The Crossways by Boris Pilniak
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
Forest, thickets, marshes, fields, a tranquil sky—and the crossways!
The sky is overcast at times with dove-coloured clouds; the forest
now gabbles, now groans in the glittering summer sunshine.
The crossways creep and crawl like a winding thread, without
beginning and without end. Sometimes their stretch tires and vexes—
one wants to go by a shorter route and turns aside, goes astray,
comes back to the former way. Two wheel-tracks, ripple grass, a foot-
path and around them, besides sky or rye or snow or trees, are the
crossways, without beginning or end or limit. And over them pass the
peasants singing their low toned songs. At times these are sorrowful,
as endless as the crossways themselves: Russia was borne in these
songs, born with them, from them.
Our ways lie through the crossways as they ever have done, and ever
will. All Russia is in the crossways—amid the fields, thickets
marshes, and forests.
But there were also those Others who wanted to march over the bog-
ways, who planned to throw Russia on to her haunches, to press on
through the marshlands, make main-roads straight as rules, and
barricade themselves behind granite and steel, forgetful of Russia's
peasant cottages. And on they marched!
Sometimes the main-road is joined by the crossways, and from them to
the main-road and over it passes the long vaunted Rising, the
people's tumult, to sweep away the Unnecessary, then vanish back
again into the crossways.
Near the main-road lies the railway. By turning aside from it,
walking through a field, fording a river, penetrating first through a
dark aspen grove, then through a red pine belt, skirting some
ravines, threading a way across a village, trudging wearily through
dried-up river-beds and on through a marsh, the village of Pochinki
is reached, surrounded by forest.
In the village were three cottages, their backs to the forest; their
rugged noses seemed to scowl from beneath the pine-trees, and their
dim, tear-dribbling window-eyes looked wolfish. Their grey timbers
lay on them like wrinkles, their reddish-yellow thatch, like bobbed
hair, hung to the ground. Behind them was the forest; in front,
pasture, thickets, forest again, and sky. The neighbouring crossways
coiled round them in a ring, then narrowed away into the forest.
In all three cottages dwelt Kononovs: they were not kinsfolk, though
they bore that name, closer linked through their common life than
kinsmen ever were. Kononov-Yonov, the One-Eyed, was the village
elder: he no longer remembered his grandfather's name, but knew the
olden times well, and remembered how his great-grandfathers and his
great-great-grandfathers had lived and how it was good for men to
From the oldest to the youngest they toiled with all their strength
from spring to autumn, from autumn to spring, and from sunrise to
sundown, growing grey like their hen-coops from smoke, scorching in
the heat and steaming sweat like boiling tar.
The kinsfolk of Yonov the One-eyed made tar besides tilling the land,
while Yonov himself kept bee-hives in the forest. The sisters Yonov
barked lime-trees and made bast shoes. It was a hard, stern life,
with its smoke, heat, frosts, and languour; but they loved it
The Kononovs lived alone in friendship with the woods, the fields,
and the sky; yet ever engaged in stubborn struggle against them. They
had to remember the rise and set of the sun, the nights and the dung-
mounds. They had to look into putrid corners, watch for cold blasts
from the north, and give ear to the rumbling and gabbling of the
With January, mid-winter time,
Starts the year its frosty prime,
Blows wild the wind e'er yet'tis still,
Crackles the ice in the frozen rill;
Epiphany betimes is past,
Approaches now the Lenten Fast.
In February there's a breath of heat,
Summer and winter at Candlemas meet.
In April the year grows moist and warm the air,
The old folks' lives without their doors bids fair;
The woodcock then comes flying from the sea,
Brings back the Spring from its captivity.
Under a showery sky,
Bloom wide the fields of rye,
Ever blue and chill
May will the granaries fill.
It was necessary to work stubbornly, sternly, in harmony with the
earth, to fight hand-to-hand with the forest, the axe, the plough and
the scythe. They had learnt to keep their eyes wide open, for each
had to hold his own against the wood-spirit, the rumbling forest,
famine, and the marshes. They had learnt to know their Mother-Earth
by the birds, sky, wind, and stars, like those men of whom Yonov the
One-Eyed told them—those who of old wended their way to Chuvsh
tribes and the Murman Forest.
All the Kononovs were built alike, strong, rugged, with short legs
and broad, heavy feet like juniper-roots, long backs, arms that hung
down to their knees, shoulder-blades protruding as though made for
harness, mossy green eyes that gazed with a slow stubborn look, and
noses like earthen whistles.
They lived with the rye, horses, cows, the sheep, the woods, and the
grass. They knew that as the rye dropped seeds to the ground and
reproduced in abundance so also bred beast and bird, counteracting
death with birth. They knew too that to breed was also man's lot.
Ulyanka reached her seventeenth year, Ivan his eighteenth: they bowed
to the winds and went to the altar.
Ivan Kononov did not think of death when he went to the war, for what
was death when through it came birth? Were there not heat-waves and
drought in summer? Did not the winter sweep the earth by blizzards?
Yet in spring all began to pulsate again with life.
The War came: Ivan Kononov went without understanding, without
reason—what concern was it of Pochinki? He was dragged through
towns, he pined in spittle-stained barracks; and then he was sent to
the Carpathians. He fired. He fought hand-to-hand: he fled; he
retreated forty versts a day, resting in the woods singing his
peasant-songs with the soldiers—and yearning for Pochinki. He found
all spoke like Grandfather Yonov the One-Eyed; he learnt of the land
in the olden time order, of the people's Rising. At its approach he
went on furlough to Pochinki, met it there, and there remained.
The Rising came like happy tidings, like the cool breath of dawn,
like a May-time shower:
Under a showery sky
Bloom wide the fields of rye,
Ever blue and chill
May will the granaries fill.
Formerly there were the village constable, the district clerk,
trumperies, requisitions, and taxations; for then it was the gentry
who were the guardians. But now, Yonov the One-Eyed croaked
"Now it's ourselves! We ourselves! In our own way! In our own world!
The land is ours! We are the masters: it is the Rising! Our Rising!"
There were no storms that winter; it was cold and dark, and the wolf-
packs were astir. One after another the inhabitants were stricken
down with typhoid—it was with typhoid that they paid for the Rising!
Half the village succumbed and was borne on the peasants' sleighs to
By Candlemas, when winter and summer meet, all the provisions were
exhausted, and the villagers drove to the station. But even that had
changed. New people congregated there, some shouting, others hurrying
to and fro with sacks. The villagers returned with nothing and sat
down to their potatoes.
In the spring prayers were offered up for the dead and a religious
procession paraded round the village, the outskirts of which were
bestrewn with ashes. Then the villagers started to take tar and bast
shoes to the station; they wanted to sell them, and with the proceeds
buy ploughshares, harrows, scythes, sickles, and leather straps. But
they never reached the station.
Their way led them through fields all lilac-coloured in the glowing
sun: there they encountered an honest peasant dressed in a short fur
jacket and a cap beneath which his look was calm and grave.
He told them there was nothing at the station, that the townsfolk
themselves were running like mice; and he urged them to go to
Poriechie, to give Silvester the blacksmith some tar for his
ploughshares, and, if he had none, to make them some of his own hand-
ploughshares; then to go and sow flax. The towns were dying out. The
towns were no more! It was the people's Rising, and they had to live
as in the olden days: there were no towns then, and there was no need
They turned back. To Poriechie for tar…. Silvester made them a
hand-plough…. Grandfather Yonov the One Eyed stalked round the
fields exhorting to sow: "We have to live by ourselves! Now we
ourselves are the Masters! Ourselves alone! It is the Rising!"
They worked from dawn till sunset with all their strength, fastening
their belts tight round their bodies to stifle the pangs of hunger.
The summer passed in heat-waves, thunder and lightning. The forest
gabbled in the storms at night. Towards autumn it began to rustle,
leafless, beneath the showers of rain. The rye, oats, millet, and
buckwheat were carried into the corn-kilns and barns, and the fields
lay stripped and bare.
The corn had been harvested; there was enough and to spare till the
fallow crop was reaped. The air in the peasants' cottages was
bedimmed by the smoke from the stoves; Grandfather Yonov the One-Eyed
climbed on to his, to tell his grandchildren fairytales and to rest.
The nights grew dark and damp, the forest began to rumble, and wolves
approached from the marshlands. A new couple had grown up, bowed to
the winds and wedded; half the village had perished the previous
winter, and it was necessary to breed. The people lived in their
cabins together with the calves, the sheep, and the swine. They used
splinters for lights, striking the light from flint.
Often at night starving people from the towns brought money, clothes,
foot-ware, bundles of odds-and ends—in short anything they could
steal from the towns and exchange for flour. They rapped on the
windows like thieves.
The Kononov women sat at their looms while the men went a-preying in
the forest. And so they toiled on stubbornly, sternly, alone,
fighting hand-to-hand with the night, with the forest and with the
frost. The crossways to the forests became choked, and they made new
ways to the marshlands, to the Seven Brothers, to the wastelands.
Life was hard and stern. The peasants looked out upon the world from
beneath their brows, as their cottages from beneath the pines; and
they lived gladsomely, as they should.
They knew it was the Rising. And in the Rising there could be no
Forests, thickets, fields, a tranquil sky—and crossways!…
Sometimes the crossways joined the main-road that ran alongside the
railway. Both led to the towns where dwelt Those Others who had
yearned to march over the crossways, who had made the main-roads
straight as rules. And to the towns the elemental Rising of the
Crossways brought death.
There, lamenting the past, in terror before the people's Rising, all
were employed in offices filling up papers. All for safety held
official positions, all to a man busying themselves over papers,
documents, cards, placards, and speeches until they were lost in a
whirlwind of words.
The food of the towns was exhausted; the lights had gone out; there
was neither fuel nor water. Dogs, cats, mice, all had disappeared—
even the nettles on the outskirts had been plucked by famished
urchins as vegetable for soup. Into the cookhouses, whence cutlery
had vanished, crowded old men in bowlers and bonneted old women,
whose bony fingers clutched convulsively at plates of leavings.
Everywhere there were groups of miscreants selling mouldy bread at
exorbitant prices. The dead in their thousands, over whom there was
no time to carry out funeral rites, were borne away to the churches.
Famine, disease, and death swept the towns. The inhabitants grew
savage in their craving for bread. They starved. They sat without
light. They froze. They pulled down the hedges and wooden buildings
to warm their dying hearths and their offices. The red-blood life
deserted the towns; indeed it had never really existed in them; and
there came a white-paper life that was death. When death means life
there is no death, but the towns were still-born.
There were harrowing scenes in the spring, when, like incense at
funeral-rites, the smoky wood-piles smouldered on the pillaged,
ransacked, and bespattered streets with their broken windows,
boarded-up doors, and defaced walls, consuming carrion and enveloping
the town in a stinking and stifling vapour.
Men with soft-skinned hands still frequented restaurants, still wooed
lascivious women, still sought to pillage the towns; they even
plundered the very corpses, hoping to carry loot into the country, to
barter it for the bread that had been gained by horny-handed labour.
Thus might they postpone their deaths another month, thus might they
still fill up papers, still go on wooing (legally) carnal women and
await their heart's desire, the return of the decadent past. They
were afraid to recognise that only one thing was left them, to rot in
death—to die—that even the past they longed for was a way to death
… Forests, thickets, fields, a tranquil sky….
Many dwelt in the towns—amongst them a certain man, no different
from the rest. He had no bread, and he too went into the country to
bargain for flour in exchange for his gramophone. Producing all the
necessary papers, permits, and licences, he proceeded to the railway,
which was dying because it too was of the towns.
At the station there were thousands of others with permits to travel
for bread, and because of those thousands only those without permits
succeeded in boarding the train. This particular man fastened himself
on the lower step of a carriage, under sacks that hung from the roof,
travelling thus for some forty miles. Then he and his gramophone were
thrown off, and for the first time in his life he tramped thirty
miles on foot under the weight of a gramophone.
At the next station he climbed on to the roof of a carriage and
travelled a hundred miles further. Then he was thrown off again, But
there the main-road passed the railway; by turning aside from it,
walking through a field, fording a river, making a way through the
woods, skirting the ravines, trudging through river beds, and
traversing the marshes he reached the village of Pochinki.
He arrived there with his gramophone at sundown. The red light of the
sun was reflected on the windows, the women-folk were milking the
cows: it was already autumn and the daylight faded rapidly. The man
with the gramophone tapped at the window and Kononov Ivan lifted the
"Look, comrade, I've a gramophone here, to exchange for flour … a
gramophone, a musical instrument, and records…."
Throwing back his shoulders, Kononov-Ivan stood by the window—then
stooped, looked askance at the sunset, at the fields, at the musical
instrument. He reflected a moment, then muttered absently:
"Aint wanted…. Go to Poriechie…." and the shutter dropped.
A sombre sky in autumnal lights—and the crossways…. Two wheel-
tracks, ripple-grass, a foot-path. Sometimes the wanderer tired, that
path seemed interminable, without beginning or ending. He turned
aside, went astray, returned on his tracks—evermore to the thickets,