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How I came to know fish

Ota Pavel

We three boys loved to go to the country around Krivoklat castle. Then I didn’t know why, but today I do. Papa understood. Even then he knew that though one day I might see the boulevards of Paris and the skyscrapers of New York, I would never again spend weeks in a cottage where bread browns in the oven and someone churns the butter. He knew that one day cars would pull up at these cottages and TV sets would blink inside, and you’d be served bad black coffee and pale bread.

Long ago, Papa had discovered that region by following his nose. Back in the thirties, he drove by the castle with our chauffeur, Tonda Valenta, and followed the winding road west along the Berounka River. In those days pike the size of crocodiles swam there, and in the weeds of the shallows fat chubs and barbels as big as logs rolled about. Papa observed everything and pushed on to a roadside inn. It was there that we spent our first two vacation seasons. But it was not the place we wanted.

Though Mrs Frankova, a beautiful and pleasant woman, cooked delicious goulash and tripe soup, the pub was far too rowdy on the weekends. Crowds of tramps, vagabonds, hobos, and cowboys raised so much hell in that pub that it was worthy of the Wild West. At first, Mama sent Papa to ask the tramps to hold the noise down, but she soon gave up. Not long after he’d go in to reprimand them as they sang songs telling how life was a dog, or how life in the Yukon without a woman was lovely, Papa’s beautiful voice would join in. We poor children also heard the noise of the only instruments that Papa had ever mastered - a broom and pot lids borrowed from Mrs Frankova. In the morning Mama would find him, still drunk by the well, playing sentimental songs about his black Kladno on his comb.

Some lovely people, like Bambas the tramp, lived in that country. From spring to winter he never worked, but fished at Devil’s Rock. To stave off hunger he’d slowly consume five lumps of sugar from a sack, which were left over from his last winter job. Bambas’ life seemed charming to me. Even later on, when most kids wanted to become writers or pilots, I wished to be Bambas. He lived in a dilapidated hut and covered himself with a patchy deer skin. He could catch fish like crazy; he knew how in all the legal ways, but he mainly caught them in illegal ways. Mama didn’t like it when I went off with Bambas. She was afraid he’d corrupt me. Unfortunately, he failed.

But I’m getting off the subject. About Papa and us. After a wild night in the pub, Papa was forced to find us a farmhouse. Loading us into a boat, we sailed down to a small house under Branov. The ferryman, Karel Prosek, who wore a mustache like Hitler’s, owned this cottage and we spent many happy holiday seasons there.

This magical cottage contained a real oven for baking bread, a cellar full of milk, butter and buttermilk, a barn with a cow, a hillside of potatoes; it included woods full of mushrooms and clouds of fish in the clear water which we could see from our window. It was paradise; the kind that Mr Werich and later Mr Matuska used to sing about. Papa could even wade into a sea of beer at the Anamo, the crossroad’s pub.

Thanks to the industrious invention of Karel Prosek and my Papa’s money, that cottage was soon transformed into the richest one in Luh. The cellar, for example, was packed with stone pots containing fish pickled in vinegar and onions; picking up one of these fish, the juices running down your fingers and small bits falling off, you would be delirious because it was so good. There were also pots of marinated venison. Long braids of Prague sausages from Maceska’s hung from the ceiling, jugs of cream and cans of milk stood below. And there was always fresh bread and cake.

Papa also bought us an original yellow soccer ball. We played soccer in the open space, and from a wind-up record player which stood in the window of our room came:

Behind the wheel always going forward,

Somewhere in the distance is our goal.

Only strong nerves will overcome

dangers of thousands of miles.

Karel Prosek mysteriously stocked up on venison from Krivoklat’s woods. I say mysteriously because for a long time nobody knew how he did it. Of course, the blood of poachers had pumped in Prosek’s body since birth. His grandfather had been famous for poaching with great style. One day, he bet that he could sneak the strongest deer from Krivoklat past the police station at noon. He won, too, by placing the deer in a coffin and driving it by in a hearse! On another occasion, Prosek s mother had rocked a deer in a cradle while the police searched their house. The cops never forgot these escapades, for everybody heard about them, Karel was smart enough to know that he’d never get away with firing even a single shot again, so he threw his gun in the Berounka above the lock.

Vertaling: Robert McDowell