Traveling throughout Lithuania, one cannot help but notice the graceful tendrils that inhabit many rural intersections, hilltops, byways, and of course church tops. Whereas in my country, we had a mysterious person named Johnny Appleseed who planted apple trees everywhere, in Lithuania, teams of anonymous craftsmen traveled far and wide to plant ornamental crosses everywhere (like the one above).
You cannot help but notice them here and there, like ghostly roadside shrines in Mexico. Every cross, called kryžius in Lithuanian, is different, just like a snowflake.
Adorned with these threadlike appendages, they seem to vibrate in the air or undulate under water like sea anemones. Like the statues that inhabit the fairy palace in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, you have the impression of faint movement when your back is turned. But when you fix your gaze on them, they suddenly stiffen and still themselves. They are as numerous as mushrooms on a damp forest floor. So many, that they become ubiquitous in the landscape and render the Lithuanian paysage as a sort of fairyland.
Surrounded by these sentinels, I enjoyed a great lunch in the Varena country house with Eugenija and family, notwithstanding my stupid question about the toilet. However, lunch finished on a somber note.
She had had a son named Gintautas (Lithuanian for William) who was close to me in age and interests. He had been a student of history, like me, but in his case attending Vilnius University. After our family feast, we walked down the middle of Main Street – there was no traffic – in the sunshine to visit him at the cemetery. She took me to his grave and observed a silent, respectful moment. In Lithuania, tombstones were very modern affairs, with an image of the deceased etched respectfully onto the stone. I stared at his image for a long time and I was sorry that I had come too late to meet him.
Nobody seemed interested in explaining to Olga or myself how exactly he passed. I still don’t know exactly what happened to him.
I explained to them that my Dad had opined that his Father Michael had passed away in 1972 due to cigarette smoking. There certainly were a lot of smokers throughout the USSR.
After we walked back, it was time to go meet Eugenija’s Father, my Grandfather’s brother. She joined us in the Intourist car and we resumed our drive heading south on Departmental Route 5003 towards the border with Belarus. The forests soon became as thick as I had ever seen them, like something out of a foreboding Hansel and Gretel story, but surrounded by the kryžius. Boris heavy on the gas, and of course the contraband Al Green tape crooning through the sound system. Eugenija and I continued our discussion in the backseat with the intermediation of Olga.
In fact, Boris’ foot was so heavy, he missed the turnoff for Route 5011 to Kašėtos. When he stopped the car and backed up, I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was going to turn into. It was all thick forest. Then, I saw it, a little dirt track; Route 5011!!! Boris aimed the front of the Volga toward the deep woods and let loose on the accelerator.
Sometimes on a trip anywhere, I can feel that I am reaching the furthest or deepest limit of my travel. Meaning that I am most extended away from home, say like 3 flights to a remote area, then a two hour car ride into the wilderness – like this trip in this post to Kašėtos. I can reach these outer limits if I hike into Tuckerman’s Ravine, or into Hanakapi’ai Falls, or even take the metro to Taganskaya Station in Moscow (which marks the farthest east I’ve ever been).
Just like the Black Lodge or the White Lodge of the dark woods in the TV series Twin Peaks, the trees were closing in on me. My world was being left behind. The crosses were definitely swirling on this road less traveled.
In a few moments, we rolled through a clearing and I could see a few modest houses down below. We pulled up to one and in a few moments, I was startled when I saw the image of my Grandfather Michael walking out of the house and towards us in the car!
Of course, it wasn’t him. It was Pranas! But I was dumbfounded by the striking resemblance. The two men who had last seen each other in the teens carried themselves the same way. The same jaw, the identical hair. I felt as if my own Grandfather was there in front of me, warmly beckoning me to come out. In the middle of the dense forest in Lithuania, I had been invited for extra time.
Like Eugenija, he asked me about his brother and I told him every memory. Olga had heard it before at lunch one hour or so ago and was now a professional in recounting the story of Michael Olcott.
Pranas and I spent about 30 hazy minutes together, more or less. For a man of advanced years, he was incredibly spry and nimble as he took me through his house and then to show off the outdoor summer kitchen. Afterwards we took a walk through the village including the little stream at its northern boundary. It’s cool waters are popular today with the family in the summer heat.
As our farewell was imminent, and it was time for me to return to drive back to Vilnius, I left by asking him one final question: did he had any girlfriends in the village? He was pensive for a moment and then he smiled like my Grandfather when giving me a $5 bill. Swirling his hand expansively, he said he only needed to wander around the village.