Weekend reading: The Amber

Bitė (nuotr. Vitos Arinos)
Bitė (nuotr. Vitos Arinos)
© Vitos Arinos nuotr.

Alfa English starts publishing a series of excerpts from a novel "The Amber", written by Lithuanian American author Barbara Chepaitis. Today we present you the introduction to the book by Barbara. The first excerpt of The Amber will appear on Alfa's English pages on Monday. Enjoy reading!

My novel, The Amber, began and ended with bees.

I’d been swarmed by bees and stung pretty badly three times within two years, and when I complained about this to a friend he said, "You’re Lithuanian, aren’t you?”

I admitted to it, and he nodded. "Lithuanians have a bee mythology,” he told me. In fact, he said, there was a Lithuanian Catholic church near me with a stained glass window showing not saints or angels, but a honeybee.

My ancestors, I thought. Doesn’t that just figure.

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He suggested that since I was a writer I should write about them, and I thought that was a good idea, but no inspiration happened, so I moved on. A few years passed without swarmings and then I built a house in the country. In spite of all the news about honeybee problems, we frequently had swarms fly through our yard as they looked for good trees to make their homes in. When that happens it’s a startlingly loud sound, kind of like a small Formula One car passing by. These bees never bothered me, though. They had other business to attend to.

Then, one year, a swarm of paper wasps decided to build their home in the space just above the ceiling of my bedroom, and to even try to eat their way through the ceiling to get inside. As the exterminator removed them I was reminded of my past issues with bees and I grumbled once again, "My ancestors.”

I decided I needed to write a book and jotted down a few notes. It would have to do with the bee goddess, Austeja, and with violins, because all the Lithuanians in my life were violinists. Then, of course, if it had violins it had to have devils.

That’s as far as I got, though. Whatever story wanted to tell itself wasn’t ready to shape up, to become something real. Other writers will know what I mean. So I put it aside and went on to other projects.

Then, a year later, on a sunny summer afternoon I heard the sound that signaled a swarm of honeybees moving by. I watched them from my office window, amazed once more at the sound, at the sight of so many small golden creatures flying by.

I figured they’d find a tree, as they always did, but I was wrong. This time, they decided the best place to build a hive was in the walls of my house. I discovered this the next day when I saw them flying in and out of a small hole under the eaves of my back door. Then I made frantic calls to beekeepers, conservationists, exterminators, to see if there was any way to remove them alive.

There wasn’t, and so my husband shot a lot of poison into the hole and plugged it up. I apologized profusely and said a prayer. It seemed there was nothing else to do.

Three days later, while I was working in my office I heard a buzzing sound that was coming from my electrical outlet. I thought it might be a wiring problem, so I got a screwdriver and opened the cover of the outlet, and immediately tiny wings and legs popped out. Lots of them.

I slammed the cover back on, screwed it down tight. The bees had survived, and made their way to, of course, the outlet in my office.

"My ancestors,” I groaned. Again.

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Over the course of the next three days I figured out a rather complicated way to use a plastic container, duct tape, and pieces of cardboard to set at least some of them free. And each time they flew away I said, "Okay. I’ll write the book. Leave me alone, would you?”

That week I began writing the Amber, and wonder of wonders, it shaped itself with no problems or hesitancy under my hand. It became the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil thousands of years ago in what is now Lithuania. He sold it to control a woman, but she escaped him and he’d been trying to get her and his soul back ever since.

In the course of writing it I did extensive research on Lithuania’s history, on its relationship with its Pagan origins and Catholic presence. Doing so taught me a great deal about my own family, including my father’s love of the land, which he passed on to me. I learned about Rimtas Zmogus, something I’d always seen in my relatives but couldn’t name because my grandparents didn’t teach me the language. I learned about Austeja, and why I love trees so much, and why I was so upset when I ran over a snake with my lawnmower. And I learned how I got to be so persistent in the face of obstacles that would have pounded anyone else into the ground. Lithuanians, I learned, are a persistent people and I am their daughter. In fact, it seemed all the ancestral imperatives continued to live in me, though I’d never been taught them with words.

I think my ancestors were satisfied with my work, too, because right after I typed in the last sentence I went outside to stretch and get some air. As I stood on my front porch, a swarm of honeybees flew close to my house, paused, and turned into the woods, flying away.

"My ancestors,” I called out to them. "Thank you.”

As my agent seeks the right publisher for The Amber, I’d like to offer you the chance to read some of it. Read 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, tomorrow.