This story is by Alma L. Mikaliukas and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Twenty five years since I’ve been to my home town. It feels bittersweet, but today I am here for the high school reunion. I listen to the sound of the reeds, walking along the lake, taking a shortcut to the ginger shoppe on the outskirts of town. Soft, glazed gingerbread ‘pods’ were my childhood treat. Mama and I used to get them every time we went visiting her lady friends. I learned a lot about life outside the home from these visits. Mama would often ask for my opinion, so I learned that giving mine to adults was the right thing to do. I don’t mean that we were always best of friends, Mama and I: But we were friends for sure.
The shimmering reeds sway gently, whispering memories of Mama with every gust of the summer breeze. ‘The lake’ was a forbidden area when I was little. It still holds the promise of a good mystery for me, and the sensation comes back as soon as I descend down the cobbled path. There could be witches, possibly living somewhere around here, in the tiny wooden cottages on the slopes of the hills, with fenced-in gardens, — and creaking gates.
My friend Laima told me there was a ‘bobulka’ who could do palm reading, so we decided on walking into one of these yards to investigate. Possibly, ‘bobulkas’ made bad things happen to children. The gate creaked so loudly, it made my heart stop. Fear took over, and we abandoned the mission.
” Why did you want to go there?” Mama’s face has a crease in the middle of her forehead.
” I wanted to know my future.”
Mama pulls me into a hug. She holds me tightly, it’s a little hard to breathe, but I don’t mind it at all. Her perfume and her body scent blend together into a fragrance that I secretly enjoy. It makes me feel safe, helps me stop worrying. She holds me like that for a long time.
” And who told you that you can learn your future from someone??” She finally asks.
” Laima said ‘bobulkas’ look into your hand and tell you what will happen. I wanted to see if it was true, so I asked her to take me.”
” Let’s go.” Mama starts toward the door.
” Where are we going?” I struggle with the sandal clasps for a while and then trot after her.
” To the lakefront. We’ll visit someone.”
Whoa! Lightning of apprehension courses up and down my whole body. A ‘bobulka’?
” No, I don’t want to!”
” Look. You need to calm down. I know you’re scared. We’re just going to visit a friend of mine. I need you to behave”.
” Can we get gingerbread pods on the way back?”
” We’ll see.”
That means yes, and I agree to act civil for the trip. She wouldn’t walk into danger with her daughter in tow. Would she? I carefully map out a plan in my head of an escape route, should things get scary. The plan includes me finding a rock to defend Mama, in case of our retreat. I commit the plan to memory, rehearsing battle scenarios all the way to the ‘bobulka’s’ gate.
I grip Mama’s hand a lot tighter. My whole body tenses.
” Nu laba diena, laba diena, ponia! ” Good day, good day to you, madam! Mama greets a woman with graying, dark hair. The woman is holding a lush bouquet of burgundy Georgines in her hand. She must have just clipped them from the flower bed. I admit, the flowers and other plants that I don’t know names for, all look gorgeous. The fragrance wafting in the air with every breath of wind is divine.
” Vo jei, vo jei, juk cia Elyte su dukryte! ” Oh my, if it’s not Elyte with her little daughter! The woman almost drops the bouquet, opening both arms to greet us. So far, the escape plan doesn’t look complicated. Only seventeen steps along the straight path through the flower garden toward the house. I note a tall plum tree to my right — it will be on my left in case of retreating. Wait, how will I get into our apartment after I run away? I have no key!
The garden does look very pretty with all the flowers, the names for which I don’t know. So should I run? Mama doesn’t look perturbed. But the other woman seems strangely on edge. Is she planning to abduct me? Or will she just look at our palms?
She takes us inside her little house. The kitchen is surprisingly big, about three times bigger than the one in our apartment. Before the door closes, I turn around. Not to run, but just to check the escape route. And the garden looks so peaceful it makes me want to go exploring.
My job in all Mama’s meetings is to disappear. I am supposed to sit quietly while the adults talk, so I learned to escape into my own mind a long time ago. But this woman somehow intrigues me. The disappearing act isn’t working.
“Thank you, Elyte, thank you so much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!” The old woman is bowing to Mama. What’s going on here?
” I have seen your application. There is an opening for an English teacher in our building. No one objected to your candidacy. I go to the Party meetings when Staffing is discussed, and we did talk about you extensively. At this point they don’t believe you are a threat to the Party’s way of thinking.”
” I will forever be grateful to you, Elyte! You made a miracle happen. I was denied a job at the textile Factory…” The woman’s voice trails off.
Mama says, her voice tense with anger,
” You. Are. A TEACHER! You will NOT work on any assembly line. Not when I am in charge of the Teachers’ Union.”
” I will be forced to lie,” the woman says. ” I am so tired of all the lying they make us do…”
” Lying, yes. Among other things.”
I look at Mama’s pensive face, trying to understand what she means. What ‘other things’?
” At least you won’t be forced to join the Party. You will have income until retirement; you will be employed as a teacher.” She pauses. “But advancing your career is off the table, you must understand.”
The woman sheepishly glances behind her back as if to make sure we are alone.
” Of course I understand. It’s all I can ask for. You really made a miracle happen! Countless deportees have no such luck.” Again, she glances around. ” I need to ask you a question. Why didn’t you join the Party? You are the Union leader, but you could make a fine Superintendent! Surely, your mother’s history would open up all the doors for you.”
” It’s because of what happened to my mother. She and I didn’t make it into the retreating convoy before the German front came through. She went to prison. I spent four years relying on the handouts of mercy. I was twelve! My mother died of tuberculosis, while her ‘comrades’ came back from Moscow and settled in their cushy positions, ‘to steer us into the bright tomorrow’. ” Mama’s voice is filled with bitterness and sorrow.
The woman sighs.
” You chose, then!”
” My nation!.. My country!… Such a vital part of Who We Are… Everyday I feel it: we are losing the core of who we are to this relentless cultural annihilation, little by little… So I have to resist wherever I can. I am a teacher too.”
” You are so much more than just a teacher, Elyte!”
Mama looks at the gray-haired lady with gratitude. ” Is that your famous cake?!” She exclaims a little too loudly, probably trying to switch the conversation to a cheerful tone. Next, we have tea.
” Mama! ” I start talking as soon as we close the gate, peering through the humongous Georgines tickling my face.
” What is it, Linuteli?”
” Do you know my future? “
” Mm – m! But I know what happens next!”
” What?? ” I like the sparkle in her green eyes.
” Gingerbread Pods! And tell me about the Reeds on the way! “
” Okay! Reeds are like people, Mama! Some are fresh and young, some old. Some only bend, and others break…”
I tell her all about the monsters that live in the lake, about my friend Laima who knows things and is always up for an adventure, about…
Today, I whisper a prayer of gratitude as I stroke the reeds on my walk. Twenty minutes until the reunion. They will want me to speak… Today, I will tell them my Mama’s story.