Shkorec, the city notary, was on the verge of despair. His lean and tortured face was nothing but an accordion-like patch of furrows and wrinkles hanging from his forehand. Each day he found it more and more difficult to cross the large city square. A vague feeling of fear overcame him every time he traversed the bare, flint-paved area. He imagined that he would get dizzy and, lacking any support, fall down in the middle of the square. Other people often have a similar feeling when crossing a narrow footbridge.
Shkorec fought his fear by crossing the square as often as possible. Finally, he really got a dizzy spell and was forced to lean against the lamp pole, there in the middle of the square in sight of all the people, until he ventured to continue on his way.
Shkorec confided his fears to the city physician, Doctor Edut. A relatively young, beardless man with thick sideburns, a good and serious face, Doctor Edut took Shkorec for a stroll outside the city limits.
”It’s your nerves,“ the doctor said. „You need exercice, my dear friend. Sledding, skating, and skiing in the winter, walks and baths – especially sun baths – in the summer, and you’ll recover.“
“I don’t trust either air or sun any more,“ Shkorec resisted, frowning. “Darkness, brain darkness, is about to get me. May I lean on your arm? I feel more secure when supported by someone.“
Both men walked on a field path between two steep slopes. The earth was covered with new, light-green grass. The sun warmed the bodies of both men pleasantly through the thick felt of their coats. The air, transparent and light, filled their nostrils and lungs, caressing their cheeks like an invisible fine handkerchief. The squally spring breezes stirred the winter crops and shook fragrant petals from blossoming cherrz/trees. The path was dusty. Lumps of dry mud crumbled under their feet.
“So, you don’t believe in the healing powers of air and sun!“ Edut laughed sarcastically. “You don’t need to. However, look around and try them. Do you know what this path looked like three weeks ago? It was nothing but pools of mud up to one’s knees. And look it now! It is like the palm of your hand. And these slopes? They were very sad and bare. Look them now! They’re green. You, my friend, are sludge and mire, a bare and sad slope. Go out into the air and sun and you’ll become young again, like that birch grove over there! Yes, I assure you, you will.“
“Your words are nothing but pholosophical and poetic speculations.“
“Not at all! These are the facts of medical science. Listen! In June we can start the sun bathing. And we’ll include the Veterinarian Papst in our activities to cheer you up. He is also a nervous wreck. He is always holding his head and dancing around, even when sitting with a beer glass in his hand.“
And so, it happened thet Notary Shkorec, Doctor Edut, and Veterinarian Papst went, weather allowing, every summer afternoon to bathe at the floodgate, a twenty-minute walk beyond the city boundary. The location was beautiful. Protected on one side by a green hillock with luxuriant, soft turf at its foot, the place was edged on the other side by thick willow bushes. Fine river sand, ideal for lingering and bathing in the sun, covered the place at the river bank. On the other side of the hillock, there passed the highway. From it, true, some curious spectators could have peeked at the bathers. Nevertheless, who would be so irrational to peek at the bathing men? And who would be walking on the highway on a summer afternoon anyway? It was certain thet neither Marina Sirenakova nor the freckled but still beautiful Rosetka Mandalikova would pass by, nor would the young, curly and powdered Betty Rishkova, the wife of the deputy judge. They went out only evenings, in the light of the moon and stars. And one did not need to be ashamed if villagers, farmers, and tramps were to walk by.
Thus, the three town gentlemen bathed happily. Adding to their sun bathing the callisthenics of Mueller’s system, they walked along the bank of the river, threw their hands forward and back, tossed themselves on their bellies, kicked and twisted their legs, and rolled on their backs in time to the doctor’s command. One could recognize the doctor by his thick sideburns and red trunks. In addition, he had the strongest legs and the bushiest chest. The notary wore blue trunks, but one could recognize him also by his elongated head, the tuft of wet hair running down onto his forehead, and his splinter-like thin legs and arms. The veterinarian could pride himself on his red and white stripped trunks and round bald head. Otherwise there was no great difference among them.
Summer was beautiful, hot, windless. Our three bathers could take advantage of good weather every afternoon. Their skin darkened from head to toe. The notary recovered from his nervousness and walked across the square three times without fear. The veterinarian stopped fidgeting and elbowing his companions during beer sessions at the city bar. Doctor Edut was happy that his professional advice had helped Shkorec, and he suggested sun bath and Mueller’s callisthenics to his other patients also.
But life in a small town should not be seen only in the narrow frame of serious thought concerning health. At times, we also have reason to laugh. Our farces, even if not presented on stages by famous actors, are nevertheless funny. The actors are individual citizens, at times even the honorable members of the town council.
Matt Jakub – half-artisan, half-farmer – was mowing clover on his tract near the floodgate one afternoon. The sun was scorching hot – how could one keep from getting overheated? Red and sweating , he was really being scorched by the sun. His feet were burning in his boots. Jakub decided to dip them into the nearby river, even though he was well aware that he would be acting against the town’s tradicion, that a normal human being should not bathe from baptism until death, with the exception of a few baths in the trough as infants.
Tradition or not, Matt threw away his scythe and climbed the hillock running down the other side to the floodgate. But he suddenly arrested his steps. Three completely naked men with mustaches and beards, in short multi-colored trunks, were turning their heads, now to the left, now to the rigt. Jakub, too, turned his head a looked upward to the sky to see whether some balloon or .... But there was absolutely no trace of any balloon. The sky, blue and deep, arched above him without a single cloud. Why did they twist their heads again and again? One of the naked impudents suddenly shouted, and all three men – would you belive it? – started to smack their thigs. The slapping was as loud as that of women paddling laundry at the creek.
Matt, observing the three men, was bewildered. Suddenly he knew! Yes, these three men were certainly the three madmen he had read about in the newspaper. They had escaped from the institution and now they were hiding ine the vinicity. He crouched and crowled on all fours back beyond the hillock. He was afraid they might become aware of his presence and might – heaven forbid! – set out after him. He did not dare look back even once. He slid down to the highway and almost ran, eager to report the whole affair to the honorable town council. What danger! If they had noticed him and set out after him! “I would have really been in a fix!“ Jakub thought, shivering, when he met with Joe Mrvenchik, a farmer from the Low Street, who was going out, scythe on his shoulder, to mow. Jakub recalled thet he had forgotten his own scythe on the clover tract.
“Dear neighbor, I left my scythe out there on the clover flield. Take care of it for me, will you? I must go downtown on a serious matter.“
Jakub blinked toward the floodgate. “There, at the floodgate – watch out!“
“Three madmen are taking baths. They escaped from the institution and now they’re there bathing, threatening heaven with their fists, and slapping each other.“
“You don‘t say.“
Jakub swore he was telling the truth.
“I am going now to report everything to the town committee,“ he said seriously. “And you, be careful that they don’t notice you!“
Mrvenchik, playing it safe, wanted to return home, but he met John Holub, a townsman from the Upper End. Together, both men bolstered each other’s courage and went to the hillock to see the madmen from afar. Two women, passing by, stopped to see what was going on. Then three bootmakers stopped on their return trip from the fair, carrying their unsold boots on long sticks. Before long a whole crowd of people was standing of the hillock, laughing at the movements and gestures of our three bathers who, in turn, were first jumping in the water, then on the bank, in accordance with the system of Mueller’s callisthenics. The laughter of the people on the hillock was quiet and subdued; they did not want to attract the attention of the bathing men. One of the men suddenly jumped up to the bank of the river. The other one sprang up quickly after him. The third one climbed out of the water also. The bootmakers, frightened by this sudden change in the behavior of three men, grabbed the sticks with the unsold boots and shouted, “They are coming at us!“
All of the assembled men and women ran back to the highway.
“The beak is coming,“ someone called.
Translated by Andrew Cincura