In a marshland forest, men have gathered a group of mothers and their young ones. Some of the mothers are pregnant. It is spring, and the mothers walk towards the pit burdened by the weight inside them, holding the hands of their little ones. The world is full of babies, the men say. One must be killed for another to eat, say the hunters to the mothers. The mothers are half-deer, half-bird, half-bear, yet half human, and the men are soldiers in a long and terrible war.
In Lithuania, a flatland marsh forest is the site of a former Russian aerodrome landing strip, a former Jewish cemetery whose headstones were used as building materials by the Soviets, and a series of pits where Nazis and Nazi-sympathizing Lithuanians murdered thousands of women, children and men from the neighboring cities and villages. The layers of human endeavor overlay a terrain that formerly was decimated by crusaders intent upon the Christianization of pagan Lithuania. The memorial to the massacre does not come at a surprise, for the terrain speaks of that level of pain. In the early spring afternoon, I felt layers of time folding over and over in the half-light, as the shapes and shadows in the woods suggested hunters and the hunted from across all time in that place.
PANEVEZYS FOREST 1941 / 1387
by Quintan Ana Wikswo
first published in New American Writing
The Nevėžis River
I have seen men hunting deer in the meadows, nearly under water.
In the spring, hungry, there is no choice sometimes but to bring down a doe.
That is what they say, as the world is full of babies. One baby must be killed for another to eat, say the hunters to the mothers.
In the meadows full of water, the men are up to it, up nearly to their thighs sometimes, as it is too difficult to tell where the river is to end, and earth is to begin. They take sudden tumbles. They step on boulders, and slip in the slick of it, and plunge down.
When they fall into the water, the dead doe they carry falls, too. The bodies plunge together in and out of the water. Thrashing, rended: fetal. A tumult of bone and fur and flesh dropping and rising, rippling the surface of the flood.
The meadow is a broken mirror pinked with blood.
The men come home gorgeous from the hunt – wrapped tight with wet leather, deep gouges sliced on their limbs, sinew popping out hard and high from the shock and strain. Seeming cleaner for it.
The Reichskommissariat Ostland
In the spring, the women are fattened with child. The women walk as though riding astride some thing that is not visible. As though they are mounted on a creature, and their weight bows the beast so the mothers’ swollen feet touch the earth. Burdened.
The new mothers slept hot through the winter. Warmed by a night sun. A winter moon who threw a greasy warmth only for them. Their hair heavy and fat and hot, lit with flakes of skin fallen off a self that is no longer them.
Under the women’s arms a black bear is crouched. A thick pelt of it that harbors lice and oil. They have rank glands under their arms, a bear gland that seems – fierceness. Muscled and slick matted. A place, under their arms, filled with stink and thatch and musk. Their rule seeps from this place, and turns to iron. It reeks of blood.
Under their arms is a cave. A lair has been made – from far deep within the placental realm of it they send the men out for food. The bear under their arms is hungry and its claws are meant to dismember. The whiteness of its fangs refuses to be frightened.
It sets loose a scent that sends men running.
The women, recalling – with the surprise of distant time – their earlier days as birds, tuck their heads to bury their swollen pregnant faces down in the crease of new cave under their arms, rubbing themselves in an internal epiphany of dark mother must and snout.
Other men come with books in colors crushed by hands in distant lands – seeds and ox blood and pigments from the sea, brushes made of the whiskers of squirrels, the hairs of foxes, smeared on flayed hide. Punched and strung and lashed, then bound.
They bring an image of this thing they call a woman: wrapped neck-high, half-lumined, weakened in a shroud of a robe. Pale as spindled sap, doomed to some wasting disease.
She holds in her feeble arms a child, only visible a head. She holds feebly in her feeble arms the disembodied head of a god, whom she has barely birthed.
Listen, say the other men, how she was unknown by any man until taken by this god.
The women understand. This, then, is why she is so pale, so weak, so near death. Because the rape. Because the naked want of an unkind god. Because the violence, because the crime.
Because the grief.
Yes, despite this god she is alive yet, but barely. The women want to take her to the bear goddess, who can yet find justice for this undisciplined god.
But listen, the priests say to the women, come here. We shall teach you to kneel like her. Soon, we shall harden your knees.
The women pause.
The wheat comes from this kind of silence. This hollowed out place in time where the humans wait, disturbing nothing.
This will be a new story, with swords.
And then it begins: a shoot rips up from the rocks, through the soil, tearing through the moldering soil.
Soon, new trees spring up in the village meadows: metal trees, one tall trunk running up, a single thin branch running abreast, and a body slung from it, hung from its half-clotted hands, pocked with thorns and sword wounds and dead upon the hill. Worship this.
Published in New American Writing
Text, Photographs and Performance Film by Quintan Ana Wikswo
Music for live performance composed by Veronika Krausas
Poems first published in New American Writing
Film published in the DVD collection “Prophecy of Place: Films of Quintan Ana Wikswo” by Catalysis Projects and Yeshiva University Museum
First installed and exhibited at Yeshiva University Museum / NYC
First performed at the Center for Jewish History / NYC