Stay Put, Herr Kafka
by Stacey Margaret Jones
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
You laugh, Jonathan. But I was growing tired from chronic lack of sleep, and my weariness led to a perpetual sickness, a hacking cough, achy bones and a sore throat. These made my teaching duties difficult, and my depression worsened.
I no longer lit out after classes to explore, but slumped into the No. 9 tram seat from the University back to Žižkov, and my small, Spartan room, my tea made on the hot plate, and my books. This wasn’t the life I had envisioned when I had taken the job, and there seemed to be no improvement in sight. I had a contract to fulfill and couldn’t afford to buy my way out of it.
Then the dream barriers began to happen in real life, making my days, already plagued by exhaustion and sickness, worse. Of course, I didn’t speak to Herr Kafka at Northwest Airlines, but I could never seem to connect to the right person to cash in my miles, and the deadline passed for me to arrange my boyfriend’s visit for the holiday, obliterating my hope for something to look forward to.
My application for the librarian’s private teaching position came back to me through campus mail with “Odepřen” stamped across it, which I came to learn meant “denied,” but with no explanation or questions I could complete to resubmit. A rather dimwitted and provincial colleague got the appointment, and my hopes for extra money to supplement my meager salary — we made less than tram drivers, mind you — also dissipated. I began to suspect Herr Kafka, or at least the spirit of him in the Czech capital, of blocking every hope I had for improvement in my situation.
One day, I had the most palpable feeling of déjà vu I had ever experienced. I was standing on a crowded No. 9 tram that was leaving Václavské náměstí to push through the crowded New Town neighborhoods toward the river Vltava. I remembered a memory I hadn’t had, but could see the dreamscape with which I was so familiar coming to life around me. I recognized the red rain slicker of a university student that was sliding up against me.
The gray light, tempered by the six-story buildings towering over the narrow canyon of the tramway seemed the most dangerous sign of all. I turned to try to move away from this familiar vision of my dream, trying to avert the crash, but it was no use.
I saw a broad-shouldered man in a black suit with a dingy white shirt and down-at-heel black bowler hat cross the tracks just ahead of the tram. He was angled away from me, so I could not see his face, but I knew who he was. I grabbed the center pole, dropping my books and anchoring my feet as best I could just before the driver yelled “Ježíš a Marie!” and pulled every brake in his power to pull.
Others, who were not prepared as I was, hurtled forward. A paperback book struck me across the face and skittered forward on the floor among many of the people who were thrown down and forward. The stop wasn’t as violent as in my dream, and no one seemed hurt as I stood up and looked around.
I saw the man who had caused the accident, skip jauntily up onto the curb of Vodičkova and down an ancient alley. The tram’s doors had opened, and I ran out after him, leaving my groceries and briefcase aboard. He disappeared into the grayish shadows of the alley, and I followed.
It seems to me now that I ran for hours through the alleys that day. I could hear Herr Kafka ahead, see the shadow of his giant square shoulders that seemed to grow throughout the afternoon and into the evening into a gigantic figure flicker on and off the walls of the alleys and small streets he wove through, and sometimes even smell the mustiness of his ancient woolen suit and sweat.
Somehow, I found myself in Žžkov again, miles from the tram accident, without having crossed the mighty tracks leading to the central station’s terminus or peeling through the square and mundane city blocks of the working-class neighborhood. But now, when I recall that afternoon, it seems impossible that as sick as I was, I could have moved at a run for all that time, from the gray light of day until it faded into the murky dusk of the city toward night.
I could hear the swish of his pant legs as he walked and I turned a corner on a side street off the district’s main thoroughfare, Konďvova, where my dorm was. As I came around into an even smaller street, I almost ran into him, or rather into his stomach.
This Herr Kafka was huge, a monstrosity. He seemed, when I looked up at him, as if her were almost two stories tall, but that can’t have been. He was beyond pale; his skin was alabaster. His black wool suit was decaying while hanging from the large frame. He laughed, but he wasn’t happy. “What do you want? Why are you hounding me?”
“Speak up,” he bellowed, and I began shaking, my legs so unsteady I thought I might have to sit down there on the cobblestone street.
“You object to something?” He prompted me without kindness, only a distant formality.
I straightened my back and felt some weak, false strength. But it was enough. “You are capricious and arbitrary and causing me problems,” I said. “If you do not stop, I will take my complaints to God, and He will correct you, Herr Kafka. I do not think you want that.”
He laughed again, and then he spoke to me face to face, somehow, though he didn’t bend, and he didn’t seem to have become any shorter or smaller. His voice was as soft as I thought a human voice could be, and yet it boomed in my brain.
“This will do you no good, instructor. You see, I am both God and the Devil, and my ruling on any question is final. You have no one to appeal to but me.”
He turned and walked away then, down the stone alley, toward a corner, where even his shadow disappeared. I looked at my watch. It was 1 a.m. When I looked around, I was in front of my dormitory, and I staggered inside, flicking my hand toward the front desk as my request for entry.
* * *
“That, Jonathan, is why I do not teach Kafka,” she said, taking the first sip of Becherovka since she had poured it. I had emptied mine.
“Was it really Kafka?” I asked.
“Who could it have been but Herr Kafka?” She looked at me without self-consciousness. I could only detect in her face some fear along with her conviction.
“But how is that even possible? I mean, I know it was Prague and you mix that with existentialism and literature, your sickness, and the drinking, I mean—”
“Jonathan, I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. You asked why I don’t teach Kafka, and that is why. I cannot risk waking the beast of him. Is it possible? I think it is possible, that the world has memories of people and ideas that once existed upon it. As those memories grow, they gather, perhaps in the shadows, perhaps in the mind. When you think about it, what wouldn’t be possible in the city of both the Jews’ Golem and the Catholics’ Infant of Prague?”
“But why you?”
“What an American question,” she chided. “Jonathan, the Czechs have lived for centuries under empires or totalitarian regimes. They are a lot more evolved than we are when it comes to understanding that anything bad can happen to any one of us on this earth for no reason at all.”
I held my glass out for another finger of Becherovka. “What happened? I mean, was that the end? Did you leave Prague? Did you suffer the entire year? What did you do then?”
She straightened some papers on her desk without any attention to where she was putting them and then said, “I decided to try another way.”
“What do you mean, Dr. Ticha?”
“Threats and appeals didn’t work, obviously, but I realized that Herr Kafka was a good Jew. He did, indeed, have power over me, but there was something bigger than he, though maybe not the idea of God. Herr Kafka was buried in the New Jewish cemetery six or seven tram stops from my dormitory.
One day I took a stone I had picked up along the Danube on a trip to Budapest. It was precious to me because, at the time, that was the farthest I had ever been from home. I took the stone to his grave. There was no one else there. I had learned to say in German ‘Stay put,’ which is one of the things the stones are thought to help spirits do, to stay put in the grave. I took my little Hungarian stone there, placed it carefully on the marker and whispered, Bleiben!
“I started to walk away, but I turned and said to Herr Kafka, ‘I’m paying this tribute to you, and so you must leave me alone, and you will leave me alone, because I have something to fight you with. I will make myself have it. I have hope.’”
She stood then, as if she had to change position to finish the story. “I walked out of the gates and onto a waiting tram. I never saw him again. And if I can help it, you will never see him, either.”
I nodded in submission, gathered my books, swallowed my last bit of Becherovka, and stood. As I walked down the gloomy stairs, I turned my thoughts to Edgar Lee Masters and wondered what dangers the inhabitants of the Spoon River Anthology held in store for me.
Copyright © 2014 by Stacey Margaret Jones