Sexta carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)
- Dear Sophia,
Your honest and moving letter embarrasses and shames me. I'm ashamed because I haven't been as open in my letters to you. I'm embarrassed by your declarations of your love for me. I can't honestly tell you that I feel or ever felt a similar emotion toward you. I failed to make this clear to you at the very beginning of our correspondence, at a time when I was nothing more to you than a one-time friend you hadn't seen in twenty years, a stranger to whom you hadn't yet bared the secrets of your life. My only excuse is that I'm not in the habit of expressing my emotions with words; my life's experiences haven't been fertile ground for the development of such an ability. I realize that by trying to be honest and complete at such a late hour I'll be inflicting pain which I could have spared you if I had made the attempt sooner, but I'm afraid that if I remained silent I would ultimately inflict far greater pain.
By vomiting up the repressed experiences of your life, as you so vividly put it, you set off a similar process in me, in Jasna and in Mirna, not only by your example but even more by what you brought up. We didn't respond to your letter with our minds but with our stomachs, with everything that's inside us.
After reading your previous letter Mirna had expressed admiration for you, comparing your rebelliousness and courage to her brother's. Her attitude toward you has changed drastically since I last wrote you, not so much because of what you've written as because of what we've undergone during the past two weeks. After I last wrote you we experienced one of the happiest moments of our lives, at least one of the happiest in my memory. That happy moment came to an abrupt end three days ago. Your letter arrived the day before yesterday. If it had come two days sooner we would have responded to it very differently. For the past three days I've been moving in an atmosphere of hostility and fear the like of which I haven't experienced since the days immediately after my release from prison three years ago. The arrival of your letter didn't create that atmosphere but simply coincided with it. I can't account for this fear and hostility in terms of a single event. An “event” did take place; we heard it announced over the radio. But this event isn't new; it's one of the constants of the world we live in, it's common knowledge. The radio reminded us that now that we're no longer watched by the national police we're still being watched by the international police. No one had doubted this. Such a reminder could immobilize us only because immobility is already engraved in our being, only because our interminable and continuing past taught us to immobilize ourselves. I don't fully understand what happened to us three days ago but I'm convinced it had less to do with the radio announcement than with what we've become during the past twenty years.
Three weeks ago, a few days after Jasna and I attended the lecture given by your and our former comrades, Jasna came to our house again. Yara invited her, ostensibly to read the letter in which you described your dismissal from school, your eviction from the dormitory and your arrival at Sabina's garage, but actually so as to pursue her speculations about the love affairs of Minister Vera and Commissioner Adrian. Jasna read your letter; before she finished it she started crying. “Don't you think she's wonderful?” she asked. “Think of being beaten down so often and so hard and still having the nerve to reach for more.” When she finished your letter she said, “It must take a lot of nerve to be a prostitute. Please do let me know when you hear from her again.” She left our house with tears in her eyes.
When Jasna was gone Mirna whispered, “You're certainly no Sabina, teacher. `A lot of nerve to be a prostitute.' It takes doing, not just reading about it!”
Yara ran to Mirna's lap shouting, “She's not altogether like that, mommy. I used to think she was until the last day of school. Remember I told you we danced in the yard? One of the teachers played an accordion. Jasna just sat by herself and watched the kids dance. I could tell by the way her eyes and her whole body moved that she was dying to dance, so I begged Slobodan to ask her. You should have seen her! She was wilder than anyone else in the yard. Slobodan wanted her all to himself but I cut in and even the principal danced with her. The principal wore out after two rounds but Jasna just went on dancing. Mommy, let's give a dancing party for Jasna.”
“Don't be silly, Yara,” Mirna said crossly.
“But you just said, `It takes doing.' Dancing is doing! Poor Jasna is always so sad, and she was so happy when she danced.”
“No one would dance with Jasna here.”
“I'll bring Slobodan; hell dance with her,” Yara insisted. “I'll bring Julia's phonograph and records and Julia and I will both dance with Jasna. Besides, she can bring her own friends,”
“Does Jasna have any friends? Are you thinking of Commissioner Povrshan?” Mirna asked sarcastically.
Yara turned to me. “You'll dance with her, won't you father?”
“I've never danced in my whole life,” I told her, although her idea appealed to me.
Yara stomped her foot oil the floor in front of Mirna and said angrily, “But you told me he danced!” Mirna smiled absently (I then thought mischievously). Yara saw the smile, reached for Mirna's hands and shouted excitedly, “You remember! You said he'd take both my hands in his, pick me up in his arms and spin me round and round the room.” While Yara talked, Mirna picked her up and both of them spun together like atop. “Faster and faster,” Yara continued, “until we fall from dizziness.”
When Mirna and Yara reached the ground, I laughed and shouted, “I'd love to dance with you, Yara, but I swear to you I never danced with your mother or with anyone else.”
They didn't hear me; Mirna and Yara were completely absorbed by their performance. “And then we roll on the ground, still spinning, dizzy, laughing and happy and — father kisses me.”
Before the performance ended I noticed that Mirna carried out every one of Yara's instructions mechanically, as if in a trance. When Mirna raised herself up after the kiss, her smile was gone; her face was covered with tears and it had the same absent look. “What happened then, Yara?”
Yara's joy ended abruptly. With an expression of terror on her face, tears running down her cheeks, she turned toward the door and wailed, “Vesna — she saw us.”
“And then, Yara?” Mirna asked with the same expressionless tone.
Yara started bawling, but she suddenly snapped out of the trance; she got up and ran toward the door shouting, “Don't, mommy! I can't think of Vesna every day for the rest of my life! I can't and I won't! It wasn't our fault! She died because of what they did to her and you know it!” Yara ran to her room sobbing.
Mirna became aware that I was staring at her. She wiped her face hurriedly, still kneeling on the spot where she'd kissed Yara. “Why do you have such a strange look on your face?” she asked matter-of-factly, as if nothing had been strange except the look on my face.
“Mirna, I don't understand.”
“What don't you understand, Yarostan? About the dance? My father danced with me when I was Yara's age.”
Mirna got up and went to the bedroom, leaving me alone in the living room, bewildered. It was very late. I wanted to ask her a lot of questions but the only one I was able to formulate was why she had been so hostile to Yara's idea of having a party. Yara doesn't want very much, and I've never before known Mirna to refuse anything Yara wanted.
I didn't have a chance to ask Mirna the following evening either — that was Thursday — because we had unexpected company, and by Friday Mirna herself became the mam advocate for a dancing party.
The unexpected guest was Zdenek Tobarkin. He dropped by just before we sat down to eat to tell us his plant had gone on strike that morning. He was full of life. “You didn't think it could happen, did you, Cassandra?” he asked me, laughing vigorously. “A full-fledged strike. Ousted all managers, super-visors and functionaries. Elected workers are to fill the necessary offices and their mandates are revocable. And all of it carried out in general assembly of the workers themselves, without politicians or any repressive apparatus.”
“Then it's the first time in history,” I said.
“At least in our history,” he corrected.
Mirna invited him to join us at dinner.
“I was hoping you'd ask me!” Zdenek exclaimed. “It's not a night to return to my room alone, and the bar depresses me. Besides, I wanted to hear about the coming strike in your plant.”
“Mine?” Mirna asked. “There isn't even talk of a strike. Only a few whispers.”
“It's now or never,” Zdenek said, taunting her.
“Then it's never!” Mirna snapped. “There was talk of a strike once — twelve years ago. And everyone who talked was fired. Most of the fired women never got jobs again, and two of them disappeared, like Jan; they never returned.” Mirna was referring to the agitation at the time of the Magarna uprising. She had been very excited when Jan, Titus and I had discussed the uprising at our house a few days before Jan and I were arrested. But apparently she hadn't done any “agitating” at her plant, since she wasn't fired. “None of the people working there now can forget that,” she continued. And then, looking at Yara, she added, “We're going to think of that every day for the rest of our lives.”
“Times change, Mirna,” Zdenek said. “And even if they don't, even if Cassandra is always right, you can't lock yourself up today because someone else is going to lock you up tomorrow.”
“Can't I?” Mirna asked defiantly.
Yara and I set the table and the four of us started eating,
“All right, you're doing it,” Zdenek said; “I know you can do it. It's what we've all been doing. We've repressed ourselves to avoid being repressed. What sense is there in that?”
“Shrewd, peasant sense,” Mirna answered, winking at me, obviously referring to my characterizations of Mirna and her father in my letters to you.
“In a few years there'll be no peasants left, so what good did it do them?” Zdenek asked.
“Those who stayed out of trouble lived longer,” Mirna answered.
“You mean they didn't live at all!” Zdenek shouted angrily.
Yara added, “There are some kids who stayed out of the demonstrations in my school. No one talked to them after that and they weren't even invited to next week's outing, so what good did it do them to stay out of trouble?”
“Exactly!” Zdenek shouted, although it seemed to me that Yara's example did not “exactly” support Zdenek's argument, since nowadays, at least at Yara's school, it takes more nerve to stay out of demonstrations than to conform by taking part in them.
“What's life to you, Zdenek? Strikes and demonstrations?” Mirna asked, shifting the context of the argument. “Then I never lived. A few times in my life I had the nerve to abandon myself to my desires; I felt intensely alive and paid dearly — with the lives of those I loved. But that doesn't count in your philosophy.”
“You're wrong, Mirna,” Zdenek pleaded, seeming hurt by her comment. “That's all that counts in my philosophy. The strikes are only the first step; if they don't lead to what you're describing, they're nothing. In a strike we only announce that we've had enough of this repression of life, this non-life; we express our refusal to continue being chained to machines and cowed by police. But it's obviously not enough to announce that we're coming to life; we have to do what we've announced, we have to find the nerve to live, to dance on the tomb of the repressive apparatus.”
“We danced on the last day of school!” Yara exclaimed. Zdenek and I burst out laughing. Yara smiled, but pretending to be angry she planted herself next to Zdenek and asked him, “Why are you laughing, silly? Wasn't that what you meant?”
Zdenek picked her up, placed her on his lap, and still laughing told her, “Because you can say what I mean much better than I can, you little devil!”
“Are you going to dance on the last day of your factory?” Yara asked.
Zdenek roared. “I dream of nothing else! I haven't danced for over twenty years and I'm bursting with the desire to dance!”
Yara twisted Zdenek's moustache and said coyly, “I like you, Mr. Tobarkin. But I don't like your name. Can I call you something else?”
“How about just calling me Zdenek?”
“I can't call you that! You're too old!”
Mirna grinned, leaped out of her chair blushing, swept Yara off Zdenek's lap and carried her to the kitchen, asking in a whisper, “Too old for what, you little goose?”
The following evening Mirna came home from work an hour later than usual; throwing her arms around me and spinning me around the room, she shouted, “We spent the whole day talking about our strike!”
“At your plant?” I asked.
“And we're going to talk about it all next week before voting!” she continued excitedly. “We'll talk and talk until every single one of us is convinced.”
“Is the vote going to have to be unanimous?” I asked with dismay.
“It's the only way we can avoid what happened twelve years ago. But it'll be possible! Today the talk spread like a disease. In the morning there were only a few whispers; by the end of the day we were embracing in the aisles, throwing spools across the room. Those women went crazy!”
“That's not the disease but the beginning of the cure.”
“It's a disease, you oaf! We're sick, we've gone crazy!” she shouted, tripping me so that we both fell to the floor. “It's exactly what happened twelve years ago. Please, disease! Where's that bewitched daughter of yours? Yara!”
Yara came running out of the kitchen; as soon as she reached us, Mirna pulled her down to the floor between us.'Her arms wound around both of us, Mirna whispered to Yara, “No one is too old, Yara, ever, for anything!”
Yara, with tears in her eyes, threw her arms around Mirna's neck and whispered, “I love you when you're like this, mommy.”
“You devil, you're going to win,” Mirna whispered. “When are we going to have that dancing party?”
Yara covered Mirna's face with kisses. “How about Sunday? No, Julia can't come then. A week from tonight?”
“Your father and I will set the stage; you bring the characters. Fair?”
“You're fair, mommy. You're always fair. You won't change your mind?”
“And if I do?”
“We'll have the party anyway!”
For a whole week Mirna was a person I had never known. She's always been energetic, but on that Friday two weeks ago Mirna seemed to acquire the energy of a girl Yara's age; she reminded me very much of a girl I knew briefly twenty years ago: your energetic twelve-year old “sister.” Mirna seemed to shed twenty years of her life, to become a girl who hadn't lived through her husband's imprisonment, her brother's murder, her father's death, her mother's insanity, her first-born daughter's death.
“Setting the stage” meant transforming our living room into a ballroom. On Saturday Mirna ran all over the city looking for appropriate decorations. We spent all day Sunday as well as Monday and Tuesday evenings removing all the furniture as well as the rug, and then scrubbing and finishing a floor that hadn't been cleaned since Mirna bought the house thirteen years ago. Wednesday night we decorated our ballroom and Thursday we installed Julia's record player. Mirna insisted that Yara bring only records with “real” (namely traditional peasant) dance music, “and not those noisy things.”
Meanwhile Yara spent the week collecting the “cast.” Two days before the big event I asked her whom she'd invited.
Yara enumerated: “First of all there's me because I'm giving the party. Then there's you and mommy because you did all the work. Then there's Julia because the music is hers and Slobodan because he's our boyfriend. Finally there's Mr. Tobarkin because he wants to dance and Jasna because she's so sad. I wanted four couples, but Jasna wanted me to invite Mr. Zabran so I told Jasna I had my reasons for wanting exactly three and a half couples. And I do. I'd rather have three and a half couples than someone who might spoil everything. But I told Jasna not to worry; I said you couldn't wait to dance with her.”
“Please don't call me that, father!” she shouted, running off to her room.
The dancing party took place a week ago. If our neighbor Mr. Ninovo had been home he might have thought the revolution had broken out in our house. Music blared out of all our doors and windows, which we kept open because it was a warm spring night with a perfectly clear sky and a full moon. Someone kept running in and out and around the house. Mr. Ninovo would have been subjected to the experience of seeing and hearing happy human beings. Of course we wouldn't have been as happy if Mr. Ninovo had been home; his mere presence would have depressed us and muffled our joy. But Mr. Ninovo wasn't home; he hasn't been home for months. Maybe he died.
Mirna completed her stage-setting tasks by placing a record on Julia's player. I saw Yara pinch Slobodan's behind, and the two girls' boyfriend dutifully walked up to Jasna and asked her to dance. Jasna graciously accepted her pupil's invitation, and the moment she placed her left hand on her hip, snapped the fingers of her right hand and jumped, all of us were magically transported to another planet. Meek, skinny Jasna, who in real life is well over forty and probably close to fifty, was transformed on the dance floor into a stunningly beautiful child. She outdid her partner in grace, agility and speed; she was unmistakably the younger of the pair. Her usually sad and troubled face was an expression of pure joy covered only by her long hair, which she periodically swept back like a fan by swinging her head in rhythm to the music. I could have spent the rest of the night leaning on the wall, watching Jasna dance.
But it was Yara's party, and Yara wasn't about to let me do as I wished. She must have pinched Julia's behind because as soon as the first record ended, Julia was standing in front of me with both hands stretched out, asking me to dance.
“I'm very flattered,” I told Julia, “but I'll have to take some lessons first.”
“You don't need lessons, Mr. Vochek,” Julia shouted. “Yara showed me how you danced; it's such fun that we both taught Slobodan to dance the way you do.”
“Oh, she did, did she?” I asked, annoyed by this information. Looking angrily at Mirna I shouted, “Well, I'll have you know that I was under a magician's spell when I showed Yara that dance!”
Mirna laughed, threw me a kiss, and looked for another record. I felt Yara at my side, pulling my arm; when I bent down she bit my ear and whispered, “Come on, father, don't be such a coward.” The music started playing.
“All right, Cinderella,” I said firmly, bracing myself against the wall. “So you'd like to do the dance I showed my daughter? Very well!” I stuck out my arms and Julia pulled me away from the wall. We were in the middle of the dance floor; everyone's eyes were on us; Julia jumped up and down. Suddenly I got into the spirit of the thing. I actually danced for the first time in my life. I bent down, picked up Julia, and started turning around with her. She hollered. The record Mirna had picked out was very fast, so I spun faster and faster. Unfortunately I got dizzy much faster than Mirna had on the day she had first showed me my dance. I hit my head against the wall and dropped Julia to the floor.
In dismay I rushed away from the wall thinking Julia might be hurt, but I couldn't see her; or rather, I saw any number of Julias spinning all over the floor. One of them found my hand, pulled it to her lips, and shouted, “Hey, Mr. Vochek, don't forget the end of the dance!” I had in fact forgotten. As I bent down, I fell right on top of what must have been the one real Julia, kissed her ten and a half year old lips, raised myself up proudly and staggered to a corner of the room. From my corner I heard my appreciative audience fill the room with laughter.
As soon as my performance ended, Julia and Slobodan walked out of the house hand in hand, undoubtedly in order to determine whether she or I had won the bout. Mirna busily hunted for another record while Yara planted herself in front of Zdenek.
“Oh, I can't dance the way your father can,” Zdenek said shyly.
I shouted, “Come on, Zdenek, don't be such a coward!”
Yara pulled him to the center of the dance floor saying, “I don't want everyone to dance the same way!”
Zdenek and Yara danced — or rather Yara danced around Zdenek, who did not become transformed into a boy on the dance floor; he retained his nearly sixty years.
Suddenly Mirna started chuckling. “Hey Zdenek, you're wonderful!” she shouted with glee. “You dance just like a peasant I loved once; you even look like him!”
I wasn't as impressed as Mirna. Zdenek looked like he was dancing only so long as I kept my eyes above his waist; as soon as I looked at his feet I noticed they barely budged; one of his knees bent occasionally. As soon as Jasna burst out laughing I realized Mirna's compliment was a joke.
Even so, Zdenek turned to Mirna and bowed majestically. “Thank you, I'm very flattered.”
“Don't be,” I said; “she means her father.”
As soon as I said that, Yara stopped dancing, looked up at Zdenek's face and shouted, “You do look just like him! Stay right there! Don't move!” Yara ran out of the room and returned with a photograph of Mirna's father. “Look!” she shouted to Zdenek. “You look just like him!”
Zdenek seemed unconvinced. “Well,” he said, “he does have a moustache.”
Jasna and I laughed; Mirna blushed.
“That's what I can call you!” Yara announced victoriously.
“Moustache?” Zdenek asked.
“No, silly! Grandfather!”
“Won't your real grandfather be jealous?”
“He died when I was a year old.”
All were silent while the record completed its melody. Yara left the room with the photograph of her grandfather. Julia and Slobodan returned. Mirna started a new record, walked toward Zdenek and asked coyly, “Would you dance with me, grandfather?”
“Do I look like your grandfather too?” Zdenek asked with dismay. “That's no longer so flattering.”
“My father, then. Yara's grandfather, my father.”
“And the peasant you loved once?” he asked.
Mirna blushed, then bowed as majestically to Zdenek as he had to her and started to dance around him. I was again transported out of this world. The woman on the dance floor was the peasant girl I had fallen in love with fourteen years ago, but she was more, infinitely more. I've loved Mirna for fourteen years, only six of which I've spent with her. But the woman dancing with Zdenek was someone I had never known, someone whose existence had never been possible, someone who burst into life fully grown after more than two decades of repressed growth. Her motions weren't agile or light, like Jasna's, but slow, deliberate, almost willful. Instead of Jasna's grace, Mirna's dance expressed a certain dignity, the dignity of a stubborn human being determined to reach her goal.
Yara and Julia planted themselves next to the dancers and tried to imitate them. Julia did an excellent rendition of Mirna's deliberate, calculated, almost mechanical motions; only her facial expression was wrong; Julia smiled; Mirna's face was somber, distant. Yara couldn't stop laughing while she imitated Zdenek's motionless dance. Her friend Slobodan changed the record and remained standing by the player; he looked terribly bored.
My reveries ended when I saw Jasna's hands reaching for mine. She looked sad, old and skinny again. “Your daughter promised,” she said.
“I know,” I said apologetically. “But you've already seen the only dance I can do.” A generous, beautiful smile flashed across Jasna's face. I suddenly wanted to pick her up as I had picked up Julia. “Would you like to be spun?”
Jasna flushed. “That's not exactly what I had in mind.”
Mirna shouted, “Go on, Jasna, don't be such a coward!” She and Zdenek danced straight out of the house, followed by Jasna and Yara.
Jasna pulled me to the center of the floor. “I'll give you that lesson you wanted.”
“You just dance,” I insisted, “and I'll stand still like Zdenek.”
“You have to have known how to dance very well to stand still the way Zdenek does. Put your right arm out, jump on your left foot, kick with your right — don't be so stiff, Yarostan!”
I was quickly exhausted. Zdenek was covered by sweat when he returned. Slobodan was about to start another record but Mirna stopped him. “Let's rest for a while. Isn't anyone hungry? We have all that food and beer!”
Yara helped Mirna cover the dance floor with food. We sat on the floor eating, drinking, smiling silently. We were intensely happy.
Unfortunately Slobodan was bored, He left our circle and took a walk inside the house. He found his way to Mirna's and my room and turned on the radio. A piercing, alien sound broke through the silence.
“...UNDER THE PRETEXT THAT OUR POPULATION IS OUT OF CONTROL. MILITARY MANEUVERS HAVE BEEN OBSERVED IN...”
I leaped to my feet and ran to turn the apparatus off. But it was too late; the harm had already been done.
“The tanks!” Mirna shrieked. She started collecting dishes and empty bottles, but on the way to the kitchen she dropped them and ran to her room sobbing. “Just like twelve years ago!”
Slobodan walked toward Yara with a frightened expression on his face; he didn't understand what he had done. Yara put her hand on his shoulder and told him consolingly, “Don't lose sleep over it; something was bound to set that off. She'll be happy again tomorrow.” Then she ran to Mirna's room.
Julia pulled Slobodan out of the house, saying to me, “Thank you for dancing with me, Mr. Vochek.”
Jasna helped me clear the rest of the floor and then went to thank Mirna and Yara for the party. On her way out she shook my hand; the familiar sadness was back on her face.
Zdenek walked to the bedroom doorway and said, “The tanks were there already yesterday, Mirna; they're always there, and they're always on some maneuvers.”
“But they couldn't have taken happiness away from miserable people,” Mirna sobbed.
“They're not yet taking anything away, Mirna,” he said hesitantly. “It isn't certain.”
Zdenek wasn't certain either; he staggered slightly as he left the house. He seemed to feel depressed, the way he must feel after spending an evening at the bar.
Last Saturday, after helping Yara return Julia's phonograph and records, I helped Mirna turn the ballroom back to a living room. Yara spent most of the day packing. The following morning she left the house with a pack on her back for an outing to the mountains. Yara and several of her friends, including Julia and Slobodan, had looked forward to this outing for several months; they had planned it during a demonstration celebrating the return of a teacher who had been arrested and fired. They had originally intended to invite that teacher but no other adult to accompany them on the outing. Before the school term ended they talked themselves into taking the trip unaccompanied by teachers, parents or anyone older than twelve.
On Monday morning Mirna and I return to our jobs. The air at the carton plant is foul. Everyone in the plant seems to have heard the same radio broadcast. I work silently, keep to myself, and refuse to participate in speculations about troop and tank movements. I leave the plant early in the afternoon with a splitting headache. When I get home I find your letter in our box; I finish reading it a few minutes before Mirna returns from work. I hand her your letter, but she brushes it aside saying she's “too tired to read about other people's problems.” I set out the food I'd cooked while reading your letter, but Mirna doesn't eat; she only stirs the food angrily. At last she stops stirring and slams her fork down on the table.
“You voted against striking?” I venture.
“That's right, Yarostan. I voted against striking. All last week I was for it; everyone was; it would have been unanimous. But the vote was this morning, and this morning we didn't embrace in the aisles or throw spools. I was the first to vote against it. When someone asked if anyone was opposed, I was the first to raise my hand. And just as I expected, another hand went up after mine, and then another. In a minute at least half the hands were raised. If we'd waited another minute, all the hands would have been up; it would have been unanimous. We talked about striking once before, twelve years ago. We embraced, we cried from joy, we loved each other and the world twelve years ago, but only for an instant. It was our joy itself that brought the destruction of all we loved. There isn't a person in the workshop who can forget that.”
Mirna is wrong in placing the blame on the victims of the repression. But I don't have the nerve to confront or console her with Zdenek's arguments. I go to bed shortly after she does. But I can't easily fall asleep. I'm too depressed.
This is the mood we're in when your letter arrives. The following afternoon — the day before I start this letter — I leave the carton plant early again and walk to Jasna's house. She had wanted so badly to be told when another letter from you arrived. And she's overjoyed. Jasna, apparently, has not spent the previous two days speculating about tank movements. She runs out of her house, kisses me on the cheek and exclaims excitedly, “I can't wait to read it! I've felt so wonderful since your party, I can't tell you —”
“Then at least don't tell Mirna; she's convinced that happiness is inevitably the prelude to —”
“Oh, Yarostan, don't be so mean to her.” Jasna puts her arm through mine as we walk toward a store on our way to my house. “Mirna is frightened. Don't you think I am?”
Jasna reads your letter while I prepare a meal with the groceries she and I bought. I avoid telling her about Mirna's strike vote so as not to destroy the pretty smile that so transforms her usually sad face. Jasna is still reading when Mirna returns from work. Without greeting either Jasna or me, Mirna walks straight to the bedroom. Jasna gives me a bewildered look, but I tend to my cooking; I suppose she thinks Mirna and I had an argument. When I finish the meal, Jasna smiles to me but seems far away; she seems to be in the house behind the garage with you and Sabina, with Tissie and Jose. I wake Mirna and she drags herself to the table with a sullen expression. “I suppose you know all about it,” she grumbles to Jasna.
Jasna giggles and waves your letter in the air. “That's why I came! I think it's marvelous!”
“Mirna means her strike,” I tell her, regretting now that I hadn't mentioned it earlier.
“There's going to be no strike,” Mirna grumbles.
The smile leaves Jasna's face. “I'm awfully sorry. I didn't know.”
“Didn't you?” Mirna asks bitterly. “Zdenek is wrong, all wrong. Of course we lock ourselves up to stop them from doing it. It's so much less painful when we do it ourselves, and we inflict so much less harm on those we love.” This is not the same Mirna who, after reading your previous letter, had enthusiastically praised you for being “a born troublemaker just like Jan and Yara.” Before starting to eat she reaches for your letter and grumbles, “Let me see something marvelous.”
“It's worse when we do it to ourselves, Mirna; I don't agree with you,” Jasna says hesitantly.
“Yes you do!” Mirna snaps. “You've done it all your life!” She reads the beginning of your letter while eating, turning the pages impatiently, angrily. Suddenly she stops reading, pushes your letter away and stares — at nothing, into space. Her eyes have a glassy look: not sad, but removed.
Jasna's eyes already have tears in them. “Don't judge them, Mirna, please. They never stopped, never retreated, never gave up. I know them, both of them, but I never knew what fires burned in them. I knew Sabina was a devil; all of us knew. But all the other devils I've known were tamed before they left elementary school. She was hardly older than Yara then. And who could have imagined what passion was concentrated inside Sophia, that prim, polite, exaggeratedly correct young lady? I don't have a vantage point from which to judge them, Mirna. I can only gasp with admiration for such unquenchable desire, such burning passion. It's something I've never —”
“Some of us suffered the consequences of that passion, some of us paid the devil's price,” Mirna grumbles.
Jasna, apparently unable to control the flowing tears, objects. “I suffered only the consequences, Mirna, never the passion. I lived my whole life with my mind on the consequences and I ended up paying with my life and getting nothing in return. You're terribly wrong, Mirna. There's nothing more painful than to look back on a life which had no satisfied desires, a life that hadn't ever been lived. How I admire Sophia and Sabina! How I envy them! If I had been only a little bit like them! If I had only had a little courage to reach for what I desired!”
“And the courage to run away from the consequences, Jasna!”
“Let them be, Mirna, those consequences; let the devil take them.”
“The devil never takes the consequences!”
“Mirna, please! You don't know them. You haven't finished Sophia's letter. You don't know what courage —”
Mirna rudely cuts Jasna short. “Don't keep repeating that I don't know them. And don't you talk to me about courage and passion! You, who've never let yourself be driven by passion, who've never in your life had the courage to reach out and satisfy a desire. How sorry I felt for you the night you told us you'd let every desired being slip by you untouched. Yet you talk about courage and passion. How pitiful! How many lovers have you embraced only in your novels, Jasna? Titus, Yarostan, that Adrian and how many others?”
“Mirna, that's terribly, terribly cruel.” Jasna cries like a child.
I beg Mirna not to go on, but she seems not to hear me; her eyes are glassy; her expression is cold and distant; she seems to be talking as much to herself as to Jasna.
“Meek Jasna, spineless Jasna advised me to let the devil take the consequences. Isn't that cruel, terribly cruel? Where was Jasna when the devil refused to take them? I took the devil into my blood; the devil's passion flowed in my veins. I reached out, touched, grasped and embraced those the devil drove me to desire. But the devil didn't take the consequences. My brother, my father and my mother took the consequences. Vesna took the consequences. Yarostan and I suffered the consequences. The devil ran!”
Wiping her face and trying to control herself, Jasna says, “I know the horrors you've lived through for the past twelve years, Mirna. I know you've had far more than your share. I know they've destroyed your past. Why do you let them destroy your present and your future? You're at least fifteen years younger than I am. That's a whole generation, Mirna, time enough for a whole life. Why do you make yourself do willfully what I couldn't help doing? Why are you strangling yourself from both directions? Brush me away; rub me out with the sole of your shoe! I never asked you to take me for a model. But why turn against them in the same breath? If you had known them, even if only for an instant!”
Although it is trivial to the point Jasna is making, I clarify a factual detail to which Jasna refers constantly but mistakenly. “Mirna did in fact know Sabina for an instant. You probably remember that Sabina was Jan's companion during those few days before our arrest. One day Jan introduced Sabina to his parents and to Mirna —”
“What do you mean by `introduced,' Yarostan?” Mirna asks. “Jan brought you to the house together with Sabina —”
“I didn't intend to give a full description because I don't see what it has to do with —”
“You didn't see then, you don't see now and you never will see!” Mirna snaps.
Jasna pursues her argument a step further. “However briefly you knew her, Mirna, didn't she communicate something to you, something I could never act on, something having to do with the passion to live, unhindered, uninhibited, unbounded —”
The glassy expression returns to Mirna's eyes as she drones, “Yes she did, Jasna. That devil communicated her passion to me, just as she communicated it to Jan, to Yarostan, to you. And where was she when the three of you were in jail?”
“Mirna!” I plead. “That's really out of place in this discussion.”
“Where was she when you were taken from me? Where was she when Jan disappeared, when my father died?”
“That's so unfair!” Jasna exclaims.
Mirna turns her glassy eyes toward Jasna and asks, without anger, almost in a monotone. “Why have I had to suffer more than my share of the horrors, Jasna? Why didn't you share some of them with me — at least one? Where were you when Vesna was dying? You had been Jan's friend as well as Yarostan's.”
With tears rushing to my eyes, I walk behind Mirna and place my hands on her shoulders, trying in vain to make her realize how cruel, irrational and misplaced her attack is, but Mirna won't be stopped. “Vesna was a pupil in your school. You knew she was ill. I needed your courage then, Jasna. Where was it — in your novels? That courage might have saved my Vesna; she might still be alive today. The devil might not have taken her from me.”
Jasna backs away from the table with a look of intense pain, even horror. “Let her go on, Yarostan,” she sobs. “It's all true. I'm a coward, and cowards are the worst of all the criminals. It's because of all the cowards that we've lived through so many horrors. I read my novels and let it all happen. All of it! Including Vesna's death.”
Jasna leaves our house crying. I run after her, afraid of what she might do. “I'm terribly sorry, Jasna. I couldn't have imagined she was going to throw that in your face too.”
“Please don't be sorry for me,” Jasna says, trying to smile through her tears. “She's so perfectly right about me. I've never faced consequences, and I won't face them now any more than I ever have.”
“That also takes a certain kind of courage.”
“That kind is called cowardice,” she says, smiling.
“It doesn't make you a monster.”
Jasna hugs me and rests her wet cheek on mine. “If I were only a bit of a monster, Yarostan! If I only had the nerve! If I were at least vengeful! But I'm not, and I don't have the nerve. Can't you guess what I'll do now? I'll go home and read another novel.” She smiles as she walks away.
When I return, Mirna sits at the kitchen table, staring. I feel mad at her; I consider her attack on Jasna irrational, unprovoked and heartless. “I don't understand, Mirna. You're blaming that poor, harmless woman for everything this police state did to us, to our lives, to those we loved. You're making Jasna a scapegoat. Why?” Mirna stares at me but doesn't say anything, so I continue. “Because that's the way you see it, is that why? Have you ever thought you might be seeing it wrong? I admit you're not inconsistent. You see yourself the same way. According to you, a letter sent to me by Sophia twelve years ago caused my arrest, Jan's disappearance, your father's death, your mother's illness. Is it really impossible for you to imagine that there are places where people receive letters from all parts of the world without being molested by the police? Can't you understand that the cause of the arrests, the deaths, the suffering, is one and the same? It's that abomination we put up with for the past twenty years. Vesna didn't die because of you or Jasna or Yara. She suffocated in the rot; she was too sensitive to ignore it and too fragile to withstand it. Do you want to drive Jasna to suicide by throwing Vesna's death in her face?”
“Suicide?” Mirna asks coldly, cruelly. “Jasna? Suicide takes courage.”
“Mirna, I've never seen you like this.”
”Have you ever seen me, Yarostan? You've seen a shepherdess whose only passion was to buy a pair of curtains and a baby carriage, a pretty peasant girl whose desires were limited to displaying herself in the city park wearing city clothes.” Then she adds, with a trace of contempt, “I've never been near a sheep in my whole life.” While saying this, she picks up your letter and goes to the bedroom.
Mirna had told me more or less the same thing over two weeks ago, but in a much friendlier way. After reading my previous letter to you, she had said, “It's a very pretty portrait, this Mirna of yours, but it's not someone I'd recognize if I met her on the street.” I had responded by saying, “I apologize for the distortions; you've never been very eager to tell me about the real Mirna.” “Obviously not!” she'd exclaimed, throwing her arms around me; “you might not like her as well as you like your shepherdess.”
Mirna is still awake when I enter the bedroom. She has apparently finished your letter. “All right, I've never seen you,” I admit, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I simply assumed you herded sheep in that village you came from. That's not the same as holding Jasna responsible for Vesna's death.”
Mirna's response is, “I did throw corn to the chickens in our yard, so you weren't so far off.”
“Calling someone a shepherdess isn't the same as calling someone a murderer.”
“I didn't call her a murderer but a coward,” she says, yawning. Suddenly she forces me to forget my anger and drop the whole topic; she sits up and asks, with evident concern, “Yarostan, how is it possible that Sophia loved you for all these years if you loved her mother?”
I had told Mirna something about you several months ago, a few days before I wrote you my first letter. Yara had taken part in the first demonstration at her school, Mr. Ninovo had reported me to the police, and the police had come to our house to warn us about Mr. Ninovo. For several days Mirna was filled with affection — I should learn to use the right word: passion. It was one of the rare times in Mirna's experience when “trouble” had not been followed by fierce and unbearably painful repression. Although we had barely touched each other since my release from prison two years earlier, we now made love — passionately — every night. On one of those nights she asked me, “Who is Sophia Nachalo?” I was obviously stunned. I knew she hadn't ever known you and I couldn't imagine where she'd heard of you. “How in the world do you know about her?” “I don't know about her,” she said; “Sophia Nachalo was the name of the sender of the letter that came for you at the time of the Magarna agitation.” I remembered Mirna's having told me about a letter when she'd visited me in prison. “But I didn't know the letter had come from Sophia,” I told her. “Then Sophia Nachalo is a real person?” she asked. “Of course! What makes you think she isn't?” Mirna said, “I could barely understand the messenger who brought the letter, but I did understand that he'd delivered a similar letter for Jan to my parents' house and that the letter came from someone who'd known you and Jan. So I was sure the letter came from someone else, someone who knew where my parents lived because she'd been there, someone whose name wasn't Sophia but Sabina.” I told Mirna, “That's Sophia's younger sister.” She exclaimed, “Then I wasn't so far off!” “But what makes you think of that letter now, eleven and a half years later?” I asked her. Mirna answered, “Because I'm happy now, as happy as I was then, and because I know I'll have to pay for that happiness, just as I did then. I knew that letter from Sabina was the devil's bill of charges, and I still know that's what it was even if your Sophia sent it.” I asked, “The devil's what? You sound just like your crazy mother when you say things like that.” Mirna said, “I don't care what I sound like. My mother wasn't as crazy as people thought. Two hours after that letter arrived the police came looking for it. That same instant other police were at my father's house, beating him because he refused to give them a letter for Jan, That night Jan disappeared and you didn't come home.” I responded angrily, “But that's ridiculous! You're making the so-called devil responsible for events that have no connection with each other. You know perfectly well that Jan and I were arrested because of what we were doing in the steel plant. And your father couldn't have been beaten because he received a letter that no one ever read from a Sophia Nachalo he'd never met. Your father was probably beaten because he was Jan Sedlak's father. Can't you see that those events were pure coincidences?” Mirna was silent for a while; then she said, caressing me gently, “All right, lover, I'll pretend to see they were pure coincidences if you tell me how much you loved your Sophia.” That was when ! told Mirna, “She wasn't my Sophia, and I never loved her.” “I'm not going to pretend you're right if you don't tell me,” she said. “But it's true,” I insisted. “You've never really known me, Yarostan,” she told me; “you've never known that jealousy isn't something that flows in my blood; if you brought your Sophia to my bed I'd only love you all the more.” I said, “I don't believe you, but I'm not hiding anything from you. Anyway, it all happened when you were still in elementary school, so why would you be jealous? I slept with Sophia three or four times, just before our arrest, but I didn't love her. If you want to know the truth, I was madly in love with Sophia's mother. I dreamed of Sophia's mother during my whole first prison term and I was still in love with her when I met you, when we were married, when I was arrested the second time.” Mirna pressed me to her and exclaimed excitedly, “Her mother! That's wonderful! I'll pretend anything you want if you tell me about her. Was she anything like Sabina? Why don't you write her?” “She was a devil in her own way,” I told her, “but I don't love her any more. And how could I write her? Do you want me to go to the police and ask for Sophia's address? I don't even know that Sophia and her mother are still together.” Then Mirna admitted slyly, “I memorized the address on that envelope.” Somewhat stupefied, I asked, “And you remembered it until now? Why?” She said, “Because I thought the letter came from Sabina.” I fell asleep without telling her about Luisa, and she didn't ask again — until two nights ago, after her argument with Jasna.
Mirna's question makes me swallow my anger toward her, it makes me forget my pity for Jasna. Her question brings back the embarrassment — I should say guilt — I'd felt the day before, while reading your letter. “I suppose Sophia never knew how much I loved Luisa, and I suppose she still doesn't know.”
“Sophia thought you loved her, didn't she?”
“I suppose she did. I know what you're getting at, Mirna, and I know you're right. I was a coward and I'm still a coward. I treated Sophia very badly. Yes, terribly. And I didn't have the nerve to tell her. I still don't have the nerve.”
“I can see why!” Mirna exclaims, grasping your letter. “Who would have the nerve to tell such a correct young lady, `I slept with your mother'? — a young lady so sensitive to the correct age and the correct sex of the correct couple. The thought that Tina slept with Ted — and she didn't convince me of that — drove her out of her mind. After she caught her mother with her boyfriend, she dramatically left them both and buried herself in a factory although she obviously didn't have to. She does have something in common with our Yara, but she also has something in common with our Vesna. So you lied to her to avoid hurting her. That's very thoughtful, Yarostan. It shows you did love her. If I had only lied to Vesna, and kept lying to her, she'd still be alive today.”
“I don't understand, Mirna. Why do you bring up Vesna —”
She cuts me short. “Tell me about Luisa; tell me everything Sophia doesn't know, and I'll pretend to forget Vesna — at least for the time being.”
Twenty years of lying is twenty years too many. I tell Mirna “everything,” and I'm going to tell it all to you. I don't know how Mirna could have helped Vesna by lying to her, but I do know that I've “helped” you in just that way long enough, far too long. I understand that you genuinely loved Jose and I'm relieved by your telling me that you never felt that kind of love for me. I don't fully understand why you left Jose and I'm embarrassed by your insistence that this had something to do with me. Or rather with “Yarostan.” I add this because your “Yarostan” has nothing in common with me; your “Yarostan” is a product of your imagination, a composite of all the people you loved, or wished you had loved. The real Yarostan turned to you only when he felt rejected and betrayed; he turned to you dishonestly, he abused you and lied to you, he used you as a substitute, as a last resort. I know it's extremely crude of me ta tell you this after reading your moving account of your painful experiences in Sabina's garage. I'm expressing myself as crudely as possible. What would have happened, according to your imagination, if you had come here twelve years ago, or the day before yesterday? Did you really think I would have said goodbye to Mirna and Yara the moment I saw you? How much pain would you have felt if I had told you only then that you had made a big mistake, that I had respected you once, perhaps even admired you, but that I couldn't find a trace of my love for you in my memory? Would you have been grateful to me then for lying to you so thoughtfully for so long? And is it really altogether my fault that you can still speak of “flying to me”? Have the clues I left in all my letters been altogether undecipherable to you? But I'm judging you and I've no right to. I carried an illusory “Luisa” in my heart for many years after reality itself had made the real Luisa plainly visible to me. And, in spite of my determination to be as crudely clear as possible, I wouldn't be completely open with you unless I admitted that your declaration of your twenty-year long love for me doesn't leave me cold. Yes, the knowledge that one is desired stimulates desire. But please understand this, Sophia: My love for you would have to be born in the present; it couldn't be built on any love I felt for you in my past.
“When did you first meet Sophia's mother?” Mirna asks. “What was she like? Did you think of her as your mother or she of you as her son? Did you run after her or did she catch you? Why did you accompany Jan and Sabina to my house? Were you running from Luisa? chasing Sabina? looking for fresh air?”
“If I hadn't accompanied them, you and I would never have met.”
“Don't I know!” Mirna exclaims. “Jan would have spent the night with Sabina; I would have married that peasant I was engaged to; my whole family would be alive and well today — But I promised to pretend to forget. Well? Tell me! Unless you're sleepy,”
No, I'm not sleepy at all; I'm wide awake and very excited. Mirna is twenty-nine. Luisa was twenty-eight when I first met her. I was fifteen. The war was over and quickly forgotten; only fairy tales survived. The resistance was over, half the resisters were dead, and they were quickly forgotten; only fairy tales survived about that as well. It was a time for fairy tales about the past and the future. I suppose that's why Titus first took me to Luisa's house. He thought I ought to have a little “political consciousness.” Why not, after all? I was already a proven fighter; I could shoot, I could work; all I couldn't do was “think politically.” And what better “teacher” could have been found? I had already seen her in the carton plant. As soon as I stepped into your house, which to me was and remains Luisa's house, I was instantly “politicized.” I was converted. Even better: seduced. I was seduced by every story she told, by every theory she expressed, by the tone of her voice, by her lips, her eyes, her body, her hair. I believe you were in that house too, Sophia, but I don't remember your presence there because I wasn't aware of it. All that existed for me was Luisa. I wallowed in Luisa, swam in Luisa. I became Luisa. I memorized everything she said and even copied her manners. I tried to think what I took to be her thoughts. Did I think of her as my mother, my imaginary mother? I don't know. I did think her the most daring, courageous, intelligent, imaginative and beautiful human being in the world and in a sense I was her “son” certainly intellectually. But I didn't think of her in personal terms at all, in terms of her physical relationship to me. I thought of her in terms of barricades, in terms of the workers' own genuine union, in terms of the struggle we were preparing ourselves for. I thought of her in terms of the revolution. Luisa and revolution were synonyms to me. You learned Sabina's outlook in her friends' bar; you seem to have learned it then for the first time and to have been somewhat shocked by it. Yet Sabina couldn't have chosen better words to describe what I experienced in Luisa's house: all relationships were open, nothing was left unsaid, there were no secrets, no taboos, nothing was forbidden. Did I desire Luisa already then? Yes I did, desperately, with all my being. But I didn't “run after her.” She already had two lovers, or “husbands” George Alberts and Titus Zabran, and I didn't consider myself a likely candidate for a third, not so much because of my age as my “political backwardness.” Besides, Titus had been a friend to me since the war, almost a brother; he had introduced me to Luisa and I didn't want to stab him in the back for all his kindness. For almost two years I loved Luisa in the shape of the revolution; I did everything to prepare myself for her; I read, concentrated, talked. I ran after the revolution. It was Luisa who “caught” me.
“Show me how she caught you! How old was she then?”
“She was a year older than you are, but I can't show you in the dark, Mirna, because she did it in broad daylight.” As she did everything else. She was thirty; I was seventeen. I suppose relations weren't as open as I thought, not everything was said, and there were secrets, since you never knew about us. But I couldn't have known at the time that you, who lived in Luisa's house, didn't know about our love; I couldn't have known that in your eyes two people separated by more than a decade didn't constitute a “correct” couple. But I admit I wouldn't have acted differently if I'd known.
It happened in the carton plant, during work hours. Luisa was carrying on a heated argument with Claude Tamnich. I obviously don't remember the subject of the argument, but I do remember both of them quite clearly and I can easily imagine what they were arguing about. Claude was probably insisting that solidarity and comradeship meant spying, liquidating, jailing, torturing, killing. Whether he actually said that or something similar, he infuriated Luisa. “Stunted baboon,” she called him, and “fascist” (both of which titles he undoubtedly deserved), Luisa stomped around the shop muttering, “I'll show you what workers mean by union, by comradeship, by solidarity!” She came to me first and locked her arm in mine; then she locked her other arm in Adrian's; quickly Jan, Vera, Titus joined us — and Jasna last. We moved toward Claude like a stone wall. “Join us or get out!” Luisa shouted. Claude was undecided at first; then he turned and walked out of the room. We roared with laughter as we returned to our machines. (Small wonder the same Claude later spread the rumor that Luisa was a foreign spy.) Luisa returned with me, her arm still locked in mine. Suddenly she turned and pressed her chest, her whole body, against my arm. She whispered, “That's what comradeship means.” I almost fainted. I knew Titus had seen us. I suppose everyone had. But I didn't move. I won't say I couldn't move. I didn't want to. I had at last “graduated”; I had become a “politically conscious militant.” My revolution, everything I had wanted from life during every minute of the previous two years, had come. I became a “revolutionary cadre” the following afternoon, during a break, in the stockroom of the carton plant. Your mother, Sophia; a woman almost old enough to be mine. In one of your first letters to me you moralized for several pages about the fact that I was “married.”
It's my turn to “moralize.” I actually doubt that you'd know about my passion for Luisa if you'd seen us embracing — you wouldn't have seen the embrace because you wouldn't have believed either of us capable of it. When you saw Luisa lying with Alec that night you left them, why did you assume it was Alec who had seduced Luisa, and only in order to spite you? Why did you become so infuriated when Tina left you to join a man twice her age? I can't speak of your experience, but I can tell you from mine that your “correct” relationships are not the only ones possible. For a whole year Luisa and I made love daily, in the stockroom, in your house (I suppose you weren't ever there at the time), in my modest room. My love for her was total, my desire for her unquenchable. Neither my love nor my desire could have been more complete, more perfect, if Luisa had been fifteen years younger.
“Where did Sophia get the idea you loved her? Are you leaving something out?”
No, this time I'm not leaving anything out. I hadn't paid any attention to you or Sabina before the strike broke out. Luisa brought both of you to the plant on the first day of the strike. I still didn't notice you. All I noticed was Luisa's sudden and inexplicable coldness toward me. She suddenly treated me, not as a complete stranger, but as a fellow worker with whom she'd not had intimate relations. I tried to explain this to myself in terms of her desire to be free and unattached on the eve of the great event. I tried to explain it in terms of my “political backwardness.” On the very first day of the strike, Luisa already had a “position,” Titus had another, Jan had a third. Vera a fourth, while I was completely at sea; all I could think of was Luisa's sudden indifference to me. Everything seemed to become clear on the second day when, after a group meeting, Titus told me furiously that I would have done better to remain in the city's basements and alleys. I thought he was finally responding to my having stabbed him in the back by taking Luisa from him; I concluded they'd had a scene, that Titus had shamed Luisa into abandoning her “affair” with the “irresponsible adventuristic hooligan.” I was ashamed, not only of my stab in the back but also of my persisting political illiteracy. I had to prove myself, both to Titus and to Luisa; I had to show them their attempts to “educate” me hadn't been wasted. At our next meeting — I suppose that was the third day — I brought up the fact that the “class oppressor,” Mr. Zagad, was still sitting in his office counting his future profits while we merely talked about slogans on posters. I was only stating what everyone knew, yet everyone, even Claude, responded as if I'd discovered a new planet. I grinned with pride; I thought that in Luisa's and Titus' eyes I had become a “strategist.” You bothered to remember my “strategy” for twenty years; in one of your first letters you told me you admired me, you fell in love with me, when I proposed my “plan.” Yet all your admiration, as well as all my pride, were badly misplaced. That “strategy” wasn't really mine, nor was I the one who implemented it. I merely stated the obvious: Zagad was still in his office. It wasn't I but Claude who suggested doing something about this. I merely watered down Claude's suggestion by asking if instead of locking Zagad into his office we couldn't just ask him to leave. And for this I was given credit for our one concrete accomplishment, our sole real feat. Yes, the only genuine “event” that we set off during those two weeks. Everything we did after Zagad was ousted, all those “activities” you remember so vividly, were nothing; we merely treaded water to keep from drowning. I was proud of myself as the “instigator” of that event, but I wasn't the one who instigated it nor the one who implemented it. Much as we all disliked Claude, it was he who instigated and also implemented our single concrete deed. It was an “action” perfectly suited to his temperament: it had to do with “liquidating,” Claude headed our little procession to Zagad's office. It was he who threw the door open. It was he who introduced us as “representatives of the Plant Council,” namely as emissaries of a vast, nebulous entity, as agents of a powerful repressive apparatus. It wasn't I and it couldn't have been. I would have knocked on Zagad's door, entered sheepishly and hesitantly; I would have begun to “implement our strategy” by saying, “Good morning, Mr. Zagad,” and my admirable plan would have vanished the moment Zagad had said, “Good morning, Yarostan, what can I do for you?” I'm not the hero you've bothered to remember for two decades, Sophia. My thoughts weren't on Zagad but on Luisa. I was proud of our “action” because I was sure she was pleased. I thought I had redeemed myself in her eyes and in Titus' as well. And I was terribly confused. Had I redeemed myself to Luisa as a “politically conscious activist” or as a lover? Such a separation hadn't existed before the strike; suddenly there wasn't only a separation but it seemed unbridgeable. I would be trusted by Titus and Luisa but I would no longer be loved by Luisa. All this occurred to me only after Zagad left his office. Until then I had been carried away by everyone's enthusiasm, especially Sabina's. When Claude, Jan and I had elected ourselves to implement “my strategy,” Sabina had jumped up to join us. On the way to Zagad's office, Jan and I had walked, or rather “danced,” behind Claude, with Sabina between us, her arms around our waists, ours around her waist. “This will make everything possible!” she'd kept saying, filling my head with images of a world where everything would be possible everywhere and at any time. Jan and I had lifted Sabina and “flown” her up the stairs to Zagad's office. Suddenly Zagad was gone and so were my images.
Sabina's arm left my waist and I was alone. How I envied Jan that moment. Sabina's enthusiasm didn't diminish after Zagad's departure; it increased. And she showered Jan with all of it. Claude walked out behind Zagad, Sabina shouted, “We've done it!” and wrapped herself around Jan. How I wished Louisa had wrapped herself around me shouting, “We've done it!” How I wished Sabina had turned to me! I crawled out of the office, lonely, disoriented. Jan rushed out after me and asked for the key to my room; he gave me the key to his. I didn't then understand the reason for the exchange but I didn't ask. Jan and Sabina left together through the office building entrance. I shuffled from the office back to the workshop but stopped behind a post before anyone saw me. I saw Luisa and Marc Glavni leaving by way of the workshop entrance, arm in arm, gesticulating and laughing. Titus and Jasna were still in the shop. I backed away from my post and rushed back through the office building to the street. I walked aimlessly and wanted to die. I had proved myself for nothing, to no one. All my explanations had been wrong. Luisa hadn't dropped me because of my backwardness nor because she'd wanted to be detached but because she'd found another lover. Titus hadn't scolded me because I'd taken Luisa from him. Only then did it dawn on me that just before Titus' outburst, during our meeting, I had laughed and nodded vigorously when Jan had proposed throwing all the machinery into the street as our first revolutionary act. How stupid I'd been to attribute Titus' outburst to jealousy! My sympathy for Jan's “scheme” defined me as an outright “counter-revolutionary” in Titus eyes, since for Titus the machinery was the revolution, the two were synonymous.
“So that's when you turned to Sophia,” Mirna concludes prematurely.
“Not yet, Mirna; that's when I met you.”
“And you were disappointed,” she says all too accurately; “you'd hoped to find another Luisa.”
“Did you know that already then?” I ask.
“If I had, I wouldn't have cared; I had my own passions to worry about,” she says.
I spent the night in Jan's room. But I couldn't sleep. I remember why but I'd rather skip over it. Early the next morning I crawled back to my room. Sabina let me in. I wanted only to be left alone, to sleep. But Jan and Sabina were wide awake and they had other plans for me. I had known since I'd first met Jan that he hated his mother; I was soon to learn why. Sabina nestled up to me and told me, “We're going to spend the day in the country.” I told her to have a good time and let me sleep. “You're not going to sleep today,” she assured me, poking me in the ribs to keep me from trying. Jan and Sabina lifted me out of bed and forced strong coffee down my throat. “We can't go without you,” Jan explained. “The revolution is going to spread to the peasantry, and your contribution is going to be indispensable.” I was awake. “You're needed to cement the great worker-peasant alliance,” he continued. Brushing aside my objections, he went on, “You don't have to harangue anyone; you don't have to organize anything. All you have to do is make love to the Queen of the Peasants — a woman slightly older than Luisa but less experienced. That single act on your part will destroy religion and morality, the family and the state; that single act will set the fires of hell to all the peasantry's precious traditions, all their sacred bonds. Tomorrow peasants leaving their burning villages will mingle with workers leaving their burning factories and they'll all migrate across fields and over mountains, fulfilling every wish, satisfying every desire and every whim on the way.”
Mirna laughs. “Did Jan really tell you that? And did you actually come looking for `a woman slighly older than Luisa but less experienced'?”
“I obviously don't remember his exact words, but I swear what he said was very close to that. And I believed him. I actually thought he and Sabina felt sorry for me and intended to introduce me to someone like Luisa.”
“That's marvelous!” she exclaims. “Now I remember why he had us all go picking berries! Why didn't you go through with it? Don't you see how right he was? All hell would have broken loose in a single instant, instead of cracking a little this year, a little the next and again the next over such an endless expanse of time!”
I didn't think it was “marvelous” at the time, and I still don't think so. I think Jan and Sabina had devised a mean trick. Jan knew that the mere mention of Luisa's name would set me moving. He dangled Luisa in front of me during two tram rides. and a substantial walk. We reached his house. He introduced me to his father, mother and sister. I looked for the nearest chair; I had a splitting headache and felt like vomiting; I hadn't gone without sleep for so long during the entire war and resistance. “A headache!” Jan said; “Well isn't that too bad? You won't be able to join us on our berry picking expedition.” I got up in spite of my headache and my nausea; I didn't want to miss my promised rendezvous. “Oh no, you can't go in that condition,” Jan insisted; “you stay right here in the house, where my mother can nurse you.” Then he whispered, “She's a real queen, Yarostan; every bit as regal as the queen of heaven and as pure as the mother of her lord Jesus Christ.” I vomited. Jan and his father helped me to the couch. Mirna and her mother cleaned up the mess. Then Jan left with his father, Sabina and Mirna. I was alone in the house with the Queen of the Peasants. She brought me a wet cloth for my head and crossed herself when she handed it to me. Sometime later she handed me a newly dampened cloth and crossed herself again. She crossed herself every time she entered the front room to look in at me. She was deathly afraid of me; she seemed convinced I was either a thief or a murderer who had just escaped from prison. And one time she tiptoed through the room I was in and went to another room where she wailed prayers. I hated myself for having let myself be tricked into leaving my comfortable room and bed. I was nearly unconscious with pain when the berry pickers returned. And I was nauseated; I had no interest in eating the meal the Queen of the Peasants had spent the day preparing. Jan, Mirna and Sabina helped put me to bed in Jan's room, or rather the guest room, since Jan explained, “They call it my room although I haven't spent a single night in it; you're the first person in this bed.”
“My mother started building that room onto the house two years earlier,” Mirna explains; “until then Jan and I had always slept in the same room and in the same bed. One day she came into our room before we were up and saw us sleeping with our arms around each other — she saw us sleeping the way we'd always slept as far back as I could remember — and she yanked us both out of bed and beat us with a broom, calling us the names of all the devils in hell. Jan left. I never shared a bed with him again. I cried for weeks. I hated her until she died. Then I understood why she beat us.”
So that was why Jan wanted me to help destroy religion and morality, the family and the peasant community. I suspected this at the time, from much that Jan had told me, from much that he had done. Two years earlier Mirna had been eight, namely the same age Tina was when you watched over her in her bedroom. You described yourself as Tina's apprentice; you considered her old enough to teach you lathe-turning, machining — But that's your problem. In any case, I didn't think about it that night or the following night or during any of the hectic days before our arrest, and in time I forgot why Jan had invited me to meet his family. While they carried me to bed, Sabina angrily whispered in my ear, “Coward! Counterrevolutionary! Everything depended on you, and you spoiled it all.” I was too sick to respond. I woke up once during the night; my head was bursting. Jan was sound asleep next to me. The next time I woke it was morning. Jan was shaking me. “Come on, let's get out of here.” When I sat up he added, “Planned revolutions inevitably fail; isn't that their very nature? But our trip wasn't a total failure. Anxious to keep the blessed young virgin out of Beelzebub's paws, the Mother Superior placed the virgin directly into Satan's!” Jan left the room laughing victoriously. Understanding nothing, I dressed hurriedly and rushed out of the room and then out to the street. I couldn't believe what I saw and heard. Mirna's mother stood near the doorway grasping a broom which she kept trying to raise, but which Mirna's father kept lowering. She was screeching at Sabina. “You'll roast in hell, you shameless gutter snipe! You'll burn for all eternity!” Sabina, her back arched like a cat's, stood right in front of the woman and shouted just as loudly, “You'll freeze where you're going, you dried up carcass, you vampire that sucks life out of the living because there's none left in you!”
“What happened that night?” I ask Mirna. “She brought my brother's destruction,” Mirna says bitterly, “my father's death, my mother's —”
“I mean that night, Mirna,” I interrupt impatiently; “Would you rather forget?”
“Doesn't this letter tell you what happened? How could I ever forget? My mother was right. Sabina put the devil's blood into my veins. The hypocrite! For twenty years I'd thought she'd done it for me. But the fiend has no kindness, no heart; her deeds are for herself alone! `Your brother loves you,' she told me. `You're his only girl.' she told me. And then she asked, `Would you like me to pretend to be your brother?' I begged her to pretend and I lost myself pretending. I drowned in happiness pretending. And my happiness drowned everyone I loved, Jan first of all.”
“Now you're contradicting yourself. I thought that letter Sophia sent was responsible for all that happened —”
“If your logic could bring Jan back I'd have more faith in it!” she exclaims angrily. Mimicking Jasna she goes on, “ `Didn't Sabina communicate something about the passion to live?' And where was Sabina when we drowned in that passion? Why did we have to suffer all the consequences? `Your brother loves you.' I knew it was true. So did you. Everyone knew. We didn't hide our love. The devil! I thought she was going to help us the way she did that morning —”
That morning Sabina made herself the object of the superstitious old woman's wrath, provoking Mirna's mother with taunts and insults while Mirna's father kept the broom from leaving the ground. Jan and Mirna were a few houses away; I walked toward them in a bewildered stupor. Mirna, her arms around Jan's neck, cried desperately. “Take me with you, Jan, take me to the city. Please don't make me stay here!” Jan told her, “It's not possible yet, Mirna.” She wailed and pleaded. “But it may soon be possible,” he told her; “Wait a few more days, at most a week. Wait in the clearing.” Years later Mirna took me to that clearing in the forest. “I'll be there every day all day long; I'll sleep there,” she said. Jan told her, smiling, “Don't do that, silly; you'll get sick. Be there in a week. A week from yesterday. If the rest of us do better than this spineless friend of mine, a lot is going to be possible, everything's going to be possible.” With an expression whose pathos I still remember, the ten-year old girl pleaded, “Promise, Jan! Promise!” He said sadly, “I promise. I'll take you away from here. We'll leave the clearing and walk through the forest to the neighboring village and we'll think we're dreaming, because the village won't be there any more; we'll find thousands of people building a city like no city that's ever been built and they'll welcome us and ask us to help because they'll all be our friends; there won't be any policemen or prying old women because they'll all be too busy building or making love. We'll stay in our friends' beautiful city as long as we want and not a minute longer; we'll be as free as birds; we'll roam across the entire country; we'll visit streams and caverns and other cities, and in each city we'll find only friends; they'll all beg us to join them in what they're doing and we won't know where to turn first because every activity to which we're invited will seem more gratifying than all the rest.” I heard Mirna's pathetic plea; I heard Jan's fairy tale; but I registered nothing. I was angry about the fact that Jan and Sabina had tricked me. I wanted to get back to the real world, the world of Luisa, the world of meetings and posters and demonstrations. I remember that it was a Monday morning; the following Monday the strike ended; two days later we were arrested. I nudged Jan and said, “Let's go back, we'll be late for the meeting and it'll be an important meeting; we're to decide what steps to take now.” Jan freed himself from Mirna's embrace, turned to me and said bitterly, “Damn your meetings, Yarostan. That's not where any steps are going to be taken.” Then he kissed Mirna's forehead and said to me, “But you're right. That's all we've got to go back to.” He rushed to Sabina, lifted her away from in front of his mother and carried her off while she continued shouting. As we walked away Jan shouted, “Goodbye, father.” Mirna ran after us and shouted, “Don't forget, Jan; you promised!” We were late for the meeting, but Jan was right; no steps were taken. We spent the week doing all those exciting things you still remember and then we were arrested.
“Jan did keep part of his promise though,” Mirna tells me; “the only part he was able to keep.”
“You mean you saw him again before our arrest?”
“I went to the clearing every day hoping he'd be there. He came exactly when he said: in a week. But he wasn't the same. Something inside him was broken. He didn't kiss me. He didn't even touch me. When he talked, he didn't look at me. The devil had made me beg him to do something he couldn't do and he had broken himself trying. `I love you the way a brother loves his sister, Mirna — no less and no more; do you understand that?' he asked me. I didn't understand that. The devil was in my veins; I was angry; I reached for more. `Sabina showed me how much you loved me,' I told him. He turned his back to me. `Forget what Sabina showed you,' he said, and I knew he was sad when he said it because I wanted him to be sad when he said that. `Forget you ever heard of Sabina. What she showed you is impossible and not even Sabina knows how to make it possible. Only a revolution would make it possible and there aren't enough Sabinas for that revolution; not today; not here. I tried; believe me when I tell you I tried. But there weren't enough of us trying and we failed. Failed! Please understand what that means, Mirna. Everything we dreamed is going to be impossible and there's nothing to do but forget it until the next time. If you can't forget, at least pretend to forget; lock your feelings into your heart and keep them locked there every minute of every day. If you let them out that old vampire and all the vampires of this world are going to tear your heart to shreds. Do you understand that?' I didn't understand anything. He sounded sincere but I didn't believe a word he said. I got on my knees and prayed to him, I begged him to take me to the city. Nothing would be possible if he left me in that house with those peasants, that horrid mother. In the city I'd be just like you and Jan and Sabina; in the city everything would be possible; Sabina would be there; she'd know; she'd show me. Why did I have to pretend not to be what I was, not to feel what I felt, not to love those I loved? Who would tear my heart to shreds? I didn't believe Jan. I didn't believe him until the vampires tore my heart to shreds. Jan left me in the clearing, alone, angry. I returned the following week, and the week after that, but he didn't come for me. One day my father told me Jan and all his friends were locked up, far away. Then I believed what he'd told me. I learned to pretend. I pretended for four years and when he returned I went on pretending. I was engaged to a peasant I knew in school; I pretended I'd never loved Jan and he didn't even remember he'd told me to pretend. He was upset about the peasant, but for my sake, for the sake of my future, not for his own sake. When you came I pretended you were Jan. And I've pretended ever since. How does that make you feel?”
“What difference does that make, Mirna? What if I pretended you were Luisa? I still loved Luisa when I first made love to you. Does that make any difference to you? Would it have then?”
“Is that what you did to Sophia? Did you pretend she was Luisa when you made love to her?”
“No, Mirna. If I pretended you were Luisa it was because I loved you the way I had loved Luisa. I didn't pretend Sophia was anyone I had ever loved. I only used her. That's why I could never tell her.”
“Couldn't she tell?”
That's what I'd like to know: couldn't you tell? I had seen you at Luisa's — I should now say your house, the house in which Luisa and I had made love countless times; how could you not tell? I saw you again at that meeting after Jan and I returned from his family's house. I saw you exactly as Jasna still remembers you: as the prim, well-mannered, perfectly correct young lady, amazingly well-informed and incredibly naive. I read your description of your passion for Jose with disbelief. I can't imagine how Hugh could have characterized you as he did. It was I who was wrong, I know that now; my picture of you was as false as your picture of me. It was nevertheless that picture I saw; it was that person I “seduced.” I don't want to insult you, Sophia. You were very pretty, even beautiful in your own delicate way; I'm sure you still are. But for me your beauty wasn't the beauty of flesh and limbs, it wasn't a beauty that stimulated passion. It was the beauty of a porcelain statue — cold, fragile, hollow. You were no Luisa — not then, not to me. With what passion Luisa had expressed herself at that meeting! It was that passion that hurled me into frenzied activity. Yet you remember only the words. When she shouted, “The workers have to run the factories by themselves! We have to make all of life ours and run all of it!” I didn't hear only words; I saw the desire in her eyes and on her lips, I felt the passion in all her movements. That's why I agreed with Luisa while simultaneously agreeing with Jan. Their words seemed to contradict each other but I thought their passions were identical. Luisa talked of running the factories, Jan of burning them, but both communicated the same thought to me: the thought of a life we've dared only to dream and only those of us who've dared to dream. What I felt and heard had to do with willful, passionate human beings whose biographies were to consist of realized desires and not of paid instructions, whose factory aisles, if they must have factories, were to be carpeted with the mattresses Sabina described to you. That's why I worked with passion to put Luisa's slogans on posters and on walls and inside other factories. Those slogans were all I retained of Luisa's love. After the meeting she kissed Marc Glavni on his lips and walked away with her arm around him. It was only then I turned to you, Sophia. That was when I asked if you wanted to help me print posters. That was when I gave you a tour of the plant and rode with you the following day distributing the posters. It wasn't love or passion or desire that drove me to you, Sophia, but only frustration and resentment. You tell me that my caresses didn't equal Jose's — yet you loved me. Couldn't you draw your conclusions? The only desire I felt toward you was the desire to take a porcelain statue in my arms and shatter it into splinters. Yet you responded to every request I made with the same, polite, “Yes, Yarostan, it would please me very much.” When we returned to the plant after distributing our posters I asked if you'd like to spend the night with me in the plant. “Yes. Yarostan, it would please me very much.” I slept. I dreamed of Luisa. You didn't rouse a shadow of desire in me. You shyly placed your arm next to mine, but ever so politely! I couldn't make myself pretend you were Luisa! I did desire you once, Sophia, for an instant. You politely consented to spend the following night with me. That night's “love” is undoubtedly the love you've remembered for twenty years; that's the night I've tried to make myself forget. But if I'm going to expose the falseness of your feelings toward me, I can't continue hiding the foul root from which they sprang. I intentionally placed our blanket near the street entrance to the workshop. You responded politely to my caresses. I was sure you said everything you thought you should say and you turned exactly as you thought you should turn. It was only the following morning that my desire for you grew. You were nervous; you knew how late it was. But you remained in my arms, smiling your polite, fragile, nervous smile. Suddenly the workshop entrance was wide open; sunlight streamed in; Luisa shouted, “Oh, excuse us!” as she and Marc scurried past us into the shop; Titus arrived a second later. My satisfaction was complete when, red with shame, you ran to the stockroom with a blanket draped around you. I had broken the porcelain statue. I did it out of resentment toward Luisa and toward Titus, out of frustration, out of spite. How you hated Alec when you saw him embracing Luisa for what you took to be similar motives! I loved you, desired you, Sophia, during one instant: the instant when you turned red with shame, the instant when Luisa, Titus and Marc looked at the correct young lady having intercourse on the workshop floor right by the street entrance in broad daylight.
“The devil put that into your head!” Mirna exclaims.
“I don't want to hide behind the devil, Mirna. What I did to Sophia was monstrous and I feel I should tell her that her love for me is built on rot.”
“You'll be boasting. Do you think any such idea could have come into your head on its own? Don't you recognize its author? Only three days earlier Jan had asked you to do exactly the same thing at my house, to my mother. Did you think that was Jan's idea? The two pranks are identical, Yarostan, and neither you nor Jan were such ingenious pranksters. It has the devil's signature on it; don't you see it even now? The prank was designed to drive my mother out of her wits. By making Sophia the Queen of. the Peasants you merely made the prank useless to Jan and postponed the completion of the devil's plan until a time when Jan could no longer derive any satisfaction from it.”
“That's terribly garbled, Mirna. I insulted Sophia —”
“She revenged herself twice over! She told you she left jail in two days, abandoning you and Jan to four years in prison. Then she went on to take everything you hadn't given her and she thanked you for all of it — from spite! That prank would have served Jan's aims far better than it served yours. Did you ever regain Luisa's love? Was she waiting for you at the prison gate when you were released four years later? Yet you still loved Luisa then. It's you I feel sorry for, not Sophia. The three of them took twelve years from your life and the heart out of mine, yet you're grovelling, apologizing: `I'm sorry, Sophia, for having played your sister's prank on you; I should have played it on Mirna's mother.'”
“That's all constructed with your mother's superstitious logic, Mirna, and it doesn't refer to what actually happened. No, I didn't regain Luisa's love. Yes, I did love her long after that. But that has nothing to do with the fact that the police arrested us and —”
“Why were you and Jan arrested? Tell me that! Tell me why the three of them were released two days later! Did they try to release their comrades when they were out? Tell me that!”
I can't tell Mirna that. I don't know why. Mirna's superstitious “analysis” is garbled but her questions are perfectly clear and they raise more problems than I'm willing to face. The day after I played my “prank” on you (or Sabina's prank, if Mirna is right), the rumor spread among us that Luisa's “companion” George Alberts had been expelled from his plant. The following day Claude and Adrian told me Alberts was a “spy” who had worked for the “enemy” during the war, and that Luisa was in some way his accomplice. I knew these were lies manufactured by Claude's police mentality and I also knew that Claude had waited long for his revenge against Luisa. I dismissed Claude and Adrian as repressive maniacs. Claude later worked with the police and it's obviously because of him that the police added “espionage” and “collaboration with the Alberts spy ring” to their list of charges against us. In prison I was shown a foreign newspaper clipping according to which “George Alberts and his family” were settling abroad in the comfort provided for them by the government they had served. These typical police maneuvers didn't shatter my trust in or admiration for Luisa. Nothing was odd to me until you told me two or three months ago that Luisa's prison term had only lasted for two days. The slanderous rumor spread by Claude, the elaborate scheme invented by the police, the fact that Luisa was gone when I was released — none of that bothered me. But the knowledge that she'd been released after two days in jail would have bothered me. I knew the police regularly bungled then own elaborately concocted schemes by giving shorter terms to those they designated “ringleaders” than to those they designated mere “accomplices.” But I couldn't have made myself believe they had bungled so far as to release the entire “center of the ring” after only two days while leaving the accomplices locked up for four years. I didn't even believe the clipping I'd been shown in prison. The day I was released I went directly to Luisa's house. Complete strangers lived there; they'd lived there for four years and hadn't ever heard of a Nachalo or an Alberts family. I concluded she was either in jail still or that the clipping was authentic. When I brought this up to Jan a week or two later, he told me he'd seen the same clipping, hadn't ever doubted its authenticity, and hadn't been bothered by it: “Did you expect them to stay here?” he asked. Obviously not. I no longer doubted the authenticity of the clip-ping and I wasn't bothered by it; there was nothing odd to me about the fact that Luisa had settled abroad after being released from prison into an environment that offered no release from prison. Once I accepted her absence I even felt stimulated by it. She had left me behind to continue her work. I wondered how proud of me she'd have been if she'd heard me repeat every one of her stories and every one of her theories to Mirna and her father.
“So you didn't pretend I was Luisa!” Mirna exclaims.
“I didn't say I did; I only asked what difference it would have made. No, I obviously didn't pretend you were Luisa; you had nothing at all in common with her.”
“But you had everything in common with her. You became Luisa and I became you.”
There's a great deal of truth in that. Mirna became my “political pupil,” just as I had once been Luisa's. Even the content of the lessons was the same: the workers had done it once and they could do it again; they had defeated a whole army, taken hold of the land and the factories and started to forge their own world, and we were going to forge it again, arm in arm. But I didn't communicate my project to Mirna as successfully as Luisa had communicated hers to me. What Mirna heard was totally unrelated to what I said. I gradually realized that she wanted life while I was offering her politics. I became Luisa, but only in my own eyes.
“You became someone else in my eyes, Yarostan, someone I wanted very badly. Every word you spoke expressed what I most longed to hear. You were my brother as I had known him before his prison term, you fulfilled his promise to me, you satisfied the desire Sabina had roused in me. And in the end you were the instrument that destroyed my family because Sabina devised a prank —”
“You've been obsessed with that superstition ever since Sophia's letter arrived, Mirna. Sabina had nothing to do with my coming to your house after my release. She'd been gone during all four years of my imprisonment. I came because Jan was my best friend. I knew where his parents lived and I hoped they'd know his whereabouts.”
“You weren't her conscious instrument; I was,” she continues stubbornly. “You didn't know what your coming to us meant. I knew. Jan had warned me. My mother didn't let a day pass without telling me. She told me the same thing over and over again, like a record that's played day after day until you finally stop hearing it. How she had single-handedly tried to bring us up in the way of the lord, but the lord had sent a scourge on all of us because my father had transgressed the lord's way and trafficked with the devil. To you she was always just a crazy old woman with crazy explanations, but she wasn't as crazy as you thought. My father had run after our neighbor's wife in the village; maybe he'd even slept with her. Jan and I joked about it when we were little and father winked at me, knowing perfectly well that I knew. Everyone knew, including the neighbor. When the war came, that neighbor went to the occupation authorities, told them some tales about my father, and in a single day we lost our yard, our chickens, our house, everything.”
“An enormous army didn't occupy this country for five years in order to punish your father's sexual affairs, Mirna!”
Mirna kicks me and shouts, “You keep your explanations and I'll keep mine! What good do your explanations do you anyway? My mother's explained what happened to us and why. Yours don't explain anything at all; they've got nothing to do with me. As soon as we left the lord's path we started our journey to perdition and Jan's imprisonment was only a stop along the way. That was what she told me twenty years ago and nothing you ever said was more true. If we'd stayed in the village, Jan would be alive today, my father would be sixty-three and still as vigorous as a bull, my mother would only be fifty-eight and she'd be no crazier than any of our neighbors. I hated her lord as much as I hated her lord's path, but Only after we'd moved to the outskirts of the city — which she called a den of sin. If I'd grown up in the village I'd have been just like her. After we moved I loved my father and I loved what he'd done, even though I knew everything she said was true. I believed her, but I didn't want to be like her. I came to hate her more than Jan ever did, but I still believed her. `You're going to be the devil's bride!' she told me. The devil possessed your father first; then he visited your brother; he came to you last, but you're going to be the one who drives the devil's sword into our flesh.' She pointed her finger at me with such hatred; she actually saw the devil in me. I screamed: Liar! Superstitious hag! And after Sabina taught me: Vampire! But I knew it was true and I wanted it to be true. My arms, my lips, my whole body ached for the devil. I longed to be the devil's bride and I dreamed of driving the devil's sword into her flesh! The devil's bride, Jan's bride, my father's bride — everything she said I'd be, I wanted to be. But I didn't have the nerve. I only had the nerve to do it as Sabina had taught me: by pretending. And pretending was good enough; the devil doesn't know the difference. I no longer know the difference either. I've already driven that blood-stained sword into all but three of us, and I'm still holding it —”
“Don't interrupt, Yarostan, you don't understand anything! I had my second encounter with the devil, at long last, a year before you or Jan were released. He came in the shape of a boy I knew in seventh grade; we were both thirteen. It was with him that I tried to complete what I'd never carried through with Jan, what I'd completed only once, the night Sabina pretended to be Jan. I don't remember his name because I called him Jan. Everyone else in class thought me strange; they knew I had the devil in me and they were afraid. But the peasant boy I called Jan liked me because I was strange; he spoke to me, touched me, walked me home. One day I didn't walk home after school; I pulled him to the clearing in the forest where Jan and I had played when we were little. We were all alone. I removed all my clothes and started to tear his off. He was frightened. I begged him to pretend to be the devil, my brother, but he didn't know how to pretend. I was so hungry, so terribly hungry. I pushed his naked body to the ground and shouted, Take me, Jan, take me! I'm your bride; the devil's bride!' When I was on him he sobbed and shook with fear. He jumped away from me and ran off with his clothes, leaving me alone in the clearing. If you were a monster to Sophia, what was I to that peasant? A few days later I learned the devil doesn't care if the deed is pretended or real, nor even if it's carried through to its consummation; all he cares about is the desire, the devil's passion. The boy's father was killed. The fathers of several other students in my class were arrested. They had all worked in a neighboring town where there had been a confrontation with the police. The day I had taken the boy to the clearing a strike had broken out. It wasn't just a strike. It was Jan's strike. What those workers wanted was the revolution, the world where everything would be possible — and they were all arrested, every last one of them; some were killed; my peasant's father had only worked there for a month —”
“I heard about that rising during my first term. The fact that it broke out when you were having your affair was a coincidence, Mirna, a trivial coincidence. Those workers had tried —”
“My whole life's meaning is built out of such coincidences!” Mirna snaps, and then proceeds to silence me definitively. “Marbles experience coincidences, Yarostan. People experience meanings. Don't you know the difference? I knew what I had done, and so did the boy. He was terrified; death itself couldn't have frightened him more than I did. He avoided me as if I carried the plague. Not because of what I'd done to him in the clearing but because of what we had both done to his father. If he were here now I'd make you ask him! His fear made me afraid, afraid of myself, afraid of that devil's sword my mother had already seen in my hand. For the rest of that year I tried hard to be like everyone else. But I had communicated to the peasant. Don't you see she was right? Once you step ever so briefly into the devil's path, you'll never ever leave it no matter how hard you try. He had stepped into it, only for an instant, and by the end of the year the same passion started to burn in him. He spoke to me again, he walked me home. He had learned to pretend; he pretended we weren't responsible for what had happened to his father. One day he pushed me against a wall in a dark comer and asked me to marry him. He wanted the devil — but all to himself, not in broad daylight in the clearing where I could pretend he was Jan, but at night in his own private bedroom where I wouldn't be able to pretend to be anything other than what I'd become: the peasant's wife. I consented. He spoke to my parents and arrangements were made. We were to be married at the end of the school year. His older sister was going to be married at the same time, which meant he'd take charge of what they called their farm. They raised a few chickens, some vegetables, and supplied our street with milk from their three cows. Those cows are as close as I ever got to the sheep you think I herded. On one of my visits his sister showed me how to milk them, to prepare me for one of the chores I'd be doing until I died. A month later Jan returned, completely changed. He didn't look the same or act the same. He wasn't only older. He was broken. And I had broken him. I pretended that I loved my peasant, that I'd never loved Jan, that I'd never learned anything from Sabina, that the devil didn't flow in my veins, that I liked to milk cows. We didn't speak to each other in the house, we never went out together and we slept in separate rooms with both our doors closed. The old hawk found nothing at all to reproach in our behavior although her eyes followed us every minute around the clock. But the truth is that the devil's passion still burned inside me, and it broke through with all its force one night when I was out on a walk, alone; I accidentally ran into Jan. He asked me, `Are you really going to go through with that marriage?' I told him, `Yes I am, and I can't wait.' He asked, `Couldn't you find someone with more life in him, someone slightly less shallow?' I felt my passion rising but I crushed it and told him, `I love him exactly as he is, Jan, and I love his cows and his chickens and — ; He didn't let me go on. `You hate cows and chickens, Mirna! Do you really want to do this to your life?' That instant everything broke through; I burned. I threw my arms around his neck and begged, `Why are you asking me? You know perfectly well what I want!' He forced my arms off his neck and said, `But that's impossible, Mirna.' He walked away from me, but I knew he was crying. The following day I pretended to forget. I pretended to look forward to my life milking cows and throwing corn to chickens. But two weeks before the marriage you came to our house. The moment I saw you I knew the devil had sent you to me and I went wild; I gave my heart to the devil out of sheer gratitude; I became the devil's bride; I gave myself up wholly and unreservedly to my passion. Deny it all you want! I knew exactly why you had come and who had sent you. Don't you remember the first thing the devil made you ask? `Are you Jan's wife?' My lips told you, `No, silly,' but my heart said, `Yes, yes, Jan-Sabina-father-devil, I'm your wife! Take me, right here, right now!' Oh, Yarostan, I'm melting just thinking about it. I loved you the instant I set my eyes on you; I almost wrapped myself around you right then. I couldn't sleep that night. I was on fire. I longed to crawl into your arms, to drown in you. But I had to fan the fire to its highest heat, I had to set the devil's stage. My heart pounded in my throat the whole next day. I was possessed. I took you out of the house in the morning and paraded you to the whole neighborhood, pressing your body to mine. I had you walk back and forth in front of the peasant's house, and when I finally saw him I threw my arms around you and kissed you — and how happy I was when you responded with such passion. That ended my marriage to the cows and the chickens. I never saw my peasant again; I later learned he left the neighborhood and went to work in the factory where his father had been killed. I couldn't sleep the second night either; I was doubled up with desire, I wanted to scream, I was starved, I was charred. The following morning the stage was set. It was a beautiful spring day, the most beautiful in my life, crystal clear and warm. It was a blaze of fire that led you to the clearing in the forest. The devil never had a happier bride or a more beautiful ceremony. As I embraced you I wanted to crawl through your mouth, to embed myself in your skin, to —”
“We lay down on the grass. `Wait,' you told me. `Pretend to be Mirna. And I said, `I'll pretend to be anyone in the world; I can't exist without you.'”
“I pretended to be Jan. Oh yes, as you did then! I'm on fire! I love you, Mirna! You're my only girl! Oh —”
“You see, Mirna? Pretending didn't matter. We loved each, other no matter who we pretended to be.”
“You pretended to be Luisa seducing Yarostan! That's marvelous!”
“That's ridiculous. I pretended to be whatever you wanted me to be. In actual fact I didn't pretend to be anyone; I lost myself in you. Don't forget it was you who seduced me!”
“Then you were Mirna!”
“All right, I was Mirna.”
“It did matter, Yarostan! Jan penetrated Mirna. I lost my mind. You created a storm I'd never dreamt of. You filled me with Vesna. Vesna was the daughter of a brother and a sister. My mother knew it. Vesna knew it, she always knew it, and she hated both of us because of it. But it was I who let the devil push me to it and who drove the devil's sword through her heart.”
“Mirna, please don't spoil every happy moment —”
“That's the devil's price! I was so happy when you finally took me away from that house, the lord's house, my mother's house; when you took me into the den of sin, the city, where people like you and Jan and Sabina lived. Yes, I wanted curtains and a baby carriage and clothes that made me like everyone else in the city, that made me look and feel different from my mother. And I wanted more, much more. I wanted to find that world Jan had promised, the real den of sin, the devil's city, where everything I desired would be possible. But I hadn't paid the devil's price for Vesna. And I started to pay when she was barely out of my stomach. You and Jan were fired. And then the police warned you; they were going to destroy you, both of you. But the real blow came when our neighbors, those workers I had so long wanted to join, turned against us and evicted us. I knew then I was going to have to pay a heavy price for my happiness; I knew the devil was going to strip me of everything, whether he had given it or not. I had been frightened once before, when the peasant's father died. But when we returned to my parents' house I grew terribly frightened. `You bear Satan's mark,' she told me; `you're damned for all eternity; everything you touch will wither; everyone you love will die.' How I hated her! `I'm Satan's bride and I'm proud of it,' I shouted at her; `I'll drive the devil's sword through you first of all!' But I was terrified. Those things you call coincidences: there had already been too many. I couldn't bear to be near my mother. But I didn't want any more coincidences. I found my job. I bought our house. I thought I had cheated the devil, escaped him. I was on my own, no longer dependent either on the lord or on the devil. And for a year I thought I'd succeeded. I hardly saw you or Jan; I saw Vesna only from the time I picked her up at the nursery until you returned from work. And I never had time to visit my father. But I was happy. I thought the devil was going to let me keep all I had; I thought the devil had forgotten me. Then the stirring began in Magarna and my heart beat faster again. At first I became even more afraid. I remembered the uproar in the town where my peasant's father had worked; I remembered everyone in the town had been arrested or killed. I trembled when you first described what you'd learned about the events in Magarna. They were the same as those in that town! It was Jan's revolution, yours, and yes, mine. I trembled because I knew how happy they were and how they longed for what could be. I trembled because I knew they'd all be killed. And then the devil again numbed all my senses but one. It happened in my factory. Women who had hardly ever talked to each other started poking each other, running their hands through each other's hair, embracing, even kissing. I longed for that revolution; I wanted it for all of us. I couldn't restrain myself; I was possessed again. I embraced all the women in the factory; I loved every one of them. Do you remember that last Sunday when Jan and Titus came to our house early in the morning? I didn't know which of you I desired most: Titus, the fatherly stranger; Jan, the brother I had loved since childhood; or you, the combination of both, you, who had been Mirna and could therefore be Sabina as well as Satan himself; I desired you the most. You were the most enthusiastic of the three; you wanted that revolution as badly as I did —”
“You're being unjust to Jan. I was blind in my enthusiasm. He saw that what we were doing was self-defeating, just as he'd seen that eight years earlier, and he was right both times. Titus and I were stuck on the question of a free press; we kept insisting that an ignorant working class cannot possibly chart its own course and build its own world. But Jan was telling us — and no one heard him — that the press was part of that ignorance. He kept pointing out that Magarna workers were already creating forms of human communication which freed the people, not the press —”
“Jan knew they were all going to be killed or jailed. He knew that everything was going to remain impossible. Jan wasn't only his father's son. I knew too, but the devil was in me and I didn't care. Titus said the press had brought the spirit of Magarna to workers who had lost their ability to act, and I loved the press for that as I loved Titus for saying it. The press was the devil's instrument, it did the devil's work, it put life into shrivelled carcasses, it transformed the frightened women in my factory into reckless maniacs, it filled you with life, it filled me with unquenchable desire.”
“I'll never forget, Mirna; you took me to that clearing again; I dreamed of that for the next eight years.”
“That time I didn't pretend to be anyone other than Mirna because I wanted you, all of you, every one of you, everyone I had ever thought you to be: my brother, my father, Titus, yourself, Sabina and all the workers in Magarna; I gave myself to all of you without shame, without pretending —”
“And I suppose you think that's why Yara —”
“I don't suppose! I know! Yara would pick up the devil's sword the moment I dropped it! But I'll never drop it. I can't. It's part of me, part of my flesh, it's in my heart. The devil sent two bills of charges only three days later. They weren't just bills for those few days of happiness but for all the previous years; the devil wanted all his back pay. I had thought I'd cheated him out of that. But he had merely extended credit to his favorite bride. And now the sum was enormous. The first bill of charges was in the newspaper that Wednesday morning. Tanks were killing the Magarna workers — inside buildings, in schools, on the streets! How I wanted to die with them, to kill that passion that had possessed me! How I wished the devil also had the power to bring those workers back to life! The women in my factory might as well have died that morning; all their love was gone; they were lifeless, as still as the dead. Hell is the silence of the graveyard. A week later those who had come to life first, vanished. We've been still ever since, until last week — and we're still again; we remembered the tanks. How can Jasna speak of courage in those who never faced the tanks? The devil sent his second bill by special messenger; it came in the form of a letter from Sophia Nachalo, but I knew who the letter was from as soon as he told me he'd left an identical letter for Jan at my father's house. I knew you wouldn't come back and Jan wouldn't come again. I knew even before the police came for the letter two hours later. I knew I had to pay — for Vesna, for my passion, for my happiness. Don't tell me the letter arrived the same day the tanks entered Magarna `by coincidence.' Don't tell me it was a coincidence that the messenger arrived at my house the very minute when you and Jan were being arrested a hundred kilometers away, not an hour sooner or an hour later. Don't interrupt, Yarostan! I took the trouble to find that out! Two years after your arrest I got a day off to visit you in prison. They wouldn't let me in; they said I had the wrong permit; the permit had been changed. I took the train to the steel town and waited for the workers to come out. I ran to the first group and told them who I was; they all knew both of you. I told them I had found you and asked if they knew where Jan was. They were silent with that silence of death; their faces answered; they didn't know but they all knew. Then I asked about the day when you and Jan were arrested. They told me lots of workers had been arrested. `When?' I asked. `A week later'! You and Jan were the only ones arrested on that Wednesday, just as you left the plant at the end of the workday. You were arrested the very minute the messenger reached my door! Don't tell me about coincidences; they don't explain anything! I knew the moment the letter came, but I didn't want to believe it. I took Vesna to the train station and waited for the later train; we sat and waited for the train after that. Then there were no later trains. I carried Vesna to the tram stop and we rode to the transfer point but the next tram was no longer running. I carried Vesna for hours, drenched with sweat and unable to breathe; I didn't once stop to rest. I knocked weakly and heard my mother shout, `Bar the door! Don't let the devil in!' My father opened it and I fell into his arms, bawling. `Damned witch, Satan's whore, you've brought destruction to our house!' she screamed, endlessly crossing herself: My father forced her out of the room and she spent the night praying to the wooden Jesus in her room, shouting, wailing and beating the floor, continually repeating `perdition' and `Satan's whore.' She had started to scream the moment the letter had arrived; she'd known what it was as well as I had. When the police came, she immediately gave them the letter, but my father snatched it out of their hands; they had no right to take a letter addressed to his son. The two police immediately started to beat him. He had no rights, they told him; he was the father of a criminal and therefore an enemy of the people; they even threatened to arrest him for interfering with the people's police and for protecting a criminal. But he wasn't broken. He smiled and tried to comfort me. He said you and Jan were both strong, you had both been through all that before and you'd know how to take care of yourselves. I begged him to find a pretext to drive his bus to the repair depot next to the union building and to find out if Titus had been arrested too. If only we could find Titus he'd surely know where you and Jan were. I hardly slept; my mother's prayers mingled with my own fears. I took the first morning tram; I couldn't afford to be a minute late for work. I knew they'd fire me. That would have completed the devil's plan right then; I would have lost the house; I couldn't have fed Vesna. But the devil has time; he has all eternity; and he had me wait, taking his toll slowly, one victim at a time. I returned for Vesna that evening, exhausted from lack of sleep, sick from worrying, but anxious to learn if my father had found Titus. I walked in without knocking and I knew right away that the fiend had already struck again. My mother stood in the middle of the room clutching a broom with one hand, waving her other hand in my face, and singing a hocus pocus with which she drove devils away. Vesna stood in a corner trembling with fright and bawling, her back turned to me. My father sat in his chair and stared as if he were blind. They had broken him. I shook him hysterically and asked what happened. `I was never late, never sick; for twelve years I drove that bus, every day of the week, on Sundays if they needed me.' I burst out crying and begged him to tell me what happened. `Father of a criminal, accomplice of a traitor, saboteur —' They fired him! He didn't say anything more; he just stared. My mother lifted the broom with one hand, clutched Vesna with the other and screamed, `Out of this house, witch! Get out and take all the devils with you!' I ran for Vesna but she clutched the child and kept me away with her broom. `I'll go; only give me my Vesna,' I begged. But she hit me with that broom and screamed, `You'll not give this innocent child to the devil; you've given your master enough! The child is still innocent; I'll keep her innocent. Shameless whore, you'll not take this child to perdition! Live alone! Repent! It's too late to pray for your own salvation. Pray for the child's. Beg the lord to remove your curse from this child. Be her suppliant. You'll never be her mother.' I was on my knees, bent over, crying; she didn't hit me again. My father suddenly got out of his chair; I looked up; the stupor in his eyes was gone. He forced her hands and her arms away from Vesna. For a moment Vesna stood in front of me, trembling, terrified. Then she turned and ran back to the woman, clutched her black skirt and buried her face in it. My father picked her up as I rushed to the door. He handed Vesna to me. Tears streamed down his withered, wrinkled cheeks. I ran to the tram stop, hurting from Vesna's kicks, deafened by her screams. She was only two and a half but she already had a will of her own. I carried her off against her will. I knew what the consequence would be. But I had to have Vesna; she was mine; she was all that was left to me of my love, my desire, my passion.”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Why didn't you tell me sooner!” she exclaims angrily; “I'll be late for work!”
It was Thursday morning. That night I started this letter. I hadn't known Mirna's father had been fired from his bus-driving job. When Titus visited me in prison I learned he was ill, and when Mirna visited me later, three years after my arrest, I learned he had died.
It's Saturday night now. I'm tired and I don't have anything more to tell you. Yara is to return from her outing late next week. I haven't seen Jasna since she left our house crying Wednesday evening.
When I started this letter I wanted to get to the root of your feelings toward me; I wanted to make it clear to you that I would not have been comfortable in that “community” of journalists in which you imagined me, that I felt more kinship with Ted and Tissie and that world which seemed so “exotic” to you. But I'm falling asleep.
|Cartas de Insurgentes|
|Quinta carta de Sophia (Cartas de Insurgentes)||Sexta carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)||Sexta carta de Sophia (Cartas de Insurgentes)|