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Jurgis Kunčinas ~ Minstrels in Maxi Overcoats

Jurgio Kunčino story - in Russian RU

The Minstrels in Maxi Overcoats

Translated by MICHAEL CHUSID

    Songs for a Viola d'Amore from Vilnius's Užupis Region from the Eighth Decade of the 20th Century

    The rusty red cliff above the Vilnele, a broad brook which flows into the Neris in the centre of Vilnius, can be seen from afar. Would you care to go there? All you have to do is cross the wooden bridge after passing the endless open-air tennis courts and then take a turn to the right across an almost inconspicuous prominence of the river bank, where once a wooden pavilion decayed, long and stubbornly, with its hand-carved windows and strange-spired tower. The reddish precipice is no longer far off - soon you will stumble over its magnitude, suddenly halting as if transfixed at a round table with seven throne-like chairs, placed there, as it were, for the convenience of the weary.

Jurgis Kunčinas: picture

    Here, you will awake your new cohorts - seven minstrels in maxi-coats, crashed in the grass in a heavy drunken stupor. Have them take their s eats properly and brace them on their firm thrones. Are you comfortable, dear debauchees? They do not blink but sit frozen and wordless like the mute wax figures in Madame Whatever's Museum. They stare with open gaze but are asleep. My friends, the minstrels. Who knows, maybe someday at least one of them will actually gaze at our descendants from the pantheon of the Lithuanian National Wax Figure Museum. The minstrels in maxi-coats. Tired Vilnius troubadours. Old-Town bards. Hussars of the Belmont stables and Cossacks of the Vilnelė. Fall of 1978. They are being sought by the police. They are taking a breather in a holding cell. No one, it seems, rests more than they do. Depoliticized, degraded, desperate, delyricised and deported from all of the city's taverns, snack bars, beer bars, bistros, train stations and station stop-ins, they will rest here, on the banks of the Vilnelė, en route to the Red Cliff, not far from Kasparas Bekešas Hill, on the way to sunny Užupis - the far side of the Vilnelė: our town's pride-and-joy, our Sorrento and our Athens!
    They sit there, just as I have had them seated. Frozen in the most uncomfortable poses. Without stirring. And around them, in the growing and sadly smelling grass, are lying at rest their violas d'amore and violas da gamba (imaginary, of course), leaning against the trunks of trees. Imaginary as well, are the note-covered sheets of music on the wooden table and chairs. Pentagons of dead spiders and flies, fallen into the spiderwebs. Only the wine bottles are authentic - green, colorless and brown - all lying in a neat little circle around the musicians. The seven minstrels are sleeping. All are wearing black hats and white scarves. All are in black maxicoats. Asleep. It is doubtful whether they still remember the fairytale about Eglantine. The wasps of September, which have crawled into the bottles, are licking up with their invisible tongues and suction tubes the last drops of the Agdam, the Rosu de Desert and the Bile Micne. They fall intoxicated on their backs, their legs trembling in the air, and fall asleep as well.

    It is peaceful here and solemn! One only hears the continual cawing of a sated September crow. Oh, blessed time of dreams and fantasies! And in the clouds, along with the swallows, gallop synthetic, polyester White Steeds. From time to time they neigh and snort, and one of the minstrels flinches as if shocked by electricity. But he again settles back into sleep. A September siesta. But who is that over there? Look, people!
    Accompanied by two strapping policemen, a grey-haired Christopher is fording the waves of the Vilnelė with a foundling from the orphanage on his shoulders - in the lack-lustre sunlight, their golden halos are hardly shining. Now, these halos look like the flaming hoops through which lovely Bengal tigers leap in itinerant circuses - now, their lairs are no longer in the jungles or in the bamboo undergrowth but under a circus tent, stinking of rotting carrion and excrement.
    Christopher is fording the brook. The policemen curse, stumbling over stones, but such is their fate and duty: to accompany the fording saint - back and forth, back and forth! A whole eternity passes before they are relieved by a new shift.
    The minstrels in maxi-coats sleep, though it is not yet winter. They sleep in their black coats, black hats, black boots and white scarves. Their foreheads gleam, while their cheeks are of a borsch-red color. Their fingers are yellowish like parchment, and their finger joints crackle like the leaves of a dry autumn. They appear sad, romantic and solemn as at the end of the 18th century, though they themselves, of course, have no inkling about this. Their white knuckles shine, and the sinuous rivers of their veins are bluish. But not all their blood is blue - perhaps only half, if that much. But the minstrels don't bother their heads about these niceties. They are asleep.
    Christopher, meanwhile, is on his way back across the stream with the foundling on his shoulders. A pine staff trembles in his gigantic hand, and the empty holsters of the policemen dangle at their sides. It is already getting slightly darker. Very slightly...
    Just like at the end of the 18th century. It's sad, but that's the way it is. Yesterday evening I was still smiling. At the markethall, as the Poles say, in the vegetable section, a nimble lad asked one of the minstrels: "Uncle, wanna buy a bunch of carrots?" "Of course," the declasse bard cried out. "I'll buy it! We'll go off to Bekešas Hill to chomp on orange carrots and drink violet wine, my boy! Let's have your carrots!" "Here you go!" said the pleasant market waif, hurrying to catch up with the black coat. "Who is Bekešas?" "Kasparas Bekešas. "The vagabond poked his long red finger in the air. "Kasparas Bekešas was a Hungarian warlord who led the Lithuanian army against Moscow! That's all!" And humming a fatal romance and sticking his hands and carrots in the bottomless wide pockets of his coat, he joined his waiting friends to wander off to Skruzdeda Ravine, not far from Red Cliff. And over the pavement of the markethall, striped watermelons trundled, rumbling and splattering the reddish softness of their bellies, while the lad looked longingly after the minstrel-that was a genuine uncle! I can hear it as if now: a banal romance, but fatal. The melody? Well, let's call it moving. Listen for yourself:

        A gypsy wandered through the world, roving across wide fields
        was of beauty unheard -he had a herd of children superb!

    A herd of children superb, not bad! And today, I see my buddies leaning back in their dark oak chairs with their hats pulled over their eyes, or vice versa - with their wide-brimmed hats crushed under the backs of their heads - and 1 feast my eyes on'these enchanting dear madcaps which nobody needs! Such a September! And they're sleeping as if made of wax. Here and there lie the stubs of orange carrots with their green tails still on. And the reddish cliffs next to Bekešas hill in the background. Light grey puffs of smoke drift over from Skruzdeda Ravine. The smell of withering honeysuckle. Crows, angels, White Steeds. The indefatigable Christopher. Autumn, autumn... "I'm doing fine somehow -why, I don't know." Also from a romance. A poster in a window: "Have you gotten inoculated against Romances yet?"
    Once again having waded across the Vilnelė, Christopher and his foundling are taking a rest in preparation for a new crossing. But the two policemen, already squirming in their soaked uniform pants, are cursing angrily over their drenched cigarettes and announce: "That was the last time, you ragamuffin! Our shift is over, old man! That's it for today! If you want to, go wading by yourself!" And, spitting, they hurry off to the endless open-air tennis courts. Should they pick up stray balls? No! Their business is public order and making sure the citizens stay calm. A true respite after the shift with Christopher! Well, maybe they'll even toss some ball back to a tennis player, allowing themselves by way of reward to gaze impudently at her chocolate thighs under her white skirt. The police officers take no affront at the minstrels, if they even see them - they are not in their zone, and besides, they are sleeping so peacefully! The valiant seven. The seven samurais. The seven against Thebes. Seven in one blow... The seven minstrels in maxi-coats! Maxi, maxi, down to their very heels...
    What can I say? Adieu, my sleepy buddies - spongers, homeless products of a developed society, with incomplete high school and even higher diplomas. Adieu, sensitive-souled musicians - I'm off to sunny Užupis! That's where I was planning to go anyway: my beloved is awaiting me there. Off to the Independent Republic of Užupis! Our Sorrento, Athens, our Monterey, Toremolina and Pamplona! Let me step across the border - the Vilnelė. Adios! Vale! Let me just take a little drink from the spring, sprouting on the shore of the brook. So my throat doesn't get dry.
    I hike up the steep trail and glance back half-way up. Down below, Christopher is still commuting from shore to shore, God bless him. On the far bank, a rusty-colored wooden moviehouse can be seen - there, films are shown until the first frosts of winter, when moviegoers begin exhaling steam. Squeamish moviegoers of today.
This is just a typical Wehrmacht movie theatre - the Wochenschau review of the events of the week used to be shown here. Marches and speeches by the Fuehrer. This theatre is now in the final stages of being consumed by fungi and sawed away by bark beetles. But it is still standing, looking rusty and even playing something or other. But I, step by step, continue to climb the steep ravine, my soles sliding on the slippery clay and mud and on the wet leaves. Beyond the hill is Užupis. Today, it is altogether not sunny, however my Beloved - the light of my eyes - lives here. My gnus antelope. My hip-eater, my Dorothea and Laura!

    Once again, I look back at the golden valley. What are those black spots down there? I rub my eyes: way at the foot of the ravine all of the seven minstrels have begun moving in my direction. The seven maxi-coats, awakened from their sleep, are approaching in an orderly file. They trample, stagger, but carefully maintain their distances. They are carrying apparently their imaginary instruments, their music stands and sheet music, and the last two are even lugging bags with the empty bottles of Rosu de Desert and Bile Micne. Why not? In Užupis, a place is still open where they can collect the deposits on the bottles! They approach me - slowly but steadily. I can already clearly discern their violas d'amore and violas da gamba, and I can already hear the squishing of liquid mud under their poor feet - the angels and steeds have scattered in all directions, so striking is the slow pace of their autumnal traffic. Now, the minstrels have begun the ascent of the hill itself - the path here is not only steep, but forked, tortuous and slippery. How will they be able to force up the hill their tired, swollen bodies, bearing their drunken instruments and notes, jumping off the pages? Yes, they're jumping like little flags or cheerful little frogs! I suppose the minstrels haven't woken up yet properly - they are pacing like lunatics, like Breugel's blindmen. They utter no words and are not singing - they are just stepping along. But I know - minstrels are a proud lot. They will not allow me to grab them by the nape of the neck and haul them up to the summit one by one. They have to do it themselves, slopping through the mud. This is the very first arbalest shot on my part - now they're even closer. Aha, now the kings of sleep are perking up! I can see how their gleaming lips are moving - what is that they're murmuring? The minstrels' recitative remains unheard. What is it they've struck up? Maybe "Oh, you green burdock"? An unpretentious, lovely little song. But no. Most likely, they are re hearsing at half-volume "When the gladiators come marching in." Then they can strut into the Užupis dog market and strike it up at an ear-splitting pitch! A march to end all marches. Gladiators? Perhaps. But now they're just a camel's spit away from me, though nothing can be seen! Aha, now they're singing that sad song, "How persuasively the song echoes over the fields"! A song for real men. How much leeway there is here for a dramatic tenor! 1 still can hear the second line: "The wind will carry the echo into our homes!" Frankas' song. The song of Frankas Kaributas von Tarvydas. My old buddy Frankas loved to sing this melody and, forgetting the words or actually falling short of them, would sing it compressing his lips together, in the so-called mormorando manner. Hearing his luxuriant soft voice, the palms and loins of our ladies of those years - freckled philologists in cotton print skirts - would grow moist. "When will the two of us meet again?" That was the French student Frankas from the Trakai region - 100 kilograms in weight and 191 centimeters in height. "The wind will carry the echo into our homes!" However, my minstrels had no idea who Kaributas von Tarvydas was - they were singing on their own and were already ascending into Užupis, where urgent issues of love are awaiting me as well. Affairs that can't be put off. What does one say on these occasions? Either/or. To be or not to be. O God! How would it be if 1 were to bring them along on a serenade under Dorothy Laura's window? Excellent! But will she like these foulmouthed troubadours, these Don Juans, these winos, these ex-Komsomol activists, these little monsters? My minstrels in maxi-coats? Why shouldn't she? She'll like them. She should like them. Doesn't she like mediocre cognac, secession-period carpets, carbide lamps, copper pots and tea kettles with holes in them, bark bettle-holed oval frames, faded oleographs and other precious excavated items? She likes them plenty! That's why she'll like this band draped in maxi-coats. Right?
    Right! Now they've taken a little pause, laying down their valuable luggage, and the rear guard plops their bags of wine bottles on the ground, clinking the empty bottles in a true carillon of love...

    And now, as if on a pilgrimage, they are kneeling down next to a spring and greedily drinking the pure icy water. If only this balsam is not deleterious! Perhaps one of them even says a little prayer. Mormorandum. Or maybe even aloud. In impeccable well-articulated Latin. Let's say, with a Tuscan dialect. Or perhaps they are only wetting their parched throats, moistening their lips and palates? It's not been all that long now since they last drank wine. Seven minstrels and twenty-one bottles of Moldavian Rosu de desert. Eighteen percent alcohol (not degrees Celsius, of course). Sugar-only 6 percent. A classic! Classical minstrel rotgut for one rubble, 22 kopecks. Three bottles each. My buddies, the minstrels. The confessors of Saint Christopher, devotees of Bacchus. Low life, pseudoposthippies, tramps persecuted in the name of the law. Dregs of society! Munchers of carrots with dirt under their fingernails. Hm, do they even know how to pray? Even one little prayer? I lightly doubtful! Does even one of them believe in the Resurrectio Domini? Or ever held in his hand not a wine goblet or Soviet polyhedron glass but, say, a Biblium Pauperum? No. Never. These are only empty, rhetorical questions and that's all. Oh, these minstrels! Apolitical habitues of dens of iniquity. Indifferent pacifists. Herzogs and Markgrafs of empty bottles, if you like. And it's clear - they don't have any violas. They only imagine they have, they only pretend to play. Instead one of them actually does have a harmonica. Another has a metal tooth-comb. A third has a comb, as well, but it's plastic and several teeth are broken off. If, when playing this instrument, the teeth vibrate on the same frequency, an almost unique sound can be heard which bears a resemblance to peristaltic movements. True, a fourth minstrel is carrying a four-stringed guitar - it had had six strings but one was being employed by the musician to hold up his trousers and another had been used to suspend a kettle over a campfire. Shall we call this instrument a sitar? Before kneeling down at the well, each minstrel solemnly removed his hat, and to me -standing by the second wind-fallen tree half-way along the trail - it seemed 1 was observing a rare ritual: the hung-over minstrels were drinking spring water! Drinking from the very same spring which had perhaps quenched the thirst of Herzog Kynstutes, as the Teutons called him, and later Steponas and Kasparas Bekešas. And who else had drunken from this spring? Oh, an hour must be called an hour! Monks, tramps, sluts, soldiers and generals... everybody!
    Now they've drunken their fill. They've once again donned their black head gear, wiped their mouths with their black sleeves, drying their young faces, tired from life's rhythms and melodies, and bent down to pick up their instruments, though only the bags with empty bottles were real. Real is only this late September afternoon. Like the worn-out tires, the broken, rusty mattress springs and discarded perambulators peppering the banks of the Vilnelė - Christopher and his uniformed guardian angels kept all this at a distance. All of this is real like the voiceless gurgling of water.
    The true specters are the young ghosts, making their way to Užupis. The minstrels in maxi-coats. One has a nose, thick as the beak of a pelican - Hubertas Steponas Ega. I don't know any other of his names or patronymics. And this minstrel is a curly-headed youth, whose hair appears bluish, so black it is. A third looks a bit like Maximilian Schell in his younger years. Another looks like the Mona Lisa. The same smile. And so, I'll hire them!
    "Guys!" I emerge from behind the wind-fallen tree. "Gentlemen! Stop! Attention, please".
    They come to a halt in silence and look around. Their pupils expand and their ears' radar systems begin operating. They even appear to have heard something.

    "Uwaga!" I clap my hands. "Achtung! Attention! I'll buy you all two... no, three! Cases! Of beer!" They cluster around me - they are listening! "Wait a second!" I paused. "Not for nothing! The beer is in exchange for a favour - not for nothing! Listen, men, would you agree to sing for an hour under the windows of my beloved?"
     They exchange glances. They begin nodding. They take off their hats and, as if they were on a stage, begin bowing - to the weather. The senior minstrel says to me:
    "Our life is a song. A mournful, wrathful song, which squeezes out a niggardly manly tear. A song of the city, a song of the street -a minstrel's song. And you know, sir, we don't sing any pop."
    "Sure," I say. "Yes, yes, of course! Something between Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra. Between Enrico Caruso and Russian romances?"
    "Right!" the leader says. "So, shall we be on our way?"
    Promises must be kept - now I have to get a few cases of beer even if I have to dig them up from under the ground! What can you do? If you want to romp, romp!
    "Wait here, men!" I say. "I'll be right back!"
    Flying off to the Užupis grocery store, I sell for a song my silver spurs, my jewel-studded navy officer's medal and several old books... Hey, beer! I lug the cases back, waving to the minstrels, but where will we drink it now?
    "Not again under the skies of Andalusia?" quizzically inquired one pimpled minstrel, panting from exhaustion.
    For it was clearly preparing to rain - is this anything novel in our latitudes? Before our very eyes it was growing ever gloomier, and I began conjuring up what we would do next: how about crashing in on the master of Užupis - the golden-haired, red-bearded lithographer Herbertas von Steinas? He must be toiling away right near by - in the wheelwright's workshop, next to the "Apotheca"! He would understand, be overjoyed and show us hospitality! Of course, the Maestro is completing work right now on a major cycle of engravings, devoted to the theme of Don Quixote. I'll finish up, the Maestro told me the other day, and be off on that very evening to Iberia! Perhaps one of the minstrels could serve him as a model. Anything is possible.
    We lug the cases of beer to the wheelwright's workshop down a few steps into the cellar, and my benefactors cheerfully begin rehearsing:

        Can you recaaaall? The white bird-cherries were blooming!
        We were waaalking happily down the streams?

    That's fine. Just right. The intonation I need. All that remains is to await true twilight. Lyrical chansons. Combs and a guitar. Without any jokes.
    "Sing away, boys!" I shout. "I'll just take a look to see if the Maestro's in his bear-den. Keep an eye on the beer!"
    The Maestro is home! Catching my breath, I dash back up out into the courtyard to see the minstrels, standing in a broad semicircle with linked arms, humming on their combs and singing pathetically and sorrowfully

        Only the birds return again!
        Love will never return!

    "Great!" I approve. "But could we have something more upbeat?"
    They exchange meaningful glances, whisper under their breath to one another and begin:

        I rest under birches in the field of my homeland
        You asked me to wait under the birches,
        I recall... Grief has burst into bloom in my silver hair
        -Many wrinkles have been written in my cheeks by grief.

        Many summer herbs return to their motherland
        Oh, why can J not wait for you?
        Memories return with love and longing...
        Only you do not return under the birches...

    I stand frozen, looking at their black linked elbows. This, I think, will rejoice your fatal soul, my beloved! Come on, boys, more! Continue! They heave a simultaneous sigh and rearrange themselves a bit -Maximilian ends up standing in the middle and the griffon moves off to the wing to stand next to the pimply minstrel. They take a deep breath.

        When the blossoms of the orchids stop me suddenly
        I recall how we used to go a-strolling here so many years ago.

        Love returns to me again, though I know - with me, you 're through!
        Though many orchids have bloomed in this garden since you said to me: adieu!

    That's okay, too. Just exactly what I need! Oh, I know! No one would think that these are not minstrels or troubadours at all, but only an inebriated gang, bleating banal ditties. No, my dear readers! You have to hear this for yourself. And this would have to occur on a first golden and later drizzly September afternoon, when from the roof of a wheelwright's workshop sad drops of rain are dripping and when in front of the swaying, singing musicians three cases of amber beer are standing. That's all. But your song is beautiful to me without any commentaries, my dear half-corpses. A luxuriant, hearty bass, a pimply treble and Maximilian's tenor which successfully overcomes the pits of all modulations. And around them, all of the obligatory natural scenery - wet leaves, a courtyard paved with field stones, raised maxi-coat collars and rusty rain-gutters... In the background, which seems so close, we see Red Cliff and a balcony. There, the white arms of Dorothy Laura, my beloved, are becoming ever prettier -1 can already hear, it seems, her warm voice and the flutter of her eyelashes... Everything has come together so visibly: the black coats, the dramatic blood-chilling melody and the melancholic patter of rain in Užupis - this is unrepeatable! Is it a tear rolling down my cheek or a drop of rain? A benefit concert in the suburbs. I could kill myself from grief, but for that I would need a miserecordia, and that alas, is not on hand. But in the last analysis, everything's at the will of Užupis. One fine day, a hord of cinematographers, with the faces of geniuses and bookkeepers, will descend on this neighbourhood to dig up dregs, croaking cats, overgrown well-curbs and dagger-brandishing drunks, and they will find everything they're looking for! But they'll never hunt down these minstrels in maxi-coats, singing their songs which drive insane. Under the open sky, next to Kasparas Bekešas Hill, accompanied by a harmonica and two combs. Viola d'amore and viola da gamba. So who are they, anyway? What, have you forgotten already? Lyricists and delyricists. The national product. Peaceful citizens of Bangladesh. They are sought by the police. They'll die under a fence. Grimaces of the bourgeois world. Their mores. And here, through rusty but still living grass, a burst water-pipe is bubbling to the surface. Broken children's toys and old mattress stuffing are swimming in the puddle. Horrible! But the minstrels go on singing. Rain drips down their sunken cheeks, flowing in streamlets from the brims of their black hats and soaking into the thick fabric of their coats. There's cat or dog blood on the cobblestones, but they keep on singing. Now could there be anything more mournful or more majestic? Are you capable of grasping this, my beloved?
    Well, men, I say, that's enough! Let's go in, warm up and dry off and then get down under the balcony. I'll show you where it is, it's not far. By that time, we'll have the proper degree of twilight and the rain will have let up. So let's step on it!
    The minstrels walk in bobbing their heads, looking like wind-up toy men or mannequins - they have again strung themselves out in a row, concealing their violas and gambas behind the skirts of their coats, and descend the steps into the cellar. In the doorway is standing the smiling Herbertas von Steinas, crossing his talented arms across his fallen chest and arrayed in dark khaki jodhpurs and a roomy velvet jacket, with a silky scarf wound around his throat. This lithographer and recreational poet is also a former hop, step and jump champion and used to be a rugby goalie, not to mention pedagogical work in the field of alchemy. A boxpipe is smoking hospitably in his hand. This good-hearted man shows understanding and unqualified approval for just about everything! With a broad gesture, he waves the guests into the somewhat musty wheelwright's workshop, which now, at the sunset of the twentieth century, is restoring to life naive Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas. Hardly having entered the workshop, the minstrels, without much ceremony, each uncap a green bottle of beer and chug it down in one slug to the bottom. I feast my eyes on the way they down the beer! With their right leg thrown forward, they set their left hands on their hips above their broad belts - if it's not a piece of rope that's holding their pants up. Their heads are tilted back at an acute angle so that the foamy beverage flows evenly and incessantly. They take up the entire space in the workshop - from the door to the old gramophone. Quenching their thirst, they also assuage their hobo mournfulness. Now their beer bottles have been emptied. They carefully deposit their bottles in the red plastic case and take up seconds more calmly now... Again, they wipe their mouths. They then seat themselves on some kind of oak block. Unexpectedly, it turns out that this is a wooden monument for a graveyard. Herbertas von Steinas, in fact, was putting the final touches on it today... A pretty, cosy monument, pleasant to the eye! Wow! The minstrels cross their legs in unison, hanging their hats on the living monument, and begin to sing without being asked:

         I'm writing you for the last time!..
         Though I'm so woeful and sad...
         ... I still hear your dear voice!
         Why, oh why did you leave me???

         Do you remember? The white cherry trees were blooming, We were wandering along the happy riverside!
         Kissing me, you promised to love me, and the cherry trees strewed us with white blooms!

         Oh, how far away is that day and your love!
         And the feelings of that vow which deceived me!
         Do you remember?

    They sang seriously-without the slightest trace of irony! Deeply felt, serious, though their faces are like masks. Only their mouths are gaping, and throughout Herbertas' worshop the smell of sour wine and stale beer exudes. The stench, you say? Well, maybe some consider it a stench. I'm not ashamed to quote their dramatic texts - they cut into a loving heart, exite and awaken my living pain. The lithographer begins to puff on his pipe more frequently. Imperceptibly, his nose reddens from a cold, the smoke, fall and wine. Let's have some more, boys, he murmurs, more! And he uncorks two bottles of Czech sliwowitz - Palinka: 5 roubles, 50 kopecks, including the deposit on the empty bottle. Oh, Palinka! Blessed be they name. As soon as it appears, it unbuttons the minstrels' tongues - they begin whispering, tittering, talking among themselves... Apparently, the freckled minstrel is ready to strike up something not especially decent, but Mona Lisa forbids him: cut it out, don't you dare, debauchee! Texts, tweaking the heart ever more sharply... sentimental ones, but hardly ringing out under the arches, accompanied by a harmonica and a comb with a guitar, oh, how the heart vibrates!

         Oh, is it possible, just like mirages, like empty dreams,
         that my beautiful visions are vanishing, the heavy
         hour is near?
         I sense in the depths of my soul
         it is not fated for us to travel together.
         So stay... another short hour...
         I'm so fearful of hearing the word "Adieu"!
         And do not ask, why my woeful tears are rolling down!
         There are so many questions... so many in my heart!

    When they finally fell silent, still humming the refrain mormorando, full of fateful presentiments, I saw Herbertas Von burying his face on the marble table, clenching his fists pale white... sobbing without a sound... Why! Why does everyone always sob without sound? Tell me, why? The minstrels, somewhat disturbed, look at me - maybe something is wrong? Everything is all right, everything's fine! We'll be on our way soon, boys, take a little doze in the meanwhile. No, no, they are already snoozing on the log. Some benefactor has given them a nice back support and they are all sleeping nicely. Oh! Can they still succeed in getting the deposits on all their nice bottles? They can? Let's go! And: where do they sell that remarkable drink named Palinka? A drink for true troubadours and minstrels! Oh, right here, on the other side of the street? Wonderful!
    Yes, yes... wonderful! They're alkies, that's clear, scum, but, first and foremost, minstrels in maxi-coats, say what you like. After they've wet their lips with Palinka, how will they sing afterwards? No matter, no matter! The lithographer consoles me. Speaking horrible jargon, he explains to me in Polish: we have to wet our gullets! Let it be his way! A golden fellow, that lithographer!
    They return. They drink with taste and culture. They sing once again their beloved "Burdock". Then we're off. To sing under the balcony...
    "Me too! I'll come along too," the hop-skip-jump rugby goalie and lithographer cries. "Should I bring Katz along with us?"
    "Take him!" I reply. "Take anyone you like! The Palinka was speaking up - I as well had chugged down a good amount to be bolder, but it's all the same. By the way, Katz was a cat I had given to Herbertas. She had recently given birth to five striped kittens, though she herself was black as night. A curious creature! A little tiger, devouring only raw meat. Terribly passionate Katz! Oh, we are all a bit monstrous, says Herbertas Von, nodding his wise head.
    The minstrels rise from the wooden monument. The lapels of Mona Lisa and the freckled minstrel's leather coats squeak. They are the only ones with leather coats. Like Hitler and Mussolini. Those two, according to some sources, were also minstrels in maxi-coats! They squeak for all seven. Like foil. Like the tin wreathes on the graves of heroes. Like a rusty roof when the madcap Katz creeps across it. Or an unhappy two-legged unrequited lover. The steps thunder ominously as the minstrels leave the cellar. And their teeth flash white as lightning under the vault. Well, what do you want? The minstrels are off! They are again serious, collected and relatively sober. It's already dark outside.
    I remind you: it is September 1797. Dusk in Užupis. Herbertas Von, seven ministrels and I, the impresario in love. The seven against Thebes. The seven samurais and the invincible seven. Where is Jule Brenner?
    There! There, under a gable shines the red window of my beloved. I see her thin silhouette behind the drapes covering the slightly opened window. Quicker! A full bottle of Palinka rapidly makes the rounds - we can't make fools of ourselves! Are the violas tuned? The comb, the harmonica, the four-stringed guitar? Piano, piano, pianissimo! Herbertas Von and I move off a bit further under a broad maple under his rusty umbrella. I cannot say it any nicer!
    The first timid chord... the first lines of the text... It is a pleasure to look at how they are standing: shoulder to shoulder, coat rubbing coat. Even the brims of their hats line up in a straight row. Hands propped on their hips, their right legs set a bit forward. A classical pose. Three, four! Kukurukuuuu! My dove! Kukurukukuuu! This is like a signal shot. The window begins opening wider. How do you like this! Show yourself, listen, understand!

         Why does what is beautiful pass so quickly? Why! Do only black hours slink by so slowly?
         Fondle me again with soft caresses! Clasp me to your heart... and say adieu!

    Do you hear, Dorothea? Laura! The window is fully open, though the evening is chilly. It would be great if it would only stop raining. Oh, heaven! What do I see! There in the window is not only my beloved, sobbing with delight, but also my beloved's mother with tearful eyes, her teenage daughter and her girlfriend Lapateja, who unexpectedly turned up for a visit! Oho! There is the first husband of my beloved with my former second wife... Even my beloved's grandpa is peering out from behind the others' backs into the dark singing courtyard under the ruddy maple. I am certain that in everyone's eyes are twinkling the pure tears of honest people. The tears of my beloved and her daughter. The heartfelt tears of her mother. Lapateja's tears, as big as beans. The cheap tears of husband no. 1 and wife no. 2. Even in grandpa's wrinkles most likely sparkle transparent lacrimae droplets... These are my fine minstrels, these are real men!
    More, boys, more, you bums, put all your weight behind it! All of Užupis is listening to you: around the concertizers are a mass of folks. And they keep flooding in from all sides. The whole square from the dog market on is full. In the half-blind light of the lanterns I discern old Polish women, crack workers from the Sparta socks factory, repeat offenders recently from jail and green youths who were just there for the first time; I see high school pupils from P.S. 16 with their pedagogue, a stout German schoolmistress T; I see reserve Colonel Utiosov from Baltoji Lane and his mute spouse. Even ambulatory cancer patients from the oncological clinic are here on the square. And, of course, tipsy and red-faced, impolite ruffians from the beer kiosk - a semi-seasonal tanking spot. A true crowd has surged here to hear a concert, unique in this world! Why, the whole city has gathered! I see even choice theatre connoisseurs from the best restaurants, a two-meter-tall theatre critic, nicknamed the Hanged Man, a nearsighted jazzman Andre from Greenhouse Street, and there is the cosmopolitan world observer Kestutis Valantinas with his family! Since he's still not divorced, next to him, lyrically leaning against a tree trunk, is his beloved wife Kama and his beloved son Poma. Everyone's here, everybody!
    No, Herbertas von Steinas whispers to me quietly, no, I really didn't believe our hirelings would achieve such a smashing success! Oh, he's already saying "our". The hat of the freckled minstrel, placed as if unintentionally on the ground, fills up with coppers, rubbles, rupees, lyres, franks, East German marks, including several indecently green bills. He, the Lithographer, as if he had thought it all up himself, rubs his polygraphically dyed palms and murmurs: Fantastic! Colossal! And they, the minstrels, keep on singing and singing...
    Only I stand sad and despondent, looking at the illuminated window. Through the throng of people, their darkness and crush, 1 can hardly make out my beloved, and she doesn't notice me - over there she is waving to some swarthy fellow with a walrus moustache! Where is the justice? Where is the justice, tell me? I do my best and succeed in slightly infecting the crowd with high spirits - people are swaying from side to side with linked arms - even the multiple offenders! They are all now only brothers and sisters. Unite, you millions! I squeeze the hands of my buddy Valantinas, his dark Kama -1 even shake the paw of their lovely son Poma. I lift up in my arms the little Lukas Aleksandras so that the child can see, even if only from afar, the brown beard of the black minstrel and his mouth gaping in song...

         There behind the garden I will wait,
         No one will be able to find us,
         All of nature will sweetly hold its peace...
         Only the nightingale will twitter!
         Only pleasant memories will remain
         Of those silver nights...
         Of those charming moon-lit nights!

    One of the neighbours arrives carrying a little drum - a tambourine. A skinhead painter, renown for his brutality and uncontrollable jealousy (later, this vainglorious man attempted to reach the shores of Sweden wearing only a life jacket, but he was shot down by a Russian missile) was already tuning his horn, and on the first floor the little designer Morgenrot was so furiously pounding on her old Petroff piano that even Katz began yowling, delighted and beatific. Firecrackers were popping and smoke bombs reeking, when suddenly out of nowhere a large blue police van and two more smaller vans appeared - a fortified patrol! Arriving at the "scene of the incident". It's very epicentre. Out of the vans tumbled an avalanche of blue jackets with rubber billyclubs, but they had no chance to tame the merry mob. The people began treating the policemen to still warm sausages, beer, pickles and even jam! Without picking any flights, all three units roll off to the drinking dens on Paupis and Subacius Streets. But Užupis is foaming, buzzing, singing, embracing, as if it was not a gloomy fall day but a spring daybreak. Oh, my beloved, come here, fly quicker to me, I can't hold out any longer! She finally sees me! She's waving to me! To me! The people quickly spread a large piece of canvas, my beloved shuts her eyes, holds her nose, shrieks like a siren and jumps down! Her long flowered skirt balloons out - finally, all of Užupis catches a glimpse of Dorothea-Laura's superb legs, her ravishing thighs and her French lingerie! Applause, hurrahs, music! A leap, and she's on solid ground, she's floundering in my depths, but, freeing herself, shakes everyone's hands one after another, and - quick as lightning throws two pounds sterling in the hat, kisses the minstrels in maxicoats on their wet cheeks. Kisses Kama, Kestutis Valantinas, Herbertas Von... Then again running up to me, throws herself around my neck, crackling my seventh vertebra, but no matter! "My dear madcap," she cries - "I knew that one day you'd come up with some trick like this! I expected anything, but this! She again kisses me, kisses the slovenly beer-drinker standing next to me... everybody! Her family upstairs have long since thrown all their flowers out the window - even house-plants in flowerpots - to the musicians and singers! They carry out into the courtyard a huge bloated bottle with cloudy home-brewed wine - fiesta! Fiesta!
    The minstrels have long changed their rhythms - their songs are pleasant, lively, heating the blood red-hot. Couples are whirling in the courtyard: an old multiple offender is dancing with a beer saleswoman, the mailman is dancing with the stout German teacher... All are brothers today!
    But we - Dorothea-Laura, Kama and her family, the seven minstrels and I - descend into Herbertas von Steinas' cellar to have supper -don't we deserve it? The personnel of "Apotheca" are awaiting us with a unique omelette made of three hundred and four eggs, baked in their laboratory! The minstrels in maxi-coats mormorando strike up "The March of the Gladiators", uncapping immediately on arrival beer and Palinka and seating themselves in their already customary place on the wooden monument to drink. They drink, eat and sing. All at the same time. Only the songs are softer. "How softly rings out the song over the fields." My beloved seats herself comfortably on my vibrating knees. Am I happy? I either don't know or haven't got the time to think about that. Our host Herbertas has run up against some water obstacle and just can't manage to get into his bathroom. Can it really be that we sobbed in this very place, waiting for the beginning of the concert?
    The songs ring out ever more softly. Over the fields? Perhaps. Ever more empty bottles roll down the incline of the wheelwright's atelier's floor. Somewhere into an abyss. I no longer can see anything! Where are you, beloved little hen, who promised to lay a golden egg? You can't make an omelette out of it, but... oh! Where are you, where? Kukurukukuuuu!
    Only birds return, love will never come back again! The black hussars are singing just as in "Black Magic", a shrewd tale which I once read. A living painting! Here is a living painting: the minstrels frozen in various poses, Kama's family asleep in the corner, and Herbertas with his head on his arms on the gramophone. But me? Where am I? Swallows descending to earth, angels perched above the door. And the White Steeds, whinnying under the brown vault. Only Saint Christopher is most likely still fording the Vilnelė - back and forth. Have I fallen asleep? Yes, most likely I'm asleep, embracing that wooden monument - Requiscant in Pace!
    But where is my beloved, it would be interesting to know? Your beloved is in the embrace of that big-nosed minstrel, whispers a voice from the abyss to me - she's sick of me finally. Aha! I yawn - so that's how it is! Yes, truly, from under a canvas the big-nosed minstrel sticks out his nose, and then Dorothea - her fox-like mug smiles so joyfully, shining in happiness, that I spontaneously jump up and warmly kiss them both: be happy! Just be happy! Enough suffering! Don't spoil the holiday! The two silently drink a swig of beer and again crawl off under the green canvas, the same canvas which had been stretched out by the Užupis dwellers and onto which my beloved had plopped so daintily! Now she's the beloved of the big-nosed minstrel! It is he who first had the luck to feel her superb French lingerie and her silky thighs! That's fate: art is superior to all else. Vivat! I lift my goblet to the heavens!
    But all the same... Oh, minstrels! Why did I then raise you up and support you at your thrones on the banks of the Vilnelė! I could have gone minstrelling on my own... No! So many people were happy for at least one evening! Oh, it's good to change so sweetly and be so virtuous... Love and multiply!

    Twenty years, perhaps somewhat less, passed. One day, preparing for a short trip, 1 accidentally met my old beloved at the railroad station with her son. What an elegant youth! Tall and with a big nose. A black leather coat down to his very heels. With a black hat, of course, and a white scarf. Out of his pocket was protruding a viola d'amore. A genuine minstrel! A spitting image of that old big-nosed minstrel! Dorothea-Laura acquainted us. "Pranukas!" the youth introduced himself politely. And Dorothea said: "Why? Why didn't you ever return under my balcony! Why?"
    What could I possibly answer to such a silly rhetorical question? I only gave a shrug. As it was, I had very recently read a clever little article where it was written: "And if we look more closely, it turns out that we are all only jesters in this life. Even Hitler and Mussolini in a certain sense were only minstrels in maxi-coats. These two buddies together thought up..." And so forth. Hitler and Mussolini minstrels? Ah yes, I already mentioned this. Perhaps, maybe! No, I don't think this way, though... I took another glance at Pranukas. He smiled pleasantly but rather ambiguously. I bid them goodbye and took a turn through the tunnel onto track six. When I returned, Pranukas was playing a harmonica. I recognized the tune! "How softly rings out the song over the fields!" Do you remember? "The echo is carried by the wind into my home!" I answered in my thoughts. Frankas' song, but enough of that. The train began moving.

    Never again in my variegated life did I ever meet any minstrels. Neither in maxi-coats nor in leather jackets. That rainy but extraordinary colorful fall of 1979 retreats further and further into the past. The wheelwright's atelier has not yet collapsed. Herbertas von Steinas returned from Seville and Grenada long ago. Now he is baking and selling gingerbread cookies. The skinhead painter, as I mentioned, was shot down by Russians near Gotland Island, and Kestutis Valantinas, after his divorce from Kama, began writing a study about Kasparas Bekešas and his friends. He has already finished three pages!
    That September retreats into the past, but the more time that passes, the closer they are to me - minstrels in maxi-coats. Seven hopeless drunks, driven out of the town and out of life. They've flown off with the swallows and the White Steeds. Those seven against Thebes, no one can take them. Seven brothers of seven brides, those big noses! Minstrels! I can still see them now, kneeling to drink out of the spring. With gambas and violas. I wasn't thinking craftily: we were all for once minstrels! With maxis or minis. It's possible that even Hitler and Mussolini in their youth were minstrels once, why not?
    Last fall, I again passed the wooden bridge behind the endless open-air tennis courts. The little house jutting out into the water was long gone. The oak table surrounded by wooden thrones had also blackened. It was raining, still warm rain, transparent and odorless. Everything as it was back then. From its sandy earthen grave, the neck of a green bottle was protruding along the path. Carefully I lifted it up to my lips and blew into it softly! Softly, softly, somewhere in the heavens white steeds whinnied! Or maybe I was only hearing things... Most likely so! "Rosu de desert" I read on the faded label with a crane drowning in the skies. I blew into the bottle once again. "How softly the song rings out over the fields!" I heard. Swallows dip, flying low over the ground. Bekešas hill looms above with its still ruddy cliffs. On my stretched out arm lands a sweet little creature. An angel! - I began quivering, why, it's an angel! It stroked me and hugged my neck. Not the least bit frightened as if I was in a long black coat, black hat and a not very white by now scarf. On my other arm from the skies landed a green oar. "The wind carried the echo into the homes!"
    Rowing with the oar, sliding on the stones, making my way between old bed springs and perambulators, with an angel on my shoulder I ford the stream to the opposite bank. It seems to me now that I am still fording that stream.

    1985 г.

Frames from film of Minstrels in Maxi Overcoats
Pics from film of Minstrels in Maxi Overcoats"

Jurgis Kunčinas - Menestreliai maksi paltais - The modern Lithuanian literature - Minstrels in Maxi Overcoats - translations with Lithuanian - the Lithuanian literature in English

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