The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 3


by Ivan Klíma


The road wound upward with hairpin bends.
      The girl sat pressed to his shoulder. Smaller and more finely built, she was almost hidden by him.
      He drove with one hand, his other arm round the girl. Over the past year he had become used to driving in that mildly uncomfortable one-handed fashion, and the two of them had traveled like that across half of Europe, the German autobahns, the oddly deserted road between Chalons and Meaux lined with maple trees that seemed to have been gnawed by the wind (maybe they weren't even maples, it had been a misty night), and the wild mountain range of Olympus between Kozani and Tyrnavos, and amazingly, the whole time, even after endless hours of driving, he had always been aware of her, the touch of her hand or the trembling of her body, and would kiss her sometimes as they drove along—they would kiss while tearing along countless instantly forgotten roads and make love in that car on deserted country tracks at night, or in the middle of the day, when the sun beat down on her pale, not particularly beautiful face, while a Greek shepherd slowly passed on a lazy donkey. And now again they were approaching one of their destinations that was not really a destination, the roofs of a little town peeking out from behind the tops of colored trees, looking almost like a stage backdrop in the light of the setting sun.
      "So, you've gone and got married on me," he said, and it didn't sound like a rebuke, more like a recollection of her state, simply a sentence intended to break the silence for a moment.
      "I've gone and got married on you," she repeated. "But I'm on my honeymoon with you," and she opened wide her fishlike eyes as she always did when she declared something that was beyond doubt. "This is my honeymoon, because I've just got married, and yours because you're with me!"
      "Yes," he conceded, slightly amazed.
      "I couldn't have married you, could I?" she said, nudging him with her shoulder. "Or could I?"
      "I don't think so," he admitted.
      "With you I can just go on a honeymoon."
      "We've been on lots of honeymoons," he said.
      "You think we've already been on lots of honeymoons, then?" she asked.
      "It doesn't matter though," he added quickly. "This is the first time you've actually been married. This time it's a real honeymoon," he said, playing along, and then braked, turning the wheel with his free hand, and drove past a baroque fountain before pulling up in front of a house that might once have been Gothic.
      "It's not a particularly luxurious building for a wedding night," he observed. Overshadowing the square was a tall hill topped by a crumbling castle.
      "It's not a particularly luxurious building," she said as they walked through the gateway and she looked up at the whitewashed stone vaulting.
      In the barroom stood an enormous Italian jukebox—the only noticeable thing there apart from the brightly painted Gothic ceiling. Sixteen paper roses bloomed in sixteen identical vases on sixteen tables laid for dinner. Only the table adjacent to the bar broke the pattern—long and brown, without a tablecloth. Around it were seated four men and a woman. The men, one of whom was in uniform, were drinking beer.
      "Are you hungry?" he asked. He knew he was going to eat and drink slowly, for as long as possible, to delay to the utmost the moment she was also waiting for.
      She looked around the room as if trying to choose which of the identical tables suited her best. Then she said, "Shouldn't we have a wedding feast if we're on our honeymoon?"
      "Why not?" he said, still playing along. "But didn't you have a wedding feast last week?"
      "No, why should I have had a wedding feast last week?" she asked in surprise.
      "I thought you did," he said, puzzled. "After all, you did get married last week."
      "It didn't occur to me at the time," she said. "But there's no suitable table here."
      "They're all equally suitable," he countered. "We could ask them to bring a different tablecloth and different flowers, if they have them."
      "Yes," she said, "but where will the guests be put?"
      "There have to be guests at a wedding feast," she said. "Or don't you want to have the wedding feast here?"
      "But we don't know anyone here," he pointed out feebly.
      "They don't have to be people we know. The people at the table, for instance. Maybe they'd act as guests if we invited them."
      "Okay. How many guests do you want to have at your wedding feast?"
      "Five," she answered without hesitation, as if she had made up her mind long ago. "You're not cross, are you?"
      "No, why would I be cross?"
      "I bet you had a wedding feast, too," she said. "Didn't you?"
      "I don't remember anymore."
      "You don't remember?"
      "It was sixteen years ago," he calculated. "I was younger than you are now."
      He called the waiter and tried to explain to him what he wanted while looking at the big table. Three of the men were ordinary country bumpkins. Their tanned, unshaven faces, now ruddy from drink, were the sort he was never able to recall even minutes after seeing them, even though he did not have a particularly bad memory for faces. The soldier was dark-haired and thin almost to the point of gauntness, with pale cheeks. There were bluish bags under his watery eyes. He was almost too reminiscent of all her lovers, to judge from her stories and the crumpled photos she always carried around in her handbag.
      Sitting alongside the soldier was a girl whose hair had recently been permed by the local hairdresser. She looked like a sheep that had been given eye makeup and artificial lashes.
      He watched the waiter lean over the long table. Then, as if on command, the five heads turned as one toward their table. The strangers' gaze immediately settled on her face and remained there.
      He felt her touch his hand.
      "Darling," she said, "I love you for having come on this honeymoon with me. For the wedding feast we're going to have. And for inviting them all. Look, they're coming over. Don't they look funny!"
      The five of them rose from the big table and the soldier fastened his belt with a click. They approached rather hesitantly, wearing the requisite festive grins of guests coming to join the wedding party at the table. He noticed that one of the old gaffers had a bluish lump under his right ear (he would forget his face but he would never forget his ear) and the girl had a fine golden chain around her bare neck.


The stale greasiness of the cutlet and the taste of bad wine rose in his throat. That long car journey and now this endless evening in a room that screamed of boredom. He felt totally exhausted.
      The three locals—the witnesses to their fake wedding—were endeavoring to pay for the cutlet and the wine with their lives, or at least their lives offered in words. The one with the lump under his ear had spent eight years in various prisons, and the other two complemented his account as if they had gone through it all with him themselves.
      He tried not to listen to them. He knew the story; it was always the same, with slight variations. They were the very things he had hoped to avoid for the evening, at least: prisons, watchtowers, floodlights, passageways through barbed wire. To escape from escaping.
      Whenever he was with her he managed to detach himself—in retrospect at least—from his entire life and everything he had gone through, and just sink into total amnesia, not thinking about his family or his job. He would enter a different order of cause and effect, actions and words. Maybe the overwhelming completeness of his love lay in this absolute detachment from everything he had ever lived by.
      She was now dancing with the soldier to the scratchy music the Italian jukebox churned out three whole minutes of for one coin. Without looking, he knew the way she was dancing. And it had gone on too long.
      He realized that her dancing had only one purpose, the same purpose as all her other actions. She made love with each of her movements. She made love when she was dancing, when she was eating, and when she was walking along the pavement by herself. All her movements were the same. But maybe he was mistaken; maybe it was he who was obsessed.
      "Eight years of my life," the man with the lump said. "I'll never make up for it at my age." Glancing at the man, it occurred to him that they could be the same age, but the other man seemed totally immersed in his past. Those eight years had been too great a void not to exert a pull, too much of a gulf. Besides, the day comes for everyone when all that remains is his past, however awful; it alone is real and alive because the future is no longer alive, and without a glimmer of hope. He still had some hope—at that moment his hope was dancing just a few steps away—and he could still imagine tomorrow without a groan of despair. But for how much longer?
      For a split second he saw himself. He saw himself sitting here with weary eyes, weighed down by his whole long life, waiting. He still had something to wait for, which was why he was sitting here impatiently, waiting for the girl to finish dancing and come and sit by him.
      That was where he differed from the three men sitting at his table: his life had still managed to rouse itself to a final shout before the silence that was already stealing up on him every night. It had given out a final ray before nightfall. He was in love, which was why he was sitting here playing a game, mocking himself and his love, why he was playing her game, although for her it was only a game, all that love, the long aimless journeys, those constant protestations that had the strange attraction of words spoken at the edge of the abyss. For her it was a way of filling the time between morning and evening, between dinner and bed, between the last cigarette and sex.
      Anyone could fill that time for her, he knew. For her he was replaceable, utterly replaceable.
      He looked at her. She noticed and smiled.
      He could see that smile even when he closed his eyes, and her mouth with the broad, slightly protruding upper lip.
      He hated her at this moment and longed to push her away from him, get rid of her, rid himself at last of that hope that was no hope, in fact, but instead was wearing him out, constantly prolonging the anxiety before the inevitable fall. Rid himself of it and sink into peace at last, reject her, reject life and the future now. But he knew he wouldn't do it.
      Love me, he thought to himself wearily, love me still today, at least.
      He noticed that the girl who could belong to the soldier was sitting bolt upright at the table, watching the solitary dancing couple. She was not really ugly, but that criminal of a hairdresser had ruined her hair and her face was devoid of any hint of self-assurance. Right now her eyes were full of tears.
      He rose, called the waiter over, and settled the bill.
      The rustics stood up and wished them both the best of luck. The soldier stood facing her when they stopped dancing, just a few paces nearer the table, and gazed at her with the fixed expression of a man who has just one thing on his mind.
      "Darling," she said as they went upstairs, "that was lovely. We had a feast."
      "I'm glad you were satisfied," he said.
      "What shall we do now?"
      "We're on our honeymoon, aren't we?" he reminded her.
      The beds were old-fashioned and the washbasin boasted two taps, although both of them ran cold.
      She stood in front of the mirror removing her hair grips. Her long hair fell a third of the way down her back. He pictured her back naked, as he would soon see it. And with a sudden feeling of relief that the playacting and the senseless hours of waiting were coming to an end, he went and put his arms around her. "My beautiful girl," he said. "My little fish."
      She lit a cigarette. "Do you think that soldier is sleeping with the girl?"
      "I couldn't say," he said brusquely. "Soldiers generally sleep with any girl who happens to be willing."
      "So you think soldiers sleep with any girl," she repeated.
      "But she was on formal terms with him," he recalled. "I expect they met for the first time down there in the pub."
      She was drawing the curtains. "He told me he works in films. In 'Civvy Street.' As a lighting technician."
      "They all work in films," he said.
      "So you think everyone works in films these days?" Only now did she look around the room. "It's awfully cold in this room, don't you think?"
      "It's a perfectly adequate room for our purposes."
      "What purposes?" she asked.
      He didn't reply. He was used to not listening to her, not paying attention to her when he didn't feel like it. He just felt the distance between them.
      "Are you cross, darling?" she asked.
      "No," he assured her.
      "What shall we do now?" she asked.
      "I don't know," he said. "I really don't know. I'd say it's too late for the cinema, assuming they've got a cinema here."
      "We ought to do something special," she suggested. "Seeing we're on our honeymoon." She sat down on the bed. "Tell me something. Tell me something special at least."
      "Once"—this was how he used to start stories to his children—"when I was your age—"
      "No," she said, interrupting him, "that's not what I meant. Do you love me?"
      "Yes," he replied quickly. "You know I love you more than I've ever loved anyone."
      She said nothing. She leaned back on her pillow and half closed her eyes.
      "You're my only and my last love."
      He kissed her. "Sister of my dreams," he said. "Sometimes I used to wake up in the middle of the night and be afraid I'd never meet you."
      "Did you know me already?"
      "No, I didn't. I wished for you. I wished for you whenever I walked down the street, whenever I got into my car, whenever I drove through a landscape I found special, nostalgic, or even beautiful. And then every time I went into a hotel reception and opened the door of an empty room, every time I caught sight of a couple kissing. And I wished for you most of all when I was coming home in the summer late at night—"
      "Hold on," she stopped him, "that's what you always tell me."
      "I've never told you that before!"
      "I know, I know. But things like that."
      He said nothing.
      "Are you cross?" she asked. "I love it," she said quickly. "I love it when you say things like that to me . . . it's just that today, seeing as we're on our honeymoon . . ."
      He said nothing.
      "Darling," she said, "don't let's stay here. This is the sort of room we're always in. All we can do in it is what we always do."
      "For heaven's sake, we're planning to do what we always do, aren't we?"
      "Yes . . . but today . . . today we ought to . . ." She went over to the window and drew back the curtain. Against the dark sky loomed the even darker outline of the ruined castle.


They could now see the hill and its castle from the other side. The dilapidated battlements were bathed in moonlight and looked majestic and threatening in the night.
      He stopped the car and switched off the lights. "Where to now?" he asked.
      The night was chilly and the autumnal grass, leaves, and mist gave off a scent that was almost nostalgic. It would have been quite pleasant to walk with her along this footpath through the meadow if he had felt like walking.
      "The light here is weird," she remarked. They were walking along some path that was really no more than trampled grass, his arm round her shoulders. He longed for her and hated her for it.
      "Do you remember that night when we were traveling in France?" she asked.
      "It was raining," he said. "And the path was almost impossible to walk along."
      "Yes. The rain drummed on the roof of the car." She shivered with cold. Then she started telling a story out of the blue. "When I was about four years old I used to pretend I had a dog. I took him on walks with a lead, as if he really existed. I would wait while he peed against a tree and I'd always put something from my dinner plate into a bowl for him. I used to make up a bed for him out of a cushion beside my own bed and pretend he was lying there. And every night before I went to sleep I would talk to him. I never gave him a name, I just used to call him 'my dog.'" She sighed. "I don't think I ever loved anyone as much as that dog."
      They had reached a wooden hut in the middle of the meadow. From within it came the scent of hay.
      "Come on, darling," she said, "let's make love now."
      He helped her climb up.
      The space inside was half filled with hay and the air was stiflingly thick with hay dust.
      "Darling," she whispered, "do you like it here?"
      "I don't care where I am when I'm with you," he said.
      "Yes, I know," she said, quickly undressing, "but it couldn't have been in a bedroom today. You're not cross with me because of it, are you?" She pressed herself to him. He put his arms around her. With every movement they sunk deeper into the soft stuff beneath them and the stalks tickled and pricked their naked bodies.
      "Darling," she whispered.
      From outside came the sound of footsteps. He raised himself and made out a familiar shape.
      "So this is the place, then?" the soldier asked after they had climbed up.
      "If you like it here," the girl whispered. Her face and even her hairstyle were now hidden in the darkness. The soldier had laid his belt aside ceremoniously the moment he arrived, as if loath to make any unnecessary movements.
      "You're so handsome," the girl whispered.
      He seemed to be kissing her. All they could hear were short breaths, drunken wheezing, the sound of groping hands, the crackle of the straw, and the girl's moaning whisper, "Don't worry about me, don't worry about me, just so long as you're satisfied."
      A few minutes later, as silence suddenly fell, the soldier stood up and tried to read the time from his watch by the light of the moon.
      "Do you want to go already?" the girl whispered.
      "It's almost midnight," the soldier said ruefully. "Why didn't you tell me earlier about this hayloft?" He spat. Maybe it was only to spit straw from his mouth. He snapped his belt on again and the two of them climbed down into the darkness almost without a sound.
      "Darling," she whispered when they were alone once more, "do you love me?"
      He tried to make out her face in the dark, but it was so indistinct it could have been any face. Moreover, the scent of her body was smothered by the irritating stench of hay.
      "No," he said. And he thought to himself, I hate you. Because you make a game out of what for me is love and because you are my only and final future while for you I am simply a moment that's already passing.
      "No," she repeated after him. "He doesn't love me."
      He remained silent. If only he were fifteen years younger.
      "He simply doesn't love me anymore," she said. "Why?"
      "Because you're . . ." But he didn't continue.
      "Because I'm a whore?" she asked.
      He said nothing.
      "So you went off on a honeymoon with a whore?" She cuddled up to him. "My love." She kissed him. He held her in his arms.
      "At last, at last," she whispered. "At last."
      "I love you," he said. "I love you madly and I'd give everything, absolutely everything for this moment with you."
      "I know," she whispered. "I know. Dog," she then said quietly. "My dog!"