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The Birth of a Man

From Through Russia (1922)

Translated by C. J. Hogarth



The year was the year '92-- the year of leanness--the scene a
spot between Sukhum and Otchenchiri, on the river Kodor, a spot
so near to the sea that amid the joyous babble of a sparkling
rivulet the ocean's deep-voiced thunder was plainly
distinguishable.

Also, the season being autumn, leaves of wild laurel were
glistening and gyrating on the white foam of the Kodor like a
quantity of mercurial salmon fry. And as I sat on some rocks
overlooking the river there occurred to me the thought that, as
likely as not, the cause of the gulls' and cormorants' fretful
cries where the surf lay moaning behind a belt of trees to the
right was that, like myself, they kept mistaking the leaves for
fish, and as often finding themselves disappointed.

Over my head hung chestnut trees decked with gold; at my feet
lay a mass of chestnut leaves which resembled the amputated
palms of human hands; on the opposite bank, where there waved,
tanglewise, the stripped branches of a hornbeam, an
orange-tinted woodpecker was darting to and fro, as though
caught in the mesh of foliage, and, in company with a troupe of
nimble titmice and blue tree-creepers (visitors from the
far-distant North), tapping the bark of the stem with a black
beak, and hunting for insects.

To the left, the tops of the mountains hung fringed with dense,
fleecy clouds of the kind which presages rain; and these clouds
were sending their shadows gliding over slopes green and
overgrown with boxwood and that peculiar species of hollow
beech-stump which once came near to effecting the downfall of
Pompey's host, through depriving his iron-built legions of the
use of their legs as they revelled in the intoxicating sweetness
of the " mead " or honey which wild bees make from the blossoms
of the laurel and the azalea, and travellers still
gather from those hollow stems to knead into lavashi or thin
cakes of millet flour.

On the present occasion I too (after suffering sundry stings
from infuriated bees) was thus engaged as I sat on the rocks
beneath the chestnuts. Dipping morsels of bread into a potful of
honey, I was munching them for breakfast, and enjoying, at the
same time, the indolent beams of the moribund autumn sun.

In the fall of the year the Caucasus resembles a gorgeous
cathedral built by great craftsmen (always great craftsmen are
great sinners) to conceal their past from the prying eyes of
conscience. Which cathedral is a sort of intangible edifice of
gold and turquoise and emerald, and has thrown over its hills
rare carpets silk-embroidered by Turcoman weavers of Shemi and
Samarkand, and contains, heaped everywhere, plunder brought from
all the quarters of the world for the delectation of the sun.
Yes, it is as though men sought to say to the Sun God: " All
things here are thine. They have been brought hither for thee by
thy people."

Yes, mentally I see long-bearded, grey-headed supermen, beings
possessed of the rounded eyes of happy children, descending from
the hills, and decking the earth, and sowing it with sheerly
kaleidoscopic treasures, and coating the tops of the mountains
with massive layers of silver, and the lower edges with a living
web of trees. Yes, I see those beings decorating and fashioning
the scene until, thanks to their labours, this gracious morsel
of the earth has become fair beyond all conception.

And what a privilege it is to be human! How much that is
wonderful leaps to the eye-how the presence of beauty causes.
the heart to throb with a voluptuous rapture that is almost pain!

And though there are occasions when life seems hard, and the
breast feels filled with fiery rancour, and melancholy dries and
renders athirst the heart's blood, this is not a mood sent us in
perpetuity. For at times even the sun may feel sad as he
contemplates men, and sees that, despite all that he has done
for them, they have done so little in return. . . .

No, it is not that good folk are lacking. It is that they need
to be rounded off--better still, to be made anew.

**********************

Suddenly there came into view over the bushes to my left a file
of dark heads, while through the surging of the waves and the
babble of the stream I caught the sound of human voices, a sound
emanating from a party of " famine people " or folk who were
journeying from Sukhum to Otchenchiri to obtain work on a local
road then in process of construction.

The owners of the voices I knew to be immigrants from the
province of Orlov. I knew them to be so for the reason that I
myself had lately been working in company with the male members
of the party, and had taken leave of them only yesterday in
order that I might set out earlier than they, and, after walking
through the night, greet the sun when he should arise above the
sea.

The members of the party comprised four men and a woman--the
latter a young female with high cheek-bones, a figure swollen
with manifest pregnancy, and a pair of greyish-blue eyes that
had fixed in them a stare of apprehension. At the present moment
her head and yellow scarf were just showing over the tops of the
bushes; and while I noted that now it was swaying from side to
side like a sunflower shaken by the wind, I recalled the fact
that she was a woman whose husband had been carried off at
Sukhum by a surfeit of fruit--this fact being known to me through
the circumstance that in the workmen's barraque where we had
shared quarters these folk had observed the good old Russian
custom of confiding to a stranger the whole of their troubles,
and had done so in tones of such amplitude and penetration that
the querulous words must have been audible for five versts
around.

And as I had talked to these forlorn people, these human beings
who lay crushed beneath the misfortune which had uprooted them
from their barren and exhausted lands, and blown them, like
autumn leaves, towards the Caucasus where nature's luxuriant,
but unfamiliar, aspect had blinded and bewildered them, and with
its onerous conditions of labour quenched their last spark of
courage; as I had talked to these poor people I had seen them
glancing about with dull, troubled, despondent eyes, and
heard them say to one another softly, and with pitiful smiles:

"What a country!"

"Aye,-- that it is !--a country to make one sweat!"

"As hard as a stone it is!"

"Aye, an evil country! "

After which they had gone on to speak of their native haunts,
where every handful of soil had represented to them the dust of
their ancestors, and every grain of that soil had been watered
with the sweat of their brows, and become charged with dear and
intimate recollections.

Previously there had joined the party a woman who, tall and
straight, had had breasts as flat as a board, and jawbones like
the jawbones of a horse, and a glance in her dull, sidelong
black eyes like a gleaming, smouldering fire.

And every evening this woman had been wont to step outside the
barraque with the woman in the yellow scarf and to seat herself
on a rubbish heap, and, resting her cheeks on the palms of her
hands, and inclining her head sideways, to sing in a high and
shrewish voice:

Behind the graveyard wall,
Where fair green bushes stand.
I'll spread me on the sand
A shroud as white as snow.
And not long will it be
Before my heart's adored,
My master and my lord,
Shall answer my curtsey low.

Usually her companion, the woman in the yellow scarf, had, with
head bent forward and eyes fixed upon her stomach, remained
silent; but on rare, unexpected occasions she had, in the
hoarse, sluggish voice of a peasant, sung a song with the
sobbing refrain:

Ah, my beloved, sweetheart of mine,
Never again will these eyes seek thine!

Nor amid the stifling blackness of the southern night had these
voices ever failed to bring back to my memory the snowy wastes
of the North, and the icy, wailing storm-wind, and the distant
howling of unseen wolves.

In time, the squint-eyed woman had been taken ill of a fever, and
removed to the town in a tilted ambulance; and as she had lain
quivering and moaning on the stretcher she had seemed still to
be singing her little ditty about the graveyard and the sand.

The head with the yellow scarf rose, dipped, and disappeared.

After I had finished my breakfast I thatched the honey-pot with
some leaves, fastened down the lid, and indolently resumed my
way in the wake of the party, my blackthorn staff tiptapping
against the hard tread of the track as I proceeded.

The track loomed-- a grey, narrow strip-- before me, while
on my right the restless, dark blue sea had the air of being
ceaselessly planed by thousands of invisible carpenters; so
regularly did the stress of a wind as moist and sweet and warm
as the breath of a healthy woman cause ever-rustling curls of
foam to drift towards the beach. Also, careening on to its port
quarter under a full set of bellying sails, a Turkish felucca was
gliding towards Sukhum; and, as it held on its course, it put me
in mind of a certain pompous engineer of the town who had
been wont to inflate his fat cheeks and say: " Be quiet, you,
or I will have you locked up! " This man had, for some reason
or another, an extraordinary weakness for causing arrests to
be made; and, exceedingly do I rejoice to think that by now the
worms of the graveyard must have consumed him down to the
very marrow of his bones. Would that certain other acquaintances
of mine were similarly receiving beneficent attention!

Walking proved an easy enough task, for I seemed to be borne on
air, while a chorus of pleasant thoughts, of many-coloured
recollections, kept singing gently in my breast--a chorus
resembling, indeed, the white-maned billows in the regularity
with which now it rose, and now it fell, to reveal in, as it
were, soft, peaceful depths the bright, supple hopes of youth,
like so many silver fish cradled in the bosom of the ocean.

Suddenly, as it trended seawards, the road executed a half-turn,
and skirted a strip of the sandy margin to which the waves kept
rolling in such haste. And in that spot even the bushes seemed
to have a mind to look the waves in the eyes--so strenuously did
they lean across the riband-like path, and nod in the direction
of the blue, watery waste, while from the hills a wind was
blowing that presaged rain.

***************************

But hark! From some point among the bushes a low moan arose--the
sound which never fails to thrill the soul and move it to
responsive quivers!

Thrusting aside the foliage, I beheld before me the woman in the
yellow scarf. Seated with her back resting against the stem of a
hazel-bush, she had her head sunken deeply between her
shoulders, her mouth hideously agape, her eyes staring vaguely
before her, her hands pressed to her swollen stomach, her breath
issuing with unnatural vehemence, and her abdomen convulsively,
spasmodically rising and falling. Meanwhile from her throat were
issuing moans which at times caused her yellow teeth to show
bare like those of a wolf.

"What is the matter?" I said as I bent over her. "Has anyone
assaulted you?"

The only result was that, shuffling bare feet in the sand like a
fly, she shook her nerveless hand, and gasped:

"Away, villain! Away with you!"

Then I understood what was the matter, for I had seen a similar
case before. Yet for the moment a certain feeling of shyness
made me edge away from her a little; and as I did so, she uttered
a prolonged moan, and her almost bursting eyeballs vented hot,
murky tears which trickled down her tense and livid features.

Thereupon I turned to her again, and, throwing down cooking-pot,
teapot, and wallet, laid her on her back, and strove to bend her
knees upwards in the direction of her body. Meanwhile she sought
to repel me with blows on face and breast, and at length rolled
on to her stomach. Then, raising herself on all fours, she,
sobbing, gasping, and cursing in a breath, crawled away like a
bear into a remoter portion of the thicket.

"Beast!" she panted. "Oh, you devil!"

Yet, even as the words escaped her lips, her arms gave way beneath
her, and she collapsed upon her face, with legs stretched out,
and her lips emitting a fresh series of convulsive moans.

Excited now to fever pitch, I hurriedly recalled my small store
of knowledge of such cases and finally decided to turn her on
her back, and, as before, to strive to bend her knees upwards in
the direction of her body. Already signs of imminent parturition
were not wanting.

"Lie still," I said, "and if you do that it will not be long
before you are delivered of the child."

Whereafter, running down to the sea, I pulled up my sleeves,
and, on returning, embarked upon my role, of accoucheur.

Scoring the earth with her fingers, uprooting tufts of withered
grass, and struggling to thrust them into her mouth, scattering
soil over her terrible, inhuman face and bloodshot eyes, the
woman writhed like a strip of birch bark in a wood fire. Indeed,
by this time a little head was coming into view, and it needed
all my efforts to quell the twitchings of her legs, to help the
child to issue, and to prevent its mother from thrusting grass
down her distorted, moaning throat. Meanwhile we cursed one
another-- she through her teeth, and I in an undertone; she, I
should surmise, out of pain and shame, and I, I feel certain,
out of nervousness, mingled with a perfect agony of compassion.

"O Lord!" she gasped with blue lips flecked with foam as her
eyes (suddenly bereft of their colour in the sunlight) shed
tears born of the intolerable anguish of the maternal function,
and her body writhed and twisted as though her frame had been
severed in the middle.

"Away, you brute!" was her oft-repeated cry as with her weak
hands, hands seemingly dislocated at the wrists, she strove to
thrust me to a distance. Yet all the time I kept saying
persuasively: "You fool! Bring forth as quickly as you can!"
and, as a matter of fact, was feeling so sorry for her that
tears continued to spurt from my eyes as much as from hers, and
my very heart contracted with pity. Also, never did I cease to
feel that I ought to keep saying something; wherefore, I
repeated, and again repeated: "Now then! Bring forth as quickly
as ever you can!"

And at last my hands did indeed hold a human creature in all its
pristine beauty. Nor could even the mist of tears prevent me
from seeing that that human creature was red in the face, and
that to judge from the manner in which it kept kicking and
resisting and uttering hoarse wails (while still bound to its
mother by the ligament), it was feeling dissatisfied in advance
with the world. Yes, blue-eyed, and with a nose absurdly sunken
between a pair of scarlet, rumpled cheeks and lips which
ceaselessly quivered and contracted, it kept bawling: "A-aah!
A-a-ah!"

Moreover, so slippery was it that, as I knelt and looked at it
and laughed with relief at the fact that it had arrived safely,
I came near to letting it fall upon the ground: wherefore I
entirely forgot what next I ought to have done.

"Cut it!" at length whispered the mother with eyes closed, and
features suddenly swollen and resembling those of a corpse.

"A knife!" again she whispered with her livid lips. "Cut it!"

My pocket-knife I had had stolen from me in the workmen's
barraque; but with my teeth I severed the caul, and then the
child gave renewed tongue in true Orlovian fashion, while the
mother smiled. Also, in some curious fashion, the mother's
unfathomable eyes regained their colour, and became filled as
with blue fire as, plunging a hand into her bodice and feeling
for the pocket, she contrived to articulate with raw and
blood-flecked lips:

"I have not a single piece of string or riband to bind the caul
with."

Upon that I set to, and managed to produce a piece of riband,
and to fasten it in the required position.

Thereafter she smiled more brightly than ever. So radiantly did
she smile that my eyes came near to being blinded with the
spectacle.

"And now rearrange yourself," I said, "and in the meanwhile I
will go and wash the baby."

"Yes, yes," she murmured uneasily. "But be very careful with
him--be very gentle."

Yet it was little enough care that the rosy little homunculus
seemed to require, so strenuously did he clench his fists, and
bawl as though he were minded to challenge the whole world to
combat.

"Come, now!" at length I said. "You must have done, or your
very head will drop off."

Yet no sooner did he feel the touch of the ocean spray, and
begin to be sprinkled With its joyous caresses, than he lamented
more loudly and vigorously than ever, and so continued
throughout the process of being slapped on the back and breast
as, frowning and struggling, he vented squall after squall while
the waves laved his tiny limbs.

"Shout, young Orlovian!" said I encouragingly. "Let fly with
all the power of your lungs!"

And with that, I took him back to his mother. I found her with
eyes closed and lips drawn between her teeth as she writhed in
the torment of expelling the after-birth. But presently I
detected through the sighs and groans a whispered:

"Give him to me! Give him to me!"

"You had better wait a little," I urged.

"Oh no! Give him to me now!"

And with tremulous, unsteady hands she unhooked the bosom of her
bodice, and, freeing (with my assistance) the breast which
nature had prepared for at least a dozen children, applied the
mutinous young Orlovian to the nipple. As for him, he at once
understood the matter, and ceased to send forth further
lamentation.

"O pure and holy Mother of God!" she gasped in a long-drawn,
quivering sigh as she bent a dishevelled head over the little
one, and, between intervals of silence, fell to uttering soft,
abrupt exclamations. Then, opening her ineffably beautiful blue
eyes, the hallowed eyes of a mother, she raised them towards the
azure heavens, while in their depths there was coming and going
a flame of joy and gratitude. Lastly, lifting a languid hand,
she with a slow movement made the sign of the cross over both
herself and her babe.

"Thanks to thee O purest Mother of God!" she murmured.
"Thanks indeed to thee!"

Then her eyes grew dim and vague again, and after a pause
(during which she seemed to be scarcely breathing) she said in a
hard and matter-of-fact tone:

"Young fellow, unfasten my satchel."

And whilst I was so engaged she continued to regard me with a
steady gaze; but, when the task was completed she smiled
shamefacedly, and on her sunken cheeks and sweat-flecked temples
there dawned the ghost of a blush.

"Now," said she, "do you, for the present, go away."

"And if I do so, see that in the meanwhile you do not move
about too much."

"No, I will not. But please go away."

So I withdrew a little. In my breast a sort of weariness was
lurking, but also in my breast there was echoing a soft and
glorious chorus of birds, a chorus so exquisitely in accord with
the never-ceasing splash of the sea that for ever could I have
listened to it, and to the neighbouring brook as it purled on
its way like a maiden engaged in relating confidences about her
lover.

Presently, the woman's yellow-scarfed head (the scarf now tidily
rearranged) reappeared over the bushes.

"Come, come, good woman!" was my exclamation. "I tell you
that you must not move about so soon."

And certainly her attitude now was one of utter languor, and she
had perforce to grasp the stem of a bush with one hand to
support herself. Yet while the blood was gone from her face,
there had formed in the hollows where her eyes had been two
lakes of blue.

"See how he is sleeping!" she murmured.

And, true enough, the child was sound asleep, though to my eyes
he looked much as any other baby might have done, save that the
couch of autumn leaves on which he was ensconced consisted of
leaves of a kind which could not have been discovered in the
faraway forests of Orlov.

"Now, do you yourself lie down awhile," was my advice.

"Oh, no," she replied with a shake of her head on its sinuous
neck; "for I must be collecting my things before I move on
towards--"

"Towards Otchenchiri"

"Yes. By now my folk will have gone many a verst in that
direction."

"And can you walk so far? "

"The Holy Mother will help me."

Yes, she was to journey in the company of the Mother of God. So
no more on the point required to be said.

Glancing again at the tiny, inchoate face under the bushes, her
eyes diffused rays of warm and kindly light as, licking her
lips, she, with a slow movement, smoothed the breast of the
little one.

Then I arranged sticks for a fire, and also adjusted stones to
support the kettle.

"Soon I will have tea ready for you," I remarked.

"And thankful indeed I shall be," she responded, "for my breasts
are dried up."

"Why have your companions deserted you?" I said next.

"They have not deserted me. It was I that left them of my own
accord. How could I have exposed myself in their presence?"

And with a glance at me she raised a hand to her face as,
spitting a gout of blood, she smiled a sort of bashful smile.

"This is your first child, I take it?"

"It is. . . . And who are you?"

"A man."

"Yes, a man, of course; but, are you a MARRIED man? "

"No, I have never been able to marry."

"That cannot be true."

"Why not?"

With lowered eyes she sat awhile in thought.

"Because, if so, how do you come to know so much about women's
affairs?"

This time I DID lie, for I replied:

"Because they have been my study. In fact, I am a medical
student."

"Ah! Our priest's son also was a student, but a student for the
Church."

"Very well. Then you know what I am. Now I will go and fetch
some water."

Upon this she inclined her head towards her little son and
listened for a moment to his breathing. Then she said with a
glance towards the sea:

"I too should like to have a wash, but I do not know what the
water is like. What is it? Brackish or salt?"

"No; quite good water--fit for you to wash in."

"Is it really?"

"Yes, really. Moreover, it is warmer than the water of the
streams hereabouts, which is as cold as ice."

"Ah! Well, you know best."

Here a shaggy-eared pony, all skin and bone, was seen
approaching us at a foot's pace. Trembling, and drooping its
head, it scanned us, as it drew level, with a round black eye,
and snorted. Upon that, its rider pushed back a ragged fur cap,
glanced warily in our direction, and again sank his head.

"The folk of these parts are ugly to look at," softly commented
the woman from Orlov.

Then I departed in quest of water. After I had washed my face
and hands I filled the kettle from a stream bright and lively as
quicksilver (a stream presenting, as the autumn leaves tossed in
the eddies which went leaping and singing over the stones, a
truly enchanting spectacle), and, returning, and peeping through
the bushes, perceived the woman to be crawling on hands and
knees over the stones, and anxiously peering about, as though in
search of something.

"What is it? " I inquired, and thereupon, turning grey in the
face with confusion she hastened to conceal some article under
her person, although I had already guessed the nature of the
article.

"Give it to me," was my only remark. "I will go and bury it."

"How so? For, as a matter of fact, it ought to be buried under
the floor in front of some stove."

"Are we to build a stove HERE? Build it in five minutes?" I
retorted.

"Ah, I was jesting. But really, I would rather not have it
buried here, lest some wild beast should come and devour it. . .
Yet it ought to be committed only to the earth."

That said, she, with averted eyes, handed me a moist and heavy
bundle; and as she did so she said under her breath, with an air
of confusion:

"I beg of you for Christ's sake to bury it as well, as deeply,
as you can. Out of pity for my son do as I bid you."

I did as she had requested; and, just as the task had been
completed, I perceived her returning from the margin of the sea
with unsteady gait, and an arm stretched out before her, and a
petticoat soaked to the middle with the sea water. Yet all her
face was alight with inward fire, and as I helped her to regain
the spot where I had prepared some sticks I could not help
reflecting with some astonishment:

"How strong indeed she is!"

Next, as we drank a mixture of tea and honey, she inquired:

"Have you now ceased to be a student?"

"Yes."

"And why so? Through too much drink? "

"Even so, good mother."

"Dear me! Well, your face is familiar to me. Yes, I remember
that I noticed you in Sukhum when once you were arguing with the
barraque superintendent over the question of rations. As I did
so the thought occurred to me: 'Surely that bold young fellow
must have gone and spent his means on drink? Yes, that is how it
must be.'"

Then, as from her swollen lips she licked a drop of honey, she
again bent her blue eyes in the direction of the bush under
which the slumbering, newly-arrived Orlovian was couched.

"How will he live?" thoughtfully she said with a sigh--then
added:

"You have helped me, and I thank you. Yes, my thanks are yours,
though I cannot tell whether or not your assistance will have
helped HIM."

And, drinking the rest of her tea, she ate a morsel of bread,
then made the sign of the cross. And subsequently, as I was
putting up my things, she continued to rock herself to and fro,
to give little starts and cries, and to gaze thoughtfully at
the ground with eyes which had now regained their original
colour. At last she rose to her feet.

"You are not going yet? " I queried protestingly.

"Yes, I must."

"But--"

"The Blessed Virgin will go with me. So please hand me over the
child."

"No, I will carry him."

And, after a contest for the honour, she yielded, and we walked
away side by side.

"I only wish I were a little steadier on my feet," she remarked
with an apologetic smile as she laid a hand upon my shoulder,

Meanwhile, the new citizen of Russia, the little human being of an
unknown future, was snoring soundly in my arms as the sea
plashed and murmured, and threw off its white shavings, and the
bushes whispered together, and the sun (now arrived at the
meridian) shone brightly upon us all.

In calm content it was that we walked; save that now and then
the mother would halt, draw a deep breath, raise her head, scan
the sea and the forest and the hills, and peer into her son's
face. And as she did so, even the mist begotten of tears of
suffering could not dim the wonderful brilliancy and clearness
of her eyes. For with the sombre fire of inexhaustible love were
those eyes aflame.

Once, as she halted, she exclaimed:

"0 God, 0 Mother of God, how good it all is! Would that for
ever I could walk thus, yes, walk and walk unto the very end of
the world! All that I should need would be that thou, my son, my
darling son, shouldst, borne upon thy mother's breast, grow and
wax strong!"

And the sea murmured and murmured.

Maxim Gorky