When the village of Lidice and its inhabitants were arbitrarily and utterly destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, a few children were selected for Germanization and placed “with SS families in the Reich” (Hitler’s orders of June 9, 1942). Only 17 children returned to Lidice after the war. They could no longer speak Czech and many did not remember their families or the town. Ally Read’s poem, “A Child’s Sorrow,” imagines the first moments in the fate of one of the children spared death.
A Child’s Sorrow
Today she’s lost,
Awakened by a bright light
That forced its way into her face.
No time to think
She has to move quickly.
To her blanket, her comfort.
Where is her brother?
Where are her parents?
It’s dark outside
In one swift move, she is thrown
Over someone’s shoulders,
A man, strong, bitter.
Although her mind is so young, she realizes
The cruelty of the situation.
Her lips quiver
Her body shakes
She quietly cries out
One of the only words
She knows. She is sobbing now
Rosy cheeks, salty tears, and a runny nose
In a quick movement the man puts her down
Picked up by someone else,
She hears a soft voice
Whispering words she’s never heard
Es ist gut, meine trochter
They sound soothing.
She cries in the arms of her new life.
Karel Teige—photographer, graphic designer, typographer, and editor – was a major figure in the Czech avant-garde movement Devětsil. In the two decades before World War II, his energetic voice engaged Czech artists and writers in the controversial debates of the time. He believed in ars una, the arts free from boundaries between modes and disciplines. His surrealist photomontages sometimes employed the image that begins Dani Carney’s poem “Dreaming.”
From her navel your gaze slides upward
Toward the exquisite mounds on her chest.
Her breasts are full, flesh, muscle, tissue
They are yours.
They are magnanimous.
As you stare, you notice her nipples,
They are looking at you, staring
Into your soul. You are no longer safe.
Wide, prying eyes recognize the hypnotism in yours.
Her eyes are her nipples,
When it occurs to you
To look at her face, your fears are confirmed.
There are no eyes there, and you’ve just discovered
Where they lie.
You briskly depart the chaos of your sexual encounter,
Disappointed by the lack of climax.
Before you know it, you are strolling through a lush garden.
It is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
You see couples, hugging, kissing, touching,
Men and women, women and women, men and men,
In a heartbeat they are all looking right back at you.
You notice that the forest is made up of letters, words, sentences.
The grammar and inner dialogue of your thoughts
Spelled out in this forest, for all to see.
They laugh at you, and your ignorance.
You are never alone.
As you flee the forest, you encounter a full city.
People bump into you and yet acknowledge the air
As if you don’t exist.
Slowly words begin to strike you from behind.
They are the thoughts of others.
How can it be?
You yearn for the moment your conscious brain will remind
You that you are sleeping, and yet
It is engaged in the meeting of a society to which you, yourself, are not invited.
While you live inside, your brain finds itself
Too intellectual to inform you of the decisions
It will be making, and passing off as your own.
You are being invaded.
When will I wake up?
You ask yourself, never realizing that the world,
In which you are dreaming,
Is not a dream at all.
Brent Gaudette’s short story, “Entropy,” is a meditation, through multiple perspectives inspired by Cubist strategies, of the strains on family life and creativity under totalitarian systems.
The little boy’s long, curly hair bounces as he stomps behind the greasy pigeon. The bird retreats watchfully, head-banging with every step. The boy is more annoyance than predatory threat, but his deliberate determination triggers what remains of the pigeon’s flightless flight instinct. Thankfully, the boy’s unnerving advance maintains an easy pace. It has been a bleak day for crumb-dropping and the thermals are fractured by the trees of the park. The boy is fueled by curiosity and the bottomless tank children have and parents lament, the bird by aggravation and a tank too empty to fuel an unassisted take-off. The cross-country standoff continues. After a few minutes the pigeon’s routine proves predictable enough to extinguish the boy’s interest. The boy jerks to a halt, his curls and arms swinging like individual pendulums from residual momentum. The pigeon slows and turns, rotating its head to size the boy up from three meters away. The bird puffs up its chest and cocks its head, the boy pushes his belly out and interlocks his fingers on top of his curls.
Across the gray park, the boy’s mother tenses and stands up from the stained wooden bench. She scans the waist-high sightlines for thick, curly hair. He’s turning into his father already, thirty years younger and four feet shorter. She rolls onto her toes for the extra altitude, head swiveling like radar. This boy chases birds like his father chases lost causes. The heat rises in her and she opens her mouth to shout his name—then makes eye contact with a huddled old woman and remembers herself. She had only fallen deep in thought for a few seconds, but he is already a hundred meters away. This boy has no discipline, she is too easy on him, probably because her parents were too easy on her, look at her hair, so short and improper, like her skirt. The old woman sniffs loudly and wrinkles her nose. In her time, rearing a child imparted strict obedience and there was no time for the useless, selfish contemplation in which this young, foolish mother indulged, this younger generation with no respect for the state of important matters. They hate us for the past. The old woman shrugged to herself. What could a person do? Let this young generation live through the past fifty years, see how they handle it—it would not be any different!
I rubbed the balding spot at the top of my head, where curls as thick as the boy’s once established dedicated defensive positions to ward off both hair gel and barber’s clippers alike. My mother loved those soft twine curls and shed many small tears when they refused to fit under my newly-assigned construction hard-hat. Since they took my curls, I kept my hair short in mourning—and the women told me the close cut was becoming, because the beer and dumplings and shoveling kept me wiry. Now the curls were forbidden by my diminishing follicles (a product of so many days wearing the hard-hat, according to motherly logic), because a bald man can only find solace in a shaved head, and I was always wary of resembling a hollow Benjamin Franklin because I never believed a woman would look at me possessively, and although I kept company with a new woman every several months, each time the latest one abdicated I became hyperaware of my physical imperfections. It had been some weeks since I last had a woman, and I rubbed my sparse scalp ruefully, accusingly, automatically.
With the women came inspiration for writing, making their absences all the more acute. There was always revelatory sex, confusing conflagration, and then familiar loss—all had catalytic effects on the writer’s mind, much more so than staring out a small window into a repressed park. I rubbed my head in a half-hearted attempt to stimulate the ideas because I always feared the downward spiral of my inspiration from the decreasing frequency of the women, who found a construction worker less and less appealing as the years piled on and my hands turned into lined, pink stone, even though these hands were still masters of shovel, pen, and breasts. Perhaps some of the women would invert themselves for an aging writer, but the state had monopolized and bastardized that occupation and few of them would have read my discretely published, poorly-executed essays anyway, and what is an author without a state-approved book published to his name? A construction worker.
Charles Bridge (Karlův Most) is Prague’s most beautiful bridge, and it is said to be one of the most beautiful bridges in the world —a stone Gothic bridge (begun 1357) lined with thirty Baroque statues of saints and martyrs. It spans the Vlatva River between Old Town and Mala Strana. As beautiful as it is, Charles Bridge is packed with tourists day and night. Jess Gealy’s story “Free” explores the experience of being on the bridge from multiple points of view.
I despise tourists. Pushing through a mass of bodies, hot sweaty bodies, after I leave work, I realize that taking the Charles Bridge rather than the Legil was a bad choice. The distance is shorter, but the crowd makes it slower. The sun brings them out of the woodwork. They move without reason. Tourists taking pictures, tourists pausing at stands, tourists stopping to listen to a one-man-band. They walk directly through the path I’m trying to take, and they all look startled and annoyed as I try to go faster than they do. I left work late today, I’m late to pick up Tomaš from school, and I still have to make dinner. And I’ve just run into a man in a polo shirt and khakis. He’s spilled scalding hot coffee all over me. Coffee? On a hot day? He’s yelling at me in English. Not a drop on the man and he’s yelling at me. With his girlfriend looking on in her too-tight teal dress. Just get across and get home. Quickly.
Other than the woman who spilled my coffee, today has been a good day. Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square and now we’re on our way to the Hrad, across the Charles Bridge. A few sites off my list. Audrey is stunning today, too. I guide her through the crowds with my hand at the small of her back, looking at stalls and statues along the way. I can feel how tight and toned she is under her green dress. It glides over her curves without the bunch at the hip that a lot of women have. Not a bunch or crease to be found. I buy her a pair of earrings from a stand. Some more coffee would be nice.
Kitschy yellow flowers. When has he ever seen me wear something like this? It’s hot. It’s too hot for such a tight dress. And my sandals are rubbing. I can feel every muscle as I keep them flexed. Stomach in, back straight, hips swaying. It’s exhausting. I want to be free of it all. Three feet to the right and I’d be over the edge of the bridge, I’d be in the river. The cool liquid lapping my aching, hot muscles. I can feel John’s hand on my back, guiding me like a leash. I want to run. I want to run. Not because he thinks I need to stay tight, but because I just feel like running. Away from him, this crowd, this day. His hand on my back is hot. It’s making me sick. It’s making me hotter than the sun. I watch tourists laugh and take pictures and eat ice cream. I remember to smile. I always forget to smile. It’d be better to have it cast into my face like one of these statues. My face is hot. Everything’s hot.
I keep my forehead on the cool cobblestones, bowing. Cool. Warming under the hot sun. Sweltering. White hot. I raise my head to face the white hot sun. And a blue sky. Bright blue, dazzling blue. Blue like something I distantly remember, something from my past. I can’t remember. My dog shifts at my side, then opens his mouth to pant against the sun, the white hot sun. His cool, wet nose nuzzles into my side and his fur brushes against my arm, sticking to me in the heat. With a cup in my hands, I put my head back down, pleading to man and God alike to take pity. I rest my head on the cool cobblestones that echo the noise and vibration of tourists, thousands of tourists, pointing, gawking, posing, laughing, moving freely about their day. Sounds ranging from the dull thud of boots on stone, to the gentle gurgle of water rising from the Vlatva below. A spectrum of sounds as wide as the span of colors. A kaleidoscope of colors and shapes moving across the bridge in a disjointed flow of bodies. The colors rush by: orange pants, a purple scarf, a teal dress. One color, one shape moves past faster than the rest, dodging the other shapes and colors, quickly disappearing, a drop of water lost in the flow of a rushing river.
In a lecture he presented to the Prague Abroad Group, Professor Petr Bilek, head of the Center for Comparative Literature in Charles University’s Czech Literature Department, explained that “the tourist industry uses Kafka, calling him a sick, crazy guy.” Really, Dr. Bilek explained, Kafka was healthy, hard-working, athletic, and something of a lady’s man! Here, Trevor Maltbie combines the transformation into an insect from Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis with Kafka himself—all from the perspective of one of Kafka’s loves.
She chooses the perfect loaf, flour on top
She squeezes, it cracks and pops. Unsheathing a blade
She wonders, should she, end his assumed misery?
His acerbic wit is still there, it’s still his identity
But not for her, any longer it’s just cacophony
And he seems more fractious than ever
She finishes the sandwich
Purple onion, mustard, gouda, and
Braunschweiger. She opens his studio
She slides the bug
The Praha juden,
His meal she prepared
She misses his soft hands
And his big ears, his bug legs
Wouldn’t feel the same on her ass.
Jan Palach self-immolated in January, 1969, in protest of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968. His memorial, near the statue of St. Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square, is a small metal cross in the shape of charred wood, set into the cobblestone sidewalk. Wenceslas Square—today something of the Times Square of Prague—was the site of protests in 1968 and 1989. Liza Hagerman’s poem juxtaposes the mood on Wenceslas Square with Jan Palach’s self-sacrifice in 1969.
Tourists erupt in boundless joy,
Out of control in Wenceslas Square.
Their drunken bodies writhe
At every little word, even when
It’s not funny.
They come from all over,
Burn with the desire to party.
What do they know of Jan Palach?
Who howled, not in laughter, but in pain,
Crushed under the red boot, when he ignited
Himself in their place in 1969.
These wacky, hollow men stumble
By his cross, giggling
Without a clue. They’re paralyzed with ignorance.