Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
Then the old woman spread a clean cloth with embroidered ends on the table, and placed a steaming pot upon it.
‘Come to supper, Olyessia,’ she called to her granddaughter, and after a moment’s hesitation added, turning to me: ‘Perhaps you will eat with us too, sir? Our food is very plain; we have no soup, only plain groats….’
I cannot say there was any particular insistence in her invitation, and I was already minded to refuse had not Olyessia in her turn invited me with such simplicity and a smile so kind, that in spite of myself I agreed. She herself poured me out a plateful of groats, a porridge of buckwheat and fat, onion, potato and chicken, an amazingly tasty and nourishing dish. Neither grandmother nor granddaughter crossed themselves as they sat down to table. During supper I continually watched both women, because up till now I have retained a deep conviction that a person is nowhere revealed so clearly as when he eats. The old woman swallowed the porridge with hasty greed, chewing aloud and pushing large pieces of bread into her mouth, so that big lumps rose and moved beneath her flabby cheeks. In Olyessia’s manner of eating even there was a native grace.
An hour later, after supper, I took my leave of my hostesses of the chicken-legged hut.
‘I will walk with you a little way, if you like,’ Olyessia offered.
‘What’s this walking out you’re after?’ the old woman mumbled angrily. ‘You can’t stay in your place, you gad-fly….’
But Olyessia had already put a red cashmere shawl on. Suddenly she ran up to her grandmother, embraced her and gave her a loud kiss.
‘Dear little precious granny…. It’s only a moment. I’ll be back in a second.’
‘Very well, then, madcap.’ The old woman feebly wrenched herself away. ‘Don’t misunderstand her, sir; she’s very stupid.’
Passing a narrow path we came out into the forest road, black with mud, all churned with hoof marks and rutted with wheel tracks, full of water, in which the fire of the evening star was reflected. We walked at the side of the road, covered everywhere with the brown leaves of last year, not yet dry after the snow. Here and there through the dead yellow big wakening blue-bells—the earliest flowers in Polyessie—lifted their lilac heads.
‘Listen, Olyessia,’ I began; ‘I very much want to ask you something, but I am afraid you will be cross…. Tell me, is it true what they say about your grandmother?… How shall I express it?’
‘She’s a witch?’ Olyessia quietly helped me out.
‘No…. Not a witch,’ I caught her up. ‘Well, yes, a witch if you like…. Certainly, people say such things. Why shouldn’t one know certain herbs, remedies, and charms?… But if you find it unpleasant, you need not answer.’
‘But why not?’ she answered simply. ‘Where’s the unpleasantness? Yes, it’s true, she’s a witch. But now she’s grown old and can no longer do what she did before.’
‘And what did she do before?’ I was curious.
‘All kinds of things. She could cure illness, heal toothache, put a spell on a mine, pray over any one who was bitten by a mad dog or a snake, she could find out treasure trove…. It is impossible to tell one everything.’
‘You know, Olyessia, you must forgive me, but I don’t believe it all. Be frank with me. I shan’t tell anybody; but surely this is all a pretence in order to mystify people?’
She shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
‘Think what you like. Of course, it’s easy to mystify a woman from the village, but I wouldn’t deceive you.’
‘You really believe in witchcraft, then?’
‘How could I disbelieve? Charms are in our destiny. I can do a great deal myself.’
‘Olyessia, darling, … if you only knew how interested I was…. Won’t you really show me anything?’
‘I’ll show you, if you like.’ Olyessia readily consented. ‘Would you like me to do it now?’
‘Yes, at once, if possible.’
‘You won’t be afraid?’
‘What next? I might be afraid at night perhaps, but it is still daylight.’
‘Very well. Give me your hand.’
I obeyed. Olyessia quickly turned up the sleeve of my overcoat and unfastened the button of my cuff. Then she took a small Finnish knife about three inches long out of her pocket, and removed it from its leather case.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked, for a mean fear had awakened in me.
‘You will see immediately…. But you said you wouldn’t be afraid.’
Suddenly her hand made a slight movement, hardly perceptible. I felt the prick of the sharp blade in the soft part of my arm a little higher than the pulse. Instantly blood showed along the whole width of the cut, flowed over my hand, and began to drop quickly on to the earth. I could hardly restrain a cry, and I believe I grew pale.
‘Don’t be afraid. You won’t die,’ Olyessia smiled.
She seized my arm above the cut, bent her face down upon it, and began to whisper something quickly, covering my skin with her steady breathing. When she stood up again unclasping her fingers, on the wounded place only a red graze remained.
‘Well, have you had enough?’ she asked with a sly smile, putting her little knife away. ‘Would you like some more?’
‘Certainly, I would. Only if possible not quite so terrible and without bloodshed, please.’
‘What shall I show you?’ she mused. ‘Well, this will do. Walk along the road in front of me. But don’t look back.’
‘This won’t be terrible?’ I asked, trying to conceal my timid apprehensions of an unpleasant surprise with a careless smile.
‘No, no…. Quite trifling…. Go on.’
I went ahead, very much intrigued by the experiment, feeling Olyessia’s steady glance behind my back. But after about a dozen steps I suddenly stumbled on a perfectly even piece of ground and fell flat.
‘Go on, go on!’ cried Olyessia. ‘Don’t look back! It’s nothing at all. It will be all right before your wedding day…. Keep a better grip on the ground next time, when you’re going to fall.’
I went on. Another ten steps, and a second time I fell my full length.
Olyessia began to laugh aloud and to clap her hands.
‘Well, are you satisfied now?’ she cried, her white teeth gleaming. ‘Do you believe it now? It’s nothing, nothing…. You flew down instead of up.’
‘How did you manage that?’ I asked in surprise, shaking the little clinging twigs and blades of grass from my clothes. ‘Is it a secret?’
‘Not at all. I’ll tell you with pleasure. Only I’m afraid that perhaps you won’t understand…. I shan’t be able to explain….’
Indeed, I did not understand her altogether. But, as far as I can make out, this odd trick consists in her following my footsteps, step by step, in time with me. She looks at me steadily, trying to imitate my every movement down to the least; as it were, she identifies herself with me. After a few steps she begins to imagine a rope drawn across the road a certain distance in front of me—a yard from the ground. The moment my foot is touching this imaginary rope, Olyessia suddenly pretends to fall, and then, as she says, the strongest man must infallibly fall…. I remembered Olyessia’s confused explanation long afterwards when I read Charcot’s report on the experiments which he made on two women patients in the Salpêtrière, who were professional witches suffering from hysteria. I was greatly surprised to discover that French witches who came from the common people employed exactly the same science in the same cases as the beautiful witch of Polyessie.
‘Oh, I can do a great many things besides,’ Olyessia boldly declared. ‘For instance, I can put a fear into you….’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I’ll act so that you feel a great dread. Suppose you are sitting in your room in the evening. Suddenly for no reason at all such a fear will take hold of you that you will begin to tremble and won’t dare to turn round. But for this I must know where you live and see your room beforehand.’
‘Well, that’s quite a simple affair.’ I was sceptical. ‘You only have to come close to the window, tap on it, call out something or other….’
‘Oh no!… I shall be in the forest at the time. I won’t go out of the hut…. But I will sit down and think all the while: I’ll think that I am walking along the road, entering your house, opening the door, coming into your room…. You’re sitting somewhere; at the table, say…. I walk up to you from behind quietly and stealthily…. You don’t hear me…. I seize your shoulder with my hands and begin to squeeze … stronger, stronger, stronger…. I stare at you, just like this. Look!…’
Her thin eyebrows suddenly closed together. Her eyes were fixed upon me in a stare, fascinating, threatening. Her pupils dilated and became blue. Instantly I remembered a Medusa’s head, the work of a painter I have forgotten, in the Trietyakov Gallery in Moscow. Beneath this strange look I was seized by a cold terror of the supernatural.
‘Well, that’ll do, Olyessia…. That’s enough,’ I said with a forced laugh. ‘I much prefer you when you smile. Your face is so kind and childlike.’
We went on. I suddenly recollected the expressiveness of Olyessia’s conversation—elegance even for a simple girl—and I said:
‘Do you know what surprises me in you, Olyessia? You’ve grown up in the forest without seeing a soul…. Of course, you can’t read very much….’
‘I can’t read at all.’
‘Well, that makes it all the more…. Yet you speak as well as a real lady. Tell me, where did you learn it? You understand what I mean?’
‘Yes, I understand. It’s from granny. You mustn’t judge her by her appearance. She is so clever! Some day she may speak when you are there, when she has become used to you. She knows everything, everything on earth that you can ask her. It’s true she’s old now.’
‘Then she has seen a great deal in her lifetime. Where does she come from? Where did she live before?’
It seemed that these questions did not please Olyessia. She hesitated to answer, evasive and reluctant.
‘I don’t know…. She doesn’t like to talk of that herself. If ever she says anything about it, she asks you to forget it, to put it quite out of mind…. But it’s time for me….’ Olyessia hastened, ‘Granny will be cross. Good-bye…. Forgive me, but I don’t know your name.’
I gave her my name.
‘Ivan Timofeyevich? Well, that’s all right. Good-bye, Ivan Timofeyevich! Don’t disdain our hut. Come sometimes.’
I held out my hand at parting, and her small strong hand responded with a vigorous friendly grip.
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
Copyright holders – Public Domain Book
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