Khustina - The Betrothal Kerchief

Translated by Florence Randal Livesay

On Sunday she did not dance–
She earned the money for her skeins of silk
With which she embroidered her kerchief.
And while she stitched she sang:

"My kerchief, embroidered, stitched, and scalloped!
I shall present thee and my lover shall kiss me.
O Khustina, bright with my painting.
I am unplaiting my hair, I walk with my lover– *2
(O my Fate! My Mother!)
The people will wonder in the morning
That an orphan should give this kerchief–
Fine-broidered and painted kerchief."

So worked she at her stitching, and gazed down the road
To listen for the bellowing of the curved-horned oxen,
To see if her Tchumak comes homeward.

                         . . . . .

The Tchumak is coming from beyond Lyman,
With another's possessions, with no luck of his own.
He drives another man's oxen; he sings as he drives:

"O my fate, my fortune,
Why is it not like that of others?
Do I drink and dance?
Have I not got strength?
Know I not the roads of the steppes
That lead to thee?
Do I not offer thee my gifts,
(For I have gifts)–my brown eyes–
My young strength, bought by the rich?
... Perchance they have mated my sweetheart to another.
Teach me, O Fortune, how to forget,
How to drown my grief in drink and song."

And as he journeyed over the steppes, lonesome, unhappy, he wept–
And out on the steppes, on a grave, a grey owl hooted.

The Tchumaki, greatly troubled, entreated: *3
"Bless us, Ataman, that we may reach the village,
For we would bring our comrade to the village
That there he may confess ere death; be shriven."
They confessed; heard mass, consulted fortune-tellers.
But it availed not; so with him, unholpen,
They moved along the road. Was it his burden,
The constant burden of his anxious love
(Or victim he of some one's evil spell?),
That so they brought him from the Don
Home on a waggon?
God he besought
At least to see his sweetheart. But not so–
He pleaded not enough. . . . They buried him . . .
And none will mourn him, buried far away;
They placed a cross upon the orphan's grave
And journeyed on.

As the grass withers, as the leaf falls on the stream,
Is borne to distance dim,
The Cossack left this world, and took with him
All that he had.

Where is the kerchief, silken-wrought?
The merry girl-child, where?
The wind a kerchief waves
On the new cross.
A maiden in a nunnery
Unbinds her hair.

                            1844, St. Petersburg

*1   When a girl becomes engaged, she binds on the head of her 
       lover, a kerchief, hand embroidered in gay colours.
*2   Unplaiting the hair: custom of a bride-to-be.
*3   Tchumaki — road merchants, traders in other lands.