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The Rise of Stefan Gregorovic
By John Buchanan
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 John Buchanan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAugust 1970
The burly dockworker walking home that night on the curving gravel paths of Patrice Lumumba Park was a true native son. He was in a foul mood. That was why he chose the grass beside the walk instead of the public toilet just around the next bend when he had to piss. He knew the toilet was there. He had used it on occasion. But that night he would not use it. He would show everybody. His wife, his foreman, the government, the Russians, the Americans-the whole bloody world. So he stepped off the path, opened his trousers, and with a great sigh of satisfaction pissed on the parched earth.
Ahead, peeking from behind a tree, a militiaman watched the burly dockworker. He was not hiding in order to catch lawbreakers. He was resting his hot, aching feet and hoping that the remaining two hours of his shift would pass quickly and quietly. He would have frowned had the guy gone into the bushes, but he would have stayed behind his tree and said nothing, for at that late hour he did not want to burden himself. But the brazenness of the guy offended him. Everybody knew that it was strictly against the law to urinate on the grass. The fellow might have had the decency and discretion to at least go into the bushes. The militiaman stepped from behind his tree, walked silently across the grass, and stopped a few yards behind the dockworker.
"What do you think you're doing?"
The startled worker swung halfway around, a movement that caused him to wet the front of his trousers. He cursed as he felt the warm liquid seep through to his skin.
"What was that?" the militiaman asked.
"Romanian asshole," the Slovakian dockworker muttered as he hastily buttoned his fly.
The militiaman stepped forward. "What did you say?"
The worker returned to the path and attempted to go on his way, but the militiaman stepped over and blocked him.
"What was that you said?"
"Don't get smart with me."
"Who's getting smart? I didn't say nothing."
"Yes, you did. I heard it."
"Well, if you heard it, what are you asking for?"
"Oh, a wise guy."
"What are you talking about? You asked me what I said. I told you. I didn't say nothing."
"Don't lie to me."
The dockworker glowered. The militiaman, deciding that to continue such dialogue would be undignified, besides getting him nowhere, pointed at the patch of grass the worker had just left.
"You broke the law."
"I never heard no law says a man can't piss when he has to."
"It's against the law to urinate on the grass."
"I don't see no sign says I can't."
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse. And stop giving me lip. One more crack and I'll run you in. I got a half a mind to anyway."
"You're lucky if you got half a mind."
Shock momentarily rendered the militiaman speechless. Never in his eighteen years on the force had he met such open disrespect. Grumbling, yes. Muttered asides, often. Obscenities yelled from the safety of a crowd when his back was turned, of course. One gritted one's teeth and learned to live with such indignities. But this ... this was ... unforgivable.
The militiaman drew himself to his full height, which was considerable, and with a flourish that would have done credit to an actor of the old school flung out his arm and pointed down the path.
The burly worker did not budge. If the militiaman had not been so outraged, and if the light from the lamppost near the bend of the path had not been poor, he might have noticed that the dockworker had tucked his chin to his broad chest, bunched his shoulders, knotted his horny fists-might have seen the murderous gleam in his eyes.
"Did you hear what I said? March."
The dockworker's reaction was not the result of cool consideration. He did not weigh the consequences of his actions. He acted in a blind rage. He punched the militiaman in the mouth. The officer's feet left the ground and he landed on his back with a thud that left him breathless.
The sight of the militiaman stretched before him instantly sobered the dockworker. There was only one thing he could do now-run.
He almost made it out of the park, but the militiaman recovered enough to rise to his knees, place his whistle between his smashed lips, and blow loudly and often. Before the dockworker could gain the street and mingle with the crowds leaving a nearby theater, he was intercepted by half a dozen officers who had been detailed to ensure that the theatergoers dispersed without undue delay. They grabbed him under a streetlamp and held him until their comrade arrived. The Militia had strict orders never to beat citizens in public if they could possibly avoid it. It was bad for their image. Beatings took place in the cellars of their stations. But one look at their comrade's ruined mouth and their tempers, shortened by public scorn and tautened by the weather, boiled over. They began to wallop the dockworker with their clubs. He fought back desperately. He grabbed one militiaman in a bear hug and threw him to the ground, where they rolled over and over, and all the while he yelled at the top of his lungs that he was being murdered by the bloody cops and wouldn't somebody in the name of God help him.
The militiamen finally pulled the dockworker away from their brother officer and began beating him again. By then, theatergoers had collected around them in a tight circle. Passersby joined them. In sullen silence, they watched the cops pummel their victim, who had given up all resistance and had scrunched into a fetal position with his arms wrapped over his head. Blood trickled through his fingers. Some of the officers noticed the onlookers and shouted at them to move on, but the people remained and stared at the moaning dockworker and the blood and the flailing clubs.
The militiamen yelled at the people and began waving their clubs at them.
"Get out of here. Move. Go on, move. Go home."
The growing crowd swayed and shifted as those in back pressed forward for a better view. But nobody left and that rattled the militiamen. People were not supposed to behave this way. They began pushing at the front row. The crowd, silent except for mutterings in the rear, stood its ground. Red faced, cursing, the militiamen pushed harder. They jabbed at people with their clubs. In front the jostling got rougher, behind the mutterings louder. Then a woman shrieked.
"Who said that?" a tall militiaman demanded.
"I did, you pig," cried a short fat woman standing in the front rank.
She had a big wart on her chin. Sweat streamed down her round face. The tall militiaman confronted her.
"Pig." she repeated, and spat in his face.
The militiaman recoiled, wiped spittle from his eyes. People who had witnessed the woman's incredible assault gasped, shrank back, fearful of consequences. If the militiaman had used his head and just taken her into custody that might have ended it. Instead, he bashed the fat woman's nose. She fell heavily. Blood gushed from her broken nose and streamed over her wart onto her thick neck. She lay on the ground, groaning.
An elderly professor shouted, "Swine," and followed up with a remarkably powerful swing of his arm for a man of his age, clouting the tall militiaman between his eyes with a leather satchel containing Das Kapital and contraband copies of The Captive Mind and The New Class. Stunned, the militiaman reeled back, slipped, fell. A comrade sprang forward with an upraised club to strike the professor but found his way blocked by a refined looking woman who screamed with rage and tore his face with her nails. As he tried to ward her off, a hooligan kicked him in the crotch. The militiaman squealed and collapsed.
That is when the crowd became a mob. It surged forward, shouting obscenities. Sensitive woman screeched like fishwives. Mild-mannered fellows squared off against militiamen twice their size and fought like tigers.
It was a rout. Three officers were left on the ground, stomped to death by the mob. Their comrades fled, too dazed and frightened by the sudden, savage assault to pull their sidearms. The mob, exultant, passed the battered dockworker and bleeding fat woman through its ranks to safety.
Then a voice in the middle of the mob cried out, "The Hill. To the Hill."
Others took up the cry. "To the Hill. To the Hill."
The mob swept out of the square and up Lenin Street toward Karl Marx Boulevard and the Hill, the ancient Hill, where tribal chieftains and kings and pashas and emperors had once ruled, and now commissars held sway. The mobs numbers swelled. Smelly workmen marched with perfumed women, illiterates with intellectuals. They linked arms. They shouted and hooted and whooped.
Then a lone and powerful baritone broke into the most famous song of the land, a song born of defiance to Holy Roman Emperors, thrown in the faces of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Hapsburgs, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler. The song is not found in textbooks, for schoolmasters consider it indelicate, but the people take it in with their mother's milk and ignore the schoolmasters.
The mob roared the chorus.
"Hola, Hola, shit on the Emperor. Hola, Hola, shit on the Emperor. Hola, Hola, shit on the Emperor. Off with his head. Off with his head. Shit on the Emperor.-"
On and on. Louder and louder....
* * *
"The Rising, comrades, on a hot Saturday night in August, had begun."
Chapter TwoFive men stripped to their shorts and undershirts sat at a round table in a hot, stuffy little room. A bare lightbulb suspended on a long cord shined over the center of the table. Sweat gleamed on the men's shoulders and faces and trickled down their bodies.
Boleslav, whom Stefan Gregorovic had once described as a "cross between a priest and a commissar, which equals a horse's ass," was talking. He had been talking for a long time, mainly about himself, in the grave and measured tones of a functionary pronouncing a state edict or a papal bull, while his companions-Josip, Jiri, Anton, and Stefan-endured but did not listen.
Josip had bowed his bald head in resignation. Tall and skinny, his long, hangdog face creased by worry lines, he waited patiently. Jiri had the build of a gymnast and a baby face that looked out upon the world in wonderment. He fidgeted, for he was very young, wrinkled his pug nose, flexed his powerful biceps, wiped the sweat from his forehead and the back of his neck. Anton, a mountain of a man, his great torso straining at his undershirt, sat quietly and stared at Boleslav. His square, weathered face was about as expressive as a slab of pine from his native forests, but his brooding northern eyes said, if he doesn't shut up, I'll slit his throat. Stefan, a lean, wiry man with strong features, was reading Anton's eyes and thought, go ahead, if you don't, I will.
Sensing the growing tension, Josip interrupted Boleslav. "Are you in?"
"Are you in?"
"Of course I'm in. Now, as I was saying, it seems to me that-"
"Do you want cards?"
"Do you want cards? Are you standing pat? What do you want?"
Even steady, cautious Josip was getting annoyed.
So was Boleslav, who hated to be interrupted. "How many cards am I holding?"
"Precisely. Therefore, as I am holding the six cards to which I am entitled, and as I have not discarded any, I think it safe for you to assume that I do not want more cards."
"Jawohl, Herr Professor," Josip said, in rare show of sarcasm, and the others chuckled.
Bolelsav, a round flabby man, flushed. His fat, blue jowls quivered, his little eyes narrowed. Stefan restrained himself, wondering, must we be forever cursed by this turd's company? And answered his question with a deep and resigned sigh. For Boleslav was a midlevel bureaucrat at the State Housing Bureau, where he was in a position to fiddle with the priority lists, a connection to treasure in a city burdened by an acute shortage of housing. He had so fiddled for Josip and Stefan, and had intercepted several requests for the eviction of Anton, who owned a howling dog. The worth of such a contact was exceeded only by an exit visa.
Still, it was hard to keep one's mouth shut. When Boleslav began to spout again, Stefan said, "You come to play cards or run off at the mouth?"
Boleslav's large lower lip jutted outward. He waggled a thick finger at Stefan. "Someday. Someday-"
"You'll shit Slivovitz," Stefan said.
Jiri bellowed, even Anton grinned, while Josip made frantic hand signals at Stefan. Bolelsav glared. Stefan hoped he would start something. The heat had put him pretty near the end of his tether. He wanted to feel somebody's teeth crack under his knuckles.
A woman had once said to Stefan, "You have the face of a predator."
Boleslav stared at that face, at the sensuous mouth, the bold eagle's nose flanked by sharp-ridged cheekbones. Transfixed by Stefan's fierce, dark, hypnotic eyes, Boleslav recognized the danger signals and searched for a witty remark that would allow him to retreat with dignity.
Anton broke the silence. He cocked an ear at the window behind him, which was open behind the drawn shade.
"What?" Josip asked.
"I don't hear anything."
"Somebody's singing," Anton said. "A lot of people are singing."
"Phonograph," Boleslav said, authoritatively.
"No. Listen. It's outside someplace. Lots of people singing."
Jiri grinned at Anton.
"Angels, Anton, they're finally coming for you."
They should have known better than to doubt Anton. He heard and saw things before other people. It was the way of northerners. "They talk to the devil," Stefan's grandmother had often said. Not that Stefan believed such nonsense. Yet he respected Anton's powers.
Soon they all heard the singing, and for a while there was not a sound in the room. They stared at each other, unbelieving. The song had not been heard in public since 1945.
"God in heaven," Boleslav finally said.
Josip said, "It's a record. It must be a record."
"It's not a record," Anton said, and nobody challenged him.
Young Jiri jumped up. His eyes shined with excitement. Jiri's great tragedy was that he had missed World War II.
"Let's go up to the roof," he urged. "We'll be able to see."
Boleslav and Josip stood up, but Stefan remained seated, and said quietly, "Shall I hold the pot until you get back?"
Boleslav sat down. "We'll finish the hand," he said.
To Boleslav's annoyance, Anton won and scooped up the pot. The others took their money, put on their pants and shoes, filed out of Josip's room, and went up one flight to the roof. Several people were there already so nobody spoke, for it was an unwritten rule that when two or more people got together somebody had to be a Secret Police spy. But there was no danger at first because everybody was dumbstruck by the sight below.
The island that was the ancient city was roughly egg shaped. The river forked at the island's eastern end and joined again at its western tip, before angling south a few miles beyond the city and heading for its junction with the Danube. The western end of the island went from flat to gently rolling before climbing in the middle to a broad ridge that descended steeply on both sides to the river. The eastern end rose to the Hill, which overlooked the city and the four bridges that ranged from medieval to mid-nineteenth century, two on each side, connecting the ancient city with its nineteenth and twentieth-century additions and the spreading suburbs beyond. From the roof of Josip's building, situated on the ridge, one could see the Stalinesque government buildings on the upper slopes of the Hill and the mob pouring up Karl Marx Boulevard.
The boulevard ran directly to the top of the Hill and into Heroes of the Revolution Square. On the far side of the square loomed the Castle, a great, grim pile of blackened stone, enlarged and turreted and buttressed over many centuries. As the Hill dominated the city, the Castle dominated the Hill.
The Castle was the headquarters of the Secret Police. The mob, roaring defiance, was heading straight for it. Some people on the roof quietly wept, and nearly all had to fight the urge to add their voices to the mighty chorus below.
It is difficult for a stranger to realize the effect that the unofficial national anthem has on the people. Ordinarily they spend much of their time insulting each other. They boast that because they die harder they would rather fight compatriots than outsiders, and throughout their history invaders and native rulers have used this taste to their advantage.
Excerpted from The Rise of Stefan Gregorovic by John Buchanan Copyright © 2010 by John Buchanan. Excerpted by permission.
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