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    The Birth of a Man

    by Maxim Gorky
    • Rate it:
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    The year was the year '92-- the year of leanness--the scene a
    spot between Sukhum and Otchenchiri, on the river Kodor, a spot
    so near to the sea that amid the joyous babble of a sparkling
    rivulet the ocean's deep-voiced thunder was plainly
    distinguishable.

    Also, the season being autumn, leaves of wild laurel were
    glistening and gyrating on the white foam of the Kodor like a
    quantity of mercurial salmon fry. And as I sat on some rocks
    overlooking the river there occurred to me the thought that, as
    likely as not, the cause of the gulls' and cormorants' fretful
    cries where the surf lay moaning behind a belt of trees to the
    right was that, like myself, they kept mistaking the leaves for
    fish, and as often finding themselves disappointed.

    Over my head hung chestnut trees decked with gold; at my feet
    lay a mass of chestnut leaves which resembled the amputated
    palms of human hands; on the opposite bank, where there waved,
    tanglewise, the stripped branches of a hornbeam, an
    orange-tinted woodpecker was darting to and fro, as though
    caught in the mesh of foliage, and, in company with a troupe of
    nimble titmice and blue tree-creepers (visitors from the
    far-distant North), tapping the bark of the stem with a black
    beak, and hunting for insects.

    To the left, the tops of the mountains hung fringed with dense,
    fleecy clouds of the kind which presages rain; and these clouds
    were sending their shadows gliding over slopes green and
    overgrown with boxwood and that peculiar species of hollow
    beech-stump which once came near to effecting the downfall of
    Pompey's host, through depriving his iron-built legions of the
    use of their legs as they revelled in the intoxicating sweetness
    of the " mead " or honey which wild bees make from the blossoms
    of the laurel and the azalea, and travellers still
    gather from those hollow stems to knead into lavashi or thin
    cakes of millet flour.

    On the present occasion I too (after suffering sundry stings
    from infuriated bees) was thus engaged as I sat on the rocks
    beneath the chestnuts. Dipping morsels of bread into a potful of
    honey, I was munching them for breakfast, and enjoying, at the
    same time, the indolent beams of the moribund autumn sun.

    In the fall of the year the Caucasus resembles a gorgeous
    cathedral built by great craftsmen (always great craftsmen are
    great sinners) to conceal their past from the prying eyes of
    conscience. Which cathedral is a sort of intangible edifice of
    gold and turquoise and emerald, and has thrown over its hills
    rare carpets silk-embroidered by Turcoman weavers of Shemi and
    Samarkand, and contains, heaped everywhere, plunder brought from
    all the quarters of the world for the delectation of the sun.
    Yes, it is as though men sought to say to the Sun God: " All
    things here are thine. They have been brought hither for thee by
    thy people."

    Yes, mentally I see long-bearded, grey-headed supermen, beings
    possessed of the rounded eyes of happy children, descending from
    the hills, and decking the earth, and sowing it with sheerly
    kaleidoscopic treasures, and coating the tops of the mountains
    with massive layers of silver, and the lower edges with a living
    web of trees. Yes, I see those beings decorating and fashioning
    the scene until, thanks to their labours, this gracious morsel
    of the earth has become fair beyond all conception.

    And what a privilege it is to be human! How much that is
    wonderful leaps to the eye-how the presence of beauty causes.
    the heart to throb with a voluptuous rapture that is almost pain!

    And though there are occasions when life seems hard, and the
    breast feels filled with fiery rancour, and melancholy dries and
    renders athirst the heart's blood, this is not a mood sent us in
    perpetuity. For at times even the sun may feel sad as he
    contemplates men, and sees that, despite all that he has done
    for them, they have done so little in return. . . .

    No, it is not that good folk are lacking. It is that they need
    to be rounded off--better still, to be made anew.

    **********************

    Suddenly there came into view over the bushes to my left a file
    of dark heads, while through the surging of the waves and the
    babble of the stream I caught the sound of human voices, a sound
    emanating from a party of " famine people " or folk who were
    journeying from Sukhum to Otchenchiri to obtain work on a local
    road then in process of construction.

    The owners of the voices I knew to be immigrants from the
    province of Orlov. I knew them to be so for the reason that I
    myself had lately been working in company with the male members
    of the party, and had taken leave of them only yesterday in
    order that I might set out earlier than they, and, after walking
    through the night, greet the sun when he should arise above the
    sea.

    The members of the party comprised four men and a woman--the
    latter a young female with high cheek-bones, a figure swollen
    with manifest pregnancy, and a pair of greyish-blue eyes that
    had fixed in them a stare of apprehension. At the present moment
    her head and yellow scarf were just showing over the tops of the
    bushes; and while I noted that now it was swaying from side to
    side like a sunflower shaken by the wind, I recalled the fact
    that she was a woman whose husband had been carried off at
    Sukhum by a surfeit of fruit--this fact being known to me through
    the circumstance that in the workmen's barraque where we had
    shared quarters these folk had observed the good old Russian
    custom of confiding to a stranger the whole of their troubles,
    and had done so in tones of such amplitude and penetration that
    the querulous words must have been audible for five versts
    around.

    And as I had talked to these forlorn people, these human beings
    who lay crushed beneath the misfortune which had uprooted them
    from their barren and exhausted lands, and blown them, like
    autumn leaves, towards the Caucasus where nature's luxuriant,
    but unfamiliar, aspect had blinded and bewildered them, and with
    its onerous conditions of labour quenched their last spark of
    courage; as I had talked to these poor people I had seen them
    glancing about with dull, troubled, despondent eyes, and
    heard them say to one another softly, and with pitiful smiles:

    "What a country!"

    "Aye,-- that it is !--a country to make one sweat!"

    "As hard as a stone it is!"

    "Aye, an evil country! "

    After which they had gone on to speak of their native haunts,
    where every handful of soil had represented to them the dust of
    their ancestors, and every grain of that soil had been watered
    with the sweat of their brows, and become charged with dear and
    intimate recollections.

    Previously there had joined the party a woman who, tall and
    straight, had had breasts as flat as a board, and jawbones like
    the jawbones of a horse, and a glance in her dull, sidelong
    black eyes like a gleaming, smouldering fire.

    And every evening this woman had been wont to step outside the
    barraque with the woman in the yellow scarf and to seat herself
    on a rubbish heap, and, resting her cheeks on the palms of her
    hands, and inclining her head sideways, to sing in a high and
    shrewish voice:

    Behind the graveyard wall,
    Where fair green bushes stand.
    I'll spread me on the sand
    A shroud as white as snow.
    And not long will it be
    Before my heart's adored,
    My master and my lord,
    Shall answer my curtsey low.

    Usually her companion, the woman in the yellow scarf, had, with
    head bent forward and eyes fixed upon her stomach, remained
    silent; but on rare, unexpected occasions she had, in the
    hoarse, sluggish voice of a peasant, sung a song with the
    sobbing refrain:

    Ah, my beloved, sweetheart of mine,
    Never again will these eyes seek thine!

    Nor amid the stifling blackness of the southern night had these
    voices ever failed to bring back to my memory the snowy wastes
    of the North, and the icy, wailing storm-wind, and the distant
    howling of unseen wolves.

    In time, the squint-eyed woman had been taken ill of a fever, and
    removed to the town in a tilted ambulance; and as she had lain
    quivering and moaning on the stretcher she had seemed still to
    be singing her little ditty about the graveyard and the sand.

    The head with the yellow scarf rose, dipped, and disappeared.

    After I had finished my breakfast I thatched the honey-pot with
    some leaves, fastened down the lid, and indolently resumed my
    way in the wake of the party, my blackthorn staff tiptapping
    against the hard tread of the track as I proceeded.

    The track loomed-- a grey, narrow strip-- before me, while
    on my right the restless, dark blue sea had the air of being
    ceaselessly planed by thousands of invisible carpenters; so
    regularly did the stress of a wind as moist and sweet and warm
    as the breath of a healthy woman cause ever-rustling curls of
    foam to drift towards the beach. Also, careening on to its port
    quarter under a full set of bellying sails, a Turkish felucca was
    gliding towards Sukhum; and, as it held on its course, it put me
    in mind of a certain pompous engineer of the town who had
    been wont to inflate his fat cheeks and say: " Be quiet, you,
    or I will have you locked up! " This man had, for some reason
    or another, an extraordinary weakness for causing arrests to
    be made; and, exceedingly do I rejoice to think that by now the
    worms of the graveyard must have consumed him down to the
    very marrow of his bones. Would that certain other acquaintances
    of mine were similarly receiving beneficent attention!

    Walking proved an easy enough task, for I seemed to be borne on
    air, while a chorus of pleasant thoughts, of many-coloured
    recollections, kept singing gently in my breast--a chorus
    resembling, indeed, the white-maned billows in the regularity
    with which now it rose, and now it fell, to reveal in, as it
    were, soft, peaceful depths the bright, supple hopes of youth,
    like so many silver fish cradled in the bosom of the ocean.

    Suddenly, as it trended seawards, the road executed a half-turn,
    and skirted a strip of the sandy margin to which the waves kept
    rolling in such haste. And in that spot even the bushes seemed
    to have a mind to look the waves in the eyes--so strenuously did
    they lean across the riband-like path, and nod in the direction
    of the blue, watery waste, while from the hills a wind was
    blowing that presaged rain.

    ***************************

    But hark! From some point among the bushes a low moan arose--the
    sound which never fails to thrill the soul and move it to
    responsive quivers!

    Thrusting aside the foliage, I beheld before me the woman in the
    yellow scarf. Seated with her back resting against the stem of a
    hazel-bush, she had her head sunken deeply between her
    shoulders, her mouth hideously agape, her eyes staring vaguely
    before her, her hands pressed to her swollen stomach, her breath
    issuing with unnatural vehemence, and her abdomen convulsively,
    spasmodically rising and falling. Meanwhile from her throat were
    issuing moans which at times caused her yellow teeth to show
    bare like those of a wolf.

    "What is the matter?" I said as I bent over her. "Has anyone
    assaulted you?"

    The only result was that, shuffling bare feet in the sand like a
    fly, she shook her nerveless hand, and gasped:

    "Away, villain! Away with you!"

    Then I understood what was the matter, for I had seen a similar
    case before. Yet for the moment a certain feeling of shyness
    made me edge away from her a little; and as I did so, she uttered
    a prolonged moan, and her almost bursting eyeballs vented hot,
    murky tears which trickled down her tense and livid features.

    Thereupon I turned to her again, and, throwing down cooking-pot,
    teapot, and wallet, laid her on her back, and strove to bend her
    knees upwards in the direction of her body. Meanwhile she sought
    to repel me with blows on face and breast, and at length rolled
    on to her stomach. Then, raising herself on all fours, she,
    sobbing, gasping, and cursing in a breath, crawled away like a
    bear into a remoter portion of the thicket.

    "Beast!" she panted. "Oh, you devil!"

    Yet, even as the words escaped her lips, her arms gave way beneath
    her, and she collapsed upon her face, with legs stretched out,
    and her lips emitting a fresh series of convulsive moans.

    Excited now to fever pitch, I hurriedly recalled my small store
    of knowledge of such cases and finally decided to turn her on
    her back, and, as before, to strive to bend her knees upwards in
    the direction of her body. Already signs of imminent parturition
    were not wanting.

    "Lie still," I said, "and if you do that it will not be long
    before you are delivered of the child."

    Whereafter, running down to the sea, I pulled up my sleeves,
    and, on returning, embarked upon my role, of accoucheur.

    Scoring the earth with her fingers, uprooting tufts of withered
    grass, and struggling to thrust them into her mouth, scattering
    soil over her terrible, inhuman face and bloodshot eyes, the
    woman writhed like a strip of birch bark in a wood fire. Indeed,
    by this time a little head was coming into view, and it needed
    all my efforts to quell the twitchings of her legs, to help the
    child to issue, and to prevent its mother from thrusting grass
    down her distorted, moaning throat. Meanwhile we cursed one
    another-- she through her teeth, and I in an undertone; she, I
    should surmise, out of pain and shame, and I, I feel certain,
    out of nervousness, mingled with a perfect agony of compassion.

    "O Lord!" she gasped with blue lips flecked with foam as her
    eyes (suddenly bereft of their colour in the sunlight) shed
    tears born of the intolerable anguish of the maternal function,
    and her body writhed and twisted as though her frame had been
    severed in the middle.

    "Away, you brute!" was her oft-repeated cry as with her weak
    hands, hands seemingly dislocated at the wrists, she strove to
    thrust me to a distance. Yet all the time I kept saying
    persuasively: "You fool! Bring forth as quickly as you can!"
    and, as a matter of fact, was feeling so sorry for her that
    tears continued to spurt from my eyes as much as from hers, and
    my very heart contracted with pity. Also, never did I cease to
    feel that I ought to keep saying something; wherefore, I
    repeated, and again repeated: "Now then! Bring forth as quickly
    as ever you can!"

    And at last my hands did indeed hold a human creature in all its
    pristine beauty. Nor could even the mist of tears prevent me
    from seeing that that human creature was red in the face, and
    that to judge from the manner in which it kept kicking and
    resisting and uttering hoarse wails (while still bound to its
    mother by the ligament), it was feeling dissatisfied in advance
    with the world. Yes, blue-eyed, and with a nose absurdly sunken
    between a pair of scarlet, rumpled cheeks and lips which
    ceaselessly quivered and contracted, it kept bawling: "A-aah!
    A-a-ah!"

    Moreover, so slippery was it that, as I knelt and looked at it
    and laughed with relief at the fact that it had arrived safely,
    I came near to letting it fall upon the ground: wherefore I
    entirely forgot what next I ought to have done.

    "Cut it!" at length whispered the mother with eyes closed, and
    features suddenly swollen and resembling those of a corpse.

    "A knife!" again she whispered with her livid lips. "Cut it!"

    My pocket-knife I had had stolen from me in the workmen's
    barraque; but with my teeth I severed the caul, and then the
    child gave renewed tongue in true Orlovian fashion, while the
    mother smiled. Also, in some curious fashion, the mother's
    unfathomable eyes regained their colour, and became filled as
    with blue fire as, plunging a hand into her bodice and feeling
    for the pocket, she contrived to articulate with raw and
    blood-flecked lips:

    "I have not a single piece of string or riband to bind the caul
    with."

    Upon that I set to, and managed to produce a piece of riband,
    and to fasten it in the required position.

    Thereafter she smiled more brightly than ever. So radiantly did
    she smile that my eyes came near to being blinded with the
    spectacle.

    "And now rearrange yourself," I said, "and in the meanwhile I
    will go and wash the baby."

    "Yes, yes," she murmured uneasily. "But be very careful with
    him--be very gentle."

    Yet it was little enough care that the rosy little homunculus
    seemed to require, so strenuously did he clench his fists, and
    bawl as though he were minded to challenge the whole world to
    combat.

    "Come, now!" at length I said. "You must have done, or your
    very head will drop off."

    Yet no sooner did he feel the touch of the ocean spray, and
    begin to be sprinkled With its joyous caresses, than he lamented
    more loudly and vigorously than ever, and so continued
    throughout the process of being slapped on the back and breast
    as, frowning and struggling, he vented squall after squall while
    the waves laved his tiny limbs.

    "Shout, young Orlovian!" said I encouragingly. "Let fly with
    all the power of your lungs!"

    And with that, I took him back to his mother. I found her with
    eyes closed and lips drawn between her teeth as she writhed in
    the torment of expelling the after-birth. But presently I
    detected through the sighs and groans a whispered:

    "Give him to me! Give him to me!"

    "You had better wait a little," I urged.

    "Oh no! Give him to me now!"

    And with tremulous, unsteady hands she unhooked the bosom of her
    bodice, and, freeing (with my assistance) the breast which
    nature had prepared for at least a dozen children, applied the
    mutinous young Orlovian to the nipple. As for him, he at once
    understood the matter, and ceased to send forth further
    lamentation.

    "O pure and holy Mother of God!" she gasped in a long-drawn,
    quivering sigh as she bent a dishevelled head over the little
    one, and, between intervals of silence, fell to uttering soft,
    abrupt exclamations. Then, opening her ineffably beautiful blue
    eyes, the hallowed eyes of a mother, she raised them towards the
    azure heavens, while in their depths there was coming and going
    a flame of joy and gratitude. Lastly, lifting a languid hand,
    she with a slow movement made the sign of the cross over both
    herself and her babe.

    "Thanks to thee O purest Mother of God!" she murmured.
    "Thanks indeed to thee!"

    Then her eyes grew dim and vague again, and after a pause
    (during which she seemed to be scarcely breathing) she said in a
    hard and matter-of-fact tone:

    "Young fellow, unfasten my satchel."

    And whilst I was so engaged she continued to regard me with a
    steady gaze; but, when the task was completed she smiled
    shamefacedly, and on her sunken cheeks and sweat-flecked temples
    there dawned the ghost of a blush.

    "Now," said she, "do you, for the present, go away."

    "And if I do so, see that in the meanwhile you do not move
    about too much."

    "No, I will not. But please go away."

    So I withdrew a little. In my breast a sort of weariness was
    lurking, but also in my breast there was echoing a soft and
    glorious chorus of birds, a chorus so exquisitely in accord with
    the never-ceasing splash of the sea that for ever could I have
    listened to it, and to the neighbouring brook as it purled on
    its way like a maiden engaged in relating confidences about her
    lover.

    Presently, the woman's yellow-scarfed head (the scarf now tidily
    rearranged) reappeared over the bushes.

    "Come, come, good woman!" was my exclamation. "I tell you
    that you must not move about so soon."

    And certainly her attitude now was one of utter languor, and she
    had perforce to grasp the stem of a bush with one hand to
    support herself. Yet while the blood was gone from her face,
    there had formed in the hollows where her eyes had been two
    lakes of blue.

    "See how he is sleeping!" she murmured.

    And, true enough, the child was sound asleep, though to my eyes
    he looked much as any other baby might have done, save that the
    couch of autumn leaves on which he was ensconced consisted of
    leaves of a kind which could not have been discovered in the
    faraway forests of Orlov.

    "Now, do you yourself lie down awhile," was my advice.

    "Oh, no," she replied with a shake of her head on its sinuous
    neck; "for I must be collecting my things before I move on
    towards--"

    "Towards Otchenchiri"

    "Yes. By now my folk will have gone many a verst in that
    direction."

    "And can you walk so far? "

    "The Holy Mother will help me."

    Yes, she was to journey in the company of the Mother of God. So
    no more on the point required to be said.

    Glancing again at the tiny, inchoate face under the bushes, her
    eyes diffused rays of warm and kindly light as, licking her
    lips, she, with a slow movement, smoothed the breast of the
    little one.

    Then I arranged sticks for a fire, and also adjusted stones to
    support the kettle.

    "Soon I will have tea ready for you," I remarked.

    "And thankful indeed I shall be," she responded, "for my breasts
    are dried up."

    "Why have your companions deserted you?" I said next.

    "They have not deserted me. It was I that left them of my own
    accord. How could I have exposed myself in their presence?"

    And with a glance at me she raised a hand to her face as,
    spitting a gout of blood, she smiled a sort of bashful smile.

    "This is your first child, I take it?"

    "It is. . . . And who are you?"

    "A man."

    "Yes, a man, of course; but, are you a MARRIED man? "

    "No, I have never been able to marry."

    "That cannot be true."

    "Why not?"

    With lowered eyes she sat awhile in thought.

    "Because, if so, how do you come to know so much about women's
    affairs?"

    This time I DID lie, for I replied:

    "Because they have been my study. In fact, I am a medical
    student."

    "Ah! Our priest's son also was a student, but a student for the
    Church."

    "Very well. Then you know what I am. Now I will go and fetch
    some water."

    Upon this she inclined her head towards her little son and
    listened for a moment to his breathing. Then she said with a
    glance towards the sea:

    "I too should like to have a wash, but I do not know what the
    water is like. What is it? Brackish or salt?"

    "No; quite good water--fit for you to wash in."

    "Is it really?"

    "Yes, really. Moreover, it is warmer than the water of the
    streams hereabouts, which is as cold as ice."

    "Ah! Well, you know best."

    Here a shaggy-eared pony, all skin and bone, was seen
    approaching us at a foot's pace. Trembling, and drooping its
    head, it scanned us, as it drew level, with a round black eye,
    and snorted. Upon that, its rider pushed back a ragged fur cap,
    glanced warily in our direction, and again sank his head.

    "The folk of these parts are ugly to look at," softly commented
    the woman from Orlov.

    Then I departed in quest of water. After I had washed my face
    and hands I filled the kettle from a stream bright and lively as
    quicksilver (a stream presenting, as the autumn leaves tossed in
    the eddies which went leaping and singing over the stones, a
    truly enchanting spectacle), and, returning, and peeping through
    the bushes, perceived the woman to be crawling on hands and
    knees over the stones, and anxiously peering about, as though in
    search of something.

    "What is it? " I inquired, and thereupon, turning grey in the
    face with confusion she hastened to conceal some article under
    her person, although I had already guessed the nature of the
    article.

    "Give it to me," was my only remark. "I will go and bury it."

    "How so? For, as a matter of fact, it ought to be buried under
    the floor in front of some stove."

    "Are we to build a stove HERE? Build it in five minutes?" I
    retorted.

    "Ah, I was jesting. But really, I would rather not have it
    buried here, lest some wild beast should come and devour it. . .
    Yet it ought to be committed only to the earth."

    That said, she, with averted eyes, handed me a moist and heavy
    bundle; and as she did so she said under her breath, with an air
    of confusion:

    "I beg of you for Christ's sake to bury it as well, as deeply,
    as you can. Out of pity for my son do as I bid you."

    I did as she had requested; and, just as the task had been
    completed, I perceived her returning from the margin of the sea
    with unsteady gait, and an arm stretched out before her, and a
    petticoat soaked to the middle with the sea water. Yet all her
    face was alight with inward fire, and as I helped her to regain
    the spot where I had prepared some sticks I could not help
    reflecting with some astonishment:

    "How strong indeed she is!"

    Next, as we drank a mixture of tea and honey, she inquired:

    "Have you now ceased to be a student?"

    "Yes."

    "And why so? Through too much drink? "

    "Even so, good mother."

    "Dear me! Well, your face is familiar to me. Yes, I remember
    that I noticed you in Sukhum when once you were arguing with the
    barraque superintendent over the question of rations. As I did
    so the thought occurred to me: 'Surely that bold young fellow
    must have gone and spent his means on drink? Yes, that is how it
    must be.'"

    Then, as from her swollen lips she licked a drop of honey, she
    again bent her blue eyes in the direction of the bush under
    which the slumbering, newly-arrived Orlovian was couched.

    "How will he live?" thoughtfully she said with a sigh--then
    added:

    "You have helped me, and I thank you. Yes, my thanks are yours,
    though I cannot tell whether or not your assistance will have
    helped HIM."

    And, drinking the rest of her tea, she ate a morsel of bread,
    then made the sign of the cross. And subsequently, as I was
    putting up my things, she continued to rock herself to and fro,
    to give little starts and cries, and to gaze thoughtfully at
    the ground with eyes which had now regained their original
    colour. At last she rose to her feet.

    "You are not going yet? " I queried protestingly.

    "Yes, I must."

    "But--"

    "The Blessed Virgin will go with me. So please hand me over the
    child."

    "No, I will carry him."

    And, after a contest for the honour, she yielded, and we walked
    away side by side.

    "I only wish I were a little steadier on my feet," she remarked
    with an apologetic smile as she laid a hand upon my shoulder,

    Meanwhile, the new citizen of Russia, the little human being of an
    unknown future, was snoring soundly in my arms as the sea
    plashed and murmured, and threw off its white shavings, and the
    bushes whispered together, and the sun (now arrived at the
    meridian) shone brightly upon us all.

    In calm content it was that we walked; save that now and then
    the mother would halt, draw a deep breath, raise her head, scan
    the sea and the forest and the hills, and peer into her son's
    face. And as she did so, even the mist begotten of tears of
    suffering could not dim the wonderful brilliancy and clearness
    of her eyes. For with the sombre fire of inexhaustible love were
    those eyes aflame.

    Once, as she halted, she exclaimed:

    "0 God, 0 Mother of God, how good it all is! Would that for
    ever I could walk thus, yes, walk and walk unto the very end of
    the world! All that I should need would be that thou, my son, my
    darling son, shouldst, borne upon thy mother's breast, grow and
    wax strong!"

    And the sea murmured and murmured.
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