Birth of A Man by Maksim Gorky
This happened in 1892, a famine year, at a point between Sukhum and
Ochemchiry, on the shore of the Kodor River, so near the sea that
through the gay babble of the clear waters of the mountain stream the
muffled thunder of the billows was distinctly heard.
It was an autumn day. Yellow cherry-laurel leaves were circling and
glistening in the white foam of the Kodor like nimble salmon fry. I was
sitting on some rocks near the bank and reflecting that the sea-gulls
and cormorants, too, must be mistaking the leaves for fish, and that
was why their cries were so fretful over there to the right, behind the
trees where the sea was rumbling.
The chestnut trees overhead were decked out in gold; at my feet lay
piles of leaves which looked like the palms of hands that had been cut
off. On the opposite bank the hornbeam boughs were already bare, and
hung in the air like a torn net; caught in it, as it were, a red and
yellow mountain woodpecker hopped along, tapping the bark with his
black beak, while adroit titmice and dove-colored nuthatches--visitors
from the distant north--pecked the insects he drove out.
To the left, above the mountain peaks, hung smoky, heavy,
rain-laden clouds; they cast shadows over the green slopes dotted with
boxwood, Òthe dead tree." Here in the hollows of old beeches and
lindens is found that Òheady honey," the intoxicating sweetness of
which nearly caused the downfall of the soldiers of Pompey the Great
long ago, having overcome a whole legion of iron Romans. The bees make
it from laurel and azalea blossoms, and tramps get it out of the
hollows and eat it, spreading it on what the natives called lavash, a
thin flat cake made of wheat flour. That is exactly what I was doing,
as I sat under the chestnut trees. Stung all over by angry bees, I was
dipping pieces of bread into a kettle full of honey and eating, while I
admired the lazy play of the weary autumnal sun.
Autumn in the Caucasus is like a gorgeous cathedral built by great
sages--these are always great sinners, too. To hide their past from the
prying eyes of conscience, they have built an immense temple made of
gold, turquoise, emeralds, hung the mountains with the finest carpets
embroidered in silk by Turcomans at Samarkand, at Shemakha. They have
plundered the whole world and brought everything here, to the sun, as
if to say to it: "All these are Thine--from Thy people--for Thee!" I
see bearded, white-haired giants with the huge eyes of merry children,
descending from the mountains to embellish the earth. They generously
scatter vari-colored gems, cover the mountain peaks with thick layers
of silver, and their slopes with a living fabric of varied trees--and
under their hands this piece of blessed earth becomes ravishingly
It is a fine thing--to be a man of earth; you see so much that is
marvelous; how painfully and sweetly the heart throbs in quiet ecstasy
Of course, there are difficult moments: burning hatred fills the
breast to overflowing, anguish greedily sucks the heart's blood, but
these moments pass. Even the sun is often sad as it looks at human
beings: it has worked so hard for them, yet they are failures.
Of course, there are not a few good people, but even they need
mending, or better still, should be made over completely.
Suddenly, above the bushes, to my left, there appeared dark heads
swaying, while through the thunder of the sea and the noise of the
river the faint sound of human voices was heard. These were famine
victims, tramping from Sukhum, where they had built a road, to
Ochemchiry, where other work awaited them. I knew them: they were
peasants from the province of Oryol. We had been working together and
had been discharged together the previous day, but I had left before
they did, at night, to meet sunrise on the beach.
Four men and a young peasant woman in the last stages of pregnancy
were more familiar to me than the others. She had high cheekbones and
gray-blue eyes bulging as though with fear. Above the bushes her head
in a yellow kerchief was swaying like a blossoming sunflower in the
wind. At Sukhum her husband had died, after eating too much fruit. I
had lived in barracks with these people: according to the good Russian
custom, they discussed their misfortunes so volubly and so loudly that
their pitiful words must have been heard for five versts around.
These people were crushed by their sorrow. It had wrenched them
from their native barren and exhausted lands and had carried them to
this spot, the way a wind carries dry leaves in autumn. Here the
exuberant and unfamiliar aspect of nature dazzled and bewildered them,
while the oppressive conditions of work robbed them of the last ounce
of courage. They looked at the land, blinking their dull, sad eyes
forlornly, smiling piteously at each other and saying quietly:
"Ahwhat rich soil."
"Things just push out of it."
"My--yesstill, rather stony."
"Not very easy to work, this soil, I must say."
And they recalled their native villages, where every handful of
soil was the dust of their ancestors, and the land was memorable,
familiar, dear--watered by their sweat.
There was with them a woman, tall, straight, flat as a board, with
equine jaws and a dull look in her coal-black, squinting eyes. In the
evening, together with the woman in the yellow kerchief, she would go
off beyond the barracks, and sitting on a pile of crushed stone, her
cheek in her palm, her head bent to one side, she would sing in a high,
By the graveyard,
Where the shrubs grow green and thick,
On the sand-bank
I will spread a linen cloth.
It may happen
If I wait there I shall see him
If my love comes,
Then I will bow down before him.
Her companion usually held her peace, staring down at her stomach,
her head bent forward, but sometimes she would suddenly join in, with
words like sobs, singing indolently and thickly in a mannish, somewhat
Oh, my dear, my love, my own,
I am fated
Nevermore to look on thee.
In the stifling blackness of the Southern night these plaintive
voices recalled the North, the snowy wastes, the wailing of snowstorms
and the distant of wolves.
Then the squint-eyed woman had been taken ill with a fever, and she
had been carried to town on a tarpaulin stretcher. She shook and
moaned, as though continuing her song about the churchyard and the
Ducking suddenly, the yellow head disappeared.
I finished my breakfast, covered the honey in the kettle with
leaves, tied up my bundle, and without hurrying, set out after the
others, who had left earlier, tapping my cornel stick against the hard
And now I too am on the narrow, gray strip of road. On my right,
the dark blue sea is tossing; it is as though a thousand invisible
carpenters were planing it--the white shavings roll up on the beach
with a rustling sound, driven by a wind, moist, warm, and fragrant,
like the breath of a healthy woman. A Turkish felucca, listing to port,
is gliding toward Sukhum, her sails bellied, the way an important
engineer at Sukhum used to puff out his fat cheeks as he shouted:
"Shut up! You may be smart, but I'll have you in jail in a jiffy!"
He was fond of having men arrested, and it is good to think that
worms have surely long since gnawed him to the bone.
The going is easy--it is as though you walk on air. Pleasant
thoughts, motley reminiscences, are circling gently. These thoughts in
the mind are like white-caps on the sea. They are on the surface, while
down in the depths it is quiet: there the bright, pliant hopes of youth
are swimming gently, like silver fish in the deep.
The road is drawn toward the sea; coiling, it creeps closer to the
strip of sand that the waves invade. The bushes, too, wish to peer into
the face of the waves; they bend over the ribbon of road as though
greeting the far-flung, watery waste.
The wind begins to blow from the mountains--it wil rain.
A low moan in the bushes--a sound of human distress, which always
shakes the soul with sympathy.
Making my way through the bushes, I came upon the peasant woman
with the yellow kerchief. She was sitting with her back against the
trunk of a nut tree. Her head was resting on her shoulder, her mouth
was gaping in an ugly way, her eyes were starting out of her head, and
there was a crazy look in them. She was clutching her enormous abdomen
with her hands and breathing so unnaturally that it moved up and down
convulsively, and she was making a muffled, cow-like sound, baring
yellow, wolf-like teeth.
"Someone gave you a beating?" I asked her, bending over her. Her
bare legs, covered with ashen dust, were jerking like a fly's, and
shaking her heavy head, she managed:
"Go awayyou shameless fellowgo"
I understood what it all meant, I had seen it happen before. Of
course, I was frightened, jumped away, and the woman let out a
long-drawn-out wail. From her eyes, which looked ready to burst, came
troubled tears that ran down her purple, strained face.
This brought me back to her. I threw my bundle on the ground,
together with the tea-pot and kettle, put her on her back, and tried to
bend her knees. She pushed me away, hitting me on the face and chest,
turned around, and roaring like a bear and cursing, crawled on all
fours further into the bushes:
"You banditdevil" she brought out.
Her arms giving way under her, she fell, her face striking the
earth, and again she howled convulsively, stretching out her legs.
In a fever of excitement, and quickly recalling everything I knew
about this business, I turned her around and laid her on her back and
bent her legs.
"Lie quiet," I said to her, "you will be delivered in no time."
I ran down to the sea, tucked up my sleeves, washed my hands,
returned, and became an accoucheur.
The woman was writhing like birch-bark in the fire, she thrashed
about with her hands, and, plucking the faded grass, tried to push it
into her mouth. She strewed earth over her terrible, inhuman face with
its wild, bloodshot eyes. Already the child's head was showing. I had
to keep her legs from writhing, help the child, and see that she did
not put grass into her wry, bellowing mouth.
We swore at each other a little, she through her teeth, I too under
my breath, she from pain and, perhaps, also from shame, I because I was
ill at ease and tormented by pity for her.
"L-lord!" she repeated, bringing out the word with a rattling
sound. Her blue lips bitten and frothy, and from her eyes, which looked
as though they had suddenly been faded by the sun, tears kept pouring,
the abundant tears of a mother's unbearable suffering, and her body was
writhing, breaking, dividing in two. "G-go away, you devil" she kept
With weak, dislocated hands she kept pushing me away, while I
"Get through, you fool, get through quickly."
I was racked by pity for her, it was as though her tears were in my
eyes, anguish squeezed my heart, I felt like shouting, and I shouted:
"Come on, hurry up!"
At last, a human being was in my hands. Through my tears I saw that
he was all red, and already he was discontented with the world. He
struggled, carried on, and howled in a thick voice, although he was
still tied to his mother. He had blue eyes, his nose was ludicrously
crushed against his red, crumpled face, his lips moved, and he
He was so slippery that if I had not taken care, he would have
slipped away from me. Kneeling, I looked at him and laughed--I was very
glad to see him. And I had forgotten what must be done next.
"Cut it" whispered the mother gently. Her eyes were closed, her
face relaxed. It was earth-colored, as if she were dead, her blue lips
"Cut itwith a knife."
My knife had been stolen in the barracks. I bit through the cord.
The baby howled in an Oryol bass, and the mother smiled; her bottomless
eyes blossomed out marvelously and burned with a blue fire. Her dark
hand fumbled in her skirt, feeling for the pocket, and her bleeding,
bitten lips were barely able to produce:
"I haven't strength tape in the pocket to bind the navel."
I got the tape and bound up the navel. Her smile was even brighter,
it was indeed so warm and brilliant that it nearly dazzled me.
"Now set yourself to rights," I said, "and I'll go and give him a
"But look out," she murmured, uneasily, "go gently."
This red fellow didn't have to be treated with care, not at all: he
clenched his fists and bawled, bawled as if challenging someone to a
fight: "I I"
"You you! Assert yourself firmly, brother, or else your fellow men
will break your neck for you straight off."
He gave a particularly loud and earnest yell when he was splashed
for the first time by a frothy wave which gaily dashed against us both.
Then, when I bathed his chest and back, he screwed up his eyes,
struggled violently and screamed piercingly, while the waves kept
splashing over him.
"Make a noise, old fellow! Shout at the top of your lungs."
When I took him back to his mother, she lay with her eyes closed
again, biting her lips. She was undergoing the pangs of expelling the
after-birth. Nevertheless, through her sighs and groans I heard her
"Give give him to me."
"No give him here."
And with unsteady, trembling hands she unbuttoned her blouse. I
helped her to free her breast, prepared by nature for a score of
babies, and I placed the obstreperous fellow against her warm body. He
grasped the situation at once and grew silent.
"Holy Mother of God, Most Pure Virgin," the woman repeated,
shuddering, and rolled her disheveled head from side to side on my
And suddenly, with a gentle outcry, she grew silent. Then she
opened her infinitely beautiful eyes, the hallowed eyes of a mother.
Blue, they looked at the blue sky, and there burned and melted in them
a grateful, joyous smile. With a heavy hand she was slowly making the
sign of the cross over herself and the child.
"Glory be to Thee, Most Pure Mother of God," she repeated; "oh
Her eyes grew tired and sunken. For a long time she was silent,
scarcely breathing. And suddenly she said in a matter-of-fact tone, her
voice grown firm:
"Untie my sack, lad."
I did so. She looked at me attentively, smiled weakly, her drawn
cheeks and damp forehead flushing slightly.
"Would you mind"
"Don't you do too much."
"Just leave me."
I went off into the thicket. Birds were gently singing in my heart
and, together with the noise of the sea, this was so wonderful that I
thought I could listen to that music for a year on end.
Not far off a stream was babbling: it was as though a girl were
telling her friend of her beloved.
Presently above the bushes the woman's head appeared, with the
yellow kerchief properly tied.
"Eh, is that you, sister?" I shouted. "It's too soon for you to be
Holding on to a bough, she was sitting like a statue, white-faced,
with huge blue lakes instead of eyes, and she whispered with emotion:
"Look--how he sleeps."
He looked well asleep, but as far as I could judge, no better than
other babies, and if there was any difference it was due to the
surroundings. He lay under a bush, such as do not grow in the province
of Oryol, on a heap of bright autumn leaves.
"You had better lie down now, mother" I advised her.
"No," she said, shaking her head, which seemed to be loosely
screwed to her neck; "I must tidy up and be off for what-d'
"That's it. My people must have gone quite a distance."
"But can you walk?"
"And what of the Virgin? She will help."
Well, if she has the Virgin with her, there is nothing more to be
She looked at the little pouting face under the bush, and warm rays
of caressing light poured from her eyes. She licked her lips and passed
her hands slowly over her chest.
I made a fire and set up stones to put the tea-kettle on.
"Now I am going to treat you to tea, mother."
"Do my throat is dry."
"And what about your people? Have they left you in the lurch?"
"They haven't no. I just stayed behind. They have had a drop too
much, and it's better, this way. What would it have been like with them
Glancing at me, she covered her face with her elbow; then spat
blood, and smiled bashfully.
"Is this your first one?" I asked.
"The first. And who are you?"
"A human being, sort of."
"Of course, a human being! Married?"
"Haven't had the honor."
"That's not true."
"What do you mean?"
She dropped her eyes, thought awhile, and said:
"And how is it you know about these things?" This time I decided to
lie, and I said:
"I studied these things. I am a student, understand?"
"Yes, yes. Our priest's eldest son is also a student. He studies to
be a priest."
"Yes, that's the kind I am. Well, I'll fetch some water."
The woman bent her head in the direction of the child, listening to
his breathing for a while, then looked off toward the sea.
"I would like to have a wash, too," she said, "but this queer water
What kind is it? It's salt and bitter."
"You wash yourself with it; it's good for you!"
"Sure. It's warmer than the stream; the streams here-abouts are
"You know best."
Here an Abkhasian came riding slowly by, his head drooping
sleepily. His small sinewy horse looked at us out of the corner of its
round black eye, pricking up its ears. Suddenly it snorted and the
rider warily jerked up his head in its shaggy fur cap, looked in our
direction too, and dropped his head again.
"How queer people are here, and frightening," said the woman
I went off. A stream of clear water as alive as quick-silver flowed
over the stones, and in it autumn leaves were gaily cavorting. It was
wonderful. I washed my hands and face, filled my tea-kettle, and went
back. Through the bushes I noticed that the woman was crawling on her
knees, casting uneasy glances about her.
"What is it?" I shouted to her.
She turned gray with fright and proceeded to hide something under
her skirts. I understood what it was.
"Give it to me," I said; "I'll bury it."
"Oh, dear! But how will you do it? It should be buried in the
bath-house entry, under the floor."
"And how soon do you think they'll build a bath-house here?"
"This is a joke to you, but I am afraid! Maybe, a beast will devour
it it must be given back to the earth, you know."
She turned aside and, handing me a damp, heavy bundle, begged me
shamefacedly, under her breath:
"You bury it well, as deep as possible, for Christ's sake. Out of
pity for my little son, do it well."
When I came back, she was returning from the beach. Her gait was
unsteady and one of her arms was stretched out in front of her; her
skirt was wet up to her waist; her face was somewhat flushed and lit by
an inner light, as it were. I helped her to walk to the fire, thinking
to myself: "What animal strength!" Then we drank tea with honey and she
questioned me gently:
"You've given up school?"
"After drinking away everything?"
"Yes, I drank away everything, mother, to the last shred!"
"That is the kind of fellow you are! I remember you; I noticed you
at Sukhum when you were arguing with the chief over the food; I thought
to myself then: he is afraid of nothing, must be a drunk!"
And appreciatively licking the honey off her swollen lips, she kept
glancing at the bush under which the latest addition to the population
of Oryol was quietly asleep.
"What will his life be like, I wonder?" she said with a sigh,
looking at me. "Here you've helped me, and I thank you for it but is it
good for him? I don't know."
She finished her tea and her food, crossed herself, and while I was
getting my things together, she was staring at the ground with her
faded eyes, swaying sleepily, and thinking. Then she started getting
"Are you really going to walk?" I asked her.
"Look out, mother!"
"And what of the Virgin? Let me have him!"
"No, I will carry him."
After some argument she gave in, and we set off, shoulder to
"I hope I don't drop," she said, smiling guiltily, and laid her
hand on my shoulder.
Meanwhile the new inhabitant of the Russian land, a person with an
unknown future, was lying in my arms, breathing noisily like a solid
citizen. The sea was splashing and swishing, laced with white shavings;
the bushes were whispering to each other; the sun, which had already
passed the zenith, was shining.
We were walking, slowly. Now and then the mother would stop to draw
a deep breath. She would lift up her head and look about, at the sea,
the forest, the mountains, and then she would peer into her son's face.
Her eyes, thoroughly washed by tears of suffering, were again amazingly
clear, again blossoming and burning with the blue fire of inexhaustible
Once, as she halted, she said:
"Lord, dear God! How good it all is, how good! I could walk like
this, I could walk to the end of the world, and he, my little son,
would grow, would grow freely amidst plenty, near his mother's breast,
my darling." The sea was booming.