An excerpt from the novel "Hana"
by Alena Mornštajnová
Translated from the Czech by Andrea Goldbergerová
That year, the smell of disinfectant filled the air instead of spring. The houses were huddled to one another, as if they wanted to be comforted in the desolation also surrounding the figures walking through the town streets. Feuds and neighborly quarrels—which seemed important a few weeks ago—were put aside and all conversation revolved only around powerlessness, fear and disease.
Disinfecting teams walked through the town, stopping at every house where someone had fallen ill, and left behind scattered beds rid of linen, a strong, nauseating odor, and a sign written in white chalk on the front door.
Our house also had to undergo this humiliating procedure and I was supposed to witness it, as I was the only tenant not closed off in the infectious ward. I came along with aunt Ivana to our street at an appointed time, unlocked the doors leading to a dark hallway and let in two men wearing white coats with masks covering their noses and mouths. We were standing in the hallway for a long time, infinitely long--or so it seemed to me, at least--and waited until they were finished with their task.
"Done?" aunt Ivana asked, when they ran down the stairs.
"Just the watchmaker's shop" one of the man replied. "Apparently there are keys in here somewhere."
I pointed at the peg next to the front door and when they unlocked and entered, I looked in. Everything was in its place and yet there was something odd about the shop.
Silence. It was a strange, eerie kind of silence, which took me by surprise. I didn't hear the ticking of the clock machines. Pendulums hung motionless and the hands on the dials showed the time when they had stopped. There was no one left inside the house who would wind up the dozens, maybe even hundreds of clocks—there was no one left who would need them. It was as if they had died.
The men were finished and handed aunt Ivana a piece of paper for her to sign, proving that they had done their job thoroughly and without any issue. After all, even the horrible stench they had left behind proved this.
We locked once again, walked though our narrow street and turned to the square. There were more people outside than usual and they were all headed in one direction.
"They are going to listen to the announcement," aunt Ivana said, clasping my hand tightly and quickening her pace. She obviously had no intention of staying on the square.
"Aunt," I begged, "let's stay here. Look, some children are there as well."
I know for certain that it was not my beseeching that made aunt Ivana stop and listen to the never ending chain of names and announcements about the patients' condition. She stopped out of curiosity awakened by the sight of a silent crowd facing the building of the municipal national committee. Stopping her from leaving was the rustling of ominous whispers and sobs which occasionally soared through the sea of gathered people whenever the condition of someone ill got worse. She stopped and listened without moving to hear the name of someone she knew. She stood even though she knew she should carry on—however, curiosity glued her legs to the pavement.
A monotonous voice read the never ending list, pronouncing the names carefully and sorting them out into categories. I heard the name Hana Helerova. I pulled aunt Ivana's sleeve and felt awfully important. They are talking about my aunt Hana in the town broadcast.
"Critical," the announcer said. That was no news to me—I had seen myself how unwell my aunt was. I went on listening. Name and a brief announcement. Moderately serious, serious, unchanged, fair, out of danger... Then the announcer said another name and it seemed as if he broke off somehow. He continued after a while, though. "Deceased," he said and slowly read on.
Terror struck me. Before that moment, it had never occurred to me that mum, dad, Dagmarka or Otik could die. Only really old people die, after all, but dad always said that his hair had not gone grey because of age but from worrying, and mum did not even have a single wrinkle. And my siblings were only children. I felt my aunt's hand gripping my arm as she pulled me away.
"They're already at the letter J," I screamed, trying to halt my aunt. "They are going to be talking about my family in a while."
Aunt Ivana pulled me onwards. I dug my heels into the pavement and held onto the door frame of the bakery where I had waited for an ambulance for sick Hana two weeks ago. Aunt pried my fingers away and dragged me further. She pushed on to the point of almost running but it was too late.
"Kalas Jan," the broadcast announced. "Fair. Kalasova Marta, serious. Karaskova Dagmar, unchanged. Karasek Karel, serious. Karasek Ota, unchanged. Karaskova Rosa..." That was mum. The voice seemed to break off for a moment. My aunt pulled me further and I stopped fighting her. Suddenly, I wanted to run as far as I could and escape the words I knew were coming.
"Deceased," the voice said and I didn't hear anything else because I started crying. I sobbed loudly and yelled: "No, mommy, no!"
People turned to look at us but they probably thought I was a sulky child resisting her mother, and they watched us scandalized. I wasn't aware of any of that. I could only feel an immense sorrow, loneliness, and chill--I also wanted to die. I realized that somebody was picking me up and pressing me against them and for a split second hoped that it was a mistake and mommy came to comfort me but it was just aunt Ivana. She was carrying me away from the square and her face was covered in tears.