My Prima Donna Swamp Princess [ 2 ] : Serendipity

  • 2005-09-07
My plan, as I was telling you, was to solve the riddle of the proto-language spoken in the Baltic region some 3,000 years ago. As the French linguist Antoine Meillet famously said, anyone wishing to hear how Indo-European was spoken should listen to a Lithuanian peasant. I took that to mean a Suvalkian barley farmer, and within hours after having sat behind the wheel of a rented Volkswagen Golf in Kaunas, I found myself puttering along a quiet road through the farmlands near the Polish border. Ah, Sudovia! The trees were still leafless and the earth devoid of vegetation, but I held fast to the hope that spring would arrive in a hurry and sprinkle an array of colors across the countryside.

Somewhere along the road to Kalvarija I felt nature's tug, and feeling carefree, I stopped the car in the middle of the road and hopped out. (To this day I don't know why I didn't seek relief right there on the roadside, but as I've said before, I now know it was divine manipulation.) I wambled down the embankment into a grove, and continued walking until my boots began sinking into the waterlogged ground. I stopped to go about my business, but at a point in mid-sentence, so to speak, I glanced to the side and saw a body slumped at the base of a tree.

It was a woman, with ghostly white skin and garments the likes I had only seen in drawings. They were, I remember lucidly, besmirched to a shame. A moist stiff, I thought as I proceeded about my business; probably saved from the maggots by the winter frost.

You could imagine, then, the sheer horror when the corpse suddenly raised its head and looked directly at me.

Since everything else I'm about to tell you will seem so unbelievable, let me simply say that I reacted to this sight in the most awkward (yet predictable for me) way possible - I fell backwards onto my rump into a ditch. My gaunt frame landed in such a way that, upon struggling to get right back up, I sank deeper in the morass. Worse, my fingers became knotted up in my zipper and the stream continued undisturbed, albeit now in my Levis.

When I turned to look at the source of my fright, the woman stood up from her death-pose and started walking toward me. My terror intensified; my life began flashing before my eyes. She stared at me as if at a zoo animal. (Admittedly, my clumsy behavior warranted it - my hands struggled to conceal myself and lift me up at the same time, and yet they failed at both.) I had a premonition of a torturous death at the hands of some Lithuanian forest succubus. I flinched and kicked in my mud bath, but I only sank deeper into the grime.

Alas, this was no succubus. The woman was dressed in an ornate linen gown - one that, beneath the filth, was stunning. On her crown was a metallic headdress that had small bronze plates, and she wore a variety of silver bracelets and neck rings that, though in need of a polishing, were quite riveting. There was a shawl over her shoulders fastened by brooch-pins and connected by two fine chains. My first - and last - rational thought was that a participant in some medieval battle re-enactment had gotten lost in the forest and fallen asleep.

She could barely walk, however, and appeared emaciated and parched. She tripped twice, and finally ceased her struggle at a point five meters from me. The expression on her face combined lethargy, confusion and no small measure of disappointment. For some time - I don't remember how long - she stared at me, as if sizing danger. But finally she spoke.

"As aulauna baz vieta, bet jys mauduoti tamso. O, Perkunai!"

Now I might be the most uncoordinated oaf this side of the Nemunas, but I know a thing or two about languages. And this woman, whatever her origin, had just reinvented everything written about local speech patterns. In one single phrase I recognized a smattering of Latgallian, Yatvingian, Lithuanian and even Liiv (abessive case, I should add). An Indo-European/Finno-Ugric bastardization. The most bizarre pidgin I, or anyone for that matter, could ever dream of.

Holy oak! I thought. No longer cognizant of my sodden clothes and wide-open fly, I stared up at this exquisitely dressed woman in front of me. Either I had just stumbled upon an extraordinary linguistic anomaly, or someone who had just risen from the dead.

I would soon learn that it was both.