:: FALL 2021 TRAVEL WRITING PRIZE WINNER ::
Bad actresses, perfect ponytails, young pioneers, special grooves, comrade teachers, quickly performed punishments, monotonous news, strange-tasting meat, the bee and the beekeeper & the limits of disgust.
Bad actresses, perfect ponytails, young pioneers, special grooves, comrade teachers, quickly performed punishments, monotonous news, strange-tasting meat, the bee and the beekeeper & the limits of disgust.
“In the formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe, the building technique [of mass housing] is taken as the most prominent aspect, and the term ‘concrete slab’ is applied to the whole building—panel’niy dom (panel house—Russian), panelák (panel building—Czech), wielka plyta (big slab—Polish), or Platte (slab—German) are the respective terms used by both scholars and the general public.”—Florian Urban, Tower and Slab: Histories of Global Mass Housing
“One of the most important and best examples of the transformational connotations of everyday landscape are the most typical socialist form of mass housing—blocks of flats or paneláks. Today they remain home to a mix of social classes, with the middle class prevailing.…The attitude of panelák inhabitants to their buildings vary; some ‘people get used to living in paneláks.’…Although blocks of flats apartments were considered highly desirable during the communist era, since 1989 a combination of decreasing population, renovation of older buildings, and construction of modern standard alternative housing has led to high vacancies rates, especially in East Germany, or concentration of low income minorities, like Vietnamese in East Berlin or Gipsies [sic] in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.”—Mariusz Czepczynsk, Cultural Landscapes of Post-Socialist Cities: Representation of Powers and Needs
It was past our bedtime. Robin and I lay very quietly in our beds for about five minutes. Our beds stood six feet apart in a room with a desk, a square wardrobe, and a couple of cabinets, also square and with very sharp edges. Despite the sparse furnishings, it was hard to move around, not because the cubes of functional furniture trendy in the 1950s were huge, but because the room was really tiny. It was a perfect size for us.
After about four and a half minutes, we could not wait any longer.
“Are you sleeping?”
“What shall we play?”
“How about the bee and the beekeeper?”
“No, let’s play the wounded soldier.”
“Let’s look out the window to see who’s awake.”
A large window was conveniently situated right above our heads. We both knelt on our beds and looked out. From our window, we could see a row of panelák buildings, four-story cubes identical to ours, where some of our friends lived. We knew that many more blocky structures stretched into the distance, some perfect cubes, some low rectangles, such as our school, and even several high-rises, ten stories high. These were a pretty blue, and I preferred them to our dirty white cubes, but the kids who lived there were our enemies. We watched the empty playground, a square of poured concrete now glistening in the rain, and we saw small circles of light dancing on the asphalt. I ran my finger across a special groove etched in the windowsill whose purpose my parents couldn’t figure out, but Robin and I knew precisely what it was for. A marble fit exactly into the groove, and sometimes we would send a marble back and forth to each other. Tonight—as every night—we wanted to play longer, so we abandoned the idea of rolling a marble. It made a pretty, hard sound that always attracted one of our parents, who’d eventually come to our room and say “Stop that racket!” or “Go to sleep!”
We put our faces into the pillows while he proceeded to deliver the punishment, but not to muffle our cries—we were both laughing. Naturally we did not want to spoil it for our father.
Our parents had a similar reaction to our game of the bee and beekeeper and also to the game of the wounded soldier. While these games were a lot of fun, they required a fair amount of action: transporting the perfectly limp body of the soldier from one bed to the next, pouring water all over the soldier’s face because he or she was wounded and unable to drink properly, or the flying and jumping of the body of the giant bee as it got really angry at the beekeeper who had probed the hive (a person covered by a blanket) with a stick. It was hard to perform these actions, which were necessary for each game, noiselessly. No matter how hard we tried to soften the buzz of the angry bee or stifle the moans of the soldier, a cascade of sounds would inevitably pour forth, gaining in volume.
I am not sure why my parents were bothered so much; they were watching TV in the living room/bedroom that was separated from our room by a paper-thin wall. I suppose the stomping, yelping, knocking, laughing and very loud whispering must have been even louder, even more engaging or annoying, than the dramatic TV show called The Woman Behind the Counter that they watched. The show, while set in an entirely working-class, peace-loving society, and admired by the teacher at school, felt a little too gray and serious to me when I saw half an episode once on a Friday night. The main character cried a lot, but I did not understand why. Nobody died, so why was there a close-up of a giant tear? My parents were not helpful. They said things like, “Why is this half-witted cashier woman so evil and pretentious? In real life the actress is a spy; she has reported her colleagues and they lost their jobs.”
To me she seemed ugly and like a bad actress. She could not even cry properly, had too many unlikely romances and talked a lot for a cashier woman. In real life, cashier women would just glare at you.
Did my father stumble? Did I hear him curse? Laugh? Nothing. I did not hear anything.
Sometimes my brother and I would see a shadowy silhouette of a head with giant curls, a wooden spoon in the air and an arched back through the milk-colored pane in the door to our room. Usually it made us laugh, but not too loud, because we knew that after this initial warning from our mom—we were supposed to see her figure and understand—a much larger shape would appear in the door frame, the door would open and a blinding light would suddenly illuminate our undercover activities.
The games were obscure to our parents, apparently, because they always had the same question: “What is going on?” Obviously, no one answered. Then our father would quickly perform the punishment, which consisted of one for me and five for my brother. The numbers represented slaps on our bottoms with his heavy hand, but it really never hurt too much. We put our faces into the pillows while he proceeded to deliver the punishment, but not to muffle our cries—we were both laughing. Naturally we did not want to spoil it for our father.
For a while, we quietly watched the cube of a panelák that faced our window. It was as if we were looking in the mirror, imagining another brother and sister watching our panelák regularly, after bedtime, just like we watched theirs. The Sleepers’ window was dark, the Three Kids’ window illuminated three head shapes on a fancy sofa, the TV Addicts’ window gave a sickly bluish stream of light, the dark window was dark, the shiny window reflected a streetlamp—everything as usual. We were beginning to get tired of inventing new names for something that always stayed the same. If only the dark window had a bit of light sometimes, but no. Disappointed, we turned away from the view.
“Who’s waking us up tomorrow, do you know?”
“I think it’s Dad.”
“Why good? He is always so harsh and loud. I wish it was Mom!”
I jumped out of bed, trailing the handkerchief rope behind me before it fell off my foot like an autumn leaf from a tree.
This was true. When our mother woke us, which was almost every day, she would gently open the door and we would hear quiet music from the kitchen interrupted by the monotonous sound of a human voice reading the monotonous news: “Comrade Gustáv Husák, president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union today, on 9 January 1983. The collective farmers of the village Blížkovice assured the delegation of our leading politicians that they would fulfill or go over the five-year-plan quota despite the severe frosts that unexpectedly started last week. Young pioneers welcomed the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, comrade Lubomír Štrougal, at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in the town of Prachatice in Bohemia.” Blissfully, we pulled our blankets tightly around us and continued to dream.
But when our father’s night shift came up every couple of weeks, he would wake us up upon returning home from work in the morning. He would burst into our room, turn the light on and yell at the top of his lungs: “It’s morning! Get up!” It did not help to cover our heads with blankets. He jumped to the window and opened the curtains with an impossibly sharp, screechy noise, always yanking off a few of the pins that were attached to metal loops hanging on the curtain rod. If we were still covered by the time he was done putting the pins back on the loops, he pulled the blankets from our warm, cozy bodies and carried them with him into the kitchen. This was really the last straw, and we hated our father fervently.
“So, it’s Dad.”
Robin started whispering loudly and I became totally engrossed in his ingenious plan. We worked for most of the night. Each of us emptied our drawers full of perfectly ironed handkerchiefs, unfolded them and tied them together to make a handkerchief rope. Once the rope was long enough, we tied each end of the top to our ankles, lay down and stretched the rope across the room. It went from the bottom of Robin’s bed to the bottom of mine. Anyone who stormed into our room would surely stumble over our rope.
Although my eyes teared up as I ate, I was strong and could take a bit of pain, as my father always said.
In the morning, the light went on with a blinding, painful immediacy. The curtains were torn open; a few metal pins fell on the floor, one gently hitting my exposed leg. I remembered! With a start I sat up and tried to determine what had just happened. My dad had already gone to the kitchen to make us an unappealing breakfast of a spongy piece of bread and a cold lump of butter smashed in the middle. I looked on the floor, trying to piece together what had happened a couple of minutes ago. Did my father stumble? Did I hear him curse? Laugh? Nothing. I did not hear anything. The ingenious rope was lying limply on the floor, no longer taut. My brother was still sleeping, completely covered with blankets and pillows, with only his ankle exposed, the handkerchief rope still dangling from it.
In my confusion and loneliness, something struck me as odd. My father did not yell “Good morning” or “Get up.” In fact, all was silent before the curtains opened. So very silent. I listened for a little while, untying a handkerchief from my sore ankle. Later, even if I tried to fold them back into the drawer, my mom would iron them again.
“Dad? Is it time to get up?”
My father started whistling one of his favorite songs in the kitchen.
“No, sweetie. You can rest for a few more minutes. I am making an extra-special butter bread for you.”
I could hear that the oven was on. Today the butter was going to be melted on a superbly crunchy piece of bread. I jumped out of bed, trailing the handkerchief rope behind me before it fell off my foot like an autumn leaf from a tree.
I arrived from school, climbed the forty-eight steps and unlocked apartment number fifteen. I was very hungry and looked for anything to eat. My favorite cloth bag hung on a hook in the pantry and was still half full of old, dried bread that my mom saved for my grandmother’s relatives’ bunnies, which lived in a village far away. Come winter, we would enjoy two dinners of strange-tasting meat and, even better, a whole jar full of sweet, sweet plum jam.
I fished out three ends of bread from the soft bag printed with flowers and wiggly shapes. The best part of bread is the heel, as my father knew well. Often my dad and I had bread contests: the winner was the one who could first acquire the end from the fresh loaf my mother bought twice a week. My father was never very good at losing or taking turns, so either he convinced my mother to cut both ends off, which she saw as an abomination, or he would let me win or lose depending on my mother’s facial expression, I think. I often tried reading my mother’s eyes or face from my father’s perspective, but I was always wrong. He must have had a key to the mysterious half frown and raised eyebrow that she often favored over words.
No matter how much he loved the ends of bread, I knew for certain that my father did not eat old bread. It was all mine. But these ends were hard even for my strong, indestructible teeth. I opened the fridge and found red-hot chili pepper spread. Usually we put it into soup, except nobody but me knew how great it tasted on hard bread. Although my eyes teared up as I ate, I was strong and could take a bit of pain, as my father always said.
I was reluctant to call her “comrade teacher,” even though we had to call all the teachers “comrade,” which made their names ridiculously long and gave one the feeling of having a mouthful of pebbles after finally spitting out the endless row of consonants.
I looked out of the kitchen balcony window and saw a rectangle of grass that was already covered with kids playing tag, hide-and-seek, jump rope. Beyond the tiny spot of grass, a huge dirt hole gaped. Yellow dinosaur shovels, trucks and cranes roared behind a rickety fence, just steps away from our panelák.
I remembered what these machines had done just last week and went to my parents’ bedroom to check on my mother’s jewelry box. It was made of real Bohemian crystal and it was our family’s only valuable—or had been. Last week, on Wednesday, it broke because the roar from the construction shook the building so much that the windows rattled and the box fell on the purple carpet. My mother cried, but I didn’t know why. The box now had a beautiful crack running through the crystal flowers like a river that became a delta at the very edge of it. I imagined the mighty river flowed into the ocean. It was silent there. Big fish looked at me, curious but indifferent. They let me touch their scaly, cool bodies.
The Agents of Justice
The sun shone on the brightly painted square pool and a row of kids sitting obediently on its edge, their feet dipped in the brilliant, turquoise water. At the teacher’s command, the children started kicking the water—at first gently, hesitantly, but, as the teacher turned away, the kicking gradually intensified. I watched everyone else’s and my own vigorously kicking bare feet, knees, toes. It was like we were a motorboat—no, a little turbine my father once told me about. The water was not actually turquoise, I knew, but the reflection from the perfect pool made it seem so. I was on top of the world and telling everyone in the kindergarten that my father made the pool so bright blue-green, that he fixed it and painted it a few years back. It was still as shiny and smooth as if he had done it yesterday. The other children were incredulous. They knew my father did not work for the school, so why would he bother?
“Your father works in a factory; he cannot fix pools this pretty,” said a girl with a perfect ponytail.
“Sure he can,” I said. “He also fixed all the pipes and the fountain in the middle and made sure we have clean water and he made the water turquoise and he also made it so that mean children can be sprayed by the agents of justice! Like this,” I said, and, despite the rules, I jumped into the pool and splashed her hair.
The girl cried out, “She jumped in, comrade teacher, she is in and she is not allowed to! We are all sitting on the edge of the pool and she is in!”
The teacher came running and pulled me out of the pool. “What is going on?” she asked.
Curiously, we never prayed for communists.
I was lucky that this was the nicest teacher in the kindergarten, Ms. Zbožínková. We all loved her because of her gentle nature. I was reluctant to call her “comrade teacher,” even though we had to call all the teachers “comrade,” which made their names ridiculously long and gave one the feeling of having a mouthful of pebbles after finally spitting out the endless row of consonants. Usually the request was shorter than the address. But the reason I did not like calling Ms. Zbožínková “comrade teacher” was that I sensed she must have been religious, because her name meant “loyal to God.” Religious people, I knew, did not exactly like to be called “comrade.” My best friend explained that to me when we used to pray for all the people of goodwill suffering under the regime. Curiously, we never prayed for communists.
“Well, Alice says my father did not paint the pool and I know he did,” I said. “And she is making fun of my hair,” I added, even though it was not the case this time. I felt that my hair needed to be mentioned because it was a big mess of frizz while other girls sported swooshy ponytails and smooth braids.
Ms. Zbožínková said, “Your hair is very pretty even though it looks very different from all the other girls’ hair. One day you will know that. As for the pool, yes, your father painted it.” She squatted next to me, turning away from the other children so that they could not hear us, and added mysteriously, “But he also had to follow the rules, so please do not jump into the pool when you are not supposed to. Not yet.”
Four years earlier, on the day of the election, my father called my mother from work in the afternoon: “Hana, have you gone yet?”
“No, not yet. I can’t. The whole masquerade makes me feel sick,” she said.
“It would be better if you went,” my father urged gently.
“I know. I don’t know yet. I will try,” my mother said. She muttered under her breath, “Never, I will never go. They can put me in jail. I have reached the limit of disgust with how this country is run.”
Pretending not to hear, my father said, “Well, you have only until six.”
“Yes, I know,” she said.
My brother was sketching a square handkerchief that contained smaller handkerchiefs ad infinitum inside it.
She kept ironing handkerchiefs, folding and refolding them mindlessly. The time was ticking slowly, and with the clock on the kitchen wall, right in front of her face, it seemed to her that she could touch and weigh every minute in her hand. The sound the second hand made was like liquid lead dripping. It mixed with children’s yelps from outside, and she started wondering why her own son who sat in the kitchen with her, drawing, did not make any sound. My brother was sketching a square handkerchief that contained smaller handkerchiefs ad infinitum inside it. He was almost in the middle of the picture, deciding whether to draw a dot or a mini-square that one could find only with a magnifying glass. He was about to ask our mother where a magnifying glass was.
It was five o’clock. The last rays of sun were caressing the upper right-hand corner of a bright-red handkerchief and the iron was jealously swallowing them with a hiss when the doorbell rang. My mother jumped so violently that my brother started, jerking his hand across the page. Now the black marker made a furry line across the nicest square in the picture.
My mom looked through the peephole and saw a large, squarish man sporting a long, gray overcoat. He was scanning the name on the door carefully, consulting his notebook. He looked strange, seen through the peephole, disfigured through the convex lens. His eyes bulged out of his head—bald, she noticed—and his chin receded into his thick neck. “Who is it?” she asked.
The man looked right into her eye in the peephole. “This is a government representative. Open the door.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” my mother said, wondering if the man was hiding knives in his overcoat.
My mom opened the door, and the man, without being invited in, pushed her aside and entered our tiny hallway. He was twice the size of my mother. He took out his notes and said gravely, “You did not go to the election yet.”
My mom watched my brother’s small frame appear on the kitchen threshold. She tried to breathe calmly, gathered all her mental strength and said, “Yes, yes, I know. I am about to go. I have until six, right? I am sorry; I was a little busy with my child.”
The man watched her for a while and then said, “Well, as you know, this is one of the most important days. You are confirming your unbending loyalty to the state that nurtures you and your family. You could bring your son with you so that he is educated in the spirit of communism. You know that, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” my mother said, wondering if the man was hiding knives in his overcoat. She also noticed that he did not look quite human. His eyes were like a predator’s eyes: disinterested, detached. “Yes,” she repeated quickly, “my son was a little sick, so I was waiting for him to feel better. Yes, I will be there. Thank you for coming by. Thank you very much.” She tried to put a farewell ring into the tone of her voice to get rid of this threatening masculine largeness, to get him out of her apartment. He could do anything; he could really squish her if he wanted.
The man sensed the pretty young woman’s fear and smiled a little. But he still watched her every move. “You have till six,” he finally said, and then he turned and left the apartment without saying good-bye.
A week later, my father had rushed home from work, taking two stairs in one stride. He stopped abruptly on the second floor of the panelák and rang the bell of the panelák manager, Mr. Prchal. Mr. Prchal cautiously opened the door.
“Oh, hi, Robin,” he said. “What’s up?” he continued somewhat guiltily, and invited my father in with a cautious wave of his hand. He peered into the dark hallway, looking to the left and to the right, and then he closed the door carefully behind my father.
My father lost no time. He charged at Mr. Prchal: “What did you do? Why is my son being expelled from the kindergarten? Are you out of your mind?”
Mr. Prchal’s arms went up and down repeatedly in a seemingly helpless gesture. “Calm down; it’s not my fault, Robin. It was Polanský. Polanský is too high up and wants to go higher. He knew Hana refused to go to the election. He devised this evil plot to take your son out of school. He said you guys have too much money between the two of you; she has to stop working. There is nothing you can do. Don’t tell anyone I told you. So sorry.” He looked like a big inflatable doll throwing its shapeless arms up and down, following the direction that the wind blew. Mr. Prchal moved his arms so vigorously, my father worried he would collapse to the floor any minute.
My father fumed. He knew there was no use going to see comrade Polanský. He was the panelák spy. Prchal was a small beast, just a soldier in a row. Polanský was dangerous. He’d know it was going to be a problem when my mother did not vote. She was trying to be a hero, he had told her.
He looked like a big inflatable doll throwing its shapeless arms up and down, following the direction that the wind blew.
“No, it’s not a question of heroism, really,” she’d said. “I would have to throw up if I had to face the pompous election committee made of familiar faces and then check the one party listed on the ballot.” Well, now the whole family was in trouble. Hana’s heroism irritated him. She should have emigrated with him when there was still time, in 1968. Now they had to toe the line; there was no other alternative, with the kids. His head hurt from thinking. What to do?
Instead of going home to argue with my mother, my father went to a neighbor who lived in the panelák next to us. This neighbor was a friend, and his wife was the main seller of meat in the area. She managed a store downtown and was in charge of distributing meat. This meant that her family and friends always had enough meat when there was a lack for everyone else, and they charged a little extra on highly desired items. In this way, they were able to build another, fancy house in the countryside. They were respected and feared in the community.
As someone who was in charge of meat, she could be formidable, if she chose to be. She knew her power. She was friends with everybody, and everybody wanted to be her friend. The day after she went to see the big-bottomed kindergarten principal about my brother being thrown out, he was back in school.
My parents got a warning and my father had to paint the wading pool in his free time as a mild punishment. Comrade Polanský never looked into my father’s eyes again. His eyes went down every time they passed each other in the hallway, his lips pressed together. One time, my father, looking directly at him, went up to comrade Polanský and spat right in front of him. Several neighbors gasped, but since meat was more powerful than communism, nothing happened; no one was expelled again.
After Ms. Zbožínková sent me back to sit with the other children on the edge of the pool, I kicked my feet higher than everyone else, squealing with joy and looking into the future memory: “My father, my father, my wonderful father. He not only painted this pool, he built it! He made it bubble and fart.” I laughed like a maniac and hit that water hard with my feet again and again to see watery strings shoot up in the air, then loosen and break on the way down to form perfect rainbow droplets.
Daniela Kukrechtová is a Czech/US binational. She is a poet, scholar and translator. Her scholarly work has been published in African American Review and the CEA Critic. Her poetry and translations have appeared in Hollins Critic, Circumference: Poetry in Translation, and Asymptote and her nonfiction in Persephone’s Daughters and Indiana Review. She teaches literature at Emerson College. These vignettes are part of a larger work titled Panelák Stories, and they were first published in Indiana Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, June 2021.
Lead image: Alice Triquet