Peasants - IV

Granny put Sasha by her kitchen-garden and told her to keep watch that the geese did not go in. It was a hot August day. The tavernkeeper’s geese could make their way into the kitchen-garden by the backs of the huts, but now they were busily engaged picking up oats by the tavern, peacefully conversing together, and only the gander craned his head high as though trying to see whether the old woman were coming with her stick. The other geese might come up from below, but they were now grazing far away the other side of the river, stretched out in a long white garland about the meadow. Sasha stood about a little, grew weary, and, seeing that the geese were not coming, went away to the ravine.

There she saw Marya’s eldest daughter Motka, who was standing motionless on a big stone, staring at the church. Marya had given birth to thirteen children, but she only had six living, all girls, not one boy, and the eldest was eight. Motka in a long smock was standing barefooted in the full sunshine; the sun was blazing down right on her head, but she did not notice that, and seemed as though turned to stone. Sasha stood beside her and said, looking at the church:

“God lives in the church. Men have lamps and candles, but God has little green and red and blue lamps like little eyes. At night God walks about the church, and with Him the Holy Mother of God and Saint Nikolay, thud, thud, thud!... And the watchman is terrified, terrified! Aye, aye, dearie,” she added, imitating her mother. “And when the end of the world comes all the churches will be carried up to heaven.”

“With the-ir be-ells?” Motka asked in her deep voice, drawling every syllable.

“With their bells. And when the end of the world comes the good will go to Paradise, but the angry will burn in fire eternal and unquenchable, dearie. To my mother as well as to Marya God will say: ‘You never offended anyone, and for that go to the right to Paradise’; but to Kiryak and Granny He will say: ‘You go to the left into the fire.’ And anyone who has eaten meat in Lent will go into the fire, too.”

She looked upwards at the sky, opening wide her eyes, and said:

“Look at the sky without winking, you will see angels.”

Motka began looking at the sky, too, and a minute passed in silence.

“Do you see them?” asked Sasha.

“I don’t,” said Motka in her deep voice.

“But I do. Little angels are flying about the sky and flap, flap with their little wings as though they were gnats.”

Motka thought for a little, with her eyes on the ground, and asked:

“Will Granny burn?”

“She will, dearie.”

From the stone an even gentle slope ran down to the bottom, covered with soft green grass, which one longed to lie down on or to touch with one’s hands... Sasha lay down and rolled to the bottom. Motka with a grave, severe face, taking a deep breath, lay down, too, and rolled to the bottom, and in doing so tore her smock from the hem to the shoulder.

“What fun it is!” said Sasha, delighted.

They walked up to the top to roll down again, but at that moment they heard a shrill, familiar voice. Oh, how awful it was! Granny, a toothless, bony, hunchbacked figure, with short grey hair which was fluttering in the wind, was driving the geese out of the kitchen-garden with a long stick, shouting.

“They have trampled all the cabbages, the damned brutes! I’d cut your throats, thrice accursed plagues! Bad luck to you!”

She saw the little girls, flung down the stick and picked up a switch, and, seizing Sasha by the neck with her fingers, thin and hard as the gnarled branches of a tree, began whipping her. Sasha cried with pain and terror, while the gander, waddling and stretching his neck, went up to the old woman and hissed at her, and when he went back to his flock all the geese greeted him approvingly with “Ga-ga-ga!” Then Granny proceeded to whip Motka, and in this Motka’s smock was torn again. Feeling in despair, and crying loudly, Sasha went to the hut to complain. Motka followed her; she, too, was crying on a deeper note, without wiping her tears, and her face was as wet as though it had been dipped in water.

“Holy Saints!” cried Olga, aghast, as the two came into the hut. “Queen of Heaven!”

Sasha began telling her story, while at the same time Granny walked in with a storm of shrill cries and abuse; then Fyokla flew into a rage, and there was an uproar in the hut.

“Never mind, never mind!” Olga, pale and upset, tried to comfort them, stroking Sasha’s head. “She is your grandmother; it’s a sin to be angry with her. Never mind, my child.”

Nikolay, who was worn out already by the everlasting hubbub, hunger, stifling fumes, filth, who hated and despised the poverty, who was ashamed for his wife and daughter to see his father and mother, swung his legs off the stove and said in an irritable, tearful voice, addressing his mother:

“You must not beat her! You have no right to beat her!”

“You lie rotting on the stove, you wretched creature!” Fyokla shouted at him spitefully. “The devil brought you all on us, eating us out of house and home.”

Sasha and Motka and all the little girls in the hut huddled on the stove in the corner behind Nikolay’s back, and from that refuge listened in silent terror, and the beating of their little hearts could be distinctly heard. Whenever there is someone in a family who has long been ill, and hopelessly ill, there come painful moments when all timidly, secretly, at the bottom of their hearts long for his death; and only the children fear the death of someone near them, and always feel horrified at the thought of it. And now the children, with bated breath, with a mournful look on their faces, gazed at Nikolay and thought that he was soon to die; and they wanted to cry and to say something friendly and compassionate to him.

He pressed close to Olga, as though seeking protection, and said to her softly in a quavering voice:

“Olya darling, I can’t stay here longer. It’s more than I can bear. For God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, write to your sister Klavdia Abramovna. Let her sell and pawn everything she has; let her send us the money. We will go away from here. Oh, Lord,” he went on miserably, “to have one peep at Moscow! If I could see it in my dreams, the dear place!”

And when the evening came on, and it was dark in the hut, it was so dismal that it was hard to utter a word. Granny, very ill-tempered, soaked some crusts of rye bread in a cup, and was a long time, a whole hour, sucking at them. Marya, after milking the cow, brought in a pail of milk and set it on a bench; then Granny poured it from the pail into a jug just as slowly and deliberately, evidently pleased that it was now the Fast of the Assumption, so that no one would drink milk and it would be left untouched. And she only poured out a very little in a saucer for Fyokla’s baby. When Marya and she carried the jug down to the cellar Motka suddenly stirred, clambered down from the stove, and going to the bench where stood the wooden cup full of crusts, sprinkled into it some milk from the saucer.

Granny, coming back into the hut, sat down to her soaked crusts again, while Sasha and Motka, sitting on the stove, gazed at her, and they were glad that she had broken her fast and now would go to hell. They were comforted and lay down to sleep, and Sasha as she dozed off to sleep imagined the Day of Judgment: a huge fire was burning, somewhat like a potter’s kiln, and the Evil One, with horns like a cow’s, and black all over, was driving Granny into the fire with a long stick, just as Granny herself had been driving the geese.