From Year of the Lord, by Ivan Shmelev
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The following chapter from Shmelov’s book, Year of the Lord, is the author’s child’s-eye view of the Feast of the Transfiguration in pre-revolutionary Moscow. Written in emigration, after the unbearable loss of his homeland to revolution, and of his son to cheka torture and execution, his child-like spiritual joy shines through the painful layers of loss and tragedy.
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Tomorrow is the Transfiguration, and the day after tomorrow they’ll take me somewhere to the Church of Christ the Savior, to the huge, pink house in the park, behind the iron grate, to take the exam for gymnasium, and I am studying and studying the “Sacred History” of Athens. “Tomorrow”—that is only what they say—but they will take me in two or three years, but they say “tomorrow” because the exam is always on the day after the Savior’s Transfiguration. Everyone says that the main thing is to know the Law of God well. I know it well, I even know what is on what page; nevertheless it is very frightening, so frightening that you loose your breath thinking about it. Gorkin knows that I’m scared. Not long ago he carved me a scary nutcracker using only a hatchet. It calms me down. He lures me into the cool shadows under the board, upon a pile of wood shavings, and starts asking me questions out of a book. I might say that he reads worse than I do, but somehow he knows things that even I don’t know. “Well now,” he says, “tell me something from the divine…” I tell him, and he praises me.
“You know it well,” he draws out the “o” like all of our carpenters, and maybe that is what calms me, “surely they’ll take you into the school, you know it all. Now, tomorrow is Savior of the Apples… What do you know about that? So-o. Why do they sprinkle the apples? Well, you don’t know it right. They’ll ask you, and you won’t say it. And how many Savior feasts do we have? Again you don’t know. They’ll teach you to ask, and you… How’s it you’ve not been told? Take a better look, it should be there.”
“There isn’t anything there…” I say all frustrated, “it only says that they bless the apples!”
“And sprinkle them. And why do they sprinkle them? A-a! They will ask you, well, and how many Savior feasts do we have? And you don’t know. Three Saviors. The first Savior,” he bends his finger, yellowed with varnish and horribly squashed, “Savior of the honey; they bring out the Cross. That means summer’s over, you can break out the honey, the bee won’t mind… he’s done with his work. The second Savior, the one that’s tomorrow, is the Savior of the Apples, the Transfiguration of the Savior; they sprinkle the apples. Why? Here’s why. Adam-Eve sinned, the snake deceived them with an apple, they weren’t supposed to; from sin! But Christ went up the mountain and blessed it. That is why they began to be careful. Whoever eats the apple before the sprinkling will get worms in his stomach, and there can be cholera. But after it’s sprinkled there’s no danger. The third Savior is called the Savior of the nuts, the nuts are ripe, after Dormition. We have a procession in our village; they carry the icon of the Savior, and everyone chews nuts. Sometimes we gather a bag of nuts for Batiushka, and he gives us milk noodles—to break the fast with. Why, you tell ‘em, and they’ll take you at the school.”
The Transfiguration of the Savior…. There’s a tender, gentle light in my soul from it to this day. It should be, from the morning garden, from the bright blue sky, from the heaps of hay, from the apples and pears preserved in the greenery, a few leaves of which are already withering—greenish-gold, and soft. A bright, light-bluish day, not hot; August. The sunflowers have already grown over the fences and peer at the street—is the procession going yet? Soon they will cut off the caps and take them while singing, under the golden banners. The first "grushovka" apple in our orchard is ripe and red. We will shake the tree—for tomorrow. Gorkin also said this morning, “After lunch you and I will go to Boloto for apples.”
What joy. Father, the warden of Kazan Church, has already decided it: “Here, Gorkin… You’ll buy five or six bushels of apples in Boloto from Krapivkin, for the parishioners and our kids, “whites,” maybe… to put on the platter, to be blessed; a bushel of the prettier ones. Another bushel for the clergy, the cleaner ones. We’ll send a bushel of Oportos to the Archdeacon; he likes them large.”
“Ondrei Maksimich is from my home town—he’ll sell them in good conscience to me. They send them from Kursk, and from the Volga. And what do you want for yourself?”
“I’ll get it myself. Choose a watermelon to cut up from him, from Astrakhan; a sweet one.”
"His wotermelons are … always right sweet, with a brisk crunch. He sends them to Prince Dolgoruky himself! He has a gold diploma hanging on the wall of his store, under the icon, with a seal! Famous all over Moscow.
After dinner we shake the grushovka apple tree. Gorkin is in charge. Vasil-Vasilich is the steward, and although he is also responsible for building, he'll find a half hour and run over. Out of respect they only let in the old shopkeeper Trifonich. The carpenters aren't allowed in, although they climb onto the boards and advise how to shake the trees. It's unusually bright in the orchard, and golden; a dry summer, the trees have thinned and dried a little, there are many sunflowers along the fence; the crickets have a sour chirp, and it seems that light exudes from their chirping—golden and hot. The overgrown nettles and burdock are still thick and juicy, and it's only gloomy under them; while the picked current bushes still gleam from the light. The apples also gleam—with the glossy branches and leaves, the matte polish of the apples, and the glassy cherries, encased in amber paste. Gorkin leads me to the grushovka apple tree, throws of his cap and vest, then spits into his fist.
He leans over and shakes it lightly. The top grade apples fall. It all jumps into the burdock and nettles. There is an oozy, stagnant smell coming from the burdock, and a penetratingly pungent smell from the nettles, mingling with the sweet fragrance, extraordinarily subtle, like spilled perfume somewhere—from the apples. Everyone is crawling, even the sturdy Vasil-Vasilich, whose vest has split along his back, and whose pink shirt shows through, boat-shaped; even fat Trifonich is crawling, all covered with flour. They each take one into their hands and sniff… "Ahh… grushovka!"
You wrinkle your nose and breathe in—what joy! Such freshness, spilling out so very subtle, so fragrant and sweet-strong—with all the smells of a sun-warmed orchard, crushed grass, and disturbed, warm black current bushes. A sun no longer hot, and a tender blue sky, shining through the branches and on the apples…
Even now, far from your native country, when you meet an ordinary apple that smells like a grushovka, you squeeze it in the palm of your hand and wrinkle your nose; and in the sweetish, juicy fragrance you remember vividly the little orchard that once seemed enormous, better than all other orchards in the world, now lost without a trace… with the birch and the rowan trees, the apple trees, the raspberry bushes and the black, white, and red current bushes, the purple gooseberries, with lush burdock and nettles; the distant orchard…. To the bent nails in the fence, to the crack in the cherry tree seeping like glimmering mica, with droplets of amber and raspberry-colored gum—everything, to the last apple on the top, behind a golden leaf, beaming like golden glass!... And you see the yard with the great puddle, now less watery, with dried ruts, with sunken bricks, with boards that had clung there before the rain, with the ragged boot, claimed forever by the mud … and the gray barn with the silvery glimmer of time, with the smell of pitch and tar, and the mountain of bulging sacks piled up to the storehouse ceiling, with oats, and salt packed into rock, leaning fast to the hooks, with ears of golden oats… and tall stacks of board weeping resin in the sun, and crinkling piles of shingles, and wood billets and chips…
"Let it be, Pankratich!" Vasil-Vasilich brushes his shoulder, rolling up his shirt sleeves, "By God, it's needed for building!...”
"Wait, pine-head…" Gorkin blocks his way, "you'll bruise the apples, fool…"
Vasil Vasilich shakes the tree—a virtual storm flies rumbling and whistling; the apples fall like rain on his head and shoulders. The carpenters on the boards shout, "Whoa, he gave it a shaking—Vasil-Vasilich!" Trifonich also shakes it, and again Gorkin, then again Vasil-Vasilich, at whom they've long been shouting. I also shake it after being lifted to the empty branches.
"Ech, we used to shake it so… they'd pour all over you!" sighed Vasil-Vasilich, buttoning his vest as he walked. "Well I'm off, to the devil with you!"
"He calls on the devil, the blockhead… on such business as this..." Gorkin says sternly. "An', where else to be buried!..." he cast his gaze over the peak. "Well, you can't shake it any more…. The rest go on the hay for the crows; these are the last ones.”
We sat on the crushed grass; it smells like the end of summer, dry and bitter, a fresh apple fragrance. Spiders' webs glitter on the nettles and pour trembling down the apple trees. It seems to me that they flutter from the crickets' dry crackling.
"Autumn songs!" says Gorkin sadly. "Farewell, summer. The Saviors are here, store your food for the year. Swallows would fly off where I come from… I really should go home for the Protection… ah, what for? There's no one there anymore."
How many times did he say this? But he never went—he got used to where he was.
"In Pavlovo we have apples… five bushels!" says Trifonich. "And what apples—Pa-vlov apples!"
We gathered three bushels. They carry them on a pole in baskets, fed through the handles. The carpenters ask for some, the little boys beg for some, jumping up and down on one leg:
The one who gives to us is a prince,
The one who doesn't is a dog's eye.
Dog's eye! Dog's eye!”
Gorkin waives them off, kicking. "Are you babes, or what? Come tomorrow to the Kazan church and I will give you a couple."
They bridle Crooked to the dray. They keep her out of respect, but she can also drag the dray to Boloto. She shakes us to the guts on the potholes, and it's so fun! We have huge baskets with us, one inside the other. We ride past the Kazan church and cross ourselves. We drive through the empty Yakimanka neighborhood, past the pink church of John the Soldier, past the church of the Savior in Nalivki, peeking white from the lane, past the St. Maron church, yellowing in the lower street, past the church of St. Gregory of Neoceasaria blushing red in the distance, in the Polyana Market. We cross ourselves everywhere. The street is very long, monotonous, without shops, and hot. The yardmen doze by the gates with their legs outstretched. Everything is dozing: the white houses in the sun, the dusty-green trees, behind the fences with nails the blue-gray row of pillars looking like light-blue conical peasant caps, brownish lanterns, the weaving cab drivers. The sky is sort of dusty, "from steam rising," said Gorkin with a little yawn. We come across a fat merchant in a cab flying down the street with a basket of apples at his feet. Gorkin bows to him respectfully.
“Church warden Loschenov from Shabolovka, a butcher. Gre-edy—only three bushels. But you and I are going to buy more than ten—a whole five-spot's worth.
There is the Canal with the stagnant, rainbow-colored water. Beyond it, over the low roofs and gardens, the great gold cupola of Christ the Savior Cathedral flashes in the sun. And there is Boloto, down below—a great market square, stone shop “rows" and arcs. Here they sell scrap metal, rusty anchors and chains, rope, bast matting, oats and salt, dried smelt, pike-perch, apples…. You can smell the sweet and sharp aromas from far away; the yellow of straw is everywhere. Bast mats lie on the ground, green mounds of watermelon, and multi-colored piles of apples on the straw. Doves wing tenderly in dules. Bast and straw, everywhere you look.
"A gre-at load there is now, the apple harvest," says Gorkin, "Our Moscow will eat apples."
We ride past the stores, into the sweet apple fragrance. Young fellows tear open the bundles of straw, and dust swirls golden above us. Here is Krapivkin's store.
"To Gorkin-Pankratich!" Krapivkin with his vast, gray beard jerks his cap. "And I thought… our old goat has disappeared; but there he is, the gray-beard!"
They clasp each others' hands in greeting. Krapivkin is drinking tea on the crate. A greenish copper teapot and a thick cut-glass tumbler. Gorkin politely refuses: “We just had tea,” although we hadn't. Krapivkin does not give up: "A stick on a stick is no good, but tea on tea—that's for me!" Gorkin takes a seat on another crate with apples in straw peeking through cracks. "We're drinking tea with apple essence!" Krapivkin winks, and gives me a large, blue plum, bursting with ripeness. I suck it cautiously, and they sip silently, puffing out a word only here and there along with the steam. They are given another teapot and they drink long, conversing to their hearts’ content. They name unfamiliar names, and it's very interesting to them. I suck the third plum already and look around. Between the rows of watermelon on the straw bundles and coils along the shelves, over the sloping crates with choice peaches, with dark red cheeks under the powder, over the pink, white, and blue plums with melons sitting between them, hung an old, weighty icon in a silver riza, an oil votive burning before it. Apples are all over the store, on straw. The thick fragrance is even suffocating. Horses' heads are looking in the back door of the store—they've brought crates from the car. Finally, they rise from their tea and go over to the apples. Krapivkin points out the sort: there are the "white juice" apples—"If you look at the sun, they're like torches!"—there are the royal-pineapple sort, red like calico, there are the Anisov Monastery sort, there are the "titov" sweet apples, the "arcade," the sweet-sour "borovinka," the "skryzhapel," brown, waxy, white, sweet Rostov apples, bitter ones.
"For the platter?... You need showy ones…" Krapivkin stops to think. "Need to please the master?... The borovinka is still too hard, the popovka is not so handsome…"
"Ondrei Maksimich," Gorkin says affectionately, "give me the prettier ones, for the occasion. Maybe the pavlovka… or this one—what is it called?"
"Not that one," laughs Krapivkin. "We have it, but you won't eat it! Hey, open the ones from Kursk; they've ripened along the road. They'll be very good…."
"Here, more display-like," Gorkin digs through the straw. " No oportos?... "
"This is a better quality than oportos, called ‘kamport!’"
"Pour us out a bushel. Like for the bishop, surely… just right for sprinkling."
"You do have an eye! They took some of these to the Dormition Church. We bring them to the cathedral archpriest, Fr. Valentine himself, to Anfi-teatrov![i] He gives first-rate sermons—'haps you've heard?"
"Not heard?!... golden words!"
Gorkin took eight bushels of white apples in bulk for the people. He took “titovkas” for the clergy, oportos for the archdeacon, and sugar-sweet watermelons, "the likes of them you won't find anywhere." I breathe and breathe that sweet, sticky fragrance. It seems to me that from the bundles of bast with the crooked letters painted on them in tar, from the new pine crates, from the heaps of straw—waft smells of fields and villages, cars and railroad ties, far away orchards. I see cheerful "Chinese" apples, their cheeks and stems poking through the cracks, I remember their bitter-sweetness, their juicy crunch, and I can feel them souring in my mouth. We leave Crooked at the store and walk for a long time through the apple market. Gorkin thrusts his hands under his old-fashioned pleat-back coat and struts along like a master, shaking his beard. He grabs an apple, takes a whiff, holds it a bit; although we don’t need any more.
"’Pavlovka’, eh? Kind o' tiny?..."
"The very pavlovka, merchant. There aren't any larger than ours. Thirty kopecks for a half-bushel."
"Well, who are you to tell me tales?!... What, aren't I from Yaroslavl? That's the sort of ten-kopeck piece we have on the Volga."
"It's a long way to our Volga! I'm from Kineshma, myself."
And they start talking, naming unfamiliar names, and it's very interesting to them. The artful fellow picks out five nice ones and shoves them into Gorkin's pockets, putting the largest one up straight in my hands. Gorkin buys a bushel from him as well.
It's time to go home, Vigil service starts soon. The sun is already over the bend. In the distance the cupola of John the Great sparkles dark gold as it rises above the rooftops. The windows of the houses glint insufferably, and from that luster golden rivers seem to flow, melting here in the straw on the square. Everything insufferably glimmers, and the apples play in the glow.
We ride along easily, with the apples. I look at the apples, how they jump around in the wobbling cart. I look up to the sky—it is so peaceful that I could just fly up to it.
The feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. A gold and azure morning, cool. We can’t get through the church for the crowd. I stand behind the counter where they sell candles. Father jingles silver and copper, passing out candle after candle. They flow endlessly from the boxes in an unbroken white ribbon, knock thin and dry against each other, jump from shoulder to shoulder, over heads, arriving at the icons—they are being passed “to the Feast!” Swimming over people’s heads in bundles are all the apples, prosphora, and more apples. Our baskets on the ambo are being “censed around,” as Gorkin tells me. He runs to and fro in the church, I can see his beard here and there. In the close, hot air there is now especially the smell of fresh apples. They are everywhere, even in the choir, even stuffed into the banners. It is extraordinarily light and joyful—as if we are guests, and the church is not church at all. It all seems to me that everyone is only thinking about apples. The Lord is also here with all of us, and He is also thinking about apples; after all, we’ve brought them to Him—look, Lord, how good they are! And He looks at them and says to all, “Well, good, and eat them to your health, children!” And they will be eating completely different apples—not store-bought, but church apples, holy ones. This is the very Transfiguration.
“A bit tingly…” he says, knitting his brow and lowering his eyes, his beard trembling. “But pleasant when it’s sprinkled….”
In the evening he finds me by the boards, on the wood shavings. I am reading “Sacred History.”
“You, to be sure, now know everything. They will ask you about the Savior, or maybe why they sprinkle the apples, and you’ll shave it off to them… they’ll let you into the school. Take a look at this!...”
He looks so peacefully into my eyes, and it is so evening-like bright and golden-pink in the yard from shavings, bast, and boards. I feel so happy for some reason that I grab a fistful of shavings and throw them up in the air—and a golden, curly rain showers down. Suddenly I begin to feel a sharp pain—from the inexplicable joy, or from the numberless apples I had eaten that day—I feel a sharp, tickling pain. The shivers run over me, and I burst into uncontrollable laughter and jump up and down; along with this laughter springs up my wish—they’ll let me into school; surely, they will!