5. An excerpt from novel "Glesum"

Read first pages of a novel "Glesum"

Rasa Aškinytė. "Glesum"

Translated by Jura Avižienis

This never happened, but it could have.

I dedicate my book to the Conqueror


The Alpha Star, or Polaris, and the Little Dipper

Polaris is the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. To be more precise, it’s a system of three stars, comprising one super-giant star with a luminosity that varies cyclically, and two yellow dwarf companion stars. The first of these companions is seventeen times further from the central star than the Earth is from the Sun. It completes its orbit around the central star every thirty years. The second one is 2,400 times further than the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and completes its orbit around the central star once every 42,000 years.

Polaris is located closest to the North Pole. It is the forty-eighth brightest star known to us, 45,000 times brighter than the Sun, and forty-five times larger. It is seen in the same place all year round, throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere. It is a navigational star, helping travellers locate the north. The Big and Little Dippers, along with various other stars, rotate around Polaris. That is why it was once considered the centre of the sky. Polaris is 432 light years away from the Earth.


1. Snow

There was so much snow that the woman was sinking up to her knees. The furs wrapped around her muscular legs made walking difficult. Her shoulder had been badly wounded: blood was dripping from it slowly, the red droplets were absorbed by the whiteness even before they reached the ground.

The woman was completely alone. She knew there wasn’t a soul within the range of her senses. Otherwise, she would have smelled or heard their existence.

The camp was far away. She knew that whichever direction she took, she could orient herself perfectly, but her survival depended on finding the others. That was why the woman had been walking towards the camp for several days. She was hungry and exhausted, but she couldn’t stop. Sleep meant death.

Nothing could be seen except snow, and more snow. And wolves. For now, they were keeping their distance. But they had begun furtively making a large circle around her. The woman’s nostrils flared. She quietly breathed in the air saturated with aggression and the instinct to live at any price

The woman was not afraid. This land had never been hers, it had never belonged to her. Just like her life.

The woman did not know how to grieve. She did not know how to cry. She did not know how to feel compassion. She did not know how to wait or to hope. She knew only how to fight and to live. The woman knew how to look a wolf straight in the eye, and based on scent in the air and the beating of their two hearts, to determine which of the two was the stronger.

The wolves came closer, increasingly emboldened. She saw their large, grey bodies. She heard their quiet growling in the blinding white. The woman picked up a huge stick and gripped it with her good hand. She breathed out, and with all her strength she threw it at the nearest wolf.

The snow fell even harder.


2. Water

Selija opens the door. The sun and snow are blinding. She covers her eyes. A silver ring in the shape of a snake winds around half her finger. She has lots of silver; her husband Gondas brings back loads of it, along with glass beads of various colours. She can order bead necklaces, brooches and bracelets whenever she feels the whim. And she does. Let the others see that she wants for nothing. Let them know it.

Selija fixes her coat. The fur won’t stay in place. Annoyed, she sticks a copper pin in it to fasten it to the coarse woollen fabric. It’s not a good idea to pin fur, but what does that matter to her? She’ll throw it to the poor and get a new one. Her husband has wagons full of furs, collected from the local hunters, ready for transport, and Selija is free to choose whichever one she likes. No need to ask. Gondas never gets angry. He is a good man. He protects her, knows how to appease the gods, and always comes back to her. He is a handsome man, with long hair the colour of straw tied at the crown. His eyes are blue, like all of our men’s. But unlike the others, he has a large scar that divides his face in two. He says some Burgundians attacked him on his way to Kornunt. They tried to take everything, but he and his men put up a fight. With the lightning and the heavy rain, he isn’t even sure if was lightning or the Burgundian’s sabre that scarred his face. He didn’t come home for a long time. He says his wounds took a long time to heal. He’s a good man: he brought her a huge silver bracelet, so heavy that it weighs her arm down.

Kirnis brings more logs for the fire. Selija wants to tell him there’s enough already. It’s hot inside. But you can’t argue with him. Kirnis is old. He used to look after the fire in her parents’ home, too. Selija brought him with her when she came to live with Gondas. Everyone knows he is too old to work, but you can’t tell him that. He does what he wants. He walks quietly, the old warrior, although it’s years since he last wielded a sword. Now he carries three sticks at a time for kindling. He never removes the boar tusk pendant from his neck, no matter what. As if he needs the protection of the Mother of the gods here by the fire, as if he is fighting the Teutons.

She only notices she’s pricked her finger when she sees the blood. Selija licks the blood as she surveys the yard, trying to convince herself that nothing has changed. The sun is rising, but it’s probably snowing for the last time. She takes a deep breath, drawing the snow and the cold into her lungs. Her fingers tremble. She adjusts her fur. She should close the door. The heat from inside and the chill from outside are mixing, spinning in circles around her. Selija doesn’t like it when life takes this course, one she can’t control: her husband Gondas is a good man, but he has brought home another woman.

He brought her. He came home with a scarred face. He told Selija that the Burgundians were responsbible for the scar, and Selija believed him. Why shouldn’t she?

Taking his wares to Kornunt, Gondas normally packs his wagons full of furs, honey and amber, and returns with silver, copper, tin and zinc. Unsure of the contents, Selija walks over to take a look, but she doesn’t see anything interesting: a wagon full of wares, what more is there to say? He normally brings back men, young but exhausted from the long journey on foot. If any of these men turn on them and try to rob them, Gondas and his men round up the survivors and tie them to the carts or sell them. Some are used for sacrificial offerings.

He always brings back men, but this time he brought back a woman.

Kirnis pushes his way in through the door past Selija. He’s completely blind now. He walks slowly across the yard. He didn’t accompany them on that journey. He doesn’t know anything.

She isn’t even a woman, she’s still a child. He brought her in the last cart. Selija watches her get out. She hops out with ease. After all, she’s young. Selija can’t hop out like that any more; her age and her status don’t allow it. Selija clenches her fist, her nails digging into her palm. She can’t hop out like that any more. Not any more. She squeezes her fist. When she releases it, four red marks in the shape of an arc remain indented in her palm. They don’t fade for several hours. They used to fade immediately. Not any more.

And that woman, that child, is looking around. She’s supporting herself on the cart, as if she’ll fall if she lets go. Perhaps she will. She’s travelled for so long, most likely without putting a foot out, most likely she was not allowed to. She looks frightened and defensive. The look of a captured wolf. Good. Let her be frightened. Selija, she’s not afraid. What is there to be afraid of?

Paying no attention to the women, the men unload the goods. Pretending she’s come to examine them, Selija approaches the last cart. She doesn’t want to, but she does. You have to know your enemy if you want to conquer her. The men shout to each other; more help has arrived. Gondas has many men. He lets his warriors go home to their wives and children. They line up their spears and shields, and lean them against the wall. They’ve done their duty; they’ve seen Gondas and the goods home safely.

He is a good man. He brought Selija a large silver bracelet, narrow in the centre, but flaring out at the ends. He puts it on her wrist and fastens the clasp. It weighs down her arm. She touches his scar. He jumps back. He has never done that before, but this time he does. Selija tries a second time, but Gondas turns and walks away. The men pile the goods up into huge piles. They know that they will be able to return later to claim their shares. Gondas is a good man. He will pay everyone fairly, even those who did not travel, the ones who stayed behind.

The child-woman is not like our folk. Her hair is not flaxen, but light brown and wavy. Her eyes are bright, clear and brown.

‘This is Glesum,’ says Gondas.

Selija shudders. She hadn’t noticed him approach. She shudders at the name, a name she’s never heard before. She’s never seen such hair, such eyes, such a frightened wolf’s gaze.

‘She’s a mute. Nobody has ever heard her voice. Don’t bother asking her anything,’ says Gondas.

‘I can see that for myself,’ answers Selija.

‘She’ll live with us,’ said Gondas. ‘I’ll build her a house at the far end of the yard. She’ll live with us.’

‘I see,’ says Selija.

Better not live with us, she thinks. Better not live at all.

The horse, quivering as it fends off mosquitos, knocks over a bucket. The water comes spilling out. Selija imagines her own life spilling out in a similar way as the tired horse kicks the bucket away, the earth soaking up the water as if she’d never been.

Glesum stands leaning against the wagon. The men walk around her. Nobody pays her any attention. She relaxes. Everyone does. And, bit by bit, things return to normal.

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