IMPERCEPTIBLY, like a little star at dawn, my brother Kolia faded away. Grandmother, he, and I slept in a small shed on planks covered with various rags. On the other side of the chinky wall of the out-house was the family poultry-house. We could hear the sleepy, overfed fowls fluttering and clucking in the evening, and the golden, shrill-voiced cock awoke us in the morning.
“Oh, I should like to tear you to pieces!” grandmother would grumble when they woke her.
I was already awake, watching the sunbeams falling through the chinks upon my bed, and the silver specks of dust which danced in them. These little specks seemed to me just like the words in a fairy-tale. Mice had gnawed the planks, and red beetles with black spots ran about there.
Sometimes, to escape from the stifling fumes which arose from the soil in the fowl-house, I crept out of the wooden hut, climbed to the roof, and watched the people of the house waking up, eyeless, large, and swollen with sleep. Here appeared the hairy noddle of the boatman Phermanov, a surly drunkard, who gazed at the sun with blear, running eyes and grunted like a bear. Then grandfather came hurrying out into the yard and hastened to the wash-house to wash himself in cold water. The garrulous cook of the land — lord, a sharp-nosed woman, thickly covered with freckles, was like a cuckoo. The landlord himself was like an old fat dove. In fact, they were all like some bird, animal, or wild beast.
Although the morning was so pleasant and bright, it made me feel sad, and I wanted to get away into the fields where no one came, for I had already learned that human creatures always spoil a bright day.
One day when I was lying on the roof grandmother called me, and said in a low voice, shaking her head as she lay on her bed:
“Kolia is dead.”
The little boy had slipped from the pillow, and lay livid, lanky on the felt cover. His night-shirt had worked itself up round his neck, leaving bare his swollen stomach and crooked legs. His hands were curiously folded behind his back, as if he had been trying to lift himself up. His head was bent on one side.
“Thank God he has gone!” said grandmother as she did her hair. “What would have become of the poor little wretch had he lived?”
Treading almost as if he were dancing, grandfather made his appearance, and cautiously touched the closed eyes of the child with his fingers.
Grandmother asked him angrily:
“What do you mean by touching him with unwashen hands?”
“There you are! He gets born, lives, and eats, and all for nothing.”
“You are half asleep,” grandmother cut him short.
He looked at her vacantly, and went out in the yard, saying:
“I am not going to give him a funeral; you can do what you like about it.”
“Phoo! you miserable creature!”
I went out, and did not return until it was close upon evening. They buried Kolia on the morning of the following day, and during the mass I sat by the reopened grave with my dog and Yaz’s father. He had dug the grave cheaply, and kept praising himself for it before my face.
“I have only done this out of friendship; for any one else I should have charged so many rubles.”
Looking into the yellow pit, from which arose a heavy odor, I saw some moist black planks at one side. At my slightest movement the heaps of sand around the grave fell to the bottom in a thin stream, leaving wrinkles in the sides. I moved on purpose, so that the sand would hide those boards.
“No larks now!” said Yaz’s father, as he smoked.
Grandmother carried out the little coffin. The “trashy peasant” sprang into the hole, took the coffin from her, placed it beside the black boards, and, jumping out of the grave, began to hurl the earth into it with his feet and his spade. Grandfather and grandmother also helped him in silence. There were neither priests nor beggars there; only we four amid a dense crowd of crosses. As she gave the sexton his money, grandmother said reproachfully:
“But you have disturbed Varina’s coffin.”
“What else could I do? If I had not done that, I should have had to take some one else’s piece of ground. But there’s nothing to worry about.”
Grandmother prostrated herself on the grave, sobbed and groaned, and went away, followed by grandfather, his eyes hidden by the peak of his cap, clutching at his worn coat.
“They have sown the seed in unplowed ground,” he said suddenly, running along in front, just like a crow on the plowed field.
“What does he mean?” I asked grandmother.
“God bless him! He has his thoughts,” she answered.
It was hot. Grandmother went heavily; her feet sank in the warm sand. She halted frequently, mopping her perspiring face with her handkerchief.
“That black thing in the grave,” I asked her, “was it mother’s coffin?”
“Yes,” she said angrily. “Ignorant dog! It is not a year yet, and our Varia is already decayed! It is the sand that has done it; it lets the water through. If that had to happen, it would have been better to — ”
“Shall we all decay?”
“All. Only the saints escape it.”
“You — you will not decay!”
She halted, set my cap straight, and said to me seriously:
“Don’t think about it; it is better not. Do you hear?’
But I did think of it. How offensive and revolting death was! How odious! I felt very badly about it
When we reached home grandfather had already prepared the samovar and laid the table.
“Come and have some tea. I expect you are hot,” he said. “I have put in my own tea as well. This is for us all.”
He went to grandmother and patted her on the shoulder.
“Well, Mother, well?”
Grandmother held up her hands.
“Whatever does it all mean?”
“This is what it means: God is angry with us; He is tearing everything away from us bit by bit. If families lived together in unity, like fingers on a hand —”
It was long since he had spoken so gently and peaceably. I listened, hoping that the old man would extinguish my sense of injury, and help me to forget the yellow pit and the black moist boards in protuberance in its side. But grandmother cut him short harshly:
“Leave off, Father! You have been uttering words like that all your life, and I should like to know who is the better for them? All your life you have eaten into every one as rust corrodes iron.”
Grandfather muttered, looked at her, and held his tongue.
In the evening, at the gate, I told Ludmilla sorrowfully about what I had seen in the morning, but it did not seem to make much impression on her.
“Orphans are better off. If my father and mother were to die, I should leave my sister to look after my brother, and I myself would go into a convent for the rest of my life. Where else should I go? I don’t expect to get married, being lame and unable to work. Besides, I might bring crippled children into the world.”
She spoke wisely, like all the women of our street, and it must have been from that evening that I lost interest in her. In fact, my life took a turn which caused me to see her very seldom.
A few days after the death of my brother, grandfather said to me:
“Go to bed early this evening, while it is still light, and I will call you. We will go into the forest and get some logs.”
“And I will come and gather herbs,” declared grandmother.
The forest of fir — and birch — trees stood on a marsh about three versts distant from the village. Abounding in withered and fallen trees, it stretched in one direction to the Oka, and in the other to the high road to Moscow. Beyond it, with its soft, black bristles looking like a black tent, rose the fir-thicket on the “Ridge of Savelov.”
All this property belonged to Count Shuvalov, and was badly guarded. The inhabitants of Kunavin regarded it as their own, carried away the fallen trees and cut off the dried wood, and on occasion were not squeamish about cutting down living trees. In the autumn, when they were laying in a stock of wood for the winter, people used to steal out here by the dozen, with hatchets and ropes on their backs.
And so we three went out at dawn over the silver-green, dewy fields. On our left, beyond the Oka, above the ruddy sides of the Hill of Dyatlov, above white Nijni–Novgorod, on the hillocks in the gardens, on the golden domes of churches, rose the lazy Russian sun in its leisurely manner. A gentle wind blew sleepily from the turbid Oka; the golden buttercups, bowed down by the dew, sway to and fro; lilac-colored bells bowed dumbly to the earth; everlasting flowers of different colors stuck up dryly in the barren turf; the blood-red blossoms of the flower called “night beauty” opened like stars. The woods came to meet us like a dark army; the fir-trees spread out their wings like large birds; the birches looked like maidens. The acrid smell of the marshes flowed over the fields. My dog ran beside me with his pink tongue hanging out, often halting and snuffing the air, and shaking his fox-like head, as if in perplexity. Grandfather, in grand — mother’s short coat and an old peakless cap, blinking and smiling at something or other, walked as cautiously as if he were bent on stealing. Grandmother, wearing a blue blouse, a black skirt, and a white handkerchief about her head, waddled comfortably. It was difficult to hurry when walking behind her.
The nearer we came to the forest, the more animated grandfather became. Walking with his nose in the air and muttering, he began to speak, at first disjointedly and inarticulately, and afterward happily and beautifully, almost as if he had been drinking.
“The forests are the Lord’s gardens. No one planted them save the wind of God and the holy breath of His mouth. When I was working on the boats in my youth I went to Jegoulya. Oh, Lexei, you will never have the experiences I have had! There are forests along the Oka, from Kasimov to Mouron, and there are forests on the Volga, too, stretching as far as the Urals. Yes; it is all so boundless and wonderful.”
Grandmother looked at him askance, and winked at me, and he, stumbling over the hillocks, let fall some disjointed, dry words that have remained forever fixed in my memory.
“We were taking some empty oil-casks from Saratov to Makara on the Yamarka, and we had with us as skipper Kyril of Poreshka. The mate was a Tatar — Asaph, or some such name. When we reached Jegulia the wind was right in our faces, blowing with all its force; and as it remained in the same quarter and tossed us about, we went on shore to cook some food for ourselves. It was Maytime. The sea lay smooth around the land, and the waves just floated on her, like a flock of birds — like thousands of swans which sport on the Caspian Sea. The hills of Jegulia are green in the springtime; the sun floods the earth with gold. We rested; we became friendly; we seemed to be drawn to one another. It was gray and cold on the river, but on shore it was warm and fragrant. At eventide our Kyril — he was a harsh man and well on in years — stood up, took off his cap, and said: ‘Well, children, I am no longer either chief or servant. Go away by yourselves, and I will go to the forest.’ We were all startled. What was it that he was saying? We ought not to be left without some one responsible to be master. You see, people can’t get on without a head, although it is only on the Volga, which is like a straight road. It is possible to lose one’s way, for people alone are only like a senseless beast, and who cares what becomes of them? We were frightened; but he — he had made up his mind. T have no desire to go on living as your shepherd; I am going into the forest.’ Some of us had half a mind to seize and keep him by force, but the others said, ‘Wait!’ Then the Tatar mate set up a cry: T shall go, too!’ It was very bad luck. The Tatar had not been paid by the proprietors for the last two journeys; in fact, he had done half of a third one without pay, and that was a lot of money to lose in those days. We wrangled over the matter until night, and then seven of our company left us, leaving only sixteen or fourteen of us. That’s what your forests do for people!” “Did they go and join the brigands?”
“Maybe, or they may have become hermits. We did not inquire into the matter then.”
Grandmother crossed herself.
“Holy Mother of God! When one thinks of people, one cannot help being sorry for them.”
“We are all given the same powers of reason, you know, where the devil draws.”
We entered the forest by a wet path between marshy hillocks and frail fir-trees. I thought that it must be lovely to go and live in the woods as Kyril of Poreshka had done. There are no chattering human creatures there, no fights or drunkenness. There I should be able to forget the repulsive greediness of grandfather and mother’s sandy grave, all of which things hurt me, and weighed on my heart with an oppressive heaviness. When we came to a dry place grandmother said:
“We must have a snack now. Sit down.”
In her basket there were rye bread, onions, cucumbers, salt, and curds wrapped in a cloth. Grandfather looked at all this in confusion and blinked.
“But I did not bring anything to eat, good Mother.”
“There is enough for us all.”
We sat down, leaning against the mast-like trunk of a fir-tree. The air was laden with a resinous odor; from the fields blew a gentle wind; the shave-grass waved to and fro. Grandmother plucked the herbs with her dark hands, and told me about the medicinal properties of St. John’s-wort, betony, and rib-wort, and of the secret power of bracken. Grandfather hewed the fallen trees in pieces, and it was my part to carry the logs and put them all in one place; but I stole away unnoticed into the thicket after grandmother. She looked as if she were floating among the stout, hardy tree-trunks, and as if she were diving when she stooped to the earth, which was strewn with fir-cones. She talked to herself as she went along.
“We have come too early again. There will be hardly any mushrooms. Lord, how badly Thou lookest after the poor! Mushrooms are the treat of the poor.”
I followed her silently and cautiously, not to attract her attention. I did not wish to interrupt her conversation with God, the herbs, and the frogs. But she saw me.
“Have you run away from grandfather?” And stooping to the black earth, splendidly decked in flowered vestments, she spoke of the time when God, enraged with mankind, flooded the earth with water and drowned all living creatures. “But the sweet Mother of God had beforehand collected the seeds of everything in a basket and hidden them, and when it was all over, she begged the sun: ‘Dry the earth from end to end, and then will all the people sing thy praises.’ The sun dried the earth, and she sowed the seed. God looked. Once more the earth was covered with living creatures, herbs, cattle, and people. ‘Who has done this against My will?’ He asked. And here she confessed, and as God had been sorry Himself to see the earth bare, He said to her, ‘You have done well.’ ”
I liked. this story, but it surprised me, and I said very gravely:
“But was that really so? The Mother of God was born long after the flood.”
It was now grandmother’s turn to be surprised.
“Who told you that?’
“It was written in the books at school.”
This reassured her, and she gave me the advice:
“Put all that aside; forget it. It is only out of books; they are lies, those books.” And laughing softly, gayly, “Think for a moment, silly! God was; and His Mother was not? Then of whom was He born?”
“I don’t know.”
“Good! You have learned enough to be able to say 1 don’t know.’ ”
“The priest said that the Mother of God was bom of Joachim and Anna.”
Then grandmother was angry. She faced about, and looked sternly into my eyes.
“If that is what you think, I will slap you.” But in the course of a few minutes she explained to me. “The Blessed Virgin always existed before any one and anything. Of Her was God born, and then — ”
“And Christ, what about Him?”
Grandmother was silent, shutting her eyes in her confusion.
“And what about Christ? Eh? thV
I saw that I was victor, that I had caused the divine mysteries to be a snare to her, and it was not a pleasant thought.
We went farther and farther into the forest, into the dark-blue haze pierced by the golden rays of the sun. There was a peculiar murmur, dreamy, and arousing dreams. The crossbill chirped, the titmouses uttered their bell-like notes, . the goldfinch piped, the cuckoo laughed, the jealous song of the chaffinch was heard unceasingly, and that strange bird, the hawfinch, sang pensively. Emerald-green frogs hopped around our feet; among the roots, guarding them, lay an adder, with his golden head raised; the squirrel cracked nuts, his furry tail peeping out among the fir-trees. The deeper one went into the forest, the more one saw.
Among the trunks of the fir-trees appeared transparent, aerial figures of gigantic people, which dis appeared into the green mass through which the blue and silver sky shone. Under one’s feet there was a splendid carpet of moss, sown with red bilberries, and moor-berries shone in the grass like drops of blood. Mushrooms tantalized one with their strong smell.
“Holy Virgin, bright earthly light,” prayed grandmother, drawing a deep breath.
In the forest she was like the mistress of a house with all her family round her. She ambled along like a bear, seeing and praising everything and giving thanks. It seemed as if a certain warmth flowed from her through the forest, and when the moss, crushed by her feet, raised itself and stood up in her wake, it was peculiarly pleasing to me to see it.
As I walked along I thought how nice it would be to be a brigand; to rob the greedy and give the spoil to the poor; to make them all happy and satisfied, neither envying nor scolding one another, like bad-tempered curs. It was good to go thus to grand — mother’s God, to her Holy Virgin, and tell them all the truth about the bad lives people led, and how clumsily and offensively they buried one another in rubbishy sand. And there was so much that was un necessarily repulsive and torturing on earth! If the Holy Virgin believed what I said, let her give me such an intelligence as would enable me to construct everything differently and improve the condition of things. It did not matter about my not being grown-up. Christ had been only a year older than I was when the wise men listened to Him.
Once in my preoccupation I fell into a deep pit, hurting my side and grazing the back of my neck. Sitting at the bottom of this pit in the cold mud, which was as sticky as resin, I realized with a feeling of intense humiliation that I should not be able to get out by myself, and I did not like the idea of frightening grandmother by calling out. However, I had to call her in the end. She soon dragged me out, and, crossing herself, said:
“The Lord be praised! It is a lucky thing that the bear’s pit was empty. What would have happened to you if the master of the house had been lying there?” And she cried through her laughter.
Then she took me to the brook, washed my wounds and tied them up with strips of her chemise, after laying some healing leaves upon them, and took me into the railway signal-box, for I had not the strength to get all the way home.
And so it happened that almost every day I said to grandmother:
“Let us go into the forest.”
She used to agree willingly, and thus we lived all the summer and far into the autumn, gathering herbs, berries, mushrooms, and nuts. Grandmother sold what we gathered, and by this means we were able to keep ourselves.
“Lazy beggars!” shrieked grandfather, though we never had food from him.
The forest called up a feeling of peace and solace in my heart, and in that feeling all my griefs were swallowed up, and all that was unpleasant was obliterated. During that time also my senses acquired a peculiar keenness, my hearing and sight became more acute, my memory more retentive, my storehouse of impressions widened.
And the more I saw of grandmother, the more she amazed me. I had been accustomed to regard her as a higher being, as the very best and the wisest creature upon the earth, and she was continually strengthening this conviction. For instance, one evening we had been gathering white mushrooms, and when we arrived at the edge of the forest on our way home grandmother sat down to rest while I went behind the tree to see if there were any more mushrooms. Suddenly I heard her voice, and this is what I saw: she was seated by the footpath calmly putting away the root of a mushroom, while near her, with his tongue hanging out, stood a gray, emaciated dog.
“You go away now! Go away!” said grandmother. “Go, and God be with you!”
Not long before that Valek had poisoned my dog, and I wanted very much to have this one. I ran to the path. The dog hunched himself strangely without moving his neck, and, looking at me with his green, hungry eyes, leaped into the forest, with his tail between his legs. His movements were not those of a dog, and when I whistled, he hurled himself wildly into the bushes.
“You saw?” said grandmother, smiling. “At first I was deceived. I thought it was a dog. I looked again and saw that I was mistaken. He had the fangs of a wolf, and the neck, too. I was quite frightened. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you are a wolf, take yourself off!’ It is a good thing that wolves are not dangerous in the summer.”
She was never afraid in the forest, and always found her way home unerringly. By the smell of the grass she knew what kind of mushrooms ought to be found in such and such a place, what sort in another, and often examined me in the subject.
“What sort of trees do this and that fungus love? How do you distinguish the edible from the poisonous?”
By hardly visible scratches on the bark of a tree she showed me where the squirrel had made his home in a hollow, and I would climb up and ravage the nest of tlie animal, robbing him of his winter store of nuts. Sometimes there were as many as ten pounds in one nest. And one day, when I was thus engaged, a hunter planted twenty-seven shot in the right side of my body. Grandmother got eleven of them out with a needle, but the rest remained under my skin for many years, coming out by degrees.
Grandmother was pleased with me for bearing pain patiently.
“Brave boy!” she praised me. “He who is most patient will be the cleverest.”
Whenever she had saved a little money from the sale of mushrooms and nuts, she used to lay it on window-sills as “secret alms,” and she herself went about in rags and patches even on Sundays.
“You go about worse than a beggar. You put me to shame,” grumbled grandfather.
“What does it matter to you? I am not your daughter. I am not looking for a husband.”
Their quarrels had become more frequent.
“I am not more sinful than others,” cried grandfather in injured tones, “but my punishment is greater.”
Grandmother used to tease him.
“The devils know what every one is worth.” And she would say to me privately: “My old man is frightened of devils. See how quickly he is aging! It is all from fear; eh, poor man!”
I had become very hardy during the summer, and quite savage through living in the forest, and I had lost all interest in the life of my contemporaries, such as Ludmilla. She seemed to me to be tiresomely sensible.
One day grandfather returned from the town very wet. It was autumn, and the rains were falling. Shaking himself on the threshold like a sparrow, he said triumphantly:
“Well, young rascal, you are going to a new situation tomorrow.”
“Where now?” asked grandmother, angrily.
“To your sister Matrena, to her son.”
“O Father, you have done very wrong.”
“Hold your tongue, fool! They will make a man of him.”
Grandmother let her head droop and said nothing more.
In the evening I told Ludmilla that I was going to live in the town.
“They are going to take me there soon,” she informed me, thoughtfully. “Papa wants my leg to be taken off altogether. Without it I should get well.”
She had grown very thin during the summer; the skin of her face had assumed a bluish tint, and her eyes had grown larger.
“Are you afraid?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she replied, and wept silently.
I had no means of consoling her, for I was frightened myself at the prospect of life in town. We sat for a long time in painful silence, pressed close against each other. If it had been summer, I should have asked grandmother to come begging with me, as she had done when she was a girl. We might have taken Ludmilla with us; I could have drawn her along in a little cart. But it was autumn. A damp wind blew up the streets, the sky was heavy with rain-clouds, the earth frowned. It had begun to look dirty and unhappy.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50