night before. No-one was at the cottage to care for her or call a midwife. She staggered to the latrine above the sty, sat down, and as the Lord watches over the souls of the poor in spirit, she gave birth quickly and easily. When the woman of the house came and saw the weak Marie holding herself up against the door frame, the telling bloody trail behind her, she stiffened with horror. Yet in a well-guarded and far corner of her soul she hoped that the good Lord had maybe taken care of everything for them. Her lips shallowly inhaled the sharp winter air; she sharply opened the thick wooden door, leaned over the pit and stiffened at the sight. Shaken, she ran out for her husband and sons to go and fetch the doctor and inspector; but it was all too late. The bastard child, daughter of the Arsonist and Dim Marie, wouldn’t burden anyone now. Nor would she spend her days in disgrace, shame or contempt, none of which she herself had deserved. Before she was able to take her first breath, she drowned in the Boukal’s pit.
PAVLA HORÁKOVÁ is a writer, literary journalist, translator and radio journalist. She wrote the detective trilogy for young readers: Tajemství Hrobaříků; Hrobaříci v podzámčí; Hrobaříci a Hrobaři (The Secret of the Sextons, 2010; The Sextons under the Castle, 2011; The Sextons and the Gravediggers, 2012). She began translating in 2007 and has been awarded two prizes for her literary translations. In 2018, together with Alena Scheinostová and Zuzana Dostálová, she published the novella Johana, as well as her first book for adults Teorie podivnosti (The Theory of Strangeness), for which she won the 2019 Magnesia Litera Award. From 2014 to 2018 she worked on the series Polní pošta (The Field Post Office) with her radio colleague Jiří Kamen for the Vltava radio station. It draws on diaries, memoirs and correspondence from Czechs involved in the First World War, and was published in book form as Přišel befel od císaře pána (An Order Came Through from the Emperor, 2015) and Zum Befehl, pane lajtnant (Zum Befehl, Lieutenant, Sir, 2018).

About the Translator:

JAMES OCZKO is a translator based in Australia.