About the Author

Antanas Sileika

Antanas Sileika is a freelance broadcaster and magazine and newspaper writer as well as a fiction writer. His work has appeared on CBC radio and in publications from Saturday Night to the Globe and Mail. His fourth novel,Underground, a love story set in the underground resistance to the Soviet Union in the forties, will appear in the spring of 2011. Sileika lives in Toronto and is the artistic director at the Humber School for Writers. See www.antanassileika.ca

Books by this Author
Provisionally Yours
Excerpt

Excerpt from Provisionally Yours

The border guard studied the identity papers Adamonis had kept hidden through his escape out of shattered Russia, looking from his photo to his face, from his photo to his face. He told Adamonis to stay where he was on the train platform. Adamonis set down his suitcase and briefcase and pulled the collar of his woolen coat around his neck. The guard's superior came back without the passport and asked Adamonis to follow him.

He took Adamonis into a cold office in the corner of the border train station where an unshaven man sat behind a desk in a room with a stove but without heat.

Adamonis could see his own breath and his interrogator kept on his coat and hat throughout the interview, taking many notes with a pencil that he stopped to sharpen with a penknife when the lead wore down. The man asked about Adamonis’s career in great detail – called up for service in 1912, accepted into military school, moved to the Austrian front at the beginning of hostilities. Assigned to signals.

This last detail pricked the interest of the plainclothesman. Adamonis knew all about interrogation, and he listened to the questions with admiration as the interrogator followed the thread of Adamonis’s military career in signals to his years in counterintelligence until the army collapsed and split into the red and white factions. This story could have got him shot a month ago back in Russia, but now he was in a place where he could tell the truth. At least he hoped that was so.

The interrogator asked him to wait outside among the exhausted families and ragged men in the waiting room.

“I’ll miss my train,” said Adamonis.

“Another one comes eventually. Maybe you'll get that one.”

There was nothing to eat in the waiting room, a big hall in the Obeliai border station half-filled with cloth bundles upon which men, women, and children slept while they waited to clear customs and quarantine. Some never would. He sat on the end of a bench and took a piece of sausage out of his bag, and a boy was beside him as soon as he cut off his second slice. Soon there were two more children and his food was gone before he could taste another bite. He tried to go outside to smoke, but a guard stopped him at the door and directed him to a smoking room where he had to roll two cigarettes for others before lighting up his own.

His train departed.

Three hours later, the guard called him back into the room. Coal had found itself into the stove and a glass of tea and two biscuits as well as his passport were sitting on Adamonis’s side of the desk. His interrogator came around from behind his desk, introduced himself as Lieutenant Oleka and saluted.

“Welcome home General,” said Oleka. “I wonder if I could ask you a few more questions.”

"No need to salute, Lieutenant. I'm not exactly in the army any longer. And I'd be happy to answer your questions."

The next morning, the whistle blew and locomotive began to jerk forward, leaving behind the barn-like customs station with its hopeful or crestfallen men and women. One more hurdle overcome, and all in all, not the hardest one.

The window beside him had frost creeping out from the corners and the fields beyond were covered in snow. At least the carriage was warm, crowded as it was with Lithuanian refugees coming back from Russia. There had been thousands of them scattered across the country, soldiers in the Czar’s army, bureaucrats and labourers, all going home now that the old Czarist world had collapsed and the maw of the revolution was devouring so many. He was in a carriage with the lucky ones. He’d narrowly missed being shot along with all officers on a ferry crossing the Pruth River in Romania. On a flatbed train car he was denounced as bourgeois, so Adamonis pushed the accuser and watched him fall under the severing wheels. The Soviets were especially bitter to have lost their war with Poland only months earlier. Anyone who chose to leave was a traitor to the cause.

The word home felt like the promise of a warm bed on a cold night. But what kind of a home would it be for Adamonis? His parents were dead and only his sister still lived in Kaunas, and when he’d last seen her, she’d been a teenager. As for the country, it had successfully fought off the Reds and the German freikorps, but lost its southern part to the Poles. Technically, Lithuania was still at war with Poland, and that had made it all the more complicated to return from shattered Russia, forcing him to head north, skirting Poland to enter the country through Latvia.

Adamonis was tired and could let himself feel it for the first time in a long time now that he was safe. He craved a cigarette, but there was no smoking in his third class compartment with its wooden benches, and it was far too cold to go out and stand between the cars. He could wait. He dozed and dreamed of places he had passed through in the months it had taken him to reach this place –- the Polish dvaras where the spinster sisters had come to him because his fellow officers were stealing their silver. The sisters didn’t mind the loss of the silver, but the thieves were wrapping the knives and forks in notation paper written by a former guest, the composer Richard Strauss. The sisters wanted to save the music. They even offered him a page of the music after he’d saved it, but he’d turned them down. Now he regretted it because the women were probably dead anyway. He had narrowly missed being drowned when the Reds shelled the ice across which his unit was marching. He remembered the forest hung with clocks looted by rebel soldiers, but too heavy to carry all the way home.

After a long journey with stops at every country station, the train slowed as it entered a long tunnel and then pulled into Kaunas. Adamonis stepped off the train with only one bag and a briefcase, not much more than what he’d left with years earlier. As he walked along the platform toward the station he heard cries of delight and saw joyful reunions as men and women embraced and whole families charged into the arms of relatives. But he could see no sign of anyone who looked like his sister.

A young man with a long brown beard and eyeglasses came up to him in the hall.

“Mr. Justas Adamonis?”

He nodded.

“Michael Landa,” and he put out his hand. “We’ve heard about you. I represent the Lithuanian government, and I wonder if we could have a chat.”

Adamonis measured men quickly, as he had been taught. This one looked all right and he was alone, and that was good.

“Of course, but not just now. I’ve been away a long time and I think my sister is expecting me.”

“We’ve spoken to your sister. She’s agreed to let us take you over to her house a little later.”

“Where is she now?”

“At home with her family. She’s anxious to see you, but she’s a patriot, and she understands. I hope you’re a patriot too.”

“It’s a bit too soon to tell. I just stepped off the train.”

“Then maybe you'll become a patriot. In the meantime, your sister lives here, and helping us will help her.”

Adamonis wasn’t sure if this was an appeal or a threat. He could be outraged or he could be agreeable, and he chose the second option. He didn’t really know much about the government, but it couldn't be anything worse than what he'd left behind.

Landa led him out of the station and down the steps to a sled where a driver was waiting for them. Adamonis wore a felt fedora and a heavy wool coat, but the coat had become worn as he had lived in it days and many nights for over a year. He was a solid man in ordinary times, but the last year of flight had thinned him out and he felt the cold as they drove along through light snow.

The city lay in a dim pool of wood smoke and falling snowflakes, with men walking by as quickly as they could on the silent streets. A mother with a scarf over her mouth tugged along a child bundled in a knitted hat and felt boots. He saw only three cars in all.

Kaunas had been a czarist garrison town that now had a capital thrust upon it after the war. Vilnius was supposed to be the capital of Lithuania, but the Poles believed it belonged to them and had seized it three months earlier. With the occupation of Vilnius, the Lithuanians licked their wounds and set up in Kaunas and called it their "Provisional Capital.”

Seeing the city of his youth through the snow was like seeing it in a dream. He recognized Soboras, the massive Russian Orthodox Church built for the garrison in the last century, but the low wooden houses and two-storey brick buildings seemed neither familiar nor unfamiliar, suspended between reality and memory.

close this panel
Underground

Underground

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Woman in Bronze
Excerpt

The Battle of art is very much like war. All fame goes to the leaders, while the rank and file share the reward of a few lines in the order of the day; and the soldiers who die in the field are buried where they lie – one epitaph must do duty for a score of thousands.
–Henri Murger, The Latin Quarter

Part One
The Seasons

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
–John Donne, “The Sun Rising”

Prologue
The Rainy Land

Foreigners called the land by many different names, but in their own language, the local people called it the rainy land, as if they still remembered some sunnier country their ancestors had come from. Mists and showers were more common than clear days, and massive thunderheads rolled across the low green hills and valleys from spring until fall. The ancient gods were still very close to ordinary people in this part of Europe. Lightning strikes were so frequent that the old people placed prayer books or crucifixes on the windowsills to protect themselves, or fell to their knees to say the rosary if they were caught outside in a tempest. The rosary was no guarantee of safety. If you were struck by lightning and could still move, you were to heap earth over your chest so it could pull the electricity out of your body. The trick did not work if you were already dead.

This green and rainy country was one of the great forests of Europe. In the deep wild woods, the last aurochs lingered and wood bison snorted and huffed among the giant oaks and thorny undergrowth of the forest floor. The grand dukes and grafs and great landowners rode out from their dvars, hunting among the moss-covered fallen trunks and peat bogs for game that had disappeared from the rest of Europe hundreds of years before. Half-wild woodland people cultivated small clearings in the forests where they planted tiny fields of rye and flax and dried the skins of beaver, fox and marten. Somewhere in this forest lay a line beyond which the animals ruled, the wood bison and the bear, the wolf and the polecat, the boar and the stag, and if the hunter stumbled beyond this line, he might be ripped apart or trampled by the true citizens of the forest.

Time moved more slowly in the rainy land, whose people had been the last in Europe to accept Christianity. They had done so cleverly, with a sort of peasant cunning, to throw off the invading crusaders who were intent on building a Northern Jerusalem. The inhabitants took on Catholicism and clutched it to their breasts like stolen treasure. But the Christian saints and martyrs joined, rather than displaced, the old gods of sun and thunder. The woods and the fields remained full of demigods, and also full of devils.

For a time in the Middle Ages, the people of the rainy land had reared up like angry beasts to charge to the Black Sea in the East and to crush the Teutonic Knights in the West. Eventually they joined with Poland to form a great eastern union, the terror of Moscow. But over the centuries, the rainy land seemed to melt into Poland, and in time, Poland itself began to diminish, too, as it was nibbled by Prussia, Austria and Russia. Finally, Empress Catherine took one last bite, and Poland disappeared. The rainy land became a remote czarist province.

The rainy land slumbered, forgotten by everyone in the West except Baron Munchausen, whose adventures there nobody would believe, although the locals would have found nothing extraordinary in anything he said. The place stirred as Napoleon marched through twice, but his passage changed nothing. Then came brief flames of revolt in the nineteenth century, after which the countryside was covered with gibbets, reminders of the futility of resistance. The forests filled with fleeing rebels who died there or adapted to the woods to become new forest folk, feral after decades in the wilderness.

One such man, a rebel of 1831 named Stumbras, came out of the forest years later and bought the land for his farm with money of uncertain origin. He stank of the swamp, and may well have been part woodland monster. If he was a monster, he was a shrewd one. The thirty hectares he bought were fertile, and the ancient town of Merdine was conveniently close by if one needed to obtain some product of civilization, such as lamp oil or matches. Once Merdine had been a fortified city, a bulwark against the crusaders, then a provincial market, and finally, in Stumbras’s time, a crumbling country town that was shrinking into a village.

While surges of momentum prevailed in the West, where railways and factories sprang up, the law of inertia endured in the East. The Stumbras sons and grandsons prospered modestly generation after generation, innovating slowly, adding a chimney to the house to replace the primitive hole in the thatched roof, and adopting the long-handled scythe to replace the short one.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the village of Merdine gave little sign of its ancient prominence except for the church and the empty cellars of a ruined fortress on the hill. The village was made up of fewer than two hundred wooden houses of squared timbers, huddling close to the narrow sandy roads. It did not even have a proper main street, just a collection of twisting alleys. The heart of a very old town remained, but all of its outlying houses had been lost to the encroaching fields and orchards. The local manor house stood beyond the village, a fine building of yellow brick and fanciful turrets, inhabited by Graf Momburg, the descendant of a German who had done favours for a friend of the czar. The estate had seen better times. Most of its fields had been sold off to enterprising peasants, and the raging old graf was busy drinking up what remained.

The only vestige of glory in Merdine was the church just down from the remains of the old fortress. The town wags claimed Merdine was the safest place in the world to commit adultery because the couples could perform the sin in the castle ruins and then roll down the hill to say confession in the church below. Barring a lightning strike on the way down, they could have their earthly pleasures and their divine ones as well.

Napoleon himself may once have remarked on the beauty of the Renaissance church, but the place had been remodelled twice since he’d passed through. White plaster had been laid over the brickwork, but it never held very well, and came off in patches the size of a woman’s palm. Green moss grew up the walls on the cemetery side, and smelled strongly of urine. No clerical interdiction seemed able to control the bladders of the town drunks, with the exception of the most prominent drunk among them, Graf Momburg, the German, who felt that as a Lutheran he shouldn’t piss on a Catholic church.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

This author has been listed 1 time

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...