The Collector

My observations of the world have led me to believe our sympathy for others is frequently based on selfish motives. Although I cannot be sure, there is a chance that, with a few exceptions it is always the case. Imagine this scenario: It’s Someone’s funeral. A rainy autumn day, asters wilting in the cold wind, the casket, the open pit in the ground, darkly-clad shivering people, mournful mood in the air. You are standing behind somebody’s back, a bit to the side because you don’t belong to the family and came here only to show your respects to the deceased, whom you had known only but slightly, and therefore you are able to perceive everything rather impartially. You see the casket being lowered into the pit, you hear somber music. What else? The cry of the widow: “Oh, how can I live without him?! He is mine! He is my sweetheart!”
Along these lines. Do you see it? “I, mine, my…” Nobody really cares about the expired and how uncomfortable it might to be lifeless to him, having lost everything. No. It’s only, “I can’t live without him,” “we won’t survive without him,” etc. Can you see my point here? All those tears are just an indication of selfishness, nothing else.
If you thoroughly examine your own feelings it won’t be hard to reach the conclusion that we are all similar and thus you are like me. Then you will understand why I can’t stand sick people, even the closest to me. I feel a heavy burden of responsibility for their survival, like I must somehow help them but can’t, and that drives me crazy. It’s an extremely uncomfortable emotional state to me and I would like to avoid it.
Back in the sixties a person very close to me fell ill, and my luck (or the lack of it) led me to take care of him — feed, wash, dress and undress, etc. — for he had no one but me. Being a reasonable man and knowing my views on nursing, he didn’t demand my fulltime presence and attention to his calamity. Nevertheless, I still had to be around to help him if necessity arose, and, out of the killing boredom, I read newspapers. Usually, I don’t care about the rubbish the papers like to print, but the whole house contained nothing else but technical books, which I couldn’t understand anyway and wouldn’t have tried to entertain myself by attempting to.
One morning, after breakfast, I was browsing newspaper personals. Among various ads that let me know of the availability of a black poodle, motorcycle parts, some furniture, strollers, garage doors, and more, there was one that I didn’t notice at first but later came back to, for it looked like there had been some error. The ad said: “Collection for sale. Sunsets.” The address and the best time to contact the seller were printed below. At first I thought “Sunsets” belonged to the address line, but after reading more attentively I realized it wasn’t a part of the address. But then there was the obvious lack of information. What sort of collection? What did sunsets have to do with it? Was it a photographic collection? Paintings? Movies? Rather a strange ad. Later, I couldn’t explain even to myself why I tore the ad from the newspaper and put it in my pocket. Automatically. Not unlike when people pick up and save something they absolutely don’t need: a pebble of an unusual shape, a clamshell from the sand, a feather.
A few months passed. My friend fully recovered, and I was living my usual life again. In late fall, accidentally (I would say ‘by chance’. Although used colloquially the way you have, in writing ‘accidentally’ is reserved for events that occur involuntarily or beyond our control. I would even say ‘I chanced to find myself’ but your writing voice is more direct so use ‘by chance’) I found myself in the area that was mentioned in the newspaper ad. Sure enough, I didn’t need any collection and wasn’t looking for one. It’s only my curiosity that made me look at the place from the ad.
The house was there, a wooden structure on a stone base. It must have been quite old, for there was grass growing in the concrete cracks. Also, there was a truck in the driveway, surrounded by trash: old magazine covers, pieces of paper, shapeless rags, wire coat-hangers. Four men in gray overalls trying to move an old-fashioned wooden chest through the door were taking directions from a younger, a blond man in an unbuttoned raincoat, its skirt flapping in the wind. The blond man was smiling and joking with the movers. It took a minute or so for him to notice me standing there. He walked up and said, “You are a friend of his, right?” Actually, he didn’t say “his”, he used a name, but I missed it and didn’t feel like asking him to repeat the question. It just wasn’t important, as I didn’t know anyone there anyway. The blond man, however, was still there waiting for my answer. It was a little awkward for a moment, but then I remembered about the newspaper ad in my pocket and showed it to him. This seemed to make things clear to him. “Oh, I see. You are one of those,” he said. “Well, not really,” I said, as I had no idea who ‘those’ were, but he decided not to pay attention to my objection and continued like I was one of those after all: “He is gone. I guess he felt he was about to pass when he placed the ad. I am his son. The property is going on sale. We are cleaning it up.” He took my arm: “Let’s go inside. I’ll show you where they are. All the closets were full of them, so we moved everything into one room. He himself kept everything very orderly, but it’s a mess now. I thought it was all trash and nobody wanted it, was going to throw it away. You can have it all. To me, it’s still junk, useless. You know, to make it even easier, we’ll load them into the truck alongside the furniture and drop it off at your place. It will be faster this way. How about that?”
Without breaking the chatter, he was walking me through empty rooms with yellowish stained wallpaper. It smelled of cinnamon and wet spider webs. Clear traces on the floors where furniture had been standing for very long time. At one door, he stopped: “Here they are.”
I had not had any expectations, but perhaps had inadvertently assumed it would be a collection of some kind, while there was none. Just a pile of various containers: mostly coffee cans, but also cartons from other foodstuffs, perfume boxes, brown vitamin bottles, plastic cups with lids, glass jars wrapped in dark paper, you name it. Some had handwritten labels attached to them with glue or a rubber band, others only had traces of glue — evidence of some labels in the past. The man repeated, “Here they are.” “What?” “The sunsets,” he said and kicked a can. By the sound it made while rolling across the room, there was nothing inside.
He looked at my face, which must have showed disappointment. “My father constantly complained about packaging, the lack of it. All the neighbors knew and brought him cans as soon as they were empty. A good number of them here, aren’t there? You know, at first, he started out collecting sunrises but later switched to sunsets. He got interested quite late in life and didn’t have time for both. As he grew older, it became harder for him to wake up for sunrises, especially in summer when sun rises very early. Sunsets were more convenient. Sunrises, you can have them too if you like, they are in the basement, pretty much no labels… It would be much easier for me if you took everything.”
I declined, though. It was already going to be a burden. My place was rather small and this amount of junk would make it unlivable. Until I threw all of it away, that is. The blond was trying to make his problem mine, but he didn’t push when I said, “Sorry, sunrises are beyond my area of interest.” “OK,” he said, “no problem.”
With the movers gone, alone in my apartment, facing the pile of junk, I started swearing aloud at my own stupidity. I took a can, shook it, but there was no sound inside and I threw it back on the pile. Now I chose a can with a label that said “1946, Spring” and some coordinates beneath, latitude and longitude. For a split-second, it seemed to me that it made a tiny high-pitched sound, but when I jiggled it again I could hear nothing. Just an empty can. I saw myself in the mirror on the wall, with a can at my ear, the look of an idiot.
In the kitchen, I found a knife and opened the can. For lack of right word, I would say I was petrified, but in fact it was more than that, much more. Silver light filled the room. Things — furniture, cans, books, everything — disappeared. All I was seeing was a side of the sky with the sun very low on the horizon. A strange foreign place, bathed by bright red and shimmering light. Like reflections of fire on silver dishes. A few clouds of ivory porcelain hung in front of the blue backdrop, and a disk of sun the color of raspberries. The sky wasn’t evenly blue. At the top it was green like the fresh grass in spring, at the bottom like a ripe pear, with the golden hue spreading upwards in a glowing fan. The air was clear like gin in a glass, but you could feel a hint of fatigue there, a slight weariness.
It was a true sunset. It lasted a very short time, only a few minutes, until the sun set completely. I closed the can and put it back on the pile. I felt lightheaded.
It took about half an hour for the vertigo to go away. I started examining the labels. They only had the year, the season, and location on them, nothing else. I found a few containers from before World War II, three or four from the war years; however, most of them were from the last twenty years. I tidied the cans, more or less, stacking them against the wall, and went for a walk. I needed to think things over with a clear head.
It took me a month to go through all cans. More than ten a day, it was very exhausting, physically impossible. I would get vertigo, lose my orientation in space and time, and all awareness of who I was. So ten was the limit I never crossed. Much later, I established a rule for myself to never open more than three on the same day. But at the time, I was obsessed like somebody who almost died in the desert from thirst and now can’t stop gulping water down as if it were about to run out. I couldn’t understand how I had never paid any attention to sunsets, but also how that man, the collector, managed to get so close to me. Now, I knew him no less than myself. Sure, he was dead and buried, nevertheless there was a strong link, like a golden wire, between us. Perhaps stronger than any connection I had to anyone during my lifetime. My opinion about him was based on his selection of keeper sunsets: their colors, their lines, and moods. Some of his sunsets left me untouched, some I just liked, but others were magic, so flawless and powerful. They were like open windows into his soul. It had never occurred to me that it was possible to judge someone by sunsets that he or she had either liked or disliked. Without knowing any details, I was able to feel that man’s solitude like my, to be aware of his pain and the anxieties from which he himself was free now. Sometimes, it was necessary to watch a sunset a few times to perceive what he worried about at the time. There were no casual sunsets; all were significant, only you had to find their meaning. With time, I made my selection of about twenty that I never tired of watching, and every time I would discover more and more meaning in them. I would watch the rest only occasionally, if I needed additional guidance to fully appreciate the main ones.
The whole world acquired new, incredible breadth and depth for me. One day, I went to the house where it all started, hoping to find the sunrises, too. The door stayed locked for too long–evidence the house was still unoccupied and that I might succeed. However, finally the door opened slightly, and I saw the suspicious face of an old wrinkled woman. I pretended to be a friend of the deceased and asked her which cemetery he was buried in, but she didn’t know. Nor did she know about the son’s whereabouts. Before all hope was gone, I mentioned sunrises. She was startled: “Sunrises! What sunrises?”
“In cans,” I explained. “They should have been in the basement.”
Well, not very surprisingly, she muttered “madman” and shut the door. While walking away, I could still hear the woman rambling inside, “they poisoned my cat… but that wasn’t enough… I need to call the police… I will definitely sue…” That was the last time I saw the house. The cemetery warden wasn’t cooperative either. Too many people die, it’s not possible to memorize all of them, he would occasionally remember the casket, but not who was inside.
As time went on, a feeling emerged that I should have something of my own, personal, intimate. The fancy soon turned nagging and, before I consciously committed to it, I started hoarding empty cans and tight boxes. I chose lakes, as I always found them somehow appealing. I took a weeklong vacation and hit the road. After three gloomy days, the fourth was quite agreeable, and by evening I was ready. I have to admit, my anxiety and fear of failure were enormous. True enough, my first attempts were not very fortunate, albeit it didn’t take long to figure out my mistake. It’s not enough to watch the sun setting, you have to live it. You need to concentrate all your essence, thoughts and feelings — love, passion, desire, sorrow — into one thing, the sunset. It is difficult, though. Not every sunset is capable of lifting your inner being to such levels. Another impediment: you can experience only one sunset a day. You will not see it ever again. You only have one shot and you either hit or miss forever.
All that happened fifteen years ago. Today, I am able to say I accomplished it. For a great many days, I have been adding to my own collection, tirelessly hunting for sunsets on every occasion that befalls me. The selection–weeding out weaker sunsets and keeping the better ones–takes a lot of time and effort, but it has been worth it: my set is beautiful, neat, and tight. In a way, I have become a virtuoso at it. I only need a split-second to discern the merit of a sunset, and whether it will be suitable for my collection or not.
I’ve been retired for two years now. Understandably, my last sunset is not that far away. I will see it, but won’t be able to add it to my collection. I travel a lot these days. In some places, locals know me by name, and children offer their help in carrying my cans around. Nobody knows why I come, although it’s possible one day I will explain to them the purpose of my visits, tell them all I know about sunsets and this world. It’s becoming harder and harder for me to walk long distances with the load on my back. I haven’t decided yet what will happen to my collection at the end. One option is to sell it while I have time, though I could just give it away as a gift, eventually. Thus, don’t be surprised if you see an ad in a newspaper:
“A collection for sale. Sunsets.”
That will be me.

The Clan Of The Centaur

Translated by Tadas Klimas/Published in Lituanus magazine Volume 34, No. 2 Summer 1988

Something lies within us that causes us to draw in and creep about like a thief in the darkness of the night, or like a man who, dizzy with wine, greatly offends his master and then apprehensively awaits the morning to see how it all will end. From whence has it come? This sentiment is not characteristic solely of me. I remember how Kukovaitis, my father, would suddenly start awake from his seemingly peaceful noontime siesta and would dart his gaze about as if looking for some foe lying in ambush. I did not know why he used to do this. I thought perhaps he was really concerned for his life. But only when I reached a mature age did I realize the enemy forcing us to twitch awake and stare about resides within our very selves. But even further, I have now seen several times how my young son, Šventaragis, while playing, or practicing archery, or deep in thought, will suddenly start. His pupils will narrow and his muscles will tighten like those of a lynx before a leap. All of us — including my father, and myself, and Šventaragis, are healthy and strong men, who should grab life by the horns and throw it on its side, who should make life kneel to us, who should make of life a useful tool to achieve our purposes with. But we have a certain indolence, a certain indecision of action and thought that makes us resemble a hand with its fingers outspread, through which life pours like sundried sand.
Instead of ourselves ruling life, we allow ourselves to be ruled by it. We all of the time are waiting for something? however, judging from the way we act during this waiting, this something must be — disaster.
It seems to me someone of our family once made a mistake, and the results of this mistake have continued to persecute us. I even believe I know what kind of error it was. In a word, it seems to me the cause of our weakness must be searched for in the past.
Varšas told me the tale.
Varšas lay halfsitting on bear hides amongst a multitude of figures of men and animals carved from elm and juniper wood and smeared with grease mixed with ash. Many who have seen these figurines believe them to be tiny idols which he reveres and to which he prays silently when alone. But Varšas has explained to me that these are representations of those men and beasts whose lives he has taken over the course of his own unusually long existence. Still, I believe Varšas only told half the truth: his own life, in this way incarnating itself in so many different representations, has through the course of time become itself a holy thing to him. I think Varšas has deified his own life to such an extent that his real life appears to him not to be his own, but that of everyone. Listening on windy nights to the sounds of the forest, earth, air, and houses, Varšas imagines he has lived so long only because the lives of those he has killed have devolved to him.
It may be I am wrong, and the wooden figures are merely carved pieces of wood Varšas keeps to decorate his room, like a former hunter who decorates his home with the horns of elk and bison he has shot.
“Tell me, Varšas,” I say to him, “Why have you decorated your room with those you have destroyed and not with those you have created?”
His white lips part just the thinnest amount into a smile? the ends of his fingers, thin with age, tremble.
“You’ll find out when you reach my age, Utenis.”
Varšas’ voice is gentle and pleasant, and, after he speaks, the air in the room vibrates for a time. Varšas is dodging the question. But his answer is not really important to me.
What is paramount is Varšas understands life. That is what I want to ask him about.
Varšas is my servant who does not serve. No, that is not quite correct. He performs no chores and brings me no flagons of water to drink? he does not prepare my bed and does not bring to it Princess Visgal?. He is too old for these things. But he serves us in other ways. Along the difficult road to awareness Varsas is our sole support. Varšas extends us a hand when we become tangled up in our thoughts, when we no longer know what to do, when we cannot think of how to punish the guilty, when, in sum, we want to know who, indeed, it is we are.
Varšas knows how to write letters. He served my father Kukovaitis? while yet a boy he served my grandfather Živinbudas. He has to know the answers to many questions that leave me no peace. He who knows how to write letters knows such secrets as people carry to their graves without having disclosed them to a living soul. There is no reason Varšas should hide anything from me.
He takes a strip of dried venison and begins to suck upon it, at the same time chewing it with his pale, soft gums. A small pile of dried meat lies before him on the table. Sucking on the meat, Varšas’ eyes darken with pleasure, but their gaze is still riveted on me. It seems Varšas’ glance holds it against me, that I am not as old.
The door is wide open. Outside the sun shines and wind blows. The north wind makes the trees dance and shake along with the bushes, the grass, and the few white clouds in the sky. The pure light of the sun is indifferent towards the earth. It is cold. I wrap myself tighter in my cloak, thinking of how best to explain to Varšas what it is I would like from him. Here, in the half-light Varšas’ body seems light and transparent. At any moment Varšas could melt away like ice.
“Varšas,” I say, “I want you to explain something to me.”
He says nothing, merely gazing at the raging wind outside and at the swallows shooting across the fields. I could swear he knows the question I have come to ask him.
“How is it, Varšas, that we, living almost at the very center of our country, always feel as if we were at the ends of the earth? As if something were guarding us from the whole world, just like a gardener guards his vegetables.”
Varšas shakes his head, not answering.
“No, Varšas,” I say, “You know the answer. I command you. Give us the answer we are waiting for.”
“You can order me or not, just as you please. At my age that signifies nothing.”
“Answer me, Varšas.” My tone suddenly loses its sharpness.
Varšas shakes his head, not answering.
“No, Varšas,” I say, “You know the answer. I command you. Give us the answer we are waiting for.”
“You can order me or not, just as you please. At my age that signifies nothing.”
“Answer me, Varšas.” My tone suddenly loses its sharpness.
“People are happy when they are able to live quietly and without worry. It would be hard to imagine a life more peaceful than yours and your son’s and your intimates’. You are fortunate. The whole world of people boils and bubbles like a kettle of fat meat. It brims with danger, for people are predatory. You have no fear of such dangers, for no one has an eye to your domains or your life.”
“Varšas, whatever I do, I always feel eyes fixed on me. I turn around swiftly, as unexpectedly as possible, but I see no one watching me. But, even so, there is someone watching me. They watched my father like that, and they are watching Šventaragis. We are all awaiting an attack. What is going on, Varšas? You know the answer.”
“I know,” quietly says Varšas. “I know.”
A swallow flies into the room, circles around our heads, squawks, and flies outside again. There are many of those birds in this area, but right now I am excited and the swallow’s flight into the room seems to me to be a sign with which to shut Varšas’ mouth, to stop him from saying anything. A half sigh, half moan forces itself from me. My emotions are stretched to the limit. But Varšas does not see any of that. Now he, having fixed his eyes on one point, is searching for words with which to begin to speak.
So, like I say, Varšas told me the tale.
“The Centaur is to blame for everything,” he says. “And Ju?as, Jeremferden’s servant. That was long ago.”
Varšas’ voice waxes stronger and then weaker, as if he were singing a long, slow hymn.
“But even longer ago, Mandazig’s son Attila appeared? he, who, for his cruel nature, was named the Scourge of God. He murdered his three brothers — Achiar, Rocha, and Bledon — and the princess of a far land with eleven thousand of her handmaids who had sinned against no one. He liked thick, flowing blood. He enjoyed the color red, and his nostrils trembled like a wolf’s at the pungent scent of warm blood. Having murdered his brothers, Attila reigned by himself in Hungary. With five hundred men of his clan, also thirsty for blood, he went, to Italy, and everything living ran from him to hide in the cracks of the earth. Marcus Antonius Palemon, the son of the king of Pontus, became afraid of the word spreading about Attila and, with four clans of patricians, took flight in ships. After many long wanderings in oceans and seas, they reached the river Nemunas and sailed upstream, looking for a place where they could stop and live without fear, for they were ever haunted with a vision of Attila breathing down their necks. Sailing up the Nemunas, they came to the river Dubysa, turning up which they found high hills on either side, and, beyond those hills, wide meadows and luxuriant oak forests, full of game — bison, aurochs, elk, stag, deer, lynx, marten, fox, squirrel, ermine, and all sorts of others while the river teemed with unusual fish, and not only those which bred locally, but also many which came in from the sea, as the mouth of the Nemunas was not far.
Near these rivers, the Nemunas and the Dubysa, and near the sea, they settled and multiplied. They called that land Žemaitija.
The four clans of patricians who arrived here together were these: the totems of the Centaur, the Pillars, the Bear, and the Rose. Their leaders were Dausprung, Prospero Cezarine, Julian, and Hector. Palemon had three sons of whom only one, K?nas, had descendants: Kernius and Gimbutas. These also had a son apiece. To Kernius was born Živinbudas, and to Gimbutas, Mantvila. And when Živinbudas had as many years as now does your son Šventaragis, Prince Kernius took me from Bis?nai at the age of eleven to serve him and his son Živinbudas.
“No, Varšas,” I say to him, “My grandfather’s name was not Kernius. You yourself said the Centaurs descended from Dausprung. You made a mistake, Varšas. That was so long ago.”
“Attend me softly, prince. I have not erred. Your grandfather in truth was the brother of Mantvila, Gimbutas son. And you would to this day be the prince of the Palemons, if not for Ju?as, may he not be reborn to a new life.”
Varšas becomes silent, gathering his thoughts about the most important things, while I sit completely still and feel my face growing warm.
“Ju?as was first seen by Sudvajus, Horsemaster for Prince Kernius, as Ju?as, having swum the river, waded out from it and dried his clothes on the sun heated sand of the riverfront. Ju?as was a massive man. About thirty five years of age, strong as a beast and with eyes of an indescribable color, eyes which pierced everything to and through. If of four jugs only one held milk, Ju?as would reach right for that one, without even having lifted the cover to see what was inside. Ju?as had one tremendous singularity: on his whole massive body, there was not a single hair. Not on his head, nor on his neck, nor under his arms, nor below his belly, like other men. He did not even have eyebrows, and his eyelids were without lashes. Ju?as’ sun reddened skull was just exactly like the egg of a thrush. This all appeared very unusual, and we all would have wondered greatly at it, but Ju?as bore himself as if not we should wonder at him, but that instead Ju?as should wonder more at us. I would not, however, say that Ju?as was haughty. For he could have presented himself as being a free man, and no one would have doubted it. But all the same he introduced himself as being a servant.
“I am Ju?as, the servant of Jeremferdenas.” Such were his first words, spoken to the prince. “Jeremferdenas sends his greetings.”
The prince and his intimates did not know what to say in answer. No one had ever heard of Jeremferdenas.
“What do you want of us, Ju?as? Who is Jeremferdenas?”
“My lord Jeremferdenas did not charge me to speak of him. He commanded me to bring you news that will sadden you. But Jeremferdenas does not wish you ill. Send for your brother, prince, and then I will impart to you what I have been charged with. And now let them show me where I can rest. For forty days and nights I have marched without sleep. I am fatigued.”
Ju?as’ speech had been simple, without adornment, but impressive nonetheless. Immediately upon laying down on his bedding, Ju?as fell asleep and did not rise until Prince Gimbutas rode in from Kaunas and the steel shod hooves of his horse sounded in the courtyard. Ju?as had slept for four full days, not waking to eat, nor even having moved. I had brought food to him several times, but had always found him in the same position. It was also astonishing that Ju?as slept with eyes wide open. When I would walk about in his room, the pupils of Ju?as’ eyes would follow my movements. But he himself truly slept. His breathing was regular, his body relaxed, the tip of his tongue hung out of his mouth, and from the corner of his mouth a trickle of saliva had run and dried.
Having come to the guest hall, Ju?as bowed to both the princes and sat before them. We all waited for what he would say.
“Jeremferdenas sends his greetings to the house of Palemon,” Ju?as began, “And informs you, through his servant Ju?as, that the House of Palemon is fated to perish in its twelfth generation.”
I saw Prince Gimbutas’ face grow pale and his hand squeeze the handle of his dagger, but Ju?as did not even flinch.
“The men of the House of Palemon will kill each other or will simply pass away without heirs. Jeremferdenas, for whom there are no secrets in this land, has seen how the last of the Palemons dies with a flagon of wine in his hand. This my master has commanded me to say to you.”
Ju?as became silent, and all those who were there looked from one to the other in great confusion, angry or afraid. The first to recover from his astonishment was Prince Gimbutas.
“He is a trickster. Bind him.”
But Prince Kernius stopped the servants.
“What house will arise after us?” he asked.
“The Clan of the Centaur,” without cavil answered Ju?as.
“And after them?”
“I do not know,” said Ju?as. “But Jeremferdenas certainly knows.”
“Where is this Jeremferdenas?” growled Prince Gimbutas. “Show me his dominions. I will kill him.”
“Jeremferdenas cannot be killed,” calmly replied Ju?as? it seemed he was immune to all passion, so well was he controlled. “You should not concern yourselves with him. At this time you should look to yourselves.”
“If what you say is true, it hardly seems there is anything to be done,” remarked Prince Kernius.
“But yet there is,” answered Ju?as. “One branch of your clan must become Centaur.”
His words could have had just one meaning. In the region of Ukmerg? there lived the sole descendant of Dausprungas. He would be condemned the moment one of the two princes sitting in the hall would agree to take the totem of the Centaur for his own.
For some time, silence reigned in the hall. Again, Gimbutas was the first to interrupt it.
“I don’t believe a single word this beardless trickster has said.”
He jumped up and stomped the ground from anger.
“Our house is eternal. No one can doubt that without fearing for their lives. I will slay the Centaur, and he will no longer threaten us, the Palemons, neither now, nor ever in the future. This l, Gimbutas, do swear.”
“After the Palemons will come the Centaur,” repeated Ju?as, the servant of Jeremferdenas.
Prince Kernius kept his gaze fixed on Ju?as’ eyes. Prince Gimbutas trembled when he heard his brother say:
“I agree. Yes, I believe you, foreigner. My son Živinbudas will become the Centaur.”
Prince Gimbutas, clenching his fists, exited the hall with his escort. We soon heard them riding away.
“From now you will have simply to wait,” said Ju?as. “You will do nothing more as you watch how, one after the other, your relatives will die. Your lives will be long and slow, but your relations’ lives will be short, fiery, and without peace. Every step they take will bring them closer to the abyss, and every step of your own will bring you closer to that greatness which is fated for you.”
“I agree,” breathlessly repeated Kernius.
“But this is not all,” Ju?as said, rising and approaching Kernius to bend and whisper at his ear, so softly we could barely hear him. “This is not yet all. For the lives and honor of your clan you will have to pay.”
Prince Kernius started, then leaned back and ran his gaze over Ju?as from head to foot.
“No, not to me,” Ju?as almost smiled. “Neither Jeremferdenas or I need anything from you, you need have no dread of that. But, you realize, this is a matter of cheating the gods.
You are deceiving them, not wanting to accept the fate which has been ascribed to you from there,” he said, pointing up above. “That is a transgression, and transgressors are punished, are they not?”
“What type of punishment can we expect? Has Jeremferdenas not seen this?”
“No, he does not know this. But I myself greatly dislike the Centaur. Half man, half animal.”
“But that is just a totem,” weakly answered the prince.
“True,” confirmed Ju?as. “But so much is clear: this is the only way the House of Palemon can survive.”
“But perhaps …” Now the prince was beginning to feel uncertain. “Will we not be forced to pay too high a price for this?” he said, turning to us, as if seeking our support.
“Father,”‘ said Živinbudas. “I assent to being the Centaur.” Ju?as came to his full height and, for the first time during the days he spent with us, he laughed, showing strong, white teeth. Without uttering a further word, he departed from the hall. After four or five days he, still without uttering a word, disappeared, never to be seen again.
Varšas became silent and fixed his gaze upon something behind me. I turned around. In the doorway stood Šventaragis, my son. His face showed he had heard Varšas’ tale. In the beginning anger overcame me and I was about to throw something at him. But Varšas restrained me with a glance. Well, then, all to the better. Sooner or later Šventaragis would have to learn everything? he undoubtedly would eventually mature to those questions, just as I had.
“How much longer do we have to wait, Varšas?” he asked.
“Not long, lord,” answered Varšas. “You are the fourth generation after Prince Kernius. But from Gimbutas there have been already nine. Like Ju?as said, they hurry to live and to die. Mantvila, Gimbutas’ son, begot two sons: Vykintas and Erdvila. Vykintas died without heirs. Erdvila begot Mingaila. Mingaila begot two sons: Skirmantas and Ginvilas. Ginvilas begot Borisas, Borisas — Rogvolodas, Rogvolodas — Gl?bas, who died without heirs. Skirmantas begot Prisimantas, Liubartas, and Treniota. The first two died without progeny. Treniota begot Algimantas, Algimantas — his son Ringaudas. Ringaudas begot two sons: Mindaugas and Dausprungas. The latter begot Tautvil?, who died having left no one. Mindaugas begot Vaišvilkas, Repeikis, Girstutis, and Ruklys. Of those four only Vaišvilkas remains, the ruler of Lithuania. He has no sons, no authority among the princes and nobility, has no virtue, and is completely given up to drunkeness. After him it is Šventaragis, your turn, if Ju?as told the truth.”
“Leave us now, Šventaragis,” I said, and he left looking so serious and thoughtful that it touched my heart.
“Are you happy with what you have learned?” asked Varšas when we were alone.
“I can say this, Varšas. I do not understand why that feeling of waiting which afflicts me is so much like a feeling of awaiting disaster. Should it not be the reverse?”
“You have become used to waiting without knowing for what. A person’s life is arranged similarly to the four seasons. Joy’s analog would be summer. The remaining seasons are cold, foul, wet, and grim. So much for man’s dismal emotions,” replied Varsšs, and I perceived he knew nothing more and could be of no further help to me.
Again, he took a piece of dried meat and began to gum it. The face of old age is repulsive, I reflected, as I left him and strode back into the day, which was brimful of sun and cold wind. Nearly four months of the usual waiting had passed since that day until that happened, which, it appears, had to happen, and which has changed my view of the world and of the nature of man in its essence. Not even Varšas could give me any advice. He just sat, all enwrapped in ermine furs, looking with watery eyes at the reflections on the walls cast by the fire, and kept repeating:
“Ju?as is the one who did all this. I know: Ju?as is to blame for it all.”
But in truth Ju?as, who must long ago have become dust, was innocent of this charge. Nevertheless, Varšas could not give up and show he was incapable of giving some answer. What would his long life have been worth if it had become clear there were things he was powerless to understand? I did not gainsay Varšas, but it pained me to witness his pain and his own tormenting of his defenseless, impotent memory.
When the first snow came, when animals first begin to leave clear tracks that enable day long pursuit, we held a wonderful, large hunt. Having invited guests from the neighboring areas, we planned to enjoy this diversion to the limit. The beasts were fat, having foraged through the cool summer and the long, warm fall? the fresh, squeaking snow reinvigorated their senses, like the touching of a newly closed wound, and they were yet quick and strong. How all of this — the crunching of the snow, the warm smell of the horses, the rough jests of the men, the fever of the hunt, the baying of the hounds, the sweat on the face from the effort of the riding and the throwing of the spear, the cup of yet hot, sweet blood from the neck of a freshly slain beast that caresses the parched palate and causes a feeling of unsurpassed satiety — how all of this renews a man’s soul and forces the heart to beat at a faster rate!
Having broken all four spears I had taken with me, I, instead of sending a servant, turned my charger around and, heated by the passions of the hunt, galloped towards home. My falcon’s name is Nestanas. Varšas raised him for me, and he always accompanied me on the hunt. Nestanas, unlike other falcons, did not need to have his eyes hooded while being brought to the place of the hunt or returned from there. As I would ride out, I would command that Nestan be released, and he would continually circle in the sky, high overhead, my silent companion. When the urge struck him, he would descend from the sky to rest upon my shoulder. But this occurred relatively rarely. Most often, I would lift my eyes skyward to see him, with his wings widely outspread, gliding high above in the sky.
The winter before last, while in the hunt, I had fallen from my mount and had injured my knee. I laid half the day in the already deep snow, unable to rise and remount my horse.
The cold began slowly to seep into my body, and I began to think I would die, but then they finally found me. The lodestar of their search had been Nestanas, patiently and loyally circling in the air over that area where misfortune had struck me. Anyone, wanting to know which side of the forest I might be on, needed only glance at the sky to gratify his wish.
I had spurred my mount and headed homeward, when suddenly I felt someone grip my shoulder strongly. It was Nestanas, my falcon. His sharp talons pierced my clothing and painfully bit into my skin. I shook myself, wanting to throw off the bird and force him to fly. Nestanas eased his grip somewhat, but did not arise into the air. At another time I would have understood that Nestanas wanted, in his own language, to tell me something, to communicate something to me, to affect my actions in some way. But at that time, like I said, I was excited and paid no more attention to the falcon. Nonetheless, when I think of it now, it might have been much better if he had continued to fly high overhead. Perhaps then everyone would have known where I was, and it would have been possible to avoid that which was to occur.
Jumping from my mount in the courtyard, I ran inside and hurried to my sleeping rooms, where I kept my spears, so that they would always be ready to hand if needed. Bal?iuk?, my wife’s Princess Visgal ?’s, servant, upon seeing me became afraid and dropped an urn filled with ashes. But I paid no attention to this. With several strides I ran into the room and grabbed up a spear. I turned around wanting to speed back to the hunt. And then I witnessed a sight which I absolutely had not expected. In our wide bed, amongst longwooled blankets, were lying two people: a man and a woman. Not wishing this and knowing nothing, as the God is my witness, I came upon them in that moment, when the passion of love and propagation had plunged them into oblivion. The white face of the woman, with eyes closed and hair spilling over the pillow, was that of my wife, Visgal? — and I had never seen her more beautiful. Who the man was I could not yet tell at that first glance.
My hand acted faster than thought. Giving off a short cry, as I was accustomed to doing in the hunt, as if to lend the arm additional strength, I drew back and let fly the spear with all my might. The well-made spear pierced the man to and through, for when he groaned and collapsed and then fell to the side, I could see that the point of the spear, coming out the far side, had left a small wound on Visgal?’s breast.
Now I recognized the man. It was Lisica, one of our servants, a youngster of twenty years, whose glance and mouth for some unknown reason had always been full of derision. Because of that expression, he had always appeared wiser than in truth he was. I am convinced death found him before he had recovered from the intoxication of lovemaking, and that he had had no chance to return from the void. Blood coursed from his wound like water over ice when it is newly broken through? it poured out over Visgal ?’s stomach and thighs. She opened her eyes and stared at me, but she still did not see me. I thought she would begin to shriek and scream like all women. But when her gaze fixed on her lover and returned to me, I heard nothing. She did not move, did not even pull up the cover to hide her nakedness. Nevertheless, her eyes keenly followed me when I took into my hands another spear.
“You will follow him,” I heard myself saying.
It was then she opened her lips to speak.
“We would not be born, if there were no other existence to wait for.”
My face twisted, but in my heart I hesitated. Visgal? was an intelligent woman, very intelligent, and I have not to the present day ceased to wonder what impelled her into such a perilous path of secret love. I perceived, however, that her words were too wise for the occasion and were, therefore, false. Yes, there was uncertainty in her voice. As if she were assaying with a staff whether an abyss was to open up before her in that spot where she purposed to step. I never have understood women. They are too foreign. They live among us, and yet apart: like cats, who never attach themselves to a person. I never troubled myself overmuch with this, but even my mother, who loved me a great deal, was alien to me. Women are strange even just for their contention that they understand us, their sons, husbands, and brothers.
“Why did you do this?” I asked.
“Don’t think this is the first time. I have been doing it all along.”
Only now did she begin to recover. She began to shake and ceased holding herself in. She virtually went mad with anger. I stood there with a spear in my hand and a falcon on my shoulder and listened to her insulting words. The more impassioned she became, the calmer I grew. She spoke with pale lips.
“Nothing ever mattered to you other than that damned fate of yours. What kind of a man are you? Other men walk firmly upon the earth? they eat, drink, hunt, war, and do not forget to give their due to women. They are hale and do not concern themselves with nothings. What of it if you are taller and stronger than others if you only stare off into shadows, murmur nothings beneath your breath, and walk about as if in a dream. I even envied the maids that the man servants at least occasionally would lean them up against the wall in a dark corner. You never really needed me, and if you did, it was just to breed another demented half prince like you. The Centaur! Just think. Half man, half horse. A full horse would be better. Don’t you know everyone makes fun of your totem’s other half — that it’s no horse but a mare!”
I shook when she mentioned Šventaragis. All the rest of her jabbering was nothing and I knew it. Even she, if not for her anger, probably would not have spoken in this way. Nevertheless, I was greatly displeased by her belittling of Šventaragis. I trembled and raised the lance. The dark glistening eyes of Visgal? grew large.
“No!” she screamed. “No! You can’t kill me! You won’t dare!”
I answered nothing but merely brought back my spear, as if about to use it.
“I am the princess!” She was shrieking now. “I am your wife, do you hear? Don’t you dare! I will call the servants. Yah! Help! No, Utenis, you won’t dare.”
She turned over onto her stomach and tried to crawl to me. Tears flowed down her cheeks, and her screams became hisses.
“You won’t dare, you won’t dare. You can’t kill me, Utenis. You can’t.”
“I can,” I said. “You very well know I can. You know even more: that I am going to. And no one in the whole world will stop me.”
“No,” Visgal? whispered, crawling closer. “No, no.”
I drew back my lance, but then she lifted her head to me and that which I saw withheld my hand. Her dark and moist eyes became round and yellow like two translucent stones.
Those eyes met my gaze without any emotion. I will never forget this. Somewhere I had seen eyes like unto those before, but at that time I could not recall where. I closed my eyes, and then it became clear. Such are the eyes of a viper. The short time I had my eyes closed was enough for me not to see the most important thing. When I looked again upon my wife, Visgal?, I no longer beheld the princess. In front of me on four crooked legs stood a large, man sized lizard, with protruding yellow eyes, a scaled hide, and a red maw, full of sharp teeth. Its throat pulsed. I froze, and the lizard stepped towards me. I drew away backwards and again brought back the lance. The lizard hissed and jumped towards the wall. I turned, intending to run out, and in the doorway I saw Varšas. He held me back with a gesture and pointed to Lisica, lying in the middle of the room. I gripped the end of the lance, lifted the run through body and, so carrying it, walked out. Varšas slammed the door shut and barred it. When I turned to him, wanting to ask what, in his opinion, should be done next, I perceived that his whole body — his legs, thin as arrows, and his arms, carved with black, pulsating, finger width veins, like snakes, and his decrepit throat with its sharp Adam’s apple, and his large head with its closed eyes — was trembling and twitching. Having thrown down the lance with its speared corpse, I grasped the shoulders of the servant.
“Varšas,” I said. “Calm yourself. Don’t be afraid, Varšas.” He continued to tremble like a frostbitten boy. I don’t quite remember what I myself was feeling. As if nothing.
I wanted to take care of everything before the end of the hunt. I had a good halfday’s time.
We buried Lisica, chopping a hole in the frozen earth a league from the house. The biggest worry was the lizard. In the beginning I could not bring myself to think about it, that I would have to unbar the door of my sleeping chamber and go inside. But the reptile could not remain in the house. That we well understood, both I and Varšas.
“I would help you, but I am now too old and would just get in the way.”
I heard sounds of the hunt carried by the wind, cries free and jubilant, the sharp baying of the hounds. Even when you go up against a bear with a knife, you are certain you will prevail. Otherwise you would not go. But now I was face to face with a phenomenon I could not comprehend, something completely alien. Therefore I did not even feel my strengths and options. As if I were suspended in the air, unable to gain purchase against the earth. Tears came into my eyes when I thought of how happy I had been just several hours ago. I wanted to still be in the hunt, I wanted that nothing should have happened.
“Take a strong and sharp spear.” said Varšas. “No matter how sharp his teeth are, he will not withstand a weapon. Or perhaps it would be better to make a small hole in the roof and shoot through the hole with a bow until it dies?”
“No,” I shook my head. “I cannot.”
Because Varšas did not understand, I explained:
“I cannot go in and kill it in cold blood. One way or the other, that is Visgal?.” It was hard for me to say these words? the abominable, dumb beast in no way comported with the image of my beautiful, intelligent wife which continued to stand before my eyes. Still, the words I had spoken were true.
“But at first you wanted to take her life. Now, when she has lost her shape it will be easier for you to do so.”
“I cannot,” I repeated. “Do not try to persuade me, Varšas. I will not be able to convince myself. Before, my sinews acted without reference to my head. Now my head is once again in charge.”
“Then everything is somewhat more complicated,” Varšas said, deep in thought. “I no longer know how to help you. I will go be by myself for a time and consider.”
I did not want to be left alone. I had no dark corner with figurines amongst which I could recover my balance. So I asked him:
“Stay here, Varšas. Right now I need you very much.”
He agreed without a word.
In a short time we came to several conclusions. I had a cellar dug into a hill. It was a large, cold room with a door made of thick logs, split down the middle. If someone of us died during the summer, we would put their body in there, and it would not spoil for twenty or more days until the burial was prepared for in the appropriate manner. We decided to put the reptile in that cellar. The hardest problem was how to lead him from the house to the hill. But we found a solution.
Taking a rope as thick as a wrist, we made nooses in both ends. At the door we tied a horse and fixed one end of the rope to it. (Other than Bal?iuk?, there had remained in the house about ten people. I ordered them all to gather in one chamber, and, when all were inside, I locked them in for a time. I did not want what I wished to do in secret to be compromised by the household servants. The thus imprisoned did not even show much displeasure: apparently, I looked very wroth and, of course, they could clearly see my clothes, covered with Lisica’s blood.)
And so, more calm now we were certain of not being discovered, we continued our design. Varšas carried my lance. He held it with both hands, firmly clenched, but even so he was hard put to retain his hold: his weakened fingers kept opening? his face from the strain was flushed with some kind of old, dark, yet somehow grey, reddening? the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes and mouth vibrated? the widely stepping feet barely upheld his body, weighed down by his burden. But Varšas bore it heroically. What impelled him? Devotion? Habit? Self-respect? Stubbornness? The conviction that without him I would fail? I do not know. I carried the noose. I shot the bolt open and abruptly jerked the door open. My heart pounded, expecting an attack. But the reptile did not attack. It lay in the same place where we had last seen it, stretched out in its full length, with its head lying on the floor. One of its eyes, yellow, cold, and sparkling, regarded us without moving.
It had to be made to move: as long as the lizard’s head stayed on the ground, it could not be ensnared in the noose. I took the spear from Varšas and stepped closer, suddenly calm and no longer worried, as if I had been catching such creatures all my life. Women transformed into lizards. I made no unnecessary or clumsy moves. Holding out the lance, I tapped the animal with the sharp end in the neck: even with a spear it was unpleasant to come near it. It lifted its head and angrily opened its maw. In that instant I threw the noose. It was not even necessary to make the horse, standing outside, move in order to tighten the rope, so swiftly did the lizard jump to the other side of the chamber and toss about until the noose was tight and it began to choke. Our fears proved unwarranted, for it did not act like a human being, but like any animal. Instead of having jumped to our side so that the rope would loosen, it panicked and tried to run from us, in this way itself helping us achieve our goal.
Varšas was now just as calm as I.
“Along with her body, God took away her mind,” he said. “Poor thing.”
A lump arose in my throat, but I swallowed it down.
“Take the horse towards the hill, Varšas,” I commanded him. “I will walk alongside with the spear and make sure nothing happens.”
Soon the sturdy doors of the hillcellar swung shut in order to trustily safeguard the strange creature. Varšas was breathing hard but smiling. I heard in the distance the voices of the returning hunters and hurried to release the servants and domestics.
In the evening, forcing myself to smile and urging the revelers to make merry, I felt sorrow and longing. Like never before I longed for my beautiful Visgal?, beloved wife. I would have given anything to find her at my side. Seeing that the men had grown intoxicated, I rose and left the hall unnoticed. Snow fell silently in large clumps? a dog yelped from choking on a bone or from an injury to his side sustained in the hunt. Other hounds, having left him alone, with eager, damp snouts milled about among the guests or ate cooked meat, of which there was an abundance. For a time I listened to the lone dog’s whimpers, then, wading through the snow, I went to visit Varšas. He was sitting near the fire, watching the flame with glistening eyes. He did not turn at my entrance.
“Ju?as is to blame for everything, the servant of Jeremferdenas . . . Not a single hair on his whole body …”
I had thought to find solace with Varšas. Alas. I returned to the night and snow, which immediately covered my shoulders, hair, and beard. It melted when it fell upon my heated face. My body was full of never experienced feelings, as if I stood at the boundary of a completely other existence. Visgal? . . . How I needed her now! Feelings flowed in my heart, my chest? hard and chill like an icy fluid. I had never experienced anything like it. I stood with eyes closed under the naked sky. I longed for the past. The dog continued to whimper. It snowed.
After a time I realized I was no longer alone. Someone other than myself had come outside. Deep in thought, I had not noticed. I saw a dark shadow several steps away. I could not tell if he could see me or not. Nevertheless, I could not stand there any longer, almost totally covered in snow. I shook myself to lose at least some of the snow and walked toward him. The man, shorter than myself, was standing with his back to me, with his head thrown back and turned upward to the heavens. The snow crunched under my feet, and he turned around slowly, as if displeased that someone was disturbing his interesting and important work.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I knew you were here,” he answered. “I saw you leaving the hall.”
“What could you have need of from me at such a time, Šventaragis?” for, in truth, it was my son.
He did not reply at once, but remained silent. I was uneasy, fearful he would inquire of that upon which I wished to remain silent. The cold began to grip me. The night would be truly frigid. Šventaragis, it seemed, did not feel the cold. He again leaned back his head and, with his mouth wide open, tried to catch the falling snowflakes. He looked like an idiot.
“Well? Say something, Šventaragis.”
He turned around, and from the light in his eyes I could tell he was intoxicated. He had had too much wine. From that time, when I had allowed him to participate in the hunts, Šventaragis had also participated in the banquets. Sometimes he would drink. I did not like that, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Even though of tender years, he was a person who perfectly understood his limitations and would not even dream of attempting something he could not achieve. That is a rare quality. Even those come into their years of mature discretion tend to overrate themselves and their capacities.
“Since returning from the hunt, I have not seen my mother. Where is she?”
But I had been expecting that.
“She is at her sister’s.”
“Without saying goodbye to me …”
“She was in a hurry.” I thought such an answer would satisfy him, but I was wrong.
“Who escorted her?” Even intoxicated, Šventaragis did not lose the clarity of his mind.
“Lisica.”
“Lisica?” I could feel in his voice great anger and bitterness.
“Lisica?” he repeated and was about to add something, but bit his tongue and remained silent.
I then comprehended he knew about poor Visgal?’s relationship with the servant. It angered me that even my son knew more than I. Suddenly Šventaragis lifted up his head, and in his look I could see suspicion.
“Are you certain mother truly went to her sister’s?”
“Yes.”
I had answered too quickly and too strongly. Šventaragis at once understood I knew everything. Everything he, for who knew how long, had hidden from me.
I then comprehended he knew about poor Visgal?’s relationship with the servant. It angered me that even my son knew more than I. Suddenly Šventaragis lifted up his head, and in his look I could see suspicion.
“Are you certain mother truly went to her sister’s?”
“Yes.”
I had answered too quickly and too strongly. Šventaragis at once understood I knew everything. Everything he, for who knew how long, had hidden from me.
“Why did she act like this?” His voice was at once both disappointed and insultingly sharp.
“It is improper to judge one’s parents.”
He squeezed the handle of his knife.
“I’ll kill Lisica. I’ll catch him and do him in. I’ll find him no matter what!”
“That is no longer necessary.”
He gave me a sober look? he understood.
“And mother? You said he escorted her.”
“Almost …”
“What happened to her? Where is she?”
“She is not here.” The cold’s grip was ever more chill, but my back was wet from sweat: I was not bearing this inquisition easily.
“You killed her?”
“No.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I swear to you,” I said, feeling some relief in telling the truth.
“I thank you,” said Šventaragis. “It would have been very unpleasant for me if you had soiled yourself with my mother’s blood.”
Although I was not wanting to speak, he raised his hand to ask my silence.
“Let’s speak no more of this.”
Suddenly I felt as I had felt many a time before, that someone was watching over my shoulder. Šventaragis also gave a start. When after a time he went back inside, I turned around. Directly behind me stood the hill with the cellar.
I can now swear with certainty that time disappears for that person whose senses are multiplied a thousand times and then are made a thousand times stronger. I began to understand those wise men who abuse themselves with fasting and thirst in the dead of the forest so as to perceive the world as it really is, as it really is in itself, so as to experience the holy joy of touching with the tips of one’s fingers that quintessential reality which has no top, nor bottom, nor beginning, nor end. I had not reached the levels of the masters, but I now could understand them. Having no other way to awaken their soul, they scourge their flesh.
Varšas was in any case smarter than I. If not for him, I would have died that winter. He fed me with concoctions of bees’ honey, heated syrup, and milk? made me drink of many different herbs? ordered me to swallow spiders’ webs folded into spheres the size of peas? and only because of him was I able to continue to be able to draw breath and to make some sense of the reality lofting me skyward (although in the deep, dark winter nights, full of delirium, I called it a reality casting me down). If not for Varšas, who himself was just barely hanging on because in truth he was already standing near the border of oblivion, I would have died one of those winter mornings while snowflakes were quietly falling and never would have realized that I was dead. But Varšas did not abandon me, and when snow began to melt from the rooftops, I became aware one day that I lay in my chambers, enwrapped in furs, among which I saw Varšas’ white ermine.
During that time while I was elsewhere I learned much, although not everything. Most importantly, I forgave Visgal? her transgression. Now her form ceased to be important to me. No room was left in my consciousness for a reptile. I thought of my wife as of a woman, such as she once had been. I swore to myself I would not lose her. In my thinking I felt no repulsion toward that awful, unhappy creature her body had become.
I heard footsteps, and into my chambers ran Bal?iuk?, carrying two steaming clay pots. Meeting my gaze, she stopped. I smiled.
“How wonderful! How wonderful you have recovered, my prince!”
“Was I ill?” I asked.
The girl became confused, not knowing whether she could tell me all. After a moment she drew up her courage and said:
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anyone be sick like that. People were saying . . . But Varšas said this was an illness and that you definitely would recover. How wonderful!”
Through the window sunshine was slanting in, lighting up Bal?iuk?’s face from one side and enhancing the beauty of her features. I felt how a light tremor ran down my spine, as if a breeze had blown by.
“Come closer, Šal?iuke,” I said.
She put her pots on the floor and approached trembling. At one moment I almost forgot myself and came near to saying, “Visgal?.” It seemed to me everything that had happened from the day I had rushed home with Nestanas on my shoulder to get some spears was just a dream. But upon opening my eyes I saw Bal ?iuk?’s smooth eyelids, and the illusion vanished.
When everything was done and we rested for a time, I questioned Bal?iuk? as to whether there had been any changes in my absence. Nothing had happened at home, but in the world — much. Prince Levas during a banquet had killed King Vaišvilkas with a knife: Vaišvilkas, the last of the Palemons. I was shocked. What is this, coincidence, or the fulfillment of old prophesies? I wanted to get more detailed information. I turned to the girl:
“Get dressed and call Varšas to me. I want to see and speak with him.”
She obeyed. Swiftly she threw on her dress and was on her way out when she remembered why she had come in. She placed near my bed vessels of food, which smelled of mint, thyme, and meat, and then hurried off to find Varšas.
“Glory be to the Creator of the world,” said Varšas. He stood leaning on a thin rod of birch — which was enough to uphold that shadow of a body — and his eyes shone with joy, for it could well be said he had caused me to be born anew. At that moment he was father and mother to me. He approached and kissed my forehead.
Bal?iuk? had told the truth. Vaišvilkas was dead. But she had not known all. The princes had deliberated and decided Šventaragis was the best candidate for the throne. They had sent a messenger to ask for my consent, but not able to obtain that, Šventaragis, having counselled with Varšas, made his decision independently. He ordered the messenger to report his consent to rule the country. There remained only his coronation ceremonies, which were to occur in several months. Ju?as had not lied. I was the father of the ruler of Lithuania.
“You are not happy, prince,” said Varšas.
“I am happy,” I answered, “But I would be even more happy if Visgal?, my princess, would be able to share my happiness.”
“Alas,” spoke Varšas with his head bowed low.
“How is she?” I asked weakly: I could not remember or speak of her without sorrow. “How is she?” I repeated.
“More probably a ‘he.’ Although it is hard to tell anything about that lizard’s gender.”
“How is she,” I repeated.
Varšas took my meaning and from then on also spoke of — her.
“All winter I fed her and cleaned the cellar as well as I was able. I did not know what food would be suitable. Now I can say raw meat is best for her. At the beginning she would not eat anything . . . she would take nothing and would stare at the door as if wanting to escape. But now everything is well.”
“Could a miracle happen?”
“I do not know. My heart tells me it has already occurred, and you will never again witness her in the shape of a woman.”
I was myself convinced of that, though I did still retain some hope.
“Were you not afraid, Varšas? You are not so able.”
“When you . . . took ill, after a month I bought a tamed bear. She was afraid of the bear.”
For some time we both remained silent. Then I spoke.
“Have you not changed your opinion, Varšas?”
“No. I still believe this to be retribution for a deception committed long ago. It is possible Ju?as knew even then, but did not say.”
I believed him easily, somehow of itself, as if in my head there had long been prepared a place for such a thought. One might even say I took some ease from it.
“There is no guarantee such a misfortune might not yet afflicts someone else as well. I do not believe it could happen to Šventaragis, but perhaps to someone else of the household. We all must be wary.”
I remained silent, gazing at that spot where the sun had so recently illuminated Bal?iuk?. I wanted her anew.
“Thank you, Varšas,” I said. “Now I will begin to look after things myself.”
I never would have thought there would come to be a time in my life when a beast would become the most important being to me in the whole world. But this came to be. Two persons, who had been close to me all the time and even in a certain sense a part of me, slowly but surely began to draw away from me. The first of them, Var šas, who given up so much strength and effort in nursing and caring for me during the entire season of winter, grew weak. If he had not already been so ancient, the best words to describe his complete decrepitude would have been “old age.” After the snow had melted, Varšas no longer went out from his peaceful room. He no longer had the strength. Although I did everything I knew how, it was clear Varšas would not see another winter. He just lay in a permanent twilight, became calm and at peace with everything, barely able to move his hands, while his eyes faded and faded until finally they completely lost their color, only just barely shining like two amethysts. To communicate with him was almost impossible.
In order to hear what he was saying — more accurately, to hear what he was trying to say with his numb, withered mouth — one had to put one’s ear to his lips. But even when he did hear, he did not always understand. Various times, past and present, grew so muddled in his mind that, having bent my ear to listen, I once received a promise from him that he would be a good boy and would never again wet his bed. In this way, gradually, a little at a time, I lost Varšas.
The other person whose nearness I missed, but did not have the courage to demand, was Šventaragis. He avoided me. When I would approach, he would remove himself at the first opportunity. I do not know what motivated him to act in this manner. He probably did not believe my oath that I had not killed Visgal?, his mother, and, his first flush of agitation having passed, he had begun to grieve and to long for her. I did not want to make, nor indeed could I have made, any explanation to him which would have restored his faith in me, so I believe he considered me the killer of his mother. He restricted himself to only those relations between us which were unavoidable. Varšas had told me that during the entire winter Šventaragis had not once entered the chambers in which I lay. It may be I was wrong and Šventaragis had simply needed to be by himself and to collect himself. He had to make ready from inside to become the sovereign. I would have given anything to have been able to see inside my son’s heart. But that, of course, no one could give me.
Under these circumstances I became friends with an animal. That was Kutlubugas, the bear purchased by Varšas. Removed from the woods and from others like himself, he, it seems, also needed a creature with whom he could associate. During the first days after having taken him over from Varšas, I had kept and led him by a chain, because the bear seemed short-tempered and likely to attack me. But I soon saw his irritability was more likely a facade, or, more accurately, that which I held to be irritability was his habitual attitude, demonstrating he is not slumberous, but is alert. When he would be full of meat and become lazy, he would stop growling, and would become sluggish and indifferent, as long as no one would bother him. Having discovered these features in him, I removed the chain, for Kutlubugas always perfectly walked at one’s side, never trying to run or otherwise make any opposition. But I shortly had to replace the chain, because, having attached himself to me, the bear felt enmity towards the rest of the household. It required but a more harshly spoken word or a quicker motion to cause Kutlubugas, growling and with wide open jaws, to rise up on his hind legs, ready to attack. No one in the household could stand the bear, just as Kutlubugas disliked them. He had given his entire beastly soul up to me. Wherever I went or rode, I would take him along. Being left alone in the house, he would bellow and tear at the doors with his claws, driving great fear into the servants. The horses at first were afraid of the bear, but they soon grew accustomed to him and would greet him from afar with their neighing. Sometimes, having awakened in the night and not being able to fall again to sleep, I would listen to the chirping of the crickets in the dark, gently running my hand through Kutlubugas’ fur and speaking with him: I would speak all sorts of nothings, as if a mother to her child or a man in love to his girl, or I might tell him of my life. The bear would growl contentedly, and then I would begin to question him regarding all sorts of matters, saying to him, “What do. you think about that, Kutlubugas?” Kutlubugas did not grow fond of Bal?iuk?, and I ceased to invite her: women no longer had any attraction for me. I would awaken in the early morning, when Kutlubugas, murmuring and sighing, would lick my feet. Then I would arise and take up some meat that had been laid aside the evening before, and would walk to the cellar hill.
Yes, I would visit her every day.
Even having decided not to view her as a lizard, at first it was difficult. The unventilated cellar was full of some sort of strong, oppressive odor. I never found her asleep. The glassy gaze of yellow eyes would always meet me. I felt some sort of distress in my conscience. Although she was virtually in terror of Kutlubugas, I did not dare to enter without the bear. And the bear was entirely indifferent to her. I would throw the meat down on the stone floor and would immediately make my exit. She would not touch the meat in my presence. She would simply stare at me unceasingly all the while I was there. I tried to spend as little time there as possible. That duty depressed me.
With time, I slowly began to grow used to it. Already in a month I caught myself thinking that her eyes show she still has awareness. I would try to communicate with her, asking, when I would come in, “How are you, Visgal??” But I never received any response. Not a word, not a gesture. But nevertheless my feeling did not weaken, although it was never reinforced. I was probably wrong, and my wish to see in her traces of humanity rendered me blind to my error. I became accustomed to speak with her in the same way I would chatter with the bear in the night. Even though the talk would be all one sided, having poured out my worries, apprehensions, and problems, having told her of what I was happy or of what I dreamt, I would feel better. A person after all must have someone to speak with. I came to understand that only after I began to converse with animals.
Sometimes from the depths of my memories would arise some memory from the beginning of my life with Visgal?, from youth, or from childhood, and I, telling the story, would cry. But she, on her part, would make no response whatever to my remembrances or my tears. Kutlubugas would sometimes lick my tears away. He liked them for the salt.
More and more often I would think about the past. The further removed, the more real it became, and the more important for me. I loved the past’s Visgal? as if in the present.
With my whole heart I hated those, of whom I had sometimes felt unfavorably or whom I had belittled. Very close to me became my mother, whom in childhood I had poorly understood? I felt a deep respect for my father, whom I had formerly been afraid of. But Visgale took up most of my thoughts. My memory reawakened even such details of our life which I had never noticed, or had noticed and immediately forgotten. As if before me I saw her as a shy maiden with upright breasts, disrobed for the nuptial bed? I saw her white, even teeth as she laughed at Šventaragis crawling on the furs? I reached out my hand, wanting to touch her, as she danced the sacred dance for Šventaragis to grow strong and hale. But the hand gripped only air, the eyes perceived, after a time, the wall or the table, and that, which had seemed to be laughter, was only the squeals of the young servant girls. Longing would grip my heart, and I would promise to think no more of this and to cease tormenting myself, but I would not hold true to my promise. Nor, in reality, was this in my power. Without noticing it, I would drift away into the past, realizing it only upon my return. In small stages I began to understand Varšas: what meaning his dried and sootblackened figurines had held. I do not know how long this process of understanding would have taken until complete. But nothing is permanent. We must be wary, says Varšas.
Something more must yet occur. And it did.
One morning I woke while it was yet dark, and although I had slept but little, I was in very good spirits, better than I had felt for some time. I rejoiced, without myself knowing why.
I felt young and strong: I even tried to wrestle with Kutlubugas. Then, cheerful and excited, I fixed the chain to the bear and, taking some meat, went out to the hill. It may well have been such a night as lends energy to everyone (on such nights the best, strongest, and smartest children are conceived), because this time even she was not lying in the depths of the cellar, by the wall, but stood in the middle of the floor with her head up, as if listening to sounds coming from afar.
My head was a bit light from the strange joy, and, it appears, that was enough to give birth to an unwise thought. For the first time in many days I felt an urge to give delight to her. I fancied letting her out for a bit into freedom, so she could breathe fresh air and look, with eyes disused to the light, towards the heavens, which she had not seen for so long a time. I went out, leaving the door open, and tied the bear to a tree. I myself stood nearby, watching what would happen. After a time her unwieldy body crawled out from the dark of the cellar and froze in the doorway. For some time she stood motionless, breathing in the pure air through her round nostrils, and then she moved. If necessary, I thought, with Kutlubugas’ help I would easily return her to the cellar. I felt good for having released her for this space.
Suddenly the bear bellowed. I turned around, but I was able to glimpse only the silhouette of a rider and hear the frenzied galloping of his mount. Šventaragis, with his thighs gripping the sides of the horse, with arm thrown back and spear ready to fly, was racing right at her.
“No!” I screamed, but was too late.
The blade of the spear pierced the side of the reptile and tore out a hunk of flesh. The lizard curled up from the blow like a crescent moon, and from its throat escape a weird, gasping sound. Šventaragis forced the horse backwards, tore out the spear, and began to draw back for another attack. Quicker than I could myself believe, I ran up and, grasping the haft of the spear, pulled it towards me. He swayed and fell off the saddle. Immediately he let go of the spear, jumped up, and drew his sword. I drew backward, with one eye on Kutlubugas, who was throwing himself forward against the chain (“Let him only not break loose!”), and the other on the young face, twisted with rage, full of terrible sorrow. Šventaragis drew back with his shortsword and struck — I felt a piercing agony in my stomach.
“Take that,” he snarled. “Take that. For mother. You’ll not fool me anymore.”
I could hear his teeth grind, as if they were crushing stone.
“Šventaragis!” I did not understand, it never occurred to me I was seriously injured. “Calm yourself. I am your father. Your mother —”
He again drew back his sword and again struck, spitting out, “Take that.”
Two more times I felt steel cut me to the quick: flames sprouted up in my body. I grasped my belly with my hands, and only then saw there was nothing there to hold together: I had no stomach. In its place was only a sticky mess of meat, pieces of cloth, and blood. My legs bent, and I crumbled to the ground. I saw how Šventaragis wiped his sword on the lower part of his robe, slipped it back in its sheath, turned around and jumped back onto his mount. I wanted to scream something out to him, but I could not. Not only because I was too weak. My entire body was gripped by a cramp. Fear. An indescribable, animal like terror stole over me when I understood I was dying. I had never been so afraid. Nothing was left of me, but only fear. My body was that of terror. Everything, all my senses, all the pain, all merged together into one thing — fear. The orbs of my eyes hardened, my skin ripped and tore into a thousand shreds. I lifted my head and looked at Šventaragis galloping away into the distance. What I then perceived was the final blow.
Something was different with the world. No, not with the world, but with me. I was different. / had changed into a lizard.
I was fated to die as a lizard. Suddenly my mind was clear. I understood everything completely. We were both wrong, both Varšas and I. Ju?as was not at fault, as were neither the totem of the Centaur, fate, or the gods. Only just fear itself had transformed us into awful reptiles, animals, my wife Visgal? and myself. Nothing other than it, this feeling, incongruent with man’s birthright, but nevertheless overwhelming him, was the cause of all the evil that had happened to us. The fear of oblivion, of no longer being able to play with one’s feelings and sensations, of losing everything. If we had given ourselves over in this way to happiness, we would simply have melted away into the thin air. But we were afraid. We were possessed by terror for our lives. Fear made us be like this. Is it necessary to die to learn this? My poor dear Visgal?, my poor dear intelligent girl. How terribly she must have been afraid of me then . . .
I tried to rise on all four feet and crawl, but blood poured from me in waves. I was unable to move. I felt how something pressed itself to me. I turned my head and saw her. A lizard, such as myself, with a gaping wound in her side, crawled to me and laid down beside me, so that there was no space between us. A damp tongue licked my neck. We, Prince Utenis and his wife Visgal?, of the Clan of the Centaur? we, two people, man and wife, having experienced emotions of surpassing strength? we, two reptiles with amber colored eyes, died on dewladen grass as the sun rose on a summer morning. That, which had separated us, now served to bring us together. Be happy, my son.

The Slow Birth Of Nation

We were innocent like birds and our virgin life was insipid and uniform, with the exception of two seasons heavy with a prospect of change. Every spring around March the melting snow filled up the otherwise dry river gully with a powerful flux. The fuscous stream carried trunks and limbs of the fallen trees, stumps, shrubs, and lumps of turf. It was both busy and fascinating period, especially for children. Men armed with grapples dragged trees to the shore where these were left to dry before chopping them up into firewood and carting home. Branches and twigs covered with wisps of soggy grass, as well as muddy tangled roots contained cryptic hollows, weird and wonderful cavities laden with secrets: dead animals and, once in a while, even a human stiff. Corpses were to be quickly buried before they fall apart and start spreading disease, but first they had to be thoroughly inspected, their pockets searched for money and other treasure. Most of the times this yielded nothing, but once in a while a deceased would have a dudeen in his pocket, a clasp knife, a brass cigarette case, or – best of all – a silver timepiece. Women usually brought nothing. They are poor folks up there in the mountains and they don’t waste much on their women. No jewelry, not even wedding rings. Thus the only trophy in such cases was some luck that a woman drowned not too long ago and that she was young and pretty to make you suffer. It is implicit that pain purifies your soul. The only case in the community’s memory when a woman found in the river was somehow beneficial to her finder was the woman herself. She came back to life and, being buried in a shallow grave, managed to break out of her coffin and dig her way to the surface. Pale as a ghost, naked, shivering, she scared shit out of the whole parish wandering from house to house and begging for help. Nobody answered her calls, no one opened the door, except for the man who dragged her out of water. He recognized her face and let her in. As he had no family of his own, soon he married her. She was a real slogger and gave him five children, all good workers too. They have built a big house and never knew hunger. Thus the man had been rewarded for his deeds, but in the eyes of the community neither the woman nor her children have ever been totally free of some stigma: first, she’s never learned to speak our language fluently and, second, she’s always been considered to be a walking corpse, if only a bit of it. To make sure it never happens again, now coffins are made strong and grave pits dug deep.
Every fall, around September, strangers came loaded with goods and news. There were two types of them. Gypsies, riding wagons, they buy things we produce over summer months: sheep wool and goat cheese, rawhides and wild honey. They pay little but they are the only our supply of money so we don’t mind a great deal. Besides they don’t look like they are making fortunes by cheating us. The fact is they look inferior, even dirtier and poorer than us, and that is pacifying.
Another type of trader, though not that dissimilar, were Jews. They came riding carts loaded with merchandise: fabrics, threads, buttons, needles, axes, knives, medicines, candies for children, you name it. Things we cannot live without and things we can but prefer not to. Money we got from Gypsies didn’t stay in our pouches long, it quickly went to Jews.
Now and then, strangers would bring random pieces of the puzzling civilization that stretches out there, beyond the small world of ours. Those were expensive things that most of us couldn’t afford: sewing machines that make stitches so neat it’s hard to believe, rifles you can load with several rounds at once, presses that turn your cheese-making into an amusement, magnets that make searching for lost needles so easy, magnifying glasses that help you to start a fire by directing a ray of light onto dry moss, and other marvelous items. Sometimes strangers brought wooden boxes they called photographic cameras and took pictures of us and sold them to us to frame them and embellish our dwellings. Occasionally they carried photographs that depicted naked whores, their beavers shaved off, their breasts – jugs of milk, and their skin so pale you could nearly see through. There was no way to resist those, every man in the village had one or two hidden someplace in house, you could look at them for hours dreaming up the wildest things. Even the pastor had several of them in the back of his Good Book. During the mass, when all of a sudden he went silent for a long while, we would know he had opened the wrong page.
Another item in demand were pictures of rather ordinary people they had visited and photographed elsewhere and we could have them for a small price. Someone would perhaps wonder why would we want to possess those? It’s because people in these pictures weren’t like us. Nothing close. They were handsome clean-shaven men and lovely women wearing bonnets, smiles on their faces, not a rotten tooth in their mouths, their hair cut neatly and combed, their garments so light you could never plow a field or kill an animal without messing them up at once. Their hands grasping goblets of wine or long cigarette holders weren’t made for labor. With fingers so long and delicate you could never lift a fork of manure. How did they survive? That was a mystery to us. One theory held they were so different from us they didn’t eat at all and, consequently, didn’t have to drudge. Though it’s hard to be certain of it, by looking at them you wouldn’t want to think those women ever take a shit or even have an excretory opening. When we asked our visitors about it, they answered, “Oh, sure they do. Just that they wipe their heinies clean with paper afterwards.” Either a lie or one more baffling mystery.
Though the sun shines, autumns are cold in our mountainous area. In the evening, we would sit tight to each other and drink methanol-rich plum brandy that clouds our minds but provides with extreme warmth. That was the time strangers would start talking. First tossing the news – and almost everything is the news to us – cautiously on the table, dice alike, then, when the sense of the neighbor’s elbow grew stronger, spilling them like beans.
Most innocent stories, like personal impressions of the villages travelers had visited, go first. But towards the end of the evening, the thick scary stuff would be let lose, and that’s how, over time, we learned of things that changed our lives forever.
Among the amazing things the strangers have told us about was that there is a sea out there and that our birds come from the shores of it and that the sea isn’t that far away from us, only about a hundred of kilometers or so.
Now, I have to make a step aside here, for there are a couple of things I have to shed light on first. One being the notion of distance. I clearly remember the night they told us about the sea, for it turned into bone-crushing brawl. Gypsies said it was one hundred kilometers, Jews insisted it’s less, about eighty or something, and ourselves we were lost completely, because what’s a kilometer? Jews accused us of being too backwoods, we didn’t like that. Sure thing we aren’t too worldly, but we aren’t complete bumpkins either. The way you measure your distance doesn’t necessarily make you a total rube. Or does it? So we had an argument about it and the strangers lost. But that’s not important.
What was important, however, was the sea and the birds. Every autumn, the wind blowing from the south would bring exhausted gulls to our country and that’s how people here got some idea about the land somewhere beyond their world, far-off and dreamlike. I remember us, pupils of the school, glued to windows, gazing at the strange drowsy fowls on the piazza. We would feed them with corn bread crumbs but usually they were too exhausted to swallow. They would fancy nothing from us, neither food nor drink, they would just stand there still, gathering strength, and then, by night, they would be gone, flown away.
Not all of them, though. Some of the birds, the feeblest ones, would be left behind to our mercy. Over time, it has become a routine. We would wait until the birds die, then the governess would dissect them to show us their innards. And there they had a helluva fascinating things: remnants of fish, tiny clams, minute crabs, kelp, and other bits and pieces. ‘These are water birds,’ our teacher would say. ‘They must had flown a lengthy way till they reached us.’ And even though the governess went nuts after the chapter on the third law of thermodynamics and ultimately hanged herself, which automatically canceled out a large amount of her good judgment, we always felt that there is something like a sea wherever it may be, but that to reach it one would require wings and maybe even die as the birds did. Therefore we let the matter drop and never touched it again. We simply crawled through our lives realizing that certain things might be existent but, on account of the price, we have never considered them real enough and worth having one’s heart set on. And here come Gypsies and Jews and try to mess up everything…
But then they did it nevertheless. The tidbits brought by strangers had planted a seed of longing in our hearts and, as it progressed, there was not a day when we wouldn’t think of the sea being thus near, only a hundred kilometers or so, whatever that meant. We would milk our goats or skin the sheep, and abruptly halt with the tingling sensation that it’s achievable. Only one hundred kilometers, whatever it is… It’s damn measurable, and if it’s measurable, somehow it looks feasible.
One day, unable to stand it anymore, we assembled, about thirty of us, all men, and walked down the mountains. It took four long hours on a bus stuffed with dirty farmers, their unshaven faces the tint of earth that makes you envision a graveyard, smoking rank cigarettes and carrying live hens in their haversacks. Good people, actually, all Christians who loose their control and go mad only when their rotten teeth start aching, they asked us all kinds of questions and shared wine from their flasks. Towards the end of the journey we all got loaded and slept like badgers…
What we saw upon the arrival, when we dropped off the rattling bus, our heads sore, was a country, or a world, with no name yet, melancholic and puzzlingly genteel, all shining with sun. We sat on the dusty pasture near the road and watched it for a while. The trees seemed impatient in the late afternoon breeze. Ripe fruits, the numbing scent of eucalyptuses, minutes so ridiculously alike that they appeared to be just one continuous span, voices that sound a bit too rowdy in the balmy afternoon, the drowsy hum of flies, and the delicate smell of shit.
Thoughts ­ irrelevant, aimless, brief, leading nowhere, rolling on and on, wave alike. Silly, too.
After a while, when the first impression wore out, we stood and made for to the sea shore. We didn’t have to ask for directions. We were guided by nose, the salty stench stuck to the nostrils, all too familiar to us: the birds that came to our village reeked likewise.
The brine was vast. A monstrous mirror scintillating in the rays of the sun, reflecting the flimsy white cloudlets and gulls in the blue, it was grand indeed, albeit not quite what we had anticipated. It lacked any drama. Motionless, it laid there sleeping, too apathetic for our taste. In contrast to the vibrant tension of our mountains, the sea was dispassionate, uncaring. We were pissed off. Sick with disappointment. So many expectations, so much nerves for so little amusement in the end.
On the other hand, it wasn’t only the lack of entertainment that irritated us. Our pride suffered, too. Not used to such far off skylines, we saw the world was huge, way larger than we had thought. In the face of this vast apathy, we felt minute and insignificant. We could be here or there all the same, we could rot in our villages in the mountains and nobody in this world would mind. Our mountains were alive with direct response to our presence there. We would say something loud and the words would come back as an echo or even cause an avalanche. There was no echo here. As if we were suddenly mute. It did hurt.
So we watched it for a while and discussed it a bit while walking along the deserted beach towards a lighthouse we saw in the distance. We couldn’t agree whether we should go home now that we’ve seen it or hang around for a few hours. It seemed as if our group was about to split but then something happened that made us stick together.
Halfway to the lighthouse we reached a boardwalk. When we climbed up the wooden steps, we discovered something that took our breath away and soon would be another source of discontent. We found ourselves in the thick of quite a crowd and it was utterly astonishing, for they were all the people from the photographs that decorated our walls. Dressed in whites, they were strolling around and chatting under chestnut trees. Women carried umbrellas, men with sticks in their hands, some had small dogs on leashes, families with children, miniature copies of their parents. Stunned, we stood there gazing at them, thinking it couldn’t be true, all this polished and smiling race lived only a few hours away from our world and we didn’t know it. Impressed, we almost forgot the sea and forgave it for the spasm it caused. But, much like their sea, these people here also took no notice of us chatting only among themselves as if we were too small to see or behind a wall of some kind.
It wasn’t the end of humiliation, though, for soon after we heard a brass band playing somewhere behind the trees. And what a music it was! Earthy, mind-blowing, strange, both provocative and nasty, it made us blush and swelter like in those adolescent times when we would get caught red-handed at screwing sheep.
One should have seen us dashing off into the park where there was a wooden platform with an orchestra at its side, playing tunes so hot and spicy they instantly made your mouth dry and your stomach ulcerous. Most of the crowd, though clearly took pleasure in the music, did it in their own urbane way either pretending they didn’t hear what was in its core, or lacking the ear to grab hold of it. Couples were leaping about excitedly, bobbing up and down, but without the genuine thrill.
On us the music acted as kerosene on an exhausted flame. Right away, we jumped onto the platform, each grabbed a girl and went twirling, dancing insanely as the music commanded. But certainly that wasn’t the right thing to do, for the lasses were all too scared and dancing with them was more like throwing around sacks of potatoes. Furthermore, their fathers recovered from the first shock and got in the way. Enraged, shouting something in a language we didn’t understand, shaking their swagger sticks, they moved onto the dancing floor and jerked their daughters away from us. Having them safely behind their backs, they set upon us and pushed us first off the platform and then out of the park.
Outraged, we were standing there wondering what to do, whether to arm ourselves somehow and attack them now or to come back later. While we were at it, two smiling ladies approached us. In black net gauntlets, holding white parasols, they sniffed the air around us and said something it their tongue. Seeing our confusion, they switched to another language that wasn’t ours but close enough to understand. They said they liked the odor we emitted: old good mutton and onions, it jogged their memories about their own homes in the mountains, not in our mountains but similar mountains elsewhere, and that they saw us dancing and if we really wanted to dance they would show us a place, way better than the one in the park with the potty people just pretending they are dancing. They led us into a house up the street where we were greeted with smiles by many beautiful women dressed in slips, nightgowns, baby dolls, silk camisoles, corselettes, and net stockings. However, we were in for a disappointment here, too, for all the smiling was gone as soon as they realized we were poor chaps without much money to spend. In no time, we were herded out and left on our own again, feeling maltreated, disgruntled by all the shoving around.
Hungry by now, we walked up to a cheap joint and ate some bread and fish, which we are not used to. It ended up pretty funny, as I recall it now, because the cooks didn’t remove fish’s eyes and they were looking back at us with such an objection that in fact eating that fish turned out to be fighting it, and the fish won, and most of us threw up troubling the waiters very much and adding up to the general repulsion we were causing here.
Late in the evening we walked back to the shore to take the last look at the sea before leaving. And then this thing happened.
The tide was low, and the sea went all the way back revealing a multitude of thingamajigs. The view of the naked sea bottom, stripped off water, disgusted us even more than the fish’s gaze just a while ago. Not prepared for observation it was shameful. More obscene than the flesh we saw at the bawdyhouse because there it was meant that way and here it was an indiscretion befalling in front of us. On the boardwalk, nobody – matrons with parasols, mustached cavaliers with sticks, dancers from the park, bare naked whores and their pimps – just no one gave a thought to it…
Tired from the day’s events and the rattling bus that brought us back to the familiar crossroad, we walked up the steep hillside: through the wormwood bushes, under the vast star-spangled sky. Silent, we were breathing the fresh mountain air without a trace of salty fetidness.
Altered came we back. The same yet not the same. Not so callow anymore. The world outside might be vast to contain the sea, but for us there was little room in it. We were trespassers there, unwelcome guests, fucking outcasts who are better to be kept an eye upon. And we didn’t like it. Not at all. On the other hand, it was a good, sobering feeling that cleared our minds up and brought back the sense of balance in our souls. More than ever before, we were one now.
Next day we threw away most of the artifacts we had collected from Gypsies and Jews over the years, the evidences of the once puzzling civilization that stretches out there, beyond the small world of ours. We burned the stills that depicted naked whores, their breasts – jugs of milk. They were no better than our sheep. Laughing we turned into ashes the handsome clean-shaven men and their lovely women wearing bonnets, smiles on their faces, not a rotten tooth in their mouths. No more were we curious about their ability to consume food and shit afterwards. They were shit…
That autumn, when the wind blowing from the south brought the giant white seabirds to the square in front of the church, we didn’t feed them with corn bread crumbs. Instead, the men with clubs showed up and slew the birds down. By night they all were gone…
Gulls’ meat, when roasted, isn’t that bad, just harder to chew. But it wasn’t our hunger or the scarcity of food that made us to do it. We wanted no trespassers here, no fucking strangers, be they birds or humans. That’s why…
Now we are waiting for the spring to come…
Standing in a circle, holding hands and smiling Macedonian.

The Winter Campaign

Published in ABSINTHE (New European Writing) magazine #4, 2005

I lived in a giant tilting pinball machine among plungers, kick-out holes,
bells, gongs, the steady rattle of nickels and dimes, all day long. I was a
marble slung into this arena at dawn, nudged, pelted onto ramps, zipping down,
scurrying around, spinning, stopping for a brief span, and dashing for the exit
again by night. No real life of my own: no purpose, no control, no fancy, no
aims, no pleasure. No sense. No friends, no enemies anymore. Alone. Dead
in a way; time stood still.
But I lacked nothing, I was content. I wasted my days driving a cab in
Manhattan; at night I played a flageolet in midtown subway stations, taking a
breath whenever a train thundered by.
I never crossed the river. Even if someone offered a double rate to drive
him to New Jersey, I would decline. I couldn’t. I was scared, filled with fear
of the corruption I might see there. I never wrote or called my mother either.
For shame, not for dismay. However tiny my part might have been in the
downfall of New Jersey, it was there and it made me sick to think about it.
I listened to the radio when I was alone in my cab, otherwise I chatted
with the passengers. They all thought I was crazy. I didn’t mind. Sometimes
they would even tell me I was a crackpot. I didn’t mind.
None believed my story. Sometimes I showed them the scars inflicted by
the finch during the battle for Atlantic City but it didn’t seem to bolster my
credibility in their eyes. That I could not change. Not for the lack of trying,
though. I frequented libraries, seeking for evidence of what had befallen my
comrades —and also to verify my version —but all in vain. No reports in the
newspapers, no records in the books. Not a single reference to any war in
New Jersey, not a hint of what had befallen my army. Their ability to conceal
things, the very magnitude of the conspiracy inspired awe.

I was seventeen when the war broke out just after Christmas. I remember
breakfasting in our cozy kitchen when my brother turned up the radio to
hear the announcement. We were struck, especially mother who went ashen:
her single, mundane dream —time with the family that can be preserved
eternally and consumed in minute, tantalizing bites —had shattered.
The war had been anticipated for so long that nobody believed it would
ever commence. It’s like death: you only take it seriously if it’s scheduled for
tomorrow. Otherwise, who cares . . . Particularly when you are seventeen.
My brother and I grabbed our instruments and animals and ran to the
town square as we had been taught during numerous drills. In no time we
were marching south through a deep blanket of snow to join the good people
from Newark and Trenton.
All together we formed an impressive regiment, several thousand strong.
Mostly violins, but we also had units of trumpets, horns, bassoons, flutes, and
even some basses. We knew that somewhere beyond the skyline there were
other New Jersey troops moving in the crisp white snow: shining clarinets
and trombones, violas and oboes, and maybe even some percussion back-up
if we were lucky.
Our array, a bit chaotic at first, gained cohesion along the way. As we
marched on and grew in mass, augmented by the battalions we met and
merged with, our army became more structured and martial. My brother and
I were separated and reassigned to opposite flanks: I went to the first violins
and he to the second, according to our military rank and training. We would
have liked to have been closer to each other during the battle, but at the time
neither of us was too concerned about it. Young and hot-blooded, we were
thrilled by the events and eager to fight. Sentiments could wait.
We spent that night in the fields, in tents. Farmers came and brought
blankets and food for us and our baboons and marmosets. We ate quickly and
bedded down but, exhaustion notwithstanding, I couldn’t fall asleep for at
least an hour awash with thoughts of what awaited me in the near future. Will
we win? Will we lose? How will the result change my life and that of my
kinfolk? I had no answers, though, no illumination. My earnest probing couldn’t
pierce time, my superficial knowledge of current events did not help either.
I only knew who the enemy was—New York and Chicago—but not what he
wanted. Or what we wanted from him, for that matter. Must have been something
important if we abhorred and wanted to exterminate one another. Our slogan
was “Liberty and prosperity.” Did they aim to take these from us? I wanted
to discuss it with someone but was too ashamed to ask my fellows. On the
other hand, they were all asleep now, an inappropriate time for conversation.
Embracing my Callithrix friend, I yawned and drifted off.
Next day at dawn we promptly folded our tents, took our places in the
units and marched off. After a couple of hours, however, our pace eased and
in another hour we were ordered to halt. No explanation was offered, and
there were no visible signs either of the enemy or of traps he may have set.
As a first violin, I was in the very front line and had an unobstructed view.
But all I could see was a monotonous winter landscape with bare shivering
trees and crows in the vitreous sky.
It was cold that morning and soon it became unbearable to stand there
doing nothing. We broke lines and started playing with the monkeys or punching
each other to keep the blood circulating. We were like small careless
children having fun on a sunny winter day. It was the last time that I heard
myself laughing.
Finally, around noon our commanders who took instructions from their
commanders called us to order. Rumor spread that the enemy was but half a
mile away and closing swiftly. The news was both chilling and sobering. Now
I really wanted to see my brother before it all started but it was impossible.
We were at least a mile apart from one other, separated by hundreds of men.
Men of the same fate who also had brothers or fathers somewhere in this swarm
and wished they could see and hug them, perhaps for the last time. The latter
thought gave me an idea; I grabbed my neighbors’ hands and shook them
amicably as if they were my kinsmen. That was the right thing to do, for other
soldiers who noticed my action emulated me. This affectionate outburst of
camaraderie spread well beyond our unit, wavelike it cascaded outwardly
and, I had few doubts about it, reached my brother.
And then —hell. Our scouts were incompetent or something else, I don’t
know the exact cause, but we overlooked the enemy’s approach. One moment
a boring frosty unwrinkled plane lay before us, the next moment the landscape
was squirming with barbarians —hordes of brute bagpipers —so many of
them that if my training had not led me to plug my ears almost automatically,
I would have died instantly.
We were lucky to be trained so well, for the bagpipers’ vanguard caused
us almost no damage. I stuck my violin under my chin, squeezed the fingerboard,
placed the bow on the strings, and took a quick glance at our lieutenant
who was waiting for a command. We counterattacked with Götterdämmerung,
a wise choice, both a powerful merciless blow and a message that no prisoners
will be taken. We edged forward pounding and pounding the adversary with
strong waves of chords, yet at first they stood firmly and there wasn’t much
we could do. My earplugs prevented me from hearing what they played but it
must have been something lethal, for one of my comrades, whose hand I had
shaken, lost one of his plugs and I could clearly see blood spurting from his
unprotected ear, his eyes, nose, and mouth. He fell on the snow but I could
not help him, for I had to keep moving and playing, and playing, and playing
to protect my home, my mother, my town, and the whole of New Jersey from
these savages.
My comrade’s death had shaken me to the very core. I had always known
the war was no joke but this was the first time in my life that I witnessed a
person’s death so close and it was dreadful. I longed for revenge, couldn’t
help myself. I craved to kill and went amok. Without waiting for a command,
reckless of the potential consequences of such noncompliance, I let my monkey
loose, watched him run up to the nearest enemy soldier, jump onto his shoulders
and pull the plugs from his ears. I leaped forward, played the highest note
I could squeeze from my instrument without disrupting the strain played
by my army, and observed the man dropping his pipes in a sudden attack of
pain. Playing fiercely, I stood over him and watched him lying on the ground
hemorrhaging, trying to cover his head with his hands, his life ebbing out
nevertheless. It wasn’t a noble sight, though. I will never forget the uncouth
plowman’s face and his imbecile eyes, full of fear and sorrow. However, at the
time it gave me the gratification I sought and it was great. I realized that until
then I had been frightened. Henceforth I was confident of triumph.
When I emerged from my frenzy and looked around, I saw the field alive
with monkeys doing what my marmoset had done a minute ago: jumping on
lubberly bagpipers, tearing out their earplugs to make them susceptible to the
barrage of the Götterdämmerung. This brought about an instant shift in the
balance. Barbarians were dying in scores now. Others, aware of their inability
to resist our trained animals, tossed away their instruments and ran for their
lives bereft of all dignity. Seeing this we switched to Mozart and chased the
defeated with Symphony No. 23 in D major until night fell. Victory, the total
victory of the first battle, was ours.
It wasn’t the end of the war though. For me it was only the beginning.
For my brother it was over. After the battle I went to the sector of the second
violins to see my brother but couldn’t find him. No one knew where he was
and everyone seemed too tired to talk to me. Eventually I found a lieutenant
who told me that one of the bagpipers managed to wrestle my brother down
and unplug his ears. That night I did not sleep, clutching my monkey in my
arms, listening to it snore. My mind was numb; there was no room for any
particular thought. Desolation . . .
We moved south, almost effortlessly defeating the enemy’s numerous small
guerilla groups with impromptu mazurkas, shooting hemidemisemiquavers of
Schoenberg at their stray patrolmen. Our advance was measured and took
several weeks, but we lost few troops and the whole campaign looked really
scherzo until we reached Atlantic City, which we had to recapture. By that
time I had been awarded the rank of private first class for my bravery: during
a skirmish my violin broke and instinctively I grabbed the flute of a fallen
comrade and played away, hunting the enemy with rapid bursts of Debussy’s
sinfoniettas until all had fallen. I wasn’t trained for woodwind instruments.
I had practiced on them on my own, mostly from curiosity. I was fortunate to
have done so. I promised myself to test other instruments, and by the time we
got to Atlantic City I could play most of them. Kettledrums and trombones
were an exception, but if the war were to continue I was pretty sure I could
handle those, too. Accordingly I awaited future promotions and expected to
return home at least a second lieutenant, if fortune were not to turn its back
on me. This wasn’t in the stars.
The battle for Atlantic City was furious, cruel, and continued for three
days and nights. A terrible, terrible experience, an inferno. We finally won
but the losses were massive: almost a third of our troops and half of the
monkeys. We spent two days burying the dead and three weeks recovering
from wounds and exhaustion and mending our instruments.
We closed on the enemy as a squall playing Richard Strauss’ Death and
Transfiguration, but had to switch to a more potent weapon, Stravinsky’s The
Rite of Spring, in the middle of the battle, as Strauss had no effect on the
adversary. It was an uphill battle. The enemy was well prepared, his positions
impenetrable. Huge barricades and lines of barbed wire prevented us from
deploying our monkeys so we had to apply different tactics and rely on our
own martial skills. We pounded the foe with mighty waves of consonances,
hammered and hammered them. But the damage was insignificant. They stood
firm, and we were only able to advance when an order came to play Bartók’s
Concerto for Orchestra whose dissonant harmonies assaulted the adversary
like a hurricane and sowed confusion behind the barricades.
However, soon we were hard pressed, for the enemy, convinced of our
determination, let fly swarms of small birds—Fringillidae. We absolutely
didn’t expect anything like that —the use of trained animals was our idea —
and we were bewildered. Like a tremendous cloud of hailstorm, these nasty
buntings swooped down from the sky puncturing our earplugs, piercing our
eyes, lacerating our skin, virtually tearing us apart. Screaming we dropped
our instruments and tried to protect ourselves, covering our heads with our
hands, but the vicious finches were not easily discouraged, they stabbed and
slashed with their sharp beaks. There was no escape. Those whose plugs
were perforated died, others lost their eyes, and almost all were bleeding.
Our monkeys suffered as much. Many of them were blinded or forced to flee
their masters. We succumbed to panic and began to abandon the field. But
surprisingly our failing became our strength, for the birds, all of a sudden,
changed their small minds, lost interest, disengaged, and flew back to their
home lines. They now attacked their proprietors with the same fierceness and
thrashed them until night came. We seized the opportunity, quickly regrouped,
composed ourselves, and stormed the enemy with full force playing Pietro
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. After sunset the birds disappeared and we
launched an assault on the barricades. Once we breached the fortifications
our monkeys did their part. After that there were few surprises, just the laborious,
tiresome task of street combat. I won’t describe the details. It’s worth mentioning,
though, that for such low-level warfare we used lighter weapons, like
Paderewski’s Minuet in G, that were more than adequate to fight small squads
hidden in driveways and passages, and Paganini’s Caprices for violin solo,
especially handy for hunting single enemy servicemen.
Now that the state of New Jersey was clean and clear, we should had
terminated the campaign and returned home. We didn’t do that, however. For
one thing, resplendent in victory, we thought no one in the world could defeat
us. We had crushed the enemy but were perfectly aware that eventually new
insurrections would burst forth as long as our archenemy remained capable
of instigating such revolts. The two principal hornet nests were New York and
Chicago, corrupt dens of libertines, drug hawkers, and vicious bands that
assaulted honest citizens, chasing them down the streets playing that awful
thing they call jazz. Sleaze, decay, and corruption spread from those two
places. We felt that it was the best time to finish them off, once and for all. It
was our sacred duty.
As soon as we recuperated, we marched back north to Cherry Hill and
Willingboro, greeted as conquerors everywhere. The people of small towns
cared enough to travel from the boondocks to line the major roads we traversed,
paying us, their guardians, respect and admiration. Farmers donated food
and beer, ordinary townsmen shook our hands and made speeches, young
women bestowed us with flower bouquets and kisses full of affection and,
often, latent lust. We were honored similarly in Trenton with a magnificent
celebration, comprising cheering, flag waving, and terrific salvos of fireworks,
glorious in the midnight-blue abyss of the starless winter sky.
The regal treatment we received in Long Branch, Perth-Amboy, Elizabeth,
and Newark slowed down our advance inordinately. It took almost three weeks
to reach the state border in Jersey City. On a sunless, gloomy daybreak we
stood on the waterfront in Liberty State Park, the towers of Manhattan grim
minarets in the distance.
We used both the Holland tunnel and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson
rapid transit system to cross the river and enter SoHo. No defenders were to
be seen as if they all had escaped in awe of our approach. That could hardly
be true, however. The city was too colossal to be devoid of all its dwellers, too
deranged to be abandoned in an orderly fashion.
Cautiously we moved down Spring and Houston streets, then 6th and the
7th playing Roy Harris but ready to switch to Bruckner’s Requiem at the
first sign of danger. The tension was incredible: we were in the dragon’s lair,
the very font of transgression, and had no inkling of what might happen the
next moment.
Nothing was happening, though. There was no traffic, no people on the
streets of the city that boasts that it never sleeps. Obviously, the enemy
was ignoring our march, intending to entice us to pursue them in an insane
exercise of hide-and-seek so that we would be exhausted and transformed
into easy prey.
It was frightfully cold in the streets, in those narrow chasms with steep
brick walls. So cold in fact that we had to play something vigorous to keep
ourselves from freezing to the bone. We stroked up Handel’s effervescent
Water Music and played it for a while. Only then some windows opened and
groggy, heavy-eyed women and hostile unshaved men emerged, some just
gawking down at us, others yelling something, surely words of insult, if their
grimaces were a fair guide. Our earplugs prevented us from hearing them.
An elderly woman tossed down several coins, a quarter hit the pavement
near me and circled for a while, then fell on its side and came to rest right in
front of me. Instinctively I made a sudden stop causing someone to run into
me from behind. My violin slipped from my frozen fingers and crashed to the
ground. Another shove made me step on the instrument turning it into a jumble
of string and splinters. I tripped over the debris, lost my balance and fell
prostrate. My comrades did their best to avoid stepping on me but it wasn’t
easy. An army squeezed by the concrete walls from both sides is as evasive
as a steamroller: someone’s heel crushed the fingers of my right hand, a kick
to my temple left me unconscious for a short second. It must have knocked
the plugs out of my ears too, for when I came to my senses, the first thing to
reach my brain wasn’t the feeling of paralysis or the view of the rear guard of
my party, fading out into the distance, but a swirl of sound, tones ricocheting
off the walls, the pavement, lamp posts, and blasting my unprotected ears.
The music didn’t put me away instantly like it had killed my brother. It was
too distant and didn’t have sufficient force to inflict great destruction. It crippled
me, however. The chords mauled my head, pierced the ears, scorched my
brain. I lay there knowing it was over for me: the war, the triumphs, the kisses
of lovely maidens, promotions, returning home a corporal, the honors —all
gone. All gone. Forever.

But I didn’t die, however.
On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would roam the streets scrutinizing
every face in vain expectation of finding a familiar one. On one such occasion
I wandered to the site of my derailment and experienced a sort of vision there.
As if in a trance, it seemed that, once again, I could hear the last cadences
of my regiment marching-off and see the backs of my fellows, fading in the
distance.
While I stood there, working through that nightmare, trying to shake it
off, an aged car pulled up, the driver rolled down the window, stared into my
eyes, shouted and roared with diabolical laughter, “I know you. You are one
of those bastard monkey fuckers from New Jersey,” and drove off.
How wonderful it was to feel that warped reality crack and shatter, the
old and the true reassert itself. How rewarding it was after all those years of
seclusion, of life in a quarantine, to see a portal open, to sense fresh hope
being born and promptly filling the absurd void, to have the ability to judge
return and take its rightful place in my soul.

My life has changed. I am back in business. Not just driving passengers
around but thinking: reviewing my past, watching and listening,
accumulating and sorting facts, devising new strategies, new weapons. I don’t
chat with my customers anymore, I have no time for that.
One day soon I shall cross the river into New Jersey, mobilize a new
army, and start another campaign. Take notice! This time we shall come as a
hurricane, a tsunami, a merciless, relentless force, that will assault not only
your ears but all your senses simultaneously, possess and wreck them, while
replacing your superficial hell with our perfect inferno.

I am all determination now. I blast dead marches and don’t pause for a
breath when a train storms by.