LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2014 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 60, No.3 - Fall 2014
Editor of this issue: Daiva Litvinskaitė
Autumn Comes Through the Woods
This extract is the first English translation from his best-known work, Miškais atėjo ruduo
MARIUS KATILIŠKIS (Albinas Marius Vaitkus, 19151980), over the course of his life, worked on the farm, logged in the forests, built roads, was a librarian in the town of Pasvalys and, after World War II, labored in the steel mills of Chicago. And he wrote. He published his first collection of short stories after emigrating to Germany. His novels Užuovėja, Išėjusiems negrįžti, and other notable works came out in the U.S. An unfinished novel, Pirmadienis Emeraldo gatvėje, was published posthumously.
The road and the wooden bridge that crossed the stream were still a novelty in these parts. The road cut such a sharp and straight notch through the boggy woods, as if a taut rope had been used to plot its course, that on a clear day you could see the blades of a windmill set on a hilltop in the next county some six or seven kilometers away. The bridge was hewn and built from the very woods in which it stood. Sap continued to ooze from its timbers, floorboards, and guardrails.
The master builders who constructed
the bridge were outsiders and came with a boss whose beard was so full
and long that he cinched it with his belt. The road work was done by
the farmers themselves. No matter that their elders had summoned them
for labor that would benefit them collectively, they cursed as hardily
as the bearded fellows as they cut the trees and lay them down side by
side. Not just across the width of the road, but an additional few
meters for the shoulders, sinking the timber into the underlying base.
Afterwards they brought in clay, coarse gravel, rocks, whatever they
could find in the nearby hills. And yet, for a long time to come, the
road still swayed and shook whenever a heavier load drove over it. The
porous earth's hunger was not so easily assuaged.
The forest ranger's homestead was also a new phenomenon. It was rebuilt soon after the road and the bridge appeared, so that very little remained of the former property with its spacious structures, except for a few aged trees that grew in the yard and around the perimeter. What had not changed and what was the oldest relic was the linden tree. It spread so wide and its branches were so dense that you couldn't see the sky from below, and not a drop of rain could penetrate from above. An overgrown and deeply rutted trail intersected the road right next to the linden. It marked the crossroads. In the green canopy of its branches hung a weathered wooden shrine with figures of saints. Hiding higher still was a hive much like those made of hollowed-out trees that was there to attract the bees during the honey season, when their swarms rolled, as though balls of fire, along the edges of the forest. The voices of mounted chasers seldom reached it. The bees were more successful in getting through the bogs and reaching the edge of the swamp than were the riders, with their brooms and cowbells, who quickly got lost. The swarms, just as all of the bountiful gifts of the forest, were harvested and tended by the old ranger, the father of the current holder of the post. He couldn't tell you how many hives he had in tree trunks. And the honey he took to town before Christmas was not in basswood kegs lined up in rows two by two. Even though the hive in the linden tree had been carefully smeared with a mixture of boiled honey, raspberries, and swampland herbs, the bees were just as partial to the shrine of saints. No matter how gently he swept his little bees into his net, old Baikštys had broken off more than a few wooden noses, shriveled hands, or pointed swords going through a saint's heart. As was proper for a decent beekeeper, he chanted sacred hymns and litanies as he worked, which filled his heart to overflowing and gave him a sour throat. To find relief, he would rush off into the woods to shout curses at the women who picked berries there.
A year or two after the government began to redistribute the holdings of the landed estates, some surveyors came bumping down the pocked footpath that ran through the woods and stopped at the ranger's homestead. They spread their papers across the table, marked them up, and asked that he come along to show them the forest boundaries. Baikštys, once it dawned on him that they were not there to buy honey, that they did not bring baskets for mushrooms, and, what's more, they did not even ask for a drink for the men in charge, threw them out and let the dogs off their chains. The crew had to drink the dark water of the stream and subsist on wild strawberries and on fish they caught right there, but still they doggedly waded through the fields, pressed through the tangled thickets of willows and hops, slogged through the bogs, dragging a chain and digging boundary mounds. The ranger's homestead, as was required by law, was allotted six hectares of not particularly good land - this was the surveyors' payback for the unfriendly welcome.
Old man Baikštys responded with a torrent of the most vile profanities and, to demonstrate his contempt for the authorities, in full view of the surveyors he pulled down his pants next to a new mound where they had staked a white fir post with the blackened brand of a mounted knight - the official emblem of the government. What does this symbol, this new government have to do with him? Neither Cossacks nor the Black Hundreds had ever touched his blessed corner of the earth, so why now should he give a hoot about some surveyors, some sort of police? Once every year, somehow or other, he made his way to the city, where his eyes could get their fill of all manner of showoffs and characters. Whoever had business with him could find him. He didn't go looking for anybody. He could do without them. And that was the way it was. But to have some uninvited interlopers insinuate themselves into his neck of the woods, no sir. The entire huge open space that was squeezed in the tight grasp of the forest and the swamp, that was watered by the stream and hemmed in by the rippling swampland lake, belonged to him alone. There, like the lichen and the moss, he could live undisturbed. He plowed for as long as he could, mowed hay until he grew weary, and herded his animals wherever he saw fit. He continued to do the same from old habit for quite some time to come after the surveyors had left. Young folks who had been granted parcels from the ranger's holdings only had to look around and then, on top of that, face intimidation from the old man, before they waved off their land with a left-handed sign of the cross. Heaping curses on any and all land commissions and declaring they weren't guilty of patricide that they should be sentenced to hard labor, they took off apprehensively, anxious to make it back out without getting lost.
Regardless, the road was laid and the bridge was built right under the windows of the ranger's place. It was then, too, that they replaced the homestead's buildings, exchanging the largest stables, the estate-size barn, and the sixty-foot-long house for structures that were compact and cozy, as was appropriate for a six-hectare farm. The old man could do nothing about it. His spells no longer worked, his homemade old-fashioned musket no longer scared anyone. He neglected the hives - his little bees had all but perished. Only from time to time, when he could restrain himself no longer, would he go out to quarrel with the berry-picking crones. He saw wagons, loaded with all sorts of household goods, rolling down the dusty road, he saw them stopping by the linden tree and farther on, at nicer spots up on hilltops. Later, he looked on as they constructed houses, built mud-walled stables, nailed boards together for their barns. He watched as the new settlers tore up the uncultivated fields, aiming the plow, as if intentionally, right through the middle of where the threshing barn had once stood.
On the other side of the stream, at the Basiuliškiai farmstead, things were not right, either. Ever since the old Striūnas couple had died, something suspicious had been going on there. Every year some new roof would poke out through the branches, new voices would drift over to the ranger's place. Baikštys was always getting ready to go over there and give those Basiuliškiai people a piece of his mind, but he never got farther than the bridge. Though the biggest change of all came with the store sign that was hung by the entrance to one of the nearby houses. Soon afterwards it was followed by a smithy and a creamery. The dairy prospered in the summer and the store in the winter, when the logging work began.
It was then that the county put up a sign that this was now the village of Virsnės, as the old ranger's place had been called.
The plowed mounds of the higher ground had started to stick their dark backs out of the snow. The sharp edges of the drifts crumbled, softened, and the lithe willow branches that had been flattened under their oppressive weight began to free themselves. The snow slipped off the roofs, roaring as it piled into doorways and under windows. The west wind swept over roof ridges, jiggled the loose boards of gables, and rustled through the treetops all night long, as it devoured the snow in insatiable gulps. Murky and dark, swollen with vapor, saturated with the reek of the awakening earth, the gusts pushed the clouds along, shoving them close to the ground, entangling them among the trees, and farther on melding them into a solid wall of mist. Cattle let out into farmyards bellowed restlessly. They rubbed their numb sides and scratched their horns against fences. Dogs bayed, tomcats leapt onto gates to sharpen their claws. And geese bobbed up and down as they gracefully bent their long necks and preened, which was a sure sign that the spring thaw was near.
The runners of the sleds did not glide easily over winter roads sodden with horse manure. First one, then another sled emerged out of the thick woods and, passing the ranger's place, headed toward the house that, beneath its gable, under the dripping eaves, above its front door, prominently displayed a sign: V. GUŽIENĖ. SELLER OF SUNDRY GOODS. Alongside, another board tacked onto the end of the larger one advertised, in different letters and a different hand, that the store also sold liquor.
Just like the sign, the house, too, was of two parts. The addition, stuck on considerably later, was not a match in either style or in materials. It rose up in great haste, as a necessity, just after the sale of liquor was announced. That news was of no import whatsoever to the inhabitants of the forest villages. They themselves were resourceful enough to concoct beverages of a more potent sort. If not beer, then a beet liquid so sweet that you couldn't get anything sweeter if you used pure sugar itself, or they had their own method of processing potatoes, straining out the scummy mash. But the loggers, who earned next to nothing, could not have found a more convenient spot. The wagon drivers were satisfied customers, too, often taking a detour of up to three miles, by the old measure, on their way home. During the winter, the horses gnawed away the garden fence beneath the window, rowdy youths tore off the pickets for fights and altercations. In the springtime, old man Gužas would put up a new fence and his daughters would crouch down to see if the peony shoots had poked through and if the rue had survived being trampled under the shod feet of the hellions.
The interior of the house also differed in its function and arrangement. The old main section, built before these supposed golden times, had a spacious entryway with a storage room, typical of all rural houses. On one side, there were the kitchen and the family's living area, with a wide table and sturdily constructed benches along the wall; on the other side, was the store with its rooms. The addition was bright with new wallpaper, painted floors and ceilings, whose finely planed and masterfully milled boards were nailed into the bottom of the joists, unlike the old style. In one of those rooms sat Melamedas's agent counting out money.
Inside was a wide bed with
lace-trimmed pillows and a handsome patterned bedspread. The small
table with flowers and the photographs on the walls gave evidence that
the Gužas daughters came here to rest and to sigh after days filled
with hard work and myriad impressions. Špicas felt comfortable in the
girlish surroundings. He had turned the charming table, where the girls
mugged in front of the oval mirror, combing their hair and beautifying
themselves, into a desk, and the room itself into his work place,
practically a real office. The knot of his necktie loosened, his shirt
undone, his feet up, he was doing as he pleased, according to personal
habit and preference. This cozy room already had absorbed an odor, an
odor peculiar and strong, comprised of cologne, garlic, and perhaps
herring with onions soaked in vinegar. A briefcase of brown leather
with gleaming hardware gaped, its top unclasped, propped against a
flower pot. He himself sat in the corner, and the door, as it opened,
almost concealed him. A person had to walk around it to get into his
range of vision.
"Well, sir, it's written here. Seven cubic meters..."
"Cut or hauled?"
"Cut. What am I supposed to haul it with? And here's the extra, what was done last night and today," he stuck out a second slip of paper.
"A lot of money." The red and white beads clattered beneath the cashier's fingers. They sped along the wires, colliding with a dull thud, and only the devil knew what sum they came up with. He used his other hand to pull money out of the valise. In hefty bundles of fives and tens held by paper bands. The bills even crackled - apparently fresh from the bank - they were so new. The men standing farther back were poking each other in the side.
"What if we just snatched that rawhide bag off the table and then out the door. You think they'd catch us? The forest's right here."
"Go ahead and try. You'll find out."
"Oh, there's a lot of them all stuck together in there. They're rustling like wood shavings. And the little Jew's not afraid to be right next to the woods with a satchel like that."
"Who's going to grab him? People in these parts just talk big. There's no one with the guts to do it."
"Hey, you, Čepulis, go ahead and take a chance. You could buy a threshing machine with a tractor and you'd go around, all you could drink, happy as that bull grazing in the pasture," Každaila teased the fellow who was admiring the money.
"Listen, he's saying you should stick to being a tractor driver."
"Thank you, sir," the man's grubby fingernails dug into his wages.
"What's there to count? You wouldn't cheat me, sir, now would you?"
"Hey, don't be a smart aleck. Next." The abacus on the small table slammed assertively. What a lizard. Not only can he count and pay out at the same time, but he also hears what's being said at the far end of the entryway.
Lunging forward eagerly, the next one in line would run into the one who was about to leave with a wad of money in his grasp, and the two sheepskin-clad men would bob back and forth, obstructing each other's path.
"Watch where you're going. Something up your tail?"
"Where's the fire? You've still got time to get drunk."
"Oh, money, money." Krivickas the Pauper, muttering in a prayerful tone, was growing emotional. "If only I could get this much every Saturday, I'd toss back a glass or two myself."
"You're not going to wriggle your way out of it today. You'll have to stand a few rounds yourself. After all, we seriously need to give Petras his due," those around him were putting the fear into him.
"For good old Pete, who's taken care of us, we really should. It's only right. But me, I'm completely done for," sniveled Krivickas, who was beset by a cold and sinking ever more into dejection. His bloodshot and nearsighted eyes, stinging from smoke, wind, and lack of sleep, were watery with tears. Leaning forward and craning his neck, he listened to what was being said and nodded his head, always in agreement, even if he himself was the object of ridicule. Streams of muddy sweat, leaving trails on his face and scruff, and actual deposits of dirt along his mustache and behind his ears, showed how hard he had worked in the forest. He was from an impoverished village of subsistence farmers, where half of the inhabitants had the same surname, so that quite a few of them bore an added moniker to differentiate them.
The line snaked toward the office door. One fellow sat on a barrel of herring, another on a keg of kerosene, their noses sinking toward the floor. They couldn't fight off the drowsiness that weighed down their heads and pressed on their eyelids. Some leaned up against walls that had been freshly hung with sheets of newspaper, leaving dirty stains on them from their wet sheepskins or soaked woolen coats. At the front of the line, the abacus clattered, the tens being counted out made a rustling sound, while at the back, crisp female voices drifted out of the store, making the men restless. That's where they were settling up, where the two-man teams were splitting their wages and clinking their glasses as they raised their first toast. There were all sorts of pictures: pretty girls half-naked or shamelessly spread-legged, scenes of big cities, gentlemen with pipes and cigars, dogs, horses, ships, some sideways, others upside down, mingled together glued to the walls. Someone, out of boredom, tried to read the words set in the boldest type, and that task was no more successful than a first-grader's attempts to trace a goose-quill pen over a primer's lines - dagens nihyter, svenska dagbladet, stokholms tidningen...
"What's this language that sounds
like thunder? What kingdom is it from?" a sleepy-eyed logger pondered.
"Like she'd know. She's just a hen with no schooling, like us."
"It'll be Swedish. They buy it to wrap the herring," a slight man, apparently fresh out of school, offered timidly.
"So why do they put all kinds of
writing on it and with pictures, too? You can bundle up a thing in
plain paper, can't you?" The man who had been able to sound out the
words, though not understand them, was dubious.
"Their newspapers are like that."
"If they're newspapers, you'd know right off. They'd have greasy fingerprints and fly spots all over."
"Maybe they don't have flies over there and they eat bacon with gloves," surmised Tugaudis, the former policeman.
Some men dove out, others crowded in. A whole band of drivers came in at the same time. They were from the surrounding area, mostly small farmers with little land and only a horse or two, who derived a considerable portion of their living from this work. But there were a few substantial farmers, too, with three or four well-fed horses. Good wages attracted Doveika and his type as well. Two of his men and his herdsman hauled logs with three of his two-horse wagons. With gear and animals like that you can get half a cubic meter at one time. Not like these goats of ours, the lesser farmers muttered resentfully among themselves. In their soggy footgear, soaked to their armpits, stepping on each other's shoelaces, they shoved into Gužienė's entryway, converging from all directions.
"Why do you have that whip with you, Butkus? There's no dogs inside," Každaila, carrying his loot, spoke up.
"And what am I gonna prune your shins with?" The fellow, grimacing like a skunk, was bedraggled and dripping wet, as though he had just been pulled out of the flax pond. Actually, he always carried his whip whenever he went to the county seat or to the store. Though it was of poor quality, made of juniper, the rope end all tangled, you never knew when some thief might stick his fingers into your sled.
"No serf's gonna hack away at my shins." Každaila was from the city and regarded all country folk with contempt. Just like Petras the Red, he had plenty of stories to tell of his rich past. He had been in real cities like Klaipėda and had earned his living practically from the sea. He had known factories, too. Like Frenkelis's leather processing plant in Šiauliai, where the stench was so bad that the horses, though they were still some distance away, would go into a mad frenzy and plunge into the water, wagon and all, to swim across the lake. He worked in government construction jobs - building roads, excavating drainage canals through hilly ground, erecting bridges over rivers and causeways across swamps. He had business and run-ins with the wagoners from Utena, who descended like a pestilence on every public works project, even if it was three hundred kilometers from their village. With bearded Orthodox believers and Russkies, street pavers and ditch diggers from Zarasai. With gypsies from Šėduva, with vagrants in Žagarė, who worked summers in Kuršas and spent winters hanging out in the streets, marketplaces, and pubs. With the sugar refinery workers in Pavenčiai, who were brawlers, hard and bullheaded, typical of the Samogitians. As evidence of his strong opinions and how staunchly he defended them, he had a broken nose, missing teeth, and various kinds of scars. When he threw off his shirt, he could point out twice as many, among all sorts of tattoos on his chest and arms. He needled the rustics every opportunity he got and acknowledged only one form of socializing with them, which was to drink their liquor unabashedly on market days, when they stood packed in the pub and offered drinks all around, to friend and foe alike.
Každaila sprawled across the store counter, the entire length of his body folded over it, as if it had been snapped in two. He considered Gužienė, even though she was pure country folk, his equal, holding her in high regard for her business acumen. And so he addressed her very politely:
"Do you think you might find some small corner where I might set myself down?"
"But of course. Please come into the house. Please, come in."
"Ooh, what a fine woman! Like a wild strawberry - gulp, you swallow it whole and then you turn around and want some more," Každaila murmured under his breath, savoring the thought, as he gripped his purchases.
Petras and Tilius, like two oxen yoked together, sat shoulder to shoulder, jouncing on the low couch, which had at one time looked better and served a better purpose. The heat and oppressive air forced them to throw off their outer clothing and unbutton their shirt collars, which were black as the cloths on their feet. Sweat streamed from Petras's wide forehead and flowed down along his ears and neck into the red thatch of his chest. He had already downed a few glasses and eaten everything within reach. The hostess kept loading up the table and didn't hold back. In place of an empty bottle a full one suddenly appeared, and he didn't care who had put it there. So many buying today, you could drink yourself to death and still not get to finish it all. The loggers pressed around him, as if they had come to the confessional to fulfill their Easter duty, and the heart of each and every one overflowed with gratitude. They expressed it in the form of vodka and beer and all that Veronika's store could provide.
"Petras, you're our brother and
father. Have a drop or two with us. What would we have gotten, if not
for that good head of yours?" The brothers Jurėnas swayed and spilled
liquor over the floor. Though of slight build, they were long-suffering
and diligent workers who spent winters toiling in the forests.
Krivickas the Pauper, staying for a moment just to cool off, twisted and turned his neck:
"We need to drink in the worst way. To celebrate, dear brothers, that we simple folk have a protector and advocate like him. I'm going to run home now to bring my wife a little bit of sugar for her tea. She's in a bad way, the poor thing, with that arthritic back of hers."
Doveika's herdsman, Laurynas, who
earned but little for his own pocket because the horses he led around
were his employer's, boldly kept among the loggers and drank no less
than they. He enjoyed company, enjoyed people and get-togethers.
Constantly yanking cows around the Basiuliškiai stables was more than
he could stand. He pulled a crumpled bill out of his pocket and slapped
it on the table. He could afford it and could do as he pleased. No
wife, no kids on his back. He was generous in his praise of Petras, too:
"They wouldn't know a darn thing, those bums. I saw how Melamedas scowled, when Petras called out: two and a half! It's like someone had whacked him with the butt of an axe."
"Your employer's gonna grab your scruff and shake you good. He will." They were trying to put some fear into him.
"I care about him like I care about your scrawny mare. I don't give a hoot. And you can go shove it. I drink my own," the cripple stuck out his black fist.
The beds and couch creaked. Most of the loggers, however, stood around shoulder to shoulder, because in the large living area there was no room on the benches that sagged under the weight of men crammed together and slumped over each other. Then the songs rang out. Veronika couldn't quell them fast enough, no matter how she admonished the men that proper Catholics don't bellow like cattle in the weeks leading up to Easter.
"If they let us guzzle their booze, they can't stop us from singing," sputtered a farmhand with a wide mouth and cheeks sprouting stubble that looked like the black patches on a lark's face. His sweater was worn down to the threads and his bare knees protruded from his torn trousers.
The stench of smoke, soaked footgear,
and wet sheepskins rolled down from the ceiling in waves and, whenever
the door opened, escaped outside in balls of blue steam. Those who had
stepped out for a walk slunk along the buildings, holding onto the
fences. It was raining and icing. The ground glistened as though
covered with a pane of glass. The black wall of the forest seemed to
recede, expanding the stretch of clear ground marked by some river
alders and a pair of telephone poles, whose wires hissed and howled
Stubble-face with the torn sweater began to howl louder and louder, and occasionally stuck in a word or two so the other room would hear:
"You're fools for plying that red-haired bull with drink. Don't let it go to his head. We could've gotten a good wage even without him."
"Yeah, you could've, you could've. What was stopping you?" Petras murmured unperturbed.
"Don't you worry, I saw the ranger switched their hours for cutting during the day to night hours. How else did they get that much money..."
"For that, you're gonna get it in the snout." Každaila rose up and, standing like a cross with his head brushing the ceiling, set to rolling up his sleeves.
The loudmouth leaned back. Veined arms with terrible blue pictures on them flashed before everyone's eyes. Gužienė jumped in between them.
"For goodness sake, don't start. You're just like little kids."
Každaila had not stood up just to sit
back down again without accomplishing anything. He stuck his crooked
thumb into the kid's gullet and then wiped the palm of one outstretched
hand against the other, as if he had just finished a dirty job.
"You open your muzzle again and I'll blow you away like a mosquito. Understand?"
The fellow, apparently, had understood, because he growled under his breath and felt under his jaw. Gužienė stroked Každaila's shoulder and pushed him bit by bit back into the room.
"You, mister, should show them you're the one with the brain. There's no point. He'll collapse and fall asleep."
"Where'd that snot come from?"
"I don't know. He was working at Doveika's. I heard they threw him out."
Tilius felt his temples throb, his exhausted joints relax, the unpleasant sensation of wet clothing against his skin dissipate, and a nice warmth descend from above. And he was surprised that after every glass Petras grew more morose and quiet. You had to treasure a friend like that. They had spent the winter together, but this chapter was over and they would be parting ways. Even if he didn't land something in the civil service, he'd still find something. Where? Maybe spring itself would tell. Spring was breaking through now, roaring powerfully through the woods, racing along the swamp from the south. It flowed in streams from the trees, its cold rain clattered on the window-panes. Spring was around the corner, and something new must begin. Something different. Something - doesn't matter what.
He'll be leaving with the spring. It had first occurred to him over the fall that this experience had meant something to him, it had not become just long winter evenings and nights spent to no purpose. It was not something he had felt before. His eyes followed the hostess, and he realized that he had never seen her angry or cross. Her smile turned into something that was soft and brought joy when, on a Saturday evening, she stroked Petras's thinning hair.
"Enough, my dear Petras, you've had plenty. You're tired..."
And Petras obediently pulled back his hand. Oh, that lovely woman, the young man squirmed. Who would say that she's just the owner of this store stuck between the woods and the swamps. If it weren't for her daughters, you'd say she was a striking young woman, late to marry, but without any signs of being an old maid. Her ample bosom rolled and shook with every step and turn. Her crisp movements spoke of her vibrant health. And her hair shone with that charming sheen that is possessed only by leaves in spring and women's hair when they're young. Her eyes were impish and the cut of her neckline was like a bright clearing in the middle of the woods, where you'd like to stop for a moment to rest. But she was so different talking to Petras.
The Gužas house was jumping from the noise, smoke, and stifling heat. The lame herdsman teetered around, wiping the tables with his nose, the impudent farmhand with a ripped crotch in his pants, as if in retaliation, was braying out couplets, coming up with the filthiest words. Krivickas the Pauper snored away, his head lying in a pool of spilled beer. Others were dozing, too. For some, working through the night had cut the legs out from under them, but the majority still stood, unmindful of the toil they had endured, and that's why bottles large and small noticeably vanished from the shelves. The Gužas girls took turns standing behind the store counter, even when there were no buyers in sight.
Tilius's heart was melting as though it were a tallow candle. It was drip dripping away. The way she managed the store and dealt with the drinkers. No matter it was supposed to be a carryout store only. The police were far away. They didn't go into the woods and swamps unless they had to. And if they did pay a visit, they'd make fools of themselves. Is it against the law to offer something to your guests in your own home? Since when is this the law, tell us? Aha. But it would be interesting to see a policeman who could resist her - if she asked him nicely to sit for a while. Just to sit and warm up a bit. Hell almighty! That would be a good laugh, Tilius pondered, overcome with aching desire and envy. She's not so nice to everyone, you must admit. She doesn't waste any smiles on her husband. The little guy just sits in the kitchen and stokes the fire, worn down to a rag, as though he's been beaten with a sauna broom out in the woods. What do you want from Gužas - he's tired. She needs a different kind of husband.
Over there, her daughters are fidgeting about. Yes, there's the three of them, and which of them is superior to the others in any way? Tilius lowered his head, touching his forehead to the table, and pressed his clenched fists between his knees. He was tormented by weird thoughts that took him to the far reaches of the night, as if to a dark forest, where there is nothing visible, nothing palpable in that blackness. Except in the middle there's a glowing white apparition. Who does it belong to? Those hands and arched neck?
He gripped a topped-off glass and
gulped it down, like sulphuric acid that burned his throat, chest,
heart. He felt an icy chill on his back. It was Agnė standing there,
Veronika's seventeen-year-old youngest daughter. She was waving to him
and calling, through barely parted lips. Her loose hair turned into
mist, his eyes became veiled in a spider web reddened from the morning
rays, and he babbled words with no connection to his surroundings. And
in no particular order. He himself couldn't understand what they were
for, how many there were around him and so many more inside.
"I like Agnė, Veronika's daughter. Pete, old boy."
"A lovely girl. Why aren't you drinking? Let's drink, Ti-lius. Let's drink, have a good time. Let's drink 'til we drop. At least this once let's drink our fill."
"We'll give it an honest try. Pass it here! You just give it to me, and I'll down the glass. Isn't it all the same to me? These hiccups are killing me. I have to pour something on them, or I'll dislocate my jaw."
"The liquor has a kerosene taste. But that's what you drink, if you don't have anything better. So you drink kerosene, so what. And those bitters, squeezed out of aspen bark. But don't believe a word I said to you yesterday. I don't believe a word of it myself. What are you gonna do, when things turn out that way. But you know..." he put his mouth right next to Petras's ear and whispered as though he were saying confession to a priest. "I'm gonna ask the mother for Agnė's hand. What do you think she'll say, no? Well, who knows. That's the way it always is with anything I try. I piss on it and throw a match on it. That's how it's gonna be, if that's your fate, so don't set your sights too high, because nothing will come of it. Right? They say I'm not serious enough. And where am I gonna get some of that?"
He then stood up briskly and proceeded to walk a straight line so precise he could have gone the entire length of a floorboard with assurance. And he made it clear through the door, nicely avoiding the splayed legs and feet shod in badly soaked moccasins a sleeping logger had thrown across his path. He banged into the counter in front of the girl and bowed his head in submission. His hair fell over his eyes.
"Don't you feel well, Tilius?" he heard her voice. "I'll bring you some seltzer."
"I really don't feel well. I couldn't feel any worse." He could hear her in front of him, three steps away. The sounds made by her hands, by her movements. The glass clinking, the cork being undone, the whoosh of the liquid. He could hear the seltzer fizzing in the glass, its tiny bubbles so close to him that they felt like pinpricks on his face..
"Drink it. It'll pick you up," the girl pleaded.
"I'm better now. In a minute I'll be okay.I'll be okay."
He waited a moment, hunched over and with his eyes closed, scratching the palms of his hands with his fingernails and cracking his knuckles. There, imprinted under the layer of sap and dirt, he could still feel the powerful memory of her erect breasts brushing against him, as though gently tickling him. He wiped the back of his hand against his mouth, trying to erase the kiss of her soft lips. And bit by bit he succeeded. A gulp of the seltzer that had stopped fizzing washed away the sour dregs in the back of his throat.
"You're very tired."
"I'm back on my feet now," the youth,
even though he was as pale as the whitewashed walls, regained his
composure. "Now we'll drink like crazy!"
"What'll we drink, if there's nothing left?" laughed the second daughter. She was chatting with Tugaudis, whose head bobbled as though it were not stuck permanently to his neck.
"There's grain alcohol," the former policeman pointed at the wire net door of the cupboard, where several small bottles with red labels could be seen.
"Just the grain alcohol, that's all. But you can't afford it."
"Oh, if only I could get a sip."
She explained that not only had everything been drunk, but also eaten. Bacon, sausages, lard. All that remained of the pig that had just been slaughtered were its bare bones. She had run over to the neighbors to borrow some bread and a few things. There wasn't a crumb left in the entire house. Only raw potatoes, beets, and flour. And nothing to drink but water, kerosene, and the brine from the herring barrel.
"We drink kerosene, too. What do we
care?" Tilius boasted.
"That's right," Tugaudis, swaying like a birch, agreed with him.
Agnė had her own ideas.
"We could do some dancing. The blacksmith could bring his instrument. All of the old people out of the room. And we'd dance and dance."
"It's Lent. We can't," her sister quashed the idea.
"It's good that we can't. How could I dance in these awful moccasins?"
"You'll put on your shoes. And you can shave your beard right now. I'll get my father's razor."
Tilius brushed his hand over his chin.
"Who's gonna bother to shave. But you know something, Agnė? When the roads dry out, I'll buy a bicycle and come see you. Without a bicycle, it's like you're a dog without a tail."
shadow passed over her face and a gloomy note sounded in her voice as she said: "Summer is so boring here that you want to die. It's just bogs and woods. Just mosquitoes and frogs. Just women sometimes walking by with baskets of berries. Nothing else. God, how depressing it is around here.""That'll be wonderful!" the girl expressed childlike delight. Her eyes lit up like a bright summer day. And then a
"That's why I'll buy a bicycle, so
you won't have to be sad. But maybe not. Who the heck knows what I'll
"Why? You promised."
Tilius looked down, as if he had just remembered something unpleasant.
"Well, you see.how can I put it? I'm getting a job. And I have to leave for the city. And how will I get here from so far away? Not unless I get a motorcycle."
"A job? And when are you getting it?"
"I've gotten it already. But I'm in no hurry. They can wait, if they want me. What a bunch of big shots. To hell with them."
"Oh!.. And what'll you be doing?"
"I'll have a job. Nothing more to it. A job is a job. You hold a job and you don't do any work. Let's say - the railway. Some supervisor. Do you like to ride the train? I'll let you ride for free."
"Hmm.." the girl squirmed sadly. "I haven't even seen a train yet, never mind ride on one. Just the bus."
"A bus, is that all. So that's the story with you," the man was amused. "True, besides the horse, there's no other machines here. Except maybe a sewing machine. But I might go and pick something else. Like, for instance, the post of police chief. The uniform is all shiny and gold. So what, if Petras ridicules uniforms, what do we care? What's important is that it's a good job and you get piles of money. It's a great life, I tell you. I get to go to the barbershop every day for a shave.
Agnė sighed. True, besides the horse, there's no other machines. And, with a downcast look, she turned away. But the young fellow continued to amuse himself:
"It's really not very much work. But it's enough for me -I've done my share. Take a look at these hands, my little Agnė! Like a dog's paws. It's time I began to do something. You know, everyone's inviting me over to their home; they want to get in good with me; they lay out a spread. You hardly have time to drink the vodka. And then you don't drink that anymore -you're holding out for the cognac. The ladies in the city are always out with their pet dogs. They're bored, too. And you can see all sorts of good-looking men strolling along the sidewalks. Hey, what's he doing?"
The farmhand with lark down on his
cheeks, who seemed to have forgotten the imprint of Každaila's thumb
under his chin, was boldly pressing the older daughter against the
wall. She struggled vigorously:
"Let me go, you pig's butt! Get away!"
"I'm not letting you go. You know how to act with the little Jew, don't you, but not with me."
"Smack him on the snout for talking like that," Agnė heatedly jumped to her sister's aid.
"Hold on. Milė will take care of him herself. And Tugaud-is, that blockhead, is off dozing somewhere while some vagrant assaults his girl," Tilius voiced his disgust.
The scoundrel released his grip to grab his eyes. Several lines of blood suddenly coursed down his cheek, flowing from his forehead to beneath his throat.
"That's right. Give him some more, Milė."
"And what's it to you, you no-good bum?" the ladies' man, bloody as a rooster and stunned from pain and surprise, lurched when he saw Tilius's happy smile. But the broomstick was already in Milė's hands and she swung it, not looking where it landed. There were thwacks on the skull, bones rattled.
"Get out, you repulsive thing! And take your stench with you!" Shielding himself with his arms, hunched over, having lost his fighting spirit, he dove toward the door.
"I'll give you a hand, even if Tugaudis, the swine, isn't about to step up," Tilius raised his leg, aiming it at the lout's rear end.
The powerful shove sent him crashing into the door. Luckily it opened by itself and, with nothing to grab onto, he flew out headlong, his entire body propelled into the sodden yard.
"That's a fine girl for you! You
won't get a cheap feel from her," the men in the large room marveled,
having managed to get a glimpse of the brief tussle through the smoke
"I'll give him some." Milė arranged her blouse.
There were a few more words, a few more questions, no lack of praise for the formidable young woman. And then the kitchen window clattered, and a rock the size of a sheep's head hit the cupboard on the wall and rolled under a chair.
Translated by Birutė Vaičjurgis Šležas
A Note From the Translator
I discovered Marius Katiliškis in my early twenties, some decades ago. I was born in the U.S. to parents who had arrived after World War II with the wave of displaced persons. Lithuanian books were a natural part of my life growing up - my father had compiled a list of over a hundred children's books I had read by the time I was six. My interest in Lithuanian literature waned a bit during my teen years, though I recall my pleasure in reading Romualdas Spalis's classic Gatvės berniuko nuotykiai at that time. But when I happened upon Katiliškis's Miškais ateina ruduo, I was stunned. It was as if I had entered an exotic land, where things were somehow strange and yet familiar. The novel opens with descriptive paragraphs that shook my senses with their lyricism and imagery. Though I was a generation removed from the land, through his words I felt genuinely connected to the fields and the forests of my ancestors. At the same time, the plot excited me with its characters and its themes. This was not the world of folk songs, where love was chaste and where the trampled rue plant signified lost virginity. Here I had found a Lithuanian novel that probed human nature, the psyche, sexual attraction, and passion, using language both earthy and sublime. It continued to hold me in its spell over the years. As the centenary of Marius Katiliškis's birth approached, I began my translation of Miškais ateina ruduo, hoping to convey to the English reader Katiliškis's artistry, at least in small part.