LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 27, No.3 - Fall 1981
Editor of this issue: Saulius Sužiedėlis
Copyright © 1981 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE BLUE PRAM
The road. The dusty summer road.
The cold rain had poured daily, but now the scorching heat was such that it began to rend the fields and wither the wheat stalks. The puddles dried instantly, the hardened clumps of earth turned to gray and brown dust, while a thick, powdery layer covered the road.
The road. The hot, soft, deceitful road. We waded along what seemed like feathery covers, dragging our heavy, unbending legs. A gray, enveloping cloud moved along with us, stretching behind us like a transparent, thin tail. We devoured this cloud with our noses and mouths, while our teeth squeaked constantly like empty millstones.
We went on and on, without rest. From the side, it must have seemed that the armed men with white armbands were herding not people, but petrified trunks, large and small tacked on to both sides of which were faded yellow stars.
We were supposed to be happy: we were being driven to Lublin,* to work. We had to be happy since we longed for this day as a thirsty person for water. After all, they had promised to feed us!
But we walked on quietly and somberly so as not to stumble, not to fall down. If you fell behind the others . . .
That's what happened to Beilkė's mother. She'd been walking at the end of the column. We left her there, in the distance, at the bend in the road. One kick of a steel-plated boot was enough. She did not rise again and was left lying there, just where she'd fallen.
Beilkė probably understood that she couldn't help her mother. Turning around, she screamed, raised her hands to the heavens, and, afterwards, whincing from the blow of a whip, she seized the handle of her blue pram; stumbling and hurrying, she began to push it forward. A few women rushed to help her.
The pram nudged forward more and more, to the front, until it reached the very midst of the group a bright, blue stain, giving variety to its dark mass.
And still it was very far to Lublin. We barely reached Žiburiai. The broken pavement reverberated; there was the clinking sound of inadvertantly kicked stones.
We were greeted by ruins and huge clay pipes, their stems rising upwards, just like the time when my mother and 1 would go for bread. Here and there, individually and in groups, people lined the sides of the road.
"Break it up! Break it up!" screamed one of the men in white armbands at the head of the column.
But the people shifted only slightly and then again became transfixed. They glanced at us and, lowering their eyes, it seemed they spoke to us without words: "Where are they taking you? What for?"
Our former neighbor Anicetas leaned on a tilted post, the gardener Povilas and his wife stood clasping empty little baskets, and there was the gray-haired music teacher Rimša, his head shaking. Many familiar faces.
Where are they taking you? Why?
As the glances of the people caught the blue pram, they softened and a warm little flame would light up in the people's eyes. Many women carried infants in their arms but Beilke's child attracted the most attention. And, perhaps, it wasn't so much the child, as his little blue pram from which, it seemed, gushed a young, delicate life in the midst of this column tacked down with dusty, yellow patches. Yes, just like that time after the forest fire when there were the charcoaled, flame-licked stumps without branches; the browned and blackened moss; the crumbled cowberry stems and in the midst of all this a tiny, dazzling green blueberry bush, so green and alive that it seemed it would at once shoot up, look around and speak out in a human voice.
The Žiburiai estate lay just outside the town. Its fields stretch in all directions; boundless, without end, up to and beyond the forest and highway. The white manor is adorned with red roof tiles, surrounded by centuries-old lindens and maples; and, at the end of the park, which branched out with its many paths, is the beginning of an enormous meadow. In the middle of this meadow is a barn, unequalled in the whole parish. Earlier, before the war, Rimukas and I would race here with the other children, in secret. God forbid, that the parents would find out! What a life it was when the barn lay empty! You hallo once and the echo resounds in all the corners. You scamper about from end to end then fall to the ground catching your breath! A whole country fair would probably have fit in that barn.
They herded us here, to the barn.
We were not the first to arrive, but we were all that was needed to fill up the barn completely. Without exchanging a word, the women placed their bundles on the ground and flopped down after them.
"Why has God punished us so?" sobbed a strange woman without tears.
An older woman nearby comforted her: "Don't cry, daughter, don't cry. We'll endure this, it's just important that we live. God has sent us another trial and we've got to be patient."
When our whole column had crowded into the barn, and the doors had creaked shut, dusk enveloped us all, broken only by the long flat rays of light coming through the chinks in the walls. It seemed to turn cooler, but instantly I heard the people breathing rapidly. Opening my mouth, I too began to gasp for air. No, it wasn't cool. It was incredibly stuffy. ! snuggled up against two separated wall boards, trying to catch with my eyes every little ray of light from outside, as if they carried a cooler, refreshing breeze from outside. It now seemed to me that only the light, even with the hot rays of the sun, could save me from the merciless suffocation. Besides me, there were hundreds of mouths gasping for air, like fish thrown out on the shore. If only the doors would open up ...
And the doors opened.
"The first party!" someone shouted in German. ". . . The first party!" It was repeated in Lithuanian. "Line up by the door!" ". . . Line up by the door!"
No one waited for another request. Everyone wanted to be the first to flee the stifling, dark barn. "No noise!"
"Let us go! Let us go!" shouted those who had come here first. Women dragged their children and their miserable little bundles. They were lining up. Only Beilkė was unable to move out. She pushed and pushed her blue pram, but it just stayed there, exactly where it had been before.
"That's enough! No more!"
Beilkė began to cry and wring her hands. "But what about me? My baby will suffocate! Have mercy!"
The women parted and made way for her pram. Even here it gave off a scent of life, like that small green blueberry bush.
"Mama, what about us?"
"Wait . . . We'll make it yet . . ." she answered and, as before, she once again fixed her big black eyes on one point.
"Mama . . ."
Silently, she brushed her hand across my hair.
Squeaking, the doors slammed shut.
But soon the blinding light from the square entrance flashed again.
"The second party! Hurry up!"
Now we were so close to the entrance, but mother didn't move this time, either. I no longer urged her to go.
The women went out, lined up, and then the whole group, surrounded by the Germans and the men with white armbands, pushed on across the meadow to the road, along which, past a small knoll, stood two slender pines. Through a chink you could see only two green caps.
I pressed hard against the parted wall boards. The first group was no longer to be seen. It was probably hidden past the bend. The second group was already walking the road, dragging behind it a cloud of dust, while the third slowly advanced across the meadow. And what are we sitting here for? The faster we left, I figured, the sooner we would get to Lublin, the quicker we could start work and get something to eat . . .
"Mama, is Lublin over there?"
I didn't receive an answer, so I flattened myself against the chink in the wall. Where does this Lublin begin? The road over there turns past the hillock, then approaches the gravel pit on which the pines stood, and then winds towards the bridge across the Verpeliukas stream; further on is the village of Vanagiai. It must be there, past Vanagiai, where this Lublin begins . . .
Suddenly everyone flinched and leaped up. Over in the direction where they had driven one group after the other, a machine gun began to chatter. The volleys of rifle and automatic fire roared.
I glanced around fearfully. Although there were only a few of us left in the barn, there now arose such a heartrending scream, that 1 clung to my mother's side until it hurt.
"Mama, what's that?"
She looked at me and smiled. 1 stared at her and couldn't believe it. It had been so long since I'd seen that smile: the parting of the lips, the glitter of the white line of upper
teeth, the slight trembling in the left corner of her mouth. Mother smiled! Finally, she even spoke: "Don't be afraid, children. The Germans have probably run into a skirmish with somebody. It's the war . . . And look how frightened we got! Well, what can possibly happen to us? We're going to Lublin, to work."
She embraced me with one arm, my sister with the other, and pressed us both to her breast.
A man with a white armband stuck his head inside. "Stop screaming! German maneuvers are in progress!"
I had quite calmed down when the square doorway Suddenly flashed with light and a voice echoed: "The tenth party! Leave the children! Everyone from age fourteen march!"
Everyone walked slowly, very slowly, to the door. Maybe their heart wasn't in it, or maybe it was because it had become much cooler in the barn, when there were so few of us left.
Five men with white armbands burst into the barn. They tore the children from their mothers and pushed the others towards the door.
"Hurry up! Move it!"
But we did not let go of mother's hands. "Mama, where are they taking us?"
"Get out of here, you pests!"
From past the hillock, as if on purpose, the shooting drummed on and echoed in the heart as an anxious throbbing.
"Mama, don't go! Don't go! Mama . . ."
She hastened to stroke first one of us, then the other. To caress us, one more time.
I clutched at those hands, those white, slender hands, so gentle and dear to me. I pressed against them, with one cheek, then the other, with my lips and forehead ... I looked into the deep, black eyes. Only for a short time! If we could be separated only for a short time!
She kissed us.
"Children, my children . . . May God keep you . . ." "But it's not for long! We'll catch up soon!" Tears streamed from the dark eyes.
A rifle butt struck mother in the back. "Are you going or aren't you, you toad!" She swayed, caressed us once more with her eyes and went out.
Creaking, the door slammed shut. We were left alone. Only now did we understand we were alone.
"Let us go! Take us with you! Let us go!" We pounced on the doors and hammered, but no one answered us.
Exhausted, my sister and I embraced and sank to the ground. Then we leaped up and ran to the crack in the wall, but we could no longer see mother. Only a cloud of dust rose in the road's bend.
I don't know how much time passed by after that. When I came around, no more shots were to be heard. Could I have been asleep? My sister was kissing my hands and was saying, all hoarse: "Come to, Beniukas, don't die, Beniukas . . . Don't leave me alone!"
"Where's mother?" I asked.
"She went out . . . We're going soon, we'll catch up. Maybe she'll come back herself. Just don't die, Beniukas!"
Then I remembered everything and ran to the crack. Good God, what was that? Several wagons full of people were moving along the road. And I saw . . .
"Look! Look!" I grabbed my sister by the hand. "They're bringing them back! Mother's coming back . . . Look! Beilkė's pram is tied to the wagon. The blue pram . . ."
The wheels turned toward the meadow. They're coming back!
Tears of joy flooded my eyes. Only later, when they were right by the barn, I saw the men with white armbands sitting on the wagons, which were overloaded with clothes and bundles. But where are our people? Where's mother?
The wagon passed right by my eyes. The dusty spokes of the wheels twisted slowly, the sand-covered boots of the guards shuffled past, Beilkė's pram rattled and rolled by. A loose scarf fluttered from inside the pram a scarf with a brown border, sprinkled with green clover leaves . . . Mother's scarf . . . "Mama! Mama!"
* A city in eastern Poland.
Translated from the Lithuanian by
Copyright © 1980 by Icchokas Meras. From the author's Geltonas lopas (Vilnius, 1960).