The ferryman watched the two men waiting for the boat. One was in a policie uniform, the other was not, but that was all the ferryman could see. He wouldn’t know more until he could read the sign on the riverbank wall that said Výtoň.
The ferryman, who called himself Jan, pulled back on the throttle as the boat passed beneath Vyšehrad Bridge. The dark steel beams of the railroad crossing were bundled clumsily in blue tarpaulin. Jan shook his head in disgust. It wasn’t that he cared much about the bridge’s beauty. No, he shook his head because the bridge was closed. Pedestrians, meanwhile, still needed to cross the Vltava in scenic fashion, which meant the ferry had suddenly become a popular mode for traversing central Prague, much to Jan’s dismay.
It was early morning, and a light wind licked the water’s surface, spraying Jan with frigid spit. It had been cold—abnormally so for spring—for several days now, and a gray ceiling of clouds made it feel even colder that morning. Both the river and the embankment were empty, but for Jan, it was a welcome break from the recent deluge of noisy passengers.
He was soon close enough to shore to spot the dark crags above Vyšehrad tunnel, crowned by crumbling medieval fortress walls. Up a hill was a dense forest of evergreens and the gothic spires of a basilica, under which rested the remains of the notable dead.
As he neared the embankment, the faces of the two men materialized. He recognized the policista as Miloš, whom he had met in a pub when he first arrived in town. He did not recognize the other man, whose head was lowered, but he could see that his arms were bound behind his back. The policista waved at Jan affably, but Jan was focused on docking. He cut the ignition and spun the boat gently until portside was parallel with the embankment and the bow faced south.
When the boat was docked, Miloš smiled and shouted: “So, maybe I should have drove. I didn’t know you to be so slow!” Jan ignored Miloš and hooked some rope to a rusted cleat.
“Good morning, Miloš,” said Jan finally, once the boat was tethered to shore. “To the precinct?” Jan hopped onto the dock. Miloš flashed a big smile and offered him a hand while still maintaining a grip on his prisoner. Jan stared at the bound man. He was thin, and his features appeared tired and his eyes moist, suggesting a residue of tears. Jan felt a slight flicker of sympathy.
“Actually,” said the policista, “I thought maybe to the pub.” To Jan’s ears, Miloš’ English was almost perfect, although he had a tendency, Jan noted, of relying on certain words. Pub was one.
“Are you buying?” asked Jan. Miloš laughed loudly. His gray eyes beamed beneath his deeply crinkled forehead.
“Actually, no,” said Miloš. “I have seen you vanish beer like magic. When anybody says Americans cannot drink, I tell them, actually, they should meet my friend the ferryman.”
Miloš also had a habit of calling everyone his friend. Jan was not Miloš’ friend. Miloš was not Jan’s friend. Jan had no interest in making friends.
“I need to check the engine,” said Jan. “I thought I heard a noise.”
“Quickly,” said Miloš. “Actually, no. Take the time. I don’t know if this kretén can swim. I don’t want to have to rescue him!”
“Does he speak English?” called Jan.
“He doesn’t speak Czech,” said Miloš, before turning to his prisoner. “Není to pravý kretén?”
Jan could understand some Czech and could even speak a little. But he had resolved when he moved to Prague to forego learning the language. He wanted to fit in enough to go unnoticed but not enough to feel as if he belonged. It wouldn’t be exile otherwise.
“At least, as far as I can tell, he can’t,” said Miloš. “Actually, he’s Russian, but he might as well be mute.”
“Good,” said Jan. “I think we will get along.”
The noise must have been in Jan’s head, because the engine was fine. He motioned for the policista and the Russian to step onboard. He jumped on after and moved to the helm. Miloš and the Russian sat under the awning in the passenger compartment.
“Actually, maybe he can be cut loose,” said Miloš. “I don’t want to be responsible if he drowns!”
“Okay,” said Jan. He reached beneath the wheel and pulled out a large boating knife. Miloš laughed uproariously.
“You live in Česko how long, and you think we are third world country?” Miloš withdrew a key from his vest and unlocked the Russian’s handcuffs. “Don’t even think about jumping!” he said sharply, turning to the Russian. “I, myself, was this close to making national swimming club, and the ferryman over there,” said Miloš, pointing to Jan, “see how ugly and hairy he is. He is half river otter. Do you know this word? Otter. Vydra.”
Jan set the knife down before pushing the boat off the platform. He had to wait for a group of geese to decamp from near shore before he could leave, so he watched the Russian’s large, somewhat feverish eyes glance around the boat. Jan knew he wouldn’t find anything of interest. The boat itself was small. The passenger compartment consisted of two wooden benches that could fit three or four passengers each, although there was space on the deck for maybe three or four more. The helm was in the stern; a tight, toaleta-sized enclosure, with nothing but an oversized wheel and a small storage locker.
“To Smíchov?” called Jan, as he finally guided the boat from shore.
“No, take us to headquarters,” said Miloš, rolling his eyes. “Of course, Smíchov. Hey, actually, do you have any beers?”
Jan reached into the locker below the wheel, grabbed a Kofola, and tossed it to Miloš.
“Come on. I know you have beers hiding under there. I’m not going to bust you up for that!” Nevertheless, Miloš cracked open the soda and drank it in one go. “Actually, no, this is good. I was really thirsty!”
“What about him?”
“Is he thirsty?” Jan held up a second soda.
“I’m not his mouth. I don’t know. Ask him.”
“Are you thirsty?” asked Jan, looking over at the Russian. “Mám žízeň?”
“Máš,” corrected Miloš, leaning back in his seat and laughing. “You just ask if you are thirsty! You have been here how long? Six months?”
Jan ignored Miloš and called, “žízeň?”
The Russian did not respond.
The ferry crossed back beneath Vyšehrad Bridge. Up ahead, the river was split by a small wooded island, cut with man-made tracks. Jan couldn’t see anyone on the island. It looked quiet and, to him, rather serene. But nothing was ever the way it seemed. He imagined the island would soon be mobbed by loud day-trippers, and he knew he would have to search for serenity elsewhere.
Jan had one eye on the water and one eye on Miloš’ muddy boot resting on the passenger bench when the policista’s radio went off. He heard some back and forth in Czech, which he couldn’t understand, but he watched Miloš stand up and assume a serious expression.
“Pull it over,” shouted the policista.
“Pull what over?”
“The boat. Quickly as you can.”
“Official business. I will tell you later, my friend. Dock it there.” The policista pointed to an old fisherman’s platform. Jan did as we was told and maneuvered the boat expertly. While he did, he heard the policista whisper something into his radio and watched him step toward the edge of the boat.
“What about him?” Jan motioned to the Russian. The Russian’s eyes had grown more alert during the exchange.
“Actually, I am sorry, my friend, but I am going to ask favor. I am going to ask you to stay here. I’ll totally come back for him. Is emergency. You understand?”
Miloš grabbed the Russian’s wrist and cuffed him to a post on the right gunwale. The Russian followed the movements without resistance.
“Here is key,” said Miloš, handing Jan the key to the handcuffs.
“Are you kidding?” said Jan. “I’m not policie. I have a job!”
“I am sorry, my friend. Quickly, I will be back, and actually, I must say today is too cold for anybody to take the ferry.”
Jan wanted to argue, but Miloš was leaning over the side of the boat, as if he was about to jump into the black water.
“At least tell me what he did.”
“Him?” said Miloš, looking at the Russian and smiling. “He’s Russian.”
Before Jan could dock the boat completely, the policista leapt from the ferry and onto the fisherman’s platform. He sprinted up a hill and out of view.
Jan had half a mind to continue making his routes up and down the Vltava, but he imagined his passengers might be somewhat unsettled by the Russian chained to his boat. So he docked, sat at the helm, opened his locker, and grabbed a beer.
“Pivo?” he asked the Russian. As he did, Jan realized he had learned far more Czech than he ever intended. The language was becoming second nature. He could no longer drown it out, and he was starting to feel closer to it and to its speakers, which was the last thing he wanted when he decided to move to Prague. Jan was sick—literally sick—of the forced connection and constant commotion in America. He longed to sever every false bond. He wanted to be on the outside, free from the unbearable noise. Mimo. Yes, he knew far too many Czech words. But, to be fair, Jan thought, pivo was long established in his vocabulary.
The Russian looked at the beer but did not respond. Jan reached back into his locker and fished out a packet of jerky.
“Bilkoviny?” asked Jan, flexing his flabby bicep theatrically. “Ivan Drago?”
A look of recognition formed on the Russian’s face, and he spoke in a heavy accent, “Rocky Balboa.”
Jan held out a leaf of dried meat. “Yes?” Ano?”
This time the Russian shook his head.
Jan sipped his warm beer and ate his salty snack. The sun was beginning to break through the ceiling of clouds, so he removed his jacket. As he did, he noticed the Russian watching him intently. He felt strangely vulnerable. Pretending to tie his shoe, he bent over and grabbed his knife. He placed it in his pocket.
For some time, Jan sat, trying to listen to the silence, but the sky had gradually opened up, and even in the cool and bracing air, the sun had some force. After days of thick cloud cover, he was not used to it. He felt lightheaded and hazy. The pivo didn’t help.
He wanted to be under the awning, so he stood up and moved to the passenger compartment across from the Russian. It was the closest he’d been to the man, and he could see shallow creases running across his forehead like a map. The Russian’s eyes followed Jan as he sunk into his seat.
“Policie?” asked the Russian.
Jan laughed. “Ne.”
“Why Prague?” asked the Russian, in heavily accented but perfectly clear English.
“You speak English?” asked Jan in surprise.
“Some,” said the Russian. “If I must.”
“Why didn’t you before?”
“Stupid policeman did not ask.”
“Why were you arrested?”
“Like I say, stupid policeman.” The Russian paused. He scratched at his handcuffed wrist. “Why in Prague?”
It was Jan’s turn to pause. “I’m in exile.”
“Eeeks-zile—what is this?”
“Banished,” said Jan, even though he knew that wasn’t the right word. But he didn’t know how to explain self-exile to the Russian—or to anyone else for that matter.
The Russian paused again to consider. “Banish,” he said. “I am too banished.” And for the first time, the Russian smiled.
“From where? Russia? Your home?”
“Russkij not my home.”
“Is Prague your home?”
The Russian shook his head, “No, Prague I stay. Nepostojannyj. For only now. There is no more home.” He shrugged, as if completely indifferent to his circumstance.
Jan nodded his head to show he understood.
“What part of Prague?” Jan asked. “I’m in Podolí. Near the pool.”
Jan wasn’t sure why he was telling the Russian this. Maybe because it wasn’t important. It was just a place. He may not even be there a month from now, maybe not even a week. Maybe it was because the Russian reminded him, for some strange reason, of what he wanted to be. Not a criminal—if indeed that was what the Russian was—but a person content with knowing how lost a soul can be. He believed there was something honorable about a person who understands that being lost is natural. We are all lost, Jan knew. Home is nothing more than a figment of the imagination—a brick and mortar façade, crumbling with each step we take towards our inevitable non-existence.
“Pool?” asked the Russian. “What is this?”
“You know, swim. To swim.” Jan reached into the river and splashed the cold water.
“Yes, swim. Basseyn.”
“Basseyn,” repeated Jan.
“I live in para-ferry,” said the Russian, and he pointed north.
“How you say? Para-ferry. Periferija. Border. Granica. The outside.”
“Yes, para-ferry. I live in para-ferry of Prague. Down river. Long walk.” The Russian smiled again. “Short with boat.”
It was now late morning, and Miloš still had not returned. An older Czech couple approached Jan for a ride to Výtoň, but when they saw the Russian chained to his boat, they quickly backed away. Both Jan and the Russian laughed.
“Is not look good,” said the Russian, holding up his chained arm.
“No, it doesn’t,” agreed Jan. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the key to the handcuffs. The Russian looked at Jan gratefully. Jan paused. Then, he unlocked the handcuffs. He half expected the Russian to run after he did. But the Russian didn’t. He continued to sit. Together, Jan and the Russian sat.
Soon, the clouds had cleared completely, and the sun had taken over the sky. Jan was feeling lightheaded and hazy even under the awning. His eyes were growing heavy. He lay sideways on the passenger bench, and before he knew it, he was half asleep. He glanced over at the Russian, who was also dozing off. Jan let his eyes shut.
A light wind knocked against Jan’s arm. He opened his eyes. The Russian was not in his seat. The boat was still docked. From the corner of his eye, Jan could see the Russian untying the rope that bound the boat to shore. Jan did not move. He could feel the knife in his pocket press against his thigh. He pretended to remain asleep. As he did, he watched the Russian push the boat from the platform. He heard the key turn in the ignition and the puttering of the old engine as it too awoke. He felt the thrust of the ferry as it propelled gently through the shallow water, and he smelled the faint breath of the motor billowing in the midday air. All the while, Jan stayed where he was. He shut his eyes again.
“To your place?” called Jan, as he lay still.
“What’s your name?”
“Dmitri. And you?”
There was a pause.
“You can call me Ivan.”
The ferryman opened his eyes and watched the boat pass beneath Vyšehrad crossing, by the embankment now lined with pedestrians clamoring to cross the river, underneath crowded Charles Bridge, through the Jewish Quarter, Josefov, and to the unknown and, perhaps, quiet para-ferry.
By the time they reached their destination, it was late afternoon, and the light of the sun was beginning to scatter. The ferryman could not distinguish much among the growing shadows on the dock. For a moment, he did not hear a sound except the river lapping at the bank. But as Dmitri edged the boat closer to shore, the ferryman heard the wail of policie sirens off in the distance, and he saw in the dimness the silhouette of a man standing on the slip, waving at him foolishly, but that was all he could see. He blinked, and the man was gone.
Daniel Hunt is a writer and attorney from Philadelphia, PA. He holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Villanova University