GRANDFATHER and grandmother had again gone into the town. I went to them, prepared to be angry and warlike; but my heart was heavy. Why had they accounted me a thief 9
Grandmother greeted me tenderly, and at once went to prepare the samovar. Grandfather asked as mockingly as usual:
“Have you saved much money?”
“What there is belongs to me,” I answered, taking a seat by the window. I triumphantly produced a box of cigarettes from my pocket and began to smoke importantly.
“So-o-o,” said grandfather, looking at me fixedly — “so that’s it! You smoke the devil’s poison? Isn’t it rather soon?”
“Why, I have even had a pouch given to me,” I boasted.
“A pouch?” squeaked grandfather. “What! Are you saying this to annoy me?”
He rushed upon me, with his thin, strong hands out-stretched, his green eyes flashing. I leaped up, and stuck my head into his stomach. The old man sat on the floor, and for several oppressive moments looked at me, amazedly blinking, his dark mouth open. Then he asked quietly:
“You knock me down, your grandfather? The father of your mother?”
“You have knocked me about enough in the past,” I muttered, not understanding that I had acted abominably.
Withered and light, grandfather rose from the floor, sat beside me, deftly snatched the cigarette from me, threw it out of the window, and said in a tone of fear:
“You mad fool! Don’t you understand that God will punish you for this for the rest of your life? Mother,” — he turned to grandmother, — “did you see that? He knocked me down — he! Knocked me down! Ask him!”
She did not wait to ask. She simply came over to me, seized me by the hair, and beat me, saying:
“And for that — take this — and this!”
I was not hurt, but I felt deeply insulted, especially by grandfather’s laughter. He jumped on a chair, slapped his legs with his hands, and croaked through his laughter:
“Th-a-t’s right! Tha-a-t’s right!”
I tore myself away, and ran out to the shed, where I lay in a comer crushed, desolate, listening to the singing of the samovar.
Then grandmother came to me, bent over me, and whispered hardly audibly:
“You must forgive me, for I purposely did not hurt you. I could not do otherwise than I did, for grandfather is an old man. He has to be treated with care. He has fractured some of his small bones, and, besides, sorrow has eaten into his heart. You must never do him any harm. You are not a little boy now. You must remember that. You must, Oleshal He is like a child, and nothing more.”
Her words laved me like warm water. That friendly whisper made me feel ashamed of myself, and, light-hearted, I embraced her warmly. We kissed.
“Go to him. Go along. It is all right, only don’t smoke before him yet. Give him time to get used to the idea.”
I went back to the room, glanced at grandfather, and could hardly keep from laughing. He really was as pleased as a child. He was radiant, twisting his feet, and running his paws through his red hair as he sat by the table.
“Well, goat, have you come to butt me again? Ach, you — brigand! Just like your father! Freemason! You come back home, never cross yourself, and start smoking at once. Ugh, you — Bonaparte! you copeck’s worth of goods!”
I said nothing. He had exhausted his supply of words and was silent from fatigue. But at tea he began to lecture me.
“The fear of God is necessary to men.; it is like a bridle to a horse. We have no friend except God. Man is a cruel enemy to man.” That men were my enemies, I felt was the truth, but the rest did not interest me.
“Now you will go back to Aunt Matrena, and in the spring you can go on a steamboat again. Live with them during the winter. And you need not tell them that you are leaving in the spring.”
“Now, why should he deceive people?” said grandmother, who had just deceived grandfather by pre tending to give me a beating.
“It is impossible to live without deceit,” declared grandfather. “Just tell me now. Who lives without deceiving others?”
In the evening, while grandfather was reading his office, grandmother and I went out through the gate into the fields. The little cottage with two windows in which grandfather lived was on the outskirts of the town, at the back of Kanatni Street, where grandfather had once had his own house.
“So here we are again!” said grandmother, laughing. “The old man cannot find a resting-place for his soul, but must be ever on the move. And he does not even like it here; but I do.”
Before us stretched for about three versts fields of scanty herbage, intersected by ditches, bounded by woods and the line of birches on the Kazan highroad. From the ditches the twigs of bushes projected, the rays of a cold sunset reddened them like blood. A soft evening breeze shook the gray blades of grass. From a nearer pathway, also like blades of grass, showed the dark form of town lads and girls. On the right, in the distance, stood the red walls of the burial-ground of the Old Believers. They called it “The Bugrovski Hermitage.” On the left, beyond the causeway, rose a dark group of trees; there was the Jewish cemetery. All the surroundings were poor, and seemed to lie close to the wounded earth. The little houses on the outskirts of the town looked timidly with their windows on the dusty road. Along the road wandered small, ill-fed fowl. Toward the Dyevichia Monastery went a herd of lowing cows, from the camp came the sound of martial music. The brass instruments brayed.
A drunken man came along, ferociously holding out a harmonica. He stumbled and muttered:
“I am coming to thee — without fail.”
“Fool!” said grandmother, blinking in the red sun-light. “Where are you going? Soon you will fall down and go to sleep, and you will be robbed in your sleep. You will lose your harmonica, your consolation.”
I told her all about the life on the boat as I looked about me. After what I had seen I found it dull here; I felt like a fish out of water. Grandmother listened in silence and with attention, just as I liked to listen to her. When I told her about Smouri she crossed herself and said:
“He is a good man, help him. Mother of God; he is good! Take care, you, that you do not forget him! You should always remember what is good, and what is bad simply forget.”
It was very difficult for me to tell her why they had dismissed me, but I took courage and told her. It made no impression whatever on her. She merely said calmly:
“You are young yet; you don’t know how to live.” “That is what they all say to one another, ‘You don’t know how to live’ — peasants, sailors, Aunt Matrena to her son. But how does one learn?” She compressed her lips and shook her head. “I don’t know myself.”
“And yet you say the same as the others!” “And why should I not say it?” replied grandmother, calmly. “You must not be offended. You are young; you are not expected to know. And who does know, after all? Only rogues. Look at your grandfather. Clever and well educated as he is, yet he does not know.”
“And you — have you managed your life well?” “I? Yes. And badly also; all ways.” People sauntered past us, with their long shadows following them. The dust rose like smoke under their feet, burying those shadows. Then the evening sadness became miore oppressive. The sound of grand — father’s grumbling voice flowed from the window:
“Lord, in Thy wrath do not condemn me, nor in Thy rage punish me!”
Grandmother said, smiling:
“He has made God tired of him. Every evening he has his tale of woe, and about what? He is old now, and he does not need anything; yet he is always complaining and working himself into a frenzy about something. I expect God laughs when He hears his voice in the evening. There’s Vassili Kashirin grumbling again!’ Come and go to bed now.”
I made up my mind to take up the occupation of catching singing-birds. I thought it would be a good way of earning a living. I would catch them, and grandmother would sell them. I bought a net, a hoop, and a trap, and made a cage. At dawn I took my place in a hollow among the bushes, while grandmother went in the woods with a basket and a bag to find the last mushrooms, bulbs, and nuts.
The tired September sun had only just risen. Its pale rays were now extinguished by clouds, now fell like a silver veil upon me in the causeway. At the bottom of the hollow it was still dusk, and a white mist rose from it. Its clayey sides were dark and bare, and the other side, which was more sloping, was covered with grass, thick bushes, and yellow, brown, and scarlet leaves. A fresh wind raised them and swept them along the ditch.
On the ground, among the turnip-tops, the gold-finch uttered its cry. I saw, among the ragged, gray grass, birds with red caps on their lively heads. About me fluttered curious titmouses. They made a great noise and fuss, comically blowing out their white cheeks, just like the young men of Kunavin Street on a Sunday. Swift, clever, spiteful, they wanted to know all and to touch everything, and they fell into the trap one after the other. It was pitiful to see how they beat their wings, but my business was strictly commerce. I changed the birds over into the spare cage and hid them in a bag. In the dark they kept quiet.
A flock of siskins settled on a hawthorn-bush. The bush was suffused by sunlight. The siskins were glad of the sun and chirped more merrily than ever. Their antics were like those of schoolboys. The thirsty, tame, speckled magpie, late in setting out on his journey to a warmer country, sat on the bending bough of a sweetbriar, cleaning his wing feathers and insolently looking at his prey with his black eyes. The lark soared on high, caught a bee, and, carefully depositing it on a thorn, once more settled on the ground, with his thievish head alert. Noiselessly flew the talking-bird, — the hawfinch, — the object of my longing dreams, if only I could catch him. A bullfinch, driven from the flock, was perched on an alder-tree. Red, important, like a general, he chirped angrily, shaking his black beak.
The higher the sun mounted, the more birds there were, and the more gayly they sang. The hollow was full of the music of autumn. The ceaseless rustle of the bushes in the wind, and the passionate songs of the birds, could not drown that soft, sweetly melancholy noise. I heard in it the farewell song of summer. It whispered to me words meant for my ears alone, and of their own accord they formed themselves into a song. At the same time my memory unconsciously recalled to my mind pictures of the past. From somewhere above grandmother cried:
“Where are you?”
She sat on the edge of the pathway. She had spread out a handkerchief on which she had laid bread, cucumber, turnips, and apples. In the midst of this display a small, very beautiful cut-glass decanter stood. It had a crystal stopper, the head of Napoleon, and in the goblet was a measure of vodka, distilled from herbs.
“How good it is, O Lord!” said grandmother, gratefully.
“I have composed a song.”
I repeated to her something which I thought was like poetry.
“That winter draws near the signs are many;
Farewell to thee, my summer sun!”
But she interrupted without hearing me out.
“I know a song like that, only it is a better one.”
And she repeated in a singsong voice:
“Oi, the summer sun has gone
To dark nights behind the distant woods!
Ekh! I am left behind, a maiden,
Alone, without the joys of spring.
Every morn I wander round;
I trace the walks I took in May.
The bare fields unhappy look;
There it was I lost my youth.
Oif my friends, my kind friends,
Take my heart from my white breast,
Bury my heart in the snow!”
My conceit as an author suffered not a little, but I was delighted with this song, and very sorry for the girl.
“That is how grief sings. That was made up by a young girl, you know. She went out walking all the springtime, and before the winter her dear love had thrown her over, perhaps for another girl. She wept because her heart was sore. You cannot speak well and truly on what you have not experienced for yourself. You see what a good song she made up.”
When she sold a bird for the first time, for forty copecks, she was very surprised.
“Just look at that! I thought it was all nonsense, just a boy’s amusement; and it has turned out like this!”
“You sold it too cheaply.”
On market-days she sold them for a ruble, and was more surprised than ever. What a lot one might earn by just playing about!
“And a woman spends whole days washing clothes or cleaning floors for a quarter of a ruble, and here you just catch them! But it isn’t a nice thing to do, you know, to keep birds in a cage. Give it up, Olesha!”
But bird-catching amused me greatly; I liked it.
It gave me my independence and inconvenienced no one but the birds. I provided myself with good implements. Conversations with old bird-catchers taught me a lot. I went alone nearly three versts to catch birds: to the forest of Kstocski, on the banks of the Volga, where in the tall fir-trees lived and bred crossbills, and most valuable to collectors, the Apollyon titmouse, a long-tailed, white bird of rare beauty.
Sometimes I started in the evening and stayed out all night, wandering about on the Kasanski high-road, and sometimes in the autumn rains and through deep mud. On my back I carried an oilskin bag in which were cages, with food to entice the birds. In my hand was a solid cane of walnut wood. It was cold and terrifying in the autumn darkness, very terrifying. There stood by the side of the road old lightning-riven birches; wet branches brushed across my head. On the left under the hill, over the black Volga, floated rare lights on the masts of the last boats and barges, looking as if they were in an unfathomable abyss. The wheels splashed in the water, the sirens shrieked.
From the hard ground rose the huts of the roadside villages. Angry, hungry dogs ran in circles round my legs. The watchman collided with me, and cried in terror:
“Who is that? He whom the devils carry does not come out till night, they say.”
I was very frightened lest my tackle should be taken from me, and I used to take five-copeck pieces with me to give to the watchmen. The watchman of the village of Thokinoi made friends with me, and was al — ways groaning over me.
“What, out again? O you fearless, restless night-bird, eh?”
His name was Niphront. He was small and gray, like a saint. He drew out from his breast a turnip, an apple, a handful of peas, and placed them in my hand, saying:
“There you are, friend. There is a little present for you. Eat and enjoy it.” And conducting me to the bounds of the village, he said, “Go, and God be with you!”
I arrived at the forest before dawn, laid my traps, and spreading out my coat, lay on the edge of the forest and waited for the day to come. It was still. Everything was wrapped in the deep autumn sleep. Through the gray mist the broad meadows under the hill were hardly visible. They were cut in two by the Volga, across which they met and separated again, melting away in the fog. In the distance, behind the forest on the same side as the meadows, rose without hurry the bright sun. On the black mane of the forest lights flashed out, and my heart began to stir strangely, poignantly. Swifter and swifter the fog rose from the meadows, growing silver in the rays of the sun, and, following it, the bushes, trees, and hay-ricks rose from the ground. The meadows were simply flooded with the sun’s rays and flowed on each side, red-gold. The sun just glanced at the still water by the bank, and it seemed as if the whole river moved toward the sun. as it rose higher and higher, joyfully blessed and warmed the denuded, chilled earth, which gave forth the sweet smell of autumn. The transparent air made the earth look enormous, boundlessly wide. Everything seemed to be floating in the distance, and to be luring one to the farthest ends of the world. I saw the sunrise ten times during those months, and each time a new world was born before my eyes, with a new beauty.
I loved the sun so much that its very name delighted me. The sweet sound of it was like a bell hidden in it. I loved to close my eyes and place my face right in the way of its hot rays to catch it in my hands when it came, like a sword, through the chinks of the fence or through the branches. Grandfather had read over and over again “Prince Mikhail Chernigovski and the Lady Theodora who would not Worship the Sun,” and my idea of these people was that they were black, like Gipsies, harsh, malignant, and always had bad eyes, like poor Mordovans. When the sun rose over the meadows I involuntarily smiled with joy.
Over me murmured the forest of firs, shaking off the drops of dew with its green paws. In the shadows and on the fern-leaves glistened, like silver brocade, the rime of the morning frost. The reddening grass was crushed by the rain; immovable stalks bowed their heads to the ground: but when the sun’s rays fell on them a slight stir was noticeable among the herbs, as if, may be, it was the last effort of their lives.
The birds awoke. Like gray balls of down, they fell from bough to bough. Flaming crossbills pecked with their crooked beaks the knots on the tallest firs. On the end of the fir-branches sang a white Apollyon titmouse, waving its long, rudder-like tail, looking askance suspiciously with its black, beady eyes at the net which I had spread. And suddenly the whole forest, which a minute ago had been solemnly pensive, was filled with the sound of a thousand bird — voices, with the bustle of living beings, the purest on the earth. In their image, man, the father of earthly beauty, created for his own consolation, elves, cherubim, and seraphim, and all the ranks of angels.
I was rather sorry to catch the little songsters, and had scruples about squeezing them into cages. I would rather have merely looked at them; but the hunter’s passion and the desire to earn money drove away my pity.
The birds mocked me with their artfulness. The blue titmouse, after a careful examination of the trap, understood her danger, and, approaching sidewise without running any risk, helped herself to some seed between the sticks of the trap. Titmouses are very clever, but they are very curious, and that is their undoing. The proud bullfinches are stupid, and flocks of them fall into the nets, like overfed citizens into a church. When they find themselves shut up, they are very astonished, roll their eyes, and peck my fingers with their stout beaks. The crossbill entered the trap calmly and seriously. This grasping, ignorant bird, unlike all the others, used to sit for a long time before the net, stretching out his long beak, and leaning on his thick tail. He can run up the trunk of trees like the woodpecker, always escorting the titmouse. About this smoke-gray singing-bird there is something unpleasant. No one loves it. And it loves no one. Like the magpie, it likes to steal and hide bright things.
Before noon I had finished my catch, and went home through the forest. If I had gone by the high-road past the villages, the boys and young men would have taken my cages away from me and broken up my tackle. I had already experienced that once.
I arrived home in the evening tired and hungry, but I felt that I had grown older, had learned something new, and had gained strength during that day. This new strength gave me the power to listen calmly and without resentment to grandfather’s jeers; seeing which, grandfather began to speak sensibly and seriously.
“Give up this useless business! Give it up! No one ever got on through birds. Such a thing has never happened that I know of. Go and find another place, and let your intelligence grow up there. Man has not been given life for nothing; he is God’s grain, and he must produce an ear of corn. Man is like a ruble; put out at good interest it produces three rubles. You think life is easy to live? No, it is not all easy. The world of men is like a dark night, but every man must make his own light. To every person is given enough for his ten fingers to hold, but every one wants to grasp by handfuls. One should be strong, but if one is weak, one must be artful. He who has little strength is weak, and he is neither in heaven nor in hell. Live as if you are with others, but remember that you are alone. Whatever happens, never trust any one. If you believe your own eyes, you will measure crookedly. Hold your tongue. Neither town or house was built by the tongue, but rubles are made by the ax. You are neither a fool nor a Kalmuck, to whom all riches are like lice on sheep.”
He could talk like this all the evening, and I knew his words by heart. The words pleased me, but I distrusted their meaning. From what he said it was plain that two forces hindered man from doing as he wished, God and other people.
Seated at the window, grandmother wound the cotton for her lace. The spindle hummed under her skil — ful hands. She listened for a long time to grand — father’s speech in silence, then she suddenly spoke.
“It all depends upon whether the Mother of God smiles upon us.”
“What’s that?” cried grandfather. “God! I have not forgotten about God. I know all about God. You old fool, has God sown fools on the earth, eh?”
In my opinion the happiest people on earth were Cossacks and soldiers. Their lives were simple and gay. On fine mornings they appeared in the hollow near our house quite early. Scattering over the bare fields like white mushrooms, they began a complicated, interesting game. Agile and strong in their white blouses, they ran about the field with guns in their hands, disappeared in the hollow, and suddenly, at the sound of the bugle, again spread themselves over the field with shouts of “Hurrah!” accompanied by the ominous sounds of the drum. They ran straight at our house with fixed bayonets, and they looked as if they would knock it down and sweep it away, like a hay-rick, in a minute. I cried “Hurrah!” too, and ran with them, quite carried away. The wicked rattle of the drum aroused in me a passionate desire to destroy something, to break down the fence, to hit other boys. When they were resting, the soldiers used to give me a treat by teaching me how to signal and by showing me their heavy guns. Sometimes one of them would stick his bayonet into my stomach and cry, with a pretense of anger:
“Stick the cockroach!”
The bayonet gleamed; it looked as if it were alive, and seemed to wind about like a snake about to coil itself up. It was rather terrifying, but more pleasant.
The Mordovan drummer taught me to strike the drum with my fingers. At first he used to take me by the wrist, and, moving them so that he hurt me, would thrust the sticks into my crushed fingers.
“Hit it — one, two-one-tw-o-o! Rum te — tum! Beat it — left — softly, right — loudly, rum te —!” he shouted threateningly, opening wide his bird-like eyes.
I used to run about the field with the soldiers, almost to the end of the drill, and after it was finished, I used to escort them across the town to the barracks, listening to their loud songs, looking into their kind faces, all as new as five-ruble pieces just coined. The close-packed mass of happy men passing up the streets in one united body aroused a feeling of friendliness in me, a desire to throw myself in among them as into a river, to enter into them as into a forest. These men were frightened of nothing; they could conquer anything; they were capable of anything; they could do anything they liked; and they were all simple and good.
But one day during the time they were resting a young non-commissioned officer gave me a fat cigarette.
“Smoke this! I would not give them to any one. In fact I hardly like to give you one, my dear boy, they are so good.”
I smoked it. He moved away a few steps, and suddenly a red flame blinded me, burning my fingers, my nose, my eyebrows. A gray, acrid smoke made me splutter and cough. Blinded, terrified, I stamped on the ground, and the soldiers, who had formed a ring around me, laughed loudly and heartily. I ran away home. Whistles and laughter followed me; something cracked like a shepherd’s whip. My burned fingers hurt me, my face smarted, tears flowed from my eyes; but it was not the pain which oppressed me, only a heavy, dull amazement. Why should this amuse these good fellows?
When I reached home I climbed up to the attic and sat there a long time brooding over this inexplicable cruelty which stood so repulsively in my path. I had a peculiarly clear and vivid memory of the little soldier from Sarapulia standing before me, as large as life, and saying:
“Well, do you understand?”
Soon I had to go through something still more depressing and disgusting.
I had begun to run about in the barracks of the Cossacks, which stood near the Pecherski Square. The Cossacks seemed different from the soldiers, not because they rode so skilfully oh horseback and were dressed more beautifully, but because they spoke in a different way, sang different songs, and danced beautifully. In the evening, after they had seen to their horses, they used to gather in a ring near the stables, and a little red-haired Cossack, shaking his tufts of hair, sang softly in a high-pitched voice, like a trumpet. The long-drawn-out, sad song flowed out upon the Don and the blue Dounia. His eyes were closed, like the eyes of a linnet, which often sings till it falls dead from the branch to the ground. The collar of his Cossack shirt was undone. His collar-bone was visible, looking like a copper band. In fact, he was altogether metallic, coppery. Swaying on his thin legs, as if the earth under him were rocking, spreading out his hands, he seemed sightless, but full of sound. He, as it were, ceased to be a man, and became a brass instrument. Sometimes it seemed to me that he was falling, that he would fall on his back to the ground, and die like the linnet, because he put into the song all his soul and all his strength.
With their hands in their pockets or behind their broad backs, his comrades stood round in a ring, sternly looking at his brassy face. Beating time with their hands, softly spitting into space, they joined in earnestly, softly, as if they were in the choir in church. All of them, bearded and shaven, looked like icons, stern and set apart from other people. The song was long, like a long street, and as level, as broad and as wide. When I listened to him I forgot everything else, whether it was day or night upon the earth, whether I was an old man or a little boy. Everything else was forgotten. The voice of the singer died away. The sighs of the horses were audible as they grieved for their native steppes, and gently, but surely, the autumn night crept up from the fields. My heart swelled and almost burst with a multitude of extraordinary feelings, and a great, speechless love for human creatures and the earth.
The little copper-colored Cossack seemed to me to be no man, but something much more significant — a legendary being, better and on a higher plane than ordinary people. I could not talk to him. When he asked me a question I smiled blissfully and remained shyly silent. I was ready to follow him anywhere, silently and humbly, like a dog. All I wanted was to see him often, and to hear him sing.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55