(With an Ax Handle)
The villagers could have not appreciated the style but still, they were amazed to see Stanislav Jungwirth, the track star, running on the road just a few feet from them; they were amazed to see a grown man running since they knew that only thieves run. The champion runner’s body was in perfect racing position, not leaning backward as when Zatopek used to fake fatigue, not bending forward as when Mimoun O’Kasha faded in an agony. The runner hit the ground not by heels but by balls of his feet, as African runners, or children do. His arms were at the right angle, he did not breath perceivably, just flashed a smile at the open mouths of the rustics. He stopped at the first stall of the market.
Shooting out a puff of smoke from the exhaust pipe of the Jawa terrain motorcycle, the policeman who followed Jungwirth stopped the engine, dismounted, raised one hand demonstratively, and stopped the stopwatch with a jerk of his hand as if smashing a fly. He looked at the watch and announced in booming voice of victory: “Fourteen minutes and twenty seconds.”
Chief Detective Inspector Dvorak, from the Homicide Division in the big city, leaned on the police car, threw the half-smoked cigarette on the ground, and spit on the butt: “Wasted time and wasted money, all a goddam waste!” It became clear (to those not in the know) that the killer couldn’t have run from the place of the murder to the market faster than the champion’s fourteen minutes; there was no way he could have run it in twelve minutes.
The problems for the poachers became serious at the exact moment when Frybort got shot. It was a flesh wound at the left shoulder, but only ten inches from the heart. After the shooting Frybort, who knew every bush and nook of the forest, easily ran away, waded through part of the river, crossed the quicksand of the bog through the narrow path, dashed through the bushes along Berthold’s pond, and came home by the back door of the barn. His Tereza took care of him right away; she put aloe on the entrance and exit wound, and bandaged it with a clean stocking. The bullet went just through the skin—the muscle was not damaged. It looked good. She gave him a shot of moonshine, slivovitz, and did not ask questions. He did not tell her that Game Warden Polda did it. She knew. He told her only that if anybody asked she should tell them that he spent all night at home with her, that they were playing cards. Then Frybort got drunk to ease the pain.
They were not slaves and no longer even serfs, but everybody in the village had been poor because the soil was poor. In recent times of proteins and vitamins they were left behind on potatoes. They survived because the circumstances of life taught them to face difficulties with pragmatic common sense and apply generations of experience. Unsurprisingly, their priority was survival of the family. That was the principal all held forward and of which nobody talked. To survive in good health on diet of only potatoes was impossible, so from time to time the man of the family had to set up a trap and snare for a rabbit, hare, pheasant or partridge. And once in a year the man would unwrap his hidden rifle and stalk a deer through the night. He would then fire only one round, without a miss, like an Eskimo. Cartridges were expensive. Poaching in the State Forest was a crime to be severely punished, so only few men of the village dared this deed—only those who knew the forest as well or better than deer.
Game Wardens knew of this tradition and respected the men’s need. The men respected the duties of the Warden. It was normal. It all changed when Polda, the new Game Warden, shot Frybort.
Polda had come from the city a few months earlier, moved into an abode at the edge of the village, by the carp pond, and lived there alone. At first he was welcomed in the tavern, but soon found himself sitting in the corner alone with his tankard of brew. One evening, when drunk, he announced in no uncertain language, that he would put an end to the disgusting poaching here, even if he would have to shoot the criminals, like dogs. One by one people mumbled into their pitchers that it was unwise talk. Many said that the warden lacked common sense and therefore would meet an unpleasant end. That was certain, they said, and waited.
But Bouda, Frybort, Horak from the Meadow, and his brother, Horak the Fisher, did not wait. Frybort had gotten shot and things could and would get only worse, in a hurry. They met after dark in Bouda’s barn. They sat on bails and talked about potatoes, at first. Bouda brought four cups and the moonshine, and they drank a little, because that was how it must be done before a decision could be made.
The peasants did not call themselves poachers; they did not call themselves anything. They knew each other and their circumstances. They looked old, four brown boulders, their hands holding cups like shovels, with old translucent calluses, nails like claws, badges of the labor from sunrise till sunset. They were men with tanned leather serious faces, now, but they could be seen with a happy grin when they would bring a carcass of wildlife to the table. The different body parts would be cooked in different ways; some with cranberries, others with mushrooms like chicken-of-the-woods or horns-of-plenty, all gifts of the generous forest. A stew would be made with beer. Kids would get the brain scrambled with eggs, would suck the marrow out of bones, a rare delicacy. It would be something to remember for the whole potato year.
But tonight the men knew what had to be decided. Bouda brought three green marbles and one yellow—the sulphur butterfly marble would kill Warden Polda. Bouda put the marbles in his cup, still wet with slivovitz, and looked at his friends. They all knew what to do. One by one they reached in and pulled out green marble, Frybort pulled out the yellow. Nobody moved even a brow, nobody said a word. Frybort’s eyes remained calm, only his lips tightened and quivered for a short second. His infantine-porcelain-blue eyes said nothing, his corrugated brow remained low.
Bouda smashed the cup on the floor where it shattered. All eyes were on the shards, and nobody looked up, nobody looked at Frybort. Alea iacta est—done deal. Bouda got up silently, put his hand on Frybort’s shoulder. Then Horak from the Meadow talked briefly: “No gun must be used. No shooting.” His eyes met Frybort’s, who acknowledged understanding with a nod. “Too dangerous, too dangerous to make such noise, they would come searching for our guns.”
Polda rarely deviated from his daily routine. From the morning inspection he would return at about nine. He stopped in the Pub for a sausage and a pint, talked to nobody, went home. Frybort did not know the meaning of the verb “to study,” but study he did, every step of his victim. It was the first market day, he decided, that was most suitable for his task, since everybody would be going to the joyous occasion to meet neighbors, and to buy a few trinkets or necessities.
Rosie, the train station attendant, related the event to the police in great detail, she stressed the accuracy of timing. She came out of her booth to accept the train from Jarosov. The local was again on time, arriving at 9:20 AM. Just before the train arrived Rosie saw everything, she said.
“I recognized warden Polda coming up the path along the forest to the station. Then I saw a man stepping out of the bushes, he approached Polda from behind and hit him over the head. Twice.”
Rosie described the assailant as of medium height, wearing a black cap, with scarf wrapped over his face. With obvious pleasure at her ability to describe the details, she said that it was the first blow of the stick (it was a heavy ax handle found later next to the dead body) that got Polda to his knees, his hat blown away. The killer then struck a second blow; the warden fell flat down, motionless. After she dispatched the train, Rosie ran to the telephone to call police. When she came out again the killer had gone, disappeared into the forest. The Warden remained still.
“The time of the killing, Chief, was exactly at 9:18 AM. That is a fact,” Rosie said.
It took less than a minute, but it was hard. The second blow was powerful, it split the Warden’s head and Polda slumped forward, remained motionless. Frybort looked around, saw the train leaving the station and knew he could have been seen. Old hunters do not panic. He checked his clothes—there was no blood or brain on him. He took off his gloves, put them in his pocket and started running. He ran the “Indian way,” alternating a few paces of jogging with few paces of walking. His plan was thought-out well, as well as the hunt for a wild boar. He emerged from the eastern edge of the pine growth and crossed the unfenced yard of Pragers’ summer home; he knew they were still in Prague. Then he crossed Blaha’s pear orchard and ran over the bridge. The bridge was the only place that he could have been seen on this shortcut he choose, but he rightly expected that everybody would already be at the market. He threw his cap into the river.
He emerged at the market greeted by neighbors, approached his almost-friend, Constable Pivonka, who was watching the very high bottom of widow Maruska, and asked him the time. The Constable woke up from his dream: “Exactly half past nine, Frybort, but we expect the Mayor from the city at ten, so no hurry.” He saluted his friend smartly, in a joking way. Frybort thanked him and then he bought a sugar-coated gingerbread heart for his little girl.
That same day the team of the Homicide Division from the District Capitol arrived in two cars, speeding through the village, driving the street poultry into a panic. The investigation started immediately. Photographs were made of the crime scene and the corpse, the ax handle was dusted for fingerprints, tracks in the dusty path were looked for—but the search did not result in any useful information. Rosie from the train station was repeatedly interviewed; she remembered all the details, and felt very important since she saw the deed and knew exactly the time. A few times she altered the description of the assailant, but neither of her variations was helpful: the man she described was nondescript, ageless, of medium height, sort of … he was not different, she said.
Chief Detective Inspector Dvorak was not a happy camper, as the saying goes. He called his deputies to his office and insulted them as usual, since the interviews of the usual suspects in the village had not yielded much, either, with one exception. The Horak brothers were seen by many, as they were repairing a tractor all morning, Blaha was in the city in the tax office from 9 o’clock. But Frybort was gone—picking mushrooms, he insisted. That was a great lead! So Frybort was called in and interrogated by the old-fashioned method of bad cop-good cop that Chief Dvorak saw on TV.
“So, Frybort, how were the mushrooms? Should have been good, it was raining few nights ago. Before the gruesome murder.”
“No good, Sir, it was not too good, death trumpets and destroying angels everywhere, just got a few ceps and chanterelles. Nobody knows when the mushrooms grow, Sir.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, I swear, Chief. But, come to think of it, sir, I found a couple of the pricks—stinkhorns (phallus impudicus, Linn.). By the creek.”
“So, you dick, you think this is some kind of fun, a kinda comedy!” The color of the Chief’s nose deepened to a merlot hue. “Well, we know what to do with our mycologist-murderer. Ha?”
“Yes sir, Chief.” The suspect nodded in agreement.
“Well, you imbecile, so when you hit Polda were you sure you left him for dead, bleeding to death, you creep? Rosie from the station saw you real well, you sonuvabitch.”
“Sir, Inspector, I stated for the record several times, to the deputies, I had nothing to do with the unfortunate death of poor Game Warden Polda.” Frybort shook his head, his eyes lost focus and his jaw dropped about five centimeters to produce an expression of boredom. “I spent all the time, I mean after mushrooming, I was all the time at the market. Actually not all the time, sir, I left the market at about quarter to ten, went to pick up a container at the Milk Plant …”
“Oh, so you have a fancy watch now! Is it some kind of Rolex, all gold and sapphires?”
“No Sir, where would a poor peasant get money for a watch? I asked the time of Constable Pivonka at the market. He has a nice wrist watch, some Roll Eggs, surely, sir.”
“And so tell me, what did the nice wrist watch of Pivonka tell you then?”
“It told me then that it was half past nine. On the dot, sir.”
When Dvorak threw Frybort out, he phoned Constable Pivonka, who picked up the phone in attention and saluting. “Yes, sir Chief, yes sir, I was in the market that morning. You know, kids sometimes might steal from the stalls… Oh, yes I saw Frybort, sir, I remember well, because we talked, briefly, I am so sorry sir …Well, he asked me the time, yes I remember that, sir, I had my watch on me…”
“And what did the watch tell your pinhead-size brain, when the poacher asked you, if I may ask, Pivonka?” The Inspector roared.
“Sir, it told my brain, the watch, that it was exactly half past nine—half an hour before the ten hour, on the button, of that I am sure.” Pivonka stood at attention still, when Dvorak slammed the phone down. “I am glad to be of help, sir,” Constable Pivonka whispered into the now the mute instrument, and invisible to the Chief Detective Inspector, he raised up his brows and the corners of his mouth.
“Svoboda!” Chief Detective Dvorak roared into the corridor. The deputy appeared jogging and buttoning up his tunic. “Yes, sir, Chief?” He mimed a rugged attention.
“Svoboda, listen to me. Don’t you have some of your people married to Jungwirth. The great runner?”
“Oh ya, sir, my cousin from my dad’s side, she is married to Jungwirth. She is a nice girl, sir.”
In a sudden metamorphosis from a vile-tempered sonovabitch to a gentle, accommodating friend, Dvorak offered a chair to the pleasant nonentity of his deputy and explained to him his stratagem. They would bring the runner from Prague to the village and let him run the distance from the site of the murder to the market, to see, by a stopwatch, if the distance could be run in ten minutes. And if it could be run, then Frybort could have run it, too, and would be thrown into the slammer for all the rest of his bloody life.
“I need the telephone number for that Jungwirth. We’ll bring him from Prague by car, round trip, pay him 500 crowns … no 750 crowns. Do you understand, Svoboda? Got it in your brain?”
And so it happened. The celebrated runner arrived. He understood the task. He changed into his fanciest racing outfit, bought in Finland, oiled his hair well, too. He waived to the crowds in a nonchalant way, even threw a smile or two at the open mouths of the rustics. He ran the distance in a medium tempo of training for a mile, and stopped at the first market stall. Shooting a puff of smoke from the exhaust from his Jawa terrain motorcycle, deputy Svoboda stopped the vehicle. He had followed Jungwirth all the way from the site of the murder, measuring his time. He dismounted, raised his hand with stopwatch high and demonstratively stopped the watch, jerking his hand at the wrist as if hitting a fly.
“Fourteen minutes and twenty seconds,” he announced in a booming voice of victory. And that was the end of the investigation. Frybort couldn’t have run faster … if he had run on the road as Jungwirth did! The villagers just smiled their knowing smiles, snickered, and looked sideways. Silence fell on the village again, silence angelic, rural, secure. The peasants were of the village, so they knew shortcuts and pathways, used in their illicit affairs, secret rendezvous, or just to shave off time in transit. The only question they could not answer for themselves was about the consciousness of Frybort. How would one feel killing not a deer but a man?
After few weeks Frybort slept well, again. That strange sound of splitting the skull that used to wake him up in the middle of the night, sometimes in sweat, that nightmare subsided. The falling to the ground of a dying man he knew well, as he had spent two years fighting in the Sumava Forest with the partisans. It was a very good time then, since every other day there was a hunt of immense excitement, because a hunter could become hunted, too. And at the end of the hunt a man, an enemy, would fall to the ground. Never again in later life would these hunting men experience such a time of adventure with purpose, and with true pals at their side, as not only partisans but many survivors of Vietnamese jungles know (but would not confess).
Just that strange echo! The sound of a cracked human scull, its contents spilling out; Frybort could not get used to it for a long time.
But not for eternity, since that is the nature of a man with friends who put arms around his shoulder. And that is how time, the mighty fourth dimension, works.