Jan Balabán

A Child on Fire
© Dimitris Tsoumplekas
Translated from the Czech by Ivory Rodriguez

The sky behind the large, curtainless windowpane is jet-black, yet it is already morning. It is the moment when the night sinks to zero and the day begins from number one. Catherine can imagine this. With her inner eye, she can see a line of numbers, as if written on a blackboard with chalk, but there is no chalk, no blackboard, and the numbers are hovering in the air where there is no air.
"Where are those numbers?" she used to ask when she was much smaller, and her parents drew tallies for her in the dust of the path.
"You see: one and one makes two, plus one makes three, plus one makes four, plus one makes five." Daddy crossed the vertical lines with a horizontal one. All she could see was a picket fence. She did not understand at all what she was meant to understand; she was nodding only so that she could finally stand up and leave, go further down the path, among the pines towards the ruins, on that hot summer day that she still remembers as that time when she could not yet count. She has within her still, deep within towards the back of her head, that uncomprehending look, the one with which she used to see the lines or pebbles put before her eyes only as lines or pebbles. In a similar way, she can still remember the unintelligible shapes of letters on notice boards and in lines at the time when they were not yet letters, but a mystery. She cherishes this memory of non-numbers and non-letters of her ten-year-old self as a treasure, as her true childhood.
It was probably no coincidence that the illness came to her at the very time the numbers emerged from behind the lines and pebbles. She no longer asked where they came from. She saw them; yes, they were quite different from the surrounding landscape, but they were equally natural in their flat world somewhere behind the eyes. She understood that the horizontal line with which Daddy crossed the first five lines could cross out all the lines anybody wrote. It is some kind of invisible ruler which, contrary to the visible rulers at school, can be put across anything: across five hills on the horizon, across five teeth on a comb, across five swallows, and not only when they are sitting on a wire like in the textbooks; when each flies in a different direction, too, the ruler will fly out with them, turn into a string on which all of them are threaded, and say: five swallows.
Cathy was gazing at a world that was suddenly changing, and she counted and counted. And then she did not even have to count. She realised that the rulers and threads in that invisible world that clings so closely to our visible world are strung out all the time, and that every step she takes has been counted, every needle among the needles of this beautiful pine tree has its number, and when it falls, it is deducted from the living and added to the dead that lie on the ground in the forest.
It was suddenly so obvious that she preferred not to tell anybody. She thought that only she knew about it. All the others do is stupidly move the beads about on the abacus, as they're taught to do at school. Only she knows that this is not necessary, that everything has been counted, and she can ride up and down the lines of numbers, big and small, just like riding a bicycle.
Only she could not ride the bicycle anymore. She was suddenly so weak that she could not lift it. She stayed lying under it as if it were a log; she did not even try to move it. Fortunately, there were other hands to lift it, and they lifted Cathy as well. There were Daddy's hands, and Mummy's, and then the hands of nurses and doctors. Suddenly she was living in a hospital where they would put a thermometer under her armpit, and while they were doing it, she recognised that long line that stands upright next to Daddy's vertical one, and every division on it can be added to one division on the left, and when the two are extended, always one in parallel with the other, squares and rectangles appear of various sizes, such spots that change in exact accordance with how the riders on the mutually square trajectories change the length of each side – the people around her bed watched with horror as the curves ran up and down the diagonals of those wild rectangles, they coaxed the riders in her blood to stop their wild running and to walk at an even pace like before. Just like in those infinitely distant times when there were only lines and pebbles, and no invisible world.
This way Cathy counted down to the morning even before the morning. This way she reached the zero point, which may just be a thin hair in the numeric line, but as it has no value, it can separate the real numbers. Zero always seemed suspicious to her. The teacher said that it was impossible to divide by a zero, but that it was possible to multiply with it. This small circle representing nothing can swallow even the biggest number as if it were nothing at all. There must be whole multitudes of numbers wrapped inside that ring. Now she can see them as a spool of the thinnest thread in the world. So thin that it cannot be measured, even by the finest ruler in the invisible world. This thread is invisible in the invisible world, too. If somebody were able to divide a zero, they would discover another invisible world, and inside that another, and inside that another.
Cathy smiled at the depths at whose verge she had found herself. Just a little, and only in her soul, did she mourn another mystery, one that was deposited in the cemetery of mysteries in the back of her head.
It is strange, but already comprehensible, that a night in a hospital is just an evening extended for a very long time – a disgusting supper, then the doctor comes, strokes her hair and wishes her goodnight even though she knows that Cathy cannot sleep; then the nurse comes to see if she is alright, though she knows she won't be alright ever again; then the nurses and orderlies talk for ages in the examining room, like her parents used to behind the closed door of the sitting room; there is the sound of a television somewhere; someone goes to the loo here and there, and the conversations die down. The nice, fat nurse, Dagmar, sits in an armchair between the intensive-care wards so she will hear if anything happens while she knits a white sweater for her granddaughter in time for Christmas. The doctor on duty goes to take a nap in the doctors' room for a few hours. Nobody speaks, but the evening continues. Even the pain that ticks in Cathy's body feels like an evening pain – quite a good kind of pain, rather like the green pine needles descending silently into the white snow.
Cathy can see precisely how the evening's night is dripping away and diminishing like a transparent infusion bag, until there is nothing in it and the new one has yet to be punctured. Just for a moment, it feels like Sleeping Beauty. There is nothing.
And now it's morning. Everything is different, unpleasant. The sky beyond the window is still black, but already the nurses, the cleaning ladies are new. The doctor looks strange in her civilian clothes, and she is talking to a colleague who has yet to settle into her white robe. First the pot, then the breakfast that Cathy won't eat anyway, medicines, injection, good morning, Cath, and a fresh infusion hanging from the stand as on any other long day.

Why us, why our girl? Cathy's father stopped on the stairway landing. A warm coat, a sweater, a scarf; it is so hot in the overheated hospital. He felt he had no right to put this question, when children the world over have to die of incurable illnesses… But he must ask it anyway, even though, and which is much worse, he feels how they – his wife and the other children, that is – are alienated by this question from this small human being in the hospital bed. When we ask it, and we do ask it, then we are not with her anymore, we want her to be different from how she is now. We stuff ourselves with kitsch; because that's what I insist it is, kitsch, that image of a healthy child before our eyes, like something from an ad for juice or cocoa. The golden calf of health that every normal person is entitled to, and Cathy is deprived of it only by some oversight, or perhaps she herself is the oversight?!
Sweaty, gasping, hot, he stood on the white stairway, and decided not to move until he had chased the question not only out of his head, but out of the world.
It was a busy morning on the children's ward. They were sending everybody they could home for Christmas. So many cars in front of the hospital. So many solicitous parents with children's fur coats, anoraks, hats and gloves in their hands. So many children's telephones, music players and magazines hastily packed into bags, and out of the room into the corridor. Parents queuing in front of the examination room, yet to collect medicine, prescriptions, discharge papers, into open arms and hurry, hurry home to the Christmas tree.
There are whole forests of them, silver, gold and violet. The gifts won't even get through the door; raging teenagers are enlarging the windows with chain saws and baseball bats, to get more from life once again.
Cathy's father stood by the white pipes of the central heating, saving himself with the memory of a cartoon story from an ancient children's magazine. Proper boys making their own boys' Christmas. Trimming a tree in a wood outside the town and putting their proper boys' presents under it. And suddenly – the gifts are gone. Stolen by a vagabond, the orphan, Tony Feather, who sleeps in a nearby limekiln. He was imagining poor Tony in torn clothes, running with the colourful packages in his arms, into the darkness, under real, untrimmed trees.
No matter that a happy ending was reached when he returned the presents and the boys found a new home for him. Only this image, which did not appear in the comic, only the stranger with someone else's gifts in a dark and frozen world of limekilns and foster homes is real. Only this is really us and our "more from life".
He had to smile at all that sorrow. It was a good smile. He could see his eyes and lips in the mirror of the glass door that were so similar to Cathy's eyes and lips at one of those moments when she had to deposit another secret in the cemetery of secrets in the depths of her little head. (He had seen this; it had happened several times while he was there.)
He weaved his way through the groups of more fortunate parents and children and headed for the rooms where nothing changes on the twenty-third of December. He was reaching for the door handle when he was detained by a doctor, the senior consultant on the children's ward.
"Cathy's taken a significant turn for the worse. I am sorry to have to tell you this, but her fever's up. The child is febrile, and really not quite herself."
"And can we see her? My wife's on her way."
"Of course, for as long as you wish."
He entered the room and swallowed the prepared sentence: Black knight to H3. He always tried to play imaginary chess with his genius of a child. But he always had to prepare his moves himself and learn them by heart. Cathy always saw through this when he got lost after the third move.
It didn't look like chess today. It seemed to him that the child lying there connected to all sorts of tubes was on fire from within. When he touched her, he could feel the same thing happening to him.
He did not feel like talking, but the words just came out.
"How about a fairytale?"
Cathy nodded.
Beyond the window, it was sleeting. The ward was silent again, as on any other day. He was telling her a favourite story about people who were chased out of their beautiful, seaside home by an evil emperor. They had to cross desolate plains with herds of antelopes and wild horses, where they were threatened by cruel nomad tribes, and they didn't stop until they reached the foothills of the mountains in the north. For the first time they saw snow, which was falling from black clouds above rocky peaks. They advanced through a valley of tall spruce and fir; from the shadows under the trees, reindeer and moose were watching them, and in the dark, the eyes of lynx, wolverines and snow lions were gleaming. They had never seen so much horror and so much beauty …
He did not even know if his daughter was listening to him. Her expression was concentrated, as if she were thinking hard about something, or she were counting something again. How many horses, how many dogs, how many spears, how many axes, how many trees will it be necessary to cut down for the construction of the house, how many logs must be prepared for a long winter, how much meat must be hung …
"Go on," his wife encouraged him. She had crept silently into the room and was sitting on the other side of Cathy's bed.
"But I don't know how it continues," he admitted truthfully.
"But it must go on somehow."
"Daddy, how many numbers are there?" Cathy asked suddenly.
"Altogether? I don't know."
"Come on now, how many?" her mother insisted. "You have to tell her!"
"There is an infinite number of numbers," he said, drawing with his finger a large recumbent eight on the blanket.
"And what does that mean?"
"It means that after the last number in the line, there is always another one."
"And after that there is another," the daughter added.
"And so on and so on." Her father nodded.
The child smiled. Her satisfaction was because she had understood that that tiny hair of time left to them was equal in length to all the time in the world.

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