Skulls in the Garden

Skulls in the Garden

- Josef Wagner, Heads in the Garden, oil and enamel on canvas, 75 x 100 cm, 1975-1978, Aleš South Bohemian Gallery in Hluboká nad Vltavou.


The Three Lilies
by Jan Neruda (1834-1891)

     I must have been out of my mind at the time. I could feel my veins pulse, my blood boil.

     It was a warm but dark summer night. That evening the dead, sulphurous air of the past few days had finally congealed into black clouds, which, whipped up by a stormy wind, turned into a raging downpour. The thunder and rain went on for hours.

     I sat beneath the wooden arcade of the Three Lilies near Strahov Gate. It is a small inn, which was then much frequented only on Sundays, when cadets and corporals came to dance to the piano in the small room. That day was a Sunday. I sat by myself at a table near the windows. Claps of thunder roared overhead in fast succession, rain hammered the tiled roof just above me, water streamed in hissing torrents to the earth, and the piano within paused only for the briefest of respites before striking up the next dance. Now I would gaze in through an open window at the happy, twirling couples, now out at the dark garden. Whenever a flash of lightning proved particularly vivid, I would see white piles of human bones by the garden wall and at the end of the arcade. There had been a small cemetery here once, and just that week they were digging up the skeletons for reburial. The soil was still in mounds, the graves open.

     But I could not stay at my table for more than short intervals. I kept getting up and crossing to the open tavern door to watch the dancers at close quarters. I was drawn to them by a beautiful girl of about eighteen. Though slender, she was shapely and warm with black hair cut short at the neck, a smooth, oval face, bright eyes – a beautiful girl! What attracted me most, however, was the eyes. They were clear as water, inscrutable as the surface of the deep, insatiable. The mere sight of them brought to mind the words: ‘Sooner will fire be sated with wood or the sea with water than a bright-eyed woman with men.’

     She danced almost continuously, yet she was well aware she had attracted my gaze. When she danced close to the doorway in which I stood, she would fix her eyes on me, and when she whirled off into the room I could see and feel those eyes grazing me at her every turn. I never saw her talk to anyone.

     Again I stood there. Our eyes met at once, though she was in the farthest row. The quadrille was almost over, the fifth figure just ending, when another girl came running into the room, out of breath and dripping wet. She elbowed her way straight to Brighteyes. The music for the sixth figure had just begun. The newcomer whispered something to Brighteyes, who nodded without a word. The sixth figure, which she was dancing with a lithe cadet, went on a while longer. When it came to an end, she glanced again in my direction, then, pulling the outer layer of her dress over her head, disappeared through the main door.

     I went back to my place and sat down. The storm was starting up again, and what had gone before seemed a mere whisper now. The wind howled with renewed vigour; thunder and lightning exploded. Yet though I listened in rapture, all my thoughts were with the girl and her marvellous eyes. I could not dream of going home.

     About a quarter of an hour later I looked over at the door again. There she stood, smoothing out her dripping dress, drying her hair, assisted by an older woman.

     ‘Why did you go home in this storm?’ the woman asked.

     ‘My sister came to fetch me.’

     These were the first words I heard her utter. Her voice was silken, soft yet rich.

     ‘Is something the matter?’

     ‘My mother’s died.’

     A shudder ran through me.

     Brighteyes turned and stepped out into the solitude. She stood beside me, her eyes resting upon me. I felt her touch my quivering hand. I seized her hand. It was so soft.

     Wordlessly I drew her deeper and deeper into the arcade; willingly she followed.

     The storm had now reached its climax. The wind tore past in torrents; heaven and earth bayed and shrieked, claps of thunder detonated just above our heads, and all around us the dead clamoured from their graves.

     She pressed against me. I felt her wet dress clinging to my chest, I felt her soft, warm body, her ardent breath – I felt it was my lot to drain the demonic spirit from her.

Jan Neruda, The Three Lilies, in Prague Tales. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, with an introduction by Ivan Klima. Central European Classics, CEU Press. ISBN: 978 963 9116 23 8.



Josef Wagner, Têtes dans le jardin, huile et émail sur toile, 75 x 100 cm, 1975-1978, Galerie Alès de Bohême du sud.