Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt:

A ‘firebrand’ is a person who is very passionate about a political cause. As it’s International Women’s Day on March 8, use this epithet to inspire the story of a woman who is passionately active in politics. 

The Firebrand

By Connie Phlipot

Paolina didn’t always feel like a peat fire was burning silently underneath her skin, waiting for the carelessly dropped match or cigarette butt to bring the flame to the surface. Sending her out into the street, to stand and shout in front of the Parliament or lead a picket line around the power plant. 

No, she used to wake to a sun already high in the sky, laying under the feather comforter that suppressed all feelings of urgency. Listening to the rattle of dishes in the kitchen, not succumbing to the day until the hiss of the Mocha and the scent of its charred coffee production overwhelmed her senses.

Paolina was like that for years. Letting the rest of her family bustle about in the morning, spout opinions on politics, environment, or the slovenliness of the apartment block management. She earned a living, of course, but she sought out jobs that didn’t require her to hurry, act important or to think for herself. She translated English into English, as she described it; correcting what had been officially translated or written into European bureaucratic English, into something a native speaker might actually write. Mostly she didn’t pay attention to the subject. It was only words on a page. Words that should go in a certain order, follow standard grammatical rules and correct syntax. That was actually to her advantage. She didn’t waste time understanding what was written. She worked fast, machine-like, leaving her plenty of time to take long walks, read fantasy novels, sleep. 

One day — it must have been early spring because Paolina remembered her eyes were twitchy with the pollen of early blossoms. She had finished one article for an EU agency and was expecting a second one to be emailed at any moment. She flipped back to what she had just edited and read it. Really read it, for content, not as an editor. The words came to life with meaning.

The article concerned sexual trafficking in women by NATO soldiers in the Balkans. Not a new story, the events had occurred and been revealed decades ago. The article was to be the introduction to a compendium of pieces about EU humanitarian interventions as they called them. Certainly Paolina had heard about this case, but she must have let it slip through her mind like so any other news items.

She shut her eyes. Soldiers, male soldiers, walked across her field of vision. Young women, some scarcely teenagers, were being packed into military vans. They tripped in their platform heels over the clods of mud in the road traversed by APCs.The girls tugged at their miniskirts.  A solider shouted and swatted one girl on her plump fanny.

Paolina opened her eyes and looked out the window. A woman slogged through the puddles, carrying a baby in one arm, a grocery bag in the other. Her boots were inappropriate for the weather. The shoes, the cut of her coat and her not-quite-natural red hair marked her as an Eastern immigrant. A policeman on the street corner called out something inaudible and the woman bent her head over the child. 

Paolina shifted her vision back to the soldiers. She saw herself entering the picture, shoving the soldiers aside, getting into the vehicle and driving the girls away — to freedom. 

There’s a delay, the email said. The next piece will be sent in three hours. Paolina switched off her computer and took a walk. The ember that must have been inside her, maybe inside every person, caught fire and rose up through her body, warming her belly, her heart. Her ears twinged from the enveloping heat.  

The computer that had been the vehicle of her solitary, calm livelihood for years caught fire as well, connecting her to women’s groups, human rights activists, labor organizers. Her passion spread beyond anti-trafficking to the injustice she now saw everyday. Injustices she had consciously ignored, but had been passively collecting in a special folder in her mind for the time she would be ready to do battle.

Every day saw a protest, or a letter writing campaign, or a long strategizing conference call. She pushed herself further into the conflict. One issue would be resolved — the women at the grocery store received compensation for sexual harassment — but then then there were ten other cases.  

Her phone alarm clock thumped on her nightstand. She pressed the slumber button and pressed her cold hands to her heart. The chill spread to her feet, her shoulders. The flu? No, this was not the flu. It was another type of coldness. Her fire was burning out. Dampened by helplessness, by the multitude of concerns that would never be resolved. Paolina grabbed the edges of the comforter and pulled the downy softness over her head.  

Connie Phlipot

Connie Phlipot

Sunday Writers' Club Member

Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction.  Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.


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