A Free Royal Town

Anton Hykisch

(Translated by Heather Trebatická)


It was a lonely holiday, and since for a young person loneliness is a state of want, it was a holiday for want of anything better.

It´s possible he felt rather uncomfortable when he realized this. It´s ungrateful to claim that summer days spent in one´s home town are a holiday for want of anything better.

Everything went as he had expected. He had known the town from his childhood years, and for the first few days he was thrilled to be walking through the streets with long ants and a university degree and a full wallet in his pocket. He spent a lot of time sleeping – a lonely holiday can be shortened by sleep – then for the rest of the morning he strolled along the main street, gazing with the unconcealed wonder of the naturalized citizen on a sightseeing trip.

Then he got through the family lunch and visits to several aunts, which he achieved with the stamina provided by his afternoon swim. That was the only way he could manage a walk in the cemetery with a third aunt, tripping over fallen tombstones and eagerly fetching water to revive the wilting asters. On such occasions he felt very young.

In the evening he returned to the town with his wet trunks in his hand and without the smart of chlorine in his eyes. He was tired, it was cool inside the town walls and beer was not something he ever longed for. He always spent an hour thinking that he was bored and that is was silly to spend the evening without the company of a woman, but by half past eight tha main square was deserted and the two coffee bars were occupied by men drinking beer and playing cards, along with a few tourists.

This was a free royal town even before the Tartar invasion, and though it now had street lamps, the plaster was still falling off the walls and there was plenty of it for another thousand years to come.

He would then return to the house, where the walls between the rooms were an average of ninety centimetres thick and the outer wall over the meter. He tried not to think about his and he closed his eyes, so he could picture the open air swimming pool with its sun-tanned bodies, which weren´t on average ninety centimetres thick: they were alive and breathing, simply made you think you were on holiday, which was really what it was all about.

He carefully shut the heavy reinforced door behind him and hung the key on its nail, which had been there for at least twenty years. His uncle was no longer alive and he was the only one he could have ask the old folks in the house where he was born: they were dozing on their chairs, an overture to sleep. Exactly five minutes after half past nine.


He woke up a little after midnight: the room was lit by a brilliant moon smiling back from the Empire style mirror: it was enough to give you a shock, because the mirror was only two steps away from the wide divan.

It doesn´t happen in literature, but it does in real life. His tooth ached.

It didn´t surprise him at all, which doesn´t mean it didn´t trouble him. He always carried Sedolor around with him: he didn´t switch on the bedside lamp, but it soon fished the pills out of his pants pocket by the light of the moon. The water left in the cup was lukewarm as the wide halo around the moon.

He swallowed and nothing changed.

He got right out of bed and leaned on the creaking window. Outside there was a breeze and below him the trees, which he couldn´t see, were rusting and the lamps on the slope opposite, which he could see, were silent. The pill would begin to work in an hour´s time. He hitched up his pajama bottoms, leaned out of the window, damaging a geranium in the flower box which he tried to straighten: if he had felt like going to the table to get the matches, he could have propped it up – life consists of a series of proppings-up, well-intentioned, of course.

Two more days and he would travel back to Bratislava. All this would be gone, and the rest of summer would be the Golden Sands, his colleagues, the drawing board and his new boss, who hadn´t yet shown what he was really lik. Holiday over, did you have rain? I went to Mamaia, it´s out of this world, you must go there, you´re single, for heaven´s sake, it´s no problem for you, don´t tell me, and the project must be ready for signing by the twentieth. Yes, Mrs. Benková, the drawings will be done by the twentieth.

His tooth ached and at that same moment the counts who had owned the mines were hanging on the walls below the vaults of the castle museum, and who knows whether the moon was shining on them, too, and whether those people had really lived and whether their teeth had ached, those waxen faces in golden frames, whose wrinkles concealed clean, respectable dust.

The outer walls of the house where I´m sleeping are over a meter thick – as a construction engineer, he couldn´t shake off this thought. It hadn´t troubled him when he was a child, but now he pondered it and his tooth ached. The house was wonderful, it was cool inside even now in August and behind these walls you didn´t even have to think about hot August nights.

Outside, beyond the windows, the scene was like a striking stage set with a net curtain in the proscenium.

Two castles – they made it a town to be proud of it. It offered tourists plenty of brochures, and the visitors admired their glossy paper, but he had grown up here and only now he did realize what a luxury it was to have two castles overlooking the town and both of them visible from that very window.

Below the house stretched the terraced streets interspersed with steep, miniature gardens and roofs scattered like cards on trampled sand, which he feared might be scratched by the brittle file of the moon´s rays.

The free royal town hadn´t had an urban planner and it had taken centuries to build. It sounds high-flown, but it was a fact that his tooth wa aching above a wall about three hundred years old, which in Slovakia of new housing developments was rare enough to inspire you even with a painful nerve in the root of your tooth.

He didn´t smoke, but now he longed for a cigarette whose smoke could scare away not only the pain, but also the silver moon. He wanted to drive it out of the mirror, because now the light had thrown its arms around the statute of Cleopatra, a statue in very bad taste – after all, Cleopatra had been beautiful and she hadn´t had deformed thighs and breasts, which a green snake was crawling towards, but, thanks goodness, never reached. When he had been fourteen that statue had excited him and he had wished it was bigger, but now he could be on the brink of marriage and the statue seemed very small.

He looked at his watch. Outside, everything looked as if it were in a state of suspended animation, not a voice or a step anywhere, it was a wonderfully hard-working mining town, in the night they slept and only occasionally made love, during the day they slogged away and in the afternoon they criticized the tourists.

How many holidays had he spent here like this, not having to struggle over his books and with well-toned muscles from so much swimming. And now everyone was asleep. No doubt about it – his wasn´t a big city, where you could imagine and interesting things going on at night: one person counting, another dispatching a train, making love to a woman or working the night shift, building a block of apartments in a new housing development. Here they would be asleep. No doubt about that. Fast asleep.

Maybe it would take him another two weeks to make up for ist. In this town even young women sleep an awful lot. Saving their strength. And he thought despairingly: For whom?


There was no beer in the house, only war mineral water that had gone flat and the day before yesterday even the evening had been exceptionally hot.

So he had gone to is on the terrace of the coffee bar and there was music playing below. Around the edge of the dance floor were small groups of tourists and local bigwigs talking over the district building contractors´ plans and the scandal of Mikulčička caught in her slip with the brewers´ accountant, here in this very hotel, I ask you.

The beer was cooled, thank you very much, better than in Bratislava, here was at least something he could praise in this former royal town. Thank you, the waiter replied respectfully: we´re not even a district town any more but we maintain the standards we were used to. It was said seriously, and it´s possible the waiter said it to everyone who didn´t give the impression of being the chairman of the Local National Committee or who looked like an outsider.

Of course, the waiter was mistaken, but on that occasion it went down well with our guest sipping his beer.

Then he carefully picked out a tall black-haired woman in a close-fitting white dress. He could see everything from the terrace above, the beautiful cleavage included. He smiled to himself and made up his mind to dance with her, because a fellow in a checked shirt was pestering her. Flushed and drunk. He could not stand drunks either, unless he was in that state himself.

Of course she was a well-bred, good looking lady, almost like of a fairytale: to his short-sighted eyes she seemed to move gracefully and she was here in this town on a trip of some kind, because there were just two of them sitting in an alcove, wearily dancing with drunken former royal burghers.

So he had gone down to sit two tables away from the battlefield, ordered a glass of red wine, which in this time had not been cooled, when fat Jano Marčák came over to him, slapped him on the shoulder and bellowed, ”Welcome back, Pip, you bastard. Come and join us.”

He couldn´t go and join them, because Marčák was drunk and he was sitting with Checkshirt. That was clearly out.

”Sit down, Jano,” he pulled him down onto a chair, gave him a gulp of his wine and Jano Marčák said nice to meet an old schoolmate, I couldn´t finish my studies, so I ´m a fitter, I´ve put on fat (he patted his twenty-five-year-old paunch and began to stroke it, then spilled the remains of wine on the tablecloth) and I´ve an appetite for women, but there aren´t many here a and I know all of them, damn them, don´ t be stuck aup, pal, if you don´t move yours ass and join us I´ll be very pissed.

”Thanks,” he answered quietly, ”I hope you strike it rich as a fitter, I´ve heard you want to sell your motorbike. You´ll have a car – the latest model – in no time. If you´re not happy just now, don´t let that worry you, I´am no either.”

There was nothing left to drink to each other´s health, so Jano staggered away and, gripping Chcekshirt´s shoulder, made a threatening gesture in his school mate´s direction. Then he saw Checkshirt cringing under Marčák´s fist and he stepped out in the direction of the woman in white.

That´s just how it was, a white dress like a Sedolor pill.


In spite of all the efforts of handbooks on the social graces and ballroom dancing courses in the local hall, a dance is always, from the very first moment, an eloquent interview.

She clung to him a he put it down to them both being outsiders. Two lonely people I a strange town can safely get to know each other, physically as well. It was an infantile conversation, which dispersed all the illusions her elegant dress had created:

”Are you here for a long?”

” I´am leaving in two days´ time.”

”On holiday…? Let´s try it a bit quicker.”

He nodded, but he didn´t know in answer to what. She had magnificent hair and it was well styled. His sister was a hairdresser and he was a good judge.

”Are you here on a trip…?” he asked.

”Should I let on?”

Of course, they had stopped playing meanwhile.

”That man, the one in the checked shirt … he was pestering you…”

”Thank you, kind sir, you rescued me.”

Any time, he thought to himself, staring into the overturned glass which has spilled over along with Marčák´s anger.

After the break they were first on the dance floor and continued.

”Just imagine, young man, I know you.”

”I´m not … famous. Do you know how to draw a ground plan?”

”Let´s not talk about work this evening… I know you. You were ten years old and …”

”Weren´t we in love with each other?”

He realized that was stupid and tactless remark. It was a very small town and he now began to rack his brain, trying to imagine those grubby school girls with ribbons, god, how beautiful her hair smelled and what an excellent dancer she was.

”I know your parents, too, and I even remember your uncle.”

”I can´t volley back that information.”

”You can dance instead. Do you like me? You really don´t remember me?”

Then again. When are you leaving? In four days´time? Only four more days and you´ve already been here for ten. He almost let slip, what a pity.

He was disappointed. She isn´t a tourist. No doubt everyone knows her here and these townsfolk have awfully good memories. Tomorrow they´ll be pairing me off with someone… but he smiled at her, because he felt good and she knew it.

He couldn´t remember any more about the dance. A sedolor dress and hair. All very familiar.


Everything finishes before midnight, because the waiters live in the hills above the town and one of them even has to catch the bus to the next village.

He stood outside, in front of the hotel and thought with surprise how simple life had suddenly become.

”My sister-in-law,” she introduced a tall, older woman. He stared at her under the lamp. Her name wasn´t Twiggy, but appearance is not always the same thing as essence.

Twiggy strode along beside them, she didn´t giggle and she took everything seriously, and their hands touched unnoticed. It was an ordinary summer night with a touch of breeze, which ruffled their hair, and with Twiggy there he could t think of love or even anything like it.

With a feeling of boredom, he waited as they walked down that endless main street: when they reached her home that Sedolor dress would ask him to hold her handbag while she opened the door, no doubt one of those enormous doors leading to impenetrable castles. Thank you, it was wonderful, what a pity you are leaving, remember us when you´re back in Bratislava. Bye… And, with a rumbling and clanking of rusty chains, the drawbridge to the woman´s castle would be lifted against the August night.

Twiggy unexpectedly left them and they went on alone for about five minutes up a steep street, and if she hadn´t asked whether he could remember from his childhood where a certain cleaner´s had been, they would have remained hopelessly silent, in the grip of an excitement they could not discuss.

The former royal town was deserted and for the first time he was glad he was wearing sandals with rubber soles. If you went by the sound, he did not exist, she was alone, her pretty shoes clacking on the medieval paving stones, those huge smooth round cobbles.

”Do you really not remember now where our laundry was? Mom used to work there sixteen hours a day.”

She stopped in front of a two-story house, which also had outside walls about a meter thick or more and a round-arch door. She didn´t ask him to hold her handbag, but she deftly opened the huge door, which did not creak. At that moment he seemed to be six years old and he could smell of a laundry and cleaner´s , and in the yard he could see a lot of wooden barrels with chemicals and that caustic substance used to bleach linen and blouses.

She was standing near him and he realized that what he could smell was her hair.


He stirred the window and he sensed the Sedolor was beginning to work, but here was no question od falling asleep, because the moon was shining outside and the town was like something from a fairytale.

Somewhere up there, below the castle, he had smelled that hair.
He had grasped her hand, squeezed her fingers and wondered what those hands did during the day, yesterday, today, in two days´ time, when he wouldn´t be there.

She closed the door and they were standing under the arching roof of the long gateway leading to the former cleaner´s . He walked beside her, because her hand was in his palm, and he peered beyond the arch onto the wide, square courtyard with heavy balconies running along the walls.

He was on the alert and then she leaned up against him.

”Are we going to take our time to say goodbye?” he whispered. He was sure they would kiss and she would disappear somewhere in that passage.

He was surprised to sense she wouldn´t leave, and nor would he.

Over her sun-tanned shoulder he gazed around the courtyard, feebly embraced by a modest lamp in the opposite corner, and he waited to see who would emerge from their midnight shelter. He, too, ought to go home, he´d wake the old folks when he crept through their bedroom, once more knocking over the bottle of mineral water beside his father´s bed.

He loosened his embrace, intending to talk slowly back towards the door. He wanted her to go with him, so they could lean on its warm wood.

”Come and have coffee… But you won´t tell on me?:

His eyes opened wide, she stroke him, took his hand and, feeling her way to the dark, opened a glass door at the side of the passage, which led to a winding staircase.

”Please… be very quiet,” they passed through something which, seen from behind the blinds, could have been a kitchen the size of a dance hall. She closed the door behind her very carefully, turning the key. He squeezed her a lot tighter and he felt on his cheek a huge wave of shame that washed over him, so the only way of drying it was by a visible expression of affection and unexpected familiarity.

A few seconds later he was sitting beside hr on the wide divan in the light of a little lamp, and he sat tensely aware of the glass door with a cretonne curtain, beyond which her mother was sleeping.

”Welcome,” she said out loud and noisily opened the drinks cabinet, took out an old carafe with decorative cork stopper and poured drinks into old-fashioned stemmed glasses. He didn´t ask what it was, he just drank, his hand shook and he spilt a drop in her dress, she laughed, it´s wrinkled anyway, don´t worry, tomorrow I´ll put it in the wash, cheers, to the most beautiful day of my life.

He drank two glasses in quick succession, furtively glancing at the low door with its cretonne curtain, and he turned his eyes away from her dress, because he was afraid of losing control.

There was an absolute (but not frosty) silence in the room, the windows were more or less covered and the only sound was their breathing, which could be seen rather than heard, her breasts were rising and falling regularly and awfully, he stopped drinking.

”What do you think of me?” she asked.

He didn´t say what he thought, but moved closer to her, she was now enfolded in his arms, she was heavier then she looked in her dress. This can´t have been my classmate, she is like a ripe fruit in September and she could never have worn ribbons in her hair.

”You´re beautiful… I´ve never seen a woman like you, never felt …” he added very quietly and slowly, but he meant it. He felt giddy and he sensed he must get a grip on himself or he might faint.

She stroked his face, you don´t know anything, every year I looked forward to seeing you boys come back from the universities in Bratislava, Košice … here I was, the only one without an education, pure as a lily, losing my fragrance in the shadow of the loundry, drink, darling, drink as much as you like, if you´re not fibbing when you say I am the most beautiful, drink an ocean and then I´ll be waiting for you. It doesn´t matter what do you think, if you can feel me and can´t think straight.

”I can´t.”

Now he tried to capture with his senses everything around him, he wanted to let out a whoop of joy and they fondly played with names like little children. The most beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman. Beyond the windows all was quiet. The most beautiful woman.

It was an hour after midnight and they had both stopped watching the door with its cretonne curtain. They stood up, looked each other up and down, one minute sitting, the next standing, touching each other and whispering sweet nothings.

”Don´t talk about what I was like as a schoolboy, OK?”

”What a good thing you don´t remember me. Now you like me very much … Say after me … I like you very much … Repeat it!”

They lay beside each other, unaware of the frayed pillows. She was like a modern vase with a narrow throat and shapes no one could identify, but anyway the shapes were there and they were unchangeable, incorruptible, they were there and they were his, without prudery, lamentation or giggles, he suddenly wanted to smoke, it may have brought them to their senses, but they hadn´t the strength.

She set up straight on the patterned pillow…

”What´ll happen tomorrow?”

She had a frightened look, but then the rings of fear dispersed over the surface and once more she lay down, closed her eyes and they talked some more and they knew the climax was very near.

”Will you com and see me in Bratislava?” he pulled out a notebook and tore off a piece of paper, intending to scribble down his office number, fourth floor, to the right, last door but one, it´s easy to find.”

”You won´t leave. You won´t leave,” she kept saying and there was nothing, not even Sedolor, they existed and all that was nothing.

”How old are you?”


He didn´t ask her in turn. She was strong and at the same time she was taking onf the fragility of a vase that future mothers have.

”I´m twenty-six. Do you mind?”

He pulled her up and once more they stood next to each other. She slowly opened the door leading into the kitchen, they both felt that darkness was their friend: they tiptoed out and didn´t know who was where, then they sat down on a kind of wooden chest, and the cloth slipped off it and his keys fell out of his pocket: in the courtyard beyond the window there was a lamp and silent arches, crumbling pillars and the sleeping twentieth century.

Then all they saw was their arching eyebrows and they called them arcades, nothing else shone beyond the curtains, which sharpened their other senses, and they were more clearly aware of each other in this half-darkness than ever before, He felt he would never love anyone like this again in safety and bright light – light would be a miracle for physicists, you could warm yourself by it, drive machines and solve equations.

He had her beside him and he sensed that she too was wondering what a moment meant and why the world was made up of a long river of vast time and of unexpected moments, which pause and no one ponders. Where the people live, how do they live? Who lives and when do they live? In that flow? In those little moments? In that great flow, of course, he knew he had to believe that, but here was her hair and the kind of unreserved devotion that is not given to cattle, only to people, and if you don´t want to put yourself to shame, you must deserve it and be ever indebted, until you have given everything you have in this world. What I have in this world, and what I can give does not depend on brains, education or clothes, on walls and on time …

He felt he was too weak for this great task, everything had suddenly become unexpectedly complicated, because it wasn´t just a question of sleeping with some one and then quietly leaving, wondering whether it had been good and whether she had enjoyed it, too.

A silence, in which the outlines of the kitchen table loom out of the darkness, yet the universe might be breaking up. At least in this town in this moment. A universe without a shining moon. Did she feel that, too? Was she thinking about that? Could she sleep now, tell me, could she?


They both knew that the minutes would bring an ebb and they stopped dreading it. It was all over and then they would straighten their hair and crumpled clothes. He fumbled around until he found his fallen keys and she suddenly sai quietly:

”Would you marry me? What a good thing you can´t, because in December … Yes, really, I´m getting married. Before Christmas. I won´t send you an invitation, will you mind?”

They threw their arms around each other and kissed again and they may have sobbed, if it hadn´t been for real, it would have been banal, but that´s what toothache and lonely holiday do for you.

”I´m not getting married,” he said needlessly and wanted to smile even more. ”Why don´t such people wait?”

”For you? Until the time you condescend to notice village girls? Mr. University Graduate.”

He caught her in his arms and covered her mouth. You´re a silly fool. For four years we used to come back here for holidays and we were scared of you girls, you had changed so much, you´re stately and majestic, we were scared of you, the future wives of the town´s big shots, directors of factories, deputy directors, National Committee secretaries, officials, professors, head physicians.

”Shut up.”

She caught his head in her hands. We dreamed about you, your´re from these parts and you don´t come back to live here and something´s rotten here, people with cars come here a they have to transfer people here, young people com to work in this back of beyond at the Party´s orders, because these walls would fall to pieces without normal people.

”Is he a good person?”

”He´s a normal person. He wants a lot and he´s tough… You´ll look down your nose at me because I´ll have a car and a dowry from the remains of my mother´s handworking hands...,” she laughed, ”…remember this cleaner´s.”

”Here I´ve experienced the most beautiful …”


She wiped his mouth with her handkerchief, wetting it under the wheezy tap, whose rattling awoke the centuries-old house and vibrated the arching pillars below.

”Where do you work? Tomorrow…”

”Bürger´s House below the New Castle. The pay office of the Local National Committee´s public services.”

”Does he work there, too?”

”No, but they´re in the middle of an audit. Come, if you like! You won´t startle me.”

They kissed and maybe it was for the last time.

The stairs were worn out, smoothly rounded in the middle, descending steeply. He was in her hands and it seemed to him that she was making too much noise with the keys.

The gateway was very long, maybe as much as ten meters and he couldn´t see what kind of vaulting there was, but they didn´t hurry, it took them perhaps an hour to cover those ten meters, it didn´t matter and you´ll see, I´ll come tomorrow.

”I´m going on holiday. The day after tomorrow, to the lakes.”

But tomorrow she would be there. Tomorrow.


He had to shut the window, because it had begun to rain and the geraniums were shivering.

Cleopatra had a botched-up figure and the snake was like a shrivelled cucumber.

It would clear up by the morning and he hoped he would know why it was worth living at the age of twenty-five.

Maybe even those walls a hundred centimetres thick were no more than a little town´s innocent toy.

He slowly got into bed and amused himself by thinking hard of her, and he was convinced he would succeed in pursuing her through telepathy. After all, it wasn´t so far below the castle. Any television could manage that.

No, it really wasn´t a holiday for want of anything better in that free royal town.

At last he could smile. Sedolor was white and wonderful, his teeth were white and were falling asleep in a stupor which emanated the kind of strange, wanton delight of those in love.

(Anton Hykisch)

Translated by Heather Trebatická



English edition: IN SEARCH OF HOMO SAPIENS, Twenty-five contemporary Slovak short stories. Editor Pavol Hudík. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Wauconda, Ill. , Publishing House of Slovak Writer´s Society, Bratislava, 2002.

Slovak original of the short story: Slobodné kráľ>ovské mesto. First Slovak edition: STRETOL SOM ŤA, Smena, Bratislava 1963. Second ed.: SÁM V CUDZICH MESTÁCH, Hajko&Hajková,Bratislava 2006.