Excerpt: "The Boy Who Loved Trees"

34 = trisdešimt-keturi

        — Oh dear, they seem to have bound you.

        One corner of the man’s mouth disappears into a wry smirk.The rest of his face is as immobile and as secretly poisonous as

        He utters a phrase in Russian and the younger soldier takes the plastic cuffs off.

        — Is that better?

        — Yes.

        — I’m so sorry they treated you this way. You must feel terribly upset.

        — I’m okay.

        — Did they search you?

        Artie feels his face grow hot. No point in lying.
— No.

        — Good, good. Treat him as a guest I told them. But you look nervous. Maybe you are hiding something? Perhaps I should have you searched after all?

        Artie shrugs in a way that he hopes—prays—shows noncommittal indifference. His shoulder twinges. The other guards glance at each other. Artie massages his shoulder cramp

        Vladas rubs his thumb across one of the white streaks in his beard. Then, affecting the kind of calculated smile a politician uses to win an election, he shakes a Marlboro Red from a nearly empty packet so that the cigarette points accusingly at Artie.

        — Smoke?

        — I don’t smoke.

        — So you say, but oh, we men know better, don’t we?

        Artie blushes, remembering the cigarette he had sampled with Stasys. He can see the family resemblance, though Vladas is of a higher financial status than his younger brother. It is clear in his clothes, his mannerisms: Vladas is a man who conducts political power. He waves his hand. Artie is blinded by a quick flash of sunlight as the other men file silently out of the room.

        The corners of Vladas’ eyes crinkle like gold foil, but there is no warmth there; he is an icy version of his brother. He pulls up a chair, his head moving in a continual nod that has nothing to do with his words.

        — So, my young cousin, you seem to be in a lot of trouble.
        — But
        — A lot depends on you.

        — How?
        — Ah, my sweet young cousin. Perhaps you are nervous. Hm? Perhaps you do not quite understand.

        — I understand that you are KGB.

        Vladas raises his eyebrows.

        — I am a Minister of the People.
— You are a bad man.

        This earns another indulgent smile.

        — My young friend. Things will go easier on you if you give the people what they want. You have to know how to live.

        Artie shudders, recalling his thrill when Stasys had encouraged him to break rules with the same words. He looks for some leverage. Some connection.

        — What hung on the nail?

        — Excuse me?

— That nail. There. What was on it?

        Vladas turns slowly and, when he sees where Artie is
pointing, laughs.

        — It was The Little Worrier.

        — Really?

        — No. Yes. What difference does it make?

        The Little Worrier. Lithuania’s version of Jesus—a heavy
head crowned with huge thorns, always sitting hunched over on a rough wooden chair or a stump, chin in hand, head tilted in disappointment, and always, always looking extremely close to giving up. A depressed adult wearing a toga tied with a coarse rope. It’s rare to find any other version of the Son of God in Lithuanian folk-art. The Worrier bore such a resemblance to a figure in a Chagall painting that his mother had bought a poster of the Chagall to hang in the entryway of their house in Montana, claiming it had Lithuanian influences. His father had made her take it down, saying that Marc Chagall was a dirty Jew. Artie stares at the hook left in the wall.

        — No difference. I was just wondering.

        Vladas moves around to block his view of the nail.

        — Well, my young friend. So. Here you are.

        He turns his face, and his small, round glasses catch the light and turn opaque.
        — And yet. Perhaps this is all a misunderstanding.

        — Excuse me?

        — You’ll note that you are being treated very well.

        — One of the guards hit me. In the face. Twice.

        Vladas winces, and the wince seems genuine.

        — Regrettable. But you will note your hands are no longer bound. You were not searched. You are hardly what I would call a prisoner.

        — Wait. I can go?

        — We can work out those details better when we are both clear.

        Artie locks eyes with him, steeling himself.

        — I don’t have to tell you a thing.

Vladas removes his glasses and cleans them with a cloth.

        — I have not asked you a thing, my dearest young cousin.

        — Oh.

        — Do I have to ask? Is that how you want this to go?

        Artie sits very still. This is not at all how he had expected to be interrogated. There is nothing to fight against. Vladas is mild. Some KGB supervisor is no doubt watching or listening in.Perhaps even from behind that closed door that no one has yet mentioned. Being hit by the newspaper at least had made a certain amount of sense. Vladas smiles, he smokes, he seems very relaxed, and yet threats hover in him as surely as thieves hide in shadows.

        — You poor kid. You’ve really jumped in over your head, haven’t you?

        — No.

        Vladas reaches towards him. The cigarette is coming closer and closer to his skin. Artie stops breathing, but Vladas does not burn him. Instead, he brushes Artie’s hair back off his forehead gently, as if he was a parent checking a beloved son’s temperature.

        — You’re such a child, still.
        Artie clenches his teeth. Does Vladas know about the wedding? Or is this about the flag? Or does the KGB know nothing and Vladas is trying to tease out any information he can get?

        — Did you think this thing would threaten us?

        Artie shrugs. Inside, his thoughts are spinning. What thing? Does he or doesn’t he know about the flag? Words are piling up behind his teeth, questions which are just like confessions.

        — It does not threaten us. Not in the least. But you? You look nervous. Childish games gone too far.

        Vladas sucks deeply on his cigarette and blows a smoke ring over Artie, who coughs. Vladas looks at his cigarette as if it has a surprising new flavor.

        — Oh, is this bothering you? Would you like me to put it out?

        Artie glares at him.

        — No?

        He takes another drag. Exhales in Artie’s face. The smoke lounges in the sticky air, swims into his pores. Prickles across
his skin, laying a film of thick tar over his sweaty forehead, neck, temples, down the back of his shirt. Invading his lungs with filth.

        — Yes! Yes. Put it out. Please. It’s so hot in here. I can’t breathe.

        Vladas immediately releases the cigarette. It falls on the cement floor and he crushes it

        — I have the power to make you very comfortable.

        Vladas’ voice is the silk an assassin might use to garrote a victim. He walks around Artie’s chair in a wide circle.

        — Why don’t you tell me what you were doing up there on the tower.

        — Nothing. Looking around. The tower hasn’t been open and we wanted to

        — Who put you up to it? Dovydas, Rimgaudas, or Elena?

        Artie bites the inside of his lip to keep his shock from
showing. Of course Vladas knows their names. He runs the tour. Dee-Dee probably sends him reports. Maybe those men in the tan coats and blue suits send the reports. Who is Rimgaudas? Could that be Van’s real name? He realizes that he has never asked. He realizes Vladas has said nothing about Jadvyga. Perhaps he doesn’t know about her.

        — No one. It was my idea.

        Circular sauntering around the chair. Artie feels dizzy and scared, and hyper-aware of the bulk of the flag. He is torn between protecting his friends and protecting himself.

        — Tut-tut, now. I took you under my wing as much for your father’s sake as for your own. Did you not enjoy your adventuresome wanderings? Your visit to a certain apartment complex?

        Vladas’ insouciant smile widens.

        — You are surprised? Don’t be. Setting you up with our operative was so much easier than following you around. Very convenient.

        — She’s your operative?

        — She? Who?

        Artie catches himself just before blurting out Jadvyga’s name. His eyes narrow.

        — No. I don’t believe you.

        — Believe what you wish. It doesn’t change the truth.

        — But He falls silent under the man’s interested expression.

        — Really, kid, what’s a vacation to the Soviet Union without a little intrigue?

        Artie’s mind whirls, searching for the truth. Could Jadvyga have been arranged for his entertainment? As much as these suggestions play on his emotions, he’s determined not to betray her. He shakes his head.

        — The problem, young cousin, is that you and your friends broke the law. Public intoxication. Hooliganism.

        Artie wipes his sweaty palms on his thighs as Vladas languidly lists the other crimes against the state that he and his friends have committed.

        — So you see, it will go easier on you if you cooperate. Think carefully. You should not be required to take a punishment for something that is not your fault. I’ll give you some time to think about it.

        Vladas walks to the other side of the room and lights up a fresh cigarette. He smokes quietly, never taking his eyes off Artie. When he’s done with his cigarette, he picks up the crumpled newspaper and scans every article, much as if he’s waiting for a late bus.

        Artie needs to use the toilet. His leg shakes. He sits in the chair, concentrating on his body; hoping he is doing the right thing by protecting Jadvyga. If that’s even the goal of this interrogation. If this is even an interrogation. If he’s not entirely mad.

        Vladas tosses the newspaper aside.

        — Don’t you have anything to say, cousin? I’m much more lenient than a judge.

        Artie doesn’t respond. Vladas shrugs and takes two steps towards the outside door.
        — You know, homosexuality is a crime against the state.

        He sounds like a schoolteacher giving answers to a slow pupil.

        I never

        — Haven’t you?

        — No!

        His voice cracks under the weight of his urgency. Vladas’ face breaks into a wide grin.

        — No, cousin? No?

        — I don’t know what you’re talking about.

        He nearly yells in his panic and frustration. He’d looked at the Dove in the dark, once. Nothing else. Touched his hair. There can’t be a law against that! He recalls the old woman, lost in her puffy chair, sneering Men who are not men. Did Izabelė report him? Anyway Elena had kissed him and he’d liked it! It was impossible that he’d be arrested for something so untrue.

        Vladas laughs and touches the door handle.

        — I have to think about this. Talk to a few people. I’ll be back in a little while. Sit tight.

        The door opens to the afternoon sunshine and then closes leaving Artie alone with the cement walls, the empty hook, the closed door, the drain, and his own mounting fears.

M.M. DeVoe was born in Texas to Lithuanian parents and went on the Homeland tour of Soviet-Occupied Lithuania in 1985. Columbia MFA, Writing Fellow. Multiple awards, list at mmdevoe.com. Founded the literary nonprofit, Pen Parentis, and co-hosts their monthly literary salons in Manhattan. Reach out on Twitter @mmdevoe