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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 4 chapter 12)

2006-08-22 20:21

  12

  Coming out at the foot of Petrin Hill, that great green mound rising up in the middle of Prague, she was surprised to find it devoid of people. This was strange, because at other times half of Prague seemed to be milling about. It made her anxious. But the hill was so quiet and the quiet so comforting that she yielded fully to its embrace. On her way up, she paused several times to look back: below her she saw the towers and bridges; the saints were shaking their fists and lifting their stone eyes to the clouds. It was the most beautiful city in the world.

  At last she reached the top. Beyond the ice-cream and souvenir stands (none of which happened to be open) stretched a broad lawn spotted here and there with trees. She noticed several men on the lawn. The closer she came to them, the slower she walked. There were six in all. They were standing or strolling along at a leisurely pace like golfers looking over the course and weighing various clubs in their hands, trying to get into the proper frame of mind for a match.

  She finally came near them. Of the six men, three were there to play the same role as she: they were unsettled; they seemed eager to ask all sorts of questions, but feared making nuisances of themselves and so held their tongues and merely looked about inquisitively.

  The other three radiated condescending benevolence. One of them had a rifle in his hand. Spotting Tereza, he waved at her and said with a smile, Yes, this is the place.

  She gave a nod in reply, but still felt extremely anxious.

  The man added: To avoid an error, this was your choice, wasn t it?

  It would have been easy to say, No, no! It wasn't my choice at all! but she could not imagine disappointing Tomas. What excuse, what apology could she find for going back home? And so she said, Yes, of course. It was my choice.

  The man with the rifle continued: Let me explain why I wish to know. The only time we do this is when we are certain that the people who come to us have chosen to die of their own accord. We consider it a service.

  He gave her so quizzical a glance that she had to assure him once more: No, no, don't worry. It was my choice.

  Would you like to go first? he asked.

  Because she wanted to put off the execution as long as she could, she said, No, please, no. If it's at all possible, I'd like to be last.

  As you please, he said, and went off to the others. Neither of his assistants was armed; their sole function was to attend to the people who were to die. They took them by the arms and walked them across the lawn. The grassy surface proved quite an expanse; it ran as far as the eye could see. The people to be executed were allowed to choose their own trees. They paused at each one and looked it over carefully, unable to make up their minds. Two of them eventually chose plane trees, but the third wandered on and on, no tree apparently striking him as worthy of his death. The assistant who held him by the arm guided him along gently and patiently until at last the man lost the courage to go on and stopped at a luxuriant maple.

  Then the assistants blindfolded all three men.

  And so three men, their eyes blindfolded, their heads turned to the sky, stood with their backs against three trees on the endless lawn.

  The man with the rifle took aim and fired. There was nothing to be heard but the singing of birds: the rifle was equipped with a silencing device. There was nothing to be seen but the collapse of the man who had been leaning against the maple.

  Without taking a step, the man with the rifle turned in a different direction, and one of the other men silently crumpled. And seconds later (again the man with the rifle merely turned in place), the third man sank to the lawn.

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