On his way from the village to the forest camp the partisan, Ściapan Chomčyk, sat down by the path to take off his boots and to set the foot-cloths right. The path wound through a thick, tall forest. The pines alternated with oaks and birches, with hazelnut and sweet-briar growing below and berry-bushes reaching up to your knee. After putting on his boots again Chomčyk lay down, lit a cigarette and enjoyed contemplating the magnificence of the dense forest.
The morning was well advanced, but the air was laden with the freshness left over by the vanishing mist.
Somebody began to sing quite near beyond the path. It was a woman's tremulous voice. Chomčyk had an idea that he had heard a tune like that in the distant past. Now the melody called forth some familiar images reminiscent of the life in his native village.
"How long ago it all seems..." he thought, as he drank in the tune.
In the meantime the singing drew nearer, and at last a young woman emerged from the thick of the forest, in the glade overgrown with berry-bushes. She carried a basket on her back and an earthenware pot fastened to her apron. Presently she took off her basket, with its bottom covered with fern leaves, hung it on the branch of a small birch tree and bent down to pick the berries.
Chomčyk lay quietly. As the young woman plucked her berries she went on humming her tune.
Chomčyk watched her, listening. He was fascinated not only by the tune but also by the words of the song. Indeed, it was a wonderful song, as gentle as it was frightful:
Let the forest not rustle at night as before.
Let my husband call me his wife no more...
"Why, there's a song for you!" he thought.
I am proud and I am tender,
As a silver birch I am slender...
Chomčyk eyed the young woman from head to foot and muttered with a smile, "Why, she herself is like a birch."
What I get from you is a kick and a blow,
And my bitter tears they flow and flow...
"Well, that's too bad," Chomčyk thought, "what fool could have dared to raise his hand against such a woman!" He felt a pang of pity in his heart. He wanted to rise to his feet, but the woman sang on.
I would rather go to the forest and die,
Than stay here beside you to suffer and cry...
"That's it," Chomčyk commented almost aloud. The young woman straightened up and sang in full voice-quite nearby.
Do not look for me when dew is falling,
You will get no answer to your calling.
"Who's that you're singing about?" Chomčyk suddenly demanded. With an exclamation of fear, the woman started back and grew pale.
"Who are you? Oh, how you frightened me... My heart's all in a flutter... who are you, and what are you doing here may I ask?"
A broad grin flattened Chomčyk's aquiline nose, and his large grey eyes wavered.
"You needn't be frightened, really," he said in a reassuring tone. "I'm not an enemy. Don't you know that there are neither police nor Germans around, only the partisans?"
The young woman looked at the dark spot on Chomčyk's faded cap - the mark left by the five-pointed star.
"How can I tell a friend from an enemy at a moment's notice? Oh, what a fright you gave me ... my heart was in my boots."
She put her kerchief to rights and smoothed out her blouse. Her dark hair showed from under her white kerchief. The young woman had an oblong face with a prominent forehead, and her large eyes with their long thin lashes were of an indefinable colour. They seemed to be able to change their shade, growing now dark, now grey. The high colour of her cheeks was blended wiht a tan, redolent of the forest and nature, with the fragrance of grasses and trees. When she smiled a row of white teeth showed between her full lips under a slightly turned-up nose.
Hers was a beauty that was of the earth and the woods. "Won't you sit down?" Chomčyk asked.
"I've no time. I must hurry home. The day's getting on, and I've got to see to the house."
"Well, isn't there somebody else who could do it?"
"No. I live alone in the forest like a witch."
"Why, in the forest - not in the village?"
"My house is in the forest, a little way from the village."
"Used to be. Not now."
"What happened to your husband?"
"Dead..." she replied, knitting her brows, "and a good riddance!"
"A poor sort of man he was. I didn't love him. He was a horrid fellow - a real bad lot. He used to beat me. Ruined my youth."
"That's why you sang a song like that."
"Oh, I didn't make it up... It's an old song... my mother even used to sing it... I've got to go home, though".
She walked up to the tree to fetch her basket which was nearly full of berries. Then she returned to Chomčyk who never took his eyes off her. He felt simply enchanted. His heart filled with a tenderness that was mute and inexpressible. Then he was swept away by a desire to take that woman of the forest in his arms and carry her off somewhere, but he was instantly ashamed of the thought.
"Why don't you get married again?" he asked.
"Don't want to. I had enough of my first married life and I don't feel like trying it a second time. Perhaps fate has decided it this way. Well, so long. Take a few berries with you - for the journey."
Chomčyk stood up. As soldiers do, he passed his hands round his belt, setting his tunic to rights. Then he flung his submachine-gun over his shoulder, and held out his hand to take the berries form the young woman.
"Ah, you..." he sighed, "wasting your youth like that."
"I'm not to blame... My elders and relatives have made a mess of my life. Well, good-bye. I hope you have a good journey... I'd better hurry lest somebody should break into my empty house."
"Won't you tell me your name?"
"My name? Aksienia... Dziemjanovič..."
"Well, so long... Thanks for the berries."
They went off in opposite directions. Chomčyk walked alone down the forest path, lost in thought. Now and again he rubbed his forehead thinking to himself, "Wasn't it all like a fairy tale, eh?" A melody could be heard in the distance. Chomčyk stopped to listen.
"There, the very same song," he concluded and shook his head.
A group of guerillas - ten carts all told - could be seen driving towards the village to help the villagers plough the field for sowing the rye. Ściapan Chomčyk was among them. He had even taken a plough along in his cart. No sooner had the village come in sight than Chomčyk stopped the first shepherd lad that came along, to ask the way to Aksienia Dziemjanovič's house. The fellow showed him the road, and Chomčyk immediately turned right, along the path that skirted the forest. The village was left behind, on the other side of the path. He soon found himself in the middle of a young pine-wood and it occurred to him that the shepherd might have put him on the wrong track, because the thick virgin-looking forest gave no signs of human habitation. However, the pine-wood soon gave way to a clearing, with a kitchen garden in the middle, surrounded by a fence. Pear-, plum- and cherry-trees grew all along the grassy path that led into the yard. There was the jib of the wel, and to one side of it a shed half buried in sunflowers. To the left of the shed stood a house with a sagging straw roof, small windows and broad zavalinka*. The house did not look like an ordinary human dwelling, but rather like a fairy tale cottage. Its windows looked over the kitchen garden, facing the forest that stood swaying and creaking there beyond the shed. The opposite wall of the house gave on to the field. An old pear-tree spread its branches against the front wall with only one window in it. There were flowers in front of the window, a lilac bush to one side of it, and next to that a hollyhock. A half-decayed fence ran around this tiny plot close behind the pear-tree.
* Zavalinka - a small mound of earth along the outer wall of a peasant's house (translator's note).
Near the front door was a tall birch-tree with a thick crown that spread over the whole of the little yard. It was here that Chomčyk pulled up.
A thin wisp of smoke was rising from the chimney that jutted out only a few inches above the roof. Birds were chirping in the birch and the pear-tree. There were drops of dew sparkling all over the kitchen-garden: on the cucumbers, pumpkins, carrots and scarlet poppies.
Aksienia came out of the house. She was barefoot and wore a home-woven linen blouse, with sleeves embroidered above the elbows; a white kerchief, thrown on hastily, covered her head. Everything bore witness to the fact that she was busy doing her chores in the kitchen.
"Good morning," Chomčyk said.
"Good morning. Where to so early?" Aksienia asked, instinctively fumbling with the buttons at her breast, to make sure that the blouse was properly done up. She looked a trifle embarrassed. Her shining eyes wavered under the thick eyebrows. Chomčyk resented her question - oughtn't she to have guessed why he had come?
"Got any land?" he queried.
"I have," she replied.
"Needs ploughing, doesn't it?"
"It does," she nodded, breaking into a grin.
"Well, here I am to do the ploughing," Chomčyk declared with a laugh. Aksienia's blush deepened.
"Goodness, what luck! I never hoped for anything like that! Come down from the cart, will you? Unharness the horses and let them graze a little here in the yard." She made as if to help him, but Chomčyk did not allow it.
"I'll see to it myself. You have your own work to do."
The horses unharnessed and left tied to the trees, Chomčyk entered the house. He saw a kitchen behind a small partition. A linen curtain hung in the doorway leading to the living-room. Aksienia asked him to pass through. Chomčyk entered a small, poorly lighted room, but trim and cosy. There was a large mirror on the opposite wall, with bunches of dried flowers together with hemp and flax thrust behind it. To the side of the mirror were some framed pictures. A small icon, decorated with an embroidered towel, hung in the corner over the table. There was an iron bed covered with a home-woven counterpane light-blue in colour. Chomčyk hung his tommy-gun on a wooden hook and, straightening up, started combing his hair in front of the mirror. When he heard Aksienia chuck-chuck-chuck-ing to the hens, and caught sight of her through the window, he went out into the yard.
"Well, Aksienia, I've got the horses and the plough. Will you get me the traces?"
"I will, I'll get them all right," she said coming up, "but you take a little rest. We have time yet. We had better have a bite first."
"No, no. I'd rather we started right away. We aren't much given to resting, my dear."
In five minutes or so, Aksienia brought out the traces from the shed. Chomčyk set about getting the plough ready.
For the meal she prepared pickled cucumbers, potatoes, salted pork fat and pancakes, cheese and milk. The spread was crowned with a bottle of vodka in which cherries were immersed.
Chomčyk would not take his meal alone, and he prevailed upon Aksienia to keep him company at the table.
"All right, I will join you presently," she said, leaving the room for a short while. When she reappeared she looked very smart in a white blouse with sleeves reaching down to her elbows, a black woollen skirt and a white kerchief. As she sat down to the table her face was suffused with crimson like a rose. At first Chomčyk did not dare to look up at her, somehow awkwardly conscious of her presence. To conceal his embarrassment he affectedly downed a tot of vodka after clinking glasses with Aksienia.
"Help yourself, why don't you?" she insisted.
"Don't call me 'you!" Chomčyk ventured. "Better say simply 'thou'."*
* The Belarusians make a difference in the use of the pronouns 'you' 'thou'. The latter is made to denote more friendly and intimate relationships (translator's note).
"How can I?... I have too much respect for you. You're all our defenders, as well as the tillers of our land."
Presently they went off to the field. Aksienia showed the patch to be ploughed. Chomčyk slung his submachine-gun over his shoulder and applied himself to the job. But the horses had got out of the habit of ploughing, and were turning the furrow awry.
"Let me lead the horses," Aksienia suggested, taking hold of the bridle. The furrow grew straight, the plough turning over layers of warm brown earth. Looking the other way Aksienia said.
"Why didn't thou hang that gun over the shoulder? It's in the way."
Saying 'thou' to him she blushed. Her eyes flashing, she smiled.
"We can't part with our weapons. There's a war on."
"Let me carry it for a while."
"If you knew how to handle it, I might've let you hold it, but now I can't." Chomčyk smiled. "You see, the gun's not at all in the way."
The horses stepped out briskly, and Aksienia walked by their side with an even easy pace. A fresh breeze was blowing about the horses' manes, and gently caressing Chomčyk's face. Aksienia's white apron kept floating before his eyes.
The earth rustled under the plough.
Walking behind that woman, Chomčyk seemed likely to forget the fact that he was a guerilla, and that there was a war on. However, the submachine-gun kept chafing his shoulder and from time to time shooting was heard in the distance: the guerillas in the camp were trying out their weapons. There were the crows, pecking away at the soil, along the sides of the fresh furrows behind the plough, and the wind blowing from somewhere - from the blue sky, it appeared. The tall, dark wall of the forest skirted the field. One got the impression that this peaceful plot of land, isolated from the rest of the world, lived its own quiet life, according to its laws. One might think all was quiet in the world, but for the occasional drone of planes, the passage of guerilla troups, and the sound of shooting.
When the sun was high in the sky, driving the dew away, the commissar of the guerilla detachment came up on horseback to see how the men were getting on with their work. Riding along the outskirts of the forest he approached Chomčyk and Aksienia. "How is the ploughing getting on, Chomčyk?"
"Fine, comrade commissar!"
Glancing at Aksienia the commissar said to Chomčyk with a grin.
"Well, I think it must be fine... with such a hostess a regular fairy-tale princess."
"Always poking fun at people - that's the kind of fellow you are," Aksienia said, blushing.
"Look here," said the commissar, turning to her, and speaking in a serious tone, "If this fellow does things by halves come and let me know."
"But he leaves me very little to do."
"Everything'll be in perfect trim, comrade commissar."
"Well, see to it..." the commissar replied, as he gave his horse a blow with the whip.
Chomčyk turned to the plough again, dug it into the soil, and pulled the. horses up.
"What about having a rest, Aksienia? Let's sit down under the oak over there and have a smoke. The horses need a break as well."
He took Aksienia by the arm and led the way to a shady spot. They sat down.
"You're a smart one at singing songs, but have you always shunned men like this?"
"I have, indeed."
"You've grown like a wild tree in the forest - full of blossoms, but prickly."
"No, I'm not really prickly."
Rolling a cigarette, Chomčyk set about striking a spark from the flint. She put the paper back into his tobacco-pouch and fastened the strings.
"Poor sort of tobacco-pouch - that," she said.
"It's very much like my life... You see, I haven't yet got an Aksienia of my own to ask her to make a better one for me."
"Come off it! You must've had such Aksienias by the dozen!"
"Upon my word, my dear, I haven't... I just had no time. First of all busy getting an education, then doing my service, and now this here war came. There's a fair chance of my living all my days without an Aksienia."
"Maybe things have been the way you say - sounds unbelievable, though."
"Believe it or not, but it is true. Now we have to fight this war out, then I'll think of getting married."
Aksienia turned round to look at the forest and said,
"I had better go and gather some savory and strawberry leaves. We'll make tea with them tonight."
"Tea isn't quite the thing without sugar."
Aksienia flashed her eyes at Chomčyk, and looked away again.
"I'll get some, specially for you," she let drop playfully, and quickly disappeared. Chomčyk lay smoking. Soon strains of the familiar song reached his ears. He stirred to look round towards the forest. Then, unwittingly tugging at the peak of his cap, he pulled the cap over his ears, rose from the ground and walked in the direction from which the song came. He surprised Aksienia in the same way as he had done before. But this time both of them only burst out laughing merrily.
By the forest, by the river
Marysia tilled her land,
"Here I am to help you collect the herbs... You don't mind, do you?"
She went on singing,
Bending over a sharp-edged sickle
That she held in her right hand.
As he skirted a bush Chomčyk stumbled upon a large tussock of savory, and set about skillfully plucking it.
Soon he had a whole armful.
"Here you are. Aren't I a good boy?"
"Why, is that your way of plucking herbs? The whole lot's mixed up with grass!"
"No great harm done. You can sort it out at home. Let's go back to the horses... Shall we run and see who is quicker?" Aksienia threw a quick glance at Chomčyk, and all of a sudden dashed off through the shrubbery. He followed her.
The woman's white kerchief flashed amidst the foliage. Chomčyk ran faster and, catching up with Aksienia, threw his arms around her. She cried out and trembled like a big bird in his hearty embrace...
That evening, when a heavy bank of clouds hung motionless over the forest and the house, Aksienia handed Chomčyk some fresh underwear. There was a chain of embroidery stretching around the collar and down the breast of the shirt. She also brought a pair of clean soft foot-cloths, and asked him to wash at the well.
"Or else, if you'd like it better - go to the stream. There is a ford nearby in the forest. The mosquitoes will pester you, though, so you'd better have a wash here."
She had a wash herself. Chomčyk saw her let her rich hair down and cover the whole of her back. She combed and parted her hair in the middle in a homely manner, and then twisted it into a knot at the back of her head. She did not put on her kerchief this time.
They made a fire in the yard cooked the supper, seated under the wild pear-tree near the fence.
"How could it be that your man did not care for you?" Chomčyk said. "A worthless fellow. I'd have shot him for that."
"Oh, my man was my misfortune. A loafer, and a jealous one at that. He didn't live but stagnated. And he wanted me to stagnate. I ran away from him."
There was a tub near the well with bast soaking in it. Chomčyk set about cutting it into lengths, plaiting it together and making bast shoes.
He worked with speed and efficiency. Aksienia admired his skill.
"How fast you work! Aren't you clever with your hands!"
"Do try it on," Chomčyk said, and he put the bast shoe on her foot.
"Ah, but let go of my leg!" Aksienia cried.
"What's wr-o-o-o-ng?" he drawled.
The pulled his ear.
"And you say you've never had any Aksienias..."
"Never, upon my word, never had anyone," Chomčyk said in earnest, looking up at Aksienia.
...A few days went by like this. Aksienia no longer called Chomčyk Ściapan but Ściapanka*: "Would you like this, Ściapanka, would you like that? Come here, sit down, have a little rest. Ugh, you're all in a sweat..." And she would wipe his face with her apron. After ploughing her field and the fields of three more families, Ściapanka and Aksienia went out to do some mowing. They mowed not far from the house. Chomčyk put up a shelter there. He overhauled the shed, mended the stove in the house, and put up some new fences in the yard. When Aksienia did her washing, he would fetch water for her. They even weeded the vegetable patch together, and arranged a small threshing-floor in the yard, enclosing it in a wooden fence. Once Aksienia said.
* The suffix 'ka' in Belarusian turns a noun into a term of endearment (traslator's note).
"Ściapanka, will you make a couple of racks for berrying - for me and yourself?"
"What kind of racks? I've no idea... We usually do the picking by hand."
"And we make racks too. I'll show you how to do it."
He made two racks and they went berrying one morning.
The sun was unhurriedly finding its way over the forest. Its rays penetrated the thickets and mottled the dewy grass.
When they emerged onto the road, Aksienia hallooed at the top of her voice, cupping her hands round her mouth. The echo reverberated in a thousand voices, and died away in the depths of the forest. Aksienia broke into a song.
God forbid me, God forbid me
To fall in love with an undersized chap;
Every time you want to kiss him
You'd have to bend and break your back.
Chomčyk burst out into boisterous laughter, and she followed suit.
"That was a dig at me, wasn't it?" he cried, and put his arm round her sturdy waist. She did not mind, but only said, "Let go, somebody might see us." And she went on singing,
Right behind the birch-tree
The sun shines through the cloud.
Isn't that you, my darling,
Peeping from without?
They wandered on, feeling in the seventh heaven.
"Your songs go straight to my heart," Chomčyk said as he sauntered by her side with his head in the clouds. He felt quite elated.
Aksienia suddenly fell silent and put her arm round his neck. Chomčyk had only a fleeting sensation of the touch of her arms - fresh, resilient, like the whole of her body...
As they picked berries, chatting and laughing merrily they did not notice the heavy clouds that had overcast the sky. The air became sultry, and a distant peal of thunder broke out. It gave them warning of the coming storm, but they continued gathering the berries. The forest grew still. The thunder rolled nearer.
"Come on, Ściapanka, or else we'll get caught in the rain," Aksienia called out, and walked off quickly to collect the basket that hung on the branch of an oak.
"Just half a mo' ... Look, what a lot of berries!... berries everywhere. I can't miss these! And then, with this contraption of yours you can pick 'em in a minute."
A gust of wind suddenly rustled through the foliage, and then for a moment all was still again. Another gust came and bent the trees.
"Didn't I tell you?" Aksienia reiterated. "Come on, quick!"
Large drops of rain were already falling.
"To the shelter!" Chomčyk shouted, and they both turned to the right, taking a short cut through the forest. The black cloud was creeping up over their very heads. Lightning flashed across the sky in a golden zigzag. A clap of thunder rumbled and the rain came down in torrents.
"To the shelter, quick!" shouted Chomčyk as he ran, threading his way amidst the bushes with the basket on his back.
They came rushing into the hut and dropped down on the hay. Recovering their breath, they looked into each other's eyes.
"There... I told you to hurry up, you wouldn't listen. Now we've had a good drenching."
"Well, what of it? Just a bit of foolery- this!"
In the meanwhile the torrents of rain were lashing down upon the mowed clearing, and the wind was violently swaying the trees.
Aksienia's cheeks had become the fresher and slightly flushed, her wet locks of hair stuck to the temples. Her eyes had grown darker and the eyebrows looked as if they had just been pencilled by an artist's fine brush.
Chomčyk wiped his face on his shirtsleeve and started spreading the hay under him. When he was through, he put his arms round Aksienia and gazed into her eyes as if they were a fathomless forest lake.
"Where have you sprung from, can you tell me? Only in a dream could one see you. Sometimes I think that all this is not real."
"It only seems so to you. I'm just the same as anybody else," she replied, smoothing down the hair behind his ears.
"It's you who've come and brought me back to life. I was quite sure the future had nothing in store for me."
"Why didn't anybody make love to you before?"
"They tried. But I wouldn't let them. The people in the village used to say that I was the cause of my husband's death, that I lived like a regular witch and sorceress in the forest... You were somehow different from the others, never took liberties with me..."
She stroked his cheek caressingly. Chomčyk looked at her with silent admiration, and in spite of himself his lips broke into a smile. All of a sudden, forgetting himself and everything around him, he started kissing her...
The downpour continued, the water splashed in every hollow, the wet foliage rustled around the hut. The clouds racing across the sky carried off the rain, together with the dying peals of thunder.
Towards the evening of the same day, when the drenched earth and trees were silently drinking in the sun, Kaviahin, the leader of the group that was sent to plough the village fields, came to see Chomčyk.
Chomčyk had just left his horses in the forest and returned to Aksienia, who was busy preparing cucumbers for pickling.
Kaviahin was Chomčyk's senior. He was a Don Cossak, and a swarthy, dark-haired fellow.
"Well, brother Chomčyk, time to wind up," he said, "or else we may forget all about the war, and how to fight..."
Aksienia looked up at Kaviahin, and hung her head.
"Step aside here, brother, for a moment, I have something to say to you," Kaviahin beckoned to Chomčyk.
They went away as far as the path that ran under the plum-trees, and talked about something for a while.
Now and again Aksienia looked in their direction. Her face was clouded with anxiety, and her hands were unusually slow in tackling her work.
Kaviahin said good-bye to Chomčyk, and hurriedly departed.
"I'm off to get the horses," said Chomčyk, coming up. I have to go to the camp right away. That's the order."
Aksienia took a look around and was silent, lowering her eyes. Then she brought herself to say.
"Well, war is war, darling... It can't be helped."
Chomčyk knew what was going on in her heart. He saw that she was quite overcome by her feelings. An acute sorrow for this wonderful woman swept over him. He sat down, hugged her holding her fast to his breast, and kissed her warmly.
"Don't take it to heart, Aksienia, dear..." he said softly, then jumped up and walked off towards the forest.
Wiping off her tears with her apron Aksienia went indoors.
...The horses were harnessed, Aksienia was putting a sack and bags with bread, salted pork fat and dried cheese two changes of underwear and even a bobbin of thread and a needle into the cart.
She walked with him the whole way, even to the end of the pinewood. When they parted, she asked.
"Will you have a chance to come and see me some day? They might have to move your camp, mightn't they?"
"I don't know yet. It looks as if we're going off somewhere, dearest. But not for a long time. We'll come back here all the same. There's a talk about a blockade, Aksienia... But I don't know anything for certain."
"Take me with you. How can I live alone now?"
Chomčyk thought a moment, "That's difficult... I'll try to talk to the commander... Good-bye, my dear. Don't be sad. I'll try to call and see you tomorrow".
As Aksienia walked back through the pinewood her legs were unsteady. She did not heed the merry chirping of the birds that filled the pinewood, bathed by the recent rain. When she found herself at home again she was quite overwhelmed by her loneliness for the first time. The birch and the pear-tree and the house - they all stared at her with a mute, sorrowful air. She entered the house, dropped her head on a pillow, and burst into tears.
The weather was windy next day. Large clouds floating by chased each other across the sky, now and then obscuring the sun. In the afternoon Chomčyk came on horseback to see Aksienia. He hastily dismounted, and refused even to sit down at table, but Aksienia prevailed upon him at last. She looked sickly and downcast.
"Now, darling. I have no idea when I'll be able to see you again," Chomčyk said as he bade Aksienia farewell. The Germans are starting a large-scale offensive against us - there's a large force of nearly forty-four thousand. We'll have to break into small groups and manoeuvre... The population ought to be warned so that they can bury their belongings in good time. You do the same. And then try to hide somewhere lest the Germans should kill you... They are sure to burn down the village... Everybody should be warned about it."
Nestling against Chomčyk's chest, Aksienia pleaded.
"Take me with you..."
"Don't get yourself all upset... We'll meet again yet. I'll never forget you. He gave Aksienia one last hug and, holding her tight, whispered in her ear.
"Darling, don't forget what I told you yesterday... Don't do away with the baby... let it be born."
She pressed her face against Chomčyk's chest, and listened to the beating of his heart.
"Once again, my darling, remember! I'll be back..." he said mounting his horse.
He set off at a round trot along the path running between the cherry-and plum-trees. Aksienia followed him with a look of deepest sorrow in her eyes.