At the time, I was constantly astonished at how my life would unexpectedly take an upward turn, and just as suddenly come crashing back down again, or lurch to the right and back to the left again. I moved through the world like a team of runaway horses in the hands of an obsessed and demented driver. But I was already somewhere else. I bowed down not just to the trees, like those schoolteachers who, many years ago, had owned my parcel of land before me, but I bowed down as well to those three tomcats, I bowed to myself in the mirror, and smiled because I no longer feared myself. I felt as though I were wearing a bridle and being led, no matter how or where, and it was a wonderful feeling, that everything was being prepared for me, as for a bridegroom or for bridesmaids, or for young men in a funeral procession. I no longer felt alone and it gave me, not strength, but a sweet sensation of happiness, though I knew sadness was lurking not far off, because all being arises from nonbeing, and everything that exists derives from its opposite.
Back then I was above it, above myself, and I could allow myself the luxury of palpating my swollen liver and admitting that it didn’t matter. Edema? So what? Even with this dying body, I was still out of danger, since no matter what happened I could now say “Yes!” to everything, because I had already been through it all with those cats. It was as if I had lived through all those wars, as if I had taken part in the massacre at My Lai, the massacre in Lebanon, as if I had been through everything I read about in a book called A Century of War Photography. What others did, I had done too. It was I who led a young French photographer under fire down a side street in Lebanon, where she took my picture with five dead Falangists whose penises had been cut off. And even though I had not yet been born, I still felt guilty when, that year, my friends the Turks and I cut off the heads of dead enemy soldiers shot in battle, put them into a flour sack and took them into town where we had our pictures taken with them.
And so one fine morning, my wife and I drove the Ford Escort 13 from Střížkov to D’áblice, looking for the local housing office. They’d written to tell us we were in arrears with the rent, and we wanted to show them the money-order receipt to prove we’d already paid up, though we could just as easily have phoned them. On the way, we stopped by the water tower in Střížkov and my wife asked an old woman with an umbrella if she knew where Bínova Street was. The woman pulled out a map of Prague and while they both pored over it, looking for Bínova Street, two young mail carriers walked past our Escort, engaged in a lively conversation and all I had to do was crank down the window and ask them for directions, but by now I knew my own mind and I knew that everything that slowed me down would also propel me forward, so I just sat there. We drove off to where the old woman had directed us, but it turned out to be somewhere else, and so we were constantly being slowed down and propelled forward at the same time, thus ending up in a time that was ours alone, a time that was in fact mine and mine alone. Just the day before, when my wife was burning dry grass she’d raked into a pile, adding to the fire things we had no more use for, I went into the woodshed and saw that the mail bag was gone. Smoke was rising in the air near the willow by the brook, so just to be sure, I asked my wife if she’d burned that old mail bag I kept in the woodshed. And my wife nodded, and said she had burned it because if anyone were to find it, they might think it was us who robbed that mail truck in Čakovice years ago, when millions went missing. I walked down the path past the kitty graveyard and poked around in the ashes with a stick, but I could only find little brass grommets and a delicate weave of ash, all that was left of that mail bag.
In the end, we found the office we were looking for and my wife ran in and waved the money-order receipt victoriously in front of the official’s eyes, proving that she had paid the rent for July. Then she got resolutely back behind the wheel and as we drove off, she was still quivering with outrage at the false accusation.
We drove out of the city and the sun began to shine as we passed through the outskirts. We wanted to get gas, but then we decided we’d fill up on the way back to Prague, so we drove on through Počernice and through Nehvizdy and then, as we were descending a small hill toward the gas pumps in Mochov, an international semi was laboring up the hill toward us, and just as we passed it, a wall of blue suddenly appeared in front of us, followed by an awful crash, like a symphony ending in a crescendo of kettledrums and cymbals. The windshield shattered into thousands of tiny pieces, the light vanished, then came an impact, followed by silence and the smell of burning bones. When I opened my eyes I was covered in tiny fragments of glass and I imagined I was hearing the closing passage of Liszt’s Les Préludes. I was suspended upside down and my wife beside me was hanging head down, her hair in comic disarray. We hung there for a while, waiting to start bleeding to death. But nothing happened, nothing but a great silence. Then I saw a pair of overalls upside down and I pushed the release on my safety belt and fell down headfirst and human hands pulled me out of the car and the eyes above the hands were wide with alarm, and on the other side, another pair of human hands pulled my wife out of the car, and she began to groan and then burst into tears. “What happened?” she said and I said to her: “What have you done?” And then I got to my feet and there, a short way off, was the gas station, and a truck was angled across the road in the morning sun, a blue wall blocking traffic, and upside down in the ditch was our chocolate-colored Escort, badly mangled, and the truck driver was leaning on his elbow against the truck’s radiator. He was pale and had lit a cigarette and was staring at us in an unfriendly way, then he shrugged his shoulders and said: “I didn’t see you.” And as I walked around the scene of the accident, fragments of glass were falling off me and my head was bleeding slightly and I felt myself all over and determined that my ribs were probably broken, since I could feel them creak under my fingers, and I walked back and forth and then over to the pumps, where they were tending to my wife, and then an ambulance came followed by another, and then the police arrived in a yellow squad car with the initials VB –– Veřejná Bezpečnost, Public Security –– on the side, and when the policemen saw our car, they turned pale. . . . And I continued walking up and down, with a clear and precise feeling that this car represented a full stop, a period at the end of the saga of all those murdered cats, that the blow from outside had finally arrived, that it was my destiny that we were nearly crushed to death in a brown automobile with seat covers and ceiling cloth the same color as the mail bag in which I had killed those poor cats, but that now, the heavens were satisfied. I was being punished, so the heavens, which are above us and guide our fates, were satisfied too.
I smiled when they asked me to get into the ambulance, bits of glass still dropping out of my coat, and I smiled again while being X-rayed at the Nymburk hospital, and I smiled when they put iodine on my head wounds and reset my broken ribs. I smiled the entire week I spent lying in the Nymburk hospital, while a few remaining fragments of glass fell out of my hair for good luck, because I was saved, I was relieved of having my guilt and my bad conscience drive me to hang myself from the willow tree by the brook, as Mařenka had predicted I would, she who, shortly before she died, had come to us to hunt for mushrooms and left behind her handbag with the two round green handles. Whenever I was asked how I survived the accident, I laughed out loud and told everyone it had been magnificent, like the most powerful moral, symphonic music. The unhappy driver lay with me in the hospital and, just like me and like my wife, he could not turn back the clock a second, nor could he ever push it forward a second, so that what happened had to happen, as I told everyone, and it was magnificent.
What I told myself privately was that if one day I should ever decide to leave this world, nothing would be more wonderful than the way chosen by my beloved Jackson Pollock, my master of action painting, of dripping, a painter who, when he had created the most beautiful works I had ever seen, when he had drunk cisterns of whiskey and smoked enough Pall Malls to stretch round the earth, he had dinner in the Cedar Tavern and drove off in his car, only to experience in body, and all of his soul, what my own fate had tried, unsuccessfully, to accomplish with me. He crashed and died instantly.
When a member of the police force, a pleasant young man, asked me whether I would add my name to the indictment against the driver, I declared, and signed off on it, that I would not be pressing charges, that what I had experienced had been magnificent and that the driver, Mr. Máchal, was left to deal with the guilt of having driven heedlessly onto the highway from a side road, trusting to blind luck that nothing was coming. He had thus burdened himself with guilt but, by the same act, he relieved me of feeling guilty for all the cats I had killed, and in return, they rewarded me with what happened at that intersection. Mr. Máchal and I sat together on our hospital beds and I held his hand while he asked me over and over again if I was angry with him for the collision, and each time I gave him the same answer, and he laughed at it till his broken face grimaced with pain: “Mr. Máchal, if your luck is bad enough you can break your back making love in bed.”
And at that moment, those three tomcats in Kersko appeared to me and I saw in all this a nudge from fate telling me to get back to them as soon as possible. In no time, I was pouring them some milk and as soon as I was able, I walked with them again along the white picket fence and told them glorious tales about our extended family of cats, and then, moved by the moment, I picked up those three tomcats one by one, pressed them to my face, and whispered sweet words of love to them, and to the cats that were no longer with us, either by accident, or by my own hand.
More than that, I had to laugh when I learned, to my astonishment, how the parallel lines of our lives had crossed and connected at the Mochov gas pumps, for Mr. Máchal had bought a little cottage in Nymburk from my friend and mentor, Mr. Marysko. He had bought the little house where for ten years, as if in a submarine, Mr. Marysko and I had written our first poems and our neopoetic manifesto, and where we got drunk over the great good fortune that we had come to understand what Surrealism was, and that remarkable encounter brought together not only the Surrealists, but also, as I saw now, myself, Mr. Marysko and Mr. Máchal, who had purchased from him that famous little house in which we had all been so happy, and where we had once been so gobsmacked by fate that we lay there, writhing in the claws of the sphinx who held our youthful grapevines in its grip, and now the circle had closed, thanks to that fortunate misfortune at the Mochov gas station, the accident that had erased the guilt from my criminal record. Because not even a cat can be killed with impunity. What will I do with all my cats?