1. The Egg Stage
Nami is dripping with sweat. He clutches his Grandma’s chubby, greasy hands. The waves of the lake slap rhythmically against the concrete jetty. A cry, more a shriek, carries across to them from the municipal beach. It must have been a Sunday, as both Grandma and Grandpa had been there with him on the rug. Someone else is there too. Nami recalls three red blotches of swimwear, the three triangles of a bikini. Above them, dark hair is combed into a tail like horses have, and there are two little tufts of dark hair under the arms. The three triangles shift languidly in the sun, turn over and become one. Just off the shore a catfish lazily whips its tail.
‘That water level looks lower than it was to me,’ says Grandma, and loudly swats a fly that has settled on her belly. She chomps on toasted sunflower seeds from the beach kiosk and spits the husks out onto the concrete in front of her.
‘What are you on about?’ Grandpa laughs. ‘Women’s logic … the only thing worse is an ‘angover.’
He laughs again, swaying backwards and forwards with his hands resting on his thighs. Between the dirt-ingrained fingers of one hand he holds a filterless cigarette.
The three triangles pick up the thermos, move over to Nami and give him some mint tea.
‘Drink up, poppet.’ Ah, the three triangles have a voice. It is pleasantly deep, just like the old well behind their house. Nami drinks. The tea is sweetened with honey and tastes delicious. It slips easily down his throat.
‘Come on then, lad,’ says Grandpa, in the tone of one who wants to restore peace. ‘Time to make sure no one’s going to call you a sissy. Three-year old boys round here oughta know how to swim.’
Grandpa runs his hands over his round belly and drops his cigarette end into the water where it makes a hiss. Nami does not want to go in the water. He wants to stay on the rug, leaning against Grandma’s soft belly and watching the three red triangles. He tries to lift an arm but it drops lazily back into his lap.
‘Go on, Nami,’ Grandma encourages. ‘I’ll get you a lolly.’
The lollies always come stuck to the cellophane. Sometimes they are so stuck that it is impossible to unwrap them. It is not often that Nami gets one; only on Peace Day and when the three triangles come. They taste of burnt sugar and violet. Nami doesn’t like them much, but they are so rare that he looks forward to them all the same and will do whatever he is asked to do to get one.
Nami starts to get up, but even before he is on his feet he feels himself flying through the air.
‘Swim, my little sturgeon!’ cries Grandpa after him, and bursts out laughing. The three triangles cry out, as does Grandma. Nami lands painfully flank first, shatters the surface of the lake and descends down through the dark water. Above him he sees the sun’s rays stream through the swarm of bubbles in his wake. The breath has been knocked out of him and his lungs hurt.
The water gets colder the deeper he goes. Nami falls like a dead weight and his arms flap about alongside his body. Soon, he thinks, he’ll meet the spirit of the lake, who dwells on its bed. The pressure on his lungs increases and his ears are exploding. Instinctively he gasps for breath and starts to gulp water. He can no longer see. In a frenzy he waves his arms and legs and this brings him to the surface. Everything is black and flecked with sparks.
By Bianca Bellová
Translated by Julia Sutton-Mattocks
Extract from The Lake
Bianca Bellová was born in Prague in 1970 and has Czech and Bulgarian heritage. Alongside her own writing, she works as a translator and interpreter from English to Czech. The Lake is her fourth novel. It won the European Union Prize for Literature and the Czech Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award in 2017 and has been translated into twenty other languages.
Julia Sutton-Mattocks is a lecturer at the University of Bristol, where she teaches Czech and Russian literature, culture and translation. She won the Czech-English section of the 2017 Susanna Roth Award for her translation of the opening sequence of The Lake by Bianca Bellová and has since translated a Bellová short story for the literary journal Apofenie. She also translates from Russian.