Maxim Gorky – Through Russia

The year was the year ’92—the year of leanness—the scene a spot between Sukhum and Otchenchiri, on the river Kodor, a spot so near to the sea that amid the joyous babble of a sparkling rivulet the ocean’s deep-voiced thunder was plainly distinguishable. Also, the season being autumn, leaves of wild laurel were glistening and gyrating on the white foam of the Kodor like a quantity of mercurial salmon fry. And as I sat on some rocks overlooking the river there occurred to me the thought that, as likely as not, the cause of the gulls’ and cormorants’ fretful cries where the surf lay moaning behind a belt of trees to the right was that, like myself, they kept mistaking the leaves for fish, and as often finding themselves disappointed. Over my head hung chestnut trees decked with gold; at my feet lay a mass of chestnut leaves which resembled the amputated palms of human hands; on the opposite bank, where there waved, tanglewise, the stripped branches of a hornbeam, an orange-tinted woodpecker was darting to and fro, as though caught in the mesh of foliage, and, in company with a troupe of nimble titmice and blue treecreepers (visitors from the far-distant North), tapping the bark of the stem with a black beak, and hunting for insects. To the left, the tops of the mountains hung fringed with dense, fleecy clouds of the kind which presages rain; and these clouds were sending their shadows gliding over slopes green and overgrown with boxwood and that peculiar species of hollow beech-stump which once came near to effecting the downfall of Pompey’s host, through depriving his iron-built legions of the use of their legs as they revelled in the intoxicating sweetness of the “mead” or honey which wild bees make from the blossoms of the laurel and the azalea, and travellers still gather from those hollow stems to knead into lavashi or thin cakes of millet flour. On the present occasion I too (after suffering sundry stings from infuriated bees) was thus engaged as I sat on the rocks beneath the chestnuts. Dipping morsels of bread into a potful of honey, I was munching them for breakfast, and enjoying, at the same time, the indolent beams of the moribund autumn sun. In the fall of the year the Caucasus resembles a gorgeous cathedral built by great craftsmen (always great craftsmen are great sinners) to conceal their past from the prying eyes of conscience. Which cathedral is a sort of intangible edifice of gold and turquoise and emerald, and has thrown over its hills rare carpets silk-embroidered by Turcoman weavers of Shemi and Samarkand, and contains, heaped everywhere, plunder brought from all the quarters of the world for the delectation of the sun. Yes, it is as though men sought to say to the Sun God: “All things here are thine. They have been brought hither for thee by thy people.” Yes, mentally I see long-bearded, grey-headed supermen, beings possessed of the rounded eyes of happy children, descending from the hills, and decking the earth, and sowing it with sheerly kaleidoscopic treasures, and coating the tops of the mountains with massive layers of silver, and the lower edges with a living web of trees. Yes, I see those beings decorating and fashioning the scene until, thanks to their labours, this gracious morsel of the earth has become fair beyond all conception. And what a privilege it is to be human! How much that is wonderful leaps to the eye-how the presence of beauty causes. the heart to throb with a voluptuous rapture that is almost pain! And though there are occasions when life seems hard, and the breast feels filled with fiery rancour, and melancholy dries and renders athirst the heart’s blood, this is not a mood sent us in perpetuity.

For at times even the sun may feel sad as he contemplates men, and sees that, despite all that he has done for them, they have done so little in return… . No, it is not that good folk are lacking. It is that they need to be rounded off—better still, to be made anew. Suddenly there came into view over the bushes to my left a file of dark heads, while through the surging of the waves and the babble of the stream I caught the sound of human voices, a sound emanating from a party of “famine people” or folk who were journeying from Sukhum to Otchenchiri to obtain work on a local road then in process of construction. The owners of the voices I knew to be immigrants from the province of Orlov. I knew them to be so for the reason that I myself had lately been working in company with the male members of the party, and had taken leave of them only yesterday in order that I might set out earlier than they, and, after walking through the night, greet the sun when he should arise above the sea. The members of the party comprised four men and a woman—the latter a young female with high cheek-bones, a figure swollen with manifest pregnancy, and a pair of greyish-blue eyes that had fixed in them a stare of apprehension. At the present moment her head and yellow scarf were just showing over the tops of the bushes; and while I noted that now it was swaying from side to side like a sunflower shaken by the wind, I recalled the fact that she was a woman whose husband had been carried off at Sukhum by a surfeit of fruit—this fact being known to me through the circumstance that in the workmen’s barraque where we had shared quarters these folk had observed the good old Russian custom of confiding to a stranger the whole of their troubles, and had done so in tones of such amplitude and penetration that the querulous words must have been audible for five versts around. And as I had talked to these forlorn people, these human beings who lay crushed beneath the misfortune which had uprooted them from their barren and exhausted lands, and blown them, like autumn leaves, towards the Caucasus where nature’s luxuriant, but unfamiliar, aspect had blinded and bewildered them, and with its onerous conditions of labour quenched their last spark of courage; as I had talked to these poor people I had seen them glancing about with dull, troubled, despondent eyes, and heard them say to one another softly, and with pitiful smiles: “What a country!” “Aye,—that it is!—a country to make one sweat!” “As hard as a stone it is!” “Aye, an evil country!” After which they had gone on to speak of their native haunts, where every handful of soil had represented to them the dust of their ancestors, and every grain of that soil had been watered with the sweat of their brows, and become charged with dear and intimate recollections. Previously there had joined the party a woman who, tall and straight, had had breasts as flat as a board, and jawbones like the jawbones of a horse, and a glance in her dull, sidelong black eyes like a gleaming, smouldering fire. And every evening this woman had been wont to step outside the barraque with the woman in the yellow scarf and to seat herself on a rubbish heap, and, resting her cheeks on the palms of her hands, and inclining her head sideways, to sing in a high and shrewish voice: Behind the graveyard wall, Where fair green bushes stand. I’ll spread me on the sand A shroud as white as snow. And not long will it be Before my heart’s adored, My master and my lord, Shall answer my curtsey low. Usually her companion, the woman in the yellow scarf, had, with head bent forward and eyes fixed upon her stomach, remained silent; but on rare, unexpected occasions she had, in the hoarse, sluggish voice of a peasant, sung a song with the sobbing refrain: Ah, my beloved, sweetheart of mine, Never again will these eyes seek thine! Nor amid the stifling blackness of the southern night had these voices ever failed to bring back to my memory the snowy wastes of the North, and the icy, wailing storm-wind, and the distant howling of unseen wolves. In time, the squint-eyed woman had been taken ill of a fever, and removed to the town in a tilted ambulance; and as she had lain quivering and moaning on the stretcher she had seemed still to be singing her little ditty about the graveyard and the sand.

The head with the yellow scarf rose, dipped, and disappeared. After I had finished my breakfast I thatched the honey-pot with some leaves, fastened down the lid, and indolently resumed my way in the wake of the party, my blackthorn staff tiptapping against the hard tread of the track as I proceeded. The track loomed—a grey, narrow strip—before me, while on my right the restless, dark blue sea had the air of being ceaselessly planed by thousands of invisible carpenters; so regularly did the stress of a wind as moist and sweet and warm as the breath of a healthy woman cause ever-rustling curls of foam to drift towards the beach. Also, careening on to its port quarter under a full set of bellying sails, a Turkish felucca was gliding towards Sukhum; and, as it held on its course, it put me in mind of a certain pompous engineer of the town who had been wont to inflate his fat cheeks and say: “Be quiet, you, or I will have you locked up!” This man had, for some reason or another, an extraordinary weakness for causing arrests to be made; and, exceedingly do I rejoice to think that by now the worms of the graveyard must have consumed him down to the very marrow of his bones. Would that certain other acquaintances of mine were similarly receiving beneficent attention! Walking proved an easy enough task, for I seemed to be borne on air, while a chorus of pleasant thoughts, of many-coloured recollections, kept singing gently in my breast—a chorus resembling, indeed, the white-maned billows in the regularity with which now it rose, and now it fell, to reveal in, as it were, soft, peaceful depths the bright, supple hopes of youth, like so many silver fish cradled in the bosom of the ocean. Suddenly, as it trended seawards, the road executed a half-turn, and skirted a strip of the sandy margin to which the waves kept rolling in such haste. And in that spot even the bushes seemed to have a mind to look the waves in the eyes—so strenuously did they lean across the riband-like path, and nod in the direction of the blue, watery waste, while from the hills a wind was blowing that presaged rain. But hark! From some point among the bushes a low moan arose—the sound which never fails to thrill the soul and move it to responsive quivers! Thrusting aside the foliage, I beheld before me the woman in the yellow scarf. Seated with her back resting against the stem of a hazel-bush, she had her head sunken deeply between her shoulders, her mouth hideously agape, her eyes staring vaguely before her, her hands pressed to her swollen stomach, her breath issuing with unnatural vehemence, and her abdomen convulsively, spasmodically rising and falling. Meanwhile from her throat were issuing moans which at times caused her yellow teeth to show bare like those of a wolf. “What is the matter?” I said as I bent over her. “Has anyone assaulted you?” The only result was that, shuffling bare feet in the sand like a fly, she shook her nerveless hand, and gasped: “Away, villain! Away with you!” Then I understood what was the matter, for I had seen a similar case before. Yet for the moment a certain feeling of shyness made me edge away from her a little; and as I did so, she uttered a prolonged moan, and her almost bursting eyeballs vented hot, murky tears which trickled down her tense and livid features. Thereupon I turned to her again, and, throwing down cooking-pot, teapot, and wallet, laid her on her back, and strove to bend her knees upwards in the direction of her body. Meanwhile she sought to repel me with blows on face and breast, and at length rolled on to her stomach.

Then, raising herself on all fours, she, sobbing, gasping, and cursing in a breath, crawled away like a bear into a remoter portion of the thicket. “Beast!” she panted. “Oh, you devil!” Yet, even as the words escaped her lips, her arms gave way beneath her, and she collapsed upon her face, with legs stretched out, and her lips emitting a fresh series of convulsive moans. Excited now to fever pitch, I hurriedly recalled my small store of knowledge of such cases and finally decided to turn her on her back, and, as before, to strive to bend her knees upwards in the direction of her body. Already signs of imminent parturition were not wanting. “Lie still,” I said, “and if you do that it will not be long before you are delivered of the child.” Whereafter, running down to the sea, I pulled up my sleeves, and, on returning, embarked upon my role, of accoucheur. Scoring the earth with her fingers, uprooting tufts of withered grass, and struggling to thrust them into her mouth, scattering soil over her terrible, inhuman face and bloodshot eyes, the woman writhed like a strip of birch bark in a wood fire. Indeed, by this time a little head was coming into view, and it needed all my efforts to quell the twitchings of her legs, to help the child to issue, and to prevent its mother from thrusting grass down her distorted, moaning throat. Meanwhile we cursed one another— she through her teeth, and I in an undertone; she, I should surmise, out of pain and shame, and I, I feel certain, out of nervousness, mingled with a perfect agony of compassion. “O Lord!” she gasped with blue lips flecked with foam as her eyes (suddenly bereft of their colour in the sunlight) shed tears born of the intolerable anguish of the maternal function, and her body writhed and twisted as though her frame had been severed in the middle. “Away, you brute!” was her oft-repeated cry as with her weak hands, hands seemingly dislocated at the wrists, she strove to thrust me to a distance. Yet all the time I kept saying persuasively: “You fool! Bring forth as quickly as you can!” and, as a matter of fact, was feeling so sorry for her that tears continued to spurt from my eyes as much as from hers, and my very heart contracted with pity. Also, never did I cease to feel that I ought to keep saying something; wherefore, I repeated, and again repeated: “Now then! Bring forth as quickly as ever you can!” And at last my hands did indeed hold a human creature in all its pristine beauty. Nor could even the mist of tears prevent me from seeing that that human creature was red in the face, and that to judge from the manner in which it kept kicking and resisting and uttering hoarse wails (while still bound to its mother by the ligament), it was feeling dissatisfied in advance with the world.

Yes, blue-eyed, and with a nose absurdly sunken between a pair of scarlet, rumpled cheeks and lips which ceaselessly quivered and contracted, it kept bawling: “A-aah! A-a-ah!”


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Updated: 14 December 2020 — 19:21

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