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from the June 2015 issue

From “The Year of Pearls”

The Year of Pearls tells the story of Lucie, a married woman in her late thirties whose life is thrown into disarray when she embarks on a heady, yearlong love affair with a younger woman. In this extract the narrator, still living with her husband, finally confronts the long-suppressed nature of her sexuality. 

She made up her mind. There had to be some clues, signs, or leads somewhere around here. Some portents of things to come, some verifiable cracks appearing in the ground before an earthquake. That’s the only way of reconstructing the disaster. Because obviously, it’s a sign of disaster to wake up one morning and find that you’ve turned into someone else. Like an insect. Or a spider. A fly. A Gregor Samsa. That you’ve become someone else, that all your previous life has been amputated: you might still feel some phantom pain but you know that it’s gone forever. Your identity has been smashed to pulp, it’s lying scattered in the dust on an access road to a building site, crushed beyond recognition.

Well, let me tell you, it’s quite a shock—to rub your eyes one day and discover that you’ve become  . . . an animal, a previously unknown species. A monster. A stranger, a wrinkled old hag, long past the menopause. Or a homosexual, God forbid. A full-blown lesbo, forever and ever, beyond redemption, no going back. Even the idea of being a fly is less depressing. And nothing will ever wrench you out of this new shape, no earthly force, no Golem, not even ten Freuds, or a healthful regimen, or chewing Orbit gum regularly after each meal.

Not even your understanding husband or your smart grown-up daughter. Or your fabulous boss, who gave you a nice bonus for your exclusive interview (it’s all exclusives these days) with a leading Czech lesbian, which boosted the sales of his mag by a few thousand copies.

If you try and lean on your nearest and dearest, it will be like leaning on a rotten cellar door: you'll just hurtle headlong down the stairs until you hit the concrete below. Mommy’s good girl, wife, mother, editor—all these acts you learned to put on as an amateur actor, for show. But what now? Pushing forty, can you still learn how to dance barefoot in the snow if all you’ve ever done was shuffle about in winter boots wrapped up in three pairs of woolen socks?

No, this can’t be happening, not like this, not out of the blue. There must be a clue somewhere, a lead. Something more convincing and conclusive than a painting of three fleeting female figures on a lakeshore. For example: in elementary school she enjoyed playing soccer with the boys. She was happy when they let her play goalie. No other girl had ever enjoyed that privilege.

When she was nine, Czechoslovakia was invaded by “friendly” Warsaw Pact armies. Shortly before that her parents made it to London on an organized trip. They brought back ten toy cars, genuine metal Matchboxes, the real thing, not some plastic trash Made in China. Complete with an opening trunk, four doors, roof and engine cover, even spring suspensions. They zoomed across the kitchen at lightning speed. 

The black Chevrolet with four tiny Beatles in the passenger seats was her favorite. With Lennon at the wheel in his signature wire-rims and Ringo in the back with tiny yet clearly visible rings on his fingers. For three whole years, she would play with them every day. So: do the Matchbox cars, and the fact that she’d hated wearing skirts (she wore one only for her final high school exam and then again, three years later, when she borrowed that awful pink dress from Renata for her wedding to Jakub), point to the definite predominance of male hormones? And does the predominance of male hormones definitely point to a lesbian predisposition? And does a lesbian predisposition . . .

I’ll have to check out academic studies on the subject. Scholars will have a better idea of who I am and why. Yes, there must be a clue to it all somewhere . . .

Hastily, as if on deadline, Lucie starts turning drawers upside down. The phone rings but she feels like she’s in someone else’s apartment, and you don’t pick up the phone in other people’s apartments. Female agents go through other people’s apartments with swift efficiency, ruthlessly homing in on documents that will confirm their suspicion.

With black-varnished fingernails, female-agent style, Lucie rummages through old papers, she jeers at her own adolescent poetry, examines signatures on faded postcards, flips through diaries. Nothing. Worthless scraps of paper.

She climbs onto a chair and roots around in wardrobes, hurling shoeboxes full of documents down to the floor, along with their contents. There’s a box of Christmas decorations. Her alcoholic neighbor Igor used to stash his rum in a box like this, right next to the nativity crib. It was his last, supremely inventive hiding place.

Behind the box with decorations her hand can feel another. It’s black and the label reads: RENATA. IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH DESTROY WITHOUT READING. She is so amused that she nearly falls off the chair. Could she really have been so melodramatic at eighteen, the age her daughter is now? So corny? IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH DESTROY WITHOUT READING. Please ensure your growing children don’t fall prey to cults, drugs, and the collected works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. That’s what you get if, as a fourteen-year-old, you sympathize with a brutal murderer glorified by Literature.

It takes her an hour, maybe two, to scramble out of the black box. She has to dig herself out from it as from an avalanche. Her teeth are chattering. She puts on a thick sweater, one of Jakub’s. And another one on top. She doesn’t keep rum in a crib, but the Fernet on the bookshelf will do fine. She used to keep it hidden behind The Possessed but recently, to avoid confusion, she has stashed the life-saving liquid behind John Barleycorn, Jack London’s alcoholic memoirs.

* * *

April 24, 1977

Dear Renata,

As you can see, unlike J. K. I write confessional letters on a typewriter because my confessions are spiky, and, anyhow, if Mayakovsky could have a cloud in trousers, why not a heart in a typewriter?

The stuff in my room, which you know so well, including this portable typewriter, is growing roots. Sometimes, right after I wake up, I catch sight of them. They are visible but only in a parallel world, which looks how I imagine eternity. And sometimes, when I wake up, I catch sight of this world butshock and horror!I can never see my own roots in there.

Reality is so . . .  mysterious. Magical. Ambiguous. Maybe Marx was right. It’s all to do with the dialectic. What does it want from me? I mean reality, not the dialectic. I don’t understand where it’s hurled me. Curves, a typewriter, my heart, roots, Marx. There was this girl who looked uncannily like me, at least that’s what you said, hey, look over there, can you believe it, you’ve got a doppelganger, I didn’t know you had a twin sister in Italythe chin, the nose, the long, angular Giacometti-like figure, the same walk . . .  But you had no idea, Renata, how at that moment nothing was farther from that girl’s mind than being upright as she sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the Venice Guggenheim Gallery, high on some shit, her face hidden by greasy hair, so you couldn’t really talk of a likeness . . .  But why am I going on about a junkie in Venice we barely glimpsed, even if she really had been the spitting image of me? Because I’m scared of the number of possibilities that can open up so easily . . .  Let's say, if back in first grade I’d picked a desk next to Peter instead of next to Pavel, if instead of The Idiot I had opened L'Âme enchantée or some other piece of humanist junk, or if at a key moment, as I was walking to Old Town Square, I’d gone down Celetná rather than Dlouhá Street, then maybe our lives, my life would have taken a totally different course, that of a junkie or a young commie activist with top grades, a shit-scared rat . . .  All it would have taken was meeting a different set of people in Celetná than the ones I ran into in Dlouhá, people who might have lovingly carried me up to heaven or kicked me down to hell instead . . .  But maybe it’s all my mistake, assuming that everything would have turned out differently if you hadn’t approached me on the school staircase, if it hadn’t been you who wanted to borrow "Sergeant Pepper" but, say, Jiřina Kubištová, the mean fat nerd I had once stabbed to death with my compasses in a dream? In our next class Cell made us dissect flatworms but instead of the ladderlike nervous system all I could see in the microscope was Kubištová’s motionless fat white body, meticulously covered in red dots like some Pointillist painting by Signac. It made me feel sick, you may remember that I only just made it to the bathroom, the boys’ one. Because the girls’ was two doors farther down and also because the shape of the urinal seemed a perfect fit for my distressed guts. The other kids in my class were laughing their heads off, the morons, especially Kubištová. If only she knew, the cow! From then on everyone, at Cell’s ideological instruction, regarded me as an unstable, hypersensitive girl whose feeling for literature and spiritual values should not be unnecessarily upset by the dissection of flatworms. Nobody ever found out that this hypersensitive girl spent every night stabbing away until, over some six months, she managed to stab to death with her compasses half her class, the entire teaching staff, three stuck-up fourth-grade girls who managed to get into the Academy of Drama, probably by sleeping with someone, as well as a neighbor whose noises during sex made her feel like an engine was rushing through her nervous system, one much more complex than a flatworm’s ladder. And every now and then, in order not to waste her sadistic tendencies on private pursuits, she would extend the range of her compasses to the odd leading member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and once, God knows why, even to Che Guevara. It was the only expression of her political involvement in those days.

But this was meant to be a love letter, Renata, not an essay on the subject ofwhat exactlyMarx’s dialectic? Flatworms? The fatefulness or rather the randomness of paths people take? On young women growing up under capitalism, my unfortunate doppelgangers, running the risk of unemployment and narcotics, scratching out a squalid, miserable life next door to the entrance to pure Art?

Bullshit, Renata, all feeble and pathetic bullshit. Bullshit that just blocks off what is really inside my mind, my heart, my blood vessels, and my soul (if such a thing exists), my sentences, which I would so much like toto make you finally understand what’s going on between usinject directly into your veins. But in fact, there’s just one word I need to write, the only true synonym for truth: FEAR.

I’m scared, Renata. I’m scared of writing to you, of writing to you about fear, I’m scared of looking you in the eye, I’m scared of recalling the night we clung to each other inside a single sleeping bag a couple of yards from an Italian freeway. I was freezing in three sweaters, yet my guts were on fire, as if someone had used them to stoke a fiery furnace. I have yet to scramble out of that sleeping bag, I’m still inside it as in a cocoon, in my mother’s womb, before I was born, thank God. And I dread coming out of it and facing reality, especially if that reality is the third desk by the window, right behind Kubištová, who reeks of huntsman’s salami every day, God knows how she does that. You see, for us emotionally unstable individuals with an exquisite sense of smell, this kind of fetid dry sausage is the rack, it’s sheer torture and punishment, punishment forI guess for that sham identity of ours.

I’m scared of myself. Of being who I am. I’m horrified of the force for which I have left the door ajar. You have no idea and you will never learn what happened to me in that damp apartment of Angela’s. Luckily, Marilyn Monroe was the only witness.

I’m scared of my secret. I’ve always been a good girl, you know, never gotten into trouble, no ink blots in my exercise books, that kind of stuff, never wanted to give my mom extra problems, life was difficult enough for her after the divorce, I didn’t want people to make faces and turn their heads and mock me and shout “hey, you dyke,” because who knows, boys might not have let me into our block, and you might not have let me blow-dry your hair and girls in locker rooms might have squealed like idiots if they had to strip down to their panties before sports class in front of me, I just didn’t want to be different. I’ve made up my mind, and it’s final. My secret will remain a monster forever chained to the wall inside the thirteenth chamber, and that’s that. Under lock and key. I’m totally in charge of directing the farce of my own life: I shall get married as soon as I can, find a quiet, undemanding job, some sleepy hideaway where people shuffle along really slowly, slowly enough for dust to settle on their heads and on the stuff around them. Then I’ll have a baby. If it’s a boy I’ll name him after his dad, if it’s a girl I’ll call her Tereza.  I’ll iron diapers while watching Jaroslav Dietl’s soap operas. I will spend my rare moments of leisure listening to Hana Hegerová’s songs or going to see plays at the Vinohrady Theater or indulging in some other harmless cultural activity. The Velvet Underground, real dreams of compasses as well as less real dreams of mass extinction of commiesall that I shall leave to antisocial elements and daydreamers who have embarked on a march against the tide of history. You think I’m showing off? Blowing my own horn? Just wait and see, the future will vindicate my decision and my lie.

I love you, Renata. I love you madly. I can’t help it. This love is something I have laid during your endless baths in your black-tiled bathroom, laid it on your bidet like an unwanted egg, and now I don’t know what to do with it. That’s why I go to bed with any bastard I bump into. I know that you don’t understand this and find it morally reprehensible. Well, you should know it’s all the egg’s fault. And I shall crack that egg, I swear I will. I want to be normal at any price! And I’ve been making some progress: I used to blush every time someone mentioned faggots. But yesterday, I didn’t bat an eye, I even managed an off-color joke when that bitch Marcela asked, smiling the most innocent of smiles, if by any chance we were lesbians.

And yet it is so painful sometimes, this voluntary amputation of my wings. You can’t imagine what you do to me with your smile, your touch, your voice, the tiniest gesture everyone else is blind to, whereas for me its significance overshadows life and death. Your blondeness, your flowingness, your tenderness, some typical gesture of yours, say, a raised eyebrowwhat do men, both yours and mine, know about that? It’s all mine, mine alone, my own sweet, forbidden abyss. Oh, the temptation to fling myself into it, wings or no wings!

Renata, you are my well. I love you so much. My bottomless well, filled with inexhaustible water. Please forgive me. I had to write this to you.

                                                                                                            Your Lucie


Please don’t schlep this letter around like you usually do. It might fall out of your handbag somewhere in a heterosexual setting, which is almost everywhere, if you take out a comb, your make-up, or your beloved pocket edition of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Of course, she had never mailed the letter. Instead of Renata’s handbag, it ended up in the black box that Lucie had labeled with a threatening message for future generations: RENATA. IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH DESTROY WITHOUT READING.  And once she dropped the letter into the box, she hadn’t stopped at amputating her wings. In one fell swoop, she had pulled out the splinter along with the pus. She had cut out Renata, she had chopped off her heart like the end of a loaf of bread, without a hiss of pain.

She went for a walk down to the Moldau. She sat down on a rock by the riverbank. On the other side of the river there stretched rows of apartment buildings and tired trams suspended from strings of cables like a giant harp. Plink, plonk, plink, plonk . . .  My country, the sound of a broken harp.

She got engrossed in a magazine article: “Most people are not aware that we become sexual beings the minute our sexual glands form inside the uterus. It is at this moment that the male and female brains begin to differentiate. Females have a pair of X chromosomes, males have an X and a Y chromosome. Metaphorically speaking, we are all female. The creation of males is determined by a switch that flips inside the fetus in the thirty-sixth day of its life.”

Interesting. She lit a cigarette. So there’s some kind of a chemical switch. She emptied the contents of a plastic bag out on the ground. With a metallic sound, a pile of beautiful, genuine, though by now quite battered, Matchbox cars landed at her feet. All of a sudden, the opposite bank was bathed in an intense glow. She tossed the cars into the Moldau, one by one, as far away from the shore as she could. The tiny Beatles were the last to go.

From Rok Perel. © Zuzana Brabcová. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood. All rights reserved.
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