He was a tall, well-dressed man with a crown of gray-white hair and a rumbling baritone voice, and he sat at the tiny glass table sipping his tea with such a straight-backed, sovereign air, such a natural attitude of authority and grace, that he might have been an exiled king instead of the retired director of the Department of Water Supply, which he was. In some of the buildings of the Old Town, he said, pausing to acknowledge the slightly desperate-looking waitress who had brought him a small cup of honey, one could descend into the cellars and find, still visible in the pattern of the brick, the outlines of windows and doors: a stone lintel, a chest-high arch, a bit of mouldered wood trapped between a layer of plaster and brick.
In the course of his work, he said, he had often been called to this building or that where some construction had accidentally unearthed something, and found himself wondering at the utter strangeness of time, at the gradual sinking away of all that was once familiar. He smiled. It could make one quite morbid, really. But then, if one considered the question rightly, one could see the same thing almost everywhere one looked. After all, twenty minutes from where we sat, travelers from a dozen countries stood bargaining for ugly gewgaws on the very stones that only a few centuries ago had been heaped with the dead. Certain things time simply buried more visibly than others. Was it not so?
The waitress came over with a black wallet open in her hand like a miniature bellows, or something with gills. She had scratched herself badly on her calf, I noticed, and the blood had welled through the torn stocking and dried into a long, dark icicle. She seemed unaware of it. My companion handed her a fifty-crown note. And then, before I could say anything, he wished me a good day, slipped on his greatcoat, and left.
I walked for hours that night, among the crowds and up into the deserted orchards and past the kings gardens, still closed for the winter, where I stood for a while looking through the bars at the empty paths and the low stone benches. Along the far side, between the stands of birches whose mazework of spidery branches reminded me of the thinning hair of old ladies, I could see a long row of waterless fountains, like giant cups or stone flowers.
I was strangely untired. A fine mist began to fall, making the cobbles slippery, as if coated with sweat. I looked at the stone giant by the castle gates, his dagger forever descending but never striking home, then walked down the tilting stairs to a place where a crew of men, working in the white glare of halogen lamps, had opened up the ground. As I passed the pit, I glimpsed a foundation of some sort and what looked like a sewer of fist- sized stones, and struck by the connection to the man I had met in the café, for whom these men might once have worked, after all, I started for home. Everywhere I looked, along the walled streets and narrow alleys, above the cornerstones of buildings and under the vaulted Gothic arches, I saw plaster flayed to brick or stone, and hurrying now through the narrow little park along the river, I startled a couple embracing in the dark whom I had taken for a statue. I mumbled an apology, my heartbeat racing, and rushed on. Behind me I heard the man mutter something angrily, then a womans low laugh, and then all was still.
That night I dreamed I saw him again in a house at the end of the world, and he looked up from the glass table to where I stood peering in through a small window and mouthed the words Is it not so? I woke to the sound of someone crying in the courtyard, then heard pigeons scuttling on the shingles and a quick flurry of wings and the crying stopped.
And lying there in the dark, I thought, yes, thats what it had been like: beneath the world I had knownso very familiar to me, so very Americanjust under the overgrown summer lawn, or the great stone slab of the doorstepanother one lay buried. It was as though one morning, running through the soaking grass to the dock, I had tripped on an iron spike like a finger pointing from the earth and discovered it was the topmost spire of Hradèany Castle, or realized that the paleness under the water twenty yards out from the fallen birch was actually the white stone hair of Elika Krásnohorská, whose statue stood in Karlovo námìstí, and that the square itselfits watery trolleys, its green-lit buildings, its men forever lifting their hats in greeting and its women reining in their shining hairwas right there below me, that an entire universe and its times, its stained-glass windows and its vaulted ceilings and its vast cathedral halls, were just below my oars.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Slouka. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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