From Czech: FOOTPRINTS, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Šlépěje, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Mr Rybka was on his way home that night. He was in a very good mood, mainly because he’d won his game of chess (An excellent checkmate with the knight), but also because it had been snowing and he loved how it crunched under his boots amidst that marvellous, pure silence. Dear God, how beautiful! The town seems to shrink and slip back in time. Conjures up nightwatchmen and stagecoaches. Strange, how snow looks old-fashioned and rustic.

Crunch, crunch. He sought out untrodden snow, just for the pleasure of that crunching sound; and because he lived in a quiet, leafy lane, the further he went, the fewer the footprints in the snow. Well, well! Two sets of footprints ending at this gate – a man and a woman, probably a married couple. I wonder if they’re young. Anyway, may God go with them… A cat’s left its pawprints in the snow here. Like little flowers. I hope your paws aren’t too cold, pussy cat. And now there’s just one set of footprints. A man’s. Deep. A chain of them, straight and clear. A walker out on his own. I wonder which of my neighbours it could be. So few people walk along here. No wheel marks. Out on the edge of things. By the time I get home, the lane will have pulled its snowy eiderdown right up, and it’ll be thinking it’s just a children’s playground. Pity that the old newspaper lady will be criss-crossing all over it in the morning. Like a hare…

Suddenly he stopped. He was just about to cross over the snow-white lane to his front gate when he noticed that the single set of footprints he’d been following had left the pavement and headed towards his gate. Who could it be? He stared at the clear footprints.

There were five of them; and right in the middle of the lane, they came to a halt with a sharp print of the left foot. Beyond it, there was nothing, just snow. Undisturbed, untouched.

I must be going doolally! Or perhaps he came back to the pavement.

But the pavement in front of Mr Rybka was completely covered with a layer of smooth, fresh snow.

Well I’m blowed! Don’t say the footprints carry on on the other pavement.

Skirting round the unfinished chain of footprints, he went over to the other side. But there wasn’t a single mark on the pavement over there. The whole lane ahead shone with silky, pristine snow. A wonderful sight. No-one had been there since the snow had started falling.

Well I never! Perhaps whoever it was went back to the pavement stepping into his own footprints. But in that case, he’d have had to walk backwards because they all aim… Why would he do that? And even if he did walk backwards, how would he have managed to fit his boots precisely into those footprints?

Shaking his head, he unlocked the gate and entered his house. Although he knew it was nonsense, he looked around to see if there weren’t any snowy footprints. But of course, that was nonsense.

Maybe I imagined it.

He opened a window and leant out. The five sharp, deep footprints – coming to a halt in the middle of the lane – could clearly be seen in the light of the streetlamp. He rubbed his eyes.

God damn it! I read a story once about a single footprint in the snow, but here there’s five of them, and then nothing. Where could the fellow have gone?

Shaking his head once more, he started to get undressed. But then he stopped all of a sudden and went to the telephone.

“Hello! Sergeant Bartošek? There’s something strange here. Very strange… If you could send someone. Or even better, come yourself… Thank you. I’ll wait at the corner… It’s too difficult to explain over the phone… No, I don’t think there’s any danger… It’s just these footprints that stop all of a sudden… I haven’t the faintest idea whose footprints they are! … Fine, I’ll be waiting for you.”

He got dressed and went out again, taking care not to disturb the footprints either in the road or on the pavement. Shivering with cold and impatience, he waited for Sergeant Bartošek on the corner of the lane. All was quiet, and our planet shone in the universe.

“Nice and quiet here,” said Sergeant Bartošek, sounding fed-up. “I’ve had one fisticuffs and one drunk so far. Great fun… So, what’s been going on here then?”

“Follow those footprints, Sergeant,” said Mr Rybka, his voice quavering. “Just over there.”

The Sergeant turned on his torch.

“A beanpole of a man. Almost one metre eighty, I’d say, from the depth of the prints and the length of the steps. Good shoes – hand-made most likely. Not drunk, walking deliberately. Can’t see what’s the problem, sir.”

Mr Rybka pointed at the unfinished line of steps in the lane. “That is!”


Without more ado, the Sergeant headed to the last footprint, where he squatted and shone his lamp at it.

“It’s nothing special. Perfectly normal. A firm footstep. His weight was mainly on the heel. If he’d taken another step, or a jump, his weight would have transferred to the ball of the other foot. Do you see?”

“So that means…?” Mr Rybka asked impatiently.

“That means… That means he didn’t go any further.”

“So where did he go?” spluttered Mr Rybka.

The Sergeant shrugged. “Not a clue, sir. Do you have any idea?”

“Do I have any idea?! All I want is to know where he went. Look! Here’s his last step, and where’s the next? There isn’t any next step!”

“I can see that. But why should it bother you where he went? Is it somebody from your house? Is somebody missing? Why should it worry you, for heaven’s sake!”

“B… but there has to be an explanation. Do you think he might have walked backwards in his own footsteps?”

“No chance. When a man walks backwards, he takes shorter steps and he keeps his legs further apart, for balance. And he doesn’t raise his feet so much, so he’d have scraped the snow with his heels. These footprints have been made only once. You see how sharp they are?”

“But if he didn’t go back, where did he go?”

“That’s his business. Look! As long as he didn’t break the law, it’s no business of ours. We’d need to have an accusation of some sort, so that we could carry out an initial investigation…”

“So, are you telling me someone can simply disappear in the middle of a lane?!”

“You’ll just have to wait, sir. If he’s gone missing, I’m sure his family or someone will report it in due course. And then we’d search for him. But until that happens, it’s no business of ours. That’s not how it works.”

Mr Rybka was beginning to get angry.

“Don’t get me wrong, but I’d think the police should be a teeny-weeny bit interested if someone walking calmly along disappears all of a sudden in the middle of a lane!”

“Calm down, sir. Nothing happened to him. There are no signs of a struggle. If someone had attacked or kidnapped him, there’d be signs of it in the snow. So, I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing for me to do here.”

Mr Rybka clasped his hands together. “But Sergeant, at least explain to me… It’s a complete mystery!”

“That it certainly is, sir. You’ve no idea how many mysteries there are in this world of ours. Each house, each family, is a mystery. As I was on my way here, I could hear a young woman sobbing in that little house over there. But mysteries… Mysteries aren’t our business, sir. We’re paid to keep order. I hope you don’t think we hunt down criminals out of mere curiosity! We hunt them down so that we can lock them up, sir. Law and order is what we’re about.”

“In that case, is it law and order if someone in the middle of the lane… if someone in the middle of the lane goes straight up into the sky?”

“That depends on the case, sir. According to the regulations, if someone’s in danger of falling from a great height, they should be secured. The first time is a warning, the second time’s a fine… If this man rose up into the sky voluntarily, a policeman would have warned him to attach a safety belt. But in this case, I’m sorry to say there was no policeman on hand. If there had been, you’d be able to see the footprints of the policeman. And, in any case, it’s possible that the man disappeared in another way, isn’t it?”

“What other way?”

“Difficult to say. Maybe a sort of ascension, or Jacob’s ladder… Ascension could be considered kidnapping. If it was accompanied by violence, that is. But I think it normally occurs with the agreement of the person concerned. It’s possible that the man knows how to fly. Haven’t you ever felt as if you’re flying, sir? Someone just lifts their feet a little bit, and off they go… Some fly like a balloon, but me, when I dream that I’m flying, I have to keep pushing myself away from the ground with a foot every now and then. I think it’s the effect of the heavy uniform and the sword. Perhaps the man fell asleep and began flying in his sleep. There’s no law against that, sir. Except if it was a busy road, of course. In that case an officer would need to have a word. Or… I’ve got it! … levitation. The transcendentals believe in levitation, and transcendentalism’s not illegal. A certain Mr Baudyš told me once that he’d seen it with his own eyes. Who knows whether there’s any truth in it?”

“But surely, you’re not telling me, Sergeant, that you believe in it yourself! That would be against the laws of nature…”

Sergeant Bartošek gave a shrug.”

“Yes, I know, I know. But people break all sorts of rules and regulations. If you were a policeman, sir, you’d know more about that sort of thing…”

He waved his hand.

“So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they break natural laws as well. Nothing as strange as folks. Anyway, good night, sir. Getting proper cold now.”

“Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea… or a glass of slivovice before you go?”

“Why not? Why not, indeed? When a body’s wearing this uniform, he can’t even go into a pub, you know. That’s why policemen drink so little.”

“A mystery,” he said, as he sat on the settee watching the snow melting on the tips of his boots. “Ninety-nine percent of people would walk beside those footsteps and not notice anything. And you yourself wouldn’t notice ninety-nine percent of things that are devilish mysterious. Order isn’t mysterious. The law isn’t mysterious. And therefore, sir, the police aren’t mysterious. But everyone else walking down the street is mysterious by the very fact that we haven’t got anything on them. Except if they steal something. Then they stop being mysterious because we lock them up and that’s that. At least we know what they’re doing, and we can keep an eye on them through the little window, can’t we? You know how you see in the newspapers ‘Mysterious discovery of body’? What’s so mysterious about the discovery of a body? When we come across one, we measure it, photograph it and dissect it. We know every thread of clothing, what the person last ate, what the cause of death was etcetera etcetera. Not only that, but we’ll know if it’s most likely that the person was killed for money. It’s all clear and documented… I like my tea nice and strong, please… All crimes are clear, sir. You can see the motives and everything connected to them. Mysterious, on the other hand, is what your cat’s thinking, or your servant, or why your wife looks so wistfully out of the window. Everything, sir, is mysterious except for criminal cases. A criminal case is a cut and dried piece of reality, a sort of extract that we’ve shone a light on. You know, if I was to have a look around here, I’d find out all sorts of things about you. But instead, I’m looking at the toe caps of my boots because I’ve got no official reason to take an interest in you. That’s to say, you haven’t been accused of anything.”

The sergeant took a sip of his hot, strong tea.

“It’s a strange misconception,” he continued, “that the police – and particularly detectives – are interested in mysteries. We couldn’t care two hoots about mysteries. What we’re interested in is what’s not right. We’re not interested in crime because it’s mysterious, sir. We’re interested in it because it’s forbidden. We don’t hunt down scoundrels out of intellectual curiosity, we do it so we can arrest them in the name of the law. Take, for instance, road sweepers. They don’t sweep the streets so as to read human traces in the dust. They do it to clean up the dirt and filth of everyday life. Order isn’t mysterious, not one little bit. But keeping order, sir, is a pig of a job. Anyone who wants to do it has to be prepared to stick his fingers into all sorts of mess. But someone has to do it, just like someone has to slaughter calves. To slaughter calves out of curiosity would be barbarous. It has to be done as a trade. When something is someone’s duty, at least he knows he’s entitled to do it. For instance, justice has to be beyond doubt, just like the times table. I don’t know if you could prove that every theft is bad, but I could prove to you that every theft is forbidden, because I’d keep arresting you. If you scattered pearls on the road, a policeman would order you not to make a mess. But if you started performing miracles, we couldn’t do anything unless it gave rise to public scandal or a disorderly crowd. In short, for us to get involved, there has to be some sort of impropriety.”

“But, Sergeant,” Mr Rybka objected, shuffling disconsolately in his chair, “is that all? This case concerns… concerns something so strange… so mysterious… and you…”

The sergeant shrugged. “…and I let it be. If you like, sir, I’ll get the footprints removed so you can go to bed without worrying. More than that I can’t do for you. Listen! Do you hear those footsteps? That’s our patrol. And it’s now two hours and seven minutes after midnight. Good night, sir.”

Mr Rybka accompanied the sergeant to the gate, from which the unfinished and inexplicable line of footprints could still be seen.

A policeman was approaching on the opposite pavement.

“Anything new, Mimra?” the sergeant shouted over to him.

“Nothing really, sir. In No. 17 over there, the cat was meowing outside, so I knocked them up to let it in. At No. 9, they hadn’t closed the gate properly. On the corner, where they’d been digging the road, they forgot to leave a red light. And one of the shop signs at Maršík the grocer’s has come loose. They’ll need to take it down in the morning so that it doesn’t fall on someone’s head.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all,” replied Mimra. “They’ll need to grit the pavements in the morning so someone doesn’t break their leg. The bells should be rung everywhere at six.”

“That’s good,” said Sergeant Bartošek. “Good night!”

Mr Rybka looked once more at the footprints leading nowhere. But where the last prints were, there were now the very definite prints of PC Mimra’s service boots. And those prints continued from there in a regular and clearly visible line.

“Thank God for that,” Mr Rybka muttered to himself as he went back in.



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