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A Gentle Breath

A tale by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

At the cemetery upon the fresh clay embankment stands a new oaken cross, strong, heavy, and smooth. 

Those gray days of April!  The tombstones of the spacious district cemetery can still be seen at a distance through the naked trees, and a cold wind jingles and jingles the cross's pedestals and the ceramic wreath.

On that same cross a large raised ceramic medallion has been fashioned, and on the medallion a photograph of a high school girl with happy and remarkably lively eyes.

This is Olya Meshcherskaya.

When she was younger she could never have been picked out of the crowd of brown high school uniforms. What could we say about her, apart from mentioning that she was one of a number of pretty, rich, and happy girls, and that she was quite clever, but also mischievous and very insouciant of those admonitions offered by her classroom teacher?  Then she began to bloom, changing and developing not by the day, but by the hour.  At the age of fourteen she had a slender waist and shapely legs, as well as a well-defined chest and all those curves whose charms had yet to be expressed in the words of man.  At fifteen she was already renowned as a beauty.  How assiduously some of her friends did their hair!  How tidy they were!  How they minded their restrained manners!  She, on the other hand, feared absolutely nothing – from ink marks on her fingers, to a flushed complexion or disheveled hair, to even baring her knee after a fall while racing about. 

Without care or effort, and somehow also without much notice, she gained those qualities which would distinguish her for her last two high school years: elegance, smartness of dress, dexterity, and a certain gleam in her eyes ... No one danced at balls like Olya Meshcherskaya; no one skated like she did; no one was wooed at those same balls like she was; and for some reason no one was as beloved by the younger classes as she was.  Without much notice she had become a young lady and her high school fame had been consolidated, and yet some already whispered that she was shallow, that she could not live without admirers, and that one student, Shenshin, was so madly in love with her that it seemed she reciprocated his affection, but was so fickle towards him that he attempted suicide ...          

During her last winter Olya Meshcherskaya in her merrymaking got, as they tend to say in high school, rather carried away.  That winter was snowy, sunny, and frozen; the sun would set early behind the great fir tree in the snowy high school garden – a progressively more pleasant and radiant sun, promising more sunshine and ice tomorrow, a walk on Soborny street, skating around the city park, a pink evening sky, music and, descending from all sides upon the rink, that crowd in which Olya Meshcherskaya seemed to be the most carefree and the happiest.

And so, one time during the longer recess, after she had whisked herself off to the assembly hall to escape her pursuers and the blissful yelps of the first graders, she was unexpectedly summoned to the principal's office.  She stopped while running at full speed, took a single deep breath, fixed her hair in a rapid female movement that was already second nature, yanked the corners of her frock towards her shoulders, and, her eyes beaming, rushed upstairs.  The young-looking yet greying principal was sitting calmly with her knitting in her hands at a desk beneath a portrait of the Tsar.

"Good day, Mademoiselle Meshcherskaya," she said in French, not lifting her eyes from her knitting.  "Unfortunately this is not the first time I have been obliged to call you in to talk to you about your behavior."

"Yes, Madame," Meshcherskaya answered approaching the desk and giving her an attentive and lively look from a face otherwise devoid of any expression.  She sat down in that light and gracious way that was unique to her.

"You're not going to listen properly, I fear, to what I have to say.  Of this I am quite convinced," said the principal pulling on a thread and twirling the ball of yarn sitting on the polished floor.  Meshcherskaya looked at that ball with curiosity.  Then the principal raised her eyes at last:

"I am neither going to repeat myself nor talk at length."

Meshcherskaya very much liked this unusually clean and large office, which smelled so pleasantly during those freezing days of the warmth of the radiant tiled stove and the freshness of the desk's lilies.  She looked first at the young Tsar depicted at his full height amidst some resplendent hall, then at the principal's thick milky hair carefully parted in the middle, and then waited expectantly in silence.   

"You are no longer a girl," said the principal knowingly.  She was secretly beginning to get annoyed.

"Yes, Madame," was Meshcherskaya's simple, almost jolly response.

"Yet neither are you a woman," said the principal again knowingly.  And her dull matted face turned ever so slightly crimson.  "First and foremost, what kind of hairstyle is that?  It's the hairstyle of a woman!"

"Madame, I cannot be faulted for having nice hair," replied Meshcherskaya and almost touched her beautifully coiffed head with both hands.

"Ah, that's just it, you can't be faulted!"  said the principal.  "You can't be faulted for your hairstyle, you can't be faulted for those expensive barrettes, you can't be faulted that your parents splurge on your twenty-ruble shoes!  Yet I say to you again, you are completely losing sight of the fact that you are still only a high-schooler."

And here Meshcherskaya, not losing her simplicity or calm, suddenly and politely interrupted her:

"Pardon me, madame, you are quite wrong!  I am a woman.  And you know who can be faulted for that?  A friend and neighbor of my father's – your brother Aleksei Mikhailovich Malyutin.  That event took place last summer in the country..."


A month after this conversation, however, an unattractive and plebeian-looking Cossack officer, having absolutely nothing in common with the circles to which she belonged, shot Olya Meshcherskaya dead on a train station platform amidst a large crowd of people who had just come in with the train.  And that improbable confession on the part of Olya Meshcherskaya which had so staggered her principal turned out to be utterly correct.  Before the judicial investigator the officer declared that Meshcherskaya had enticed him, gotten close to him, and sworn to become his wife.  And yet at the station on the day of the murder, as she accompanied him to Novocherkassk, she suddenly said to him that she had never even thought of loving him, that all their talks of marriage were merely meant to mock him, and she handed him the very page of her diary where she spoke of Malyutin.

"I raced through those lines and right where she was strolling on the platform, waiting until I had finished reading, I shot her," said the officer.  "And if you want to take a look at the diary, here it is, here's what was written on July 10th of last year." 

The diary contained the following:

"It is now two o'clock in the morning.  I fell into a deep sleep but then woke up just as quickly ... I had just become a woman!  Mom, Dad, and Tolya had already gone back into town and I was left alone.   I was so happy to be alone!  In the morning I would walk in the garden and the fields.  And when I was in the woods it seemed like I was alone on this earth, and my thoughts and mind had never been so clear.  I even ate alone, then spent the next hour playing to the music, and I had the feeling that I would live forever and be as happy as no one had ever been before.  Then I fell asleep in Dad's office and did not wake until Katya woke me at four and said that Aleksey Mikhailovich had arrived. 

"I was so happy to see him!  It was so pleasant to welcome him and to practice.  He had come on a pair of his lovely vyatkas, and they remained at attention by the porch.  He stayed because of the rain and because he wanted everything to dry out by evening.  He regretted not finding Dad at home, but was vivacious and a perfect gentleman, joking often about how he had always been in love with me.  The weather was magnificent again as we strolled together in the garden before teatime: the sun shined through the garden's wetness even though it had gotten quite cold, and he took me by the arm and said that we were Faust and Margarita.  He was fifty-six years old and yet still very handsome and always well-dressed.  The only thing I didn't like was when he showed up in a long sleeveless cloak – he reeked of English cologne and his eyes were completely young again, black, and his beard was elegantly split into two long parts and perfectly silver.  We drank our tea sitting on the glass veranda and I felt somewhat ill and lay down on the long ottoman.  He smoked for a while before sitting down next to me.  He began anew with his sweet nothings then looked at my hand and kissed it.  I covered my face with a silk handkerchief and he kissed me several times on the lips through this makeshift veil ... I do not understand how this could have happened; I must have lost my mind.  I never thought I was like that!  Now I have only one way out ... towards him I feel such repugnance that I do not think I can live through this!"

During these April days the city becomes pure, dry, whitened by its stones, and so easy and pleasant to walk through.  Every Sunday after Mass, on Soborny street leading to the road out of the city, a small woman walks in mourning garb, in black kid-skin gloves, with an umbrella made of black wood.  By the main road she crosses the dirty square near a number of frozen smithies as the fresh air from the fields blows in.  Further along, between the monastery and the local jail, a slope of clouds whitens in the sky as the springtime fields become more gray.  And then, once one navigates the puddles by the monastery wall and turns left, something akin to a large, low garden can be seen surrounded by a white fence whose gates bear the inscription Assumption of the Holy Mother.  The small woman gently crosses herself and walks as is her custom along the main alley.  As she approaches the bench facing the oaken cross, she sits for an hour in the wind and springtime chill, maybe even two hours, until her legs in her light boots and her narrow kid-skin hands are almost numb with cold.  She listens to the birds of spring sing sweetly even in the cold; she listens to the sound of the wind against the ceramic wreath and thinks sometimes that she would hand over half her life if only this dead wreath did not sit before her eyes.  That wreath, that mound, that oaken crest!  Is it really possible that beneath it lies she whose eyes gleam immortally from the crest's raised ceramic medallion?  And how then is one to combine that pure gaze with the horror now affixed to the name Olya Meshcherskaya?  Yet in the depths of her soul the small woman is happy as are all people devoted to some kind of passionate dream.        

This woman is Olya Meshcherskaya's old classroom teacher – an old spinster is more like it – long since nourished on a fabrication that has replaced her own real life.  At first this fabrication assumed the contours of her brother, a poor and undistinguished lieutenant; she joined her entire life to him, to his future, which for some reason seemed to her to be brilliant.  When he was killed at Mukden she convinced herself that she was a progressive laborer, but Olya Meshcherskaya's death filled her with a new dream.  Olya Meshcherskaya is now the subject of her unreachable thoughts and feelings.  She walks to the grave every holiday and for hours her eyes do not stray from the wooden cross.  She remembered Olya Meshcherskaya's pale face in the grave among the flowers, as well as what she heard once: once, during the longer recess, walking along the high school's garden, Olya Meshcherskaya told her closest friend, that tall and rather full girl Subbotina:     

"I read in one of Dad's books – he has a ton of old, funny books – how a woman is supposed to be beautiful.  There is, you see, so much information that you'll never remember it all!  Naturally, black eyes burning like tar – I swear, it says 'burning like tar'!  Black lashes like the night, a delicately playful cheek, a svelte figure, arms longer than normal – do you see, longer than normal!  Small feet the size of a large breast, properly curved calves, knees the color of a shell, sloping shoulders.  I learned quite a bit almost by heart, since all of it is so true!  But do you know what the most important thing is?  A gentle breath!  And you see I have that already!  Listen to how I exhale – I do have it, don't I?"

And now this gentle breath has again been dispersed into the world, into that sky of clouds, into that cold springtime wind.

Reader Comments (2)

Just read this and The Gentleman from San Francisco in the original. Your translation was a big help in addition to being quite well-done. Thank you very much!

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Yanov

You're very welcome, Nicholas, and thanks so much for your comments!

June 22, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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