The Canceled Czech

Page 4

The sky was overcast, with no stars to offer a clue to directions. I could follow the tracks of the train, but I knew too well where they would lead. They would take me straight into the railroad station at Tyn, and I knew the sort of welcome that awaited me there. And, once they knew I had left the train, it stood to reason that their initial search parties would work their way back along the train’s roadbed.

The Vltava River flowed parallel to the railroad line and seemed a better idea. I made my way over the tracks and went and saw the river less than a hundred yards away. My leg bothered me, but I managed to work my way down the grassy slope to the riverbank below. Walking was easier on level ground. I limped, but the limp became progressively less pronounced the more I walked and was almost entirely gone after a mile or so.

A couple of miles further, the river was spanned by a bridge of stone reinforced with steel pilings. I crossed to the west bank and headed north again. When the moon finally broke cloud cover it was easier for me to see where I was going. The river glistened in the moonlight.

I began whistling something, and it took me a few seconds to place the tune. It was the theme from Smetana’s Moldau, another name for the river along whose western bank I walked. I whistled more of it, then stopped.

The irony delighted me. The Moldau theme was doubly appropriate, tying in not only with the river but with my mission itself. It had been borrowed from Smetana’s work to serve in a song called “Hatikvah,” and so I was limping through Czechoslovakia, on my way to enlist the help of a Sudeten Nazi in the rescue of a Slovakian Nazi, while whistling the national anthem of the state of Israel.

It must have been around three in the morning when I hit the outskirts of Pisek. I was cold, my legs had lost their enthusiasm for walking, and, more than anything else, I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten anything since Vienna. Several times along the way I had passed farms and thought about stealing a few eggs or even making off with a whole chicken and roasting it hobo-style at the river’s edge. But each time the risk had seemed disproportionately high.

Now, though, if there had been a plump hen handy, I might have eaten her, feathers and all.

The sky was still dark. It was a bad hour to call on strangers, whatever their politics. Etiquette aside, I had no way of locating Herr Neumann. Moll had not thought to give me Neumann’s address, and some twenty thousand people live in Pisek. At a better hour I could scout around and ask directions, but not at three in the morning.

And there was another problem, not so demanding at the moment as hunger, but even more vital in the long run. As things stood, I would be about as inconspicuous in the streets of Pisek as a Negro on a snowpile. I was bruised and battered and moderately dirty, and my clothes, American in cut, were at least as battered and a good deal dirtier than I. Once Pisek woke up and I entered its streets, I would not precisely blend with my surroundings.

I waited for the dawn in a small farmyard on the eastern edge of the city. The sky lightened, and I realized for the first time that the country was beautiful, lush and green, mostly flatland but rolling gently in spots. I saw lights go on in the farmhouse, and when I came closer I could hear movement within. There was no bell, so I knocked.

A man, short, thick-set, opened the door a crack and peered out at me. He asked me politely what I wanted.

“Food, if you have some to spare,” I said. “I am hungry, and can pay. I have money.”

“You do not live near here?”


“It is early to be traveling.”

“I have just awakened. I slept in a field.”

“In my field?”

“No. Across the road.”

“I will be back in a moment.”

He closed the door and I waited while he went to talk it over with his wife. I knew he wouldn’t call the authorities – no phone wires ran to the house. He reappeared a few moments later and opened the door for me. I followed him to the kitchen and he pointed me to a seat at the round wooden table.

“Is ten koruna too much?”

“Not at all,” I said. I found a pair of five-koruna notes in my wallet and gave them to him.

“It seems perfectly fair.”

“Well,” he said, and took the money. His wife turned from the stove and smiled tentatively at me. She brought over a plateful of eggs and potato dumplings, all scrambled together.

“There is coffee,” she said. “And I will bring you some rolls, and I will heat some sausages. Have you come from very far away?”

“From Ruzomberok.”

“I do not know it. Is it far?”

“It is to the east, in Slovakia.”

“Ahh, that is very far. And you have come all this way?”

“He is hungry, Frida,” the man said. “Let him eat.”

I was even hungrier than I had realized. The eggs were fresh and had been cooked to just the right turn, neither too wet nor too dry. They were seasoned nicely with paprika. The bits of potato dumplings were light and fluffy. The sausage, thick red-brown blood sausage, was delicious. The coffee was hot and strong, almost as strong as the Greeks and Yugoslavs drink it, but tempered with a healthy dose of sugar and fresh cream.

“You have hurt yourself,” the man said. “Your leg and your hands. You will want to dress your wounds, perhaps to bathe. We have a tub with hot water; we got it just last year.”

“The year before,” Frida said.

“Whenever it was. And afterward my wife can patch your trousers. It is a bad rip there. You must have fallen down.”


In the bathroom I cut all the labels out of my clothes, burned them, and flushed the ashes down the toilet. I took a hot bath and used some tape and gauze from the medicine chest to bandage my knee. The other bruises were just surface nicks and didn’t need more than a good cleaning. The palms of my hands were already healing nicely.

I dried off, dressed, and rejoined my host. “These pants are too badly worn to repair,” I said. “Perhaps you have an extra pair you could sell me?”

“I doubt that mine would fit you. But Frida can patch yours, and you may buy new clothing in town.”

“Of course,” I said.

“My son’s clothes might fit you, but he is not here. He left last year. No, pardon me, it was the year before last. I remember that it was the same year that we got the hot water, and that was not last year, although I always think that it was. My son Karel is in Paris now. He works in a very fine restaurant there. He is only a busboy the last letter we had, but he has hopes of becoming a waiter. Is that where you are going? To Paris?”

“No, I am going to Pisek only. I-”

“Please.” He looked away, as if embarrassed. “You have no luggage, not even a change of clothing, and yet you have enough money to pay ten koruna for breakfast without a second thought. You speak Czech very well, but with a slight accent which I cannot identify. But I do know that it is not a Slovak accent. A Slovak gives himself away because with certain words he uses the Slovak words or the Slovak pronunciation, and even here, this far in the west, I can identify a Slovak accent. And you are traveling to Pisek, presumably for a reason, but you do not know anyone in Pisek and must sleep in a field and come here for your breakfast.”

“I guess I didn’t fool you.”

His eyes crinkled, amused. “Would you fool anyone? Your suit has been treated badly, but I do not believe it has been slept in. I would guess instead that you have been walking most of the night. The suit is a good one, too. You are a man of some substance, perhaps a professional man. If you do not wish to tell me, we will not talk anymore.”

“No, I don’t mind.”


“I am from Poland. A town near Krakow.”

“That would have been my guess, that or Hungary. Though the Hungarians generally go directly through Austria. We saw some Hungarians in 1956 but then there were so many of them that they went in all directions. You are not going west into Germany? That would be an even harder border to cross, if you wished to get into the Western Zone.”

“I am going to Austria.”

“Ah, that is a better idea. You will stay in Austria?”

“I don’t know.”

“That is your business, of course. And of course you would not want to tell anyone too much.” The eyes showed that he was amused again. “I have thought of going, you know. But it is not that bad here, and every year it gets better. It is not Paradise, but when was this poor country ever Paradise? Before the war, well, the government was good, but one never knew how long it would be in power. And we were not nearly so prosperous.” He shrugged. “One year the hot water, another year a milking machine, little by little things come to us. Some of the young people are impatient, like my Karel. But when one is old one learns patience, and that one place is rather like another. Still, your case is different, is it not? Your problem is political?”

“Yes, you could say so.”

“You were a teacher in Krakow? Perhaps a professor?”

“You are very perceptive.”

“Perhaps I should be a detective, eh? Sherlock Holmecek?” He laughed. “But I am glad we were able to talk, you and I,” he said, suddenly serious again. “You will want peasant clothes, so that you will not stand out so against your surroundings. I have a few things of Karel’s. He did not take them, and she does not wish to throw them out. You know women. She thinks he may someday return, and it costs nothing to humor her by keeping the clothes. Wait a moment.”

He returned with a pair of heavy woolen pants and a rough gray work shirt. They were a little large on me, but not noticeably so. I dressed, and he inspected me from all angles and decided that I looked the part better now. “A common laborer looking for work,” he said. “But wait another moment,” and he came back with a peaked cloth cap. I placed it on my head, he looked at it, adjusted the angle, and we agreed that the picture was now complete.

“A common Czech laborer,” he said. “But I do not think you should say you are from Slovakia. Perhaps I am not the only Sherlock Holmecek in the country, eh? Tell them you are from – let me think – Mlada Boleslav. Yes. You lost your job in the brewery there and tried to find work in Prague, and there you were told that they needed workers at the Pisek Brewery. They do not, as it happens, which will save you the discomfort of actually being hired. I would personally suggest that you do all of your traveling in the daytime, but that is your business. To me, a man walking at night would be more suspicious. And you will put your wallet away, please. I told you that we are not in the restaurant business, and for that reason I intend to return your ten koruna. We are not in the secondhand clothing business either. I can take no payment.”

“But I can pay-”

“Perhaps you can pay, but I cannot take the money. Believe me, you will need the money. Our money is not worth as much in the West. Karel told me his earnings and I could not believe it, and then he told me what he must pay for his room and I could not believe that, either.” He shook his head. “You may find it is not as good there as you think. I hope not, I hope it is good for you, but you may be surprised.”

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