|Posted on September 23, 2009 at 10:10 AM|
Click Above To Encourage The Blogger
Published by the National Book Trust,
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Translated from the Russian in English by Olga Shartse
I open my windows wide. A stream of fresh air comes pouring into the room. In the bluish paling half-light I pore over the sketches for my new picture. The sketches are many, for I have had to begin at the very beginning again and again. But it is too early to see the picture as a whole. I haven't found the main thing yet, that overpowering something that comes to you as suddenly and irresistibly as these early summer dawns growing clearer and clearer, and sounding a mysterious and elusive note in our soul. I pace the floor in the silence of the waning light, thinking, thinking, thinking... It happens every time. And every time I realize that my picture remains no more than a vague idea.
I do not believe in talking about my paintings before they are finished even to my closest friends. It isn’t because I guard my work over jealously, but it’s difficult to tell what a child, still in its cradle, will be like when it grows up. And it's just as difficult to judge an unfinished painting. However, I'm going to break my rule just this once because I want to announce for all to hear, or rather I want to share with people my thoughts on the yet unpainted picture.
This is no mere whim. I cannot act differently, because I feel that it is too big for me to handle along. The story that has gripped me, the story that prompted me to take up my brush seems so overwhelming that I simply cannot embrace it alone. I seem to be holding a brimming cup, and I am afraid of spilling it. That's why I want people to help me with their advice, to tell me what to do, to come and stand with me at my easel, if only in thought, and share my emotions.
Come closer, do not grudge me the warmth of your hearts, it is my duty to tell you this story...
Our Kurkureu village lies on a broad plateau at the foot of the mountains, with noisy little streams rushing down to it from the many gorges. Below the village spread the Yellow Valley, a huge Kazakh steppe, hinged with the spurs of the Black Mountains and the dark line of the railway running away to the horizon, to the west, across the plain.
And on the hill behind the village there are two great poplars. I remember them since I remember myself. From whatever side you approach our Kurkureu, the first thing you see are the two poplars, standing on that hill like beacons for all to see. I can't clearly explain my feeling-- perhaps it's because the memories of childhood are particularly precious, or maybe it has something to do with my being a professional artist--but anyway, every time I leave the train and start driving homeward across the plain, I stare my eyes out while still a long way off to see if my dear poplars are there safe and sound. Tall though they are, I could hardly expect to see them from that distance, but to me they are always visible and tangible.
The many times I drove back to Kurkureu from faraway places, I always had that nostalgic feeling: “Will I see my twin poplars soon? Will I ever reach home? All I want is to go up that hill and stand under the trees for a long, long time, listening to the murmur of their leaves.”
Later, many years later, I discovered the secret of the poplars. They stand on a rise, open to all winds, the slightest motion of the air affects them, and their every leaf responds sensitively to the tiniest breeze.
The discovery of this simple truth did not disappoint me in the least, nor did it rob me of my childish attitude towards them, which I retain to this day. And to this day I think of those two poplars on the hill as wonderful, living things. There, at their foot, I left my childhood, like a broken piece of green magic glass...
On the last day of school before our summer holidays began, a crowd of us would go there to rifle birds' nests, racing up the hill with whoops and yells. And the giants, swaying from side to side, seemed to be murmuring an invitation for us to come into their cool shade. But we, a bunch of barefooted scamps, would scramble up into the branches and raise havoc in the birds' kingdom. The birds would take wing and wheel above our heads with loud cries. But we didn't care. What was it to us? We climbed higher and higher--let's see who's the nimblest and bravest! And then suddenly, as if by magic, we'd see a beautiful world of space and light unfolding before us. The grandeur of that world was staggering. With bated breath we'd gaze down, spellbound and motionless, each on his own branch, and forget all about our nest-rifling plans. The collective farm stables, which we had always thought the biggest building in the world, appeared no grander than an ordinary woodshed. And beyond the village stretched the virgin steppe, floating, it seemed, in a shimmering haze. Peering into the bluish distance we would see more land whose existence we never suspected and rivers we knew nothing about, glimmering silver threads in the distance. And clinging to our branches we would wonder: is that the end of the earth, or is there a sky like ours, are there clouds, steppes and rivers like ours beyond that too? We would listen to the haunting music of the winds, and the leaves all whispering together would speak of the enchantment of those mysterious lands hidden behind the bluish haze.
I would listen to the swish of the leaves, my heart hammering from fear and excitement as I tried to picture those distant lands. I remember now that it never occurred to me to wonder who planted those poplars. What did that unknown person dream about, what did he say when he placed the roots of the young trees into the soil, with what hopes did he tend them and watch them grow?
For some unknown reason, our villagers have always called the hill where the poplars stand “Duishen's school.” I remember hearing a man who was looking for his horse asks a passer-by: “I say, you haven't seen my bay hereabouts, have you?” And the answer: There were some horses grazing up there near Duishen's school last night. Maybe your bay's there too.” We kids also called the hill Duishen's school, giving the name no thought, simply imitating the grown-ups. “Come on, let's go to Duishen's school and give the sparrows a good scare,” someone would say.
Once upon a time there was a school on this hill, people said. No trace of it was left that I ever saw. As a child I went looking for some signs of the building, but though I searched and searched I never found anything. Later, it did strike me as strange that a bare hill should be called “Duishen's school”, and one day I asked our old men who Duishen had been. One of them answered with a careless shrug: “Duishen? Why, he lives here now, he's Duishen of the Limping Sheep clan. It was all a long time ago; Duishen was a Komsomol member then. There was a tumbledown shed on that hill, and Duishen started a school in it. He taught children, he did. Some school that was, it was not worth the name! Ah yes, those were queer times! In those days it was catch a horse by the mane and put your foot in the stirrup, and then you were your own boss. That's what Duishen did. He had a crazy idea and carried it through. And now there's not a broken stone left of that school shed, but the name stuck, and that's all the good it has done us.”
I hardly knew Duishen at all, I remember him as an elderly man, tall and angular, with beetling brews. His house was on the other side of the river. He was the collective farm's mirab (the man who regulates the flow of water in irrigation ditches), and spent all his waking hours in the fields. Occasionally, he'd ride down our street, a big hoe tied to his saddle, and his horse was like its master -- bony and slim of leg. Years later, I remember someone mentioning that Duishen was now the village postman. But that's all by the way. In those days my idea of a Komsomol member was a young man, quick to act and speak, a wonderful worker and the bravest djigit in the village, who'd stand up at a meeting and speak his mind, or write to the newspaper about loafers and thieves. And I simply could not imagine this docile, bearded old man as a Komsomol member and, more amazing still, teaching school when he himself could hardly read and write. I just couldn't see it, that's all. To be quite honest, I was sure it was one of those many tall stories circulating in our village. However, I was wrong...
Last autumn I received a telegram from my home village. It was an invitation to the opening ceremony of the new school built by the collective farmers with their own hands. I immediately made up my mind to go; how could I miss a great day like that in our village? I arrived a few days early, because I wanted to walk about and make some new drawings of my native district. Academician Sulaimanova had also been invited, I was told. She was expected to spend a couple of days in the village and then go on to Moscow.
I knew that this celebrated woman had left our village when she was no more than a child. I met her when I too, became a townsman. She was already past middle age, a statuesque woman with plenty of gray in her glossy black hair. She headed a chair at the university, lectured on philosophy, worked at the Academy and often went abroad. Academician Sulaimanova was a very busy woman and so I was not able to get to know her well, but whenever we met she invariably asked me for news of our home village, and never failed to say something, even if only a few words, about my new paintings. One day I worked up enough courage to say to her:
“Altynai Sulaimanovna, why do you never go back home for a stay? They're so proud of you there, they know all about you but more from hearsay, and the village folk grumble sometimes that you don't want to know them, seeing that you've never honored your native Kurkureu with a visit.”
“Yes, of course, I must go there one day,” she answered with a wistful smile. “I’ve been dreaming of seeing Kurkureu for a long time, I haven't been there for ages. True, I have no relatives in the village. But that doesn't matter. I'll go there soon, I'm really homesick.”
... She arrived when the ceremony was about to begin. The people gathered in the new school building saw her drive up, and all poured out of doors. Friends and strangers, the old and the young, they all wanted to shake her hand. I don't suppose Altynai expected such a welcome and I thought it rather embarrassed her. Hands pressed to her breast, she bowed right and left as she made her way through the crowd to the presidium table on the stage.
Altyani must have attended a great number of meetings and ceremonies in her life, and the welcome accorded her must always have been cordial and warm, but the welcome she was given here, in the village school, was so moving that it brought tears to her eyes.
After the speeches, the school's Young Pioneers presented her with a bouquet and a red Young Pioneer tie, and then asked her to make the first entry in the visitor's book. A children's amateur show followed, it was most entertaining, and after that the headmaster invited everyone to his place.
Hosts and guests alike couldn't make enough of Altynai. They gave her the place of honor, where the rugs were the most gorgeous, they lavished attention on her to show how much they respected and admired her. It was noisy and jolly, as such gatherings usually are, with everyone talking animatedly and proposing toasts.
A young village lad came in and handed the master of the house a batch of telegrams. They were from the village school's old pupils congratulating the collective farmers on the new building. The telegrams were passed around.
“I say, did old Duishen bring these telegrams?” the headmaster asked the lad.
“Yes. He says he whipped his horse all the way to get here before the meeting closed, so the telegrams could be read out for all to hear. He was a bit late, our aksakal, and he's terribly put out.”
“But why is he outside? Tell him to come in.”
The young lad went out to call Duishen. Altynai, who was sitting next to me, started nervously as though suddenly remembering something, and asked me what Duishen they were talking about. I thought her manner and tone were very strange.
“He's the postman. D'you now old Duishen?”
She nodded vaguely, got up to leave the table, but at that very moment someone rode past the window with a clatter of hoofs, and the young lad came back to say that Duishen had gone.
“He wouldn't come in, he has more mail to deliver, he says.”
“Let him go and deliver it then, why hold him back? He can come and sit with the old men later,” a voice said rather ungraciously.
“Oh, you don't know our Duishen! Duty comes first with him. He'll never stop anywhere before he's finished his job.”
“Yes, he's a queer character. After the war he came out of hospital, in the Ukraine it was, and stayed there. He's only been back about five years; he says he wants to die at home. That man never married in his life...”
“It's a pity he wouldn't come in though. Oh well, never mind,” the host said.
“Comrades, some of you may remember that once we all went to Duishen's school” said one of the most respected men in the village, raising his glass. “But I'm sure he did not know all the letters of the alphabet himself.” The man screwed up his face comically and shook his head. There was both amazement and sarcasm in his expression.
“It's true enough,” several voices said at once.
There was general laughter.
“It certainly is! What didn't Duishen attempt to do in those days! And we were fine ones too--we seriously regarded him as a teacher!”
When the laughter died down, the speaker raised his glass again.
“Look how people have grown in our day! Altynai Sulaimanovna is an academician, known throughout the country. Practically all of us have a secondary education, and many a higher education. Today we have opened a new secondary school in our village, and that alone shows how greatly our life has changed. May the sons and daughters of Kurkureu always be among the best-educated people of their day! Let us drink to this.”
The party became noisy and jolly again as everyone drank the toast. Altynai alone appeared disturbed and ill at ease, and took no more than a sip of her wine. No one noticed it though everyone was in high spirits, talking and laughing.
Altynai glanced at her wristwatch again and again. And afterwards, when the whole party came out for a breath of fresh air, I saw her standing apart from the rest, her intent gaze on the hill where the yellowed poplars were swaying gently in the breeze. The sun was sinking where the sky met the blurred lilac line of the steppe. Its waning light stained the crowns of the poplars a dull, sorrowful purple.
I went up to Altynai.
“They are shedding their leaves now, but you ought to see them in spring when they are bursting info leaf!”
“I've been thinking of it too.” she said with a sigh, and after a pause added, as if speaking to herself: “Yes, all living things have their spring and their autumn.”
Her aging face looked pensive and sad. She was gazing at the poplars with a very feminine sort of regret. The academician had vanished; this was just an ordinary, unsophisticated Kirghiz woman, guileless in both sorrow and joy. She seemed to be lost in memories of her youth, which, as our songs say, cannot be called back even if you call from the tallest mountain. I believe she wanted to tell me something as she stood gazing at the poplars, but changing her mind she hastily put on the spectacles she was holding in her hand.
“I believe the Moscow train goes through at eleven, doesn't it?” she asked.
“Then it's time I started for the station.”
“But why so suddenly?” I asked.
“You promised you'd stay here a few days, you know. People won't let you go so soon.”
“I've urgent business in Moscow. I've got to leave at once.”
Her mind was made up, and no plea could move her.
It was getting dark. The disappointed villagers saw their guest to the car and made her promise she'd come for a longer stay soon, for a week at the very least. I drove with her to the station.
Why the sudden hurry I wondered. It was foolish to hurt her countrymen's feelings, and especially on a great day like this. I wanted to ask why she was doing it, but I did not dare. Not because I was afraid to appear tactless. I just knew it would be no use that she wouldn't tell me anything. She was lost in thought, and never said a word all the way to the station.
“I can see that something has upset you. Could we have offended you in any way? Are you angry with anyone?” I brought myself to ask her.
“Oh, no, heavens no! The very idea! Who could I be angry with? Only myself, perhaps. Yes, I could really be angry with myself.”
And with that she left. A few days after my return to town I got a letter from her, which surprised me. Altynai wrote to say that she was going to stay in Moscow longer than planned and then went on:
“Although I have so many important and urgent things to attend to in Moscow, I have decided to put them all off in order to write you this long letter. If you should find my story interesting I'd very much ask you to think it over and suggest how it could be published. I think this ought to be done not just for the benefit of our villagers, but also for the benefit of all, our youth especially. I gave the matter much thought before arriving at this decision. This is my confession to people. I owe it to them. The greater the number of people who read it, the easier my conscience will be. Do not be afraid of making it embarrassing for me. Do not hold anything back.”
For days I could think of nothing else, so haunting was the impression produced by her letter. The best thing to do, I finally decided, was to relate the story as if told by Altynai herself.
It happened in 1924. Yes, that was the year... What is now our collective farm was in those days a small village of poor peasants. I was fourteen at the time, and I lived in the home of my late father's cousin. My mother, too, was dead.
That autumn, after the wealthier sheep-farmers had moved up into the mountains for the winter, a stranger wearing an army greatcoat came to our village. I remember the greatcoat because it was a black one, oddly enough. The appearance of a man in uniform in our remote little village, wedged in between the mountains, caused quite a stir.
At first people said that he'd been a commander in the army and so he'd be a high official in the village too, but later it turned out that he was no commander at all, he was the son of Tashtanbek, that same Tashtanbek who had left the village to work on the railway that hungry winter years ago and was never heard of again. And this stranger was his son Duishen, sent here, so he said, to start a school and teach children to read and write.
In those days, schools were unheard of in our parts, and people did not understand such newfangled notions very well. Some believed the rumors; others dismissed them for old women's gossip. Perhaps they would have forgotten all about this school business, if a general meeting had not been called soon after Duishen's arrival. My uncle grumbled, reluctant to go.
“Meeting, indeed! They're always bothering you with their nonsense when you're busy!” But finally he saddled his old Mg and rode to the meeting in style, as befitted a self-respecting djigit. The neighbors' kids and I followed him at a run.
When, panting, we got to the hillock where our meetings were usually held, we saw the pale-faced young man in the black army greatcoat addressing the riders and those who came on foot. We couldn't catch his words, so we edged closer. A very old man in a badly worn fur coat suddenly interrupted him.
“Listen, son, it was the mullahs who taught children before, but your father's well known to all of us, he was a pauper like the rest,” the old man said in a rush of words. “What we'd like to know is this: how come that you're a mullah then?”
“I'm not a mullah aksakal, I’m a member of the Komsomol,” Duishen answered readily. “It’s teachers and not mullahs who'll be teaching children now. I learned to read and write in the army, and I had a bit of schooling before then too. That’s how much of a mullah I am.”
“Well, that’s different….”
There were shouts of approval.
“And the Komsomol has sent me here to teach your children. We'll need some sort of place. I'm thinking of opening the school--with your help, of course--in that old stable on the hill. D’you think it's a good idea?”
The men were not prepared to answer right away. They were not quite sure what this newcomer was after. Satymkul, who was notoriously contrary, broke the silence. He had been listening attentively to the talk going on around him as he sat leaning forward on the pommel, nonchalantly spitting through his teeth now and then.
“Not so fast, young fellow,” he said, squinting at Duishen as if taking aim. “You'd better tell us this: what do we want a school for?”
“What do you want a school for?” Duishen repeated, too stunned to answer.
“Yes, that’s right. What for?” someone called out. Everyone began to talk and shout at once.
“Tilling the soil has been our life since time out of mind. Our hoe will always keep us in food. Our children will live the same way, so what the devil do they want learning for? It’s the officials who need learning and we're just simple folk. So don't you try getting us all mixed up!”
Gradually the excitement died down
“Surely you can't be against your children going to school?”
Duishen asked in a shocked voice, peering into the faces about him.
“Supposing we are, are you going to use force? Those times are past. We're a free people now, we’ll live any way we like.”
Duishen turned deathly pale. With shaking fingers he tore at the hooks on his coat, fumbled in the great pocket of his tunic, got out a piece of paper folded in four, hastily shook it out and held it high above his head.
“So you're against this paper which says that children must go to school, which has the seal of the Soviet Government on it? Who gave you land and water? Who gave you freedom? All right, who's against the laws of the Soviet Government? Speak up. Answer!”
He shouted the word “answer” with such resounding, angry force that it pierced the mellow autumn silence like a bullet, and the shot was echoed crisply in the mountains. No one said a word. People stood with heads hung low, in silence.
“We're poor peasants,” Duishen now said quietly. “We were humiliated and kicked about all our lives. We lived in darkness. And now the Soviet Government wants us to see the light, it wants us to learn to read and write. That’s what our children want a school for.”
Duishen fell silent and waited. The old man in the badly worn fur coat was the first to speak.
“All right, teach them if you want to, we don't care...”
“But I'm asking you to help me. That stable on the hill wants repairing, a bridge has to be built across the stream, we'll need firewood for the winter...”
“Not so fast, djigit, not so fast” Satymkul broke in rudely. He spat through his teeth and fixed a malevolent look on Duishen, screwing up one eye. “Here you are shouting for all the village to hear that you' re going to start a school. But from what I can see you’ve neither a fur coat on your back, nor a horse to ride, no land, not a patch tilled and sown, and not a single sheep to your name! How do you expect to live, my good man? By stealing the herds of others, perhaps?”
“I'll get along. I'll be getting a salary.”
“All that's talking!” Satymkul, highly pleased with himself, straightened up in his saddle and looked about him triumphantly. “Everything's dear now. You can do your own worrying then, djigit, and you can teach the children for the salary you're getting. The state has money enough, just leave us in peace, we've cares enough as it is.”
Saying this, Satymkul turned his horse about and rode away. The others started off after him. Duishen remained standing there all alone, holding the paper in his hands, looking lost and miserable.
I felt sorry for him, and stood staring with dumb sympathy until my uncle chased me away.
“What are you doing here, you uncombed brat? What are you gaping at? Go home at once!” I raced after my friends. 'Kids coming to meetings, what next!” My uncle grumbled.
Next morning, when we girls went to fetch water from the stream, we saw Duishen wading across to the other side. He carried a shovel, a hoe, an axe and an old pail.
Every morning after that, the villagers saw Duishen's black-clad solitary figure trudging uphill to the abandoned stable. And it was not until late in the evening that he came down to the village again. Often he would be seen carrying a huge bundle or dry thistles of straw on his back. Men sighting him from afar would raise themselves up on their stirrups and, shielding their eyes with a hand, exchange remarks about him.
“I say, isn't that Duishen the teacher over there with the load on his back?” “None other”
“The poor chap. A teacher's job doesn't look too easy either”
“Did you think it was? Look at the bundle he's lugging, he's no better than a bey's servant women.”
“And to hear him talk he's so high and mighty.”
“That’s simply because he has that paper with the seal. There's power in that seal.”
One day, carrying bagfuls of dry cow dung for fuel, which we usually gathered at the foot of the mountain behind the village, we decided to go and see what the teacher was doing in the old stable. This mud building had once belonged to the bey. He kept his mares there, which had foaled in the winter. Then Soviet power was established, the bey went away, abandoning his property. Nobody even went there and the place was overgrown with burdock. But now we saw that the burdock had all been rooted out and stacked in a pile, and the yard had been cleaned. The crumbling, rain-damaged walls had been plastered with clay, and the warped door that had always sagged on one hinge had been fixed and was properly closed now.
We dropped our bags on the ground to rest a bit, and at that moment Duishen came out. He was spattered all over with clay and looked startled at first, but then he smiled at us.
“Where do you come from girls?” he asked, wiping the sweat off his face.
We were squatting on the ground beside our bags, too embarrassed to speak. Duishen, realizing that shyness was making us tongue-tied, tried to put us at our ease with a friendly wink and smile.
Those bags are bigger than yourselves,” he said. I'm very glad you came because, after all, it’s your school, you know. It’s almost ready for you. I've just finished building a stove of sorts, and there's the chimney, see? Ah I have to do now is get in a supply of fuel for the winter, but that'll be easy, there's plenty of thistles growing all around. We'll put lots of straw on the floor to sit on and start lessons. Do you think you’ll like going to school?”
I was older than the others, and so I felt it was up to me to answer.
“I'll go if my aunt lets me.”
“Why shouldn't she, of course she'll let you, why not? What’s your name?”
“Altynai--its a good name. And you're a good girl. I'm sure, eh?” He smiled so pleasantly it warmed your heart. “Who's your father?”
I kept silent: I did not like admitting that I was an orphan, and I did not like to be pitied.
“She's an orphan,” another girl volunteered. “She lives with her uncle.”
“Well, Altynai,” Duishen said to me with a smile, “come yourself and bring the other children to school. Agree?”
“Call me teacher. Would you like to see inside? Come in, don’t be shy.”
“No, we’ll be going, it’s time we went home,” we said, really too timid to go in.
“Run along then. You’ll see it later when you start lessons. I think I’ll make another trip for grass before it gets dark.
Duishen took a length of rope and a sickle and started off. We got to our feet, hoisted the bags onto our backs, and trotted back to the village. Suddenly, I had a bright idea.
“Wait, girls,” I said. “Let’s empty our bags in the school-yard that'll make a bit more fuel for the winter.”
“And go home empty-handed? Clever, aren't you”.
“We'll come back and gather more.”
“No, thanks. Mother will scold me if I'm home late.”
Without waiting for me, the girls hurried off.
I still don't know why I acted as I did that day. Perhaps it was sheer stubbornness, or an uncontrollable urge to rebel, having had all my impulses and desires crushed since infancy with cruel cuffs and scolding; an urge to do something good for this man, a total stranger really, for his smile which warmed my heart, for trusting me if only a little, for saying those few kind words. And I know it now, I know it without a doubt that my real life with all its joys and sufferings began that day; with the thing I did then. For that was the first time in my life I did something on my own decision, something I considered right, without hesitation or fear of punishment. Deserted by my friends, I hurried back to Duishen's school, emptied my bag beside the door, and ran as fast as I could through the ravines and glades to gather more cow dung.
I ran heedlessly as if on wings, my heart beating happily as if I had just performed some wonderful feat. The sun seemed to know why I was so happy. Yes, I do believe that it knew why I was running with such light- hearted abandon: because I had done a good deed.
The sun had already sunk to the hilltops, but I thought it was reluctant to disappear; it wanted to go on watching me. It made my way beautifully coloring the shriveled, yellowing grass and leaves a generous crimson, rose and purple. The tassels of the dry feather grass were like a flickering flame as they flashed past. The metal buttons on my patched and mended beshmet blazed in the sun. On and on I ran, my heart jubilantly singing to the land, the sky, and the wind: “Look at me! See how proud I am? I'm going to study, I shall go to school and bring others there!”
I don't know how long I ran, but suddenly I came to earth with a jolt: cow dung. It was the strangest thing, so many cows grazed here in the summer, there was always plenty of dry dung, and now it had all vanished. Maybe I wasn't really looking for it? The farther a field I ran the less I found. “At this rate I’ll never fill my bag before dark,” I thought in a panic, dashing about. Still my bag was only half-full. Meanwhile the sunset glow had dimmed, and darkness was quickly flooding the glens.
Never before had I stayed out so late alone. Night spread its somber wing over the silent, desolate hills. Frightened out of my wits, I slung the bag on my shoulder and flew to the village. It was so creepy I wanted to scream and sob, but, strangely, the thought of Duishen made me stifle my cries. I controlled myself with an effort never taking a backward glance to see what furies were pursuing me.
I reached home out of breath, dripping with sweat and covered with dust. Panting, I stumbled into the house. My aunt, who was sitting in front of the fire, got up and advanced on me with an ominous scowl. She was a mean, cruel woman.
“Why so late?” She demanded, and before I could speak, snatched the bag from me and flung it away. “Is this all you could find in a whole day?”
My friends had sneaked, as I found out afterwards.
“You black-faced slut! What did you want in that school anyway? Why couldn't you go and die out there?” She caught hold of my ear and hit me on the head again and again. “You dirty slut! No, a wolf cub will never make a house dog! Other people's children try to be a help at home, but not you, never! I’ll teach you running to school, if I catch you going anywhere near it again I’ll break your legs for you! I’ll give you something to remember your school by!”
I said nothing; I only tried not to scream. Afterwards, squatting in front of the fire which I had to tend, I wept quietly, without a sound, as I stroked our gray cat which always seemed to know when I was in trouble and would jump into my lap to comfort me. I wasn't crying because my aunt had beaten me, I was used to that but because I knew she would never let me go to school.
Two days later, very early in the morning, dogs began to bark excitedly all over the village, and voices could be heard talking loudly. It was Duishen going from house to house collecting the children and taking them to school. We had no streets in those days, our gray mud huts were scattered about the village in disorder, everyone built where the fancy took him. Duishen, surrounded by a noisy crowd of children, was calling on one family after the next.
Our house was the end one. My aunt and I were grinding millet in a wooden mortar, and my uncle was busy digging up the wheat he kept in a hole beside the barn to take it to market. We brought the heavy pestles down in turns like proper blacksmiths, but I kept glancing at the road to see where Duishen was going. I was afraid he wouldn't come as far as our house. Though I knew my aunt wouldn't let me go to school, I wanted Duishen to come and see where I lived. In my heart I begged him not to turn back before he reached our place.
“Good morning, may God help you with your work! And if god doesn't, the whole crowd of us will, see how many we are?” Duishen greeted my aunt in this light vein.
She made a low, inarticulate sound in reply; my uncle did not even bother to give the teacher a look.
Duishen was not put out by this reception. He sat down on a log that lay in the middle of the yard, and got out pencil and paper.
“We're starting school today How old is your daughter?”
My aunt gave him no answer and pounded the millet with vicious fury. Obviously, she was not going to talk to him. I squirmed: what was going to happen now? Duishen glanced at me and smiled. And again my heart felt warmed.
“How old are you, Altynai?” he asked me.
I did not have the courage to reply.
“What’s it to you, and who are you to ask anyway?” my aunt said peevishly.
“She has no time for school. Even girls who live with their fathers and mothers not sluts like her - even they don't learn reading and writing. You've got a crowd together, go ahead and head them to school, there's nothing for you here.”
“How can you say such a thing?” Duishen cried, jumping to his feet. “Is it her fault that she's an orphan? Is there a law, perhaps, forbidding orphans to learn?”
“I don't give a damn for your laws. I make my own laws here and I’ll take no orders from you!”
“The same laws apply to all of us. You don't need this girl perhaps, but we do, the Soviet state does. If you go against us, we will make you take orders from us.”
“Why, look at the big shot, just look at him!” My aunt stood arms akimbo, all ready for battle. “Who's the brat to take orders from then? Who feeds and clothes her? Me or you, the son of a tramp and a homeless tramp yourself?”
There's no telling how it would have ended if my uncle had not appeared from the hole just then. He hated it when his wife meddled in things that were no business of hers, forgetting that she had a husband and master in the house. He sometimes gave her terrible beatings for this. And now, too, he saw red.
“Shut up, woman!” he roared, climbing out of the hole. “What makes you think you're the head of the family and can decide what’s right? Try to jabber less and do more. And you, son of Tashtanbek, take the brat and teach her or roast her for dinner, whichever you like. Out of my yard with you! Get out!”
“So you'll let her go gadding about, and who's to help me in the house? Who, I ask you?” my aunt raised a howl, but Uncle shut her up at once with a harsh: “Shut that noise!”
Every dark cloud has a silver lining, they say, and that was how I first started going to school.
When we got there Duishen told us to sit on the floor strewn thickly with straw, and gave each of us a notebook, a pencil and a small board.
“Put the board on your knees and the notebook on it, it’ll make writing easier,” he explained.
Next, he pointed to the picture he had pinned to the wall. There was a Russian man on it.
“That's Lenin,” he said.
I shall never forget that portrait. For some reason, I never came across it afterwards, and to myself I still call it “Duishen's” picture. Lenin was wearing a rather baggy army jacket, his face looked pinched and he had a longish beard. His wounded arm was in a sling, his cap pushed back on his head, and there was a calm look, in his keen eyes. Their soft, kind expression seemed to say to us: “Children, if only you knew what a beautiful future awaits you!” In that moment of silence, I fancied he was really thinking of my future.
Duishen must have had that picture for some time. It was printed on cheap paper used for posters, and it had become frayed on the edges and folds. There was nothing else on the walls of the schoolroom, just this picture of Lenin.
“I’ll teach you to read and count. I'll show you how letters and numerals are written,” Duishen told us. “I’ll teach you all I know myself.”
He really did teach us all he knew, and he was amazingly patient with us. He showed each one of us how to hold a pencil and readily explained unfamiliar words to us.
Thinking of it now I honestly marvel at him: how courageous of that all but illiterate young fellow, who could hardly read and had no textbooks, not even an elementary reader, to attempt that truly great job! It was no simple thing trying to teach children whose fathers and forefathers had all been illiterate. Duishen was, of course, completely innocent of grammar and had no idea of method. Rather, he never even suspected that such things existed.
He taught us as well as he could, he taught us what he thought we should know, guided by his instinct alone. But the sincere enthusiasm with which he tackled the job was not wasted on us, of that I am sure.
He accomplished more than he realized. Yes, he did, because in that school of his, in that old mud stable with gaping holes in the walls through which we could see the snow-clad mountaintops, we Kirghiz children, who had never left the confines of our village, suddenly glimpsed a new and wonderful world.
It was there we learnt that Moscow, the city where Lenin lived, was many, many times bigger than Aulie-Ata and even Tashkent, that there were very, very large seas in the world, the size of the Talass Valley, and that huge ships, as big as our mountains, sailed those seas. We learnt that kerosene, which people brought from market, came from the depths of the earth. We came firmly to believe that when our people became a little better off our school would move into a big white building with large windows, and the pupils would have desks.
As soon as we more or less mastered the alphabet we wrote our first word “Lenin”. Our political vocabulary comprised such concepts as “bey”, “hired laborer” and “Soviets”. Duishen promised to teach us to write the word “revolution” before the year was out.
Listening to Duishen, we felt we were fighting side by side with him against the white guards. His description of Lenin was so stirring; he might have seen him with his own eyes. Much of what he told us, I now realize, were legends woven by the people about our great leader, but we never doubted the truth of it, just as we never doubted that milk was white.
“Have you ever shaken hands with Lenin?” we asked him once.
“No, children, I have never seen Lenin,” he said, shaking his head regretfully, and sighing in embarrassment as if he had failed us.
At the end of every month Duishen went to the regional center to report on his work. He went on foot, and was usually away two or three days.
We missed him terribly. Had he been my big brother I couldn't have missed him more. Whenever my aunt wasn't looking, I'd slip to the back of the house and peer down the road. How I longed to see him coming down that road, to see his smile that warmed the heart, and hear his words that brought enlightenment!
I was the oldest of his pupils. Perhaps that was why I was the quickest to learn, though I don't think it was the only reason. Every word he spoke, every letter he taught me to write, were sacred for me. And there was nothing more important in life than grasping what he taught. I treasured the notebook he had given me, and I practiced my letters on the ground with the tip of the sickle, on the mud walls with a bit of charcoal, on the snow and in the dust with a twig. For me there was no one in the whole world more learned and wise than Duishen.
Winter was drawing close.
Until the first snow we used to wade across the little stream that rushed noisily along its pebbly bed at the foot of the hill. Finally it became too much for us, the icy water stung our legs so. It was hardest on the smaller children, tears started to their eyes every time. Duishen now carried them across, taking two at a time; one piggyback, and the other in his arms. It all seems unbelievable to me now. People laughed at Duishen, either because they were ignorant or stupid. The wealthy men who spent the winter up in the mountains and only came down to the flourmill occasionally were especially noxious. Riding past on their sleek hot horses, decked out in their red-fox hats and sheepskin coats, they would stare at Duishen carrying the children across. They'd laugh and point, and say something like: “Dammit, why hadn't I seen him before, he'd have done wonderfully for a second wife!”
Roaring with laughter, and spattering us with water and mud they'd ride on their way.
Oh, how I wanted to run after those stupid men, catch their horses by the bridles and scream into their smug, jeering faces: “How dare you say such things about our teacher? You're stupid, wicked people!”
But would anyone care what a girl said? So I would just stand, gulping down my bitter tears. Duishen pretended not to hear, he ignored their insulting remarks completely. What's more, he would quickly think of some funny story to make us laugh and forget the incident.
Hard though he tried, Duishen could not get any timber to build a bridge across the stream. One day after school, when he had carried all the children across, he and I stayed behind to make a crossing of turf and stones.
It would have been a matter of half an hour at most for our villagers to get together and build a bridge for their children; two or three trees thrown across the stream would have done the job. But in those days our people were too ignorant to take the school seriously, they thought Duishen a crank, at best, to mess around with kids. If you want to teach them, go ahead, if you don't, just send them packing! Such was their attitude. The men themselves had horses to ride, and so they needed neither bridges nor crossings. But, of course, they should have stopped to consider why this young fellow, who was as good as they were in every way, took the trouble to teach their children, doing it with such amazing staunchness, such extraordinary persistence, undaunted by difficulties, hardships, sneers and insults.
There was snow on the ground the day we built the stepping-stones, and the water was so cold it took your breath away. How Duishen stood it I don't know--he was barefooted and he worked without a pause. It was torture to step on the bottom that felt as if it were strewn with red-hot coals. I was halfway across, when suddenly I got cramp in both legs. Bent over double with pain, I could neither call out nor straighten up as I slumped lower and lower in the water. Duishen rushed over, picked me up in his arms, carried me to the bank, and spread his greatcoat on the ground for me to sit on. He rubbed my blue, numb legs, massaged my frozen hands and breathed on them.
“Wrap yourself into my coat and sit here awhile, Altynai,” he said with tender concern “I’ll manage by myself.”
At last the crossing was made. Duishen came out of the water and as he pulled on his boots he looked at me, huddled in his coat, and smiled.
“Warmer now, my good helper? Here, wrap yourself in properly,” he said, and after a short pause asked: “Was it you who left the fuel at the door that day, Altynai?”
“Yes,” I replied.
A tiny smile touched the corners of his lips as if he was saying to himself: 1 thought so.”
I remember the blood rushing to my face because he knew, because he had not forgotten that incident, trifling though it was. I was happy, I was in the seventh heaven, and Duishen understood.
“My clear little spring,” he said, his eyes caressing me. Such a clever child, too..., if only I could send you to school in town! What a person you'd grow up to be!”
He turned away abruptly, and took a step to the bank.
I can see him now, standing on the bank of that noisy stream, his hands behind his head, his shining eyes following the white clouds chased by the wind high above the mountains.
What was he thinking about in those minutes? Of sending me to school in town? And I, huddling in his overcoat, was thinking: “How I wish he was my brother! I'd rush into his arms, hug him hard, close my eyes tight and whisper the most loving endearments into his ear. Oh Lord, make him my big brother!”
I suppose we all adored our teacher for his kindness, his goodness, for his dreams about our future. I think we appreciated all that, young though we were. Why else did we make that long tramp to school every day, gasping in the wind as we climbed the steep hill, wading through the deep snow? We went to school of our own free will. No one forced us to go and freeze in that icy barn. It was so cold there that rime formed from our breathing on faces, hands and clothes. We took turns warming ourselves near the stove, while the rest sat still and listened to Duishen.
On one of those chilly mornings-it was the end of January--Duishen came to fetch us as usual He was silent and forbidding, his eagle's brews were drawn, and his face was dark and hard as though forged from black rolled iron. Never had we seen our teacher like this. We sensed that something was wrong and followed him, a subdued little crowd.
Usually, if the snowdrifts on the road were high, Duishen went first, with me following, and the rest of the children coming single file after me. That day, too, he went ahead, for during the night a large snow bank had formed at the foot of the hill. Sometimes, you can tell a person's mood by watching him from behind. That’s how it was then: we knew at once that our teacher was crushed and bowed with grief. His head hung low, he could hardly drag his feet. I can still see that sinister pattern of black and white: as we climbed the hill, before me there was Duishen's black-clad hunched back, higher up on the hill humped the white snow-drifts like reclining camels with the wind sweeping the whirling snow dust off their backs, and higher up still, in the dull white sky, hung a solitary black cloud.
When we came into our classroom and sat down on the straw, Duishen did not go and light the stove at once as he usually did.
“Get up,” he ordered us.
“Bare your heads.” Obediently we took off our caps, and he took off his peaked cap, too. We did not know what it meant. And then he told us in a breaking, husky voice:
“Lenin is dead. People the world over are mourning him. And you, too, must stand where you are and not talk. Look at his picture. Remember this day.”
Our schoolroom became so quiet as if it lay buried under snow. We could hear the wind blowing in through the chinks in the walls. We could hear the straw rustling as the snowflakes fell on it.
That mournful hour when bustling towns became mute, when factories whose clamor shook the earth grew still, when rumbling trains paused on the tracks, when the whole world grieved in silence, we too, a particle of a part of the people, stood in solemn silence with our teacher in that icy barn called school, and took farewell of Lenin, believing in our hearts that none could be closer to him and none more bereft. And there was our own Lenin in his baggy jacket, and his arm in a sling, looking at us from the wall as before. And as before he seemed to speak to us, saying with his clear, trusting eyes: “Children, if only you knew what a future awaits you!” And I fancied, in those silent moments, that he really was thinking of my future.
And then Duishen brushed his tears away with a sleeve and said:
“I have to go to the regional center. I am joining the Party. I’ll be back in three days.”
Those three days were the grimmest winter days I have even known. It was as if some mighty forces of nature were trying to fill in the void in the world caused by the departure of the great man. The wind howled in the gullies ceaselessly, snowstorms raged, and the frost rang with a metallic ring... The elements would not be calmed; the wind whirled the snow in mad despair and, sobbing, pounded the earth...
Our village crouched silently at the foot of the mountains, which loomed in a blade blur through the dark low-hanging clouds. Thin plumes of smoke rose from the chimneys. People kept indoors. To make things worse, wolves became a menace. They appeared on the roads in the daytime, at night prowled close to the village, and their hungry, blood-chilling howls could be heard till sunrise.
I was worried about our teacher, it was so terribly cold and he had no fur coat nothing but his army coat. The day he was due back, I became quite distracted. I must have had a premonition of disaster. I kept slipping out of the house to peer into the desolate, snow-swept steppe hoping to see him coming along the road. But there was never a soul in sight.
“Oh teacher, where are you? I implore you, don't stay away any longer, hurry back! We miss you, teacher, can you hear me? We miss you!”
But the steppe remained indifferent to my soundless cry, and I wept, I don't know why.
My running in and out annoyed my aunt.
“Leave that door alone! Sit down and do your spinning. You’ll be the death of the children, freezing the house out! Just you try going out again!” she shouted at me, shaking a fist, and did not let me out again.
It was already growing dark and I did not know if Duishen was back or not. This uncertainty drove me frantic. One minute I'd tell myself that he was back safely because he never once failed to return on the day he promised. But the next, my imagination would run away with me again: he was unwell, his walk was slow and difficult, he'd lose his way in the steppe if a snowstorm started up. I could not concentrate on my work, my fingers were all thumbs the yarn kept breaking off, and this maddened my aunt still more.
“What's wrong with you today? Are your hands made of wood or what?” She glared at me, her anger mounting. At last her patience snapped, and she cried in exasperation: “Lord, why doesn't the plague take you! Here, take this bag to grandmother Saikal, it’s hers.”
I almost jumped for joy. It was with grandmother Saikal that Duishen roomed. The old couple, Saikal and Kartanbai, were distant relatives of mine on my mother's side. At one time I used to go and see them very often, and sometimes I stayed with them overnight. Perhaps my aunt remembered this, or may be God prompted her to send me there.
“I'm as sick of the sight of you as people are of oat flour in a year of dearth. If they'll let you, stay the night there. Go on, and don't let me see you again too soon!”
I hurried out The wind was howling like a shaman; choking with rage, it would grow still for a moment, and then it would attack you again suddenly, flinging handfuls of stinging snow into your hot face. Clutching the bag under my arm, I started at a run across the village to the other end, following the fresh tracks of a house's hoofs in the snow. One thought alone preyed on my mind: “Is he back?”
He wasn't. Gasping for breath, I rushed into the house, startling poor grandmother Saikal.
“What's up?” she cried in alarm. “Why did you run so fast, are you in trouble?”
“No, no, trouble. I've brought you back your bag. May I stay with you tonight?”
“Of course, my dear child. Oh, you naughty girl, how you frightened me! You haven't been to see us for a long time. Come, sit in front of the fire, you're frozen.”
“Put some meat in the pot, old woman, give the child a treat. And Duishen must be coming home soon,” said Kartanbai. He was sitting near the window, resoling his felt boots. “He ought to have been home long ago, but no need to worry, he'll come before nightfall. Our old nag's very spry when she's heading for home.”
Slowly, night crept up to the windows. My heart stood on guard, it stopped beating every time a dog barked or a voice came from outside. Still, there was no sign of Duishen. I was glad grandmother Saikal was so talkative it made the waiting easier.
And so we sat up waiting for him. At midnight, Kartanbai decided to go to bed.
“Make the beds, old woman,” he said. “He's not coming tonight. It’s too late now. Officials are busy people; it’s business that’s keeping him. Otherwise he'd have been back hours ago.” The old man settled down to sleep. A bed was made for me in the corner behind the stove. But I could not sleep. Kartanbai was coughing all the time, tossing and turning and muttering prayers.
“How's my poor old nag doing?” he whispered fretfully. “No one will give you a blade of straw free of charge, and oats you can't even buy for money.”
He soon fell asleep, and now it was the wind that kept me awake. It groped about the roof, rustled the straw on the eaves and scraped against the windowpanes with its rough hand. I could hear it hurting the snow against the walls outside.
Kartanbai's confidence that all was well with Duishen did not put my mind at rest. I waited for him; all my thoughts were of him--a solitary figure braving the windswept snowy steppe. I must have dozed off, for suddenly I was jolted awake. A nasal, drawn-out howl seemed to rise from the ground and hang, vibrating, in the air. Wolves! And not one, but many. Calling to one another from different directions, they were converging. Their whines merged into one long, eerie howl that rose and fell together with the wind, now fading, now coming nearer again. At moments, the wolves seemed to be quite near, just outside the house.
“They're howling for a snowstorm,” the old woman whispered.
Kartanbai did not say anything; he was listening hard to the sounds.
“No, there's something behind this. They're chasing someone. It's either a man or a horse they're closing in on. Hear them? I only hope it’s not Duishen. He's not afraid of anything, the young fool.” In nervous haste, Kartanbai fumbled in the dark for his fur coat. “Light the lamp, old woman. Hurry, for God's sake!”
We were up at once, Saikal and I, shaking with fear. It took her a moment or two to find the lamp and light it. And suddenly the howling stopped, the sound broke off so abruptly as if it had never been.
“They've attacked, damn them!” Kartanbai cried out.
Picking up a crutch he rushed to the door, but at that precise moment his dogs began to bark, someone rushed past the windows and then started banging on the door.
A cloud of vapor tore into the room. When it dispersed we saw Duishen. He staggered in, panting, his face ashen, and slumped against the wall.
“Rifle,” he breathed out the word.
But we were too overwrought to understand. Everything went dark before my eyes, and as through a fog I heard the two old people intoning: