LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 34, No. 3 - Fall 1988
Editor of this issue: Antanas Dundzila
Copyright © 1988 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
TEN FRENCH WORDS
translated by Ilgė Gelmėse
Editorial introduction: Algirdas Pocius (1930- ) is almost exclusively a writer of short stories and the author of more than eight works published in Lithuania, starting with Rytmetis Užgirių kaime (Morning in the Village of Užgiriai) in 1955. His stories mostly portray the life and problems of Lithuanian villagers in the post-war years. "Ten French Words" first appeared in Verpetas.
Not only moths, but people too, are attracted by a lamp burning in the night. Except people do not flitter in through an open window. Instead, they thump up the wooden stairs to the second floor of the school and fumble for the door in the dark. Some knock politely, while others kick with their foot as if they had no hands. Come to think of it, the hands of many nightly wanderers that year were engaged.
The school-teacher, Selenis, was so engrossed in his French dictionary that the footsteps on the staircase did not catch his ear. Every evening, he would teach himself ten French words. This was not work but sheer pleasure. Selenis had a passion for languages. He already knew German, Polish and Russian, and the time had now come for French dictionaries. This teacher always used to say that mathematics and foreign languages alone are true sciences being indifferent to any detours in history, and everything else is confusion. Perhaps this is why he was often spoken of as a man not of this world. "That's just what I want. I want to live in my own world, one that I have created for myself. Just don't bother me, if you don't mind," the teacher would reply. But few took any notice of his request. Whether he liked it or not, the school-teacher was dragged into the larger world and was scolded when he resisted. At long last, the school board, in utter vexation, had relieved him of his post at the county high school and sent him away to the remote village of Triukiai.
Selenis was disheartened. The teacher did not regret the higher salary he had been receiving at the high school; rather, he was depressed at the thought that it would be impossible to demote him any further. He knew he would make a poor monitor. That's why the next step could very well be a farewell to teaching.
"Come in!", Selenis called out irritably upon hearing a knocking at the door. He did not take his eyes away from the piece of paper on which he had written ten melodious words. Reading it to the end, the teacher raised his head and froze. At the door stood two men with semi-automatic rifles across their chests. One of them held a flash-light in his hand.
"It is they ..." the disquieting thought crossed his mind, enough to make him tremble. In the city he had been shielded from such meetings. True, he had been at the funeral of a teacher shot by bandits. That had been an indirect contact, but now . . . Selenis, holding a pencil in his hand, rose and asked in a quavering voice: "Can I help you?"
"Excuse us, sir, we came in for just a minute. We noticed your light and dropped in. It's rather cold out there," one of them spoke up.
He wore a leather jacket, a striped woolen scarf wrapped around his neck, and knee-high boots. With firm, unhurried steps he crossed the room and coming up to Selenis, studied him. His eyes were brown penetrating and resolute, his face was clean-shaven except for a short black moustache just under his nose.
"Have you been teaching here long?" he asked, standing right by the desk and casting a half-glance at the French dictionary that lay open next to Selenis' hands.
"Since the first of September. This is my second month," the teacher replied.
He scrutinized the man's clothing, his weapon and his face, searching for some detail that would assure him of who they were. But there was no answer: both the clothing and the semi-automatics could equally serve those in the forest as well as those in the city. Selenis stood there, more disconcerted than ever, undecided which line to take.
"Are you studying French?", again the question was asked by the man with the black moustache. He picked up the piece of paper with the ten words and ran his eyes over it.
"Yes, I am," Selenis answered tersely.
The man returned him the piece of paper and began pacing the room, glancing from time to time at the school-teacher, the book-shelf and the large picture of Šimonis hanging on the wall.
"I used to study, too,"' he said. "But I've forgotten everything. I'd have to start all over again."
"Maybe you'll never get the chance ..." added his friend, who stood warming his hands at the stove. He was the younger of the two, blond with a little black birth-mark on his cheek.
"Why?", the one who kept pacing the floor stopped and turned his face toward the stove. "I have a talisman. It will protect me."
Both of them laughed at that. Apparently, those words had a hidden meaning for the two armed men, one that Selenis could not make out. Carefully, as if he were lowering himself into cold water, Selenis sank into his chair.
The school-teacher was now quite sure that these visitors were from the forest.
Meanwhile, the man with the leather jacket and the short black moustache just under his nose had paused in front of the book-shelf. For some time he was silent reading the titles imprinted on the backs of the books.
Selenis became uneasy. The whole front row contained books solely of a political nature with Stalin's collected works right in the middle. He darted from his chair and with his well-worn slippers flapping at his heels, tripped up to the book-shelf.
"Don't pay any attention to these books,"' the teacher began to apologize, growing disconcerted. "Well, you know the times . . . There's no other way, you must understand, sir... As it is, I'm accused of evading political issues. But look," all in a flutter, Selenis pulled out the books from the front row and piled them on the desk. The shiny backs of brand new books appeared. Here the publisher's imprints were of a totally different kind, as were the authors. Kant, Kipling, Metterlinck, Brazdžionis and Šeinius, the thick volumes of the Lithuanian encyclopedia . . . Many of the books were in German and Polish. The teacher's face glowed as if he were gazing at shining gold. This was his pride and joy, his treasure.
"The first row is just for show, the second for himself," uttered the man in the leather jacket. He spoke clammy, without a trace of reproach.
"There's no other way," agreed Selenis, bustling about among his books. Anxious lest the visitors be seized with a sudden fancy for one of his volumes, he was in a hurry to put them back in their places. Blowing the dust from the covers, he worked with such painstaking care that he seemed to have forgotten the strange visitors in his room. He always did forget himself whenever he looked at his books.
"How about your students? What do you give them the part of you that is for show, or the true part?", asked the man as he resumed his pacing across the room.
Selenis drew himself away from the book-shelf. He returned to the desk, picked up a thin, colorful pencil with an eraser on the tip and pressed it to his lips.
"Science is science," he uttered, giving his head a little shake. "You can give it a red binding, a green one, or a white one, but that changes little. Besides, I teach German. There's no room in it for politics."
"But the students must ask you direct questions. For example, questions about the Soviet government, about its goals . . . How do you wriggle your way out of that one?" the man halted in the middle of the room. He looked the teacher straight in the eye.
"Well, yes, certainly, those questions do sometimes come up, yes, they do ..." Selenis stammered out. He sat down, then stood up again. As if he could not find his proper place, he circled the desk hopping from one foot to the other.
"And what do you say then?"
"If the inspector is not in the room, I tell them not to disturb the class with irrelevant questions."
"But what if the inspector is there?" The eyes of the black-haired man would not release him.
"Then I tell them this and that. You must understand, sir, there is no other way ..."
Once again the floor creaked calmly under the thick-soled boots; the leather jacked squeaked. Selenis was overcome by the impression that he was no longer in his room. The book-shelf at which he would gaze with so much pleasure had disappeared. The French dictionary was no longer on the desk, nor was the piece of paper with ten melodious words. The colorful picture of Šimonis hanging on the wall had melted away. He could not rid himself of a question that kept nagging at the back of his mind: how did he ever come to be with those two armed men?
"Well, then, you are a bad soviet teacher. You don't explain to your students that which is most important for them to know," the words came to him intertwined with the footsteps creaking on the floor.
Selenis opened his eyes wide. His face and his whole body were suddenly suffused with heat. The pencil fell from his trembling hand, and it was clearly audible in the silence as it rolled across the desk.
"I don't know who you are," the teacher barely brought out.
"We didn't ask for any identification, either."
Apparently the man with the black moustache became tired of pacing the room and sat down on the sofa, resting his semi-automatic between his knees. The butt of the rifle thumped heavily against the floor.
"Perhaps you're hungry?" Selenis leaped to his feet. "Although I'm a bachelor, I could put together something or other."
"No, thanks, we're full," the younger one, the blond, spoke up from beside the stove. Although he had not participated in the conversation until now, a crooked little smile, which Selenis was quick to notice, had been constantly playing on his lips. "I was mistaken, they're not from the forest at all," the teacher thought, more frightened than ever.
"You must understand, these are hard times out in the villages. First one side comes,' then the other all of them armed. After all, it's not written out on their foreheads which ones they are. I hope you don't think ..."
"We haven't said anything sir," the black-haired man interrupted him from the sofa.
Selenis turned to him. "Well, no, you haven't really said anything, but I don't know what you're thinking."
Both men laughed heartily. "That's all we need: documents to identify our thoughts."
Nonplussed, Selenis was silent. Leaning against the desk, he wrung his hands, his eyes darting about the room with a persecuted, hounded look. He could not calm down. Fear made him defensive.
"When you return to the city, you can check on my speech at Mr. Žemaitis' funeral. A hundred people heard me. I said clearly that the methods of terror cannot have any good results. They contradict the principles of humaneness and bring even greater misfortunes. Terror has never been used for a good end. That is my unshakable belief."
"And how do you know that we will return to the city?" the black-haired man interrupted him.
Again Selenis opened his eyes wide. He was stunned.
"I don't know anything, anything" the teacher whispered in a subdued voice, as if he were speaking to himself. "You must understand, these are such hard times out in the villages, it's better not to talk."
"They're not easy times at all; there's no denying that," even the man in the leather jacket agreed with him. He rose from the sofa and slung the rifle on his shoulder.
"Excuse us, sir, for having interrupted your work. It's time for us to go."
The men tightened their belts, put on their hats, and started towards the door. Selenis followed them, bewildered and unhappy.
At the threshold the black-haired man turned around and said: "Look, don't overdo it, sir. It's hard, when things are this way."
Selenis said nothing. He was still expecting the visitors, perhaps at the last minute, to reveal who they were. But the armed men said not a word more and stepped out the door. The sound of their thumping footsteps as they climbed down could soon be heard from the stairs.
Selenis carefully opened the door. Sticking his head out, he listened for a moment. The dark corridor echoed with their footsteps like an empty box. Finally the outer door slammed shut, and everything grew silent.
Barely dragging his slippered feet, the teacher returned to his desk. For a long time he stared at the thick French dictionary, seeing nothing. A white piece of paper stuck out from between its pages containing the ten words that he had not yet learned. That evening Selenis had other things on his mind. With bowed shoulders, he sank into his chair by the desk and pressed his overburdened head between his hands.