IN a narrow, darkened room, my father, dressed in a white and unusually long garment, lay on the floor under the window. The toes of his bare feet were curiously extended, and the fingers of the still hands, which rested peacefully upon his breast, were curved; his merry eyes were tightly closed by the black disks of two copper coins; the light had gone out of his still face, and I was frightened by the ugly way he showed his teeth.
My mother, only half clad in a red petticoat, knelt and combed my father’s long, soft hair, from his brow to the nape of his neck, with the same black comb which I loved to use to tear the rind of watermelons; she talked unceasingly in her low, husky voice, and it seemed as if her swollen eyes must be washed away by the incessant flow of tears.
Holding me by the hand was my grandmother, who had a big, round head, large eyes, and a nose like a sponge a dark, tender, wonderfully interesting person. She also was weeping, and her grief formed a fitting accompaniment to my mother’s, as, shuddering the while, she pushed me towards my father; but I, terrified and uneasy, obstinately tried to hide myself against her. I had never seen grown-up people cry before, and I did not understand the words which my grandmother uttered again and again:
“Say good-by to daddy. You will never see him any more. He is dead before his time.”
I had been very ill, had only just left my bed in fact, and I remember perfectly well that at the beginning of my illness my father used to merrily bustle about me. Then he suddenly disappeared and his place was taken by my grandmother, a stranger to me.
“Where did you come from?” I asked her.
“From up there, from Nijni,” she answered; “but I did not walk here, I came by boat. One does not walk on water, you little imp.”
This was ludicrous, incomprehensible, and untrue; upstairs there lived a bearded, gaudy Persian, and in the cellar an old, yellow Kalmuck who sold sheepskins. One could get upstairs by riding on the banisters, or if one fell that way, one could roll. I knew this by experience. But where was there room for water? It was all untrue and delightfully muddled.
“And why am I a little imp?”
“Why? Because you are so noisy,” she said, laughing.
She spoke sweetly, merrily, melodiously, and from the very first day I made friends with her; all I wanted now was for her to make haste and take me out of that room.
My mother pressed me to her; her tears and groans created in me a strange feeling of disquietude. It was the first time I had seen her like this. She had always appeared a stern woman of few words; neat, glossy, and strongly built like a horse, with a body of almost savage strength, and terribly strong arms. But now she was swollen and palpitating, and utterly desolate. Her hair, which was always coiled so neatly about her head, with her large, gaily trimmed cap, was tumbled about her bare shoulders, fell over her face, and part of it which remained plaited, trailed across my father’s sleeping face. Although I had been in the room a long time she had not once looked at me; she could do nothing but dress my father’s hair, sobbing and choking with tears the while.
Presently some swarthy gravediggers and a soldier peeped in at the door.
The latter shouted angrily:
“Clear out now! Hurry up!”
The window was curtained by a dark shawl, which the wind inflated like a sail. I knew this because one day my father had taken me out in a sailing-boat, and without warning there had come a peal of thunder. He laughed, and holding me against his knees, cried, “It is nothing. Don’t be frightened, Luke!”
Suddenly my mother threw herself heavily on the floor, but almost at once turned over on her back, dragging her hair in the dust; her impassive, white face had become livid, and showing her teeth like my father, she said in a terrible voice, “Close the door! . . . Alexis . . . go away!”
Thrusting me on one side, grandmother rushed to the door crying:
“Friends! Don’t be frightened; don’t interfere, but go away, for the love of Christ. This is not cholera but childbirth. . . . I beg of you to go, good people!”
I hid myself in a dark corner behind a box, and thence I saw how my mother writhed upon the floor, panting and gnashing her teeth; and grandmother, kneeling beside her, talked lovingly and hopefully.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son . . .! Be patient, Varusha! Holy Mother of God! . . . Our Defense . . .!”
I was terrified. They crept about on the floor close to my father, touching him, groaning and shrieking, and he remained unmoved and actually smiling. This creeping about on the floor lasted a long time; several times my mother stood up, only to fall down again, and grandmother rolled in and out of the room like a large, black, soft ball. All of a sudden a child cried.
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