2015 Neil Shepard Prize in Fiction, judged by Molly Antopol
Vilnius was the last place she wanted to be. She distrusted its beautiful streets winding past courtyards full of cars and cats and huddled ghosts, its beautiful flowers in wrapped tight bundles for sale on the wide boulevards, the crumbling church at the prison, the narrow shallow river that ran through the park. Even the flocks of swallows seemed to be telling her something important about her life so far. Everywhere she looked there was something significant going on, a man touching a woman’s lips with his thumb. A woman unfurling an umbrella when there was no rain in sight. Little children played instruments of different types along the busiest street where tourists arrived in busloads and trainloads from all over the place. Minsk, Wisconsin, Japan. And who was she in the middle of all this choreographed confusion, but a woman, on the verge of being old, bundled into herself, wondering about her child now grown, her husband solicitous, her memories washed away like the dirt, poured down sloping streets to the river in the park.
Vilnius was the last place she wanted to be. Her cat talking to her by the geraniums, thirsty at the door. The narrow man who lived with his mother in the next apartment beating his rug on the line as she watched from the window. The dust flying up into the air in clouds, covering the little white dog from next door, the butterflies in the bush on the edge of the wild grass, her fingernails as she poured water for the cat, the perfect flowers of the hollyhock. He beat the striped red rug and then brushed it with several swift downward sweeps and then beat the rug and brushed it again and again until there was hardly any dust in the air at all.
Vilnius was the last place she wanted to be. But there it was. The coffee in her hand that morning, the sound of trucks coming up the hill past the apartment. The empty square where Lenin used to stand. The empty woods where her grandmother was shot. She was lucky to be here at all and wouldn’t be, would she, if her mother hadn’t been lucky enough to walk one morning out of the ghetto down the hill to the park and into another life. It was a kind of miracle, something she didn’t like to think about but had to now and then. Soon she wouldn’t be here at all, but somewhere else. Nevada, Vermont, Philadelphia.
Vilnius was the last place she wanted to be. A city in the middle of woods. She could never get warm even when he lit all the lamps and stuffed the stove with wood and rubbed her feet with his hands. She was eating the beautiful red berries her child picked in the woods and the baskets full of mushrooms curled and yellow her husband sold in the market. She was eating quail eggs scrambled in a wide pan. She was eating all the bounty of the forest, but was still hungry. It was strange that this went on for so long in such a city so filled with balconies filigreed, delicate, hung on the sides of buildings with such skill.
Vilnius was the last place she wanted to be. She thought she was telling herself the truth when she said that, when she told the stranger sitting on the hard bench at the airport that kind of thing. She thought it was certainly true as she poured water into her cup, or picked up a bunch of bananas in the market, or swallowed the first sip of tea, or petted the coarse hair of the little white dog who lived in the beautiful courtyard. Someone was vacuuming on a Sunday. It was early but there were no bells ringing. It was unusual to be in such a Catholic city and not hear bells ring on Sunday morning. Someone had cut the grass in the courtyard and the white butterflies had all gone away, vanished. There was so much that had disappeared. Sometimes the tree by the window was full of birds, and sometimes there was no sound at all. An airplane flew overhead. The flight path must have changed, she thought. She had never heard an airplane here before.
The sky was shot through with clouds. Every day since she arrived the sky was pure blue. Innocent, benign, all those words that meant one is not responsible for anything. Not anything at all. She, certainly, was not one to blame, even if this and that had happened and now the women with sheer apricot and green dresses stepped lightly on the streets where everything that happened before was no longer there.