The Taste of Ashes
In April of 1995 I sat in a Prague cafe with Amanda, two days before the memorial mass she had arranged for Oskar. It was late. The spring was cold that year. We sat upstairs where it was dark and smoky, eating ice cream. Amanda insisted on paying for the ice cream because, as she said, she was "now an heiress." I was telling her about my young student, a smart girl with the rugged prettiness of a tomboy whose brown hair fell just below her chin. In an essay composed in her grasping English she wrote about the boy who had once held her hand and called her "sweetheart." One summer day he went off to his cottage in the countryside. When he returned he told her he had made love to an older girl. My student's tears and cigarettes, all of it too harsh for a fourteen-year-old girl. Her final sentence: You know, I think that life can be very cruel sometimes. And I had wanted to write on her paper: Oh, but you don't know, it gets so much worse! But Amanda, the artist from New England whose Czech husband had just killed himself, told me, "No, that's it. That's as bad as it gets." And I believed then that it was true. Two days later I went with Amanda to a Catholic mass dedicated to Oskar, Oskar who had waited twenty-five years to return to Prague, only to find that he no longer had any home there. In the church tucked, as if concealed, behind Old Town Square, I took communion for the first time, although I was not a Catholic, although I was not even a Christian, although I did not believe in God. Several hours later we were sitting in the apartment of Oskar's sister. She was matronly, prematurely aged, nothing like her brother, the stylish, cosmopolitan physicist. Oskar had been handsome, sexy well into middle age. His sister and brother-in-law lived on an upper floor of one of the many faceless high-rises built of gray concrete. In their time these socialist housing projects had created thousands of identical units for modern, single-family living. Now inside these run-down apartments there lingered the aura of communist-era bourgeois. On Oskar's sister's old wooden table there was food and wine, red wine in Bohemian crystal set against Amanda's beautiful silver hair. There were layers of aesthetic paradox: Amanda, the bohemian from Massachusetts, in the bourgeois communist apartment. Oskar's brother-in-law poured the wine. Amanda and Oskar's friends, a woman named Korina and her husband, had come from Paris for the memorial service. They were scientists, young and attractive, eager to communicate. I translated, awkwardly, for Oskar's sister and brother-in-law. Hours passed. In a few minutes it would be midnight. Amanda was consumed by the thought now: it was the first of May, the Czech holiday of love. "It was late in the evening, the first of May / May evening, the time of love / Voice of a dove calling to love / Where fragrance drifted from the pines." With these lines Karel Hynek M‡cha, Czech romanticism's greatest poet, had made it impossible for the communists to make the workers' holiday of May Day fully their own. It was the first of May and Amanda wanted to give Oskar a gift. We moved into the kitchen. "Ask her for a pair of scissors," Amanda said to me, turning her head toward Oskar's unhappy sister. I hesitated. I did not want to ask her, she would not want to give the American sister-in-law she barely knew a pair of scissors at a fragile moment. Amanda remained for her an alien, unfathomable creature from a decadent foreign world, with whom she shared no language, with whom she shared nothing but Oskar, who was now dead. Amanda insisted. "Why?" Oskar's sister asked. I said nothing. "Why?" she asked me again. I shrugged, smiled weakly, Otto's sister brought the pair of scissors. I held Amanda's hand, and Korina, the scientist who had come from Paris to say goodbye to Oskar, took the pair of scissors in her hands. Amanda shut her eyes. Korina began to cut. A moment later she held between her fingers Amanda's long, silver ponytail. Beautiful, like sparkling ashes. Now we left the kitchen and returned to the small living room where wineglasses still sat on the wooden table. I watched as Korina sat down on her knees on the wooden floor, reaching out to touch the porcelain. She put her finger into the urn and tasted Oskar's ashes. In a moment Amanda was gone. She had fled the apartment, flown down the staircase. When I found her below on the dark Prague streets, her dress was already wet, the disembodied silver ponytail she held in her hand whisked about in the storm. Korina and her husband and I followed her, running drunkenly through Prague in the rain, Amanda clutching her ponytail, the rain-drenched silver turning to gray.
Copyright © 2013 by Marci Shore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.