Vasil Bykaŭ

An Unhealing Wound

The ruins decay - the vultures fly away

No longer flocking round the gore.

But painful and unhealing stay

The ever-gnawing wounds of war.

Michaś Vasilok

 

The cold autumn wind sweeps over the ground driving the withered leaves under the zavalinkas* and sways the wet branches in the small garden. It prances mischievously from round the corners into the small yard and small shed, or tosses the tangled fringe of Tekla's kerchief on her back. The old woman's sunken eyes water from the cold and wind, so from time to time she leans her chopper with its workpolished handle against the block, and wipes off the tears with the edge of her kerchief. Then she heaves a tired sigh and takes stock of the small pile of firewood that she has already chopped off a long thin log. The old woman has grown very tired, but the pile is not big enough yet to heat the stove. After resting and getting back her breath she again holds the log fast by stepping upon it and raises her jagged chopper. Autumn twilight is slowly creeping over Tekla's potato patch, the near-by pasture and the road that runs uphill and disappears in the grey distance. There are swift, shaggy clouds scurrying across the sky, an alarmed sheep is heard bleating on the further side of the village street, and somewhere geese are cantankerously cackling.

* Zavalinka - a small mound of earth along the outer wall of a peasant's house (translator's note).

Tekla chops away, stopping to have a brief respite now and then, and never taking her eyes off the road. She is obviously waiting for someone, and this painful waiting weighs heavy on her mind and lurks in her watery eyes.

At last the fast-moving figure of a cyclist comes in sight on the hill and, guided by certain signs, known to her alone, Tekla recognizes the collective farm postman. The cyclist comes riding along the side of the road, and dismounts at the foot of the hill to push the bicycle past a large pot-hole, and then remounts jerking his heavy bag on to his back with a quick movement of his arm.

As he approaches, the old woman becomes more and more impatient. She puts down her chopper and, leaving the open yard, goes out into the muddy street. Her hands fumble uneasily at her breast feeling over her coat without need, her face is screwed up into an expression of agonizing eagerness, and there is unspeakable anguish in her eyes. As the postman turns into the street the old woman hobbles along to meet him, as if she fears he might forget all about her.

The postman slows down his bicycle and, with a frown of weariness on his face, remonstrates with her gruffly,

"Why on earth do you always waylay me? I've got nothing for you, nothing!" he shouts these words into the old woman's face and disappears round the corner.

As if turned to stone, the old woman stares for a long time after him, her eyes expressing pain and bewilderment. For a while she stands like this, motionless and mute, dumbfounded by the discourtesy of the man. "Nothing", she whispers through withered and faded lips, trying to grasp the sense of that unkind word. With an unsteady and awkward gait she re-enters the yard where she has left her chopper, but instead of setting to work with it at once she stands for a long time over her log staring into the hazy distance. Slowly tears roll down her sallow weather-beaten cheeks.

As she keeps gazing at the sombre hillside and the muddy road, she sees an image of a warm July day, a clear sky and a cornfield on both sides of the road. It was in that far-distant memorable year when the war broke out. Then she also stood here and with despair in her heart stared at the road, her feet itching with the desire to rush after him, her only son, her Vasil. Up to his very shoulders in the thick, tall corn, he was walking away with the brisk step of a man of action, and never turned to look back till he was a long way off. Without taking her eyes off the disappearing figure, she stood weeping, her eyes dimmed with tears that prevented her from getting the last glimps of her son, her eighteen-year-old hope, her happiness, a precious portion of her maternal heart. It was some time before he turned round to take a last look at his mother, his own house, and his village. He stopped for a little while and waved his hand, as if he were bidding farewell to all that was near and dear to him - his boyhood and early youth; then he quickly disappeared beyond the crest of the hill.

And he disappeared, perhaps, for ever...

Sixteen unbearable years, each hour of which imprinted their fearful total on the mother's heart. Sixteen years of expectation and hope, and ever-gnawing anxious suspense. From time to time letters came, in all kinds of envelopes, but always to the same effect: the private Spodak Vasil Ivanavič is not on the list of those killed or missing. They were exciting and hopereviving, those letters. But time passed and the hopes were never realized. Sometimes the neighbours said things that were deeply resented by the mother, whose heart was loyally waiting day and night. This faith kept the old woman going, compelled her to look after herself; and so many years were wasted away just like that...

In the meanwhile, it slowly grew dark, a grey haze began to rise in the distance, and the air became chilly with autumn damp. Rousing from her thoughts, the old woman gathered up an armful of chopped firewood and, unlatching the front door, entered the house. It was already dark inside; a pitted and sooty stove showed white in the dusk. The only furniture in the house was a table with two benches next to it in the corner. Two square patches of fading light gleamed there, - the windows with one of the panes missing and stopped up. Dumping the firewood near the stove the old woman listened to the familiar stillness of the empty house and dropped down onto one of the benches. She sat there for a long time, thinking of one and the same thing: where was he, was he still alive?

Little by little the dusk deepened but the stove near the door still showed white and the windows gleamed with grey light. Tekla sat without stirring, her hands folded in her lap and her head hanging down in deep thought. She started violently when the sound of footsteps came from the porch, and her heart sank the way it always did at the slightest knock. "That's him!" She had not the strength to jump up and rush forward, so she sat motionless, transaxed with a tense, agonizing anticipation. Somebody was heard entering the porch and groping about the wall for the door handle. Presently the door opened. "Him, him, him," her heart began to thump, and she yearned that it might be true. Her hopes, however, were soon dashed.

"Is that you, granny?" said a voice at the door. It was Uljanka, a girl who lived next door. Perplexed by the sudden intrusion, Tekla was silent, unable to overcome the habitual pain in her heart.

"Why don't you light your lamp? And I've come to borrow some matches. Have you got any to spare? Ours have been used up by those smokers, drat them all! You can't trust them to leave a single spare match in the house!"

Tekla was silent as she listened to the girl's words without understanding them; the old sorrowful thoughts haunted her. Hardly aware of what she did, the old woman felt for the matches on the stove. Coming upon a half-empty box, she handed it to the girl. Uljanka went on chattering about this and that but then, realizing that her words were quite lost on the old woman, fell silent. As she took hold of the door handle she said with a sigh:

"You shouldn't take it so much to heart. It can't be helped. If he's alive somewhere he's sure to come back. If not... if not, you had better try to forget it!"

"How can I forget?" Tekla returned in an anguished tone, "If I knew that he wasn't alive, it wouldn't be so hard for me. But as it is... Tomorrow's his birthday - just before the Pakroŭ holiday,* but a hard fate has befallen him! His bones may be lying somewhere - I wish I knew where - at home or, God forbid, on German land."

* Pakroŭ - a religious holiday observed by the Orthodox Church on October 1st (translator's note).

The girl at the door shifted from foot to foot uneasily, fearing that the old woman would burst into tears: then her grief would be hard to quell. However, the long-standing pain had dried up the tears of old Tekla, leaving her heart burning with unbearable suffering.

That night she neither heated the stove nor lit the lamp. Climbing on to the ledge above the stove that was still warm since morning, she snuggled down on the edge of it, covering herself with a coat. She could not get to sleep - did not even try to - but lay with her eyes open, while remote but never-to-be-forgotten visions arose before her in the dark.

...The boy was born on a windy day like today - a small, vociferous baby. His father had just had typhus, and though he was already up and about, he was still weak and emaciated. The first-born baby came as a great consolation to this house of theirs, that stood on the outskirts of the village. Both his parents nursed and looked after him, rejoicing in his first steps and the first words he uttered. Time flew by and the quiet, fair-headed boy grew up; he was gentle, intelligent and lively. When he was five, he would go with his father to the fields, they would go together for a night-watch with the horses. The boy also tended the geese, and when Maryśka was born he looked after her. Learning came easy to him; before the holidays he would bring home small prizes from school: note-books, pencilboxes, coloured pencils. The neighbours always had a good word to say about the boy, and the mother's heart would beat the faster for the praise.

After school Vasilka continued his education and entered a pedagogical college in town, from which he graduated as a teacher. It was then, when he left for town, that the first painful hour of their parting came, followed later by a happy re-union. He was still quite a youngster, but the villagers respected him. Tekla's women neighbours envied her, the men praised the boy and he, as before, was quiet, shy and affectionate towards his mother. By that time she was already a widow, for the father with his poor health had not lived till the spring. That year Vasilka was completing his education. He grew up, matured and became broader about the shoulders. Once during a holiday when he was at home on a short visit, the mother realized that the boyhood of her fair-haired child was at an end and together with it her power over her son.

The warm evening in May, when the air was laden with the scent of the poplar and young birch leaves is fresh in her memory. The yard was filled with the drone of May-bugs, a distant accordion could be heard playing in the village, and she, remembering that it was time for her son to have supper, looked for him behind the house in the vegetable patch. Vasil sat there with a book in his hands, but when his mother caught sight of him he was not reading, and his eyes were fixed in an anxious and intent gaze upon the lurid sunset. The mother called out to him in a gentle tone, but he neither stirred nor took his eyes off the setting sun. At last he answered, and his words at once disturbed the peace of his mother's heart, and troubled her ever afterwards.

"Mother, look, do you see that sunset? Doesn't it look like a huge fire burning? Maybe the whole land will go up in flames, too. Mother, dearest, war is sure to break out soon. I'll have to go to the front and you and Maryśka will be left alone."

She remembers how alarmed she was then, upon realizing the frightful meaning of those words. She burst out crying and he jumped up, embraced her and tried to comfort her as best he could, saying that perhaps everything might be settled peacefully. However, when she had restrained her foreboding of evil and quietened down, he said in the grave and firm tones of a full-grown man:

"Well, if the worst conies to the worst, I'll have to go, mother. Whether they call me up or not, I'll go just the same: I know I must."

She did not understand everything, but believed that since he was saying it, indeed it had to be so, and she never tried to dissuade him or influence him in his decision.

And yet in her heart he always remained a kind, fairhaired boy who needed her love and care. During those frightful years of war she often imagined that he was somewhere living through great hardships, overcome by pain, cold and hunger. She was restless and found it difficult to stay at home. She was yearning to go in search for him, help him, take a part of his burden upon her own shoulders. Alas, where could she go and look for him?

The years went by. They often brought despair, less often joy lasting but an instant, like the gleam of the autumn sun. Men returned from the front, from the partisan detachments; many of them were wounded, but alive, about others notices of their death came. The mothers mourned over them, and quietened down little by little - what can't be cured must be endured! Tekla was still waiting - long and patiently, without complaining, but he never came, never so much as dropped her a line. The neighbours tried to comfort her and Maryśka reasoned with her many a time - she had got married and lived in a distant village. Every time her son-in-law met Tekla he asked her to come and stay with their family - her grandchildren were growing up, and her help was badly needed. But Tekla could not bring herself to give up her house in which her son had been born, and which for years she had been carefully keeping for him.

The pitch-dark autumn night slowly steals in, the house is as still as the grave: it could be empty but for Tekla. She had once kept a cat, but it disappeared for some reason or other. Her bitter grief has stifled all her interest in life, affected her disposition and lacerated her heart, so that life seems to have nothing left in store for the lonely old woman.

She still lies awake thinking her joyless thoughts and listening intently. She had grown accustomed to be on the alert during those sixteen years of anxiety and waiting - to listen to every rustle and every noise outside.

However, everything is still. Only the wind can be heard rustling in the eaves, and the drone of an engine coming from the road. It must be a lorry approaching, bumping in the pot-holes near the hill. For an instant the bluish flash of its headlights glides across the windows and a narrow wavering streak reaches the corner under the ceiling. The drone comes nearer, the streak of light spreads over the sooty, cracked logs of the wall and grows into a large spot crossed by dark stripes from the window frame; presently the whole of Tekla's window with one of its panes stopped up is slantingly projected on the wall. The reflection glides quickly towards the other corner and finally disappears, lighting up for an instant a large peg and the collar of a sheepskin coat hung on it. The house grows dark again as the lorry rumbles past Tekla's yard.

Tekla remains motionless, listening and alone with her thoughts, then she is galvanized by a new hope. He may have come from the station; he may be standing near the house - about to enter. Tekla raises her head and really hears unsteady footsteps outside and a gentle, brief knock. That's him! The old woman stirs to life, climbs down from the ledge, dragging her quilted jacket after her and fumbles with the latch at the door. She throws it open; the dampness and cold of an autumn night breathe into her face; there is silence and darkness all around. Nobody is to be seen in the field, gloom envelopes the yard. For a brief moment she gazes into the night, listening intently, overwhelmed once more by despair, unwilling to relinquish her defeated hope. Slowly splashing through the mud she skirts the corner of the house and stops for a long while staring into the street - the street is deserted.

Then she retraces her steps and, climbing on to the ledge above the stove, lies awake all night through, listening. Before dawn the old woman falls asleep at last and sees a wonderful dream as if in continuation of her thoughts.

She is dreaming that a new day has come - Vasilka's birthday. She is busy doing her daily chores and all the time keeps glancing at the road. She waits and knows for certain that he - her hope - is bound to come. The woman is getting everything ready for this meeting, but somehow it does not rejoice her heart - something stands in the way of her coming joy. Little by little she ceases to expect the meeting altogether. The old woman lights the stove, her daughter Maryśka helping her. They make pancakes and, as they do it, they feast on choice food, forgetting all about Vasilka and his forthcoming return. All of a sudden their neighbour, Uljanka, raps on the window and shouts something - Tekla cannot make out the words, but she guesses it is news about him. The old woman runs out of the house and sees her son, her dear Vasilka, walking down that same road on which she saw him sixteen years ago. But he walks very slowly, stopping now and then and falling on his knees; something is wrong with him, he seems to be under great stress. A wild uncontrollable impulse drives the mother out of the house, with only a light jacket on, and without her kerchief. She rushes towards her son straight across the potato field and the patches of mud. She is already aware that something terrible and irreparable has happened to her Vasilka. Wailing, the woman runs up to her son who is lying on the road. He raises himself a little on his hands and an understanding smile crosses his face - a face as young as it used to be sixteen years ago, without a single wrinkle. But what is this? Why has the young man neither arms nor legs? There are just short stumps in place of them. And why is there blood on his cap with its small green star? The mother, frozen with fear, takes hold of her son, trying to lift him. She never stops wailing, but he says quietly, "It's all right, mother, our hard luck is all over. Now we'll start a new life.

And then she sees him in her own house; he seems to be sitting at the head of the table, no longer in the Red Army uniform, but in the grey coat that he had made to order before the war. In a grave tone he says to his mother, "It's all right, really, although I died I'm alive again..."

The nightmares wake her up at daybreak and, weak from the horrors she has been through, she lies still with her mind a blank. Then she recalls her recent dream and goes over its most salient points, and the vision, so vivid and fresh in its appeal gives her an exquisite pain. The more she thinks, the more she feels convinced that he is bound to return. This conviction mixed with the desire that all this should come true puts an end to her inactive waiting. The old woman gets up and hastily throws on her coat. It is chilly in the house, the stove having grown quite cold; day is just beginning to break, and Tekla hurries to the window with the broken pane to look at the road. However, the road is still invisible, only the empty hill looms in the distance under a low leaden sky. The old woman roams about, wondering what she should turn her hand to; her thoughts are far away - over there on the road, and her heart is filled with increasing impatience. Once more she feels quite sure that he is on his way home, so now and then she either hastens to the window, or goes out into the yard and stares into the distance till her eyes begin to ache.

When it grew light Tekla could no longer contain herself and, going out again, peered at the road. At first it was deserted, then there came a cart driven by two men and a woman. For a long time Tekla watched them eagerly, her heart going pit-a-pat with impatience, while they drove through the village, taken up with carefree talk mixed with laughter. After that the road was empty for a long time, till a lonely figure made its appearance in the distance. It came in sight, quivered on the horizon for a little while, and vanished. Tekla's heart stood still within her and the thought pulsated dully in her head, "That's him, that's him!" She stared still more intently, and then could stop herself no longer. Without even shutting the door of the house the old woman started walking down the road, with her bare feet thrust hurriedly into her rough boots. At first she tried to avoid the muddy places, casting glances now at the road, in front her now at the hill, then she quickened her steps and minded the road no more. When she reached the low dip near the pot-holes and lost sight of the hill she was seized with panic. The old woman imagined that she was too late, that he had fallen and lay there, a crippled man, so she broke into a trot, quickly losing her breath.

Her heart nearly burst with grief and strain by the time she emerged from the dip. Every minute she fancied, she would see him, as in her recent dream, lying on the road, a prostrate, crippled man. Gasping with weariness, and agitation she mounted the hill, but the road was empty. That was the first disappointment but it did not shake the old lady's determination. Perhaps he was over there, beyond the brushwood or in the meadow, she thought, and the old woman hurried on, without stopping.

A murky autumn day, imperceptibly crept over the broad tracts of farm-land and naked copses; it was windy and cold. The low sky was heavy with ragged-looking clouds - in a solid endless mass they floated from the West carrying the first frosts with them.

Tekla never stopped to rest either at the top of the hill or near the undergrowth; she was unable to slow down her pace - urged on by a yearming to move yet nearer to the place where she expected to find him. The whole time the old woman fancied that all she had to do was to get to the hill, or skirt the shrubbery, and she would see him so she hastened her steps.

However, he appeared neither from behind the hill, nor from behind the brushwood, and the old woman's strength was now ebbing away. She leaned against a telephone pole and looked this way and that, as if she realized for the first time how ephemeral her hope was. What a good thing it was, the old woman thought, that his father was buried at home, in the village graveyard, and his grave was well looked after. But what about her son? Where was he buried? - the thought rent her heart. Was it really all over? Would she never be able to see him again? Would she have to leave for a distant village, to stay with her son-in-law?... No, why think of death, and all that? He couldn't have died, he must be alive, he must be walking down the same road, so she had better hurry on and meet him. And she trudged through the mud into an unknown part of the road.

By noon she had passed all the familiar parts and well-known villages. The road wound on amidst the expanses of autumn fields, and the mother scanned them with eagerness, but he was not to be seen anywhere. She walked on and on till she got very tired and had to rest at the edge of the fields, near a pole or on a stone. She could bring herself neither to stop nor turn back: she was obsessed by the idea that her son's life depended on her moving on.

Presently she met a tractor that was pulling a huge red-painted threshing-machine; there were a few young men on each of the vehicles. The old woman stepped off the side of the road, away from the rattle and rumble and looked closely at the men. The one who sat next to the tractor-driver in the cab struck her as the very picture of her Vasilka; the tractor had passed by and she still stood looking after it. A fellow wearing an unbuttoned quilted jacket stood on the thresher; he shouted something to her and broke into a laugh - she could not make out the words, but his youthful perky laughter somehow cut her to the quick.

Towards evening she could hardly drag herself along, short of breath and stopping every now and then from sheer weariness. The enthusiasm that had shone in the old woman's eyes urging her on had now worn out, together with her impatient hope to meet him. And yet, with a palpitating heart, she turned her eyes upon every curve of the road. Little by little the groundless hope of the old woman began to wither. The thought kept recurring to her that it was all a wild goose chase. He was going to return neither that day nor any other day, for he was no more in this world. The whole thing was an illusion, vain expectations and the only thing she desired to know now was where her son was buried. That was another matter, but she took it as much to heart as the hope of his being alive.

The lurid clouds grew thicker in the sky. They were no longer floating, but pressed together and crowded over the expanse of the field as though plotting some evil. A sinister gloom descended from bevond the horizon and hung in the distance, darkening the landscape which grew wan in expectation of foul weather. Evening twilight was steadily coming on, although it might be growing dark too soon because of the overcast sky. Sparse snowflakes came whirling down on the north wind.

Tekla trudged on, though she herself did not know where and why. Grief and despair were closing in upon her, and she knew for certain that good fortune would not come her way on this road. And yet she could not possibly turn back - she had not the strength.

The road turned into a thick wood of firs. The trees stood on both sides, their tops moaning in the wind. There were heaps of rustling leaves blown into the ruts which were filled with muddy brown water. Tekla walked down the road, leaning on a stick, and hardly able to drag her tired aching feet along. However, the wood soon came to an end, the road ran downhill towards a lonely empty meadow and the old woman, stopped abruptly, growing slowly conscious of the surrounding scene.

On a hill that stood on the edge of the forest a little way off the road there was a stone obelisk with a star on top, showing white in a kind of pure and luminous way - an ordinary military memorial to those who had fallen before reaching Berlin. Swept by bitter misgivings that filled her heart, Tekla left the road and, wading through the mass of rustling leaves, approached the memorial.

It was well kept and recently whitewashed, this sorrowful relic of the war. The small grave, covered with withered grass, was carefully trimmed and simple wreaths, long shrivelled up, were placed on it; the well-planed wooden parts of the enclosure were lying green after military fashion. On one side of the obelisk there was a black plaque with letters written or engraved on it in a rustic, homely manner - a list of the buried men. Desperately pressing with her breast against the railings the old woman drank in those lines of pathetic words.

But he was not there. "Lieutenant Avierjanaŭ, Guards Master-sergeant Kuźniacoŭ, privates Bondaraŭ, Pilipienka, Čarnych and others." Well, who were those others, why weren't their names mentioned? He may have been among those unknown "others".

She was unable to leave the place; she clung to the cold rails of the enclosure and a heart-rending query broke from her burning breast.

"My son, where are you?"

The sky grew dark with heavy clouds, the wind moaned among the naked branches of the trees on the edge of the forest, and further away on the horizon there was a chilly stillness. The wind echoed with that query of hers for a long time, as the mother's heart wailed of the woe caused by the bleeding wounds of war.

 

1957




Source: Colours Of The Native Country. Minsk, Byelarus Publishers, 1972.
Translation: A.Weise

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