LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 41, No.2 - Summer 1995
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester
Copyright © 1995 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
LOVE LETTER FROM A LITHUANIAN SANATORIUM
I can stand a poison-green sunset
and the ruined archways of suffering time.
But don't show your nakedness,
clean as black cactus alive in the reeds.
Let me go on fearing dark planets
but don't show me your glistening waist.
Federico Garcia Lorca,
"Gacela of the Terrible Presence,"
Translated by Edwin Honig.
Do you see how mysterious we are? that I have stayed here in Birštonas to teach American English? that you have gone to Chicago to teach Lithuanian? that I write to you in English, imagining that with every English word I make on the page you will go from it to another word with your little dictionary, turning from dictionary to word, word to page to a little matrix of staid meanings? and I? how I will do the same with Dalija Tekorienė's tiny Lithuanian Basic Grammar and Conversation, given to me by Bronius Dobrovolskis in Vilnius, that summer of 1993, summer I taught Frost's "Birches," and you were warm to me and helped me pronounce "beržai?" when you served arbata and tortas to us and brewed your coquettish smile as you poured the dark amber liquid/ turning the kettle spout cup to cup... word to page to dictionary to page to word... Will you smile when you are translating what I have just written, doing just as I have written you would do with your little book?
I am so American. Am I funny? Funny the way the world, words away/ will not mean the way things mean here? But am I so American in exile?
So you and I remain mysterious, the way the Nemunas River moves past the window of my room on Žemaitės gatvė, shearing its banks, cutting them smoothly, a protean water snake, green, blue, brown... black under the cold scattered stars in the autumnal evening. The way English and Lithuania run past my window, in my thoughts, change, one chorus, then the next,
Aš turiu eiti.
I must be going.
I don't understand...
And friends in Birštonas?... I have associates: Frank from Florida who came to Birštonas in late summer to try the mud baths. I took him to the big bath, the one with high stone walls and rooms above with three levels, individual balconies, and balustrades jutting from stone sides/ where the sleepy-footed elite, slippered and tranquil/ pay fifteen litai a day, nothing/ for steam, mud, massages... I took Frank to the big bath, Frank of the Full Red Face and Painted Smile, Frank of the Bottomless Wallet and Full-Lipped Kisses for All, Frank of Florida I took him to the doctor's office at the back of the Great Spa. The doctor stood in the doorjamb, placed a finger on the frame of his glasses, tugged them a little down the bridge of his nose, looked at Frank/ and asked me,
"What's wrong with him?"
I looked at Frank. ("What's wrong with you?" I asked him in English.) He gave me a puzzled look. ("Stress," he said. "I'm stressed.")
"Stress," I told the doctor in Lithuanian.
"Stress?" he grunted.
The doctor shook his head and started to close the door. Frank fluttered a twenty-dollar bill at the doctor. The doctor paused a moment. A side of his face and eye showed in the space between the edge of the door and frame.
The door closed.
So how could you have asked me,
"Do you have friends?"
"Americans? Friends? Like Frank?"
I want to know.
And before that question? how could you have known to ask that other question, your coquetry being profound and mysterious, incomprehensible, even to you?
"Are you an atheist?"
I want to know.
How could you have conceived of this question, asked about so profoundly a mystery of faith and pre-sent it as something ordinary and uncomplicated?... The Russian soldiers, you said, had the red eyes of animals when they drove their tanks into the square of the Television Tower in Vilnius; they were drugged with ghosts of machines, broke the living bones of patriots under flat ribbons of unfeeling steel and you ask me if I am an atheist? You underestimate the possibilities and spoil the magnificent demons of our natures by your snobbish saintliness.
Or do you know more than you say? Are there meanings your words disguise?
It is simple enough to be a demon, to make a home among the abandoned spider webs that span my wash tub here in the ruins of a sanatorium, where ravens waddle among the wild dill weed, a place that once served the wealthy Soviet oppressors, that now in its beautifully ruined state serves only a few Poles from Gdansk and one demon, such as me, who attempts to make a new home in a house no longer haunted by anyone? How can I enjoy my faithlessness when I have forgotten what faith really means that once faith was a single word in a song, sung on ancient evenings near vibrant flames by people who feared its antithesis? It's solitary antithesis?
Faith and faithlessness do you see that today it is not so easy to separate or combine these traits? No holiness is a thing of toil and blood and cannot be hung delicately around the shoulders like a shawl made of lamb's wool... We have proven this ourselves the day we left the others at the cafeteria on Tulpių gatvė and sat to have coffee on Nemuno, and you said, touching a finger to your ear,
"I would like some chocolate."
And I said I needed to find a coca cola or I would lose my mind, so you led me to a kavinė on Gagarino gatvė with white tables and yellow umbrellas above them flapping in the breeze and bright sun, and I heard you ask the waiter to open the kavinė just for us. He brought my coca cola, your chocolate. And you watched me tip the bottle of dark/ effervescent fluid to my lips, wondering, I know, what it tasted like.
But you said instead,
"The Russians are gone now."
And you turned your eyes to the blinding white top of the table/ so all I could see was the vague part in your short black hair, like the crease made by the back-bone of a raven, your hair running to each side of your head, two black wings. You held your hands in your lap under the table as though in silent prayer.
I believe you hoped I wouldn't say anything, hoped that what you had said, your pure and simple expression in English would be the last words between us/ because I knew you wanted to go; you wanted to go to Chicago, knew you would leave me here in Birštonas among the decrepit remnants of Russian rule, of American blindness and ignorance; but no I could not let you leave me with your last words,
"It's all over now," I said/ not believing now that I could have said such a patronizing thing. And I added, "But it's confusing."
And you were silent. I thought you may not understand me, so I hastily persisted,
"Do you understand?"
But you did understand, yet you remained silent, so I went on/
"You are a warm, wonderful person... How could it have happened? How could the Russians have done this? How can people do this to one another?"
I wanted to forget the raven's wings, remember in-stead the pale moon/ make the night march in so your moon would shine out, cold/ distant/ but full in my eyes.
"You seem to want to know," you replied. "All right Americans are naive. Foolish. Like clowns. You come into the circus ring awhile you make us smile then you run off."
Do you remember what I said to the raven? Do you remember how I wouldn't let the raven have the last word ? I said,
"I am stupid for saying that."
I smiled with my painted American smile, a moment believed my words, a lapse of heart, egoistic belief in my own humanity, that I had actually meant it. Can you forgive me? Can you? You see/ I haven't run off. I've remained here in my Birštonas sanatorium, far from everything/ among the kitchen gardens, beside the lumbering Nemunas, and pines who whisper down from their quaking tops,
Have you ever in your travels seen such inconsolable beauty? Where can you go now?
Hurt spreads like a web of lines on a map without names. Don't you see? Frank, me/ the doctor at the mud baths, the pines, the Nemunas we are beautiful in our state of hurting we are inconsolable. But you, in Chicago? Will it be enough? Will you find among the malls and skyscrapers the cement ring of life in the plazas and on the street stuffed with pedestrians will you find what you need?... A purity of sophistication?
You are in Chicago, but all I can remember of you is your dilettantism, your charm which is touching and the part of you that still communicates to me here in the abyss/ only a few feet away, here where I walk long and long by the Nemunas nightly, where jagged lines of pines tear the purple edges of evening into night, here, where I come to a precipice whose lip trembles, begins to crumble at my feet, running to the river's edge in a little pile of gravel and stones, and I slide over the edge, and sit below that ruined lip while geese laugh overhead; I look up, but not to the Nemunas which runs silently to the sea, not to the hungry pines, or the mocking geese but to you, to find you, you who have gone away to Chicago/ who move with light somnambulescent ease on the edge of the precipice that I once avoided with fear and trembling, you, who may actually pretend you are slipping over the edge, one foot sliding, then the other/ closer to the edge, to me...
So we have traded places, you and me. Don't you see how mysterious we are? Isn't it funny? you, so unreasonably faithful living the land of the faithless? me, so reasonably faithless living in a land of faith? and we say the suffering's over, all over, the Russians are gone and it's all over.
It is not over.
The Russians are gone, but now I have come to sulk in my Birštonas sanatorium, my pit.
Do you see my nails?
They are caked with dirt from clawing at the sides of the pit/ denying the sleep I might find in the dark waters of the Nemunas, denying that the gravel continues to shift underfoot, longing for the place from which I have fallen, clawing, ignorant that I have fallen too far to scrape my way back up.
The suffering must stop.
But this treatment is not working.
I can stand the terrible presence of the American crush, the maddening noise of the cities/ the poisoned air/ the irresolvable ache of faith and faithlessness/ the darkness of my American soul in your Lithuanian wood/ but never, nay, never that you should slip and tumble once again from half a hemisphere away/ across the blameless oceans of the world/ down from the noon sky/ a drenched and feeble moon I see at the mid-point of my dreary day, falling, back to your Lithuanian homeland only to die/ word by word, in my waiting American arms.
We have proven this ourselves the day we left the others at the cafeteria on Tulpių. Your raven's back was gone, and in its place the full face of a pale moon in the noonday light, trembling to bear its own invisibility... and you were no longer praying in your lap.
I said: "I am stupid for saying that."
Do you remember how I said this? Leaning for-ward, touching your wrist?
You said: "No, I am the one who is stupid."
Do you remember how you said this? Drawing your wrist away from me and making the raven's wings return?