There’s no escaping the bath ladies. They come out at night in our small village and limp to my tiny house on Naujoji Street. They knock and I go to open the door. It’s the custom to let everyone in. I’m in northern Lithuania, near the edge of a pine forest with roaming stallions that bite. I left New Jersey to live here.
I am polite. The ladies are one hundred years old. I offer them coffee, not tea. They bring a paper bag. I recognize the bag. I’d thrown it out. At midnight the two search through my trash bin. They love a broken thermos I tossed in there for them. It’s our routine. And tonight, even though it’s winter, one of the ladies is wearing my old Jersey Shore T-shirt.
This was my parents’ home, in Žagarė. Now the house is mine. The sofa is ancient, velvet, dusty; the floor is packed dirt. The ladies sit down. My dog sleeps.
“Did you try the herbs?” one asks, the Jersey Shore lady.
Their eyes are cobalt blue, like mine, like everyone in town. We inherited them from the sea. Ice waves churn out amber, and eyes as well.
The ladies are probably distant relatives. Both are tall, like me, both blond, not gray. One has long braids that look like serpents in the dim house.
“Dar ne,” I apologize. Not yet. Obviously not yet.
“Močiutė,” I begin, even though she’s not my grandmother. I call them both Močiutė, a sign of respect.
“Not tonight,” I tell her in Lithuanian. But of course, she will know when I do. They were conjoined twins when they were born, and it’s said their mother used a tree ax to cut them apart. Once separated, they took on a form of Dievas. People have turned into gods before. It happens.
They watch me while drinking their coffee. “We will be back and we will help you,” one tells me. Even though I can’t hear her voice, I know she speaks. Their faces are blank, like those clear masks robbers use.
They give me the bag. Inside I see mostly dried chamomile, our country’s tonic, our lifeline. We are a nervous people.
I’d have to prepare a bath in the tub, which is outside in the snow like a sarcophagus. The ladies offer to clean the tub for me. They offer to boil the water and carry buckets to the bath.
“Not tonight,” I tell them.
“Tomorrow,” one says. They finish their coffee on the dark red sofa of dust, of fabric that held so many of those who were waiting. Waiting for soldiers with bayonets. Waiting to die. Waiting to be dragged by their hair into the street, past the coffin shop, church, café, and into the forest, the clearing where they were shot. Now there’s a monument over the bodies. My grandmother is there in the blood ground.
I don’t fit in the tub. My ancestors were shorter. The sun is setting over the distant field. A sacred pear tree grows between the tub and the house. In the summer this is good shade, but now the branches above me are creepy, a sudden wind moving them slightly.
I carry the hot water buckets myself, making a path in the snow, my dog following me back and forth from the stove inside the house.
Beneath the pear tree, I undress. I leave my clothes in a heap knowing the bath ladies will take them, make pillows from my sweater and pants, because I’ve been strong, death does that, grief chews your flesh. Chomp. What remains is who you were when you went through it.
The ladies will be here soon. It gets dark quickly in this frozen land. I’ve missed so many things while living here, mostly TV, shows like 90 Day Fiancé and Law & Order. This is a good place to end up.
Knees-to-chest, I slink down. My blond hair floats next to me, bizarre and alive. I reach for the paper bag waiting in the snow and pour things into the water: rose petals, chamomile, bits of raw amber, human hair, his hair, a clump of it tangled with black burnt flecks from the fire. The hair was found where the accident happened, stuck in a row of bushes on the side of the road.
I smell sage, the Siberian kind that grows here and survives winter. My dog is busy putting his nose in the empty bag, moving it around in the snow.
I wonder how I got so tall. I hear my father: “You’re useless. You should have played basketball.” I hear my mother, who was a tall nurse, telling me my biggest problem was falling in love with a man who drinks. I hear my lover say, “You are perfect.”
My dog has curled up on my clothes. I sink farther down into the water. I’m suspended in the land of blood, ice, sea, snow so deep it turns blue in the night.
When you soak in bone, ash, hair, petals, herbs, the important thing is the amber. This is what heals the heart. Then you can sink down deep. Hold your breath. Go under. Above me, canine eyes are glistening yellow like pears in spring. The gods reach—the women will come expecting this. Potions are like that. Everywhere things grow, die, light, dark, love burns up. We are there, then not.
My mother says, “Stop, we are now people of science. Look at my nurse’s shoes, I’ve walked thousands of miles.”
My father doesn’t talk. He’s still mad about basketball.
My lover talks as he did when drunk, making sense. Even underwater I hear them all.
DS Sulaitis is the recipient of three New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, in both fiction and creative nonfiction, and a recipient of a fiction grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short stories have appeared several times in the Boston Review, once as the winner of their fiction contest, in addition to other literary magazines. She is completing a memoir and a book of short stories as well as working on a novel.