Millstone, millstone, worth four golden coins Broke apart and did us harm, As it fell on the ground... boom! We'll take a plane and saw, we'll play a little longer, And after we repair the wheel, we'll spin like this…
Czech Nursery Rhyme
On the last day of his freedom, the great Grygory Vrevca went to visit his daughter. The authorities had traced him to the basement of a building in Prague, a damp apartment with bare brick walls below a hosiery shop. The police surrounded the place, but Grygory predictably escaped – he and his bodyguard Kovac knocked through the ceiling, prised up the floorboards, and swung themselves into a scattering of startled customers in the shop above. He bought a pair of the best silk stockings for his daughter then walked calmly out of the shop, right past a line of officers who were watching their colleagues hack through the apartment door with an axe. Before the police had a chance to close the railway stations – a grave act that only the arrest of someone like Grygory Vrevca could possibly justify – he and Kovac caught a train out of the city to the town where his wife and his daughter Mina lived. He picked Mina up and kissed her, then sat with her between his legs on the kitchen floor. Mina was too young to remember her father’s final visit. The stockings, it turned out, were a miscalculation – Grygory gave them to his wife instead.
Ana Vrevca had become used to talking to her husband almost exclusively over the telephone, in a code they had developed so that anyone listening in wouldn’t be able to discover Grygory’s whereabouts or what he was planning to do next. She found, though, on his rare visits home, that she was unable to break out of the code. While he sat playing with Mina she tried to tell him that she had been worried about him and that the police had come to the house several times, but she heard herself instead ask about his recent trip to Helsinki and somewhat dramatically announce that there were birds nesting in the attic. Grygory’s responses were monosyllabic. He seemed just as captivated by the rolling of a crocheted ball along the terracotta tiles as Mina was. Someone knocked at the door.
The police were so sure the criminal mastermind they had been hunting for nearly a decade would have gone into the deepest kind of hiding that they only bothered to send two officers to the Vrevca house. They hardly knew what to do when the arc of the opening door revealed the most wanted man in the country with a child in his arms. Such was their surprise, they agreed to his request for five minutes alone with his daughter before they took him away. In those five minutes, the officers sat stiffly on Vrevca armchairs (the proceeds of crime) and imagined what would happen to them if they allowed Grygory to get away. One formulated a scenario in which he could blame the escape on his younger partner; the other tried to calm himself with the knowledge that his colleague, being a sergeant and ten years older than he was, would almost certainly be deemed to have been in charge if there were an enquiry. They quietly put together their versions of what was to have happened, one opting for guile, the other for ignorance. Both could feel sweat on the backs of their knees. Both could hear Grygory’s low voice coming from the next room. The clock ticked angrily in the hall and Ana refused to offer them coffee.
Ana was not worried. She knew that the phonograph was in the next room, and that Grygory had made a record of himself speaking in a low voice, to be used in this exact situation. They had gone over it together: he would ask for five minutes alone with his daughter, put the record on, and as long as the child stayed quiet, he could be out of the well-greased window and away, before the police suspected something was up. Mina would be quiet, Ana was sure. The record was of Grygory reading the words to a nursery rhyme from his youth, and Ana often used it to put Mina to sleep.
But Grygory Vrevca prided himself on his capacity to surprise. When the five minutes with his daughter were up, he opened the door and carried the child back to her mother as if it were a chest of jewels. Then he offered his wrists to be handcuffed.
As her husband was being taken away, Ana said, ‘Thank you, Grygor.’
‘For what?’ he asked.
‘For the stockings,’ she said. She knew this was part of their code, though even she didn’t know exactly what it meant.
Kovac, worn out by the excitement of the flight from Prague, had gone straight to the guest room when the two men arrived. He slept through his boss’s arrest, and by the time the police thought to go back to the house to look for him, he was on his way to Russia.
Grygory Vrevca was dead for three years, from when Mina was four until she entered school. Ana Vrevca waited until she thought her daughter was old enough to understand the concept of death, then told her that Grygory had exsanguinated after falling through a window. She did this not because she thought it would be better for the child to have an image of a dead and honest father than of a living criminal one, but because she had read it in so many stories that she assumed it was expected of prisoners’ wives to kill off their husbands. On Mina’s first day of school, however, Grygory came suddenly and violently back to life. Within hours, Mina had achieved notoriety as the daughter of one of her country’s most infamous criminals. ‘Your father,’ her teacher asked or perhaps stated as he read the roll, ‘is the famous bank robber?’ Mina didn’t know if it had been a question or not. She had an instinctive feeling that this was the first test of her school life, and whether or not she passed would set a precedent more powerful than any adult could explain. She nodded.
A few years later, another teacher spent an entire week of ethics lessons lecturing Mina and her classmates about her father’s exploits in the context of class and patriotism. ‘In what way,’ he asked, ‘might we consider his self-imposed exile in Finland his greatest crime of all, and in what way might we consider his return to Prague to commit more crimes an act of atonement?’ He was one of those teachers who, like Grygory himself, prided himself on his ability to surprise. At the end of term, everyone in her class had to do a project on a famous Czech person. Most chose St Agnes of Bohemia or Prokop Diviš, the inventor of the lightning rod. Mina and one other boy, Miloš Brandmann, chose Grygory Vrevca. Mina’s project involved the presentation of some of what she assumed were his possessions: an old microscope, a photograph of the outside of a Prague bank, and the shards of a broken record, unlabelled. She also interviewed her mother about how she and Grygory had met. The objects were well received by her teacher – especially the way she had glued together the pieces of the record, which he said showed an archaeological instinct – but he questioned the veracity of the interview, as it seemed to contradict too much of what was known about her father. (Ana, being now wholly unable to talk about Grygory without speaking in code, had told Mina that they had met by the shore of a drained lake, the only two swimmers who had not known that the government had filled it in with sand the week before to make way for new housing.) Nevertheless, Mina was given the second-highest mark in the class, after Miloš Brandmann, who had written a somewhat sensationalist account of the day of Grygory’s capture, including a brazen escape from a hosiery shop as the police stormed his basement apartment and what Miloš considered a sophisticated open-ending: the unsolved mystery of why the great Grygory Vrevca had allowed himself to be caught by two gormless local cops. Their teacher liked the piece so much he urged the boy to submit it to the local newspaper. It was published and then picked up by a bigger paper in Prague, which ran it under the headline, ‘Notorious Criminal’s Fatal Mistake – As Told By Our Next Great Storyteller’.
Mina never asked her mother where Grygory was, or if it was possible to visit him in prison. In fact he had spent some months in a work gang, building a new railway line just outside the town, but that was during the years in which he was dead, so there was no danger of them running into each other. By the time he was alive again, he had been transferred to a jail on the outskirts of Prague, once a castle in the days of King Leopold. It still had a portcullis. Grygory gained the favours of his fellow inmates by hinting that he had hidden a large amount of stolen cash somewhere in the east of the country, and adding with a dismissive wave of his arm that he would probably need an accomplice to help him retrieve it. In reality, he was certain that Kovac would have helped himself to all the money he had stashed in various apartments from Odessa to Paris, and that by the time he was released he would be old and tired and suited to nothing greater than a job as a railway guard or a porter in an hotel.
He adapted to prison life better than many. He couldn’t help smiling every time he saw the portcullis. It gave him a strange feeling of pride to know that he lived in one of the most famous castles in Czech history. There was a sense of justice to it, he thought. Justice for the unjust. He, a convicted felon, lived in the house of a prince. He often thought about his daughter, but because he never heard from her and because Ana’s sporadic letters became increasingly unintelligible as the years went by, he was forced to create her himself. Mina was always impressive in her father’s mind: sometimes she was a national field-hockey champion, sometimes a beloved doctor. Once he even had her rob a postal train in broad daylight, alongside a man who could have been him. He liked picturing her as a talented teenager or a grown woman, but when he thought of her at the age she had been when he last saw her he became agitated almost to despair. He was haunted by the question Miloš Brandmann had dropped on his readers with a climactic flourish in his popular but factually questionable essay: why had Grygory not escaped out of the window using the phonograph trick he had prepared so meticulously? I’m sorry to say, he didn’t know.
For Mina, coming second to Miloš was a fillip. She threw herself into academic work, with the principle goal of beating, or rather defeating, him. If Miloš knew more about her father than she did, then she would know more about everything else. She would search the fields of human knowledge until she found the one thing that Miloš thought belonged to him alone and she would master him at it. She would have revenge. And while she was at it, she could reclaim Grygory from the clutches of history. By competing against Miloš and winning, she wanted to erase the significance of his essay, thereby saving her father not only from the banal myth of his reputation as a gentleman criminal, but perhaps even from his capture itself. Mina remembered Miloš’s essay with such uncanny clarity that the story he had conjured became her memory of the day itself. She often daydreamed that she had been older, and that she had helped her father escape. It was because of that melancholy fantasy that she was now in such a hurry to become the kind of person who knew more than the Miloš Brandmanns. She may have failed to be an adult when her father had needed her to be one, but she could perhaps make up for it by becoming one as soon as possible. The two began a rivalry that would span their adolescent years. Mina fought Miloš for the top mark in every test; she spent hours on her homework in the hope that it might gain more praise than his. Though their desks were far apart, she would sometimes meet his gaze as they both sat, pencils down, waiting for the rest of the class to finish an exercise. Miloš participated in the rivalry just as fiercely, but for him the motivation was much simpler. He was, of course, in love with her.
Throughout school, Miloš and Mina placed first and second in most exams. They alternated receiving the annual prize for being top of the class and even shared it on two occasions. Miloš struggled to find ways to spend time with Mina outside of school. Revising for tests or exams together was out of the question, she said, as it would compromise the purity of their rivalry with shared knowledge and a sense of teamwork. A sense of teamwork was actually what Miloš craved. It sounded exciting. He also felt that joining forces, or convincing her to join forces, would be the same as winning the competition. It would be a diplomatic victory.
Sometimes they would walk home from school together if one or other of them was not staying behind to do extra work. They even kissed three times, twice clumsily and once (Miloš thought) rather well. But he could never quite ignore the sense that she was assessing him for weakness, spending time with him the same way he imagined her father’s gang would stake out a bank before robbing it. Even as they kissed for the third time, her hands seemed to probe his lower back as though they were searching for cracks. Miloš began to see the end of school as the finish line of the race he found himself running. Perhaps then Mina might become his – he tingled at the word – lover. He would have backed away from their competition if it weren’t for the fact that he was petrified of someone else taking his place, and the fact that she paid him far more attention if he had beaten her on a test than if she had beaten him.
The rivalry continued until Mina discovered microscopy. The old microscope, which had sat on a shelf in Mina’s bedroom for so long – a towering symbol of her failure to know her father better than Miloš did – one day spontaneously mutated. She was fifteen years old and doing her homework when she looked at it and understood for the first time what it was. She was hardly conscious of walking quietly to the kitchen to get a knife. She tucked it between her arm and her rib cage and smuggled it past her mother. She bled more than she needed to the first time, putting just two illicit, giddy drops on the glass slide, leaving the rest to drip forgotten onto her lap. When she looked through the microscope she felt as though she were seeing through time. It began as a thick forest, then she switched to the high-powered lens and it became a primordial morass – disc-like cells coupled and uncoupled in a swampy world of newness and possibility, flat and eternal, where there was no shelter but no need for shelter, where things grew and decayed at the same time. It was a place to wander grubbily until one succumbed to dampness and died. She stared like Narcissus at her own blood and fell in love.
The cuts on her hands led to her mother tearfully asking her if she was trying to kill herself, an act that would be not only irresponsible but downright selfish, Ana cried, especially now that the bird problem in the attic was worse than ever. Mina put her arms around her crying mother and learned to cut less visible parts of her body. She could stare through the microscope for what seemed like hours, watching her blood slowly clot and dry. It was like simultaneously looking at the beginning and the end of the world.
The more Mina used the microscope, the less she cared about the other parts of her life. Her marks dropped away, leaving Miloš stranded alone at the top of the class. Though she still went to school, she paid barely any attention, having trained her mind to recall at will the glory of the slides. She lost all interest in beating Miloš. His being in love with her was something she was aware of in a vague sense, and as she couldn’t see the difference between obsessive rivalry and love, she had supposed that she felt the same about him. But now the blood blocked her vision.
Miloš found he could no longer meet Mina’s eyes across the classroom after finishing a test. It was as though she had rejected him in favour of someone else, except that there was no one else as far as he could see. When he felt her eyes pan past him without focusing, he wondered if he had fallen in love with an apparition. He began working on what he thought would be the ultimate love letter. Five years on from Miloš’s successful story – printed, let’s not forget, in both a local and a national newspaper – the country had lost interest in Grygory Vrevca. His infamy had been replaced by that of others: a serial strangler had captivated the public a year previously, relegating Grygory’s gentlemanly bank raids – which often involved tunnels or disguises or both – to the quaint and anachronistic. Even though Grygory had clearly killed people (although it had never been proven), his murders were historical ones, belonging to the past in a society that was moving into the future at breakneck speed. Strangulations were what people wanted now, grainy newspaper images of bruised body parts, not jaunty dramatisations of shoot-outs in front of Prague banks and reports of cars mysteriously crashing through barricades into icy rivers. But buoyed by his early success as a writer of what he had already begun to think of as ‘dramatic retellings’, Miloš decided that he would write a complete history of Grygory Vrevca. He wanted to make the nation fall in love with Grygory again, and in his naïve way, he wanted to make Mina happy. He would free her father from the imprisonment of being a national footnote. It was the next best thing to actually breaking him out of prison, something that – despite his youthful confidence in his abilities – he thought was probably beyond him.
Mina became more and more hermitic until she finally wound up a biologist. She had failed many of her final exams, but had been awarded the school science prize (the only award that Miloš didn’t win that year). It was enough to earn her a place at Charles University in Prague, where she specialised in haematology. Despite having no Miloš to beat, her fastidiousness and her ability to spend entire days working in the laboratory earned her the label of ‘rising star’. She was featured in the university paper several times, including after developing a compound that could stop blood from clotting during transfusions (a project she had begun with the aim of prolonging her ecstatic explorations under the microscope). She told the interviewer that her interest in biology came from the birds that had nested in her attic when she was a girl. She had one day come across one of them, dead; it was the very first thing she had looked at under a microscope, she said.
But Mina’s successes were destined for the pages of medical journals, not history books or Miloš’s dramatic retellings. When she published a paper in which she proposed that blood could be classified into four different groups, it attracted little attention. Two decades later, a similar study by an American won the Nobel Prize.
Only once did Mina visit her father in the jail with the portcullis. It was a disaster. She sat at a table opposite a grey man and felt nothing. She expected him to tell her he was proud of her for getting her doctorate, but he was monosyllabic, apart from asking ‘Do you remember what I told you?’ several times, and once, ‘Do you remember the place I told you about?’ She was hurt that he had nothing more to say to her, but apart from telling him that she was worried her mother might be losing her mind, she found she had nothing to say to him either. She didn’t see the point in telling him about her work. After all, the man was a stranger. She didn’t even think he looked like her. She wondered if she would see any similarity if she compared their blood under a microscope. He certainly didn’t seem like the smart and dashing bank robber she had been told about at school. Then again, she thought, as the train rocked her home from the jail, most of that she had got from reading Miloš’s story, so who knew if it was true?
In fact, she had not met her father at the jail that day. Grygory had told enough of his fellow inmates that he had a hidden stash of Koruna waiting for him that the story had spread throughout the jail. Some of the more ruthless men had begun to threaten him, telling him he would never leave prison alive unless he told them where the money was. When Mina’s visit was announced through the loudspeaker, they held him down in his cell and sent one of their own, a conman named Ivan, out to meet her. Ivan tried to subtly determine if Grygory had confided in her before he was captured, but he came back empty-handed, concluding that she was either ignorant or had too much guile to let the information slip. (As it turned out, the others in the gang did not believe Ivan’s story. He was due to be released soon, and they were convinced he had managed to find out where the money was and was planning to take it for himself. That was why poor Ivan met his end, on the very last day of his captivity.)
As Mina explored the inside of the human body, Miloš wrote. Having been the great hope of his parents and the greatest hope the school had had for several decades, he dashed the communal optimism by rejecting university in favour of writing stories. That isn’t to say he didn’t have some success. His dramatic retellings of events from Czech history earned him a small flat in Prague and enough money to live on, provided he was careful with it. He wrote about Grygory Vrevca concurrently and slowly, partly because he was afraid he would never write anything again after he had finished the book for Mina. The process made him think of Frankenstein bringing dead flesh to life. He was blowing the dust off Grygory Vrevca, he liked to tell his friends, but at the typewriter he felt more sinister, as though he were bending the laws of nature. Though he had not seen Mina for years, he was still in love with her in that unwavering way in which one is necessarily in love with something one has created oneself.
He guided Grygory through the usual sad childhood, friendship with Kovac, engagement and marriage to Ana, and his self-imposed exile in Helsinki; he then spurred him to increasingly bold schemes that amassed more and more money until the day of his capture. The climax. Miloš wrote it in a single sitting. With the police closing in on him in Prague, Miloš had him outwit them with barely-believable simplicity, before doing the one thing Miloš thought only the reader of a book would want or expect. He went to see his beautiful and neglected daughter. The knowledge Miloš had from his first story had hardened into memory over the years, and he could almost believe that he had been there that day. The words poured out effortlessly until he came to a sudden stop at the great unsolved mystery. It was the question that agitated Grygory like an itch whenever he thought of it: why had he not escaped during his five minutes alone with Mina? Miloš knew that this time around, he would have to answer it. He also knew that whatever he wrote would be the truth, so long as enough people read it, and as such he felt he had been endowed with a special responsibility. His options, as he saw them, were these:
The call to action. Grygory could use the five minutes to whisper to his infant daughter the location of his hidden riches, over and over again, in the hope that the words would take root in her unformed mind. Miloš imagined this leading to a hysterical national treasure hunt, with people buying maps, shovels, and of course copies of his book to scour for clues.
The sad ending. Grygory could put the record on and slide the silent window open, but find himself immobilised by the sound of his own voice and by memories of a childhood so melancholy that the will to run completely deserts him. Perhaps his voice reminds him of his father’s voice, though that might be too much. Miloš imagined printing the lines of the nursery rhyme as the final passage of the book, and readers desperately turning over – hoping for more – but finding only emotive blank pages all the way to the back cover.
The revenge ending. There was a third option, and he liked it more than the others. Hadn’t Mina broken the record that would have saved her father? He saw Grygory holding her in one arm, trying to take it out of its sleeve with the other. He saw Mina reaching out towards the shining black disc. It looked like a hole leading to another room or another world. He saw it drop. Then he heard Grygory, in a low voice, explaining to his daughter how she had just cost him his life, cursing at her in a friendly tone, the way you would talk mockingly to a dog.
Miloš leant away from his typewriter. He thought briefly of Mina looking across the classroom at him after they had both finished a test ahead of time. Then he bent forward to wheel the final page out of the machine. He put the manuscript in an envelope, put his hat on, and went to the post office.
The book came in a paper envelope. Mina knew at once what it was, and realised that she had been expecting it. She ran a fingertip over the yellow cloth cover. It was rough. She didn’t know whether or not it was ‘doing well’, only that it wasn’t in the window of the bookshop she walked past on her way to and from the university, which was her sole barometer of developments in non-haematological thought. She opened it, but was immediately overwhelmed by Miloš’s dedication (both kinds) to her and so slid it onto a shelf in her study, pushing it a little farther in than the others. It wouldn’t be ignored, though. Its bright spine would catch her eyes whenever she leant back from the microscope. A few days later she took it down and read it. She had expected to be angry at the way he had so wildly refracted her family history, but she found it surprisingly funny. They were lies, certainly, but kindly lies, most of them. The truth was what she saw in the microscope: the evolving and eternal shapes that were her and her mother and her father.
Mina wondered if Grygory had even come to visit her on the day he was captured, if he had been captured, if he had been infamous at all, or if it had all been a boyish and misguided gift. Had Miloš been dreaming it up as they sat in class, or after school when they walked home in the near-silence that had thrilled her? Or had she in fact brought her father’s life of crime to an end with a wave of her hand? It would at least explain Grygory’s coldness that day in the prison, and perhaps also his insistent questioning: Do you remember what I told you? He may have been muted by contrition, unable to express his guilt for blaming her for what had happened. Or he may simply have been reminding her. Do you remember what I told you? Do you remember what you did? Don’t forget it.
She put the book down and went back to her microscope. The resolution on it wasn’t as good as on the one in the laboratory, but when she turned the coarse focus the light swept into an image. The blood on the slide was now dry, and the unending mesh of discs had split and frozen into a landscape that would not change until she took ethanol to it and wiped it clean.