The Seas and Hills by Boris Pilniak
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
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
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
"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
"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
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!…"
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,
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-
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
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.