The Way of the Cross/I

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The Way of the Cross by Vlas Mikhaĭlovich Doroshevich, translated by Stephen Graham
The River

I

THE RIVER

ON the roadway, outside Podolsk, a sentry, an old man, said to me with a smile.

—All Russia is on parade.

And he raised the barrier to allow a motor-car to pass.

—One province comes after another.

After some hours on the road you begin to distinguish one province from another.

There goes the province of Holm.

You recognize it by the way the peasant women do their hair.

They cut a "fringe" and let it show on their foreheads, pulling it out from under their kerchiefs, As our ladies wore their hair twenty years ago.

These are:

—The White Mountain people.

The peasant Women of the White Mountain district, whom the women of other provinces cannot tolerate, but despise them for these same "fringes."

—The plain-haired women.

The Holm people came before any of the others, they have been longer on the road and are more upset than all the rest.

Their peasant women are quarrelsome, they look about them ill-naturedly, and for every little nothing they raise hysterical cries.

It’s evident that they’re upset in the very depths of their souls.

Their nerves are all unstrung.

See, approaching slowly, in their reddish sheepskin coats with fringes of wool hanging from the cuffs of their sleeves, come the people from the province of Grodno.

You can recognize the Grodno people by their carts. The carts have coverings made of checked and striped material stretched over a basket-work frame.

This homespun material is used for the festival dresses of the peasant women.

In the province of Grodno the peasant women make such cloth.

They offer it at sixty copecks an arshin at the relief points on the road:

Even in the extremity of their need they will not part with it for less than sixty copecks.

And with this precious material they now cover their carts!

All goes to ruin!

This is a twice-humbled people.

—First of all, good man, there came through our province fugitives from other places. They ruined us: dug up our potatoes, rooted up our cabbages, took off the hay, and carried away the unground grain in their carts. And as soon as this had happened we ourselves had to be on the move!—complain the peasants.

See, here come the peasants of Lublin and Lomzha provinces. They wear long white sheepskin coats with the wool showing at the cuffs of their sleeves, with broad shawl-like collars of black sheepskin, and with a beautiful ornamentation of coloured threads. They wear four-cornered caps with pompons on the corners.

Long moustaches, and shaven chins, overgrown and scrubby.

A quiet, courteous, gentle folk. Their women are arrayed in specially sumptuous fur coats.

The sleeves, the pockets, and the waists are all adorned with embroidery in coloured thread.

Now all these are dirty, all are covered with a thick layer of dust, they are torn and ragged, but you can see that they were once beautiful, ornamental, and in themselves signs of wealth.

And that not very long ago.

—It’s the third month!

—We’ve been journeying nine weeks!

—Seven weeks since we left!

The peasants answer weariedly in reply to the question:

—Have you been long on the road?

A whole eternity!

—I can’t make it out—said one of the fugitives to me. He was serving as a soldier, and used even such phrases as "the masses."

—I can’t make it out: either my home was all a dream, or I’ve gone out of my mind now, and God knows when I shall understand. My home burnt, cattle drowned in the river, no little wife, she died on the road; my two children also died and we buried them by the wayside and put crosses over the graves. I've got one son left and one horse. That’s all we are in the world. Is it possible that I am the same man as I was?

He had the common appearance of a fugitive—a two-horse cart with a single shaft and canvas tilt.

When you meet the first party of fugitives upon the road you think that they’re gipsies.

The populations of whole provinces have become gipsies, and in the month of October are leading a nomad life on the road and in the forests.

It is necessary to form some estimate of the greatness of their unexampled trial. To a cart that should be drawn by two horses one often sees only one.

The other has fallen, or has been sold by the way.

No harness of any kind, only a horse-collar.

And that lonely horse in the shafts has the air of an orphan, and imparts that air to the whole conveyance.

By the side of the horse walks the peasant or his wife, turn by turn.

They only go on foot in the mornings.

—To get warm.

In the mornings there are five degrees of frost in the fields.

But they all are travelling in their carts.

All of them have sore feet and many are lame.

Inside the carts, under feather beds, under old clothes and rags, sit or lie five or seven human beings.

The carts are crowded with people.

The little horses find it hard to draw the people and their luggage.

What is in the carts?

—We only brought_the bedding!

—We only managed to bring the linen! these are the answers you hear.

You meet the very strangest cartloads.

They sometimes carry—layers of iron.

—The roof!

It was the most valued possession.

—Their cottage had an iron roof!

When they were forced to flee, they took this most valued thing and carried it they knew not whither.

Why?

—It was the most valuable. At the sides of the carts the peasants have slung their kitchen utensils, as gipsies do.

It cuts one to the heart to see these remains of what was lately—only yesterday—opulence and sufficiency.

One often sees enamelled ware

Enamelled kettles, frying-pans, basins.

Suddenly comes a cart with a watering-pot fastened at the side.

Just one watering-pot remains from the whole garden and vegetable plot!

Sewing machines stick out from the sides of the carts.

It’s as if there had been a fire.

A fire in which all has been destroyed, and the people have caught up

—The most precious things!

Often, behind the carts, instead of spare wheels as in the majority of cases—is tied on a Viennese chair.

They had been proud of this chair.

—It had been the chair for guests.

—They didn’t get along anyhow in their home. They had Viennese chairs. Theirs wasn’t an izba.

And now, when they sleep in the woods and travel slowly along the road, in cold and hunger, they carry these chairs with them as:

—Their most precious possession.

Under the cart sometimes dogs are tied, and they run along there as they can.

They’re tied up so that they won’t get run over by the relief cars that come swiftly along.

How moving and how instant in its appeal is this enormous and silent procession! How it grips one’s heart! The procession moving no one knows whither.

Into the unknown.

Silently, above all.

The over-wearied horses do not shy when motor-cars pass them. They do not even prick up their ears.

And the dogs don’t bark.

The people in the carts do not talk.

—They have said all they’ve got to say.

They move like grey shadows, like the dead.

The peasant women are silent.

Even the children do not cry.

At the relief points, where thousands of people are gathered together, you are impressed by the silence.

What a silent country it is!

You can go for tens and for hundreds of versts—and still meet an almost uninterrupted stream of grey carts

Like a series of spectres.

And silent, silent, silent.

Nothing but hopeless boredom and grief in their eyes.

Weary and indifferent faces, as of convicts being marched along the road

And only by the new white wooden crosses along the side of the road can you see how much suffering has silently passed there.

A river of suffering has coursed along.

At the medical stations the doctors tear their hair.

—What can we do? Confess our helplessness? Numbers come to us suffering from rheumatism. From rheumatism in its most acute form. What can we do? What help can we give these people who must spend their nights in the forests?

There are many cases of typhoid fever

And at the medical stations on the road the doctors give a sigh of relief and exclaim

—Thank God, no typhus.

Dysentery is raging.

—It is astonishing, how many are suffering from dysentery!—and that also is a matter for despair.

Nearly everybody has bronchitis.

Many cases of acute pneumonia.

Among the children, scarlatina.

Scores are suffering from bruises and blisters, and have their feet bandaged up.

So blistered, that it’s impossible to walk.

Feet scorched from the bonfires near which the people have slept at night in the forest.

The doctors work as hard as they can.

They work with superhuman energy.

But how can one cope with elemental calamity?

And it is truly elemental.

What can we do? said a doctor to me.

Yesterday I had an experience. Side by side. A man was dying, a woman gave birth to a child.