Statement of Record

The Impossibility of Zero

T
(excerpt from a novel)

Bones

 

He thought back to the motionless blue eyes and the almost inaudible crack of the skull as he stood on the pebble beach and watched the young woman’s body rhythmically emerging and then disappearing back into the waves.

He held out his right hand in front of him and the moment her head came out of the sea, he clenched his fist around her to make her vanish. All he would need to do now was to throw his hand to one side and she would cease to exist. For a while. Fatal events take place incidentally—just like that. Crack. Again he focused on her figure, then on his empty hand; won’t it work at least for a little while?

Disappointedly, he dropped his arm and let her carry on swimming within reach of the boat that bobbed sleepily just a couple of meters away. He put his tennis shoes on his salt-dried feet and walked up the hill above the bay. The olive grove there watched over the horizon. The earth was hard as rock, parched, untilled for many years.

The mother of all trees has bark thin as paper and yet made of steel, its gnarled branches tensed with crackling muscles to bear a crop that gets heavier with each year; the olives were still small and green. He tapped on the trunk; it was hollow. He looked among the broadly spread branches, but the tree’s arms were empty. He felt the same way.

Just behind the olive grove the woods began. He had not seen them from the boat. One of the clearings was covered in soft, thick grass like an Afghan carpet. The green rug seemed to be undisturbed by stones, roots, or anything else.

Years ago three young men of his age had escaped here. They were barely twenty-three years old. They called themselves partisans, but they were just lads from a nearby village whose heads were humming with horror, as war coursed drunkenly through their veins. They were resolved to repay the world by the same token: to kill those who killed and to mutilate those who raped.

Two of them had looked after their own olive groves since their childhood with their father. Together they had pressed the olives at an uncle’s of the third one, the one who had joined them when he had run away from university because of the war. He did not come at first, when it broke out, but only when it got worse, when sons no longer knew their fathers and slit their own sisters’ throats. His two companions had an edge. While he still tasted the first expiring life of another on his face, the other two unhesitatingly cast off their bloody acts and clothes, as naked they washed off the world in the crashing sea, which could occasionally be heard from the clearing as a murmur.

It was somebody else’s blood, which they themselves had not shed, though its mark had burned through to their skin. They sat in the clearing to load their rifles for the first time. They conferred, drank wine, tried to outshout each other, and then made death threats. Anything to drown out the voices and crying within. Eventually, as the drunks waited for the signal that was to make them soldiers of just retribution, they fell asleep. The grass soaked up their blood like tissue paper. Their slit young throats offered themselves lecherously to the heavens in accusation. At least that was the way the young fisherman told the story when he borrowed the boat in the morning: “No one knows whose knife it was.”

It was then the grass revived, fed by another human tragedy, as it came together with the dozens of skeletons and remains of other unfortunate human souls who can find no peace in this mass forest grave. The grass thrives as skull presses against skull and each heart rots away amongst the worm-eaten others.

At the edge of the bloodied green velvet clearing there are some blackberry runners. It is August and the blackberries are bleeding black under the weight of the sun. They honor the memory; the roots of their thorny arms suck the strength from the bones and are fertilized by the remains of souls. It will be some years yet before the world gets round to making this clearing into a sacred place with marble statues.

He lay in the grass and heard the breaking of bones. He closed his eyes and felt his blood boiling in his veins, which had tensed as if someone inside were drawing them tight. He was on the rack of his own veins, as they dug into his muscles and cut to the marrow. So close to death and yet he could not have felt more remote.

The sun laughs out loud and the birds have a little quarrel with it. And somewhere down there she was calling to him. Drowsily he stood up, his head spinning, but then, as he fell back into the grass, he instinctively held out his hand for the only possible support, only to have it pricked by dozens of thorns.

The blackberries have oozed into my veins and changed my blood into sweet juice, he thought, as he observed his lacerated hands through watering eyes. Then he licked his wounds.

He went back into the woods that separated the olive grove from the clearing, and smelled the pine trees shedding their pitch with an intoxicating fragrance over his lacerated hands. He breathed in deeply. Time was moving backwards. Past the ranks of olives down to the bay. Toward the one who was to attack. As always. Towards the sea that would pacify. Towards the reality of a student on holiday, who had nothing to do with the history of the clearing. Perhaps. As actually he doesn’t have anything to do with anything. That is how he has felt all his life. And even if he had, it wouldn’t make any difference. We each wage our own war, he thought, and walked slowly through the shadow of the hollow olive trees.

He has total inviolability interwoven in his movements. Not that everything was indifferent to him. He shouldn’t be taken that way. It was just that he didn’t manage to find a rapport with anything: he holds out his hand but never reaches anything. Others steal his hope from under his nose. He isn’t even allowed to touch. And he would so like to experience things differently. Really. Like others.

Like her, for example. She either rejoices or weeps over everything. She cries with joy and enthusiasm, she laughs with sympathy and pain.

It is possible not to feel, he summarized his fate without pity.

I like the taste of my own blood, but I still do not feel it. I am outside the focus of all things and actions, he thought.

The world is elsewhere. Forever. The limits of his options are set by the sharp elbows of others. It wasn’t his choice. It seems everyone feels this sense of alienation, but only some like himself actually acknowledge it in their movements and breathing. In contrast, most just pretend to be happy with life, while he feels like crying out: it’s all a swindle—what’s the point? What’s the purpose?

He heard her body before he caught the angry voice. She waved at him from the shore with sun-wearied arms, her buttocks divided by a sharp white swimsuit. This difference of worlds made his eyes smart. He wanted to go back uphill and finally do the one thing he felt to be right, to disappear from the world represented by the sun-flushed girl. A vital threat, he felt. His future wife.

Only a year back he had not been bothered by occasional boundary collisions between their worlds and his, with their minor earthquakes and sparks. They even struck him as interesting—in the uniformity of his reality he found them refreshing.

Does a taste for life run dry so quickly?

It was discreet. It was paralyzing for a split-second. His life had been seized from him. He voluntarily let it be stolen, in fact he stuffed his desires into the girl’s insatiable, sweet-smelling throat, impatiently premasticating his dreams for her. He set out everything for her and she recovered unexpectedly fast, leaving him only what suited her—his empty obligation to live.

Who can you complain about yourself to? He stood halfway down on the beach, crouching behind the rocky promontory overgrown with light purple heather, where he could not see it. He had heard her coming out of the sea onto the pebbles, her voice supplanted by the menacing clatter of footsteps. He had an enormous urge to take off his tennis shoes and to drop them discreetly on the beach in nylon, which of course he did not have. And then disappear. Only his shoes would be left behind him. Take off. Anywhere. Away, basically.

Like that blind man. Did he have nylon too? Maybe not, it wouldn’t do him any good if he’s blind.

As he was remembering all this he crouched on his heels in the shadow of the cliff. At the time they were coming back around five in the morning through the center of the town from the bar to the residence halls, where they were both living, when a gleaming Labrador ran out at him from a little park in the dark. It was whimpering sadly and trotted along beside him. Was it injured? It looked that way—there were wires sticking out of it, but when it ran up to him, they saw they were a metal harness for a guide dog.

They tried to catch it but it always got away. They ran after it. Across the park and the crossroads. After a while, just as they caught their wine-laden breath, they realized what it was actually doing there all on its own.

“Hold on,” he said, “let’s not chase the dog, let’s find its master. It’ll be easier to find a blind man. He’s not going to run away from us, that’s for sure,” and they both half-laughed at the little quip.

The problem was that apart from themselves and the dog, there was nobody else for miles around.

‘‘That dog’s whining loudest when it’s near the subway entrance,’’ she noticed.

‘‘But it’s still too early, isn’t it? The Metro isn’t open yet.’’

‘‘Is it after five yet?’’

‘‘About quarter past,’’ he looked at his neon watch.

‘‘So it’s just started,’’ she took him by the hand and led him to the underpass, which ran from the edge of the park to the Metro entrance. The dog stood in silence at the steps above them. The empty escalators moved towards them.

‘‘Look, look,’’ she squeezed his arm as her voice skipped.

A telescopic white stick was bumping against the escalator’s metal sides. It was lying half-extended across two steps. Nothing else. Nobody.

The dog was still there above them like a rock.

She took his arm with both hands and pressed against him. He nodded in agreement. They picked up the stick and the metal tapping stopped. They went down the second escalator to the platform, where they both froze; just a step away from the escalator there were two brown leather Velcro men’s shoes. They were spaced out as if they were about to get on and go up.

They walked through the empty hall and found the supervisor, but there was nothing on the cameras and nobody else was there.

They took the shoes, put them in a bag with the folded-up stick, and went back up for the dog.

It did not even wait for them to come back up before it barked, turned tail, and ran off into the road. As if by a miracle, a bread van driver was unhurt, even though together with the dog and a street lamp he made up part of a sculptural group full of blood and fragments, which rumbled for quite some time.

A week later the shoes were thrown out by his mother, when she found them in his rucksack alongside the dirty washing that he took home once a month. First his father tried them out. They were too small for him.

He had kept the stick. He was trying in vain to recall where it had ended up, when her voice could again be heard from the beach.

Why had she chosen him of all people?

I’m so average. And she isn’t. Or is she? As he thought it over, his fingers moved gently over the pungent heather.

Perhaps that’s precisely why she is with him, a future primary school mathematics and PE teacher, the least exciting profession for a man. The embryo of an idea hatched in his mind with sea-fresh humidity: she was together with him so that she could shine in contrast to his blandness. So she could be seen. Because she was no star herself and any source of light blotted her out. He made the ideal backdrop.

He always knew that it was not for him to excel. That was for his younger sister, whose every single hint of a smile managed to attract everybody’s attention while he was drowning in the swimming pool. That was for everybody else, because everybody else struck him as more interesting and important than he was. Increasingly, he was beset by anxiety that he would be exposed as not human. He could not play this game of life like the others. He would give anything to find out what it was to win.

He crushed the purple flowers between his thumb and middle finger and rubbed the fragrance into his thigh. He got up, stuck his head out of the cliff hide-out, and gestured that he was on his way. He did not know how to explain his scratched hands, which were already starting to itch. And then he still had to put the tennis shoes in a plastic bag and swim back to the boat. He guessed there were salt burns in the little cuts. Who knew what time it was?

 

About the author

Adéla Knapová (1976) is a graduate of Charles University in Prague. One of the more prominent Czech journalists, she has worked since she was eighteen as a reporter and writer in print media (e.g. at Koktejl and Respekt), and since 2009 she has written for Reflex weekly. She has received numerous awards for her literary reporting. 2003 saw the publication of her first work Nezvaní (The Uninvited), which was well-received both by readers and critics, although the author herself considers it “invalid.” Nemožnost nuly (The Impossibility of Zero) is her second novel. Shortly after it was published (2016, Éditions Fra), Czech Radio called it one of the best works of 2016 both at home and abroad. In December 2017 her new novel Slabikář (Spelling-book) was published (Éditions Fra); according to critics, she confirmed her unique position as an original and essential novelist of European format.

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