- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Frog in Prague
They stand still. "And Kafka?" Howard says.
"Kafka is not buried here."
"No? Because I thought—what I mean is the lady at my hotel's tourist information desk—the Intercontinental over there—and also the one who sold me the ticket now, both told me—"
The man's shaking his head, looks at him straight-faced. It's up to you, his look says, if you're going to give me anything for this tour. I won't ask. I won't embarrass you if you don't give me a crown. But I'm not going to stand here all day waiting for it.
"Here, I want to give you something for all this." He looks in his wallet. Smallest is a fifty note. Even if he got three-to-one on the black market, it's still too much. He feels the change in his pocket. Only small coins. This guy's done this routine with plenty of people, that's for sure, and he'd really like not to give him anything.
"Come, come," the man said.
"You understand?" Howard said. "For Kafka's grave. Just as I told the lady at the ticket window, I'm sure the other parts of this ticket for the Old Synagogue and the Jewish Museum are all very interesting—maybe I'll take advantage of it some other time—but what I really came to see—"
"Yes, come, come. I work here too. I will show you."
Howard followed him up a stone path past hundreds of gravestones on both sides, sometimes four or five or he didn't know how many of them pressed up or leaning against one another. The man stopped, Howard did and looked around for Kafka's grave, though he knew one of these couldn't be it. "You see," the man said, "the governor at the time—it was the fourteenth century and by now there were twelve thousand people buried here. He said no when the Jewish elders of Prague asked to expand the cemetery. So what did the Jews do? They built down and up, not outwards, not away. They kept inside the original lines of the cemetery permitted them. Twelve times they built down and up till they had twelve of what do you call them in English, plateaus? Places?" and he moved his hand up in levels.
"Yes, that would be right. Twelve of them and then the ground stopped and they also couldn't go any higher up without being the city's highest cemetery hill, so they couldn't make any levels anymore."
"So that accounts for these gravestones being, well, the way they are. All on top of one another, pressed togetherlike. Below ground there's actually twelve coffins or their equivalents, one on top of—"
"Yes, yes, that's so." He walked on about fifty feet, stopped. "Another governor wouldn't let the Jews in this country take the names of son-of anymore. Son of Isaac, Son of Abraham. They had to take, perhaps out of punishment, but history is not clear on this, the names of animals or things from the earth and so on." He pointed to the stone relief of a lion at the top of one gravestone. "Lion, you see." To a bunch of grapes on another stone: "Wine, this one. And others, if we took the time to look, all around, but of that historical era."
"So that's why the name Kafka is that of a bird if I'm not mistaken. Jackdaw, I understand it means in Czech. The Kafka family, years back, must have taken it or were given it, right? Which?"
"Yes, Kafka. Kafka." Howard didn't think by the man's expression he understood. "Come, please." They moved on another hundred feet or so, stopped. "See these two hands on the monument? That is the stone of one who could give blessings—a Cohen. No animal there, but his sign. Next to it," pointing to another gravestone, "is a jaw."
"A jaw?" The stone relief of this one was of a pitcher. "Jar, do you mean?"
"Yes. Jaw, jaw. That is a Levi, one who brings the holy water to wash the hands of a Cohen. That they are side by side is only a coincidence. On the next monument you see more berries but of a different kind than wine. Fertility."
"Does that mean a woman's buried here? Or maybe a farmer?"
"Yes. Come, come." They went past many stones and sarcophagi. All of them seemed to be hundreds of years old and were crumbling in places. Most of the names and dates on them couldn't be read. The newer section of the cemetery, where Kafka had to be buried, had to be in an area one couldn't see from here. He remembered the photograph of the gravestone of Kafka and his parents. Kafka's name on top—he was the first to go—his father's and mother's below his. It was in a recent biography of him he'd read, or at least read the last half of, not really being interested in the genealogical and formative parts of an artist's life, before he left for Europe. The stone was upright, though the photo could have been taken many years ago, and close to several upright stones but not touching them. The names and dates on it, and also the lines in Hebrew under Kafka's name, could be read clearly. It looked no different from any gravestone in an ordinary relatively old crowded Jewish cemetery. The one a couple of miles past the Queens side of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge where some of his own family were buried.
The man walked, Howard followed him. "Here is the monument of Mordecai Maisel. It is much larger than the others because he was a very rich important man. More money than even the king, he had. The king would borrow from him when he needed it for public matters. Later, after he paid it back, he would say to him 'Mordecai, what can I give you in return for this great favor?' Mordecai would always say 'Give not to me but to my people,' and that did help to make life better in Prague for the Jews of that time. He was a good wealthy man, Mordecai Maisel. Come, come."
They stopped at another sarcophagus. Hundreds of little stones had been placed on the ledges and little folded-up pieces of paper pushed into the crevices of it. "Here is Rabbi Low. As you see, people still put notes inside his monument asking for special favors from him."
"Why, he was a mystic?"
"You don't know of the famous Rabbi Löw?"
"No. I mean, his name does sound familiar, but I'm afraid my interest is mostly literature. Kafka. I've seen several of his residences in this neighborhood. Where he worked for so many years near the railroad station, and also that very little house on Golden Lane, I think it's translated as, across the river near the castle. A couple of places where Rilke lived too."
"So, literature, what else am I talking of here? The Golem. A world famous play. Well? Rabbi Low. Of the sixteenth century. He started it. He's known all over."
"I've certainly heard of the play. It was performed in New York City—in a theater in Central Park—last summer. I didn't know it was Rabbi Low who started the legend."
"Yes, he, he. The originator. Others may say other rabbis might have, but it was only Rabbi Low, nobody else. Then he knocked the Golem to pieces when it went crazy on him. Come, come."
They went on. The man showed him the grave of the only Jewish woman in medieval Prague who had been permitted to marry nobility. "Her husband buried here too?" Howard said. "No, of course not. It was out-of-religion. The permission she got to marry was from our elders. He's somewhere else." The stone of one of the mayors of the Jewish ghetto in seventeenth-century Prague. The stone of a well-known iron craftsman whose name the man had to repeat several times before Howard gave up trying to make it out but nodded he had finally understood. Then they came to the entrance again. After the man said Kafka wasn't buried here and Howard said he wanted to give him something for all this, he finally gives him the fifty note, the man pockets it and Howard asks if he might know where Kafka is buried.
"Oh, in Stranice cemetery. The Jewish part of it, nothing separate anymore. It isn't far from here. You take a tube. Fifteen minutes and you are there," and he skims one hand off the other to show how a train goes straight out to it. "It's in walking distance from the station. On a nice day unlike today the walk is a simple and pleasant one. And once you have reached it you ask at the gate to see Kafka's grave and someone there will show you around."CHAPTER 2
He was once somewhere. On a rooftop. Looking out. He saw many mountains and sky. He saw lots of things. What else? Birds. Sunrise. Low-hanging clouds. That's not where he was. He was home. In bed. That's where he is. Now. Thinking of the time. Now he has it. Time when he first met her. Where was that? When? No rooftop or mountains, birds or sunrise. From where he met her. One of the windows out of. Oh, he supposes they could have seen some of those if they'd looked out the window—not mountains or sunrise—and maybe one to more of them did. But where was he? There were several people there. He had it before. Suddenly the thought disappeared. The memory of it. Here once, now gone. It'll come back. Always has. No it doesn't, or not necessarily. This is the first time, in fact, he's thought of this particular memory since it happened. Can't be true. Must have thought of it a couple of times soon after it happened. At least once. Had to. Then several to many times when they were together all those years. Then after they split up and certainly while they were splitting up. But the first time for a long time. Now that's true. A fact. At least he thinks it is. That it's true. Anyway—
Anyway, she was somewhere, he was somewhere. They met, somehow met. They immediately took to one another, or almost immediately. That's what they both later said. Said a number of weeks later. Three to be exact. Three on the nose. They met on a Saturday night. Now he's got it. And three Saturday nights later—and he knows it was three. Because they often said to one another, starting from that night. Maybe not often but almost. That good things come in threes. And it's been, they said to one another that night, three weeks from the time they first met to the time they first went to bed. Later, after they'd made love, said it. Made love three times. How's he remember that? Because she later said to him that same night "Good things might come in threes"—said it in so many words—"but this was too much of a good thing. I hurt." Anyway—
Anyway, after they'd made love—maybe after the first time. Maybe after the second. Probably one of those for he doubts it was after the third. For after the third she said what he just said she said. But after one of the other two times, they said to one another "I love you." Exact words. He doesn't remember which one said it first, but what of it? Just that they both said the same thing. He said it or she said it but right after one of them said it the other said it. Then, after they'd made love the third time—actually, only he'd made love that third time. She just let him use her. That's what she later said in so many words too. "It hurt. It really stung. I wasn't involved in it anymore. I was still probably very slippery inside from the previous two times, which is how you were able to do it so easily." Anyway—
Anyway, where were they and when was it? Don't lose it now. It was years ago. Twenty-five. More. They were somewhere. On a rooftop. In a tree. Flying on a cloud. Sliding down a rainbow. Standing on top of such a tall mountain that they saw a sunrise and sunset at the same time. It was at a friend's house. Her cousin's, to be exact, and his friend's. He'd been invited for dinner. They'd been. Separately of course. Sandy. She's dead now. Stroke. She was there when he got there. Denise. He looked at her while he took off his coat and rubber boots and thought "Now she's quite something, that gal. This a setup? If so, I like it. But first let's see how she thinks and speaks. She looks like someone who does both very well." But time out for Sandy. Or Sandra, as she was called at her funeral. They went to it. With their eldest child. She was a good friend, cousin and friend-cousin-pampering-aunt to their children and always, far as they could tell and everyone else said, big spirited, even tempered, well meaning and up till her split-second death, in excellent health. Anyway—Poor Sandra. Anyway—They once made love. They were both dead drunk and long before Denise. He just remembered it, after about thirty years, and that he never told Denise and she'd never asked him if anything like that had ever happened between them. Nothing much did, did it? He thinks at best they each tore off his and her own clothes, stroked and poked a part or two and passed out till morning. Anyway—
Anyway, he told Denise what he first thought about her when he first saw her that night. Not that night told her. A week or so later. A month. After he told her she said "You know, when you came in"—in so many words, just as his thoughts and talk were—"and started taking off your outerclothes, I thought 'Nice-looking enough, that guy. This prearranged? If it is, good going, Sandy. For once you might come close to hooking me up. He looks fairly intelligent too. No dresser though. Almost a slob. Not a big problem for now. So, we'll see what we'll see, OK?'" He doesn't remember saying anything to her over drinks. Maybe "Hello, my name's Howard," and then she might have given hers. Of course she did if he gave his. They were seated opposite one another at dinner. Sandy said, after she said dinner was ready, who should sit where. There were about ten guests. "Nobody object. I know what I'm doing. I've been running over this network of seating places all week. The single and multiple conversations will just sizzle." The living room window was behind her chair. The view was of another apartment building's wall. He probably made a reference or two to it. And to the snow, which had been predicted but not in such abundance and had just begun to fall and became one of the city's biggest storms for that or any other year. Certainly for that year, since that was another thing they later referred to about that night and their children, usually over dinner, liked them to remember for them: the record snow the night they met and how each got home. He thinks he walked and she bused. One of the children would know. He thinks he even offered her cab fare to get home. He lived about ten blocks uptown and she about sixty blocks down. "Just as a loan then if that's the only way you'll accept it," he thinks he said, but she refused: "I'll make do with a subway" or "bus." Did he walk her to a station or stop? Doesn't remember. They talked at the table to each other and others. Of course. But much more than "Please pass the peas and tuna and cheese casserole." Though the main dish was turkey with all the traditional trimmings. Sandy asked him to carve it. She'd seen him do it at his parents' home once or twice. What's he talking about? She was his cousin only by marriage and he doesn't believe she met his parents till the wedding. If she saw him carve a turkey or goose anyplace outside of her home it was later: when Denise and he had her over for a holiday feast, which he thinks they did invite her for once or twice. She must have said something like "Anyone here know how to carve a turkey?" and he volunteered, since he'd carved a turkey and capon at his parents' home several times. Was it a holiday eve or night at Sandy's? Around November or December, so could have been one of many. And someone else walked Denise to the station or stop. Or a group of guests walked together or she went alone. He might have offered, she might have said not to bother, but he stayed with Sandy—was the last to leave, in fact—to talk about Denise. Did it matter much that Sandy and he had once made love? Probably not. That was two years before, and the morning after they agreed it had been a big drunken mistake and to just forget it ever happened, if much, they said, really had—they didn't want to go any deeper into what actually did happen since that was part of their starting to forget it—if they wanted to continue their friendship. Anyway—
Excerpted from Frog by Stephen Dixon. Copyright © 1991 Stephen Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 16, 2013
Posted December 12, 2013