When I was nine years old, my family lived in a leafy district of Prague. My brother and sister and I went to school nearby; our mother would chat with the other parents by the school’s metal fence while she waited for our classes to finish. After that, we’d walk home with her. It was a fifteen-minute walk under the leaves. Sometimes our friends and their parents would walk with us too. We’d pass the graffiti-covered buildings and the red-and-white railing, talking about what we’d learned at school that day.
On the walk home, my sister Kristýna, who was a year older than me, always complained about the wind getting in her hair. “So, tie it up,” our mother would say. Krista’s hair was honey-coloured; mine was much darker. We both had long hair. Yet the wind never bothered me. I loved feeling the breeze through my hair. It felt similar to my mother’s fingers running over my scalp. On one such occasion, I spoke up. “I don’t mind the wind in my hair,” I said. And my mother laughed, and replied, “Of course you don’t, Anna.”
Then we’d arrive home, and our dachshund, Marek, would stand up to hug us and lick our faces. As soon as he’d calmed down, we’d change into looser clothes. We all had our own bedrooms, yet I remember a lot of time spent in the living room, which had large windows that looked out into our garden. We’d sit on the sofa with our arms around one another, watching Pat & Mat and Večerníček on the TV. Other times we’d play little games our mother would teach us. She had a way of turning any boring time into a fun one. She would find some paper and a pen, and transform them into something more: a puzzle, or a sort of template upon which, suddenly, anything seemed possible. When my mother’s games failed to cure my boredom, I rarely let this show, because I’d feel terrible when I did.
Our father worked all the time. He was built like an athlete, and his smile was wide and charming. He owned a few beanies, but he usually wore his black one. Eventually, my little brother would resemble him.
We took for granted the fact that our mother played with us. We were kids. We couldn’t have understood that since the Revolution (in which our parents, university students at the time, had demonstrated), Czechs had been raising ‘independent’ children. We were no exception. When Kristýna and I bickered, our parents never broke up the fight—it was our brother who did that. But we couldn’t have understood that many of our friends were growing up ignored. We were, and are, so fortunate never to have doubted our parents’ love.
When the weather was right, we’d go cycling. The best places were outside the city. I vividly remember the five of us cycling through a scarlet poppy field on the way to a castle. The air smelt rich, if that’s possible, and the sunlight was warm on our faces. I was filled with joy. Remembering the past, there’s this sense that you know things now that you didn’t know then—and that it was good before you found out. Growing up is good too. But that doesn’t mean childhood isn’t.
I know that not everyone likes Christmas, but I’m not ashamed to say that, of all the holidays in the Czech calendar, Christmas was always my favourite. I would look forward to it long in advance, and my brother and sister were the same. Every year, we’d set the tree up in the living room as early in December as our parents allowed us. We’d decorate its branches with glass balls, and ornaments made of straw. We’d make an Advent wreath with candles on it, and hang it outside the door to the house. Every year, around the 21st of December, our parents would bring home an enormous carp (though by the time I was nine, he already seemed smaller than I remembered). He lived in the bathtub, and everyone loved him, except my little brother, who was a little afraid of him. My brother wasn’t afraid of much; maybe he was just wary of becoming too attached to the carp. Because, as we all knew, when Christmas dinner finally arrived, we ate him with soup, potato salad, bread, and honey—the fish, that is.
I was ten on the Thursday in autumn when it all changed. Our mother walked us to school, like any other day. She went to work, and on her lunchbreak, crossing Na Struze with a coffee in her hand, she was hit by a guy in his twenties. She just didn’t see the car. It wasn’t his fault; it wasn’t her fault either. It was simply a second too early, or a second too late. It just happened.
So, when school ended that day, no one came to walk us home.
Our father chose to go on with life, and he inspired the three of us to do the same. His name is Michal; he’s the strongest man I know. We understood that if he could have brought our mother back, he would have. And we understood that no one could do that. We grew up quickly. So, when we were in second stage and secondary school, we were okay when our father dated a lot of women. We met some of them. To this day, there’s never been someone we’ve been close to calling our step-mother—but maybe someday, there will be.
After I graduated from secondary school, I studied Biology at Charles University. I lived in a dormitory and went home on the weekends. Through mutual friends, I met Jakub when I was twenty-one. I’m pretty tall, like the rest of my family, but I still have to look up to see him. Jakub has beautiful brown eyes, and golden-brown hair that falls below his ears. I was still with my ex-boyfriend when we started falling for each other, and it wasn’t long before we were dating.
Life was really great. I was enjoying my Biology classes, and doing well in them too. The dorm I lived in was pretty quiet, but on the weekends I’d go out with Jakub, my sister Kristýna, and all of our friends. Krista and I ran in the same circles. I was close with both of my siblings, but my little brother just didn’t run in our social circles. He was more introverted than us. I never met many of his friends. Besides, by this time, my little brother was studying abroad in Germany.
Prague is famous for its nightlife, and Krista and I were experts. On Friday and Saturday nights, we would meet at a friend’s house to drink, before moving to a bar. Then, around midnight, we’d turn up at M1 or Vzorkovna, and we’d dance the night away. I wasn’t a big fan of EDM; hip-hop and R&B were more my thing. I loved Rihanna. Krista and I took dancing classes in second stage. Jakub, on the other hand, dances like a monkey.
I thought I’d loved other boys before him. What I found with Jakub, though, was totally different. I honestly never thought I could love someone that much. Why would I ever want to take drugs, when I already had the best feeling in the universe?
My dorm had strict rules about guests, so Jakub never came over during the week. But we were together every single weekend. I remember being in my bedroom with him back then, just looking into his eyes. It was like the air had become water. Everything was shimmering, but I didn’t have any tears.
“I can’t believe it,” I said to him that night.
“Believe it, Anna,” he replied, in his clear voice.
My little brother was going to come home from Germany for Christmas. We all missed him and couldn’t wait to see him again. It was all planned out; it all made sense.
And then, on the 19th of December 2016, he sent us all a message from Germany. He told us he was sorry. And he hanged himself in his closet.
It’s been nearly two years since my baby brother’s death—and nearly two and a half years since the last time we were with him. These two years have been the worst of my life. Of course they have. But lately, I can’t help but to feel happy. Things are okay, really. I’m nearly twenty-four now. I still have Kristýna. I still have Jakub. I still have my dad. Our family has the absolute best, most loving, most supportive friends we could have ever imagined. It’s not long until I’ll finally have a degree in Biology. I don’t know what I’ll do after I graduate—but that’s kind of exciting.
When we were kids, my baby brother would sleep-talk in the middle of the night. Our rooms shared a wall, and luckily for him I was the only one who’d hear it—if Kristýna had heard him murmuring away like that, she’d have teased him endlessly. I asked him what he was always dreaming about. But my little brother was always kind of secretive, and he wouldn’t answer my question. I persisted, and finally, one day, he told me. He dreamed about a beach. He’d never seen the ocean. My little brother never liked Prague. He wanted to leave the city and swim at the beach. When he told me, I felt as though I’d been let in on a huge secret.
He got to swim at the beach in real life, eventually. I like to think he had a happy life. Our mother’s death affected all of us, but it would be fair to say it affected him a little more. But I really think my brother was pretty happy for most of his twenty years. He just got unlucky toward the end. A few things happened in his personal life, unbeknownst to us. I believe it was only in the last year of his life that his depression started to take hold. Maybe we could have helped. Or maybe—and this is something I’ve been thinking about recently—we did. My family have always been extremely close. It may sound dark—but nowadays, I think that what happened was supposed to happen.
I used to spend so much time wishing I’d hung out more with my baby brother when he was alive. My mother, too. We all did—Michal, Kristýna, me—the three survivors. We spent so much time wishing we’d done things differently. But eventually, I stopped wishing. I just accepted that what happened happened. And then, things got better.
Though I’ve never had a recurring dream—like my brother and his beach—once, when I was really young, I had a dream filled with autumn leaves. They floated in the wind and covered the pavements. They turned the entire city orange—this happens every year in Prague, but in the dream, it was even more so. We crunched over the leaves, breaking them. It was so much fun. We did this in real life, too—but in real life, I always wanted more leaves. In the dream, they were abundant.
Then we were in a playground, making huge piles out of the leaves, which were all shades of orange. The piles were so big that us kids could enter them, like rooms, so that we were totally submerged. All five of us played in the leaves, and my father nodded at passing strangers, and Krista swung on the swing.
My mother’s name was Dana, and my brother’s name was Petr. My mother was tall, with straight brown hair to her shoulders, and her face was small and sweet. At the time, my brother was the smallest in the family. He was a little bit chubby, too. He had his father’s wide, charming smile.
In the dream, though, everyone’s features were a little different. That’s how dreams always are for me. Everyone looks a little different, but they’re still themselves.
The entire time we played in the leaves, deep down I knew that our playing time was going to come to an end. That feeling was constant during the entire dream. At last, my mother said, “We’re going to the tram, now.” And I looked up, and she was walking away from us, hand-in-hand with my baby brother. Auburn leaves fell across their image as they walked away.
And then I woke up, and remembered that they were only asleep in their beds.