In the Ravine - VIII
Nikifor was taken to the district hospital, and towards evening he died there. Lipa did not wait for them to come for her, but wrapped the dead baby in its little quilt and carried it home.
The hospital, a new one recently built, with big windows, stood high up on a hill; it was glittering from the setting sun and looked as though it were on fire from inside. There was a little village below. Lipa went down along the road, and before reaching the village sat down by a pond. A woman brought a horse down to drink and the horse did not drink.
“What more do you want?” said the woman to it softly. “What do you want?”
A boy in a red shirt, sitting at the water’s edge, was washing his father’s boots. And not another soul was in sight either in the village or on the hill.
“It’s not drinking,” said Lipa, looking at the horse.
Then the woman with the horse and the boy with the boots walked away, and there was no one left at all. The sun went to bed wrapped in cloth of gold and purple, and long clouds, red and lilac, stretched across the sky, guarded its slumbers. Somewhere far away a bittern cried, a hollow, melancholy sound like a cow shut up in a barn. The cry of that mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it was like or where it lived. At the top of the hill by the hospital, in the bushes close to the pond, and in the fields the nightingales were trilling. The cuckoo kept reckoning someone’s years and losing count and beginning again. In the pond the frogs called angrily to one another, straining themselves to bursting, and one could even make out the words: “That’s what you are! That’s what you are!” What a noise there was! It seemed as though all these creatures were singing and shouting so that no one might sleep on that spring night, so that all, even the angry frogs, might appreciate and enjoy every minute: life is given only once.
A silver half-moon was shining in the sky; there were many stars. Lipa had no idea how long she sat by the pond, but when she got up and walked on everybody was asleep in the little village, and there was not a single light. It was probably about nine miles’ walk home, but she had not the strength, she had not the power to think how to go: the moon gleamed now in front, now on the right, and the same cuckoo kept calling in a voice grown husky, with a chuckle as though gibing at her: “Oy, look out, you’ll lose your way!” Lipa walked rapidly; she lost the kerchief from her head... she looked at the sky and wondered where her baby’s soul was now: was it following her, or floating aloft yonder among the stars and thinking nothing now of his mother? Oh, how lonely it was in the open country at night, in the midst of that singing when one cannot sing oneself; in the midst of the incessant cries of joy when one cannot oneself be joyful, when the moon, which cares not whether it is spring or winter, whether men are alive or dead, looks down as lonely, too.... When there is grief in the heart it is hard to be without people. If only her mother, Praskovya, had been with her, or Crutch, or the cook, or some peasant!
“Boo-oo!” cried the bittern. “Boo-oo!”
And suddenly she heard clearly the sound of human speech: “Put the horses in, Vavila!”
By the wayside a camp fire was burning ahead of her: the flames had died down, there were only red embers. She could hear the horses munching. In the darkness she could see the outlines of two carts, one with a barrel, the other, a lower one with sacks in it, and the figures of two men; one was leading a horse to put it into the shafts, the other was standing motionless by the fire with his hands behind his back. A dog growled by the carts. The one who was leading the horse stopped and said:
“It seems as though someone were coming along the road.”
“Sharik, be quiet!” the other called to the dog.
And from the voice one could tell that the second was an old man. Lipa stopped and said:
“God help you.”
The old man went up to her and answered not immediately:
“Your dog does not bite, grandfather?”
“No, come along, he won’t touch you.”
“I have been at the hospital,” said Lipa after a pause. “My little son died there. Here I am carrying him home.”
It must have been unpleasant for the old man to hear this, for he moved away and said hurriedly:
“Never mind, my dear. It’s God’s will. You are very slow, lad,” he added, addressing his companion; “look alive!”
“Your yoke’s nowhere,” said the young man; “it is not to be seen.”
“You are a regular Vavila.”
The old man picked up an ember, blew on it—only his eyes and nose were lighted up—then, when they had found the yoke, he went with the light to Lipa and looked at her, and his look expressed compassion and tenderness.
“You are a mother,” he said; “every mother grieves for her child.”
And he sighed and shook his head as he said it. Vavila threw something on the fire, stamped on it—and at once it was very dark; the vision vanished, and as before there were only the fields, the sky with the stars, and the noise of the birds hindering each other from sleep. And the landrail called, it seemed, in the very place where the fire had been.
But a minute passed, and again she could see the two carts and the old man and lanky Vavila. The carts creaked as they went out on the road.
“Are you holy men?” Lipa asked the old man.
“No. We are from Firsanovo.”
“You looked at me just now and my heart was softened. And the young man is so gentle. I thought you must be holy men.”
“Are you going far?”
“Get in, we will give you a lift as far as Kuzmenki, then you go straight on and we turn off to the left.”
Vavila got into the cart with the barrel and the old man and Lipa got into the other. They moved at a walking pace, Vavila in front.
“My baby was in torment all day,” said Lipa. “He looked at me with his little eyes and said nothing; he wanted to speak and could not. Holy Father, Queen of Heaven! In my grief I kept falling down on the floor. I stood up and fell down by the bedside. And tell me, grandfather, why a little thing should be tormented before his death? When a grown-up person, a man or woman, are in torment their sins are forgiven, but why a little thing, when he has no sins? Why?”
“Who can tell?” answered the old man.
They drove on for half an hour in silence.
“We can’t know everything, how and wherefore,” said the old man. “It is ordained for the bird to have not four wings but two because it is able to fly with two; and so it is ordained for man not to know everything but only a half or a quarter. As much as he needs to know so as to live, so much he knows.”
“It is better for me to go on foot, grandfather. Now my heart is all of a tremble.”
“Never mind, sit still.”
The old man yawned and made the sign of the cross over his mouth.
“Never mind,” he repeated. “Yours is not the worst of sorrows. Life is long, there will be good and bad to come, there will be everything. Great is mother Russia,” he said, and looked round on each side of him. “I have been all over Russia, and I have seen everything in her, and you may believe my words, my dear. There will be good and there will be bad. I went as a delegate from my village to Siberia, and I have been to the Amur River and the Altai Mountains and I settled in Siberia; I worked the land there, then I was homesick for mother Russia and I came back to my native village. We came back to Russia on foot; and I remember we went on a steamer, and I was thin as thin, all in rags, barefoot, freezing with cold, and gnawing a crust, and a gentleman who was on the steamer—the kingdom of heaven be his if he is dead—looked at me pitifully, and the tears came into his eyes. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘your bread is black, your days are black....’ And when I got home, as the saying is, there was neither stick nor stall; I had a wife, but I left her behind in Siberia, she was buried there. So I am living as a day labourer. And yet I tell you: since then I have had good as well as bad. Here I do not want to die, my dear, I would be glad to live another twenty years; so there has been more of the good. And great is our mother Russia!” and again he gazed to each side and looked round.
“Grandfather,” Lipa asked, “when anyone dies, how many days does his soul walk the earth?”
“Who can tell! Ask Vavila here, he has been to school. Now they teach them everything. Vavila!” the old man called to him.
“Vavila, when anyone dies how long does his soul walk the earth?”
Vavila stopped the horse and only then answered:
“Nine days. My uncle Kirilla died and his soul lived in our hut thirteen days after.”
“How do you know?”
“For thirteen days there was a knocking in the stove.”
“Well, that’s all right. Go on,” said the old man, and it could be seen that he did not believe a word of all that.
Near Kuzmenki the cart turned into the high road while Lipa went straight on. It was by now getting light. As she went down into the ravine the Ukleevo huts and the church were hidden in fog. It was cold, and it seemed to her that the same cuckoo was calling still.
When Lipa reached home the cattle had not yet been driven out; everyone was asleep. She sat down on the steps and waited. The old man was the first to come out; he understood all that had happened from the first glance at her, and for a long time he could not articulate a word, but only moved his lips without a sound.
“Ech, Lipa,” he said, “you did not take care of my grandchild....”
Varvara was awakened. She clasped her hands and broke into sobs, and immediately began laying out the baby.
“And he was a pretty child...” she said. “Oh, dear, dear.... You only had the one child, and you did not take care enough of him, you silly girl....”
There was a requiem service in the morning and the evening. The funeral took place the next day, and after it the guests and the priests ate a great deal, and with such greed that one might have thought that they had not tasted food for a long time. Lipa waited at table, and the priest, lifting his fork on which there was a salted mushroom, said to her:
“Don’t grieve for the babe. For of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
And only when they had all separated Lipa realized fully that there was no Nikifor and never would be, she realized it and broke into sobs. And she did not know what room to go into to sob, for she felt that now that her child was dead there was no place for her in the house, that she had no reason to be here, that she was in the way; and the others felt it, too.
“Now what are you bellowing for?” Aksinya shouted, suddenly appearing in the doorway; in honour of the funeral she was dressed all in new clothes and had powdered her face. “Shut up!”
Lipa tried to stop but could not, and sobbed louder than ever.
“Do you hear?” shouted Aksinya, and she stamped her foot in violent anger. “Who is it I am speaking to? Go out of the yard and don’t set foot here again, you convict’s wife. Get away.”
“There, there, there,” the old man put in fussily. “Aksinya, don’t make such an outcry, my girl.... She is crying, it is only natural... her child is dead....”
“‘It’s only natural,’” Aksinya mimicked him. “Let her stay the night here, and don’t let me see a trace of her here to-morrow! ‘It’s only natural!’...” she mimicked him again, and, laughing, she went into the shop.
Early the next morning Lipa went off to her mother at Torguevo.