"Moscow Courtyard" by Vasily Polenov (1878)

The Present

Leonid Andreyev (1901), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2017)

I

“Do come round to see me,” asked Senista for a third time, and for a third time Sazonka hastily answered:

“I’ll come, I’ll come, don’t worry. How could I not, of course I’ll come.”

And once again they fell silent. Senista, covered up to his chin with a gray hospital blanket, lay on his back and stared fixedly at Sazonka; he wanted for Sazonka to stay a while longer at the hospital and to confirm once more with his reciprocating gaze his promise not to leave him a sacrifice to loneliness, sickness and fear. Sazonka, however, wanted to leave, but he did not know how to do this without offending the boy; he sniffed his nose, and, almost sliding off his chair he again sat down, firmly and resolutely, as if forever. He would sit a while longer if only there was something to talk about; but there was nothing to talk about, and the thoughts that entered his mind were stupid, the kind that made one amused and ashamed. And all this time he was drawn to call Senista by his name and patronymic—Semyon Yerofeyevich—which was desperately inane: Senista was a boy-apprentice, and Sazonka was a respectable master, and a drunk, and it was only by habit that he was called Sazonka. And two weeks have not yet passed since he gave Senista his last cuff on the nape, and that was very bad, but this too one could not talk about. With determination Sazonka began to slide off his chair, but without having accomplished half the business he slid back down with equal determination, and, either in a manner of reproach or as a form of consolation, he said:

“That’s how things are. It hurts, huh?”

Senista nodded his head affirmatively and quietly answered:

“Well, go. Or else he’ll scold you.”

“That’s true,” Sazonka was happy with the excuse. “He even ordered so: you, he said, make it quick. Bring him—and back that very minute. And as for vodka: no-no. Well, heck!”

But with the knowledge that he could now leave at any minute, a sharp pity towards the large-headed Senista entered Sazonka’s heart. Everything about the unnatural environment called him to pity: the crowded row of beds with pale, gloomy people; the air, to the last particle spoiled by the smell of medicines and the exhalations of sick human bodies; the feeling of one’s own strength and health. And, without trying at this point to avoid the pleading gaze, Sazonka leaned down towards Senista and repeated firmly:

“You, Semyo…Senya, don’t worry. I’ll come. When I get a break, then at once to you. Are we not human? Oh God! We too have our understanding. My dear! You trust me or not?”

And with a smile on his blackened, parched lips Senista answered:

“I trust you.”

“There!” exulted Sazonka.

He felt light and contented, and now he could could talk about the cuff on the nape, accidentally dished out two weeks ago. And, with his finger touching Senista’s shoulder, he carefully hinted:

“And if someone hit you on the head, was that really from malice? Oh God! Your head is just so convenient: large and cropped.”

Senista smiled again, and Sazonka got up from his chair. In terms of height he was very tall, his hair, all made up of small curls, brushed with a fine-tooth comb, rose up lavishly in the form of a merry hat, and his grey, slightly puffy eyes sparkled and smiled unconsciously.

“Well, fare thee well!” he said, but he did not move from his spot.

He said “fare thee well!” and not “farewell!” on purpose, it was more heartfelt this way, but now he felt that this was not enough. He needed to do something even more heartfelt and good after which Senista’s time in bed at the hospital would become cheerful, and he would feel easy to depart. And he lingered in his place uncomfortably, amusing in his juvenile embarrassment, when Senista once again brought him out of his difficulty:

“Farewell!” he said in his high-pitched adolescent voice for which he was teased “gusli”1, and in a plain manner, like an adult, he freed his hand from under the blanket and, like an equal, stretched it out for Sazonka. And Sazonka, feeling that this was exactly that which was lacking to make him feel completely at ease, respectfully grasped the thin fingers with his hefty paw, held them a while, and with a sigh released them. There was something sad and mysterious in the touch of the thin hot fingers: it was as if Senista was not only equal to all the people in the world, but higher and freer than all, and this was because he now belonged to the unknown but dread and mighty master. It was now that he could be called Semyon Yerofeyevich.

“So do come,” for a fourth time asked Senista, and this request banished that frightening and dread something which for a moment overshadowed him with its silent wings. Once more he became a boy, sick and in suffering, and once more one felt sorry for him—very sorry. When Sazonka left the hospital, the smell of medicines and the pleading voice chased after him for a long time:

“Do come!”

And, spreading his arms, Sazonka answered:

“My dear! Are we not human?”

II

Easter was approaching and there was so much sartorial work that only once on Saturday did Sazonka manage to get drunk, though even then not dead drunk. He spent whole days, long and bright in the springtime, sitting on the window bench in the Turkish manner with his legs tucked under him from one rooster’s call till next, squinting and whistling disapprovingly. In the morning the window was located in the shade, and cool air flowed through the opening in the shutters, but at midday the sun cut a thin yellow band across which played illuminated spots of lifted dust. And after half an hour the whole of the windowsill, upon which cuts of fabric and scissors were scattered, was illuminated with blinding light, and it became so hot that one had to throw open the windows like in the summer. And together with the wave of strong fresh air, saturated with the smell of decomposing manure, drying dirt and blossoming buds, a frenzied fly, still feeble in strength, flew into the window, and discordant street noise was sweeping past. Chickens rummaged down below by the log bench and blissfully clucked, basking in round pits; on the opposite side, which was already dried out, kids were playing babki2, and their colorful, ringing shouts and the pounding of cast iron discs against bones sounded of fervor and vitality. There was very little traffic along the street, located at the outskirts of Oryol, and only occasionally a suburban fellow would ride past at walking gait; the cart bounced in the deep ruts, still filled with liquid dirt, and all of its parts pounded with wooden clatter, recalling the summer and the expanse of open fields.

When Sazonka’s lower back began to ache and his stiffened fingers could no longer hold the needle he jumped onto the street, just as he was, barefoot and without his belt, with giant leaps he flew over puddles and joined the playing kids.

“Come on, let me strike it,” he asked, and a dozen dirty hands stretched out the discs towards him, and a dozen voices pleaded:

“For me! Sazonka, for me!”

Sazonka picked out a disc that was heavier, pulled up his sleeve, and, assuming the pose of a discus throwing athlete, measured the distance by squinting his eyes. The disc flew out of his hand with a light whistle, and, bouncing in a wavelike manner, it ripped into the middle of the long cone with a sliding strike, and the babki crumbled like a colorful rain, and the lads reacted to the strike with cries that were just as colorful. After several strikes Sazonka rested and spoke to the lads:

“Senista’s still at the hospital lads.”

But the lads, occupied by their interesting task, took the news coldly and indifferently.

“Need to bring him a present. I’ll bring it any day now,” continued Sazonka.

The word “present” attracted many responses. Mishka the Piggy pulled at his trousers with one hand—the other held the babki in the hem of his shirt—and in all seriousness gave his advice:

“You should give him a dime.”

A dime was that sum of money which Mishka’s grandfather promised him, and his conception of man’s happiness did not go beyond it. But there was no time to speak at length about the present, and with the same giant leaps Sazonka made his way back and again sat down to work. His eyes were a little swollen, his face grew pale-yellow, like in one who is sick, and the freckles around his eyes and nose appeared especially frequent and dark. Only his thoroughly combed hair rose up in that same form of the merry hat, and, when his master Gavriil Ivanovich looked at it, without fail he would imagine a cozy red tavern and vodka, and he would fiercely spit and swear.

Inside Sazonka’s head things were heavy and confused, and he would spend whole hours turning some single thought: about new boots or harmonica. But more often he would think about Senista and about the present, which he will bring him. The machine pounded monotonously, inducing sleep, the master called out orders—and the same one picture presented itself to Sazonka’s tired brain: how he arrives to see Senista and gives him the present, wrapped in a hemmed chintz kerchief. Oftentimes in heavy reverie he would forget who Senista was, and could not recall his face; but the chintz kerchief, which he still needed to buy, appeared vivid and clear, and it even seemed that the knots on it were not tied up securely. And Sazonka told everyone, the master, the mistress, the clients and the kids, that he will go to see the boy immediately on the first day of Easter.

“Have to do it,” he repeated. “Give my hair a comb and that same minute off to see him. Here, dear, take this!”

But as he was saying this he was seeing a different picture: the wide open doors of the red tavern and in its dark depths the counter, showered with cheap liquor. And he was embraced by the bitter awareness of his weakness which he could not fight, and he wanted to shout, loudly and firmly: “I’ll go to Senista! To Senista!”

But his head was filling up with gray, vacillating slime, and through it only the chintz kerchief remained visible. But there was no joy in it, only a stern reproach and a terrible warning.

III

And on the first day of Easter, and on the second, Sazonka was drunk, got into fights, was beaten up, and spent the night at the precinct. And only on the fourth day he managed to get out to see Senista. The street, filled with sunlight, was colored by the bright spots of scarlet shirts and white cheerfully grinning teeth, gnawing sunflower seeds; harmonicas played in all directions, bones and cast iron discs pounded, and a rooster cried out passionately, calling to battle the neighbor’s rooster. But Sazonka did not look around. His face, with a wounded eye and a split lip, was grim and concentrated, and even his hair did not rise up in a rich mane, but instead stuck out disorderly in separate clumps. He felt ashamed for the drunkenness and his unkept word, he felt sorry that he would have to appear before Senista not in his best—in a red woolen shirt and vest—but drunk, foul, stinking of cheap vodka. But the closer he got to the hospital, the lighter he felt, and his eyes would look down more frequently, to the right, where the bundle with the present carefully hung in his hand. And Senista’s face now appeared vividly and clearly, with his parched lips and pleading gaze.

“Dear, really? Oh God!” said Senista and greatly picked up the pace.

Here is the hospital—a large, yellow building, with black window frames, which made the windows look like dark, sullen eyes. Here is the long corridor, and the smell of medicines, and the amorphous feeling of nausea and anguish. Here is Senista’s ward and his bed…But where is Senista himself?

“Who are you looking for?” asked the nurse who followed him in.

“There was a boy here. Semyon. Semyon Yerofeyev. Here, in this place.” Sazonka pointed at an empty bed.

“You should ask beforehand, otherwise you barge in in vain,” said the nurse impolitely. “And it’s not Semyon Yerofeyev, but Semyon Pustoshkin.”

“Yerofeyev—that’s by his patronymic. Parent’s name is Yerofey, so he is Yerofeyev,” explained Sazonka, slowly and terribly growing pale.

“Your Yeroveyev is dead. Only we don’t know that by the patronymic. By ours—Semyon Pustoshkin. Dead, I say.”

“Oh, that’s how it is!” Sazonka replied with polite surprise, so pale that his freckles stood out like ink splatter.

“When?”

“Yesterday, after evening.”

“And may I!…” Sazonka asked, stammering.

“Why not?” indifferently answered the nurse. “Ask, at the morgue, they’ll show you. But you, don’t worry yourself sick over this! He was feeble, don’t feel sorry.”

Sazonka’s tongue asked thoroughly and politely for the way, his legs steadily carried him in the specified direction, but his eyes did not see a thing. And it was only when they were fixed, straight and motionless, onto the dead body of Senista that they began to see. That was when he began to feel the frightening chill permeating the morgue, and everything around him became visible: the walls covered with gray spots, the window, coated by cobwebs; however much the sun would shine, through that window the sky would always appear gray and cold, like in autumn. Somewhere, restlessly and intermittently, a fly was buzzing; drops of water were falling from somewhere; one falls—tap!—and for a long time a ringing, pitiful sound would race around the air. Sazonka took a step back and loudly said:

“Fare thee well, Semyon Yerofeyev.”

Then he got down on his knees, touched the damp floor with his forehead and got up. “Forgive me, Semyon Yerofeyev,” again he spoke slowly and loudly, and again fell on his knees, and he pressed down his forehead for long time, until his head started to numb. The fly stopped buzzing, and it grew silent, the sort of silence that only occurs where the dead lie. And drops of water fell at even intervals into a tin basin, fell and wept—quietly, softly.

IV

Immediately after the hospital the town ended and a field began, and Sazonka wandered onto the field. It was flat, uninterrupted either by trees or construction, it spread outwards freely, and the very breeze felt like it was its free, warm breath. At first Sazonka walked along a parched road, then he turned left and walking across the lea and the reaped field went straight to the river. The earth was still damp in places, and in those places where he passed remained the footprints of his feet with dark depressions left by the heels.

On the shore Sazonka lay down in a small, grass covered hollow, in which the air was still and warm, like in a steam room, and he closed his eyes. The sun’s rays went through his sealed eyelids as a warm, red wave; high up in the aerial azure a skylark chimed, and it was pleasant to breathe and not to think. The floodwater already came down, and the river flowed as a narrow brook; far away on the low opposite bank, having left marks of their rampage lay huge, holey floes. The stumps lay one upon another in clusters and rose upwards as white triangles towards the ruthless fiery rays which step by step sharpened and drilled into them. Half awake Sazonka threw back his arm—something hard was under it, wrapped in cloth. The present.

Quickly rising, Sazonka cried out:

“Oh God! What is that?”

He completely forgot about the bundle and stared at it with frightened eyes: he imagined that the bundle came here and lay down of its own volition, and he was afraid to touch it. Sazonka stared—stared—stared without breaking off,—and a turbulent, seething remorse and frantic anger was rising up within him. He stared at the chintz kerchief—and he saw, how on the first day, and on the second, and on the third, Senista waited for him and turned towards the door, and he did not come. He died alone, forgotten—like a puppy thrown away at the rubbish heap. If only a day earlier—and with his fading eyes he would see the present, and he would rejoice with his youthful heart, and his soul would ascend to the high heavens without pain, without the terrible anguish of loneliness.

Sazonka wept, he dug into his lush hair with his hands and rolled on the ground. He wept, and, raising his arms to the heavens, pitifully defended himself:

“Oh God! Are we not human?”

And he fell right down to the earth with his split lip—and fell silent in a rush of mute grief. Young grass tickled his face softly and gently; a thick, calming smell was rising from the damp earth, in which resided a powerful force and a dread call to life. Like an everlasting mother, the earth accepted the sinful son into its embrace, and with warmth, love and hope it nourished his suffering heart. And, far away in the town, the merry festive bells were booming in discord.


  1. Gusli (Russian: гусли): the oldest Russian multi-string plucked instrument.
  2. Babki (Russian: бабки): an an old game peasant children played which involved throwing a heavy object at a collection of animal bones, which were called babki.
Published March 2017