Leonid Andreyev

What the Jackdaw Saw

A jackdaw was flying above an endless snow plain, heavily lifting her tired wings.

Above her a greenish-pale sky receded upwards. On one side it merged with the ground in a smoky haze. One the other side, where the sun had just set, the last reflections of sunlight were dying away. The jackdaw could still see the crimson-red, matte sphere of the setting sun, but down below the darkness of the long winter night was already growing thick. Wherever the eye turned—a graying plain, bound by a strong, burning frost. The motionless silence of the sharp air was faintly interrupted by the cold waves set off by the jackdaw’s tired wings carrying her towards a forest, a forest which only she could see and where she decided to spend the night. When the jackdaw reached the dense forest, hazily blackening upon the white plain, the stars were already lit and the night’s darkness enveloped the frozen earth with its cold shroud. Up above one could hear how the trees, their branches spread out and weighed down by fine, powdery snow, crackled from the frost. Tree shoots snapped under the careful foot of some forest animal, setting out on a hunt. From the dark distance the eerie, disturbing sounds of a wolf’s howl reached the jackdaw, drawn-out and wild. With a sharp turn the jackdaw changed the direction of her flight, straining the last of her strength, and rushed towards where she sensed the road was.

She enjoyed human company, and she found the wilderness of the forest unpleasant.

Here’s the road. It can be recognized by the dark, fragrant piles of horse manure, which the jackdaw would not have failed to make use of had she not wanted so badly to go to sleep. Not far away the railing of a bridge blackened above a deep ravine, which was now out of sight. This ravine was familiar to the jackdaw because of the bitter disappointment it had caused her. Not longer than a year ago, around this same time, she managed to peck out a pair of eyes, incredibly delicious eyes, from some young man with a black mustache. For a long time, despite the cold, he calmly lay naked atop the hard, icy snow. Thick, red blood was still oozing from his severed head. Only a faint movement of the little finger informed the jackdaw that she began her work prematurely and that she was pecking at sighted eyes—but trivialities like this could not deter a bird used to human company. The following day, having invited several of her acquaintances, she returned in order to grab a more substantial snack, and what a disappointment it was for her and her friends when instead of a slightly frozen corpse they found only a dark spot of blood and a mass of wolves’ footprints. These gentlemen were not ashamed to tear jackdaw’s property apart, and it appeared that some unfortunate late arrival even tried to eat the blood soaked snow. Only by means of a stormy, screeching manifestation could the jackdaw express her resentment and provide her empty stomach with some sort of spiritual satisfaction.

Having a chosen a satisfactory tree, the jackdaw sat down comfortably atop a thin branch, which bent under her weight and sprinkled powdery, dry snow. She cawed in order to clear her chilled throat and, contracting into a ball so that her friend, the frost, could only spread out his hands seeing as there was no possibility of finding anywhere a defenseless spot, the jackdaw sweetly closed one of her black eyes, and then the other, and at once fell asleep.

Whether or not much time had passed the jackdaw, in the absence of a clock, could not tell, but the fact was that she woke up without having gotten a good sleep, and this made her unhappy. What woke her up was a sensation of her proximity to humans. Near the bridge were two gray, swathed figures. Curious, like all women, the jackdaw flew over to a nearest tree and listened in to their voices.

“Who’d the devil bring here on a night like this?” said one of them through his teeth, the taller one, as he let out a cloud of vapor through his frosted mustache and beard. “What a freeze!”

“Let’s wait half an hour,” replied the other, patting his hands.

Hunched down, both swathed figures hid under the bridge. It’s as easy for the jackdaw to fall asleep as it is to wake up. Disappointed, she fell asleep, until some sound woke her up again. The squeaking of runners against hard, pressed snow could be heard from behind the turn in the road. A small sleigh made its appearance. A short, potbellied little horse was briskly shifting its chilled legs. One man sat slouching atop the box; something dark could be seen in the sleigh, also something like a man…

“Halt!”

The two figures leapt onto the road, the ones who were hiding under the bridge. The interested jackdaw cawed lightly to herself from pleasure and listened in. The little horse stopped. The coachman said something to the man sitting in the sleigh, and he partially rose. The collar of his fur coat concealed his face and head. One of the jackdaw’s first two acquaintances grabbed hold of the horse’s reins and the other, the taller one, cried: “Halt!” And he approached the sleigh. In his lowered hand he was holding something heavy.

“Hail to your grace!” he said roughly. “Now then, off the sleigh—you’ve arrived!”

“Murderer, brigand,” came a muffled reply from behind the collar of the fur coat. “What is it you plan to do?”

“You’ll see.”

“Listen, good man, don’t touch us,” said the one in the driver’s seat. “It’s not worth it.”

“Shut up if you want to live!” cried the tall one, casting back a severe glance. “Off the sleigh!”

“Listen, good man…”

The tall one raised something he was holding in his hand and it flashed under the faint glimmer of the stars. The other flew head over heels off his seat and, seeing that the raised axe was not being lowered, whispered to himself: “Oh look how touchy we are—your aunt’s a bramble!” The one sitting on the sleigh also got off and, crouching down, started unwrapping something on the seat. He then took the unwrapped object in his hand and, holding it in front of himself, began to slowly make his way towards the tall one with the impatience of one waiting for the meeting’s end.

Never before or since had the jackdaw been so surprised! The tall one began to move back from the longhaired man approaching him as if from a ghost. He backed up to his comrade who, having seen what the longhaired man was holding before him, something gleaming from an invisible light source, released the horse and also began to back away. Thus they moved: the longhaired one and the two brigands before him. Now one of them reluctantly raised his hand and took off his hat; with a quick movement the other threw off his. The longhaired one stopped, and so did they.

The one who had earlier sat in the driver’s seat lifted the axe and said:

“Didn’t I tell you not to touch us. See, I’m carrying a priest. Oh you, crow!”

The jackdaw cawed in resentment, but the ones who stood facing each other heard neither her nor the one who had just spoken.

“On this day Christ was born, and what are you doing, murderers, brigands!” uttered a soft, elderly voice.

Silence.

“I, God’s unworthy servant, am taking sacred gifts for one who is dying. And you too will one day be dying, to whose court then will you go for your judgement?”

Silence, only the jackdaw’s movement caused the branch under it to emit a soft crunch.

“Christ commanded us to love each other, and what are you doing? You are spilling the blood of Christians, you are ruining your own souls. The slain will enter the kingdom of heaven, and you?”

The tall one’s knees buckled and he fell down. His comrade quickly followed him. Thus they lay in the snow, not feeling how their fingers began to petrify, and above them sounded a soft, elderly voice:

“It’s not to me you should bow, but to Him, the merciful, who has sent me to you. He loves man and has forgiven murderers and villains.”

“Father, forgive us,” whispered the tall one.

“Forgive us, Father, we won’t, by God, we won’t do it no more,” the other joined in, raising his head.

The priest turned around in silence and walked towards the sleigh.

The jackdaw did not want to admit to herself that she was personally interested in the outcome of the enterprise. Cawing disapprovingly she thought that she was only standing guard after the interests of the estates. Truly, life would be so good for jackdaws if men would act so delicately with each other! Bristling her feathers ironically, the jackdaw pretended not to look at the road, but not a moment had passed before she bent the law and glanced sideways at the transgressors of animal-wide rights.

“I said, didn’t I, good man, don’t touch us. Ah! Take your belt off then!”

The tall one obediently untied his belt and gave it to the workman, who slowly and methodically tied the brigand’s hands behind his back.

“Right then, you! What are you drooling for? Give me your belt,” he addressed the other.

“But, but!” the other protested weakly as he glanced sideways at the priest, but he untied his belt and handed it over.

“Let them go, Stephen,” said the priest.

“How is that possible, Father Ivan. The deaconess would scold me.”

“Let them go. They won’t answer to men, but to God.”

Stephen reluctantly untied the tall one, gave his comrade a light cuff on the nape, and sat down on the box.

“But with the axe, good man, you’ll have to part,” he said as he grabbed the reins.

Soon the sleigh and the riders disappeared in the night’s darkness, from which one could hear:

“I said, didn’t I, don’t touch us. Ah…”

Indignant and astonished to the utmost degree, the jackdaw turned its head to the side and looked with interest at the remaining pair, holding onto a vague hope that the enterprise might still be recovered. The tall one stood in silence, his eyes lowered. His comrade touched his arm.

“Let’s go!”

The tall one started off in silence, and his comrade walked hurriedly after him. Very soon these two also disappeared in the darkness, and the jackdaw, who greatly enjoyed human company, was left alone. That said, on this occasion she did not find human company all that enjoyable.

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