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They are in the kitchen, in a house way off in the woods, at the edge of the Hudson River. There are three women, all with blue eyes and gray hair. Standing with them is Aukse, a daughter of one of the women. Aukse is in her mid-forties—sullen, glum, useless with her big hands, big feet, and long body; not fat, but tall and flabby, wearing a hand-made knitted dress with large front pockets. Aukse is uninterested in all the arguing, but watches the kitchen madness blankly, as one would a murder on TV.
The gray-haired women argue about the correct way of making an Easter cabbage specialty. They are from Lithuania, land of elaborate vegetable dishes and ornately painted holiday eggs. The daughter suddenly snorts, can’t believe how her mother and her friends are red-faced, arguing, each holding firm on her region’s recipe. Aukse’s mother, perhaps the quietest, yet most listened to, holds up both hands, palms out in a quasi-religious gesture, announcing her recipe is the right recipe. Aukse’s mother says Easter cabbage must have tomatoes mixed with pickled cabbage, then combined with fresh chopped cabbage, a little sugar, heaps of grated carrots, and then everything put in a pot and cooked on the stove.
“Ne. No tomatoes.” One woman says.
“Niekad.” The other says. Never.
Aukse takes out her stash of candy and begins to munch. On the radio an opera is playing loudly, distracting her from thoughts of the man she loves. Candy, day-dreaming, twirling a strand of her long hair is about all she planned for today. Not this cabbage debate. Not this loud discussion, this opera. It’s too much.
She goes outside and sits on her favorite log in the woods a few feet away from the edge, the drop to the river.
“Aukse,” her mother begins calling. “Aukse, Aukse, Aukse.” She calls her like a dog.
Aukse stems from the word “gold” in Lithuanian. When she was born, Aukse’s hair was a golden fuzz, her cry a loud song. Her mother told her friends, “My daughter will be an opera diva.” Her daughter, born in America, daughter of promise. A daughter who flunked out of college and works a boring desk job, her golden hair faded to dirty blonde, a face marked with worry lines, two frown wrinkles between her eyes. Her mother often puts on her eyeglasses, looks at Aukse and says, “You have hit your middle years. Hit them like a rock.”
Her mother often puts on her eyeglasses, looks at Aukse and says, “You have hit your middle years. Hit them like a rock.”
Aukse gets up, goes back into the house. The hem of her dress, its row of pink rosettes, is covered with mud. She goes back to the ladies of recipes, doom, talking about their country: green meadows, wild and furious cold sea. Soon the women will link arms and sing. Discussions meander and slowly turn to the times of deportation lists, Soviets appearing during those June nights, banging on house doors, taking families, shoving them into freight trains, dumping them in Siberia.
Jesus is mentioned before they eat. Aukse doesn’t listen to the prayer. She doesn’t like the idea of worshipping a dead man nailed to a cross. She reaches for a bright colored egg and shouts, “Let the games begin.”
“Aukse, keep your voice down,” her mother says. “You’re too loud.”
The other women are already choosing their eggs, and the ritual starts, a game where you tap the egg and see whose is strongest, which egg wins. Aukse’s excitement lasts about a second, until she feels the weight of her cell phone in her front pocket, resting on her thigh. She goes to the bathroom and locks herself in. She dares herself to call him.
No doubt he’s with his wife and daughter in their house near the Hudson, farther south than where she is. Downstate, miles and miles of river water between them. Aukse finds his name and hits send. It rings. Her heart pounds just hearing that sound—knowing he hears it too. Then she snaps the cell phone shut.
At dinner each woman eats only her own cabbage. Depression strangles Aukse, and desserts, creamy paska decorated with candied almonds, will be her solace.
Later, in the guest room, on a bed with traditional linen sheets, plaques on the walls, castles, bits of amber inlaid in patterns of pagan fairies, Aukse thinks about stalking. Details have to be thought out, must be original and not of a desperate and predictable nature. After all, one could be caught. Then what? Michael might hate her, or think she’s crazy.
Aukse loves to lie in bed and feel safe and drift off into sleep. It is the only time, in the darkness, where she can touch her flabby stomach and feel comfort in the pouch, the soft roll. Her flab of sweets. The flab she detests during the day, avoiding mirrors, wearing long knit sweaters in the summer. Now, her body is a blanket. Her imagination comforts her.
Michael. Michael. She repeats his name, a rosary, and likes saying it over and over and over. He is angel-like, perfect, his lips small, and hands strong, like men who carry trees, logs. No hair on his knuckles, or hair bursting from the back of his shirt collar. That makes her sick. Michael’s body looks hairless, his arms are smooth, pure muscle, tan in the summer. She imagines his skin is soft, like an early spring leaf.
Voices rise from the dining room. The women are still arguing about cabbage. Who fucking cares, Aukse wants to yell. I’m trying to think about Michael. I love him.
Robust as a cherub, cheeks puffed, red as strawberries, his black curls fall in ringlets around his face, springing slightly as he walks or speaks. He’s fifteen years younger than Aukse. That doesn’t matter. His dark eyes, dark hair, sense of humor devour her. She loves dark eyes. Deep blue eyes like her own, her mother’s, the entire northern region of Europe’s, make her puke.
It was the connecting moment. The moment she’d heard about—the second you know there’s a connection, the beginning of something not yet tangible.
She fell in love with Michael fast, a fall so great that she can hardly find strength in her legs when he passes by her in the hallway. Sometimes he’ll peer over her cubicle wall and ask, “Coffee?” Sometimes it means he’s inviting her to join him for a walk to a café, and other times he’ll bring her coffee with a sweet, and he’ll linger by her desk, asking questions about her parents’ country, and once said, “Maybe one day I’ll visit Lithuania. Would you show me around?”
She almost jumped over the desk, tackled him. In her heart she wasn’t forty-five years old, but still a teenager, as all women probably are, the heart young, raw in matters of lust, love. She knew Michael saw this in her. Once he pointed to a macaroon he’d brought her and said, “Your hair is the exact color of this macaroon.”
It was not.
But then, one sees what one sees.
“Tavo kopustai neskanus,” one woman says. Your cabbage is no good.
Aukse snorts. The plates have been cleared, the dining lights dimmed, and they’re still at it. Aukse hears their voices and the shuffle of their slippers as they pass her door, down the hallway, to their rooms. Year after year it’s the same cabbage drama. These women have been friends since jaunystï, childhood, birth. Aukse doesn’t know anyone since birth. She is a loner with cats in her apartment. She can’t understand the bond between these women, how they live together, cook together, walk in town together, arms linked.
“Aukse?” Michael said over the cubicle when he first started working in her office. “What kind of name is that?”
“From the word auksas. ‘Gold’ in Lithuanian.”
“Exotic. Russian?” He asked.
She’d been stapling something. She put down the stapler and picked up a newly sharpened pencil. She was ready to attack him with it, poke out his eyes.
“I am not Russian,” she said. “You are new here, and I’m going to tell you all about where my parents are from. You’ll listen and close your eyes and try to imagine this place because it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
“Okay,” he held up his arms. “I was just kidding. I’ve heard of Lithuania. Look, I’m listening. I’ll pull up a chair.”
That’s how it began. With his eyes closed, he listened as Aukse described the tiny country she’d been to so many times, its forest of ancient pine, the stables of white stallions deep in the northern forest, the dunes that sweep for miles, gently rolling toward the cold sea.
“And we have amber. Amber that heals your heart.”
By then Aukse’s voice had softened, and Michael seemed to be dreaming, off someplace. She began to sing a song about swans and a man riding a horse. When she was finished singing, Michael opened his eyes and looked right into hers.
It was the connecting moment. The moment she’d heard about—the second you know there’s a connection, the beginning of something not yet tangible.
After Easter Aukse returns to the city, her apartment, two cats, the subway, her job. And Michael. It’s Monday morning, Aukse’s favorite day. She gets to the office early and snoops. She goes to Michael’s desk and looks at his framed pictures. They flash before her during her favorite TV crime shows. His wife: ponytail, putrid mouth, eyes like a crow. And a child. Ugly child. A young girl with a squashed face, flat nose, bland eyes, big gaping fish mouth. These were not pictures worth setting out.
Sitting at her desk, stapling papers, Aukse feels a thrill knowing she’ll be stalking Michael—closer than she’s even been to him. Later that morning he passes her desk, taps it, and says, “Hello my Euro beauty.” I love you, she wants to shout out. I’ll see you this weekend for sure!
That Friday, Michael is busy with long meetings. But at one point, the moment Aukse lives for, he stops by her desk, looks into her eyes and says, “I’m going for coffee. Can I get you something?”
She smiles, and says, “You know I love coffee.”
“Black with sugar,” he says.
“No problem,” he says, like she is everything, like she is the love of his life.
Aukse calls her mother and tells her she’ll be out shopping on Saturday and won’t be able to have their regular talk. “Shopping?” her mother asks. Silence follows, thick with disapproval. “That is why you have no money. That is why you’ll end up living under a bridge.”
“I’m buying books,” Aukse says loudly.
“Books,” her mother says. “Nu gerai.” Good. “Your father will like that.”
What does he know? He is dead.
It’s said that souls live in trees and wind, and watch us. And later, as Aukse’s train, making its way north, passes by the early April trees, their soft colors—made up of thousands, millions of buds, like little eyes—watch her.
On the train, she tries to keep her focus on love. Trains are like long arms. Aukse finds a comfort in them: they hold her, lull her, rock her, carry her. She craves to be touched. She tries not to let her mind wander off to those Soviet freight trains, filled with bodies, trains crammed with Lithuanians taken north to Siberia. The train stops. Her mother, her friends, are shoved by communists, pushed off the train and dumped into fields, teenagers with tiny breasts, hair in braids, tied with floppy bows. Her father is kicked through the open freight doors by a soldier. Her father, a skinny teenager, in his school uniform, a poetry book tucked in his jacket pocket. Hundreds, thousands of Lithuanians are dumped and left. As the train chugs off, soldiers shoot, just for good measure. They shoot until the train is long gone, disappearing in the flat horizon.
Aukse’s disguise is simple. None of her hand-knit clothes. That’s fine for work and Easter, but not for hiding behind trees or under bushes. She ordered a special outfit from a uniform company—Reliable Work Shirt and Pants! The shirt has fine dark stripes, like a mechanic would wear, or a prison guard. The pants are dark, durable. Good for crawling. Stain-resistant.
She’s prepared a thick paste of dirt and water. Later she’ll put it in her hair. The muddy mixture will help her blend in with nature.
When she gets off the train, cabs are waiting. She gets into one, and avoids chatting with the driver. Detectives are nosy and persistent where matters of crime are involved.
Aukse braces herself. Her father will tell her about those horrible June days in Siberia, and then the miracle of finding wild cabbage. If it weren’t for cabbage they wouldn’t have survived.
The cab drops her off on a street near Michael’s house. She’s printed out several maps. She takes a few minutes to prepare. She takes out the jar of mud. She opens it and dips her fingers in, then combs the mixture through her hair.
She begins to walk, her heart pounding with fear and excitement, knowing that she’s getting closer and closer to Michael. The sun sets as it does in the suburbs, disappearing, a simple unimpressive act, gone, dropping behind rooftops. For an instant there’s a dull glow on lawns, then the day is gone with a thud. Night comes on.
The house is a one-floor ranch style. Beneath the windows are evergreen bushes and Aukse manages to get under the bushes without been seen. She kneels, looking through a window. The view is sickening. Michael sits on a couch watching TV. His wife is next to him. Aukse hisses. She hates that wife.
She watches transfixed. Stalking is loving someone so much, you need to see everything about them. Like sharing. Even little things: watching him watch TV seems intimate, or seeing his slippers. Everything is close with her special zoom-in binoculars.
Aukse suddenly hears rustling behind her. Something brushes against her back and she turns on a flashlight to inspect. That’s when she sees him. He’s twisted within the branches like a rope. Her father. He’s small, shrunken, but it’s him alright and he’s shaking his head. “Aukse,“ he says. ”I’m watching. And this is no way for a girl to get love.“
You can’t talk to a spirit. Aukse understands that he is here to disapprove, to guide her away from the house, back to the train, and to her apartment. His rubbery looking mouth moves in a way that reminds her of pudding—not yet cooled, the way Aukse likes to move it around her bowl with a spoon.
Her father goes on.
“Concerning the correct way to make cabbage,” he says. Mr. Professor. Mr. Literature. He recites his own mother’s dish. Boring, slow, he jabbers on, there in the bush in front of Michael’s house. His voice is loud, droning on and on.
Aukse braces herself. Her father will tell her about those horrible June days in Siberia, and then the miracle of finding wild cabbage. If it weren’t for cabbage they wouldn’t have survived. “Cabbage,” he says, “is the reason we survived.” And then, the thing she’s heard before, something that hits her hard each time she hears it. “Winter came. Winter comes fast in Siberia and people were freezing. Most froze to death. We had nothing. Hands froze, fell off. We ate our leather shoes.”
“But you still had cabbage,” she says quietly. “Cabbage for everyone!”
Her father’s eyes are just looking at her.
Lately, Aukse’s father is everywhere: once in a measly tree in Battery Park, another time in a tree outside her bedroom window. The tree is in the convent’s yard and her father’s face looked like a coconut, stuck in there, yelling at her to stop eating. His voice is everywhere lately: the bathroom, office copy room, on the subway. Voices of the dead are loud, filled with warnings, disapprovals. But mostly he says this to her: “Nepavykai.” It means you didn’t turn out well. Loser. You can also say it when you bake a cake and it turns out badly—looking at it sadly and sympathetically, you’d address the cake directly and say “Nepavykai,” then throw it out. Either way, it’s a bad thing.
Aukse is kneeling in the dirt, mud in her hair, wearing a service uniform, snooping on a married man, someone who has invaded each cell of her body, filling her blood with rich pure love.
Her father is watching. He’s not about to leave, go back to the sky. She has no choice but to abandon her post. Aukse crawls out of the bushes, then gets down on her stomach, and combat-style, she crawls across the lawn, using the force of hands, elbows, feet, hips. Once she’s off the grass, safely at the curb, she gets up. Nights in the suburbs are not appealing. Still and creepy, houses filled with families farting, or worse, cutting their toenails. Aukse begins her walk. She walks until she’s safe, until she can take out her cell phone and make two calls. One is to the cab driver telling him to pick her up. The other call is to her mother, telling her about the books she bought.
Summer in New York City is brutal. Aukse’s depression gets worse. Michael takes two week’s vacation. While he’s away, he doesn’t call her at the office, he doesn’t email, he doesn’t send her a post card.
On crime shows, summer reruns, Aukse studies how murders are thought out, each detail planned with precision. She settles on a date to murder the wife. Late October. The weather will be cooler, and she can wear an all-black outfit and ski mask. The air will be crisp, cool, invigorating. It will remind her of Lithuania—the air scented with seductive smells of apple orchards, oak leaves, ripe pears, hay rolled up into mounds, set in the fields, large as sunsets.
Wet coffee grinds bubbling like a volcano— coming up, pouring down the sides of the machine, splattering down the counter, to the floor. Aukse’s mother yells at her, throwing a dish towel at her to make her point. Loser.
Aukse makes lists of what she eats. She makes lists of Michael’s coming, going, all day at work. Lists are good. Good practice for keeping track of details for the murder she’ll commit. Nothing will stop her.
When October arrives, Aukse’s ready for action. She goes back to the ranch house and sneaks into the bushes. This time she means business. She won’t think twice—the second she sees that wife, she’ll take action. Aukse’s wearing all black. She’s got a pitch fork. She’s wearing little red ears on top of her head. If anyone sees her lurking outside the house, and needs to escape and run, they’ll think she’s the devil. An early Halloween devil. If her father starts up, appearing next to her, caught in the bush branches, she’ll poke him with the pitch fork. Tonight is serious. Tonight is the beginning of her life with Michael.
A rock is in her hand and she’s about to smash the window when a flashlight shines on her.
“Who are you?” The voice is tiny, shaky.
“Who are you?” Aukse snaps back, even though she knows. It’s Michael’s daughter. Ugly.
“I live here. Are you the devil?”
“I’m trick-or-treating,” Aukse whispers.
“Oh,” the girl says.
“Go away, kid,” Aukse says.
“I’m looking for my cat,” the girl says. “Her name is Shadow.”
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers. You shouldn’t be outside like this.” Aukse says. “Don’t you know that? Don’t you watch America’s Most Wanted?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“You should know. You need to be careful.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What?” Aukse says.
“Are you really a devil?”
Little girls can ruin things. Things are now getting complicated. This is how double murders happen. Another person gets between things, and then you have to get rid of two people.
“Pretend you don’t see me, never saw me,” Aukse says, packing up her knife, rock, and flashlight. Soon she’s running across the lawn, to the curb, the street.
“I can do that! I never, ever saw you!” the girl says, her voice high with excitement. That’s what she says. As if someone like Aukse, her fat thighs, her nothingness, is easy to forget. Even as a devil.
The news comes quickly, out of nowhere. Michael asks Aukse if she has a minute.
“I have more than a minute!” she yells out, a little too loud and almost knocks over the partition of her office cubicle.
Michael takes her into the hallway by the elevators. He looks deeply into her eyes, as if he’s about to propose, and touches her arm. His hand is a soft leaf, just as she’d imagined. He is about to say something very important.
“I’m leaving,” he says. “I’m leaving New York and moving out west. I got a job out there.”
“It’s better living. Safe, you know? This isn’t a good place for children.”
“It’s safe. Suburbs are safe,” Aukse shouts.
But he’s shaking his head, about to tell her exactly how unsafe: strangers in bushes.
“Would you stay if I sing for you?” She asks. “How about a Lithuanian love song?”
His eyes fill with tears. He doesn’t cry, but he’s moved. Then out of nowhere, he takes Aukse in his strong arms and hugs her. A hug that seems to take in her whole big body. For those few seconds, Aukse’s life both begins and ends. She holds on until he pulls away and says, “I’ll miss you. You’re one of a kind.”
In an exhibit at a museum in Lithuania, there are artifacts from those who’d been deported to Siberia, dumped, left to die. There’s a letter Aukse likes to look at. It’s written in blood. Blood! She can’t get over a person’s desperation to cut skin, use your blood as ink. The letter is a farewell. Aukse often asks her mother, how didn’t you freeze to death? Her answer does not involve cabbage. Her answer is always this: determination, love.
At night, Aukse touches her roll of fat and thinks about bloody letters, the voices of elders singing Lithuanian love songs.
And then, just like that, Michael is gone. Two weeks later, his desk is cleared off, the photos of the ugly wife and daughter packed up. He forgets about their date, to have a final coffee at the café, something Aukse had been living for, dressed up for in her best white dress which layered like pedals around her hips and thighs. That day while she’s in the bathroom putting on her lipstick and pinning her hair up, Michael leaves the office and disappears forever.
By Christmas she is back at the house in the woods overlooking the Hudson River. The old women are arguing about the best way to prepare vinigretas. A bean dish with vegetables. Chop this, put in mayonnaise. No, just oil.
“Can I help with cutting beets?” Aukse asks, holding a knife, wearing an apron.
The women ask Aukse to make coffee. “You can do that, can’t you?” her mother asks, handing her the bag of ground coffee.
Aukse fills the machine with too much water and too much coffee. Within a few minutes, water and wet coffee grinds bubbling like a volcano—coming up, pouring down the sides of the machine, splattering down the counter, to the floor. Aukse’s mother yells at her, throwing a dish towel at her to make her point. Loser.
Aukse goes outside to sit on her log. The old women are probably cleaning up the exploded coffee, talking about how hopeless she is. Her father isn’t around. The tree branches are bare, like spindly arms above her. There’s only the river, out there: beyond and below.
She’d have to run, leap, hoping to go far out, reaching, kicking to clear the wall of the rocky cliff. Then a perfect descent would begin, like an opera, Aukse would make loud noises, screaming. In the water the weight of her body would vanish. She would be light. Quiet would come. Down, down, down through the murky water, Aukse would drop like a lump of gold. In time fish would gather, chew her limbs. What would eventually be left of her? Probably her mud-blonde hair. And this—love.
Sure as the river’s current, her love will travel to larger waters, opening to mouths of oceans and beyond. Her love will go west. Aukse hopes for trees out west, someplace to perch, move her gooey pudding-like mouth. Will Michael see her perched in tree branches? Hear her calling out to him? Yes, of course he will.
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