Weekend reading: The Amber. Beginnings

An oak tree

Alfa English gives you the sneak peek preview of the yet to be published novel The Amber. Courtesy of Lithuanian American novelist Barbara Chepaitis.

"As my agent seeks the right publisher for The Amber, I’d like to offer you the chance to read some of it. Here is a brief excerpt from the beginning of the book, a part that tells how my poor devil-ridden hero lost his soul in the first place," says Barbara.

Inland from Nida, Lithuania, circa 1st millenium BC

His hunger for her would not end.

Seasons came and went, and still he hungered. Children were born and grew, and he hungered. Animals were hunted and eaten. Berries were picked, beehives found, and as the sweet honey dripped from her hands, he hungered.

Her hair was the color of thick sap from the trees, with sun on it. Her hair smelled of the ocean, and of honey. And he hungered for her.

Her name was Austeja, and no matter what he did, she still belonged only to herself.

If she wanted him, she’d draw him into her house or the woods. If not, then she went about her day. He knew she was with no other men because he watched her, but that could change and he’d have no way to stop her. And there were all the things she did beyond his understanding. The stones she fed, the bees she sang to, the songs she gave to the moon and trees – all that was hers alone.

Some places she wouldn’t let him go with her. He tried to follow her to a grassy field beyond the forest, where she went when the moon was full, but she sent him away. "This is for me to do,” she said, kindly but firmly. "You cannot watch.”

"Why not?” he demanded.

Her face was solemn, and a little sad. "You are not ready,” she said.

He knew the others in the village laughed at him, and maybe they were right. He couldn’t even name what he wanted from her. Something she had that he did not, like a color he couldn’t see. At the least, he wanted to feel what she felt inside herself when she sang. And she sang all the time.

She sang songs about deer, and the hunters came home with a catch. She went to the river and sang of rain, and the rains came. She sang for the bees, and a hive full of honey was found. He tried the same song, but nothing happened. He didn’t know how they worked for her, and when he asked her, she only laughed. She existed behind walls of light and sound that he could not penetrate.

She began to look at him with pity, which he could not bear. The hole inside him burned with fury, and he no longer ate or slept.

His friend Razak took him aside and asked him what was wrong. "You grow thinner every day, and your woman is soft and round as new fruit,” he said. "What troubles you?”

"Do you think she’s carrying a baby?” he asked.

Razak shrugged. "What do you care?” he asked.

One day, he followed her into the woods to see if she met another man, but she only walked to an old oak tree, massive and burdened with leaves. She spoke to it, then scraped fresh sap from it into a small clay jar she wore like a necklace. This jar, she’d told him, held the best honey, full of the queen bee’s gifts.

When she was done he went to her. "What are you doing?” he asked.

She turned, smiled. "Helping the trees bring sap,” she said.

"Teach me,” he said.

She took his hand and sang again. He listened, but felt nothing. "Is it a trick?” he demanded.

"I don’t know that word,” she said.

"How does it work?” he asked.

"It’s - a feeling of the heart. Like water and light and stone and fire all at once.” She put her hands to his heart. "You hear it here.”

"It’s nothing,” he said. "Empty.”

"It’s everything,” she said. "Who we are, what we know, what we love.”

He didn’t understand. He looked at the tree, to see if the answer was there. He put a hand up to touch it, but she grabbed his wrist in a grip that surprised him with its strength.

"You cannot touch it,” she said firmly. "You are not ready.”

He jerked away from her hold, and left the woods.

After that, he’d go into the woods when all were asleep and stand by the old oak. Defiantly, he put his hand to it, but he felt nothing, so he peeled back the bark to see what it hid. He found only more tree. Angry, he ripped at the bark, shredding it and tossing it on the forest floor.

He learned nothing, but he noticed that Austeja began to grow thin and sad. And though his hunger didn’t abate, its fire no longer consumed him. Instead, it gave him power and strength. He went back to the tree and ripped more bark from it.

Then fewer deer came to feed the people, the animals didn’t breed and no honey was found. He returned to the tree, tearing at its bark.

As he did so his friend Razak found him. He crept up quietly, and Naktis only heard him when he laughed. He whirled about, bark still in his hand.

Razak smiled. "Friend, if you feel that way, why don’t you cut the tree down?”

"Her gods would be angry.”

"Is that all? I know bigger gods than hers. They’d give you what you want.”

"To have her?” Naktis asked.

"To control her,” Razak said.

"What do your gods want in return?” Naktis asked. They always wanted something.

"Not much,” Razak said. "Just your soul.”

As far as Naktis knew, the gods always wanted that. "They can have it,” he said.

Razak put a hand on his shoulder. "Then cut the tree down,” he said quietly.

Naktis waited until the following night and then went alone and made a fire near the oak. With a coal red log he burned away the protective bark at the base. This would kill it, and later he could cut the massive thing down more easily. When that was done he hacked at the branches, making a pile of the fallen wood. It was hard labor, and he stayed at it until almost dawn.

Just when he’d dragged the last branches to his pile, he heard a cry of pain, and turned to see Austeja, staring at him in horror. Her hair flowed loose around her shoulders, and the wind pressed her gown against her skin, showing the outline of the body that tormented him.

"You are cursed,” she whispered, and then she turned to leave.

Panic rose in him. She would tell her people. They would kill him, or force him to leave, which would be the same for he’d die if she pushed him out. He grabbed her arm, pulled her to him. Lithe as a snake, she twisted away from him but he caught up her hair and wrapped it around her neck like a rope. She clawed at his hands but he held on, and at last he understood. This was what Razak’s god promised. She was his, utterly his, her life in his hands.

He yanked the noose of hair tight at her throat until she went limp and her breathing ceased. He thought it odd that he could barely tell the difference between life and death, it passed so quickly. He lowered her body to the ground and held it in his lap, murmuring over and over, "You are mine. You are mine.”

When the sun set he took her body to the field beyond the forest and buried her.

Nobody spoke to him when he returned to the village. They kept their distance, muttering words of protection when he passed by. They all knew, and they were afraid.

That pleased him. He was powerful. He’d taken the woman of his choice. So he told himself. But a day passed, and another, and he didn’t feel powerful. He felt alone. He couldn’t even gloat with Razak because he’d gone off to the shore with a fishing party. By the third evening, when the moon rose full and no sweet voice sang to it, he realized that Austeja had escaped him. She still belonged only to herself.

The next night he went back to where he’d buried her. The grass, golden and moonlit, almost the color of her hair, had already grown up to his waist, in a hurry to cover her. He walked through it, running his hand over it, feeling its sibilant warmth. When the breeze moved through it, it sounded like her voice in soft laughter. It hissed against his fingers, and he noticed that bees moved through it, circling and buzzing.

"You should not have hidden from me,” he said angrily. "This is your fault.”

The grass laughed and danced under his hands. One thin blade moved against his wrist, then curled over it, twining around it. He tried to lift his other hand to brush it off, but found that was held by another silken cord. He pulled against them, but they were stronger than any bonds he knew. He felt motion at his feet like the writhing of a thousand snakes and saw the grass wrapping his ankles, swarming his body to pull him down, down to the ground, shackling him there. He was too surprised to even gasp.

Then a single blade, thin as a strand of hair, slid toward him, singing as it came. When it laid itself against his face and began peeling back the flesh, he caught the scent of the ocean’s breath and sweet honey, warm in the sun.

He screamed out in pain only once before it took his tongue. Somewhere, in the distance, he heard bees buzzing, and women singing.

Razak returned a few days later, and was told that his friend Naktis had disappeared. He observed that Austeja was also gone, and he needed no further explanation. He understood.

In the heat of the afternoon he went to the grassy field and stood there, sniffing the air. He caught the scent of honey, and he smiled. He followed it, walking carefully until his toe touched something hard. He looked down. At his feet was a skeleton, human and new, the bones glistening with dew. He squatted down next to it, and saw that honey bees had made their hive within the ribcage. It was already filled, honey dripping from the bones like blood.

"Go away,” he said to the bees. "This one is mine.”

In a flurry of activity, the bees rose into the sky and flew off. All except for one, which stayed buzzing near him.

"Well, my friend,” Razak said, "I see you found a body to occupy, but you won’t be staying in it. You cannot be one of her creatures, learning her lessons that way. They don’t like me and I don’t like them. I’ll get you a better body soon enough. Come here. We should talk.”

The bee flew to a landing on his knee, where it danced about frantically.

"You’re disappointed?” Razak said. "Why? I never said my master was kind. Only strong.”

The bee buzzed, low and deep, and Razak grinned. "No, you cannot die. You weren’t united with the earth, and so you cannot rest. You are a vele now. More precisely, a vaidila, since you’ll be doing my work. But we need not be fancy. Vele is good enough. And you have much to do for me. If you remember, we made a deal.”

The bee moved about, but more slowly now.

"Nonsense. You wanted to control her and you did. I didn’t say how long you would control her for, did I? At any rate, you made the deal. You’ll serve me and my master for as long as I say.”

The bee buzzed, lifted off his knee and resettled. Razak laughed. "A way out? Well, yes, if you steal another soul to take your place that will change things. Or if you can somehow undo what you’ve done. How? I don’t know. That’s for you to figure out. Until then, you are mine.” He grinned. "Be a man about it, would you?”

Quickly, Razak lifted his hand and brought it down on the bee, crushing it. "That’s a joke, my friend. Be a man. So you will be. Or something very near to it.”

He flicked the dead bee away, and went back to the village to gather his things and move on. In the field, the bees returned and buzzed about the dead one, learning what they needed to know.

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