Resistance in Roussillon

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Karelija Comes of Age

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Karelija Šviečiantys regularly braided her long, mousey-brown hair. It was a meditation ritual. She braided it in a spiral shape — closely resembling the archetypal pattern of DNA — but with a personal extra-dimensional twist every time. This should not be a surprise, for she came into this world not only with revolution built into her DNA but she defied all standard genetic encoding in her life and comportment.

She was born to Lithuanian parents who had been part of the resistance movement there against the Soviet Union. As part of an extended family line of resistance actioneers, they had already previously resisted and — with the exception of a pregnant aunt — survived the Nazi occupation, which ended in 1944. But conditions for dissidents under Soviet rule after the Second World War were just as bad, if not worse, than they were under the Nazis. Her own family bore witness to that.

Karelija’s grandmother on her father’s side had disappeared after a “3 o’clock knock” from unknown visitors (assumed to be secret police) in the early hours one day in 1948. The grandfather had been out of the village at the time and he returned to find an open door and an empty house. There was a note on the table from a neighbour with the bare words: “Nebuvo trankyti. Žemyna nuėjo. Negalima ieškoti jos. Jie paliko atviras duris.” (“There was a knock. Žemyna is gone. Don’t look for her. They left the door open”). Two of her uncles and aunts as well as her three remaining grandparents had been detained by the KGB and deported to Siberia in 1950. There were fewer and fewer partisans left in the country and, in 1952, Karelija’s parents fled to Strasbourg in France on an extremely hazardous week-long journey via Poland, Germany and Belgium with just two suitcases (one containing a great deal of amber) and the clothes they were wearing. Initially, they received assistance from a local elderly philanthropist — a contact called Angélique Baudouin, given to them by a family friend who had already made the journey — who had made it her business to assist refugees to France from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. She had been married to one of the Alsatian “Malgré-Nous” who were forcibly conscripted into the German army and sent off to fight on the Eastern Front. Her husband was one of the few who survived the war but afterwards, when he was released by the Soviet authorities, he was sent to Algeria and subsequently killed in the Free French Forces. His wife vowed that she would never marry again but would devote herself to the service of others. During the three months they were with her, she taught them enough French to get by in the country. Then, with Angélique’s help, they moved south to Roussillon in Provence.

The choice of Roussillon was deliberate. It was right in the middle of what had been a hotbed of French resistance to the occupying German forces in the Second World War — a quality which both mother and father greatly admired. To be surrounded by such people would make them feel at home. Roussillon had managed to keep itself relatively unscathed from the destruction which the Germans had meted out to many of the other surrounding towns and villages, such as Gordes, which had, in greater part, been explosively levelled to the ground by the Germans after it was discovered to be a maqui stronghold.

There had been some connection in the past between the Šviečiantis family and the town of Avignon, which was about thirty-five kilometres from Roussillon. A distant relative had emigrated there in the early 1930s. But most of all, Ponas Tvirtas Šviečiantys had been deeply attracted to the ochre which is found in the Roussillon area. He had been told that after the war there were many houses left unoccupied in various states of repair around Roussillon, of which one could take possession and live in freely with no questions asked. While lying in bed each night, he pictured himself and his family in one of those houses, preferably coloured with the characteristic local ochre daub. Tvirtas loved ochre daub. One night, when he was almost asleep, it came to him with a great start as to why he was attracted to ochre. The last time he had seen his beloved mother, that was the colour of the gathered skirt she had been wearing. The sight of her came dancing into his mind and he was smitten with loss and grief. Dovilë Šviečiantys became aware of his sobs in the bed and she held his hand. He clutched it tightly. No words were said. Such was the way in the Šviečiantys household. Needs were met with the minimum of fuss and with no need for further questions.

When they arrived in Roussillon the local people were very welcoming, as has customarily been noticed by all travellers there, including the English writer and French resistance fighter, Samuel Becket, who was in hiding there from November 1942 until April 1945 with his girlfriend Suzanne, after betrayal in Paris, while they stored armaments for the maqui and essentially sabotaged the entire German presence in Vaucluse. There, the Šviečiantys family found their ochre-daubed house and began to establish themselves in the area. Subsequently, Tvirtas continued his trade as a specialist jeweller, making his work out of amber set in silver and gold. They turned the house into a Svečių namai (guesthouse), which Dovilë oversaw with diligence and zeal.

When Karelija was born ten years later, her mother took one look at her and wept with astonishment; for her eyes were darker and deeper than any she had ever seen. In her post-birth ecstasy she even wondered if her daughter was from another world (which indeed she was, as we will later discover). She already had a full head of hair and — being able to raise her head a little right after birth — seemed to look quizzically around her at objects within reach of her gaze.

“Jus esate keista!” (“You’re a strange one!”), said her mother at the first sight of her, in an almost religious tone. Though the child would prove to be more than a handful for her bewildered parents, as we shall see, she loved Karelija so fervently that she wondered if it might swallow her completely. And so it did. For Dovilë had given birth to no ordinary girl. At thirteen months old, Karelija asked her mother one day in perfect Lithuanian: “Kas aš esu?” (“Who am I?”). Stunned, she simply stared at her daughter (who stared back earnestly) and replied “Tu esi mano numyletinis” (“You’re my darling”). Mother and daughter continued to gaze into each other’s eyes for some minutes. When Dovilë spoke to her husband about it later, she told him that it felt as if her daughter’s mind was burning its way into her. Forty-two years later, when Nathan Delver asked Dovilë to speak about Karelija (for when she wasn’t with him, Nathan loved to have her rolling around in his brain through conversing about her), the mother had said, in English:

“She lasered her way into me from the moment she was born and then lasered her way everywhere and into everyone else”.

“Including me,” replied Nathan.

From the beginning of her life, Karelija loved to stand things on their heads and turn them inside out, upside-down and every which way. So, in summer she would wear winter clothing and vice versa in winter. At three years old she would run out into the snow naked and roll around in it, whooping with delight. On a family outing when she was ten, she astonished her parents by diving without warning into L’Imergue from a ten-metre-high promontory, then swimming downstream in the foaming water. After a police search had been initiated, she surprised Tvirtas and Dovilë by appearing two hours later in the same spot from which she had dived. She was irrepressible. On one occasion when she was eleven years of age, her father found her standing on the gutter at the edge of the roof of the house in a rainstorm with her arms outstretched. When he scolded her to get back, she said “I can’t, papa. I’m practising”. He had no clue what she meant at the time. Years later, though, she told him what she had meant. She was using challenging exercises to overcome fear, which even at eleven she recognised as being an impediment to her full humanity. When her father told Nathan about the roof-event when he married his daughter, he went to Karelija and said “Were you afraid when you balanced on that roof when you were a kid?” to which, after a pause, she replied: “No. But I had to find out somehow”. In that moment, Nathan knew he was marrying the right woman. Her mother said it was as if she had been born with the mind of an adult who had to contend with the inconvenience of a child’s physical limitations. Her mother used to say: “She never cried; not once in her whole childhood, except when she saw a woman with a dead baby begging in the street”. That is, until one day when she told the child psychologist at the school the same thing after the teachers had expressed concern about Karelija’s behaviour. The psychologist had been taking copious notes until that point. But on hearing this he stopped and looked over at the girl as if she was demon-possessed. From that time on, Dovilë never told another soul.

When she was seventeen, Karelija approached her parents one winter’s evening, in just her underwear, with an earnest and serious look on her face. Despite the fire, they were both wrapped up in layers of clothing and blankets on their laps. Winters were cold in the Luberon and the locals said of the bitter January wind there that “it could blow the ears off a donkey”. As she stood there with her hands clasped in front of her, Tvirtas put down his book and pushed his glasses higher up his nose. Dovilë put down her embroidery. The girl stood before them with tears in her eyes and began to speak.

“My dear mama and papa, the time will soon come when I will have to leave you. I have no choice in this. I love you both very dearly but there’s work for me to do”. She said it in such a manner that if you had closed your eyes and listened to her voice you would have thought it to be that of a grown woman in the prime of her life rather than a girl who was only a teenager.

Strangely, Tvirtas and Dovilë were not surprised by their daughter’s statement. They had known it would come someday. They just hadn’t expected it so soon. She had often spoken to them about the impressions she had received “somewhere deep inside me”, as she had put it, which came in the shape of a woman’s voice, advising her and preparing her for her destiny. But they were not yet ready to let her go. “Mano numyletinis, you’re only seventeen. How can you go out into that world now? It will swallow you up.”

“Oh mama, I understand how you feel. But you have to trust this. When I first heard her I thought it was a dream, that I was imagining things. You know that. We talked about it so many times. But truth can open your eyes to layers behind layers and I know this is real — well, as real as it can be in this picture space of patterned dreams,” she said with an almost undetectable snigger escaping from her mouth.

At those words, tears appeared in Tvirtas’s eyes. “My daughter, the poet!” Even though he was quite taciturn, Tvirtas loved words almost as much as he loved his daughter. He saw them as more than letters on a page or uttered parts of speech. He had once secretly started writing a piece entitled “The Supernatural Source of Language” in French but gave up after a few months when he realised it would never be finished.

Karelija continued. “Last night, for the first time, she told me her name. I’d never asked for it. I assumed that she didn’t have one. I didn’t know they did that there, wherever she is. But last night something changed. I could say there was a strange light in the room but it was more than that. There was some kind of vortex swirling up around and inside me. I really thought I was going to die, to leave this world. I’ve felt death close to me lately, even though I have my whole life ahead of me. Then I realised that those two things don’t exclude each other. There is no death. There’s only transition and that’s happening the whole time all around us and across the universe.” She said that while waving her arms around madly like a drunken windmill. “Now it’s time for me to transition from my life at home with my wonderful parents”.

She paused.

“Her name is Livinia. She showed herself to me. She looked like a Roman goddess. Well that’s how it seemed to me. I felt drunk on her beauty. I was so excited that I wanted to come and tell you right there and then. But it was 3am. She’s in some kind of parallel world, just as I’d always thought; and it overlaps with Earth in some way that I haven’t yet fathomed. She said to me: ‘You will soon be eighteen. I want you to go to Lyon. There are people for you to meet there and I have work for you to do.’”

“Mama and papa, I’ve waited for this my whole life.” She said “my whole life” as if she was a septuagenarian rather than seventeen. “She said all I have to do is arrive at Lyon Part-Dieu train station on Saturday at 3.37pm and I will be met on the platform by a woman called Salome.”

Her mother then expressed a sigh of submission and her father immediately said: “I will go on the train with you”.

Tvirtas had never owned a car in his life. For local travel he rode on a large mule. If he had to travel further afield, such as to Avignon on business, he would ride by mule to Apt, tether the animal in a friend’s garden and take the bus or train from there. Although he didn’t show his feelings very often, he was now overwhelmed at the prospect of the house being without the one he called “Mano mažasis skiedra šviesos” (“my little sliver of light”).

“I always knew you would be something special — someone leading the way. You’ve taught me and your mother so much. You’ve always been my maqui girl in the making, Karelija.”

“Yes, papa, you can see it like that. For in a way it is resistance. I know you had to do what you had to do but I will never use bombs and bullets along my way. Truth and light are much more powerful than anything made by human hands. They are the ultimate weapons of the future.”

Her parents had seen her in action many times using only those weapons. In school she would defuse arguments and fights, deflate bullies, even teach overinflated teachers a lesson or two. She never joined a peer group. She had always kept her own counsel and had never run with the pack. She never sought to be a people-pleaser; she only wanted to be a delight to the angels. She followed no fashion, never listened to pop music, though she had a small record collection of classical and jazz music which she would miss when she went to Lyon.

“You do realise we are going to change the world?” said Karelija.

She paused after posing that last question. In a sense it was rhetorical; but Dovilë answered it anyway. “I know you are and I know you will. I knew this day would come. I wish she would speak to me. Why doesn’t she speak to me — to your father and me?”

“She does, mama. She does it through me. And you have been my keepers and guardians until now. You will be watched over and protected, as will I. You’ll see. You know what is coming on this world. We have to be ready and we have to prepare others. This is our calling. It is all a wonder and so beautiful when I think about how we have unfolded over the years between the old country and here.”

Standing before her parents in her underwear, with her neatly-braided hair, in the evening winter light, most of which came from the fire in the huge hearth behind her, Karelija Šviečiantys cut a strange silhouetted figure, glowing inwardly and outwardly in an ocre-coloured house in Roussillon. Her life was about to change in ways beyond anyone else’s imagining — but not beyond hers.

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© Alan Morrison, 2016

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