Editor’s note: The following passage is a work of fiction.
Maria was well enough to help Mama in the kitchen now. She could do the baking. Vanda was helping too. The two girls’ arms were covered in flour up to their elbows. They were busy making šližikai for the big bowl of poppy seed milk. Vilma was sitting in the corner, rolling a bit of dough between her fingers. Vilma’s dough ball was almost black with soot she’d picked up rolling her dough on the floor in front of the stove and fuzzy with dust from the floor.
It was a cold dark night outside of their warm cottage: One of those nights that made your bones ache. The moon had not yet risen. Mama was outside, fetching water from the well. She had wrapped herself in two wool shawls—one for her head and neck and the other for her shoulders.
The door opened and three men from the forest stepped inside. Their eyebrows were covered in frost and their cheeks were red from the cold. They were dressed in boots, army pants, and army overcoats. They wore hand-knit sweaters and hats made from rabbit or fox. On their lapels they wore small medallions with the image of the Virgin Mary on one side and Jesus on the other. On both sides the holy pictures were covered with lacquer. The corners were painted yellow, green, and red. They all wore wide belts crisscrossed over their shoulders. Ammunition and their gear, pistols and grenades, hung from their shoulder belts. They all wore binoculars. One of them had a small accordion slung over his back. They were all carrying submachine guns.
“God bless you,” one of the men said.
Maria stared warily at the submachine gun in the man’s hand. She knew not to be afraid of these men, still, their guns frightened her. She did not ever know when they would have cause to use them and the sound that came from the submachine gun was ear-splitting.
The door burst open behind them and Mama came inside, dragging a bucket of water. Another one of their men walked in behind Mama. He immediately took the water from Mama and carried it into the kitchen and set the bucket down on the floor.
“Teta, why are you working so hard on Kūčios,” the man said, “you know how it is, if you work hard on Christmas Eve, then you will work hard the entire year.”
Mama laughed and playfully swatted the man’s arm. He kissed her on both cheeks. The other men kissed Mama’s cheeks as well.
“Merry Christmas,” Mama said, “welcome. The table is set. The girls will put their baking in the oven. Come, sit down and rest in the parlor.”
The men followed Mama into the parlor. Mama had set the table with her milky white linen tablecloth. Straw from the barn poked out from underneath. On the table were twelve dishes of twelve different types of foods. There was the large ceramic bowl of poppy seed milk and a berry compote.
“Teta, how did you manage all this during times like these?” one of the partisans asked.
“God’s miracle,” Mama said.
The men set their guns against the parlor walls, but Maria saw that they never took their eyes off of their guns.
Dėdė Mikas appeared in the doorway accompanied by Perkūnas and a few other partisans. Dėdė Mikas gave the command, “ten-hut,” and began his report.
“It is important for us during these darkest days of the year and the darkest days of our nation’s history not to give up hope,” Dėdė Mikas said. “It is important for us to keep on fighting for freedom in our land.”
Dėdė Mikas paused and tears rose to his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, “for making the sacrifices you have. You have all lived up to your most sacred oaths. Our nation’s suffering and the amount of our brothers’ spilled blood, and the blood that continues to be spilled every day in this horrific tragic moment, should not deter us from continuing the fight,” he said.
Everyone standing around the table grew silent. Perkūnas leaned on the muzzle of his weapon, lost in thought.
Dėdė Mikas began a song in his deep baritone:
Toli už girių leidosi saulė, (Far beyond the forests the sun was setting)
dainavo broliai ardami, (the brothers sang as they plowed the fields)
dainavo tėviškės artojai, (the farmers of the land sang)
arimą juodą versdami (plowing the dark fertile land)
The men’s voices joined in, ringing loud and strong:
Stovėjai, Mama, tu prie vartų, (Mama, you stood beside the gates)
kalbėjai—vakaras gražus (you said the evening was lovely)
ir per naktis tu nemiegojai, (nights you never slept)
Prie lopšio supdama vaikus (rocking your babies)
The men sang, their voices were filled with sadness, making the words of the song even sadder for Maria.
Dabar ilgu žaliajam sodžiui (Now you long for your green orchard)
toli išklydusių vaikų (for your children scattered far away)
ir vakarai čia taip nuobodūs, (and the evenings are so long)
be jokio džiaugsmo, be dainų. (without any joy, without song)
Bet lauk, motule, aš sugrįšiu, (But wait for me mother, I’ll come back)
sugrįšiu tavęs išbučiuot (I’ll come back to kiss you)
The stanzas of the songs flowed one after another and everyone around the table seemed to grow sad. As they were singing, Maria noticed that one of the partisans was not a man, but a woman wearing a man’s uniform. Her eyes were brimming with tears that threatened to overflow. She was struggling to hold them back. She must have been thinking about her own home, Maria thought, and about her own white linen table cloth.
“Enough,” Mama said, “let us eat.”
They stood around the table. Dėdė Mikas led everyone in prayer. Then he took a square Communion wafer and held it out towards Mama. She broke off a piece and they wished each other health and happiness. She held that piece out towards Perkūnas and he broke off a piece. It took a long time for everyone to break wafers and exchange greetings, but Maria liked this part most. She waited eagerly until it was her turn to break the wafer with her sisters.
“It was five years ago, Christmas 1945, when my brother Stasys and I set out on the partisan road,” Dėdė Mikas said.
“Old age for a partisan,” Perkūnas said, “most do not last a year.”
Dėdė Mikas nodded in agreement. “I’m a lucky bastard. But how stupid we were then. How green!” Dėdė Mikas chuckled to himself, lost in thought. “Our first problem was gathering weapons and ammunition,” he continued. “My younger brother Stasys somehow managed to get hold of some ammunition and a few grenades. The grenades were rather rusty, but we did not bother polishing them. We only checked to make sure the stems were good. Most of the ammunition was not in good shape. We had to polish most of it and check it. Almost all of the ammunition powder was wet, so we dried it out like we would dry out nuts, by pouring out the powder from the capsules and
setting it out to dry in a sunny place. Once the powder was dry, we poured it back into the capsules, checking to make sure the capsules were not damaged.”
The men around the table burst out laughing.
“Afterwards, we pulled straws to see who would get the better gun,” Dėdė Mikas continued, “Stasys got the better-looking gun. I got the one with the better barrel and better chamber clip. We argued over whose weapon would prove to be more dependable in the end.”
Then Dėdė Mikas grew silent. “I should have let Stasys have the better gun,” he said. After a moment, he added, “perhaps then he might still have been here with us.”
“Your brother is with God now,” Mama said and lay her hand on Dėdė Mikas’s hand.
Dėdė Mikas smiled at Mama and patted her hand. There was something about the way that they were with each other now, Maria thought, that was as though they were Mama and Tėtė and she and Vanda and Vilma were their children. It seemed as though only she, Maria, never forgot that her Tėtė was far away in Siberia—that the Russians brought him there in a train intended for animals. Vilma and Vanda had forgotten him. Even now, even on Christmas.
“Stasys and I did not sleep that night,” Dėdė Mikas continued. “According to our agreement with Kardas, the two of us would set out and would meet the partisans at an agreed-upon place 15 kilometers away. All of our partisan gear had been stored at a neighboring farm. At the farm we dressed in our partisan clothing, hung the ammunition belts across our chests, fastened on the grenades and ammunition, and then, clutching our weapons, went to say good-bye to our family.
“Tears rolled down our mother’s cheeks. We both went to her and kneeled before her, asking for her blessing. She stretched out her work-worn hands and pressed our heads to her. Quietly, she whispered her blessing. She blessed the road we had chosen. As we were leaving, she said, ‘Do not let them take you alive, my sons.’ Those were the last words I heard from my mother. When they killed our brother, she was taken to Siberia.”
Mama lay her hand on Dėdė Mikas’s shoulder. “The partisans’ mothers have suffered,” she said, “perhaps more than anyone else.”
“Enough,” one of the partisan men said, “if we spend Christmas Eve crying, we’ll be crying all year long. Let’s celebrate.” He picked up the accordion he had carried in on his back and began to play a fast polka.
Dėdė Mikas held out his hand to Mama. She smiled at him. He nodded at her. They danced a quick polka around the Christmas Eve table. Then one of the other partisans held his hand out to the partisan woman and she too accepted. They danced around the table, as though chasing Mama and Dėdė Mikas, twirling and twirling as they went. The partisan woman laughed and laughed, though her face was still wet from her tears.
Perkūnas looked up from his stupor, “Well then,” he said, “little Maria, will you do me the honor?”
And so, Maria and Perkūnas danced the polka around the table too. Soon Maria was laughing so hard, she felt light and good and wondered what all those tears had been about anyway.
This excerpt is taken from Laima Vincė’s new novel “Broken Charms” which will be published by Baltos Lankos in 2010. Set in America and in Lithuania, the novel tells the story of three generations of Lithuanian women haunted by the legacy of war.