Vilnius, Lithuania - October 2005
(Swans - February 22, 2010) My childhood? The face of mess under the chill hood of disease. A soft aseptic nightmare of white sheets and hypodermic syringes. Hospital rooms my playground. Heart condition. Severe. At age six I wanted to die. At age seven I gave it a try. Waited for black to coat outside and nose dived from the window of my room on ground floor (not silly, room transfer while in a coma). Much ado. Things were grim, grew grimmer, no glimmer, ever. Until that one day Dad showed up with the strange gift.
- See the gnomon, Darling? He asked.
Hard as I tried I did not see a gnome on the flat plate he was pointing at. Just a little stick poking out, the queer inhabitant nowhere to be spotted.
- Huh...yes...but what is it? I inquired.
- It's a clock! The gnomon here casts a shadow on the surface of the plate marked with the hours of the day. See, here, one o'clock, two, and three and so on. As the position of the sun changes, the time indicated by the shadow also does...
- But, Dad, where's the shadow? I don't see it!
- Of course you don't, Darling, it's a sundial! It only works when the sun shines.
- But the sun never comes in here!
- I know, Sweet Pie...
- Then how can I tell what time it is?!
- No time to be told when it's somber.
- In the end, only the sunny hours count. That's the secret the gnomon tells you.
I spent several more years in the black corridor. But I did not care that much anymore. Those were only dark hours. The Gnome On and I, we knew better. Times of hurt, bruises, scars, scary, they flew by. Then one day the sun was back and I started to count.
12, 14, 18, 21. Plus the last 2 make 23. There are twenty-three little black and white pictures of men and women tacked on the wooden panel.
Obviously the monumental bric-a-brac we're looking at is some kind of memorial. A tale of tragedy written on a rough wall, raw lines of barbed wires drafted upon a sheet of concrete, saying the torn fate of the twenty-three small faces of paper.
It's the end of October in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the late afternoon's unseemly warm sun is playing a gaudy game of colors with the glass windows of the building in front of us. Nation's parliament, says the travel guide. The odd installation is set at its foot: a huge block of cement surrounded by a metallic mesh and spikes of wire, a makeshift tabernacle topped with a cross, a giant grimacing puppet with raised hands of iron and body in chains, other crosses of various heights and angles, the wooden panel and the pictures, pots with flowers, some wilted, some fresh, and those two words repeated on the block's surface by a whimsical hand, black straight letters there, bloody slanted ones here: LIETUVA LAISVE. It looks like a primitive altar lost in the middle of the town's modern gear, some pagan shrine sending uncanny shadows on the pavement and walls around. I see my friend skim through the travel guide again and listen vaguely to her as she reads the story of Lithuania trying to break free from Moscow and of the January events, in 1991, when the Russian army killed and injured hundreds of unarmed protesting civilians. Twenty-three little faces of crumpled paper are left on the ground. We read the names beneath the victims' photos, take pictures, time goes by. I follow the elongations of the crosses' shadows against the wall. What time is it now, Kyle? I didn't know how to read the sundial and kept asking her, back then, fascinated by her ability. But it's easy now to tell what time it was when the gnome on the Soviet tank pointed the dark shadow of his gun toward the big sun Loreta was wearing on her chest, Sajudis liberating party's symbol: History time. After the January events, Moscow gave up its attempt to crush the Lithuanian independence movement.
I pick a little flower from a pot as a souvenir, stash it in my notebook, then we leave and go down the street, looking for a place to have coffee. Suddenly, in the middle of the sidewalk, I see the old woman on her knees, hands joined in a silent supplication, begging. A frail, wrinkled, little Babushka turned into a sad street Pietà. I feel a sharp need to give her something. I don't have change, my purse forgotten in the hotel room. My friend says I should not give her anything and encourage mendicity. I answer that I don't think it takes "encouragements" to beg, just hunger and dire necessity. She shrugs me off, says she'll be waiting in the café across the street and refuses to lend me the money I'm asking her. Babushka is still, eyes closed, as though she does not even notice the world spinning around her. The little bowl at her feet is empty, I feel bad. What time is it, Kyle? The sun is gone now. No time to be told when it's somber, I remember. And that's when I think of it, the dollar bill tucked in my passport, the Chance-dollar Kyle gave me so long ago, the one she had tampered and now read "IN
GODds WE TRUST." Sorry mister Washington, she had said, mischievous. But I cannot give away so precious a souvenir, can I? What was that already I was just saying? Hunger? Dire necessity?
I kiss the bill goodbye, sorry Kyle, and place it in the bowl. Babushka stays still as a stone. Does not move. Nor does she open her eyes. I stand before her for some awkward seconds. What do I expect anyway? The only words of Lithuanian I know are LIETUVA LAISVE!!! FREE LITHUANIA!!! How would it sound to you, huh, Grannie? I run to the café. From the window I keep observing her. My friend seems annoyed by that.
- What are you looking at? Leave her alone!
- She hasn't moved...
- So what?
- Maybe she hasn't seen it. And the wind's gonna blow it away. Or...
- Come on! Look, she's taking it.
I see Babushka quit her praying posture, let her hands rest down on her thighs, and bend a little toward the bowl. She seems to take a deep breath. Then spits in it! Fiercely. Lavishly. My friend bursts in laughter. I do my killer look. She stops and leaves the table grumbling that she has to use the bathroom. I stare at the old woman, incredulous. Suddenly a male voice behind my back asks me if I am German. I say no. He goes on talking his strange mix of French, German and English, punctuated with powerful whiffs of vodka. Pointing at Babushka, he asks:
- Old frau, you give dollar?
- Fils de elle...her boys, all...go to America. Nicht family today. Frau allein. Alone. Kaput. Beaucoup traurig. America she no love. Verstanden?
What I understand is that the old woman's sons have gone to the USA to look for a better life and left her behind. America has stolen her boys, she spits on it. It makes sense. I don't know what to do. But shortly after, I see her seizing the bill, careful not to spill the saliva on her. She drains it delicately with fallen leaves, folds and pockets it. My polyglot concludes:
- Money good, always!
My friend comes back, we leave the bar. Babushka is a still Pietà of pain again. One dollar richer. Evening smells like rain. There's a long walk back to our hotel. No umbrellas. In odds we trust. One last time I look at Babushka's face of crumpled paper.
Plus one. Make 24.
Back at the hotel we have diner with a nice Lithuanian old couple. They ask about our day. I tell them about my spitting Babushka and all these other old women, sometimes children, strewn throughout the city's streets like fallen leaves on the path of autumn and capitalism. There is a sudden palpable sadness in them. Their last son is leaving next month. America's call. Lithuania's dearth of jobs and perspectives. Unemployment strikes the country badly. Independence and the joining in the European Union, ten years later, brought lots of hopes. Enter disillusion. And now the young are fleeing abroad, in search of a better future. It's like a third Diaspora for Lithuania, says the old man. Maybe the worst one: what's the forthcoming in a land without youth? Decline. Death. But Mrs. Asanaviciuté is no woman of whining. She suddenly jumps on her feet and says:
- Come now. It's time for you to see my new children!
She is an origami artist and we spend the rest of the evening looking at her little faces of crumpled paper. Plus one, two, three, four... Dozens.
Make 25, 26, 27, 28... I lose count.
When I close the door of my room, the sadness of the day still clinging to me, I notice for the first time the faded piece of paper tacked to it. The usual safety instructions. The last line says: In case of emergency, please dial............. Nobody has bothered to fill in the dots. On the spur I take my pen and make up for the omission, please dial...
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About the Author
Christine Spadaccini, born in 1965, is a French author whose work includes two books, Aïe Love You (MiC-MaC, 2007) and Existe en Ciel (MiC-MaC, 2008), and the translation of Andrew Holleran's Grief -- Le passant chagrin (MiC-MaC, 2008). An adult novel, Le voyage en Argentique, and a book for children, Les idées zarbi du cafard Felu, will soon be published by Éditions Laura Mare. Spadaccini lives in Clermont Ferrand, France. (back)