Introduction: Thirty Years of Post-Communism
“The Bare-Breasted Suffragettes” is dedicated to the thirty-year anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The first step toward the reunification of East and West Germany, this historical event has also become the symbol of the fall of communist dictatorships in the former Socialist Camp, my home country of Romania included, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Whereas real-life historical figures and events are accurately mentioned, the main characters and incidents are entirely fictional. It is part of “Fifty Years of Solitude,” a collection of linked stories set in a fictional communist dictatorship, which I am currently writing. My story also honours Canada, my home since 2000, a country where people continue to arrive, in search of safer, better lives. (DM)
To Marja, my friend who loves roses
Cara was born in a little town, some hours north of the capital city of a very small country. A country almost no one except its neighbours had ever heard of. Yet, the town prided itself on its very sweet strawberries, the parks, and especially the 17th-century wooden church that was recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List as “a particular vernacular expression of the cultural landscape” of their region. Maybe the strangely-worded inscription would had gone unnoticed if it hadn’t suddenly attracted foreigners with big cameras and even bigger excitement. After they swarmed for hours around the dark and smelly walls, they got hungry. And thirsty. Then sleepy. A smart man lucky to live a few metres away from the church went to the Capital, ordered a shiny sign and branded his own home as “The Church Hotel.” The town was thriving. The church became a museum and Cara’s father, as the only architect in town, became its director.
In public, he was a charismatic person. Jokes, a Santa Claus laugh, and free drinks for the ladies. At home, he seemed to enjoy punishing his children and, occasionally, his wife. The penalties varied from “No pocket money until you know better!” to ten or more blows with his T-square. The guilty child had to tightly clasp his hands, as if praying, and dad struck the tips of his fingers. Often, the skin would crack and bleed and some of the eggplant-purpled nails would fall off. When dad called Cara to get her T-square blows for talking back to him, she grabbed an empty milk bottle.
“If you come near me, I’ll smash your head!” she screamed.
It was unlikely that the short frail teenager could’ve overcome the tall strong man, but dad didn’t want to take the chance. He frowned, started whistling a Christmas carol, and went to work. Mom cried but kept silent. She was a very smart woman, one of the first in the country to graduate university, but after getting married she had no choice but to bear seven children, stay at home, and raise them.
The first to finish high school among her brothers and sisters, immediately after she got her diploma Cara packed a small suitcase of clothing and a huge knapsack of books, hugged her mom and siblings, and left for the train station. Mom waved from the porch, tears on both cheeks, but again kept silent. In the cab, Cara swore her life would be different.
“No husband, no kids! Never!” she mumbled.
The driver looked at her in his rear-view mirror. Before he could say something, he got distracted by her nipples, poking through her silk blouse. Cara went to the capital city, finished a bachelor’s in French, went for two weeks to Paris on a fellowship, and then got a job with the public library.
“A match made in heaven!” her sisters sneered over the phone, when she called to inform her family. “You can now read all the books in the world.”
They were still living at home, still watching out for dad’s unpredictable tantrums, and still getting the T-square every now and then. Mom didn’t come to the phone.
Cara enjoyed her new job. It was a small branch, squeezed by the new regime into the living room of a former house of a former shoe factory owner.
“The workers have the right to share the wealth the capitalist sharks made by exploiting them!” the mayor said at the library’s official opening.
The wealth but not the care. Since the building was expropriated, no renovation was ever done. Rain and snow scalped the window frames to the wood and nibbled on the concrete walls. Some sparrows nested in the impromptu hollows and every spring the sidewalks surrounding the library were white and bulgy with their offspring’s droppings. The inside didn’t look better. The original furniture was hurriedly carried away by looters during the first days after the People’s Revolution. They tried but failed to also steal the crystal chandeliers. Some feather-shaped pieces had fallen during the attempt and now they looked like half-plucked chickens. The City Hall decided that too many bulbs were a waste of public money and most of the chandeliers’ arms stretched out empty, severed limbs trying to find a purpose. The cheap plywood shelves purchased for the library were hunchbacked under the ever-growing number of publications. When one of them fell, burying a fifth-grader in books, Cara painstakingly looked at all the inventory. She set aside all the propagandistic literature in Russian dumped into the country in the 1950s. No one ever asked for any of it anyway. She carried the thick tomes into the bedrooms.
On her first trip upstairs, she gawked at the unmade beds, the pairs of sock and underwear on the floor, “The boys’ room!,” she smiled, missing her brothers for a moment. A stuffed bear with only one eye and a trace of chocolate. Or dry blood? A book still open, spine-up, on a night table, with so much dust on it that the title was unreadable. Cara quivered. Threw up in the small bathroom with layers of murky rust in the toilet. Decades into the future, she’d have the same reaction when watching a documentary about the homes hastily abandoned in Chernobyl. Politics as nuclear accidents. Nuclear accidents as the result of politics and corruption. With as much negligence toward human beings. Skin cracked on Cara’s hands because of the dusty Soviet books and then bled. Minuscule, simultaneous deflowerings. At night, she’d cough like an asthmatic after running to catch the streetcar. But she didn’t stop until all the traces of communist propaganda were cleared out from the library. All, but one. Lenin’s picture hang on the east wall, close to the ceiling. She didn’t have the courage to remove it but wondered if its initial purpose was to cover up the discoloured place where the family icon must had once been. Lenin as God. God as the enemy of the people. Cara decided to ignore the portrait.
It was a happy time. Many high school students dropped by, looking for “stuff” to read. Girls took home the newest locally-written novels about blonde blue-eyed girls in love with the fastest tractor driver in the village. Or the best factory worker in town. The romantic versions of socialist realism. Boys stuffed their backpacks with Russian Sci-Fi in translation, which to Cara was literature, not propaganda. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We soon became their favourite. They all dreamed of living in glass apartment buildings and applying for sex visits with any girl they liked. One of the girls showed her a “Sex Application,” scribbled on lined paper with fragments from a quiz on its back.
After less than two months, the girl died having an abortion. Illegal because abortions had just been outlawed. The state needed more citizens. Or more supporters of communism. When she lay down on the kitchen table, the girl knew she was guilty. She was supposed to get married a virgin. Like mom. Like grandma. But after she was forced to have four shots of moonshine, she started moaning.
“‘No sex,’ I told him.”
Mom slapped her. The God-fearing, never-married aunt turned illegal midwife felt unexpectedly aroused and started shaking. Pushed the knitting needle inside the girl until it punctured her bowels.
“Did he listen? No. ‘Five seconds,’ he begged. Five seconds…” neighed the girl with her last breath.
They buried her that night, in the backyard. They didn’t mourn her, as if she never existed. To protect themselves from being arrested and the other kids from growing up in an orphanage. When she accidentally found out about the girl’s death, Cara retired We. She started offering historical novels by classical writers and collections of love poems, but teens lost interest in reading. The library fell quiet.
One Monday morning, a young man in a grey suit showed up immediately after she unlocked the entrance door. He asked for books in French. They didn’t have any. Then, for French novels in translation. They only had Germinal. The young man leafed through Balzac, put it back on the shelf, and left. From the door, he turned towards her.
“Great work here, comrade! A husband and four-five kids, and you’re set for the good life,” he said.
“No husband, no kids! Never!” Cara mumbled, echoing the promise she had made to herself.
At the corner, the man stopped for a moment and made a note that Lenin’s portrait had to be replaced. Time had changed. The picture of their own President was now everywhere, classrooms, offices, factories.
Within a month, Cara started The Bare-Breasted Suffragettes. Ten girls raised to be housewives and moms. Or secretaries. Some already worked as secretaries. Two childless widows. “Damaged goods!” they laughed when they joined the group. A spinster still living with her father who licked her toes when he got drunk. A teacher who lied to her husband that she gave private lessons in the evening to be able to attend the Suffragettes’ meetings. And Cara. What they did was simple. They chose a popular place. The flea market on Saturday morning. The municipal park at lunch time. The city’s movie theatres in the evening. The Palace of Justice on the days of public trials. They hid nearby and waited for the crowds.
Up north, it was chilly even in summer. Leaves heavy with drizzle oozed onto the women’s skin, giving them goosebumps. Feet hurt. Milky mist came out of their mouths, as if they were just a bunch of smokers in the bushes. Patience. Determination. Hope. They huddled into each other to keep themselves warm while waiting and sang. Always the same song, “Johnny Angel.”
How I love him
He’s got something that I can’t resist
But he doesn’t even know that I exist.”
Cara had brought from Paris a vinyl with Shelley Fabares’s 1961 recording. They all loved it. They all still dreamed of finding a man who’d love and respect them. Often, they’d start sobbing on the final lines:
You’re an angel to me.”
“Wipe them tears off, you wussies!” roared the spinster every time girls got melancholic. “One, two, three! From the top!”
When the crowd gathered, they unbuttoned their blouses, showing off their bare breasts, and chanted.
“Women are free! Women are equal! Women are human!”
Until police or embarrassed bystanders forced them away. Eventually, the Suffragettes sent a petition to the government. They demanded for all women over 21 the right to vote in public elections, to have an abortion under medical supervision, and to ask for divorce. No official response ever followed, but everybody had heard about them in the less than 6 million-people nation. And most of them did their patriotic duty to curse them.
Some of the Suffragettes found freshly-painted sickle-and-hammer signs on their front doors in the morning. Occasionally, even a cross. Or stepped over a sticky puddle on the porch. No one ever mentioned that they had become a profitable tourist attraction. A UNESCO-branded church attracted foreigners to Cara’s little town. Naked tits did the same to the locals. Men from all over the country poured towards the capital city. Ate at the local restaurants. Stayed overnight at the local hotels if they missed the free “show” or craved a repeat. Guilt-ridden, bought expensive souvenirs for the wives and daughters back home. But first and foremost, hunted for the next place where the Suffragettes would strike. Armed with cameras. To be more efficient, sightseers eventually purchased whistles and developed their own Morse code.
|The Whistling Morse Code
|Short – long – short||“Run! You can make it.”|
|Two shorts – one long||“They’ve started. Run only if you’re close.”|
|Three shorts||“Missed it! Police already here.”|
The capital city was so small that catching a glimpse at bare breasts was always a strong possibility. Willingly or unwillingly. Mothers of teen daughters and middle-aged wives came up with their own code in order to avoid unnecessary embarrassment.
|The Whistling Morse Code
|Short – long – short||“Change direction! It will be awhile.”|
|Two shorts – one long||“They’ve started. Avoid the place.”|
|Three shorts||“Keep walking. It’s almost over.”|
Suddenly, August 21st shattered the world. When told about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the President cringed.The increase in the Capital’s revenue was obvious. The President held a private meeting with the police chiefs and discreetly instructed them to take their time before shooing away the more light-hearted Suffragettes or arresting the stubborn ones. The Minister of Transport agreed. Most men travelled by train. Things had settled in an odd modus vivendi. The government ignored the Suffragettes’ protests. When a priest angrily preached against “Satan’s Suffragettes,” he got transferred to a faraway hamlet with a church, but no electricity nor running water.
“Damn Brezhnev! Over 290 million people to fuck in the ass and he still needs more!” His Prague-based spy had woken him up, calling on the direct line. Stuttered. Yelled for the permission to return immediately. Such a whimp! The sweet post-Stalin thaw was about to end in the entire Socialist Camp but he worried about his balls. A loser with no sense of international politics!
“The soldiers keep advancing towards Prague with no resistance from the locals,” the spy whined.
Who knew peasants and workers would not oppose the Soviets?! And fucking Dubček! He made a political alliance with the devil and expected him to keep his word. But the President had his own problem – the official statement. Pro or against? For a small country trapped between the East and the West, taking sides had always been tantalising. One wrong word on his part and… The Russian tanks would roll over in front of his windows. Either he got it right with the official statement or the Soviets didn’t care about such small a country – no natural resources, no strategic position, not even exquisitely beautiful women! They escaped unoccupied and life went back to how it was.
With so much on his mind, the President had completely forgotten about the Suffragettes’ petition. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if he finished reading it. He glanced at “the right to vote,” imagined his wife being able to decide on his political career, and shrugged. He crumpled the petition up and threw it into the waste basket. For a few moments, he was proud he didn’t miss the shot.
“But where are the hoops of yesteryear?” he declaimed, reminiscing about his days on the university team. “Oh les beaux jours!” he added, exercising his rarely used French.
He paced for a while through his office, wondering what the hell happened to women! The petition came back to his mind. An unpleasant afterthought. So far, the West didn’t know that the small Northern country managed to prolong women’s lack of rights well into the twentieth century. The President picked it up and put it into his desk drawer. After the abrupt end of communism, a cleaner found it there. She stared at the wrinkly paper for a moment and then threw it into the same basket. Didn’t miss. She shot this kind of hoop for a living.
This would happen some thirty years later. Now, the President had plenty on his hands! Some French newspapers pinned pictures of the Suffragettes getting arrested on the first page, naked tits and all! The West was outraged! More and more articles appeared in more and more countries. More and more foreign journalists asked for a visa, hoping to interview the women. Aside from the government officials who kept quiet, as instructed by the President, everybody else felt the duty to defend the country’s international reputation. With pathos.
“Ugly mules!” yelled the women whose husbands drooled over the Suffragettes’ pictures. “If any man would take pity on you, you’d use those udders to feed a child, not shame your country!”
“Losers!” shouted the men, finally voicing their frustration of never being able to fuck one of the Suffragettes. “Did you get kicked out of the brothel for bad blowjobs?”
That morning, the President had just received a letter in support of the Suffragettes. Signed by 112,029 women and no less than 100,029 men from Western countries.
“Oh, those French and their tabloids! Did they really have to publish those pictures?!” he sighed.
Then, he called an emergency cabinet meeting. Next day was Saturday. Over fifty plainclothes agents spread around the flea market. When the Suffragettes arrived, they grabbed and packed them all on automobiles with dark windows. No one noticed. People crowded around the aluminum folding tables full of second-hand treasures. Only a young girl who had played hopscotch by herself lost her balance and fell when one of the agents slammed a car door. They drove the women to the former king’s summer palace, closed many years ago for repairs. After the regime change, no one had taken care of this building as no one cared about the library where Cara worked. The paint shed off the outside walls, like dead skin. Inside, mould stretched into whimsical shapes. The agents camped in the royal apartments. Each Suffragette was locked in one of the servants’ rooms. No bed, just a reeking mattress directly on the floor, no electricity, a jar with stale water, and a wooden bucket. Cara ended up in a cellar. The first day, she didn’t see anyone and received no food. On the second day, a man creeped into her prison cell and pushed her onto the floor. While raping her, he chanted, “The Bare-Breasted Suffragettes! The Bare-Breasted Suffragettes!” Until he came.
Care got pregnant. She was kept in her room, in the dark, but well-fed until her pregnancy went to term. A veterinary technician from the nearby cattle farm delivered the baby. He was so stressed about his small size in comparison to a calf that he accidently dropped him onto the floor. But the child survived. A baby-boy. Ten fingers, ten toes, and flat big ears. Cara named him Enkel and sang for him Johnny Angel. Always Johnny Angel. She couldn’t see his face in the absolute blackness but felt it with her fingers. He was beautiful. She smiled at him and was sure he smiled back. Enkel never cried. He slept most of the time and lightly cooed when he was awake. Precisely every four hours, he searched for food. He hastily gulped the milk, stopped when he felt full, and burped grateful. He didn’t know he could had seen his mom. He was born in the dark and thought the entire world was dark. He didn’t know to imagine her face for he’d never seen one. For Enkel, Cara was just warmth and milk. Her milk tasted like honey and vanilla, but he didn’t know that either. When she sang to him, he thought balloons came out of her mouth. He stretched his little hands in the air and tried to catch them. He never did and frowned. But Cara couldn’t see that. She felt his silky fingers on her cheeks and was happy. She did her best to take care of her son. Once a day, the guardian brought a clean change of clothes for the baby, but never enough. Cara tore her skirt into small pieces and made them into diapers. After she finished with her skirt, she started tearing off her blouse.
She breastfed her baby for a couple of weeks. Then, the same vet came and grabbed Enkel. The next day, all Suffragettes were released. When they took Cara out of her cellar, she was almost naked. The policemen laughed, staring at her breasts, bursting with milk. They herded the Suffragettes inside a trailer that usually carried the cattle to the slaughter-house.
“The baby? Where’s my baby?” she screamed.
No other woman had been raped. They thanked God when they heard about Cara’s boy. Huddled into each other and sang Johnny Angel all the way to the railway station. On the train, each was given a passport and sent to another coach with a guard. When they arrived in Paris, the agents escorted the Suffragettes to different police stations. The one in charge of Cara told her that if she ever talked about what happened, her child would die. He left. They all were granted political asylum.
Cara made her way to Canada. Settled in Toronto. Got a job as a French teacher. Never contacted her family. To protect them. During her first months here, she felt like on another planet. The problem was with the air – humid and hot. Her landlocked country was dry. Always too dry. But winter came and things changed. The cold reminded her of home. The snow shone like virgin paper waiting to be imprinted. Even if only by people’s boots leaving temporary marks in the world. Another French teacher fell in love with her and asked her to move in with him. In the suburbs. She did and spent long hours taking care of his backyard. Planted bushes of roses. White. Hanged bird feeders in the trees. For the sparrows. She seemed content. Until one day, when she packed a few clothes and left. It was November 9th, 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Finally, she could search for her son.
Diana Manole is a Romanian-Canadian scholar, literary translator, and author of nine books of poetry, short stories, and drama in her native Romania, several books of translations, and a co-edited collection of essays, Staging Postcommunism Alternative Theatre in Eastern and Central Europe after 1989, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. Her literary work has earned her fourteen creative writing prizes in her native Romania and second prize in the 2017/18 John Dryden Translation Competition in the UK. Image: "Brandenburg Gate", Sue Ream, Wikimedia