The day was a bowl of cold water tipped on its side at the edge of an old field. A black bird perched in the highest branch of a tree that reached toward clouds stirring across the permanent spread of the sky. The last leaves were still. The door to the bedroom in the house below Walnut Hill was open, the room’s white walls absentminded with daylight, deep and watchful as eyes that fill unexpectedly with tears. A voice spoke, carrying past the high ceiling, then a long dry pause trembled across a sky half full of stars. He leaned toward her and kissed her, his arm around her waist, the sweet smell of her skin unsettling and slow. He thought his heart would stop, breathing hard, and felt his face flush as her legs moved. She was quiet for a moment then, touching the wall, longing for the place that picks our bones apart and rebels to desire and love. And the light flickers, the door closes and locks. The world is divided in two. Time’s dissemblance the sudden echo in the hall that stumbles back into itself, her name the quiet agitation of the eye when the last song ends and the circle breaks.
The mind is a still distraction.
The white blankets burn in pitch dark
and night salts the blood of heaven.
The men at war at the turned gates
of the torn city plant their heels
among the spider webs and dirt,
not terrified of loss or death
or the hinge of mud washed across
the hesitation in their eyes.
Think of nothing. Let the body
become a pale reflection of
ancient wings in the wind’s cold glass.
The short breath of night runs shallow
and slow across the city’s streets
and rain slides, thin as hunger, on
gray diagonals of iron.
Angels made of straw, luminous
as wind in bags of vague paper,
turn their backs to the dark red house.
I touch the star above the black
canal, bewildered and endless,
and the world quickens at my feet.
Beyond the square, the lost dogs bark
the secret names of fire and ice.
I measure the passage of time
outside the smallest window with
a stick that scratches the outline
of the sickle moon on the dust
of the floor, watch a thousand years
lying gray and naked under
the wounds of the cold horizon,
count out the abrasions of rain
on the old woman’s umbrella ―
and understand how to endure
my longing for eternity
and the impermanence of birds.
PRIAM'S DAUGHTER I. Touching the Moon A slice of light, half-curled above the tree line, settled to smoky threads along the horizon as night dimpled snow in the dark fields and the creek's cold edges thickened to a polished spill the color of old birches. After dark, the wind right and pines hovering close to the ground, clouds rubbed against a cut of stars that slipped in a darkening slide to a clearing half-lost in the mountains. It was a place where dark flowers grow and cicadas grate in solitude and vacancy, the sound of their strumming suspended like dust in the faint light that draped the faded edges of the sky. She found that place alone, listening to the wind, as we quivered among the noises of that starlit night and watched her climbing over shadows that lay like dark bruises on the season-plowed soil. She climbed to touch the moon, to break the trance of the nightfall that surrounded her, push through the cold clouds that curled north on the wind where the hill ascends and reclaim the emptiness she said was ours. We were all divining life in those dark corners then, skirting its dangerous edges, each stirred by a different pulse of the wind. Caught there like a sift of leaves against the tree line, we did not want to understand when she said that nothing lay beyond the things she feared and lived by, that morning always came to her in a heaving under clear sheets of water, that hollow trunks of trees are warm as blood and their dark wood opens to seed beds where the year's dead are transfigured by the moon and skim the earth like feeder roots pulled loose from the lost ground below. We watched her, in a dream without sleep, waiting for a signal, a wisp of smoke or quiet tapping of stone to pierce the shadows. Her face was as disconsolate as the moon she reached for and all around gaped open burrows where small animals slept, their soft skins hardening white in the unaccustomed thudding and jostling of the night air. Its odd light seeped to our marrow and we moved toward that place with arms extended, drifting past each other like dark footfalls in empty passageways before stumbling into silence. The patterns in the sky unexpectedly changed and she was suddenly gone, a rustling of birds in the veerings of the wind. Although we had come to sink with her into a nuzzling of thorns in the gray scrub bushes, there was nothing else we could see in that place, only clouds and trees awash in a dark green light that dissolved to an abstract of angles and lines on the water. The chill in the wind smoldered in the darkness and the hours before dawn opened slowly, like the shell of a dying newborn bird. In that light, traced like panic against the paling sky, we knew she was gone, a scuttle of mist thickening to the cool dark of the earth, a quick return to dust, and we were left alone with the moon hanging black against the stars, silent and forbidding, and the sound of the wind whistling endlessly across the hills. II. The Nightingale's Song The air tasted of metal and the sky was passionless as glass. In that slow realization of light, as clouds unraveled the fine dust and swept lines of the moon above my head, I stretched out my hands and the frozen flowers in the meadows blossomed, rainbows in the trees' hanging branches glowed with the bodies of fragile butterflies, time drifted like moonrise across wet ice in a spark and warp of heady smoke. Wait! I can hear them. But I don't think they pity us. We blend to sorrow and strife in the wounds and leavings of new birth, and hunger advances in the wild hour, and I wait here for my breath to settle, for the fear to go away as the nagging surge of needled hearts startled in every direction probes like braided wire for the parch and peel of blood. I lay for a long time near the stumps of the yellowing pines, a patch of fallen white against the fading green, bristling in flutters and shivers, and heard their voices pulling my bones this way and that, whistling in the caverns behind my eyes like the climax of some unspeakable hour. They could not hear me when I cried that this dream was not enough, the work of the spirit falling to elegy and ruin, the way back a lost moment hammered in secrecy hard as steel in the forge of night. I am blocked whatever way I turn, in cough and blind panic. And I know there is nothing beyond the things I've feared and lived by, nothing they could find or name, only the darting hiss and click of the moon's pale blood, slow hunger stinging eyes fixed on the grass, stamens veined and coiling. They don't believe me, bloodless and apologetic, though all my life I've named that weariness of the heart that scatters quickly into the night like dry leaves, building patterns that long for extinction, a hundred gray shapes that pass among the trees like a tide of blind mouths flying off to oblivion. Root clenching root, blending to hard earth, the hypothesis of dark desires, and the life that moved within me silent now and thick-fingered as roots sprouting from clods and dead holes stretched and laboring forward, sinews oiled, tasting stone. I know they didn't pity me even as the years passed across the dry-veined sky and clotted hard among the oaks and pines and lines of cedar angled thin in the snow. They don't remember that now or understand why I need the moon's pure light above me, high in the hills, a vacuum into which everything collapses, stripped to the numbness of bone. I cannot reach it. I cannot reach it. Listen! Do you understand I am not this empty space that splinters to light, the womb of earth, infinity's blind shore? I climb only to touch the moon, to reclaim the thing that once was mine, afraid that my story has already had its end. Deeper than the eye can follow, its pale light stiffens in the mist, plain, placid and clear, and trails off forever in a welter of silver that glowers and pierces every shadow. I've heard them say it, and in my deepest heart I know it's true. My life is sprung bone, dull with reluctance, longing to be filled in a world in which nothing fills. And so it begins. I can hear them behind me, voices borne on the wind at night in a rustling of birds. The moon is up, a halo of clarity that thins and thickens and is sucked out again into the dark like the ghosts that vanish as I touch them.
Nijolė Miliauskaitė translations by Jonas Zdanys after school a hard hand gathered us to the sewing shop a flock of young girls with children's faces bindweed at our waists all winter we sewed white shirts for orphans white calla lilies blossomed in hothouses beneath the glass blossoms for the bride's bouquet for the wreath of spruce for emptiness melt the distant snowdrifts with your hot sighs melt the ice in the sewing shop's mirror it alone is our secret friend understood our dreams I watched through the windows, through cracks, through fences there, beyond the river, was a world locked to us the night nurse black wings embracing the sleeping children listens drowsily to the storm and the heavy keys ring at her waist *** heavy eyelids envelopes filled with sand and heat gnaw the eyes, a clump of frozen earth locks up the feet the hands you know the look of cold steel you know why we are called by the dark precipice of the window let no one turn and look back let no one point for another let no whispering drag itself after you like a dirty bouquet-ribbon full of holes the sleep of lethargy, Franz K. winter *** bend closer I'll whisper a secret a large ear it hears what I mumble in sleep, sleepwalker a hand with long thin fingers burrows through my brain, searches for the hidden the forgotten it is not possible for you to hide beneath the sky so much the better, so much the better I want to be an embryo again twinkling each night above the sunken lake * * * you would like to live in the old house with thick walls and wide windowsills on which you would sit embracing your knees as darkness came you would easily grow accustomed to the cosy ghosts of this house and would listen to something forgotten playing in the moonlight sometimes an unfamiliar barefoot child with a long nightgown would run in and would ask you to take her on your knees the stairs would creak, as if someone was climbing above the ceiling steps, a cough those hands that sewed the covers of these chairs have long since gone to dust and the colors have faded how much warmth and love in these patterns and you too will someday be only a ghost in an old house
* * * every spring as the hawthorns blossom along the river my grandfather smiling hands me a flute he has just carved from willow wood he's been dead a long time my grandfather and tiny yellow butterflies cover his face *** your golden freckles your face speckled with brown spots your belly your belly, which you carry so carefully so heavily a great magical sphere you turn your head smile at him who walks with you and say something to him gentle sunflower ripening in our irrevocably lost homeland's empty fields *** look, then: how big this bag is on my back here are gathered all the sicknesses of the poor the flu, mange, lice tuberculosis, misfortune, despair anger and revolution this is what I've brought for you as you dance singing before the glowing Christmas tree in the great echoing high-ceilinged room as the first star rings in the dark sky like a silver bell *** my grandmother's flowers myrtles and geraniums starched lace on red down pillows that were my dead grandmother's (could you find some likeness in my face) my mother's flowers ficus and philodendron, asparagus fern an embroidered white tablecloth, recollections written in a childlike hand in high school I don't know what my greatgrandmother grew on her windowsill when my greatgrandfather left for America and my grandfather at fourteen became head of the family dis iz kazys paliokas fotogref and he iz all redy long ded in sum month afder te furst war iz yur faters so Im senden it to yu dere vincent (written by typewriter on the back side of the photograph)
THAT SUMMER she wore light long wide dresses the wind carried her down streets and through parks easily, as if through a dream with blossoming lindens the thin soft cloth did not hide her breasts and in the sun you could see her supple young body it was so hot we rested in wicker chairs in the shade of giant old trees, the river's reflections glittered on our faces, boats parasols and clouds floated gently by your dropped bicycle in the distant summerhouses opened books leafed through by unseen hands that summer there was no war and there was not to be the first the world * * * these are lilacs from Jaskonis's mill, which is near crumbling each year I pick a huge bouquet empty neglected ordnance yards each year grass overgrows the trenches, the bunkers, and the bones in the common grave these are lilacs from Jaskonis's mill, the saddest flowers, for you Jadvyga (the overcoat hacked by moths rots in the attic) and for you Karolina, you are old already and for you Barbora, the miners's mother and for me
He died before my children were born and I tell them about him sometimes, when I tell our family's stories -- uncle and godfather, raw-boned and visionary, alcoholic son and failed father, in the end a weak reed no one leaned upon, who struggled with his gloom and self-loathing and was caught in a trap he laid for himself in the teeth of the wind. He would listen to me in moments of clarity, drawing a breath as if waiting to speak then letting it out in a sigh and waiting for me to talk myself out. He would nod when I said that life is not something that was waiting for us around the corner but was here and now, and then would ask me for money for a bottle of sweet wine, too tired and shaky to invent another lie. It was not for his thirst, he would say, but because with it everything grew remote and the stars in the sky began to swim and the horizon expanded again. Once he said he thought we gave birth to our death, like something lifting inside us, like the tunnel where he thrashed and choked and could not breathe because there was no light. That's how they found him early one morning as the sun touched the edges of his room: the artery in his liver spilling his life out into something scarlet and black, his nose burrowed between the thighs of the woman he lived with like a small lost dog looking for the place he'd come from and where he wanted to return. I think of him like that but do not tell my children the details of his final story: lying in the dark in a pool of his own blood, not knowing what was rolling over him as a veil of grayness covered his eyes, perhaps dreaming one last time of the daughter he had abandoned or the grandchildren he would never see or the angels that would come to him with the wine in the dead of night.