Young Czech Writers

Salt, Sheep, and Stone
Read below an extract from Salt, Sheep, and Stone by Magdaléna Platzová, One Woman Press 2003, translated by Barbara Day.
Arnost bought the house on the Dalmatian island at a good price, on the understanding that we'd see how it went. We'll put it in order, spend a summer there, and if we like it we'll hang on to it a couple of years before selling it again. If we don't like it we'll sell it immediately. Nothing to get worked up about, said Arnost. By the end of the summer, which we spent mostly as labourers, it was possible to sleep in the house. It was even habitable.

I'm alone in Prague, Arnost has gone to work abroad, spending a few long weeks away like a sailor. It's still cold, even though the apricot trees are in blossom and their twigs against the blue sky remind me of Chinese paintings on silk.

I think of that little patch of island a thousand kilometres from here, of the foundations more than five hundred years old on which the house stands, the three floors, one hundred and twenty square metres. Over the door, on the lintel of white stone from which the house is built, is a sign. No one in the little town knows what it means. It's made up of Hebrew or Arabic letters and obviously comes from the workshop of the Renaissance stonemason and architect Jura Dalmantinac.

I open the door, pass under the sign, take a corridor around the kitchen to the back, and climb the red-varnished stairs. They creak under my feet. They are narrow, and twist at such sharp angles that not one stick of furniture can be carried up them, everything must be taken to pieces downstairs, carried up in pieces and put together again in the rooms. When someone dies in one of these old houses, they have to be wrapped in a sheet while still warm, carried down to the ground floor and only there placed in the coffin. If a body were to stiffen upstairs, it would never be possible to wind it down the stairs.

There are two little rooms on the first floor. In one, under the window, there is an old sink made from a piece of stone. This used to be the kitchen, whilst the ground floor, which is relatively cool in the summer, was used for storing oil, wine, honey, dried and salted meat and fish, wood and various tools. This is because the town stands on a bog and not one of its houses has a cellar. I discovered pink paint under the white plaster in the first room, the other was blue. On the next floor is a large bedroom and under the roof yet another room, panelled in wood. A door leads from here onto a terrace.

I walk through the freshly painted, half-empty house from top to bottom. Not a single cranny is strange to me, I have touched every centimetre of this house. I am in Prague thinking about my house. I say to myself: I have a house. It doesn't matter that I'm not there. I'm slow to penetrate it, long after Arnost. I imagine how it's standing there, locked up, quiet, prepared at any time to have us settled there. I stand alone in front of its door, I open it, go in, and quietly sit inside. The floor is resistant to my feet, the ceiling rises over my head. I sense how my restless, insecure soul materialises as the house, with relief lets itself be bound by its walls.


The house has three floors and steep, worn down stairs. I dragged upstairs a bucket and a bottle with some kind of caustic, a rice brush and another bucket with clean water. I lean over the balustrades. From here the street resembles a rift in a cliff face, I am higher than most of the surrounding roofs. Beyond them stretches a parched hillside, and when I stand on tiptoe, I can see the gold ribbon of the bay. The walls of the houses enfold the noonday heat, the silence. Even Fábe has rolled over to the other side of the threshold, he probably snores in the dark of the locked-up house. Wolfgang wheels a bicycle out of his door, loaded with swimsuits and suntan creams and sets out for the beach, Bosanka the Bosnian is hard on his heels. I watch her broad bottom disappearing into the distance, at every step it spills from side to side under the polka-dot fabric and I say to myself that something will come of that, perhaps, as Berna claims, she really does want to be rid of him.

I am alone in the house. Arnost has gone to hunt up one of those craftsmen who are supposed to come and don't come, one of them is drinking and the other doesn't have the material. When we arrive the carpenter is sitting in a garage converted into a workshop, nice and cool, doesn't bother to get up, just says: 'I've no wood. Find yourselves some wood and then come again.' The painter similarly took a deposit for the paint and from that time we haven't seen him. We stand under the window of his house where he lives with a gang of other craftsmen and shout: 'Vlada!' No one answers. Then someone tells us he'll be on the tourist boat The Seagull which shuttles between the town and the mainland. The owner is a distant relative who lets Vlada stay on board as long as he can pay for his beer. Vlada drinks, leans on the ship's railings, his sparse hair ruffled by the wind, peeps at some foreign girl exhilarated by the crossing, the water sparkles before his eyes, the white rough-and-tumble of the waves. He's happy. He's already forgotten what he has promised to whom, he's not thinking about the paints he took in the shop on credit and which are now drying up under our stairs because he didn't even put the lids on the tins, so sudden and strong was his longing. We are waiting at the landing stage. We see him from a distance, we recognise his white T-shirt with lilac stripes on the deck of The Seagull, propped up on the railings on his elbows, a beer in one hand held over the sea. He is the size of a twelve-year-old child and so thin no grown-up would ever hit him.

He starts in panic to see who is calling him. We're not the only ones he's promised something to and from whom he's taken a deposit. He crosses the gangplank from the ship to the shore, already staggering, head lowered, trying to hide behind a popcorn seller. We winkle him out of his hidey-place, he gets a scolding and has a sulk because he always keeps his word. The next day he shows up and then disappears again.

He leads us by the nose, one week, two. After three weeks Arnost threatens him with the death penalty, he'll strangle him with his own hands. It's evening and the light is on in the kitchen of Vlada's house. I can see Arnost's angry gestures through the glass panel of the door.
'It's because he doesn't have a woman,' one of the painter's mates explains to me. He's come outside and is sitting next to me on the stone step. Together we follow the drama within. Vlada's small, spectacled shadow crouches over the table, over it Arnost's furious shadow runs here and there, wringing its hands and roaring.
'The gentleman shouldn't get so angry,' says Vlada's pal and lights a cigarette.

When Arnost finally comes out, he says to him: 'I'll keep an eye on him, sir. Vlada is terribly small, so he doesn't have a woman, so he gets sad and drinks. Don't hurt him, I'll take care of him, and in a week you'll have everything right as rain, I promise you.'

The next day Vlada really did show up, and for the next two days. The fourth day sorrow overcame him again and everything was back to the start.

I stuff things accumulated over the last ten years into big plastic sacks. I remove deposits of dirt from the corners of the terrace and sweep two dried fish carcasses from under the black grill coated in soot and grease. I pour caustic over the tiles and scour them with a brush. Buckets and buckets of water up and down the steep staircase, my feet are aching and my head pleasantly empty. The second sloping wall begins to throw a shadow, the sun is sinking and softening, in the rift below me doors and windows are opening, people crossing their thresholds. I hear a child's voice calling my name. Mario, Berna's youngest grandson. He's looking for me and if he finds me he'll want to help and fall into the caustic. Better not to answer.

I spot Berna's two older grandsons in the street as well, in the town people say they steal, and their mother as well. Bad blood, they say. Nothing against Fábe, he's from a decent family, but what can he do. Poor old thing, he doesn't even know about it.

Not only Bosanka, not even the local people have a good thing to say about Berna. She sows misfortune, they say. 'Berna is an interloper,' says Aunt Draga. In the eyes of our neighbours, to be an interloper is bad enough in itself.

Berna was born somewhere in France. Her father died when she was still young and her mother moved here with the children. She was quite well-off, bought a few houses in the town, with vineyards and pastures. She left everything to Berna because the only brother had fallen in love with a Greek woman, married her, moved to Greece, and died soon afterwards. He fell from a ship, a yard arm hit him on the head and swept him into the sea. 'Berna says it was an unfortunate accident,' Draga told me, 'but people here say that the young man was mixed up with the Mafia. Berna got everything, but because she can't manage things she sold it bit by bit until all that was left to her was a single pasture, a few dozen sheep and two houses. They gave one to Nedo when he married. You know, Nedo, to Berna he was always a prince, the best and finest of all. The daughter didn't get a thing. She and the children live with the old people. Berna goes around with her nose in the air, but she didn't know how to keep an eye on her own daughter. She set the couple at odds, stuck her nose into everything, nagged away, until her husband, some Macedonian or other, couldn't stand it any longer and took off. The girl went with him, what else could she do.'

I can't even remember the name of Berna's daughter, I'll call her Vlice the She-wolf. She has light grey eyes studded with yellow flecks, spiked in the middle with small black pupils. In the season she does the washing up in a restaurant, night shifts and day shifts. I don't know what she does the nights she doesn't work, but her free days she mostly spends sitting on the step in front of her parents' home, crouched up like her father, only her nose sticking out like a pointed muzzle, and her knees. I've never seen her cook or clean, Berna looks after that. Sometimes Vlice gets up and slowly walks down the street, looking into the open windows of the kitchens, which are low enough for you to lean comfortably on the window sill and chat with those inside. We don't chase her away, so she stops at our place, greets us in her masculine, husky voice, and looks to see what we're doing. Then she asks for a cigarette or money. Her parents have forbidden her to beg from us, so she asks in a whisper and only when Berna isn't watching.

Her eldest son is twelve, the younger ten. The little one is four and his name is Mario. In the evenings Mario and I rinse the paving stones in front of the house. We like to sling water over the sun-warmed street and slosh it around with a broom, so that after the day the dust is washed away and the air freshened, and we can get ourselves nice and wet at the same time. We argue about who will sling and who will slosh, he wants to do both himself, and when I don't let him he howls. In the evening he comes to say good night. In his flannel pyjamas, his hair wet, he walks with a dignified air down the street lit by orange lanterns.

Mario doesn't resemble his brothers, who inherited their wolfish faces from their mother. He has a button nose, hair like straw pissed on by a cow, and freckles. Only his mother knows who he got them from. His father may have been a local guy, or some fly-by-night.

He was born some three years after Vlice abandoned the father of her two older children somewhere in Macedonia and came home. They say in the town that she and her husband lived in a tent and trailed from town to town like gypsies. Apparently she returned dirty, bruised and hungry, with two malnourished boys. It's said she gave birth to a daughter in that wilderness, but she died.

The blood races into my lowered head, I straighten up. The roofs rise above the line of the balustrade whitened with lime, to the hill already turned pink. At last one can breathe. I scrape my side against the door. It's falling apart and needs replacing. I think, we have to replace the terrace door, and the memory of a dream I had about ten years ago pops up, I even know where, in France, a little town on the Loire to which, at my mother's wish, a kind, somewhat older, friend had driven me to get over my first unhappy love. We lived in a chateau and slept in an enormous bed in a room otherwise empty, with windows onto a park. I remember how I woke from a vivid dream. I had a house by the sea, with a terrace where the door needed replacing.
'Where's your husband?'
I didn't hear the steps on the stairs. Nedo is standing on the terrace, back from work. He makes perfumed bath salts here at Solana. It's delicate work, entrusted only to those with some length of service once they show their competence. Nedo collects the crystals of white salt from enormous piles and pours them into special mixers into which he drips a precisely determined amount of perfumed essence. He makes lavender crystals, turquoise blue, then rosemary, then forest perfumes and rose-scented.

Nedelko props himself against the wall by his shoulder blades and one bare foot, arms burnt red by the sun stick out from the white T-shirt, under his nose the little brush of a shining black moustache. He smoothes his forelock with his hand and swallows, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.
'Where's your husband?'
He looks at my bare shoulders, at my breasts in the summer dress, at my thighs soaked in dirty water. His ears turn red, he's breathless, he has nothing more to say. He peels himself off the wall and belts downstairs.

Nedelko has the idea that if two people are repairing a house together, they must be husband and wife.

Barbara Day wrote her PhD on the tradition of subversive theatre in the Czech lands and translated several Czech plays. She now lives in Prague where she writes, translates, lectures and works for the Prague Society for International Cooperation.

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