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A Russian Idyll

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

The farm near Dolya. The pool, and the ducks floating upon it, all snowy white except for the one with the iridescent purple head and the clean gray wings, the bright and knowing eyes, his own pet. The scents of summer, and the little tumbledown summer-house smelling of decayed wood, the boards falling apart and allowing a golden blade of light to glide into the odorous darkness, tipping here a spider solitary in his web and there an old hornet’s nest tucked among the rafters. And the fragrance of wet wood, of leaves after rain, of the heavy dripping trees, the hot sun on the wet earth, the water dripping from the berries and from the young bodies beside the pond, the birds quarreling outside, the musical trickle of water over the dam, the rustling twigs, the breathless whispers, the excitements, the delights. Far away the spire of the village church rose from the flat land, and on either side of it, on the very edge of the village, the copses. Behind one of these lay sick old Semen-enko’s estate.

Once, when Alexei was a boy of ten playing beside the haystack, one of the harvesters, a leering young man of twenty or so, passed by and beckoned to him. “Come along, I’ll show you a thing or two,” he whispered. Stealthily they approached the woodshed and peered through a knothole in the door, first the one and then the other. The chap kept tittering and winking his gray eyes, but Alexei could not understand why, until at last he discerned two shapes in the darkness, lying upon the sawdust, kissing and clutching at each other’s bodies—his cousin Zofja and the handsome young officer Piotrowski from Kharkov who had been loitering about the village so much lately.

He caught his breath. He did not understand. But one thing he grasped—the hint of a debased yet sweet excitement, so it appeared to him; from that moment on he coidd not rest for curiosity and a wistful sort of envy. Everything took on a new significance—the women with their silky hair and their rich soft flesh, the older men, all brown muscle and hair, with their bellowing voices. “I’ll be as strong as that one day,” he thought. “A soldier, maybe, like Piotrow-ski, with a mustache and a uniform . . .” And there were moments, a year or two later, like the one when he sat with the men out under the trees beyond the field and the girls brought out the food in yellow baskets, and Anna sat down beside him, hot and breathless, leaning back and closing her eyes, her blue skirt rumpled, her forehead pearled with sweat, and he could see her smooth young legs as she raised her knee, and her thighs, mysterious and dark.

And another time, not long after, sitting beside Anna in the hay cart as it rumbled along the road toward Yelenovke at dusk, the air full of the farewells of autumn, the chirping of crickets, the humming of insects. The dust hovered over the road behind them, the sun had set, he could see a single star, just one, no more. He felt the itching of his arm as it rested in the warm hay, and then, as Anna turned to one side, the brief caress of her hair upon his cheek. Then suddenly he put his eager brown arms around Anna’s slender waist and placed his face upon her neck, closing his eyes, feeling her warm skin upon his lips, hearing her laughter, her teasing voice slowly growing more tender.

And later, again and again, he would feel Anna in his arms, his heart full of this warm autumn confusion, his body quivering with sweet and puzzling desires, the air full of insects, full of desires too, and the quiet darkening sky, the stars beginning to appear, and Anna’s silky soft hair, her warm soft arms, and her teasing laughter growing soft and warm.

One August morning, six or seven years later, he was walking through the copse behind the Semenenko estate when suddenly he stood stock still. There, on the leafy path before him, stood the most beautiful creature that he had ever seen.

She wore a big pink hat with flowers on it, and a silky white dress, and she was carrying a parasol. Her sleeves reached down to the elbows, and her forearm was paler and softer than those of the village girls. Her hair was blond, her eyes were blue, her cheeks were rosy. She looked very delicate to Alexei, like a flower or a butterfly.

At first she didn’t appear to see him. He stood beside a tree, hand pressed against the bark, and waited breathlessly for her to pass. She walked in soft timid steps with her eyes lowered toward the ground. Her slippers were tiny and shimmering gray, unlike any he had ever seen, so delicate and outlandish looking.

Then she raised her eyes suddenly and looked at him. A gaze as gentle and calm as that of a deer, but inexpressibly lovely to him, full of a certain fire, too. His heart beat wildly. It seemed that a momentary smile crossed her lips as she passed, a friendly yet dignified smile — or was it more than that? He couldn’t be sure, he could be sure of nothing at all now, for the world had suddenly grown new, tremulous, and full of magical expectations.

He saw her a second time, and a third, walking through the copse, and by discreet inquiries he discovered that she was a distant Austrian cousin to Mme. Semenenko. Her name was Maria, he found, but her family name he never knew. He now felt that he had come closer to her: no longer a silken evanescent creature out of a fairy tale, but human, sweetly tangible. And one day, seeing her hurrying with a bouquet of bluebells through the garden toward the big white house as it was beginning to rain he suddenly felt like crying out to her, joyfully, intimately, “Maria, Maria, Maria!”

A few days later he found her sitting upon a tree trunk at the side of the village road, her yellow hat on the grass beside her. She looked hot and tired—but, with the beads of moisture on her brow and the wet curls on her temples, lovelier than ever. He stopped near her with an aching heart. What, oh what might he say? What might he whisper in her ear, to tell her how deeply he admired her, how he longed to kneel at her feet, to write a poem to her, to send her a present of roses, to protect her from the cruelty of the world? He approached, eyes lowered, glanced for one moment at her with an intense shy longing, and then passed on down the road. His heart was overflowing, but he had said not a word.

He had seen enough, though. He had seen, for one celestial and unforgettable moment, her blue eyes meeting his own, the sweet glance of friendly recognition beneath the row of blond little curls that fell upon her forehead.

As he approached the farm he began to leap with joy, he wanted to sing but then remembered that his voice was hoarse and displeasing. However, he stopped beside an old poplar tree, leaned his head against it for a moment, and then planted upon it a quick happy kiss.

Several days later he was sent to the big white house with a basketful of cherries for Madame Semenenko.

But instead of waiting in the courtyard he was led by the footman along the mirrored and marbled hall into a large brocaded room. “Wait here,” said the ugly old footman in his conceited Polish accent. Through a half-open door he could see into the next room—a large yellow room with dark green hangings. In the middle of it sat two army officers playing chess, one old and the other young. He couldn’t see clearly, but the young one very much resembled that man Piotrowski from Kharkov.

There he stood, with his sunburned arms hanging bashfully out of the torn blue blouse, alternately blushing and blanching in expectation of he knew not what austere or en- I chanting arrival. He waited five minutes, ten minutes. Then, the basketful of ruby-red cherries dangling from his elbow, he looked about the room more curiously: everywhere were little Chinese figurines, bits of ivory, exotic vases and toys and such. Upon the mantle in front of a large mirror lay a marble boy, with the long curls and ripe breasts of a girl—on the pedestal underneath he read, letter by letter, the mystifying legend: Sleeping Hermaphrodite. A great fire screen stood in front of the hearth and on it were painted in the most charming colors a shaggy man with legs like a goat’s and a woman lying under a willow tree, naked and smiling, eyes lustfully fastened upon the other’s body. Alexei found this picture deeply exciting. His heart beat more quickly, and the room seemed suddenly full of strange shadows, visitors out of a curious and fabulous unknown. A great cabinet inlaid with ivory roses and cherubs stood in the corner. Pink ladies rested on golden clouds that were painted on the ceiling. Above all, upon every wall hung paintings framed in the most magnificent golden frames. He looked at one— another naked lady—and under it he read the name “Guido Reni”; an Italian, he thought, and his heart leapt with the thought of a sunny Mediterranean land where men had goat’s hooves and women were forever willing and boys were shaped like girls; and where such lovely unclad figures went leaping across a landscape of ruined towers, streams lined with gnarled trees, grazing sheep, and countless flowers.

Presently the door opened and Maria appeared on the threshold. He was overcome by her beauty, so flawless, so far beyond his reach. She looked at him gently and without a word. She appeared much younger than he had thought. She wasn’t after all so very much older than he, perhaps. Her skin was smooth as silk, her eyes were clear as a blue April morning. He caught his breath, stricken, and a sweet melancholy instantly filled his soul.

He nodded, gave her the basket, and mumbled an awkward explanation. How kind she was, how gentle and full of understanding! Her smile was free entirely of that robust irony which twinkled forever in the eyes of the prettiest village girls. “Thank you,” she said, in a soft accent, somewhat outlandish yet charming and amiable. “And come again soon, do!” Then she blushed.

Oh, those enchanted and light-hearted days! The delight of arising early in the August morning, stepping into the out-of-doors where the sun was already beguiling each leaf and flower; the rambles in the field where the silky bullocks, their hooves wet and shining with dew, stared at him with their big stupid eyes; climbing the fence, leaping over the brook, skipping past the haystacks and through the orchard, full of the morning’s joy and other subtler joys still anticipated. Youth, with the spring in the ankle and the fresh young juice in the knee-joints, the limbs still clear and pliable, the chest firm and smooth, the ribs like soft waves in the warm resilient flesh, the hips slim and white as marble, the hair glowing, the gait careless and graceful, the eyes quick, clear, responsive, innocent, the lips firm and pure, the voice soft and expectant, the spirit so self-forgetful, so ardent! The eyes, the ears, the skin, all were overjoyed to be alive, quivering with delighted surprise at everything they perceived : the green dewy grass, the infinite blue sky, the traveling clouds which assumed strange shapes—a sleeping giantess, a wild boar, a crumpled glove, a wig, an enormous lyre, glowing against the blue so brilliantly that for a moment he longed to be there too, in that soft white world where no mortal harm could ever reach one and where, beyond all doubt, a continuous heavenly music echoed in one’s ears.

He would reach the edge of the wood: the dark level wood of Russia, the ageless, tangled wood where trunks of a thousand years ago were still rotting away and a thousand pale mushrooms guarded their black remains. She would be waiting for him at the edge of the path beside the gate, hidden from the fields and the houses. Then she would take his hand and walk with him through the orchard, her hair fluttering in the breeze and her straw hat hanging on her shoulders by a pink band around her neck. He would watch her, scarcely able to believe her beauty—her flowerlike cheeks, her satin neck, her exquisite lips across which she would quickly run her tongue now and again. Even on rainy days she would solemnly wait for him under an umbrella, and they would creep into the old summer-house and sit there, telling old tales, whispering reminiscences. Once she fell asleep there, and his eyes wandered across her face, pausing now at her eyelids, now at her temples, now at her lips still smiling ever so faintly, like a traveler in an enchanted landscape who cannot believe that those trees are truly not of gold, those leaves of emerald, those diamonds nought but daisies. Suddenly, with a glow of surprise, he said to himself, “I am in love! I am in love!” Then he leaned over and placed on her cheek his first kiss, as timidly as if it were a flower out of the meadow that he was placing in her hand.

And then, those late September evenings! Those prolonged kisses, those impatient fingers sent on their familiar journeys, caressing the fragrant muslin, each new treasure so sweetly attained with wildly beating heart! In the perfect black mirror of the pond he could see reflected the hanging leaves, the darkening sullen clouds, even the devout spire in the distance, all with an amazing exactitude. She would point these out to him, as well as the leaves falling slowly into the water and the fragrance of the fallen leaves: he would be full of surprise at things which he had never noticed before—all the details of this dusky landscape that flowed gradually into such a novel existence before his eyes. Never had he noticed all this before. The mere color of the leaves seemed suddenly miraculous and touching. That, yes, that was love, so unbelievable, filling the world with intimacy, making it all his own, as if the Lord had tried to please him above all other creatures in creating this engaging variety.

And she beside him seemed now no longer an individual but, perhaps, a perfect song created out of all the rest of the world; no longer Maria, but one with the trees, the water, the subdued rhythm of the oncoming night. Oh, lovely, lovely, she wasl The loveliness of woman seemed mysterious and marvelous indeed, as variable as the glitter of water, as fresh as the scent of ferns, as consoling as the sound of a violin in the village inn on a cold night. The porcelain hands, the silken hair, the glowing cheeks, all assumed the indefinable hues of mother-of-pearl—like that shell from the Caspian Sea which lay on his mother’s dressing-table—as she leaned back on the grass and smiled. There only, in those opened arms, did all peace and sweetness of the world seem to be united, while the vast clouds moved above their heads and the trees grew darker and darker.

But September passed, and October too, little by little. Little by little he felt his lightheartedness vanishing, his delight endangered. He no longer understood the things that went on within him: the wild ambitions, the longing for glory, the gnawing uncertainty, the quick moments of panic and hopelessness and longing to hurt, which later on he learned to call “jealousy.”

Once they quarreled — about nothing at all, about the hour they were to meet on the next day, perhaps. Full of despair he crept around to the big white house that night and stood outside her window. It began to rain softly. He could see the lamplight falling on the curtain which was drawn across the window, and now and then a momentary shadow cast upon it. Then he climbed the chestnut tree and crept along the wet branch almost up to the window; by reaching out his arm he could almost touch the casement, but not quite, for the branch began to creak ominously and he didn’t dare climb further. Through a small opening in the curtain he could catch a glimpse of the room. She was sitting by a table, her back to the window, turning over the pages of a large photograph album bound in green velvet; at one page a dead flower fell out and fluttered to the floor, and for some obscure reason he felt a twinge of terrible grief in his heart—perhaps to see this fragment of a different love out of a different past so very casually fluttering into oblivion, perhaps because his own heart suddenly recognized how little one can ever possess, how frail and brief the ownership must be. He admired the glow of her hair under the lamplight and the lovely curve of her neck as she leaned over; he longed to touch it with his lips and yet, for the first time, there seemed to be something cruel and perverse in that beauty which he had never yet tasted quite to the full, which still was veiled in mystery.

He broke off a twig and tossed it at the window, and then another. She rose and turned around, with a curious expression on her face. He lost sight of her for a minute; his heart beat madly, for it occurred to him that she might leave the room. However, a moment later the curtain was drawn aside and she stood at the window, only three feet away from him. Yes, there was an unmistakeable look of mis-chievousness in her eyes as she gazed at him and her lips melted into a delicate smile.

He called to her gently, “Maria,” and slowly she opened the window, reached out and touched his hand. Then he crept forward and clutched at the window sill and leapt into the room. “Look, your clothes are quite wet,” she said, “you will catch a cold . . .” She looked incredibly lovely; never before had her beauty seemed so irresistible, so flamelike, so tormenting. “Here, slip off your wet things,” she whispered, and held out a blue dressing robe; “put this over you.” He took off the wet blouse but did not dare put the silky thing over his wet shoulders, so he sat there, half-naked, unable to think of anything to say.

But, seeing that she had forgotten their quarrel, and seemed indeed more gentle than ever, though he understood nothing at all, himself least of all, he knew that he felt terribly happy, relieved almost to the point of tears to see her being so kind to him. He longed desperately to put his arms around her and press her wildly to his heart. All he dared do, though, was suddenly to run his fingers over her hair in a burst of childish delight.

She smiled, and sat down on the edge of the bed. “You heard the singing in the village tonight?” she asked in a soft low voice.

He nodded ecstatically.

“Wasn’t it agreeable?”

“Oh yes!” he whispered with enthusiasm. (Actually it had only increased his sadness of two hours ago, to hear the music coming from the inn; but now in retrospect it seemed to him wholly delightful.)

But as she waited for him to say more, glancing now at the floor and now at him, a little smile forever at her lips like the clown in a play who peers through the curtain between two acts—during these moments which he never forgot, it never occurred to him that a subtle imperfection existed in this joy. All he knew was that there was something he longed desperately to say, but since words were always very difficult things to him and since no words in the world would have been more difficult to utter than the simple ones “I love you,” he remained silent.

And presently, carrying his wet blouse in his hand, he was again walking through the orchard on his way home. Now and then he felt an apple being crushed under his heel: the rain had stopped, the leafy darkness was full of the smell of rotting apples and wet autumn foliage. Once he heard an apple falling softly into the grass. High overhead he saw the clouds moving, some stars suddenly appearing, even a little sliver of a moon. Never before in his life had he felt both so unbelievably happy and so inexplicably sad.

Two mornings later Maria departed from Dolya. She was wearing a dark hat and a dark coat, and long dark gloves. She looked quite old suddenly. Her two trunks were placed in the carriage beside her, and off they drove. She turned and cast a hurried smile at the servants who were standing in a row beside the stairs, and hardly seemed to notice Alexei at all. Piotrowski was sitting beside her. She was going back to Austria, they explained, where she was to marry the son of the mayor of St. Gilgen.

He turned and ran to the old summer-house, full of its sweet and fragrant afternoon remembrances. He buried his head in the darkness, but even the power to burst into tears had quite forsaken him. He felt very ignorant, very helpless indeed. And he never saw her again. All he had left of her was a little miniature portrait which she had given him a week before, in a leaf-shaped mosaic frame of tiny roses and forget-me-nots, and tucked behind the picture, a lock of her hair and a bit of fern that she had once pressed to her lips. And even this small object he could scarcely bear to gaze upon, it hurt him so; he took to wearing it on a red string around his neck until one day a friend of his teased him about it as they were undressing to go swimming in the Kalmius river. Moon-faced, girlish, sentimental, they called him. After this he simply carried it in his pocket, reaching in to feel it there, ten, twenty times a day. But he rarely looked at it, even long after, for he couldn’t do so without feeling an overwhelming longing that ran through his body and an ache of sadness clutching at his heart.


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