Exhausted with the painful uncertainty of the day, I fell asleep, dressed, on my bed. Suddenly my wife aroused me. In her hand a candle was flickering, which appeared to me in the middle of the night as bright as the sun. And behind the candle her chin, too, was trembling, and enormous, unfamiliar dark eyes stared motionlessly.
“Do you know,” she said, “do you know they are building barricades on our street?”
It was quiet. We looked straight into each other’s eyes, and I felt my face turning pale. Life vanished somewhere and then returned again with a loud throbbing of the heart. It was quiet and the flame of the candle was quivering, and it was small, dull, but sharp-pointed, like a crooked sword.
“Are you afraid?” I asked.
The pale chin trembled, but her eyes remained motionless and looked at me, without blinking, and only now I noticed what unfamiliar, what terrible eyes they were. For ten years I had looked into them and had known them better than my own eyes, and now there was something new in them which I am unable define. I would have called it pride, but there was something different in them, something new, entirely new. I took her hand; it was cold. She grasped my hand firmly and there was something new, something I had not known before, in her handclasp.
She had never before clasped my hand as she did this time.
“How long?” I asked.
“About an hour already. Your brother has gone away. He was apparently afraid that you would not let him go, so he went away quietly. But I saw it.”
It was true then; the time had arrived. I rose, and, for some reason, spent a long time washing myself, as was my wont in the morning before going to work, and my wife held the light. Then we put out the light and walked over to the window overlooking the street. It was spring; it was May, and the air that came in from the open window was such as we had never before felt in that old, large city. For several days the factories and the roads had been idle; and the air, free from smoke, was filled with the fragrance of the fields and the flowering gardens, perhaps with that of the dew. I do not know what it is that smells so wonderfully on spring nights when I go out far beyond the outskirts of the city. Not a lantern, not a carriage, not a single sound of the city over the unconcerned stony surface; if you had closed your eyes you would really have thought that you were in a village. There a dog was barking. I had never before heard a dog barking in the city, and I laughed for happiness.
“Listen, a dog is barking.”
My wife embraced me, and said:
“It is there, on the corner.”
We bent over the window-sill, and there, in the transparent, dark depth, we saw some movement–not people, but movement. Something was moving about like a shadow. Suddenly the blows of a hatchet or a hammer resounded. They sounded so cheerful, so resonant, as in a forest, as on a river when you are mending a boat or building a dam. And in the presentiment of cheerful, harmonious work, I firmly embraced my wife, while she looked above the houses, above the roofs, looked at the young crescent of the moon, which was already setting. The moon was so young, so strange, even as a young girl who is dreaming and is afraid to tell her dreams; and it was shining only for itself.
“When will we have a full moon?…”
“You must not! You must not!” my wife interrupted. “You must not speak of that which will be. What for? IT is afraid of words. Come here.”
It was dark in the room, and we were silent for a long time, without seeing each other, yet thinking of the same thing. And when I started to speak, it seemed to me that some one else was speaking; I was not afraid, yet the voice of the other one was hoarse, as though suffocating for thirst.
“What shall it be?”
“You will be with them. It will be enough for them to have a mother. I cannot remain.”
“And I? Can I?”
I know that she did not stir from her place, but I felt distinctly that she was going away, that she was far–far away. I began to feel so cold, I stretched out my hands–but she pushed them aside.
“People have such a holiday once in a hundred years, and you want to deprive me of it. Why?” she said.
“But they may kill you there. And our children will perish.”
“Life will be merciful to me. But even if they should perish–“
And this was said by her, my wife–a woman with whom I had lived for ten years. But yesterday she had known nothing except our children, and had been filled with fear for them; but yesterday she had caught with terror the stern symptoms of the future. What had come over her? Yesterday–but I, too, forgot everything that was yesterday.
“Do you want to go with me?”
“Do not be angry”–she thought that I was afraid, angry–“Don’t be angry. To-night, when they began to knock here, and you were still sleeping, I suddenly understood that my husband, my children–all these were simply temporary… I love you, very much”–she found my hand and shook it with the same new, unfamiliar grasp–“but do you hear how they are knocking there? They are knocking, and something seems to be falling, some kind of walls seem to be falling–and it is so spacious, so wide, so free. It is night now, and yet it seems to me that the sun is shining. I am thirty years of age, and I am old already, and yet it seems to me that I am only seventeen, and that I love some one with my first love–a great, boundless love.”
“What a night!” I said. “It is as if the city were no more. You are right, I have also forgotten how old I am.”
“They are knocking, and it sounds to me like music, like singing of which I have always dreamed–all my life. And I did not know whom it was that I loved with such a boundless love, which made me feel like crying and laughing and singing. There is freedom–do not take my happiness away, let me die with those who are working there, who are calling the future so bravely, and who are rousing the dead past from its grave.”
“There is no such thing as time.”
“What do you say?”
“There is no such thing as time. Who are you? I did not know you. Are you a human being?”
She burst into such ringing laughter as though she were really only seventeen years old.
“I did not know you, either. Are you, too, a human being? How strange and how beautiful it is–a human being!”
That which I am writing happened long ago, and those who are sleeping now in the sleep of grey life and who die without awakening– those will not believe me: in those days there was no such thing as time. The sun was rising and setting, and the hand was moving around the dial–but time did not exist. And many other great and wonderful things happened in those days…. And those who are sleeping now the sleep of this grey life and who die without awakening, will not believe me.
“I must go,” said I.
“Wait, I will give you something to eat. You haven’t eaten anything to-day. See how sensible I am: I shall go to-morrow. I shall give the children away and find you.”
“Comrade,” said I.
Through the open windows came the breath of the fields, and silence, and from time to time, the cheerful strokes of the axe, and I sat by the table and looked and listened, and everything was so mysteriously new that I felt like laughing. I looked at the walls and they seemed to me to be transparent. As if embracing all eternity with one glance, I saw how all these walls had been built, I saw how they were being destroyed, and I alone always was and always will be. Everything will pass, but I shall remain. And everything seemed to me strange and queer–so unnatural–the table and the food upon it, and everything outside of me. It all seemed to me transparent and light, existing only temporarily.
“Why don’t you eat?” asked my wife.
“Bread–it is so strange.”
She glanced at the bread, at the stale, dry crust of bread, and for some reason her face became sad. Still continuing to look at it, she silently adjusted her apron with her hands and her head turned slightly, very slightly, in the direction where the children were sleeping.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” I asked.
She shook her head without removing her eyes from the bread.
“No, but I was thinking of what happened in our life before.”
How incomprehensible! As one who awakens from a long sleep, she surveyed the room with her eyes and all seemed to her so incomprehensible. Was this the place where we had lived?
“You were my wife.”
“And there are our children.”
“Here, beyond the wall, your father died.”
“Yes. He died. He died without awakening.”
The smallest child, frightened at something in her sleep, began to cry. And this simple childish cry, apparently demanding something, sounded so strange amid these phantom walls, while there, below, people were building barricades.
She cried and demanded–caresses, certain queer words and promises to soothe her. And she soon was soothed.
“Well, go!” said my wife in a whisper.
“I should like to kiss them.”
“I am afraid you will wake them up.”
“No, I will not.”
It turned out that the oldest child was awake–he had heard and understood everything. He was but nine years old, but he understood everything–he met me with a deep, stern look.
“Will you take your gun?” he asked thoughtfully and earnestly.
“It is behind the stove.”
“How do you know? Well, kiss me. Will you remember me?”
He jumped up in his bed, in his short little shirt, hot from sleep, and firmly clasped my neck. His arms were burning–they were so soft and delicate. I lifted his hair on the back of his head and kissed his little neck.
“Will they kill you?” he whispered right into my ear.
“No, I will come back.”
But why did he not cry? He had cried sometimes when I had simply left the house for a while: Is it possible that IT had reached him, too? Who knows? So many strange things happened during the great days.
I looked at the walls, at the bread, at the candle, at the flame which had kept flickering, and took my wife by the hand.
“Well–’till we meet again!”
“Yes–’till we meet again!”
That was all. I went out. It was dark on the stairway and there was the odour of old filth. Surrounded on all sides by the stones and the darkness, groping down the stairs, I was seized with a tremendous, powerful and all-absorbing feeling of the new, unknown and joyous something to which I was going.