Mr. Kučera, the owner of The Corner, said he’d named it that way so people wouldn’t forget where it was.

“Czechs have the short memory,” he said, seriously. “It is necessary for their happiness.”

A floor-to-ceiling mural covered one wall. It was too big to take in all at once, so looking at it felt like falling into the scene. A river bisected the view, with bridges reaching across like fingers, and a castle—moat, turrets, and all—rose from a hill on the left bank. Boats dotted the water and the sky appeared clear without being sunny.

In a clearing behind the outdoor market, a tree, shaped like a hand, held out branches perfect for climbing. A boy with a red backpack perched on an upper limb. I watched him as I pulled my pork through a gravy sea, and wondered what he could see from up there.

Mr. Kučera asked if I knew the city in the mural. I shook my head. I wondered why he would want to leave such a place to come here. But my instincts told me it would be rude to ask, and instead I asked about the boy in the tree. If the city was real, the people must be, too.

He didn’t hesitate. “Of course, that boy is me!”

After that, when we came he’d tell me about other figures in the mural: That was Mrs. Červenka buying lettuce, and Mr. Prašek at the tailor’s. These three ladies, married to the triplets Vesecký, wait there every morning to pick up fresh koláčky. And this is the bakery with the best šátečký in the city, but it’s closed past noon, and over here is the man who runs it, Mr. Sokol, taking his daily walk along the river, a practice he started when his father, who opened the place, had a heart attack from eating too many of the fried bowtie cookies.

The house of mirrors was one of the last secrets I discovered in the mural. It looked like a regular building, an office or a school, but I asked about it because it was way up in the top corner. Good things were hidden in corners.

Mr. Kučera explained, “No matter who they are or where they come from, people love a good house of mirrors.”

A year or two later, the bank on the other side of The Corner was remodeled. Sandstone replaced worn red brick, and all the floor-to-ceiling windows were coated in a teal glaze so reflective that pedestrians crossed the street to avoid it.

One day, Mr. Kučera was gone. He left without a word. A new sign hung crookedly on The Corner’s door: “Coming soon: Little Prague, Fine Bohemian Dining.”

I pressed my nose to the glass and looked in at the mural. I couldn’t see the boy in the tree, but I knew he was there.

About the author

Kelly Luce lived in rural Japan for two years (including six days in jail) and keeps a hula hoop in her car. She's been…

Read the full bio

Issue 05 · June 2009

Table of contents