My Prima Donna Swamp [ 16 ] : Reminiscing, 2

  • 2005-12-14
It was midday by the time Arva and I reached Gedimino Kapas (Geiminas' grave) in Veliuona, former site of the legendary castle built in the 13th century to defend Lithuania from the crusader ilk. There was a wooden staircase on one of the town's hills, and Arva slowly started to ascend it, and I behind her. I didn't bother speaking, since I knew this was her first genuine trip back in time. The hill was covered on one side with a mixed forest, while the other resembled a new green carpet with its young grass.

The princess was silent for a time after we reached the top, her eyes absorbing all the view had on offer. This was the bank of the Nemunas River, the frontline of the Baltic-Teutonic war, and the memories must have been hard on Arva, who lived through part of it.

"I remember it all like yesterday," she said.

No shit, I felt like saying. I'd remember it too if I'd just woke up after being dead for 570 years.

"The knights of the cross mounted on their horses, the chain mail polished to a sparkle. The Dominicans with their shaved heads, constantly holding a black book and mumbling unintelligible prayers to their unintelligible god. And between them, on their knees, a group of kidnapped Balts confronted with the choice: convert, or die."

So rarely did Arva look me in the eyes that when she did, like at that moment, my heart skipped a beat. "It only takes to see that once before your entire purpose in life changes," she said.

I didn't bother, for the sake of conversation, raising the Chicago Democratic convention of '68, or Kent State in '70. I mean, I had only found the medieval (mad)woman in a swamp the day before, and she was still having difficulty understanding the concept of the New World, so grasping superpower America would be asking too much.

From there, she spoke energetically, practically giving me a lesson in 13th century history. Pope Gregory IX, Grand Master Hermann von Salza, Herkus Monte, the assassination of King Mindaugas. I don't know how long she went on, nor was I aware of what she was leading up to. But she spoke as a witness to history.

Finally, she exhausted herself, and experienced diplomat that she was, she got to her point. I had never heard such wistful morose in a human voice.

"You know," she said, "I didn't believe you when you told me it is 2005, but every gazette on the newsstand corroborated it." She took a nervous breath, as if she were close to breaking down under the weight of her freakish predicament - arising after being dead for nearly six centuries. "Looking over this horizon, I'm again confronted with more evidence of how much the world has changed," she said. "All these wires, lights, vehicles, beautiful homes… it makes me wonder if I even have a purpose in the 21st century."

I checked to make sure my voice recorder was picking up this pan-Baltic monologue. Half of her words I understood, the other half I would have to sort through later on my computer.

"Certainly there've been other conflicts since those of my era, and certainly people's minds are occupied with those."

"That's probably more true than you realize," I said.

"Still, looking at all these churches, these steeples - foreign churches and steeples - I can't rid myself of the need to correct a historical injustice, to right a wrong. For every cross in these lands I'm sure there're 10 innocent Balts who were slain by the crusader sword, and a hundred converted on pain of death."

Shame on me, but I immediately thought of the Hill of Crosses. "Remind me not to take you to Siauliai," I said.

"Why? What's in Siauliai?" she asked.

"Never mind."

"Anyway, I may be out of time, but just by breathing this air - this air soiled by Christianity - I know my mission isn't. How can anyone go on tolerating what was violently forced upon them? Take me to the Prus, American professor. It's time for revolution."

I frowned and kicked at the moist soil. "I can't Arva 's they're all gone."

"What do you mean?"

Rather than explain, I walked back to the car and found my map of Europe. I pointed to the Baltics. "Only three Baltic countries. The Prus died out around 1700. What you see on this map is all that's left. I'm sorry."

It was to be the only time I ever saw the princess weep.