Klára Vlasáková: The Chamber
Text by the writer Klára Vlasáková, which was created for the catalog for the exhibition Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2021, which took place in the Moravian Gallery in Brno from September 23, 2021 to February 27, 2022.
Klára Vlasáková: The Chamber
When I first entered the House, I was surprised at how barren and inhospitable it was, but mostly how utterly, ridiculously enormous. The number of rooms, offices and lounges was impossible to count, and one could easily get lost among the cold, labyrinthine corridors. It was quite difficult to imagine that the Assembly would take place here - that in this space reminiscent of a huge cold tomb the most vital questions known to humankind would be discussed: Why are we here on earth? What is the meaning of our existence? What should we do with our lives?
It was understood that the Assembly should provide the answers soon enough. The date of their announcement was constantly being postponed, but no one questioned it. It was perfectly clear to everyone that such difficult matters must be considered responsibly and carefully. No one knew exactly how many years the Assembly had been in session. The 13 members of the Commission were said to have changed from time to time, but even that was not sure, yet to ask such a question of the Assembly could be perceived as doubting its purpose, and therefore as blasphemy. Although the punishment for blasphemy had not been very high in the recent past, there were still cases of people sentenced for up to five years.
Until I started working in the House, I didn't realize the enormous number of people necessary for the Assembly to function. For years I had actually thought of it as something intangible, almost invisible, that operated without the need for any outside help. I couldn't have been further from the truth. In the north wing alone, there were several dozen of us working in the kitchen, and additional servants were needed to clean and maintain the House and the adjacent garden. Altogether, there must have been a few hundred of us, but I never learned the exact number.
However, even though the servants took care of the House most devotedly, it simply could not suffice for such an impossibly huge space. The garden had grown out of control over the recent few years - thick swaths of ivy and Virginia creeper had invaded the House and penetrated the plaster, which had begun to crumble in several places, leaving holes in the walls. From a distance, the holes looked like eyes through which the House was uneasily observing its surroundings. In some corners of the Garden, there were structures that initially seemed to be part of the landscape. Only when one came closer was it visible that they were not naturally occurring. They were built of bark, thorns, thistles and leaves, combined with materials such as plaster or paper. It was clear that they had been placed there deliberately, but the gardeners and gardeners knew nothing of them - the structures had been there long before the oldest of them had come to the House. Once, someone proposed that they should be removed, but the others were against it.
“I’m not taking responsibility for something going missing when the Commission begins to ask about it,” the head gardener declared. Everyone knew what he was talking about, although no one knew when it might happen. But when the Commission members showed up, would the objects in the garden be the first things they would inquire about? I could not have imagined such a situation at all - and I don't think any of the others could have either.
The Soil on the property was moist and primarily made of clay, and the whole construction was slightly tilted to one side. It looked as though the House was slowly but determinedly swallowing up the earth. It was clear that the sinking would have to be dealt with in the coming years, but no one knew whether it would after the Commission came with the answers, by which time it would most likely be irrelevant... the House would no longer hold any significance, perhaps only as an historical curiosity. No one, however, asked how likely it was that the Commission would get in touch before then - such a question would have been too dangerous to ask.
No one spoke about it out loud, but it was clear that the House and garden would soon overtake us. Two apple trees on the south side had fallen down, destroying part of the east wing, but there was no one capable of repairing the damage. Such a task called for interventions which could not be done just like that; they would require too many materials and people. It was wiser to leave things as they were.
I didn’t see the damage with my own eyes. I was restricted to the north wing and, while access to the other areas was not explicitly prohibited, it was certainly not authorized: in the rules governing the staff stated that we each knew our place and we would attempt not to cross the borders of the areas in which we lived and worked. Walking through the north area took many hours, and though I was tempted to travel elsewhere, I was happy that in my exhaustion I could make it home to my room. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself for unnecessarily exploratory travels, and I certainly didn’t want to make any trouble.
I planned to work two years in the House, until my 22nd birthday. I’d make loads of money and then I would return to my parents. Some of the servants stayed 5, 10, some even 20 years… others died here. The House and its inhabitants represented their entire lives, but this prospect terrified me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that when one stayed in the House too long, the vast space began to diminish them and chew them up, until all that was left was a thinned-out thing creeping quietly and spiritlessly down the endless corridors.
My days were all painfully identical.
Those of us in the kitchen woke up early, from Monday to Sunday at 5:00. One must eat every day, That makes sense. We prepared breakfast for the Commission, gave portions to the waiters, and then took care of everyone else.
The servants, of course, did not have such good food as the members of the Commission, but still it was decent and no one complained about it - eggs, bread, cheese, sometimes even ham and bacon. The various department heads received the same food. Nobody had a clue what the emaciated man nicknamed “Bones,” who supervised all the department managers, ate. Perhaps he had a special diet... maybe he even ate the same as the Commission members. Maybe he even knew them personally!
After breakfast it was time to begin preparing lunch. We had a monthly plan organized by the head of catering, and we followed it. No one expected us to come up with our own ideas or think too much. The manager would come to check on us and taste from time to time - especially from the new servants. For the first month she had her eye on me every day, but she never said anything, just quietly sipped and chewed, walking away each time without a word. I assumed that if something was wrong she would make it known, so she must have been satisfied.
It went on like this for the first half year. I learned the routine easily and became faster and more reliable. I got closer to some of the other servants, mostly in the kitchen, but also some of the servers, gardeners and storekeepers. Everyone was busy, and most of our brief meetings and conversations were filled with complaints about what had gone wrong at the House.
The lights in the hallways.
The swarms of flies that flew in, buzzing over our heads, impossible to get rid of.
We spoke about the House as if it were a moody patient whose enormous body had to be cared for every day. I often forgot that the House itself wasn’t the important thing, but the Assembly that was taking place there. The House was only a fancy package - the real work happened inside. Yet since I never saw a member of the Commission, it was difficult to imagine what their negotiations looked like. How many hours did they debate each day? And did they all talk together, or was each one in their own little office, where they researched for hours?
I longed to catch a glimpse of one of them. If I could eventually be promoted from cooking to food delivery, I might even have such luck, though that would be a big coincidence. The entire west wing was reserved for the Assembly, and even the servants there didn’t speak with them. There were strict orders as to where food trays could be left, or when the rooms could be cleaned. The Commission members were not allowed to meet anyone else, so as not to disturb their concentration and discussion. Yet I did not doubt that once in a while they saw someone - they just couldn’t be shut away alone for days!
After a few weeks in the House, I began to have the feeling that the only reality was that lived by us, the servants. It was easy to forget that our discussions, arguments and crises were not the most important events taking place here. Some of the staff fought for years, refusing to speak to each other and working together only when forced to. Such divisions were so deep and went on for so long that often no one remembered what had caused them. I thought this approach was silly - I may not have been able to find common ground with many people, but it wasn't tactful to make enemies of them. I considered myself a sensible, unassuming and reasonably kind person who could get along well with anyone. But all of these qualities were earned and hard-won - after all, as a woman, it was preferable for me to try to be on good terms with everyone; any deviation from a warm and polite demeanor could be judged as a suspicion that I might cause trouble.
I thought my two years here would fly by, until the daughter of the catering manager joined the House and took over from her mother.
That's when things changed quickly.
Her name was Lucie. She was tall, thin and strangely yellowish, as if something had long ago gone sour in her body. On the very first day she told us that she would not excuse even the slightest mistake and wanted us to provide much better service than we had up until now.
“The Commission deserves the best,” she said passionately. “They carry a great burden, and it is our duty to ensure they have the most favorable conditions possible. Do you agree?”
Of course we agreed - any objection would be risky at best.
Then, one by one, she asked us if we were satisfied in the kitchen. The others all nodded their heads so eagerly, it was a wonder they didn't fall off.
“I'd like to move up to delivering meals eventually,” I said truthfully.
“Why?” she asked.
“I'd like to learn more about the Commission.”
There was a murmur in the kitchen, but Lucie didn't respond to me. She just turned her head sharply away, as if the sight of me had suddenly made her violently ill.
“Get to work!” She said, clapping her hands as if commanding a herd of animals to disperse.
At first it seemed that Lucie would be equally strict with everyone, but within a few days her attention narrowed to a few unlucky ones, singled out as examples of inconsistency and slovenliness. Unfortunately, I was among them. I tried as hard as I could to get Lucie to leave me alone, but while the others gradually fell out of her angry field of vision, I remained in it. Worse, her spotlight kept getting sharper, its intensity burning my eyes. There was no escape, nowhere to hide.
"See? This is an example of how not to knead dough," Lucie complained to the others about my work. They could only carefully lower their gaze. No one wanted her discontent to fall on them as well.
"Look at this," she bitterly complained another time, "a classic example of a poorly cleaned fish. You may think you can get away with such inconsistent work, but as long as I'm here, I won't tolerate that."
I didn’t think that my work was bad, and a number of people from the kitchen told me privately that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Publicly, however, no one stood up for me, and I understood, because I would have done the same in their shoes.
Lucie and I were around the same age and height, and at first I had thought that maybe we could even be friends. There were few servants our age in the House. But maybe that's why Lucie felt she could push me around. She treated the older cooks with a certain guarded indulgence, sometimes even with kindness, and they soon took a liking to her. “She's very strict, but she really cares about her work,” they said.
So the word quickly spread that Lucie wasn't actually that bad - she just wanted us to do our best, and there's nothing strange about that, is there? Soon I was left alone with my feelings and the others began to shun me. No one wanted to talk to the rebel, that wouldn't have been very astute.
I'd wake up in the morning with my stomach clenched in pain. The thought of Lucie was the first one to erupt in my brain freshly torn away from the land of dreams. I tried my best, but nothing was good enough - my work was always judged as inadequate, often downright shameful. It was clear to me that we couldn't go on like this, yet I had no intention of leaving the House. I would never earn the same kind of money I had here. So I decided I was going to talk to Lucie. I had already tried a few times, but each time she had turned me down, saying she didn't have time, she was in a hurry, or maintaining that she had already told me everything and had nothing left to say. Still, I made up my mind to coax her into a real conversation.
I knew that Lucie went on walks around the House. She was one of the few servants I knew who dared to do something like that. She probably thought she could afford it, given her position, and of course none of us made any objection. I didn't know exactly where she went, but I observed that she went out every other evening - she would wait until supper was ready, and then she would set off at a gallop down the corridors. She never headed in the same direction, changing corridors frequently, almost as if she wanted to confuse others. I gathered up the courage to follow her. I knew I had to act quickly. Lucia's insults and constant criticism were killing me, I was buckling under their weight like rotting wood.
Meanwhile, spring had come. The season changes were more or less irrelevant to the servants; few of us went into the garden, so the weather was never a topic of conversation. The only ones who took any notice of the change of season were the gardeners, naturally, but it was evident from their words that every part of the year annoyed them to no end, as seasons had clearly been invented solely for the sake of adding work to the tired workers' lives.
Turning one's attention to the world outside was unusual, and in some ways almost felt indecent - as if one did not take seriously enough what was going on inside, which, after all, required the utmost attention. I never saw any of the servants in the kitchen looking out the window. They all had their eyes on their work - the scraping, peeling, kneading, mixing - the only real work. I wanted to do the same, and yet sometimes I couldn't control myself and took a brief, unobtrusive glance at what was going on beyond the glass.
The garden began to take on a majestic air, like a giant body healed of a lingering, insidious illness. The trees were extending their branches to the sky. From a distance they looked like supplicants hoping to be heard. Flowers burst from the ground, wild and brazen, the gardeners complaining that there were too many - but this seemed like real blasphemy - if I could, I would report them and demand they be punished! How could they say such a thing? It was as if they were complaining that too much color, too much life, too much beauty had exploded before their eyes, and demanding that the grey and the death should return. I tried to peer out as little as possible, but the vast radiance kept beckoning me.
This, of course, did not escape Lucie.
“If you look out that window one more time, you can just go and pack your things,” she snapped at me deftly. “Do you realize your staring is holding up everyone else?”
I looked around. Several people from the kitchen were truly glaring at me reproachfully, even angrily. It seemed that they had long ago stopped considering whether Lucie’s constant accusations against me were justified or not, and just accepted them as factual.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered obediently, but in my mind I decided that I’d had enough. Today I would follow Lucie and not let her go until she explained to me why she had chosen me as her target.
It was easy to follow her. She waited until everything was done and then, probably so as not to draw attention to herself, she just left without telling anyone. I crept silently after her. She was quick with her steps - I only kept up with her with difficulty. Several times she slowed down and turned her head slightly. That’s when I pressed myself to the wall and hoped that if she turned around completely, she wouldn’t notice me right away. The corridors were dark and some corners were impossible to see at all. Lucie never quite stopped, though. It seemed as if she were afraid she would miss something, and could not afford to lag. I don't know how long I followed her. My legs felt as heavy as two waterlogged cylinders, and it was only with great effort that I trudged along. Still, I knew I must not lose sight of her, otherwise I was in danger of not finding my way back. While Lucie strode on in confidence, clearly familiar with these halls, to me they all seemed the same, dark and clammy, as if I were walking through a cave complex.
Just when I felt that I could no longer go on, Lucie began to slow down. Maybe her strength was also running out - we must have walked for several hours. But then she disappeared into the shadows against one of the walls. It looked like she wanted to hide from someone or something. I didn’t know what to do, but to be safe I copied her movement.
Lucie waited, as did I. The space around us was lifeless, deep and terrifying like a bottomless pit. In a moment I heard footsteps not far away.
Silence. Eerie silence.
The person in question was very careful to make sure they could not be detected. My throat tightened. The footsteps came closer and closer, and I could hear my own breath, far too loud, frightened and choppy, like the wheezing of an animal caught in a trap. If the person heard me, it would not end well with me, I was sure of that.. Lucie must have felt the same, because she stayed in the shadows. It was strange that she had managed to hide before she had even heard the footsteps, almost as if she sensed someone approaching.
“Is that you?” the faint voice of a man echoed from somewhere up ahead.
A strange, awkward amusement passed through me. Of course! This is one of the great questions to which we keep returning all our lives: Is that you? So that’s you? And do you know that for sure?
“Yes” said Lucie, stepping out of the darkness.
I leaned over carefully so I could see what was happening. A tall male figure, so thin that he looked like he might crumble to the ground at any moment, approached Lucie with a swaying step. It must be Bones, who oversees all the managers, I thought in a flash. Did they have a meeting with Lucie? Would the other managers show up?
“It took you longer than usual today,” he admonished her.
Lucie shrugged. “I don't know… I had a weird feeling on the way.”
Bones sighed. “Feelings are the least important thing there is right now.”
To my surprise, Lucie said nothing. I would have expected her to object. She and Bones moved toward a door on the right. Fortunately for me, they didn't close it behind themselves, so I quickly slipped in behind them. A large, dim entrance hall spread out before me, more beautiful than any hall or room I'd ever been in. The entire space was made of wood, and every detail was executed with astonishing meticulousness. In the shadows I could make out the carved faces of several people, probably Commission members, some smooth and commonplace, others looking as if they had begun to grow together with the natural elements outside: branches sprouting from their hair, stalks from their ears.
I had no doubt that the Chamber where the Assembly was being held was close, and my heart raced as if to urge me on: go, go, go, take a look! What are you waiting for, you fool?
At the end of the entrance hall I saw big heavy oak doors carved out with flowers and leaves curling around the doorframe. I mused that perhaps such a grand threshold led directly to the Commission. If only I had been lucky enough to pass through it unobserved - if only I could have had a moment to see what the Chamber looked like! Lucie and Bones, however, stopped in front of the door, turning toward a cart standing off to the side. There were tonight's dinner plates - honey chicken with raisins - and they were all full. Not a bite taken. That was strange! The Commissioners should have finished their dinner long ago. Bones bent down to retrieve a giant plastic bag. Lucie took one plate after another and poured all of the food into the bag. She proceeded like a machine, quickly and systematically. A giant wave of annoyance rippled through me - why was she doing this? She knew how much hard work went into each of those portions!
“Have you dealt with the problem of that curious one from your kitchen?” Bones asked.
I looked up.
“Not yet,” Lucie replied. “But soon.”
“I certainly hope so,” he answered emphatically. “As soon as someone starts to say that they’d like to meet the Commision, we need to watch out for them.”
“You should have gotten rid of her long ago,” he continued. “It almost looks like you have a weakness for her.”
Lucie was silent.
“Well?!” Bones was aghast.
“No!” she shrieked in an oddly high voice. “I definitely do not!”
Bones only snickered. “Do it however you want, but do it!”
I smashed myself into the corner of the room such that my entire body ached. What was happening here? Nothing made any sense. I wanted to go away, but I had to stick it out until the end.
“I was thinking we should probably finally clean the room,” Lucie began to say. “It isn’t safe or appropriate to leave it … in such a state.”
Bones snorted in disagreement.
“Everything is to be left as it is. It’s been done this way for years and we just need to continue. Nothing will be cleaned.”
There was resolve in his voice, and something else unexpected, surprising: disgust. What was this cleanup they were talking about? The space definitely didn't look dirty to me.
When they were finished throwing the food away, Lucie took the bag and tied it. Then Bones threw it over his shoulder. The motion swirled the air around and a few specks of dust flew into my nose. I couldn't hold back - I sneezed. At the last minute, I managed to stifle the sneeze, but it was still impossible to miss.
“What was that?” Bones sputtered. He dropped the bag and began to scan the room. “Is there someone here? Hello? Who's there?!”
Lucie joined him. It was clear he was going to spot me, there was no preventing it.
So I just stood there and waited.
Lucie approached me slowly. She was like a big yellow cur that eventually sniffs out what it wants. When she was right next to me, I reached out my hand to her. I don't know why I did it. Maybe I just didn't want her to discover me first. She flinched, but remained silent. She looked into my eyes, her face tense and horrified.
“Well?” Bones snapped. “Did you find anything?”
Lucie raised her hand and touched my cheek, lightly and quickly, almost guiltily.
“No,” she finally said. “Nothing at all. We must have imagined it.”
"But I definitely heard something!"
“It must have been something outside,” Lucie asserted. “There is nothing here.”
“Well ok, let’s go,” he said, finally, and threw he bag over his shoulder. “We can’t waste any time.”
He headed for the door. Lucie went after him.
I didn’t understand it. Why did she let me be? Why didn’t she tell Bones about me? And why did they run away like that with the discarded food?
I waited a while, consumed with worry as to whether they would return. My legs shook as if I were having a seizure. Only when I was sure they could hold me did I take a step toward the large oak door. I knew it wasn't safe, and certainly not wise, but I couldn't help myself.
The door was surprisingly easy to open. I was as careful as I could be, but it still creaked and groaned like the voices of the tormented. Beyond them I could see nothing but another hall. Inside, a heavy, sweet smell hovered, almost knocking me out. I went to find the source. I don't know how many passageways and rooms I went through - it wasn't relevant, I couldn't stop. The smell grew unbearable; my eyes teared up continuously. Still, I carried on. As I opened the last door, it dawned on me what I might say to the members of the Commission. Would I apologize to them? Would I have the courage to ask them for the answers we've been waiting for for so many years? And how can they possibly work in such a horrible stench?
It took me a few seconds to understand it all. My eyes took in the scene immediately, but my brain couldn't grasp it at first, teetering on the edge like a frightened swimmer suddenly aware of the dizzying emptiness beneath him.
The 13 participants of the Assembly sat around the round table. All of them were quiet, calm and orderly - and they were all dead. Despite the darkness, I could see several of their glowing bare skulls.
I suddenly understood everything - why Bones and Lucie had thrown away all the food, why they worked together in secret, at night, so no one else could see them, and why the servants were so isolated.
It made perfect sense.
I stood in a room full of the dead, weeping piteously, knowing I would never be able to tell the others.
Just as everyone else before me had done.