November 11, 2003

Peasant Marey

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

All these professions de foi are, I think, boring to read. So I will tell an anecdote, actually not even an anecdote—only a very old, distant recollection, which, for some reason I very much want to tell, precisely here and now, in conclusion of our treatise about the people. I was only nine years old at the time. But no, I had better start with what happened when I was twenty nine years old.

It was the second day of Holy Week. There was warmth in the air, the sky was blue, the sun stood high, "warm," bright, but in my heart it was very gloomy. I was wandering around behind the barracks. I looked at and counted the posts of the prison's stockade fence, but I did not really feel like counting them, although it was my habit to do that. It was already the second day of ''feasting" in the prison. The prisoners were not convoyed out to work, there were many drunks, there was swearing, fights were breaking out everywhere all the time. Ugly, disgusting songs were sung, card games and gambling were going on under the bunks. A few prisoners, beaten half dead by the prisoners' own court, for especially violent misdeeds, lay on the bunks, covered by sheepskin coats, till they would regain consciousness and wake up. Knives had been drawn several times. All this, after two days of Easter, upset me till I felt sick. I was never able to endure without disgust the people's drunken debauchery, and particularly not here, in this place. During those days, even the authorities did not search the prison and did not look for liquor, understanding that once a year even these outcasts must be allowed to kick up their heels, otherwise things would become even worse. Finally I flared up in anger. I happened to meet the Pole M_____tski, one of the political prisoners. He looked at me somberly, his eyes darkened, and his lips trembled. He gritted his teeth, said in a low voice, ''Je hais ces brigands!", and walked past me.

I went back into the barracks, despite the fact that fifteen minutes before I had run out of them like someone half demented when six healthy, strong peasants had thrown themselves, all at the same time, on the drunken Tartar Gazin, in order to quiet him down, and had beaten him up. They beat him horrendously, one could have killed a camel with blows like that. But they knew that it was hard to kill that Hercules, and so they beat him without pulling their punches. Now, when I returned, I noticed Gazin, unconscious, at the end of the barracks, on the bunk in the corner, giving no signs of life. He lay there covered by a sheepskin coat. Everybody was walking around him in silence. They were firmly hoping that the next day towards morning he would come to, "but from blows like that, one never knows, a man could even die." I made my way to my place across from the window with iron bars, and lay there, face down, put my hands behind my head, and closed my eyes. I liked to lie like that. People leave you alone when you are sleeping, and you can dream and think. But I was not able to dream. My heart beat restlessly. In my ears I heard M_____tski's words, "Je hai's ces brigands!" Anyway, what is the point of describing my impressions. Even now I dream of that time, at night, and those are the most agonizing of all my dreams. Perhaps my readers have noticed that until today, I have not once spoken in print about my life in prison. I wrote "Notes from the House of the Dead" fifteen years ago as if narrated by a fictional character, a criminal who was supposed to have murdered his wife. As a matter of fact, I will add this detail, since that time many people think about me and even now assert that I was sent into exile for the murder of my wife.

Bit by bit, I really did sink into unconsciousness and gradually became submerged in reminiscences. In the entire four years of my imprisonment I recalled uninterruptedly my entire past. It seems that in my memories I lived again through all my previous life. These recollections came of themselves. I seldom called them forth because I wanted to myself. It began from some point, some trait, sometimes an unnoticeable one, and then little by little it grew into an entire picture, into some strong and whole impression. I would analyze those impressions, add new traits to what I had experienced a long time before, and, most important, I corrected it. I corrected it ceaselessly, that was what all my pleasure consisted of. This time suddenly an insignificant moment from my earliest childhood, when I was only ten years old, came into my memory. A moment, it would seem, which I had completely forgotten. But at that time I loved especially memories from my very earliest childhood. I recalled August in our village, a dry and clear day, but somewhat cold and windy. The summer was drawing to its close, and soon we would have to go to Moscow, to be bored again all winter doing French lessons, and I felt so sorry to leave the country that I went out past the barns, and down into the ravine. I walked up to Losk, that was what we called the thick shrubs between the other side of the ravine and the woods. I pushed further into the bushes and I heard, as though from nearby, thirty steps away, in a clearing, one of our peasants, who was ploughing. I knew he was ploughing on a steep slope, and his horse was walking with difficulty. From time to time his shouts reached me, "Nu, nu!" I knew almost all our peasants. But I did not know which of them it was who was ploughing there. It was all the same to me; I was all preoccupied with what I was doing. I was busy, too. I was breaking off a twig from a nut-tree with which to whip frogs. Whips out of nut-trees twigs are so beautiful and elastic, much more so than birch tree ones. I was also paying attention to bugs and beetles. I collected them; there are some very beautiful ones. I also liked small, nimble, reddish-yellow lizards, with black spots, but I was afraid of snakes. Actually one ran across snakes much less often than lizards. There were few mushrooms there. One must go in the birch woods to find mushrooms, and I was planning to go there. There was nothing in my life that I loved as much as the woods with their mushrooms and wild berries, with their little bugs and birds, porcupines, squirrels with their humid smell of rotting leaves, which I was especially fond of. And even now, as I am writing this, I can smell the birch woods in our countryside. These impressions remain with one all one's life.

Suddenly, in the middle of the deep silence, I heard clearly and distinctly the shout: "There is a wolf!" I cried out. Beside myself with fear, shouting out loud, I ran into the clearing, directly to a peasant who was ploughing there.

It was our peasant Marey. I don't know if such a name exists, but everybody called him Marey. He was a fifty year old, thick-set, strapping peasant, with a lot of grey in his brown, broad, thick beard. I knew him, but before then I had almost never entered into a conversation with him. When he heard my cry, he stopped his horse, and when I ran up and seized his plough with one hand and his sleeve with the other, he realized how frightened I was.

"There is a wolf!" I shouted, out of breath.

He lifted up his head and involuntarily looked around. For a moment he almost believed me.

"Where is the wolf?"

"Somebody shouted... somebody just now shouted, ‘There is a wolf!'" I babbled.

"Come on, come on, what wolf! It just seemed to you like that. What kind of wolf would be here," he muttered, cheering me up. But I was shaking all over and held on to his coat even more firmly. I must have been very pale. He looked at me with a worried smile, evidently fearing for me and worrying.

"Oh so you got scared, oh my," he shook his head. "Enough, my boy. No, no, boykin."

He reached out and suddenly stroked my cheek: "Enough, now, Christ be with you, cross yourself."

But I did not cross myself. The corners of my lips trembled, and it seemed that this particularly struck him. He reached out with his thick finger, slowly, and touched my shaking lips very quietly with his black finger-nail soiled with the earth. "Now now, oh," he smiled at me with a kind of motherly, long smile, "oh lord, what is this all about, oh come on, now."

Finally I understood that there was no wolf, and that I had only imagined that someone had shouted "wolf." The shout had really been very clear and distinct, but I had imagined such shouts (and not only about wolves) once or twice previously, and I was aware of that. (Later, after I grew out of childhood, these hallucinations disappeared.)

"Well, I'll go now," I said, looking at him questioningly and timidly."

"You go, and I will watch you. I'm not going to let the wolf get you," he added, still smiling in the same motherly way. "So Christ be with you, go, go now." He made the sign of the cross over me with his hand and crossed himself too. I went, looking back almost every ten steps. Marey stood next to his horse and looked at me as long as I was walking away. He nodded to me every time I looked around. I felt a little ashamed before him, I must confess, for having been so frightened, but I walked on, still very afraid of the wolf, until I had walked up the slope of the ravine, to the first barn. There my fright dropped off altogether, and there our dog Volchok [Little Wolf] appeared, out of nowhere, and jumped up at me. In Volchok's company, I cheered up completely, and turned towards Marey for one last time. I could no longer make out his face clearly, but I felt that he was still smiling at me tenderly in exactly the same way as before and that he was nodding to me. I waved to him with my hand, he waved to me also, and moved his horse along.

"Well, well," I heard him shouting in the distance. His horse was again pulling the plough.

All this arose at once in my memory, I don't know why, but in astonishingly precise detail. I regained consciousness suddenly and sat up on the bunk. I remember there was still a quiet smile of remembrance on my face. I went on reminiscing for another minute.

When I came home after having met Marey, that time, I did not tell anyone about my "adventure." What kind of adventure had it been anyway? I even very quickly forgot about Marey. Later I met him seldom. I never even talked with him, about the wolf or about anything else either. Now suddenly, twenty years later, in Siberia, I recalled our meeting with such absolute clarity, down to the last detail. It means it had sunk down into my mind imperceptibly, all by itself, without my wanting this. And suddenly this meeting was recalled when it was needed. That tender, motherly smile of a poor serf was recalled, and the peasant, his signs of the cross, his nods, his "Oh well, boy, how frightened you are." And especially his thick finger dirtied with earth, with which he quietly, timidly, tenderly touched my shaking lips. Of course anybody would have cheered up a small boy, but that time in this isolated meeting it was as if something quite different took place. If I had been his own son, he could not have given me a look shining with clearer love. Who was forcing him to do it? He was a peasant serf who belonged to us, and I was his young master. Nobody would know how he comforted me, and nobody would reward him for it. Did he love little children so much? There are people like that. Our meeting took place in isolation, in an empty field, perhaps only God saw from above the deep and enlightened human feeling and delicate, almost womanly tenderness which can fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian peasant serf. He was not expecting or guessing at that time that he would be freed... Tell me, was it not this that Constantine Aksakov understood when he spoke of the high education of our people?

And when I got off the bunk and looked around me, I remember that I suddenly felt that I could look at those unhappy people with an altogether different attitude and that suddenly, through some miracle, all hatred and anger had disappeared from my heart. I walked on and looked deep into the faces I encountered. This peasant, his head shaved, dishonored, his face branded, drunk, roaring out his drunken, sleazy song, perhaps he is that same Marey. I cannot see into his heart. That evening I met again M_____tski, too. Unhappy man! He could not have any memories of any Mareys. He could have no opinion of these people other than "Je hais ces brigands." No, these Poles suffered more than we did!

"Peasant Marey" was published for the first time in the February 1876 issue of the journal Diary of a Writer, which Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, edited, and published single-handedly, cover to cover.

Posted on November 11, 2003 7:22 PM
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