The Abyss of Time

 

1

 

It began with the wind.

      In the middle of the night, its strong gusts buffeted the walls of the house, and the branches of the old pine tree drummed on the roof. When Tonya was awakened by the howling wind, she thought it was a freak summer storm and went back to sleep. It was only a few hours later, when she was sleepily making herself a coffee, that she realized the wind hadn’t let up. She screwed up her eyes against the bright light. The sun was shining, just as they had forecast in yesterday’s news. It was to be just as hot as the previous days, but there was no mention of any gales.

      Brewing coffee in Granny’s old whistling kettle had become something of a morning ritual during these holidays. Tonya went upstairs and opened the glass door leading out to the terrace. She was met by a strong, warm wind, which blew her red hair around until she looked like Medusa from the Greek myth. It really was shaping up to be another nice day – the sun was high, the air smelled of warmth. She lifted the mug of coffee to her mouth, but it never got there…

      She stood frozen with her arm in mid-air. The steam rose from her mug, the wind made her pyjama bottoms billow out, the dew chilled her bare feet, and her brain tried to process the view from the terrace.

      Spread out below her should have been a village with red roofs and colourful facades. But something was wrong, and it took her brain a full second to figure out what it was.

      The village wasn’t there!

      She blinked several times, but the image remained the same. Instead of coloured roofs there was now an endless forest.

      She slowly rotated on her axis. Her neighbours’ house was where it should be, and the Millers’ Yorkshire terrier was running around the backyard, but when she turned her gaze to the hillside where the rest of the village should have been, she saw only forest. She leaned over and squinted into the morning haze as though she expected the trees to dissolve like mist and the village to appear.

      ‘Oh shit,’ she whispered.

      She went back into the room and carefully slid the door shut behind her. She sat down at the table and warmed her hands on the mug.

       ‘Oh shit…’ she repeated quietly.

      What was happening to her? Was she going mad? Was it some form of blindness? She had never heard of anything like that. Either you became long-sighted or short-sighted or you lost your sight completely. But seeing something else entirely…?

      It must be some kind of psychological breakdown!

      Tonya stood up stiffly and began to get dressed. Another quick glance through the glass door: no, nothing had changed, a dense forest instead of red roofs.

      She left the house and walked down the sloping road towards the village. Around the bend she should come across the Franks’ grocery store.

      She had to!

      She stopped. The road suddenly came to an end.

      It was badly surfaced and full of potholes; her father had gone to the council many times asking for it to be repaired… What she wouldn’t give for it now! She had walked along it just yesterday evening on her way home and now its lower half was simply missing. She stood at the edge, afraid to leave the road.

      Cautiously, she knelt down on the broken asphalt and groped around in front of her like a person looking for their glasses. She ran her fingers over the rough surface until she got to the end. It was as though someone had sliced the rest of the road off with a grinder (or whatever that tool road workers use was called) and carried it off somewhere. She knew nothing at all about construction work, but it was clear to her that this was nonsense.

      Her fingers left the asphalt and cautiously touched the damp soil. She picked up a handful of the black earth and let it run through her fingers. The wind, which was lighter under the hill, stole the pine needles out of her hand. She stood up again and looked around her. She was close to tears.

      The forest which had supplanted her beloved Matysburk rustled in the wind, and the tops of the trees bowed in synchronization. Somewhere a cuckoo cooed.

      Tonya didn’t want to leave the road. She was afraid it would also mean leaving behind her sanity. Finally, however, she took a step forward and stood on the soft ground.

      She had crossed a kind of dividing line stretching into the distance. The road ended in a straight edge that diverged on either side. On one half grew a well-manicured lawn; on the other, wild grass and weeds half-a-metre tall. Then she noticed one of the trees. It was growing on the new side, but it bent in the direction she’d come from. Part of the trunk and branches which crossed this imaginary line in the air were missing. They had been cut off smoothly and she could clearly see the light, fresh wood.)

      She looked back. She was afraid that the road and her house would disappear with one loud poof! Everything was in its place.

      She had to find out what the hell was going on!

      With cautious steps, she set out into the forest. The forest was sparse and perhaps young, but it wasn’t any different from all the other forests she had been in. Deciduous trees interspersed with some conifers. Every now and again she’d turn around. The road was still there.

      The cuckoo started up again. Tonya looked up to the treetops.

      It was also entirely feasible that she was actually walking through the streets of the village. The traffic had stopped, and people were getting out of their cars and staring at her. They were moving out of the way so she wouldn’t bump into them. And she was wandering among them, looking up at the sky like an imbecile.

      She could no longer hold back the flood of tears.

      ‘What’s happening to me?’ she whispered to the silence around her.

      She lacked the courage to go any further; she wanted to turn around and run back. She’d have a hot bath and wait for her parents to get back. Mum would know what to do! She always knew what to do!

      Then she spotted some ruts worn by wheels among the tree trunks. There should have been a roundabout here. It had still been there yesterday evening… She made her way hesitantly through the trees. A narrow, curving pathway cut through the thickening forest. She was just about to head back when she heard jingling and then squelching steps in the soft ground.

      Something told her to hide, but she remained motionless and waited to see what would appear from around the bend. The jingling grew louder. She heard the snorting of an animal.

      Then a donkey appeared with a man on its back. When he saw her, his eyes widened.

      Tonya moved aside to let the donkey pass. It had its head lowered in resignation and might have bumped into her. It walked past her, and both she and the rider stared dumbly at each other. The man was dressed in coarse, patched-up rags, his hands and face were covered in grime, and fair hair sprouted from beneath his filthy hood. He smelled like a homeless person.

      ‘Who are you?’ she asked him.

      The man’s eyebrows shot up and his eyes grew even wider. Then he quickly crossed himself and spurred the unfortunate donkey on with his heels, but it continued along at the same pace.

      ‘Ho! Ho!’ shouted the man, kicking the donkey in its flanks.

      ‘Excuse me, but where is Matysburk?’ she called after him tearfully.

      However, the man was already disappearing among the trees, still glancing back at her and urging on his donkey, which simply ignored him.

      ‘What is happening?!’ she shouted. But she could no longer see him; all she heard was the receding sound of jingling.

      If ever there was a time to panic, this was it. She ran back towards the road. The tears streamed down, blinding her, and it was a miracle that she didn’t bump into a tree trunk. She had to get back to safety, no matter what. As she ran up the hill, her lungs were bursting. The Millers’ Goliath welcomed her with joyful barking. She flung open the door and slammed it behind her, slid down to the floor and buried her face in her hands.

      As her mother said: Tears are healthy. Men don’t cry, and that’s why they die of heart disease…

      She sat by the door and wept like a little girl.

 

            

2

 

The tears stopped flowing and dried on her wet cheeks. But Tonya remained sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees.

      Mum and Dad will be home in the afternoon. I can’t go mad before then!

      Somebody knocked on the door.

      She gave a jolt and her heart pounded painfully. With her face pressed to the door, she cautiously slid towards the peephole.

      More impatient knocking; she flinched at the noise. On the other side of the door stood Mrs Miller. Tonya cautiously opened up a crack and peered out.

      ‘Hi, Tonya,’ she greeted her, smiling nervously.

      ‘Hello. Mum isn’t home…’

      The Millers were retired, and Mrs Miller occasionally came over for a natter, happy that someone would listen to her.

      ‘That doesn’t matter,’ said the old lady with a forced grin. ‘Could I come in for a minute?’

      Even though she was like another grandmother to her, Tonya hesitated for a moment. Finally, though, she opened the door and moved aside. Mrs Miller took a quick look around and then gratefully went inside.

      ‘How are you today, Tonya?’

      I slept well, made myself a coffee and then discovered I’d gone mental

      Smiling, Mrs Miller waited for her to reply, then patted Tonya’s hand. ‘Shall we go in the kitchen?’

      They sat at the table. The water was still hot, so Tonya made some coffee.

      ‘Our gas and electricity are out,’ remarked Mrs Miller, trying to make it sound natural. But it didn’t quite come out that way.

      Tonya was about to say that their gas was working, but then she realized that the cooker ran off a propane cylinder.

      ‘Have you been out yet?’ asked Mrs Miller. She said it in an everyday tone of voice, but her eyes were fixed on Tonya, her expression desperately pleading for a quick reply.

      Tonya nodded. She didn’t have the courage to speak out loud. She was afraid it would unleash another torrent of tears.

      ‘That’s OK…that’s OK,’ said Mrs Miller, the corners of her mouth twitching. ‘And is everything all right?’

      The girl looked her in the eye. ‘Mrs Miller, is there something you want to tell me?’

      The old woman fidgeted and drank some coffee for courage.

      ‘I went for some rolls this morning. I like them when they’re still warm, though they say you shouldn’t eat them hot…’

      ‘Mrs Miller,’ Tonya took hold of her shaking hand. ‘Did you buy any rolls?’

      That innocent question held such urgency it was as though her life depended on it. Mrs Miller stared at her and took her time answering.

      Well, Mrs Miller, did you buy those bloody rolls?!

      ‘Well…I went down the road and… You’ll probably think you’re talking to a senile old granny…’

      ‘Was there a forest?’ asked Tonya hopefully.

      Mrs Miller gulped. ‘Yes, a forest. No grocery store.’

      ‘No Matysburk,’ added Tonya.

      The two of them looked visibly relieved. Although they had just confirmed that their village, along with all the people they knew, had vanished into thin air, they had also proved to each other that they were sane, which was more important at this point.

      ‘How is it possible?’

      ‘I don’t know. Let’s wait until my mum and dad get back…’ Then she was struck by an awful thought. Without a word she ran into the other room. She grabbed her mobile phone and dialled her mother’s number.

      Some rapid beeping and then the telephone went silent. She tried it again. There should at least have been a recorded voice telling her the number was unavailable. But there was nothing, as though there was nowhere to get through to.

      As though no operators or transmitters existed.

      ‘Come over to ours and we can try the land line,’ Mrs Miller said from the door.

             

 

3

           

There were only two houses on the hill above the village, mirror images of each other joined along one wall. One of them used to belong to Tonya’s grandmother.

      Tonya always spent her summer holidays there. When her grandmother died, her father decided not to sell the house and instead began to gradually renovate the old building. The family used it as a cottage and a refuge from the searing heat of the housing estate in Budweis. The Millers lived in the other house.

      Tonya had been living in student halls for the past two years. She liked the hubbub of Prague with all its cafés and clubs, but she still spent her summer holidays at the cottage. At least for a week or two until the quiet village started to get a little dull. She had a rock festival planned for August, and she’d said she’d go on a beach holiday with her friends from university. Two weeks of sunbathing on a lounger and eyeing up the guys on the beach had sounded like a great prospect. Now her ideas about a festival or warm sand and night-time drinks seemed absurd.

      Mrs Miller and Tonya went across the broken tarmac road from one house to the other. Both of them glanced down the hill at the rustling forest. A flock of birds shot out from the treetops; otherwise nothing had changed.

      ‘Hello, Goliath,’ said Tonya, scratching the little dog as it jumped around excitedly. Meanwhile, Mrs Miller unlocked the front door.

      ‘Oh, yes, you’re so cute, aren’t you…’

      Goliath lay on his back, offering up his belly to be rubbed.

      A cry came from inside the house. Tonya ran to the entrance. Goliath happily followed her, getting under her feet.

      ‘Tonya!’ screamed Mrs Miller.

      Tonya threw open the door. Mrs Miller was kneeling beside her husband. He lay stretched out on the floor with a pool of blood spreading beneath his head.

      ‘Tonya, help him!’ implored Mrs Miller. ‘Don’t just stand there. You’re a doctor after all!’

      Doctor?!

      At that moment there was probably no point explaining that her doctorate was still some years off and that she wasn’t going to be a doctor of medicine, but of classical archaeology! Her grandmother had always talked about her as our doctor

      But she should be able to manage first aid at least! She knelt down beside the old man and tried his pulse. She couldn’t find one. She pulled open his shirt and looked to see if his chest was moving. Mr Miller wasn’t breathing, his heart wasn’t beating.

      So how did it go again? She would imagine Mr Miller was the dummy they used during medical training. Otherwise her fragile psychological state might shatter, and Tonya feared that no-one would be able to put it back together again.

      She tilted the man’s head back; the oral cavity was clear. Sometimes that was enough for the injured person to start breathing, but not in this case. She felt for the breast bone and placed her hand at the end of it – that was where she would push. She put one hand on top of the other, raised herself up on straightened arms and began the massage.

      She tried to pump in a regular rhythm. One compression per second. Just like the instructor had taught her. Mouth-to-mouth was now seen as outdated; there was more oxygen in the blood that was being pumped around…

      Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-one, she kept repeating her magical mantra to maintain a steady rhythm.

      She worked without a break. Her arms and shoulders were on fire.

      Mrs Miller stood by the window.

      Twenty-one, twenty-two…

      Then she felt a light touch on her shoulder.

      ‘My dear, let him be.’

      ‘But you don’t understand, Mrs Miller,’ she replied breathlessly. ‘This can take several minutes.’

      ‘You’ve been doing it for half an hour…’

      That’s impossible. Shaking, she sat down beside the cooling body.

      Mrs Miller sat beside her. The two women embraced. The old woman was trembling as she silently wept. Tonya clasped her even more tightly.

       ‘He’d already had two heart attacks…’ whispered the old woman between sobs, stroking her husband’s chest.

      Mr Miller had obviously got up, gone to the window and discovered that the village where he had spent his whole life had packed up and gone somewhere, and his heart hadn’t been able to take it.

      ‘It’s my fault,’ said Mrs Miller miserably. ‘I’m so stupid, if only I’d waited until he woke up. As it was, he might have thought I’d disappeared as well…’

      Tonya stroked her hair and thought about her parents. For the first time, she realized with horror that they might never get here.

 

     

4

 

The whole day passed without any sign of Mum and Dad.

      Twenty-four hours of nothing. The telephones were dead. The electricity wasn’t working – no internet, no cable TV. Out of the entire village there were only two houses left, huddled together fearfully on the hill with the dark forest sprawling below them. Night fell stealthily, and Tonya was afraid to leave the house. Mrs Miller was back in her own home, alone with her dead husband.

      Tonya didn’t sleep much. With the first rays of morning light came a soft knocking on the door. At that moment, Tonya realized she’d have to do something, otherwise she’d go mad.

      ‘Mrs Miller!’

      ‘Could you help me, love?’ The old woman was sweating and covered in dirt.

      Her husband lay in the hallway of the house, wrapped in a white sheet bound together with duct tape. Mrs Miller apologized for not having managed it in a more dignified manner. There was a shallow grave in the garden which she had been digging since morning.

      Tonya blushed with shame. She had been cowering in her house like a hamster, watching through the window for salvation to appear, while this old woman had been left to dig a grave for her husband all by herself.

      She began to apologize hysterically. Mrs Miller just stroked her cheek. ‘It’s all right, dear. If you could just help me get him outside. I can’t manage it by myself.’

      Tonya would never have believed that a dead body could be so heavy. She dragged her deceased neighbour by the legs, his head making a dull thud every time they went through a doorway. Tonya apologized each time, as though it could still hurt the old man. Fortunately, there were no stairs to contend with.

      By the time she got him out to the open grave in the garden, her vest top was soaked through with sweat.  Together they rolled the body into the hole. Tonya had to break up a nearby rockery to build a small mound on Mr Miller’s grave.

      Mrs Miller crossed herself and knelt by the fresh grave, her headscarf fluttering in the gusts of wind.

      Tonya felt out of place and suddenly didn’t know what to do with her hands. She had never been religious, and now she was unsure whether she should also kneel out of politeness, or just quietly stand there.

      ‘That’s fine, Tonya, thank you,’ said Mrs Miller, as though reading her thoughts. ‘I’ll just say goodbye to him and then I’ll come over to your place, OK?’

 

              

5

 

‘We have to find out what’s going on. Otherwise we’ll be waiting like this till Judgment Day,’ said Mrs Miller as they drank coffee on the veranda with its breathtaking new view of the unknown forest.

      ‘But how? I’m afraid to go into the forest,’ said Tonya quietly, remembering the strange man on the donkey.

      ‘You can drive a car, can’t you?’

      This sentence struck fear into Tonya.

      It would have done so under normal circumstances, let alone now when the world had gone to pot.

      ‘I saw you out driving with your dad a few times.’

      ‘Yes, but I’ve never driven alone,’ protested Tonya. She’d had her driving licence for about six months, but was convinced she should have used the money for something completely different.

      ‘You said there was a path in the forest…’

      ‘Well, there is, but I doubt you could get a car along it. And anyway, my mum and dad have the car,’ she said with a sigh of relief.

      ‘We can take our Peugeot,’ said Mrs Miller, smiling.

      She cannot be serious!

      But she was, and she even declared sweetly that if Tonya didn’t want to do it, she wouldn’t force her. But she had to find out what was going on. So she would go to the forest alone – on foot.

      ‘We’ll leave at once. There’s no sense in putting it off. I’ll just make us up a snack,’ said Mrs Miller.

            

It was shortly after eight, and Tonya was adjusting the rear-view mirror in the tiny old Peugeot. And then the seat. And then just one trifling matter – how to start it.

      She turned the key in the ignition…and nothing happened.

      She tried it once again just to be sure. Nothing.

      ‘You have to let it heat up for a moment, it’s a diesel,’ explained Mrs Miller, with a special emphasis on the last word.

      ‘And how do you do that?’

      ‘That little spiral has to light up,’ said Mrs Miller, pointing. She had picked up at least that much from her husband.

      Tonya turned the key again and noticed an orange spiral on the dashboard. She let it stay lit for a while, then turned the key the rest of the way, and the engine coughed out a cloud of dark smoke. She stepped on the accelerator and released the clutch too quickly. The Peugeot gave two wild leaps and then fell silent.

      ‘For crying out…’ said Tonya under her breath. Mrs Miller stroked her hand. Her smile was a source of calm. It always had been.

      She went through the whole process again. The needle on the fuel gauge was in the red zone. She would be running on the reserve and would have to keep an eye on it. This time she was gentler with the clutch and the car went slowly along the bumpy road and down the hill. Tonya braked, gripping the steering wheel tightly.

      Just relax. There’s nothing to crash into anyway.

      The Peugeot left the paved road and drove onto the soft ground. There was plenty of space between the tree trunks, and the pine needles on the ground prevented the wheels from getting stuck. Tonya wouldn’t have minded if they had. Only once did she have to double back to drive around some bushes (it took her ages to work out how to reverse).

      Finally, they reached the path. Twice the car swayed as they went over the ruts. The two women looked at each other for reassurance that this was really what they wanted to do. Then Tonya put her foot down and the Peugeot waddled its way along the forest path.

 

 

6

 

The fuel light glowed like a hostile red eye. The Peugeot jolted and rocked. The trunks grew thicker and the treetops formed a sealed canopy above them, as though they were driving into a tapering green tunnel. It was slowly becoming a primeval forest and branches brushed against the side windows like hungry arms.

       Tonya felt like Little Red Riding Hood, but with a small French car instead of a hood.

      ‘Mrs Miller, we’re going to have to turn around.’

       Actually, that’s not about to happen – more likely we’ll have to reverse for five kilometres.

      The old woman was glued to the windscreen, trying to make out something between the trees.

      ‘Mrs Miller…’

      ‘Doesn’t that part of the forest seem a bit brighter to you?’

      Tonya turned her gaze in the direction she was indicating. It really did look as if there was light shining through the trees. She glanced at the warning light again – perhaps she could get another kilometre out of it. She put her foot down on the accelerator and the small wheels skidded in the mud, throwing a clump of grass into the air.

      The Peugeot jolted its way to the edge of the forest – there was no longer any doubt about it. They finally drove out from the shade of the trees and the sun’s rays hit the windscreen. Tonya was momentarily dazzled, but when her eyes had adjusted she slammed on the brakes, causing the locked wheels to skid slightly along the grass.

      The two women stared dumbfounded. The people who were standing in the clearing stared at them.

      Tonya blinked wildly and finally took in a lungful of air.

      ‘Who in God’s name are they?’ whispered Mrs Miller.

      There were several hovels in the clearing. All that could be seen above ground was some straw roofs, so they were probably dugouts. To the side of the settlement there was some kind of smoking mound – that was how they used to burn charcoal in the olden days. Around two dozen people were gaping at them open-mouthed. All of them were equally grey, grubby and dressed in coarse rags.

      ‘We’re in hell,’ whispered Mrs Miller, crossing herself.

      ‘No, we’re not…’ Tonya reached for the handle and opened the door. The wind, which had lost none of its strength since yesterday, snatched it out of her hand. It was as if she had shot at the people standing there. Half of them took to their heels and scattered; the other half flinched, but their curiosity prevailed over their survival instincts.

      Tonya got out of the car.

      A woman screamed and fell backwards. One man, wearing a coarse black cowl belted at the waist with a rope, fell to his knees and began to pray. The rest of the occupants began to run after the others.

      ‘Wait!’ Her voice, amplified by an echo, was like the crack of a whip – they all speeded up. Even the man in the cowl, who obviously did not set great store by his prayers, dashed off after his neighbours.

      The only one left was the unconscious woman. Tonya went over to her. She felt for a pulse. It was strong and regular. She was breathing. Tonya was relieved she wouldn’t have to give her the kiss of life. Her skin was greasy, as though she had never washed. This theory was corroborated by the stench emanating from her dirty rags.

      Instead of first aid, Tonya gave her a slap. The woman blinked and opened her eyes wide. Tonya smiled. The woman began shrieking and tried to stand up, only to get tangled in her own skirts and end up sprawling in the mud.

      ‘Wait, who are you? What are you doing here? Do you understand me?’

      The woman won the battle with her clothing and ran off in the direction the others had fled in. Tonya shaded her eyes. ‘That’s impossible,’ she whispered.

      Mrs Miller came and stood beside her. ‘Is that what I think it is?’

      Tonya looked around, trying to get her bearings. That seemed to be right. In this area there used to be a sparse forest where she often went for walks. In front of her was a small hill with a romantic ruin on it: a couple of perimeter walls made of large boulders and one wall of a watch tower. A nice place.

      The hill was still there, but in place of the ruined walls there was a massive fortress and the tower soared to its full height. Several grey plumes of smoke rose from the fortress into the sky. The villagers who had fled from them were now crowded together at the wooden gate, trying to gain entry. Then the gate opened.

      ‘I don’t like the look of this…’

      Mrs Miller started to explore the huts. ‘Hello! Is anyone home?’

      They should probably get out of there. Either they had travelled back to the Middle Ages, or the Middle Ages had come to them. In any case, they shouldn’t stay there.

      ‘Mrs Miller!’

      Her neighbour, however, had already disappeared into one of the hovels. Tonya suddenly felt like a character in some stupid horror film. The viewers shake their heads at her foolishness, telling her on no account to go into any dark places. But of course, against her better judgment, that is exactly what she does.

      She squeezed through the narrow doorway. ‘What are you doing here? We should get back,’ she hissed.

      ‘How can they live like this?’ wondered Mrs Miller, looking around at the dark, smoky room with packed earth for a floor.

      ‘Do you think it’s some kind of a camp?’

      Tonya looked at her in dismay. Mrs Miller didn’t notice though, and continued to inspect the dugout. Had she lost touch with reality? Could it be due to the shock of losing her beloved husband and of the situation they now found themselves in?

      I mean, there was a bloody medieval fortress over there which was only supposed to be a romantic ruin!

      The building defied common sense, but it was real, with real medieval people in it… The Middle Ages weren’t exactly Tonya’s specialist subject, but she knew very well that a girl in tight hip-hugging jeans with a vest that accentuated her bust would not exactly have it easy. She tactically swept aside the question of how they had actually got there.

      ‘Let’s go! We have to go back,’ she said dragging her neighbour to the exit.

      ‘Tonya, where are we?’

      The girl no longer paid any attention to her, and concentrated all her energy on getting her to the Peugeot. Fortunately, Mrs Miller didn’t put up any resistance.

      Then came the sound of horses’ hooves. They both turned around. A group of riders was approaching from the fortress.

      ‘Quick!’

      Mrs Miller, however, was fascinated by this scene and did what she should never have done – she dug her heels in.

       ‘Come on!’ whimpered Tonya.

      The riders were quickly approaching. Could a horse really run that fast? They were just a few metres away. They pulled on the reins and the horses reared up. The six men on horseback eyed the girl and the old woman warily. Tonya tried to discreetly move backwards towards the car, pulling Mrs Miller by the elbow.

      One of the men shouted something.

      Then he repeated it. They began to talk animatedly among themselves. The language reminded her of Russian.

      She looked behind her – they only had a few metres to go.

      ‘Who are you?’ asked Mrs Miller, attracting their undivided attention. One of the riders dismounted. He was wearing a coarse shirt, but he had a strong leather belt with a sword in a sheath.

      Mrs Miller finally broke free of Tonya’s grasp. ‘Who are you?’ she asked once more. The man walked towards her, and the old woman raised her hands with open palms in a universal gesture of peace.

      The men began to argue again. The one who had dismounted (he was still a boy) came within reach of the old woman. One of the other riders yelled something at him; another shouted down the first and yelled some suggestion of his own at the young man.

       ‘What’s the matter?’ asked Mrs Miller gently, making as if to touch the boy’s face.

      An older rider, who obviously did not like this, jumped nimbly down, pulled out his long sword and ran it through Mrs Miller.

      She didn’t even cry out.

      Tonya gazed in fascination at the red tip sticking out of her back. The rider withdrew the sword and the old woman dropped lifeless to the ground.

      Tonya made a run for the car. She could hear hoof beats and clamouring behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

      Only two metres to go…

      One metre…

      She wound her way round the door and sank into the car, banging the door shut behind her. The riders stopped and stared at her wide-eyed through the glass. The one who had followed her on foot leaned over to get a look inside. Then he plucked up the courage to try to touch Tonya through the side window. His fingers hit the glass. It was obviously his first encounter with glass because he jumped back with a cry as if he had received an electric shock.

      She quickly turned the key.

      Nothing happened. She tried it again – nothing. Tears of desperation began to flow. She kept turning the key, but the engine just quietly clicked.

      The man noticed her tears and all at once everything became clear to him. The creature was crying out of fear, which meant she was afraid of him. And that meant he could defeat her. He raised his sword and swung it at the roof of the Peugeot. He shouted something to his companions, who also dismounted with swords drawn.

      START, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

      Nothing happened.

      Then it dawned on her.

      With shaking hands, she turned the key only halfway in the ignition – the spiral lit up.

      The men stood around the car, beating it with their swords. The windscreen cracked. The bonnet was caving in beneath their blows.

      Then the side window shattered. A hand reached inside and grabbed her by the vest top.

      She completed the half-circle and the engine started. The man leapt back.

      Tonya pressed the horn.

      They began to flee, throwing away their swords and covering their ears.

      ‘How do you like THIS, you PIECES OF SHIT?!’ she screamed along with the horn, putting the car into first. The Peugeot jumped and lurched forwards. Right in front of the car was the man who had stabbed poor Mrs Miller. Tonya had time to swerve, but she didn’t. The man flew across the bonnet and hit the windscreen, which cracked even more.

      Tonya realized she was still shouting obscenities that she hadn’t even realized she knew. She turned the car around in an arc, breaking through an enclosure with some bleating goats, and headed back into the forest.

      She just hoped she had enough diesel to get her home.

 

 

7

 

The diesel ran out two hundred metres from the edge of the forest.

      The car coughed, shuddered twice and then fell silent for good. Tonya sat petrified behind the wheel, staring through the cracks that covered the entire windscreen.

      Move!

      She opened the door and the hinges creaked. The noise seemed indecently loud to her. She listened to the sounds of the forest – only the rustling of the treetops and the cracking of trunks bent by the wind. Was it just her imagination or had the wind grown even stronger? She looked back at the road.

      No thundering of hooves. At least not yet…

      How long would it take the riders to recover and start to pursue her? How long would it be before they caught up with her? She had no idea what kind of stamina these horses had, but it was clear that the men would soon be here – and incredibly pissed off. Then she noticed the scratches and dents from the swords.

      From real medieval swords!

      From swords that kill people!

      She started to run. She left the forest behind and ran up the road to her house.

      From the neighbouring yard, Goliath barked happily to see her. Tonya ran upstairs, pulled out a large rucksack and began to stuff it with whatever seemed essential: the contents of the first-aid kit, a warm jumper…

      What else?!

      She cast an anxious glance through the window to the street. Everything was still quiet.

      Her iPhone – just in case. Matches!

      She paced around the hall frantically, trying to get her overwrought brain to co-operate. What else might she need?

      Another quick glance out of the window.

      Then she remembered something, ran upstairs again and threw on her waterproof nylon jacket.

      She slipped on the comfortable Adidas trainers she went out running in.

      She stopped once more in the doorway, went back into the kitchen, and wrote a note on the fridge:

 

The Millers are dead. I’m OK. I can’t wait for you, I’ve gone to St. Jakob for help.

If I can’t find it, I’ll come back home.

I love you, Tonya.

     

      She thought for a moment and then added:

                    

PS: There are dangerous people with swords in the forest.

Under no circumstances go in there!!!!!

 

      The last line sounded completely insane. Either she had gone mad and needed help, or the whole world had gone mad and needed help twice as badly.

      Cautiously, she walked out into the silent street. She strained her ears in the direction of the forest, scarcely breathing. Then she heard a whimpering and scraping on the metal gate.

      ‘Goliath, I can’t take you with me.’

      The little dog pricked up its ears and cocked its head thoughtfully. Then it barked – it obviously had the opposite idea. She couldn’t just leave him here to die of hunger. She used to take him for walks for the Millers; in fact, she was the only one he’d obey even a little.

      She opened the gate and the dog ran out and began to jump up at her happily in anticipation of a nice walk.

      You’re gonna get one hell of a walk, boy.

      She ran behind the house and into the field. To the north was some kind of twisted version of Narnia. She hoped that to the south she would still find the familiar 21st century. It was just a three-kilometre run across the fields to the village of St. Jakob.

      Or she would end up running all the way to Budweis.

      She began running, Goliath up ahead of her, filled with the joys at such a brisk outing.

 

 

8   

 

Tonya covered the three kilometres separating the rest of Matysburk from the small village of St. Jakob in record time. She ran across the field, her trainers coated in mud, constantly looking around and expecting medieval horsemen with drawn swords to appear behind her at any moment.

      When she finally reached the first houses, her face was spattered with mud and she was puffing like a locomotive. Goliath, his fur clumped together into brown dreadlocks, was happily capering about and sniffing every corner. Every now and then he would glance up at Tonya as if to say: That was a hell of a trip!

      Exhausted, she leaned against the corner of a building and looked around to see if anyone was following her.

      No sign of the riders. Perhaps she had finally got to a place where someone would tell her what had actually happened. It was as if she had gone back to her childhood; she felt like a little girl who’d lost her mother in the supermarket.

      She crossed the road. St. Jakob consisted of a single street with a grocery store and a pub on the eastern side and a dozen houses on the western side, where two cul-de-sacs connected up to the main street at right angles. St. Jakob was a sleepy village that made Matysburk look like Hong Kong, but even here they should be aware by now that the rest of the world had gone mad.

      She walked along the desolate, empty main street, and the wind gusted, blowing specks of dust into her eyes. From time to time it ceased and for an instant there was near-perfect calm, and then a new gust blew, almost knocking her over. She looked at Goliath – the dog was bravely battling against it.

      It was a weekday afternoon – there should have been cars driving past, taking people home from work, or at least a tractor or something.

      Ahead of her, she spotted the back of a bus. It was standing at an angle by the side of the road, the engine switched off. She slowly walked up to it, filled with a sense of foreboding. She glanced back at the dog. He was strutting along the pavement with supreme confidence anteing on the wall, happy with his new territory.

      Even before she reached the back of the bus, she noticed the road. That is, the end of it.

      It had been cut off cleanly in a straight-line.

      Where the asphalt ended, a meadow began. Tonya stood at the edge and looked around, just as she had stood at the end of the road leading from her parents’ house two days earlier. It wasn’t just the road that had disappeared, but part of St. Jakob too. The fault line – that was the expression that seemed most apt to Tonya – stretched diagonally across the village. As she walked down the street, she saw the front facades of the houses. Now that she looked back, she noticed that the facades were actually all that was left of them. The rear halves of the houses, along with the gardens, had disappeared in a neat straight line. In their place there was grass, bushes and a few stunted trees.

      The bus – or what was left of it – stood beyond the smooth edge of the road, as if it had ended up in the tall grass through sheer momentum. She walked around the part that remained – the front half was missing. Tonya stood roughly where the front wheel should have been and peered inside. The rear part of the bus was empty.

      It reminded her of the technical museum in Prague; vehicles neatly cross-sectioned so that visitors could examine not only the interior but also the entire structure of the vehicle. Bodywork, chassis, roof – everything was smoothly levelled off. None of the jagged edges you’d get in a car crash. The cross section even went through the seats, revealing the yellow foam.

      Tonya’s head began to spin. She had to squat down so as not to collapse in the grass.

      Goliath ran up and started licking her hand.

      Everything around her was so unreal!

      She focused on the dog. His rough, wet tongue might help her to hold on to her sanity. She scratched him behind the ears – the warm fur of a living dog.

      ‘Perhaps we’re the last living beings in the world,” she told him. He cocked his head as if considering this.

      No, not the last. She remembered the men with the swords. It would soon be dark; she should find a place to hide.

      With rapid steps, she headed back along the road. The setting sun shone through some of the windows as there were no walls behind them to block the rays.

      Tonya slowed down to a complete stop. She was standing in the deserted road. Slatina seemed to her like the set of a Western town. The silence that surrounded her was eerie. She should hear the usual noise of cars hurtling past on the nearby motorway. Someone should be cutting wood on a circular saw. Dogs should be barking – after all, she was in a village, dammit!

      Nothing – just birds singing and Goliath’s curious gaze – as if he were asking: So, what are you going to do now?

      ‘If only I knew…” Excellent, she was beginning to talk to a dog!

      Then she remembered something. She had a classmate from primary school in St. Jakob. Petra lived at the end of the village, and during the holidays they had become quite friendly. To reach her parents’ house, she had to go down one of the cul-de-sacs off the main street.

      The fault line transected the main street at an acute angle, passing through St. Jakob diagonally, so it didn’t affect all the houses in the same way. Those closest to the bisected bus barely had their facades intact. Those furthest from it – in the direction Tonya had come from – were almost complete, with only the back rooms or a corner missing. And that was the case with Petra’s house.

      Tonya pressed the doorbell – not that she expected it to work…

      She walked around the house. The fence came to an end in the middle. She entered the garden and peered into the interior through a hole which had not been visible from the street.

      ‘Hello, is anyone home?” she hollered. The only sound was the rustling of the wallpaper – it was fluttering slightly at the site of the cut.

      Tonya went right up to the hole.

      Again, that association with the technical museum: the cross section of the house revealing the concrete foundations, parquet flooring, insulation, the structure of the walls…

      She swung herself into the room. ‘Hello?” she said, attempting a cheerful tone. She had adopted an apologetic expression: Your doorbell isn’t working, so I climbed in through a hole in the wall, I hope you don’t mind…

      Goliath whined; he wanted to come too.

      ‘Stay!” she whispered urgently. She walked across the room and opened the door to the hallway.

      What would she say if somebody caught her in the act?

      Sorry, but Matysburk has disappeared, Mr Miller had a heart attack and Mrs Miller was stabbed by a knight... Do you have a phone?

      The hall was empty. She examined the other rooms – nothing there either. That just left the kitchen. The setting sun was shining through the glass door. She opened it. The back wall was missing. There was a single chair in the middle of the kitchen, and sitting on it with his back to Tonya was a man.

      She was paralyzed with terror. As if in a dream, she stepped towards the figure, even though she knew it wasn’t a good idea. She couldn’t help herself. The chair stood precisely on the edge where the house had been cut off. The man was sitting with his chin resting on his chest, staring into space. Both of the wrists on his dangling arms and his legs above the knees were missing. Beneath the chair gleamed a huge pool of congealed blood, which had trickled down the bare bricks. On the grass below, half of the dining table lay upside-down where it had fallen.

      When the time quake had occurred, Petra’s dad had been sitting at the table. Perhaps he had been watching television and decided to make a night-time raid on the fridge. But he had been sitting right on the fault line, and when everything disappeared, his arms and legs had disappeared too.

      Tonya backed up towards the door in horror and fumbled blindly for the key. She still couldn’t tear her eyes away from that pool, which gleamed like an oil spill in the setting sun.

      She flung open the door, ran across the hallway and jumped out of the room she’d entered the house through. She fled from that horror, pursued by a barking Goliath. She dropped to all fours and threw up the meagre contents of her stomach.

      With tear-filled eyes, she looked around above the blades of grass rippling in the wind.

      What was she going to do?

      It seemed that all that was left out of the whole of St. Jakob was a few external walls and the grocery store and pub across the road. And all its inhabitants had had the misfortune to be on the other side of the line and had fallen through somewhere.

      There were several horses trotting on the horizon.

      The riders were looking around cautiously and slowly coming in her direction.

      Exhausted, Tonya watched them. It took her a moment to realize that she should be afraid of them. Her body was flooded with a new wave of adrenaline brought on by the terror.

If she remained on all fours, she wouldn’t be visible through the grass.

      On her knees, she slowly shuffled back towards what remained of the houses – there was nothing else she could do. Beside Petra’s house she grabbed the rucksack she had left there and crawled on. She wasn’t going to set foot in that house again! The next house in the row had an even bigger part uncovered. She lifted the dog into the bisected living room, threw the rucksack in and finally swung herself across the edge. She was out of the riders’ line of sight. She moved along the wall into the house. It was empty.

      At least there weren’t any of the owners’ body parts here. She curled up in the kitchen, whose windows faced the main street.

      A few moments later, it rang with the sound of hoof beats. They were getting closer. Slow and regular.

      She clutched Goliath to her breast, scarcely breathing. Through the curtains on the window she could see the watchful silhouettes of the riders.

      Goliath started to growl, his chest trembling.

      ‘Shh, please, baby, shh…” she whispered in his ear.

      If he couldn’t contain himself and let out a bark, she was a goner.

      ‘Calm down, there’s a good dog…”

      The riders passed by the house and continued along the street. However, it came to an end by the bisected bus, so they would be coming back. She prayed they wouldn’t decide to search the houses.

      The dog trembled and now and then let out a bark. The hoof beats were returning. She whispered in his ear and scratched him behind the ear.

      The riders stopped right outside the house and conferred.

      She couldn’t see their faces, but they seemed to be the ones from the forest. Even their lilting speech, vaguely reminiscent of Russian, was the same.

      Then one of them looked right at the window she was watching them through.

      Tonya froze. It was the young man who had got off his horse, the one Mrs Miller had reached out her hand to. It seemed to Tonya that they were looking into each other’s eyes.

      He can’t possibly see me through the curtains!

      The young man jumped down from his horse and headed straight for the gate.

      One of the older men shouted something and shook his head. The young man hesitated, but in the end he swung himself back into the saddle.

      The riders spurred their horses and moved off at a gallop. The clattering of hooves on asphalt receded into the distance.

     

 

11

 

Tonya stood on the porch, summoning up the courage to leave the house.

      In the distance she spotted a massive whirlwind.

      It was stretching and twisting. Its funnel drew closer to the ground, raising clouds of dust. Like the finger of God, it touched the surface of the earth and raised up soil, which swirled upwards and fell back down in an arc. It ploughed up the land, moving back and forth across the surface. An electricity pylon got in its path. The wires snapped like the strings of a guitar. But no sparks flew, they weren’t carrying a current. Eventually the mast itself cracked and the tornado tossed it tens of metres away.

      In horror, Tonya slunk back into the house, shut the door and sat down in the farthest corner of the room.

      ‘What’s a tornado doing here?” she asked Goliath in a whisper. He didn’t know.

      The tornado avoided St. Jakob, and yet Tonya couldn’t find the courage to leave and decided to spend the night in the house. Not that she would be able to sleep…

      Thoughts were whirling around her head like leaves in a storm. She had to get everything straight or she would go crazy. After all, she was a student (or had been, she wasn’t sure yet) at Charles University! She had managed to make her mark in that terrible throng at the entrance exams!

      She had come second, for God’s sake!

      She would go about it methodically. First: part of Matysburk had disappeared and a forest had appeared in its place. Thanks to an interest in local history, she remembered that the nameless ruin on the hill dated back to the early thirteenth century. She could only remember fragments of the attack on her and Mrs Miller, so it was hard to say for sure whether the people with swords belonged to the thirteenth century too, but she wouldn’t rule it out.

      Second: the village of St. Jakob, where she had come in search of help, had also been affected by this catastrophe. The line or boundary that had cut off her and the Millers’ house along with the tarmac road passed through St. Jakob crosswise. It had cut off the road, slicing a bus and the houses in half. And even a person. Where had the other half gone? To the location of the grassy meadow that had appeared here?

      So the entire twenty-first century had not disappeared. On the other hand, apart from her dead neighbours, she hadn’t come across anyone else from her time yet.

      Tonya stared blankly into the darkness. So what did that tell her?

      Nothing!

      It didn’t tell her a FUCKING thing! It was one huge mess and in spite of all her staggering intelligence she didn’t have a clue what the FUCK was going on!

      She was on the verge of tears again. She took a deep breath – she had to calm down, she mustn’t panic. God, she missed her parents! Not for the first time, she wondered where they were and whether she would see them again.

      Back to a pragmatic analysis of the situation! she snapped at herself.

      What was she to do now? In any case, she couldn’t just hang around here. A few kilometres to the east was (or had been) the motorway leading to Budweis. She must set off in that direction and hope that the regional capital had remained in place along with its inhabitants.

      Religion had never made sense to Tonya, but right now she was close to praying.

 

 

12

 

She felt the dog’s rough little tongue on her face, and her head jerked back and banged against the wall. Birds were already announcing the arrival of a new day with their song, and sunshine was streaming into the room through the windows.

      So she had gone to sleep! She’d been convinced she would be awake all night. It was getting on for seven. The clock on the wall was still ticking away, utterly indifferent to the catastrophe going on around it. Tonya’s stomach growled loudly. When had she last eaten? She quickly ransacked the pantry and the musty, warm fridge (it didn’t dawn on her until several hours later that there was a grocery store packed with goods across the road) and grabbed a few muesli bars and half a loaf of bread.

      Cautiously, she went out onto the street. Nothing had changed – it was just as lifeless as yesterday. At least the wind had died down – the strong gusts were more and more sporadic.

      She kept to the fence, ready to head for cover at a moment’s notice if she heard hoof beats behind her again. She left the village and set off across the field towards the motorway, nibbling on the loaf as she did so. She fed the begging Goliath too.

      After half an hour, she spotted the motorway slip road. As she climbed over the crash barrier, she realized that in all that time she hadn’t heard the noise of tyres rolling by. So she wasn’t at all surprised to find that the motorway was empty.

      A blue sign announced that Budweis was five kilometres away. The housing estate where she had grown up was even further – about eight or nine kilometres. She adjusted the straps of her rucksack and set her pace.

      However, she didn’t get far. After another five hundred metres, the motorway came to an end.

      Tonya stopped a metre from the edge. The four streams of the roadway ended in a smooth cut. This sight was beginning to get tiresome. The cut also went through the crash barriers and high-tension wires that ran alongside the motorway. Thick cables hung from the last iron pylon, swaying in the wind. The asphalt turned into a muddy dirt track with ruts in it.

      Did that mean that the whole of Budweis had vanished as well?

      Even Mum and Dad?

      Since the day before, Tonya had had the feeling that it would only take the proverbial last straw for her to crack up completely. Was this it? Was this the final straw that would free her from this nightmare and plunge her into a blessed state of insanity?

      In the distance she spotted some figures on horseback in the fields.

      They noticed her at the same moment she noticed them. She watched almost impassively as the riders pointed at her and urged their mounts on. The hooves of the galloping horses threw up clods of earth.

      What are you doing?! Pull yourself together!

      Tonya looked at the dirt track in front of her. She knew she didn’t stand much of a chance, but she wasn’t going to wait here for them.

      ‘Goli!” she yelled at the dog and started running between the ruts in the direction where Budweis had once been.

      She obviously wouldn’t have time to find out what was in its place now.

 

 

13

 

She was good at running. She had gone in for athletics at secondary school. She set the pace fora brisk 1500-metres. The rucksack slapped against her back. Goliath was way ahead of her. Every few metres, he stopped and waited for her to catch up.

      During the last stop, he looked past her. He growled and barked.

      She didn’t turn around. She didn’t want to see what was descending upon her.

      ‘Run, Goli!”

      She could already hear the heavy pounding of hooves. She ran blindly, unable to see through the tears. Massive shadows flitted past her. One of the horses was blocking her path. She made to run around it, but the experienced rider spurred his mount and Tonya slammed against its side and fell down into the mud.

      She could no longer hold back the tears. She cried hysterically like a little child. Goliath ran up to her and licked her tears. Then he wheeled around belligerently and began to bark at the circling horses.

      Tonya pressed his quivering body to her and buried her face in his fur. At any moment she expected a blow from a sword and blinding pain.

      I don’t want to die…

      Or would they rape her first?!

      This new idea made her look up. The riders dismounted, formed a circle around her and spoke quietly to each other.

      ‘Pl… please… don’t hurt me…”

      Her perception was heightened. She saw the wrinkles in their weather-beaten faces, long greasy hair, dirt under their nails, rough hands loosely laid on the unpolished hilts of their swords…

      The oldest of them took a step towards her. Tonya backed away on all fours, and someone else grabbed her from behind by the hair. She didn’t even realize she was screaming.

      Alarmed, Goliath snapped at the rider’s leg. The man bent down and grabbed the dog by the neck like a rabbit. He pulled out a dagger, obviously intending to gut him like a rabbit too… But then he raised his head and looked somewhere beyond Tonya. He stopped, suddenly turned to stone.

      Tonya stared wide-eyed into his blue eyes. She was surprised by the intelligence that emanated from them. Intelligence and something else…

      Fear.

      The man let Goliath drop to the ground. The grip on her hair relaxed. Tonya seized the dog, curled up into a ball and, crouching, looked behind her.

      Another group of riders was coming along the track towards them. They were dressed in black with white, sticking-up collars and feathered hats on their heads. They levelled long spears in front of them. One of them was wearing an iron breastplate and holding a gun whose barrel was ludicrously widened at the end. It looked like something from a cartoon.

      Her captors ceased to pay attention to her and took up a position across the track. With Goliath on her chest, Tonya watched through their legs to see what would happen next.

      Those standing on the ground were at a numerical advantage compared to the oncoming riders – six against four. One of them looked around longingly at his horse, but there was no time for him to mount it. The men unsheathed their swords.

      ‘Whaet be yeher adoen? Whoe be ye?” shouted the blunderbuss-wielding rider.

      The men flinched and then shouted something in their language. Amid the torrent of words, Tonya understood only one thing: who. They were obviously asking each other who they were.

      Now the ones on horseback were gaping in bewilderment. Then the oldest of the men (the one who had killed Mrs Miller) seemed to remember Tonya. In two steps he was beside her, pulled her head back by the hair and put the edge of his sword to her neck. She felt the sharp blade on her delicate skin.

      The unbelievably sharp blade!

      I’m dying… Mum, I’m dying…

      The man held the sword and stared at the others. Maybe he thought Tonya was one of them.

      The rider in the breastplate spurred his horse. He slowly rode up to the odd duo. He looked down at Tonya, scrutinizing her clothes, then turned his gaze back to the guy holding the sword. He extended the hand with the gun. The muzzle of the weapon looked monstrously wide to Tonya. It no longer seemed to her remotely like a blunderbuss from a cartoon.

      The guy preparing to slit her throat didn’t bat an eyelid. He stared uncomprehendingly into the dark barrel as if it was the first time in his life he had seen a firearm.

      And it probably is, it occurred to Tonya.

      Then there was a deafening bang. The man’s head jerked back, and bloody lumps flew out of the top of his head. The whole scene was shrouded in acrid white smoke. Tonya could only hear the horses running away. Then cries of pain.

      When the smoke cleared, she saw the last of her captors fleeing along the track. The rider quickly caught up with him and drove a long wooden spear into his back. Then he jumped down from his horse, slowly walked up to the poor grovelling wretch, pulled out a knife and bent down…

      Tonya squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She had seen enough blood over the last two days.

      She felt gentle fingers under her chin; they raised up her head and she found herself looking into the hazel eyes of her rescuer.

      ‘Comlymeiden, be neafearet.”

 

 

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