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from the November 2014 issue: Contemporary Czech Prose

Bow and Arrow

“Is there anything you want to say about it?” Petr breaks the ice. His sentence fogs the windshield a little. But has no other effect. The patch of condensation quickly shrinks until it’s gone. Gone, along with the meaning and purpose of his words. Silence. The soft, constant, sound of the engine, the hollow movement of the gears, the sigh of a passing car. Next to him, in his peripheral vision, his son. Leaning against the window, head flung back, twisted; lips pale, shut tight; unreachable, distant. Petr returns his eyes to the road. They’re driving through the woods. It’s raining. The wipers move at regular intervals, sweeping back and forth in a hypnotic arc. The blades squeak, the clear surface of the windshield is suddenly covered by rain.

“Well, it’s obvious they’re going to kick you out of school,” Petr says, pointlessly now. A frost wafts from the seat next to him. The blades squeak, the windshield ahead starts to fill with rain. A chill runs down Petr’s back. He downshifts with a fierceness that surprises him. Like he was dislocating a limb, breaking a living thing. He turns onto a forest road. Stones rattle against the chassis. He glances at the boy, who sits motionless, unchanging, pale, distant. What could he be thinking? He’s looking up, into the treetops. Rushing by overhead. The branches like giant nerves. Everything sliding past, slipping away. A little dizziness. And the water on the window. Drop weighing down into drop, pause, slide, leaving behind a wet trail that instantly breaks up again into individual drops. If only he knew where to start, how to approach it. Just say something, Jakub! Stop hiding from me! But Jakub is silent, the road rising ahead, the rain beating against the window. Above all, neurosis. Arc, squeak of wiper blades. A boy called Jakub. A son in his peripheral vision. Branches moving, trees moving. And, suddenly, above it all, an arc.

“Look, Kuba, a rainbow!” Petr says, pointing, but it’s useless, in vain.

“It’s not up to you anymore! Don’t you get it? It’s not up to you!” yells the petite, brittle woman. His ex-wife. Petr’s ex-wife. She’s hurling words at him, but all he says is, “Jana, please, I get it, you were right . . . We should’ve done something about it back then. But this . . . this isn’t right. You’re going to lose Jakub for good!”

But Jana insists:

“You have no right to de-cide-an-y-more!” the knife clicking against the cutting board in rhythm with her words, the onion falling apart, screeching from the next room. Jana’s other child. The one with her new husband. The new husband who stands leaning against the door. Listening. Silent. Staring into the pot, at the food.

“Jakub isn’t crazy,” Petr says shakily. “He isn’t a bully, or anything else. He’s a sensitive kid, fourteen, kids do stupid things at that age. Maybe . . . he fell in with some idiots, I don’t know . . .” He hears himself in a hiss of steam, in this kitchen that used to be his kitchen too. The fluorescent light over the counter with the small, greasy switch on the side, the cabinets with magnetic latches, the left rear burner on the stove that doesn’t work, the window that won’t close unless you force it down a bit. The wallpaper with the floral pattern they had a fight about. The stain on the wallpaper, just over the table, a chocolate fingerprint from three-year-old Jakub.

“They provoked him,” Petr says, finally, now sounding firm. “I’ll go talk to the principal, we can still sort it out . . .”

“How the hell are you going to do that?!” Jana gives him a cutting look as she slices the tops off the carrots. The blade gleams strangely with her nervous movements. “We should’ve sorted it out when he was nine . . . when he hung the neighbor’s cat . . .”

Petr thinks back to that afternoon. Summer, humid, gray skies, all of them numb from the heat, sweating. Petr, Jana, Kuba, and that battle-ax from the ground floor, Petr screaming at her for pulling Jakub home by the ear. All of them standing in front of her door, staring at the pink leaf of a tongue, the two bulging eyes, the shapeless lump that only an hour before had been called Mikeš hanging on the knocker.

“Jana, kids . . . sometimes . . . they do these things. They just . . . need to try stuff out . . .”

Jana snorts. “Are you out of your mind? So I guess he was just trying stuff out with that boy, too, huh?”

“For Christ’s sake, those’re two completely different things! That was a fight, an accident.”

“No, that was no accident. The boy has a broken jaw.”

“He was provoked.”

“That’s not true,” Jana says. Petr drums his fingers on the table and shakes his head.

“You’re going to believe those snots that say Jakub started it?”

The sound of the peeler stops. “It was in a classroom full of kids and . . . Jakub admitted it.”

“Bullshit,” Petr explodes. “That’s total crap! I don’t know why he said it, but it isn’t true. He’s doing it on purpose, I don’t know why, to get back at you and me . . .”

Jana sneers, curls her lip. She goes on slicing carrots, says nothing. Her new husband stands, staring into the pot. Petr would keep going, but there’s nowhere to go. He takes a breath, realizes something, grasps something inside of himself, then tosses it aside.

“All right then,” he says gently, “what if I take Kuba for a while, try to . . .”

Silence.

“So now all of a sudden you care?!” Jana starts screaming. “Where were you when we needed you? You left us, don’t you remember? You! You left us for that bitch! How was I supposed to cope on my own? You ruined everything! You know how much Jakub loved you. How much he missed you . . . You’re such a bastard! They should never have let you see him again!”

“Jana, I . . .”

“Get out,” Jana says softly, coldly.

Petr looks at Jana. The new husband keeps his eyes on the pots. Gentle bubbling and hissing steam. Pointless.

“I told you, get out. Go away! You hear me?”

“Jana, look, I’m not here because of you, I’m here for Kuba. Please calm down. We can’t go on like this. What do you think . . .”

“Get out of here,” Jana yells, cutting her finger. A drop of blood falls, soaking into the white of the chopped celery. “Go away!” Tears, jacket, shoes, door. It’s cool in the corridor, a damp basement smell.

They drive out of the forest. Wide pastures spread out to either side. Open country. Just a meadow with a stand of trees here and there.

Petr brakes, turns the key, the noise stops. Jakub doesn’t move. They sit a moment in silence, staring at the windshield. Both of them feel, somewhere in their spines, in their bones, the tingling of the engine. Calm. Quiet. Pastures.

“Let’s go,” Petr breaks the silence.

They go.

Sounds. The two clicks of the doors. The squeak of shoes in wet grass. Kuba sneezes. Petr opens the trunk. “Can you give me some help?” They take out a square. A target. A wooden frame with strips of carpeting, felt, glass wool. The surface hard and solid to the touch, but an arrow easily slides in and can easily be removed. They walk through the meadow, carrying it. About sixty meters from the car they stop, unfold the wooden legs, and stand the target on the ground. They cover it with a new target face. Petr glances around. It’s perfectly flat in every direction. The evening sun shines over the treeline. They can see a piece of the rainbow again. There is a smell of drenched meadow grass.

“So, have you been practicing?” Petr asks.

Jakub shakes his head. He stands over a large open black laminate case. Inside it is a bow. Two plastic limbs that look like skis screwed into a handle of solid beech wood. He hooks the lower limb behind his left calf, bracing the body of the bow against his other leg, so it crosses his thigh diagonally with its back to his right arm. He cocks his arm, twists his torso, flexes the body of the bow, and draws the bowstring. All of sudden he’s holding a weapon. He tests the tension of the bow, stretching the string to his face, pauses a moment, takes aim, slowly releases the string. He’s gotten strong. He’s grown into a man, Petr thinks. A year ago, Petr still had to brace the bow for him. Now he can handle it easily. He’s been using an adult weapon for some time now. A heavy one, like Petr’s, accurate at a distance of eighty meters, a bow of the most difficult category that can be tightened for more power, without pulleys.

It only takes Petr a moment to ready his weapon. Then the two of them sling on their quivers, attach guards to their left forearms, and slip on leather finger tabs to protect their right index and middle fingers, which draw the string to fire. They screw metal sights onto the handles of their bows. Nock the first aluminum arrow. Adopt a sideways stance, spreading their legs. Petr draws back the string, takes aim, shoots. Jakub shoots. They take turns. Silence, taking aim, squinting. Peace and quiet. Only the hollow pluck of the string. The hiss of the arrow in flight and then, almost immediately, the muffled thud in the target. Speed. The fresh, raw air; the cold, weak sun; shreds of clouds; a bird in the forest. It calls out; silence; you hear nothing more.

They each take ten shots. Walk to the target. Count as they pull out the cold metal arrows. Petr points to something, gesturing, explaining. Jakub nods. Perhaps even says something, too. They walk back to the car. And do it all over again.

After a few rounds, Petr glances over the pasture, Jakub braces the arrow, ready to draw back the string, when Petr puts his hand lightly on Jakub’s shoulder, stops him, nods his head: “Look,” he whispers, trying not to startle or alarm him. Jakub turns his head, not understanding, then suddenly sees. By the woods, to the left of them, a large herd of deer, maybe twenty altogether.

Neither of them says a word as they watch. The deer graze calmly, far away, two hundred fifty, three hundred meters. It seems they haven’t noticed Petr and Jakub; the breeze is blowing toward them, carrying their scent away from the animals. Suddenly Kuba whispers, “Let’s shoot one of them.” Petr is rattled. Maybe too rattled. Kuba notices and . . . smiles! Slightly, but still. Petr stands in shock.

“C’mon!” Jakub needles.

Petr glances at Jakub uncertainly, then finally, hesitating, says, “We can’t do that, Kuba . . .”

“Why not?”

“They’re too far away . . . and . . . you might not kill it. If you shoot one and it runs away, we’d have to go look for it in the woods . . . finish it off . . .”

“So we’ll look for it.”

Petr bites his lower lip. Peels a thin hair off its cracked skin. Spits.

“Would you know how to do that . . . kill it?” he asks Jakub.

“I don’t know.” Kuba shrugs. “Maybe. We do have a knife.”

Petr nods. Yes. They have a knife. Petr has a switchblade in his car.

“It’s not that easy . . . and besides, they’re too far off. You wouldn’t be able to hit them from here . . .”

Jakub fires a shot. Everything stops. The meadow, the forest, the eyes of the deer, Petr’s heart. Jakub stands watching the arrow’s arc. It’s a smart shot, angled upward correctly. The arrow arcs, climbs to the highest point, and starts to fall, starts to gain a terrible, monstrous speed, starts to find its target.

It strikes the ground maybe fifty meters from the herd. The deer take a hop or two to the side. Petr lets out a breath.

Jakub lowers his bow.

“You see, they’re too far,” Petr says.

They stand watching the herd. The deer return to grazing calmly. Now and then, one of them lifts its head and sniffs. Pointlessly. The wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

“Now you try, Dad,” Jakub whispers. He gives a little smile again. Petr suddenly feels him close, right up on him. They stand together. You try, Dad. A wind blows through the meadow; it delicately combs through the grass. It brings with it the smell of something resinous, moist, sickly. Acrid. A gamey smell. Some dung, some tree bark. The wind dies down. The smell disappears.

Petr shoots. The arrow lands some thirty meters from the nearest deer. The herd jumps, trots, stops. The animals turn their heads in confusion, sniffing, then drop their heads to graze again.

“They don’t know what’s happening!” Jakub whispers with excitement.

“We need to get closer,” Petr says. He goes back to the car, takes the knife from the glovebox. Pushes the switch and the blade snaps up with a click. Fifteen centimeters of metal. How tough are deer tendons? Where do you cut? Across the neck? Through the spine? All right, Jakub. Count me in. I’ll do this with you. Let’s go for it. But only if you’re sure you know what you’re getting into. Only if you’re ready. Can you imagine it? Petr tries to imagine it. A shot on target. Chaos in the body of a small animal in a meadow. Hooves pounding. Nailed to the ground by an arrow—from a closer distance, you could even take down a cow . . . and a deer is small, fragile as a whippet. Petr sees it. Sees the horror in the deep dark beads of its eyes. Petr and Jakub come running as the animal lifts itself from the ground, tries to wrench itself free (better to expect the worst), flees, limping, falling, picks itself back up again, spread-eagled and stumbling like a newborn foal. It escapes. Disappears into the woods. The flash of an aluminum arrow between the trees. It’s gone. Petr drops his bow and runs with all his strength, runs as hard as he can. Through dead brambles. Stumbling over roots and mossy boulders. But the animal is gone. Lost deep in the forest, alone with its injuries. How long can it survive? Its muzzle reaching for a foreign thing stuck in its body. Turning in circles. Like a dog chasing its tail . . . I’ll do it, Jakub. What do I care about some deer? What do I care about anything? I’ll do it, because maybe that’s the way . . . The way for us to find each other.

He closes the knife, puts in in his pocket.

They’re on the move.

Arrows notched. Muffled breath and footsteps. Crouching, they creep through the grass. The grass is wet, it doesn’t whisper. All of the animals freeze when any of them senses something. They stop. Wait. Go back to what they were doing. Jakub is on edge. Petr can see it. And he can see it in himself. The excitement, the thrill. There’s something atavistic, ancient in it. An ancient formula. Archetype. Father, son, the hunt. The kill. Petr can feel his pulse. In his wrist, throat, temples, on the left side of his chest. Licks his lips. Another few steps. He measures, weighs, executes each movement. The closer the herd, the cleaner and emptier he feels. Clearing everything superfluous out. Stripping himself of reason, gathering his thoughts from the dregs. He feels lightheaded. His tendons, nerves, bones are thinking for him now. He halts Jakub with a wave. They’ve covered a good fifty meters. Jakub throws him a questioning glance. Petr nods. They shoot. Both at once. Jakub immediately loads another arrow and shoots again. Petr shoots one more too.

The arrows land.

A ripple of fright moves through the herd, they dash frantically for the forest. Hovering over the meadow’s surface, flowing. They seep through, in between the trees. Hoofbeats thud like hailstones. Slowly fade. Disappear.

Again quiet.

They didn’t get even one. Their arrows landed right in the middle of the herd, but didn’t hit a single deer. They can clearly see the white feathers of the four arrows jutting up from the meadow. They didn’t hit even one. Something heavy and black from the empty pasture starts to leak into Petr’s crystal-clear thoughts. As if they had missed much more than that. Something more elemental. It was in range. In reach. They had grasped at it, even held it in the palm of their hands, but it had slipped their fingers. Jakub glances at the four spent, deaf, impotent arrows buried in the meadow. And the moment turns bitter. Curdles. Petr says something, he isn’t sure what. He should be slowly walking. They need to gather the arrows, it’s getting dark, they should be leaving now. They should go, but they don’t, they just stand and wait.

Jakub raises the bow, bends it back with all his strength, and shoots straight up in the air. Directly over their heads. It goes black before Petr’s eyes. What the hell are you doing, Jakub?

The arrow sinks into the dirt about four meters to the left of Jakub.

The two of them stand there. Breathing. Petr’s heart is beating so hard he feels his body sway. His heart muscle balances in the middle of the meadow. Jakub just stands there, terrified too. He looks drunk. Looks at Petr through empty eyes. Looks through him. Now what? Fever. Black spots. Swarming. It’s like something comes rolling over them. Sliding and dipping. The black trees at the edge of the meadow are moving. The wind. Sweeps across, disappears. Bare treetops, sprawling like nerves. It slips, taking on weight, gathering speed and direction. Petr’s head is spinning. He is standing in the middle of a continent. On the top of a tectonic plate. Jakub waits. Terrified, drunk with horror and god knows what. And Petr has to. He has to, because maybe this is the thing . . .

He draws the string and releases it. It whirs, hisses. The arrow goes straight up. Petr closes his eyes, firmly pressing down his lids. So tightly it hurts, setting off a humming in his head. The whole world is ending, forever losing its shape, its meaning.

Petr stands still.

And waits.

From the short story collection Zůstaňte s námi © 2011 by Marek Šindelka. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Michelle Woods. All rights reserved.

November 2014
Contemporary Czech Prose
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