Milan Kundera: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí
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.
One of the assistants went up to Tereza; he was holding a dark-blue ribbon. She realized he had come to blindfold her. No, she said, shaking her head, I want to watch.
But that was not the real reason why she refused to be blindfolded. She was not one of those heroic types who are determined to stare down the firing squad. She simply wanted to postpone death. Once her eyes were covered, she would be in death’s antechamber, from which there was no return.
The man did not force her; he merely took her arm. But as they walked across the open lawn, Tereza was unable to choose a tree. No one forced her to hurry, but she knew that in the end she would not escape. Seeing a flowering chestnut ahead of her, she walked up and stopped in front of it. She leaned her back against its trunk and looked up. She saw the leaves resplendent in the sun; she heard the sounds of the city, faint and sweet, like thousands of distant violins.
The man raised his rifle.
Tereza felt her courage slipping away. Her weakness drove her to despair, but she could do nothing to counteract it. But it wasn’t my choice, she said.
He immediately lowered the barrel of his rifle and said in a gentle voice, If it wasn’t your choice, we can’t do it. We haven’t the right.
He said it kindly, as if apologizing to Tereza for not being able to shoot her if it was not her choice. His kindness tore at her heartstrings, and she turned her face to the bark of the tree and burst into tears.