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Daina Opolskaitė

I was born in the summer of 1979 in Vilkaviškis district. My childhood world was created by very strong people, who, like some gods, knew answers to all the questions. I am indebted to them probably for that. Having come of age, I began making my way in life and became an observer – I observed and marvelled at my observations. I wanted to write books. In 2002, I graduated with a degree in Lithuanian studies and began working in education. In this way, I got the most extraordinary stories for free – from detective stories to psychological thriller. I could start writing. In 2003, my daughter arrived and since then a myriad of stories found me. I had to write.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Eglė Gineitytė, Crossing, 2007, canvas, oil. From the MO Museum collection.

 

From the book „Pyramids of Days“

 

 

The Miraculous Man

It’s perfectly simple. That’s just how it will be. When the moment is right, and we’re allowed to, I will marry Gvidas. Because the right moment eventually comes for everyone. On that day, I’ll wear a long white dress. My cousin Silvija, just back from London, will fasten the tiny silk buttons down my back, her hands shaking with nervousness. I’ll feel the clammy, cold touch of her bony fingers. Her warm, damp breath will spread gently over my skin, eliciting a cool transience that is painful to contemplate. When the midday sun unexpectedly lights up the room, it will reveal the piercing gaze of the plush amber-eyed tiger resting on the sofa. The Cinderella on that dusty jewel case, which has been lying under my wardrobe collecting dust for ages, will eye me in the same way. And my alarm clock with the happy little mice on the cracked dial will beg to be finally thrown out. All day long, I’ll carry around a bouquet of white orchids and irises, and their pungent aroma mingling with the sharp scent of Gvidas’ sweat, will slowly create an intoxicating vision inside the tiny wooden church. As I’ve already said, it’s perfectly simple.

My father decided a while ago that they would start with the trees. First, they would chop down the two old pear trees, because they are old and no longer any use; they will make good firewood. Now, when I look around, the garden unmistakably mourns its protective shield against the sky’s gaping, all-seeing eye threatening from above. Gone is their tall, wide cover under which the everyday fits so snugly.

The pear trees are rotten and horribly pockmarked. Having breathed their last, they rest in the corner of the yard, while Dad and Gvidas have a smoke, with their backs against the fence. With each puff, thick blue clouds of smoke encircle their hair and eyes. Looking out through the tattered netting of the kitchen curtains, I see Gvidas purse his lips, holding in each drag, before he blows the thick, intoxicating smoke out to the side. It goes into the dense reeds by his feet, and coils up there, unseen, like a snake. Neither of them notices me scrutinising their tanned necks, or the hands that hold their glowing cigarettes. I watch them gesturing and nodding at each other, and spitting on the ground. Unconsciously, I compare Dad’s bristles with the gently overgrown fuzz under Gvidas’ nose, his deep-set, slanting, grey-green eyes, and his hoarse laugh, emanating from deep inside his chest with a joyful clatter.

Throwing his cigarette butt down by the foot of the fence, Gvidas straightens his back, takes a deep breath, and stretches; then he runs his hand through his messy shock of hair. I can see the two noticeably darker patches under his armpits, and imagine that even at this distance I can smell him, as I always do when he gives me a ride on his bike, or when, trudging through the mud in his enormous, heavy galoshes, he carries me piggyback across the flooded canal to school, the deep mud greedily soaking up his steps. I put my arms around his neck; he tells me to hold on very tight, and his hair, greying at the roots, and his large not altogether clean ears, end up right in front of my nose, so I can take it all in to my heart’s content. I look at him, and I think that I will never get enough of his hair and his ears, his smell, and that stork-like cackle of his. Gvidas really is very good to me.

‘But he’s a stranger. We’d be better off without him,’ Mama often said to Dad.

‘I don’t regret in the least taking him on. Besides, he’s so good with kids. Just see how well he takes cares of her.’

‘But he’s so clumsy, so gauche.’

I don’t understand why my mother called Gvidas gauche; but he definitely doesn’t take care of me, because I’m not a child any more. When the moment is right, we will definitely get married, even though I know I can’t tell my parents right now. They think things are just what they look like; that only what they see is real and true. But in reality, they’re as blind as flies, which buzz around without looking, bumping into things. As a result, they always get hoodwinked. Mama talks about nothing but her French manicure, which barely lasts two days out here in our new home. Her hands, of course, are the first thing her clients notice when they sign a contract; there is nothing more important. At this rate, she’ll be going to work with dirt under her fingernails. But what else can you expect in the countryside? Her only consolation is that they will finally have their own home, with a fireplace. After a frantic day at the bank, Mama will light the fire, stretch her legs out towards the relaxing warmth, and pour herself a glass of wine.

Dad explains to her that it will be at least a year before he can build the fireplace, after the rest of the house is finished: the ceiling, and the roof, and everything else. This summer will be pure hell, because they will have to spend their life savings. Mama listens intently, examining her chipped nails. She presses together her beautiful lips, glazed with pomegranate. It’s a good thing we took him on, says Dad. Every bit helps. You can see yourself what a mess this house is. He helps us out. In fact, he works like a horse. He doesn’t just lounge around eating all day. Anyone else couldn’t be bothered. I’m sure of that.

They will finish with the pear trees today. You can’t just leave them out there, so old and pockmarked, to lie all night in the yard, painfully exposed to the millions of electrodes emanating from the moon’s rays. Gvidas throws his shirt, stiff from the salt of his sweat, on to last year’s dead grass. He bends and straightens up, bends again, and a tiny drop of sweat trickles down the deep furrows of his back, making its way to the waist of his saggy blue tracksuit trousers, shamelessly disappearing underneath. When he turns to me, I am surprised to see a lot of furrows meandering down his chest. Gvidas’ damp forehead, tall and steep, glistens in the sun. His kind eyes, greenish, with a few dark spots inside their depths, glance at me from under his uneven eyebrows. He opens his dusty hand to offer me two half-dead Brimstone butterflies. He says he found them on the trunk of the pear tree, among the torn-off pieces of bark, of which the yard is full. He asks if I knew that butterflies hibernate in pear trees. I don’t know what to do with them, so he suggests I take them inside, place a tablespoon of honey on the table, and put the butterflies down somewhere nearby on a windowsill. Then I should watch and see what happens.

‘Tired?’ my father comes over and asks. He sees the butterflies. ‘Where did they come from?’

‘From the pear trees. We have to sweep up what’s left, and then we’ll be finished.’

‘I’ve ordered the windows for next week. Men will be coming to look at the roof. Will you watch and make sure everything’s okay?’

‘Sure. Will it be expensive?’

‘Quite,’ my dad laughs.

By evening, the butterflies are starting to flap their wings and jiggle their tiny tongues. Still stunned, they crawl over to the tablespoon full of honey. Later, they take up residence in a large cut tulip, and spend the night there. Mama shakes her head, and raises her eyebrows: ‘Just imagine. As I’ve been saying, only Gvidas would think of something like that.’

I don’t know what I’d do without Gvidas. Not only does he chop down old pear trees and bring me butterflies, but he also repaired my swing, which was broken after the winter. He makes me thick, clumsy sandwiches; and, of course, he picks me up after school, wearing his heavy black galoshes, so that he can carry me across the flooded muddy canal. I relish the sight of him approaching in the distance. Waiting is incredibly emotional when you know that the person approaching is coming for you, coming to meet you, coming just for you. It’s like slowly licking slices of chilled pineapple, the juice running down your fingers, when your mouth and the entire world are full of that heavenly, sticky sweetness. His gait is heavy; he lifts his feet like a stork hunting frogs, his eyes facing downwards toward his sinking steps. Thick, black porridge bubbles up, demanding that he pull his leg up with every step. He holds his legs still, as the mud sloshes under his rubber boots. Unwillingly, he sinks his feet into the deep abyss, step by step. As I follow every step, I feel as if I’m inhaling the ever-increasing smell of muddy, black earth, which Gvidas’ clothing is absorbing. He reaches me, panting with exhaustion. He wipes his nose on the sleeve of his faded quilted jacket, and pats down his hair with his calloused hand.

‘Let’s go.’

And we both go. At first, I walk by myself, holding his hand. He barely touches it, but my hand is suspended in his, my fingers delighting in the familiar, hard, thick callouses and corns, which slide around in my hand like small, round stones as we walk. Fascinated by the stones, I don’t even hear my own footsteps for a while. But the smell of the damp keeps increasing, as the dark juices of the earth ooze. I take one more step, and my shoe plunks noisily into the water. The sudden icy cold cramps up my leg.

‘Oh no.’

Frightened, Gvidas wakes himself from whatever thoughts he was absorbed in, grabs me by my hood, and lifts me up. A warm happiness envelops every inch of my body as I notice his eyebrows are darkened by anxiety. This happens whenever he’s nervous or upset. The skin above his eyebrows swells up, and two large red spots appear. His ear, cheekbones and the bristly back of his neck, which exudes the smell of exhaustion, dust and sweat, are all flushed. I hold on to his jacket collar with all my might, while he rattles on about something. He doesn’t seem to care if I’m listening. He speaks with emotion, almost choking with an odd nervousness. He says he wants to study, a lot and for a long time, to receive a diploma inscribed in beautiful large cursive letters, to get a job with a certain famous company: or even better, to own the company. After all, everyone is starting their own business these days. They’re making a good livelihood and living a full life. Yes, a full life, says Gvidas, which means there won’t be any more sudden existential crises or dilemmas catching up with you so unexpectedly that it’s pointless trying to dig your way out. He’s had enough of being so stressed that he’s tearing his hair out. A business. And if that doesn’t pan out, then he’ll go abroad. Others are doing just fine there.

The sun warms his jacket collar. I press my cheek against it. Lapwings dart playfully around our feet, their delicate feathers have undoubtedly also absorbed the lush smell of damp earth, just like Gvidas’ collar. Their shrieks are soft, but irritating; their tiny eyes glisten with black nervousness.

Gvidas takes off his muddy galoshes by the sun-warmed wall of the house. He bangs them against each other, sending large, partially dried flecks of muck flying in all directions. The yard is full of them.

It’s rather cold and empty inside. My parents will only be home later tonight. Mama’s ficuses and philodendrons cast grey shapeless shadows across the walls. This morning’s coffee cups, full of coffee grounds, unwashed, and a small bowl full of biscuits are on the table. I stuff my pockets with biscuits and choose a book.

Gvidas is having a smoke on the bench by the wall. His galoshes and jacket lie on the ground next to him.

‘No, not me. Read it yourself. Do it. You need to for school.’

‘But you need to read, too. You said that you wanted to study. You’ll have to do a lot of reading.’

He reads the page I open the book at. I want to listen to his voice, but I don’t. I’m deep in thought. Gvidas is miraculous, like those things in stories that pop up at the most opportune moments in a person’s life, suddenly changing everything. It turns out that people can be miraculous too. Their very proximity enriches our existence with the touch of their souls, making us believe in magic. He reads slowly, stopping every once in a while to swallow, or to make a longer pause between words. He is crouching over the book; his brow is wrinkled. His voice is low, but it emanates from inside him with a gentle and even quivering din. He doesn’t read all the words at once. At times, he slows down, and with a slightly softer voice, he reads them out, syllable by syllable, until he can pronounce them with confidence, and then he swallows nervously again. He seems to forget that I’m there: he is so completely focused on reading. If I were a little girl, I would probably get on to his lap; but now I am overcome with a gentle, intoxicating sleepiness. A shroud envelops me, making me feel safe and warm. Through its haze, I admire the profile of Gvidas’ hair, his moving jaw and his twitching nose.

Spring is in a hurry this year, my Dad says. Red and white bricks are delivered. My Mama insists on the red ones, because she wants a retro-style veranda, with a small arch and a unique antiqued metal lantern just next to the outside door. She’s seen one at the antique shop. That’s where she’ll buy it. When it rains, the lantern will glow, and she’ll sit by the window, having tea, watching the big raindrops run down the glass in the albescent light pitter-pattering on the cobblestones. She needs that lantern, maybe even more than a fireplace.

After the bricks come every kind of slab, roll, tub and bag, and many unfamiliar people. Mama goes to the bank, and comes home at night. She takes pills for her headaches. I can see her shake her head when she steps outside. Dad also goes to work, comes home, changes into his work clothes, and goes outside, only to come back in after dark. Then he counts his money, and talks about bills, income, interest and savings. He calls Gvidas over and says who he will have to pay tomorrow, because Dad will be coming back from work late. If he has any problems, he should call. Gvidas listens silently, nodding his head. Then he goes back to his little room. The lamp’s shadows linger on his hair, accompanying his moving head all the way to the door; then they leap back after he has disappeared into the dark.

I go to bed, staring at the large flowers of my drawn curtains and the gaps between them, and it seems to me that nothing could be better than living in this house with large flower-print curtains, and Gvidas sleeping in his little room next door.

The next morning is windy and rainy. There is no sign of the spring that only yesterday brightened up my day with its screeching lapwings. The flowers on my curtains are dark, almost black, the lighter gaps between their gigantic bright contours are barely visible. A wind whips up outside, encircling the grass which is still brown, and unsettling the water collecting in puddles. There is no way of knowing what to expect: rain, a cyclone; or perhaps the festering black clouds will blow their torrential rain elsewhere.

 Gvidas is late in picking me up. I’m nervous. Like the lapwings, my eyes dart about the windy field. The same wind, picking up strength, encircles me. It could easily pick me up and carry me away. Dry stalks rattle, and last year’s dead grass rustles. The tall well crank creaks threateningly. Gvidas arrives, the same threadbare quilted jacket tightly buttoned. His shoulders are hunched against the wind raging around us; his raised collar hides his ears, made red and raw by the wind. He hurries home with me. I can barely keep up with his stride. For a second, I wonder if it has always been so big. I try to look into his face, but the wind blows his standing collar right over it, hiding it from my eyes and taking my breath away. I hurry to swallow the wind, with big, heavy gulps. My eyes fill with tears.

Nothing changes, even when Gvidas carries me over the puddles and the swaying land. But his grasp seems different: it’s anxious, tentative. His heart pulsates oddly under his sweater. I press myself into his chest, and feel its rhythmic explosions under my hand. It seems we’ll never get home. Gvidas is breathing deeply, panting as if he were carrying a heavy burden. I can’t speak. I have to keep swallowing the wind, just as Gvidas is doing as he carries me home. It occurs to me that as soon as we get home, as soon as he puts me down by the brick wall, which always feels like such a safe shelter, I’ll burst into tears. Really, I’ll cry, although I don’t know why.

But I can’t cry, and don’t have time for it, because there are two big bags with strong black handles by the brick wall. They are the kind of bags that people use for travelling around the world, or when they go somewhere for a long time. Gvidas picks them up right in front of me. He adjusts the straps with his thick fingers, and puts them over his shoulders. Now it’s my heart that’s pounding, exploding a thousand times, again and again, refusing to stop. It seems a person’s heart can tear into a million bits.

‘Don’t go anywhere until your Mama and Dad come back, all right? Go inside and read something, okay?’

He’s not looking at me. He’s speaking to me without looking up from his carry-on bag. He’s rummaging through it, checking to make sure everything is there, that he hasn’t forgotten anything.

‘What’s wrong? You’ll grow up to be a good, beautiful girl. Right? Didn’t I tell you that I’ve got places to go to, that I can’t stay here? And your parents will be fine, won’t they?’

He doesn’t know how to say goodbye. That’s why he’s leaving before my parents get back, without saying a word to them. He nods, as if understanding this, and without giving me another look, he walks briskly to the road. The furious wind, cunningly hiding around the corner, pounces, grabbing his hair, his collar, his shirt, and the straps of his carry-on bag. Not once does he turn back to look at me. He marches on. The same wind rushes at me, smacking me in the face with that familiar smell of his skin and his clothes. He disappears. Like the orphan girl in the story who lost her magic ball and towel, I understand viscerally that I have lost him. I feel helpless, as if everything is falling apart.

I remain in the same spot on the grass next to the wall until the evening. An intoxicating lethargy keeps my body wrapped in its ambiguous shroud, and the morphine of acceptance flows through my veins, numbing my intensifying pain. Gvidas is gone. He’s gone. He won’t come back. Magic is extremely fragile and transient.

My parents come back late. I wait for them to ask about Gvidas, so that I can tell them he’s gone. But how will I even say those words? How will I listen to myself saying them? They don’t ask me anything. They go inside and dig through cabinets, shelves, the drawers in the great big cupboard. Mama sobs, and Dad goes outside. He smokes four cigarettes in a row. His face is frighteningly pale. His eyes are strange, like the eyes of someone who’s seeing his home for the last time. He clenches his jaw, his face jerks convulsively. Inside, Mama is desperately slamming drawer after drawer. She doesn’t want to believe what she sees. She starts to shriek that this was her entire life savings, and that she will hunt that son of Satan to the end of the Earth, and crucify him in her own backyard.

Somewhere close by behind our house, a lapwing is shrieking. Slowly it grows dark.

I inch my way along the wall, which is now cool. My tired eyes start to close, but before they do, I see my wedding dress mercilessly being stretched over me like a fog. The irises and white orchids with their sharp scent begin to fall. My cousin Silvija never got on that flight, and will be stuck at the airport in London for ever. The little mice are frolicking around on the dial of that old alarm clock, as the big plush tiger on the sofa suddenly looks up at me with Gvidas’ green eyes full of remorse.

 

 

Translated by Jūra Avižienis

 

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