The War with Newts of dr. Jaroš
© 1998 Ing. Václav Semerád
Translation © 2005 Marek Čtrnáct (nick:14)
All comments welcome.
Motto: To give a book a name
A bit of each, I guess.
Fortunately, these are qualities that I certainly don't lack...
I was not looking forward to this trip - and I had full right to feel that way.
I had my own work, and I was late with it; every delay only meant more work for me.
"This is your line of work, so you are going, and that's it." - such was the final word of academician Isit. All of us called him that, as the only argument he ever used was doubting absolutely everything anyone brought to him to support his own opinion. Just you try discussing with someone who answers every single thing with a malicious grin and just says:
Still, he was a boss, and if you consider it, he had the right to order me around, and he did. I stood against him on several accounts, but those regarded problems from our field, and I was as stubborn as him with those. When he allowed me to work as I've wanted, I didn't mind his past nor his incompetence. He knew that. Usually, he let me alone and didn't butt in my work, but - there were just times when he had to prove to himself his power.
At least I got him to agree with me using my own car. Of course, I would be reimbursed only for kilometers traveled, and with the use of ten-year-old tables to boot - which would only get me to about one third of the gas money. Everything else, including wear and tear, will be my own risk. But at least I had a chance to settle this awkward situation without big delays. Without the car, I would have to use the public transportation system. Who could be sure how it worked these days? Or that it wasn't cancelled at all? I would spend hours at various God-forsaken bus stops, maybe I would have to find a place to stay overnight, the trip grows longer and my work is dead.
That is why I drove out as soon as possible, with dawn. The streets of Prague were more free than usual, and access road to Hradec Králové empty up to the horizon. I could press the gas pedal down, but I didn't want to go too fast. My old Škoda's fuel consumption got very high at higher speed, and the time saved was never enough to make it worthwhile. I was paying two thirds of this trip by myself, after all.
Weather, fortunately, was favorable for this sort of trip. It wasn't too hot and the leaden clouds were low and heavy, but there was no rain so far and the road was dry. Even the engine works better in such an atmosphere, and so the kilometers wore away at hopeful pace.
I reached Hradec during the morning peak, and I got a bit lost in the streets, but fortunately enough I got out soon enough and set on the right road. The traffic was greater than on the Prague-Hradec route, and I had to slowly follow the lorry convoy, but it did nothing to spoil my good mood. I always feel as my own master when I drive my car. Not like in the institute, where anyone can command me around, from the janitor to my thickheaded boss who got his position thanks to being in the right party once. His position of irreplaceable expert stuck with him.
I transferred to a more narrow road.
Although I got rid of the Lorries, my speed saw no improvement. This road was so narrow I would be in serious trouble if I were to encounter a bus here. It went up to the hills, with steep forested scarp at one side, and its downwards continuation towards a creek with a stony bed and frothing water on the other. Maybe a marvelous place of our country, if you are a romantic. I wasn't; far from that. For me, it was a terribly backwater place.
Finally several standard-type houses and even older cottages appeared from behind the serpentine. The road sign told me that I had reached my goal. The road widened and changed in a bizarre country common.
I stopped in front of a house bearing the sign "The Žabka Inn"; way too good for such a pub. I locked my car and went to look if I could get some soft drink there, but they weren't open 'till eleven and it looked like no one in the village is up yet.
I spent some while waiting nervously. I should ask someone, but who? Maybe I could knock on some nearby house's window? Fortunately, I was saved by an old woman who passed my way dragging a bag on terribly squeaky wheels behind her.
"Good morning, good woman!" I said to her. "Excuse me, would you know where Mr. Vaněk lives?"
Good thing I got that name written down.
"Which one, Jirka or Karel?" she asked.
"Jirka, I guess," I said. "It says J. Vaněk here."
Good thing there was not Jiří and Jaroslav Vaněk or something like that. The families tend to be quite convoluted in the countryside, and last name by itself is seldom enough. In Prague you can use street names and house numbers, but this address didn't contain either. Countryside.
"Jirka lives that-a-way in the gameskeeper's lodge. He's a gameskeeper, you see?" She showed me a way, but all I could see were the trees of a nearby forest.
"All right, but how can I get there by car?" I asked.
"Leave it here at the common, and go by foot," she advised me. "You won't be able to turn around up there."
"We shall see," I said, but I thanked her for the advice. The old lady seemed content, but she was shaking her head as I entered the car and drove the way she showed me.
Of course she was right, and it wasn't long before I found the reason why.
The good road only reached a gate of some farm. After that, it transformed into something I haven't seen since the tank grounds on military exercise two years ago. I did reach - somehow - the gameskeeper's lodge, but I was seriously worried about the bottom of my car. I stopped in front of a low house with antlers above the door - not that this sign was neccessary, since there was nothing but woods from this point on.
I went outside and tried to find the gameskeeper.
"Hello? Is anyone in here?" I shouted over the fence. I didn't dare to enter since a hunting dog was pacing the grounds behind it and it didn't look too glad to see me. It didn't bark, but as the proverb says - a barking dog doesn't bite - it was only the more reason to be wary.
After a while, a five-year-old girl in green pants with big pockets, brown jacket, and big white ribbon with red dots in her hair appeared in the doorway.
"Daddy is not here!"
She was looking at me with suspicion, and there was certainly no way she'd let me in. Maybe it was better that way, little girls shouldn't trust men they don't know. And I didn't even want her to open the gate, that would leave free pass to the family dog. No doubts she had nothing to fear from it.
"I need to speak with your daddy!" I tried to explain.
"He'll be back in an hour," she said readily. "He went to get some Prague guy.:
She had cute voice; she had almost sung that.
"That's me," I told her. "Where did he go to get me?"
"To the bus stop," she answered.
"Where is the bus stop anyways?"
"By the grocery, where did you think?" she replied. "But Daddy's bound to be in the Slavata Inn."
"Oh, you have two inns here?"
"Yeah," she said. "Go there to meet him."
She turned around, went back into the door and a thud signaled the end of audience. The gate was still closed and I had no options but to accept that girl's offer.
What's worse, I really had no way to turn around.
The road had ruts, probably made by tractors. Those could turn around on a field, but a car had it much worse. Too bad I didn't drive a tank in the military. To turn around in here without tearing off my exhaust pipe would need a much better driver than me. The only solution would be to have the gameskeeper open the gate and let me turn around at his front yard.
There was no way to go around this. I had to leave the car here and reach the second inn on foot. But it was my own fault. I should listen to that old lady when she told me to go on foot. Only now did I understand the strange look she'd had when I drove away. No doubt she knew the local tank grounds well and it's not hard to know a Škoda from all-terrain jeep.
The common was near, but I had no idea that the second inn in the village is a kilometer away. But a while after that I've reached the Slavata Inn - and what a miracle, it was open! I came in and looked around the guests. Simple thing, only one man in gamekeeper's clothing was sitting in here, so that must have been Jiří Vaněk, the father of that girl.
I ordered lemonade and walked to the gamekeeper.
"Are you waiting for me?" I asked him.
"Where did you come from?" He was puzzled. "The bus is not due for fifteen more minutes."
"I went by car," I said.
"Oh, in that case I shouldn't keep you long." He prepared to finish his beer in a single gulp.
"If you'd let me finish my drink, I won't rush you," I said innocently.
He smirked a bit when he saw my lemonade, but he probably understood me mentioning the car.
"In your letter, you said you've found a strange animal," I started the conversation.
"Very strange beast," he nodded. "I had no idea something like that could live in here."
"You've described it as a 'new newt'," I continued. "Do you really think it is a new species? There's several species of newts living in Czech Republic and I doubt you'd encounter an unknown one."
"How many species of Czech newts, do you think, has almost seventy-five centimeters in length, weigh about forty kilograms and have blood that is blue?" He was looking serious and a bit tense.
That was the only reaction I was capable of. That's how astonished I was. I was expecting some cute animal that fits into the palm of your hand, not a monster on scale of giant Japanese newt. Unless he was telling tales, this would be - a discovery of the millennium!
"I'd like to see that!" I blurted after a while.
"I knew you won't believe me," he said with a satisfied smile. He finished his beer and waited until I downed my lemonade. We paid in advance at the counter, so we just rose and went out of the pub.
"Where is your car?" He was looking around, puzzled.
"In front of your lodge," I told him.
"Oh dear," he sighed. "I guess we should get a tractor from the farm. Or did you manage to not get stuck?"
"I have no place to turn around," I said. "I was hoping you'd let me to turn around in your gate."
"Well, if that's all you need, sure," he promised. "You see, no one ever drives there in a car. Tractors-only."
"You don't have a car?" I asked.
"For walking the woods?"
"Well, surely you need to go further away sometimes," I said.
"To the district bureau," he nodded. "But I use the bus then. That's one trip a month, I won't keep some gas-eating monster because of that. It doesn't fit in a forest anyways."
This sounded very convincing. Much more than from some ecological activist who does own and use a car despite promoting the opposite.
We met a horse wain. I looked at the horse with a curiosity; it was not something you'd usually see in Prague. Of course, there are a few coaches for tourists, but not honest workhorses like these. The gameskeeper greeted the man on the wain and he was excusing me right away.
"Prague people don't greet everyone like we do, Franta. He's a stranger here, understand."
"Christian greeting could only harm a devil," growled the man, but he stopped frowning, at least.
We reached the lodge in fifteen minutes. The clouds started to build up at the west, and the gameskeeper observed them with a worried look.
"Look, don't you want to drive back to the common? You can leave the car there, there are no thieves here."
"First, the newt," I refused. "I'm all burning up with curiosity."
"You see, it's going to rain," he reminded me. "This road will become a swamp, and not even a tractor will get you out then. You'd have to wait until it gets dry again, but that could easily be next summer. I'm not sure you have this sort of time."
He was serious. I suppressed my curiosity and decided to take advantage of his offer. The locals were bound to know these things better than me and I had already seen the consequences of ignoring their warnings.
He opened the gate; I managed to turn around, and carefully drove back to the common. I parked the car in a spot where it shouldn't bother anybody.
After that, I returned to the lodge with fast pace. Everyone was waiting. Jiří Vaněk, the gameskeeper, his diminutive wife Ludmila, smiling and dressed in something resembling a traditional costume, i.e. wide, dark-ochre skirt and white blouse with embroidered sleeves and lacing around the neck, and their daughter, introduced to me as Cilka. She was trying to get as far from me as possible, hiding behind a solid wooden table, and behind her mom too, just to be sure.
"Go play in your room." The parents sent her away after we got all introduced.
She obeyed. I could see that she did not want to stay in one room with a stranger - but on the other side, her child curiosity was keeping her there. In the end, she was glad for her parent's order, as it relieved her from having to decide on her own.
"The plastic, please," said the gameskeeper to his wife. Both of them went out in the corridor, but were back in a flash. Mrs. Ludmila put a plastic sheet on the table and Mr. Vaněk brought the animal in question. It was about the size of a deer, well-wrapped in several issues of newspapers.
He unwrapped it - and I froze.
Though I was expecting something strange, this was unlike anything I've known.
That newt - if it was a newt - was really half a meter in length, perhaps even longer, but that wasn't the strangest thing. There are even bigger newts living in the world, but this was something else.
First thing that caused me to see warning signals flashing was the blood. Ultramarine like I'd never seen before. Sure, some animals don't have red blood pigment, but blood this blue... I was gathering together everything I've known about this problem.
"Oh, man, I'm not sure this is even from this world," I breathed out. "Could it be something from outer space? Have you seen some - flying objects - around here recently?"
"What, do you really think it could be an alien?" Mr. Vaněk seemed wary. "You know, I had some suspicions right from the beginning. That thing waved at me as if it had something interesting to tell me."
"Couldn't you trap it alive? Did you have to shoot first?" I reproached him.
"Well, what would you do?" he frowned. "I'm going through the forest, and then I see this beast. Size of a bulldog, at least, maw full of teeth. Would you touch that with your hand? Not me, even if they promised me a golden pig. It was screeching, hissing, and opening its mouth, but talking, it wasn't. If I let it go, nobody would believe me, and what if it bit someone? Fortunately, I had my gun ready, I loaded it and shot."
"Did it wait for you to shoot?"
"Of course not. Once I took the hold of the rifle, it started to cry like mad, it put its paws up, and when it saw I continue loading, it bolted. But at that spot, you see, were no place to run. It was basically trapped."
The creature's back was mangled. A shotgun shell made mincemeat out of its blue-green skin, but the body shape was intact. What was not intact was the life, long ago gone from the body.
"Oh, you foolish man, do you know what you've done?" I exploded. "This really looks like it's not from Earth. Who knows, you might have shot an ambassador of some remote space civilization. The head is big; it's likely that the brain is too. What if it really was a sentient being?"
"Oh come on, doctor." The gameskeeper was shaking his head in disagreement. He looked a bit taken aback. "In that case, some of those... what do I know, UFOs probably - they would have to fly around here. And I'm telling you, there was nothing like that. You think this would be intelligent? It had no clothes and it certainly didn't do anything intelligent. Had it talked, I wouldn't shoot, but it was just screeching a bit."
"But it knew you want to shoot," I said. "By the rifle. Right?"
"Well, yeah, but my dog can do that too," said the gameskeeper. "I used to have a dog that ran with its tail between its legs once I grabbed the rifle. I had to put it away. What could I do with a useless dog like that? Can you imagine taking it to a hunt?"
"Yes - that dog had, somehow, grasped how dangerous a rifle is, and so it was afraid of it. But how could a creature like this know?"
"How could I know? Possibly it has seen a hunt. A rifle is thing like any other."
Of course. For a gameskeeper, it was inconceivable someone or something wouldn't know what a rifle is for. After all, even his dog did...
I was looking over the creature - I didn't really want to call it "animal" anymore - in more detail.
Calling it a "newt" was only possible due to total lack of knowledge, but this was to be expected from a countryside gameskeeper.
First things first, it had teeth; in two irregular rows, like Earth sharks have, for example, but the shape didn't match. They were not really true teeth, more like placoid scales like sharks have. White, but conical, not triangular. How to classify that creature? As a crocodile? But the typical newt-smooth skin and four-fingered hands didn't match that. The eyes were not a match with newts at all. They looked like chameleon eyes - encased and able to turn and move separately. Also, like chameleon eyes, they bulged out of the head. This was not the end of surprises by long reach, though. Ears - those were the worst. Newts lack ears altogether, but ears of these creatures bore an incredible resemblance to those of humans - except for their blue-green color. No pointed animal ears, but round earlobes at the sides of the head - like human ears.
"Now this is a complete mystery," I said. "I should take it to our institute, so we could examine it in full."
"I'll give you a big bag," offered the gameskeeper.
At this point, the world suddenly darkened. The gameskeeper mechanically turned around and flicked a switch near the door. The wind howled and the rain started to drum on the window-panes.
"See? I told you."
"Now that's golden." I looked out of the window. And I'm supposed to run to my car in this?"
"You can wait until it stops," said Mr. Vaněk. "Let's wrap that thing up well in the meanwhile."
He brought another pack of newspapers and started to wrap the corpse in paper strips like embalmers from ancient Egypt. Then we put it in a plastic bag.
I asked him to give me his full address for my report about his strange find. It was done in a flash and I could say my goodbyes.
Except that it wasn't that easy.
A glimpse outside told me that running in this will result in severe cold or even pneumonia for me. The water was falling out of the sky as if a dam burst somewhere and the rain was still growing in force.
"Does this happen often around here?" I asked the gameskeeper.
"Nah, last pour like that must have been at least ten years ago," he said. "Maybe it will end just as quickly."
It was dark outside and the rain was heavier every minute, so I was practically trapped in the small lodge.
"Will you wait here until lunch?" asked Mrs. Vaněk.
"Of course he will wait, what can he do?" decided her husband instead of me.
Really, it was just before noon, but the darkness made it seem like evening. Wind, rain, I could hear occasional drumming as if hailstones were falling as well, though I couldn't see anything white outside.
Mrs. Vaněk brought the soup and four bowls. Little Cilka brought the silverware, dealing it with a somber face. I had no choice but to accept their invitation - it was sincere and a refusal wouldn't be good, in all likehood.
To repay them, I invited them to see me in Prague. I live alone in a big flat in an old Žižkov house, and I could even house a family for some time would they visit the city.
The gameskeeper smiled.
"When we're in Prague," he said. "But I should tell you that I only was there - twice? - in my life. Last time in the National Theatre, with my school class. That's quite a time ago."
We finished the soup, and Mrs. Vaněk brought another course. Stuffed cakes - I didn't eat ones like that since my mother died.
The weather got better in the meanwhile. The rain was lighter now, but the clouds were still dark and it looked like a new wave would reach us any moment.
"You could sleep here," said the gameskeeper. "We have a lot of space."
I thanked him, but I refused, saying that my work in Prague is in a standstill and every day of delay will cost me dearly. And now with the find... although, it looks like it's really something unique.
"If you see any more creatures like that," I told him, "try to catch them alive. With a net or a loop of wire or something."
He smiled, but nodded.
"I'll try to."
He went with me to my car, shielding me from the rain with his umbrella. It was still raining, but not that much, and I decided to not wait in case it got worse.
"You'll get all wet," said the gameskeeper.
"What, in the car?" I shrugged.
I got in. He waved, but he didn't stay on the spot for long. The heavy rain started to return and he started running along the road, mud flying away from his feet.
I started the engine.
It didn't want to start at first. I feared a malfunction - nothing pleasant in this weather. But in the end, the engine coughed and started to hum. It was still cold, but it'll get warmer along the way.
I switched the headlights on and drove out.
The rain has started in full again. I never saw rain as heavy as that. The road was covered with twenty centimeters of water and my Škoda was inching its way through. Fortunately, this stopped once I got under the village. The road was above the creek here, so only the water from the scarp was here. It got dark again and my wipers, though set on maximum speed, were unable to remove the torrents of water from my windshield. Through a blink of an eye, I saw the creek. A terrible torrent of dirty water was flowing through there. At least two meters in depth, it would spread wide, but there was no space for that in a narrow valley. The stream was tearing branches from trees, and after a while I saw a whole tree which couldn't hold and slowly fell in the water. Its branches got stuck against other trees, and the water was going over its top. In a while, the branches would break and the bare trunk would be swallowed by the torrent.
I sped up a bit. No one was going in the opposite direction; I could easily see them with the long-distance headlights. But I couldn't go over fifty kph - and even that was a risk.
Then the storm started.
At one point, I was completely blinded by a flash of lightning hitting the forest on the left. My rearview mirror showed a large tree-trunk falling on the road behind me. Even if I'd wanted to go back, I couldn't.
I shivered when I realized that that trunk could have hit my car. Staying here in a broken-down car would be no pleasure, certainly.
Suddenly another bright flash showed me something which made me hit the brakes. The road was covered with wet mud, and it was slippery, but I managed to stop in time.
The road, you see, had - ended.
The zooming torrent of swollen creek had taken the road down. The screaming waters were almost five meters under me, and they were tearing the road even further apart. I'd seen another part of the dike collapse and two-meters-long piece of asphalt tumbled over, started to fall and hit the water down below.
Fortunately I wasn't going that fast, and I managed to stop - though in a last second. I could see myself and the car falling into the dirty water. What to do now? A huge tree is lying over the road behind me, and the swollen creek is raging in the front. I was trapped without an escape.
I couldn't stay there. It was clear that my only option is to turn around and get to the village. Either I'll get the top of the fallen tree out of the way, or I'll stay in the car through the worst of storm, or - in the very worst case - I would have to walk to the village in this downpour.
The engine was warm, and emitted a satisfying hum. I put the car in reverse, and started to go back.
Suddenly, it looked like I put it in forward by mistake. Instead of going back, it started to go forward.
I hit the brakes immediately.
The car, though, did not stop; on the contrary, it sped up. Once it started to tumble forward, I realized what has happened. The road underneath me got loose.
The following events cannot be described.
The car fell from five meters to screaming, frothing, dirty water. The headlights shone through it for a second, but then the car hit something, the headlights went out, and the water started to turn the car over.
The first time it fell on its roof, all the windows broke and the raging water entered the car.
I unbelted myself to prevent getting imprisoned in the flooded car, but then a terrible pain flared through my shoulder. A branch from some tree got inside - and pinned my shoulder to the seat. I found it with my left hand, but I had no strength left to yank that monstrous spear out.
In addition to the terrible, unbearable pain, I started to drown. There was water around me and above me, not a single bubble of air left. I was choking and feeling warmth around me - my own blood...
For a small, fleeting moment, I realized very clearly that this was the end - but in the next moment, I'd stopped realizing altogether...