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

 

VIII. The Cossack

 

Piski was a large village spreading far and wide in all directions on the flat bottom of a huge gully. Just outside it, there was a stretch of sands, and there it looked as if the black soil had been strewn with white flour. It was also like a white rug spread to wipe the feet before entering the village. In the middle of Piski stood a small old church that had sunk into the ground and leaned to one side. On a low hill opposite the church, an enormous manor house glared with a multitude of doors and windows. It, too, looked old and neglected. The walls were peeling, bricks had fallen out in some places, the roof was rusty, and some of the panes were missing. Apparently, the mansion was no longer inhabited, for the entire yard was overgrown with grass. Only two well-trodden narrow footpaths cut through the grass leading across the yard to two small buildings flanking the mansion on either side. Everything was sagging and crumbling. This was what Piski looked like shortly before the serfs were freed.
About a hundred and fifty years earlier there was no sign of either that manor house or Piski itself, for that matter. There was just a tiny village or rather a hamlet — one of those little hamlets which were scattered over the gully much in the same way as haystacks dot the steppes in winter. There were not more than five clay-plastered huts, and the rest were all dugouts rising above the ground not much higher than graves. Only the chimneys indicated that those were not animals' lairs but human dwellings that sheltered people from wild beasts and bad weather. Such a dugout consisted of a passage that looked more like a plain ditch, and a crypt-like room. Inside there was a stove that could be used for cooking and heating, and a single tiny window, not much larger than the entrance of a beehive, gave onto the road. Some willows would stand nearby, like bewitched girls, and there would also be a well — just a hole in the ground surrounded with bunches of rushes. There was no fence. Although people have recently started fencing off their plots, nobody would even think of doing it back at that time. Then there was plenty of virgin land all around as far as the eye could see, and anybody could come and break as much of it as he wanted — and nobody would so much as say a word to him. Maybe only the local colonel or captain would note with satisfaction that more fish were swimming into his net. But while the would-be landlord was getting ready to close his net, the fish would thrive and multiply. Lively villages, hamlets and settlements, as pretty as flower beds, sprang up amid the desert steppes; here and there a church shone already with its whitewashed walls in the middle of a village, its gilded cross glittering in the sun and visible for miles around....
In this way many villages and hamlets around Hetmanske came into being. Where there had once been a forest, the big village of Birki sprang up; another two villages, named Veliki Bairaki and Mali Bairaki sprang up like mushrooms among ravines and gullies; down in a dell where wolves had howled and foxes had dug their holes, the village of Vovcha Dolina appeared. Piski was also founded at about the same time.
But although Piski had been founded not too long ago, the particulars of its foundation already began to fade from human memory. Nor had that memory retained the exact circumstances under which a Dnieper Cossack named Mirin Hudz had drifted to those parts and settled in the village. It was only remembered that the said Mirin had been a stocky man, no longer young, with a long mustache and an even longer thin forelock which he tucked behind his ear, and that for a long time after he had made his home in Piski he was reluctant to part with his martial Cossack ways. "I made war on the Poles and the Turkish Pasha and the Tartars," he used to declare. "Now I'm going to fight the beasts." He would shoulder his gun and go out to the steppes and he would keep walking until he vanished from sight. He would be gone for a couple of days, sometimes three. But then he would be back carrying five or six wolves' skins.
Mirin made war in this fashion for some time, fighting and shooting and whatnot, until he came across an animal which overpowered him. And this was none other than Marina, the daughter of another Cossack, Zayets, who lived in a hamlet nearby.
Once he was returning home from a hunt. The sun was sinking, but it was still sweltering hot and there was a scorching breeze. "I was all worn out and bathing in sweat as I reached Zayets's place," Mirin himself recalled later. "And I was so thirsty it seemed I was burning inside. Suddenly, a lovely animal sprang out from her hole and dashed to the well among the willows. She carried a pail, too, and my blood boiled when I saw it. I hurried there to drink some good cool water... The girl leaned over the well drawing water and was singing softly. Her singing sounded so sweet that it went right to my heart... So I went to her and said: 'Let me drink some of your water, good girl.' She looked at me most kindly — and stopped singing... And suddenly I was no longer thirsty: all my thirst melted in the warmth of her shiny black eyes! She gave me her pail and I put my face down to it... 'That's some water,' I said, 'all dirty and muddy.' But I was about to drink it anyway. Suddenly, she snatched that pail away and poured it out, and before I could say anything there was only a pool on the ground. 'You just wait,' she chirped, 'I'll get you another.' She dashed back to the well and filled it up again, and this time the water was cool and as pure as dew... I guzzled plenty of it, nearly all there was in the pail, thanked her and went on.... Then I got home... My goodness! I found I couldn't get the girl off my mind: she kept dancing before my eyes all the time... Just what kind of devilry could that be, I wondered? It must've been some mighty strange water after all. Next day it was no different. Another day passed — and I still couldn't forget her. I'd go out to hunt — and there, too, I'd imagine seeing her in the bushes. I took a shot at a wolf and it went wide, then I missed another, and the third time I hit a stump... Ouch! I was certainly not all there...
"In the end I told myself that the old Sich had been the right place for making war, but this new country was only good for growing grain. So I waited until Sunday and went to talk to Zayets at his hamlet. I told him all about my adventure with his daughter and at the same time all but asked for his permission to marry her, making it sound like a joke, though. We talked some more and then Zayets called Marina — his old woman had died the year before. 'I've got news for you,' he told her. 'Mirin here is asking to marry you. Will you marry him?' She was pretty young and shy, so she just said: 'I don't know.' 'Who knows then?' her father asked her. But she wouldn't say anything. So Zayets and I had a couple of good drinks and shook hands on it. He gave us his blessing, and next Sunday we went to the priest and he wed us..."
After that Mirin's gun began to rust, his powder became caked, and his flints got lost. Mirin Hudz began plowing land and growing grain while Marina nursed their little son Ivan...

* * *


Ivan nurtured his young strength amid the wide expanse of free steppes. From early childhood he felt his father's Cossack blood in his veins. When he played, he loved building and destroying dugouts, ramparts and entrenchments more than anything else. Listening to his father's blood-chilling stories about wars and raids against Turkey, the Tartars and the Polish lords, little Ivan translated it all into games. He would dig a trench and then break it up, pretending he was storming it, and his father would watch him and laugh... Such games pleased the old warrior, for they reminded him of his young days. He often encouraged Ivan: "Come on, son! You must learn this thing while you're young — it may come in handy later on!"
On the other hand, Marina did not relish such games at all. Ivan was her only child. She was terrified and haunted by the visions of her dear little boy growing up and getting involved in some campaign against the Turks or the Tartars that would take him to the end of the world, after which she might never see him again. In a bloody battle somewhere in a foreign land, his young life would be snuffed out, and she would not even be there to close his eyes; they would be pecked out by rooks and ferocious eagles, and his sun-yellowed bones would then be carried to all sides by hungry wolves... Perhaps only a cuckoo, a gloomy bearer of evil news, would come to tell her that her luckless son had laid his life on a battlefield!... Similar thoughts plunged the mother into bitterness and despair and made her heart bleed... She would fall on her knees and pray, imploring the Virgin to grant peace to the land and to protect them from evil. Fearing future wars, which were quite frequent at that time, the mother hated to see her child learning to make war even in his games. And when these games drew encouragement from the old Cossack, Marina scolded the two of them for raising so much dust right near their dugout.
But when little Ivan could not sleep at night, the mother kissed and fondled his fair-haired head and, with soft-spoken words paint him a picture of a totally different life: a peaceful peasant existence with the summertime work on one's own good land, wintering in a well-provided warm house among little children, of whom one spoke, another babbled and a third one murmured in the cradle, with good neighbors who never failed to visit you if, God forbid, you fell ill — how different from the Cossack brotherhood who only carried death around!
This seemed to convince him. On the following day, he would not build or storm any entrenchments. Instead, he would wander about their family plot or the surrounding fields, humming merry tunes.
Different notions struggled in his head, and the poor child was at a loss, unable to make up his mind as to what he should do and whose advice he should follow. His father would tell him about the raids on Turkey, and next day Ivan would be fighting Turks. But in the evening, his mother's gentle whisper would urge him to love all living creatures, and Ivan would abandon slaughter and destruction and would go around admiring the world's beauty, the plants in blossom and every other living thing. Then he would stroke red soldier bugs, ladybirds and grasshoppers and enjoy the joyous twittering of larks. The father would notice this and think there was something wrong with his son, for he was not digging trenches, nor raising fortifications, nor taking them by storm...
"Why aren't you attacking your trenches, Ivan?" Mirin would ask.
"I just don't want to." "Why?"
"Mother tells me not to do it."
"Why?"
"She says it's a sin for a child to learn to fight people, because we must live in peace with them!"
"That's just not true... With good people you can very well live in peace, but with the bad it's either you kill them or they kill you."
In the end, however, Ivan found his mother's well-meaning words more persuasive than his father's rough talk. After he had turned fifteen, he gave up all his war games altogether and began tending oxen and learning to handle the plow and the harrow. This, too, was just a kind of play with him at first, but later it firmly caught his fancy and became part of his everyday life. Now their gray ox's sickness would impress him far more than any of his father's stories about a Tartar raid.
The mother was delighted. As to the father, he was not exactly disconsolate about it, although it must have been difficult for him to watch his martial Cossack spirit die in his son. All around, the old Cossack knighthood was already dissolving. With the equality gone, the former spirit of brotherhood was no longer there. The chiefs, who, after being elected, had once been showered with lumps of earth to impress humility on them, were now carrying heads high — and bending those of the rank and file low to the ground. Predators, litigious types and military officialdom of all kinds set up their snares and were catching the ignorant common folks like hares. There was not even a hetman anymore — and who needed one anyway? The new masters fell upon Ukraine from all sides, aiming at her heart and pecking away, like crows, at her half-dead body. The Cossacks lost heart — but it was already too late! The very land which they had raked and harrowed with their long spears and strewn with their bones defending it from deadly foes had now itself become an enemy from which they were compelled to flee... A great turmoil began and plenty of people got on the road. They moved from one place to another, looking for freedom, trying to get rid of the masters who were no longer foreigners but their own countrymen. Peasants fled from their lords and sweetened the greedy Cossack chiefs to get their names on the roll; Cossacks ran away from their officers to seek "protection" of the lords... Actually, the landed lord and the Cossack chief were like two brothers. Dog does not eat dog. Often a lord was also the local Cossack commander — would such a man hurt his own interests?
The peasants of Piski were still free, though. Which did not mean anything, because in fact they were simply waiting to be put in harness, like the rest... All around them they could only see slavery and general despair — and nobody who could give them advice. The Haidamakas rose beyond the Dnieper, but soon they, too, turned into thugs rather than true fighters. The Cossack brotherhood dispersed, and it was now every man for himself. Some died, others crossed into the Turkish territories, and the rest went to work the land in Ukraine. Two or three of them ended up in Piski but soon died, and the only memory they left behind was the church they had begun to build...
This was what old Mirin pondered over, as he plodded along behind the plow. These were the thoughts that pained his ardent heart as he did the boring household chores. Now he was left all alone. Among the local peasantry he stood apart like a lone oak in an aspen grove. There was just no one else like him. Even his own son scorned his father's spirit! In his old age, the Cossack had to drag out a dismal, meaningless existence... Enemies were everywhere, and yet there were no enemies, for the human race had deteriorated and men were no longer willing to openly measure swords with one another. Deadly quiet it was, everywhere. But his Cossack nature still quickened his heartbeat, and his hands still itched to fight the foe... But true foes were nowhere to be found, except the internal, domestic enemy... He felt hollow and sad.
"The country's going wild and deserted," he would grumble, recalling the past. "With so much mud all around, it'll soon start to rot, too.
"Just look at the way things have turned! Is that life? Dragging their own folks into slavery! The chiefs have ruined the brotherhood — grabbed all the lands, too. Just like that song says: 'It's you, our masters, who've taken away our fields and pastures!' Now they have them worked with the poor folks' hands... That's not the way things used to be in our Sich — in our Cossack country! We were all equal, all free... Today you may be my chief, but I might command you tomorrow! There was plenty of land for all, too. Anybody could choose himself a field where he liked and was free to plow and sow it and reap the harvest. That was freedom! And now? What have we got now? Just tell me where all this is going to get us! That's no good, and I don't like it — and I guess I never will!" he added with finality and grew silent.
The people listened gloomily, some scratching the backs of their heads.
Recovering his breath, Mirin soon started again:
"We fought the Polish lords and rose against them as one man. Did we do it just to be beaten by our own chiefs and turned into slaves? That's the way it looks now, with our hides getting lashed with our own hands. Well, wear your precious hides till they skin you alive. Why is it so? That's because everybody looks out just for himself. My brother's troubles are none of my business! If there's no unity, then freedom goes to the devil, too. But what if we all together grabbed our scythes to cut down the nettle? Just like that! Why are you gaping at me? Go get your scythes, I tell you. Do it before it's to late!"
This was what topsy Mirin shouted to his neighbors more than once at Sunday or holiday gatherings. The villagers listened and tried to figure it all out for themselves. Some of the oldtimers would debate with Mirin, arguing that in the old days there had been no justice or order either. There had been just turmoil, trouble and lawlessness, they would say.
"Did those Poles and Tartars ever abuse us!" they shouted. "Just remember how we had to suffer because of the Turks and Muscovites! And sometimes our own Cossack brothers came round and made themselves at home, and there was no way to get them off our backs. That was the ruin of us!"
"And what do we have now?" Mirin would shout back.
"So what about now? Now, at least, it's quiet, thank God. We can grow grain and raise cattle and we've got protection. We live like decent people!"
"You call it life!" Mirin roared. "You don't live — you wither and rot! But wait just a little. You'll get the same as those folks in Vedmedivka. You'll get whipped like the people of Podilya! Then you'll find out what kind of life it is. You'll see... Anybody can see right now which way the wind blows..."
"That's just talk — and it may turn out either way!"
"Fools, blockheads, ninnies!" Mirin would shout in the end and say no more.
Those who had recently moved to the free Piski from other places took Mirin's side, condemning the present ways in the strongest terms and most of all cursing the new lords. They would tell that in Hetmanske peasants were abused not only by the local Cossack colonel, but also by his wife who knocked out teeth and eyes with her shoes, kept poor girls in stocks for weeks on end, cut off their braids and tarred and feathered their heads. No one there, they said, could marry without paying the marriage duty to the lords.
"Uncle Mirin talks sense," one of them would say through clenched teeth. "That nettle ought to be scythed — but who'd do it."
Mirin would sit there, his brows knitted, his wrinkled face flaming red. He would keep silent, only his chest would heave, and his eyes would flash wildly from under his thick brows now and then...
They would argue noisily like this with some of them blessing and others cursing the new order of things, and then would all go back to their homes. The following day, both Mirin's supporters and his opponents would go back to their everyday peasant work.
"Who wants us?" some would say. "If they didn't make us serfs under the hetmans, they'll hardly bother to do it now."
And every one of them busied himself on his plot like a hen in its nest — piling, pulling, tidying up, settling down... Piski grew bigger and richer... Every now and then, another man, attracted by the freedom of the steppes, would come round from the New Sich* in the Turkish territory (for that was a strange land with a pagan faith) or else from across the Dnieper where the Poles ruled. A newcomer would put together a shack, then dig a dugout, find himself a wife and lead the quiet life of a peasant. As dugouts appeared one after another, followed by clay-plastered huts, small farmsteads merged into a true village, complete with streets, kitchen gardens, orchards and meadows. Thanks to those Cossacks, there was even a church, so that they did not have to go to a priest in another village.

(* The Zaporozhian Sich was destroyed in 1775 on the order of Catherine II The expelled Cossacks moved to the Danube estuary and established their settlement there, calling it The New Sich (1775—1828))

* * *


Mirin's son Ivan was over twenty already — old enough to marry. Yet his father would not hear of a daughter-in-law. "He's too young yet," he would say. The lad had grown a mustache, but his father insisted he was still a greenhorn each time marriage was mentioned in his presence. It was as if the old man was waiting for something. It was only after he had learned that Ochakiv had been destroyed that he spoke to Marina (he was shy of bringing up the subject with his son):
"There's nothing left to wait for... That's the end! It's not just time — it's the peasant laziness that has killed everything... We won't be Cossacks again — neither us, nor our children... Nobody needs us anymore! The Cossack realm is gone, and the peasant life has begun. It's time our son, too, got on his own feet. Now he must find a wife and make his own nest."
The mother, however, had long had the right kind of girl in mind. Kabanets, a wealthy Cossack, had a daughter called Motrya — an only child. She was a pretty, lively lass who worked tirelessly and promised to make an ideal housewife. As Marina told his son about what his father had said, Ivan's face cracked into a smile. Then she suggested Motrya to him. But for some time his heartbeat had quickened each time he met the girl.
Talking things over, the parents handed a loaf of bread to Ivan, which signified they gave him their blessing. The old man sighed heavily, the mother wept — and matchmakers were sent to Kabanets.
Kabanets knew old Mirin well enough. He also knew Marina and her family. Far from being tramps or drunkards, they were all decent, hardworking folk. What else could one desire?
"It's all up to you," he told Motrya.
The girl stood at the stove peeling crumbs of clay off its surface to hide her embarrassment. Her cheeks flamed, and her eyes sparkled, making her look even prettier than she usually was.
"I'll do as Mother decides..." she replied.
"So what about it?" Kabanets turned to his wife. "What do you say?"
"What can I say? Marina is a nice woman... Mirin is a bit stern. But then she isn't marrying Mirin. And Ivan is a fine fellow — no doubt about it!"
"All right, we accept," Kabanets told the matchmakers.
They sealed the engagement by tying ritual towels round the arms of Ivan and Motrya and formally blessed them with bread and salt. Ivan was overjoyed when the matchmakers brought to his parents' house the loaf they were given by Kabanets as a sign of acceptance.
Two weeks later they were wed.
Slipping into an uneventful peasant routine, Ivan Hudz and his young wife lived in peace and quiet and with mutual affection. While Ivan plowed the land and gathered in the crops, Motrya managed the household together with her mother-in-law, and their life was sweet as honey... Nor did they have to wait long for children. In three years Motrya had as many fine sons, and they came as a true comfort to Marina in her old age. The boys turned out really wonderful — healthy, robust and ruddy-cheeked. One was named Maxim, the second Vasil, and the third, Onisim. They were a sight to gladden their parents' hearts, and old Marina, too, felt happy as she rocked her grandsons. Only Mirin did not seem to be particularly impressed. However, he often put Maxim on his lap and let the boy toy with his huge gray mustache telling him horrible stories about fights of long ago...
Those stories awakened the Cossack blood in the veins of the little boy. Maxim came to love his grandfather more than his father or mother. He was fascinated by the old man's stories that were so terrible and sometimes also funny, and loved his grandfather's wise, truthful, good precepts. The old man, too, warmed up to his curious lively grandson. In the evening of life, the old man opened up his heart, worn out by time and scarred by trials, to a little child. This was old age embracing youth — and youth attaching itself to old age. They were inseparable, sharing their joys and sorrows... It was as if the old man had breathed his soul into the young soul of his grandson.





 

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