My Childhood, by Maksim Gorky

Chapter VII

I WAS not long in grasping the fact that there was one God for grandfather and another for grandmother. The frequency with which this difference was brought to my notice made it impossible to ignore it.

Sometimes grandmother woke up in the morning and sat a long while on the bed combing her wonderful hair. Holding her head firmly, she would draw the comb with its jagged teeth through every thread of that black, silky mane, whispering the while, not to wake me:

“Bother you! The devil take you for sticking together like this!”

When she had thus taken all the tangles out, she quickly wove it into a thick plait, washed in a hurry, with many angry tossings of her head, and without washing away the signs of irritation from her large face, which was creased by sleep, she placed herself before the icon and began her real morning ablutions, by which her whole being was instantly refreshed.

She straightened her crooked back, and raising her head, gazed upon the round face of Our Lady of Kazan, and after crossing herself reverently, said in a loud, fierce whisper:

“Most Glorious Virgin! Take me under thy protection this day, dear Mother.”

Having made a deep obeisance, she straightened her back with difficulty, and then went on whispering ardently, and with deep feeling:

“Source of our Joy! Stainless Beauty! Apple tree in bloom!”

Every morning she seemed to find fresh words of praise; and for that reason I used to listen to her prayers with strained attention.

“Dear Heart, so pure, so heavenly! My Defense and my Refuge! Golden Sun! Mother of God! Guard me from temptation; grant that I may do no one harm, and may not be offended by what others do to me thoughtlessly.”

With her dark eyes smiling, and a general air of rejuvenation about her, she crossed herself again, with that slow and ponderous movement of her hand.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, for Thy Mother’s sake!”

Her prayers were always non-liturgical, full of sincere praise, and very simple.

She did not pray long in the mornings because she had to get the samovar ready, for grandfather kept no servants, and if the tea was not made to the moment, he used to give her a long and furious scolding.

Sometimes he was up before her, and would come up to the attic. Finding her at prayer, he would stand for some minutes listening to her, contemptuously curling his thin, dark lips, and when he was drinking his tea, he would growl:

“How often have I taught you how to say your prayers, blockhead. But you are always mumbling some nonsense, you heretic! I can’t think why God puts up with you.”

“He understands,” grandmother would reply confidently, “what we don’t say to Him. He looks into everything.”

“You cursed dullard! U u ugh, you!” was all he said to this.

Her God was with her all day; she even spoke to the animals about Him. Evidently this God, with willing submission, made Himself subject to all creatures to men, dogs, bees, and even the grass of the field; and He was impartially kind and accessible to every one on earth.

Once the petted cat belonging to the innkeeper’s wife an artful, pretty, coaxing creature, smoke-colored with golden eyes caught a starling in the garden. Grandmother took away the nearly exhausted bird and punished the cat, crying:

“Have you no fear of God, you spiteful wretch?”

The wife of the innkeeper and the porter laughed at these words, but she said to them angrily:

“Do you think that animals don’t understand about God? All creatures understand about Him better than you do, you heartless things!”

When she harnessed Sharapa, who was growing fat and melancholy, she used to hold a conversation with him.

“Why do you look so miserable, toiler of God? Why? You are getting old, my dear, that’s what it is.” And the horse would sigh and toss his head.

And yet she did not utter the name of God as frequently as grandfather did. Her God was quite com prehensible to me, and I knew that I must not tell lies in His presence; I should be ashamed to do so. The thought of Him produced such an invincible feeling of shame, that I never lied to grandmother. It would be simply impossible to hide anything from this good God; in fact, I had not even a wish to do so.

One day the innkeeper’s wife quarreled with grandfather and abused him, and also grandmother, who had taken no part in the quarrel; nevertheless she abused her bitterly, and even threw a carrot at her.

“You are a fool, my good woman,” said grandmother very quietly; but I felt the insult keenly, and resolved to be revenged on the spiteful creature.

For a long time I could not make up my mind as to the best way to punish this sandy-haired, fat woman, with two chins and no eyes to speak of. From my own experience of feuds between people living together, I knew that they avenged themselves on one another by cutting off the tails of their enemy’s cat, by chasing his dogs, by killing his cocks and hens, by creeping into his cellar in the night and pouring kerosene over the cabbages and cucumbers in the tubs, and letting the kvass run out of the barrels; but nothing of this kind appealed to me. I wanted something less crude, and more terrifying.

At last I had an idea. I lay in wait for the inn-keeper’s wife, and as soon as she went down to the cellar, I shut the trap door on her, fastened it, danced a jig on it, threw the key on to the roof, and rushed into the kitchen where grandmother was busy cooking. At first she could not understand why I was in such an ecstasy of joy, but when she had grasped the cause, she slapped me on that part of my anatomy provided for the purpose, dragged me out to the yard, and sent me up to the roof to find the key. I gave it to her with reluctance, astonished at her asking for it, and ran away to a corner of the yard, whence I could see how she set the captive free, and how they laughed together in a friendly way as they crossed the yard.

“I’ll pay you for this!” threatened the innkeeper’s wife, shaking her plump fist at me; but there was a good-natured smile on her eyeless face.

Grandmother dragged me back to the kitchen by the collar. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

“Because she threw a carrot at you.”

“That means that you did it for me? Very well! This is what I will do for you I will horsewhip you and put you amongst the mice under the oven. A nice sort of protector you are! ‘Look at a bubble and it will burst directly.’ If I were to tell grandfather he would skin you. Go up to the attic and learn your lesson.”

She would not speak to me for the rest of the day, but before she said her prayers that night she sat on the bed and uttered these memorable words in a very impressive tone:

“Now, Lenka, my darling, you must keep yourself from meddling with the doings of grown-up persons. Grown-up people are given responsibilities and they have to answer for them to God; but it is not so with you yet; you live by a child’s conscience. Wait till God takes possession of your heart, and shows you the work you are to do, and the way you are to take. Do you understand? It is no business of yours to decide who is to blame in any matter. God judges, and punishes; that is for Him, not for us.”

She was silent for a moment while she took a pinch of snuff; then, half-closing her right eye, she added:

“Why, God Himself does not always know where the fault lies.”

“Doesn’t God know everything?” I asked in astonishment.

“If He knew everything, a lot of things that are done would not be done. It is as if He, the Father, . looks and looks from Heaven at the earth, and sees how often we weep, how often we sob, and says: ‘My people, my dear people, how sorry I am for you!’ ”

She was crying herself as she spoke; and drying her wet cheeks, she went into the corner to pray.

From that time her God became still closer and still more comprehensible to me.

Grandfather, in teaching me, also said that God was a Being Omnipresent, Omniscient, All-seeing, the kind Helper of people in all their affairs; but he did not pray like grandmother. In the morning, before going to stand before the icon, he took a long time washing himself; then, when he was fully dressed, he carefully combed his sandy hair, brushed his beard, and looking at himself in the mirror, saw that his shirt sat well, and tucked his black cravat into his waistcoat after which he advanced cautiously, almost stealthily, to the icon. He always stood on one particular board of the parquet floor, and with an expression in his eyes which made them look like the eyes of a horse, he stood in silence for a minute, with bowed head, and arms held straight down by his sides in soldier fashion; then, upright, and slender as a nail, he began impressively:

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

After these words it always seemed to me that the room became extraordinarily quiet; the very flies seemed to buzz cautiously.

There he stood, with his head thrown back, his eyebrows raised and bristling, his golden beard sticking out horizontally, and recited the prayers, in a firm tone, as if he were repeating a lesson, and with a voice which was very distinct and very imperious.

“It will be useless when the Judge comes, and every action is laid bare ”

Striking himself lightly on the breast, he prayed fervently:

“To Thee alone can sinners come. Oh, turn Thy face away from my misdeeds.”

He recited the “I believe,” using the prescribed words only; and all the while his right leg quivered, as if it were noiselessly keeping time with his prayers, and his whole form, straining towards the icon, seemed to become taller, leaner, and drier so clean he was, so neat, and so persistent in his demands.

“Heavenly Physician, heal my soul of its long-lived passions. To thee, Holy Virgin, I cry from my heart; to thee I offer myself with fervor.”

And with his green eyes full of tears he wailed loudly:

“Impute to me, my God, faith instead of works, and be not mindful of deeds which can by no means justify me!”

Here he crossed himself frequently at intervals, tossing his head as if he were about to butt at something, and his voice became squeaky and cracked. Later, when I happened to enter a synagogue, I realized that grandfather prayed like a Jew.

By this time the samovar would have been snorting on the table for some minutes, and a hot smell of rye-cakes would be floating through the room. Grandmother, frowning, strolled about, with her eyes on the floor; the sun looked cheerfully in at the window from the garden, the dew glistened like pearls on the trees, the morning air was deliciously perfumed by the smell of dill, and currant-bushes, and ripening apples, but grandfather went on with his prayers quavering and squeaking.

“Extinguish in me the flame of passion, for I am in misery and accursed.”

I knew all the morning prayers by heart, and even in my dreams I could say what was to come next, and

I followed with intense interest to hear if he made a mistake or missed out a word which very seldom happened; but when it did, it aroused a feeling of malicious glee in me.

When he had finished his prayers, grandfather used to say “Good morning!” to grandmother and me, and we returned his greeting and sat down to table. Then I used to say to him:

“You left out a word this morning.”

“Not really?” grandfather would say with an uneasy air of incredulity.

“Yes. You should have said, ‘This, my Faith, reigns supreme,’ but you did not say ‘reigns.’ ’

“There now!” he would exclaim, much perturbed, and blinking guiltily.

Afterwards he would take a cruel revenge on me for pointing out his mistake to him; but for the moment, seeing how disturbed he was, I was able to enjoy my triumph.

One day grandmother said to him jokingly:

“God must get tired of listening to your prayers, Father. You do nothing but insist on the same things over and over again.”

“What ‘s that?” he drawled in an ominous voice. “What are you nagging about now?”

“I say that you do not offer God so much as one little word from your own heart, so far as I can hear.”

He turned livid, and quivering with rage, jumped up on his chair and threw a dish at her head, yelping with a sound like that made by a saw on a piece of wood:

“Take that, you old hag!”

When he spoke of the omnipotence of God, he always emphasized its cruelty above every other attribute. “Man sinned, and the Flood was sent; sinned again, and his towns were destroyed by fire; then God punished people by famine and plague, and even now He is always holding a sword over the earth a scourge for sinners. All who have wilfully broken the commandments of God will be punished by sorrow and ruin.” And he emphasized this by rapping his fingers on the table.

It was hard for me to believe in the cruelty of God, and I suspected grandfather of having made it all up on purpose to inspire me with fear not of God but of himself; so I asked him frankly:

“Are you saying all this to make me obey you?”

And he replied with equal frankness:

“Well, perhaps I am. Do you mean to disobey me again?”

“And how about what grandmother says?”

“Don’t you believe the old fool!” he admonished me sternly. “From her youth she has always been stupid, illiterate, and unreasonable. I shall tell her she must not dare to talk to you again on such an important matter. Tell me, now how many companies of angels are there?”

I gave the required answer, and then I asked:

“Are they limited companies’?”

“Oh, you scatterbrain!” he laughed, covering his eyes and biting his lips. “What have companies to do with God . . . they belong to life on earth . . . they are founded to set the laws at naught.”

“What are laws?”

“Laws! Well, they are really derived from custom,” the old man explained, with pleased alacrity; and his intelligent, piercing eyes sparkled. “People living together agree amongst themselves ‘Such and such is our best course of action; we will make a custom of it a rule’; finally it becomes a law. For example, before they begin a game, children will settle amongst themselves how it is to be played, and what rules are to be observed. Laws are made in the same way.”

“And what have companies to do with laws’?”

“Why, they are like an impudent fellow; they come along and make the laws of no account.”

“But why?”

“Ah! that you would not understand,” he replied, knitting his brows heavily; but afterwards, as if in explanation, he said:

“All the actions of men help to work out God’s plans.

Men desire one thing, but He wills something quite different. Human institutions are never lasting. The Lord blows on them, and they fall into dust and ashes.”

I had reason for being interested in “companies,” so I went on inquisitively:

“But what does Uncle Jaakov mean when he sings:

“The Angels bright For God will fight, But Satan’s slaves Are companies”?

Grandfather raised his hand to his beard, thus hiding his mouth, and closed his eyes. His cheeks quivered, and I guessed that he was laughing inwardly.

“Jaakov ought to have his feet tied together and be thrown into the water,” he said. “There was no necessity for him to sing or for you to listen to that song. It is nothing but a silly joke which is current in Kalonga a piece of schismatical, heretical nonsense.” And looking, as it were, through and beyond me, he murmured thoughtfully: “U u ugh, you!”

But though he had set God over mankind, as a Being to be very greatly feared, none the less did he, like grandmother, invoke Him in all his doings.

The only saints grandmother knew were Nikolai, Yowry, Frola, and Lavra, who were full of kindness and sympathy with human-nature, and went about in the villages and towns sharing the life of the people, and regulating all their concerns; but grandfather’s saints were nearly all males, who cast down idols, or defied the Roman emperors, and were tortured, burned or flayed alive in consequence.

Sometimes grandfather would say musingly:

“If only God would help me to sell that little house, even at a small profit, I would make a public thanksgiving to St. Nicholas.”

But grandmother would say to me, laughingly:

“That’s just like the old fool! Does he think St. Nicholas will trouble himself about selling a house”? Hasn’t our little Father Nicholas something better to do?”

I kept by me for many years a church calendar which had belonged to grandfather, containing several inscriptions in his handwriting. Amongst others, opposite the day of Joachim and Anne, was written in red ink, and very upright characters:

“My benefactors, who averted a calamity.”

I remember that “calamity.”

In his anxiety about the maintenance of his very unprofitable children, grandfather set up as a money-lender, and used to receive articles in pledge secretly. Some one laid an information against him, and one night the police came to search the premises. There was a great fuss, but it ended well, and grandfather prayed till sunrise the next morning, and before breakfast, and in my presence, wrote those words in the calendar.

Before supper he used to read with me the Psalms, the breviary, or the heavy book of Ephraim Sirine; but as soon as he had supped he began to pray again, and his melancholy words of contrition resounded in the stillness of evening:

“What can I offer to Thee, or how can I atone to Thee, O generous God, O King of Kings! . . . Preserve us from all evil imaginations. . . . O Lord, protect me from certain persons! . . . My tears fall like rain, and the memory of my sins . . . ”

But very often grandmother said:

“Oie, I am dog-tired! I shall go to bed without saying my prayers.”

Grandfather used to take me to church to vespers on Saturday, and to High Mass on Sundays and festivals but even in church I made a distinction as to which God was being addressed; whatever the priest or the deacon recited that was to grandfather’s God; but the choir always sang to grandmother’s God. Of course I can only crudely express this childish distinction which I made between these two Gods, but I remember how it seemed to tear my heart with terrific violence, and how grandfather’s God aroused in my mind a feeling of terror and unpleasantness. A Being Who loved no one, He followed all of us about with i6o

His severe eyes, seeking and finding all that was ugly, evil, and sinful in us. Evidently He put no trust in man, He was always insisting on penance, and He loved to chastise.

In those days my thoughts and feelings about God were the chief nourishment of my soul and were the most beautiful ones of my existence. All other impressions which I received did nothing but disgust me by their cruelty and squalor, and awaken in me a sense of repugnance and ferocity. God was the best and brightest of all the beings who lived about me grandmother’s God, that Dear Friend of all creation; and naturally I could not help being disturbed by the question “How is it that grandfather cannot see the Good God?”

I was not allowed to run about the streets because it made me too excited. I became, as it were, intoxicated by the impressions which I received, and there was almost always a violent scene afterwards.

I had no comrades. The neighbors’ children treated me as an enemy. I objected to their calling me “the Kashmirin boy,” and seeing that they did it all the more, calling out to each other as soon as they saw me: “Look, here comes that brat, Kashmirin’s grandson. Go for him!” then the fight would begin. I was strong for my age and active with my fists, and my enemies, knowing this, always fell upon me in a crowd; and as a rule the street vanquished me, and I returned home with a cut across my nose, gashed lips, and bruises all over my face all in rags and smothered in dust.

“What now?” grandmother exclaimed as she met me, with a mixture of alarm and pity; “so you ‘ve been fighting again, you young rascal? What do you mean by it?’

She washed my face, and applied to my bruises copper coins or fomentations of lead, saying as she did so:

“Now, what do you mean by all this fighting”? You are as quiet as anything at home, but out of doors you are like I don’t know what. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I shall tell grandfather not to let you go out.”

Grandfather used to see my bruises, but he never scolded me; he only quackled, and roared:

“More decorations! While you are in my house, young warrior, don’t you dare to run about the streets; do you hear me?”

I was never attracted, by the street if it was quiet, but as soon as I heard the merry buzz of the children, I ran out of the yard, forgetting all about grandfather’s prohibition. Bruises and taunts did not hurt me, but the brutality of the street sports a brutality only too well known to me, wearying and oppressive, reducing one to a state of frenzy disturbed me tremendously. I could not contain myself when the children baited dogs and cocks, tortured cats, drove away the goats of the Jews, jeered at drunken vagabonds, and at happy “Igosha with death in his pocket.”

This was a tall, withered-looking, smoke-dried individual clad in a heavy sheepskin, with coarse hair on his fleshless, rusty face. He went about the streets, stooping, wavering strangely, and never speaking gazing fixedly all the time at the ground. His iron-hued face, with its small, sad eyes, inspired me with an uneasy respect for him. Here was a man, I thought, pre occupied with a weighty matter; he was looking for something, and it was wrong to hinder him.

The little boys used to run after him, slinging stones at his broad back; and after going on for some time as if he did not notice them, and as if he were not even conscious of the pain of the blows, he would stand still, throw up his head, push back his ragged cap with a spasmodic movement of his hands, and look about him as if he had but just awoke.

“Igosha with death in his pocket! Igosha, where are you going? Look out, Death in your pocket!” cried the boys.

He would thrust his hand in his pocket, then stooping quickly would pick up a stone or a lump of dry mud from the ground, and flourish his long arms as he muttered abuse, which was confined always to the same few filthy words. The boys’ vocabulary was immeasurably richer than his in this respect. Sometimes he hobbled after them, but his long sheepskin hindered him in running, and he would fall on his knees, resting his black hands on the ground, and looking just like the withered branch of a tree; while the children aimed stones at his sides and back, and the biggest of them ventured to run quite close to him and, jumping about him, scattered handfuls of dust over his head.

But the most painful spectacle which I beheld in the streets was that of our late foreman, Gregory Ivanovitch, who had become quite blind, and now went about begging; looking so tall and handsome, and never speaking. A little gray-haired old woman held him by the arm, and halting under the windows, to which she never raised her eyes, she wailed in a squeaky voice: “For Christ’s sake, pity the poor blind!” But Gregory Ivanovitch said never a word. His dark glasses looked straight into the walls of the houses, in at the windows, or into the faces of the passers-by; his broad beard gently brushed his stained hands; his lips were closely pressed together. I often saw him, but I never heard a sound proceed from that sealed mouth; and the thought of that silent old man weighed upon me torturingly. I could not go to him I never went near him; on the contrary, as soon as I caught sight of him being led along, I used to run into the house and say to grandmother:

“Gregory is out there.”

“Is he?” she would exclaim in an uneasy, pitying tone. “Well, run back and give him this.”

But I would refuse curtly and angrily, and she would go to the gate herself and stand talking to him for a long time. He used to laugh, and pull his beard, but he said little, and that little in monosyllables. Sometimes grandmother brought him into the kitchen and gave him tea and something to eat, and every time she did so he inquired where I was. Grandmother called me, but I ran away and hid myself in the yard. I could not go to him. I was conscious of a feeling of intolerable shame in his presence, and I knew that grandmother was ashamed too. Only once we discussed Gregory between ourselves, and this was one day when, having led him to the gate, she came back through the yard, crying and hanging her head. I went to her and took her hand.

“Why do you run away from him?” she asked softly. “He is a good man, and very fond of you, you know.”

“Why doesn’t grandfather keep him?” I asked.

“Grandfather?” she halted, and then uttered in a very low voice those prophetic words: “Remember what I say to you now God will punish us grievously for this. He will punish us ”

And she was not wrong, for ten years later, when she had been laid to rest, grandfather was wandering through the streets of the town, himself a beggar, and out of his mind pitifully whining under the windows:

“Kind cooks, give me a little piece of pie just a little piece of pie. U gh, you!”

Besides Igosha and Gregory Ivanovitch, I was greatly concerned about the Voronka a woman of bad reputation, who was chased away from the streets. She used to appear on holidays an enormous, dishevelled, tipsy creature, walking with a peculiar gait, as if without moving her feet or touching the earth drifting along like a cloud, and bawling her ribald, songs. People in the street hid themselves as soon as they saw her, running into gateways, or corners, or shops; she simply swept the street clean. Her face was almost blue, and blown out like a bladder; her large gray eyes were hideously and strangely wide open, and sometimes she groaned and cried:

“My little children, where are you?”

I asked grandmother who she was.

“There is no need for you to know,” she answered; nevertheless she told me briefly:

“This woman had a husband a civil-servant named Voronov, who wished to rise to a better position; so he sold his wife to his Chief, who took her away somewhere, and she did not come home for two years. When she returned, both her children a boy and a girl were dead, and her husband was in prison for gambling with Government money. She took to drink, in her grief, and now goes about creating disturbances. No holiday passes without her being taken up by the police.”

Yes, home was certainly better than the street. The best time was after dinner, when grandfather went to Uncle Jaakov’s workshop, and grandmother sat by the window and told me interesting fairy-tales, and other stories, and spoke to me about my father.

The starling, which she had rescued from the cat, had had his broken wings clipped, and grandmother had skilfully made a wooden leg to replace the one which had been devoured. Then she taught him to talk. Sometimes she would stand for a whole hour in front of the cage, which hung from the window-frame, and, looking like a huge, good-natured animal, would repeat in her hoarse voice to the bird, whose. plumage was as black as coal:

“Now, my pretty starling, ask for something to eat.”

The starling would fix his small, lively, humorous eye upon her, and tap his wooden leg on the thin bottom of the cage; then he would stretch out his neck and whistle like a goldfinch, or imitate the mocking note of the cuckoo. He would try to mew like a cat, and howl like a dog; but the gift of human speech was denied to him.

“No nonsense now!” grandmother would say quite seriously. “Say ‘Give the starling something to eat.’ ”

The little black-feathered monkey having uttered a sound which might have been “babushka” (grandmother), the old woman would smile joyfully and feed him from her hand, as she said:

“I know you, you rogue! You are a make-believe. There is nothing you can’t do you are clever enough for anything.”

And she certainly did succeed in teaching the starling; and before long he could ask for what he wanted clearly enough, and, prompted by grandmother, could drawl:

“Go oo ood mo o orning, my good woman!” At first his cage used to hang in grandfather’s room, but he was soon turned out and put up in the attic, because he learned to mock grandfather. He used to put his yellow, waxen bill through the bars of the cage while grandfather was saying his prayers loudly and clearly, and pipe:

“Thou! Thou! Thee! The ee! Thou!” Grandfather chose to take offense at this, and once he broke off his prayers and stamped his feet, crying furiously:

“Take that devil away, or I will kill him!” Much that was interesting and amusing went on in this house; but at times I was oppressed by an inexpressible sadness. My whole being seemed to be consumed by it; and for a long time I lived as in a dark pit, deprived of sight, hearing, feeling blind and half-dead.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55