The Seas and Hills by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

A rainy night, trenches—not in the forest lands of Lithuania, but at the Vindavo-Rybinsky station in Moscow itself. The train is like a trench; voices are heard from the adjoining carriage.

"Where do you come from?" "Yes, yes, that is so, truly! You remember the ravine there, all rocks, and the lake below; many met their doom there." "Let me introduce you to the Commander of the Third Division." "Give me a light, old fellow! We are back from furlough."

The train is going at nightfall to Rzhov, Velikiya Luki, and Polotsk. Outside on the platform the brethren are lying at ease under benches, drinking tea, and full of contentment. The gas-jets shine dimly in the rain, and behind the spattered panes of glass the women's eyes gleam like lamp-lights. There is a smell of naphthaline.

"Where is the Commandant's carriage?" "No women allowed here! Men only! We're for the front!" And there is a smell of leather, tar, and leggings—a smell of men.

"Yes, yes, you're right! Ha-ha! He is a liar, an egregious liar! No,
I bet you a beauty like that isn't going headlong into an attack!"

There is a sound of laughing and a deep base voice speaking with great assurance. The third bell.

"Where's the Commandant's carriage?" "Well, goodbye!" "Ha-ha-ha-ha! He lies, Madam, I assure you, he lies." "Bah! those new boots they have issued have given me corns; I'll have to send them back."

This conversation proceeded from beneath a bench and from the steps that led to a top-compartment; the men hung up their leggings which, though marked with fresh Government labels, were none the less reeking with perspiration. The lamps moved along the platform and disappeared into the night; the figures of women and stretcher- bearers silently crept along; a sentry began to flirt with one of the former; the rain fell slantingly, arrow-like, in the darkness.

They reached Rzhov at midnight in the train; the men climbed out of the windows for tea; then clambered in again with their rifles; the carriages resounded with the rattling of canteens. It was raining heavily and there was a sound of splashing water. The brethren in the corridors grumbled bitterly as they inspected papers. Under the benches there was conversation, and also garbage.

Then morning with its rose-coloured clouds: the sky had completely cleared; rain-drops fell from the trees; it was bright and fragrant. Velikiya Luki, Lovat; at the station were soldiers, not a single woman.

The train eludes the enemy's reconnaissance. Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers!—rifles, rifles!—canteens:—the brethren! It is no longer Great Russia; around are pine woods, hills, lakes, and the land is everywhere strewn with cobble-stones and pebbles—- whilst at every little station from under fir-trees creep silent, sombre figures, barefooted and wearing sheep-skin coats and caps—in the summer. It is Lithuania.

The enemy's reconnaissance is a diversion: otherwise the day is long and dreary—all routine like a festival; already one knows the detachment, the number of wounded, the engagements with the enemy. Many had alighted from the train at Velikiya Luki, and nobody had got in. We are quiet and idle all day long.

Then towards night we reach Polotsk—the white walls of the monastery are left behind; we come to the Dvina, and the train rumbles over a bridge. Now we journey by night only, without a time-table or lights, and again under a drizzling rain. The train stops without whistling and as silently starts again. Around us all is still, as in October; the country-side is shrouded by night. Men alight at each stop after Polotsk; no one sits down again; and at every stop thirty miles of narrow gauge railway lead to the trenches. What monotony after Moscow! after the hustle and clatter of an endless day! There is the faintest glimmer of dawn, and the eastern sky looks like a huge green bottle.

"Get up—we have arrived!"

Budslav station; the roof is demolished by aeroplane bombs. Soldiers sleep side by side in a little garden on asphalt steps beneath crocuses. A drowsy Jew opens his bookstall on the arrival of the train: he sells books by Chirikov, Von Vizin, and Verbitskaya. And from the distance, with strange distinctness, comes a sound like muffled clapping.

"What is that?" "Must be the heavy artillery." "Where is the
Commandant?" "The Commandant is asleep!…"

A week has passed by in the trenches, and another week has commenced. The bustle of the first few days is over; now all is in order. In a corner of a meadow, a little way from the front, hangs a man's body; the head by degrees has become severed from the trunk. But I do not see very much. We sleep in the day.

It is June, and there is scarcely any night. I know when it is evening by the sound of the firing; it begins from beyond the marshes at seven o'clock. Moment after moment a bullet comes—zip—into my dug-out: scarcely a second passes before there is another zip. The sound of the shot itself is lost amid the general crashing of guns; there is only the zip of the bullet as it strikes the earth or is embedded in the beams overhead. And so on all through the night, moment after moment, until seven in the morning.

There are three of us in the dug-out; two are playing chess, but I am reading—the same thing over and over again, for I am tired to death of lying idle, of sleeping and walking. Poor indeed are men's resources, for in three days we had exhausted all we had to say. Yesterday a soldier who had lost his hand when scouting, came running in to us crying wildly:

"Bayonet me, Towny, Bayonet me!"

Sometimes we come out at night to enjoy the fireworks. They fire on us hoping to unnerve us, and their bullets strike—zip-zip-zip—into our earthworks. We stand and look on as though spell-bound. Guns belch out in the distance, a green light begins to quiver over the whole horizon. Rockets incessantly tear their way, screaming, through the air, amongst them some similar to those we ourselves used to send up over the river Oka. Balls of fire burst in twain, and huge discs emitting a hundred different deadly lights flare above us.

Soon the rockets disappear, and from behind the frost creep three gigantic luminous figures; at first they stretch up into the sky, then, quivering convulsively, they fall down upon us, upon the trenches upon our right and left. In their lurid light our uniforms show white. Over the graves in the Lithuanian forests stand enormous crosses—as enormous as those in Gogol's "Dreadful Vengance" and now, on the hill behind us, we discern two of them, one partly shattered and overhanging the other—a bodeful grim reminder!

Always soldiers, soldiers, soldiers. Not a single old man, not a single woman, not a single child. For three weeks now I have not seen a glimpse of a woman. That is what I want to speak of—the meaning of woman.

We were dining at a spot behind the lines, and from the other side of the screen a woman laughed: I never heard sweeter music. I can find no other words "sweeter music." This sister had come up from the hospital; her dress, her veil—what a joy! She had made some remark to the Commanding Officer: I have never heard more beautiful poetry than those words. All that is best, most noble, most virginal—all that is within me, all that life has bestowed is woman, woman! That is what I wish to explain.

I visited the staff cinema in the evening. I took a seat in a box. When the lights were switched off, I wrote in blue pencil on the railing in front of me:

"I am a blonde with blue eyes. Who are you? Come, I am waiting."

I had done a cruel thing!

Directly I had written those words, I felt ashamed. I could not stay in the cinema. I wandered about between the benches, went out into the little village, walked round its chapels—every window of which was smashed; and gathered a bunch of forget-me-nots from a ditch by the cemetery. On returning to the crowded cinema I noticed that the box in which I had been sitting was empty; presently an officer entered it; sat down leisurely to enjoy the pictures; read what I had written; and all at once became a different man. I had injected a deadly poison, he left the box. I walked out after him. He went straight in the direction of the chapel. Ah, I had done a cruel thing!

I had written of a blonde with blue eyes; and I went out, saw her, and awaited her—I who had written the message. It seemed as though hundreds of instruments were making music within me, yet my heart was sad and weighed down with oppresion—it felt crushed. More than anything, more than anything in the whole world, I loved and awaited a blonde who did not exist, to whom I would have surrendered all that was most beautiful within me.

I could not stay in the cinema, but crawled through the trenches. On the hill towered the two huge crosses; sitting down beneath their shadow, I clenched my hands, and murmured:

"Darling, darling, darling! Beloved and tender one! I am waiting."

Far in the distance, the green rockets soared skyward, the same as those we used to send up over the river Oka. Then the gargantuan fingers of a searchlight began to sweep the area, my uniform appeared white in its gleam, and all at once a shell fell by the crosses. I had been observed, I had become a target.

The bullets fell zip-zip-zip into the earthworks. I lay in my bunk and buried my head in the pillow. I felt horribly alone as I lay there, murmuring to myself, and breathing all the tenderness I was capable of into my words:

"Darling, darling, darling!…"

III

Love!

Can one credit the romanticists that—across the seas and hills and years—there is so strange a thing as a single-hearted love, an all- conquering, all-subduing, all-renovating love?

In the train at Budslav—where the staff-officers were billeted—it was known that Lieutenant Agrenev had such a single, overmastering, life-long love.

A wife—the woman, the maiden who loves only once—to whom love is the most beautiful and only thing in life, will do heroic deeds to get past all the Army ordinances, the enemy's reconnaissance, and reach her beloved. To her there is but one huge heart in the world and nothing more.

Lieutenant Agrenev's quarters were in a distant carriage, Number 30- 35.

The Staff Officers' train stood under cover. No one was allowed to strike a light there. In the evening, after curtaining the windows with blankets, the officers gathered together in the carriage of the General Commanding the XXth Corps, to play cards and drink cognac. Someone cynically remarked that there was a close resemblance between life at the front and life in a monastery, in as much as in both the chief topic of conversation was women: there was no reason, therefore, why monks should not be sent to the front for fasting and prayer.

While they were playing cards, the guard, Pan Ponyatsky, came in and spoke to the cavalry-captain Kremnev. He told him of a woman, young and very beautiful. The captain's knees began to tremble; he sat helplessly on the step of the carriage, and fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. Pan Ponyatsky warned him that he must not strike a light. In the distance could be heard the roar of cannon, like an approaching midnight storm. Kremnev had never felt such a throbbing joy as he felt now, sitting on the carriage step. Pan Ponyatsky repeated that she was a beauty, and waiting—that the captain must not delay; and led him through the dark corridor of the train.

The carriage smelt of men and leather; behind the doors of the compartments echoed a sound of laughter from those who were playing cards. The two men walked half the length of the train.

As they passed from one waggon to another they saw the flare of a rocket in the distance, and in its baleful green light the number of carriage—30-35—loomed in faint outline.

Pan Ponyatsky unlocked the door and whispered:

"Here. Only mind, be quiet."

The Pan closed the door after Kremnev. It was an officer's compartment; there was a smell of perfume, and on one of the lower bunks was a woman—sleeping. Kremnev threw off his cloak and sat down by the sleeping figure.

The door opened; Pan Ponyatsky thrust in his head and whispered:

"Don't worry about her, sir; she is all right, only a little quieter now." Then the head disappeared.

Love! Love over the seas and hills and years!

It had become known that a woman was to visit Agrenev, and forthwith he was ordered away for twenty-four hours on Detachment. Who then would ever know what guard had opened the door, what officer had wrought the deed? Would a woman dare scream, having come where she had no right to be? Or would she dare tell … to a husband or a lover? No, not to a husband, nor a lover, nor to anyone! And Pan Ponyatsky? Why should he not earn an odd fifty roubles? Who was he to know of love across the seas and hills?

Yesterday, the day before, and again to-day, continuous fighting and retreating. The staff-train moved off, but the officers went on foot. A wide array of men, wagons, horses, cannon, ordinance. All in a vast confusion. None could hear the rattling fire of the machine-guns and rifles. All was lost in a torrential downpour of rain. Towards evening there was a halt. All were eager to rest. No one noticed the approaching dawn. Then a Russian battery commenced to thunder. They were ordered to counter-attack. They trudged back through the rain, no one knew why—Agrenev, Kremnev, the brethren—three women.