Pavel Vilikovský

Beautiful Engineer,
Cruel Duchess

translated by Magdalena Mullek

This translation first appeared in Books from Slovakia 2017.

Reprinted with permission of LIC.

(She sells seashells)

Why should anyone care: On the other side of the road a small group of children is walking up a hill. It must be a school field trip. A woman in a bright red jacket shouts at them from the top of a forest path, “Come on, come on!” It’s a sunny but cool September day; remnants of the morning fog still hang between the trees. Puddles left by last night’s rain line the side of the road, and a shy sun is just beginning to look into them.

But why should anyone care.


Why should anyone care: On the opposite sidewalk stand a man and a woman. The woman looks at her watch and says, “We need to go; I have a client at 11:30. I’ll drop you off at the trolleybus stop so that I’m not late, OK?” The man is oblivious, absently watching the last child climbing up the hill. It’s a boy in a thin green coat with a hood. His tennis shoes are slipping, and he keeps catching himself with his hands. From a distance it looks as though he’s playing in the grass, looking for a coin or a set of keys that has fallen out of his pocket. When he stands up, his hands are covered in wet leaves; he wipes them on his coat. What a dolt, he’ll get all dirty, the man thinks idly, I’m sure his parents will be thrilled. Then he realizes that the coat looks familiar, and looks up at the boy’s blonde hair.

“OK?” the woman asks again. “Fine,” the man replies automatically, as if he were responding to the greeting of a passerby. He doesn’t even glance at her; his eyes are still on the hill.

But why should anyone care.


Why should anyone care: The man just realized that the boy is his son. The recognition is as sudden as if someone had shined a bright flashlight in his face in the dark. He’s so clumsy, the man thinks tenderly. And while tender thinking may not be possible, the word “clumsy” certainly doesn’t carry any hint of reproach or mockery. I must tell him to put his feet at an angle, perpendicular to the hill, so they don’t slip, he thought. And he should have proper footwear for the forest. Boots.

For a moment longer he pushes the boy up the hill with his eyes. The boy makes it to the path. “Of course, Patrik, last as usual,” the teacher in the red jacket exclaims. The man doesn’t recall the boy mentioning a field trip that morning, but he wasn’t the one getting him ready for school; she was. Not this one, a different she.

“Are you listening to me at all?” this one says. “I have to take Karin to her music lesson at three, but then I’ll have an hour before I have to go get her.”

The man turns around and catches up to her in a few quick steps. “I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t think I can make it today. I have something then.”

The boy was far away, now the woman seems too close. The geometry of it feels off to him. Distorted perspective, as if he had a different prescription in each eye.

“In Venice all mirrors are Venetian,” the beautiful engineer said with a smile. “Even your cheap cracked pocket mirror. The trick is getting it to Venice.”

But why should anyone care.


Why should anyone care: In today’s lesson plan she writes across all four class periods, “Field trip. Educational goal: Getting to know the nature around us and learning how to behave outdoors.” A contractor who’s running behind schedule is replacing the old windows in her classroom with new ones, and the principal has assigned the class an alternate activity.

The man doesn’t know about the note on the lesson plan, but if he saw it, he would have objections against the word “nature.” In his mind a forested park in Bratislava is not nature. Cars drive through it on paved roads, and there’s even a regular city bus that stops there. The trees seem tame, tied to the road like a dog, while to him nature is a wolf. He likes wolves, though he has no desire to meet one. He’s quite content to see them on television or in photographs.

The woman sees nature in everything, including a fallen chestnut, a floating feather, or a potted geranium on a balcony. Nature is like an older sister with whom she had shared a room growing up, and that’s how she treats her. She’s not embarrassed to show her feelings in front of her; if anything, nature brings out an emotional outpouring from her. She’s relaxed there, laughs out loud, unbuttons her tight pantsuit. In town, on the other hand, she’s a decisive, no-nonsense woman; that’s who she was when he had met her for the first time at a business meeting. That’s who had caught his interest, and when he ran into her on Market Street one day, he invited her to a nearby café; by now he can’t remember which one. She came.

But why should anyone care.


Why should anyone care: “Too bad,” the woman says, “because we won’t see each other tomorrow. It’s going to be a busy day for me.”

The man thinks that his rejection has offended her, that she’s not used to getting no for an answer and is pouting. He thinks she’s trying to use emotional blackmail. No, that may be a stretch, but he does think that her statement is a challenge: If you can, so can I. The truth is he’s not sure. He doesn’t know the real woman, he only thinks her. As far as he’s concerned, she’s entirely thought up. Her relationship to nature is also thought up; she has never spoken about it so openly. And he also thinks the boy, at the moment, tenderly. If that’s at all possible.

He doesn’t mention the boy to her. He thinks the boy would be a wedge, driving them further apart, distancing her from him — as it is, he’s the only one distanced. He thinks he can handle it. He’ll cover for it so she doesn’t notice a thing. The distance isn’t anyone’s fault; it just happened. By chance. Truth be told, she was the one who wanted to get some fresh air and not sit in a smoky café. How should he have known that his son’s class would be going to the same place? Besides which, the woman speaks about her daughter freely, whenever she likes; even now she’s using her as a pragmatic, indisputable argument.

For a while they walk in silence. He feels her by his side. She’s close, he could touch her, but he doesn’t. He just thinks her. He thinks that she’s disappointed that they won’t see each other in the afternoon, and that’s a good thing. It means that she’d like to be with him. That she enjoys being with him.

“Too bad,” he says. “I don’t mean about tomorrow, I mean that I can’t make it today. The boy has a parent teacher conference I have to go to.”

It’s not true, but the man thinks it’s a merciful lie. He thinks he has offered an olive branch, while at the same time he has given the boy his due. Karin has her music lesson; Patrik has a parent teacher conference. They’re even; a fair balance has been achieved.

The woman doesn’t say a word; she just glances at him (it’s such a quick glance that he doesn’t have time to get a read on it: was it inquisitive, mocking, suspicious?) and keeps walking. The parking lot appears around the turn, three, maybe five hundred feet away. He’s glad. Right now, the woman, the way she is, is distracting him. Getting in the way of his thinking.

But why should anyone care.

© Mullek and Sherwood