Janka Bryl

There Were Twenty Of Them

"Gloria", a small steamer, has left Capri a short while ago and is now heading northwards. The darkness of an autumn night has already engulfed the Bay of Naples.

After a sultry day it is cold on the upper deck. Tonight I don't feel like standing there thinking the old thought that at last I am breathing in the air of Southern Italy. Nor do I feel like listening to the rhythmic swish of waves, nor am I eager to admire the same stars that I used to admire back home, nor do I feel like gazing at the quite exotic dotted line of shimmering lights that belong to the funicular railway on the slopes of the now invisible pyramid of Vesuvius.

So I choose to go on to the lower deck, settle at a window and, exhausted by a three-day sightseeing rush, alternately plunge into the sweetness of a light doze and from its haziness return to the full consciousness of reality... Reality around me is full of noises; a continuous noise of shuffling feet, and an unceasing murmur of voices, mixed with the persistent monotonous rumbling of the steam engines, which, though coming from somewhere down below, seems to reverberate right through your body...

As to my reverie, it is a regular kaleidoscope of sunshine-gold, blue and green! In my mind, as if reflected in a looking-glass, rise scenes from the past three days: I catch a glimpse of the blue sea, now drawing closer and now receding into the distance, as when I saw it from the window of the railway carriage or the coach; through thick foliage peep chromeyellow lemons; the luxurious evergreen stone-pines raise their huge crowns like giant parasols towards the sky; the mountain slopes are dotted with gnarled olive trees; humble grey oxen draw a plough across the fields of the valley; grey huts made of pampas grass rise here and there, and side by side with them stand beehives, also grey and scarcely any smaller than the huts... And it is against the background of the sparkling sea, the majestically grim volcanic peak, and the marble ruins of timeless antiquity, that the green heads of cabbage look so much alive, serene and homely.

Laughter, happy and gay, echoes over the water.

How beautiful is your mother country, my young blue-eyed amico!

I would have already told you this, had I only known your language, I would have already told you all about it even the day before yesterday, immediately after I had caught a glimpse of Naples enveloped in mist, immediately after I had strolled through its streets, now broad and lined with palm-trees and luxury villas, boasting green Venetian blinds on their windows, now narrow and decorated with nothing but the banners of poverty - the wet and dry rags hanging-out...

Even in Rome I felt I simply had to tell you this, both when we stood under the arches of Pantheon where the eternal flame burns by Raphael's tomb, and in the Vatican museum when we looked at the cases with Galileo's and Petrarch's manuscripts; I also had a wish to tell you this when we stood among the ruins of the ancient arena, whose flagstones still seem to smell with the blood of the slaves, and also when we were in the Cathedral of "St. Peter in Chains", where one feels strangely disturbed by the thought that Moses has ceased to be just a Biblical character, but has been born of the spirit of Italy, and is ready to apply his might to pulling down not only the tiny dark cathedral, but also half the old street around.

Italy, your Italy is splendid!

The only fact that seems a little strange and disappointing is that during the whole of my stay in Italy, three days in all, I have never happened to hear a single song anywhere...

However, this fact has helped me to get rid of a rather naive presumption that Italy is populated with care-free people, whose favourite occupations are serenading signorinas and playing the mandoline... Somehow, after I saw with my own eyes the clouds of smoke hanging over the factories and plants, after I saw the white marble palaces, and the powerful ocean steamers, I have realized that all this was built by you, the good-natured Italians, who besides other things can teach anyone quite a lot about how to work, too.

All this I realized very well, but I missed the songs, all the same...

Instead I hear your laughter tonight... Perhaps, you laugh just because you are young, and there is no other reason - but who knows anything about it for certain? Probably you, a boatman from Capri, care no more for reasons for laughing when your boat drifts in the waters near your home-island, than a lark cares for warbling his joy when he flies over the fields of my home country.

Listen, Amico!

When the little steamer on which I made my voyage moored in the harbour of your picturesque town Marina Grande, it was as if by a lucky chance that you picked us, four good friends, out of the chaos of the tourist crowd. Flashing your white teeth in a broad smile, and waving your arms, you shouted out to us, "Here, this way, signori!" We exchanged greetings, and then, almost at a run, you led us to your launch.

The sun was sinking down somewhere on the other side of the tall, grey-green mass of Capri. The rugged cliffs, lit by its rays coming from behind, looked like a sheer wall, more than two hundred metres high. And your launch looking like a white bird, proudly raised her breast over the still waters and raced along this shady wall, carrying us in the direction where another mystery, another wonder lay... You were laughing then, you handsome fellow, pointing to all the other launches that we left far behind!...

I felt like joining in your laughter. But for quite a different reason altogether... They say that man is all-powerful! As for us, we were even unable to understand each other properly, unable to explain to each other what overflows from our hearts! Both your language and mine can boast of their profound, all-embracing beauty but we, the people in this modern launch, well, we only laugh gesticulate, wink at each other and knit our brows, not much better than the members of a primordial community!..

And yet it seems to me that I have known you all along. No, it is not just today that I met you for the first time. Previously your voice and laughter had come to me from the pages of books, and from the film screen. I had known you all along since my childhood, when I had made good friends with the little heroes of Amicis, and also when the wings of my fancy had carried me in the wake of the armies of Spartacus and Garibaldi.

"Grotta Azzurra!" you exclaim pointing in the direction of the tall cliffs of the shore, where in a little bay a great number of rowing boats can be seen.

As soon as the noise of the engine of your victorious launch dies down and her white bow lowers on to the surface of the water, we became conscious of the boatmen's loud market calls. Their little white boats converge upon our launch, the first and evidently long-awaited envoy from the "Gloria", surrounding us on all sides like iron nails attracted to a magnet. My friend and I step into the boat of a sprightly, sharp, elderly signore who is wearing a cloth cap and, to my surprise, strangely resembles uncle Todar, the head shepherd on my collective farm in the homeland.

Launches arrive one after another, bringing new tourists. The din increases. Moving the oars so expertly, that they seem to be a natural continuation of his arms, our signore pushes the boat through the others, milling around like people in the market place, and directs it towards a huge dark opening in the wall of the cliff, which forms a natural gateway for the boats, and looks like the mouth of some giant oven. In another instant the boatman lets his oars rest grips the thick rusty wire rope which stretches overhead and leads through the gateway. We duck our heads more by instinct than from the old man's warning shout. In this place the water seems to be affected by the excitement all around: quite still a few yards away, here it rushes into a narrow tunnel in a noisy, turbulent stream. On leaving the sunny scene outside, our boat enters a dark underground chamber and comes to rest on the surface of the quiet water. We straighten our back... But in this chamber you feel that you have to do much more than simply straighten your back, you feel rather like throwing up your arms in admiration...

What beauty! What a unique blue colour of joy is born at the place where the darkness of the arching ceiling meets the light, most of which comes in from below, from under the water! How well I now understand your laughter, my young, blue-eyed amico!

But still, even here in this poetic grotto, we are not free from the pressure of time and the routine of tourism!..

The boat makes a circle close by the walls of the grotto, and then the old boatman steers it towards the exit which does not remind one of the mouth of an oven any more; so much light comes streaming in through it.

"Gorky must have been here too, one day," somebody says in another boat.

When our signore hears this remark he suddenly lets go his hold on one of the oars, raises his hand high and almost at the top of his voice shouts out.

"Massimo Gorky - grande!"

After this the boatman relinquishes the other oar and grips the wire rope overhead with both hands. We help the old man as well as we can, for the current of water will not let us out of the passage. And when we get out into the sunshine at last we reward signore "head shepherd" with all the Italian coins we have; they are small, as thin as fish scales and there is an inscription "Repubblica Italiana" on them. They hardly ever rattle. Then we treat the boatman to our Russian cigarettes (papirosas). In fact, we would be happy to give him much more for those three words, for the joy that he gave us, quite unconscious of his own generosity!.. In the meanwhile the quick, acute signore is already shouting something either to us, or to our cheerful amico whose launch we have just reached. And again the three words previously uttered are repeated with a broad smile.

The blue-eyed amico joins in. "Oh!" he exclaims, "Massimo Gorky - grande! Oh!"

And then we go speeding off again - again we are the first to fly over the glassy surface of the water, scattering a multitude of diamonds in our wake. When we reach the edge of the tall, grey cliffs behind which the sun has already disappeared, and when we have already caught sight of the green, white and red amphitheatre of the little port round the curve, our skipper stretches out his sun-tanned arm, the white sleeve of his shirt fluttering in the wind, and points to something in the distance exclaiming loudly, "Massimo Gorky! "Ercolano!"

Again he bursts into laughter, flashing his white teeth and his dark-blue eyes whose joy and colour he seems to have brought back from the grotto Azzurra...

Listen, amico!

It is very nice of you to tell us about it!.. We, your guests, baffled by the difficulty of communication, have quite forgotten that you may know another wonderful legend of your Italy, of your unique Capri...

In fact, it is not a legend or a fairy-tale but a wonderful, true story about the creator of immortal tales who lived once in this "Ercolano", the hotel with the red-painted walls, standing on the top of a cliff.

Is it possible that not only we, Soviet people, have thought of Gorky's name here today?! Well, you are laughing, amico!.. It is wonderful that you are laughing! Please, go on and let your laughter tell me that we people from the Soviet Union are not the only ones who remember Gorky here!

And yet I cannot help thinking of those others who were here previously, and who told us about Italy later...

Swarthy and noisy as starlings in a newly ploughed field, the children of the Neapolitan poor play beside heaps of oranges that seem to reflect the sunshine for the benefit of everybody, except those ragged little kids. When I saw those children I at once recalled the love and kindness with which Gianni Rodari described them in his books. He is one of the most favourite children's writers in the Soviet Union, too. His eye is almost as sharp as Gorky's was and this is why Rodari was able to discern the sadness of today behind the rich facade of the Italian scene which is a bit too beautiful to be true. It is because Rodari looks so deeply into things just as we Soviet writers do, that he believes in the triumph of a radiant future. No matter where we saw Italians on our trip, - in the streets or by the roadside, their clenched fists raised as a sign of the proletarian greeting, the clear language of their glances and friendly smiles - everything reminded us of this optimistic belief in a better future.

And yet, it was not infrequently that we asked ourselves: how could it have happened that in the midst of this rich variety of colours and sounds, in this land of splendour, such a ghastly and horrible phenomenon as the plague of fascism came into being?!

Listen, amico!

Looking at you, I could not help thinking that exactly such bright and jolly fellows as you could be seen once, not only in Abyssinia, but also in the fields of my own mother-country. Perhaps one of them was your father or your elder brother? Probably, that quick elderly boatman was also in my mother-land once, the one that now remembers Gorky and resembles the head shepherd of the collective farm in my homeland?

It is possible that those who came back told you about the freezing-cold winters in the faraway land of Massimo Gorky grande... It is also possible that they told you about the fiery-hot wrath of Massimo's countrymen...

But today I am not inclined to speak about such things as wrath or grief. I would rather tell you about those who will never come back to beautiful unique Italy, will never see its warm, blue, peaceful sky...

There were twenty of them, of your fellow-countrymen...

In the course of the third year of the war, shoortly after the Battle of Stalingrad, these fellow-countrymen of yours found themselves in the North of Belarus. In those parts there is a blue lake, and beyond it lies a forest, and in front of the blue lake there is a field, green with flax and the haulms of potatoes. The pine-trees smell of resin, and the white flowers of the buckwheat smell of hone, the sweet odour of which is spread around by the busy bees; in the stables, also alive with buzzing bees, there are soft, warm, grey leverets hiding securely as timid as little children; near the rye field sweet briar blossoms, close by grow juniper bushes exuding an intoxicating fragrance, and on the ground, boulders overgrown with greyish-green moss lie here and there. Gulls fly high over the roofs of the farmers' houses, and storks who like to make their nests on these roofs glide peacefully over the mirror-like surface of the lake...

This is the first time that I have ever found myself so far from my native land. And that is why you will forgive me, amico, if suddenly there are tears in my eyes... They will be tears of joy: I am so happy that there is such a country in the world as my native Belarus, fine, hardworking and courageous!

And now, amico, try and imagine for a moment the cold blue steel of a sharp bayonet in front of your old mother's breast... Try and imagine that somebody smashes the head of your little son, your only son, against the edge of your family table.

When you imagine this, you will realize how and why a kind, humble man may turn into a ruthless one who knows no pity, and is terrible in his righteous wrath.

History gave such men the name of the avengers of the people, and my country of Belarus was then called the country of classical guerilla warfare.

The enemy knew what that meant all right. Even today Hitler's old generals who somehow happened to escape with their lives during the war, but continue to stick to the long outdated ideas of the Kaiser's militarists, still speak about our Soviet "fanaticism" which was incomprehensible to them. You see, amico, they were not at all happy about this "fanaticism", they would have preferred it not to have been there whatsoever... Had this "fanaticism" not been there, they could have easily written off the murders of our mothers and children. They still think they can; they are clever enough about juggling with the articles of any international agreement. They can qualify our mothers' and children's deaths as strategically indispensable, and the righteous retaliation of the Soviet people on fascism as absolutely unjustifiable...

There is a village in my home-land of blue lakes. A little way away from this village there is a cone-shaped hill with a flat top on which young birch-trees grow. From the top of this hill five lovely lakes can be seen. If you stood there, amico, you would recall the blue sea of your home-country, you would laugh happily seeing the beautiful distant landscape. If you stood close to the birch-trees, you would be able to see not only the lakes, but also the vast fields, faraway, villages, the ribbons of roads, and the glittering railway lines.

It was in the spring of 1944, on one of those nights in May when it is so sweet to sleep by an open window, and when the sound of partisans' footfalls is drowned in the music of the nightingale's songs. On that night an explosion was heard just at the place where the glittering strings of the railway lines climbed a steep gradient. It was one of those explosions which had been eagerly awaited by Soviet people, and at the same time one of those explosions for which the enemy paid with shattered nerves and blood.

Unfortunately it was not the enemy's blood alone that was shed...

Early next morning the village that stood by the lake was surrounded by punitive troops wearing black and greyish-green uniforms. There were not only Germans among them. In fact, there were a lot of Germans at the nearest railway station, but it was thought there were not enough of them for this large-scale operation. That was why, amico, rifles were handed out to a working party of your fellow-countrymen who the Germans had turned into regular unarmed slaves shortly after Italy capitulated. Since that time, amico, the German fascists had called such fellows as you "verfluechter Musiker", and they put as much hatred and contempt into those two words as they could. However, the Italian officers, the Germans' recent partners in building a "new Europe", were still treated as allies and not looked down upon...

Listen, amico! Do you hear a little fair-haired boy crying in the arms of his grandmother standing in front of the line of executioners? Do you see him with nothing on but his white nightshirt? His feet were still warm because he had been dragged out of his bed, where he had slept by an open window. Listen, amico, to the voices of defenceless, innocent people condemned to die a horrible death!.. Listen to the command "Fire!". You hear it, don't you? So did your twenty fellow-countrymen... but their rifles did not fire, - they remained silent. And now - listen to the sad silence that descends over a new mass grave...

The Italians were disarmed. They did not put up any resistance: they did not realize what they were to expect. They were ordered to stand at the edge of the open grave filled with bleeding dead bodies. Your fellow-countrymen obeyed, they could not believe that this would happen...

Today Belarus' palms, our birch-trees, bow their heads, rustle their leaves in the rays of the setting sun, and moan and weep over their grave.

By an obelisk of local field stone that will outlast eternity Belarusian flowers grow. They are lovely in their quiet warmhearted modesty. And in the villages that you can see from the top of the high hill, ordinary, honest people will never forget those twenty, the twenty people whose names remained unknown... There were twenty of them who would not shoot and shed innocent blood, even at the price of their return to beautiful, unique Italy...

Take off your cap, amico! Stand still awhile, and let even the sea be still! Let us honour their memory in silence.

 

1958




Source: Colours Of The Native Country. Minsk, Byelarus Publishers, 1972.
Translation: R.Lipataŭ

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