THE SEMI CONCIOUS OLD man lay in his hospital bed by a window. With his body ravaged by cancer with an IV hooked to him, he watched his life slowly ebbing to a dismal end. A tube for oxygen was connected under his nose to help him breathe. He also had electrodes on his chest monitoring pulse and blood pressure. The whole scene was surreal. The patient altered between a deep sleep or a coma and consciousness.
From time to time a nurse came in to check the contraptions and made sure that they functioned according to pre set specifications. She would also check his hands and arms for signs that some vital organ was shutting down. Finding everything in order, she recorded something on a clipboard.
When the patient woke up he would glance out the window to reassure himself that he was still part of this world. That day in the afternoon it rained. The shower was short and the sun was soon back bathing the room with its rays. Close to the building stood a large tree. The man tried to figure out what kind it was but his vision was blurry and his mind too confused to form an opinion. While focusing on the leaves, he saw raindrops rolling down like some beads of glistening diamonds. By then dropping off at the end in large silvery drops. His eyes were fixed on the droplets but his mind was blank. To make some sense for being alive he counted them.
Again the eyelids became too heavy to keep open. They closed on him against his will while his lips were still moving counting the drops. In the darkness he still whispered,
No sooner had he closed his eyes than he found himself awake and alert and no longer e in a hospital bed. He appeared in the middle of a meadow sitting under a large oak tree. Feeling bewildered, he took shelter under it for protection from a short rain shower that had just passed over him. The place was strange yet with familiar sights here and there. To his surprise, he was looking at a small child from somewhere above. Suddenly, he felt and yet incredibly knew that he was the boy. Yet his consciousness had not completely faded. One moment he was the old man then become the child and returned again to the old patient. During this confusion, he also noticed an old woman sitting on a blanket leaning against the trunk of the tree beside the boy.
In his reveries the shell of a once strong man heard and felt a pesky insect buzzing around him and couldn't move to chase it away. Seeing and feeling the boy
motionless he realized why this noisy pest was so annoying and the reason he couldn't move his limb. It was because the child was in a deep sleep.
During the period that the mind was that of the old man he saw a grasshopper making a loud racket near the boy's ear. The insect was a few inches away from the lad's head and getting louder also it came at the same time in the old man's ears.
Finally as the patient saw the boy rise his hand to swat at the pesky creature he also felt his own limb react. The child sleeping lashed out a few times at the noise but was unsuccessful in scarring the insect away or stopping the infernal noise. It finally made sense to him. The boy was he a lifetime ago. It seemed like a millennia now.
The moment the child opened his eyes the old man's consciousness disappeared and he became the lad. Only faint nagging thoughts somewhere in the depths of his mind told him that there was someone else within him. The boy felt that he knew something beyond his present knowledge but couldn't bring it to the surface of his consciousness.
It was the month of June 1940. The young lad's head was shaved bald, so that his blond stubble and scalp glistened in the sun. In those days it was a practice in many countries to shave the boy's head and sometimes men's head for sanitary reasons. It was a simple way in keeping the head lice from infesting the hair. Other methods were cruder and time consuming so that shaving of the head was preferable. The women on the other hand spent a great deal of time with their coiffure. They knew that once the lice settled in it was very difficult or almost impossible to get rid of them. No one knew the reason why lice were so prolific. Some years it was worse than others and people took it in their stride as part of normal life. They were like the locusts or plagues of the ancients.
The boy's eyes were green 'Bobule,' (grandmother) in his native tongue told him several times that he had cat's eyes. Otherwise, there were no other distinctive marks and he looked like any other preschool age lad.
The summer was sunny and dry. The lad concerned himself mostly with playing and all the things a small child does in his uncomplicated existence. To himself, his life seemed very complex.
This morning the boy had gone to the meadow with his grandmother to play. She brought rosary for her daily prayers. The lad played for a while and then got tired, laid down on the soft grass for a rest and fell asleep when that pesky grasshopper woke him up. The lad stirred rubbing his eyes in the bright sunlight.
"Albert, it's time for us to go back home because I have some weeding to do in the garden." The grandma announced with a stern and firm voice.
"Aw! I just began to play and got tired. I lied down for a moment and you want to leave. Please can't we stay and play just a little longer?" The boy pleaded with adoring eyes to his grandmother.
She stood up.
"We can't and you have been asleep for over an hour!" Bobule answered firmly while coming over and taking him by the hand.
"Let's go!" The grandmother said while dragging the lad still grumbling under his breath homeward.
It was the day that the Red Army marched into the small Baltic country. The routine for the boy had not changed. His parents stayed home from work that day. Once home his grandmother went to weed the garden leaving the boy in the yard. There was a tension in the family. It was no surprise to anyone that the Soviets were coming. The people were aware that the national defence forces would not resist, so no battles would ensue.
As usual the boy went off to play in the front yard trying to keep busy and stay out of the way of his parents so that they couldn't force him to take his daily nap. The lad wouldn't be able to convince them that he didn't need one since he already had slept that morning in the meadow. His parents used the afternoon naps to get rid of him so that they would have some time on their own. His younger brother was already asleep in the house but as long as Albert was out of sight he was safe.
The sun shined brightly and made the heavens a dazzling blue as far as the eye could see. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Normally June had some cool days, but not that year. The sun was warm and pleasant.
The boy played in the yard without incident but always alert for the ganders and the rooster who stalked his brother and him. This day he was lucky. They were nowhere in sight. Whenever they had the chance the geese would ambush the children and especially in the spring when they felt very protective of their young. The birds attacked anyone who came within their reach during that season.
For the children the hostilities between them and the birds extended to all year round. They had to be vigilant all the time. The rooster who had gained the title as the old tyrant of the yard chased the children, as well as mama, and bobule. To prove his supremacy the bird would also take on the ganders and won many a fight if the male goose was alone. In time, the geese learned to roam in twos for self-defence that made it more difficult for the children. The old rooster was a big bird with a red comb that reached up to the boy's armpits and projected an image of a monster. Occasionally both the ganders and the rooster would take on "tete" (father) but they always got the worst of it. When it was all over they would find themselves staggering away after receiving a swift kick from his boot.
The head of the household was not a patient person with anyone, or anything at the best of times, so he settled these encounters very quickly with his foot. After the skirmish the yard would become peaceful and serene again for at least a week. It didn't matter which birds got the thrashing. Both the geese and the rooster somehow got the message if one of them got the treatment. For a while, the birds would avoid all humans including the children. This would give a breather to the kids but it didn't last too long. In time, the birds learned to leave the father alone altogether and concentrated on the children.
After a while Albert got bored being alone and making sure it was safe he made his way to the garden. There his grandmother was on her knees leaning across the vegetable beds so that she could reach the far side. As he approached she looked up.
"Albert did you come to help me?" She asked with a twinkle in her eye.
"No... I just wanted to see what you were doing."
"You could see a lot better and learn faster if you came closer and helped me."
The lad didn't reply. He just stood there looking at her expert hands pulling the weeds from between the plants without harming them. Some of the grass was so close to the plant that it seemed like it was part of the vegetable. Standing there the boy noticed for the first time, her deeply grooved face, gaunt and leathery from many years of being out in the sun. Her kerchief had been tied tightly around her high brow and hid most of her hair but a few white strands were still visible around the back of her neck. She looked weird. The sun's rays on her scarf made her look bald and very old, yet her eyes were blue-gray and clear. They kept darting between the weeds on the ground and the boy. His eyes drifted to her gnarled knuckles on her hands from arthritis that seemed grotesque but they never scared him when she held him as they walked together. Somehow bobule felt his scrutiny and without lifting her eyes asked.
"What's the matter? How come you're just standing there? Why don't you bend down and help me?" The grandmother asked with an irritated tone in her voice.
Even though Albert was looking at her, the question caught him by surprise.
"No...No... Nothing is the matter; I was just trying to see what you were doing."
She pointed to the other side of the vegetable bed.
"Why don't you go over there and pull those two weeds that I can't reach."
He didn't move. In his childish mind, he wondered how a person who looked so old could be so nimble and speak with a voice that sounded smooth and no older than his mother's. The boy could see her perspiring. The kerchief she wore had a wide wet line around the crease where it met her forehead. There were also damp spots under her arms when she reached further away. She wore a gray apron to protect her dress. Being a slender woman, the strings wrapped all the way around her body to the front where she tied them in a bow. Due to the apron, he had never seen her in a dirty dress. Even though she spent many hours in the garden and tending to the few animals and fowl that that they possessed. The lad finally wandered over and knelt down to help her.
"Which ones?" He asked.
Then he pointed to a couple of long yellow strands protruding around a head of lettuce.
"Yes." Grandmother replied.
Albert pulled the dried grass out.
"Now what do you want me to do with them?"
"Give them to me. I'll put them in the pile with mine. See how easy it is? Why don't you stay there and get all the ones I can't reach?"
"I would, but I'm busy and anyway I must find Banda." He lied.
This unusual nickname was given to his younger brother by his grandmother because he was so cuddly and warm when she first held him. "Banda" meant a bun in the native tongue and at that moment being small and warm he reminded her of a newly baked roll of bread. She tried to keep Albert close by.
"He's sleeping inside. If you go, mama will make you lie down as well."
"No she won't besides, Banda may be awake and mama may want me to look after him." He then turned to walk away from grandma.
He was only a year and three months older than his brother but the grownups always told him to look after his brother. The lad took only one step when he heard her angry voice.
"Why is it you never have to watch Banda when I ask you to go to the meadow with me, but only when I ask you to help me?"
Albert didn't stay to argue with her and ran as fast as he could out of the garden. The lad didn't stop until he turned the corner of the house so she couldn't see him. Out of her sight, he stopped and drew pictures on the hard clay with his trusty stick that was always in his hand. The boy always carried it for self-defence from those marauding birds, and God help him if they caught him without it.
The temporary house built out of wood was covered with tarpaper and had a small porch protecting the front door. It was placed on one side of the property leaving plenty of free land for the building of a permanent home. His parents had already visited an architect and engaged him to design a brick house.
Then the war broke out and the plans were shelved temporarily. Unknown to them all at the time the project would never be finished. The one hectare or two and a half acre lot included a garden, a shed that the father had built for storage, as well as a small barn, pen for a cow, a couple of pigs and the birds.
The property was about five kilometres or three miles from Kaunas on the other side of Nemunas the major river dissecting the city. The area where he lived was not considered as part of the city. The few houses clustered together were given the status of a village named Noreikiske.
As he was strolling dragging his stick on the ground behind him, the birds surprised him from around the corner of the house and attacked. He was defending himself when he heard rumblings somewhere in the distance. Albert had chased off one of the ganders when the noises got louder and made the ground tremble. He ran closer to the gravel road and peered down one side and the other, trying to discover what made these strange noises.
Looking eastward he saw some small dots and other shapes heading in his direction. As the silhouettes and dots got larger, he saw a large number of soldiers. Some were walking while others were riding their monstrous machines.
Albert couldn't make out what kind of army it was but they certainly raised a cloud of dust as they moved on the road towards the hamlet. The boy stared at the column in the distance for a moment, and then called out.
"Bobule, Bobule! Come here! Look at all the soldiers coming!"
She got up from her knees, and flew over the rows of vegetables in large strides toward the fence. The grandmother stopped for a moment to look down the road from where she could see the distant cloud of dust. The boy was amazed how agile she could be when she wanted. At first the old lady didn't believe him. When she realized that he was telling the truth, she scolded him.
"Albert come here, and get away from the road!" Bobule yelled.
He hesitated and curiosity kept him glued to the spot. The lad wanted to see the marchers. He shouted to his grandmother.
"I want to see the parade!"
"Never mind the parade!" She screamed in frustration.
She looked toward the approaching column and yelled again but this time the boy could make out the fury in her voice.
"You'll get a licking like you never had before, if you make me come there to get you!"
She always bullied him by promising a licking but seldom carried out her threats. He slowly turned away from the road.
"I want to see the parade!"
Without a word, she went to the gate and headed toward him shouting.
"I told you that you'll get the reed if you didn't come! This time you had it!"
Seeing her long strides and angry face he got the message and ran toward her yelling.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!"
As they met in the front yard, they almost collided. Neither one of them had slowed down in expectation that they would reach each other so quickly. She grabbed him by the hand and dragged him toward the house. At the same time, she looked around and called for his younger brother who was nowhere in sight. She stopped and yelled again,
After a while, the door of the house opened and the mother stuck her head out.
"He's still inside; he was thirsty after his afternoon nap, so he got a drink and will be out shortly!" The mother said sternly to the grandmother. The grandmother shouted at the top of her lungs.
"Don't let him out! Albert and I are coming in!"
The mother, a woman of medium build with her dark hair rolled in a bun behind her head, was rather pretty or at least the boy thought so. She glanced outside toward them and then turning around went back inside.
* * * *
BANDA WHO WAS A year younger than Albert was much more curious and agile than his brother and also very aggressive. The boys usually played together but it didn't take much for them to get into a scrap, so that the grandmother spent most of her time refereeing.
Once satisfied that she knew where Banda was, the grandmother walked briskly toward the house. She was so fast that the lad could hardly keep up with her. She actually lifted him off the ground by the arm from time to time. He still had the stick in his other hand dragging it on the ground leaving a line in the dirt. As they reached the door she turned to him took the stick away, and threw it into the yard. Entering the porch out of breath she called out to his parents.
"The Russians are coming!"
"Where, I don't see anything! Everyone be quiet for a moment, and listen!" The father yelled in a panicked voice.
He went to the window and looked through it up and down the road. It was strange that the rumbling noise inside the house was so muted. One of the kids said something. The father turned around and put his finger to his lips. He gave the children a threatening look.
"Shhhh, listen. Just a minute, I can hear something."
They were so quiet that Albert could hear the heavy breathing of the others.
"I can hear a distinct rumbling sound now. It's getting louder. It sounds like tanks." The father whispered again.
A few moments later he turned to the two women.
"There's no question, it must be the Russians. Our army doesn't have any heavy equipment that could make this kind of noise. I've heard rumours for weeks about the invasion."
The mother went towards the window.
"Do you think there'll be fighting between the Lithuanian army and the Bolsheviks?"
From the day of the revolution the Russians became Bolsheviks to the boy's parents. Even many years later the father still referred to them by that name instead of Soviets. He kept looking out the window.
"I doubt it. Even if we had an army left, they would have no chance against these odds. Besides most of the commanders of the defence forces have already fled for points west. We paid their salaries during the peaceful days and the first time there is trouble, where are they? You would think that they would have shown a token resistance, with at least firing one shot. I know that our army never would have had a chance. I... " He said bitterly.
The mother cut in.
"Maybe they were afraid of revenge and chaos. A number of the militia was part of the war in 1917 and 18. I..."
The father interrupted.
"I fought in the same war and could have left for Germany a long time ago. With our German ancestry it would have been easy."
Then he went silent for a while.
"They should have stayed for a while, to show the Bolsheviks that they were not wanted here, but they valued their skins more than their honour." The father grumbled.
"You don't blame the army do you? The government signed a treaty with Moscow so perhaps they felt it wasn't up to them to go back on the agreement. The treaty was signed under coercion. It would not have been treason or dishonour for the army to reject it." The mother replied. "So are you saying that they really were afraid? Do you really think that the Bolsheviks would have shot them all after taking over the country?"
Tete moved the curtains to get a better look.
"The war of independence we fought is still vivid in everyone's mind and the Bolsheviks have not forgotten it, any more than we have."
She looked pale.
"I can't believe that. Maybe they would have been deported to Siberia, or received prison sentences, but execution? After all that was twenty two years ago."
"There is no statute of limitations in politics. Mark my words, you'll see. Wait until they get established and the N.K.V.D. (the predecessor of the K.G.B.) moves in."
The family crowded around the window. From there they could clearly see the road, the column of men and the machines, which by this time were rumbling by their house.
As the lad stared in amazement at all the equipment, he turned to his father.
"What are those machines with the big tubes sticking out of the front of them?"
He had not known anything else in his young life except what took place around the small yard around the house and the close proximity of the meadow. On rare occasions the boy had gone into the city with his father. Albert had seen some military parades, but the soldiers, marched on foot, rode horses or were in large open automobiles.
The father lifted up the boy to the window so he could see better.
"They're called tanks."
"What are tanks?"
"It's a long a story, I'll explain it to you some other time. Watch the road outside and see what's going on."
Albert stared in wonder, as the column rolled by with soldiers, their bayonets fixed on their rifles. This was the first time in his life that he had seen a battle ready army, and a foreign one at that. A shiver went down his back, but it was more from excitement than from fear. The pace of the march was slow and deliberate. His mother moved her face closer to the glass.
"Look how confident they are. They have absolutely no fear at all. They're marching like they were taking a Sunday stroll in Russia."
Tete put the boy on the floor.
"Don't kid yourself. Look how some of the soldiers are carrying their rifles and how they keep turning their heads from side to side. They're not as calm as they look. They probably can't believe that no one is putting up any resistance."
As the family stood in the kitchen watching through the window, there was no end to the convoy. It took them well over an hour to pass the house. After a while it
became boring. The boy slipped away from the window and made his way to the closed door.
The mother noticed.
"Don't even think about going outside. All of you children better stay inside for the rest of the day."
"Aw! Why not? Why can't I go outside? I promise not to go anywhere near the road." Albert complained in a whiney voice.
This time it was the father who barked.
"Do as you're told! Mama is right! Everyone stay inside until everything settles down! One never knows..."
The lad learned some time ago not to talk back to his father once he had spoken. He had his first lesson in disobedience a few months before as he played near the pond. The father came out just outside the door calling,
"Albert! It's time for dinner!"
He could see the boy near the pond and when the child made no move toward the house the father shouted once more,
"Albert! Did you hear me? It's time for dinner!" The boy once more ignored the call.
Then, the next thing he heard and felt at the same time was the 'swoosh' of the air and pain on his behind as the father swung a reed a couple of times across the air which hit the lad on the buttocks.
"You're going to learn to obey at once when I speak and not when you decide!"
That day taught the boy never to disobey his dad again. He decided that he would not give his father a chance to hit him again. Remembering that fateful day, he wandered off to a corner of the room to find a way to pass the time. The grown-ups and his two elder sisters were still at the window.
Banda climbed off the chair with some help from his mother and came to the back of the room. The rest of the day passed without incident with the family remaining inside the house. From time to time, Banda and Albert would go to the window to look outside. They wanted to see if there was anything new but everything was quiet. There was still a feeling of uncertainty. His father glanced around the room.
"The Russians may decide to evacuate us in case there is any trouble so we better be prepared."
The women put together bundles of clothing and baskets of food to take with them. The sun drifted toward the western horizon when his dad looked through the window checking outside.
"I better go and drive the birds into the coop and make sure that the pigs are locked up in their pens for the night." The father said with a hesitant voice.
"But isn't it a little early?" The mother asked.
"Yes but none of us should be wandering outside after dark. Even though no one has told us, I'm sure that by now martial law has been declared and if I'm right then anyone found outside their home after dark will be shot on sight."
The father put on his boots.
"Is there anything in the house left from today's meals that I can feed to the pigs?" He asked.
Bobule made her way toward the corner of the kitchen.
"If you wait a minute there's a pail with leftovers in the corner but I should feed, Brisius first."
She was referring to the family dog. The animal was wandering around the room sniffing in the corners, when all of a sudden he raised his head stopped and stiffened, then relaxed and ran to the door barking.
Tete shouted at him over the racket.
"What's going on out there boy? What do you hear that we don't?" He followed the dog towards the back door.
Brisius was a brown greyish mutt, not very large in stature. He stayed mostly in the house. Brisius was a friendly dog but was an excellent alarm system. He was able to hear and feel the presence of strangers when no one else did. The father maintained that the small dog had some pedigreed blood but no one knew if this was true or not.
His dad opened the door looked outside and saw a man walk by the gate at the road. Turning around he scratched the mutt behind his ears.
"You're a good fellow but I wish that you knew when to bark. I guess it would be too much to ask of you."
He turned to Bobule.
"All right, make it quick, I'd like to get this chore over with as quickly as possible. I also want to check around the house and pens to make sure everything is secure. I don't want to get caught outside after dark."
The old lady went quickly into the kitchen, found the pail with the leftovers, and emptied some of them into the dog's bowl. She then brought the rest to the door and gave it to tete, who took it and went outside.
No one had called the dog but he immediately went to his bowl and ate. Once his father had left, the women prepared dinner in the kitchen.
His mother announced.
"We'll eat dinner earlier than usual today. It will be better not to have any lights on in the house once the sun sets."
Albert turned to her. "Why not, we always have the lights on before we go to bed."
"This won't happen today or not for the next few days, maybe not even for a week."
He persisted, "Why not?"
"It's dangerous to have lights on at night during the war."
"What war? There hasn't been any shooting and all those soldiers were only walking when they came today. In all the stories I heard about wars, the soldiers were always shooting their guns. There hasn't been any shooting."
Mama got impatient.
"Never mind, I'll explain it to you some other time. Go and play."
One of the older sisters sitting at the table cut in.
"You don't know when to quit asking questions, do you? This is even when you're told to shut up under no uncertain terms."
Albert turned to her and screwed up his mouth.
"Pffft... Pffft..." He said to show her his contempt.
He left the area to find Banda, since he was getting nowhere in the kitchen. He found his younger brother playing in the corner with a cat and a ball of cloth tied together with a string. Albert went over with his hand extended.
"Give me the string, I'll show you how to make the cat jump in the air."
"No!" shot back Banda. "I'm busy and anyway it's my string."
Albert reached for the contraption.
"I just want to show you how it's done, and I'll give it back to you."
This time Banda didn't answer, but pulled on the string with one hand while pushing his older brother away with the other.
Then he screamed. "Mama, Albert is trying to take my toy away from me."
Before she could answer the lad yelled.
"No! I'm not I was just going to show him how to play but he won't let me!"
It was the bobule who showed up in the corner shaking her finger at the two of them.
"Can't the two of you behave for at least a few minutes? We have no time today to put up with your shenanigans, so if you don't behave yourselves I'll get the reed."
The boys blamed each other but she raised her voice above theirs.
"That's enough! Mama and I don't want to hear from either of you until we call you for dinner. You, Albert go to the other corner and leave your brother alone."
Then before he had a chance to say anything she grabbed him by the hand and drug him over to the other side of the room. Leaving him there she threatened.
"Now find something to amuse yourself, and I don't want to see you near Banda."
All this time the mother had said nothing. She was busy by the table preparing dinner. After the grandmother left him, she went toward the stove to stir the soup. When she was out of sight, Albert made faces and stuck out his tongue at Banda, who had a satisfied grin on his face after winning this bout.