Sometimes it seems that everything's pretend. That it's only a gesture that misses the mark. I am ten years old.
It is the year synthetic materials hit Prague. A new store, Plastik, appeared on Wenceslas Square and there are lines in front of it every day. Everything still amazes us: parkas, nylon bags, statues made from PVC.
One day my mother returns victoriously with plastic cutlery that looks like wood. The marvel is that the wood isn't wood, just like the statues' marble isn't marble. It is a collective plastic attack that will soon pass -- within a year, the cutlery will end up in the trash -- but now we raise the strangely weightless knife up to the light, the knife tips upward like a finger pointing somewhere else and, marveling, we fall under the spell of its artifice.
One morning Comrade Principal comes for me and for my best friend Hana. To the envy of all our classmates, she plucks us out of a test and leads us to her office in silence. Hana's dark ponytail trembles. Hana is perpetually alarmed, always more exemplary than me.
"Our school," the principal says sternly, "has decided to write to President Eisenhower."
Small, bent, and wrinkled, she is sitting in her army jacket behind a large desk. To my horror I see that she is holding our notebooks. Hana's are much more attractive than mine. Hana has terrific handwriting. She gets to write for the school bulletin board. Her handwriting is just like her: tiny, well formed. Always the same, tidy.
"The West," the principal continues, "is secretly preparing for war. They want to stab us in the back. But we won't let anyone take peace away from us!"
She picks up a composition I recognize, and the shock makes my heart leap in my chest. It is my contribution to the Young Writers competition, which won second prize in the Prague 10 district. It is called "A Merry Christmas Party."
"You," the principal points her finger, "you will write the letter. And you: copy it over in your best handwriting. I want to see it before vacation. You have two weeks."
She opens a drawer and spends a long time looking for something. She seems to have forgotten about us. I don't dare utter a word. Suddenly she stands up and stares me straight in the eye.
"It's high time the truth be told!" she shouts as if from a deep sleep. The tips of my fingers tingle with excitement. The principal hands me an outline.
I fly home, riding the crest of the moment. Outline, point one: greeting. Dear President Eisenhower! Outline, point four. The
horrors of war. Like in Soviet films. Signature: We, the children of Czechoslovakia. And it is I who was given this historic task!
Fourth grade took something out of me. Just last year I swam through life like a fish through water. Now I'm a dry cork on the surface. I tread water and try to get down into it. Life's everyday certainties are irrevocably gone.
Everything is just pretend. Since I can still faithfully imitate the loud, pudgy little girl I was not so long ago, no one has caught on yet. For example, everyone believes I love writing essays, but actually it bores me to death. My "Merry Christmas Party" was made up out of thin air. About thin-air kids doing thin-air things. In spite of this, everyone believes I'm going to be a writer. I'm sentenced to fiction for life.
It doesn't bother me. I play laboriously at playing. Some-times I sense adults' fleeting anxiety that everything's already happened. I secretly hope for a "jolt," for a catapult of trans-formation, as if I were a larva that ravenous inertia drives forth from its cocoon.
Is this my jolt? Presenting mankind's credentials in a letter? It's high time the truth be told! For ten days I write as if in a fever.
First I describe rivers of blood. I awaken the conscience of the American government. I speak with Eisenhower as an equal, but then behind all mankind's back I chew on my pen. I cross out whole mountains of pages, I don't sleep, I fall exhausted at
the foot of the White House steps. Hana's mother says the whole thing is pretty stupid. Hana, of course, repeats this to me.
Finally the letter is ready. It contains the horrors of war, as depicted in films. It contains many, many exclamation points. It contains the sentence: "After all, I myself am still a child!" Hana contends that it is too long, but doesn't put up a fight. She copies it perfectly, without a single mistake.
That evening I find an excuse to go out, and I run over to Hana's. My authorial pride goads me on. I long to see that beautifully copied letter again. I want to touch it before Eisenhower does. To weigh in my hands the paper confection in which my challenge to the White House will arrive.
Hana awkwardly lets me in. Usually we run right to her room, but today we stand in the hallway, shifting from foot to foot, as if on a train. Suddenly, through the wall, I hear an explosion of laughter and the voice of Hana's mother. She's reading my letter to her guests. "We children are too weak; our hands cannot carry bombs," she declaims in a flat, cadaverous voice. That's how the TV comedian they call the Sad Man speaks. Hana doesn't laugh, but her tidy, perfidious face makes it clear that she completely agrees with the antics on the other side of the wall.
"My parents insist that the principal's crazy," she says defensively, looking straight at me with prim courage.
"You're the one who's crazy! Just wait till there's a war!"
I turn on my heel and trot down the dark hallway. Hana quietly closes the door as waves of laughter billow forth. Blinded by my humiliation, I vanish into the darkness.
For the three days left till the end of the year, we don't speak to each other. On Friday, on the very brink of vacation, she stops me to say she's not my friend anymore. Stunned, caught unawares, I say I don't really care. It's all over between us, she says. I say that's fine. Hana heads home with an even stride, trailing straight A's from her beribboned folders.
I flee into the coatroom and cry a little. It's my pride that hurts, not my heart. This year I have no heart. The principal meets me in front of the school and stops me with a stern gesture. She stares at me for a while, as if trying to remember who I could possibly be. Then she shakes her head with a strange horselike motion, strides off and, as she walks away, says forcefully: "The letter's fine."
July is desolate. I wander listlessly around the garden with nothing to do. A dull film lies spread over everything; under its protective coating the summer fades like a chest beneath a plastic slipcover in a deserted room. I try to think about President Eisenhower, but since the incident with Hana a film has spread over him too. The chill gray days slide by.
On Sunday evening someone rings the bell. The caretaker, Miss Zámský, runs to the gate. Boredom keeps me eternally draped out the window, and so I see a burly old man come in. He has a cane and keeps coughing. Behind him walks a sturdy, dark-skinned girl. She furrows the ground with her dark, indifferent eyes, and scowls.
"Hello!" Miss Zámský shouts, and she waves at me. "We've brought you a friend! She's from Votice! Show yourself to the young lady, Sasha!"
The next day they put us together. It is wet, and we're wearing sweats and jackets. We wander here and there near the house. Sasha is glum.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"Just turned thirteen."
Even under the jacket I can see that she has breasts. She doesn't look at me. She doesn't look at anything. She just goes where the path takes her, with a heavy, uninterested tread.
"Are you starting eighth grade?"
"Why not? If you're thirteen ."
We walk past the bench. Mr. Zámský lets out a guffaw. He slaps Sasha on the rear and for about the fifth time says:
"Thatta girl! And what a piece of girl she is, huh?"
Mr. Zámský gives me the jitters. His big head is continually shaking. His tongue hangs out of his mouth and his eyes look like they're swimming in formaldehyde.
"Is that your uncle? Is he nice to you?"
Sasha just shrugs her shoulders. "He's nuts."
My feet are killing me. I'd like to go home. I have no idea what to say, but the footpath pulls me onward like a tugboat.
"What do you like to play?"
"You won't tell my aunt?"
I raise two fingers, wet with my saliva. "Promise."
"Lovers," Sasha says. I am dumbfounded.
"But how?" I ask. It begins to rain again. Sasha looks around.
"Come over behind these trees," she whispers. We step into cool, damp shadows. Rainwater drips down our necks. Sasha doesn't hesitate. She bends over and kisses me on the lips. Her mouth is slippery with baby oil.
"That's how," she says flatly. I guess that's all there is to it. We run out into the rain and then play rummy with Miss Zámský until evening.
After that we're together all the time. We never leave the garden; we play constantly. At what? At being lovers. Sasha doesn't want to play anything else. How? It's simple. We walk through the birch trees, hand in hand, and give each other kisses. Do I like it? Not at all. At ten I have finally left cuddliness behind and they won't get me back so quickly. Besides, there's something missing for me in this game, but I don't know what it is.
"And what are we called?"
"What is who called?"
"Ow, why'd you bite me?! I mean the lovers!"
Without names it just won't work. A name is always more than a body. Sasha licks a blade of grass and concentrates on tickling the inside of my ear. I squirm, dissatisfied.
"So are we going out with each other? And will we get married someday? And have children? Huh?"
Who knows. Sasha never asks things like this. The world around Sasha stands still. I have a Young Writers silver medal
and I know full well that the world is a story, a finger pointing somewhere else: a direction.
"So let's make something up!"
"Why? I don't want to."
"If I make something up, will you play it with me?"
Sasha doesn't know. It's all the same to her. She stops tickling me and starts single-mindedly squashing ants with her fingernail.
The next day I'm in the garden at eight. Furiously I stomp outside the Zámskýs' ground-floor window. Sasha is sleeping and doesn't want to get up, but I'm stomping like a real live elephant.
I have a story! Last night I couldn't fall asleep until two. A multitude of versions ran through my head. I'm as prolific as Adam in Paradise. I am amazed how easy it is to create new worlds. By the time sleep finally overtook me I had decided with solemn finality who Sasha and I really were.
From the window, Mr. Zámský threatens me with his cane; my noise annoys him. Sasha yawns. She takes ages eating breakfast. Finally we're out behind the birch trees. Mumbling, I explain her role. I know everything, absolutely everything! I (he) am called Mount Everest. Sasha (she) is Kilimanjaro.
There are two famous mountain climbers. They bear the names of the mountains they have climbed. Never in their lives have they met, but the world considers them merciless rivals. There is but one unconquered mountain left in all the world. It is the highest of them all and it has sent hundreds of climbers to their deaths. In the language of its country -- Himalayan, I suspect -- it is called the Mountain of Mountains.
Both decide to climb it. The whole world waits with baited breath to see who will be the first to raise the flag. The reporters are frantic, every transmitter is straining its ears. But shortly before they set out, a shock hits.
At the foot of the Mountain, Everest discovers the astound-ing truth. The whole world thinks this is a battle of man against man. Except Kilimanjaro is not a man.
Sasha: I only played this silly game for your sake. If you'd known I was a girl, you would never have competed against me.
Mount Everest (horrified): Kilimanjaro, I warn you -- the Mountain of Mountains is the end of the earth! At the summit there is nothing but sheer frost.
The ascent begins. Step by step the way grows harder. The sky is like a white abyss and the world is so tense it forgets to breathe. The most frightening part of the Mountain draws near, the Wall of Death. No one, except Sasha and me, suspects the truth.
From that day on, the game takes an unexpected turn. At the end of the garden is a steep hill. The ground here is perpetually moist, covered with brushwood. It becomes the Wall of Death. We press through the bushes on our bellies; a mountain hurricane rips us asunder, thorns catch on our sweatpants. The Young Writer has turned a fin-de-siècle stroll in the park into a military exercise.
Most of all, our love is now different. There's no more kissing, thank God. Love is no longer a perpetual dance in a circle. It's a contest, it's agony. It's a finger pointing straight up -- a direction! We crawl across the icy plain, exhausted. Embraces are out of the question, and anyway we are kept apart by layers of walrus skin. At these heights, a kiss without an oxygen mask spells death.
My parents are just thankful I'm playing and not lazing around the apartment looking bored. Two or three times they invite Sasha over for a snack, but in the house she turns glum again.
One evening my mother says Sasha is a dim bulb.
"She's got breasts big enough to be nursing, but every year she's got September makeup exams around her neck."
It doesn't make any sense to me. Sasha doesn't seem at all dim. On the contrary, she's fabulous. For example, she figured out how to freeze all by herself. I have never seen anyone freeze, so I have nothing to compare it to -- but she can stiffen up like an icicle. She says I have to massage her with snow. Everest diligently rubs her hands, calloused by her coat fasteners, but Kilimanjaro does not wake up.
"Kiss me!" she hisses suddenly, still unconscious, her eyelids squeezed shut.
How do I know that the fateful moment has come? Like the snake-prince, I can see in the dark. I know things I've never encountered. With a single tug I rip off my oxygen mask. Everest falls head over heels in love.
The elderberry thicket closes over us. The stillness rumbles like a cracked bell, and the distant roar of avalanches gradually falls silent. Face to face with the sheer frost of death, Everest comes to know the terror of love. Practically without touching her, in a panic, he kisses her frozen face. Sasha immediately
opens her eyes, and -- although she knows I don't like it -- the cunning girl licks me all over.
One evening there's a commotion downstairs. Sasha and I secretly peer through the window. Miss Zámský is chasing her brother around the kitchen; when he stops and cowers in horror against the wall, she swipes at him with a broom and, his hand shaking, he parries with his cane.
"You pig, shame on you!" she screams, swinging the broom round her head. "I'll throw you out of the house! Go back to Votice, you pig! Bet they don't want you either, you swine!"
She throws a brush at him. Mr. Zámský bursts through the door and makes his getaway. Sasha's eyes are shining. "I know why my aunt's upset!" she whispers. She bites her fingers so hard she leaves red welts on them, and brushes against me, giggling with excitement.
By the end of the week Sasha starts to rebel. We're all scratched up, we've broken our nails, and under our sweats our knees are thoroughly bruised. We've already climbed a slippery path along the Wall of Death, where the brushwood straggles to the ground. Sasha grumbles that she's lost interest.
I understand. After all, we're always playing the same thing. What's more attractive in love than the starting line? Again and again I wind the hands back to zero. Sasha freezes, Everest stands over her. The circulation of his blood pauses, like a paternoster grinding to a halt. This helping of emotion is quite enough for me, but Sasha is still grousing. She wants to know when we're going to get to the top.
The worst thing is that I don't know myself. The Young Writer is stuck in a creative crisis. I dragged us out to the ends of the earth and for a week I've held us there like a customs official. Just short of the goal my imagination has run dry. What awaits love at the summit of the Mountain of Mountains?
I compress my feelings like gas in a cylinder. I cross out the kisses; we're fighting for every gasp of air. The Mountain belches frost. I camp just shy of the summit, lacking the courage for that final step.
"I'm not playing!" Sasha pouts. Spitefully she sticks a thorn through my sweats. I beg her -- just one more time. We both roll down to the fence; relieved, I slip back under the starting line of love and once again I'm crawling along on my belly like a newt.
On Sunday Sasha gets the flu. I can't see her and I'm desperate. I thrash around the apartment like a Christmas carp in a trough, I talk back, cut people off, and am so nasty that my mother ironically asks me:
"Do you love her so much you can't spend even one day apart?"
The question takes me by surprise. I don't love Sasha at all! It would never occur to me to love Sasha! Everest loves Kilimanjaro with the insanity of pure frost, but it has nothing to do with Sasha and me. We are mere players -- a finger pointing somewhere else. We are only representatives, even if I don't know what of.
A numb tension dogs me all day. I read a little, but made-up stories irritate me. I stuff myself with cookies. Finally, just before supper, I get an idea for the next act of our play.
The exhausted Kilimanjaro is asleep in the cliff grotto. Everest sets out for the summit. He stands right below it. One more step and he could leave his thumbprint upon the very apex of the world. The lofty vacuum turns his blood to foam. Everest is alone like no one anywhere ever. He sits down on a ledge and takes out a piece of stationery. Beloved Kilimanjaro!
The love letter is an utterly alien genre for me. Laboriously I hunt for sentences to borrow, cobbling them together into something exceedingly odd. I don't believe what comes out of my pen. What I understand perfectly as a mute feeling is, when put into words, even thinner air than my Christmas Party.
Kilimanjaro! It is high time the truth be told. Until today I did not know what love was! They call me to supper, three times. Woodenly I stack line upon line. I love you. Meanwhile, the spinach on my plate is getting cold. Till I die I will love only you. The fourth time around, they hound me to supper.
Next, I figure out how we can correspond properly this far above sea level. With the help of some string, of course! I run downstairs. Miss Zámský is in the kitchen, curlers in her hair. I'm hopping with impatience, I've explained it to her so many times! I'm even shouting. Miss Zámský wants to know why I don't just hand her the letter. With a speed borne of exas-peration I rattle it off again. Miss Zámský asks: And what kind of game is it? Finally she throws up her hands and goes to wake Sasha up.
I stand on the balcony, tying the string. Carefully I lower the letter. write back immediately! Everest adds. I mope around upstairs, trying to hypnotize the twilight. Hurrah! Sasha's hand sticks out from the rocky grotto. She attaches a note:
"My temperture's allmost normal. My aunts going to the movies tomorow so if you want come over."
As if to spite me, the heat today is like a frying pan. The sun beats against the closed windows. The basement apartment is oppressive and stifling. Mr. Zámský is asleep in a chair in the garden, and Sasha is sitting on her bed in a rumpled nightgown.
"Do you still feel sick?"
"Still have a temperature?"
Suddenly I don't know what to say. I stand up and look around. Most of all I'd like to crawl right into playing, like a hand into a glove.
"So are we going to play? Like always?"
"Hey, could you bring me something to drink?"
"I'll bring it to you when we pretend."
"What do you mean, pretend? I'm dying of thirst!"
"So pretend like he's coming back to free her from the snow."
Everest brings her warm lemonade in a plastic glass; even Miss Zámský has had a plastic attack, only she doesn't have a refrigerator. He finds Kilimanjaro sleeping. No, she's frozen. Everest stands for a while, completely beside himself. Then he puts the glass aside and begins to massage the forearms of this victim of the Mountain.
"Kilimanjaro! Don't die!" he whispers -- today he's not at all convincing.
The victim opens one eye slightly: "Got the drink?"
She gulps it down at once and wipes the spills off her nightgown.
"You know what you have to do!" she says, and freezes. Mount Everest takes his time. It's not easy to introduce sheer frost into hundred-degree heat. Sasha breathes loudly. The hairs on her neck glisten gold with sweat. Everest still cannot get into the role. Finally he leans over, perplexed. A dying arm grabs him around the throat. He didn't expect this; his legs slide out from under him and he topples headlong into the featherbed.
When a shadow crosses the window, Everest's first fear is that they will find him in the Zámskýs' bed in his sneakers. He jumps up and comes to attention like an army officer. Mr. Zámský is squatting outside, tapping on the glass and snickering.
"Go jump in a lake, old man!" Sasha says irritably.
"What's he want with us?"
Sasha puts on an idiotic expression:
"Go on, girls, that's right, do it!"
Then she tumbles back into the featherbed and snores. Mr. Zámský shuffles inside. He slaps me on my rear and sits down on the bed.
"Well, girls! Want to look at some pictures? Not a word to Miss Z.! She doesn't need to know everything, right, girls?"
Sasha is snoring like a steam engine. At the same time she is nudging me in the back with her foot. The fever has unleashed her somehow. Mr. Zámský pulls out a tattered book. "Come on, girls, let's have some fun together! After all, I saw you -- you know how to have fun!"
Sasha leans forward on the mattress and props her chin on his shoulder. Cardboard figures stand out from the page: a ballerina and a man holding a hat right below his belly. Strings hang down beneath them. Mr. Zámský winks at us. He pulls one string and the ballerina raises her leg up high. It turns out she isn't wearing any panties.
"Hey!" Sasha yelps, and she rips the book away from her uncle. She pulls another string. The man jerks his arms away.
"Give it back! Sasha!" Mr. Zámský shouts. Sasha jumps around the bed, the bed flexes like a trampoline. Panicking, her uncle grabs hold of the footboard.
"Get over here!" Sasha calls to me. I hesitate, but she holds out her hand. I don't recognize her at all today. Hastily I kick off my shoes and clamber over.
"Sasha! You little devil!" Mr. Zámský moans. He's afraid to stand up and can barely hold on to the rail. I'm jumping as well. It's easier than keeping my balance. Suddenly a strange hotness enters me. Sasha jerks on the string, the man thrusts his naked belly onto the ballerina, and we both yelp, "Whee!"
"You! Little girl! Make her give back the book!"
I'm choking in the stifling room. I don't recognize either Sasha or myself. I jump and shriek with all my might, "Whee!"
Suddenly Sasha yells, "Auntie's coming!" and quick as a flash tosses the book behind the bed. Mr. Zámský is horribly frightened. He leaps up, dropping his cane, but leaves it lying on the floor and flees. I too am horribly frightened; I've turned white as a sheet. Sasha laughs wildly and burrows her nose into the featherbed.
"There's no one coming, don't worry. I just said that so he'd leave. Come crawl under the featherbed so he can't see us!"
She picks up the book and blows off the dust. She nods to me and pats the place next to her.
"I'm still going to tell my aunt on him tonight!"
She sits up, takes off her nightgown, and spreads her legs apart. Carefully she examines the picture and then between her own thighs. Everest stands on the bed; he can't move, must be frozen.
"Come on already!" Sasha snaps at me. The featherbed rolls over us like an avalanche.
As I run up the steps, lightning flashes. It gives the impression that evening has arrived early today.
My parents aren't home, but there's a letter on the table. I walk right past it. Only when I get out of the bathtub do I see that it's from Hana. I spend a long time drying my face with a washcloth. My hot skin itches, as if an electric current were buzzing through the air.
The letter takes me by surprise; I had completely forgotten about Hana. I remove a folded sheet covered in writing and can barely focus on it.
Two, three pages, an ordinary vacation letter. Swimming, the country house at Strakonice, colds, trips, mushroom picking. Do you already have your assignment done for September? Not me. Then I turn to the last page.
"And I also wanted to write you and say how much it bothers me that we ended what was a beautiful friendship. Maybe you already have another friend, but I still love you and will love you till I die."
All of it in tiny, perfectly formed handwriting, good enough for the American government. Just outside the window, lightning flashes. Fear instantly pins me to the wall. Scarcely a second later the thunder hits.
Sometimes it seems everything's just a fiction. A substitute for something that doesn't exist. In spite of this, each life has moments it can vouch for. This is one of them.
Outside it's pouring. In bed, flashlight in hand, I'm writing a letter. I love Hana so awfully much that there is no room for wonder. I didn't know it this morning, but now the whole past is nothing but a pedestal for my love. In the feeble glow of my flashlight, lines pour forth from me onto every page.
I love you. Till I die I will love only you. The mountain hurricane carries me through the air. Five pages spill, foaming, over the margins.
When I finish writing it is midnight. The house is asleep. I run along the balcony in the pouring rain and try to guess where Strakonice might be. Then I stand there in sheer triumph and project myself south-southwest. This is no fiction. It is no gesture. It is love itself. For it is high time the truth be told: if only I could experience such love again!
In the morning, Sasha is allowed outside. For the first time she roams the garden alone. I stay home, reading. Sometimes I peer out under the curtains and watch her wandering the paths. Only when I should be chopping carrots do I run out to see her.
"Hi. Were you sleeping?"
"'Cause you're later than usual."
We sit, swinging our legs, on the edge of a basin full of wet branches. Sasha brushes lightly against my ankle.
"Are we going to play?"
The sun makes a burning cap on my head. I twist my ankle around my other leg.
"I can't today."
"I have a vacation assignment to do."
"An assignment? Over the summer?"
"Only the best students have to do them. Like me and my friend Hana."
Sasha kicks at the basin wall. A yellow powder drifts down from the crack.
"We both write pretty well. We wrote to President Eisenhower together."
"So then will you come down?"
"And we also wrote to the American government. To make sure there isn't a war. My friend has the prettiest handwriting in the whole class. And I do the best essays."
Sasha falls silent. Mr. Zámský comes trudging down the path. As soon as he spots us, he heads off. Suddenly a black spark of hatred flashes through me.
"Why do you keep kicking our wall?" I say. "You're going to wreck it!"
Sasha jumps down off the rim. I deliberately take my time picking bits of gravel out of the grass, but she doesn't turn around. I have to go home for lunch anyway.
Sasha left Prague two days later. We said a listless good-bye. Mr. Zámský left with her. I never sent the letter to Hana. I carried it around with me for a few days and then left it in the pocket of my windbreaker.
As for the Mountain of Mountains, Mount Everest got the furthest, but even he never made it to the summit. His transmitter went dead. He must have wiped away the snow and covered the frozen girl with his own body. Somewhere up there the trail disappears. No one has ever conquered the Mountain of Mountains.
In September Hana and I sit next to each other, but it's awkward and futile. The wheel of friendship doesn't spin round again. Fifth grade languidly and painlessly draws us apart.
One day I'm rushing down the hallway at school. There's a bulletin board there for the Young Communist Pioneers council. Suddenly something stops me in my tracks. "Dear President Eisenhower!" a tiny, familiar hand has written.
For a while I can't believe my eyes. Our letter has been in America for ages! After all, it was for President Eisenhower! Then finally the jolt hits me and in a flash I understand it all.
That letter was never intended to be sent. There was no hope it would reach its addressee; it was just pretend. It too was a gesture that missed its mark -- a finger that might point somewhere, but somewhere it will never touch.