Saturday, 8 December 2018

Letters of Insurgents - Yarostan's Seventh Letter

Yarostan’s seventh letter

Dear Sophia,

Your letter was marvelous. Jasna and Zdenek were both here yesterday sharing it with us, celebrating the events that have started unfolding around you. For once we received your letter in the spirit in which you wrote it. I was relieved that you hadn’t received my previous letter before you set out on your adventure in the Commune and the Council. The depressed mood in which I wrote it wouldn’t have contributed anything positive to your exciting experiences. I regret much of what I said in that letter. I now have an opposite admission to make to you. I was very moved when you said you were waiting for me to walk into your “council office.” If such an expedition should ever be undertaken, I’ll be the first to volunteer and of course I’ll bring Yara and Mirna along as well as Jasna and Zdenek. I love you, too, Sophia; we all do; you’ve seduced us with your honesty and especially with your modest, almost shy courage.

The circumstances in which your letter arrived were poles apart from those I described in my previous letter. When I came home from the plant the day before yesterday (Thursday afternoon), Mirna threw her arms around me arid started to dance around the living room with me. She waved your letter in the air.

“You’re glad to hear from Sophia?” I asked.

Yara shouted, “She’s on strike! We’re all on strike! We’re going to have a party tonight and another tomorrow night!”

It was my turn to squeeze Mirna and spin her around the room. “You’re on strike? And we’re having more dancing parties?”

Mirna poked me in the stomach. “Eating parties, for your sake. There’ll be a dance at my plant in a week. Want to come?”

“Not if you dragged me there. Take Zdenek. He says he likes to dance.”

“I’m going too!” Yara shouted.

We understand your excitement and your hopes, Sophia. There’s good news from everywhere all at once. I don’t think you’re being naive or “obsessively optimistic.” Our hopes couldn’t ever have a more solid basis than they have now. The world has to change now; if it doesn’t, we’ll all die as exiles in an inhuman world.

Yara and Mirna prepared an enormous banquet, just for the three of us, to celebrate the strike at Mirna’s plant. Mirna was drunk before she started drinking. “What did your strike accomplish, Yarostan?”

“We ousted a union functionary who did police work.”

“Is that all? What are you waiting for in that plant?”

“We’re all waiting for you, Mirna. We need the devil’s inspiration.”

“That’s exactly what it is! The devil’s work! And why not? If we’re going to suffer for sipping from the devil’s cup, we might as well empty the whole barrel! No more sipping! What did Zdenek’s strike accomplish?”

“All the functionaries were ousted; elected workers replaced them in all posts. What did you devils accomplish?”

“Everything, all at once, unanimously! The slowest to come are the most thoroughgoing. We threw the entire administration, union and police crews out on the street and we didn’t replace them with anyone; we voted to go on permanent vacation with pay!”

“But where will the pay come from, Mirna?”

“Is that your affair? We’ll worry about that when it runs out! We’re off until Monday, in any case. Then we’ll meet again. Someone suggested we use the hated workshop to do all the things we ever daydreamed of doing there. Everyone loved the idea. To begin, we’ll push all the machinery against the walls to prepare for our dance. We’ll invite all our friends. Then it’ll be our turn to wait and see.”

“Tomorrow we’ll party all day long,” Yara announced. “We’ll go get Zdenek out of his plant and you go and bring Jasna.”

Yesterday morning I set out for Jasna’s house at the same hour when I usually go to the carton plant.

I feel like Tina must have felt when she went to tell you and Sabina about the commune. Jasna. fresh out of bed, is alarmed; she thinks something awful happened. During the week and a half that preceded our newfound joy, we all went through hell.

“Good news this time, Jasna. The best. Mirna, Sophia, Sabina — everyone is on strike!”

“You’re joking! Tell me about it!”

We rush to my house as soon as Jasna is dressed; Yara and Mirna have already returned with Zdenek. Jasna plunges into your letter. Zdenek pumps Mirna for every detail about her strike.

While reading, Jasna exclaims, “We’re finally together again; we’re in one and the same world; only geography separates us now! Sophia’s experiences are identical to ours! I’m so excited! I heard everything you said, Mirna. You’re wonderful! I wish school were still on so that I could go on strike too!”

I leave with Yara to buy groceries and drinks, but the two of us couldn’t carry enough to satisfy the appetites of five happy people. When we return, Zdenek is reading your letter and commenting on nearly every passage. The rest of us start to prepare our “feast.”

“Your friend talks of unions the same way we do,” Zdenek observes.

“Why shouldn’t she?” I ask. “They have the same function there as here.”

“I know that intellectually but I can’t accept it emotionally. Unions over there claim to protect workers’ interests whereas their real role is to sell workers to capitalists. Here unions have the additional function of supervising, of policing workers. I see a difference.”

“You, Zdenek? You who taught me so much about the repressive function of any and every form of representation?”

“Don’t forget I spent half my life fighting for the type of union apparatus they still have over there.”

Mirna shouts, “Do I hear Zdenek backing away from everything he was defending? Is it really true that grey hair makes people cautious? Read to the end and you’ll see that Yarostan’s Luisa is as grey-haired as you!”

“Damn you all! Of course it’s conservatism! Those young people are turning against something I fought hard to build.”

“What you built was rotten! Admit it and help them destroy it!” Mirna shouts to him. Until a week ago Mirna was the most cautious among us; now she’s the most rebellious. I had known she loved her brother; I had never known how much she had learned from him.

Zdenek persists. “They don’t even know how repressive unions can be when they become appendages of the state.”

I object. “Maybe you never knew how repressive they were when they were only appendages of capital; after all, you were part of the bureaucracy then.”

“I know how repressive they were, Yarostan. But I had always thought people would have to experience the transformation of unions into parts of the state apparatus before they finally saw through them. I was obviously wrong. Let me see what else they see through.” Zdenek reads on while we continue our cooking. Suddenly he shouts, “Now this is too much! It’s simply wrong-headed. Capitalists aren’t the only ones who use the mail! We use it too. And communication is needed precisely at a moment like this. What the postal workers ought to do is throw away all capitalist mail and deliver only workers’ letters. But a postal strike! That’s like blinding yourself!”

Mirna stops what she’s doing. “I didn’t think of that when I read Sophia’s letter. If the post were on strike, we would stop hearing from Sophia precisely at the moment when the revolution was at its peak. Yet we wouldn’t know whether to expect the beginning of a new world or tanks!”

Jasna also agrees with Zdenek. “It would be awful not to hear from her now! Every new letter is full of surprises. Knowing what they’re doing makes us want more, it makes us do more.”

Mirna adds provocatively, “It gives us courage, is that what you mean, Jasna?”

I think it’s ironic that these few months have been the only time in twenty years when I’ve been able to receive mail freely whereas this might be the only time when you stop receiving mail. More than geography still seems to separate us. I obviously can’t dissuade postal workers from striking, nor talk them into changing the nature of their strike, but I agree with Zdenek. A postal strike harms only the ruling order during normal times, since then communication serves mainly to lubricate that order; but in disruptive times like these, unfettered communication serves mainly to further disrupt the ruling order.

“If we’re going to learn about each other, then let’s learn everything,” Mirna shouts. “Let’s fill ourselves with each other, with Sophia and Sabina and their commune. First of all let’s fill ourselves with food and beer! Let there be something for the tanks to invade, right Zdenek? Hey Zdenek, how close are you to done?”

“I’ve just come to Pat Clesec; leave me alone!”

Yara, pointing to me, asks Jasna, “Was he really like that brainy Pat Clesec when Sophia knew him?”

Then Mirna asks Jasna, “Do you suppose Luisa seduced Yarostan in order to humiliate him? Zdenek! We’re starting without you!”

Jasna giggles. “You’re more brainy than Yarostan ever was, Yara.” Jasna blushes as she tells Mirna, “If I had thought Luisa only wanted to humiliate Yarostan —”

“What would you have done, Jasna? Scratched her eyes out?” Mirna taunts.

“If we’re telling everything, you might as well know I would have wanted to,” Jasna answers.

Mirna shouts mockingly, “Shame, Jasna! You were a grown woman and Yarostan was just a boy!”

“I know; I was as worried about that as Sophia is.” Jasna sighs, as if she were dreaming.

“How about you, Zdenek?” Mirna asks. “Could you love a woman half your age?”

“Why not?” Zdenek says absent-mindedly, trying to concentrate on the end of your letter.

“Your daughter for instance?” Mirna asks.

Zdenek coughs uneasily. “Let me finish this letter! You’re out of your mind!”

Jasna, still in her dream, seems oblivious to the conversation. “Luisa was five years older than I. Yet she looked just like a girl when she was with Yarostan, just like Sophia described her when she skipped around that pond. She was always so pretty, and so young; I doubt that she has a single grey hair even now. She had everything and everyone. She had Titus as well as that mysterious engineer she came with. I felt so sorry for Tissie when I read Sophia’s previous letter. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ she asked. That’s what I asked myself every day of my life: what’s wrong with me? I was younger than Luisa but I felt a hundred years older. She and Yarostan were so beautiful together. And even that wasn’t enough for her. As soon as Marc Glavni came she ran after him as well. Marc was the brainy one in that lot. He must have been a city planning commissioner already in his diapers. He’s the one Pat Clesec reminds me of. My former boss. I’d like to think Luisa went after him just to humiliate him. She should see him now!”

Yara leaves her seat, goes up to Jasna and strokes her hair, whispering, “You know what Slobodan told me a few days ago? After our dancing party he stopped loving Julia and me. He loves only one person now, and she’s the best dancer in the world.”

“Well go get Slobodan!” Mirna shouts to Yara. “Tell him I’ve forgotten about that radio he turned on.”

“Please don’t embarrass me,” Jasna begs.

“If you’re embarrassed, Jasna, how do you think I feel?” I ask her, “I don’t know whether to apologize or to cry.”

Zdenek joins us at the table annnouncing, “This is no time to cry! An excellent letter; let’s drink to it! Those people have somehow learned everything we’ve had to have hammered into our heads by twenty years of total repression. Fill up again! To the Commune! What’s this about a letter Sophia’s hermit tried to deliver to you?”

Jasna says, “That’s what I find so admirable abut Sophia. She loved Yarostan to the point of trying to find him eight years after she was separated from him, to the point of sending us all letters describing her love for him and getting us all arrested in the process, including the messenger she sent them with.”

“How admirable!” Mirna says sarcastically. “She had the courage to get everyone except herself sent to jail!”

“Wait a minute!” Zdenek shouts. “Do you mean to tell me you were all arrested because of that letter she sent you?”

“The poor girl didn’t know what she was doing; she was only looking for Yarostan,” Jasna tells Zdenek. “What she didn’t know was that her step-father, or whatever he was to her, was a foreign spy in the police records. It all makes sense to me now. When I was arrested together with Vera and Adrian, the police kept asking me if I’d known Sophia Alberts; I’d kept insisting that wasn’t her last name; I had forgotten her step-father’s name. I don’t think I even knew his name. But to the police Luisa was Alberts’ wife, and both Sabina as well as Sophia were his daughters. And since we had known all three of them, we were obviously spies.”

“But you didn’t even get the letter,” I point out.

“That part I can understand,” Zdenek says. “It wouldn’t be the first time this police incarcerated people because of crimes they had not yet committed, crimes which the police themselves expected those people to commit in the future. But the whole thing is so ludicrous!”

“It is ludicrous, and I’m still not clear about the role Sophia’s letter actually played,” I tell Zdenek. “Jan and I were agitating in favor of the Magarna uprising; Titus had just signed a strongly worded protest in favor of the Magarna workers. We would have been arrested whether or not that messenger had come with Sophia’s letters. The letters must have been a mere pretext, a so-called provocation to justify the arrests.”

“What about the rest of us?” Jasna objects. “Vera, Adrian and I weren’t agitating about anything at all! Vera was busy running after her Professor Kren, Adrian was about to finish college, and I’d just gotten my first teaching job. Marc had just become head of the party organization at the carton plant and he certainly didn’t sign any protest or engage in any agitation. And Claude already worked for the police; there could have been no earthly reason for his arrest. I’m convinced the letters Sophia sent us led to our arrests. The police linked those letters to the so-called spy ring. And they couldn’t have made that connection, they couldn’t have connected Sophia to Alberts, unless someone who had known Sophia had told them.”

“Namely one of us?” I ask.

“Lem mentioned an official,” Jasna continues. “Only three of the people Sophia wrote to were officials of any type at the time she sent those letters: Claude Tamnich, Titus Zabran and Marc Glavni. Claude hated the whole bunch of us, especially you and Luisa, and he’d have liked nothing better than to slap us all in jail. But I saw Claude a few days after my release; he was totally baffled by the whole thing and even accused me of causing his arrest. He’s too dumb to have performed such an act, and there was no earthly reason for him to perform it for my benefit. So Claude is out. Titus was also an official, although a minor one, a union official. He also knew all about Alberts and Sophia. But he spent a whole year in jail, whereas half of us were only in jail for a few days.”

“Titus wasn’t arrested until more than a year later,” Mirna points out.

“Typical police bungling,” I suggest.

“Either that.” Jasna continues, “or they wanted to make it impossible to prove they had arrested eight people merely because a letter had been addressed to them. Titus is absolutely out of the question. He’d have been overjoyed to hear from Luisa’s daughter and he had no reason in the world to have us all arrested. That only leaves Marc Glavni, my former boss —”

“But he’s on the state planning commission,” Yara objects.

“Is that the Glavni you’re talking about?” Zdenek asks, amazed that such a high official was once part of our modest circle.

“Yes, the one who’s going to engage in a major policy debate over the radio,” Jasna exclaims triumphantly. “Member of the central committee of the state planning commission, member of the foreign trade commission, formerly general manager of the carton plant and my boss, M. Glavni. He didn’t hate us, the way Claude did. But he certainly loved his career more than he liked us. Lem must have reached the carton plant. The police sent him there. Glavni was the only name they recognized; it was the most important name on any of the letters; Marc was already then a member of the trade union council and head of the plant’s party organization. But Lem reached only a secretary, probably a kind-hearted soul left over from the old days, someone who obviously recognized all our names, since he gave Lem your and Jan’s addresses. As soon as Marc returned and read the letter, he saw his whole career falling to pieces. He probably thought any one of us, and certainly Claude, would immediately report the letter to the police, and I’m sure that’s exactly what Claude would have done; I’m certain we would have been arrested anyway. So to prevent anyone else from calling them first, Marc called the police and told them he’d received a letter from the famous Alberts spy ring.”

“But you’ve told us Marc was arrested too,” I remind her.

“Shows how stupid the police are. They responded to his call by sending two agents for him in the middle of the night and slapping him in jail. But they released him right away, and the regional party secretary even apologized to him. He wasn’t only reinstated in all his posts but was even promoted right away. I wouldn’t be surprised if he owed his promotion to the fact that he collaborated with the bank director, Professor Kren, in clearing Vera of the espionage charges by accusing Adrian and probably you and Jan as well of having slandered her and Dr. Glavni. I’m convincing myself it was because of him that you and Adrian served such long prison terms and that Jan never came out again. While you, Jan and Titus were dreaming of a different world, Marc was dreaming of his coming promotions in this one.”

“That pig!” Yara shouts. “I’ll tell Julia and Slobodan about that Commissioner Glavni! We’ll fix him!”

“What in the world will you do to him?” Mirna asks her.

“You’ll see!”

Jasna tells Yara, “That all happened before you were even born!”

“Don’t you want revenge?” Yara asks.

“What on earth for?” Jasna asks. “What can one do with revenge?”

Mirna exclaims, “Yara is perfectly right!”

“But Marc only did the devil’s bidding,” I remind Mirna.

“He did the devil’s dirty work and that’s something altogether different.”

Zdenek re-enters the conversation. “The thing I don’t understand is what kind of letter this was. The charge of espionage was obviously a pretext, since most of you didn’t even get the letter. Why did the police arrest nine people because of a letter?”

Mirna answers, “But that’s obvious, isn’t it? To stop what we’re doing right now, that’s why! Letters are like the first whispers of a strike. The whispers grow louder, more and more people start whispering, eventually they’re all shouting. Something none of us had thought of spreads like a disease. The police are the sanitation department; they try to stop the disease from spreading and to do that they have to lock up people and kill them because what’s spreading is life itself and life can’t be policed.”

Jasna adds, “Don’t you see, Zdenek, that the period during the Magarna rising was similar to the present? All news was good news and every bit of it inspired people to go a step further, gave them courage.”

“The police are too stupid to know that,” Zdenek claims.

I disagree; in fact for once I agree with Mirna about the likelihood that your letter played a role in our arrest. “Maybe they do know that, Zdenek. They must. How else can you explain the total censorship they try to establish? Maybe they believe in the possibility of communication and solidarity more than we do. For that very reason I think it’s wrong to blame any of the individuals trapped in the net created by the police, whether Sophia or Lem or Marc. The fault lies solely with the police. If Comrade Glavni’s career can be spoiled by a letter, there’s something wrong with the system in which he’s seeking his career.”

“I knew the system was rotten, but I didn’t know people were arrested for receiving mail not approved by the police,” Zdenek says.

“You’d have known if you’d gotten any,” Jasna tells him.

“It all sounds very clear and logical,” Mirna says, “but none of you have explained anything. First of all there’s that poor messenger. After he spent two years in prison and was tortured besides, Sophia called him a liar and accused him of losing her letters. He certainly had more than his share of the consequences of that letter. When she finally believed him years later, she left him bathing in filth. Meanwhile Glavni sits on top of the world and Sophia isn’t doing too badly either. She spoiled nine people’s lives, yet she wasn’t anywhere near the arrests; she didn’t even know about them for more than a decade —”

I interrupt. “But Mirna, the very same censorship prevented her from learning about those arrests. You’re working yourself up again. Sophia wasn’t here —”

“She did exactly the same thing when she was here and she knows it; she even brings it up in this letter. Sophia asks Luisa why they left all their comrades in jail and Luisa asks Sophia why. Sophia knows that wasn’t right; Luisa acts as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it is. But you and Jasna seem convinced there was something special about Luisa and Sophia, you seem convinced they wouldn’t have run and left the suffering to their comrades.”

Jasna says, “You’re putting it very strongly, Mirna, but I admit I was shocked when I learned only a few weeks ago that Luisa and the two girls had emigrated after two days in jail. You’re right: I hadn’t thought any of them capable of that. I don’t understand it. All of us except Claude always accepted every suggestion Luisa made. We would have followed her to prison if she had been the only one arrested.”

“Apparently someone had something like that in mind,” I remind Jasna. “Someone was ready to arrest Luisa alone and didn’t expect the rest of us to follow her to prison. I think that someone was Claude, who must have been a police agent already then. He thought he could turn the rest of us against Luisa by telling us Alberts was a spy and Luisa his accomplice. That would have isolated Luisa while the rest of us followed Claude like sheep. But his scheme backfired. Do you remember? Four or five days before our arrest, instead of turning against Luisa, all of us lined up alongside her exactly as we’d done in play a year or two earlier, and once again it was Claude who was isolated. Luisa told us politicians of Claude’s ilk were using the strike as a base from which to install themselves in the government, and every one of us understood. When she told us the struggle wasn’t on one front but on two, and the greater enemy threatened us from behind, we knew exactly what she was talking about. Unfortunately the only thing we were able to do about the greater enemy was to carry signs about him, and that obviously wasn’t enough. Jan knew that wasn’t enough. Apparently Titus also knew; three days before the arrest he told Sophia and me to be realistic, not to expect the working class to carry through its final victory in a day. I understood him to mean we shouldn’t be surprised if Luisa was arrested. Apparently Titus foresaw the danger but thought it would only be a danger for Luisa. I tried to warn Luisa but she was perpetually out with Marc. When I told Sophia, she said I was being a defeatist on the eve of the final victory.”

“It’s funny, Yarostan, but I remember a somewhat different sequence,” Jasna tells me. “First of all the rumor that Luisa worked with a spy. I heard that too — but from Vera.”

“From Vera? But that’s impossible. Vera was something like Luisa’s disciple; she worshipped Luisa as much as I did; every one of her ideas came from Luisa. I distinctly remember that Vera was the first one to applaud when Luisa said the greater enemy was behind us. She stood alongside Luisa and remained alongside her to the very end.”

“Vera was always good at creating appearances; she still is. You didn’t really know her,” she tells me. “Yes, she was Luisa’s disciple, but she was too vain to remain a disciple very long. I knew she’d wanted her apprenticeship to end long before the strike broke out. She hated Luisa for being the center of attention. She saw her chance when that rumor about Luisa started spreading. With Luisa gone. Vera thought she’d become the center of attention, she’d become the popular heroine of the revolution, and we’d all line up alongside her as we had lined up alongside Luisa. I obviously didn’t believe the rumor and Jan slapped Vera’s face when she told him Luisa had something to do with a spy. But that wasn’t what put an end to Vera’s attempt to get rid of Luisa. I know she liked Sabina a great deal. I think she must have become afraid that if Luisa and Sabina’s father disappeared as spies, Sabina would disappear as well. I think that was the only reason she lined up alongside Luisa and remained alongside her until the arrest.”

“Was Vera Claude’s accomplice when she spread that rumor?”

“Obviously not. Yarostan. Vera stood exactly where Luisa did: against everything Claude stood for. She only wanted to replace Luisa on that spot. If they arrested us because we stood alongside Luisa, they would have arrested us just as quickly if we had stood alongside Vera. But the fact is that we stood alongside Luisa to the very end, and she had no reason to run out on us the way she did.”

“You and Mirna are right,” I admit. “Luisa certainly didn’t show a similar solidarity with us. I can’t get it out of my head that the so-called Alberts spy ring was released after two days while those accused of being mere accomplices were left in prison.” Something remains strange about your sudden release, about the whole affair, but I can’t focus on it clearly enough to formulate a coherent question.

But if everything is more obscure to me than it was before your letter came, everything is now perfectly clear to Mirna. “They’re not the angels you both thought they were, that’s all. They ran out on you. How carefully did you both read Sophia’s letter? Sabina told us that Alberts person ran out on Margarita’s comrades and your Luisa ran with him while her husband died at the front.”

Yara says proudly, “I would have died like Margarita if I’d been there! Shooting from the barricades! Just think, she was only three years older than I am when she gave birth to Sabina!”

“Sophia’s letters are full of good ideas, aren’t they?” Mirna asks sarcastically.

“You deserved Yarn’s comment!” Jasna snaps. “Would you like Luisa better if she had died on the barricades? Besides, Sabina left a small detail out of her story. Titus told me something about those events, and so did Luisa, and I remember both of them telling me their army was defeated militarily by the fascist army and they had no choice but to run.”

“Sabina doesn’t contradict that,” I point out. “What she says is something I had almost figured out on my own over a fifteen-year period. She says both armies had their guns turned against the people. Luisa together with the rest of her union and its influential militants literally abandoned themselves to an army that was as fascist as the army they fought against. Its aim, like the other’s, was to tame or kill workers. Only her army was less experienced than the other; that’s why they had to flee; a deposed ruler has no other choice.”

Zdenek asks, “Is Luisa the same union militant you had described to me in prison?”

“Exactly the same,” I tell him.

“But you’ve turned around completely, Yarostan. At that time you swore by her; you convinced me those events proved a real workers’ union could exist since such a union had carried through the greatest working class victory in history.”

“I believed every word I told you for many years after I met you, Zdenek. Toward the end of my first term I met someone who told me almost exactly what Sabina recently told Sophia. His name was Manuel. I listened to him, I was fascinated by everything he said, but I didn’t connect any of it to Luisa.” I tell Zdenek and Jasna the things I’ve already told you about Manuel; I also tell them stories that came back to me when I read what Sabina told you. Manuel and Alberts must indeed have known each other, or at least viewed the same battlefield from different vantage points, as Sabina suggests; the similarities in their stories are striking. Even many of the details are the same. The mam difference is in the personalities and standpoints of the viewers. On the day of the rising Manuel, like Margarita and Luisa, fought on the barricades. Two or three days later, and not months later like Alberts, he joined a militia unit which set out to defeat a section of the fascist army. They reached the front at a village, surely the same village Alberts described to Sabina. On arrival they found that the villagers themselves had already risen against the attacking fascist army and had succeeded in preventing that army from entering the village. This apparently took place several months before Alberts and his army reached the village. When Manuel’s militia unit arrived, the villagers were resentful and even hostile, although that unit consisted of workers and peasants like themselves. The villagers told Manuel’s comrades to liberate their own regions and keep the enemy busy on several fronts instead of “liberating” their already liberated village. Manuel and several of his comrades were ready to take the villagers’ advice, but someone spread the rumor that the enemy unit, still camped outside the village, was soon to be massively reinforced, and the majority of Manuel’s unit voted to remain in the village. The rumor was false. The only enemy reinforcements that arrived were poorly guarded shipments of ammunition. Almost all of these were stolen by Manuel’s militia unit, and the ammunition was distributed among the villagers. The militia unit remained in the village, but not as a military formation; they fraternized with the villagers, lived among them and carried out military exploits jointly with them. Alberts told Sabina that the enemy unit camped outside the village terrorized the villagers. Manuel told me exactly the opposite. The enemy unit was totally immobilized outside that village, its supply lines were constantly intercepted, entire cargoes of ammunition were stolen; its very existence was a drain on the entire fascist army; its only alternatives were to continue to be drained or to retreat. Meanwhile the villagers appropriated lands abandoned by their landowners, turned the church into a theater and dance hall, established an experimental school and began to explore new ways of relating to each other and to their surroundings. The villagers weren’t terrorized from the front but from the rear. Some months after they had neutralized the enemy unit, a “militia commander” and several other “people’s officers” arrived in the village. They came as representatives of the “working class.” They showed papers according to which they had been empowered by the union, Luisa’s “genuine workers’ union.” The villagers merely laughed at the “representatives.” Neither the villagers nor Manuel’s militia comrades had learned the latest news: the most influential union militants had accepted posts in the government! The “commander” and his “officers” confronted Manuel and his comrades “in the name of your own comrades.” The commander insisted that the militia unit immediately separate itself from the villagers and house itself in military barracks. The entire unit refused. One of Manuel’s comrades said the commander was on the wrong side of the battle line; he belonged with the fascist unit camped outside the village. The commander ordered the man to be arrested but none of the militia moved in response to the order. The commander then drew his gun on the man and shot him. Immediately Manuel and several of his comrades aimed their rifles at the “commander,” whose hysterical shouts of “I command!” were of no avail; one of the rifles killed the “commander.” The “officers” were told, at the point of rifles, to leave the village immediately. But Manuel’s comrades as well as the villagers were uneasy; they knew something was happening in the rear, behind their backs, something which represented a far greater threat to their victory than the miserably equipped enemy unit in the front. A few weeks after the death of the militia fighter and the “commander,” news reached the village that a “popular brigade” was on its way “to liberate the village from the fascist menace.” Everyone in the village understood what this meant. The militia unit held a crisis meeting. Less than half the men decided to remain in the village, out of a misguided sense of loyalty to “their union.” The majority, including Manuel, decided to return to the city where, they felt, the real front was located. Manuel reached the city and remained there long enough to learn that all the formerly unpaid secretaries of the union’s locals had become paid functionaries of the government; former organizers had become work supervisors; the central fuction of the entire apparatus was to make workers produce the greatest possible amount of armaments for the “popular army.” Half a day after his arrival in the city he was arrested. Ironically he was not arrested because of his activities at the front; his militia unit’s reputation had not yet reached the police. He was arrested for having been a member of a small political sect which was black-listed by the dominant political group in the ruling coalition. In prison Manuel met one of the former militia comrades who had remained in the village and waited for the arrival of the “popular brigade.” Manuel learned that eight of those who remained were murdered the day the “popular brigade” arrived in the village; they were charged with being infiltrators; the official story told about them was that they had defected behind enemy lines. Immediately after this massacre the villagers attacked the “popular brigade” and forced it to camp on the opposite side of the village from the enemy unit. Meanwhile the enemy received some reinforcements and a shipment of arms which was not intercepted, and the enemy unit moved into and through the village, massacring the inhabitants and routing the “popular brigade.” Many of the remaining militia were killed in that encounter. The “popular brigade” retreated from the village and continued retreating all the way to their military headquarters on the outskirts of the city, and on arrival the remaining few militia were arrested and charged with being traitors. The man who narrated these events to Manuel was himself condemned to death. What Manuel told me about the village is almost identical to what Alberts told Sabina except for some very significant details. The village was not “terrorized” by the enemy army. On the contrary, the villagers held off that army for months and they fell only after the arrival of the “popular army”; they were massacred by the combined fire of both armies. Secondly, the villagers did not support the fascist army in order to defeat the “popular army,” That’s a face-saving rationalization on Alberts’ part, perhaps on the part of his whole “brigade” which, being a militaristic organization, prides itself for its militaristic ventures; defeat at the hands of a small, poorly armed enemy unit did not reflect well on the brigade’s “honor”: the whole population had to be blamed for its defeat. But this rationalization is a vicious slander against villagers who had bravely defended themselves against one and then the other army, who were slaughtered by the combined power of two armies, who died with the knowledge that no army can be “popular.”

When I finish narrating Manuel’s story, Zdenek asks, “But where in the world did you get the idea that Luisa’s union helped those workers carry out a genuine revolution?”

“From Luisa’s illusions. I tried very hard to believe them, all of them. But the facts have been creeping into my consciousness for twenty years, destroying those illusions. Luisa seems to believe still today everything she told me over twenty years ago.”

“So much for my single example of a genuine workers’ union,” Zdenek sighs. “If all the instruments are rotten, what are we left with?”

“We’re left with ourselves and each other,” I suggest.

Jasna asks, “Is that bad?”

“Of course it’s bad!” Zdenek says. “In my head I know you’re both right, but my heart can’t accept that; my heart wants a tool, an instrument; my instrument was the union. To me the union was like a train; we spent years building the bed, the ties, the rails, the locomotive and the cars; when the train was all built, we set it in motion and once it began to move it continued moving until it reached its final destination. Without such an instrument we feel naked, disarmed, alone. I suppose this means I don’t really trust my fellow human beings. In that respect I differ from Margarita. I would never be the first person at the barricades; I’d always be afraid I’d find myself alone. If there were no Margaritas in the world, if all those I had to count on were like me, there would never be any revolutions; we would all be forever waiting for everyone else.”

Yara shouts, “You’re just old! Most of my friends would want to be like Margarita!”

Jasna, Zdenek and I laugh at Yara’s comment, but Mirna takes all three of us to task. “Why are you laughing? Out of that whole crew, Margarita and her father are the only ones who deserve admiration, not only Yara’s but ours as well. All the others stayed with their comrades only until danger came, and then they all got on that train you’re talking about and rode away from danger as fast as the train would take them. Margarita was there at the start, and she remained until the end!”

Zdenek responds angrily, “You wouldn’t like Margarita as well if she were alive, would you Mirna? I’ve noticed something a little morbid about you. I think you have a strange fascination with suffering and death. We all admire Margarita. Admiring is easy; it takes neither courage nor effort. But none of us admire our own death. Except you, Mirna. To you an act is worthless if it’s not followed by pain and suffering, and it is truly meaningful only if it’s followed by death. As if death were the aim of life. It isn’t. It is merely life’s end. What you admire in Margarita is her courage to die. What I admire is her courage to live. There’s a world of difference between our outlooks. To you every affirmation of life is a step toward suffering and death. To me an affirmation of life is not a step; it is itself the goal. My goal is to live, not to take steps toward death. You’re far too young for your philosophy, Mirna. In every moment of joy you see only the coming pain; in every moment of life you see only the coming of death; that’s a philosophy for someone on a deathbed, not for a young, beautiful and vigorous woman. Margarita had the courage to want a different world, not the courage to want death. Your courage may be greater than Margarita’s but it’s not a human courage and there’s something repressive about it. ‘If you can’t face death, don’t live at all; if you dare to live, know you’ll die’ — isn’t that your view? ‘Only the dead have courage; if they’re alive they must be cowards, traitors, runaways.’ That’s why you were so upset when Yara —”

“Zdenek, that’s mean,” Jasna interrupts. “You’ll make her sick again.”

Yara adds, “Don’t forget it’s her party and she did go on strike. She does have the courage you’re talking about!”

But Mirna is not on the verge of becoming “sick” again; I’ll describe that sickness later. She’s fascinated by Zdenek’s description of her. “Keep quiet, both of you. Go ahead, Zdenek; what upset me when Yara did what?”

“When Yara as well as Jasna expressed a desire to live. All you talked about was the devil and the consequences. You couldn’t trust either of them to be a Margarita, could you? You were afraid they’d leave those consequences to others, namely to you, and they’d run like Luisa and the others who are still alive. So you tried to stop them from living.”

“Are you done?” Mirna asks. “Good. Let’s drink to Zdenek!” Then she turns to Yara and asks, “How do you play your love games?”

Yara runs to Mirna’s lap. “By pretending, like you taught me.”

“Have I ever stopped you?”

“Never, not once, ever. And I never told Zdenek you stopped me.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him you beat me, once, only once in my whole life.”

“Why did I beat you?”

Yara starts to cry. “I don’t know.”

“Why are you crying now? Have I made you unhappy?”

Yara tries to smile. “I’m not unhappy. It feels good to cry like this.”

Zdenek says apologetically, “I may have gone too far, Mirna.”

“Oh don’t back away so quickly, Zdenek! That’s precisely your point, isn’t it? Go too far and,then keep right on going; live and go on reaching for more life. How far are you willing to reach Zdenek? How much life do you want?”

“As much as possible, Mirna, but without getting killed or maimed,” Zdenek answers.

“Then you do expect consequences!”

“You misunderstood me intentionally!” Zdenek says angrily. “So long as a police or an army exist anywhere in the world, I expect unpleasant consequence! But I don’t prune my life down to nothing because they exist, I try to do everything humanly possible, and if it becomes possible for me to help get rid of the army and the police, as Margarita did, then I’ll do that too. Once we do that, arrest and imprisonment will no longer be the consequences of our attempts to live. Am I being clear?”

“As clear as the wine in my glass,” Mirna says. “And if it turned out that what you thought was possible wasn’t really possible —”

“It’s always a calculated risk,” Zdenek says.

“That’s a cowardly way to put it, Zdenek. If you were on those barricades, getting rid of that police alongside your beloved or your daughter or your comrades, and if it turned out that your goal was impossible and you were overpowered, what would you do, Zdenek? Run for your precious life?”

“If possible, Mirna, yes. But you tricked me.”

“Would it be possible for you to run out on your beloved, your daughter, your —”

“No, Mirna, I could no more do that than not stir at all. You win!”

“But Zdenek, you’re every bit as morbid as I am!”

Yara shouts, “Bravo! You showed him he’s not the coward he says he is!”

Jasna adds, “That was well done. Where’s the trick, Zdenek?”

“The trick is that Mirna concentrates on nothing but the consequences whereas I concentrate on everything but the consequences. I concentrate on living. Let the police concentrate on arresting me, jailing me and killing me. Why do we have to destroy our living moments with consequences that may or may not follow?”

“What does living consist of, Zdenek?” Mirna asks.

“Are you preparing another trick?” Zdenek asks. “Of love and comradeship, of dancing and eating, of dreaming and building; what kind of answer do you want?”

“Do you like me, Zdenek?” Mirna asks.

“Even though I find you morbid? Of course I do. You have a demon’s perseverance, you’re perceptive, clever —”

“Do you like dancing with me?”

“The single opportunity I’ve had — yes, I enjoyed it very much.”

“Go to a dance with me, Zdenek!”

“Are you crazy?” Zdenek asks. “I like you, Mirna; you’re a friend; Yarostan is also my friend, as is Yara —”

“Zdenek!” Mirna says with mock astonishment. “Are you worrying about living, or about the consequences?”

Jasna blushes. Yara and I both burst out laughing. I shout, “Bravo, Socrates!”

“Have you both gone crazy?” Zdenek asks. “Did you plan this out beforehand? Is it some kind of prank?”

“It’s no prank, Zdenek,” I tell him. “Mirna’s fellow workers are going to use their former plant as a dance hall and they’re inviting all their friends. I turned down her invitation.”

Yara turns to Zdenek and pleads. “If you turn her down, she’ll have to go to the dance without any of her friends. And she wanted all her friends to go.”

Jasna, blushing, asks me, “Would you be willing to go if I promised to give you another dancing lesson?”

It’s my turn to blush. “I turned down an invitation to a dance, not an invitation to a dancing lesson. I need another such lesson more than I need anything in the world.”

“Then we’re all going except you, grandfather!” Yara exclaims. “Didn’t you say you’d go out to the barricades when all your friends were already there?”

“You and your mother are trappers, Yara! That’s right, everything becomes possible when all my friends are already there. You both win. You win the argument, you win me, and you’ll win the world. We should correct that false religious slogan to say: The morbid shall inherit the earth.”

Jasna objects. “I still think you’re mean, Zdenek, even if you lost the argument. Couldn’t you just say: the living?”

Yara tells Zdenek, “Call us anything you want, only go with us. We like the way you dance.”

Zdenek objects. “But you laughed when I danced, Yara!”

“That’s why I want to see you dance again!”

As you can see, we’re all well now; perhaps we’re dizzy; we may even be a little crazy. We’re starting to heal from a twenty-year long sickness. But just before we started to get well, we had a major relapse; I’m convinced it was our last relapse. The tense and fearful atmosphere I described in my last letter did not vanish right after I sent that letter; before the atmosphere improved it got worse, much worse. I doubt if any external force will ever be able to hurt us as much as we hurt ourselves.

I sent my previous letter a few days after Mirna voted against a strike at her plant. Yara was on an outing to the mountains; she returned a week ago yesterday. During Yara’s absence, Mirna as well as most people I came in contact with seemed to have only one thought: the tanks. Toward the end of the week, the workers at the carton plant began to discuss less “morbid” subjects again; there haven’t been any new broadcasts about tank movements. But Mirna remained in the mood she’d been in when she’d insulted Jasna.

* * *

Yara returns from her outing late in the afternoon; Mirna and I are both back from work. As soon as Yara comes through the door, she asks, “What happened? What did you do to Jasna?”

“How did you know about that?” I ask her. “How was your trip?”

“I stopped at Jasna’s on my way home. It was a wonderful trip. We were all glad we went without anyone older than us; we did everything we wanted to do. On the way home Julia and I tried to figure out some more things about Minister Vera and Commissioner Adrian, and I went to Jasna’s to see if we’d guessed right. She told me a whole bunch of other things Julia and I didn’t know. Then I asked Jasna to come home with me and she started crying. I asked her what was wrong but all she said was that she was too embarrassed ever to come to our house again. What happened?”

Mirna answers curtly, “I insulted her, that’s what happened.”

“How?” Yara asks.

“I called her a coward.”

“What did she do?”

“She praised the devil.”

“Good for her!” Yara shouts. “Then why did you call her a coward?”

“Because Jasna is the last person in the world —” Mirna begins, and stops. She sits down and pulls Yara to her lap. “Never mind that now. Were the mountains beautiful? What did you do?”

“Lots of things. We took hikes and we climbed to several mountain tops. The most fun was when we played love games on a mountain top, just Julia, Slobodan and I.”

“How do you play love games on a mountain top, Yara?” Mirna asks, with a fascination that’s mixed with apprehension.

“By pretending, mommy, the way you taught me.”

“Who did you pretend to be?”

“Once I was Vera Krena and another time I was you. And once Julia pretended to be the devil. It was beautiful, mommy; the three of us were alone in the whole wide world.”

The glassy, distant look comes into Mirna’s eyes. “Let me tell you a story, Yara.”

“If it’s about Vesna I’d rather not hear it.”

“It’s about a time when I played love games on a mountain top.”

“You never did that!”

“And it’s about you, Yara.”

“Then I want to hear it!”

“I climbed to a mountain top nine months before you were born, Yara. I took everyone I loved: my brother and my father, my husband and my friend as well as several of their comrades. There were twelve of them; counting me we were thirteen. When we reached the top it was beautiful because, like you and your friends, we were alone in the whole wide world. Up there we could do whatever we wanted. At the very top there was a large flat rock, just big enough to hold me. I lay down on it and let the sun beat down on me. I reached downward with my right hand and six hands fastened themselves to mine; I reached with my left and another six hands grabbed mine. With all the strength in my arms I pulled all twelve of my loved ones to the top of the mountain, and when all twelve were on the rock they became one, the one I loved most of all —”

“The devil!” Yara shouts.

“Yes, Yara. The devil fathered you on that mountain top twelve years ago.”

“That’s a beautiful story, mommy.”

“It isn’t over yet, Yara. I played love games with the devil all day long. But toward evening clouds hid the sun, a wind started blowing and the rock got cold. Everything was possible on the mountain top only so long as there was sun and no wind. I started shaking with cold and wanted to return back down where there was shelter and warmth. I pushed the devil away from me with both my arms, forced him down off the rock, and when I sat up and looked I saw that I was pushing all twelve of my loved ones down from the rock, six on each side. The wind blew fiercely, the clouds turned black and thundered, and it started to pour. The rock where everything had been possible was no longer beautiful; it was bare and cold; it gave no shelter. I jumped off the rock and pushed my twelve loved ones downward; as soon as I left the rock it was hit by lightning. I pushed as hard as I could, but the rain and the lightning blinded me. Suddenly I heard four shrieks in front of me. I had pushed four of my loved ones off a precipice. I backed away from that edge in terror and tried to shelter my remaining eight under a tree, but there was no shelter from that storm. Lightning hit the tree and killed four of them before my very eyes. Now there were only four left: my brother, my father, my husband and my friend. I pulled them away from the burned tree and started pulling them down the mountain side. The paths were all slippery and rushing rivers blocked our way wherever we went. I was frenzied and lost track of my friend. Suddenly lightning struck near us again. I lost my grip on my brother and my husband and both slid down into a river that quickly carried them away. I started to run after them but my father held me back; he told me they were both good swimmers and would find their way to land. I was all alone with my father in that terrible storm. The two of us descended, slowly and carefully; we stayed close to the banks of the river into which my brother and my husband had fallen. But lightning struck again, and yet again. We both fell to the ground, and a tree fell across my father’s legs, breaking both of them. I kneeled next to him and cried. My love games destroyed everyone I loved.”

Yara gets off Mirna’s lap and says, politely, “I don’t like your story.”

Mirna pulls Yara hack. “I’m not through yet, Yara. The story ends with your birth. I could see that my father was in pain, but there was nothing I could do for him. Finally the storm let up. The lightning stopped and the rushing rivers became small streams. In the black of night I ran down the mountainside alone, straight to my mother’s house. I told her where I’d left my father. She gathered several neighbors and they all went to help him. But I didn’t go with them. I ran to the stream we had been following, ran along it, and finally came across someone I knew. He told me he had seen my husband in the stream, with his head up, swimming vigorously. But he hadn’t seen my brother. I ran on down the stream, hesitated, and then turned and ran back to the spot where I’d left my injured father. The clouds were gone and the moon lighted my way. When I reached the spot I saw a circle of people standing around it. There was only one courageous person in the circle; I recognized him as my one-time neighbor and my father’s friend. He put his hand on my arm and led me through the circle; the others grumbled and moved away from me as if I were a leper or a witch. He told me they weren’t bad people but they were all afraid. And then he told me my father’s legs hadn’t been badly broken; they could have been cured; he might even have walked again. When the neighbor had reached my father, he had heard my father moaning about his drowned son, his daughter’s marriage to a drowned husband, and about his own inability to help his daughter find her brother or her husband. The neighbor said he died of a broken heart. When I reached the center of the circle I saw my father’s lifeless body where I had left him. My mother kneeled next to him across from me; her face looked blue in the moonlight. She pointed her finger at me, and at you as well, Yara; you were in my stomach then. ‘You and the devil killed him,’ she told me. I knew she was right. I crawled on all fours out of that circle, crawled all the way to my house, and at that moment I was able to let you come into the world, because I had paid what you cost, I had paid for my love game with the devil on the top of the mountain.”

“I don’t like you when you tell stories like that,” Yara says, trying to get away from Mirna. “You sound just like that crazy old woman.”

Unlike Yara, I’m deeply moved by Mirna’s story. I realize that I haven’t really been aware of the pain Mirna experienced during my second prison term. My eight years in prison weren’t pleasant, but I didn’t spend many hours, or even many minutes, trying to imagine what Mirna was undergoing during the days I spent in cells, exercise yards or prison workshops. I didn’t have any contact whatever with my family until several months after Jan and I were arrested at the steel plant on the day when the Magarna rising was suppressed. My first visitor was Titus. He told me he hadn’t found Jan “yet” but was still trying. He also told me Vesna was well and Mirna was pregnant. He didn’t tell me Mirna’s father had been fired from his bus-driving job; I suppose he didn’t want to be the earner of bad news to a prisoner. He did tell me Mirna had acquired a pass to visit me but was having “trouble” with her parents; she could barely find time for them, for Vesna and for her job. Titus also brought me two books. After Titus’ visit, my contact with the “outside” was completely broken for more than two years. I acquired my own constrained routine: prison acquaintances, interests and problems. Mirna and Vesna visited me three years after my arrest. Mirna spent a long time telling me she had gotten a pass with Titus’ help but terrible things had happened and by the time she got a day off work and came to the prison, she was told the forms had changed and she wasn’t allowed to visit me. Then Titus was arrested and Mirna wasn’t able to find out what she had to do to get the pass she needed. That’s why she visited me only after Titus was released. I asked her what terrible things had happened and she listed them mechanically, almost coldly, but something in her tone gave me the impression she considered herself responsible for everything she was telling me. She began with Jan’s and my disappearance “on the day after we dreamed”; then Jan could no longer be found, her father died, her mother got sick, Yara was born. When Mirna completed her list, Vesna uttered her only contribution during that first visit; it consisted of three words: “I hate you.” It became clear to me that if Mirna blamed herself, Vesna blamed me for everything that had happened. I felt like an extra burden on Mirna’s back, a burden she didn’t need to carry. I reminded her that during our first walks I had tried to warn her not to marry a “political criminal” because she might find herself bound to a non-person, a human being who would suddenly cease to exist. Mirna started crying but I continued in the same vein. I urged her to divorce me and told her I’d heard divorces were easily procured by wives of political criminals. Mirna’s eyes filled with anger, bitterness and resentment. “Is that all you have to say to me after three horrible years?” she asked me. “How dare you even think about divorce! Your return is all I live for, Yarostan; you’re all I have left now; you’re my brother, my father, my husband and my only friend; you’re everyone I love in the world; if you disappear, I’ll die of a broken heart, like my father. Don’t talk to me about divorce, Yarostan; tell me something else!” But I didn’t have anything else to say. I told her, “I love you, Mirna, more than I love myself; that’s why I don’t want you to sacrifice yourself to me.” Mirna left crying; Vesna walked away from me with hatred in her eyes.

Yara tries to get away from Mirna’s lap but Mirna holds on to her. “Neither you nor I have a right to say the old woman was crazy. You were born right after my father died. I got a short leave from work but I spent all my time with you. I didn’t once go visit my mother although I knew she needed me. I wanted her to let me know she needed me. You were my excuse for not going to her. The union had given my father a retirement pension after he was fired. Our neighbor, the same one who’d told me about my father’s death, found out she still had a right to that pension but she had to go to the union building for it. The first time he went with her. But the second time she went alone. She didn’t let the neighbor come tell me she wanted me to go with her: she was afraid I’d turn her down. The neighbor couldn’t get another day off his job. Titus told me what happened to her when he came to tell me, several days later, that she was in the hospital; he learned what had happened from the doorman at the union building. It was a cold, snowy day; the roads were slippery. The old woman confronted the door-man and demanded ‘her due.’ The doorman asked her whom she wanted and she ranted about devils and their agents. She pushed her way past the doorman but several guards pushed the ‘crazy woman’ out of the building. She tried to enter the building a second time but the guards pushed her so violently she fell — and remained where she had fallen. The police took her to the hospital and a few days later everyone in the union building knew she was ‘Sedlak’s wife’ and had a right to the pension she had come to collect. Titus came to tell me she was in the hospital, completely paralyzed; there was nothing they could do for her. That was when I let them bring the ‘crazy woman’ to the spare room in our house. She turned Vesna’s heart against me, against Yarostan, eventually against you, Yara. She knew her sickness wasn’t brought on by the guards or the snow, but by my love games —”

“She was crazy!” Yara screams. “I hated her!”

“You’re what made her the way she was!”

“You’re lying!” Yara shouts, trying to pull away from Mirna. “I hate you when you talk like her. You’re trying to do to me what she did to Vesna! But you can’t! I won’t let you!”

“Vesna would never have killed anyone she loved —”

“Neither did you and neither did I! That old woman lied through her teeth; it was all she was able to do; she was completely looney —”

“Say that once again, Yara, and I’ll —”

“Looney! Crazy! She taught Vesna we killed people by loving them and she killed Vesna by teaching her that! Everything she said was a lie and everything you’re telling me is a lie! I know it is. I played with Julia and Slobodan and nothing happened to any of us and nothing is going to happen, ever, and you know it! Why can’t you just be yourself instead of turning yourself into that crazy woman? You’re hateful when you’re like her, and don’t think you’ll ever stop me from playing love games whenever and wherever I please because you won’t! I’m not Vesna! I was glad when we took the old woman to the shed outside where we could neither see nor hear her and I was overjoyed when she finally croaked! I’m glad she’s dead and so are you!”

Mirna’s face is flushed with anger as she whacks Yara across the face. Yara starts bawling. Mirna rushes to the kitchen to put our dinner into the oven.

“She was so happy before I went on my outing,” Yara sobs. “What happened between her and Jasna? Why did she hit me? She never did that to me before!”

“I don’t understand, Yara,” I tell her. “She’s been upset ever since she heard that radio broadcast your friend turned on and she’s been angry ever since this letter came.” I point to the letter in which you describe your experiences in Sabina’s garage.

Yara starts reading your letter. She reads while I set the table and help Mirna bring the food in. She continues reading during the meal. Suddenly she asks me, “Is Sabina younger than Sophia?”

“Yes, three or four years younger,” I tell her.

Yara reads further and then says, “I wish Vesna were still alive, and I wish that old woman hadn’t ever come into our house.”

“Exactly what does that mean?” Mirna asks.

Yara looks defiantly at Mirna; there’s fire in her eyes. “It means I’d be Sabina and Vesna would be Sophia. It means Vesna would be different from me, she wouldn’t want what I wanted, but she’d still be my friend and she wouldn’t be dead, that’s what it means.”

Mirna drops her fork on her plate and runs to the bedroom. For a moment Yara pretends indifference and continues reading, but it’s obvious she can’t concentrate. She walks hesitantly to the bedroom and says from the doorway, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean how that sounded. I know you couldn’t help bringing your own mother into our house. If you ever become just like her I’d take you into my house too, but only because you’d once been good to me. I’d hate what you’d become as much as you always hated her. You called her a vampire!”

“I was wrong, Yara. You’re the vampire.”

“That’s a lie and you know it! You’re ten times worse than she was! She never hit me! She didn’t pretend to be my friend and then turn against me. You’re not just an enemy, you’re a traitor!” Yara starts to walk away from the bedroom.

Mirna shouts, “Yara! Tell me how you like me!”

Yara returns to the doorway. “When you’re yourself.”

“When am I myself?”

“When you’re not the old woman.”

“Show me, Yara. Come here next to me. Come on, Yara. That’s it. Now lie down. Pretend you’re on the mountain top. Lie still. Pretend we’re alone. Now who am I?” ’

“I don’t know yet but I like you now.”

There’s a long silence. Then Mirna asks, “Is this how you like me, Yara?”

“You know I do, mommy.”

“Who am I now?”

“You’re Slobodan and Sabina and Julia and father and I love all of you. I showed them —”

“What did you show them?”

“To pretend.” There’s another silence. Then Yara pleads, “You’re hurting me, mommy.”

“Can you pretend to forget what I showed you?”

“No, mommy, not if you hurt me a thousand times worse.”

“Do you ever pretend to be Vesna?”

“No, mommy, never, and I hate you when you pretend to be the old woman.”

“But I’m able to pretend that! And so are you!”

“I’ll never be Vesna!”

“Pretend hard! There, Vesna, lie still, I’m your father. How does that feel, Vesna? And that? Is this how you like me, Vesna?”

“No I don’t! I’m not Vesna! Why are you so afraid? What happened to you?”

“Do you like it better with Julia?”

“That’s right, mommy! And even better with Slobodan because then it’s more real!”

“Is it more real than Vesna?”

Yara shouts defiantly, “Yes, it’s more real than Vesna! Slobodan is alive! Julia is alive! Vesna is dead! Why can’t you understand that? Vesna isn’t real any more!”

I hear a loud whack. Yara shrieks with pain. “Let go of me!”

Mirna shrieks, “We killed her!” She whacks Yara again. “Pretend to understand that we killed her, Yara!” She whacks the girl yet again shrieking, “You’ll kill the rest of us!”

I run in frantically and hold Mirna’s arms back to keep her from hitting Yara yet again. The thought of Mirna’s father stopping her mother from swinging the broom flashes through my mind. I take Yara in my arms and rush out of the room with her; she goes on shrieking; her face is an expression of terror. My own face probably expresses a similar terror. I let myself down on the living room couch, pressing Yara to me. She starts trembling and places both hands on her burning cheeks. “I won’t pretend to be Vesna,” she sobs. “I’m not Vesna!”

Yara gradually stops trembling and sobbing. She falls asleep in my arms. The poor girl has had a full day since she returned from her outing. I carry her to her bed and return to the living room couch; I can’t make myself join Mirna in the bedroom. I try to sleep but the few memories I have of Vesna pass through my mind. Vesna was barely two when Jan and I were arrested at the steel plant. I didn’t see her again until she was five, when Mirna visited me in prison for the first time. Mirna didn’t come again for a long time after that visit when I urged her to divorce me; she sent Vesna to bring packages of food to me, packages which I was never allowed to keep. Every time Vesna came she made it perfectly clear to me that she hated me and blamed me for the miserable life they all led. From Vesna I learned that Mirna’s mother had somehow become incapacitated, that she had been moved into our house, and that she continually filled Vesna’s head with superstitions and fears. But it wasn’t only the old woman who shaped Vesna’s development; the whole environment in which she grew up terrorized her. When she was six, Vesna did all the shopping and housecleaning, took care of Yara and nursed the helpless old woman; Mirna cooked supper when she returned from work but was too tired to do anything else. On one of her earliest visits Vesna gave me a fairly clear idea of the quality of her experiences in the world “outside.” A few days before her visit, when she was on her way home with a bag of groceries, a group of school children walked by her. One of them shouted, “That’s Vochek’s daughter.” Others started chanting, “Traitor’s daughter! Capitalist! Foreign spy!” Vesna ran from them and was hit by several rocks. One of the “brave young revolutionaries” ran after her, pushed her into the snow, and spilled all the groceries. No one defended her; several adults walked by her indifferently. When she got home, the milk was half ice, there was snow in the bread and vegetables, and her hands were frozen. Yet she told me about the incident without indignation, as if it were perfectly natural that “Vochek’s daughter” didn’t really have the right to share the street with ”decent and normal” people. Mirna kept Vesna out of school until she was seven, partly to get help with all the work in the house, but mainly for fear of what the schoolchildren might do to her. When neighbors reported her, Vesna was enrolled in school. Her visits became rare and then stopped altogether. Contrary to Mirna’s fears, Vesna wasn’t physically assaulted in school. From Vesna’s sparse descriptions I gathered that she became a model “revolutionary” pupil. She absorbed everything she was told, like a sponge. Her schooling didn’t do away with the superstitions she’d learned from her sick grandmother but on the contrary reinforced them. She merely learned to call the devils that infested the universe by new names: now they were shirkers, counter-revolutionaries, hooligans and foreign agents; the rest of her outlook remained unchanged. About the middle of her first school year, Vesna’s visits came to an end; I never saw her again. I had no visitors for several months and I began to speculate that Mirna had finally decided to divorce me. But then Titus visited me for a second time. He told me that shortly after her last visit to me, Vesna had become ill; he had rushed her to the hospital. She remained in the hospital for several weeks; the doctors said she had a weak heart and advised that she be allowed to rest as much as possible; she recovered despite the fact that she couldn’t rest for a minute at our house. Titus brought me Mirna’s usual package; that was the only time I was allowed to keep it and share its contents with fellow prisoners. Ever since Vesna had started visiting me, I had gone to the visitors’ room with a certain apprehension; I was relieved when I saw Titus there instead of Vesna. I begged Titus to urge Mirna to divorce me. I told him there was no reason for them to go through a hell worse than prison because I had been convicted of political crimes. I had already been in prison for four years and I knew I’d be there for at least four more; I didn’t think I would ever see the outside world again. I reminded him that he had once asked me to join him in carrying a project; I had not done very well, but my efforts had caused me to lose my ability to survive, my ability to give another generation the possibility to carry a project. Titus smiled sadly at my request; he told me he would try. For several months I again had no visitors. I thought, without joy, that Titus had carried out my request. Then Mirna came; it was her second visit; I hadn’t seen her in years. She was skinny; her face had wrinkles; she looked twenty years older than I remembered her; in her simple dress and black kerchief, she looked very much like her mother. “Titus asked me to marry him,” she told me. “And you refused?” I asked. “No, Yarostan,” she said angrily; “I accepted. I knew it was you who’d asked him to propose to me. He did your bidding ever so meekly and unwillingly. But I threw myself at him. Take me, I told him; I’m yours. At that moment he backed away from me. He saw what I was! He saw the devil in me. He cast me away; he didn’t want the devil around his neck any more than you do. Suddenly I understood all your talk about divorce. Vesna thinks you’re responsible for everything that happened to us and she’s ended up by convincing you. But Vesna doesn’t know what I know. Vesna doesn’t know that whatever you were arrested for, I shared in greater measure. You told Titus you were a chain around my neck, but he saw that I was a chain around yours! Don’t lie to yourself any more; you know it too. You’re all I have left now; you’re my father, brother, husband and friend, and I’ll do everything in my power to hold on to you. I’ll be at the prison gate when they release you. And if they don’t release you I’ll find a way to crawl through the prison bars. If it’s the devil they want in jail, let them imprison me. It’s because of me that my brother disappeared and my father died. Please, Yarostan. share that burden with me!” As I listened to Mirna, I concluded she’d been affected by her mother’s insanity, but I couldn’t keep myself from crying. I realized that for Mirna my prison cell represented freedom from the life she had to live daily. From that day until a few months before my release, Mirna visited me frequently. Sometimes she brought Yara; she never again brought Vesna, I couldn’t hide the fact that I liked Yara much more than I liked Vesna, mainly, I suppose, because Yara seemed to like me. On one visit when Mirna came with Yara, I asked about Vesna’s health. Yara, who was six then and had just started school, answered, “Oh, she’s well enough, but her skin turns to goose pimples whenever anyone touches her. You’re not like that, are you father?” Mirna swept Yara off the ground and shouted, “Of course he’s not like that, Yara. The three of us have the devil in us. Vesna is a saint, like your grandmother.” After which Yara told me, “I wouldn’t like you if you were a saint!” Mirna and Yara visited me together for the last time about a year before my release. Mirna came in her best dress; she had fixed her hair; she seemed healthier than I’d seen her since my arrest and she looked her own age again. She was beautiful. Yara was as lively as an energetic seven-year old. Mirna blushed when I walked into the room. She told me she’d learned that prisoners were being released at the end of their scheduled terms, and therefore I would be released in 347 days. “Mommy says when you get home you’ll teach me all the things they don’t teach in school,” Yara said excitedly. Mirna blushed again. I was infected by their happiness. I, too, started to count the days to my release, although I knew that such activity could lead to frustrated hopes and a broken heart; if prisoners were being let out at the end of their terms, I was convinced it was out of pure caprice on the part of the repressive apparatus. I continued counting days; that’s why I know that for the next 204 days I received no visitors. I knew something had happened; I speculated that Mirna had found out the rumor did not refer to me and had spent her energy trying to move a cog in the bureaucracy. Yara finally put an end to my speculations, I was shocked by her appearance. She was dressed in a sack far too big for her, there were tears in her eyes, and her face had an expression I had seen before, on Vesna’s face, and once or twice on Mirna’s: it was hatred. “They killed Vesna!” she told me, concentrating all her hatred on the “they.” I asked her what had happened but could learn nothing from her account except that Vesna had died in a hospital and that I was indirectly responsible for her death. “Vesna was so afraid, father, so terribly afraid.” “Afraid of what?” I asked; “what happened to her?” “The day we got back from visiting you, mommy and I were so happy that you’d be with us in a year, but Vesna didn’t want you to come back, ever — and they took her away and killed her because of that!” “Who took her away and why?” I asked. “Mommy and I tried to stop them but we couldn’t; two of them held me and the others took Vesna away from us.” I asked impatiently, “You tried to stop whom, Yara? What happened to Vesna?” Her answer was, “They locked her up in that hospital and didn’t let her out again! They killed her! You would have stopped them if you’d been home! They paid no attention to mommy and me!” I grew suspicious. “Yara, how long was Vesna sick before Mirna called the doctor?” Yara suddenly backed away from me. The hatred that had earlier been concentrated on “them” was now aimed at me. With horror and indignation she told me, “Father, we didn’t call the doctor!” I became indignant too. “Why, Yara? Mirna should have called the doctor when Vesna’s illness began! Why didn’t she call the doctor?” Tears covered Yara’s face; she looked at me incredulously, as if I were a monster. “You don’t understand either!” she wailed as she ran from me. My last month and a half in prison was like an extra term. One phrase kept going through my mind: “Vesna didn’t want you to come back, father — she was so terribly afraid.” I remembered, analyzed and re-analyzed the few contacts I’d had with Vesna; none of them had been happy encounters; since she was extremely sensitive, she must have been aware of my dislike for her. of the resentment I felt at seeing her and not Mirna in the guest room. That dislike and resentment were somehow responsible for her death. But I didn’t understand how. Vesna’s heart was apparently too weak to withstand the numerous tasks that fell on her and I didn’t understand why Mirna hadn’t called the doctor when Vesna had gotten sick again; I remembered that it had been Titus, and not Mirna, who had taken Vesna to the hospital the first time she’d gotten sick. But I never asked for an explanation. When Mirna finally accompanied me home after eight years of confinement, I found myself in a worse prison than the one I had left. The joy Mirna and Yara had communicated to me during their visit a year earlier was gone; it had died with Vesna. Yara was no longer the friend and comrade she had been during her few visits with Mirna; she was cold and distant. Mirna was twenty years older again, tired and resigned; she dragged herself to work in the morning and dragged herself home in the evening, ate, cleaned and fed her mother, and fell into bed. Her mother was housed in a brick shed next to the house; she couldn’t move her arms or her legs; all she could do was talk. As soon as I returned I relieved Mirna of the task of removing the old woman’s excrement; I’d had similar tasks in prison. Mirna insisted on feeding and washing the old woman herself; her mother would probably have spat out food that I served her. Yara never entered the shed. I wasn’t able to find a job and wasn’t terribly eager to look for one; between my tasks and our meals, I took long, lonely walks. When we were together we didn’t ever talk about the old woman in the shed next to the house, and the subject of Vesna never came up.

Eventually I fall asleep on the living room couch. The following morning I wake up aching, at the hour when I usually wake to go to the plant, but it’s Saturday. I walk toward the bedroom and stop in the doorway, horrified. Mirna is still in the position where I left her when I pulled her arms away from Yara! Her eyes are wide open and concentrate on a spot on the ceiling; she looks like her mother did during the weeks after my release, before she died; she looks paralyzed. “Mirna!” I shout, and I start to tremble. She doesn’t stir. I run to Yarn’s room and shake her.

Yara rushes to our bedroom, shrieks the moment she enters, and jumps on top of the bed. “Mommy, don’t do that!” she shouts, shaking Mirna’s arms and shoulders. “Beat me all you want, but don’t look like that!” Then Yara starts to shriek hysterically: “Stop it, mommy! I’ll be Vesna! I’ll be anyone you want! But stop it! Please! I love you, mommy. You can be the old woman if you want. But don’t make them take you away. Please, please stop it!”

I become infected with Yara’s hysteria. I start pacing around the bed. “We have to do something, Yara. Mirna is sick. I’ll go out to look for a doctor.”

Yara’s face takes on the expression of hatred and horror I had seen when she last visited me in prison. She shrieks, “No!” Then she leaps away from the bed and starts pushing me out of the room. “Leave her alone! Go away from here!”

“Yara. what’s the matter with you?” I shout. “Your mother is sick!”

Yara shrieks. “She’s not sick! You don’t understand anything! You want them to kill her!”

“That’s terribly mean, Yara. I love Mirna very much. I want her to get well.”

“Then leave her alone!” she shouts. “The doctor is going to say she has to go to the hospital and they’ll kill her the way they killed Vesna!”

“Please, Yara! She has to see a doctor. We won’t let anyone take her to the hospital.”

“You’re lying,” she shouts, pushing me toward the outside door. “Go for a walk, visit someone, but leave her alone. Please! You won’t stop them from taking her! You wouldn’t have stopped them from taking Vesna!”

“Vesna was sick! The doctor should have been called —”

“Vesna wasn’t sick!” Yara shrieks. Then she calms herself and pleads with me. “I don’t hate you, father, but you don’t understand. You’re just like Mr. Zabran and those horrible doctors. Mommy isn’t sick. I know. I’ll get Jasna; she’ll understand. Maybe Zdenek will too. Please go away, won’t you? She’ll get well if you go away. And please don’t bring anyone; I’ll get everyone I know to stop them from touching her!”

“I’ve had enough of this silliness, Yara! I’m going to call —”

“Then go to hell!” she shrieks, pushing me and beating me with her fists. “Get out of here and stay out at least until tonight! Mommy isn’t sick!”

“Then what’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing!” she shouts. “Nothing’s wrong with her! She’s playing with you and me! But you don’t know how to play! You’re the one who’s sick, like all those others. Please, father, don’t have her killed for playing!”

I leave the house reluctantly. I go to a coffee house to try to think clearly but nothing becomes clear to me. Yara understands Mirna, especially her “games,” much better than I do. On the other hand, I suspect that Yara’s opinion of doctors and hospitals might be a bit of “wisdom” she picked up from Mirna and her mother. I convince myself that neither a “game” nor Yara’s opinion of doctors should endanger Mirna’s health. I take a bus to the city hospital. My first encounter with the hospital “reception” forces me to admit that whatever Mirna and Yara think of hospitals, it is based on something real. I’ve never been to a hospital before; I’ve also never visited a prison as an “outsider”; I imagine the “reception” offices of both must be very similar. “Can she walk? Is it critical? A hospital doctor cannot visit your house. Would you like us to send an ambulance with a stretcher? No? In that case you’ll have to bring her here by taxi.” I make up my mind to find someone to help me take Mirna to the hospital, someone Yara trusts. I walk to Zdenek’s house but he’s not home. I consider Titus but the thought of Yara’s hysteria dissuades me from looking him up. I take a bus to Jasna’s house but she’s not home either. I know I can carry Mirna to the taxi myself and I realize I’m looking for someone who will not only convince Yara of Mirna’s need for medical attention but also help me decide to oppose Yara’s will. I walk to Yara’s school and sit down on a bench in the playground. I try to take Yara seriously; I try to figure out the nature of the “game” Mirna is playing. But surely a person who is seriously injured or paralyzed in a game needs medical care! It’s already mid-afternoon. I leave the schoolyard and head home, determined to get Mirna to a doctor, with or without Yara’s approval.

The moment I enter the house, Yara plants herself in the bedroom doorway. Zdenek and Jasna are both in the living room. “Have you been here all day?” I ask. “I went to both your houses to look for you.”

“Yara came to get us as soon as you left this morning,” Jasna tells me. “Calm down, won’t you? Did you contact anyone else?”

“How is she?” I ask.

“Mirna is perfectly all right,” Jasna says with an insistence that makes me sense she’s lying; “it’s you who worries us, Yarostan.”

“Me!” I shout. “Are you in on that game too, Jasna? Are you playing with Mirna’s health, with her life?” I take two quick steps toward the bedroom doorway. “Yara, step out of my way!”

But it’s Zdenek who stops me; he pulls me towards the couch and forces me down on it, commanding, “Stay out of there! If you have any love for her, Yarostan, stay seated and listen to us!”

“She needs a doctor!” I shout. “Can’t you see she’s sick?”

Jasna says calmly, “I’m amazed at how cruelly you disregard Yara. She’s not an idiot, you know!”

“It’s not a question of insulting or not insulting Yara,” I shout impatiently as I writhe frustratedly in Zdenek’s grip; “it may be a question of Mirna’s life! Have you both gone crazy? Are you going to sit here and hold me while she dies like her mother?”

“If you’re just going to shout, Yarostan, it would be better if you took another walk,” Jasna says. “Come back when you’re in a mood to listen to us.”

“I should have had them send the ambulance!” I shout. “I’ll go, Jasna — I’ll go get the ambulance.”

Zdenek shouts, “You’ll stay right there and listen to us no matter what mood you’re in! It took Yara less than half an hour to explain the whole thing to me; why are you so mule-headed?”

“Because I love her,” I mutter weakly.

Zdenek shakes me. “Listen to me. Mirna is convinced she’s carrying a terrible burden. She thinks she’s responsible for all the deaths in her family, including her own daughter’s.” Yara starts to close the door of the bedroom but Zdenek shouts: “Leave it open, Yara! She has to listen too, and I don’t want to say it all twice! She’s convinced that death stalks every one of her happy moments. That stupid broadcast about the troop movements convinced her she was right, and that letter from your friend gave her some mysterious insights into the origins of her guilt. She seems to think she was driven to do everything she did, and last night she apparently convinced herself that Yara was an agent of whatever it was that drove her. Mirna’s sickness is nothing but an attempt to destroy Yara’s carefree love of life. She’s determined to drive guilt into the child, and she’s apparently willing to die trying because she’s as mule-headed as you are.”

I tell Zdenek, “I don’t understand a single word,” but that’s a lie. The shed in which Mirna and Yara had “isolated” the old woman flashes through my mind. Yarn’s visit after Vesna’s death and her admission, “Father, we didn’t call the doctor,” flash through my mind, as well as Mirna’s shriek when she hit Yara the night before: “We killed her — you’ll kill the rest of us.” What I don’t understand is why Mirna didn’t call the doctor when Vesna was sick, and why Zdenek and Jasna refuse to call the doctor now.

Yara starts to cry. “Why don’t you understand, father? Mommy made me think you were different, she made me think you’d be a friend, and I believed her, I wanted so much to believe her, but I couldn’t go on believing her after I visited you in prison for the last time, when you told me you wouldn’t have stopped them from taking Vesna away.”

I ask Zdenek indignantly, “Are you telling me Vesna wasn’t sick either?”

Zdenek answers, “The only thing wrong with Vesna was that she grew up in this house between her sister, her mother and her grandmother.”

“Vesna wasn’t sick,” Jasna adds. “She’d had rheumatic fever a few years earlier, but she’d recovered from that —”

“I’m not an idiot either!” I shout to Jasna. “You’re repeating Yara’s comment like a parrot. If Vesna wasn’t sick, why did she die?”

“You are an idiot, Yarostan!” Zdenek shouts. “Why can’t you believe Yara? In the hospital they didn’t know what to make of Vesna. They misdiagnosed her —”

“But that’s impossible!” I start to shake.

“Impossible!” Zdenek shouts. “But you’re as authoritarian as they come! Do you think doctors are gods? Hasn’t Yara told you what they did to her?”

“I couldn’t tell him because he was on their side,” Yara says.

“Tell him now, Yara; he has to be told sometime,” Jasna insists.

“They didn’t even let mommy and me go see her. They kept us in that front office where white-frocked people continually ran in and out. They told me Vesna was asleep and couldn’t be disturbed; we waited all day and half the night, but Vesna kept being asleep and then I knew they were lying; Vesna didn’t sleep all the time. When there wasn’t anyone in the office, I left mommy there and walked up and down the halls, which are the same as in school only longer; I looked into every room until I found her in a room full of sick people. The doctors had all lied to us. Vesna was wide awake, staring at the ceiling just like mommy is, but I knew they were killing her; they had all kinds of tubes connected to her: in her arm, through her nose and elsewhere. Poor Vesna couldn’t breathe. I went up to her and told her, ‘If you don’t stop, they won’t let you come out and see father when he returns.’ She said, ‘I’ve seen him and I hate him.’ I asked her, ‘Do you want to stay here?’ She said, ‘No, Yara, I hate it here, I hate all these people, I want to go back to grandmother’s room!’ I got mad at her and shouted, ‘Then stop pretending!’ Vesna said, ‘I can’t.’ I could have made her stop but they didn’t let me. Nurses and guards had heard me and came running for me; I screamed, ‘You’re killing her!’ while they carried me to the waiting room and then they told us both to leave; they knew what they were doing to Vesna,”

“How awful!” Jasna sobs. “I only learned about Yara’s visit to Vesna this morning. All I knew before was what Titus had told me right after Vesna died. He had called the hospital every half hour to find out how she was; poor soul, he had taken her there and he was so concerned. But he took the hospital authorities as seriously as you do. She was in a perpetual coma, he told me. They kept diagnosing and re-diagnosing her; every diagnosis had its tests and treatment; poor Vesna just wasn’t strong enough to withstand all those treatments. And all that time Vesna succeeded in fooling them!”

“How could she?” I ask, on the verge of tears.

“Please don’t be so stupid, Yarostan,” Jasna sobs. “How could Yara’s sister, Mirna’s daughter, herself an accomplished prankster, fool all those doctors and nurses? Children do that in school every day of the year — not just to me; that’s easy; some fool the entire teaching staff for months at a stretch! Those doctors authoritatively told Titus she was in critical condition, she had a clot on the brain, and even that her brain was damaged — and they treated her for all that!”

I can’t hold back my tears. I reach both my hands out to Yara and beg, “Please forgive me. I insulted you whenever you tried to tell me. You have good reason to hate me. I was terribly wrong.”

Yara runs to me crying. “Until today it didn’t matter how wrong you were,” she whispers. “You couldn’t have helped us; you were in prison when they took Vesna away.”

“I’m the one who could have helped but I stayed away and I continued staying away,” Jasna sobs. “Vesna had missed school for more than a week but I didn’t ask Yara what was wrong and I didn’t introduce myself to Mirna as her husband’s and her brother’s friend. Instead I told Titus that Vesna was probably ill and it was he who rushed to your house; I satisfied myself with visiting vicariously, through Titus. I knew that something was terribly wrong when he described Vesna’s illness and Mirna’s and Yara’s reactions to it, but I still didn’t come. Titus was convinced Vesna needed medical care; but he’d had no experience with imaginative children. He told me indignantly that Vesna never left the sick old woman’s bed and when he walked into the room the child repeated her grandmother’s hocus pocus about the devil and the charms with which to exorcise him. I should have known right then; I would have known if I’d seen her. Titus blamed Mirna for leaving the child in that bed instead of having her taken to the hospital. He told me that when he mentioned the hospital, Mirna acted as insane as her mother and Yara became hysterical. So he took it on himself to have Vesna taken to the hospital. When she was carried to the ambulance, two attendants had to hold Yara and keep her out of the way. Mirna has every reason in the world to consider me a coward and a hypocrite. Where was I when Vesna was carried away? Mirna and Yara needed me! Vesna might still be alive today. But I was home, reading. I couldn’t share the real horrors with Mirna, not even one of them.”

“She didn’t blame you, Jasna; she blamed herself, and that was my fault,” Yara tells her. “Mommy tried to stop them from taking Vesna as much as I did. She begged them on her knees not to take her away from us, and she cried all day long. We went to the hospital every day, even after they told us not to come any more. Whenever anyone came out we begged, ‘Please give our Vesna back to us.’ Twice we waited all day in the rain; a nurse kept running out and telling us to go home; she said we were crazy and called us stupid peasants. Finally a man in a white coat let us into the waiting room, but only to tell us Vesna wasn’t in the hospital any more. We screamed at him and he had another man in a white coat come in and tell us she had died that morning in an ambulance while being transferred to another hospital. That was when I shouted, ‘Mommy, you let them kill our Vesna!’ It wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true! But I wanted someone to blame because I loved Vesna. Mommy believed it; she blamed herself. For two weeks she went to work crying and she returned crying. I begged her to forgive me for saying that, but she never stopped blaming herself. One day, weeks after Vesna’s death, I told her Vesna would never have started hating you and mommy if that old woman hadn’t been living with us, and that made her stop crying. That night she went to grandmother’s room and screamed, ‘Vampire! You won! You’ve always wanted to take Vesna from me! You’ve done it! Your holy work is done. You can go now.’ Mommy had me stay home from school the next day. A heating stove arrived and abed, as well as a load of bricks. She came home from work with a wheelbarrow and mortar. That night we started building walls around the stove and bed. And every time she walked by grandmother’s door she mumbled things like, ‘You’ll soon have a house without devils in it,’ and ‘Vesna should have helped me do this five years ago; you might have spared her your salvation.’ When we finished, the two of us carried the old woman to her new house; she was mainly bones and lighter than I. I laughed when mommy sang, ‘Holy Mary Mother of God, we’re taking you to heaven; no demons will ever share your house again except to feed you and remove your excrement.’ But she didn’t stop blaming herself for Vesna’s death and when the old woman died after you came back she blamed herself for that too. I wish I’d never told her she’d let them kill Vesna! Vesna’s death was my fault more than anyone else’s!”

Hugging Yara, I beg, “Don’t say that, please. You loved Vesna; you and Mirna did all you could to save her. I didn’t love Vesna! I was afraid of her; I was sorry whenever she came instead of Mirna. I was even happy when Titus came instead of Vesna. I resented Vesna’s hating me for being in Jail. She sensed my feelings toward her; that must have had a terrible effect on her. Don’t ever blame yourself for that, Yara.”

“Your feelings had nothing to do with it,” Yara says insistently. “Vesna was playing a game with me and with no one else, and she won —”

“A game, Yara? And Vesna won?”

“A game, father! Why did those doctors have to come into it? Vesna hated the old woman as much as I did but she pretended to love her. She loved you as much as I did but she pretended to hate you. When we learned you’d return in a year, before mommy and I went to see you, I caught her kissing herself in the mirror. I knew she was kissing you and I forced her to admit it; she made me promise never to tell mommy and I never told. But I made fun of her until the day we went to visit you; I called her a liar for pretending to be like the crazy old woman; I told her I knew she wanted you to touch her and kiss her and sleep next to her.” Yara starts crying and continues through her sobs, “I didn’t tell her those things to be mean or to hurt her, but because I knew they were true. Vesna was my sister, not the old woman’s. And she wasn’t hurt when I told her those things. It was a game. She made her eyes real big and she ran to the old woman’s room shouting, ‘You’ll roast in hell, Yara.’ She didn’t hurt me any more than I hurt her. That was our game. And it was still just a game the day mommy and I went to tell you about your release. Mommy was so happy! She got all dressed up; she looked beautiful. Vesna wanted to come with us; I know she did. But when mommy asked her, she said, ‘You’re the devil, all of you.’ I told her, ‘So are you!’ Mommy and I were so happy when we got back; she showed me how you’d dance with me. We danced and played until Vesna came in and saw us. Mommy teased her the way I had, but Vesna just had to win, she had to prove I was wrong, that she wasn’t the devil. Vesna froze, and even mommy thought she was sick. Vesna made herself crazy just like the old woman and she wouldn’t come out of the old woman’s room. She sweated and then shivered, and mommy got scared until I showed her I could do that too; Vesna had showed me. But that’s when I should have stopped teasing Vesna, before all those outsiders came to our house. The more I teased her about being the devil, the more she became like the old woman, and in the end she won — everyone believed her, starting with Mr. Zabran and those ambulance people who came for her. It was all my fault — not yours or mommy’s or anyone else’s. I wish I hadn’t forced her to play the game so hard, so long!”

All of us turn our heads abruptly when we hear Mirna’s sob. She’s standing in the bedroom doorway looking at the three of us huddled around Yara; she’s crying. She walks toward us, kneels in front of Yara and throws her arms around her. “Did you really see Vesna kiss herself in the mirror?”

Yara throws her arms around Mirna’s neck and, kissing her on the lips, whispers, “Like this, mommy; it’s the only way you can kiss in a mirror. And I know she wanted a boy in school to kiss her —”

“You’re not making it up?”

“I swear, mommy.”

“Please don’t call me that any more.”

“Mommy? Why not?”

“Because you’re so much smarter than I am.”

Zdenek is the only one without tears on his face. He gets up and exclaims, “That was a nasty trick, Mirna! That whole elaborate performance just to get your daughter to admit her share of the guilt!”

“You’re smart too, father,” Mirna whimpers. “I’m the only idiot here.”

Zdenek turns to Yara. “Can I borrow that letter now? There are some things you didn’t make very clear.” Yara hands him your previous letter. He leaves the house shouting to Mirna, “I want to find out who taught you to play such devilish games.”

Mirna moves toward Jasna; her hand pushes the hair away from Jasna’s face. Kissing Jasna’s forehead, she asks, “Do you hate all the schoolchildren who fool you and play tricks on you?”

“No, Mirna, I don’t hate them,” Jasna sobs; “I love them more than any of the others, because they’re alive.”

“Will you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive, Mirna; everything you said about me is true; will you ever forgive me?”

Mirna wipes the tears from Jasna’s face. “Yarostan says you’re very pretty when you smile, Jasna. Show me, please.” Jasna smiles weakly. Mirna kisses her cheeks. Jasna hugs Yara and then me; she leaves the house crying — but smiling.

Mirna picks up Yara and carries her to the bedroom, asking in a whisper, “What else did Vesna want?”

“She wanted everything you and I wanted, mommy — I mean Mirna. If the old woman hadn’t been staying with us, Vesna would never have been afraid of being touched. That came from thinking herself the old woman with that cold, blueish wrinkled skin that was so disgusting to touch. If it hadn’t been for the old woman, Vesna would have loved you and father — can I call him Yarostan now? — maybe not the way Tissie loved Sophia; not that way at all; but at least the way Sophia loved Sabina. I know —”

A few days later, when I return from work, Mirna throws her arms around me and starts to dance around the living room with me. She waves your most recent letter in the air. Yara shouts, “She’s on strike!” I’m overwhelmed with joy. I spin Mirna around the room. Our crisis is over. Zdenek and Jasna join us to celebrate your commune and Mirna’s strike. “We’re finally together again!” Jasna exclaims while reading your letter.

We love you,

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