Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
About three days after the weather grew warmer. Very early one morning Yarmola came into my room and said carelessly:
‘We shall have to clean the guns, sir.’
‘Why?’ I asked, stretching myself under the blankets.
‘The hares have been busy in the night. There are any amount of tracks. Shall we go after them?’
I saw that Yarmola was waiting impatiently to go to the forest, but he hid his hunter’s passion beneath an assumed indifference. In fact, his single-barrelled gun was in the passage already. From that gun not a single woodcock had ever escaped, for all that it was adorned with a few tin patches, and spliced over the places where rust and powder gas had corroded the iron.
No sooner had we entered the forest than we came on a hare’s track. The hare broke out into the road, ran about fifty yards along it, and then made a huge leap into the fir plantation.
‘Now, we’ll get him in a moment,’ Yarmola said. ‘Since he’s shown himself, he’ll die here. You go, sir….’ He pondered, considering by certain signs known only to himself where he should post me. ‘You go to the old inn. And I’ll get round him from Zanilin. As soon as the dog starts him I’ll give you a shout.’
He disappeared instantly, as it were, plunging into a thick jungle of brushwood. I listened. Not a sound betrayed his poacher movements; not a twig snapped under his feet, in their bast shoes. Without hurrying myself I came to the inn, a ruined and deserted hut, and I stopped on the edge of a young pine forest beneath a tall fir with a straight bare trunk. It was quiet as it can be quiet only in a forest on a windless winter day. The branches were bent with the splendid lumps of snow which clung to them, and made them look wonderful, festive, and cold. Now and then a thin little twig broke off from the top, and with extreme clearness one could hear it as it fell with a tiny cracking noise, touching other twigs in its fall. The snow glinted rose in the sun and blue in the shadow. I fell under the quiet spell of the grave cold silence, and I seemed to feel time passing by me, slowly and noiselessly.
Suddenly far away in the thicket came the sound of Riabchik’s bark—the peculiar bark of a dog following a scent, a thin, nervous, trilling bark that passes almost into a squeak. I heard Yarmola’s voice immediately, calling angrily after the dog: ‘Get him! Get him!’ the first word in a long-drawn falsetto, the second in a short bass note.
Judging from the direction of the bark, I thought the dog must be running on my left, and I ran quickly across the meadow to get level with the hare. I hadn’t made twenty steps when a huge grey hare jumped out from behind a stump, laid back his long ears and ran leisurely across the road with high delicate leaps, and hid himself in a plantation. After him came Riabchik at full tilt. When he saw me he wagged his tail faintly, snapped at the snow several times with his teeth, and chased the hare again.
Suddenly Yarmola plunged out from the thicket as noiselessly as the dog.
‘Why didn’t you get across him, sir?’ he exclaimed, clicking his tongue reproachfully.
‘But it was a long way … more than a couple of hundred yards.’ Seeing my confusion, Yarmola softened.
‘Well, it doesn’t matter…. He won’t get away from us. Go towards the Irenov road. He’ll come out there presently.’
I went towards the Irenov road, and in a couple of minutes I heard the dog on a scent again somewhere near me. I was seized with the excitement of the hunt and began to run, keeping my gun down, through a thick shrubbery, breaking the branches and giving no heed to the smart blows they dealt me. I ran for a very long time, and was already beginning to lose my wind, when the dog suddenly stopped barking. I slowed my pace. I had the idea that if I went straight on I should be sure to meet Yarmola on the Irenov road. But I soon realised that I had lost my way as I ran, turning the bushes and the stumps without a thought of where I was going. Then I began to shout to Yarmola. He made no answer.
Meanwhile I was going further. Little by little the forest grew thinner. The ground fell away and became full of little hillocks. The prints of my feet on the snow darkened and filled with water. Several times I sank in it to my knees. I had to jump from hillock to hillock; my feet sank in the thick brown moss which covered them as it were with a soft carpet.
Soon the shrubbery came to an end. In front of me there was a large round swamp, thinly covered with snow; out of the white shroud a few little mounds emerged. Among the trees on the other side of the swamp, the white walls of a hut could be seen. ‘It’s the Irenov gamekeeper lives there, probably,’ I thought. ‘I must go in and ask the way.’
But it was not so easy to reach the hut. Every minute I sank in the bog. My high boots filled with water and made a loud sucking noise at every step, so that I could hardly drag them along.
Finally I managed to get through the marsh, climbed on top of a hillock from whence I could examine the hut thoroughly. It was not even a hut, but one of the chicken-legged erections of the fairy tales. The floor was not built on to the ground, but was raised on piles, probably because of the flood-water which covers all the Irenov forest in the spring. But one of the sides had subsided with age, and this gave the hut a lame and dismal appearance. Some of the window panes were missing; their place was filled by some dirty rags that bellied outwards.
I pressed the latch and opened the door. The room was very dark and violet circles swam before my eyes, which had so long been looking at the snow. For a long time I could not see whether there was any one in the hut.
‘Ah! good people, is any one at home?’ I asked aloud.
Something moved near the stove. I went closer and saw an old woman, sitting on the floor. A big heap of hen feathers lay before her. The old woman was taking each feather separately, tearing off the down into a basket. The quills she threw on to the floor.
‘But it’s Manuilikha, the Irenov witch.’ The thought flashed into my mind, as soon as I examined her a little more attentively. She had all the features of a witch, according to the folk-tales; her lean hollow cheeks descended to a long, sharp, hanging chin, which almost touched her hook nose. Her sunken, toothless mouth moved incessantly as though she were chewing something. Her faded eyes, once blue, cold, round, protruding, looked exactly like the eyes of a strange, ill-boding bird.
‘How d’ you do, granny?’ I said as affably as I could. ‘Your name’s Manuilikha, isn’t it?’
Something began to bubble and rattle in the old woman’s chest by way of reply. Strange sounds came out of her toothless, mumbling mouth, now like the raucous cawing of an ancient crow, then changing abruptly into a hoarse, broken falsetto.
‘Once, perhaps, good people called me Manuilikha…. But now they call me What’s-her-name, and duck’s the name they gave me. What do you want?’ she asked in a hostile tone, without interrupting her monotonous occupation.
‘You see, I’ve lost my way, granny. Do you happen to have any milk?’
‘There’s no milk,’ the old woman cut me short, angrily. ‘There’s a pack of people come straggling about the forest here…. You can’t keep them all in food and drink….’
‘You’re unkind to your guests, granny.’
‘Quite true, my dear sir. I’m quite unkind. We don’t keep a store cupboard for you. If you’re tired, sit down a while. Nobody will turn you out. You know what the proverb says: “You can come and sit by our gate, and listen to the noise of a feasting; but we are clever enough to come to you for a dinner.” That’s how it is.’
These turns of speech immediately convinced me that the old woman really was a stranger in those parts. The people there have no love for the expressive speech, adorned with curious words, which a Russian of the north so readily displays. Meanwhile the old woman continued her work mechanically, mumbling under her nose, quicker and more indistinctly all the while. I could catch only separate disconnected words. ‘There now, Granny Manuilikha…. And who he is nobody knows…. My years are not a few…. He fidgets his feet, chatters and gossips—just like a magpie….’
I listened for some time, and the sudden thought that I was with a mad woman aroused in me a feeling of revolting fear.
However, I had time to catch a glimpse of everything round me. A huge blistered stove occupied the greater part of the hut. There was no icon in the place of honour. On the walls, instead of the customary huntsmen with green moustaches and violet-coloured dogs, and unknown generals, hung bunches of dried herbs, bundles of withered stalks and kitchen utensils. I saw neither owl nor black cat; instead, two speckled fat starlings glanced at me from the stove with a surprised, suspicious air.
‘Can’t I even have something to drink, granny?’ I asked, raising my voice.
‘It’s there, in the tub,’ the old woman nodded.
The water tasted brackish, of the marsh. Thanking the old woman, though she paid me not the least attention, I asked her how I could get back to the road.
She suddenly lifted up her head, stared at me with her cold birdlike eyes, and murmured hurriedly:
‘Go, go … young man, go away. You have nothing to do here. There’s a time for guests and a time for none…. Go, my dear sir, go.’
So nothing was left to me but to go. But there flashed into my mind a last resource to soften the sternness of the old woman, if only a little. I took out of my pocket a new silver sixpence and held it out to Manuilikha. I was not mistaken; at the sight of the money the old woman began to stir, her eyes widened, and she stretched out her crooked, knotted, trembling fingers for the coin.
‘Oh no, Granny Manuilikha, I shan’t give it to you for nothing,’ I teased, hiding the coin. ‘Tell me my fortune.’
The brown wrinkled face of the witch changed to a discontented grimace. She hesitated and looked irresolutely at my hand that closed over the coin. Her greed prevailed.
‘Very well then, come on,’ she mumbled, getting up from the floor with difficulty. ‘I don’t tell anybody’s fortune nowadays, my dear…. I have forgotten…. I am old, my eyes don’t see. But I’ll do it for you.’
Holding on to the wall, her bent body shaking at every step, she got to the table, took a pack of dirty cards, thick with age, and pushed them over to me.
‘Take the cards, cut with your left hand…. Nearest the heart.’
Spitting on her fingers she began to spread the surround. As they fell on the table the cards made a noise like lumps of dough and arranged themselves in a correct eight-pointed star…. When the last card fell on its back and covered the king, Manuilikha stretched out her hand to me.
‘Cross it with gold, my dear, and you will be happy, you will be rich,’ she began to whine in a gipsy beggar’s voice.
I pushed the coin I had ready into her hand. Quick as a monkey, the old woman stowed it away in her jaw.
‘Something very important is coming to you from afar off,’ she began in the usual voluble way. ‘A meeting with the queen of diamonds, and some pleasant conversation in an important house. Very soon you will receive unexpected news from the king of clubs. Certain troubles are coming, and then a small legacy. You will be with a number of people; you will get drunk…. Not very drunk, but I can see a spree is there. Your life will be a long one. If you don’t die when you are sixty-seven, then….’
Suddenly she stopped, and lifted up her head as though listening. I listened too. A woman’s voice sounded fresh, clear, and strong, approaching the hut singing. And I recognised the words of the charming Little Russian song:
‘Ah, is it the blossom or not the bloomThat bends the little white hazel-tree?Ah, is it a dream or not a dreamThat bows my little head….’
‘Well, now, be off, my dear.’ The old woman began to bustle about anxiously, pushing me away from the table. ‘You must not be knocking about in other people’s huts. Go your way….’
She even seized me by the sleeve of my jacket and pulled me to the door. Her face showed an animal anxiety.
The singing came to an end abruptly, quite close to the hut. The iron latch rattled loudly, and in the open door a tall laughing girl appeared. With both hands she carefully held up her striped apron, out of which there peeped three tiny birds’ heads with red necks and black shiny eyes.
‘Look, granny, the finches hopped after me again,’ she cried, laughing. ‘Look, how funny they are. And, just as if on purpose, I had no bread with me.’
But seeing me she became silent and blushed crimson. Her thick black eyebrows frowned, and her eyes turned questioningly to the old woman.
‘The gentleman came in here to ask the way,’ the old woman explained. ‘Now, dear sir,’ she turned to me, with a resolute look, ‘you have rested long enough. You have drunk some water, had a chat, and it’s time to go. We are not the folk for you….’
‘Look here, my dear,’ I said to the girl. ‘Please show me the way to the Irenov road; otherwise I’ll stick in this marsh for ever.’
It must have been that the kindly pleading tone in which I spoke impressed her. Carefully she put her little finches on the stove, side by side with the starlings, flung the overcoat which she had already taken off on to the bench, and silently left the hut.
I followed her.
‘Are all your birds tame?’ I asked, overtaking the girl.
‘All tame,’ she answered abruptly, not even glancing at me. ‘Now look,’ she said, stopping by the wattle hedge. ‘Do you see the little footpath there, between the fir-trees? Can you see it?’
‘Yes, I see.’
‘Go straight along it. When you come to the oak stump, turn to your left. You must go straight on through the forest. Then you will come out on the Irenov road.’
All the while she directed me, pointing with her right hand, involuntarily I admired her. There was nothing in her like the local girls, whose faces have such a scared, monotonous look under the ugly head-bands which cover their forehead, mouth, and chin. My unknown was a tall brunette from twenty to twenty-five years old, free and graceful. Her white shirt covered her strong young bosom loosely and charmingly. Once seen, the peculiar beauty of her face could not be forgotten; it was even difficult to get accustomed to it, to describe it. The charm lay in her large, shining, dark eyes, to which the thin arched eyebrows gave an indescribable air, shy, queenly, and innocent, and in the dusky pink of her skin, in the self-willed curl of her lips. Her under-lip was fuller, and it was pushed forward a little, giving her a determined and capricious look.
‘Are you really not afraid to live by yourselves in such a lonely spot?’ I asked, stopping by the hedge.
She shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
‘Why should we be afraid? The wolves do not come near us.’
‘Wolves are not everything. Your hut might be smothered under the snow. The hut might catch on fire. Anything might happen. You two are there alone, no one could come to your assistance.’
‘Thank God for that!’ she waved her hand scornfully. ‘If granny and I were left alone entirely, it would be much better, but——’
‘You will get old, if you want to know so much,’ she cut me short. ‘And who are you?’ she asked anxiously.
I realised that probably the old woman and the girl were afraid of persecution from the authorities, and I hastened to reassure her.
‘Oh, don’t be alarmed. I’m not the village policeman, or the clerk, or the exciseman…. I’m not an official at all.’
‘Is that really true?’
‘On my word of honour. Believe me, I am the most private person. I’ve simply come to stay here a few months, and then I’m going away. If you like, I won’t tell a soul that I’ve been here and seen you. Do you believe me?’
The girl’s face brightened a little.
‘Well, then, if you’re not lying, you’re telling the truth. But tell me: had you heard about us, or did you come across us by accident?’
‘I don’t quite know how to explain it myself…. Yes, I had heard, and I even wanted to call on you some time. But it was an accident that I came to-day, I lost my way. Now tell me: why are you afraid of people? What harm do they do you?’
She glanced at me with suspicion. But my conscience was clear, and I endured her scrutiny without a tremor. Then she began to speak, with increasing agitation.
‘They do bad things…. Ordinary people don’t matter, but the officials…. The village policeman comes—he must be bribed. The inspector—pay again. And before he takes the bribe he insults my grandmother; says she’s a witch, a hag, a convict…. But what’s the good of talking?…’
‘But don’t they touch you?’ The imprudent question escaped my lips.
She drew up her head with proud self-confidence, and angry triumph flashed in her half-closed eyes.
‘They don’t touch me…. Once a surveyor came near to me…. He wanted a kiss…. I don’t think he will have forgotten yet how I kissed him.’
So much harsh independence sounded in these proud, derisive words, that I involuntarily thought:
‘You haven’t been bred in the Polyessie forest for nothing. You’re really a dangerous person to joke with….’
‘Do we touch anybody?’ she continued as her confidence in me grew. ‘We do not want people. Once a year I go to the little town to buy soap and salt … and some tea for granny. She loves tea. Otherwise, I could do without them for ever.’
‘Well, I see you and your granny are not fond of people…. But may I come to see you sometimes for a little while?’
She laughed. How strange and unexpected was the change in her pretty face! There was no trace of her former sternness in it. It had in an instant become bright, shy, and childish.
‘Whatever will you do with us? Granny and I are dull…. Why, come, if you like, and if you are really a good man. But … if you do happen to come, it would be better if you came without a gun….’
‘Why should I be afraid? I’m afraid of nothing.’ Again I could catch in her voice her confidence in her strength. ‘But I don’t like it. Why do you kill birds, or hares even? They do nobody any harm, and they want to live as much as you or I. I love them; they are so tiny, and such little stupids…. Well, good-bye.’ She began to hurry. ‘I don’t know your name…. I’m afraid granny will be cross with me.’
With easy swiftness she ran to the hut. She bent her head, and with her hands caught up her hair, blown loose in the wind.
‘Wait, wait a moment,’ I called. ‘What is your name? Let us be properly introduced.’
‘My name’s Alyona…. Hereabouts they call me Olyessia.’
I shouldered my gun and went the way I had been shown. I climbed a small mound from whence a narrow, hardly visible, forest path began, and looked back. Olyessia’s red skirt, fluttering in the wind, could still be seen on the steps of the hut, a spot of bright colour on the smooth and blinding background of the snow.
An hour later Yarmola returned. As usual he avoided idle conversation, and asked me not a word of how and where I lost my way. He just said, casually:
‘There…. I’ve left a hare in the kitchen…. Shall we roast it, or do you want to send it to any one?’
‘But you don’t know where I’ve been to-day, Yarmola?’ I said, anticipating his surprise.
‘How do you mean, I don’t know?’ he muttered gruffly. ‘You went to the witch’s for sure….’
‘How did you find that out?’
‘How could I help it? I heard no answer from you, so I went back on your tracks…. Sir!’ he added in reproachful vexation, ‘you shouldn’t do such things…. It’s a sin!…’
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
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