Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >> II. The Bigamist

II. The Bigamist

 
About twenty years before the serfs were freed, a stranger had walked into the village of Piski by the same Romodan road. One could see that the man had come a long way. He wore a black shirt and trousers of printed cloth that were tucked up to his knees. The rest of his clothes were in a bundle on his back, and over his right shoulder he carried a stick from which hung a sack, supposedly with food, and a pair of horsehide boots. Judging from his appearance, the man was approaching middle age. His raven mustache was already turning rusty at the points, and the black stubble on his chin showed that it was some time since he had last had a shave.
The traveler walked measuredly, looking about him to all sides. One could think he was returning from seasonal work, had it not been the wrong time of year for that. For spring had come not too long ago. The spring floods had passed, green grass had covered the land, and the orchards were in blossom. The sun was not yet scorching hot as it is in summer, but pleasantly warm.
Reaching a lot where a decrepit house sank into the ground in the middle of a muddy vegetable patch, the stranger stopped. "So this must be Okun's place," he told himself.
At that moment, a young lad came out of the low house door.
"Hello there!" the man called to him.
"Hello."
"Does Okun live here?"
"Who's that?"
"Karpo Okun, an old man."
"No, this is Limar's house."
"Where's Okun then?"
"Who is Okun anyway?"
"He's an old, old man with a beard."
Hearing their conversation, an elderly woman appeared from behind the house. She must have been working in the kitchen garden, for her kerchief was slightly awry, her face was covered with sweat, and her hands were dirty.
"Who are you looking for, good man?" she asked.
"Karpo Okun."
"Oh, he's been dead for quite a long time now. I knew that Okun, I sure did... It's been close on ten years since he died... Why d'you ask for him?"
"Well, I just needed him... So he died, you say?"
"I'm afraid he did."
"Has he left any kin here?"
"Let me see," the woman fell to thinking. "There was poor Hanna who married Solomenko. She, too, has since died. We bought this place from her. Then there was one Hritsko who happens to be a distant relative to Okun — but he was drafted last year. There doesn't seem to be anybody else."
"I see... Is your volost * office far from here?"
( * Volost (Rus.) — a small rural administrative unit)
"The office?" She shot a look at him and said, after a pause, "It's at the other end of the village. You just go along this street, and it'll lead you straight to it."
"Well, good-bye and thank you."
"Good luck."
The stranger went down the road as the woman had told him. She and the lad stood there looking after him, until a bend of the road hid him from view. Then she said:
"Did you ask him, Hritsko, who he was and why he needed Okun?"
"No, I didn't."
"What if he is a relative or something?... They say Okun had plenty of folks down on the Don. His brother, too, used to live there. What if this fellow has turned up to claim the heritage?!"
"God knows."
"We'd better find out, Hritsko. Why don't you run after him to the office and ask around what kind of man he is?"
"All right, Mother," the lad agreed. Then both of them went into the house.
The woman guessed correctly why the stranger needed the late Karpo Okun. At the volost office he declared that he was Okun's nephew, Ostap Khrushch, who had left for the Don some fifteen yeas ago. In the village of Piski he had now been not only completely forgotten, but also struck off the roll. Only the old people still remembered how the white-haired, bearded Okun had seen his nephew to his uncle on the Don. Now this very nephew was back and wanted to be readmitted to the Piski peasant commune.
"Why have you returned?" the volost chief asked him. "Or has life become harder down there?"
"It's hard enough all right," Ostap said, bowing. "Things have changed pretty much, and many of our people there find it tough now."
"Why d'you think it should be any better here?" asked the clerk.
"Well, after all this is my homeland."
"But how can we admit you if you've got no papers, nothing at all?" asked the chief.
"I got my old passport here." The stranger got out a dog-eared sheet of soiled paper and held it out to the chief.
The chief looked at the paper, unfolded it, read it — and folded it again.
"This just won't do," he said. "Why didn't you at least turn up for the census?"
"God knows why — I just didn't know I guess..."
"You also haven't exchanged your passport for such a long time!" marveled the chief, still holding the paper.
"But down there this one was good enough for everybody."
"H'm... So what shall we do, Vasil Vasilyovich?" the chief asked the clerk.
"Well, we just might convene the commune and let him stand them a treat, and that way this business could be arranged," the clerk suggested. "Otherwise he may end up behind bars as a tramp or something."
"Be so kind, try to get it done for me," Ostap pleaded, with a bow. "I haven't got much to offer you but I can always work it out."
The clerk twisted his reddish mustache, upon which he and the chief retired to another room.
Three weeks later Ostap started mowing the clerk's grass for hay. And a fine haymaker he was — fast, hard-working and tireless. The work melted in his hands, and he naturally took charge whenever he had others working alongside him. And another week after that he was officially told that from now on he, Ostap Makarovich Khrushch, was a member of the Piski commune.
Ostap crossed himself when he heard the good news. In the fall he set out for town. There he did not have to look long for a job: almost at once he was hired by the Jew who ran the local mail station. Khrushch had it really fine. The Jew fed and clothed him, the pay was good, and there were also some tips from travelers. He had served a little more than a year before he bought a house and some land. Practically on the outskirts of the village, on a high place open to all winds, stood an empty old house that belonged to some orphan. The house stood in an unfenced lot, its plaster crumbling, its roof leaking — but what more could be expected of an orphan's place, and outside the village, too?
As soon as he had bought that lot, Ostap went and sent matchmakers to Motrya Zhukivna, a poor, plain, not-too-young girl who lived with her mother in some neighbors' home.
"Go ahead, Motrya!" her mother told her. "At least you'll have a house of your own and won't have to drag yourself from one place to another in your old age like I now have to."
"Then I think I should," her daughter replied. "We've been suffering long enough as it is."
Ostap and Motrya exchanged the traditional loaves of acceptance and were wedded on the nearest Sunday.
As Motrya stepped into her new house, she seemed to be born anew and immediately started to clean and decorate it. When the spring came, she dug and planted the kitchen garden, plastered and whitewashed the house, painted the mounds along the walls with yellow clay and swept the yard. Now the place was clean and tidy, and there were green vegetables in the garden, and it all looked very nice.
Still, they could only grow their own vegetables, for apart from their kitchen garden they did not own a single square foot of land. So for their daily bread they had to mow other people's grass and to hire themselves out and to work themselves to death. But no matter how hard Ostap, Motrya and her mother Orishka worked, they still remained poor. Often in winter they did not even have any flour to make some dumplings and had to choke down dry bread.
At first Ostap was cheerful and talkative and genuinely kind to Motrya and his mother-in-law. But as time went on, he became moodier and gloomier. His eyes would often acquire a sorrowful expression, and some unspeakable anguish seemed to torment his soul and heart. Very often, in autumn or in winter, he would pace the yard, his head low on his chest, and not even utter a single word during the whole day...
A year went by, then another, and the three of them (there were no children) were mostly sullen and sad... No luck, no joy!
Winter set in. Fine snow fell, as it usually snows on frosty days. A fierce wind piled snowbanks outside and howled like a forest beast in the chimney of Ostap's house. Night had fallen already. Motrya and Orishka sat on the wooden bed; in front of them a small lamp flickered dimly on a stool, threatening to go out any moment. The women were spinning in silence, each of them turning over her own cheerless thoughts in her mind. Ostap lay on the stove... It was so quiet that they could hear the hum of the spindles...
"Oh!" Ostap sighed heavily. "I've had enough of sticking it out in these parts." He seemed to be talking to himself. "I'll wait until spring and then go out and try to earn some money. If I find a good place I may then get you over there too."
"What if you don't find it?" Motrya objected. "You'll lose a summer, and what can I earn here with my own two hands?" She made a wry face.
"You and your mother will somehow get together enough for the winter. As to me, I might stay there for the winter if I have to. This place makes me really sick now!"
They waited until spring. Ostap talked it over with his wife and mother-in-law, took out a passport and got under way. Motrya stayed with her old mother to mind the house.

* * *

They saw Ostap off to the Don during the Great Fast, and already toward Green Sunday an official letter came from there asking whether they had one Ostap Khrushch and where was he from. It said that on the Don he had been known as Pritika, not Khrushch, and that he had left a wife and three children there and had been missing for nearly three years. Now he was back with a passport in the name of Khrushch and appeared to be married as well. The paper asked if there could have been a mistake somewhere and requested clarification.
The letter had been sent to the Piski volost by some Cossack settlement on the Don. At the volost office, this unusual request caused quite a panic!
When the volost officials read it through, they hung their heads low.
"Oh, damn him!" the chief and the clerk cried in one voice. "Now the district chief will make it hot for us... How could we believe the rogue?! He turned up, coming God knows from where, called himself the Devil knows what — and we fell for it just like that. Okun's nephew, none other than Okun's nephew, of course... Welcome, sir... Now you see whose nephew he is!"
"You see... Didn't I tell you we ought to write down there and wait till we get a reply?" the clerk lied. "But you just wouldn't listen!"
"What shall we do now?" the chief asked, ignoring the clerk's protests.
The clerk remained silent, his gaze riveted to a spot on the floor. He seemed to be trying to remember something.
"Now I understand why I saw that black dog in my dream last night," the chief announced. "My wife told me it meant trouble... It surely did!"
"Me, I dreamed of a red pig," the clerk threw in.
They talked it over some more, and then sent for Motrya.
"Did your husband tell you anything about the Don?" they attacked her as soon as she came.
"No, he didn't," she answered, apparently surprised by such a question. "Why? Have you gotten some news from there?" she asked in a frightened voice.
So they told her what it was all about.
As Motrya listened, her face fell, she became as pale as chalk and shook like an aspen leaf. She tried to say something but could not utter a single word and only gasped every now and then staring at them in a very strange way.
"Why are you moaning?" the chief thundered at her. "Did your husband teach you that? He, too, kept rolling his eyes when he first got here... Coddamn both of you! I might yet get sent to Siberia because of you two..."
But Motrya only stared painfully at them and did not say anything. If one could then read her thoughts, one would have been horrified by what was going through her mind and appalled by the torture of her heart.
"Get out!" the chief yelled, realizing that she had lost the power of speech.
She turned around and went out. As she walked along the street, she hardly realized where she was going. When she got home, she looked as if she were crazy or drunk.
"What's the matter, daughter?" her mother asked her. "Why did they want to see you?"
Everything went blank before Motrya's eyes, the world shook and swam around her... She threw herself onto the bench, without taking off her coat and boots. Copious tears poured from her eyes.
"But what's happened, daughter? Oh, God forbid —" Orishka did not finish. The thought that Ostap may have died flashed through her mind.
Motrya did not speak and continued crying. Orishka did not take her eyes off her. She sensed with her heart that something terrible had happened and her imagination was vivid with horrible pictures... Orishka's jaws trembled, and her face was distorted with a cramp.
"Say something!... Why are you crying?" she shouted.
Motrya wiped her tears with her sleeve and groaned... Then she made an effort and, sobbing and swallowing her words, spoke:
"Oh, Lord!... so this is why he was so moody... didn't talk, brooded... and shouted something about the Don in his sleep all the time... about Khivrya and Hritsko... now it all fits in!... Now my poor head is lost forever!!..."
"What does it all mean? Come on, tell me — stop speaking in riddles! Who's this Khivrya you're talking about?"
"That must be the wife of that son of a bitch, damn him!"
"Of whom?"
"Of Ostap."
"Are you in your right senses, daughter?"
"With all this happening to me I might as well be crazy."
"Motrya, don't you fuddle my brain! Tell it to me properly."
"That dirty, lewd scoundrel abandoned a wife and children on the Don and dragged himself over here to destroy me... Oh, Lord, why do you have to punish me so terribly already in this life?" Motrya cried out and again burst into tears.
Only now did Orishka fully grasp the dimensions of their misfortune. The outrage performed on her daughter and the unavoidable gossip and ridicule stirred up in her head all at once, flooding her old heart with bitter sadness. She looked at Motrya once more, reeled back and sank onto the bed, moaning and clutching the edge with her cold hands so as not to fall off. Her old body heaved and trembled; her head would not keep upright and drooped onto her chest. Orishka groaned painfully as she tried to lift it... Motrya would not stop weeping. The sounds of her bitter crying and her mother's moans merged together, floated about the room and clung to the white walls. Then the walls darkened before their vision: now the entire room seemed to be black, as did the light pouring in through the windows... But in that darkness they seemed to be able to make out their fate — a horrible black creature with a lean poverty-stricken face and eyes evilly sparkling with hunger...
The misfortune struck before lunchtime. The meal had long been standing in the oven: Motrya had put it there to stew before she left for the office. Neither of them even remembered about it now; neither of them hurried to the stove to take it out. Their troubles had fed them without food.
The day ended as it had begun. Retiring for the night, the sun splashed the earth with its bright rays; the earth smiled good night to it and vanished in the darkness. Night fell and lighted the stars to cheer things up a little. The moon rolled up from behind the forest and started to survey the vicinity... Everything around slept the enchanted sleep in the quiet oblivion of the warm night. Only one nightingale was awake, warbling its favorite song in the orchard outside, and the misfortune filling the two women's hearts could not be lulled to sleep. It now started a song of its own — bitter and cheerless... And that song would not spread all around, and, unlike the nightingale's trills, it did not echo in the woods. Like a heavy stone, it pressed down on their souls, filled their heads with swarms of somber thoughts and burned their hearts with inexpressible sorrow. Motrya and Orishka did not sleep and did not weep. They only groaned — now one, now the other... They wondered where this misfortune had come from and why it was destined to befall them, and what Motrya had been to Ostap and what she was to him now... They sat there racking their brains. A second wife of a man who had married before? A seduced girl? Neither, they decided. She was rather a married widow... This must be a sin — how could they pray to God for forgiveness? This was a shame — how could they wash it away?... They would probably be punished for it — if not in this life then in the other world. Ostap was a sinister, wicked creature... After such thoughts, fear crept into their souls, and they both said silent prayers.

* * *


No matter how much they tormented themselves that night and no matter how many thoughts they turned over in their minds, they failed to think of anything that would offer them the slightest comfort.
Neither did the volost officials find a satisfactory solution. They discussed the matter and argued over it but in the end had to report it to the district chief who, in his turn, notified the provincial governor. Then everybody got busy writing replies and explanations...
Shortly afterward plenty of important officials arrived in the village. They asked a lot of questions and wrote down all the answers. Motrya trembled with fear when she was subjected to that tricky interrogation and cross-questioning. Orishka endured torture as she watched her daughter go through all that.
The affair dominated all conversation in the village. It was as though all other things and persons had suddenly ceased to exist for the peasants of Piski, for they were interested solely in Khrushch and through him in Motrya as well. Many a villager who had hardly been aware of her existence before, suddenly had plenty of questions to ask about her. Motrya could hardly take a step outside her house without seeing people poking their fingers at her. Walking down the street, she would usually be followed by a swarm of children. Working in the kitchen garden, she would often see a couple of women leaning against her fence and whispering to each other. Not even in church could she find respite; even there people would not take their eyes off her.
"Over there... that one! That short woman, black hair... head tied with a black kerchief..." whispers from behind her back reached her ears.
"Is she the one who's crossing herself?"
"That's right... That's she who married a married fellow."
Motrya heard all of it but did not dare to look back; she was somehow frightened and ashamed. Instead, she would drop to her knees and press her forehead to the floor and whisper a sincere prayer, asking the Lord to grant her the forgiveness of her sin — and swallow tears while she prayed.
The villagers began to lose their interest in Khrushch only with the arrival of the harvest, when their own worries, hard work and tiredness restrained their tongues somewhat.
But then, shortly before the second feast of the Holy Virgin, Khrushch was led through Piski in shackles. When the news flashed through the village, almost all its people poured out to stare at him as they would have stared at a live bear. "Khrushch... Khrushch is coming... They're leading him in chains!" shouts came from all sides. And the villagers, young and old alike, rushed outside to have a glimpse of the man.
Khrushch was taken to the town of Hetmanske and locked up behind bars. Then they started interrogating him. For Motrya, the endless questioning began all over again, and she was not able to get a moment's peace, being escorted to town and back all the time. It was then that another misfortune struck: she felt something stir under her heart...
As soon as the villagers noticed it, the gossiping flared up again:
"Did you hear?" a woman would greet another on the street. "She's expecting!"
"Oh, yes, my dear, I know... Fancy getting pregnant by such a monster!!"
"Don't you think it's a bad omen?... I'd say the end of the world is not far away! Just think: last year there was that star with a tail, and now this..."
"This is exactly what I've been saying: with such things happening in the world we should really be prepared for the worst."
And they would wag their tongues on and on.
Some men would gather somewhere on a Sunday or another holiday. Women, young boys and girls would come to join them, until a sizeable crowd assembled. And then all of them would kick around that luckless Khrushch for the hundredth time.
Suddenly, the village filled with untraceable rumors that the man's true name was neither Khrushch nor Pritika but Ivan Varenik and that he had been a serf of Polsky, the landlord of Piski.
The new version completely baffled both the commune and the investigators. What were they to do with him now? Would they be within their rights to put him on trial? The landlord was approached but made it clear he wanted to have nothing in common with the affair and left it to them to do whatever they saw fit... Finally the peasant commune decided the matter. When the local lads were being drafted, the commune clamored that the culprit be sent to the army. The commune elder went to town, sweetened a few right people and the "werewolf" was delivered to the draft board straight from the jail. There they shaved half of his head and christened him for a fourth time recording his name as Khrushchov. Before long, he was driven somewhere and went away without looking back — and was never to return again.

* * *


Ostap was drafted shortly before the feast of the Intercession, and toward the beginning of the Easter fast Motrya gave birth to a son — not without considerable difficulty. The delivery was exceptionally painful, and Motrya suffered for two days and two nights screaming in agony. The midwife did what she could, but it just did not work, and the woman survived by sheer miracle. Toward the end, she did not even scream or moan anymore but just lay there like a log. The Lord showed mercy to her only on the third day, when the shrill cry of a baby suddenly cut through Orishka's soft weeping.
"He'll get to be a general with such a voice!" the midwife exclaimed, relieved.
Slowly, Orishka lifted her hand and crossed herself. Motrya heaved a deep sigh — and opened her eyes. A feeling of quiet release spread through the room.
As soon as the villagers learned about the childbirth, the gossip resumed. Piski again filled with whispers, ridicule and mysterious fears... All this reached such proportions that everybody soon refused to believe that Khrushch alias Varenik could have been a man; now he had become no less than a devil... Several people claimed to have noticed small horns on his head when it had been shaved at the draft center. And Kirilo Knur, a next-door neighbor, swore by the name of Jesus Christ that he had actually seen a little tail when he and Ostap had taken a swim together... Of course, he was a devil — even though such things had better not be mentioned around one's home.
Now a baby had been born to him — and in such a way, too!
"No, it just doesn't seem right to me!" village wives chattered, shaking their heads. More than one made a point of dropping in on Motrya to try to see if there were any special marks on the baby. Finally, one discovered a small birthmark on its left knee. That must be it, she thought and hurried out of the house.
"Found anything?" her child's godmother demanded impatiently.
"Just as I had thought, dear!" the woman blurted out, making the sign of the cross.
Before long, the entire village was heatedly discussing the discovery. Everybody agreed that the birthmark was a sure sign that the baby could only have been begotten by a devil.
Now godparents were needed for the baptizing, but everybody refused. Motrya and Orishka were desperate. The baby had already lived for three days unbaptized. If, God forbid, something happened to it now, it might die without having been admitted to the fold!
Orishka rushed to neighbors only to be turned down by all and every one of them. Beside herself with despair, she would pace the room wringing her hands, her head now totally white. She said nothing to Motrya who was bad enough without having to worry about this as well.
Fortunately, some soldiers happened to pass through the village. Orishka ran to them and implored them to help. She also bought them a quart of vodka. Finally, one agreed. He was to be the godfather with Orishka herself as godmother.
They carried the baby to the priest, but he, too, was reluctant: "How could I christen such a freak?"
"Oh, Lord, what am I to do?!" cried Orishka. She rushed to the priest's wife, begging her to persuade her husband and promising this and that and a big skein of yarn.
The woman took pity on her. The priest baptized the little boy Nechipor.


 

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