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Jan/Feb 2001 Fiction

A Declaration Before the Eyes of God

by Colin Shea


She had told me that her husband was crazy, of course. Even before we started dating, I basically knew the story, and since we had gotten together, about once every two or three weeks she would start in and tell me some nutty thing heíd done or said. Wild stuff, totally out of control. Then she would look at me with those deep brown eyes, her head inclined forward a bit, and tap her temple three times with the first two fingers of her right hand. She would invariably ask, "Isnít it crazy? Donít you think heís crazy?" I would agree, of course. He was obviously out of his mind. But she needed that bit of reassurance that he really was out of it, that there was nothing she could have done to help him, and that leaving had been the only option. I didnít mind hearing the same dumb stories over and over again, as long as it was helping her get over it.

Over time she seemed to need it less and less frequently as she grew more relaxed with me. Initially I had kept that as a kind of yardstick of progress for our relationship; the less she talked about her husband, the more comfortable she was with me. She had been getting happier in general, anyway: making more friends, doing extremely well in her job, moving into a nice new apartment. By our second anniversary we had moved in together, and the crazy man was almost forgotten.

The only problem was the divorce. She had initiated divorce proceedings against him two years earlier, and there had not been an inch of progress since. Geography was the crux of the problem. We lived in the Czech capital city of Prague; he lived in Krakow, Poland; but they had gotten married in her home town of Doubrava, a small mining community on the eastern frontier of Moravia. All court proceedings had to take place in the town in which they were married, which lay a harrowing seven-hour drive from Prague.

We had driven out there already for two court dates. He hadnít shown up for either of them. Under Czech law, the judge explained to us apologetically, she would be able to appoint a lawyer to represent him in absentia if he refused to appear. However, she "wasnít sure" she could acknowledge the legality of the Polish registered mail receipts by which he had been served the summons, and hence declined to rule that he had refused to appear.

"And how do you propose to proceed, if I may ask?" our lawyer asked.

The judge looked surprised. She had orange hair and wore quite a bit of makeup. "Why, send him the summons again, of course."

"And if he does not appear then? How many attempts will the court make? Five? Ten?"

She looked flustered. "You will not pressure the court, Mr., er..."

We left. Nadia was upset and angry. "So what can we do?"

The lawyer shook his head. "Sheís an idiot," he explained. "Of course thereís no law saying she canít acknowledge the legality of Polish mail receipts. She just made that up. But if we complain about anything sheíll just shelve your case and itíll never get heard." He thought for a moment. "Officially speaking, I advise you to wait, and rest assured that justice will prevail."

"Unofficially?" I asked.

"Sheíll try to put things off until one of you is dead. Make it easier on her. Go to Poland and pay someone to forge his death certificate. Theyíll never bother to check it."

We drove back to Prague. "Maybe heís right about that one," I suggested as we wheeled out of the parking lot.

She looked at me witheringly. "Maybe we need a new lawyer."

I shrugged. It was her problem. "How about you give him a call? I donít know, maybe he really didnít get the mail. Or maybe heís just trying to get you to call him or visit him for some reason. He could just be holding off to get your attention."

She looked at me darkly. "Jime, I tell you he is crazy. He does not listen to any one thing you say. He imagines things. Big conspiracies against him."

Here we go, I thought.

"I would just have some meeting with a professor or something, and I would come home and he would be sitting there at the table, all the lights off. His wedding ring would be off, on the edge of the table. I would ask him, what is it, whatís wrong, and he would just look at me. ĎYou should tell me whatís wrong,í he would say. ĎNothing is wrong,í I would say. ĎI was with my professor.í He would laugh. ĎI know you were with him. I know what you do with himí." She looked at me, eyes flashing fire. She did the thing where she tapped her temple. I smiled encouragingly.

"It didnít matter what I did. If I cried, he said I was crying because I was guilty. If I denied it, he just would smile and say ĎOh, of course.í If I said it was true, tried to make him see how ridiculous it was, it just encouraged him." She paused, angrily. "Professors. His friends. Other girls. He told me I could not see Romana, because he thought we were having an affair. Some friend of his, some old friend, would come to visit, and Sebastian would just sit there and say ĎWho is this person? I donít know him.í Just because he had smiled at me, or asked me some stupid question about my studies! People who had been his friend for years!"

"It sounds horrible, baby. I donít know how you stood it for as long as you did."

She was quiet for a minute, though we had been over this countless times before. She looked out the window. The sky was leaden gray and the trees were bare. The stubble of the fall harvest was visible in the fields whipping by as we shot along the highway. I wanted to make as much distance as possible while we still had some daylight. She shook her head sadly. "I donít know. I was stupid. And he was very sweet at the beginning. Oh, and such art he made, so beautiful. I knew there was something strange, but I thought it would be better after we were married." She shrugged. "You know how girls are when weíre young. We have no strength to throw these stupid men off. I wish I had the ring back, though. It belonged to my grandfather, very lovely."

I took my cell phone off the hook on the dashboard and handed it to her. "Come on," I said. "Just try to talk to him. Tell him you want to get married to someone else."

She snorted and looked out the window. She did not take the phone. "I do not want to marry you, Jime."

"I donít want to either, baby. Just tell him that. Maybe it will knock some sense into him."

I looked at her. Dark hair fell down to the sides of her face, straight and thick, obscuring any view of her expression, but I could see a faint reflection of her features in the side window. She looked sad and angry.

"Maybe he will come to Prague and try to kill you," she replied.

I was surprised. I had suggested that a few times before, and she had always denied it angrily. He is not a violent man! You Americans and your stupid cowboy movies, you think the whole world is like this! "Thatís okay, baby," I replied mildly. "I can take care of myself."

"Anyway I donít have his number here."

A lie. I had seen it earlier in the little phone directory she always kept with her. I glanced in her direction. She looked resolutely out the window, her silky hair daring me to challenge her assertion. I put the phone back in the holder, kissed the first two fingers of my right hand, and planted them gently on her cheek. She turned and smiled at me, her eyes, as always, impassive, unreadable, slightly feline. I turned back to the road, wondering what lay behind their smoky depths.

 

Weeks went by, and I more or less forgot about the divorce. In truth, it made things more comfortable than they would have been otherwise. Living together makes a lot of women jumpy: they either want you to marry them or get the hell out of their lives so they can find someone who will. Like most men, I was perfectly happy with the status quo.

This changed with a phone call one day in early December. It was half past five, but already pitch-black out. Nadia and I were getting ready to cook before we went out to meet some friends in town. The phone rang quietly, barely audible over the Led Zeppelin coming in strong and clear on the stereo. I started sautéing the chicken while she ran for the phone.

She was speaking in her native dialect, which meant it was either someone from her family or a friend from her home town. I smiled as I listened to the softened consonance of her speech, at once so similar to Czech and yet immeasurably more elegant and expressive. She was upset about something, but I could not tell what. Probably her brother and father were fighting again, I thoughtóI could pick out that she was asking what her father thought of something.

After a few minutes she hung up the phone. She stayed by the bed, looking thoughtfully at the floor.

"What happened?" I called to her over the sizzling of the chicken. "Are your brother and dad fighting about plasterboarding techniques again?"

She walked slowly into the kitchen, not answering. Pausing a moment, she shook her head before ducking down to our liquor stash beside the refrigerator. She pulled out my bourbon and poured herself a shot, which she promptly downed. She refilled it, went to the table and flopped down in a chair. I looked at her, concerned. "What is it, baby?"

She looked at me, eyes burrowing into mine. "It was my mother. The police were there just now."

I stopped fiddling with the chicken and stared at her. "What? Why?"

She tossed off half of the shot before replying. "It seems that Sebastian went to the police in Doubrava. He told them some big story, that his wife had been kidnapped, that they were keeping me away from him, that it was some big conspiracy." She paused. "He told them that my father had, how you say it, abused me as a child. He said my father took me away from him, from Sebastian, and is making me work as prostitute in Prague."

I looked at her incredulously. "What? Thatís insane. Why would he do that?"

"I told you he was crazy."

"Yeah, but not, I meanÖ" I was sputtering. I tried to calm down a bit. "All right, so he told the cops that. What happened? What did they do?"

"Well, they didnít believe it so much, but they have to investigate. So they came to my house and asked my Mom if it was true. She said them, of course itís not, itís ridiculous. But they want me to come there."

I exploded. "Go there? Drive seven hours because of some story from some madman? Why canít they send someone here?"

She shrugged. "You know how they are. Still communistic."

"Well, screw that. They can come to you."

"I rather go there, try to stop it before my father finds out. It would make him very upset."

I turned back to the chicken. It was ready. I emptied it into a waiting bowl, then swept a pile of chopped vegetables into the empty pan. They made a satisfying hiss as they settled into the boiling chicken grease. "Youíre probably right," I said. She was. Her father had been having some fairly serious heart problemsóno need to spring something like that on him. I thought about it a bit more as I pushed the greens around in the pan. "But Iíd think this would help you in the divorce. I mean, heís basically just gone on official record as being totally insane. Iíd think on that basis they could rule that heís not competent to represent himself."

She grunted noncommittally and drank the rest of the bourbon. "Maybe. But these courts are so stupid. Did you see that judge? I would not trust her to cut my toenails."

I hesitated a moment, then plunged onward. "I really might call him, though. This is totally out of control."

"Yes," she agreed. "It is. It really is."

 

Four days later we were back in Doubrava. The cops were a laughable mix of officious, middle-aged drunks and effete young Gestapo types. They apologized profusely for dragging us out there for what was surely a groundless complaint. The fellow had obviously been some sort of romany, or Gypsy, they explained conspiratorially. You know how they are. He had even had the gall to claim that Nadia was his wife! As though a good, clean, white Czech girl would ever think of marrying a romany! Foolishness, we agreed. We left with warm handshakes and vague but ominous promises of violence should he return.

"Well, thatís that." I said as we walked toward the car. Nadiaís gloved hands clutched my arm as we walked over the icy path. Winter was settling in early and with a vengeance. A few inches of crusty snow lay upon the ground, and an icy wind tore across the empty lot. Nadia wore a long, heavy coat, colored a deep forest green. As always, a subdued silk scarf adorned her throat. Through my own thick jacket I could feel her shiver.

"Mmm," she muttered. I separated from her and opened her door, then moved around to open mine and get in. Settling into my seat, I turned the key in the ignition. She reached over and jammed the heat setting onto the highest level possible, then clasped her arms together over her breasts. She made a violent Brrrr! and said, "Oh, itís awful. How can it be so cold? Letís move to some warm country."

I tapped the accelerator a couple of times to warm up the engine. It throbbed warmly in response. I looked at Nadia, who was staring fixedly at the frost crystals resting on the windshield. "So where are we going, baby? Back to your place?" It was Saturday morning, and we had a whole weekend of excitement before us. I was grimly prepared to face the coming ordealósince I could barely communicate with her parents, they tried to compensate by loading me down with food and booze. The climax of the night would be sitting around with her father and downing shots of slivovice, a ghastly 140-proof liquor he distilled in the bathtub from rotten plums.

She didnít answer for a moment, but then said. "Can I use your phone? I must call this crazy man."

I was surprised. "Sure." I handed her the phone. Taking out her address book, she flipped through it until she found her husbandís number. I watched with an intense, morbid curiosity as she dialed the number. I had always wondered why she had married the guy. Iíd been with her so long, yet sometimes I felt as though I barely knew her. She was so strong, impassive, coldly calculating, like a snake waiting to strikeóI could not imagine the years of weakness and insecurity which she described to me.

For some reason, I was surprised when she began to speak. Polish, a gently but awkwardly beautiful tongue, flowed from her lips like warm honey. I could pick out very little of what she was saying, but I suddenly felt rude and invasive. I pantomimed to her that I would go get some coffee. She nodded absently.

I jogged over to a kiosk across the street. An old woman was huddled inside, stamping her feet to stay warm. She looked at me, surprised. "Prosze," she said. Polish. This close to the border, Czech was a foreign language. Struggling to remember the bit of Polish I knew, I ordered two coffees. Sugar and milk? One with, one without. "Dziesiec korun." Ten crowns. It sounded almost French, pronounced djesh-aunce. I gave her the ten crown piece, enjoying its hefty, solid feel. She smiled at me as I took the coffees and wished me a good day. I walked back to the car.

Nadia was off the phone when I opened the door and handed her both coffees. She took them wordlessly. I slid into the car gratefully. It was nice and warmóthe heater had been running for the whole time.

"Well, how did it go?" I asked, taking my coffee.

She shrugged and sipped at her small plastic cup. "You cannot talk to him. I asked him why he did this stupid thing with the police, and he began to shout about conspiracies, how they have kept us apart, but he will go to the media and tell them everything. They have violated his human rights, he cannot see his wife, and this could not happen in any civilized country. But he will make some big action and the whole world will see that he is right..." She looked at me fiercely and tapped her forehead. "I tried to say, Sebastian, we must talk about the divorce, but he says no, they have kept us apart, you donít know what you want. I say no, I know what I want, I want a divorce. Then he began again with his," she searched for a word, "craps."

"Crap. Itís not countable."

"Vat?"

"Itís like lettuce. You canít have two lettuces. You have more lettuce, or less lettuce. Same with crap."

She grunted. "Anyway, result is that he will not come to court."

"Just like that? He just wonít come, under any circumstances?"

She sipped at her coffee. "Mmm. Not exactly. He wants to see me. He says we must discuss it before he will agree to do something."

"Well, thatís something, anyway."

She looked dourly out the window. "You think so? I do not want to see him."

"Baby, I donít want to pressure you, but sometime youíre going to have to do it. Heís just going to keep doing this crazy stuff until he gets your attention, or gets thrown into jail." I warmed to my subject. "He canít live a normal life either, like this. Maybe this will help him get over it a little, make him see that he needs to get some professional help. I know itís hard to deal with, but you have to face up to this."

She shrugged, the motion barely perceptible beneath thick layers of wool. "Letís go home," she said absently.

I put the car into gear and backed out of my space, slowly. I downed the rest of my coffee in one gulp and tossed the empty cup on the floor. I was unsure of how to proceed. Should I push her more, or leave it and back off? This might be the best chance we had to deal with the guy, and damned if I was going to make this trip again if I could help it. I got that slightly light-headed, vertiginous feeling one gets when one makes a suggestion or statement from which there is no turning back, the feeling that one might have when preparing to plunge headfirst into dark waters, with no knowledge of how cold or deep they will ultimately prove to be.

"We could just drive there right now," I said, as innocuously as I could.

She looked at me sharply. "Vat? Right now?"

"Weíre only two hours from Krakow. We know heís there. I canít think of a better time to get this out of the way. Or did you want to invite him to Prague?"

She looked away. "They should make him come. If we give the court enough time..."

"Theyíll do what? This has gone on for two and a half years, baby, and nothing has happened. Nothing. What makes you think theyíll do something now when they wouldnít before?"

Silence, save for the hum of the gently throbbing motor. We were still at the entrance to the police parking lot. I gathered my breath for another charge. "Look, thereís something else. I know we havenít talked about this at all, but, well, you know the firm is talking about moving me back to the States."

"I know," she said coolly.

Not exactly encouraging. I pushed on regardless, my ears singing. "And, uh, I might want you to come back with me..." Christ, what was I saying? That was practically a marriage proposal.

Impassive eyes looked at me from beneath imperiously arched eyebrows. "Oh? You might? Are you so nice?"

I blushed. She was the only woman Iíve ever known who could make me blush. "Sorry. I do want you to."

She snorted. "Hmmph. America. Vat I should go there for? Hamburgers, television, and fat girls. Full of black peoples."

"Okay, well, I donít want to discuss it now. But the point is, thereís no way youíre going to get a green cardóin America or anywhere else they might move meówhile youíre married to some Bulgarian madman."

"Why I should leave? I have good job, good friends. Rather you can stay here with me."

I took a deep breath. "Look, I just think we should have some flexibility. Right now we have none. Youíre going to put me in a position where I have to choose between you and a good job somewhere..."

Her eyes bored into me. "And which you would choose?"

I was sweating. I put the car into gear again and nosed out of the lot. "Look, that isnít the issue."

She maintained her gaze for a few moments, then looked away. "Itís true," she replied. I tried not to breathe a sigh of relief. She lapsed into silence. I began driving toward her place. As we approached an intersection, she said sharply, turn here. After about a mile of rattling over cobblestones, she again directed me to turn. It was the highway toward the border.

I drove in silence. As we approached the border town of Tesin, she said absently, "I want to do some shopping anyway."

 

"Okay," she said as we hit the outskirts of Krakow, "Sebastian is not such a crazy, shouting type. He says crazy things, but very quietly, very nicely. He is intelligent, educated man. He does not realize he is crazy, you know? This is hard part. For example, my friend in Krakow told me that he, Sebastian I mean, came to him few weeks ago. This guy and his wife were our, how you say it..."

"Best man and bridesmaid?" I guessed.

"Yes, this is it. Anyway, Sebastian came to them and was asking for me, if they knew anything about me, where I was. He started telling them these same stories that he told the police. Exactly the same. You see, he believes them, he does not make it up randomly. And you know what he said to them? He looked this guy in the eye and said, ĎAt my marriage I have made a declaration before the eyes of God that I will always be with my wife and protect her. And now they have her in Prague and make her do horrible things. And since you have witnessed this, you and I are brothers forever as well. You must help me fulfill my declaration before God! You must help me stop this evil!í"

The hair was standing up on my neck. I cursed inwardly. What the hell was I getting myself into? I was beginning to wish Iíd brought a knife. "A declaration before the eyes of God? Heavy shit. So what happened?"

"This friend said, Sebastian, you need some help, she is not prostitute in Prague, she is very happy. He told me Sebastian stood up and said, ĎThen we are brothers no more.í And he showed him the wedding ring on his finger and said, ĎFrom this day, this ring will be my only witness to the promises I have made.í My grandfatherís ring, can you imagine this? And he walked out. Few days later, he went to the police in Doubrava with his story. I donít know what he plans next."

"Well, hopefully this will end it."

We drove in silence through Krakow. It is a beautiful city, untouched by the war. For the most part the buildings are in eighteenth/nineteenth century Habsburg style, with a few medieval monuments towering over the lower, graceful structures of later centuries. It is a town of elegant boutiques, cafes, leather shops, and bookstores. A large and well-preserved castle rests atop a hill near the old town. There is a large, central square, lined with outdoor restaurants, a couple of vast and ancient churches, and amber-peddlers with their kiosks and pushcarts. The vibrant beauty of the town, its warm and comfortable atmosphere, and friendly and inviting citizens exist in stark contrast to that ultimate symbol of the twentieth centuryís madness, which lies only a few short miles away, down a narrow and ill-marked road. Oswiecim in Polish, more commonly known by the Germanized name, Auschwitz. How can anyone live next to the remains of those ghastly camps, I wondered.

"Park somewhere near the castle," Nadia instructed me. "The university faculty and housing are right there." I found a spot by the side of the road, and eased the car in between a couple of others.

It was about noon, and the winter air felt cold and crisp in my lungs as we walked down the street, arm in arm. The sun was a burnished bronze disk hung low in the sky. "Do you know where he lives?" I asked.

She looked at me oddly. "Of course. I lived with him there for four years."

I flushed deeply. "Okay. But maybe youíd better call him to tell him weíre here."

"Mmm, okay. Should I tell him I have someone with me? Or maybe I should go in by myself..."

I cut her off. "Youíre not going in there alone with him. Itís up to you if you want to tell him about me or not. I might warn him, if I were you." I handed her my phone.

She took the phone and pulled off her glove to dial. Her fingers were white, but mottled with patches of dark red. Entering the digits, she put the phone to her ear and waited. After a few seconds, she began to speak. I understood most of it: "Yes, itís me, Iím here by your place, I want to talk...I have someone with me...yes...yes...no, heís American...yes..." She stopped walking, looking up at the building. "Yes, weíre here now," she said. I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of vertigo as I listened. What the hell am I doing in this weird country half a world away from my home, about to escort some girl I donít understand in to meet her insane husband who will probably try to kill us both with a carving knife, and even if he doesnít sheíll get divorced from him and weíll end up getting married, Iím only twenty six, for Christís sake, I donít need this, what am I doing with my life...I wanted to run screaming to the car, make a mad break for the border, pack up as much of my shit as I could and get the first flight back to Boston. I can be there in twenty four hours, I thought wildly to myself. No problem, wonít even make a dent in my credit card.

Nadia looked at me solemnly as she turned off the phone and handed it to me. "Weíre here," she said in Czech. "Are you sure you want to come up with me?"

I swallowed and nodded. I felt sweaty and light-headed: the back of my throat was dry and suddenly painful. Strangely enough, it reminded me of the first time I had gone to visit a whore. Nadia regarded me as from a great distance for another, eternally long moment, then turned abruptly and ascended the stairs in front of us. I followed.

The building was part of an interconnected block, four stories tall. Early twentieth century, I guessed: solid, graceful, but not ornate. The walls were a light grey, but black stains trailed down from the windows and parts of the roof where rainwater spilled in the summer, leaving deposits of soot and worse in its wake. A cityís tears. At the entrance to the building, Nadia pressed a bell, her finger finding the proper one automatically. After a few moments, a buzz sounded as the lock was released. Nadia pushed it, and we entered.

"He is on the next floor," she muttered and began walking up the stairs. Her footsteps echoed loudly from the faux marble walls. I hurried to keep pace with her, craning my neck in an effort to see the next flight. Would he be lurking in the stairwell, ready to assault us from higher ground? But as we turned the corner to mount the second half of the stairs, there was no one. Somehow this only made me more nervous.

Nadia knocked on the door. After a few seconds, I heard a shuffling and a sharp click as a latch was unbolted. I tensed, ready to jerk Nadia out of the way of any weapon or assault. The door opened, and swung inward about a foot. A man was standing there, bent slightly forward, peering at us from the opening he had made.

He was taller than me, probably six foot two or so. In spite of a brown double-breasted jacket he wore, I could tell he was very slight and thin, though his face seemed a bit puffed and swollen. He was bearded, and his hair was curly and cut short. His eyes were light hazel, and somehow placed a bit too close to his narrow but protuberant nose. I thought he was slightly cross-eyed at first, but I realized this was only an illusion resulting from the close-set eyes.

His face broke into a wide smile as he saw Nadia. The door opened the rest of the way and he stepped toward us. I checked his hands - no weapons in sight. His face was kindly, but haggard and worn. He was enormously pleased to see Nadia. He greeted her excitedly in Polish, and made as if to embrace her. She drew away from him quickly. "Sebastian, nie," she said, quietly.

His face crumbled as I watched. I was still tense, ready to leap on him at the slightest signal or hint of aggression. But he did not look angry, just sad and perhaps confused. "Ah, I see," he said. His voice was deep and soft. He glanced at me then, seemingly seeing me for the first time. I will never forget the look I saw in his eyes: a look of quiet torment, the look of a man who has lost everything and is unsure if there is anything left for which to live.

He looked at her again, and motioned toward me with his head. He asked her something to the effect of ĎAnd this is your American?í "Tak," she said, hands clasped before her. He looked at me again, and slowly, unsurely, extended his hand. "I am Sebastian," he said gravely. "it is a...pleasure...to meet you." Nadia tried to interrupt, no doubt to say I did not speak Polish. I spoke quickly, wrestling with the unfamiliar words. "My name is James, it is a pleasure to meet you as well." We shook hands.

His grip was like steel. After a moment he released my hand. "Forgive my rudeness," he said softly, in slow, measured English. "We will speak English, yes? Please, come in, hang your coats."

We entered a small hallway. A couple of coats hung along a short rack, and a few pairs of old, dilapidated shoes rested haphazardly on the floor. None of the coats or shoes were womenís, I noted immediately, as Nadia surely did as well. We hung our coats and entered the next room.

It was his kitchen. It had the aura of student life about it, though the fellow was in his early thirties. Dirty dishes in the sink, obviously piled hurriedly in anticipation of our arrival. Multiple ashtrays, full near to overflowing with cigarette butts. The floor was a sticky, green linoleum, the furniture rickety and antiquated. "Sit down," he said, busily putting on a water kettle. Gingerly I took a seat at the plain, uncovered table in the center of the room, and looked about surreptitiously. Nothing out of the ordinary: peeling wallpaper, grimy windows with a view out onto the street, some ill-made cupboards. There was an oil painting on the wall by the refrigerator, I noticed, of extraordinary quality. I assumed it was his work. It was a female nude, colorful and impressionistic, but beautifully capturing the lines of the female form. The woman stood with her back to the viewer, hand on a bedpost, observing herself in a full-length mirror, head cocked to one side, short dark hair flowing seductively along her delicate neck. I looked at it closely: it reminded me strongly of something.

It was Nadia, I realized suddenly. I glanced at her, catching her eyes with mine. She blushed and turned away. The first time I had ever seen her blush, I realized.

Sebastian set a steaming mug in front of me, before handing another one to Nadia. He took a third for himself. "Please, there is honey and lemon on the table," he said. He sat down, and looked at Nadia for a moment in silence.

"It is so good to see you, my dear..." he said wistfully. He glanced at me. "Forgive me, but it is many years since I have seen my wife. You canít know how difficult it has been for me..."

Nadia interrupted angrily, rage flashing in her eyes. "You crazy man, be quiet! How difficult it is for you! You go to police, tell them some big stories, they almost arrest my father, and you say how difficult it is for you!"

He looked shocked and taken aback. "Nadia, please..."

"Please nothing. Why you do not come to the court? They send you letters, you do not take them. For two years they are trying to send you letters, Sebastian. Two years! What is your problem? Why do you do this to me?" She was nearly hysterical, I noted. Interesting. She was showing more emotion in two minutes than I had seen in two years.

"What - what letters? What are you talking about?" He looked at me, as though for support. I shrugged.

She swore in Czech, than began rattling away in Polish. I understood nothing. He tried to interrupt a couple of times, but she would not stop. He remained silent, watching confusedly as she continued her tirade. Finally, she ground to a halt, nearly in tears. I reached under the table and squeezed her knee.

He looked at her reprovingly. "Please, Nadia, you are being rude," he said. "Why can you not speak to me as normal human being? What have I done to you to deserve such language?"

Her eyes narrowed, still glistening with tears of rage. She looked as though she wanted to spit. I interrupted hastily.

"Look, uh, sorry to interrupt, this isnít really my business...but I think she just really wants you to go get the court summons from the post office. You can either come, or you can let the court appoint someone to represent you. But nothing can get started until you go get the letter."

He looked lost. "What letter? What are you talking about?"

"Curva!" shouted Nadia. "Donít play these crazy games with us! He will break your head!" She pointed at me dramatically. Sebastianís head swiveled toward mine, his eyes focused troublingly somewhere behind my forehead.

"Uh," I said. "is there any way you might not have gotten the notice from the post office? I donít know..."

His brow furrowed in thought. "Well, my name is spelled differently in Czech and in Polish. Can be they got mail from the Czech court with Czech spelling, and it did not match with my name in their computer...stupid, but it happens very often." He looked at Nadia. "You told me you wanted divorce, but not that you had gone to court and all this. Why you did not tell me?"

Nadia was practically gasping for air. "You...you..." I was beginning to wonder who the crazy one was in this relationship. Nadia was screaming and shouting about every little thing, while her husband seemed calm and in control of himself, if a little confused. I had never seen this side of her before, or anything remotely like it, and this guy had not displayed a hint of the madness she constantly alluded to. Good lord, what if she were like this after we got married...I pushed that thought out of my mind. But there would be a serious re-evaluation of this once I got back to Prague.

He continued pleasantly. "I will go to post office on Monday and check for this mail. If it is there, I will write to the court and apologize, and ask them to set some new date." He looked sadly at Nadia. "I...I had hoped that we could discuss this, come to some understanding. But I see that you have come to hate me..."

"I do not hate you. I want a divorce because you are mad," she hissed.

"Am I?" He smiled softly. "All artists must be a little mad, I think. There is no beauty in logic, in reason: it is so cold, so," he searched for a word, "sterile". He looked at me, his smile widening. "She is a paradox, is she not? Sometimes she is the essence of woman, others she is more man than I am."

"You have no right to speak of me like this," she said, her voice still a raspy, sibilant scratch.

I was beginning to like him, in spite of myself. "Come on, Nadia..." I said meekly. She turned to glare at me ferociously. My mouth froze, half open: I dared not even shut it.

Sebastian held up his hands slightly. A large gold ring on his left hand caught my eye: it must be the one which had belonged to Nadiaís grandfather, I thought. "Please, Nadia, it pains me to hear you speak of me like this. Rather go. I see this man loves you: I hope he will be able to give you what I could not."

Nadia rose, trembling and pale. "We have no more business here. Letís go."

Sebastian rose as well. I did too, as an afterthought. "Wait," he said, "let me give you the ring back. I know what it means for you, and I see you do not want me to have it." He pulled at it, first gently, then more firmly, but it would not come off. "Very tight," he said, ruefully. "I have not removed it since our wedding." The muscles in Nadiaís jaw clenched visibly, but she said nothing. "Wait here, I will go for some soap." He walked quickly from the room.

I looked at Nadia carefully. She did not meet my gaze. I looked again at the painting: it was her, no doubt about it. How could I have failed not to recognize those hips, that peculiar, self-reflective stance she always adopted before a mirror, those delicate shoulders and thin arms. I could hear a few muffled sounds coming from the next room, opening and shutting of a couple of drawers, it sounded like. In the back of my mind an alarm soundedówhat if heís getting a weapon?óbut I was not too worried. Heíd been so calm and collected, so pleasant; I couldnít imagine him bursting back in with a pistol. I was drawn in by the painting, by the interplay of light and shadow, the crude yet graceful lines, by the simple, unmistakable fact that it encompassed everything about Nadia that I longed to understand, but never would. After a few moments, a voice from the doorway interrupted my reverie.

"I am afraid the soap did not work, either."

Sebastian was standing uncertainly by the table, just a few feet from me, slightly paler than I remembered, but with that same look of resigned despair. Gently, reverently, he placed a small wad of tissue paper on the table. In the center of the tissue was an absurdly small brown finger, four or five inches in length, a thick band of gold around the bottom end. A small, irregular halo of bright red blood had spread out a short distance from the base of the digit, soaking into the surrounding paper.

"This was the only other possibility I could think of," he muttered, somewhat shakily. "Have a good trip...see you...in court..."

There was only one thing to do, of course. We took his finger and left.

 

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