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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 beautiful.

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 before beauty!

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, angry voice:

              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 hoarse voice:

              Darling, darling,
              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 sand-bank.

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 path.

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 saying.

With weak, dislocated hands she kept pushing me away, while I repeated persuasively:

"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 screamed: "II"

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 barely moved:

"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 wash."

"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 faint whisper:

"Give give him to me."

"He'll wait."

"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 bundle.

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 glory"

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 stirring about."

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' ye-call-it."

"Ochemchiry?"

"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 said!

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 around?"

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!"

"Is it?"

"Sure. It's warmer than the stream; the streams here-abouts are like ice."

"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 quietly.

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?"

"I have."

"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 up.

"Are you really going to walk?" I asked her.

"I am."

"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 shoulder.

"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 love.

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.

1912.

 
 
 

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