Over the Ravine by Boris Pilniak
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
The ravine was deep and dark.
Its yellow clay slopes, overgrown with red-trunked pines, presented
craggy ridges; at the bottom flowed a brook. Above, right and left,
grew a pine forest—dark, ancient, covered with lichen and shubbery.
Overhead was a grey, heavy, low-hanging sky.
Man seldom came to this wild and savage spot.
The trees had in the course of time been uprooted by storms of wind
and rain, and had fallen just where they stood, strewing the earth,
rotting, emitting thick pungent odours of decaying pinewood.
Thistles, chicory, milfoil, and wormwood had flourished there for
years undisturbed, and they now covered the ground with thorny
bristles. There was a den of bears at the bottom of the ravine; many
wolves prowled through the forest.
Over the edge of the steep, yellow slope hung a fallen pine, and for
many years its roots were exposed, raised on high in the air. They
looked like some petrified octopus stretching up its hideous
tentacles to the elements, and were already covered with lichen and
In the midst of these roots two great grey birds—a male and a
female—had built themselves a nest.
They were large and grey, thickly covered by yellowish-grey and
cinnamon-coloured feathers. Their wings were short, broad, and
strong; their feet, armed with great claws, were covered with black
down. Surmounting their short, thick necks were large quadratic heads
with yellow, rapaciously curved beaks and round, fierce, heavy
The female was the smaller. Her legs were more slender and handsome,
and there was a kind of rough, heavy gracefulness in the curves of
her neck. The male was fierce and stiff; his left wing did not fold
properly; he had injured it at the time he had fought other males for
There was steepness on three sides of their nest. Above it was the
wide expanse of the sky. Around, about, and beneath it lay bones
washed and whitened by the rain. The nest itself was made of stones
and mud, and overspread with down.
The female always sat in the nest.
The male hummed to himself on the end of a root that was suspended
over the steep, alone, peering far into the distance around and below
him with his heavy, pensive eyes; perched with his head sunk deep
into his shoulders and his wings hanging heavily down.
These two great birds had met here, not far from the ravine, one
evening at twilight.
It was spring; the snow was thawing on the slopes, whilst in the
forest and valleys it became grey and mellow; the pine-trees exhaled
a pungent odour; and the brook at the bottom of the ravine had
The sun already gave warmth in the daytime. The twilight was
verdurous, lingering, and resonant with life. Wolf-packs were astir,
and the males fought each other for the females.
This spring, with the sun and the soft breeze, an unwonted heaviness
pervaded the male-bird's body. Formerly he used to fly or roost,
croak or sit silent, fly swiftly or slowly, because there were causes
both around and within him: when hungry he would find a hare, kill,
and devour it; when the sun was too hot or the wind too keen, he
would shelter from them; when he saw a crouching wolf, he would
hastily fly away from it.
Now it was no longer so.
It was not a sense of hunger or self-preservation now that induced
him to fly, to roost, cry, or be silent: something outside of him and
his feelings now possessed him.
When the twilight came, as though befogged, not knowing why, he rose
from the spot on which he had perched all day and flew from glade to
glade, from crag to crag, moving his great wings softly and peering
hard into the dense, verdurous darkness. In one of the glades he saw
birds similar to himself, a female among them. Without knowing why,
he threw himself amidst them, feeling an inordinate strength within
him and a great hatred for all the other males.
He walked slowly round the female, treading hard on the ground,
spreading out his wings, tossing back his head to look askance at the
males. One, he who until now had been victor, tried to impede him—
then flew at him with beak prepared to strike, and a long silent,
cruel fight began. They flew at each other, beating with their bills,
chests, wings, and claws, blindly rumpling and tearing each others'
feathers and body.
His opponent proved the weaker and drew off; then again he threw
himself towards the female and walked round her, limping a little
now, and trailing his blood-stained left wing along the ground.
Pine-trees surrounded the glade; the earth was bestrewn with dry,
withered leaves; the night sky was blue.
The female was indifferent to him and to all; she strode calmly about
the glade, pecked at the ground, caught a mouse and quietly swallowed
it. She appeared to pay no attention to the males.
It was thus all night long.
But when the night began to pale and over the east lay the greenish-
blue outline of dawn, she moved close to him who had conquered the
rest, leaned her back against his breast, tipped his injured wing
tenderly with her bill—as though she would nurse and dress it; then
slowly rising from the ground, she flew towards the ravine.
And he, moving his injured wing painfully but without heeding it,
emitting shrill cries of joy, flew after her.
She came down just by the roots of that pine where afterwards they
built their nest.
The male perched beside her. He was irresolute and apparently
The female strutted several times round him, scenting him again.
Then, pressing her breast to the ground, tail uplifted, her eyes
half-closed—she waited. The male threw himself towards her, seized
her comb with his bill, clapping the ground with his heavy wings; and
through his veins there coursed such a wonderful ecstasy, such
invigorating joy, that he was dazzled, feeling nothing else save this
delicious rapture, croaking hoarsely and making the ravine
reverberate with a dull echo that ruffled the stillness of the early
The female was submissive.
In the winter the pines stood motionless and their trunks were a
greyish brown. The snow lay deep, swept into great drifts which
reared in a dark pile towards the ravine. The sky was a grey stretch;
the days short and almost dim.
At night the tree-boles cracked in the frost and their branches
broke. The pale moon shone calmly in the stillness, and seemed to
make the frost still harder.
The nights were weirdly horrible with the frost and the
phosphorescent light of the moon; the birds sat tucked in their nest,
pressing close together to keep themselves warm. Yet still the frost
penetrated their feathers, got into their skin and made their feet,
bills, and backs feel cold. The errant light of the moon was also
disquieting; it made the whole earth appear to be a great wolfish
eye—that was why it shone so terribly!
The birds had no sleep.
They turned painfully in their nest, changing their position; their
large green eyes emitted a greenish light. Had they possessed the
power of thought, they would certainly have longed for the advent of
While it was still an hour before dawn, as the moon was fading and
the first faint glimmer of daylight approaching, they began to feel
hungry; in their mouths there was a disagreeable, bitterish taste,
and from time to time their craws painfully contracted.
When the grey morning had at last come, the male bird flew off for
his prey; he flew slowly, spreading his wings wide and rarely
flapping them, vigilantly eying the ground beneath him. He usually
hunted for hares. It was sometimes a long while before he found one;
then he rose high over the ravine and set out on a distant flight
from his nest, far away from the ravine into the vast white expanse
When there were no hares about, he seized young foxes and magpies,
although their flesh was unsavoury. The foxes would defend themselves
long and stubbornly, biting viciously, and they had to be attacked
cautiously and skilfully. It was necessary to strike the bill at once
into the animal's neck near its head, and, immediately clutching its
back with the talons, to rise into the air—for there the fox ceased
With his prey the bird flew back to his nest by the ravine, and here
he and his mate at once devoured it. They ate but once in the day,
and so satiated themselves that they could move only with difficulty
afterwards, and their crops hung low. They even ate up the snow which
had become soaked with blood. The female threw the bones that
remained down the side of the steep.
The male perched himself on the end of a root, ruffling his feathers
in an effort to make himself more comfortable; and the blood coursed
warmly through his veins after his meal.
The female was sitting in the nest.
Towards evening the male, for some unknown reason, began to croak.
"Oo-hoo-hoo-oo!" he cried in guttural tones, as though the sound in
his throat came from across the water.
Sometimes as he sat solitary on his height, the wolves would observe
him, and one of the famished beasts would begin clambering up the
precipitous side of the ravine.
The female would then take fright, and flap her wings; but the male
would look down calmly with his big, glistening eyes, watching the
wolf slowly clamber, slip and fall headlong downwards, bringing a
heap of snow with it, tumbling over and over and yelping in fright.
The twilight crept on.
In March, as the days lengthened, the sun grew warmer; the snow
darkened and thawed; the twilight grew balmy; and the wolf-packs
stirred, while prey became more abundant, for now all the forest
denizens felt the overwhelming, entrancing throb of Spring, and
wandered through the glades, down the ravines and into the woods,
powerless under the sway of the early Spring-time langour; and it was
easy to catch them.
The male-bird brought all his kill to his mate—he ate little
himself: only what she left him, usually the entrails, the flesh of
the thoracic muscles, the skin and the head, although she usually
pecked out the eyes as the most savoury portion.
The sun was bright. There was a soft, gentle breeze. At the bottom of
the ravine the dark, turbulent brook rushed gurgling between the
sharp outlines of its snow-laden banks.
It was cool. The male-bird sat roosting with his eyes closed, his
head sunk deep into his shoulders. Outwardly he bore a look of great
humility, of languishing expectation, and a droll look of guiltiness
wholly unbecoming to his natural severity.
At dusk he grew restless. He stood up on his feet, stretched his
neck, opened wide his round eyes, spread out his wings, beating the
air with them: then closed them again. Curling up into a ball,
drawing his head into his shoulders and blinking, he croaked:
"Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo!" The rueful cry scared the forest denizens.
And the echo in the ravine answered back:
The twilight was green, merging into blue. The sky was spangled with
great glowing stars. The pine-trees exhaled an oily odour. In the
night-frost, the brook at the bottom of the ravine grew still.
Somewhere, caught in its current, birds were crying. Yet all was in a
state of watchful calm.
When at length the night set in, the male stealthily and guiltily
approached the female in the nest, cautiously spreading his big,
awkward feet, which were so clumsy on the ground . . . A great and
beautiful passion urged him to the side of his mate.
He perched beside her, smoothing her feathers with his bill, still
with that droll absurd look of guilt. The female responded to his
caresses; she was very soft and tender; but behind this tenderness
could be detected her great strength and power over the male: perhaps
she realized it herself.
In the language of instinct, she said to her mate:
"Yes, you may."
The male succumbed to his passion, and she yielded to him.
It was thus for a week or ten days.
Then at last, when the male came to her one night-time, she said:
She spoke instinctively, for another time had come—the time for the
birth of her children.
The male-bird, abashed, as though conscience-stricken at not having
divined the bidding of his mate earlier, went away from her only to
return at the end of a year.
From Spring-time, all through the Summer until September, the male
and female were absorbed in the great, beautiful, indispensable task
of breeding their young. In September the fledgelings took wing.
The Spring and Summer developed in their multi-coloured glory: they
burned with fiery splendour; the pine-trees glowed with a resinous
phosphorescence. There was the fragrance of wormwood. Chicory, blue-
bells, buttercups, milfoil, and cowslip blossomed and faded; prickly
In May the nights were deeply blue.
In June they were pale green.
The dawn broke in a blood-red flare like a great conflagration, and
at night pale silvery mists moved along the bottom of the ravine,
washing the tops of the pines.
At first the nest contained five grey eggs with green speckles. Then
came the little birds, big-headed, with disproportionately large
yellow mouths, their bodies covered with down. They chirruped
plaintively, stretching their long necks out from the nest, and they
They flew in June, though as yet clumsily, piping, and awkwardly
fluttering their immature wings.
The female was with them all the time, ruffling her feathers,
solicitous and petulant.
The male had no power of thought and hardly any of feeling, but
within him was a sense of pride in his own work, which he carried on
with joy. His whole life was dominated with an instinct which
subjugated his will and his desires to the care of his young.
He hunted for prey.
He had to obtain a great deal, because both his fledglings and his
mate were voracious. He had to fly sometimes as far as the river
Kama, in order to catch seagulls, which hovered over the huge, white,
unfamiliar, many-eyed monsters that floated over the water, puffing,
and smelling strangely like forest fires—the steamers!
He fed his fledgelings himself, tearing the meat into pieces. And he
watched attentively how, with wide open beaks, they seized the little
lumps of meat and, rolling their eyes and almost choking in the
effort, swallowed them.
Sometimes one of the fledgelings awkwardly fell out of the nest and
rolled down the steep. Then he hastily and anxiously flew after it,
bustling and croaking as though he were grumbling; he would take it
cautiously and clumsily in his talons and carry it, a frightened
flustered atom, back to the nest. There he would smooth its feathers
with his great beak for a long time, strutting round it, standing
high on his legs, and continuing his anxious croaks.
He dared not sleep at nights.
He perched on the end of a root, vigilantly peering into the
darkness, guarding his nestlings and their mother from danger. The
stars were above him. At times, as though scenting the fullness and
beauty of life, he fiercely and ruefully uttered his croak—scaring
He lived through the Winter in order to live. Through the Spring and
Summer he lived to breed. He was unable to think. He acted
instinctively, because God had so ordained it. Instinct alone guided
He lived to eat in the Winter so that he should not die. The Winters
were cold and cruel.
In the Spring he bred. Then the blood coursed warmly through his
veins. It was calm; the sun was bright; the stars glittered; and all
the time he longed to stretch himself, to close his eyes, to smite
the air with his wings, and to croak with an unreasoning joy.
The birdlings flew away in the autumn. The old birds and the young
bade adieu for ever with indifference. Rain came, mists swept by, the
sky hung lowering over the earth. The nights were dreary, damp and
dark. The old couple sat together in their nest, trying to cover
themselves and sleep. They froze and tossed about in discomfort.
Their eyes gleamed with greenish-yellow lights.
Thus passed the thirteen years of their life together.
* * * * * * *
Then the male-bird died.
His wing had been injured in youth, at the time he fought for his
mate. As the years rolled on, he found it more and more difficult to
hunt his prey: he had to fly ever farther and farther for it, and in
the nights he could get no rest because of the overwhelming pain that
shot right through the whole of his wing, and tormented him terribly.
Formerly he had not heeded the injury; now he found it grew
exceedingly grave and painful.
He did not sleep, but let his wing hang down as though he were
thrusting it from him. And in the morning he was hardly able to use
it when he flew off after his prey.
His mate forsook him.
She flew away from the nest at dusk one evening in early spring.
He sought for her all through the night—at dawn he found her with
another male, young and strong, who croaked tenderly round her. Then
the old bird felt life was over: he had lost all that made it
beautiful. He flew to fight his younger rival, but his attack was
weak and wavering. The young one rushed at him violently and
passionately, tore his body, and croaked menacingly. The female
watched the fray with indifference, as she had done many years
The old bird was beaten.
Fluttered, blood-stained, with one eye swollen, he flew back to his
nest and painfully perched himself on the end of a root. Something
within him told him his life was at an end. He had lived in order to
eat and to breed. Now he had only to die. Instinct told him that. For
two days he sat perched above the steep, quiet, immovable, his head
sunk deep into his shoulders.
Then, calmly, unperceivingly, he died. He fell down from the steep
and lay with his legs crooked and turned upward.
This was during the night. The stars were brilliant. Birds were
crying in the woods and over the river. Somewhere owls hooted.
The male-bird lay at the bottom of the ravine for five days. His body
was already decaying, and emitted a bitter, offensive odour.
A wolf came and devoured it.