translated by Heather Trebatická
Reprinted with permission of Hlbiny.
“In the camp everyone called him Kamagore,” I said.
“Kamagore?” The fellow on my right slowly shook his head, mystified. “That’s nonsense. Do you know what that word means?”
Should I explain to him that I had never tried to discover the meaning of that word? For me it had a universal meaning. It was a form of address, a greeting, a curse, an oath, a secret instruction. It didn’t mean anything, and yet it meant everything. And on each occasion I understood it differently. It belonged to my prison life, like the mess tin, blanket and the number I’d been assigned, A025229. For as long as I live I shall remember it. To the end of my life I shall not forget the gate through which I entered the camp, even though they were almost all the same. Beyond it you find yourself in a completely new world, in another universe. You feel eyes crawling over you like ants, examining the properties of the juices you secrete. They are not tender gazes that soothe. Those stares tear the skin off you; they want to chafe until you bleed, to determine your blood group. In them you can see curiosity, indifference and also disappointment that you have not met their expectations and presuppositions. Meanwhile you have realised that no one has been awaiting you and no one is glad you have come.
I felt really lonely, a foreigner in a strange land. I felt uncomfortable, but with the passing minutes I became increasingly convinced that the worst was over. After months of solitary confinement the camp began to seem like a reward. I studied my wrists; a red stripe could still be seen, left by the handcuffs. In the bus we had sat chained together, man to man in uneven pairs, the prison guards with machine guns sat facing us, their eyes fixed on us throughout the journey lasting several hours. When we arrived at the camp they unlocked our fetters and let us into the space in which each of us would find his own little patch.
One of the heads of the camp, a short, healthy-looking forty-year-old, holding a paper in his right hand, called out our names in a voice that resounded like a sheet of galvanized metal.
“Bizub! Which of you is Bizub?”
I raised my hand. “I’m Bizub.”
“Number A025229. Remember that number, Bizub.”
“I’ll remember. A025229.” It immediately engraved itself on my memory. It was quite an easy number to remember.
“Hut B, room number ten, Bizub. That’s the hut on the right, at the end of the row. Go to your accommodation.”
Trembling, I did as I was told. I had to parade past the assembled unit. I elbowed my way through the crowds of indifferent figures lining the way to the hut with its encoded air of loneliness. I entered room number ten just at the moment when one of a pair of chess players sitting at the table quietly declared: “Checkmate.”
“Good afternoon,” I presented myself, timidly.
Six pairs of eyes drive through me like a lorry loaded with wet sand. I feel as if I’ve been put in a pillory. The six men are on their guard. They are watching my every movement. They, too, are probably subconsciously analysing my scent. My instinct of self-preservation is telling me to defend myself.
“I’m Bizub,” I introduced myself. Who knows why in doing so I raised my voice. I immediately considered this to be my first false step. I had wanted to shield myself with that most ineffective and unreliable weapon — my own name.
The long silence reminded me of the family of the deaf mute tailor in our village. The film that someone had stopped moved on at last. A tall man with smoothly-combed light brown hair stepped towards me. He held out his hand.
“Markovič.” Instinct told me that I was standing in front of a teacher. “A student?” My new acquaintance guessed my identity at first go.
I nodded shamefacedly and also gladly. I had always felt shy in the presence of teachers. Gladly, because I felt that I was gradually surfacing from my depths. I felt safer. Apart from that, the cage I now found myself in was spacious. All this time I had not let go of my rucksack. Someone gently took it from me and put it on the top berth of the metal bunk bed I was standing next to.
A chess player. About thirty. He had a freckled face and reddish eyebrows and hair. “You’re young, you can sleep up there.”
I shook hands with the rest of them. A small fair-haired man of indeterminate age was kneeling in the space between the beds. He was clearly praying. I hesitated. I didn’t know whether I could disturb him just then. However, he got to his feet and smiled at me. He looked at me with eyes as blue as the sky and in a voice that sparkled like water he asked me in Czech what my Christian name was.
“Celestín. Celo,” I whispered gratefully. It had been a long time since anyone had asked me my first name.
“Nice name,” he said. “Who were you named after? Your father?”
“My father’s Jozef.”
“I’m Josef too. Josef Heřman. And I’m a Catholic priest.” Only then did he offer me his hand. It was small, soft and its clasp was like a print in the snow of my soul. He kept gazing at me with those incredibly blue eyes, the kind only children have. He could easily have used that gaze instead of his hands. “How much did the People’s Court give you, lad?”
“Eighteen,” I said uneasily.
“Eighteen months or years?”
“Years,” I confessed.
Once more six pairs of eyes glanced at me. They brushed against me like butterfly wings. No one asked why I had been thrown into jail. Later I also learned to read that strange, invisible writing, the language of eyes and gestures. Thanks to that I was able to distinguish a farmer from a teacher, pick out a thief and a homosexual, and identify a murderer. At that time I was really only entering the world of adult men, I was moving around in it with the uncertainty of a calf that has only been an hour or two in this world. Surrounded by hundreds of noble-minded, courageous men, the murderers and thugs must have suffered terribly; they underwent a real re-education process and many of them were inwardly changed. I was freed from my discomfiture by another newcomer, a small, lively man of about sixty with a face like a walnut. He immediately and unashamedly confessed his past.
“I’m Franta Brabec, a thief, but I don’t steal in the jug.”
Some responded to his words with a smile, others looked disconcerted. Then they invited me to join them at the table, offering me tea and biscuits.
“Help yourself. Don’t be shy.”
“Take more sugar. Sugar will put you back on your feet.”
I drank tea and thought of the treacle toffee and my father. I crunched cocoa biscuits and thought of my mother and the hot cocoa we had in school a couple of months after the war. It had all gone easily. I felt like a chess player who has won an important game without knowing how to move the pieces. I was a beginner. Beginners don’t mind losing. I had found myself in an artificial world. In a warm lair, from which I was driven out by the evening roll call and supper, the blaring of loudspeakers calling on those on duty in the huts to announce preparations for supper and lights out.
With an endless feeling of relief I stretched out on my bunk. I fell asleep like a newborn baby. An hour before midnight I was woken up by a pitiless stomping of heavy boots and the clatter of mess tins. The afternoon shift had returned. Men with mess tins were hurrying to collect their supper; they too wanted to get the day over as soon as possible and were longing to rest after jumping off the merry-go-round of endless days and nights of toil and roll calls. The light switch clicked and a blinding lamp flooded the room with restrained light, in which I saw for the first time in my life the pitiful figure and face of a prematurely aged man of about twenty-five with deeply sunken eyes, a scar that cut his chin and lower lip into two elongated, ugly segments.
“New?” he asked me in gruff voice. I couldn’t see the slightest hint of sympathy in his greenish brown eyes. And when he opened his mouth, my gaze fell into the black opening he’d been left with in lieu of teeth. He was the neighbour opposite me. He also slept on the top bunk.
“Bizub,” I muttered, offering my hand.
He completely ignored my gesture. He took his mess tin and went for supper. I don’t know when he came back. Once again I managed to fall asleep. I was woken by the rattle of the bed, a thud, hubbub and cursing. Someone turned on the light. Half the occupants had been woken up by the noise, the other half pretended to be asleep. My neighbour was picking himself up off the oiled floor, feeling his banged elbow and right arm.
“Think I must’ve slipped off my bed,” he observed laconically. And when he caught sight of me watching him sympathetically, he laughed. “Be careful you don’t do the same, kamagore.”