In the mid-1970s when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, I’d travel to Czechoslovakia, the country my parents had grown up in, escaped from, and would eventually return to, and during these visits I’d sometimes take the tram to see my great-uncle Pepa and my great-aunt Sonya.
This was still a decade and a half before the unimaginable, pickup-sticks collapse of the Soviet Union, fifteen years before the Velvet Revolution gave back to Czechoslovakia the sovereign right of every nation to foul its nest in its own way. Václav Havel was still a dissident playwright, foreigners had to report to the authorities within forty-eight hours of crossing the border, the stores were more or less empty – except, of course, for those reserved for the elect. You watched what you said, where you said it, who you said it to – if not for your sake, then for the sake of those speaking to you, who in any case would have to fill out a special form reporting that they’d had contact with someone from the west and explaining the reason for it.
Perversely, maybe because I was young, or because the blue passport in my back pocket protected me from most humiliations and risks, I have wonderful memories of that time. It was undeniably exciting, full of intrigue, rich in subtext, innuendo, double-speak. I felt like a secret agent. As a kid from New York, one who spoke Czech, no less, I was a curiosity, which was almost like being popular – a new experience for me. I didn’t mind.
I liked prerevolution Czechoslovakia. I liked the otherness of it, the smells of plaster and coal smoke, the courtyards with their plots of lettuces and kohlrabi, the rabbit hutches stacked under the eve. I loved the electrical smell of the trams, the lonely Moravian forests into which I’d disappear with a book, a hammock and a couple of rohlíky and cheese. I liked figuring things out, jumping on lines whenever they formed on the sidewalk because there was bound to be something desirable – oranges from Croatia, say, or batteries from Poland, or a new translation of The Trial – at the end of them. I fell in love – with a girl, yes, but with a country as well – and three or four times a summer I’d spend an afternoon at my great-aunt and -uncle’s where my aunt would stuff me like a Christmas pig.
Of course they’re gone – they were old even then. And yet, though their house has belonged to someone else for half a lifetime, I still see them there as vividly as if it was 1975 and I’d just stepped outside to use the outhouse. It’s been only a minute or two, and I push open the back door and walk through the dark living room into the tiny kitchen and there they are: my aunt standing with her back to me by the stove, mixing something with her knobbed, arthritic hands, my uncle with his grizzled block of a head sitting at the table, the two of them grown into one another so completely that to think of them at all was to think of one person, not two.
Those were good days. For some reason it always seemed to be raining when I visited them – I remember cold drops on the back of my neck and the smell of wet leaves on the way to the outhouse – and when we sat in the kitchen and talked, the overgrown windows, steamed up from the cooking, would turn into runny Japanese prints – stems and leaves, green bleeding into gray. It was as if our roles had been predetermined for ages. They’d always have already eaten. My aunt, to whom the words ‘I swear I can’t eat another bite’ were like spurs to a racehorse, would stand by the stove and cook, only occasionally adding some detail to something being said. I’d gorge myself and listen. My uncle would sit across from me, his big shoulders hunched up over the tiny kitchen table, and talk.
I’d like to be them someday, for somebody else.
Theirs was a good story, and like all good stories, it didn’t sit easy. Who knows, now, how much of it I heard from them, how much from others? I’m not sure it matters. If some of the names and dates are off, the whole remains true, anchored by things I heard and touched.
It began with my uncle’s medals from the First World War, which he kept in a tin box in a drawer in the living room bureau. They were an impressive bunch, and there were a lot of them, acknowledging, as I recall, my uncle’s bravery, his selflessness, his willingness to pay the ultimate price for the sake of whoever it was, exactly, that had asked for it. Now this one, he’d say, shaking it loose from the tangled mess with his thick fingers, is one of the highest commendations the Russian Army conferred on its soldiers – and he’d toss it aside like an old spoon and reach for another. This one, he’d chuckle, is for courage under fire. When we came to the ones written in Cyrillic, my aunt would come over and translate.
When I asked him if he’d mind telling me about his experiences in the war, he said he didn’t mind at all, though he was worried that, being young and impressionable and from America, I’d take it all too much to heart. He was no hero, he assured me modestly, but a man like any other.
I told him I understood, accepted another slice of my aunt’s walnut cream cake, and he began.
I don’t remember many of the details – how my uncle, at sixteen, was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, where exactly on the Russian front he was sent, which general he fought under. (Given that the Czechs were less than thrilled to be fighting for the Germans against their fellow Slavs confuses the picture still more.) Enough that he was sixteen, a strong, likeable kid fond of girls and gymnastics – the parallel bars were his specialty – and that he was going to war.
It all went ridiculously quickly. Issued boots, a mess kit and a rifle – a single-shot, lever-action affair – he suddenly found himself, after a few days of calisthenics and a long train ride, standing with his comrades on the edge of an enormous untilled field broken by small clumps of trees and told to charge – the enemy was just ahead, they were told, massed behind the trees – which he did.
Everything went perfectly, he said, until the men running next to him began to fall, at which point he woke up. People were dying all around him. The noise was terrible. He wanted no part of this, my uncle said, and so, still clutching his gun, he flung himself theatrically into a thicket and pretended to be dead. He had no idea how long he lay there – a long time. At some point he had to sneeze, he remembered, but smothered it; at another, his left leg just behind the knee began to itch so vindictively that he’d have gladly ripped his skin off with his own nails to get at it. Eventually – he was lying partly on his side, face down – he managed to twitch just enough, spacing out the slight, spastic movements by agonizing minutes, to bring one knee behind the other, and scratch. When everything was quiet he carefully looked around and, finding the field empty except for the dead, started walking south. He was almost 1,200 kilometers from his home in Brno. He’d had enough of soldiering.
He would have made it, too, he said, if it hadn’t been for the goddamn rifle. It was a beauty, and walking down a deserted country road the next morning, he began thinking what a shame it was that he’d never shot it. Not once. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure he knew how to shoot it – they must have assumed everyone knew, and anybody who didn’t had been too ashamed to admit it – but he figured it out, took aim at a sign thirty or forty meters away, and fired.
The gun went off with a satisfying roar, which would have been fine except for the force of Russian soldiers resting in a wrinkle in the landscape a hundred meters away who, admiring the sound, stood up as if out of the earth and promptly took my sixteen-year-old great-uncle prisoner for the crime of stupidity. The first, last and only shot he fired in the Great War, he said, was at a road sign. He missed.
And so the war hero was taken prisoner, though whatever notions I might have in my head about Russian prison camps, I should forget them – this was not that. A two-room village prison, a good bed, blankets, decent food. The commanding officer, a gruff, modestly literate man in his early forties capable of doing his duty while appreciating the absurdity of keeping a sixteen-year-old prisoner – let’s call him Commander Žižkov – took a liking to him: the boy had a good attitude, a strong back . . . If he’d had a son, he wouldn’t have minded if he was like him.
A few months passed. My uncle was picking up some Russian, which is not all that far from Czech; the two would talk. About the war, about the October Revolution, about food. Was he a good student back home in Brno? Hardly, my uncle said. What he really loved was gymnastics.
Really? Žižkov said. What sort of gymnastics?
My uncle didn’t have the words, but he pantomimed the disciplines well enough to be understood: the parallel bars, tumbling – most of all he said, patting his heart then laying his head on his hands like a lovesick girl, he loved the rings, and standing in his cell, he assumed an expression of great effort and stretched his arms straight out from his body like Christ. Žižkov was impressed. The iron cross? You can do this? Christ poked his own chest three times with his finger. Absolutely.
The next afternoon Žižkov came by in the afternoon and unlocked my uncle’s cell. He was to come with him. This war might go on a while, he explained, and meanwhile his daughter, fifteen years old, was crazy for gymnastics. For the foreseeable future, therefore, he had arranged (with whom, he didn’t say) for my great-uncle to be released three times a week after school hours for gymnastics lessons until such time as his daughter’s interests shifted to something else – was that understood?
And so, three times a week through the coming winter and the following spring, my now-seventeen-year-old great great-uncle Pepa walked through the snow to the school at the end of the village where he gave the commander’s daughter, who turned out to be a fine tumbler, gymnastics lessons, then walked back and let himself into his cell. Two months after armistice was declared, they were married. A month after that, my great-aunt Sonya kissed her family goodbye – by now her father may have had some regrets about the gymnastics lessons – and left with him on the train to Warsaw, from there to Vienna, and from Vienna to Brno, which at that time might as well have been one of Jupiter’s sixty-seven moons. She planned to see them again, talked of it for years, but as far as I know, never did.
How my great-uncle Pepa came by the Red Army medals, given that he’d fought against the Russians, I haven’t a clue. Maybe they were a wedding gift of some sort: Here, these may be useful someday. It makes no sense, except that it happened.
And the years grew into decades, filled with the sedimentary business of living – trips to the marketplace or to visit my uncle’s relatives, Sunday mornings in bed or in the garden, evenings in the kitchen, making plans – punctuated now and then by bigger events both happy and not. A son was born to them. Across town, a half-hour’s tram ride away, my great-uncle’s sister (my grandmother, Luba) and her husband, Frantíšek, had a daughter. There were June picnics on the grassy slopes of the Přehrada, Brno’s great, miles-long reservoir, summer vacations to Moravia or the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. In 1932 my great-aunt Kateřina, who’d always been willful, sat down on a bench opposite the apartment of the married man with whom she’d been having an affair and drank a bottle of lye to teach him a lesson, burning out her throat and a good part of her esophagus. A trained nurse getting off the tram from work, seeing a woman thrashing on the sidewalk trying to strangle herself with her own hands, saved her – how I don’t know – thereby unknowingly rescuing her husband’s lover, someone she’d convinced herself she’d imagined. Kateřina, who loved cats as much as she despised my maternal grandfather – who banned her from his house for life – would live to scare little children with her throaty croak another thirty years.
And so it went. By all accounts Pepa and Sonya’s marriage was a good one – better than good – though not unmarked by the usual strains and misunderstandings. The great unsolvable thing, apparently, was Sonya’s homesickness, which would come over her with a flu-like violence – often brought on by nothing more than a scent – linger, then leave. There was nothing her husband could do at these times but comfort her, and, in fact, she never asked him for anything more, the two of them having recognized these attacks of nostalgia as something to be lived with, like occasional heart palpitations, or headaches. Sonya would cry; sometimes, alone in the house, or out in the garden, she’d whisper to herself in Russian, a language whose accents still softened her imperfect Czech fifty years later – and then she’d stop.
Who can really tell what life was like for them – what measure of happiness was theirs, what needs in each other they met or failed, what compromises they made with whatever dreams they might have had. When I think of them now I see them as figures in a child’s diorama, the city of Brno laid out with cardboard buildings and benches and miniature trolleys, except that this diorama – unlike the exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I’d spend hours peering into the fist-sized rooms, trying to read the titles of the books next to the woman knitting behind the fingernail-sized leaded window – this diorama is complete down to the silver-powder smear of a moth crushed against the curtains and, more importantly, set to time. All history is here, and when the precise moment comes, the machinery whirs, the gears mesh, and a character sitting frozen in his chair takes a sip from his cup.
It’s 1925, a February thaw, the powdered-sugar snow pulling back against the walls and fences. My grandmother, Luba, is lying in bed, trying to shush her day-old daughter, who they’ve named Olga, who looks like something boiled. To my grandmother, who was told she couldn’t bear children and who will never have another, she’s a miracle. You’ll be everything I’m not, she whispers. And she begins to hum, as if on cue, a tune she hasn’t thought of in years. My grandfather knocks, then enters. Isn’t she beautiful? my grandmother says. Neatly dressed in a white shirt and vest, clean-shaven, his bottle-brush hair still black, my thirty-one-year-old grandfather stands by the bed, one hand in his pocket, looking down at his daughter. I think she’s sleeping, my grandmother says, and he nods, almost imperceptibly, agreeing with something else, then reaches out and touches the three middle fingers of his left hand to the baby’s head as if taking her temperature.
One by one the rooms fire like carousels, characters stir and rise and walk. Pepa’s father, the patriarch with the white handlebar mustache, furious over the obstinacy of one of his cherry trees, climbs off the ladder at the age of ninety-four and, seating himself on the offending branch, calmly saws himself off. A woman is rolling on the sidewalk, clutching her throat. My mother, a seven-year-old little girl with a quick smile and a tender heart, sees a dog’s hindquarters cut off by a train in Slovakia. Meanwhile, over here, overlooked by everyone, the janitor of 46 Zahradníková Street and his wife have had a son of their own, and my father begins the twenty-one-year dance that will bring him into my mother’s life, and mine.
And so my aunt and uncle, sitting in that kitchen with the rain heavy on the windows, telling their tales. I can see my uncle’s huge, knobbed hands, feel the dusty softness of my aunt’s cheek against my lips. I can smell the koprová – cream sauce with dill, my favorite – warming on the stove. When I think of that kitchen, I see the display at the Museum of Natural History showing chipmunks sleeping in a stomach-shaped cell two-feet under the snow-covered ground, and I realize that those hours – the sound of their voices, our bodies brushing by each other in that cramped space, even the smell of the dill sauce – were so precious because they were nested inside a barely held-off poverty, warmed by the crumbling plaster in the corner by the stove, by my uncle’s cracked heels showing above his thinned-out slippers, by the metal edge of the kitchen table pulling away from the cheap linoleum top.
Memories sit well as long as they’re of a piece, organic, rising like an inverted genealogy, trunk to branch to leaf. It’s only when a harder story intrudes – when somebody comes along and pounds a nail into your narrative, so to speak – that the work of reconciling begins. It’s not easy. You have to grow around the offending bit, absorb it into your story.
Sometimes it’s easier to deny the part that doesn’t fit. Always, actually. Which is called lying to yourself (and others) for the sake of consistency.
For most of my life, whenever I thought of my uncle Pepa and my aunt Sonya – when I recalled the way they’d move around each other in that small kitchen, reaching out to touch a shoulder or a hip as unconsciously as a blind person navigates a familiar room; or the way their minds, like children racing down a forest path, would diverge and come together, one moving ahead, then the other taking over; or even the way an occasional look, even at their age, suggested an intimacy I could barely understand – I saw them as very nearly the perfect couple. There, right in front of my eyes – un-sanctimonious, un-irritating – was the thing that everyone wanted: a genuine, passionate, enduring marriage, grounded in mutual respect and, might as well say it, love.
This is what I thought. I still do.
The wider frame. Much wider: Berchtesgaden, Bad Godesberg, Berlin. All those B’s. Neville Chamberlain steps from his limousine. President Beneš of Czechoslovakia, shouted down by Hitler, rushes from the room, visibly trembling, shaken by this breach of all civility, all decency, all previous protocol.
The year is 1938. Arguments are made. Tea is sipped. Various men stab their fingers at the polished table. ‘Sie mussen . . . Wir werden.’ In Bad Godesberg, Chamberlain smoothes his hair with his right hand and says ‘I take your point, Herr Ribbentrop. And yet, if I may . . . we feel that . . . in the matter of . . . Can I take that as your final position?’ And it comes to pass. On 15 March, 1939, in an official radio message in some ways as unbelievable to those listening to it as the formal announcement of their own deaths, Czechoslovakia ceases to exist. The message is delivered in the declarative, staccato tones of an authority accustomed to ruling by decree, to establishing fact by fiat: Bohemia and Moravia are henceforth the Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren, under the control of the Reichsprotektor; Slovakia is an ‘independent’ state under the German-backed Catholic clergyman Jozef Tizo. There’s no ambiguity: adjust or die.
Three days later, on 18 March, my father, not yet sixteen years old, stands by the window waiting for Hitler’s motorcade to pass through Brno. Peeking between the heavy blue curtains is like looking into an aquarium. A deep, unnatural silence fills the city; all public transportation had been stopped, all automobile traffic forbidden. People linger in the hallways of their apartment buildings, saying little. Military loudspeakers echo outside, announcing that all windows onto the street are to remain closed until 2 p.m. By nine-thirty, the city of Brno is deserted.
The motorcade passes quickly, headed north – fifteen or twenty black limousines surrounded by twice as many motorcycles, tight as a swarm. Hitler’s personal limousine, an open car, perhaps fifth in line, is slightly apart from the others. Hitler himself, when my father sees him, is just sitting down, his features from that second-floor window – except for a quick glimpse of jaw and mustache – almost completely obscured by the visor of his military cap.
And just like that, the moment’s gone, leaving behind a new order, a new reality. It will remain in place for six years. Some will be permitted to endure it. Many will not. My aunt and uncle will be among the lucky ones; they’ll work their garden, keep low, survive. And through it all, since our private worlds don’t shut down in the face of public events, my aunt will continue to quietly miss her country, her language, whispering to herself in her mother tongue even as the news of Russian victories begins to filter through, even as the unbreakable granite block of the Reich – pounded by the Allies in the West, worn down by an unanswerable river of bodies in the east – begins to crack: first nothing, then a hairline split like a mineral seam, then a sudden tree, leaping into bloom. It will give.
I understand my aunt in those years. I do. I understand the voluptuousness of nostalgia, that need to pull out the past like a letter that still carries the scent – or so you imagine – of someone you loved. I understand that infidelity to the present moment, not only because my mother, inheriting the gene, raised the art of regret to a masochistic pitch I’ve never seen equaled, but because I tend that way myself. I don’t take kindly to loss.
When I was fourteen my mother and father told me that we’d given up our cabin on Lost Lake, a place I carried inside me like blood. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have a vote. But I didn’t accept it, either. For weeks, instead of reconciling myself, building new loves, I’d spend the afternoon hours in a plastic folding chair in our stifling yard in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, remembering, recreating – I want to say reconstituting, as though I were adding water to things that would fatten and wave in the thick summer air – every inch of that lost shoreline, every fallen tree, every stone, smelling the sweet rotting smell of the coves, watching the white water shadows crawling up the trunks of the oaks, hearing the thin scrape of a painted turtle pulling itself up on a log until, now and then, for a second only, by some miracle of memory as painful as it was exhilarating, I was there. No, I can understand my aunt Sonya very well indeed.
It’s what happened next that I have a little trouble with.
The war ended, quietly, unambiguously, like the fine breath of rot raised by a thaw, exactly on 26 April, 1945. It wasn’t much, my father said: no Soviet tanks bucking across the soaking fields, just one man on horseback, a Cossack, at dawn, watching himself passing in the dark windows, riding slowly up Zeyrová Street to the foot of the vineyards, then slowly back.
After him came others, two, three at a time. This was the liberation: no regiments, no heavy artillery. German snipers still held the hills outside Brno. At night they would aim at the Soviet soldiers silhouetted against the fires of boards and bench slats blazing in the road until some of the men, my father’s father among them, couldn’t stand it anymore and went out and said for the love of god stay to the side, why die for no reason? And apparently – so the story goes – one of them looked up from where he squatted by the flames, then out into the vague darkness, then back to the fire. Da nicego. Nas mnogo, he said. It’s nothing – there are many of us. My grandfather had already crossed the street when the man spoke again, not looking up from the fire.‘Hide your women, old man. We’re not the last.’
The havět, the vermin (General Malinowski’s troops), came later. Špína, my father called them, dirt, the after-scum of the general army: illiterate, ragged, undisciplined, many of them two and three years on the front. They moved through from the southeast, a bestial tide, monstrously unpredictable, unafraid to die. Some, like stunned children, were capable of small, absurd gestures of generosity. Some gobbled toothpaste, squeezing it on their bread like pâté. My grandfather, hearing the sound of breaking glass and the crash of piano keys, came downstairs to find one, pants pulled down around his ankles, crapping in the baby grand. When he was done, he left. Some raped a ten-year-old girl. She died. My nineteen-year-old mother, buried in the coal pile in the cellar by her father, survived.
Aunt Sonya didn’t see any of this because she was gone. Not dead, not kidnapped – gone. Swept up. Overcome.
I don’t know how it happened – where the soldiers met her, what she said, whether she was working in the gardens or waiting for a tram. I’ll never know what things, exactly, in what proportion, drove her, how much of it was seeing her years of nostalgia suddenly made flesh, how much of it was the sound of those tongue-softened consonant phonemes, how much some deep dissatisfaction with my uncle and how much the straight-shot erotic rush (sorry, aunt) of being desired by hard men possessed of a certain ruthless charm. I’ll never know. What I do know is that at that time and place, at the end of that particular war, my aunt Sonya’s answer to the question, Would you forsake your house and home? – was, ‘Yes, I would. I will. I have.’
This I also know: that when my great-uncle Pepa returned home that rainy afternoon in the spring of 1945 to find his wife missing, a neighbor braver than most told him everything: that they’d been Russian soldiers, that he didn’t know the division or regiment they belonged to, that they’d headed north, that Sonya hadn’t appeared unwilling. That she hadn’t reacted when he and his wife had shouted out to her. And my uncle nodded, packed a bag, and, unarmed, left to find his wife.
I heard it took him nine days. I have no reason to doubt it. The miracle is that he found her at all in the chaos of the liberation. It couldn’t have been easy. He spoke some Russian, and that helped, but it must have been hard inquiring after his wife like a missing bicycle that had decided to roll off on its own, explaining to commanders who, after all, had bigger things on their minds, like a war just passed, that no, his wife hadn’t been kidnapped, that no, he had no idea, really, why she’d left though she’d missed her home, that no, he’d never been unkind to her, or inattentive (ignoring the smiles, the occasional smirks), that, yes, in spite of everything, no matter what she’d done, if she wanted to return, he’d have her back. It must have been hard following lead after lead, sleeping in haylofts like a tramp, walking down roads still alive with troop movements (an urban man, he had no car), accepting rides once or twice in military vehicles and once on the back of a sympathetic (or pitying) soldier’s horse. It couldn’t have been easy – none of it. I don’t believe he cared.
In my mind I see a small encampment by a rain-swollen river but really, I have no clue where it was, or what time of day, whether a fine misty spring rain was falling and whether or not he found her in someone’s camp bed or just stirring the soup – all I know is that he found her and told her it was time to come home if she wanted to come home, and that she said she did and that the soldiers didn’t shoot either of them but let her go and she came away with him as easily as she’d left him. And they started off on the long walk home to Brno.
Every marriage is forged differently; some crack at a touch, others endure beyond belief, still others are tempered by events and time. My guess is that my great-aunt’s and -uncle’s marriage was made on that walk back home, that lying next to each other in the hay-smelling dark somewhere along the way, they were able to dig into that soil of omissions and misunderstandings and regrets out of which this thing had grown, and make things right.
How else can I reconcile my aunt’s adventure with the marriage that followed it – how else incorporate that nail into the narrative? – except to see those days as not only something they survived, but as the very thing that allowed them to endure – that made them who they were? No, of this I’m sure: over those two weeks some imbalance had been violently corrected and, like a broken bone set true, they’d healed stronger. Not because my uncle turned his face like Christ and forgave her – because that kind of self-abnegation, or is it condescension? would only engender pity, or disgust – but because he recognized in the events that had overtaken them a purging and forgivable necessity, the kind of storm that could clear the air for a lifetime or more.
‘Labyrinth of the Heart’ is an excerpt from Mark Slouka’s Nobody’s Son, published by W.W. Norton in October 2016. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Slouka. All rights reserved.
Photograph © Ian D. Keating