Mrs. Nováková sharply twisted her heel, smearing the spider across the floor. Her graying hair was pulled back, lifting the creases in her forehead toward the crest of her skull. “What did I tell you, Adéla? No singing at work,” she snapped. “And for God’s sake, girl, you don’t have to do those seams by hand. What did I buy that for?” She gestured toward the sewing machine—a beaten-up beast that only knew the coarse fabric of soldiers’ uniforms until now.
Adéla pressed her lips together and the pin she’d tucked in the corner of her mouth pointed downward. She stared at the remains of the spider. One of its legs stuck crookedly to Mrs. Nováková’s shoe, while the rest of its severed legs paraded behind it across the floor.
“Just have that costume finished tonight,” Mrs. Nováková said, tightening the strings on her smock like a tourniquet, squeezing blood into her ruddy cheeks.
Adéla picked up the heavy velvet skirt she’d been working on and placed it deliberately next to the machine. She fiddled with the spool, shrinking under the gaze of the head seamstress. Mrs. Nováková rubbed the spider into wood one last time before her heels clicked out of the workshop.
Adéla gave the machine a few half-hearted cranks that clattered through the room and made her teeth ache. Loose pins skittered across the table. Half-dressed marionettes swayed from the rafters like ghosts. Adéla let the machine die down, waiting to hear Mrs. Nováková’s sharp heels come cracking down the hall—none came.
Instead, a voice wafted down through the ceiling: Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém, Little moon, in the deep sky… The sound filled Adéla’s ribcage like a breath of humid summer air. Adéla swept the skirt up in her arms and sat leaning against the wall, letting the music creep through her after years of overbearing silence. The plaster left chalky traces on her dark braids. The point of her needle picked up the melody like a miniature radio tower, warming in her hand as the seams of the skirt drew together into rich folds.
There was a pause in the music and she could hear the muffled voice of the director and shuffling feet. A second voice joined the first in the rehearsal—a brighter voice that made Adéla bite down on the pin tucked in the corner of her mouth. She yelped, and two velveteen wings brushed the inside of her cheeks. A moth perched on her lower lip, unfolding its soft green wings and flitting among the bolts of fabric.
“Sakra!” She exclaimed and before she could think better of it, an agitated yellowjacket hummed in her throat, knocking against her front teeth. Adéla rushed to the jars full of buttons and beads and dumped two of them on the table, beads rolling haphazardly onto the ground and into hidden crevices. The marionettes’ clogs kicked her in the forehead as she chased the insects around the workshop, lunging at them with the jars and shrinking back if she pinned their wings too hard against a wall.
Three stubbed toes later, her yellowjacket jar had four occupants. The second jar held a small green frog that had leapt out of an especially forceful sneeze. The moth sat quietly now, its wings blinking like two knowing eyes. Adéla stared at it, blood beading in the corner of her mouth. Did her cry rip the moth out of the night sky? Plunge it into the tight, fleshy knots of her stomach without warning? How did its wings unfurl again after that—still soft and delicate-veined?
With two jars in her apron pockets, she tucked the one with the moth under her arm and wound her way up the stairs from the basement workshop. Her braids swayed down her back, unpinned during the chase. Gold trimmings appeared above the doorways of the opera house. Stone staircases became carpeted and crystal chandeliers lit the empty halls; the dust gave them a hazy glow. A clock droned nine o’clock and a dramatic soprano wove around its brassy ringing. Adéla wavered near the back exit, glancing at the hidden doors leading backstage.
She slipped behind the hand-painted backdrops stacked one behind the other, ready to be rearranged at the change of a scene. She moved through haunted forests and kings’ palaces, around prop furniture and scraps of fabric. The voice followed her: O mně-li duše lidská sní, ať se tou vzpomínkou vzbudí! If a human soul is dreaming about me, let that memory wake them! Adéla peeked over the wooden backdrop and the moth she was holding fluttered at the sight of Divine Ema—draped in black silk for the rehearsal, her eyes sunk in the shadow of her brow. She slowly stretched her arms toward the darkened balcony seats. The rest of the cast were shifting shadows; hypnotized as they waited for their cue. Even the director’s mouth hung slightly agape as Destinnová’s voice climbed to shake hands with the moon. The country had almost forgotten their freedom fighter’s voice after two years of house arrest during the Great War.
A soft voice echoed Destinnová’s words—a breath of air rustling the curtains behind her—“Měsíčku, nezhasni!” Little moon, don’t stop shining!
Adéla jumped, covering her mouth with her free hand when a figure emerged from the darkness, the buttons on her vest catching the stage lights. The moth’s wings pinged fiercely against the glass jar.
“Sorry.” The actress stepped into the dim light beside Adéla. Robin Levy—the youngest singer in the production at seventeen. She raked her fingers through her curly black hair that was cropped around her ears. “Ema’s remarkable, isn’t she?”
Adéla dipped her chin in agreement and felt a heat rising under
Robin leaned against the cutout of a tree, cupping her chin in her hand. “I think I’d remember your face if you were in the show…”
She trailed off and Adéla realized she was waiting for an answer. She smiled sheepishly and made a sewing motion with her hand.
“Ah, so you’re making our costumes,” she said. “I’m Robin. And you are?”
Adéla wavered, opening her mouth slightly, then biting her lip when she felt the phantom skittering of legs in her throat. She glanced back at Ema and put her finger to her lips, as if she didn’t want to speak over the performance. She held out her hand, palm facing upward. Robin mimicked the gesture, confusion crossing her face, until Adéla lightly traced three letters into her palm: A-D-A.
“Áďa?” Her dimples deepened as she grinned. “Where are you going with those jars, Áďa? You here to collect my soul like the vodník?”
Adéla glanced down at the jar; the insects went into a frenzy. “Nu—” she slapped her hand over her mouth and pushed past Robin. She threw open the back door and stumbled over the cobbled street. A monarch butterfly unfolded itself from her mouth and disappeared into the night sky. Her stomach caved in on itself.
Adéla walked through the dark streets, white clouds of breath
leaving her lips. Leaning out the windows of the Lantern Palace were men in smart suits smoking pipes and glamorous women sipping martinis. Just below, a man pissed against a wall, the smell clinging to his trousers. Prague’s gambling parlors were beginning to reawaken as the last trolleys whistled through the city. Adéla clutched the jar to her chest as she ducked through the alleyways toward the Vltava.
The river sighing beneath her, Adéla leaned over the railing and opened the jars one by one. The insects flew away, and the frog dropped down into the current, its little head bobbing above the surface. Adéla rubbed her arms, the hairs on them bristling like quills at the memory of fingers gripping the base of her skull and freezing, boggy water burning her throat.
Looking up at the moon, she quietly sang, “čistou duší, čistou lidskou duší.” A clean soul, a clean human soul. A handful of fireflies set upon the water and Adéla sighed, watching them glimmer on the current.
* * *
Before she was born, Adéla’s parents heard the tale of a poor village girl who’d become a princess. The parents of the village girl named their newborn Safíra when they saw her deep blue eyes. Their neighbors scoffed at the pompous, foreign name, but her parents insisted on it. Just before her christening, a battered old woman knocked on their door, asking for shelter. The parents invited her in and shared their meager food. The old woman said that she could only repay them with a promise: If you do not christen your daughter tomorrow, she will become as rich as a princess. The parents found the promise odd, but out of curiosity, they told their neighbors Safíra had colic and they couldn’t bring her to the church. When the clock struck noon, their newborn let out a sharp cry and sapphires began to tumble out of her mouth. By the time she said her first word, she was as rich as a princess. By the time she could walk, she was betrothed to a prince.
Upon hearing this story, Adéla’s parents named her Zlata—gold—and didn’t christen her, even though they were not so poor and sheltered no old woman in their home. Their daughter learned to talk, run, and sew with no great riches. But each year, her parents would take her into the woods, looking for crone’s cabins, will-o’-the-wisps, and unsettled sprites. After the war began, they grew desperate.
They had her sit at a spinning wheel all day for a year, waiting for their daughter to prick her finger. The muscles in her legs wasted away and her bones grew frail.
They dunked her in ponds and held her head under water, hoping for a vodník to strike a deal with. His red eyes floated in the depths, but he only watched her face turn plum-purple with distaste.
They left her blindfolded in the woods at night. They gave her a few drops of foxglove to see if she would wake up more-than-human. They trapped her inside a cave and waited for a miracle.
On Adéla’s fifteenth birthday, a witch grew tired of these disturbances in her woods and told them, “Your daughter is fifteen years old today? I’ll gladly give her my blessing.”
“You’ll bless her with her name, yes?” Her father insisted.
Her mother’s fingers dug deeply into Adéla’s shoulder.
“Yes, yes. What is your name, child?” The witch’s gaze pierced her.
“Zlata—Zlata Adéla Jezírková.” Adéla gave a curtsy and felt her mother’s nails draw blood. “P-pleased to meet you.”
“Of the pond,” the witch cackled. “It is done, Miss Jezírková.”
“That’s it?” her mother snapped.
“It is.” The witch took a drag from her pipe. “Now leave my woods, before I take it back.”
Her parents needed no further threat as they chased their daughter out of the woods.
The next day at noon, they sat around the kitchen and asked their daughter to sing for them. Adéla closed her eyes and began singing the folk tunes she sang to herself while sewing. She scrunched up her face, waiting for the sting of jagged gold slicing her throat, but she only felt her stomach flutter with nervousness as she sang about rivers and spirits. Only when her parents’ whimpers turned into screams did she open her eyes and see her family’s kitchen buzzing with horse flies; snakes were winding around the table legs; fish were flopping for water at her feet.
“Devil child!” her mother cried.
“A thief!” said her father, cursing the witch who had cheated him.
“No, please—” Adéla said and two tiny turtles fell into the palms of her hands.
She wasn’t even allowed to say sbohem when she left.
* * *
The workshop was alive and Mrs. Nováková moved from table to table checking hemlines and assigning work. She sent two senior seamstresses to Ema Destinnová’s dressing room for a private fitting. The chorus and understudies loitered in the hall outside the workshop, waiting to be stuck with pins. The happy chatter and clamor set Adéla at ease.
“Adéla, you take Levy; she’s ripped the costume—” Mrs. Nováková pursed her lips. “Again.”
Adéla leaned out into the hall and waved the shape of an “L” with her fingers.
“It’s my lucky day.” Robin sauntered up to her, costume tucked under her arm. She wore a pressed pair of herringbone trousers and a matching vest over a loosely-tucked linen shirt. A silver cigarette case stuck out of her front pocket.
Adéla swallowed the cocoon hardening in her throat and waved Robin inside the workshop. She took the costume, her fingers brushing the back of Robin’s hand. It was a gold-embroidered folk dress with puff sleeves. The seams of the kroj had split in the armpit. Adéla clucked her tongue and tugged on Robin’s vest, trading it for the kroj. Robin struggled to shrug into the costume’s narrow shoulders, even with the tear down one side.
“How long have you been a seamstress?” Robin asked while Adéla hovered around her, using tailor’s chalk to mark where the kroj needed more give. Adéla pointed to herself and lowered her palm to the height of her waist.
“Since you were little.” Robin nodded, “Were your parents tailors?”
She frowned and nodded, checking the kroj, to make sure the buttons weren’t loose and that the embroidery wasn’t torn out anywhere.
“Just because you follow in their career doesn’t mean you have to get along.”
Adéla shrugged while helping her out of the costume, tugging a little too hard on it. Robin tripped over the skirt and Mrs. Nováková shot her a dirty look across the room.
“Sorry. I’m always doing that. Too bad you can’t fix my clothes through the whole show, Áďa.”
Adéla gave her a questioning look while handing back her herringbone vest.
“We’re touring. Two weeks in Praha and then it’s Plzeň, Bratislava, Ostrava.”
Adéla held up one finger, Wait, and turned around so Robin wouldn’t see her disappointment. She rummaged around the drawers full of lace and spare buttons. She came back with a silk sprig of violets and tucked it into a buttonhole on Robin’s vest.
Robin twirled her finger around one of her curls. “When should I see you…for the costume?”
Adéla shook her head and waved her toward the door. I’ll deliver it, she wanted to say, but she just drew her lips into a frustrated smile.
“Thanks, Adélka.” As the door was closing behind her, she could see Robin pointing out the flower to her castmates and pretending to smell the silk.
I like your smile.
Could we see each other before you leave?
Adéla rewrote the note four times before she was satisfied and then pinned it to Robin’s mended costume. The workshop was in disarray after the fittings and a couple of seamstresses were finishing projects quietly in their favored corners. The shop tended to pendulum between incredibly loud and suddenly quiet—never falling into a comfortable murmur.
The newly tailored costumes were hanging near the door, waiting to be picked up by the actors. Adéla carefully folded the kroj into a bundle and tiptoed out of the workshop, reluctant to disturb the evening calm. Adéla let her fingertips drift along the walls as muted voices passed through them. She counted off the doors, trying to remember which rooms were shared by the chorus. Stopping at what she hoped was the right door, she gave a tentative knock—no answer. She stepped inside. The electric lights buzzed to life, illuminating a vanity and a couple of plush armchairs. The back wall was dominated by a black, lacquered armoire that loomed over the room.
Adéla rubbed the note between her fingers. What would we even talk about? How would we talk? The note crinkled between her fingers. She tore it off the costume and shoved it in her apron pocket, her cheeks growing hot with regret. She was about to leave the costume on one of the armchairs, when she heard approaching footsteps and the full, earthy voice of Ema Destinnová.
A trout thrashed against her ribcage when the footsteps stopped in front of the door. This was not Robin’s room after all. Without thinking, Adéla crossed the room in two great bounds and leapt into the armoire just as Ema walked inside.
A sliver of light crossed Adéla’s face as she peeked through the gap in the doors. Ema placed a bouquet of roses into the vase on her vanity and then released her hair from its coif. It fell loosely over her broad, white shoulders. A gilt deck of cards laid face down on the vanity and she picked one off the top. Adéla glimpsed an image of a woman draped in white and surrounded by a field of wheat. Ema traced a finger along the image, a thoughtful hum rising from her throat before setting the card down.
Adéla wondered how long she might have to stay hidden, when she heard a rustle. A hand fell upon her shoulder. It had no flesh. She shrieked. Adéla fell out of the armoire with a diamond-headed snake slithering from her lips. She covered her mouth. Kneeling on the floor of Ema Destinnová’s dressing room, she was tempted to seize the snake’s fangs in the palm of her hand.
But while the whites of Ema’s eyes shone from her dark makeup, she took a step toward the coiled snake on the plush carpet. She reached out her hand to it and like they were old friends, the snake wrapped itself around her, tongue flicking out to smell the perfume on her wrist.
“I see Ivánek had company tonight; so sorry to disturb your rendezvous.” Ema said as she swept toward the open armoire. Adéla turned to see the skeleton—apparently Ivánek—leaning halfway from the wardrobe, his jaw unhinged in a wild grin. Ema kissed his forehead and let the snake slip into one of his gaping sockets, curling up inside his skull.
She turned to Adéla, helping the stunned girl into one of the armchairs. “Ema Destinnová, pleased to make your acquaintance. Tell me, how did you conjure such a lovely creature?”
Adéla tapped a shaky finger twice against her throat and then pressed it against her lips.
“Oh no, please. Speak. What is your name?” She leveled her gaze on Adéla; her black eyes had the intensity of a witch.
“Adéla.” A tadpole dropped from her mouth into Ema’s cupped hand. She leaned toward the vanity and dropped the tadpole into the vase full of water and roses.
“You have the most beautiful voice. I envy it.”
“No.” A spider skittered down her chin.
“Don’t worry—I won’t take it from you.”
“You should.” Two mosquitos.
“I have my own.”
“It’s beautiful.” Silkworms the size of apple seeds.
“Yes, yes—it makes grown men weep and claw at my skirts.” She rolled her eyes. “But you—your voice comes to life.”
“It’s a curse.” Three hornets.
“Adéla—” She paused, and then lifted her hemline to show a glimpse of her calf. A viper’s tail curled around her ankle, twisting up her leg. “God cursed Eve because she wanted to see the world for what it was. Was it her fault when He pinned her to man’s shadow? No. But she held onto knowledge even as it sliced her hands open, because it was beautiful, and because it made God angry.”
“I—what?” A frog landed on each of her kneecaps.
“Ah, those are just the ramblings of an amateur occultist. Remember: there’s at least one person who wants to hear your voice.” One of the hornets landed on the tip of Ema’s finger and rubbed its wings together.
Adéla clasped her hands so tightly her knuckles turned pink and white. She took a deep breath and exhaled a meadow: “I was delivering a costume, even though I didn’t have to. I thought I’d leave it in Robin’s room with a note, but I decided it was hopeless. But you came, and I realized it wasn’t her room at all. And then the, uh, skeleton?” A chorus of crickets droned around them. Centipedes disappeared into the cushions. Grasshoppers sprang across the room. Adéla’s hands unclasped. She sagged into the armchair. All of Ema’s square teeth were visible.
“Ah, Ivánek comes to all of my shows. I ask my guests to hand me something from the wardrobe and they find him instead,” Ema laughed. “Adéla, you should deliver that dress.”
Dazed, Adéla picked up her bundle and threaded her way around the creatures creeping across the room. She turned around in the doorway and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much, Ema.”
Seven bumble bees were born.
* * *
At the end of the hallway, Adéla opened the window facing west. A rush of cold air shocked her lungs but failed to wake her from what seemed like a feverish dream. Watching the sun set over the red-brick roofs of Prague, Adéla could still see Ema’s piercing black eyes and how she settled herself in the armchair, a viper’s tale coiled around her ankle and hornets hovering around her fingertips.
Adéla gripped the windowsill, its rusty edges grating against her callouses. Bony elbows pointing outward, she braced herself and shouted: “There’s at least one person who wants to hear my voice!” She sounded raspy and foreign to her ears as eleven jewel-colored beetles flew outside, shells glinting. She shouted it again, her voice crackling and unused to any sound louder than a whisper. A tempest of vibrant insects swarmed the city and she shouted over hundreds of chittering wings.
Breathless and rosy, Adéla wiped the snot from her nose on the inside of her shirt collar. A clock began striking the end of rehearsals.
* * *
Robin grinned when she opened the door; the silk violets were still tucked in her vest. The cigarette between her lips glowed orange. “Áďa! I wasn’t expecting you.”
Adéla handed her the mended costume. She opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. Instead, she took the wrinkled note from her apron. She pointed to the line: Could we see each other before you leave?
“I’d love to.”
Adéla tapped her wrist twice and drew in her eyebrows. When?
“How about right now?” Robin ducked into her room and came back with two jackets. Adéla recognized one of them as belonging to the production, but she didn’t hesitate to shrug into it.
“Lead the way,” Robin said and Adéla took her by the hand.
Lights were beginning to flicker on as the street filled with people trading shifts, closing shops, and gathering at pubs and coffee shops. The breath of the city fogged the air. They meandered through alleyways and around the bright windows of jewelry stores.
Adéla pointed out her favorite places and Robin had a story to tell about each one.
At the ornate synagogue behind the opera house, Robin said, “My brother had his bar mitzvah here. Do you have siblings?”
Adéla shook her head, No, but meant to ask, what’s he like? Is he a kind brother?
They passed a lively pub; an accordion exhaled loudly through its windows, “I sang there for halíře and leftover knedlíky when I was a kid.” Robin told her.
Adéla squeezed Robin’s hand. Do you miss the rowdy pubs? Or did you worry you’d never sing at the opera if the war hadn’t ended?
Cigarette smoke and music wafted from the Grand Café Orient as its statue of the Madonna watched over the street corner. “Their head waiter is terrible at cards.”
Are you any good? She wanted to tease.
Couples huddled together on the café balcony, sharing cigarettes. There were men wearing their uniforms because they were the nicest clothes they owned and women with wool cloche hats and chic dresses brushing just below their knees. The chandeliers glowed warm into the night and Adéla gazed at them, transfixed.
She tugged on Robin’s hand, toward the entrance.
“After you,” Robin opened the door for her, sweeping her arm out in a deep bow.
Inside was hazy with tobacco, but the music and movement kept the air in motion. Precise little cakes were displayed in rolling glass cases and crystal glasses of champagne clinking added to the din of relief after the war. Robin added her voice to the piano, singing a tune Adéla didn’t recognize, but one that nearly woke a bumblebee sleeping in her throat. She leaned against the wall, weaving her braid between her knuckles and watching the crowd sift like grains of sand over an open palm.
Robin stopped singing when she saw her hiding in the corner and offered her hand to Adéla. She pulled her into a dance as the piano started a new tune. For once, Robin was tentative, and she put her hand lightly on the small of Adéla’s back. Adéla curled her fingers under the collar of Robin’s shirt, wrinkling it. They spun each other around the corner of the café where couples were dancing, stepping on each other’s toes. Robin laughed freely, Adéla smiled as openly as she knew how.
A bat fluttered in through the window, causing a woman’s shriek to rise above the music. The small animal knocked into the chandeliers, battered around by patrons covering their heads or waving their hats through the air. Robin abruptly pulled away from Adéla and snatched a hat off of a gentleman’s head, just in time to catch the little bat before he was trampled on the ground.
Gingerly cupping him in her palm, she backed away from the dance floor. “Sorry, Áďa.” She closed her other palm over him and disappeared down the stairs. Adéla hurried after her.
In the street, Robin released the bat in a darkened alley and they watched him become a shadow on the moon. Robin stared at her hands for a moment and then wiped them on her trousers. She turned to Adéla, her shoulders sagging. “I know you wanted to stay at the café.”
Adéla brushed her thumb over Robin’s palm and shrugged. I don’t mind. She gave a tentative smile and motioned for Robin to follow.
The Vltava’s surface was like a black mirror, reflecting the moon in its ripples as they leaned over the iron railing; the lapping water
muffled the sound of lingering passerby. Adéla leaned in toward Robin, their shoulders touching as they watched the river. She didn’t feel cold that night.
Adéla took a deep breath, thinking of the way Robin tenderly held the bat in her hands. “This is where I come to sing,” She said and tiny green moths flew into the night.
Robin threaded her fingers through Adéla’s. “Will you sing?”
“Měsíčku, postůj chvíli, řekni mi, kde je má milá?” Little moon, stay a while, tell me, where is my love? Delicate legs tickled the corners of her mouth. A lightning bug brushed against Robin’s dimples. Adéla nudged it away, Robin’s cheeks hot under her thumb. The little bug crept across her knuckles and Robin gently blew it away.
Robin’s voice rose into the night, her breath lingering between them as she sang, “Zasvěť jí do daleka, řekni jí, kdo tu naň čeká!” Shine her a light in the distance, let her know who’s waiting for her!
The pond skimmers danced on moonlight.
Carolyn Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA student at Colorado State University, and assistant managing editor at Colorado Review. Carolyn’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Permafrost, The Florida Review, and Peach Mag, among others. Instagram @c.e.writespoems
© 2020 Carolyn Janecek