*Butterfly effect is a work in progress. It’s my personal tribute to the underground scene of Kraków, Poland, in late 1990–2000s: LGBT, punk metal, sex , drugs and the occult. These things happened on the margins of society. It’s a story of ugliness and beauty, love and hate, victory and loss.
The story is fictional, although it has been inspired by real events from my late teens and early twenties. The action begins in peaceful countryside, and slowly moves to the city.*
The morning sun rays broke through the gap between dark crimson curtains, dancing around the corner of the bedroom. Gran Iza’s cheerful singing interrupted the young cousins in their sleep.
-”Wakey, wakey! Time to get ready for the service!”
Lilka yawned. She got only three hours of rest at most.
-”We’re not coming!”- Lena covered her ears with the pillow.
The heavy wooden door to their bedroom flang open. The wee lady appeared in the doorway. She had her favourite dress on, deep indigo with light pink rose pattern and a white lacey collar. Her hair was tied into a neat bun on the back of her head. She even painted her nails.
-”There’ll be live transmission from the Pope’s visit! He is a holy man”- her face soured.
-”We can sense his holiness from here!”- Lilka was not ready to give in.
Gran Iza sighed as she sat on the edge of Lena’s mattress.
- “You girls don’t understand what he means to us all. I will never forget the day”- her eyes glazed over- “of his first visit in Cracow. It was a beautiful summer day, June 1979. I took your parents with me to the Błonia meadow. Crowds were congregating, rivers of people all singing in joy. We got our Pope, first Polish pope in history! The authorities were fuming with rage.”
The young ladies already knew the background of this story. Under the Soviet rules, nobody was allowed to discuss their faith in public. It was the supposed Marxist spirit of “religion being the opium for the masses”. But the prosecution only made the Catholic community stronger. Iza and her three children: Lena’s mother Ilona, Lilka’s father Artur and their little brother Tomek were not religious at that point. The only reason they joined churchly ceremonies was politics. Back then Church was a sanctuary for political activists, with many clerics being directly involved in the opposition.
-”We were all standing there, waiting for his arrival. I had never seen such a mass of people all in one place! At that moment, we knew we had the power to change the world!”- Gran Iza’s voice broke slightly- “He told us the future was in our hands. He told us to have faith”- she shut her eyes and whispered- “and then the communist regime fell”.
Both cousins sat on their beds, mesmerised, staring blankly at each other. Lilka felt shivers travel down her spine. Neither of them spoke as the grandmother slowly rose from her seat and left the room.
Finally, Lena opened her mouth- “Wow”.
Lena’s and Lika’s parents’ generation was ruled by fear. When hippy “flower children” made their first appearance in the West, the east of the iron curtain was sunk in poverty and run by the police state. This dark, gloomy era stretched up until the late 1980s, with memorable Chernobyl disaster in the middle.
Corruption was ever-present. Social networking skills involved finding ways to outsmart the system. The state was the enemy to some and a friend to others, but everyone feared it. Stories of gulags in Siberia kept even most obedient citizens on their toes.
These were days of mass surveillance and a golden time for snitches. Job promotion, better health care access and other favours were promised to “good comrades” in exchange for valuable information.
Some complied willingly. Others got bullied into collaboration by the state officials. It was not uncommon for people to spy on their friends, neighbours and relatives. The government agents secretly installed wiretaps in public spaces and targeted flats. All phone calls were monitored, and many phones bugged.
In retaliation, activists created all sorts of codes to communicate with one another.
-”Imagine coming into someone’s house knowing that every word you say is being recorded” — Lena’s mother Ilona once told her- “So when my auntie’s hubby got seized, she arrived at our place suddenly, out of the blue. She brought some kitchen utensils”- Ilona explained- “but we all noticed that the uncle didn’t come with her. Back then married women didn’t usually socialise on their own”.
From the context alone, the family guessed that he got arrested, but they couldn’t say anything, couldn’t ask questions. Iza hugged her cousin and offered some bread and cans of sardines to take home since the food at the time was in constant shortage.
Soon enough, though the poor lady had to leave, taking her grief and sorrows with her into the unknown.
Lena often thought that image of a widow quietly sobbing in destitute and despair would have made a perfect symbol of the zeitgeist. Three hundred years of ongoing invasions and battles to regain freedom had left their mark on the national psyche.
Then, one day the winds changed. The spark of light appeared on the horizon. John Paul the Second, the first Polish pope in history quickly became a cult figure of unimaginable proportions.
His compassionate approach, kindness and love of travels made him famous across the entire world. Most of all though he earned the unofficial title of the spiritual leader and saviour of Poland. People believed that dissolution of the Soviet Union happened thanks to his power.
However, the Pope’s arrival opened the gate to another, much more sinister dimension as well. His immaculate reputation became a powerful political tool in the hands of the Church.
As the wave of liberalism swept across the country, it became an alarm bell for the clergy. Gay rights, feminism, and religious and cultural diversity that appealed to the minds of young people posed a real challenge for older generations.
The Pope was no exception. He publicly condemned homosexuality and sex before marriage. He encouraged youth to stick to the Christian values, family with traditional gender roles presented as the ideal.
Soon after Sunday sermons all over the country turned into angry rants on the decay and fall of humanity. Priests no longer supported the European Union, once regarded as a promised land of freedom.
Ilona became very anxious and paranoid as the years went by.
-”Keep under the radar”- she told her daughter Lena -”stay out of trouble.”
Lena disdained her mother’s attitude as weak.
-”The Holy Inquisition is back”- Lilka smirked listening to the noises of grandma’s ostentatious attempts to keep them awake. By the sound it, Iza decided to have a wrestling match with the dishes under the sink. The tinnitus of repeatedly dropped cutlery was especially painful for their ears.
Eventually, the old lady came up with another tactic to get their attention. She entered the bedroom once again, this time holding a rosary in her hand. She turned her eyes directly at Lilka.
-”This rosary comes from the Vatican”- she explained- “It is very special. Our beloved Pope blessed it with his own hands. I used it to pray for your sister that day, and for years to come” — she continued- “and you must admit her health has improved”.
-”Well, actually”- Lena shifted on top of her covers- “the air pollution has dropped over the last decade.”
Iza’s piercing glance shut her up instantly.
-”That may be so”- granny raised her voice slightly- “but it’s not like people don’t get ill anymore”.
Lena’s riposte must have damaged her confidence though, as finally she dropped her game and pleaded:
- “Do it for me, please. Everyone’s looking forward to seeing you”.
Lilka sighed -”Ok, let’s just go”.
Over 90% of the populous were baptised as Catholics in Poland. The peer pressure in a small village like this would have left their granny’s hands tied.
Soon enough though another conflict arose. As soon as Lena put her clothes on, Iza immediately protested:
-”You can’t dress in black! It is not a funeral for God’s sake!”
-”All my clothes are black. I don’t wear anything else”- Lena was close to losing her nerves.
-”Hang on”- Granny sprang out of the room- “I’ve got this lovely dress somewhere, it used to belong to your mother”.
-”No!”- Lena was properly angry now- “Leave me alone”.
Lilka burst out laughing- “I’m starting to love this!”
Iza came back with a massive grin on her face, holding a long oversized frock with large sunflowers pattern at the bottom.
-”It may be a touch big”- she admitted- “but we can use some pins at the back”.
Lilka giggled into her cousin’s ear in amusement.-”Don’t worry. The mice will avenge you.”
-”Was she always like this?”- Lena shook her head in dismay while Iza frantically searched through the drawers. Finally, the old lady picked a long bronze safety-pin and then briefly glanced at the younger girl.
-”You don’t have any skirt, do you?”
-”I don’t wear skirts”.
-”Hmm, I guess we don’t have much time left. That will have to do”- she grimaced in disapproval.- “I will give you one of my sun hats”.
Lena was close to tears as they began the stride along the dusty road leading to the centre of the village.
-”I’m twenty years old, how much longer do I need to put up with this shit!”
Her older brother, Damian, ran away when he was sixteen. He managed to hitch-hike to Germany and found a cash-in-hand job in a Turkish kebab place. When he eventually came back, he moved in with his pal. He was now fully independent and seldom made contact with the family. Lena envied him wholeheartedly.
As the three ladies passed the crossroads, crowds were already visible from a distance. The small church building was packed full, and rows of seats outside began to fill.
A young man spotted them from outside the church gate and waved with excitement. Lena blushed at the memory of them snuggling at the back of the mill years before.
-”Is that the guy who always used to pick wildflowers for you? What’s his name again?”- Lilka murmured in a hushed voice.
-”Shh..”- Lena pressed her lips with her forefinger.
He was now engaged and soon to be married, as gran Iza mentioned to her during last Christmas. Lena must admit he grew up to be a handsome gentleman.
Their eyes met as he approached, and Lena felt a strong
urge to kiss him on the cheek. For a brief moment, she managed to forget how embarrassed her clothes made her feel.
The rest of the morning turned out surprisingly pleasant. Lilka managed to catch a nap during the mass, while Lena ended up daydreaming about their childhood summers once again.
After the service finished, they got surrounded by people all firing questions about their lives in the city. Folk repeatedly complimented their looks. Although everyone mentioned that they looked pale and should catch more Sun, especially Lena, as one of the ladies affirmed. Usual questions about Irena’s health followed, and then typical pleasantries wishing them good luck and all the best for their parents.
For a brief while, it seemed as though they could pull this off, pretending to live the dream of a good Christian family.
Then a sudden commotion brought them back to their senses, as a group of about twelve elderly ladies swarmed the churchyard with aggressive leafleting. Most of them wore traditional headscarves of the Eastern European Babushkas. Others chose the mohair berets, an unofficial dress code of the Radio Maryja fans.
The wards “BEWARE” typed in upper-case letters visibly stood out on the bits of paper they held in their hands. Gran Iza cursed quietly:
-”Damn it, just what we need!”
Radio Maryja (archaic spelling of Maria in Polish), was a Catholic radio station created in the early 1990s. The owner, Father Rydzyk, was a charismatic broadcaster who quickly managed to gain many followers even though his talks were no more than sensationalist ramblings of a lunatic.
Spewing hatred against the Jews and atheists was a part of his everyday repertoire. He also named and shamed politicians, whom he decided unfit to rule the country.
Lilka’s dad, Artur, called him a “Russian Trojan Horse” and claimed he was not even a real priest. Even though this claim seemed far-fetched, Father Rydzyk’s identity had always been surrounded by mystery. He appeared out of the blue and got famous, seemingly overnight with his polished conspiracy theories and promises of the new dawn of Poland.
-”Our Pope doesn’t support this nonsense”- Iza’s face soured- “they shouldn’t be here”.
Iza had a grudge against the radio since they managed to convert her youngest son Tomek. Tomek once known for his love of drink and banter turned into a religious bigot of the mohair clan. He was now on a mission to bombard the rest of the family with his dogma. None of them took him seriously anymore.
Girls followed their grandma attentively with their eyes, as she said her goodbyes to the church folk and rushed her way out of the yard. Her earlier joy and excitement were gone.
Lilka quickly followed her gran’s steps. Lena caught the last glimpse of her old friend.
-”Great to see you guys!”- he called out-”Give me a shout if you fancy a trip to the lake”.
-”We will!”- Lena affirmed.
Lilka elbowed her as they moved towards the gate- “Another virgin for you to deflower”.
Lena rolled her eyes-”Shut up, will you?”
On their way back home, they walked in silence; each of them lost in their thoughts. An echo of the Church songs followed them across the fields, as Lena ruminated on her childhood crush. Trip to the lake would be nice, she decided.
She could not fake it, though, could not pretend to be that girl anymore. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. She was excitable and full of energy. These days she resembled a wreck of nerves with a bad attitude driven by impulse.
She was nine years old when her dad left. Ilona managed to persevere as a single mother. However, growing inflation and an increase in the living costs forced her back to work earlier than she would have planned.
Damian turned angry and resentful towards his mother. Constant fights made their lives hell. Then one day, he packed his bags and disappeared. That’s when Lena’s joy left her.
Maybe that’s why I wear black; a sudden insight stopped her on the dusty road back to the cottage. Perhaps it is grief, after all.
She stood there staring at her feet, listening to the church bells. They seemed to play a sad tune for a miserable country full of grieving widows. Depression is the most Polish thing ever, she decided. How grotesque. Then she remembered the oversized frock she was wearing, and she burst out in tears.