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from the July/August 2020 issue

Pas de Deux

A woman is nursed back to health by an acquaintance in this excerpt of Libuše Moníková's Verklärte Nacht, forthcoming next year from Karolinum Press.


The man is back, trying to be quiet. I watch him, he squints over at me, and I play dead, pretending to sleep. There’s no more heat, no more seething blood. The slow, monotonous flowing of thin blood through blue veins, for three hundred years.

I hear him rustling shopping bags in the kitchenette, turning on the gas stove, putting water on to boil, cracking eggs into the pan. It hisses, sizzles: bacon—he doesn’t know that I only eat vegetables and fish. Should I lecture him on the diet of a dancer? It smells good.

I open my eyes. He’s standing over me. “I know you’re not sleeping anymore,” he says. “When you’re asleep, you grind your teeth. Nice to have you back.” He touches my temples. “And the fever is gone, too! Now just tell me you’re hungry.”

“I’m hungry.”

“She can speak!” He kisses my hand enthusiastically, he had better not make a habit of it. “Shall I bring you the food in bed?”

“No, I’m getting up!” I say testily. I feel sweaty, sticky all over. “How long did I sleep?”

“A long time. Today is the fifth day. You woke up a few times, but you weren’t responsive. You were pretty far gone.” He looks at me.

“What day is today?” I ask.

“I couldn’t say either,” he says. “Being with you is like being on an island, a quarantine island—there’s no contact, no interaction with the rest of the population.”

“And in the end, everyone’s dead. The ship of the dead.”

“Except that our ship has arrived safely in the harbor and they’re letting us come ashore.” He looks young, confident, and in love.

I imagine choreographing the disembarkation from the ship of the dead. The railing as backdrop, a pas de deux in front of the gangway; no, it would have to be two men and a woman. Pas de trois. Verklärte Nacht. And then a step dance on the shaft tunnel. Mister Bojangles.

If there’s a first opera to include a telephone conversation, there can be a first ballet where people dance on a shaft tunnel. An ocean liner, women in airy white suits playing shuffleboard, like Greta Garbo; bathers around the swimming pool, promenading on deck. And suddenly all the deck chairs are tilted, the wine glasses slide off the tables, water squeezes through the portholes; a dance on an inclined plane. And then the rescue at the dock of the Vltava.

The icy cobblestones in front of the landing stage; the lamps from the street; gulls on cords above the dancers; the carriages from Old Town Square with the tipsy drivers in their greasy bowlers; the gypsy band come to greet the survivors; the taxis rushing by without stopping, full of happy Americans who don’t shrink from waving their flag here, in my Prague. Is it even still my Prague? It lacks a fountain, bubbling, even in the summer it’s missing from the square; I need cataclysms for my finale, and a saxophone, like in Ravel; trumpets, Janáček’s trumpets, and kettledrums.

As if my stories didn’t have happy endings.

 

I get up, throw back the blanket, and freeze: there’s a huge bloodstain on the sheet, dried at the edges, the same thing on my pajama pants. Asperger whistles cheerfully in the kitchen and I feverishly consider whether I have any supplies—cotton wadding, at least. As always, the blood has come unexpectedly and too early, too strong, a loss of blood that can’t be quickly compensated; but still better than the panic the time it didn’t come. While I’m here playing dead, three hundred years or three thousand, hollow inside, my body doesn’t give a damn and continues on as it pleases.  

I pull up the sheet, put on a long sweater over my pajamas, and walk to the bathroom clumsily, the skin on my legs taut. I suck in my stomach and tense my muscles, trying not to let any blood drip onto the floor. Asperger leaves the kitchen so that I can undress in the bathroom. This apartment has some serious disadvantages.

I look in the mirror. My eyes are red and my face softened, puffy from lying so long in the heat. A cramp worms through my abdomen, a familiar pain. Isn’t there any more reliable way of assuring oneself of one’s continued existence?

I take a long, laborious shower, enjoying the soapsuds on my skin, the shampoo, the warmth, the water splashing on my hair, my mouth, my closed eyes. The water pressure seems stronger than before. Then a cold rinse; I suppress my usual shriek, rub myself down. The towel is streaked with blood, I put it in a bucket to soak with the pajama pants and look for cotton. There’s a tiny bit, it won’t last a half hour. I dress and look in the hallway; there’s exactly one tampon left in the pack. Asperger is waiting for me and the food is long since cold. “I didn’t know you liked showering that much.” He smiles, disappointed, and takes the plates back into the kitchen, turns on the stove. While the food sizzles in the pan, he rinses the plates again. “Otherwise it won’t look so good,” he says.

In that moment, I like him.

“Would you like a soup first?” he asks. “There’s tomato soup and broccoli soup.” He shows me the cans.

“Maybe tomato soup, later,” I say. I don’t want to disappoint him again.

We eat his fried eggs, I haven’t eaten bacon in years; I praise everything and he says it’s too dry because it had to go back in the pan. He takes away the plates and brings cheese, red wine. He asks if I’d like coffee and cake afterward.

My mouth begins to twitch at the sight of the red wine. “No, thank you, just a piece of cheese, I have to go out in a sec and get something.”

“You can’t think that I’ll let you go out, with your wet hair and your cold! I can get it for you. What do you need?”

“I want to buy it myself,” I say, agitated.

“You’re not leaving the apartment! It’s at least ten degrees below, and you’re just over pneumonia. Not quite over!”

“How do you know? Besides, if you weren’t here, I’d just go.”

“But I am here!”

“And I’d like to know why!”

“So that I can get you what you need, for example! If I’m not allowed to call a doctor. That was already unwise, and risky! I thought . . .”

“What?”

“Nothing. It looked bad on the third day. I was imagining . . .”

“What were you imagining?”

“Nothing! Anyway, I’m not letting you go out!”

“You were imagining I was dead,” I say. “What would you have done?”

“I don’t know! Stupid question!” He looks at me. “What do you need?”

“I need . . . soap.”

“What?”

“And cotton wadding.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes, two packs.”

“And you’re making this fuss just for that!” He takes his coat and slams the door behind him.

I take off the sheet and scrub it in the bathroom with the towel and pajama pants. My raw fingers make it difficult, and a bluish pink spot remains on the fabric that I can’t get out either with lemon or salt; I squeeze water through the sheet one more time and lay it over the radiator, I take the mattress and scrub the pad. My fingers get stiff under the cold water, but not as bad as five days ago, when I couldn’t hold the key and Asperger had to unlock the door. I lean the mattress against the heater, which is now working again, and he fixed the shower too. What’s his first name?—Thomas, Tomáš.

I put his three mattresses together under the window and the bedclothes in the wardrobe; that’s the best I can do for domesticity in this small space. I do a few exercises, but the stomach pains keep me from doing much, and I turn on the radio. The water levels of the Bohemian waterways at seven this morning, then the weather forecast—the world exists again.

Asperger opens the door, snowy, and brings in the fresh, cold air. The snow melts on his eyelashes, he shakes off his coat, his hair, and hands me a full shopping bag. “I hope that’s the right one.”

I take out the soap and two packs of cotton wadding. Underneath there’s a big pack of Tampax. I look at him.

“I saw an empty box in the garbage can, regular, is that right?”

“Yes, half would have been enough,” I mumble.

“Well, I don’t know,” he glances at the drying sheet and the mattress. “I thought it couldn’t hurt.”

“What is this?” I take a brown jar out of a smaller bag.

“Magnesium. I went to the pharmacy too. You look so pale and drained of blood, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“Hm, thanks,” I say, putting everything away. “By the way, it’s not ten degrees outside, only just above freezing!”

“And at the peaks of the Ore Mountains?" he asks.

I have to laugh.  


Verklärte Nacht © Libuše Moníková. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Anne Posten. All rights reserved.


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