Vaclav Jansa's Powder Gate
Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
I was always alone, albeit i couldn’t know back then that the date of my birth, summed up and reduced to a single digit, equals to the position nine in procession of the Tarot Trumps, Major Arcanum, that held by the Hermit.
And it’s only in the first year of philology studies, that i’ll learn from etymological dictionary “Jak se bude jmenovat”, paní doktorky Miloslavy Knappové that my name could mean ‘a tower’… Could mean, because it was one of those shortened names that meant nothing per se.
My grandmother’s name was Embroiderers and she came from the people who were flag-bearers in the battles – her late husband did, that is. It’s only later on that i will learn the name she was given was some kind of code meant to protect her; from whom or what – i didn’t know. My mother’s name is Dawn and father’s – Dear one. His favorite sister was Darling and my mother’s sister was Firch Tree. Both of my cousins were named Hope, while father’s mother and father respectively were Dew and Rejoicing. My Basenji companion’s name was Bongor, his pedigree said, and albeit i didn’t know what it means – it did sound royal. Yet, my own name meant nothing. I could chose the root – Greek for ‘torch’- ἐλένη or ‘moon’- Σελήνη, or Aramaic Maghdela, place on the Sea of Galilee and literally-a tower. I preffered the latter because it suited me better.
I was quite tall, the tallest girl in class, i had my father’s black hair and very dark brown eyes, yet my mother’s pale white skin and gloomy facial expression – which made me look pretty much like a ghost… and that’s exactly how i felt, most of the time.
You see, Slav ideal of beauty is blond, glowing, with blue eyes, pink cheeks and it is bubbling, chatty and a coquette. I was none of those things.
No wonder i was drawn to the Powder Tower, i would spend hours observing it and i presumed that, could she speak, this born Goth would confine in me that she felt the same among those light-headed buildings surrounding her.
I didn’t know back then that the Powder Tower was a Gate to the city, the Gate where the Royal Mile – the traditional route of Czech kings – used to start; but i would soon learn there is a powder, albeit of another kind, that will come to my teenage salvation.
Czech would sometimes refer to make-up as to zázračná chemie, magic chemistry, and magic it was.
Soon i would become a skilled magician – i was mastering numerous alchemical processes and i presume even John Dee would approve my diligence and dedication.
The magical fields in which i excelled were many.
By Albification adepts would make the matter in the alchemical work become white – that i had mastered by the age of thirteen, having learned how to bleach my black hair in a way that it looks naturally blond. Of course, i hadn’t succeeded at first and had burned my hair badly during first couple of experiments but, with true apprentice’s spirit, i endured until the end… Until once at the Czech- German border the custom’s officer almost didn’t let me out of the country because i didn’t look anything like my picture in the passport.
Alchemical Coction – the cooking or heating of a substance at a moderate heat for an extended period – was a crucial skill to master; hair rollers were heated before they could produce that big hair so popular during 80ies; face was ‘steamed’ so the skin pores would be clean; hands and feet would be first kept immersed in hot water, so they could be adequately treated.
Coloration-tinging a substance by adding coloured tincture, ‘dessication’ –
removal of all the moisture in a substance, ‘foliation’ which made
the substance puff up in layers – all of these were necessary to achieve the wanted ‘Rarefaction’, which made the substance thin and airy.
Back then the only thing i wanted was to merge in somehow, so not to stand apart all of the time; if only i had known that at the end, result of this pseudo-alchemical process would be all that vitriol…
With time, loneliness became my modus vivendi. No siblings, no close friends – we were moving from country to country every couple of years, no extended family. There were other kids in the neighborhood – i had noticed them around, but some of them spoke Czechs and others – French, i didn’t speak any of the two.
There were some interesting serials and sitcoms on tv – or so they seemed, but i couldn’t understand a word of it.
So i resorted to books, it’s about that time that i started reading manically.
If, once upon a time, you were participating in Coronation procession of a Czech king, taking the traditional route – your next stop, after the Powder Gate, would be Municipal House or Obecni Dum.
To walk behind the king in the procession you had to be either a high-ranking clerical dignitary or a leading provincial aristocrat, if you were local – or a noted nobleman if you came from abroad.
So, while chances to show off in the procession were slim (albeit, if you lived in city’s center, you could always cheer the king from your own window), to become the next person to take up the royal throne and thus walk at the head of the procession – well, that was almost impossible, especially if you were… a woman.
Back in the day, there were salic and semi-salic laws of succession.
According to semi-salic law, the first-born person descending from the older line had the absolute preference and the male members had the preference to the females – women could start to rule only if there was no eligible male member. Like Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, did. Some would say her rule did prove that women were better kept off the throne as Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma – happened to be the last ruler of the mighty House of Hubsburg.
Her father, Charles VI, in 1713 managed to get the great European powers to agree on Pragmatica Sanctio – the edict ensuring that the throne of the Archduchy of Austria could be inherited by a daughter, and died in 1740 with no male heirs.
During her forty years of reign, Maria Theresa promoted financial and educational reforms, commerce and agriculture, had reorganised Austria’s military, and at the same time had sixteen children by her cheating husband. Go figure.
And while Maria Theresa did have it tough, Salic law excluded women so they could not seize the throne even if they were the only living representatives of the existing dynasty under the sun.
And while i was not a princess, i did feel on my own skin some kind of Salic law’s evil replica.
You see, for Montenegrins, the daughters didn’t really count either – they couldn’t be listed on the family’s genealogical tree.
Thus if some – in the eyes of others – poor man was cursed to have only female off-springs he was considered childless. Even nowadays, second decade into the rushing 21st century, some elderly Montenegrin, a father of six, would claim he has a single child – his only son. The five daughters don’t count, you see.
Couple of years ago, in a bank, one of those pushy middle-aged women that you hate standing with in a line, regardless my obvious unwillingness, did manage to chat me up. I was standing in the long bank’s line in front of her, and while i was immersed into the book i was reading – she was trying hard to start a conversation; she was coughing meaningfully, and had pushed me and then apologized couple of times – stuff those obnoxious persons do when they are bored and on a lookout for a new victim. Local sub-genre of yenta or something. I try to avoid them by all means, because their only goal is to collect more material for gossiping with their equally obnoxious friends. She didn’t know me – i am often a target because they hadn’t seen me before in our small city and they are dying to know all about me. This is Montenegro, a country of 650.000 inhabitants, where at least half of the people are related to you (the other half for sure knows someone who knows someone whom you know or work with), so you can’t just tell them to bugger off. I did my best to ignore her, as from previous experiences i knew what was to follow, yet there is a line in our society that you don’t cross, unless you are ready to give up on your own reputation and, more so, make your family ‘lose face’.
Because that’s what would mean her eventual spreading of the word that ‘daughter of such and such was so rude, that she wouldn’t even speak to a poor old lady like herself – and that’s only because she, the daughter, grew up abroad and was never thought proper manners… but then, how could she possibly be – after all, her mother is a foreigner… poor father of hers, why did he merit such a miserable destiny?!’
And the latter would be said with a tongue in cheek, because Montenegrin yentas never forgive their compatriots who intermarried – you see, everyone has a daughter or a niece who never married only because those foreign sluts seduced decent Montenegrin men… (It’s not that their daughters and nieces were ugly and mean after them, so noone wanted them for their life.)
So, to avoid all of it inevitably reaching one’s family – one would give in and the interrogation would begin: “Whose are you?” That’s the way to play ‘Montenegrin geography’, the fastest bet for the yenta to locate you in the multiplicity of her inner maps.
I avoid direct answer, i don’t need this. “Where do you work” is the usual second question – that’s directed to eventual gain from the new acquaintanceship; you see, except the unmarried daughter, they usually have another one that desperately needs a job – who knows, maybe you are the godsent who will provide it, nevertheless the chances are the daughter is uneducated and lazy too (i mean, who has the time to study or work, when there is so much gossiping to do!)
I make myself clear that i am not the godsent in question. On question where i live, i answer very vaguely, something like “here and there” and when she asks whether i am married and have children i smile, look her straight into the eyes and say nothing. She is confused, i am not supposed to behave like that. That’s so rude! And she can’t even complain to her friends how absolutely rude i was because she hasn’t learned my name! I see it written on her face, that defeat, but she doesn’t surrender yet and repeats the question. At this point, still smiling, i answer the Jewish way, with a question:”Why are you asking?” Now i am afraid she is going to have a heart attack. “What do i mean by that?!” She doesn’t say it loudly, but again, it’s all over her face! She’s entitled to know! It’s her birthright after all! It’s her birthright to push her nose in thy neighbor business! And while i fully realize that it is indeed some sick way to care about others – which is, the evil sister of the proverbial love for thy neighbor, i am so tired of it all, so tired that i just turn my back on her without saying anything.
You see, i’ve been intimidated that way all my life and i grew very tired of it.
At that very moment the bank clerk calls my name and as i step forward, towards the counter, i feel the tapping on my shoulder. I know it’s the old witch, she had overheard my surname and had located me on the maps in her head; i have no intention of turning back, but she taps me even stronger as she yells out triumphantly:” i know who you are! You are the daughter of the childless one!” I’ve heard it before and i would have still ignored her, but she is now hitting me on the back and screaming:”We are realated!” The other people in the bank are staring at us. I face her and say calmly:”I don’t know you, leave me alone.” By that time a younger woman had joined her, i presume it’s her daughter as they are very much alike; the girl is blushing, she is embarrassed by the yenta’s behavior and apologizes to me. Meanwhile, Yenta herself is smiling proudly as if she just climbed to the top of the Mountain Everest, and in her small mind she probably did. You see, she outed me. I was misbehaving by not answering her questions and now that she outed my shame she could rest on the laurels of her hard won victory.
That’s the punishment bitches like me deserve for such a rude behavior towards poor old ladies who were just trying to be nice! Who was i to ignore her? A nobody! The daughter of the childless one! She obviously was from my father’s tribe – or was married into it, as she had known instantly who i was! What a shame! Seven centuries long line of “loza”, succession, going extinct because my father intermarried! It’s as if with his family background he couldn’t find a nice Montenegrin girl!
Now i must digress. Nowadays, it’s minority of Montenegrins – the same like the Orhtodox minority of religious Jews – who look exclusively for their own.
Back in the day, Montenegrins lived high in the mountains and Jews – in ghettos, so it’s not that there was much choice anyway and it’s not that either of the two people was considered a desirable marriage material for other than their own. It’s with time that both Jews and Montenegrins became desirable husbands, and for similar reasons, chances were they were handsome, chances were they would make it, chances were they’ll provide for their families and chances were they would be loyal to them until death sets them apart. Or so the word was.
So, the competition grew harsher and harsher as the choices grew larger – and who likes that? Certainly not the mother who has daughters to marry, preferably into the tribe.
I get it, i do, but – again – i am just very tired of it all.
While this thoughts run through my head, the girl elbows her mother who still doesn’t get it and asks her soto voce “What? What is it now?!”
The girl breaths in deeply and apologizes for her mother’s behavior. Now the mother looks confused and addressing the daughter says: “i didn’t say anything bad to her, her father is a nice man, we are all sorry he is childless…”
The line had stopped moving long ago, the silence in the bank is tensed and heavy. I slowly turn around. But, lo and behold, it’s not over yet.
Just seconds before i returned to my initial position – with my back to the yenta and this embarrassing situation, her daughter seizes me up quickly and asks:” You are pregnant, right?”
A year or so before that i had quit smoking after almost quarter a century, and, as a result, went from my usual size 10 to unacceptable for Montenegro size 14. The descendants of warriors tribes from the mountains, where there was never corn, fed scarcely on meat and some grass growing around their homes for centuries – they are genetically slim, you see.
I sigh heavily and say: No, i am not pregnant.
At this point my eyes meet the bank clerk’s. Her’s are filled with tears – she too has overheard the conversation. She shakes her head, as if telling me: don’t pay attention, it doesn’t matter. I know her, the clerk, she too is from my father’s tribe – more so – from the same fraternity which makes us some kind of extended cousins. She is a real lady, middle aged, yet very well kept, very stylish and very nice. Everyone who has errands to run in the bank tries to get to her counter – she works the fastest and is most kind of all. She understands, her destiny is even worse than mine – you see, her parents divorced, when she was still a toddler, some half a century ago when no-one divorced… that, in her words, made her almost a bastard. And she has two daughters of her own now and in Montenegro it’s still not easy to marry with such a family history. That she didn’t say, but i know it, you see, we all know everything. Her both daughters are beautiful after her and educated too, i just hope they will marry somewhere far away from this cursed mountains.
I see a colleague of hers standing up from the next counter and rushing out, her palm is covering her eyes so the clients wouldn’t see she is crying too… Albeit everyone knows she is and everyone, also, knows why.
There are many patterns of speech in our language that can, when needed, indicate that you are close with or related to some important person, without your explicitly saying so – in a society which primary modus vivendi is nepotism, the skillfulness in using those implications on a regular basis can not be stressed enough; especially if you are not close with or related to any important people who would care about your affairs.
Such was the case of one of the drivers with the State Protocol, where i worked. His situation was really bad, as he was approaching retirement and he still didn’t have a place of his own, his family still lived in a rented apartment. That’s after decades of driving around the hottest of the shots. I could not imagine to which extent his family despised him, he would say, because he wasn’t capable of getting them a place to live. What else needed to be said? But he would continue his eternal rant.
Not everyone would get a flat during their working years, there were dozens of rules who has the priority and yet, somehow, it was those with the connections that got them…
Or so he wanted me to see it. This guy was not one of them, of the lucky ones, and as his retirement was approaching – that was the deadline, after which the chances to get a home were none, he resorted to one of the oldest social tricks in existence – he started calling all the important people by their first names only.
Behind their back, of course. There were many newbies in the business, like myself, who, he thought, knew nothing and one could have gotten lucky and some old trick might have worked.
Like, he would mention five high ranking politicians by their first names only – that would indicate the closeness; then he would proceed to complaining of not having gotten the apartment; he would add also that it’s only his inborn shyness that prevented him from jumping on the numerous occasions to get one. Or even two.
That i still had a low, beginner’s rank in the Protocol – that he knew, what he didn’t know and was dying to learn was weather i am screwing someone important.
You see, i grew up to be somewhat pretty. He knew my father had retired long time ago and he knew i didn’t have any brothers. On the top of it, i was suspiciously single while over thirty – so, with no family so to say, how possibly could i get a job with Protocol, unless… You know what i mean.
Right, i graduated with honors, had masters and spoke five languages, but still… You know, it’s not that you get to work with the State Protocol just like that.
For sure i was screwing someone important he thought and that’s where his hopes were – after thousandth time that he drained me with his unbelievably sad, yet “true” story of the apartment, i could say to my hypothetical VIP lover that, for example, that night i wouldn’t make it out with him because i was too tired. Or too sad. Or something. Then the imaginary VIP lover of mine, who woudn’t get what he wanted, would get all concerned why i was so tired. Or sad. And then, maybe, being the nice girl that i was, i would tell him how sorry i felt for the “homeless” driver and how i couldn’t possibly engage into some decadent flesh-enjoying while such nice people suffered. In driver’s wildest dreams i would probably deny the VIP lover any favors of the kind – until that poor’s man situation wasn’t solved and both his (lover’s) and my consciousness was clear.
And he was right that i was a nice girl, but i wasn’t stupid. And there was no VIP lover, i had worked my ass off to get where i was. And i knew the driver was a crook, and i knew he made money on fake petrol invoices and forged hotel bills, everyone knew. Also, everyone knew he had built himself a house in a nice area and rented it, his living in a rented apartment was a game, to get an apartment which he didn’t have the right to. You see, people from remote areas had priority because they didn’t have where to live – the driver was from the city and had his father’s house too. But, he wanted more, so he tried to get ahead and over-ran his colleagues with big families and no roof above their heads. He even sued couple of them, with no result though. His own children were grown up and lived separately, that took off the points he needed so badly for the apartment. And also, as it’s already being said, everyone knows everything here, and more or less everyone hated him. But in Montenegro you don’t say these things openly – you see, if you have a conflict with someone, even if they are not related to or close with anyone important, they still belong to a tribe, some tribe, and then you are at war with the whole tribe. Who needs that? So, all the newbies, me included, were listening to his rants, without ever saying a word, but without a slightest intention to help him in any way.
I went even further, i didn’t allow him to address those important people by their first names – after all, it was forbidden by the rules of service. Not that anyone really obliged to it, but indeed it was a rule and that was my little revenge on him for all his venting i had to listen day after day. He would say a nickname, and i would just stare at him and repeatedly ask whom he had in mind until he said the VIP’s full name, surname, rank and academic title too. That was driving him crazy, as those were too long to remember. But i made him to.
One of the chiefs there had particularly long name which everyone abbreviated. And he was an Ambassador too, which meant His Excellency had to be added before it. In addition to the very long name, the surname was rare and even harder to remember.
Thus it was a particular pleasure for me – when the chauffeur from hell was appointed to drive the Ambassador – to make him address His Excellency as it was protocolary due. But he couldn’t, i saw it that he can’t remember even His Excellency’s first name. He was stuck. I threatened i’ll send him to disciplinary commission if he referred to this high state official by nickname, while on duty and without Excellency’s explicit permission. His face turned purple as he was seizing me up with his tiny, watery eyes – as if to decide whether in fact i would send him to disciplinary commission. You see, i was in my right to do so – at least on paper. He needed to call the head of driving center, his immediate superior, an elderly, respected policeman and report that he was assigned to … the person whose name he had forgotten. And i was standing there, above his head and i had threatening look on my face that said i was not kidding. So, he had dialed the number of his immediate superior and, while looking at me triumphantly and breathing out the sigh of relief – which clearly said he thought of a solution to this protocolary Gordian knot – he yelled into the receiver:”I am appointed to the childless one!”
You see, His Excellency didn’t have any children of his own, not even daughters. The bank clerk who rushed out from the counter next to my extended cousin’s following the incident with the yenta; the sophisticated, beautiful lady who had covered her eyes with her palm so no one would see her tears – that woman was this very Excellency’s spouse of thirty years.
When occasion presented itself, i had asked my father who could be that obnoxious woman, that yenta from the bank. And albeit i hadn’t learned her name, it took my father less than a minute to locate the yenta on the Montenegrin map of who is who inside his head.
By that time i knew my father so well that you could say i was reading his mind. By that time i knew my compatriots’ way of thinking so well, that you could say i could read their minds. And i was an empath too, since birth, so probably i was indeed reading a little.
After i had told him the story of the yenta from the bank, my father gave me one of those looks. Those looks would last only few moments, but with my father’s life experience and, more so, with the work experience he had accumulated as a high ranking intelligence officer – that’s all he needed to answer the questions which had to be answered before the judgement was pronounced.
Routinely, he would check in his mind whether the testimony was credible – whether the witness was sober, sane and emotionally stable. It seemed he checked all three quickly, because he diverted his gaze elsewhere, i knew he decided for himself that i was quite capable of making a sound judgement of a situation.
The next group of questions in his head needed to answer my motivation – and that’s where i knew he would be on a shaky ground. Now he was thinking to himself why i was bringing this up in the first place. Mine being hurt was not an answer. You see, feelings didn’t really count either – that was, like, a daughter’s thing to have. There must be something else, some better reason than that, maybe the yenta was an agent provocateur, sent on a mission by some foreign enemy of our state… And those were many. He is tad paranoid, my father, you see – and – he sort of dismisses that he has a daughter, because he didn’t raise me as one; for all he knew, he had raised me as a son.
Then he would quickly calculate the probability of yenta’s being a foe’s intelligence officer; then he would remember i quit working for protocol long time ago and that the cold war officially was over. Then, a sad shadow would nest on his face, but only briefly, as he would remember that despite all, i was nothing but a girl.
See, my father is a Gemini too, like myself, and his mind too runs, as they say, over hundred miles per hour, albeit – when it’s about me – mostly in the wrong direction.
He cuts short my thoughts with an outburst of laughter.”Oh, i know who that was” – he had located the yenta, and he continues -“that lowlife!” He waves his hand, dismissing the incident as unimportant.
Right, it was obvious that the bank yenta didn’t have class.
But, she was still a member of the tribe into which he was born and which he had betrayed twofold – he had intermarried and he failed to produce sons.
That did matter, and he knew that i knew, and i knew he was trying to comfort me in the only way he knew – by laughing it off – and we both knew that himself he was inconsolable.
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