Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
That year spring came early. It was violent and, as always in Polyessie, unexpected. Brown, shining, turbulent streams began to run down the village streets, foaming angrily round the stones, whirling splinters and feathers along with it. In the huge pools of water was reflected the azure sky, with the round, spinning white clouds that swam in it. Heavy drops pattered noisily from the eaves. Flights of sparrows covered the roadside willows, and chattered with such noisy excitement that nothing could be heard above the clamour. Everywhere was felt the joyous, quick alarm of life.
The snow disappeared. Dirty yellow patches remained here and there in the hollows and the shady thickets. From beneath it peeped the warm wet soil, full of new sap after its winter sleep, full of thirst for a new maternity. Over the black fields swung a light vapour, filling the air with the scent of the thawed earth, with the fresh, penetrating, mighty smell of the spring, which one can distinguish even in the town from a hundred other smells. Together with this scent I felt that the sweet and tender sadness of spring poured into my soul, exuberant with restless expectations and vague presentiments, that romantic sadness which makes all women beautiful in one’s eyes, and is always tinged with indefinite regrets for the springs of the past. The nights grew warmer. In their thick moist darkness pulsed the unseen and urgent creation of Nature.
In those spring days the image of Olyessia never left me. Alone, I loved to lie down and close my eyes that I might better concentrate upon her. Continually in my imagination I summoned her up, now stern, now cunning, now with a tender smile resplendent in her face, her young body nurtured on the richness of the old forest to be as harmonious and mighty as a young fir-tree, her fresh voice with its sudden low velvety notes…. ‘In all her movements, and her words,’ I thought, ‘there is a nobility, some native grace of modulation.’ I was drawn to Olyessia also by the halo of mystery which surrounded her, her superstitious reputation as a witch, her life in the forest thicket amid the marsh, and above all her proud confidence in her own powers, that had shown through the few words she said to me.
Surely there is nothing strange in it that, so soon as the forest paths were dry, I set out for the hut with the chicken legs. In case it should be necessary to placate the querulous old woman I bore with me a half-pound of tea and a few handfuls of sugar.
I found them both at home. The old woman was moving about by the bright burning stove, and Olyessia was sitting on a very tall bench spinning flax. I banged the door as I entered, and she turned round. The thread snapped and the spindle rolled on to the floor.
For some time the old woman stared at me with angry intentness, frowning, and screening her face from the heat of the stove with her hand.
‘How do you do, granny?’ I said in a loud, hearty voice. ‘It must be you don’t recognise me. You remember I came in here last month to ask my way? You told me my fortune too.’
‘I don’t remember anything, sir,’ the old woman began to mumble, shaking her head with annoyance. ‘I remember nothing. I can’t make out at all what you’ve forgotten here. We are no company for you. We’re simple, plain folk…. There’s nothing for you here. The forest is wide, there’s room enough to wander….’
Taken aback by the hostile reception, and utterly nonplussed, I found myself in the foolish situation of not knowing what to do: whether to turn the rudeness to a joke, or to take offence, or finally to turn and go back without a word. Involuntarily I turned to Olyessia with a look of helplessness. She gave me the faintest trace of a smile of derision, that was not wholly malicious, rose from the spinning-wheel and went to the old woman.
‘Don’t be afraid, granny,’ she said reassuringly. ‘He’s not a bad man. He won’t do us any harm. Please sit down,’ she added, pointing me to a bench in the corner of honour, and paying no more attention to the old woman’s grumbling.
Encouraged by her attention, I suddenly decided to adopt the most decisive measures.
‘But you do get angry, granny…. No sooner does a guest appear in your doorway than you begin to abuse him. And I had brought you a present,’ I said, taking the parcels out of my bag.
The old woman threw a swift glance at the parcels; but instantly turned her back upon me.
Immediately, I handed her the tea and sugar. This soothed the old woman somewhat, for though she continued to grumble, it was no longer in the old implacable tone. Olyessia sat down to her yarn again, and I placed myself near to her, on a small, low, rickety stool. With her left hand Olyessia was swiftly twisting a white thread of flax, silky soft, and in her right the spindle whirled with an easy humming. Now she would let it fall almost to the floor; then she would catch it neatly, and with a quick movement of her fingers send it spinning round again. In her hands this work (which at the first glance appears so simple, but in truth demands the habit and dexterity of centuries), went like lightning. I could not help turning my eyes to those hands. They were coarsened and blackened by the work, but they were small and of shape so beautiful that many a princess would have envied them.
‘You never told me that granny had told your fortune,’ said Olyessia, and, seeing that I gave a cautious glance behind me, she added: ‘It’s quite all right, she’s rather deaf. She won’t hear. It’s only my voice she understands well.’
‘Yes, she did. Why?’
‘I just asked … nothing more…. And do you believe in it?’ She gave a quick, stealthy glance.
‘Believe what? The fortune your granny told me, or generally?’
‘I mean generally.’
‘I don’t quite know. It would be truer to say, I don’t believe in it, but still who knows? They say there are cases…. They write about it in clever books even. But I don’t believe what your granny told me at all. Any village woman could tell me as much.’
‘Yes, nowadays she tells fortunes badly, it’s true. She’s old, and besides she’s very much afraid. But what did the cards say?’
‘Nothing interesting. I can’t even remember it now. The usual kind of thing: a distant journey, something with clubs…. I’ve quite forgotten.’
‘Yes, she’s a bad fortune-teller now. She’s grown so old that she has forgotten a great many words…. How could she? And she’s scared as well. It’s only the sight of money makes her consent to tell.’
‘What’s she scared of?’
‘The authorities, of course…. The village policeman comes, and threatens her every time. “I can have you put away at any minute,” he says. “You know what people like you get for witchcraft? Penal servitude for life on Hawk Island.” Tell me what you think. Is it true?’
‘It’s not altogether a lie. There is some punishment for doing it, but not so bad as all that…. And you, Olyessia, can you tell fortunes?’
It was as though she were perplexed, but only for a second.
‘I can…. But not for money,’ she added hastily.
‘You might put out the cards for me?’
‘No,’ she answered with quiet resolution, shaking her head.
‘Why won’t you? Very well, some other time…. Somehow I believe you will tell me the truth.’
‘No. I will not. I won’t do it for anything.’
‘Oh, that’s not right, Olyessia. For first acquaintance’ sake you can’t refuse…. Why don’t you want to?’
‘Because I’ve put out the cards for you already. It’s wrong to do it twice.’
‘Wrong? But why? I don’t understand it.’
‘No, no, it’s wrong, wrong,’ she began to whisper with superstitious dread. ‘It’s forbidden to ask twice of Fate. It’s not right. Fate will discover, overhear…. She does not like to be asked. That’s why all fortune-tellers are unhappy.’
I wanted to make a jesting reply to Olyessia; but I could not. There was too much sincere conviction in her words; and when she turned her head to the door in a strange fear as she uttered the word Fate, in spite of myself I turned with her.
‘Well, if you won’t want to tell me my fortune now, tell me what the cards have told you already,’ I begged.
Olyessia suddenly gave a turn to the spinning-wheel, and with her hand touched mine.
‘No!… better not,’ she said. A childlike, imploring look came into her eyes. ‘Please, don’t ask me…. There was nothing good in it…. Better not ask.’
But I insisted. I could not understand whether her refusal and her dark allusions to Fate were the deliberate trick of a fortune-teller, or whether she herself really believed what she said. But I became rather uneasy; what was almost a dread took hold of me.
‘Well, I’ll tell you, perhaps,’ Olyessia finally consented. ‘But listen; a bargain’s better than money; don’t be angry if you don’t like what I say. The cards said that though you are a good man, you are only a weak one…. Your goodness is not sound, nor quite sincere. You are not master of your word. You love to have the whip-hand of people, and yet, though you yourself do not want to, you submit to them. You are fond of wine and—— Well, if I’ve got to say, I’ll say everything right to the last…. You are very fond of women, and because of that you will have much evil in your life…. You do not value money and you cannot save. You will never be rich…. Shall I go on?’
‘Go on, go on, say everything you know!’
‘The cards said too that your life will not be a happy one. You will never love with your heart, because your heart is cold and dull, and you will cause great sorrow to those who love you. You will never marry; you will die a bachelor. There will be no great joys in your life, but much weariness and depression…. There will come a time when you will want to put an end to your life…. That will come to you, but you will not dare, you will go on enduring. You will suffer great poverty, but towards the end your fate will be changed through the death of some one near you, quite unexpected. But all this will be in years to come; but this year … I don’t know exactly when … the cards say very soon … maybe this very month——’
‘What will happen this year?’ I asked when she stopped again.
‘I’m afraid to tell you any more…. A great love will come to you through the queen of clubs. Only I can’t see whether she is married or a girl, but I know that she has dark hair….’
Involuntarily I gave a swift glance to Olyessia’s head.
‘Why are you looking at me?’ she blushed suddenly, feeling my glance, with the sensitiveness peculiar to some women. ‘Well, yes, something like mine,’ she continued, mechanically arranging her hair, and blushing still more.
‘So you say, a great love from clubs?’ I laughed.
‘Don’t laugh. It’s no use laughing,’ Olyessia said seriously, almost sternly. ‘I’m only telling you the truth.’
‘Well, I won’t laugh any more, I promise. What is there more?’
‘More…. Oh! Evil will come upon the queen of clubs, worse than death. She will suffer a great disgrace through you, one that she will never be able to forget; she will have an everlasting sorrow…. In her planet no harm comes to you.’
‘Tell me, Olyessia. Couldn’t the cards deceive you? Why should I do so many unpleasant things to the queen of clubs? I am a quiet unassuming fellow, yet you’ve said so many awful things about me.’
‘I don’t know that…. The cards showed that it’s not you will do it—I mean, not on purpose—but all this misfortune will come through you…. You’ll remember my words, when they come true.’
‘The cards told you all this, Olyessia?’
She did not answer at once, and then as though evasive and reluctant:
‘The cards as well…. But even without them I learn a great deal, just by the face alone. If, for instance, some one is going to die soon by an ugly death, I can read it immediately in his face. I need not speak to him, even.’
‘What do you see in his face?’
‘I don’t know myself. I suddenly feel afraid, as though he were a dead man standing before me. Just ask granny, she will tell you that it’s the truth I’m saying. The year before last, Trophim the miller hung himself in his mill. Only two days before I saw him and said to granny: “Just look, granny, Trophim will die an ugly death soon.” And so it was. Again, last Christmas Yashka the horse thief came to us and asked granny to tell his fortune. Granny put out the cards for him and began. He asked, joking: “Tell me what sort of death will I have?” and he laughed. The moment I glanced at him, I could not move. I saw Yashka sitting there, but his face was dead, green…. His eyes were shut, his lips black…. A week afterwards we heard that the peasants had caught Yashka just as he was trying to take some horses off…. They beat him all night long…. They are bad people here, merciless…. They drove nails into his heels, smashed his ribs with stakes, and he gave up the ghost about dawn.’
‘Why didn’t you tell him that misfortune was waiting for him?’
‘Why should I tell?’ Olyessia replied. ‘Can a man escape what Fate has doomed? It is useless for a man to be anxious the last days of his life…. And I loathe myself for seeing these things. I am disgusted with my own self…. But what can I do? It is mine by Fate. When granny was younger she could see Death, too; so could my mother and granny’s mother—we are not responsible. It is in our blood….’
She left off her spinning, bent her head and quietly placed her hands upon her knees. In her arrested, immobile eyes and her wide pupils was reflected some dark terror, an involuntary submission to mysterious powers and supernatural knowledge which cast a shadow upon her soul.
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
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