Snow. The first of the year. I pull on my boots and coat, walk through the streets made suddenly unfamiliar and find, with my toes, that particular edge where the road gives way to path. The path leads up from the village and into the countryside. Farmland curves around hills like a blanket, hemmed in by thick, black forest. Then I am there, at the field, at that particular, unmarked corner where I used to meet him in the evenings. Now the corner is defined by a private owner’s fence, which stretches all around the long, white plain. The fence is new, raw wood. I put my boot on one rung and then the other, and for a few seconds before I leap I balance on the topmost beam, arms out.
I walk towards the forest, now a protected region, and in the forest there is a place we were never allowed before. Through the trees there is a little valley with a stream wending its way riverward the way it has always done, carrying anything that lands in its waters to the Vltava. We were never allowed there before because it was no-man’s-land; there were watchtowers and bunkers on either side of the border. There was an electrified fence and there were floodlights. There were soldiers with automatics.
The stream will be frozen by now, of course. Frozen and white, so you would hardly know you were standing upon it.
Eventually the blizzard will come as predicted. The sky is a snow sky, pink, infecting the night with its faint, almost human light. My boots stitch up the field. Slow, easy stitches that will blue with shadow—or, when the snow falls, they will disappear completely, but either way they will cinch the field to the woods and the woods to the valley.
I imagine I will look for him, Karel, when I get there. I imagine getting down on my hands and knees, pushing the snow aside to find a clear piece of ice, so clear it is black. Among the frozen fish, there will be Karel’s face, not drowned or bloated or bloody or even dead, just normal, how he was. I will put my ear to his mouth. And he will whisper to me.
Karel and I spent one of our hard earned years meeting furtively at the field. I didn’t love him. There was nothing wrong with Karel. He was kind, intelligent, dark-haired and good with his hands. He had a sharp edge to his chin. A sharpness in his eyes. Someone else would’ve loved him with ease and everything he deserved. But he loved me and not someone else.
I would meet Karel at night. He would be smoking, always, and he would kiss me, opening his mouth and pushing the smoke into mine.
We edged the field to the woods, away from the valley and the floodlights and far beyond the buzz of the electrified fence. We went somewhere nobody could find because it wasn’t possible to get to it, protected as it was by stinging nettles and the tough brambles of wild roses, sharp as barbed wire. Then there were the dense branches of trees that went all the way to the ground, and no one could’ve imagined that through that there was a space just big enough for two people, always dry and warm and blanketed with the soft sides of pine needles, winter or summer, a space that did not belong here.
Karel pressed his mouth to my ear. He whispered: There was a break in the fence, or there was a tunnel beneath it, or there was a section that went unguarded, or there was a part of no-man’s-land where there was nothing at all.
I turned my head so he had to whisper in my mouth, so I could feel the words but not hear them, and my hands busied themselves with burrowing beneath his clothes down to his skin, and if he was still whispering, neither of us knew it.
Behind me, because of the hill, there is only a slight trace of the village, but not the village itself—an eerie light cast upward. The light of one person, one single person, who sets himself on fire in the town square. That kind of light. Faint, weak, oily. It sticks to the sky.
I’ve lived in this village my whole life. It was never a pretty village, but it was good enough, and I didn’t dream of anything better. I didn’t dream at all. I went to school, I helped my parents, I stood in lines when there was rumor of oranges or bananas. We watched the new collective buildings go up on the edge of town. A new school was built: flat, colorless, perfectly rectangular. The sky kept on as it always had—now blue, now gray, now pink—and the fields were there and so was the forest. But dreaming was a waste of time the way believing in God was a waste of time.
I’d known Karel for many years. I had only become interested in him that first year I began to teach children at the school. I still work there. Now the lessons have changed; there are no more story problems that begin: If five collective farm workers. . . . But the building is the same. He would watch me from the street, occasionally pushing the broom, warming his hands and smoking.
For a long time we watched each other. One day, leaving school, I brushed against him, dropped a book, and when we both stooped to pick it up I whispered without looking at him: “Teach me.”
When I got home I found the piece of paper he had tucked into the pages without my noticing, one side typed with the usual anti-Soviet propaganda, the other with a handwritten time and place. And that night I met him there, aching to learn about freedom. Be my human face, I might’ve said, and I’ll be your ultimate conquest. For I was the schoolteacher he hated, a perpetuator of lies. And so I kissed him.
Someone set himself on fire in the town square, a young man we all knew. It was paint thinner and floor paste, and with a single struck match, he threaded himself to other such martyrs, for the flame caught and he died.
Maybe many of us longed for that kind of passion, the kind that could make a person light himself on fire. I didn’t have it. Karel didn’t have it. I would take whatever scraps they gave me and I would make something out of them and I would live. I taught the children what I was told to teach, I lead them in patriotic songs. In the evenings, I marked papers beneath the light of the kitchen table and under my parents’ watchful eyes. As soon as they went to sleep I would slip out the door, take the path to the field to Karel. He would be smoking, always, and he would kiss me, opening his mouth and pushing the smoke into mine.
The night I told him I wasn’t going: black with no stars and no cloud cover. No moon, and we felt our way along the field.
He had taken care of everything. We would leave tomorrow night. I was on my back, the pine needles imprinting my bare skin. I shook my head, I said I couldn’t possibly leave, not that way, but Karel was whispering so hard into my ear the words took on edges that hurt, he was whispering about a place that did not exist, and even if it did, I said no place was better than any other, they were all pulled together in a knot.
“Karel,” I said, “Karel.” I pulled his face from my ear. I held it in front of mine. “Not yet. Wait.”
The next night, I stacked my papers on the table and set them aside. Fire burned inside my body, a fire that only wanted more fire. I imagined my body burning until it turned to ash. I walked to the field. Let Karel turn me into smoke. As I neared I watched for the ember cupped in his palm, the ember that for me was like love. But there was only a seam in the dark, which wasn’t Karel, but my wanting him to be there.
I went to our space, as if I would find him there, propped up on one arm, waiting for me. I knew he had gone across. I crawled through to the place made soft with fallen things, and I lay down. It wore too big on me. Suddenly I was detached from the rest of the world, all of it, the good and the bad, to be exiled to this small swatch, never to find my way back.
Now I think what I was feeling was Karel, who was already dead. That’s what he was trying to tell me.
After Karel was gone I still went to meet him. Of course he was never there. I found myself crawling further from our space and closer to no-man’s-land until I didn’t go to our space at all. I was drawn like a bug to the floodlights. I crawled like a bug, I lay hidden in the landscape like a bug. I listened to the edgy hum of the electrified fence, itself like a living thing. I heard, in the distance, the occasional voices of the watchmen, the striking of a match. A shift in the pressure of the night air: the gathering of a breath. The thrust outward and almost over and sometimes directly into the electrified fence. The quick shower of sparks: a person burning can be like fireworks.
Or in the valley, somehow, inexplicably, in that no-man’s-land, there were movements or sudden dives, where the land of the living consolidated with the land of the dead, where one folded into the other, and I heard the shots and I saw the fall, over and over and over again.
I watched people die. People I knew and people I didn’t, and people I did not see at all. I lay there and watched it happen. Before dawn I would crawl back to where I lived and sit in a shallow cold bath and prepare in my head the day’s lessons for the children. We would sing, learn our new history, find the answers to specific equations. We would learn Russian and dissect our Czech, cut up sentences and conjugate verbs. I thought of the blood of the dead streaking down the sides of the valley, coloring the stream like ribbons, flowing into the great river that cuts through our country, dissolving into our drinking water. There was really no out, no sea to escape into.
The fence has been removed, along with the watchtowers and floodlights. I’m unsure now where it was, the snow has hidden anything that might remain. Then I feel it: here—it was here, the electrified fence, because I can feel its static, and because, when I look back, I can see myself hidden in the snow, watching with no expression at all. The face of a bug, camouflaged for winter. The mouth snaps. Go, it says. Be my human face.
I turn to the valley. The trees are quiet and white-limbed, snow collected on the black bark. I walk beyond the ghost fence towards them, then through them and down the hillside to the frozen stream. I stand on the ice. I’ve never been here before.