Thursday, June 8, 2017

Imprisoned, by Richard Skolek



 This fictional story is built upon the known facts of an infamous and mysterious accident which happened in Brno in 1976, when a florist fell into the water distribution network and disappeared. Her remains were found in 1992 and identified in 1994.


He inspected the whole place again, slowly and meticulously. He knew every nook and cranny, but this round had an air of finality about it. Once he sealed them in, there would be no turning back; if he had forgotten about anything, it would be too late. However, he spent two years preparing for this; everything was ready. And they were ready, as well.
He paused for a moment, remembering the day when he had made the decision to start working on this plan – 21 August 1968. The Prague Spring loosened many restrictions and made everyone’s life a little happier and brighter. The invisible, but ever so oppressive Cold War became a bit more bearable and it seemed that Czechoslovakia was heading in a new direction. And then they came. On 21 August 1968, the forces of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country, his country, to halt these reforms. The Soviets tightened their grip on Czechoslovakia once more and “normalized” it. And he decided that he didn’t want to live in this world anymore. The constant fear of mutually assured destruction, the inescapable oppression, the illogical and often absurd ways in which things were done – he wanted out, he wanted all of it to end. He was just a man. All he ever required of others was to be left alone.
For a few weeks, he didn’t know what to do. And then, suddenly, a miracle happened. He had to take part in an Initiative Z, a manual work that the regime couldn’t get done in any other way. They tidied the Anenská street; they also cleared out the long-forgotten cellars that had once been a part of a monastery destroyed by the Swedes during the siege of Brno. They knew that the cellars would never be used for anything, but no inhabitant of the Soviet Empire was a stranger to pointless work.
When they finished, he was really tired, so he stayed a while and thought, as he often did in those days, about fate. He thought about the unfairness of it all. And he got so angry that he picked the last pickaxe left by the others and slammed it into the nearest wall. Only it wasn’t one of those massive, carefully-built walls that circled the whole place; this one just fell apart.
He was curious and explored the newly-found space. It was surprisingly large; maybe it was just lost during some of the more turbulent events in the history of the city, maybe it was hidden deliberately. In one of the rooms, he even found a Medieval well. A well! And there was still water in it. It dawned on him that he could live here. Far from the fear and the oppression, far from the looming Apocalypse. Here, he would be left alone.
And so he worked and pilfered and sneaked around, until it was all ready. As expected, he had no trouble convincing his Follower – what little will she had had before she had met him was broken and swept away a long time ago, and now she lived only to serve him. It wasn’t even a discussion – he didn’t ask or suggest, he simply told her. And after she recovered from the initial shock, she supported him. As always.
He looked around for the last time and, satisfied, barricaded the entrance with planks. He knew that the next few days would be critical. The main space and their new home were connected by a long corridor which he planned to fill with the ever-present rubble and it was highly improbable that someone would take the time to clear it out. Still, there was some danger of discovery – a group of children coming here to play, a homeless person wandering in, that sort of thing. They would have to be careful and quiet.
He looked at his homely Follower. Yes – if she was anything, she was certainly careful and quiet. And obscenely loyal.


Business was good. The 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck had just ended and the Czechoslovakian national ice hockey team won a silver medal. People were in good spirits and they didn’t hesitate to spend a little extra money.
She sold flowers by the St. Anne's University Hospital, and she could certainly use the unexpected additional income. Her Love finally got his way – for months, he was trying to get himself transferred from Brno, which he wholeheartedly hated. And the powers that be ultimately granted his wish. She liked it here, but she was not particularly attached to this city; as long as her Love was happy, she didn’t really care where they lived.
They closed for the day and went to the tram stop in front of the hospital. Her friend and coworker prattled on about something, but she didn’t listen. She thought about the move, the costs, the things that she had to take care of.
Suddenly, it felt like the earth itself had moved. A large part of the pavement disappeared in an instant and a man who stood next to them vanished with it. Her friend started screaming; she, however, was more courageous and practical than that. Carefully, she went to the edge of the yawning pit to look for the unfortunate man. There was a whirlpool of water and dirt and soil down there, but he was in it as well, obviously alive. She kneeled and tried to reach him, but the edge gave way and she fell in. He tried to catch her, but the current was too strong for both of them. He managed to hold on, and was saved; she couldn’t, and disappeared in a torrent of dirty water and soil.
She fought for air. She tried to grab everything within her reach, but the cold current was far more powerful. Again and again, it slammed her whole body against the sides of the sewer tunnel; it broke two of her fingers; it bruised and cut her.
And then, unexpectedly, she managed to hold on to something. The main tunnel continued forward, but there was a sort of a cavern on one side. She pulled herself in. There was a lot of water here as well, but only up to her waist – she was saved!
She bent against a wall and tried to catch her breath. Then, a man appeared as if from thin air and punched her quite brutally in the face. She fell. He lifted her up and punched her again. And again. After the fifth time, she lost consciousness.

When she came to, it took her a while to remember what had happened to her. Her whole body was extremely battered. She looked around. The room was full of tin cans. There were no windows, just a kerosene lamp near the ceiling. There was still some water and everything was damp, but the water level was much lower than before.
She saw just one way out of the room. She had to get up and try to escape before the Madman returned. As soon as she tried to move, however, she realized that her hands were tied to one of the shelves. She wriggled and squirmed and writhed, but it was hopeless. She was bone-tired after her ordeal; there was not enough adrenaline in the world to help her get free. Finally, she gave up. After all, he had a chance to kill her and he didn’t. There had to be a reason for that.
After what seemed to be an eternity, two people came in – the Madman and a woman. They didn’t even have to tell her; their eyes spoke volumes. She knew that they had decided to get rid of her. The Madman explained their situation, and he stressed that they were not murderers – when he had first seen her, he had simply panicked. But they couldn’t share their provisions, and they couldn’t let her go, either – they simply couldn’t trust her not to tell anyone about them.
It was obvious to her that the Sheep was loyal to a fault and that to try to appeal to her would be pointless. The Madman was surprisingly intelligent, but also quite paranoid. He was resolved never to return to the madness above and he wouldn’t risk anything that could mean exposing them to it again. And during their long and painful talk, she understood his position. She still wanted to escape, to live, but she could, to a certain infinitely small degree, sympathize with him.
She was unable to do the same for the Sheep that followed her shepherd, the stupid bitch that licked her master’s feet. She was one of those simple wives whose lives revolved around their husbands. And then it dawned on her – all in all, they were not that different. Her Love was deeply unhappy with his place in the world and he opted for a radical change. She would move away with him and sacrifice everything she had here. Was she in any position to judge the Sheep?
 Apparently, the Madman thought of everything. It occurred to him that one of them might become gravely ill and prefer to end it quickly, and so he had a poison. She had just one more thing to do. She turned to the Sheep and told her:
“Please, let my husband know. Find a way to tell him that I am gone. Otherwise, he won’t be able to move on.”
“No,” said the Madman simply, as she knew he would. She addressed the Sheep, because the hope lied with her.
And then there was a foul taste, and pain, and finally, darkness.


Every day, she looked at the barrier and remembered the moment when one of the walls burst and their serene home was suddenly flooded. Fortunately, someone somewhere must have done something to save them, because a few minutes after they found the Strange Lady, the flood eased up. The Guardian then build a provisional barrier there, but there was a huge gap between the new “wall” and the ceiling. She felt that their home had been irreparably damaged. They were no longer safe there.
Of course, she didn’t tell this to the Guardian. He was never interested in her opinion and she never offered it. For years, they rarely talked, and if they did talk, he commanded and she followed. However, she was not miserable – no, it was more of an absence of any feeling at all, which was more than agreeable to her. She was molested as a child and abused as a teenager; the Guardian, for all his faults, was still the best thing that ever happened to her, and she would give her life for him.
Which she would do today. He had been very ill for some time now and he finally decided to end it. And she was to end it with him. He was the strong one, the planner, the mastermind – it would make no sense for her to go on. She would be lost and she would suffer. None of this came from her, of course; no, as always, the Guardian simply told her. And she agreed.
And so they both ate the poison. However, he died very quickly, while she lingered on. He must have measured it wrong, took more than he needed. She thought that maybe she was left here a little bit longer for a reason. Should she bury him? No, that would be pointless.
And then she remembered the Strange Lady and her plea. They had no paper, nothing to write with, so there would be no message in a bottle. But they had her – her remains were still in a makeshift coffin in one of the rooms. She was fairly certain that there was nothing they would be able to identify her by, but she felt like she owed it to her to try. She soldiered through the pain, took her skeleton and the tattered remains of her clothes, carried it all to the barrier and threw the pieces through the gap, one by one. Somehow, it seemed fitting – the Strange Lady came to them through that sewer tunnel, and now they sent her on her way.
Exhausted, she sat down and carefully and quietly died.


The police wanted to talk to him again. It had been eighteen years; eighteen years full of unrest and unhappiness, eighteen years during which he couldn’t move from Brno, because they hadn’t found her and he was chained here. At first, it was hope; then, a sense of grim responsibility; then, an unbreakable link to this horrible, wretched city. He had to stay here. He tried to move away, to move on with his life, but he couldn’t. Not until he knew for certain. And now they wanted to talk to him again.
Back in 1976, the regime did everything in its power to hush the story. It was reported, of course, but no one paid any attention to it. No one ever apologized or admitted that it was their fault. When he asked the city to put up a memorial plaque for her, the officials refused. And one “expert” even had the gall to suggest that it was all a scheme, that the Echo played a trick on everyone so that she could emigrate to the West.
As with everything else, the Velvet Revolution just passed him by. However, the new regime had one significant advantage – the city officials finally softened and the memorial plaque was installed. Some small comfort, at least.
And now, the police had allegedly found some new evidence. The remains in question were found in 1992 a long way from the Pekařská street, and they were originally associated with one of the abandoned graveyards in the area. However, one policeman later remembered the case of a florist who vanished in the water distribution network. The case files were destroyed long ago, but the police ultimately did manage to find the husband. They called him and he came.
There was very little left. They had a skull and a lot of bones and some tattered clothes. He wasn’t sure what exactly they were hoping for – how could he identify a skeleton? But as he studied the clothes carefully, he noticed that the trousers were made from crimplene and that the crotch area was reinforced in an atypical way. The Echo was a big woman and she always did this with all her trousers. These were hers, he was sure of it. These were hers!
After all these years, he was finally certain. Certain that she was dead; that this chapter of his life was over; that he could move on. At long last, he was free.

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