LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 26, No. 3 - Fall 1980
Editor of this issue: Birutë Cipliauskaitë
Copyright © 1980 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
"THE FLYING APPLETREES"
by JUOZAS APUTIS
translated by Violeta Kelertas
. . . they bloom and bloom
in the subconscious, under water and earth.
Devil take them, won't they ever show up? That's the way it goes with commissions — they'll promise to come, tell you to expect them at such and such an hour of the morning — we'll be there, take care of everything, if they'd at least have the goodness to show up by noon! Naturally, what else could be expected, someone's pumped them full of whisky, that's all. Aren't there plenty of excuses to drink nowadays, true, but when haven't there been? Ever since the day the soldiers crept out of the woods and, shooting sporadically, chased the Germans off across the pasture, only yesterday they'd been playing football in the manor flowerbeds — and this is the way it's been for twenty years, no — it's a good deal more than that, whoever makes the rounds of the farms doesn't do so with a dry whistle: there are mortgages, quotas to the state, next they're distributing acreages, surveying again, then the next thing you know a body gets the urge to keep a cow or two.
The devils, they're still not here. Once more he'll go into the barn and see how much hay's left over from the winter, the early spring sun feels warm on his back, soon he'll put the cows out to pasture, save on feed. One's so dependent on old mother nature, in fall you were just complaining about the biting cold, the unseasonable snow, and here it's an early spring, all to the good, quite unforeseen and unplanned. That goes for the moving, too. It's true, the rumors had been flying, everybody's been saying that they were going to tunnel underground, cram the good black dirt full of clay pipes, and look — it's already here.
The barn would make for some good boards, they'll come in handy at the new homestead, that's for sure. It's only now they're promising the moon, but once you make the move it'll be kiss their ass: you won't get this and there'll be a shortage of that. Rip the ceiling from the clay barn and you'll have some good boards, too, it'd be nice to slap some on at least one inside wall of the new house, cement's so rough to brush against.
Such appletrees this year! . . They were late, the devils, in fixing the papers — today's not the only day they haven't turned up, all in all they were supposed to be finished by the beginning of April, so what's going to happen now that the trees are already bursting with bud, will they come to uproot them just like that, just when they've got their life back again?
Just now, staring at those appletrees, Milađius caught himself feeling perhaps just a little discouraged. Besides, there were the young oaks and birches — getting quite tall on the south side — and the mountain ash. For your every hardship, for every joy you can find room on the mountain ashberry. And nothing ever spoke to Milađius in quite the same way about the end of summer and the coming of fall as those berries. So now, putting all of it together, expecting important guests, it's a bit sad maybe, damn it, not that sad, what has to be done has to be done. He was gazing at the smoke-colored ash and seeing only autumn in it, when just then Milađius's mother appeared before his eyes, she had been known as mother-dear to everyone until the day she died, but here she was, frowning and angry, she flew by like a blackbird, sweeping the ashtreetops with her skirts, scattering berries right and left, one even seemed to pop Milađius on the nose, and there mother was, shaking her bony finger at him.
"Well, what are you going to tell me, why are you shaking your finger at me like that?" — Milađius was about to say, but decided to keep his mouth shut one more time. He'd be damned — it was just the way it had been when she was alive — here he'd almost started an argument with her again. Mother-dear would always complain, he could never do anything to please her, she'd always say, "It's not like in the good old days".
Mother flew about the orchard, took a final turn over the grove of alders and whizzed into the barn through the chink used by the owls, frightening the pigeon's away.
And again Milađius caught himself giving in to it again, something that never helps but only plunges you even more deeply into the morass, and taking his switch, he lashed himself briskly across his rubber boots, as he peered in the direction of the blue woods, nearby rippled Santvaris' bog under attack by the screaming lapwings, their voices echoing, their wings whirring, they fell downwards with a hissing sound as if to extinguish their flaming wings in the water.
The cuckoos had returned early this year, too, but none had reached his trees, they hadn't taken their fill of the birches where the trees grew more densely and the birds felt more free. The starlings, they were laboring from early morning — taking turns, some recovering twigs from field and wood, others in the meantime singing from the roof and poplar. What cheer — one put so much feeling into his work, he began to shake and ruffle his wings and back, doing heaven knows what with one of his legs, he sent some old chips from the roof flying.
By now the bulldozer, put to work on setting his, Milađius's, affairs in order, could be heard roaring, soon Milađius caught sight of it as well, it came tearing along straight from the former manor and with a terrific racket came to a stop right at Milađius's pond. Now it was no longer much of a pond, just a pit of sorts. Once it had been a place for children to splash around in — when they'd been scooping mud out to throw together the barn, it was from that time that the pond was left over. It seemed that the driver knew how to maneuver quite deftly because he parked his machine on the very edge of the pit, running the caterpillar-tracks a bit over it and now the machine only stood eager for an order to attack. The driver turned out to be someone he knew, a neighbor kid, not a bad kid really, too lazy to study, he'd even had a fight with the teacher — told her those lessons of hers weren't worth one track of the bulldozer, he'd make more money on construction any day — now he jumped out of the cabin, greeted Milađius and sprawled out on last summer's dry grass.
"You'll catch your death of cold", said Milađius, while the driver laughed, as yet no illness had ever penetrated his clothes.
"So where are the big shots?", Milađius spoke out anxiously. "They promised they'd be here a long time ago".
"I saw them flocking together, they should be here, if they didn't get waylaid somewhere. Anyway, I'm the most important one and I'm here, old man", the driver spat on the ground.
Milađius suddenly remembered that in all the business of gaping at the trees and birds he'd quite forgotten — how was the wife doing indoors? He hurried into the house, their two voices could be heard, but they weren't angry, seemingly everything was all right, and by the time Milađius fell out the door, he could see from the direction of the wood four, or was it five, men with briefcases come waving, their raincoats flying. Somehow, right then Milađius started to feel a bit uncomfortable, luckily the driver chose this moment to ask:
"How many appletrees is it you have?"
"Fifteen good ones. One's withered away — the rabbits got it".
"That one doesn't count . . ." The driver scratched the back of his head. "You could have more, you know, other people are selling more , . ."
"I've got what I've got".
"Don't we all?"
Just then the winged contingent arrived at the orchard. Milađius went to meet them, the driver bringing up the rear.
One of the new arrivals was in charge, the rest were just witnesses, this leader wore boots of rather good quality, and his raincoat was imported, Yugoslavian. He said hello and mentioned the purpose of their visit. By the way, comrade Milađius was probably aware of the reason for their coming. Well, yes, yes.
"So then how many appletrees do you have in all?", asked the same person in the Yugoslavian coat. "On our way by, I'd guess that we counted about fifteen, only one seemed to be dead. The state can't pay for that one".
Milađius kept nodding his head, scarcely daring to raise his eyes to the leader; therefore, he turned toward the other four men, all of whom he had seen before, they were all from neighboring villages, having been chosen for this commission only at the meeting. The one standing closest to him, whom he knew best, began to wink imperceptibly at Milađius and appeared to be trying to step on his toe. It wasn't the first time something like this had happened, so now Milađius raised his eyes more boldly to the chief and made his request:
"What's the hurry? . . Maybe ... To tell the truth, chairman, it isn't every day I sell trees, the occasion should be commemorated somehow . . ."
"Commemorated, you say?", the person addressed as chairman asked rather grimly, and at that moment the driver slapped Milađius on the back, saying, "If I've understood you correctly, then thank you, comrade Milađius, thank you. But we have to get to work, we still have an enormous job ahead of us".
"Chairman, we all have plenty of work, you think I'm not swamped?"
That equation struck the chairman as amusing. Milađius did not notice it, of course, the chairman smiled and cast his eyes over the other four men who, even though they didn't raise their hands, clearly indicated their preference and then the chairman gave in, while the driver was already heading to turn off the bulldozer which was still shaking like a frog on the bank of the pond.
When he stepped onto the porch, the cat jumped out over the threshold and Milađius started, his scowling, angry mother again appeared before him and flew off with two small birches, nailing them not to the. house but to the barndoor.
Milađienë was a good housekeeper and her husband's shirts were possibly the very whitest in the village. For her guests she set out the best of what she had in the house, after his second shot the driver got up to thank her, Milađius wanted to force another drink on him, but the driver refused.
"Thanks, old man, thanks, I'd have another one, but you see I'm not alone, the machinery's outside waiting, so I can't have any more". And he wouldn't take a third, machinery had certainly put discipline into him.
The chairman, thank God, didn't act superior, he caught on quickly and made himself at home, he carried on a polite conversation, now and then casting a glance out the window with his eyes which were on the small side, there the youth was rattling the bulldozer, the birches and oaks and the poor mountain ash fell to the ground almost without protest, they didn't count their age by centuries yet, they hadn't taken deeper root, nor had a chance to grow stout, but with the aid of machinery the kid was capable of taking care of those as well.
From time to time swallows skimmed by the window, Milađius by now had downed his share, maybe even more than the others — he kept toasting them and himself set an example, he sat at one end of the table as a host should and it was the chairman himself who brought his wife out of the kitchen:
"Where's our lovely hostess, we haven't seen her yet. She's seeing to our needs and neglecting herself".
"Tekle, dear, come, you're wanted here".
Milađienë came in beaming, happy that she hadn't been forgotten and remembering also to poke her husband in the ribs — maybe the time was right? She had to drink two whole glasses straight — first for one leg, then for the other, to ensure that life in the new home would stand on its feet firmly. The chairman said as much, proposing yet another toast to her diligent hands, but she shook her head —everything was already spinning around for her as it was.
The bulldozer chose this moment to rattle violently, Milađius had the feeling that it had hooked the tresses of the firtree planted some fifty years ago by his father; at that moment a crow cawed over the yard. Milađius, stupefied, again feared that mother-dear might slip inside and so he told his wife to shut the porch-door. The chairman pulled out a thick blue notebook, for a long time he searched for Milađius's name up and down the lists, finally found it and stared at the number written in pencil.
"Hmm . . . How many appletrees belonging to Milađius was it we counted?, he asked his witnesses, smiling and looking at Milađius who felt uneasy. The wife in the meantime stood in the doorway of the kitchen. "It seems it was fifteen and the sixteenth was dead".
"Are you sure that's the number, chairman?", interrupted one of the witnesses. "No, it couldn't have been fifteen. It seems to me it had to be at least twenty".
"Isn't that too many?". There was hesitation in the chairman's voice. "What do you think, comrade Milađius?".
"Whatever you make of it, chairman, that's . . .".
"We only plough them under anyway, chairman. Why don't we put down twenty. Well, sixteen for sure and that dead one, we could have missed it. And even if we add five, in such a stand — that's no great number".
For a while the chairman fiddled with the eraser in his fingers, thinking, and then slowly he rubbed out the number written in pencil, pulled out his pen, made a few scratches with the tip and this time in ink wrote in the number twenty, signing to it himself and letting his witnesses and comrade Milađius sign as well.
"Thank you, chairman, thank you", said Milađius, while the chairman and his witnesses downed one more shot and got up, reaching for their raincoats, Milađius held up the Yugoslavian one and helped the chairman on with it, while the latter cheerfully extended his hand to Milađienë.
The fact is they had stayed rather long, the kid had already uprooted the last live appletree, old and bent, and could be seen driving his bulldozer over the fields to another farm. Following the chairman's lead, the men also headed in that direction, straight as the crow flies, since the ground had dried over, the rains came only intermittently this year.
By now not a tree was left upright, they all lay on their sides and from a distance it was even hard to distinguish which end was the tree's feet and which the head — the muddy branches lay black and the roots were crusted with dirt, into the newly gouged out pits water oozed slowly.
Toward dusk a truck pulled in, it was driven by a different driver, though the kid from earlier in the day was along. He jumped out of the cab and made straight for the house, as now he didn't have the machinery along and could drink.
Having loaded up the belongings, not all of them, but only some, Milađius downed a few more shots, locked up the house and climbed into the truck with his wife, but by now it had grown dark and making the turn from Milađius's yard into the road, the driver perhaps made too sudden a turn and Milađius fell out into last year's grass, he didn't hurt himself at all, but jumped up immediately and waved to his wife to go on, it wasn't far, he'd go on foot.
His head reeling, he returned to the farmstead, all the trees, large and small, were resting on their sides, when suddenly five appletrees detached themselves and flapping their branches rose into the air and, buzzing strangely — like bees — began to circle over Milađius's head. Milađius tried to plug his ears, but it didn't work, he could still hear them because the trees were flying wildly at a furious pace, and when the watery moon appeared, the trees began to shake off their blossoms, and the tiny blue dots, spinning in the air, fell into the hollowed-out earth, covering both the pits now filled with water and the black roots of the appletrees. Milađius watched the flying, blossom-scattering appletrees, he was still sober enough to think: "It's okay as long as it's only my trees that are frolicking about, but, Christ, when all those of the neighbors gather, you won't be able to distinguish earth from sky, all those blossoms, why, they could bury you". At this thought, he began to retreat backwards, then set off running down the road. By the straw-pile, where they kept the potatoes and beets, he had to stop because he heard someone calling him. Coming closer and bending down, under the thin cellophane, he saw his wasted mother-dear lying as if in some greenhouse. With a withered finger, she was pointing at her chin, on it instead of her long whisker now grew a small white appletree.