The Servant Woman

Translated by Olga Shartse

Early on a Sabbath day
Wrapped in mist the country lay.
On a mound, in mist enfolded,
To her breast a bundle holding,
Stood a woman, young and wistful
Like a poplar, in a whisper
Talking sadly to the mist:

"Mist, oh mist, do hear my plea,
Pity me in my ordeal!
Oh, why don't you bury me,
Hide me in this lonely field?
Oh, why don't you smother me,
Crush me so I would not breathe?
And my days of suffering
Thus make mercifully brief!
No, mist, no, don't smother me,
With your cloak just cover me,
Hide me so my misery
None should know and none should see!
I'm not alone, I've left behind
My father and my mother....
I also have ... I have, besides,
Oh mist! There is one other....
I have a son, a tiny child,
A soul unnamed and unbaptised!
It's not I who will baptise you,
To my bitter, bitter woe,
It is strangers who'll baptise you,
I will never even know
What they've called you, where to find you....

Oh my son, my very own!
Do not curse me! I'll be praying,
God will hear a mother's prayer,
Happiness He'll send from heaven,
Fortune kind will be your share."

Bowed in grief, she walked away
Through the mist with footsteps slow,
Singing tearfully a lay
Of a widow's bitter woe
As she buried her two babes
In the Danube long ago:

"There's a grave mound on the plain,
There a widow came one day,
Poison grass she came to find,
Poison grass she did not find,
And her time was coming nigh.
In the field she had to lie,
Her two boys in cloth to bind,
Take them to the Danube wide.
'River, river, take my babes,
Rock them gently on your waves!
Yellow sand, with soft caress,
Feed my babies at your breast,
Sing to them a lullaby,
Cover them in peace to lie!"

Beside the grove lived all their life
A kind old man and his good wife
In their nice cottage near the pond,
Like children ever,
Always together.
They’d tended lambs as children young,
Grew up and married later on.
They bought a cow, and built a home,
A water mill then came to own,
An orchard planted by the grove,
And beehives not a few they got—
Of everything they had a lot.
But in their home there was no child,
And Death was nearing with his scythe!

Who'll cherish them when they are old,
Who'll be a loving son to them?
Who'll say a prayer for their souls,
Who'll mourn their passing, weep for them?
Who other than their flesh and blood
In time their legacy will share
And think of them with gratitude,
Recall how good and kind they were?
It's hard to rear a brood of young
When you've no home to call your own,
But harder still to age alone
In mansion splendid, but forlorn,
To grow infirm and leave this world,
Your property bequeathed to none,
So utter strangers squander all,
Ungratefully, in careless fun.

The couple, on the day of rest,
Were sitting in their Sunday best
Upon a bench beneath the trees.
The sun was shining. Not a breeze,
No wisp of cloud the blue disturbed,
'Twas like a paradise on earth.
But like a beast in forest murk
Deep in their hearts a sadness lurked.

Why sorrow in this heaven fair,
What more could these good people want?
Perhaps some grief of yester-year
Had wakened now their peace to haunt?
Was it some hurt of long ago
That stirred again their hearts to pain?
Or some new trouble just arose
This paradise to set aflame?

What is the cause of their despair?
Perhaps they grieve because they know
That soon to God they must repair
And there is nobody to care,
To hitch their horses for the road....

"Oh, who will lay us in our graves?
And Nastya answered: "I can't say.
It's had me worried all my days,
It hurts to think we've reached old age
And we've no one our hearts to cheer....
For whom then did we scrape and save all this....
But listen, do you hear?
There's someone crying, seems to me....
Sounds like a baby.... It's quite near!
Let's go and see what it can be,
Come on, let's hurry. Hear it? Hear?"

And off they hurried to the gate
Whence came the piteous, plaintive sound.
And there they stopped and silent gazed.
A baby lay upon the ground
Beside the fence. The bundle wee
Was loosely wrapped, but o'er it lay
A new warm coat. 'Twas clear to see
It was the mother who had laid
Her baby here, and lovingly
Had o'er it spread her only coat....
Trokhim and Nastya stood bedazed
And whispered prayers, while the babe,
As though ’twas pleading for their care,
Had freed its tiny arms and stretched
Them up towards the ageing pair....
And now the mite no longer cried,
Just gave a whimper, soft and weak.
"Wake up, Nastya, can't you speak?
Here's our answer, don't you see?
Here's our fortune and delight,
You and I have got a son!
Take the baby, mother him....
Hope the day's a lucky one.
Take him home, and I will go
And invite the sponsors...."

Verily, how strange the things
That occur among us!
Here one curses his own son,
Driving him from house and home;
Others, parenthood denied,
Work their fingers to the bone
Candles for the church to buy,
Day and night they pray the saints —
All in vain!... Indeed the things
Happening on this earth are strange!

Not just two but six godparents
Gladly to the christening came.
That same night the child was christened,
Marko was his given name.
Marko grew. Trokhim and Nastya
Simply doted on the boy,
Fussing over him and bustling
In anxiety and joy.
In a year the child grew lusty,
And the milch cow for his sake
Lived in clover, as we say.
Then a woman came one day,
Very young and full of grace,
Dark of brow and fair of face,
Seeking work as housemaid
In this happy, blessed place.
"Nastya, should we take her, eh?"
"Yes, Trokhim, I think we should.
We are old and often ail,
Then there's little Marko, too.
True, the baby's big and strong,

Still he needs an able nurse,
He wants care the whole day long."
"Yes, indeed, our Marko does.
Also, I have trod the earth
Long enough, I think. And now,
Daughter, let us come to terms.
You'll want yearly pay, or how?"
"I'll take anything you say."
"No, my girl, that's not the way!
You must care about your pay,
It’s your honest, hard-earned pay.
Those who don't will always stay
With a sadly empty purse.
Do it this way: try it out,
And we'll all see how it works.
You don't know us or our ways,
We don't know you and can't tell
If we're suited. Of your wage
We shall talk another time.
All right, daughter?" "Very well."
"We're agreed then. Come inside."

That settled it. The housemaid
Was so excited and elate
That one would think a prince she'd wed
Or come into a rich estate.
Working hard from dawn till dark,
In the house and the yard,
She sang as happy as a lark.
To mind the child she never tired,
With motherly and loving care
She washed and combed his silky hair,
And dressed him up each blessed day
As if it were a holiday.
She played with him, and made him toys,
And sang him songs. It was her joy
On holidays, the whole day long,
To fuss around the darling boy.
Trokhim and Nastya watched her ways
And blessed the day she came to stay.
They could not know that their poor maid,
To anguished sleepless nights condemned,
Was cursing her misfortune cruel
As she lay sobbing in her bed.
No one heard it, no one knew it,
No one saw the tears she shed,
No one but the little babe.
The little one he could not know
Why 'twas his nurse, their housemaid,
So wept in anguish over him.
Nor could he know, of course, what made
Her kiss him so and fondle him,
And why the sweetest bits she laid
With loving care aside for him,
Nor why, if in the dead of night
He stirred in sleep or even turned,
At once she'd be there at his side
With truly motherly concern
To bless him, put his covers right,
And lull him with a gentle croon.
Why 'twas she heard his breathing light
While sleeping in another room.
And Marko, waking in the morn,
His baby arms stretched out to her,
And called her Mother, needing her,
His Hannah who was always there....
He did not know. Thus Marko grew
To man's estate without a care.

The years rolled ever on and on,
Much water 'neath the bridge had run,
Death also visited this home,
And sorrow brought to everyone.
Old Nastya's fateful end had come,
And poor Trokhim all but succumbed.
Accurst misfortune took its own,
And then it left them well alone.
And blessedness once more returned
From 'yond the woods where it had flown,
To settle down in Trokhim's home.

Marko drives a cart to town,
Autumn nights he never now
Spends at home, asleep in bed....
It was time the lad was wed.
"Whom should we take?" thought old Trokhim,
And then asked Hannah, faithful maid,
For her advice. She'd have been glad
To pick for Marko as a mate
A princess royal! "Let's ask him,
Let Marko tell us whom he'd wed."
"So be it. Let us speak to him,
And after that we'll go ahead."
And so they did. A fitting match
For Marko had to be arranged.
Matchmakers went and soon came back
And brought the bread they had exchanged
With parents of the bride-to-be.
She was both young and dignified,
And beautiful, and dressed so fine
A hetman surely wouldn't mind
To be her groom. She was indeed
A very wonder of a bride!

"I thank you kindly," said Trokhim.
"And now the date we must release,
Tell all the folks so they will know
Just when the wedding feast will be.
There's only one thing worries me:
Who will our Marko's mother be?
My Nastya hasn't lived to see...."
Trokhim could not go on for tears.
And in the doorway Hannah stood,
Their servant woman all these years,
The door-post gripping lest she swoon,
She could not make a move or speak,
And only whispered brokenly:
"Ah, who, who'll Marko's mother be?"

Very soon the matrons came
To Trokhim's to bake the cake
For the wedding. Old Trokhim,
Bravely mastering the shakes,
Danced with all the fair young wives,
Laughed and joked, then went outside,
Swept the yard and gladly hailed
All those walking past his gate
To come in and taste his ale,
At the wedding be his guests.
Though unsteady on his legs,
On he bustled, none the less.
All were laughing, noisy, gay,
Both inside the house and out.
From the cellars where they lay
Kegs of wine came rolling out.
All were busy cooking, baking,
Scrubbing, cleaning all around...
Strangers all. But where is Hannah?
Hannah's gone to Kiev town,
Though Trokhim had begged her stay;
In his mother's place to sit
Tearfully had Marko prayed.
"Marko, no, it isn't fit
That I take your mother's place.
All your friends are well-to-do,
And I'm just a housemaid,
They would only laugh at you.
May the Lord guard over you!
To the shrines in Kiev town
I must go and pray the saints.
Then I will return to you,
If you'll have me back again.
While I've strength left in my limbs
I shall work..." with feeling deep
She told Marko, blessing him
From her heart. Her tears ran free
As she left him at the gate.
The wedding feast was in full swing,
Musicians played, heels tapped away,
All hard at work. The tables groaned
With food and wine and home-brewed ale.
While Hannah, footsore, hurried on
To Kiev at the shrines to pray.
She got to town and straightaway,
Before she stopped to rest or sleep,
She sought a place where she could stay
And fetching water earn her keep,
Saving from her meagre pay
For St. Barbara's holy day.
Pail she carried after pail.
And some kopeks eight she saved.
At the shrine of John the Martyr
In the ancient Kiev caves
Hannah bought a cap for Marko
So his head should never ache;
At St. Barbara's shrine she bought
Marko's wife a ring to wear.
Then she prayed the saints once more,
Crossed herself, and home repaired.
Marko and his lovely bride
Hurried out to meet her
At the gate, took her inside,
At the table seated,
Pressing food on her, the while
Listening to Hannah's tale.
And when night came, Katerina
Bade her in the front room stay.
"No, I don't deserve such love,
Why do they respect me so?
Oh my Lord in Heav'n above,
Surely it can't be they know?
Have they guessed perhaps, and they...
No, they haven't, they're just kind,
They're just good...."
The hired maid
Wept and tossed all through the night.

Thrice the pond was frozen tight,
Thrice again it melted down,
Thrice Kat'rina saw old Hannah
Off to holy Kiev town
Like a daughter. And again
She saw Hannah on the way
For the fourth time; to the mound
Walked with her, and begged and prayed
That she should not tarry long,
'Cause their happy, blessed home
Would seem cheerless and forlorn
With their loving mother gone.

One Sunday, following Assumption,
Trokhim dressed in his best white shirt
Was basking in the pleasant sunshine
In great content. Before him romped
His little grandson with his pup,
There, too, his baby sister now
All dressed up in her mother's skirt,
Came calling on Grandpa. She bowed
As matrons do. Trokhim played up
And welcomed her with face kept straight:
"What happened to the loaf you'd baked?
P'raps in the forest you were robbed,
Or else forgotten it at home?
Or never had one baked to bring?
Oh shame, oh shame!... But look who's come!"
Why, it was Hannah walking in!
The two young children and Trokhim
All ran to meet her at the gate.
"Where's Marko? Is he not yet home?"
She asked in great anxiety.
Trokhim replied: "He still is gone."
And Hannah said: "I thought my feet
Would never, never get me home.
I didn't want to die out there,
In strange surroundings, all alone.
If I could last till he comes back....
My heart's so heavy and so grieved!"
And then she took out of her bag
The gifts she brought for them from Kiev:
Little crosses, holy medals,
A string of beads for young Irene,
An icon framed in silver foil,
The nicest icon ever seen.
She had a whistle for the boy,
Toy horses too, a jolly pair;
For Marko's wife a ring once more,
Kat'rina's fourth that she'd bought there
In Kiev's shrines; and last of all
Three slender candles for Trokhim
Blessed at the church. And as for Marko,
This time there was no gift for him
Or for herself: her money spent,
She had no strength more pails to fetch,
She felt so ill, and home she went.
"Here's half a roll that I have left,
Come, share it, children," Hannah said,
And gave a little piece to each.

In they went, and Katerina
Bathed old Hannah's weary feet,
And invited her to dinner,
But she couldn't drink or eat.
She said: "Tell me, Katerina,
When is Sunday, I forget."
"This is Friday." "Then, my dear one,
Sunday have a service sung
To St. Nicholas the healer,
Just in case there's something wrong.
Why does Marko take so long!
God forbid that he should sicken
On a distant road somewhere...."
And the servant, old and stricken,
Burst out crying in despair.
Slowly, on the table leaning,
Hannah got up to her feet.
"I am ailing, Katerina.
I'm unwell, I feel so weak,
I can hardly stand alone....
It's bitter dying in a home
That's blest and warm, but not your own...."

She felt very, very bad,
Though the Eucharist she took,
Extreme unction, too, she had,
Nothing seemed to do her good.
Old Trokhim about the place
Like a lost soul wandered,
And a daughter couldn't be
Than Kat'rina fonder.
Day and night she hovered near,
Always there at Hannah's side.
But the hooting of the barn owls
In the silence of the night
Boded grief to come. And Hannah
Fretted every waking hour,
Every minute of the day.
"Oh, my daughter Katerina,
Why is Marko still away!
If I knew that it was fated
That I'd see him if I waited,
I would wait until he came."

With the ox-cart drivers' train
Homeward bound is Marko now.
Leisurely they make their way,
Resting while the oxen browse.
Marko's gift for Katerina
Is a length of splendid cloth,
And a red silk sash he's bringing
For his Dad to cut a swath.
For their faithful housemaid
There's a white-fringed shawl to wear,
And a piece of gold brocade
For a cap to hide her hair.
Fancy boots he's bought the children,
Lots of figs and raisins sweet,
And some good old wine of Tsargrad
All of them to give a treat.
There's a barrel of it there,
And some caviar from the Don,
Gifts he's bringing, unaware
Things are what they are at home.

On he drives without a care.
Thank the Lord, he has arrived!
At the gate he says a prayer,
Opens it and throws it wide.
"Katerina, I could swear
I heard somebody arrive!
Marko's come. Go quickly, daughter,
Hurry, bring him right inside.
Thank Thee, Jesus Christ Our Saviour
That my tryst I've lived to keep!"
And she whispered the Lord's Prayer,
Softly, softly, as in sleep.

Old Trokhim unhitched the oxen,
Put away the shaft and pin,
While Kat'rina welcomed Marko,
Feasted loving eyes on him.
"Where is Hannah, Katerina?
She's not dead now, surely?"
"She's not dead, but very near it,
Hannah's very poorly.
While your father's busy here
With the oxen, Marko,
Let us go to her, my dear,
Ease her awful heartache."
Marko walked into the room,
On the threshold stopped, aghast.
Hannah whispered in the gloom:
"Thank the Lord, he's here at last!
Come close, Marko, don't be frightened.
Leave us two, my daughter dear,
There is something I must ask him,
Something Marko's got to hear."
Softly walked out Katerina.
Marko, grieved and smitten,
Bent down close to Hannah's pillow.
"Marko," she said, "Listen.
Look at me, look very closely,
See how near the end I've come....
I am not your servant, Marko,
I'm...." but she could not go on.
Marko gazed at her and wondered.
Hannah raised her eyes again,
At his face she looked intently,
Then to sobs and tears gave way.
"Please forgive me! How I suffered
All my life ... no home my own....
Please forgive, forgive me, Marko!
I'm your mother.... Marko ... son."
She fell silent. He stood swaying
As the whole world heaved.
He came to.... "Oh mother, mother!"
She no longer breathed.

                                1845, Pereyaslav