The Cold River: A Tale From My Heart
One day, seventeen years after he escaped from Czechoslovakia, Jozef Imrich’s daughter asks, “Why did you leave your mummy, daddy?”
Bohemian youth mixed with a desire for freedom defies even the unbreakable barriers such as the Iron Curtain.
The innocent question sends Jozef on a journey through powerful memories frozen within him.
In 1968, Czechoslovak people welcome the changes of the glorious Prague Spring and dream of everlasting freedom. But, the Mittle European history has a way of doubling back on its natives. One summer night the country is invaded by the Russian. In the winter of 1969 a young man called Jan Palach burns himself to death in front of the statue of St Vaclac in Wenceslaw Square.
Dissidents who wear western clothes or listen to Radio Free Europe are enemies of the state. Jozef’s parents are not allowed to visit to family in France and West Germany, even if they could afford the trip.
Jozef’s older sister Aga dies of leukemia at the young age of twenty-two. Two years after Aga’s death, in 1977, Jozef’s other sister Gitka is sacked from her teaching profession when she repeatedly ignores orders to stop attending church services.
In the same year Vaclav Havel and a handful of brave souls sign Charter 77 and tell the western press about the realities of life in the plastic paradise. They end up in prison. George Orwell’s 1984 is a light reading compared to true stories that Jozef reads in samizdat magazines.
Jozef and his friend Ondrej Brejka speak often of their determination to leave their country, family and friends. During their two year compulsory national service in the army, Jozef and Ondrej befriend another soldier Milan Dlubac, who reveals escape plans he devised while serving as border guard on the Iron Curtain. Milan Dlubac is deeply familiar with the Austrian landscape on the other side of the border. He tells Jozef and Ondrej stories from the front line: the daily routine at the fortified layers of Iron Curtains, the curtain of land mines, barbed wire fences, killer guard dogs, an army of soldiers.
After each man celebrates his twenty-first birthday, and they plot the time and place of their escape: the seventh day of the seventh month at fourteen hours, using symbolic numbers from Charter 77, the human rights movement led by Vaclav Havel.
The Czechoslovak government thinks no one would dare contemplate crossing the most heavily patrolled borders in the world. They suppose most people will cross the weaker borders of the lost tribes such as Yugoslavia, corrupted by the influence of the Western democracy. But the borders of the true believers? Never!
Few would dare dream about crossing such a border, unless, of course, you have inside knowledge and contacts. Milan has both. They will have only one chance to disarm the army guards at the gate and drive through an army barracks without alarming others.
Their set day is sunny. Not one of them, even for a moment, thinks it might rain. But it does and the swollen river makes it impossible for them to cross, yet it is impossible to go back ...
[Chapter 1: page1 -]
A SANCTUARY UNDER MARIA’S TABLE
White Christmas 1957
Swimming is the first thing we ever do.
Before we breathe, before we cry, before we crawl,
we swim in the waters of the womb. Then the walls close in
and we tumble-turn into position, ready to dive into the open air.
- Fiona Capp in Sane Days
Tucked away in the folds of the ancient mountains that embrace the Kezmarok and Poprad valleys lay a royal town called Vrbov (meaning "willow").
A weeping at times. But mostly happy little village of a few hundred souls with a robust sense of humour. That night in 1957, Vrbov was gripped by mid winter day frostiness. It was two evenings before Christmas Eve. All the children were listening for the bells of Saint Nicholas' sleigh and motherly figures were bustling about with Christmas preparations.
Slowly, like the heavy curtain of a play's final act, white night descended upon the small mountain village. It was impossible not to notice how suddenly the temperature dropped, and how the fragile leaf-like frost built up icicle by icicle on the glass in the windows. Footpaths lay buried under piles of snow. Snowmen stood in public places lording over Vrbov territory. The village was all wrapped up in white like a giant Christmas present.
For more than seven hundred years, Vrbov's 200 or so chimneys had faced the winter northerly wind which would wake up in Poland (to be exact, in Krakow) at around five, pass through Zakopane ten minutes later and almost immediately strike Vrbov's isolated white streets with a vicious force. The blizzard, like the thunder, in the High Tatra Mountains, could be heard in full voice across both sides of the border.
That night birds were perched on low branches of every poplar and seemed to be watching a human figure walking briskly below. The whipping wind shouting in the tops of the poplars didn’t seem to bother that determined little figure, rugged up in a black woollen shawl, who plodded doggedly through the milky snow, leaving deep footprints that soon vanished like liquid silk in the gale. There were few paths more heavily beaten or more slippery in winter than those leading to a cream terrace situated in the Horna Ulica (Upper Street).
She stumbled often. Yet with every slip, her determination to dive headlong into the deep white emptiness, her stubborn resolve to reach her destination in the face of nature's hostility, only seemed to increase.
She almost slipped on the steps when reached the cover of the cream terrace she knew well, wiped the snow off the ends of her chestnut hair, and removed her shawl. Aware that her teeth had bitten into her lip, she took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Her breath steamed in the evening chill. On the other side, the sound of footsteps grew louder and when the door opened, a familiar odour of pharmaceuticals wafted out, embracing her with reassurance.
Number Seven at Horna Ulica looked like a set for a Christmas movie, except instead of a facade of shopping centres it had a facade of white forests. The terrace house was as private as a priest's confessional. Confessions, in the shape of exceptional happenings, often stopped here. The terrace was full of warmth from the open fire, huge divans, bright embroidered cushions and the smell of baking and pharmacy rolled into one.
A pale orange light radiating from the street lamp just metres away gave the moment a mystical aura. A middle-aged man wearing a white coat looked down at her. The knife and fork clinked invitingly. The corridor felt like holy ground, a place where she took off her shoes because custom also demanded it. Shoes were removed so that dirt and chaos of outside was left behind.
No one ever forgot the first time they meet Dr Rusniak. People marvelled that anyone could be so at ease and at peace with the world and at the same time claiming to be a keen supporter of a local soccer team. A team that seemed to lose every match.
"Ahoj, Maria!" called Dr Rusniak. Welcome was in this greeting and a amiable curiosity.
Maria Imrichova, born and bred on Vrbov’s customs, is more likely to kiss than to shake hands even with a person she is meeting for the first time. If you are in Vrbov you kiss. Dr Rusniak kissed Maria on her rosy cheeks three times without thinking about it. For someone who could not manage one kiss without looking embarrassingly ackward not so long ago, he has come a long way.
Politeness was his old trademark: “After you,' 'No, no after you.” He stood out in a village crowd, not just because he always dressed impeccably, but also because his deep educated voice belonged to another part of Czechoslovakia: Bratislava maybe or even Martin. He spoke proper Slovak, like radio announcer or the school principal, and even better. Every one around him sprinkled shs and cheshes in their sentences as often as they could. This was Spis region!
He spoke softly and poetically, looking at people’s eyes and touching their very soul. His eyebrows were as black as the coal from Ostrava, his eyes penetrating and dominant, and behind them worked a methodical and intellectual mind.
For seven years now his thorough approach to mind and body had won the confidence of many of the Vrbov folk. Nothing important happened in Vrbov that Doctor Rusniak did not know about. People liked him, but he imagined whispers behind his back. Villagers were wary of anyone who had a gift for success.
Rumour had it that Dr Rusniak laughed at villagers who thought that evil eye existed. It was said that he held a view that no amount of garlic in the house was going to ward off the bad spirits. No one has ever seen a lucky horseshoe in his house! However, his house was crammed with folkloric memorabilia, “Don’t open a drawer or fujara will fall out.”