Translated and Annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa VolokhonskySt. John's EveA True Story Told by the Beadle of the ------ Church
Foma Grigorievich was known to have this special sort of quirk: he mortally disliked telling the same thing over again. It sometimes happened, if you talked him into telling something a second time, that you'd look and he'd throw in some new thing or change it so it was unrecognizable. Once one of those gentlemen--it's hard for us simple folk to fit a name to them: writers, no, not writers, but the same as the dealers at our fairs: they snatch, they cajole, they steal all sorts of stuff, and then bring out booklets no thicker than a primer every month or week--one of those gentlemen coaxed this same story out of Foma Grigorievich, who then forgot all about it. Only there comes this same young sir from Poltava in a pea-green caftan, whom I've already mentioned and one of whose stories I think you've already read, toting a little book with him, and opening it in the middle, he shows it to us. Foma Grigorievich was just about to saddle his nose with his spectacles, but remembering that he'd forgotten to bind them with thread and stick it down with wax, he handed the book to me. Having a smattering of letters and not needing spectacles, I began to read. Before I had time to turn two pages, he suddenly grabbed my arm and stopped me.
"Wait! first tell me, what's that you're reading?"
I confess, I was a bit taken aback by such a question.
"What's this I'm reading, Foma Grigorievich? Why, your true story, your very own words."
"Who told you those are my words?"
"What better proof, it's printed here: told by the beadle So-and-so."
"Spit on the head of the one who printed it! He's lying, the dad-blasted Muscovite! Did I say that? The devil it's the same! He's got a screw loose! Listen, I'll tell it to you now."
We moved closer to the table and he began.
My grandfather (God rest his soul! and may he eat nothing in that world but white rolls and poppyseed cakes with honey!) was a wonderful storyteller. Once he began to talk, you wouldn't budge from your place the whole day for listening. No comparison with some present-day babbler, who starts spouting off, and in such language as if he hadn't had anything to eat for three days--you just grab your hat and run. I remember like now--the old woman, my late mother, was still alive--how on a long winter's evening, when there was a biting frost outside that walled us up solidly behind the narrow window of our cottage, she used to sit by the comb, pulling the long thread out with her hand, rocking the cradle with her foot, and humming a song that I can hear as if it was now. An oil lamp, trembling and flickering as if frightened of something, lighted our cottage. The spindle whirred; and all of us children, clustered together, listened to our grandfather, who was so old he hadn't left the stove in five years. But his wondrous talk about olden times, about Cossack raids, about the Polacks, about the mighty deeds of Podkova, Poltora Kozhukha, and Sagaidachny, never interested us as much as his stories about some strange marvel of old, which sent shivers all through us and made our hair stand on end. Now and then fear would take such hold of you that everything in the evening appeared like God knows what monster. If you happened to step out of the cottage at night for something, you'd think a visitor from the other world had gone to lie down in your bed. And may I never tell this story another time if I didn't often mistake my own blouse, from a distance, for a curled-up devil at the head of the bed. But the main thing in my grandfather's stories was that he never in his life told a lie, and whatever he used to say, that was precisely what had happened. I'll tell one of his wonderful stories for you now. I know there are lots of those smart alecks who do some scribbling in the courts and even read civic writings, and who, if they were handed a simple prayer book, wouldn't be able to make out a jot of it--but display their teeth shamefully, that they can do. For them, whatever you say is funny. Such disbelief has spread through the world! What's more--may God and the most pure Virgin not love me!--maybe even you won't believe me: once I made mention of witches, and what do you think? some daredevil turned up who didn't believe in witches! Yes, thank God, I've lived so long in the world, I've seen such infidels as find giving a priest a ride in a sieve
easier than taking snuff is for the likes of us; and they, too, go in fear of witches. But if they were to dream . . . only I don't want to say what, there's no point talking about them.
Way, way back, more than a hundred years ago--my late grandfather used to say--no one would even have recognized our village: a farmstead, the poorest of farmsteads! Some dozen huts, cobless, roofless, stuck up here and there in the middle of a field. Not a fence, not a decent barn to put cattle or a cart in. It was the rich ones that lived like that; and if you looked at our sort, the poor ones--a hole in the ground, there's your house! Only by the smoke could you tell that a creature of God lived there. You may ask, why did they live like that? It wasn't really poverty, because almost everybody then went Cossacking and got no small amount of goods in other lands; but more because there was no need to have a decent cottage. What folk weren't hanging about then: Crimeans, Polacks, Litvaks! It also happened that bunches of our own would come and rob their own. Everything happened.
In this farmstead a man often appeared, or, better, a devil in human form. Where he came from and why he came, nobody knew. He'd carouse, drink, then suddenly vanish into thin air, without a trace. Then, lo and behold, again he'd as if fall from the sky, prowl the streets of the hamlet, of which there's no trace left now and which was maybe no more than a hundred paces from Dikanka. He'd pick up passing Cossacks: laughter, songs, money flowed, vodka poured like water . . . He used to accost pretty girls: gave them ribbons, earrings, necklaces--more than they knew what to do with! True, the pretty girls would hesitate a bit as they took the presents: God knows, maybe they really had passed through unclean hands. My grandfather's own aunt, who kept a tavern at the time on what is now Oposhnyanskaya Road, where Basavriuk--so this demonic man was known--used to carouse, she it was who said she wouldn't agree to take presents from him, not for all the blessings in the world. But, again, how not take: anybody would have been filled with fear when he knitted his bristling eyebrows and sent such a scowling look at you that you'd gladly let your legs carry you God knows where; and once you did take it--the very next night some friendly visitor from the swamp, with horns on his head, drags himself to you and starts strangling you, if you've got a necklace on your neck, or biting your finger, if you're wearing a ring, or pulling your braid, if you've braided a ribbon into it. God be with them, these presents! But the trouble is that you can't get rid of them: throw the devilish ring or necklace into the water, and it comes floating right back to your hands.
There was a church in the hamlet, of St. Panteleimon if I remember rightly. A priest lived by it then, Father Afanasy, of blessed memory. Noticing that Basavriuk did not come to church even on Easter Sunday, he decided to reprimand him and put him under a church penance. Penance, hah! He barely escaped. "Listen, my good sir!" the man thundered in reply, "you'd better mind your own business and not go meddling in other people's, unless you'd like to have that goat's gullet of yours plugged with hot kutya!" What could be done with the cursed fellow? Father Afanasy merely announced that anyone who kept company with Basavriuk would be regarded as a Catholic, an enemy of Christ's Church and of the whole human race.
In that hamlet one Cossack called Korzh had a man working for him who was known as Pyotr Kinless--maybe because nobody remembered either his father or his mother. The church warden, it's true, said they'd died of the plague the next year; but my grandfather's aunt wouldn't hear of it and tried the best she could to endow him with kin, though poor Pyotr needed that as much as we need last year's snow. She said his father was still in the Zaporozhye, had been in captivity to the Turks, had suffered God knows what tortures, and by some miracle, after disguising himself as a eunuch, had given them the slip. The dark-browed girls and young women cared little about his kin. They merely said that if he was dressed in a new coat tied with a red belt, had a black astrakhan hat with a smart blue top put on his head, had a Turkish saber hung at his side, was given a horsewhip for one hand and a finely chased pipe for the other, not a lad in the world could hold a candle to him. But the trouble was that poor Petrus had only one gray blouse, with more holes in it than there are gold coins in a Jew's pocket. And that still wasn't so great a trouble, the real trouble was that old Korzh had a daughter, a beauty such as I think you've hardly chanced to see. My late grandfather's aunt used to say--and you know it's easier for a woman to kiss the devil, meaning no offense, than to call another woman a beauty--that the Cossack girl's plump cheeks were as fresh and bright as the first pink poppy when, having washed itself in God's dew, it glows, spreads its petals, and preens itself before the just-risen sun; that her eyebrows were like the black cords our girls now buy to hang crosses and ducats on from the Muscovites who go peddling with their boxes in our villages, arched evenly as if looking into her bright eyes; that her little mouth, at the sight of which the young men back then licked their lips, seemed to have been created for chanting nightingale songs; that her hair, black as the raven's wing and soft as young flax (at that time our girls did not yet wear braids with bright-colored ribbons twined in them), fell in curly locks on her gold-embroidered jacket. Ah, may God never grant me to sing "Alleluia" in the choir again if I wouldn't be kissing her here and now, even though the gray is creeping into the old forest that covers my head, and my old woman's by my side like a wart on a nose. Well, if a lad and a girl live near each other . . . you know yourself what comes of it. It used to be that at the break of dawn, the traces of iron-shod red boots could be seen at the spot where Pidorka had stood gabbling with her Petrus. But even so, nothing bad would ever have entered Korzh's mind, if Petrus hadn't decided one time--well, it's obvious none but the evil one prompted him--without taking a good look around the front hall, to plant a hearty kiss, as they say, on the Cossack girl's rosy lips, and the same evil one--may the son-of-a-bitch dream of the Holy Cross!--foolishly put the old coot up to opening the door. Korzh turned to wood, gaping and clinging to the doorpost. The cursed kiss seemed to stun him completely. It sounded louder to him than the blow of a pestle against the wall, something our peasants usually do to drive the clootie away, for lack of a gun and powder.
Having recovered, he took his grandfather's horsewhip from the wall and was about to sprinkle poor Pyotr's back with it, when Pidorka's brother, the six-year-old Ivas, came running from nowhere, grabbed his legs with his little arms in fear, and shouted, "Daddy, daddy! don't beat Petrus!" What could he do? A father's heart isn't made of stone: he put the horsewhip back on the wall and led him quietly out of the cottage: "If you ever show up in my cottage again, or even just under the windows, then listen, Pyotr: by God, that'll be the end of your black moustache, and your topknot as well; here it is going twice around your ear, but it'll bid farewell to your head or I'm not Terenty Korzh!" Having said that, he gave him a slight cuff, so that Petrus, not seeing the ground under him, went flying headlong. There's kisses for you! Our two doves were grief-stricken; and then a rumor spread through the village that some Polack had taken to calling on Korzh, all trimmed in gold, with a moustache, with a saber, with spurs, with pockets that jingled like the little bell on the bag our sacristan Taras goes around the church with every day. Well, we know why someone comes calling on a father who has a dark-browed daughter. So one day Pidorka, streaming with tears, picked up her Ivas in her arms: "Ivas my dear, Ivas my love! run to Petrus, my golden child, quick as an arrow shot from a bow; tell him everything: I would love his brown eyes, I would kiss his white face, but my lot forbids me. More than one napkin is wet with my bitter tears. It's hard on me. I'm sick at heart. And my own father is my enemy: he's forcing me to marry the unloved Polack. Tell him the wedding is being prepared, only there won't be any music at our wedding: deacons will sing instead of pipes and mandolins. I won't step out to dance with my bridegroom: they will bear me away. Dark, dark will be my house: of maple wood it will be, and instead of a chimney there will be a cross on its roof!"
As if turned to stone, not moving from the spot, Petro listened while the innocent child babbled Pidorka's words to him. "And I thought, luckless me, that I'd go to the Crimea and Turkey to war myself up some gold, and then come to you with wealth, my beauty. That's not to be. An evil eye has looked on us. There'll be a wedding for me, too, my dear little fish: only there won't be any deacons at that wedding; a black raven will crow over me instead of a priest; a smooth field will be my home and a gray cloud my roof; an eagle will peck my brown eyes out; the rains will wash the Cossack's bones, and the wind will dry them. But what am I doing? of whom, to whom shall I complain? God must will it so--if I perish, I perish!" and he plodded straight to the tavern.
My late grandfather's aunt was slightly surprised to see Petrus in the tavern, and that at an hour when good people go to church, and she goggled her eyes at him, as if just waking up, when he ordered a jug of vodka as big as half a bucket. Only it was in vain that the poor fellow thought to drown his grief. The vodka pricked his tongue like nettles and tasted bitterer to him than wormwood. He pushed the jug off onto the ground. "Enough of this grieving, Cossack!" something rumbled in a bass voice behind him. He turned around: Basavriuk! Ohh, what an ugly mug! Bristly hair, eyes like an ox! "I know what you lack: it's this!" Here, grinning devilishly, he clanked the leather purse that hung from his belt. Petro gave a start. "How it glows! heh, heh, heh!" he bellowed, pouring gold coins into his hand. "How it rings! heh, heh, heh! And I'll ask just one thing for a whole heap of such baubles." "The devil!" shouted Petro. "Let's have it! I'm ready for anything." And they shook hands. "Watch out, Petro, you came just in time: tomorrow is John the Baptist. It's only on this one night in the year that the fern flowers. Don't miss it. I'll be waiting for you at midnight in Bear's Gully."
I don't suppose chickens wait so impatiently for the housewife who brings them grain as Petrus waited for that evening. He kept looking to see if the tree's shadow was getting longer, if the setting sun was getting redder--and the more impatiently as it went on. So drawn out! God's day must have lost its end somewhere. Now there's no more sun. The sky is red only on one side. That, too, is fading. It's getting colder in the fields. Dusk thickens, thickens, and--it's dark! At last! His heart nearly jumping out of his breast, he set off on his way and descended cautiously through the dense forest into the deep ravine known as Bear's Gully. Basavriuk was already waiting there. It was blind dark. Hand in hand they made their way over the boggy marsh, getting caught in thickly growing thorns at almost every step. Here was a level place. Petro looked around: he had never chanced to come there. Basavriuk also stopped.
"Do you see the three knolls standing before you? There will be many different flowers on them; but may the otherworldly powers keep you from picking so much as one. Only as soon as the fern begins to flower, grab it and don't turn around, whatever you fancy is behind you."
Petro was about to ask . . . behold--he was no longer there. He approached the three knolls: Where are the flowers? Nothing could be seen. Wild weeds stood blackly around, stifling everything with their thickness. But now lightning flashed in the sky and a whole bank of flowers appeared before him, all wondrous, all never seen before; there were also simple ferns. Doubt came over Petro, and he stood before them pondering, arms akimbo.
"What's so extraordinary about it? Ten times a day you may happen to see such stuff; where's the marvel? Is that devilish mug making fun of me?"
But, lo--a small flower bud showed red, moving as if it were alive. A wonder indeed! Moving and growing bigger and bigger, and reddening like a hot coal. A little star lit up, something crackled softly, and the flower unfolded before his eyes, shining like a flame on others around it.
"Now's the time!" thought Petro, and he reached out. He saw hundreds of hairy hands stretching toward the same flower from behind him, and something behind him was running to and fro. Closing his eyes, he pulled at the stem, and the flower stayed in his hand. All became hushed. Basavriuk appeared, sitting on a stump, all blue like a dead man. Not moving a finger. Eyes fixed motionlessly on something visible only to himself; mouth half open and unresponding. Around him nothing stirs. Ugh, horrible! . . . But now a whistling was heard, at which everything went cold inside Pyotr, and he fancied that the grass rustled, the flowers began talking to each other in voices thin as little silver bells; the trees rumbled, pouring out abuse . . . Basavriuk's face suddenly came to life; his eyes flashed. "At last you've come back, yaga!" he growled through his teeth. "Look, Petro, presently a beauty will stand before you: do whatever she tells you, or you'll be destroyed forever!" Here he parted the blackthorn bush with his stick, and before them appeared a hut, as they say, on chicken's legs. Basavriuk pounded on it with his fist and the wall shook. A big black dog came running to them and, with a squeal, turned into a cat and hurled itself at their eyes. "Don't rage, don't rage, old witch!" Basavriuk said, spicing it with such a word as would make a good man stop his ears. Behold, where the cat had been there stood an old hag, all bent double, with a face as shriveled as a baked apple; her nose and chin were like the jaws of a nutcracker. "A fine beauty!" thought Petro, and gooseflesh crept over him. The witch snatched the flower from his hand, bent down, and whispered something over it for a long time, sprinkling it with some water. Sparks poured from her mouth; foam came to her lips. "Throw it!" she said, handing the flower back to him. Petro threw it up and--oh, wonder!--the flower did not fall straight back but for a long time looked like a fiery little ball amidst the darkness, floating like a boat in the air; at last it slowly began to descend and fell so far away that the little star was barely visible, no bigger than a poppyseed. "There!" the old hag croaked hollowly; and Basavriuk, handing him a spade, said: "Dig there, Petro. You'll see more gold there than either you or Korzh ever dreamed of." Petro, spitting on his hands, grabbed the spade, drove it in with his foot, turned up the earth, again, a third time, yet again . . . something hard! . . . The spade clangs and won't go any further. Here his eyes begin to make out clearly a small ironbound chest. He was about to take hold of it, but the chest started sinking into the ground, deeper, deeper; and behind him came a laugh that more closely resembled the hiss of a snake. "No, you won't see any gold until you get some human blood!" said the witch, and she brought him a child of about six, covered with a white sheet, making a sign that he should cut its head off. Petro was dumbfounded. A small thing, to cut off a person's head for no reason at all, and an innocent child's at that! Angrily he pulled off the sheet that covered its head, and what then? Before him stood Ivas. The poor child folded his little arms crosswise and hung his head . . . Like a madman, Petro jumped at the witch with his knife, and was already raising his hand . . .
"And what did you promise for the girl? . . ." thundered Basavriuk, and it was as if he put a bullet through his back. The witch stamped her foot: blue flame burst from the ground; its whole inside lit up and looked as if it were molded from crystal; and everything under the ground became visible as in the palm of your hand. Gold coins, precious stones, in chests, in cauldrons, were heaped up right under the place where they stood. His eyes glowed . . . his mind darkened . . . As if insane, he seized the knife and innocent blood spurted into his eyes . . . A devilish guffawing thundered on all sides. Hideous monsters leaped before him in throngs. The witch, clutching the beheaded corpse, drank its blood like a wolf . . . Everything whirled in his head! Summoning all his strength, he broke into a run. Everything before him was covered with red. The trees, bathed in blood, seemed to burn and groan. The sky, red hot, was trembling . . . Fiery spots, like lightning, came to his eyes. Exhausted, he ran inside his hut and collapsed as if he had been mowed down. A dead sleep came over him.
For two days and nights Petro slept without waking. On the third day, having come to, he looked around at all the corners of his house for a long time; but his efforts to recollect were all in vain: his memory was like an old miser's pocket, not even a penny could be coaxed out of it. He stretched a little and heard a clank at his feet. He looked: two sacks of gold. Only then, as if through sleep, did he remember looking for some treasure, being afraid in the forest alone . . . But what the price had been, how he had obtained it--that he simply could not understand.
Korzh saw the sacks and--went all soft: "Petrus is this and that and the other! And haven't I always loved him? hasn't he been like my own son to me?" And the old coot went off into such fancies that the fellow was moved to tears. Pidorka began telling him how Ivas had been stolen by some passing Gypsies. But Petro couldn't even remember his face: so addled he was by that cursed devilry! There was no point in delaying. The Pole got a fig under his nose, and the wedding was cooked up: they baked a lot of cakes, sewed a lot of napkins and kerchiefs, rolled out a barrel of vodka; the young couple was seated on the table; the round loaf was cut; they struck up the bandore, cymbals, pipes and mandolins--and the fun began . . .
Weddings in the old days were no comparison with ours. My grandfather's aunt used to tell us--oh, ho, ho! How girls in festive headdresses of yellow, blue, and pink stripes trimmed with gold braid, in fine shirts stitched with red silk and embroidered with little silver flowers, in Morocco boots with high, iron-shod heels, capered about the room as smoothly as peahens and swishing like the wind; how young women in tall headdresses, the upper part made all of gold brocade, with a small cutout behind and a golden kerchief peeking from it, with two little peaks of the finest black astrakhan, one pointing backward and the other forward, in blue jackets of the best silk with red flaps, stepped out imposingly one by one, arms akimbo, and rhythmically stamped away at the gopak. How young lads in tall Cossack hats and fine flannel blouses with silver-embroidered belts, pipes in their teeth, bobbed and pranced before them, cutting all sorts of capers. Korzh himself couldn't hold back, looking at the young ones and remembering bygone times. With a bandore in his hands, puffing on his pipe and humming at the same time, the old fellow put a glass on his head and, to the loud shouts of the revelers, broke into a squatting dance. What people won't think up when they're tipsy! They used to dress in disguises--my God, they no longer looked like human beings! No comparison with the costumes at our weddings nowadays. How is it now? They just copy the Gypsies or the Muscovites. No, it used to be one would dress up as a Jew and another as a devil, and first they'd kiss each other and then grab each other's topknots . . . God help us! you had to hold your sides from laughter. They'd get dressed up in Turkish or Tartar costumes: everything on them blazes like fire . . . And when they start fooling and pulling tricks . . . well, saints alive! A funny thing happened with my grandfather's aunt, who was at this wedding: she was dressed then in a loose Tartar dress and went around offering glasses to the guests. The devil put one of them up to splashing some vodka on her from behind. Another--no flies on him either--struck a fire straight away . . . the flame blazed up, the poor aunt got frightened and started pulling her dress off in front of everybody . . . Noise, laughter, turmoil arose, like at a street fair. In short, the old people remember no merrier wedding ever.
Pidorka and Petrus started living like lord and lady. Everything in abundance, everything shining . . . However, good people shook their heads slightly, looking at their life. "No good can come from the devil," everybody murmured with one voice. "Where did he get his wealth, if not from the seducer of Orthodox people? Where could such a heap of gold come from? Why, suddenly, on the very day he got rich, did Basavriuk vanish into thin air?" Now, just tell me people were making it up! Because, in fact, before a month was out, nobody could recognize Petrus. What happened to him and why, God knows. He sits in one place and won't say a word to anyone. He keeps thinking and thinking, as if he wants to remember something. When Pidorka manages to make him talk about something, he seems to forget it all and starts to speak, and even almost cheers up; then he glances inadvertently at the sacks and cries out: "Wait, wait, I forgot!" and falls to thinking again, and again strains to remember something. Once in a while, after sitting in the same place for a long time, he fancies it's all just about to come back to him . . . and then it all goes again. He fancies he's sitting in the tavern; they bring him vodka; the vodka burns him; the vodka's disgusting to him. Somebody comes up, slaps him on the shoulder . . . but then it's as if everything gets misty before him. Sweat streams down his face, and he sits back down, exhausted.
What didn't Pidorka do: she consulted wizards, she poured out a flurry and boiled a bellyache--nothing helped. So the summer went by. Many Cossacks had reaped their hay and harvested their crops; many Cossacks, the more riotous sort, had set out on campaign. Flocks of ducks still crowded our marshes, but the bitterns were long gone. The steppes were turning red. Shocks of wheat stood here and there like bright Cossack hats strewn over the fields. On the road you would meet carts piled with kindling and firewood. The ground turned harder and in places was gripped by frost. Snow had already begun to spatter from the sky, and the branches of the trees were decked with hoarfrost as if with hare's fur. On a clear, frosty day, the red-breasted bullfinch, like a foppish Polish gentleman, was already strolling over the snowdrifts pecking at seeds, and children with enormous sticks were sending wooden whirligigs over the ice, while their fathers calmly stayed stretched on the stove, stepping out every once in a while, a lighted pipe in their teeth, to say a word or two about the good Orthodox frost, or to get some fresh air and thresh some grain that had long been sitting in the front hall. At last the snow began to melt, and the pike broke the ice with its tail,
and Petro was still the same, and the further it went, the grimmer he became. As though chained down, he sat in the middle of the room with the sacks of gold at his feet. He grew wild, shaggy, frightening; his mind was fixed on one thing, he kept straining to remember something; and he was angry and vexed that he could not remember it. Often he would get up wildly from where he sat, move his arms, fix his eyes on something as if wishing to catch it; his lips move as if they want to utter some long-forgotten word--and stop motionless . . . Fury comes over him; like a demented man, he gnaws and bites his hands and tears out tufts of his hair in vexation, until he grows calm, drops down as if oblivious, and then again tries to remember, and again fury, and again torment . . . What a plague from God! Life was no longer life for Pidorka. At first she dreaded staying alone in the house with him, but later the poor thing grew accustomed to her misfortune. But the former Pidorka was no longer recognizable. No color, no smile: worn, wasted, she cried her bright eyes out. Once someone evidently took pity on her and advised her to go to the sorceress who lived in Bear's Gully, who, as rumor had it, could heal any illness in the world. She decided to try this last remedy; one word led to another, and she talked the old hag into coming home with her. This was in the evening, just on the Baptist's eve. Petro lay oblivious on the bench and did not notice the new visitor at all. And then gradually he began to raise himself and stare. Suddenly he trembled all over, as if on the scaffold; his hair rose in a shock . . . and he laughed such a laugh that fear cut into Pidorka's heart. "I remember, I remember!" he cried with horrible merriment and, swinging an ax, flung it with all his might at the hag. The ax sank three inches into the oak door. The hag vanished and a child of about seven, in a white shirt, with covered head, stood in the middle of the room . . . The sheet flew off. "Ivas!" Pidorka cried and rushed to him; but the phantom became all bloody from head to foot and lit up the whole room with a red glow . . . Frightened, she ran out to the front hall; then, recovering a little, she wanted to go back and help him--in vain! The door slammed shut so tightly behind her that it was impossible to open it. People came running; they began to knock; they forced the door: not a soul. The whole room was filled with smoke, and in the middle only, where Petrus had been standing, was a heap of ashes from which smoke was still rising in places. They rushed to the sacks: instead of gold coins there was nothing but broken shards. Eyes popping, mouths gaping, not daring even to move their mustaches, the Cossacks stood as if rooted to the spot. Such fright came over them on account of this marvel.
What happened after that, I don't remember. Pidorka made a vow to go on a pilgrimage; she collected the property left by her father and a few days later was indeed no longer in the village. Where she went, no one could say. Obliging old women had already sent her to the same place Petro had taken himself to; but a Cossack come from Kiev told that he had seen a nun in the convent, all dried up like a skeleton and ceaselessly praying, in whom the villagers by all tokens recognized Pidorka; that supposedly no one had yet heard even one word from her; that she had come on foot and brought the casing for an icon of the Mother of God studded with such bright stones that everyone shut their eyes when they looked at it.
Sorry, but that was not the end yet. The same day that the evil one laid hands on Petrus, Basavriuk appeared again; only everybody ran away from him. They knew now what kind of bird he was; none other than Satan, who had taken human form in order to dig up treasures--and since treasures can't be taken with unclean hands, he lured young fellows away. That same year everybody abandoned their dugout homes and moved to the village; but there was no peace from the accursed Basavriuk there either. My late grandfather's aunt used to say that he was vexed with her the most, precisely for having abandoned the former tavern on Oposhnyanskaya Road, and he tried with all his might to vent his anger on her. Once the village elders gathered in the tavern and were having, as they say, a proper conversation at table, in the middle of which stood a roast lamb of a size it would be sinful to call small. They chatted about this and that, about all sorts of marvels and wonders. And they fancied--it would be nothing if one of them did, but it was precisely all of them--that the lamb raised its head, its mischievous black eyes came to life and lit up, and that instant a black, bristling mustache appeared, twitching meaningfully at those present. Everybody recognized the lamb's head at once as Basavriuk's mug; my grandfather's aunt even thought he was about to ask for some vodka . . . The honorable elders grabbed their hats and hastily went their ways. Another time the church warden himself, who liked now and then to have a private little chat with an old-time glass, before he even reached the bottom, saw the glass bow to the ground before him. Devil take it! he began crossing himself! . . . And then another wonder with his better half: she had just started mixing dough in a huge tub when the tub suddenly jumped away. "Stop, stop!"--but nothing doing: arms akimbo, with an imposing air, it broke into a squatting dance all around the room . . . Go on and laugh; but our grandfathers were in no mood for laughter. And even though Father Afanasy walked around the whole village with holy water and chased the devil down all the streets with the sprinkler, all the same, my late grandfather's aunt complained that as soon as evening came, somebody started knocking on the roof and scratching at the wall.
Not only that! Now, for instance, on this same spot where our village stands, everything seems quiet; but not so long ago, my late father and I still remembered that a good man couldn't pass by the ruins of the tavern, which the unclean tribe kept fixing up at their own expense for a long time afterwards. Smoke poured from the sooty chimney in a column and, rising so high that your hat would fall off if you looked at it, poured hot coals all over the steppes, and the devil--no need to mention that son-of-a-dog--sobbed so pitifully in his hovel that the frightened jackdaws rose in flocks from the nearby oak grove and with wild cries dashed about the sky.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.