David Jan Zak



Photo by Václav Pancer

THE RETURN OF THE KING OF THE BOHEMIAN FOREST

 
(an excerpt)
 

CHARLES ECKERT stands by an open window in the office of the American Secret Service, he is leaning against the parapet, an overflowing ashtray before him, smoking a cigarette, but not inhaling. Without so much as a knock, the diminutive Frank Taylor, his right-hand man, enters the room.

“Turns out it’s true,” Taylor begins, even before Eckert has turned to face the room. “That cop Hasil’s now being interrogated by one of our boys. He crossed the border with some guy called Antoním Vítek, a former pilot. Both fugitives from the communists’ detention camp.”

Eckert blows out a stream of smoke, which is caught playfully in the draught and swept outside.

“We’ll offer him work with us, let’s have Kašpar take him on. I’ve got a feeling that he’ll come in useful, he knows the Bohemian Forest.”

“It’s already happened. He’s signing up as we speak, I believe. Kašpar’s going to have him move in with him so that he doesn’t have to be among the refugees in the DP camp. There might be an informer there, no point in taking any risks. This Hasil is exactly the sort of person we need to create a network of spies on the Bohemian side of the border. He knows a bunch of people there. He’s a former member of the security corps – even that’s a help – not to mention the fact that he’s got a hell of a lot of guts. I’d get him in action as soon as possible.”

“But just to be sure, let’s have him go through special training first. And another thing: give me regular updates on how our rookies are doing – and that includes this Hasil.”

 

JAROSLAV KAŠPAR, codename Patý, the Fifth, or König, is pleased. He has just acquired two new young men for his team. He can already see several advantages to them both; they have already been through basic training, Vítek in the Czechoslovak air force, Hasil with the national security corps, they know how to handle firearms, they’re in top shape and they have no fear. What’s more, they were both put through their paces at the communist camp and experienced the techniques employed by the secret police. They would like nothing better than to topple the Reds tomorrow. But he does wonder why it is that Eckert is taking such an interest in Hasil, a small-time cop turned political prisoner. As far as Kašpar is aware, the young man comes from a humble background and does not have a single connection in any significant places. “I’m going to get to the bottom of it though!”

Josef has no idea that the man before him bears the same name as the commanding officer of the national security corps in Železná Ruda. Jaroslav Kašpar introduces himself to Josef and Vítek as Patý; for some time they will not know the real name of the man under whom they serve. But they too will operate under codenames. Josef Hasil now goes by the name of Josef Marek. They take part in training with another 30 young men, refugees from Bohemia. They are put up in cabins and later stay in the safe house of Jaroslav the Fifth.

“War awaits, boys, and you are of the vanguard of the US army. Remember that! We’re out to gather information, not to provoke fights or skirmishes. We have to create an information system within Czechoslovakia that branches out in all directions, get enough people on board and gradually take apart that socialist paradise of theirs from the inside. We won’t strike until the time is right, but when we do, we’ll annihilate the Bolsheviks.”

Hasil spends long hours lying at the border, observing the patrols. He makes careful note of the times. Day and night. He is so close that the guard dogs could get wind of him. He realises that he is calm in spite of this, the only problem he has is with trying not to fall asleep. If the information is to be correct, he cannot nod off. On the basis of his notes, they learn the times of patrol changes and come to recognise the system that is in place at unit bases in Bohemia.

“Great idea, Josef, that’s something you’re always going to have to be able to handle before you cross the line. Observing for several days, taking stock of the situation and only then making your move. It’s vital that you risk as little as possible. It’s question of life and death, capiche?”

“Understood, sir! That’s exactly what I did before Tonda and I set off. For four days, I observed the distribution and times of the patrols that went through the sector we’d chosen.”

“That’s good, Josef, but remember, one mistake and you could be dead – you or one of the people you’re supposed to be looking after. Don’t forget, boys, there’s only one rule here – complete your mission, survive and come back in one piece. If one of you should fall into the hands of the communists, the best thing you can do is shoot yourself or swallow this capsule, which contains a fast-acting poison. You’re all going to be given one. And keep your final bullet for yourself. Most of you know all too well how secret police interrogations pan out. We cannot allow any one of you to break your silence – it would harm the others. Can you accept that?”

“Yessir. Better a bullet in the head than a spook’s rake where the sun don’t shine.”

 

JOSEF VOLUNTEERS when someone is needed to lie for days at a time, observing the movements of the guards on the Bohemian side of the border. It reminds him of his childhood, of fighting with local boys against a gang from another village; always a scout, he experienced first-hand the adventures of the Indian braves he used to read about.

He does not have to wait long before Patý sends him and his group off on their first reconnaissance mission. They cross the border together and then split up, each pair is given a different task. On the same team as Tonda Vítek, Josef is to make contact with people he knows in Písek and in and around Prachatice and Vodňany, with Tonda doing the same in the Žatec area. Josef was an apprentice cooper in Písek and worked there before being sent to the German Reich for forced labour.

Thus slowly they begin to create their sprawling network, which will cover not only the whole of the Bohemian Forest, but also western Bohemia, Prague, Pardubice, Mostecko and Jáchymovsko.

Most people will hear Hasil out, hide him and come on board to work with the Americans. He dishes out tasks and provides them with money for essential costs such as travel expenses and bribes for officials. In Písek, he promises to bring a radio transmitter with him next time and teach them how to use it. Wherever he asks for food and a night’s lodging, people are happy to oblige, even though they have often never seen him before. He is young, likeable and smiles a lot. In Písek, his sister Žofie and her husband give him a place to hide out.

Adolf Pavelka from Zábletí works together with Václav Mareš, Podlešák, Hodina and Tvrdek; in Písek, Josef meets men from the group, which calls itself the Third War of Liberation; Antonín Ouředník is on the lookout for weapons and agrees to operate a radio transmitter; Jaroslav Kubašta from Dvory gives Josef and his friends and fugitives the use of the hideout that he built not far from a mill during the war for his daughter and her children. Innkeeper Fábera promises together with his brother Miroslav, Antoním Heinzl from Vícemily and Antoním Jungviertel, to help out on individual operations. Dozens of people start collaborating with Hasil – from the area all around Husinec, Vlachovo Březí, Blatná, Písek…

The first mission goes off without a hitch. He carries out everything that he was required to do. He is to meet up with Tonda at the Samrhels’ farmstead. Josef waits all day and night for his teammate.

 

LIEUTENANT COLONEL AND CHAPLAIN of the Czechoslovak army Josef Šuman flees from Budweis. He survived the Nazi concentration camp and now the secret police are after him. He hides out at a Mrs. Drašanová’s, who drives him under cover of darkness to the forest beyond Husinec, where Josef Hasil is already waiting. Together with Šuman, he is to smuggle a group of exiles’ wives and their young children across the border. Marie continues to remain in Bohemia with little Josef.

“Give me time, Pepík…”

They are hidden in the forest, awaiting word from Josef’s liaison man. Towards evening, a lad on a bicycle appears.

“Forget about Žleby and Cazov. You’re going to have to take a different route. It’s like a hornets’ nest over there, a shoot-out.”

Josef makes up his mind quickly. He sends the lad to Fábera, asking him to come down with his brother in their old Tatra pick-up truck. He’ll load Šuman and the terrified women and children onto the bed of the truck and get going. His head is buzzing with possible routes across the border. He inspects his weapons. An American sub-machine gun is slung over his shoulder. A pistol and a hand grenade are pressing up against him from inside his pockets. He fiddles with the ampule between his fingers.

“It’ll be enough if you let us out just south of Horní Planá, I can take it from there,” says Hasil and looks at the driver, who nods and sets off.

The Fábera brothers help the women down from the bed of the truck. Josef takes the children and passes them down to Šuman standing in the darkness. Not one of them has started to cry, but that will soon change.

They stand on the banks of the Vltava. He can feel the cold of the water.

“Now we’re going to wade across,” says Hasil and senses the horror in the faces of the women. “Don’t be afraid. We’re going to do like this: I’m going to go across first with the reverend here, we’ll leave our things on the other side and come back for the children, we’ll carry them across. There’s one snag, though… All of us – even the children – are going to have to strip off and carry all of our things above our heads. If anyone loses their footing, they’re going to have to walk in wet clothes… I’m sure you can imagine what that’ll mean.

They are all quiet as mice. Josef is already down to his boxer shorts, the pile of clothes next to him is growing, topped off with the sub-machine gun. He gathers his things together in a single bundle. He takes a look at the clergyman, who is still wearing all of his clothes.

“Reverend…”

With a movement of his head he gestures downwards. Sheepishly, the man begins to undress.

“And now keep a tight hold on your clothes.”

They plunge into the icy water. The moon looks out for a moment from behind the clouds. Stones cut into the soles of their feet, the current is strong and they struggle to stay upright. They are almost at the other side when Šuman slips on a pebble and careers into the water. His clothes fly after him. Josef does not hesitate. He throws the weapon and his things up onto the bank and leaps into the current. He grabs the heavy bundle just in time. Now to help the terrified man.

“Don’t be scared, we’ll sort this out somehow. It’s not the worst that can happen.”

Hasil fishes his things out from the bushes. The sub-machine gun is stuck in between the branches and naturally the clothes made it to the muddy bank and have found their way into a puddle.

“Try to wring our things out, while I bring the kids across.”

He jumps down onto the bank and persuades the women on the other side to follow him with their hands above their heads. Josef brings across two children in one go. The little girl in his arms is asleep. She is not even woken by the spray of the water. Three times he returns. He can no longer feel his hands or feet. He rubs his body with numb fingers. Luckily, none of the women has fallen in the river; at least they will be walking dry.

“Put them on wet. We’ll be walking briskly; your togs’ll dry out on you. We’ve got to hold out until Austria. We’ll take the shortest route.”

The people around him are afraid.

“I served here; I know every stone in these parts.”

“Isn’t there a border unit stationed somewhere around here?” whispers one of the women.

“At Josefův Důl; we’ll go around.”

They skirt Bližší Lhota. Šuman is shivering. Hasil knows that they might succumb to the cold and not make it. He prefers not to think about that eventuality and takes them along the forest trail. He’ll risk it. So long as the patrol times haven’t changed, they ought to make it. But if they have… He’ll either have the lives of two of his former colleagues or of seven women, eight children and a clergyman on his conscience. He knows exactly what he will do if it comes to that.

They partially skirt the mountain Lhotský vrch and make for Lazebník, where they make a slight turn to the left and head through the forest to Huťský Dvůr. He would prefer to turn and go along the Schwarzenberg canal as far as Nová Pec, but he knows there’s no point in their going that way. He has to be bold. And he is. The youngest children have begun to cry, he gives them a drink of poppy tea sweetened with honey. Three little girls and three little boys. Two older boys, one can’t be more than eight years old, the other twelve, follow after them.

“They have to fall asleep; their crying would give us away.”

Wet shirt, wet trousers, wet jumper; everything chills and numbs the muscles. Šuman has been acquitting himself manfully up to now, he is almost gasping for breath, but he manages to keep up. The women have even more stamina than the men. He doesn’t tell any of them that they will shortly be passing by directly underneath the windows of a security corps base. He doesn’t want to frighten them. Still waters run deep. He takes a look at the time.

When he catches sight of the dark silhouette of the base, he leads them deeper into the forest and tells to stay put hidden under the trees and wait. He meanwhile is going to take a look around. He conceals himself behind a pile of wood. From there he has a good view of the main entrance. If everything is as it was, both patrols should return within a quarter of an hour. He waits. His clothes stick to his skin. He can feel a shudder in his muscles. He knows that they are still a fair way off from the border. “Fire. Warmth. Fire…”

All of a sudden two dark silhouettes emerge out of the forest from the direction of Zvonková. The men are deep in conversation. They knock at the door, which opens, light streaming. Even at this distance he can feel the warmth. He catches sight of the warrant officer’s head, looking out into the night. Josef could eat his hat; it’s Míčko.

Footsteps can be heard on path that leads up to the Hochficht, gravel scatters. Another patrol. This too disappears through the main entrance to the base. Hasil is satisfied, the times of the patrol changes are still the same. They will wait until both new patrols go out on their rounds and follow the first of them through segment 6-5-6 at a safe distance. While he is pondering, he turns on his heel and then freezes. He transforms himself into a motionless monolith because someone is approaching from where he has just come. There’s no mistaking it. A third patrol! That’s something new here. There’s no longer only two out and about. The door opens, the two men go inside and three pairs emerge, each shooting off in a different direction. “No more patrols though, just the three,” considers Hasil, “and not a single one has a dog with them.”

When darkness has regained its quiet dominion over all, he returns to the group.

One of the women has lent Šuman her coat. In spite of this, he is shivering like a leaf.

“We’re off!” Josef gives the order in a whisper. They take the path again, the shortest route to the Hochficht, around the unit base. To their right, a brook is churning. They stop for a little while at the foot of the mountain. Hasil checks the time. The patrol is half an hour’s walk ahead of them. He embraces the clergyman.

“Hang in there, we’ll be there soon. It won’t take long for us to warm up.”

Two men, frozen to the bone, seven tired women, six children, asleep in their mothers’ arms, two terrified boys. An interminable climb. In the dark, they stumble over stones and tree roots. The Hochficht at last. They cross the border and plunge headlong into the branches and offshoots. They halt a few dozen metres from the border stones. Josef collects bushwood. A fire is lit. Steam rises from their clothes. The women gaze into the fire. The children sleep curled up next to their mothers. Josef puts more branches on the fire. He doesn’t care that the light may draw Austrian border guards; somehow he’ll explain to them that he’s an American agent.

They make for Bavaria along the Austrian border. The children, drowsy and frightened, squall; it isn’t easy to comfort them. Hasil knows that the Bohemian patrol is currently moving through a different segment of the border zone… He is to meet up with the other agents-on-foot in a nearby gamekeeper’s lodge; they want to return to their base together. The people they have smuggled across will be escorted to the office of the CIC. Only two men are waiting at the lodge, having completed missions in the Příbram area. They know nothing of the others. The two young men who completed their training with Josef and Tonda are amongst those who have not made it back; they were part of the Šed brothers’ group.

Only later does it become apparent that they were shot dead by a security corps patrol, not far from where the teams went their separate ways.

 

THE DAYS FLASH BY, he spends them either in the little house with the others or at the border. However, most of the agents-on-foot live in refugee camps, moving into the safe houses just before their missions. Very few of them are not permanently on duty. They watch, take notes, go across.

Josef has a number of hiding places with changes of clothes both in the forest and at friends’ houses. He uses disguises so that he cannot be recognised at first glance. The experience from the train, when he travelled with a raft of different newspapers, taught him that. As far as possible, he carries a copy of the party rag Rudé právo so that they take him for a communist. In another age he clearly would have been a promising actor. One moment people see a stooped old man, leaning on a stick, the next a hard-eyed member of the security corps. Bohumil brings the uniform to Knížecí Planě for him and hides it at the gamekeeper’s. With each crossing, Josef comes up with more and more possible characters to turn into, more and more ways to dupe potential patrols. He crosses the border with his teammate Tonda Vítek; they are often given joint missions. Tonda Kubal is the third member of their trio. However, after several experiences with Hasil when they literally had to shoot their way to the border, he refuses to cross any more. He is afraid of worse to come. He claims that Pepík risks too much. He is right. But the success rate of Hasil’s missions remains at one hundred percent.

At the German refugee camp in Murnau, Josef is approached by Václav Slavíček, the former chairman of the retailers’ cooperative in Čkyně. He wants him to bring his family across the border. Josef turns up in Čkyně on three separate occasions and approaches Slavíček’s wife, but she already has another man in her life. Josef does not succeed in bringing the family across; that’s another fellow left sad and alone then.

 

BOHUMIL IS WAITING with a group of men from Zábrdí and the surrounding villages on the edge of the forest. They have a rendezvous with Josef. He is lugging a heavy radio transmitter here from across the border. All is quiet and peaceful, save for an old woman from the Kovář family farm who is filling a huge pack basket with brushwood and pinecones for kindling. She scarcely bends, propped up with a stick, a moment of heaving and straightening up painfully, if indeed it is possible to talk of any kind of straightening up in the case of doddery old women. The guys recognise her on account of the floral skirt and the dark red scarf that covers up the greying roots of her hair.

The men have brought a stick of salami for Josef; they want to make his day, they know that he doesn’t carry food with him, that he wants to be light, fleet-footed, inconspicuous. The day wears on, he should be here by now, and they lose their initial watchfulness; one pulls out a bottle, it is passed around and slices of salami are hacked off with a knife to go with the booze, slice after slice until not even a morsel remains for Josef. A young man from Řepešín makes up his mind – he feels sorry for the old woman. He used to be in the service of the Kovář family; it was his job to take care of the horses; he has a real knack with the creatures and can even lead them over difficult woodland terrain; he often hauls in timber or uses a wheelbarrow to cart off hay from the meadows and straw after the crops have been harvested. He gets up and goes to help her.

“Afternoon Mrs. Kovářová, no need to pack it in; wait a second, let me help you with that.”

“Good grief, that scared me ’alf to death. There was me thinkin’ I was all on me lonesome and then along comes young Karas; ugh, ̕orrible, gave me a right fright, you did. What you hangin around ’ere for?”

The young man laughs, emboldened by the alcohol.

“Alright grandma, I’ll tell you: I’m waiting for Hasil.”

“Pardon? Me ears aren’t what they used to be.”

“Never mind, grandma, never mind.”

The other guys are watching the show and enjoying themselves at the expense of young Karas and old Mrs. Kovářová. The young man tosses a few pine cones and sticks into the pack basket; it is already full. He makes to pick it up, takes hold of the straps.

“Christ, grandma, are you sure you haven’t got any rocks in there?”

“Who is it that you’re waiting for, laddie?”

“Who, you say, who…”

He springs away from the old woman; the other men run out from their hiding place, swearing loudly.

“Goddammit, Josef, what are you playing at?”

Hasil’s laughing face is revealed from underneath old Mrs. Kovářová’s scarf.

“The minute I saw these old lady clothes, I knew that old Kovářová, who spends her every moment in the forest, wasn’t going to interest cops or any other gapers. So I just wanted to try it out and I was right. Boys, you were about as inconspicuous as plums on a cherry tree. I just needed a bit of time to make sure you weren’t being followed by the cops. Be more careful next time, and no booze.”

With the help of Bohumil and a couple of volunteers, they carry the promised radio transmitter to Písek. One night Josef visits his mother and brothers. He never forgets about Marie and their young son. He brings them money and presents. Marie promises that when Josef returns, she’ll go with him. Every time she is waiting with her suitcase already packed, but in the end she always says “No.”

She will not admit that her indecision is also down to a certain Mr. Bräuer of Budweis. She met him in Prachatice. He likes her. They have seen each other two or three times since and he is thoughtful; he even gives her flowers and has invited her to come to Budweis, he says that he would find her job. With Bräuer she feels a sense of security, he would be able to look after her son Josef; what’s more, he’s of good standing, she wouldn’t just be eking out a meagre existence with him. What would a life with Pepík Hasil bring her? A dangerous trip across the border, accommodation in a refugee camp, even if he claims they’d be given an apartment or a small house; surviving amongst foreigners, amongst the Germans, who were their enemies during the war and still are, or maybe not?

Such deliberations are of course interspersed with fits of affectionate longing, she still loves him. She would like to be with him – he’s the father of her son, after all – but not there, here. To lead a quiet, well-ordered life. Besides, the comrades aren’t all that bad, there’s no need to cast them as monsters. If he were to return, admit he’d made a mistake, they’d be sure to give him a second chance… At least that’s what her new beau says. Marie remembers that Josef was sentenced to nine years, she doesn’t realise that he probably wouldn’t have come out of prison. No, she’s not going to be taking little Josef anywhere any time soon; anyway, these things become apparent of their accord – where the truth lies, which way the path of righteousness leads. She refuses to make the first move herself, preferring to leave her fate in the hands of others.

And Josef? He doesn’t want to force her. Perhaps she’ll come with him to Bavaria of her own free will. If he had scolded, if he had seized her and their son and dragged them with him, then she would have yielded and come along, but years later she would have been able to reproach him for the fact that her departure was not voluntary and for what her life might have been like, had she stayed put.
 
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DAVID JAN ŽÁK is a Czech poet and novelist. His published works include Axe Afrika (2006), Ticho (2009) and Návrat krále Šumavy (The Return of the King of the Bohemian Forest) (2012). He lives and works in Southern Bohemia.
 
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About the Translator:

 
FRANCES JACKSON is originally from the UK, but now lives in Munich. Her translations have appeared in No Man’s Land, The Missing Slate, Underpass and Your Impossible Voice.

Návrat krále Šumavy (The Return of the King of the Bohemian Forest) © Labyrint, 2012

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