by Antanas Sileika
There was, I knew, blood beneath the verdure and tombs in the deep glades of oak and fir. The fields and forests and rivers had seen war and terror, elation and desperation; death and resurrection; Lithuanian kings and Teutonic knights, partisans and Jews; Nazi Gestapo and Stalinist NKVD. It is a haunted land where greatcoat buttons from six generations of fallen soldiers can be discovered lying amidst the woodland ferns.
Landscape and Memory
An ill-defined borderline wavers somewhere around the middle of Europe – its precise location has not been stable over the decades. At present, on the far side of this boundary, the eastern side, lies a zone where beer and hotels are cheaper than they are in the west, and so planeloads of young men travel there to drink, far from the eyes of wives and girlfriends. Indiscretions, transgressions, and sometimes even crimes committed on the far side of this line don’t really count.
Once, the line was a metaphor called the Iron Curtain, and before that it followed a jagged course along the borders of countries freed from the Hapsburg and Czarist empires.
Like the mythical town of Brigadoon, these countries appeared for only a short time between the wars before they disappeared from memory for fifty years in 1940.
What followed was such a confusing war on that side of Europe! The war was much easier to understand in the West, where the forces of more or less good, triumphed in May of 1945. On the eastern side, on the other hand, the messy side, the war sputtered on in pockets for another decade, fought by partisans who came out of their secret bunkers by night.
When that fighting finally ended, sullen resistance went more deeply underground, to be nurtured in memory, as well as buried in hidden archives below the earth or left to molder in the files of the secret police, called the Cheka, where no one was ever likely to look. Aboveground lay a series of police states.
This place was somewhat quaint, yet so much more brutal than the West – it was a place where generations were mown down as soon as they were tall enough to meet the scythe. And yet many lives went on in their own way, even during the worst of the fighting.
On a cold, snowy April evening in 1946, in the Lithuanian provincial capital of Marijampole, an engagement party was taking place on the second story of a wooden house with four flats, a house not far from the exquisite train station, where railway cars of goods and captives rumbled by eastward with great frequency.
When Lukas walked into the kitchen to get another bottle of vodka late that night, he found Elena with her back to him, leaning over the counter, her curly brown hair loose. He could see the tension in her shoulders, squared and stiff, as if braced for a blow. After a moment, she turned and looked at him.
Elena’s brown eyes were very large, a little moist from the cigarette smoke in the flat. She wore a dark gray wool suit, her work clothes, with a natural linen blouse beneath the jacket and an amber pendant on a silver chain.
Behind her on the white, ceramic counter lay two massive loaves of black bread, one of them almost finished, a large dish of herring and onions, the remains of a cooked goose, a ham and a string of sausages. Elena had worked hard to get her hands on so much food, rare in these postwar years, and the scent of it had helped to bring the seven distinguished guests.
The accordionist in the next room was playing a jaunty dance version of J’ai Deux Amours, a tune that Elena remembered from before the war. Her mother and father had danced to the recording in their house, the French doors open to the garden. It had been an anniversary or a namesday, she couldn’t remember which.
It didn’t matter. Her mother and father were dead, the house destroyed.
Looking into her eyes, Lukas realized he should comfort Elena, but he was not feeling altogether calm at their engagement party either. He was sweating profusely. He was slim and fair and wore a threadbare two-piece suit with a jacket that was a little too long for him, as well as a sweater vest mended at the collar and a red tie and puff. On reflection, he realized these adornments were a little exaggerated, almost provocative, but there was no way to remove them once the guests had seen them.
Lukas was unaccustomed to being inside a flat with so many people, unaccustomed to the niceties of conversation, of saying one thing and meaning another. He found it hard to keep his feelings buried, and the struggle was showing, but he needed above all to support Elena.
Lukas glanced at the engagement ring on her hand. It was a very thin gold band with a tiny red stone, not much better than a high school girl’s first ring, but the best he could do. There wasn’t much jewelry around, and those who had it didn’t show it.
Elena flinched as he put his hands around her neck and looked into her eyes.
“We don’t have to go through with this if you can’t do it,” he said. “Nobody would blame you.”
“Not even you?”
“Especially not me.”
“It’s been a very short engagement, after all,” said Elena.
She was joking. A good sign. “A whirlwind romance,” he agreed. He left his hands where they were, around her neck. He wanted to kiss her, but felt awkward, didn’t know if that was permitted now.
Lukas heard the kitchen door open, and he pressed into Elena, his middle tight against hers as if they were making love. He kissed her, the pressure of her lips obliterating all other thoughts for a moment.
“I wondered where you two were,” a voice said. “There’ll be plenty of time for kisses later. Get back in here.”
Gedrius was the District Chairman, the first to have arrived that evening and therefore the drunkest of them all. He’d taken off his jacket and loosened his tie, and his shirttails now hung out at the back. He had stained his shirt and talked much too much, but he was affable, almost lovable in his own way, or anyway, better than the rest. Gedrius and the others came from a different world, one of documents and rubber stamps, boardrooms and meetings, dust and sheaves of paper pinned together. Not like Lukas’s world at all.
To fortify Lukas’s stomach against the drink, Elena had served him half a glass of cooking oil before the evening began. It had made him gag at the time, but now he was holding up better against the vodka than he had expected. Maybe too well. He couldn’t feel the alcohol at all.
Elena shook out her curls and brushed her fingers through her hair, and then linked hands with Lukas.
“Give us a moment, and we’ll be right out.”
“All right, but don’t delay too much. Everyone’s dying to spend a little time with you.”
As Gedrius stepped back, Lukas could see briefly into the other room where the two beds had been pushed aside to make a small dance floor beyond the dining table. The others were dancing in the dimly lit room: Elena’s roommate with the Director of the Komsomol, and her sister, Stase, with the city chairman. Two candles lit the dining table because the electricity went off at ten each night. Vinskis kept wanting to talk to Gedrius about some internal passports stolen from the office where he worked, and he took the man by the arm as soon as he stepped out of the kitchen.
“You’re a bundle of nerves too,” said Elena. “Call it off. We can cool down for a while and try this again later.”
“I wish I could call it off, but I can’t. It’s too late. Did you see the look he gave me when he walked into the kitchen?”
“I didn’t see anything. What are you talking about?”
“Vinskis suspects me. He must have said something to Gedrius.”
“Do you want to get out of here?”
“Vinskis and Gedrius are by the door.”
“Say you’re going to the toilet.”
“They might not let me pass. Do you want to wait in here?”
“No, I promised I’d help you. I’m going with you.” Her willingness made him feel warm toward her, but the emotion was brief. He had other things on his mind now.
“Do you have your handbag?” asked Lukas.
“Under the table.”
Elena reached beneath the table and took her bag. Inside the other room, the accordionist started up another tune.
“Be careful of my sister.”
Lukas nodded and reached into his pockets. He held the Walther PP in his right hand because it was heavier and had eight rounds. The lighter PPK with seven rounds was in his left. Elena had one in her handbag as well.
When Elena opened the kitchen door for him, Lukas strode out with his arms extended and turned first to face Vinskis and Gedrius because they were standing and their own pistols would be easy to get to, whereas the men sitting at the table would need to rise first. Lukas fired at Vinskis, two shots to the neck, and the man’s head rolled onto his chest as he collapsed. Gedrius, for all his drunkenness, had his own pistol halfway out of his pocket when Lukas fired at him and the man went down.
The accordionist stopped playing and stared at them, but Elena’s roommate was more cool-headed and leaned forward to blow out one of the candles. The other two men were rising from their chairs.
Lukas fired with his left hand, but his shots went wild. Elena killed them for him. Her roommate opened her mouth to say something, but Lukas did not want to hear it. He fired once at her forehead and she went down too.
“Let’s go,” said Elena.
Lukas went toward Elena’s sister, Stase, who had fallen from her chair and pulled herself to a wall where she looked at them with terrified eyes. Lukas crouched down to look her in the face.
“I have to do this for your own good,” he said.
Lukas had to act quickly before Elena intervened.
Stase’s lower lip was trembling and her eyes were wild with fear. Lukas stepped back and took aim at Stase. If he was too close, he might leave powder burns. If he stood too far away, he might miss in either direction.
Stase shut her eyes as Lukas fired and then she yelped with pain and the blood came down her arm. Lukas turned quickly to face Elena before she could shoot him, which she might do if she misunderstood.
“Stase has to be wounded or the Chekists will say she was part of this all along,” said Lukas.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I couldn’t. It was too dangerous.”
Elena’s face was flushed. The room was filled with blood, splatters up on the wall, pools on the floor among the wreckage of bodies and overturned chairs.
Elena dropped her hand with the pistol in it and crouched down beside Stase.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. When the Chekists come, you can honestly say you didn’t know anything. They’ll let you go.”
“You’ve turned into a monster. I don’t even know who you are.”
There was no time. As Elena stood up, the accordionist, wounded in the throat by a ricochet, struggled up from his chair and charged out the door with the accordion still on his shoulders. The instrument squawked like a frightened animal all the way down the staircase. The Komsomol Director began to stir from where he had fallen beneath the table, tried to rise, and Lukas fired another shot into him.
The neighbours would soon overcome their terror and go to the militia. Lukas and Elena put on their coats, closed the door behind them, and walked down a flight of steps and out onto the street. It was snowing. There was a sled for them a few blocks away, near the train station.
The streets were empty and profoundly silent. If a militiaman passed by, he would be sure to ask them for their documents just for something to do. Elena tried to pick up her pace, but Lukas held her back slightly so they would not seem to be rushing.
“We did it!” whispered Lukas “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“It was so easy to kill those two hateful men, but so strange. What must you think of me now?” asked Elena.
“I love you even more.”
“I feel lightheaded, good in a way, yet it was unbearable. I’ll never be the same,” she said.
“No, you won’t. I wasn’t like this either. But we have to strike back, even if it means hardening our hearts.”
Elena would need to do that. Her heart was beating wildly at the moment. So hard, that she was afraid it would burst in her chest. She was holding Lukas’s arm and gripped it more tightly.
Lukas enjoyed the pressure of her hand on his arm. They so rarely had the opportunity to touch one another. He had killed many others before this, but never at such close quarters, never after talking and eating together. It was all horrible, yet the killing had brought Elena to him again.
Some Notes on My Novel, Underground
I was working through the line edits of my novel while I was staying with my wife and a family friend near Mérida. I can hardly think of a better place to work. The weather was warm, the surroundings charming, the perfect setting for a break after hours of poring over the text.
Underground is a love story set in a “secret” war, one that took place in the late forties, but which remains largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. It has to do with a man who must make an ancient choice, one between his duty and the women he loves. When the novel came out in March, it was reviewed across the country, and I am spending this fall doing book tours across Canada.
I hope you enjoy the snippet of a first chapter I have included here – it was partially Made in Mexico!
Antanas Sileika is the author of four books of fiction. He has published widely in newspapers and magazine as well, and does book reviews on radio and television. He is the director of the Humber School for Writers.