By Naomi Benaron
Gabriel can’t help it. Each time he watches the Astronomical Clock strike the hour in the old town square in Prague, he sees his own death. Today, it is the death he cheated, has kept folded in his pocket like a used handkerchief for sixty-four years. The death that will someday jump out and claim from him what it is owed. Before today, he had not stood in Staroměstské náměstí since he was a young boy, squeezing his father’s hand. Yet even then, staring up at the gold-engraved disks with their strange and magical symbols, he knew enough to be terrified.
They used to walk here, he and his father, every Saturday when prayers at the Altneuschul were finished. Once in a while, his brother came, too, but usually Bruno was busy with his horses. On the way, the old baker from the shop on Maislova Street came to his door to present Gabriel with a fruit dumpling. A Shabbas gift. Father and son stood beneath the Old Town Hall’s tower, Gabriel chewing his dumpling—perhaps now he stands on his own childhood footsteps—and waited for the doors at the top of the clock to open. A mixture of thrill and dread pounded against his ribs. The adult Gabriel feels the same syncopation now.
There are eight intricately carved and colorful figures that flank the clock’s two disks. In their gilded robes they seemed to the childhood Gabriel as if they had escaped his folktale books and landed on the tower to rest. On either side of the calendar: chronicler and angel, astronomer and philosopher. The other four figures perch beside the clock face. Gabriel’s father whispered their symbolism into his ear: The Turk with the mandolin represents indulgence. The man staring into his mirror stands for vanity, and the moneylender for greed. (His father never described the lender as Jewish, but now Gabriel knows. He knows, too, that had his father told him then, he would have been too naïve to understand this as an ominous sign.)
All these worldly pursuits are useless, his father said, in the face of death. Gabriel remembers the chill in his blood when his gaze took in the skeleton with his bowed legs and brassy hourglass. The fourth figure. The adult Gabriel sees the skeleton watching him and trembles with cold, although perhaps it is merely the October breeze. But still. The first time he saw the skeleton tip his hourglass, then pull the cord to ring the bell and strike the hour, Gabriel felt death creep inside him. Felt it reach a bony knuckle into his heart and pluck out an hour of his life. Although he didn’t know it, death had built a nest. Was there to stay. That autumn, Gabriel’s younger sister died. But that was not it. Not even the start of it.
Gabriel has been standing on the uneven cobblestones beneath the clock, jostled, hassled, bumped and bullied in the crowd for over half an hour. A babel of languages whirls in his ears. His neck hurts from looking up; his bones and joints groan from the autumn damp. His arms are sore from guarding the pouch around his neck that holds his money and passport. The pouch is securely hidden inside jacket and shirt. But still. His friends have warned him of the terrible problem of pickpockets in Prague, and despite his Czech beginnings, he is easily branded as an American tourist. An old man in a travel-rumpled suit. Alone. An easy mark.
On this trip, Gabriel was not supposed to be alone. This trip has been in the making for four years. He and his wife planned to come that summer. She had a sister still alive in Brno then, and she was itchy to return. What do you think, Gabriel? Markéta asked one day. They were in the kitchen. She was reading a letter from her sister, eating segments of orange. Fingerprints of juice blotted the ink.
Without hesitation Gabriel said: I am ready. I want to. Even though.
She put a hand to her stomach and said: Ooph! This indigestion! Just that. How were they to know?
Then the illness, her long process of dying. For a month he sat by the hospital bed set up in the living room, threads of winter light stitching silver into the crisp sheets, the sky-blue blanket, her yellowed arms. Like a camp victim she looked. Again. He fed her tea and soup, sip by sip like a baby. After all he had lived, he still believed his care could heal her. It could not. Death was not kind to Markéta. The sister, too, is gone now. With her, the slates of two families finally wiped clean in this beautiful, cruel country.
After Markéta’s death, he thought still he might go. But neither son nor daughter nor granddaughter (only one—and how Markéta waited!) could be persuaded to take time off from their lives. Facing the prospect of the voyage alone, he said: Genug. I will never return. But his motherland kept whispering to him in the night. vrat´ se, she said. Come back.
This spring, he found a reason. Waiting at his internist’s office he picked up a National Geographic and by itself the magazine opened to an article about the Astronomical Clock. Looking at the pictures—one a two-page fold-out!—he knew fate had slipped the story into his hands. Now I must return. No excuses, he thought. Fifteen minutes later, the tiny abnormality in his rectal canal presented itself to the doctor’s fingers.
Not to worry, the doctor told him when the results of his colonoscopy came back. Both polyps were benign. We recommend another procedure in five years.
Gabriel sneered. Procedure? They don’t know from procedures. And five years? I am seventy-nine years old. Who knows from five years? He is not one to sit and wait for death to jump out of his pocket and call him on the phone. That day, he bought the tickets.
In the square’s center, people mill about the Jan Hus monument, the majestic bronze figures of Hus and his followers rising triumphant from stone. The tourists rest on the steps to consult guidebooks, share pastries, sip coffee. Gabriel wonders how many of them know they are sitting at the feet of a man who was burned at the stake for refusing to give up his religious beliefs. A story dear to the hearts of the fiercely independent Czechs. The day the Nazis marched like conquerors through the gates of Prague Castle, people wept in the streets.
The vendors behind the monument are doing a brisk lunchtime business, their red umbrellas jutting out from the gloom. The smells of sauerkraut and grilling sausage leave Gabriel slightly queasy. He remembers the pinks and yellows and greens of the surrounding buildings as cheerful, an assortment of petits fours, but in the grey light, tinged already with winter, they appear merely dull. He feels the familiar twinge of something else lost.
It is nearly noon, and like a herd of beasts spooked by a sudden noise, the crowd around the Astronomical Clock grows restless. Squeezes closer for a better look. Gabriel feels a bump against his arm, and the sudden scent of spring in bloom makes him turn his head. Promiňte, the young woman beside him says and smiles. She tosses a tangle of brown curls from her face. Her skin looks as if it has been rubbed with chestnut, and she possesses a large-boned beauty: wide mouth, high, square cheekbones flushed with the cold, shoulders broad enough and strong enough to carry him. Gabriel returns the smile, speech having fled from his tongue. Tsigoiner, a gypsy, he thinks. She’s a pickpocket, and what she wants to steal is my life.
The girl unwraps a sandwich of thick, black pumpernickel and begins to eat. She wears a long, flowing skirt that jangles when she moves, and a red ribbon weaves through a messy braid that swirls like a caramel snake down her back. Enchanted, Gabriel follows the movement of hand to mouth, notes how her tongue curls out to touch the bread before she bites. She must have sensed him staring because she moves closer and offers half to him. Prosím, she says. When he doesn’t respond, she adds in heavily accented English: Please. Take. I have enough.
The bracelets on her wrist shiver. From her ears, two crescent moons dangle. Gabriel knows he should move away but doesn’t want to seem rude. And anyway, he is stuck in place. Her smile is a flash of brilliance, a carp surfacing for an instant in a stream on a sunny day. Tiny black breadcrumbs speckle her teeth.
Děkuji, he says, thank you, and the girl laughs. Ah—you do know some Czech. Your accent is good.
Gabriel accepts the gift and peeks discretely inside; nothing dangerous meets the eye. Although he doesn’t keep kosher, he has always been fussy about his food, and he has been mostly vegetarian since his scare. Pork and more pork: it’s all these Czechs seem to eat. He says: Jsem Čech. Jsem z Prahy.
Again the flash of teeth. Ah—you’re Czech! No wonder. She asks him if he still lives in Prague. He shakes his head, afraid to give out too much information. Her enunciation is clear and crisp, not the rough Romany he expected. Even so. I’m from a small town near Náchod, she says.
Once Gabriel vacationed in Náchod with his family. He remembers the castle with its French garden, its turrets and walls like a strawberry cake. A horse the color of honey that Bruno begged his parents to buy for him. A beautiful town, he says.
You know it? The gypsy shrugs. It was a nice place to grow up, but I could never live there now. I’ve become cosmopolitan. I love the cafés, the museums, the wonderful opera hall.
Gabriel wonders where gypsies camp. He hunches his shoulders and feels the pouch secure against his chest. But what can he do about the snippet of death that stirs in his pocket? He nibbles the bread. It is dense and yeasty. Slightly sweet with the ghosts of molasses and cocoa. Hints of salt and rye. These childhood tastes nearly bring him to his knees.
The tsigoiner watches him intently. Don’t be afraid, she says and motions him to eat. It’s only vegetables from my parents’ garden, some nice cheese. My mother baked the bread herself.
So this is how they do it, Gabriel thinks. A little conversation, a little bread laced with drugs. I will fall asleep on a bench, and she will pick me clean. But he takes a bite. There’s no bitterness, no telltale aftertaste, only the tang of cheese, the juicy warmth of tomato and the crunch of cucumber.
From the opposite side of the square comes the sound of violins. A young man and woman in black perform for the crowd, instrument cases open on the ground. People toss in coins. A few bills. The violinists’ notes join and braid, their bodies swaying in unison. Gabriel recognizes the old folksong he used to play with his father, the music so richly mournful it makes the saints on the surrounding churches lean forward from their pedestals and weep. Gabriel imagines bright rivulets of grief streaming down the stone faces. He is so immersed in the scene the tug on his sleeve makes him jump.
Come back to earth, the gypsy says. The clock is about to strike. You can’t miss the procession of apostles after all this waiting. She pulls a napkin from her bag and tears it. Here, she says, putting half in his hand. Did you like the sandwich? With surprising daintiness she dabs at her lips.
Yes, it was delicious, Gabriel says. And it was.
This is my Saturday ritual: make my picnic and then come to Staroměstské náměstí to enjoy the clock.
Ach! He’s caught her in a lie. Triumphant, he says: All the way from Nachod, every week?
The gypsy shows her wide teeth. Oh no—even my parents couldn’t stand it any more. They live close, in District 6. She points. A twenty-minute walk from here.
Gabriel imagines a tsigoiner caravan in an abandoned lot, horses rummaging through the garbage.
It’s nearly time, she says. Hugging herself, she cranes her neck to see, face bright with anticipation.
Like a little girl, Gabriel thinks. Like the little boy who was me. He shifts his weight as the crowd presses in. His joints creak, his bones protest, and he wonders if she can hear this cacophony of body. He wonders if he smells old. To position himself directly in front of the clock’s doors, he moves a few centimeters to the left. The gypsy moves with him.
As a child, Gabriel thought the doors—a deep, dreamy blue, scattered with stars—were windows into the night he could fly through. Soon they will open, and the twelve apostles will stir into action; this is what everyone waits for. People check their watches and ready their cameras. Gabriel has no camera, and he doesn’t need to show off his Heuer to this tsigoiner.
Collective anticipation knits the crowd together as the clock lumbers into motion. Skeleton death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord. An eerie grin cracks his face, and the gold bars of his hourglass glint. The bell intones; the night-sky-doors slide open. Gabriel feels his blood go cold, his chest squeeze. He is a little boy again, searching for his father’s warm hand. Death stirs in its hiding place, an ill wind.
One by one the twelve apostles glide by on their hourly revolutions. At the doors, they swivel toward the crowd to show their stern faces before disappearing into the darkness of the tower. After the last apostle has had his turn and the bell has struck its twelfth sonorous beat, the rooster flaps his wings and crows to signal the end of the show. To Gabriel, it sounds like a squawk from a toy horn. It sounds ridiculous. The doors close and he releases his breath.
Gabriel recalls a process that took forever, but really, it is over before you know it. And yet: such complicated and ingenious mechanics, such intricate attention to detail in the painting, the carvings and sculptures, the clock’s architecture. Such celestial knowledge. Of course the sun revolves around the earth, but still. To think one could miss it with the blink of an eye, a moment’s inattention. He shakes his head.
The last time he stood here was April 15, 1939, a month to the day after the Germans invaded. It would not be the last time he watched death tip his hourglass. By far. Two days later, his father was arrested. He never returned. Until now, Gabriel does not know where his bones lie. Does not know what he suffered or how to mourn him. Sometimes, in the loneliest, deadliest part of night’s procession, he can hear his father’s voice. Yes—still.
On July 9, 1942, Gabriel, Bruno, their mother, and two sisters were loaded onto a transport train to Terezín. It was a Thursday. For some reason, he remembers. From there, east to Auschwitz. Of his family, only he made it out through the gates at the end.
Gabriel feels a gentle touch on his cheek, and for the briefest instant, he imagines his father’s finger. But no. It’s the gypsy. Excuse me, she says. Are you all right?
Yes, yes, I’m fine, he says. What was he doing? What noises came from his mouth? He is afraid to ask.
She leads him to a bench at the edge of the square and settles him in a pool of warmth where the sun has emerged from the clouds to shine. Sitting beside him, she takes his arm. I was chatting away about the symbolism of the apostles, she says, and then I looked and from your expression, I thought you might be ill. She pauses. Straightens her skirt. I hope you don’t mind that I approached you, but you seemed so . . . well, lost. You looked like you could use a bit of good cheer.
The gypsy’s words reach him as if from a dream he has not quite left. Then, in his ears he hears his own laughter. I was saved, he says, because my brother knew horses. From the gas, I mean. He sighs and wipes laughter’s salty wetness from the corner of his eye. The SS man wanted Bruno to take care of his horse, but he chose me—the wrong one—and I never said a word. Neither did Bruno. You see, one Jew was the same as another to them.
Ah, she says. I’m so sorry. She captures his gaze and tries to hold it, but he looks away.
No, no that’s not it. Do you know what Bruno did? He looked at me and winked. Winked. Gabriel smiles and shakes himself as if surfacing from a dive in a deep lake. Like beads of water, shivers of memory fly from his skin. Forgive me, he says. I don’t know why I am telling you this.
The gypsy looks out toward Jan Hus. A group of horse-drawn carriages has arrived; their cargo of tourists descends onto the square. She says: Maybe it was time; maybe, simply that.
Gabriel pats the hand that rests loosely on his sleeve. For sixty-four years I have lived with that wink, he says, and until now, I told no one. Not even my wife.
For a moment, the gypsy is silent. Then she says: I will keep your story as a special gift. Is this your first time back?
When she asks him, then, if his wife has come with him to Prague, he realizes with a start how much she has drawn from him. But a softness in her eyes loosens his tongue. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps it is simply time, so he opens the door of Markéta’s story.
She is—was—a survivor, too. We met in Terezín. Then, in Auschwitz, I smuggled bits of bread for her. I had hidden a stub of pencil, and I would write her little things. At the end, I lost track of her, but by some miracle, we found each other again after liberation. Gabriel gives a little laugh. Strange, isn’t it? To discover love in such a place.
I visited Terezín, the gypsy says. I spent hours with the children’s diaries, their art. It was days before I fully left those dark, cramped rooms. So—no. I don’t think it strange. What could you have needed more than love?
He takes her in. Has he misjudged her? What do you do? he asks. Are you a tour guide here?
It’s the gypsy’s turn to laugh. The crescent moons swing from her ears. Hardly, she says. I’m a graduate student in medieval art; clocks are my specialty, and this one is my favorite. I must have seen it strike the hour a hundred times, and yet always, I make some small discovery. She lets go his arm to tuck an errant strand of hair into her braid. Did you know that according to legend, the master clockmaker, Hanus, was blinded?
Gabriel shakes his head, and the gypsy waves her hands like an oracle summoning the future.
The town officials wanted to make sure he could never replicate the clock’s splendor elsewhere, she says, so after he perfected the mechanism, they gouged out his eyes with a hot poker. Furious, he somehow made his way to the clock and destroyed the workings. Before leaving, he put a curse on it so that anyone attempting to fix it either died or went mad.
She tilts her chin toward the heavens. The sun is bolder now, showing off its face for the crowd. Noon’s brightness marches across the sky, illuminating the twin spires of the Tyn Cathedral. In the scintillant air her lips glow with a reddish aura. Gabriel thinks of two bright strawberries, the first of the season, flushed with the fever and sweet of early summer.
The gypsy leans forward and stretches her legs, and Gabriel notes the fluent quality of her movement. Like a stork languidly testing its wings her hands trace two semicircles as she places them on her knees. Poking out from her skirt are two dainty feet framed by the red straps of her sandals. She touches his finger. Are you feeling better?
Much, he says. Thank you. But I’m afraid I owe you a second apology.
You never owed me the first. So what is this second one?
We’ve been talking nearly an hour, and I haven’t even introduced myself. He looks into her eyes. They are paler than he expected, almost grey, with flecks of green like shavings of weathered copper. I’m Gabriel, he says. Gabriel Metzl.
Těší mne. It is a pleasure to meet you. The gypsy shakes his hand. Ivana Ruzicka.
Despite her stature, it seems somehow fitting that her surname should mean little rose. The first sign of summer, Markéta’s prized blooms shaking themselves from hibernation in her garden. Těší mne také, he says.
A small child stumbles by in pursuit of a pigeon, a trill of excitement bursting from his lips. The parents follow, the wife waddling with the weight of a new pregnancy. Already, a new group of onlookers has gathered for the next show of the Astronomical Clock.
Ivana watches the little boy. Gabriel tries to discern her thoughts but cannot. Well, she says, if you really are better, I will leave you to enjoy the rest of your day in peace. Before he has detected the first tensing of her muscles, she is up and dusting off her jangly skirt. He rises to shake her hand.
If you don’t mind, she says, may I give you a hug?
Gabriel holds his arms out to her. A bit too stiffly, he’s afraid. She kisses the air by his cheeks, right then left. Her lips feel cool brushing his skin.
Těší mne, she says again. I wish you luck on your journey.
He accompanies her as far as the clock. Her skirt swings smartly as she walks away toward the narrow streets lined with tourist shops and the more high-class version of Czech fast-food restaurants.
Na shledanou, she sings over her shoulder.
Yes, I’ll see you later, he says. But he doubts she heard; she has already turned the corner in a flash of bangles and spring color. One last time Gabriel checks his pocket; his few loose bills have not been pilfered. Death, he notices, has grown still. For now. Had he been bold, he would have invited Ivana to share some coffee and a pastry, but he did not want to appear rude or ill-intentioned. Better so—a refreshing breeze and gone.
Suddenly famished, he returns to the bench and pulls out his Pocket Guide to Prague. There was a wonderful restaurant not far from here, a particular pastry he and Bruno used to share with a thick, doughy crust and an explosion of tart plum inside. Povidlové buchty—of course. He shakes his head. How could he forget? Markéta used to make them as well, on Fridays, before she became too ill.
And hot chocolate! Gabriel liked the subtle bitterness of cocoa, but Bruno added cube after cube of sugar. Even before the horses, he would secretly pocket cubes for later, as if he foresaw the need for a stolen currency of sweetness.
Copyright © Naomi Benaron 2011
Naomi Benaron’s novel Running the Rift, was selected by Barbara Kingsolver as the winner of the 2010 Bellwether Prize. The release date is 01/17/12, by HarperCollins in Canada and Algonquin Press in the U.S. Her other prizes include the Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, and the Lorian Hemingway short story competition. She teaches writing through UCLA Extension and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, a project to mentor Afghan women writers living in Afghanistan and abroad. “The Pickpocket” is an excerpt from Fragmented Beauty, her novel-in-progress about three generations of Holocaust survivors.