Alvydas Šlepikas (born 1966) is one of the most multi-talented contemporary Lithuanian writers, moving between the worlds of literature, theatre, film and television. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, actor and director. He participates actively in the literary life of the country and is a member of both the Lithuanian PEN Centre and the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. His novel Mano vardas – Marytė (In the Shadow of Wolves) – a moving story about the so-called ‘wolf children’ – became the most read novel of 2012 in Lithuania and has gone through six reprints. It is one of the most translated Lithuanian books of recent times and has now been published in Belarusian, Dutch, Estonian, German, Latvian, Polish and Ukrainian. Both the poetry and prose of Alvydas Šlepikas are characterized by a lively visual style and a subtle intertwining of the past and present.

vr banner19

reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Elvyra Kairiūkštytė, Be pavadinimo, 1986, lino raižinys, 55 x 70 cm. From The Modern Art Center Collection


The Bottle

Danius badly needed a drink.

He stood in front of the shelf of bottles and couldn’t decide, because he wanted to find a drink that wouldn’t make him feel sick. He examined all the bottles in the shop, and all of them made him feel nauseous. Then he said quietly: Lord, make it so that at least one bottle appears that won’t make me feel bad, which won’t make me sick, so I can drink it and lie down.
And he saw a bottle. It was amazingly beautiful. It even glowed. There were silver stars pictured on it.

He checked how strong the drink was. It was enough. The price was kind of high, but he decided not to save money.

For some reason, it was hard to open the bottle at home, and when he tried the liquid, its strange taste and pleasant smell surprised him. Danius couldn’t for the life of him say what it reminded him of, but that was no reason not to drink it. What difference did it make what it was made of? Spirits are always made from the same thing: from body, from blood.

The drink had an effect on him like no other. It relayed images and brought back memories. Suddenly, Danius saw his mother. She was sitting there, but at the same time, she was somewhere else entirely. His deceased mother, whom he missed so much. All those years he lived without her, he missed her, missed her, missed her, missed her. With time his longing became distant, leaving a black hole, in which his longing continued to grow and grow. Now the miraculous bottle showed him what he hadn’t wanted to remember for a long time: it showed his mother’s crazi- ness, her illness. His mother was sitting on a bench, eating herring. She simply asked why Danius had brought so little. There was a lot of herring, but she didn’t think so. He sat next to his mom, and looked at this person who was close and far away at the same time. His mother laughed unexpectedly when some woman began to howl. She said: “She howled and howled. It seems she thinks there’s a forest here.” There really were a lot of trees around. Danius asked: “Aren’t you afraid here, mom?” The day was misty and overcast: it might start to rain any time; how- ever, he took his mother out into the yard so she could at least for a short time leave her airless ward, that little room with moldy walls, with the smells of med- icine and people permeating everything. His mother asked the same thing again: “Danius, why did you bring so little herring?” Danius replied: “Mom, I’ll bring you more.” Then he left. He walked down the hill and heard a woman howling behind him. He thought it was a dog that had gotten lost in the forest. He turned around and saw his mom, clutching the wire of the metal fence, with her arms outstretched, hanging on it in a strange way. Danius felt scared, for he thought his mom reminded him of a gorilla now. She looked at him as he left. There was no expression on her face, no sadness, no life. Danius turned round again and continued further along the path. Autumn leaves were falling. There was a sprinkle of rain. He walked to the shop. He badly needed a drink, but there was no bottle that wouldn’t turn his stomach.


The Cello

The person was clearly a weirdo, and Živka turned her back towards the bus station window so that her eyes wouldn’t meet his.

The window was frosted up, and you couldn’t see anything through it, just some yellowish red lights that flickered in the dusk of the December evening, perhaps the turn signals of a car. Živka sat sandwiched between two rather large women and felt quite comfortable because the buzz of the almost full waiting room sang her to sleep, and her coat, which was almost a fall jacket, was warm enough, with Živka comfortably squeezed between two talkative pensioners returning home. The warmth given off by the people’s bodies and the steam of their breath in the almost unheated bus station building was enough, but the aloe plant forgotten on the windowsill in the fall had already frozen long ago. Živka didn’t want to sit, because she always knew that you had to let older people sit down; however, she was now squeezed in almost by force between the many people sitting on the bench of the windowsill. The reason was the cello. Živka was taking the cello home. It was still too big for her, but it was so elegant and expensive. The case was huge for a small girl, and the good-hearted ruddy-cheeked ladies felt sorry for the child car- rying such a weight, which is why she now sat so comfortably, hugging her (very own!) miracle, an instrument  that she was learning to play, and which she had received unexpectedly as a present.

The girl was getting tired of looking through the frosty window, and she turned around cautiously: perhaps that man in the red coat, with gloves with holes in them and a big hat had already gone? Someone was standing by the noticeboard with the bus timetable, looking up. There was little light in the bus station, but the few electric bulbs were enough to read the clearly written timetables. Živka envisioned her own route perfectly well: Molėtai-Kaniukai, at 6:30 pm. It was the last bus, and she waited for it patiently, because there were still fifteen minutes left. The person stared at some sort of route. It wasn’t clear, because his head was turned up too high; most likely, he was just looking at the ceiling. That scruffy-looking man, who wasn’t old but was covered with some sort of mold, made Živka feel afraid.

All his movements, his strange behavior, his entire demeanor inspired fear. Suddenly he laughed, and turning on the heel of his left foot, he ran underneath the bus timetable board to the other side and stood there. Then he did exactly the same, but on the other side of the timetable board (all Živka saw was his legs). He turned on his heel once again, laughed, and ran under it again. This time he noticed Živka and that she was watching him. That was all he needed; he came closer, and shivers ran down her spine when she saw that the weirdo was walking towards her. Živka just held on to her treasure, the cello, all the more firmly, and waited. It wasn’t possible to go back now, because it wasn’t clear what he was going to do ... God forbid, he wasn’t thinking of attacking her, was he?

The man stopped right in front of Živka, and at first he just stared into her eyes, as if wanting to read something in them. But then he tilted his head and began to examine carefully the instrument she was holding, or to be more precise, the case that was safely hiding the elegant cello. The women who were sitting round chatting, as if they were wind-up toys, fell silent: the man had attracted their attention. One of them laughed, but they were all watching him. The man carefully, as if afraid of something, began to stretch out a hand with a worn glove on it. Živka leaned away from the hand as far as she could. The man caressed the case.

What have you got in that black case? the man asked shrewdly, like a fox. And again he tilted his head. Živka didn’t know how to reply, but she wasn’t going to give up her cello, even if he tried to take it from her.
Nothing, she said, quietly but firmly, as if wanting to show that she was not in the mood to talk with strange people.

What do you mean nothing? The man laughed. You’re lying.

Živka stayed silent. But the bearded and gray, though still rather young, man shook his head and made strange faces. The girl felt even more nervous. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t escape or leave. She understood instinctively that it was better not to get into conversation, because this weirdo might very well not stop talking.

Ha ha! The oddball suddenly shouted,  making not just the girl flinch but the others as well. I know what’s in that case of yours. There’s a person hiding in it, isn’t there? Or perhaps there’s a dead body in it? Are you transporting a dead body? A dead body without a ticket? Admit it, the man said grinding his teeth. Admit it, and your punishment will be reduced. Ha ha ha, why would a dead body need a ticket anyway? A dead body in a case!

Go away, go away. Leave the girl alone, leave her alone, Balandėlis! a woman sitting next to Živka shouted. She waved her glove and shooed the man away, as if flicking away a fly. It was strange, but the wacko turned round, and just like before, ran beneath the timetable, stood on the other side of the board, and then went out- side through the door of the bus station.

Don’t be afraid child, don’t be afraid. It’s just Balandėlis. He won’t do anything bad, he’s just eccentric, poor thing, that’s all. Don’t be afraid.

That Balandėlis of yours isn’t exactly such a good person, another woman said, joining in the conversation. They say that when Petkevičius’s barn burned down, that farmer from Kimšiškės, they all suspected it was him. That wacko.

But no one caught him.

If they didn’t catch him, they didn’t catch him, but someone like that could do anything. You saw how he started pestering that child. Just imagine it, taking a dead body in a box, the fat woman laughed.
That disgusting man had frightened the girl.

That’s Navalinskaitė, a girl from our area, a third woman joined in the conversation. And what are you taking home, child?

A cello, Živka said quietly.

Oh, a cello, the women marveled.

I go to a music school, the girl added, as if to justify herself.

Time passed, but Balandėlis didn’t return. Živka looked at the clock on the wall slowly marching on. Suddenly, as if it were tired of ticking slowly, an internal spring snapped, perhaps one at the very heart of it, and the big hand jumped a whole minute in one go. Wow, Živka thought in surprise, what if you were waiting for the New Year and that hand suddenly jumped a minute ahead? And if it can jump a whole minute, what’s stopping it jumping two minutes ahead?

The station’s public address system made a sound as if it was clearing its throat, and an iron voice rang out: the bus to Levaniškis, leaving at 6:20 pm, is cancelled. There we are, the women said, becoming animated, so now what? What are we going to do now? And you, girl, aren’t you going to Levaniškis? No, I’m not going to Levaniškis. There, they’re saying that the roads are blocked, the buses are stuck, they’re not going to go anywhere. So goodness me, how are we supposed to get home? Maybe someone will take us. I’ll have to call my son. I hope to God he’s back from Vilnius. Just you’d better hope he’s not drunk, someone joked. The woman who was sitting next to Živka and protected her from the man began to collect her baskets. I’m off, she said. I’ll see. I have to get home somehow.

Your attention please, the bus to Varniškis, leaving at 6:25 pm, is cancelled, the station’s loudspeaker crackled again.

Živka was getting worried. What would happen if her bus had got stuck some- where? She would have to go back to her aunt Genutė. But she really didn’t want to, because she’d already said goodbye and left, and anyway Genutė had said clearly there was no more space, and Živka couldn’t leave the cello there over the holi- days. Oh, if only the bus would come. How good it would be to go home, take out the instrument, and play it for her mom, and Juliukas, and her little brother Simas. Živka was studying in a music school, and she was doing well. But now, since her teacher Aldutė had given her this wonderful instrument as a present, it was going to be even better. Živka would just play and play, and at some point she would appear on television. Although, of course, it’s not for sure, but if you appear on television, then you make money. It seemed to Živka that earning money while playing was somehow almost not right, because after all you aren’t even working, just playing.

Yesterday Živka visited Aldutė, her teacher, who she hadn’t seen for a few months. The school director walked into the hallway and came up to Živka, and said: Go to the home of your teacher Aldutė, dear, on Malonioji Street. She’s expecting you.

She went there and knocked. There was some sort of noise behind the door, like a dull thud, like something had been dropped, and then silence. It was so strange for Živka that for quite a long time she wanted to knock again, but she hesitated. Maybe she should turn around and simply leave. She’d tell the director that the door had been locked. However, the door of the flat then opened quietly, and an old woman appeared, so small and wrinkled that she didn’t seem real.

Hello, Živka said. I came to see my teacher Aldutė.

The old woman, appearing either to smile or to smack her wrinkled lips, opened the door wider. Živka went inside and looked around the hall that was deep in darkness. Follow me, the old woman said. They both went down a long, narrow hallway, greeting at least two other women, one of whom wore something like a nun’s habit. The hallway turned to the left, and the old woman opened the thick decorated curtains that were hanging beautifully from velvet ribbons: it seemed that they were hung there in place of a door. A rather large room opened up, in the middle of which stood a wide bed with a canopy, and in the bed, propped up by a lot of flowery pillows, lay her teacher Aldutė.

Thank you, sister, her teacher said, surprising Živka, because it was hard to believe that the old woman who had opened the door and brought her there could be the sister of her teacher Aldutė. Sit down, dear ... Right on the bed ... I want ... to see ... you ... I have always loved you so much ... child, I wish you all sorts of suc- cess in life ... You are so ... talented ... how unfortunate that we have to say goodbye ...

Are you leaving? Živka asked.

I am leaving ...

In the meantime, the old woman brought a little tray with a cup of tea and bis- cuits. It was strange that the tea hadn’t spilt.

Today, Živka, is our last meeting. I invited you because I wanted to ...

You could see that it was getting more and more difficult for her teacher to talk. Her voice barely reached Živka’s ears.

Hug me, please, her teacher said, and tried to stretch out her arms. However, it was too difficult for her. Živka bent over and hugged her teacher. She caught a hor- rible smell coming from the patient’s mouth but tried to give no outward notice.

They talked for a while. Živka tried not to be silent. She understood that her teacher wanted to listen, and she made up a few things so that it would be more interesting for her teacher. But not much. And then something happened that Živka didn’t even know how she could repay: her teacher Aldutė gave her her cello. The entire ceremony of bestowing it upon her was like a celebration: all her sisters, of which the teacher had four, gathered in the room, and all of them wished Živka to play a lot, and all the best in everything, but, most of all, God’s blessing. To an outsider, it might have all looked a bit comic. Živka held the bow in her hand and shook with excitement. She so wanted to take the instrument home and be finished with it. Her dream of having a cello had come true so unexpectedly that she thought perhaps it was a Christmas miracle.

However, when she brought the instrument to her aunt Genutė’s home, not only was her aunt not happy, but she didn’t even understand why anyone would need such a large and bulky piece of wood. No, you can’t leave it here. If you want to keep it, take it home, her aunt said bluntly.

Hey, girl! Navalinskaitė! Did you hear that our bus isn’t coming?

Živka got a fright on seeing the face of the woman, who she had seen before, right smack in front of her. The girl had dozed off. The station had almost emptied, and the clock was showing half past seven.

Let’s go, the woman said. Adomas will take us in his van.

Živka got up, took her heavy cello, and followed the woman. Outside, a giant man was waiting for them, with steam coming out of his mouth like smoke from a tile stove.

The woman made herself comfortable with her purchases in the back of the van next to some boxes, and the man put the cello there. Živka was afraid of being apart from her treasure for even just a short time, but she saw that the man han- dled her instrument carefully, perhaps even respectfully. But there really wasn’t any room next to it, which is why she got in the front next to the driver. Sitting in the front and looking straight at the road is a hundred times more fun. But today she wanted to be next to the cello, so that they could get home as quick as possible, as quick as possible.

So why are you sitting there so quietly and not saying anything?  If it wasn’t for Žvinienė, you would have stayed at the station. It’s good she said you’re from Batėnai. Where would you have slept? the driver asked.
At my aunt’s place, Živka said quietly.

Ah, at your aunt’s place ... So where’s that instrument from? It’s so big, it must be expensive.

My teacher gave it to me as a present, Živka said, and understood that for some reason her story sounded strange, as if it was a lie. Živka hadn’t lied, but she felt she was beginning to blush. It was good it was dark. All you saw was snowflakes flying by like sparks illuminated by the headlights.

So Vilma’s your mom?

Yes, yes, Vilma, that’s Vilma’s big girl, Žvinienė said, since Živka didn’t even manage to open her mouth.
And what’s your name? Živilė.

Živilė ... Živilė ... H ... Živilė ... the driver said, almost laughing, and Živka wanted him not to ask any more questions. I wanted to give the name Živilė to our Ugnytė, but my wife was adamant: she’s going to be Ugnytė, she’s going to be Ugnytė. So let her be Ugnytė, then. Ugnytė’s also a beautiful name. Now when she runs, just like the name implies, she’s like a flame, not a child, so it suits her, Ugnytė. But I wanted her to be Živilė ... I think Živilė’s beautiful.

The driver turned to Živka and winked at her, smiling in a friendly way. Živka felt good that there was an Ugnytė that could have had her name, and that someone liked her name. Now she wasn’t thinking of anything anymore. She calmed down and simply looked at the lit-up road.

I know your mom very well. Oh, what a girl she was in the discos. Ohohoh, she was fun. A lot of fun. Maybe five years younger than me ...

Who wasn’t she fun for, Žvinienė bellowed with a rasping laugh. To you men, there’s a bit of a slut in every girl, and then it’s fun. I know, I know, more than a few have told me that you would make a beeline for that Vilma, Adomas. You used to screw around so much that you don’t know whose kid is whose.

What are you talking about, Žvinienė? What kind of screwing is it when you grab a girl’s behind while dancing. Do you think that’s screwing?

The driver and the woman fell silent. Perhaps the driver felt a little uncomfortable that he was talking with the village gossip like that in front of a little girl. But at that moment, Živka was watching the hands of Adomas the driver, calmly holding on to the van’s steering wheel. Those hands are so big, Živka suddenly thought, that if this man took me with one hand, and put me in his palm, then he could simply shoot me into a net like a basketball.

I haven’t seen your mom for a long time ... And how is that ... friend of hers that lives with you, that Pocius?
He’s not there, Živka said. She wanted to say that it was good he was not there, it was good that her stepfather had gone to Norway and disappeared. He wrote a little, but then the letters stopped as well. Mom cried, but Živka, saying nothing, was overjoyed, because her stepfather had never done anything for her, nothing. All he would do was fall over drunk in the yard and piss himself, and her mother would shout. Lie there then, lie in that puddle there, and maybe you’ll croak. But the girl knew that her mom was just saying it, and afterwards she would be happy again, curl up with Pocius, and believe his fairy tales about holidays in Sartai, next to the lake, where some friend of his worked as a camping site manager, or something like that. Živka would go out with Juliukas and drag her stepfather home, indoors, so he wouldn’t freeze. They didn’t have to pull him to the bed, they just left him by the door. What was important was to close the door. Then some of their stepfather’s buddies would come with gifts, lift Pocius into bed, and give Živka and Juliukas presents, usually Snickers or crisps.

Someone said that that Pocius of hers was in jail in Norway, but Vanciūtė apparently heard that he wasn’t alive anymore. Apparently some Albanians or some- thing had stabbed him, Žvinienė said.

Živka didn’t know who the Albanians were, but once again she felt scared. It couldn’t be true that someone had stabbed her stepfather. Just upped and stabbed him: why? That Pocius had never done anything good for Živka, but he also didn’t do anything bad. More good than bad. Then suddenly the girl remembered: and Dummy? How about Dummy? It was her stepfather that had brought Dummy. Mom didn’t want to keep him. Who will feed him, who will take care of him, isn’t Džimis enough for you? she asked Pocius. But the pretty little white dog had already arrived, and the children, Živka and Juliukas, were petting him. You see how the children like him, Pocius said, and Mom had to give in. Now Dummy was a big white dog, beautiful and happy, but absolutely not fierce. There’s no use for him, Mom said, he lets everybody come and pet him.
So what is there in Norway, anyway? Nothing is free there, either, Žvinienė said. If you’re a lazy bum and a drunk, then do you think he’s going to change there? If he doesn’t work here and is a freeloader, then he’ll be a freeloader there too. Who’s going to pay him there? And then you have to get mixed up with all sorts of crooks, with all those Albanians, and all those who-knows-who. That Pocius, they say he was in jail, stole things, and beat people up. But his father, I remember, he was such a clever man, a teacher, maybe a bit of a communist. But he raised his children to be good-for-nothing slackers. So regardless of whether they’re in Lithuania or Norway, their fate is the same.

Yes, yes ... as if the driver was agreeing out of necessity. But Živka watched the snowflakes flying by so pleasantly, continuing to multiply, while the road was rather difficult to see. If it wasn’t for those reflector posts on the side of the road, then you almost wouldn’t know where the edge of the road was anymore. The wind was strong, and the snow flowed on the road in little waves, like milk.

Yes, my sister Aniutė’s child also went to England. She said that he already has a house, or built one there, or bought one there, because he’s a foreman on a building site, because he works, and isn’t carrying around bags of clinking bottles.

And you know, Navikas’s boy Algis returned, and now he drinks and drinks and drinks. But how can people drink so much? Where do they put it all? You make money, then you put your life in order, save, and take care of your parents. But no, they need to drink, drink, drink, and then go and lie down, having, pardon my language, pissed their pants. And no one is saying that you can’t drink at all: if you’re a healthy person, then you need to have a drink, but there also has to be some self-control. No. There’s no self-control. There’s no self-control with them, try as you might, it seems that that vodka of theirs is as sweet as honey. Or that woman Vilma, just between you and me, she already has a third child. And when she was ready to give birth, they say they took her straight from the bar. They said her waters simply broke in the bar. Otherwise, they say, she would have given birth under the table while drunk.

Suddenly Živka’s head felt hot. That was her mom. That old woman was talking about her mother.

It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s a lie, you’re lying, you’re horrible, you old liar! Živka turned to the back of the van and shouted. My mom was taken from home in an ambulance, from home!

Tears poured out of the girl’s eyes, and she began to cry. She wanted to hold it back, but she couldn’t. She just wiped the tears away with her arm and sobbed.

And how could you not cry: when her mom didn’t feel well, when she started to have pains, Pocius wasn’t at home. Her mom started to scream and gasp for air. Juliukas was frightened. He hid behind the couch, and she, Živka, tried to save her mom. She tried to help, but she just didn’t know how. She tried to call the ambu- lance – tried to call it quickly. Tried to say that her mom was in labor. She just couldn’t clearly explain to the operator how to get to her house. And her mom couldn’t tell her anymore ... It hurt so much. Živka ran out to meet the ambulance on the main road, but that was half a kilometer or more away. She stood in the semi-darkness, looking around nervously. It was scary. She didn’t want her Mom to die ... And the ambulance wasn’t there. Finally it appeared, but it didn’t see little Živka and drove right past her. She ran after it, shouting. The ambulance turned around, went back, saw her waving, and picked her up. Then they took her Mom to the hospital, and everything was fine. Then old Bružienė came and stayed with her and Juliukas for a few days until her stepfather appeared. And then Mom and Pocius brought their little brother home. He was so funny. And everyone was happy, though Pocius had a fight with this guy named Zdanys, but that’s another story. But that Žvinienė was lying. Everyone made up those things about her Mom. Živka knew that no one could bear her. They couldn’t even stand her at school and called her all sorts of names, but Živka wasn’t one of them. And it was only at the music school that she came to life again, because she really liked playing.

No, don’t cry, don’t cry, dear, calm down, this isn’t about your mother at all, this is a totally different Vilma. And you, Žvinienė, have some sense yourself, Adomas the driver said, and then was quiet. Now everyone was quiet. Only the girl sniffed from time to time, while trying not to. However, she wasn’t crying anymore. The engine hummed, and the illuminated snowflakes flew by, faster and faster. Where the beams of light didn’t reach, it was now totally dark.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a deer shot out in front of the van. It jumped across the road, and Adomas stomped on the brakes. The van skidded. However, the impact from the brakes was strong, with Živka’s seatbelt smacking her hard in the chest. There was a loud thud in the back of the van. Žvinienė yelled out. The van stopped. And then in front of the van a couple more deer and a couple more shadows bounded past.

Adomas was breathing heavily, and Živka turned to the back.

I’m holding it, I’m holding on to your double bass, Žvinienė said. Did you hurt yourself? the driver asked.
No, it’s fine, just some of those buckets of yours are scattered all over the place, the woman said.
Just move the damn buckets out of the way.

Adomas got out, went to the front of the van, looked around, stood there, spat, and got back in again.
Deer ... but completely out of nowhere ... It seems I hit him, but it seems I didn’t hit him hard ... he ran off ... Are you alive? he asked Živka.

I am.

A little faster, and they would have been dead meat, Žvinienė said.

Yes, meat ... I don’t need that kind of meat. More than one has got hit by running out of the dark like that, it’s so unclear where from, and the impact, they say, is hard. Really hard. If it’s a car, then they run right into the middle of it, and death is guaranteed. I don’t need that kind of meat ...

They drove on slower, and Živka still tried to look into the dark, and if she saw something she would warn Adomas at once, but there were no more deer, nor any other animals.

As they approached the town, it seemed the wind was dying down. It was blowing less. The van stopped at the turn by the cemetery.

So now, Žvinienė and I will take that road, and you should get off here, but will you really get there? I’d take you, but I don’t have the time, and the road could be blocked with snow.

I’ll sleep at old Bružienė’s place, Živka said. She’s there. She doesn’t live far from the cemetery.

Bružienė comes to visit you, does she? Žvinienė asked. The old woman’s still alive? Heck, she’s strong.
She’s alive, she’s alive, Živka said. And it was strange to her that Žvinienė called her old, because in Živka’s eyes they were the same age.

Will you really sleep there? Adomas asked. Don’t go home, because further on it’s snowed over, and what you’re carrying is big, it’s heavy.

All right, Živka said, thank you for driving me here.

Živka got out. Žvinienė helped her out with the cello, and said goodbye. Živka said goodbye too, and the van drove off.

It was dark. However, after standing for a while, the girl began to see everything quite well, because there was a lot of snow. It was fresh and white, and it glittered phosphorently. And it was calmer here. The wind had almost died down. Živka raised her eyes and saw the stars, which shone brilliantly and clearly in the empty pockets of the sky. In the town, lights were on here and there in windows, and the electric lights next to the cemetery also shone brightly. It was quiet, with dogs barking occasionally.

Živka didn’t want to go to Bružienė’s, because she knew that her grandma went to bed early, and she would have to wake her up, and she didn’t want to do that. But there was another more important reason, the cello. She needed the temperature to change as little as possible, because a change could cause the instrument a lot of harm. Živka thought: now the instrument  is cold, but if I went to old Bružienė’s then it would get warm, and then in the morning I would still have to go home, and the cello would get cold again. But now, whatever I do, it will get cold. I‘ll go home, I won’t open the case for a long time, perhaps not even until tomorrow evening, even if Juliukas or Mom begs me to show them my treasure. But then, when I open the case, I still won’t touch it, play it, or bother it for a while. I’ll let the instrument get used to our home. That’s what her teacher said, and that was what Živka was ready to do.

No, I won’t go to Bružienė’s, she finally decided.

Just then, as if in support of the girl, the moon appeared, and it became lighter outside. Živka walked along the road. She slipped a little bit, but she walked quite fast. After passing the cemetery, she knew that she needed to go straight on quite far on the main road, perhaps a kilometer or so, then turn left, and then left again, almost double the distance. But by going straight on here it would be much closer. She had used this road many times. So what that she had to go through the forest? I’ll be a little scared, but the road will be much shorter. The forest isn’t big, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. I just have to think about nice things. Then I’ll forget, and the fear will go away.

The girl turned left and went down along the bank. However, she slipped, fell, and let go of the cello, which slid down. Živka tumbled and fell, sank into the snow, and felt how it, scalding her skin, had gotten in her clothing. She tried to get out of the snowdrift, and finally more or less got out. She didn’t hurt herself, but, the cold thrust itself right into her skin and stung. She brushed the snow off with her hand and tried to extract it from everywhere it had got into. Suddenly she understood that she had lost one of her mittens and tried to look for it. But the mitten had been trampled into the snow somewhere. Mom will yell at me, but that’s okay. I’ll come back tomorrow and try to find it.

The cello seemed fine. It had just slid down and gotten stuck in the day’s fluffy snow.

Having cleaned herself more or less, the girl headed towards the forest. There should be less snow there – after all, it was just a snowdrift. It’ll be better in the forest, the child thought. She made her way, but, there was a lot of snow in the forest. Her fingers began to sting. It was too bad that she didn’t have that mitten. Živka continued walking. Her body was drenched with sweat, and her hands became cold. She put the cello down for a moment and put her hands into her sleeves like a handwarmer. They warmed up a bit, and then she went on. Afterwards, she warmed them again, and then went on. It was strange. There should be a clearing that was cut down for the power lines, but for some reason it was much further than it should have been. Živka was very cold. She squatted in the snow, cowering, and stayed there like that for a few minutes like a little rabbit. She kept her hands pressed between her legs. Then she continued, once again wading through the snow, sinking and stumbling. It appeared the cold was making fun of the girl. She rubbed her hands with snow. It was horribly unpleasant at the beginning, but then her hands began to warm up.

However, it only helped the first time, and the second time ... The third time, the snow just made them cold. Then Živka unbuttoned some of her clothes and pressed her palms right against her naked body, squeezing them under her armpits. She stood bent over like that: oh, how wonderful, how warm it was for her hands. She stood there for a while, then went on, because you’re not going to stand like that forever. You need to go on, you need to go on, it’s not that far anyway. Afterwards, the clearing appeared, but for some reason it didn’t look like what it was supposed to look like, but it was a clearing. But it didn’t seem like it, probably because she had gone off the path, and now it was hard to go that way exactly, because you couldn’t see the path at all. Nevertheless, there was a clear direction. Živka knew where her home was. She would get there.
Gradually, the wind began to whistle again, and even though it wasn’t strong, it was still wind. Little by little, it began to drift again. Faster, faster, I need to walk faster. Oh, those drifts were so deep, and her burden were so heavy. She was already dragging the cello. She didn’t have the strength to carry it anymore. It was getting dark, and the wind had covered the sky with clouds again. Živka crouched down, warmed her hands, and then ... then suddenly she saw a light flickering in the dis- tance ... between the trees ... Since it was between the trees, perhaps it wouldn’t even be right to say that it was in the distance. The light should have scared her in the night, because it was flickering where no one would expect it to. But the girl was cold, she was tired, and she approached it as if she was approaching her salvation. After walking a bit, she saw a bonfire clearly, and men sitting around it. There were a lot of men, and Živka was even more courageous, because there were so many of them, they must have been forest rangers of some sort ... or hunters ... Živka went closer. The bonfire lit up her face, and she felt the warmth. Oh, how she wanted to get closer to it and warm her hands.

Hello, Živka, one of the men said. He had a beard and was the oldest of them all. Come over to the bonfire, warm yourself up.

Živka didn’t ask how the bearded man knew her name. She went closer and warmed her hands. Oh, that’s great. She was flooded with warmth. She felt calm and safe.

Sit, girl, a somewhat younger man said and made a place for her on the edge of a log. Živka sat down and first looked at the fire, then began to examine the rather sullen men. One of them was frying a mushroom over the fire. A real mushroom, in the middle of winter. And another was roasting an apple. And the longer the girl observed these people, the stranger they became to her. She was able to count them: there were eleven of them.

Suddenly, the branches cracked, and yet another person appeared from the forest with a handful of sticks. The twelfth. Terrified, Živka recognised his red coat. He threw the sticks he had brought onto the ground and shot an already familiar smile at the girl ... It was Balandėlis. That wacko from the bus station.

She has a black box, Balandėlis said. And what is she carrying in the box? A dead body, maybe.

Živka wanted to scream, to say that it wasn’t true, but she didn’t say anything. After all, not all those men could be wackos. It wouldn’t be possible to meet twelve madmen all at once near a house in the middle of the forest. That doesn’t happen.

It’s a cello, an instrument, not a dead body, Živka said to the men by the fire. The men looked at her and were silent.

Play the cello for us, the one with the beard said.

I can’t, I can’t play, it’s cold now, the cello can’t play in this kind of cold. It’ll die. Why are you saying it’s cold? It’s not cold. Look at our friend Balandėlis.

Živka looked at Balandėlis and saw how he put his hand near the snow, waved his hand over it, and it melted. And then, Živka couldn’t believe it, but she saw it: hepaticas began to grow out of the ground.
Play for us, the one with the beard said. Play, play, the others replied in agreement.

She can’t play, because it’s not an instrument in there, it’s a dead body, Balandėlis said, howling with laughter.

No, no, it’s not a dead body, Živka protested. She was scared she was being accused of something that was not true, but everyone might start believing it. Živka got ready and opened the cello case. See, she said, it’s a cello.

It’s very elegant, the one with the beard said.

Play for us, play for us, the men begged one after another.

It really is a cello, Balandėlis said, laughing again. So play, and we will get you out of this forest.

Živka took the cello and the bow, and sat down on the tallest stump. The cello was too big, and she had not yet played one like that, but she would try now. She had to try. Only her fingers stung. They really stung. She played, and the melody rose with the flames of the fire, like sounds in an unknown, dying language, disappearing into space forever.

Živka played and played, and when she was quiet, Balandėlis said, let’s swap the cello for the hepaticas.
What a silly idea, Živka thought. No, no, I won’t.

Take them, take my hepaticas, the strange man begged. Give me the cello, give it to me.

Give our friend the cello, and we’ll give you a present. We will give you everything you want, the men said one after another.

No, no, Živka tried to shout.

Take the hepaticas, take the hepaticas, give me the cello, Balandėlis shouted and threw the spring flowers at Živka by the handful.

No, no, Živka whispered. She played again, and the pain flowed through her fingers along with the music.


Post Scriptum

And after they had dropped the girl off by the cemetery, when they had already driven on a good way and were already close to Žvinienė’s house, there was more and more snow, and the road was harder and harder to see. Then Žvinienė said, but did we do the right thing, Adomas, to drop that child off in the middle of the night? Adomas was worried as well. They turned round, almost getting stuck, but they turned round, drove to Bružienė’s, to that woman who was supposedly Živka’s grandma. The windows were dark, and Bružienė was asleep. They woke her up, knocked on her door: no, there was no girl here, no Navalinskaitė at all. She comes here pretty rarely, so, of course, she went home. Why is it such a surprise that she went home? She’s a big kid. The distance isn’t far, a couple of kilometers, what’s that? Bružienė closed the door, but Adomas said to Žvinienė, well, we’ve started, so let’s finish, let’s go to Vilma’s place. They drove there, but the child wasn’t there. Vilma opened the door, sober, as Žvinienė said, and everything in the house was in order. Vilma was so frightened that the girl wasn’t there that the bottle of baby milk for her child fell out of her hand. And then Vilma had an idea that maybe Živka had taken a short cut through the forest, because she always went that way. She let her white dog Dummy off his chain, threw on a coat and scarf, and went straight into the forest with Adomas along an invisible path that they could only guess at. Žvinienė stayed with the children, with Juliukas, who at first simply crouched under the table, and then, I even cried, Žvinienė said, he came, cuddled up to me, and asked, will they find Živilė? They’ll find Živilė, I said, they’ll find her, don’t worry, child. But she was worried. And the child laughed and kicked his legs. And you know, Žvinienė said afterwards to her sister Aniutė, they were well dressed, and the house was clean and warm. You couldn’t say that snot-covered children were crawling around in a hut. And then Juliukas sang me songs, because he said it made his little brother fall asleep. He really liked one particularly lullaby. He was such a wonderful child, so wonderful. It’s good that I had brought a few hard can- dies. And then, later on, always, when some conversation turned to the subject of Vilma, Žvinienė would cut them down with an axe. So what that all the children are by different fathers? Vilma loves them. She loves them.

And it was the dog that found Živka. It ran ahead. The snow was deep, but the dog was big, so it took big bounds, really big bounds. Then, when it was in the forest, it began to howl and yelp at the same time, as if it was sobbing, so it was clear not only to Vilma but also to Adomas that the dog had found her. Vilma began running as fast as she could, with Adomas running in front of her. Then all I heard was, Jeeesus, Jeeesus, Vilma shouted like that, it even seemed my heart had stopped, Adomas said. I thought that there was something horrible, but apparently, when she saw the cello case half-covered in snow under her feet in the dark, she was frightened, because she thought it was a person. And it almost was a person, because it seems her daughter, Živilė, had jumped into the case, right inside, and shut herself in. That was how the child froze while doing her best to save herself, but why she had taken off her coat, well, no one knows. Although they say that when it’s horribly cold, and a person is cold for a long time, they’re overcome by sleep, and for some reason they take their clothes off, as if they are going to bed. If it wasn’t for the dog, then they would have continued searching the area. What difference did it make that there was a case lying there? It’s clear that the child was around there somewhere. But that dog Dummy, what a dumb name, was just pawing at the case. All I did was undo the clasp, Adomas said afterwards, and it opened. And there was Živka, with almost no pulse. Then we ran. I took my coat off, wrapped the child up in it, and ran. Thank God we got back in time. So next time, just try dropping off those kids so far from home: “I’ll go to Grandma’s place,” and you see where she went.

Živilė was in the hospital for a long time. The girl’s fingers had frozen; if she did anything with them, they hurt straightaway. She couldn’t play anymore. And no one found the cello. Živka continued to ask, where is my cello, where is my cello, but they went to look for it, walked through the entire forest a few times: it wasn’t there. If someone had found it, then they took it. How are you going to find it now? What’s clear is that someone took it. After all, it was a nice, beautiful thing. Vilma still asked people in the area, but no one had seen or heard anything about it. What would they say if someone had taken it? You know, people are like that now. Better not ask stupid questions. You don’t know what they’ll do to you.

However, what’s interesting is that they did eventually bring the instrument case home. When they were carrying the child, it didn’t even enter their minds to take it. Vilma said I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t thinking about the case I just ran behind Adomas so that my child wouldn’t die. But afterwards, when they looked for the cello, they found the case in the same place they had left it. And it was strange that the case was full of frozen hepaticas. Živka said that she got them for a concert. For what concert, and why hepaticas?


Translated by Jayde Will your social media marketing partner



logo lrsThe Lithuanian Culture Institutelogo lim