The Witch (Olyessia) by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents

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Yarmola the gamekeeper, my servant, cook, and fellow-hunter, entered the room with a load of wood on his shoulder, threw it heavily on the floor, and blew on his frozen fingers.

‘What a wind there is outside, sir,’ he said, squatting on his heels in front of the oven door. ‘We must make a good fire in the stove. Will you give me a match, please?’

‘It means we shan’t have a chance at the hares to-morrow, eh? What do you think, Yarmola?’

‘No…. Out of the question…. Do you hear the snowstorm? The hares lie still—no sound…. You won’t see a single track to-morrow.’

Fate had thrown me for a whole six months into a dull little village in Volhymnia, on the border of Polyessie, and hunting was my sole occupation and delight. I confess that at the time when the business in the village was offered me, I had no idea that I should feel so intolerably dull. I went even with joy. ‘Polyessie … a remote place … the bosom of Nature … simple ways … primitive natures,’ I thought as I sat in the railway carriage, ‘completely unfamiliar people, with strange customs and a curious language … and there are sure to be thousands of romantic legends, traditions, and songs!’ At that time—since I have to confess, I may as well confess everything—I had already published a story with two murders and one suicide in an unknown newspaper, and I knew theoretically that it was useful for writers to observe customs.

But—either the peasants of Perebrod were distinguished by a particularly obstinate uncommunicativeness, or I myself did not know how to approach them—my relations with them went no further than that when they saw me a mile off they took off their caps, and when they came alongside said sternly, ‘God with you,’ which should mean ‘God help you.’ And when I attempted to enter into conversation with them they looked at me in bewilderment, refused to understand the simplest questions, and tried all the while to kiss my hands—a habit that has survived from their Polish serfdom.

I read all the books I had with me very soon. Out of boredom—though at first it seemed to me very unpleasant—I made an attempt to get to know the local ‘intellectuals,’ a Catholic priest who lived fifteen versts away, the gentleman organist who lived with him, the local police-sergeant, and the bailiff of the neighbouring estate, a retired non-commissioned officer. But nothing came of it.

Then I tried to occupy myself with doctoring the inhabitants of Perebrod. I had at my disposal castor-oil, carbolic acid, boracic, and iodine. But here, besides the scantiness of my knowledge, I came up against the complete impossibility of making a diagnosis, because the symptoms of all patients were exactly the same: ‘I’ve got a pain inside,’ and ‘I can’t take bite nor sup.’

For instance an old woman comes to me. With a disturbed look she wipes her nose with the forefinger of her right hand. I catch a glimpse of her brown skin as she takes a couple of eggs from her bosom, and puts them on the table. Then she begins to seize my hands in order to plant a kiss on them. I hide them and persuade the old woman: ‘Come, granny … don’t…. I’m not a priest…. I have no right…. What’s the matter with you?’

‘I’ve got a pain in the inside, sir; just right inside, so that I can’t take nor bite nor sup.’

‘Have you had it long?’

‘How do I know?’ she answers with a question. ‘It just burns, burns all the while. Not a bite, nor a sup.’

However much I try, I can get no more definite symptoms.

‘Don’t you worry,’ the non.-com. bailiff once said to me. ‘They’ll cure themselves. It’ll dry on them like a dog. I beg you to note I use only one medicine—sal-volatile. A peasant comes to me. “What’s the matter?” “I’m ill,” says he. I just run off for the bottle of sal-volatile. “Sniff!” … he sniffs…. “Sniff again … go on!” He sniffs again. “Feel better?” “I do seem to feel better.” “Well, then, be off, and God be with you.”’

Besides I did not at all like the kissing of my hands. (Some just fell at my feet and did all they could to kiss my boots.) For it wasn’t by any means the emotion of a grateful heart, but simply a loathsome habit, rooted in them by centuries of slavery and brutality. And I could only wonder at the non.-com. bailiff and the police-sergeant when I saw the imperturbable gravity with which they shoved their enormous red hands to the peasants’ lips….

Only hunting was left. But with the end of January came such terrible weather that even hunting was impossible. Every day there was an awful wind, and during the night a hard icy crust formed on the snow, on which the hares could run without leaving a trace. As I sat shut up in the house listening to the howling wind, I felt terribly sad, and I eagerly seized such an innocent distraction as teaching Yarmola the gamekeeper to read and write.

It came about quite curiously. Once I was writing a letter, when suddenly I felt that some one was behind me. Turning round I saw Yarmola, who had approached noiselessly, as his habit was, in his soft bast shoes.

‘What d’ you want, Yarmola?’ I asked.

‘I was only looking how you write. I wish I could…. No, no … not like you,’ he began hastily, seeing me smile. ‘I only wish I could write my name.’

‘Why do you want to do that?’ I was surprised. (It must be remembered that Yarmola is supposed to be the poorest and laziest peasant in the whole of Perebrod. His wages and earnings go in drink. There isn’t such another scarecrow even among the local oxen. I thought that he would have been the last person to find reading and writing necessary.) I asked him again, doubtfully:

‘What do you want to know how to write your name for?’

‘You see how it stands, sir.’ Yarmola answered with extraordinary softness. ‘There isn’t a single man who can read and write in the village. When there’s a paper to be signed or some business to be done on the council or anything … nobody can…. The mayor only puts the seal; but he doesn’t know what’s in the paper. It would be a good thing for everybody if one of us could write his name.’

Yarmola’s solicitude—Yarmola, a known poacher, an idle vagabond, whose opinion the village council would never dream of considering—this solicitude of his for the public interest of his native village somehow moved me. I offered to give him lessons myself. What a job it was—my attempt to teach him to read and write! Yarmola, who knew to perfection every path in the forest, almost every tree; who could find his whereabouts day and night, no matter where he was; who could distinguish all the wolves, hares, and foxes of the neighbourhood by their spoor—this same Yarmola could not for the life of him see why, for instance, the letters m and a together make ma. In front of that problem he usually thought painfully for ten minutes and more, and his lean swarthy face with its sunken black eyes, which had been completely absorbed into a stiff black beard and a generous moustache, betrayed an extremity of mental strain.

‘Come, Yarmola, say ma. Just say ma simply,’ I urged him. ‘Don’t look at the paper. Look at me, so. Now say ma.’

Yarmola would then heave a deep sigh, put the horn-book on the table, and announce with sad determination:

‘No, I can’t….’

‘Why can’t you? It’s so easy. Just say ma simply, just as I say it.’

‘No, sir, I cannot … I’ve forgotten.’

All my methods, my devices and comparisons were being shattered by this monstrous lack of understanding. But Yarmola’s longing for knowledge did not weaken at all.

‘If I could only write my name!’ Yarmola begged me bashfully. ‘I don’t want anything else. Only my name: Yarmola Popruzhuk—that’s all.’

When I finally abandoned the idea of teaching him to read and write properly, I began to show him how to sign his name mechanically. To my amazement this method seemed to be the easiest for Yarmola, and at the end of two months he had very nearly mastered his name. As for his Christian name we had decided to make the task easier by leaving it out altogether.

Every evening, after he had finished filling the stoves, Yarmola waited on patiently until I called him.

‘Well, Yarmola, let’s have a go at it,’ I would say. He would sidle up to the table, lean on it with his elbows, thrust his pen through his black, shrivelled, stiff fingers, and ask me, raising his eyebrows:

‘Shall I write?’

‘Yes, write.’

Yarmola drew the first letter quite confidently—P2. (This letter was called ‘a couple of posts and a crossbeam on top.’) Then he looked at me questioningly.

2 The Russian P is shaped П, as in Greek.

‘Why don’t you go on writing? Have you forgotten?’

‘I’ve forgotten.’ Yarmola shook his head angrily.

‘Heavens, what a fellow you are! Well, make a wheel.’

‘Ah, a wheel, a wheel!… I know….’ Yarmola cheered up, and diligently drew an elongated figure on the paper, in outline very like the Caspian Sea. After this labour he admired the result in silence for some time, bending his head now to the left, then to the right, and screwing up his eyes.

‘Why have you stopped there? Go on.’

‘Wait a little, sir … presently.’

He thought for a couple of minutes and then asked timidly:

‘Same as the first?’

‘Right. Just the same.’

So little by little we came to the last letter ‘k,’ which we knew as ‘a stick with a crooked twig tilted sideways in the middle of it.’

‘What do you think, sir?’ Yarmola would say sometimes after finishing his work and looking at it with great pride; ‘if I go on learning like this for another five or six months I shall be quite a learned chap. What’s your idea?’

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Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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