My wife and I visited Prague last fall. We stayed at a wonderful boutique hotel in Old Town. Walking by the Astronomical Clock (Orloj) in Town Square, surrounded by hundreds of other excited and noisy tourists, we stopped to listen and watch for Death to ring its bell and for the twelve Apostles to appear above the face of the clock on the hour.
I thought of a short story I wrote in the early seventies, after my first visit to Prague — a parable of unfulfilled expectations, so typical under the Communist regimes of those times. The short story was never published. The censors in my country wouldn’t allow it. I would love to gage its impact so many years and so many political and life changes later, and I am publishing it below.
Strangers brought the news. Nobody knew who they were, where they were headed, and how they knew what was about to happen. They were first observed in the evening, walking towards the inn. Their garments were dusty, they wore boots, and their large, overlapping collars showed that they were not of simple origin. At the inn they had dinner at a corner table and talked quietly, cautiously looking over the shoulder. When they were finished, one of them walked up to the counter and asked for a bottle of wine. As if by chance, he involved the innkeeper in a conversation.
“Could you tell me where the clock tower is?” he asked, knocking with his big, gold ring on the counter top.
The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders.
“The clock,” the stranger insisted. “You know, the one with the little fighting bulls.”
“I don’t think there is such a clock in this town,” the innkeeper said, somewhat intimidated. “The only clock I know is at the town hall and, if that’s the one you are looking for, I’ll ask the boy to show you the way.”
The stranger knocked again on the counter and shook his head. “I don’t need your boy. Just tell me how to get there. In case you didn’t know, the clock we are trying to find is quite remarkable. Every day at noon, the shutters below the clock open and two wooden bulls move forward and hit each other with their red painted horns twelve times.”
The innkeeper first rolled his eyes, then a smile crossed his face; he winked cunningly and grasped the stranger by his sleeve. “I noticed that at the top of the tower, right under the roof, there are two green shutters,” he mumbled shaking his head thoughtfully.
“Do you hear this, Joseph?” the stranger shouted to one of his companions at the table. “It’s the town hall tower and the clockwork is behind the shutters!”
The man called Joseph, or, who knows, only pretended to bear that name, got red in the face and noisily clapped his hands. “Well, well,” he said. “Let’s get ready for a great show!”
His words did not go unnoticed. The patrons, already mystified by the appearance of the strangers, openly stared at them. Defiant, the man with the ring grabbed his bottle and stepped into the middle of the room. “What are you looking at?” he exclaimed. “We are seeking the clock with the bulls; it might be in the town hall tower. We are passing through, and we want to see it.”
Uttered in a voice so loud and clear that it could be heard from the street, the explanation created confusion. In the small town visitors were rare and most locals gathered at the inn. They had never seen a clock with red horned bulls. Not having overheard the entire conversation between the stranger and the innkeeper, they had many questions, but a certain aloofness in the demeanor of the travelers made them hesitate. It wasn’t proper to bother people who looked so sure of themselves; and how could they display their ignorance in front of these strangers who knew more about their town than they did?
Each man tried to find an explanation and could hardly wait for the strangers to go to their rooms. They didn’t have to wait long. The travelers filled their glasses to the brim, drank, and got up.
“They’re the king’s messengers!” an impatient voice announced even before the strangers closed the door behind them. The speaker was an old man, seated at the counter. “I heard everything that man said to the innkeeper,” he announced choking with excitement. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
Everybody expected some confirmation from the innkeeper, who looked aside. “I don’t know, brothers. If the old man thinks so, it might be true. I know nothing. I really don’t.”
“What did he say?” asked a curious man.
“Nothing special. He didn’t tell me anything you haven’t heard. They are looking for a tower with a peculiar clockwork.”
“They are outlaws!” somebody finally shouted.
“How could they be? There is nothing to rob in our town,” came the answer followed by a burst of laughter.
“Listen to me, they are thieves! They come, pretend to be ignorant, ask around, and strike when you least expect it. I suggest we alert the police.”
Nobody paid attention to him and two of the men stood up. “Have you forgotten about tomorrow?” one yelled, his face lit up. “The Mayor might have a surprise for us!”
“Yeah, right!” the other one said. “The only surprise the Mayor ever has for us is to pass new regulations, and raise taxes.”
“Tomorrow’s a holiday,” a soldier announced. “The garrison has the day off.”
“This morning two of the Mayor’s men came by,” the innkeeper remembered. “They asked for a casket of wine and filled their wagon with food. I think we’ll have a special day tomorrow. Perhaps the authorities are fed up with mischief; they want to give us, common folk, a reason to celebrate, for a change.”
“A couple of nights ago I was awakened by noises. I stepped out and I saw strangers carrying a large case into the town hall. They certainly tried to pass unnoticed,” said a man sipping his drink from a cup.
All facts considered, the explanation seemed obvious. Nobody was left in doubt, not even the old people. The Mayor, in a fit of goodwill, had decided to give them all a gift. A wonderful gift!
For too long, the somber, disquieting town hall tower had been avoided by the common people, and grass had grown over the sidewalks beneath it. Soldiers, in orderly platoons, guarded it day and night. Below the roof, on each side of the tower, a magic black eye with gilded numbers measured the flow of time. On the side facing the square, there were two green shutters, always closed. The tower stood over a large, white building. Every morning, the Mayor went into that building and stayed there till eight in the evening. His face was as somber as the tower, and his step was heavy, like the soldiers’ boots breaking the still of the night.
But now the Mayor had apparently decided to add the fighting bulls for everybody to admire. It will be fun, and different. The town will become famous. People will travel to their town to see the quirky clock, as did the four strangers!
The next morning the town was full of excitement. At ten people started gathering in the square. Surprised by the size of the crowds, the soldiers on guard became uneasy. But everybody was in a happy mood, and ignored them.
“From now on we’ll have a show everyday,” the people rejoiced. “The little bulls will come out and knock their horns. They will defy the starkness of the tower. Our town will be great again!”
“We should hire a trumpeter to salute the moment with music,” suggested a drunken fellow.
“We could sell flowers, and our produce right here in the square,” a farmer’s wife added.
“What will happen to the prisoners in the tower?” a pessimist asked.
People kept at a distance from the walls. If anybody tried to step closer the others anxiously said, “It won’t do you any good, you will not see better.”
Indeed, to see the green shutters, the ones in the first row had to tilt their heads all the way back.
Frolicking children trespassed the neutral zone a couple of times, playing bullfight. Every time this happened the soldiers nervously cocked their guns.
Towards noon the place had become overcrowded. The excitement, the shouts, the colorful garments brought life to the walls, which seemed less terrifying. The sun shone stronger and the shadow of the tower retreated step by step. It was assumed that the four strangers were in the crowd but nobody could tell where. A few minutes before twelve, a hush fell over the people. The children stopped playing. Even the guards looked up at the tower. At twelve sharp the quiet was broken by the toll of the clock. Some people whispered and pointed, thinking they had seen the shutters move.
But the shutters stayed as closed as ever. Silence was kept for a few minutes. And then, without a word, heads bent, not angry, not even astonished, people started to leave.
When the place became deserted, from among the pavement stones, the crushed grasses raised their blades. The wind chased crumpled bits of paper. The somber shadow of the tower started growing again. At eight o’clock the Mayor left the building and the soldiers saluted.
A deep quiet ruled the night and the starry sky.