One night when I was young my mother walked out of the country bungalow we were staying in in the Poconos. I woke to hear my father pulling on his pants in the dark. It was very late, and the windows were open. The night was everywhere. Where was he going? I asked. “Go back to sleep,” he said. Mommy had gone for a walk. He would be right back, he said.
But I started to cry because Mommy had never gone for a walk in the forest at night before and I had never woken to find my father pulling on his pants in the dark. I did not know this place, and the big windows of moonlight on the floor frightened me. In the end he told me to be brave and that he would be back before I knew it and pulled on his shoes and went searching for his wife. And found her, eventually, sitting against a tree or by the side of a pond in her tight-around-the-calf slacks and frayed tennis shoes, fifteen years too late.
My mother knew a man during the war. Theirs was a love story, and like any good love story, it left blood on the floor and wreckage in its wake.
It was all done by the fall of 1942. Earlier that year, in May, Czech partisans had assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, and the country had suffered through the predictable reprisals: interrogations, purges, mass executions. The partisans involved in the hit were killed on June 18. In December of that year my parents escaped occupied Czechoslovakia, crossing from Bohemia into Germany, from Germany to France, then south to Marseille, where my mother nearly died of scarlet fever before they could sail for England, and where my father and a small-time criminal named Vladek (who had befriended my father because they were both from Brno) sold silk and cigarette lighters to the whores whose establishments tended to be in the same neighborhoods and who always seemed to have a bit of money to spend.
They were very young then. I have the documents from the years that followed: the foreign-worker cards and the soft, well-worn passports with their photos and their purple stamps, the information (hair: brown; face: oval) filled in with a fountain pen . . . I have pictures of them—in Innsbruck, in Sydney, in Lyon. In one, my father, shirtless and glazed with sweat, a handkerchief around his head, is standing on a chair, painting a small room white. The year is 1947. The sun is coming through a curtain-less window to the left. My mother is holding the can of paint for him. Behind him, the unpainted wall above the brush strokes looks like the sky above a mountain range.
I was born, three years later, into a world that felt just slightly haunted, like the faint echo of an earlier one. We were living in New York then. At night, high in our apartment in Queens, my mother would curl herself against my back and I would smell her perfume, her hair, the deep, cave-like warmth of her, and she would hum some Czech song or other until I pretended to be asleep. We always lay on our right sides, my head tucked under her chin and her left arm around me, and often—it’s the thing I remember most clearly about her now—her fingers would twitch against my stomach or my chest as if she were playing the piano in her dreams, though she wasn’t dreaming, or even asleep, and had never played the piano in her life.
Half a lifetime after the night my father left our cabin to look for my mother, long after they were both gone, I met a man in Prague who told me that the city I thought I’d come to know actually lay four meters under the earth; that the somewhat dank, low-ceilinged café we were sitting in at the time was not the first story, as I had assumed, but the second. To resist the flooding of the Vltava, he said, the streets of the Old Town had been built up with wagonloads of soil—gradually, over decades—and an entire world submerged.
He was a tall, well-dressed man with a crown of gray-white hair and a rumbling baritone voice, and he sat at the tiny glass table sipping his tea with such a straight-backed, sovereign air, such a natural attitude of authority and grace, that he might have been an exiled king instead of the retired director of the Department of Water Supply, which he was. In some of the buildings of the Old Town, he said, pausing to acknowledge the slightly desperate-looking waitress who had brought him a small cup of honey, one could descend into the cellars and find, still visible in the pattern of the brick, the outlines of windows and doors: a stone lintel, a chest-high arch, a bit of mouldered wood trapped between a layer of plaster and brick.
In the course of his work, he said, he had often been called to this building or that where some construction had accidentally unearthed something, and foound himself wondering at the utter strangeness of time, at the gradual sinking away of all that was once familiar. He smiled. It could makkkkke one quite morbid, really. But then, if one considered the question rightly, one could see the same thing almost everywhere one looked. After all, twenty minutes from where we sat, travelers from a dozen countries stood bargaining for ugly gewgaws on the very stones that only a few centuries ago had been heaped with the dead. Certain things time simply buried more visibly than others. Was it not so?
The waitress came over with a black wallet open in her hand like a miniature bellows, or something with gills. She had scratched herself badly on her calf, I noticed, and the blood had welled through the torn stocking and dried into a long, dark icicle. She seemed unaware of it. My companion handed her a fifty-crown note. And then, before I could say anything, he wished me a good day, slipped on his greatcoat, and left.
I walked for hours that night, among the crowds and up into the deserted orchards and past the king’s gardens, still closed for the winter, where I stood for a while looking through the bars at the empty paths and the low stone benches. Along the far side, between the stands of birches whose mazework of spidery branches reminded me of the thinning hair of old ladies, I could see a long row of waterless fountains, like giant cups or stone flowers.
I was strangely untired. A fine mist began to fall, making the cobbles slippery, as if coated with sweat. I looked at the stone giant by the castle gates, his dagger forever descending but never striking home, then walked down the tilting stairs to a place where a crew of men, working in the white glare of halogen lamps, had opened up the ground. As I passed the pit, I glimpsed a foundation of some sort and what looked like a sewer of fist- sized stones, and struck by the connection to the man I had met in the café, for whom these men might once have worked, after all, I started for home. Everywhere I looked, along the walled streets and narrow alleys, above the cornerstones of buildings and under the vaulted Gothic arches, I saw plaster flayed to brick or stone, and hurrying now through the narrow little park along the river, I startled a couple embracing in the dark whom I had taken for a statue. I mumbled an apology, my heartbeat racing, and rushed on. Behind me I heard the man mutter something angrily, then a woman’s low laugh, and then all was still.
That night I dreamed I saw him again in a house at the end of the world, and he looked up from the glass table to where I stood peering in through a small window and mouthed the words “Is it not so?” I woke to the sound of someone crying in the courtyard, then heard pigeons scuttling on the shingles and a quick flurry of wings and the crying stopped.
And lying there in the dark, I thought, yes, that’s what it had been like: beneath the world I had known—so very familiar to me, so ...