From Bees in the Snow by Saulius Šaltenis


SO THEN, when Mr. Kristijonas was still but a crowing baby, the plague arrived, neither invited nor expected, and went reeling through the villages without missing a single cottage, unbending, proud, all buttoned up like a minor court official—but the buttons are rusted, pus is running out of his eyes and ears, and he’s constantly slobbering on a bare, fleshless finger and smugly paging through a giant Book of Debts, while behind him, merrymaking like at a wedding, follows the entire kingdom of hell... And instead of grain, the granaries are full of dead rats, and all the doors are slammed shut and all the cracks stuffed with tow. How can you, my man, defend yourself when a guest like that rubs his putrefying back on the corner, breathes in the window, and dirty little creatures that crawl from hair into the nostrils and ears have already settled on the cottage roof and spread like fire in the straw? So there... Mr. Kristijonas was lying in the cradle when that one, sent to destroy our Lithuanian kin, began huffing and puffing around the house, clouding the window panes—and started calling everyone to that serfdom, to where no one who goes out ever returns home again... Mr. Kristijonas’s papa was taken with fever, but his mama, pale though she was, knew a bit of German, and boldly retorted: “From time immortal we, my lordling, never went into serfdom, and we won’t go freely now!”

          That cast-off of hell, nursed on the black milk of Death, giggled no less, surprised by the woman’s courage, and opened the tatty Book of Debts, and was pleased to unearth that all of their relatives, even Mr. Kristijonas still sleeping in his cradle, were up to their eyeballs in debt: his grandfather, carrying flax, slipped by without paying the bridge toll, and willfully cut a switch out of the King’s Woods, while Mr. Kristijonas’s great-grandfather was even more shameless—confused by a thick fog, he cut across the estate’s fields and carried out two little handfuls of clay on his clogs, and hadn’t put them back to this day, hadn’t returned someone else’s belongings from whence he had taken them. And therefore it wasn’t nice to try to evade the strict and most just of courts.

          “Wait!” Kristijonas’s mama cried, “Not so fast! What kind of court is it, if you just mumbo jumbo a bit, and then convict? What sort of justice is it when the judgement is announced in advance? No, my lordling, don’t be lazy, call the first witnesses...”

          “Oh me, oh my, what a clever little woman!” that one outside the door started squeaking, and turned out his pockets—dice carved out of vertebrae rumbled and rattled like thunder as they fell on the threshold. “There now, here’s my witnesses! As many pips turn up, that’s how many heads will be called to serfdom!” 

         But Mr. Kristijonas’s dam, holding back her lament, a white scarf tied on her head, carried out a bench for the lordling and started praising that carcass—such a bright little face, you know, and the beauty of his speech—like a nightingale, you listen as if bewitched, and even if you were innocent you could cheerfully take the worst blame on yourself! That one was even purring in satisfaction, he’d never listened to that kind of talk before, up until now he’d only heard moaning and the gnashing of teeth, so he didn’t notice how the dawning sky grew pale. He agreed to look over the case anew—after a long negotiation he agreed that the infant’s nurturer would invite those witnesses herself: and then, whichever side the bones fell on—an empty side or one with eyes, that’s how many would be summoned from their yard. By now dawn was breaking, the rooster was crowing, in a hurry, the lordling cheated—he kept trying to foist off dice from whose every side stared swarms of evil eyes.

          The mama didn’t give in, she picked out a tiny little dice, carved from a child’s joint—maybe this one will be more merciful, maybe it would turn up a completely blind side? But the little bone sprang from her trembling fingers on its own and fell, white as could be, on the red stone of the threshold, and the first rays of the sun illuminated three empty eye sockets. So the mama decided then that she would go to that terrible serfdom herself with her two little daughters, while the men—one still in the cradle, the other in bed soaked in sweat—would remain. She gave her word, prepared herself and put calfskin clogs on her little daughters, and made Kristijonas’s father swear to get up and raise the infant alive and well, to the hope and joy of all the Lithuanians who were being mercilessly mowed down.

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