An award-winning author and an Amazon best-seller under a different pen name, Kate Pavelle’s romance Swordfall made the USA Today’s “Must-read romance of 2015” list. A prolific writer and avid history enthusiast, she lives with her family in Pittsburgh. This is her first appearance in Heart’s Kiss magazine.
THE RIVER PEARL
by Kate Pavelle
The modern tarmac road rolled under the wheels of his motorcycle all the way from Prague to Tábor. Karel navigated the ancient cobblestones across Tábor’s city square toward the famous Hussite Inn, where he ate a quick lunch, stretched his legs, and consulted the map again. River Berounka was…this way. He’d turn east in the next town, and hoped he’d find a real road instead of the unpaved mess of country lanes he grew up with in the south of the Czech countryside.
He’d see Iveta soon. He would enjoy the way her pale cheeks were framed by a waterfall of long, dark hair. Her changeable eyes, not quite blue and not quite green, were eyes that seldom cooled with displeasure. Her smile was his sunshine, the raison d’etre of his efforts to please her, entertain her…to court her.
As much as he flushed with anticipation at the thought of Iveta’s laughter, his gut roiled at the thought of meeting Iveta’s brother. She thought he hung the moon, and they spent every school break at the keep where she was born twenty-three years ago. Long summer holidays were, after all, the true benefit of teaching teenagers how to write and how to read with a new level of intellectual intent.
According to her latest piece of pastel correspondence that, when he held it to his nose and closed his eyes, reminded him of her light, floral perfume, Iveta wanted Karel to meet her brother and declare his intentions to be honorable. If he passed her brother’s discerning taste, he would get to meet Iveta’s mother and step-father.
Had it not been for the necessity of keeping his motorcycle steady, Karel would’ve been shaking like a leaf. Count Otakar Sazavsky must have been in his early thirties at the very least, maybe even older, judged by the fact that he had served in the Great War. He had traveled the world and seen terrible things, and he surely had no patience for all the young men that vied for Iveta’s attention.
Karel donned his padded leather helmet despite the August heat, adjusted his goggles, and revved up his bike again. Sun burned through his white linen shirt, sweat gathered under the waistband of his woolen trousers, but he soon made his own wind which took the sting out of the summer sun.
Every kilometer took him closer to her. He crossed the Berounka River and turned east, down one of the rustic local roads that wound along the riverbed, past the ancient sandstone bluffs sentinels and through the blind turns and dangerous curves.
He pulled aside for a wagon drawn by horses, and turned off his engine so it would not to spook them.
He passed a pair of bicyclists, and gave a wide berth to the villagers walking home from the fields.
As his own shadow stretched before his machine, and his stomach reminded him it was close to suppertime, Karel spied the landmark church and graveyard. He turned past a field of poppies, down a one-cart lane, toward the river.
He didn’t know what to expect. Her telegram had invited him for a long weekend to celebrate her brother’s birthday. He’d stay at the keep.
COME – STOP – BROTHERS – BDAY – STOP….
He scanned the flimsy piece of paper. It was small enough to just about cover the palm of his hand, but the message in it filled his heart to the brim. Iveta’s older, reclusive brother’s birthday has come up. He was invited to attend. He’d be questioned and poked and prodded, no doubt, to determine whether he was suitable, but Iveta specified that the visit was informal, and to pack light. She sent kisses.
Plus the address. And the date, naturally. She had not used a telephone, which told him the keep probably didn’t have one.
He passed through a village devoid of utility poles and electrical wires. Just the familiar and placid cows grazed out in the hills, and the occasional riding horse pranced in a fenced-in pasture. Steadings flashed by. Red tile roofs alternated with the straw thatch that reflected the westering sun, as though the daystar was spinning straw into gold.
The village ended as quickly as it began, and a valley opened before him like a great, green bowl. Down below, the river wound its way through, a glistening fish skin that drew him, tempted him. For a head-spinning second he felt as though he could’ve reached out and touched its cool, reflective surface.
In the middle of the bowl, sheltered by shade trees, sprawled a two-story keep. Its traditional rectangular courtyard suggested the presence of cow byres and outbuildings, topped with a red roof tile and yellow stucco walls that gleamed like a beacon through the greenery. A narrow road lead right to it, curving like a letter J at the end.
Karel took a deep breath. Iveta liked her brother—surely he wasn’t going to be some kind of a scary monster.
He gathered his resolve, revved up his bike, and gunned it down the hill.
On any other day, Iveta would’ve been on the river, boating or swimming or minding her half-brother’s fish.
She smoothed her skirt nervously and checked whether the seams that ran down the back of her silk stockings were straight. Then she settled into the stuffed chair in the front parlor and picked up her book again, trying for an air of casual nonchalance.
“You worry too much,” Otakar said. “You aren’t even reading. Give it up and go do something useful!” His voice brimmed with amusement.
“But I’m serious about him,” she said. She closed the book and set it on the oval coffee table. Its legs were slightly curved, just like the legs of the rest of the furniture Otakar’s father had ordered from Vienna for their mother all those years ago.
Back when soft curves reflected the life they had been leading, before the war, when life moved at the slow pace of a team of horses, bringing barrels of fish to market. The world had sped up around them now, all straight lines and chrome ashtrays and loud, electric tramways whose wires sent sparks over the main streets of Prague.
Her brother leaned back in what used to be his father’s reading chair, picked up a cigarette holder, inserted a cigarette, and used a lighter made of chased silver to light it. He inhaled and held the smoke, then let the air out slowly, in a long and even stream. He sat tall and still, as though he was made of stone and the gray, three-piece suit had been carved out of the same block.
That stillness, he had brought that back with him.
She never questioned it—she’d been seeing him grow still ever since she was a little girl. But she did question his standards when it came to her suitors.
“He needs to be worthy of you,” Otakar said, quickly, as though she knew what was on her mind. “I’m the last one, you know that. Whomever you marry, he must be worthy of this place. Of this keep, and the lands and our tenants, certainly—but most of all, he must be worthy of you.”
Iveta pressed her lips together and picked her book up again. The translation into Czech came out just two weeks ago, and Karel had it set aside by the book seller. He didn’t read French and loathed German. Letting her have the first read was a gesture of noble self-sacrifice.
Before she finished the paragraph, a familiar roar of the motorcycle sounded its clarion call from up the hill.
“So, you are an officer?” Otakar asked over dinner. Karel, who was about to take another forkful of the succulent pike, set it down again. His host seemed intent on disturbing his every bite.
“Yes. Infantry lieutenant, ordonnance.” Talking of the importance of keeping his unit supplied with fresh socks, or biscuits, or canned meat, would be of little interest to one of the few survivors of the siege at Pao.
The highest-elevation imperial outpost, Ferdinand the Second decided to defend Pao against the Allies as a grand gesture of maintaining the high ground. Thousands died while defending a village of Alpine sheep-herders—locals and troops alike. Only a few of Otakar Harant’s regiment survived.
Talking of socks? Ridiculous. “I’m just a reservist,” he said humbly. “I only teach Czech at the Charles University,” he added in an effort to claim something of worth in his life. Something other than being a spoiled only son of a country butcher who’d made a fortune through hard work and shrewd investment.
“It’s always good to know an ordonnance officer, even if that officer is a city boy,” Otakar said with a serious nod. Karel thought he’d hear war stories now, tales of starvation and cut-off toes and a swim across the freezing Pao River. Even those uncomfortable tales would have been preferable to Count Harant putting him under the looking glass.
But he did no such thing. He leaned back, straightening as if affected by an old ache. Then he sipped some more of the white Moravian wine, and smiled. “I see you ride a motorcycle. How does it compare to riding a horse?”
“Must you always quiz my friends about their horses?” Iveta said from across the table, fashionably bored, as though the conversation wasn’t, in fact, about her.
“Uh…” Karel stammered. “I’m afraid I don’t ride. When we are out on maneuvers, I ride a bicycle.”
“A bicycle,” Otakar repeated, rolling the word around in his mouth. “How very unusual. Do you fear horses?”
Karel looked him straight in the eye. “I do, ever since I got dragged by a team of them as a lad, and almost died. Horses are kind, and I love feeding them sugar cubes, but they are also unpredictable creatures. And besides,” he said, suddenly no longer caring what Iveta’s brother thought of his irrational fear, “horses have no place in warfare. It’s unkind. In fact, it is cruel to bring them somewhere as loud and chaotic as a battlefield. It’s not their fault they spook. I happen to think that spooking is an eminently sensible reaction.”
Judging from Count Harant’s impassive expression, he just blew his chance at courting Iveta. They wouldn’t get married unless she was willing to elope. They had discussed the option, but that was merely because his noveau riche parents demanded an unreasonably generous dowry.
One that was out of Iveta’s reach.
He suppressed a sigh and took a polite sip of wine. It would’ve been nice to have at least one set of in-laws on their side.
The sun set at a quarter to nine, leaving sweltering heat behind, the kind which even the tall trees around the steading couldn’t dissipate. Karel turned up the wick of his kerosene lantern, and took stock of his bedroom. Thick walls of whitewashed fieldstone, a wooden floor painted in a carpet-like design, and two windows standing wide open, both the inner and the outer panes securely latched against a sudden gust of wind.
Not that the windows helped much. The air stood still and heavy, like before a storm.
Karel glanced at his bed and then the canvas bag which crumpled by the open wardrobe. His clothes, the little he had brought, hung within, freshly ironed. He would have to thank the housekeeper in the morning.
Tomorrow was Saturday, still a workday for the country folk who tended the animals and the fields. He and Iveta would help celebrate Count Harant’s birthday, and if all went well, he’d stay till Sunday. If not, he would set out in the afternoon and reconnect with Iveta once she came back to Prague.
Karel musings led to pacing, and pacing brought him to the open window. He looked into the darkness, where the view was obscured by the thick crown of a tree so high, its gnarled, pruned limbs reached the house and the still leaves brushed the stucco wall next to his window.
The call of a blackbird broke the murky stillness. Karel brightened. No blackbird would ever sing after sunset.
He pursed his lips, and answered in kind.
Soon after, the tree trembled, leaves rustling, thin branches scraping against the wall. He startled and leaned to peer into the darkness. A useless gesture, he berated himself, and tiptoed to the wardrobe to retrieve the lantern.
He brought it to the window, careful not to jar it and break the fragile mantle that glowed with light. He very much doubted he’d see a cat.
Iveta sat on the branch near the window, wearing shorts and a white camisole. Her bare legs dangled into the black abyss beneath.
“Don’t fall,” he whispered, leaning out with the light, curious to see the path she had taken.
“I’m holding on,” she said, and shook a thinner branch to demonstrate. “Are you coming down?”
In the dark, down a tree he barely knew? “You’re insane,” he said, worried sick. “You can’t even see what you’re doing!”
She let out a quiet, warm laugh. “I’ve been climbing in and out of these bedrooms since I was five, maybe six.”
“Your brother will kill you.”
She looked up, squinting against the glowing light. “Who do you think taught me?” She blinked and turned away. “That lamp is blinding me. If you don’t want to come down and catch fireflies with me, maybe I could come up.”
Karel wavered. Her coming to his room wouldn’t go over well with her brother, and him being afraid to climb a tree wouldn’t do much to impress her. He came to seek Count Harant’s approval, true, but his first and foremost mission was to remain in Iveta’s good graces.
How hard could it be? He’d done his share of shenanigans, back in the village when he was a boy. Once they sent him to the city, he’d grown soft.
The thought rankled.
“Let me set the lamp down,” he whispered. “You’ll have to tell me where to put my feet.”
Iveta’s heart soared. She knew Karel had it in him, both the inventiveness to hang the lamp off the stable window latch, and the courage to follow her down the tree. To trust her.
Bare feet would’ve been better than leather-soled shoes, but the old apple tree’s bark was rough, and the path down was not difficult. When he finally stood in the short grass next to her, his breath came in fast, excited puffs, and her heart quickened at the knowledge that he had done this for her alone.
She took his hand. “Come along,” she said. “There’s a place I want you to see.”
The moon was shrouded by heavy clouds and the landscape around them was a study in shades of darkness. “I trust you know where you’re going,” he said, his voice now low, but not a whisper anymore.
“I’m barefoot, and we are on grass. We're going in the direction of the river, down a smooth hill. The grass will get tall just about now.” As soon as she said it, grown blades whipped her thighs and the fragrance of wild flowers and mint filled the air. “The soil is wet here,” she said, “so the grass gets scythed just twice a year.”
The sound of water falling over a weir softened the darkness of the night, and with it, small and pale green lights began to light up the tall blades that whisper in their passage. “Look,” she said. “Look ahead, over there.” She nudged him, moving his hand to the right.
They stopped. She expected him to say something, but Karel remained silent. He stood there in the dark, his shoes surely soaked by dew and the ground water that seeped through the turf. His silence was as though he was reading a story, or listening to music. And, perhaps, what he saw would inspire a story, or a new melody which he would try out on his piano.
Iveta’s heart fell in disappointment when he let go of her hand—but then it swelled with giddy, illicit pleasure as he slid his arm around her waist, and pulled her in. His warmth was welcome, here in the coolness by the river. And, as they watched the thousands of fireflies signal in the darkness, she cherished the gift of his presence and the steady heartbeat that was just slightly slower than hers.
“It’s like a painting,” he said finally. “It changes constantly, like art. Except if someone painted it just like this, the critics would shoot it down as ‘too pretty’.”
His voice was soft and thoughtful, just the way she loved it. The way he spoke of books, or music, or fireflies stirred something deep in her, a place of curiosity and warmth she had never known existed before.
Because it’s hard to feel curious and warm while sewing white work shirts for her father, and while helping her mother in the kitchen because they had to let the maid go. It’s been just hand-to-mouth survival for the last two years, but at least she had her teaching job.
Now, though—now she also had Karel, and she had that bright flame within, which he had kindled with his words. Man isn’t alive by bread alone. Now she knew what those words were all about.
“I love it here,” she said. “And I love that you’re here with me.”
The river underscored the silence with its low hum, and she realized the frogs and the crickets fell silent. Iveta turned toward Karel and looked up just as he looked down. His face was a slightly paler dark in the middle of the night. It came closer, then closer still and she felt the whisper of his breath caress her cheek.
She leaned in. Their lips met, brushing hesitantly. She shifted her wet feet as she leaned up, into it.
This was magic.
She parted her lips in a silent invitation, feeling Karel shift and pull her in, an embrace of gentle warmth. So gentle, had she painted it, critics would tear it down as ‘too pretty’.”
But she didn’t care for critics. She didn’t startle when a lightning flashed across the sky and a bright crack of thunder followed right after.
Wind picked up. First drops of rain, fat with summer heat, splattered on her bare shoulders, soaked her camisole, ran down her hair and into her eyes and there she was, she and Karel, still embracing. Still kissing.
“Maybe we should turn in,” he said as they broke for air.
She nodded, not knowing whether he could see her, but she took his hand again and tugged toward the beacon of light that hung outside his window.
That kiss—and the lightning. A curious relief washed over her, as though the thunder and the rain drummed their benediction.
The morning broke blue and bright as they broke their fast with the simple fare of coffee, bread, and strawberry jam. Iveta couldn’t decide whether the glint of amusement in her brother’s eyes was real, or just a figment of her imagination.
“So what shall we do on your birthday, other than eat Mrs. Janko’s delicious roast goose?” she asked, diverting from the possible discovery of her nighttime expedition.
Otakar straightened his back and peered out the open window. “It’s a beautiful day. Gorgeous, in fact.” He beamed a rare smile, one that made Iveta’s heart stutter in apprehension. “I propose we go swimming! The river looks particularly lively after last night’s rain.”
“For strong swimmers only,” Iveta cautioned. She had no idea how Karel would fare in the currents beneath the weir, where the water twisted and spun in treacherous ways. Yet she couldn’t stick up for him too openly and sting his masculine pride. Nor could she ask her brother to go soft on a man whom he already thought of as a pansy city-slicker.
Except he wasn’t. He was country-born, and he had climbed the tree. Both down and up, both dry and wet, both shod and barefoot. And she still would’ve given much to know whether Otakar knew of last night’s adventure.
An hour later, as they walked toward the river in bathing suits hidden under regular clothes, each of them with a rolled-up towel, Iveta aimed for a point away from the wetlands. “No sense getting our shoes wet,” she said, when she really meant “The grass is still flattened where we walked last night.”
“The grass is wet regardless,” Otakar said, but followed her lead.
The skirt of her sundress protected her thighs from the stinging whips of tall blades and heavy seed heads this time around. The daisies bloomed next to the blood-red splotches of wolf poppies and blue flax, and she briefly considered making a wreath like she used to years ago. Being here with Karel filled her with nostalgia; it made her think of events and treats long-forgotten.
Like the fair, when gypsies were passing through in their bright wagons, telling fortunes and juggling to the sound of their wailing violins.
The smell of Easter bread, as the boys from the village came around to chase the girls, whipping their thighs with canes festooned with ribbons, and asking them for their decorated Easter eggs.
The white flowers of wild ranunculus that bloomed on the river the day of her cousin’s wedding, tethered to the ice-carved boulders, trailing downstream like so much fluffy gauze. Little, star-shaped flowers massing on floating stems, offset by tiny leaves. “The river is wearing a bridal veil,” people had said as though it had been an omen, a whisper of the past as ancient and venerable as the fertility rites of Easter.
The river didn’t bloom often.
Otakar nudged her. They were standing by the bank, and she barely noticed, so heavily did the past lean upon her. “Well then, are you coming in?”
“Oh…yes. Of course I am!”
Karel peeked at Iveta covertly as she undid the buttons of her yellow sundress, shrugged the straps off her shoulders, and let the cotton fall to her feet. He had never seen her in anything other than a prim skirt and stockings until last night, and the vision of the woman he loved in something less formal—and more adventurous—made him think of the trips they would take as they grew old together.
Her blue bathing suit, the modern kind without a skirt, made him grateful for being near the riverbank. He had no desire to embarrass himself before her brother, and therefore he shed his shirt and trousers and waded into the river first.
“Be careful!” Iveta called out. “It drops off in a few steps!”
He stopped when the cold water reached his waist. The current was fast, yet surprisingly clear, considering last night’s rain. When Karel turned, he saw Iveta tiptoe down the grassy hill, with her brother behind her.
Otakar paused, removed his wristwatch, and took a few steps back to gently place it in his shoe. As he turned away from them, Karel gasped. His back was criss-crossed with scars as intricate as a rail road map near a large city. Long, discolored ropes of scar tissue wound their way to imaginary places. Some flesh was missing.
Then Otakar turned. Their eyes met. Karel didn’t mean to stare. His uncle, after all, came back from the Great War short of one arm, and Karel knew how irritated he got at people’s pity and sidelong glances.
“Ouch,” Karel said, just loud enough for his words to crest the sound of the river. Otakar shrugged, ran down the hill, and plunged into the flow. “Iveta told me you were at Pao,” Karel said curtly. He didn’t ask what happened. Stories like that were private.
“I was,” Count Harant said, “and now I’m here, and we’re going to swim across the river. Just like I swam across the Pao River all those years ago.”
Karel eyed the swollen flow of Berounka dubiously.
“Yeah.” Karel didn’t mind admitting fear. “But if you and Iveta do this all the time, then I won’t be left behind.”
“Good man.” Count Harant slapped his shoulder and disappeared under the surface. He emerged a body-length downstream from what would’ve been Iveta’s wake.
Karel pushed off the gritty rock that was under his foot. Cold water enveloped him, tugged on him. He aimed straight across, knowing the current would take him downstream.
Swimming in a pond at home was a warmer and a more peaceful experience than this, but the river wasn’t wide. Side-stroke propelled him to the middle, where the flow moved at a fast clip.
He breathed, in and out, fast and ragged and desperate for every sip of air. The cold water was like a vise, squeezing his chest, ripping his breath out in great, gasping exhales.
He pushed on.
Iveta did this. Otakar as well, and he’d crossed the torrid flow that came off a glacier. He had swum it in full winter clothing, fully armed.
Karel wouldn’t be left behind.
Berounka wasn’t glacial…she was soft and merely cool, as intractable as a horse, and just as pretty.
The stream slowed, and Karel realized the roar of the weir was further away. Now, being carried away on a smooth sheet of water, the river was an almost tranquil place.
He glanced upstream and to the other bank. Iveta stood on a rock, long hair plastered to her back. Her brother just climbed up the bank, tall and suddenly more human, more approachable. Karel was seeing his real self for the first time, he was sure of it—
—and the river sucked him under.
Round and round,
His lungs burned with his urgent need to exhale.
He wouldn’t, for an exhale would cause a gasp, a lungful of water he didn’t need.
He didn’t fight it—he stroked down, to the bottom of the vortex. He had heard it said that when one is pulled into a vortex, trying to swim out is useless.
“Reach the bottom, then swim to the side. Downstream, away from the current so you don’t get pulled in again.” Who said that? A memory of a voice from his past? Or from the present? But he followed it. He obeyed.
He grabbed a stone, then another, clawing his way along the bottom. He pushed off with his foot and exhaled, kicking hard, mouth open toward heaven.
The raucous noise of water was upon him again as he breached the surface, and air had never tasted as sweet.
“Karel!” Iveta ran along the bank. “Here!”
He struck out, just few strokes away from a steep bank, where the riverbend ate away at the ancient, fertile soil, exposing roots and rocks alike.
She helped him clamber up as her brother watched on from upstream, the way an emperor watches a gladiator struggle in an arena.
Only once he felt the solid ground under him and fell on his hands and knees, did he realize he’d been holding something all along.
An oyster shell.
“Look,” he said, as though in jest, “I brought you a present!” He remained upon his knees, but straightened and slowly extended his offering to Iveta.
She fell to her knees and pulled him into an embrace. “You idiot.” Then she kissed him, warm lips chasing off the river’s chill, and never mind her brother watching. “You did great,” she said. “The first time’s always the hardest.” She accepted his stupid, childish gift with surprising glee. “Thank you for the oyster. Just wait until Otakar sees it!”
The swim back was easier, both because Karel knew what to expect, and because he had left the vortex far behind. They walked to the house in a companionable silence, after which Karel changed into his dry trousers, and set out to bask on the sun-warmed flagstones in the keep’s courtyard, much like a cat.
Later, once the sun headed west in the sky and they were all dressed again, Otakar invited them to the library. Karel settled on the leather sofa next to Iveta, letting his eyes feast on the shelves rich with uncounted volumes of books. The sun peeked in through the small window, giving the old wood a warm glow.
“Lights?” Iveta asked, and her brother nodded, settled into the wooden office chair behind his desk, and lit the two oil lamps that stood on it, one on each side. He stood up again and came around to a side table, where he poured out three snifters of brandy. Then he pulled out his pocket knife. “Iveta, may I see your oyster, please?”
To Karel’s surprise, she had it in her pocket, wrapped in an embroidered linen handkerchief. It looked gnarled and bumpy, shaped like a small fist. She handed it over.
Otakar opened up the oyster with practiced ease, not even bothering to sit down. He poked through the folds of pale flesh. “Ahhh…here you go!” To Karel’s surprise, he pulled out a large baroque pearl, all bumpy and luminous with numerous deposits of lucre.
He wiped it clean on the edge of the fine linen, and tipped it off the knife’s edge into the palm of his sister’s hand. It was almost pink in color, clear and translucent and as big as her pinky nail. Just like Iveta’s skin, he thought, but then he banished the thought as frivolous.
These were modern times. Surely his adventure was just a string of coincidences.
“Do you like it?” Karel asked instead.
Iveta nodded, seemingly incapable of words. Only her eyes shone, the way he imagined they must have glistened when she first happened up on a meadow full of fireflies.
“What would you like to do with it?” he asked. He wanted a word, something, anything.
Her brother cleared her throat. “My mother has an engagement ring with a pearl from this river. Our grandmother had one, too.”
Karel’s breath got stuck in his chest. Iveta spun, her eyes now barely holding tears. She was looking at her brother, and he was looking not just at her, but at both of them.
The pair of them.
“Well?” Otakar said. “I propose a toast. If you wish to court my sister, I wish you all the luck in the world. She’s quite a handful, and I don’t imagine your life with her will always be easy.” He tempered his words with a fond smile.
Then he looked at Iveta, long and hard, as though he saw her for the first time. His voice trembled when he spoke up again. “I think the river will bloom on your wedding day.”
Copyright © 2017 by Kate Pavelle.
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