Zuzana's Breath


Photo: Author's archive

Zuzana's Breath

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Jakuba Katalpa

Translated from Czech by Melvyn Clarke


Liliana Liebeskindová is not able as yet to conceive.
She can’t keep this to herself, so she gets a lot of advice from experienced friends. Some of them judge her to be too thin, while others recommend her to eat a piece of raw liver. Liliana hangs around the kitchen, and when the cook isn’t looking she tears off a little bit of the bloody stuff and then — even though she’s Jewish — chews it and swallows.
With clockwork regularity Liliana menstruates every month. This business of bleeding in all kinds of circumstances will be inherited by her daughter, but in 1899 when, laced up in a corset and holding an armful of long-stemmed lilies, she marries Abraham Liebeskind, the sugar refinery owner, she has no notion yet of her daughter. The wedding takes place in February and the glasshouse flowers are frozen solid. The pollen drops off and Liliana’s gloves turn yellow.
The wedding is Jewish, even though the Heckels and the Liebeskinds, represented only by the groom, his father, and several aunties, rarely attend the synagogue.
The betrothed, who have stepped beneath the canopy and heard the blessing, are absent in spirit. Abraham is thinking about the final accounts, and Liliana about the jug that burst asunder this morning as the maid Herta was pouring hot water into it.
The events of the day go by as follows:
Liliana wakes up, Herta brings the water, the porcelain jug cracks.
A sea of water spills over Herta’s feet in her sturdy, practical shoes. Liliana helps the maid mop up. In her dressing gown and velvet slippers, she then has eggs and white bread for breakfast.
The corset is then fitted to her torso, dress shields are slipped under her arms, and her mother places a veil over her head.
Liliana tries a couple of dry sobs to make sure she doesn’t want to cry. In actual fact she’s curious about what’s to come. She takes the lilies in her hands and marvels at how cold they are.
Next comes the synagogue.
The rabbi who lisps. The sobbing aunties.
A glass crushed underfoot for good luck — as if there hadn’t been enough breakages that day — congratulations, and the taxing journey to the photographer’s studio.
The wedding feast.
On the tables flowers imported from Holland, lilies of the valley, roses, freesias. Cream whipped into tall mounds, ice cream.
Liliana talks to her new husband about the cracked jug.
Abraham, five years older, presumes there must have been a defect in the porcelain.
In the evening they also talk porcelain in the bedroom. Thun, Rosenthal, Sèvres.
Abraham’s hand on Lilian’s breast.
A nipple in his mouth.
Talking about glaze helps them overcome their embarrassment. Abraham is considerate and Liliana is helpful, referring somewhat breathlessly to bisque and rococo statuettes as she lets him in.
Soon they become passionate lovers, but Liliana does not conceive.
She complains to her friends.
She swallows the bloody fibre from the liver, empties a bottle of wine, and remains lying with her legs up in the air after making love. She stops riding her horse, and sees a doctor and a fortune teller, who predicts that by the age of thirty-five she will have given birth to four sons.
But Liliana is twenty-three and she wants a child right away.
Her mother blames the water Liliana drinks, and Abraham has a new well dug.
Nothing is of any help.
Liliana despairs. In Prague she visits an orphanage, as if the presence of young strangers might have some affect on her own fertility.
She starts to dabble in Judaism, dusts off the menorah and makes the cook go kosher, which Abraham resents, because he does like his pork hocks.
But all to no avail. The ova continue to mature in Liliana’s lower abdomen, pass the uterus and come out infertile; Liliana angrilythrows the bloody rags into the bucket of cold water.
She looks into the anatomical atlas and the Kabbalah, the phases of the moon, natural cycles and the rhythms of night and day. She cuts her hair short as the moon is waning, walks through the garden at the break of day, weeding the beds and swallowing carrots, cauliflower florets and lettuce.
Year after year rolls by, and Liliana’s body is still infertile. Abraham enlists for the war and she is left alone in the big apartment above the sugar refinery. Her husband sends her letters from afar, from Italy; look after the accounts above all else, he tells her, and she does. First with the refinery sales manager, and then by herself, she goes through the books, her head swimming as there’s so much to look after. The refinery is swallowing up quintals of beet, and now that it’s wartime, the men’s work is being done by women, who drive the horse carts, mind the furnaces, and wrap the sugar loaves in paper.
When all this gets to be too much for Liliana, she escapes Holašovice by going into Prague on the train. Liliana sits in a compartment with some soldiers on leave and a fat country-woman, who flirts with the men and lets them touch her; they squeeze her plump arms, their hands sliding over her breasts, while Liliana turns away, remembering her husband with longing.
In Prague she stays at the U Koníčka hotel near the Old Town Square. In the hotel lobby she buys her first ever packet of tobacco and cigarette papers, and in the bathroom next to her room, she sinks into a hot bath, rolls a cigarette, and smokes it.
Over the next few days she visits a fashion salon, a circus, and a theatre, where she and Abraham have a box reserved. The sugar refinery is a money machine, and she can squander it as she pleases. The sales manager is anxious, warning her that the refinery’s revenue will go down during wartime and that they need to invest in better, new machinery. Liliana isn’t bothered. Recklessly she enjoys herself, going off with her mother to a jeweller’s shop, where she buys a set of earrings and a gold pendant with three radiant diamonds. In the afternoon they head for a café and enjoy some sweet cakes.
During their chat Liliana suddenly makes her excuses, runs to the toilet, and looks at herself in the mirror. Tears well up in her eyes; she is without a husband and without a child, her breasts have sagged and her first wrinkles have appeared, she is forty-one years old and her body is clearly not going to bear a child.
She lights a cigarette and leans against the washbasin. She inhales the smoke and tries not to think about anything. The next day she buys a car and gets driven off to Holašovice, where Liebeskind’s factory is churning out powdered sugar, sugar cubes, and sugarloaves. On the table in the parlour there’s a letter waiting for her, telling her that Abraham has been wounded and is coming home.
A year later, Liliana and Abraham are standing on the balcony of a Prague hotel watching the fireworks. A new republic has been declared and Liliana is wearing a soft dressing gown over her naked body. She wants her husband to take her right now, on the balcony, over the heads of the shouting, laughing people. She snuggles up to him as he wraps his arms around her shoulders. He’s uneasy because now that the monarchy is finished, things are going tobe different at the refinery. The beet fields are to be divided up and the workers are going to leave. His knee that was hit by an enemy bullet really hurts.He’s tired, but he reads the desire in his wife’s eyes and doesn’t want to disappoint her; as she mounts him and guides him in,he’s thinking about securities and future investments.He likes Ford and General Motors in America, and he makes up his mind to send some of his money overseas as soon as he can.
Liliana is puzzled that she’s still having periods. Most of her friends have stopped having theirs. Liliana doesn’t know whether to be scared or to rejoice. As long as there’s blood, then there’s hope for a baby.
She often drives her car along country roads and thinks over her options. She repeatedly gets herself checked by a doctor. He slides mirrors into her and palpates her organs.
So long as you’re bleeding you’re able to conceive, he says.
He offers Liliana a cigarette, and they both have a smoke. Liliana is interested to know how old the oldest mother was that the doctor has ever treated. She learns that the woman was forty-three. Liliana shudders — she is four years older. She comes home in a huff, slamming doors and yelling at the maids. The smell of crushed beet bothers her, as does the throb of the machinery.
In the bathroom she furiously scrubs herself, brushes her teeth, and scrapes her tongue. She argues with Abraham and goes to her room, where she curls up on the floor with a cigarette and closes her eyes. She falls asleep, the hard floor pressing against her back.
She wakes up feeling broken, with aching joints. She gets dressed and walks over to Abraham’s bedroom door. Opening it, she listens to him breathing. Then she quietly goes down into the garage. The chauffeur is asleep — his apartment window is dark.
Liliana breathes in the smell of metal and petrol. She had a dream when she was sleeping, and its vague outline now sits behind her eyelids. She puts on her gloves, gets into the car, drives across the courtyard, and pulls out of the gate.
It’s not yet dawn, the little town is swathed in darkness, and a crescent moon hangs in the west. The road beyond Holašovice is not very wide, running between fields and woods.
Liliana maintains a steady speed, stepping on the gas gently. After a while the sky lightens in the east. The sun rises. Liliana parks the car by the side of the road. At the crossroads stands a small chapel. Inside hangs a picture of the Virgin Mary. The confined space is slowly flooded with light. Liliana sits down on the stone threshold. From the field the mist rises, the spruce trees exhale steam.
The stone on which Liliana is sitting chills her, so she gets up and turns around. She looks at the image of Mary, a cheap print in a worm-eaten frame. Something within herstirs. Liliana staggers a little, her hands grasp the chapel door frame, and she leans inside.
The sun shines on her back.
It’s October, the fields are bare. Liliana wipes her face. She lights a cigarette and walks to the stubble field, running her hand over the prickly stems. Her face turns to the sky, which has turned  pale pastel blue, and to the pink-white daybreak.
Liliana slowly returns to the car, hugs the steering wheel, and places her head upon it. The sun is rising and beginning to give off heat.
That evening Liebeskind’s wife becomes pregnant.
The child that is born will be called Zuzana.
The little girl comes into a world steeped in the smell of sugar beet, which hovers over Holašovice like a haze, reminiscent of burnt caramel. The year is 1924 and the winter was short and timid; February quickly blossomed into spring, which turned into a hot summer.
Abraham Liebeskind goes dancing with his wife until she gives birth. He has her clothes made by the best tailors, and at night lays his ear on her belly. He will be a tender and attentive father and smiles when the child kicks him in the cheek through the mother’s taut skin.
Zuzana is born in the morning. July is turning into August, the sun is pale and the morning star is visible in the sky. On that day the errand boy arrives at the sugar refinery with the gramophone records Abraham has ordered, including Gershwin’s latest, Rhapsody in Blue.
In the evening, when it’s all over and a tired Liliana is resting, her husband gently takes the baby in his arms, carries her into the study, and turns on the gramophone. Gershwin’s music sounds strange. Abraham has to get used to it.
The study smells of tobacco and paper. There are plans on the desk for the villa Abraham wants to build on the refinery grounds. The refinery owner walks from door to window, his eyes drinking in the face of his newborn daughter, who seems perfect to him in every respect. He has to show her to his father, who has a room in his and Liliana’s apartment. But now it’s too soon for that. He wants to be alone with his child. Moved, he examines the little mouth, the closed eyes, the hands clenched into fists. The baby parts its lips, saliva glistens between reddened gums.
Abraham opens the safe. He looks at the stacked securities, his wife’s jewellery case, and his chequebook, and shows them to his daughter. "All this will be yours one day," and the baby whimpers faintly. Abraham bends over and catches the baby’s breath in his mouth. The happiness that fills him is complete and untarnished. The sugar refinery owner sits back in his armchair.
From the bedroom he can hear his wife. He has a new ring for her in a small leather-covered box in his pocket. He touches his daughter’s forehead with his fingertip. The unexpected softness catches him off guard. Tears well up in his eyes. He swallows. The music has finished playing, and he goes back to Lilianawith the baby. He puts the ring on her and watches as his wife bares her breasts and offers them to her daughter. The baby searches for a nipple for a moment and then latches on. Liliana has no milk yet, and this makes the baby pull away and burst out crying.
A wrinkle appears between her eyes, and Abraham recognizes himself in the narrow furrow above the bridge of her nose; he sits down on the edge of his wife’s bed and together they try to soothe the child, singing and cradling her until there is silence.
Zuzana is lying on a hard ottoman in the kitchen.
Mrs Tomášová is clattering the pots. So far things have been fine. Just a little inconvenience. Zuzana is taking it bravely. They’ve been living in a two-room apartment for the past couple of months. Restlessly, Liebeskind runs around making arrangements, but all with pitiful results. Everyone is turning their backs onhim.
As if I were sick, Zuzana’s father rages in front of Mrs Tomášová. The fact is that Liebeskind without his sugar refinery isa nobody.
An exhibition comes to Prague. It’s not open to Jews, but the former refinery owner sneaks in anyway. He stares in astonishment at the caricatures of Jews, the sagging faces, the hook-like noses, the chubby lips.
He feels sick and sits down on a bench in the park. Hands shaking, he looks at the people walking their dogs, the women pushingprams.
Back home he trims his beard and combs his hair. He doesn’t look Jewish.
And Zuzana?
He turns towards her. Zuzana is concentrating, engrossed in a book.
A rotten exhibition, Liebeskind thinks. He walks over to his daughter and strokes her hair. Zuzana looks up and suddenly Liebeskind sees it: Only a Jewish woman could look like that, sharp and yet cautious, with a thousand years of experience, feeling out unfamiliar terrain,circumspection.
 Liebeskind presses his daughter’s head against him, ruffling her hair.
I’m not going to panic, he resolves, forcing himself to calm down.
For the time being she has everything she needs.
The car, the furs, the rings, and Liliana’s jewellery buried in the garden.
The gramophone, the collection of single malt whiskey.
In the evening Liebeskind goes to bed first, burrows into the quilts and, after tossing and turning, falls asleep; Zuzana comes to him and examines his facein the light from the kitchen.
Her father’s brow is knitted and his forehead is all wrinkled. as he grinds his teeth in his sleep. Zuzana puts her hand on his chest. She knows he was in Prague today, but she has no idea what he was doing there. Liebeskind hasn’t told her anything about the exhibition. She would like to reassure him with her touch, in an effort to give him strength, but Liebeskind suddenly groans in his dreams. She takes fright and rushes into the kitchen, throws herself onto the sofa, and tries to breathe deeply.
Sparkie jumps up beside her and Zuzana feels the warmth of the dog’s body. She relaxes and inhales the scent of the fur, rests her head on the dog’s back, and closes her eyes.
The headmistress of the French lycée in Prague is direct and to the point.
Zuzana is Jewish, she says. And that is why, unfortunately, she can no longer attend our school.
Jewish? Liebeskind repeats, feeling the anger rising within him.
These are the times we live in, says the headmistress. Personally, I have nothing against Jews.
Sitting at her desk, she shrugs. Her lips are made up, and her cigarette smoulders in the ashtray.
I’d have thought so, Liebeskind ventures. My money never bothered you.
The woman clears her throat; she’s not going to talk about money.
I’ll come with you to pick up Zuzana, and then we’ll say goodbye, she suggests.
She gets up, straightens the skirt of her suit and walks over to Liebeskind. She opens the door, Liebeskind slaps his hat on his head and joins her. Losing self-control, he clenches his hands in his pockets and tightly purses his lips. They call Zuzana out of her French class. The headmistress tells her to collect her books. Holding her unzipped bag in one hand and a sweater and light scarf in the other, Zuzana does not understand what is going on.
We’re leaving, Liebeskind says, taking her schoolbag.
The headmistress rummages in her pocket and hands Liebeskind a small card.
My business card, she explains. If you should need anything.
Liebeskind doesn’t accept the card. He takes Zuzana by the elbow and leads her down the long corridor to the door.
Have I done something wrong? Zuzana asks as they walk out onto the street.
Liebeskind shakes his head. He kicks a stone.
The headmistress doesn’t like Jews, he says.
So I’m free?
They walk to a bank. Liebeskind withdraws some money. His daughter is not going to go without. They go to the shops and spend the money on shoes,underwear, and cashmere sweaters. At a restaurant they haveschnitzelwithmashed potatoes. Liebeskind lets Zuzana have somesparkling wine. They go back to Holašovice in the car. Liebeskind is under the influence and drives at a walking pace.
Dad, says Zuzana.
I’m scared.
Liebeskind hits the brakes, coming to a halt between fields, just a short distance from the white chapel. He gets out and Zuzana follows. The refinery man grabs his daughter by the arm.
We’re going to be okay, he says.
He’d like Zuzana to assure him that it’s true, but the girl is silent.
You’ve lost the sugar refinery, she comments at length.
Liebeskind nods. I’m going to build a new one.
In America.
Zuzana sighs, as if she knows something that has not been disclosed to her father. A bird can be heard from the forest. Liebeskind perks up.
A jay, he says.
He walks back to the car and starts it up. Zuzana’sweighed down by packages from the shops. The road is bumpy and her teeth chatter. They pass the chapel. Zuzana covers her face with her hands. She never did get very attached to thatlycée in Prague, butshe’s sorry she’s had to leave it.
When she gets back to Holašovice, she tells her friends, Hanuš and Jan, about it.
Are you off school then? Hanuš asks incredulously. He has a few more weeks of lessons.
What are you going to do then? he queries.
Zuzana shrugs.
Oh, she says, go swimming, read.
Hanuš groans. Why aren’t I a Jew?
They laugh. The cherries in an orchard outside the town are now ripe. They crawl through a hole in the fence; Jan takes Zuzana’s hand. They run through the tall grass. Hanuš and Jan climb up a tree and throw the cherries down to Zuzana, who piles them up in a scarf. Then they go back, along the dusty road, to Holašovice, spitting the pits around them.
At the turn of July into August, Zuzana celebrates her fifteenth birthday.
Five of them gather in the kitchen: Mrs. Tomášová, Zuzana’s father,the two boys, and Zuzana. The cake is made of marzipan. The day outside the windows is clear and hot; oh, what joy, Zuzana thinks as she unwraps her presents. She feels happy and loved. She hasn’t really lost anything; the school can go to hell!
She takes Hanuš’s and Jan’s hands —though there’s nothing yet of the love that will later take hold of her heart — and they run down the path by the sugar refinery, now run by the Sudeten German Nagy and no longer owned by the Liebeskinds.
Enticed by all things sweet, they head into the woods, to a clearing where the raspberries grow.
Zuzana is wearing a short dress and has sun-tanned skin. Her leg is whipped by a blackberry branch, so she stops, smears the blood with her saliva, and runs on. The woods are cool, and an alarmed pheasant makes itself heard from somewhere. Hanuš imitates its cry and Zuzana smiles. The boy glimpses her smile and knows he’d do anything for it. Like a prince in a fairy tale, he’d happily go and fight dragons.
Quickly he takes Zuzana by the shoulders and gives her a hug. He finds her fragrant. She still smells of sugar. He licks himself and the two of them fall into the grass, break off long stalks, and start chewing them. Jan lies down beside them, and all three watch the clouds floating over their heads.
Before they go to bed, Zuzana and her father finish the cake and listen to records as he sits on the sofa, and Zuzana puts her head on his lap. Liebeskind strokes her hair, a little alarmed at how she has grown up, remembering her childhood and how she used to play with the dogs.
Those times are now long gone, and he’s sorry.He’d have liked his life tostay unchanged, because changelessness is safe, and whereas he dared to experiment with sugar manufacturing, in life he prefers to stick to certainties.
Zuzana closes her eyes at his knees, and he blows lightly on her forehead. Are you asleep? he asks and she shakes her head. They carry on listening to Ravel, the strings and the piano.


Copyright © Jakuba Katalpa, 2020 and © Host ­­­­─ vydavatelství, s.r.o., 2020
Translation copyright © Melvyn Clarke 2022
This excerpt is from a book originally published in Czech as Zuzanin dech by Host in 2020.

Jakuba Katalpa (the author) (b. 1979) is one of the Czech Republic’s leading contemporary authors. For her debut novella, Je hlína k snědku? (Is Soil To Be Eaten?), she was shortlisted for a Magnesia Litera award in the Newcomer of the Year category. Her novel Hořké moře (Bitter Sea) was shortlisted for the Jiří Orten Award. Katalpa’s novel Němci (The Germans) won the Josef Škvorecký Award and the Czech Book Award; it was also shortlisted for a Magnesia Litera in the prose category. Zuzanin dech (Zuzana’s Breath), the author’s latest novel and her most successful to date, was published in 2020. Her books have been published in seven languages, including German and  Italian, and rights have been also sold to Poland, Slovakia and Serbia.

Melvyn Clarke (the translator), born in 1956, is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, where he studied Czech and Slovak language, literature and history. Recent published translations into English include Onegin Was a Rusky and B. Proudew by Irena Dousková, Bohemia Docta, edited by Martin Franc, and Samizdat Past and Present, edited by Tomáš Glanc. https://www.kosmas.cz/prekladatel/55211/melvyn-clarke/

Please click here to donate to JewishFiction.net  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.

Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.