Kateřina Rudčenková

The Forest
Translated from the Czech by Alexandra Büchler

My childhood was filled with sounds, sounds behind the thin walls of my room covered with birch-tree forest wallpaper. I lived in a birch forest, at night I looked at the ceiling criss-crossed with moving streaks of light from cars passing in the street below my window. I listened to those sounds and tried to imagine their monstrous meanings and the actions they accompanied. I listened to the stories with which my mother entertained her guests at a time when Father no longer lived with us, when there were often parties in our home with her colleagues from work, loud music, dancing, laughter and movements I guessed at from their voices.

In my dream Mother became seriously ill and her whole body had to be cropped off so that only her head remained. I was put in charge of the head, and somebody advised me that I should read to it from Werich, something I find infinitely dull.

Father on my left, Mother on my right. Divided, incomprehensibly, irreconcilably, and between them in my head lies a road on which I stand alone.
“Take a seat.” Where? At the table with newspapers? Mother is guilty. Or Father. How many times did she die in my dreams? Once I pressed her into the ground with a bulldozer. And still she survived. “Give my regards to your mum!” “Why?” Mother is guilty, not Father, because she was the stronger one. In vain do I try to find an explanation from him in my memory: his words, a good-bye, nothing of the kind. And so, from now on, I am forever going to feel ashamed about what I do.

“Arguing again?” I am standing in the doorway, the child witness of their conflicts, who, in their view, understands nothing, and who is therefore never consulted about anything.
How to settle their dispute, how to reconcile those voices which I was not capable of reconciling? I just wanted them to be quiet, to stop antagonizing each other, I wanted both of them to be here.

How do you decide which part of you remains at home and which follows him to others where he takes root like a graft, indistinguishable from the original branch, while to me he appears entirely inappropriate, incomprehensible, perverse.

Destructive dreams about Mother, erotic dreams about Father. We walk down Kamenická, our street, which in my childhood lead either to the park on the left or to Auntie V_ra’s in Dejvice on the right.
We stop on the sidewalk by the laundry room, one of the few places that has survived throughout my life without a change, with the terrible roar of machines and the melancholy scent of wet washing.
He leans with his back against a car and I squeeze his member under my bent knee and rub it until he spurts out on the windscreen between the wipers. Our action is scandalous, the police appear from somewhere, I run into the doorway of an apartment building, one of them catches me and presses a pair of handcuffs between my teeth. And him? Where has he disappeared to?

The infatuation of a child: caressing his face — „you have grass growing here“ — and she laughs at the rustling of his stubble.

We are walking with Father through nocturnal Lidice where he is living with his second wife, silently, all news has been stated. He spits on the asphalt, a stranger, in vain do I search in him the person I had lost. A wasteland. An abrupt cut. End of an enormous certainty, trips to the zoo and the fairground where I was allowed everything, where he bought me everything and forgave everything.

Like an empty symbol of an old relationship remains the ceremony of passing on money which he hands me every time we see each other after a long while. I take it from him with a mixture of shame and shamelessness and quickly pocket it so that the terrible proof, the reminder that he is a stranger of whom nothing is left except an outstretched hand with money and a guilty expression, is obliterated as soon as possible and we can pretend again that nothing has ever happened. The things we talk about, things we have since then discussed, were never important. How are my studies going and what about his business, general small-talk flopping about in a closely guarded space that we must not break out of.

I am travelling from Krems for my graduation ceremony. Mother had said that she didn’t want Father to be present at the lunch following the ceremony, she could not watch him gloat over somebody else’s achievement in front of the family. She was the one who brought us up and sustained us. My degree was therefore her pride.
I arrive home and she asks again: “What will you eat? What time will you get up before leaving?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I want to fry up some schnitzels you can take with you.”
“But I don’t want your schnitzels.”
“And can you tell me why?”
And I am silent, a long silence, unbearable for me, because to say why I don’t want her to fry up schnitzels for me would require me to say it all, from my birth to their divorce and up to this very moment. I am silent, I don’t have a short, one-sentence answer. I don’t want her schnitzel because schnitzel means further violence, those prolonged fingers that have forever been pulling the strings of my life.
While I am silent, she walks into the room, sits down and says: “Is it because of Viktor?” And I say: “Maybe because of him, too, but not only that. It’s mainly because I don’t want to live here anymore.” “But who is forcing you? No one wants to live with their parents forever.”
Then we discuss Father again, the usual things, his constant and unconcealed infidelities during their marriage, the nights of drinking, the fact that he joined the Party to advance his career, the betrayals of his colleagues, in the end it didn’t work out the way he had expected and he became unpleasant. And last but not least the fact that he beat my brother. The following image has stuck in my memory: Father is chasing my brother around the dinner table with a broomstick in his hands, shouting. I, on the other hand, was spoiled by him. Whenever I wanted to take revenge on my brother I just waited for Father to walk past, I did something to my brother and he got the beating. “It’s possible I was stricter with you, but it was so unfair towards him,” says Mother now. If it were not for her “higher” intervention, I would have grown into a monster and my brother into a poor little wretch.
When my brother was fifteen, he said to Mother: “Why don’t you just divorce him?” And Mother said: “That’s true, why hadn’t I thought of it before?” And when Father came home, she told him: “Viktor, I’ve had enough, could you please move out?” “Of course,” he said and the next day he was gone. Nobody told me anything. I was seven. “Where is Daddy?” “He moved out.” (Where, why, is it my fault?) “And he’s not coming back, he won’t live here any more?” “No.”
“I just don’t understand,” said Mother, “where is this anger coming from and why you are so unfair to me. And I don’t understand why you define yourself so negatively in relation to me instead of relating positively to the world. Didn’t I always admire your attempts to embark on something new? You could have moved out a long time ago.”

Father rings the next day, what’s with the celebration? For a long time I can’t tell him. I understand Mother’s point of view, but why do I have to deal with it? Yes, she did say that if I were to miss him she would overcome her resentment, but who wants to watch her aggrieved expression? “You see, Mother is not exactly favourably inclined to your presence,” I say and my voice trembles. “I can’t understand why,” he says, “but don’t worry about it, I don’t know these people anymore anyway.”
During the day, Mother realizes that it is not possible not to invite him because she had already invited Grandmother who would find her son’s absence difficult to understand. So she is forced to phone him that evening and convince him to come after all.

I am seven. I walk into our dining room where they are just having an argument. “Arguing again?” I say. They both stop in their tracks and go quiet, stare at me in surprise. Then they pick up the argument again, as if I weren’t there at all. It is therefore not in my power to make those voices go silent and stop provoking each other. I have no influence. I can’t be that important to my parents if I am unable to keep them together. Who knows, perhaps my brother might have had that power.
When I step from the light of the street into the darkness of the corridor, I look at the phosphorescent hands of my wrist watch and the second hand silently circling the luminous face.

Seated at the head of the graduation lunch I cast my eyes far over the set table with many guests. A mirror in a gilt frame was hanging opposite and I saw myself sitting there, with short hair and a long dress altered from my mother’s graduation dress, mother engineer, daughter engineer, the degree is in the pocket, I am satisfied now, you can go out into the world. I nodded at myself ironically in the mirror.
We were both sitting there, I and my reflection in the mirror, at the head of the celebratory lunch held in our honour, and we looked at each other with amusement, we both found the celebration entirely inappropriate, there is nothing to celebrate of course. I finished my studies but will never do that for a living, under no circumstances, and what I hate most of all is when there is a celebration in my honour, because I have long become used to feeling like a person on the margins and that is why I cannot shake off the impression that all those present are part of an ironic joke. Next to myself in the mirror I saw my parents. Father came with his third wife and Mother’s face was red because she had cried all night. “I nurtured a snake on my bosom all my life,” she told me the night before when she cursed me. “I have brought up a monster!”

In my dream I saw Mother devoured by flames. Lying on a grassy hill, she kept sinking through the earth. It was terrible, her body convulsed and disintegrated, the dream focused my attention on the lap from where I had come forth. And all that burned to ashes, turned to dust and became one with the earth. I was left alone and I said to myself that now I would have to work and I would never have the time to go to the theatre in the evenings again.

The story was published in story collection Noci, noci (Nights, nights, 2004). The English translation was first published in Povídky, Short Stories by Czech Women, edited by Nancy Hawker, Telegram Books, London, 2006.

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