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from the March 2018 issue

White Shroud

In this modernist classic from Lithuanian author Antanas Škėma, the tragedy of the refugee is a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition.

The elevator goes up, the elevator goes down. Not all of his memories return. A partial amnesia remains. The polyphonies and the nightingale have traveled to the depths of his unconscious. The spring snow has melted. No more footprints in the steaming earth. But a new craving to retrieve the damp fragrance of the acacias, the nightingale, the ancient signs. I am like a scientist who has lost his formulae. And I don’t want to write a popular pamphlet. I must start again. Wait for a winter consciousness, for snow.

I want to go back to that evening in Aukštoji Panemunė, to the veranda. I need geometric mercy. Mysticism. Judgment. 

We gather in the Valley of Josaphat. I arrive in a blue bus. It’s good that it’s blue. That’s a sign of hope. The driver won’t answer my questions but I don’t mind, it’s best not to speak to bus drivers. I’m not being shown the passing sights. The windows of the bus are opaque. And the driver is blocked off by black fabric. Finally, we stop. I get off. The bus drives away.

The Valley of Josaphat is paved in cement and enclosed by a stone wall. It is the size of a room. A gate opens in the wall and three judges enter the valley. They are wearing judges’ robes, their parchment faces set off by white wing collars. The middle one opens a thick book and begins.

“Your name?”

“Antanas Garšva.”


“Poet and unsuccessful earthling.”

“Your worldview?”


“What was the worldview you were born into?”

“Formally, the believers’ one, but . . .”

“No comments, please,” interrupts the judge.

“Did you follow the commandments?”

“It’s possible that I didn’t follow them in strict terms, but . . .”

“Comments are unnecessary,” the judge interrupts again.

“Did you follow the commandments as you were taught them?”

“It appears not.”

“Very well. According to paragraph eight you are slated for liquidation. Thank you for your replies.”

“Could you please tell me what it says in paragraph eight?”

“It’s a rather long paragraph. In short: anyone who failed to follow the commandments is liquidated. For example. The faithful—those for the faithful, atheists—those for atheists, liars—those for liars, murderers—those for murderers, cowards—those for cowards, moralizers—those for moralizers. And those who followed the commandments are transferred to Heaven.”

“I followed the commandments for seekers.”

Now the three judges laugh rhythmically. Like members of an opera chorus.

“There is no such category in the Valley of Josaphat.”

“Forgive me. One more question. Why was I brought here in a blue bus? That color inspires hope.”

But the judges can’t answer in time. Antanas Garšva is already at the bottom, the door opens, and there is the starter.

“Listen, Tony,” he says sternly. “What did you do to the chinchillas?”

An elderly man and woman stand to the side. The cross-eyed old man holds a small wooden cage. One of the slats is broken and a pointy-nosed chinchilla sticks its head out, greedily sniffing the old man’s fingers, while its mate sleeps rolled up in a little ball, perfectly calm. The old lady stares at Garšva as though he had tried to murder her grandchildren.

“They say that up on the eighteenth you slammed the door shut too quickly, shattered the cage, and almost killed the chinchillas!”

“That's right, O’Casey, I damaged the cage, because this gentleman entered the elevator and then, inexplicably, turned around and tried to exit. At that moment the door closed and the cage suffered some damage. The chinchillas, I believe, are fine, though the fellow got a little spooked. But his beloved is sleeping quite peacefully. It seems that, like most men, he’s the more anxious one.”

The starter smiled faintly. “OK, Tony. Go around the corner, and come back after these people have cleared out.”

Walking away, Garšva hears the starter’s words:

“He’ll present himself to the manager and will be punished. What a criminal! The poor little creatures!”

Garšva comes back and the starter says:

“Bloody chinchillas! They belong in hell. Be careful, Tony.”

“Thanks, O’Casey. I will.”

The express from the tenth to the eighteenth. Your floor, here we are, please, thank you, button, hand to handle, going up. I'm not angry that the old people lodged a complaint. I was inattentive. Who told me to dream about the Valley of Josaphat? Poor, sweet old people. They’re probably childless and will raise those chinchillas like their dearest darlings. Maybe I should follow their example, maybe that would save me?

Elena and I—together. Domestic bliss. A little house somewhere in Jamaica. We have a whole floor to ourselves. We hang some reproductions. We arrange our books. The art books and poets look serious. A separate little shelf for our own people. In the evenings we listen to music, read and argue mildly, savoring it. The lamp shines, and it has a green glass shade. We find Station C, it doesn't have marble columns, but its vestibule offers peace. And on the coffee table—fresh flowers. And our faces always contain the possibility of smiles. And our dreams—a sense of awakening. And our embraces—the first trip to Jones Beach. And our emblem is the dead noblemen’s heads. We play at leisure. We stack blocks, build castles, dream about life and death. And the books offer us some help. Not only Homer or Dante. Our own authors, too. We drink sparkling wine and a flamingo flares up on the expensive ebony table; we sail on Lake Lucerne, and, in that other land, a dead boy plays a tune on the guitar that has never been heard on this earth. And the rising sun once again awakens our world, and we live in the cool, endless North with field, path, meadow, cross. Palms, my beloved palms, sing slender in this windy oasis.

Zoori, zoori, magical word, magical key, magical desire, magical conventionality, magical nostalgia, nostalgia for an unbreakable cage.

And then one day, in our little cage, a child is born.

First published in 1958 as Balta drobulė. © The heirs of Antanas Škėma. Translation copyright © 2018 by Vagabond Voices. From White Shroud, forthcoming from Vagabond Voices. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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