IN a narrow, darkened room, my father, dressed in a white and unusually long garment, lay on the floor under the window. The toes of his bare feet were curiously extended, and the fingers of the still hands, which rested peacefully upon his breast, were curved; his merry eyes were tightly closed by the black disks of two copper coins; the light had gone out of his still face, and I was frightened by the ugly way he showed his teeth.
My mother, only half clad in a red petticoat, knelt and combed my father’s long, soft hair, from his brow to the nape of his neck, with the same black comb which I loved to use to tear the rind of watermelons; she talked unceasingly in her low, husky voice, and it seemed as if her swollen eyes must be washed away by the incessant flow of tears.
Holding me by the hand was my grandmother, who had a big, round head, large eyes, and a nose like a sponge a dark, tender, wonderfully interesting person. She also was weeping, and her grief formed a fitting accompaniment to my mother’s, as, shuddering the while, she pushed me towards my father; but I, terrified and uneasy, obstinately tried to hide myself against her. I had never seen grown-up people cry before, and I did not understand the words which my grandmother uttered again and again:
“Say good-by to daddy. You will never see him any more. He is dead before his time.”
I had been very ill, had only just left my bed in fact, and I remember perfectly well that at the beginning of my illness my father used to merrily bustle about me. Then he suddenly disappeared and his place was taken by my grandmother, a stranger to me.
“Where did you come from?” I asked her.
“From up there, from Nijni,” she answered; “but I did not walk here, I came by boat. One does not walk on water, you little imp.”
This was ludicrous, incomprehensible, and untrue; upstairs there lived a bearded, gaudy Persian, and in the cellar an old, yellow Kalmuck who sold sheepskins. One could get upstairs by riding on the banisters, or if one fell that way, one could roll. I knew this by experience. But where was there room for water? It was all untrue and delightfully muddled.
“And why am I a little imp?”
“Why? Because you are so noisy,” she said, laughing.
She spoke sweetly, merrily, melodiously, and from the very first day I made friends with her; all I wanted now was for her to make haste and take me out of that room.
My mother pressed me to her; her tears and groans created in me a strange feeling of disquietude. It was the first time I had seen her like this. She had always appeared a stern woman of few words; neat, glossy, and strongly built like a horse, with a body of almost savage strength, and terribly strong arms. But now she was swollen and palpitating, and utterly desolate. Her hair, which was always coiled so neatly about her head, with her large, gaily trimmed cap, was tumbled about her bare shoulders, fell over her face, and part of it which remained plaited, trailed across my father’s sleeping face. Although I had been in the room a long time she had not once looked at me; she could do nothing but dress my father’s hair, sobbing and choking with tears the while.
Presently some swarthy gravediggers and a soldier peeped in at the door.
The latter shouted angrily:
“Clear out now! Hurry up!”
The window was curtained by a dark shawl, which the wind inflated like a sail. I knew this because one day my father had taken me out in a sailing-boat, and without warning there had come a peal of thunder. He laughed, and holding me against his knees, cried, “It is nothing. Don’t be frightened, Luke!”
Suddenly my mother threw herself heavily on the floor, but almost at once turned over on her back, dragging her hair in the dust; her impassive, white face had become livid, and showing her teeth like my father, she said in a terrible voice, “Close the door! . . . Alexis . . . go away!”
Thrusting me on one side, grandmother rushed to the door crying:
“Friends! Don’t be frightened; don’t interfere, but go away, for the love of Christ. This is not cholera but childbirth. . . . I beg of you to go, good people!”
I hid myself in a dark corner behind a box, and thence I saw how my mother writhed upon the floor, panting and gnashing her teeth; and grandmother, kneeling beside her, talked lovingly and hopefully.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son . . .! Be patient, Varusha! Holy Mother of God! . . . Our Defense . . .!”
I was terrified. They crept about on the floor close to my father, touching him, groaning and shrieking, and he remained unmoved and actually smiling. This creeping about on the floor lasted a long time; several times my mother stood up, only to fall down again, and grandmother rolled in and out of the room like a large, black, soft ball. All of a sudden a child cried.
“Thank God!” said grandmother. “It is a boy!” And she lighted a candle.
I must have fallen asleep in the corner, for I remember nothing more.
The next impression which my memory retains is a deserted corner in a cemetery on a rainy day. I am standing by a slippery mound of sticky earth and looking into the pit wherein they have thrown the coffin of my father. At the bottom there is a quantity of water, and there are also frogs, two of which have even jumped on to the yellow lid of the coffin.
At the graveside were myself, grandmother, a drenched sexton, and two cross gravediggers with shovels.
We were all soaked with the warm rain which fell in fine drops like glass beads.
“Fill in the grave,” commanded the sexton, moving away.
Grandmother began to cry, covering her face with a corner of the shawl which she wore for a head-covering. The gravediggers, bending nearly double, began to fling the lumps of earth on the coffin rapidly, striking the frogs, which were leaping against the sides of the pit, down to the bottom.
“Come along, Lenia,” said grandmother, taking hold of my shoulder; but having no desire to depart, I wriggled out of her hands.
“What next, O Lord?” grumbled grandmother, partly to me, and partly to God, and she remained for some time silent, with her head drooping dejectedly.
The grave was filled in, yet still she stood there, till the gravediggers threw their shovels to the ground with a resounding clangor, and a breeze suddenly arose and died away, scattering the raindrops; then she took me by the hand and led me to a church some distance away, by a path which lay between a number of dark crosses.
“Why don’t you cry?” she asked, as we came away from the burial-ground. “You ought to cry.”
“I don’t want to,” was my reply.
“Well, if you don’t want to, you need not,” she said gently.
This greatly surprised me, because I seldom cried, and when I did it was more from anger than sorrow; moreover, my father used to laugh at my tears, while my mother would exclaim, “Don’t you dare to cry!”
After this we rode in a droshky through a broad but squalid street, between rows of houses which were painted dark red.
As we went along, I asked grandmother, “Will those frogs ever be able to get out?”
“Never!” she answered. “God bless them!” I reflected that my father and my mother never spoke so often or so familiarly of God.
A few days later my mother and grandmother took me aboard a steamboat, where we had a tiny cabin.
My little brother Maxim was dead, and lay on a table in the corner, wrapped in white and wound about with red tape. Climbing on to the bundles and trunks I looked out of the porthole, which seemed to me exactly like the eye of a horse. Muddy, frothy water streamed unceasingly down the pane. Once it dashed against the glass with such violence that it splashed me, and I involuntarily jumped back to the floor.
“Don’t be afraid,” said grandmother, and lifting me lightly in her kind arms, restored me to my place on the bundles.
A gray, moist fog brooded over the water; from time to time a shadowy land was visible in the distance, only to be obscured again by the fog and the foam. Everything about us seemed to vibrate, except my mother who, with her hands folded behind her head, leaned against the wall fixed and still, with a face that was grim and hard as iron, and as expressionless. Standing thus, mute, with closed eyes, she appeared to me as an absolute stranger. Her very frock was unfamiliar to me.
More than once grandmother said to her softly “Varia, won’t you have something to eat?”
My mother neither broke the silence nor stirred from her position.
Grandmother spoke to me in whispers, but to rm mother she spoke aloud, and at the same time cau tiously and timidly, and very seldom. I thought she was afraid of her, which was quite intelligible, am seemed to draw us closer together.
“Saratov!” loudly and fiercely exclaimed my mother with startling suddenness. “Where is the sailor?”
Strange, new words to me! Saratov? Sailor?
A broad-shouldered, gray-headed individual dressed in blue now entered, carrying a small box which grand mother took from him, and in which she proceeded t( place the body of my brother. Having done this she bore the box and its burden to the door on her out stretched hands; but, alas! being so stout she could only get through the narrow doorway of the cabin sideways, and now halted before it in ludicrous uncer tainty.
“Really, Mama!” exclaimed my mother impatiently, taking the tiny coffin from her. Then they both disappeared, while I stayed behind in the cabin regarding the man in blue.
“Well, mate, so the little brother has gone?” he said, bending down to me.
“Who are you?”
“I am a sailor.”
“And who is Saratov?”
“Saratov is a town. Look out of the window. There it is!”
Observed from the window, the land seemed to oscillate; and revealing itself obscurely and in a fragmentary fashion, as it lay steaming in the fog, it reminded me of a large piece of bread just cut off a hot loaf.
“Where has grandmother gone to?”
“To bury her little grandson.”
“Are they going to bury him in the ground?”
“Yes, of course they are.”
I then told the sailor about the live frogs that had been buried with my father.
He lifted me up, and hugging and kissing me, cried, “Oh, my poor little fellow, you don’t understand. It is not the frogs who are to be pitied, but your mother. Think how she is bowed down by her sorrow.”
Then came a resounding howl overhead. Having already learned that it was the steamer which made this noise, I was not afraid; but the sailor hastily set me down on the floor and darted away, exclaiming, “I must run!”
The desire to escape seized me. I ventured out of the door. The dark, narrow space outside was empty, and not far away shone the brass on the steps of the staircase. Glancing upwards, I saw people with wallets and bundles in their hands, evidently going off the boat. This meant that I must go off too.
But when I appeared in front of the gangway, amidst the crowd of peasants, they all began to yell at me.
“Who does he belong to? Who do you belong to?’
No one knew.
For a long time they jostled and shook and poked me about, until the gray-haired sailor appeared and seized me, with the explanation:
“It is the Astrakhan boy from the cabin.”
And he ran off with me to the cabin, deposited me on the bundles and went away, shaking his finger at me, as he threatened, “I’ll give you something!”
The noise overhead became less and less. The boat had ceased to vibrate, or to be agitated by the motion of the water. The window of the cabin was shut in by damp walls; within it was dark, and the air was stifling. It seemed to me that the very bundles grew larger and began to press upon me; it was all horrible, and I began to wonder if I was going to be left alone forever in that empty boat.
I went to the door, but it would not open; the brass handle refused to turn, so I took a bottle of milk and with all my force struck at it. The only result was that the bottle broke and the milk spilled over my legs, and trickled into my boots. Crushed by this failure, I threw myself on the bundles crying softly, and so fell asleep.
When I awoke the boat was again in motion, and the window of the cabin shone like the sun.
Grandmother, sitting near me, was combing her hair and muttering something with knitted brow. She had an extraordinary amount of hair which fell over her shoulders and breast to her knees, and even touched the floor. It was blue-black. Lifting it up from the floor with one hand and holding it with difficulty, she introduced an almost toothless wooden comb into its thick strands. Her lips were twisted, her dark eyes sparkled fiercely, while her face, encircled in that mass of hair, looked comically small. Her expression was almost malignant, but when I asked her why she had such long hair she answered in her usual mellow, tender voice:
“Surely God gave it to me as a punishment. . . . Even when it is combed, just look at it! . . . When I was young I was proud of my mane, but now I am old I curse it. But you go to sleep. It is quite early. The sun has only just risen.”
“But I don’t want to go to sleep again.”
“Very well, then don’t go to sleep,” she agreed at once, plaiting her hair and glancing at the berth on which my mother lay rigid, with upturned face. “How did you smash that bottle last evening? Tell me about it quietly.”
So she always talked, using such peculiarly harmonious words that they took root in my memory like fragrant, bright, everlasting flowers. When she smiled the pupils of her dark, luscious eyes dilated and beamed with an inexpressible charm, and her strong white teeth gleamed cheerfully. Apart from her multitudinous wrinkles and her swarthy complexion, she had a youthful and brilliant appearance. What spoiled her was her bulbous nose, with its distended nostrils, and red lips, caused by her habit of taking pinches of snuff from her black snuff-box mounted with silver, and by her fondness for drink. Everything about her was dark, but within she was luminous with an inextinguishable, joyful and ardent flame, which revealed itself in her eyes. Although she was bent, almost humpbacked, in fact, she moved lightly and softly, for all the world like a huge cat, and was just as gentle as that caressing animal.
Until she came into my life I seemed to have been asleep, and hidden away in obscurity; but when she appeared she woke me and led me to the light of day.
Connecting all my impressions by a single thread, she wove them into a pattern of many colors, thus making herself my friend for life, the being nearest my heart, the dearest and best known of all; while her disinterested love for all creation enriched me, and built up the strength needful for a hard life.
Forty years ago boats traveled slowly; we were a long time getting to Nijni, and I shall never forget those days almost overladen with beauty.
Good weather had set in. From morning till night I was on the deck with grandmother, under a clear sky, gliding between the autumn-gilded shores of the Volga, without hurry, lazily; and, with many resounding groans, as she rose and fell on the gray-blue water, a barge attached by a long rope was being drawn along by the bright red steamer. The barge was gray, and reminded me of a wood-louse.
Unperceived, the sun floated over the Volga. Every hour we were in the midst of fresh scenes; the green hills rose up like rich folds on earth’s sumptuous vesture; on the shore stood towns and villages; the golden autumn leaves floated on the water.
“Look how beautiful it all is!” grandmother exclaimed every minute, going from one side of the boat to the other, with a radiant face, and eyes wide with joy. Very often, gazing at the shore, she would forget me; she would stand on the deck, her hands folded on her breast, smiling and in silence, with her eyes full of tears. I would tug at her skirt of dark, sprigged linen.
“Ah!” she would exclaim, starting. “I must have fallen asleep, and begun to dream.”
“But why are you crying?”
“For joy and for old age, my dear,” she would reply, smiling. “I am getting old, you know sixty years have passed over my head.”
And taking a pinch of snuff, she would begin to tell me some wonderful stories about kind-hearted brigands, holy people, and all sorts of wild animals and evil spirits.
She would tell me these stories softly, mysteriously, with her face close to mine, fixing me with her dilated eyes, thus actually infusing into me the strength which was growing within me. The longer she spoke, or rather sang, the more melodiously flowed her words. It was inexpressibly pleasant to listen to her.
I would listen and beg for another, and this is what I got:
“In the stove there lives an old goblin; once he got a splinter into his paw, and rocked to and fro whimpering, ‘Oh, little mice, it hurts very much; oh, little mice, I can’t bear it!’ ”
Raising her foot, she took it in her hands and wagged it from side to side, wrinkling up her face so funnily, just as if she herself had been hurt.
The sailors who stood round bearded, good-natured men listening and laughing, and praising the stories, would say:
“Now, Grandmother, give us another.”
Afterwards they would say:
“Come and have supper with us.”
At supper they regaled her with vodka, and me with water-melon; this they did secretly, for there went to and fro on the boat a man who forbade the eating of fruit, and used to take it away and throw it in the river. He was dressed like an official, and was always drunk; people kept out of his sight.
On rare occasions my mother came on deck, and stood on the side farthest from us. She was always silent. Her large, well-formed body, her grim face, her heavy crown of plaited, shining hair all about her was compact and solid, and she appeared to me as if she were enveloped in a fog or a transparent cloud, out of which she looked unamiably with her gray eyes, which were as large as grandmother’s.
Once she exclaimed sternly:
“People are laughing at you, Mama!”
“God bless them!” answered grandmother, quite unconcerned. “Let them laugh, and good luck to ’em.”
I remember the childish joy grandmother showed at the sight of Nijni. Taking my hand, she dragged me to the side, crying:
“Look! Look how beautiful it is! That’s Nijni, that is! There ‘s something heavenly about it. Look at the church too. Doesn’t it seem to have wings’?” And she turned to my mother, nearly weeping. “Varusha, look, won’t you? Come here! You seem to have forgotten all about it. Can’t you show a little gladness?”
My mother, with a frown, smiled bitterly.
When the boat arrived outside the beautiful town between two rivers blocked by vessels, and bristling with hundreds of slender masts, a large boat containing many people was drawn alongside it. Catching the boat-hook in the gangway, one after another the passengers came on board. A short, wizened man, dressed in black, with a red-gold beard, a bird-like nose, and green eyes, pushed his way in front of the others.
“Papa!” my mother cried in a hoarse, loud voice, as she threw herself into his arms; but he, taking her face in his little red hands and hastily patting her cheeks, cried:
“Now, silly! What’s the matter with you? . . .”
Grandmother embraced and kissed them all at once, turning round and round like a peg-top; she pushed me towards them, saying quickly:
“Now make haste! This is Uncle Michael, this is Jaakov, this is Aunt Natalia, these are two brothers both called Sascha, and their sister Katerina. This is all our family. Isn’t it a large one?”
Grandfather said to her:
“Are you quite well, Mother?” and they kissed each other three times.
He then drew me from the dense mass of people, and laying his hand on my head, asked:
“And who may you be?”
“I am the Astrakhan boy from the cabin.”
“What on earth is he talking about?” Grandfather turned to my mother, but without waiting for an answer, shook me and said: “You are a chip of the old block. Get into the boat.”
Having landed, the crowd of people wended its way up the hill by a road paved with rough cobblestones between two steep slopes covered with trampled grass.
Grandfather and mother went in front of us all. He was a head shorter than she was, and walked with little hurried steps; while she, looking down on him from her superior height, appeared literally to float beside him. After them walked dark, sleek-haired Uncle Michael, wizened like grandfather, bright and curly-headed Jaakov, some fat women in brightly colored dresses, and six children, all older than myself and all very, quiet. I was with grandmother and little Aunt Natalia. Pale, blue-eyed and stout, she frequently stood still, panting and whispering:
“Oh, I can’t go any farther!”
“Why did they trouble you to come?” grumbled grandmother angrily. “They are a silly lot!”
I did not like either the grown-up people nor the children; I felt myself to be a stranger in their midst even grandmother had somehow become estranged and distant.
Most of all I disliked my uncle; I felt at once that he was my enemy, and I was conscious of a certain feeling of cautious curiosity towards him.
We had now arrived at the end of our journey.
At the very top, perched on the right slope, stood the first building in the street a squat, one-storied house, decorated with dirty pink paint, with a narrow over-hanging roof and bow-windows. Looked at from the street it appeared to be a large house, but the interior, with its gloomy, tiny rooms, was cramped. Everywhere, as on the landing-stage, angry people strove together, and a vile smell pervaded the whole place.
I went out into the yard. That also was unpleasant. It was strewn with large, wet cloths and lumbered with tubs, all containing muddy water, of the same hue, in which other cloths lay soaking. In the corner of a half-tumbled-down shed the logs burned brightly in a stove, upon which something was boiling or baking, and an unseen person uttered these strange words:
“Santaline, fuchsin, vitriol!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50