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When Eve Was Naked Stories of a Life's Journey
By Josef Skvorecky
Picador USA Copyright © 2003 Josef Skvorecky
All right reserved.
Why I Lernt
How to Reed
From the Diary of Josef Machane, grade one pupil
at the elementary school for boys at K.
Before I started going to school, Mother read to me every night at bedtime, to help me fall asleep. She would turn on the coloured glass lamp by my bed, put on her pince-nez, and read fairy tales. I really hated sleeping, but I liked listening to the stories: there was a wicked witch who ate children and a rotten stepmother who poked out her stepchildren's eyes, and then when the prince was betrothed to the prettiest of the children, she (the heroine) chopped off both her stepmother's arms and also one leg. Those fairy tales frightened me so much that I couldn't fall asleep, which was why Mother had to keep reading on and on, until she fell asleep.
But alas, those wonderful times were soon to be no more. I had to start grade one at the elementary school for boys. I didn't want to, but they made me. Our teacher, Mrs. Rehakova, taught us reading, and now, as Mother was turning on the lamp she would say to me, "Soon I won't have to read to you any longer, Joey, because in no time you'll learn how, and then you'll be able to read quietly to yourself." But Iliked having Mother read to me, because she was pretty and had a scratchy voice that helped me to stay awake when she read me the story about Budulinek, the boy who gobbled up everything he could find in the pantry, but was still hungry and then became a cannibal. So I decided not to learn how to read, so that Mother would have to go on reading bedtime stories to me every night. I kept my resolution steadfastly, and at midterm I got a failing grade in reading from Mrs. Rehakova. My father got very mad.
"A failing grade in such an elementary subject!" His voice was so loud that it shook the chandelier, which was also made of coloured glass. "Even Vozenil, the poor widow's son who comes to our house at least twice a week for lunch, managed a D minus, but look at this! My own son's report!" He stopped shouting and began removing his belt, then bent me over his knee and strapped me hard.
The pain soon faded, but unfortunately Father also had another punishment for me: in his righteous indignation he reduced my allowance by hall, from one crown to a mere fifty hellers a week. This created a surplus in the family budget, which he immediately decided to pass on to my sister, Blanche, giving her the extra fifty hellers because during a visit to her gym class the superintendent of schools had praised her for beautifully vaulting over a vaulting-horse. But, even though the price I paid was very high, I did achieve my goal: Father did not forbid Mother to read stories to me, and I still didn't learn to read.
Soon spring arrived. A paunchy black gentleman appeared at the Julius Meinl Delicatessen, the same gentleman who at Christmas brewed various kinds of coffee on the premises and offered them to the customers in tiny cups. Father, Mother, and my brother Peter, who was sixteen, all tried the coffee. I wasn't allowed to because I was too young. They couldn't agree on which was the best brand of coffee and they sampled so many tiny cups that Mother suddenly began to experience heart palpitations. Father bought 100 grams of the house brand and took her home.
However, it was now spring, and the paunchy black gentleman wasn't brewing coffee this time. He was offering a new American beverage, and he could also be seen in an advertising poster hanging in front of Meinl's, in which he was holding a large cup of golden liquid full of silver bubbles. In the poster, the black man and his cup were encircled by a slogan printed in red-white-and-blue-striped letters, but I could only read the part that said "1 Kc." I had learned how to read numbers, because there weren't any numbers in the fairy tales, but of course I couldn't read anything else, so Mother had to continue reading to me. I figured the numbers meant the golden drink cost one crown, which I could have afforded if Father hadn't cut my allowance.
I spent the whole afternoon in front of Meinl's delicatessen glumly watching a parade of my schoolmates, boys and girls alike, entering the store and then coming out sipping the golden beverage and praising its quality. Of course, they had been cheated: the cups they had been given were made of waxed paper, and were so small that at least ten of them would have fitted easily inside the goblet pictured on the poster. I was dying to taste the golden drink, but naturally they all begrudged me a taste, as their cups were so very tiny. Nobody offered me a single drop.
At five o'clock the black gentleman closed the steel shutters over the shop window and the door. The last customer, who slithered out under the shutter just as it was coming down, was Irene, the councillor's daughter. "Gimme a sip, Irene!" I whimpered. She was my last chance. "You didn't get any?" asked Irene. She sounded surprised, but she let me have a sip. As soon as I had tasted the drink, I wanted it more than ever. "No, I didn't," I told her, "because I ran out of moo--" (I was going to say moolah, but Irene always spoke properly, so I changed the word halfway through) "--ney," and I added, "Let me have some more!" Irene's cup had only a drop left, though, and she gulped it down herself. Then, pointing to the poster, she said, "But it was free! Look--it was a giveaway!" She spelled out the slogan for me:
Come and Taste
the New American Drink
A Cup of This Delicious Beverage
on Sale for 1 Kc
But Today and Only Today
Is Offered to You by
Mr. Positive Wasserman Brown of Chicago
Then Irene handed me the empty cup and turned around, her long braids with red ribbons swinging against her back. I threw away the empty cup, realizing that there would be far greater advantages in learning to read than there were in having Mother continue to read to me. I soon mastered reading, and writing too, and eventually became an author.
1998 Translated by Michal Schonberg
Eve Was Naked
We met in a sight-seeing bus, touring Prague. She wore her brown hair in braids with red bows at the ends. That much I remember. I have no idea what we talked about. In general, I have no idea what children talk about among themselves. Their world is foreign to me, and so I don't concern myself with it.
They say it's a happy world. Undoubtedly it is. It knows neither optimism nor despair. It passes by in a sort of permanent state of eager interest. I would like to know, though, just when it ends.
And perhaps I do. I know she was wearing a white linen summer dress, red sandals and white socks, that she was from Velim or some such small town and that she won a promotional contest by collecting the most toothpaste caps. Since I was eight at the time and she was much younger, she was probably about six. In any case, I think she was going to start first grade after summer vacation. It was her first time in Prague. The man with the megaphone pointed out the sights. Her red beret with the word THYMOLIN created an almost coquettish contrast with her brown hair, parted in the middle.
On me it looked like the beret of a foreign legionnaire. But I had hardly caught sight of her before I lost interest in my beret. What was the beret next to her? Next to those braids with red bows? Next to those eyes the colour of chocolate? Next to those bare calves in white socks?
And so it was love at first sight, perhaps my first love ever.
I think it's futile to try to describe it in words. We were put into a third-class coach, together with a group of charity children from the Prague Paupers, piled in ten to a compartment, boys and girls together, and we were on our way. Two days and two nights on the train, then sunny Italy.
When Wilson Station disappeared from sight she began to cry. Small tears rolled down her red cheeks and the white front of her dress, devoid of breasts. The tears rolled down that delicate chest of a child's small body. At night boards were laid between the benches and on them blankets, and on the blankets they put us. Five heads in one direction, tire heads in the other.
And during the night the cold beauty of the Alps appeared under the moon. The little girl sobbed at the wintry sight of those austere German giants covered with ice. With my feet I touched her legs, which were hot in the night car, in the dazzling light of the snow caps shining like the points of glass rooftops.
My neighbour Jiri Chruma (her legs in tiny socks lay between us), wasn't from the group sponsored by Thymolin toothpaste. He was one of the children from Prague Paupers, and he made fun of her. Jiri had no understanding of the homesickness of a little girl. He was travelling for the sake of great adventures. For the sake of regular and substantial meals. He made fun of that midnight sobbing and flaunted his contempt for girls.
No. She was something different.
On the second day I spoke to her about something. Only I can't remember what it was. I can't. She gave me a baba cake with chocolate filling, which I had never liked at home, but I ate it anyway. Naturally Because it was she who gave it to me. Strange. I can't hear a single word. But I can see those brown, chocolate eyes clearly. They gazed wide-eyed at the North Italian lowlands, at the peasant women in the fields, at the Italian army's special units marching swiftly along with plumes in their caps, at the Fascist customs officers stuffed into riding breeches, who smelled of sweat and flirted with the teacher who was chaperoning us in the train.
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