Grandmother: Božena Němcová. Emma Claire Foley, translator.

“I’m ready, now listen!” Saying this, the huntsman released the first puff of smoke up toward the roof, crossed his legs comfortably on a chair and began to tell about Viktorka.

* * *

“Viktorka is the daughter of a farmer, from Žernov. Her parents are already long buried, but her brother and sister are alive to this day. Fifteen years ago Viktorka was a girl as sweet as a raspberry; far and wide she had no equal. Lively as a doe, hardworking as a honeybee, no one could wish for a better wife. That kind of girl—and one who’s expecting a share in a farmstead to boot—won’t stay under wraps, it’s understood. Rumor of her went all around and her door was crowded with suitors. Her father and mother would have been pleased by many of them; not a few were landowners of means, and their daughter would have married up, as it’s said. But she didn’t want to hear about it. The only man who could catch her eye was the best dancer, and then only so long as the music lasted.

Now and then her father thought over how carelessly his daughter went through these prospective bridegrooms, forgetting them in a moment; and he told her that she would have to decide on one, or otherwise he would choose one for her and force her to marry him. But she began to cry, begging that they not throw her out, that she had not ruined things for herself, that she was only twenty, that she had not had anything of the world and God knows who she would be promised to and how he would handle her. Her father loved her very much, and when he heard such a lament he felt sorry for her. Seeing her lovely face he thought to himself: ‘There is enough time for you, you will find enough bridegrooms.’ But people interpreted this differently, saying that Viktorka was proud, that she was waiting for someone to come for her in a carriage, and they solemnly repeated that pride goes before a fall, that one who spends a long time deciding makes the wrong choice, and other such prognostications.

At the time there were cavalrymen living in the village, and one of them began going after Viktorka. If she went to church, he went after her and stood close by her, and instead of looking at the altar, he looked at her. If she should go to the field, surely he’d be found close by. In short, go where she might, he followed her everywhere, like a shadow. People said amongst themselves that he was not right in the head. Whenever Viktorka was with her friends and someone mentioned him she’d say: ‘Why does that soldier follow me around? He doesn’t even talk, like a morous.* I’m afraid of him. When I feel him close to me it’s as if something is crawling all over me, and those eyes of his make my head spin.’

Those eyes, those eyes, everybody said there was nothing good in those eyes; someone said they glowed at night, and those black eyebrows above them that spread out like rooks’ wings and met in the middle, they were an obvious sign of the evil eye. A few felt sorry for him, saying: ‘My God, what can a person do about such a flaw, if he was born with it? And those eyes have power only over certain people. Not everyone has something to fear from them.’ Still the neighbor-women were frightened if ever he looked at their children, and they’d run right away to wipe them with a white cloth. If ever any child in the village got sick they immediately said: ‘the black cavalryman has put a spell on him.’ Finally people got used to his gloomy look, and among the girls it went that he wouldn’t be so ugly if only he were more cheerful. But generally the opinion went: ‘What is this character all about? God knows who he is and where he comes from; maybe he isn’t even human! It’s almost as if we should make the sign of the cross at the sight of him and say: ‘the Lord God be with us, and may evil be far from us!’ After all, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t sing; just leave him alone!’ And they left him alone. But what’s the use of that? It’s easy to say ‘leave him alone!’ if he’s not following you, but it was hell for Viktorka.

Now she dreaded going out unless she couldn’t avoid it, so she would be relieved from those eyes that pursued her everywhere, if only for a moment. Music no longer made her happy, with that gloomy face always watching her from some corner of the sitting room; she was no longer as happy to go to spinning parties, for she knew for sure that if he was not standing in the room, he would be standing outside at the window, and the girl’s voice would stick in her throat, and her thread would break. She was tormented. Everyone saw a change in her, but no one thought the cavalryman could be to blame. They thought of him as a madman, and that Viktorka let him follow her around because she really knew no other way of helping him. But one day Viktorka said to her friends: ‘Believe me, girls, if a suitor arrived for me just now, whether he were poor or rich, handsome or ugly, I would marry him immediately, if only he were from somewhere else.’

‘What has crept into your head?’ the girls protested. ‘Is there maybe trouble at home that you’re so rash and you don’t like it here with us anymore?’

‘Don’t think that of me! But I can’t stand it as long as that dark soldier is here. You can’t even imagine how that tiresome man troubles me. I can’t even sleep in peace any longer, I can’t even pray; those eyes follow me everywhere,’ Viktorka told the girls tearfully.

‘Good lord, why don’t you forbid him from following you? Why don’t you tell him that you can’t stand him, like salt in your eyes?’ the girls advised her.

‘What, and I haven’t done that? I haven’t spoken with him; how can I, when he follows me like a shadow? But I sent a message to him through his friend.’

‘But he didn’t listen?’ asked the girls.

‘That’s right, he didn’t; he told the man that no one could give him orders; he could go where he wanted and follow whoever he wanted. In any case, he still hasn’t told me he loves me, so I haven’t been able to tell him I don’t want him!’

‘Imagine, what a boor,’ said the girls, annoyed; ‘What must he think of himself? We should get back at him for it.’

‘Don’t start anything with someone like that, he might do something to you,’ warned the more serious of them.

‘That’s nonsense, what can he do to us? He would have to have something from us that we’d worn on our bodies, and we’ve never given anything like that to him, and we’ve never accepted anything from him, so why should we be afraid? Just don’t be afraid, Viktorka, we’ll all go with you, and one day we’ll pay that devil back,’ cried the bolder girls.

Viktorka was not cheered by their talk. She looked around timidly and breathed:

‘If only Lord God on his cross would help me.’

But what Viktorka had confided in the girls did not remain a secret. It spread quickly enough all the way across one field to another, to the next village. In a few days a gallant fellow from the neighboring village turned up on Viktorka’s father’s farmstead. There was talk of this and that, here and there, until, blushing, he got it out that a certain neighbor of his would like to get his son married, and the son would be happy to have Viktorka, and that they asked him, with this man as middleman, to decide whether they would be allowed to come courting or not.

‘Wait a moment, I’ll call Viktorka; let her tell you. It strikes me that I know the elder Šíma and his son Tonda and I have nothing against it; they have a respectable livelihood,’ said the old man to the middleman, and went to call his daughter into the room, to confer with her. As soon as Viktorka heard she answered without a thought: ‘Let them come!’

It seemed odd to her father that she had decided so suddenly, and he asked her if she knew Tonda, so that she didn’t summon them needlessly. But Viktorka stood by her word and told her father again that she knew Tonda Šíma well, and that he was a nice boy.

‘This is good news,’ said her father. ‘Anyway, it will be as you want. In the name of the Lord God, let them come.’ When her father left to say goodbye to the middleman, her mother came into the room to Viktorka, making the sign of the cross over her and wishing her happiness.

‘What makes me happiest is that you won’t arrive to a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law, and instead you’ll be the lady of the house,’ she added.

‘Oh mama, I would marry him if he had two mothers,’ answered Viktorka.

‘Well all right then, it’s even better for you that you love each other so much.’

‘Oh, no, mama, I would give my word to any other decent boy.’

‘What are you saying? Many boys made offers to you, and you didn’t want any of them.’

‘But that was when the soldier with those evil eyes wasn’t following me around,’ whispered Viktorka.

‘Surely you must be crazy, talking about that soldier like that! What are you to him? Let him go where he wants, leave him alone! Surely he isn’t driving you away from home?’

‘Mother, this, only this, torments me, plagues me, and I have no rest and no peace!’ cried the girl.

‘And why didn’t you tell me about this long ago? I would have gone with you to the smith’s wife, she knows a few things that could help you. But leave it, tomorrow I’ll go with you,’ her mother comforted her.

The next day mother and daughter went to the old smith’s wife. It was said that she knew many things that other people did not. When someone lost something, when the cows didn’t give milk, when someone bewitched someone else, the smith’s wife helped them out of all this. She knew how to puzzle out everything. Viktorka confided everything in the smith’s wife, telling her how things had been.

‘And you have never spoken with him, not even a single word?’ inquired the smith’s wife.

‘Not a word.’

‘He didn’t give you anything, or send you anything through the other soldiers, not even a bit of food, an apple or some marzipan?’

‘Nothing, godmother, nothing; the rest of the soldiers don’t even like him, they say he is very arrogant and even something of a loner. They told us.’

‘There’s a real morous for you,’ said the smith’s wife with certainty; ‘but don’t be afraid of anything, Viktorka, I’ll help you with everything, for the time being it’s not very bad. I will bring you something tomorrow, and you’ll keep it with you all the time. Early in the morning when you leave your room, never forget to sprinkle holy water and say: ‘Lord God be with me, and evil far away.’ When you go through the field, don’t look at anything, not behind you or around you, and if that soldier talks to you, don’t pay attention, even if he speaks like an angel. He knows how to bewitch with his voice; it’s better to plug your ears immediately. Remember this. If it isn’t better in a few days, we must try something different, but you must come to me again.’

Viktorka left with happier thoughts and hoped that things would be good again for her, and easier, like before. The next day the smith’s wife brought her something sewn up in a red cloth and hung it around the girl’s neck, ordering her never to take it off or show it to anyone. In the evening when she was threshing grass she looked around, and indeed not far away by a tree someone was standing. She felt the blood rush to her cheeks but she plucked up her courage and, finished with her work, she rushed home without even one glance around, as if the ground behind her were on fire.

The third day was Sunday. Her mother baked a cake, and her father went to invite the schoolteacher over along with a few old neighbors for the afternoon, and throughout the village heads popped out to gossip: ‘There’s going to be a betrothal at the Mikeš’!’

In the afternoon three men arrived at the farmstead in their holiday coats, two with rosemary on their sleeves. The farmer received them at the threshold and the household standing in the dooryard wished them, ‘May God give you much happiness!’

‘And to you also!’ answered the spokesman for the father and son.

The bridegroom entered last across the threshold, and outside the women’s voices reverberated: ‘He’s a wholesome boy, that Tonda. He holds his head like a stag, and how did he get that lovely sprig of rosemary on his sleeve? Where could he have bought it?’

And again the men’s voices answered: ‘What of it that the man holds up his head with a swagger, when he’s carrying off the best girl of all, the best dancer, a good housekeeper, and rich as well? How nice for him!’

Many parents all around thought the same thing, and they were all cross. Why did Viktorka choose someone from out of town, and why was this or that one not good enough, and why the hurry and the whims, and all sorts of other things as there are usually on such occasions.

Toward evening the betrothal was settled. The schoolteacher wrote out the marriage contract, the witnesses and the parents signed three crosses in place of their names, which the sponsor had to write in for them, and Viktorka pledged to Tonda her hand, that she would be his wife within three weeks. The next day her friends arrived to wish her happiness, and when Viktorka went onto the village square, everyone greeted her: ‘May God grant you happiness, bride!’ but the group of young girls began: ‘It’s a pity that you will be far away from us! Why are you leaving, Viktorka?’ and tears fell from their eyes.

For a few days Viktorka was happier, and when she had to leave the farm, she went without the worry that had always burdened her when she had not had the scapular from the smith’s wife and was not yet a bride. It seemed to her that all fear had fallen from her, and she thanked God and the smith’s wife, who had advised her so well. But her happiness would not last for long.

One day, early in the evening, she was sitting with her betrothed in the orchard. They were speaking of their future together on his farm, and of the wedding. Suddenly Viktorka fell silent, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on the hedge in front of them, and her hands shook.

‘What is it?’ asked her betrothed, wondering.

‘Look between the branches in front of us, do you see anything?’ murmured Viktorka.

Her betrothed looked, saying, ‘I don’t see anything, what do you see there?’

‘It seemed to me that I saw the black soldier in front of us,’ breathed Viktorka still more quietly.

‘Just hold on, we’ll put an end to this,’ exclaimed Tonda; he leapt up and began to rummage through the undergrowth – but it was of no use, he didn’t see anyone. ‘I won’t have this! If he’s always watching you, even now, I’ll teach him a lesson for sure!’ Tonda fumed.

‘Don’t start any quarrels with him, Antonín, I beg you, you know a soldier is a soldier. Father himself was at Červená Hůřa and would have given something for it if the local officer would have him taken from our village. But he said that he couldn’t do it, and that what did he want, it was no crime for a man to look at a girl. Father heard among the soldiers there that this soldier comes from very rich parentage, that he had enlisted himself, and that he could leave whenever he wanted. You’d be in a fine state, if you were to start something with such as him.’ So Viktorka said to Tonda, and he vowed to her that he would let the soldier be a soldier.

In the evening a heavy mood came upon Viktorka again, and even with the assurance of the scapular pressed to her heart those sinister eyes were always nearby, and it could not soothe its restless pounding. Viktorka went back to the smith’s wife for advice. ‘I don’t know, perhaps it is a punishment placed on me by God, that everything you give me is useless to me. After all, I followed your advice in everything,’ wailed Viktorka.

‘Just let it be, my girl, let it be, I’ll find him out yet, even if he were the Devil himself. But first I must have two things from him. Until I get ahold of them, guard yourself from him as much as you can. Pray to your guardian angel and for the souls in purgatory, for whom no one prays. If you redeem one, it will intercede for you.’

‘But the worst thing, godmother, is that I can no longer peacefully think to pray,’ cried the girl.

‘You see, my girl, you see why did you allow this for so long, until this evil overwhelmed you? But may the Lord help me overcome this devil!’

Viktorka gathered all her strength, and prayed fervently, and whenever her thoughts got caught up somewhere else, immediately she thought of the martyrdom of the Lord, of Holy Mary, so that the evil power would leave her. She guarded herself for two days, but on the third day she went out to the farthest corner of her father’s field, to the clover. She bid the groom to follow her soon after, so they could split the work of threshing. She went there, stepping like a doe with an easy gait, and people stopped to watch her looking so pretty. So she went, but the groom brought her home over the green clover injured and ashen. Her leg was bandaged with a filmy white cloth, and they had to carry her from the cart to the house. ‘Holy Mother of the Mountain!’ moaned her mother, ‘My girl, what has happened to you?’

‘I caught my leg on a thorn, and it’s deep. It came to me from something evil. Bring me into the room, so I can lie down.’

They brought her to the couch and her father ran immediately for the smith’s wife. She came as fast as if she had been on horseback, and trailing a crowd of uninvited gossipers, as usual. One advised nettles, another goosefoot, a third exorcism, a fourth smoke, but the smith’s wife wouldn’t let herself be distracted and covered the swollen leg with a potato-starch poultice. Afterward she sent everyone away, assuring them that she would watch Viktorka herself, and that before they knew it everything would be all right again.

‘Tell me then, my girl, did you have a scare? And who could it have been that wrapped your leg with this smooth white cloth? I thought it would be better to hide it, so those snoops wouldn’t notice it’’ said the shrewd smith’s wife, laying Viktorka‘s leg on the bed.

‘Where did you put it, godmother?’ asked Viktorka urgently.

‘You have it under your pillow.’

Viktorka reached for the cloth, and examined the bloodstains that had soiled it, and the name embroidered on it that she did not know. The blood rushed into her sallow face.

‘My girl, my girl, I don’t like this at all, what am I to think of you?’

‘Think that God has abandoned me, that I’m lost for all time, that there’s no help for me.’

*Note: In modern Czech the word can be used to describe a habitually grumpy or irritated person, but that would be absolutely bewildering in this context. Josef Jungmann’s dictionary names the German Alp as its equivalent. An Alp is a demon, usually male, who typically sits on a sleeping person’s chest and causes nightmares (the name of the female variant, mara, gives us “nightmare”). It can also assume the form of a human. If it does, it will usually become an Alp only at night, but in its human form it can be recognized by its unibrow.

Translated from the Czech novel Babička.

About the Translator: Emma Claire Foley is a graduating senior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and History. Her future plans include relentless eastward expansion and opening a soup kitchen for hungry students.

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