A Year of Their Lives by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY
I

To the north, south, east, and west—in all directions for hundreds of miles—stretched forests and bogs enveloped in a wide-spread veil of lichen. Brown-trunked cedars and pines towered on high. Beneath there was a thick, impenetrable jungle of firs, alders, wild-berries, junipers, and low-hanging birches. Pungent, deep-sunken, lichen- covered springs of reddish water were hidden amidst undergrowth in little glades, couched in layers of turf bordered by red bilberries and huckleberries.

With September came the frosts—fifty degrees below zero. The snow lay everywhere—crisp and dazzling. There was daylight for three or four hours only; the remainder of the time it was night. The sky was lowering, and brooded darkly over the earth. There was a tense hush and stillness, only broken in September by the lowing of mating elks. In December came the mournful, sinister howling of the wolves; for the rest of the time—a deep, dreadful, overpowering silence! A silence that can be found only in the wastelands of the world.

A village stood on the hill by the river.

The bare slope descended to the water's edge, a grey-brown granite, and white slatey clay, steep, beaten by wind and rain. Clumsy discoloured boats were anchored to the bank. The river was broad, dark, and cold, its surface broken by sombre, choppy, bluish waves. Here and there the grey silhouettes of huts were visible; their high, projecting, boarded roofs were covered by greenish lichen. The windows were shuttered. Nets dried close by. It was the abode of hunters who went long excursions into the forests in winter, to fight the wild beasts.

II

In the spring the rivers—now broad, free and mighty—overflowed their banks. Heavy waves broke up the face of the waters, which sent forth a deep, hoarse, subdued murmur, as restless and disquieting as the season itself. The snow thawed. The pine-trees showed resinous lights, and exhaled a strong, pungent odour.

In the day-time the sky was a broad expanse of blue; at dusk it had a soft murky hue and a melancholy attraction. In the heart of the woods, now that winter was over, the first deed of the beasts was being accomplished—birth. Eider-ducks, swans, and geese were crying noisily on the river.

At dusk the sky became greenish and murky, merging into a vast tent of deepest blue studded with a myriad of shining golden stars. Then the eider-ducks and swans grew silent and went to roost for the night, and the soft warm air was thrilled by the whines of bear-cubs and the cries of land-rails. It was then that the maidens assembled on the slope to sing of Lada and to dance their ancient dances, while strapping youths came forth from their winter dwellings in the woods and listened.

The slope down to the river was steep; below was the rustling sound of water among the reeds. Everything was wrapt in stillness, yet everywhere the throb and flow of life could be heard. The maidens sat huddled together on the top of the slope, where the granite and slate were covered with scanty moss and yellow grass.

They were dressed in gaily-coloured dresses: all of them strong and robust; they sang their love-songs—old and sad and free—and gazed into the gathering opalescent mists. Their songs seemed to overflow from their hearts, and were sung to the youths who stood around them like sombre, restive shadows, ogling and lustful, like the beasts in their forest-haunts.

This festive coupling-time had its law.

The youths came here to choose their wives; they quarrelled and fought, while the maidens remained listless, yielding to them in all. The young men ogled and fought and he who triumphed first chose his wife. Then he and she together retired from the festival.

III

Marina was twenty when she proceeded to the river-bank.

Her tall, somewhat heavy body was wonderfully moulded, with strong muscles and snowy skin. Her chest, back, hips, and limbs were sharply outlined; she was strong, supple, and well developed. Her round, broad breast rose high; her hair, eye-brows and eye-lashes were thick and dark. The pupils of her eyes were deep and liquid; her cheeks showed a flush of red. Her lips were soft—like a beast's—large, sensuous and rosy. She walked slowly, moving her long straight legs evenly, and slightly swaying from her hips….

She joined the maidens on the river slope.

They were singing their mysterious, alluring and illusive songs.

Marina mingled among the crowd of maidens, lay down upon her back, closed her dreamy eyes, and joined in the festive chorus. The maidens' souls became absorbed in the singing, and their song spread far and wide through all the shadowy recesses of the woods, like shining rays of sunlight. Their eyes closed in langour, their full- blooded bodies ached with a delicious sensation. Their hearts seemed to grow benumbed, the numbness spreading through their blood to their limbs; it deprived them of strength, and their thoughts became chaotic.

Marina stretched her limbs sensuously; then became absorbed in the singing, and she also sang. She felt strangely inert; only quivering at the sound of the lusty, excited voices of the youths.

Afterwards she lay on a couch in her suffocatingly close room; her hands were clasped behind her head; her bosom swelled. She stretched, opened her dark pensive eyes wide, compressed her lips, then sank again into the drowsy langour, lying thus for many hours.

She was twenty, and had grown up free and solitary—with the hunters, the woods, and the steep and the river—from her birth.

IV

Demid lived on his own plot of ground, which, like the village, stood on a hill above the river. But here the hill was higher and steeper, sweeping the edge of the horizon. The wood was nearer, and its grey- trunked cedars and pines rose from their beds of golden moss to shake their crests to the stars and stretch their dark-green forest hands right up to the house. The view was wide and sweeping from here: the dark, turbulent river, the marsh beyond, the deep-blue billowing woods fringing the horizon, the heavy lowering sky—all were clearly visible.

The house, made of huge pines, with timbered walls, plain white- washed ceilings and floors, was bestrewn with pelts of bears, elks, wolves, foxes, and ermines. Gunpowder and grape-shot lay on the tables. In the corners was a medley of lassoes, snares, and wolftraps. Some rifles hung round the walls. There was a strong pungent odour, as though all the perfumes of the woods were collected here. The house contained two rooms and a kitchen.

In the centre of one of the rooms stood a large, rough-hewn table; round it were some low wooden stools covered with bear-skin. This was Demid's own room; in the other was the young bear, Makar.

Demid lay motionless for a long time on his bear-skin bed, listening to the vibrations of his great body—how it lived and throbbed, how the rich blood coursed through its veins. Makar, the bear, approached, laid his heavy paws on his chest, and amicably sniffed at his body. Demid stroked the beast on its ear, and it seemed as if the man and animal understood each other. Outside the window loomed the wood.

Demid was rugged and broad-shouldered, a large, quiet, dark-eyed, good man. He smelt of the woods, and was strong and healthy. Like all the hunters, he dressed in furs and a rough, home-woven fabric streaked with red. He wore high, heavy boots made of reindeer hide, and his coarse, broad hands were covered with broken chilblains.

Makar was young, and, like all young things, he was foolish. He liked to roll about, and was often destructive—he would gnaw the nets and skins, break the traps, and lick up the gunpowder. Then Demid punished him, whereupon Makar would turn on his heel, make foolish grimaces, and whine plaintively.

V

Demid went to the maidens on the slope and took Marina to his plot of land. She became his wife.

VI

The dark-green, wind-swept grass grew sweet and succulent in summer. The sun seemed to shine from out a deep blue ocean of light. The nights were silvery, the sky seemed dissolved into a pale, pellucid mist; sunset and dawn co-mingled, and a white wavering haze crept over the earth. Here life was strong and swift, for it knew that its days were brief.

Marina was installed in Makar's room, and he was transferred to
Demid's.

Makar greeted Marina with an inhospitable snarl when he saw her for the first time; then, showing his teeth, he struck her with his paw. Demid beat him for this behaviour, and he quieted down. Then Marina made friends with him.

Demid went into the woods in the daytime, and Marina was left alone.

She decorated her room in her own fashion, with a crude, somewhat exaggerated, yet graceful, taste. She hung round in symmetrical order the skins and cloth hangings, brightly embroidered with red and blue cocks and reindeers. She placed an image of the God-Mother in the corner; she washed the floor; and her multi-coloured room—smelling as before of the woods—began to resemble a forest-chapel, where the forest folk pray to their gods.

In the pale-greenish twilight of the illimitable night, when only horn-owls cried in the woods and bear-cubs snarled by the river, Demid went in to Marina. She could not think—her mind moved slowly and awkwardly like a great lumbering animal—she could only feel, and in those warm, voluptuous, star-drenched nights she yielded herself to Demid, desiring to become one with him, his strength, and his passion.

The nights were pale, tremulous, and mysterious. There was a deep, heavy, nocturnal stillness. White spirals of mist drifted along the ground. Night-owls and wood spirits hooted. In the morning was a red blaze of glory as the great orb of day rose from the east into the azure vault of heaven.

The days flew by and summer passed.

VII

It snowed in September.

It had been noticeable, even in August, how the days drew in and darkened, how the nights lengthened and deepened. The wood all at once grew still and dumb; it seemed as though it were deserted. The air grew cold, and the river became locked in ice. The twilight was slow and lingering, its deepening shadows turning the snow and ice on the river to a keen, frosty blue.

Through the nights rang the loud, strange, fierce bellowing of the elks as they mated; the walls shook, and the hills re-echoed with their terrible roar.

Marina was with child in the autumn.

One night she woke before dawn. The room was stifling from the heat of the stove, and she could smell the bear. There was a faint glimmer of dawn, and the dark walls showed the window frames in a wan blue outline. Somewhere close by an old elk was bellowing: you could tell it was old by the hoarse, hissing notes of its hollow cries.

Marina sat up in bed. Her head swam, and she felt nauseated. The bear lay beside her; he was already awake and was watching her. His eyes shone with quiet, greenish lights; from outside, the thin crepuscular light crept into the room through little crevices.

Again Marina felt the nausea, and her head swam; the lights in Makar's eyes were re-enkindled in Marina's soul into a great, overwhelming joy that made her body quiver with emotion . . . Her heart beat like a snared bird—all was wavering and misty, like a summer morn.

She rose from her bed of bear-skin furs, and naked, with swift, awkward, uncertain steps, went in to Demid. He was still asleep—she put her burning arms about him and drew his head to her deep bosom, whispering to him softly:

"A child … it is the child…."

Little by little, the night lifted and in through the windows came the daylight. The elk ceased his bellowing The room filled with glancing morning shadows. Makar approached, sniffed, and laid his paws on the bed. Demid seized his collar with his free hand and patting him fondly said:

"That is right, Makar Ivanych—you know, don't you?" Then turning to
Marina, he added: "What do you think, Marinka? Doesn't he know?
Doesn't the old bear know, Marinka?"

Makar licked Demid's hand, and laid his head knowingly on his forepaws. The night had gone; rays of lilac-coloured light illumined the snow and entered the house. Round, red, and distant rose the sun. Below the hill lay the blue, ice-bound river, and away beyond it stretched the ribbed outline of the vast, marshy Siberian forest. Demid did not enter it that day, nor on many of the following days.

VIII

The winter descended.

The snow lay in deep layers, blue by day and night, lilac in the brief intervals of sunrise and sunset. The pale, powerless sun seemed far away and strange during the three short hours that it showed over the horizon. The rest of the time it was night. The northern lights flashed like quivering arrows across the sky, in their sublime and awful majesty. The frost lay like a veil over the earth, enveloping all in a dazzling whiteness in which was imprisoned every shade of colour under the sun. Crimsons, purples, softest yellows, tenderest greens, and exquisite blues and pinks flashed and quivered fiercely under the morning rays, shimmering in the brilliance. Over all hung the hush of the trackless desert, the stillness that betokened death!

Marina's eyes had changed—they were no longer dark, limpid, full of intoxication; they were wonderfully bright and clear. Her hips had widened, her body had increased, adding a new grace to her stature. She seldom went out, sitting for the most part in her room, which resembled a forest-chapel where men prayed to the gods. In the daytime she did her simple houskeeping—chopped wood, heated the stove, cooked meat and fish, helped Demid to skin the beasts he had slain, and to weed their plot of land. During the long evenings she spun and wove clothes for the coming babe. As she sewed she thought of the child, and sung and smiled softly.

An overwhelming joy possessed Marina when she thought of her approaching motherhood. Her heart beat faster and her happiness increased. Her own possible sufferings held no place in her thoughts.

In the lilac glow of dawn, when a round moon, solemn and immense, glowed in the south-western sky, Demid took his rifle and Finnish knife, and went on his sleigh into the forest.

The pine-trees and cedars stood starkly under their raiment of snow— mighty forest giants—beneath them clustered prickly firs, junipers and alders. The stillness was profound. Demid sped from trap to trap, from snare to snare, over the silent soundless snow. He strangled the beasts; he fired, and the crack of his gun resounded through the empty space. He sought for the trail of the elks and wolf-packs. He descended to the river and watched for otters, caught bewildered fish amidst the broken ice, and set his nets afresh. The scenes all round him were old and familiar. The majesty of day died down in the west on a flaming pyre of vivid clouds, and the quivering, luminous streamers of the north re-appeared.

Standing in his plot of ground in the evening, he cut up the fish and meat, hung it up to freeze, threw pieces to the bear, ate some himself, washed his hands in ice-cold water, and sat down beside Marina—big and rugged, his powerful legs wide apart, his hands resting heavily on his knees. The room became stifling with his presence. He smiled down quietly and good-naturedly at Marina.

The lamp shone cheerfully. Outside was snow, frost, and peace. Makar approached and lounged on the floor. There was an atmosphere of quiet joy and comfort in the chapel-like room. The walls cracked in the frost; some towels embroidered in red and blue with reindeer and cocks hung over them. Outside the frozen windows was darkness, cold, and night.

Demid rose from his bench, took Marina tenderly and firmly in his arms, and led her to the bed. The lamp flickered, and in the half- light Makar's eyes glowed. He had grown up during the winter and he was now an adult bear—with a sombre, solemn air and a kind of clumsy skill. He had a large flat nose and grave, good-natured eyes.

IX

It was the last days of December. There had been a merry Christmas festival and the snow had lain thick on house and slope. Wolves were now on the trail. Then Marina felt the first stirring of her child; soft, gentle movements, like the touch of eiderdown upon her body. She was filled with a triumphant joy, and pressed her hands softly and tenderly to her side; then sang a lullaby of how her son should become a great hunter and slay a thousand and three hundred elks, a thousand and three hundred bears, a thousand and three hundred ermines, and take the chief village beauty as his wife!

There was misty frost, the night, and stillness outside—the stillness that whispers of death. Wolves crept up to the plot of land, sat on their hind-legs and howled long and dismally at the sky.

In the spring the shores of the river were strewn with wild flocks of swans, geese, and eider-ducks. The forest resounded with the stir of the beasts. Its woody depths echoed with the noise of bears, elks, wolves, foxes, owls, and woodcocks. The herbage began to sprout and flourish. The nights now drew in, and the days were longer. Dawn and sunset were lilac and lingering. The twilight fell in pale green, shimmering floods of light, and as it deepened and spread the village maidens gathered again on the river slope and sang their songs of Lada, the Spring God.

In the morning the sun rose in a glory of golden splendour and swam into the limpid blue heavens. There, enthroned, it spent the many hours of spring. Then came the Easter Festival when, according to the legend, the sun smiled and the people exchanged red eggs as its symbol.

X

On this Festival, Marina became a mother.

That night the bear left Demid. He must surely have scented the spring and gone into the forest to find himself a mate.

He left late at night, after breaking down the door. It was dark. A scarcely noticeable streak of light lay over the eastern horizon. Somewhere afar the village maidens were singing their songs of Lada.