She was more than a princess. She was a queen. A goddess. The apotheosis of beauty. Passers-by stopped to stare, men tripped over their feet and women bit back pangs of jealousy. In no time at all - in the brief time it would take a hungry Lithuanian to wolf down a few cepeliniai and a bottle of Svyturys - the filthy, half-dead vagabond I had found in a desolate swamp had become an iridescent cynosure worthy of worship.
And I 's the luckiest man in Suvalkija.
Once we'd reached Kalvarija I parked the car and we decided to part ways for a little while. Frankly, the extent of my relief was immense. All the talk of ancient subterfuge and neo-Teutonic conspiracy had me flushed, and I needed some solitude. You don't meet a 600-year-old princess every day, and when you do, it tends to warp your sense of perspective.
Arva, I could tell, had been equally frazzled. (You don't meet an American pedant every day, especially in southern Lithuania, and when you do, it tends to drive you bonkers.) I could tell that she needed to hop out of the Golf and dive into the 21st century. Though a pagan aristocrat, she was a pan-Baltic romanticist, and she needed to be among her people.
Alas, I should've never let her go. It would've saved me 's "unluckiest" man of Suvalkija - a world of trouble.
"You're going to need some money," I had told her just as we parted. She would probably want to freshen up, or grab a snack somewhere. I reached into my wallet and pulled out some litas, saying, "Your 15th century coins are unlikely to serve as legal tender around these parts."
She gave me the odd look again, but it quickly changed to one of vacillation. She wanted to say "no" to my offer but couldn't. So I added in Lithuanian, "Pinigu kaip sieno."
She grinned demurely and took the money, which immediately disappeared somewhere beneath her ornate dress. Her gratitude confounded me, and I slipped off into a familiar dimension. I said to her, "The Prussian word for money - penningai - is a borrowing from Old English 'penig,' which is also still used today, meaning one cent, or one-hundredth of a dollarâ€¦"
She rolled her eyes and walked away, apparently desperate to get the hell away from esoteric me. Anyway, we agreed to meet back at the car later, though my talk of a specific hour apparently confounded her. Apparently the 24-hour clock was still foreign to early 15th century Balts.
Kavalrija is a quaint town with a capital "Q," its claim to fame owing to the large number of ancient burial mounds in the surrounding area. It would probably be utterly forgotten if not for a nearby border crossing to Poland, which ensures the town a steady stream of hungry travelers. With my voice recorder in hand, I moseyed around the streets and chatted with a few elderly people to get a feel for the dialect, the study of which was the entire purpose of my visit.
About an hour into my investigation, or just when I was warming to my task, I could hear the distant rumblings of a public commotion from not far away. Something had happened nearby - an accident, an arrest - and the small town dwellers naturally gravitated toward the event. Shackled by neither time nor duty, I drifted along, until I caught a snippet of conversation - "exotic costume" and "strange tongue" - and then my curiosity turned to panic.
Wide-eyed and fearful, I approached the area of general consternation. There, I immediately witnessed the sense of awe that had overcome this sleepy borderland community whose concept of bizarre must be limited to charitable Polish smugglers.
She stood on a corner, gazing to an imaginary horizon, decked out in the finest pagan dress imaginable. Waves of lavender and violet linen draped her limbs, and a brass headband and bracelets were ablaze in the afternoon light. Everyone slowed to take a longer look, and a few just stopped dead in their tracks. She looked as she'd stepped out of a medieval painting, only here the colors were lustrous, exaggerated. At the same time she basked in the attention, relished it as only royalty could, and I suddenly wondered whether she would acknowledge my presence.
But she did. She turned and spotted me immediately, through the throng, and said in her Baltic pidgin that no one around could comprehend, "Let's go, American crusader. Now I am prepared to carry out my mission and liberate the Baltic peoples."