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

 

V. The Revelation

 

Chipka really loved herding sheep for old Ulas. This was just the right kind of job for his age, and the work was not hard. Nor was it without benefits. For every summer the old man charged five copecks a sheep. Of these, Hritsko and Chipka received half a copeck each. Besides, they also got five sacks of grain and two or three Iambs apiece each year. There was nothing left to be desired. Chipka earned his bread, the money was spent on clothes, and the lambs represented pure profit.
"Thank Thee for taking pity on our misery!" Motrya praised the Lord. "Frankly, I gave up all hope of bringing my son to reason!"
"He's finally come to his senses," Orishka said. "He has understood himself that he must work. I, too, have eaten some of his bread, thank God!"
Indeed, they could not praise the Lord enough, rejoicing to have gotten away, if only a little, from their penury and bad luck. Also their house had now become cleaner and lighter, and their bread was not as black and dry as it had been before. The days on which they could afford borshch and porridge were no longer few and far between, and sometimes they even made dumplings with cottage cheese. Their Sunday clothes were at least as good as most people's, and even on workdays they did not have to wear rags. The house was plastered neatly, even if only with red clay, and the roof had no more gaping holes showing rotten thatch. Behind the house there were a cellar and a barn. They kept a pig with a suckling and about a dozen sheep. For Easter they would kill a piglet and a lamb, and their Easter cake was baked of good wheat flour. They had more of everything, and life was better in every way.
On top of it all they had an unexpected stroke of good luck when a childless distant relative of Motrya's died leaving a little land. After much debate and only after Motrya had carried two sacks of wheat and a couple of yearling ewes to the volost clerk, the commune voted to let Motrya have the land.
"Cheer up, Chipka," said overjoyed Motrya. "Now we can have our own rye and wheat and millet and barley and buckwheat. I am also going to choose a good place and plant potatoes for the winter! For Christmas we can feed a pig. We'll sell the fat, salt the meat and stuff some sausages... We'll have enough to eat! I don't care if our enemies keep on laughing and avoiding us!"
Motrya grew more cheerful and even seemed to have become younger.
Those happy, untroubled days did not lull Chipka to complacency, though. Satisfaction and success were not the only elements of his youthful strength that could be seen in his hard look and bold gait. Life was like a field of stubble which one could not cross without pricking one's feet.
The death of his grandmother was the first painful reminder of this. At the time Chipka had just turned fifteen. Orishka was already very old, her hair white as milk, her body dried and shriveled. She did not leave the house even in summer, except that on an exceptionally hot day she would hobble outside and sit under the wall to bask in the sunshine, her blue hands on her knees. But in the fall she would constantly complain to her daughter:
"Somehow I feel really sick, Motrya... I'm in a very bad way! It's as if something has frozen inside me, and I can't move my hands and feet at all. I'm not even sure they're still there. Most likely, my death is not far away already..."
Thus she spoke one evening, and before daybreak she gave up the ghost.
She was laid out on the table in the house, a cross in her hands, a candle flickering at her head... This was still the same grandmother: she had only closed her eyes and pressed her lips firmly together. Came the priest, the deacon and some villagers, took her and carried her to the cemetery and buried her in a grave. Motrya wept, but not Chipka. He was frightened and mourned his grandmother. She was no more, he thought, she had died and she would never again be alive. The merciless death had taken Granny away from them. What was death? Did anybody know?
Before his vision arose a horrible apparition, a grim, cold monster... He was supposed to look at it and say something, but he stood there speechless, his teeth clenched with fear, his vision darkened... Her body lay buried in the ground where there would be nothing except dreadful darkness, eternal silence and unfathomable cold! There was a worm creeping along... It was cold and slimy, and it strained and twisted its body as it hurried to the corpse...
Presently, the worm reached the dead body and put its tiny red mouth to it... Then it bored a small hole and clung to it... Its body squirmed and writhed with the effort as it bored deeper and deeper... Another worm hurried along, then a third, a fourth... The corpse was now full of holes. There was a dull thud. That was a part of the corpse, weakened by countless holes, falling away. The worms writhed, lifting their tiny reddish tails...
Ouch, how frightful! Chipka shuddered. Why had there to be death? They said it was all God's will. Death through the will of God? Mute darkness, worms — was all that due to God? Oh, Lord, did it really have to be?... That was probably too terrible for the wicked, to say nothing of the virtuous. And Granny had been so good and kind for everybody. Why then did she have to suffer so horribly? Or maybe it was not the same for all? What was the truth? Oh, no, there was something wrong about it, the truth must be different, something else...
Chipka became obsessed with such thoughts... He looked grim and ghastly and had a strangely wild stare. He would shift his eyes to somebody's face but he would not see it. Also, he did not hear people calling him by name and sometimes acted as if he did not have his wits about him. He would jerk awake at night and start to dress...
"Chipka! What's the matter?" his mother would ask him in astonishment.
"What?"
"Where are you going?"
"Granny's calling me... I'm going to her..."
"Stop that, for God's sake! Granny is no more — she died."
"Then what's that?... Listen!" He would turn his ear toward one side, listening. "There it is! 'Chipka!... Chipka!...' Can't you hear?... Wait a minute, Granny, I'm coming!..."
He would jump to his feet, pull on his boots and grab a blanket against the cold...
"May God have mercy on you, where are you going?" Motrya crossed him and rushed to stop him.
Then she would beg him to stay home and undress him and pull off his boots... He would calm down a little and sink down on the bench.
"Lie down, son."
Chipka would stir and move a little but would remain sitting... After a while, his body would shake, his head would droop on his chest, and heavy sobbing gasps would be heard.
"Why are you crying, son?"
But he would say nothing, weeping on and on.
Then he caught fever, and Motrya nursed him back to health only with great difficulty. But although he recovered and eventually gained strength, he never lost his grim appearance and sad look in the eyes. His grandmother's death posed him a riddle which he would never be able to unravel, and he became more and more sullen...

* * *


Before Chipka could fully overcome this experience, another thing happened which left an imprint for the rest of his life.
He was seventeen. That year the centuries-old shackles of serfdom were shattered. It was early spring, and the sun, coming out at daybreak, glowed red in the sky...
"Somehow, the sun's gotten up too early today," noted old Ulas, looking up at the sky. "We're probably going to get some rain today."
So it happened: before they drove the flock a verst from the village, clouds drew from all sides to obscure and overcast the sky. Soon afterward, the skies began to weep... A fine drizzle set in. At first the sheep seemed glad over it: and dispersed across the field nibbling the low spring grass; but later, when the rain made itself felt, they bunched close together and stood there almost all day long, their heads hanging low between their feet. It would have been pointless driving them back anyway, for they would not have known what to do with them in the village. And the rain fell on and on... The three shepherds got wet to the skin, but the rain just would not stop.
The three of them sat down under a willow to wait. Baldhead, too, curled up at their feet. All of them felt gloomy.
"Will you, too, be free now, Uncle Ulas?" asked Chipka to while away the time in conversation.
"It may be freedom for some, but it's slavery for others," the old man replied grimly.
"What d'you mean?"
"Never mind. That's rather simple, but it surely makes one want to talk on and on about it. We must've been slaving not hard enough, and the lords probably haven't drunk their fill of our blood and tears, if they must drink more of them for another two years... Oh, Lord, when is Thy just judgement coming at last?..."
"Isn't it all the same for you, Uncle Ulas?" Hritsko spoke. "You have been free for quite a long time anyway."
"Free?... Sure, I was free while there was no freedom around. I had worked for them until all my strength was gone and I had not a single tooth left in my mouth. Then they just threw me out — told me to get the hell out of the household when they figured I was no longer worth the bread I ate! Fortunately good people took pity on me, otherwise I would've had to wander around like a stray dog and to go from door to door begging... Now suddenly they've remembered me. Pay ten rubles a year, they say... For what? Where would I get the money?... Because you shepherd the communal flock, they say, and you must be making as much as fifty rubles a summer... But that's ridiculous! I'm a poor man, I live on charity... The good villagers have been kind to me... But no! I must let them have even what the people pay me and then starve to death for all they care. Oh, damn them all! There are no laws against them, no justice!" the old man concluded bitterly.
Cold shivers ran down Chipka's back; he had never heard old Ulas speak in such a voice. His thoughts blurred and whirled round, and blood rushed to his head. He remained silent, afraid of disturbing the old man's grief with words. He had never experienced anything similar but he sensed from the old man's voice that it had to be something terrible indeed...
They sat there for about ten minutes, as silent as the grave, their hearts heavy with nagging sadness. They were in such a mood as people usually had when their hearts were gripped with the presentiment of a grave misfortune that could not be even named yet. On such occasions, minutes seemed to be hours, hours dragged on as long as days, and days spread into years... A worm crept along faster than time in such moments... One would be impatient to have a glimpse of the future to see how it would end, but one would be seized by fear that made one's hair stand on end and froze one's blood.
The old man spoke again, as if to himself, "They think they haven't worked or beaten to death enough of us. Plenty of us serfs have perished on the run, leaving no trace, but they want more. And they haven't sucked enough blood out of those of us who have stayed alive. Now they've fallen upon a beggar... Well, they aren't going to get much out of me. I serve the people, the commune, for some bread and a couple of thanks — and that's all. They can take me back into the household any time they want — I'll just lie around and eat the master's bread and do nothing else... Come on, take me! That's easy to say, of course... And what about the steppes and the sheep? I've gotten used to it all and it's now so dear to me... Now I'll have to leave it... May their strength leave them!... A sheep is like a human being to me: it also eats and drinks and gets sick... Only it can't say a word!... Don't I see, don't I know how this rain annoys them? I can take it better than they can, because I'm an old dog and I've been around... But look at that lamb. It's bent and shivering with cold... And I see it, sure... I would've warmed that lamb on my chest like it were my own child... But I won't do that! Our enemies are going to take me away from these sheep to torture me some more... Because they always want more, and more, and more..."
The old man could speak no more. Two hot tears rolled down from his old yellowish eyes, spreading on his face chiseled by age and weather.
Hritsko sat with his mouth agape, not knowing what to say.
Chipka did not take his eyes off old Ulas. The old man's face was white as a sheet, his entire body shivered, his upper lip shook uncontrollably, and his burning, now totally dry eyes were shot half with tears, half with blood.
"Who... who..." he shouted, stammering, "who can take old Ulas away from us?... No! No, we won't let them — not as long as we are alive!"
The old shepherd looked up — and his stare met Chipka's burning eyes.
"The lord will take me back, Chipka! He'll do it, too, son! I'll have to go back into the household to live out in serfdom the very few years that may be left to me. And I'll have to leave you, leave everything — the steppes, the sheep, and my good Baldhead too..."
"He won't dare — oh no!" Chipka said threateningly. "Let him try! I'll fix a nice, big fire for him if he does!"
The old man became alarmed.
"Don't you say such things, son! Are you in your right senses and d'you believe in God at all? Try to think! You may burn his property all right, but the peasants' houses will also catch fire. Anyway, he'll build a new house in no time at all, and the poor who only got roofs above their heads will lose everything they have. May God help you to come to your senses!"
Now their gloom deepened even more. The skies erupted into a downpour. They fidgeted uneasily, pulling their cloaks down to their eyes. Baldhead crawled closer to the old man, huddling next to his feet. Ulas shook his head wonderingly. "He's exactly like his father," he said aloud. "They're as similar as two peas."
"Who?" asked Hritsko.
"That one!" Ulas pointed to Chipka.
"Do you mean you knew my father?" Chipka asked grimly.
"Why not, if we were in the household together?"
"Was he also a serf?" Chipka asked in a surprised voice. "Wasn't he a soldier?"
"What if he was? Men aren't born soldiers, are they? I see no one has told you about him yet..."
"No."
"It figures. The people must still remember..."
"What do you mean?" Chipka pricked up his ears, his eyes riveted to the old man.
"Hm, I see!" Ulas got out a bast snuffbox and inhaled some tobacco.
"You tell me, Uncle Ulas," Chipka insisted.
"All right. If nobody's told you, then I will... It was so long ago," he began. "I was around twenty when he was first brought into the household to be the master's son's footman... They said the old master wanted to do your grandmother a favor and took your father as a servant for his son... He was puny, sickly and nasty like a thievish cat. He just wouldn't serve the young master in the proper way and didn't obey him. The young master once pinched him or pulled his hair... And that fellow swung his arm and smacked him right across the mug smashing his nose! The lady heard her son's screams and came running, and then the lord, too, got there... 'Take him to the stable!' he ordered. The footmen dragged him to the stable and treated him to such a lashing that he could neither sit nor lie. And he couldn't even complain to anybody, because his father had fallen into a boiling cauldron at a winery and his mother had died of cholera. Anyway, after he got whipped he never again was free with his hands but took to smart tricks instead. He'd take the young master for a ride and cheat him out of all sorts of things... until he got lashed for that, too. After that he tried to drown himself, but people didn't let him. Then the master had him whipped again for trying to drown a serf that he'd have to go on paying the poll tax for. Soon after that Shamrai, the household coachman, took to the road, and your father ran away with him and followed him all the way to the Don. He grew up down there, married and settled down. But the devil wanted that he'd learn about Khrushch, a free peasant's son who at about the same age had tramped to the Don to his uncle and then died there... It was not so much this Khrushch as the homeland, though. Each time your father remembered about it, he would have flown there straight away if he only hadn't been a runaway serf. But then he heard about Khrushch. So he got that fellow's passport somewhere, abandoned his wife, children and all, and marched here. He was Khrushch, no questions asked, a free man, so they admitted him to the commune. Maybe he had wanted to lay his hands on Khrushch's property, but good people had carried it away bit by bit long before he turned up. Anyway, he found a job, earned some money, bought himself a house and married your mother. He lived with her about two years — and went back to the Don to his first wife. That's where he got caught! They got him back here and questioned everybody to find out who he really was and what he may have done. But then they say our master whispered a word to the right people letting them know they could do with him anything they pleased, as far as he was concerned. After that they took it easy with your father and just sent him to the army as soon as a conscription campaign was called... Now you see how he came to be a soldier. Now you'll know!"
Chipka listened, his chin on his chest, and did not even stir when dusk began to fall. Ulas and Hritsko gathered the flock without him.
"Hey, come on, time to go home!" the old man called to him from the road.
Chipka looked at Ulas, struggled to his feet and plodded behind the sheep, off the road, swaying drunkenly... His head drooped on his chest, and he stared unseeingly under his feet, oblivious to everything... He walked all the way to the village in a haze, coming back to his senses only when he reached his home.
"Was my father really like that, Mother?"
"Like what?"
He told her.
"That's true."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Would you have felt better if I had?"
He fell to thinking.
"I guess not..." he replied after a long pause and grew silent once more.
The room became gloomy as a cellar. Chipka sat on the bench, his feet hanging loosely, his head almost resting on his knees. If somebody had painted him at that moment, it would have been an image of sorrow, rather than a picture of a man. Looking at him and remembering the past, Motrya wept softly.
"No, that's not what Father should have done," Chipka said in a hollow drawl. "No, he did it wrong! Why didn't he kill them, burn them down?.."
"Kill whom, son?"
"The masters!" he said firmly.
"Don't you say such things. It's up to the Lord, not people, to punish them."
Chipka kept silent. Motrya crossed herself and again started crying. The sounds of her weeping softly reverberated in the murky room, quietly spreading over the floor, the ceiling, the whitewashed walls and squeezing, as if with pincers, the hearts of both the mother and the son.
He sat there gloomily, as silent as the grave. His father, like a black raven, hovered before his vision.
Poor, poor Father, he thought. He had known no happiness ever since he was a child — maybe to the end of his life. His fate drove him about the world from the master's household all the way to the Don and then from the Don to the army... Where was he now? What had happened to him? Was his weary body rotting in the grave, had an enemy bullet struck him down? Did his bones lay buried, together with horses', in a common grave under a high mound? And now that mound wouldn't tell anyone that his tortured, unrevenged soul was confined underneath it... Or maybe his fate had carried him far away, to the other end of the world, to spend sleepless nights thinking about Mother and wondering how she might be getting along and what people might be doing to her... "Oh, Lord my God! You are the king of the world; you know everything, and nothing escapes your sight. You alone look after earth and have power over it... Why then don't you punish the evil, so that they wouldn't torture the good? Why don't Thou strike the wrongdoer with Thy just wrath? But no — you're silent, mute like the dead night... You can't see our tears, and the sound of our sobs doesn't reach you... Our enemies stand between you and us. Will you never punish them?"
Chipka was completely exhausted. He lay on the bench like a log, groaning heavily. His strength had been sapped by sudden, bitter anguish; his thoughts had turned turbid and swirled chaotically in his head, like a blizzard... He was hardly aware of his thoughts and did not hear his own moans.
"Why are you groaning, son?" Motrya asked sadly.
He was silent.
"Are you sick?"
Silence.
"Are you asleep, son?"
Silence.
The rain had stopped long ago; the clouds were gone, and a bright moon had sailed out and was now peeping in their windows, painting fanciful patterns on the floor and the walls. Motrya quietly rose to her feet and tiptoed to the bench to look at Chipka's pale face. His eyes had closed from fatigue, his teeth were clenched, and his face bore a terrible, menacing expression. That horrible sight made her heart bleed.
"May the Mother of God guard you from all evils," she whispered. "Sleep, son, maybe you'll sleep it off."
Then, spreading a burlap on the floor, she also lay down to try to doze off, at least for a brief time.
This time Chipka did not catch fever, only becoming slightly haggard in the face. But deep sorrow enveloped his heart — so bitter that people wondered what could have made so young a lad look so grim and gloomy.
Somehow, Chipka stuck it out with the flock until the end of summer. In the fall they demanded that the old shepherd pay them. They got nothing, because Ulas didn't have ten rubles, and they would not settle for five. The old man was dragged to the lord's household like an ox to slaughter. This embittered Chipka still more, and he plunged even deeper in gloom. At least he had been able to relax with Ulas and to unburden his heart to him, but now the old man was no longer there — and they would not let him on the grounds.


 

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