by Wendell Mayo
When I arrived at the secondary school in the Administrator’s grumble-storm of a village, he removed his brown-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes with two sharp knuckles. I took advantage of all his eye rubbing to pinch-wring water from my forehead. Water dribbled onto his office floor. When he stopped rubbing, eyes popped open above his slack-jowled, bulldoggish cheeks, I felt my stiff American smile roll up my face, then more water run off my upper lip and down my jawlines.
“Such groans of roaring wind and rain,” the Administrator said, “I never remember to have heard.” His quoting King Lear was not as astonishing as how good his English was and how he flaunted it.
“Yeah, it’s a mess out there,” I mumbled through a feeble baptismal smile.
“But you made it to Lithuania!” he said. “Now that the Soviets are gone, we are in need of native English speakers.” He rose from his desk, and instructed me to leave my bags in the hall. “Besides, tonight is diskoteka!”
He snagged my arm and we left the school, huddled under his umbrella, straight for the nearby Cultural Center, so named because the new city government hadn’t gotten around to changing the colorful Soviet nomenclature of civic buildings. Even so, he warned, some stubborn specifics of culture held sway. Even in late summer, Lithuanians still dreaded the “draft disease,” a mysterious condition brought upon by the slightest rumor of air moving in the room and, I expect, by people shivering in the wake of the Soviet natural gas embargo the winter of their declaration of independence.
He shook my hand and left me at a narrow doorway propped open with a small chunk of red brick. I entered amid bursts of cheap strobe light and digital techno-pounding while people ground themselves together, a kind of strange pelvic smooching in a relentless humid heat of bodies against nailed-shut windows. Water wouldn’t know its place, its bullying cycle, solid, liquid, suffocating vapor. There was no escaping the stuff—and I blamed it; water was ruining my first time overseas, a volunteer, teaching English, my clear sense that I was doing something unsullied, unselfish.
Hand on waist, looking like a teacup, I wilted awhile by a wall, then decided to leave, when a young woman appeared, linked her arm in mine and lugged me toward a fibrous mass of cigarette smoke ensnaring frantic jutting elbows, heads, hands, all fetal kicking against what seemed the damp, cavernous interior of a giant cinderblock skull. Only my partner’s luminous blue eyes seemed to penetrate the suffocating skein of dancers. Little spears of light glinted in them when the strobe fired. She was blond, thin, boy-bobbed hair. As she danced the straps of her blue-jean overalls popped up, down; her hips teeter-tottered in my hands. Soon she raised herself on tiptoe and ground against me with wider and wider oscillations of her hips. When I pushed her a little away, enough to make a centimeter or two of space between our reproductive organs, she didn’t seem to mind, presumably because none of this pelvis-grinding was personal, something that degenerated into a kind of latch-as-latch-can frenzy, more like Brownian motion than romance, motion that made me, not usually aware of eighteenth-century sensibilities, long for gilded dance cards, wallflowers, perfumed handkerchiefs—and dry clothes.
But I liked the way her hips felt in my palms, undulating with the beat. But then she was at me again, grinding away at my fresh erection (which I’d begged to sit this one out!). She poked her tongue in my mouth and started to tickle the hard portion of my palate. At the same instant I felt her kick my pants cuff with the toe of her shoe, then her unshaven leg rasping against mine—and next realized I’d no air in my lungs; she’d drawn it all out! I began to panic; the techno-pounding seemed far away. Then we popped apart, pried so by two age-spotted hands, a thin woman with dark hair severely restrained by a large hairclip poking out her cranium as if part of the structure of her skull. She stood guard at the young woman’s side, arms folded, staring crossly at me. My former dance-partner wiped her lips with the back of a hand, panted a couple times, and smiled.
“I’m Edward,” I said to her, relieved by the duration of our separation.
Still out of breath, she pointed at her own sweat-beaded chest. “Lora,” she said, then touched the elbow of the scowling older woman and added, “Jonė.”
I started to say more—there had to be more to say in some language or other!—when Lora put her hand to her forehead.
“Atsiprašau-—mano galvos”—her head, a headache, even I could salvage that much from my junkyard of Lithuanian words. Jonė took Lora’s arm and guided her back into the sultry shadows of the Cultural Center.
Aroused and frightened by my encounter with Lora, I quickly left the diskoteka for my bags at the school. I entered the lobby and retrieved the key to my classroom from the Key Keeper. She was a large woman, the sort you see with their heads wrapped in babushkas, gold in their mouths, selling onions, carrots, and tomatoes in pails on sidewalks. For some reason the woman always seemed to have one button on the front of her gray smock unfastened, always a different one. As she handed my key to me, she glanced unexpectedly at the coat rack, as if someone were waiting to check a coat. I found the door, unlocked it, and stepped inside my classroom, its slate-colored walls and chalkboards so worn they shone alabaster. I removed teaching supplies and my umbrella from my suitcase, then exited and relocked the door.
When I returned my key to the Keeper, I navigated close to the coat rack and this time spotted her bottle of Stolichnaya poking out an old rubber boot. Once outside, I followed Kestučio Street northeast, toward the river and my lodgings at the Sonata Viešbutis, a way that took me through a neglected sculpture park made in Soviet times, gray granite statues scattered among stick-straight firs and peat, a collection of modern petroglyphs overgrown with broad, pale-green stands of fern: oversized snails and turtles mixed with full-size wolves and other forest creatures whose damp, blurred surfaces nearly overcame the essences of things they attempted to represent. The rain paused. I pressed a hand to a turtle’s shell; its stone was cool and smooth, something beyond what the sculpture seemed to render. But more. I ran my fingers along its lichen-clotted grooves, soaked with rain, like the soggy lines in pine bark, tall blades of drenched grass, umbrageous, sodden canopies of birch and oak, and raspberry canes arcing out bushes like whips in restless wind.
The morning after my dance with Lora at the diskoteka I learned that she suffered massive brain hemorrhage. Three days passed and she died in the Birštonas hospital, same place I’d been for my physical examination to teach. I hardly knew Lora. We hadn’t even shared a language, just one sultry dance. Still, I scarcely believed she was dead, felt as if someone’d left a window open in my head—a draft rushed through—and I instantly recalled cats and chickens wandering the halls of the hospital where I’d waited alone for my physical. To die in a place where cats and chickens wandered. It was hard to imagine. How do you tell a story like that? One torrid dance. A miasma of wet rasping fabric and skin. Wandering cats and chickens. A young woman gone, so suddenly.
When I entered the Administrator’s office, he’d hiked his glasses to his forehead, and was pinching the bridge of his nose, so industriously I wondered if he’d been crying, for Lora, I assumed.
“For the rain it raineth every day,” he said, then gingerly settled his glasses on his nose, seeming satisfied to show off his Twelfth Night. “Lora’s funeral is this afternoon,” he added. “You are excused from your duties to attend.”
“Thank you, but I’m just getting to know my students, and—”
“Lora’s aunt, Jonė, teaches mathematics here,” he said. “She has invited a few colleagues.” His voice stiffened and his face flushed, leaving pools of white at his cheeks. “You should go.”
I’d been overseas just enough to know to be endlessly open-minded about these matters.
“Alright,” I said, “but I didn’t know her well.”
The Administrator told me that Lora came to live with her aunt Jonė after Lora’s parents were killed in a train accident. Both women lived quite alone in a small cabin a little west of the sculpture park. They kept to themselves, so much so the Administrator was surprised to hear that Lora had been to the diskoteka. He went on to say that since Jonė appeared at the dance, it could only be to fetch Lora home early.
“Now,” the Administrator smiled. “You know Lora.”
Lora was buried in a warm September rain at the cemetery east of the center of Birštonas, her grave hidden from the road by brooding deep-green poplars that reached half-over an iron gate and quaked as if accusing her resting place of not having quite enough shade. It was through such a strange untended place mourners passed from church to burial site, where Lora’s freshly varnished, closed coffin sat next to a hole freshly dug and a mound of earth, curiously shaped like a pair of shoulders without a head. Two gravediggers stood by, leaning on their shovels. After a time, the headless shoulders near Lora’s open grave slicked over with drizzle and seemed to melt. I could not find the Administrator anywhere, but remember his mourning instructions as I left his office.
“You stand at attention,” he said, “and see nothing with your eyes.”
It rained harder. Umbrellas went up, and I suddenly found Lora’s aunt Jonė with me under my umbrella. She wore a black mourning dress with a high lace collar, along with the customary black sash running diagonally across her chest and hip. She floated next to me and hovered, giving me one of those, “Young man, you don’t mind, do you?” line-smiles I’d gotten from other women my senior on trans-Atlantic flights: “Young man, you don’t mind if I put my extra bag under your foot rest, do you?” She leaned a little toward me, close enough to detect her heavy perfume, honeysuckle, and she stood, stiff-straight. This stiff-standing, stone silence went on a long time among the mourners.
I was the only person not wearing a black sash. Other mourners appeared to be cleft by the black gaps of grief running across their bodies. Their muscles assumed a kind of living rigor one only expects after death. I kept thinking their features would melt away in the ruinous rain, starting from the tips of their umbrellas, the way time acts on ancient statues, but they stood, whole, stolid, cuffs and shoes soaked dark, like the soaked petroglyphs I’d seen in the sculpture park. Lithuanian words drifted through the damp air. I started faking Lithuanian words to a hymn, sounding them out, hoping to blend in. After a time, failing to sound words out, I spotted a young blond woman with a splendidly expressive mouth, her eyes closed in fervent grief, and made with my mouth the shapes of words she made with hers; all this I imitated, until the third hymn, when the young woman’s eyelids suddenly sprung open, like day upon night, startled me, and I had to stop mouthing words. I went back to piecing them out by sound alone, which also failed, and I was left with my silence and the drumbeat of raindrops on the fabric of my umbrella.
Lora’s wake was a little after the burial, at the Nemuno Viešbutis, a sagging structure south of the sculpture park, three stories, painted a peeling, dull, greenish yellow, its eaves and balconies dripping with intricate, dirty white fretwork, like unwashed lace. Once inside, we all observed our silent staring awhile, then took breaks from it to obediently consume hunks of bee-comb oozing with honey, accompanied by wild raspberries threaded onto stiff stalks of wild grass. The food was spread on a long table covered with a red-checkered cloth. Just as I reached for a dish of honeycomb, the cloth bunched against the side of the plate—and I found the Administrator at my elbow, his voice behind me.
“Do you see that wrinkle in the tablecloth?” he whispered. “The belief is that wrinkle is a ghost clutching the cloth, trying to get at the food.”
I was glad to hear a whistle of English in the maelstrom of Lithuanian. But the entire time the Administrator spoke, I dared not turn around—it was like he was the clinging ghost himself.
“Interesting,” I said, and reached for a chunk of fresh honeycomb, but before my fingers found the sweet, sticky, clover-scented stuff, the Administrator went on.
“If you take a bit of food intended for the ghost, it will attach itself to you and follow you about, hungry, clinging for years.”
My appetite for honeycomb vanished. I quickly shoved the dish aside, smoothed the cloth, and turned to face the Administrator, who had vanished as well.
After a time, most mourners in the room were quite skilled at maintaining their empty gazes while smoothly guiding food into their mouths. Their curious manner of repast restored my appetite. After a while I could ably guide a stalk of wild raspberries into my mouth without revealing even a shred of joy in its taste, all the while maintaining an appropriate far-off gaze of grief, this, partly assisted by a trick I learned: I would stare with blank astonishment, my mouth part open, upon strips of garish red wallpaper that had separated from the wall and hung like wet tongues uncoiled in the room.
A little later, Jonė began an impromptu eulogy, of which I could only follow small parts, words such as “vaikas,” “child”; “laukti,” “wait”; and the obligatory “Dievo,” “God.” Jonė’s body language was even less revealing: She stood stiff-straight behind a crooked music stand, eyes glazed, nose tilted slightly upward at the ceiling light. A fly desperately zigzagged about a single bare bulb, something that reminded me of diskoteka-dancing with Lora only a few days before.
After the wake, I strolled awhile in the sculpture park before returning to my room at the Sonata. The rain had slowed and damp conifers scented the air. The wind stiffened and brought up goose-bumps along my arms. I felt awake, alert—alive. Then behind me I heard Jonė clop-clopping in her wooden heels, along the narrow asphalt walk choked with morning glory and weeds, navigating her way through the petroglyphs. Her hairclip sailed above her head. The black furls of her mourning dress filled with wind and floated behind her in pillows of black.
“Palauk!” she cried.
I slowed and she caught me. She gathered up her dark pillows and smoothed them out of sight.
She clopped up to my side, line-smiled. A metal-green scarab light glinted in her eyes. I tried to fold up my umbrella quickly, but she ducked under it quickly. She looked at me in a way I knew she had very little English; her eyes wobbled in her head, searching for mine, until she seemed to decide she’d locked onto them. Then she looped her arm inside mine, clutching, so tightly it seemed the whole of her personage attached to me. This, in turn, was not so strange as walking in utter silence in her damp ravenesque presence.
I tried to form a Lithuanian phrase to express my surprise and discomfort, said, “Nesuprantu”—“I don’t understand,” the best I could come up with, but nothing seemed up to the task of separating her from me, other than physical repulsion, which I considered, but then we were at the portico of the school and I dashed inside, saying something like, “Man rekia mano kynygai”—I need my books—and I did!
Morning, I found myself staring down from my viešbutis window to the remnants of Lenin’s statue, two pant legs cut off at the knees. Then I saw Jonė stroll up, still in mourning clothes. She sat on the stump of one of Lenin’s knees, and gazed up at my window, rain slicking her hair into a coal-black stone. I was convinced she was making herself look wet and miserable, a ruse to insure I would share my umbrella with her on the way to school. I quickly stashed my umbrella in my closet and headed for the back entrance of the building, knowing I’d be soaked by the time I reached the school, but worth it to walk gloriously alone!
I descended in the world’s slowest lift, whose shaft brought close to ear a cacophony of voices on other floors waiting for it to arrive. I dashed for the Key Keeper’s desk, leaving her with an astonished “O” shape of mouth as I sped by, my room key appearing in her hand as if magic. I put my shoulder to the back door and forced it open. And there stood Jonė, wet, arms folded over her black sash. Her perfume that now smelled old and vinegary. Her line-smile had become a wrinkled pout.
I rolled my eyes skyward, shrugged to indicate I had no umbrella to offer her, hoping she would clop over to one of the other teachers to share an umbrella, but no! She produced an umbrella of her own, and danced to my side as if a second’s hesitation might permit one more fatal drop of rain to strike my head. Again we strolled silently to the school, a tug of war—if I sped up, she let out a tiny yelp like a wounded puppy until I slowed, and clutched my arm even tighter.
Once inside the school, she closed her umbrella and shook it. I seized the moment, bolted to the Administrator’s office, and found him there, his eyeglasses stuck to his forehead and eyes closed.
“Ka?” he said, eyes shut, then, “what?” when he recognized me.
“I think Jonė has the wrong idea about my attending Lora’s funeral. She’s becoming, well, attached.”
He worked his glasses over his eyes and seemed to search for mine a few seconds.
“Maybe she is only grieving.”
“Grieving? I don’t know her!”
“Alright,” he said. “I will tell her not to become attached to you. Is that correct?”
“Alright,” I replied and swayed side to side nervously, a motion he followed with his eyes until they swam and refocused.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll interpret for you. We need you!”
I made my way to my classroom, cautiously relieved that the Administrator had promised to talk to Jonė, when a new fleet of raindrops smacked the windows of the building, the beginning of another drenching, setting metal eaves to ringing, articulate, talkative, yet incomprehensible.
When I reached the lobby to fetch my classroom key, the Key Keeper was curiously absent, the lobby transformed into a tropical zone: the atmosphere damp, musty, fed by four small waterfalls pouring out holes in the ceiling, one in each quadrant of the hapless room. Finding the lobby utterly empty, I went into the basement in search of the Key Keeper only to find water cascading from the lobby, through the floor, and splashing into rust-colored divots in the cement. A cold steam arose from the base of the waterfalls and filled the basement with an unrelenting fog. I ran my hand through one cold stream, felt the upsplash on my face, then heard the Key Keeper’s chair scud on the floor above. I went back upstairs, past the Administrator’s office, and saw him speaking with Jonė through the partially open door. The Key Keeper had reinstalled herself in her booth near the coat check room, and she’d spotted four yellow garbage pails under the four waterfalls. Two were running over and two leaking out the bottoms. Still, inspired by the sight of the Administrator’s meeting with Jonė, and somehow wanting a cheerful word to overcome so much water, I blurted to the Key Keeper, “Labadiena!”
She crossed her arms over her chest, shook her head. “Ka?”
I knew she understood my word. What was so complicated about ‘Good day?’
I tried another word.
“Lietus,” I said, holding my palm out, as if rain were falling into it, and waiting for my key. I thought commiserating over the watery weather might strike some note of empathy in the Key Keeper. But she smiled painfully, as if I were Typhoid Mary, dragged open her drawer of keys, picked out mine, then let it dangle over my palm two-three seconds before ceremoniously letting it drop.
When school let out, the sun suddenly blazed forth, a sign, I was sure, that days ahead would be brighter. So touched by light, I made my way to Saint Antano’s tiny cathedral east of the school near the river, a special service to remember two Birštonas partisans, “Forest Sisters,” who resisted to their deaths the Soviet occupation just after World War Two. The gaunt, three-steepled cathedral sat drying in the sun, its red brick still blotched with a week’s worth of rainstorm. On its old wooden altar sat a large black-and-white photograph of the sisters, taken deep in a pine forest. The two young women gazed directly into the camera lens, one, blond, reclining behind what looked like a Browning Automatic Rifle complete with bipod, her right arm resting so naturally along the thigh of one leg she might have been a Botticelli in battle fatigues. Next to her knelt a dark-haired woman with Mona Lisan countenance. A grenade launcher hung by a black leather strap dividing her chest. Pines surrounded both women completely, needles at their feet, fronds and cones above, lush forest all around.
I felt water hit my face and turned to the aisle to see a priest dip a large willow switch into a pail, cock it over one shoulder, and catapult holy water an incredible distance down the nave to rat-tat-tat on the back wall. A cloud suddenly uncovered the sun and a stained glass window poured a rainbow near my pew. I thought: baptized a second time, first in rain, now in sun?
When I exited the cathedral, Birštonas took on a new depth; sunlight seemed to illuminate and penetrate everything—a row of dill weed gone to seed, vibrating in the breeze; a hay wagon broken down in the main road; and farther in the distance a stork’s nest atop a power pole, its twigs and branches poking into blue sky. Far into the pines, trunks were bruised damp-brown from rain. I was elated. So, upon seeing Jonė at the base of the cathedral steps, and knowing the Administrator has spoken to her, I shouted, “Labas, Jonė!”
She arranged the clip in her hair a bit, wriggled a little in her mourning dress, not black in sunlight, but now seeming a shade of deep metallic purple. She handed me a postcard of Basanavičius’s statue in the town center, a leader in educational reform in Lithuania, whose beard growing high on his face made him appear hermit-like. The card read, in her hand, ‘With beast wishes, Jonė.’
I laughed, admit I felt touched by her ‘beast.’ So I asked, “Do you want English lessons?”
“Ne!” She nodded vigorously in the direction of the river.
“Okay,” I said, “Nemunas.”
Once more we walked in silence, now without aid of an umbrella, no arm-latching as before. We passed long, hive-like sanatoria, then came to a broad pedestrian-only walk through thick pines. She peddled forward on her own, a little ahead, careful to not let me out of her shadow. We neared thick bulrushes at the riverbank. Jonė kicked off her heels, carried them by their back straps in one hand, swung them like a schoolgirl, head back bathing her mourning face in the sun. I slowed near the river’s edge, knowing we were close to water. I dreaded being that close to the river, especially knowing how high it had risen in the past few days—yet Jonė forged ahead, until, suddenly, the mighty Nemunas lay before us, current scouring its sides like an enormous blue-green snake, sunlight glancing off its scales. I could feel it ready to coil about me in cold, constricting intimacy. Jonė laughed, snagged my hand to balance herself, then walked into the swift water to her waist. I stumbled forward—and plunged into waist-deep river with her! Jonė’s mourning dress billowed about me. I began to beat the dark fabric down, but, rather than rescue herself, she clamped both arms about my waist, the terrible cloth still looming. I slogged toward to the riverbank, Jonė clinging the whole time, her sopped black satin trailing in the bulrushes. I attempted to pull her arms from my waist, but she resisted.
“Lora!” she shouted.
I pried her from me and left her lying on the riverbank.
When I arrived at school the next morning, I went straight to the Administrator’s office.
“How do you like our fine Lithuanian sunshine?” he asked.
“It’s nice,” I replied.
“So, how is it going with Jonė?”
“Not well. I don’t want her near me.”
He took up a pocketknife and began sharpening a pencil.
“Near enough for physical contact.”
“What kind of contact?”
“Close contact!” I blurted. “Very close contact!”
I left his office, had to get to my classroom. The school day seemed long, longer than the rainiest days ever seemed. My students, an affable group to be sure, had little to do with it. Nor did my anticipation of basking in the new sunlight when school let out. When the final bell rang, my students left, and the Administrator entered my classroom.
His face was a collage—bright red nose and neck in contrast to pasty-white jowls—yet he spoke cheerfully.
“I have solved your problem with close contact.”
“Thank you,” I replied, looking straight at him yet seeing nothing, the same advice he’d given me for Lora’s funeral. “I hope you did not hurt Jonė’s feelings.”
“Too late. The hurly-burly’s done!” He reached into his front pants pockets with both hands and rocked a little on his heels. “I have discharged Jonė.”
“Of course. I told her she is a disgrace to our school and to her country.”
“Her country? You didn’t need to fire her!”
“Let’s forget it,” he said with a dogged smile. “We need you. I promise, tomorrow will be different.”
When I left the Administrator’s office, I headed for the Sonata. When I reached it, I could not bear to return to my room. I took the lift alone two-three times, heard sounds of other teachers echo in the elevator shaft, and felt I’d failed my first and only time away from home.
In the coming weeks, I visited the Sculpture Park. The sun had yet to relent. Everything dried out. Pale conifers dry-chaffed above, wild raspberry bushes brooded, their droughty branches heavy with late-summer fruit. When I entered the Park, once rich dark lines of petroglyphs were bone dry, washed faint with bright light. My turtle had become only turtle and no more. The cantankerous sounds of rain and twangling eaves of the school only memories. My once stygian and watered world seemed a dream in someone else’s skies. Rain enough, and the world wanted sun; enough sun, and it now longed for rain to return.
I turned to the cemetery where Lora rested under poplars that reached half over the iron fence, leaving half sun, half shade, where, over poplars, blackbirds flocked to limb, unflocked, spiraled out to pock the cloudless azure sky.
“Lora,” I whispered, as if needing desperately to hear my voice in a place of such silence. Then, “Jonė” when I realized I was utterly alone.
Beyond the cemetery, there was a bend in the road I’d never noticed.
I watched and waited.