LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 20, No.3 - Fall 1974
Editors of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1974 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
A Short Story
If thirty years ago someone happened to walk down a small country road from Girkalnis to Đimkaičiai, he may still remember — near the edge of the village of Pakalniđkiai, on the slope on the castle-hill where the road turned through wet meadows — there stood a cross, a singular cross, quite unlike other crosses scattered by the roads. The cross itself resembled other crosses: made of two thick, solid oak logs, darkened with age, rain-wearied, etched with little cracks from sun and cold; tufts of greenish and gray, pattern-making moss grew from them. The top of the cross and its arms ended with large, time-worn knobs. They were of another, less hardy wood, and appeared to have been added much later. Probably some craftsman had wanted to embellish, with his skill, that large, axe-hewn mass.
One might have passed the cross, itself, without noticing it, for similar if not so massive crosses dotted Lithuania's roadsides. But the figure of Christ arrested everyone's attention: one could hardly pass it without stopping or at least glancing back several times. The wooden Christ was so unusual, even today I don't understand why it never became world famous. Unless God himself in his divine unpretentiousness wanted it that way. The figure was fully life-sized, and carved entirely from one single piece of wood. Even the arms had not been added. Its wind-wearied limbs quivered with exhaustion; its head tilted forward and to the side, rapt in thoughts about weariness, and pain... and perhaps even tomorrow's and the next day's worries. The head's usual crown of thorns was missing, and so was the roof-cover that usually protects the holiness from the penetrating rain and hail. Only someone had placed upon the downcast head a wreath of corn flowers, bluebells, buttercups, and other wild flowers. This might have been done even by a taller child, since the cross was so low, the figure's toes almost touched the ground. It seemed the bottom had rotted more than once, and had been replaced, shorter, each time. If so, it should be unusually old, because oak rots very slowly. Only why did time not erode from his face the breath of life? One stood looking and waiting for the downcast eyelids to suddenly open. And the eyes would look directly at you, the lips would open, and one would hear the words the world had long awaited; the words which theologians and poets have been searching for in thousands of volumes. But they would come to you, just as natural as the blossoming of a daisy.
"I see, you are praying, or... just looking?" a woman's voice roused me from my reverie.
I started. Engrossed in the cross I had not noticed how she had shuffled up to me. A very old woman indeed, a little bent with age, with a very wrinkled face. But her eyes were alive and young. Time with its masterly fingers was unable to touch these eyes, just as it was unable to touch the face of Christ on this cross. In one hand she held a basket of beet-leaves and in the other some newly-pulled carrots.
"It's beautiful", said I, glancing at Christ.
"Yes, beautiful — and precious! But won't be here for long", sighed the old woman, wiping her brow with her hand.
"Why? It looks like it could still stand for a long time."
"It could, but it won't. Maybe a year or two. You see its feet almost touch the ground. When they do, he'll take his cross and go elsewhere. Some morning we'll just wake up and he won't be here anymore."
I felt like arguing, but I had already learned not to contradict local beliefs directly. I kept silent for a minute, looking at Christ's face and especially at his lips, at times seeming to quiver as if they wanted to speak. Then I said:
"A wonderful, beautiful work. Who carved it? If he is still alive, I would like to meet such a masterful carver."
"No one, Mister, could have carved this cross. The last Candlemas saw my ninety second. I've lived here all my life, and the cross hasn't changed a bit. Not by a hair. When I was just this tall," indicating with her hand some distance from the ground, "I already made garlands for him. Only then I couldn't put them on. I couldn't reach. Even grown men couldn't; they had to get something to stand on. And when I wanted to kiss his feet, I had to ask somebody to lift me up; but now the smallest child can easily reach it. Men's sinful eyes can't see... but it sinks and sinks..."
"Some sort of underground well is probably underneath", I started explaining, "Some men should get together and move it."
Inwardly I thought such a treasure should be in a museum under glass, but I didn't say so, afraid of offending and silencing her. Even my suggestion to move it made her shake her head.
"Mister, nobody raised it, and nobody'll move it!" she sharply pronounced.
"No one raised it!" I marveled.
"Of course not. He came of himself and chose his own place; only, we keep piling all sorts of troubles, worries, and evil deeds on his head. That's why he keeps sinking and sinking..."
She stopped talking. So did I. Both of us gazed at the cross. She settled herself slowly upon the thick green grass by the road. And I sat down beside her, thinking that whole cross should be brought to a museum. But I didn't say anything.
She took a piece of hair-grass and started winding it around her fingers like a ring. She wore no other rings. Maybe she had never gotten married or maybe she had taken off her ring, polished from wear, and put it into her hope chest to be buried with her.
"I know you young and educated people have trouble understanding things," she said after a little while, "you've got to have everything checked, re-checked, and written down first. Especially — written down in books. I've read books, too. And I still read, even now, thanks to the Lord. He gave me good eyes. And I read the papers, too. And while reading them, I keep thinking there is no way to get everything written into books?! Take our cross, for example. No one's going to put that into a book. Who can count what is piled on his shoulders and his heart!"
And she paused again. She had unwound the grass from her fingers and now was chewing on it. Suddenly she smiled.
"I still have almost all my teeth. God has really been good to me. I've had a fine life. Once in a while I say to myself, 'Mary, for such a life you should have made him many more crowns than you did! Of course, you've read in books of the terrible years of the plague," she abruptly turned the conversation from herself. "Now no one ever talks of them, but when I was young, they were still on everyone's lips. Though they hadn't lived through the plague, they remembered it from their parents and grandparents. They said, a kind of wind blew and all laid down — laid down and didn't get up. Others told of dark horsemen that passed in the night; and where they passed, half didn't rise in the morning, and the next morning — the other half didn't. Only those happening not to be home that night, or those praying beneath the cross remained untouched by that calamity; but, for that, they had to tend the sick and take care of the animals.
Our village was a lot larger then. They say it rained the whole day, clearing in the west a bit, and then over the. hill came flocks of black crows, covering all the trees and roofs. Dogs whined at doors to get inside. Even men shivered at the crows' screeching. It got dark a lot earlier than usual. Next morning the crows had gone, but people began to fall like leaves. Only the Darvydas' Ignacas remained alright. He had gone, the day before, to press oil from hemp seeds.
Returning after daybreak he found his household all hit by the plague. All his neighbors, too. One or two still moved around that day, but by the third — he was left alone. They say he was a strong man. Nowadays his sort don't exist anymore — people have taken to an easy life. But they can afford it now. In those days, however, they had to work hard; and that's why they grew up like oaks. Neither rain, nor cold, nor trouble scared them. They didn't scare Ignacas. During the day he went from one farm to another. He looked after the animals and helped the sick, and carried the dead from the houses. Do you see, over there that mound near the middle of the village? There in the sand he dug a hole and piled the dead like logs. Those he piled during the day he buried in the evening, so that the dogs wouldn't get them during the night.
One day after burying that day's dead he couldn't believe his eyes: through the meadows came a man carrying a huge cross. Ignacas, although tired and exhausted, went to meet him and offered to help him. Ignacas thought it's probably someone wanting to erect it over his dead. But although the man looked vaguely familiar, he was a total stranger. Ignacas offered to help carry the cross at least as far as his yard. He said: "I'll milk the cows, and give you something to eat, and then I'll hitch up the horses, or something. You can't drag that heavy thing anywhere by yourself." In his yard he leaned the cross against the house (grandmother used to show where the wall was scratched near the end of the house), and left the man to sit by the side of the house, running off to milk the cows. Later, while feeding him bread and milk he asked, "Where are you carrying that cross from?" "From far away. You might say, from the ends of the earth," smiled the stranger. "And always alone? Have so many died that no one can help you?" "No, just that everyone has other things to do." "I could help you," Ignacas offered sincerely, "but who would take care of the sick and bury the dead? And the animals have to be looked after, too. I mean, they can't be just let loose into the fields. If it isn't far, then I could carry it a bit, until nightfall. If it's far, then I'll hitch up the horses. You'll return them later. You just can't carry that weight by yourself". The man smiled again. "Not far now", he said, getting up from the bench and trying to take up the cross. He looked so weak and tired that Ignacas jumped up and cried: "Wait, I won't let you carry it alone. Take the end, and I'll take it by the arms!"
Ignacas took the cross, settled it upon his back and felt how his feet sank into the ground, how his shoulders bent as if he had placed the world upon them. But he clenched his teeth and strode, though trembling, though staggering. "Lord, help me," he quietly whispered. "Just not to fall, just not to kill myself. Who's going to take care of things tomorrow?" They shambled down the street and went a ways out of the village. The stranger said, "That's enough. Leave me here." "So you're going to try carrying it yourself?" asked Ignacas over his shoulder. "Let's put it down here. I won't carry it farther. This will be a good place," smiled the man again. "If you wanted to raise it here, you should have said so. I would have brought a spade. We won't be able to put it up without one." "Don't worry. Go home now. You have to rest, too." "Then let's go together. If you won't take a bed, lots of straw is in the barn. I'll give you plenty of blankets." But the man sat down on the cross, leaned his chin upon his hand, and raised his eyes to Ignacas. "Thank you for your kindness," he said, "but I'll stay here. Does it matter, where God's man rests his head? And thank you also, for lightening my load. Go, at home the sick, the dead, and the animals wait for you, and I want to sit awhile and muse." Ignacas turned to go, then looked back at the man lost in reverie. "Listen," he finally said, "you should be from around here somewhere. I would almost swear I've seen you some place before." The man lifted his eyes up again, looked and smiled. "Maybe I'm not from far way, maybe from even nearer. But now it's getting really dark. Come tomorrow, we'll talk some more. I'll wait here."
Ignacas wanted to say something more. But he couldn't find the words. So he shrugged his shoulders and left. In a minute, he began to feel a deathly fatigue. It seemed every step threatened to be his last. "Probably the sickness is getting me now, too," he thought. "If I fall, there will be no one left to dig a grave for me." Thinking this he tottered home, fell upon a bench and woke only the next morning. He got up and was amazed. In his house all the people were well. The whole village was well again. The dead stayed dead, but those who hadn't died walked as if never they had been sick. They worked around their houses, looked after their animals, buried and mourned for the dead. But all rejoiced that the plague had left as suddenly as it had come. Ignacas ran and helped everyone, and showed them who had been buried where. Only around midday he remembered the strange man. If he still waited as he had said he would, he'd be hungry. Ignacas filled a pitcher with milk, took a large hunk of bread, climbing into the attic, cut off a slab of bacon, and hurried out. Just outside the village he stopped, startled. In front of him stood a huge cross. Standing it looked even larger than the one he'd carried the day before. Shame filled Ignacas. Obviously, the man had waited and waited, until, finding a shovel, he had put up the cross himself, and left, for not a living soul was around. Looking at the fields in hope of seeing the stranger, Ignacas approached the cross, lifted his eyes and froze: from the cross gazed at him that same man he had left yesterday sitting and saying he'd much to ponder about. He let the pitcher of milk and the bread fall from his hands; he took off his cap and did not even notice his knees beginning to bend. "My Lord, Jesus Christ!" he whispered, "Yesterday you came to me, and ate, and drank, and we talked, and I didn't recognize you. Forgive me, Lord." "Rise," quietly and very naturally spoke Christ. "Now you recognize me, and that's good. Go and tell everyone what happened yesterday. Let all carry their joys, worries, troubles, sins, and repentance and put them on this cross. Good deeds will raise it, and evil ones will press it into the ground." Christ fell silent, and in Ignacas' sight changed into a wood-carved figure. For many years he stood tall, sometimes it seemed he even started to grow. Then he began to sink. Now you can see for yourself how little is left; and we just keep piling weight on his head. No one told me, but my old heart feels... just when his feet touch the ground, he'll take the cross upon his shoulders and go to find another place. We'll be orphans. Justly, but still orphans."
With these words the old woman rose, reached up to fix the flower wreath, knelt to kiss the nail-pierced feet, and went away.
As if entranced, for several minutes I looked at the few inches between the feet and the sheep-cropped grass, then suddenly a thought hit me — what if this was no myth, but the truth? What if he gets up, takes his cross and leaves, not to find another place, but leaves this earth? And what will happen, if leaving he takes with him the command to love one's neighbor, that even after two thousand years remains so foreign to us?
I looked around. In the midday heat sank the fields, orchards, and the village houses. Not the smallest line in Christ's face moved — his eyes calm, gaze, intense upon eternity. No one was prepared to give another answer, except the one dolorously reverberating in my heart.
Translated by Audrius Tadas Klimas
* From: Jurgis Jankus, UŢKANDIS ("The Snack"), 1973. Published by Ateities Literatűros Fondas. Translated and printed by permission.