Thursday, June 8, 2017

Before the Light Fades Away, by Veronika Baršová


 A story of a girl, named Helena, whose life has changed in one day during the second world war. A story not only about love, but of the injustice and cruelty of the world, and the fact that we can never be certain about our future. 

Sitting on the park bench. Cold autumnal wind attacking her weak body and forcing the fallen leaves all around her to dance in the air, wildly, heatedly. It was just like they were laughing at her. Mockingly, as they were conspired with those big guys in scary uniforms to whom someone gave the power to kill innocent people. How is this actually possible? What's wrong with the world?

She was thinking about life, the sense of being, the world. But everything seemed like it was broken somehow. Why should we try to stay alive, when the humans have obviously gone crazy?

Her fingers were frozen. She couldn't breathe. It was like the air had lost all the molecules of oxygen that it used to be full of. Instead of it, ubiquitous ash and dust, gunpowder. Soldiers with submachine guns standing at the corner of every single street. She still remembered that, previously, there were happy, smiling, easy-going people everywhere. Brno has always been a wonderful place to live in. Cafés, great theaters, cinemas... But war changes people. And people change the city.

She was sitting on the park bench, not able to move. She was stuck in her own pain. Her eyes were empty as two black holes. She couldn't even cry. It was all just too much. Memories hit her every time. She trembled under their force. She closed her eyes and he was there, sitting right next to her, hands over her shoulders, whispering: “It's ok, love... Everything's gonna be alright, believe me... I love you, sweetheart...” But when she wanted to hug him back and kiss him on his lovely chilled cheeks, he disappeared as if the wind callously blew him away.


“Helena, get up! It's late, Helena!” Helena covered her head with a blanket.

Iva, her elder sister was standing in front of her bed, arms folded, stern gaze. “Get out of your bed or we'll be late...”

“I'm going...” She mumbled sullenly. Meanwhile, Iva put on their tiny chipped table in the corner of the room an exiguous breakfast.

Helena had lived only with her sister because their parents died when both girls were very young. They had had to count on each other and get through all the bad things that had been waiting for them in their lives. One of these nasty snags was the second world war. But honestly, their situation hadn't changed that much. Of course there were some bounds and ration coupons and fear and other war-related inconveniences, but they still had to go to work six days a week and they still lived in their tiny terribly kitted out flat.

The only difference was deciding to volunteer in Saint Anna's hospital. Both girls went there every Sunday. It was such an uplifting feeling for them to help injured soldiers and other people. Just once a week they felt wholesome. And the other advantage for Helena was Aleš. She met him right in the hospital a couple months ago. He was a volunteer as well. Aleš was the kind of guy who was always like the sun in a cloudy sky. Whereas, everyone was usually sad, frowning, upset or scared, he had never lost his optimism and smile from his cheeks. It wasn't a miracle when they got together inasmuch as Helena was quite similar to him. Everyone in the hospital liked them because of their kindness, wiliness, beautiful smiles and the fact, that they were definitely one of the most lovable couples ever.

Helena got up and put on her old brown dress with a small hole under her armpit. Iva was eating the breakfast.
“So... How did our princess sleep?” asked Iva laughingly.
“Very well, glacial queen.” She replied amusedly.

After the breakfast, they set off to the hospital. They arrived at 8 o'clock, greeted the porter hastily and quickly went to the mudroom to change their clothes.

Someone silently knocked on the door. Iva sighed. Both girls knew exactly who it was. Iva hustled Helena towards the door, but the visitor walked in without a permission. It was Aleš. He looked handsome as usual. Helena jumped on him and held him tight. They kissed and were just stuck in their own happiness, whereas Iva furtively left the room.

“Hey…” whispered Helena.
“Good morning, sweetheart...” answered Aleš.

For a few moments, they were just standing in a clinch, not caring about time and duties. But after a few minutes, they had to rush across the hospital to their ward.

They got into the process quickly. Helena went to change the bandages of the patients and gave them morphine shots. At about twelve o'clock, she had to distribute the food to all the patients in her ward. She had to spoonfeed some of them, so it lasted pretty long, but she was always in a good mood.

“Helenka!” She heard Aleš calling her name. She was feeding an old man named Alfred Höher, but he didn’t mind her checking out what he needed. She hurried to be with him as fast as possible. She had never actually understood, why she was always missing him even though she had seen him recently.

“Sweetie, what's going on?” Helena wanted to know, while he was gently kissing her cheeks. It made her overwhelmingly happy to be with him for a while.

“Well, nothing, in fact. I just wondered if you would fancy coming with me for a walk or something after the work.” Aleš asked and blushed a little bit. He always did that. Even though he had already asked her for a date about thousand times, he was always dubious, as if she could ever refuse him.

“Oh, dear, of course I'd love to go for a walk with you.” She smiled and kissed his warm lips.

“Ok then, so as usual?”

“As usual, love. I gotta go, see ya, sweetie,” she cursorily kissed him and returned to Alfred Höher and his lunch.

For the rest of the shift, nothing special had happened which made Helena eager as hell. She was absent-minded and checking the clock twice a minute. She imagined they will stroll through the centre or they may go to Lužánky park or to the sweet Šafář café on the Kobližná street or something like that.

Finally, the hour hand approached the time when her shift finished. She changed her clothes and put on a cheap red lipstick. Then she sprinted out of the hospital.

Aleš was already waiting there, looking as a model.

After all the things that lovers do when they see each other after such a long time of not being together, they decided to walk through the centre and go into Lužánky park, where they had their special place under an old tree in the heart of the park.

During the journey, they were laughing and skylarking. Helena jumped on Aleš about a hundred times and he was throwing her into the air. They were extremely happy and easy-going. Otherwise, it was nothing extraordinary for them. Joking, screaming, grinning, being crazy and feeling the power of their love... There was nothing that could destroy it. Not even the war. Nothing.

They got in front of the pavilion in Lužánky park. It was getting a bit chilly. But they were still in a good mood. They wanted to go to their space of love, but something stopped them. There were two soldiers. German soldiers. They were from Gestapo and they were laughing at some young boy. When Helena and Aleš went a bit closer, they discovered he was a Jew.

The soldiers started to kick the poor kid. Helena felt a strong hatred. But she knew these guys in uniforms well. She wanted to help the boy, but it was hopeless. These types of soldiers were cruel and had no conscience or mercy. She tugged Aleš to go away and forget the situation, but Aleš was like made of stone. She saw anger and determination in his face. His fists clenched. Quick breath.

Aleš was the kind of guy who hates injustice and helps everyone. Helena realised it could lead to a serious problem.

“Aleš, let's go. You can't help that boy,” she whispered desperately. But it was too late, Aleš wasn't listening to her. She tried to stop him, but...

“Hey, you! What do you think you're doing?! Let the boy go, he did nothing!” Screamed Aleš in German.

The soldiers looked surprised. But they collected themselves quickly.

“Who do you think you are, man?!” one of them asked threateningly.

Helena grabbed Aleš. “Please, Aleš, let it be, we must go.” She said to him.

“Sweetie, they can't do this and you know it. I can't just let it be!” He broke loose from her and came closer to those heinous guys.

“No, who do you think you are?! You don't have the right to do this!” continued Aleš in German.

Both soldiers started to laugh. It was so disgusting. So awful. Then, one of them stopped laughing and put on a taunting face. “Oh, man, believe me, I have the right. I can do many things, you know? I can even do this...”

He pulled out his gun and shot. 

Suddenly, everything became slower. The bullet pierced the air and slackly flew towards Aleš. Helena stopped breathing. She saw the soldiers laughing, the poor Jew ran away... The bullet hit the body. The body of a person she loved more than her own life. Aleš fell down in a slow motion. Helena couldn’t hear anything. The blood was pulsing in her ears. She couldn't understand the moment. Then she realised she was screaming and her legs were running to Aleš. He was lying on the ground, shallow breath, his eyes looking at her. She tried to stop the bleeding, but it didn't help much.

“Aleš, no... Please, no...” She was crying.

Aleš looked at her and his eyes were resigned and full of love.

“It's ok, love... Everything's gonna be alright, believe me... I love you, sweetheart...” He said uneasily.

“I love you... Don't leave me, please, don't... I love you...” She held him in her arms and kissed him  as if it could stop the bleeding. He kissed her back, then took a breath...

“You know, honey... Actually, I’m glad you’re with me now... I love you...”

“No, you can't do it, please, I love...” She felt the moment, when he breathed out for the last time. Only his body was left there, still warm, and a huge puddle of blood around. She was kneeling in it, all her clothes dirty. She began to cry more hysterically... But then she realised, that those two soldiers were still there, still laughing. She was so angry and full of hate. She stood up, even though her knees were weak.

“Just kill me! Do you hear me? Kill me and end up all of this!” She screamed. “Shoot me like a rat! Just do it!” The tears were gliding down her face, but her voice was strong.

The soldiers looked at her disdainfully. “Oh, honey, it wouldn't be such a fun if we killed you either...” They laughed again and then went away...

She couldn't breathe. She fell down and hugged Aleš's body. She didn’t know what to do. How to live. She remembered all the things they did together. But... He was gone. The person she loved the most disappeared. He will never be there for her again. The future they had planned will never come true. She couldn’t believe it. She wanted to die. Life without Aleš would never make sense.

She stood up and began to drag his body away, still crying under the power of unendurable pain. She wanted to get to their special place where they were supposed to be. Together. Alive. Happy.

She was falling down all the time, her knees and hands were bruised. But she didn't give up. She was getting up again and again. She needed to get there. She took a shovel which she had found.  With the greatest effort, she made it. She came down under their tree where they used to lie together. She hugged Aleš's dead body and whispered him the words of love, hoping that he could hear them and that he will answer. But he didn't. She was alone.

She started to dig up a grave. She wanted him to have a nice place to rest. Then, she gently put him inside. She stopped crying. She couldn't. The pain was so hard, that it was impossible to let it out. She kissed his cheeks. The body was slowly losing the warmth. She climbed out and sat on a bench. She was just sitting there and thinking. She was soaked in his blood. Her hair was wound into thin twines. She looked repulsively. The time went on and she was still sitting there, not able to move.
Suddenly, a Czech soldier came there and sat on an opposite bench. He didn’t pay attention to her much. Actually, he was eating a bread. She looked at him determinedly. She stood up and came closer to him.

“Kill me, please.” She asked in defeatism and absolutely numb.

The soldier was biting his snack. After her request, he looked at her observationally.

“You must have a good reason for such a bold desire, right?” He supposed tranquilly.
“Yes, I do.” She answered vacuously.
“Ok then, if that’s what you want… But first, I’d like to know why you have decided for it.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Well, actually, it isn’t. I can’t kill a person and don’t know why.” He was still calm as if he was talking about cooking a dinner. It made Helena insecure. She wasn’t expecting it. She thought he will kill her or he will refuse, but without questions. She was so unstable in that moment, that she told him everything including her childhood and started to cry again. He listened to her patiently. When she finished, he didn’t say anything for a long time. She wondered if she was stupid. Why did she tell him? She just wanted Aleš back. Then, the soldier took the floor.

“You know, I have a girlfriend. And believe it or not, I love her as much as you love Aleš and he loved you… I can’t imagine that I would lose her. I think I would want to die, too. Life without her would never be good enough. But if I imagine that I would die. I just… I would never want her to die as well. I’d want her to live the life that was given to her. I’d want her to be happy. Not dead...”

“But I can’t be happy without him...”
“You have to try. At least for your sister.”

She knew he was right. She went to the grave.

“I’ll live my life for you, I promise…”

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