TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 5

An Excerpt from The Witch’s Flight

 · Fiction

Chapter I 

I. Often Said, Often Heard

I was holding onto the pole, looking out the window and noting how I was gradually filling up with gratuitous, midday happiness. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the air, perhaps just the smell of the people on the tram was stronger than usual. Somehow it was beginning to exceed reasonable limits – the city had been in the grips of a heatwave for two consecutive months. I shifted my weight onto my left leg – my right leg was constantly twitching. I’d been down with an inflammation, taking antibiotics. I could have stayed at home for three weeks. But after only a week my boss called to say she needed me urgently. So I broke off my idling and went back to work. My leg was throbbing noticeably less in the presence of the rank-and-file passengers. I wasn’t able to properly fixate on it any longer. The tram rocked through a double bend and snaked onto the bridge amid the excessive application and releasing of brakes. A few people swung all the way ‘round their poles. My phone buzzed in my pocket.

“Yes,” I said.

“It says here in 100+1 magazine that the human belly button is inhabited by an independent culture of fungi and bacteria,” Barunka said, “which produces some kind of psychedelic alkaloid. Now I finally know why you stick your nose in that part of people’s bodies.” 

“So I finally know that, too.”

“What are you doing right now?”

“I’m on my way to work.”

“You lead a charmed life, my dear Cocky. I’ve been grafting since morning.”

“I’ve been down with that inflammation, you know.”

“Everyone’s got something. For the second month running I’ve been getting woken up at seven in the morning by country music – the workmen outside my window keep playing it on the scaffolding,” her voice purred into my cheekbone. “We’re going to have a new facade. Insulated, pink.” 

“Pink is one of only three possibilities for facades, unfortunately.”

“The second is yellow and what’s the third?”

Termites, larder beetles and fungi, roundworms, nun moths, greenfly and lice. We probe each other with tiny pincers, tasting and investigating each other with great interest, taking each other apart. Maybe we don’t even like the taste, but we don’t know how to stop.

“The third is known as greenish. At least the kitchen won’t be drafty, eh?” I said, and two women, probably a mother and daughter, fixed their eyes on me. The older one had no lips whatsoever – she looked like an apoplectic grim reaper. They gave the impression of being on their way to pick up results at the gyno.

“I’d rather it were drafty than to have to listen to Save the horses, I’ve given my whole life to them, every day at seven in the morning.”

When we were halfway over the bridge, a piece of sky shone through a tear in the clouds. Then it clouded over again. Prague Castle was slithering along the horizon like an animated lizard from Journey to Prehistory.

I got off at Anděl and entered the shopping center. I walk through there on my way to and from work – it’s more interesting than going around the block. I walked into the hall permeated with musky store odor, the aroma of freshly unpacked, immaculately useless goods. I checked out whose bloated, sleepy heads were being pampered by the rapidly moving hands of hairdressers at nine in the morning, while a torrid vacuum outside was smothering all living things. I perused shop windows at leisure — books, music, optical goods, electronics. My favorite alcove was the one that tantalized the customer’s eye with a selection of bizarre knickknacks. I could never get enough of the nook, inhabited by heavy stands with globes of all sizes on which every country was represented by a different colored surface. Pearly Canada shone out from a painfully blue ocean, as did amber China, malachite Brazil, agate Monaco, olivine India. This little indulgence would not be cheap, seeing that the brochure claimed that it was made of semiprecious stones and the equator was, like my old china, gold-plated. The rest of the shop was filled with majolica eggs, statuettes of leopards and brutally ridiculous walking sticks. A queue of anorectic deities was keeling over on the shelf, Osiris with a deathly countenance, black as soot Anubis, Sachmet with optimally generous breasts, Hor with a little worm in his beak, probably a bit of wood wool that had got stuck there.

My habitual route brought me to a knife-shop. A simple, slightly curved knife with a rubber handle immediately caught my eye. Next to all manner of clasp knives and serrated flick knives it looked like Prince Rohan among the ragpickers. My delight was tainted slightly by the inscription Outdoorsman on the blade, but it was glorious nonetheless. Its shape radiated an elegance of purpose dating back a hundred years. I stuck my nose to the glass so I could examine it properly. The sales assistant reacted by sidling up to me.

“That’s the last one,” he said, exhaling in my face. “It’s on discount till the thirtieth.”

“So what are you doing now?” asked Barunka when I took her call.

“I’m probably buying a little knife.”

“And you won’t be making a mistake,” the comedian salesman hurriedly chimed in.

“Well, mind you don’t cut yourself.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll take it.”

The man opened the display case, gave me the knife to hold for a moment, and moved over to the register.

“Unfortunately I don’t have the original box,” he added.

“Never mind,” I said. I paid the requisite amount, put the knife in my bag, and moved on.

“Mind you don’t cut yourself. What kind of wariness is that when you’re purchasing a knife?” I snorted at the traffic lights between the shopping center and the hospital. The people standing on the other side of the road might have thought I was singing. I wasn’t even worth a glance, though. Anděl is full of all kinds of singers from morning to night.

* * * 

Surrounded by greenery, Drtinová Street is mysterious, straight like a pair of skis, ascending gently towards the bushy hump of Petřín Hill. The black locust trees were defying the sultry heat with their motionless leaves. Freshly laid, burning-hot tarmac emphasized the overall stillness. Pneumatic drills, the woodpeckers of the metropolis, rattled in the silence, accompanied by a percussion concert of chiming scaffolding pipes, supported by countless hammers and angle grinders. I passed the publishing house of mags like Cosmo and Harper’s Bazaar, where I had at one point lasted exactly four days as an employee. I did not allow this to spoil my positive impression of Drtinová Street, however; there was something distinctly Balkan about it during a summer like this.

I turned right, then left, entering another, smaller publishing house. The elevator took me up to the fourth floor without incident. The calm, almost pleasant job of copyeditor at one particular weekly magazine awaited me there. No more was required of me than to allow someone else’s words to flow through my brain, here and there substituting them for others, making minor corrections. Throwing out demonstratives, replacing hackneyed expressions with ones used less frequently. Allowing clauses, banalities and empty phrases to pitter-patter on the page.

I walked down the hallway, dispensed a few greetings, and sat down in my cubicle. Clicking on the appropriate icon, I reanimated the juggernaut of the net. I half-opened my satchel, took the knife out of its sheath, examining it briefly. It still seemed magnificent. 

Two young female editors were smoking by the window in the hall, chattering. “But you know what’s absolutely the best thing for your nails, right?”

“No.”

“Earwax — smear that on them and they’ll stay shiny all day.”

“Girls?” I called at them.

“Yeees?”

“And how do you extract the earwax?”

“With a cotton bud,” said one of them.

“With the help of a Kalypso cotton bud,” the other one added, producing a noise like a squeaky headboard. This was interrupted by the sound of an alarm clock going off somewhere nearby.

“That’s your phone,” said the girls, “they put in new landlines.”

I felt for, and found, the receiver under a pile of discarded galley proofs. “Yes,” I said.

“Did you know how nice it can be to eat a banana with chocolate sauce with your mum? We’ve each got one, and Mr. Bem the Mayor is sitting next to us with his mother, and they’re also having bananas with chocolate sauce.”

“I’d gladly pay for his banana out of my taxes,” I muttered.

“Why his and not anyone else’s?”

“He’s the only politician whose face doesn’t look a caricature from a crudely satirical comic strip.”

“Isn’t that worse, though? You might become disillusioned with him.”

“That’s like being disillusioned with the radio, or something.”

“Do you listen to the radio?” 

“Not at all.”

“Because you became disillusioned with it.”

“Bored, which is not the same thing.”

The girls went out for lunch. The air from the ventilators was leafing through sheets of paper and blowing them around on the carpet. I checked that I was alone in the room, threw a copy of the Yellow Pages on the floor, took out the knife, knelt down and jabbed with all my might. The point of the knife penetrated to page 726. I was pleased. I put the blade away and went out to get some food, too. There was a sheep in the window of the butcher’s shop on Arbes Square, suspended as if in mid-leap, skinned and gutted, but not without its head. A black tongue protruded from its muzzle. The pavement was radiating heat, the temperature hadn’t fallen below 35 C, but she hung there from hooks day after day. I wondered how they did it. Either they put her in the freezer overnight, or they put a new one up every morning. Whatever the case, they must have put a wire in her, or something, so that she would keep her shape. The device started vibrating just as I put my food tray on the counter.

“What are you up to that’s making it crackle so much?” she asked.

“I’m eating.”

“What are you eating in this heat?”

“Kidneys – they have that pleasant, school canteen smell.”

“Like piss. Yeah, you would like that. With rice?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s that you’re whispering?”

“That when you pick up a heated plate, it must inevitably occur to you—”

“That you’re going to vomit. But you’re probably thinking about tranquillity, or energy.”

“How did you know that?”

“The image of your psyche forms a sort of triangle – at one apex there’s the question of energy and what to do with it, at another is tranquillity, how to get as much of it as possible, and at the third is women, how to get rid of them ASAP, so that you have tranquillity, and can think about energy. And what were you thinking?”

“I’m not going to shout in here.”

“Whisper it to me then.”

“That energy is the life of matter,” I said, earning myself a disgusted look from the messmate to my left. “The world cannot be divided into the animate and the inanimate, you understand. It’s just life itself.”

“You’re not taking the piss, are you? You’re not pulling Baruna’s leg so subtly she can’t tell, are you? What about your leg, is it hurting?”

“It’s better.”

“So, are we going out for a coffee this evening, then? You could talk all about energy and I’ll hang on every word, I would indeed. Eh?”

“Not today. How about tomorrow?”

“I’m up for going today,” she said, “I’ve got to hang up, Soukup’s arrived.”

I finished eating and went back to the office.

“I hope I’m not taking up too much of your time,” she said, reconnecting via the landline. “Mum told me about how our old man is jealous of Belmondo at the moment. In his biography he claims that he’s had more than four hundred intimate liaisons, and Dad, no matter how many times he counts, can’t get to more than three hundred.”

“Why Belmondo of all people?”

“He’s got it in his head that there’s a resemblance. Then he reproached Mum for not even having a decent bottle of whisky at home for him, so that he could have a shot for his blood pressure, and for the fact that I take after her, not him, disappointing him everytime he hears anything about me. He made that remark and left. Come out for that coffee, or I’ll have had it up to here today. Why don’t you want to go – am I pissing you off?”

“Not at all,” I said. Nonetheless, a sigh escaped from my lips.

“I heard that,” she said and hung up.

* * *

At a quarter past six I went offline, tossed a handful of viruses into quarantine, and walked down the stairs. Walking down the stairs — a pleasant, old-fashioned form of entertainment. An homage to times gone by. As I was walking through the shopping center I got a craving for some ham, a salad, something. I managed to extricate a shopping trolley and wheeled it into the Temple of Groceries. Thirtysomethings were loading up on grilling sausages, entranced by visions of evening fun, old men were digging for cheap salami, a group of sexagenarians was rummaging through overpriced lumps of expired gorgonzola. Women were pushing overflowing trolleys, and, in faraway nests, in places like Ďáblice and Řepy, thousands of spoilt little nestlings were already stretching their beaks towards them. The trolleys got into each other’s way, colliding with weary inevitability. I put the phone to my ear.

“I’ll be brief,” she announced. “I’ve just wrecked the Toyota that Dad magnanimously allowed me to use because he bought himself a BMW. And that was a major gesture of reconciliation, like I’m still a cow, but even so he’s giving me another chance. And bang, I got hit by a Persian, 300k worth of damage. When it dawned on me what happened, I walked over the asphalt, picking up scattered bits of metal and stuffing them in the boot. They couldn’t drag me away from the scene. The asphalt was hot and sticky.”

“Who?”

“The asphalt.”

“Who couldn’t drag you away?”

“The police, who else.”

“And how did it happen?”

“I hit the brakes too late, that’s all. How about that coffee this evening, damn it?”

“Not today. But you’re okay otherwise — your head doesn’t hurt, or the back of your neck? Not in shock, are you?” I said, tearing a wad of thin plastic bags off the stand. I tried to open them by blowing, then with my nails, by rubbing the two sides together, and in the end by blowing again.

“No, I just couldn’t remove myself from those fragments – trucks were rumbling by and everything seemed in slow motion to me. I was picking up bits of the bumper, glass, wire. I’m not in shock or anything, I feel as fresh as a vulture. The only thing that hurts is my fly trap — I really must have prattled on again today. Where are you?”

“At the grocer’s.”

“Baruna will report back later. She’s very stubborn. Very stubborn.”

Standing in the queue by the checkout was enlivened by the occasional tall floozy wearing company colors, whizzing through our ranks on rollerblades, carrying a stack of boxes. Family groups, enveloped by clusters of runny-nosed little nippers, only just managed to get out of her way. A not very tall, curly-haired bloke in a blue-black jacket with a badge was standing by the cash register. As the queue rocked from side to side, he scrutinized each person with a swaying, twitching eye. His features were crumpled by some kind of active agitation. All the while he was conversing with the rudely-built, ginger-haired girl working the register. Suddenly an old biddy was standing next to me, her scabby nose poking out between saggy cheeks like the snout on a knight’s helmet. She started jostling her trolley around. She was leaning her head on her shoulder so that, if necessary, she could pretend to be a poor old thing. It took a tediously long series of maneuvers before she had definitively secured her place in the queue in front of me. She bumped her trolley into the edge of the checkout several times before she got her spot.

“Something like that shouldn’t even be walking among other people,” the security guard remarked above her head.

“What?” asked ginger, rattling around in the till with her forefinger.

“I said I wouldn’t let scum like that out in public,” the curly-haired bloke said, pointing his chin in the direction of the old woman. “Belongs in an oven by now.”

“Don’t say that, Corgi,” the cashier said, counting the coins.

I probably looked at him for longer and in a different way than he was used to. He registered me. He waited calmly. When I’d paid and was pushing my trolley away, he walked up behind me.

“Excuse me, could I see your…” he said, swallowing saliva.

The only items still lying in the trolley were tomato puree and a bar of chocolate labelled Excellence. I had no idea why I’d wanted it. I’d give it to someone. We were standing next to a pillar. Behind his back, extremely tall, red-shirted members of a sports team, dribblers, slam dunkers, were howling with laughter. They were laughing so hard they were doubling up, leaning over him, and he was the kind of bloke who fretted about every millimeter. Corgi.

“In the interest of public order I would advise you,” he managed to add.

I lost the mood to answer. To appease a worked-up lout who takes too many steroids. To choose my words carefully. To explain. I didn’t feel like it. And that leg of mine was hurting. I reached into my bag, took out the knife and thrust it into him. Into his middle, a little to the right. It slid in effortlessly. I jabbed him twice, I think. That surprised me. It made him jerk, he shuddered silently. I got a strong whiff of eau de cologne. Suddenly I hoped it hadn’t happened. That it had been an attempt at a practical joke, gone wrong. But Corgi’s back hit the pillar and he slid down. His lips tightened into a grimace — he looked like someone trying to turn on the waterworks. I looked around — lots of people everywhere. Some of them were getting out of the way of another figure on inline skates, the rest had their eyes fixed on their trolleys, the ceiling, the floor. The cashier was struggling with the cash register drawer. So, I said to myself, Now you’re in for it. You can’t make a run for it, you’d only make a fool of yourself for no reason. Stand here and keep your trap shut. The world surged towards me in a blast of polyphonic uproar. “What’re you doing here, mate?” someone bellowed. “Getting chapatti and pecorino!” cried someone else. “Hee hee hee,” they both shrieked. “I was in the shower for an hour!” yelled another voice.

It dawned on me that none of it had anything to do with me. It was just general din. I put the blade back in my satchel, picked up the plastic bag with the shopping, squeezed through the grunting basketball players, weaved through the crowd to the sliding door. Another security guard was standing there. I could see every hair clinging to his jacket. I thought it impossible that I could just walk past him without anything happening, but I did. I was standing in the glass trap of Anděl. A boy wearing a scarf approached me. “Hello, could you make a donation to dithabled children?”

“No,” I said.

“You can contlibute a voluntaly amount,” he said, sniffing a string of snot back up his nose. “Or you can buy a candle.”

I had the impression that my vision had sharpened. I glimpsed something incredibly pleasing in the distance above Pilsen Street — church spires towering over a red roof. The same ones that were always there. As you go down Pilsen Street towards the bridge they gradually disappear, until they vanish. What church is that, I wondered.

I waited for the green light, crossed the junction, and found myself in Na Bělidle Street. A bunch of adolescents stood in the cavity of a doorway. They gave me a fixed stare. A bit further along, a slot machine joint spat several dark-complexioned gamblers onto the pavement. They ran off, punching each other hard as they did so. Smíchov was puffing up and exhaling.Infant Scales for Hire said a sign in a shop window. I followed the street to the river, walked up to the bridge, walked down to the waterfront. I leaned against a blue signpost. I waved some flies away. Ripples were racing over the water, splashing rhythmically. I wanted to spit between them, but couldn’t muster any saliva. I waved away some more flies. I glanced around and pulled out the knife. There was no blood on it, only a brownish membrane-like substance. Translucent slime, or something. I let the Outdoorsman fall into the water. I climbed onto the bridge. A woman’s glove was lying on the steps. I set out along the left side of the bridge. The entire time I walked along the curb. I glanced behind me a few times. Row boats were tapping the surface of the water like pond skaters. The next time I looked around I saw an ostentatiously huge motor yacht anchored by the jetty, looking more like a spaceship. A telephone number fluttered from the poop deck — the boat was probably for hire. Not a bad idea. A round trip on a darkened barge to Davle, have a pepper steak and head back. At Palacky Square I waited for a tram. I was holding the plastic bag with the shopping in my hand. The clouds looked like they were getting ready to sink right down to the pavement at any moment.

At home I locked the door behind me, habitually opened the bag, and pulled out a candle, angular, heavy. I guess I must have bought it. I threw it in the bin, did the same thing with the empty knife case. I picked up the ringing phone.

“Listen to what happened half an hour ago! My old man parked by the National Theater, got out for just five minutes to see some mistress of his, and when he came back the BMW was gone. And you know what he did before anything else?”

“He called you to say he needed the Toyota back.”

“Just for three weeks, apparently, till he gets himself sorted out, ‘cause right now he needs something to drive to Munich in. So I’m asking you once again and with more insistence to have coffee with me today.”

“I will.”

“Really?” She became unsure of herself. “You don’t sound very whats-it-called, convincing. Sure you wouldn’t rather stay at home? We can go another time.”

“I’ll be there at half past,” I said. It was May. It was the first time in a quarter year that I hadn’t made some kind of excuse.

“Half past what?”

“Nine.”

“And don’t forget to bring me you know what.”

“I won’t.”

“You’ve got amnesia, Peacock, because you keep gobbling up those sleeping pills.” 

“Lack of sleep is worse, apparently.”

“You can do something about that. Get rid of the telly that sits a meter from your head, for starters — it emits radiation even when it’s turned off. Definitely not a good thing.”

I walked into the room, pulled the antenna out of the wall socket, coiled the cable. Then I used a hammer and pliers to destroy the connector, so that I couldn’t change my mind. I carried the television out of the building, put it on the pavement. Wasn’t I supposed to have vomited? Isn’t that what happens, supposedly? Shouldn’t I do so now, rather than getting the urge on the tram, or in front of Barunka? For a moment I retched above the toilet bowl with three fingers down my throat. Then I noticed a little bit of excrement sticking to the porcelain. I took the bog brush and gave it a really good scrubbing. I poured some Savo disinfectant on the bowl and scrubbed it again. I washed my hands. I opened the curtains, looked outside. The box was on the pavement under a hopelessly-pruned black locust tree. Who’d want a fifteen-year-old piece of junk? I slid my feet into my sandals and headed out. Every single window in the street was open. The inhabitants were airing out their apartments, so they could finally breathe when evening came.

THE WITCH’S FLIGHT © 2013 by Emil Hakl, translated from Czech by Marek Tomin; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Twisted Spoon Press.


Copyright © 2017 TINGE Magazine. All rights reserved.