The Return

I did not see the man who stole my shoes.

It was the day of All Souls, and I was crouching by my sister’s grave, trying to rid it of moss. In the giant graveyard of Olšany, half of Prague’s dead are buried. The other half are somewhere in the suburbs, or wandering unburied, screeching into the chimneys of the breweries or prowling on the gilded theatre roof. (A few celebrities are on the hill where the fortress looms, of course, and the Jews are enclosed in their separate stones.)

It was a dim, foggy day, dark even at two in the afternoon, and the ground was as sodden and spongy as a lung. As I imagine a lung. I had remembered to bring a pair of old boots for gardening, and when I reached the grave, I stepped out of my smart shoes and left them at the edge of the paved path, a few feet from the headstone.

I had not visited my sister’s grave for years. It was so overgrown that the words on it could not be read. I began to hack at the ivy and at all the creeping things that had taken possession of her.

In Prague, the city where I was born, people still light candles on All Souls’ and place them on the graves. There are not many Christians there, but there are plenty who love to stand in the dark doorway of winter and see dots and pinpricks of flame filling all corners of the cemetery.

I had been away for so long, but I remembered how it felt, when we were children. My sister’s face lit by the rows of candles crammed onto the pedestal beneath the stone Madonna and child. She reached out, holding her hands above the candles to warm them, poking her stubby fingers too close, and I dragged her back. She was younger than me.

Then, later, as students, we stood close to Palach’s grave. His body was brought from his parents’ village, exhumed and reinterred. He was a martyr, burning himself to death on Wenceslas Square. The grave was quite ordinary, except when it was covered with a burning quilt of candles: then it illuminated the darkness and the faces crowded around, wearing that odd expression of stubborn memory, puzzled resistance.

My sister met Paul there, beside the grave. A foreigner, I don’t know which country; he pronounced his name the English way but he never seemed English to me. She reached out her fingers and held them up, almost touching his wide smile, his bearded brown face, his warmth which I never trusted. I could not drag her away from him.

The man who stole my shoes must have taken them just as I was uncovering the inscription on the gravestone. I remember looking across at the path and seeing them there, dark green high heels which should have melted into the background of brown and grey, but which I happened to have placed on a patch of bright yellow leaves. They shone there, in a small halo.

I turned back and ripped away the clinging stalks of ivy, till it was visible: Věra Sychravá, 1970-1995. Nothing else was written there. I had argued with my mother over bible verses and lines of poetry. There were no words we could agree on.

Paul came to the funeral. I could not believe that. I knew he had killed her – his leaving had killed her – his leaving her and her cold hands which became colder, her shivering body which seemed incapable of making its own warmth.

He stood apart and left fast afterwards so I couldn’t take hold of his jolly bearded face by the ears and hurl him into the tramline outside Olšany. Not that he was jolly at the funeral, but he had the sort of face that always looked like it was just about to grin.

My sister said it was an illness, nothing to do with Paul. We argued about it, when she was still in her flat, glaring at me from the couch. I made her endless herbal teas which she barely drank; she just warmed her hands on the cup. I shouted at her, and at last she shouted back, in a voice that croaked and split the steamed up air of her cluttered flat. I went for a while, after that, feeling glad she could still shout, not realising that perhaps that was the last of her loud strength.

The green shoes belonged to her. She barely wore them. I took them from her flat after she died, and I half forgot them, left them in a box which followed me to every place I lived. In Prague again, at last, I unpacked it all, and wore them to my new job at the foreign ministry.


That night – or twilight, really, for the graveyard’s locked at night – I go back to see the lights. And perhaps I imagine that the shoes will be returned, replaced, left back on the patch of leaves. The candles I lit on her grave are burning and the patch of yellow leaves is there, empty, just as it was when I looked away from her name and saw – I thought – a figure disappearing far, far along the path. I ran, but there was no one there, or anywhere, except old women tending graves, frowning at me solidly.

I did not quite make a quilt of candles, but I did light them all along the edges of the grave. I stand thinking about their light, the crafty, flickering light which tricks and twists the look of the world. It is strange that candles are used for holy purposes, when the light they shine glimmers with furtive cunning.

At last, I walk towards the glowing Madonna, where children jostle in the cold night, pushing their noses close to the sea of candles.

I think I see her – a woman, wearing my shoes. She has a dark green coat to match, one which I recognise. Hair greying, like mine, but undyed. Standing close, too close to the candles, her sleeves might catch light. Children, not hers, squeezing obliviously past her feet, which wear green shoes, high heels, dark leather gleaming in the candlelight. Her face is turned half away, but then she looks briefly back at me, her eyes not quite meeting mine.

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