Lydia Seifullina

The Old Woman

Published: Azure Cities, International Publishers 1929;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for in 2000.

THE old woman was in the yard when her son came home. She had carried out a bucket for the pigs. She saw him when he was still far away, from the little sty at the gates. She recognised him at once: her own blood. But she did not go to meet him. She straightened up, wiped her hands on her skirt, and looked straight into her son's face.

The son, too, saw her at once with one lift of the eyelid: his mother had grown old. Her back was bent, there was something like a small hump on it. The breasts had dried and fallen in. From underneath the head-shawl the little hair that could be seen was no longer black sprinkled with grey, but all a dullwhite. The look in the clear grey eyes had not died yet, it was still sharp. As if a hot coal glowed inside. He smiled at that.

"Hello, mother. Why do you meet me so coldly? As if a strange passer-by walked into your yard."

The old woman tightened her thin, colourless lips. She answered unhurriedly and unwillingly:

"We used to welcome strangers, too, once upon a time. We never refused them bread and salt till we were left without anything. You came on leave?"

"Well, yes. I wanted to see my own mother. And it looks as though you won't even let me into the house. I heard you were angry, but I thought, after all, a mother .. ."

"Why not let you in! It's your father's house. He built it for his children, for his family. And you're his own son. Walk in. Maybe you'll chase me out yet."

Antip slapped his side, and laughed.

"Well, and I knew, mother, that you would welcome me this way. But it's nothing, it won't hurt me. I'm not the scary kind. It's not for nothing that I look like you. Mammy baked me into a copy of herself, you might say. But I want a drink. I came from the station on foot, and my throat is burning. What about the samovar--have you still got it or not ?"

They were already standing in the house. Antip looked around with cleared and softened gaze at the dark sleeping bunks, the corner with the gloomy faces of the old ikons, the benches and the old homespun cloth on the table. His face became joyfully abashed--as if some spring had weakened in him. It was softer and gentler. But the old woman grew darker, her gaze sharper. She said in an angry voice :

"The comrades didn't take the samovar away yet. But I want you to know this: when you were born, when you were little, you were my own. I fed you, I took care of you. But now that you have tuned against your parents, and brought an untimely death on your own father, I won't feed you and take care of you, snake. The house is yours. Live in it. But as far as food goes, take care of it yourself. They took away everything. And what I eat I earn myself in my old age. And I won't give it to anybody."

Her anger made her face look younger. Antip threw his soldier's cap on a bench.

"Well, if you talk like that to your own son after not seeing him for five years, I won't bother you. But now give me some tea. I told you my throat was dry. And give me something to eat. I'll pay you for it."

The old woman looked at his wind-beaten face, his dry lips; she heard his deep, tired breathing, and her eyes seemed to grow a trifle softer. She answered thoughtfully.

"All right, if you say so. You'll pay me after, after. I'll put up the samovar now."

But while she attached the chimney and fussed over the samovar, she watched her son out of the corner of her eyes. And her heart was again inflamed with anger and pain. No, my dear, no, sonny, borne and reared by me only to cause me grief and trouble, you won't make your mother think as vou do. I have carried my faith with me It was not in peace and sweetness that I carried it. It is not for nothing that my back looks like a wheel, and the veins are knotted on my hands, and there is a lingering pain in my bones. But into my old age I have carried my faith: man must walk in humility before the Lord. Each under his yoke, each in his place. For the muzhik who is a muzhik in bone and flesh, it is written: win your bread by hard work, bear your children and leave them in your place harnessed to the same life that harnessed you. We lived, and we worked. Not without grief, not without pain, but we got somewhere. Not among the first, but not among the last either, of those who were respected in the village for their work. Three sons grew out of our root to live in the service of God. Daughters--well? They work for others. We married them off into other villages. They bring neither profit nor loss. Sometimes they bring the mother's heart cares, sometimes joy. But not for the family, not for the future. She and the old man had laid all their hopes on the sons. God was not pleased. He took the good ones to Himself. One was crushed by a wagon. He was riding home from the mill and was hurled off the seat. Another laid his life down in the Tsar's war. And he left no branch of himself. His wife wasn't good for anything, barren. Now that she had a second husband there were still no children. But to the smallest, to the youngest, they always looked with more hope than to the others. He was sharp and clever. But it seems that she and her old man had sinned before the Lord unforgivably. He punished them with the child from whom they had expected joy in their old age. When the Tsar was removed and murder stalked the whole empire, the boy came home on leave. At the beginning there was nothing wrong. Everybody in the village was satisfied. He knew how to read, his brains were in the right place, he always knew just what a muzhik was supposed to do. The war had bitten into their farm a bit. In addition to the hired band a young, careful owner was needed. The old man suffered from a rupture. His care and his energy were lessening. They thought they could get out of their troubles a little later. But their son, their joy, turned coat,--ruined them. On that leave of absence, when he brought joy to his parents, he had stayed but little. He returned a year later another man, both in blood and brain.

After a bit of hemming and hawing: "I am a Bolshevik," he says. "Why," says he, "do you lean to the other side? You have but little, anyway. There's no use shielding another's barns with your backs."

The father was a humble man at heart. In truth the mother was the head of the family. In the village people laughed:

"If you want anything from Demyan, ask his wife. She wears the pants."

But he was a decent man. He did not like disorder, and was always pious. And the old woman was ardent in her faith. That was the kind of heart she had. She loved prayer, and spent whole nights at it. How many times she asked forgiveness of God because she had not become a nun! When she was a girl, she had been different. In her youth she had shared many sweet and secret sins with her husband. Nor had she repented. But with old age there came a longing for God. And because of this, although the hurt their son had done them was deep, although he was turning the life they had laid out for him in an altogether different direction, although their attachment to what they had saved and gained was strong, still they could have made peace with him. They had saved for him. Time would pass, and real order would come back into their life, and their son would change his mind. He would begin thinking of his own farm, of his own good instead of the needs of others. It was on account of faith, of loyalty to God that they quarrelled. "The son had declared that the Bolsheviks wanted to remove not only the Tsar, but God, too. He insulted his mother:

"What are you howling about? A lot your God has helped you! When you beat your head on the floor in prayer for Petka's life, did my brother live ?

And with bitter laughter:

"In the whole village you pray and serve God more than any one else and yet Mokey Stepanich, who almost never prays, has an iron roof on his house and everything is all right in his family. He gets away with graft! It seems that your God is like our old district delegate--he likes graft."

He excited the hot heart of the old woman. She stamped her foot, pointed with awe to an ikon and disowned him.

"You are not my son! I will not burden my soul with the sin of having a son who is a blasphemer. Go where you will. And don't come back while we're alive."

And like his wife, the old man, too, spoke bitter words to his son.

"We dragged our burdens and waited, and this is what we get in our old age. We can't bear it. It's a sin that can't be washed away with prayers. All of us have always honoured God. We can't live in the same house with you. When I die you're my son and heir. And now God tells me not to suffer you near me. Move back to the city. We'll manage to drag our lives out to the end without children, me and the old woman."

He said this, but when the son left the house, he began to long for him. He grew thin and weak, and could not or would not pay attention to the farm. Whenever he would rise from bed gloomy, the mother knew that he had seen Antipka in his dreams. And they heard about Antip often. Even in the city everybody knew him. The villagers were angry at Antip's parents for the requisitions that the city was making.

"Some son you have. You let loose your own curse on the whole world. It would be all right if only you suffered. But why should we suffer?"

But the poorer inhabitants of the village, grown loud these days, came to them with undesired news.

"They say Comrade Antip is coming here to the village at ploughing time. Everybody says he is a good man, a real man."

But who praised him? Those whom she and her husband liked and with whom they lived at peace turned their heads away. But the loud-voiced, shiftless tenant-farmers, they who weren't rooted in the soil, treated the two old people too much like relatives.

The old man sighed, coughed sorrowfully. He looked at his yard with darkened, tired eyes,--a yard without cattle, with only one horse. He did not even speak of sowing that year. The old woman prayed longer and more passionately than ever.

"Lord Father, merciful God, be not wrathful. Forget the sin of Antipka. Do not punish Antipka's blasphemy. Have mercy.

But God did not forget that sin. He punished without mercy.

The power of the Bolsheviks had come to stay. It was as Antipka had said. And he was held in great honour by the new ring-leaders in the village. They celebrated a new holiday of their own, not godly, not religious. They spoiled more than five yards of red fustian. Just on a new invention of theirs, besides the fustian for the red flags. They fastened the strip of fustian to two sticks and placed it over the steps of the old village meeting room. And on that fustian a newly arrived painter lettered in white paint:

"Long live Karl Marx and Comrade Antip Semakhin !"

That was about Antipka of course. And Antip got some sort of a job for the painter in the city in return for that. And he had his name printed side by side with the name of the Bolshevik chief. The old people couldn't even pronounce the name of that Bolshevik. And the boys from the richer farms began to make fun of Antip, referring to him as "Karla." They were afraid of the old woman. Although she was old, she was always ready to fight. But they poisoned the life of the quiet old man. Whenever they met him they yelled:

"Mars's pop!"

The old man buried his head deeper in his shoulders.

He hurried home. He was ashamed and stopped walking in the street. He could hardly make ends meet on his farm. But when requisitions were being made, he suddenly became active.

"We have to hide it. Let us save a little bit if we can. We've lost enough as it is."

And he added quietly, with fear and longing:

"Maybe Antip himself will need it sometime."

He stopped and waited for an answer. But the old woman did not say a word.

He hid things. And the people who helped him were the first to betray him. That was to pay back Antip in his own coin. The old man was taken to the city. And there, from fear or longing, he met his end. He did not return. And it was his dear son who had dragged him into the grave. Maybe he would have lived longer if it was not for that hidden property. ... And now his son is sitting at the table and waiting to be fed. And without a thought or a care for his father. He didn't even ask anything, he didn't even say he was sorry. And he sits there under the ikons, in his hat, like an infidel. It was on his account that God was angry with them. That everything was ruined. All that was left for her old age was anger and grief. She became mad. Her burning eyes moved from her son to the ikon. Her heart was lost in a secret and passionate prayer.

"Do not remember, oh Lord. Give him rest after death at least. Let him into the heavenly kingdom. Don't let him be tortured in hell."

And she looked at her son as if he were her deadly enemy. She gave him to eat in snatches. He looked back at her with a quiet, thoughtful look, and said:

"You are not forgiving, mother. You'll never give up what your heart is set on. Well, and I am just like that, too. Neither your anger nor your I talk will move me. We couldn't live in the same house. All right, you gave me to eat; now I am going. I'll find another place to live. How much did you say you wanted for the meal?"

His mother looked at him angrily. But her voice was quiet when she said:

"I'm not going to lose anything on you. You ate eggs and bread, and drank milk. I'll count up right now what it amounts to in your city prices."

Dryly and stonily she named the price. Then she added:

"And I must say that I don't know what to do with your paper money. Even if I get it, it will not mean that I was paid. You've brought things to such a pass that even money means nothing."

Antip smiled bitterly.

"I will give you a shirt. I have a clean one in my knapsack. You may as well rip the shirt off your own son, once things have come to such a pass."

She took the shirt quietly. She smoothed it out, folded it carefully, and put it in a trunk.

Antip rose, coughed, and said hollowly:

"Well, all right. Meanwhile good-bye."

He walked quietly to the door. Then he stopped and looked at his mother again. Her face seemed to be made of stone. Two pairs of eyes, very much like each other, met. The old woman was the first to drop hers. She said dryly:


The son pressed his lips tightly together, as if teeth hurt him. This made him resemble his mother even more. He looked older, more severe. Then he turned, and walked out.

That night bitterness gripped her heart. She had driven out her own son. Maybe they would never see each other again. For a long time she bent before the ikons, and her thoughts hardened.

"The holy saints suffered greater grief than this for the sake of God."

Her son did not come to the village again. But in his wanderings he took a girl with him. Lawlessly. Again there was much talk and humiliation. But the old woman soon stopped it.

"I have no son. That infidel is no son of mine. I disown him. And don't bother me with talk about him."

After another year the Cossacks came into power in that countryside. They returned and took the place of the Bolsheviks. The old woman heard rumours :

"It seems that Antipka has been killed, or he is hiding somewhere. They say he got caught. But it looks more as if he is killed. His woman, Dunka Voroshilova, was dragged through prison. They let her out now, she lives in the city."

This time the old woman did not drive out the rumour-monger. She moved her shawl lower on lier forehead, and asked in a subdued voice:

"Is the woman with child or not?"

"They say he left her with child. They say she lives badly. She is paying for others' tears."

But the old woman cut the talk short:

"I must go to Marya to receive her child. They called me. Well, it is work. Nowadays children don't feed their parents, and strangers won't do it for nothing. I need food and I have no time for talk."

And she walked out of the house.

But from that day it seemed that she was melting away. After a week she got ready to go to the city. She even prepared a stick for her journey, but illness swept her off her feet. Toward death she seemed to become milder. She said to Marya, the soldier's wife, who ran in to see her:

"I suppose I've got a grandson born in the city now. I wanted to see him. But God did not wish it. I suppose He hasn't pardoned Antipka. Well, I suppose it will be as the All-merciful commands it."

And suddenly she began to sob pitifully, like a child. Marya was astonished. The old woman had been strong. She showed her tears only when custom demanded it. And now there she lay bawling. Just before death. Two days later the end came.