by Marek Šindelka
Translated from the Czech by Nathan Fields
The grain is smooth and shines like a pearl. Hardly half a millimeter in length. Its origin is unclear. Maybe the remains of undersea mountains on the bottom of the ancient ocean, maybe a tiny particle of Saharan sand transported by subtropical wind from continent to continent. Maybe (and this is most probable) it is just ordinary debris without meaning or past. The grain, along with a number of others, is stuck onto a tiny piece of apple pulp full of putrid bacteria. The pulp glistens and ferments. It comes from an apple that neighborhood children tore from a tree, and when they found that it was sour and acrid, they tossed it into the grass where, during the hot summer days, it softened, sweetened, and was covered by mold. The piece of apple pulp moves among stems and dry fallen leaves clutched in the mandibles of a black ant hurrying along a path marked with acid to its ant colony. In front of and behind it rustle the legs of other, absolutely identical workers. The path is swept, trodden, and two-way. Granular. A relentless neurotic movement in the grass. Ants pass each other, rapidly touching each other’s feelers, exchanging information along the chemical trail. It is one of the main arteries of the organism. Many such trails radiate starlike from the ant colony concealed in the roots of an old silver spruce. Some are as thin as a hair, seldom frequented, exploratory. Others are thick with abundant circulation. The colony gropes the space of the garden. The cognizant and incessantly regrouping being, composed of hundreds of thousands and millions of molecules of individual ants, has at its center a seething and pulsating enormous milky-white queen. Whatever this amorphous beast grasps falls apart, disintegrates, disappears without a trace. Now it has reached out for the apple and the apple is slowly and visibly disappearing as the afternoon progresses. A decorative shrub grows above the disappearing apple. A rhododendron. It looks pathetic in this heat; burned by the sun, its leaves have yellowed, gnarled. Branches twisted as if in a cramp, as if they wanted to pull themselves back under the earth, where they once budded. Above the unhappy shrub, a tree by the name of apple lives out its miserable existence. Someone is shaping it into their own picture – binding it with wire to determine the direction of its branches’ growth. The wire is growing into the bark, cutting in deeper, slicing into the living. Apples grow heavy on the branches. They mature in time with this black, howling, disjointed summer. In this blaze most of them will not survive till harvest. The wretched tree will begin to drink from them, sucking from the apples the water it filled them with itself. Life is getting rough throughout the garden. Deserted flowerbeds, cracked soil, gray stalks, carcasses of tulips, carcasses of roses. A piece of a dog stares from a doghouse hammered together from formica. In the corner of the garden a shed, in front of it an expired Russian Zhiguli. The remains of an automobile. Beneath the detached hood its internal organs are visible. Nettles grow both around and inside the vestiges of the car. A cat has made its nest on the back seat where it brings into the world kittens that infest the surrounding gardens and the entire neighborhood. What the dog doesn’t kill have to be caught and drowned. This summer is like an illness, like an inflammation in the garden. Gravel bakes, watering cans bake, a dried-up rusty barrel bakes beneath the searing rain gutter. And where there’s a rain gutter, there’s also a house. There’s a house here and it’s not a pretty one, mica in the plaster, paint peeling from the window frames, rusty around the breastwork, long-unused metal flag holders. A person named Josef lives in this house. At this moment he is squatting beneath the apple tree and observing things. The grain of sand stuck to the fermenting apple pulp carried away in ant mandibles. His gaze follows the pulp until it disappears devoured by the continuously hungry organism of the ant colony living in the roots of the spruce. The activities of the ants remain mysteriously unaffected by the heat, just the opposite, their efforts seem to be spurred on by it. They swarm before Josef’s eyes. Small black specks on an insect footpath. The apple is disappearing, a patterned shadow falls over the ground, the sunlight is filtered through a straw hat. Josef feels the pump inside him, precisely distinguishing the pressure, the drawn-out movement of blood in his chest, back and forth, back and forth through the chambers and halls of his heart muscle scarred by two strokes. The blood inside Josef is black, viscous and old. On hot days its turns into syrup, flowing slowly, sliding through the rootlike labyrinth of arteries in a buttery honey motion. One of the kittens runs into the garden from somewhere, hunting something in the liquid air, at this moment it seems like a kind of flat worm, a black trematode flowing in undulation above the earth. It’s probably a butterfly, Josef considers. But who knows. Summer is roaring, getting drunk, anything can happen. The kitten races after the moving thing onto the wreck of the Zhiguli, but then immediately jumps back off the scorching hood, having singed its paws and meanwhile emits a strange biological sound, it meows, but a kind of hollow meow, an unkitten-like rumbling. Josef is suddenly not sure whether or not it was a nervous twitch in his head, or maybe something has shifted somewhere deep in the dark cavities of his skull … Better not think about it. Josef now observes the ants swarming everywhere in the garden, even in the sky when he looks there, they are also swarming when he closes his eyes – he decides that he should probably get into the shade, he raises himself with an effort, wheezes for a moment, then he surmounts the few meters in the direction of the shady terrace, where he sinks exhausted into one of the chairs woven from plastic imitation wicker. Towards him move the worried eyes of his daughter Elisabeth. “Alright Dad?” He nods. Wheezing. The garden table – glasses, in them water, in it sugar and lemon, a bowl, in it low-quality cheap wafers, cacao cream is leaking out of them (everything is turning to liquid today), a wasp is eating the cream, on the tablecloth is a pair of hands –they are mixing something, moving a box of matches, as time passes they place it in various positions in the square network embroidered on the tablecloth. The strange, suddenly not completely familiar world of things. And the world of words. Josef’s children are speaking. There are more of them here. Three. They are speaking about him. About their father. What to do about Josef? What should we do with him now? Josef hears them, but does not understand. The world of words, suddenly not completely… “What do you think, Dad?” (Aneshka), Josef raises his head and doesn’t know. He does not know to the extent that even the anatomy of his face has adapted to it because the children correspondingly and unanimously nod and then continue in their conversation without his presence. “In Mladá Boleslav…“ (Adam), Josef is listening, but cannot make it cohere into a whole, the world of words, recently it’s as if… “Linda said…excellent…her aunt…walks through the park… excellent… caregivers… excellent… willing… food… excellent, there’s nothing to worry about there,“ Adam finishes, swallows some lemonade and exhales through his nostrils into the glass (like when he was little, Josef thinks), Elisabeth places the box of matches in a new position on the netted tablecloth, a moment later Adam unconsciously, but as if on purpose, takes it, lights up, inhales, blows out through his nose, it rustles, in this heat the smoke is almost invisible, and he throws the match carelessly on the table. “And wouldn’t it actually still be possible to…” (Aneshka), Elisabeth’s hand timidly and thoughtfully moves the matches again. Aha, Josef suddenly thinks to himself, monsters. The melting wafers are now pouring out of the bowl, there, back, touch it with feelers, and quickly continue on, among glasses and the ashtray, down along the tablecloth, onto the back of the seat, even a bit along Adam’s leg and … “What are you looking for there, Dad? Did you drop something?” (Elisabeth), Josef confusedly let’s go of the tablecloth, raises his head, “What?” Adam Addie Ads waves his hand, looks at Elisabeth, shakes his head and rolls his eyes a little, Josef: ‘What did I…” The world of words seems to have suddenly… “Look Anesh, you’re not going to be paying for it, so please, forget about these…” (Adam), it’s going to have to be torn out from its base, Josef thinks, it’s too far gone, it’s raging like a tumor inside the roots of the spruce, it’s striking out all through the garden, whatever it reaches for disappears without a trace, uproot it, tear it out, too far gone… “We should alternate from day to day, so … after all, Dad’s been here his whole life … for him everything there will be strange … we can’t just make him…” (Aneshka), a timid movement of the box of matches over the tablecloth (Elisabeth), “Are you out of your mind!” (Adam). Then everyone is silent, the world of words suddenly is not. Josef breathes out, sees three of his children, beautiful, silent, sunken into unknown thoughts, they look tired, Adam is irritated, sweating under his snow-white shirt, his loosened tie hangs crookedly over his chest, Elisabeth timidly braids tassels on the hem of the tablecloth, Aneshka, perhaps offended, has her head turned away, looking somewhere into the garden. Peace and quiet. Three children who sometime long ago toddled through this very yard, baby teeth bordering their gums, in their heads and in their vocal cords the world of words had started to sprout – had started to mean the world of things, and even earlier, in the ancient coordinates of time, these three adult, perfect, self-consistent beings were each merely a single cell in Josef’s body and another cell in the body of … Her … Josef freezes in horror … Her … He can recall her face, hundreds of mannerisms and variations of her smile, a hundred shades of gesture, the slight, gentle impediment in her speech, but her name, her name is not there … Not that … Words are flowing around again, sticky sugar water in the glasses, matches on the tablecloth, crumbs and a small wad of warm mashed cacao escapes from the bowl, touch it with feelers, and continue on, … even including the garden we’ll get about … let’s say … divided by three, we have …” (Adam), Josef gets up, with effort deserts the area of speech, which has already … He walks, sun through the straw ornaments of his hat, but at least now not so powerfully, he walks, hundreds of variations of smiles, hundreds and thousands of oscillations in the weather of a single face, but the name, the name – the word which was hers, those few letters that someone gave her long ago, which bound up her whole existence in a knapsack, that word had suddenly disappeared, returned back to the world of words that has already escaped Josef, that pour out and seethe above the garden table behind his back. That sweet name has gotten lost, disappeared without a trace, he forgot it in the grass, and piece by piece it departed to the forgotten… The piece of the dog sticking out of the doghouse wags its tail, Josef passes it, takes the hoe from the shed, he is walking, now already determined, now only the core of the apple remains in the grass – it is swarming in black, disappearing – he walks from it along a sour path, it’s already too far gone, Beth, Aneshka, and little Adam in the garden, they are still biting them, swellings, inflammation, my children, and her, her, of whom only a hundred variations of a smile remain… It must be cut, torn out, killed, he raises himself up heavily, the hoe slices through the air and enters the soil, swarming, another backswing, stroke, flashing specks everywhere, panic, crazed black specks run along the wooden handle to his palm, tear it out, eradicate it, here at the roots – her name, they’ve taken it from me, disassembled it, taken it away in pieces, backswing, stroke, sour, burning pain, the backs of his hands, arms, shoulders, throat, pulsates and burns, swarming everywhere, everywhere … Josef gasps for air, swings back again, Aneshka is already running to him from a distance, Adam and Elisabeth are alarmed, rising from the table, the blade of the hoe falls heavily onto the ruins of the nest, something cracks softly, something’s been severed, Josef drops in exhaustion, sweat is pouring down his face, his whole body is numb, ant poison pulses, stinging him under his skin, he stands and stares at the white body of the queen cut in two by the hoe – it writhes a little, stops… Jana – pops into his head like an over-ripe bud. Jana, Josef exhales in gasps and stares mesmerized into the swarm of little black dots confusedly circling the dead body of the queen – some workers are shifting the maimed body, placing the halves of their queen together, trying to resurrect her, but in vain, the ant colony cools, it is dying, its movement loses order, ceases to be organized, the swarming suddenly seems to contain an essence of grief, bitterness, granulation surrounds the dead, the sense of existence flickers … The grief contained in the swarming of the thousands of now-useless creatures, that unhappy and desperate chaos somehow also writes itself inside Josef and he suddenly feels tears on his face, his own tears, which are pouring out of his eyes, running down his cheeks and dripping into that ruin. He drops to his knees, hands covering his face, someone’s hands are brushing insects’ bodies off him, someone is placing a hand on his shoulder, someone is stroking him, someone’s words are splashing out, they are meaningless, Josef does not understand them, he sees all of it as if from high above, as if from a distance, words poured out around a man kneeling above a dying ant colony, translucent as fog, frightened children hugging their daddy, they don’t know what to do, they are so small, so helpless, but they are together, after such a long time they are all together again, in the roots of a silver spruce a man is kneeling, he found a name there, her name, it’s not so bad yet, they are together, they will remain so for a while longer. Evening is beginning.