Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
Lichonin was left alone. In the half-dark corridor it smelt of kerosene fumes from the guttering little tin lamp, and of the odour of stagnant bad tobacco. The daylight dully penetrated only near the top, from two small glass frames, let in the roof at both ends of the corridor.
Lichonin found himself in that simultaneously weakened and elevated mood which is so familiar to every man who has happened to be thoroughly sleepless for a long time. It was as though he had gone out of the limitations of everyday human life, and this life had become to him distant and of indifference; but at the same time his thoughts and emotions obtained a certain peaceful clarity and apathetic distinctness, and there was a tedious and languishing allurement in this crystal Nirvanah.
He stood near his room, leaning against the wall, and seemed to see, feel, and hear how near him and below him were sleeping several score of people; sleeping with the last, fast morning sleep, with open mouths, with measured deep breathing, with a wilted pallor on their faces, glistening from sleep; and through his head flashed the thought, remote yet familiar since childhood, of how horrible sleeping people are--far more horrible than dead people. Then he remembered about Liubka. His subterranean, submerged, mysterious "I" rapidly, rapidly whispered that he ought to drop into the room, and see if the girl were all right, as well as make certain dispositions about tea in the morning; but he made believe to himself that he was not at all even thinking of this, and walked out into the street.
He walked, looking closely at everything that met his eyes, with an idle and exact curiosity new to him; and every feature was drawn for him in relief to such a degree that it seemed to him as though he were feeling it with his fingers... There a peasant woman passed by. Over her shoulder is a yoke staff, while at each end of the yoke is a large pail of milk; her face is not young, with a net of fine wrinkles on the temples and with two deep furrows from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth; but her cheeks are rosy, and, probably, hard to the touch, while her hazel eyes radiate a sprightly peasant smile. From the movement of the heavy yoke and from the smooth walk her hips sway rhythmically now to the left, now to the right, and in their wave-like movements there is a coarse, sensual beauty.
"A mischievous dame, and she's lived through a checkered life," reflected Lichonin. And suddenly, unexpectedly to himself, he had a feeling for, and irresistibly desired, this woman, altogether unknown to him, homely and not young; in all probability dirty and vulgar, but still resembling, as it seemed to him, a large Antonovka [Footnote: Somewhat like a Spitzbergen, but a trifle rounder.--Trans.] apple which had fallen to the ground-somewhat bored by a worm, and which had lain just a wee bit too long, but which has still preserved its bright colour and its fragrant, winey aroma.
Getting ahead of her, an empty, black, funereal catafalque whirled by; with two horses in harness, and two tied behind to the little rear columns. The torch-bearers and grave-diggers, already drunk since morning, with red, brutish faces, with rusty opera hats on their heads, were sitting in a disorderly heap on their uniform liveries, on the reticular horse-blankets, on the mourning lanterns; and with rusty, hoarse voices were roaring out some incoherent song. "They must be hurrying to a funeral procession; or, perhaps, have even finished it already," reflected Lichonin; "merry fellows!" On the boulevard he came to a stop and sat down on a small wooden bench, painted green. Two rows of mighty centenarian chestnuts went away into the distance, merging together somewhere afar into one straight green arrow. The prickly large nuts were already hanging on the trees. Lichonin suddenly recalled that at the very beginning of the spring he had been sitting on this very boulevard, and at this very same spot. Then it had been a calm, gentle evening of smoky purple, soundlessly falling into slumber, just like a smiling, tired maiden. Then the stalwart chestnuts, with their foliage--broad at the bottom and narrow toward the top--had been strewn all over with clusters of blossoms, growing with bright, rosy, thin cones straight to the sky; just as though some one by mistake had taken and fastened upon all the chestnuts, as upon lustres, pink Christmas-tree candles. And suddenly, with extraordinary poignancy--every man sooner or later passes through this zone of inner emotion-- Lichonin felt, that here are the nuts ripening already, while then there had been little pink blossoming candles, and that there would be many more springs and many blossoms, but the one which had passed no one and nothing had the power to bring back. Sadly gazing into the depths of the retreating dense alley, he suddenly noticed that sentimental tears were making his eyes smart.
He got up and went on farther, looking closely at everything that he met with an incessant, sharpened, and at the same time calm attention, just as though he were looking at the God-created world for the first time. A gang of stone masons went past him on the pavement, and all of them were reflected in his inner vision with an exaggerated vividness and brilliance of colour, just as though on the frosted glass of a camera obscura. The foreman, with a red beard, matted to one side, and with blue austere eyes; and a tremendous young fellow, whose left eye was swollen, and who had a spot of a dark-blue colour spreading from the forehead to the cheekbone and from the nose to the temple; and a young boy with a naive, country face, with a gaping mouth like a fledgling's, weak, moist; and an old man who, having come late, was running after the gang at a funny, goat-like trot; and their clothes, soiled with lime, their aprons and their chisels--all this flickered before him in an inanimate file--a colourful, motley, but dead cinematographic film.
He had to cut across the New Kishenevsky Market. Suddenly the savoury, greasy odour of something roasted compelled him to distend his nostrils. Lichonin recalled that he had not eaten anything since noon yesterday, and at once felt hunger. He turned to the right, into the centre of the market.
In the days of his starvings--and he had had to experience them more than once--he would come here to the market, and for the pitiful coppers, gotten with difficulty, would buy himself bread and fried sausage. This was in winter, oftenest of all. The huckstress, wrapped up in a multiplicity of clothes, usually sat upon a pot of coals for warmth; while before her, on the iron dripping-pan, hissed and crackled the thick, home-made sausage, cut into pieces a quarter of a yard in length, plentifully seasoned with garlic. A piece of sausage usually cost ten kopecks, the bread two kopecks.
There were very many folk at market to-day. Even at a distance, edging his way to the familiar, loved stall, Lichonin heard the sounds of music. Having made his way through the crowd, which in a solid ring surrounded one of the stalls, he saw a naive and endearing sight, which may be seen only in the blessed south of Russia. Ten or fifteen huckstresses, during ordinary times gossips of evil tongue and addicted to unrestrainable swearing, inexhaustible in its verbal diversity, but now, evidently, flattering and tender cronies, had started celebrating even since last evening; had caroused the whole night through and now had carried their noisy merrymaking out to the market. The hired musicians--two fiddles, a first and a second, and a tambourine-- were strumming a monotonous but a lively, bold, daring and cunning tune. Some of the wives were clinking glasses and kissing each other, pouring vodka over one another; others poured it out into glasses and over the tables; others still, clapping their palms in time with the music, oh'd, squealed, and danced, squatting in one place. And in the middle of the ring, upon the cobbles of the pavement, a stout woman of about forty-five, but still handsome, with red, fleshy lips, with humid, intoxicated, seemingly unctuous eyes, merrily sparkling from under the high bows of black, regular, Little Russian eyebrows, was whirling around and stamping out a tattoo on one spot. All the beauty and all the art of her dance consisted in that she would now bow her little head and look out provokingly from under her eyebrows, then suddenly toss it back and let her eyelashes down and spread her hands out at her sides; and also in that in measure with the dance her enormous breasts swayed and quivered under her red calico waist. During the dance she was singing, now shuffling her heels, now the toes, of her goat-skin shoes:
"The fiddle's playing on the street, You can hear its bass so sweet; My mother has me locked up neat, My waitin' dearie I can't meet."
That was the very country-wife whom Lichonin knew; the self-same who not only had had him for a client during hard times, but had even extended him credit. She suddenly recognized Lichonin, darted to him, embraced him, squeezed him to her bosom and kissed him straight on his lips with her moist, warm, thick lips. Then she spread her arms out wide, smote one palm against the other, intertwined her fingers, and sweetly, as only Podolian wives can do it, began to coo:
"My little master, my little silver gold trove, my lovie! You forgive a drunken wife like me, now. Well, what of it? I've gone op a spree!" She then darted at him in an attempt to kiss his hand. "But then, I know you ain't proud, like other gentry. Well, give me your hand, dearie-dear; why, I want to kiss your little hand! No, no, no! I athk, I athk you! ..." "Well, now, that's nonsense, Aunt Glycera!" Linchonin interrupted her, unexpectedly becoming animated. "Let's best kiss just so, now. Your lips are just too sweet!"
"Ah, my little sweetheart! My little bright sun, my little apple of paradise, you," Glycera waxed tender, "give me your lips, then! Give me your little lips to buss, then! ..."
She pressed him warmly to her gigantean bosom and again slavered over him with her moist, warm, Hottentot lips. After that, she seized him by his sleeve, brought him out into the middle of the ring, and began to walk around him with a stately, mincing step, having bent her waist coquettishly and vociferating:
"Oh, each to his taste, I want Paraska more, For I've a divel in my pants Her skirt holds somethin' for!"
And then suddenly she passed on, sustained by the musicians, to a most rollicking, Little Russian, thumping Gopak dance:
"Oh, Chook, that is too much, You have soiled your apron too much. Well, Prisko, don't you fret, Wipe it off, then, if you're wet! TRALALA, TRALALA ... Sleeps, Khima, and won't stir That a Kossack sleeps with her, You feel all, Khima--why deceive? Just to yourself you make believe. TAI, TAI, TRALALAI..."'
Lichonin, completely grown merry, suddenly began jumping like a goat about her, just like a satellite around a whirling planet-- long-legged, long-armed, stooping and altogether incongruous. His entrance was greeted by a general but pretty friendly neighing. He was made to sit down at the table, was helped to vodka and sausage. He, for his part, sent a tramp he knew after beer, and, glass in hand, delivered three absurd speeches: one about the self-determination of Ukraine; another about the goodness of Little Russian sausage, in connection with the beauty and domesticity of the women of Little Russia; and the third, for some reason, about trade and industry in the south of Russia. Sitting alongside of Lukeriya, he was all the time trying to embrace her around the waist, and she did not oppose this. But even his long arms could not encompass her amazing waist. However, she clasped his hand powerfully under the table, until it hurt, with her enormous, soft hand, as hot as fire.
At this moment among the huckstresses, who up to now had been tenderly kissing, certain old, unsettled quarrels and grievances flickered up. Two of the wives, bending toward each other just like roosters ready to enter battle, their arms akimbo, were pouring upon each other the most choice, out-of-the-way oaths:
"Fool, stiff, daughter of a dog!" one was yelling. "Youse ain't fit to kiss me right here." And, turning her back around to her foe, she loudly slapped herself below the spine. "Right here! Here!"
While the other, infuriated, squealed in answer:
"You lie, you slut, for I am fit, I am fit!"
Lichonin utilized the minute. As though he had just recalled something, he hurriedly jumped up from the bench and called out:
"Wait for me, Aunty Luckeriya, I'll come in three minutes!" and dived through the living ring of spectators.
"Master! Master!" his neighbour cried after him: "Come back the quickest you can, now! I've one little word to say to you."
Having turned the corner, he for some time racked his head trying to recall what it was that he absolutely had to do, now, this very minute. And again, in the very depths of his soul, he knew just what he had to do, but he procrastinated confessing this to his own self. It was already a clear, bright day, about nine or ten o'clock. Janitors were watering the streets with rubber hose. Flower girls were sitting on the squares and near the gates of the boulevards, with roses, stock-gillyflowers and narcissi. The radiant, gay, rich southern town was beginning to get animated. Over the pavement jolted an iron cage filled with dogs of every possible colour, breed, and age. On the coach box were sitting two dog-catchers, or, as they deferentially style themselves, "the king's dog-catchers"--i. e., hunters of stray dogs--returning home with this morning's catch.
"She must be awake by now," Lichonin's secret thought finally took form; "but if she isn't yet awake, then I'll quietly lie down on the divan and sleep a little."
In the corridor the dying kerosene lamp emitted a dim light and smoked as before, and the watery, murky half-light penetrated into the narrow, long box. The door of the room had remained unlocked, after all. Lichonin opened it without a sound and entered.
The faint, blue half-light poured in through the interstices between the blinds and the windows. Lichonin stopped in the middle of the room and with an intensified avidity heard the quiet, sleeping breathing of Liubka. His lips became so hot and dry that he had to lick them incessantly. His knees began to tremble.
"Ask if she needs anything," suddenly darted through his head.
Like a drunkard, breathing hard, with mouth open, staggering on his shaking legs, he walked up to the bed.
Liubka was sleeping on her back, with one bare arm stretched out along the body, and the other on her breast. Lichonin bent nearer, to her very face. She was breathing evenly and deeply. This breathing of her young, healthy body was, despite sleep, pure and almost aromatic. He cautiously ran his fingers over her bare arm and stroked her breast a little below the clavicle. "What am I doing?" his reason suddenly cried out within him in terror; but some one else answered for Lichonin: "But I'm not doing anything. I only want to ask if she's sleeping comfortably, and whether she doesn't want some tea."
But Liubka suddenly awoke, opened her eyes, blinked them for a moment and opened them again. She gave a long, long stretch, and with a kindly, not yet fully reasoning smile, encircled Lichonin's neck with her warm, strong arm.
"Sweetie! Darling!" caressingly uttered the woman in a crooning voice, somewhat hoarse from sleep. "Why, I was waiting for you and waiting, and even became angry. And after that I fell asleep and all night long saw you in my sleep. Come to me, my baby, my lil' precious!" She drew him to her, breast against breast.
Lichonin almost did not resist; he was all atremble, as from a chill, and meaninglessly repeating in a galloping whisper with chattering teeth:
"No, now, Liuba, don't ... Really, don't do that, Liuba ... Ah, let's drop this, Liuba ... Don't torture me. I won't vouch for myself ... Let me alone, now, Liuba, for God's sake! ..."
"My-y little silly!" she exclaimed in a laughing, joyous voice. "Come to me, my joy!"--and, overcoming the last, altogether insignificant opposition, she pressed his mouth to hers and kissed him hard and warmly--kissed him sincerely, perhaps for the first and last time in her life.
"Oh, you scoundrel! What am I doing?" declaimed some honest, prudent, and false body in Lichonin.
"Well, now? Are you eased up a bit?" asked Liubka kindly, kissing Lichonin's lips for the last time. "Oh, you, my little student! ..."