But Guy forgot to hide his money in his boot.
We pulled up to the border on a blistering winter night the day after Christmas, 1969, and Guy and John went into the guard station to be cleared to cross into Czechoslovakia. The guards asked if any of us were carrying black market currency. Guy whipped his wallet open and said, in French, “Of course not. See?” The guns those guards had were big, and they held the men in that station for at least an hour. I huddled with Guy’s wife Nicole in the back of the VW van, shivering, imagining how I’d call my mother in California to let her know that John and I, newlywed teachers traveling with Belgian friends, were prisoners in a Soviet jail. Finally the men came out—Guy, stripped of his money—and we drove on to some dismal city halfway to Prague, where we spent the night in a nearly empty hotel that sometimes garrisoned soldiers, and sometimes—I wasn’t quite sure what the woman at the desk was saying—seemed to have been a stable. We were the only guests. The ceilings were twenty feet high, the enormous beds were lumpy. The radiators gave off no heat, the lamps gave off no light, there was no coffee the next morning.
First day in Prague. Six cans of Coke
stacked in a pyramid,
the only things in a storefront window.
The towering statue of Jan Hus, burned at the stake
in 1415, snow piled around his feet in Old Town Square.
Cold so intense that over the week, my husband
lost five toenails. Gray skies, the bitter Vltava River
churning black beneath the Charles Bridge,
Soviet soldiers on every corner.
At twilight we sought the address we had been given by the principal of our school, who had sent presents for his friends—a toaster, thick wool socks for the parents, sweaters and tights for the children. A door opened, just a crack, at the top of a vast staircase, and a woman peeked out, terrified. Once she could tell we were not police, Er ist nicht hier, she said, and bade us enter. He soon returned—Zdenek, his name was, Elishka, his wife, and there were three small children. He insisted we stay for dinner, insisted that he would show us around Prague the next day and the next, and invited us to move from our hotel to his apartment as soon as he and his family left, in two days, for their cabin in the woods, far from the city where Elishka, eight months pregnant, had stood at the window the year before and watched the Soviet tanks rumble in. She nearly lost her child when the soldiers came, he told us. I am film director, my work is in the city. I live here. But while our children are small, she will keep them in the forest.
After dinner we sat in the study
around the seltzer and slivovitz
and made halting four-way conversation—
Czech to French for Nicole and Guy,
French to German for Elishka, German
to Czech to English for John and me,
with our passable French and execrable German.
Zdenek’s paintings were stacked against a desk,
with two on the wall, a bit like Modiglianis,
both Elishka, a crimson beach, a turquoise sky,
her olive skin, a swoop of jet black hair. I wanted
to be Elishka—someone a man would want to paint.
And I wanted Elishka’s children, most of all
the three-year-old, skinny, with huge dark eyes,
who came from somewhere in the apartment
and stood by me at dinner. Shy, he showed me
his violin. I longed to set him on my lap
and feel his fuzzy head beneath my chin.
Zdenek and Elishka went to the forest over New Year’s while the four of us, the visitors, stayed at the apartment. John and I slept in the study, in a trundle bed, made up with feather duvets and lace-trimmed heavy linens. Above us on one wall, there was a medieval statue of a saint—rescued, I learned, from the church near Elishka’s childhood home—and on another wall, an enormous painting I believed to be a Rubens. We held hands, lying one high one low in the two narrow beds. And I couldn’t sleep. I looked around in flickering lantern light at the peeling white walls, the dark old wood, Zdenek’s chair with the carved lions’ heads, this most beautiful room with its elegance and poverty. I felt so young, so raw—so American.
I belong in this room, I thought, this bed,
this dilapidated apartment on Hybernska
down which the tanks came, terrifying Elishka.
I was in love with this whole family
but knew I couldn’t stay here. No matter.
I was here. Drowsy, I reached across
to the table to turn off the lantern
and sank into darkness, snow falling steadily
all night long outside the window.
On a hill above the Vltava a vast official building, something to do with a long-gone World’s Fair, was hosting a New Year’s banquet to which John and I, Guy and Nicole, bought tickets. How fun, we thought, a real Czech experience—but it turned out only the soldiers and their wives could afford it, so the banquet hall was thronged with Russians, who got happier and happier as they made their way through the fifth of vodka, bottle of wine, and bottle of cheap champagne found at each place on every table, until finally we were surrounded by very drunk soldiers wearing party hats and plastic pig noses, who blew cardboard and tinsel-fringed zappers in our faces. Then as midnight struck and the band started up, nearly the whole room rose. We formed an enormous line, everyone hanging on to everyone, and did the bunny hop—kick, kick / kick, kick / hop, back, hop hop hop—around the tables and out into the night, the sparkling snow.
Sparkling snow, thick bodies of drunk sweaty Russians,
for a moment I could forget everything
and fling first one leg then the other higher and higher,
hanging on to some soldier’s waist as the music
blasted from the building far above the city
and we hopped and lurched along the frozen path.
When we’d arrived at the banquet Nicole gave us a Czech talisman for luck, a tiny pig with 1970 in gilt lettering on its porcelain side, and told us she was pregnant with her third child—no wonder she turned down the champagne and the bunny hop, and sat pale and tired, holding hands with Guy across the table. Next day we all four wandered shivering through the Old Jewish Cemetery, Beth Chaim, the guidebook said, The House of Life, where 100,000 people were buried layer upon layer because Jews were seldom permitted to buy more land. Headstones crumbled, leaning against each other, carved with names and symbols of character or occupation—wine, grapes, a lion, a deer, a rose or bird, a pair of blessing hands—old stones lifted to the level of the new each time more earth was added.
Why even try, I thought—
when it all comes down to
mottled stone and layers of the dead?
Always my child,
the nurse who couldn’t find a heartbeat,
the doctor who strapped me down
as I struggled, begging.
Always that nameless little grave in California,
with the rain falling.
First day, first year, of a new decade.
The same loss closed its hands on my throat.
I pulled my coat tight around me.
At the time of our first visit, Zdenek was making a film of The Call of the Wild. As we sat around the table drinking slivovitz, he asked us if we’d read Jack London, what we could tell him about Alaska. He was just getting it pulled together. Now, They have seized my film, he said, when we came to the table for breakfast. It was eighteen months later, in June; John and I had come to say goodbye before moving back to America. And I got a call at midnight. My friend, also director, has opened his veins last night. The police have called me in for interrogation. We must go today to the country. I must speak with my wife.
Outside the cabin, at a wooden table among blossoming trees,
Zdenek and Elishka spoke rapidly in Czech.
Their faces were pale. We were near tears
with helplessness and fear for them.
Don’t cry, Zdenek said, almost impatiently.
What can they do to me as long as I have my family?
The beauty of this sentence made the afternoon a chalice of light. Elishka and I gathered wild strawberries, stooping and kneeling among the tall grasses as we spoke in broken German about God. Glaubst du? was about the extent of it. Ja. Mir auch. I could not believe I could be so happy, feel such closeness to a woman I could barely talk to. John taught the children a song in French, Mon cheval est fatigué, bouncing them on his knees faster and faster through il marche and il trotte until with il galope they were flying up and down, screaming with laughter. We showed photos of Guy and Nicole with their three little girls. No one spoke of Prague. No one spoke of what awaited them. Later we sat as the dark came through the trees and drank cassis that Elishka had made. For dinner Elishka fried mushrooms—puffballs?—airy and light and big as hands.
Zdenek was seated in his lion chair. He rose when we entered, hugged me, hugged my two sons, hugged Peter, my second husband, whom he had never met. Twenty-five years had passed. He seemed tired, and—I couldn’t tell—maybe not to want us. Friendly as ever, Elishka invited us to go with her to the cabin the following morning and stay there while Zdenek had, as he called it, a minor procedure—it’s nothing, don’t fuss, he told us brusquely. We drank seltzer with slivovitz, but didn’t know if we were expected to linger in the apartment and chat with Zdenek, or eat, or leave. Finally he said, Now you must leave. Come back tomorrow.
First day, again, in Prague. Tourists milled along
the Charles Bridge. Street artists sold bent-wire earrings
and leather bracelets or offered in several languages
to cut our silhouettes. Fresh paint on the buildings
of Old Town Square, where lines snaked out of Pizza Hut.
We had to buy tickets and wait our turn
to file through the Jewish Cemetery, where once I’d wandered
full of grief. Bah, Zdenek growled. My city is not my city.
I don’t go down to the streets. Prague is for the Americans.
Next day I learned a little of the surveillance and hardship, those intervening years, during which, though I wrote, only once did they reply.
—A photograph, black and white, of the three small children
singing—heads together, mouths stretched wide. No words
beyond Dear friends, be well, we wish 1974 a happy new year.
Years doing menial, ill-paid work. Then the Velvet Revolution, the completion of Zdenek’s film Funeral Ceremonies, which tied for Grand Prix at the Montreal World Film Festival. All was good, he said, the children were grown, two worked in film, one ran a restaurant, Elishka still preferred the country, kept sheep, knitted and wove, dried fruits, they were close, Zdenek said, though they mostly lived apart, yes, once this minor problem was solved, he would have an exhibition of his paintings, he would become head of the film school at the University of Prague.
I have left something awaiting you at the cabin,
Zdenek told me. Green, green, green, stylized trees
and a cloud, white houses, a lake—it was a painting,
I found it when we arrived at the cabin
propped on the table. The canvas was still wet
where he wrote my name, his name, the date.
Because he remembered
how much I loved his portraits of Elishka
that first winter night, how I asked him
to turn the other paintings from the desk and let me
see them, but he did not want to make a spectacle,
and refused, now he had given me—me—a painting.
Elishka’s hair was grizzled now, her hands blunt and calloused, but in a heavy skirt and mud boots she was still the most magical woman I had ever seen. We hiked in the May forest, green as the green in my painting, visited the sheep, washed in a vast stone tub that gushed freezing water. We drove to a nearby town, had stew at a restaurant, walked hundreds of steps up a hill to visit a church. In the mangled German and French that passed for language between us, Elishka said the steps were built so believers must suffer penance. Penance or no penance, beautiful as the church was once we finally arrived, I could barely haul myself up that hill. Next day, we did not eat, Elishka was so full of things to show us that she seemed not to think of food, but finally she made an apple and berry tart, which we fell upon much faster than good manners.
Elishka went to stay with her son, where Zdenek would recuperate, and we took a bus to Prague, to the apartment. The phone call came, late that night. We must leave on the six o’clock train next morning, for the family would arrive, would need the space and privacy. On the operating table, Zdenek had suddenly died.
So abrupt, so unexplained. The night was endless
and too short. Peter held me as I cried
in the little trundle bed. Finally I slept,
but woke after an hour and went to sit by the window
looking down on dark Hybernska—the window,
I remembered, where Elishka had watched the tanks
invading Prague, so many years before. Light
began to touch the things in the room—the table,
Zdenek’s chair, the frayed rug and lace-edged pillows
where Peter still lay sleeping. Soon,
one last time, we would leave.
I would carry them home in my arms—
and the note he had left for the customs officials,
announcing that I might take this gift across the border—
To the memory of Zdenek Sirovy (1932-1995)