Anna Bolava

 Photo by Robert Adam

 

SETTING FREE

 

I’m sitting in a gutted armchair in the middle of our dimly lit front hall, biding time. When I’m still, I hear everything happening outside. I’m already wearing my coat and boots. I’ll put on my fur cap when the train sounds. Today it lasts a while. I’m starting to sweat. The collar of my turtleneck scratches the back of my neck. Fidgeting, I shut my eyes and briefly lean my head against the wall. I’ll hear it then. The hooting in the distance. I grab the fur cap, gloves, bucket and open the door. The December wind, strangely lit by the frozen sky, presses into me. I face down and head out into the numb, crystalline world, sharp and clear like the first icicle hanging from the outhouse’s back roof. The whole afternoon is ahead of me. Maybe it will finally be my day. Maybe I’ll accidentally kick into something frozen into the earth, something that was never ever there before, or hidden perfectly in view. Once I discover you, I’ll collect you and carry you home in your own rusty bucket. Then I’ll pick up the phone receiver and dial the police station’s number.

I no longer recall your face. Despite the fact we lived together for so long that we started to resemble each other. It happens to long-term couples, parents and children or people and their dogs. After you disappeared, I kept seeing you for several days in the mirror. You were angry. You insisted on me going and telling someone. Go, now! Worry lines in the middle of our brow. I won’t lie there forever! I should’ve gone. It was still possible then. Though to whom exactly? Which of them would trust me? They never showed any interest in us. It took weeks, though, for those in town to notice you were gone. Then there was just a brief news report. Several times before then they rang the doorbell, though only outside by the gate. No one could be bothered coming inside. They didn’t come to set me free. They had no idea at all. You could’ve rot peacefully in bed, but they wouldn’t have come to look inside anyway. They weren’t the first to turn away in disgust. And I must’ve looked a sight too. Exactly like you. There was a drought, and I started to resemble dried-out meat tossed in a dark hole, deep in the middle of our field.

I head toward the sun. It isn’t warm. It only stabs my eyes. I face downward. With a watchful eye, I x-ray the landscape, and like every day, I focus on the number of steps. I add and subtract them, multiply and finally, in the end, divide them. Two, four and six go around my brain. The field is wind-swept, and the ground hard. That’s good. The landscape needs frost. Let it come! Let it strike and burn up everything that was inflamed this year. The last afternoon of December. Midnight is riding on its back. Just like the previous year, it will strike off the present year from the calendar. We will rejoice and celebrate, launch beacons of hope up high for our next one. Two, four, six. Two, four, six. Two, four, six up to the first overturned turf of grass. The field will never be levelled off, and grass will always linger here. A sharp plough will cut into its depths, but it only flips over these hard lumps, which will rest and take root even more firmly in the spring. Two, four, six. Nothing new on the earth. But the air is always different. The visibility is wonderful. I am also a perfectly transparent and easily read being, in the eyes of everyone, yet unnoticed, an exclamation mark in the middle of a vast plane, a smudge on the horizon, swinging from east to west and back again. If someone hid in the deer stand, they’d have to know my story by heart. Every day the same pilgrimage, for so many years now. Ten, twenty, thirty, and still fruitless.

Your absence has robbed me of sleep. It’s the one and only shelter that a trapped person has – that nothing without which everything is impossible. With teeth clenched, I rode out the nights in which you screamed so much. Then you stopped screaming and only croaked. You could only whisper angry threats. You buzzed like a poisonous fly and constantly tapped your flintstones on the wall until the plaster on your side of the bed started to flake to the ground. You would jab me in the back when I had curled up into a ball on my side. You would yank me by the hair and twist clumps around your hairy fingers so they couldn’t be combed straight in the morning. You were always pulling my duvet to the floor, so I lay uncovered, prey to the cold and your posthumous whims. You would conjure dozens of night shadows and sounds, sending spiders and roaches to tend to me when you couldn’t yourself. You tormented me because I left you there. I left you there because you yourself wanted that. Your final look said it all. You fell deep, but we saw into each other’s eyes. And I know what your lot were saying. That I’ll be punished anyway…

Sleep circled above my bony shoulders, seeking a place to land, but you – invisible – drove it away like something spurned. I kept closing my bruised eyes, though my head knew everything. So I dared venture to our place again. I decided to head out on my terrifying walk at dusk out of fear I might be spotted from the distant houses. In my pocket a flashlight, in the air the first autumn chill stirring. Moisture weighing down my hair, traces of fear on my neck. But when you don’t leave me alone, I won’t leave you alone either. I won’t lie here forever! The field was harvested and dry. The remaining stalks and leaves crunched underfoot. My boots were covered in dust. The chirping of crickets surrounded me. It is one and a half kilometres from our house to the drainage trench, and if the terrain were flat, the creek would be visible directly from our kitchen window. Dried furrows in the landscape reliably guide a person to her destination. However, I wasn’t a person back then – only bones under tight pale skin from which shone incredibly tired, frightened eyes.

I didn’t shine a light there. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to. I only heard it. You and your friends. I started to see why you were thinking like an insect in the last days. I wasn’t disturbing you. I let the flies and worms and maybe even the rats continue on. Just leave me alone! I screamed into the darkness of the concrete pipe before I knelt on the ground and leaned on the concrete top. Who pushed it to the side and why and when exactly? I knew how you had ended up when you wanted to fix this oversight, but I didn’t care. You will no longer dare. I will shut you in! Forever! I pushed with all my might. And again, properly, long seconds of groaning and pushing, my legs sinking into the earth. The cover wouldn’t budge. So I need to lift it a little and somehow shove it a little more. I have to close this opening. I must! Not even a centimetre. I crouched and pushed again, and I was pushing so much with all my remaining strength that something burst in my gut. It was like a clean bullet wound, a light bulb breaking and darkness rolling out abruptly and uncontrollably under the skin. I breathed out, stood still and imagined how I will end up here in your neighbourhood today. This is it. Though bleeding out may take the whole night, it will be the end. No more sounds, no more shadows – you can’t frighten the dead! I carefully lay on my back, pearls of pain tumbled from my stomach to my calves. Teeth clenched into a smile. There’s no other plan. Feel free to take me away from the world. I won’t stop you. The air’s getting chillier. It’s nice. I take a breath with my last ounce of strength. I swallow without chewing. I then carefully stroke my stomach under the t-shirt, in these places where I’m waiting for the world to end. Nothing. Dryness. Warmth. The regular beating of the heart. I keep waiting, but nothing is happening at all. Only those persistent, muted sounds in the concrete tunnel behind my head. The hissing of worms. I close my eyes. After a while I’m finally asleep.

After my first visit to the field, my nights morphed into some sweat-soaked living breathing monster that included sleep. Restless, packed with dreams and our conversations, but it was enough. I was afraid that I would bring home other nocturnal visitors in the form of rats and worms, but it wasn’t so. I even doubted whether it all had happened. Was I really there? Had I heard what was happening below? Or did I make it up? A sleep-deprived mind will invent unbelievable things. But it wouldn’t have come up with a huge bump in its stomach by itself. I have it as a souvenir from the trip and wrap it in your scarf. I wind it twice around my waist and knot it tight. And when I chop wood at the back of the courtyard, I secure my stomach even tighter with a leather belt.

I stop and look around – a frost-covered December landscape, numb and perfectly lit. A shoulder blade. I don’t know why, but I imagine that I will find your shoulder blade first. It will look like an animal’s bone, like a deer or hare’s. But to me it will be obvious. I picture myself lifting it and placing it at the bottom of an empty bucket, picture my satisfied smile. At the same time, I’m tense with what will come. I know that I can’t uncover the skull. I would want too much. Happiness has never been on my side. But the dry corn stalk will not in fact be a stalk at all! Extremities. These will be enough. They can be scattered around the landscape, but I’ll manage! I’ll discover them and break the curse. I can no longer wait and see. I start to laugh. I roar with laughter and then turn in circles holding the bucket. I lost about half my weight in these places, but I will wait here every day for the train to blow again. That sound once signalled the start of our regular strolls. And so, I continue taking them. The first blow means setting off. The second, the returning, sends me home. Only the holidays are different, but I won’t let myself falter. I’m searching for you because I know that you are there. You’re there, waiting for me to come. I will set you free and so myself. It may happen at any moment.

They turned up again at our place after a long time. This time they were searching more intensively. I let them overturn all our things without a word of protest, but my soul was small inside me. They even had a dog, and when they left the house, they set out for the field. There were three of them. They walked along the path I took. I stood dumbfounded at the window and watched them spreading out across the wet grass. Uninvited guests. Aliens who thought they would fulfil the task on my behalf. They were getting close to there. My anxious heart was beating in my temples. My hands were shaking. Any moment, they would discover you. Falling raindrops broke the silence. Will they accuse me? Will they lock me up for something I didn’t do? Hasn’t this in fact been punishment enough? However, something unusual happened. The figures in the distance checked around the pipe. They peeked inside, probably even lit it up with their huge, unerring searchlights before moving on, unperturbed. They passed the scene of the crime as though you had on a cloak of invisibility. I didn’t understand what was going on there. I was terrified that they would pull you out, but the thought that they wouldn’t was perhaps even worse. Will it ever end this vicious limbo? Why? Why? WHY did they only leave then? I repeated to myself and put on my gumboots. I had to see you. I needed to see for myself the trick that you had come up with down there.

The field was muddy and warm and stunk rotten. This time I had a light as I walked. I didn’t care that everyone could see. I strode fast with determination. The top of the pipe was still shifted to the side since no one will ever again move it, and even if they do, the roots of the world will tear away and disrupt the universe’s equilibrium. I crouch above the dark tunnel that bores through the core of the earth and shine a light inside. I shine, shine, SHINE. I take a look at what they looked at an hour ago. Nothing. Only the stream below has gained strength and taken away the rain that poured down all day in the mountains. I won’t lie there forever!I won’t lie there forever!I won’t lie there forever! I looked for a long while into the murky current until I saw spots. I then sat facing sideways on the concrete ring and thought. You were no longer inside. You could be anywhere now. I started to count my steps on the way home for the first time. The next day I set out with the first hoot of the train. The bucket I started to take later.

The first firecracker went off on the hill beyond the forest. In no time at all the train sounds, and I face toward our home. Still fruitless, only tired from the painstaking effort. You watch me the whole time. I feel it. I feel your presence, mainly here outside in recent months, though in the house almost never. Images of you pressing on the sides of the deep shaft with your hands and feet and struggling to get out disappear. You died and the water took you. That was how it went. There’s no other way. You’re all around. You’re the eternity of my counting. You’re the contents of my empty bucket. Sunlight reaches to the horizon’s edge. A night full of celebrations is being prepared. Frost stings my face. Smoke rises from houses in the distance, and the nervous bark of dogs can be heard from the train stop. Two, four, six – it was a beautiful day. Tomorrow will be similar. We will start all over again. It will definitely work. Maybe already tomorrow! Yes, tomorrow!
 
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ANNA BOLAVÁ is a Czech poet and novelist. She is the winner of the 2016 Magnesia Litera Award in the prose category for her debut novel Do tmy (Into Darkness, 2016), which was hailed by critics as one of the major discoveries of recent years. She has written under different names in various literary magazines and published a poetry collection, Černý rok (The Black Year, 2013), under the Anna Bolavá pseudonym.  
 
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About the Translator:

  
RYAN SCOTT is an Australian writer and translator based in the Czech Republic. His poetry, prose and translations have appeared in number of journals. Jiří Kolář’s A User’s Manual is his first major translation.  
 

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