Over the Ravine by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY
I

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 juniper.

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 looking eyes.

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 his mate.

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.

II

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 awakened.

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 abashed.

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 morn.

The female was submissive.

III

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 morning.

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 of snow.

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 all resistance.

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.

IV

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:

"Oo-oo…"

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.

V

It was thus for a week or ten days.

Then at last, when the male came to her one night-time, she said:

"No! Enough!"

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.

VI

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 thistles abounded.

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 ate voraciously.

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 the night.

VII

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 him.

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.

* * * * * * * X

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 before.

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.