Michal Ajvaz: Charles Bridge
08. February 2010 14:48
The following night I was walking along Bridge Street. An elderly man walked wearily ahead of me. I could make out his loose trousers and his bent back in a padded jacket that resembled the garb of road sweepers in our part of the city. He was pushing a two-wheeled handcart that was full of various cans and sacks, from which there protruded the wooden handles of some tools or other. When he reached the bridge, he halted in front of the statue of SS Cosmas and Damian and opened an inconspicuous little door hidden in the plinth.
It is odd how I had walked across Charles Bridge almost every day of my life but had never noticed a door in the base of the statue. On the other side of the door was a hollowed-out space from which light emerged and was reflected in the snow. Would a hobgoblin emerge, or the head of a dragon? Or would there spew out a red-hot torrent of lava rising from a subterranean lake? From the illuminated opening there skipped out a little elk, about twenty inches high, with luminous spatulate antlers. It started to leap about gaily in the snow, trying to stick its head into a sack that probably contained fodder. The man in the padded jacket shooed the elk away with a besom broom that he had pulled out of the cart. He proceeded to sweep out carefully the hollow space on the other side of the open door. He strewed hay inside from the sack and took out of the hollow a bowl into which he poured water from a can and placed it back inside the sculptural group. When he had finished, he pushed the cart on to the next statue, depicting St Wenceslas. Here too he opened a little door in the base of the statue, again revealing an illuminated space from which there again leaped out a miniature elk. The man swept out St Wenceslas' interior, strewed hay inside and poured water into the bowl. This was repeated for all the other statues on the bridge. The doors remained open and the elks that sprang forth from them were able to frolic in the snow during the feeding time.
I observed from a distance the feeder's progress from statue to statue. When I reached the statue of St Augustine I stuck my head inside out of curiosity. I could smell the stench of a stable and see that the entire plinth and statue were hollow. The hollow interior matched the external contours of the statue. The stone turned out to be no more than about an inch thick. The interior was lit by a single light bulb hanging at the top in the hollow head of the Bishop of Hippo. The bowl of water stood in a little alcove formed from the interior of the boot trampling on the heretical tomes of Mani and Valentine. The other city seems full of statues, I thought to myself, and its inhabitants cunningly make use of our statues, transforming them into stabling for their domestic animals. Not only have they settled into the nooks and recesses of our space, they also hollow out new spaces within things, in which we have such confidence, and which we assume to be properly solid. I expect the self-confident gestures we use to delimit our space would soon be undermined if we realized that the shapes we touch with such self-assurance are sometimes no more than thin shells enveloping the dark burrows of strange animals. Yet we must reckon with the fact that this thin surface of things will one day wear through and from the holes that appear in it the inquisitive eyes of the lemurs of the interiors will blink at us.
I concluded that the man in the padded jacket was some employee of the municipal authorities of the other city. Apart from feeding the elks he also seemed to have other duties. His hand cart also contained a bag with folded posters and a metal container in which a liquid adhesive splashed around. He stopped between the statue of St Francis Borgia and the statue of St Christopher and pulled out one of the posters, which he started to unfold. The light from the streetlamp fell on his face and I saw with amazement that it was the man who had told me about the secret door in his mistress' apartment and who had been carried off in mid-sentence by the marble streetcar.
I didn't know what to ask him first. "What is inside the green streetcar? Where did they take you? Did they force you to become their servant? Don't worry, I'll help you escape. Tell me what you saw behind the white door!" He gave me an impassive glance and without saying a word continued with what he was doing. He unfolded a poster and pasted it carefully onto the balustrade of the bridge. Then he moved on with the cart to the statue of St Christopher, where he started to tug a reluctant elk out from inside the statue. I stood in confusion alongside the poster that shone white in the light of the streetlamp. The text of the poster was unusually written in our alphabet. It read: "What is hidden behind the mysterious door? When we die will we become white statues on the islands? Felix, the reciter bird, charged with shoplifting in a supermarket. Physicists ask: did the bridge elks emerge in the first seconds after the Big Bang? The maniac who viciously killed the shark on the tower not yet apprehended. Read about these and other interesting stories in the latest issue of Golden Claw magazine, a magazine that celebrates its 3500th year of publication, the magazine that our noble patroness covered her face with when frescoes depicting serpents and shining machines started to appear on the white walls of the palace in the silence of the afternoon."
There were stables in each of the statues on the bridge, apart from the statues of SS Barbara, Margaret and Elizabeth, in which there was a bar instead. Four precariously high bar stools stood in the snow in front of the sculpture. Through the opening in the plinth could be seen the upper torso of a white-jacketed barman and behind him rows of bottles neatly arranged on shelves, while colored bar lights shone in the hollow bodies of the statues above. The man who had been kidnapped in the mysterious streetcar left his cart standing a short distance away and sat down on one of the stools. The barman placed in front of him on the stone counter a glass with a dark liquid, from which fluorescent purple vapor rose. I sat down on the adjacent stool and leaned on the bar with one elbow. With my free hand I tugged the kidnapped man by the sleeve. "So what's the story of the door and that streetcar? Tell me everything, I beg you. It's very important for me to know," I exhorted him. The elk keeper simply turned away and gazed in silence at the dark slope of Petfřin. he barman, however, leaned out of the statue and said angrily, "You should be ashamed of yourself, talking to an old man like that! For two pins I'd punch you in the nose. There are limits to rudeness, you must understand. You're in a respectable establishment here, not some undersea grogshop where drunken octopuses screech. I've been working here for years, and I can remember better days when there were really fine bars in these statues - that was before they started expanding operations on the bridge, with this stupid elk breeding -but I've truly never heard such obscenity."
All the elks that had leaped out of the hollows in the statues now bunched together into a herd and ran through the Old Town bridge tower and across Crusaders' Square before disappearing into Karlova Street. I followed them. Their antlers lit up the snow and shone in the glass of the darkened store fronts. When the elks reached the spot by the entrance to the Clementinum, where Karlova Street widens into a small square, they scattered and started chasing each other in the snow. I was standing by The Snake wine restaurant's big window that reaches to the ground; a low snowdrift crept along its bottom edge. The lights were off inside and reflections of the luminous antlers flickered in the dark glass. In the dim light of the streetlamp I could see that a young woman in a light-colored dress was sitting in a seat on the inside of the window gazing thoughtfully at the square. It was Klara Alweyra.
The Other City, Chapter 13
Translated from the Czech by Gerald Turner