The Greater Good – long version
Sometimes I find that a flash fiction prompt leads me to a story that needs to be expanded. This is one of those occasions. Including the notes, this story weighs in at about 1000 words.
In 1968, the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was steadily liberalising. The leaders of the Soviet Union saw this as a serious threat and on 21 August 1968 200,000 troops, mostly Russian, invaded Czechoslovakia.
There was considerable non-violent resistance. On 16 January 1969 Jan Palach went to Wenceslas Square and burned himself alive in protest at the Soviet occupation. On 25 February 1969 Jan Zajic did likewise. It is believed that there were others whose deaths were concealed by the Soviet authorities.
It is likely that Jan Palach’s sacrifice was a catalyst contributing to the eventual fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
Photo is of the Jan Palach memorial in Wenceslas Square, Prague, courtesy of Pixabay
The Greater Good – long version
April 1969, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
The audience arrived in ones and twos at the Restaurace u Tomáše, as though they were merely passing a casual Friday evening. They bought coffee or beer and slipped discreetly into the back room, a room whose wooden panels were stained with nicotine.
You never knew who was watching, who was taking notes.
Andrej knew everyone in the smoke-filled room and shook hands with each as he led his lover Irena to the last vacant seat.
The speaker for the evening mounted an improvised rostrum. He spoke of Russian aggression, the dismissal of academics and the imprisonment of those who protested. He spoke of torture. His audience started to murmur. Then the speaker pulled out a pistol. He held it high.
“This is what the Russians will listen to! When we, the Czech people, take up arms, we will never be defeated! The free peoples of the world will march to stand with us.”
There was a growl of approval. The speaker placed his forefinger on his lips. “Ssshh! Who knows who is listening?” He allowed indignation to flood his face. “Should we Czechs have to creep and hide in terror for being patriots? I say – NEVER! Who is with me?”
Irena held tightly on to Andrej’s hand as a dozen young men scrambled forward to pledge themselves to the armed struggle.
“No, Andrej, no! He’s wrong! Fighting them won’t work.” She grasped him roughly by his jacket, and stared earnestly into his face. “Jan Palach knew killing Russians was no good. That’s why he burned himself in Wenceslas Square. I beg you, don’t dishonour the beacon of hope he gave us.”
“Irena, dearest. I must join the struggle.”
“Andrej! No! You mustn’t kill!”
“How can I do otherwise? I‘m not a coward.”
They stared at each other. Andrej made a move to shake off Irena’s grasp, but she held firm.
“If you take up arms, I shall follow Jan Palach.”
“No!” His horror rapidly changed to anger. “That’s emotional blackmail!”
“I am not a coward either, Andrej.”
Slowly she unwound her fingers from his jacket. He stood still, looking intently at her. For fully thirty heartbeats they were motionless, then Andrej turned and walked to the rostrum.
Irena crossed herself. “Mary, Mother of God, guide me,” she murmured.
A match flared as the man in front of her lit a cigarette, and Irena’s face went ashen.
* * *
The next week was busy for both of them. They both had preparations to make.
They saw each other, of course; they were, after all, lovers. They fought over the choices they’d made at the meeting. Bitter words were spoken. Eventually they talked no longer of what was to come, only of their shared past, hugging the twilight of memory since the dawn of the future was denied them.
Irena spent many hours with her mother.
“You seem sad, kočička.”
“I’m alright, mami.” Irena tried to smile, but only succeeded in looking sadder. Her mother raised an eyebrow. Irena sighed.
“I missed a period; well, two actually.”
Irena’s mother laid a sympathetic hand on her daughter’s shoulder. She’d heard Irena retching in the morning for several days now.
“Things have been difficult with Andrej, haven’t they?”
Irena nodded, and a tear trickled down her left cheek.
“I’m so afraid for him, mami.”
Her mother was silent for a few seconds; she had guessed something of Andrej’s purpose. Then she said, “Sometimes men have to fight, Irena. Your dad fought the Germans before you were born. And I’m glad he did; he was a hero.”
“But this is different, mami.”
Irena’s mother resumed her work in the kitchen.
“We’ll take you to the doctor this afternoon and make sure everything’s going well. In the meantime, you could peel some potatoes rather than moping.”
* * *
The doorbell rang while Andrej was squashing the last of his kit into a rucksack. He wanted everything as ready as possible for his departure next day.
“Andrej! Irena’s here!” His mother’s voice held a sharp note of concern. Andrej ran down the stairs.
Irena stood pasty-faced and swaying in the dimly lit hall. Andrej moved to embrace her but she edged away.
A great fear swept through Andrej.
“No! You mustn’t do it!”
Irena shook her head.
“No, it’s not that. I’ve just come from the doctor.”
She swallowed hard.
“I’m carrying your child.”
“I’m pregnant. The baby’s yours.”
Andrej crossed himself. He sat down abruptly on the stairs.
“I’m sorry, Andrej. Now I know about the baby, I can’t – do what I said I would. Can you forgive me for being weak?”
“Forgive you? There’s nothing to forgive. Of course you must put our child first.”
“Andrej? If you think it’s right, you must fight.”
“Do you think I should put the baby first?”
“I know you’re not a coward, Andrej.” She slipped her hand into his.
“Oh, God, I love you so much, Irena. I hated the idea of leaving you. I won’t leave my child without a father.”
“We’ll still protest, Andrej?”
“Yes, but without violence.”
They kissed gently. The first smile for days blossomed on Irena’s face.
“Shall we go and tell my mother?” asked Andrej, beaming.