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from the February 2015 issue

From “Boat Number Five”

Emotionally neglected by her immature, promiscuous mother and made to take care of her witchlike, dying grandmother, twelve-year-old Eva has been left to fend for herself in the social vacuum of a post-communist concrete apartment block jungle in Bratislava. She spends her days roaming the streets, and daydreaming in the only place where she feels safe: a small garden inherited from her grandfather. On her way to the garden she stops at a suburban railway station, where a fateful encounter takes place. 

The woman from the newsstand didn’t come back and I heard a faint sobbing, another baby cry out in its sleep, and an insistent Shhhhhhhhh. Under the stairs a woman was dashing from one side of a large double stroller to the other. In one seat a small child was sleeping—perhaps five or ten months old, I couldn’t tell—and in the other an identical sibling was crying. The woman was doing everything she could to prevent the crying child from waking the sleeping one. She was short and round, dressed in a loose cotton T-shirt that was sticking to her body and unnecessarily emphasizing the rolls of flesh on her thighs and hips. She was plain, and when you turned away from her, you forgot her face and the color of both her hair and eyes. Her movements were clumsy, she constantly bumped into the stroller wheels with the tips of her sandals as she moved things—rattles and diapers—from one hand to the other. There was something nerve-wracking, breathless, about her movements, something that made me want to take everything out of her hands, push her aside, and soothe the crying child. Then it occurred to me that I would know exactly what to do, how to pick up the child, even though no one had ever shown me how and I was sure it would be more difficult than carrying a stuffed animal. When she had calmed the child down, a run-down young mother who has lost her confidence, she looked around terrified to see if there was anyone nearby who might have been disturbed or annoyed by the crying. She gave me an apologetic smile. One sees such smiles on the faces of old people, who aren’t capable of boarding the bus by themselves and are embarrassed to ask for help, an ordinary reaching out of hands. On the face of someone who has farted in a crowd. On the faces of mothers whose children are screaming, and even though they know very well that there’s nothing tragic happening and that the sounds coming out of the child’s mouth are quite natural, they can’t shake off the feeling that they are somehow doing something wrong. So they apologize and stuff a roll into the child’s mouth.

There was no one else standing on the sidewalk in front of the station, and the little square in front of it was empty. There was no one to make her feel ashamed. The woman rocked the stroller a little, and when she had made sure that both children were breathing evenly, she looked at the entrance to the station and realized that she was facing twenty-two steep steps. She threw her arms up in despair and helplessness. She wanted to go onto the platform, right up to the train that was just then being announced, but she couldn’t get the stroller, which was as big as a boat, up there by herself. And at the end of the walkway there was another set of steps and then a narrow passage through which a stroller that wide wouldn’t fit. A voice with comically clear articulation was already announcing the train’s arrival over the loudspeakers. She looked over at the staircase with awe, as if she were standing underneath a sheer, vertical rock face crowned with a basilica. She tried to listen to the voice and ignore the mewling of the child who had awoken once again. I moved toward the stroller.

I can watch them for you, I said in a voice that sounded trustworthy but a bit offhand at the same time, because I didn’t like her and didn’t actually intend to make anything easier for her. Gingerly I leaned down over the contorted little face. Just go, I said to her impatiently. I felt at an advantage, as catching that train seemed very important to her. The woman was reluctant, she tried to put back the blanket the baby had kicked off and searched the stroller for an extra pacifier that was buried among the cloth diapers covered with spit-up. The voice came on again, urgent and loud, as if even the plastic loudspeaker knew that this meeting was significant for her. She looked one last time at me, the children and the city, as far as she could see, as if she expected the streetlamps, newsstand and low chestnut trees to take responsibility for the children, the stroller and everything in it. She ran up the stairs quite quickly despite her flabby body.

Again I leaned over the stroller and held my hair back behind my ears so that it wouldn’t tickle the child’s face and upset him. At that moment I was more interested in the white blankets that made the two little ones look like puffed-up pieces of cherry cake arranged on a tablecloth.

At that moment I wished I could be lying amid those diapers too, as I still do today, intoxicated by the smell of milk, lulled by my mother’s ardent love, quiet, unaware, and innocent, with underdeveloped senses, which would protect me rather than exposing me to the world. I would curl up into a ball like a kitten, bury my face in a blanket and spend the rest of my childhood just lying there languidly, as seems to be expected of babies. I would wake up as an adult, capable of saying no, defending myself and making decisions. I would prefer to wake up in a different adulthood than the one into which I scrambled in reality. I would have liked to try living another life. In it I would have woken up in my garden hut, in the sparkling morning light, surrounded by trinkets reminding me of moments from brief periods of happiness. High stalks of hard, long uncut grass would protect me like soldiers. The hedge with its spiny branches sticking out in all directions would protect me, because not every danger comes from the ground. Until the day I decided, of my own free will, to mow it and cut it, until I was able to defend myself.

I envied children because they didn’t have to worry about anything. All they had to do was cry, cry as loudly as they could, if they wanted something. Crying loudly is easy, what’s difficult is not crying. What’s difficult is swallowing your sadness and fear and loneliness and insecurity stony-faced, only because one is not supposed to burden others with it, since the moment, time, or mood is never right. When a baby whimpers, the whole family immediately gathers round and everyone wonders whether it’s hungry or cold, whether it has pooped or peed, is bored or uncomfortable. Until they begin to think and speak, everyone will say that their crying is normal, natural, even necessary to communicate with the adults. Laughing, they will say, you keep screaming, my little darling, go on, stretch your lungs. At the same time, deep down, they will wish for the crying to be as brief as possible so that the heart-wrenching wailing doesn’t spill out onto the street and the neighbors don’t think the parents cannot cope with their own child. The air thickens and the nerve fibers of these adults begin to vibrate like strings. The endless wailing fills every corner of the apartment.

I envied their cleanliness, the clean, white, cloth, embroidered with fine stitching and monogrammed on the sleeves. I imagined their mother toiling with the needle between her thick fingers, swooning over the tiny letters, which would sit like little guardian angels somewhere on the babies’ wrists and remind the world what a devoted mother she was, because she’d rather embroider socks than launder t-shirts, wash her hair or take a nap. Maybe it was the grandmother who embroidered them. She would sit by the window for days, looking in the direction her daughter had gone with her grandchildren, she dedicated to them those rare moments of lucidity and all the skills that she had no other use for. Finally, she had found something that cleared her mind of thoughts of illness, medicines, and death.

I was envious of their sleep, deep and peaceful, and the fact that they could sleep wherever and whenever they wished. After all, everyone is happy when children fall asleep. Then everyone tiptoes around them so as not to wake them, because while the babies are sleeping they have to get a million things done. I was envious that everyone would wash their hands before they would touch them and no sweaty adult would climb into their stroller and sprawl under their covers, drooling yellow saliva on their sheets while they slept.

They were loved unconditionally, because they didn’t understand conditions. No one said to them, if you’re good, we’ll love you. It would be pointless, they wouldn’t understand. When they are capable of understanding, conditions will come hurtling down on them like stones from a slope.

Packed in a bag hanging from their stroller the children had everything they needed in life. Their mama carried everything with her just to be sure, boiled water in a thermos, powdered milk, plastic measuring cups, a change of clothes, disposable diapers, medicines in bottles appropriate for children of various ages, nose drops as well, in case their noses suddenly began to run while they were out. Everything was clean, impeccably packed in a soft bag, which the woman had forgotten to close. I peered inside and wondered whether the children were traveling somewhere or whether this was normal preparation for every walk they took. I was surprised how many things such small children needed. And I realized that I myself, aside from my keys and wallet, carried nothing, not even tissues.

People burdened with packages and suitcases suddenly came pouring out of the station. I pushed the stroller slightly to the side, deeper into the shade of the newsstand so that no one would bump into it and wake up the children. I looked closely at every traveler, but the woman wasn’t among them. I couldn’t remember her face exactly, even though I had seen it only a few minutes ago, but I would have recognized her by her torn T-shirt. No one took any notice of us, either of me or of the big stroller. Two or three people stopped at the newsstand, but when they saw that the grate was down, they left without a word. After a little while the sidewalk was empty. The stairway and long walkway as well. Not a trace of the woman.

She had left both of her babies alone. In front of this awful railway station where half-forgotten dubious characters loitered in the shade of the newsstand, which was mercilessly growing smaller. By now the sun was already beating down onto the babies’ faces and they had begun to frown and fret, one of them pulled the pacifier out of its mouth with a clumsy random jerk, the other began to suck fiercely at its own. I pushed the stroller away to keep them out of the sun and took the blanket off their naked little legs. Their legs were chubby and white, with deep folds, as if someone had tied them below the knees with string. One of them suddenly let out a yell. I tried very hard for a little while to rock them, to walk up and down with the stroller as much as the shade allowed, but the baby wouldn’t be quiet and both of them just bounced up and down. I ran up the steps and looked up and down the platform, but there was no trace of the woman. The voice on the loudspeaker announced the departure of a train. I returned to the children, who had calmed down in the meantime and were now only whimpering and shaking their little fists. The wind came up, making the leaves rustle on some low bushes. I put each forefinger into a palm and both closed over them like little claws.

The train left. The woman didn’t come. The babies lay there looking up at the sky. Under the staircase, the wind knocked over an empty beer can and pushed it clattering down the sidewalk. A melody created by wind, aluminum, and bubbles in the asphalt. I listened. The sound was pleasant, and reminded me of the garden, because there was often a similar rattling from the other side of the fence from one of the neighboring gardens, where cans were hung from the trees to scare off crows and jackdaws.

I stood under the stairs and looked into the hall. I realized that no one had come out of the station for a long time. It was odd, because before the woman with the stroller came, there had been a constant trickle of people whether there was a train at the platform or not. There was always someone who got the departures times wrong or took longer standing by the coffee vending machine. Now the station was empty and if there was anyone there, they must have been sitting silently on a bench or leaning against a counter guzzling train station beer. It was as if time had stopped in mid-air. I clearly heard the can hitting the bubbles in the asphalt, heard the clink-clanking but nothing that would interrupt it. Not the loudspeaker voice, whistle, clattering wheels or people walking. It was a precious moment—a split second, a blink—when all the cars are stopped at a red light. Quiet in the middle of the city.

The woman had disappeared. It seemed to me that she’d been gone for at least an hour, but I had no way of checking it, I didn’t even know what time it was or had been when the train came. I didn’t hear the announcement. But I knew that I had found myself in a situation that was just a little bit unusual. I began to wonder what to do with the children. I could stand outside the station for as long as I liked, but in a little while the children would get hungry, need a diaper change or get bored. If the sun shined on them, they’d get sunstroke. Forgotten, tiny, terrified babies with sunstroke. I had to take care of them somehow, I, Eva, who knew very well what it meant to remain alone with only a few provisions in a plastic bag and a bunch of keys in my pocket—not with a key to the apartment, but with all those keys used for the garbage bins, the basement, the mailbox. Because Eva has to know how to take care of everything. She has to take care of these children too. She has to take the children somewhere where the racket of the train and the speeding cars won’t disturb them, somewhere where they will calm down. She knows how to take care of everything, she’ll take care of them too.

If the woman doesn’t come back before the beer can rolls up to my feet, I’ll take the children away from here. That’s what I decided to do.

Read more from the February 2015 issue
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