The Curse of the Phantom Hearts

Author’s photo, Prague 2010.

Franz watched the sky darken and bruise until night eclipsed the day. He then rolled a cigarette and lit it with a match. The embers of loose leaf tobacco at the tip of the cigarette dissipated quickly and the ashes were blown away. He muttered a quick prayer that no one would ever hear and began his first round around the perimeter of the Old Jewish Cemetery.

The fallen leaves crunched beneath his boots. That military cadence came back like an old habit, familiar and comforting. Keys jangled from the carabiner clipped to his belt loop. The flashlight felt heavy, but solid in his hand. He pointed the yellow light at the gravestones, which were crooked, jagged, and jumbled together after the passage of many hundreds of years.

By day, the cemetery was a rather active place despite being the home of the dead. Solemn tourists tramped through the grounds, snapping artsy photos of carved stone heralds and the dense forest of graves. Others searched for famous names. Deep below the surface rested the layered remains of long lost and forgotten souls. The names on the headstones in some cases had faded entirely away. Most were engraved in the old tongue. Ancient wooden markers were split asunder and embraced rot and decay. Patches of moss sprouted in all the expected places.

There was a locust tree that Franz favored on his nightly solo tour. It leaned at a precipitous angle, as if ready to collapse at any moment. Franz approached and bowed his head. Holstering the flashlight on his belt, he touched the flaking bark and breathed in the frigid air. He exhaled slowly, and the hoarfrost of his breath felt like traces of his spirit escaping.

A branch cracked and there was the sound of flapping wings. Franz looked up in search of the passing moon. He saw only darkness, and then the quick flicker and disappearance of two small orange orbs just above his head.

“What was that?” By training and instinct, Franz reached for the 9mm Glock on his hip.

“Who?” the reply came.

The pallid yellow moon rose beyond the horizon, illuminating an enormous tawny owl perched upon a branch.

“Who!” it cried again.

Franz backpedaled a step or two to get a better look at the bird of prey hovering above him. He remembered the tall tales his babička would tell him before bed, how owls foretold misfortune and, in some cases, even death. There was one she called “the curse of the phantom hearts.”

It was a story from the time of the Great War, so much darker than the absurd follies of The Good Soldier Švejk. A perfectly competent young colonel led his company of ninety-nine men to the front, only to be waylaid by a drunken fool who had fallen from his horse.

“Please, spare me a sausage.”

“We have no sausages.”

“Then give me a roll.”

“We have no rolls.”

“Perhaps then a potato?”

“Nor that as well.”

“Then doomed you and your men are, if you cannot help a poor old drunk like me.”

The young colonel saw the poor old drunk wearing the jacket of a military man.

“What is your rank, kind sir?”

“Of no consequence to you, sonny. I march to the beat of my own drum. Go on then! Off with you. Leave me to the birds. May they pluck out your eyes before you’re dead.”

Onward the men marched, with horses and wagons in tow. At a crucial crossroads, the colonel made the decision to save time by cutting through the forest. It wasn’t long before they were spinning in circles, surrounded by the sound of a thousand owls ready for a feast. The birds ate everything, so the story went, save for their rotten hearts, which were left to moulder in the heat of the rising sun.

Franz removed a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Then, he made a sign of the cross and backed gingerly away from the owl, who peered down with his orange glowing eyes.

Returning to the security gate by the entrance, Franz turned on the radio to calm his nerves. Dvořák’s “Requiem” played, a sorrowful tune. His colleague, Karel, wasted hours with his dirty boots hiked up on the table, listening to classical music.

Grandmother’s ghost stories combined with his own nightmares, of men he had known mowed down by gunfire and others dismembered by a frag grenade. The echoes of the unrepeatable sounds of war and death. Franz remembered how the edges of the forest burned, as he laid there clutching his rifle and kissing the holy cross, pressing his face into the dirt, and swearing he could hear the steady beat of those hundred phantom hearts.

The coffee was cold, so Franz dumped it outside and started to brew a new pot. The machine was old and slow and took forever to percolate, so Franz decided to do a second tour.

Vandals had recently desecrated the other Jewish cemetery in Žižkov, and the higher ups told the security teams to be on alert.

Franz’s phone vibrated in his pocket. A text from an unknown number.

“Help me,” it said.

“What? Who are you?”

“I want to end my life.”

“Please, don’t say that.”

Silence. Snow began to spit from the sky. Distant laughter, of kids or drunks, he couldn’t be sure. Franz double-timed it to the source of the noise. He scanned his flashlight along the ground, looking for signs of footprints. Nothing.

After the run across the cemetery, he could feel his heart beating in his throat.

Another text. “You didn’t help me, Franz.”

“I don’t know what you mean. Is this some kind of sick joke?”

The snowfall increased. It became difficult to see. Franz’s nerves jangled like the keys at his side. He groped for the cross around his neck, but it wasn’t there. He’d forgotten it at home.

A gust of wind picked up, temporarily blinding him. A large apparition flew in his direction.

Who! Who!

Startled, Franz drew his glock and fired. The recoil shifted his balance and he fell atop a cluster of gravestones. They tumbled like dominoes beneath his weight.

A sharp pain stabbed Franz between the ribs. He rose to one knee and then, groaning, pushed himself to his feet. Franz took out his phone and couldn’t find the messages he’d received. He pinched the space between his eyes, disbelieving the blank slate of his screen.

There, lying in a thin blanket of fallen snow, was the tawny owl. Franz approached slowly, cursing himself with an invective of remorse.

“Poor thing,” he said, bending low to receive it. He touched its feathers, which were soft and thick. Beneath them, he could swear he still felt the beating of its heart.

Franz paused, silent and distraught. Another message.

“You only helped yourself.”

Just then, the owl opened a single blood-orange eye, prepared its talons, and flew in for the kill.

The End

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear any thoughts or comments you may have. Please feel free to recommend and share with others.

This story would not exist without the inadvertent prompt of Normal Earthling, so many thanks for the inspiration.

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