As the early morning light crept through the small,
leaded windowpanes, Celeste awoke and bolted upright,
startled and confused by the carved, wooden creatures
rising from the ornate footboard. This was not her bed, nor did her room have rough-hewn beams overhead. As panic fingered her throat, she heard the smothered snore under the covers, the lullaby she’d slept to since birth, and slid back down, drawing the feather comforter to her chin, sighing. This was her grandmother’s childhood home, one of a dozen thatch-roofed cottages clustered along a ridge in the Bohemian Forest, thousands of miles from her whitewashed Connecticut bedroom.
In the quiet, Celeste studied the thick veins of lead separating the small panes of wavy glass and the speckled plaster on the walls under the sloping eaves. She counted the dark, uneven beams across the ceiling and felt centuries of stories seeping from every crack and crevice. How many generations of her kin had slept beneath them? Did Gamma say the 14th Century, or was that something else? Everything she’d seen on this trip was so old she’d begun to lose track. But it didn’t matter; the stories from all the years hugged her like soft, goatskin gloves.
Dozing off, her thoughts flashed to the gypsy fire, recalling the rolling, colorful skirts, clattering bracelets and clapping hands. She could still smell smoke lingering in her hair and hear the gypsy’s lilting voice singing something about ‘‘the Vojen girl.’’ Who was that, Celeste wondered? Her name was Howe.
Several snorts and sneezes erupted next to her. “Celeste?” Gamma muttered, emerging from the blankets. Clasping her grandmother’s flailing hand, Celeste helped her sit up, fluffing the pillows behind her. “Good Morning Gamma! Sleep well?”
“Mmgh. Smoke in my nose. Water, please.”
Celeste poured a glass from the pitcher on her side table and watched Gamma drink it down by small sips. “Good now.” Gamma handed back the glass. “And you? How you sleep after such foretelling?”
Celeste shook her head, “Foretelling?”
“What gypsy say. Your fate.”
“What do you mean? She talked of a Vojen girl, but I’m a Howe, like you.”
Gamma shook her head. “Howe I marry, but still Vojen, as you, too.” Pushing herself up to lean on the headboard, she saw Celeste’s doubtful expression. “Biology? Remember what your father teach you of the chromosomes? Father gives the X or Y for the child’s sex, but mother always X? So every child has mother memories. To your papa I give Vojen memories, and he to you. And to your children, you pass the same. Is how Vojens of Bohemia continue, no matter what name is last.”
Celeste’s eyes crinkled. “So the gypsy spoke of my children?”
Gamma touched the six copper bracelets on her arm. “All six.”
“For certain?” Celeste asked, afraid to touch the bracelets.
Gamma shrugged. “Nothing certain. Gypsy see, but is yours to choose, or not.”
Celeste fell silent, imagining six runny noses, twelve booted feet, and a dozen mittens for her to fetch and mend. It did not feel sweet.
As if reading her mind, Gamma patted her hand. “Is not just chores, dítĕ. Think of stories you have when old like me!”
“Is that why you love this place so much? The stories?” Celeste asked, looking at the carved wardrobes and burled bedding chest.
“Mmmm,” Gamma patted the covers to draw her close. As Celeste snuggled, Gamma stroked her hair. “With grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins … so many stories since time of Boii.”
“Really, Gamma?” Celeste interrupted. “Before Christ?”
“But Gamma, why didn’t they fight the warriors instead of running away?”
“They not live all together. There were many villages along Vltava River. But at river Danube, where Valtava joins, is biggest settlement; where warriors first strike. Then word come up river …”
“How did it come?”
“By running or on horse.”
“To get help?”
“No, to warn. The Boii not fight. They hide or run, hoping to keep alive.”
“But how did … you, the Vojens, end up staying here?”
“Maybe we just stubborn,” Gamma said with a wink. “Or maybe someone sick or maybe the mama with child and could not run far. So they hide until birth, and by then, warriors gone. So we stay and build new home – far from river bank.”
Celeste silently counted in her head. “Nineteen hundred years ago?”
“But how can you know it’s true? That Vojens are descendents of Boii Celts?”
“Ah. Story say my great, great, great grandfather dig in caves near here, high in hills, and find many things: fossils, pots, carved bones. But best thing he find make everyone believe: old silver coin. A Boii coin, with carved horse, made 75 years before Christ born.”
Celeste shook her head “They had money?”
“Everything, Celeste. Everything to make life good: food, art, trade. Maybe is why warriors came. Maybe they not like Boii happiness. So they came and kill, but soon leave and we still here, on river and hill.”
“Was it like that for you, Gamma? Growing up here?”
“Oh yah! Very happy. From everyone I learn good gifts.” Gamma patted the comforter. “But enough talk now. Is time to see and do. Up! Up!”
Scrambling out of bed, Celeste reached for her clothes, neatly folded on a chair.
“No. Today we dress Bohemian,” Gamma said, opening the chest at the foot of the bed and pulling out long skirts of many colored fabrics. “One for you and one for me and a kerchief for your hair, so it don’t get full of hay from working farm.”
“Yah, today your hands learn. Take these boots. City shoes can’t muck stalls.”
“Muck stalls?” Celeste hoped Gamma was kidding as she changed into a long, full skirt and white cotton top. By the time they entered the kitchen, everyone was gone, but a plate of hard-cooked eggs, toast and bacon waited for them, along with a pitcher of cool milk. Celeste poured herself a glass and took a big swig.
“Augh!” She gagged. “It’s spoiled!”
“Ha-ha-ha-ha. Not spoiled. Is goat’s milk!”
Celeste swished her mouth with water. “Awful.”
“They don’t care, so long you don’t squeeze teats too hard.”
“When you milk them. Come, eat up, chores we have.”
For the next five days, Celeste ran around the farm learning everything she could. Milking goats and cows, cleaning stalls, tossing pitchforks of hay from the top of the barn to the animals below, hiking to the pasture with the goats and learning the names of all the trees and flowers along the way. She practiced the Czech language with her cousins as best she could because they didn’t understand her English, and they laughed at her bumbling pronunciation. Once, she spied the gypsy girl she’d seen at the campfire, on the far side of the pasture, and she ran to say hello, but the girl disappeared into the woods. Each afternoon, with trembling arms from carrying wood and pails of milk to the house, she rolled up her sleeves and cooked alongside Gamma for several hours, roasting chickens and lambs and potatoes and funny looking roots she’d never seen before.
“Kohlrabi and rutabaga,” Gamma said, then sent her scuttling to collect watercress from the stream.
Celeste loved how all the food they needed grew under their feet, and she adored the warmth of a newly laid egg in her hand. She even came to like the taste of goat’s milk, squirted directly into her mouth from a teat. One cousin showed her how to sling a stone and another how to stitch lace. She thought she might faint when they first set her on a horse without a saddle. “Hold with your legs” they shouted, slapping the horse’s haunches as she instinctively grabbed its mane and held tight, yelping as it cantered across the field. And every night, before she fell into an exhausted sleep, unlike any she’d experienced at home, she’d listen to someone tell a story about life or dreams or history. Even though she couldn’t understand what they were saying, she liked the way they told it, particularly the elders, who were animated in voice and body as they spoke the tale. But when she was asked to tell a story, she always declined, afraid she had nothing interesting to say.
“Tell them about our town” Gamma suggested one night.
Celeste’s head dropped. “It’s not nearly as lovely as this.”
While it was too early to shear the sheep, one of the aunts taught her how to spin and card wool. An uncle showed her how to swing a scythe to cut the grass and told her she had such a good arm he’d gladly keep her on to cut the wheat. It made her more proud than any good grade she’d earned in school.
“Tinka’s my favorite,” Celeste confided to Gamma, snuggling in bed on their last night. “She’s always so kind to me, and I like how she sings to the goats, throaty and sweet. Do you think we can come back here again next summer? There’s so much more I want to learn.”
No words could have been sweeter to Gamma as sleep kissed their eyelids.
The next morning, Celeste did not want to get up so fast. She wanted to savor every second, every image, and every sound her body could absorb. “Gamma, growing up here, what did you like best?”
Rolling over, Gamma looked at Celeste’s face, tinged with sadness. “The same as you: learning new things.”
“What were your favorites?”
Gamma didn’t stop to think. “When my brother Yazi teach me slingshot.”
“I know how to do that now, too!”
“Yah, and then bow and arrow, to keep goats safe.”
Celeste’s eyebrows shot up, remembering the pillow with the arrow and heart. She pushed herself up. “Gamma, on our first day, I saw a story pillow, one I’d never seen before, with a golden arrow piercing a crying green heart, and I’ve been wondering what it meant.”
For an instant, Gamma froze, then drew her lower lip under her teeth. “Where you see this?” The sharpness in her voice surprised Celeste.
“On the window seat in the kitchen, with all your other pillows, on the first day. But when I looked for it again, it was gone. Did you make it?”
Gamma shuddered, feeling a chill in the warm room. “I’m … I’m … can’t say.” She continued haltingly. “Maybe some time ago, but … unless I see, don’t know.” Her mind raced. How could it be? That pillow was to be destroyed 20 years ago. Her sister swore she’d burn it after they agreed both had cried enough and nothing more could be said to erase the sorrow and shame of the mistake. After her sister died, she’d thought no more about the pillow – yet now it comes again. For why? By who? Gamma wanted answers, but not to tell Celeste. The girl did not need to know about this. Not now, when everything was good and fresh. Not knowing what to do, Gamma changed the subject.
“Do you know Auntie Mae taught me sewing? She want I be a dressmaker in Prague and escape the farm she could not.”
“But why would anyone want to leave?”
Gamma shrugged uncomfortably. “Farm not for everyone. Some like city life.”
“Then why didn’t she go to the city?”
“Because when young, she too afraid, and then she marry and babies come and was too late. But she help everyone with wild hearts and itchy feet to find contentment outside here, wherever it may be.”
Celeste sighed, flopping on a pillow. “I wish I could stay here all my life.”
“Yah? What you like so much?” Gamma asked, relieved by the diversion.
Looking around the room, Celeste lifted her arms, trying to embrace it all. “I don’t know. It just seems there is so much more laughter here than in Gladdenbury.” She giggled. “I never noticed that before: Glad-en-bury, where they bury all the gladness?” Rolling over, Celeste continued laughing as Gamma patted her back.
“A good, simple life, yah. Not so much want.”
Celeste looked up. “How do you mean, not so much want?”
Gamma opened her mouth, then shut it. This was the crux of her discord with Myrtle, and the town, for that matter. She didn’t wish to put Celeste at odds with her mother; but the girl was nearly grown and would have to make her own decisions soon. Plus she had vowed to answer any question asked. “In Bohemia, needs are few. Good food. Soft bed. Strong work. Good eyes and ears to hear our heart’s call and path. But in Connecticut, and many places, seems not enough. So much want for things outside ourselves. Things for flattery and social … how you say? Status? Things to put on show. Make me weary.”
“But Gamma, what about all our nice things? The rugs and crystal and china and furniture Grandfather bought you? Those aren’t bad, are they?”
“Not by themselves. My husband choose gifts to honor life’s beauty. Treasures we share, filled with good memory. But not for showing off. Not for outside admiration. Understand?”
Before Celeste could reply, the door jolted open, revealing a stout young woman carrying a tray with coffee and toast. “Dobré rano, teto Bertro a sestrěnice Celeste”
“Good morning Cousin Maya.” Celeste replied.
“Dĕkuji,” Gamma thanked her great niece as she placed the tray on the blanket chest. “Very kind. Tell your mother we soon be down. Much to see in Prague before the night train.”
Maya closed the door as Celeste poured the coffee, adding sugar and cream.
“I didn’t know Maya understood English.”
Gamma laughed. “She never let on, eh? Some girls hide smarts to not scare off marriage partner. But Maya is just quiet. She know several languages and has big dream for life.”
With bright eyes Celeste nodded, chewing a corner of crusty bread slathered with butter and a tart, red jam she’d come to love, thinking how some old-country ways were still the same in her life, too.
In quick order they ate, bathed, dressed in their city clothes and rapidly packed their trunk and carpet bags. After three weeks of travel, it was their only day to enjoy Prague before catching the overnight train to Port Le Havre, where their ship departed tomorrow. With tears in her eyes Celeste bear-hugged and kissed her newfound relatives in their ancient village, then climbed into the rattling farm truck with cousin Maya at the wheel. Gamma spoke very little as they drove to the city’s train depot, where they would store their luggage until departure. At the station, Celeste supervised the storage while Gamma said goodbye to Maya.
Holding Maya close, Gamma kissed her hair before pulling back to look hard in her eyes. “Maya,” she said gravely. “Truth I must know. Did Lidia put crying pillow for Celeste to see?”
Maya’s mouth dropped open as she slowly shook her head.
“So, not burned? As my sister promise?” Gamma pushed on Maya’s knowledge even though she had been very young when the promise was made. But in their small village, secrets were hard to keep, and everyone knew the story. Lidia had seen to that.
Nodding, Maya answered haltingly. “Gramma Lidia kept the pillow. She promised to burn it as great grandmamma asked, but she did not. I … haven’t seen it … in a long time. I give my word.”
Gamma looked at her sharply, searching for truth in every expression on her face and body. Satisfied, she squeezed Maya’s hands. “God willing, is gone for good. But if you see it, burn it and send me the ashes.” She then slipped a small envelope into Maya’s pocket. “For your help this week. Buy new dress, or books, whatever you like – and remember me.”
Maya hugged Gamma, and the two clung to each other for a long time.
Having returned before they finished, Celeste stood at a respectful distance, examining the lace gloves Maya’s mother had made for her. She’d never seen such delicate yet strong stitches. Maya called to Celeste as she climbed into the truck and saluted before turning the wheel and driving off. Gamma waved her hankie until she could no longer see any glimpse of the taillights. Patting her eyes dry, she pointed to the horse-and-buggy stand.
“Old Town Square via Wenceslas” Gamma ordered the horse squire.
“To the Astronomical Clock and Rathaus Town Hall,” Celeste gleefully added. As the horse clopped along the wide avenue, Celeste consulted her map. “Charles Bridge is your favorite, right?” she asked.
“Yah,” Gamma said, trying to brush aside her jumbled feelings and resume her role as travel guide. “King Charles the Fourth build it, in 14th Century.”
“That’s where you’d sneak off with Uncle Yazi on market days, right?” Celeste asked, but Gamma did not answer. The sway of the carriage overwhelmed her with memories; returning to the 1860’s in the back of her father’s wagon on their monthly trip to Prague market to sell their extra vegetables, goat cheese and woven goods. She was only eight on her first trip because most of her brothers and sisters were married and busy with their own households. Only brother Yazi, six years older, still lived at home with her. He was charged with teaching her the business of selling and buying, but he’d occasionally slip away to meet friends in other parts of the city and take her along. It was a heavenly time in her life, until she was ten and Yazi hopped a boat for Germany and all the world’s ports. Even though he’d talked about becoming a sailor for as long as she could remember, it broke her heart when he actually left, and the very next market day, she ran off, finding her way to Charles Bridge, a massive structure lined with scary statues of saints and jammed with people strolling and selling wares. With blurred eyes she pushed her way through the crowd, past stalls and rank smells, to the middle of the bridge, where she leaned far over its rough, thick stone wall and wept into the river, calling Yazi’s name.
“Gamma?” Worry tinged Celeste’s voice.
Opening her eyes, Gamma smiled weakly. Some hurts never heal no matter how time passes. “Yah, to Charles Bridge. But enough; tell me, you remember Astronomical Clock?”
In perfect form, Celeste recited the mechanical marvel of the 15th Century. “Not only does it tell time but shows the position of the earth, sun, moon, signs of the zodiac, time of sunrise and sunset and the day, week and month of the year. Oh, and the twelve apostles come out each hour. What do they do? Just zip around the clock?”
“Run fast before reaper bangs bell and cock’s wings flap and hour chimes.” Gamma said, tapping the map on Celeste’s lap. “Now look up. See my grand city with your own eyes.”
How much different it was from London and Paris, Celeste noted. London was gray and dour compared to Paris’ white-skirted style. But Prague was something much more. Like a fancy party dress with buildings washed in blues, pinks and tans, each donned with a red-tile hat. And singing a lovely, happy tune with wide avenues and curvy side streets and balconies dripping with pots of flowers and streaming ivy. Prague was a feast-ladened table compared to the butler’s pantry of London and the dessert tray of Paris.
Arriving at Old Town Square, Celeste’s head spun back and forth across the wide plaza thronged with sellers’ stalls and townsfolk. Soon, her neck ached, craning up the block stone walls and spiky spires of Tyn Cathedral. But her greatest surprise was seeing herself in the faces of strangers walking by, mirroring her lips, eyes, cheekbones and chin. At home, her rounded features looked odd among her sharp-faced Connecticut neighbors, but in Prague she felt a cozy relationship with nearly everyone.
In one corner of the square, they found a man with deeply worn, cracked hands selling beautiful inlaid wood bracelets. Gamma bought three. Tucked in a doorway they found an old woman dressed in rags with a basket of ornate, batiked eggs. After a long conversation, Gamma bought the lot, basket included. The woman cried, patting Gamma’s hand before tucking the money deep into her skirt pocket and scurrying across the plaza.
“Imagine,” Gamma said, examining the eggs’ intricate designs. “Four months to make these Pysanky eggs, to pay her grandson’s schooling.”
Wandering from cart to cart perusing the vegetables, breads, bedding and fineries, Celeste lingered over purses and crystal jewelry before selecting a few souvenirs. In the middle of the plaza, in front of the looming statue of national hero Jan Hus, a man stood on a box orating passionately to a small crowd. As hard as she tried to understand what he was shouting, Celeste caught only a word or two, unable to comprehend his passionate message.
As the sun rose higher, they climbed the Town Hall tower for a full view of Prague. Celeste laughed at the ant-sized people in the square below and marveled at the stretch of red roof tiles. “See the spires over there?” Gamma pointed across the Vltava River. “Is Prague Castle; where I most want to go as a child.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“We were farmers, Celeste. Only rich and powerful visit castles. But,” she added wistfully, “once a year doors opened for a ball in Spanish Hall.”
“So why didn’t you go then?” Celeste asked simply.
Gamma sighed. How could she explain to a child who wanted for nothing? Who was embraced by everyone? Who had only to speak a wish to see it granted? It was the difference between the old world and new. “At sixteen I leave Bohemia. If not, maybe one day I dance in Spanish Hall, but … not likely for poor farm girl.”
It was nearly noon when they climbed down the tower steps. Celeste’s sundress floated as she ran to see the Astronomical Clock. Gamma caught up just as the cock flapped its wings and the noon bells chimed.
“Just as you said!” Celeste said. “Those twelve apostles whizzed by before the skeleton came out. But why a skeleton in a clock?”
“To remember life is fleeting. One day we also be skeletons, so enjoy what we can,” Gamma answered, looking at the thinning crowd and scatter of people opening lunch pails. She decided they would go to the café Kavarna Slavia, across from the National Theater, by the river where her brother used to meet his friends. “The café not built until 1881, ten years after I leave, and became most important place for news and discussion among artists and intellectuals,” Gamma explained as they wove through cobbled side streets and alleys toward the river.
Entering the café, Celeste was surprised by the triple-height ceiling and wall of windows flanking the L-shaped room. Like wide-opened eyes, the tall sheets of glass framed the river, the theater across the street and the never-ending procession of passersby. Already half-past noon, the café was crowded and buzzing as they waited for a table.
Gamma amused herself by looking at the seated people: some aristocrats, some laborers, some politicians. She could tell by their cut of clothes; a good mix of young and old with quite a few students and artists. Smoke twined up to the ceiling as everyone ate, drank and talked, waving their hands in the air, tossing their heads, shaking a fist now and again. She was glad to see her people’s zest for conversation was still as invigorating and substantial as their stews.
While Gamma watched the diners, Celeste explored the waiting area, drawn to a large bulletin board boasting items for sale, apartments to rent and situations wanted. Among the wall of messages, she found a large, colorful poster, glinting with gold. On it was a sketch of Prague Castle, encircled by dancing couples. Chewing the inside of her lip, she concentrated on translating its message. Then she spun on her heel, rushed to Gamma and pulled her to the poster.
“I think there’s going to be a ball! At the Castle! In just a few days. Středa: that’s Wednesday, right? Five days from today?”
Still flustered by Celeste’s sudden scurry, Gamma tried to focus on the poster, studying it carefully.
Celeste could not wait for her answer. “Pražský Hrad: that’s the castle, right?” She pointed to another word. “And Španĕlský Sál: Spanish Hall?” Celeste’s voice cracked with exuberance.
Gamma placed a hand on Celeste’s shoulder to calm her while fighting her own rising excitement and fluttering stomach. Slowly reading the poster again so as not to make a mistake, she translated each word aloud. “The Citizens of Prague Are Invited to a Summer Solstice Ball 8 PM Wednesday, 13 August 1930, Spanish Hall, Prague Castle.” Gamma froze, afraid to move for fear the poster would disappear, like a dream upon waking. Turning to Celeste, she felt like a child at a shop window full of every delectable she craved. What a surprise to feel this way again so late in life; emotions pitching between dreamy desire and unfettered abundance. The same flush of excitement she felt when seeing Charles Dickens in a London pub and her first glimpse of New York City from the harbor and the ruddy, sweet face of her firstborn. Barely breathing, she stood stock still while Celeste saw confirmation roll across her face.
With a whoop, Celeste swung up her arms and twirled, her skirt swinging high around her knees. The café hostess looked up, frowning, and several nearby diners glanced in surprise. Grabbing her grandmother’s shoulders, Celeste shivered all over, tapping her feet. “It’s true then, isn’t it? There is going to be a ball at Spanish Hall! Just what you’ve always wanted to do, and here we are, only a few days away. Oh, can we go, Gamma? May we, please? Oh don’t you see we must? The ball could change everything. It must be our fate! We could take a later ship, couldn’t we? Oh Gamma, can we find a way? Can We? Please? Say yes, oh, please-please-please say yes!”