The Russian Review/Volume 1/April 1916/Elijah, the Prophet
Elijah, The Prophet.
By I. A. Bunin.
Translated for "The Russian Review"
There was a fire that Spring at Semyon Novikov's, who lived with his thin-armed brother, Nikon, at Ovsiany Brod. Then the brothers decided to divide their property, and Semyon was to build a new house for himself, farther down on the high road.
On the night before St. Elijah's day, the carpenters asked permission to go home. So Semyon himself had to spend the night in the unfinished building. He had his supper with his brother's large family, in the little room full of flies and noise, lit his pipe, threw a coat over his shoulders, and said to his wife:
"It's too stuffy here. I guess I'll go to the new house and spend the night there. Somebody might steal the tools."
"Take the dogs with you, at least," said his wife.
"Nonsense," answered Semyon, and went out.
The moon was shining that night. Thinking about his new house, Semyon did not notice how rapidly he covered the distance from the village to the high road, going up hill all the time through a broad field, and then a verst up the road, coming, at last, to his unfinished new home, roofless as yet, but covered with ceiling-boards. The house stood on the edge of a large field planted with oats, all by itself. Its frameless windows looked like black holes; moonlight played dully on the edges of freshly cut beams, on tow, stuffed into joints, and on shavings, scattered all over the threshold. The golden July moon rose far beyond the gulches of the Brod, and seemed to be very low and very dull. Its warm light appeared to be diffused. Ripe ears of oats shone gloomy and greyish, like sea sand. Towards the north, the whole landscape appeared sombre. A dark cloud was rising there. Soft winds, blowing from every side, at times became stronger and ran in rapid gusts through stalks of rye and oats, which fluttered dryly and restlessly. The cloud in the north seemed motionless; only from time to time it glittered with a rapid, ominous, golden glow.
Lowering his head, as usual, Semyon entered the door. It was dark and stuffy inside. The moon's yellowish light that peered through the window-holes did not mingle with the darkness, but seemed, rather, to accentuate it. Semyon flung his coat on top of some shavings, right in one of the bands of light that lay on the floor, and threw himself on it, settling on his back. After sucking his cold pipe for a few minutes, he put it into his pocket, and, having reflected a little, fell fast asleep.
By and by, gusts of wind began rushing into the empty window-holes, through the building, and out through the door. Dull peals of thunder began to rumble at a distance. Semyon woke up. The wind was now quite strong; its gusts were rushing, uninterruptedly, through rows of feverishly fluttering stalks of rye and oats. The light of the moon was now duller still. Semyon walked out of the house and into the field of fluttering oat-stalks, that stood as pale as ghosts. He looked up at the cloud. There it stretched, black and threatening, covering half the sky. He was standing directly against the wind, which was dishevelling his hair, and forcing him to close his eyes. And the lightning, too, flashing ever more brightly and threateningly, blinded him. Making the sign of the cross, Semyon knelt down. Suddenly he saw a small crowd of people, with bare heads and new, white clothes, appear at the other end of the field, plainly visible against the dark wall of the cloud. The crowd was moving towards Semyon, bearing an enormous ancient image. The bearers were airy, vague, almost transparent, but the image was perfectly clear and distinct; the awful, stern face shone red upon the black field, burnt by candle-flames, besplattered with wax, and framed in ancient, bluish silver.
The wind blew the image away from Semyon's face, and Semyon, in joy and trepidation, bowed to the ground before the image. And when he raised his head, he saw that the crowd was quite close to him, holding in front of him the magnificent image, while upon the cloud, as in the great church painting, the whitebearded Elijah himself appeared. Like God, Lord of the Sabaoth, Elijah was clad in fiery chitons. He was sitting upon the lower edges of the cloud, which had a dead-blue color, while above him burned two orange-green rainbows. And, his eyes flashing like lightning, Elijah spoke to Semyon, his voice mingling with the distant rumble of thunder.
"Stand there, Semyon Novikov! And hear me, ye princely Christian peasants! For I am going to bring to judgment Semyon Novikov, a peasant of the Yeletzk Ouyezd, Predtechevskaya Volost, the hamlet of Ovsiany Brod."
And the whole field, shining there as if covered with white sand, and all its stalks of grain seemed to rush forward and bow before Elijah, and in the midst of their fluttering the Prophet's voice rose again.
"I am angry with you, Semyon Novikov, and I am going to punish you."
"What have I done to anger you, Lord?" said Semyon.
"It does not befit you, Semyon, to question me, Elijah. You must answer me."
"Just as you say, Lord."
"Two years ago I killed your elder boy Panteley with my lightning. Why did you bury him only half way, and return him to life through witchcraft?"
"Forgive me, Lord," said Semyon, bowing before him.
"I was sorry for the youngster. And then, think yourself: who is going to take care of me when I grow old?"
"And last year I cut your rye down with wind and hail. Why did you find out about it ahead of time, and sell your crop in the field?"
Forgive me, Lord," said Semyon, bowing before him. "My heart foretold it, and I needed the money so badly."
"And this year, didn't I burn your house down? Why are you in such a hurry to separate from your brother and build a new house?"
"Forgive me, Lord," said Semyon, bowing before him. "I thought my thin-armed brother unlucky, and that all those misfortunes came through him."
"Close your eyes. I'll think, and take counsel as to how to punish you."
Semyon closed his eyes and bowed his head low. The wind was whistling through the fluttering stalks, and Semyon tried to overhear Elijah's conversation with the peasants. But a new peal of thunder drowned their whispers.
"No, I can't think of anything," said Elijah in a loud voice.
"Think of something yourself."
"May I open my eyes?" asked Semyon.
"No. You will think better with your eyes closed."
"You're a strange fellow, Lord," grinned Semyon. "Well, what can I do? I'll buy you a candle for three roubles."
"Oh, you have no money. Didn't you spend everything you had for the new house?"
"Well, then I'll go to Kiev, or to the White City," said Semyon, hesitatingly.
"That would be simply wasting your time and wearing your shoes out. Who'll take care of your house?"
Semyon thought for a few moments.
"Well, then, kill my girl, Anfiska. She's only two, anyway. Though she is a fine girl, and nice to look at; we'll all be awfully sorry for her. But what's to be done?"
"Hear him, ye Christians," said Elijah in a loud voice. "I agree."
And then such a bright streak of lightning tore the cloud, that Semyon's eyelashes almost became lit up, and such a violent peal of thunder shook the sky, that the whole earth trembled.
"Holy, holy, holy Lord! Have pity on us!" whispered Semyon.
Awaking, and opening his eyes, Semyon saw only a cloud of dust, and the fluttering stalks swayed by the wind. He was on his knees in the middle of the field. Dust was flying in clouds down the road, and the moon shone dimly overhead.
Semyon jumped to his feet. Forgetting all about his coat and the tools, he began to walk rapidly in the direction of the hamlet. It began to rain when he turned from the high road into the field. The dark clouds were now hanging low over the gloomy gulches. The reddish moon was disappearing behind them. The hamlet was fast asleep; only the cattle moved restlessly in their barns, and roosters crowed ominously. Semyon began to run, and, approaching his old, dilapidated house, he heard women wailing. Near the threshold he came across his brother Nikon, standing with his coat on and his head bare. There he stood, so thin and prematurely wrinkled, looking about him stupidly.
"There's trouble in your place," said he, and his voice plainly showed that he was not yet fully awake.
Setoiyon rushed into the house. The women were tossing about in the dark, shrieking and wailing, looking for matches. Semyon snatched a box from behind an image and struck a light. The cradle, hung near the stove, was swaying from side to side, for the women knocked against it as they rushed about the room.And in the cradle lay a little girl, dead, her body turned black-blue, while on her head a night-cap, made of scraps of cloth, was burning slowly.
From that time on, Semyon lived quite happily.