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Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė was born  in 1976. Her first book of short stories was written while she was still at school. Černiauskaitė is the author of four novels, many novellas, some short stories collections, numerous plays and one collection of poetry. Her work has been translated into Slovenian, Bulgarian, Italian, English, Russian and other languages as well as included into various anthologies and collections. Her novel Kvėpavimas į marmurą (Breathing into Marble) was published recently in United Kingdom (Nottingham: Noir Press, 2017). She is the first Lithuanian to receive the European Union Prize for Literature.

Her prose is deeply psychological, and even Freudian. She portrays people in difficult and unusual emotional situations, and watches them disentangling themselves. She often analyses families, and relationships between men and women; more recently, children take a very prominent part in her cast of characters.

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Photo by Regimantas Tamošaitis

 

An excerpt by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė

 

 

The Well


For Regimantas
who has taken me to all the magical
places of his childhood


THE FIRST SECRET. THE WELL

1. LITTLE BROTHER

Everything will look different in the morning, my little lime blossom.

I can see you. I can see how that thin husk of childhood sleep peels away from you. You are a little girl. A child who recognises only daytime, and has now awoken at the wrong time.

You don't need to see this. This isn't what you think it is. But what do you think it is? What do you see?

I can see you. I can see you looking at that thing in Mama's hands. What's happening? Why is she playing with the water? And her face: why does the overhead light illuminate it from above? You instinctively dislike that light: it’s harsh and unforgiving, it reveals the worst in everything, and leaves not a single hopeful shadow. You always ask Mama to turn it off, and just turn on the small table lamp, which is like a dandelion.

But tonight you cannot ask her to turn it off. You cannot show that you are watching.

Mama's face looks dead (but that's nothing new!). You can feel her face. It's not dead; it's just very tired. It's been this way for a long time, with only the occasional thin spring of life breaking through the depths, quivering along the edges of her lips, her forehead, her nostrils.

What’s happened?

I can see you, my little lime blossom. What I want most is for you not to see, for you not to comprehend for just a little longer. For that thing in her hands to be shrouded in mist. Maybe that's why you're looking at it with sleepy eyes, not recognising it. No, that's not why. I'll tell you why. It's because it is unknowable. It has nothing in common with the little being who used to play quietly under the table, having shoved a three-kopek piece into his mouth. Remember how funny he looked, how the coin made his cheek stick out?

Now listen to me: he won't play any more. He won't follow you around whining. You won't have to see that he doesn't crawl into the dog kennel; you won't have to give him your mittens; you won't have to share the last lumps of sugar.

Is it strange to you that Mama is bathing him while everyone else sleeps? It isn't Sunday tomorrow; it's just a normal day, and her early morning chores await her. Why do her nostrils, so thin and transparent, keep fluttering like the wings of a moth?

It's because he's so disobedient, my little lime blossom. He's like a doll: you have to bend its arms and legs, pretend it's alive. Mama baths him as if he’s turned into something precious. That’s why you didn't recognise him straight away.

The water splashes gently, as though afraid of waking you. The steam from the bath hangs above the lamp-lit table. The table is large and round. You have almost outgrown smallness, the kind that allows a person to play comfortably under the table. He will never outgrow smallness now.

She washes him, and the water steams. It looks as though something terrible has stopped time, and Mama is frozen for ever, head bent over the bath, her red scarf pulled so tight against her skull that she almost looks bald. Her skull glows like a large electric bulb. Are you going to look at them like this for ever? Don't be afraid. Time will continue. You'll just close your eyes and push to one side in your mind the things you’re told, like when you jump in the river in the summer.

I can see you. I can smell your damp sweaty child's hair. And how I feel for you! I want to cast a spell over you, deceive you, and return you to your dreams. But I can’t. My little lime blossom, now Mama will spread a towel on the table, your favourite one, the one that soaked up all the summer's colours. You gave it to your brother when he appeared, and it was because of that towel that you hated him at first. Oh, how you regret your selfishness now. You'd give him a hundred towels, if everything could be like it was before. But Mama will soon lift little brother out of the metal tub, and the water will run off him, as if from a melon (she also washes melons in this tub). Mama lifts him out, and for a moment you can't see her face. Her body stiffens, and a shiver comes over you like the wind going through the trees. And you don't need to understand anything. You’re only a branch, shaking with the whole tree. It’s a special wind, and from this day on you’ll always recognise it: it blows when a loved one is taken from you, and a hole appears in their place, a terrible hole for terrible winds.

But close your eyes now, close your eyes ...

 

Playing is not allowed here. Can't you hear how quiet it is? Control yourself. Even though a mischievous blade of grass tickles in your tummy, just shshh. You can sense that Bambi, your secret friend, is here somewhere too, waiting for you to notice him. You can almost hear him blinking, hidden somewhere among all the people. You can almost hear his little stump of a tail wagging. There are so many people, their faces stricken and sombre, hands clasped together, standing silently.

They’re all looking at your brother who is on display. They have all gathered here for him.

But little brother doesn't open his eyes.

He's not even sleeping. But only Bambi knows that.

Little brother is lying in a small legless wooden bed up on a table piled with flowers. This is some kind of adult game they’re playing, and of course they haven't explained anything to you, they always push you aside as though you were too small to understand anything. You want to climb up to your little brother, examine his new jacket, and the black beads laced through his little hands. You want to stick your fingers up his nose. You know he wouldn't be able to resist: he'd move. But you can't reach so high. When will they lift him down? When will this boring, unfathomable game end? You want to ask Mama, but she's completely forgotten about you, and you haven't seen your Papa since yesterday morning. They say that his motorbike was spotted this morning outside the bar.

Everyone has forgotten about you. You stand in this room with your little coat unbuttoned and wait. What will be next? You really like your little coat. Little brother has one like it too. Mama made them for you both, remade from one of her old coats, chocolate brown with a touch of berry red. Brother's little coat has three black buttons, and yours has five silver ones. Five silver full moons shining in the winter twilight. It’s because of those buttons that you don't want to take off that little coat, not at home, not when you're out, and not even in summer when you decide to put it on. In each of your mittened fists you hold a chestnut. You found them before the snow fell. Those chestnuts are so Bambi-ish that you're overcome by the tickling in your tummy. Their magic is so strong, and they want so badly to dance about the room. They’re nearly pulling your mittens off.

Bambi! Bambi!

He stirs in the furthest corner of the room, behind a fence of black-trousered legs. You see his chestnut-coloured eyes first, blinking those long gentle eyelashes. Then you see his little snout, yellow and fluffy like a cake. Bambi blinks again, and smiles: Throw it!

You can't control yourself any longer. You pull off your mittens and release the chestnuts, one after another, like gigantic eyes. They clatter on the wooden floor and roll away into the corners. Bambi laughs and stamps his feet joyfully. The people come to life, startled, wake up, and look round as if this was just what they were waiting for. Mažintienė grabs you by the elbow and drags you outside. You're laughing so hard you're shrieking. Outside there is only snow. Men smoke on the porch, stinky smoke pouring from their mouths like snakes. You’re laughing so hard that even Bambi, who is following close behind, becomes serious. Enough, enough, he says.

Not enough, not enough.

‘Get that child out of here, this is no place for her.’

‘Who let her in?’

‘Didn't your mother tell you to stay in the house?’

But Mama didn't tell you anything. She didn't even look at you. This morning, you can do whatever you want, you can be wherever you want.

‘Go with Jadziūnė, to the shop. Jadz, give her something so she won't cry.’

That sweet’s so funny to you, a horribly sugary Kregždutė, with a swallow on the wrapping.

Bambi, Bambi, where are you?

I'm here. Don't cry.

It seems I'm no longer myself. I'm just a handful of crumbs.

Bambi, let's get out of here.

‘Men, they’re carrying him out, take a hold, whoever can. Mind the flowers!’

Bambi, are you with me?

He nods, raising his narrow snout, moves his ears, and smiles.

‘Child, where are you? You can't, hah, and that sweet. Oh Lord, you're covered in it. Come here, I'll clean you up.’

‘Jadziūnė, I'm just going to look out the window.’

‘And what are you going to look at?’

‘That's my little brother.’

‘Come, I'll undo your coat.’

Don't touch the buttons! Those are my five hearts, and all of them are breaking.

Is it true that they will bury him?

‘Auntie Jadziūne, tell them not to bury him, tell them not to bury him.’

‘Poor thing, what am I going to do with you?’

If they bury him, I'll dig him up.

I'll go to the garden and dig him up.

It's most important, Bambi, that the doll looks like a little boy. We need to cut her hair.

Then close her eyes, it's easy, you just tilt her, and she closes them herself. Wait, I like her eyes so much, they’re so blue, like a glass ball from a bottle of poison. So let's take a shoebox. That’ll suit the doll perfectly.

And where did we put that cheesecloth we found in the drawer? Let's wrap the doll. Look at her, the little rascal keeps opening her eyes. When we lie her down she won't be able to open them any more.

We'll wrap her, lie her down. We'll put the box on the windowsill in the kitchen. It looks like a table; and besides a candle will fit, and it will be touching, beautiful, when it shines in the window. Everyone will see that here lies a little boy with his eyes closed.

The hardest thing will be to find flowers and matches. (How good it is that we’re alone and can play whatever we want.)

The flower will be the aloe in that pot. It's not flowering, but the leaves are alive. Mama says she can't stand fake ones.

The matches are there, on the stove, above the flue. How are we going to reach them? Even when I climb up on a chair I can't reach. Never mind, bring the candle here. We'll just look at it and imagine it's burning.

Here, like this.

Let's hold hands and grieve.

Sing. Pray for the poor little boy.

I'll be the priest, and you, Bambi, you can be the altar boy. Just like that time, remember, at Granny Barbike's during Mass.

We're not allowed to cry, so we sprinkle some water and incense, and cross ourselves.

Don't stamp, you'll knock the candle over. You're so impatient. Alleluia! How sad. (Alleluias: they’re those white lilies they put next to children.)

We’ll console the mourners and eat the funeral biscuits in the sacristy.

No, not fancy biscuits, funeral biscuits. And how should I know the difference?

What do we do now?

I know, we'll bury the little boy.

But we won't bury him in horrible earth. No, we'll bury him in white show, with the box. Let's put a biscuit in his hand.

So in the spring, when the snow melts, he'll wake up among the hepatica, and he’ll wait for you and me with a biscuit in his little hand, and his eyes wide open. Alleluia!

It’ll soon be dark, but I can't hold you back. You're overcome by a fire that is stronger than you. It feeds you, my little lime flower. You’re so small and obedient, the snow melts under your boots. You carry the shoebox with the dead child inside. Five bloody moons shine on your little coat. You go deeper and deeper into the forest by the frozen River Akmena, following the summer path that’s hidden under the snow but which you know well. Here’s where it forks: to the right it takes us down to the river. Don't slip, my little lime blossom. I say this only because I’m very concerned, although I can see that your feet are barely touching the snow. The fire has lifted you up and nothing terrible can happen to you now.

You know where you’re going, you’re so brave.

I’d like to be so brave, so dedicated.

You left your mittens in the house. Your hands are like the claws of a titmouse gripping the box tightly, reddened by the fire.

Deeper and deeper into the forest, closer and closer to the River Akmena. But even here you can hear the drone of your father's motorbike in the village. It snorts and coughs and bangs around as if it's possessed (it brings me some comfort to feel your father's shadow over all this business you've thought up).

You know this part of the river bank from the summer. It's shallower, you can even bathe here, and watch the sharp little fish. In the autumn, you can watch the willow leaves float down the river and disappear round the bend. In this place, large, crooked, flat stones mark the banks. But the bank is barely recognisable, covered in thick snowdrifts.

Oh, how your hands burn as you dig; but only I can feel it, you don't feel anything any more. The child lies in that small box with his eyes open, and looks at the darkening skeletons of the trees, even though you really did press his eyes closed back at the house. You can't leave them like that, you have to close them, but your fingers are no longer listening to you.

You know what? Let's both lie down here under the snow. I'm not going to leave you like this.

It's the fire that helps you now as you dig a burrow in the snow. You lift the child from the box and tuck him into your little coat, making the two of you one. Oh Lord, how it burns. You're so tired, you just want to sleep, and the snow shines in the dusk like white snowdrifts. And your father's motorbike is right there, just like when you used to lie in bed listening for him to come home. He's coming back, my little lime blossom, he's coming back.

Bambi! Bambi!

Bambi always knows where to find you. He emerges from the gathering dusk. He's the only thing that touches you and does not burn. You make room for him next to you, and he lies in the snow and presses his warm nose against your cheek.

And now we'll fall asleep until the spring ...

‘Ena! Eeeh-na!’

Where’s father's voice coming from? And what’s that light licking your face with its painful yellow tongue?

‘Ena! Eeeh-na!’

Look, there's his motorbike, on the opposite bank of the River Akmena, on the road. Who told him you were here? Does he know that the snow is holding you so tightly in its grip that you can no longer move? The only part of you that's not frozen is inside your head; something moves there, shakes, and, woken by your father's voice, you try to call out a reply. But your voice is locked in snow, it can't break free, it can't break free ...

Little lime blossom, can it really not break free? Wasn't Bambi breathing into your nose the whole time? Try just one more time, try again ...

Papa!

Your father is a drunk, and his heart, like many drunks’ hearts, has extraordinary hearing. He hears. He feels. He strides, breaking the ice, stumbling over the stones. He is strong like a bear. He roars as he bends over you, and in one yank pulls you out of the snowy grave, and the little child with you, who holds on to your jumper with frozen fingers. He carries you both to the motorbike. Your face is wet from your father's tears, and the vodka fumes that pour out of your father's mouth. How good they are! They push their way through the ice in your head.

‘What were you thinking, you silly thing?’

‘Papa, don't cry … I'll be a little brother for you too, okay?’

You say it more inside your head than you do with your lips.

‘What are you saying?’

Your father puts his ear to your mouth, but you don't have the strength to repeat your words.

The house is dark. From a distance, it’s difficult to see where the farmhouse ends and where the darkness begins, only a sycamore skeleton branching off above. It’s so good to see it. Papa is so close that you see and understand everything, as though you see through him; nothing frightens you any more. It almost doesn't hurt.

Papa turns into the yard, the motorbike engine growls and shakes. You feel the doll blink under your little coat.

Then Mama is in the doorway. She turns on the outside light, and lights up half the yard.

 

Photo by Regimantas TamošaitisPhoto by Regimantas Tamošaitis

 

2. JUDITA

It feels like fire and snow gazing at one another, and not knowing which is which. The classroom is stuffy from the stove. It smells like first-grader sausages. It's making me sick. I open the window, and the stinging cold stabs my cheeks. You can even see it streaming into the classroom. I'm going to freeze to death here. I'm going to die. They buried their child, and now he hasn’t come to me for a very long time. He’ll stay with her. Because he feels guilty. But I can't think about this any more. I feel sorry for her, but I've forbidden myself to think about it.

I can hear several little voices chirping, shouting in the hallway. Oh, those little rascals, why are they not going home? I'll pretend I can't hear them. Let them stay for a little while in the warm school. What can I do? Everything escapes from my head, all these despicable little trifles, these grey, meaningless daily motions. What do I do now? What’s all this for? My body feels heavy and large. I can barely move. Especially my head. It feels as if someone is firing heavy artillery in it, and it just never stops. Does somebody hate me?

Just not one more dismal afternoon. I would know how to caress him. You don't need words for that. I know how it's done. I'd envelop him in my body, in my heart. I’d let down my hair and make a tent around him. I’d give myself to him entirely, overwhelm him, anaesthetise him. Does she know how to do that? But what do I know about what goes on when you bury a child. Maybe everything becomes clear and connects. Oh God. I can't do this any more. When I'm with the children, it's only just okay, but when I'm alone ... When I'm alone I'm right back there again, filled with him, filled with the memory of his body, his voice. Everything hurts. I don't dare look in the mirror! Even this dress reminds me of him. I knitted it the winter he returned. I feel like a carved statue in it, the cherry-red wool stretches so tightly across my thighs, it looks like I'm being squeezed between his hands, like when he used to come to me immediately after lessons were finished, on foot, his motorbike hidden in the woods, and hold me strongly around the waist. He liked me in this dress. I feel sorry for her. And for him. It’s difficult both with and without her. Otherwise, why would he drink so much? No, I can't go there. Oh God, have mercy! When was the last time? I can't think about this any more. I won't think about it. But then his face, his body appears inside me, it pushes its way in, and something inside me begins to scream as though it's being tortured, torn in half. What is it I'm actually missing? I have him in my memory, so clear and alive, as though he really is everywhere with me. I have him every minute of the day, even when I'm asleep. So maybe I'm not missing him, but missing myself? Maybe he took an important part of me, and that's why I feel like I'm not whole, as if I'm going out of my mind, as if I'm slowly dying.

‘Judita!’ It's the teacher Butvydas, still quite a young man, but with thinning hair.

How can I get myself back from him?

‘Okay, I’ll be with you soon … I'm airing the classroom.’

And you can't just say: give me back! I don't know how. I don't know how to say that. There are no words. But I really need to, otherwise I'll go out of my mind. Maybe I gave him that part of myself, unasked? But now I have no life. I just get up and move. Have mercy on me … Kill me please. It would be easier for everyone.

‘Judita!’ It’s Butvydas again, from the doorway. ‘It's time now, don't you think? Raselė is tired.’ He speaks so gently, shyly, like a woman. How can you not push around such a delicate man?

Oh Raselė, our Raselė. Good God, sometimes it's hard to look at her. She's like a berry immersed in milk, and her dark eyes, always so full of tears that look ready to pour out. What is this child to me? Where am I in her? What? I'm still a child myself. I don't have the strength. I'm afraid of everything. I walk around not knowing if they know, if they can see.

‘How was my little girl today? Did you listen to your Auntie Valė?’

‘She played nicely, quietly, and only a few times asked for a pee,’ Butvydas answered for her. ‘Now go to your Mama. It's time we left. Valė wants to clean.’
My tiny little Raselė, just three years old, but bright. She started talking early. When she walks, she takes such small steps that even the hair on her forehead quivers. It always hurts me, as though she's trodden on an open wound.

‘Thank you, Vytas, for your help.’

He's still standing there, waiting patiently, reserved but resolute, clearly expecting to accompany us home. Oh God. Maybe it's okay. We'll go out together, walk through the forest to the bus stop. It’s snowed quite a lot since the morning, it snowed heavily during all my lessons. Now we'll have to walk round, through his homestead. And, so what? What difference does it make? We'll just walk past. If anything, I'll be able to explain to him that it wasn't on purpose, that there was no other way. What am I saying? He's in town, working. And what about her? She watches out of the window, she sees who’s walking on the road. Next year, her daughter will be at school. That's something to look forward to. But maybe you don't look out of the windows when you bury a child. Maybe I should go round and visit her, with Raselė. It's easier with a child. Maybe she won't chase me away. But why should I poke myself into her life? What would I say to her? I'd be sympathetic, and hug her. Sometimes I want so much to embrace her and tell her everything. But she wouldn't understand. Never mind. If she looks out of the window, I'll just wave, nod my head, and that's it. When I heard about her youngest, I held her in an embrace in my mind all through the night. I cried with her. But she doesn't know that. And anyway, what difference would it make if she did?

‘Where's our sledge, Raselė?’

‘In the woodshed.’

Butvydas is already carrying the red sledge across the yard, with the fresh snow squeaking underfoot like dry powder. The sound makes me feel sad and good; it reminds me of something long forgotten. It starts to snow again as we walk through the forest, in large feathery flakes. Butvydas wades ahead of us, pulling the sledge. Raselė squats on it like a little bear, wrapped up in fur. I follow them, following my daughter's little red hat through the snow. I feel sorry for her, sorry for us. I just want to crawl under a blanket and close my eyes and sleep for ever. Petrelis Mažintas sent the collective farm tractor to clear the road after classes. His twins are in the third grade. They’re calm boys now, but they used to be so noisy. Now we walk through the forest like people, the sledge doesn't get stuck in the pine trees. He flirted with me when his twins were very small. His wife Mažintienė was going out of her mind with the two of them, and then she gave birth to Kastukas, and after that she wouldn't let him near her, you see, so he was hungry and made a nuisance of himself with others. But I avoided him. I don't have anything to feel guilty about. Maybe just the fact that I've only given birth to one child, not three. That my body suffered less. That it's remained attractive to men. Or maybe I should feel guilty that I’m still alone, like a little partially eaten delicacy, making all the men's mouths water. But am I really to blame for that? Sometimes I think, yes, I am to blame for that.

‘Thank you, Vytas, we can get home from here.’ Vytas rented a room in town. ‘I think you'll even make it to your bus.’

‘Oh, don’t worry, I'll walk home. It’ll give me some exercise. I don't have anything to put my energy into.’ And he looks at me unblinking, his eyes magnified by his glasses, as though trying to put words into my head.

‘Maybe I'll meet a bear,’ he says, bending over to speak to Raselė.

‘Come and visit us. I'll give you a bear.’ Raselė has a toy bear, without which she can’t fall asleep.

‘It's just that I have a lot of homework to mark. A whole pile of it, you see? And the bear will ask to play with her.’

‘You don't need to mark those …’

‘The headmaster will tell me off. She won't let me teach any more. And then we'll never meet,’ I say. ‘See you later, Vytas. There's your bus.’

‘Goodbye, Judita, I could walk you home …’

But the sledge rope is in my hand, and I wave and turn around, and don't look back as we walk away. I hear the rumble of the bus. He'll make it, he won't meet a bear. Round the bend we’ll go down into the valley where the smoke is rising from the chimneys of Tolimai, set back among the snowy Pyplis Hill, with the Riaubas' homestead protruding at the foot like a rotten tooth. The sledge slides down quickly, and Raselė cowers. She’s a fearful child. I hope we don't meet a lorry at the foot of the hill … But Tolimėliai is quiet and calm, like a town of dead people. The only noise is the rhythmic sound of firewood being chopped somewhere.

It's feels as if someone has stabbed me with a hot stick below the heart.

I'd know that hay-coloured quilted jacket anywhere, but he only wears it at home. Unbuttoned. No hat. The nape of his neck is red. What a man. Even at school he attracted me, swooning. I would stare and stare at him when he had his back turned at the blackboard, scrawling out his physics formulas full of mistakes. In the middle of the day, he’s in his yard chopping wood, orange wood chips lie scattered in the white snow around the chopping block, and he’s at the very centre, so big, so manly, elegantly grown-up. I used to ask him to lie with his whole weight on me, and told him not to worry. It would drive me out of my mind, his weight. Why wasn't he in the police? My legs won't hold me any more. I don't look at him, but I can feel every single one of his movements. The sledge catches on a pile of snow. I'm going to faint. Hold on, I say to Raselė, and unconsciously I glance at their yard. She’s standing at the kitchen window. He sees her looking at something, and then turns to look at me, to see what she’s looking at. Ilze isn't one of us. He fished her out of Šilale, or maybe it was Ilze who caught him. She's so serious, heavy boned, with a small bear’s eyes, not a woman but a pillar. I don't want to, but I unconsciously look at him, to see if he can see me. Oh God, he can see me. He sees me as if nothing has changed, and still it's so good that it snowed, right? Now we’ll have this.

I hear their door slam, as if wanting to slam against me. Ilze leaps out, and I see her fury. He has yet to catch on, slow and pensive as he is, and the wronged woman is three times as deft as he is. Running towards me, she grabs the axe from his hands, and I know what’s coming next.

‘Get away from my house, you wh-o-r-e!!!!’

The axe flies towards me like a brown rat hurled into the air. I hear Raselė yelp, and I jump back as it lands in the snow right in front of me, and disappears, handle and all. She wouldn't have been able to aim properly: too much anger, too much fear. She just needed to show him that she knows everything.

‘Let's go Mama, let's go!’

I look at Raselė, but I see him instead, embracing Ilze, and leading her into the house, not even looking at us, their daughter, startled, gleaming in the doorway in a long nightgown and an oversize jumper belonging to her father, looking as if she's ill.

‘Were you scared?’ I ask, as I kneel down next to Raselė. ‘Don't be afraid, it's over now.’

I pull the sledge, and it catches. Terrible drums hammer in my throat, quicker, out of here. Oh God, did anyone see? Did anyone hear? The axe is nowhere to be seen, only a hole in the snow. It will be snowed over, and they'll only find it in the spring when the snow melts. That's what she needed. What does she know? She knows nothing, not unless he told her. And it's not like him. I don't believe it. More likely, she's suspicious, interrogates him, and he’s silent, like he would be silent with me, driving me out of my mind with that silence. That's what came over her, too. Ah, there's Mikasė's house … faster, let's go inside, faster.

‘Why did she do that?’ Raselė asks when I lift her out of the sledge. Now she’ll think about this for a very long time, and think and think. What a stupid cow, to do that in front of a child. You really have to try to be that stupid.

‘She's mixed up in the head, Raselė.’

‘Is it because she buried her baby?’

What’s she saying? What exactly was I protecting her from?

‘Maybe, who knows …’

I lift her off the sledge and shake off the snow. I lead her across the yard. She walks so slowly, there is no way you can rush her, you need so much patience. The empty sledge behind my back is like a sort of skeleton. When we enter, Mikasė is lying on her side: her joints must be hurting again. At night she prays, her whispering fills the house. In the daytime she snoozes. Finally, thank God.

Now he’ll have to come. Now he must.

 

Photo by Regimantas TamošaitisPhoto by Regimantas Tamošaitis

 

3. YOLK

That winter, my little lime blossom, you grew sicker and sicker. Even Bambi stopped coming. You gradually forgot about him, and stopped waiting for him; the stall doors of your imagination closed and disappeared, leaving Bambi in the dark world beyond. But Mama was beside you almost all the time. It was only early in the morning, while you slept, that she rushed off to the collective farm to feed the pigs, and then a second time after dinner, when she'd rush off again as it was getting dark, when your house would become secretive and a little terrifying. She'd give you some warm milk with a bit of honey, and would tell you to drink it slowly, to take the smallest of sips, so that the honey would kill off and heal the sickness that had settled in you. As she was leaving, she would say: Here, drink, I’ll be back before you're finished. But it never happened that way. The milk was always finished faster than Mama managed to slog her way back from the farm, which you couldn't see from the kitchen window. The farm was in the ravine beyond Marginė Hill. Half-dreaming, half-delirious, you'd sit on your bed, leaning against the wall, from which a pleasant coolness soaked into your body. Your bed was in the kitchen, by the stove. Your parents slept in their own room. When you were small, you used to ask to sleep with them, but now you no longer asked. The kitchen window revealed a more interesting picture: the trampled snow in the yard, the small gate through which your mother left and returned (Papa would drive in through the side gate), the village road, where on rare occasions someone would walk by, or even drive by on rarer occasions. And Semelionis' house on the other side of the road. His roof reminded you of two gigantic hands held together in prayer. Noisy crows argued on his bare lime tree, then, having got their squabbling out of the way, they would suddenly calm down and grip the branches, sitting like black nits for hours, looking in the same direction as if waiting for important news.

When it got dark, the house would come alive with unusual sounds, sounds you didn't normally hear. Someone rustling in the kitchen, a squeaking sound upstairs. It was terrifying, but also pleasant in a way: you weren't alone. And the objects you observed from your little bed would also come to life. Ever since you were very small, you knew that objects were alive, that they only pretended to be dead in front of people. There was nothing around you that was not alive. Even the yellow cupboard with the round metal handle, the one that would keep coming off and roll under the cupboard, into which fitted the scant entirety of a child's life: the little clothes, a few toys, a cardboard box containing drawings. This cupboard was the most alive of all. The longer you kept gazing at its surface, carved with fine veins and oval mouths, the signs of cut branches, the more it would begin to quiver and rage, like the living lines of a musical staff. The cupboard would speak to you, not in human language, but in its own language, one you felt without needing words. And what it said to you was very secret, only for chosen people, but to translate into human language was very simple: Hello, it's me, just so you know, Ena, how interesting and secret my life is. Its knowledge worried you to the bone. What important things would it have to say about you? And about the unseen life around you? You felt that, in reality, the cupboard was far more than what met the eye; that all objects and people only finished in their bodies, that they began there, where everything was created. That unseeable place that whispered the secret into the world. Hidden there were all the reasons, all the answers, it held everything that was, including you, your house, Papa, Mama. That secret sent you a brother, and then later had second thoughts and took him back. It herded the squirrels in your rowan tree, the crows, the mice under the floor, everything. And you also felt that it was friendly, it could hardly feel its participation in your life, day and night, watching over you lovingly, but also relentlessly wrathful. It was the thing that pulled up the sharp stone from the bottom of the River Akmena that you nearly hit your head on. It helped push away the heat of the fever, when Mama's tea and damp cloths no longer helped.

When night fell, you would begin to tremble, as if you were riding a bicycle over cobblestones. It wasn't out of fear of being at home alone, but because the fever would suddenly rise up. You'd lie in bed, trying to tremble as little as possible, and trying to guess who would come home first, Mama or Papa. It would be Papa if he turned towards home immediately after work. Then you'd hear the snort and splutter of his motorbike filling the winter twilight with idle laughter, and it would be as if a hand came and lifted your nightmares off you and took them away. But this rarely happened. Usually he'd go to town to have a good time with other men. He liked that better than turning on the lamp in the kitchen and staring at the newspaper, it seemed. That winter, Papa and Mama barely said a word to each other.

And for this reason, you could watch your mother all day long, she was so interesting. Everything she did seemed significant, full of meaning that a child could not understand. Everything she touched would come to life. Your bed stood in the kitchen, and you could follow Mama hour after hour, because she would even bring out the work she usually did in her room and finish it next to you. She knitted, sewed, mended (to you it looked as if she knew how to do everything in the world), and even peeled potatoes sitting next to you. You watched her all winter, and never once got bored; but the whole winter you longed for Papa.

The look on Mama's face was usually distant and worried. She rarely even glanced in your direction. For that to happen, you needed to say something unusual to her, to pull her out of her thoughts, even just a bit. And you always thought of something, and she'd look at you, and her gaze would become clear. Mama would smile with her eyes, and for a few moments her eternal worrying would fall away, worry unrelated to the multitude of work filling her hands, coming instead from a dark cloud that you didn't understand. She went about her life enveloped in that cloud, and even though she hardly paid attention to you, you also felt very close to her, as though you both shared the same fate. You carried this closeness inside you in secret: Mama wouldn't understand. To you, it seemed that you were only sick so that she would become attached to you, so that Mama would have the chance to emerge from her oppressive cloud, even if only for brief moments.

Every morning, two squirrels would come into your yard for breakfast. You'd see them on the rowan tree. One was lean, small as a mouse, with a soft tail that looked as if it was sewn onto its bottom. The other was chubby and bulbous, like a jug. They would gnaw on the frozen rowanberries, spreading fine bits of berry skin on the snow, stock-still and silent, completely occupied, pricking up their little paintbrush-like ears, their reddish coats transforming into flames in some places. Oh, how you waited for them! You had never encountered a more beautiful or mysterious animal than a squirrel. You dreamed of squirrels. You dreamed that you lived with them, you imagined the insides of their nests, carpeted in green moss, small beds spread with dried oak leaves, a refined loom and three chairs (one for you) adorned with hearts, and a chest decorated with birds chock-full of nuts, acorns and dried boletus mushrooms, a wardrobe for fur coats, with a small mirror in which the squirrels would look at themselves, wagging their splendid tails. You felt that, deep down inside you, there was something squirrel-like, something hidden, light and quick, wild and beautiful; you felt that you were connected with them somehow, similar to how you felt you were connected with Mama.

The squirrels reigned supreme all winter in your childhood imagination. But one Saturday, as spring was approaching, Papa brought home three friends from the police and poured some beer into a glass for each of them. You'd seen beer in a glass, yellow like clear amber, more than once, and it bewitched you. Beer breathed, it moved. The small bubbles stuck to the glass like tadpoles, collected nicely, pushing and bursting. They also collected on the surface, and massed in drifts like the white foaming waves in the story about Jūratė and Kastytis. But this time, Papa did something he'd never done before: he slipped an egg yolk into his glass of beer.

That yolk, my little lime blossom, sent a shock through you. You were so small that the top of your head barely reached the table. Delicate for your age, you stood with your chin up to see better. The yolk twisted slowly in the beer, its thick membrane quivering. A small closed-eye sun. You felt that the secret world you so often felt around you was giving you a sign: it pulsed in front of your eyes, such ordinary but perfect beauty. It troubled you because it was so small, so tangible, you could easily fit it into the palm of your hand. You wanted to put it inside you, to connect with it, and it was so close to you that it seemed as if everything was possible. You could hardly bear the idea that this newly beheld beautiful creature existed separately from you. Its existence tormented you. You began to stamp your feet and whine. You needed to secrete that yolk inside yourself immediately, so that it would stop tormenting you. On tiptoe, you tried to touch it, but got a rap on your knuckles. You became hysterical.

The glass containing the egg yolk was taken away from you and you didn't see it again. This was your first experience of desire on a tragic scale (and I say this without twisting my face into that indulgent smile that adult faces make when they talk about children). You would dream about that yolk as though it was a real creature that belonged to you, from whom you were separated by the unfathomable whim of an adult. You longed for it. When you closed your eyes, you could picture it so clearly that for a short while you believed it would still be there when you opened your eyes again, that you could conjure it up from the strength of your desire. And that's how it was. You imagined the yolk was always tucked away in your pocket, that it slept with you, that it went everywhere with you. It was real to you, the most real and closest thing you knew, a secret part of you.

Of course, Mama still cooked scrambled eggs, she still broke eggs into the cake mix. But this was something else entirely. Floating in the beer, the yolk appeared as it really was. A person also needs a suitable environment to reveal themselves, but that was something you'd only understand quite a while later in life.

And if you remember clearly (and I'm almost certain you do), the night of the yolk was also the night of another very important event. When the men left, Mama and Papa had a very big fight. They pushed you away into their room as they fought in the kitchen. A terrible din arose, and you just wanted to die. Then suddenly the noise died down, everything calmed down, and you heard your Mama's cold voice:

‘You know, maybe you should go. We'll manage fine without you.’

‘I'm not going anywhere,’ Papa answered, his voice sounding as if it was coming up from underground. ‘I don't have anywhere to go.’

‘Don't tell stories,’ Mama countered. ‘You have plenty of places.’

Silence.

‘I'll give you another child!’ blared Papa.

‘So, go on. Who knows where the first one came from!?’

‘Shut up, Ilze! For God’s sake, shut up!’

Then they started fighting again, moving around the kitchen as though dancing a dance of hatred, scraping chairs, rattling buckets, banging the windows.

‘Hit me! Go on, hit me!’ snarled Papa.

‘I'll hit you! I'll hit you!’

Then it was calm again. After a moment, you heard Papa's tired voice:

‘What are you smirking about? Enough already. I too buried a child. We have to go on living …’

‘I don't love you, you piece of trash! I haven't loved you for a long time.’

‘So, I will love you, and will love you. Do what you want,’ Papa answered firmly and calmly. You heard every single one of his words, and believed them with all your heart. You supported him. Soon you heard him go out, away from her, and then outside. Mama shouted after him:

‘If you love me, then stop drinking. Stay at home with me, with the child! What good are your words to me!’

‘How can I stay with you when you're so cold?’ Papa flared up again from the doorway. ‘Not a single word, not a single glance. You don't even sleep in our bed! I can't stand it!’

‘Then go, like I said. Get out. I don't need you.’

Papa didn't answer. You hopped up on to your parents' bed, and pressed yourself against the window, to see him. You're afraid he will disappear into the dark, into town again, and then you won't be able to sleep, and Mama won't either. But he stands in the yard on the lamp-lit snow and smokes a cigarette. You see his back, and the back of his head. He's not wearing a winter hat. If he was going to disappear he'd be wearing a hat. You hit the window with your fists so that Papa will hear. You know that Mama needs him, she’s only saying these things out of anger. He turns to you, and lifts his chin in a friendly way, and then wants to turn away, but you bang and bang. So, he'll come. You can feel that Mama is listening in the kitchen. She understands what is happening, but doesn't interfere. Papa comes to the window and presses his face to the glass. The two of you look at each other for some time. You can see tears clearly in his eyes.

‘Papa, let's go and live in the forest,’ you say quietly, only to him.

‘What?’ he gapes from the other side of the glass.

‘We'll build a snow house by the River Akmena, and we'll live there. I'll be your wife.’

Papa shakes his head, to show that he doesn't understand what you're saying. And it's a good thing that he doesn't understand, because you only want to comfort him. You'd never leave Mama, no matter how angry she is with Papa. You look at each other like accomplices, then you suddenly break into a grin and laugh. Papa has pressed his nose up against the glass and heaved a big sigh, the bulge of his nose opening up into two black holes. It looks exactly like a pig's snout.

You die laughing!

 

Photo by Regimantas TamošaitisPhoto by Regimantas Tamošaitis

 

4. LOVE

Help! Help!

I'm drowning!

That's Raselė's doll, disobedient, plunging into the orange basin by the well. She needs a good telling-off:

‘And what are you doing, you little rascal? Who gave you permission? Did you ask Mama?’

Help! Help!

Save me!

‘I'll pull you out right now and give you a good hiding! You naughty doll! Hey! She's splashing me! Mama, look, she got her hair wet … Can I wash it with soap, it's wet anyway? Mama? Mama, please?’

Oh God, my hands must have been stinging for a while, but I've only just noticed … As red as boiled lobsters. Oh, well. But I'm not sorry. Maybe it's good that they sting. I need it. There are still two shirts of Raselė's, and my cherry red dress. How will I manage to wring them out when I don't have the strength … It's good that the weather is like this today, sunny at last, and no wind. Quickly now, before the sun rises too high, before it gets hot. I'll finish the washing, hang it out, and it’ll be dry by the evening. I haven't heard the motorbike yet. Oh God, where’s that smell coming from?

‘What do you want, my daughter?’

‘Mama, can I soap up Lily's hair?’

‘Who's Lily?’

‘Dolly Lily, Mama.’

Where’s that smell coming from? We don't have jasmine here. It's stabbing me right in the heart, as though someone’s wafting it over on purpose to torment me. Ah, it must be from Mažintienė’s yard, by her thrashing shed. I’ll do the washing, hang it out to dry, and then go back quickly into the house before anyone decides to go out for a walk. It's Sunday after all, and such fine weather. Oh God, what a relief that lessons are finished, and I don't have to go there any more. I'll just do the washing and have a sleep … wash and sleep … Until something happens. Oh God, how I want all this to be over, and to crawl into a burrow somewhere like a weasel. Oh God, my hands are really stinging. The sun hasn't warmed them up at all, but why would it?

‘Mama! Mama! The soap’s jumping out of my hands!’

Or maybe, rather, I should leave here quietly and tell no one … The further away the better, and that will be it, that will be my burrow, life among strangers, maybe even in Tauragė. I hear they’re building some blocks of flats there. Hide away with the child, and come and go as you please, not even greeting your neighbours. They say people don't greet each other there, and there are at least three schools …

‘Mama, look, Lily's hair is matted like fur!’

Who could I give her to? Maybe Auntie Mikasė? But she's so old, she's starting to get the shakes … Could I give her to anyone, oh God, and maybe right back to him? Leave her in the yard, and that's that … With a note … And run away, oh God. Where would the two of us disappear to? How can I put up with this? I can't, I can't any more.

‘Mama, what's going to happen now?’

No, I don't have the strength for it. I'm talking nonsense, I can't leave. I'd go mad there, jump out of the window … At least there’s some hope here. Oh God, my arms are stinging right up to my elbows. The back of my head is throbbing so hard I can feel it in my stomach, and what if he got it into his head to come now? I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to do the washing, hang it up, and then go inside. I'll open the window wide, so that the sun and the jasmine can kill me. Then I’ll crawl deep into bed and spend the whole day there. I haven't heard the motorbike today. I'll just heat some milk for Raselė. There’s some cake. Oh God, it's so hard to move. My body feels like a thousand-year-old mummy. How could he want me like this, when I feel so horrible to myself, when I move as if I'm turning in my own coffin?

‘Mama! Lily's run out of water, she wants more!’

The sun, the sun caresses me. But I don't need its caresses, just give me shadows; that's the place for me, under a rock. Oh God, why is that child always chirping. I just can't do this any more. She just wants and wants and wants from me, little by little, the whole day long, from morning to night, and all night, while sleeping, she always wants something from me. I just can't any more. Oh, how it stings.

‘The water’s cold, my daughter. Here, let me pour you a little. It’ll warm up in the sun, but you and Lily will have to wait.

‘No, not just a bit. More! It's only up to her knees, Mama! It needs to be up to her neck. Lily’s learning to swim!’

‘Put your hands in, can you feel how icy cold it is?’

‘Ow! Ow!’

‘Now, dry Lily and go to the strawberry patch, and look and see if there are any ripe strawberries.’

‘I don't want to go to the strawberry patch. Lily wants to swim.’

‘The water’s too cold. Go and pick some strawberries. It’ll warm up.’

‘It's not too cold! Ow! So what!’

‘Don't stick your hands in, Raselė.’

‘I'll stick them in if I want to! Lily can't wait! Her legs are shaking!’

‘Go to the strawberry patch, Raselė, pick some strawberries, and they'll stop shaking.’

‘No, they won't! She wants to swim. That's why they're shaking!’

‘Raselė, listen to Mama.’

‘You're bad. You don't let me do anything. And now I'm very angry!’

I can't do this any more, I just can't. Peace and shadows, a blanket on my face, that's what I want, so that everyone forgets about me, and no one wants anything from me. I'll pour her some of that icy water. I just can't take this any more. I need her to be quiet.

‘Hi, Raselė!’

Oh God, who's that?

‘Ena!’

The child is running towards the fence, of course. Those two feel drawn to each other, even though one is older. Next year she'll go to school, but she's so tiny, so thin, you wouldn't guess she's six years old. I heard she was sick for a whole year after the funeral. They say he found her in the snow, hugging her doll. Any longer, and she would have frozen to death. It was a miracle he found her. Oh God, Ilze is there too. And still, she's there. She has him, she has him tied to her somehow. But when you think about it, it's not for her looks, and not out of interest. What is there to talk about with her? Maybe she's very good in bed. Maybe ordinary-looking women are more fun in bed. Look, they've put their heads together through the fence. Mine’s dark and dishevelled. She's climbed on to a bucket so that she can reach. The other’s ghostly, with hair like smoke. They’re talking, smiling, happy that they've met.

‘Hello Ena, have you come to see us?’

Why should I interrupt? Clearly, they haven’t. Why on earth would they come to see us? Behind the child, I can see Ilze coming up the road chasing her, her cocoa-brown raincoat fastened at the waist like an hourglass. No, it doesn't suit her. That colour doesn't suit her. She has no taste, she doesn't understand. She grabs her daughter at the fence and pulls her away. They must be heading for the town. It's Saturday after all. But why that raincoat in June? It's so hot. It must be to show off in front of everyone.

‘Mama, where did they go?’

‘To town, maybe.’

‘I also want to go to town!’

‘We'll go, we'll go.’

‘When? I want to go now! With them!’

‘We won't catch up with them. And look at Lily's soapy hair …’

‘Why don't we go anywhere, Mama? I want to go!’

‘Look, I poured you some water. Wash Lily.’

That icy water, it chilled me right to the womb, so that it no longer feels desire, and no longer bears fruit. I'm like a frozen cod. Touch it, my daughter, and maybe you'll understand that this kind of water is our ruin. Our desires destroy us.

‘Ow, the water’s so cold. I can't!’

Some desires help you live, others kill you, and now it's time to hang out the washing. I'll just hang it out, and then into the shadows.

‘My daughter, push that bucket of washing closer to me …’

‘This one?’

‘Yes, that one, that one, with your clothes …’

Such small clothes, light, and quick to spread out for the sun, quick drying: a small girl's dress with penguins, a little skirt with a cherry, underpants, the triangle fitting in the palm of your hand … This girl doesn't know anything yet, she can't understand what terrible things await her, how hard it will be to live, no matter what she chooses, what hungry wolves will circle around her heart. Oh God, they will circle and hang about, waiting to tear it out and shred it in public. People are wolves and jackals, griffons, and when you meet a good one you can't really be sure they don't have a snake concealed in their chest. You'll crawl after that one, my daughter, follow him to the end of the world.
‘Mama, Lily says she doesn't want to swim any more.’

Oh, how heavy my dress is. I can't get my hands around it, I won't be able to wring it out. But no matter, I'll just hang it up and it can drip, far away from the little girl's light-coloured shirts. Last time it dyed it red. What’s that droning in the distance. Is it a motorbike? Ah, no, it's the bus. It must be ten o'clock already. Oh God, I can barely lift it, it weighs as much as an infant, that wet dress.

Snap!

And everything is on the ground.

Oh, poor me.

The washing line! It broke!

It broke! It broke!

Just what I needed.

If I fall down like a rock, maybe someone will come and pick me up.

‘Mama! Mama! Why are you crying?’

I've scared the child. She runs up to me and presses her face against my mouth, kissing me.

‘Mama! Don't cry, don't cry!’

I'm not crying. I don't want to cry. I won't cry.

But it’s so good to cry. The feeling of everything tumbles out, tearing open at the seams, opening up into the bottom of the bottom.

The child is climbing on my knees, as though she wants to close all the crying holes. There are so many in me, it seems that even the fingertips can cry.

‘It's over, it's over. I'm not crying any more.’

I scared her, and now she's caught it. Her lip’s trembling. I have to stop, I always have to stop. I can't let myself go. I can't forget.

‘You know what, Raselė? You stay here with Lily, by the strawberries, and I'll be right back, okay?’

‘Where are you going?’

‘I'll be right back. I'm just going to the neighbour. And then, if you want, we can go to town, okay?’

‘By bicycle or on the bus?’

‘How would you like?’

‘By bicycle. The bus is hot and smelly.’

‘By bicycle then, okay?’

‘Remember when I was sick in the bus, Mama?’

‘I remember, I remember. So, you'll stay right here?’

‘Will you be back soon?’

‘Very soon. Just go and look for some strawberries. Here, put some in this cup, and I'll be back.’

‘And then we'll go, Mama?’

‘Then we'll go, we'll go. Only don't go out of the yard, do you understand?’

‘And you're going to visit Mažintienė?’

‘Yes.’

‘But she's not at home.

‘So, I'll go and see. I’ll check and see if she's really not there, and then come back.’

‘She really isn't there, Mama.’

‘So, I'll just go and check, and come right back.’

Faster now, before the child realises, skirting along the edges of the yards, hopping down on to the bank of the River Pyplis, like a bitch that’s broken away from her chain, not looking around to see if anyone can see. When you run with downcast eyes, you become invisible, wearing that same green housedress that he's torn off me so many times. Oh God, will I find him there? Will he really be alone? Did they really leave? And what if they come back, if they’ve forgotten something? What will I say to him? What can I say? Oh God, I don't have anything to say. I just need to see him, to touch him, to make him look at me. How many months has it been since winter? It's like we don't live just a few households away. Only the drone of the motorbike makes my heart quiver, the way it splutters and bangs so furiously, as though speaking to me, reproaching me, pushing me away.

Here, the inside of their yard. The back of the barn leaning up against the hill. Oh God, what if someone sees me? But who will see me? It's Sunday. It's hot. The dogs are snoozing in the shadows, and if he's gone out I didn't hear his motorbike.

A narrow path overgrown with fruit-trees and currant bushes, snaking between the barn and the greenhouse. The yard is shaded in green, a canopy of trees overhead. I jump like a weasel from shadow to shadow, to keep invisible. You never know, it can look as if there's not a living soul around, and someone's eyes are watching you through the smallest of holes. There's sand by the side of the house, scattered toys, the washing line with the morning's laundry. Did they roll around on them, moaning, basking in the juices of love? Oh God, I can't, those white sheets will hide me from the road. But no, I'll try the other door, the one opening into the inner yard. It's rarely locked, and it's shady there. All the sun is dammed up and spilling out on to the other side of the house, where a brick path goes through the grass right up to the gate, and the peonies are already in full bloom, firm and hard flowers, round like planets. No, I won't go in there, someone will surely see me; better by the back door, here at the end of the house.

It's unlocked. Oh God, how quiet and dark, and I'm so noisy, even though I'm trying hard not to crash around. In the entranceway there are buckets, baskets, a child's bicycle. On the right-hand side, a door opens into a sunlit room with a sofa and a table. The rooms are built around the central stove, like in all houses, a blossom of rooms. All the doors open, just go, walk round in a circle, until you find him.

He's standing in another room.

Looking out of the window, with his back to me.

His broad shoulders are covered by a white sleeveless shirt.

Why is he so still, so lost in thought? He's smoking, looking out of the window. Strewn on the bed is a blue shirt with white dots. On the table is a hot iron. He has a wife, but he irons his own shirts. If he was mine, I'd iron everything. I'd dress him myself. I wouldn't let him lift a finger. I'd wake up at night to iron, to be ready to see him off to work.
In one quick and accurate movement, I entwine my body around him, I stick on to his back like a leech to a rock. Our bodies fit perfectly together: where mine has a hollow, his has a hill. There isn't even the smallest gap between us. My body has only just touched his, and already I feel it becoming itself again. Everything I remember, he is my breath, my air, my everything. Without him, I have nothing, nothing.

‘Ilze?’

Why does he sound like that? But it's me, it's me! Why Ilze? Why does he say that name? Why is it on your lips?

‘You?’ He's dumbfounded, and steps back. I can see he’s startled.

But that face, the one I have longed for so much, which all this time has taken me over, driving me out of my mind. It's so close that I can't not kiss it.

‘Judita, what are you doing here? Get out, get out of here right now …’

He shakes his head and wriggles away, frees himself from my grasp. But I can feel that he wants me, he's running away, but he wants me.

‘Arnas, listen … Listen to me for a minute.’

‘Judita, my daughter will be home soon. She only accompanied her mother to the bus, and will be back soon. Get out, do you hear?’

He is agitated but gentle. His lips are close to my lips, I can smell his breath.

‘Your child? Your child is in my yard now. Your child doesn't understand yet what has happened to her …’

These are cruel words, and they pour out of my mouth of their own accord, but I caress him with them. I caress and pet.

‘Judita, I'll give you money. How much do you need?’

‘I don't need your money, Arnas. I need you! I'm dying, do you hear me? I'm simply dying. Why don't you come to me any more?’

‘Listen to me. What if you and Raselė go somewhere else? I talked to someone, we could find a flat in Tauragė. They’re building blocks of flats there now. What do you think?’

He whispers to me, the same way he would say he loves me; but the words are different, the words are horrible. Oh God, how can he say this? After everything I've been through this winter. After everything he's been through.

‘Arnas, do you love me?’

His face drops, and he turns away for a moment. He's beautiful when he's upset. He looks like a bronze statue.

‘Go, Judita. I’ll come to you. We'll talk.’

‘Do you love me, Arnas? Answer me! Now!’

He pushes me back towards the door I came through, into the shadows. On the threshold he bends downs and whispers in my ear

‘I’ll come, okay? Only don't come round here any more.’

‘Do you love me, Arnas?’

‘Just go, Judita. You’re a beautiful woman. You can have any man you want. I’ll find a flat for you. Once you have a flat, a man will come, you’ll see.’

I don't remember how I got home. My eyes saw only the shadows of animals lurking in the trees, baring their teeth through the grass. I heard Raselė howling from a distance. Even from his yard I could hear her blubbering for the whole village to hear, so that everyone would know where I was, where I was coming back from, that I had left my child alone.

Such fury overcame me.

She was sitting in the yard by the well, in the full blaze of the sun, the empty cup tossed into the grass. She hadn't even gone over to the strawberry patch, and now she was crying so hard that her face was only a mouth.

She was bleating like a goat

I ran up, grabbed her, and shook her.

‘Stop your bawling right now! Stop it! If you keep crying, I’ll throw you in the well, do you understand me?’

She calmed down, her eyelids heavy with tears, violet like small unopened tulips. Beyond the fence, I can see Ena, standing there, most likely returning from the bus stop, and gawping at us.

‘What are you staring at? Get out of here!’

She obeys. Her light-coloured hair disappears like smoke.

‘Are you going to go on crying? Are you going to cry!

I shake my child, and she begins to sob violently. She loses her breath, and then stretches out and screams. Maybe someone has unleashed her on me on purpose, to finish me off.

Oh Lord, I can't do this any more, I just can't.

She's a leech, ready to suck and suck all my pitiful life out of me, a nasty, unbearable bloodsucker.

I let her go, fling her down and away from me. Deep down.

So it will stop.


Oh Lord!

Oh God!

What has just happened?

 

 Photo by Regimantas TamošaitisPhoto by Regimantas Tamošaitis

 

5. THE WELL

Mama told you to stay at home and wash the bilberries. And Papa didn't say anything. And so you came, hiding behind the backs of the adults like a fearful little dog. It looked as if all of Tolimai had gathered in Judita's yard. In the centre of the yard stood a green police car, and through the open kitchen window you could see a policeman walking around the house. Another policeman examined the yard, and a policewoman was talking to Judita. It was the first time you had ever seen a policewoman, and you really wanted to get closer, but the people who had gathered had made a large circle around them, and no one dared come any closer, and besides, you saw your parents among them. So you hid behind the fence, climbed up on to a large stone, and watched what was going on.

Judita did not look at all like herself. Although she was dressed in her housedress, which you often saw her in, and her thick dishevelled plait was draped over her shoulder as always, her face and voice were like those of a different person. She tried very hard to understand what the policewoman was asking her, and when she came to understand the words, she would shudder, clutch her chest, lean forward, and let out a thin wail. That wail escaped from her body as if it was coming from a broken doll, and her face wrinkled and twitched, as if a strong wind was blowing straight into it. It was horrible to see her like this, and yet you couldn't look away. Wet clothes were strewn all over the grass beside the closed well; there was a doll, too, its legs apart and sticking straight up. A broken clothesline extended across the length of the yard. The policewoman kept stepping on it accidentally. She was very beautiful, almost as beautiful as Judita.

‘Where is my child! My child is gone!’ cried Judita.

‘When was the last time you saw her?’ The policewoman, who was Judita's age, was trying her best to speak calmly; and because she was not very experienced, she wrote everything down.

‘I went out … I went out just for a little bit, I went out … I went out …’

‘How long ago did you notice the child was missing?’

‘I went out to see … I went out for ten minutes maybe. I told her to go to the strawberry patch, Mama will be back soon!’

‘Where did you go?’

‘I went … Oh Lord, I came back right away! I was right here, I wasn't far …’

‘Was the gate shut?’

‘The gate? I don't know! I can't remember!’

‘The gate was open,’ interjected Semelionis.

‘Can you confirm that?’ the policewoman asked him.

He nodded, and took a drag of his cigarette, and the smoke came out of his nose.

Emboldened, you slunk closer, hiding behind Mažintienė's pleated skirt. From there you could see the beautiful policewoman's face. Her eyes were outlined in blue pencil, her small nose was upturned like a doll's, her full lips painted with lilac lipstick, her dark hair hidden under a grey-blue cap with a brim, hair the same dark colour as Judita's. Yes, she was very beautiful, but Judita was more beautiful. Even now, looking so strange, wrung and wrung by someone's horrible invisible hands.

‘What happened to the clothesline?’ Asked the policewoman.

‘It broke. I was hanging out a dress, and it broke …’

‘Was this before or after you noticed the girl was missing?’

‘I don't know! I can't remember!’

Judita clutched her chest again and began to cough, as though she wanted to vomit something, something unbearable, something that was too big to fit inside her.

‘I can't work when she’s like this,’ the beautiful policewoman complained to her colleague who had just come out of the house.

‘Calm down, dear,’ he said, and patted Judita on the back. ‘Someone take her inside, let her calm down.’

The beautiful policewoman carefully put her arm around Judita's waist, and led her into the house. Everyone let them through, following her with their eyes. Then suddenly you noticed that Papa was looking right at you, wagging his finger.

‘What are you doing here? Home!’ he barked, feigning anger.

But you couldn't joke with him. You scooted out without looking back, and returned to your yard where you sat and picked through the berries and shivered, hoping you wouldn't get smacked. Mama came home first, but she didn't scold you. She barely even glanced at you.

‘Is there a lot left?’ she asked as she walked by.

You shrugged your shoulders. It wasn't as if you could say there was a lot.

‘Don't worry about it, I'll finish it later myself,’ said Mama, and she disappeared into the house. You realised she was going to lie down for an hour.

More people appeared on the road as the crowd slowly left Judita's yard. It was mostly men from Meldai, Kirčiai and Oželiai. You knew them only by sight, they didn't have names to you.

Afterwards, your Papa came home. He too didn't look at you, and didn't even speak to you. It was as though you weren't there at all. He quietly put on his boots, picked up his leather jacket, and started up his motorbike.

‘Where?’ asked Mama, who had appeared in the doorway. One of her cheeks was red from the pillow.

‘The forest. I'll help them look.’

The motorbike snorted furiously. Even you were hurt by the sound: its voice was too loud today. You ran out on to the road and watched, wide-mouthed, as the police car lumbered off towards the forest, and Papa's motorbike, droning like an angry fly, followed behind, leaving a trail of dust.

‘Ena! Come!’ called Mama.

She was sitting on the doorstep with her thick, sun-tanned legs curled up under her. She had her good hairbrush on her lap.

‘Come.’ She invited her to sit on her lap.

You climbed up on to your Mama's lap like an overgrown kitten. You felt awkward, but it was so rare that she sat you down like this you could put up with any kind of discomfort.

‘Mama, will they find Raselė?’

‘I don't know, my child. I don't know.’

‘Where did she go?’

‘Who knows what got into her. Maybe she fell into the Semelionis' pond? Or, God forbid, into the Akmena …’

‘Mama, I'm scared.’

‘Don't be afraid.’

‘I'm scared for Raselė, Mama.’

Mama looked at you thoughtfully, as though trying to protect you from some kind of calamity that a child couldn't understand.

‘Come, I'll comb your hair,’ she said, and kissed you on the top of your head, where a vortex of ashy hair turned into a bloom.

‘Just don't pull!’

‘I won't, I won't …’

Mama brushed your hair for a long time, thinking about Raselė and Judita. You could feel she was thinking about them, that she couldn't stop thinking about them. From the brush on your head, your whole body scurried with little ants, and this feeling made you pleasantly sleepy.

Papa only returned home when it was getting dark. Quiet and pale, a little angry, and smelling of vodka. You and Mama both knew it was best not to try and talk to him when he was like this, not to question him. Mama kept her head down, and washed the dishes. You dried them and placed them in the cupboard. Papa threw his leather jacket down on the chair, swayed a little, then went out, banging the door at the back of the house. You both guessed he was heading for the back of the yard, behind the greenhouse, where he had a block of wood for sitting on at times like this. You really wanted to go up to him, to sneak up behind him, put your hands over his eyes, and make him guess who it was. When you did this, his mood would improve. But you didn't want to leave Mama. You didn't want to hurt her by going away. You finished the dishes, and Mama poured some clean water into the same sink so that you could wash before going to bed. She went out to the yard to bring in a dry towel. You could no longer restrain yourself by then: you ran out to Papa.

Papa was sitting on the woodblock, crying. You could feel it from a distance. When you approached, you smelled the familiar smell of vodka, a smell you liked so much because when Papa's mouth smelled of vodka he often told you things that you thought about for a long time afterwards, things you carried inside you as though they were sweets you just couldn't unwrap.

‘Papa …’ you stopped just behind him and called out shyly.

‘Ah, it's you, my little sparrow.’ Papa turned round and put out an arm to pull you to him.

‘Papa, are you crying for Raselė?’

Papa pressed his face to your chest and began to sob again. His cry was thin and unmanly, as though it was a small boy, even smaller than you, crying.

‘Why my children? Why my children?’

Strange that Papa would say that.

‘Papa, maybe she'll be found. Maybe she's just playing somewhere …’

Papa dried his eyes and lifted up his head, looking carefully at your face, thinking about something, weighing it up. Then he sat you down on his knee, and asked:

‘Can you keep a secret?’

You nod your head without thinking whether you really know how to keep a secret, because you want to know the secret; you want to know why Papa is crying.

‘Promise not to tell anyone?’

‘Not even Mama?’

‘Especially not Mama.’

You nod your head seriously again.

‘Raselė is your sister.’

You don't understand. How could Mama not know that Raselė is her child? And why is Judita bringing her up?

‘Papa, we need to tell Mama that Raselė is her daughter.’

Papa smiles sadly, and kisses you on the top of the head, in the same place where Mama kissed you a few hours ago.

‘Silly girl, Raselė isn't mine and your Mama's child. Mama doesn't know anything about it. Her heart would break if she knew, do you understand? If you don't want Mama to be sick, you must never tell her this, do you understand?’

You nod your head again, completely flustered. Some sort of bad feeling vibrates in your belly. You press your nose into Papa's jumper. He smells of smoke. You close your eyes. All you need to know is as much as Papa has said. Beyond that lie pools of misunderstanding and the terrors of the adult world, a place you really don't want to be.

After he'd sat for a little longer on the woodblock, Papa went out again. He didn't say anything to you, or to Mama. Mama shooed you off to bed, closed the door to her room, and lay down. When she was like this, you didn't dare ask her to leave the door open because you were lonely and afraid of the dark. You could see a dim light under the door of your parent's bedroom, a strip that looked like the sunny shore on the far side of a black, black lagoon. Staring at this strip, you tried to survive in the dark as best you could. But Mama soon turned out the light, and it disappeared.

Raselė came to you that night.

You were not surprised. You were waiting for her.

‘Do you know where I'm hiding?’ she asked, sitting on the edge of your bed.

You felt as if you did, but you didn't dare say.

‘I'm in the well. Mama put me there.’

Her words took your breath away.

‘Aren't you cold?’

‘Very. Look.’

Raselė placed her fingers in your hand. The cold stung and jumped into you. You pulled back your hand, and squeezed it into a fist.

‘Don't tell anyone I'm there. It’ll be bad for Mama.’

You nod. Of course, you won't say anything.

‘She didn't mean to do it. I was just crying so much. I'm bad,’ said Raselė sullenly.

‘Can't you … climb out?’ you asked.

‘If you pray for me, maybe I'll be able to climb out. Do you know how to pray?’

You shook your head.

‘Ask your Mama. She'll teach you.’

You got up out of bed and crossed the whole terrifying kitchen that became so strange at night, and stopped outside your Mama's door. You could feel that she wasn't asleep, that she was listening. As you carefully opened the door, you heard how she lifted her head from the pillow. Papa wasn't home yet.

‘Ena, is that you?’

‘Mama … I need to pray.’

‘What's this nonsense?’ asked Mama. ‘Who are you praying for?’

‘I have to pray for my friend.’

‘For what friend?’

You don't answer.

‘Who told you to pray?’

You don't answer.

‘Come,’ said Mama, and you quickly ran to her.

She turned on the lamp by the bed, took your hands in hers, and pressed them against her body. Then she asked you:

‘Ena, what friend asked you to pray for them?’

You don't answer.

‘My daughter …’

‘Don't be angry, Mama, I can't tell you.’

‘Is it Raselė?’

You don't answer.

‘Did you dream about Raselė?’

It’s so hard to keep quiet when Mama asks.

‘My child, no prayers will help her. Tomorrow the police will come, and they will find Raselė. And don't you ever talk about praying to anyone, do you understand me? It's not allowed.’ Mama says this very seriously.

Of course you don't understand. But if Mama says, that means it's what you have to do.

Mama tells you to go back to bed, and lets you leave the door open. She even leaves the lamp on, so it's easier for you to go to sleep. You could feel a meandering thread of worry coiling from her room, and you didn't feel so alone, you just hurried to fall asleep while the lamp was still on. But a thought crept into your head like persistent mosquito: Why did Raselė ask you to do something that was forbidden? You had heard about God from your Auntie Mikasė when you used to go and visit Raselė. She often whispered, talking to him. But she was so old, and didn't understand what day it was, or how to dress for the weather. She would go outside in a winter coat in the summer. Besides, no one else talked to God any more, and certainly not as if they shared a secret with him. All the secrets that had been revealed to you were bad. God must be the same. That's why Mama told you to ignore him.

But you felt so sorry for Raselė that you couldn't help it, and whispered:

Dear God, even though you are bad and I don't know any prayers, help Raselė climb out of the well.

Help her. Help her. Help her.

Help Raselė climb out of the well. She’s cold and scared and I feel so sorry for her.

I won't fall asleep while Raselė is in the well.

And this isn't a prayer at all. Mama won't let me pray.

I'm just saying this, God. Lift Raselė up out of the well.

If you lift her out of there, I’ll weed all the peas without being asked, okay?

 

 

 

Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius

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