Rok kohouta (The Year of the Rooster)

Tereza BoučkováRok kohouta (The Year of the Rooster)

Translated by Melvyn Clarke


The hospital ward was sweltering more than all of the streets put together. Sticky weather! The air was motionless. Just that morning he had got to the shower himself. Just that afternoon and early evening we saw each other. I gave him a drink from the table.

I’ve been wanting that since morning, he said with relief, but hardly drank anything.

Marek sat next to him, wiping his arms and legs with a wet towel, trying to give him something to drink, wetting his lips, stroking his hands and holding them almost up to the last moment. That night he went to sleep over at his parents’ apartment, so as to be able to come back again the next day, but within ten minutes the night service rang to say dad had died.

A few rags, unwrapped sweets, mineral and tap water that Marek had collected at the hospital. The definitively empty apartment would have to be cleared out and returned to the owner, the furniture probably disposed of, just like the deceased, who only a few minutes ago…

The cremation comes to ten thousand crowns. At first the total was actually two thousand higher. The lady at the funeral service started to offer little discounts. Bargain discounts like those offered by Michal to loyal customers at his bike shop. Could she have had the idea that Marek was a prospect for her company? Or was she irritated that he didn’t comment on any of the totals that she offered – that he didn’t haggle and just accepted all her proposals? He just nodded at the original and all the raised discount bids.

A cremation without a ceremony. (Who’d come?) It will happen here and there. It’s a lot nicer there. And cheaper. More of a bargain overall – even with the transportation of the body. Naturally they throw in the urn with the ashes. That’s included in the price. All for a round ten thousand!

For your esteemed satisfaction…

At the cinema we met Mark’s friend the former professor, and we went for a glass of wine and beer. The friend got his loneliness (without a man) off his chest as did Marek his father’s death. He is bearing up well, even though he got on fine with him all his life. Marek got it off his chest to me as well. I am trying to hear him out. But myself, I don’t feel any grief. My father-in-law’s death just filled me with this strange, unpleasant sense of our mortality.

We came back home from the town late in the night. Marek went to pick up the car from the building where he has been working for twelve years. It always takes time before he gets round to the car.

Meanwhile I went over to a friend’s who lives round the corner. Their dog lay limp in its basket following an operation. Cut up and sewn up. He had been home all alone during the day, he got into a badly guarded larder and found a bag of dog pellets – dry dog food – and ate over half. He overate so much that he had to go under the knife immediately – as he had gastric dilation. The emergency operation cost twenty thousand five hundred. More than to cremate a dead human.

That’s the way the world is on Tuesday, 2nd August 2005.

I was dreaming of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, but woke up with a start. “Somewhere between chance and mystery the absolute human freedom of imagination has inserted itself. Like other liberties, they have tried to limit and abolish this one. For these purposes Christianity discovered sin in thinking. It used to prohibit me from having specific ideas of what I believed to be my conscience…

It was not until I was sixty or sixty-five that I fully understood and embraced the innocence of imagination. I needed all that time to accept that what was going on in my head only related to myself, that in no way did it involve what is called “bad thoughts” and sin, and that it needs to be allowed to run its course freely… Imagination is our chief privilege. It is just as inexplicable as the chance which kindles it…”

I was reading Buñuel’s memoirs My Last Breath. As I lay in bed, out in the street the sound of a car faded away – Marek had just driven off to work. I looked through the skylight at the sky and recalled how yesterday at the cinema a painter showed a girl (with the pearl earring) the clouds. He asked her: what colour are they?

She answered at once: white.

But then she looked at them through his eyes: and blue and grey and yellow and…

And first of all I have to take the dog out. I set out immediately so he could have a run through the woods before it got hot. Then I biked into the village for my post, as the postwoman is on holiday. I bought rolls, bread, cheese and whatever else fit into my backpack, and then carried it home on my back. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness, that I was pedalling over all the hills home and I was so full of drive.

Lukáš was up and sat in front of the television. He had not yet had breakfast. He was looking forward to fresh rolls and praised me for them. As he ate I took my notebook, keyboard, mouse, mat and everything I could down from the loft to the garden arbour. This meant going up the stairs, unlocking the room, taking everything I could all at once (I never manage this), and somehow holding it all with one hand, so that I could lock the room up with the other. Then down the stairs past Lukáš, who offered to help me, but in any case he doesn’t know everything I need and besides…

When I forget something (I always forget something), I have to go back upstairs. There I find that I have left the key to the locked door somewhere, so I go back down, look for it, find it, go back, unlock it, take it and lock up. Lock up! In all events lock up! (I still often forget).

I will be outside writing beneath the arbour.

I shall try anyway.

Lukáš finished breakfast, tidied up after a fashion and announced he was going out. He offered to take the bag of non-returnable bottles to throw in the container on the way.

And do you need any other help, mum?

No, thanks. I’m just happy you asked. As he was leaving our middle son smiled kindly and wished me good luck.

So now the girl and the clouds. Except that like her I had dried, cracked lips. I have long stopped wetting them with my tongue, as the painter wanted the girl to do. For some time I looked for my bumbag, in which I always carry my lip balm, before I realized… When I took out my shopping from the backpack I’d thoughtlessly left it down here on the ground floor. I rummaged in my pockets, took out the balm and applied it to my lips. But then I froze. I had this strange feeling, as if something were different.

Something was different (or the opposite of what is should have been?)

Everything in me seized up with anger. I ran off to the bike, got on it and pedalled like mad. Like mad I caught up with Lukáš at the bottom of the biggest hill. I overtook him and yelled before I’d even come to a halt and got off the bike: Where’s that fifty?

With an uncomprehending expression he answered with a question: What? What fifty?

Now I’d stopped and got off my bike, which I thrust against the fence of the nearest garden: Show me your pockets!

I searched through them. The humiliation! Mine, that is – it can’t bother those who actually steal. After all, they go through somebody’s pockets all the time.

The disgrace – that I have to.

I went through Lukáš’s pockets and didn’t find anything. I started to doubt my own sanity. But just that morning at the co-op I’d paid with a two-hundred crown note, I know for sure. The shop assistant didn’t have any change, so after others did their shopping she gave me back a banknote and some small change. I yelled at Lukáš: Where’s the fifty-crown note that was in my bumbag?

What bumbag?

Have you got it in your underpants? Or hidden in your boots?

He sobbed.

Give it here!

I haven’t taken anything!

Where have you hidden it?

He burst out crying.

The day before yesterday he was seventeen. The day before yesterday he had received a thousand crowns for his birthday. Now he was wailing, aggrieved, his body jerking with sincere sobs.

There was once a time when I bought his tears, and I burst out crying too. And I apologized for unjust accusations. There was once a time when I believed him, a time when I was unable to go through his pockets.

I shall jump on you and strip you in front of everybody! (Nobody is on the road, though people are possibly spying from the neighbouring gardens, as my yells travel far). I’ll rip your clothes off and find that fifty that I lost. Where is it?

In my wallet.

I’ve been though it. It’s empty.

Folded up behind my ID card.

It was there. Fair and square folded up small. I took it, grabbed my bike and tried to ride back up the hill.

When you’ve thrown the bottles in the container, you run back home, okay?

My legs were weak. I was weak all over, although otherwise I was totally geed up. I pushed the bike and feverishly wondered what I was to do when Lukáš came back in a while.


He sorted it out for me, and didn’t show up until midnight. When he came back I was upstairs in my room. Alone. (Marek stayed at his parents’ flat overnight). I didn’t speak to him. I had to work hard to stay quiet. That suits him. He’ll have something to eat, climb into bed and go to sleep, and for him that will draw a line under everything that happened today. Apologizing for theft? He doesn’t do that any more. After he once said sorry for stealing from me – and the next day he stole from me again, I shouted at him when he next apologized: Stop stealing and then you needn’t say sorry!

He stopped apologizing.


“…and since you didn’t bother coming home yesterday, after I told you to, you wait until we get back today. And don’t try to get inside!

Before Marek and I drove off today we locked up the house, so that Lukáš couldn’t get into it any further than the lobby. We locked the inner door, which he doesn’t have the key to. So that after yesterday he might realize that things won’t work like that with us. (He slept until I took the dog out, and left before I came back.)

We came back at eleven that evening. Lukáš was sitting in the lobby and leaning against the inner door. It had been poked at all over, with the lock dismounted but still locked. Tools were lying all around. Screwdrivers and wires and a quickly assembled picklock. How did he get it when we locked the workshop? The window was broken. Glass shards on the ground.

Everything broken and prized open.

That’s the way we live.

From half past five this morning my patchy sleep was ruined by a turtle dove’s stupid monotonous cooing that just would not stop. I rolled over in bed and couldn’t sleep, I didn’t feel like lying down, and I didn’t feel like getting up. I didn’t feel like anything.

I got up, went downstairs and started making breakfast. Marek got up just a short while after I did. We sat down and ate in silence. Speaking would have meant dissecting everything again, everything from the day before, from the last few years, everything that was the same or worse every day. Even in the woods we remained quiet as we walked the dog. We’d throw him a branch and tried to spoil his constant doggy good mood.

We came back. Lukáš was still asleep. We were glad. When he comes out of his room, again we won’t know how to talk to him. As soon as we start to deal with it we get angry straight away. This does not bring about a catharsis –things would look quite differently here if it did. And if we act as if nothing is the matter then Lukáš is convinced that nothing is the matter, that his theft and burglary seem normal to us, that a smashed-in window is normal, that screwdrivers and picklocks and a dismounted lock on the door and tampered-with window closures on the ground floor are normal…