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Angel of Destruction

by Martin Reiner
Translated from Czech by
Andrew Oakland

Before we went to sleep, Mrs. Mašková used to read us Bible stories. In these stories, angels would appear and make people’s wishes come true, or at least tell them how to grapple with their fate.

But the angels didn’t make it altogether easy. Sometimes it didn’t even cross their minds to make an appointment. So people had to be on the alert on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday—well, you know what I’m getting at…. What’s more, an angel would almost always turn up at some deserted place, where there was no danger his talk with the chosen one would get interrupted. So if you were closed up in a building surrounded by forty other kids from morning till evening, how could it be made to happen?

This is how it went: they’d bring us in first thing on Monday and we wouldn’t be able to go home until Friday afternoon. Week-long kindergarten, they called it. Five days without our moms; five days hoping something would happen, that some higher power would give the order for us to go home a bit earlier.

It was worse for Radek than it was for the rest of us, because he didn’t even have a mom. He was looked after by his grandma and grandpa, and he’d brag about his grandpa’s wooden leg that was kept in a wicker basket at night. He also reckoned that a mole was an insectivore, which I knew was nonsense, though I have to say I’d never seen a mole in my life.

“But I know it is!” he’d snap.

“Liar! Liar!” I’d shout back, until he started crying. But then I’d take both Radek’s hands in mine, because I loved him, and anyway, we’d sworn ourselves to brotherhood and said we’d watch for the coming of the angel together.

Every morning, right after breakfast, we’d make straight for the corner of the playroom and the house we’d built out of blocks for ourselves. We’d crawl in and sit facing each other, our little arms around our little knees, breathing in the scents of wood and varnish, in earnest debate about where in our kindergarten you could wait for an angel. For Radek, it was a straightforward matter— the best place was the toilet. Because of this, he got into trouble with the principal: Anna peed in her pants while he was holding down the doorhandle to stop her getting in. So we had to make another plan and choose another place. In the end we went for the sleeping room and the hour of the afternoon nap, when most of the kids were tired and needed a breather—this should give the heavenly message-bearers the peace they needed in which to show themselves. But it presented us with a tricky task: we needed to make sure we ourselves didn’t nod off. So as soon as Mrs. Mašková started reading, we would stretch our hands through the wooden bars of our cots and join them, Radek’s with mine, a couple of feet off the ground. As we lay there breathing quietly we would go shoulder-to-shoulder into a battle none of the others had an inkling of.

“You asleep?” I would whisper, when I suspected that Radek’s grip was softening.

“Yes,” he would say, and then he really would go to sleep, and I’d be left all alone, a castaway in the ocean of my cot….

I looked through a gap in the rippling curtains and off into the distance, where on an imaginary horizon a figure appears, comes closer—a lacy-white bird; it flies in through the half-open window, pulls up by my bed, strokes my forehead and… still no sign of the angel.

Time flowed lazily in one direction; the air under the ceiling turned blue and my eyelids became armor plates that threatened to clatter down and close me off from the outside world for good.

When I woke up with the rest, I felt pretty grumpy and overwhelmed by hopelessness. We’re never gonna do this! But hope dawned anew when we found out from Mrs. Mašková that in rare cases an angel can visit a chosen one in their sleep—it wades through the waters of their dreams with its wings wet and drooping, but still it delivers its tender message. However it happens in the end, waiting for an angel is grueling work. Days at the week-long kindergarten were so similar, it was as though they’d printed them in the books of our lives using the same stamp for all. Each new morning was an exact copy of the last; lunch never tasted good, and it made no difference whether outside the sun was shining or it was raining cats and dogs. The evenings were stuffy, dull, and sad.

And we sorely lacked the ability grown-ups have to arrange time in carefully numbered pigeonholes. Our time went round and round like water in a mill—at least it did until the day the grown-up world recognized as August 21, 1968.

Since early morning the teachers had paid hardly any attention to us. At breakfast they had spoken in whispers and used words not even Radek knew.

“Porcupine force?” I repeated, having no idea what I was saying. Something similar had drifted over to us from the teachers’ table.

“Probably selling something,” my smarter companion speculated.

“Blezhnev,” I whispered, no question in my voice.

“Blezh…nev.” Radek tried it out, but his face was like a wall without windows.

We were none the wiser. But it was becoming as clear as the noses on our faces that something very unusual was happening, because later in the morning we didn’t even go out to play in the yard, even though it was a very fine day. Instead of sending us outside, the principal sat in the corner of the playroom, staring out of the window. The curtains were billowing and warm, fresh air was streaming into the room; at that moment it dawned on me that she might be watching for an angel.

Then she rubbed both eyes with the back of her hand. Straight after that there was a terrible noise. The eyes of us kids darted up, like sparrows to the treetops. The principal stood up quickly, shut three wide casement windows, pushed the French doors to.

At lunch the cooks in their net bonnets didn’t insist I eat up my cold potatoes, which was the final proof that D-Day had arrived. One thing was clear: it was now or never!

A young man turned off the main street. He had a head like a great teddy bear—a fuzz of short, fair hair on the top and at the temples. His submachine gun gave him a dignified, adult air, but with every doorway he passed it became more obvious that he didn’t know his way. When he reached the kindergarten building, he stopped altogether.

The long driveway and the big sign telling what the building was (which he couldn’t read, of course), these things attracted him, made him turn the handle of the iron gate and enter. It was the silent hour of the afternoon, when all the kids took a breather in the room at the back, and this might have made him think that the kindergarten building was what he was looking for.

The main doors were locked, of course; he glanced left, then right before setting off along the narrow path that skirted the building. When he reached the first corner and saw the little yard and the two tricycles parked there, he began to have doubts—but then he spotted an open window, its great panes reaching to the ground. He paused one last time: should he hold his gun at the ready, in case of emergency, or would it be better to hide it behind his broad back? This silence all around—was it the ominous calm before a storm?

“Khui svyashchenniy!”

At that moment Radek’s hand dropped into the space between the cots and hung there, still.

The man’s right hand tugged at the sling, tipping his shoulder forward slightly so that in case of need the gun would slip easily into the left. And with this peculiar mix of resolve and uncertainty, he stepped into the building.

A heart-rending cry rang out and the children were jolted awake. One of them—not Radek—jumped straight out of bed and ran to the door, which he opened briskly but not fully before casting his narrowed eyes about the sunlit room.

The short cry had been made by the principal, but the principal was no longer in the room. There was, however, something twisting and turning in the curtains by the French doors where the kids went through into the yard. It didn’t look much like a person, more like a huge, desperate fly that was trying to fight free of a sticky, spider’s trap. The low growls it was making had very little in common with human speech. But the little boy was not afraid; there was a single thought in his mind—that no one else should come into the playroom before the confused angel gave him its blessing.

There was the sharp sound of ripping fabric and the figure lurched to the floor. Then it stood up again, free, and the child saw a beautiful face, white as alabaster, with strong teeth, enclosed in a halo so fair it was like a white flame. The enchanted child left the door and approached the apparition.

But the next second he was in the room alone. There was the sound of flight, carried in on the breeze, followed by an overwhelming calm, as though it had all been just a dream drawn from the depths of the afternoon nap.

Half an hour later, when all things in this little world had been returned to their rightful places, a new voice rang out in the kindergarten—the voice I loved above all others. In a second I was bolt upright in my bed, my arms straight along my body like those of a little soldier, my face a model of solemnity.

Never before had I gone home on a Wednesday; nor would I ever do so again.

It happened just the once—on the day the angels of destruction reached Brno.

Martin Reiner (a.k.a. Martin Pluháček) was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1964. He is a poet, fiction-writer, publisher, columnist, and cultural impresario. In 1989, he was a cofounder of the Proglas Review of Politics and Culture, of which he became editor. From 1992 to 2005 he was publisher of Petrov, the first home of the work of many poets and novelists of the younger generation and some of older generations who were breaking their silence.
Andrew Oakland is a translator from Czech and German who lives in Brno. His recent translations include Michal Ajvaz’s Golden Age (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010) and Radka Denemarková’s Money from Hitler (2009). He is currently working on translating a novel by Martin Reiner.