Already the tribal drums are sounding, young and middle-aged women are half-skipping, half-dancing in slow unsynchronized movement about the pile of logs. Their faces are smeared with ash, leafy branches encircling their heads but they do not look at the one with no face, the one who is propped up, a sacrificial scarecrow who is starting to get lost in tentative wisps of smoke. The brand new spring already feels too warm, even in this eight-o-clock air in Kampa Park, as if winter has crashed straight into summer. But everyone is here on this April night to celebrate the spring.
A wind picks up, carrying leftover day scents from the Vltava River, which awaits just a few hundred meters away, churning quietly, knowing what is to come. Now the smoke is pushing out into my direction, and I turn away, but still the scent gets in my nose. She is not yet burning, but then the drummers start to get excited and the crowd is suddenly whooping and screaming. The fire has begun to eat her skirt. It is moving slowly in teasing leaps to curl about her waist, her chest, and soon it will smother her faceless face that hides beneath a floppy wide-brimmed hat. She has been dressed in pale colors, in light fabrics so she might stand out against the night. But now the fire is painting her over, she is its canvas, and the crowd appreciates this talented hand. They move in closer and closer toward the heat, one enormous sweating lung, inhaling faster and faster as the tribal drums quicken. We are all breathing in the smoke of tradition, children sitting on parent’s shoulders, fire growing in our wide eyes.
No one yet is carrying the half-liter plastic cup of beer, the unmistakable, inevitable symbol of any event in Prague. Maybe this time, it is a little more serious. But there are also many children here, their eager faces painted, the little girls (most with long blonde hair) entangled in the ribbons of oversized witch hats and dresses. It’s a strange, jumbled atmosphere, a cross between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials.
As the fire dancers begin their seductive ballet about the charred remains of the witch, as their fire moves faster than the fire which has already eaten and is slowing as it digests, the children are running free between the trees of the park, playing tag. It is just another spring evening, just another place to move fast and chase and giggle. The police department had set up an enormous, inflated moon walk for the children, but now the witch has been burned and the night is getting deeply night, bedtime is approaching. As I turn my head to watch a policeman leaning easy against his bike, tilting it rhythmically back and forth, chatting with a couple of parents, the entire inflated monstrosity is falling to the left, caving in. I wonder fearfully if there are still children inside, but it seems this was planned, and the children are all out, standing on the grass nearby, watching the collapse of what was their playground just seconds ago.
Two women, half hidden by the purple layers of evening light and the thin gauze of smoke over the whole park, are lighting a paper lantern for the child who stands before them. He holds the glowing orb from a wire, standing still, watching its stillness as the women take photos, the flash! flash! flash! burning painfully bright over this little trapped fire.
I have found a spot on the patchy grass between the thick trees. I have decided to sit now that the fire has calmed. More people are sitting down now, watching the running children against a backdrop of fading fire in a velvet night.
Like guards high up on a fortress wall, two lanky firemen sit atop a firetruck that is parked upon the grass, only a few trees and a clump of the crowd in between them and the fire. They watch with expressions of knowing nothing will happen.