On both sides of the road there were broad thick stretches of pines. A little further on there was a dense patch of spruce. The ground was all covered with brown needles. There was not any grass to be seen. The small patches of it that had sprouted up here or there had withered and grown yellow. No wonder, for the summer had been hot and dry, and only as autumn had drawn near had rainy weather set in.
As I walked along I was amazed at the number of butter mushrooms that had sprung up during the summer. Old and young, they were everywhere, clustering together like children in one family, with new clean aprons on. It did not at all strike me as strange that butter mushrooms were not picked, for the forest there abounded in all kinds of mushrooms. It sometimes happened that there were so many of them that, as the local people say, you could mow them with a scythe - and you wouldn't be able to pick all the boletuses even, let alone the butter mushrooms.
As I walked along the narrow forest path I soon noticed that here and there the butter mushrooms had been knocked down and trampled on. I looked closer and saw that this had not been done on purpose. A man had simply walked there without looking where he was putting his feet. And where he had set his feet down, the mushrooms had been trampled. This was what set me wondering: what misfortune could have befallen the man who had walked like that, not looking where he was going?
In a while I noticed one more thing: the nearer the man had come to the field, the further he had strayed from the road, so that he had finished up in the forest. Still further on the man must have stumbled over a log lying on the ground and evidently fallen down, because the log had been shifted from its place and turned over. All this pointed to the fact that the man had been deep in thought, otherwise he would not have stumbled.
I slowly followed the track. In some twenty minutes I saw the man who had wandered off the road. He was a fellow of about eighteen to twenty years of age, clad in a new quilted jacket and cotton trousers tucked into the tops of his boots. He lay in a glade with his cap - much crumpled and faded from the sun - pulled low over his eyes. He seemed to be asleep. It only appeared so, for as soon as I rustled the leaves near him, the fellow raised his head and looked at me with his large, wondering eyes.
"Have you come a long way?" I queried, attempting a conversation and not knowing what else to say.
"No, not particularly," the young man replied reluctantly, "from the station."
He looked up at me again, and in his eyes I saw a deep anguish. He looked as if he had had a long drinking-bout, or a long period of insomnia. At the same time there was something in his look that refuted the supposition about the fellow's leading a fast life. I felt overwhelmed.
"What's been the trouble? Are you feeling ill, perhaps?"
"Well, no, it's nothing much..." And after a silence he added:
"I've been serving time in prison. Now I'm on my way home, going back, see?"
He spoke in such a soft and cheerless voice that my whole body drew forward on an impulse.
"What was it for?"
"Well, how shall I put it... for a drunken brawl... I got drunk and smashed the windows at the club, gave somebody a punch on the nose... that was enough to get me run in."
"For how long?"
"Quite a term. A whole year."
"But what made you go and do all that?"
"It just happened. That's all..."
The young man's frankness embarrassed me a little. Later I thought that he had told me everything in the hope of getting some advice or, perhaps, help. Indeed, when your heart is heavy you are always willing to confide in some one - and it is sure to bring relief.
But that was later, while at the time I was silent, not knowing whether I should ask him more questions or go on my way. The young man spoke himself.
"I won't stay at home, all the same... They'll bring it up on every occasion... remind me of the imprisonment... I had better go somewhere - to Siberia, or the virgin lands... just so as not to stay at home. I wouldn't have come here, but for my mother."
"Is she alone at home?"
"No. I have a sister. Younger than me. My father didn't return after the war. Had he lived, perhaps I should have grown up a different sort of man."
"Why should you take it so much to heart?" I cut him short. "You've served your sentence, and now you can live in a quiet sort of way and work... Just mind what you're doing in future - that's all."
The young man gave a wry smile.
"I wish I could," he said thoughtfully and fell silent. Then he pulled his cap over his eyes and again laid his head on his shabby suitcase.
The forest, as always, rang with its melancholy tune. The ground was carpeted with soft rustling leaves, and one could now and then hear the sound of a falling acorn striking against a branch. And from the field the breeze wafted the smell of fusty straw and also of potatoes that were evidently dug up nearby. I said:
"Come along... It's only a step from here. Do you get that smell of potatoes? You might be in time to carry your mother's sacks in from the field. She must have had a hard time to rough it alone..."
"No, you had better go your own way," the fellow replied, looking up again, "I'm ashamed to face people... I have been a jailbird for a year..."
I understood the sentiments of that young man, quite a stranger to me. But what advice could I possibly give him?
I stood embarrassed, hanging my head, thinking how heavily the memories of prison weigh upon one's heart. Presently the young man spoke again.
"Those potatoes smell so... it seems as if somebody has been baking them..."
I glanced at the fellow and found him changed beyond recognition. His eyes sparkled with a new light, his broad nostrils quivered, and his face was lit up with a slight, hardly noticeable grin. He had stopped pulling his cap over his eyes and was staring wide-eyed at forest and towards the field, greedily breathing in the smell of straw and potatoes - the smell of early autumn.
I did not want to intrude upon the young man any longer - he had better be left alone to ponder it all over in his mind once more. Turning round, I took a short cut to the road. As I walked I trampled down the dry, loose carpet of leaves - that rustling gold of autumn. It gave me pleasure to think that Man is not like a mushroom growing by the side of the road: he is not so easily uprooted from his birth-place and crushed...