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The Ant's Trail

2006-07-13 23:27

  At Kossoi Brod where the school is now, there used to be a stretch of wasteland. A big patch, anyone could see it, but no one wanted it. It was high up, you see. Planting vegetables there would mean plenty of sweat and little to see for it. So folks let it alone, and looked for easier places, more convenient.

  Once, though, there was a hut there, folks say. A tumbledown sort of place with two windows, leaning forward as if it was just going to go somersaulting down the hill. There was a vegetable plot too, and a bathhouse. Just a bit of a farm, you could call it. Naught to marvel at, but you could see it was there. And the folks all round about knew that hut well.

  A gold miner used to live there, a prospector - Nikita Zhabrei, they called him. Getting on in years. A young fellow going grey, as the saying is. The lads could well have started calling him Grandad, but he still had all his strength. There were few could match him at work. He was a fine figure of a man, but naught to say for himself, as if he'd never learned the trick of speech. And surly - best leave him alone. He kept all away. 'Twas with good cause they called him Zhabrei the Nettle.

  This Zhabrei generally prospected by himself, sought new places and sometimes found them. Then he'd come into the village and tell folks about it.

  “Hark 'ee, muzhiks, in such-and-such a place there's gold turning up.”

  Those places were always worth working. Sometimes they were quite rich. But folks knew Zhabrei had a secret too. Now and then he'd have his pockets full of money. Nobody knew where he got it, but the talk went that he sold nuggets were the same shape, like bast shoes, small but heavy. And here was the marvel - each one was larger than the last, the first might have weighed about a pound, then they got bigger and bigger, but all of them were just like shoes.

  The merchants and the other prospectors badly wanted to see where Zhabrei found those gold shoes, but naught came of all their trying. Nikita knew they were watching him, you see, and he was wily. He'd let them follow him hither and thither all day, and then when it got dark he'd plunge into the woods and be gone. Try to find the path he took through the forest in the dark of night!

  They tried to get something out of his wife, but fared no better. She was the same sort as her husband. Prickly, best not touch her without gloves, and a sharp tongue in her head. Those that came for no particular reason she'd not let through the door. A man had hardly time to smooth his moustache and say: “Good day, Granny!” and she'd come back with: “And what else? What have ye come for?”

  Well, the man would start to stutter and stammer, of course.

  “How are you? How's your Goodman? I hope ye're doing well.”

  “Aye, well enough,” she'd say. “We go to none, we ask none to come to us, and them as come unasked get the broom in their faces.”

  Try to talk to that sort!

  Sometimes the goodwives would come to borrow something. And them she might meet this way or that. Some she'd send packing straight away. “I've set naught aside for you, and don't ye come round again!” To another she'd give without a word - a bit of flour, or butter, or potatoes or whatever it might be, and never ask it back again; but she'd not say any more than she had to. As soon as the woman settled down to gossip, Zhabrei's wife would pick up bucket and floor-cloth.

  “Off you go home, Stepanya. You've got little 'uns waiting. You've more to do than I have. And me, I was just starting to wash the floor, while you sit here as if ye'd naught to do.”

  So that was how Zhabrei and his wife lived, keeping to themselves.

  Zhabrei did work in artels (small co-operatives) now and then. That was when he sometimes showed the men a new place. And they were glad to get him. He did the work of two, or even three, and he had a real understanding of gold. Who'd refuse a man like that? But he never stopped long. Something would happen, and he'd leave them at once. All sorts can happen in an artel. There are quarrels about the work, or they find someone acting crooked, maybe someone gets a bit of a lesson; and Zhabrei couldn't stand all that. He'd listen a while to the bawling, then he'd just say, sort of scornful: “Mosquitoes singing in the bog again! If any want to harken, let 'em, I've had my fill.”

  He'd spit, take up his pick and spade, sling his pan and sack over his shoulder and be gone. Wouldn't even come to get his pay.

  Once he went off like that and didn't come back for a long time. Folks reckoned him dead, when all of a sudden he appeared. It was just at Trinity when all the rivers and streams overflow that he was washed up again.

  It had been a bad year, they say. Little gold to be found. So the miners were down in the mouth. Here was a great holiday, and naught to make merry with. They talked and grumbled and wondered where they could get treated to a glass at least - and then they saw Zhabrei coming along the Polevaya road, all in new clothes. That was a plain token, he'd money in his pocket, now there'd be feasting and merrymaking all through the village.

  And so it was. Nikita went straight to the tavern, poured a pile of rubles on the counter and called to the hostess: “Fill up, Ulyana, till they're all rolling! So not a mosquito of them all can whine that Nikita Zhabrei kept his gold in his pouch and showed it to none. Look ye - here it is!” And he kept pouring more and more rubles out on the counter.

  If Nikita was giving a feast they knew he'd do it properly, till the last ruble was gone, so the whole village came running. Some, of course, had no other idea but - why not drink if you're treated? But most came with crafty thoughts, maybe Zhabrei'll get talkative, maybe he'll let slip the place where those bast sandals of gold are made. But Zhabrei knew how much he could hold. He drank what he wanted, tipped some more money on the counter and told the hostess: “Pour out, Ulyana. Without stint. Plain for the men, red wine for the maids and wives. All they can hold. If that's not enough I'll pay, and if it's more you can keep what's over. In the morn we'll start a new reckoning.”

  The hostess was so glad she didn't know what to do first, she poured out wine with one hand, gathered up the rubles with the other, bowed to Zhabrei - it'll all be done as you say, and whispered to her husband: “Go to the still, bring a couple of barrels, or we won't have enough.”

  From the tavern Zhabrei went straight to the shop, as he always did; and they'd been waiting long for him already. The shop-keeper was shrewd enough. The village was a small one, but there were always dear things on hand in case one of the miners had a stroke of luck - the sort of things on hand in case one of the miners had a stroke of luck - the sort of things no villagers really needs.

  From these Nikita chose gifts for his old woman. A shawl - a real fine one, buckled shoes, a length of silk and whatever else took his eye. He bought new clothes for himself too, ad told the shopkeeper: “Take them to my old woman. Tell her Nikita Yevseyevich sends her a greeting and bids you say he's alive and well, and he'll soon be home. Let her make cabbage dumplings and kvass. Two cans at least.”

  The shop-keeper hurried away and Nikita sat on the bench till he came back.

  “Well, what happened?” he asked.

  “What could happen? I gave them to her.”

  “And what did she say?”

  “She took the things, threw them in the corner, but said naught.”

  Nikita did not believe him.

  “Nay, that can't be - that she just took her man's gifts without a word said.”

  Then the shop-keeper confessed: “Four words she did say.”

  “And what were they?” Nikita asked.

  “When she took the thing she sighed and said: 'Eh, the old fool!'”

  Nikita laughed.

  “Now that's the truth ye're telling. It's her way, my old woman. She's all right, in good health, no need to hasten home. We'll give the children a treat too. Bring a basket.”

  The shop-keeper knew what to do. He brought a basket measure and asked: “How much must I weigh out, and what kind?”

  “Measure it wi' the eye, to the top! Every sort, but only the ones in paper wrappings, no naked ones.”

  The man couldn't do it without cheating, of course. The cheap sweets he poured in without stint, and the dear ones only a few, but he reckoned the cost the other way. Well, Nikita didn't argue. He handed over the money and went out on to the steps with the basket. And the children had come round from the whole village. But they didn't stand waiting by the door, they were just playing round about, some with knucklebones, some with a ball, and the maids with games of their own. They knew Zhabrei's ways: if he saw they were waiting for him, he'd take the basket back again. So the children always made as if they didn't know a thing, they'd just come there to play by chance.

  Nikita would see they weren't waiting for him, and start scattering the sweets all round in handfuls. The children didn't often get sweets, of course, and they'll all make a rush for them, a real scramble it was. If one was knocked off his feet by chance, like, or two cracked their heads together, Zhabrei just laughed, but when they started quarrelling or fighting he'd grind his teeth, drop the basket and say: “Mosquitoes brood are mosquitoes too!”

  He's scowl, and turn and go home. He'd climb his hill, sit down on the earthen bank and begin caterwauling. Best keep off him when he was like that, he'd knock any man off his feet. Only the old woman could deal with him.

  All the village would be noisy with Zhabrei's feast, some singing, some dancing, and Zhabrei himself would sit there on the bank and all his song was: “Mosquitoes ye are, mosquitoes, a kingdom of mosquitoes.”

  When night came the old woman would lead him into the hut. He'd sleep it off and in the morning start all over again. First to the tavern, then new clothes for his goodwife and sweets for the children. Sometimes the old woman would have a whole corner piled up with things. Then when the money gave out she'd sell them back to the shop-keeper and get one kopek for ten paid. What he'd sold for fifty he'd buy back for five, and what he'd sold for ten - for that he gave one.

  When the children scrambled for sweets without fighting, Zhabrei would stop in the village till eventide. He'd sing with the other miners, and dance too; but when he went home he went alone, he needed no man's help. And if any tried to fasten on to him, Zhabrei'd make short work of the man.

  “My friend ye are, but up my hill ye do not come. I have no love for it.”

  That was how these feastings always went on, until the money was gone. But this time it took a different turn on the first day.

  Nikita brought out his basket of sweets and started to scatter them. Now, there was one among the children, Denisko the Orphan. He wasn't very old, but tall and lanky. The other lads of his age used to tease him. “Denisko, bend your back, double over so we'll be the same.”

  Because he was an orphan, he'd been washing sand a long time, and with that, and with his size, most reckoned him already grown. But still he was boy at heart, and he was curious to see the merrymaking. So he came round the shop with the others and made as if he was playing. But when they all ran and scrambled for the sweets, Denisko just stood and watched. Nikita saw that and called out: “Hey you, Lanky, can't ye catch?” And he threw a whole handful right at Denisko. The other children made a rush for them, but Denisko himself just moved away a bit so he wouldn't be knocked off his feet.

  Then Nikita asked him: “What's wrong wi' ye, Denisko? Hurt your back?”

  “Nay, my back's all right,” said the lad, “but all that's naught for me. I'm a man grown.”

  “If ye're a man,” said Nikita, “Off wi' ye to the tavern. Drink my health, even if it's only in red wine.”

  “When my mother was dying,” said Denisko, “she told me: 'Till your beard's full grown, never touch a drop. After that, do as you see fit.'”

  “So that's what ye're like,” said Nikita, real amazed he was. “Here's this for ye, then!” And he threw down some silver coins. But Denisko didn't pick them up. “I need no charity now,” he said. “I'm grown, I can earn my own bread.”

  That make Nikita angry, of course. He shouted at the other children: “Get away over there! We'll see how stiff his neck is!”

  He pulled a bundle of banknotes, big ones, out of his inside pocket and tossed them down in front of Denisko. But this, seemingly, was a lad of character.

  'I told ye I don't need charity,“ he said, ”and least of all when it's thrown like a bone to a dog.“

  That put Nikita in a real rage, he just stood glaring at Denisko. Then he thrust his hand down the leg of his topboot, pulled out a bundle wrapped in a rag and took from it a nugget - five pounds' weight, maybe, and threw it down - bang! - at Denisko's feet.

  “Don't brag!” he shouted. “That ye'll pick up!”

  But Denisko, maybe he was just stubborn, or maybe he didn't know the real value of the nugget, anyway, he didn't pick it up. He just looked at it and said: “I'd like well to find a gold shoe like that myself, but other folks' I don't want.”

  Then he turned to go. Nikita came to himself a bit, he ran and picked up the money and the nugget, and called out to Denisko: “What do ye want, then?”

  “Naught,” said Denisko. “I just came to look at you showing off before them all.”

  Nikita had little taste for being reproved by a boy, but he made no answer. Then after a bit he shouted: “Denisko, come back!”

  The children caught it up with their own cry: “Denisko, bend your back! Denisko, bend your back!”

  Denisko took no notice, he just came and stood there quietly. Then Nikita whispered, so no one could hear: “Come to me i' the morn, when I've sobered down a bit. Mebbe I'll show ye the ants' path, and after that it'll be your own affair. If the Lips of Stone let ye in, ye'll find it easy enough to get through the lard, either with heat or with water. And then ye'll find the shoes.”

  “Very well, Uncle Nikita,” said the lad. “And thankful I'll be to ye for showing me the road.”

  “It's not for your thanks I'll do it,” said Nikita, “but because I see no greed in ye. I've sought one like that a long time.”

  On those words they parted, and never saw each other again.

  Zhabrei went straight to his hill. He walked slowly, as if he was thinking deep, and sang no song that day about mosquitoes. Folks saw him sitting with his old woman on the grass bank. A long time they sat there, just like folks new wed, talking and taking, confidential-like. The villagers were amazed to see them.

  'Look at that, now, Zhabrei and his old woman can't get to the end o' their talk. As if they were going to die this night.“

  It was jest, of course, but it was true word. In the morning Denisko hastened to Zhabrei's hut and found all the doors unharmed, but a dire confusion within, this thrown down, that overturned, but a dire confusion within, this thrown down, that overturned, and the other thing smashed to splinters. In the middle of the room lay a heavy crowbar, but of people - not a soul.

  Denisko was frightened, he ran back to the village and told folks what he'd seen - “something wrong there”。 They hadn't yet properly slept off their drink, but they went hurrying up the hill all the same. They took a good look at it all, then they sent to tell the magistrate. But no one could make head or tail of it. One thing was sure, though - there'd been a real hard fight, folks striking out in the darkness. Some hand had scraped everything out of the cellar but the pile of clothes in the corner wasn't touched, they lay as the old woman had thrown them. There was no blood, and no tracks to be seen by the hut. The ground was hard and stony, it didn't show them. And besides, the whole village had been tramping round, anything there was had been scuffed away.

  The magistrate had a guard set on the empty place, of course, and began questioning all the folks, asking who'd got something to tell.

  But there seemed no one they could blame in the village. Some had been lying dead drunk, and the rest had all been together. Some thought maybe a gang from Kungurka had done it; folks had seen men in the village who served one of those merchants that bought gold on the sly. And many knew that merchant had often egged folks on to watch Zhabrei. But the magistrates weren't likely to accuse a man who paid them so well. So they turned it all round against Denisko the Orphan. He'd brought the robbers. Nikita had shown him money and a nugget. And hadn't he been the first to come there in the morning? That proved it.

  A sin and a shame it was, of course. But they haled the poor lad away to jail, aye, and kept him shut for many a year. Killed two birds with one stone - shielded the merchant and found a culprit. That's the way it was done, those times.

  They soon forgot Denisko in the village. It's out of sight, out of mind with miner folk. Always plenty of coming and going. Denisko had no one of his own, none to grieve for him. So he stopped there in jail thinking to himself, maybe they'll find Zhabrei and his old woman, then it'll all be cleared up.

  Well, in the end they let Denisko out and he came back, a man grown. The first thing, he wanted to know if aught had been heard of Nikita and his wife, and who was living in their hut. He asked round about, but none could tell him, and on the hill there wasn't a trace of the hut left. A hut won't stand long with none to own it, it's soon taken away bit by bit. And besides, folks didn't forget the robbers had hunted in the cellar. So they started searching everywhere too. Pulled all to pieces, and where Zhabrei's hut had been they left naught but wasteland with a lot of holes dug in it.

  It grieved Denisko sore. Here'd been a man who knew about gold. But he never piled up riches, he gave all away. Showed folks new places to find it. And his old woman, she harmed none. And now there was naught left to tell of them but this bit of bare ground and the holes dug in it.

  He climbed the hill and sat there thinking. And then he called to mind Nikita's words, telling him to come the next morning.

  What was that ants' path he spoke of? And what were the Lips of Stone?

  He thought of it this way and that, and at last he decided - there are plenty of ants' paths, who can tell which is the right one, but Lips of Stone, those I can seek. Maybe good chance I'll come across them.

  As he thought that he happened to look down, and there he was, sitting right by an ants' trail. Just an ordinary one like any other, with ants crawling along it. But they were all going one way and none the other. Denisko found that queer. . . . I'll follow them, he thought, and see where their hill is. . . . So he went along that trail and it led him a long, long way. And here was a strange thing - the ants seemed to be getting bigger, and where the ground was bare, something seemed to sparkle on their feet. What could it be? He picked one or two up and looked at them, but naught could he see. It was all too tiny for his eye to take in. He went and on and saw that the further the ants went, the bigger they got. Again he picked one up to look at it. And now he could see something like a tiny shining drop on each little foot. Denisko marveled, and went on along the path. At last he came out on a glade with two stones thrusting out of the ground, shaped like flat cakes, one on top of the other. Lips, and naught else.

  The path lad straight up to those lips. And as soon as the ants came to the glade, they grew before his eyes. He was afraid to pick up any more, they were so big. And all of them with those shoes on their feet. They went to the Lips of Stone and vanished inside. So there must be a way in.

  Denisko went up closer to take a look, and those lips opened wide, as though they wanted to swallow him. That scared him, of course. He jumped back but the lips didn't close, it was as if they were waiting, and the ants kept on going straight in, seemed to find nothing out of the way. Denisko took heart a bit, he came up closer to look in, and saw the path went down inside, steep like a slide. But it was all sticky clay, or rather, thick slime like lard. Even the ants had a hard job to get over it. Sometimes their shoes got stuck, but not all at the same place. The clay might hold them at once, then the ant would leave the shoes behind and run on all the easier. Another would go down unhindered, getting bigger all the time. An ant might go in the size of a beetle, and as it went on it got as big as a lamb, then a sheep, then a calf, a bull. And then it was like a great hill, and each shoe weighed a pood or more. As long as the clay didn't take those it crept on slowly, but as soon as the last was off it slid down like a water-beetle, and got no bigger.

  Well, now Denisko knew where the golden shoes had come from, though he marveled that Nikita had not feared those great ants. But as he watched, they began coming one by one, and then no more entered.

  So that's how it is, he thought. There's times they stop coming. But who knows how long that'll last?

  The shoes, he thought, could be got out of the slime with his bare hands. He badly wanted to try his luck - to dig a bit, even if it was only on top. But it puzzled him how he would get up that steep, slippery slope again. He started looking round to see if he could find a knotted branch or a long pole, and stumbled across a bucket among the bushes. Not a very big one, but wide. And there was chopped wood beside it, and a hack and two spades, one iron and the other wooden.

  Denisko had worked on the gold-fields since he was a boy, he knew what all that was for. He picked up the spades, hack and bucket, pushed a bundle of wood under his belt, went back to the lips - and they closed. Just two stones lying one on top of the other, and no path at all.

  He was disappointed, of course, but what could he do? You can't lift stones like that with a crowbar. He turned to put everything back where he'd found it when the lips suddenly opened again. Opened quite wide and seemed to move a little - like getting ready to swallow him. Well, Denisko didn't fear, without stopping to think twice, in he went. He didn't find any gold shoes in the slime, of course, they'd sunk into the sand below. But for one that knew how, it was easy enough to get down to them. To lift up that slimy clay we call lard, folks take a hot iron spade or a wet wooden one, and it comes up in slabs like pancakes. Denisko set to work, soon got a place clear and started collecting gold shoes from the sand underneath. He got a lot of them, some big others small. But then he saw it was getting darker, the lips were closing. . . . I'm being too greedy, he thought. What do I want with all these? I'll take one to buy masses for Nikita, and another for myself, that's enough.

  As he thought that, the lips opened again, as much as to say: Go on out.

  With a hack to help, it's easy to climb any slope. You push it in, pull yourself up, and so on. Denisko came out and put everything back where he'd found it. The smallest shoe he thrust down the leg of his topboot, the other - exactly like the one Nikita had had - he hid in an inner pocket. Then he went straight off to Kungurka.

  He found the merchant there'd been talk about, waited till he could catch him in a quite place, and then asked him: “Want the second shoe, to make a pair?”

  He took the shoe out of his pocket and showed it, keeping it in his hand. The merchant was pleased as could be.

  “What d'ye want for it?”

  “I'll give it ye for nothing,” said Denisko, “if ye'll show me where ye hid Nikita and his old woman.”

  The merchant forgot caution in his greed, he said: “We threw them down the old pit at the marble quarries.”

  “Show me the place,” said Denisko.

  They went to the quarry and the merchant said: “This is it.”

  “Then take your payment!” And Denisko turned round and smash! - brought the shoe down on the man's forehead. It was about five pounds in weight. You can guess what happened when that came down on a man's head, and with an angry arm behind it.

  Folks soon found the merchant and the gold shoe beside him - the seal that had left the mark.

  After that, nearly all the judges got themselves in the dock because of that shoe. Each one wanted to grab it for himself, but the others didn't let him and complained to those higher up - he's a thief, he's a robber, he ought to be put in jail. And so it went on till it got right up to the top judge of them all. And he didn't think twice what to do.

  “I'll take that shoe home,” he said, “I'll test it with acids and find out if it's real gold or not.”

  So he took the gold shoe home and hid it away deep in a coffer; then he broke a piece of an old candlestick, cleaned it up a bit, and took it back.

  “Not a bit of gold in it,” he said.

  Of course all could see the trick he'd played, it was plain enough, but none cared complain of the chief judge. And as for him, he saw pleased as could be and very proud of himself. Tricked them cleverly, I did, he thought. No wonder I'm chief judge!

  Back home he went, and straight to that coffer. But it seemed like worms had eaten a hole in it, and inside there was naught to be seen. He looked this way and that, but it was no good. There had been a gold shoe, now there was just a hole. And you can't take hold of a hole.

  None ever found Denisko, however they sought. He'd seemingly gone to Siberia or some other place.

  There was a good bit of talk and arguing about those Lips of Stone for a while, about where they could be. Some said they were near the Denisov mine, but that I don't know. And what I don't know, I won't say, for I make naught up. That's not my way.

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