Minna and I said hello to each other.
“You know who she is?” Hescha whispered furiously.
“Of course not.”
“A direct descendant of Mindaugas! A provable descendant! Provable!”
“The only true king of Lithuania. Over seven hundred years ago Mindaugas died, and never since that day has Lithuania had a monarch upon the throne. False kings thrust upon us by the Poles, yes. But never a king of Lithuania.”
There was a Mindaugas who died in 1263. And it was conceivable, I suppose, that this golden-haired angel of a child could be a direct descendant of his. I wasn’t especially inclined to believe it, but it was possible. I didn’t see what difference it made.
“Minna,” the old woman said, “is a very important person. You understand?”
Hescha looked at me as though I had gone suddenly mad. “But you must see! When the Lithuanian monarchy is restored, who will become undisputed Queen of Lithuania?”
“Zsa Zsa Gabor,” I said.
“Nothing,” I said. When the Lithuanian monarchy was restored, I thought privately, rivers would flow upstream, shrimps would whistle, and the First Law of Thermodynamics would be repealed by Act of Congress. The possibility of Lithuania regaining its independence was too remote to take very seriously (the fact that I prefer to take it seriously notwithstanding), but the idea of the restoration of the Mindaugas line after seven centuries…
The mind boggled.
“And so we must keep her here, my sister and I. My sister stays with Minna during the nights, but during the days she works, and I come here when I can. And Minna must remain in this room, hidden from the Soviet authorities, and-”
“Wait a moment,” I said. “She never leaves this room?”
“Of course not.”
“She sits in that bed, in this clammy room, and-”
“It is a comfortable room. A soft bed.”
“She never goes to school? She never plays with other children? She never gets out in the fresh air?”
“It is too dangerous.”
“The authorities know of Minna’s existence,” Hescha said patiently. “If they found her, they would have to remove her as a threat to Soviet unity. They know she will someday be a rallying point for Lithuania. And if she were taken by them, she would be sent far from here, far from her own people. She would be brought up as a Russian, she would forget her Lithuanian heritage. Or she might even be killed-”
“Can you be certain? Would you have us take chances with the life of such a one?”
“But she must hate it here,” I said.
“She is content. Minna is a patient child, with the blood of royalty in her veins.”
“She must be lonely.”
“She sees me. And my sister.”
“But children her own age-”
“It is too dangerous, Tanir.”
I walked away from Hescha, who was still babbling, and knelt at the side of Minna’s bed. She fastened clear blue eyes upon me. Her hair was like spun gold, neatly braided and trailing all the way down her back. Her complexion, despite the dank cellar in which she spent twenty-four impossible hours a day, was still fresh and rosy.
I said, “Hello, Minna.”
“Hello, Mr. Tanner.”
“Call me Evan, Minna.”
What did one say to a child. “How old are you, Minna?”
“Six years. Seven in March.”
“Are you happy here?”
“Happy?” As if she did not wholly understand the concept. “I have books to read. Hescha is teaching me how to read. And dolls to play with. Happy?”
Hescha was still carrying on. I ignored her. I said, “Minna, how would you like to go on a long journey? How would you like to come with me to America?”
“ America?” She thought about this. “But I am not allowed to go outdoors,” she said. She sounded like all the little boys who try to run away from home but aren’t allowed to cross streets. “I have to stay in this room forever,” she said seriously.
“If you come with me, you will not have to stay inside.”
“Is there sun in America? And snow and rain?”
“And are there other children in America? And do children play games and go swimming and go to school? And are there dogs and cats and sheep and goats and pigs there? And lions and tigers?” She motioned toward an orderly pile of books. “In my books there are all such things for children.”
“There are all those things,” I said.
She put a very small hand in mine, and I gave her hand a squeeze, and she beamed at me with the largest eyes on earth. “Then I will come with you,” she said.
The Russians make dreadful automobiles. The design is adequate, I suppose, if one prefers to regard an automobile as something that ought to be made purposely lacking in aesthetic appeal. But if the object is to produce purely functional vehicles, then the very least they should do is function. Ours did, but barely. The engine knocked, the crankcase leaked oil, and the few modest hills we climbed were an enormous strain on the poor thing. The only good thing to be said for the car was that some poor fool had left the key in the ignition, and I had thus been able to steal it without any difficulty whatsoever.
I was driving west, toward the setting sun. Milan sat on the passenger side, and the small object of our conversation was nestled between us, her head resting gently against me.
“You realize,” Milan was saying, “that this may be the most profoundly stupid act of your life.”
“It may be the last, as far as that goes.”
“You joke, but it is no joke. Every step we take we seem to accumulate more paraphernalia. Chinese puzzles, Polish microfilm-”
“A valid point, Evan. I am the first to admit that my book and I come under the heading of excess baggage, and you know my gratitude to you. But this is plainly impossible. The girl is just a child.”
“That’s the whole idea.”
“Damn it to hell,” I said. “They had the kid locked up in a dungeon. Did you see the way she was squinting at the sunlight? Another few years under that kerosene lamp and she’d have been blind as a bat. She’s a bright child, she’s a beautiful child, she wants the things every child ought to be able to have, and how in the name of God could I have left her in that cellar with those two crazy old crones?”
“I know, I know.”
“As it was, I nearly had to brain Hescha to get her to part with the kid.”
“What would you have done?”
“The same thing you did,” Milan said. “Exactly the same, exactly.”
“Then, what’s the point?”
“I just wanted you to know that you are crazy, Evan. I never denied that I too am crazy. Why did you steal the car?”
“Because I am crazy.”
“Because I felt like stealing the car,” I said. “Because I’m sick of walking and sick of buses. Because we couldn’t drag Minna down the road or onto a bus anyway.”
“Ah, I thought so.”
“We’ll get rid of the car in Riga if it lasts that far. And then we’ll find out that Sofija is married or dead or whatever, and then you and I and Minna will go to Finland and get a plane for the States. That’s why I stole the goddamned car.”
The car coughed and sputtered, and I cursed it quietly but firmly in Lettish. At my side Minna stirred and blinked. I pampered the accelerator pedal, and the engine purred again. Milan mentioned that there was a dog in the road. I assured him that I was aware of the presence of the dog in the road but thanked him, regardless, for pointing the dog out to me.
Minna said, “Are you speaking Russian?”
“Where is that spoken? In America?”
“I can read Russian because many of my books are in Russian, but Aunt Hescha told me I was to speak only in Lithuanian. What is spoken in America?”
“A dialect of English.”
“They do not speak Lithuanian?”
“Then they will not be able to understand me?”
“You’ll learn English,” I said. “I’ll teach you.”
Her face brightened. Milan asked if it was necessary for us to continue speaking such an impossible language. I assured him that it was. Minna wanted to know when we would be in America.
“Not for a long time,” I said. “First we must go to Riga, in Latvia. They speak Lettish there. Do you know of Lettish?”
“It is very much like Lithuanian, but there are differences. Would you like to learn to speak it?”
“It will be easy for you. By the time we reach Riga, you will speak it correctly.”
“I will speak Lettish?”
“Runatsi latviski,” I said. “You will speak Lettish.” I took her hand. “You see how the words change? Zale ir Zalja – the grass is green. Te ir te¯vs – here is father. Te¯vs ir virs – father is a man. Mate ir plavã – mother is in the meadow.”
“Mate ir plava zalja,” said Minna. Which meant that mother was in the green meadow, and which also meant that Minna was getting the hang of it. We went on talking, and before long I did not translate my little sentences into Lithuanian because she was able to understand them well enough in Lettish. Once she saw the way the nouns and verbs changed slightly, she was able to turn many Lithuanian words into Lettish ones by herself.
The fact that she was a child was enormously helpful. Children are delightful little animals, their minds crisply logical and extraordinarily retentive. They extrapolate and interpolate with ease, they concentrate with uncluttered minds, and they have never learned to make the distinction between work and play, approaching either with the same intent devotion and absorption.
Minna, slipping so readily into the genuine complexities of Lettish syntax, put me in mind of an apothegm of Nietzsche’s: “The true maturity of man is to recapture the seriousness one had as a child at play.” Why they ever lose it in the first place is the mystery.
“Varetu runat latviski,” said Minna, as we reached the outskirts of Riga.
“Yes,” I assured her, “you are able to speak Lettish. And very well.”
Riga is an important city, capital of the Latvian S.S.R. and containing nearly three-quarters of a million people, the greater proportion of them Letts. We abandoned our car in a quiet street near the harbor, and I left the key in the ignition so that anyone who wanted to could carry it still farther away from us. We walked together, Milan and Minna and I, through the streets of Riga. But for the utter lack of family resemblance we might have been taken for three generations of a family: daughter and father and grandfather, meita un tevs un vectevs. We asked directions and found the address I had memorized. We passed the apartment building where Sofija Lazdinja lived and walked a few yards farther to a cafe. We took a table. I ordered bowls of soup for everyone, told Minna to order anything else she wanted. She had never been in a restaurant before and had not realized there were places where anyone might go to order food. She thought it was a delightful idea. I left the two of them there, amused by the thought that they would be quite unable to talk with one another, and went off in search of Sofija.