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from the November 2020 issue

Tsunami Blues

In this excerpt from her novel Tsunami Blues, Markéta Pilátová traces the reverberations of the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia back to the Czech Republic.


Music for the old lady

Small Town Moravia, December 26, 2004

His memories, his “pictures from the tropics,” included these kinds of images, too. This was how they ran from hurricanes, back in Cuba such a long time ago, or from surreal, torrential rains that would flush away most of the reason for accumulating any possessions whatsoever. Lázaro turned on the news. A man in a suit jacket and a light green tie was mournfully informing the nation that a huge tsunami had ravaged Thailand, and that the list of missing persons included Czech tourists. Lázaro gulped. He called Jitka and they both watched the wave incredulously as it swept across the screen, stared at the ruins of luxury hotels, gray beaches strewn with broken palm trees. “But that’s where Karla went, how is she doing?” Jitka asked nonsensically, as if Lázaro had just received a cable or text message straight from the Czech embassy.

 “How the hell should I know?” he snapped. Then he got up from the armchair and moved to the phone.

“Good evening, am I speaking to Mrs. Klimentová? This is Lázaro Milo. I’m Karla’s teacher at the conservatory,” he opened primly.

“Hello, Mr. Milo,” Karla’s grandmother said just as stiffly. “You’re probably calling about the tsunami?” the retired pharmacist continued.

“Yes, have you heard from them?” asked Lázaro in a hushed voice.

“No, not yet, but I hope they’re . . . they’re alright. Karla especially, she always gets so sunburnt,” Mrs. Klimentová jabbered incoherently into the phone.

“Sunburnt?” Lázaro repeated, astonished.

“Her skin is so sensitive, you know, with all those freckles.”

“Right, those freckles.” Lázaro realized the old lady was in shock.

“Should I . . . should I come over?” he asked after a moment of uneasy silence, during which neither of them let go of the receiver. Karla had told Lázaro that Mrs. Klimentová was a widow and lived alone. An old-school church choir singer. Pedantic, anxious, and immensely proud of Karla’s musical gift. The only one in the whole family. He pictured the quiet old third-floor apartment on Kovářská Street, not far from the square. In it, a petite lady with a purple hairdo reminiscent of cotton candy sat in a chair, waiting for any kind of news.

“I’ll be there in a bit, wait for me, please, don’t go anywhere, Mrs. Klimentová, OK? Just stay in, it’s freezing cold out, and the embassy might call any minute,” Lázaro urged her, feeling like a reasonable son.

“Jitka, listen, I’ll run over to old Mrs. Klimentová, she hasn’t heard anything yet and I’m worried about her, about them, I’m just worried,” he explained to his wife.

“Should I come with you?” Jitka offered.

“No, I’d rather you didn’t,” Lázaro answered quickly. He wasn’t even sure why exactly he didn’t want Jitka to come.

He was in the hallway, putting on his shoes, when she asked, “What are you taking the trumpet for?” and stared in amazement at the black case covered with years’ worth of stickers.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted; he’d grabbed the instrument without thinking about it but now realized that the gesture calmed him down, so he kept the case in his hand. He pressed an affectionate kiss onto the back of Jitka’s hand, his lips so similar to Karla Klimentová’s. She ran her fingers through his thinning, grizzled curls and inhaled his scent—something between dandelion honey, which Lázaro put in his tea by the pound, and Halls menthol cough drops, to which he’d developed a strong addiction. He claimed they kept his throat from drying out when he played.

 

He walked, his pace quick, from Slovan, a prefab housing development he and Jitka had been living in for nearly fifteen years, up a slight hill, crossing deserted, frosty intersections, and small lumps of squashed snow creaked under his shoes. He headed for the city center and through the arcades on Kovářská, past a bulletin board that was always full of city hall announcements and death notices.

He rang an old doorbell and discovered, to his chagrin, that this grandchild of the olden days was actually attached to a speaker. “Who is it?” asked Mrs. Klimentová’s voice, twisted and crackling like a tomcat’s fur.

“Lázaro Milo,” he crackled back into the machine.

“I’ll be right down,” said Mrs. Klimentová. She put on a vest lined with rabbit fur and held on to the frosty railing as she slowly descended the stone staircase from the third floor.

Together, they walked through the long corridor and panted their way up the stairs. She with her aching knees and asthma, and he, forty pounds overweight. Then the old lady invited Lázaro into the hallway, with its red poppy wallpaper. “Come, come on in, don’t just stand in the hall,” she nudged him, and now it was her turn to stare in surprise at the case in his hand.

“Are you going to play somewhere?” she asked.

“No, I’m not even sure why I brought the trumpet with me,” Lázaro shrugged and put the case down on the shoe cabinet.

“Would you like something to drink? Do you drink tea or coffee?” she led him into the living room, where she sat him down on an abraded old green leather sofa.

“It’s Swedish, my husband and I bought it on an installment plan, it was the first thing we got for this apartment, I’ve had it for thirty years and I’m never throwing it away!” she told Lázaro decisively, as if he were a cruel social worker who didn’t want to allow her to take the old sofa set to the retirement home.

“I’ll take tea, if you don’t mind, and if you have a bit of honey, that would be extremely excellent,” Lázaro answered; even after so many years, he still hadn’t quite absorbed the fact that Czech scoffs at those excessive Hispanic superlatives.

“Of course, of course, you like dandelion honey, don’t you,” the old lady recalled.

“I do, but how did you know that?” Lázaro was surprised.

“Karla told me,” said Mrs. Klimentová, then stopped suddenly and after a moment made a few nervous steps back toward the sofa. They didn’t speak. Then she asked, “Should I turn on the TV?”

“There won’t be anything new anyway, I think they’ll just repeat the evening news, but turn it on if you want,” Lázaro shuffled in his seat and hoped Mrs. Klimentová would say no.

“No, I’d rather not,” she said.

“I’ll go get the tea, make yourself comfortable, you must be frozen after the walk,” she said in a concerned voice and finally went off to the kitchen.

Lázaro sat on the sofa, its old Swedish springs were pressing into his Cuban behind. A painting hung on the wall above the sofa; Karla had told him she liked to look at it while playing. “I like to watch that wacko greyhound of Grandma’s,” she used to say. Only now did Lázaro understand what exactly she meant. A rectangular tempera painting showed an exaggeratedly long greyhound standing on spidery legs, leaning against some sort of brown footstool and looking into an unknowable distance. Lázaro, too, glimpsed the indifferent beauty in the animal’s calm stance and empty expression, the beauty that allows one to pitch in and do his bit, add a log to the stack, a feather to the down pile for the great comforter of art—a place you can lounge about in when the world is all askew. Which, right now, it was. Lázaro stared pleadingly at the elegant, impassive greyhound, longing to find in his eyes at least a shadow of the skinny girl with a trumpet. But the greyhound’s eyes showed him nothing.

 

“Here’s your tea,” said the old lady and poured some delicious-smelling tea in a Tesco mug.

“I have at least twenty of these. It’s like a hobby, you know. I fill out those promotional flyers and send in the correct answers and from time to time they draw my name and send me a mug. Everyone laughs at me for this, but I love getting packages in the mail . . . I guess that’s why I do it. Pretty tacky, aren’t they?” Mrs. Klimentová gave a half-smile and her tinted hair shone in the light cast by a small pink crystal-laden lamp.

“No, why?” Lázaro protested earnestly.

“They are, but they’re my honest, hard-won mugs,” she laughed.

“This is where Karla plays?” said Lázaro.

“Yes, she doesn’t disturb anyone here. The walls are thick and I’m the only one on this floor, there’s just some empty office space next door,” explained Mrs. Klimentová eagerly, all the while studying Lázaro. His brown forehead, slim-fingered hands, two deep furrows over the bridge of his nose.

“Do you believe in God, Mr. Lázaro?” she called him by his name this time.

“No, unfortunately not,” he answered after hesitating for a moment. “And you?” he looked at a small silver locket with a Madonna on her neck.

“I do, fortunately,” she smiled comfortingly, as if to say, You will get there . . . just be patient . . . faith will land on your shoulder like a dove.

 

They kept looking at each other, and if someone were to say the night was still young, they would have been right. The night awaiting them was shamelessly full of strength, just as the tsunami had been a few hours ago. Lázaro didn’t know if he did or didn’t want to talk to this curiously uptight yet kind woman. He probably came to distract her a bit, but now he’s not sure why he’s really sitting here. Maybe he wasn’t worried about Karla’s grandmother, maybe he was worried about his own nightmares. Because tonight, they threatened to unfold their wings, beating strongly until they took flight over the ocean. And like everyone, he nourished them and from time to time brushed against their wings like against a sore tooth.

“May I ask—what are you thinking about now?” the old lady asked.

“I was thinking about Cuba,” Lázaro answered obediently.

“Do you miss home?” she continued her inquiry, and he finally understood why he’d come here. Why he’d entered this old living room, why he was staring at the wacko greyhound on a blue background and a silver Madonna on an unknown woman’s neck.

“I don’t miss it, because I fled. I fled and I ended up in this town where nothing reminds me of Cuba. Nothing at all. Do you understand?” The words started flowing out of him and Jiřina Klimentová listened. She knew Lázaro from Karla’s stories, and at the same time knew practically nothing about him. It was the same for him. She felt close, because Karla talked about her occasionally, but he’d never seen her in person. This wasn’t a confession of any kind. He wasn’t talking to Mrs. Klimentová, only to himself. He rehearsed his own personal myth out loud, the way he’d pieced it together into a linear, sometimes cyclical, but always unbearable memory.

Jiřina Klimentová watched him just like the greyhound in the painting—perhaps they’d painted it after her. She was listening to her granddaughter’s teacher Lázaro Milo in her room next door to an empty office. She was waiting for news, any kind of news, and listening to him. On this young, monstrously powerful night filled with a wave that had been woken by ancient suboceanic tremors that Jiřina Klimentová knew nothing about. Still, she was sure that the red-hot magma spilling in the ocean was flooding and sealing her own quiet existence on Kovářská Street, too. On this night, the Cuban trumpeter and Moravian pharmacist could tell each other anything.

“It all happened a very long time ago,” Lázaro started.

“Go on, we have time, lots of it . . . we have until the morning, you’ll stay the night, won’t you?” she asked, and he was glad she did. The idea of spending many hours on the green sofa was soothing.

“I’ll just have to call my wife so she doesn’t worry, but yes, I’ll stay . . . gladly,” he added.

“It might have to do with the wave, it’s as if something very old shifted inside me, something I’d wanted to push out completely. Please don’t take it badly, it might sound wrong for me to say this, but I feel like I’ve experienced something similar to what you’re going through now,” he said.

“What do you mean?” she furrowed her brows.

“I mean the situation where you’re waiting for news, where you don’t know whether someone you care about terribly is alive or not,” he explained softly.

“Oh, and you, so you also waited for this kind of news, after some disaster back in Cuba, a long time ago?” It seemed that he had her full attention now. They were in the same boat, a steamboat in the middle of a large river that flows into a warm, tropical sea.

“I’m still waiting,” Lázaro said, and it sounded like an echo in a small tree hollow out of which a brown owl had flown, years ago, and sat down on the hot white sand.

 

Jiřina Klimentová didn’t ask anything else that evening. They were silent. All of a sudden, Lázaro didn’t feel like talking anymore. She realized it and didn’t press him with more questions. She just said: “How about you play something?” And while she rummaged around in the adjacent room, where Karla had her sheet music stored in a small wooden cabinet, Lázaro called Jitka to tell her he would be staying with the old lady overnight.

“Sure, but don’t try anything funny, alright?” she ventured to joke, but Lázaro just mumbled tiredly and said he’d be home in the morning. He took the trumpet from the hallway and sat back down on the living room sofa. Jiřina brought some sheet music and Lázaro started reading it. “I hate silence,” the old lady sighed. “I need to have the radio on, I listen to concerts on the classical music station, or I turn on the TV so I hear someone talking, even if not to me, so that I’m not so alone here. I guess it’s primitive, but that’s one of the reasons I always liked it when Karla was playing.”

“What are these? What is this music?” he started suddenly.

“It’s Karla’s, I think she wrote these, but I’m not sure, you know how secretive she is, never tells me what she’s doing, whether she’s practicing or playing her own pieces. But she was composing, I know that for sure,” Mrs. Klimentová explained. Lázaro looked back at the music. It was all blues pieces. Full of repetitive harmonic loops, both major and minor keys, they were blues for the trumpet, for Karla’s trumpet and her style of playing—brusque, furious, full of hoarse stops, the best blues Lázaro had heard in years. No perfect structure or elaborate form. Like when Muddy Waters first stuck a cable to his battered guitar and shoved it in an amplifier. There was this primal feel of something old and newly discovered, something that surfaced once every thousand years before slowly sinking back into the depths of the collective unconscious. We all know something like this music has been here a million times already, but no one remembers exactly where they’d heard it. But they are sure that they had once, that it’d come to them half-asleep for a midnight quickie. Naked, pleasurable music, growling with delight, wandering in dreams, with her hair down and knees uncovered, arching her hips, forever sad, asking for all our sins, sins she wanted to redeem.

This music did not push any boundaries. But it was clear it did not intend to, either. It was essentially old-fashioned music. Clinging to tradition, hanging onto its skirts, but still, and this really surprised Lázaro, it made him want to sit down in a corner somewhere, hum along with the notes and sway in their rhythm.

“These are blues pieces,” he explained.

“Yes, she did tell me she wanted to compose sad things,” Mrs. Jiřina shook her head in disapproval. “I never really understood why, she’s such a young girl!” she shook her head vigorously again, as if arguing with Karla.

“Maybe young girls do like to think about death most of all . . . and love, of course,” Lázaro said philosophically. Then he reached for the cough drops in his pocket and offered Jiřina one, too. “No, thanks, but please, play now, I can’t wait . . .”

So Lázaro put the music up on the stand that Jiřina had prepared for him and he played. Right in front of Jiřina Klimentová’s eyes, he became a statue, like those lining the streets of a small town under a blanket of snow. His silhouette was mirrored in the window, lit by a streetlamp. The image contained all of the keepsake junk from Jiřina’s entire life, reflecting in the muted gleam of Lázaro’s trumpet. Karla’s sheet music fell, one page after another, onto the green carpet; its color matched the scratched leather of the sofa. Jiřina saw the veins on her husband’s forearms again, saw him and the neighbor carrying the heavy piece of furniture into the room. She heard their muffled curses mixing with the wailing trumpet. Lázaro was standing and his arms were caressing Karla’s music. Finally, Jiřina felt like crying. The shock that was yet to come had long ago passed her by.


© Markéta Pilátová. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sára Foitová. All rights reserved.

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