Love According To Joseph

      A street musician virtually dying on the littered concrete of Wenceslas square in front of a small crowd, committing suicide with the help of elaborate chords he is trying hard to force out of his instrument, a Fender Stratocaster solid body, ripping strings off the neck to produce the pitches he deems correct, and he, Josef, standing on that corner, pissing into his own shoes, not being able to hold it, or to do anything about it, knowing he's in trouble again. A girl next to him glancing at his trousers, saying, “Are you all right?”, willing to help. “Yes, dear, I'm fine, the music does this thing to me. Always.
      That's how I tell the good music from bad.” The girl, distrustful, piercing him with her eyes, thinking either he's joking or he's a freak, and querying, “You a freak, ain't you?”
      "Guess I am," staring at his trousers, smiling to the girl now, trying to be slightly playful. "If a man can't hold his urine when he hears a good tune, he must be a freak of some kind, what you say?”
      She might be a freak herself. Why not? A man nearby urinates in public, and she tries to interview him. Unless she's a nurse or a doctor, which is not likely based on her looks. Jesus Christ, what a girl she is! A tall and slender assembly, the type that wears blue jeans cut-offs barely covering her ass mounted atop of a pair of long splendid legs (its September after all, still hot indeed, and Prague is such a carnal city, nobody cares), a headset on her neck, her hair smelling of grass slightly if you get close enough, the face enigmatic with a touch of dreaminess in it, the mysterious face of lethal enchantress, skin so fresh and pearly it looked backlit, and facial traits so accurate and perfect it was hard to believe they resulted from the genetic windfall, the mélange of DNA. Who wouldn’t go nuts?
      "You say music does this to you?" she is puzzled, a trace of interest in her voice.
      There you are, he thinks, trying to imagine a more unusual way to meet a girl: on the street, with his wet trousers sticking to his thighs, the smell of fresh urine reaching his nostrils now.
      "Yes, dear, that's my problem, I’ve always had it. Music picks me up I lose control of myself. Just like the booze, indeed, I'm not kidding you.”
      The street performer was packing his instruments by now, the crowd getting thinner, people walking away, the warm summer dusk falling down. The girl steps closer to Josef, intrigued; he steps back, wanting to keep a safe distance, feeling embarrassed about that sweetish smell.
      "Poor boy," she said. "Loving music and not being able to go to concerts... Must be terrible?”
      "In a way it is.”
      "Must be kind of a negative reflex,” she said. Actually, walking him home now, quite naturally, Josef couldn't believe that. “How old are you? Let me guess. Forty?”
      "Not yet. Still some time to go." Never imagined could profit from this pissing. Eager to change the subject, except the girl was firmly hooked onto it and wouldn't let it die.
      "You poor creature.”
      "See, I got these speakers installed into my bathroom. In fact, I got speakers all over the house. It isn't much of a problem if you take some precautions. But sometimes I go out and walk into it like today. On the other hand, take bars... I pick up a quiet place and get nailed by some asshole bartender playing one of those Cole Porter things, that type. Oldies but goodies, you know some bartenders like. All Through The Night or Too Darn Hot.”
      "Is that right? Do you frequent bars?" She's interested now, the range of her interests broadening. "See, I hang out pretty often myself and I was thinking your face is familiar to me from somewhere, that’s why I asked."
      Josef is racing his mind trying to remember if he's ever seen the girl before. Definitely not. So, she's a social type, single? What is she after in those bars? Is she a drinker who likes getting laid with smashed patrons? Doesn't fit that picture too, the nice face and that body of hers. Too nice for mercy fucking. A lady of the night?
      "You can’t walk the streets all wet like this. Why don't you drop over to my place and wash your things and then we try ironing them?" she said. "I live right there. What do you think?’
      "Oh, that would be just fine," he said to the girl. Just fine. Take a leak at the right place and you are all set.
      They both walked up the stairs to her apartment. It was a significant moment. Upon entering the room, Josef was instantly overwhelmed by its smell: an obscene and pungent perfume, a diabolical odor emanating from walls and furniture, a bouquet he had never smelled yet somehow knew all his life. It has confused Josef’s mind. He would compare it to witchcraft or to a drug of some kind except, expert in neither, he wasn’t capable of offering a decent explanation. All he knew was that the aroma got stuck in his nostrils and wouldn’t go away next day or next week, he would wake up at night and it would be there, inside of him, and he knew it wasn’t just an illusion, for one night when he woke up in a similar manner there was his wife’s face above his, her nose close to his, sniffing the odor his nostrils emitted.
      Most likely the whole bunch of circumstances had played the trick: the heat of September, the attractiveness of the girl, the way she reacted to Josef’s embarrassment, and especially the way she liked to listen to Josef who could depict things in a very charming way if only you liked the subject itself. Even in Prague, people rarely lend an ear to butchers no matter how inspired the latter are.
      Josef wasn’t a loquacious person, but that evening at the girl’s place, dumbfounded by the mysterious odor, he could not shut up his mouth. Wrapped in a silk bathrobe the girl gave him, waiting for his trunks and trousers to dry up, a beer in his hand, Josef asked her about the mixture of hair tonic, civet and ambergris floating in her room. She couldn’t answer it, but he noticed that the question wasn’t completely new to her. Someone had asked it before. Maybe many times. For she just smiled and shook her head as if it was her secret.
      That evening Josef told the girl that meat also has its aromas that depend on various factors, from kind to maturity, along with refined palettes of marbling, texture, firmness, and color. Take a youthful beef carcass, the split spinous processes of the vertebrae are soft, red, porous, and tipped with large amounts of flocculent, pearly white cartilage.
      “Jesus Christ!” she said.
      Texture of lean referring to the prominence of muscle bundles. And what about color, that physical phenomenon of light or visual perception associated with the various wavelengths in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, a sensation experienced by virtuosos, a perception that varies from pale pink to the extremely dark, resulting from myoglobin concentration, or in case of fat, free from a greasy or oily appearance, from white to creamy white? The veal--dry, grayish pink in color, and firm in structure... Or the pork... There is something definitely sexy about the butt of a 100 kg gilt, her muscle lean and rose, exudation perfect, top grade. That’s the way it has to be, sexy. That’s how you distinguish between the ugly and the beautiful, the ill-favored and the blessed, polarization of life, movement to and fro: from the alkaline rigor of muscle, from the closed structure of proteins scattering little incident light, to the opposite extreme of pale, soft, exudative muscle, in which the proteins are denaturated and the structure is open. Life and happiness.
      The same with music. Good music is sexy. Isn’t it a derivative of an intuitive esoteric knowledge, a feeling perhaps, a forgotten instinct longing to surface? The insight that a meat’s tenderness is influenced by either the contractile state of the muscle or by the amount of crosslinking in the collagen, the physiological conditions and the amount of postmortem shortening that will occur. The temperature at which the carcass is held, the excision, which relieves stress on the muscle, the proportion of connective tissue... The understanding of the inevitable: that circulation stops, that absence of oxygen encourages the breakdown of the carbohydrate glycogen into glucose, which is in turn reduced to lactic acid. Rigor mortis, critical pH drop, nothingness.
      “I see,” the girl said ironing his trousers, her voice trembling a bit.
      “What’s the matter?” Josef asked.
      She bent over, reached for his bottle and took a gulp.
      “Nothing,” she replied. “Nothing. You are a poet.”
      “No, I am a butcher.”
      “Oh,” she almost choked up but managed to gulp down and got the fit of the giggles, split with laughter.
      “Are you all right?”
      “A butcher,” she said guffawing. “A butcher! Oh my god! A butcher… That's wonderful! I’m okay, I’m fine. I just can’t fucking believe it, that’s all. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. See, I don’t know you and for a moment… the way you speak about those things… just for a moment I thought you are a maniac going to slash my throat or something.”
      Not much else happened there that night. If there had been something in the air - a thrill, a possibility, an unspoken promise, magnetism - it was irreversibly gone by now, replaced by plain, safe, sober reality.
      Somewhat humiliated, Josef put on his trousers, thanked the girl and left. She didn’t try to stop him or invite him to visit her again. It even looked as if in the last minutes she suddenly lost her interest in him and wanted him to leave as soon as possible. On the threshold, when Josef hesitated for a second, she slightly pushed him forward and closed the door. Did she despise him for his trade or merely had an insight of what was coming, if such is possible?
      Whatever chemistry between the two of them took place in the girl’s room that night are angles unreachable to dilettantes, to the dumb and simple, without the maestro’s ability to see the thin invisible line where the Frenched chop ends and the English begins. For the girl’s burst of laughter was precisely the spark that ignited passion and desire. Very much like a dash of salt that brings into being the sapor of sausage.
      Next day, when his apprentice, a dumb round-faced kid who thought that a ponytail and an earring made him look cool, forgot to sharpen the knives, Josef, for the first time ever, didn’t slap him on the head. Without saying a word, he just pulled the knives out of their stand and spent an hour or so whetting them himself, honed them with care, oil stoned, checked the cutting edge on his thumbnail, and whetted again until they were just right. And when the boy came up with an apology, Josef only gave him a half-smile and said nothing, which made the guy sick with fear.
      The love was so scorching, so damn hot, it would burn holes in the heart’s muscle and make water evaporate from the blood which, in turn, clogged the Josef’s veins so badly they had to bring him to a hospital and amputate minor parts of his limbs. To survive his love, Josef gulped aspirin, vast amounts of it, for acetylsalicylic acid liquefies blood and restores the oxygen supply to brain cells. With his cells more or less taken care of, he was able to harness himself and not do the terrible and lunatic things he was irresistibly tempted to perform at the moments when his arteries became slow rivulets of the burning slush. That’s pretty close to the most official version. The doctors have insisted the man knew the trouble he had placed himself in.
      Some say he didn’t know that love had smitten him. He was too uncultured, they say, he never went to concerts, never enjoyed delicate wine and fine music, he had no idea of fancy food beyond several primitive meat dishes, how could he possibly tell a great love from an ordinary fever?
      The third group agreed that he was in love and knew it but they all subscribed to the theory that the whole aspirin story was a plot invented by the man himself in order to trick his wife into thinking he’s really had pyrexia and was concerned about it rather than the woman, the half-naked woman in the photograph hidden under the cash register.
      What photograph? He didn’t have a camera the first night he met the girl. Neither he stole it from her apartment. Then where could he get a photo from?
      All right. He waited for two days and, when the urge to see the girl became unbearable, he went to her apartment again. She wasn’t there, however. Nobody opened the door. He waited a couple of days more before going back to her place, praying she would be there. No luck. He talked to her neighbors, but nobody knew anything about the girl: when she came or left, where she worked, whether she had any friends or relatives, etc. He made a habit of visiting the place every day and knocking on the door. But the apartment was dead all the same, though a time or two Joseph had an impression someone might be inside. He could swear he heard quiet steps and breathing behind the door but then how could he be so sure? There were moments Josef thought that he had dreamed up the whole thing or that he had mistaken the address. He rejected those doubts, for the scent was there, distinct, unmistakable.
      What was driving him, he didn’t know. He had no plans, no ideas what could possibly happen next if he saw the girl. He left everything for the context of the moment, hoping that the play of circumstances would give him a hint what to say and how to act when the right time comes.
      One night on his way home from the tiring daily quest, on a deserted street, a shadow broke away from the wall of a building and approached him. A still young but unattractive woman, a real dog, who said: “Hey lover!” The weather was foul, raining all day. Josef just shook his head without slowing down and wanted to pass by but the wench, mistaking his fatigue for inebriety, wasn’t easy to get rid off. After some wrestling, seeing he wasn’t the right guy, the woman finally gave up, angrily hit Josef on the head with an umbrella and let him go, but later that night, when Josef was already asleep, his wife, turned distrustful by the tangy odor emanating from his nostrils, ransacked the pockets of his trench coat to find a glossy flier, one of those the Tenderloin uses to promote itself. Pictured on the flier was a scantily clad blonde who apparently could be had for money at the establishment. Josef’s wife placed the flier on the bed next to her husband’s face, took her pillow and went to sleep on the sofa in the living room. She cried and sobbed all night and was still asleep when Josef left with the flier safely in his pocket where the hooker had slipped it in last night.
      Now he knew who the object of his desire was but that didn’t make it a bit easier to him. No more quiet life, those peaceful afternoons, when Josef would leisurely clean his knives and cleavers, sort the leftovers of his merchandise after a busy day, separate pieces that can last till tomorrow from those with a touch of salmonella on them, still quality meat if you wash it thoroughly and sprinkle with vinegar and cook today but worthless tomorrow. It would end up in a trash container in the backyard, the fat green flies Josef hates so much already waiting outside. Moments
      of genuine harmony before his life was screwed up beyond recognition.
      All the regular customers, who bought their beef steaks and calf liver at Josef’s shop right off Wenceslas square could have failed to notice his falling into such a disastrous affection if not for the secondary result of aspirin overdose that caused blood to ooze from his nose, down his apron and into the white old-fashioned enameled-tin containers steaming with freshly minced meat.
      It’s not that people resolutely disapproved such a fusion, at Josef’s prices it was still a bargain and most of the buyers simply couldn’t afford being too picky, but it was a clear indication something was going wrong with the man. And, indeed, an elderly woman whispered once to her husband, “My God, he is in love, don’t you see it? He is out of his mind, poor boy.”
      The woman’s statement puzzled the entire line, for what was being played out was the farthest cry from a mating call of any sort. Nobody knew that the aspirin, the excess of it, caused the sudden hemorrhage in their butcher. They simply stood there, twelve ordinary men and women, a bit tired, grayish skin, not completely discontented, but seasoned enough not to have many illusions, no more invidiousness, no rivalry, no more sleepless sobbing nights, none of that anymore, and--bang!--there comes, in a kind of flash, an instant overwhelming recognition that there is no way they will undergo such a passion ourselves. Ever.
      And they succumb. In a sudden public celebration of this bizarre Eucharist, in an urgent drive to absorb at least a drop of the divine and potent force that caused our butcher to shed his own blood, they embrace the incredible. Without even realizing it, they form a sect, a confessional group united by their butcher’s distress, and in an ancient cannibalistic act of worship they all take minced meet that day, the product of -- who could have predicted? -- feeling made flesh.
      In a week or two, all Prague knew about Josef’s love. Appropriate graffiti appeared here and there on the city’s walls, depicting in wild barbaric colors things that nobody was willing to speak about openly. It’s very unusual to regress to pictograms in a city where practically everything is allowed. On one occasion, on a subway train, a small girl asked her father what he would like to take with him to the moon if only permitted to select one thing. I don’t know, the father said, what about you? Christmas, she said, and you? Well, he said, maybe the shower? Or should I take my bicycle?, he still wasn’t sure. And then it dawned on him, everybody could see that because the same thing was on everybody’s mind, his eyes turned watery, he opened his mouth replete with bad teeth but at the very last second controlled himself and, to the great relief of the fellow passengers, left silence to hang in the air instead, an invisible shroud covering the invisible vacuum gap that already opened to take in his nude, shameless words.
      To qualify for a genuine love story, it has to be star-crossed and futureless. If it ends with both lovers united in matrimony and living happy as pigs in muck, it’s a civil record, not a love story. Josef’s tale has very little bliss in it. It reached its climax on the day when Josef opened the register, grabbed all the cash it contained and threw it into the pockets of his white, bloodstained apron. He thrust two of his heavy-duty knives under his belt and left the shop, looking grim and desperate. None of the patrons complained: they have been waiting all too long for the act two.
      In his ensanguined clothing, armed with two grisly blades, all in lather from running, Josef didn’t look like ordinary customer when he entered the louche establishment.
      The security didn’t brave to interfere. Both teratoid and ridiculous at once, with one of the knives in his hand, he stopped in the middle of the lounge, breathing heavily, a string of saliva hanging from his mouth, a fat vein throbbing on his chin, pure menace, a bomb. The scent of lavender water and the plush interior – the rosy light, flesh-pink walls and pork-colored furniture upholstery – acted as an instant tranquilizer, though. Josef turned to the white-faced madam with false eyelashes - a rickety China doll who stood there petrified, holding a telephone handset, ready to call the police - and gestured to put it back. She did. What was there to happen next?
      And next was Astor Piazzolla, a virtuoso on the bandonion, the Quintetto Nuevo Tango whose sensual and titillating sound cascaded from the speakers built in the walls, a steamy mixture of milonga and habanera, voluptuous, licentious rhythms that made Josef to drop his knife and stand there in a spreading pool of his own urine wondering what it was exactly that brought him to this place. What had he been thinking before he grabbed his knives and stormed out of the shop? A heroic effort to free a princess from a dragon’s lair? A desperate attempt to put an end to his own torment? There was no dragon’s lair, only the lewd pork colored upholstery and canned salsa music pouring from above. Whatever had started as an act of courageous, though theatrical determination, was ending in disgrace now: pissing into his own shoes, not being able to hold it, or to do anything about it, knowing he's in trouble once more.
      And there she is again; tall and slender, she dashes through a bead curtain, scantily clad, her perfect body the color of fresh lamb chops, too much lipstick and face powder, holding her vanity case in one hand, both smiling and teary-eyed, she sashays toward her man, grabs his arm and escorts him out of the place, without looking back or saying anything to the madam, who stands there still shaking slightly and who has seen many frenzied departures in her rather long life but never like this one, accompanied by spicy tango music, the cavalier wetting his pants all the way to the exit.
      If life were subject to the same rules that govern the Italian operas this love story could end here, because - at least from the perspective of the city - all subsequent events are trivial.
      Josef left his wife and moved to live with his conquest who turned out to be different from what Josef had expected.
      First two or three weeks the young woman was soft as butter and caring, but soon she changed into a garden-variety bitch on every account. Sure, she still had a perfect magnetic body, but her character… oh, man!
      All that summer, in a mini skirt showing her long legs up to the roots, she would hang around in Josef’s shop doing nothing useful, having everybody’s eyes on her and obviously enjoying it. Before long the clientele has turned all male, shoppers coming frequently and choosing their wares studiously. There was always a long line. It was good for business but made Josef nervous. His amenity was gone, he became tough or rowdy fellow just like all other butchers around the town. His cutlets and steaks were of uneven thickness and differed in size noticeably, the oxtail has splinters of bone on it, the tripe and chitterlings weren’t washed clean, and the forcemeat had too much lard.
      To Josef’s discomfiture, the girl was openly narrating her problems to the customers: how boring it was to live a life like hers and how bad were the doctors treating her hemorrhoids. She knew enough about hemorrhoids to write a book and she was ready to share that esoteric knowledge with anyone. Were it not her fresh and innocent appearance, the listeners would be less attentive, perhaps. However, the lips, the eyes, and her nose somehow made those problems almost unique.
      On top of all that, one day, Josef entered the backroom for a supply of trotters and found the girl standing in front of his punk apprentice who was sitting on a footstool, both his hands on her thighs, caressing them passionately.
      One fine morning soon, when Josef opened his shop and the usual customers came, the girl wasn’t there. Asked about her, Josef said she was home sick, her hemorrhoids giving her hard time. By the afternoon, the line was only half the usual size, the buyers getting their stuff quickly and not coming for more that day. The girl didn’t show up next day or the day after. Actually, she never came back and Josef switched to saying she has left him, simply packed her things and disappeared. By the way, quite logically, his apprentice was also nowhere in sight.
      As days passed by, Josef started to regain a great deal of his old customers and his earlier personality. He became sweet and considerate, his chops were perfect and the tripe so clean you could swear he used some bleach to wash it.
      Of course, there were rumors, some of them very nasty.
      One of the gossips, for instance, entertained abominable suspicions as to why during the weeks immediately after the girl and the apprentice had disappeared the wienerwurst of a distinguished quality was in such an abundance at Josef’s shop. But who takes such a slur seriously?
      No one knows whether those rumors have ever reached Josef’s ears but he didn’t seem to care. His only interest was meat, as usual.
      According to Josef, meat is not trivial, it always embodies something of an end, a goal. The dead vertebrate isn’t a gory victim of a primitive carnivorous instinct, a part of the Food Web, set of interconnected food chains by which energy and materials circulate. For an adept such as Josef, the body of a freshly slaughtered animal is both a wonderful creation per se and a short stop on the evolving transition toward an even more perfect state of matter -- wholesale and retail cuts, arm and blade roasts, steaks, shoulders and necks, ribs and crowns, loin chops and sirloins, standing rumps and shank halfs, brisket pieces and rolled rumps, and--the apogee—sausage.

      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 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 its 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 the 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, and 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.

      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 lose 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.

      This Is a Miracle

      REFLECTIONS ON BELONGING 20 November 2019
      Imagine how the universe comes into being, apparently out of nothing. The first particle pops out of nowhere followed by a huge stream of particles that start interacting with each other instantly, the fields appear, and first atoms get born according to physical laws that had never existed before. The atoms clump together led by that same logic, chemical reactions start, molecules emerge, all in colossal quantities, with incredible energy and speed. Pure magic.
      I was in the first grade when I discovered our little town had a library. Out of necessity. I was very avid reader from the age of four. My grandma, who was almost illiterate herself, showed me the letters and how they add together to form words. It was like a puzzle at first. You would say a word and try to dissect it into sounds it's made of and then you locate the alphabet letters that match those sounds and (very clumsily) write them down before you forgot. And then when you read the letters you just wrote you got the oral word back in the air. Somehow, it looked like a very rewarding pastime for me, I could do it again and again. After a brief period of time, I was slowly reading simple children books with illustrations, then reading faster and faster, quicker than it would take to pronounce words aloud, I stopped reading separate characters, now I was reading the entire words, getting them imprinted into the brain as hieroglyphs. I loved listening to stories my grandma and other people were telling. Learning to read opened the tremendous basket of them, an endless river. I became an addict.
      My parents had some books at home, like a hundred or so, and they were buying books for me at the rate of maybe two per month but, as a reader, I was faster and soon it became clear the river of stories wasn't endless. At grandma's house, I found a bunch of prewar books, I have no idea where they had come from, they were new books, and nobody opened them before me. I knew it because they were uncut and you had to read them with a knife in hand. Their leaves were still joined together at the fold. So I was reading those books with a sharp kitchen knife in hand, fascinating books, Jack London, Jules Verne, Karl May. Nevertheless, this bunch came to an end, too.
      What I loved about books was that when you got to reading you just disappeared into the worlds their authors created. You were inside there, unconscious of your body left here turning the pages for you. It was like night dreams when you were fully immersed into action there and didn't remember that, in fact, you were in your bed sleeping. I love movies, too, but when you see a movie once, the next time, if you watch it, you already know what's going to happen, and the thrill is gone. There are a few exceptions, though, I have a few movies that I can watch again and again, like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, or The Deer Hunter, but these are rare exceptions. With books, no matter how many times you read them, they still are portals into other worlds, every time.
      I would read and reread my books, any books I managed to get hold of, for many times. The humongous story that came in four volumes, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, I read seven or eight times. This aspect of books, the ability to reread them and still enjoy, helped to alleviate my cravings but it wasn't a solution. I needed to find a more stable source of books but at such young age my possibilities were quite limited.
      As a kid, I wasn't very picky reader. I read pretty much everything that came my way. All sorts of fairy tales, but especially One Thousand and One Nights and Wilhelm Hauff's fairy tales, adventures, American Old West novels, animal stories like Bambi, a Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten, pirate stories, science fiction, fantasy, dramatic and tragic novels, even ancient Greek and Roman translations provided they were not in the form of poetry or theater play. I have tried many times reading the Iliad and the Odyssey and always failed, the form keeps me conscious at all times and doesn't allow to fully submerge in the content. At the most early age, when I was just learning how to read, for this particular reason I skipped all rhymed children books.
      I was reading from the moment I woke up in the morning, a book was always near bed. I was reading during meals, during breakfast and lunch, my grandma Isabella wasn't strict about that. If it was sunny outside, I would go out and play with kids or go fishing, or just run with the dogs, and I really enjoyed that, but if it was raining or too cold I would be equally enjoying it, for then I could just stay inside and read my books. At night, reading was a bit complicated because there was no electricity at the time and it was rather dark in the rooms. We had kerosene lamps everywhere - above the kitchen table, some hanging on the walls - but the kerosene cost money so only one lamp was lit, depending on your location, and the light was very dim. Sure it didn't stop me from reading but it was a bid of a struggle and my grandma wouldn't approve it. In her opinion, reading in such a dim light was ruining your eyesight. Eventually, when the time came to me to wear eyeglasses, to her it was a proof she had been right. Who knows?
      The library was located on the second floor of a two stories building. The first floor was occupied by the post office and the militia, it's how police was called in Soviet times. Militia consisted of one heavyset deputy, who was drunk most of the time. He had a pistol and sometimes, when his delirious brain generated criminal chimeras, he would start shooting rounds. Naturally, people were scared and tried to avoid him. The post office consisted of two employees, a woman behind the counter who could help you to make a phone call or to send a telegram, and a skinny man who would ride a bicycle with a bag full of letters. He lived across the road from my grandma's house with his wife and two kids, a girl older than I and a boy who was my age. In those times, there was a custom to serve a shot of vodka to anyone who helped you with something, a handyman who fixed the latch on your door, a neighbor who brought back your stray chicken, and, of course, the mailman who delivered you an important letter. Thus, on numerous days, you could see the mailman sleeping in the gutter in the middle of the day, his bag open, envelopes and small parcels strewn around in the dusty grass.
      Short of the drunken militia deputy who could shoot you on the way to the library, there was another creepy obstacle I had to overcome. When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, a massive armed resistance commenced. Young patriotic men, but also some women, grabbed whatever weapons they could get and took to the woods in droves to fight the invaders. My mother has told me every single boy from her class at school had gone (to never come back.) The Soviet response was fierce. Russian troops aided by local collaborators (the mailman, our neighbor, was one of them), raided remote villages and farms where the resistance fighters might be given support. Sometimes they would catch the armed men and kill them, other times they couldn't find any culprits and kill innocent to show off, to scare, or just out of drunken rage.
      In those times, the photography was a cumbersome business. The camera was a rather big and heavy stationary box not suited to carry around, especially during the cold winter months when there are no roads just snow and ice. Thus, to document their killings and report to their superiors, the soldiers would bring their victims from those distant farms and lay down in the spacious yard of the library building. Then they would stick young fir trees around the dead bodies, as if those were laying in the woods where they found their death, and send somebody for my grandfather half a mile away.
      My grandfather Kazimieras was a photographer, perhaps the photographer as there was nobody else doing it in a wide area. In normal times, he was busy taking photos of farmers, their wives and their offspring who came to the market and the church on Sundays. But in those early years of foreign occupation his business was pretty much dead and photographing dead bodies among the fake trees was what's left out of it. He wasn't asked to do it, he was ordered. He wasn't paid for it either. Soon, when the stream of dead bodies stopped and there was nothing left to take photos of, my grandpa was sent for ten years to Siberia, to a labor camp in Vorkuta, supposedly for telling people jokes about comrade Stalin. However, grandma Isabela insisted he just knew too much, an inconvenient witness to those local men who had chosen collaboration. My grandma's attic was full with boxes of glass negatives and prints of those atrocities, gory images of dead people piled among firs. Every time I had to cross that yard to get to the library or the post office, the images of bloodied disfigured men vividly came to my memory as if ghosts of the past were waiting for me there. For some strange reason, as far as I remember, the yard, unlike any other space in town, stayed grey and dusty. Not a flower there or a single blade of grass. Lifeless.
      Once I crossed the yard, safely passed the militia deputy's room, and climbed the stairs to the second floor, I was safe among shelves full of books. The librarian, a bored elderly woman, would allow me to choose five books every time I came and take them home with me. Folks were mostly farmers and workers in Seredžius. They had no interest in books, neither had their children. Sure, there were a few educated people - a pharmacist, a doctor, and several school teachers - but during those years I never met anyone of them at the library. Not once. It seems I was the only visitor and it's not clear why the library even existed with no demand but those were the times of Communist rule so there must have been some decree from above. Universal education had been one of Lenin's main legacies, fortunately for me.
      As time went, I was exhausting the library. The most interesting books, fiction, were consumed first, then went popular mechanics, popular physics, biology, math and similar. The books I was reading became less and less captivating. Works of history, especially Communist party history, written in dull language, memoirs, guides, manuals, self-help, journalism, academic books, I was still reading them however, out of thirst for reading, but by my eleventh birthday I was done with the entire library nevertheless. The last book I read from that library was a treatise written by Aristotle called On the Soul. I will remember that book all my life. It was totally impenetrable for my very young brain, it was a torture, and I couldn't understand pretty much anything. I was rereading chapters in hope the understanding will come somehow but it didn't. I took a heroic effort to continue nevertheless, very slow, but the words didn't make any sense the way they were interconnected. I didn't stop reading it because it was the last book in the library and I didn't have anything else to read. In the end, I gave up finally and read Three Musketeers for the nth time.
      During that second part of the library, in spite of mundaneness, I learned a lot. At a certain point, under the influence of various books on biology, I decided I want to be a biologist when I grow up. At the same time I was fascinated about how the cosmic bodies moved and I even filled a notebook with drawings of various orbits. On the front page of the notebook, I wrote the title in all capital letters: TO OTHER PLANETS! I dreamed about space travel and was seriously into jet propulsion. The universe was amazing, the way it worked, all parts of it, the largest and the tiniest, was magic. At night, laying in my bed, I would try to imagine how vast the universe is, endless. That it had no boundaries was very hard to comprehend. I would send my soul onto a flight, with the speed of light and even faster, out there in space and try to reach the end of the universe. I never succeeded. It was a sure-proof method to fall asleep fast.
      To this day, I find it the most astonishing that atoms and molecules interact via chemical bonds to form new chemical compounds, that the inanimate elements, minerals, can intricately join together to become organic matter and that, through even greater complexity, the matter can reach the point it contemplates and reflects upon itself. And it was the contribution of a little obscure library in a tiny town in Lithuania that opened my eyes and enabled to see this.


      I'm talking.
      I'm an ant. Dust. A nothing little speck of dirt at your feet. I am a weak creature, the lowest of the low, and I dare to speak. I beg you! Don't push me aside. Don't shoo me away. Listen to what your slave will tell you.
      I’m fainthearted by nature and I've suffered my whole life because of this. My weakness is visible to all. My mother couldn't stand me. I haven't met anyone who could restrain themselves from aggressively teasing me. I haven’t met a single dog who hasn’t barked at me. Even the birds try to peck out my eyes.
      I could never find a place for myself. There was nowhere I could settle because people would hit me and throw me out by my hair. They showed me to their children and taught them how to hate me. They were healthy and strong, and I was humpbacked and mangy, reeking of wet feathers. How could I argue with them? I walked from village to village, from town to town, taking the most desolate roads so I would not meet anyone. Winter and summer I hurried, running here and there to the places where no one recognized me.
      And so what? You can't shake off your shadow.
      Patience, Master, patience! I won't speak for long.
      Battered and humiliated I would lie at night and listen to the flow of water underground. I'd think: Why? Why is this my fate? I understood that I was necessary to people. Otherwise, they would not pay me any mind, would leave me alone. The world needs equilibrium. My weakness, my unhappiness balanced out their strong will and good fortune. This is the way the world is organized; this is how it is built. It's not up to me to change it. The more people degrade me the better they look to themselves. The more unhappy I am, the bigger the distance between my misfortune and their good fortune, the happier they will seem to themselves. This is how the world works. But why me? Why not someone else? 
      I never had anyone to complain to, to speak to. At night I'd fall asleep alone in the silky rustling rain. I was envious of the birds, flying high in the sky into the west, and then, later on, to the north.
      And now, Master, having gathered all my weak will, I have created a vision. A chimera. I summoned into existence a woman. I modelled her head from my dreams. Formed her golden breasts from my longing. I turned her narrow waist from my reveries. I created her arms and legs in the most pleasing proportions. I put lightning in her eyes. I borrowed her movement from the wind. I dressed her in the most beautiful clothing, bejeweled her neck with precious stones. I thought I'm not so weak after all, if I can create a beauty that will make me the envy of everyone. I thought I'll no longer be alone. I lived with her, understanding she was a chimera, a vision. I didn't fool myself into thinking she was the daughter of a father and mother. I was satisfied with what I could have.
      Master, people hit me, they teased me, but it was easier to bear when I had someone to offer me consolation. Only it didn't last for long. She was ashamed of me. She avoided meeting my gaze and trembled when I touched her. One day, some people shouted to her: "Hey you! Come here! Live with us! Leave that gloomy thing." And she heard their cry and didn't hear my cry. She went to them without a second thought, and I saw her laughing when the first stone was thrown.
      My weakness is so vast that my own creation betrayed me. My own vision turned away from me. What was left for me to do? Simply die. I tied a noose, but I didn't have the courage to put it around my neck. I whetted a knife, but I didn't dare to use it. I found poisonous plants, but I lacked the will to pick them. I am too much of a weakling.
      Patience, Master, patience!
      I went into the desert and lived alone. But even that kind of life was bitter, I didn't want it anymore. Day after day the cancer of my memories ate at my soul and poured poison into my heart. I could not forget my weakness.
      And then, gathering the shards of my despicable will I started to create one more vision. A chimera. I called it forth from the ether, invited a man from the emptiness. I gave him superhuman strength and agility. I modelled his heart from my nightmares. I forged shining armor from my despair. I armed him with my swords of pain, the sharpest in the world. I put into his eyes the darkness of all sleepless nights. I taught him nothing but the art of killing. Now I live with him and wait for him to betray me, for him to take my life, for him to do that which my weakness prevents me from doing.
      Master, that man is you!
      Vilnius Review, Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius

      Exit Only

      When he came to California, for a short while he stayed with people whom he barely knew. He started looking for a job and a place to live but wasn't successful in either and within two weeks his hosting family was showing signs of weariness. He didn’t know what to do. Without a job he couldn’t afford an apartment, and nobody would lease one to him. At some point he applied for work at Rose Café in Venice but, being honest and new to this country, he listed on the application all six languages he spoke. Or maybe he was unconsciously hoping his knowledge of languages will make him more attractive as a waiter able to communicate with international clientele in their native tongues. He was turned down right away, they didn’t even say “We’ll call you” like they always do to get rid of people they don’t really like that much but aren’t daring enough to tell them so. This time around they didn’t want him to have even a hint of illusion that he could possibly get a job here. Some people look with admiration at those who, in their lives, have covered long distances to reach places they deem desirable, but none of the admirers was at the Rose on that particular day to offer a kind support. The manager, who's never flown an airplane and only took his two kids to the Sea World in San Diego nine years ago and even liked to brag it was the longest trip in his entire life, was repulsed by those who had courage to cross oceans by any means of transportation. Perhaps, the manager was a bit afraid of him. Perhaps, the idea that tables will be bussed, and dishes will be washed by someone who possibly knows the meaning of the third law of thermodynamics appeared threatening. The problem is you don’t know the confines of literate people and what they are capable of. You hope there are limits in them but how do you assess the integrity of someone who speaks several languages? The instant you think you understood their intentions they would switch to Czech or Arabic in their mind and escape you. Isn’t it creepy? They might spit into a plate of soup when nobody is watching. Or ejaculate onto poached eggs… ”or oysters,” he said reading manager’s thoughts. “Oysters?” When the whole wickedness of a multilingual mind has finally dawned on him, the manager was looking at him in disbelieve, shocked that people could be so deviant. “We don’t carry oysters in this establishment,” the manager said coldly. “You better go now, Sir. Goodbye.” He gave the manager a menacing smile, then turned away and walked toward the door that bore a frightening caution: Exit Only! The exact meaning of such doorways escaped him. Isn’t any door both exit and entrance? Exit one place, or state, and enter another? Through a door you exit the house and enter the outside world, or vice versa. So, when you grab your keys from the mantelpiece and walk toward the door with an intention to leave, that door is an exit from your residence. It’s “exit only” by itself; you can’t be exiting your dwelling and entering it at once, it is not usual in the Newtonian world. There is no need to indicate that with a special sign. The location of your body and the vector of its advancement provide the definition to the opening in the wall. It is equally true that the second you step outside and close the door behind, it becomes for you an “entrance only” to your apartment. Thus, generally, depending on which side of the door you are at the given moment, it is both an exit from your place and an entrance to the outside world. So, when you see a door furnished with a warning Exit Only, does it suppose you will only leave the premises (or your current state) but won’t enter another? And where will you be then, if this is the case? Sure enough, you won’t be here because you will be gone through the door. But since it is Exit Only it’s not an entrance to anything else, so you won’t be there because there is no "there". Will you be nowhere? Is that what nowhere means? Will you be dead, or you just vanish without really dying? The latter is more likely because death presumes a corpse, or parts of the body, laying somewhere, or, for that matter, floating if there is no gravity, but, again, there is no "there" in this case. Either way, instead of placing a pictogram of a running man, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to mark such passages with the skull and crossbones as a warning of danger like they put on electrical transformers and barrels with poisonous substances? Because although people won’t be entirely dead, they will be recognized as such for tax purposes, they won’t pay their bills, they won’t come back home to their families and their pet animals tonight or perhaps anytime soon, if ever at all, because they happen to be nowhere wondering if there is at least a theoretical chance to get out of nowhere and arriving to the single unpleasant, but perfectly logical, conclusion that it’s not possible since it would defy the definition of nowhere, for any sort of gateway would turn nowhere into here and render the sign Exit Only meaningless. There is also an issue with the direction to which the Exit Only door opens. Some people, for whatever intent (maybe they think it’s a good prank), might want to fake the real Exit Only and attach the warning to a regular door. There is no universal rule that would give us a hundred percent proof under all circumstances but at least sometimes it’s possible to know if the door is authentic or phony before we decide to step through it. The genuine Exit Only door can only be opened by pulling it. If such a door could be opened by a push it would itself penetrate the nowhere and could never be closed again, in fact it would disappear leaving the passage open to exit but after that there would be no door. Therefore, it’s practical to remember that if you push the door and it gives way, at least a little bit, there is no danger, the door is false. Unfortunately, there is no way to know in advance what will happen if the door calls for a pull. The first time he walked through such a door happened back in his home country when he was fourteen and couldn’t imagine he would ever live in Los Angeles. He was a bit awkward teenager living with his grandmother in a small town on a riverbank. One night he dreamt a specific location at the curve of the river where he and his friends used to fish. In reality there was nothing there, just a meadow and some ivy scrub, but in the dream he saw a house and a young attractive woman inside, he still remembers her beautiful slim body and face, and he had a wonderful feeling that the house belonged to him, and the woman was his. He never had sex with the woman in that dream; she just was there, not doing much of anything, mostly being around, clad in a bikini because it was summertime and hot inside the house. Through the windows he could see kids across the river busy catching small fish, and he even was able to recognize himself among those kids, just much younger than when he was in the house with the woman. In the dream, he spent all day inside the house. The woman prepared all the meals, they ate at a table in the uncommonly spacious living room, talking very little, not even looking at each other that much. If occasionally their eyes met, the woman would turn her head away and look elsewhere, not at him. He had a feeling they have lived in the house for much longer than he could remember right then. After lunch they went to the bedroom and took a nap, laying close to each other but without any affection. He remembered tiny rash on woman’s forehead. He remembered sniffing the fuzzy brown skin on her shoulder and expecting, for some reason, an emanation of apple scent; there was no odor at all, though. He also remembered trying to kiss the woman, but she just turned her face away without saying “No” or something, so he only placed his arm across woman’s chest and dozed off. When they woke up, they had some tea and later a dinner at the same table in the living room. He didn’t remember what they ate, neither for lunch nor for dinner. When the night came, they went to the bedroom again. He fell asleep almost instantly. At the same moment he woke up in his bedroom in his grandmother’s house. It was morning here; he stood up and went on with his day as usual. He didn’t think about his dream, didn’t remember it that day at all. He liked dreaming, every night he had interesting vivid dreams, like movies only better, because, unlike in the movies, you were a part of the action, and this particular dream was uneventful and rather boring. Nevertheless, the dream stayed in his memory for decades while he has completely forgotten other, much more electrifying, ones. Because when the evening came and he washed his face in the river and brushed his teeth and went to bed, he woke up in the same house with the striking woman, and it was another day there, and they spent it in the same way as the day before, and when he woke up next morning in the grandma’s house, he didn’t really know which life was true, this or that, for this life was what he was dreaming when he slept in the house with the woman, and that life was just a dream when he was sleeping here. He was confused. As a teenager, he wasn’t to talk about it with his grandmother and he wasn’t sure his pals would understand him either, so he kept this for himself. He was still disturbed when he woke up on the other side and tried to talk about it with the young woman, but she only shook her head. Either she didn’t believe him, or she didn’t know the answer, it was all the same to him and he let the subject drop. It went like this for five nights and every day, no matter on which side of the dream he was, he hated it more and more. On both sides, he tried not to fall asleep, to stay awake all night and avoid dreaming at all but at some point, he would nod off nevertheless and the loop would repeat itself. He was afraid it would continue like this forever and felt compelled to make a conscious choice which world he would call real or else he will be trapped in-between for good and in due course lose his mind. The life in grandmother’s house was much more fascinating than the dull life with the woman. The woman was attractive, no doubt about it, but she never said anything remarkable, and they never did anything thrilling. They didn’t crack jokes, didn’t tease each other or fight, or even speak much for that matter, didn’t giggle, didn’t play games, didn’t swim or fish in the river, didn’t have dogs, didn’t even cry out of pain or sadness. There was no pain in the house with the woman. He was only a teenager with a limited range of emotional experiences but intuitively he felt that, having to select, the side with intrinsic pain is more desirable to keep. So, he started looking for a way out of the house with the woman. On his fifth day there, he discovered a door in the back of the house that bore a sign Exit Only. He pulled the door and stepped outside. Next thing he knew he woke up in the middle of night in his bedroom at his grandmother’s. It was totally dark and very quiet. He felt a bit sorrow about the woman in the house upon the river bend and guilty for leaving her there alone. Somehow, he knew that he will never return to that house or ever see the woman. Soon he fell asleep again and had one of his usual rich movie-like dreams where he was chased by a hundred feet tall spider in a colossal football stadium. For many years that followed this episode, he was thinking the dream was a premonition and the time will come when a house will be built at the river bend, and he will meet the woman from the dream and live in the house. But it never happened. He’s never met a woman similar to the one in the dream. Subconsciously, he was looking for her all his life, trying to identify her features in the face of every woman he met on the street or elsewhere in public places. Apparently, she never made it to this side, never opened the door in the back of her house. He wondered how she was doing. The last time he checked, the place at the river bend was a potato field. But that was long ago, twenty or so years, before he left the country altogether.


      For Kristina G.,
      a story about another Kristina.
      Only the names are the same.
      We imagine the people who lived at the turn of the last century as naive. This idea has been suggested in old films where the people walk around making strange movements, leap comically, and waddle about. It would be a mistake to laugh and imagine this was how they really behaved. In actuality the thoughts, feelings and experiences of those people were not lesser than our own. We should not forget this. We should not put such faith in silent films.
      The exact dates of the events to be relayed shortly is no longer known. It seems they happened before the First World War. So it seems.
      Back then the homestead was already at least a hundred years old – if you were to guess by the trees growing so plentifully around it, encompassing the house in a huge shadow year-round, just like the shade of a forest. The maples, birches, oaks, and larches, nearly a meter in diameter, were all very old, the latter dropping their small cones all over, coating the ground and the roof. The individual who first settled in that place must have loved trees very much if they planted so many of them, breaking from the Lithuanian custom of allocating the largest plots to the gardens. However, they would not have lived to see the day when, awakening in the early morning, they could listen to the larch cones descending from on high, clattering on the roof and against the window panes. It would be several lifetimes before finally a woman was born and grew up who had the good fortune of being able to listen to the falling of the larch cones. Every morning, especially in the autumn when the mornings were cloudy and warm, upon waking she would also listen to a murder of crows cawing.
      Autumn. Amongst those tall shady trees in small cloudlets spread the smell of rotting leaves and mycelium, something akin to the sharp odors of a grocery shop. Also, those tall shady trees captured spider webs in small cloudlets, with draining from the morning dew, like small silver dirigibles or multicolored discarded bat skins. And those spider webs, collecting falling leaves and larch needles, actually were cast off skins. They were dead spider webs, dead because not a single one of them had housed a spider for a very long time. Autumn.
      Kristina has already lived alone for several years in this hundred-year-old homestead. If anyone were asked to briefly, but accurately, describe her, one phrase would suffice: "a woman in eternal mourning". You should not understand this phrase to mean she was designated to mourn for all of eternity. No, she was granted only as much life to live as anyone else. But there have always been such women, pale faced and full of misunderstood and incomprehensible heartache, a kind of weariness (the face of a wearied person can be right in front of you but at the same time very far away from you), a weak radiance, like people whose faces lit up when dedicated to an unnecessary mission (and this fact was understood not only by others). Those women were always quiet, even their clothes were quiet, always dressed in black from head to toe, a bouquet of eternal asters in their hands rustling quietly, incomprehensibly. Time does not touch those women. Time comes and, right in front of them, takes someone here, another one there, carries them off. And those women remain to mourn. That is their mission, it seems. Only to mourn. To mourn. To mourn. Time is for other people. They watch its harsh passing with limpid fish eyes. The ritual of mourning is remarkably slow. It is not governed by the logic of common life. Sad, mourning, young women quite unconsciously become withered, mourning old women. Their bloodless skin grows waxen, their eyes even more deadened. Only the mourning clothes and the asters remain the same. A tribe of mourners. A joyless, passionless tribe.
      Having lost all the people close to her, Kristina lived alone, and not only in the literal sense. All the people in her memory fused together and the faces and bodies of the living joined with those of the dead, becoming one indistinct silhouette. Unlike other people, she could no longer find a way out of this solitude; she couldn't speak to the people in her mind, she couldn’t laugh alongside them at funny things, recite long, monotonous monologues of her own experiences. At night, she slept and dreamt nothing. She understood herself as merely a plant, a wilting flower. Only wilting.
      If Kristina would have needed, like most people normally, to tell someone that something had happened after one event or another – “it happened after a big storm", for example – she would not have been able to do so. There was no storm raging around her. All her days were the same. And if there had been a storm it is unlikely she would have even noticed it or, moreover, remembered it. Not unless it was the only storm of her life. She didn't have any of the usual milestones by which she could orient time; you see, these milestones are always based on an event that came before, or one that came later. These events need to be committed to memory. Absolutely. And during this time Kristina's days were all the same.
      She would wake up the same way. Upon opening her eyes, for the first few seconds of awaking all the things around her appeared remarkably large, enormous. Then they would retreat, go back to their actual size. All of this happened in complete silence. Afterwards, for maybe a half-hour, Kristina would lie with her eyes wide open, her hopeless attempts at remembering who and where she was reverberating on her face. Every morning she was surprised by the cawing of crows and then afterwards the short, rhythmic sound, "tap, tap, tap" (the falling of the larch cones). Slowly, slowly she would comprehend that she is Kristina. She would remember the hundred-year-old homestead, the huge trees, the spider webs, and her mourning – her entire essence. Those few minutes were the only time in the whole day when she smiled. A smile full of wonder.
      On this particular day, her awakening efforts were disrupted by the fact that in the duskiness of the room she saw the outline of a person's body in the doorway. On all the other mornings there was nothing there. This morning, there stood a man striking a strange Watusi tribe warrior pose, and behind him, through the trees, the edge of the distant rising sun. Kristina could not figure out why this man was standing there, in the doorway. He should not be standing there. And she smiled, and her face likely appeared full of amazement because the visitor also began to smile. Finally coming to her senses Kristina shivered and her smile disappeared just like any other morning, and the door gently closed and the person disappeared.
      At this point it's may be useful to skip ahead.
      At the hour when the narrow afternoon rays of sun penetrate through the tree branches, the trunks, and through the window, striking the wall of the back room, they illuminate a photograph in a narrow carved frame. A wedding photograph, somewhat yellowed. Depicting a man and a woman. The man dressed in a black jacket, a white shirt, with a playful bowtie under his chin. The woman in white wedding garb. The man stands a bit to the side, his head bowed a little, and gazes at the woman with unspeakable longing. He's strong, that man, and his dried-out face looks determined, the narrow wrinkles around his eyes bearing witness to his love of laughing; even when photographed on his wedding day he cannot manage to neatly comb his hair. The kind of man who'd visit a woman in her dreams, stand before her with his hand outstretched, saying: "Come, let's go!" and that woman, trembling like a newspaper in an old man's hand, reaches out her hand and then awakens, walks around stunned for the whole day, insisting it's due to the sun or the change of weather, and then lying down in the evening is unkind to her husband – so ordinary and tired-out – believing that she will dream another dream, but all in vain. This is the kind of man who is in the photograph looking at the woman in her wedding garb. The woman's face is oval, somewhat flustered, her lips just barely smiling, her skin pale, possessing the only defect which, sadly, disfigures any beauty. She was… pockmarked. And the unknown photographer could not conceal this. The sun's rays even highlighted the woman's imperfections. It was a picture of Kristina and her husband Peter. What connected those two people? Why did this man, so nearly perfect, gaze at his bride with such desire? Why?
      There are other photographs on the wall as well. Examining them you'll see the man's longing was not fleeting. Two photographs are very important. In one, the man and woman hold a newborn, swaddled in so much cloth you cannot see the child at all. The man is looking at both the mother and the baby with a happy smile. The joy in his face outweighs all other emotions, and in this photograph he appears almost foolish. Because when a person is so captivated by someone they forget, they look like they are sleeping: the lower lip droops, the mouth opens a little, a barely discernible smile appears, and the eyes get an expression as though the person is not there at all. This infatuation, as you can see from the other photographs, does not disappear in the ensuing twenty years. A picture of an even more gaunt and grey-haired man surrounded by children of all ages gazes longingly at an ugly, aged woman – his wife.
      Alright, time to come back to the present.
      All day long, Kristina wondered, was he or was he not an apparition? The visitor's silhouette had deeply etched itself in her consciousness. She was already inclined to believe that thieves had come in the night, but after looking over everything carefully she realized she was not missing anything, and since the man's figure in the morning light had not been very clear, she busied herself ascribing him to those other faceless silhouettes held in her memory. What difference did it make whom she mourned? And even if he was only a ghost, arising from the depths of her own unconscious, that day was stuck in her memory. And in it was born the weak shadow of a feeling that she had never before experienced. Not fully understanding, she made peace with the memory, as though something she experienced in a dream could happen in real life. Maybe not to her, but to someone. And that was new, like a small azure flower in the bottomless grey of indifference. Kristina didn't wonder if she wanted any of this to be real or not. This thought didn't even cross her mind. She only felt something feminine inside herself. However, the shade of the larch and conker tree compelled her unwittingly to forget everything.
      But Kristina was mistaken. The man she thought she'd dreamt up was alive and real. He was an ordinary hobo with green eyes, wandering the roads and fields without any aims in life. That morning he had come to the homestead encircled in trees believing that an early-waking housewife would offer him a cup of milk.
      Looking around and not seeing a living soul he opened the door.
      Now, as he waded away from the homestead through the wet autumn meadow, Peter remembered the vision he had seen and was unable to calm the gentle tremor he felt in his body, as though invisible fingers were worrying a row of rosary beads. Opening the door, he had seen a wide bed covered in white linens, and in those linens a slender woman whose face, against the background of her dark hair, shone with a clear, liquid light melting into the half-light of the room. The woman had looked right at him and smiled, just barely parting her lips. Peter had never seen anything more beautiful or sacred in his life. He was terrified by that beauty. He hastily closed the door and ran away, secretly awaiting the shot in his back as he didn't believe there could be no one there other than her. Those kinds of women were never alone. That is what he thought.
      Not paying any attention to where he was going, he reached the next farm where he joined a collective group digging potatoes. That night, he lay down in the hay with the other helpers who had come from afar, and he asked if any of them had seen the homestead in the trees and if anyone knew who the woman was that lived there and who her husband was. The man lying closest to him raised up on an elbow and suspiciously inquired:
      "Tell me, brother, are you planning to rob the place?"
       "No," Peter answered, surprised.
      Those men could not understand how anyone without bad intentions could be interested in Kristina. Peter explained everything but they did not believe him and it was only afterwards that it came to mind to some of them that everything was to be blamed on the half-light, which must have prevented Peter from seeing clearly. That must be it, they reasoned, and ridiculed Peter and advised him to go and see her in the daylight. But it made no difference, Peter would have gone back no matter what to have a glimpse of that woman one more time, even from a distance. He would have loitered around that homestead like a dog chased out of its home.
      Kristina saw him standing in the grass, about twenty paces away. She also stopped and watched how he leaned against a tree. She saw the man look away and cover his face with his hands. She understood then that she was not dreaming, and for the first time in her life thought about her appearance, about her face. She remembered she had such an ugly one, so ugly that the man had not been able to bear looking at her. Why did he come back here? She turned around and quickly strode away.
      When, several hours later, she needed to go back to that same place, the man was still there. He sat under a tree and looked at her without averting his gaze. Then he stood up and shyly came closer. Kristina paused. What was he after?
       "Maybe you need some help with something?" he asked, "Maybe I can chop some firewood or something?"
      "No," Kristina answered, "No, I don't' need anything." The man's face and eyes implored her quietly.
      "Maybe you want some milk to drink," she offered. "Come inside, I'll think about your offer."
      He's hungry, she thought. He's hungry, that's why he came.
      Peter did not dare raise his eyes while he ate. It was the same miraculous woman. It wasn’t a trick.
      "For God’s sake," said Peter quietly, "I'm going to be in the area for a while, I’ll come back in a day or so. Maybe you'll find me a task to do?"
      He could not sit any longer. He carefully set the cup on the table and hurried outside. Kristina watched as he grew distant and then disappeared beyond the trees. Then, maybe for the first time in her life, she cried while feeling sorry for herself and not someone else. She heard how her tears splattered against the feather pillow and felt the waves of heartbreak in her chest, one breaking after the other over many small dams. Inside her there waited a woman no one had yet loved. She just needed a man to look at her once.
      But Kristina was mistaken. She was loved. When Peter came back the next day he was determined to overcome, even just for a short while, his fettering shyness. He did not believe this woman could love him, but in a corner of his heart, before leaving this land forever, he wanted her to have a memory of him even just a little bit different from everyone else.
      Sitting down on the door-step he gave Kristina a penetrating look and began telling her about his wanderings. It was hard to describe what Kristina felt in that moment. The fact was that no one had ever spoken to her this way. Nobody said anything just to her. How much more does a woman need to awaken? Everything was new and unexpected. Slowly in her a shyness began to spread, blooming like the queen of the night.
      Peter saw the change but he didn't understand what it meant. He told her about the time that he had once been a member of a sect of dancing brothers, somewhere in the Volga region.
      "Did you know that they believe a person dancing comes closer to God, and this is why they dance. It's their prayer."
      And then he rose from the doorway and showed her how they danced. Kristina watched him spell bounded, she watched as he danced and danced, his face beaming. She understood that his soul had lifted from the ground and was straining higher and higher but what she didn't understand was that in that moment she was what Peter was reaching for. His soul was straining towards her. She watched him, bewitched: his strained face, his dancing figure. He kept dancing, and no longer knowing what was happening, he came close to her and put his hands on her shoulders. Then he felt a strange thing, it was as though someone was pulling on his suspenders with all their might. He knew he was not wearing suspenders, but something pulled him backwards and he had to overcome the force, not understanding how he kept moving forward. He only saw the woman's eyes, transfixed on him, and he raised his hands and then lowered them again, feeling her shoulders under his palms.
      Suddenly, he disappeared from Kristina's view. Everything disappeared. She felt as if she were sinking into a thick, white nebula. A white quagmire was pulling her deep inside. A white silt of love. She didn't understand it but she felt that if it were fired it would turn into porcelain. White kaolin clay.
      But why? What happened to that man that he remained in that homestead amongst the larches forever? Why was it that even twenty years later bottomless desire still shone in his eyes and he still felt that pull?
      The fault really does lie in the half-light. Only in such light could he see the woman the way he saw her his whole life. For you see, that man always saw things the way they appeared to him the very first time.
      Vilnius Review, Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius

      Mr. Marženovičius

      Grandfather was a stout man with large bulging eyes, an ever-red face and brown whiskers that were always poking into his mouth. He walked like a knight, legs bowed wide, with his hands shoved in his pockets, which always jingled full of things. Grandmother would warn him not to get caught hiding any coins from her. She forbade him, saying that he could ask for a bottle of beer or a glass of wine from her if he wanted one, that it was impossible for her to keep a home when anyone living there was holding money she didn't know anything about.
      "Show me," she'd say. "Turn out your pockets."
      Because of his bulging eyes one would easily think that Grandfather always looked surprised, and this was why, even though he'd shake his head and tell her he didn't have any coins, Grandmother would not believe him. She'd make him hold his hands out to the sides and would empty out his pockets herself. Having unpacked everything onto the table, she'd look through it all. There would be buttons, nails, little screws, and all sorts of other objects, even sometimes a shard of colored glass.
      Grandmother would carefully examine all the things but never found what she was looking for. Grandfather would look on guiltily and then would watch as all those little objects were angrily swept into the rubbish bin. And then, not even a day later, he'd be walking around jingling again. Eventually, Grandmother forbade him from keeping his hands in his pockets and he walked around waving them about, but the minute he detoured into the garden or somewhere else a bit further away from home, his hands would find their way back into his pockets once again.
      They called Grandfather Mr. Marženovičius because he was born in Poland. Of course if he'd lived in a city where, according to him, no one kept a garden and everyone travelled by tram he'd have been simply called Marženovičius. But because he was the only resident of Rasnalis born in Poland they called him "Mr."
      Grandfather was born in 1902 in Sulechow, western Poland. When the Germans occupied Sulechow in 1939 he was devastated, but he was already grieving this loss in 1920.
      Grandfather spent the first three or four years of his life like all small children. He ate, he napped in the afternoons, he broke his toys, he whined and laughed, he learned how to say “mama”, “papa”, “table”, “nose”, and when he was left alone in the dark he was terrified, afraid to make a peep, and wet the bed. When he got a little older he played with the other kids in the street and down by the river, but by the time children were required to start attending school he had become increasingly quiet and sullen. His parents worried about what was happening to him, but that did little good. It became clear he was losing his memory. Not all of it, but some of it. For example, he could remember the first seven years of his childhood brilliantly, but when his parents wanted him to learn music they were disappointed because he'd immediately forget everything he'd been taught. He could do arithmetic just fine, but would always forget other random things, like that he was supposed to go down to the river to swim or to visit the sausage dog show. It was as though someone encouraged him to only remember what was absolutely necessary and to completely forget the things that, under duress, it was possible to live without. But as you know, the latter is what makes the world go round. His parents, most likely out of curiosity, would assign him many tasks and he'd do all of them very well, but he seemed to forget the other joys or curiosities of life completely, without any chance of remembering them.
      One time when my grandfather was twelve years old he was working at the workbench (at that time his parents had decided to teach him a trade), and out of the blue he regained part of his lost memory. Or maybe all of it. At first it was uncomfortable because all the images that appeared were foreign to him. Grandfather thought the visions, which had come over him as he was using a plane on a length of board, were just a reverie. But in fact they were the truest of his memories.
      Grandfather remembered a scene when the master carpenter who was teaching him had stopped by the workshop to examine his work. The master wanted to light his pipe but his hand trembled and he singed his whiskers. To Grandfather Andreas, standing at the workbench, this seemed to be happening at that very moment. Then several minutes later the master came into the workshop and leaned against a pile of boxes by the wall; he lit a match, wanting to light his pipe. His hand trembled and the master singed one side of his whiskers. Grandfather became scared and started to cry. And no one could understand why the boy, who was always so quiet, was crying for no reason.
      These kinds of things began to happen more often. Grandfather would “remember” events that were going to happen five or more years in the future. The further into the future the event, the more faded the “memories” were. But he knew all the details of events that would happen the next day or in a week's time. For example, it was clear to him that he was going to be married on a bright day in August 1932, but what was less clear was who his wife was and where the two of them would live. He knew that when he turned twenty he would travel to Rasnalis, to Lithuania, and that his wife would be from that place. But at the same time he could also accurately predict that in a few seconds he will cut his finger or have a drink of water. This caused a lot of misunderstandings, so Grandfather did not dare to say anything to anyone. Truth be told, sometimes his mother could not understand how he knew something before she did. This is how it was the day when Andreas began to weep and immediately someone arrived with the news that his father had suddenly died. But his mother calmed herself, attributing it to intuition.
      But Grandfather could only “remember” up until around the year 1952. The closer it got to that year, the more faded the memories became and Grandfather didn't know what was going to happen afterwards. He couldn't "remember" anything. So he decided that was when he was going to die.
      He told this to his wife Agnes. She didn't believe him. It was then that he explained to her where he got all the news from, but she insisted he was lying. Though she did sense something.
      About a year before his imagined death, Grandfather's memory began to fade and Grandmother finally believed his stories. She bought Grandfather a black suit and ordered him a casket. All the villagers gaped, wondering why she was doing this—the man was still alive. Grandmother didn’t want to talk about it and Grandfather had gone completely silent.
      “Mr. Marženkovski, are you feeling unwell?” asked the pharmacist one day when he was passing by. “Why have you not seen the doctor? Come see me sometime.”
      But Grandfather had forgotten that he knew the pharmacist and only started at him foolishly with his bulging eyes.
      “Mr. Marženovičius!” The pharmacist winced when he heard the sound of Grandmother's cold voice behind him and quickly left.
      In the fall of 1951 all Grandfather did was sit on a bench by the house and stare at one spot. He could longer even remember who he was.
      One day Grandmother was feeding the chickens and heard a strange sound from inside. It was as though someone had pulled a cork from a bottle. She spread the last crumbs and hurried inside. Later, Grandmother would say that she was as amazed as when, at the turn of the century, she saw her first airplane droning above the trees. Grandfather was sitting on the bed drinking from the neck of a bottle of vodka. One bottle was already empty. Having finished drinking, Grandfather looked at his wife, turned his back and fell asleep. He slept until he remembered every single tiny detail of all his fifty years and Grandmother thought that now he'd be like a normal person.
      But Grandfather explained:
      "No, my dear, now I have to experience everything I've forgotten for so long."
      And if only he'd started from adolescence, sighed Grandmother Agnes. But of course not. You see that youthful force he had not used earlier had lain dormant inside and now governed him. Sometimes, in the evenings, Grandfather would tell his wife that he felt the weight of his years, but he could not escape his memories. He remembered his childhood and all the years past with more clarity than the present and this was why he was powerless to behave in a way suitable to a man of his years.
      Grandfather, along with my future mother and other children, would spend long afternoons catching butterflies and flying kites. Given the choice he'd have done no work at all, but Grandmother forced him to. Later, according to Grandmother, he even experienced something like first love. Grandfather denied it but Grandmother Agnes told us that he used to blush like a cherry when greeting one particular twelve-year-old girl. Mother would absolutely refuse to talk about this with us but we heard that one day Grandfather was escorted home from an outing where he was found dancing with strong young girls while someone played the harmonica. At that time he was already over fifty. And when my brother and I grew up a little we accidentally found out that Grandfather was caught in the hay with a twenty-year-old woman. For a long time he tried to justify it, but everyone who saw them agreed that he was without his braces.
      Still, Mr. Marženovičius was a man of strong nerves because later on he fell in love with his own wife again and even regretted that he could not marry her a second time. And now already for many years the casket, purchased way back when, has been used to water the animals.
      Vilnius Review, Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius

      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 half sitting 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 Visgalė. He is too old for these things. But he serves us in other ways. Along the difficult road to awareness Varšas 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 Jučas, 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 thousands 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, Kūnas, 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 Bisėnai 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 Jučas, 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.
      “Jučas was first seen by Sudvajus, Horsemaster for Prince Kernius, as Jučas, having swum the river, waded out from it and dried his clothes on the sun heated sand of the riverfront. Jučas 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, Jučas would reach right for that one, without even having lifted the cover to see what was inside. Jučas 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. Jučas’ 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 Jučas bore himself as if not we should wonder at him, but that instead Jučas should wonder more at us. I would not, however, say that Jučas 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 Jučas, 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, Jučas? 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.”
      Jučas’ speech had been simple, without adornment, but impressive nonetheless. Immediately upon laying down on his bedding, Jučas 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. Jučas 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 Jučas slept with eyes wide open. When I would walk about in his room, the pupils of Jučas’ 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, Jučas 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,” Jučas began, “And informs you, through his servant Jučas, 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 Jučas 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.”
      Jučas 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 Jučas.
      “And after them?”
      “I do not know,” said Jučas. “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 Jučas. 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 Jučas. “One branch of your clan must become Centaur.”
      His words could have had just one meaning. In the region of Ukmergė 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 Jučas, the servant of Jeremferdenas.
      Prince Kernius kept his gaze fixed on Jučas’ 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 Jučas. “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,” Jučas 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 Jučas from head to foot.
      “No, not to me,” Jučas 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 Jučas. “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.” Jučas 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 Jučas 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 Tautvilas, 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 drunkenness. After him it is Šventaragis, your turn, if Jučas 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 Varšas, 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:
      “Jučas is the one who did all this. I know: Jučas is to blame for it all.”
      But in truth Jučas, 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 Nestanas 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. Balčiukė, my wife’s Princess Visgalė’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, Visgalė — 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 Visgalė’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 Visgalė’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. Visgalė 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 Visgalė 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,” Visgalė 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, Visgalė, 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 half day’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 Visgalė.” 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 Balčiukė, 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, calmer 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 hill cellar 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 Visgalė, 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.
      “Jučas 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. Visgalė . . . 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?” 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 Visgalė’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?”
      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 Visgalė’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?”
      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 chiller, but my back was wet from sweat: I was not bearing this inquisition easily.
      “You killed her?”
      “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 Visgalė 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 Balčiukė, 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 Balčiukė’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, Balčiukė,” I said.
      She put her pots on the floor and approached trembling. At one moment I almost forgot myself and came near to saying, “Visgalė.” 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 Balčiukė’s smooth eyelids, and the illusion vanished.
      When everything was done and we rested for a time, I questioned Balčiukė 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.
      Balčiukė 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. Jučas 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 happier if Visgalė, 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 Jučas 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 Balčiukė. 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, Varšas, 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 Visgalė, 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 Balčiukė, 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, Visgalė?” 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 Visgalė, 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 Visgalė 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 Visgalė 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. Jučas 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 Visgalė 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 Visgalė, 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 Visgalė, 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.