LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 28, No. 4 - Winter 1982
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys, Yale University
Copyright © 1982 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
SEARCHING FOR A WIFE
It was early in the morning in 1938 when Augustas turned his car from the smooth highway into a narrow, bumpy rural road. Two more kilometers to go to his father's farmstead which he had left thirty years ago with a broken heart. The young woman he had fallen in love with had given him the cold shoulder. For a while Zose seemed to enjoy his company: she went to the village dances with him, let him kiss her good-night after he took her home. But when he reached the point that his life became unbearable without her and Augustas asked her to marry him, her answer was no. Of course, Zose did not reject him outright. First, she blushed and lowered her eyes, then she rolled her flaxen hair around her finger, and only then she said she needed more time to think it over.
Her answer came in writing. Zose said she was sorry that he mistakenly took her friendship for love. She had never been in love with him and, of course, marriage between him and her was out of the question. She wished him better luck with some other girl.
Augustas tore her letter to pieces and threw it away. He felt so downgraded and humiliated that he thought the whole world was turning against him. The same summer he said goodbye to his parents and his brother and emigrated to America. He worked hard in a Pennsylvania coal mine, met the daughter of another immigrant, married her, and did all he could to forget the girl who had rejected him.
Augustas stopped his car on the roadside and looked around. His heart began to throb with joyful excitement. The little houses scattered all over the plain looked shabby and old. Only the birch trees along the road were young; somebody must have planted them while he was away. He heard the roosters crow — how many years had he lived without hearing their kakerekoos? The rising sun spilled its rays all over the land, and Augustas suddenly felt like a little boy going to church to serve mass as an altar boy. He heaved a deep sigh of sorrow for the days passed, went back to his car, and drove ahead.
A tall young woman came out of the house the moment he passed the gate. She was barefoot, wearing a white apron on a green skirt hardly covering her knees, and a white blouse; her flaxen hair was braided into a long pigtail.
"You must be Brone, my brother's wife," he said.
"Yes. And you must be Augustas, my husband's brother."
She stretched out her arms and rushed to embrace him. They hugged and kissed repeatedly.
"Where is Pranas?" Augustas asked.
"He's not at home yet," the woman said. "I'll tell you all about him when we go inside."
He collected his gifts and followed his sister-in-law into the house, which had been renovated somewhat, yet still had enough left over from the old days.
"My husband is in the hospital," she said.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Nobody seems to know for sure. It's something with his heart and liver."
"Is it very serious?"
"Doctors say yes one day and no the next. Perhaps they'll tell you more about Pranas' illness when we go to visit him."
"Yes, I'll press them for the truth," Augustas said. "When shall we go?"
"The visiting hours are from ten to twelve and from three to five. But let's have something to eat first. You must be hungry."
"Not really, but I'll drink a cup of coffee or tea — whatever you have on hand — and I'll have a piece of bread with a slice of cheese."
"Aren't you going to eat my pancakes? Pranas told me how much you used to enjoy them. I'll make them just the way your mamma used to."
Brone's pancakes were as tasty as his late mother's. He did not remember when he ate his breakfast so well. She also insisted that he try her homemade raspberry wine.
"You're a marvelous cook and a very good wine maker," Augustas said after he finished his meal. "I envy my brother for having such a gifted wife."
"I understand that your late wife was also very good," said Brone.
"She was," murmured Augustas.
There was a momentary silence, then Augustas raised his head and said,
"Let's see now what I brought for both of you." He picked up two large packages and placed them on a bench. One was for Brone, the other for her husband.
Augustas watched the anxiety with which Brone's fingers untied the string, unwrapped the paper and opened the box. Blushing and gasping ah and oh and how beautiful she took one garment after the other and placed them on top of her bridal chest, which had been hand carved by her uncle as her wedding gift. It was a genuine masterpiece of folk art. Augustas brought her a dress, a skirt, two blouses, two slips, a dozen pairs of stockings, a scarf and a handful of white, pink and black panties which she put away with a sudden blush on her cheeks. There were also two pairs of shoes, one with high heels for festive occasions and the other for everyday wear. But on top of all this was a black fur coat.
"Oh Augustas!" Brone cried out putting the coat around her shoulders. She did not know what it was made from, she only felt that this was the most expensive, the most beautiful gift she had ever received. She practically hung herself on Augustas' neck, kissing his lips and eyes and face, then she sat beside him and cried. These were the tears of joy and excitement and he let her cry as long as she wanted. When she finally stopped crying and dried her tears, Augustas suggested that she try her clothes on.
"In case something does not fit you, I'll exchange it for the ones that are right for you," he explained.
First Brone put on her stockings and shoes. They fit her fine. Then she put on a slip and a dress, and slipped her feet into another pair of shoes. At the very end, she put on her fur coat and wound a scarf around her head.
"You look every inch a beauty," Augustas said as she proudly stood before him.
"Even a scarecrow would look beautiful in these clothes," Brone laughed.
"I suggest that we keep your husband's box unopened and wait until he comes back from the hospital and opens it himself."
Even though Brone was anxious to see what her brother-in-law had brought for Pranas, she agreed to wait until he came back home. Brone put the box in her bridal chest, hung her own presents in a closet, and returned to her guest.
"Why didn't you remarry?" she asked. "Isn't it awfully hard for a man your age to live alone?"
"Well, I'll tell you a secret. When I decided to come here I wanted to see you and Pranas first, then I thought I'd try my luck in search of a new wife. Perhaps this time I'll find a girl who'll be willing to marry me and go with me to America."
"There are plenty of girls around, young and grown, who would be more than glad to marry you, Augustas. I'll find one for you in no time, don't worry."
"If 1 could find a woman like you, I'd marry her on the spot."
"You've met me only a little while ago, what do you know about me?"
"I know a precious fruit when 1 see one. I bet you're as fine in the kitchen as you are in bed, as the old saying goes."
Brone smiled and cited another folk saying: "Don't praise the day before the night and the woman before the morning."
They both laughed.
At noon they set out for the hospital.
The meeting with his brother was less enthusiastic. Pranas' face looked yellow, his sunken eyes sparkled with fever. He shook hands with Augustas and asked how his trip was. When his wife began to talk about the gifts Augustas had brought for her and for him, she noticed a slight irritation come into his eyes. Only when she mentioned Augustas had come to look for a new wife and that she had promised to find one for him soon did Pranas' face light up. A sudden tension of mounting jealousy seemed to vanish and the two men began to chat like brothers. Later Augustas went to talk to Pranas' doctor.
"It's quite serious," the doctor said. "His heart is not very strong, we have some difficulties in lowering his blood pressure, and he has a bleeding ulcer. However, with a bit of good luck and the facilities of modern medicine, he may be able to live for years."
When Brone and Augustas came back to the car, he wondered whether his sister-in-law knew what a grave state her husband really was in.
Most of the time they were silent, except for their brief remarks about the birch trees lining the road and about a bird that was jumping from one branch to another which flew away when their car came closer. At long last Brone broke the silence.
"So you see, Augustas, my life is not filled with roses."
"Has Pranas been ill for a long time?"
"For more than a year now. Sometimes he felt better and even did some work around the house, then he relapsed and had to stay in bed. This year he seemed to be at his worst, that's why I had to bring him to the hospital."
"You never mentioned his illness in your letters."
"I didn't want to upset you. After all, what can you do
that the doctors can't."
At home, Augustas said: "I think you better unpack his things before they become terribly wrinkled."
Pranas' package was filled with clothes and shoes and shirts and ties. Augustas wanted to dress him as well as he had dressed Brone.
"I wonder whether he'll be able to wear them," she said in a low voice as she put his garments beside hers in the closet. Then she went to take care of her two cows, horse, several sheep, and two pigs. Augustas wanted to help her but she would not even listen to his offer. Guests came here to enjoy themselves, not to put their feet and hands into the mud of everyday.
In the evening, when her chores were done, Brone wanted to know about his life in America. They were sitting on a bench before the kletis.
Leaning against a wall, Augustas told her about his work in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. After he had saved some money he went to school, and finally he opened his own shop for men's clothing. He had to take a partner because he did not have enough money of his own. After several years, he split with his partner and worked as a fitter in a very good company.
"Those coal mines, weren't they frightful to work in?" she asked.
"It was frightening," he admitted. "Once you were in the pit you did not know whether you'd come out of it alive."
Brone shivered and placed her palm on his hand.
"That's why I quit mining so early. I said to myself, 'The hell with it,' and I went to school to learn English and my trade."
"Do you like your present work?" she asked.
"Yes, I do. And after I return to America, 1 shall go back to it."
When it became dark, they went into the house. Brone led him to the room where his mother used to put her guests overnight. He recognized the walls and the windows. Only the pillows and the bed cover were new; most likely they were creations of Brone's gifted hands.
"Have a good night," she said and left Augustas alone.
Saturday afternoon, Brone brought into the house a young woman, five or six years younger than herself. She was heavier than Brone, but had a nice face; her eyes and hair were black, and she giggled at everything he or his sister-in-law said. She stayed with them until it became dark, then Brone suggested that Augustas take her home. When they were away from his brother's farm, the young woman kissed him and pressed herself against him so close that he could not help but kiss her back.
"How long will you stay here?" she asked.
"A month or two. It depends," he said.
"It depends on how fast you get yourself a new wife, right?"
Augustas nodded. They walked for a while in silence. Then the young woman asked him again:
"Is it true that once upon a time you wanted to marry my mother?"
Augustas was startled.
"My sister-in-law didn't tell me that you were Zose's daughter. How is your mother?"
"She's all right." After a pause, the young woman added, "Mother must feel sorry for what she's done to you."
"Did she tell you that I proposed to her and she rejected me?"
"Yes, every time she had a quarrel with Father she used to brag about you. She said she could have married an American anytime she wanted to." The young woman giggled and was about to hold him by the elbow but Augustas drew away from her.
"Would you like to come and say hello to her? There is our farmstead, you see?" She pointed to a large house about ten minutes walk from where Augustas and Zose's daughter stood.
"It's too late now," he murmured, "perhaps some other time."
He shook hands with her and went back to his brother's house. "It looks like we're going to have some rain," he heard Brone's voice as he closed the gate. She was sitting on a stump with a cat on her lap.
"You didn't tell me that the young woman was Zose's daughter," Augustas said.
"I thought I'd surprise you. She's pretty, isn't she?"
"Yes, but not for me. She giggles too much and seems to be too eager to hang onto somebody's neck. I wouldn't marry her even if she had a million dollars."
"I didn't know you were so hard to please," Brone said. "But don't worry, I'll find you a girl who is more serious and even more beautiful."
"I don't care much about beauty. Beauty is here today, gone tomorrow. I'd like to get myself a woman with longer lasting qualities. You know what I mean. Like you, for instance: a good cook, clean, honest, hard-working, patient. It's a pity that my brother is not as well as he should be. I know how hard it is for both of you."
Brone heaved a deep sigh. "There are moments," she said, "that I could howl like a wolf in winter. My God, what have we done that You punish us so severely?" She suddenly pressed her head against Augustas' shoulder and burst into tears.
"Don't cry, my little girl," he said, stroking her hair.
"I can't help it. I feel so lonely and lost."
"You're not alone, Bronyte. You have me. And despite what the doctors say, I still believe that Pranas will get well soon. I know he will."
"I wish that your words would reach God's ear."
"They will, everything will be all right. Remember, I am alone, too."
"It's easier for you. You'll get married and go back to America while I'll have to stay here, half alive and half dead."
"I won't marry and leave you before my brother gets better."
Augustas could hardly believe his own words. There was something inside him that made him say this.
"You can't remain single for my sake," protested Brone. "You suffered enough when you lost your wife. It's about time that you get some joy from life. I'll see to it that you meet a fine woman, marry her, and live happily ever after."
Her lips were trembling as she held back her tears.
"No matter what you say, I won't leave you alone."
"Do you mean it?" Brone raised her eyes and looked at him. "Can you really stay with me as long as Pranas is ill?"
"Yes, my little girl, yes."
"Oh Augustas, my dear darling Augustas!" Brone cried out and kissed his lips fervently. "God Himself has sent you to me."
They were silent, stroking their faces and kissing each other until a sudden passion began to carry them away like a huge sea wave. There was no strength left in their limbs that they could use to withstand the crashing might of desire. To her, Augustas was the only source from which she could get enough strength to go on living; to him, Brone was the incarnation of that gentleness and beauty for which his heart had been longing for such a very long time . . .
Brone felt no regret for what had taken place between herself and her brother-in-law that night. Her only worry was how Augustas would take it when he awakened. She went to the stable, milked her cows and took them to the narrow slope behind the orchard where the grass was thick and green. Then she put some hay and oats out for the horse and scattered several handfuls of grain for her chickens. Back in the kitchen, Brone began to mix the batter for the pancakes. Soon Augustas came in. He was already shaven and she could smell his hair lotion.
"Breakfast is almost ready," she said.
But Augustas did not sit down at the table. He stood before her and said in a low voice,
"I'm sorry. It's all my fault."
"Sorry for what?" Brone's face suddenly reddened with anger. "For giving me a moment of joy that any other married woman takes for granted?"
"I ... I thought you'd be angry with me," he murmured.
"Why should I be angry at you, Augustas? Are you angry at me?"
"Nooo," he admitted after a few seconds of hesitation.
"Then let's not talk about it. What's done is done. Hey, these look really good." She put the pancakes into a plate and poured some more batter on the frying pan. "Eat them while they're still hot."
"I won't eat alone," Augustas said.
"I'll be with you in a minute." After she scooped up the second set of pancakes, Brone opened a bottle of wine and filled two glasses.
"This one is made from cherries," she explained.
"Perhaps we should save it for the evening?"
"I'll have enough for all the evenings to come," assured Brone.
They ate in relaxed silence. The wine Augustas tasted now was even better than the one he drank when he had met Brone for the first time.
"Put on your new dress," he said when the time came for another visit to the hospital.
"Do you think I should?" asked Brone.
"Sure, why not? Let everybody see how beautiful you are."
"I don't think anybody cares how I look. I'll put it on for you, if you want me to."
"Yes, I want it very much."
Augustas watched her as she pulled off her house dress, put on a new slip, changed her old panties for new ones, and stepped into her American dress. He helped her with the back zipper. They kissed, walked to his car, and rode to the hospital.
Pranas was not in his room.
"He had a stroke last night," the nurse explained. "He's in a special care unit now. The doctor on duty may let you visit him for a few minutes. But don't worry, his heart seemed to function all right and the special devices help him stay alive quite satisfactorily."
Augustas and Brone rushed to see Pranas' doctor.
"We don't know yet how much his brain is damaged," the doctor said. "All I can say is that he's getting all possible medical help."
"Will he be all right, Doctor?" both Augustas and Brone asked.
"It's all in God's hands now." The doctor put his arm on Brone's shoulder. "Let's hope for the best."
They were allowed to have a brief look at Pranas. It was a frightening sight, with all the tubes and wires inserted in his body and a special mask covering his face. Brone suddenly became white and collapsed at the door. The nurse rushed in with a pill and a glass of water. After she swallowed it Augustas and the nurse carried her to a chair. After a while Brone felt better.
"I'll take you home now," Augustas said. "Next time I'll come alone."
Two weeks passed by but there was no improvement in Pranas' condition.
One day they were confronted by two doctors with grave faces.
"Your husband has been clinically dead for more than twelve hours," one of them said to Brone. "The signs of life are sustained by the artificial devices only. It's up to you now to order these devices to be removed and let the man rest in peace."
"Is there any hope that he may ever recover?" asked Brone through tears.
"I'm afraid none," replied the doctor. "Unless a miracle occurs. So far this hospital has not witnessed a miracle during its seventy years of existence."
Brone looked at Augustas in a silent cry for help. Augustas looked back at her and pressed her hand. There was nothing he could do or say. She then turned her eyes to the doctor and whispered,
"Let him rest in peace if such is God's will."
She crossed herself, said a silent prayer, leaned over Augustas' shoulder, and walked out of the hospital to arrange the funeral.
Augustas met Zose at the cemetery. Before him stood an old, frail woman with a wrinkled face, gray-haired head, a thin neck and a flat chest. Her bluish eyes were misty and tired.
"It's terrible that a man as young as your brother should die," she said in a squeaking voice.
"Everything seems to be dying around here," murmured Augustas.
"Have you already found a girl for yourself?" asked Zose's daughter, who approached the moment she noticed that he and her mother were having a conversation. "Mamma, you wouldn't mind becoming his wife now, would you?" The young woman smiled quite shamelessly as she looked at him, then at her mother, and giggled.
"Shut up," said Zose. "What kind of talk is this at a funeral?"
Then she looked at Augustas. "You've been here for quite a while and never came to see me and my daughter."
"I was too preoccupied with my brother's illness," said Augustas.
"Please come soon," Zose said. She tried to catch Augustas' eyes but he looked away from her.
"Yes, come and see me soon," Zose's daughter whispered.
Augustas pretended not to hear her. He bowed his head and walked over to the other mourners.
After she buried her husband, Brone returned to her everyday chores, and Augustas helped her. When the days were over, they sat before the burning fire but they never kissed again. The memory of the dead man stood between them, and Brone soon began to blame herself for Pranas' death. If they had not cheated him that night, perhaps Pranas would not have had a stroke and still would be alive. The feeling of guilt became so unbearable for her that she finally decided to go and confess her sin to the old priest whom she had known since she was a little girl.
Haltingly, Brone told the confessor all about her frustrations, about her husband's long illness, and about the night when she had lost her head.
"I know God punished me for my sins by taking away my husband," she muttered, and tears began to fill her eyes.
There was a long silence after she had finished her confession. Then the priest leaned toward her ear.
"My child, it was bad that you didn't resist the devil's temptation," he said. "But the fact that you were tormented by your guilt shows that you are a good Christian who is willing to repent. Now listen to me carefully, my child. Your beloved husband did not have a stroke and die because one night you had slipped off the righteous road. Remember, even the angels fell once. So don't kill yourself by grieving day and night and accusing yourself. You've suffered long enough already and God has forgiven you because He loves you. So kneel before His cross, my child, say the Lord's Prayer, receive Holy Communion, and go home in peace. Start living again. After all, you're still a young woman and God is waiting for you to fulfill His will on earth."
He turned away from her, said a silent prayer, and gave her his absolution.
Brone did what the old priest had told her to do, and for the first time since her husband's death she could breathe at ease.
Brone knew that confessions had to be kept secret, yet she could not help but reveal to Augustas what the old servant of God had told her, for she could see that he was tormented by the feeling of guilt just as she had been.
"I think your confessor is a very wise man," he said after he listened to Brone's words. "My brother was gravely ill before we had met, remember? And most likely he had a stroke even before we had embraced each other."
They ate and drank her raspberry wine that evening, and both of them felt as if a heavy stone had been rolled off their chests.
"Tomorrow," Brone said, "I'll introduce you to one of the finest girls in the village. I know you'll like her."
"Tomorrow? Why not tonight?"
"Tonight? Don't you think it's a bit too late?"
"No, I don't think it's too late. I think it's the right time for me to talk to one of the finest girls I know."
Augustas gripped Brone's shoulders and stared into her eyes. "I'm not going to look for any other girl in the village," he said. "I've already found one. Now put on that satin gown of yours and let's go to bed."
She pulled off her dress and shoes and stockings, put on her new gown, took his hand and switched off the light.
"Where would you choose to live, here or in America?" Augustas asked.
"Any place you like," Brone replied.