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from the November 2005 issue

from “A Boy and Death”

Father was lying on the table dressed in his usual dark blue suit. He was uncovered, lying on a sheet, and standing at his feet was a vessel of holy water with an olive twig stuck in it. In his clasped hands he held the silvery black crucifix Anna had lent us, which from a distance flashed like a small, dangerous sign. Who had turned him out like a dead man? I pulled off my cold gloves, put away my scarf, and sat down in his chair, which had been pushed out of place. He lay there even more calmly than he had that morning. His hair was combed back from his forehead and temples into smooth tufts that stuck to his head as if they were glued on, and fresh light fell on his bare face as if he were lying somewhere outside under the open sky. He was dressed for the street, except that he did not have his shoes on, his old, brown, chapped leather shoes, only his thick, woolen socks with the threadbare toes and heels. I did not know how to shake off the feeling of that house and find my way back to him. I stared at his hands and face, searching for his old features, his head's familiar outline - the crooked nose with the scar, the jutting chin, the deep folds around his mouth, his hair touching the pillow with its whitened tips. But his face was completely white and dark, all wrinkles gone from it, flat and emaciated like the face of an elderly stranger. I was overcome with despair, staring at him as if into a void, thoughtlessly and pointlessly, and trying by the force of my stare, though in vain, to summon his previous features onto his forehead and cheeks. Then the noon bells began to chime. But the dark hill remained motionless. Houses looked on with their windows and people went on excavating the earth. The bells' thunderous, joyous, air-shaking blows pounded the window so that it rattled; they flooded the workshop with their ringing, but to Father they did not merit even his raising a hand to his ear or shifting his head on the pillow. Then all at once they went mute, flitted into the air and faded away. Mother called me to dinner. I could not move from the table, the lying figure. The clothing it had on was so silent, stiff, unnatural, dangerous. When finally I opened the door to our room, I saw soup steaming from the pot and the table, which was my bed at night, set with plates, cutlery, an open tin of fish, peeled and sliced salami, and an extravagant chunk of cheese. The smell of food overpowered the room. My sister and Gizela were sitting on their respective sides of the table quietly and unworried. Mother stood at the little table and stirred the soup on the burner. Even my sister, who was no longer a child, was sitting straight and calm against the dark wall. So that means he isn't really, I tried to comprehend. I sat down in my chair, its high cane back conforming like always to my own back, and focused my attention on their faces. Sure enough, they did not seem shaken, awkward, or upset. My body relaxed suddenly, and I started swinging my legs under the table, where we kept our large tub. Mother poured soup from the pot until the bottom of each plate was covered by a thick macula of hot green stalks and chunks of potato. I waited for them both to lift their spoons, put them in their mouths, and begin eating. Klara actually had her spoon raised to her lips, which were rounded like the letter o; she blew onto the hot bits of potato on the spoon, then put it in her mouth. When I took my first bite, my mouth was overwhelmed with the taste of food, and a feeling of warmth all at once pervaded my entire body. I began to eat greedily. It was as if I were seeing cooked, hot, fragrant food before me for the first time and eating it. Spoons clattered against the plates like they did every day, and Gizela kept craning her head and peering over the pot at the fish to see whether they might not have vanished, although she knew there was enough for everyone. Mother sat with her back to the door and chewed slowly because of her bad teeth, dipping bread into the soup. We cleared our plates and each got a portion of fish and cheese. But once we had finished everything, silence spread around the table. My sister leaned back with all her weight against the speckled wall, her swollen face darkening like on the meadow outside; and Mother stayed stuck in her chair, leaning on the dish-laden table, supporting her face, which was flushed from eating, with her hands, something she never did. I got up from the table, obtuse fear beginning to rise in me again. I sat on the iron bed and stared at the two women, at their faces, their eyes. There they sat, the picture of misfortune, Klara with her face by the wall, her nose white as a porcelain isolator. I had eaten my fill, my mouth still had food in it; my body was ungainly, warm, heavy. I drank three ladlefuls of ice-cold water from the pail in the corner to get rid of the taste of food in my mouth. Then, quietly, I went past them and shut the door behind me. Gizela was standing in front of the table at the window. I saw her moist lips against their bright background, her nose and tiny head with its pointed crown and two small braids. I was standing at the clotheshanger. Then, slowly and awkwardly as a barrel, I began to approach the table in my crumpled clothes that stank of lunch. Father lay there, his face hard, unflinching, pale as light, staring at the ceiling, his thin, uneating lips surrounded by white stubble, and rigid as a stone effigy in his dark blue suit. I sensed disdain in the hollows of his cheeks. I watched him; his bare, white forehead gave off a sort of reflection in the air; and all that I had eaten started rising in a slow, painful avalanche. I sat down on a chair at the end of the table and covered my mouth with both hands. I pressed them tightly against my mouth to prevent anything from coming out; I began to sweat and begged the wall before me with my eyes to keep me from vomiting. Then, slowly, it passed. He was far away from me, although his feet in their striped, wool socks were right in front of me. Beside me I sensed his dark suit with the sewn in buttons. The low ceiling and yellow walls were watching me. They stood there undisturbed and loyal, but tired and numb from my constant presence. Nevertheless I could easily see from over his trousered legs his face with its clenched eyebrows and veins at the temples, which were no longer tensed and dark, but pale. His lips seemed puffy to me, as if he were sleeping as I stared at him. My body, although no gaze tried to pierce it, was more rigid than his. On the wall I could see the faint silhouette of his crooked nose, moustache, and beard. His neck was white with the ironed, mended, collarless shirt around it. Then I noticed something that he still had: the big mole in his eyebrow, no longer brown. I sat in the corner by the door and watched him, not letting him out of my sight, at a distance. Nothing was happening with him, so now and then I glanced outside, at the hill, down which a long, steep, reddish path found its way; the window resembled an ancient, thousand-year-old picture, in which people occasionally stirred, a man with a goat coming down the path, or children in festive clothing.

An hour later the door opened and Praček, the clerk from the Vincent Assembly who lived in the small room beneath us, entered the workshop in his black overcoat, tie, and black hat. He appeared in the workshop suddenly, like a big, strange, black bird, a tall man with a huge nose, moustache and saucer-like black eyes under a high forehead. He went to the table, took off his hat, crossed himself and with the small branch sprinkled water, and the drops sparkled in the air like fireflies. I started awake suddenly and sat upright, gazing at him. He was like an apparition that came from the dark depths of the house and at once made itself at home in our workshop. His bare, white head shone above the table, it being more cloudy outside now than at noon, and I could hear his breath, the dull groan in it. He stood there a while, his hat in his clenched hands, looking at my father. Then he went to the back of the room, unbuttoned his overcoat so that it fluttered, took a smooth, folded handkerchief from his grey jacket, and blew his nose. The lapels of his coat flapped to and fro like a crow's wings. Why was he not leaving, what kept him from pushing off into the darkness of the stairwell? He sat on the straw-covered chair beside the counter, crossed his legs and lowered his head with its wrinkled brow, and stared at the toes of his shoes. My mother and sister must have heard someone walking in the workshop and came to the door. He stood up, that repellent man who must have had the wing of a raven, a bird of prey, under his coat, shook hands with them, and said, "My sympathies!" in such a loud voice that Father no doubt heard him perfectly clearly from over by the window. Mother lifted me out of my chair, moved it closer to him, and sat next to my sister near the little table. Praček turned to the two of them so that his big, naked face with its high forehead lit up in the light over the workbench, and his round, black eyes reflected only darkness. "The main thing is, it all happened peacefully," he said in his quiet, decayed voice, watching Klara's face, which her hair covered on one side. "Did he accept the priest willingly?" he asked covertly, as if he were releasing the silent, sprung lid of a long box. "Oh, he did," my sister said anxiously. "But you must remember," my mother whispered hastily and shifted the vase so that she could lean forward, "that he was already unconscious. We were afraid he would go just like that, but now we are relieved, because he did his duty and no one has anything to feel bad about." Praček's face listened attentively, closed up like a jack-knife. "Clearly this had to get settled," he said. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. I believe, Miss Klara, that he is much better off now than he was in life." He put his big, softly muscular hand on my sister's arm and at once a strange sound, a cry, tore out of my mouth, for I was not accustomed to anyone sitting so close to my sister and touching her; but the sound was practically inaudible, as if the air had conceived it, for nobody stirred. Praček eventually drew his hand back into his coat. He turned away from the light toward my mother, and his whole face and white shirt and tie darkened. "It is both a consolation and a relief, Ma'am, that his suffering and torment have ended," he said gently. Then I heard my sister urgently whisper something to him. Praček listened and smoothed down the edges of his overcoat. He eyed her for a while without a word. "What on Earth do you mean!" he said so loudly that my whole body shook. On the table, Father was silent, but his ear still registered the least sound in that workshop. Praček leaned back, folded his arms over his behind, and began to talk as if he were talking to someone else, not my sister. His words wound like black scarves, like flags in a breeze, angular, round, elaborate, as if he were painting them with ink on a large sheet of paper; some called to mind a small fire flickering on damp stone, others made the sound of an iron carriage or of many feet marching over perforated sheet metal, and yet others sounded quite refined, for at the end they elegantly chimed with the first word. My sister listened, her attention taut, her gaze fixed on him as though she were putting all her faith in him. She began to sob strangely in full view of the black, alien, speaking shape on the chair. "I can't believe he's dead," she said. Praček looked at her. Watch out! - I thought and dug my heels into the floor in my agitation, to steady myself. Praček shifted his torso toward the little table, lifted his cup of tea, and took a sip. Mother turned her head to me as if to say: Be off with you, child! "Please, Klara, calm down ," said Praček. "Anyway, I wanted to ask you something else." Watch out! - and I was all ears and eyes. I wanted to rush out into the street, I wanted to run away from that house and never go back. He leaned a little toward her and whispered something. My sister listened arduously. Her reply was indistinct, slow, her lips barely parting. I understood nothing. I caught sight of Father's stiff, white face on the table. I stepped away from the chairs and tiptoed over to him. On his cheeks I noticed the drops of water Praček had sprinkled there. I grabbed hold of the shoulder of his jacket and, watching the heads on the other side of the workbench, quickly wiped the water from his cheek-bone. Only the cloth touched his face. My heart throbbed wildly, fearfully. Praček stood up, saying quietly, "You're looking at it the wrong way, Klara. The priest is very busy and toils from morning to night like a serf. And we're not always so accommodating either."

"I see, I see," my sister was saying from her chair. Praček walked along the workbench over to the table, took the twig from its receptacle and again sprinkled my father three times so that the bright drops flew through the air. He crossed himself and returned to the other end of the room, his hat in one hand, the other hand on his hip.

Then I noticed the white-haired old woman from the third floor, who lived in the room near the water supply, at the door. She went up to Mother and took her hand, looking her intently in the face. It was like a small grey house had walked in, an overgrown garden bed, a peasant woman from a mountain village. She walked to the table, crossing herself, her eyes gleaming under her twitching brow, looking at my father as if he were her friend. Her face was very sharp. She stopped at the end of the table, made a blessing, raised the twig, and sprinkled the water. The drops fell like dew on his suit and hands, as if they were flowers in a garden. He remained motionless in his unnatural position. But all of a sudden he'll wake up, I thought, because of the moisture on his hands, he'll sit up and glare furiously at the old hypocrite. The old woman carefully put the twig back into the angular vase at his feet. He did not stir even now, like a toppled lime pillar, not even his trousers betrayed a twitching muscle. He stared past her at the ceiling, as if she were only one of many repulsive figures in his dream. The old woman kept watching him, her eyes with their horn-colored spots glittering, framed by her white hair and the holey scarf around her head. Then she started to pray, her bass voice emitting from the diabolical black chamber of her mouth that curved deep under her nostrils, as if it were not my father there but a statue in a church. I watched her blankly. How could this white-haired, hunchbacked hag, who beats children for drinking water from the tap at the water supply, be praying? I was certain now that he would wake up when her murmuring devotions reached his ears. Occasionally she turned her old face with its drooping cheeks and glowered at me. Now and then her voice raised like the whistle of a flute. Father remained undisturbed. But he must have heard her or seen her at least, he had ears, eyes, he would have to notice her before the night, before any of the rest of us, for it was day now and he was dressed in his suit for the street. His demeanor seemed strange and incomprehensible to me, as if the old woman really had acquired some right or power over him. She kept mumbling, and I expected that if it continued much longer, he would eventually awaken from the noise and her shadow over the table. Mother beckoned to me from the door, making irritated signs for me to clear out; but I did not dare walk by the old woman. Carefully I crawled over the workbench near the wall, lifting my leg up over the edge while Mother watched with a more than ordinary bewilderment. On the other side I sat down in the chair. The old woman remained alone in front of the table, like a witch, any minute about to open her mouth and speak to him or possibly subject him to something mysterious and by chance redemptive. She leaned over Father and rearranged the crucifix in his hands. I would have liked to stand up and bang into her with my head, which I first would have covered with a blanket to keep from getting poisoned. She lifted a skirt and her plaited shawl on one side and took something out of her pocket. She leaned over again and struck a match. What was she doing now at his feet? Did she want to test the holy water in the vessel with her match? She stood upright again so that her back, wrapped in the shawl, absorbed all the light from the window; it was like in church, during what they called the low mass, when the awful, unspeaking, rectangular priest walks back and forth in front of the unlit altar. She bent down, took the twig from its receptacle and shook it over Father, but the drops were invisible, as if they had turned into some unearthly substance. She turned around and walked toward the women on her spindly legs, with an angry, vexed face. "Come on, Boy, get up, get up," she said to me irritably, wagging a finger at my head for me to get out. I got up at once and furtively slipped past her century-old skirts. She sat down with a groan. I went to the table warily, bending like a supple rod so as not to disturb their view, my hands balled into fists on my hips so that she would not think I was up to something with them. "Make sure you don't break anything!" the old woman said as if she were shrieking. Her voice reverberated, its echo hovering in the air of the workshop. I stood there like a nail in the ground, my skull protracted and pointed. At the foot of the table I saw the quarter-meter tallow candle burning, a gilt-edged prayer card leaning against it; it showed a young monk in a brown robe, holding the stalk of a white lily against his chest and gazing upwards. St. Aloysius. "It's indecent of the boy to slouch about like that around the bier," observed the old woman from her chair. I froze; everything went very silent. My mother and sister sat petrified. Mother stared at the woman timidly, making short, foolish, complaisant gestures; my sister fixed her eyes on the floor. It occurred to me that if I made an about-turn, it all would end. "He's gone now, he's passed away," the old woman started up with a sob. My mother and sister stood at either side of her chair, like nursemaids or servants; they helped her take off her long head scarf and the thick shawl weighing on her back. Father lay there stretched out as before, only now the candle flame illuminated his stockinged feet. It was incomprehensible to me that without a word or gesture he consented to everything the old woman said and did before him. The woman held her things in her lap and spoke. "But of course the Lord will forgive him. Oh, what he suffered, working day and night. the Lord forgives everyone, everyone, even if they don't believe in him. Jesus forgave Mary Magdalene, he forgave the second robber on the cross." Her shining eyes watched me persistently; it was as if I were chained to them, their prisoner; it was unbearable and awful, and I quickly ran for the door to our room, while she kept turning her head the whole time, watching me with her glazed gaze, her two drops of iridescent poison.

I went into the room. On the table lay the unwashed dishes. My throat clenched with rage at the old woman as if I were choking down tears, so now my mouth was completely dry. But even worse was the fear that overcame me, fear that the old woman might have some invisible connection to my father, that she knew quite well how he was doing, could see where he was now, and that when I was not watching - when I was clambering over the workbench or she lighting the match - they had said something to her from where they were standing, about me and about the holy water, so that her indignation at me was their anger, too. I stood at the window; on the hill outside before me was the old castle tower with its frayed and timeless forbearance; the sky or God, with whom I was friends no more, spread in a gauzy whiteness around it. Above the tower's railings black spheres shifted; they were the heads of tourists - or perhaps of someone keeping watch over our garret? The spheres disappeared and reappeared, they disappeared and came back into sight, then they disappeared and did not return. I had been standing for I do not know how long at the window when I heard a commotion behind the wall, steps, whispering. I cracked opened the door just enough to see the tenants from our house with their backs to the wall, facing the table. They were holding their hands behind their backs against the paper patterns. Three waitresses were there in their narrow black dresses with lace collars and black aprons. Beside them stood the judge's sisters in severe coats, their brown hats pulled down onto their foreheads, their big, blue eyes bulging like grapes. With them was the housekeeper, a tall, gaunt woman with a solid wreath of hair at the nape of her neck and arms long as whips. Her I dreaded; one evening, when I was whistling on the stairs, she had grabbed me by the ears and begun pulling them with all her might. "I'll jerk them out of your head if you don't clean up in front of the woodshed next time," she screamed. But even more I dreaded her husband, a stocky, stalwart man's man with one leg, a sallow, muscular face, and black hair; he hated my mother because she was a "stuck-up German"; and when he was drunk, he hid behind a cupboard, the woodshed, or a pillar, and jumped out at me with a hoarse, drunken "hrrk hrrk," then shook me with his bearish paws so that I almost wetted myself. Carefully I stuck my head through the opening in the door and shifted aside the clothes on the hanger. I saw at once that standing beside the housekeeper was the costermonger, a massive, gloomy, tall woman, all in black and dark houndstooth, the tallest in the room possibly, tall as a tower, and beside her the inn keeper, a small man in a loose-fitting, brown jacket and baggy trousers, with a round, hairy face, holding a hat in his hands and under his arm a sack with its cord untied. [...]

I quickly stepped back into our room. [...]

I waited for a long time. When after a while I cracked opened the door again, there was no one left in the workshop. But it was as if people's shadows had remained on the walls, like pale drawings. I approached the table, which had darkened in the meantime from the roof of the side wing blocking the window. Grey twilight had started to cover Father's head along with the stones outside. When I got closer I saw that his stone-like face was propped rigidly on his chest, and was thin, as if the skin had sunk evenly onto the bones. His cheeks were filled with deep, grey shadows. His forehead had slumped; and his lips, that morning still broad, taut, and firm, now were light as paper under his whitish grey hairs. Had the people from the house done that to him?

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