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From Bees on the Snow by Saulius Šaltenis


SO THEN, when Mr. Kristijonas was still but a crowing baby, the plague arrived, neither sought nor summoned, 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 while smugly paging through a giant Book of Debts, while behind him, merrymaking as if at a wedding, follows the entire kingdom of hell… Instead of grain, the granaries are filled with dead rats, all the doors are slammed shut, and all the cracks stuffed with tow. How can you, my dear fellow, defend yourself now, when a guest like that is rubbing his putrefying back on the corner and breathing in at the window, and little creatures of uncleanliness that crawl from the hair into the nostrils and ears have already settled on the cottage roof, and are spreading like fire in the straw? Well, then… Mr. Kristijonas was lying in the cradle when that one, sent to destroy our Lithuanian kin, began huffing and puffing around the house, clouding up the window panes—and began summoning everyone to that serfdom where no one who has ever gone returns home again. Mr. Kristijonas’s papa was already beset with fever, but his mama, pale though she was, knowing a bit of German, boldly retorted: “From time immemorial we, my lordling, never went into any 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, then 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, hauling flax, slipped by without paying the bridge toll, and unlawfully 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 manor’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 property from whence he had taken it. 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 this, if you just prattle some mumbo jumbo, and then convict? What sort of justice is this, when the judgement is announced in advance? No, my lordling, don’t be lazy, call witnesses first…”

     “Oh me, oh my, what a clever little woman!” that one outside the door started squealing, 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 eyes as come up, that’s how many heads will be called to serfdom!” 

     But Mr. Kristijonas’s dear mother, holding back her lament, a white scarf tied under her chin, 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 innocent you could cheerfully take the worst blame on yourself! That one was actually 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, but then, whichever side the dice turned up—an empty side, or one with eyes—that’s how many would be summoned from their farmyard. By now dawn was breaking and the rooster was crowing; the lordling hurried, cheated—he kept trying to foist off bones 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 childish 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 to this, and after she had prepared herself and put calfskin slippers on her little daughters, she made Kristijonas’s father swear to get up and raise the infant Kristijonas safe and sound, to the hope and joy of all the Lithuanians who were being mercilessly mowed down.

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