The empress — Ryan Napier

I wanted to feel good about myself. I wanted to be proud. But how could I? I was a Narodi woman.

For a long time, I was confused. I felt bad, and I didn’t know why. The internet helped. Twitter made me understand my shame.

One day, for example, a trend started—#WomenKickAss. Some Americans had made it. They posted facts about their great women:

“Lyndie Bernstein, president of Harvard, is the highest-paid college administrator in the country! #WomenKickAss”

“Sen. Diane Goodman has raised more campaign funds than any person in U.S. history! #WomenKickAss”

“Since the decision to allow U.S. women into combat, enemy casualties have increased by twenty-one percent! #WomenKickAss”

I wanted to join. But what could I post? What had women done in Narodistan?

There was the Empress Marya Fyodorovna, but that was four hundred years ago. There were the Red Mothers, but all they did was raise Red Sons. And then there was Yulia Skrypsyza.

Yulia was the head of Narodgaz, the national gas company, and of Kultura VIP, a clothing company. One day she was at Fashion Week in Milan talking about her fashion line, and the next she was at an energy summit in Moscow talking about her pipeline. She sold dresses to rich women, and gas to everyone else.

She was only a businesswoman. But she was all we had.

I wrote my own post:

“Yulia Skrypsyza is the richest woman in Narodistan! #WomenKickAss”

***

Yulia’s father was Radislav Skrypsyz, the first (and, so far, the only) president of Narodistan. I didn’t like him. No one in Narodistan did.

The protests started in January. The protestors gathered in Skrypsyz Square. The square was paved with dark orange stones. The protestors covered them with their tents. They said they wouldn’t leave until President Skrypsyz quit. He had been president for twenty years, and twenty years was too long. He had fixed elections and stolen half the economy, and now his time was up.

I too brought my tent. The time of Skrypsyz was going to end, and a new time was going to begin. And in this new time, there would be women too. We would have power. In this new time, I would no longer feel shame.

The camp was cold. Even in my blanket, I could feel the icy stones. When it was too cold to sleep, I walked.

I always came to the north side of the square, to St. Oleg’s Cathedral. There, under the golden domes of the church, was the statue of the Empress Marya.

At the base of the statue were her soldiers. They held swords and axes, dripping with Lithuanian blood. Marya’s war, said the plaque, had been the bloodiest in Narodi history.

The empress herself sat high above. She held her sceptre with both hands, and her complicated robe flew behind her.

I wanted to see her face, her expression. But no matter where I stood, I couldn’t. She was too high.

I climbed onto the base and stretched out my arm. I reached past the swords and the axes and put my hand on her bronze slipper. It was very cold.

***

During the day, I walked the camp.

I met men with shaved heads and women with neon balaclavas. I met thin men in tight jeans and fat old women with headscarves. I met mothers and children, priests and students, teachers and soldiers.

I saw the flags. People hung them from their tents, and wore them over their shoulders. There were rainbow flags and Nazi flags, black flags and white flags. On one tent, I saw the old red flag of Communism. On the next tent, I saw the older blue flag of the monarchy—the empress Marya’s flag.

Everyone, it seemed, had come to the square.

At night, we crowded around the fires. We hugged and we sang. We organized and we talked. I asked the others why they had come. Everyone—Nazis and communists, men and women, old and young—said the same thing.

“We aren’t left or right,” they said. “We aren’t Nazis or communists, or men or women. That all comes later. For now, we want change. We want real politics. So until we get real change, we stay.”

They were right, of course. I spoke to them, and I knew we were going to win.

But sometimes I got tired of talking. I left the bonfires and lay in my tent. I read Twitter. I scrolled through Yulia Skrypsyza’s Instagram. She had been in Turkey, negotiating a new pipeline. She was wearing a black dress and white jacket that she had designed herself, and she was climbing the long red stairs of the presidential palace.

The tent was cold, but my screen glowed.

***

For five weeks, we held the square.

At the end of February, Skrypsyz went on television. He told us we had twenty-four hours to leave. “Tomorrow at midnight,” he said, “the square will be clear.”

We had to work quickly. I tore down the billboards in the square, packed snow, and stacked tires. Soon, we had built a wall around the camp.

We had a few gas masks and clubs and even some guns. But we needed more. We turned to the ground—the famous orange paving-stones. I took up a hammer and smashed.

At ten o’clock, we got into position. Some people stood under the walls. The rest of us formed long human chains. We stood shoulder-to shoulder and passed stones from the centre to the wall. To my left was a girl in a green balaclava, to my right a big-bellied old man.

Ten minutes after midnight, the attack started. The billboards shook. The police were rushing the wall.

The old man passed an orange stone to me, I passed it to the girl, and at the end of the line, it shattered a policeman’s helmet.

We worked quickly, and the stones were rough. Each one took a little bit of skin. By the end, my hands were nothing but fingernails and scrapes. When the orange stones reached the end of the line, they were red with blood.

We passed and passed. The old man gave me a stone, I gave it to the girl, and I turned back to him. He gave me the stone, and then he fell down. I told him to stand up. I told him we needed him. I bent over, and pushed his chest. It was wet.

The police were shooting from the roofs.

A few of us threw ourselves on the ground. The girl in the green balaclava told us to stand up. “It only works if we all do it!”

I shut my eyes. I shouldn’t be here. All I wanted was a little pride. I shouldn’t have to risk my life for it. But then I thought of that pride. I thought of Yulia on the long red stairs, and of all the other, greater women that would come after her. We would follow her up those stairs. We would reach the top.

I stood, and we passed the stones.

Other people started to fall—a man with a shaved head, a student with a scarf over his mouth, a priest with a long beard.

They were only shooting the men. They would regret that. We kept passing the stones.

***

Soon, the billboards stopped shaking. Our men stopped falling. The police had failed.

We dropped our stones where we stood.

We carried the dead to the centre of the square. A few people slept, but most of us waited.

“Now he’ll send in the army,” said someone.

“No, look at the news,” said someone else. I took out my phone. “We’re world news. Everyone knows about the snipers. Even America is saying he needs to resign. He’s finished.”

The sun rose. We waited beneath the barricades. I dug out a space in the snow, and for a few hours, I slept.

I woke to the sound of a radio. A man was holding it over his head, above the crowd. The radio crackled with a familiar voice—Skrypsyz.

He was proud of his service, he said. But he understood that Narodistan needed new, younger faces. And so he would resign.

There would be an election next month. “I know one of the candidates very well,” he said. “Our party will nominate the CEO of Narodgaz, Yulia Skrypsyza.”

He wished her the best of luck.

***

I collapsed my tent, and I rolled up my sleeping bag.

“What are you doing?” said someone behind me. I turned. It was the girl in the green balaclava—the one who had told me to stand. I told her I was going home. We had won.

“We won a battle,” she said. “We still have to win a war. We’re staying until we get real change.”

I didn’t understand. For the first time in four hundred years, we had a woman as our leader. What change was more real than that?

The girl said that they couldn’t accept another Skrypsyz.

“Not Skrypsyz,” I said. “Skrypsyza.”

“If you’re happy,” she said, “then go home. Vote in another fixed election. We’ll be here.”

I put my things on my back and climbed the barricade. The wood was splintered, and it stabbed my scraped hands, but I smiled through the pain. I landed on the other side, picked up a police helmet for a souvenir, and walked back to my parents’ apartment.

I took a very hot shower, and then I slept for a very long time.

***

At the end of March, we had an election. The polls opened at eight. I was there at seven.

Yulia Skrypsyza won with eighty-nine percent of the vote.

I wrote:

“Yulia Skrypsyza is the first woman to be elected president of Narodistan! #WomenKickAss”

We were ahead of America now.

That night, Yulia was on every channel. Her hair was twisted into an elaborate braid, and she wore a blue dress—one of her own designs. She went to Skrypsyz Square and climbed the steps of St. Oleg’s. Beneath the golden domes of the church and the bronze slippers of the empress Marya, she accepted the presidency.

I should have been proud. For the first time in my life, I should have been without shame. But I wasn’t. The television only showed Yulia, but beneath her words, I heard noises from the other side of the square. I heard singing, and I heard drums.

They were still there.

***

And so I too returned to the square. I talked to the others. I tried to help them understand.

“She’s the same as her father,” they said.

“She’s her own woman. You haven’t even given her a chance.”

“She fixed the election!”

“So she isn’t perfect. But she’s what we have.”

We argued and argued. They had their arguments. They wanted to fix the political situation, fix the economy, fix the corruption—only then would they worry about women. As always, politics trumped women. As always, we had to wait.

I saw through them. Beneath their arguments, they were no different than me. I talked to communists, and I talked to Nazis, and I knew that if their man—their new Lenin or their new Hitler—had replaced Skrypsyz, they would be in my place. They would tell everyone to go home.

Everyone talked about solidarity. Everyone said that all struggles were the same. But it wasn’t true. We all stood in the same square, we all sang the same songs, but we were not the same. We all had our own reasons. When the snipers had fired and I had needed courage, I had thought of Yulia. The Nazis had thought of Hitler, and the communists had thought of Lenin. We were together, but we were doing our own private protests.

They were no different from me. The only difference was that they had lost.

That explained the men. But there were still women in the square. Grandmothers, the women in the neon balaclavas, factory workers. One woman had even given birth in the camp.

It was them I wanted to help. I talked to them, and I found them repeating the same old arguments. They wanted to wait—for a better woman, for politics, for anything except the power that they could have.

There was a great pride waiting for them, and they wouldn’t take it.

***

The barricade still stood, but the protestors had removed a section, and made a gate. In the mornings, I went through the gate, and in the evenings, I passed out again.

The weeks passed. The snow started to thaw, and the barricades shifted and tottered.

The earth itself was tired of the protests. “The seasons are moving on!” I said to the protestors. “Why can’t you?”

At the end of April, I went into the camp, as usual. I started to argue with a man. Before the protests, he had been a plumber. We had talked a few times before.

“Go home, girl,” he said. “People are tired of you.”

I knew that. He wasn’t the first to tell me. I said I didn’t care.

He called me a name—an ugly name for a woman. I called him the same thing. He said if I weren’t a girl he would fight me.

I punched first.

We rolled on the ground, in the broken places that were once orange paving-stones. The other protestors rushed to us. I felt hands all over my body. I punched at everyone. They punched back.

The hands held me, finally. For a moment, there was quiet. We all breathed heavily. And then, from the entrance to the camp, I heard shouts. The hands dropped me.

I spit a tooth into my hand. I groaned and rolled a little. My hip hurt a lot. Everyone ignored me now. They were running. There was shouting, but I couldn’t form the noise into words.

One woman tripped over my leg and fell. A police officer kicked her in the ribs.

It was an attack. Yulia had surprised them. She had caught them without their stones.

I looked up at the officer and smiled. He hit me with his club. “I’m on your side!” I shouted. He hit me again. I dropped to the ground, and he moved on.

My vision doubled. St. Oleg’s had hundreds and hundreds of gold domes. My hip hurt, but I ran.

I went north, toward the domes. I passed police and protestors. Some were fighting, some were running, and nearly everyone was screaming. I might have been screaming too.

I climbed the barricade. Below, the police massed. They swung their shields at me. But I was too high. I jumped. I landed on the other side of them, and I ran.

I hobbled across the square, and three officers followed, clunking in their heavy gear. St. Oleg’s was straight ahead. I thought of running into the church. But then I saw her.

Her big bronze soldiers guarded her still. Their weapons still dripped with Lithuanian blood. I grabbed a pike, set my foot against a sword, and pulled myself up.

I touched her slipper again. It was warm now. Spring had come.

The three officers stood below, shouting. One of them threw his club. I climbed. I made my way up her robe. I went past the sceptre. Finally, I saw her face.

It was beautiful, of course.

I put my legs over her shoulders and looked down into the square. The barricades had fallen. The clubs went up and down, and the protestors fell. Neon balaclavas were ripped from heads. Teeth were kicked.

I knew I should feel bad. I knew my stomach should be tight, and my brain on fire. But they weren’t. For the first time, I was really proud. Yulia was clearing the square. She was doing what her father could not. She was kicking ass.


Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in Lowestoft Chronicle, Per Contra, Stoneboat, and the Burrow Press Review. He lives in Massachusetts, and posts at ryannapier.tumblr.com.

Image: Riot police, Ivan Bandura, Creative Commons