Book Excerpt: Matthew Salesses' Stunning Debut Novel 'The Hundred-Year Flood'
The following is excerpted from The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses. © 2015 by Matthew Salesses. Published by Little A, August 2015. All Rights Reserved. Published with permission.
The day Tee decided to go to Prague, his girlfriend pulled him aside at a birthday party in Boston. The talk had turned to 9/11. “Stop acting so tragic,” his girlfriend said in his ear. “For God’s sake, others are suffering worse. Your uncle only killed himself. He didn’t die in the towers.” That was when Tee knew he couldn’t stay in America. He downed his IPA and said, “Only?” Everyone was talking about death, but he had to keep quiet. He was filling a container inside of him. Into it, he put the things he couldn’t say—about the seduction of forgetting. When his container was full, he would dump himself out in one dramatic move. A case in point: by the end of that week, he had broken up with his girlfriend and requested a leave of absence.
On the tram back to Boston College from the birthday party, Tee remembered a word his uncle used to like, posturing. Why had that come to him now? His friends were not posturing; was he? As a child he had thought of the word as a topographical feature. His uncle, the pilot, collected maps. There was one map his uncle liked best—a map of the wars in Eastern Europe. His uncle had called Prague a city of survivors, an older, less-posturing Paris. Tee used to point out Prague on globes before he knew what posturing meant, when he simply liked the sound of the word. He’d forgotten that. He could hear his uncle flattening the r, describing spires from above, the glow of roofs. He could feel his uncle toss him into the air, that first night.
He chose Prague for its resistance. A city where, for thousands of years, private lives had withstood the oppression of empires. Both world wars, countless invasions. In the weeks before he left, Tee imagined hiding from the Secret Police, giving up his home to save his ideals. That was what he had to do: resist, move on, leave the familiar behind. It would be his first trip on his own, as he’d gone to college three miles from where he grew up. His first trip not counting his adoption. Prague might be the perfect place, after all: a city that valued anonymity, the desire to be no one and someone at once.
Tee arrived in Prague in late December 2001 and met the artist and the artist’s wife at the turn of the New Year. It snowed that Eve, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. After a late lunch, Tee took the metro to the ruins of the original castle, VyÅ¡ehrad. He carried a bottle of beer in each pocket. He had paid twelve dollars for a monthly transit pass, a dollar per Pilsner Urquell. Water cost slightly more than beer, a fact he noted in his e-mails home. He didn’t miss his friends, though—he wanted to be alone, free of expectations. He stepped out of the metro station and into the wind at the top of the hill. A hundred feet down the path, the walls stretched along either side, keeping out a long-gone foe. At the far end, the Vltava ran below, a dozen feet lower than it would reach in August.
Tee bent his head to an arrow slit, shrinking the world into a guardable space. He imagined an army advancing, simply for something in their sparse world to take. Or maybe to take something back. He imagined a little piece of himself, held captive. He had been in Prague for five snowy days. The sun never came out. He wondered again if he should have gone elsewhere for his semester off. He’d enrolled in a certification course to teach English as a foreign language, but he was already skipping. What if the Czech kids saw his Korean half and had to know where he came from? Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague.
The wind blew at his back. At the far end of the castle grounds, behind the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul where the devil had lost a legendary bet for a soul, Tee stood for a while in a famous cemetery. He watched a boy return to the same statue over and over, a thin, winged girl that couldn’t have meant anything to him. Tee stepped back to give the boy room, or to wonder unobserved. After the boy’s father led him away, Tee touched the wings. They were scaly, almost reptilian. He imagined the boy lifting those wings onto his own back. Making a myth of himself. Later Tee would learn about Queen LibuÅ¡e, who sent out a white horse from VyÅ¡ehrad to look for a king and found a man stooping under a doorframe that would eventually become Kafka’s castle. After that king died, a maidens’ army would fight the men for control of Prague. Beside the cemetery was a prayer maze where children knelt in the center and wished. Tee felt cold with history. He poked a finger in the snow and outlined a man and a woman, a baby slipping out of their arms.
He climbed up and sat on the wall under the flat-bottomed clouds. Below, ancient armies had piled up dead, forever at the edge of what they wanted.
Then Tee was back at his uncle’s wake. His uncle, burned up from crashing his solo plane in a wheat field in New York, had been cremated and kept in a teal urn. Tee’s aunt shrieked with guilt, pressed her forehead to the ceramic. His father buried his face in his shirt. They could no longer hide their affair. The two of them had driven the plane down as effectively as had his uncle’s hands. Yet the a_ air was many years old. Why had his uncle given up at last?
A piece of brick scratched free under Tee’s nails and tumbled toward the water.
He wandered down the hill, through an arch in the wall. A flash of color in the dark: a picture of _____ reworks and, underneath, in English, NEW YEAR EVE. In a day, Tee reminded himself, it would be 2002. Other announcements lay scattered on the cobblestone, all in Czech. He wondered why this single English flyer was left on the wall. The type of everyday strangeness that thrived in Prague. He folded the flyer into his pocket.
When he reached the city center, it was dark but not late. Winter curtained Prague at four in the afternoon—so cold sometimes it was like the city was searching out the gaps in his clothing. Though other times he would stumble upon a hidden garden, as if pumped through the arteries of a secret heart.
In his pocket, his fingers found a tiny piece of scaled wing. At some point he had started taking “souvenirs” from the places he went, coasters he doodled on, a loose chunk of brick, severed buttons. He remembered lying in bed after the birthday party in Boston, a candle in his hand, wondering why he had taken it—the number 2. Later, on his first day at the artist’s house, he would steal a pewter Golem, just bigger than a Monopoly piece.
He needed coffee. He needed to believe his exhaustion was only jet lag, though he had woken on the cold floor that morning, as his father would do sometimes. He had slept late despite the rooster that crowed periodically, a rooster in a city in winter. He heard its pecking in his head—shush, shush, shush—its beak slicing vainly through the snow.
In a cafÃ© down a side street, he let the caffeine wind his spring. He wondered how to make a start: apply at the Prague Post (the local English newspaper); work at an English bookstore; commit to teaching, after all; write a novel; become a tea connoisseur? As if one of those tasks would open a door. It wasn’t about work. After his uncle’s air limo business sold, Tee’s share of the inheritance (a token for a son-like nephew) would be nearly three hundred thousand dollars.
By ten, he had finished his third cup. He trembled as he signed the check. In the dark, on the cobblestone, he didn’t know which way to turn. He smelled smoke, heard a siren somewhere. His heart raced. After an hour he stumbled upon the familiar glass doors of his hotel, as if by coincidence. No one waited inside. He remembered skimming over Boston in the cockpit of his uncle’s water plane, so completely separate from the city below. In the glass doors stood his reflection. The container inside of him filling. Finally he made his way through the web of streets to a beer stall near Old Town Square. As he waited for his Budvar, he heard the explosions, at last. He followed a woman a little older than he. When they reached the crowd, he saw the fireworks. Not high up in the air, but shot horizontally down streets, just overhead. He pushed through the mob under the Orloj astronomical clock, under the streaks that burst into sparks and ash. Inside his coat pocket, his fist tightened on the scaly feather. A stranger slapped his back. The Orloj rang in the New Year with its famous dance of figurines. People sprayed champagne, shook hands, passed bottles, sang Czech folk songs, pulled him into crisscrossing arms. He drank anything he got his hands on. A liquor that tasted like Christmas, which he would later know as Becherovka. A jam jar of homemade slivovice. The champagne wet his clothes, stuck to his skin, and suddenly he wanted everything off. He felt dizzy with the idea of starting out clean of his past, like a baby. Dumping his container for good.
He slipped off his shirt and stepped into a small opening where two businessmen shot industrial-grade fireworks over TÃ½n Church. When he got down to socks and boxers, the crowd cheered him, the foreigner half-naked. He swayed and shuffled to the side to catch his balance. Someone copied his steps, making a dance. Someone handed him another Budvar. He wriggled, trying to force the heat from the alcohol through his limbs. The wind stung his back. He drank and shook and drank and shook—until finally the cheers faded. As if, in the end, he was only odd or sad. People returned to their circles. Hands drew back. Tee shook harder. The glass bottle steamed in his palm. As he kicked o_ his socks, a couple approached, a shabby-looking man and a much taller, graceful woman, and waved him over. The man pulled a hood over shaggy hair and ducked under a Roman candle. The woman pointed at the sky and caught Tee’s gaze. He was going to cry, but why? When he had gathered his clothes, the woman turned to him with dizzyingly blue eyes and asked if he spoke English. “We think you should be painted,” she said with no introduction or self consciousness. Tee picked up a fallen piece of a rocket, as if it still had the energy for another burst. He added it to his pile of clothes, dusting them with ash, and followed her.