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from the November 2014 issue

The Cherry Tree

Leoš was convinced nothing else could happen, that the worst was behind him, that it had died along with his past life and now he was all right. It was important to be all right, not to be afraid of the next day and the next night. Just go out and buy a nice bottle of Hungarian wine, Egri Bikavér maybe, drink it alone or with a girl he would usher out of his all right with a smile the morning after. A smile, that’s all I’ve got, but what I gave you is plenty. Three times in a single night, four? No problem. That’s what he bought such a big bed for. A runway for long takeoffs and vertical liftoffs. Depends what you’re flying, as he liked to say. I fly it all, from ultralights to B-52s. I’ve got what it takes. But F-16s are my favorite—those young fighters will let you do just about anything.

There were times when Leoš felt like he deserved a pat on the back for the way he handled it all. He had worked his way up from grade school history teacher to university professor. And that was just the beginning.

As usual, on his way out the door to work he stopped to check the mailbox. Something white caught his eye. He peered in through the round holes in the gray metal. A letter. No big deal. He got letters all the time—conference invitations, library reminders—but this one looked different. The address was handwritten. He stepped away from the box. I’ll leave it there for now. No point dragging it around with me all day.

It was a long time before he got around to opening the letter. Later, when he looked back on the events of that day, he realized that all he really wanted was to avoid it. Maybe it was the slant and curve of the handwriting. Something in the gloom of that metal box must have terrified him.

After his final seminar of the day, he didn’t feel like going home. OK, I’ll take a stroll through the park. I’m in no hurry. He stopped at a pub called The Corpse at the other end of the park, which used to be a cemetery. The pub stood on the spot where the morgue used to be. Hence the name. I’ll sit down, have a beer, read the paper. Maybe I’ll see someone I know.

“Closed for Remodeling,” a sign on the door informed him. Through the window he saw a crew of industrious Vietnamese transforming the former Corpse into an Asian bistro or something.

OK, now where? He looked around the cold, damp, inhospitable park. What’s nearby? The closest pub was one he’d never been to, a place no decent person set foot in, not even a decent drunk. It was called The Cherry Tree, also known as The Communists’. Cherries of course were the symbol of the Czech Communist Party, and the pub in fact belonged to them. The very existence of it struck Leoš as so absurd that the thought of going there had never even dawned on him before. Like a lot of things in this country, he said to himself with a shiver—cold and uneasy suddenly at the thought of the letter waiting at home. Things don’t cease to exist just because they seem impossible.

The pub was in a small building at the edge of the park. Upstairs was the editorial office of the Party rag, downstairs the taproom. Just like the good old days before Victorious February, when the Communists took over in 1948. A few gray-haired men and women sat around the tables, old enough to still remember Klement Gottwald, the first “worker-president,” who knew how to put the screws to the class enemy. There was also a group of respectable-looking young people. Leoš felt a chill go up his spine. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. He stared at the men and women sitting beneath a picture, probably a reproduction, of a shot from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, horrified at his sudden urge to go over and strike up a conversation with them.

Just a bunch of insecure imbeciles, he tried to reassure himself, but then suddenly something came to mind he had noticed at the mailbox. The word питомец written in Cyrillic. In Russian it meant “foster child.” The Gorky Colony for Homeless Youth. Those were the days! When the belt buckle of the educator Anton Makarenko sparkled in the sun of the new era and troublemakers were put in front of the firing squad. Upbringing by the collective. Was it possible they could long for something they had never known? Were their fathers rooted so deeply inside them, in their bone marrow, in their genes, that, without even realizing why, they gathered in rooms adorned with portraits of evil old men and paranoid leaders?

He sat down at a corner table and stared at the black-and-white pictures on the walls. Actually brown and white. He wasn’t feeling well. He sought refuge in the ironic realization that this pub was actually proof of present-day democracy, since no Communist regime would ever have allowed all the men on the walls to be in the same place. They would have executed each other. The only one missing was Trotsky—the one true revolutionary. In Communist mythology, Trotsky, with his permanent revolution, played the role of zealous heretic, like Jan Hus in the Catholic Church, or Joan of Arc. She was also just trying to do God’s work. They couldn’t not execute her.

A portrait of Che Guevara walked by on the T-shirt of a lanky, scruffy-haired young man. He may be dead in Bolivia but his spirit lives on. Leoš couldn’t laugh at it even if he wanted to. Even during the so-called Velvet Revolution, he couldn’t bring himself to laugh when his friends tied red scarves around their necks and staged mock funerals for Communism. Leoš thought it was the kind of thing they should talk about seriously, instead of running around dressed up in shorts, showing off their hairy legs.

Immersed in his own dark thoughts, he moved on to hard liquor without even realizing it. He accompanied each beer with a double shot of vodka, sinking deeper into himself, sensing the envelope inside him coming unglued, the envelope he had so painstakingly kept sealed shut for five years.

Five years ago he had really thought it was over. There in the crematorium, forcing the tears from his eyes. You were supposed to cry when your mother died. So he cried. He’d even practiced. But then he had started weeping for real, out of sadness for himself, because standing there over her coffin, her metal urn, he finally dared to admit that he didn’t deserve it. He wasn’t supposed to be left there like that without her, to do whatever he pleased. Standing at the side of her hospital bed he could see it in her seething eyes, in the jerky movements of her feeble hand. The reproach, now waning, yet stinging until nearly the final moment, then wiped from her face by the furnace flames. A furnace for people. Mom. He knocked back a vodka and noticed with horror, hanging on the wall across from him, a picture of Joan of Arc tied to the stake, brutally shorn and valiant-hearted. A woman who would not forgive because she knew she would not be forgiven. His mother had looked at his father that way when he didn’t wake up from his stroke. She had looked that way at the TV set when the Husák regime fell. Herself a forsaken Communist among opportunistic scoundrels. And the most traitorous scoundrel of all—her son.

What do you kids know about Communists? Leoš thought. You never had to live with one. You just bowed down before them, blowing smoke up their asses and making fun of them behind their backs like Heydrich’s lachende Bestien. You never had your mother hold your hand while she brought you to Party meetings or May Day parades. You didn’t have a record at home with “The Internationale” in ten different languages, even Mongolian, for fuck’s sake! You didn’t have to be pen pals with a Soviet Young Pioneer, dammit!

“Yeah, gimme another double.”

Even drunk, I can masturbate at home under the covers. Three or four times a night, easy. Of course Leoš can, little Leoš. Of course I was named after Leonid Brezhnev! The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold. Fuck, I’m not the First or the Second! I don’t have an emperor’s kind heart. I don’t have a kind heart or a mean one. I don’t have any.

The pub’s leftist personnel looked on in amusement at the newcomer mumbling over his spirits.

He had no idea how he got home. Of course the damned letter was still in the mailbox. There’s no such thing as miracles. It sat there shining like some radioactive substance it was best to give a wide berth, but no berth was wide enough for this thing. He opened the mailbox and took it out. Through drunken, half-closed eyes, he studied the writing on the envelope. No, there was no way. He had to put an end to this.

He walked outside, opened the trashcan, and tore the letter to pieces, squeamishly averting his eyes, then slammed down the lid. I hope it’s gone tomorrow when I wake up.

But the night was not yet over. The envelope had now been opened, and tearing it up only amplified the pain of the message struggling to make its way out. He felt the fragile structure he had so painstakingly constructed after his mother’s death collapsing. His freedom, his detached historical outlook, his female graduate students, his trips abroad to Holland, Scotland. They were just toys, a child’s playthings, rootless flowers propped in the sand and sheltered by a fence of sticks. This was the life little Leoš had built for himself along his little path, a path that would soon have a herd of livestock driven down it. They wouldn’t be little toy cows either, pushed along by a child’s hand. These would be cows transformed by mechanized breeding into a single beast with a thousand heads, trampling the countless playgrounds set up by naïve little boys like him as it dashed down the path between the electrified wires of historical necessity.

Leoš fumbled around the pantry for a bottle of red wine to put out the flames. This was too much for wine, though. This was going to take a sea, more than a sea, a Lake Baikal of vodka. He needed to get drunk like they did in Russia. Like the hopeless Yakuts and Samoyeds, only without the magic, without the shamans, lying facedown drunk in a pile of empty food cans. Alcoholics in tin shacks, banished by the revolutionary powers that be.

Leoš wrapped his arms around his shoulders and squeezed himself as tight as he could to try to stop the mad babble running through his brain. He couldn’t take it any more. The next step would no doubt be out the window.

He lay down in bed and closed his eyes. He could already hear her muffled groans. A sound that wasn’t quite human. She’d done it to him countless times as a child, when he was still a little boy, just discovering his body in the bathtub. The three of them slept together in the same small room, Leoš’s bed pushed up to the foot of his parents’. He didn’t know why he couldn’t sleep in the living room or the kitchen, and didn’t dare suggest it. She wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. This was the way she wanted it. She was a Communist and knew what was good for people. So at night she wasn’t ashamed to pull her husband, Leoš’s father, onto her large bosom, clench him between her thighs, and thrust him into herself. The moaning, the squeaking. Once Leoš looked up toward the head of the bed and all he could see was the enormous duvet trembling like a mountain. Seven on the Richter scale. His father was in there somewhere, and every time he would whisper: No, no, the boy’s here. But his mother was merciless. He could see it in his father’s eyes. Merciless. Eventually his father started to waste away, as if at her command—losing weight, growing pale and fragile. He and Leoš were so much alike.

One night (by then Leoš was fourteen and knew very well what his parents were doing—a friend had shown him some pictures in a German magazine—it was all he could think about, and he was angry and determined to say the hell with everyone and do something bad) when the jerking and moaning started up again, he got up out of bed and headed for the door. He wanted out. If there had been a key, he would have locked himself in the bathroom. If he had had a key, he would have run away from home. He’d taken no more than two steps when he heard his mother’s voice. Not a whisper, but a loud, authoritative command: “Where are you going!”

He stood still, as if nailed to the spot.

“To the kitchen,” he ventured.

“You’re not going anywhere! Back to bed this instant!” his mother yelled.

His father just lay there. Not a peep. A Yakut, a Samoyed, helplessly caught in the embrace of a huge she bear. (Only now did Leoš realize how important it was that his father was there, somewhere, that he was there at all, weak and fragile, but there nevertheless.) Leoš obediently crawled back into bed and waited for the quivering heap to settle down. As he lay there in the dark, he tried desperately not to think, not to be. And it worked. That night he figured out he could not only close his eyes but also close his brain. So now every night he would close it.

And today, tonight, everything had opened up again. He lay there limp on the mattress with which he had replaced the old marital bed, panting as though he had just had sex, calmly thinking about everything. He concluded that he was finally an adult and forgot all about the letter the garbage men had emptied along with the rest of the trash.

The next few days passed in utter serenity. Leoš recovered from his nasty hangover after his private bender at The Corpse and didn’t much concern himself with anyone or anything else. He stayed away from his female students and even came up with an excuse to cancel his office hours so he wouldn’t be disturbed in his newfound awareness. He wandered the streets, ordering tea or coffee in pubs. Suddenly every corner of the city he knew so intimately seemed brand new to him. He had finally figured out what was going on with him and even though several diagnoses presented themselves he didn’t want to rush it. He had a hunch something would come along, and he didn’t want to scare it off.

That Friday night he didn’t go out and instead just sat at home, paging through an unorthodox study that claimed the rise of Communism in Russia actually facilitated the embrace of Nazism in Germany. There was something to it. Terrified of Bolshevism, the Germans used Satan to drive out the devil. The entire twentieth century could be understood this way.

Somebody rang the doorbell. That didn’t happen much. Leoš wasn’t used to unannounced visitors. Probably the neighbor. He opened the door in sweatpants and an old striped T-shirt to a woman unlike any he had ever seen before. Short, energetic-looking, probably around forty. Full-figured. Black hair, probably colored, cut in a French bob that came down to her lower jaw. Her clothes were modern but matter-of-fact, like a manager’s or a physician’s. And her eyes: dark, deep, a little on the wild side.

“I’m Elena,” she said in place of a greeting. “My last name wouldn’t mean anything to you. That’s why I didn’t write it in the letter.”

The letter. That spurned, unopened, torn-up letter was suddenly back. The twisted writing so much like his own. He thought maybe he was going crazy and had sent himself the letter. Her eyes. They were like his. It was like looking into a mirror.

She seemed to be amused at his shock. Without waiting for an invitation, she stepped into the entryway.

“You didn’t get my letter?”

“No, I mean, I just . . .”

“Well, you must be surprised then.” She looked at him as if he were a little boy.

“Then I’d better explain,” she continued matter-of-factly. “I’m Elena, your older sister on our mother’s side.”

“There must be some mistake,” he stammered idiotically. It was obvious from the sight of her it wasn’t a mistake. The elegance and openness with which she presented her hand wasn’t his mother’s, but she had the same firm grip.

“I didn’t know I had a sister. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit flustered. Pardon me,” he said, releasing her hand, which he had been holding for an unnaturally long time.

“No one knew,” she said, adding firmly, “She hid me from everyone. I was raised by my father and grandmother.”

“I didn’t even know my mother was married before.”

“She wasn’t.”

“Then how?” he sounded like a total idiot.

“Well, sometimes people aren’t what they appear to be, Leo. Are we just going to stand here in the entryway?”

“No, come in. Here, into the kitchen. The living room’s a mess. Please, have a seat.”

“You live alone?” she asked, now sitting at the kitchen table.

“Yes, alone.”

“Me too, again. Can you make us some coffee?”

“Coffee, right, coffee.”

He frantically prepared two cups of coffee, as if the trembling spoons might be able to calm the explosion going on inside of him. The burst of excitement. Unimaginable. His mother’s porcelain clattered in his hands.

“I know it must be a shock for you,” Elena said sympathetically.

Definitely a doctor, he thought. A doctor or a manager. Doctor, manager, doctor, he repeated to himself.

“I actually didn’t know our mother. After my father died, I didn’t have anyone, so I started tracking her down and ended up at you.”

She smiled, and suddenly he had the feeling he needed to know her. She was his sister, his own dear sister.

“So,” Leoš set his coffee down on the table and finally pulled himself together enough to form a proper sentence, “so my mother actually abandoned you.”

“Yes, I’m an abandoned child,” she chuckled. “She left me and my father and disappeared. At first I assumed she was dead, since my father never mentioned her. Then when I was older, he told me she had left us, that it had been a mistake. He didn’t speak nicely of her. I had the feeling she frightened him. I’m sorry. You probably had a different experience. As a child, I called my grandmother Mom.”

“Experience, well . . . She died five years ago. I was just thinking about it, and all of a sudden here you are. Shall we have a little wine?” Leoš brought out the Bull’s Blood.

“Good choice,” Elena laughed as they clinked glasses. “To our mother?”

“How about to us,” Leoš offered shyly.

They then spent several hours talking the way no two other people on earth could have. Their stories crisscrossed and intertwined. Everything was the other way around, and everything was the way it should be. They went through Leoš’s entire supply of red wine.

Elena, Elena—Leoš was so surprised by the realities beyond life’s borders. Beyond the electrified wires of historical necessity lay a wide-open landscape. Elena, a physician with his mother’s eyes and her same sharp gestures, luckily knew absolutely nothing about their mother. Elena, at the hospital in her green doctor’s scrubs, was able to realize their mother’s enormous potential for good, a potential the old woman herself could never have imagined.

He knew he was babbling a little, but he felt like babbling. He felt like laughing and slapping his thighs. Leoš laughed with his sister like he’d never laughed before, laughing life right in the face, laughing into her eyes.

“I’ve never stayed with any man for long. Something always drives me away. I probably get it from her.”

“I’ve never found a woman I wanted to live with, either.”

“Have you ever even looked?”

Her gaze penetrated deep inside him, but there was no longer any danger, no longer anything to keep sealed.

“No, I haven’t. Actually I never wanted to.”

Elena didn’t want to spend the night. She had a room in a hotel, and besides, “We don’t want to overdo it. We’re actually total strangers,” she laughed.

He walked her back to her hotel, and on the sidewalk in front, he suddenly threw his arms around her. He felt like he was embracing the only woman on earth, and he could feel her reciprocating. He was ready to suggest just about anything. After all, no one else knew they were siblings. They could do anything. It lasted a few seconds before she gently but emphatically unwound herself from his arms.

“Don’t worry,” she said in parting. “We won’t lose each other again.”

From Možná že odcházíme. © 2004 Jan Balabán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Craig Cravens. All rights reserved.

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