ONCE more I found myself at grandfather’s. “Well, robber, what do you want?” were his words of greeting; and he accompanied them by rapping his fingers on the table. “I am not going to feed you any longer; let your grandmother do it.”
“And so I will,” said grandmother. “Ekh! what ill-luck. Just think of it.”
“All right, feed him if you want to,” cried grandfather; then growing calmer, he explained to me:
“She and I live quite separately now; we have nothing to do with each other.”
Grandmother, sitting under the window, was making lace with swift movements; the shuttle snapped gaily, and the pillow, thickly sewn with copper pins, shone like a golden hedgehog in the spring sunlight. And grandmother herself one would think she had been cast in copper was unchanged. But grandfather was more wizened, more wrinkled; his sandy hair had grown gray, and his calm, self-important manner had given way to a fuming fussiness; his green eyes had grown dim, and had a suspicious expression. Laughingly, grandmother told me of the division of property which had taken place between herself and grandfather; he had given her all the pots and pans and crockery ware, saying:
“Here is your little lot, and don’t you ask me for anything else.”
Thereupon he took all her old clothes and things, including a cloak of fox fur, and sold them for seven hundred roubles, and put the money out at interest to his Jew godson, the fruit merchant. Finally the malady of avarice fastened upon him, and he became lost to shame; he began to go about amongst his old acquaintances, his former colleagues, rich merchants, and complaining that he had been ruined by his children, would ask for money to help him in his poverty. He profited by their regard for him, for they gave to him generously large sums in notes which he flourished boastfully in grandmother’s face, taunting her, like a child:
“Look, fool, they won’t give you a hundredth part of that.”
The money which he obtained in this way he put out at interest with a new friend of his a tall, bald furrier called, in the village, Khlist (a horsewhip), and his sister, a shopkeeper a fat, red-cheeked woman with brown eyes, dark and sweet like virgin-honey.
All expenses in the house were carefully divided: one day the dinner was prepared by grandmother from provisions bought with her own money; and the next day it was grandfather who provided the food and his dinners were never as good as hers, for grandmother bought good meat while he bought such stuff as liver and lights and scraps of meat. They each had their own store of tea and sugar, but the tea was brewed in the same teapot, and grandfather would say anxiously:
“Wait! Wait a moment! . . . How much have you put in?”
Shaking the tea-leaves out on to his palm, he would carefully measure them out, saying:
“Your tea is finer than mine, so I ought to put in less, as mine is a large leaf.”
He was very particular that grandmother should pour out his tea and her own both equally strong, and that she should fill her cup only as often as he filled his.
“What about the last one?” she asked, just before she had poured out all the tea.
Grandfather looked into the teapot and said:
“There ‘s plenty there for the last one.”
Even the oil for the image-lamp he bought separately and this after fifty years of united labor!
These tricks of grandfather amused and disgusted me at the same time, but to grandmother they were simply funny.
“You be quiet!” she would say pacifyingly to me.
“What of it? He is an old, old man, and he is getting silly; that ‘s all. He must be eighty, or not far off it. Let him play the fool; what harm does it do any one? And I will do a little work for myself and you never mind!”
I also began to earn a little money; in the holidays, early in the morning, I took a bag and went about the yards and streets collecting bones, rags, paper and nails. Rag-merchants would give two greevin (twenty kopecks) for a pood (forty pounds) of rags and paper, or iron, and ten or eight kopecks for a pood of bones. I did this work on week days after school too, and on Saturdays I sold articles at thirty kopecks or half a rouble each, and sometimes more if I was lucky. Grandmother took the money away from me and put it quickly into the pocket of her skirt, and praised me, looking down:
“There! Thank you, my darling. This will do for our food. . . . You have done very well.”
One day I saw her holding five kopecks of mine in her hands, looking at them, and quietly crying; and one muddy tear hung from the tip of her spongy, pumicestone-like nose.
A more profitable game than rag-picking was the theft of logs and planks from the timber-yards on the banks of the Oka, or on the Island of Pesk, where, hi fair time, iron was bought and sold in hastily built booths. After the fairs the booths used to be taken down, but the poles and planks were stowed away in the boathouses, and remained there till close on the time of the spring floods. A small houseowner would give ten kopecks for a good plank, and it was possible to steal two a day. But for the success of the undertaking, bad weather was essential, when a snowstorm or heavy rains would drive the watchmen to hide themselves under cover.
I managed to pick up some friendly accomplices one ten-year-old son of a Morduan beggar, Sanka Vyakhir, a kind, gentle boy always tranquilly happy; kinless Kostrom, lanky and lean, with tremendous black eyes, who in his thirteenth year was sent to a colony of young criminals for stealing a pair of doves; the little Tartar Khabi, a twelve-year-old “strong man,” simple-minded and kind; blunt-nosed Yaz, the son of a graveyard watchman and grave-digger, a boy of eight, taciturn as a fish, and suffering from epilepsy; and the eldest of all was the son of a widowed dress-maker, Grishka Tchurka, a sensible, straightforward boy, who was terribly handy with his fists. We all lived in the same street.
Theft was not counted as a crime in our village; it had become a custom, and was practically the only means the half-starved natives had of getting a livelihood. Fairs lasting a month and a half would not keep them for a whole year, and many respectable householders “did a little work on the river” catching logs and planks which were borne along by the tide, and carrying them off separately or in small loads at a time; but the chief form this occupation took was that of thefts from barges, or in a general prowling up and down the Volga or Oka on the lookout for anything which was not properly secured. The grown-up people used to boast on Sundays of their successes, and the youngsters listened and learned.
In the springtime, during the spell of heat before the fair, when the village streets were full of drunken workmen, cabmen, and all classes of working folk, the village children used to rummage in their pockets. This was looked upon as legitimate business, and they carried it on under the very eyes of their elders. They stole his tools from the carpenter, the keys from the heedless cabman, the harness from the dray-horse, and the iron from the axles of the cart. But our little band did not engage in that sort of thing. Tchurka announced one day in a tone of decision:
“I am. not going to steal. Mamka does not allow it.”
“And I am afraid to,” said Khabi.
Kostrom was possessed by an intense dislike for the little thieves; he pronounced the word “thieves” with peculiar force, and when he saw strange children picking the pockets of tipsy men he drove them away, and if he happened to catch one of them he gave him a good beating. This large-eyed, unhappy-looking boy imagined himself to be grown-up; he walked with a peculiar gait, sideways, just like a porter, and tried to speak in a thick, gruff voice, and was very reserved and self-possessed, like an old man.
Vyakhir believed that to steal was to sin.
But to take planks and poles from Pesk, that was not accounted a sin; none of us were afraid of that, and we so ordered matters as to make it very easy to succeed. Some evening, when it was beginning to grow dark, or by day, if it was bad weather, Vyakhir and Yaz set out for Pesk, crossing the creek by the wet ice. They went openly, for the purpose of drawing on themselves the attention of the watchmen, while we four crossed over separately without being seen. While the watchmen, suspicious of Yaz and Vyakhir, were occupied in watching them, we betook ourselves to the boathouse, which we had fixed upon beforehand, chose something to carry off, and while our fleet-footed companions were teasing the watchmen, and luring them to pursuit, we made off home. Each one of us had a piece of string with a large nail, bent like a hook, at the end of it, which we fastened in the plank or pole, and thus were able to drag it across the snow and ice. The watchmen hardly ever saw us, and if they did see us they were never able to overtake us.
When we had sold our plunder we divided the gains into six shares, which sometimes came to as much as five or seven kopecks each. On that money it was possible to live very comfortably for a day, but Vyakhir’s mother beat him if he did not bring her something for a glass of brandy or a little drop of vodka. Kostrom was saving his money, dreaming of the establishment of a pigeon-hunt. The mother of Tchurka was ill, so he tried to work as much as possible. Khabi also saved his money, with the object of returning to his native town, whence he had been brought by his uncle who had been drowned at Nijni soon after his arrival. Khabi had forgotten what the town was called; all he remembered was that it stood on the Kama, close by the Volga. For some reason we always made fun of this town, and we used to tease the cross-eyed Tartar by singing:
“On the Kama a town there is, But nobody knows where it is! Our hands to it will never reach, Our feet to find it we cannot teach.”
At first Khabi used to get angry with us, but one day Vyakhir said to him in his cooing voice, which justified his nickname:
“What is the matter with you? Surely you are not angry with your comrades.”
The Tartar was ashamed of himself, and after that he used to join us in singing about the town on the Kama.
But all the same we preferred picking up rags and bones to stealing planks. The former was particularly interesting in the springtime, when the snow had melted, and after the rain had washed the street pavements clean. There, by the place where the fair was held, we could always pick up plenty of nails and pieces of iron in the gutter, and occasionally we found copper and silver coins; but to propitiate the watchman, so that he would not chase us away or seize our sacks, we had to give him a few kopecks or make profound obeisances to him. But we found it no easy task to get money. Nevertheless, we got on very well together, and though we sometimes disputed a little amongst ourselves, I do not remember that we ever had one serious quarrel.
Our peacemaker was Vyakhir, who always had some simple words ready, exactly suited to the occasion, which astonished us and put us to shame. He uttered them himself in a tone of astonishment. Yaz’s spiteful sallies neither offended nor upset him; in his opinion everything bad was unnecessary, and he would reject it calmly and convincingly.
“Well, what is the use of it?” he would ask, and we saw clearly that it was no use.
He called his mother “my Morduan,” and we did not laugh at him.
“My Morduan rolled home tipsy again last evening,” he would tell us gaily, flashing his round, gold-colored eyes. “She kept the door open, and sat on the step and sang like a hen.”
“What did she sing?” asked Tchurka, who liked to be precise.
Vyakhir, slapping his hands on his knees, reproduced his mother’s song in a thin voice:
“Shepherd, tap thy window small,
Whilst we run about the mall;
Tap, tap again, quick bird of night,
With piping music, out of sight,
On the village cast thy spell.”
He knew many passionate songs like this, and sang them very well.
“Yes,” he continued, “so she went to sleep on the doorstep, and the room got so cold I was shivering from head to foot, and got nearly frozen to death; but she was too heavy for me to drag her in. I said to her this morning, ‘What do you mean by getting so dreadfully drunk?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it is all right. Bear with me a little longer. I shall soon be dead.’
“She will soon be dead,” repeated Tchurka, in a serious tone. “She is already dropsical.”
“Would you be sorry?” I asked.
“Of course I should,” exclaimed Vyakhir, astonished. “She is all right with me, you know.”
And all of us, although we knew that the Morduan beat Vyakhir continually, believed that she was “all right,” and sometimes even, when we had had a bad day, Tchurka would suggest:
“Let us put our kopecks together to buy Vyakhir’s mother some brandy, or she will beat him.”
The only ones in our company who could read and write were Tchurka and I. Vyakhir greatly envied us, and would murmur, as he took himself by his pointed, mouse-like ears:
“As soon as my Morduan is buried I shall go to school too. I shall go on my knees to the teacher and beg him to take me, and when I have finished learning I will go as gardener to the Archbishop, or perhaps to the Emperor himself.”
In the spring the Morduan, in company with an old man, who was a collector for a church building-fund, and a bottle of vodka, was crushed by the fall of a wood-stack; they took the woman to the hospital, and practical Tchurka said to Vyakhir:
“Come and live with me, and my mother will teach you to read and write.”
And in a very short time Vyakhir, holding his head high, could read the inscription: “Grocery Store,” only he read “Balakeinia,” and Tchurka corrected him:
“Bakaleinia, my good soul.”
“I know but the letters jump about so. They jump because they are pleased that they are being read.”
He surprised us all, and made us laugh very much by his love of trees and grass. The soil of the village was sandy and vegetation was scanty in some of the yards stood a miserable willow tree, or some straggling elder bushes, or a few gray, dry blades of grass hid themselves timidly under a fence but if one of us sat on them, Vyakhir would cry angrily:
“Why must you sit on the grass? Why don’t you sit on the gravel? It is all the same to you, isn’t it?”
In his opinion there was no sense in breaking off branches from the willow, or plucking elder flowers, or cutting weeping willow twigs on the banks of the Oka; he always expressed great surprise when we did this, shrugged his shoulders, and spread out his hands:
“Why on earth do you want to break everything? Look what you have done, you devils!” And before his astonishment we were ashamed.
We had contrived a very merry game for Saturdays, and we were preparing for it all the week by collecting all the troddendown bast shoes we could find and storing them in convenient corners. Then on Saturday evening when the Tartar porters came home from the Siberian ports, we took up a position at the cross-roads and pelted the Tartars with shoes.
At first this used to irritate them, and they ran after us, and abused us; but the game soon began to interest them, and knowing what they might expect they appeared on the field of battle also armed with a quantity of bast shoes, and what is more, they found out where we kept our war materials and stole them. We made a complaint about this “It is not playing the game!” Then they divided the shoes, giving us half, and the fight began. Generally they drew themselves up in an open place, in the middle of the cross-roads, and with yells we ran round them, hurling the shoes. They also yelled, and laughed loud enough to deafen any one when one of us buried his head in the sand, having been thrown down by a shoe adroitly hurled under his feet.
This game would be carried on with zest for a long time, sometimes till it was nearly dark; and the inhabitants used to gather round, or watch us from corners, and grumble, because they thought it was the right thing to do. The dusty shoes flew about like crows in the damp air; sometimes one of us was hit hard, but the pleasure of the game was greater than pain or injury.
The Tartars were not less keen on it than we were; often when we had finished playing we went with them to an eating-house where they fed us with a special sweet kind of preserve made with fruit, and after supper we drank thick, brick-colored tea, with sweet-meats. We liked these people, whose strength matched their great size; there was something about them so childlike and transparent. The points which most struck me about them were their meekness, their unwavering good-nature, and their grave, impressive respect for each other.
They all laughed so heartily that the tears ran down their faces; and one of them, a native of Kassimov, with a broken nose, was a man renowned for his strength. One day he carried, from a barge which was at some distance from the shore, a bell weighing twenty-seven poods, and he roared out laughing as he cried: “Voo! Voo!”
One day he made Vyakhir sit on the palm of his hand, and lifting him on high, he said:
“Look where you are living now, right up in the sky.”
In bad weather we used to assemble at Yaz’s home, in the burial-ground, where his father’s lodge was. This father was an individual with hoisted bones, long arms, and a small head; mud-colored hair grew on his face. His head looked like a burdock set on his long, thin neck, as on a stalk. He had a delightful way of half closing his yellow eyes and muttering rapidly:
“God give us rest. Ouch!”
We bought three zolotniks of tea, eight portions of sugar, some bread, and, of course, a portion of vodka for Yaz’s father, who was sternly ordered about by Tchurka:
“Good for nothing peasant, get the samovar ready.”
The peasant laughed and prepared the tin samovar; and while we discussed business as we waited for tea to be ready, he gave us good advice:
“Look here! The day after tomorrow is the month’s mind of Trusov, and there will be some feasting going on there . . . . There ‘s a place to pick up bones.”
“The cook collects all the bones at Trusov’s,” observed Tchurka, who knew everything.
Vyakhir said dreamily, as he looked out of the window on the graveyard:
“We shall soon be able to go out to the woods.”
Yaz was always silent, looking at us all expressively with his sad eyes. In silence he showed us his toys wooden soldiers which he had found in a rubbish pit, horses without legs, pieces of copper, and buttons.
His father set the table with cups and saucers of various patterns, and brought in the samovar. Kostrom sat down to pour out tea, and he, when he had drunk his vodka, climbed on the stove, and stretching out his long neck, surveyed us with vinous eyes, and muttered:
“Ouch! So you must take your ease, as if you were not little boys at all, eh”? Ach! thieves . . . God give us rest!”
Vyakhir said to him:
“We are not thieves at all.”
“Well little thieves then.”
If Yaz’s father became too tiresome, Tchurka cried angrily:
“Be quiet, you trashy peasant!”
Vyakhir, Tchurka and I could not bear to hear the man counting up the number of houses which contained people in ill-health, or trying to guess how many of the villagers would die soon; he spoke so calculatingly and pitilessly, and seeing that what he said was objectionable to us, he purposely teased and tormented us:
“Oh, so you are afraid, young masters’? Well, well! And before long a certain stout person will die ekh! And long may he rot in his grave!”
We tried to stop him, but he would not leave off.
“And, you know, you’ve got to die too; you can’t live long in this cesspool!”
“Well,” said Vyakhir, “that’s all right; and when we die they will make angels of us.”
“Yo u?” exclaimed Yaz’s father, catching his breath in amazement. “You? Angels?”
He chuckled, and then began to tease us again by telling us disgusting stories about dead people.
But sometimes this man began to talk in a murmur, lowering his voice strangely:
“Listen, children . . . wait a bit! The day before yesterday they buried a female . . . and I knew her history, children. . . . What do you think the woman was?”
He often spoke about women, and always obscenely; yet there was something appealing and plaintive about his stories he invited us to share his thoughts, as it were and we listened to him attentively. He spoke in an ignorant and unintelligent manner, frequently interrupting his speech by questions; but his stories always left some disturbing splinters or fragments in one’s memory.
“They ask her: ‘Who set the place on fire?’ ‘I did!’ ‘How can that be, foolish woman, when you were not at home that night, but lying ill in the hospital?’ ‘I set the place on fire.’ That ‘s the way she kept on. . . . Why? Ouch! God give us rest.”
He knew the life story of nearly every female inhabitant of the place who had been buried by him in that bare, melancholy graveyard, and it seemed as if he were opening the doors of houses, which we entered, and saw how the occupiers lived; and it made us feel serious and important. He would have gone on talking all night till the morning apparently, but as soon as the lodge window grew cloudy, and the twilight closed in upon it, Tchurka rose from the table and said: .
“I am going home, or Mamka will be frightened. Who is coming with me?”
We all went away then. Yaz conducted us to the fence, closed the gate after us, and pressing his dark, bony face against the grating, said in a thick voice:
We called out “Good-by” to him too. It was always hard to leave him in the graveyard. Kostrom said one day, looking back:
“We shall come and ask for him one day and he will be dead.”
“Yaz has a worse life than any of us,” Tchurka said frequently; but Vyakhir always rejoined:
“We don’t have a bad time any of us!”
And when I look back I see that we did not have a bad time. That independent life so full of contrasts was very attractive to me, and so were my comrades, who inspired me with a desire to be always doing them a good turn.
My life at school had again become hard; the pupils nicknamed me “The Ragman” and “The Tramp,” and one day, after a quarrel, they told the teacher that I smelt like a drain, and that they could not sit beside me. I remember how deeply this accusation cut me, and how hard it was for me to go to school after it. The complaint had been made up out of malice. I washed very thoroughly every morning, and I never went to school in the clothes I wore when I was collecting rags.
However, in the end I passed the examination for the third class, and received as prizes bound copies of the Gospels and the “Fables of Krilov,” and another book unbound which bore the unintelligible title of “Fata–Morgana”; they also gave me some sort of laudatory certificates. When I took my presents home, grandfather was delighted, and announced his intention of taking the books away from me and locking them up in his box. But grandmother had been lying ill for several days, penniless, and grandfather continually sighed and squeaked out: “You will eat me out of house and home. Ugh! You!” so I took the books to a little shop, where I sold them for fifty-five kopecks, and gave the money to grandmother; as to the certificates I spoiled them by scribbling over them, and then handed them to grandfather, who took them without turning them over, and so put them away, without noticing the mischief I had done, but I paid for it later on.
As school had broken up I began to live in the streets once more, a d I found it better than ever.
It was in the middle of spring, and money was earned easily; on Sundays the whole company of us went out into the fields, or into the woods, where the foliage was fresh and young, early in the morning, and did not return till late in the evening, pleasantly tired, and drawn together closer than ever.
But this form of existence did not last long. My stepfather, dismissed for getting into debt, had disappeared again, and mother came back to grandfather, with my little brother Nikolai, and I had to be nurse, for grandmother had gone to live at the house of a rich merchant in the town, where she worked at stitching shrouds.
Mother was so weak and anemic that she could hardly walk, and she had a terrible expression in her eyes as she looked about her. My brother was scrofulous, and covered with painful ulcers, and so weak that he could not even cry aloud and only whimpered when he was hungry. When he had been fed he slumbered, breathing with a strange sound like the soft mewing of a kitten.
Observing him attentively, grandfather said:
“He ought to have plenty of good food; but I have not got enough to feed you all.”
Mother, sitting on the bed in the corner, sighed, and said in a hoarse voice:
“He does not want much.”
“A little for one and a little for another soon mounts up.”
He waved his hand as he turned to me:
“Nikolai must be kept out in the sun in some sand.”
I dragged out a sack of clean sand, turned it out in a heap in a place where the sun was full on it, and buried my brother in it up to his neck, as grandfather told me. The little boy loved sitting in the sand; he cooed sweetly, and flashed his bright eyes upon me extraordinary eyes they were, without whites, just blue pupils surrounded by brilliant rings.
I became attached to my little brother at once. It seemed to me that he understood all my thoughts as I lay beside him on the sand under the window, whence the sound of grandfather’s shrill voice proceeded:
“If he dies and he won’t have much difficulty about it you will have a chance to live.”
Mother answered by a long fit of coughing.
Getting his hands free, the little boy held them out to me, shaking his small white head; he had very little hair, and what there was was almost gray, and his tiny face had an old and wise expression. If a hen or a cat came near us Kolai would gaze at it for a long time, then he would look at me and smile almost significantly. That smile of his disturbed me. Was it possible that he felt that I found it dull being with him, and was longing to run out to the street and leave him there?
The yard was small, close, and dirty; from the gate were built a succession of sheds and cellars ending at the washhouse. All the roofs were made of pieces of old boats logs, boards, and damp bits of wood which had been secured by the inhabitants of the neighborhood when the ice was breaking on the Oka, or at flood-time and the whole yard was an unsightly conglomeration of heaps of wood of all sorts, which, being saturated with water, sweated in the sun and emitted an intensified odor of rottenness.
Next door there was a slaughter-house for the smaller kind of cattle, and almost every morning could be heard the bellowing of calves and the bleating of sheep, and the smell of blood became so strong sometimes that it seemed to me that it hovered in the air in the shape of a transparent, purple net.
When the animals bellowed as the butt-end of the ax struck them between the horns, Kolai would blink and blow out his lips, as if he wanted to imitate the sound; but all he could do was to breathe:
“Phoo . .”
At midday grandfather, putting his head out of the window, would call:
He used to feed the child himself, holding him on his knees, pressing potatoes and bread into Kolai’s mouth, and smearing them all over his thin lips and pointed chin. When he had given him a little food grandfather would lift up the little boy’s shirt, poke his swollen stomach with his fingers, and debate with himself aloud:
“Will that do? Or must I give him some more?”
Then my mother’s voice would be heard, proceeding from her dark corner:
“Look at him! He is reaching for the bread.”
“Stupid child! How can he possibly know how much he ought to eat?” And again he gave Kolai something to chew.
I used to feel ashamed when I looked on at this feeding business; a lump seemed to rise in my throat and make me feel sick.
“That will do,” grandfather would say, at length. “Take him to his mother.”
I took Kolai; he wailed and stretched his hands out to the table. Mother, raising herself with difficulty, came to meet me, holding out her hideously dry, fleshless arms, so long and thin just like branches broken off a Christmas-tree.
She had become almost dumb, hardly ever uttering a word in that passionate voice of hers, but lying in silence all day long in her corner slowly dying. That she was dying I felt, I knew yes. And grandfather spoke too often, in his tedious way, of death, especially in the evening, when it grew dark in the yard, and a smell of rottenness, warm and woolly, like a sheep’s fleece, crept in at the window.
Grandfather’s bed stood in the front corner, almost under the image, and he used to lie there with his head towards it and the window, and mutter for a long time in the darkness:
“Well the time has come for us to die. How shall we stand before our God? What shall we say to Him? All our life we have been struggling. What have we done”? And with what object have we done it?’
I slept on the floor between the stove and the window; I had not enough room, so I had to put my feet in the oven, and the cockroaches used to tickle them. This corner afforded me not a little malicious enjoyment, for grandfather was continually breaking the window with the end of the oven-rake, or the poker, during his cooking operations; and it was very comical to see, and very strange, I thought, that any one so clever as grandfather should not think of cutting down the rake.
One day when there was something boiling in a pot on the fire he was in a hurry, and he used the rake so carelessly that he broke the window-frame, two panes of glass, and upset the saucepan on the hearth and broke it. The old man was in such a rage that he sat on the floor and cried.
That day, when he had gone out, I took a bread knife and cut the oven-rake down to a quarter or a third of its size; but when grandfather saw what I had done, he scolded me:
“Cursed devil! It ought to have been sawn through with a saw. We might have made rolling-pins out of the end, and sold them, you devil’s spawn!”
Throwing his arms about wildly, he ran out of the door, and mother said:
“You ought not to have meddled . . .”
She died one Sunday in August about midday. My stepfather had only just returned from his travels, and had obtained a post somewhere. Grandmother had taken Kolai to him to a newly done-up flat near the station, and mother was to be carried there in a few days.
In the morning of the day of her death she said to me in a low but a lighter and clearer voice than I had heard from her lately:
“Go to Eugen Vassilev, and ask him to come to me.”
Lifting herself up in bed by pressing her hands against the wall, she added:
I thought she was smiling, and that there was a new light in her eyes.
My stepfather was at Mass, and grandmother sent me to get some snuff for her; there was no prepared snuff at hand, so I had to wait while the shopkeeper got it, then I took it back to grandmother.
When I returned to grandfather’s, mother was sitting at the table dressed in a clean, lilac-colored frock, with her hair prettily dressed, and looking as splendid as she used to look.
“You are feeling better?” I asked, with a feeling of inexplicable fear.
Looking at me fixedly, she said:
“Come here! Where have you been? Eh?”
Before I had time to reply, she seized me by the hair, and grasping in her other hand a long, flexible knife, made out of a saw, she flourished it several times and struck me with the flat of it. It slipped from her hands to the floor.
“Pick it up and give it to me . . . .”
I picked up the knife and threw it on the table, and mother pushed me away from her. I sat on the ledge of the stove and watched her movements in a state of terror.
Rising from the chair she slowly made her way towards her own corner, lay down on the bed, and wiped her perspiring face with a handkerchief. Her hands moved uncertainly; twice she missed her face and touched the pillow instead.
“Give me some water. . . . ”
I scooped some water out of a pail with a cup, and lifting her head with difficulty, she drank a little. Then she pushed my hand away with her cold hand, and drew a deep breath. Then after looking at the corner where the icon was, she turned her eyes on me, moved her lips as if she were smiling, and slowly let her long lashes droop over her eyes. Her elbows were pressed closely against her sides, and her hands, on which the fingers were weakly twitching, crept about her chest, moving towards her throat. A shadow fell upon her face, invading every part of it, staining the skin yellow, sharpening the nose. Her mouth was open as if she were amazed at something, but her breathing was not audible. I stood, for how long I do not know, by my mother’s bedside, with the cup in my hand, watching her face grow frozen and gray.
When grandfather came in I said to him:
“Mother is dead.”
He glanced at the bed.
“Why are you telling lies?”
He went to the stove and took out the pie, rattling the dampers deafeningly.
I looked at him, knowing that mother was dead, and waiting for him to find it out.
My stepfather came in dressed in a sailor’s pea-jacket, with a white cap. He noiselessly picked up a chair and took it over to mother’s bed, when suddenly he let it fall with a crash to the floor and cried in a loud voice, like a trumpet:
“Yes she is dead! Look!”
Grandfather, with wide-open eyes, softly moved away from the stove with the damper in his hand, stumbling like a blind man.
A few days after my mother’s funeral, grandfather said to me:
“Now, Lexei you must not hang round my neck. There is no room for you here. You will have to go out into the world.”
And so I went out into the world.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50