Excerpt from Disappear by Petra Soukupová
In this section, from the first of three interconnected novellas in Disappear, we listen in as the seven-year-old Jakub (nicknamed “Kuba” or “Kubík”) describes life just before and after the accident that leads to his family’s slow disintegration.
I didn’t grow more than three centimeters over the next year. My mom started crying one time when they measured me at the doctor’s. I tried not to see. It made me feel sorry.
I’m just real little is all. On the way home from the doctor’s, though, my mom bought me an ice cream bar.
What was worse was she started forcing me to eat even more, which was awful. I don’t know how many times I sat at the table for two hours over a plate of cold meatballs and potatoes, with the butter on the potatoes getting hard, and I knew I wasn’t going to eat another bite.
Sometimes my brother would save me, so maybe that counts as a sibling bond. He’d just come in the kitchen and stuff the food in his mouth and walk away. Then I’d put the plate in the sink and walk away too. My mom always called to me from the living room when I came out of the kitchen to ask if I was finished, even though she knew I wouldn’t get up from the table otherwise.
Or sometimes I’d throw it out the window. But then I’d worry. One time a piece of meat fell on our neighbors’ balcony underneath us.
That was also the year my dad started to give up on me. I whined in the fall when it got cold again in the mornings and I didn’t feel like going out, and my mom spoke up for me more than before, till finally my dad just waved his hand and he and my brother left without me.
The more I stayed home with my mom, the less attention my dad paid to me. Then I completely stopped going to practice and just spent all afternoon with my mom and we’d cook dinner or whatever and it was really fun. I learned to make dumplings with scrambled eggs—she watched to make sure I didn’t knock over the pan of hot oil.
I had my own little table, so I could reach everywhere.
Or we’d dry herbs. My mom taught me flowers. Now I know them. That was also when I started drawing, and my mom thought I was really good, so I started going to arts and crafts, which is a lot more fun than running, but it does kind of bug me that I can’t draw what I want, which is mostly nature stuff, but the teacher, who’s got really strong glasses to see far away that make her eyes look all tiny, is a pain and says I have to draw what she assigned. Then I just sit there and doodle and she complains to my mom. My mom gives me a talking-to.
We don’t talk about drawing in front of my dad, though. It’s just all the races my brother’s won, or our school stuff, or pretty much nothing. My dad talks a lot more to my brother than to my mom. All he says to me is stuff like: Go wash your hands, dinner’s ready, where’s your sweater, how’s school, why aren’t you doing your homework? Like that. We’re polite but it’s like we don’t know each other. It doesn’t even bother me anymore. I’m just glad I don’t have to run. Plus I’ve got my mom and my drawings and my mom bought me fish. I could watch them for days, all glittery and see-through.
But my brother and I aren’t very nice to each other. I’m still a weakling, a little sissy, sometimes at night I still pee myself when I have a bad dream.
My brother does the worst things to me ’cause of that. I’m ashamed and he shows it off to everyone, he even made fun of me one time when my classmate Robert came over to do homework, and I tried not to react so maybe he’d get tired and stop, but then I couldn’t take it anymore and he was acting like it was no big deal and I was crying and it was so embarrassing poor Robert wanted out as fast as possible, and then after he went and blabbed it to the whole class anyway.
All I can do is tell my mom, but I’m too ashamed, so I just forget it and hide all my hate for my brother inside.
There’s other things like that too. By the time it’s January and I turn eight, my brother and I are like strangers who just happen to live in the same house, but in front of our parents we act like everything’s fine. My brother walks me to school in the morning so my mom doesn’t have to, which means we split up at the first intersection and meet back there in the afternoon before we come home.
We walk together for the little bit till we get to our street, but not so close that anyone would think we were brothers.
In February we buy a hamster for our after-school club. We all take turns taking care of him. But I also take other kids’ days. I clean his nest and play with him, build him a maze out of the books they have in the bookcase for us to read, it’s all Robinson Crusoe. I don’t know how come I don’t have any pets at home. Terrestrial ones, I mean. But when I ask my mom, she knocks on her forehead. A mouse, gross, she says. I’m tempted to knock on my forehead too, a hamster’s not a mouse.
It’s Wednesday, March nineteenth. There’s snow lying out in the streets, splotches of white on the brown ground. That ugliest weather between winter and spring.
Today Veronika has the hamster and she doesn’t want me to be there, staring at me like a goose, like I should get out. It isn’t just your hamster, today I get it. All right, I’m going.
Robert and Kája are still in the coatroom, I put on my shoes, good thing I have velcro, otherwise they’d already be gone, but later I’ll be sorry about it a thousand times over.
We run out to the street and Kája bumps into some eighth grader standing around with a bunch of other kids who are practically grown-ups, and they grab Kája, Say you’re sorry, and Kája says he’s sorry, they call him some names and let him go and Kája starts coming back over to us, and then he shouts at them, You fucking pussies, and we all three take off running and them too. And Kája’s still yelling at them, and we’re all three running, all of that running I used to do comes in handy now, ’cause I’m not last, the last one is Robert, he’s pretty fat, I’m running and looking at Kája’s back, and he’s running, I guess he doesn’t have any breath left to swear, he’s not saying anything now.
Kája runs into the street and I’m right behind him and I look back again ’cause I hear Robert squeal, I guess they caught him, and as I’m turning around I trip and then all I hear is horns and cars, it’s not slowed down like in a movie, I can’t tell what’s about to happen and my life doesn’t flash before my eyes, I can’t do anything, it goes so fast actually, all I know is I’m fucked now, and after that I don’t remember, not even hitting the ground, not even how a week after that the hamster escaped.
Mrs. Horáčková knocks on the door during physics class. Her eyes tell the mother they’ve got bad news for her down in the principal’s office. The teens perk up their ears. She leaves the classroom sick with fear about what might have happened. She just knows it’s Kubík. She breaks into a run, dashing down the quiet hallway. Let it not be the kids, let it be Michal. Right to the hospital, the vice principal drives her. When she gets there and finds out the details of what happened, she bursts into tears, but partly out of relief, none of it matters—the main thing is her little boy’s alive.
I wake up in the hospital. White all over, can’t move my head too much, so all I can see’s the white ceiling. Try to move my head, it hurts. My mom’s standing over me crying. I can’t tell if out of joy or something else. As I start to wake up, I can tell my right leg hurts bad. I want to talk, but I can’t, dry mouth and stuff.
I start crying, my leg really hurts bad. I turn over a little in bed, but that makes other stuff hurt. The nurse comes and gives me a shot in the arm.
I wake up again. Now it’s much better. My mom isn’t here. There’s someone in the bed next to mine. I’m in a triple.
A little later my mom comes. She’s got coffee in a paper cup. Smells really good.
I complain about my leg and she starts crying again. I don’t have a leg. The leg I don’t have is what hurts. She says I’m lucky, I could be dead. Maybe, but I don’t have a leg.
I cry ’cause my mom’s crying.
The only time I feel sorry about it is at night when I can’t sleep. Then I cry ’cause I don’t have a leg. The part that’s still there ends above my knee.
My mom comes all the time. Tries to talk to me. I don’t care. She asks what I want, I say my leg. She starts crying again.
My dad comes every day, too, but just for a little bit. I guess trying to give me courage, as he would say. He just keeps going on about how I have to overcome myself. How it’s all up to me now. How I have to hang in there. How I’m a real man and real men fight.
My brother comes once. Brings me a big bag of peanuts. Sits down on the chair a while and rolls his eyes around the room. Neither one of us knows what to say.
My brother looks too good for this room. He doesn’t belong here.
When he leaves, I eat all the peanuts at once, till the salt makes my lips crack. Then at night I’m dying of thirst. Finally I have to take a drink from Honza’s tea cup in the bed next to me and he’s whining ’cause his stomach hurts all the time, wimp, ’cause I already drank all my tea.
One time Kája stops by with his mom, they bring me some really good candy, but nobody knows what to say, it’s an uncomfortable situation, Kája’s so embarrassed that pretty soon I just say I’m tired. They leave right away and I can see how relieved they are. Me too.
The father’s angry at the mother. He sees Kuba lying there, refusing to do anything, any exercise at all, so he can try to start walking again. And she just sits there with him and cries. It’s obvious why the kid feels sorry for himself.
But the father doesn’t say that to her, doesn’t tell her the time for sorrow is gone, now it’s time to do something.
He really regrets letting her allow Kuba to stop training, turning him into a little girl. The father blames himself for not being harder on him, not treating him more like a man, otherwise now he would have more strength to stand up to it.
After a few pointless arguments with the mother, the father is so overwhelmed with anger and the feeling of futility that all that helps is training or drinking, preferably both.
He’s been training and drinking for years, but suddenly it’s for a different reason, and it really is different now. Even if everything that happened later didn’t happen, the father still would have ended up having a problem with alcohol.
At first I don’t feel like doing anything. The more everyone tells me how I have to exercise and try hard, the less I feel like doing it. Luckily my mom brings me books. In the hospital I learn to read like I was in fourth grade instead of in second.
Then spring comes and I’m still in bed. I’m not exercising, so my arms are all weak, I can’t even walk with crutches. The most I can do is sit in a wheelchair and get rolled out to the terrace.
There’s nothing really wrong with me except for my leg. Some bruises. Cracked ribs. A couple stitches for the cut on my head. Everything heals pretty fast, just my leg won’t grow back.
By the time summer’s in the air I’m fine, as long as I don’t talk about my leg. I’m still on the skinny side, but I looked pretty sickly even before, so it’s not that much of a difference. Then one of the teachers who works with my mom comes to see me, I notice the look in her eyes, she tries to act normal but it doesn’t work, I guess I must look pretty bad.
I don’t know why I start trying. I guess I can smell the warm air and I want to get out of the hospital. Whatever, I just start.
One day when I feel like I’m doing all right, I try to get out of bed with the crutches and fall on the ground.
I lie there and cry, not ’cause it hurts or I feel sorry for myself, but ’cause I’m so angry, and when the nurse comes and tries to help, I bite her on the hand.
I don’t know what changed over those months, but all of a sudden I’m filled with rage. I hate the whole world.
My stump looks like something between a croissant and a rolled-up sock and it’s weirdly sensitive.
I learn to walk.
It hurts my armpits.
My mom’s worried sick about me, still fussing over me all the time. When I go home, my brother and I have to switch beds. We’ve got a bunk bed and mine’s on top. I cried my way into it way back when. But now times have changed. My brother doesn’t want the top anymore. But he takes it without a word when they bring me home from the hospital.
I can walk pretty good on crutches now, I’ve got some real nice ones, blue, but I’ve got a wheelchair too. Plus my prosthesis. It really is like a pirate’s, I realize one day when I’m in a good mood.
So my dad carries me into the room, I’m holding my crutches, and lays me down on the bottom bunk and my brother looks at me, and when my dad walks out to get some other stuff that’s still in the car, my brother says, “So? How goes it?”
I shrug. What can I say? Then I start needing to go to the bathroom. I try to get up, but with him there staring at me, I get nervous and fall. I know how to fall by now.
My brother shoots out of his chair and picks me up. I can feel how strong he is.
“You’re like a feather,” he says, and puts me back on the bed. Then he hands me my crutches and helps me stand up. I walk out of the room and I know he’s still watching me.
I pee sitting down.
When I go to sleep that first night, I find my pajamas on the bottom bunk and nobody says a word. My mom helps me change, being extra careful about my stump. My brother acts like it’s no big deal, but I notice him peeking at it. Then my mom kisses me good-night, she hasn’t done that in a long time, when she tries to kiss my brother too, he pulls away, my mom walks out. She doesn’t try to give him a kiss anymore after that. Once I notice my brother looking at me like he’s jealous. But it’s not like I want my mom to kiss her perfume all over me, I fell asleep without her in the hospital.
The mother is so happy that Kuba’s begun to cooperate. It made her sad to see him angry. It was hard for her to see him struggle with the crutches, limping and withdrawing more and more into himself, poor thing, what did he do to deserve this? The mother tried to talk about it with the father, but the father was happy that Kuba had finally started to try, he didn’t want to hear about anything else, and just kept telling the mother over and over not to take it so hard. But she did. Attempting to make up for her son’s lost leg, and his stay in the hospital, and his discomfort while exercising, in fact everything bad that ever happened to him, tends to him as if he were a baby. She really isn’t paying much attention to Martin, Jakub’s brother. He’s a big boy, he can take care of himself, and if not, it’s time he learned how. But the mother doesn’t realize it’s happening. It’s like an animal instinct, caring more for the young, who have it harder. But in time she’ll regret it.
The father is truly glad that Jakub has started to try. In fact so glad, and paying so much attention to him, that Martin sometimes has the feeling that nobody loves him anymore. Luckily at that point all his training starts to pay off and he’s winning races, he’s really trying, all of a sudden it’s really important for him not to come in second, and that in turn shifts the father’s focus back to him. But the father has gotten used to going out for three beers after work and for another four after training, it’s an easy habit to get used to. And now, as things take a turn for the better, who cares, since he isn’t drinking out of anger, he doesn’t really even have to drink, so it’s almost like he isn’t drinking at all.
This article was originally published in Words Without Borders‘ November 2014 Issue: Contemporary Czech Prose. It is republished with permission from Words Without Borders.