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from the November 2014 issue

from “Kobold”

Radka Denemarková‘s Kobold is made up of two loosely connected stories, run head to tail. This extract, which opens the longer story, “Excesses of Tenderness,” describes the first encounter between the novel’s two central characters: Michael Kobold, a charismatic but violent creature, half-man and half-water goblin, and his future wife, Hella, a gifted young girl from a middle-class Jewish family in 1930s Prague. It is narrated by their daughter, who has just returned to her native city after many years abroad, still bearing the scars of her parents’ destructive relationship. 

 

***

 

It’s not easy to wrench yourself free. Children can’t reach the lock when
their mother and father place it too high up on the kitchen door.
 
      You love the prison you’ve been thrown into.
      You love the prison you’ve been released from.

It was Kobold who sent her out into the world.
      
She isn’t the only one who loves Kobold.

I’m not like other people, she said. I’m not like other people at all. It’s
impossible to calculate the size of pain or love. My affliction is called 
Kobold. It’s an incurable disease.
       
A picture-postcard day. A picture-postcard life.
      
Water drowned in sand.

The bewitching Michael has been officially barred from the stone bridge.

“I just wanted to save these miserable, sick statues, they got only me to save ’em and stick ’em together, what’s wrong with that? They’re crumblin’, fallin’ apart. Hammered by the wind. Eaten away by the rain. Groped by human hands. I won’t stand for it. And none of you should either. Why can’t you build a roof over the bridge, for chrissakes? Why can’t you give every one of them statues a stone umbrella?? Why the hell don’t you do something??”

Michael worships the self-assured, unfeeling statues. The ones lining the bridge. And everything he loves he tends to with all his flesh, with all his senses. Defenseless objects. They annoy him by not being liquid. That suggests they’re not eternal.

Only what’s liquid is eternal.

He takes off his sweat-drenched shirt. Places it on the noxious sink. Its white enamel cracked, abandoned strands of black hair curling inside the hollow, baby serpents buried perilously deep in the smooth surface. He waits a few seconds. Grabs the shirt, throws it over the headboard of his rusty metal bed. He’s slept there all his life. Stooping, he calmly counts down a protective period of time. Uses the shirt to polish the table. Then draws it over a chair, stretching the limp shirt on the backrest, smoothing the frayed collar, tugging down the sleeves. Overnight he’ll place a freshly pressed shirt on top of the sweaty one with yellow circles in the armpits. A pile of dirty clothes keeps growing under the sink. Unsullied fabric protects the scruffy pile underneath.

He protects the objects he loves. So they won’t grow old, fall apart. When he was little he did it in secret. Until the people came along. Chattering, they waited impatiently outside for Michael to get dressed. And to stop misbehaving.

Michael has been officially barred from the bridge. Pictures of him have been posted at either end of its massive span, right in the middle of the brickwork on the entrance gates. Blurred, grainy blow-ups of newspaper photographs. Sodden with rain and snow. The icy winds of March tear scraps of paper from the stone. Notice: This man has been barred from the Charles Bridge for posing a danger to both the bridge and pedestrians. A large reward is offered to anyone providing information on sightings of this man in the vicinity of the statues. Hair: raven-black, eyes: blue, height: two meters; distinguishing features . . . Layers of paper have been randomly stuck below the picture: petitions, incomprehensible screams, the grubby work of fanatical worshippers demanding Michael’s death by drowning. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a body for a body. All in the name of loving thy neighbor. The wind rips off a cutting from the liberal Prager Tagblatt, a seagull glides above the river: Is it conceivable that at the dawn of the twentieth century a human being can still be subjected to this kind of humiliation just because of a stone statue? Can this really be happening? The seagull wheels round and settles in a deserted spot. A holy seagull.

At night a furtive shadow steals toward the Mostecká Tower. A body bundled in woolen scarves. Michael’s mother yanks off the big smudged portrait, takes it home and dries it above her stove along with the desiccating fruit. She trims the frayed edges, smooths out the picture, places it under glass in a heavy wooden frame. Hangs the frame with carved oak leaves in a place of honor. Michael. Her son. The hero. He rounds off the gallery of martyrs lining the stone bridge. Michael’s mother won’t admit her son might be a scoundrel. Mothers never do. “Such a good boy,” she says. “Such a good boy.”

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve the good boy Michael sets out for a walk along the riverbank. He’s carrying a blue-striped comforter cover on his back, the peeled-off skin of an eiderdown. Stuffed full, its end bound with rope. Twice he walks the length of the bridge, half a kilometer each way. Takes a good, long look at the face of each of thirty statues, climbs down to the thirty-first, reciting a counting rhyme in his head. He comes to a halt once the rhyme ends. Unties his voluminous bundle, a magician pulling props for his show out of his hat, and lays out multicolored, oversized bits of clothing on the pavement. Leaps onto the stone parapet. Begins to dress the statue he has chosen.

He tries to cram St. John of Nepomuk into a shaggy fur coat. A gift bestowed upon a friend. Dusk falls, dusk has been falling all day. He plants a crumpled hat on the halo. Snow is now falling heavily, the wind whipping it up by the armload. Michael, lost under the dusting of white, struggles to squeeze the sandstone arms into the tight, frozen sleeves. Crack. A hand snaps, breaks off at the wrist.

Michael stiffens.

He embraces the saint apologetically, whispering into his ear and caressing his arm, broken and stuck inside the furry tube. Swaying as he tries to keep his balance, his heavy body presses against the black fur coat, his full weight leaning on the moss-covered stone, desperately seeking forgiveness. All in vain. The statue, tired, gives up, fragile gingerbread peeling off the plinth. For a moment they keep their balance, swaying. Tap, an invisible finger gently touches the statue on the forehead. As if it was nothing but a tin soldier. They tumble into the water together. Flying through the air, rotating in an oppressive embrace. Heavily, slowly.

But faster than snowflakes.

As a ferocious geyser of water erupts from under the thin layer of jellylike ice and settles down again with a splash, making the crust tremble, a miracle happens. The stone doesn’t sink to the bottom. They bob back to the surface. Together. As if buoyed up by something. The human body doesn’t drown, nor does the martyr’s likeness in stone. Despite every law of physics, John stays afloat. Only his cross is missing.

His crumbled face points upward, the five stars circling his head blinking among the snowflakes, his halo reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, refusing to reveal the confessional secret even at the cost of his life. Michael sits astride the statue, gripping its stony hips with his thighs. He waves his arms like a trapeze artist trying to balance on the upswing. The fur coat, absorbing the icy moisture, is getting heavy. Its weight drags the statue underwater, the head disappears. Frenziedly Michael undresses the saint. Rips off the swollen garb, tearing at the seams with his teeth. The limp fur coat has attached itself to the statue’s chest with a loud smack. The dislocated wrist is held together by black plaster. Michael is immobilized by his helplessness.

He goes under.

They float up again. Now John’s face turns over, confronting the depths below, surveying its future abode. A trained dolphin trying to throw off its tamer. Michael swings around and rides the tired stone on his knees. Paddling toward the riverbank with his hands. Lunging out with his arms. The river, done playing and frolicking, shifts its attention elsewhere. Ruthlessly it swallows up the intruders. Michael locks his legs around the statue’s waist. His open mouth is the last thing to go under, a deep intake of breath. The icy crust closes above them. A fresh white coat seals the restless water surface. A barely visible trace remains. A zigzagging, hair-thin crack.

Beneath the ice crust Michael swims under the statue, lifts his arms. Hoists the colossus using all his might. Reflected in the translucent weightlessness, the weightlifter kicks his legs against the current, a stream of bubbles escaping, an oxygen bubble-blower attracting everything alive, treading water, his cheeks caving inward. The statue sinks irrevocably into the greenish haze. Fish circle lazily, examining it indifferently through glazed eyes, tasting it with fleshy lips. Fish that will never kiss. Near the bottom awaits a round, flat-bodied fish with a huge protruding head, propelled by fins resembling human limbs. It thrives in the darkness of the depths, preferring the bottom of the sea, hundreds of meters down. It’s a batfish, a member of the Ogcocephalidae family. It attracts its prey by secreting a fluid from a specially adapted dorsal fin. Now it carries out its mission under the bridge. Its protruding head touches Michael’s brow. And the fin releases its fluid.

Michael’s limp body is battered savagely, bulging fish eyes approach his lifeless gaze. The statue and Michael part ways. A dense school of fish split up too. Two separate retinues each accompanying their own master.

People holler as a body is caught in the net. A big fat fish. They breathe their life into him. From then on Michael will never be the same again. St. John of Nepomuk will never be found. The current must have swept him away, people will say. Swept him into the ocean, Hella will claim. The city will reward Michael for his brave bid to rescue the precious statue. Although, when the full story comes out, he lands in prison for causing the statue’s death.

Father’s blurred picture used to hang on the wall between the windows, an eagle’s beak between two apertures. Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the smell of a human. I am crumbling. Shedding my traits. Falling apart. After decades of building defensive walls I have turned into a statue myself. A statue waiting for a confidant in whose presence it can breathe freely and expose its fingers with impunity. Surrounded by little devils, from whom the truth must be hidden beneath a mask of stone. Fingers clenched into a fist. I leave the room.
      
The hotel room.

Hella. She is walking home from a lesson with Dr. Brod. The door’s oppressive, drawn-out creak. She darts out the heavy door into the boisterous street. A loud slam behind her. With the point of one polished lace-up shoe she draws a big question mark in the dusting of snow on the cobblestones. She adds another, its mirror image. A heart. Then another inside it, and a third. And two more, tiny ones. Hella is seventeen. Her hair is sugar-iced with snow, a misty landscape ripples from her pink mouth. She articulates inaudibly, forming her breath into patterns, characters fly up, mostly elongated o’s. She knows Dr. Brod is watching her from behind the lace curtains on the third floor, his breathing getting faster. She knows who holds whom in the palm of their hand. He doesn’t look her straight in the eye, ever. Clutching an open book in his sweaty, fishy hands, which he wipes on his trousers. He doesn’t correct her mistakes even when she makes things up on purpose and blurts out nonsense. His voice starts to tremble, he has to clear his throat from the depth of his groin every time Hella tilts her head and twists a strand of curly black hair around her finger. But not before she’s licked its end languorously and sucked at it a while. Until she utters the next annoyingly inane question.

Today’s lesson was symbolic, festive. She dropped by to hand over an early New Year’s gift. Bought by her parents.

Dr. Brod has been waiting. Waiting behind the starched lace curtains for weeks, until the bewitching raven-haired Hella turns eighteen. Then he will propose. Her parents approve. Even if Hella doesn’t suspect a thing. Blithely she skips along on this Christmas Eve. Every night his wastebasket fills up with crumpled balls of ink-spattered paper. Paper sheets filled by Dr. Brod with declarations of his feelings, of his obsession. He confesses his yearning for the moment when he will take his virgin up to the third floor and tie her up among the bookshelves, in the maze of books where Minotaurs claim their droit du seigneur. Dr. Brod composes a letter in mirror writing. Dr. Brod sleeps with all his female students. Touches their private parts with his long, soap-washed fingers, which he enjoys sniffing later; practices the art of pleasure points, hunting for pearls. He believes in repetition, repetition is the mother of all learning. Perfection, too, comes down to practice. He is confident he’ll have mastered this art. Before the time comes to prize open Hella’s seashell.

With the point of her lace-up shoe Hella carves out a rectangle around the hearts in the virginal snow. She adds a square, then another, and another, troughs staining the fresh covering of snow. She lifts one foot and spreads out her arms to keep her balance. A stork playing hopscotch in the muddy slush. She is happy. And doesn’t feel like going home. Back to the Christmas commotion, with the bickering servants who will blame each other for this or that not being just right, the challah bread hasn’t been braided properly, and does Madam wish the carp prepared au bleu or in some other way? and the almonds will be left unpeeled and they will roll their eyes and sear her with glances that scream the accusation that she doesn’t have to do anything, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and they will hate her even more if she offers to help. Her parents try not to stand out. They have surrendered to the majority, to the fish eye. They celebrate the Christmas holiday. Except they’ll never spell it with a capital letter.

She skips along the cobblestones to the other side of the road. To a shop window with a hat display. She sticks out her tongue, her message to Dr. Brod clings to the reflection of her face. She’s not going home. She heads for the bridge. Her favorite show. She can watch all those weird people. And spit into the water when no one is looking. The current will carry her spittle away.

She is headed for the bridge. I move my lips in vain. Forming inaudible
words with my tongue. She is about to decide my life. To open the gates of
the city and let the devil in. What if she didn’t head for the bridge. I’ve
never seen my mother insane.
      
It’s a closed chapter. Absorbed by the pages.
      
The last word has been written.
      
Water drowned in sand.

At the entrance to the bridge, at the foot of the tower, Hella buys a paper cone of roasted chestnuts. The vendor respectfully doffs his cap.

“I kiss your hand, lovely young lady.”

He knows her father, the professor. Who regularly passes by on his walks, pensive but kindly, an impressive dignity married to a sense of his own power. The people around Hella seem agitated, they walk faster, a crowd is gathering, everyone headed in the same direction. Hella is drawn to the swelling throng. People lean from stands in the sports arena, excitedly pointing to something down in the river. The show is taking place down below, under the bridge.

She weaves her way through bodies in musty coats, the chestnuts warming her crocheted gloves, steam rising from the cone. She sees little boats launching from the banks, swaying. Little boats carved from bark. Carrying little men in uniforms. Hollering, they break the thin surface of ice with their oars. Hairline cracks, awakened from a dream, unfurl across the icy crust. Somebody is playing under the ice, having fun wielding the blade of a knife, starting the engine up down below, carving and slicing the ice that crackles like the flesh of a split-open melon. Hella leans over the stone parapet, craning her neck, her neck extending as it pushes between the silent statues. Her breath quickens as she absorbs the scene, she’s witness to something extraordinary. Her life, too, is becoming extraordinary, she’ll be a painter or writer, a doctor or teacher, like her father. She is bound to remember this day. Isn’t life beautiful?

Something sharp pricks her face. Her neck contracts and twists. A corpulent man is breathing down the nape of her neck, rushing home with a small spruce tree, its sharp green needles stab at her temples. She shields her face, the green needles assaulting the whites of her eyes. On her other side there’s a gentleman in a hat, her father’s age, staring right at her instead of looking down from the bridge, why isn’t he looking down? The crowd behind her keeps growing, pushing, hysteria rising, no one moves back, everyone wants a witness moment of their own, the ones in the middle shoving to the front, they can’t see and they have a right to, so get out of the way, more people squeezing in left and right, squashing the ones in the middle. The bridge is corked up at both ends. Hella looks down. The little men in one of the boats struggle to haul up a huge wet bag caught in their net, the boat taking on water, the crowd undulating toward it, letting out a shriek. The little men in uniforms keep tying and untying the bag. Pummeling it. A tiny stream of water squirts out, a little fountain.

The crush is making Hella nauseous. She tips the chestnuts into the water, as if that might free up some space. The spray of brown stones scatters in all directions, alien puffy lips snatch at them, a blade flashes in the water. She tries to turn around. Can’t, the pressure keeps growing, pinning her down, crushing her, squashing her chest and stomach and hips, fragrant needles stabbing her, stabbing into her left cheek, Hella starts whimpering, Let me go, please, let me go, please let me out. Softly the vapor rips the words off her lips, dispersing them along the river. She sees the same desperation in the faces to her left and right. Grim faces of the grown men and women of this city, strong people with hands gripping the bridge as it crumbles. She moves her scratched face away, lifts her chin, the sky above gray and turbid, like someone has rinsed out their dirty paintbrushes and emptied the dirty water. Stiff statue heads glitter against the gray sky, leaning, bowing down, heavy and clumsy, corners of stone mouths moving, empty eye sockets winking at Hella, a flash of mockery.

Scared, Hella looks away. Lowers her head and sneaks a sideways glance at the statues. Now they’re back in their places, tense and motionless, the sky dirtied like another puddle, this time fresh filth tipped from a bucket used to clean the stairs.

Petrified, Hella puts the empty cone down on the stone parapet. Heaves a sigh, afraid to scream, young ladies aren’t supposed to attract attention in the street, she’s already broken a rule as it is, Straight home after the lesson, you’re safe with Dr. Brod, my dear, he’s educated plenty of young ladies, vice lurks out on the streets . . . It’s snowing heavily, there’s a severe frost, vapor rising from mouths, including Hella’s, she can’t breathe, she won’t form any more vapor letters, doesn’t dare scream, doesn’t dare raise her head and face the stony sneers either, this must be the end, she thinks, this is the end. People around her are throwing away their things hoping to get relief, some space has finally opened up, Christmas trees and gifts tied with ribbons float in the water, some bob funnily up and down, a snout bumps into them from below, slicing into the boxes and dragging them underwater. Hella turns her head, whispers, Bitte bitte bitte, the gentleman in the hat stares, his face approaching hers absently, the unwashed body behind her catches its breath, its ruddy face squashed by others, compacted bodies with no room to maneuver, no room to maneuver anywhere, no room to maneuver for anyone. Hella is afraid, desperately afraid her breath will run out, never before has she felt so anxious, gasping for air she feels something touching her upper leg, a slimy creepiness, a serpent’s bite, pushing its way up underneath her tweed skirt, only one way out before she chokes, before the serpent’s head slides in, she’s got to prize herself free of the press, if she doesn’t pluck up the courage now she’ll be buried alive, only one way out, to sail into silence, to sail into safety.

She draws in her stomach. Scrambles, clambers up onto the parapet, the serpent’s progress toward the cranny accelerates, Hella holds her breath. By now others behind her are pushing and hollering.

She’s the first to jump.

She holds her breath. Ladylike, pinching her nostrils. Yanks free of the serpent trying to drag her back by her skirt. She flies free. You have to earn the river; it’s a painful landing. Figures cascading down all along the bridge, a rain of human bodies. Rigid matchsticks cut through the layer of ice, bodies slip into the softness, tiny heads emerge. People keep jumping, but this Titanic doesn’t sink. More and more round holes puncture the icy membrane. Bodies sway the water’s surface, splashing about among the soaking gifts, frozen hands clinging to Christmas trees. Through the holes in the ice the little men in uniform haul in their catch, no bait needed. Hella, teeth chattering, lands up in the boat with the wet bag at the bottom.

This is when she first lays eyes on the overgrown sprite Michael Kobold.

From Kobold: Přebytky něhy; Přebytky lidí © 2011 by Radka Denemarková. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood. All rights reserved.

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