A House With Death In It

We are not all guilty.

January 21, 1998

1:05 am:

I awake. It is a bad dream I think I have dreamed twice already tonight. It is a dream of black night. But, oh, WE are so festive in our house of bright lights. It is a night of celebration. The crowds are over, we party riotously, for we have inherited a fantastic house from relatives I didn't even know I had. The wine flows freely, we dance with our guests, oh, how we exult.

But, in another part of the house, while searching for something else for the party, I uncover a dread secret: The stench of DEATH! We, alas, now own a house in which someone was killed. Does the killer now point his gun at us? I gather the rest of the family, and breathlessly explain what's happened. Before we leap out the window amid a shower of confetti, I catch from my peripheral vision, a view of a sniper with a gun. He aims, but misses us.

We leap to the ground. The hard landing jolts the breath out of me, waking me from the dream.

I know what has inspired the dream.

I am reading a book by historian Peter Demitz, Prague, in Black and Gold, Scenes from the Life of an European City. I read to learn about my ancestors, and those who might be related to me who are still living there, who have not emigrated. However, his words are not always easy to read. They must be sifted through over and over to capture the gold there. Yet this historian has done his research. The gold is there.

The gold is blood-money. There is a view of Prague as "mystical" and "magical". The images on the web, of all the fanciful architecture give the imagination rise. It has long given the imaginations of visitors rise. These English, German and American travelers of the early to middle nineteenth century spread the tales around.

Later, the "decadents" of the fin de siècle seized the heady brew, and added a few spices of their own. This, left to distill, was brought out again in the 60's to imbibe, as a protest against the dreary restraints of the realities of communist rule. After 1989, communism dispatched, the brew is intoxicating again to travellers. It is a tasty drink, but like the liquid alcoholic effervescence, the bubbles enchant, yet obscure the mind. Sharp realities are missed.

This historian doesn't want them dismissed. For Demitz, born of Swiss father and Jewish mother, has seen a side of Prague others haven't. He tells of the pogram of 1389, 3000 Jews killed; of Maria Theresa's expulsion of the Jews from their ancient city in 1744, and of the Shoah of 1940-45.

He was prisoner of the Gestapo and did forced labor in a camp for half-Jews. He has seen his mother embark a train to death, never to return. After Prague was liberated from the Nazi's, he saw all the Germans, every man, woman and child, guilty or not, packed out and shipped out. He himself escaped in 1949 through the Bohemian Forest. Other historians do not have these relentlessly sobering and saddening memories which rip all the illusions away.

So it is I have acquired a house with death in it. No matter how pretty it might be, the stench of death is there. These, then, are the real ghosts that haunt the place. Not some fanciful chimera. The nightmare of full truth awakens me. The killer can be caught, the blood washed away, but the perfect house with the wonderful architecture will always have a stain, no matter how you try to cover it. The visitors might not see it. But YOU know what's behind that carefully positioned furniture.

3:15am, still unable to sleep:

I lay there in bed between dreams and waking. In the half-dream, I am in a Walgreens drug store. The aisles filled with wares and the pink walls look the same in any Walgreens you go to. So it was with this Walgreens I went to in Prague. I didn't know what to do about the house I had inherited. It surely was a fine house. The construction was sound, the architecture unique. But no matter what I did, I couldn't cleanse that one upstairs room of the death - stain. I saw two old women in the aisle, between the make-up and hair shampoo and combs. They reminded me of my Aunt Teta and my Grandmother. I could be related to these people! So I approached them with my problem. Wise old women often have the solution to a problem. They told me:

No, you can't wash the stain away. You shouldn't wash the stain away. The dishonesty of the attempt is a crime. Make of that room a shrine to the dead. Put a garland on the door and a gracefully lettered sign: Here commemorates all the dead...the murdered, the exiled, the slain in the name of someone's evil cause. Enter here to pause and reflect on these horrors. You will have other parties in this grand house. Great will be the rejoicing. For there were the poets and artists. They did exist and create their lasting works of beauty. Sweep the threshold clean again to receive visitors. Some of your guests will wander upstairs and see the garlanded door and read the sign and shudder. Yes, they will. You will climb the stairs to meet them, and you can reach out your arms to them, and embrace against the unspeakable horrors of humanity. In that shudder which robs breath so that you cannot speak, there is still the hug.

With that, the two old ladies who are surely my relatives reach out to me. And we hug.

11:15am, taking a break from sewing:

The Kings Singers are singing "Weather With You" by Tim and Neil Finn of "Crowded House" fame. Up I arise from my seat and dance slow graceful moves to it:

Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. . ."

In my imagination I am dancing down the Charles Bridge, twisting about the corners of the Hradcany castle, twirling circles in the Old Town Hall, where the Astronomical Clock measures the tempo of the planets, and swirling about in Prague's Old Town Square. The people do not see me, nor do they hear the music I dance to. I swirl about to the truth of the song. I feel not the chill of the air. I am ghost-chimera, weaving my way down those cobblestone streets. Ancient spirits of the dead call to me, whispers in the wind. They blend with American spirits of the dead. How many Indians have Americans slain? I cannot know, but if you listen, you can hear the death-chant.

It is everywhere, this. Everywhere on the planet. There is no place you can go to, and not hear this eerie chorus. I twirl vigorously despite the chill I now feel. Bright colors on the buildings, of people's clothing, of the red and yellow buses rushing by accent the grey sky. Dancing heats me up. I can see the smiling faces of the living. I swirl and I whirl. There are happy people in Prague. We are not all guilty. There are happy people in America. We are not all guilty. I twirl and I whirl. . .

© Joan Ann Lansberry
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