My body is a shallow mound, is how her most famous poem began. She had written it when she was the same age as the young man who was sitting opposite her now, wanting to interview her. She had promised herself she wouldn’t mention the sixty years that separated them, wouldn’t make it obvious to him. She wouldn’t show off how much more experience she had, she wouldn’t flirt with him in the senile way the other women in the home did, giggling away like giddy teenagers whenever a visitor at least potentially equipped with a penis appeared. As if that mattered now. As if their mouldering, wrinkled bodies were still capable of intimate caresses. As if their cobweb-covered legs could still stretch open! But as long as the last vestiges of consciousness still flickered within them, they would stick to the behavioural pattern of their routine and sex, and flirt as though the future of humanity depended on it. And then at the point when their minds begin to slip away from them like the last rays of golden hour, to be gradually replaced by gormless senility, pure obscenity would finally set in. But that was another story.
She smiled at the young man, reminding herself not to mention the age gap. There was an unspoken assumption that he wouldn’t bring it up – after all, he must be a gentleman or he wouldn’t have asked to interview her. Because, as everyone in the literary world knew, she had stopped giving interviews a long time ago. The young man gazed in fascination at her hands, her shamelessly large, atrophied knuckles. Had he even noticed that she was wearing her cameo ring because of him?
“Shall we begin?” he asked and she nodded.
She was aware of that all-pervasive smell that hung around old people, and today it felt more oppressive than ever. She had hoped the interview would take place in the grounds of the retirement home, in its old English-style gardens, full of nooks and crannies that would appear once never to be seen again. But it had been raining since morning and it was cold. Not that those kinds of conditions had ever bothered her – she hadn’t spent all those years in the Sokol movement and the Hiking Club for nothing – but the young man would probably get a case of the sniffles.
He asked if he could use a dictaphone and then spent a ridiculously long time tinkering with it. It got on her nerves; he might have his whole life ahead of him, but what about her? She cleared her throat meaningfully, but he just gave a nervous chuckle and continued fiddling with that piece of junk. You didn’t get very far in life with hints, she’d learnt that over the years.
“What kind of piece of crap is that, if you’ll pardon my French?” she asked.
“That’s it now.” He smiled, pushing his glasses back up his nose. His hands were trembling.
Had she really said that out loud? She wasn’t sure, but that was the kind of thing that happened to her these days. Actually these past few years. A fine thread was gradually being spun round her brain – yes, the intellect she could be justifiably proud of and which even men sometimes grudgingly complimented her on. What would happen once dementia had bound her thoughts so tightly as to smother them completely? She would no longer be in any condition to do anything about it; she would only be aware of it in rare moments of lucidity before falling back into the darkness of incoherent ramblings and irrational acts. She’d seen it happen to those around her; it was like something from the Alien movie. She observed the old women in the home suspiciously, and at least once a month this, ruthless alien invader would appear in one of them, gradually laying waste to her until she was a complete basket case. The victim was a write-off, useless; she would stop talking to them – yes, she would break off all contact in case she caught some pathogen of senility and terminal stupidity.
“Excuse the profanity,” she said, and he looked at her questioningly. So she hadn’t said it aloud after all? Could she no longer tell the difference between saying something and only thinking she’d said it?
The dictaphone’s red light was on and no sounds were coming out.
“‘My body is a shallow grave,’ you once wrote.”
“Mound,” she corrected him drily. Raised eyebrows. From the hallway the slapping of slippers and shuffling of a Zimmer frame. She realized it was half an hour till snack time. They’d have to finish the interview by then. Not that the snack they got was anything to write home about, but if she didn’t get it then her blood sugar would drop. And she’d also be hungry until dinnertime.
“Do you remember what you were thinking about then? I mean when you wrote that?”
The young man blushed bright red.
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile. I was thinking of my daughter.”
“I think I’m right in saying you wrote it in prison?”
They could hear the clattering of dishes from the kitchen as the cook prepared the snack. The dining room slowly began to fill with the mobile residents. They would just wait there until the rolls with an unappetising meat paste were wheeled in, and then when the cook arrived they’d fall over each other to suck up to her so they’d be served first. And maybe she’d give them an extra roll – a luxury the bedridden residents of the home could only dream of.
The young man said nothing – no clever comments came to mind. She rubbed her aching joints.
“My daughter was six months old at the time.”
“The poem is full of passion,” remarked the idiot. She sighed. How could it fail to be full of passion – it had taken shape at the police headquarters on Bartholomew Street the first time she was brought in for questioning. She’d had to leave Anežka with a neighbour in a hurry, and while the minutes slowly ticked by in the quiet police office, her breasts gradually began to swell. When the interrogator finally arrived with a thick file, she told him her daughter was hungry and could they please get the interrogation over with quickly because she had to feed her.
The interrogator was impassive. He spoke to her informally, looked out of the window, kept going out and then coming back in, slightly more irritated each time; it took her several hours to comprehend that she would have to sign before they would let her get back to her daughter. Such naivety! She had so much faith in her cause! How long before she realized that this wasn’t a misunderstanding or a case of mistaken identity, that “this” could go badly wrong, as some of her intellectual friends had tried to tell her?
“When I return I want this signed,” said the interrogator, leaving her once more. A moment later she saw an image on the sunlit street through the barred window that could have come straight out of a painting: a young mother pushing a pram, wearing a checked dress with a white collar, hair the colour of ripening corn, both hands firmly gripping the handle of the pram, avoiding the bumps in the pavement, her mouth tightly closed. That women had her child, she had him close to her in order to protect him, and that was the most natural thing in the world.
At that time she felt as though a circular saw had passed through her head. The thought had crossed her mind as the floor slid from under her feet towards the horizon; she had to hook her elbows around the back of the chair and focus on remembering to breathe. My body is a shallow mound. When the interrogator returned, he found her in tears. The dotted line for the signature on the confession was blank; he threw the case file on the floor and kicked her chair. From then on that was how it was: custody, painful breasts from the excess milk, mastitis, sickroom, fever, prison, empty, dried-up breasts, Anežka in a children’s home, a year of separation, a whole year of life that they never quite managed to make up for. And throughout that year more and more verses swarmed in her head, clustering into stanzas and pounding on her skull without her having the chance to write them down, and so she memorized them, hesitantly shuffling words, discarding and trimming, adorning them with adjectives, and then memorizing them again. The first thing she did when she was unexpectedly released from custody – even before going to the children’s home to get Anežka – was to write down this poem. It was as though it was gushing out of her fingers, pushing its way out like a fully formed new-born child when the waters break.
And this handsome but utterly stupid young man, who had never had to deny himself an eighth dumpling in his life and was playing at being a committed left-winger, even taking the liberty of professing a kind of ideological solidarity with her, he wasn’t even capable of finding out the most basic information about her and learning at least the first line of her poem correctly! He asked her idiotic questions and she answered indifferently. She replied with words assembled into random clusters as though writing automatic poetry, words like the little scraps of waste you find at the bottom of the scuttle when all the coal has been burnt: work, camp, fireflies, mortal, Margolius, revival, cramp. She was angry at him and would much rather have sent him packing, but she was going to need him for one more small favour. Now he was laughing at something, but what? She hadn’t said anything funny, so he must just be immature and stupid…
“Did you know Rudolf Slánský tried to kill himself in prison by banging his head against a radiator?” she said casually, still trying to get a reaction out of him, but he was unmoved – she might as well have been speaking to him in Anglo-Saxon.
“Yes, I did,” he replied, but his answer was lost in the noise: The snack trolley jangled over the threshold to the dining room and the atmosphere grew charged as though a pack of wolves had caught the scent of its prey.
“Yes, I did,” he said, repeating his answer, “Ludvík Frejka, who was tried alongside Slánský, was my great-grandfather.”
“You’ll think me vain,” she said resolutely, without noticing the young man opening his mouth. She leaned towards him and whispered the rest to him across the plate with the slice of bread and dollop of pink stuff.
And the fool really did understand this time; for once, he knew what was expected of him and managed to play his part: as he said goodbye to her, he bent down and kissed her rheumatic hand. She nodded to him magnanimously and, to the quiet amazement of the dining room, declared, “Send it to me for authorization, darling.”
BIANCA BELLOVÁ was born in Prague, where she lives halfway between the Balkan and British parts of her family. She is the author of seven books. Her novel Jezero (The Lake, 2016) has won several literary awards, including the EU Prize for Literature, and publication rights have been sold to twenty-two countries. The English edition of the book, translated by Alex Zucker, was published in April 2022 by Parthian Books. In 2021, she published the short story collection Tyhle Fragmenty (These Fragments), from which the short story here is taken.
About the Translator:
GRAEME DIBBLE is a translator who is originally from Scotland but has lived in the Czech Republic for nineteen years. His translations focus mainly on Czech history, literature, and music.