Today we’re thrilled to present a story by Jan Čep, a Catholic Modernist whose stories depict characters lost both spiritually and geographically. Weaving together deep mysticism and delicate realism, his style of writing has earned him a reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century Czech prose.
That afternoon the house emptied out, the voices in the neighboring rooms fell silent, the wagon of a child stood overturned in the yard, and inside the half-open gate peeked someone’s goat. Clouds covered the sky and hills encircled the ravaged and vindictive countryside; the trails led nowhere and the steel surface of the pond shimmered with hostility.
Petr Kleofáš left the house and set out on the first trail he found without meeting a single soul. On a marshy meadow with dry grass, stumps of old willows stood over black pools. Grey groves, blasted by the breath of age and death, bit maliciously into the barren hillsides. Past the pond on the other side, crooked roofs from the village hunched beneath the dismal sky.
Petr Kleofáš found himself in a grassy ditch below an empty stubble field with two stunted pine trees. A bit further stood a forest, full of dry needles and fallen cones. The only sounds were the rustle of dry grass and the bloodless whisper, like fire consuming paper, inside Petr Kleofáš. He half-knelt, half-lay on the cold earth; eyes closed, he silently counted the beat of his slowing heart. The sense of sheer nothingness and the proximity of death caused a poisonous and grotesque sweetness to spring inside him. Damp and cooling colors flowed before his eyes…
He awoke with a sudden shiver—as if someone tall and dark, yet invisible, stood behind watching over with infinite remorse and love. Petr Kleofáš did not dare to look back; instead he pressed himself to the ground, longing to have his heart stabbed through. He longed to drain his blood drop by drop onto the dust of the miserable trails and the fading flowers shredded by the autumn wind. He wanted to feel the eternal thorn of love, piercing deeper and deeper into his breast
It was pitch black by the time he stood up to go on. The wind had died and the air was warm and wet. The hills and slopes, so stern and sullen during the day, seemed alive and friendly in the dark—like wakeful eyes were watching Petr Kleofáš.
Wandering through the meadows, Petr came upon an iron cross standing between two trees, and the grassy path quickly turned into a narrow trail. He thought he was veering to the left, so he trudged across the field to get back on course. I’ll be home in an hour, he thought. The town I’m setting out for is just over that hill. He felt wheel-tracks under his feet, and in the middle of a ploughed-up field the roof of an old shed emerged from the darkness. A little ways on, a village spire jutted into the sky. “I must have gone further than I thought,” Petr Kleofáš said to himself as he headed along the back fences. Despite being night-blind, he was quite calm. The kind eyes followed him, vigilant. Petr reached a road and hopped a still stream in a clay gulch; slipping into the woods he thought bordered the village. But the gentle path jack-knifed in the opposite direction before plunging into a dark ravine.
Petr broke out in a sweat, but decided to head back to the trail. Within several steps he was stumbling over clods of overturned earth. The forest came up quick and a strange gurgle disturbed the tar-black night. Shivers ran through Petr. He bolted down the hillside but his feet slopped into the mud of an unseen swamp. He had to return. As he did, the creek snarled at him from the woods like a dog. Petr headed left across the field, leaving the creek growling behind
Petr wound around to the left again, presumably, onto his original course. As he walked along the broad trail, a sound unusual for that time of day and that time of year startled him: someone reaping clover? It was Sunday—Petr had never seen people work the fields on a Sunday here. And where would they find clover this late in the fall? Petr couldn’t breathe and without thinking he softened his footsteps. Suddenly he found himself back at the creek, now running silent and level through a narrow gulley. Petr took several steps along the creek, and saw a white dress in the water. Suppressing the first shudder, Petr thought to himself: “A couple must have had a rendezvous.” He took two more steps and laughed: “Keep your wits together—God knows where your imagination might lead.” Just then the white dress, with a figure inside, seemed to float to the surface. Petr was trying to compose himself, when he realized that the white dress was only the water in the creek shining with inexplicable intensity. The natural phenomenon shocked him more than if he’d felt the cold fingers of a ghost on his throat. A thick pitch drenched the skies above so no star shone through. It was so utterly quiet and the creek glistened with such unexpected silence that terror seized Petr. He took off to the right across the field, sensing the devilish laugh of immense, unblinking eyes behind him.
He could neither see nor fathom the end of the field he ran across. He expected the labyrinthine darkness above to swallow him like a maelstrom, then something sprang out: a tree lining the road. It was so unforeseen, so unexpected. The road seemed like mirage, a fata morgana. From the shape of the trees and the twists of the road, he knew this was not the road he’d sought, and the mendacity of the entire landscape overwhelmed him. He reeled and inadvertently he crossed himself. He stood on that mysterious and slightly luminous road, unsure if he was behind the village or hundreds of miles away. He stood, uncertain whether to go up or down. In the sheer silence and utter solitude, coming upon another traveler seemed unlikely; the darkness was endless, not even a glimmer to hint at a nearby hamlet.
In the depths of the darkness and uncertainty, Petr Kleofáš suddenly experienced some subtle security, a perfect distraction that tasted of arrogance and curiosity. Straightaway he headed down the road, planning to bang on the first cottage door in the first village he found.
He hadn’t gone far when suddenly a yellow light flickered at him from a crook in the road. He stood still, listening to the unmistakable creaking of wheels. He walked on a bit, and he finally spied a horse pulling a rickety wagon; upon it a man sat hunched. Petr greeted the man and said the name of the village he sought. The man loosened his blanket and tugged on the reins. He leaned out to him, “Přísenice? You’re going the wrong way! You’ve got a long trip ahead of you.” Then the old man invited Petr into the back of the cart to sit on a pile of empty sacks; as soon as Petr settled in, he realized how badly his legs ached.
“Quite a detour,” said the old man shaking his head. “You must have gotten lost.” Petr mentioned where he had been walking, and the old man nodded, mumbling to himself: “Yeah, they always sneak around here.” Petr trembled and looked at the pensive old man. “Like that time with Francek Lipka,” he began after a while. “He’s getting dressed one morning to go chop wood, still dark out, and someone knocks on his window. He opens up and Janek Chalupa’s standing there, an axe looped over his shoulder. ‘You comin’ out,’ he says. ‘Hold on, let me just stuff straw in my boots,’ Francek answers from inside. And a second later bam! bam! on the window. ‘Hurry up!’ Janek calls outside. ‘I’m comin’ already,’ Francek answers back, grabbing his axe and heading off into the dark with Janek. They’d gone quite a ways and were at that cross, where the road forks, when Janek just vanished. Just like someone blew him off the earth. And just then Francek remembered Janek had already been buried half a year. His legs froze with fear; he took off his cap and said an Our Father for the souls in purgatory.”
The old man grew silent and bundled himself up in his blanket. The buggy creaked along the road, shaking the lantern’s yellow beam. The wind picked up and a cold drop of rain fell onto Petr’s face. The carriage crested the hill and windows shone below. “That’s Přísenice,” the old man said as they headed down the slope.
Petr Kleofáš sat in the back on the pile of sacks. He watched the lights before him and remembered the dead. “Please, stay true to me,” he quietly cried, and all at once he felt he had signed a crucial pact with the countryside. As if she had granted him intimacy and in return he had accepted responsibility.
“What awaits me behind those windows,” he wondered, looking out into the darkness at the village hiding his impending and unknown fate. “Maybe it will begin tonight, as soon as I open the door,” he thought, “maybe only those doors lie between me and perdition.” At the church the road split into two. The old man stopped. Petr thanked him for the lift, and set off, walking up to the village.
They never saw each other again.
Translated from the Czech by Mike and Tereza Baugh
Karolinum Press at Charles University will publish their translation of Čep’s short story collection Zeměžluč (Common Rue) in 2018.
Jan Čep (1902–1974) fled Czechoslovakia after the Communist coup of 1948 and spent time in both West Germany and France, where he ultimately settled. Because of his emigration and his work with Radio Free Europe, the Communist regime in his homeland censored his work; until 1989 collections of his essays and stories appeared only in samizdat. In addition to his own writing, Čep translated Italian, German, French and English writers (including Shaw, Balzac, Flaubert, and Conrad) into Czech and the Czech writer Egon Hostovský into French.
Mike Baugh is a San Diegan teacher and editor living in the Czech Republic. His fiction has appeared in the Czech arts & culture journal Revolver Revue; he studied translation at Queens College, CUNY.
Tereza Baugh, a Smíchov native, is the Czech translator of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary.
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