The Sound of the Sundial

Mom freed me from Grandma’s iron grasp and sent me to Grandpa. The old housemaid, Margit, was just serving supper. In the dining room, Dad and Grandpa were at a huge oval table that could easily have sat twelve. They were obviously discussing something serious.

Grandpa saw how taken I was by the antique sideboard, made from the same wood as the table and chairs. “If only some of these pieces of furniture could speak, that would be something,” he winked at me.

He tapped the tabletop. Walnut. He told me that two hundred years ago, a French count had it made as a wedding present for his betrothed. As the cabinetmaker was putting in the finishing touches and the wedding preparations began, life had taken up the cards and reshuffled them: the count’s beloved didn’t live to see her own wedding, and so the fate of this furniture changed course.

By the window, the dining room took an L-shaped turn, with the living room around the corner. I caught my breath: in an alcove on a raised platform stood a grand piano. Mom had once told me all about it; she said it was sacred. A Bösendorfer: a mahogany giant that had been handed down from generation to generation. To play or practice on such an instrument was a great honor. Angular lines, delicate mechanics, a wooden music stand, and two brass candle holders.

Dad left immediately on the Sunday, but I stayed for two weeks; an incredible fourteen days with Grandpa. I would sidle up the gloomy staircase and finger the elaborately wrought banisters with their wooden handrail, worn with the patina of dozens of years and hundreds of hands. I would run my own hand over the grain and imagine all those people who had touched it. The matriarchs of the past squeezed into corsets and crinolines that rustled at every step; worthy, top-hatted gentlemen; neatly pressed young ladies in dainty gloves.

Mom and her sister, Regi, looked after Grandma, helped by the ancient Margit, while Grandpa introduced me to Prague and bathed me in the wellspring of Jewish wisdom. The old professor of history was the best possible guide to Prague, with its undertone of servitude and its gloss of majesty. The city, in all its shame and glory, seemed to want me to find out its secrets, but somehow it still remained mysterious. Vyšehrad, Petřín, the gardens that were gradually coming to life; Prague Castle and the orloj—the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall. The legend of Master Hanuš with his eyes gouged out through human folly. Orloj comes from the Latin horologium, Grandpa told me.

Meeting my Prague grandfather marked me profoundly, indelibly. I left there with a sense of having discovered another god.
The Jewish cemetery. The Old-New Synagogue. In the gloom of its Gothic walls stood an old man with a yarmulke on his bald head. His lips released the colors of Hebrew words, he swayed to their rhythm, hunched into himself, a bundle of atoms making up a human frame beneath a prayer shawl, stooping over a book of psalms, putting on his leather phylacteries. For the first time in my life I heard Hebrew spoken, I saw the Torah and listened to stories from the time of Abraham and Sarah. I dropped off to sleep with an image of Moses in my head: the sea parting before him and the Jews leaving Egypt. I added a stone to the grave of Rabbi Löw, and in my dreams I searched the lost corners of Josefov for the shem so I could bring the Golem to life.

“Why do we put stones on the grave, and not flowers?” I asked.

“Because we come from inhospitable lands, from deserts and highlands where flowers are hard to find. The stone means the same as a flower: that you have stood by the grave of the deceased and thought of him.”

Grandpa gave me a leather-bound copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, full of eerie illustrations. A dog with huge eyes, shining like lanterns out of the yellowed paper, guarded some treasure. He looked a bit funny, and his furrowed brow reminded me of Amon.

And then a celebration: Passover. The Jewish holiday of spring, in memory of Moses and the Exodus. Passover comes from pessah, which means to pass by, leave out. Yahweh would go from house to house, and wherever he did not see a mark of blood, he struck down the firstborn son. He passed over the homes of the Israelites.

On the eve of the holiday there was a festive supper, the Seder. I ate matzos: “. . . in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.” The meal was served on blue-and-white Rosenthal china. During the evening the Haggadah was read, a retelling of the story of Moses, how he led his people out of their Egyptian bondage, wandered through the wilderness and crossed the Red Sea.

Grandpa told me how my mother used to be nervous before Seder, because, as the youngest, she had to recite the Mah Nishtanah—the so-called Four Questions. She would fidget during the reading of the Haggadah, and could never manage to sit through to the end. She would run around making faces at Regi and Erik.

He fell into a reverie and said that the last twenty years had been the first years of this free and beautiful Republic. Then he grew sad.

“And now it’s over.” He blew across his palm, as if blowing a kiss. “Puff, and it’s gone.”

He gave me a pocket watch—the first watch I ever had. A Remontoir patent, big Roman numerals and a tiny winder, with a second hand, too. I opened the back. Sparkling and perfect. An interplay of delicate wheels, minuscule teeth that interlocked and spun the web of time. Fifteen jewels and grandpa’s monogram in gold.

Meeting my Prague grandfather marked me profoundly, indelibly. I left there with a sense of having discovered another god. Years later I understood that I had discovered something more: primordial matter. Roots that belonged to me, and someone who had parted the ground cover and showed me how deep they went.

I never saw him again.

Hana Andronikova (1967-2011), was born in Zlín. She went on to study English and Czech literature at Charles University in Prague. Her first novel, ‘Zvuk slunečních hodin’ (The Sound of the Sundial), was published in 2001 to great acclaim, receiving the Book Club Literary Award and the 2002 Magnesia Litera Award.

David Short graduated with a BA in Russian with French from the University of Birmingham. He has translated a wide range of Czech texts and has won awards both for translations and for his contribution to Czech and Slovak studies, notably, in 2004, the Czech Minister of Culture’s Artis Bohemicae Amicis medal and the Medal of the Comenius University in Bratislava.

This excerpt is taken from Chapter VI of ‘The Sound of the Sundial’ (Plamen Press, 2015) with kind permission from the publisher.

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