The Hermit

The forest ravine slopes gently down to the yellow waters of the Oka; a brook rushes along its bottom, hiding in the grass; above the ravine, unnoticed by day and tremulous by night, flows the blue river of the sky—the stars play in it like golden minnows. Rank, tangled underbrush grows on the southeastern bank of the ravine. Under the steep side of it, in the thicket, a cave is dug out, closed by a door made of branches, ingeniously tied together; before the door is an earthen platform about seven feet square, buttressed by cobbles. From it, heavy boulders descend in a stairway towards the brook. Three young trees grow in front of the cave: a lime, a birch, and a maple.

Everything around the cave is made sturdily and with care, as though it were fashioned to last a life- time. The interior has the same air of sturdiness: the sides and the vault are covered with mats made of willow withies; the mats are plastered with clay mixed with the silt of the brook; a small stove rises to the left of the entrance; in the corner is an altar, covered by heavy matting in place of brocade; on the altar, in an iron sconce, is an oil-burner; its bluish flame flickers in the dusk and is hardly visible.

Three black icons stand behind the altar; bundles of new bast shoes hang on the walls; strips of bast lie about on the floor. The cave is permeated with the sweet smell of dry herbs.

The owner of this abode is an old man of middle height, thick-set, but crumpled and misshapen. His face, red as a brick, is hideous. A deep scar runs across the left cheek from ear to chin, giving a twist to his mouth and lending it an expression of painful scorn. The dark eyes are ravaged by trachoma; they are without lashes and have red scars instead of lids; the hair on the head has fallen out in tufts and there are two bald patches on the bumpy skull, a small one on the crown, and another which has laid bare the left ear. In spite of all this the old man is spry and nimble as a polecat; his naked, disfigured eyes have a kindly look; when he laughs, the blemishes of his face almost vanish in the soft abundance of his wrinkles. He wears a good shirt of unbleached linen, blue calico trousers and slippers made of cord. His legs are wrapped in hareskins instead of leggings.

I came to him on a bright May day and we made friends at once. He had me stay the night, and on my second visit told me the story of his life.

“I was a sawyer,” he said, lying under an elder-bush, having pulled off his shirt to warm his chest, muscular as a youngster’s, in the sun. “For seventeen years I sawed logs; see the mess a saw made of my face! That’s what they called me, Savel the Sawyer. Sawing is no light job, my friend—you stand there, waving your hands about in the sky, a net over your face, logs over your head and the saw-dust so thick you can’t see, ugh! I was a gay lad, a playful one, and I lived like a tumbler. There is, you know, a certain type of pigeon: they soar as high up as they can into the sky, into the utmost depth and there they fold their wings, tuck their heads under them-and bang! down they come! Some get killed that way, hitting the roofs, or the ground. Well, that’s what I was like. Gay and harmless, a blessed one; women, girls were as fond of me as of sugar, ’pon my word! What a life it was! It does one good to remember it.…”

And rolling from side to side he laughed the clear laughter of youth, except for a slight rattle in the throat, and the brook echoed his laugh. The wind breathed warmly, golden reflections glided on the velvety surface of the spring foliage.

“Well, let’s have a go at it, friend,” Savel suggested. “Bring it on!”

I went to the brook, where a bottle of vodka had been put to cool and we each had a glass, following it up with cracknels and fish. The old man chuckled with rapture.

“A fine invention that, drink!” And passing his tongue over his gray, tousled mustache: “A fine thing! Can’t do with a lot of it, but in small quantities it’s great! They say the devil was first to make vodka. Well, I’ll say thanks even to the devil for a good thing.”

He half-closed his eyes, remained silent for a moment and then exclaimed, indignantly:

  By PanEris using Melati.

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