Matthew Salesses's new novel The Hundred Year Flood (Little A) explores the relationship between Tee, an adoptee reeling from the recent death of his uncle and the knowledge of his father's infidelity, and a Czech artist and his wife. Having fled to Prague, Tee encounters ghosts, love, and, of course, the titular flood, while struggling to find something to hold on to and somewhere to belong.
We are pleased to offer this early chapter of Salesses's book, and hope you enjoy it! The Hundred Year Flood will be available on September 1.
-- Karissa Chen, Fiction and Poetry Editor
Excerpted from The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses. © 2015 by Matthew Salesses. To be published by Little A September 2015. All Rights Reserved.
THE HUNDRED YEAR FLOOD
The day Tee decided to go to Prague, his girlfriend pulled him aside at a birthday party in Boston. The talk had turned to 9/11. “Stop acting so tragic,” his girlfriend said in his ear. “For God’s sake, others are suffering worse. Your uncle only killed himself. He didn’t die in the towers.” That was when Tee knew he couldn’t stay in America. He downed his IPA and said, “Only?” Everyone was talking about death, but he had to keep quiet. He was filling a container inside of him. Into it, he put the things he couldn’t say—about the seduction of forgetting. When his container was full, he would dump himself out in one dramatic move. A case in point: by the end of that week, he had broken up with his girlfriend and requested a leave of absence.
On the tram back to Boston College from the birthday party, Tee remembered a word his uncle used to like, posturing. Why had that come to him now? His friends were not posturing; was he? As a child he had thought of the word as a topographical feature. His uncle, the pilot, collected maps. There was one map his uncle liked best—a map of the wars in Eastern Europe. His uncle had called Prague a city of survivors, an older, less-posturing Paris. Tee used to point out Prague on globes before he knew what posturing meant, when he simply liked the sound of the word. He’d forgotten that. He could hear his uncle flattening the r, describing spires from above, the glow of roofs. He could feel his uncle toss him into the air, that first night.
He chose Prague for its resistance. A city where, for thousands of years, private lives had withstood the oppression of empires. Both world wars, countless invasions. In the weeks before he left, Tee imagined hiding from the Secret Police, giving up his home to save his ideals. That was what he had to do: resist, move on, leave the familiar behind. It would be his first trip on his own, as he’d gone to college three miles from where he grew up. His first trip not counting his adoption. Prague might be the perfect place, after all: a city that valued anonymity, the desire to be no one and someone at once.
Tee arrived in Prague in late December 2001 and met the artist and the artist’s wife at the turn of the New Year. It snowed that Eve, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. After a late lunch, Tee took the metro to the ruins of the original castle, Vyšehrad. He carried a bottle of beer in each pocket. He had paid twelve dollars for a monthly transit pass, a dollar per Pilsner Urquell. Water cost slightly more than beer, a fact he noted in his e-mails home. He didn’t miss his friends, though—he wanted to be alone, free of expectations. He stepped out of the metro station and into the wind at the top of the hill. A hundred feet down the path, the walls stretched along either side, keeping out a long-gone foe. At the far end, the Vltava ran below, a dozen feet lower than it would reach in August.
Tee bent his head to an arrow slit, shrinking the world into a guardable space. He imagined an army advancing, simply for something in their sparse world to take. Or maybe to take something back. He imagined a little piece of himself, held captive. He had been in Prague for five snowy days. The sun never came out. He wondered again if he should have gone elsewhere for his semester off. He’d enrolled in a certification course to teach English as a foreign language, but he was already skipping. What if the Czech kids saw his Korean half and had to know where he came from? Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague.
The wind blew at his back. At the far end of the castle grounds, behind the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul where the devil had lost a legendary bet for a soul, Tee stood for a while in a famous cemetery. He watched a boy return to the same statue over and over, a thin, winged girl that couldn’t have meant anything to him. Tee stepped back to give the boy room, or to wonder unobserved. After the boy’s father led him away, Tee touched the wings. They were scaly, almost reptilian. He imagined the boy lifting those wings onto his own back. Making a myth of himself. Later Tee would learn about Queen Libuše, who sent out a white horse from Vyšehrad to look for a king and found a man stooping under a doorframe that would eventually become Kafka’s castle. After that king died, a maidens’ army would fight the men for control of Prague. Beside the cemetery was a prayer maze where children knelt in the center and wished. Tee felt cold with history. He poked a finger in the snow and outlined a man and a woman, a baby slipping out of their arms.
He climbed up and sat on the wall under the flat-bottomed clouds. Below, ancient armies had piled up dead, forever at the edge of what they wanted.
Then Tee was back at his uncle’s wake. His uncle, burned up from crashing his solo plane in a wheat field in New York, had been cremated and kept in a teal urn. Tee’s aunt shrieked with guilt, pressed her forehead to the ceramic. His father buried his face in his shirt. They could no longer hide their affair. The two of them had driven the plane down as effectively as had his uncle’s hands. Yet the affair was many years old. Why had his uncle given up at last?
A piece of brick scratched free under Tee’s nails and tumbled toward the water.
He wandered down the hill, through an arch in the wall. A flash of color in the dark: a picture of fireworks and, underneath, in English, NEW YEAR EVE. In a day, Tee reminded himself, it would be 2002. Other announcements lay scattered on the cobblestone, all in Czech. He wondered why this single English flyer was left on the wall. The type of everyday strangeness that thrived in Prague. He folded the flyer into his pocket.
When he reached the city center, it was dark but not late. Winter curtained Prague at four in the afternoon—so cold sometimes it was like the city was searching out the gaps in his clothing. Though other times he would stumble upon a hidden garden, as if pumped through the arteries of a secret heart.
In his pocket, his fingers found a tiny piece of scaled wing. At some point he had started taking “souvenirs” from the places he went, coasters he doodled on, a loose chunk of brick, severed buttons. He remembered lying in bed after the birthday party in Boston, a candle in his hand, wondering why he had taken it—the number 2. Later, on his first day at the artist’s house, he would steal a pewter Golem, just bigger than a Monopoly piece.
He needed coffee. He needed to believe his exhaustion was only jet lag, though he had woken on the cold floor that morning, as his father would do sometimes. He had slept late despite the rooster that crowed periodically, a rooster in a city in winter. He heard its pecking in his head—shush, shush, shush—its beak slicing vainly through the snow.
In a café down a side street, he let the caffeine wind his spring. He wondered how to make a start: apply at the Prague Post (the local English newspaper); work at an English bookstore; commit to teaching, after all; write a novel; become a tea connoisseur? As if one of those tasks would open a door. It wasn’t about work. After his uncle’s air limo business sold, Tee’s share of the inheritance (a token for a son-like nephew) would be nearly three hundred thousand dollars.
By ten, he had finished his third cup. He trembled as he signed the check. In the dark, on the cobblestone, he didn’t know which way to turn. He smelled smoke, heard a siren somewhere. His heart raced. After an hour he stumbled upon the familiar glass doors of his hotel, as if by coincidence. No one waited inside. He remembered skimming over Boston in the cockpit of his uncle’s water plane, so completely separate from the city below. In the glass doors stood his reflection. The container inside of him filling. Finally he made his way through the web of streets to a beer stall near Old Town Square. As he waited for his Budvar, he heard the explosions, at last. He followed a woman a little older than he. When they reached the crowd, he saw the fireworks. Not high up in the air, but shot horizontally down streets, just overhead. He pushed through the mob under the Orloj astronomical clock, under the streaks that burst into sparks and ash. Inside his coat pocket, his fist tightened on the scaly feather. A stranger slapped his back. The Orloj rang in the New Year with its famous dance of figurines. People sprayed champagne, shook hands, passed bottles, sang Czech folk songs, pulled him into crisscrossing arms. He drank anything he got his hands on. A liquor that tasted like Christmas, which he would later know as Becherovka. A jam jar of homemade slivovice. The champagne wet his clothes, stuck to his skin, and suddenly he wanted everything off. He felt dizzy with the idea of starting out clean of his past, like a baby. Dumping his container for good.
He slipped off his shirt and stepped into a small opening where two businessmen shot industrial-grade fireworks over Týn Church. When he got down to socks and boxers, the crowd cheered him, the foreigner half-naked. He swayed and shuffled to the side to catch his balance. Someone copied his steps, making a dance. Someone handed him another Budvar. He wriggled, trying to force the heat from the alcohol through his limbs. The wind stung his back. He drank and shook and drank and shook—until finally the cheers faded. As if, in the end, he was only odd or sad. People returned to their circles. Hands drew back. Tee shook harder. The glass bottle steamed in his palm. As he kicked o_ his socks, a couple approached, a shabby-looking man and a much taller, graceful woman, and waved him over. The man pulled a hood over shaggy hair and ducked under a Roman candle. The woman pointed at the sky and caught Tee’s gaze. He was going to cry, but why? When he had gathered his clothes, the woman turned to him with dizzyingly blue eyes and asked if he spoke English. “We think you should be painted,” she said with no introduction or self consciousness. Tee picked up a fallen piece of a rocket, as if it still had the energy for another burst. He added it to his pile of clothes, dusting them with ash, and followed her.
The artist went by the nickname Pavel Picasso. He had become famous during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when Prague intellectuals had led a nonviolent revolt against the Communists. His art, as one critic had slyly put it, punning on “Communism with a human face,” excelled at a “faceless humanism.” Pavel Picasso was a man of average height, average build, but rare intensity. It seemed to Tee as if some inner measure pulled the outer reaches of the artist’s body and personality toward a central point. Sometimes paint stained Pavel’s mouth as if it started inside him. He chewed his knuckles as he worked. He thought with his hands in his armpits. Tee would spend much of January and February of 2002 posing in the studio in the artist’s bedroom, trying to be worthy of intensity.
While Pavel painted, his wife, Katka, would tell legends like that of the Devil’s Pillar, dropped by the devil through the roof of the basilica in Vyšehrad. She would wave her hand as if to call the past onto stage. She was a tall woman, never awkward about her height, with brown hair to her shoulders and high, round cheekbones. She could sweep out her arms and take over the room. When she wasn’t talking, she brewed tea, cooked breakfast and lunch. But domesticity didn’t seem natural to her. Tee would move to help her, and Pavel would peer down his cigarette and tell him to hold his pose. “Now try to being more American,” Pavel would say. It was nerve-racking to Tee, being objectified by an artist’s gaze—he was used to being an object of dismissal. He tightened his jaw. Sweat under his chin.
Early in the morning before Tee’s first visit to the artist’s house, he stood in front of his bathroom mirror for longer than usual, wondering what Pavel Picasso would see. As soon as Tee turned away from his reflection, he would forget it. He knew this.
Katka had sketched a map to Malešice on his palm. When he arrived at the house, she led him into the bedroom, where light pooled through two high windows. She walked quickly on her tall frame, and he had to hurry to keep up, even for those few steps. He didn’t want them to think he had stopped to examine their lives. On their walls hung completed puzzles, elegantly framed, not paintings. There was a photo from their wedding: only their shaggy hairstyles seemed to have aged. He was surprised at how ordinary the couple seemed, sober and without fireworks. Katka pointed to a chair across from where Pavel was setting up, and Tee sat with his head in his hands, then straightened up so that they wouldn’t think he was having second thoughts.
Katka knelt and looked directly into his eyes. That blue was hypnotic, the inner blue of fire. “Where in America did you leave?” He was glad, at least, that she asked leave, that she believed in his dispossession. And who else, when he had stripped all the way down, had wanted to make something of him?
“You’re not expecting me to undress again?” he asked, blushing.
She pointed to his hand. “You could have copied the map.” He hadn’t thought of that. If he had erased the route on his skin, he might not have come.
The first, and best, painting of Tee depicted a dark figure rising off his toes beside the Orloj, a ghost learning to let go of the earth. Below his black bangs, Tee’s cheeks burned red with faith. He had never seen in himself this odd credulity. The recognition stuck in his throat, scratching as he breathed. He wondered if his Korean half—some moment during his first months of life, after his birth mother’s death but before adoption—was responsible. He remembered a piece of family lore about how he had learned to walk. He had refused to crawl, only stood until his legs held up his will. His mother had said it was like watching someone recall who he was. Katka said Pavel painted more real than life.
By the end of his first week, Katka had given Tee a short version of her own history, how she had run off from her mother and her small town, Beroun, in 1984, to go to university in Prague. She spoke English with a slight British accent, inherited from her late father; behind the rising intonation was her mother’s guttural Czech. Hard consonants, throated vowels, rolled, nearly hiccupped r’s—Tee found the combination exciting, like a car race in which one watches to see how the next crash might unfold. “I wanted a new life then,” she said. “Heaps of us did.” She reached over and readjusted his pose, and he realized that she and her husband somehow worked together, though only Pavel held a brush. Her confidence was different than Pavel’s—it wasn’t based on a talent. It was more mysterious, like the faith in Tee’s cheeks.
That first week, Katka told a legend about the Orloj’s maker, Hanuš. Upon the clock’s completion, an executioner blinded him with a hot poker. “The city’s orders,” Katka said, “so that he could never make another.” She smiled, and turned her wrist as if to bore Tee through each eye. “Then the story splits in two. At some point the clock broke. Some say Hanuš took revenge. He threw himself into the gears. Others say the clock broke on its own, and no one but Hanuš could fix it. He fixed what he had got blinded for making.”
“Either way,” Tee said, “that’s a man who knew what could live forever.”
Pavel snapped his fingers. “Stop moving.”
For a moment Tee had nearly forgotten he was being painted.
“Tell me,” Katka said, “do you know a book called The Giving Tree?” She folded her hands.
“Are you asking because it can help Pavel paint me?”
“She asking anyone who’s speaking English,” Pavel said.
Katka explained that The Giving Tree had been her father’s favorite book to read to her. Tee knew it. The tree gives up its apples, its branches, its trunk, for a boy.
“I always thought that story was so beautiful, but my dad read it like a warning. Later, he killed himself.” There was a long pause. “What were you like as a kid?”
Tee rubbed his eyebrow and marveled that she could mention suicide so easily. Was that when she had left for Prague? They might understand each other. “Most of the time, I did what I was told. Then all of a sudden, I would break a window or run away.”
He asked if she believed in her legends, and she shrugged. Then she tousled his hair. “You are too young for these old stories to interest you.” She and Pavel were fifteen years his senior. Tee wondered again why they had chosen him to model.
Once, about a week into their sessions, she said, “Are you ready to say why you came here yet? Was it because of the terror attacks? You seem like you have got some dark past.”
“I came here,” Tee started—but then he didn’t want to look like a kid sighing about his uncle—“because here my past doesn’t matter.”
He wished to explain better. Prague had resisted centuries of violence with a peaceful revolution. He tried again. “I came here because here I’m the only one who determines who I am.” Why did that sound like finding himself? He wasn’t wasting his uncle’s money, or affection. His container grew fuller. With a start, he couldn’t remember if he had undressed, after all. He glanced down, though, of course, he was clothed.
“You look like you saw a ghost,” Katka said.
Pavel reminded him, once again, to keep still.
Each day, as his body came to life on the canvas, Tee would wait to hear about Katka’s and Pavel’s pasts, and the city’s. His own past he avoided—nothing about him seemed equal to either of them. His accomplishments were Most Sportsmanlike at soccer camp, two years on the school newspaper, one TV appearance to give his reaction to a series of campus robberies, the ability to drink a beer faster than anyone else in his book club. Pavel and Katka would never have seemed equal to each other without art. Her length and self-assurance; his tics and self-containment, always curled up, seeming smaller than he was. At times, Tee wasn’t sure if it was the stories or being painted that he liked more. Her crashing voice kept him still and rapt. But taking shape, as the artist saw him, Tee almost felt he had a purpose in Prague.
It wasn’t long, though, before Pavel handed over an old painting as a thank-you and said Tee didn’t have to come anymore. Katka leaned forward. Tee smelled cocoa butter, noticed her lipstick printed on her cup. He wanted to rub a piece of paper over the print. How long did it take to finish a painting? Surely years, or at least months.
“What is it?” Katka asked, squinting.
It was just as she had said. In the paintings, he was more real than life. His original self had been replaced. He pointed to her cheek. “You have something there.” She ran her finger along her nose, and without thinking, he licked his thumb and pressed it to her skin. He lifted off an eyelash. Before he could pull away, she held his wrist and blew on his thumb.
Pavel stomped, and his brown hair flopped over his craggy brows. He puffed it aside. He said these were the last touches and Tee should shut his eyes if he couldn’t stop.
Tee felt like a child, but he did shut them. With his eyes closed, he realized how tired he was. Though he’d done nothing all day but pose. He heard Katka start a new legend, about the hill Blaník, as if nothing had changed, at least for her. In the darkness, he became terriffied of losing them, of losing that gaze on him and the stories that contextualized the city. He didn’t realize yet how much he needed them to contextualize him. He squeezed his eyelids tighter and the room expanded and then contracted. He pictured his father with a camcorder, taking one of his home videos: Pavel Picasso painting furiously, Katka narrating some deeper mystery, Tee a stranger in a strange land. His father, who had slept with his aunt. That had nothing to do with Tee. Heat pressed his thigh, and he opened his eyes. His leg was touching Katka’s. She put a hand on his knee, to reassure him or to question his alarm.
“Close eyes,” Pavel said again.
Tee didn’t make any move until Katka’s palm lifted. When he had broken up with his ex in Boston, she had said he was the same as his father. “You will only ever want the wrong woman,” she’d said, meaning she should have known they weren’t right for each other.
Katka stood and went to her husband’s side. She hummed some Czech tune, and Pavel’s frown faded.
After lunch, Pavel again tried to hand over the thank-you painting. “Why stop now?” Tee said. “You could do a bigger series. You could try a gallery in New York.” Without the sessions, Tee might simply return to New Year’s, trying and failing to explode. Pavel clamped his hands in his armpits and said Tee’s suggestion was what his closest friend, a Czech with an American name, Rockefeller, had been advising for years.
Katka turned Tee gently by the shoulder. “Wait a second. Do you mind?” she asked. He hesitated, then stepped outside beside the big maple tree dusted with snow. He walked around it several times, until he lost count. He made a snowball, but had no target. His hands grew numb. Finally he held the snow to his face, the cold waking him up.
When Katka called him back, the smell inside the kitchen still thick with meat and cabbage, she said he could return tomorrow. She pulled apart a knot in her hair and grimaced. He didn’t know who had wanted him and who hadn’t.
That night, he lay in bed picturing Pavel’s hands curled into claws. Could, Katka had said, not should. Though she was speaking her second language. Tee hadn’t even looked at the thank-you painting. He didn’t know what exactly Pavel had been trying to give him. Maybe it wasn’t a painting but one of the puzzles Katka had hung around the house. Tee was intrigued by her puzzle-making, the things about her that didn’t make sense with her legends. Once every other week, she went to the cinema, but she only watched documentaries. She looked up the story beforehand. She wasn’t interested in the mystery of what happened but in its representation, in how it was put together by someone else.
After that could, Pavel had said the subject should choose the next pose—that was why Tee couldn’t sleep now. He had thought this was a serious request. He had spread his fingers across his chest, and then he hadn’t known what to do with his other hand. He hadn’t known whether to sit or to stand. He held his palm stiffly over his heart, as if to pledge allegiance. For the first time, he heard Pavel laugh. When Tee woke, he couldn’t find pants to match his shirt, though he had worn that shirt a dozen times and had laid out an outfit the night before.