"The Slave Ship" by J. M. W. Turner

The Earth

Leonid Andreyev (1907), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2016)

I

The Almighty summoned an angel in white robes and said to him:

“Turn your ear towards the Earth and listen. And when you hear something, tell me.”

The angel listened for a long time and answered:

“I hear something weeping. The Earth is weeping. I heard something crying out, screams and groans, children’s voices. The Earth is suffering. And I heard mocking laughter, squeals of lust and killer’s grunts. The Earth is sinning. And he who lives on the Earth is afraid.”

The Almighty said:

“I have sent many from my white flock to the Earth and hitherto no one has returned. I wait for them in vain and weep from grief, but they do not come, and the Earth still weeps, and my starry nights have faded. I feel sorry for you, but your turn has come: fly to the Earth, turn into man, and, walking among men learn what it is that they need. Run away from windbags but do not abandon the quiet ones, not until they speak; and keep their words with care, as if they were pearls. Play with the merry children, but there are sad children whose faces are small and pale, and their eyes large and dark; who do not laugh and do not play, who do not know of amusements typical of their age; whose sorrow is terrible even to a god; and to those children give your love and angelic mercy. I will anxiously wait for you, I will halt the darkening of the stars and will multiply their light with the light of my hope.

The angel took his blessing and, his white robes gleaming, obediently leapt headlong onto the terrible and alien earth. That night on the Earth there was thunder and tempest and many people perished under collapsed houses, perished in the marine abyss. And lighting flashed…

II

And now the angel has returned, his white robes gleaming, and obediently stood awaiting questions. The Almighty rejoiced and in celebration bid for many new comets to flare up: let them form a semicircular glow. And the Almighty was also happy to see how white and bright were the angel’s robes. That was where he began his questions:

“I am pleased with your appearance, truly worthy of the heavens; but tell me, my dear—is there no filth at all on the Earth? I cannot see a single little spot on your robes.”

The angel answered:

“No, Father, there is a great deal of filth on Earth, but I avoided making contact with it and that is why I was not stained.”

The Almighty frowned and asked doubtfully:

“But did they really stop spilling red blood on the Earth? There is not a single little spot on your robes, and they are as white as snow.”

The angel answered:

“No, Father, the red blood flows on the Earth, but I avoided making contact with it, and that is why I am clean. And since it is impossible to walk among men and avoid their filth and blood and keep one’s robes unstained, I did not come down to the Earth itself, but flew at a low altitude, and from there I sent my smiles, reproaches and blessings…”

The Almighty said:

“It is difficult in this manner to find out what it is that men need. But, perhaps, you have discovered it after all?”

The angel answered:

“No, Father. The main thing I did was to tell them how to live so there would be no suffering, no tears and no filth; but they listen badly, Father, they are as filthy as ever, like animals, and in my opinion they should all be exterminated.”

“That is what you think?”

“Yes, Father. But that is not the worst of it, that day and night, cursing and crying, bowing in equal measure to you and the devil, they knead the bloody filth, what is really terrible, outrageous and unacceptable, is that your angels, sent by you, clean angels of your white herd, have been stained to the point of becoming unrecognizable, they have been splattered with filth and drenched in blood, have been drawn into their sins and crimes.”

“You have seen them?”

“Alas!—I have seen them, Father. But I did not bow to them, and even made it look as if I did not recognize them, for many of them were not even sober and gave unruly, seductive speeches, committed inappropriate and even shameful acts.”

“Where have you seen them, my dear?”

“It is even embarrassing to say, Father. I have seen them in taverns and prisons, where they eat from a kettle shared with thieves and murderers; I have seen them among adulterers, journalists, and sinners of all kinds. It is impossible to tell what happened to their robes: not only did they lose their angelic style, but the material has been torn into tatters and the color has become almost indiscernible: striving for smartness they cover themselves with patches of other colors, even those that are red. I have heard it said that many of them yearn for the heavens and even have something to share, but they fear to return in their current state. One night, on the roadside, I saw a sleeping tramp; he was drunk and delirious, and I recognized in him that renegade, one sent by you with trust; and this is what I overheard amid his incoherent and blasphemous exclamations: ‘bitter it is for me without the heavens, of which I am deprived, but I don’t want to be an angel among men, I don’t want white robes, I don’t want wings!’ This is literally what he said, Father: ‘I don’t want wings!’”

III

Thus, straightening his snow white feathers, the angel gave his account and waited for high praises for his cleanliness and wise cautiousness. But instead a terrible fury came over the Father and he sentenced the unsullied to inviolable, eternal damnation. When the thunderous speech ceased and the terrible gleam of lightning in his eyes gradually softened, the Almighty assumed a soft tone and said:

“Depart from here and do not return until you become one with a suffering man with both your body and soul. Understand and remember, my dear, that white robes are necessary for those who have never left the heavens: but for those who were on the Earth, such clean robes, like yours—shame and disgrace! I can see that you have kept yourself safe, and for that you repulse me. Depart quickly, or else thunder once more stirs in my breast. And when you see on the Earth those former envoys of mine, those who fear to return, tell them briefly and graciously, for you will be speaking for me: ‘return to the heavens, do not be afraid, your father loves you and waits for you.’”

The aggrieved angel sneered bitterly, with venom even, but he put on a humble appearance and, lowering his eyes, answered:

“I already told them. They don’t want to.”

“What don’t they want?”

“To return to the heavens.”

“Frightened? Tell them that I will give them new robes.”

“No. They don’t want to. That’s what they say, Father: ‘So we will go to the heavens and once again put on white robes, but what about those who are left? If we are to go, then all together, but alone we will not go.’”

The Almighty was lost in thought for a long time. Finally he said:

“So that’s how the Earth is. I can see the powerlessness of my angels and am beginning to think: should I myself not go to the Earth?”

The angel said:

“They have all been calling for you and waiting for you for a long while now. But, pardon my insolence, Father: if you yourself go to the Earth then you yourself will not return here.”

The Almighty exclaimed:

“Then what about my heavens?! They will become empty.”

“They say: then your heavens will be on the Earth, and then neither they, nor you, nor the suffering men will need another heavens. So they say, and now I see that they are right. Farewell, Father, forever!”

With those words the angel once again leapt headlong onto the Earth and was lost forevermore among its tears and blood. And the heavens were frozen in heavy contemplation, searchingly peering at the tiny and sorrowful Earth—so tiny and so terrible and unconquerable in its sorrow. The ceremonial comets were quietly fading, and in the light of their red trails the throne already looked empty and dead.

Published February 2017