art by Melissa Mead
The Ritual of Names in Prague in the Last Days of the New Empire
by Bernie Mojzes
The bells of Strahov Monastery hadn't rung, I'm told, for over eighty years. Termites got into the thick wood beams some twenty-odd years before the building was boarded up and abandoned. Or maybe it was carpenter ants. Or maybe it was just dry rot. The details don't matter. What matters is that steel I-beams were set into the millennia-old wood and stonework and the ancient bells welded to them to prevent catastrophe.
I've seen them. There's no way they can ring.
Strahov Monastery sits in the center of the district that bears its name. To the south and east is the park, now cleared and tilled in haphazard plots, and the ruins of the once-proud stadium. Once upon a time Strahov Stadium boasted the claim of second largest stadium in the world. Now it serves as both the local dump and as an informal market. North and west had been home to thriving businesses, homes and apartments. Not so thriving now, of course, but we make do. The monastery is the only building that hasn't been broken into and converted to other uses, that hasn't been covered in graffiti, hasn't been littered with refuse. Some residual reverence, I had thought, for the dying faith to which I've pledged my life.
Strahov district had been written off during the Collapse, cut off, evacuated at gunpoint, fenced in and forgotten. And then gradually repopulated by the poorest of the poor and the baddest of the bad, those for whom the razor wire was as much a protection from a predatory world as it was a barrier. Laundry hangs out to dry on lines strung between crumbling buildings. Solar panels decorate some of the rooftops. Not enough to matter. The greasy smell of cooking fires permeates the drywall; the apartment buildings bear an uncanny resemblance to giant smokehouses. Children play football in the street, dribbling coarsely stitched leather sacks, guarding goals constructed of street signs, while the older kids congregate on corners and practice the preening rituals of the adolescent mating dance.
The clinic that my ministry has brought me to is at the edge of the district, the last building before the fence and, through the grace of a few well-lined pockets, the only building still on the power grid. I have no medical training; my mission is to assist where I can, to spread the word, to ease the fears of the reluctant, to bring in those who are too ill to walk the handful of tortured blocks themselves. I walk among these people, speak in my halting Czech to those who will listen, assure them that we have no connection to the government, or to any of those who were complicit. The specter of eugenics hangs over us all, and I cannot begrudge them so well-founded a paranoia.
Prague is, after all, not so very different from the rest of Europe under the New Empire.
I saw her at dusk, always only at dusk.
She stood at the doors of Strahov Monastery, seeking entrance. Five children gathered around her skirts. The sixth, a baby, she held in her arms. There was, of course, no entrance to be had; thick plywood had been nailed over the doorway. A sign warning trespassers that the building was property of the Church was still legible, only partially covered by the peeling stickers declaring the structure and its contents property of the Empire.
Hardship, not age, had worn lines into the woman's face. She was hardly a quarter century old, though at first sight she seemed much older. I gathered my robes up to cross the rubble-strewn street. She turned to me as I approached, tearstained eyes seeking mine.
I'd sought to help, but some losses defy relief: the baby was very clearly dead.
Its skin was pale, with an undertone of grey. Its eyes were dark hollows, and blackened fingers peeked from a fold in the swaddling. The telltale black lump was visible on its neck.
A swollen and infected lymph gland.
The mark of God's wrath, in some mythologies. The mark of Plague.
The breath caught in my throat. We'd seen a few cases earlier that week, one child and two adults, just beginning to show symptoms, and we'd heard through the grapevine that cases of Bubonic Plague were being reported in other cities throughout Europe. We'd put the patients on wide-spectrum antibiotics and expected them to make full recoveries. This was the first Plague death I'd seen.
The woman said something, but I wasn't able to make sense of it. She spoke what sounded to me like Czech, but with such a strong dialect that it defeated my limited language skills. She pleaded with me. I think I caught a few words: help, and please, and sacrament. At first I thought she wanted help with the baby, but she wouldn't let me near it. Instead, she pointed at the monastery towers, standing silent against the darkening sky.
I was at a loss. I'd thought that she was mad, perhaps, with grief, holding her dead baby, her remaining children gathered around her, tearful but silent, and speaking to probably the only man for miles around who couldn't understand a damned thing she said.
"Listen," I said, "you need to come with me. We can help you. We need to check you out and check your children. Maybe they are also sick. But if they are, we can save them. They don't also have to die."
Maybe she understood the last word, because she burst into tears once again, and fell to her knees in front of me. She looked up at me again, then kissed the hem of my robe. I felt unclean, as if by letting her kneel before me I'd assumed a role to which I had no right.
"Please," I said, "please, don't do that." I took her by the shoulders and brought her to her feet. She was very nearly weightless, insubstantial, as if my hands could have passed right through her.