The Crossways by Boris Pilniak



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 live.

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 profoundly.

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 forest.

They knew:

  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 exultantly:

"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 the churchyard.

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 for them.

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 falling back.

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 for them.

… 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 shutter.

"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, forests, marshes….