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Danutė Kalinauskaitė is not a prolific author. So far, she has published only three books, but each of them was an event in the literary life of Lithuania and won various awards. Her novellas are dense and packed with images, fragrancies, scenes, and cultural quotations. Kalinauskaitė is one of the most masterful storytellers and an accomplished stylist whose language is thoroughly enjoyable. Her narrative, which is vivid, precise, polished, and abounding in cultural quotes, is regularly interrupted by witty sayings coming from different social groups, slang, sarcasm-tainted mass media clichés, and specific terms (of botany, medicine, and sewing).

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Danutė Kalinauskaitė

 

STRIPED

Last autumn my husband and I finally decided to buy some furniture, new armchairs to replace our old ones which were about twenty years old. It was only furniture ... We left home in a peaceful state, but we became angry with each other after the second set of furniture at Furniture Heaven. It seems that nothing exposes the emptiness, or at least the tectonic crack, in your marriage, as buying furniture together does. Things that are light years apart, like tastes, sensibilities, natures, and even what I call the “escapades of our forefathers”, which are usually rather entertaining, become like a fishbone in the back of your throat. The escapades of our forefathers, and the families buzzing around in the branches of our family tree ...

An old friend of mine told me about the family reunions where on one side of the table you have the gardeners, the poets, all sorts of readers and thinkers, in other words, according to him, the pessimists, which is his father’s side; and on the other side you have all sorts of shaven-headed, leather jacket-wearing hustlers and con-artists dealing in life, in other words, an internal combustion engine, which is his mother’s side. Is it possible for them to agree on anything at all?

“Genes are a powerful thing,” that friend of mine said. “They often sit across from each other in me, and it’s hard to say who will win—the father over the mother, or the mother over the father.”

And it’s always a battle, a constant debate with yourself, and you’re thinking to yourself, but what is it like with Somebody Else?

We each wandered around the floors of the store on our own for a long time. From a distance, I saw how my husband, after about five upholstered sets of furniture, was calculating something in his mind, measuring, pushing the walls of our flat around, feeling the surfaces and textures of the furniture. I also patted and touched a few things here and there myself. About two hours later, alone and confused, with tapestry patterns draped over his eyes, he was slowly edging along the wall. I don’t think even knew himself what direction he was going in. At that moment, I lay down on the first sofa I came to. I was dead tired.

“Perhaps it’s the accumulated tiredness of life?” was the thought that came to me. And I told myself, and later told the employee who magically appeared with a notebook, and finally told my husband who was shifting his weight from one leg to another: “Do whatever you want, but I’m not going anywhere.”

So we bought that furniture. It was only on returning home that we saw the kind of furniture we had bought. It was striped.

Perhaps for some, stripes have an association with zebras, sailors or fences. For me, I don’t know why, they remind me of a prison uniform. For people of my generation, they still, most likely, bring back associations with the film The Twelve Chairs, based on the book by Ilf and Petrov—after all, we grew up with it. You can honestly see, when our friends sit on those striped armchairs, and drink wine and talk about the recession, deposits and real estate —goodness gracious—you can see how they totally unconsciously, simply instinctively, try to feel with their tightened buttocks whether, by some miracle, there aren’t a hundred and fifty thousand gold roubles worth of diamonds under the striped cushions (as did Kisa Vorobyaninov, the main character in the film, who never lost hope). After all, you could open up your own candle factory, like one of the characters in the book; and who hasn’t dreamt of a little factory like that!

I’ve got used to those annoying stripes now. What’s more, the furniture is useful: one of the pieces is a small sofa that can recline and turn into something like an operating table. And that’s what I sleep on. Every time I lie there, with the dawn raising my eyelid like a pair of tweezers, the first ray of sunlight shines into my pupil like a little projector: “Well, still alive?”

“I’m alive,” I mouth with my lips, and wake up.

Through our window on the ninth floor, I saw the vaulted arch of the sky, with heaps of clouds, like after a battle, the ruts, the roads or the wrong turns taken by the wind, or the air—in the night the rain had washed the air until it rinsed the ivory clean. I heard how the very last drop resounded as it splashed on its yellow surface. The day had begun … This morning I should also have seen our laundry, which I had left out to dry on the balcony before going to bed. But as soon as I opened my eyes … The stick supporting the drying rack had come loose, the sheets and pillowcases seemed to have fallen to the ground, and my husband’s shirts were glued to the window. But they weren’t shirts—they were being worn by an unknown man: pressed up against the glass, putting an unseen hand against the unseen back of his head, squinting and looking closely at who was inside.

And then, in the evening, he appeared.

It was Janas, the son of my husband’s cousin Jaroslavas. After such a long time … After his cousin had died, whom we didn’t really see that much, we promised, like many do, to take care of the family. But you know how it is—at the funeral everyone promises everything, they exchange phone numbers, write down addresses. However, when do those promises ever materialize? What’s more, God sees—we looked for that child in vain, and others said they looked for him in vain. They said that he was drawn more to his mother’s side, her family; it was there that he’d disappear periodically, but who knows now … Perhaps, when my conscience gnawed at me, and sometimes it did eat at me, I would think, he doesn’t need anything from anybody really, because he’s too proud. Perhaps he’s resentful that his father left him, that kind of wrong does exist, the least useful, addressed to the dead. And now almost ten years later, he appears.

And what do you see?

Time, which has hurried on by, as it does without waiting for you to grow a backbone and become strong … A canine tooth that got a gold cap on it far too early. He limps, because, it seems, his left leg is a little shorter. A black jacket and white Puma tennis shoes. The scent of fat from a doughnut shop in the underground tunnel of the bus station, and another scent, a classic scent of men—that of cigarette butts, with a cantankerous thread twisting and turning from the ashtray day after day, which weaves a thin cloth; no, wait, it’s more like it’s fashioning a hard inner shoe sole made of loneliness. His vocal cords raspy from smoking ... bowing his head, Janas kissed my hand gallantly, at the same time as flirting rather unconsciously. When he kept his lips on my blue vein a little too long, I even felt a burst of anger. It also seemed to me—I don’t know why—that he had been running for a good while …

When it happens, meaning when these particular kinds of meetings occur, a person’s entire life flashes before their eyes. Voilà, there’s Janas, perhaps around seven years old; he’s not a child, but mercury. Then he’s a teenager, where one Easter at our house my cousin’s wife, a nurse from the surgery at the hospital who had a liking for rubbing alcohol (that cousin later split with her), badgered him: “Come on, eat something, don’t be a rube.” But he remained silent. It was just when someone shot someone during the Easter television programming that he suddenly became flushed and enthralled, bursting out: “Oh, what an admirable death. Did you all see that?” A few years later, we heard that Janas, having drifted around in Spitak, Armenia, and then around Russia, beyond the Urals and in Siberia, had shacked up with a much older woman, a widow, the mother of two grown boys, and slept with a pistol shoved under his pillow. Once, when he heard some sort of noise in the corridor, he started shooting, blindly, right and left. Nerves … They say that he shot up his, or to be more precise, his father Jaroslavas’, Weltmeister accordion, a black one, varnished, with 120 basses. He simply pulled the bellows apart on the sofa, and, with his eyes closed, just kept shooting it. Why? Because it “played bad”. Another thing he apparently did was he bought a cane with a top shaped like a snake that screwed off, and in that top there was a capsule, and in that capsule was potassium cyanide. It is said that people who behave like that have dealings with what they call “little stones”. However, my husband, who honestly did not understand any more than I did, either about the snake head or the “little stones”, did not believe any of it. And despite that, he got very angry at Janas.

Now Janas looked around, whistling out of surprise, most likely recognizing a few things from his past: objects, smells, us, ultimately the words “uncle” and “aunt” in his mouth, like finding sugar-coated marmalade candies when he was a child … He began feeling the seaweed balls from the Tunisian coast on the shelf in the hallway—oh, the Mediterranean Sea weaves such nice felt shoes? You know what, you wouldn’t freeze with those, even in Siberia, that’s a fact … That same mercurial nature, it seemed, just turn around, and some sort of small object—like a miniature felted item—might disappear in his pocket without you noticing.

Now is the right time to talk about those escapades of one’s forefathers … Janas’ great-great grandfather on his father’s side, my husband’s side, was an officer in Napoleon’s army, a Frenchman. As the Great Bonaparte marched towards the East, with soldiers taking milk, eggs, chickens and horses from people along the way, a soldier by the name of Cherlotte, according to my husband’s family, left a thing or two as well—the muddied womb of Sofija Zaranka. When Napoleon’s warriors were withdrawing back through the lands of Lithuania, that is, when they entered the textbooks of history as zombies—their hands, legs and faces frostbitten, slurping blood from dead horses, tearing flesh off with their teeth, eating even the Vilnius University laboratory specimens swimming in formaldehyde, and dying from exhaustion right in the streets—Sofija, waiting for her soldier, was already ripe as an ear of rye and was about to pop. The child, born in January, was registered with the last name Cherlotte in a wooden church … There was a painting of the Frenchman that made the rounds of the family members: white gaiters, a red jacket, uniform buttons that would make imprints with his regiment’s number on Sofija’s pink cheeks, and, of course, the French moustache—dashing, poking her in the neck, and, one has to assume, not only there—eyes as black as a sable’s, and an elegant body which seemed scrawny to the villagers.

Little Janas examined the old souvenir, a steed rearing on its hind legs, with a half-naked rider from Classical Antiquity standing next to it and trying to bring it under control by the bridle. He then proceeded to snap off one of the horse’s little plaster legs. My husband sighed loudly: “For fuck’s sake, that dusty horse was standing on its hind legs for years and nothing ever happened to it.”

“Cherlotte …” he started, suddenly turning red from his internal struggle.

“Aunt, Uncle, if you don’t mind, I’d like to clean up a little …”

Well, of course! I held my husband back with an insistent glance, and dashed off to find a towel.

Janas soaked in the tub for a long time, a very long time … My husband, sighing, nervously hopped on one leg, and then the other, by the door, groaning, until he finally got up the courage and went in to “scrub his back”. But actually he went in there to speak with him, man to man. When else if not now: a naked person is so open. And without any weapons whatsoever. No one in a position like that will shoot. What’s more, he’ll lay it all out clearly. And there certainly was something to lay out!

But I hardly heard them talking. Actually, I don’t think they even talked, as all you heard was the water splashing around. My husband, who came out with beads of sweat on his forehead, and with his sleeves rolled up, just shrugged his shoulders:

“Well, what can I tell you is … There’s a hollow area along his collarbone, it’s deep, it looks like he got hit with a crowbar. There’s a scar under one of his ribs. From the look of it, it might be from a screwdriver. There’s three metal strips in his calf. In the winter they probably attract the cold. Something is sticking out of his kneecap, something hard. I guess it’s a screw …”

“But, my God. What does all that mean?”

“What do you think it means?” my husband spat. “Are you the only one that doesn’t get it? He’s a veteran. Parading around like an old war hero. Just without any medals, as you can see. Without any awards …”

A good hour later, Janas appeared, red-faced, puffs of steam trailing behind him, and wearing the same clothes, even though I had left some of my husband’s clothes out for him. But he was smelling strongly of cologne. I glanced inside—there was an unmistakable ring of mud around the inside of the bathtub, with our good Activist Eau de Toilette cologne from the little shelf used in a rather princely amount, a good half bottle.

“I wonder,” my husband whispered in my ear with chagrin, “whether he took a swig or two of it …”

Janas stood up in the room, in front of the window, springing up and down in those Puma shoes of his, ready, it seemed, for anything, such as a hard talk, which after a pretty decent, noncommittal beginning, oh man, how you didn’t want to go through with it.

“Janas,” my husband started again cautiously.

The doorbell rang! Like he was waiting for it, or perhaps he actually was. Janas, totally beaming, hurried to the door.

And what do you know … Two unfamiliar women came in. One of them was around forty, tall, big boobs, plump, what the Russians would call a “diva”. She spoke with a Russian accent, too. The other one was definitely Jewish, the blackest of black hair, a hooked nose, and the red nails of a hawk bent under, the kind that snatches a Fabergé egg and flies with it to a nest in an unreachable treetop among the clouds to hatch it … They looked at us warily, and Janas reassured them:

“Oh, don’t worry. They’re family. Make yourselves at home.”

Springing up and down in his white tennis shoes like a tough guy—his limp didn’t hinder him in the least, and in fact even had the opposite effect—he took the women to the living room like a true man of the house. Before closing the door behind him, he winked at my husband. He—now a guest in his own home—sat frozen.

“So, not bad at all, right, Mother?” he mumbled, looking at me sideways. He was humiliated.

“Well, yes …” I replied. “Yes …”

But what could we do? Nothing. Just try to catch what was happening on the other side of the door. And what there was was whispering, rustling, stirring about, some sort of popping sound, and a deep laugh similar to a pigeon cooing. One of the women, well, it was clearly the “diva”, suddenly started singing through her nose, with all sorts of twists and turns. It seemed it wasn’t in Russian: “Mergitsa …Kuminitsa … Osakitsa … Rankovitsa … Czy dobrze, czy nedooobrze …” Damn it, they’re even singing? My husband didn’t hesitate. Making up his mind, he got up and went to the door.

The scene that we saw should be preserved as a textbook example in the archives of the most beautiful collected images of the world. Alongside a shimmering Mount Everest and the ice waterfalls and frozen cascades of the Austrian Alps, alongside Madagascar’s limestone needle forests and Indonesia’s chameleon lakes, which change colour, alongside Bora Bora’s coral reefs, and, of course, the thick fogs of the Grand Canyon, the dispersing redness of its sunsets … All three of them were bent over the dark violet velvet on the table. And their faces … Their faces were lit up by blue, green, yellow, violet, purple, golden and silver light; no, it was more like their faces appeared through rippling waters bathed in that unearthly light, as if they were looking at us from the other side. From the other side of that velvet reality. Out of little cones and cut beads, little pillows, hearts and ovals, from their tiny little depths that can’t be seen with the naked eye, the rays spewed forth by a powerful centrifugal force, broken in the light of our lamp. Yes, yes—on that violet velvet, fighting for room, that is, under our lamp, there was a slew of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds all crowded together ... You’ll find those same emeralds in fairy tales, painting the air around them green, and yellow sapphires—the eyes of a lynx, pearls in the shape of raindrops, sky-blue tanzanite, tourmaline with an indigo hue, the stones of life, and cherry-colored rubies, which make the air bloody right in front of your eyes …

My husband, who had suddenly shrunk, became grey and even balder. It was so clear he was from this side of the velvet. It took him a while to regain his speech.

“Cherlotte …” He pointed towards the table with a shell-shocked finger. His forefinger, brown from Prima cigarettes, could barely rest on his target.

“Stones, Uncle,” Janas replied, without even blinking. “Not bad, right? Like this one, yeah, a very simple one …” he said, digging in his pocket. He pulled out a piece of coal, threw it in the air, and caught it in the palm of his hand with a virtuoso move. “With this one, if you want, your future is all taken care of. Luxury in your old age. With full service. In other words, Uncle, five stars.”

“With this one?” I saw how the eyes of my husband, who always knew better than I did how to rise above “very temporary material values”, and rise with dignity, lit up hungrily, and he didn’t try to hide his disappointment. HIS future, with those beauties aglow, just, excuse me, with a little piece of shit? With a chunk of mud?

“An uncut diamond,” Janas chuckled with the laugh of an expert. “Fifty-six possible facets. It’s not the Cullinan diamond from the royal sceptre of course, but … Abracadabra,” he rubbed the diamond on his sleeve, and a white light, similar to snow, or perhaps the pale edge of a cloud, began to sparkle from under the black fog. “In this little piece of shit, Uncle, you can find all colours, the most beautiful gardens, if you go inside you’ll never leave again—it will suck out your soul, that’s a fact. You’d kill your mother and father for it. As unfortunate as it sounds, many have … Of course, they’re dirty,” he said enjoying it, heartily and unabashed, “very dirty … All perfect white diamonds of the world, all of those precious things, the sources from which the purest of light gushes, are dirty. And, what’s more—they’re bloody. You know how many are left without arms, without legs, without ears, because of them? Without brains. Without balls, Uncle! And those aren’t even the worst cases …”

I noticed that the ladies were irritated and were whispering to each other. I pushed my husband, who was in a state like a coma, entranced by the brilliance of the precious stones, into the corridor with force.

“Vaclovas, get a grip on yourself!” I hissed into the shell of his ear, which was clearly made deaf by that brilliance. “Don’t be an idiot, there’s nothing we can do here, just wait it out.”

However, it seems they were scared, and didn’t take long to finish their conversation.

When Janas accompanied the women out of the front door, it seemed to me somehow that under those long dresses they were gliding on ice skates, or perhaps on roller skates; in other words, they were sailing, the edges of their silk dresses brushing against the wall. You could hear a light smattering of elegant conversation carried on a breeze, one that you would hear in a Russian classic from the beginning of the last century, under a cherry tree, with its blossom falling, or under the sunny blue of a parasol.

“Mr Janas, will you be here for long?”

“Oh, no, of course not! I’m just passing through …”

He came into the kitchen with a red face. Like a member of the family arriving after a long journey, he looked over my shoulder, smelling my home, the basil-marjoram-tarragon … Like a member of the family, he patted my husband on the shoulder. But my husband sat there in a daze, simply collapsed into himself, and looked up at Janas with white eyes, the way you look after a good mugful of something. A person, someone I even feel a bit sorry for, who with all his effort and his whole mind, wrestled with his presumptions, his “this-isn’t-a-coincidence” suspicions, and in the end an (undeniable) piece of evidence or two as well, but perhaps the most with his wild imagination, because, after all, it’s just his imagination: women, diamonds, the “little stones” … Who, for God’s sake, tightened those screws in that son of Jaroslavas, may he rest in peace? What were the powers that be that used those screwdrivers on him? What kind of rivets did they rivet? And what was hiding behind all those rivets, what was he hiding behind it all? In the end, what kind of world controlled by such forces were we living in? The questions were voracious, sticking to one’s chaps, and they were only increasing. Becoming ever more voracious. His eyes were turning dark from them already!

But Janas, in his frivolous (French) cloud of Activist Eau de Toilette, sat and waited for dinner like nothing had happened. “Aunt, Uncle, don’t worry. I’m just passing through.” Looking at his own hands folded on the table, he asked, as if trying to sound nonchalant, whether anyone had called, or whether anyone had come by while he had been at our place. “No, Janas,” I replied. “No one has been here. Who would be interested in you after so many years?” I asked, trying to make a joke …
If someone had observed us sitting at the table from outside, the way I like to look through windows that don’t have the curtains drawn, and look at the people against the background of table lamps and torcheres, like cocoons of light, at the everyday scenes in kitchens and rooms, like lit-up boxes, they would have thought, how cosily the evening was humming along here, grinding the floury light. However … we were being watched, just not through the window – it suddenly became so clear – but through an optical scope no less! And they were aiming, keeping their finger on the trigger. How could you feel that, you ask. Does it hurt? No, it’s just the rifle scope sucking out our souls! Both the souls of those doing the aiming, and those being aimed at, and you don’t know who is who exactly …  I had not been mistaken – Janas had been running for a long time. And he was on the run now: egged on by anxiety and fear, he pushed the remote control buttons without stopping, going from channel to channel, through the world, of course, covering his tracks, through the mountains, oceans, limestone needle forests, sharp as razors, if you make a careless step, it could take your skin right off, through the electrical storms of the Grand Canyon that set off fires, he penetrated the thickest of fogs; who would have thought – they can hide a person, especially one who is covering his tracks … They, of course, were following him. Hounds, bullets, God only knows what else … However, we didn’t really find out anything about him. Perhaps we followed his hand with the remote like idiots hypnotized by our ignorance – scene after scene – and we didn’t understand what to ask, after all – what do you do when the suspicions begin to mount, and with each of them a person is once again overcome by uncertainty? The darkness …

On one of the channels a couple were copulating, perhaps even two couples, because there was an entire ball of snakes moving, moaning and groaning, and Janas clicked his tongue, but, sensing my reaction, and especially my husband’s, he changed the channel right away. On another channel there was an Italian animal rights activist, his oily hair curled from anger and passion, with a bruise under his eye, and a band-aid on his nose: “When we were finally able to break through during the fur show in Milan, and occupy the fashion podium and stay there for an entire hour, mamma mia!” The third channel showed an American ranger in a flannel shirt. Not so long ago, he used to break horses. Gosh darn it, he had always succeeded. Until one day an Arabian Standardbred had thrown him out of his saddle. He lay there dazed in the pen with his nostrils full of sand, and when he got up, can you imagine, his front teeth were stuck to his bottom lip … If you must know, now I’m just sitting in the stands and twiddling my thumbs as that ranger, planted right in front of a background of mountains between high bent grass, smiles straight into the camera – with a cowboy hat, a bandana, and a well-made dental prosthesis. It seemed that the television image and the mountains were secondary, just decoration, and the real ranger was not even in the picture. Suddenly, Janas turned to us, and also smiled, still, judging from everything, from a resolve not to give up – like a true “ranger”, just that smile … When neither a person’s heart nor his eyes smile, but only his teeth, then …

The phone rang … When, with everyone freezing, I picked up the receiver, I heard what I was supposed to hear – silence.

“Speak!” I screamed. “Speak!”

They, of course, hung up. They probably laughed, what is it to them? At that moment, the room’s membrane, permeable only to anxiety, was particularly susceptible, and it was not difficult to hear something akin to a spider’s web being torn: the pupil’s muscle fibres shrinking down to the head of a match on the other side of the scope.

“Janas, what the hell!” My husband’s chin shook. “You appear out of nowhere … and? Isn’t it time to lay all the cards on the table, huh? I mean – the ʽlittle stones’. Son, take those fucking little stones out of your pocket right this minute, I say!” he said, suddenly raising his voice, and went red almost down to his shirt collar. “While I still … While we …”

A nomadic nerve twitched in Janas’ eye. Cornered (by his own family, of all people), he was unable to explain how and why. Where he had come from. Ultimately, who he was now. A courier and a target? Someone being hunted down? He was so stirred up, stretched out in all his limping height, it could be said that for the Cherlotte family, which by the way had a drop or two of noble blood, honour was always more important than life. It seemed that it wouldn’t take much, just a spark, and the Cherlottes (for our children, we will represent the “escapades of our forefathers”) were about to pitch a fight.

I quickly set the plates out on the table, just so they would begin eating instead of trying to lock their arms up wrestler-style. They began. They worked their jaws in silence. But after a few bites Janas started choking.

“We know how it is,” my husband muttered, gripping the edge of his plate, “when danger threatens and you’re scared shitless? Cherlotte, isn’t that right, son?”

“Oh, damn it,” Janas said, sitting there frozen for some time. “The other day, I swallowed some fish without chewing it. Now it seems I got a bone. What could that mean, Aunt?”

He listened. With all the auditory tools he had: his skin, fingers, Adam’s apple, but especially his backbone. Not to the confusion within himself, that most likely had already devastated everything, but instead what was on the other side of the walls: whether some sort of dry branch had cracked, following his tracks and had traced him right up to our threshold from far away, even from Ulan Ude, where a few days before the newspapers had written that a director “who had been the head” of a fictitious company had been arrested, a Buryat, with black diamonds in his anus (ah, the unreliability of those traditional banal hiding places); they wrote that he worked with an organized crime syndicate, and ON TOP OF THAT “had carried out the smuggling of firearms – pistols, machine guns, modified IZ air pistols with silencers in great numbers from “the land of salmon and bears”. While he was being arrested, the Buryat resisted, was shot, with others being shot, and perhaps even killed (lives are cheap in Russia, especially those of the Buryats); it seemed that it’s all so far away, in the land of bears, but in reality it was already right in your room … As the wind blew, Janas listened whether the white bones of eternity, emptied by the sun and rain, made a hollow sound or not, which did not bode well for anyone, only for the fulfilment of one’s every desire, especially of those grand precious stones after death, and only in very rare cases while still alive …

“You see, Janas …” I heard my husband’s voice. It resonated not from his plate, but from a pulpit. “A person devours all sorts of things during his lifetime. That’s the way he is – a rubbish dump. How much crap do prison inmates devour, for example? Never heard of something like that? Oh, bones, spoons, knives, clubs – anything goes for those guys. Chess pieces. Kings and queens. Even crucifixes. Never heard of that, Cherlotte? Inmates would swallow a crucifix, just so they could see freedom again! But that guy who sits in jail all the time doing nothing won’t see shit!” he said, suddenly boiling over with rage, and that rage, something that was apart from him, I think, took him greatly by surprise.

Janas sat there subdued, with only his sable-like eyes scurrying about. I sneaked glances at him. I couldn’t explain why that strange, some would say piercing, impression stayed with me that night, that Janas was also wearing a uniform from the losing army, the one that was “returning” (and before Janas, his father, before his father his father’s father, and in this way going back all those generations until those very regiments of Napoleon that were returning, some now belonging only to history and textbooks, simply names on paper, but despite this from above you see the little black islands of scattered dots of the injured that fell in the snow, full of pain, or on matted hay under the dome of the heavens), though his was only the simple jacket and tennis shoes of a civilian – we are all clothed in a similar everydayness. And that uniform, along with the indelible smell of cigarette butts clinging to it, and his right to display his punctuation marks, including scars, rods, a screw here, perhaps a nail there. However, in a case like that, what do you know about that person, other than that nail?

Suddenly, Janas got up – he wanted to go for a smoke.

My husband threw a glance at me: “Well, didn’t I tell you, he’s up to his ears in shit, Aldona? Up to his ears, I’m telling you. And where do you think he got back from? Look how his eyes are shining – like a psycho’s. Of course he is our own. No one is going to disown that dimwit … All that interests me is one thing: who is going to come for him first, the mafia or the special ops?”

I sneaked out behind him on to the balcony. The wind kicked up, and I got cold. The light, its browns, its smoky gold, the dimmed ruby and emerald seeped through the swirling darkness – it had already cast itself on to the street’s trees, the landscapes, the distances …

I thought I was making my way towards Janas very cautiously, slowly, word after word, but in reality I simply asked him: “Child, how do you make a living? Janas …”

“Like everyone else does – the same way. Every day I leave like I’m going to war.” A pause. “And you? Still in this hole?”

You could hear the irony and the anger in his voice; but not just that, there was something like tenderness there as well, combined with – was it love, perhaps, which, whether you like it or not, you end up inheriting like that Weltmeister accordion from your father, from our shared past? And that past too, which has retreated by light years, never to return, it turns out it gets under your skin, it itches, and we both scratch each other a little bit … He looked out at the street, at the high-rise flats, the balconies too close to one another, the red cigarette ends, the white laundry. He breathed in the smell of potatoes and onions being fried, looked at the elephant-size graffiti on the walls of blocks of flats, and the forest of ventilation shafts, the concrete jungles penetrated by yellow lights – our Harlem, that bottomless well for lives to crumble into – and the light of the street lamps still swayed in his eyes like a promise. For those like Janas, the promise of dying in a queue was the last thing that would happen; that’s a fact.

“I’ll pull you out of this hole one day. You’ll see!” he said with certainty, and spat saliva through his front teeth, off-handedly, like a tough guy. (Perhaps now he’ll mention a Cullinan diamond of some sort, I thought, and give himself away? But he didn’t mention anything.)

And for the time being … For the time being, he really needed to know if there was an emergency exit. When I showed him the fire escape, called a fireman’s exit in Lithuanian, underneath our feet, covered with a lid, he squatted down to check whether the metal cover was welded on or not. It was fine. Then he leaned over the edge of the balcony – he wanted to look up. For strategic purposes, of course, in case they came for us from above. I could already hear the buzzing of a helicopter spinning above our building, and could see the illuminated brown autumnal grass in the yard shaking from the gusts of air, the rope ladder dropping, and shadows jumping out one after another, black, wearing special ops clothing, running all pressed up against the outer wall, an operation (led either by the special ops or the mafia) called, in all possibility, Cherlotte-1. Janas could also hear it, he couldn’t avoid hearing it, he leaned against the wall in the darkest corner of the balcony, holding his breath.

And not so much out of fear as out of danger, from the excitement of a sweet death, he suddenly whispered: “We’ll shoot back at them, won’t we? They won’t take us on with their bare hands, fuck no …”

However, they’re taking us – for the time being just in my head. For the time being it’s OK (forgive me, Janas).

Only that calm. You know, that calm …

When the wind blows, when you smell it interspersed with the already blackened pollen, the air shiny like mercury in the sun and the sky retreating, each moment for some reason begins to look like it reached its goal and has already returned, that is, like you’ve crossed the finishing line and achieved a small win. That’s why there’s autumn. And the senses … It’s perhaps only the senses that suddenly attract you, for who knows from what distances and for what end – it’s not possible. The siren-girl … what does she have to do with it, you’ll ask? She’s from the other side of the earth, she has no logical connection with this story whatsoever, nothing in common with it at all. In reality – nothing. And yet … There was a girl in Peru who was born with her legs grown together, and they were getting ready to separate them. The surgeons – it was the talk of the entire country – needed to make her a new body, from the waist right down to the tips of her toes, and form genitalia for her. Everything. To create a new person. Feeling nervous, the surgeon who was entrusted with the operation said on a Lima television station that he had dreamed of this “historic” operation of separating her legs: making incisions, correcting the unsuccessful ones right away in his dream, and making more incisions. “If the incisions don’t turn out well, they immediately disappear, and then you try and try again.” Again and again … If now, at this moment, I thought, I swiped right through the darkness with my scalpel, simple darkness, in which there is nothing, unless it’s just emptiness or perhaps the wind, warm blood would spurt out. Janas, who cut and sewed you up that whole time? Who mended, forged, drilled, made stitches, and once again sewed you up?

When I flicked the cigarette, which I had smoked down to the very tip of the filter, over the balcony, out of that darkness in which Janas had hidden, someone – who was it? – whispered into my ear with the passionate, sensuous voice of a lover: “Never smoke right down to the tip – you know it’s pure poison there …”

“But poison,” I wanted to whisper back to the dark in a trance, “begins somewhat earlier. You don’t even feel it. You live, and you don’t even suspect where the beginning of the poison is, or where it ends. Janas Cherlotte – who are you?”

I went back inside. The room looked as if it had exploded from the light. My husband, unable to find a place for himself, scurried from one corner to the other, from the kitchen to the hallway, and back again. He didn’t dare go out to the stairwell – good, honest, fair, measuring nine times and only cutting the tenth time, but, good God, why is he so … so …pathetic … I remembered how his mother once told me, an old woman already a bit adrift in the present, but still able to orient herself in the past, her hair tied up with shoelaces, and the tip of her nose powdered: when right after the war in the house that they built with much difficulty, still smelling of fresh wood, in a little corner near the ceiling, a cricket began to chirp at night, and Cherlotte Senior, my husband’s father, shoved the barrel of a shotgun in the corner, and shot, until he made a hole through which you could see outside. Horrendous clatter, a cloud of dust and smoke, screaming children, howling dogs, neighbours woken up, a damaged house, and the horrors of war returned. But “that fiddler”, the head of the house said proudly, standing opposite the stupefied members of his family in white boxers down to his knees, his smoking shotgun stuck in the ground, was “dead for ever”.

Janas, who had crept in quietly, stood in the corner of the room. A fiddler … and that smile, with a devious, almost treacherous smirk glued on in the place of the lips. That’s a fact … Of course, when such a – to tell the truth, you don’t even know what to call him – a bandit? A prodigal son? Just a stray of some sort? You feel like you want to, no, you have to take him by the collar, rattle him, and shake out all those sapphires and tourmalines, the “diamonds”, the “modified air guns”, the capers, the desire (criminal, of course) to get rich overnight – everything that, by the way, invigorates thrillers, banality, all sorts of devilish simulacra and, while all is not yet lost, try to sew him up again …

When I said that Janas could sleep on the sofa, he (instinctively, it seemed to me) shook with a look of fear: “Just not on that striped furniture, Auntie … I’d rather sleep on a rug in the kitchen. Anywhere.”

My husband threw a triumphant look at me: “And it’s still not clear to you who he is, this striped one of ours!”

We went to our respective rooms. Janas laid down on a rug in the kitchen, my husband in the bedroom, and I on the operating table. Maybe after sleeping we’d see the situation in a different light, and we … Neither the telephone nor the doorbell rang that night, though they should have. There was an axe leaning against the wall in the front room, there was a hammer under the bed, and this and that which was homey and naïve. Because anyway it wasn’t amateurs we were expecting – we were expecting high-class professionals from Antwerp (they are normally accompanied by tunnel diggers), or the Russian mafia – powerful men that look like closets with lead balls instead of heads, the kind they say who show no mercy, and then Claude Van Damme enters, shooting three guns at the same time, the fourth gun waiting in line stuck in his boot … However, it was only Janas’ shadow that went through the rooms. It was heavy – made of bones, muscle and blood. I couldn’t make out his face. I felt him stopping next to my bed, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, considering and undecided, and then slowly bending over me … At such a moment, you are ready for anything, and a vague idea deep down inside warns you that, regardless of what happens, you wouldn’t have the right to even the tiniest of claims. But he left the room, leaving us to ourselves, without getting his hands dirty, and went along the yard, between the acacias, the playground, the swings. I peeked out from the edge of the curtains – the loneliest shadow in the world, with white phosphorous-gleaming tennis shoes, I’ll be damned …

Now we were standing on the balcony, among boards, buckets, and a rusty parrot cage. Look at all the junk here, my husband said. With the dawn, there was a greyness that spread out to the very edges. The sun, all smoky, covered in soot, smelled of sulphur (was a storm approaching?). The wind in the distance, between the trees lining the street and gunpowder smoke, scattered black ash, which was blown over to us, then again turned into birds, and their beaks into iron swords, forged many centuries before. Rooks – the descendants of the Livonian Knights of the Sword …

Suddenly a grey-haired, half-naked man down below ran by under the balconies shouting: “Stop, for the love of God, stop! Where are they taking you?”

Behind him there was a dog with a hood, wearing the spotted uniform of a paratrooper. Everywhere – on the ground, in the air, in the sky – it was if a general mobilisation had been called, because a war had started in the early hours of the morning. But who was attacking whom?

My distracted husband looked around the house. Then he glanced at me. Then at himself with his inner eye, with that remote control-like vision, for which details mean absolutely nothing any more, perhaps some sort of general contours, but even then … without knowing it himself, he was already longing for a clean, pure space. Emptiness … Half-empty, partially there, somewhat still there, but back then, when we didn’t have anything, we were whole, weren’t we? When did that war really start? What did we win? What did we lose? And that kid Janas … Will he at least make it to the first corner without getting shot? Who’s responsible for all this? In these cases, no one is guilty, that is, in those moments that sum everything up, when you understand that even if you’ve now won something for a brief time, you essentially haven’t won anything – it doesn’t work that way, but you get annoyed by some worthless detail.

That furniture … Well, of course, why did we have to buy that exact kind? Why did we have to take the purchase of it upon our poor shoulders – and striped furniture at that! And by unleashing this association, like a bloodhound, you force Janas into prison (a narrative, just like a person, from the very start has hundreds of possibilities, twists, and happenchance occurrences). To dispatch a bullet from around the corner. To release it like a shadow. To put it down as a loss. But based on what? What do we, for God’s sake, know about one another? What do we know that’s real? So, who cares what is said, who cares if some small stone is cast because of some conspiracy, who cares if some nail is hammered? Or even if they totally nail you to it? To what? To the very same one. And the foundation holding it all there … Regardless of how outdated it appears these days, over the last thousand years, nothing better has appeared.

 

 

Translated by Jayde Will

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