The Wolf's Ravien by Boris Pilniak



In childhood, as a small lad, Alexander Alexandrovitch Agrenev had heard from listening to his mother's conversation how—lo and behold! one morning at 9 o'clock Nina Kallistratovna Zamotkina had proceeded with her daughter to Doctor Chasovnikov's flat, in order to deliver a slap in the face to his wife for having broken up the family hearth by a liaison with Paul Alexander Zamotkin, Nina Kallistratovna's husband.

The child Agrenev had vividly pictured to himself how Nina Kallistratovna had walked, holding her daughter with one hand, an attaché-case in the other: of course her bearing must have been singular, as she was going to the flat to administer a slap in the face; no doubt she had walked either in a squatting or a bandy-legged fashion. The family hearth must have been something extremely valuable, as she was going to deliver a slap in the face on its account—perhaps it was some kind of stove.

It was highly interesting—in the child's imagination—to picture Nina Kallistratovna entering the flat, swinging back her arm, and delivering the slap: her gait, her arms, the flat—all had a sudden hidden and exceedingly curious meaning for the child.

This had remained out of his childhood memories of the little town and province, where all had seemed unusual as childhood itself.

Now in the Wolf's Ravine Agrenev recalled this incident, and he brooded bitterly over the certainty that no one would ever deliver a slap in the face on his account! What vulgarity—slaps in the face!… and a slap in the face was no solution.

It was now autumn, and as he stood in the ravine waiting for Olya, the cranes flew low over his head, stretching themselves out like arrows and crying discordantly. A wintry sulphurous light overspread the eastern sky, and the blue crest of the Vega shone out above him tremendous and triumphant, sweeping up into the very heart of the flaming sunset.

On a sudden, Olya arrived, her figure darkly silhouetted an instant— a tiny insignificant atom—against the vastness of the hill and sky as she stood poised on the brink of the ravine; then she clambered down its precipitous side to Agrenev.

Alexander Alexandrovitch Agrenev, mining engineer and married man, and Olya Andreevna Golovkina!

* * * * * * *

She was a school teacher, who, after passing through the eight classes of her college, now resided with her aunt. She was always known as Olya Golovkina, although she bore the ancient Russian surname made famous in the time of Peter the Great by Senator Golovkin. But even in the time of Peter the Great this name had sunk into the gutter and had left in this town a street Golovkinskaya, and in that same Golovkinskaya Street a house, by the letting of which Olya's aunt made her living.

Agrenev knew that the aunt—whose name he had never heard—was an old maid, and that she had one joy—Olya. He knew she sat at her window without a lamp throughout the evenings, waiting for Olya; and that for this reason her niece, on leaving him, went round by the back- way, in order to obviate suspicion.

Nothing was ever said of the aunt in a personal way; the name was uttered only indirectly, as though applying to a substance and not to a human being.

Olya was a very charming girl, of whom it was difficult to say anything definite: such a pretty provincial maid, like a slender willow-reed.

The town lay over hillocks and fields and the ancient quarries, all its energies flowing out from the factory at the further end—and a casual conversation which occured in the spring at the beginning of Agrenev's acquaintance with Olya was characteristic alike of the town and of her. Agrenev had said apropos of something:

"Balmont, Blok, Brusov, Sologub…"

She interrupted him hastily—a slender little reed: "As a whole I know little of foreign writers …"

In the town—neither in the high-school, the library, nor the newspapers—did they know of Balmont or Blok, but Olya loved to declaim by rote from Kozlov, and she spoke French.

The factory lived its dark, noisy, unwholesome life sunk in poverty beneath the surface, steeped in luxury above; the little town lived amid the fields, scared and pressed down by the factory, but still carrying on its own individual life.

Beyond it, on the side away from the factory, lay the pass called the Wolf's Ravine. On the right, close to the river, was a grove where couples walked. They never descended to the ravine, because it was so unpoetic, a treeless, shallow, dull, unterrifying spot. Yet it skirted the hills, dominated the surrounding country; and people lying flat in the channel at its summit could survey the locality for a mile round without being seen themselves.

Alexander Alexandrovitch was a married man. The shepherd lads tending their herds at pasture began to notice how every evening a man on a bicycle turned off the main road into the ravine, and how—soon after—a girl hurried past them following in his steps, like a reed blown in the wind. As befitted their kind, the shepherds cried out every abomination after her.

All the summer Olya had begged Agrenev to bring her books to read; she did not notice, however, that he had never once brought her any!

Then one evening, early in September, after a spell of rain which had prevented their meeting for some days, there happened that which was bound to happen—which happens to a maiden only once in her life. They used always to meet at eight, but eight in September was not like eight in June. The rain was over, but a chill, desolating, autumnal wind remained. The sky was laden with heavy, leaden clouds; it was cold and wretched. That evening the cranes flew southward, gabbling in the sky. The grass in the ravine was yellow and withered. There was sunshine there in the daytime, and Olya wore a white dress. It was there the two of them, Agrenev and Olya, usually bade each other adieu.

But on that evening, Agrenev accompanied Olya to her home, and both were absorbed by the same thought—the aunt! Was she sitting by the window without a lamp waiting for her niece, or had she already lighted it in order to prepare the supper? Olya hoped desperately that her aunt would be in her usual place and the lamp unlit, so that she could slip by into her room unseen and secretly change her clothes.

Not only did Olya and Alexander Alexandrovitch walk arm-in-arm but they pressed close together, their heads bent the one to the other— whispering … only of the aunt. Olya could not think of the pain or the joy or the suffering—she was only thinking how she could pass her aunt unnoticed; Agrenev felt cold and sickened at the thought of a possible scandal.

They discovered there was a light at the aunt's window, and Olya began to tremble like a reed, whispering hoarsely—almost crying:

"I won't go in! I won't go in!"

But all the same she did—a willow-reed blown in the wind. Agrenev arranged to meet her the next day in the factory office, so that he might hear whether the aunt had created a scene or not, although he did not admit that reason, even to himself.

In the ravine when Olya—after yielding all—wept and clung to his knees, Agrenev's heart had been pierced with pangs of remorse. In the pitchblack darkness overhead the wild-geese could be heard rustling their wings as they flew southward, scared by his cigarette—the tenth in succession.

"Southward, geese, southward!… But you shall go nowhere, slave, useless among the useless!" Then he remembered that slap in the face Nina Kallistratovna had given for her husband—nobody would give Olya Golovkina one for him! "Olya is a useless accidental burden," he thought.

Then Agrenev dismissed her from his mind; and, as he bicycled from Golovkinskaya Street through the whole length of the town, past the factory to the engineers' quarters—there was no need to hide now it was dark—he thought only of Olya's aunt: of how she was an old maid with nothing else in her life but her niece, and that Olya was hiding her tragedy from her; of how she spent the entire evenings sitting alone by the window in the dark—assuredly not on Olya's account, but because she was dying; all her life she had been dying, as the town was dying where Kozlov was read; as he, Agrenev, was dying; as the maidenhood of Olya had died. How powerful is the onward rush of life! What tragedy lay in those evenings by the window in the darkness!

Every morning the housemaid used to bring Alexander Alexandrovitch in his study a cup of lukewarm coffee on a tray. Then he went out to the factory—the rest of the household was still asleep. There he came into contact with the workmen, and saw their hopeless, wretched, impoverished lives; listened to Bitska's jests, and to the rumbling of the wagonettes—identified himself with the life of the factory, which dominated all like some fabulous brooding monster.

During the luncheon interval he went home, washed himself, and listened to his wife rattling spoons on the other side of the wall. And this made up the entire substance of his life! Yes, it was certainly interesting how Nina Kallistratovna had entered that flat, swung back her hand—which hand had it been?—was it the one in which she held the attaché-case or was that transferred to the other hand first?—and delivered the smack to Madame Chasovnikova. Then there was Olya, darling Olya Golovkina, from whom—as from them all—he desired nothing.

That night, when he reached home at last, his daughter came in and made him a curtsey, saying:

"Goodnight, daddy."

Alexander Alexandrovitch caught her in his arms, placed her on his knees—his beloved, his only little daughter.

"Well, little Asya, what have you been doing?" he asked.

"When you went out to Olya Golovkina Mummy and I played tig."

The next morning, when Olya came into the office for business as usual, she exclaimed joyfully:

"My aunt has not found out anything. She opened the door for me without lighting the lamp, and as she groped through the passage I ran quickly past her. Then I changed my clothes and appeared at supper as though nothing had happened!"

A willow-reed blown by the wind!

In the office were many telephone calls and the rattling of counting- boards. Agrenev and Olya sat together and arranged when to meet again. She did not want to go to the Ravine because of the shepherd boys' rude remarks. Alexander Alexandrovitch did not tell her all was known at home. As she said goodby she clung to him like a reed in the wind and whispered:

"I have been awake all night. You have noticed surely that I have not called you by any name; I have no name for you."

And she begged him not to forget to bring her some books.

All that was known of the town was that it lay at the intersection of such and such a latitude and longitude. But articles on the factory were printed each year in the industrial magazines, and also occasionally in the newspapers, as when the workmen struck or were buried under a fall of limestone. The factory was run by a limited company. Alexander Alexandrovitch Agrenev made out the returns for his department; these were duly printed—not to be read, but so that beneath them might appear the signature: "A. A. Agrenev, Engineer." Olya only kept a report-book and the name-rolls, placing in her reports so many marks opposite the pupil's names.