Bajorai    (Bajorai village – A case study)

Last autumn I bought an old Renault Kangoo. The passenger door wouldn’t open and the electric windows did whatever they wanted, but I hoped this rickety thing would carry me to my destination some 1500 kilometres north-east. Aside from the price, I’d bought the car because it offered almost enough space for all of my stuff. After packing, I locked the door of my tiny one-room flat in Berlin for the last time and squashed myself into the driver’s seat with a mattress above my head and parts of a cupboard on my right-hand side. I cast a scornful glance at the radio that I hadn’t managed to fix the day before and headed off. Following a terrible journey, during which my window had refused to close after it started raining in the middle of Poland, and a stop at the gas station where petrol was spilling from the tank, it felt like a minor miracle to arrive at my house in Bajorai. The evening was setting in as I carried my stuff inside and started a fire in the crooked old fireplace, which welcomed me with a big cloud of smoke.

***

There are no road signs in Bajorai, and I only know the name of one of the two roads. My neighbour, Vytautas calls it ‘Hanger’s Street’ instead of its actual name, Barbariškio Gatve. I asked him if he recalled all the people who had killed themselves there. He tried to count them. I don’t remember how many he got to before he quit, nor do I know their stories. I can only imagine what drove them to their deaths.

***

For a few euros, Vytautas helps me with work in and around my house. He once told me that it was a mistake to move back to the place where he grew up. He always shakes my hand when he greets me and when we part. There is a certain insistence on his part on keeping this ritual alive, something I don’t know which one of us started and I’m not sure he does with anyone else. Every time he holds out his hand, he has to move his upper body to the left in order to swing his arm high enough. Like so many farmers, his hands seem massive compared to his body. His thumbs are crippled but insensitive to pain. Perhaps the numbness comes from the cheap liquid he sips. An import from Poland the purpose of which was modified by some of the villagers, in actuality it should serve to cleanse impurities from the skin. Vytautas usually mixes the almost pure alcohol with water. Before the cosmetic spirit came into circulation, the heavy drinkers in the village used cooling fluids mixed with vodka or other alcohol. During this time, on some days when dawn was breaking Bajorai looked like the setting for a zombie movie, creatures floating over the earth with spastic convulsions every few steps that jolted their bodies some centimetres off the ground. The befogged appeared to have been deserted by their souls.

Vytautas seems reluctant to judge people. His innocence adds a saint-like quality but makes him prone to being used by others. According to him, the shopkeeper, Ažuolas added the cosmetic spirit to his inventory about three years ago.

***

After the little grocery store in Bajorai where his wife, Danute had been working closed, Ažuolas started selling all kinds of necessities from his home. Since he’d been robbed twice, the only time that he’d leave his property was for the weekly stock run. His house is the tiniest in the village, yet it seems as if there’s an inexhaustible amount of goods inside. There’s a slow but steady trickle of customers. Because he’s afraid that he’s being listened to, Ažuolas refuses to get a cell-phone.

***

After Monika’s father, Laurynas left, we drove back home from Obeliai. Monika seemed sad. She told me that she thought it was only possible to be satisfied in life if you were born into and belong to a strong family. Tiny snowflakes vanished as soon as they hit the car. I’m not exactly sure what she meant by ‘strong,’ but I think she was talking about values. I turned my head to the left and observed the snowflakes. Because of the speed of the car, they seemed to be floating horizontally. I said that all families are fucked up and that we don’t know what imperfections others who seem so much better than us are made of.

Monika told me about a family she’d met during her time in Norway. The father was a journalist, a very humanistic kind of guy. For one of his assignments he’d investigated a Lithuanian prison. He said that it was the worst conditions he’d ever encountered in a European prison.

 
‘Very Soviet,’ Monika added.

***

When Ernestas returned from the gulag in Siberia in 1956, he was already 40-years-old. His two sons, Mindaugas and Paulius hadn’t been born yet. His house wasn’t in Bajorai anymore, but had been moved beam by beam to the neighbouring town of Kriaunos. It wasn’t housing his family anymore; instead, it was being used by the local authorities. His barn, which remained cut adrift in Bajorai, wasn’t filled with hay, but with the scant belongings of a man who’d settled there.

***

Mindaugas had just finished his lunch when we paid him a visit. I was expecting the soothing scent of recently cut pinewood in his newly built house, but there was nothing. Maybe the shiny fume hood had extracted it along with the smell of the rissoles, mashed potatoes and peas of which he took the last three bites after offering us to take a seat at the table.

‘Can you tell me when you’ll tear the old house down?’ I asked. ‘I’d really like to photograph it.’

‘Sure, no problem, ‘he replied.

I’m hoping he won’t forget to tell me or that I won’t be elsewhere that day. Well, there’s always my other neighbour, Augustinas, who also lives in a freshly built prefabricated pine house. The building where he grew up is still standing right next to the new one, but in his case it’s about twenty-five meters, not two meters that separate the new house from the old one. He has also assured me that I can photograph the demolition.

***

Mindaugas serves me coffee. I pay for my impatience by burning my tongue and having to swallow the granules that stubbornly float on the surface of the liquid.

Mindaugas tells me that his father was very feisty.

‘“Everyone’s a Communist,” my father liked to say,’ he tells me. ‘Once, my father told me that he knew exactly who betrayed him.’

I wonder who it was. The way in which Mindaugas tells me this makes me believe that whoever did it is still living in Bajorai, but in this moment it seems indecent to enquire any further.

***

After independence, Mindaugas’ brother Paulius made a claim to get back his father’s house, that had been moved from Bajorai to Kriaunos. Mindaugas told me that it had served several purposes since its ‘deportation.’ First, it was a school, then it became a medical office, then a school again, and now a family that was working for the municipal authority was living there. I asked if he’d attended classes there when he was a child, but he hadn’t. That would have been quite a story, I thought.

In the end, Paulius claim was successful, and he was able to move, for the first time in his life, into the house that his grandfather had built. It wasn’t the same place anymore though and a layer of grey bricks had been wrapped around it. Maybe Paulius appreciates the increased isolation. I don’t know, but it seems to me like an evil act of foresight by those responsible, as if they would’ve known that this guy would eventually stake his claim. Not content with relocating the structure, in a final act of torture they’d placed this shroud around it to remind Paulius every day for the rest of his life – or at least for as long as he’d live there – of exactly by whom and what he’s surrounded; uniform, dark grey bricks.

***

The TV flickers as Mindaugas tells me that after his father Ernestas became friends with the camp commandant, he helped him to organise his journey back from Siberia. It’s six o’clock, and the news is playing on one of the shallow Lithuanian TV stations. Protesting women are being interviewed, one pressing a bag of onions towards the camera. Mindaugas tells me that it’s the wife of one of the big mafia bosses from the chaotic time which followed independence.

‘Our husbands are starving in the prison; the money they get for a whole week is just enough to buy a bag of onions,’ she tells a slimy-looking guy wearing a black slim-fit and a disproportionately large blue scarf that seems to swallow his head.

‘Like many others,’ Mindaugas continues, ‘my father wasn’t allowed to register himself in Lithuania when he came back, so for the first years he only survived because first one and then another family let him live in their house in Bajorai.’

I don’t know anything about those families. The house belonging to one isn’t standing anymore and the other one probably won’t last much longer. Mindaugas bought that rotting house, but only because it came with a lot of land which he can farm.

‘I was the first in Bajorai to own a tractor,’ he grins joyfully.

During the nineties, after holding jobs as a driver and a salesman for used car parts he imported from Germany, Mindaugas began to farm his own land. Starting on the seven hectares his family owned he soon expanded, renting another 50 hectares. Today he owns most of the land in Bajorai.

***

‘I don’t have time for an interview. Tomorrow I’m shaving and the next day I’m going to Utena at two and then I’m watching Inspector Rex, so I won’t have time then either. Every evening I’m busy having a cocktail and saying my prayers. Two years ago, I got a fine – which I still can’t pay – of five-thousand euros. I didn’t drink before that, but now I have a cocktail and say my prayers every evening.’

Whilst finding excuses not to be interviewed, Ažuolas perpetually scratches at one of his thumbs. The nails on one of his hands are riddled with holes, only shiny little silver spots remaining. His wife, Danute told me that back in the day he was the coolest boy in the village and the most desired by all the girls. He was the first to own a moped. He got it when he was 16-years-old and just starting work.

‘Yeah, in that time he had a very cool look,’ she said; ‘but now there’s only a glazed look left.’

Ažuolas started working in the kolkhoz in 1984. He would’ve gotten a house in Antanašė; it was reserved and stood there waiting for him to move in, but then independence came.

Ažuolas is the youngest of seven siblings and the only one who didn’t move away from Bajorai. After his girls came of age, deciding that they needed more space, he moved back into the house where he grew up whilst Danute stayed put.

‘It’s better like this,’ he told me. ‘There’s no tension between us anymore.’

It’s windy and around zero degrees. Ažuolas is wearing a t-shirt depicting an assortment of German beers, chequered boxer-shorts and rigorously pulled-up stockings.

‘Aren’t you cold?’ I ask.

‘I’m a hot man. My fireplace isn’t lit most of the time,’ he casually remarks whilst standing in his front door.

***

One morning, I was awoken by a boisterous hammering upon my door.
‘Labas, Klausai, want to photograph a pig being slaughtered?’
I quickly splashed some cold water on my face from the new sink I’d installed the week
before, picked up my camera bag and off we went to a neighbouring farm.

Pranas facial expressions spoke of great pride when he told me he was very good at slaughtering pigs. It took some time to get the massive sow out of the stable. After tightening a rope around one of its legs, Pranas took out his sharp knife. The farmer started the chainsaw Pranas had brought with him to drown out the bloodcurdling squeals of the pig, and I prepared to aim my camera.

***

On his way home after a days’ work for the municipality, Vytautas saw me sitting on my veranda and stopped his bike. In constant need of company, and probably hoping that I had the money I owed him for his work the day before, he approached me. I shared the can of beer that I’d just opened with him and wondered if he’d just bumped into his old teacher in the neighbouring town, as out of the blue he started to speak about his memories of her.

‘My teacher asked me how many pictures with holy figures in them I had at home. I thought, what does she want to know for? Anyway, they’re not mine; they’re my parent’s pictures. She liked to harass us children. Today, she’s an old woman who sings in the church choir.’

After we finished the beer, he didn’t mention the money I owed him, and left towards his home.

***

Whilst showing me her old family photo album, Elžbieta shifts the images around as if trying to sort her memories. It’s a challenge for me to follow as she embarks upon a hectic monologue comprised of a mixture of past experiences and present stories, all with an anxious undertone. My thoughts drift away. I look at the pictures from her youth; she was a beautiful, intelligent looking girl. Her family, it seems to me, were a bit wealthier than others around here.

Elžbieta tells me how her father was very active in the Catholic community as a choir leader and messenger, even during Soviet times. I want to ask why her father wasn’t deported to Siberia, but I feel stupid and insensitive and keep the question to myself. She turns the pages of the photo album. A family portrait catches my eye and I ask who the people in the picture are. She tells me it’s some distant relatives, but something in her voice stirs doubt in me. She says that the boy in the picture was born in Siberia. He is still alive and resides somewhere not too far from here. His father had been the village police officer, so upon independence they weren’t allowed to move back to Lithuania. The boy had returned as an adult. I want to ask more about the boy who was born in Siberia, why he chose to come back to Lithuania after independence, if he has a family, how long he’d been in Siberia and so on, but Elžbieta doesn’t give me a chance, embarking on another monologue about her time at school, unexploited chances in her life and her sisters, who are the cause of so many worries. I’m thankful when my phone rings, using the interruption as an excuse to leave. Whilst seeming to accept that I have to go, she nevertheless offers me another cup of coffee on my way out. Sadness comes over me on my way home through the snow-covered fields. I start to think about my own missed opportunities, about how fortunate I should feel and how discontent I am.

***

It was in the same month about twenty years ago that Vytautas’ wife and father both died of cancer. His wife had asked him to take her name when they married because she didn’t like the fact that Vytautas had a Russian surname. He’d kept her name after she died.

When Ernestas returned from Siberia, Vytautas’ father, Vlad had to move out of Ernestas’ barn. Vytautas told me that his father had been adopted as a little boy and that he grew up in Latvia. When Vlad moved to Lithuania, he’d hope to find a house for himself. During the time of melioration, in the same year that Ernestas had returned, officials had decided that Bajorai should become a bigger agglomeration. Their decision came at the right time for Vlad.

***

Amidst his usual laughter, Vytautas’ neighbour, Eigintas told me to be careful when visiting Vytautas.

‘You know the house is haunted by not a few poor souls?’ he said. ‘Probably it wasn’t that good of a call by Vlad to build the foundation of his house with the stones from crumbling graves and mural from the old cemetery. Most likely, Vlad and his family have been haunted from that day on, not so much by ghostly characters but by the guilt-tripping of one villager or another.’

***

‘Like always before jumping from the plane, we all got drunk. Now I’m old and fat, I can tell you. I was 22 when I went into the Russian Army. I had the choice between air and sea, so I chose to parachute. I loved jumping from planes.’

Eiginta’s phone in the kitchen rings and he gets up to answer the call, limping on one foot. It was a short conversation with some family member. He returns and takes a seat in the armchair that faces the antiquated TV and from which he can keep an eye on the driveway.

‘The day after New Year’s Eve in 1986, four years after I returned from the army, I wanted to invite my neighbour round for a drink. I was living in Rokiškis at that time and our balconies were next to each other. I tried to climb over to his side, and it was like, wushhhhh; I went down in the blink of an eye. When I woke up, I started to shout for help. I was just in my shirt and jeans and it was very cold that day. I could see some clothes hanging in the branches of the trees. Together with a bush, they’d broken my fall. Anyway, after that day I couldn’t really work anymore. I’ve had a lot of operations and I’m living on an invalid pension now.

***

‘I’m hooked on the alcohol now, I have to admit. You know, everyone was drinking in those days. If you didn’t drink, you were the stupid one. I hated the army. You used to get beaten there. They were beating the new and weaker ones like dogs. To escape the army, some of the guys used to hurt themselves, shooting themselves in the foot or eating needles so they’d be admitted into hospital. One day I was looking in the mirror, telling myself, “here you are my brother,” and I almost started to cry.

‘There were some good things happening too, though. Like one time when they punished us for getting drunk before jumping. Nah, okay, maybe not good, but funny. There were 24 of us guys and our penalty was hard labour. They sent us to the Russian side for that, but over there we just got even drunker. When we were sent back, they sent the most wasted ones to a construction site as further punishment whilst the others were transferred to the military base. I was at the construction site. You want to know what I call “destiny for the alcoholics?” On that day they came to the military base to pick guys to fight in Afghanistan. Of the five of us at the construction site, none of us ended up in Afghanistan.

***

‘Shortly after my accident, my free-fall from the balcony, I moved back to Bajorai. My grandparent’s house had been empty for about six years. The witch from Kriaunos used to say that Bajorai has an abnormal energy, and she didn’t mean it in a good way, believe me. I’m telling you, a car has crashed into every big tree along the roadside at least once. I crashed into one too. And you heard about all the suicides here, didn’t you? You know where your father used to live, a 13-year-old boy hung himself in the barn. Then there was the boy who had an affair with a married woman and they were both found hanging in the house. Some time later, the husband hung himself too. And then there were the others…’

***

‘Simas, put the water on to boil!’
After giving this command to his younger brother, Ričardas guides me to the living room
and asks me to take a seat. His mother, Augustina remains in the kitchen. I greet her as I follow Ričardas to the shiny table where cookies have been placed in a basket on top of an embroidered cloth. I take a seat. Ričardas asks me what it is I’m interested in and what exactly I want to know. I tell him that he could start by talking about his childhood.

The water isn’t yet boiling. Simas is standing about four steps away from the table and listening to us. Ričardas must be over 60-years-old. His voice is deep and his presence emits confidence, but he isn’t a charismatic type and doesn’t give the impression of being at peace with himself.

I’d actually come to interview Augustina. Born in 1926, she is the oldest person in Bajorai. Ričardas seems to be someone with a wide range of interests, though. I’ll get to Augustina later, I tell myself.

***

Ričardas comes every week or two for a visit. He’s done a lot of renovations to the house. ‘Before I did the roof, I studied how to on the internet. I think it went quite well,’ he tells as

Simas serves us coffee. ‘I’m a pensioner now and I have a lot of spare time.’
Once again, Simas stands four steps from the table despite the fact that there are three
unused chairs.

Ričardas likes to talk about politics.
‘During a visit to the USA, Khrushchev saw big fields of corn,’ he tells me; ‘so when he
came back to the Soviet Union, he wanted everyone to plant corn. Suddenly, it was prohibited to keep sheep. It was a ship of fools in those times. Every year, they came for the general check. We always had some animals. One cow was allowed, so and so many pigs and chickens. You know the party conference where Khrushchev made that critique of Stalin’s politics and the cult of personality and then the people were released from the gulag and allowed to return from exile? Still, he made some stupid mistakes, really silly things like with the sheep. With Brezhnev it was stagnation, but at least it was a peaceful time. Bring some of that cheese I brought with me Simas,’ he bellows; ‘it’s very tasty with the coffee.’

Simas, who hadn’t moved since serving us, momentarily grins compulsively whilst bending his head some centimetres to the side.

‘You know, my brother needs special care; that’s why he never left Bajorai. Anyway, so during the time when Brezhnev was in power everyone was stealing. Well, it was always like that, it was a survival thing, but in those times it was even more extreme.’

***

I look at my watch. Almost two hours have passed mostly filled with talk about the politics of today and the past. I ask Ričardas if he will let me take his portrait and he agrees.

‘Where and how should I stand? Should I put on my hunting pants?’ he asks, having just told me that he’d been part of a hunting association for quite some time before eventually quitting.

‘Sure, that would be nice,’ I reply.
‘Simas! Where are my hunting pants?’
Simas points to the couch in the living room and Ričardas lifts the sofa and removes them
from a drawer underneath it. He puts the broad, water-resistant pants over his camouflage wool trouser and stands with his legs spread wide. I kneel down with my camera. He grins blissfully as I shoot portraits of him.

***

After the photo-session, Ričardas takes off his hunting pants, folds them carefully, places them on the couch and leads me into the kitchen. For 93-years of age, Augustina, still seems to be in very good shape. For the past two hours, I didn’t think she’d moved from the folksy wooden chair. There’s some gossip rag on the table, but it’s laying in exactly the same position as it was when I arrived. We take a seat next to her.

‘How did a young boy like you end up here?’ she asks me. ‘It must be very boring for you!’ I’m forming an answer in my head, but I’m too slow.
‘You have to have something to be active, to work with!’ she proclaims. ‘For my part, I
used to knit a lot, but it’s not fashionable anymore, so I burned all my patterns.’

‘Our mother is the same age as Adamkus, the former-President of Lithuania,’ Ričardas chips in. ‘He’s only one month older than her. And our father was born in the same year as Reagan.’

***

‘In 1940, the Russians came. They were here for one year, then the Germans came and stayed for three years before the Russians took over again. When I think of those times now it feels unreal and I can’t believe I really went through all of that. At that time, though, you don’t think too much and just try your best. I was young, and I wasn’t really afraid of anything. When the Germans were here, I was working in a textile factory in Kaunas. We were paid in reichsmark, but you could buy almost nothing during that time as the shops were mostly empty. After the Germans left, they were even emptier.’

‘In the factory, they gave us lunch, and once a month we got a bottle of vodka. I remember the last day the Germans were on the streets. I went to the factory, but almost everyone had disappeared. The few that came took some textiles and other leftovers. I grabbed some textiles too and headed towards home. In Panemunelis, everybody had to disembark from the train. Fighting had broken out between the Russians and the Partisans. The Russians had blown up some of the railway track, so I had to walk all the way from there to Rokiškis.’

‘The following years were very hard. Our children were small and there was almost no food, not even any soap to buy. Only very gradually did more things become available. They forced us to work in the kolkhoz, but all the wealth that we Lithuanians produced went to Russia and we didn’t get anything. Now it’s different; most things are under our control. Now though, there are more and more people who are rich and live just for money, whilst pensioners don’t get anything. I really don’t understand where all these rich people have come from.’

Augustina takes a sip on the hot water which Ričardas had placed beside her.

‘But Mum, you are getting a pension,’ Ričardas remarks in a tone that’s both determined and sympathetic.

‘Yes, it’s okay, but I can’t work anymore. I can’t contribute anything.’

***

Birute was almost fifty-years-old when she got her driving licence in 1985. She was the first one in her family to drive a car, obtaining her licence even before her husband. Joyful days like those, however, had been scarce in her life. It was not in Birute’s nature to lament her fate, but as she got older a deep melancholy took hold of her sometimes. Poring over old memories, like the dancing on May evenings when garlands garnished the forest and people sang and danced together both soothed her and deepened her sadness.

‘Thirty years ago, I was very sick,’ she told me. ‘I had to stay in the hospital for three months. I was afraid. The doctor said that I should think of something positive, remember good times. I tried, I really did, but it took a while before I could dig out something nice. I pictured myself in my youth. I was wearing wooden shoes, and I was on the way to a dance. Let me tell you one thing: people today who are dissatisfied all the time deserve a slap in the

face.’

***

‘We moved to Bajorai in 1956. Four houses were built during the late fifties. Ours was the first; there even was a picture of it published in The Truth. They wanted Bajorai to become as big as Kriaunos, but it didn’t work out. There were too few people here,’ Birute says as she digs some photographs from the drawer next to her. Caught between a pile of old family pictures, there’s a little piece of paper which has turned yellow over the years. It’s a regular-sized sheet, but Birute has folded it until it became the size of a credit card. She hands it to me.

‘You’re interested in the history of the village, aren’t you?’ she asks. ‘Well, here’s a list I made. I wrote down the names and birthdates of all the people from Bajorai. It must have been at the beginning of the seventies.’

***

‘It was three men who built our house. We didn’t have enough money, so we took a loan. At that time there was no alcohol and no food in the shops, so we made vodka ourselves and fed them with the eggs from our chickens and whatnot. The house didn’t look like it does today. We had just one room and all seven of us slept in there. Step by step, we enlarged it and made it more liveable. In Soviet times, people were forced to work hard, so they didn’t have much time to drink. After independence, many were left without work and didn’t know how to look for a job, so people became alcoholics. You know, in Soviet times, even at the dances it was uncommon for anyone to get completely wasted. It would’ve damaged their reputation.’

***

“‘Oh, my! Jesus!” That’s how my great-granddaughter reacted when I told her about my childhood.’

I swallow a handful of the homemade sunflower seeds with chocolate that Birute had laid on the table.

‘Eat some more! They are nice, aren’t they? Do you like them?’

 
I take another handful.

‘In 1941, when I was four-years-old, my mother was very poor and my father had just died – so she didn’t really have a choice – my sister stayed with her, my brother went to relatives and I was sent to an orphanage. I was there for four years. I was hungry all the time. Not once in four years was my hunger sated. The first thing they did when we arrived was to shave our heads bald. Everybody looked the same, just like in a prison. Once, when I was five-years-old me and a friend tried to escape, but we didn’t get very far. Everyone on the street recognised where we came from because of our looks. During Easter and Christmas, they even sent us to beg for food. That was the only time they would dress us up in a bit nicer clothes. My great- granddaughter is in the third class now. That’s the last class I could finish. I love to read, but when I write I still make a lot of mistakes.’

***

‘The orphanage stood right next to the train station. I saw the people that were being taken to Siberia. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on at the time. Although the windows of the trains were tiny, I recall very well the expressions on those faces.’

Birute points towards the chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, suggesting that should I eat more. I swallow the ones that are still in my mouth and take a few.

‘It was horrible during the war, but after the war, it was even worse. There was no food anywhere. The Germans had a storage unit not far from my mother’s house where they kept guns and ammunition. When the Russians came they blew it up, but not everything was destroyed. There still was a lot of that stuff around and we kids used to play with it. When I was twelve, I threw explosives into the river; everybody used to do it. The explosion was so big that the water burst into the sky. From that day on I never touched anything from there again. It was not so with my brother, though. When he was 14, he built a gun made of wood. He took some ammunition that he’d collected and loaded it. It backfired into his head. My brother died on that day.’

***

One summer in the 1950s, Kastute collected an exceptional amount of hazelnuts. With the profits she made she bought a house. Having previously served as a sauna, it wasn’t very big. It only had one room and a little corridor. A man of average size could take three or four steps on the longest side of the room, but Kastute could take five or six big steps. After the remains of her tiny clay house which had collapsed some months before were levelled, her new house was moved to Bajorai. Like all the saunas in the region, Kastute’s new house had been used not just for washing one’s body, for recreation or even births, but also for smoking fish, meat and cheese. The smell was probably still present when she moved in and the walls most likely covered in soot. According to stories told in Bajorai, the soot never left because her chimney released smoke into her little room.

***

When Kastute became pregnant in 1931, she wasn’t married. Her lover left for America. He promised that he’d return with some money in his pockets, but he never came back and she remained unmarried for the rest of her life.

***

Before the Soviets came, Kastute was a hard worker. Up until that day, she’d worked for farmers all her life. Effectively, she continued to work hard for as long as her body allowed. Even after her body refused, she dismissed the pain and the obstacles that nature had thrown in her way. Just as stubbornly as she disregarded the limits of her body, she refused to work for the Soviets. As a consequence, she never knew the pleasure of electric lights, remaining the only one in the village without electricity.

***

By the end of the 1960s, Kastute wasn’t able to go door to door in Bajorai collecting money for the priest anymore. Praying for the village in return for his bounty, the priest always left some small change for her. Besides these peanuts, Kastute was allowed to have some food in the church after handing over the donations, though she still needed to beg in the village afterwards. When she couldn’t walk anymore, the neighbours left some food at her door. Because of their fear of getting fleas, however, hardly anyone ever entered her house. Sometimes, Kastute would crawl on her ass to her neighbours or even further. When people suggested that she should live in the communities farming office she replied, ‘you can kill me, but I’ll never go there.’ After her death, she was carried to the community farming office, where her body laid for three days.

***

‘Inside the house the thermometer was showing zero degrees. My flowers were frozen! I was under a blanket, head and all. It was only because of my breath that I didn’t freeze like the flowers.’

It was still pretty cold in the house when we paid Smilte a visit. After no one from her family had been able to reach her on the phone for some time, her niece had come by two days ago and reheated the house.

‘So where are you from? Ah, I know; that’s where Stasevičius used to live. One of you sit here and one of you over there. Ah! You see how they are sticky?’

I peel off a piece of fruit-bread which had been on the armchair and got onto my trousers and reach across to put it on the table.

‘Don’t move! Be careful, be careful! The legs of the armchair aren’t stable.’

Monika sits dead still, only her lips moving as she asks Smilte how it had come to pass that she couldn’t heat the house.

‘That’s what it means to live alone. If you can’t walk, then you can’t heat the house. You can’t do anything, and I couldn’t step on my foot. You know, the water bucket got too full. I never let it get full normally because I can’t carry it then. I always carry it out when it’s half- full. When I tried this time, my foot… such pain! And then I couldn’t walk from that moment. Then from the cold as well, that’s why my leg stopped working and wouldn’t heal. You know, after I fell from my bike one day, they had to operate on me and my leg is full of metal now.’

***

‘When my niece was visiting she handed me some cookies she’d brought with her and told me they weren’t tasty but very expansive. And yours? Aha! It’s whipped cream and jelly; they’re not tasty, but very beautiful.’

A pungent smell hangs in Smilte’s kitchen.

‘You know, the whole summer my wood was standing outside, and it was such a wet summer that it didn’t dry at all.’

With her antiquated fireplace full of holes, she’d loaded the hotplate with a pile of wood to dry and some pieces had become charred.

‘When I returned to Bajorai shortly after independence, my mother was still alive and the neighbours were still here too, though they soon left. You know, all the factories closed at that time. I’d been living in Vilnius and working as a cook in the canteen of a big factory. Three-hundred people lost their jobs at my place! There was no chance of finding a job at that time. Private shops and restaurants didn’t exist yet. That’s why I returned.’

***

‘My father died a long time ago, sixteen years before my mother. He was eighteen years older than her. Both my parents died of a stroke.’

Bump. Bump. Someone’s knocking on the door. Smilte jumps abruptly from the couch, suddenly becoming energised.

‘That must be my sister!’ she cries as she goes towards the door.

‘Good day,’ we hear a very tender voice say. The softness sounds at once sincere and a little contrived.

Monica and I head into the kitchen to greet Smilte’s sister.

‘They came by a moment ago to introduce themselves,’ Smilte says, explaining our presence.

‘Phew! I got frightened because I thought maybe it’s some… Are you a family? Oh sorry, my name is Elžbieta; I am Smilte’s sister,’ she says as she takes off her coat and woollen cap.

‘What are young people like you doing here? Have you been here in the summertime? It’s beautiful in the summer,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘though in the winter it’s very beautiful too. Oh, I was so worried when I saw the car parked on the road. Listen, I’ll tell you something. Smilte doesn’t hear very well, so it’s okay. We are all very, very worried, me and the family. You understand that we can’t come by too often because of our jobs or family commitments. But have you seen what’s happening here? Everywhere, single men and all of them are drinking. They come here. Smilte, she’s a lazy-bones, and they bring food and, of course, alcohol, and you understand, she’s an easy-going woman. She almost froze to death last week. I’m telling you sincerely, she needs looking after, especially in the winter.’

***

‘I was calling and calling her, but she didn’t answer the phone.’
We are still standing in the kitchen. Smilte seems a bit lost since the arrival of her sister.
She’d looked troubled before, but now her restlessness was amplified.

‘Now they will become citizens of our village!’ Smilte loudly interjects indicating us, but

Elžbieta pays her no mind.

‘I came by bus to Kriaunos, and from there I had to walk. It’s only three kilometres, that’s not so far. I like to walk,’ she says as we take our seats in the living room once more. ‘How many siblings do you have?’ Monika asks Elžbieta, as Smilte drifts off into the kitchen.

‘I’m really a pilgrim; I really like to walk. I’m tired, but as long as God will grant me the ability to I’ll walk. I need to change my clothes now.’

We wait in the living room whilst Elžbieta goes to change into something more comfortable. The flowers are looking miserable after thawing. Sunlight emerges outside, flooding the spacious living room in the beautiful yellow evening light. Illuminated in this light, however, the flowers seem even more wretched. Two crosses and three depictions of Jesus hanging on the walls remain in the shadows. The biggest of the three Jesus stares directly down at me as I try to grab a cookie, leaning forward whilst retaining a harmonious balance so no leg of the armchair will yield. Smilte was right; they are tasteless.

***

‘We are four sisters from the same mother, but our father had two boys from his first marriage. He was a widow,’ Elžbieta explains, taking a seat on the lathy couch. ‘Understand, it was after the war. Many men had been shot and were beneath the earth, and the others, well, many were hiding, had left the country or been expelled. There wasn’t much choice. So my mother married him although she was eighteen years his junior, and he had kids. He was a good man, though, a very good man. He grew up in this house. He was the oldest of eight brothers, and because of this, he took over the farm. When I was a kid, he used to take apples to Moscow and sell them there. His brothers,’ Elžbieta pauses for a while deep in thought, ‘well, one went to Australia and became a scientist of economics or philology, something like that. He ran away after the war and never returned to Lithuania. Another one was a school director in Zarasai before he left for America. Another was the police officer here before they sent him to Siberia. He didn’t do anything wrong, though. He and his wife were living in Zarasai at that time. Their neighbours were a Russian officer and his wife, and the wife used to throw garbage into their yard. Well, the two wives got into a fight over it and they sent her to Siberia, so my father’s brother followed her there.’

***

‘It’s such a pity that our neighbours didn’t sell the house. Now, it’s just falling apart. Typical for Lithuanians. You know the proverb, don’t you? No? It goes something like: “if you’ve got bread you won’t eat it, but neither will you give it to another person.’”

Smilte has disappeared for quite some time whilst Elžbieta tells us about their family and former neighbours.

‘Where is your sister?’ Monika asks.

‘Maybe she’s making up the stove or perhaps she’s smoking,’ Elžbieta replies hastily, adding with an even more rapid tongue, ‘and you, why did you decide to come here?’

We go back to the kitchen to look for Smilte. She’s sitting next to the hatchway of the stove, smoking.

‘You got along good with the neighbours, didn’t you?’ Elžbieta says to her pretty loudly. ‘Ha? What? I don’t understand,’ Smilte shouts back.
‘The neighbours, you liked them, didn’t you?’
Smilte throws the cigarette butt into the fire.

‘Yes, it was better then. We used to keep animals together. After they left, step by step, everything disappeared. You know, they wanted to keep the house, and the daughter left wood there, but those bandits stole the wood. Next it was the light-bulbs and in the end, even the planks with which they’d nailed shut the doors and windows. I saw the men who did it. I even went there when they were taking the house apart, noted the license plate of their car and told it to the police. Mother begged me not to tell the police because of what they could do to us. The police caught them, but nothing happened. Some peanuts our neighbours got back,’ Smilte says, lighting another cigarette.

‘You know that their first house burnt down? No? Their son died when it happened. It was around thirty years ago. After that, they bought another house and moved it here, but they didn’t want to put it on the same spot. They planted a fir there in his memory and put the new house directly over a stream. Everybody told them not to do it, but they did it anyway. Well, what do you expect? Mushrooms started to grow in there, and one wall became completely rotten.’

Smilte wet one of her fingertips with spit and drowned the glow of the half-smoked cigarette, placing it on the kitchen cabinet.

***

‘Did you wash yourself?’
Still sitting next to the stove, Smilte looks up at Elžbieta.
‘Huh?’
‘I’m asking, did you wash? Did you wash yourself?’ Elžbieta repeats in a slightly vexed
tone.

‘Yes, I washed,’ Smilte replies, gazing into the hatchway of the fire.
‘Our family, they were kind of educated people in the interwar period,’ Elžbieta says,
plucking at her scarf. ‘The Soviet times took a lot from us. First, they took away our homeland and our connection to it. How can you get that connection back? Second, we got our education from a different perspective. Me and my other sister, we became teachers and went to the city; our other sister also went to study in the city and stayed there. Only Smilte became a cook and had to return here because there was no job for her anymore.’

We followed Elžbieta back to the living room. Smilte stayed in the kitchen.

‘I’m a believer as you probably noticed,’ Elžbieta says handing us a postcard with a figure of a saint that she had brought with her. ‘I pray often. Yesterday I was praying a lot, saying “Please, God, bring good people to Smilte.” And today, you see, that’s why I was so stunned when I saw you here. It was like a revelation. I was very surprised. What kind of phenomenon are you? Yes, I’m a believer and my faith tells me that I will carry Smilte through all of this and she too will experience faith. You know, it’s such a pleasure to go to your community church where you grew up. When I was young…’

Taking three steps towards the kitchen before hesitating and turning back towards us, Elžbieta seemed distracted.

‘Ah, what was I saying? Hmm, but maybe you’re not Catholic? You know we’re Catholics here? Are you a Christian? But Austria is a Catholic country, isn’t it? But are there Protestants too? Probably it’s also possible to believe in nothing.’

Smilte re-enters the living room and Elžbieta carefully places plates upon the table.
‘Sorry, I need to go to the toilet,’ Monika says, rising from the frail armchair.
‘And here we have another problem,’ Elžbieta says. ‘The privy broke down and we need to
build a new one in the summer. You just go to the back of the barn and look for a spot where there’s no wind blowing. You know, here you’ve touched upon another very sensitive subject.’

***

The roaring engine outside my house lets me know that the two neighbouring boys, Titas and Justas have arrived. It’s getting dark, but through the window I can still see that they brought a packet of chips and some cans of beer. I smell my underarm; it stinks, but it isn’t that nasty smell that I used to produce in the city, that stress-odour. Anyway, since the oven in the sauna is burning, my body odour will be replaced by the smell of smoke in an hour or so.

‘Hey bro, how’s the sauna?’ Titas greets me.
‘Hey, everything’s under control. Need to check in half an hour maybe,’ I reply.
‘Warm here,’ Justas says, placing the beer and chips on the table and opening a can.
We sit down and Titas checks his phone. I know he doesn’t like the music I have playing. Two young mice appear. They’re tiny and uncommonly trusting. Probably it’s their first
adventure outside of the nest. Bump! Titas stomps one of them to death. He lifts his foot, and for a second the mouse sticks to his sole before dropping to the ground. The other one tries to escape but seems confused, its tiny feet are not that quick yet. Joining the hunt, Justas takes one of his slippers in his right hand, waiting for the right moment to strike. Slap! He got her… or him, but he or she is still moving. Slap! Dead. I congratulate them on their successful hunt as the track on Spotify changes to something more stirring, Titas’ and my body sway to the beat.

I’m the biggest hypocrite in 2015,
Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean. I mean, it’s evident I’m irrelevant to society,
That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.

Curse me till I’m dead,
Church me with your fake prophesising that I’m gonna be another slave in my head.

We go outside to throw the mice on the compost and have a smoke. Titas quit smoking two or three months ago, but he pulls a joint from his jacket pocket.

‘Do you want?’ he asks us.
‘Ah, maybe just a little,’ I reply.
Justas gives a sign with his hand indicating that he’s not interested. We head back inside and the same song is still playing.

Institutionalise manipulation and lies,
Reciprocation of freedom only live in your eyes.
You hate me, don’t you?
I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself.

Titas goes back to scrolling on his phone. He wants me to change the music, and I agree. ‘Hey, did you manage to bring the seeds?’ he asks me.
‘Yeah, ugh, I tell you, when I had to cross the border between Poland and Lithuania, that
was crazy. You know, I just followed the navigation. First, it sent me into some little village, and then I drove for some time on a small road through the Polish countryside. I got suspicious, but I went on anyway and suddenly, after another tiny village, I was in a forest on a shitty road. I checked the satnav. To go back to the proper border would’ve taken ages, but that road was completely muddy and leading through a forest. Anyway, I didn’t want to turn around, so I went on. There was a sign with something written on it in Polish that I didn’t understand, but it was quite clear that you shouldn’t enter there. I thought for a minute about what to do, got out of the car and back in again. There were tracks from a truck in the mud, so I went. Then I passed a shooting range and there was a Polish and a Lithuanian flag in the middle of the forest.’

Titas and Justas are looking at me, saying nothing. I think I talked a bit too fast, and the story was probably quite dull anyway. I go to the cupboard in the bedroom, get out the cannabis seeds I’d brought from Vienna and hand them to Titas.