The schoolmaster leaned over, a puff of black robes, and read to them from the dusty book on the desk in front of him. Today the world was weaker: a milky sun hung in the sky and wanted nothing to do with the earth. What seeped through the cracked glass of the window behind him was a thin, soupy light that washed the schoolroom a bleached yellow, and this meant that the schoolmaster was more visible than ever — a short, fat figure sat in a plastic high chair originally intended for small children, no brilliance to hide him. He lifted his big head from the book and looked out across the room. Before him the aisles of children dipped and dreamed like minnows in a stream of bright water. The younger ones — Jan’s children — tried to remain upright, rocking back and forth as they struggled with a sleep that came in waves, and they did so because they were afraid of the schoolmaster and his mumbled threats, whereas the older siblings had no fear and therefore no longer feigned attention. Adam slumped across the wooden desk in front of him, fast asleep, and Jakub rested his head on his brother’s tanned shoulder, his face tilted toward the schoolmaster and the warm glare of the window and his eyes half-closed. Franta snored with his body thrown back in his chair, his open mouth and long nose pointed up at the ceiling, while Marek was nowhere to be seen. But it was the girls who were the worst, the schoolmaster had observed on numerous occasions, because they were as stupid as cows and had no respect at all for either him or his lessons. Dolores reclined on the floor beneath her desk, dressed today in a stained cotton shift with a faded logo on the front, stretched beyond deciphering across the bulwark of her breasts. She giggled to herself and didn’t even glance toward the front of the classroom and the lectern from behind which the schoolmaster regarded them coldly. In the middle of the schoolroom, Marta and Mary whispered to one another in their filthy language, while two seats away from them Eva buried her head in the cradle of her arms. Alexandra’s eyes were also shut and the light climbed up her round cheeks and painted them amber. At the very back of the classroom Agathe rocked in her chair with one small finger inserted into her nose. The schoolmaster moved forward, deeper into the book. “‘Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.’”
The wind picked up as he spoke and a scurry of dead leaves and mosses skipped over the concrete floor in front of Agathe, having entered through one of the many holes in the outer wall. Around her the schoolroom was creaking like a ship. She looked at the ceiling, where ivy climbed along the rafters and hung in a thick cloud, here and there shot through with the shafts of yellow light formed by the holes in the sagging metal roof. The walls that closed them in were black with damp, and the contents of the few bookshelves were sharp with blue and orange mold. Beneath Agathe’s bare feet, green, gray, and ocher mosses slunk up through the broken floor, blossoming flatly across the crumbling surface of the concrete. She kicked her legs out and thought to herself that the schoolroom was as besieged as one of the schoolmaster’s storied cities, the forest invading on all sides. Even Jan’s chickens liked to roost here at night, and behind the schoolmaster the surface of the tall blackboard was speckled with bird droppings. In the children’s memory this board had never been used; the schoolmaster did not move from his high seat and nor did he summon any of them to the front of the classroom. This was part of the pact that had sprung up between them; a web of quiet agreements that delineated the boundaries of the possible, dictated what could and could not be expected of them. And if a child were to be summoned to him and were actually to come, a piece of chalk pressed into its sweaty little hand, then the fantasy of the schoolroom would be stretched to its edges — because of course almost none of the children could write — and nobody wanted that. As they were neither summoned nor commanded, the imaginary scratchings of this hypothetical child threatened no one, least of all their mutual fiction, the game of their learning, and so the rigmarole of education continued, saving them from other types and qualities of time.
Although the schoolmaster kept on moving his lips, the light was stronger now and ate up his words before the children could hear them. What were the gods to them anyway, living, as they did, in a time that he said was beyond all other times? Outside the clouds rolled away to reveal the sun. A river of light rushed into the schoolroom through the frontal window and turned the black robes of the schoolmaster into an inky shroud, his face a dark field, robbing him of detail and texture. And soon he would feel the warm fingers of the light on his chubby nape and the heat would creep into him, and the dreams, too — he’d lose his thread; the printed matter before him would tram up its meaning, and the schoolmaster would think for a moment that he could hear it, the sound that he believed they listened to, nothing like the scholastic stupor of the schoolroom but an agile and effortless whirring, something that reminded him of machinery, a clockwork teleology, brimming with intent, and then he’d close his eyes and leave his body and trace it all the way back to its origin: the radio mast buried deep in the forest, glinting red and white metal against the dark green of the surrounding trees and heavy with bright umber rust. But Agathe didn’t know about any towers. She sighed and brushed his thoughts from her mind. In a few minutes the schoolmaster would be asleep; his big, doggy head would drop down into the yellowing pages and he would drowse until the bell rang for food and work, but now he tried again. “‘There will be no help against evil,’” the schoolmaster said, narrowing his eyes at the nearest child. “‘Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidôs and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.’” Their eyes were shut, screwed up against the light and him. He could feel it burning into the back of his head. The black weight of his robes. The heavy air of the schoolroom. Time slowed down; a terrible weariness came over him. He felt his eyelids beginning to droop. But the book stared up at him with contempt in its paper face. The schoolmaster harrumphed to himself: What did the book know? It was a snarl of dirty old words, a mess of theological scruples. Yes, it was bound up in the questions of the past, in riddles and contradictions that were never solved because no one cared to solve them; the book belonged to a forgotten world, and so what possible significance could it have for the children in front of him? He’d given up words like good and evil and hell for drowned. And besides, the book was dead. Apocrypha! He marshaled himself, straightened up in his swaddling. When did the world become so full of things? — the living fact of the light; the trees that whispered among themselves; the black eyes of the apartment block; the sad stone city; and a book that stared right back at him. The book was dead and contained only dead things, yet it seemed to him that it burned with a life that didn’t belong to it and it was this that he felt when he brushed his fingertips against the ashy paper. And perhaps it was the case that the life that went from them, chased out by the fire and the light and the slow trickling of the successive years, had fled into the brute matter of the old world and given the objects their arrogance — yes, this was no life ex nihilo, but their life, the life that was missing from the empty-eyed children in front of him and their unluckier peers — the ones that the bitch shunted away in the night — because nothing in this world was lost or gained but simply moved from place to place, and there was nothing that anybody could do about it; and so the age of man was over and the age of rocks had begun.
The schoolmaster closed his eyes and his head fell forward onto his chest. The children began to wake up, pulling themselves from their desks and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. They looked over at the schoolmaster perched behind the book and the lectern, imprisoned by the warped red plastic bars of the baby chair and the weight of his robes, already losing his battle with sleep. The sun climbed higher. The light grew stronger. He roasted in his high chair and started to snore.
Agathe pushed herself away from the wall and crept past the rows of her brothers and sisters to the front of the classroom with the intention of looking into the schoolmaster’s wrinkled face. The chickens clucked softly in the square outside. She could hear, too, the soughing of the wind as it passed through the forest and, somewhere in the distance, the reciprocal sigh of the mournful city. As she drew closer, Agathe noticed that moss was growing on the base of the schoolmaster’s lectern. Had she ever dared approach him before? It occurred to her then that the unexpected return of Dolores had introduced a strange license into the slow dream of the schoolroom. Now that the schoolmaster was asleep the children were restless and excited. Behind Agathe they split into groups and began to speak in whispers, laughing and tossing their heads. She looked into the schoolmaster’s face and observed the labial folds of his closed eyes, the parched skin with its labyrinth of broken blood vessels. Had there been a momentary quickening — a rush of life? Had it been them who had taken it from him, siphoning away at him as he slept? Slumped in his chair like that, the schoolmaster looked like an old rag, thrown aside. Agathe felt sorry for him and wanted to tell him so, but as she imagined twisting her fingers in his beard, she heard a shriek of laughter from the other side of the room and turned to look at her siblings. “See if you can stick it in her — then we’ll know.” — “Know what?” — “Whether she did it after all, dummy —”
They crouched around Dolores’s desk — Adam, Franta, and Marek, and the girls too. Only Jakub kept his distance. Jan’s children had already fled, accustomed as they were to the cruelty of their aunts and uncles and forever fearful of becoming its target. From up on the podium, Agathe was able to see over them, through the slight gap left between their blond heads and the brown wood of the desk to where Dolores cowered. It didn’t surprise her, how quick the instinct was — the chewing out of the weak, the finding of holes. Dolores had always been hounded, in the schoolroom or at work in the field, and other times they’d wake her when it was still dark outside and then they would drag her to the ground and prod her and spit in her ears and sometimes they’d beat her until she blubbered for mercy. But these were beatings without consequence because Dolores never remembered what they’d done the next day, or if she did she never held it against her abusers. When morning came she’d still have the same confused smile pasted across her stupid lips and she’d crawl after Alexandra just like always and stick her backside out when Adam walked by. But now it was different. After an indeterminate time spent lurking at the boundaries of the camp, Dolores had dragged herself through the doorway to the rectangular dormitory that the younger children shared and during her slow, diurnal movement her siblings had watched her impassively: they neither loved her nor were glad to see her return, and only Agathe had regarded her sister with something other than this stony scrutiny. Dolores tried to slot herself back into the space she’d occupied before her departure, but despite the brevity of the interlude their arrangement had shifted. They had closed ranks against her and no pity could be expected from the usual quarters. Now the siblings clustered around Dolores. They had noticed the way she’d smiled as the schoolmaster had droned on with his fat palm laid flat against the book, stupidly, dreamily, wholly immersed in her interior world, whose rolling green hills and pleasantly soft clouds they couldn’t even begin to imagine, where everyone communicated in the same inchoate mumble and pawed at each other with big dopey grins — they’d noticed it and had waited for the chance to lay into her, because there was something new in her that required a punishment greater than anything that had come before. What had she expected? The known and familiar suffering of the past; the usual cruelties. But under the desk, with the wall of her siblings enclosing her, she must have known that these were well and truly lost; that Marta, a long stick in her hand, would herald in a whole new era of pain. “There will be no help against evil.”
The beatings of Dolores! There had been many. There would be many more. And if the schoolmaster were to put his dusty book to one side and crawl over to Dolores, use the trick of his learning to coax out the words before they died on her tongue, then he could gather from her soft, mumbled complaints material enough for a great jeremiad — he’d make good, like the chroniclers of the past, on the degradations of the present, because if more of them were to come, and the dead earth spring into life again, then certainly, certainly, they’d want to read all about Dolores and the moment that Marta slid under the desk with the stick in her hand, prolegomenon to future agonies.
Dolores covered her eyes with her big white hands. Marta pressed against her, a sloppy grin on her face, dark stains spreading across the thin fabric of her dress, damp with excitement. Adam stood up and pushed the desk away. In the sudden onslaught of the light Dolores cringed, silent save for one final whimper, and each of her siblings angled for a better view except for Jakub, who made for the door, shaking his head. Agathe stood on her tiptoes as Marta darted a snakish hand forward and lifted Dolores’s skirt, exposing her puffy nether regions, and then a giggle rose up from the crowd and curled across the room to where the schoolmaster lay with his face in his beard. He grumbled and lifted his shaggy head and saw them there: the clump of children, the half-naked, terrified Dolores, who stared up at him with a plea in her eyes. The schoolmaster cleared his throat and slowly began to read. Agathe looked at Adam and then at Marta, who spat on Dolores and dropped the stick on the floor. The shadows withdrew.
Missouri Williams is a writer and editor who lives in Prague. Her debut novel, The Doloriad, was published this year.