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Akvilina Cicėnaitė (born in 1979 in Vilnius) is a writer, literary translator, the author of eight books and a recipient of several literary awards. She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Victoria University (Wellington, New Zealand), a master’s degree in Literary Theory and a bachelor’s degree in Lithuanian Philology from Vilnius University. She is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union, Lithuanian Literary Translators Association, and the Lithuanian Section of IBBY. She currently lives in Sydney, Australia.

Her new novel A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 2022.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo by Akvilina Cicėnaitė-Charles

Excerpts from the novel “The English Dictionary”

Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius

 

Homesick

When I awoke in the morning the motel ghosts had already hidden, fallen away like the sands of time. I wanted to run from the place as fast as I could. We didn’t stop in the small town, but carried on towards the Fort Bourke Hill lookout. From the platform, you could see all the way down the descending layers of the Cobar gold mine, where the road coiled like a snake, curling into the depths. The entrance of the mine opened up below, marked by a makeshift shed, but from so high up you could only see the contours, and the entrance hole looked the size of a toy. They still dig for gold, silver, copper and lead in the fields around Cobar, and excavated earth spread all around the town like the Earth’s spilled guts.

A motor home turned into the platform parking lot, and a man and a woman with wrinkled, sunburnt faces climbed out. A sheepdog hopped out after them, and the three walked towards the lookout, nodding as they passed. When we returned to our vehicle, my husband queued up a Rachid Taha song, and I turned the car towards Wilcannia and Broken Hill. We travelled through barren, excavated red earth, marks made by the European settlers, the footprints of the Indigenous people erased from the land. Kangaroos and wallabies jumped in the distance. The road was so long and straight, and the air so hot and dry, that it was impossible to imagine these places ever flooding. I drove on, the sparse bush becoming sparser, the land speaking an unintelligible language, and for some reason I recalled Jeannie’s words: that in the act of creating art, she had found her place, a place where she was happy, where she wanted for nothing, where nothing pained her. Art is my home, she had said. Now, driving in this wilderness, I felt the same. Like I was at home, like I knew, or at least was learning, how to speak in that unintelligible language. Home was a relative concept, and if one day I returned to the country of my past, I would have to learn anew how to live, as though for the first time. I would have to learn a new vocabulary.

The past was a gold mine. You could dig there and discover gold, or maybe dig and understand that what you once thought was gold was only long-forgotten dried-up turds. A monotonous stretch of road spread before my eyes. The little Toyota kept going faster and faster, overtaking one, another, a third road train, and then we overtook the 21st century, and found ourselves in the 20th, the same era which saw the sinking of the Titanic, the discovery of penicillin, the opening of Disneyland, the creation of Teddy the plush bear, and the raising of an aircraft into the sky by the Wright Brothers. The Toyota drove the Soviet streets of the republic, which would become independent as my childhood ended. People dressed in grey followed the flashy silver vision with their gaze, or perhaps they didn’t even notice it. The Toyota shot forward like a rocket, she needed to overtake many years: here comes independence, and then rap beats rumbling away the 1990s synth epidemic. All the names will change, the country, the streets, the stores, but it will take longer to change what is inside. I was driving through a country that no longer existed. I was born in a country that no longer existed. Maybe that’s why I felt my nature was inclined towards impermanence, why I viewed any eternal promises, like till death us do part, with gentle irony. Usually it’s not death that parts but rather the little turds of life: not living in the right country or in the right motel.

When I learned my first words I spoke only in Polish, the language of my great-grandmother, and, unbeknown to myself, I lived in my own little closed-off foreign country. My sister taught me Lithuanian words, and the kids of the neighbourhood Russian ones. In my childhood, the end of the day was marked by the tooting of the rubbish lorry coming into the yard. It was the children’s responsibility to rush down from the fifth floor with the rubbish bucket. In those days no one sorted their rubbish for recycling, but they kept the glass jars and took the bottles to the bottle bank, and took the newspapers to the waste-paper depot. They would buy chickens in the market and keep them in their kitchen at home, and then take them to the countryside once they had grown. Once my parents made beer. It did not turn out well, the barrel exploded, and splattered the kitchen ceiling, the walls and the work surfaces. My school uniform smelled sour. The staircase of our building reeked of the glue the teenagers sniffed. When someone died, the same staircase would smell of fir branches. Once a friend and I were followed by a gang of boys as we were walking home, and they chased us into the staircase. We banged, frightened, on the neighbours’ door, and rang the bell. Maybe they were not at home, or maybe they were. Still, no one opened the door. My childhood was a minefield, you couldn’t trust anyone, not fathers, not mothers, not teachers, not even the ridiculous weather forecasts or the senile politicians. Sometimes I wanted to forget my childhood, to push it deep down inside, like my first period-stained panties. At weekends, we’d drive to the allotment, where we would hide in the building trailer when it rained. To this day, I remember the damp, the dark, and the rain hammering on the roof. Once we didn’t manage to get back home from the garden before the rain started, and we ran along a path through a cornfield in the pouring rain and the rolling thunder. Oh, how terrified I was that a bolt of lightning would hit us, and I cried while I ran, my tears mixing with the rain. I couldn’t stop trembling, not on the train, not when we got back to Vilnius, and not even when my mother removed my wet clothing and put me in a hot bath.

My father worked in the construction industry, as a foreman, he would point out. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I did know it was something important. It meant bottles accumulating under the table after supper, cigarette smoke curling slowly upwards and through the air vent, and a Don Juan moustache. My father decided to build a house in our allotment. One day, a pile of red bricks appeared beside the trailer. The summer passed, and a hole slowly appeared; then, later, the foundations. On hot days, my sister and I liked to climb into the foundations and spray each other with ice-cold water from the hosepipe. My father put the bricks for the house that would not get built in the shape of a square, and made an outhouse. When my parents divorced, my mother bought a little prefab house, which only needed to be transported to the site and placed on the foundations. I don’t recall where the bricks went, or even if they went anywhere at all. Later the garden house was sold, but maybe the outhouse is still there, a monument to my parents’ failed union.

Sometimes in summer we would go to the coast. Ultraviolet radiation didn’t exist then, nor did coconut-scented sun lotions. We didn’t even have our own cars back then: we travelled to the sea by bus, or maybe by train. Those journeys have been erased from my memory by the hundreds of thousands of kilometres I’ve travelled since. The days by the sea felt endless. They could take in the pier at Palanga, peeling noses, sand on the lips, a dark cinema, a rainy afternoon, fried bread, smoked fish, scaly fingers, and a mermaid’s tail in my dreams.

The English language only came into my life at the age of ten, in school. Perhaps that is why for a long time I felt unable to dive into the language without surfacing for air. I don’t remember the first word I learned, only the long and tortuous time it took for me to learn to say the article ‘the’. To this day, I hate articles. To me, they are unnecessary appendages affixed to the body of a language. I still cannot figure out when to write ‘a’, and when to write ‘the’. I don’t have a feel for English, and most likely never will. Sometimes I worry I’m starting to lose my feel for Lithuanian as well.

The Toyota drove on. I grew up. The 1990s turned into a low-grade, jittering, pirated videotape. I got married for the first time while I was still a student. If I had stayed with my first husband till death us do part, we’d have been together for twenty years now. Our children would already be studying at university, or maybe, as is fitting for children of successful parents, taking a gap year to work as baristas in hipster cafes in Vilnius, London, Dublin or Paris. They’d have tattoos, an iPad, an iPhone, Instagram, Instagram for their beloved French bulldog, Prozac, and a psychotherapist they could tell repeatedly that their parents are, like, so old-fashioned and, like, so hopeless.

I looked at the winding road stretching out before me and no longer knew which country I was in, or which decade. I thought about an alternative scenario, one in which I stayed in the city with its cobbles and crumbling Old Town walls, the streetlights and newly installed park benches, where everything spoke to me in Lithuanian. I thought about what I would have become. Would I still be working at the advertising agency, writing copy for the press and outdoor billboards, counting words so that they’d fit into fifteen television or thirty radio seconds? Would the Old Town cobbles have shackled my legs in invisible chains? Do I have a parallel destiny in that city? I thought about what could have been, about my life as a film, about re-written scenarios and alternate endings, about irreversible leaving, about endless non-return, unable to stop imagining all the destinies I did not experience. Like Sylvia Plath, I saw my life as a fig tree, from every branch of which a wonderful and different future vision beckoned to me: from one, a loving husband, happy children and a beautiful home; from another, fame as a creator; and from a third, life as a talented scholar; from a fourth, journeys, lovers with exotic professions, and more and more. Sylvia wrote that she saw herself sitting under the fig tree starving, because she could not choose which of the figs she wanted. She wanted them all, but to pick one meant losing all the others. And while she pondered, unable to decide, the figs began to dry up and blacken and fall to the ground at her feet. I reminded myself that Sylvia Plath became a well-known poet, got married, had two children, and killed herself at thirty.

The woman from that alternative scenario would not have needed an English dictionary. She would not have needed to find her geographical and her imaginary country. Her road would have been marked with clear signs: turn left, turn right, speed limit fifty kilometres an hour.

I pressed the accelerator, and the arrow began to move again, past a hundred, a hundred and ten, a hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty. Rules are made to be learned and then broken. Alternative scenarios continue to shimmer in the morning sun on the side of the road. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think about other cities, other places I have never managed to live, and where it seems I no longer will. About my destinies in London, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Valparaíso, Melbourne, Cape Town, Prague.

For three years after the divorce, I lived in a thick, dark fog. I was too young to understand that every ending is a beginning, that I had just regained my independence, forgetting that I had even longed for it. I thought I was irreparably damaged and broken. Back then, I still drove a white sports car. During the day I wrote advertising copy, and at night I drove aimlessly around the city, perhaps looking for a precipice to fly off, because I also felt so smashed up. And now when I go back, I drink black coffee from white cups with my ex-husband, our past buried in black-and-white shadowy photographs.

My parents split up the same year Lithuania became independent. My father did not celebrate either event: not the country’s independence, nor his own. He threatened to jump out of the window and to drink antifreeze; or maybe the other way round; or maybe both at the same time. Sometimes we have to pay for independence with a hundred years of solitude, but my mother did not know that yet. Old age comes sooner than you expect, sooner than you can understand the nature of independence and finally appreciate it. And a girl will long for her independence her whole life, not realising that she has it, that it is there, at her fingertips, gentle, distinct, like the flag of a newly independent country.

At that time, we lived as a foursome, three generations of women: great-grandmother, mother, daughters, all speaking different languages and not hearing one another. After the divorce, we moved house once, twice, and then a third time. Mother stopped after the third time, but her daughter did not. Later, great-grandmother would die, having lived more than a hundred years, but she would return and visit me in my dreams. At first gentle, as she was in life. Then becoming unrecognisably monstrous, as though angry with me for something. Maybe because I didn’t go to church? Maybe because I was always asking questions to which there were no answers? One daughter would become a psychotherapist, because she wanted to figure out why her father left her, not understanding that the answer can’t be found in scholarly texts, no matter how much Jung, Adler and Freud one reads, or how long one lies on the couch. The other daughter would become a writer, because she wanted to write about it. She would want to write the truth, not yet knowing that truth is subjective, malleable, fluid and somewhat melancholy, that truth is subordinate to time, and sometimes disloyal, that truth, like crime, has a statute of limitations. It is only later that she would understand that when twenty, thirty, forty years have passed since childhood, there comes a time to forgive one’s parents, to say goodbye and bury them, even though they may continue to walk the Earth for some time yet.

After the divorce, father would start another family, his third. He would have a daughter, and the children from the other unions would cease to be, as though they existed in another dimension of the Universe. After thirty years, I would write a letter to my youngest sister, whom I have never met. I would write to her because I wanted to know what happens when you have both a mother and a father. My youngest sister would look beautiful and happy in photographs, having not so long ago welcomed her first-born. We would plan to meet, would fix a time and a place, well-lit, spacious and safe, with lots of doors to escape through. At the last minute, my sister would write that she wouldn’t be able to make it. I would stare into the mirror for a long time, as though searching for a door into an opposite world, and would think: What would I have done? Would I have been scared, or felt guilty? I would wonder if we can long for something we have never known. I would think about the longing for a safe home. I would think about the meaning of the French dépaysement, the Romanian dor, the Welsh hiraeth, the Portuguese saudade, the German sehnsucht, the Russian тоска. I would think what it means to be homesick.

I wanted to live on a Lithuanian homestead next to a forest, in a house with a verandah and a view of a lake. I would be a grey-haired witch, a sight to behold. I would have three dogs and a cat, maybe even chickens. I would grow vegetables, write books, watch birds, and in the evenings I would light a fire. I would keep a store in the basement for the coming end of the world. I wanted to live in Vilnius too, in a hundred-year-old flat in a seven hundred-year-old city. The ceilings would be high, with glassed-in bookshelves reaching to the very top of the white plastered walls. First thing in the morning, I would perfume myself, paint my lips red, and go downstairs to drink coffee at a cafe on the ground floor. I also wanted to live on the Gold Coast, on a hill near the ocean. I would sunbathe by a pool, and, barefoot, chase off the neighbour’s children from the lawn. I also wanted to live in Far North Queensland. I would listen to the hot walls of the house and the lurking crocodiles panting in the dark. I wanted to live in London and Valparaíso, Cape Town and Buenos Aires. I wanted many homes, and between them many incompatible things. But at this moment, home was the road winding before me, crooning I’m looking for a complication, looking ’cause I’m tired of trying to make my way back home when I learn to fly.

Home was here and there. Home meant life divided, half here, half elsewhere, everywhere temporary, with clocks showing the hour in different time zones. When the borders closed, the illusion of duality disappeared, as did the search for myself mirrored in foreign languages. We settled into the walls of our homes. Some felt incarcerated, others discovered themselves, and still others came face to face with the necessity to choose only one home. Some were homeless, others were homesick, the third were straight up at home. But there is no such word as homefree, as if it’s inconceivable to be homeless by choice. Home could be a prison, and home could be a privilege. You could outgrow a home, and a home could outgrow you.

We drove on, passing road trains and being passed by tanned drivers who had seen it all. Every turn invited us to stop, but the road urged us to keep driving, because there, in the distance, beyond the next bend, an even more impressive open view might be revealed. We had time, and at the same time we did not. Time slipped quietly between my fingers, following the monotonous hum of the engine. We whistled down the road, bugs splattering on the windscreen. The meteorologist Edward Lorenzo said that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado in Texas, but the ones on our windscreen only died one after another.

Do you miss your home? I asked my husband, not taking my eyes off the road. But in English it sounded different. Are you homesick?

You know, Douwe Draaisma wrote that nostalgia belongs not only to the living, but also to the dead. I spoke again, not waiting for an answer. He wrote about one Wiebe Boersma, who, in the middle of the last century, along with his wife and three sons, emigrated to Australia from the Netherlands. After four years they returned to the Netherlands, because Wiebe felt homesick. A few years later he began to yearn for Australia again, and moved back. Wiebe’s homesickness sent him back and forth like this three times. Eventually they settled in Australia, but before his death Wiebe became uneasy. He wanted his ashes to be sent to the Netherlands and scattered in his birthplace. When he died and his remains were cremated, the urn with the ashes began its journey. It travelled for six months by boat, was lost when it was unloaded, was found again, and given to distant relatives. They put the urn in the hall, and after some time, not knowing what to do with it, gave it to a cemetery caretaker, who said he would take care of it.

I’m not homesick, my husband replied. I didn’t answer him. I sped up, and as we passed one more road train, I thought maybe they were right, those people in the 17th century who believed nostalgia was an affliction, something to be healed with leeches, opium and a good climate. Maybe Svetlana Boym was right when she wrote that, for today’s contemporary person, nostalgia is a longing for a home that is no more, or has never existed; that first and foremost it is a longing for something which lives in our imagination. Maybe I can live like this, half here, half in my imagined home.

 

 Akvilina Cicenaite 03Photo by Akvilina Cicėnaitė-Charles

 

 

Virga

I stopped in the motel parking lot and turned off the engine. On the other side of the lot, a man in a worn leather jacket messing around with his motorcycle raised his head and waved at us. As I climbed up to the second-storey room, I watched as a man sitting on the curb of the sidewalk removed his shoes and began to cut his toenails.

That evening, Wagga Wagga looked to me like a faceless peripheral town, but maybe this wasn’t the town’s fault. Maybe it was our fault, out for a walk along the sleepy central street in the darkening evening, disturbing only the occasional passer-by and the teenagers loitering by the pizzeria. We walked without a destination, without a plan. It was our last evening before returning home, and maybe that was why we both noticed that Wagga Wagga was just like so many other towns scattered across the Australian outback. If someone blindfolded you and took you there you would open your eyes and not have a clue where you were: it could be Bathurst, or Goulburn, or Wagga Wagga. Maybe that was why the motel was so favourably priced and the room so nice: no one goes there.

I could never live here, said my husband. I would die of boredom. But still, someone grew up in this town, I countered. Someone out there loves it just the way it is, no matter if it is a town without a face, a town on the periphery, a town where no one ever goes. They love it even when they want to leave and get as far away as possible and never come back.

Many years ago, when I was only starting to think about leaving, when I didn’t yet know that after three years of studying I would not return to my city, my mother gave me a keyring with an image of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. He is also depicted in the coat of arms of my city. Since then, my home and my keys have changed many times, but St Christopher has remained, hanging from each new set with his indelible halo, carrying the baby Jesus in his arms for all eternity. Maybe my mother still believes that St Christopher will bring her daughter home.

We walked in silence for some time, quiet until I began to recite in my mind a poem from my childhood:

Upon an ice floe
floats a little cat shit.
Whoever speaks first
will just have to eat it

I wanted to recite that little quartet to my husband so we’d both laugh and then settle down and be quiet for a long time, lips pursed, silent until one of us was finally forced to break the silence, perhaps to answer a phone call or respond to a query from a passer-by, or maybe to say no thank you, I don’t need a bag, in a shop. But the quartet was meaningless, because I suddenly understood I didn’t know how to translate it well enough into English. In order to do so, I would have to translate a child’s mittens hanging from their coat, the snow on the playing field by the school adorned with yellow dog pee marks, my great-grandmother’s pelargoniums on the window-sill, her gummy eyes stuck together, sadness plaited into her long grey braid, and into the stories she told before bed. Soon the ice floes would appear on the Neris. Winter would arrive there, on the other side of the Earth, in a country easy to miss, whose language is impossibly difficult to learn. Maybe on a floe we’ll find a lost cat, or maybe a single little shit, which is also very easy to miss.

My longing was a little piece of shit stuck to the sole of my shoe. Longing was a city on the periphery where you don’t want to stay. Longing was a little tune, annoyingly stuck, a quartet that resides deep in your blood. Longing was a migrant’s address.

Longing has millions of faces and names, and you can find them in hospitals, airports, or in the dark rooms of your home. One of those names is vellichor, the longing emanating from used bookshops, a place where a thousand clocks tick from long ago. It’s a hundred stories in my husband’s head that I will never read. This was our past, big and small, important and not; it was a second-hand novel, love after forty, the unclaimed suitcases circling on the airport conveyor belt. It was an old library in a city destroyed by a nuclear explosion, where everything had been left as it was at that moment, the shelves full of thousands of books no one would ever read again, every book an individual room; that library held thousands of rooms, whose creators and inhabitants had passed away long ago. And as we walked the streets of this town, both our minds carried hundreds of rooms that no one would ever be able to enter again.

Leaving the main street, we walked slowly towards the motel. Evening was approaching, slowly and calmly, the warm air caressed our skin like velvet. We held hands and walked in unison; having learned in the years of our marriage to adapt our strides. I glanced at my husband and thought: when does the time come when love leaves and something else takes its place, something intangible, indescribable? Maybe one must just believe in this thing, the way one can believe in the existence of God, whom you’ve also never seen?

And then we both raised our eyes and looked at the clouds. Do you see that white gust in the sky? my husband asked, waving his hand. That’s a virga. Rain that evaporates just after leaving a cloud and never reaches the earth.

Is there scientific proof? I asked, not with my lips but with my fingertips. Maybe the flames of love are overrated. Maybe feelings only need to smoulder enough in order to manage to warm toast. Maybe they are like a virga, barely graspable, evaporating and never reaching the Earth. Maybe a fire engine will never rush to our house for a flaming toaster. Maybe we will never solve this odious equation of x, y and z, our endless argument transformed from an acute to a chronic condition.

This year, when this continent seemed impossibly far away, when her walls contracted even more, and the air was all the more rarified, the argument flared up again in acrid blue flames. Why don’t you understand that I don’t want to be trapped here? I repeated. Why do I have to choose which side of the border I want to stay on? I didn’t create the pandemic, my husband countered, but you need to understand that everything isn’t so simple, it’s just the reality. The years of the pandemic were pages stuck together, all of them about choice, which side of the fence to remain on when you are not prepared to choose a side. Nothing kept me here, only fragile, impermanent trifles: my partner, my marriage, my home, my dependence on the English language, its rationalism and listlessness all wound up in a safe, warm cocoon. But to return to the Lithuanian language seemed to mean falling into an endless folly. Australia became a prison to me. In the day we still held hands, but at night we slept with our backs turned to each other. Our home was full of silence. We had spoken about the same thing so many times, just in different words, about a middle road, which we could not find; about a compromise, which wasn’t there; about a third language and a third country; about finding a new language; about the language of leaving and returning; about separation and separate desires. Like millions of other people, I also said goodbye to my future plans. Those goodbyes were an ocean without a bottom, without a shore. And then, when the losses seemed to outnumber the gains, the defeats outnumber the wins, the lasts happening more than the firsts, when it seemed that the silence would never stop, I said to him: ‘Let’s go to Broken Hill.’

To me, Broken Hill seemed to be a place where nothing bad could happen. A place where everything started out afresh. A mystic centre of the Universe where time stops, where the clock turns back, where we become younger, where, who knows, maybe we could raise not just ourselves from the dead but also the people we once loved. I wanted to go to Broken Hill because I needed to look forward to something. I needed a reason for a journey, because there are days, weeks, and months even, when you think that a journey will fix everything, even things that are unfixable. Because when you’re on the road, on the hot broken tarmac, you enter into a different time zone. Because those who die on the road achieve real immortality, not the literary kind, not the imaginary.

And then when we arrived at the motel and were reaching for the door handle, the man cutting his nails nowhere to be seen, the wind scattering his clippings somewhere, the thought occurred to me that maybe the reason I don’t return is not the husband or the marriage, or that I’m afraid to return. Maybe I don’t return because not returning feels immortal. Leaving, for me, still holds the promise of immortality, because some part of me never leaves. It lurks in the mirrors of my old homes. I search for it in the reflections in the windows of the Old Town. Those are its fingerprints on the books, read innumerable times. And if I die here, in this distant land, in this city where it is so easy to disappear, no one might know that I have died. Maybe if the community does not caress my face with words, does not carry my name out into the unknown, then maybe I will not be truly dead.

And at the same time, it occurs to me that I don’t return because I am afraid I will see my city and my country with different eyes, eyes that will notice the poverty, the inequality, the violence, the narrow-mindedness, the xenophobia, the homophobia, the unhealed traumas carried from generation to generation. You can live among another country’s sins, but when you condemn your own country’s sins you also condemn yourself.

And at the same time, it occurs to me that I don’t return because return is impossible. Emigration is a one-way street, you cannot return, you can only journey further.

And at the same time, it occurs to me that I don’t return because I no longer want to start everything anew.

And at the same time, it occurs to me that I don’t return because it’s not that I long for my home and my people, but rather that I long for myself in that home, a self that no longer exists.

And at the same time, it occurs to me that I don’t return because I want to go on living in an imaginary homeland.

And there were times that I really didn’t believe that I wanted to return, that I would be able to live in Lithuania, that I would be able to translate my experiences or understand the experience of those who stayed behind. I didn’t believe I was ready to return. I didn’t believe that he would come with me. Maybe my city, that tricky bugger, would greet him with a sour face, and my husband, offended, would leave again. Or maybe not. If he had survived Montreal winters and raging house fires, maybe he’d manage to survive being thrown into the spring river rains and scramble up the bank.

I will teach you Lithuanian, I said to him, or maybe I wanted to say to him, and then the silence of the Wagga Wagga night, a night without the slightest sound, enveloped us. The kind of silence that only exists in a town where nothing happens. I will teach you another home. You will understand why it cannot be in English. You will understand that my bones sing in Lithuanian, that their song burns the floors, ceilings and walls of our home. You will understand why I say that I cannot stay here, I cannot die here. Right now, you don’t understand, because we are speaking in different languages. Right now, you don’t understand, because your heart is an airplane and mine is a bird.

I will teach you to live in Lithuanian. We will return as a couple and will return for real, to the tips of our fingers, until death us do part, or more likely some other shitty reasons. We will return to my childhood. I will tell you how lonely it was to grow up in Lithuanian, to experience the collapse of family and country, not to be able to talk about it with anyone. I will teach you the language of loneliness, a language I had to learn in order to start writing. I will teach you the bitterness of adolescence, of cheap wine, cheap cigarettes, cheap clothing from Western Europe, and cheap kisses under a pier by the sea, his black leather jacket on my sunburnt skin. I will teach you how to break up under cinematographic rain, how to survive the Lithuanian autumn, the Lithuanian winter, Lithuanian death. I will teach you the colours: the gold of autumn leaves, honey and amber; the grey of pavements and rain; the black of bread and sadness; the green of moss, clover and hope. I will teach you to eat in Lithuanian, read in Lithuanian, write in Lithuanian, drive in Lithuanian, swear in Lithuanian, love in Lithuanian. I will teach you to pick forest berries and mushrooms. I will teach you the art of riding a trolleybus. I will teach you how to sit in the countryside by a fire and smell my smoke-filled hair. I will teach you that sometimes fire means warmth, and not a burned-down childhood home, not the burning underground, not flaming forests, not opal glowing from the inside. I will teach you the things which I myself have forgotten, the things I wanted to forget when I left, the things I wanted to drown for all time in the English language. I will teach you the things I could not forget. I will teach you that rain, or lietus, is not the same as downpour, liūtis; and downpour is not the same as drizzle, or dulksna; that low-flying birds are a premonition of rain; and that before rain the river water becomes dark, and dogs eat grass. I will teach you that bubbles in puddles mean it’s going to rain, drizzle, sprinkle, pour, and for a long time. I will teach you that all these words are necessary, that you cannot forget even one. I will teach you how to pronounce them. I will teach you that a home can be protected from fire, and not only with fire-proof safes, fire alarms, firefighters and insurance, but also with St Agatha’s bread. I will teach you to love the past indefinite tense and the past frequentative tense. I will teach you to believe in the future tense. I will teach you when to say savo, ‘my’, and when to say mano, also ‘my’. I will teach you my hardest, deepest, most melancholy language, and you will understand why sometimes I start to choke, why at night I get out of bed and go outside to wander the streets of Botany unable to sleep. You will understand why I can live here but I cannot die here, why I cannot settle for ever in a town that has no heart. We will return together, and we will return for real, to the core, no compromises. We will return to my city, a place traipsed every day by thousands of people who usually don’t even notice, don’t know it’s there, under their feet, that paving stone with the word STEBUKLAS, or ‘MIRACLE’, inlaid in it.

And then you can teach me French.

 

 

 

 

 

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