The Angel‑maker

A land of misery – in place of an introduction

The sun beats down on the wretched plains of Istria. Here and there some feeble stalks of maize in pockets of earth washed down by the rain. But otherwise just stony, stony, stony ground, in which – Lord knows how – a few scattered cypresses and crippled olive and fig trees have found nourishment.

A venomous reptile, of which a man ought actually to be more afraid (than the reptile of him), springs up and flees into a stony crevice. The lizards round here are eighteen inches long. Their colouring is brown and green. What keeps them alive? The few blue‑ or red‑winged grasshoppers that drone in flight like little aeroplanes? What else? After all, there are none of those damned blood‑thirsty Sanzari_1 here, since there’s not a drop of water here or a layer of damp soil, or even dwellings that are home to sweet human blood.

Yet across this landscape leads a road, along which at several‑hourly intervals a donkey trots, bearing on its back some poor Italian or Slovene woman. How poor, then, must a man be who does not possess even a kindly little donkey and has to proceed through this country, more desolate than the sandy desert, on foot? In the distance, the blue of the sea, which affords only salty water that cannot be drunk…

But the beneficent hand of man, at a time even before that great anarchist Jesus Christ walked the planet, had found beside the road, this ancient Roman road, a thirty or forty‑yard patch of earth. And in it, that blessed hand planted three oak trees, now over two thousand years old, whose shade is a true blessing to wayfarers who pass through this rocky, sun‑scorched steppe.

* * *

In the shade of these oaks, at the most dreadful hour, high noon, a young woman sat on the ground, weeping.

“Why do you weep, signora?” And the signora pointed to her condition, then described a circle in the landscape with her hand… True! A wretched land with nothing to give! With what, how was she to feed her child?

And this dramatic scene was a reminder that every latitude presents the same great suffering of women –


From this poor land I greet all those SUFFERERS, who live everywhere, even in the lands of prosperity, everywhere where the sun of God shines down on womankind.

Beneath the oaks of the Salvora Plain near Pirano,
Autumn 1922

The Abortionist

Permit me to introduce Mr and Mrs Jan and Hedvika Michovský. The story begins when he is forty and she thirty‑seven years old. He is the proprietor of one of the biggest engineering works, a dissipated, impotent hulk who had finally, after a period of life‑draining sexual excesses, become a prig and supporter of Catholic societies; engineer Jan Michovský came originally from an insignificant family of suburban grocers who, with his wife’s money, had rapidly turned into a capitalist, but of the type whom decent industrialists with half a sense of propriety prefer to avoid socially.

She was a beautiful, intelligent woman, brought up to be fairly religious, but with healthy instincts, and the daughter of the old petty‑bourgeois family of a timber‑exporter. Their marriage had been procured ten years previously by some relation or other. Thanks to her husband, Mrs Michovský had remained childless, though her object in life had been to become the mother of sweet children. She took her marriage vows seriously, and he, in the manner of sexless egotists, kept a close eye on her, had her watched, and tormented her with his jealousy. She, poor thing, did not have a single friend to advise her to break out of her intolerable life and become the wife of another man of sound health. And so ten years of life had trickled away. He had no sexual urge, while she had to suppress her own, and her tragedy was that she had grown accustomed to the life of ease. So in the face of this hard life she was left unarmed, the more so in that he had not only become, literally, the owner of his wife, but had also appropriated her entire dowry. Let an unarmed woman just try to leave her owner… For a woman like that, fully aware of the terrible reality that has come to be, it is hard to act and seek liberation.

But one night, as she lay tossing and turning in a fever of desire, Hedvika Michovský was musing for the first time that it could not be a sin to become the mistress of another. The idea took root and gathered strength through the endlessly identical nights, with her husband sleeping there on the bed next to hers like a lump of wood.

And so it came to pass:

She was accosted on the street one day by a well‑spoken man and led off by him where he wanted – to his bed. She came back quite often and grew as passionate as all women do when the spring and summer of their lives are somehow lacking. They glow in their life’s July and August and well into their September, then make love inflamed by the merciless glare of the unrelenting sun that seems to radiate from their sex. They are gratefully receptive with that devotion of sensual female creatures long tormented by sexual hunger. And Hedvika Michovský was no different. She would escape from her husband by subterfuge, which is Nature’s benign gift to those who, despite being entitled to the full beauty of life, cannot by either reason or accord claim their honest entitlement from their eunuch husbands and have to pursue their rights by guile, disguise or by going down the road of crime.

A husband or, conversely, a wife is granted by the law and the Church a single right, namely the uninterrupted control and police powers of one over the other. That is why so many marriages become the monotonous prisons of two unhappy people, whose horizon is so contorted by the idea that one is the property of the other that they cannot entertain actions that go beyond the bedroom and front door of their home. In these circumstances, the weak start tormenting each other out of boredom and mutual disgust and grow old fighting and being nasty to one another.

People who do grant each other freedom, yet love one another like the best of friends, are dismissed with a “Ugh, what sort of a marriage is that!”. ‘Rascal’ and ‘whore’ are the mildest terms applied to them by the morally outraged._2

It has to be respectfully acknowledged that Mrs Michovský could not have acted in any other way than she did, any more than Mr Michovský could have acted differently if the roles were reversed. Up until now she had acted rightly, although the law does not forgive the hungry man for stealing a loaf of bread, to which surely every sufferer is entitled.

* * *

Being loved by a healthy man, Mrs Michovský blossomed, and she was made pregnant by him. The man to whom she had given as much bliss as she had received from him was a good, poor lad who could afford to be a happy lover, but not a happy husband. Mr Michovský was a man who would never have let his wife go, and if he did, then only on conditions that would preclude any further life for her. Such were his wife’s thoughts, and she was surely right when she told herself: “If I were to tell him of my greatest happiness and reveal that I am to become a mother, he would kill me or drive me out, and I and the child would both perish.”

And now began the dreadful struggle in the wretched heart and mind of the hapless Hedvika, who, dazed by her fortunate misfortune, knew that there was no other way out but to stifle the life burgeoning in her womb, since she was entirely dependent on her husband. Her entire life, this marriage, was like hundreds of thousands of others. A wife, desirous of continuing to ‘live’, becomes a prostitute in her own marriage. Prostitution, and with no intercourse to boot!

The man who had met Mrs Michovský was several years her junior. His name was Jan Pilík and, lacking the funds to complete his law degree, he had become a learned proletarian, to give him the best honorary title we can. Pilík, bright, educated, but socially inept, helped out in a firm of land surveyors. A surveyor’s assistant is that poor creature who lugs the equipment around, holds up the measuring poles, hammers pegs in the ground and is paid so well that in the event of considering suicide his only options would be drowning or throwing himself under a train. The point being that these two methods entail no cost. Hanging, poisoning and shooting are too costly for this type of individual. And yet Pilík was good‑looking, healthy and clean. He was permanently hungry, and if he did have a good meal he got the urge to have a woman, though he lacked the wherewithal to purchase one.

When he had spoken to Mrs Michovský that afternoon it had been mere chance. He had bumped into her and as he made his apologies they both blushed as if seized by a secret urge. So each had the right predisposition for what was to come. Otherwise Pilík was too shy to address a woman, but this time he had turned round, as did she, sensing his gaze, and so he bade her good morning. She thanked him timidly. He fell in with her. Thus each successive word was bolder than the last until both were drawn, as if by a magnet, to the reality that was his undisturbed bachelor lodging.

When they had been sitting in the little room for several minutes, the words dried up, and the timid male exclaimed: “Take me then!” and the timid female likewise: “Take me then!” This longing had hung unuttered in the air all round these two trembling, hungry beings. Then she gave him her hand and made to leave; but as soon as Jan felt the heat of her palm, a shiver went down his spine, his eyes bulged, he tore off Hedvika’s outer clothes and caught the scent of her swelling breasts and armpits, fired up by her circulating blood. He clasped her in a vice‑like grip and her resistance, which made his desire even more tempestuous, was in vain. Her knees gave way beneath her and before she knew what was happening Jan had lifted her gorgeous frame onto his bachelor bed so that she looking up at the ceiling. At that moment he did not know what he was doing; he was captivated by her beautiful legs and glorious pink underwear; he started to kiss her round knees, sank his lips between her legs, sucked on her apple‑like breasts and then her lips; at that point the woman, in the heat of her July day, lost all her senses and openly received the long‑awaited unknown man… A stifled yelp of pain quivered in the air, then the groaning of both ecstasy‑crazed lovers fluttered round the garret walls. Trembling violently, they stuttered their thanks in ineffable delight: “Oh God!” were the only intelligible words to escape Hedvika’s lips, uttered as if in praise of the Almighty for relieving her body, heart and mind of their burden of lead… But then Nature knows how to prey on those who hold out against its wise and healthy commendation, expressed in the urge to become one. And that day Hedvika and Jan became one several times over.

As Mrs Michovský made to leave with an expression of tired satisfaction on her face, Jan knelt at her feet and with the eyes of a good dog begged: “Come again!” and she, now fully dressed, replied: “I will.” As she whispered her promise, she shaded her eyes with the hand which wasn’t being covered by Jan’s kisses. (Well, you know how women little accustomed to the ways of the world can be beautifully coy!) She left. Outside a clock was striking seven.

* * *

As Hedvika left Jan Pilík for the first time, she came out of his room into the street (the outside world!) totally confused by all that was contained in the last three intoxicating hours that had chanced to cross the pathway of her colourless existence. She stared at the ground and as she proceeded rather uncertainly the little granite squares of the suburban footpath mingled with the worried thoughts squatting stubbornly in the back of her mind: “How am I, an adulterous sinner, going to look my husband in the eye?” She got into a passing cab and took fright at the mirror on the wall opposite, which revealed deep, blue rings round her eyes. Ideally, she’d rather not go home, but any later arrival would be the more likely to raise ‘his’ suspicions. But Hedvika was in luck; her pounding heart relaxed when her maid reported on her arrival: “The master won’t be back until ten; he’s gone to the May Day evening mass for the Virgin.” Hedvika went to her bedroom and now, as she lay on her chaise‑longue, her thoughts were less of a torment. Yet the main sentence in all them remained: “I’m an adulteress”, and she blushed in the manner of, above all, pious women – and she too was one – when, if they are embarking on a career of amorous adventures, their husband or some or male acquaintance reads aloud from the paper about faithless women, or if the subject crops up at all. For at sudden turns women are usually incapable of thinking clearly, since nerves play a bigger part in them than instinct or will‑power. So having started transgressing the sacrament of marriage, they are usually tormented by visionary dreams in which the main part is played by the Devil. So after quenching her urges for the first time, a woman is seized with fear, terrible fear of her husband’s gaze, since that is her tradition: the secondary yields to the primary. Or to put it another way: desire is strong and has to be satisfied by a friend provided by Chance.

Having been served, the female then turns into a poor timorous little thing that easily betrays herself to her husband if only he knows how to use his eyes.

However, Mr Michovský, as we shall see in due course, lacked this gift and accordingly bore the cuckold’s horns he so justly deserved without difficulty.

Hedvika’s husband came home that evening and noticed nothing. They both went to bed as usual and as her husband, dead to the world as ever, sawed away at the dark with his snoring, his wife looked him up and down with disdain, the revulsion of women at the open mouths of their powerless, ageing husbands being great. Then she dwelt briefly on Jan, to whose quarters she would now sneak daily like a lovelorn weasel; and finally she yielded to liberating sleep, clutching her promise: “I’ll be back tomorrow, Jack!” She said ‘Jack’ so as to distinguish between the name of Jan Pilík and that of her husband, Jan Michovský, whom in bygone years she had called Hans. That night, Jan gulped in from his pillow the scent of her hair, left behind after their Great Afternoon…

The next day, Hedvika duly came and thereafter every day again, except on those which called for particular caution.

* * *

Nature is stronger than religion, though the latter may prove a useful helper to sweet enjoyment, as in Hedvika’s case. She kept some holy water in a sprinkler and each time she sinned knew what prayers to say for God to forgive her. And forgiveness came from the lips of God’s deputy when, in the confessional, her priest took away her ‘guilt’ by giving her absolution.

Meanwhile, Michovský kept watching, without ever discovering this benefit of religion. And so the trodden path of thorns became a way of comfort and ease, for by dint of frequent passage unshod, even the most sensitive foot becomes steeled.

* * *

The seed sown bore fruit.

Mrs Michovský, at first seized with joy, was soon overtaken by sadness since she had no idea how to contrive things in such a way as to become a respectable mother in the eyes of people.

Who are ‘people’ for those like Mrs Michovský for whom the conflict of life resides in the question: “What will people say?” They are the women of the neighbourhood and kinsfolk. And who are these female kin and neighbours? They are stinking, sadistic monsters whose one hand holds a metre‑rule of spitefulness, marked off in centimetres and millimetres, by which they measure every act of another who happens not to be indifferent to them. In their other hands these sour‑faced bitches have a pin with which they slowly but surely prick their selected victim to death. As they prick away, they inject the wounds with their venom and keep their beedy eyes on the victim’s daily needs with the precision of a turnstile recording visits to the toilet. Those around Mrs Michovský would have acted no differently if they knew what her laundress had started to notice. No secrets are hidden from a laundress. She knows whether a girl has sinned, though the parents may believe her to be virgin pure; a laundress knows when the bedlinen should or should not be bloodstained. And one day Mrs Michovský’s laundress ventured to say: “It looks to me rather as if Madame might be expecting. Madame cannot possibly be going through the change of life; Madame’s too young!”…

Hedvika was knocked sideways by this sudden question, as if struck in the stomach by a boxer and lacking the strength to deflect the vicious blow. She almost sank to her knees before her laundress with a full confession and craving her silence. But she got a grip on herself at least to the extent of saying: “What funny ideas you do have.” But she only said this from the door as she left the kitchen and with her back to her questioner…

As it happened, this servant had merely been stating the fact and was not so malicious as those local ‘ladies of quality’, who would have rapidly spread the great news with all the relish of cowardly gossips. On the contrary, the laundress, who had spotted the sudden blanching and flushing of her employer, quite simply thought: Oh but Madame, I didn’t mean any harm, forgive me; after all I couldn’t give a damn!

But Hedvika knew nothing of this train of thought, and if she had known, she would still have quivered with fear born of distrust. Wretched and tormented by the terrible onslaught of questions that she had asked herself, she felt the full burden of dependency aggravated by her abominable marriage, which was like a tandem, a bicycle for two, neither of whom can jump off because of the other. “What shall I do,” she kept asking herself, “to escape the gossip – my husband will throw me out – I’ll be down and out – I’ll bring my parents to an early grave – I don’t know what to do to provide for myself and my child!” She had a clear understanding that for the victims of free love modern society reserved only spitting, kicking, rejection and ultimately a maternity hospital with a paupers’ ward, where the obstetricians used them as laboratory mice; what the illegitimate child could expect was usually hell, starting with being grabbed away from its mother’s breast and dumped in a place for foundlings or, in the happier event, in the hands of all manner of people, many of whom, though not all, treated the upkeep of a bastard as a business. And when a child like this went out to play, other children of the house or school knew who was born of a conjugal bed and who they could taunt: “Your ma was a whore and you’re a little bastard!” They got it from their parents. This bewildering circumstance, which Hedvika, like others semi‑ignorant of life and faced with a sudden predicament, had not thought through to all its consequences, now clutched her in its embrace and she made her first acquaintance with the bleak brooding of despair. How much she wanted to live! How much she wanted to be the mother of the child of her oft‑recurring dreams: its chubby little cheeks peeping out of the white coverlet of its pram, a little rattle tied to the hood and the baby’s delicate and clumsy little hands trying to touch it… And later, when the child started walking, she would lead it by the hand, and because she was fond of the country herself, she would take it out of town and show it the green grass and the simplest, but prettiest flowers of the field, and it would soon know that this is an ox‑eye daisy and that a harebell… and if a train went past, she would tell the child: “Look, that train’s going far, far away, all the way to Russia somewhere!” And the child, wide‑eyed, might say: “But Mummy, what’s a russia?” Or another time it might ask: “But Mummy, why doesn’t horsey go on the potty like me?”

Mrs Michovský had once heard a little boy say that and had smiled a happy smile. And since then she often wished to be put in the slightly embarrassing situation of having to handle such curiosity.

For now though she had to think only of death or of ripping out the fruit of her body…

* * *

As Mrs Michovský sat at table with her husband, she felt as if her husband kept looking up from his plate and was watching her. Indeed he was, with one eye half‑closed. Hedvika tried to look him in the eye, but in the end dropped her own gaze, her spoon shaking in her hand as her trouble grew and grew terribly. Silence reigned between them, which tormented her more than any direct question. Dinner ended with nothing untoward and Michovský went off to his factory.

Pilík, who during several weeks of glorious love‑making had begun to love Hedvika, was a level‑headed, conscientious man and a good friend. But he could not have said any more than: “You would be missed, dear lady, I love you very much. I have nothing to give you but my heart. Much as that is, in misfortune it is too little.”

Mrs Michovský was all too well aware of this truth.

* * *

After Mr Michovský left for his factory, Hedvika seized on the life‑belt she had been thrown: among the many similarly worded small ads in her husband’s paper she selected the one whose offer of help to ladies in any matter requiring discretion sounded the most attractive. An hour later, she was received by a middle‑aged woman, who proceeded to question her closely on all the details of her liaison. And Mrs Michovský was duly relieved, at considerable cost, of the fruit of her womb…


The next two years that passed were more than fraught for Hedvika. The midwife whose discrete services she had sought was a botcher par excellence. She had ‘helped’ Hedvika is such an irresponsible way that though she did destroy the embryo, she brought the poor woman almost to death’s door. A second operation was needed, for which the midwife did not have the courage, the hapless woman’s life being at stake. But this is the risk to which almost one in two women is exposed, given the moral framework, ideas and legal system of modern society. Which is why women place more faith in back‑street helpers and have an unwarranted fear of doctors. A leading surgeon had to intervene, but so thoroughly that it cost Hedvika both her ovaries. She had become infertile, and this altered her character to its very foundations. A kind, fastidious, maternally inclined woman and mistress had become a menacingly taciturn, undaunted creature with courage in her eye and breast. If she passed a pregnant woman, she was first seized with sorrow and at home spent hours on end weeping. She would avoid playgrounds in public parks, since the joyful cries of children upset her. Once, as she was walking past a school, the sound of a song sung by the high‑pitched voices of eight‑ or nine‑year‑old little boys erupted through the windows. She wanted to run away, but remained rooted to the spot. She did not cover her ears but listened intently to the ancient folk‑song. And she heard:

Keep and raise me, mother dearest,
as the apple of your eye,
keep and raise me, mother dearest,
like the blooming rose.
Then when I am big and strong
you will gaze upon me long
and marvel how your little soldier grows.

Hedvika listened to the song in ecstasy. At first she was touched to hear how the mother raised her little boy and how he grew up to be a soldier, but then tacked on lots of thoughts of her own. Her very self ran through them like a red thread: a bullet passed through the soldier’s white dress uniform, his blood stained it, and the boy’s soul left his body… Hedvika wanted to think about it, but now they were singing another song:

A fine young man rides on his charger,
riding into war!
His raven steed is gaily leaping,
but at home his mother’s weeping
for her little boy.

Mrs Michovský mused: Oh, how wretched we women are. I myself shall never be a mother, my life is never to be blessed with children, and mothers who are so blessed – are they happy? They can never say: This is my child, because a mother’s rights have to yield to the prerogative of that military overlord: the army.

If a woman is deprived of her sexual instincts, her brain develops a genius for solving all manner of problems. All it needs is for her to sieze on some idea that fascinates her and then she works away at its refinement and execution.

Up until now, Mrs Michovský had held no firm convictions. However, her altered self was stabilising more and more. God was unjust, and not only had Hedvika begun to doubt, but she was close to losing her faith completely. Her compassion grew and her special feelings were for women who had to take the path of suffering that she had recently taken herself. At the same time, she grew resentful and envious of those women who could give birth at their ease and without fear. But she felt an inclination and obligation to help those who, like her, wanted to destroy the fruits of their love.

* * *

Amazingly, Mr Michovský had a fairly clear idea of what was going on, but he seemed afraid to ask a question that would do nothing for his health. He had begun to ail, his memory was failing and he was growing even more pious. The impression he gave a healthy person was that which we have when speaking to people whose chain of thought has some defective, broken links and whose brains seem to falter because of some spinal disorder.

Instead of watching his wife as he used to, now he tended to avoid her as if he hated her and seemed to be afraid of her. It had been like that ever since the day when, as he was praying, Hedvika had remarked: “What your womanising’s taken out of you not even the good Lord can put right now.”

Mrs Michovský was now to all intents and purposes free, but freedom was no longer what she needed. On the contrary, everything had conspired to become a mockery of all the poor woman’s former yearnings, now that she could be just as happy as she had once wished. It had all come cynically late. Even Michovský’s death. Not that it mattered whether her husband was alive or not; he could no longer be an impediment to her. In the event, his fate was luckier than that of his widow. He died in a most peculiar way, though for a man who had begun to suffer with paralysis it was actually merciful: one day, he was at the barber’s situated in the yard of a commercial building. Outside the big window of the barber’s shop a war invalid was playing on a dreadful hurdy‑gurdy. Suddenly, an agitated clerk appeared at a window on the first floor across the yard and fired a shot at the invalid. He missed and the bullet hit the man in the barber’s chair instead. The man killed was Michovský. The gunman was taken off to an asylum and Michovský to the dissecting room.

Translated by David Short.

From: Michal Mareš: Andělíčkářka. Stručný román. Nakladatelství Večernice, Praha 1922, pp. 5–24.


A species of mosquito.
I wish to make it quite clear that I am not including those happy marriages that will usually have been fought hard for after the preliminary suffering that goes with persecuted and unequal loves. I recognize the existence of sensible people and permanently peaceful, happy marriages in which the couple are not bored either. Such a marriage is a treasure, but few have the conditions to create it. But if anyone thinks that he can create this state, make way for him, and make sure that the way there is kept open every day – and the way back! I doff my hat to those who can give each other absolute freedom, whenever and under whatever circumstances, whether by friendly separation or by continuation in what is by now just a ‘marriage’ – yet also a firm bond between two wrestlers with life, who yet are heartily thankful for what has been. Some people do act exactly as described in the previous sentence. There are others who also do so, but generally only by putting things off from the moment when ‘the going gets tough’. Anyone who acts thus finds neither honour nor happiness. There should be absolute consistency in all things.