In the Café Slavia She Spoke of Grace

By - Liam Mckinnon

When the news of his father’s death arrives in a square envelope, Elijah doesn’t cry. I’m perched on the kitchen stool, reading about NATO airstrikes in Bosnia in an American newspaper I’d gotten from a colleague at the language school, when I notice he freezes, his spoon of yogurt halfway to his mouth.

“What?” I ask when he puts it down. “Elijah?”

“It’s my dad,” he says, sliding the letter across the counter.

I recognize his mother’s calligraphy – I can hear her tone in the calculated curves of her pen strokes. I thought you might want to be informed was how she began. When I look up for Elijah, I’m met instead by the sound of the apartment door closing, then the clock, ticking in a new kind of silence. 

The letter is dated October 3rd; two weeks have passed since his mother stamped it for Dejvice, Prague. By now, Mr. Levin is already underground in the country we once called home. I imagine the flowers on his grave – chrysanthemums gone tissue thin – now being scattered by a wind. And I, an ocean away, holding an ending in my hands. I haven’t thought of Elijah’s parents, nor about my own father, in what only now strikes me as too long. The distance Elijah and I had always sought together, and were now living, that rift we had voluntarily dug in the geographies of our lives, imbues me with a sense of irrelevance, of being too far-removed from something that matters. Near the end of the letter, Elijah’s mother had written send my regards to Aiden. It must have been the first time she addressed me with a name, let alone my own.

I slip into my boots and overcoat and head out to find Elijah after ringing the language school on his behalf.

“A death in the family. Yes. His father. I know. Yes. I will. Thank you.”

I expect to find him walking the Strelecky ostrov by the Vltava, where the old women in kerchiefs feed leftover bread to the swans. Where we had walked after dinner one night, his arm around my shoulder, and kissed in the dark where no one could see. The amber lights of Stare Mesto, the Old City, shone in the river like blurred flames. I remember feeling like I was in a Van Gogh painting, and since then I sometimes catch myself looking at the black parts of his works, wondering what furtive shapes are kissing there.

But this morning the park is nearly empty. Only a young mother is crouching in front of a toddler, her head tilted as she speaks to him. The swans stretch their wings in the chilled autumn waters, specked with fallen leaves. If there was a place to mourn a father, I think, this would be it. But Elijah has gone elsewhere.

I cross the bridge into the Old City. While waiting for the lights to change in front of the National Theatre, a jangling streetcar passes – a brush stroke of red across the city’s face – bustling with early commuters. It strikes me then how small my odds are of finding him. On the other side of the street, in the space left by the receding streetcar, sits the empty Café Slavia, its familiar interior now dust-lined and dark.

“There’s this place we’ve got to try,” Elijah is saying, an August day during our first month in the foreign country. From the bathroom mirror I can see him lying lengthwise on the bed, a lonely planet book held at arm’s length over his face. The ceiling fan ticks and spins pointlessly in the heat. My shirt sticks to my back as I struggle to perfect my tie. “You’ll love it,” he says. “It’s nicknamed the Artists’ Café. Generations of writers and poets and actors and a bunch of the big thinkers have gone there. It was actually one of Havel’s favorite places.”

It wasn’t long before the café became our go-to place on weekend mornings. We’d load the table with our books and papers: I, designing new characters from scratch while Elijah kept writing alternative endings to the same novel he could never let go. We sipped espresso like we’d never known back home. We’d correct our students’ exams, sharing laughs over their endearing mistakes. When, immersed in wisps of cigarette smoke and the chatter of a strange, enticing language, Elijah’s eyes would glaze, and he’d drift into that space only he knew, I’d try to sketch him. The strands of his untamed hair falling in his face. The dip in his upper lip. The shadow of his collar bone.

Just weeks before the café closed, we had sat right in that window, behind the gold vintage letters etched in the glass. Staring at it now, I remember Elijah’s palm being moist when he reached for my hand under the table. I’d laid our intertwined fingers on his thigh to try and stop it from fidgeting. His coffee had gone cold by the time we heard the doorbell chime and her high heels on the linoleum. I recognized her steps before hearing her voice, and despite my will to be Elijah’s shield, I failed to look up at her. I just kept my eyes on the street, watching as rivulets of rain coursed between the cobblestones.

That day, words like choices, hurt, raise and deserve better fell from his mother’s mouth onto the table between them, words that rattled like coins begging to be smacked down. This polished woman had flown all the way from Montreal to shake sense into her only son, to carry him home. “That’s how much I love you. I love you, darling. At twenty-three God knows I was lost too. I didn’t have a mother who cared enough. It took me a while, but I found grace. I want you to find grace, Elijah.”

When Mrs. Levin leaned back in her chair, and raised her chin to the window, to the unhurried flow of the Vltava, she breathed:
“Do you know how much pain you’ve caused your father? The shame, Elijah. And he blames himself, that poor soul.”

I had wished for Elijah to go deaf.

He was sitting to my right, his head drooped to a slight angle as to avoid meeting anyone’s eye. I looked from him to Mrs. Levin and back again, feeling like I was on the outskirt of a circle I was not allowed to break. Under the table, his hand in mine had gone cold.

“The thing about pain,” my own mother used to say, back in the years when her sarcoma got out of hand, “is that it’s the most honest feeling. Untamed, even. People feel hurt in the only way they know how. And we need to let them hurt, Aiden.” Lying thin and lymphatic in her hospital bed, I knew she was referring to my father. My father who had grown completely mute since her diagnosis and rarely came to visit at all. I used to yell at him, with the rage of a seventeen year-old, to go take care of her. I yelled and broke the kitchen plates; I smashed my fist on the table. “Why don’t you do anything! You’re just gonna let her die?”

That last day in the café, I said nothing to Mrs. Levin. By the time her mascara had dried into the lines around eyes, she just smoothed her hair back and inhaled. Her shoulders shook, once, and she stood. With nothing left to say, she left us sitting there, and in that moment I failed to recognize who had been defeated.
Mrs. Levin stepped out of Slavia under the same chime and into her waiting cab. When it turned the curve, I’d caught a glimpse of Mr. Levin in the backseat. The rounded silhouette of his kippah being the last I saw of the man to whom I owed so much.

Elijah and I never went back to Café Slavia after that.

Another bustling streetcar – another stroke of red – tears through my memories of those days. At this point, Elijah could be anywhere in the city. I decide to walk north along the river, towards the Charles Bridge, its statues standing solemn against the grey sky. At this time of year, there are no tourists, no flocking white hats, no hands clutching giant city maps. Just a few Czechs, walking purposefully on a Wednesday morning. I often wonder what this city looks like through their eyes. If they even notice the stone angels perched above archways, or the hand carved marionettes in shop windows. I wonder what it is they do see. And if they find it as beautiful as Elijah and I do, when the snow falls over Prague Castle, sitting alone on its hill. I wonder if we will ever see it the way they do, and if that is when we will start calling it home.

For the rest of the day I walk up to the lookout at Letna, and back down through the gardens to Malá Strana. The twin bell towers of St-Nicolas church glow, beckoning, and I allow myself to be drawn to its open doors. The gloom inside is pierced here and there by candles burning along the walls and up at the altar, where they’re grouped together like a flickering flowerbed. The steeple’s narrow windows are fogged by the very last breath of daylight.
I take a seat in the middle row of empty benches. Somewhere, in the shadow of a pillar, a man coughs. What does he seek in this place? I wonder if he is finding it.

The last time I sat in a church, I had just turned eighteen. There were white roses on mom’s casket, and an empty seat next to me where my father should have been. The three of us used to attend church every Sunday, much before my mother got sick. I remember hearing words like God and Grace, Holy, Divine and Forgiveness, bouncing off the broken colors of the stained glass. I sat snug between the busts of my parents, in a world of my own, a world in which these words were intended for grown- ups, for those who could understand. After my mother’s diagnosis, my father stopped going to church entirely and so for a while I did, too. As if somehow, if we could stay angry at him long enough, God would care enough to make it up to us. But mom continued attending mass alone, every Sunday a little thinner. Until, eventually, she was confined to a hospital bed. The day of her funeral, my rage had turned into an active dismissal of God altogether. And yet, I went and sat in that front row for her.

Now, in St-Nicolas, I sit grown into another person, distanced from these memories. And it dawns on me then, that I may know where Elijah has gone.

I hail a cab in the square and ask the driver to take me to Josefov, to the Staronová Synagogue. The evening traffic has thinned on the bridges, and we drive alongside the Vltava before taking a turn into the Old City. In the town square, a street performer fills the air with huge bubbles by dragging a soapy rod through it. Children hop and chase the morphing shapes while their parents stand by, clapping and laughing. The first time we had seen the bubbles in Staroměstské náměstí, Elijah and I were strolling through our new city with plastic cups of mulled wine, sharing a Czech version of a cinnamon bun. We had just turned twenty-three, the stars were out and someone, somewhere, was playing fiddle music.

The cab driver is telling me a story about the cemetery in Josefov, and the massacre that took place in 1389. I nod, feigning interest as if I’d been listening all along. He pulls up right outside the synagogue and I leap out, racing up the stone steps.

I recognize the back of his head, a figure sitting alone, faint in the candlelight. The gloom inside is similar to that of St-Nicolas, to that of any imagined house of worship on the brink of night. I don’t say a word as I walk up to the edge of his row, where he stares ahead, in that space only he knows. I wait for him to turn, and the man who looks at me then appears more transparent than I can remember.

Elijah, in all his pain, in all his sadness and appeased anger he never allows to escape the boundaries of his depth. Even when we stay awake at night, when I remember aloud my youth, and how I’d struggled to accept the becoming of my own life, as a force apart from me. Elijah, always listening, always silent, sitting now in the Staronová’s front row, reaching for his own story. For the ending of his father within it.

I slip in beside him and we sit there, our heads resting on each other, neither of us speaking. Neither of us feeling the need to be anywhere but there. And in that moment, I think about Elijah’s mother and her search for grace. How I wish she could feel what I feel now, as the man I love breathes in, and out.

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