Deep Baltic’s literature section continues with an extract from the forthcoming novel This Is Not My Sky by Lithuanian-American author Laima Vincė.
This Is Not My Sky is an intergenerational novel about three generations of Lithuanian women living in New York City during the Cold War era. The novel moves through twentieth-century history from the years of the Lithuanian post-war resistance through to the early years of the Singing Revolution, Lithuania’s independence movement. This is a novel about the often complex relationship between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, and how history is experienced by women within the context of family and relationships. The novel has not yet been published.
Her Nora Has Come Back From the Dead
Saint Petersburg, Florida
As the plane began its descent, Cathy thought about when she was little how she and Daddy would fly to Florida during Christmas vacation. As a child she was always excited to see the palm trees again. Growing up there was no end to the delight Cathy felt seeing long strings of twinkly red and green Christmas lights wrapped around the papery trunks of the thick palm trees. Those festively lit palms seemed so delightfully out of place in her mind compared with the cold dark blustery setting of a New York Christmas. Though, a New York Christmas was exciting for the Rockefeller Center, and the outdoor skating rink, and the giant Christmas tree, trucked in for the occasion from the Midwest into the heart of Manhattan. Cathy and her father always enjoyed their Christmases together. After her mom left, it was one of the rituals that kept them going.
But right now Cathy had to concentrate on chasing all thoughts of Christmas away. She had to focus. She had to stop worrying about how Daddy felt about spending Christmas alone this year. After all, he had assured her that it was alright, and that the time alone over the holidays would give him a chance to catch up on his reading. Still, it was a shame that the only time she could find to go to see the woman who was her biological mother was over Christmas break. But, she had to complete her dissertation, despite all of this. She had to make it through the next semester. And all of this was such a distraction. All Cathy could think about throughout her orals was whether the woman named Maria, whose address her birth father had scrawled on a scrap of notebook paper, the scrap of paper she was now clutching in her sweaty palm, would slam the door in her face when she got there, or take her in her arms and give her the biggest hug ever.
Her birth mother did not know she was coming. Cathy had not been able to drum up the courage to call her on the phone or write to her. But Daddy had assured her that in this instance a face-to-face meeting was the best way to handle the situation, such as it was.
Cathy pulled her Florida guidebook out from her handbag. She opened up to the section on transportation from the airport into Saint Petersburg, but she could not focus her mind. She had never been to Saint Petersburg before. They usually went to Miami or Orlando or sometimes to Key West. Saint Petersburg was the town where the elderly Lithuanians went to live. Or, more accurately, where the old Lithuanians went to die. And her birth parents, Cathy had recently learned, were war refugees from Lithuania. They came from a place that was no longer a country, a place that no longer appeared on any map of the world, a place that had been swallowed up by the Soviet Union almost half a century ago. A place that was no place.
Milda, her birth sister, had told her that Saint Petersburg was where Maria had gone when she ran away from their father, whom Cathy had now learned to call Tėtė, which is Daddy in Lithuanian. The story Cathy had got was that Maria had gone to Saint Petersburg to work as a caretaker for an elderly Lithuanian couple once their youngest child finished high school. Milda’s life had gone downhill after that, but she’d hid it from her mother. Cathy had been warned by her sister not to tell her mother anything about her lifestyle.
Again, Cathy opened up the guidebook to the place where she’d tucked her bookmark, but it was pointless. Nothing made sense. She’d just grab a cab and hope for the best. She did not have the patience to figure out the bus routes just now. Cathy tucked the guidebook back into her bag and slid out her wallet. Careful not to open the wallet up so wide that the nervous woman seated beside her could see inside, Cathy checked how much money she had. Yes, there was enough for a taxi. Easily. Daddy had done it again. He’d slipped a few twenties into her wallet before she left for the airport. He must have done it when she went back to her room to grab her backpack. Cathy sighed. Daddy didn’t seem to get it that she wanted to be independent. Then she smiled. He was still her Dad. He was there for her. And these people? They weren’t. But still, Cathy wanted to meet them despite herself. Something inside of her tugged at her, and she wanted to be a part of her birth family in some capacity. Perhaps she just wanted to belong somewhere. She did have Daddy, but it was just the two of them. And what about when Daddy was gone? She’d be all alone. She also was curious to learn about this country that had disappeared off the map of the world: The former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, now the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. Their country of origin. She’d read all the books her birth father had given her, and still, she wanted to know more. And she wanted some answers to her own questions. The first one being: Why did they give me away?
As the plane hit the tarmac and rolled to a stop, the negative thoughts Cathy had been trying so hard to keep out of her head drifted back: Why would she want to see this woman anyway? The woman who gave her away? Would her birth mother even want to see her? These thoughts had been running through Cathy’s head nonstop over the past few weeks. The counselor at the Columbia University health clinic had called it “circular thinking,” the first symptoms of obsession. Cathy reminded herself once again why she was making this crazy trip: To break out of that obsession. She was going to resolve that which occupied her mind day and night. She needed to face her mother and to know: Why had she given me away? Why did she leave me? Why me and not her other four children?
The engine rumbled one last time and went still. The couple seated beside her started to clap. So stupid, Cathy thought, why clap? The woman had been pale and nervous the entire flight. Probably one of those neurotic types who imagines the plane is going to crash just because she got on it.
Cathy squeezed past the couple, grabbed her backpack from the overhead luggage bin, and headed for the cabin door. She was glad she had decided to take one carry-on and not check anything. Standing at the rotating baggage conveyor belt stupidly watching other people’s bags go round and round right now would have put her over the edge.
Cathy exited the plane, strolled through the airport, and walked out the exit. She got into the first cab she saw and read the address from the slip of paper she’d been clutching in her palm for the entire two-hour flight. The paper was so mangled that if she hadn’t memorized the address, she most likely now would not have been able to read it.
Half an hour later the cab pulled up in front of a modest one-story mint green bungalow in a neighborhood of similar pastel colored one-story homes. Cathy paid the driver and headed towards the chain link fence that surrounded the house. An enormous German Shepherd bounded towards the gate, barking viciously, baring its teeth. Cathy pulled back. Great, she thought, my mission is ended before it even got started.
The front door flew open and a woman in her late forties with ash-blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail stepped out. She was dressed in white shorts, a blue cotton t-shirt, and canvas sneakers.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked in accented English. She looked at Cathy defiantly, as though she did not much care for visitors.
Cathy swallowed hard. For a moment she considered turning abruptly and leaving. But something about the woman’s demeanor, about the strength of character apparent in her voice, in her every gesture, made her curious enough to stay.
“I am looking for a Maria Pilvelis,” Cathy said, struggling to pronounce the surname.
“Wait, let me tie up the dog in the back,” the woman said. She grabbed the giant dog by the collar and half-dragged, half-wrestled, half-coaxed him to the backyard where she tethered him to the dog house. Clapping the grit off of her hands, she walked briskly back towards Cathy.
“I am Maria,” she said.
“I believe you are my mother,” Cathy said.
There was no other way to do it. Cathy decided that quick and short and decisive was the way to go.
The woman stiffened. She did not reach out and hug Cathy as Cathy had hoped she would. But she did not send her away either. She looked her up and down steadily and then rested her gaze on Cathy’s eyes. Cathy looked intently into Maria’s face. She had what her girlfriends would call good bone structure: high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, full lips. Cathy could see the traces of Maria’s devastating beauty in her middle-aged face. Cathy saw immediately that she looked like her, but like a toned-down version of her. She was not quite as drop dead gorgeous, but pretty enough never to hurt for a date or appropriate male attention.
“I thought you were dead,” Maria said finally.
“Why did you think I was dead?” Cathy asked, and the corners of her lips twitched.
“Because of the baby formula,” Maria said.
“The baby formula?”
“Yes, the Americans give babies cow milk and everyone back home knows that cow milk will kill a baby. A baby needs its mother’s milk to grow and develop into a person. There was an Irish woman in our building back in the Bronx who gave each of her babies cow’s milk and each of her babies died.”
Cathy shook her head slowly back and forth, as though absorbing Maria’s words. Her thick ash-blonde hair whipped across her chin. A single strand came loose and stuck to her black sweater. Maria reached out and gently picked the strand off and closed her fingers around it.
“No, Mama,” Cathy said, “as you can see, I am very much alive, and I drank baby formula. I must’ve. I cannot imagine otherwise how my mother would have fed me after she got me from the hospital.”
“Your mother…” Maria said. And this time it was her lip that twitched.
Cathy took a step towards Maria and before either of them knew what had happened, they held each other fast in a tight embrace. They both cried. Neither one of them cried. Neither of them could tell. In that moment time stood still.
“Mama,” Cathy murmured into Maria’s ear, “why did you give me away?”
Maria disentangled herself from Cathy and gently pushed her back onto the hot Florida sidewalk.
“I cannot tell you that,” Maria said. Then she said, “Come in for tea.”
“A cup of tea? In this heat? This must be my mother, Cathy thought. She must carry the freezing temperatures of Eastern Europe around inside of her.
A Week Later
They spent a week together side by side at the loom, weaving and talking color, and still Maria could not bring herself to answer her daughter’s question, half whispered in her ear that first day: Why had she given her away?
Perhaps she was too ashamed. She had lost her too easily. Too quickly. Like one loses some completely insignificant item, a hair band or a dish rag or a book mark. Cathy needed to hear some magnificent lie—that they were fleeing from the Russians and Maria was forced to hand her over to strangers, or that there was disease in the house, and giving her to the Americans was the only way to save her. Maria had made many mistakes in her life, but letting her baby go was the one that she paid for every day of her life. She paid every morning, every afternoon, and especially every night, when her past came back to haunt her in her dreams tormenting her, so that she could not sleep.
When Maria had no answers, she would go to her loom and work at the weaving. Because she had woven steadily over the past few days, she was now almost finished with the cloth the color of dried autumn leaves on the forest ground in November. When she was finished, her daughter would have to come back. Then they would measure the cloth, and cut it, and sew it into a floor-length traditional pleated Lithuanian skirt that would fit her, and only her. And so Maria wove. She wove to pull her daughter back to her, back with the long thread of the weaving, the thread that connected them in this life as mother and daughter. It was the only thing she could think of doing.
The last shreds of daylight faded, but Maria kept on weaving, positioning a desk lamp on the table beside her loom. Maria usually began her weaving with the first light of dawn and finished with the last rays of the setting sun. She did not trust the electric light to show her the truth of the colors hidden within the strands of yarn, combinations of color that only came to light when set one was against the other. Like with people, Maria thought, you only really knew a person when you set that person beside another.
The entire evening she wove blindly onwards, allowing the darkness to guide her hands. She only stopped occasionally to brush away the tears from her tired eyes. She wove through the night and into the dim murkiness of the pre-dawn hours. She wove as though her life depended on it, and in some ways it did. She wove to weave back together the life that could have been hers, if only everything had been different from the very beginning. If only she had been just that little bit stronger.
Maria had had no answers for Cathy. And Cathy had pled with her for answers, explanations, words, sentences, paragraphs, entire pages that Maria could not give her. When Cathy had finally hugged Maria goodbye, Maria had stood stiffly with her arms locked at her sides, like one of those Irish dancers she liked to watch on television. Where she came from mothers did not need to give explanations to daughters. And they did not say, “I love you” out loud, the way Cathy had said it every evening before going to bed. They did not say those words because they feared that if they said the words, the feeling would fall apart. Where Maria came from love was shown through actions; through a hot cooked meal; a loaf of rye bread taken out of the oven and placed on the table; through a pair of patterned mittens knit especially for Christmas, or a woolen shawl wrapped gently around the shoulders on a cool evening.
It had all been too soon. And at the same time, not soon enough.
That Saturday morning a week ago, when the dog began to bark out in the yard, and Maria had opened the door to see a slender young woman with thick ash-blonde hair that hung straight down to her chin, and eyes so blue that they were almost violet, she knew immediately who she was.
And Maria did not know what to do. Should she cook up a huge pot of borsch and feed her daughter? Should she start teaching the girl her own language? Should she tell her everything, absolutely everything from start to finish? Or should she protect her from knowing?
Instead, they spent the rest of their first day together as mother and daughter making beetroot soup and cabbage rolls to celebrate Christmas Eve. Maria explained that in the Lithuanian tradition, you could not eat meat on Christmas Eve and that you must prepare twelve dishes, one for each of the twelve apostles. They worked silently together in the kitchen with Maria guiding her daughter with her hands, speaking only when necessary. It was a good start, Maria thought. More than she had hoped for. Maria was glad to have her lost baby back. Indeed, it was a miracle, a Christmas miracle. It was almost six years already that Maria had chosen to live this monastic life alone with her weaving. Who would have thought that a woman who had birthed five children could ever be lonely? But she was.
“I named you Nora,” Maria said on their second day together, on Christmas morning. Although the girl had told her that her name was Cathy, a name Maria had difficulty pronouncing because of the tricky “th” sound in the middle, she refused to accept that foreign name as her own daughter’s name. They were sitting on the couch with Maria’s own woven woolen shawls wrapped around their shoulders, with cups of steaming raspberry leaf tea set in front of them, although it could not possibly be that cold in Florida. It were as though they had brought the cold with them—Cathy from the windswept canyons of New York, and Maria from the frozen wastelands of Lithuania so many decades ago. It were as though the cold lived inside of them, no matter where they went or where they lived.
“Nora?” her daughter repeated the name, as though testing it out on her tongue to see if she liked it. “I always felt that Cathy was not my name. First of all, there are too many Cathys, just like there are too many Jennifers. And too many Christines. But not just because of that. All my life I felt that my name was wrong—that people were calling me by the wrong name.”
“But you were Nora only in my heart,” Maria said. “It was never written down on the papers. I named you for my mother, Eleanora, who everyone called Nora. She was a very brave woman. She was not afraid to fight the Russians when they came to our land. She hid men and women from the forest, from the resistance, in our house, and she was ready to die for them, and in the end, she did die.”
“I was named for a brave woman,” Cathy said, stunned, appreciative. “Can you tell me more about this resistance?”
Maria sighed. “I have not spoken of it for so long, and now I would not know how.”
That ended their conversation for that day.
The entire time her daughter was with her the old pain gnawed into Maria’s side, as though someone had stabbed her under her heart with a knife. It was the pain of losing her baby twenty-four years ago that stayed with her always. The pain of having her baby wrenched from her warm bosom before she’d even had her fill of her mother’s milk. Her father had given her away so brutally—like a dog. The child had been abandoned. Left to the Americans. But she had come back strong and beautiful. This one was better than all her other children put together. She didn’t even want to think of them. Lukas, the eldest, was okay, a professional, an engineer, but he lived far away and he was always busy, too busy to be bothered with his mother. Maria knew he had his resentments, but nonetheless, he was polite and called her on holidays and on her name day. But he always argued with her about religion. As an engineer, a man of reason, Lukas could not accept her spiritual beliefs. He teased her, forcing her to explain the immaculate conception and other miracles of the Catholic faith as he sardonically scoffed at each of her explanations. His arguments wore her down and usually ended in a stubborn silence.
Her second son, Saulius, was doing alright for himself too. He worked as a mechanic, but he was a very quiet introverted person, and it was difficult to have a conversation with him over the phone. Tadas, her youngest son, had been in and out of jail, and now they hardly spoke. There was too much resentment. Too much blame put on her shoulders for his actions. And then there was Milda. Did that girl even feel anything, Maria wondered.
Maria had to admit, the Americans had done a good job raising her Nora, her daughter. Perhaps even better than she would have done herself. Nora had a purity in her spirit. She did not wear a single lie on her tongue. She did not cover her true face with a mask. There was nothing devious in her mind. Maria had searched for a hint, a clue, a scrap of meanness, and she had found nothing. Nora was present in her entire being. Maria’s heart ached, no, it broke, when she thought of her Nora, with that eager look, eyes shiny, bright, like an intelligent and loyal dog, or a milking cow that she had come to rely upon for her rich milk, perched on the wooden folding chair at her kitchen table, eager for anything Maria could say to her, eager to catch any crumb, with no bitterness in her heart, only forgiveness, and a deep need to understand. And her heart broke again when she thought of her other daughter, Milda, the daughter she had raised to an adult, but who was now lost to her, lost to a world of drugs and a scattered life.
All that week Maria had continued to cook up pots of borsch and bake rye bread and boil black tea, serving it with a generous dollop of honey. But the hard silence remained between them. They only spoke of trivial things, made light conversation. She was ashamed now to think of how disappointed Nora must have been. To find her mother, and not to find out what she had come to her to know. When Nora left to return to New York, to Columbia, to her graduate studies, it was as though everything living had been sucked out of the universe. And yet, Maria had simply stood at the door and had given her a curt “goodbye,” and then had closed the door behind her.
The only good thing she had been able to think of doing was weaving Nora a Lithuanian national costume, like the ones she wove for the émigré dance groups and choirs, her means of earning a living. The project had consumed their time together and became the source and well-spring of all their talk, scant as it was. It was as though by talking about the weaving, they could avoid all the topics Maria would rather not talk about, the very topics Nora had come to her to hear about.
Instead, they discussed color and pattern for hours. Her daughter had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Art History from Columbia University and then a Master’s degree, and was now in a doctoral program with a concentration in indigenous arts and folk culture. Nora knew all about color and pattern. She even knew about weaving. They had leafed through pattern books together, sitting on the sofa for hours, with cups of steaming black tea in front of them despite the Florida heat and humidity, as though the December, and then January, air outdoors was as cold and bitter and relentless as a Lithuanian winter.
Those books were precious to Maria, gifts brought to her from women in the Lithuanian community who had visited Soviet Lithuania. They were books in which the color plates were faded and the tones were off, just like the lives of the people left behind the Iron Curtain were faded, drained of color, devoid of tone. Printed on the cover pages in bold ink it said that the books were published in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. Those words mocked Maria. They mocked the Forest Brothers, all dead now. As though the resistance had meant nothing at all.
Like everyone in the emigre community, Maria had her way of knowing what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. When the traditions were dying out, like the last embers of a March fire, and all the heart and mindfulness behind those traditions was also dying, the Soviet government published a few books to show the world how tolerant they were. The first few pages were filled with inane propaganda written out in Lithuanian and in Russian, and even in English, which Maria had carefully sliced out with a razor.
Maria and Nora had studied the book’s illustrated plates together, discussing the nuances of color that could be teased out with natural dyes, but which was lost with chemical dying. Maria was amazed that she could have this conversation with her daughter. Her other daughter, Milda, could care less about the weaving. She refused Maria’s offer to weave her a national costume, had laughed in her face when Maria had even dared suggest it. With Nora they talked until they had fashioned the perfect costume.
During the daylight hours Maria sat Nora at the loom and taught her how to make her weft straight; how to combine colors to create new ones that sprang unexpectedly from the cloth. She taught her, without saying a word, that there was a certain comfort in the weaving, a comfort in the work of the hands and the eye, an anesthesia that helped one forget all that lay outside the door of consciousness, all the clutter of the mind, which persistently rapped on that door, ceaselessly, begging to be let in. She taught her everything about the weaving that her own mother, also named Nora, had taught her all those years ago in Lithuania, in her native village of Būda.
And yet life had given her enough. Life had given her strong hands to work with and an eye to see how the colors came together to make new colors that had not been there before. It was immodest to want for more. Greedy. She had seen much worse after the war. She had been lucky. She was the one of her sisters who had been chosen to survive. And she had survived. All those long years ago when the Forest Brothers had risked their lives to save her, just her, and not her two little sisters, to take her over the border to Poland because they wanted one of Vincas and Nora’s children to live, they could not have even considered that she, Maria, quiet modest little Maria, would cross the ocean to America. And then she thought: Would they have been disappointed if they had lived to know that in America she had done wrong, and that the only decision she could ever make was to run, and that it was always the wrong decision?
The Forest Brothers never ran. They stayed and they died on their own land. So many others had run, first to Germany and Sweden, then to America, to South America, to Australia. All of them running, running as far away from Lithuania as they could. In 1944, when Maria was six years old, as the deportations to Siberia were taking place, as the young men were being sent to fight on the front without rifles, one million Lithuanians, a third of the population, ran. But Maria knew that they could not run far. The strings that fastened their hearts to the land always tugged them back, strings as taunt as those fastened tightly to the wooden frame of the loom. Only the shuttle with the wool wound around it could move, weaving its way seamlessly through the weft. The shuttle was the beating heart.
Maria’s family did not run.
“Only a rat jumps from a sinking ship,” her father had said. Her father and her mother had worked very hard to buy a small piece of land to begin their life together. They were not about to run away and leave their land behind. And after all, who would take care of the animals?
Maria considered the irony of her mother’s story in those strange and brutal times. Maria’s mother came from a family of wealthy farmers. They had made their money in the coal mines in America and had come back to an independent Lithuania in 1929 rich enough to buy a large expanse of land to farm, and to live well. But when Nora was 17 she fell in love with Vincas, a poor farmer’s son who lived at the edge of their meadow. In the middle of the night, in the light of the full moon, she had run away to him, and they were married the next morning in the village church, which was as large as any cathedral in any city, and which stood resolute in the center of town. Her parents did not speak to her for years. And then, because they were wealthy farmers, they were among the first to be arrested by the Russians and shoved into the cattle cars headed for Siberia in 1941. They were declared “bourgeois” and “enemies of the State” because they owned much land, good rich farm land. They were hated. They were considered Americans, the enemy, because of the time they’d spent living abroad. It was a bitter irony that kept one daughter from a family of eight alive, at least for a little while longer. The daughter who had chosen poverty for love lived, while her brothers and sisters and mother and father died in Siberia. The daughter who was not afraid to struggle, Maria’s mother, Nora, was left alone, untouched by the Soviets. Until the day they took Maria’s father away. And that was when Nora stopped believing Stalin’s sun had come to Lithuania to uplift all the poor and the downtrodden. That was when she began sheltering the men and women from the forest under the floorboards in her bedroom.
The first one to come to them went by the code name, Perkūnas – Thunder. All the men and women from the forest had secret names. Few in their village knew their real names. It was too dangerous in those times to know anyone’s name or where they were from or who they were related to. Knowing too much could harm others.
Perkūnas had named himself after the God of Thunder, one of a very few male deities in a Lithuanian pantheon of goddesses. He was the leader of the Forest Brothers in their region, southern Lithuania, near the Polish border. He was a good man, older than the others, many of whom were barely men, school boys really. Perkūnas had been a high school teacher before the war. When the resistance began he resolved to put all the lessons on patriotism and love of country that he had taught his students to the test. In 1944 he went out into the forest and joined the Forest Brothers together with his entire class of students. By 1948, when Maria was ten years old, and Perkūnas first came to their farm, all of his students were already dead. He alone had survived. After all these years Perkūnas’s mission was finally complete.
This is what the weaving had given her—the ability to see how the long threads of life disappear for a while, but then come back together some time later, completing the pattern.
And Maria knew something else that the weaving had shown her. Her Nora was what Lithuania would have been, if Lithuania had not lost her innocence through the baptism of war and the rape of occupation. Nora was pure. Nora was hard-working. Nora was kind, generous. At the same time, Nora, her own daughter now, was a real American, a self-assured beautiful young woman, a graduate student, a woman with a future ahead of her. She spoke English just like the Americans. She spoke without a trace of the Bronx accent, the accent that marked all the rest of her children for the slums they came from. Maria thought with shame of the dark dingy apartment her children had grown up in, the apartment with the long narrow corridor, two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and only a sliver of wane sun trying very hard to shine through the grates that covered the narrow kitchen window with a view to the street. She never saw the sky properly from that apartment. And if she could not see the sky, how could she feel the presence of God? And if she could see the sky, it was never her sky. Her sky was a Baltic sky with clouds that hung low to the fields, a sky as blue as cobalt. Her children had never known the wonder of waking up to the scent of freshly mown meadows wafting in on a breeze through the open window, or the scent of pine forests soaking wet after a summer rain, or the springtime chant of the coo-coo bird. All this she had known as a child. She had grown up poor in Lithuania, and later in Poland, but her children had grown up poor in America. Her poverty had been rich in scent and color and homegrown food and an ever-changing sky that opened up in an expanse over her head every day that she was alive. Her children had grown up under a different sky. In New York City the sky was a gray paltry thing, a dirty dishrag of a sky.
Maria dropped the shuttle to the floor. Her hands went cold.
She had to protect Nora. The KGB kept tabs on all the emigres in the exile community, especially those whose families had been involved in the resistance. Even here in Saint Petersburg, Florida, they had made their presence known to her. Maria knew that they were watching. They were watching the little cape where she lived and she wove, divining the truth of her long tangled life, teasing out the meaning behind the fate of her country, which had disappeared off the map of the world, but which was determined to come back and take back its rightful place one day.
But then again, Maria thought, Nora – Cathy, as the Americans called her – was under their radar. They could never get to her. Never make the connection. As long as she kept Nora on the sidelines, she would be safe. But there was a price to pay for that safety. Keeping Nora on the sidelines kept her an American, a stranger, an outsider. Maria sensed that this was the last thing Nora wanted. Nora had come to her because she wanted to belong to the Lithuanian emigre community, now that she had found her birth family. She longed to become a part of their family, what was left of it.
During the week Nora had stayed with her, Maria had lain awake in bed many long hours debating in her head what she should do. Should she talk openly to her daughter? If she did, would it corrupt that lovely aura of innocence Nora carried about with her? That was Nora’s strength. Maria could not take that way. She had not been touched by cynicism the way the rest of them had. The other problem was that Maria had never learned how to lie. Not to herself. Not to anyone else. And so she remained silent. Life had taught Maria not to toss words about too freely.
And who was she to shatter Nora’s strength with her paltry words and the story of her weakness. Because in the end, that is all it had been, weakness. Woman’s frailty. A tired cliché. She had grown too dependent and she simply had done as she was told. She did not fight for her daughter. Not then. Not now. Even now she had let her slip away into the deep silky Florida night with no concrete plan for a second visit.
Finally, Maria allowed her English to justify her cowardice. She could not speak her story the way it ought to be told in this clumsy tongue. She would wait until Nora learned her language, and then she would tell her everything. But at the same time, she knew that was nonsense. Lithuanian was not a simple language to learn. At the end of their time together, Maria had remained just as much of a mystery to Nora as she had been that first day when she had shown up on her doorstep. And so, now there was nothing left for Maria to do, except to collect all the strands of her broken life back together, and to tell her story, first to herself, in the hope that by remembering her story as she wove, she would eventually be able to tell Nora everything.
As she wove, in her mind Maria returned to the day when their end started. She had just turned twelve. It was the day that Maria knew for certain about the existence of the hidden trapdoor in the floorboards under Mama’s bed back in their little wooden cottage in the village of Būda. It was a day when it was so cold that the sky had turned that particular shade of cobalt that becomes dark violet just before the stars blink to life on the horizon. When the days were dark and gray, and a light rain fell constantly, Maria felt as though their family were hiding in the shadows, and no one could find them. But on that day the sun was shining so intensely that whenever Maria looked out the window, the light reflecting off of the snow almost blinded her. On days like that, it was as though God had given up on keeping them safe, and was shining a bright lamp directly onto them, onto their little wooden cottage on the edge of the pine forest. On such days, anything could happen. On such days, nothing could make Maria forget the heavy lead feeling of fear that settled always deep in her stomach, a fear that was as cold and solid as though Maria had swallowed the metal awl her father had used to cut holes in leather and make her and her little sisters shoes a long time ago, before the soldiers came and took him away.
Laima Vincė is a writer, playwright, poet, and literary translator. She is the recipient of two Fulbright Fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Laima Vince has lived and worked in Lithuania for a total of eight years (1988 – 1989, 1995 – 1997, 2007 – 2011) and visits frequently. She is the author of a trilogy of literary nonfiction works about Lithuania: Lenin’s Head on a Platter, The Snake in the Vodka Bottle and Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart. Her play about global issues and immigration, The Interpreter, has been running for three years at the Vilnius Chamber Theatre. Laima’s novel about three generations of Lithuanian women, This is Not My Sky, is forthcoming this year.
And you can read another extract from This Is Not My Sky on Deep Baltic, here
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