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Juozas Aputis (1936–2010) was a writer, translator, editor, and one of the principal authors to modernize the Lithuanian prose tradition in the Soviet era. Aputis was born in the small town of Viduklė in the Raseiniai District. He studied Lithuanian language and literature in Vilnius University and worked in the editorial departments of various literary and cultural magazines. Aputis owned a farmstead in the ethnographic village of Zervynos, where he spent a lot of time living and writing from 1972. Aputis debuted his writing in 1963 with a collection of short stories titled Žydi bičių duona (The Bee Bread Is Blooming). He mostly published novels and short story collections. He wrote one of his longest novels in 1996, titled Smėlynuose negalima sustoti (There’s No Stopping in the Sands). In his work, Aputis delves into the fate and psychology of a single individual. His works usually contain a lyrical sensation of the world, allegories, symbols, associations, and a synthesis of daily life and the existential. Despite his attempts to write in Aesopian language and thus bypass the mechanisms of censorship, one of his most important short stories, “Skruzdėlynas Prūsijoje” (“An Anthill in Prussia”), written in the early 1970s, was published only in the last years of the Soviet regime (1989). He also write a script for the film Mano vaikystės ruduo (The Autumn of My Childhood, 1977). Aputis translated numerous novels and short stories by Russian authors into Lithuanian. For his life’s work, Aputis received The Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts in 2005.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo by Eugenijus Ališanka

Translated by Laima Sruoginis

 

Pro Memoria

 

People had noticed the man for quite some time now. After a while almost everyone knew that he crossed the bridge over the wide river only on Sunday afternoons: at the time when worshippers spilled out of the Baroque church and into the streets.

The man was not yet old. He walked straight and tall. In the time it took him to cross the bridge he would pass his delicate fabric-covered walking stick at least twice from one hand to the other, along with a yellow leash, the other end of which was attached to a brown dachshund that always accompanied him, always trotting alongside him. The dachshund had a hard time trotting though. His master’s stride was wide, and if he were walking quickly the dachshund had to struggle to keep up on his short legs.

It was just like the time, still in the other village, where they didn’t have an electric organ, the lonely organ player had no choice but to strain and reach with his foot for the pedals. And the pipes needed a lot of air just to get any kind of soul-shattering melody out, any kind of fugue.

Along the way to the cemetery you would see him stop beside an old white building on the side of the river where there was a delicate figurine of a woman on the roof. A long garment covered her to the knees, but she was reaching upwards so gracefully and with so much vitality that you could just imagine her legs twitching from the effort. She held a torch in her hand, and from beneath her a male figure seemed to be reaching up and wrapping himself around her legs, possibly reaching for the torch.

It was too hard for the dachshund to lift his head at the correct angle to observe the figurine from below, and so instead he’d trot over to the rocky shoreline and gaze lovingly at the beauty’s reflection in the river.

After many repetitions of that person’s trip, whose name was Joris, across the bridge and beyond the church to the cemetery sinking into the side of the hill, people who’d meet him along the way would tip their hats. Many people recognized Joris. He’d return the greetings reservedly, nodding his head imperceptibly—if he wasn’t wearing his hat. If he were wearing his hat, he’d push his hat from one ear to the other. It always seemed as though he hadn’t noticed the person greeting him, lost in his thoughts as he was, walking onwards, banging his cane against the sidewalk, walking resolutely, as though somewhere ahead lay something of important meaning that the passer-by could not possibly grasp. The dachshund would pay absolutely no attention to the greeting. Once a young couple, having passed them, turned around—it happened at the very beginning of the man and the dachshund’s walk—and the woman quietly said to the man, “Didn’t you recognize him? He’s a famous doctor! Jesus, his fiancée was strangled by a homeless person. In the middle of the afternoon. They took her coral necklace. He’d brought it back for her from New Orleans.”

When the doctor would sit down on the lovely oak bench beside her grave, near her feet, the dachshund would carefully slink towards the headstone, to the vertical, and yet slightly lopsided monument, and would stretch out on his belly, laying his head on his forepaws. And he’d stay like that, while the doctor sat, not daring to so much as twitch, gazing lovingly at his master, all the while pushing his belly into the yellow sand as though wanting to show that he too loved the person who lay there.

The monument was made of gray granite and was attached to a stone base. It consisted of the figure of a graceful woman whose legs widened towards the bottom, looking like waves of sand—so alive as though they could go anywhere. But there was no head, you could only feel her presence right here—you could feel her feet, her slender neck not attached to her body, with or without the coral, independent, something you could only see when you looked with eyes full of love.

Many Sundays Joris had sat beside the grave, at first he did not pay attention to anything, and his thoughts, here, among the graves, came only from one point. How awful! It was as though there hadn’t been anything else in his entire life. When he finally realized that he began consciously trying to tear himself away, to see something else, but it never worked. He’d mutter some random words, and pale images would float before his eyes. Always before his eyes he saw something he’d seen only once. It was a picture drawn by the words of someone very close—the head of the serpent in the wall of the church, and then some sort of energy, some invisible palm would tear away from the screen of time past, and those fragments, from their—from his and hers, she who was buried there underground—from their life. Beautiful and clear, it would rise up, come into focus, form into images: summer, a cool western wind, storks flying high in the dome of the sky. The wind would rush in and then disappear, tousling the grass in the meadow, and he, as a freshman in college, would be lying in the grass on his side, chewing on sweet sprig, and before his eyes there would be a wheat field of incredible beauty, and through it a narrow clay path, straight and narrow, the kind you’d never see in real life, the kind it would be hard to draw. In the distance, above the tops of the rye, he would rise and walk along their tops, and he path would move, pulling from his heart some sort of a painful thread. This is what he sees now, what he saw a week ago, saw a year ago, saw two years ago in that granite monument, in the empty space above the monument, and already he could see the clovers coming apart—he’d seen them in his childhood dreams—from one side and then from the other he saw those familiar, beautiful, loving eyes floating towards him, closer and closer, and no! Suddenly, they would dart to the side, as though they were waterfalls. The wind hit the clover field even harder, and all of reality, and he was already lying curled on his side, and the rye was swaying tantalizingly along the clay path, looking as though it were listening, and the neighbor’s girl came down the path, passing her hand over the rye. Her dress was a shining blue, like in holy pictures, and her collar was as white as an angel’s wings, her legs were long, and the shapeliness of her legs near her feet and her knees were like the bending rye. The girl paused and the wind whistled, bent at her feet, by her straw shoes and her blue dress. It was such a tearing blue hole, such rye!

“You’ve said so many times, ‘come, come!’ So I’ve come and now what? What of it?”

Her eyes wandered over the empty field and couldn’t find a place to rest.

“So, what’s going to happen?”

Ten winds ripped across the field, not wind, but the howl of wolves, it dove across the tops of the rye, the heads, the spirit of ten winds, ripping across the lives of rye.

Oh God, oh Lord, why do we love the ones we lose so tenderly?

And every time it’s the same, every time when he comes to the grave, when he sits on the oak bench, and when the dachshund presses himself to the ground.

When his master rises, the dog does too. Embarrassed, the dog yawns, then stretches above the grass.

And in this way time passes and the dachshund’s eyebrows go gray, and not far from that tilting granite monument, beyond a few graves with old markers, a new wreath appears. It seemed that during the funeral it had rained, because the wreath had words that are rarely uttered out loud on its ribbon and they were smattered with yellow sand. Joris had seen a slender young girl standing beside that grave a few times already. She looked as though she were from another time. A week ago, when it had rained hard, she’d held a Japanese umbrella with butterflies on it above her head.

Joris noticed, and it seemed as though his dachshund had noticed too, that the girl secretly stole a glance at them. Maybe she wanted to offer them cover under her roof of butterflies?

On another day, when it was sunny, the girl was walking past the tilting monument. After she’d passed she turned around and ran her eyes over the monument’s feet. Wind often whipped through the cemetery and no one could tell from where it came—maybe it was ordered by the dead. And now the wind blew covering the clay path with sand, rustling the rye fields. Gaping, the girl remained standing, staring at the monument’s feet, and the wind whipped her purple dress against her waist.

“Hello!” she said in a hoarse voice. “How beautiful those feet are! Just look at how they’re made. As though they were moving. I didn’t have the opportunity to ever meet the woman who is buried here. Do you remember me?” The girl bit her lip childishly, and yet the gesture seemed premeditated. The expression on her face, her wrinkled forehead, her head bent ever so slightly, and the ribbon in her hair. There are things in a person that seem personal and yet adhere to a specific stereotype. That’s something new—we all experience stereotypes in our own way.

“No, I don’t remember. What should I be remembering?”

The dachshund got up and stretched, looking first at his master and then at the girl. He rarely heard human voices.

“I’m silly, of course you wouldn’t remember, you meet so many people. Besides, it was a while back. Memories fade. May I address you informally? I’m more comfortable with that. You helped my mother. Maybe you remember now—she had problems with her eyes.”

And she told him about it, turned away from him, gazing at something beyond the monument. She wasn’t telling Joris, but someone else, many people, as though telling about it were the only way not to forget.

“Remember, she was an eye patient, but while she was there it turned out she also had a tumor, Doctor, a horrific tumor, that showed up on her stomach. Don’t you remember?”

“I’m beginning to remember now.” (He remembered how his fingers practically froze when he touched her skin—soft as a bat’s—and how she’d immediately called out when he’d barely touched that hard lump.)

“You see! You do remember! She was in a lot of pain. And she couldn’t take it anymore. And you helped my father too. You did. And you probably don’t remember that either? You performed surgery on his veins.”

“I remember now!”

“Why did you remember so suddenly?”

“He only had one leg.”

Yes, that’s right, he was lame.”

“I remember, I remember. And so your father is here already? The veins didn’t hold?”

“No, it was his heart that did him in. And so I come here now. I noticed you a long time ago. I come with my grandmother sometimes. Doctor, I’ve never seen such a beautiful morning as the morning my mother uttered her last words at the hospital. All of Vilnius, all of the Old City, all of the Lower City, lay below our feet on that glorious morning.”

“Yes. And how are you doing now?”

“I live alone. My grandmother lives separately. She visits a lot. I visit her. But I live alone.”

“You live all alone?”

“Yes, alone, of course. I’m used to it already. I know how to do everything.”

And in this way life spins in an oval with the monument’s rushing feet, with the wind whipping sand into a whirlwind across the clay path, across the rye, and time keeps moving and moving, and you can’t catch it, can’t understand it, can’t stop it. It fades, rubs away, it seems, the details of eternity, proudly shoving out its chest, pursing its lips, like tensed legs, coming, firm and clear, or it changes on the spot, and that is called restoration, when old paint comes through the plaster, old pictures, looking fresh in the new day’s sun. An eternal joke played by life: and they want to be alive, to be some sort of a figurine, a line, a color catching a passer-by’s eye, in between they begin to feel as though they live a real, full-blooded life, after all, they say the right things, and those new ones, still half-bald, half stupid—they giggle running past. But others turn up as well—they are like the cursed, or maybe blessed by God, called by God, they rub up against the colors of past times and words, in this way helping to firm up the saying that our people were not capable of remembering and loving the past.

“I’ve done something wrong,” she said. “I came to the cemetery dressed as though I were going to a wedding. That wasn’t good, was it? Why are you so quiet? I dress like this everywhere I go. It’s how I am.” Her gaze rested again at the monument’s feet. “I like to be different than everyone else. That’s not a good thing? What’s wrong with you now? You’re so? What? You need a tissue? You’re something else. What’s wrong? Tell me.”

“You’ll laugh.”

“And so, you’ll cry and I’ll laugh.”

“Do you remember the sculpture on the electricity plant’s roof? A pretty woman holding a lantern or some sort of a torch?”

“Yes, I remember. What of it?”

“Did you ever notice that there’s a man secretly crawling out of the folds of that woman’s garment? Have you noticed?”

“No.”

“And I hadn’t noticed, though I wasn’t sure.”

“And so? I don’t get it—what of it if you didn’t see it. You didn’t check it out, did you? That’s what it is,” she squealed. “It’s probably not very good of me to be squealing like this in a cemetery. But I really don’t understand why you’re upset over something that you hadn’t noticed before and hadn’t figured out—that you’re upset over not being observant. Really—coming out of the woman’s robes?”

“What do I know? It’s lovely, but at the same time disturbing. There’s a graceful figure reaching for the sky and from beneath her a man is not trying to help her, but to stop her.”

“Come on, what else are you going to come up with!”

“Don’t be so smart.”

The dark shadows of the evening fell across the street. The reflections of the dried-out fir trees rippled in the wavering electric light reflected in the river. Children were still out riding bicycles by the school. The dachshund, let off his leash, ran down the hill, and was soon sniffing at the door to his home.

She paused in the hallway between the first and second floor, but he touched her shoulder with his hand and gave her a gentle shove. She came out and said what she’d been too shy to say, “My grandmother, for some reason, is afraid of being alone. I think, at least for this evening, I won’t go home with you.”

“Come inside. You’ll have time for your grandmother still. Let’s spend some time together. It’s not late yet.”

“You say that as though you didn’t understand.”

Later, after some time had passed, when he wrapped his arms tightly around her trembling shoulders, with a shiver he’d remember that other time, when he’d touched that other woman’s, her mother’s, skin, soft as a bat’s, surrounding the hard tumor.

She tried to avoid subtleties; she pretended that she was cold.

“How is it now that you’re caressing me?” And after a slight pause she said something that she might not even had been intending to say: “These legs of mine are not taking me anywhere.”

And later, as morning was dawning, she said, “Forgive me.” She wasn’t lying; she was gazing at her photograph on the wall. And after some time, in a deeper, murderous voice, she asked: “And where will you stash me? What rye field will you take me out to?”

And now the circles or the ovals spin faster and the three of them go together to the cemetery; although they often have to leave the dachshund home because he tires too quickly and can’t always keep up. And now when they cross the bridge almost no one notices them anymore; they’ve grown used to them together, like a bush you see beside the road each day. There’s nothing suspicious about them. Unless you count the few times people stared at their dog now that his fur was coming out in patches. If they ever did bring the dachshund with them, he’d stretch out halfway between their two graves.

There was no name for the feelings they shared, other than a sense of responsibility to live life in the same direction. Besides, even if there wasn’t a sense of responsibility, would things have gone otherwise? After a few years, after a few terrible illnesses and setbacks, because of her love and her care, Joris was able somehow to make his way back to the cemetery.

“You’ve just about raised me from the dead,” he said, leaning up against the monument. “You’ve resurrected me. You’ve returned my heart.”

He knew how to put it in words!

And then there was their wedding, and then a few more years of trips across the bridge, past the Baroque church. Often they’d return at dusk, and the dog was now deaf.

Maybe we no longer need any painful colors for this picture. But ...

“Joris, look,” she said one evening. “At first I didn’t say anything, but look, the horrid thing is getting harder and more painful to the touch. See, touch it.”

He touched her incredible skin, and when his finger poked that spot she growled softly, like a little dog, just like her mother had.

“It’s not good, is it, Joris?”

And now not much time had passed, and again he walks alone past the Baroque church. The dachshund stays home now. One time, when he’d just come home, she’d asked him to hand her the mirror. She could have gotten it herself, after all, so why did she ask for it? To make it easier to start their talk?

“No! Look at these wrinkles. Just look. They’re awful, aren’t they? My face wasn’t so bad before, you said so yourself. Of course, you tried to make me out as more beautiful, you’d flatter me. See what’s happened. And my breasts. How awful.”

She opened up her blouse.

There were black and blue scars. They’d been there for a while.

“You see. They’re as flat as the bottom of a frying pan. You’ll have to ask your friend, that sculptor, to ... You know, the one that made the woman. You’ll do that? Is he still alive?”

“Maybe, this time it’ll be my turn.”

“What? You’ll cure me?” she managed to say, her voice thick. “You’ll heal me? How could I have thought of something so selfish.”

And her big eyes, like those that no one saw on the stone monument, roamed around the room, not finding any place to rest.

 

 

From “The Vilnius Review”, 2006, Autumn/Winter edition (No 20)

 

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