Teacher Michelina was not from lowland Samogitia; she came from somewhere in the Highlands and had moved to town the year the German’s closed Kaunas University. She was studying there with a certain Povilas Beržonskis, and maybe he was even the one to tell her that the school was in need of a teacher, though certainly there were teacher shortages in the small towns much closer to her hometown. And here, of all places, this backwoods of backwoods where they spoke the strangest of dialects, where you couldn’t understand what a child was asking nor what an adult was saying, full of terribly rough people, coarse in their ways. But she didn’t leave, and as to why not—well, you couldn’t just up and ask her. When she arrived—tall, young, beautiful—all the youngish men sucked in their stomachs, straightened their shoulders, and all the more frequently hoisted up their sagging trousers when they caught sight of her. At first the town’s women watched her every move, but there wasn’t any point to it: on Sunday, leaving church she would stand a pause under the chestnut with that Beržonskis, talking very quietly, and afterwards, graciously shaking hands, they would part. She would return to her small flat above the post office where she would read. In the evening, when the weather was fine, she’d go out past the town limits and walk along the gravel road, sometimes humming while she walked. The women questioned the parish priest, wasn’t she perhaps some kind of secret nun, but his answer was, no.
The post office was a two-storey wooden house, crammed in between more of the same type of houses. On the first storey was the post office, on the second—two small flats. Understandably, the postmaster lived in one flat and the other belonged to Michelina. Even though the postmaster was a morose, bald bachelor, wizened and even a bit twisted by his bachelorhood, the women held out some hope:
“When they’re in each other’s way, right under each other’s noses all the time, just wait and see, they’ll sniff each other out.”
“Not a chance! It’s going on four decades and nothing, don’t wish for something that’s not going to happen! Maybe he’s missing a ball or something…”
“Don’t tell tales out of school! My husband was in the sauna with him and let me tell you both balls are there!”
The postmaster was one of the first ones to be detained. In his albums they found English, American, and Brazilian postage stamps. They wrote him up as a spy and the man disappeared. After that lieutenant Per Bliuska moved in, but he rarely made it home. He spent most of his nights in the cellar at the doctor’s house interrogating prisoners. And Teacher Michelina no longer walked out beyond the town limits in the evenings, and she no longer hummed to herself.
And though life in the small town was small to begin with, it now totally withered away, shrank, curled into itself like a nut in its shell. Bread was scarce, as were kerosene and clothing, but the town was not yet short of children and school was in session. Placing her palm over their little hands, Michelina taught them to write “m” and “a” and all the other letters. Later they would grow up into all kinds of (different) men and women, but they all had felt the touch of her palm and smelled the scent of her blonde hair. That hair of hers smelled like sweet-flag, millpond sweet-flag.
Everyone saw and everyone knew what her days were like, but what about her nights?
Both the windows of her flat looked out almost directly onto the town square. In its centre, no, maybe it was closer to one of the side streets that ran into it stood a wooden cross. Two fir trees, already taller than the cross, shone green on either side. If there were firs, those mournful trees, that meant they were there to memorialize some tragic event, she just wasn’t aware yet of what that was. Perhaps some volunteer from the battles for indenpendence had died there, or perhaps it was someone else because a fir cannot outgrow a cross in only a few years. And in any case there had been no independence battles near the town, only in 1918, making use of the inter-rule period, four Bolsheviks had created their own “revolutionary” council, but after a few weeks Plechavičius rode in with his men from Seda way and dispersed the little Bolsheviks, pushing the fiercest one out beyond the town limits and shooting him. This she knew from the school watchman.
She did not have beautiful long curtains on her windows, only those light cotton ones that covered half the glass. If you stood on the cobblestones below you couldn’t see much of anything, only a patch of the ceiling. And so when she first got up, she didn’t have to go to the window to pull the curtains open. Just like that light shone through them the whole day, even though they were closed. She just glanced out the window at the immured grey sky and took an umbrella with her. Down below, on the damp cobblestones, she pulled up short, as though she’d been nailed in place. Of itself her eye caught sight of something white lying under the cross. Two lay there, undressed to their undershirts and barefoot. There was no red blood to be seen. Not on the bodies, not on the stones. The night rain had washed everything away. She averted her gaze, lowered her head, and hurried off towards the school. The whole while she walked she kept repeating without stop: “Don’t go and stand in front of the blackboard today, don’t go and stand in front of the blackboard today, against the black background the children will see right away how pale and scared you are…” The children themselves were pale and scared, but in time they would get used to it.
Already the very first winter she was there, when she remained after classes on her own in the school left without heat to cut out white snowflakes for the school Christmas tree, the school watchman came in quietly and invited her for tea. He and his wife were a lovely old couple who did everything together: tended the stoves, washed the floors, swept the paths, sprinkled the sand, and they had planted lilac and jasmine under the windows. Almost right up until All Saint’s Day dahlias kept blooming in the huge flower bed. The two of them took shelter at the school and their home was always warm and clean and even in the evenings it smelled of freshly washed floors. Perhaps they were the only ones in the village who understood how difficult it was for a young woman to live amongst strangers, and moreover it was winter and the longest night, and even more so her not knowing the dialect everyone spoke around her and always being afraid of making a fool of herself. Perhaps they weren’t the only ones who understood all this, but they were the only ones who kept inviting her over for tea. Later she would begin popping by without being invited.
The elderly couple were eager and curious, interested in where she was from, who her parents were, what they call one thing or another where she was from, as though they were linguists of some kind. She answered them happily and listened to them gladly, because after all they had both been born in the village, grew up there, and now were growing old there. They knew everything about it and everyone in it and even back then that idea had flashed in her mind, but it flashed and then disappeared…
That morning she couldn’t start her lessons. She warned the children off going to the square by the cross anymore, told them not to stare at the ones dumped there. Then she went and knocked on the elderly couple’s door and without waiting to be asked in sat down, put her elbows on the table, buried her face in her hands and wept. No one comforted or quieted her; she cried until she had no more tears.
The elderly couple sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the window. Then, as though talking to himself, the watchman said:
“Vaškys and Ruginis are lying there.”
She took note of this. And the elderly woman added:
“Moreover, Vaškys had smashed a window at the school. He was throwing snowballs—and he broke it.”
This time they didn’t offer her any tea. How could they drink tea now? And the watchman said some more:
“We, Lithuania’s volunteers in 1918, we were all recorded. The ones who died, the ones who survived.
They didn’t forget a single one.”
She walked home slowly, keeping her head down the same way, and when she crossed the bridge, the old planks rattled underfoot and along with their rattling a thought pierced her head and stuck there: “A country that has forgotten its dead children is itself destined to die. Sooner or later.” And another thought came out of the blue: “How can you even call them old? I mean, they’re not even sixty yet!”
She used to really like the smell of freshly washed floors. She would wash her own floors three times a week. Afterwards she would sit doing nothing and daydream. That’s how her real home would smell, the one she would live in and grow old in. And may the last scent that reached her be that of cold well water and burning candlewax. And the scent of a bug accidentally crushed in her granddaughter’s palm, when she ran in quickly when called from the yard. Now standing next to her bed, hiding her little palm behind her back guiltily.
She’d wash the stairwell too, but only once a week. Washing the stairs was not a very pleasant job. It seemed to her that Per Liuska, who would return home from the doctor’s cellar in the predawn hours, could track blood in on his shoes.
The old, widowed teacher lived there before her. One summer’s day taking a book with him, he and went off to Prudgalius, the millpond. They found the book on the shore and him already afloat in the water next to the patch of sweet-flag. A death like that during the war didn’t seem at all terrible to her. Everything in the flat was as he left it: the furniture, the books, the made up bed, a small frying pan on the brick stove with a slice of bread thrown in it, the bread even bore his toothmarks. She cried when she saw the toothmarks, but then she calmed down: in his own way the old teacher had passed his books and his daily bread to her. Tie it up in a knot and wear it around your neck.
The first time she washed the floors she did her best to reach all of the corners, all the nooks and crannies behind the furniture. There was a narrow gap between the brick stove and the wall; all that fit into the gap was a crumpled trashcan. And that had been pulled out, moulding at its bottom were two eggshells.
She lifted the bucket and placed it upright behind her. That gap had to be the dirtiest place. And it seemed to her that one of the floorboards was aslant, as though it had come loose. “Good God!” she said, horrified.
“The mice will get in through there!” She rattled the board with her fingers, trying to push it to the left, to the right, then pull it towards herself, but there was no way to get ahold of it. When she shoved the teacher’s breadknife underneath, it raised up quite easily. Two little wooden spikes protruded from underneath and there were two small holes visible in the floorboard. A gap into which you could stick your hand darkened before her. She easily set the floorboard back into place. Let the hiding place be. She didn’t have anything to hide. Yet.
She knew why she was remembering that hiding place now, why she was walking home so slowly across that bridge, why she walked even more slowly across the cobblestones up the hill. They would still be lying there and she would not dare to glance at them one more time. It was enough that she now knew their surnames. She would write them down that evening. She’d also write down that Vaškys had once broken the window at the school and that now, on the 12th day of October, he lay dumped in the town square, shot dead.
Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius