8 July, 1952
I AM AN ARTIST. I have been found guilty of treason by the state of Czechoslovakia. My crime? I have been labeled a philosopher, a passive, a freak, someone who is on neither side.
I have an opinion contrary to that of the state.
You question the non-reality of reality, they say. How can this be? By being neutral? By admitting that a Christian cannot be a Christian if he shall go to war? By having a god-given conscience? By not believing in lies and propaganda? By not letting hatred crowd out love out of my own beating heart?
Quite often I have been labeled unpatriotic—this is the furthest thing from the truth. When someone calls someone else unpatriotic they are desperate and a fool and have nothing but shallow air floating in their brain.
You are guilty, they say when you say this. No. I am Karel Kikinda. Prisoner number 62798. Enemy of the state. Provocateur. Man. Soul. Neutrons and atoms.
The sentence handed down to me is 12 years of hard labor with confiscation of all personal property and loss of all civil rights.
This sentence handed down to me by my own countrymen is for suggesting that we do the opposite of what has not worked. And so what country will this be now? I don’t even know anymore. There is a cold darkness growing across the heartland now. A dark mist that hovers over the ancient rivers. Silos of storms are gathering. Each silo full of something different. Grief. Heartache. Fear. Death. These are the names itched onto our tombstones. He is K. She is W. Someone else is Zero. We all know who we are.
It is as though we pray, but no one answers.
I am alone now only with my own thoughts. Here is my hand for you to crush it. I see it! I am as invisible as you.
You are X. I am nothing. We are the same.
29 August, 1952
... Jachymov! The ore mines. All days are the same in prison. Days have no names. This wretched life. This prison life inhabited by the pearls of U-234 and U-235 and U-238. This prison inhabited by the demon screams of the eagle owls that live in the trees surrounding the camp. It is a grievous landscape. Mountain. Valley. Woods. All set amid the depravity of all human hell. A hell only mankind can create. A moonscape underground, the dark plains of Mare Imbrium, filled with the most foreign loneliness. A province known to the outside world only for its radioactive spa, and here also, the Joachimsthaler, the small coin minted from the silver mines of the valley in 1519. No one even knows there are men here in this place.
We are given no payment as a prisoner to the Republic. Your payment in Jachymov is to live and die in hell! Yield pitchblende, they tell you. Yield pitchblende in the mines for Soviet Russia.
Our only possessions are the rags that are our clothing. Our sentries tell us they must last the winter. It is slot-covered gear they give us to wear. Death is soaked into each spec and stitch of clothing. Sometimes you can smell the scent of the departed on it. Soon you start to smell like it too.
Our food is a ration of potato and sugar beet, occasionally some suet mixed in a bloody stew of vegetables and water. Hot, if you’re lucky. Some days there is no food. Some days all the food is stolen by those in your own ranks.
A desperate man can turn into a beast. In prison all men become beasts!
15 December, 1952
Our block is in the ward of one dreadful man: Antonin Králové. This graying “Sudeten” who has a hatred for all men. He openly encourages theft and any kind of fraud. It simply deepens our wounds. He brags to the others, to the soldiers, how he controls us like we are trained little vermin. He is in charge of the latrine. One latrine for hundreds of men. That is the assignment given to him.
We have the job of breaking apart the frozen human waste, the urine, on the floor and on the outside bulging walls of the wooden building. The tin gutters overflow and freeze and we have to break the human waste apart. Sometimes you cannot get the stench out of your nose. Sometimes the putrid smell of human waste never leaves you.
17 December, 1952
In our barracks there are 70 men. Ten men in our small group, all of whom work in the uranium mine and the latrine. There is myself, Karel Kikinda; and Szabó, the poet formally of the Tatra Mountains; Josef Hrañ, former officer in the First Republic; the three pilferers from Jung Bunzlau: Thomas and Edgar Kendrick and their companion, Konstantin Reedler; Johann Lisse, the Hungarian from Kolozsvár; Karel Variete; Petr Oborin; and there is Bohumil Matejka, the deaf-mute.
19 December, 1952
He waited, patient like he always is, patient until the very early morning. At dawn the first hues of blue and marigold filter through the whitish glass of the barracks. I sleep on the bunk with Szabó and the silent Bohumil Matejka. Antonin Králové walks in and crosses the rays of sunlight coming in one window, which is only the size of a ledger or a book. He stops in the shadow part of the barracks and waits. He seems to want to examine us in our bunks. He is a tall prominent man whose trait is to hold his right hand, his good hand, in his right pants pocket. His uniform is a dark gray, unusually cobalt in daylight. His officer’s hat is tailored more like a cap.
He stands quiet in the shadow-spaces, his eyes staring. I sit up a little, half-pushing against Szabó’s left shoulder. I can see his eyes. He has the oddest color of blue in his eyes. Even all the way across the distance of the room you can see that blue. His presence is always unsettling. That emotionless stare of a hippo. That stare like a shark . . . a murderous white angel unfurling on the road in front of you . . . those eyes¾cold and rolling back, disconnected to the distance we might be going.
He has already heard about the trouble. It is the trouble he always counts on. Trouble is always part of the plan. This is the last effect on your brain in your education with him. To break the human spirit. To break your spirit. The final layer between yourself and an animal. That thorny crown we all must wear at one time or another.
There has been in fighting going on. His men. His block. His discord in the barracks. It is our food that is in question. Our food is being robbed. It is that trust that is being questioned. The slightest infraction always revealed. We know as a group that someone amid us is now Judas. Králové can sense transitions: from when we arrived as brothers to our metamorphosis into soulless, talking, wingless creatures that he has bought practically for a meal or a promise to look the other way. He stands there in the bluish light, patiently watching every fold move in our blankets in our bunks, every wrinkle resting on our clothing, every ugly breath out of our mouths, his boot kicking at the wood floor to wake us.
“Ah, today is the day!” His voice grows loud in the darkness. “Thank your Gods that it’s them and not you. Come on! Come on! Get up. Get up. I have your education for you! What an education I have for you!” He begins to walk around. He hits the edges of the bunks with the crop he carries.
I sit up and hurriedly button my outer shirt.
“Come on. Get up. Come see the fruitage of your friendship in Jachymov,” he says. “I want to show you boys. I want to show you the missionaries today.”
I stand up. Szabó and Bohumil Matejka are right beside me. I knew them by their smells now. Everyone has their own smell. You get used to the smell.
Antonin Králové continues with his sermon about the missionaries. He, of course, is referring to the Bible Students, the witnesses of Jehovah, two of which he had put outside in the snows last night. They refuse to work in the uranium mine. All of them. Every last one of them. I can see how Králové holds a particular hatred for these men. A jealously. It seems most of the government has a hatred for these very kind of conscience objectors¾from Nosek, the minister of the interior, all the way down to our puppet master Antonin Králové. But who were they really? Bible Students? Men cut of the most ordinary fabric. Uncomplicated. Clear-eyed. Nondescript men. None of them are real missionaries. It is almost certainly propaganda. At Jachymov we are all Czechoslovakians. How can a fellow Czech be a missionary to his own people? Another lie.
Antonin Králové lines us up in a column and makes us go outside, one by one. As we walk out the door I pull my outside shirt up over my head and cross my arms to try and stay warm. I have not been able to shave for days. I can smell the decay of my own body. There is soot caked up along the crotch of my trousers and there has been a persistent dryness along my back for weeks now.
I feel the sharpness of the cold go through my boots as we wade through the snow that has fallen overnight. All the color outside is gone. The roofs of the barracks are tin and has a gray and patina-color against the snow. Each building in the camp is rectangular with an iron door at the center and one window. None have heat. None have running water. There are no blues. No reds. No yellows. No tint or even an implication of a color. There is no balance. No equilibrium between artistic detail and all sightlines. Everything inside this camp is for the purpose of being obscene.
Off in the valley we can see the wood smoke gently drifting up from the chimneys of the houses in Jachymov, all those pink bodies of men and woman sitting around fireplaces inside, laying in their beds naked and pink and wet together, eating sweet bread, coffee, a sip of cognac. Yes, cognac would be good right now. I can only sense these thoughts within myself. Latent images in my brain of my dearest Katrina. Laying in a cot with her in a small hotel room in Havana once. The sour-sweet ice water the concierge brought us in the late afternoon heat. The way her body felt hot from the morning sun as she lay there in her bathing suit against me. The way a dolphin feels.
Snow begins to fall again. The large snowflakes burn against my face. My feet are burning from the cold now. My hands are cold like icicles. I am quite confident, however, that Králové will make things worse if you should be so foolish as to show him what you are feeling.
“Move along,” he keeps saying as he gestures through the falling snow with the crop in his hand.
He leads us out to the edge of the tangled barbwire fence. Off on the other side is the forests and their massive pines, six feet thick some of them, and fur-trees, all skeletons, stripped bare of their lush coat by the winter all around them. Inside the fence is a littoral of tangled metal wire. And there in front of the wire stands two figures knee deep in the snow.
By Králové’s order metal barrels have been rammed over their heads during the night. They have been standing there that way since early the night before. The uranium barrels have been placed over their heads and torsos, with the rest of their bodies exposed. Buckets of water have been poured over both of them. I can clearly see a solid rim of ice that has hardened around their legs, frozen solid so they could not move.
Josef Hrañ, the one who was an officer under President Masaryk, turns to me. “Karel,” he whispers. “The Bible Students?”
Králové comes up behind us and strikes Hrañ with his crop.
“Silence!” his voice shrieks in the cold air. Hrañ coils downward like a wounded child who has been hit once too often.
As everyone turns to face Králové, the middle of the column starts to bend backward out of fear. . . Szabó, Thomas and Edgar Kendrick, Konstantin Reedler, Johann Lisse. Králové smiles as he sees this. “Get back in line,” he says. “Get back.” His smile tries to reassure us, but it has betrayed us too many times before for any of us to trust it.
He motions toward the two men. They have been stuck there with the barrels over their heads and torsos and the water poured over them all night. It was only yesterday that they refused to go the mines. Maybe they perceived what the ore might be used for, I don’t know. We have never spoken. To my knowledge neither man has ever been a problem, never stepped out of line, not even with the soldiers who constantly beat them. All the men in the column bow their heads, unable to look. I noticed how thin we have all become. Thin as though we were trapped in a famine. Thin like saplings. All of us but Szabó. After four long years in camp he no longer looks like a poet. He has no more poetry in him.
“Look, and see!” Králové urges all of us in line.
His body turns and faces the two Bible Students. They stand together like Siamese twins, not moving. The snow is coming down hard now. Králové folds his hands and the crop behind his back. He walks in a circle out in front of us. He looks at us.
“Refusing to work is rebellion. Rebellion is the enemy of socialism.” Králové turns toward the two witness men. “You have no friends in Jachymov!” he says. “No one helps you men. You refuse to work? You refuse to obey me? You had better be careful¾“
Králové picks up his crop and walks over to the two witness men. He then strikes one of the metal barrels with his fist that has the crop in it. The man he hits falls down on top of the snow, the barrel still covering him. His feet are stuck, frozen to the ground, still in place.
Our column wavers about uneasy, an imperceptible sway that goes down the line of us men. I push my shirt off of my head. I watch helplessly as blood is spilling out of the barrel on one side of the man who has fallen to the ground. Králové stands over him, proud like a child standing over a sandcastle along the sea.
All of us stand there inside the walls of Jachymov, quietly watching, doing nothing, helpless as we watch the world around us. The man on the ground . . . his hand slowly raising and reaching out, takes the hand of the other Bible Student, his friend who stands there alongside him, frozen upright in the snow with the barrel over his head and torso. Softly, defiantly, the sound of this beautiful song rises from inside the two uranium barrels. Soft whispered prayers to their God Jehovah. Prayers rising up into the clouds like a million men singing to this god.
I look up into the silver undulations of the sky. It moves about slowly, swirling like lost waves on the belly of the ocean. A gust of wind picks up across the camp.
Suddenly a loud sound rises from out of Králové. He runs at the Bible Student who is still left standing.
Králové quickly removes his pistol from his holster. He places it flush against the top of the barrel where the man’s head lies inside. Králové is facing us as he is holding the pistol up at the barrel. His face is blinding. Without saying a word he fires two rounds into the barrel. A ball of fire shoots out into the air. Orange and red fire and then smoke. And then another shot. Two very loud, popping sounds coming together.
We stand there silent like krill. Szabó and Josef Hrañ and Thomas Kendrick and Edgar Kendrick and Konstantin Reedler and Johann Lisse and Karel Variete and Petr Oborin and myself. There is only the quiet, deaf sobs coming from the movement of Bohumil Matejka’s mouth and from the sound of his eyes.
The Bible Student who is shot slumps half over. He stands there, his legs frozen upright in the snow, blood drips out of the barrel from the blue and white sleeves of his arms. The other witness steadfastly holds his hand, the soft sounds of his singing still coming from underneath the barrel.
Králové’s face grows hot now. He looks down and then fires one round into the barrel of the other man. Utter silence follows. We stand together here motionless in the snow.
Králové is sweating profusely now, even in the bitter cold. His face seems as if he has seen two murdered ghosts in the woods, standing there waiting for him. His face turns pale-yellow. I can see his mouth trembling from adrenaline as he breathes. He turns to face us. There is a look of disgust on his face. He staggers a few steps, pointing his pistol at the two Bible Students. “See,” he says. “See!” None of us look.
Králové turns, staring at the two dead men.
The one witness man is half-laying bent forward atop the frozen ground, and there is blood spiraling outward from the barrel like a red rose that is blossoming in the snow. The other man’s body stands almost straight up, dead. Both their hands are clinched together.
Králové staggers back through the snow over to them. He tries to pull their hands apart but they had already frozen together. He kicks at the legs of the man who is standing until some of the ice breaks apart and his body crumples down in a heap to the earth. Králové struggles to pry the two hands apart as we all watch him.
A low moan moves through the column as the two hands detach. Králové smiles.
“Now you’re all going to stand there for awhile,” he says to us. He stands there for a moment. He puts his pistol back in its holster. He wipes his forehead with the hand he always puts in his pocket that he uses to shot men. He walks away with that man in his warm pocket as he leaves us standing there without any guard.
He leaves us in front of two dead men the entire day. We stand in the snow inside the walls of Jachymov. I try to dream of my wife, Katrina. Her body lying next to me as we stay awake together all night in Cuba. The soft, low sounds of her voice talking to me in the dark as we make love to each other. There are candles burning all around us in the bedroom. There is the scent of vanilla. There is no electricity. We have no running water. There is no food until morning. We have little to nothing, but we have each other to make us happy.
None of the other men talk all day as we all try to dream of making love to our wives again, hoping this will keep us alive one more day until we can think of another thing on whatever day it may be.
I watch Szabó stare down into the snow as there are no more words in his eyes. Sometimes I look up at the sky trying not to think about him. There are huge gray bellowing skies over Jachymov all day. I hear singing off in the woods just outside the wall. I try to think of poetry as I hear it. I try to think of my wife’s naked arm. I think of butter. I dream of milk and pudding. I dream of the ocean. I dream of the blue-azure sea when the water is flat and there is no surf and there is just the tingle of the gentle waves collapsing against the shore over and over again.