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a story by
Czech writer Marie Pujmanova
Quite a few years ago I read this story and it has rather haunted me for years. It’s testament to the Czech experience and way of life. Just recently I read it again and had what the French call an "apercu". An insight. I hope you enjoy this and I welcome your comments and thoughts because this story no longer seems sad to me.
Sova was such an ordinary sort of boy- who would have thought that his sister would die all of a sudden? He didn’t come to school yesterday and we thought he was just trying to get out of the mathematics test. Today, Sova went up to the desk with a black mourning band on his sleeve and in a low voice explained to the class teacher why he had been absent and what had happened at home.
The teacher nodded silently. All right , everybody knows what teachers are like, but still, it’s a wonder that he did not show more surprise when he heard the news. He called on pupils as though nothing had happened which was very inconsiderate to Sova, after all.
His sister was already grown up, about eighteen years old, and she had had a heart ailment. Sova knew all about it and whatever he said or did had a special importance for us. Orlik had a new respect for Sova and felt shy with him. Only the day before yesterday, he had tussled with him at their desk and called him names, just as he would have done with any other boy. How was he to know that his sister was going to die? Had she been afraid? Was Sova there when she died or did they send him out of the room? What is it like when someone dies? Orlik would not have asked Sova for anything in the world. From time to time, he shot him a sidelong glance. Sova looked as he always did with his blunt nose which was somehow unsuitable for some body whose sister has just died. He did not cry; he bore himself with the quiet superiority of a celebrity, and acted as though he expected us to say something. Shouldn’t Orlik express his condolences? It was the proper thing to do. But among the boys it would seem somehow embarrassing and affected. On the other hand, it would be very rude of Orlik if he didn’t say anything.
He made up his mind at the last minute when they were leaving school. He went up to Sova and, without looking at him, he muttered hurriedly: ‘Sova, I’m sorry about your sister…’
With poise, Sova took his hand- Orlik, in his distress, had forgotten to shake hands- and pressed it. He thanked Orlik and asked him if he didn’t want to go to see his sister in her coffin.
‘Now?’ murmured Orlik in confusion. He had never seen a dead person.
‘You’d better,’ replied Sova. ‘They’ll take her away in the afternoon. Palecek and Lev are coming too.’
‘Where shall we leave our schoolbags?’ stammered Orlik. He would not mention this at home for anything; he felt, without knowing clearly why, that his parents would object.
‘Leave them in our store,’ Sova said and went to get the other boys.
They filed through the passage next to Sova’s general store, past several barrels, and mounted the worn and winding stairs. They emerged onto a glass enclosed balcony where a pot of cut myrtle stood on a chest. It seemed as though this was just the kind of glassed-in balcony there should be where someone’s sister has died. They went into a tidy kitchen.
Sova’s mother was saying goodbye in a hushed voice to three ladies in mousy brown sweaters. They were the kind of women Orlik often teased on his way to school, when they were opening the shops. What if they throw us out? Like at the cinema. Like everywhere. Orlik could not shake off the feeling that he was doing something he shouldn’t do. He felt embarrassed without knowing quite why, for himself and for Sova.
But the ladies looked as though they were glad the boys had come and they did not make any move to leave. Sova’s mother was tiny and she wore black ear-rings.
‘Why, you dear lads, so you’ve come to say good-bye to my Anezka too?’ She started to cry.
The boys took off their caps and shook hands awkwardly. The mother opened the door. A heavy silence emerged from the other room.
She lay like a bride in the narrow coffin with a cross in her folded hands. Flowers were strewn around her and there was a veil over her head which seemed to elevate her above the painted chairs of everyday life. Her face was also concealed by the veil. Nothing but her hands could be seen, wonderously sensitive hands with the bones shining through translucently. Orlik could not pull his eyes away from those yellowing hands, so much more lifeless than the ivory cross they held. But they still were clearly human hands.
What would happen if he were accidentally to knock over one of those ugly chairs and everything were to collapse? If she fell, she might kill herself, he thought inanely. What if I should stay with her alone and a miracle should happen and she should rise up in her coffin…how they’d all thank me. No, I wouldn’t want her to, not for anything in the world….
The boys remained in the doorway, but the women had returned and they pushed them into the next room, into the awful fragrance of the lilies.
‘Would you like to see her?’ asked Sova’s mother softly. She seemed to have taken a liking to Orlik. That often happened to him with strangers. Without waiting for an answer, she went over and with the gently cautious movement of a mother drawn back the curtains above a sleeping infant…
‘Don’t do it!’ Orlik wanted to cry out. But it was too late.
The woman lifted the veil with the poor, work-worn fingertips of her living mother’s hand and drew it back. And Orlik saw what he had never seen before. For the first time in his life he looked into the face of a dead person and he was astonished at its beauty. How young she was, how solitary! How contemptuous she was of the rest of us. She already knew all there was to know. This was no longer Anezka, the grocer’s girl, who weighed barley into paper bags; this was the Dead Young Maiden. Everything superfluous had drained away from this pure face which was absorbed into itself beneath the arching eyelids. All was gone which recalled our petty daily motions, the fact that we blush, that we grieve, that we yearn for something, that we quarrel. Those lips, half-parted just as they had drawn their last breath, will kiss no more; they will drink no more and they will not speak to us. Orlik was not afraid. He did not even feel pity- only the awesome magic spell of that unapproachable girl’s head just a step away from him.
The mother, her handkerchief at her mouth, gazed enraptured at her daughter, her eyes swimming with tears.
‘Poor darling, just like in real life!’ hiccoughed one of the neighbours.
Orlik looked sternly at the woman. Why was this girl being pitied? She was…sublime. What was there to sniffle about? It was out of place here.
‘You’ve dressed her so beautifully, the dear departed,’ whispered the second feelingly while the mother uttered hungry, gulping sobs.
‘Don’t cry, don’t cry,’ the third comforted her. ‘What’s the use? It is all over for her now. Who knows what would have been in store for her here?’
Orlik thought this consolation unspeakably brutal.
And she had died, wrapped in herself, turning away her eyes, smiling out of the corner of her mouth-my God, how disdainful she was of us! Orlik signaled to the boys and they hurriedly said goodbye.
‘Wait,’ said Sova. He went to the table in front of an open window, lifted the candlestick with its teardrops of melted wax, and took some of the death notices which remained. Conscientiously he distributed them among the boys. They clutched them and didn’t know what to do.
On the stairs they met two half-grown girls who bore themselves with stiff self-consciousness. They carried a gaudy bouquet whose colours made one’s eyes ache.
‘They’re going to be my sister’s pallbearers,’ Sova explained. Anca will wear white and Jozka black.’
‘It’s horrible,’ thought Orlik. ‘It’s horrible-why, they’re enjoying it. They feel a terrible grief, I know, but they’re enjoying every bit of it.’
Sova went back with Anezka’s friends and the boys relaxed.
‘There have been cases of people that seemed to be dead,’ stated Lev, ‘and then they came to in the grave…’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Orlik interrupted disgustedly.
‘Honest, Orly,’ put in Kockodan, "My uncle knows this coroner…’
‘Stop that. Do you hear me?’
‘Why?’ wondered the boys.
‘Didn’t it seem to you too that her eyes weren’t completely closed?’ whispered Palecek.
Orlik turned on him sharply. ‘Shut up!’
‘What are you so mad about?’
‘We shouldn’t have gone there at all.’
‘You went in first!’
‘That was my mistake,’ said Orlik pensively.
In mystery stories, he kept encountering dead bodies all the time and it had never bothered him. On the contrary, the more the merrier. But that first really dead person…What did she know under those arching eyelids? Is there life after death? Was it possible that such beauty could have passed away? And during that period, while Orlik was crossing those icy distances and pondering the questions of life and death, his teachers didn’t know what to do with him. He kept getting into mischief all the time.
Your ever loving and devoted Castle Lady sends a your way!