LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 23, No.4 - Winter 1977
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1977 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE RED FOREST
A plain, stretching out in all directions, where trees don't dare to grow. They have concealed themselves behind the distant hills, behind the warm back of earth, winds blow in this cavity, day and night four winds at once, never are there clouds with rain, nothing but half the sun and half the moon, the other half shines for those living peacefully beyond the hills, in a forest or beside a brook. The way to this place is unknown to all: grass, snow, the chirping of birds. Neither she could remember how she had come to be here, and dimly did she know the origin of her sufferings, her eyes ached terribly because of the incessant green-gold light, because of the harsh reflections from stones, smooth stones, jagged stones. Nothing but stones, nothing but stones. Seeing them instinctively she curled her toes, the memory of stubble-fields still lived between them: she grew astonished when the stones did not pierce her body as she had expected, her body, so heavy with tense waiting and pain. She moved her feet, they swayed gently in mid-air, touching nothing. She felt the constant blowing of the winds, drying her, tightening around her like a colorless transparent bandage. She raised her eyes, searching either for evening or for morning, she hoped to organize her thoughts, to understand whether she was dead or still alive, both celestial bodies hung motionless, without a sky about them, without a sign foretelling death or an easing of her pain. She raised her eyes still more, but her head pressed against wood, the hardness of the wood was warm and smooth, and it appeared to her that the most important signs must be hanging in the very center right above her head, and that the hardness never would allow her to perceive them. Slowly she turned her head to the left, here, too, there was nothing, nothing but stones and their glitter, making the field look larger than any of the seas or oceans, then she turned her head to the right and saw, slanting away, a row of crosses, hung with dead women. She hoped to discern the end of the row, she craned her neck, but the spaces between them narrowed, still further the crosses almost touched each other, until finally they fused into an unbroken wall, into a broad line, into a something stretching out but no longer visible. She felt herself at the very end of the row. In the immense glitter there was still just as much room for new crosses and live women, perhaps now milking cows beyond the hills, pressing the buckets between their warm legs. Next to her hung an aged woman, she knew her to be aged, although she saw nothing but a yellowed ear, some hair, and a little patch of her left cheek. The heads of the other women were also turned to the right, they had all died facing those who had died before them.
"Mother!" she screamed suddenly.
As the scream died away, she remembered, it had been early evening, her mother had been on her way to the meadow and she had waited at the gate, a bird had perched in the maple, up high, in the very tree-top, higher than all the leaves, an orange thread of melody stretching from its blue head, when suddenly the melody had broken off, the bird having been the first to see the bucket fall soundlessly into the green grass . . . Her mother had been spinning beside her grandmother's bed, a time without complexity shining quietly beyond the window, a child playing on the floor, the child had risen and covered the motionless hand with a fur, he had sat down again among his toys and said: "Mother, grandmother is cold . . ." Further on she saw her grandmother's grandmother, her grandmother's great-grandmother and other women, growing less familiar and gradually vanishing, she saw bodies withered into utter weightlessness, she saw them, all fragility, hanging on small black crosses. She opened her mouth still wider to scream, as wide as she could, the lifeless light of the plain surged into the red cavity of her throat, and her large teeth glittered like stones. She kicked the withered tree, tossing her head, her arms stretched out on the cross, hoping to free herself from, that relentless row. She struggled wildly at great length, until her strength gave out, then she hung her head, her loose hair falling in her eyes, the wind tossed her hair back and it clung to the skin of her shoulders. She hung totally naked, her eyes still open, seeing nothing but the semicircular protuberances of her breasts, they obstructed the view of her hollow stomach, yellow thighs, the circles of her knees, her thick calves, and large feet with flat toes. The weight of her body stretched her joints, her veins, and the lines of her waist, so that she would have looked like a slim girl to the women hanging further down, except that, with all the nursing she had done, her breasts now sagged and the nipples were withered, reminding one of a meek old sheep.
"Children," she called softly, "my children . . ."
At the sound of her voice the wood of all the crosses, sturdily planted in stone, trembled, sounds uttered by parched mouths fell like gasping scarves to the foot of the crosses, onto the harsh glitter of jagged stones:
"My children . . ."
"My little towheads . . ."
"Joy of my youth . . ."
"My dead ones . . ."
Hundreds of names swirled among the cross-tops, tossed about in the plain and fell, catching on stones and leaving scabs of dirty brown. Forgotten shadows filled the plain, moving soundlessly, writhing, entwining, or lying still, stretched out on jagged stones, impervious to their sharpness. A red forest sprang up from the stones, on the edge of the forest bears wrestled with men, breaking bones which had been so long in growing. She saw spears and feathered arrows whizzing by, but none of them fell at her feet, they all flew somewhere to the end of the row. Having struck, they swayed like dragonflies on reeds bending down into the water. Clutching swords in their large-knuckled fists, helmed men wandered among the trees, alertly searching each others' bodies for places unprotected by the armor. Puffs of smoke would appear, only to be dispersed by wind above river waters, and on the banks of yellow sand countless shadows lay motionless, so quickly would everything grow still, and big river fish glistened, frightened by floating wreaths of rue and by hands of corpses that grabbed the wreaths from the water and placed them under their heads. Horses galloped down the row, their reins and empty stirrups swinging, stopping in ones, twos and even fours by most of the crosses, awkwardly kneeling with their front legs and bowing their foaming mouths right down to the ground. Lines of bayonets surged forward and fell back like waves, everything mingled into one undifferentiated mass, and even the sharp-sighted crows that circled over the battle-field could distinguish nothing. They flew about, landing on most of the crosses. Again she moved her eyes to the right: above her grandmother's head hunched a black bird, waiting in silence. Shadows ran across the field and stumbled unexpectedly, small scraps of paper swirled about, one of them fluttered up to her mother and landed at the foot of her cross like a snowflake. There were many more, some drowned in quicksand, others killed with stones, burned at the stake, hanged under elms, strangled at the very break of dawn, smothered with pillows, poisoned, tortured to death, still others dead of disease, starvation, loneliness, terror, yearning or despair. Yet others had disappeared without a trace, and on their crosses hung just a mother's heartache. Her own cross had nothing yet.
"Mother," she moaned, "mother! You are luckier than I. All your sons are already dead." The shadows slowly disappeared, the stones, some smooth, some jagged, regained their glitter, but the red forest still stood. Again she struggled on the cross, desiring desperately to see her sons. She calmed down when she saw all three of them alive, although dressed in military green, the forest was teeming with them as with ants, some flew through the air, others rushed about among the trees, still others hid among roots, squatting, waiting, their arms clutching ammunition, their eyes, yellow with obedience, shining through branches..
"My children . . ."
"My little towheads . . ."
"The joy of my youth . . ."
"My dead . . ."
Frightened, she turned her head to the left, but she was still the last in line. The color of the forest now began to fade, the trees began to sink back into the earth, the hills reappeared on the horizon, once more illumined by half the sun and half the moon, She moved her hands, nailed firmly to the cross forever.
"Go. At least you can go" she commanded her thoughts.
Stumbling over stones, her thoughts waded in a little group towards the hills, crossed them, climbed down into the valley. They stopped by their own farmstead. The gate was open, beyond it a crippled goose was walking, not doing anything to anybody. A little girl was waiting on the threshold, leafing through an old prayer book:
"Mother, when I grow up, will they also nail me to a cross?"
Translated from the Lithuanian by Mirga Girniuvienė