On Thursday it rained and Ludmila went to Stará Boleslav to interpret for a group of tourists. Out of her element and dizzy, she couldn’t resist one last look up at the sodden Brandýs Castle. They crossed the Labe on foot from Brandýs to Stará Boleslav near Prague. The Labe had already flooded streets, parks, gardens and playgrounds. Trees stood in the water, gazing at their own reflection. The group passed the mill. Brown waves rushed under the wooden bridge and Ludmila walked above the muddied shore, next to red and white churches and old sienna-painted walls.
Beauty was always distressing to Ludmila. Whether it was a castle, a rainy landscape, or the incessant words she had to interpret, it was impossible to escape beauty, even for those who tried.
They walked up a hill until they reached a forest. It wasn’t flooded but after walking ten miles Ludmila felt sick. Quietly she left the tourists. Two passer byes, one with a white beard, walked her to the Prague train. She was short of breath. Up till now she could always breathe in a forest and Ludmila wondered about being short of breath in a forest. Death didn’t scare her; the thought only brought on an oddly triumphant sadness as if it were a close relation she couldn’t shake off. The branches above Ludmila rustled and Ludmila too rustled; she had never before been ill in a forest. She took the train home and didn’t have to interpret anymore that day.
At night she dreamt it was New Year’s Eve. Waking up she remembered a New Year party at Aunt Mina’s. Several women discussed telling their daughters about sex. That interested her although she didn’t have a daughter, only a small son. Each woman had told her daughter sex was pleasurable with a man a woman loved and was committed to. No wonder women confused sex with love, Ludmila thought. But she said nothing. Fathers most likely didn’t tell sons such nonsense. Who knows what they told them instead, and what did mothers tell sons. That’s how unhappy relationships are handed down from one generation to the next, and lying makes the disaster worse, thought Ludmila. In her dream she spent New Year’s Eve with Martínek. At midnight they went out onto the balcony to watch the snow, firecrackers, and frightened birds.
It was through interpreting that Ludmila met her husband, Osip, whom her mother called Josek. At nineteen, Ludmila was translating for a group of Russian tourists at the Mělník Castle. Josek was among them. He visited the castle several times a day to hear Ludmila interpret its history and cancelled the rest of his trip to stay at Mělník. Soon he knew everything about the castle but felt he knew nothing. It was hard to concentrate on what he heard, so taken was he by Ludmila’s interpreting, a language of love to him. He was spellbound by Mělník, interpreted to him so many times. Outside the castle he saw the small Mount Říp.
Ludmila dressed every day in the same black corduroy jumper, polka-dot blouse, and blue shoes with an inch thick sole. Osip thought first it was an interpreter uniform connected with Mělník and thought Ludmila was connected with Mělník through her corduroy jumper. When he realized it wasn’t an interpreter uniform at all but the uniform of Ludmila’s sickness that consisted of never changing her clothes, he was pleased. He had never met such a girl. Elevated by her shoes she crossed between languages, words and concepts, pointing out statues, paintings and stucco incomprehensibly important to knights, pouring out stories about the Černín family and then about Princess Ludmila, daughter of Duke Slavibor. That confused Osip though he knew it was a coincidence. In time he discovered it confused Ludmila, too, who kept saying in foreign languages that the husband of her famous namesake was baptized by St. Methodius himself. Princess Ludmila was asphyxiated by the Vikings, Tunna and Gomon, though not at the Mělník Castle, admitted Ludmila reluctantly. Sometimes she was afraid she’d meet the same fate, and tried to imagine it, wondering if Tunna and Gomon looked like murderers or like ordinary men, the way saints did.
It took Osip ten days to persuade Ludmila to take off her jumper for several hours and go to bed with him. In a bizarre way, Ludmila fought making love, and this hesitation added to her mystery. That decided the matter. Osip knew mystery was the prerequisite to any intimate relationship; a close relationship without mystery was not possible. After a two-week romance he left. The night before he told Ludmila he had a wife and a two-year old child in Russia, and was returning home to get a divorce. Ludmila cried and begged him not to do it and return to his family. At the same time she told him she didn’t live in Mělník but Záminka and was in Mělník merely as an intern. That was already unimportant. Osip left for Russia and Ludmila kept on interpreting.
One day she received a call from her mother in Záminka. An unknown Russian youth appeared on her doorstep, introduced himself as her daughter’s fiancé, dragged in two oversized suitcases and said he’d wait there for Ludmila’s return. Her mother begged Ludmila to come home; should she live with a stranger? Then she handed the receiver to Josek. Ludmila asked him whether he went mad. Josek told her the divorce was almost completed and he’d wait for her in Záminka. Ludmila went to Záminka, spent another two weeks with Josek and got pregnant. Josek returned to Russia to finalize his divorce. Meanwhile Ludmila miscarried and doctors told her she’d never be able to carry a full term baby. Ludmila immediately phoned Russia to tell Josek not to divorce because now she could never have a baby. Josek said he didn’t care; he wanted no one but her. And that’s how Ludmila fell in love with him, out of gratitude and admiration, and Josek came back to Záminka. They got married, moved to Prague and within a year had Martínek.
Josek had brought with him among other things a habit to keep a Christian calendar at home. It stood on a sunlit bookshelf, next to a little chrome elephant statue. Names of the holy days and sacred places were reminders of time, beautiful and made up. Saints had beautiful names like Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs. There was a picture of them: one, probably the younger, had a black beard; the other a white one. Another page bore the credo of the Church of the Czech Brethren: The sole law of faith and life is in God’s word as testified in the Old and New Testaments.
Ludmila told Josek one of her family members was a Hussite, Mr. Janáček, who converted to Judaism. During the persecution of the Hussites, Janáček sought refuge with a Jewish family and fell in love with their daughter, converted to Judaism and married her. Thus he disappeared from the family for good. Probably he too could not tolerate beauty.
When Ludmila was two, her grandmother died. As she lay in the casket, her father grabbed the two-year old Ludmila and as a joke slipped her in with the grandmother. Then he shut the lid.
By late afternoon they were preparing to leave. Josek knew it was time and gathered things into his bag, even useless scraps of paper from under the elephant on the parapet of daylight. The window was now closed. Ludmila saw Martínek getting ready to go to Marie, Ludmila’s mother. Neither Josek nor Ludmila let Marie know. Her phone wasn’t working and the neighbor who lived too far anyway wasn’t answering either. Marie didn’t live inside the village but a mile past the rundown cottages. Martínek grabbed a large old teddy bear, sat down on the chair in the hallway, and waited. Bear on his lap, he watched his mother gesturing to him to come to her but he didn’t want to leave his guard post by the door. He liked going to Záminka where he and his bear built a castle from an old brick pile by the road. Once a brick fell on his foot and Martínek held the bear between his legs and cried softly so the adults wouldn’t find out. He and his father usually went to Záminka without his mother, which made it more special.
Josek filled his bag, rattling with change and whistling. He was excited. It started to rain again. Pleasant, he thought, how pleasant. Rain reminded him of the sea. “It’s raining,” he said. “That’s pleasant, right?” said Ludmila but Josek didn’t hear her and glanced at the weepy closed window. Hopefully the waters weren’t too high in Záminka. Martínek got up and ran to his mother. Ludmila looked at Josek. “It will be nice. Will you call me when you get there?” she asked. Josek nodded and took Martínek by the hand. Then they left.
Ludmila gazed at the empty apartment filled with the setting sun. The sunbeams, already low, slid their weak shadows to the floor and under the closed door, out into the obscurity of the hallway. On the bookshelf stood the chrome baby elephant Ludmila bought in Prostorov at a store with Tibetan souvenirs. Its small portly back reflected the ticking of the alarm clock standing by a pot with a dried up gerbera.
The silence in Prostorov lingered by the roads, along houses, and lethargic trees under mostly white skies. Ludmila spent there three months without pay, alone in a strange town. She claimed she worked on a database and only washed floors in the evening. The hotel employees gave her leftover bread from breakfast and her colleagues occasionally invited her for a glass of wine. Most nights she spent in her room, thinking about life. Luckily she never arrived at any conclusion so the next night she still had something to think about.
After three months she returned to Prague into the high-rise. The Prostorov jourt soon sent the three months’ pay for her computer work and for cleaning. It was a decent sum of about fifty thousand crowns. Ludmila was touched. The first thing she did was to buy the roller skates she wanted her whole life.
She was glad to return to Prague but the only prospect of work now was interpreting. Ludmila hated interpreting, words and sentences. When she was little and her parents got a divorce, the judge asked her whether she wanted to stay with her mother, father, or go into an orphanage and thought Ludmila said orphanage but it was a misunderstanding; he just didn’t let her finish her sentence. Everyone descended on her and talked and Ludmila was little. She knew she stopped in mid sentence because one of the lawyers interrupted her and said something that had a strange word she liked, ipso facto. That was the first time she heard it. It was velvety and dark and had a nice clapping rhythm to it. But the others couldn’t have known that and Ludmila was little and didn’t know much either, especially about sentences. Ever since, she loathed words and sentences. Words were cursed by beauty, and their power was too great, frightening because it was made up.