Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >> III. The Childhood Years


III. The Childhood Years

Motrya had not been born to be happy. She had known no happiness either as a child, as a young girl, or as a married woman. She certainly did not expect to be happy as a married widow.
Now her fellow villagers avoided not only her, but also her old mother. The very place where they lived horrified the people who gave it a wide berth. Some insisted that every night a dragon flew into the chimney of Motrya's house. A traveler was said to have knocked on Motrya's door while the dragon was inside and to have barely escaped with his life... A very dangerous place indeed! Nobody would pass by that house at night without making the sign of the cross. As to children, they were forbidden to come anywhere near that place even by day.
Their plot now began to look more and more like a haunted place. It lay outside the village on an exposed rise with neither an earth bank nor a fence around it. There was only a narrow shallow ditch, and that was all. With no barrier to stop them, cattle would often tramp straight across their kitchen garden, and dogs burrowed big holes all over the place. Signs of neglect were everywhere. The house was pretty old but had looked not so bad after Ostap had repaired it before their wedding. Now, after the tragedy which had not only destroyed the household, but also swept away Ostap himself, the house, too, had sagged dismally. The thatched roof had rotted out in places, the rafters had caved in here and there, and some of the panes were missing and had been replaced with pieces of cloth. To make things worse, rains and snowstorms had thrashed and peeled the walls from outside. One would think this was a deserted place! Inside, things were not much better. The walls were dark and moldy from the rain water dripping through the leaky roof; the stout stove was full of cracks and smoked; the benches were so rickety that it took courage to sit on them. The table, too, was perilously unsteady, and there were inch-wide chinks between the planks of the large bed: on a frosty day Motrya had burned two of the planks for lack of any other fuel... It was all utter poverty and hopeless misery!
Motrya led a dreary life. Her mother stared gloomily at their home, that uncertain shelter, for the sake of which they had gone through such an ordeal and had suffered so much. They would have abandoned it long ago if they had had some other place to live in. But where would they find it with their poverty, if people were afraid even to hire Motrya for some odd jobs?
At harvest, Motrya hired herself out as a reaper. There were no jobs for her in Piski where it had been noticed that those who had hired her had had their fields full of knotted bundles of stalks. She had to work in a neighboring village of Bairaki.
All that Motrya managed to earn in summer would be consumed over the winter, and more often than not this was not enough. At times they had not even a pinch of salt, not a grain of flour. And getting some new clothes was something they could only dream about. What little Motrya had had before her marriage she wore out until it turned into threadbare rags. Now she was lucky if she could get some hemp for her work. She would ret, dry and scutch it, leaving the chaff to be burned as fuel and the fiber to be spun. It would take her two years to spin enough yarn to make a blouse. For skirts she had to print the hemp cloth. The same skirts served as her Sunday best. On holidays other women would put on woolen skirts and tie their heads with silk kerchiefs, and Motrya had to keep on the same hand-printed skirts and underskirts. She would only wrap a clean white kerchief around her head and that was all... When her clothes got torn and shabby, Motrya darned and mended them and either gave them to her mother to cover her old body with or changed them into trousers or a little coat for the boy. It could not be worse! In winter the two women had to share their only outer coat. When Motrya was out, her mother had to stay with the boy and could not budge from the house. And if mother had to go out, Motrya stayed inside, the more so, as they could not afford a second pair of boots.
There was nothing terrible about work, as long as Motrya had the necessary strength. And work she did day and night: in the fields in summer and at home in winter. Orishka, however, was too old to work. Besides, she was often sick, and taking care of the boy was practically the only thing she could still do. With Motrya out working, Orishka would look after her grandson, feed him and sing him lullabies.
He was a fine little boy, too — black-haired, good-looking and quite clever... But at the same time he was somewhat cheerless, quiet and a bit of a loner. Other children were mostly lively and restless like a whipping top. When asked to fetch something, they flew like lightnings... Not Chipka (that is what they called him for short). Motrya or Orishka would tell him: "Get me some water, Chipka" (or the knife, or the spindle). Then he would start asking questions: "Where is it?" or "Where can I get it?" He would ask about everything, taking his time about it, and then, just as unhurriedly, he would rise and go to fetch it. This was one thing Motrya did not like about Chipka. "I guess he'll become a big loafer," she used to complain to Orishka. "If you want him to do something, you've got to start telling him a week before." Sometimes she would even cuff him in the back to get him moving. Then Chipka would drop his hands and wail at the top of his voice. More work for Granny! Orishka doted on the boy, because she loved him very much indeed. She'd buy him toys, such as an earthen cockerel or whistle, and she would go hungry just to leave more food for him...
When Chipka had grown up a little, he started running around. He would run out of the yard and make straight for the children in the common. But the children did not let him play with them. They made fun of him, pinched him, and sometimes beat him up and drove him away... It was not for nothing that the gentry took pride in their lineage. Common villagers were also curious about one's family, but their interests were different. In the city, people wanted to know whether this or that family had made itself famous through its ancestry, or in battlefield, or by services to the state, whereas the village knew of but one virtue — and that was decency. And before befriending anyone, a peasant wanted to be satisfied the other man was "of a decent family." Chipka, however, was "a freak..." Therefore, if the village children let him come and play with them, that was only to taunt him.
"There's the freak coming!" a puny white-haired boy would shout, spotting Chipka from afar.
"The bastard!" another boy would take up. "Let's go get him!"
The children would run to Chipka and gather round him. Then one of them would twitch at his black hair from behind. Chipka would spin around, knit his brows and glower at them... Then his stare would be as evil as the children who had driven him to it. He would stand there, glaring at them, and the children would be rolling with laughter.
"Just where did you come from, Chipka?" one of the boys would demand, tugging at the skirt of his coat. But he would only breathe heavily, without saying anything.
"Did you hatch out of an egg?" another boy would laugh.
Everybody would join in the laughter. Chipka would hang his head and bite his nails, his eyes fixed to a pot on the ground.
"No!..." he would finally say, still biting his nails. "Granny caught me in the kitchen garden... in the weeds..."
The echo of their laughter would spread far and wide.
"So you came from the weeds, you say?..."
"No, I didn't."
"But if you didn't where's your father?"
"I... don't know..."
"That's because you're a bastard!"
"It's a lie!" his eyes would sparkle wolfishly.
"What are you then?" "I'm... Chipka."
"You're Chepiha * — not Chipka!" one of them would shout, twitching at his hair. (* Chepiga (Ukr.) — plough-handle)
"Why are you doing that?" Chipka would blurt out through his tears. "Just wait — I'll tell my grandmother and she'll show you!"
"Your grandmother scares me something terrible!" the boy would shout back, twitching Chipka again.
Others would join suit, one after another. Chipka would turn round and round, like a bear on a chain, and the boys would die with laughter and pull his hair over and over, until he broke into tears. Then they would simply drive him away.
Chipka walked back home, sobbing.
"Why are you crying, Chipka?" Orishka asked him.
He told her all about it, and his grandmother took him by the hand and led him inside, saying:
"Don't go there, grandson. Just don't go there at all. Look what those bad boys do to you — hurting and offending you... Stop going over to them!"
Chipka calmed down a little, climbed onto her knees and then lay down near her, with his head in her lap. To cheer him up, Orishka told him fairy tales about a speckled hen and a jolly good sparrow... Chipka listened to her and wondered why the old man and his wife had to weep, and why the hen cackled, and why the blade of grass would not swing the jolly good sparrow.
Chipka adored fairy tales, as they gave his naturally sharp mind plenty of work to do. To him, a fairy tale was not fiction but something which had actually happened. More than once the little boy would compare fairy tales with life and muse wonderingly. In a tale, animals and birds spoke exactly like people. In actual life, however, birds twittered, oxen bellowed, dogs barked... And no one could understand what they wanted to say. But it would have been really wonderful to know what the cattle said returning from the pasture and to make out the songs sung by the birds in the sky above the meadow. Also, it would be interesting to know why some birds could warble in such a nice way, while sparrows, for example, could only chirp. And what did plants speak about when they rustled their leaves?
"Do oxen speak, Granny?" Chipka asked Orishka.
"God knows, grandson... Some people say that they, too, can speak."
"What about birds?"
"And birds too..."
"How do they speak then? And what do they talk about?..." he insisted.
And Orishka tried to explain it to him as best she could. The cattle, she said, never bellowed without a reason. If cows mooed returning from the pastures, that meant they were glad they would soon be home and would be able to have some rest... They also mooed when they were hungry... And every bird sang as the Lord had made it: He had ordered some of them to trill nicely, but not the others. Take the nightingale for one. It had used to be a man but had turned into a bird... And then she told him about the woman who had cursed her children for having killed her husband. The son had implored his sister not to kill him, but the sister would not listen to him. So mother bewitched both of them. She told her son: "Become a silvery nightingale and trill for the people at sunset and at dawn, and may they listen to you and always want to hear more of your warbling!" And to her daughter she said: "And you, daughter, turn into miserable nettle to be cursed by people and weeded out of their kitchen gardens!" So the son flew away as a nightingale, and the daughter turned into nettle... And when a nightingale sang, everybody admired its trills. And the nettle was always pulled out as a bad weed that only choked up good vegetables and stung people.
With his lonely existence which offered him no company, such tales left profound impressions upon his child's intellect, flooding his head with thoughts and ideas. They penetrated deep into his ardent heart and stirred his soul deeply. Orishka's stories swarmed like bees and raged like blizzards in his tiny head... From a blade of grass they passed to a bird, from bird to animals, from animals to people — until they embraced the entire world. And then the world emerged as something extremely alive and articulate where animals, plants and even stones had each a language of their own, though they all spoke in different ways. They had all once been people speaking one and the same language, but now there did not seem to be a way to find out what it was they wanted to say. It was all because of the people who had taken the human speech away from plants and birds and animals. It was as though they had turned their brothers into those things... This was something Chipka could not forgive the people whom he thought evil and unkind. Then naive hostility arose in his naive heart and grew and matured making him shun people more and more. Not that the people treated him any better.
"Granny!" he once asked Orishka. "Did I have a father?"
"You did, grandson."
"Where is he now then?"
"He has joined the army."
"Now I see, and the boys have been saying that I had no father... A bastard — that's what they call me." "They're just silly!"
"Why? Is there something wrong with it?"
"You'll get old too fast if you know everything. Don't think about it — it's a bad word! Put it out of your head... Only bad boys say it..."
"I won't be bad, Granny!..." Chipka told her, becoming lost in thought.
Some time later he spoke again:
"And why did my father go to the army? Why did he leave Mother?"
"He was sent there."
"What was he sent for?"
"He had to go... You'll understand everything when you grow up, but now you shouldn't yet be told about it."
"Why, Granny?"
"Because. You're still too small..."
It was not seldom that they had similar conversations. Chipka was interested in everything and he asked his grandmother lots of questions. Orishka willingly answered them. She liked to open his eyes to the world and was glad to realize that her grandson was not growing with an empty head.
Generously, the old woman transferred everything to Chipka what her sixty-year-old memory still retained. The boy did not merely accept it — he avidly absorbed it all!
Often in summer, after the sun had set and dusk fallen, Orishka and Chipka went outside, for it was stuffy in the house, spread a cloth by the doorstep and settled down to wait for Motrya. Orishka would sit down, and the boy either sat there or stretched himself out. Then they would talk. Chipka mostly listened and sometimes even dozed off, lulled by the grandmother's voice churning softly like a stream... At times, however, he, too, chirped animatedly...
Night fell, and stars sparkled and flickered in the sky. They fascinated Chipka, and he could not take his eyes off them.
"What is that up there?" He pointed to the stars.
"Those are stars."
"What are they?"
"Those are angels looking down at us. Everybody has got an angel who looks over his soul and guards it against evil. If a star falls, it means a soul has passed away..."
"Do I have a star up there, Granny? And you too, and Mother?"
"We all have them."
"Where's mine, Granny?" Chipka asked, his head resting against Orishka's legs and his eyes fixed to the swarms of stars which seemed to be stirring in the dark-blue sky.
"God knows, grandson. None of us can tell... This is God's business, and He alone knows it all..."
"Is God up there, too?"
"He is..."
"Who is God, Granny?"
"God?... God is our Lord. He minds everything in the world: every bug, every animal and every man... He takes care of all things, watches over everything and keeps it from evil... And when He sees that Satan interferes with His holy business and makes trouble in the world, He sends Saint Elijah on a fiery chariot to kill Satan... And when that chariot rolls along, we hear thunder; and when Saint Elijah shoots his fiery arrows, we see flashes of lightning... That's the kind of God He is! He's terrible for the evil and kind for the good. He is our Lord and Father who keeps us alive and feeds us..."
Chipka let himself be carried away by his imagination. He visualized wrathful God, enveloped in black clouds... ordering Elijah to go and punish the evil. Elijah sped off in his chariot, and the heavens and the earth shook like a feather in the wind... Then came a flash — and an arrow of fire sliced open the sky... Suddenly, Chipka was gripped by fear. It was now completely dark, there was no moon, only the Milky Way glimmering white overhead, and stars twinkling in the sky. Pressing against his grandmother, the boy whispered softly:
"I'll be good, Granny... I won't do any bad things, and God will not punish me... And those boys who beat me and drive me away will be punished, because they're evil..."
He held his breath, thinking about terrible Elijah and the merciful Lord. After a while, he asked Orishka again:
"Did you say that God fed us?"
"He sure does."
"Then why does Mother have to earn bread for us? Just look how late it is — and she hasn't come home from work yet. She says we wouldn't have anything to eat if she didn't work."
"That just shows how silly you are," she said. "Man is born to work and not to lie around. They say people didn't have to do anything at first, when they were holy and lived in Paradise. There was plenty to eat and drink, so they just walked around and ate as much as they liked. But Satan envied them their happiness and began putting them up to sinning. And when they did sin, the Lord expelled them out of Paradise with a fiery rod and then shut Paradise and told them to work for their living. And everybody has been working ever since then. We wouldn't have to, if we'd stayed holy."
"Why did those people have to sin, Granny? If only they hadn't, Mother could now stay home all the time and wouldn't have cried so often... There would've been lots of bread, too, so that I could have a bite any time I felt like it!"
"This is God's will, my child..."
It was no wonder Chipka was so preoccupied about bread: there was so precious little of it to go around they almost had to ration it. Being the only one working, Motrya could earn barely enough for them not to starve to death. It was just plain poverty. A funny episode happened once because of that bread.
Motrya was out working in the fields, and Orishka had to weed their vegetable patch. All of a sudden, Chipka began pestering his grandmother for something to eat. The old woman took a hunk of bread, broke off a piece and gave it to him. The rest she put on the table.
"Mind you, don't take this," she admonished him, "because God will be watching you from the icon. When Mother comes, she will ask who has eaten the bread. Then God will point to you, and Mother'll punish you. So don't even touch it!"
Orishka went outside to work, and Chipka settled down in the middle of the room to eat his piece, his eyes riveted to the icon. When he finished his bread, he found he was still hungry. The rest of the hunk lay there on the table teasing him. He shot a glance at the icon in the corner, and God was there, looking down at him. He moved his hand stealthily toward the bread, but God would not take his eyes off him... Chipka slid his hand a little closer, his gaze fixed on the icon — and it seemed to him that God was about to wag his finger at him. He hastily withdrew his hand. Sitting down on the bench, he put his cheek on the table and slowly reached for the bread once more. Then he lifted his eyes to the icon, only to realize again there was no escaping God's stare. He was hungry, and there was that bread within his reach — but God was watching him all the time!
Chipka did some hard thinking. Suddenly, he rushed away from the table, breathing hard, his eyes burning. Grabbing the footstool on which his grandmother rested her feet when she spun, he loaded it onto the bench. Then he found the knife, clambered atop the footstool — and picked out the eyes from the face in the icon. Then he ate up the bread and ran out to Orishka.
"Granny! Gra-a-anny!" he shouted.
"Come over here, Chipka. What's happened?" she called to him from the weeds.
"Well, I've eaten all the bread," he boasted.
"Why have you done that? When Mother comes, God will tell her..."
"Oh, no, Granny, God didn't see me do it, because I picked out his eyes."
Orishka, however, paid no attention, and the episode was soon forgotten. Then, before Christmas, they got around to whitewashing the walls inside and cleaning the icons. Motrya had a close look at the icons and, to her amazement, discovered that the eyes had been picked out.
"Any idea who may have done it?" Motrya asked her mother.
"Have done what?" Orishka looked there and now she, too, saw that the eyes were missing. "Was it you who did it?" she turned to Chipka.
"Yes, I did it," he laughed. "That's because I didn't want him to see me eat that bread."
Only then did Orishka remember what Chipka had told her. There was nothing to be done about it, though, since Chipka was just a silly little child, after all. Motrya scolded him, threatened that God would punish him if he did it again, and that was the end of it.
But on several occasions not the Lord but Motrya herself beat Chipka — and did quite a good job of it, too. Sometimes he had bruises for weeks on end. To say that she did not love him would not be true. She did care for him as every mother cared for her child. Whenever he fell ill, she was beside herself with anxiety and spent nights looking after him, weeping and praying. After all, he represented the only joy and hope she had. He was her son who would grow up and support her in her old age. Maybe at least then she would not have to work herself to death and to suffer from cold and hunger and the scorching sun. This was what Motrya hoped for. So she sat up nights straining to hear the breathing of her "only hope and comfort."
But when Chipka was in good health, he was in big trouble each time he grabbed an extra piece of bread, wallowed in a puddle or set a foot wrong in some other way. Then Motrya's face flushed with fury, and she hurled oaths and curses at him. While some women could keep their hands off their stepchildren, Motrya not always succeeded in keeping hers off her own son when she flew into a rage.
Her son, however, was not the kind of boy to be deterred by beating. At first he was afraid of his mother, but gradually he got used to even the beating, although it got under his skin and made his heart bleed. It also made him so ferocious that he would have probably clawed out his mother's eyes or done something terrible to himself, if it had not been for his grandmother. Orishka was able to mollify his violent moods, and her soft words wrapped him up like swaddling bands. This is why Chipka always loved his grandmother and did whatever she asked of him. But he cared less for his mother and was much less inclined to obey her. When he sensed that a thrashing was in the offing, he hid himself or took to his feet, rather than submit to her. Quite often Motrya wept bitterly because of that.


Бібліотека ім. О. С. Пушкіна (м. Київ).
А.С. Пушкин. Полное собрание сочинений в десяти томах