Old provincial towns have tumbledown outskirts, and people come straight from nature to live there. A man appears, with a keen-eyed face that has been worn out to the point of sadness, a man who can fix up or equip anything but who has lived through his own life unequipped. There was not one object, from a frying pan to an alarm clock, that had not at some time passed through the hands of this man. Nor had he refused to resole shoes, to cast shot for wolf-hunting, or to turn out counterfeit medals to be sold at old-time village fairs. But he had never made anything for himself - neither a family, nor a dwelling. In summer he just lived outdoors, keeping his tools in a sack and using the sack as a pillow - less for softness than for the safety of the tools. He warded off the early sun by placing a burdock leaf over his eyes when he lay down in the evening. In winter he lived on what remained from his summers earnings, paying the verger for his lodging by ringing!
the hours through the night. He had no particular interest in people or nature, only in man-made objects of every kind. And so he treated people and fields with an indifferent tenderness, not infringing on their interests. During the winter evenings he would sometimes make things for which there was no need; he made towers out of bits of wire, ships from pieces of roofing iron, airships out of paper and glue, and so on - all entirely for his own pleasure. Often he even delayed someones chance commission; he might, say, have been asked to rehoop a barrel, but he would be busy fashioning a wooden clock, thinking it should work without a spring, as a result of the earths rotation.
The verger disapproved of these unpaid activities. Youll be begging in your old age, Zakhar Pavlovich! That casks been standing there for days, and you just keep holding bits of wood against the ground. Goodness knows what you think youre doing!
Zakhar Pavlovich said nothing: to him the human word was like the sounds of the forest to people who live there - something you dont hear. The verger went on calmly watching and smoking - from frequent attendance at services he had lost his faith in God, but he knew for sure that Zakhar Pavlovich wouldn't get anywhere: people had been living in the world for a long time and they had already invented everything. Zakhar Pavlovich, however, thought otherwise: there were still many things to be invented, since there was still material in nature that lived untouched by human hands.
Every fifth year half the village would go off to the mines and the towns, and the other half to the forests: the harvest had failed. From time immemorial it has been known that, even in dry years, herbs, greens and cereals do well in forest clearings. The half of the village that had stayed would rush out to these clearings - to save their vegetables from being plundered instantly by hordes of greedy wanderers. But this time there was a drought the following year too. The village bolted up its huts and set out onto the highway in two columns. One column set off to Kiev to beg, the other to Lugansk in search of work; a few people turned off into the forest and the overgrown gullies, where they took to eating raw grass, clay and bark, and lived wild. The people who left were nearly all adults - the children had either managed to die in advance or had run off to live as beggars. As for the unweaned babies, their mothers had let them gradually die, not allowing them to suck!
There was one old woman, Ignatyevna, who cured infants of hunger: she gave them an infusion of mushrooms mixed with sweet herbs, and the children fell peacefully silent with dry foam on their lips. The mother would kiss her child on its now aged, wizened forehead and whisper: Hes no longer suffering, the dear. Praise the Lord!
Ignatyevna was standing beside her. Hes slipped away quietly. Look at him lying there - hes happier now than when he was alive. Hes in Heaven now, listening to the silver winds.
The mother wondered at her child, believing its sad lot had been eased. Take my old skirt, Ignatyevna, Ive got nothing else to give you. Thank you!
Ignatyevna held the skirt up to the light and said: You have a little cry, Mitrevna, its what people do. But your skirts in tatters, you must throw in a little shawl too - or how about a nice iron?