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Image © Michaela Pointon
Image © Michaela Pointon
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Read "The Wedding" from Tomáš Zmeškal's Novel 'Love Letter in Cuneiform'

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 8 August 2017
The ethereal notions of a bride and groom and the preparations for their wedding are detailed in the Czech Republic pick from our Global Anthology.

Before Alice woke up, she had a dream that she was soaring or gliding. Any such comparison is of course too cheap to express the flowing sensation she had. For a while she forgot herself. Then suddenly her heart reminded her, stopping short in the midst of its crow-like flight. She herself, though, kept to the hummingbird’s path of her thoughts, until finally she took a deep breath and said it: Tuesday. At that moment it was all she could think of, subsumed in it, being it. Her day had arrived and she had begun to get used to the scent.

Between inhale and exhale, between holding her breath and the sparkling celebrations of pain in her lower belly, between the inertia of sun-basking to a copper tone and oozing tears of sweat quickly soaking into the bedclothes, two spots appeared before her eyes. She had to force herself to inhale. With some concern. It wasn’t clear if the two dancing spots behind her firmly shut eyelids were caused by the contraction of her eye muscles and their pressure on her retina, or whether they might be viewed as something else . . . metaphysical, perhaps. After brief deliberation Alice decided for the latter. She completed the cycle of inhalation and exhalation, but no longer trusting herself enough to move, she lay motionless in bed, the spots circling before her still-closed eyes. One was the past, the other the present. It wasn’t obvious which was which, but either way she felt that this was the most present, most perfect, and certainly most sweet-smelling day she had ever experienced. Suddenly she realized: Yes, of course—it was the smell! If she hadn’t been in bed, her head would have reeled. The smell! It was the smell that woke her up. If not for that, she might have assumed it was the music drifting in from the next room. Alice involuntarily shuddered, drawing a sharp breath. Her lungs took in more air than she intended, and more than she was sure she could hold. She shuddered in fear, but the action kept on repeating, like she was drowning, taking water into her lungs. She ceased to perceive past and present, having forgotten which spot meant what and which one was which. As she opened her eyes, she was vaguely aware of a soothing tickling on the soles of her feet. Her eyes opened and her larynx released a sob. Then came an explosion, an eruption, a detonation, a sunny breeze, an avalanche, a downpour, a cloudburst, a landslide, in short . . . tears. Around her, around her bed, all around, in every direction, there were roses scattered everywhere. Every shade, color, scent. From the deepest black-red to the rosiest bright pink, from a brownish dark yellow to the gayest butterfly gold. They were all around, serving as her comforter, blanket, veil. Surrounding her, embracing her, refusing to let her go. And beyond them, beyond the land of the roses, by the door and on the windowsills, were lilies and chrysanthemums. The whole room smelled delicious. There were flowers everywhere she looked and roses everywhere she could reach. Today was Tuesday. Her wedding day.

She could hear music from the room next door. That meant her father was already up. One, he was nervous, which was why he was listening to music so early in the morning. Two, to try to relax he was listening to his favorite, Haydn, even though it meant he risked scratching the record, since his hands always shook in the morning, and three, she couldn’t hear him humming along, which meant he was eating breakfast. Alice looked around and sat up in bed. The roses lay all around her, tickling the soles of her feet. And they were all fresh. How come I didn’t hear my sweetheart and why did he let me just go on sleeping? she wondered. She walked out of the bedroom, down the hall, and into the kitchen.

“Where is he?” she asked her father. He sat in the kitchen, looking out the window.

“Where is he?” Alice asked again.

“Sitting, or more likely taking a nap, in the living room,” her father replied. She went into the living room and found him there, half sitting, half reclining.

“Maximilian!” she cried, and before he could open his eyes, she realized that over the past few months her vocabulary had been reduced to interjections, euphemisms, and possessive pronouns, in particular mine, yours, our, and ours, all of them predominantly with verbs in the future tense. Or at least that was her father’s observation. Maximilian smiled without opening his eyes. Despite believing herself immune to his smile after all these months, and even though he couldn’t see, she returned his smile. Only after that came the hug.

“Maximilian!” she cried again. “Maximilian!”

Maximilian, name of a monstrance. Maximilian, name of the sun. An emperor’s name. The name of a solar monstrance in a religious procession. A name with glints and rays of light shooting off in every direction. Depending on her mood and the condition of her vocal cords, depending on her weariness, energy, and joy, his name took on a different color, shine, and sparkle every time she pronounced it. It was a Loretan name. Lustrous, that is, as a polished diamond from Antwerp. Radiant, that is, loving. Golden, that is, all-embracing. It was Loretan, that is, every time it was spoken, one of the jewels in the monstrance twinkled with opulence and exaltedness, like gold and precious stones. He held her tight, eyes shut.

“Maximilian,” she voiced his name again.

“I don’t like to say it,” her father spoke up from the next room. “Not only don’t I like to say it, I only rarely think it . . . but before your mother comes, you have one last unforgettable chance to have breakfast with me, as chastely unmarried individuals, that is . . . So shall I put water on for coffee for the two of you as well?” After waiting a moment with no response, he shifted his weight on the chair, turning to the door several times to see how much of Haydn’s sonata was still left on the record. He wanted to avoid having to listen to the next one, by Beethoven, who in his opinion had been grossly overrated for more than a hundred and forty years. And on what basis? Alice’s father wondered. “Ode to Joy”? If there was anything that distinguished the piece, besides the fact that it was used to mark the end of the Prague Spring classical music festival every year, it was its total lack of humor. How typically German, he thought. An ode to joy lacking humor.

“No intentional humor, that is,” he said aloud. “Things, people, and ideas with pompous titles and a total lack of humor have always made careers.”

“What’s that, Dad? What did you say?” Alice asked, walking into the room.

“Lacking humor, I said. But that’s not important now. If you don’t mind, when the record’s over would you two have some breakfast with me? I mean . . . that is . . . before your mother gets back.”

“Well, maybe. I don’t know,” said Alice. “Let me ask Max.” Meanwhile her father got up and went into the bedroom to turn off the record player, but didn’t get there in time to keep the Beethoven sonata from beginning. Carefully lifting the needle from the record, he declared: “Even Schnabel can’t save it. It demonstrates an alarming lack of talent and an exaggerated tendency to pathos on the part of the Bonn native.”

“Who’s Schnabel?” Alice asked from the kitchen.

“A very interesting pianist, who will be all too soon forgotten in this progressive era of ours.”

“I see,” Alice said. She dashed back to the living room. “Want to have breakfast with my dad?”

“It’s up to you, Ali,” said Maximilian. “Totally up to you.”

“Well, all right then,” Alice decided. Meanwhile, her father continued his train of thought to himself: Although Haydn is witty. God, is he ever. Even more than Mozart. But is Haydn—German, or Austrian? That’s the question. I wonder if it is nationality? I suppose not, that’s probably nonsense. I don’t even laugh at my own jokes anymore, he concluded. He slid the record carefully back into its sleeve and went to put the water on for coffee.

As Maximilian and Alice sat down at the kitchen table, Maximilian hoped his father-in-law-to-be wouldn’t knock over the coffee and spill it across the table. He was always surprised that Alice’s father had a clean dish towel prepared in advance to wipe everything up. He was getting used to the fact that his future father-in-law spilled almost everything. Alice’s father—like the stubborn remains of her parents’ marriage—had long since ceased to be of any significant interest to him.

“Where did you get all those roses? Where are they from?” Alice asked.

“It’s a secret,” Maximilian said.

“Come on, tell me, where are they from?” she insisted.

“It’s top secret,” he said.

“The smell woke me up,” Alice said.

“That’s what I was hoping,” Maximilian said. He laughed and gave her a light kiss on the neck.

“Alice said you were in Germany for a few days. What were you doing there?” Alice’s father asked.

“I went to see my uncle,” Maximilian said.

“Well, how was it? Anything good to report from the other side of the border?”

“Nothing special, really,” Maximilian said. “My uncle wanted to show me the renovations he’d done on his house, but about two days before I came, he broke his leg, so I just went and saw him in the hospital. But I still felt like the poor relative.”

“Mm-hm,” Alice’s father nodded.

“But,” Alice chimed in, “Max said the train was delayed.”

“That’s right,” Maximilian said. “In fact two trains were delayed.”

“So the trains in Germany are delayed,” Alice’s father nodded, adding after a pause: “That would correspond to my observation.”

“Which one is that?” Maximilian asked.

“Oh no, once Dad starts in like that, you know it’s going to be pessimistic,” said Alice.

“Well, after careful observation, I reached the conclusion that not only is the acting chaplain at our church not exceptionally intelligent, but in fact he’s downright average.”

“Not everyone can be Einstein, Dad,” Alice objected.

“Of course not, for God’s sake. I’m a fairly ordinary average man myself, and not ashamed to say so, but he’s a member of the Society of Jesus, which is to say a Jesuit, and now don’t get mad, Ali, but show me a Jesuit of average intelligence and I’ll show you a dumb Jesuit. It’s embarrassing and unacceptable. Think about it,” Alice’s father said, turning to Maximilian and counting off on his fingers.

“One, a dumb Jesuit. Two, the trains in Germany don’t run on time. The next thing you know, the English will overthrow the Queen and declare a republic. There’s something amiss in Europe, I’m telling you. Something amiss.”

There was the sound of a key in the lock from the entryway, then the door opening.

“It’s Mom,” said Alice to Maximilian, running her fingers through his hair. “No, wait, there’s somebody with her.” She stood and walked to the entryway. There was a sound of shuffling feet and two voices, a woman’s and a man’s.

“Ahhhh, that would be the doctor,” Alice’s father said in Maximilian’s direction. Maximilian just smiled politely. He had no idea what Alice’s father was talking about. “And Květa,” Alice’s father added, standing from his chair.

Alice entered the kitchen with a man slightly younger than her father. He had his left arm around Alice’s waist and was whispering something in her ear.

“Howdy, Doc. I knew it would be you,” Alice’s father said, shaking hands with the man. “This is Maximilian,” he said. Maximilian stood and offered the man his hand.

“Antonín Lukavský,” the man introduced himself.

“Also known as,” Alice chimed in, “Uncle Tonda, alias Dottore. He’s not actually my uncle. But he’s a good friend of my father’s.”

“It’s true, I am all those things,” said the man.

“Max,” said Maximilian.

Alice’s mother entered the kitchen.

“Hi, Květa,” Alice’s father said.

“Hi, Josef,” Alice’s mother replied.

Antonín and Alice stood together side by side, watching Alice’s parents.

“What were you doing?” Alice’s mother asked.

“Waiting for you, what else would I be doing?”

“What was that you were listening to?” Alice’s mother asked, looking around the room.

“Beethoven, I think,” Maximilian said. “Wasn’t it?”

“No, definitely not. I just didn’t get there in time to take it off. I was listening to Haydn, Josef Haydn!”

“I just hope you didn’t scratch it, playing it in the morning like that. You know how your hands always shake in the morning,” Alice’s mother said.

“By the way, you aren’t related to the Esterházys, are you, Maximilian?”

“No,” said Maximilian. “They go much farther back than we do, all the way to 1238. By the time they were princes, we were still grooms, at best.”

“You see that?” Alice’s mother said. “You see?”

“See what?” Alice said.

“The dish towels. He spilled again. You’re going to scratch those records, Josef!”

“So what? They’re his records,” Alice said.

“You don’t have to wash them, so don’t worry about it,” Alice’s father said to her mother. “You know Haydn is buried there, don’t you, Maximilian?”

“Where?”

“On the grounds of their estate. Wait now, what was it called . . .”

“He’s going to scratch the records and act annoyed, and the main thing is he’ll regret it,” said Květa, appealing to Alice and Antonín. Antonín was doing his best to look anywhere but at her.

“I’m telling you, don’t worry what I do with my records, and there’s no need to concern yourself with whether I’m annoyed or not, since I don’t live with you anymore and I don’t intend to ever again! Now if you don’t mind, Květa, stop worrying. Yes? Please? I’m asking you politely!”

“Oh,” said Květa, “I didn’t realize. I thought you were moving back in in the fall, after you finished repairing the cottage?”

“No, I’m not,” Alice’s father said, giving a shrug.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“So where did they bury him?” Antonín asked.

“Who?”

“Haydn.”

As Antonín tried to steer the conversation elsewhere, Alice took her mother’s hand and tugged her to the bedroom door.

“My God, that’s gorgeous, Ali. It’s gorgeous. All those flowers. And the smell! It’s gorgeous. It smells wonderful.” Her mother sat down on the bed. “Those are lilies, right? What are those, over there? And where did you get hold of flowers like that in March anyway?”

“Beats me,” said Alice. “I have no idea. He won’t tell me, says it’s a secret. And once he says that, I’m not getting anything out of him. I’ll keep working on him, though, and in a week or two he might let it slip.”

“Now that’s what I call love. But what are those flowers there called?”

“Which ones?” Alice said, trying not to prick herself as she gathered up roses from the rug. When she turned around, her mother was crying. Alice went and sat down next to her, carefully laying an armful of roses on the pillow, and wrapped her arms around her mother, huddled in tears on the bed.

“You knew, didn’t you?”

“No, I really didn’t.”

“Oh, come on, Ali . . .”

“I didn’t know, but I had a feeling.”

Her mother’s tears slowly subsided. “It smells so wonderful,” she said after a while. “At least you’re happy. At least my little girl is happy.”

“Aren’t I supposed to be the one crying on my wedding day?” Alice said.

Her mother nodded. “They may have taken away everything his family owned, but they still have their manners. So many roses, it’s unbelievable.” After another moment’s pause she said: “So he really didn’t tell you?”

Alice gave a noncommittal shrug. “Come give me a hand. We’ll put them in water, ’kay?”

Meanwhile a few more people arrived. Two of Alice’s friends, the best man, and another uncle and aunt, this time from Maximilian’s side. Alice changed into her wedding outfit and came out to greet them. A blue dress, a light blue blouse, and a hat with a veil. A white dress would have seemed out of place in those times of hope and progress.

After coffee, cookies, quick introductions, and a few sentences about the weather, the wedding party and their guests piled into their two cars, plus the one they had borrowed, and set off on the short drive to a small town outside of Prague. Alice’s father and mother each rode in a different car. A half hour later they came to a stop on the town square. On one side stood a small castle with faded sgraffiti and a priest sitting out on the bench in front.

Maximilian approached him, the two men exchanged greetings, and Maximilian introduced the guests, one by one. The priest shook everybody’s hand, then led them through the streets to a church where the sexton was changing the papers posted in the display case next to the main door. Holding the papers rolled up and tucked in his underarm, he too shook hands with everyone. He unlocked the door, waited for everyone to file inside, and was just about to lock the door behind him again when a group of tourists appeared.

The sexton tried to explain that they were closed, even though normally the church closed on Mondays and today was Tuesday, so it should have been open. The most energetic tourist of the bunch had on breeches and a bright blue rain jacket. He was arguing so loudly the priest, briefly reviewing the sequence of the ceremony one last time, could hear him all the way in the sacristy. Abruptly, without finishing the sentence he had begun, he muttered something that sounded like “pardon me” and dashed out of the church to confront the tourist whom he had identified as the one whose voice he had heard.

The tourist, stunned to find himself face to face with the priest, fell silent. The priest looked him right in the eye. “The church is closed today for a special event. Any other questions, young man?”

The startled tourist looked around at his companions, but they just stood there closemouthed, watching him. “We wouldn’t interrupt. We just wanted to take a look at the frescoes.”

The priest put his fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. “If you can change into formal wear in the next five minutes, I will wait for you. Otherwise I’m afraid not. Do you have formal wear with you?”

“Formal wear?” the tourist asked.

“Formal wear,” the priest repeated.

The tourist looked down at his clothes, then at his friends behind him. “I don’t know.”

“I’m afraid you don’t,” the priest said. “Do I presume correctly?”

“Pardon me?” the tourist said.

“I suspect you have no clothes other than the loudly colored ones I now see before me.”

“Well yeah, that’s all we’ve got. We just came for the day.”

“So my fears are confirmed. Well then, seeing as you have no formal wear, I regret to inform you that due to the special event taking place in just a few minutes, I cannot allow you into the church. You are of course welcome to come back and tour our house of worship some other time.”

“So you’re not going to let us in today, huh?”

“You presume correctly, young man. Nevertheless it has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” said the priest. He spoke firmly but without a trace of irony.

The tourist turned around, and as he walked away, the sexton locked the main door. The ceremony could begin.

The priest gave the bride and groom a long speech whose recurring central theme seemed to be that the woman represents the body of the family, while the man is its head. Listening to his sermon, Dr. Lukavský, the family friend, wondered how much experience the priest had had with women, while Alice’s mother, Květa, hoped her eyes weren’t too puffy from crying. She was also glad the light in the church wasn’t too bright, so the shadows were soft and nobody could really see her eyes. Toward the end of his speech the priest noted that in 1716 the groom’s ancestor Jindřich had been elevated to the rank of count by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and that shortly after, his son, Mikuláš, had purchased the local castle and added not only a chapel but this church. The priest said that although aristocratic titles were no longer recognized, having been abolished by the Czechoslovak state under its first president, Tomáš Masaryk, it wasn’t against the law to mention the days when not only titles and good manners were recognized but God’s word as interpreted by the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church. He spoke about the unity of the throne and the altar, an involuntary smile spreading across his face during the boldest passages of his long-prepared speech.

Alice and Maximilian exchanged rings and kisses, and signed a document confirming that the state of matrimony was primarily a contractual arrangement, which at that moment was of course the last thing on the newlyweds’ minds. After the ceremony, the priest invited the wedding party into the sacristy. Now, whether they liked it or not, Alice and Maximilian were on their own in the world. They answered everyone’s questions, chatting about the declining quality of sacramental wine under the communist regime. Alice joked and laughed with her friends, Maximilian drank a toast with a bottle of slivovice, which, as usual on occasions like these, somebody suddenly seemed to pull out of nowhere, but through it all, the metallic lace of their new situation slowly began to envelop them, closing in on them, fragment by fragment. Slit by slit the lacework net descended on them, enveloping them, protecting them, sealing them off.

As the state didn’t legally recognize religious weddings, the bride and groom still had one more ceremony awaiting them. They had to make the trip back to Prague for a civil service as well. Along the way, Antonín thought some more about the sermon the priest had given. It seemed inappropriate in the emancipated era of the late 1960s, which believed itself to be, at least in substantial matters such as these, better than the ones that had come before. The time the priest’s speech took up hadn’t been useless. The objectionable nature of its content had been pushed just far enough that the moment when the bride and groom slid the rings on each other’s fingers was more than merely a fleeting moment of fluttering bliss. The rolling back of the veil, the kisses and signatures, had been a reward for that stagnant mass of intolerant interludes from which the sermon had been compressed like an obstructive obelisk.

Finally Antonín couldn’t resist, and since he was sitting in the same car as the newlyweds and Alice’s father, who was driving, he asked what they had thought of the sermon. Maximilian said he agreed with Antonín, adding in a slightly apologetic tone that he knew the priest had been preparing his speech for a long time and was very much hoping they would like it. What Alice said surprised him, though.

“What, did you think that he was going to defend the hippies and LSD? He’s a priest, isn’t he? What did you expect?”

“That’s right, Toník, he’s a priest,” Alice’s father said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it should be.”

When they got back to Prague, they still had an hour before they had to leave again for the civil ceremony, since the hall where it was taking place wasn’t far away and nobody took it as seriously as the first one. Alice, Maximilian, and Květa brought out open-face sandwiches and wine and pastries, and the guests spread out around the apartment to relax.

A stocky man in a white coat and a flat brown cap drooping over his sweaty forehead rang the doorbell insistently. Next to him stood a shorter blond-haired man of medium build with a clean white apron over his light-colored pants and a white baker’s hat on his head. The groom’s witness was standing nearest the door, so he let them in. The taller man bent down to him and asked if he could have a word with Dr. Lukavský. The witness shrugged, saying that he didn’t know anyone there and had already forgotten the names of everyone he’d been introduced to, but if they waited he would go find Maximilian and tell him. Maximilian found the doctor, aka Alice’s uncle Antonín, and he came to the door. The taller man, in the flat cap, bent down and whispered in his ear. The doctor gave them a smile and gestured for them to come in. The three of them wound their way through the guests and went to see Alice’s father.

“Josef, it’s here,” said Antonín.

“What’s here?” said Alice’s father.

“The surprise, like I told you.”

“Oh, right, right. So you want the room for the cake, is that it?”

“Quiet,” Antonín chided him. “It’s a surprise.”

“Of course. Well, put it in there in my old room. It’s all cleaned up in there, and there’s even a table.”

They walked into the room. There was a dark wooden table with a folded newspaper on top, open to a half-finished crossword, plus a pair of glasses and a ballpoint pen. The man in the apron looked it over, removed the newspaper, the glasses, and the pen, took a tape measure out of his pocket, and measured the table while the other men looked on.

“Just under three feet by five feet,” the man in the apron said disapprovingly.

“Not big enough?” the doctor asked.

“I said very clearly: I need five and three-quarters feet by six and a half feet. I was very clear!” the man in the apron said in an irritated tone.

“Well, we can expand it,” said Alice’s father. He looked at the doctor. “I thought you said it was going to be a cake?”

“Well, is it a cake, or isn’t it?” the doctor asked, turning to the man in the apron.

“Of course, brother,” said the man in the apron, who had already begun trying to figure out how to expand the table. The doctor gave him another questioning look, but the man in the apron ignored it and went about opening up the table’s folded wings.

“It doesn’t get used much, you know,” Alice’s father said to the man in the apron. “That’s why it’s stiff.” He began helping to unfold the other parts of the table.

“That will fit. Yes, that will fit just fine,” the man in the apron said, measuring the table with the additional panels installed.

“Now, I would just request,” he said, looking around, “that nobody enter this room for the next thirty minutes.”

Alice’s father looked at the doctor, who looked at the man in the apron and said: “I think . . . that can be arranged. Don’t you, Josef?”

“Yes,” Alice’s father said. For the next few minutes, as the man in the apron settled into the room, the taller, stocky man in the white coat, together with the doctor, proceeded to bring in boxes of various sizes. Each time they knocked, he cracked open the door and they handed him one or more boxes. When they were done, they stood in front of the door to make sure nobody walked in by accident. After exactly twenty-nine minutes, the door opened and the doctor, the man with the flat brown cap, and Alice’s father were let inside. They entered the room and looked at the table. A marzipan palace towered on top of it, five feet tall.

The man in the apron was a pastry chef, that was now sufficiently clear, and what stood on the table was a combination of a Gothic cathedral, a castle, and a palace with multiple courtyards.

“Now that I didn’t expect, Mr. Svoboda,” the doctor said.

“Brother doctor,” the pastry chef said, “a wedding, as well as a wedding cake, should only be once in a lifetime. May the bride and groom and their guests enjoy it.”

After a moment’s pause he added: “I hope, eh-hehm . . . that is, um, I think . . . I would appreciate it if I could say a few words to the newlyweds.” He cleared his throat. “If it’s possible, that is.” He looked around the room at the others. The doctor looked at Alice’s father, who couldn’t tear his eyes away from the marzipan creation.

“Do you think that would be possible, Josef?” Antonín asked, but Alice’s father didn’t notice, just walking around the table, shaking his head, mumbling, “I’ve never seen anything like it” over and over and smiling to himself. Instead of answering the doctor, he turned to the pastry chef and asked, “What about the figures? Are the figures edible too?”

“Naturally!” said the pastry chef, sounding offended. “Everything you see before you is edible.”

“That is incredible,” Alice’s father mumbled. “Truly incredible. It’s a work of art.”

“Naturally,” the pastry chef said.

“Josef, do you think Mr. Svoboda here could say a few words to the bride and groom and their guests?” the doctor repeated his question.

“Oh, of course, of course,” Alice’s father said. “Just a minute. I’ll bring them in.”

The room gradually filled up. For everybody to fit, they had to stand in a circle around the table with the marzipan castle on it. Everybody went silent the moment they walked through the door. The conversation stopped dead and outside the church bells started ringing the hour, but nobody could concentrate enough to count the number of rings. Once the room was full, Alice’s father looked around at everyone and said:

“Dear Alice and Maximilian, what you see before you is a gift from your Uncle Toník, and I believe he would like to say a few words. As for myself, the gentleman here who made the cake told me that even those little tiny minipeople are edible.”

“So, dear Alice and Maximilian, honored guests,” the doctor took the floor. “This is my wedding gift to you, and I must say, it’s even bigger and more beautiful than I had expected. It wasn’t so long ago that I gave Alice her vaccination for . . . for . . .”

“Tetanus, Uncle. Tetanus,” Alice called out.

“That’s right, tetanus,” the doctor said. “You see, I still remember.” He paused to look around the room. “But I’m not going to bore you with family stories, I just wanted to say that when I gave Alice the shot, she was so scared she crawled into a cabinet full of papers and I couldn’t get her out. She made such a mess in there it took me a week afterwards to sort them all out. It wasn’t that long ago, so I have to congratulate both of you now on this happy day, which I hope you will always look back on in those moments when not everything in life is going the way you’d like it to. So, once again, I wish you all the best, and I’d also like to thank the pastry chef, Mr. Svoboda, who actually gave me the idea of giving the newlyweds a cake. It really is a work of art, and it’s much bigger than I expected, and now its creator, the pastry maestro himself, Mr. Svoboda, would like to say a few words to you about it. And don’t be surprised if he calls you brother or sister. Mr. Svoboda?”

The pastry chef stepped in front of his marzipan creation, took a bow, slowly pulled from his pocket a piece of paper folded several times, and proceeded to read in a shaky voice.

“Honored bride, honored groom, honorable doctor, honored and dear guests, honorable investigator, dear brothers and sisters: Rarely do I receive an order that I am as happy to fill as this order from the respected Dr. Lukavský, who I hope I may declare as my friend. Despite that I have never met you personally, sister bride and brother groom, or perhaps for that very reason, I have taken the liberty of expressing in my creation the symbolic and the universal qualities of the state of matrimony.”

The pastry chef bowed again and turned so he had one side to his audience and one side to his creation.

“As you have surely noticed, the palace has three stories. The top one symbolizes heaven. This is why the saints, God, angels, and other special supernatural beings are located there, and as you see, it is rendered all in white, using marzipan with whipped-cream decoration. This is the so-called superterrestrial realm, which is beyond and above us. Perhaps someday all of us will reach it. Now if you please, notice that each layer opens so you can see inside.”

The pastry chef looked around at everyone and lifted the castle roof so they could see the tiny figures inside, who seemed to be engaged in conversation with one another.

“The next level, the earthling level, is ours. Here we have a stylized bride and groom and wedding party, and as you see, the color is gray, which was of course created using a coffee mixture. This is the earthling sphere, as I already stated, yes, and finally we have the last layer, or ground floor, which is hell. As you see, it is dark brown, made out of chocolate, and if you please, chocolate lovers should direct their attention here. Through the windows you can see devils, satans, and a dragon or two, symbolizing the underground, the underworld, or hell. I especially recommend this level. I just finished the chocolate crème this morning using my own recipe,” said Mr. Svoboda, looking up from the piece of paper his speech was written on.

“Looking at it from behind here, it reminds me of something else, too,” Dr. Lukavský spoke up. The pastry chef bowed again. “Yes, very observant of you, brother doctor, very observant. I would expect nothing less, after all. After all, I’d expect nothing less.”

“So am I right or aren’t I?” the doctor insisted. “It reminds me of something, but I don’t know what.”

“I would expect nothing less. The brother doctor is a very observant being,” the pastry chef replied. “Personally I think he’s already here on the top level. I really do think so, right at the top. His soul is so full of compassion, mmm . . . compassion. I know his weakness, though, and I believe he prefers chocolate to whipped cream, which is on the ground floor in the devil’s lair, so he’ll have to descend into the underworld, mmm . . . But to answer the brother doctor’s question, those of you who are more perceptive may have noticed that the frontal portion is, if I may say so, inspired by the Church of St. Ignatius, on Charles Square, and the decoration and inspiration for the saints continues in the same spirit. Of course, and this is unexpected, the main portion, the main portion, if you please, the one you were drawing attention to, brother doctor, is the unfinished cathedral in Prague, if you please, the one left unfinished by Václav, I’m not sure whether the Third or the Fourth, which has been standing now unfinished for several hundred years in the garden behind Jungmann Square. You know the one. This cathedral is standing there now, and I hope you will all find it delicious. Also I would like to point out that this entire combined cathedral, palace, and castle of cake is constructed sequentially, so as you see, it can be disassembled. Right here next to it I’ve placed a stack of takeout boxes, and each box holds exactly one piece of cake. So, if you please, no slicing! Really, no slicing, or the whole structure could collapse. No need to slice, just disassemble it. Dis-as-sem-ble! Sister bride, brother groom, I wish you all the best,” the pastry chef concluded his speech, giving a bow.

As everyone applauded, Alice stepped up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The pastry chef seemed surprised. “It’s up to you, sister bride, which level you’ll end up on. It’s all up to you.”

“Oh, come on,” Alice said. “It’s up to both of us, me and Max.”

“Why, of course, that’s what I meant, that’s what I meant,” the pastry chef said.

Then Alice threw her arms around the doctor’s neck and the guests proceeded to circle the cake, peering through the windows, examining the saints in the recesses of the facade, and breathing in the delicious smell of cocoa, coffee, and coconut. Meanwhile the pastry chef and his assistant said their good-byes and Maximilian and Alice went with Dr. Lukavský to walk them back outside to the street. The pastry chef and his assistant climbed into the ambulance that was parked in front of the building and drove off.

After they left, Alice turned to Antonín. “Well, that was a surprise.”

“What?” the doctor said. “The pastry chef, or the cake?”

“Both,” Maximilian chimed in, holding Alice’s hand.

“Well, he’s with us, actually,” the doctor said. “A very interesting patient. I can tell you more about him sometime, if you’re really interested.” He looked at Alice and added: “I’ll tell you more about him once I know more myself.”

Meanwhile Alice’s father gathered the guests together and they walked over to the wedding hall. The marriage officiant came out to welcome them in a black suit with a gold-plated chain around his neck. He explained who should stand where, and said they would get under way in a few minutes. They had ordered the smaller of the two rooms, but still, more than half the seats were empty.

“Well, you’re a cozy little wedding, aren’t you?” the marriage officiant remarked.

“If all my relatives were here, sir,” Maximilian replied, “from the line that was elevated to the status of count in 1716 by Emperor Charles VI, after being confirmed as noble in 1578, we wouldn’t fit into the biggest room in Prague.”

“I see,” the officiant said drily. His smile had disappeared.

“Thank God our socialist republic has ensured equality for us all, sir. Thank God.”

“Uh-oh,” Alice whispered to her father. “This isn’t getting off to a good start.”

“What’s wrong?” her father asked.

“Max is giving that communist a lecture on aristocracy.”

“Ah, the class struggle in practice,” Antonín pitched in.

“Right, but we need his rubber stamp,” Alice said, frowning.

“I’ve got nothing against the republic,” she heard Max say. “It just bothers me that the state emblem violates all the most basic rules of heraldry.”

“Rules of what?” the officiant asked.

“Heraldry,” Maximilian repeated. “The system for creating coats of arms, state emblems, and family crests.”

“So how does our state emblem violate this heraldry or whatever it’s called?”

“It’s a commonly known fact that the Czech lion can’t have the Slovak emblem on its breast, since the center of a coat of arms is always reserved for the emblem of the ruling dynasty.”

“Ruling dynasty?”

“Yes, ruling dynasty.”

“Pardon me, sir, but we don’t have a ruling dynasty. We have a government of the people, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Of course, that’s the point.”

“What’s the point?”

“That since we don’t have a ruling dynasty, the state emblem should be divided in halves or quarters, so the Slovak and Czech parts can be equal.”

Alice’s mother was observing the exchange from the corner of the room. When she realized what they were talking about, she rolled her eyes and walked over to Josef. She tugged on his sleeve and gestured with her eyes to step away so she could have a word with him.

“What’s going on here, Josef?”

“Nothing. Just a lively debate.”

“A lively debate? You realize your daughter is here to get married, don’t you?”

“Yeah, so what do you want me to do?”

“Put a stop to it somehow, so they don’t get in a fight.”

“And how do you propose I do that?”

“I don’t know!”

“What should I tell them?”

“Anything, it doesn’t matter . . . Oh, Josef!” Květa turned around and stomped her heels against the floor, interrupting Maximilian and the officiant.

“Gentlemen, can we get started? A wedding is a big event, and the bride and all the rest of us are very nervous. Aren’t you nervous, sir? What about you, Maximilian? I think the bride is about to faint at any moment. By the way, sir, I’m—”

“The mother of the bride.”

“You have an excellent memory, sir. How do you remember it all, with so many new people coming in every day? I can’t even remember the day-to-day things anymore, but of course I’m getting old.”

“I don’t believe it, madam,” the marriage officiant objected. Květa grasped him gently by the elbow and led him away from the table with the refreshments.

Gradually the rest of the wedding party and the guests fell into line and entered the ceremonial hall to the sound of music from a cassette tape player. The officiant took his position behind the ceremonial table, his official medallion with the botched state emblem hanging from a gold-plated chain around his neck. There was still some nervousness in the air, and the officiant seemed to put more emphasis on the words having to do with socialism in his speech to the newlyweds. Maximilian and Alice exchanged rings a second time, kissed each other a second time, and signed the marriage agreement a second time. After them the witnesses did the same, and with that the ceremony was completed.

As they said their good-byes, the marriage officiant stepped up to Maximilian. “That was good with that state emblem stuff. Really great.”

“Why?” Maximilian asked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, as it happens I was born in Banská Bystrica and I’m a Slovak.”

Everybody went back home, the bride and groom changed their clothes, the men loosened their ties, and Květa sat down next to her husband on the couch in the living room. Once most of the guests were gathered together, Maximilian clinked a glass with a spoon and thanked everyone on behalf of himself and his wife for keeping the news of the wedding to themselves, ensuring that it would be an intimate affair. Then Alice stood up and invited them all to dinner in a nearby restaurant. Next, her aunt Anna got up and with tears in her eyes began to reminisce about Alice’s childhood and adolescence. She had just launched into a story when Antonín suddenly interrupted to request that everyone raise their glass in honor of Maximilian’s parents, who hadn’t lived long enough to see him wed. Alice’s aunt tried to regain control after the toast, but in the meantime the guests had lost interest in her story and, ignoring her, broke up into small clusters of conversation.

“Why didn’t you do something, Josef?” Květa asked her husband. “Back at the ceremony, why didn’t you do something when you knew he was a communist?”

“What does it matter now? Nothing happened.”

“But it could have. You just stood there like a road sign.”

“I couldn’t even make out half of what they were saying.”

“Then I guess you’d better turn up the volume on your hearing aid.”

“I did have it turned up.”

“You also have to make sure the batteries are fresh.”

“Alice gets them for me. I even have a backup supply.”

“So you really couldn’t hear?”

“Yes, I heard some of it.”

“All right then. Did you talk about it with Tonda?”

“Tonda’s a psychiatrist, not a neurologist or an ear doctor.”

“I know, but I’m sure he could find someone. He must have connections.”

“It’s just old age, Květa. Connections are no help with that.”

“Oh, please. So you don’t want to move back in then . . . Josef?”

Josef turned and looked into her deep green eyes. “I can’t, Květa. Not yet.”

“But why didn’t you say something? I was already getting everything ready so you could have a room for yourself.”

Josef laid a hand on Květa’s shoulder, got up from the couch, and walked out of the room. Slowly the guests began to make their way to the restaurant, and at eight o’clock on the dot, after a few more toasts, dinner was served. There weren’t more than twelve or fifteen people. The room emptied out by about ten o’clock. It was a Tuesday and people had to go to work the next day. That was the reason most of the guests gave when they left, even though they said they wished they could stay with the newlyweds longer. The last person still there with them was Alice’s father. He settled the bill and the three of them headed back to the apartment. When they came to the entrance of their building, Maximilian and Alice said good-night to her father and announced that they were going to take a walk before they called it a night.

“Your wedding day only comes once, and in any case you have the keys. The church ceremony was very nice. That was a good idea, great idea. So is everything else all right?”

“Absolutely, Mr. Černý,” Maximilian said.

“Absolutely? That’s good to hear. How about you, Ali?”

“I’m glad you liked it, Dad.”

“It was very nice.”

“Yeah. It was worth it, Dad.”

“So why wouldn’t he let in that poor tourist?” Alice’s father asked. Maximilian shrugged.

“And how did you all come to know that priest, anyway? I wanted to ask him, you know, but I felt embarrassed for some reason.”

“It didn’t take much convincing. He was the one who buried my father. He was happy to do it. Actually, it was kind of his idea. I was going to invite him to the wedding and he offered to do it himself.”

“I see,” said Alice’s father. “Well, I think I’ll go lie down now, and don’t forget: There’s plenty of food in there. They put the best stuff in the little fridge and forgot all about it, so don’t forget to eat it. Even tonight if you want. I’ll have my little machine turned off, so even the devil couldn’t wake me. Just unlock it and take whatever you like.”

“Don’t worry. You go lie down, Dad,” Alice said, giving her father a kiss on the cheek. He shook Maximilian’s hand, turned, went inside, and the newlyweds went for a stroll. They walked down a couple of streets and through the park, but soon they got cold and decided to go back. Alice’s father was already asleep.

Alice tried to stay awake while Maxmilian was brushing his teeth in the bathroom, just long enough to say good-night and . . . I never would have guessed . . . being happy could . . . make . . . me . . . so . . . be-ing . . . hap-py . . . could . . . be . . . so . . . ti-red . . .

From Love Letter in Cuneiform by Tomáš Zmeškal, translated by Alex Zucker, published by Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series in March 2016. Reproduced by permission.