Rachel was pouring herself a cup of tea. Her arm was bent, her fingers gripped the white handle, the pale brown liquid filled a china cup. Leaning against the doorframe, Tom watched the curve of her back.
“Did you send for me, Madam?”
Her startled cry bounced off the walls. She swung around and the teapot lid clinked. “You scared the hell out of me!”
His footsteps left visible traces of mud on this side of the doorway. “Scared?”
“I didn’t recognize you.” Her smile was strained with fright.
Layers of dust had turned his hair a strange grey color, half an inch of stubble betrayed his razor’s weeklong absence, and his complexion was darkened by dirt and sun. The armpits of his shirt were millwheels of sweat.
“You look like a savage.” She was overwhelmed by a medley of odors. Sweat, cement, tobacco, lime, mortar, rain.
He took the teacup from her hand and set it back down on the tray. The tablecloth behind her was a field of flowers and tropical fruit. He lifted her onto it. “Where is he?”
“Who? Daniel? In bed.” Breathless, she tried to resist. “He isn’t asleep yet. He’s waiting for his story.”
“Let him wait.”
“I don’t think he’s going to.”
Tom’s eyes widened and he let go of her dress.
“Can you tell him something short?” “Can you go and wash up?” She ran her hands down the dress to smooth away his grip marks.
He turned off the dining room lights, headed for the bathroom, and reached for the soap. He left the door ajar to catch the bedtime story.
“I’m going to tell you about the brave warrior of the Mixtecs who became their first ruler,” Rachel began. “One day, he climbed a hill and cried out: ‘Whosoever wishes to be lord of this land must defeat me in battle.’ Everyone heard, but no one wanted to pit his strength against the warrior. As he came back down the hill, the rising Sun tickled his face. The warrior thought that the Sun was challenging him to a duel. So he took his bow and shot an arrow at the Sun.
“And the Sun? He didn’t even notice as he continued on his way across the sky. Still the warrior watched carefully, right until the moment the Sun set. ‘I’ve beaten the Sun!’ he shouted into the silent landscape. ‘I’ve beaten the Sun!’ And so he became the first ruler of the Mixtecs. Ever since that time, the Mixtecs have called their rulers He Who Beat The Sun.
“But that was only a short story!” came Dan’s voice.
“I’ll tell you a longer one tomorrow.”
“But the Sun didn’t even fight with him!”
“No, it didn’t.”
“So how could it win, without a fight?”
“Sometimes you can win if the other guy doesn’t put up a fight. And sometimes you can win by not fighting yourself. You let the other guy think he’s won. Grown-ups sometimes say that discretion is the better part of valor. And the Sun had the discretion not to put up a fight. You can only do that when you are so strong that you don’t have to prove you’re better. Now go to sleep.”
When she entered the bedroom, Tom was grinning. “So how could he win, without a fight?”
“I’m not sure he understood your definition of a victory that isn’t one and a fight without fighting. I certainly didn’t.”
“Well, he did.”
“And here I’m always wondering who he gets his brains from.” He laughed and grabbed at her.
“You’re roaring like a tiger; if Dan hears you he’ll be afraid.”
“Just as long as he doesn’t come in here.”
A monsoon swept across Batanagar. It was too much for the warehouse roof. The iron sheeting rolled up like wrapping paper, the roof fittings and mountings gave under the sheer weight of water. The wall of the factory collapsed, and the bamboo scaffolding on the filling station scattered all around the site like matchsticks. The skeleton frame of building 23 also had to be redone. Thomas’s prospects for a decent night’s sleep melted away in a rain-sodden haze.
My mother, Kavita, and I took refuge in Darjeeling for a few summer weeks to avoid the stifling heat and floods. But I looked forward to getting back to Calcutta; once the monsoon season passed, my father came to get us.
I sat in our Calcutta kitchen watching Zam’s hands. He crushed cooked lentils, heated some oil in a frying pan, browned a spoonful of cumin seeds in it, and added a finely chopped onion. He waited until it turned golden-brown, then he tipped the mashed lentils into the pan and sprinkled the whole with a spoonful of turmeric, a pinch of salt, and some green chillies. In fifteen minutes it was done.
The Estates Division was given the task of refurbishing some of the larger shoe stores as quickly as possible. Yesterday was already too late. They carved India up into several unequal portions and disappeared for a couple of weeks. Thomas headed south, to Hyderabad and Madras.
He came home late one night, tired and hungry. He crept into the bedroom, sat on the bed, and watched Rachel sleeping, her breath filling his lungs, her dreams shifting stars and planets in his sky. He fell asleep next to her, still dressed.
In the morning he woke to an empty bed and found her in the bathroom. She was sitting on the bathtub, head in hands, breathing deeply.
“Rachel, darling, what’s the matter?” He bent over her and looked at her closely. She was unusually pale. “I’ll send for Doctor Seagal.”
“He was here yesterday. I’m all right.”
“All right? Did he say that?”
She gave him an enigmatic look. “I’ve got another construction worker for you in here.”
He raised an eyebrow and let out a whistle. “I bet I’m the last to know.”
“But you’re hardly ever here.”
“You could have written, like last time.”
For my sixth birthday, they told me I would be having a little brother or a little sister. I wanted a brother. Girls in India counted for nothing. One day, Kavita had told my mother that when her cousin had a baby girl, her husband was so angry that he cut his wife’s ear off. Clearly, girls were a punishment.
There were days when my mother was all out of sorts. One morning, I came straight to the dining table from bed, and she looked at me severely. “Go and brush your teeth and get dressed, now. You’re not having breakfast in your pajamas!”
“Why do I have to brush my teeth in the morning when I haven’t eaten anything all night?”
She glanced at my father, who went on intently stirring his coffee. That made her even more annoyed. “Daddy will explain.”
“Do what Mommy says, Dan, I’ll explain afterwards.”
I huffed off towards the bathroom and listened to snatches of what they were saying.
“Darling, how am I supposed to explain why he has to brush his teeth in the morning when he hasn’t eaten all night? Besides, I’m in a rush to get to work.”
“I just haven’t got the energy to argue with either of you, Tom.”
“I know. But you look good!”
I could almost hear her rolling her eyes.
“He so takes after you, Rachel. Analyzing everything—and look out if something doesn’t make sense. He can’t stand rules for rules’ sake.”
“Don’t be silly, Tom. Brushing your teeth in the morning isn’t just some rule; it’s basic hygiene!”
“There you are! Now that you’ve given me a decent case to make, I can go and explain it to him.”
He knew how to make her laugh even if she meant to be serious. As I came back in, she was looking for something to throw at him. There was a bowl of oranges behind her. She reached for one, but my father was already at the door.
“I’ll get you some knives, the kind they use in the circus. That’ll be more fun,” he said.
One day, Martinec came hurtling into Thomas’s office, frantic. “There’s cobras in the warehouse, boss. All in a heap.”
“So, chase ’em out!”
“But…but how? The men are scared.”
“Christ! A storm system at home and cobras at work.”
A few minutes later, Tom showed up at the warehouse with a bunch of grinning natives at his heels. Each was armed with a stick and had a sack over his shoulder. “Okay, Ruda. These guys will show you how to get rid of a couple of snakes.” He marched straight inside with a stick in his hand. Ruda Martinec was wracked with doubt.
“Are the bastards poisonous?”
Tom paused at the door and treated Martinec to a lukewarm smile. “Their bite is fatal,” he responded dryly. “But people who die of a cobra bite are cleansed of their sins. They get buried whole, you know? Not cremated. It’s a kind of liberation.”
“Oh good. That makes me feel a lot better.”
By Hana Andronikova
Translated from Czech by David Short
Thank you to Plamen Press for allowing us to publish this excerpt of The Sound of the Sundial.
The Sound of the Sundial is the internationally acclaimed novel by Czech sensation Hana Andronikova, told over the course of a single day and night, but spanning three continents and much of the twentieth century. In this intimate and affecting love story about a Jewish teacher and a German-Czech builder, Andronikova sends her readers on a captivating journey through time and memory, from the Czech town of Zlín in the 1920s to Calcutta in the 1930s, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz during World War II, Toronto in the decades afterward, and finally into modern-day Colorado. It is at once a deeply personal narrative and an homage to the lost relationship of the Czech, German, and Jewish peoples. In 2002, The Sound of the Sundial received the Czech Republic’s prestigious Magnesia Litera Award in the category of Best New Discovery, just a few years before its young author died. It is making its world premiere appearance in English here.
Hana Andronikova was born in Zlín, Czech Republic in 1967. She studied English and Czech literature at Charles University in Prague. She turned to writing full time after many years of working in the corporate financial sector, and won instant acclaim for her first novel, The Sound of the Sundial (Knižní klub, 2001) receiving the Czech Book Club Literary Award and the Magnesia Litera Award for Best New Discovery in 2002. Her book of short stories Heart on a Hook (Petrov, 2002), cemented her national literary reputation, and in 2007 she was sponsored by the U.S. State Department to attend the International Writing Program at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was particularly noted for her use of time as a structural element in the narrative, and her skill at conveying intimate and dramatic moments using terse sentences and fragments. She was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after her return home. Her book Heaven Has no Ground (Odeon, 2010) is a personal chronicle of her fight with illness and the looming possibility of death. For this work, she won the Magnesia Litera again in 2011, but lost the battle for her life at the end of that same year. She was 44 years old.
David Short graduated with a BA in Russian with French from the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) in 1965 and spent 1966–72 in Prague, studying, working, and translating. He taught Czech and Slovak at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London from 1973 to 2011. Among his literary publications are Bohumil Hrabal: Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp (Prague: Karolinum, 2008) and Vítězslav Nezval: Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press & Jeppe Press, 2005). He has translated a wide range of literary and academic texts and has won awards both for translations and for his contribution to Czech and Slovak studies. In 2004, he was awarded the Czech Minister of Culture’s Artis Bohemicae Amicis medal and the Medal of the Comenius University in Bratislava.