LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 59, No.1 - Spring 2013
Editor of this issue: Jurgita Staniðkytë
Uncle is Here
Mama beckons me over with her finger. She tells me to run behind the barn and chase the young calves out towards the edge of the forest. We have to hide the sick ones because Uncle Augustas is coming. We could see his two-wheeled carriage from a distance, traveling on the road that leads to our house. Then we could see him stopping and talking with Father, who had been out plowing the fields.
“Uncle is coming!” my brother Juozas shouts, racing across the yard. He is not old enough for pants yet, and so his skinny legs poke out from beneath a yolk-colored shirt.
“Uncle is here! Uncle Augustas is here!” my sister Paulina babbles to my mother and rushes into the sitting room to put on her good scarf, the one Uncle Augustas gave her as a gift.
Mama is starting up the water heater. She tells me to blow on the fire. I put Father’s boot into the opening of the heater and pump it. Ashes fall through the grate, but the embers don’t flare up. Then I lean over the heater and I blow into it diligently, because Uncle Augustas likes to drink tea, and he always gives me a lump of sugar when he does.
Somebody gives me a playful slap on my backside. It’s Uncle Augustas, standing in the doorway. He tells me I ought to mend my pants. I’m embarrassed. Mama scolds me. She explains to him that I am completely wild and climb trees all day long and cannot sit still for a minute.
My Uncle’s wholesome face shines like a full moon. His head is bald like the moon too. He looks just like he did last year and the year before that. Only his beard is tangled about his ears, wild and yellow.
Often I think to myself: When I grow up, for sure I will have a beard just like Uncle’s. I will twist my beard around my ears, and in the winter I will pull the icicles off of it, just like Uncle and Father.
Mama, who is Uncle’s younger sister, leads Uncle into the sitting room, but he is not interested in sitting. He is more interested in taking a look at how the hops he brought from the Podþialaukës manor are doing and seeing how the big, yellow apples are growing.
But before he does that, he must sit down on the round chair in the center of our house and ask the three of us, Juozas, Paulina, and me, to dance a few steps for him. Then comes the good part: Uncle will play a game called “rubbing our ears.” We all close our eyes, and he uses both his palms to rub the ears of one of us. The other two have to guess whose. The winner gets a candy.
Then Mama asks Uncle to stop fooling around with us and tells us to find something to do. That’s once the kettle is already boiling, and she is rummaging around in the cupboard that stands in the sitting room. We can hear how she cracks a lump of sugar with a hammer. That’s when the three of us leave Uncle and jump down, looking for bits of sugar that have fallen onto the floor. Meanwhile, Uncle watches us through the open door and says:
“What kind of rascals are you? After you gulped down my sweets you left me and went looking for more.”
But the pieces of sugar are already on the table and the big chunk of sugar is safely back in its place in the cupboard. That means now the tea is coming. The three of us argue over our place at the table.
Then we hear Mama in the hallway. She is scolding the cat. It is an accident that has happened before. Our cat, while rubbing himself up against the warm kettle, managed to move the handle and most of the hot water drained away. Uncle laughs. We see the thin end of his tongue poking out between his perfect white teeth. It is my job to chase the cat out into the yard with a switch and to teach him that it is not nice to waste all that hot water, just as Uncle Augustas is about to sit down to his tea, just after the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, when John the Baptist poured water over Jesus’s bowed head in the river Jordan.
Mama pours what is left of the hot water and begs Uncle Augustas to sit down at the table, saying that he is probably tired and must quit playing with us kids because there will never be an end to our antics. But Uncle calls the three of us to the round chair where he is sitting and has a new game for us. Now we have to guess why he has come to visit us. The one who guesses right gets two pieces of candy.
Juozas, the youngest, blurts out the answer immediately. Paulina and I stay quiet on purpose. We know the answer already because we had been hearing the talk for a long time – Uncle will come, and there will be one spoonful less at our table.
“I see, Juozas,” Uncle says, “did someone tell you?”
Mama hears it and stops him.
“It’s alright, Juozas, you don’t need to say anything more,” Uncle says.
But our little Juozas just won’t stop talking.
“Mama says that Uncle is going to take one of us so that the other two have more food at the table. Then we can eat and eat…”
That’s when Mama interrupts and tells him to go to Mrs. Petrienë to borrow two glasses, because Uncle likes to drink his tea from a glass.
Father comes back home from the fields. He leaves his muddy clogs at the door and leads Uncle Augustas into the sitting room.
Uncle takes off his jacket, places a napkin under his chin, and combs his beard.
The three of us stand at the other end of the table, while Mama spreads butter on three slices of bread. Then she hands us the bread and sends us out to play. We are already rushing out the door when Uncle stops us.
“You children still have not guessed why I have come?” he asks. 69
“For the feast day,” Mama says quickly.
“To see our calves,” I say, although I already know that this year it is my turn to go with Uncle.
“You didn’t guess right,” he says. “You are coming with me to go haying in the fields of Karaliskiai manor. What do you have to say about that?”
“Will we be leaving soon, Uncle?” I ask. “I’ve already cleaned my clogs the day before yesterday.”
“Child, go kiss his hand and stop bragging about your footwear,” Mama says.
But Uncle holds back his hand.
“There is no need to kiss my hand; I am not a priest, nor a deacon.” Uncle says. He slurps his tea from his saucer, holding it up to cool before his beard.
The three of us hurry out into the yard and climb up on the drooping hackberry tree limb that has been rubbed smooth by cows’ necks and our bellies. I tell the others about how Uncle and I together will bring in the horses in the evenings. How in the evenings we will drink sour milk with potatoes and treat ourselves to bread and butter. I tell them about how, when I grow up, I will also balance a saucer of tea on three fingers and sip it through my thick beard.
I grow tired of crawling on the branch and run to the orchard, our orchard with the five apple trees. I do a somersault. Then I show off my best trick—I stand on my head with my feet in the air. I can’t stand like that for long though. Paulina starts shouting. She is terrified that my shoulders will fall down over my head. Those girls are such cowards. They always get in the way.
The sun is already on Mainelis’s lindens on the shores of the lake. We can hear the shepherd’s pipe of Tarulis’s son, Antanukas, near the garden. I hear the bucket being lowered into the well to fetch water to cook dinner in Petras’s yard.
“You will have a good time,” Paulina says. She knows, because she spent last summer there. While she was there, Auntie gave her a gift of thick woolen socks and let her eat as many cucumbers from the garden as she liked.
Paulina begins to cry. With her, tears are never far from her eyelashes. I give her my hand and say:
“You shouldn’t cry, it isn’t right; you have the socks, and you had the cucumbers, as many as you wanted.”
“I’m telling you, you’ve got to catch me a live weasel,” Juozas says. He had heard that Uncle’s barn was full of weasels.
“Children! Where are you? Uncle is leaving!” we hear Mama’s voice.
“Uncle is leaving!”
“Uncle is leaving!” we shout as we run back to the house.
From Naktys Karaliðkiuose (Nights in Karaliðkiai)
Algirdas Landsbergis on Liudas Dovydënas
Dovydënas came early to the attention of Lithuanian critics and the reading public with his 1931 collection of stories, Cenzûros leista (Passed by the Censor). He established himself as one of the leading writers of his country upon the publication of his novel Broliai Domeikos (The Brothers Domeika), winner of the Lithuanian State Literary Award in 1936.
Dovydënas’s thriving literary career was interrupted by the Soviet invasion and occupation of Lithuania in 1940. He was picked by the authorities against his will as one of the deputies to the so-called People’s Diet, a Soviet artifact established with the sole purpose of giving the official seal of approval to Moscow’s absorption of an independent Baltic country. Yet this experience – culminating in the Diet’s “vote” under armed guard – provided Dovydënas with the unique opportunity of recording from the inside a dramatic episode of history and a classic case of Soviet duplicity, similar in many ways to the Soviet rape of Czechoslovakia in 1968. His memoir of those fateful days, We Will Conquer the World, was first published in 1943 and has been translated into English.
Active in the Lithuanian underground against the Bolsheviks and, later on, against the Nazis, Dovydënas and his family joined Europe’s millions of displaced persons at the end of the war. After several years of waiting in Germany’s refugee camps, they finally arrived in the United States in 1949 and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
During his time in America, Dovydënas served as President of the Lithuanian Cultural Council Fund, editor of the cultural monthly Nemunas, and a moving spirit of many similar undertakings. Although he earned his living raising laboratory animals, he remained a writer first and foremost, in heart and in deed. He and his wife, Elena, returned to Lithuania in 1998, where he died on the Fourth of July, 2000. Eight volumes of his collected works have been published in Lithuania.
The range of Liudas Dovydënas’s writing is as richly varied as his life experiences. Both satirical and compassionate in his early short stories, a realist in his novels, he is a brilliant storyteller, with a rich vocabulary and an inexhaustible vein of humor. His numerous books for children are distinguished for their warm humanism, telling details, and sweeping imagination. His writings are known far beyond Lithuania’s boundaries and have appeared in English, Russian, Finnish, Latvian, Estonian, and other languages. He has yet to be discovered by the American reader.
This text was written for Liudas Dovydënas by Algirdas Landsbergis circa 1986 as an introduction to a collection of Dovydënas’s folk tales in translation, which were never published. I have made minor changes, like mentioning that Dovydënas returned to Lithuania and that his collected works have been published.