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Gespräch mit dem Beter

A short story ("Conversation with a Worshipper") by this Czech writer.  You can read the original here.

There was a time when I would go to a church day after day because a girl with whom I had fallen in love would pray there on her knees every evening for half an hour, and during this time I could watch her in peace.

One time, as the girl had not come and I loitered there unwillingly gazing upon the worshippers, I noticed a young man who had prostrated his entire meager self upon the floor. Now and then he would seize his skull with all his bodily force and plummet it sobbing into the palms of his hands which lay spread out upon the stones.

In the church there were only a few old women who would often turn their kerchiefed heads to the side to look at the worshipper. Such attention seemed to make him happy, for before every one of his pious outbreaks he cast his eyes around to determine whether he had a large audience. I found this unbecoming and resolved to speak to him when he walked out of the church as to why he prayed in this manner. Yes, I was annoyed that my girl had not shown up.   

Yet it was an hour before he stood up, carefully crossed himself, and lurched over towards the basin. I placed myself in his path between the basin and the door and knew that I would not let him through without clearing up matters. As I always do while readying myself to speak with determination, I contorted my mouth. I placed my right leg out and leaned on it, while my left foot casually rested upon its toes; this attitude also strengthened my position.

Now it is possible that this man was already peering at me as he sprayed holy water upon his face; perhaps, in fact, he had already noticed me and become concerned because all of a sudden he ran out towards the door. The glass door banged hard. And as I then stepped out of this door right after him, I could not see him since before me stretched a number of small alleyways, all teeming with traffic.   

He did not come by the church for the next few days, but my girl did. She was wearing a black dress with transparent ends on the shoulders – the crescent of the blouse's edge lay beneath them – from whose lower edge the silk descended into a finely made collar. And when the girl arrived I forgot about the young man; nor did I pay him any attention when he started coming back regularly, praying as always according to his own peculiar custom. He would always pass by me in a great rush, his head always averted. Perhaps that was because I always thought of him as being in motion, and so even when he was standing, he seemed to be creeping.   

One time I was delayed in my quarters; nevertheless I still made it to the church. When I got there I did not find the girl and wanted to return home, but then I saw the young man lying there. I recalled our encounter and it made me curious.   

I glided over on my tiptoes towards the door, gave the blind beggar sitting there a coin and hid myself near him behind the open wing of the door. There I sat an entire hour, probably with a cunning look on my face. I felt well there and resolved to come more often. As my second hour began I decided it made little sense to remain beside the beggar. And yet, irate as I was, I nevertheless spent a third hour there, as spiders crawled all over my clothes and the last people, breathing noisily, exited the darkness of the church.   

Then he appeared. He was walking carefully, his feet airily touching the ground before stepping on it fully.

I stood up, took a broad step squarely in his direction and laid my hand upon his collar. "Good evening," I said, and pushed him down the steps onto the well-lit square.   

When we were down on the square he spoke to me in an utterly unfortified voice:

"Good evening, my dear, dear sir. Please do not take umbrage at me; I am, after all, your most humble servant."

"Yes," I said.  "I, sir, want to ask you a few things. The last time around you escaped me; today you will hardly be so lucky."

"I see that you are merciful, sir, and that you will let me go home. I am a pitiable creature, and that is the truth."

"No!" I screamed into the blare of the passing streetcar. "I will not. These are precisely the stories I like. I congratulate myself: you are quite a find." 

Then he said: "Oh God! You have a lively heart and a head made of cinder block. You call me a lucky find, how fortunate then you must be! For my misfortune is unsteady, an unsteady misfortune faltering atop a narrow peak. And if one were to touch it, it would fall upon its head. Good night, sir."

"Alright," I said and held on firmly to his right hand."If you do not answer me, I will start shouting right here in the middle of the street. And all the shop girls running out of the stores and all their lovers looking forward to seeing them will gather because they are going to think that a droshky horse fell over or something like that happened. Then I will show you to the people."

Crying, he kissed both my hands in turn.  "I will tell you what you want to know. But I beg you, we had better go into the side alley over there." I nodded and there we went.

But he was not satisfied with the darkness of the alleyway, lit as it was only by distantly spaced lanterns. So he took me into the first floor entrance of an old house beneath the light of a lamp sagging at the foot of a wooden staircase. With a gesture of importance he took out his handkerchief, spread the handkerchief on a step and said: "Please sit down, my dear sir, so that you may better ask your questions. I will remain standing so that I may better answer. But please do not torture me."

I sat down and spoke, looking at him through a squint: "You're a real loon, aren't you! How you behave yourself in the church! How annoying and unpleasant for onlookers! How can one be forced to look at you and remain devout!"

He had pressed his body against the wall; only his head was moving freely in the air. "Do not be annoyed. Why should you get annoyed over things that do not concern you? I get annoyed when I behave myself clumsily; when another behaves himself badly, however, I am pleased. So do not get annoyed when I say that the aim of my life is to be looked upon by others." 

"What are you saying?" I called out, a bit too loudly for the first floor, but I was afraid to have my voice sound weak. "Really, what did you say?  Yes, I suspect, that is to say, I already suspected, since I saw you that first time, in what condition you would be. I have experience and I'm not joking when I say that this is a seasickness on dry land. Its nature is such that you have forgotten the true names of things, and in your haste bestow upon them random names. Rush, rush, rush! But hardly have you escaped them than you've forgotten their names again. The poplar in the fields which you called the 'Tower of Babel' because you didn't know or didn't want to know that it was a poplar, sways namelessly again, and you would then have to call it 'Noah, when he was intoxicated.'"      

I was a bit dismayed when he said: "I'm happy that I did not understand what you said."

Excited, I said quickly: "The fact that you are happy about it means you understood."

"Of course, my dear sir, I showed I have; but you also spoke quite strangely."

I laid my hands on one of the upper steps, leaned back and asked in this almost unassailable stance, which is the last resort of the wrestler: "You have a funny way of saving yourself: you assume that others have your condition as well."

Here he became bolder. He placed his hands together to give his body a wholeness and said with mild reluctance: "No, I do not do that against everyone, for example not against you, because I cannot. But I would be glad if I could, because then I would not have any need for the attention of those churchgoers. Do you know why I need it?"   

This question led to my awkward silence. Surely, I did not know why; I also believed that I did not want to know. I hadn't even wanted to come here, I said to myself then, but the fellow had forced me to listen to him. So now I only needed to shake my head to show him that I didn't know.  And yet for the life of me I couldn't move my head. 

The man standing across from me smiled.  Then he crouched down on his knees and began to talk with a sleepy expression: "There was never a time in which I was convinced of the life I had.  As it were, I comprehend things in notions so decrepit that I always think these things had once lived but now they are sinking.  Always, dear sir, do I want to see things the way they might be instead of the way they appear.  So do they become beautiful and calm.  It must be so, because I often hear people speaking about them in such a manner."

Since I was silent and only revealed my discomfort through uncontrolled contortions in my face, he asked: "You don't believe that people talk that way?" 

I thought I must have nodded, but I couldn't.

"You really don't think so?  Now you had better listen: when I as a child opened my eyes after a short midday nap, I heard – even though I was still mired in sleep – my mother ask in her natural speaking voice from the balcony below: 'What are you doing, sweetheart?  It's so hot.'  A woman answered: 'I'm have a snack out here on the lawn.'  She said it without hesitating and not very clearly, as if it were to be expected by everybody."

I thought I was being asked, so I reached for the back pocket of my pants as if I were looking for something there.  But I wasn't looking for anything; I only wanted to change my appearance to indicate my participation in our talk.  So here I said that this event was rather remarkable and that I could not understand it at all.  I added that I did not believe it was true and that it must have been invented with a particular aim in mind – which for the moment I did not see.  Then I closed my eyes because they hurt.     

"Oh, it's good that you share my opinion, and it was rather nice on your part that you interrupted me to tell me that. 

"Now really, why should I be ashamed – or why should we be ashamed – that I walk arduously and not upright, that I do not tap my stick on the pavement and graze the clothes of noisy passers-by. Perhaps it would be more appropriate if I defiantly complained that I bound along the houses with my narrow shoulders like a shadow, sometimes even disappearing into the panes of the store windows.

"What kind of days are these that I spend! Why is everything so poorly constructed that sometimes tall buildings collapse without our ever finding an outward explanation? I climb over the piles of debris and ask everyone I meet: 'How could this happen! In our city – a new house – that is already the fifth one today – just think about it.' And no one can answer me.

"People often fall down in the middle of the street and lie there dead. Then all the shopkeepers open their doors draped with goods, come by swiftly and take the dead person into a house, come back out smiling with both their mouth and eyes, and say: 'Good day – It's overcast – I sell a lot of handkerchiefs – yes, yes, the war.' I go inside and after timidly waving my hands numerous times I finally knock on the caretaker's window. 'My good man,' I say amicably, 'a dead person was brought to you.  Please show him to me, I beg you.' And as he shakes his head as if he can't make up his mind, I say in a resolute tone: 'My good man, I am an undercover police officer. Show me the dead person immediately.' 'A dead person?' he then asks, almost offended. 'No, we have no dead person here. This is a respectable house.' I pay my regards and leave.

"And yet whenever I have to traverse a large square, I forget everything. The difficulty of such an endeavor confuses me and I often think to myself: 'If one built these huge squares in a fit of immense courage, why don't we also erect a stone railing that could lead one through the square? Today there is a wind from the southwest. The air in the square is agitated. The city hall spire seems to be tracing small circles. Why don't we bring peace and quiet to the throngs? All the window panes rattle and all the lantern poles droop like bamboo. The stormy air is tearing at the shroud of the Virgin Mary wrapped around the column. Does no one see this? The gentlemen and ladies who are supposed to walk on these stones float. When the wind catches its breath, they stand still, exchange a few words, and bow to one another in greeting, but the wind keeps pushing and they cannot resist the wind, and all of them simultaneously raise their steps to go. They literally need to hold on to their hats, and yet their eyes seem amused, as if this were only mild weather. Only I am afraid.'"

Mistreated as I was, I said:"The story that you told me earlier about your dear mother and the woman in the garden I do not find remarkable or odd. Not only because I have heard and experienced many such stories, but also because I have even taken part in many of them. This matter is quite self-evident. Do you mean to say that had I been on the balcony I wouldn't have been able to say the same thing or reply from the garden in the same manner? A very simple case."

As I said that, he seemed very content. He said that I was dressed very well and that he particularly liked my necktie. And what fine skin I had! And confessions will always be the most clear when they are remembered.

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