A school in Polesye invited me to participate in a literary discussion. After the meeting with the teachers and the pupils, we were sitting round the large table in the headmaster's office. The talk turned to nobility and selflessness. They told me of a teacher who had adopted two motherless children. Their father had abandoned them, and their mother had died. This woman taught in a very small school in their Village Council. My attention might not have been arrested by this story (such stories are countless, and you can hear or read of them almost daily) were it not for the different reactions among those present. While the men, without exception, spoke of the woman with admiration, praising her highly, the women did not. Of the four women there, two expressed a scepticism difficult to account for. They did it in a purely feminine way, not directly, but by passing insinuating remarks, casting meaningful glances, and taking up a sneering tone. I was intrigued. I decided, by all means, to see the teacher who had adopted those children.
The village in which she lived was situated, I should say, on the very outskirts of the land belonging to the Village Council. When I asked the way there, the answer came: "Oh! It's a long way past the forest." The forest itself loomed blue in the distance, as if propping up the cold autumn sky. It was the month of October. The day was dreary, but still rather warm. The Indian summer had come and gone, leaving the dried-up stalks along the wayside covered with gossamer cobweb.
The fields in autumn are full of a unique poetry, although at first glance they seem empty and depressing. In the springtime the meadows call you, arousing a desire for hilarious merriment, and running and skipping about, and in the summertime the forest draws you on to lie at its edge, vacantly gazing up into the fathomless blue of the firmament, while in the autumn the footpath through the fields lures you on and on to follow it into the endless distance, thinking, always thinking.
I do not know how it is with others, but I for one, think most clearly in an autumn field. Nowhere else do my thoughts flow so quiet and serene, so deep and smooth. Nowhere else, and at no other time of the year, do such epic subjects come to my mind as in autumn on a solitary road in the field, stripped bare of everything that might divert my attention. One can only wonder at the wind's sweeping up such a quantity of leaves - cherry, pear, and birch - so large a quantity, as to have filled the ruts in the road, and the furrows in the field. There are no birches in sight, and hardly can any cherry-trees be seen in the villages, which are sprinkled here and there on the broad plains, humped up here and there by hillocks, and crossed by valleys and streams.
My thoughts become clear in an autumn wood, too. But they are of a different character there: they are brighter, briefer, following one another in quick succession. Perhaps it is so because all around everything is lit up by the setting sun, like a ball of fire, suffusing it all in warm colours that invariably inspire and stimulate, evoking the will to live, to struggle. There is a great deal in the autumn wood that interrupts one's quiet flow of thoughts. The forest is full of noises, and beneath your feet the leaves rustle. The leaves of a beautiful birch tree lay scattered around it in the shape of a remarkable fan, shining like tiny gold coins on grass still green. How they glisten, those little leaves! Really and truly just like little golden coins. They do not resemble at all their sisters in the fields, in the ruts: those are blackened, crumpled and twisted, while these, as you look at them, make your eyes burn.
The leaves of the oaks make a soft, dark-brown bed under their parent trees, for these leaves are too heavy to fly far. Even when it is windy they fall almost vertically, except that then they circle about more in the wind, and whirl about longer on the ground, taking their time to settle down more comfortably. The acorns fall softly on this bed. Softly? I became aware of a blow on the crown of my hat; another acorn hit my hand; a third flicked my nose as I raised my head, wishing to see the acorns breaking away from their twigs. You might have thought the oaks were showing their disapproval of man's curiosity.
A maple leaf, sparkling like a star from out of another universe, suddenly appeared in front of me on the road. Like one bewitched I stood before it. How did it get here? Ah! Over there - a little maple tree! Small, inconspicuous, standing side by side with giant oaks, you would not have noticed it in summer, but now just look at the beauty it so lavishly showers on us! Its abundant foliage has been woven into a splendid carpet by the hand of a marvellous artist. I did not dare to walk on it in my dirty boots. I stepped aside carefully and went a roundabout way. A delicate, mournful cry of an invisible bird followed me all the way through the forest. What had it lost? Whom was it lamenting?
In the fields I thought of the teacher I was about to see and a whole novel took shape in my mind, based on the life of the woman.
In the forest I forgot about her.
Pictures and scenes of my remote childhood floated before my mind's eye. I wished I could tell someone about it, that common place childhood of mine.
The village which I finally reached was, undoubtedly, not only the remotest, but also the smallest in that Village Council. I got an inkling of its size when I was told that their school was a primary school, with only one teacher for all the classes, - this very Nadziežda Ivanaŭna.
The village came into sight unexectedly. My first thought was: the man who first settled here must have had the soul of a poet in him. The forest came up to it on three sides. And what a forest it was! Only birches (I even wondered that such a birch grove had survived). The silvery whiteness of their barks, and their golden crowns shed a truly fantastic light over the entire field.
The village consisted of one short street, although it was a surprisingly wide and level street, on either side of which some dozens of houses stood, all of them in quite good condition, and shingle-roofed. Alongside the houses young birches were growing in two straight lines. And only the school building (which I immediately noticed and instantly recognized) stood somewhat to one side, behind the kitchen gardens and nearer to the forest. And - strangely enough! - the school grounds were surrounded not by birches, but by slender poplars, also mostly young ones, although there were two rather older poplars standing near the building itself, their withered crowns rising above the forest.
I went straight across the field directly towards the school. While still at a distance I already heard the teacher's voice and a chorus of children. A lesson was going on. In order not to disturb them, I sat down inconspicuously on a bench under an old poplar tree, which immediately rained down a shower of leaves on me. I looked around. The school building, though erected after the war, nevertheless closely resembled the school described in such detail by Jakub Kołas*: the classroom on the one side, the teacher's flat on the other, with a corridor between them separating the two halves. Pretty curtains cosily screened the windows of the flat.
* Jakub Kołas - a Belarusian literary classic.
In vain my trying to hide myself. They must have noticed me when I was crossing the field. In this corner of the world very few people ever wear hats. Before I had time to size up the situation, the door creaked and a woman of my age appeared on the porch (although at first glance she looked older) - a woman with rugged, plain masculine features.
Only in adventure stories does a mother fail to recognize her own son, and a brother his own brother after a ten-years' absence. In real life that hardly ever happens. I recognized the woman immediately, even though we had last met exactly a quarter of a century ago. We were teen-agers then, no more than 15 or 16 years old.
"Nadziežda?" escaped my lips, involuntarily.
It took her a little longer to recognize me. I had sufficient time to notice the children's faces glued to the windows, with their noses pressed flat against the window panes, and the thought flashed through my mind: "Now, they'll break those windows!"
Finally I heard, "Good gracious! You of all people!"
She ran down the porch steps to greet me. Our hands met in a hearty handshake. We looked each other in the face, our smiles happy and confused.
"You of all people!" she repeated.
I confessed: "When I heard your name mentioned, I didn't realize it was you. But as soon as I saw you, I recognized you immediately."
She laughed aloud, which made her face look prettier.
"I never thought you to be so -" It was clear her thought was left unfinished, and I added jestingly, "- short and stout."
"At school you were a tall fellow."
That window suddenly got broken, after all. The air rang with the tinkling glass. The children's frightened voices reached us. They were looking for the guilty one.
"I knew it would happen!" Nadziežda Ivanaŭna said exasperated. "Excuse me while I go and calm them. I'll give them their assignment for tomorrow and send them home. Let's go to my place. You can wait for me there."
"Thank you, no! I'll take a walk. It's so charming here!"
"Don't go far. I'll be only 10 minutes."
A curious recollection concerning this woman goes back to the remote days of my youth. Concerning a woman? No, a young girl! Nor had it anything to do with me. Nothing at all! It had to do with a young fellow far removed from me now, a youngster whose head was stuffed full of nonsensical romantic stories, and whose heart ached after all kinds of adventures.
I strolled about in the forest on the crackly birchleaf carpet, lost in reminiscences.
That chap fell in love with a girl, a pupil in his class. Perhaps "fell in love" is too serious a word, maybe "was fascinated" is a better way of putting it. Nonetheless, it was his first younthful passion, and it is well known that that is always the loveliest. The girl seemed to him an unearthly being. When she came into the classroom, it was the sun rising for the youth; when she approached him, he did not even dare to breath. Had the opportunity arisen, he would have kissed the ground she walked on and, of course, have been her devoted slave. For her sake he could have done anything. As it was, he tried in every way possible, and on every impossible occasion to attend on her, to demonstrate his loyalty and devotion. His friends mocked at him, but he had learned not to pay any attention to their mockery. The girl shamelessly made use of his services: he solved her problems for her, did her homework, her carpentry work, her gardening, - all of which earned him, a caressing smile. She was a sly one, cold-hearted, ungrateful and not very clever. Blinded by his fascination for her, the youth saw nothing of this, or else perhaps it seemed to him that this was her way of concealing her feelings from the rest of the class, one that did not suffer from a lack of scoffers. He was convinced that all they needed was to meet somewhere alone, and she would be sure to reveal her love for him. To arrange such a meeting was no small problem. He lived near the forest at a distance of about 7 kilometres from the village in which their school was situated, and where she lived. It was, by the way, not due to any particular diligence over his studies that he made these 14 kilometres back and forth daily, but because of his love for the girl. Nor did he, as far as I can recollect, ever miss a single day at school. He walked all that way to school in every kind of weather - frost, snowstorm, or blizzard, - although there were times when his parents would not allow him to set out. And when the spring floods came, and the alternative way became almost twice as long, he bravely waded through the spring mud just to have another look at his "sunshine".
He was dying for a date - the first in his life. When the warm May days came, the young fellow decided to make that daring step: unnoticed he slipped a message in her text-book. He saw her reading it and then hiding the piece of paper in her bosom. My God! How that inspired him with hope - his note was nestling close to her heart! Wandering about in the woods, he could hardly wait for evening to come. He had left the house early, running off so that his parents should not harness him down to some work, and interfere with his plans. He told them he had a very important Komsomol commission to fulfil.
As soon as it began to grow dark, off he went. Avoiding the highway, so as not to meet anyone on the way, he ran through the forest and field. He did not run, he flew. Like a young goat, in leaps and bounds, over stumps and shrubs, overcome with joy, excitement and fear. While his heart, oh! his heart was there already, having sped ahead to the place fixed for their meeting, in a poetic spot - on the bridge. In the bushes near the river nightingales were singing joyfully, on the surface of the water there rippled a silver path of the moon's making, and everywhere shadows flitted about. As the panting lad looked around without finding his beloved on the bridge, he stepped down the embankment to wait for her, hidden from inquisitive eyes. All of a sudden from under the bridge DEVILS jumped out on him. Yes, devils! They threw a stinking sackcloth over the head of the unfortunate lover, knocked him down and began to give him a good punching. A shrill voice suggested: "Let's push him into the water! Into the water with him!" The romantic fool was lifted up and thrown into the river, thus completely and definitely extinguishing his fiery love. The river was shallow, up to his waist, and he reached the opposite bank in a jiffy. Thank the Lord for his legs! They carried him as fast as they could, as if he were a hare hunted down by dogs. While his heart, - where his heart was at that moment, I cannot say, - that I have already forgotten...
The school grounds became noisy with children. They flocked out of school and ran off, not towards the village but towards the forest. I soon saw through their ruse. They made a circle and unexpectedly emerged from behind the birches to meet me. Almost in unison they said, "Good afternoon!" and the little boys even removed their caps in greeting. The children kept glancing back and were having a heated argument about something. For a long time I, too, followed them with my eyes. No sooner were they out of sight, than my recollections were resumed. Though now I felt them to be different...
I stayed away from school for three days, pretending illness. But the school year was drawing to a close, and within me there was already a well-developed and rather keen sense of responsibility concerning my studies. I overcame my feeling of shame and showed up again at school. I was met with loud laughter and shouts of, "Come on! Tell us how you kept your date!" I kept silent. All my life my answer to an injury or a wrong has been silence. I was, however, a stubborn fellow. I craved for revenge. I chose a rather queer, but original form of vengeance: I decided to arrange a rendezvous without fail, the first one in my life, which no one should have even the slightest idea of. But with whom? While puzzling over this problem in the stillness of the forest, it came to me there had been only one girl who had not laughed at me, on the contrary, she had looked at me with sympathy, and even said the boys were mean and low-down fellows, there being nothing to taunt me about.
Nadzia was a plain-looking, pugnacious girl, but to make up for that she was the most advanced - lacking those superstitions and prejudices common to country-folk having which made the other girls resemble wild nanny-goats. She could sit with a fellow at the same desk, and could come to the gym lessons in shorts and a football shirt, she could go for a walk in the street with a boy. She was good at her studies, too, and we competed with each other, though Nadzia was better at languages, while I excelled in algebra and phycics. There was still another circumstance that brought us closer together: we almost always went home from school together, for Nadzia lived in the village past which lay the road to the forest. It is true the two of us were never alone (there was always someone walking with us because a lot of our pupils were from that village). I sided with this "territorial grouping", which was antagonistic to the one whose sovereignty I had challenged. Apparently that was the reason for that good punching. In a word, after thinking it over carefully, I decided that the date should be with Nadzia, only with Nadzia - she suited me in all respects. And I fixed the time and place for our meeting in a note I handed to her on our way home from school.
It was natural after my miserable experience that I should take every precautionary measure. The place I chose was nearer to the forest territory, where I felt greater security. Awaiting the girl, I hid in such a concealed part of the thicket, that the devil himself could not have found me even in broad daylight, to say nothing of finding me in the twilight. One feeling only do I remember that must have been absolute, from the moment the letter passed into Nadzia's hands, and that was a dreadful fear that nothing would come of this appointment either. I lay in the dense pine forest, staring my eyes out looking down the road, and my fear grew into dread, despair, into a desire for death, better to die than live - rejected even by that plain homely Nadzia.
Nadzia came, however, - and my mood immediately changed into a more cheerful one.
Two evenings we strolled about in the fields and talked about our school affairs, about the examination session which had just begun, about books we had read. The third evening we kissed. We liked it so much that soon afterwards we spoke less and kissed more. I came to classes bright and happy, a victor. I looked at those who had made fun of me and thought: "Aha, you devils, I keep dates with a girl, we kiss, but you are not in the know, nor will you ever be."
However, these meetings, too, finally came to a tragic end for me. In the fortnight of our secret meetings with Nadzia we trampled down all the most out-of-the-way foot-paths round her village, but there was one thing that spoiled our walks for us. In the house at the farther end of the village they had a beastly dog. He smelled us a mile away and raised such a yelping that our only escape was - well - into the thicket! He never seemed to stop barking. I hated that hideous pup with a fierce hatred. I was ready to snap at him myself. I begged Nadzia to get rid of him somehow, but she laughed, saying the could not even kill a mouse.
Once my father sent me with a note to a neighbouring forester, - it was in this way mail was delivered, by passing it from one to another. I went on horseback and, of course, took my gun along. It was only recently that I had been allowed to use one, and I lost no opportunity of appearing in public with the gun across my shoulders. The way lay past the village where Nadzia lived and therefore it was quite natural that a certain idea struck me - "brilliant" ideas always come suddenly. On my way back I purposely waited for dusk to fall, and took the path past that last house. The damned cur started barking furiously, outraged by my impudence. I egged him on, to lure him farther away from the village into the pine forest. Finally he got tired of barking, lagged behind, and lifted a leg near a stump. I stopped my horse and aimed -. A shot thundered out. At that moment the pup leaped forward in front of the horse. The horse turned his head, shied short at the shot, reared, slipped, and I tumbled down onto the ground. I tried to rise but could not, the pain in my left leg was too sharp. The horse ran off. I crawled through the forest, swallowing tears of shame and despair at the injury and pain inflicted on me, while behind me that ill-fated pup continued its barking as if nothing had happened.
This adventure marked the close of the school year. And while my leg was still healing, my father was transferred to go on his rounds in another part of the forest (at that time foresters were often transferred from place to place) and Nadzia and I did not meet again. In the autumn I left for town to continue my studies there. I remember I did write to her, but no answer came...
Feeling a little tired, I sat down on a stump in that magnificent birch grove. As I sat there still reminiscing I picked up a twig and began to brush the leaves to my feet. I noticed that the leaves lost their natural loveliness as I stirred them from their original position. I remembered at times relating this youthful adventure of mine in the company of friends, and trying to put it in a very humorous light, so that they should laugh the more. But having met Nadzia now, already a woman past forty, it no longer seemed so funny. On the contrary, it had become something rather sad somehow. Perhaps autumn was to blame, the golden birch grove, and the leaves beneath my feet. For the first time I seemed to give serious thought to the question of how to explain Nadzia's consenting to keep an appointment with me, knowing full well that I was in love with another girl. Why was it that she had met me with such warmth and tenderness, never even mentioning that other one?
Nadziežda Ivanaŭna found me on the stump.
"Tired?" she inquired in her womanly, kindly way. "I decided you had run away. I looked for you everywhere, but you were nowhere to be seen. So I thought, well, my lady! there's a disgrace for you."
I liked her addressing me in a friendly manner and so simply, using the familiar form "thou". Rather often old friends and acquaintances meeting after lapse of years stammer and stutter, unable to immediately hit on the right tone.
In the meantime she had even changed her dress, and was now wearing a blue blouse, a dark grey skirt, and on her neck a lovely little light-blue gauze scarf. Her clothes were chosen with taste, and made her face look younger. On the other hand, her too simple hair-do - her blond hair brushed smoothly back and gathered in a bun at the nape of her neck - made her look older. It struck me that city women are cleverer at choosing a hair-do more becoming to them.
"Come, let's go to my place, my very welcome stranger. I've let the children know the afternoon shift shouldn't come."
We started off for the school.
"It was my son who pushed the window in," she informed me, her voice sounding as if her son had performed a heroic feat and not something reprehensible. He's in the first class."
I would have liked to inquire about the children, about the family they came from, about the cause of the mother's death and so on, but the manner in which Nadziežda Ivanaŭna spoke about her son prevented me.
"Maybe she thinks I don't know anything."
"As a punishment," she meanwhile continued about her son, "I've sent him to the forest to gather leaves. We are 'The Last of the Mohicans' here. We still bake our own bread. On leaves. Oak and maple leaves. Perhaps you remember how your mother used to do the bread-baking, or don't you?"
Yes, there was a time when I too gathered those leaves and strung them on long, thin threads. I used to do it very willingly. In my mind's eye I pictured my mother drawing the loaves out of the oven on a long-handled wooden spade, the knife scraping off the leaves, the delicious, appetizing smell that the brown crusts gave off as she washed them and placed the fragrant smelling, new-baked bread on a white fresh towel.
Wonderfully enough it was this very same smell that met me as I crossed the threshold of the teacher's home. Home-baked bread cut into thick slices, the patterns of the oak leaves traced on the crust at the bottom, lay piled high in the centre of the table, surrounded by various dishes - sour pickles, tomatoes, choice mushrooms, slices of juicy ham. Nobody was in the house, which surprised me. When had Nadziežda Ivanaŭna managed to lay the table?
"On the tree-stump I sat recollecting - our old school." I was about to say "our meetings", but I held my tongue.
Even so the woman blushed.
"You'll wash your hands?" she asked.
"If you don't mind."
Although there was a wall wash-hand set in the kitchen, a room in which the Russian stove occupied a large part, Nadziežda Ivanaŭna herself poured the water over rny hands from a dipper, handing me a fresh towel, evidently a brand new one.
While she was busying herself about the kitchen, I took a look at the books. There were a lot of them - besides fiction, there were books on agronomy, gardening, cookery, and even medicine, a handbook for midwives, doctor's assistants, and one on medicinal herbs.
"Does this mean you both teach people and cure them, too?"
Her answer was brief, "Lot of different things come up, you know. We live far from the centre," and with that, she invited me to table.
We sat facing each other, I with my face to the window. I could see the poplar leaves whirling about.
"In summer the poplars must cover everything within reach with their fluffy down."
"I like the noise they make. It is a good noise." She lifted a decanter full of a dull, amber-coloured liquid. "I'll treat you to some beer. I make it myself. According to an old Russian recipe. And she began pouring some into a glass. "Sometimes guests drop in. The chairman of the collective farm. The chairman of the Village Council. They are good people, and kind. They treat me like an old friend. Their wives are not even jealous of me," she said, concealing a sigh.
I felt sorry for her.
I raised my glass. "To our meeting! I'm sincerely glad we've met."
Clinking her glass with mine, not saying a word about her being glad, too, she only smiled a nice, grateful smile.
We drank. The beer was really delicious. I praised it.
"I must learn how to brew beer according to a Czech recipe that I have."
I tried to be funny, "And how about distilled home-brew? Do you go in for that?"
"No," she answered seriously. "I fight the home-brewers. We don't have them here any more. I've taught the women to make this beer. People like to make merry, to have a good time. Our people have begun to live well."
Gradually, as she went on talking, her words and phrases built up for me a picture of the life of a schoolteacher in a remote village in Polesye: her cares and duties, her social work, her thoughts and ideas.
A little girl of about nine entered the room shyly. She had a sharp little nose, and was tidily dressed in a school uniform and a black pinafore. She gave me her "Good afternoon." greeting, and said to Nadziežda Ivanaŭna: "I've done my errand."
"That's all right. Now make friends, Kacia. This gentleman writes books."
"Really?" the light-blue eyes of the little girl lit up in wonder, but immediately, as if remembering something, she lowered her eyes. After a pause she asked: "You don't write for children, do you?"
"Very little, I'm afraid, almost nothing."
She sighed just as her foster-mother had done a short while ago. And it somehow made me feel ashamed that I do not write children's stories. There was an uncomfortable feeling in the air. I understood the child was old for her age. Those trite and empty phrases usually uttered on such occasions were impossible now. Nadziežda Ivanaŭna, apparently, appreciated this too, for she said, "Go and find Vasia, darling. He's gathering leaves, you can help him."
"All right, Mamma," and once again measuring me up with a queer glance, she slipped through the door quietly like a little mouse.
"She's an obedient child. And very quiet." said Nadziežda Ivanaŭna. "But my son is a wilful, stubborn, noisy little lad. Still, I love him better."
She filled the glasses again, and helped me to some mushrooms.
"Now you must eat something. And - tell me about yourself."
I realized about myself meant, first of all, about my family, and my children.
I told her. She listened attentively, the palms of her hands supporting her cheeks in a way women have. I cannot say her eyes expressed sorrow or regret. They did not. But she sighed again, as she had when she spoke of the wives not being jealous.
"You're fortunate. You have - children, and interesting work."
"You have interesting work, haven't you?" I did not dare to add, "And children, too?"
Her answer was startling. "I've been in this village teaching for 15 years," and then she suddenly added, "Won't you show me a picture of your wife and children?"
To carry photographs of my near ones about with me in my wallet has always seemed to me an unnecessary sentimentality. Nadziežda Ivanaŭna was surprised when I told her I hadn't any.
"You men are so thoughtless!" she reproached me. "You don't value your good fortune, your happiness."
Her conclusion was naive, - and I answered in a joking tone, "One doesn't make an exhibition of one's happiness."
"Well, really! So that's why you write mostly about sad things, about misfortunes, and various family misunderstandings. But I should like to read about happy families. Without conflicting views and ugly scenes. People should be given good examples."
Beginning in jest, we passed over to serious talk; we even began to argue. We talked long about life and books. It was pleasant to learn that Nadziežda Ivanaŭna read a lot, although our critics would say most of her opinions and appraisals were subjective and too simplified. Nobody else interrupted our conversation. The children did not return. The silence was remarkable, not a living sound, even though it was midday in autumn. Only the subdued noise made by the poplars and their falling leaves. It was long since I had talked with anybody surrounded by such silence and peace. This added a special delight. And the intoxication from the beer I drank was also of a particular kind - light and pleasant. As result, a strange mood held me in thrall. Something like the feeling one has in a darkened, empty hall, listening to a piece of good, quiet music. Everything was somewhat sad, but also full of joy, as before a flight into the unknown.
Her words, "I have been 15 years teaching in this village," her school, her books, her adopted children helped me to understand what her life was like. Still, there were the years up to the present to be accounted for, there was her youth. How had she spent those years? Had she loved anybody, had she known the happiness of love, and enjoyed the ardent caresses of a lover? But how could I ask her that, so that it should sound sincere, simple, tactful? I just could not find the appropriate form. (Oh, form! How difficult it can be to fit the form to the content!) The woman, not without a degree of cunning, rather cleverly kept clear of the subject of her own life, although I attempted more than once in roundabout ways - hinting, joking, - to lead her up to this question. Professional interest goaded me on. (What will a man not do to appease this interest!) In the end I said simply: "Nadzia, won't you tell me about yourself?
She started, seemed to wince, and looked me in the eyes with a kind of queer, penetrating look. I could not withstand that look. Afterwards I remembered -. We had met like old friends, but had not once addressed each other by our Christian names during our whole talk. And now all of a sudden, "Nadzia". It must have been a long time since anyone had called her that. Hearing that name from her girlhood days must have moved her deeply. But she knew how to hide her feelings.
"About myself? There's nothing to tell about myself," and she smiled a wry smile. "The man I loved didn't love me. I am a plain woman." She uttered these words severely, without any pity for herself, and without anger towards others. "Those who proposed marriage - them I refused. I couldn't marry without love - just for the sake of becoming a wife." She was silent a moment. "You know about the children. You must have come because of them, didn't you?"
"Yes. I was told about them."
"If you had known it was me, would you have come anyway?"
"But why not? I'm extremely glad!"
Again she made no answer, knowing quite well the crux of the matter lay not in such gladness, nor were they the words I should have used. She refilled our glasses.
"And the toast?"
"To our children! To our children's health!"
I no longer had the desire to inquire about her life. I just did not want to; it was quite unnecessary. An we somehow lost the thread of our conversation.
I glanced at my watch.
"You want to leave?"
"Don't go so soon!" Kindly, sincerely she invited me to remain. "Don't leave yet. You'll meet with the people here. You'll find them very glad to see you. In our remote parts nobody has ever seen a living writer."
"I can't stay. There's to be a conference at the district centre in the evening. They'll come for me."
It was indeed the truth - and she understood it.
"It's a pity! We have fine people here, everything interests them. But everybody steers clear of us."
"I'll come again. I promise, I'll come on purpose."
At that moment my intention to return was sincere, but she did not believe me. Although she was silent, I felt she did not believe me.
Nadziežda Ivanaŭna saw me off to the forest. Only now did she recall the days of the long ago, for the first time mentioning the days of our youth. She glanced about at the village and said: "This village resembles ours, doesn't it? Especially over there at the edge of the forest. You remember, don't you? Where we used to meet," her laugh was not a merry one. "How naive we were then!"
I did not agree that we had been so very naive then, but I did not argue it out - for fear of saying something unnecessary.
On parting she gave me a hearty handshake; the palm of her hand was rough, calloused; the woman evidently did not shun work of any kind. And suddenly I was overcome by the desire to kiss that hand. Even more. I wanted to enfold her in my arms and kiss the woman herself. But, of course, to kiss her not as I had, long ago in the days of my youth, and not at all as a woman, but just as a line person, who never having experienced any real happiness herself, had not lost faith in people, nor in the beauty of life, and was herself assisting to create a portion of this beauty, too. But I was afraid that she might misunderstand such an outburst.
Leaving, I heard her calling the children.
The road was strewn with golden leaves.