Prague, 1981, my third autumn in Europe.
I used to walk from the ulice Veverkova, where I lived, to Valdstejnska, where I worked, that’s near the Mala Strana metro station. The walk took me through Letna Park, which lay in-between. The park is on a ridge running parallel to the Vltava river – Moldau in English. One had a breathtaking view of the river and its bridges from the park. But in autumn and early in the morning, the mist would still be hanging like smoke on the water while the trees in Letna lit up like Tiffany lamps in the sunlight.
I remember I had returned to my flat on Veverkova after an unsucccessful hunt for Czech fairy tales in German, which I had wanted to present to my future stepdaughter – she had turned eight that year. I had tried the GDR shop and then even the Hungarian shop – all government outlets, in communist Czechoslovakia, by the way – but I had failed to unearth Cezch fairy tales, whether in German or in any other language. It was evening. I was wondering… a fairy tale? Why not write one? But how did one write a fairy tale?
Autumn in Prague. Light burning in the window of a first floor flat on Veverkova in which a solitary Indian male sat sucking his ball point pen – not the writing end, thank God! – trying to concoct a ‘real’ Czech fairy tale in German for his Polish stepdaughter-to-be. Head swimming a bit? Same as mine. That’s when I wrote ‘Das graue Kleid’, that’s ‘The Gray Dress’, feeling like the long-lost third cousin of Brothers Grimm.
I’d done the Pilsen-Stribro-Bor-Primda route from Prague to Germany so often that I had developed an affinity for the Czech countryside, beginning with the coal-dust smothered Pilsen. So I began my fairy tale many many moons ago in a small Czech town in the dark and lonely recesses of the Bohemian forest, where the winds howl when the wolves don’t. And then I brought in the old Slavic gods Veles and Perun – now also in Wikipedia – who are born enemies, in fact. Veles, in Czech, is of course Weles, in Polish, and Volos, in Russian. Veles is the god of earth and water, of forests as well as of the nether world, whereas Perun is the god of thunder.
The two were having a breather in the middle of their fight – naturally in and over the forests of Bohemia – when they saw a young girl in a gray dress standing among the fallen leaves of the chestnut tree in their garden. The fallen leaves gleamed like tarnished gold in the stray shafts of sunlight. The girl seemed happy in her gray dress, a bit too happy perhaps. So Veles – or was it Perun? – asked her who she might be and what she was feeling so happy about. It was her birthday and her stepmother had made her this wonderful dress, a frock – the girl said. Wasn’t it full of colours, brighter and prettier than the colours of autumn, as her stepmother had claimed? the girl piped. That’s when the gods noticed that the girl was blind.
The gods made themselves invisible and listened to the girl’s stepmother boasting to the girl’s father: ‘Why waste money buying good cloth with a nice pattern for someone who can’t even see? I’ve told the others not to tell her’ – the others being the girl’s stepbrothers and stepsisters – my stepdaughter-to-be used to love that. Those stepbrothers and stepsisters – the nastier and the more hateful the better – were naturally teasing the girl about her gray dress and reducing her to tears. They chased the poor girl out into the street, where everybody, from the street urchins to the big fat mayor of the town, joined in laughing at the girl and her gray dress.
That’s when Veles and Perun decided to teach the hard-hearted townspeople a lesson, together with the girl’s family. Suddenly the whole town turned colour blind, nobody could see colours any more, let alone the autumn colours. Everything was in black-and-white – or grey. But the girl could see again! And the girl could see colours! ‘Tell us, tell us,’ the townspeople crowded round her and clamoured, while the girl walked down the streets and past the gardens and along the high stone wall of the local squire’s residence which was covered with vines and lichen and moss – next to the river, exactly as in Bonn, I added, much to the delight of my stepdaughter.
The townspeople could see no colours, so the girl told them the colour of the leaves and the colour of the sky; which tree was red and which tree was brown, which a flaming yellow and which still green…
To this day they have this strange custom in that small Czech town in the Bohemian forest – yes, near the German border, just after you’ve driven through Primda and think there’s nothing but the dark and dank forest till the border crossing at Rozvadov – well, on the first day of autumn – that’s the autumnal equinox, tell you about that later – well, the people of that town, including the mayor, whether fat or not, blindfold their eyes and let a young girl lead them through the streets and lanes and by-lanes of the town telling them all about the wonderful colours of autumn. And when they remove their blindfolds, the trees are bare and it is winter.
‘Is that the new Walt Disney film?’ my stepdaughter said. ‘He discovered Technicolor, you know that?’
I haven’t ‘written’ a fairy tale since.