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Rima Juškūnė (b. 1979) is a poet and author of two books, Irisai (“Irises”) (2015, published by Kauko laiptai) and Perikonas (“Pericón”) (2018, published by Kauko laiptai). Having graduated from Vilkija Secondary School, she got her BA in Lithuanian Philology in 2003 at the Kaunas Faculty of Humanities of Vilnius University and graduated from Atviros visuomenės kolegija (Open Community College). Later, Juškūnė studied at Aalborg University in Denmark, where she graduated with a BA in Danish Philology and Humanistic Informatics in 2011 and later received a Master’s degree in Information Technology and Interactive Digital Media in 2014. For a long time, she worked as a digital media and communications designer as well as a translator. Currently, Juškūnė is doing a PhD at the Scandinavian Studies Department of Vilnius University, basing her research on short multimodal and heteromedial Danish literature forms. She spends most of her time in Aalborg, is married, and has three children.

Juškūnė’s texts are filled with a perception of the body as an inevitable condition for human existence. The body becomes the center of the lyrical subject, through which and within which its particular experiences arise, such as desire, pain, illness, death, sensations of time and space, etc. The topographic poetic map that she draws is spread between Lithuania, Greenland, Norway, and Denmark.

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Graphic Novels

Photo from the personal archive

Laima Vinceby
Rima Juškūnė

 

 

 Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

The neighborhood grannies from my childhood used to grow dahlias near the fence: I was always afraid of the darkness and moisture between their leaves, even though their picked blossoms used to tickle me when I sniffed them. Late fall is the only time when I would sidle closer and observe through the net how, under slanting sunlight, the dahlia roots were dug up with arthritis-ridden fingers, watching until I felt calm again. Putting myself to sleep, I could smell the odor of burning potato stalks in my hair, hearing in the distance ducks rending the sky on their way toward warmer lands.

In those colorful and cobweb-ridden months during the first years of emigration, just like my mother once, I would open up a little preserved food factory in an apartment building in Aalborg: I would bring jars from the local supermarket, chuck in a handful of soda (why would you scrub brand new jars?), and delicately twist a sponge stuck on a fork around the slanting grooves of their necks, then scalding them with boiling water. I would then separate the wild rosehips I had been hulling well into the night, still feeling their bristles between my fingers. There are whole fields of them growing near the North Sea across the plateaus of dunes, mingled with bent grass and stunted pines cut by the sharp scissors of the wind. The nearby pine forests are full of heather, snakes, and mushrooms. I would not survive if not for this forest, I thought, as I trudged around, breathing the sweet scent coming from the adjacent bog and bypassing the bee hives squeezed between pines. Thickets of seaberries grow here, too – their bright orange juice, cut with blood, trickled into our jars.

In December, I dreamt with open eyes: the white crust of lard in grandma’s bucket in the entryway under the concrete stairs, the greasy, crumbly cookie crescents fried for the following day, the crisp circle of a Communion wafer on my tongue in the evening, glued to my palate, and the crisp surface of the snow when returning from Midnight Mass. The pulp of daytime cleaved by evening dusk, the sweet lamplight that blends dreams and memories... -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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She was five when on their way to work with her mother a gray car caught up with them. It went by and stopped in a parking lot about a kilometer further down the road. A faint chirping began to spread from the opened trunk. When they came closer, they saw yellow flickering spots in cardboard boxes. “Mom, can you buy me a chick?” she asked, fondly clasping her mother’s palm in her hands. She bought five and took them to work in a small paper box, and to give them more space, she unloaded a drawer and spread her daughter’s triangle-shaped kerchief on the surface, leaving the chicks to scamper inside.  That kerchief remained as a dowry for the chicks, when some time later they were moved to a cardboard box at home where they circled a jar wrapped in rags and filled with warm water. She would skittishly bend over the box’s side and observe the chicks, feeling their little legs, seeing if they’re not cold, and, after gathering her courage, take them in her palms and put their little beaks between her lips. The chick would then squeeze further, shoving its head into her mouth in an attempt to drink some saliva, tickling her tongue, and settling down after being soothed by the warmth and dampness. Short of air, she would take the chick out, wrap it in the kerchief, and explore its tiny ear cavities. These were the beginnings of their farm. The five chicks grew into highly respected hens that laid brown eggs, freely strolling around the yard enclosed with a fence of fine weave and bearing new offspring. In late spring, mother would put the hatchlings in an empty cup in her bra, the cup that once housed a breast, and take them on a bicycle ride home. Men out for a smoke would frequent the entrance to the stairway: they were puzzled as to the source of that strange tweeting they heard every time when mom walked past them…

Father always reeked of cigarettes. He smoked a lot, always in the balcony, dumping his ash over the edge into the neighbor’s garden below. “Aphids won’t touch the flowers,” he would say. When she later grew a wart the size of a raspberry on her index finger, she would secretly gather father’s cigarette butts, light them, and use the burning ends to rub the top of the wart. She had heard that these procedures can help remove that puffy blue-white formation, with its nourishing capillary strands a shade browner than billberry seeds. She had also heard that you should put a grasshopper on it and rub it with milk from the spurge plant. After a week of such efforts to scorch the burgeoning blossom, her hands and lips began to reek. “Don’t sit in the balcony when father’s smoking, you’ll ruin your lungs,” mother would tell her when she smelled the tobacco. It never occurred to her to smell the girl’s mouth or inspect her hands. Among the cigarette butts under the balcony she searched the field for grasshoppers: dark green and the bigger the thighs, the better, she would squeeze their legs with her fingers and make them bite her despised sprout with their four retractable maxilla. The maxilla releases a drop of glistering brown fluid and swamp the furrows and cavities of the wart, by then already bistered from burning. The grasshoper’s broken off leg would serve as sacrifice to the teeming deities of the fields for her finger to get better. When she slunk into the garden to dig for some potatoes for lunch, she would break the crispy stems of the spurges in half and poke the unrecognizably changing formation. After two weeks’ worth of procedures the wart had morphed into a scab as thick as an insole, and one morning she woke up to find a round pink patch of skin in its place: roused, she began to look for the fallen scab among the bedsheets as if it were a lost treasure, which she would then store in a little box of trinkets painted with red flowers.

When trembling with fever in bed, she would be wrapped in her only fluffy blanket, yellowed with age, her feet stuffed in itchy homemade socks. Mother used to shear the sheep, pick the wool and teasel it one tuft at a time using a comb she had made herself, pulling the yarn between her fingers, occasionally licking the threads and stopping the foot pedal, and in order to not get them too tangled, she would twist the threads into skeins and wash them with lye soap: it was a way for mother to go back to the lost time before the exile, when her own mother was still young, her brothers healthy and alive, when she herself, the youngest child, would always run to the garden for some pears or apples. A birch grove grew there, full of strawberries and button mushrooms, where their gourmand horse used to graze. In the middle of the night, men carrying automatic rifles illuminated their home, gathered the children, put them in trucks and took them away in an unknown direction… Grandma used to pluck geese in the Kol’dzha village kolkhoz: the local women doused them in boiling water, but she plucked them dry so that she would not have to dry the down afterward. For the price of three silk scarfs that she had managed to snatch back in Lithuania, she bought some flour and a sewing machine from an old lady with cloudy eyes. She sewed everything for herself and for the whole village, for the women – percale dresses with a fine floral print, so that every lady would bloom come springtime in the village… When she had gathered enough feathers, she made a blanket for herself: a blanket so big it was enough to cover her and her three children. She brought that blanket with all her children to Kaunas, together with her shriveled-up husband who had just got released from the work camp. The commandant at the train station inquired as to what was she carrying on her back, like some hump or mountain. “Koldra,”[1] she replied with a smirk, already fluent in Russian. This “koldra” now warmed her granddaughter’s shivering, goose-bumped skin.

She waited, with her chest heaving from heat and anxiety, for her father to come and lay his wide, cigarette-reeking palm on her forehead: for he was experienced in these matters, he had raised children previously and knew how to swaddle them and take care of them. His palm was a reliable thermometer and could not slip off and shatter, releasing mercury. It was also the most accurate scale for flour for baking Easter pie and for weighing bundles of wool, lamb, or rabbit. His span was a ruler, his step – a meter that he used while building the shanty for that dream house under the lindens. A house he did not build, but the dream was a resilient one, fed by his wife’s longing for the home that had been taken away, a longing for button mushrooms that grew in the birch grove… When father’s palm would descend to his daughter’s forehead like a large plane, and his thumb raced across her eyelashes like wheels released the last minute before landing, she would lie there, breathing as little as possible to not ruin the accuracy of the temperature observed. If she was feverish, father would tell mother to bring a crushed pill mixed with honey and give it to their daughter. He would then sit by the bedside on a chair upholstered in green tapestry and read to her: a long, dark tale. A tale about the fire fox and the wooden man with a fat blunt nose, about the Grim Reaper devouring the mill’s sails, about the white horse with folded towels for a saddle, about the deer and the wooden boy who plugged a bullet hole in the deer’s side with a wisp of rye and fastened it with a patch so that it wouldn’t fall out… When she closed her eyes, she saw a great green face with round eye sockets and a small wooden horse with a rider on its back, she saw the small black eyes of the wooden boy’s mouse. As father murmured, the green face from the book kept expanding until it filled the whole room with tawny flowers on the ceiling, while her consciousness merged with the thickening darkness of the corridor…----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

She enjoyed the official capacity to use a completely new last name. The naming of her dependency. A last name in her passport declaring her now to be an -ienė[1] like a diagnosis of sorts. A workaholic or an alcoholic, a lover of sweets or a sewer, a scientist, or a painter. Her dependency on her father was finally severed in these documents. She could finally love him freely, without any proof, like spirit of remembrance she had created for herself that she was forced to squeeze into the physical form of her father each time they saw each other. His languishing muscles and flabby cheeks that brushed her face when they hugged. The pleasure she hides for that time he got mad at her when she splashed a cup of water on him as a child. He’s getting old. He has but a single tooth now, which reminds her of the plastic nose on the Buratino doll she got for her birthday. She can’t remember how old she was, but that time father had taken her by the hand, and they went to the “universal store” on the hillside. She hugged a yellow plastic Buratino from the bottom shelf: it was almost as tall as her and wore a carrot-colored hat made of artificial leather. When they returned home, mother was unnerved by Buratino’s sharp nose, saying that it should be cut lest their daughter poke her eyes out with it. But she slept in Buratino’s embrace, with one hand clutching mother’s palm. She later gnawed on Buratino’s nose and felt the rough and sweet frayed plastic with her tongue. The hat got torn and lost. She remembered Buratino’s head, covered in plastic hair with barely palpable bubbles, when giving birth to her first child. Even before his head had come out, she felt with her whole pelvis those round little bubbles rubbing against her bones. The newborn’s nose was also big: she would often want to bite that nose, or lick it at least. The kid smelled of wet chicken and chuckled from these kisses, until the boy began to speak. And then he said: “eeeeww…” So, she stopped. ------------------

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The city that she had left was the same city that she lives in now: the monument of a stone ox, reiterated like a stamp in the city’s coat of arms, a similar number of inhabitants, an industrial district with long chimney necks emitting balls of white smoke that get carried away with the clouds. The boiler room windows with thick frames made of gleaming tin that stare at cars passing by, each time serving as reminders of the pulsating heat supply piping beneath the asphalt that connects the whole city with hot and cold fluid. The heating pipes and the electricity and gas grids, the stores and petrol stations all made an intertwining web, overlapping each other in the weave of the city’s muscles with white and red bodies of car lights that float in the lymph of traffic. A city translated into a different language that retains meanings almost identical with the past. If owls made of concrete suddenly hooted from atop the cemetery fence that she passes when taking her children to kindergarten, or if a funicular car ascended the hill behind the cemetery, she wouldn’t even flinch.

There’s no funicular here, only a restaurant round as a pancake – a can of sardines raised 105 meters above sea level on clumsy constructions. A lift sliding between legs of gray metal, which takes tourists up during the summer season to gobble ice cream above the city’s rooftops clad in clay tiles. They ascend, often most speaking German to each other, akin to spiders with their little designer backpacks filled with water bottles and medicine, their hair gray and trim, their wilted bodies scarcely betraying their past gender, rubbing their thinning bones against each other and the steel handrails and wiping the sweat of their brows with backs of their hands. When they ascend, as soon as they touch their ice cream cups, they observe the city with a touristic stare; when their ice cream runs out, they lick their spoons, leave the cups on the table, and switch to their everyday gaze. They swipe their cards along the payment reader and, holding onto the handles and each other, slide downwards on the elevator. Below, they face heat and a temporary clamor: a squadron of kindergarten kids move past them, the gazes of the tourists following the children like the clothes they grew out of being donated to a second-hand store.

 A woman gathers her children by the side of the road, holding onto them by their little backpack handles as if they were protruding from the children’s spines. When they make their way to the top, they stack those backpacks in the grass while the children, as if they were released from some invisible leash, begin to prance around the tower and fling little stones at each other: they pick these from the gravel surrounding the foot of the tower and stuff their pockets with them while scooping the finer pieces with their shoes. “Let’s go now,” she says, “it’s time to go home, we’ll get some stuff at the store for dinner.” On her way back, she sticks her nose in the shrubbery and takes a deep breath: “Just look at the olives blossoming! … Hey kids, how many springs is it for you guys, huh? Count them.” The older brother squats on the grass, raises his head, and begins to count his and his brother’s age. The other two keep flinging stones and trying to push each other into the nettles. The olives are foaming, layering the wide, flickering shadows with their fresh and creamy leaves. This soil, replete with limestone and shale… how is it so fertile? Starlings hop across the field’s edges, occasionally pulling a finger-sized worm out with their dark yellow beaks, bending their heads back and swallowing it.

When it rains, in the very beginning of May, the asphalt in the parking lot starts to burst and curl. She then gets up half an hour earlier to get the kids ready, while the little one grabs a bucket before going outside: always collecting those worms. “Regnorm, regnorm, look, another one here, regnorm!” He keeps shouting while hunkering down and slapping his thighs from excitement. The child collects earthworms escaping rain: long, fat, and alive, slithering all across the parking lot, as if the people living in this building had all tossed out their shoestrings after getting out of their cars yesterday evening. He gathers the living ones into his bucket and picks the dead ones up using two fingers and throws them out on the grass, and the ones that are flat and stuck to the asphalt he tries to scratch off with his nail, eventually leaving them be. “Eeeew…” he shudders and contorts his lips. When the bucket is full, he picks it up, the tip of his tongue between his teeth, and drags it to a place further among the trees, where he dumps it out on the ground in the bushes. The living castle begins to twist and dissolves into a hundred tiny fibers that slowly sink into the ground. The boy squats down and looks with awe at how the last worm disappears under last year’s foliage, then turns his head: “Mom, how does it breathe there, under the earth? Does it have a nose?” “Hmm, let me see,” his mother mumbles. They both sit on the nearby park bench. She googles worms and their anatomy. Wiki tells them: “Worms are annelids who have a mouth, gut, and a nerve ring that breathe through the surface of their bodies.” They both trudge down the road toward the kindergarten where everybody will get to hear the story about the worm, that he had a bucket full of them, how they all disappeared underground, and how they breathe, and little Danes will learn another Lithuanian word – sliekas – at least for that day… --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It is fall now and she needs comfortable fur-lined shoes. In them she would bury her toes that stick together and grow pale whenever the weather gets colder. She goes to the Magazin, grabs a pair of black knee-high boots, and sits down to try them on. In front of her, sitting on a black leather seat is an anxious woman, perhaps a little older than her, who tries to squeeze her leg into all of the knee-high boots that the store has. Having squeezed a particularly neat one over her dried up shin, the saleswoman raises her eyes and looks at her with an inquiring look. “Great shoes, they really complement your legs,” she says. The face of the inquiring woman turns into a frown, her gaze skipping between one shoe and the other, before she boldly rises and without looking at her squawks the following words through her porcelain teeth: “I am a true Dane, unlike you!” and swiftly marches toward the cash register with the admired pair of shoes under her arm. Her finger slightly trembling, she pays for the shoes and turns on her heel straight toward the exit. She is left to examine the pile of shoes strewn near her seat; a young Chinese woman comes over to pick them up. The Chinese woman asks her in perfect Danish: “Can I get you the second shoe?” “Thank you,” she replies, “maybe later, I’m not sure this one is my size.” ---------------------------------------------------------------

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She kept jumping on the rocks, her thick shoes absorbing the blows, but her ankles eventually gave in and began to quiver like an antenna wire struck with a finger. The ice floes crackled nearing the shore, but always followed the tide in the northwestern direction. One time the kids saw a flock of seagulls squawking and gliding near the water. The woman took her rifle, laid it on her right shoulder and aimed down the sights at the spot. A gray triangle emerged, which attracted the seagulls who kept catching the remains of shrimp being scattered. She learned that there are so many species of whales only when she visited the local fishing store. They had meat redder and richer than beef, which tasted like a cross between fish and beef when stewed with carrots and onions. A poster as tall as her hung on the inner side of the store’s doors: the twelve species of whale drawn there looked like beings from the tale of Atlantis or at the very least reminded her of the ocean section of the story of Noah’s Ark. When she paused, hesitant, near the prickly fish and the thick stripes of whale skin, her ears, poking out from her knitted cap, picked up the soft Greenlandic dialect: “You go ahead and buy yourself a chicken,” the fish vendor laughed. ----------------------------------

And then – nights that lasted for months and shaggy dogs that bawled unceasingly: there were approximately as much dogs as there were inhabitants, 200 meters west the dead were stacked in a chapel waiting for spring, and 200 meters east – the living, in apartment containers, waiting for dawn. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Father is not around anymore, but he is even more real now: he appears anyplace and speaks to me. When I go back and drag bags of soil for the flowers on his grave, I can hear him giggling: “Are you planting a garden here now?” But I need those flowers: I can hunker down and pull the weeds and feel his bones turning dark below me, knowing that it all lies in this thin layer of soil resting between here and there, then, and now. Just water and air between Lithuania and Denmark, between Norway and Greenland: shrinking and expanding.

One September morning, as I’m putting on a dress with a fine floral print, I will plan to go and stuff dahlias in along the fence. When I was a child, I was afraid of the darkness and moisture between their leaves, even though their plucked blossoms gave me a pleasant tickle when I sniffed them. The neighbor’s kid keeps chatting me up, finding my pronunciation a little weird and funny. He sticks his nose through our gate and watches me: how I’m messing about in the flower garden or changing my son’s bicycle tire… In the early morning, as wild ducks glide in their black formations eastward, I think about how in early spring, when they bury our stout knuckles, there will surely sprout the new, blossoming, slightly damp, rich, faintly green light of this overflowing time.

 

1. The word for “blanket” in some Slavic languages.

2. In Lithuanian, it is common for married women to assume the last names of their husbands with the suffix -ienė, so that they are not only gender-specific, but also reveal the woman’s marital status.

 

 Author photo by Vladas Ščiavinskas

 

 

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