A Thousand Years by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

"LET THE DEAD BURY THE DEAD."—Matthew, ch. vii.

It was night time when Prince Constantine arrived at his brother's little cabin. Young Vilyashev himself opened the door, and throughout the brief conversation that ensued they remained in darkness—not even a candle was lighted. Tall, lean, cadaverous, dressed in a much- worn day suit, his cap under his arm, Constantine stonily listened to Vilyashev's terse account of their sister's last moments.

"She died peacefully," the young man told his brother, "and she was quite calm to the end, for she believed in God. But she could not rid herself of memories of the past. How could she when the present shows such an awful contrast? Famine, scurvy, typhus, sorrow brood over the countryside. Our old home is the hands of strangers: we ourselves are outcasts living in a peasant's cabin. Imagine what this meant to a delicately nurtured woman! Men are wild beasts, brother."

"There were three of us," Constantine said with quiet bitterness— "you, Natalia, and myself. It is ended! I travelled here in a cattle- truck, walking from the station on foot—and was too late for the funeral."

"She was buried yesterday. She knew from the first she was dying, and would not stir a step from here."

"Poor girl," sighed Constantine. "She had lived here all her life."

He left abruptly without a word of farewell, and they did not meet again until the next evening: both had spent the day wandering about the valleys.

At dawn the following morning Vilyashev ascended a steep hill; on the flat summit of a tumulus that crowned it he observed an eagle tearing a pigeon to pieces. At his approach the bird flew up into the clear, empty sky, towards the east, emitting a low, deep, unforgettable cry that echoed dolefully over the fragrant fields.

From the hill and tumulus could be seen a vast panorama of meadows, thickets, villages, and white steeples of churches. A golden sun rose and swung slowly above the hill, gilding the horizon, the clouds, hill-ridges, and the tumulus; steeping them in wave upon wave of shimmering yellow light.

Below, in wisps and long slender ribbons, a rosy mist crept over the fields; it covered everything with the softest of warmly tinted light. There was a morning frost, and thin sheets of ice crackled in the dykes. An invigorating breeze stirred gently, as if but half- awakened, and tenderly ruffled fronds of bracken, sliding softly upward from moss and roots, tremulously caressing the sweet-smelling grass, to sweep grandly over the hill-crest in ripples and eddies, increasing in volume as it sped.

The earth was throbbing: it panted like a thirsty wood-spirit. Cranes sent their weird, mournful cries echoing over the undulating plains and valleys; birds of passage were a-wing. It was the advent of teeming, tumultuous, perennial spring.

Bells tolled mournfully over the fragrant earth. Typhus, famine, death spread like a poisonous vapour through the villages, through the peasants' tiny cabins. The windowless huts waved the rotting straw of their thatch in the wind as they had done five hundred years ago, when they had been taken down every spring to be carried further into the forests—ever eastward—to the Chuvash tribe.

In every hut there was hunger. In every hut there was death. In every one the fever-stricken lay under holy ikons, surrendering their souls to the Lord in the same calm, stoical and wise spirit in which they had lived.

Those who survived bore the dead to the churches, and went in consternation and dread through the fields carrying crosses and banners. They dug trenches round the villages and sprinkled the dykes with Holy Water; they prayed for bread and for preservation from death, while the air resounded with the tolling of bells.

Nevertheless, at eventide the maidens came to the tumulus arrayed in their home-woven dresses, and sang their old, old songs, for it was spring and the mating season for all living things. Yet they sang alone, for their youths had been given to the Moloch of war: they had gone to Uralsk, to Ufa, and to Archangel. Only old men were left to plough the fields in the spring.

Vilyashev stood dejectedly on the crest of the hill, a solitary, lonely figure outlined darkly against the clear blue background of sky and distance. He gazed unseeingly into space; thought and movement alike were suspended. He was only conscious of pain. He knew all was ended. Thus his errant forbear from the north may have stood five hundred years ago, leaning upon his lance, a sword in his chain girdle.

Vilyashev pictured him with a beard like Constantine's. He had had glory and conquest awaiting him; he strode the world a victorious warrior! But now—little Natalya who had died of famine-typhus had realized that they were no longer needed, neither she, nor Constantine, nor himself! She was calling to him across the great gulf; it was as if her words were trembling on the air, telling him the hour had struck. The Vilyashev's power had been great; it had been achieved by force; by force it had been overthrown, the vulture- nest was torn to pieces. Men had become ravenous.

The Prince descended and made his way to the river Oka, ten miles distant, wandering all day through the fields and dales—a giant full seven feet high, with a beard to his waist. The heavy earth clung to his boots. At last he flung himself on to the ground, burying his face in his hands, and lay motionless, abandoning himself to an anxious, sorrowful reverie.

Snow still lay on the lowlands, but the sky was warm, pellucid, expansive. The Oka broadened out rushing in a mighty, irresistible torrent towards its outlet, and inundating its banks. Purling brooks danced and sang their way through the valleys. The wind breathed a feeling of expectancy—sweet, tender, evanescent, like the day-dream of a Russian maiden who has not yet known the secrets of love. With delicate gossamer fingers it gently caressed the barren hill that frowned above the Oka, uttering its gentle poignantly-stirring song at the same time.

Larks warbled. From all around echoed the happy cries of birds; the vernal air thrilled and vibrated in great running arpeggios to the wonder-music of the winds. The river alone preserved a rigid silence.

Vilyashev brooded a long while beside the swiftly running waters; but at sunset's approach he rose hastily, and returned to the tumulus. The sky was wrapped in its evening shroud of deep, mysterious darkness. Set brightly against the sombre background of the tumulus- crowned hill stood shining silver birch trees and dark shaggy firs: they now looked wan and spectral in the fading light. For a fleeting moment the world glowed like a huge golden ball; then the whole countryside was one vast vista of green, finally merging into a deep illimitable purple. Down the valley crept the mist, trailing its filmy veils over point and peak and ridge. The air throbbed with the cries of geese and bitterns. The hush of the spring-time night set in and covered the world—that hush that is more vibrant than thunder, that gathers the forest sounds and murmurs to itself, and weaves them all into a tense, vernal harmony.

Prince Constantine's gaunt form struck a sharp note of discord as he walked straight up to the tumulus. His presence breathed conflict and stress that accorded ill with the universal peace of nature.

He greeted his brother, and began to smoke; the light from his cigarette illumined his eagle nose and bony brow; his quiet grey eyes gleamed with a wintry look.

"One longs to fly away like a bird in the spring," he murmured; then added with a sharp change of tone; "How did Natalya die?"

"In her right mind, thank God! But, she had lived torn by a madness of hatred and contempt, loathing all, despising all."

"What wonder, look around you!" cried Constantine. He hesitated a moment then said softly: "To-morrow is the Annunciation—the recollection of that festival made me think. Look around!"

The tumulus stood out sheer and stark, a grim relic of a bygone age. There was a faint rustling through last year's wormwood. The air arose from the plains in a crescendo of quivering chords, gushing upward like a welling spring. There was the scent of decaying foliage. The sky beyond had darkened, charged to the brim with mystery. The atmosphere became moist and cold; the valley lay beneath—empty, boundless, a region of illimitable space.

"Do you hear?" Constantine asked.

"Hear what?"

"The earth's groans."

"Yes, it is waking. Do you hear the soft stir and shudder among the roots of the flowers and grass? The whisper of the trees, the tremor of leaves and fronds? It is the earth's joyful welcome to the Spring."

Constantine shook his head: "Not joy … sorrow. The air is permeated with the scent of decay. To-morrow will see the Annunciation, a great festival, little brother, and that recollection has set me thinking. Look round you! Everywhere are savages—men gone mad with blood and terror. Death, famine, barbarity ride the world! Idolatry is still rampant: to this day men believe in wood-spirits, witches and the devil—and God, oh yes, men still believe in God! They bury their dead when the bodies should be burnt. They seek to drive away typhus by religious processions!"

He laughed mockingly.

"I stood the whole time in the train to avoid infection. But the people do not even think of that: their one thought is bread. I wanted to sleep through the journey; but a wretched woman, starving before my very eyes, prevented me. She said she was going to a sister so as to get milk to drink. She made me feel sick; she could not say bread, meat, milk, and butter, but called them 'brud,' 'mate,' 'mulk,' and 'buzzer'. 'Ah, for a bit of buzzer—how I will ate it and enjoy it!' she kept muttering.

"I tell you, Vilyashev, the people are bewildered. The world is returning to savagery. Remember the history of all times and of all peoples—an endless repetition of schisms, deceptions, stupidity, superstition and cannibalism—not so long ago—as late as the Thirty Years War—there was cannibalism in Europe; human flesh was cooked and eaten…. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! How fine they sound! But better for Fraternity ever to remain a mere ideal than to be introduced by the butt-end of a rifle."

Constantine took off his cap, and his bony forehead seemed pale and green in the ghostly darkness of the night. His eyes were deep sunken, and for an instant his face resembled a skull.

"I am bewildered, brother; I feel so utterly alone! I am wretched and disillusioned. In what does man transcend the beast?…" He turned towards the west, and a cruel, rapacious, predatory look flitted over his face; he took a piece of bread from his overcoat pocket and handed it to Vilyashev:

"Eat, brother; you are hungry."

From the valley uprose the muffled chime of a church bell, and a low baying of dogs could be heard round the village settlements. Great gusts of wind swept over the earth, which shook and trembled beneath their rush. In thin, high, piercing notes it ascended—the song of the winds to the setting sun.

"Listen," continued Constantine; "I was thinking of the Annunciation … and I had a dream.

"The red glow of sunset was slowly fading. Around stretched huge, slumbering, primeval forests, shadow-filled bogs, and wide green marshes. Wolves howled mournfully through the woods and the valleys. Carts were creaking; horses were neighing; men were shouting—this wild race of the Ancient Russians was marching to collect tribute. Down a forest roadway they went, from the Oka to the rivers Sozh and Desna.

"A Prince pitched his camp on a hill: his son lay dying with the slowly-sinking sunlight. They prayed to the gods to spare the princeling. They burned youths and maidens at the stake. They cast men into the river to appease the water-spirit. They invoked the ancient Slavic god Perun. They called on Jesus and the Mother of God. In vain! In the terrible, lurid light of that vernal evening the princeling died.

"Then they slew his horse and his wife, and raised the tumulus.

"In the Prince's suite was an Arab scholar named Ibn-Sadif. He was as thin as an arrow, pliant as a bow, as dark as pitch, with the eyes and nose of an eagle under his white turban. He was a wanderer over the earth, for, learned in all else, he still sought knowledge of men and of countries. He had gone up by the Volga to the Kama and to the Bulgarians. Now he was wending his way with the Russians to Kiev and Tsargrad.

"Ibn-Sadif ascended the hill, and beheld a blazing pile. On a log of wood lay a maiden with her left breast ripped open; flames licked her feet. Around were sombre, bearded men with swords in their hands. An ancient Shaman priest was circling in front of the funeral pyre and shouting furiously.

"Ibn-Sadif turned aside from the fire, and descended the forest pathway to the river.

"The sky was thickly studded with stars that shone like points of living gold in the warm deeps of the night; the water gave back a glittering reflection. The Arab gazed up at that vast space where the shining constellations swam towards the bosom of the Infinite, then down at their fantastically mirrored image in the river's depths—and cried aloud:

"'Woe! Woe!'"

"In the far distance beyond the water the wolves howled.

"At nightfall Ibn-Sadif joined the Prince who was directing the ancient funeral rites. The Arab raised his hands to the sky; his white garments flew round him like the wings of a bird; in a shrill, eerie voice like an eagle's he cried to the fierce bearded men gathered around:

"'This night just a thousand years ago, the Archangel told the Mother of God in Nazareth of the coming of your God, Jesus. Woe! A thousand years ago! Can it be?'

"Thus spoke Ibn-Sadif. None in the camp knew of the Annunciation, of that fair, sacred day when the birds will not even build their nests lest their labour desecrate its holiness."

Constantine paused; then lifted his head and listened.

"Do you hear, brother? Bells are tolling! Do you hear how the dogs are barking?… And, just as of yore, death, famine, barbarity, cannibalism shadow the earth. I am heart stricken!"

The night deepened to an intense blue; a faint chill stole through the air. Prince Constantine sat down resting his head on his stick. Suddenly he rose:

"It is late and cold; let us go. I am miserable, for I have lost my faith. This reversion to savagery is horrible and bewildering. What are we? What can we do when barbarians surround us? The loneliness and desolation of our plight! I feel utterly lost, Vilyashev. We are no good to anyone. Not so long ago our ancestors used to flog peasants in the stables and abduct maidens on their wedding-nights. How I curse them! They were wild beasts! Ibn-Sadif spoke the truth … a thousand years—and still the Mark of the Beast!"

The Prince's cry was low; but deep, and wild. Vilyashev answered quietly:

"I have the strength of a mailed knight, Constantine. I could smash, rend, and trample the peasants underfoot as my forebears did, but they have wound themselves round my heart; they are like little children!"

They went along by the hill; the tumulus was left behind. A light sparkling frost powdered the rich loamy earth. Through the darkness, swimming with purple shadows, came a great continuous murmur from the ancient forests. A pair of cranes cried softly as they roosted for the night, and a pearl grey mist rolled down to the meadows and enveloped them in innumerable murkyscarves. The brothers entered a village as still as the grave. Somewhere beyond, a dog barked. Not a sound broke the utter, solemn silence as they walked along.

"There is typhus and barbarity in every peasant's hut," Constantine muttered. Then he, too, lapsed into silence, listening.

Beyond some huts on a village by-path girls' voices could be heard singing an Annunciation hymn. In the vasts depths of silence it sounded solemn, simple, sane. The two princes felt it to be as immutable as the Spring with its law of birth. They remained standing there a long while, resting first on one foot, then on the other. Each felt that mankind's blood and energy still flowed bright and unsullied despite the world upheaval.

"Good! That is infinitely touching. That will not die," declared
Vilyashev. "It has come down to us through the Ages."

"Aye," replied Prince Constantine bitterly, "wonderfully good.
Pathetically good. Abominably good!"

From the bend in the road the girls appeared in their coloured aprons; they passed decorously in pairs, singing:

"Rejoice, O Virgin Mother! Blessed art Thou amongst women"….

The earth was moist and exhaled a sweet, delicate odour of rich, fresh vegetation. Reluctantly, at last, the two brothers resumed their way. They heard the weird midnight-crowing of the cock. A pale silvery moon—the last before Easter Day—rose gently in the East, letting down its luminous web from the sky, flinging back the dark shadows of the night.

On reaching home, the cabin seemed damp and cold and inexpressibly dreary—as on the day Natalya died; when the door had slammed incessantly. The brothers went hastily to their rooms without speaking or lighting up. Constantine lay on Natalya's bed.

At dawn he awoke Vilyashev.

"I am going. Goodbye! It is ended! I am going out of Russia, out of Europe. Here, where were we born, they have called us their masters, their fathers—carrion crows, vultures! Like the fierce Russian tribes of old, they have let loose the hounds of destruction on wolves and hares and men alike! Woe!… Ibn-Sadif!"

Constantine lighted a candle on a table, and crossed the room. In the strange blue light of dawn his livid shadow fell on the whitewashed wall. Vilyashev was amazed; the shadow was so extraordinarily blue and ghastly—it seemed as if his brother were dead.