Andrius Kavalauskas, the last magician of Lithuania, closed the door and rested his head against the wood as the nurse’s footsteps faded away. He smelled cabbage and pork cooking from the apartment across the hallway and knew that in a few hours he would find a plate of food sitting by his door. Daina was a good neighbor, a good friend.
He headed back into the tiny bedroom at the back of the apartment. Laurita was a still and silent shape beneath the threadbare blanket. Far too still.
He froze in place. Stared at the blanket. Heard neither breath nor whisper. No, no. Not yet. Please, not yet, he thought.
Then, the blanket moved up and down. Laurita raised her head and smiled. He exhaled, the sound harsh in the quiet.
“Papa, was I a good girl for the nurse?”
“Of course you were. Miss Ruta said you were very good.”
“She had a sad face. I thought…”
“No, no, you are always a good girl. Always.”
“When I feel better, I should pick flowers for her. Would that be okay?”
Andrius’s chest tightened. For a moment, the words caught in his throat. He nodded. “Yes, it would be very nice.”
Outside the window, storm clouds gathered and thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Is Perkūnas angry?” Laurita asked.
He laughed. “Maybe he is.”
She gave him a small smile. “Papa?”
“Who makes the snow?”
He tapped his chin. “I wonder. Is it Perkūnas?”
She shook her head. “No, he makes the thunder.”
Another shake. A small giggle. “No, she lives in the sea.”
“Ahhhh, I know,” he said, raising his hand. In his palm, a white ball of snow shimmered in the light. “I make the snow!” He tossed it up in the air. It broke apart, and snowflakes fell down around her, alighting on her lashes and nose. The room filled with the smell of pine and cinnamon.
She gave a weak laugh, her breath emerging in a vapory plume. As the snowflakes melted, he could not help looking over both shoulders. No one could possibly have felt such a small magic, and the curtains were shut tight, but still…
“You have the best magic in the world,” Laurita said.
He kissed her forehead. “I have the best daughter in the world, but now, you must go to sleep.”
“Okay,” she said, her eyes already half-closed.
He pretended not to notice the pale cast to her skin. The shadows beneath her eyes. Her frail limbs. The breath wheezing in and out of her lungs. Just as he pretended not to see the soldiers outside. It was
better that way.
Andrius tossed and turned in his own bed, hating the way the space beside him felt like a country he could only dream of visiting. Wind rattled against the glass, and a boom sounded in the distance. Maybe Perkūnas was wielding the bolts of thunder and lightning. Maybe not. He was also the god of war, yet he seemed in no hurry to strike down the invaders. Perhaps he didn’t care at all.
The rest of the world was far too busy watching Paris fall to the Germans to worry about Andrius’s country and the suffering of its people. There were whispers of ways out, of soldiers who would look the other way for the right amount of money, but he did not have the money, and Laurita was not strong enough for travel.
He scrubbed his face with his hands. A trace of magic lingered on his skin, giving his palm a luminescent appearance. Such a small thing. Such a huge risk. But it was all he had.
Saulė had always loved the snowflakes, too.
He rolled over to the empty side of the bed and buried his face in her pillow. He could still smell the scent of her skin. Tears burned in his eyes. He inhaled deeply, pulling in her scent as far as he could.
She would still be with them if he hadn’t let her go out on her own. He’d known it was dangerous. But she’d smiled and said she’d be right back, she was only going to the market, and he’d kissed her on the cheek and said, “Okay.” He should’ve said no, it was not okay. He was supposed to protect her.
He punched the mattress and sobbed into the pillow. It was all his fault and there was nothing he could do. He could only pray they took her to Siberia. At least there she would have a chance. A tiny one, but better than the alternative.
“Oh, Saulė, I miss you. I miss you so much,” he said, his voice muffled. “Please forgive me.”
He should’ve done something. Anything. He cried until his throat ached, then clasped his hands together and prayed. He prayed Ruta made it home safe and sound. He prayed for his country. He prayed for Saulė. And last, he prayed for a miracle for Laurita. He wished with all his heart she would see her seventh birthday. Surely the gods could grant him that.
Coughing woke him in the middle of the night. He stumbled in the darkness, banging his shin on the doorframe. Laurita was hunched over in the bed, her hands cupped over her mouth. The coughs came out ragged and thick. He rubbed her back and held a cloth to her mouth until the coughing subsided.
After he wiped the blood from her lips, he tucked the cloth away before she could see it and measured out a spoonful of the medicine Ruta, his wife’s best friend in the time before fear and soldiers, had risked her life to bring. It was not a curative (those medicines belonged to other countries, countries without soldiers and tanks invading their lands) but would make it…easier for her.
Laurita made a face. “I don’t like medicine.”
“I don’t either.” He smiled. “Here, let’s make it taste better.” He waved his hand. The liquid turned amber; the sweet smell of flowers wafted from the spoon. She swallowed it down and smiled.
“Will the medicine help me get better?”
“Yes, it will.”
“And when I am well, will Mama come back?”
He swallowed hard and forced his lips into a smile. “I’m sure she will finish her work and come home soon.”
A little lie. Just like the taste of honey in her spoon.
“I wish the soldiers could find someone else to help them. I miss her, Papa. I miss her so much.”
“I miss her, too.”
“Magic me a story, Papa.”
“I wish I could, but you know it would make the soldiers angry. I will tell you a story instead.”
“And what story do you want to hear?”
Her face brightened. “Jūratė and Kastytis.”
He smiled. Saulė had told her the story time and again. He always thought it too sad for a small child, but it was Laurita’s favorite. He readjusted the curtains, fluffed Laurita’s pillow, and pulled the blanket up to her chin.
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful mermaid goddess who lived under the sea in a palace made of amber. Her name was Jūratė, and she had a long tail with scales the color of the sky just before the sun sets.
“And there was a handsome fisherman named Kastytis who would come to the sea every day to catch fish, but one day, while Kastytis was in his boat, Perkūnas was angry and made a big storm.”
Andrius let a little magic slip free. Just a touch of the salt tang of the Baltic Sea and a darkening of the air near the ceiling to resemble a storm cloud.
“Kastytis fell into the sea. Jūratė saw him fall and rescued him from the waves. She took him home to her palace, and they fell in love.
“But this made Perkūnas very angry. He didn’t think Jūratė should love a mortal man like Kastytis. He wanted her to marry Patrimpas, the God of Water. In his anger, he sent a lightning bolt from the sky through the water.”
Andrius made light flash in the air, one quick snap of soundless bright.
“The lightning hit Jūratė’s palace, shattering it into thousands and thousands of fragments, and poor Kastytis was killed.
“Perkūnas punished Jūratė by chaining her to the ruins of her castle. And now, when storms strike the sea, you can hear Jūratė crying for Kastytis, and you can find her tears washed upon the shore.”
He held out his hand and opened his fingers, revealing a tiny piece of amber that Laurita took and held up to the light. It glowed with a secret fire, then it winked out of sight. She put her hand down and looked at him for a long time without speaking, her mouth set into a frown, her eyes filled with a seriousness far too advanced for her years.
“Perkūnas should have not made the storm and the thunder. He should’ve protected the palace instead, and he should’ve left Jūratė and Kastytis alone.”
“It’s just a story, little one. Only a story.”
But the frown did not leave her face.
“Papa, why does the magic make the soldiers angry?”
“I don’t know,” he lied.
From his bedroom window, Andrius could see the edge of a striped awning at the end of the street. A theater, its stage now silent and dark. He’d performed there a long time ago, but he still remembered the heat of the lights and the gasps of surprise from the audience.
The best magicians could make the people forget they were seated indoors, could transport them to another time, another place. Lithuanian magic was no mere sleight of hand or game of misdirection, but a gift from the land, born from the spring breeze and the winter chill, the fir tree and the rivers.
It could create lions from shadows and birds from candleflame. Could send snowfall on a summer day and turn tears into rain. Even if you were not in a theater during a performance, you could stand outside and feel it in the air, a silent music pulsing from the magician’s fingertips. It was power, but not of control or destruction. It gave hope. Happiness. Strength. All the things the Russians wanted to take away.
Saulė had not wanted him to stop performing, but life on the stage belonged to a man without responsibilities. He’d traded the theater for small magics to make her smile and later, to calm their infant daughter. A choice he never regretted.
And if he had he not made that choice… He closed his eyes. He’d heard whispers that even the old magicians who’d lost their magic to disease or dementia had disappeared.
How he had escaped notice, he didn’t know.
“I don’t want to eat, Papa.”
Andrius set the bowl down and smoothed her hair back from her forehead. “But you must. You need your strength.”
She shook her head. “I will eat it later.”
“But the rabbit might eat it first.”
“Yes, the rabbit.”
He cupped his hands together, blew into them, and opened his palms to reveal a tiny brown rabbit, its nose wiggling, its ears twitching. He placed the rabbit on the bed. It hopped once, twice, three times, and Laurita giggled and clapped her hands.
“Can we keep him?”
“Only for a little while,” he whispered.
He guided the rabbit over to Laurita’s bowl. It dipped its head in.
“No, rabbit, that’s my food.”
“Okay, you eat it then.”
She took several spoonfuls, watching the rabbit jump around on her bed. When the soup was gone, the rabbit turned translucent, shimmering at the edges. Then it disappeared.
“Can you bring it back?”
“No, it’s too dangerous. I will tell you a story instead.
“Once upon a time, the Grand Duke Gediminas went on a hunting trip and made camp atop a high mountain. That night, he dreamt of an iron wolf on the mountain. The wolf howled and howled and howled and sounded like hundreds of wolves.
“When he woke, he told the priest of his dream. The priest said it meant that Gediminas was to build a city on the mountain. The city would be as strong as iron and stand tall for hundreds of years.
“Gediminas had his castle built, and it still stands today, here in Vilnius.”
He held out his hand. On his palm rested a miniature version of the circular castle, the striped flag of Lithuania flying strong and proud.
“I think you would build a better castle, Papa. A bigger, stronger one to keep everyone safe.”
Andrius bent over the bed to adjust the blankets. “Everything will work out fine, little one. I’m sure of it.”
He hoped his voice sounded convincing.
Andrius was sleeping in a chair in the front room when footsteps thudded in the hall. Coarse voices spoke in Russian. He sprang up from the chair and ran into Laurita’s bedroom. She was sleeping soundly. He closed her bedroom door, his mouth dry, his palms sweaty.
His hands twisted. Maybe the soldiers would not check the rest of the apartment. He stood up straight, took a deep breath, and waited three feet away from the door.
Someone shouted. A soldier laughed. A woman screamed. He covered his mouth with his hand and cast a gaze toward Laurita’s door.
Please let her sleep through it, he thought.
More footsteps. Closer now.
He dropped his hands at his side. He would not let them see that he was afraid. A thump. Another laugh. A sob. A child’s cries.
Then the footsteps led away. Away. His shoulders sagged. He could not hold in his tears.
“Ačiū Dievo,” he whispered.
They were safe. This time.
He rushed into the bedroom.
“I heard voices.”
“It was just the neighbors. That’s all. Go back to sleep now. Everything is fine.”
He sagged against the doorframe. No more magic. It was too dangerous. And what good was it? All the magic in the world couldn’t make her well again.
A soft knock sounded at the door just after the sun rose. Andrius opened it a crack, saw Daina standing in the hall, and ushered her in.
“They took Gedrius and his whole family,” she whispered. “But I saw one of them visit Raimondas’s apartment after they took them away.”
“Raimondas? No, he wouldn’t do something like that. He wouldn’t. He is a good man.”
“He is a scared man, like all of us, and scared men do foolish things sometimes.” She touched his arm. “You must be careful.”
Andrius raked his fingers through his hair. “I am careful”
She took his hands and gave them a small shake. “No, you need to be careful. Do you understand?”
A sick feeling twisted inside his belly. “If something should happen to me, will you…” He cleared his throat. “Will you care for Laurita?”
She nodded slowly. “I will do what I can.”
After she left, he stood in the doorway to Laurita’s bedroom and watched her sleep. Her breath was too shallow, the movement of her chest, too slight. Tears ran down his cheeks.
Daina must be mistaken. Raimondas would not turn anyone in. Maybe it was just coincidence. Gedrius’s wife had been a pretty woman. The soldiers liked pretty women. He shuddered.
He should have made Saulė stay home. She had been beautiful.
Once, the small apartment had smelled of flowers, of Saulė’s perfume. Of hope. Now, only the scent of illness hung in the air. Andrius opened his hand, and wisps of pale pink floated up. The smell of freshly-cut roses danced in the air, but it was only a poor imitation. He closed his fist tight, and the scent vanished as if it had never been there at all.
Through a gap in the curtains, he saw a group of soldiers sauntering down the street, their boots trailing mud on the cobblestones. A small boy darted out of another apartment building. One of the soldiers grabbed his arm, and the rest laughed.
Andrius raised his fist to bang on the glass, but pulled it back before it struck. He turned away. The boy’s high-pitched cries crept into the apartment. Andrius covered his ears and rocked back and forth. The boy was so small. So small. Andrius wanted to help, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t. The cries went on and on.
Eventually they stopped, and the soldiers marched on. Andrius dared another look, but the boy was nowhere to be seen.
Laurita was fast asleep, even though the sun was only beginning to set. She’d refused to eat anything all day, claiming her stomach hurt. He kissed her forehead, went into his own bedroom, and pretended to sleep.
“Please, Laurita, you must eat.”
“But I’m not hungry now. Can I eat later? Please?”
He nodded. “Okay. Later.”
She coughed softly. Once. Twice. The cough became loud and liquid and thick. He sat her up and held a cloth to her mouth while he rubbed her back. Her body shook with the force of each cough.
Finally, it subsided enough for a spoonful of medicine. She grimaced, but swallowed it without complaint. He held her close, listening to the air rattle in her lungs. Smelled the coppery tinge of her breath.
I am sorry, Saulė, I did the best I could.
It wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.
“Papa, will I be well soon?”
“Yes, very soon.”
“Good. I am tired of being sick. I want to pick flowers.”
She coughed again, weakly. Her skin was cool and clammy. He pressed a finger to her wrist; her pulse raced beneath, thready and inconsistent. Tears blurred his vision. He blinked them away and shoved his sorrow deep inside.
“I wish the soldiers would let Mama come back for a little while so I could tell her I love her.”
His tears returned. This time, he turned his head and wiped his eyes dry.
“She knows you love her. I promise.”
“But I want to tell her. It’s not fair.”
“No, it isn’t fair. I wish they would let her come home, too.” He sighed and looked down at his hands. None of it was fair. “But they told me I could magic you a story.”
“Yes, just this one time, it was okay.”
She struggled up to a sitting position. He rearranged the pillow behind her. His hands shook, but he touched her cheek. He had failed in so many ways. As a husband. As a father. As a man. He could give his daughter this much. It would not make up for what he didn’t do, nothing could do that, but it was the only gift he knew how to give.
No matter the risk to himself.
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful mermaid goddess who lived under the sea in a palace made of amber.”
He lifted his hand and swept it through the air. The walls of the bedroom glistened and turned sapphire blue in color. Ripples moved in lazy lines up and down. At the edges, where ceiling met wall and wall met floor, white foam gathered. The distant cry of seabirds drifted in the air. The room filled with the scent of the sea.
A tiny shimmering light began to glow. It grew larger and larger, revealing a palace with gilded spires.
“It’s beautiful,” Laurita whispered.
Multicolored fish swam in and out of the palace’s many windows. Then Jūratė swam out of the front entrance, her dark hair flowing in the water. Her tail was covered with purple-blue scales, her fins tipped with gold. Laurita’s eyes widened.
Andrius waved his hand again. The air around them changed color. First aquamarine, then sapphire, rippling around them in slow, gentle waves, and through the water above their heads, a man’s face became visible. A young, handsome man holding a fishing rod in one hand and a fish in the other.
Jūratė swam closer to the surface. Kastytis leaned forward; his mouth formed a circle, and he fell into the water with a splash. Droplets landed on Laurita’s brow. Andrius wiped them away.
Jūratė pulled Kastytis into her arms, and they spun around in the water. Tiny pink and yellow fish circled them, moving fast enough to create the illusion of ribbons.
Laurita smiled. “They are so happy.”
Then a man with stormy eyes looked down through the water, his mouth set into a frown. In his hand, he held a bolt of lightning. He raised his arm.
“Papa, don’t let him destroy the castle. Please!”
“But that’s how the story goes.”
“No, you can change the story, can’t you?”
Andrius sucked in a breath. He gave his tears to the sea and tried to find a smile, but inside, his heart clenched tight. He nodded.
No matter the risk.
The magic stretched within him, filling his limbs with strength. He pushed it out, farther than he’d allowed in years. It made Laurita’s skin shine, stripping the pallor of grey. She laughed, high and crystal clear.
The water rippled again. Perkūnas’s frown disappeared into a smile. The amber palace gleamed. A fish swam close, its scales a brilliant crimson, and Laurita reached out to touch its fin. It swam back around and let her touch it again. Jūratė let go of Kastytis and swam over to the bed, offered Laurita a smile and her hand.
“Papa, is it okay?”
“Yes, I think it is.”
The magic grew and grew. Jūratė took Andrius’s hand as well and tugged them down into the water, toward the castle.
“Can we go in?” Laurita whispered.
Jūratė nodded. She swam between them as they walked up the amber steps into a room with an arched ceiling. The floor was a circular mosaic of amber in varying shades. The walls, thin sheets of amber the color of honey fresh from the comb.
“Papa, it’s the most beautiful thing ever.”
Footsteps thumped in the hall, and his heartbeat quickened.
Not yet. Please, not yet.
“I love you, my princess.”
Voices rose in anger. Andrius looked over his shoulder. Through the magic, he could just make out the bedroom door.
“Everything is okay,” he said, forcing his voice to remain steady.
“Is it the soldiers?”
“But they said you could magic me a story, and it’s not finished yet.”
“I guess they changed their minds. I think they need me to go work with them for a little while.”
Jūratė let go of Andrius’s hand, but kept Laurita’s.
Andrius bent down in front of Laurita and brushed her hair back from her face. “But while I go and work with the soldiers, how would you like to stay here?”
He looked up at Jūratė. She nodded.
“You won’t be gone a long time like Mama, will you?”
Jūratė leaned close, her voice soft and whispery like sea foam. “I will keep her safe.”
A fist banged on the door. He wrapped his arms around Laurita and kissed her cheeks.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said, her eyes filled with tears.
“I have to, my sweet girl, I have to, but I will see you soon. I promise.”
“I love you, Papa.”
“And I love you.”
With a knot in his chest, Andrius bowed his head. The smell of the sea vanished. The sound of the waves receded. And Laurita was gone. The pillow still held the shape of her head; the sheets, her body, but atop the blanket was a single piece of amber in the shape of a tear.
His last, and best, illusion.
He scooped it up and held it to his chest, rocking back and forth. Tears spilled down his cheeks. He held the tiny piece of magic tight and did not let go, not even when the barrel of a gun pressed against his temple.