On the way home from Háje, František Palyza, bank clerk, was joined by an affable animal in eccentric black boots—clop, clop, clop. It smiled in a friendly way, wagged its tale, made eyes at him. Giving it the slip would have been impossible.
What would we have advised František Palyza to do? After all, people are defenseless against an excess of love. Too late to complain that something shouldn’t have happened when it already has. You can’t tell it to go to hell or threaten it with a rock. Only, what if they keep multiplying in number? Then what’s to be done with them?
It certainly didn’t love him for nothing; clearly it expected something from him. A crust of bread? A roof over its head? At least a reciprocation of its love—nothing is free. You shouldn’t even start with those sorts of creatures. It may sound harsh, but in the interest of preserving your own independence, you should stamp your feet and go, hsssst! and chase the animal off. Provided, of course, that you aren’t planning to found a shelter for affectionate animals in black boots.
“Get away!” said František Palyza indecisively, only lightly stamping his foot.
The animal tucked in its tail and cowered, but it didn’t leave. It crawled up to František Palyza, hunched over—clop, clop—and love made a golden wagon wheel around its head.
“Well at least tell me what your name is!” ordered František Palyza. An impossible task.
“Jawomíw,” said the animal. It lay on its back and put all four legs up in the air to indicate how obliging and resigned it was.
“Jawomíw?” he asked in surprise.
“Hawdwy. Jawomíw!” said the animal reproachfully. No one likes to have their name butchered.
“Aha,” he guessed. “Jaromír!”
“Yes, Jawomíw,” it nodded, pleased. It’s easy to forgive animals for little faults in their pronunciation.
“I’m František Palyza, bank clerk.”
Jaromír the animal got back to its feet and began to nuzzle up to František Palyza. Is it possible that it nuzzled up to him because he smelled of money? It certainly is—after all he worked in a bank with money, the way a mason works with bricks and mortar at a building site. The animal even licked his hand. It understood that once they had exchanged names, it had won.
“I just don’t know, Jaromír, what Yvetka’s going to say.”
Yvetka is watching a South American soap opera on TV while eating her way through her sixth box of Mon Chéri bonbons today. She crumples the red foil wrapper into a ball and then—plink!—fires the ball at the wall behind the television. It bounces off the wall and falls to the carpet. The floor is full of wrappers. They’re already covering an entire region of the living room, and still they multiply.
“I’ve got a guest with me, Yvetka,” whispered František Palyza timidly.
“Hewwo,” Jaromír the animal greeted her.
“Go to hell!” replied Yvetka, engrossed in her soap opera, without even giving the visitor half a glance. She didn’t want to be torn from the storyline—she could lose the thread after all.
“To heww?” asked Jaromír the animal. Animals don’t tend to have a very extensive vocabulary; some words mean absolutely nothing to them, hell being one example.
“To hell means to the kitchen,” František Palyza translated and offered Jaromír a seat at the table. “Maybe we could play Scrabble?” he suggested hesitantly. He was afraid that Jaromír wouldn’t want to. After all, Scrabble and a good vocabulary go hand in hand. So then what? The only thing left for him to do would be to yet again—like always—play Scrabble against himself. Every time he returned from Háje and Yvetka sent him to hell, he would play Scrabble abandoned in the kitchen, alone. Is there anything sadder than that? He was mightily delighted when the animal Jaromír agreed without hesitation. “Ok then, wet’s pway Scwabble.”
So they played Scrabble at the table in the kitchen, and they were having a grand time until the moment Jaromír made the word SKŘPŘÍŠ.
“Skřpříš doesn’t count,” objected František Palyza. “Skřpříš isn’t a word!”
“Oho!” protested Jaromír the animal. “Skwpwíš is a word like any other!”
“If skřpříš is a word, then tell me what it means!”
“Skwpwíš means skwpwíš, and it’s a kind of small pwíš with a part down the middle of its head. It’s wemarkabwy fierce, dwewws under a stone, and wies in wait there for centipedes and mowe cwickets. I’ll show it to you, if you want,” declared Jaromír the animal, a serious look on its face.
“It’s no fun playing with you!”
“It’s no fun with you!”
When you play Scrabble in the kitchen with an animal, it can sometimes lead to an altercation, the same as when you play with another person. František Palyza wanted to win at any cost, and Jaromír the animal—although affable and pining for love—also greatly longed for victory. Love is love, but a game’s a game! They shouted at each other for a while like rival fans at a hockey stadium.
Jaromír the animal started in fright. František Palyza froze in terror: he hadn’t told Jaromír to remove its boots in the hall. Yvetka had stood up from the television, filling the doorframe and spilling over partly into the kitchen, keen for vengeance: “I’ve had it up to here with you! I sacrificed the bloom of my innocence to you! I wasted my youth with you, gave you the twenty most beautiful years of my life. You robbed me of my health. Mom told me, don’t marry that one, find yourself an engineer. Why didn’t I listen to her? Where would I be now if I had? I haven’t lived through anything nice with you, only anguish and humiliation, only misery and deprivation, only hunger and poverty, no joy, just privation, no diversion. Nothing, nothing, nothing… What might I have been if it weren’t for you? Look at me, look what you did to me! All day you count money, millions and billions pass through your fingers, and you only bring home a couple stinking thousand. We’re supposed to live on that?”
“Money doesn’t stink…” František Palyza objected weakly.
“What do you mean doesn’t stink, of course it stinks—take a whiff of your hands. Me, I’m here all day, hungry and exhausted, and you’re there at the bank counter showing off, whooping it up with the ladies. Who knows what keeps you there, you shameless letch, you skirtchaser, you randy womanizer. And from the bank straight for a beer… Then you entice an individual in black boots here, the two of you track the city filth into my house—who’s supposed to clean up after you? You shout at each other as if you were at the pub, and you stink of beer, plus the smell of other people’s money on top of that.”
“Money doesn’t stink,” he objected a second time.
“Of course it does, what do you mean it doesn’t? You root around in it all day. You’re used to it—a body gets used to a stink easily enough and just doesn’t smell it anymore… That affliction falls on me!” Yvetka continued her lament, and it didn’t seem as if she would ever stop.
In the meantime, Jaromír the animal had cleared the Scrabble into its box and was looking for a way out. The only prospect, however—the door into the hall—was blocked by Yvetka.
“Didn’t I have my share of suitors, and what suitors they were! The bloom of innocence, twenty years of life, all gone. I’m left with a second-rate banking boozer with a pal in black boots. Pervert! You never give me a cuddle, not the whole livelong year. You’re not into booties, by chance, are you?”
“As it happens, I’m not,” said František Palyza quietly. He wasn’t into booties. He’d have been into Yvetka, if she had loved him more than that endless soap opera and Mon Chéri. Yvetka’s accusation offended him more than all her reproaches. “I won’t put up with this. You shouldn’t have said that to me. Jaromír, we’re going!”
Of course, they had to wait for Yvetka to vacate the kitchen doorway and pour herself back into her soap opera which had been interrupted by the news.
“Money weally does stink,” said Jaromír the animal when they got to the bottom of the stairs.
“Maybe it does stink, but I don’t smell it,” acknowledged František Palyza, bank clerk.
They walked through a darkened Holešovice, not a person in sight, only martens diving from car to car. Everything in Háje was already closed, and František Palyza didn’t know where to turn. Should he perhaps bed down under Hlákový Bridge? Or Libeňský Bridge? Just not under a railway bridge—the trains rumble over those one after another.
“Now it’s my tuwn,” said Jaromír the animal and led František Palyza to the Vltava River, just where the embankment ends. Ducks and coots were sleeping on the surface with their heads tucked under their wings. The light from the streetlamps fell on the patchy grass. “What’s promised must be fulfilled. I’ll show it to you right here,” it added with perfect pronunciation. It removed its front boots so as not to get them dirty, and with evident difficulty lifted a flat stone. Underneath, they surprised a skřpříš, a rather small příš with a part down the middle of its head. It didn’t seem, however, so remarkably fierce. Just at that moment it was not lying in wait for centipedes and mole crickets but resting after its labor. The unexpected visit suited it. It immediately invited them beneath the stone to the table, “Come drink a shot, guys!”
Which of those guys would have turned down an invitation like that! The skřpříš was an enchanting host, and poured the shots rather generously, which you wouldn’t have expected from a small příš. It was a good, strong liqueur made from five-leaf clover, at least 120-proof. There were centipedes and mole crickets to eat, pickled in Krkonošský brine and served without bread.
“I caught them myself, you know, caught them myself,” boasted that skilled hunter of a skřpříš. “I’ve got a pantry full of them.”
“They’re not bad,” complimented František Palyza somewhat reservedly. He was eating centipedes and mole crickets pickled in Krkonošský brine for the first time. Peculiar, but after a while he developed a taste for them. You shouldn’t cling to prejudices, even if they’re widespread. Of course he took a liking to the liqueur straight away.
Over the first shot they chatted about life, after the third about death, over the fifth about life and death, and after the seventh they were already holding each other around the shoulders with their arms over their heads singing, “What’s that shuffling behind the haaaybaaaaaarn…” The night was just starting, and it wouldn’t be a short one.
From his very first meeting with Jaromír the animal, František Palyza was no longer the same František Palyza who dressed in a light blue suit and knotted his requisite tie each morning, who sometimes stopped in for a beer in Háje before going home to Yvetka, the same one who, quiet as a mouse, played Scrabble with himself alone in the kitchen to boost his feeble self-confidence (he always won). It was as if Jaromír the animal with its skřpříš had both strengthened František’s spirit and changed his perspective. Had everything only now become just right? Or had those two merely fitted him with some illusory rose-colored glasses? What if he found that he was dreaming? Except that dreams are usually all disjointed and distorted; they lack logic. At that moment he had the feeling that the scales had fallen from his eyes, that he saw in sharp contrast what he had missed before, what in his looking he had not seen and only just now spotted. Where Yvetka ended, and where the bank ended too! An agreeable warmth flowed through his entrails, and in the tips of his fingers he felt a pleasant tickling sensation. He understood that he was mingling with Jaromír the animal and the hospitable skřpříš in a unity of thought and body, as if they had become a cozy home.
The next morning František Palyza found himself near the railway bridge in the patchy grass. He was huddled against the friendly animal in black boots. Ducks and coots were splashing along the Vltava, trains thundered across the Vltava on the bridge, and clouds drifted above the Vltava in the sky. How in the world had he ended up here? He huddled against Jaromír the animal, and he didn’t feel well. He felt ill, downright awful. He couldn’t unstick his lips which had been stuck together by the previous night’s shots; he couldn’t even groan. He whimpered inwardly, down into the entrails corroded by the past night. And Jaromír the animal affectionately licked his miserable face.
After a while, František Palyza realized that he was wearing only pants and an unbelievably wrinkled shirt, that he was barefoot and that his pockets were empty. When he had fled from the Scrabble in the evening, he had forgotten his essentials in his haste, and now there he was, as if stripped clean by merciless thieves. He certainly couldn’t go to the bank like that, or for that matter into the street. As if you could patter about in elegant Holešovice in just your socks!
“Don’t fwet, Fwantišek Pawyza, we’ww go to the pub,” said Jaromír the animal and licked his gloomy face a second time with its reassuring tongue.
“That’s the solution!” František Palyza brightened up. For the pub is a sanctuary, a home, a beloved motherland. In Háje they’d pour him a drink even on credit. “Shouldn’t we say goodbye to our friend the skřpříš?” it occurred to him as his glance fell on the flat stone.
“No offense, but weave that wock be! We alweady said goodbye to it, don’t you wemembew?”
No, he didn’t remember. The end of the evening under the stone had strayed somewhere from František Palyza’s head. No wonder. After all, they had had more than a little five-leaf clover liqueur to drink. He couldn’t manage to recollect how they had gotten under the stone. Isn’t it perhaps better to say goodbye twice rather than neglect a common courtesy? And another doubt sprouted in his tired head: What if that beautiful, heady night had been only a dream? To convince himself that the skřpříš really did exist, he lifted the stone… And of course it was there, quite small, with a part down the middle of its head, except that at this moment it was, in fact, remarkably fierce, crouched down lying in wait for centipedes and mole crickets.
“Put that rock back, tough guy, before I sock you in the mouth!” it shouted angrily. No wonder it was grumpy—after all, that bank clerk had spoiled its ambush. Centipedes and mole crickets can’t stand the light. And curious Palyzas get on the nerves of skřpříšes on the hunt.
“I towd you to weave that wock be! Now do you bewieve they exist? And if they do, then the wowd SKWPWÍŠ counts, and I won at Scwabble.”
“There’s no doubt about that, Jaromír,” acknowledged František Palyza with a light heart. He understood that there’s no misfortune in losing a little game of Scrabble.
In Háje, František Palyza drank Dutch courage on credit. It didn’t bother anyone that he didn’t have a jacket, was barefoot, and couldn’t pay the bill. In any case, he wouldn’t stay a debtor for long…
When it began to get dark, he had just enough courage inside him. Only what about Jaromír? He couldn’t bring it home to Yvetka… But did he really have the heart to leave an amiable brother in black boots on the street? Or in the pub with a bunch of drunks? Its vocabulary would certainly be enriched there, yes sir!
Yvetka is watching TV again while eating her way through today’s seventh and final box of Mon Chéri bonbons. She crumples the red foil wrapper into a ball and then—plink!—against the wall behind the television. The wrappers are already covering the whole room and piling up on top of each other.
“I’ve got a guest with me, Yvetka,” whispered František Palyza timidly.
“Hewwo,” the animal Jaromír greeted her.
“Go to hell!” replied Yvetka, engrossed, without even giving them half a glance. She didn’t want to be torn away from the storyline—she could lose the thread.
“We’we going to pway Scwabble in heww!” Jaromír the animal said delightedly.
“But this time you’ve got to take off your boots! Today it’s serious!”
Jaromír the animal removed its black boots and went into the kitchen on just its bare paws. And the Scrabble was there, and they had a fine time together, didn’t argue one bit, and when Jaromír made the word ŠČIPLÍK, František Palyza accepted it. Who knows what a ščiplík could turn out to be…
The moment a little crack appeared in the soap for the news, Yvetka stood in the doorframe to the kitchen. She watched the two of them in silence, and the game captured her interest. With some effort she said, “Could I play too for a little while?”
“Why couldn’t you, of course you can,” said František Palyza, extremely delighted. So all three of them played Scrabble in the kitchen, and meanwhile the newsbreak had already ended some time ago, and the show—episode seven thousand eight hundred and twenty three—had long resumed, and Yvetka lost the thread.
“Yvetka, it’s on,” whispered František timidly—just so she wouldn’t take him to task for not telling her it was on in time.
“To hell with the TV. To hell with that soap,” said Yvetka, as she finished the word SKŘPŘÍŠ and won.
Jaromír the animal got to like it at the Palyzas’. Yvetka, too, had a burst of unbridled affection for it, and asked it to stay with them for good. Just those black boots…
“Weww then,” said Jaromír the animal, and never put them on again. It began to pose as a dog with a collar, a muzzle, and a valid license, learned to walk on a leash, fetch sticks, sniff and pee on street corners, bark and growl. It took the dog name Captain, and not another word was ever extracted from it.
Ivan Binar is a Czech writer and translator from German. In 1971, he was arrested for sedition and spent a year in prison before eventually leaving Czechoslovakia in 1977, first for Austria and later Germany. He returned to the Czech Republic in 1994 and served as the president of the Society of Czech Writers from 2003 to 2004. Influenced by the tradition of Czech absurdism as well as the American Beat generation, Binar is the author of several books for adults and children. His most recent novel, Jen šmouha po nebi (Just a Smudge Across the Sky), was nominated for the prestigious Magnesia Litera prize. “Jaromír the Animal” is the first of Binar’s work to appear in English translation during his long and distinguished career.
Corine Tachtiris is a translator and scholar of Czech and Haitian literature. Her translations and articles have appeared in Callaloo, The Comparatist, Metamorphoses, sxsalon, and Legs et Littérature, among others. She has taught translation theory and practice as well as world literatures at Hampshire College, Kalamazoo College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the Université Paris Diderot.