The tea was like brewed hay, and the sugar tasted like kerosene. Chadaev tossed the unfinished cup down onto the table and listened absentmindedly to the hubbub in the inn. By midday, as always during the Sunday bazaars, the commotion was growing louder, but Chadaev was wrapped in total silence. Suddenly he stood up, and with his arms extended forward, he moved toward the tavern's rear door. Valuing the irreproachable reputation of his establishment more than his single eye, the tavern-keeper came out to follow Chadaev, but his suspicions were in vain.
In the greenish, strong-smelling dusk of the courtyard that was streaked with light coming in through the cracks, the lodger harnessed his mare. Soft and straight-haired, the mare reluctantly pulled away from the abundantly filled feeding trough. The lodger didn't get angry; he didn't even notice. However, he picked up a crust of bread that someone had dropped on the dirty straw. He gazed at it for a long time before placing it into his traveling bag. Disappointed in the secret of Chadaev, the tavern-keeper came out of his hiding place. Chadaev became embarrassed.
"The dogs will probably be happy to see this," he said quietly about the bread.
"And who will be happy to see you?" the tavern-keeper responded; and winking his malicious, smirking eye, he went back into the tavern.
Chadaev rode out of the courtyard.
The April midday was filled with the short warbling of larks. Water puddles rippled with dazzling light; an illusive murmur filled the world. Filtering through to the heart, it instilled a pleasant, almost intoxicating lightness; but to Chadaev, this spring, his forty-fifth, seemed like an excess of nature gone mad. Pulling his wife's letter out from his bosom, a letter for whose sake he was prematurely and against all common sense leaving the district center, he again attempted to fathom its worrisome scribblings. "My dear husband," he read mainly from memory, "I am pining. My dear husband, I cry every day. My dear husband, I don't know how to pass the time. My dear husband, we...." The artful words rustled on the wind and lashed at Chadaev with a cruel and joyful laughter. With an equal force he lashed his horse with the whip, and the cart runners began to sputter depressingly in the well-worn rut.
To the envy of the world, good fortune had accompanied him his entire life. In the year before he was called up for service, he had married the ever-cheerful Katerinka; Katerinka's boisterous youth did not fade even in his ancient, creaking home, where every spring the incessant warbling of starlings sounded in the windows. Provided with everything needed for conquering life, Chadaev lacked only the gift of laughter; but even this bitter injustice of nature brought an advantage to him: he was feared. The war spared his tall, reddish body, which looked like a pine tree against the sunset; he returned intact, having received not so much as a black-eye. But then suddenly, petty misfortunes, like mice, began to plague him. He fought with them for a whole year, getting crazy from the battle, but still hordes of them attacked to gnaw at his celebrated prosperity. On days of respite, he bitterly looked into himself but could find no cause for his ruin. Only now, traveling to this latest punishment of fate, did he recall one adventure at the front...and although a muzhik is not ashamed of any sin that is covered in a soldier's greatcoat, this recollection burned and gnawed away at Chadaev's very essence, and there was no way to root it out.
During a lull in the war and the revolutionary liberties, his inglorious regiment languished under the southern sun. There, Chadaev took up with a Moldavian woman, a peasant just like himself. She was as comforting as his own Katerinka and, in fact, she went by the same name. She was pining over her husband, who was languishing in captivity. She was attracted to Chadaev's restless northern strength. He spent his days and nights in her little home under the acacias, he ate her chickens and drank her wine, and he often discussed the hidden charms of this little Moldavian with his circle of friends. He took a temporary delight in her Moldavian love. Chadaev left her without regrets, and the woman's tears prevented her from seeing that, along with her brief happiness, he was carrying away to the north her sewing machine, which he had taken a fancy to during one of their tender moments.... Chadaev could still not forget how he traveled for seventeen inclement days on the train, lolling in a typhoid-induced drowsiness, firmly clenching the stolen treasure between his knees. For him, it became more dear than bread or life because he was bringing it as a present for his northern Katerinka, whom he decided was the basis of his essentially dreamlike happiness. But when in the evening, as the cattle were being driven home, he stepped up onto the porch of his home, hungry and sweaty, swaying under the weight of his cherished burden, Katerinka began to cry. Halting, Chadaev gazed with turbid eyes at the crying woman, and his beard became like fire, as if he were carrying someone else's blood in it from the war.
His illness and awakening to life opened for him strange treasures, which had hitherto stood outside of his meager, antlike way of life. He looked with sorcererlike eyes all around himself and, in a non-muzhik way, he admired everything--from the flying midge to the growing tree; however, the muzhik in him won out over the man. All winter he worked with great energy to put the decrepit farm back to rights--clearing out the garden and erecting a number of starling houses in front of the home, as if attempting to lure happiness itself into the moss-covered walls. But the starlings never settled in, the apple trees were wormy, and Katerinka's gaiety left with the snows. Then he worriedly awaited children; but although there were dreams of fertility, there were no children. Katerinka flailed about like nettle-grass against a bathhouse window. She often ran from their home to the neighbors, and began to look older than her mother. But once she came back from hay-mowing looking light and young; she was silent and sat by the window all evening. During the night, when everything in the Chadaev household--cattle and possessions--was slumbering, Katerinka began to laugh in her sleep. Descending from the stove, Chadaev gloomily studied her as she tossed and turned, illuminated by the thieves' light of the moon. No matter how hard Chadaev peered through this small crack into Katerinka's secret, he could perceive nothing that night. It was quiet all around, with not even the smallest wind outside the window.
By dawn the rains abated, days of good weather rushed in, and the lost smile returned to the home. Alone with her thoughts, Katerinka sang the old songs of young women; and although she lacked the voice to sing them to the end, her husband excitedly rejoiced in her transformation. Abundance again visited this creaking place, and birds sang in the trees, as if purchased specially for this purpose. Chadaev slumbered on like a mountain, lullabied by the wind, and only this last letter from his wife, this splash of another's happiness, aroused his cumbersome torpor. Abandoning his business in the district town, where he had gone on the matter of an arrears payment, he was returning home, like to an inevitable grave.
The innkeeper had foretold the truth--even the dogs had all run off. No one greeted the master. Tying the mare to the wattle fence, Chadaev intently gazed at the unanswering holes of the windows, corseted with the luster of sunset. An icicle under the awning let fall tiresome drops. Chadaev furiously whipped it with his knout, and again waited; but his wife was not there. Then a boy sailing boats on a melted pond shouted to him through the paling that Katerinka was at the settlements with Seryoga. Chadaev shuttered and looked around: the neighbor's mare, looking for a stud, was scratching herself by a tree, and two old women at the well were unabashedly studying him and his confusion.
Then, in his caftan and with his knout, Chadaev set off for the settlements, and again his hands themselves stretched out in front of him, as if hurrying to some villainy.
Crossing the church land, he tried to find in Seryoga the qualities which had led Katerinka astray. He was a dissolute dreamer about restructuring the muzhik economy so that golden apples would grow in one common garden; for this absurdity he was punished with a job in the district executive committee. He lived with his widowed brother, and they hung copper Soviet wires on poles all around their place. On winter evenings, young people often gathered there and gazed with reverential nodding at the moving needles on the homemade box as Seryoga listened to the most unheard of things in the world... Drawing near, Chadaev smirked and looked askance at the reddish fire of the sunset as it was filling up with evening shadows. Old women were crowded together on the porch. Hostile, they parted before Chadaev, whose glassy stare threatened worse than the knout clenched in his mitten. Not one of them dared to follow him into the bitter darkness of the vestibule.
At first, only violet wheels, whirling and swinging, came to the sight of Chadaev; but his heart already felt the criminal presence of Katerinka. The silence did not seem to bode well, and he suspiciously shifted from foot to foot, not quite mustering the resolve to enter immediately into someone else's misfortune. In his forebodings he was not mistaken: in the early morning, Seryoga had been hit by a falling tree, and now he was dying, lying on a bench in the center of the hut. His yellow face, propped up on a pillow, was shining transparently, as if a large wax candle were reflected in it. He was lying motionless, but tiny bustling lines were running through his body, and his lips were open in a hungry, bitter smile. To quiet his suffering, they had placed the radio receiver under his ear, and it alone was alive with a cold sparkle in the darkness of the hut. Chadaev saw his wife. Kneeling next to him, Katerinka mournfully gazed at her lover's face and repeated his every movement as if she herself were listening to that which, for the last time, made Seryoga smile.
This extraordinary meeting had been going on since morning, and even Chadaev did not dare to interrupt it. He coughed, and Katerinka turned around. A severe wind slid along her tear-stained face; she hardly noticed the knout in her husband's hand. Enlivened by the warmth of Chadaev's hand, the knout writhed and moved, and only with effort could Chadaev restrain its malicious motion. With lowered eyes, Chadaev moved unimpeded to the head of his rival's bed.
"Well, I guess you won't be catting around anymore, eh, Seryoga?" he asked bitterly, extending forgiveness to someone who no longer needed it. Seryoga began to move, and with his unsteady, scratched-up arm, he began to pull up the sheepskin, which covered his maimed legs.
"Cold? While you're alive everything is cold; things will warm up when you die," Chadaev added sternly and importantly, and--surprised by the force which held him in place--he helped Seryoga rearrange the sheepskin.
"Don't try to scare him with death; life isn't easy for him, either," Katerinka shot back, and a new chill blowing from her face caused Chadaev to fall silent; then again she fearlessly and mournfully pressed herself to her not-yet-properly mourned corpse, as if she were alone with him.
Seryoga, it seemed, was sleeping; the radio receiver slipped away from his cheek. Chadaev took it furtively and pressed it to his own ear. A muffled emptiness was ringing there, and only by concentrating with his entire being was he able to discern the indistinct murmuring of horns, winding round like long and lithesome sighs. The music came to him from afar and mysteriously, as if through a hundred closed doors; but Katerinka's secret was revealed in it, much more evidently than in that past stormy night. He superstitiously pulled back his hand and glanced around the room: no one was watching him...and again, all red and sweaty, he eavesdropped on Seryoga's frightening and alluring world. The music changed; an inhuman voice, insinuating and humbling, tormented Chadaev with his children, which, no matter how hard Chadaev prayed, fate would not give to him. It tormented him with his horses, Chadaev's ancient and unquenchable passion, the thought of which made his face grow cold. It tormented him with everything that is most dear for a man on earth. Shaking his head as if warding off the enchanted proximity of happiness, he darted out of the hut. On the porch, he bumped against the young doctor, whom Seryoga's brother had gone to fetch. Late that evening, the old women brought Katerinka back home and left her by the porch. From the stove Chadaev watched as, her arms spread out in grief, she heavily climbed up onto the bench. Gloomy from love and humiliation, Chadaev climbed down and sat next to her.
In stony fear, preparing herself for any torment, Katerinka gazed at her husband's face, which had been disfigured by passion. Then, hardly daring to breathe, he bent to her and embraced her shoulder.
"My little one, my poor one," he whispered suffering horribly from his lack of other, tender words.
She slowly moved toward the corner, but when a strand of her husband's reddish beard just barely touched her, she flung herself away from him and cried out as if she had been burnt. Caught unawares by Katerinka's cry, Chadaev, perplexed, shuffled around in the middle of the hut and, for the second time the embers of his unspent forgiveness smoldered up in him. He unsteadily made his way to the stove. Since it had not been warmed up yesterday, it was cold, and the cold filled his scattered and wild visions with a dreaminess. Among other horrible dreams, like a torture, came the Moldavian girl. She was beckoning with her hands to the departing Chadaev, and from her hands themselves came an alluring and painful sound. By dawn, it had become damp in the hut. A foul snow was falling outside the windows. Katerinka was gone. Chadaev sat on the bench, listening to something moaning underground, then he went out to the garden, but it was even more unpleasant there, so he returned to the home. Just then, the chairman, Sorokin, showed up with a notice concerning a penalty for his arrears payment.
Short and pushy as a polecat, this muzhik had never been to Chadaev's liking. He was always hurrying somewhere and panting; he lived with a malicious anger as if fulfilling an annoying duty. Putting the notice on the table in front of Chadaev he ordered him to sign it.
"I can read printing, but I can't write," Chadaev said simply.
"Put an X there to say you read it, and we'll fill it out tomorrow," Sorokin answered in a raspy voice.
Their eyes met, and they both turned away as if catching each other in a lie.
"Trouble has visited me, Sorokin," the host dully confessed. "Seryoga's been coming to my bed!"
"And what's so special about that?" the visitor coolly replied, not bothering to adorn this burning everyday trifle with even the slightest fib.
"Katerinka's my wife...eleven years I've been carrying her!" Chadaev shouted, hitting himself for some reason on the neck; as he did so, his beard began to smolder and wave about like a bush in a fire.
"And so what?" replied the visitor, even more unconcerned as he smoothed out the crumpled corners of the notice.
"I loved her..." Chadaev carefully let out the words, testing by any means the heart of the bureaucrat.
Sorokin stood up.
"What are you talking about, misfortune! A stroke of luck is what you've got. Seryoga died; he died this morning. Now everything's fine," he said with a cruel and bored face. Turning away, he drummed his fingers on the window-sill.
Chadaev sat, bending low over the notice; the paper gently rustled in his breath. At the moment when he learned the news of Seryoga's death, a deafening jubilation burst over him, but then he imagined what lay ahead--first of all, Katerinka overcome with grief--and this somewhat diminished his hatred and jealousy. In his confused imagination, the notice grew; it grew as large as the table, and kept growing; it reared up on its hind legs, it attacked and started to strangle him... Obeying a strange compulsion, Chadaev quickly crumpled up the paper, popped it into his mouth and slowly began to chew on this tedious and mandatory meal right in front of the blanching chairman. Then, after swallowing, he looked with vacant eyes at Sorokin, who now seemed very small.
"You'll answer for this!" said the visitor, in confusion and after a moment. He took a long time buttoning up his coat and putting on his cap, as if giving time for repentance of the insult.
"You're sharp; but the stone blunts the scythe," Chadaev called out after him.
After Sorokin's departure, Chadaev pulled out his bag and began getting ready for the road. As he did so, he broke a dish, but although he was in no hurry, he did not clean up the broken shards. Once dressed, he went out through the yard. Nothing held him any longer to this grave of betrayed aspirations. The sun's warmth squeezed in through his dull depression, but even without it Chadaev felt no cold because of the rage he carried within himself. He stopped by the garden gate and whistled, calling the dogs which were sitting by the well. They began wagging their tails and squirming about uncomfortably, but they remained seated. He called them by name, slapping his knee in vexation, but one dog turned its back to him, and the other made a face as if it were scrutinizing a bug that was bewildered by the snow and crawling along a fresh-cut log. Chadaev left forever.
First he set off for his widowed sister in a nearby district center and asked her to take him in as a laborer. His sister, also red-haired like all the Chadaevs, red-haired and devilishly mean from poverty, cursed him mightily; but when she had done with that, she gave her brother some soup and assigned him a place on the sleeping-bench alongside a brood of skinny children. He spent his first homeless month here, plowing the earth and praising his muzhik god for liberating him from so many pointless cares. But a notice arrived, summoning him to court, and Chadaev took off in an unknown direction.
For now the roads were open to him, and he arrived in Porosyatnikovo in time for the haymaking. Diligent in his new position, he fully justified the meager pay given by his masters. But then, when he was down in the meadow mowing along with many others, a secretary showed up with a paper for Chadaev. Work was in full swing in the excellent weather, and there was no one to accompany the criminal. So as an escort they gave him Aksiusha, a ten-year-old girl, to take him the five versts to legal retribution. For the first time in his life, Chadaev began to laugh, taking the girl by the hand and heading off toward the road.
They set off while the dew was still on the ground. Close to noon, a florid cloud swelled up overhead, rumbled in the disturbed, deep blue sky, and stretched out more and more in its inexpressible anguish. Chadaev and Aksiusha barely managed to take cover under a fir tree in a glade before the downpour burst with a whistle onto the dry dust of the fields. The girl was afraid of thunderstorms; she pressed herself against the tree and was trembling, but she never let go of Chadaev's hand. Then, shielding Aksiusha from the watery dust, he began to tell her everything his mother had once told him to brighten up his own pathetic childhood. He told of devils, foolish and hairy mischief-makers, wizards and one-eyed sages, and, among other well-worn and innocent specters, Ilya himself, he who holds thunderstorms on his arm like falcons. Chadaev had never before spoken this way with anyone; his voice wove in and out with the crackling of the forest, and the sense of his story-telling exactly matched the thunder and fiery narration of the storm. Cautiously, Aksiusha gave more attention to Chadaev's wild story than to the terrible rumbling in the clouds.
Then the sun began to cover the field with a wide, green wing, catching even Aksiusha's bare feet. The rain stopped; drops, hanging on branches and in the air, glimmered; in the grass at their feet, not afraid of being trod upon, a grasshopper began to chirp...and only somewhere far off, under the rainbow, a dark, unsatisfied belly still rumbled.
"Well, shall we go?" The girl slyly gave him a sideways glance and, remembering the joking admonitions of her elders, she dutifully pulled Chadaev onto the road. All the way to the district center, he did not exchange another word with his incorruptible guide, as if the recent danger of the storm had not brought them closer together.
He escaped from the district jail before dawn, and a week later was working as a forest warder.
The southern regions were becoming treeless, because there was a timber thief under every tree in Chadaev's territory. The thieves were fierce in defense of their right to thieve. They nabbed Chadaev's predecessor, stuck a pole through his sleeves, and set him off to wander the length and breadth of the forest. The forest was red, unclean, made infamous from ancient times by rumors that in autumn the stones in it would sing, and the fir trees would move from place to place. No one lived in the forest, and Chadaev took on the vacant position. Chadaev already instilled fear with his most absurd appearance. The pilferers would have been without work and their children without food but for the fact that one evening, when he was sitting barefoot by a ditch watching mosquito larvae dance in the water, a bush parted and out stepped a militiaman in full uniform, carrying a paper authorizing Chadaev's arrest. Chadaev laughed and went into the watch-house to put on his shoes. When the militiaman, getting impatient, went in after him, there was no one in the watch-house except a young owl which Chadaev, out of pity, had brought in from the forest the day before. The owl stood on the table and blinked at the state representative, who recoiled, stunned by the insult. Chadaev melted away in the forest shadows.
This, his first night as a tramp, was spent on a wood pile. He was awakened by a beetle, which had climbed into his capacious nose. A bird was darting about in the air, and some type of red-headed woodpecker, who had tired of pounding on the wood, was looking thoughtfully at the newcomer. Chadaev recalled the events of the previous day and burst out laughing at people who still had not gotten tired of writing up his crimes. But sin loves company. In addition to the matter concerning the arrears payment and the unauthorized eating of an official notice was now added failure to appear in court; and when you throw in evasion and flight, it became obvious that he had permanently removed himself from the world. Thus was born the tramp.
He no longer anchored himself anywhere, but lived in constant motion. He kept walking, and the world kept writing. No one was interested in Chadaev himself, but rather in his crimes. Sometimes, having grown bored with his idle solitude, he took on a job; in the summer he was a shepherd, in the winter he was an district mailman, in the spring he turned up for the timber rafting, and in the autumn I met him on the river where I had gone in search of an amazing grass from my childhood, the name of which I never learned. Perhaps also I was enticed by the strange splashing sound. Descending from the knoll, I saw Chadaev; in his endeavors he seemed something like a sorcerer. He was lying on a raft and holding up a log in one hand and a strange-looking wooden ladle in the other; from time to time he hit them against the water. A half-hour later, after we had finished sizing each other up and he had assured himself that I had no intention of enforcing the law on him, he explained to me, laughing and disemboweling his mustachioed catch, that he was after catfish. In quiet weather, his splashing could be heard from a great distance away. The catfish, curious about the sound, would come nearer and, as a punishment, find a place in his soup.
We sat by the fire. On the high river slope, sheltered by verdant cherry and aspen, the sad and orange summer was in its final stages of decay. The smoke was tickling my eyes, and something compelled me to keep shoving fallen branches into the fire. In our laconic conversation, not a word did Chadaev say about his Moldavian, but it seemed to me that he was thinking about her constantly, that someday, hallow and meek, he will enter her courtyard as her husband is roasting a pig. He'll stand there for a time, drawing the husband's cautious attention, and then he will leave forever. Chadaev, however, offered no confirmation of my conjectures.
"In a year, I'll become a devil completely, a devil!" the tramp said thickly, and it seemed to me that that's just what he was--horned prejudice brought to life. "A devil, I say! You can walk right through him, but he's laughing..."
The broth was ready, but there was just one spoon. I set off down the road, not having found my grass. The day had grown dim; the trees became flat, the road lilac, and the fields damp. It seemed to me that I would no doubt encounter a horseman galloping past me, holding high over his head a paper for Chadaev with instructions to sew him up into a bast mat and deliver him to the district for investigation. At that moment, I almost believed in the muzhik legend of a bear that, in front of eyewitnesses, near the edge of the forest, came out, bowed to the tree near which it had lived its life, then departed into the depths of the forest, never to return.
Translated by Eric Konkol