The Sound of the Sundial
A novel by Hana Andronikova
Edited and Adapted by Rachel Miranda Feingold from the Translation by David Short.
Published by Plamen Press
Outside, the snow swirled in horn-shaped vortexes. A car hooted in the distance. The squishy sound of tires driving through slush faded away at the end of the street.
I shook my head. I had never heard before how my parents met. I’d never actually asked. It had not occurred to me: they seemed to have known each other since the beginning of time.
“Do you speak German?” Anna asked.
I made a face. “Huh-uh, not much. We used to speak Czech at home. If our parents didn’t want us to understand, they spoke German. I learned a bit during the war, while I was still at school. But I did as well at German as a sunflower in shade. Unlike English or Hindi, I couldn’t get my tongue around it.”
My son, Scott, entered the darkening room.
“Am I intruding?”
It was obvious why he’d come.
“No, it’s all right. Tell Nick I’ll be right there. Our hostess will excuse me.”
I had always loved my children unconditionally. All three of them. Only every now and then I had an intense desire to beat the daylights out of them. I was nowhere near as patient as my own father. I often had an itchy hand and in my mind, at least, I was very creative in the invention of physical and psychological punishments.
In reality, I confined myself to harmless, quiet, verbal rebukes, to which they reacted like deaf mutes. Once they reached puberty, I changed from being Dad to some anonymous pronoun. “What did he say?” They would look at one another. “Who? You mean him?…Oh nothing.”
I never felt like telling them anything about my parents; they hadn’t known either of them anyway. Sometimes one of the kids would ask a question, but I would put them off with an empty answer like: “That was a long time ago.” Or I would change the subject.
My grandson, Nicky, on the other hand, could really get me talking. He opened me like a book, and all the stories from my childhood came pouring out.
When I came back to Anna, she looked at me, concerned. “You said you’ve had malaria.”
“Yes, my liver’s a mess and sometimes, just once in a while, it gives me hell. That’s Savitri coming back, I tell myself.Fate.”
The World Walks on its Hands
Ever since my mother left, I felt anxious, as if I were in danger.
In my room in Zlín, there was a picture from the ceiling of the tomb of Rameses VI: the nocturnal peregrination of the sun god. A dark blue sky merged into a black river down which floated the serpent-shaped sun barge. And on it sat the sublime Ra, the ruler of gods and men in his nocturnal form, a man with the head of a ram. The Egyptians believed that by night, the sun god traversed the underworld, meeting thousands of the dead, powerful deities, demons and the damned, all condemned to torment without end.
My mother had told me that in the morning, Ra was a child or a scarab, at midday he was a man with a falcon’s head and the sun’s disk for a crown. He sailed his sun barge across the sky from East to West and aged with the aging day, and by sunset he was an old man with a double crown, like the one worn by the rulers of Egypt. At dusk he entered the darkness of the underworld.
I could find no consolation when I looked into my father’s eyes, which remained somehow shuttered. He stared at me without seeing, focused on some point outside this world, which had lost all order and sense. His eyes seemed to be living a life of their own, independent of what he was doing or who he was looking at. They roamed the darkness like the sun god roamed the underworld.
His muscular arms were the only thing that gave me some comfort: their grip, the dense hairs on his forearms, the warmth of his hands, his nicotine-stained fingers. When I felt his hand on my shoulder, got a whiff of tobacco, I knew I was safe.
Then Mother’s Day arrived: gorgeous spring weather, the promise of better times to come, and Zlín woke from its winter slumber.
Something in me snapped.
Only one year ago, Dad and I had walked through the meadow picking flowers for her. We had brought a whole armload of them home. She had laughed happily, clasped me to her, given me a kiss. Then I had rotated the piano stool up as far as it could go and played her Für Elise, which I’d been practicing in secret.
I shot outside and furiously grabbed a bunch of meadow flowers, squeezing their slender stems like lizards’ tails, strangling them. I couldn’t stop myself. Grasshoppers jumped aside in fright, their little green bodies flicking through the air. The slope I was standing on ran crazily downwards. My head spun with noise and my knees gave out.
I lay in the grass and my heart tried to jump out of my ribcage, to break out of its prison so it could fly after her. I looked up into the sun and saw her face above me. A smile. Eyes. My pulse gradually slowed; little white clouds were floating westwards, envelopes in which I could send her my wishes. “Can you hear me, Mommy?”
When Dad saw the haphazard bouquet in a vase on the dining table, he looked perplexed. He was about to say something, but couldn’t get it out. He gulped and seemed to shrink down as he took two steps towards me. He ran his fingers through my hair.
In the evening he sat in the garden, submerged in the darkness and his memories. He started when I appeared in the door in my pajamas. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you asleep?”
“I can’t sleep. Can’t you sleep either, Daddy?”
“Here, take this. We don’t want you getting cold.” He tossed his sweater across my shoulders. “No, I can’t sleep either.”
I told him I was missing Mom. “You miss her, too, don’t you?”
He nodded. “Yes, I miss her a great deal.”
“I was thinking that our lives are the same.”
“Whose? Ours? Where did you get that from?”
“Well, you told me yourself that you were thirteen when you lost your mom. And I’m thirteen and I’ve lost Mommy.”
A shiver ran down Thomas’s back; something heavy and ice cold was sitting on his neck and pressing him to the ground. He bent his head beneath the weight of it and closed his eyes. He straightened up with an effort and forced himself to look at the world again. When he spoke, it sounded like a prayer.
“The difference is that my mom died. But Rachel—Rachel’s alive, even if she’s not here. You have not lost your mom because your mom’s alive. And she’s definitely coming back.”
At the start of June, the lilac blossomed. A familiar melody floated through the air, and with it the scent of magnolias and pansies and wild thyme.
Saturday, June 17, 1944. Pavel Tigrid from the Czechoslovak Service of the BBC announced: “Reports have reached London that the German authorities have ordered the imminent murder of three thousand Czech Jews in the gas chambers of Birkenau concentration camp.”
Dad’s eyes were wild, jabbing at the radio as if it were a target.
“The Council of State requests that all Czechoslovaks at home try to help their Jewish fellow citizens by any means available, to save them from death at the hands of the German assassins.”
That same day we went to Olomouc. I didn’t speak for the entire journey, unable to summon up the courage to put a single question into words. But my head was bursting with question marks, wriggling like a knot of venomous snakes. Are we going to see Grandpa Rudolf? Or to see Daddy’s friend from school? Or just for fun?
Dad never did anything just for fun.
Trips in India contained none of this foreboding. I loved them. The Sundarban. The swampy forest of the Ganges delta. A sea of crocodiles—the slender-snouted Ganges crocodile is called the gavial. Tall ferns and interlaced lianas, the smell of eucalyptus and drops of dew. The rustling of the tropics in strange waves: a mysterious silence, and, a few steps later, the roar of cicadas, grasshoppers, and frogs.
On the way to Konarak we meet a flood of people, colorful turbans with suitcases, packages, sacks, and baskets on top. Dancing in the streets, women in saris with little bundles of future life in shawls on their backs. The babies peep out and squint in surprise at the world. An old man who can barely move, bent double under the weight of the bar he carries across his shoulder, with a load at each end like the pans of a scale. We’re approaching Konarak. The beaches at Puri, villages big and small. A man’s bare feet rush past us, and he holds a gigantic shock of straw that conceals his gaunt body down to his chest. He looks headless. The road runs with the coastline, a boat bobs on the sea, its sail a patchwork of a hundred pieces, inflated by the arrogant wind.
We are standing with our heads tipped back. Dad’s eyes are sparkling and Mom is smiling. Konarak in Uris. Its conical towers represent the mystical Mount Meru. The thirteenth-century Hindu temple is the grand chariot of Suryi the sun god on twenty-four stone wheels. Erotic statues in naughty poses and the sun, shining into each hall by turn until it reaches the sun god and endows him with life-giving energy.
The Temple of the Sun. Thousands of pilgrims from all over India gather here every year for the Feast of the Chariot. Rath jatra. And we are leaving. I nod off on the back seat, the drone of the engine my lullaby, Dad’s hands on the wheel. He always knows where he’s going.
“Wake up, Dan. We have to get off here.”
Olomouc. The train pulled into the station and the passengers thrust towards the exit. I came to my senses and staggered out into the maelstrom of the city. Dad walked as if he had gone this way a thousand times before, like a robot, like a blind man in an apartment whose every detail he knows intimately, all its shapes and edges, corners and crannies, shortcuts and detours.
We rang the bell at one of the large detached houses on Letná. I was captivated by the house: a wooden trellis on the southfacing wall with straggling green stems bearing purple flowers the size of your hand. A nebula of scent and buzzing. Bumble bees, flies, butterflies. Dozens of butterfly wings in the space of two square meters: ordinary whites and brimstones, swallowtails and peacocks, a red admiral.
The maid came to the door. She spoke in German. She led us through the spacious hallway with its spiral staircase into the reception room and disappeared.
A world of luxury. Pieces of antique furniture, glass cases with hunting weapons along the walls and bookcases packed with the leather bindings of the world’s classics. A shiny harp by the French window.
A beautiful woman entered. She threw herself on Dad and let herself be hugged. Then she came to me. We looked each other over very openly. She had ash blonde hair and translucent blue eyes, and although she was smiling, she gave off a strange coldness. She gave me her hand and stroked my cheek. Her white fingers turned my hand cold. A winter queen. The maid served coffee in fine china cups and left.
They sat opposite each other and seemed reluctant to speak. Dad cleared his throat and broke the tense silence.
“I need help.”
She seemed not to have heard him. “Oscar hasn’t written for three months,” she said. “I pray for him and hope he hasn’t been captured. I’ve heard what the Russians have been doing to prisoners-of-war. I can’t sleep because of it.”
“I’m sorry. And I’ve heard what the Germans are doing to Jews.”
She smiled nonchalantly. Little wrinkles formed at the corners of her mouth.
“We’re in the same boat, Thomas. Desperate people torn from their nearest and dearest by the war.”
“And yet there’s a world of difference between us.”
The wrinkles disappeared. She removed a hair from the sleeve of her blue blouse with her manicured fingers. She raised an eyebrow. “It looks as if we’re on opposite sides of the front once more.”
He smiled. “But we’re still brother and sister.”
Her expression suddenly altered. It held an unexpected warmth, and the smile she gave him was genuine. Tender. “Come on then, tell me what a little sister can do for her big brother.”
This was the first time I had met Aunt Hilda. I would not see her again until a year later, and then under even more trying circumstances.
We left Olomouc in the afternoon. We passed City Hall, where the astronomical clock has been measuring time for five centuries. “Legend has it that it was constructed by Anton Pohl from Saxony,” my father explained, “but what you see is its late nineteenth century neo-Gothic makeover.”
On the way home he was in higher spirits. He even told me how Aunt Hilda used to steal sweets when she was little. She had a real sweet tooth. Even if she was full to bursting, she always had room for more goodies, as if she had a special compartment for them in her stomach. She had once confessed that she had stolen a truffle. Thomas had said sternly, “Stole? Where?”
“In the corridor of the Sokol sports center.”
The local confectioner, a Mr Dejmal, rented a workshop on the Sokol premises and used the corridor to let his wares dry. Little truffles dipped in chocolate, coconut rings, Vienna creams, all laid out within easy reach. She simply couldn’t resist.
She had to promise Thomas never to do it again. At the time he was at boarding school and had begun to play tennis. He learned how to string rackets so he could make some extra pocket money. He would take Hilda to her singing lessons, and whenever the choirmaster, Mr Pivoňka, praised her, he would take her to the bakery. There, the big brother in him would buy her a truffle.
When we reached Zlín, we made some mashed potatoes and had them with the bit of smoked ham that Hilda had wrapped for us to take home. Later that evening, Dad phoned her. They spoke German, so I didn’t get much of it, though I did catch the word ‘Prag’ several times.
Two days later, he left me and went to Prague, to the Central Office for Regulating the Jewish Question in Bohemia and Moravia.
The SS officer treated him very politely. “That’s not in question, Mr Keppler. The Jewish partners of mixed marriages are not included in transports to the East. They fall into the category of prisoners who will not leave the territory of the Protectorate. That is what has been decreed. I assure you, you have no cause for concern.”
Thomas nodded hesitantly.
The officer crossed the room and stopped next to a portrait of the Führer.
“For your peace of mind, I will send you special notification. Your wife will not leave Theresienstadt.”
All the way back home, those few sentences went around and around in his head to the rhythm of the wheels on the rails. “… Jewish partners…mixed marriages…Protectorate…your wife… category of prisoners…”
A prisoner! So Rachel was a prisoner. Terrible word. The noise of the train was deafening. Prisoner. Rachel. Prisoner. Rachel.
The world had gone mad. Everything was upside down. What was striking was how quickly some people had learned to walk on their hands and pretend it was normal.
In the late summer, an official summons arrived. Conscription. He was told to report to the Zlín Sokol building. A rubber stamp with the imperial eagle.
Somewhere I found an old atlas with a double-page spread of the sky at night. The stars. Flickering lights in the darkness. I taught myself to recognize them. The Moon was a mute confessor who knew my secrets and innermost wishes. I had millions of plans and yearnings, but they were invariably conflated into one wish: I wanted it to be the end. The end of the war meant Mom would return home. Each time I learned a new constellation, I sent her a message by it. I used to talk to her. Or whine, like wolves and dogs howling when the Moon is full. I wanted to be good. But I would confess to her that I hadn’t washed. That always used to make her mad. “Your neck’s as black as a huntsman’s boots,” she would shout. I might confess that I hadn’t practiced my piano, or made my bed, and I would promise I’d do better. “If only you were here.” I tried hard for her sake, and I spent my nights learning to read the stars.
I often felt I could actually hear her voice as if it was coming from inside me. It was a mysterious genie, and I only had to close my eyes and let it out. Stories she had told me retold themselves, stories I thought were long forgotten. Often I would find myself back in India. Endless varieties of rice. The island of Sagar and devotional bathing in the sacred waters of the Ganges. The fluid wisdom of the Hindus. A call blown into a shell was the summons to evening prayers.
HANA ANDRONIKOVA was born in Zlín in 1967. She went on to study English and Czech literature at Charles University in Prague. Her first novel, Zvuk slunečních hodin (The Sound of the Sundial), was published in 2001 to great acclaim, receiving the Book Club Literary Award and the 2002 Magnesia Litera Award. She was also the author of a short story collection Srdce na udici (Heart on a Hook, 2002) and the novel Nebo nemá dno (Heaven Has No Bottom, 2010), which won the Magnesia Litera Reader’s Award in 2011. Hana Andronikova died of cancer in 2011.
The Sound of the Sundial will be published in May 2015
About the Translator:
DAVID SHORT graduated with a BA in Russian with French from the University of Birmingham in 1965 and spent 1966-72 in Prague, studying, working, translating and having fun. He then taught Czech and Slovak at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London from 1973 to 2011. He has translated a wide range of literary and non-literary Czech texts and has won awards both for translations and for his contribution to Czech and Slovak studies, notably, in 2004, the Czech Minister of Culture’s Artis Bohemicae Amicis medal and the Medal of the Comenius University in Bratislava.