Early that evening I walked down to the frozen brook. My broken ribs were still sore, but a week after the accident I was already feeling better. Not that I expected anything different, since my role model was Franta Št’astný who, when he broke two ribs on a Jawa 250, had his chest tightly bandaged and then, two hours later, went on to win the 350. The sun was already setting and the sky in the west was pink and, as the blue above me darkened, the trembling stars gradually began to shimmer in the heavens. When I walked through a small wooded area, I scared up a herd of roe deer that were pawing away the snow and pine needles to make places to bed down in the sandy ground and I felt miserable because by frightening away those diminutive deer I had done something amiss again. But what could I do? After what for me was a fortunate car accident, I had slowed down. I felt at ease wherever I was. I had no desire to take the bus to Prague or, if I were in Prague, to go back to Kersko. I was happy just sitting at home. The three toms slept all the time, as though eternity were time enough, and that autumn and winter they were indifferent to everything. They ate and slept, and as they slept I was able to sit for hours and gaze out the window, no longer at birch and pine boughs, no longer waiting for the last leaf to fall, but simply staring, cradling my bandaged ribs, which were sore, but what I felt was not pain, more like a warming ache that seemed like a kind of satisfaction. Somehow, the accident had worked to my benefit. Somehow, with those broken ribs, I finally understood there was little point in going to those literary gatherings, or going to pubs where people were waiting for me to show up. What was the point of going anywhere, now that I was close to turning seventy? Somehow, the accident took a weight off my mind. My body was now covered with scars and bruises and for the first time, my hands and feet and the nape of my neck and my back began to ache from having been rattled and bounced and bruised in the Ford Escort. And those twinges of pain, absolution for my sins, were as valuable to me as having a conviction struck from my criminal record. For me, the accident was like the electroshock therapy they administer to patients on psych wards. Maybe it meant I’d stop writing. Maybe the accident had erased what fired me up. Maybe something had happened to me that made it less likely I’d end up in a mental hospital. Everything that had once cried out within me now fell silent, the pressure of everything feline that had broken my heart and mind had somehow been vented, and I sat at home by the window like a liberated prisoner, capable of nothing more than staring into the heart of silence and tranquility.
And now, as I crunched along over the frozen snow beside the icebound brook, the wind rattled in the light-brown reeds and the northern bullfinches let me walk right up to the frozen thistles where they perched, and after flashing the ruddy garlands of their brick-colored breasts at me they flew off to other thistles. The black woods loomed across the frozen river and I walked along in high black boots and white socks through a landscape I have loved since I was six years old, a drab landscape, and therefore especially beautiful, a flat land you can walk through and no longer see anything around you, but rather you can commune with yourself, or simply let your soul commune with the spirit and the elements. When I was six and walked past the brewery and through the countryside along the Labe River, toward Komárenský Island, I was drawn forward, toward what was beyond it, what was on the other side of Písty, and once in Písty, to what was beyond the horizon on the other side of Kostomlátky. And so, back then, and for twenty years after that, I was drawn to walk, and go on walking, on and on, to see what was beyond the horizon. I walked and then rode my bike all the way to Hamburg. But today, horizons no longer pull me toward them, and I am happy where I am, happy that I simply am, that I can carry myself just a little bit further, and at the same time, dream about anything, think about anything, and even allow myself the luxury of thinking about nothing at all, and thus about everything. And so I walk through the deep, glittering twilight, the snow crunching under my boots, deep, frozen snow, as though I were breaking through the glass covering a hot bed, and in fact, for the first time since the accident I realized that until the moment we smashed into that transport truck at ninety kilometers an hour, I believed, no, I felt, that other people were all far smarter than I was, far more moral than I was, far better looking than I was, far more . . . that everything people had was more perfect than what I had, that they had all been born with a little pearl at the bottom of their cup, whereas what I had at the bottom of mine, from childhood on, was a feeling of guilt. From childhood on. I looked at people guiltily, and even during my childhood, when some older boys I’d never seen before would ride by on bicycles and I’d stare at them, they’d dismount and give me a wallop and then get back on their bikes and take off, feeling smug, and I’d go back where I’d come from, holding my face. Or when I first went to school, I was ashamed because I felt I’d done something wrong, something so terrible that boys I did not know seemed to see evidence of some crime in my insolent face and punish me for it. Perhaps the blows I received were advance payback for deeds I would eventually commit. Perhaps they were meant to smarten me up while there was still time. Perhaps they were for the cats and kittens I beat to death in a mail bag. That may have been why, as a boy and later as a young man, I was constantly running away, escaping, always trying to reach the horizon so that I could hide on the other side. But all I ever learned was that, having reached that limit, another horizon would open up, and that I had to keep on driving myself, escaping toward a horizon line that was forever receding, until today, here, as I walked beside the frozen river, the entire horizon turned back and came at me from all sides and its lines passed through me, creating a central point that did not impinge on me but rather came back to my hands and feet like a boomerang. The snow crunched under my tall black rubber-soled boots that left behind me in the deep crust the outlines of large acacia leaves. I turned around again and saw that I had left behind footprints punctured in the snow, as though I had waded through a cake with sugar frosting.
When they released me from the Nymburk hospital a week after the accident, I went straight to the Golden Tiger, because my role model was Niki Lauda, who was almost burned to death in his racing car, and five weeks later, got behind the wheel of a Monoposto Formula 1 as if nothing had happened. And there I met Miroslav Ondříček, Miloš Forman’s cameraman, and he laughed when I reminded him of something that had happened to him fifteen years before when, celebrating the birth of his son, he and a friend rammed his car into a wall and he smashed himself up so badly he nearly died. Mr. Ondříček made it through and they sewed up his face, and he showed me where the stitches were and added with a hearty laugh: “Did you know that just last week they extracted a tiny fragment of glass from my eyebrow?”
Now I was walking beside the frozen river. I looked at the surface of the ice, which was still pink from what was left of the sunset, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked again, and there, several yards from a stand of bent and broken reeds, was a live swan. I was alarmed because the wind would blow in from the north again and, judging from the sky, the temperature that night would drop to fifteen or twenty degrees below zero, and I was afraid the swan would freeze to death. I walked down to the stand of reeds and looked at that beautiful bird, and indeed, it was a swan. Its neck was graceful but its eyes were burning with anger, anger at me for being there and staring at her, and I saw the snow swirl across the frozen water, the color of ground cinnamon and it was piling up around the swan like waves and watery foam and spume rising from the prow of a boat underway. What I feared most had already occurred: the swan was trapped in the ice. It was three yards from me, almost within reach, and because I was afraid the ice might give way beneath me, I lay down on my broken ribs and very slowly inched my way forward on my elbows, the way I’d learned to do in the army, and as I lay on my stomach on the ceiling of the frozen river, the cinnamon snow blew into my eyes, and when I’d pulled myself closer I reached out with my hand to the swan, and she bent her neck forward, her eyes even angrier, and with a powerful blow from her beak, she jabbed the back of my hand and hissed at me, and even though blood was now gushing from my hand, I grabbed her wings with the fingers of both hands but she was already half-frozen and she jabbed at my hand again and it was like a blow from an axe. I knew if I approached the swan close enough to lean over her, she would jab me in the face with her beak, a powerful knife blow between the eyes, and I knew she would break her own legs, which were frozen solid in the ice, rather than let me touch her. Then, a short distance from the swan, I saw a patch of open water, a hole in the ice no bigger than a hand puppet or a small board, and the black river water was flowing past and the surface rippled and I was afraid to move any closer. But mainly, I was afraid of getting hit by those wings. I had once picked up a swan bodily with both hands and she struck my head so hard with both wings that I passed out. I inched my way back to the riverbank on broken ribs, my hands bleeding, and gazed with admiration at that swan, hoping that a thaw might come, that the sun might shine tomorrow, that the snow and ice under the swan might melt, and that when I came back the next day, the swan would be gone. After I had climbed back up to the path along the riverbank, there, as if fallen from heaven, lay a large branch. I picked it up and returned to the stand of bent and broken reeds and tried to free the swan, but by what became of the branch, I saw how I would have fared. With mighty blows from her beak, the swan first scattered the bark in all directions and then, hissing, she smashed the bough, and with a powerful wrench of her neck, she jerked it out of my hands and flung it away, even though she remained firmly frozen in the ice, and then she averted her angry eyes and ruffled her feathers, stroking and preening herself with her beak, smoothing her feathers again. I walked away, but kept turning back, fascinated by this apparition. In the dull mirror of the evening sky, she went on preening her feathers, smoothing them close to her body with her neck and her head and her beak, which she used as a comb, though only a short while ago it had been more like a pair of garden shears.
I retraced my steps, walking in the footprints I had left with my high boots when I had made my way there to the swan, who had rejected my help, my attempt to free her. I had intended to carry her away, and it was as if the swan knew I would carry her all the way home and feed her until spring came, or until she decided to leave and flew away.
When I returned home, my ribs began to ache so badly it was as though I had broken them again, and it began to dawn on me, as my mind began working again involuntarily, that the incident with the swan did not just happen, that my dead cats had set the swan up for me, that the swan who refused to let me save her had been placed there by my destiny, which comes from outside of one, a part, a fragment, of a message from elsewhere and that in fact, since I was capable of beating to death those cats who had so passionately desired nothing more than to be with me in the world, so this swan, whom I had wanted to help survive and be in the world, instead sacrificed herself, preferring to die, to deny herself life, to show me, not that the opposite of everything is true, but on the contrary, that the opposite of everything is not true and that once again, I was guilty, just as I had been guilty all my life, even though I did not know why or what could have been the cause. And so I staggered home. By now it was dark and I was guided only by a sliver of sky visible through the treetops.
Back home, I sat down on a chair again like one paralyzed, and the three tomcats tried to cheer me up, they wrestled and pretended that a meshugge Stunde had come over them, they turned somersaults and leaned against my arms and looked into my eyes, but I was dying from pangs of guilt for not having saved the swan against her will, though I only wanted to save her so that I might calm my conscience. And so I took some sleeping pills, but I woke up every half hour and looked at my watch and couldn’t wait until daybreak, when I would once more set out with a small ladder, the kind they use when they rescue children who have broken through the ice on a pond, and I planned to lay the ladder on the ice and crawl along it until I reached my swan, and I looked for a pair of leather gloves in the shed so she couldn’t peck through my skin.
I thought of that evening when I sat with Mr. Ondříček, Mr. Forman’s cinematographer, who had rammed his car into a wall when he was celebrating the birth of his son, and suddenly I remembered a woman who had sat down beside us. It had been raining at the time, the seventh day after my accident, and she came in on two white crutches, wearing a faux-leather raincoat and a similar kind of hat and she was heavily made-up, and the water was streaming off her umbrella. She drank beer after beer with us and she knew all the soccer teams fielded by Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague for the past fifty years. Suddenly she turned to me and, laying her lacquered nails on my sleeve, she said: “And now I’ll tell you something. You can write it up and go straight to your publisher for an advance. I’ve been a member of the Sparta sports club since I was three, and my father would take me there, and now imagine this: I was seventeen years old, it was under the Protectorate and the country was occupied by the Germans, as you know, and I went to the box seat that my father and I had together and when I entered the box, the stadium was sold out, and as I was waiting for my father to show up, an official came and said, ‘Just a moment, Miss,’ and into the box stepped the king of comedians himself, Vlasta Burian, and he told me that sadly, I no longer had any right to this box seat because he’d read the news and learned that unfortunately my father had been executed because he approved of the assassination of the Reichsprotektor, Mr. Heydrich, and the best he could do was give me a standing-room-only ticket, and if I was to remain here, there would be incalculable consequences for the entire club because anyone who approved of the death of Herr Protektor and was executed for it could no longer be considered a citizen of this country. And so I got up in tears and as I was making my way through the crowd to the exit I saw two of the stars, Vojta and Tonda Bradáč, along with their younger brother, Ludvík, coming toward me and they opened their arms and embraced me, because they liked me, and they asked me why I was crying. I told them why, and Vojta and Tonda shouted that if I weren’t in that box, they were not going to play, and they asked Ludvík to take me with him into the Slavia club box. And they did. They took me there, but instead of watching the soccer match, I stared at the floor, at the cigarette butts and matchsticks and beer cups, and I wept. Write about that and you’ll merely have to mention it to the editors in the Writers’ Publishing House and then drop in and pick up your advance, because you too are our king of comedy,” she said, and drank her tenth beer and I drank more beers than ever before.
I mulled over that story again and again. The tomcats were sound asleep and I went outside while it was still dark and took the little ladder, just like a chimney sweep, my ribs were no longer hurting, there was no time for that, or maybe they did hurt, because even the bruises were painful, but I felt nothing because I was driven by guilt, by a feeling that once again I had not done everything I should have. I went outside, praying that my swan was still in the world. I wanted nothing more than for her to remain alive for at least an hour after I rescued her. Once again, I walked in the footprints I had made going to the swan and back, and it felt as though I were going to pick up my advance for the story the lady at the Golden Tiger gave me, and I fell down several times, with the ladder, and so I, king of comedians, a writer to whom people often tell crazy, off-color stories, which they deliver with much laughter: how about this one, the time we pissed all over their staircase and afterward one of the young women vomited into the electric typewriter, and when you tell them that story in the publishing house, they’ll give you an advance on the spot.
So I, the king of comedians, stood on the riverbank, and overnight the wind had blown in fresh snow and I stood in my old footprints that were partially filled in with snow, daylight was breaking in the east and the countryside was awash in chlorine light and pink arpeggios against the flow of the brook. When I looked at where the swan had been yesterday, I had the impression that she was already gone, and I laughed, lifted my head and trumpeted to the frozen heavens my delight that this beautiful bird, which in England belongs to the Queen, and anyone who harms a swan can be prosecuted by the Queen herself, now this bird had rescued itself and removed from me that terrible feeling of guilt.
But when the sun came up over the frozen water, there, three yards from the bank, was a gentle mound of snow, and when I took a closer look, I saw that my swan lay under it and that before her heart had frozen, she’d been able to position her neck in a graceful arc and tuck her head under her wing. And now, covered with drifting snow, she lay there like a beautiful sculpture, and my heart felt shame at the sight, her neck and head covered by her airy wing so that they made an arch, a mystical unity, as human hands do when they come together in prayer. The entire bird was contained within a circle, like the eternal return of the selfsame, the swan who yesterday had refused to let me save her, free her from the ice of which she and her frozen feathers had become a part . . . I set the ladder down on the ice and slid it forward till it touched her, as though the ladder had been tailor-made for this moment, and very slowly, facedown, I elbowed my way to the swan.
I have a habit, before leaving my flat in Prague, of checking three times to make sure I’ve shut off the gas stove, that I’ve turned off the lights in the bathroom and the water closet, and that I’ve locked the door, and then I go back once more to check on everything a fourth time, and so now, though I knew that nothing but my swan could possibly be lying there under the snow, I still brushed the snow away with trembling hands and saw the curve of her wing, and I went on brushing the snow away and yes, there was her neck, then I elbowed my way back like a sloth, and now nothing ached anymore but my heart, and so I crawled back from the riverbank to the swan again, and then again, trying to brush away more and more snow from that beautiful snowbound creature who, perhaps for my sake alone, had arranged herself in my sight so that I cried out into the dark morning and realized, bitterly, that the king of Czech comedians could go to claim his advance for this story, not to the Writers’ Publishing House, but to the very center, not of death, but of hell itself, where I will suffer pangs of guilt and remorse and shame that will pursue me into eternity, into the very heart of incalculable consequences.