At the time, I preferred to live in Prague. I bought a pass for streetcars and buses and began to live on the seats of the public transit system. I would ride through Prague all day long, and I became familiar with its suburbs and outskirts, and I even went out as far as a village called Velká Praha, all to avoid sitting at home, waiting for my cats to materialize. In those journeys around Prague, everything I happened upon, everything I observed through the window, I saw as an element in my salvation. Every pedestrian was a precious stone, every shop window, every shuttered storefront, every pile of rubbish, was the most beautiful work of art. I would ride through Prague and gaze at the scaffolding, and I saw myself climb to the highest level and then lean out, savoring the view of spires emerging from churches framed by scaffolding. As I rode through Prague, the sight of diminutive Vietnamese boys wearing denim distracted me from my cats, and wherever I looked through the windows of the streetcars or the buses, those tiny, slender Vietnamese, who had flown to Prague from great distances away, were entering or exiting shops in groups and hurrying off somewhere down the street, and I came to expect to see these Vietnamese every hundred meters. It was as if they were coming out to meet me, as if there were a convention in Prague of those almost childlike people, all dressed alike, all looking like army officers in disguise, in denim trousers and jackets covered in script, and they all had long black hair, like hippies, like actors in small revolutionary theaters. It was only with these journeys of mine back and forth through Prague that I realized that no matter where I went, whether I was traveling through Bohemia or Moravia, I’d see groups wearing those same denim outfits and long black hair, and almost all of them had childlike faces, like the faces of princes, and one Sunday afternoon, when I was driving to Kersko by way of Císařská Kuchyně, the only people I saw in the streets were three Vietnamese.
It was only to take my mind off my dead cats that I traveled around Prague on public transit, and my favorite streetcar was the Number 17 that went from D’áblice to Braník along the Vltava River, where each swan became a life preserver thrown to my wretched soul, thousands of life preservers, thousands of beautiful beings in the shape of swans who had flown to Prague from great distances away and were now swimming together in groups close to the embankment where they deigned to be fed by good people, all to take my mind off my dead cats.
Sometimes, during my journeys around Prague, a truck would stop beside my streetcar window and I could look directly into the desperate eyes of the poor cattle that were tightly chained by their necks to the floor of the truck bed, but they would raise their heads and look into our eyes, pleading for help. In the course of a day, at intersections, I would see dozens of trucks carrying to slaughter those desperate, sad, bovine eyes that took me back to the eyes of the cats I had killed, had felt compelled to kill, I know not why. And it was here, on public transit, that I came to understand why artists love suffering, and why poets and painters drink themselves into a stupor. It’s because they need to suffer in order to see more clearly, so that when they reach the bottom, they might catch a glimpse of what others do not see, something that touches the very essence of a human being and the world around him. I was not drunk, I was afraid to get drunk, because I was afraid of losing control of myself, afraid that a hangover would do me in. In fact, by riding back and forth every day through Prague, I was in the same position as a man who is himself afraid, afraid of the moment that must always come in the end, when he undresses and sits in his pajamas by his bed and examines his feet with enormous interest, carefully inspecting each toe, one by one, because those prolonged examinations of his own feet take his mind off thinking about what has become of him, about what he’s come to, how far he’s sunk into a hell of his own making, a hell prepared for him by the cats he loved and felt compelled to murder.
And when I looked out the window of my apartment in Prague, I saw my little car, the Renault with the ginger seat covers, parked down below and that little car took me back again to a place I did not want to be. There were only three kittens left in Kersko, the other two had been taken away by Mrs. Pokorná from Semice, and the moment I arrived in Kersko I wanted to leave again, I wanted to be anywhere but there, because when I went to dump out the ashes from the stove I had to walk past the graves of my little animals and when I half closed my eyes those creatures appeared to me as they had been when I’d last seen them, before I covered them with earth. I had set a trap for myself. I had tried to persuade myself that I was strong, that I was a champion, a world champion, and that nothing could happen to me if I buried my lovely little cats beside the path to the brook. And when I walked back along the path from the willow tree, from the brook, and arrived at my cottage, there, under the birches and the pines stood my little car, my Renault 5, the white Renault with the red, or rather orange-colored seat covers, my kittenish little car, as I called it. And I needed scarcely an ounce of fantasy for that car to become, in my imagination, Autičko, my cat with the white socks and the rust-colored spots. And so, foolishly, I imagined that if I sold my little car, I’d be rid of at least one source of my remorse. But I was wrong, for the sources of my anguish, of those feelings of guilt, were legion. They had arrived first in arithmetic progression and then grew geometrically, until my suffering was like the magic pot that produced endless amounts of oatmeal porridge. Everywhere I went, despite my efforts to keep a close watch on myself, to suppress those apparitions with all my strength, my guilt and remorse would come at me through the door and seep in through the windows, and everywhere I looked I saw my murdered cats, and I could think of nothing but what had happened to me and what I had done. To make matters worse, in my travels around Prague, although I was able to embrace every beautiful image that came my way, and as everyone knows, the outskirts of Prague are not pretty, but for me, the sinner, everything I saw was not just beautiful, but spectacularly beautiful, that is until I saw a cat sitting in a window, until I heard someone talking about cats, until I saw a book about cats in a shop window. And so my journeys around Prague on public transport became pointless because I began to see cats even in places they could not possibly have been.
To drive those thoughts from my mind, I sold my kittenish little car and bought a brown Ford Escort 13. I had originally wanted a red one, but in the hard-currency dealership in Řepy the employees told me they’d pick out an Escort that would match my character. Red cars are popular with actresses and singers, they told me, but I should rest assured they would choose an Escort with a reputable color, one appropriate to my nature and above all, to my age, because at sixty-nine years old I had to have a car of a dignified color. And so when I came to Řepy to pick up the car, I was given a brown car, a brown Escort, and the seat covers, which I didn’t notice until I got to Kersko, were of a salt-and-pepper pattern in beige with a rough, canvaslike weave. It was as if mail bags had been stretched over the seats.
I sought to escape from the cats by driving around in my new Escort, but when I got into the car I had the sinking feeling I was sitting down on mail bags and when I slammed the door shut and looked around I almost died, because even the Escort’s ceiling was covered with the same kind of canvaslike material that mail bags are made of, that my mail bag, still lying folded and caked with blood in my woodshed, was made of.
At that time, my liver under the arc of my rib cage became enlarged and after some tests at the hospital in Bulovka they told me I mustn’t drink hard liquor or it would lead to edema of the liver. But I’d long since given up drinking hard liquor. I still drank beer and sometimes a little wine, but that was all. I concluded that the threat of edema came from my cats, from that feeling of guilt, because I had murdered those cats, those two pregnant cats, just as we had hanged Mrs. Horáková, merely because she had opinions that were deemed unsuitable.
And so I set out with a friend, Jiří Andrle, to Sušice to visit a miracle worker, Mr. Franta Ferda, a priest who had spent fifteen years in prison and had recently come back from Rome. We missed him on our first visit, because he’d just gone to Moscow to lecture a group of Soviet parapsychologists on his diagnostic and healing methods, so we went back again after his return from Moscow, where he had dazzled the doctors with his clairvoyance. When it was our turn, Franta Ferda asked my friend why he’d come and what he could do for him. Jiří replied that he had terrible headaches and couldn’t sleep without taking pills. Franta Ferda was sitting at a desk in the corner of his room. He scribbled something with a pen and, speaking to the wall, intoned in a dreamlike voice: “I see your house. There’s a ground floor with a stream flowing under it, then there’s the second floor and the third floor and that’s where your study is, and I see that the building has an oil-fired central heating system and I see a chimney flue that comes up from the ground floor, passes through the other floors, and goes right to the roof, but I see . . . I see that the fumes are leaking into your room and that’s what gives you the terrible headaches.” He turned around and looked Jiří in the eye. “So look, get the chimney fixed, stop taking those pills, and instead, drink a cupful of slivovice before going to bed.” Then he sat down, wrote a couple of lines on his typewriter, then handed the paper to Jiří and added: “Here’s what you still have to do. And now, what about you,” he said, turning to me. “What’s wrong with you?”
I replied: “I have an enlarged liver, I have a pain in my hip, and I’m in danger of getting edema.”
Instead of turning to face the corner, Franta Ferda launched right into me. “Look here,” he said, “what’s with this color? How can you live with a color that’s killing you? What’s with all this brown? You’ve come to see me dressed all in brown, but what about all that brown you have at home? Why are you so fond of brown, my good man? Don’t you know that brown will be the death of you?” And he sat down at his desk and furiously typed something on a sheet of paper, which he then handed to me, with instructions to take a bath and then drink a concoction of shredded bark from an oak tree, and rub my eyes with sugar crystals.
On departing, we left behind certain banknotes, which he did not touch, as recompense for his advice, then we bowed and backed out of the room, but Franta Ferda came to the door and yelled at me: “Remember, brown!” Then he slammed the door.
On the way back, Jiří’s wife, Milada, drove while Jiří told her everything Franta Ferda had said, about how fumes and residues from the central heating were seeping into their flat, and how he’d been partially poisoned by smoke from the heating oil. “But how could he have known what our building was like?” Jiří asked, fascinated.
Milada thought back. “Last spring,” she said, “some workers came in and repaired the furnace and yes, they told me that the chimney was leaking fumes and that I should call them back but I never did. So Jirka, the furnace really does leak.” We were all silent, wondering how Franta Ferda had been able to visualize Jiří’s house without ever having seen it, and I brooded over how he was able to look into my closets, where almost all my clothes, all my jackets, all my shoes and socks, were indeed brown. And when I recalled how, against my own wishes, the employees at the hard-currency dealership had given me a brown Escort, I concluded that everything that had happened to me was probably part of my destiny, that I would go on wearing brown and beige jackets, that I would go on driving a brown Ford Escort, that I was somehow controlled by hostile forces, that everything was showing me its hostile side, that my slice of brown bread would always fall buttered side down, that it would be better to yield, to surrender, to stop battling mirages and accept them as part of my destiny, because the gods, not I, had decided that everything would impinge on me from the outside, that I was no more than a plaything of forces I could not control, like the time we ordered a thermal storage heater and asked for it to be finished in blue tiles, but the tiles on the stove that arrived were brown.
I shrugged my shoulders and walked out along the path to the brook and I stood for a while by the kitty graveyard and looked around and recalled how pleasant our lives had been before fate intervened from outside, not from within me, not from the fact that I might have been going mad, or was becoming a psychopath, no, it was those external forces that had decided to conspire against me. At first I resisted, refusing to accept what I had done, yet in the end I accepted it all and yielded to it all, even though I knew that from that day forth, I could never be happy again.
And so again, I accepted the three tomcats that remained, one of which was a ginger cat who took after Autičko, one was a gray tabby and one was as black and shiny as a polished boot. But when I looked into their eyes, I could see that they didn’t possess an iota of the feeling that had resided in the cats that now lay buried in the sand by the path to the brook, but what could one do? And as wan and hollowed out as I’d felt all that time, and as afraid as I’d been of my own reflection in the mirror, now, after my visit to Franta Ferda, the parapsychologist, I grew calm and was even able to crack a crooked smile. I felt drawn to the tomcats, I went on walks with them again on moonlit nights by the picket fence, which my wife had painted white, so it felt as though I were walking past a line of skeletons, or as though the skeletons were marching past me, a fifty-meter-long fence of white gates and white pickets past which I would walk at night, accompanied by the three tomcats, who jumped in and out of the pickets, pelting about, running the length of the fence and then coming back to meet me. I’d gather them into my arms and hug them to me and tell them glorious tales of all our cats and toms, though they didn’t deserve it, and they’d appear to listen, and then when I’d go on a longer walk to visit my brother, they’d wait for me until I returned and they’d jump up and let me know how happy they were that I was back on the path, that I was back walking beside the white fence with the willow and the pine boughs arching over it, and the cats would run ahead of me, stop, and then roll around in the sand and invite me to bend down and pat them or pick them up and press them to my cheeks. That was what those tomcats, and in fact all my old cats, liked most of all: for me to pick them up, hug them to my cheeks, hold them there for a while, because all of those cats, even the tomcats, would close their eyes, just as I would, and for a brief moment we experienced a great sense of communion. At that time I also came to understand that events have a great unity, that I cannot avoid, not even for a second, nor even by a millimeter, everything that happens, everything that serves me well and serves me ill. Everything came at me with its sharp edge forward, and I felt then that the hand writing my destiny was not my hand. I knew with utter certainty that the hand belonged to a stranger who, if he had a mind for it, could prolong my movements by a second, or slow them down for a second no matter what I did. Everything seemed to have been prepared for me long ago, even things I believed I’d done of my own volition, because when I thought about it, it seemed as though it had been made ready to happen long ago, and all I had done was to slip the key into the door, which although it was opened by me alone, had also been prepared for me alone.