Child of This World

Autumn has come to this vast green field where the Turkish Hazel have dropped their nuts. Leaves make a yellow shadow at the base of the trunk. The kavka play and chatter in smokers’ voices. Today the sky is as rich as a robin’s egg and the clouds in the distance are like color blocked mountains of purple. A man sits on the earth with his dilapidated backpack and small piece of bread. He tosses crumbs to the crows. 

Raising his binoculars to his face, Tonda watches the man and the birds. When he peers through the hollow wooden frames, he hears one bird speak: “I saw a baby’s head wrapped in black satin and speckled with pink roses. She was tucked into a nest of beige fabric and enshrouded by golden strands of her mother’s hair.” Pushing the binoculars to Lenka, Tonda goes to look for mushrooms and gather walnuts. He smells the damp earthy aroma of leaf decay, which kindles a recollection as elusive as the edges of the clouds which curl, sway, and drift into themselves. 

The feeling Tonda cannot remember is this: before Tonda knew this earth, he slipped into the arms of a crying cloud-god who preserved his soul and rained him down into this world. But now Tonda is never alone. He has Lenka, who was hired to watch him because Tonda wouldn’t speak, and the rabbi, who lives only in Tonda’s imagination. The two are Tonda’s companions on earth and need each other. 

Their basket is now full of walnuts. Despite the cold and Lenka’s best efforts to clothe him, Tonda is dressed in practically nothing but walnut fronds. He runs, ducking behind bushes and prancing around Lenka before dashing away again. 

Eventually Tonda gets sleepy and Lenka wrestles him into a coat. On a sunny patch of green Tonda closes his eyes to the sky. And in his mind is this: today the rabbi wears tight black stockings and a tight black top that pinches his neck closely. Standing in the starry heavens, the rabbi runs a thin wire through a set of gears and cranks a ratchet to pull the wire nearly taught. The rabbi delicately steps on to the wire. Balancing on the balls of his feet, he steps among the stars. Looking at Tonda, the rabbi says these words, “Life is a wire stretched thin over a great abyss; it is our job to dance across it.” 

The rabbi fades from Tonda’s mind and all that is left is the sound of the universe ringing in his heart. Sleep comes to Tonda amid the autumnal smell of soil. As his body grows still, a pattering and globular sound rises in his dream. Tonda hears the laughter of other children through a thick and muffled atmosphere. In his dreamland Tonda finds the memories of the world where he had once belonged. This is the world he sees when he looks through the binoculars Lenka gives him. In this world the air is thick and undulating like a lava lamp. The children dig for clams. Tonda is walking along a path, and he feels in his hand the thick, rough fingers of his grandfather. Underfoot, the path squishes and gurgles. The pair approach a small fishing boat.  

The grandfather lifts Tonda’s small frame into the boat and steps in after. The boat starts and sputters across the sea. The engine moves slowly and works hard against the thick jellylike surface. Tonda begins untangling a pile of netting off the boat’s floor. Barnacles have made it their home and encrust part of the netting. Tonda’s grandfather tosses the net behind the boat. The net slowly sinks and begins to fill with translucent fish whose hearts and organs glow and pulsate. Tonda leans further and further toward the net to see the fish more clearly. He reaches a finger toward their flickering hearts and tumbles into the sea. Everything goes black. 

Lenka wakes Tonda in the park. They need to deliver flowers to the church before it gets dark. In the chapel you can buy a candle for 10, 20, 30 or 50 crowns. You can buy a prayer. All the 10 crown prayers have been sold. Lenka pays 20 and hands the dark wax candle to Tonda. 

Tonda buries the base in the sand with soft fingers—like the fingers that grasp barbed wire in the painting on the wall, soft like the palms that bleed on the cross. The candle will meet its end like the others who are flush with the sand and lap at the hot liquid wax with their final breaths. 

Lenka and Tonda return home, but Tonda won’t sleep, he won’t eat or bathe. He wants to visit the rabbi. Tonda is standing on a stool by the window with the binoculars held tightly against his face. “Where is the rabbi tonight, Tonda?” Lenka asks. “Letna?” Tonda rocks the stool with delight and topples backward into the carpet. 

Lenka fetches Tonda’s coat which has a string running through its sleeves holding his mittens on both sides. Tonda is prancing through the kitchen now.  

“Tonda, let’s go and see the rabbi tonight. Can you take me to him?”  

With the binoculars in Lenka’s pocket, they make it out the door and to the stairs of Letna. The metronome raises its delicate finger to the sky and stops like a conductor raising her figure before the silence breaks. Lenka and Tonda climb the steps in the eerie orange light of the streetlamps. 

Looking over the city of Prague, Tonda coos like a pigeon and scoots closer to Lenka on their concrete perch. The city swims in their eyes and ears. Slippery finned trams whine and slide their way down the track with squeaks and clicks like dolphin song. The whale cars groan deep in their throats and the Vltava—the silent eel—winds her way out of sight.  

“Where is Rabbi, Tonda?” Lenka asks.  

Tonda points the binoculars at the sky. Through the binoculars he sees the rabbi above the stars held in the arms of the crying cloud god.  

“He is dead,” Tonda says, and it starts to rain. 

As the raindrops fall on Lenka’s head she hears these words, “Life is like a wire stretched across a great abyss and it is our job to dance across it.”  

Tonda stands, parading around Lenka and pulling at her hood. With a noise like a whinny and with shuffling feet, Tonda tugs at Lenka. He wants to dance and run. Tonda’s mittens flap by his sides—skipping up and down like rabbit ears.  

Lenka and Tonda dance each other home.