Skip to main content

That Which Was Not

One beautiful June day—it was beautiful because it was twenty-eight degrees Réaumur—one beautiful June day it was warm everywhere, but it was even warmer in the clearing in the garden, where stood some ricks of newly mown hay, because the place was protected from the wind by a thick, impenetrable, cherry grove. Nearly everything was asleep: people had had their fill and were devoting themselves to post-prandial lateral occupations; the birds were silent; and even many insects had sought shelter from the heat.

That was even more true of the domestic animals: the cattle took refuge under some roof; the dog lay in a hole that he had dug out under the barn and, with eyes half open, breathed intermittently, while sticking out his tongue for almost more than a foot; at times he so yawned, evidently from ennui superinduced by the deadly heat, that one could hear a falsetto whine; the pigs, mother and her thirteen young ones, went down to the river bank and there lay down in the black, thick mud whence issued only their panting and snoring pig coins with two holes in them, their oblong, mud-washed spines, and enormous pendent ears. Only the hens were not afraid of the heat and managed to kill time by scratching up the dry earth opposite the kitchen entry, though they knew full well that there was not a kernel to be found there. The cock, evidently, was not feeling very well, for now and then he assumed a stupid attitude and cried amain: "What a scandal!"

There, we have walked away from the clearing where it was warmer than elsewhere, and yet a whole wakeful company was sitting there. That is, they were not all sitting. For example, the old bay, that was rummaging a hayrick at the danger of feeling the whip of coachman Antón, could not sit at all, being a horse; the caterpillar was not sitting either, but rather lying on its belly; but we need not be so particular about words. A small but very serious company was gathered under a cherry tree: a snail, a dung beetle, a lizard, and the above-mentioned caterpillar; then a grasshopper hopped up to them. Nearby stood the old bay, listening to their conversation with one of his bay ears, on the inside of which could be seen dark grey hairs. On the bay sat two flies.

The company discussed things politely, but with sufficient animation, and, as is proper in such cases, nobody agreed with his neighbour, for they all valued the independence of their opinions and characters.

"In my opinion," said the Dung Beetle, "a decent animal must above all care for his posterity. Life is a labour for the next generation. He who conscientiously fulfils the obligations which Nature imposes upon him stands on a firm foundation. He knows what he has to do, and no matter what may happen, he is not responsible. Look at me : who works more than I ? Who for whole days at a time rolls such a heavy ball, a ball that I have made with great art out of dung, with the great purpose in view of giving the opportunity to new dung beetles like myself to grow up ? But then, I do not think there is anybody who has such a calm conscience, or could with such a pure heart say : ' Yes, I have done all I can and all I ought to do, ' as I will say when these new dung beetles will see daylight. That 's what I call labour! "

" Don't mention your labour, friend!" said an Ant that during the Dung Beetle's speech had dragged up an immense piece of a dry stalk. He stopped for a moment, sat down on his four hind legs, and with his two front legs wiped off the sweat from his tired-out face. " I work myself, and much harder than you! But you work for yourself, or, what is the same, for your baby beetles; not everybody is so fortunate as that. Just try dragging logs for the com- monwealth's stores, as I do! I do not know myself what it is that makes me work so hard, even in such hot weather. Nobody will say * thanks! ' to me for it. We, unlucky work- ing ants, all work, and what good do we get out of it ? It 's just our fate! "

' You, Dung Beetle, look at life too dryly, and you, Ant, too gloomily," protested the Grasshopper. "No, Beetle, I do like to chirrup and leap about a little, and, really, I have no scruples about it! Besides, j^ou have not touched the question that Madam Lizard has put. She asked : ' What is the world?' and you are talking about your dung ball. Why, that is not even decent. The world is, in my opinion, a very good thing, if for nothing else, because we find in it juicy grass, the sun, and the breeze. And it is so big! Living under these trees, you can't have the slightest con- ception how big it is. When I am in the field, I sometimes jump up as high as I can, and I assure you I reach an enor- mous height. I see from way up there that there is no end to the world." " That 's right," thoughtfully assented the Bay. " But all the same none of you will ever see one hundredth part of what I have seen in my lifetime. What a pity, you can't understand what a verst is ! A verst from here is the village Lupdrevka: I go there every day with a barrel for water. But they never feed me there. On the other side is Eff- movka and Kislydkovka; in the latter there is a church with a belfry. And then comes Svydto-Tr6itskoe, and then Bo- goydvlensk. In Bogoyavlensk they always give me some hay, but the hay is not good there. And then there is Nikoldevsk, — that 's a town, twenty-eight versts from here, — there the hay is better, and I get oats there; but I do not like to go to Nikoldevsk : our master generally drives there, and he tells the coachman to drive fast, and the coachman lays the whip on us dreadfully. And there are also Aleksindrovka, Byel6zerka, Kh6rson, — that 's a town too But how can you grasp that all! That is the world ; I must say, not the whole world, but yet a consider- able part of it." The Bay grew silent, but his lower lip was quivering as if whispering something. That was from old age: he was seventeen years old, and for a horse that is as much as seventy-seven for a man. " I do not understand your wise equine words, and, I con- fess, I am not trying to catch their meaning, ' ' said the Snail. " All I want is a burdock: it is now four days I have been crawling over one, and it is not yet all ended. Beyond this burdock there is another burdock, and in that burdock there is, no doubt, another snail. There you have it all. There is no need in leaping about, — that 's all empty talk and bosh; stay where you are, and eat the leaf on which you are sitting. If it were not for my laziness, I should have long ago crawled away from you and all your talk : it gives me only a headache, that 's all." " Now, I beg your pardon, I don't see why ? " broke in the Grasshopper. " It is quite enjoyable to chirrup, particu- larly about pleasant matters, like infinity and so forth. Of course, there are practical natures who only think of filling their bellies, like you, or that charming Caterpillar "

' Oh, no, leave me alone, I pray, leave me alone, don't touch me! " exclaimed the Caterpillar pitifully. " I am doing it all for the future life, only for the future life." " What future life are you talking about ? " asked the Bay. " Don't you know that after death I shall be turned into a butterfly with colored wings ? ' ' The Bay, the I,izard, and the Snail did not know it, but the insects had some notion of it. And they all kept silent for a moment, for none of them could say anything sensible about the future life. "We ought to bow respectfully to solid convictions," chirruped the Grasshopper. " Is there nobody else who wants to say anything? Maybe you ? " he turned to the Flies. And the older one answered : " We can't complain. We have just come out of the rooms; the lady had put out some fresh jam in some dishes, and we crawled in under the covers, and had lots to eat. We are satisfied. Dear mama stuck fast in the jam, but what 's to be done? She has lived long enough in this world. But we are satisfied." " Gentlemen," said the Lizard, " I think that you are all absolutely right ! But, on the other hand ' ' The Lizard did not finish saying what there was on the •other hand, because she felt that something was jamming her tail to the ground. It was coachman Anton who had just awakened and had come to fetch the Bay. He accidentally stepped with his monstrous boot on the whole company and smashed it. Only the flies flew away to lick off their dead, sugared mama, and the Lizard got away with part of her tail. Ant6n took the Bay by the forelock and led him out of the garden to hitch him to the barrel, in order to fetch some water, and he kept saying: "Get up there, shagtail!" to which the Bay answered only with a lisp.

The Lizard was left without a tail. 'T is true, after a time it grew out again, but it always remained rather stumpy and blackish. When the Lizard was asked how she came to injure her tail in that way, she modestly answered:

"They tore it off, because I had made up my mind to express my convictions."

And she was absolutely right.

Russian storyteller with tragic brilliance. Ancestry tied to Tatar prince. Echoed Dostoevsky's empathy. Cut short by mental anguish. Legacy lives through 'A Red Flower'.