“Do come round to see me,” asked Senista for the third time, and for the third time Sazonka hastily replied:
“I’ll come, I’ll come, don’t worry. How could I not, of course I’ll come.”
And they fell silent again. Senista was lying on his back, covered up to his chin with a gray hospital blanket, staring fixedly at Sazonka; he wanted for Sazonka to stay a while longer at the hospital and to confirm once more with his reciprocating gaze his promise not to leave him a sacrifice to loneliness, sickness, and fear. Sazonka, however, wanted to leave, but he did not know how to do this without offending the boy; he sniffed his nose and, having managed to almost slide off his chair, he sat down again, firmly and resolutely, as if forever. He would sit a while longer if only there was something to talk about; but there was nothing to talk about, and the thoughts that entered his mind were stupid, the kind that made one amused and ashamed. And all this time he was drawn to call Senista by his first name and patronymic—Semyon Yerofeyevich—which was terribly inane: Senista was a boy-apprentice and Sazonka was a respectable master and a drunk, and it was only out of habit that they called him Sazonka. And two weeks had not yet passed since he gave Senista his last cuff on the nape, and that was very bad, but this too one could not talk about.
Sazonka resolved to slide off his chair, but, without having accomplished half the business, he slid back down with equal resolve, and, either in a manner of reproach or as a form of consolation, said:
“That’s how things are. It hurts, huh?”
Senista nodded his head affirmatively and quietly replied:
“Well, go. Or else he’ll scold you.”
“That’s true,” Sazonka was happy with the excuse. “He even ordered so: you, he said, make it quick. Get there—and back that very minute. And as for vodka: no-no. Well, heck!”
But with the knowledge that he was now free to leave any minute a sharp pity towards the large-headed Senista entered Sazonka’s heart. Everything about the unnatural environment called him to pity: the crowded row of beds with pale, gloomy people; the air, spoiled to the last particle by the smell of medicines and the exhalations of sick human bodies; the feeling of one’s own strength and health. And, without trying at this point to avoid his pleading gaze, Sazonka leaned down towards Senista and repeated firmly:
“You, Semyo… Senya, don’t worry. I’ll come. When I get a break, then at once to you. Are we not human? Oh God! We too understand each other. My dear! Do you trust me or not?”
And with a smile on his blackened, parched lips Senista answered:
“I trust you.”
“There!” exulted Sazonka.
He now felt light and contented, and he could now talk about the cuff on the nape, accidentally dished out two weeks ago. And, with his finger touching Senista’s shoulder, he carefully hinted:
“And if someone hit you on the head, was that really from malice? Oh God! Your head is just so convenient: large and cropped.”
Senista smiled again, and Sazonka got up from his chair. In terms of height he was very tall, his hair, all made up of small curls, brushed with a fine-tooth comb, rose up lavishly in the form of a merry hat, and his gray, slightly puffy eyes sparkled and smiled unconsciously.
“Well, fare thee well!” he said, but he did not move from his spot. He said “fare thee well!” and not “farewell!” on purpose, it was more heartfelt this way, but now he felt that this was not enough. He needed to do something even more heartfelt and good after which Senista’s time in bed at the hospital would become cheerful and he would feel easy to depart. And he awkwardly lingered in his place, amusing in his juvenile embarrassment, until Senista once again brought him out of his difficulty:
“Farewell!” he said in his high-pitched adolescent voice, which earned him the nickname “gusli”1, and in a plain manner, like an adult, he freed his hand from under the blanket and, like an equal, stretched it out for Sazonka. And Sazonka, feeling that this was exactly that which was lacking to make him feel completely at ease, respectfully grasped the thin fingers with his hefty paw, held them a while, and released them with a sigh. There was something sad and mysterious in the touch of the thin, hot fingers: it was as if Senista was not only equal to all the people in the world, but higher and freer than all, and this was because he now belonged to the unknown but dread and mighty master. It was now that he could be called Semyon Yerofeyevich.
“So do come,” asked Senista for the fourth time, and this request banished that frightening and dread thing which for a moment overshadowed him with its silent wings. He became a boy again, sick and suffering, and again one felt sorry for him—very sorry.
When Sazonka left the hospital, the smell of medicines and the pleading voice chased after him for a long time:
And, spreading out his hands, Sazonka would answer:
“My dear! Are we not human?”
Easter was approaching and there was so much sartorial work that only once, on Saturday, did Sazonka manage to get drunk, though even then not dead drunk. He spent whole days, long and bright in the springtime, sitting on the window bench in the Turkish manner with his legs tucked under him from one rooster’s call till next, squinting and whistling disapprovingly. In the morning the window was in the shade, and cool air flowed through the opening in the shutters, but at midday the sun cut through with a thin yellow band across which played illuminated dots of flying dust. And after half an hour the whole of the windowsill, upon which cuts of fabric and scissors lay scattered, was illuminated with blinding light, and it became so hot that one had to throw open the windows like in the summer. And together with the wave of strong, fresh air, saturated with the smell of decomposing manure, semi-dried dirt and blossoming buds, a frenzied fly, still feeble in strength, flew into the window, and discordant street noises went sweeping by. Chickens rummaged down below by a log bench, clucking blissfully and basking in round pits; on the opposite side, which was already dry, kids were playing babki2, and their colorful, ringing cries and the pounding of cast iron discs against bones sounded of fervor and vitality. There was very little traffic along the street, located at the outskirts of Oryol, and only occasionally a suburban fellow would ride past at walking gait; the cart bounced in the deep ruts, still filled with liquid dirt, and all of its parts pounded with wooden clatter, recalling the summer and the expanse of open fields.
When Sazonka’s lower back began to ache and his stiffened fingers could no longer hold the needle, he went outside, just as he was, barefoot and without his belt, taking giant leaps over puddles, and joined the kids playing on the street.
“Come on, let me strike it,” he asked, and a dozen dirty hands stretched out their discs towards him, and a dozen voices pleaded:
“For me! Sazonka, for me!”
Sazonka picked out a disc that felt heavier, pulled up his sleeve, and, assuming the pose of a discus throwing athlete, measured the distance by squinting his eyes. The disc ripped out of his hand with a light whistle and, bouncing in a wavelike manner, it tore into the middle of the long cone, and the babki crumbled like a colorful rain, and the lads reacted to the strike with cries that were just as colorful. After several strikes Sazonka rested and spoke to the lads:
“Senista’s still at the hospital lads.”
But the lads, occupied by their interesting task, were cold and indifferent to the news.
“I must bring him a present. I’ll bring it any day now,” continued Sazonka.
The word “present” attracted many responses. Mishka the Piggy pulled at Sazonka’s trousers with one hand—the other was holding the babki in the hem of his shirt—and in all seriousness offered him his advice:
“You should give him a dime.”
A dime was the sum of money that Mishka’s grandfather promised him, and his conception of man’s happiness did not go beyond it. But there was no time to speak at length about the present, and with the same giant leaps Sazonka made his way back and again sat down to work. His eyes were a little swollen, his face grew pale-yellow, like in one who is sick, and the freckles around his eyes and nose appeared especially frequent and dark. Only his thoroughly combed hair rose up in that same form of a merry hat, and when his master Gavriil Ivanovich looked at it he would invariably imagine a cozy red tavern and vodka, and would fiercely spit and swear.
Inside Sazonka’s head things were heavy and confused, and he would spend whole hours revolving some single thought about new boots or harmonica. But more often he would think about Senista and about the present that he would bring him. The machine tapped monotonously and somnolently, the master shouted out orders—and the same one picture presented itself to Sazonka’s tired brain: how he arrives to see Senista and gives him the present, wrapped in a fringed chintz kerchief. Oftentimes in heavy reverie he would forget who Senista was and could not recall his face; but the hammed kerchief, which he still had to buy, appeared vivid and clear, and it even seemed that the knots on it were not tied up securely. And Sazonka told everyone, the master, the mistress, the clients, and the kids, that he would go to see the boy immediately on the first day of Easter.
“I really must do it,” he repeated. “Comb my hair and off to see him that very minute. Here, dear, take this!”
But as he was saying this he was seeing a different picture: the wide open doors of the red tavern and in its dark depths the counter, showered with cheap liquor. And he was embraced by the bitter awareness of his weakness, which he could not fight, and he wanted to cry out, loudly and firmly: “I’ll go to Senista! To Senista!”
But his head was filling up with gray, wavering haze, through which only the fringed kerchief remained visible. But there was no joy in it, only a stern reproach and a terrible warning.
And on the first day of Easter, and on the second, Sazonka was drunk, got into fights, was beaten up, and had to spend his nights at the police station. And it was only on the fourth day that he managed to get out to see Senista.
The street, filled with sunlight, was colored by the bright spots of scarlet shirts and white cheerfully grinning teeth gnawing sunflower seeds; harmonicas played from all directions, bones and cast iron discs pounded, and a rooster crowed passionately, calling to battle the neighbor’s rooster. But Sazonka did not look around. His face, with a wounded eye and a split lip, was grim and concentrated, and even his hair did not rise up in a rich mane but instead stuck out disorderly in separate clumps. He felt ashamed for his drunkenness and his unkept word, he felt sorry that he would have to appear before Senista not in his best—in a red woolen shirt and vest—but hungover, foul, and stinking of cheap vodka. But the closer he got to the hospital, the lighter he felt, and his eyes would look down more frequently, to the right, where his hand carefully held the bundle with the present. And Senista’s face now appeared vivid and clear, with his parched lips and pleading gaze.
“Dear, really? Oh God!” said Sazonka and greatly picked up the pace.
Here is the hospital—a large yellow building with black window frames, which made the windows look like dark, sullen eyes. Here is the long corridor, and the smell of medicines, and the amorphous feeling of nausea and anguish. Here is Senista’s ward and his bed… But where is Senista himself?
“Who are you looking for?” asked the nurse who followed him in.
“There was a boy here. Semyon. Semyon Yerofeyev. Here, in this place.” Sazonka pointed at an empty bed.
“You should ask beforehand, otherwise you barge in in vain,” said the nurse impolitely. “And it’s not Semyon Yerofeyev, but Semyon Pustoshkin.”
“Yerofeyev—that’s by his patronymic. Parent’s name is Yerofey, so he must be Yerofeyich,” explained Sazonka, slowly and terribly growing pale.
“Your Yerofeyich is dead. Only we don’t know that by the patronymic. By ours—Semyon Pustoshkin. I’m telling you, he’s dead.”
“Oh, that’s how it is!” Sazonka replied with polite surprise, so pale that his freckles stood out like ink splatter.
“Yesterday, after evening.”
“And may I!…” Sazonka asked, stammering.
“Why not?” the nurse replied indifferently. “Ask at the morgue, they’ll show you. But you, don’t worry yourself sick over this! He was feeble, don’t feel sorry.”
Sazonka’s tongue asked thoroughly and politely for the way, his legs steadily carried him in the specified direction, but his eyes did not see a thing. And it was only when they were fixed, straight and motionless, onto the dead body of Senista, that they began to see. That was when he began to feel the frightening chill permeating the morgue, and everything around him became visible: the walls covered with gray spots, the window, coated by cobwebs; however much the sun shined, through that window the sky would always appear gray and cold, like in autumn. Somewhere, restlessly and intermittently, a fly was buzzing; drops of water were falling from somewhere; one falls—tap!—and for a long time a ringing, pitiful sound would race around the air. Sazonka took a step back and loudly said:
“Fare thee well, Semyon Yerofeyich.”
Then he got down on his knees, touched the damp floor with his forehead and got up.
“Forgive me, Semyon Yerofeyich,” again he spoke slowly and loudly, and again fell onto his knees, and he pressed down his forehead for long time, until his head started to go numb.
The fly stopped buzzing. A stillness set in, the sort of stillness that only exists where the dead lie. And drops of water fell at even intervals into a tin basin, fell and wept—quietly, softly.
Straight past the hospital the town ended and a field began, and Sazonka wandered onto the field. It was flat, uninterrupted by trees or construction, it spread outwards freely, and the very breeze felt like it was its free, warm breath. At first Sazonka walked along a parched road, then he turned left and, walking across the lea and the reaped field, went straight to the river. The earth was still damp in places, and in those places he left his footprints with dark indentations at the heels.
On the shore Sazonka lay down in a small, grass covered hollow, in which the air was still and warm, like in a sauna, and he closed his eyes. The sun’s rays went through his sealed eyelids as a warm, red wave; high up in the aerial azure a skylark chimed, and it was pleasant to breathe and not to think. The floodwater had already retreated and the river flowed as a narrow brook; far away on the low opposite bank, having left the marks of their rampage, lay huge holey floes. The stumps lay one upon another in clusters and rose upwards as white triangles towards the ruthless fiery rays that step by step sharpened and drilled into them. Half awake, Sazonka threw back his arm—it fell onto something firm, something wrapped in cloth.
Rising quickly, Sazonka cried out:
“Oh God! What is that?”
He completely forgot about the bundle and stared at it with frightened eyes: he imagined that the bundle came here and lay down of its own volition, and he was afraid to touch it. Sazonka stared—stared—stared without breaking his gaze—and a turbulent, seething remorse and frantic anger began to well up within him. He stared at the fringed kerchief—and he saw how on the first day, and on the second, and on the third Senista was waiting for him, how he kept turning towards the door, and he did not come. He died alone, forgotten—like a puppy thrown away at the rubbish heap. If only a day earlier—and he would have seen the present with his fading eyes, and he would have rejoiced with his youthful heart, and his soul would have ascended to the high heavens without pain, without the terrible anguish of loneliness.
Sazonka wept, he dug into his lush hair with his hands and rolled on the ground. He wept and, raising his arms to the heavens, pitifully defended himself:
“Oh God! Are we not human?”
And he fell right down to the ground with his split lip—and fell silent in a rush of mute grief. Young grass tickled his face softly and gently; a thick, calming smell was rising from the damp earth, in which resided a powerful force and a passionate call to life. Like an everlasting mother, the earth accepted the sinful son into its embrace, and with warmth, love, and hope it nourished his suffering heart.
And, far away in the town, merry, festive bells were booming in discord.